The ending of this story contains material that may be upsetting
for some readers. If you prefer to avoid this material the author
has provided an alternative ending. Alternate ending is marked with
Asterisks. Please skip to that section if necessary.
WARNING: Please be aware that this story contains violence and
some profanity. The views expressed in this story belong to the characters
and not the author.
Scott sighed - an indulgent
smile hovering about his lips as he regarded his younger brother's rapidly
vanishing back. Watching in open admiration as the golden palomino soared
across the five bar fence in unconscious mimicry of a time once before.
Hard to believe it was nearly three whole years ago now.
The vast hall was empty,
the shaded oil lamps turned down low. The gloomy lighting was in keeping
with it all somehow, as he reached the top of the staircase and looked
down over the balustrade.
"Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head."
Titus Andronicus, Act ii, Scene iii, 38.
There was no one to see him. No one to stop him. The servants in
bed long ago - his father in New York on a desperate, last-ditch attempt
to persuade their creditors not to foreclose on the business.
He smiled bitterly. Too late - it was all too late. He'd been summoned
earlier today. The old man calculating enough to do it while his father
was away, the papers waiting neatly on the desk. Drawn up legally, and
waiting for his signature as the old man sat like an eager vulture, watching
him from under hooded eyelids. All he had to do was sign and it was gone.
Over. Everything his father and grandfather had worked so hard for.
Gone, with the quick stroke of a pen.
He'd refused of course. Then the old man had dropped his bombshell.
Taking a dossier from a locked desk drawer. Names, dates, times. Places
of rendezvous - of assignation. It was all there, every damning detail.
Documented and validated by the Private Investigator hired to follow him
for the last six months. His secret, his shame. The litany of revelations
which would ruin and disgrace his father. Worse still, that would break
his very heart.
The old man had been thorough, credit where credit was due. No
stone left unturned, no expense spared. His reputation as the most ruthless
man on the east coast well-earned in his determination to get what he wanted
in the end. The bitter end.
So he'd signed, of course. The old man sitting there impassively.
Eyes cold, skin wrinkled like a lizards. The signatures witnessed by a
faceless lawyer, stiff of aspect. Refusing to meet his gaze. Because of
the impiety of what had been done, he wondered? Or because of what he
A freak. Less than a man.
He tested the noose. Tightening and re-tightening the slipknot
round his wrist to check its efficiency. Anchoring it firmly round the
carved oak banisters at the top of the staircase as the resolution hardened
in his heart. He may not be a proper man - but he was not afraid to do
what must be done. To save his father from shame.
Hitching a leg over the
banisters. The smooth wood warm beneath his hands. The sonorous tick-tock,
tick-tock, of the Grandfather clock in the lobby. Ticking-off the
seconds, counting away his life with each swing of the pendulum. The letter
in his jacket pocket weighed as heavy as lead, the paper crackling against
his breast. It had been so hard to find the words. The words to say he
was sorry . . .
He was calm now. Calmer than he'd been since the first moment of
sick despair when he'd read the damned dossier. Perched on the edge,
his hands rock steady as he fitted the noose over his head, around his
He looked down at the black and white pattern of the parquet flooring,
the arching fronds of the parlour ferns. And painfully, ironically,
the huge oil painting of his grandfather's first ship. A British Clipper.
Her sails burgeoning as she cleaved through the storm tossed Atlantic
on her way to the New World. As a child, he'd loved that painting.
'The Lady Jane'.
Named for his grandmother. Trim of line and just as stubborn, his
grandfather used to smile. He'd felt part of it then - part of the heritage.
But that was before Michael had died, when he'd still been free to pursue
his music and not expected to be heir apparent.
He took a last deep breath and closed his eyes. Pushed himself
forwards, away from the ledge. Spiralling, spinning. Head snapping backwards
with a single twisting jerk . . .
"He has not won . . ." his last coherent thought. "Harlan Garrett
has not won . . ."
* * * * * * * *
Rain on a bleak day.
Grey and drear. Sombre as the mood of the small group of people huddled
like hooded crows around the graveside. Amos Spencer watched as the coffin
was lowered, oblivious to the words of the Minister. His face was set in
rigid lines of grief, the rain running down it in rivulets. Dripping off
the end of his chin and mingling with the tears he didn't try to hide.
The earth on the coffin was a physical shock. Spencer flinching
backwards in agony and denial as the handfuls scattered over the wood
like a fusillade of pistol shots.
"No. David - my son!"
"Sir . . ." The man at his side stepped unobtrusively forward.
Taking his arm and supporting Spencer physically, bearing his weight
on his own slight frame, as the man all but collapsed under the burden
"Get me out of here, Moffat."
"But the guests, Sir . . ."
"Damn the guests. They've seen all they wanted - sated their ghoulish
curiosity. Now they can go pick over the bones at the wake. Take me .
. ." he paused, unable to say the word 'home'. "Take me back to the house."
The thought of it stuck in his craw. The house was no longer a
home. No longer a sanctuary. More like a cruel and mocking reminder
every time he walked in the front door.
Images ran like nightmares in his mind. He'd been in New York.
A fruitless, dispiriting round of begging-bowl meetings. The eyes that
didn't quite meet his. Some sympathetic, others not so. The vicarious empathy
and symbolic closure of previously open doors, as he'd fought to save
everything his father had built from Harlan Garrett's hostile takeover
He'd signed half the business to David three years ago, and since
then, everything that could go wrong had done so. Some poor investments,
a bankrupt debtor. The loss of one of their ships at sea. A lifetime's
hard labour and effort vanishing before his very eyes. He'd since learned
his applications for bolstering loans had been refused at Garrett's instigation.
The old bastard wielded a powerful sword when it came to influence and
leverage - both in Boston and New York.
Garrett had made an offer
for Spencer Shipping once before. Back when he was still building the
business up and things were thriving. He'd refused of course. Perhaps in
less than flattering terms. But it had been before the war. He'd been younger
then, and Lucille and Michael had still been alive.
Mike . . .
His shining eldest son. If he closed his eyes, he could see him
now. The passing-out ceremony at West Point. Row upon row of gleaming
cadets, smart as paint - proud as princes. Michael Howard Spencer, the
finest of them all. And later, in his coat of Union blue, Second Lieutenant
Spencer off to join his cavalry regiment. To win honour and glory in their
They'd received the telegram during the winter of '63. Lucille
had been so overcome with grief, she'd quickly succumbed to a vicious
bout of pneumonia within five months. The will to live leeched from her
frail body, as she turned her face to the wall and died.
David had been too young to follow in his brother's fatal footsteps.
And for that, he'd been profoundly grateful. Sending him to Harvard
instead. Indulgent towards the boy's love for music, his gift as a talented
pianist blossoming with expert tuition. But since Michael's death, Amos
had always made it clear David was destined for a place in the business
at his father's side.
The boy had acquiesced eventually. Shelving his fanciful dreams
of going to Europe and studying music in London or Paris. Listening instead
to his father's entreaties, face pale as he'd closed the lid of his piano
and never played another note. Spencer paused in his reverie, dead leaves
crunching under his feet. The dank trees dripping unheeded onto his coat
as he shook himself free of Moffat's arm. Maybe he should have let the
boy go and follow his dream.
Moffat's voice, discreet as ever as the faithful manservant waited
with him. A man detached himself from the shadow of the trees. Hat pulled
down low across his ears, the collar of his overcoat turned up high against
"Mister Spencer, Sir. I have that information you wanted."
Spencer turned curtly to Moffat. Dismissing him with a glance.
"Wait for me at the carriage."
He turned back to the
other man and they began to stroll along the gravel pathway together.
Through the granite graves and marble plinths, the monuments to the dead.
"It was difficult finding anything. Garrett's a cold fish. Tied
up watertight and legal in all his business dealings. There's nothing there."
Spencer's lips narrowed. "Nothing?"
"Nothing." The other man was adamant. "He's a powerful man, Mister
Spencer. However. . ." he paused, voice lowering an octave. "There might
be something. One thing."
They halted. Spencer turning to clutch convulsively at the lapel
of the other man's coat. "Spit it out man. Whatever it is - however small!"
Reaching up fastidiously, the man removed the fingers from his
garment and moved off again. "Garrett has no family. There was a daughter,
Catherine. She ran off with a nobody the old man didn't approve of and
died in childbirth years ago."
"Then what . . ."
"The baby survived. A boy - rather a man now. He's in his late
twenties. Garrett's grandson. His only Achilles heel."
Spencer's eyes closed in grief all over again. David . . . He pulled
himself together and nodded slowly. "A grandson - how poetic. Perfect
in its own way. But where is he, not here in Boston?"
"No." The tall man shook his head. "He lives out in California
with his father - the nobody. They have a ranch there. Apparently Garrett
was devastated when the grandson, Scott Lancer, went out West to be with
his father. Tried everything he could to get him back to Boston."
Spencer frowned. "Have they fallen out?"
"That's not the case,
Sir. Garrett still wants him home more than anything. He brought the boy
back East when he was a baby. Raised him here in Boston and denied the
father access for years. I suppose you could say Garrett was more like
his father than his grandfather. The boy went into a cavalry regiment during
the war, spent nearly a year in Libby, then came back and worked in the
old man's business being groomed as heir apparent."
"What happened?" Spencer's voice was harsh, thinking of Michael.
The injustice of it all over again. His eldest son - his beloved eldest
son, lost. Garrett's grandson surviving. He forced himself back to the
present with difficulty. "Why did he give it all up?"
"Curious isn't it?" There was a slight tinge of amusement in the
taller man's tone. "The rancher hired the Pinkertons to trace his son.
Made him an offer to go out to California. The boy defied Garrett and
took him up on it, decided he preferred the life out West. Garrett tried
everything to get him back, but to no avail. He's even been out there himself
. . ." he chuckled unexpectedly. "Seems even his own kin can't live with
They stopped in front of a carved, marble angel, arching wingtips
curved up to the sky. The serene face locked forever in it's expression
of benediction, of redemption. Forgiveness. Spencer regarded it with anguish.
Hatred blossoming like a crimson flower in his soul. The piety of the
angel only serving to rub salt in the wound that was his heart; its ethereal
sanctity a false mockery when men like Harlan Garrett were allowed to steal
and manipulate. To instigate murder - be the evil root of death.
A sob choked in his throat. Constricting his chest with torment
as the darkness closed its fist around him once again. They were gone,
all gone. Everyone he had ever loved and cared about. Lucille, Michael,
and now David. The years and reasons tumbled round him like a house of
cards, coalescing into one, tangible evil. One source of blame. Garrett
- Harlan Garrett.
The man had sought to destroy him. Actively tried to take what
was his. Everything he'd worked and striven for, sacrificed for. And
now David . . .
Spencer clenched his fists hard. David had signed those papers.
Vetoed away his right to half the company - Garrett buying-off the other
debts that Spencer Shipping owed. He knew why of course. Had always known
in his heart. Pushing it away with the same sense of denial he'd employed
since the first seeds of suspicion germinated in his head when David was
sixteen. Hoping it was a phase. Something to do with the boy's artistic
nature and love of music.
He'd known a brief ray of hope when David had given up the piano
so abruptly. Praying that with time and maturity, things would change.
That one day, the boy would settle down. Find a suitable young lady from
amongst the upper echelons of Boston society and finally discover some
sort of normal happiness. Preferably with a sizeable dowry and the right
connections, of course. God knew the boy had always been handsome enough
- the girls had always looked his way. It was just that he'd never looked
back . . .
And somehow Garrett had
found out, probably by having him followed. Dates and times, names even.
Spencer looked back up at the marble angel. They'd covered up the suicide,
but even so, the rumours abounded. The gossips were having their ghoulish
And all the while, the old man sat up there in his ivory tower
on Beacon Hill. Counting his money and gloating over his victory. He'd
even had the gall to send a message of condolence. Hypocrisy and lies.
David's blood on his hands just as surely as if he'd placed the noose
round the boy's neck himself.
Garrett had invited him to a Board meeting on Monday morning. A
weekend's grace between now and then to allow him to get over the funeral
. . . he almost laughed out loud. Let no man dare say Harlan Garrett didn't
play by the rules of propriety. A whole two days to pull himself together
in readiness for the next blow. The loss of his company.
A paltry pay-off offer for his shares in Spencer Shipping. The
promise of an easy way out, no creditors on his back. Allowed to sink
into respectable retirement with his honour and good name intact and
a moderate living for the rest of his life. Oh, maybe not as opulent
as the one he'd been used to - he'd have to sell the Boston mansion, of
course. Move to his house on the Cape, keep his yawl if he was careful.
Moffat would remain with him, that went without saying.
He closed his eyes again. Tears of rage and pain running down his
face, as the rain dripped off the trees. Clouds scurrying in from the
east, the cold Atlantic. Grief upon grief - grey upon grey.
But he had an edge now. What was it Bergstrom had just said? An
Achilles heel. A grandson out in California. Something or someone, the
devil loved more than himself - than Garrett Enterprises. Spencer's heart
hardened and atrophied. He turned back to the silent man who waited at
"Where in California?"
"The San Joaquin Valley. A small place called Morro Coyo. I suppose
the nearest town must be Modesto."
Spencer nodded. "I'll be leaving in the middle of next week. You
can arrange it for me?"
Bergstrom inclined his
head. "I took the liberty of anticipating that would be the case, Mister
Spencer. Two of my, er . . . associates, will meet up with you in Denver.
They're free-lancers, in it for the money. But reliable. Flexible, if
you know what I mean. Not too many irritating scruples."
"Good," said Spencer brusquely. "I don't give a damn about their
morals. In fact, the less they have the better as far as I'm concerned.
I want discretion."
"You'll get it. Complete discretion, Sir. The Cullen brothers will
do anything you ask of them, as long as they get paid. You can rely on
them, you have my total assurances."
"And silence," grunted Spencer. Turning away from the marble angel.
The compassion on it's face was an accusation. It's very tenderness an
"Of course," agreed Bergstrom, as they walked slowly back the way
they'd come towards the line of carriages.
Spencer could see Moffat waiting for him now, a big black umbrella
in his hand. "Where do I find him, Bergstrom. The grandson, what's his
Bergstrom pulled his hat down further across his face, grimacing
as the cold rain ran down his neck. "His name's Scott Lancer. You'll
find him on a ranch of the same name. Lancer."
They reached the end of the path. Bergstrom merging with the shadows
under the trees, as Moffat came hurrying forward with the umbrella.
"Take it away . . ." Spencer pushed him impatiently aside. Turning
his face to the sullen skies, as he rolled the name on his lips.
"Lancer. Scott Lancer . . ."
* * * * * * * *
Johnny rode with natural grace. As though he and the horse had
melted into each other. Become fused in a seamless expression of sheer
exhilaration and movement - a joyous thing to behold.
Scott nudged Charlie to a more leisurely lope. Letting the chestnut
have his head as their speed increased. Powerful muscles bunching and
gathering beneath him as he took the fence in Johnny's wake, joining him
in a rushing swirl of dust underneath the oak trees.
His face cracked into a wide smile. "You were saying, little brother?"
Johnny grinned unrepentantly. "So he aint no slouch. A regular
mechanical jumper. You can teach a mongrel tricks with a big enough
bag of bones."
Scott arched an eyebrow back at him. "Care to put your money where
your mouth is?"
Their glances held for a quick second. Johnny's grin easing into
an enigmatic half-smile as he considered his brother's words.
"What's the bet?"
Scott looked round consideringly. Eyes lighting on the high, white
stone wall that surrounded the outer perimeter of the hacienda. Johnny
tracked his gaze, and whistled softly between his teeth.
"Don't think you have to do it for my benefit, Boston."
"I won't." Scott laughed
- tilting his hat forward more tightly over his ears. "What's the matter,
getting cold feet?"
"Nada, hermano mio."
Johnny wheeled Barranca, barely pausing to draw breath as he nudged
the palomino into a gallop. Bending low across the pony's neck as they
ran headlong at the wall. For a moment it seemed he'd left it too late,
and Scott half-rose in his stirrups, a cry of warning suspended on his
lips. But the palomino uncurled his front legs. Flying across the wall in
a magnificent torsion of muscle and fibre, man and horse. Landing on the
other side like a golden javelin as the dust swirled in eddies around them
Scott relaxed. Shaking his head and sitting back down in the saddle,
as Johnny turned and waved his hat three times with triumph.
"Well fella . . ." Scott patted the chestnut's brawny neck. "Guess
we have a point to prove, don't we?"
The wall suddenly seemed an awful lot higher, but Scott had faith
in his horse. A more technical rider than Johnny, he held him in on a
tighter rein as they made their run. His mouth tense with concentration
as he judged the distance to perfection. Feeling the familiar surge of power
as the horse pushed up off his back legs.
He sensed the fetlock go immediately. The sudden lurch to one side
as Charlie's leg gave out beneath him and horse and rider crashed forwards
clumsily into the wall.
He was conscious of dismay, of Johnny's cry of alarm. A jumble
of blue sky, white stone, and heavy chestnut flank as he spun from the
saddle - shoulder wrenching backwards as he tried desperately to hold
on. A noise like a pistol shot - followed by intense lancing pain. His
head hitting the ground? His nostrils clogged with dust as the world receded.
The horse, his brother, the bright sunlight. They all shrank and constricted
to a pinprick of nothingness. He knew no more.
* * * * * * * *
"What's takin' them so
Johnny changed chairs one more time. Stalking round the library
like a caged lion as his fingers played unceasingly with the string of
turquoise beads at his wrist. Teresa looked up at him unhappily. Getting
to her own feet, as she moved across and placed a small hand on his arm.
"Why don't you sit down, Johnny? I'll go make us some coffee .
. . "
He tensed, the sinews tightening beneath her fingertips for a second
as he looked up at the archway and exhaled. Some of the strain leaving
him at her touch, as he shook his head reluctantly.
"No, gracias querida. Guess I aint thirsty."
She remained where she was, her hand still resting lightly on his
arm. "It's not your fault."
"Try tellin' that to Murdoch."
"He's just upset now. When he's calmed down some, he'll understand
. . ."
Johnny laughed bitterly. "Understand what, Teresa? That if I hadn't
been so hell-bent on braggin' about Barranca, Scott would still be okay?"
He spun away from her then. "It is my fault. I dared him . . ."
She crossed her arms in angry exasperation. "Exactly. You speak
as though Scott's an idiot with no mind of his own. He's a grown man,
Johnny. Older than you, and quite able to make his own decisions. Whose
idea was it to jump the wall, in any case?"
"Pero . . ."
"No 'buts'." She took
his arm again, watching some of the unhappiness fade from his eyes as
she looked up into them. "It was an accident."
"A damn fool accident that happened as the result of a bloody idiotic
They both jumped at the sound of Murdoch's voice, and Teresa's
heart sank once more as she recognised the deep timbre of anger still
present in it.
"Murdoch . . ." Johnny took a hesitant step forward. "How is he?"
But Murdoch ignored him. Turning to Teresa instead as he came down
the steps into the room. "Sam's just finishing up, Teresa. You'd better
go and talk to him. I believe he has some nursing instructions for you."
She lingered for a moment, eyes flicking miserably between both
men. Reluctant to leave before the inevitable onslaught of angry words
and bitter recrimination's she knew was coming.
"Go on," said Johnny softly. "Scott needs you, Chica."
She watched him pick at the beads again, trying to smile reassuringly
at him despite the anxiety inside her. Turning to go, and touching Murdoch
fleetingly on the shoulder as she walked past him, up the steps towards
the archway. Murdoch waited until she was gone. Regarding his youngest
son with a basilisk glare, before stalking across to his desk and staring
broodingly out of the window.
"What, in God's name, were you playing at?"
Johnny remained immobile. Perched insolently on the back of the
blue chair, leg dangling loosely over the floor. "I asked after Scott
. . ."
"I heard you," said Murdoch coldly. "And I 'asked' what the hell
you thought you were doing!"
"Asked and answered,"
retorted Johnny. "A bloody idiotic prank, wasn't it? Eso es todo."
"That's all?" Murdoch's jaw clenched. "That's all, and your brother's
lying unconscious up there . . . shoulder badly dislocated, his ankle
probably broken. For God's sake Johnny, he could have been killed. You both
could have been killed!"
Johnny slid off the chair with a twisted smile. "Malo suerte .
"Don't be foolish," grated Murdoch angrily. "Although judging by
this kind of behaviour, maybe foolish is what I should expect from you."
"You think I wanted this to happen? That I wouldn't take it back
or change it?" Johnny strode up to the desk, leaning both arms on the
edge and thrusting his face across at Murdoch. "I wish it was me lyin'
up there now instead of Scott!"
Murdoch snorted dismissively, leaning his own hands on the desk
till their faces were inches apart. "It wouldn't make any difference. Except
I'd be having this conversation with Scott now, and wondering why the hell
he'd acted so stupidly."
Johnny was still for a second, the anger retreating behind a distant,
practised mask. "Yeah, right. Sure you would."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Johnny straightened up slowly. "I'm goin' to find out how my brother
is . . ." he paused sarcastically. "If that's alright with you? Oh, and
by the way, you might care to hear the chestnut's gonna be okay."
Murdoch took a deep breath, his temper cooling as he recognised
the wealth of hurt behind the careful words. "Johnny . . ."
But Johnny was already halfway up the steps and out the door. "I
got me some time owin', so you'll find me at the Cantina in Morro Coyo
- that is assumin' you want me."
* * * * * * * *
Harlan Garrett looked
around at his Board Members with barely concealed satisfaction. Running
his hands over the polished mahogany surface of the antique, oval table.
Jacobean. Shipped across the Atlantic from England. A beautiful classic
piece of furniture, certainly not out of place in the oblong, panelled
Boardroom. The walls hung with expensive oil paintings, all nautical scenes.
A richly woven wool carpet, soft underfoot. It was an opulent room. Redolent
of the scent of money, and the flagship of Garrett Enterprises. A fitting
showcase to the further success of his business ventures, and the uncanny
acumen he was famed for.
He smiled at the thought. Today in particular, was to be a triumph
worthy of celebration. A good dinner, fine wines . . . His smile faded
slightly. A shame it would have to be at his club. Perhaps shared with
a few of the crusty old potentates that dined regularly within the hallowed
portals, all of them eating there because there was no one to dine with
them at home.
Rich men, powerful men, with houses on Back Bay and Beacon Hill.
Coffers bulging with property and dollars, but a distinct lack of family
to leave it to. But not him - he had Scott, didn't he?
The hope that one day, his beloved grandson would tire of the stupid
fad which had distracted him from his true vocation. Would leave that
God-forsaken place out in California, and come back East where he belonged
to take his rightful place within Garrett Enterprises. The next in line,
the heir to the throne.
Garrett's forehead creased again. Everything he did was for Scott,
and on behalf of Scott. Didn't the boy realise that yet? He'd given
him a couple of years already. Indulged him in his whim to get to know
his father. His half-breed, half-brother. Garrett's lip curled in distaste.
It was about time Scott came home.
Truscott had nearly finished speaking. Good. Boring old fool. It
was nearly time to retire him out to pasture, get in some younger, fresher
blood. Perhaps after this latest re-shuffle to accommodate his newest
Garrett frowned. No sign of Spencer. Churlish of the man, the sign
of a bad loser. That was the trouble with the country today. Too damn
liberal, too soft. Giving out freedoms and rights to every man jack -
it was stripping men of their backbone. Just like the Spencer boy, if
boy was the right word . . .
The doors crashed open, interrupting Truscott mid-conclusion, his
mouth dropping open like a goldfish. Of all the men seated round the Board-table,
only Garrett remained unmoved. Looking up at Amos Spencer with a slight
smile on his face, as he waited for the man's next move. Spencer looked
like hell. Face gaunt and haggard. Still dressed in his mourning suit, necktie
wilted and haphazard.
"Amos - won't you sit down?"
Garrett indicated the
empty chair, his voice deliberately bland as he ignored the air of general
consternation running round the other men in the room. Spencer's jaw clenched.
"I'd rather sit down with the devil."
Garrett shrugged. "Each to their own, Sir, each to their own."
He pushed a sheaf of papers in Spencer's direction. "I take it you're
still interested in my offer? It's a good one - under the circumstances.
I think you'll find everything here above board. I had my lawyers draw
it up in consultation with your own. A fair recompense."
Spencer shouldered Truscott to one side, leaning across the Jacobean
table and staring at Harlan Garrett as though they were the only two
men in the room.
"For what, you bastard? My company, my son?"
Garrett pursed his lips consideringly, a small cold smile in his
hooded eyes. "Take your pick. I've paid what they're worth."
Their gazes locked and held in silence. Neither man flinching from
the other, a wealth of bitter words unsaid. Spencer broke it first. Nodding
measuringly, as he regarded his nemesis before him with an air of loathing.
"I hope you rot in hell."
Garrett laughed out loud then, face creasing into lines of genuine
amusement. "I'll be in good company Amos, that's for sure. But perhaps
you ought to look a little closer to home when it comes to, er . . . biblical
transgressions and abominations."
To his slight surprise, Spencer laughed too. A short, bitter bark
of mirth. "An apt analogy, Harlan. Know your bible, do you? That astonishes
me." His smile faded, as he leaned in closer to his enemy, faces only
inches apart. "But if you do - you'll recognise this too; Vengeance is
mine; I will repay, saith the lord. Romans, chapter 12, verse 19."
Garrett backed off a
couple of inches, and looked at him consideringly. "Is that supposed
to be some kind of threat?"
Spencer picked up the sheaf of papers. Flipping through the clinically
legal documents. His life, his father's. David's . . . All condensed
into fodder for the lawyers. Bones for the vultures to pick over. He
picked up a pen and signed. Securing the cheque in the breast pocket of
his waistcoat as he turned back towards the doors.
"You can rest easy, Harlan. I'm no threat to you. In fact, I'm
thinking of taking a trip out West." He smiled acrimoniously. " To California
maybe . . ."
Garrett's head snapped up suddenly, and for the first time, Spencer
sensed he had the upper hand as a shade of apprehension flickered behind
the cold eyes. He turned the screw a little. Nodding reflectively, nearly
through the doorway.
"I hear it can be a dangerous place. A lawless place. But then,
I've got nothing more to lose . . ."
Garrett half rose from the table. "Spencer . . ."
But the other man was gone. The door slamming closed behind him.
* * * * * * * *
Eight days later . .
Teresa's heart sank for the hundredth time as she saw Murdoch reach
inside his tan leather waistcoat. Fumbling for the ancient timepiece he
kept on a simple chain as the frown gathered and darkened on his brow.
It furrowed even deeper as he glared from the watch face to the telegram,
and over to the door.
She wondered what the telegram said. If possible, it had changed
his mood from bad to worse, and she knew who would bear the brunt of
"He's been working so hard," she said involuntarily. Knowing even
as she spoke, her words had fallen on stony ground. "Since Scott's accident,
he's been doing the work of two men. He missed his supper again last
Light footsteps on the tiled floor, the clink of a spur rowel,
and the object of discussion came in through the kitchen door.
"Sam's kinda early. Bumped into him on the stairs . . . " Johnny
paused, sensing the atmosphere immediately, a sardonic smile curling
"Here, sit down . . ." said Teresa hurriedly, in a futile attempt
to deflect the gathering storm. "Fresh coffee and rolls. I've got a new
batch of honey from my beehives, would you like some eggs?"
She poured his coffee into a pretty blue and white china cup. Aware
she was babbling, but desperate to protect him from Murdoch's simmering
wrath, as she caught his eye and made a quick face.
Johnny flashed her a wry, reassuring smile. "Thanks Querida - but
I'm kinda in a hurry."
Murdoch nodded. "You've left it late as it is. Jed Tilbury's expecting
to see you at ten. The man's a stickler for punctuality."
"I'll be there on time. Had to help Jelly load that lumber - he's
been complainin' 'bout his elbow joints again."
"I don't want to lose the option on that mare." Murdoch ignored
his words, dismissing them as though he hadn't spoken.
Johnny's hands stilled
in the act of loading sugar into his coffee. "I said I'll be there."
Their eyes met and locked like horns. Teresa was reminded of two
angry bulls as she looked from one to the other, exasperation growing
in her own breast. Johnny was the first to look away, dashing back his
coffee in a couple of huge gulps and spreading a vast wedge of butter and
honey onto one of the rolls. He turned back to Teresa, gave her a buttery
kiss on the cheek, and headed for the back door.
Johnny checked at the imperious tone, and Teresa's stomach began
fluttering with apprehension all over again. Murdoch was holding the
telegram out across the table, face as grim as she'd ever seen it.
"Take a look at this wire before you go. Sam brought it out from
Johnny came back into the room and took it in silence. Jaw tightening
in consternation as he scanned the message and digested the words. He
looked up at Murdoch, a frown line between his brows.
"Never did like that man."
Murdoch grunted. "Harlan Garrett's no fool. He must consider this
a very real threat if he's asking me for help."
Johnny smiled coldly. "Now aint that a fact. Wonder what he did
to make this man Spencer so all fired up."
"That's beside the point." Murdoch tapped his fingertips on the
tabletop. "What concerns me, is Scott. Garrett says Spencer made a threat
against him and headed out West . . . God damn him!"
Johnny met Teresa's frightened gaze. The last part of this statement
was ambiguous, and could have referred to Spencer or Garrett. Johnny
would have bet Barranca on which one 'he' thought it was.
"Is Scott in danger?" Teresa's hand was tense on his arm, and he
looked down at her as reassuringly as he could.
"Not with us to look
after him, Miel. Garrett hurt Scott the last time he came out here, I
won't let him do it again."
Murdoch nodded with tacit agreement. "In some ways, it may even
be a blessing in disguise that Scott's bedridden right now. At least I
know he's safe here at the hacienda. I'll post a guard round the clock
- inside and out. Have a man on the gate to vet all visitors. Meanwhile,
Teresa honey . . . I'm afraid we'll have to put up with the old . . . with
Mister Harlan Garrett again in a day or two."
Her face fell almost comically, and the scowl on Johnny's mirrored
it exactly as they both contemplated the malign presence of Scott's grandfather
at Lancer. Johnny sighed, a distant look in his eyes as his mind worked
back over the telegram.
"I cannot stress
highly enough, that Scott is in grave danger. I repeat, grave danger .
Damn Garrett. Damn the
man and his machinations. He reminded Johnny of a giant black spider
in the centre of a web, spinning and weaving his schemes and plans. The
way he had of reaching out to them, despite the fact he was half a world
away. The gift he had for hurting Murdoch, hurting Scott . . .
He looked up quickly. "What about Scott? You gonna tell him?"
Murdoch frowned. "I haven't decided yet."
"He has a right to know."
Murdoch's eyes hardened with anger again. Not all of it directed
at Johnny. "That's my decision Johnny. I'll thank you to respect and
abide by it."
Johnny stared back at him enigmatically. "He has a right to know,"
he repeated softly.
"He'll know when I say the time is right." Murdoch reached into
his breast pocket again. Ostentatiously drawing out the hunter and studying
Johnny laughed once, sardonically. Turning on his heel, and heading
out through the back door. Teresa watched him leave with a slight frown.
He'd lost a little weight over the last few days. Worrying about Scott,
working from dawn till dusk. And now this. Her muscles clenched with anxiety.
Having Harlan Garrett here again was bad enough. Having him here because
Scott was in danger, worse. She got to her feet with a small sigh, and
began to clear the dishes from the table.
"Tilbury won't wait," said Murdoch with vexation. "I should have
She bit her lip. Banging and crashing the dishes with unnecessary
vigour as she transferred them over to the sink. "Johnny'll make it in
time. You know how fast he can ride Barranca . . ." She stopped short,
painfully aware of the ineptitude of her words, as Murdoch's brow creased
even more. "He won't let you down." She finished lamely.
His chair legs scraping
on the tiled floor, Murdoch got to his feet, throwing his napkin down on
the table. He paused in the doorway, heading for the library.
"Let me know when Sam's done. I'll be in the library with Cipriano
He didn't give her the chance to reply. Vanishing through the archway,
his back turned implacably towards her. For a brief, rebellious moment,
she was tempted to poke her tongue out at him. Restraining the impulse
as Jelly meandered in from the back yard, a wrinkle of anxiety between
"Johnny took off like a bat outta hell. Him an' Murdoch bin at
"Murdoch's been at it again, and Johnny's prickly as a Spanish
She told him about the wire. Watching in fond exasperation as he
rubbed his elbows knowingly, unable to suppress the look of smug 'I told
you so', on his face.
"I knowed it. Yesiree, I knowed it. Told Johnny this mornin' when
we was loadin' thet lumber. Teach him ter laugh at me . . . these elbows
aint never wrong."
She moved across to the breadbin. Cutting some thick wedges of
crusty bread, and making up two parcels of ham sandwiches. Wrapping them
both in blue and white check napkins, and handing them over to him with
a slight sigh.
"When you drop off that lumber in Morro Coyo, find Johnny and give
him these. Make sure he eats them," she added as an afterthought, remembering
the sharper planes and angles of his face.
Jelly looked up at her shrewdly, and nodded. "Figured he was lookin'
a might scrawny. Mebbe this Garrett business will take the Boss's mind
offa Scott's accident."
"I hope so," said Teresa fervently. "But I don't want Harlan Garrett
here, and I hate the fact Scott's in danger."
"Me too," agreed Jelly soberly. "But allasame . . ." he scratched
at his beard. "If it gets Johnny outta the firin' line till it all blows
over . . ."
Teresa's hand clenched
tightly round the bread knife. A sudden dark fear in her heart, the beat
of raven's wings falling over her like a shadow. She thought of the man
upstairs, lame and helpless in his bed. Of his brother, tense and guilty
as a drum. Her skin crawled with apprehension. She didn't need Jelly's
elbows to tell her a storm was on the way.
* * * * * * * *
Johnny made it to Morro Coyo with ten minutes to spare. Flying
along on Barranca as he tried to outrun his devils. Or rather his father.
Taking perverse pleasure in the palomino's strength, the strain
it caused across his back and shoulders as he leant into the speed. Closing
his eyes occasionally on this route he knew in his sleep - on the horse
that he trusted implicitly.
Him and Murdoch. Murdoch and him.
Would the day ever come when they'd rest easy with each other?
When the bitterness was buried so deep beneath the surface it would take
more than a scratch to make it bleed?
He'd been wounded once, a deep scour through his flesh. Painful,
but not life threatening, down round under his shoulder-blade. Difficult
to get at, impossible to reach. It had pained and burned at him for months,
healing and half-healing under a fragile layer of skin. Breaking open
again at the slightest provocation, the lightest of exertions.
Him and Murdoch. Murdoch and him.
He wanted . . . He wanted
so much to let his guard down. To demolish the walls of pride he'd spent
so long erecting. To face his fears, his cowardice. For that was what it
was, and he knew it.
But his own problems would have to wait. There was something of
much more pressing urgency he needed to take care of first. Scott's safety.
He had to make sure Scott was safe. Murdoch was right, for Harlan Garrett
to swallow his pride enough to actually telegraph Lancer, the danger
to Scott must be very real. Whatever it was Garrett had done to Spencer,
it had sent the man off on a quest for revenge and Scott was his target.
Johnny had disliked Garrett the minute he'd met him. Masking it
for Scott's sake. Trying to dampen the innate, instinctive distrust that
had prickled at his senses and screamed danger at him. But those instincts
had kept him alive for years, sometimes when the bullets had failed. He
trusted them with an inbuilt superstition; listened to them without even
And they'd been right back then. He'd seen the way Garrett watched
him. The disdain in his eye, the patronising tone to his voice. The way
the man had spoken to Maria and Cipriano, all the other Mexicans on the
He'd seen it, alright. Recognising it only too well for what it
was. Racism, endemic along the Border towns. Something he encountered
wherever he went. He was able to shrug it off sometimes, like an old coat.
In resignation and bitter acceptance. There was no point challenging it
continually - he would have spent his whole life fighting.
Mex. Pelado. Chilli-bean . . .
He'd heard them all, and worse. From a lot of men who'd learned
to regret ever calling him those names. And he'd seen it there in Garrett's
eyes, heard it in Garrett's voice. Sensed it in the way the man had shrunk
from his touch. The man was a bigot, Scott's grandfather or not. The man
had no time for his kind, and the feeling was mutual. Never more so than
He shared a pot of coffee with Jed Tilbury. Chewing backwards and
forwards over a price on the mare, till both of them were satisfied, and
Tilbury promised to deliver it to the Estancia the next day.
Human enough to feel a flash of 'I showed you,' towards Murdoch,
Johnny shook Tilbury's hand, and strolled across to the Cantina. Flashing
a quick smile at Pepita as he entered, scanning the room quickly, and
sauntering up to the bar.
"Johnny." Abe reached across and took down a glass. "Beer?"
Johnny shook his head. "No gracias. Information, por favor. Any
strangers been in lately askin' after Lancer?"
Abe shook his head. Eyes flickering involuntarily down to the low-slung
gun belt at Johnny's hips. It wouldn't be the first time a stranger had
come in looking for Johnny Madrid, and he'd bet his last dime, it wouldn't
be the last. But not today. At least not so far.
"Nope, not a soul. Expectin' someone?"
Johnny smiled laconically. "Quien sabe."
He hadn't missed the Barman's quick glance, nor the connotations
behind it. Well, if Abe thought it was him Spencer was after, it wasn't
necessarily a bad thing. Be nice if he could tidy up this whole darn
mess before Harlan Garrett arrived and Scott was back on his feet. Maybe
then, with any luck, Garrett would turn right round and head on back
He nodded cautiously. "I'd appreciate the jump if anyone does come
askin'. And I think they probably will."
"You got it, Johnny." Abe gave him a small salute as he strolled
from the Cantina. Wondering just who was fool enough to think they could
take on Johnny Madrid, this time.
Johnny leaned against
the wooden strut outside the Cantina. Breaking out of his reverie to tilt
his hat at Jelly. The Old Man was sitting on the buck board across the
street, indicating the packed lunches in his hands.
He was about to cross when a rattling caught his attention and
he watched as the stage rolled in, swaying and lurching to one side as
the full compliment of passengers disgorged into the town square. A middle-aged
couple, an elderly Mexican gentleman. The widow Partridge. He waited a minute
or so longer, then walked leisurely over to Jelly who was brandishing some
sandwiches at him.
"D'ye git the mare?"
"Si, Jelly," he took the chequered napkin with a wry smile. "I
got the mare."
Unseen by Johnny, one last passenger descended from the stage.
A spare, middle-aged man in a brown corduroy jacket. Face lined and grim
with fatigue, as he looked around him with distaste before collecting
his bag from the luggage rack.
So this at last, was Morro Coyo. A godforsaken dusty hellhole as
far as he was concerned. The literal back of beyond. He tipped the driver,
and stared grimly at the shabby hotel. Well, he hadn't come all this way
for pleasure. The place would have to do. He probably wouldn't be needing
a room for more than one night, anyway. Not if the Cullen brothers had
done their job.
He frowned slightly. Venn and Yancy Cullen were not the sort of
men he usually associated with. Cutthroats and villains. The younger one,
Yancy, almost backward. His elder brother more dangerous. Cunning in a
wild, feral way. But Bergstrom had been right. They were exactly what he
wanted for this job. Perfect, in fact. Amoral, ruthless. Not hidebound by
any tiresome scruples or social principles. Base scum and riff-raff.
He passed a hand across his forehead. Shielding his eyes against
the white glare of the sun. He was weary all of a sudden. Old. Harlan
Garrett had brought him down to this, to this sordid little town in a
search for vengeance. Bitter justice.
Stepping up onto the boardwalk, he watched as the stagecoach rattled
away. Hidden in the shadows as he looked out at the sleepy town. Its
one Cantina, the squat adobe buildings so ugly to his eyes. He batted
away a lazy fly and wondered how anything managed to stay alive in this
heat. It was almost unbearable. Hostile and inhospitable like the country,
the majority of it's people.
A sudden burst of merriment
caught his attention. Looking up with an ache of longing, as his heart
contracted in pain. An old timer on a wagon across the street. Laughing
till he doubled over at something the cowboy next to him said. He continued
to watch them sourly. How long since he'd laughed like that?
Venn Cullen's voice in his ear made him jump. He'd been unaware
of the man's approach. Stepping back into the shady doorway, not bothering
to turn round.
"Did you do as I asked?"
Was it his imagination, or was there a hint of insolence in Cullen's
"We done found a place. Found yo' man, too. Took us a look at Lancer
an' all. Seems ter me, we could make us a tidy sum by holdin' the boy
"You'll do as I say," snapped Spencer curtly. "I have no quarrel
with Murdoch Lancer. It's Garrett who'll pay."
"Whatever y'say." The sullen deference was back. But Spencer was
no fool. He hadn't missed the undertone of greed.
"The sooner we take Scott Lancer, the better." He stared around
in renewed distaste. "I don't want to stay in this town a minute longer
than I have too."
Cullen chuckled behind him. "Then I'd say it's yo' lucky day. Aint
it funny how life works out?"
"Stop talking in riddles man."
"That boy on the wagon over there, he's Murdoch Lancer's son. Damned
if I didn't hear it fer myself just now."
Spencer's head snapped
up with a jerk. The cowboy? Surely not. He was so dark. If asked to bet,
he would have sworn he was part Mexican . . .
"You're positive about this?"
He felt Cullen shrug behind him. "Ask fer y'self. The old timer
goes by the name of Jelly Hoskins. Works out at the Estancia. Boy with
him's Lancer's son."
Brisk footsteps along the boardwalk towards them, and a bonneted
middle-aged woman approached on her way to the store. Spencer stepped
forward, removing his hat as he barred her way.
"I do beg your pardon, Ma'am, but I wonder if you can help me?
The young man on the wagon across the street - is he by chance, the
son of my old friend Murdoch Lancer?"
Mrs Lannigan paused. Looking him up and down, before nodding in
approval, and answering in her usual, forthright manner. "That he most
definitely is, Sir. Have you known Murdoch Lancer a long time?"
"We have a big, mutual acquaintance back in Boston." Spencer sidestepped
the question neatly. Placing his hat back on his head, and turning away
again. "Thank you Ma'am. You've been of some help. I surely do appreciate
He waited whilst she went on her way, watching curiously as the
two men on the wagon finished eating. No wonder Garrett had objected so
strongly to his daughter's marriage. It looked as though Murdoch Lancer
had latin blood, and the son must take after him. The miracle of it was,
that Garrett had ever claimed the boy as his own. Ever taken him back East
Spencer frowned. If he hadn't heard it for himself, he'd still
find it hard to believe. Scott Lancer was good looking enough. Easing
down off the wagon, he moved with a natural in-born grace. Confident too.
Walked like he owned the street. Officer training, Spencer supposed.
But Scott Lancer didn't look like any officer he'd seen back East.
None of the stiffly upright young men who'd formed part of Mike's cadre,
had looked like this. None of them had walked with that loose-limbed agility,
those narrowed eyes. Not exactly a swagger, but an almost arrogant physical
confidence he'd rarely seen before.
He turned back to Venn Cullen. It was too late to back out now.
The dye was cast. He would do what he'd come all this way to do. Harlan
Garrett had taken the only thing he had left in the whole world. He was
about to pay the bastard back in kind.
* * * * * * * *
"Damn this ankle." Scott
winced, and hoisted himself a little higher in the bed. No simple feat
when his right shoulder ached so abominably - almost as much as his leg.
"Easy." Murdoch propped up the pillows behind his back, trying
to suppress his unease at his elder son's dependence. That bloody stupid
dare . . .
Of all the times they needed Scott hale and able to defend himself.
His lips tightened momentarily. Not just for the irresponsibility of it
all, but because Harlan Garrett was on his way out West, and Scott's life
was in danger as a result of something the man had done.
He knew Garrett of old. Knew the way the man operated. Skirting
along the thin edge of the wedge, keeping just inside the law. A battery
of lawyers and legal advisors to back him - the best that money could buy.
He was a formidable adversary, a cunning business man, and wily as
an old dog fox. The famous Garrett fortune hadn't been amassed without the
use of dirty tricks or ruthless tactics. The creation of enemies along the
Murdoch watched as Scott settled back with a sigh. Reading the
telegram again as though the contents might have magically changed within
the last couple of minutes. They hadn't of course, and a vertical line
appeared between his brows as he reconsidered the cryptic words.
He was by no means naive. His grandfather's fearsome commercial
reputation was known the length and breadth of Massachusetts and beyond.
He'd had a personal dose of the power of that medicine when Harlan had
travelled West the last time. The incident with the Deegan brothers . .
The line on his forehead deepened. Just whom had his grandfather
upset to such an extent they would actively seek revenge? What had his
"It doesn't say when he'll arrive, but it was sent just over a
"That mean's he may arrive within the next couple of days," finished
Murdoch, trying to keep his voice as neutral as possible.
Scott smiled wanly. He wasn't fooled for a minute. Harlan Garrett
as a house guest was one of the last things Murdoch wanted, and it said
a lot for his father that he was trying so hard for his benefit. He closed
his eyes. Leaning his head back against the pillows with a sudden wave
of weariness. Apart from anything else, he wasn't sure he was up to the
emotional onslaught he knew would accompany his grandfather's arrival at
Lancer. They'd parted on such uneasy terms. The trust between them shaken
to the core by Harlan's duplicity. Recriminations a breath behind them
both, the one for lying, the other for staying.
He still loved his grandfather,
for how could he not? Twenty five years of nurturing were not easily
erased, and whatever modus operandi Harlan might have chosen, his motive
had always been love. A love rendered suspect by frustrated wishes and
Childhood memories toppled like dominoes in his head. A birthday
visit to the zoo, being taken aboard one of Harlan's Merchant Clippers
and shown around by the Captain. The wide-eyed wonder of a ruddy-cheeked
boy as he'd been allowed to take the ship's wheel and been shown how
to plot a course with a sextant. Riding lessons when Harlan was still
young and hale enough to sit a horse himself. The elegant parties with
glittering women, ballrooms be-decked like faery palaces. They were good
memories - precious.
The feel of his grandfather's hand on his head. Fond and heavy,
full of pride; and he'd been the prince, the heir apparent.
Until 1859 - the shadowy wings of war falling across the country
like a funeral pall. Defying his grandfather to join the army as he'd
veered away from the path that had been chosen for him. And therein lay
the crux of the matter. He'd taken the first steps on the ladder of independence.
The fickle hand of fortune decreeing a very different future to the one
Harlan had planned.
Murdoch's voice was gruff with concern. Probably not for the reasons
that really ailed him though, and the thought drew a wry twitch at one
corner of his long fine mouth.
"I'm sorry Murdoch. Timing couldn't be worse, could it?"
Murdoch grimaced, thinking back over his words to Johnny in the
kitchen earlier. That Scott might be safer confined to his bed . . . Johnny.
The grimace deepened. Murdoch hoped he'd made it to Morro Coyo in time
to meet with Tilbury. He didn't want to lose that mare.
"It's not your fault, Scott."
"It's not Johnny's either," said Scott perceptively. "It was my
damn fool idea to jump that wall, not his. A few high spirits and a stupid
accident. It could just as easily been Barranca's fetlock. Johnny stuck
here in bed instead of me."
"But it's not." Murdoch answered. "It's you, and it's unfortunate
all this has blown up now. This man Spencer - do you know anything about
him at all?"
Scott frowned and shook his head. "I vaguely remember a Mike Spencer
during the war. He was killed. His family were in Shipping, I seem to
Murdoch spread his hands. "There's nothing to be gained in speculation
- it's pointless. We'll have to wait until your grandfather gets
here for some answers. Meanwhile, I've cordoned off the Estancia. Set
guards at the gates and round the house. No one's getting in, Scott.
You can count on it."
Looking down at his useless leg, Scott grinned with faint irony.
"Unfortunately, I'm going to have to, damn it. Where's Johnny?"
"Morro Coyo. He should be back mid-afternoon. Hopefully with a
contract for Jed Tilbury's mare in his pocket."
Scott looked at Murdoch
hard. "It's not Johnny's fault," he repeated. "He's eaten up with guilt
as it is. It might be a good idea to get things straightened out between
the two of you, before grandfather arrives. Especially if there 'is' any
Murdoch scowled like a thundercloud, and for a moment, Scott thought
he was about to get his head bitten off as he watched the big man's muscles
tighten with affront.
"You're right," he said abruptly. "I'll speak to him when he gets
"Mare or no mare?" Scott was really pushing his luck now, and Murdoch
acknowledged it with a reluctant smile.
"Mare or no mare."
* * * * * * * *
Johnny waited in town for Jelly to finish his business at the lumber
yard. The way he'd left things with Murdoch, he was no particular hurry
to get home. Besides - part of him enjoyed the thought of the look on
Murdoch's face when he slapped the contract for the mare down on the
desk in front of him. Let his father stew a while.
He sat up on the buckboard with Jelly after tying Barranca to the
back. The old man had an uncanny gift of reading his state of mind at
times. Seemed to know what to say when this particular mood was on him,
the right balm to smooth his ruffled soul. He found himself wishing it was
this easy with Murdoch. That they were capable of feeling this effortless
with each other, this calm. With Jelly he could be himself. Slouch if he
wanted, whistle or drum his restless fingers. Tilt his hat across his eyes
and snatch a quick siesta . . .
All things Murdoch seemed to frown at him for. Never actually saying
so, but sometimes the words were stronger for being left unsaid.
They drove home slowly
along the river road. Past rock walls of sepia and indigo, splashed
with sable shadows of brush. On the right, the glistening river. The
verdant sweeps of green grass beyond it fringed with the graceful beauty
of willow trees. They arched like dancers at the waters edge,
trailing branches like fingers across the surface. Johnny breathed it
all in deeply, appreciatively. The sweet air was soft and refreshing
and he sank down a little lower in the seat, smiling ruefully as he thought
of his father. The contract rustled satisfactorily in his breast pocket.
The sun was warm on his back, and he was in the company of a friend. He
begin to relax for the first time in days.
By now, Murdoch would have placed a guard on the Estancia and Scott
would be safer bedridden than up on his feet and moving around. Johnny
knew his brother well enough by now to recognise the streak of family stubbornness
lurking beneath the deceptively mild exterior. If Scott was fit and
well they'd have the devil of a job to tie him down.
His search for information in Morro Coyo had proven fruitless.
No one had been asking after Scott, and no strangers had arrived on the
stage. Tomorrow he fancied he'd ride out to Spanish Wells and poke around
there some. Maybe Green River too.
He put his boots up on the footplate and tilted his hat forward
slightly to shield his eyes from the afternoon glare. Jelly glanced at
him sideways, a small smile twitching at his whiskers.
"Worked out some o' them knots now?"
"Some," drawled Johnny lazily, basking in the heat like a sleepy
cat. "Loosened 'em up a little."
"Well thet's good. You bin dun up tighter than a nun's corset these
last coupla days."
Johnny's face creased with the hint of a grin. "Now how the devil
would you know 'bout that, Jelly?"
The old man gave a short guffaw of laughter. "Thet's fer me ter
know and ye ter ponder . . . mebbe when yer older . . ."
Johnny chuckled too.
Sitting up a little straighter as he spied two riders approaching.
"Know those two?"
Jelly peered forward. Straining his eyes sharply, and wondering
yet again at his friends uncanny visual skills. From here, the most he
could make out was a darkish blob in the distance. As they got closer,
he saw it was indeed two men.
"Nope, strangers . . ." He shot Johnny a quick, slanting glance.
"You think these two might have somethin' ter do with Scott's grandpappy?"
Johnny hitched up a little straighter and watched the two men draw
near. "Any stranger's worth the askin' when it's Scott's life in danger.
I aint takin' no chances, Jelly."
His hand fell loosely to his side. The colt a constant and comforting
pressure against his thigh. Flexing his fingers subconsciously as the riders
came into plain sight now. A lean middle-aged man and his son, perhaps?
Innocent enough in appearance. The older man's clothes expensive, well
made. He wore hand-tooled leather boots. They were nearly abreast of each
other now, and the man drew his roan to a halt.
"Good afternoon, Gentlemen."
Johnny tensed. A slow, cold smile flickering on his lips as he
recognised the slight inflection in the man's voice. He heard it in
Scott's sometimes, and Garrett certainly had it. A flattish, East coast
intonation, crisper on the ear than a western drawl.
"Buenos dias. What can we do for you, Mister?"
The man nodded as if in confirmation. "Mister Lancer, is it not?"
"Who wants to know?" There was a trace of insolence in Johnny's
reply now, as their eyes met and held for a moment. He took his feet off
the plate, letting his jacket fall open just enough for the stranger to
see his gun belt.
Amos Spencer inclined
his head in acknowledgment of the gesture. This man was so unlike what
he'd imagined. The spoiled upper-crust grandson of Harlan Garrett did
not seem to fit this particular template in any way, shape or form.
"My name is Amos Spencer, Mister Lancer. Until recently, I was
a business associate of your grandfather, Harlan Garrett."
Johnny felt Jelly stiffen beside him. "Now lookee here, Mister
. . ."
"Querdo - quiet, Jelly!"
"But J . . ."
Quick as a whip, Johnny turned on the old man. "I said quiet. Let
me handle this." He turned back round to Spencer. "Heard you were comin'.
My . . . my grandfather wired us you might. Question is, why?"
"He didn't tell you?"
Johnny's smile stretched in amusement. "We aint exactly on those
kinda terms, Spencer."
And no word of it a lie, he reflected laconically; watching the
two men with acute interest as he waited for their next move. Spencer
wasn't what he expected. The man looked fundamentally decent, but the lines
of grief scoured into his face told their own story. Life had hurt him and
hurt him hard.
Life or Harlan Garrett.
Johnny looked up again. "But I'd hazard a guess this aint no pleasure
trip, and you didn't come all this way just to pass on his regards?"
Spencer nodded back at
him. "I'm afraid not, Scott. Step down from the wagon, and un-tie your
horse. You'll be accompanying my . . . associate and I on a journey, while
we await your grandfather's presence."
Jelly fidgeted uneasily beside him and Johnny could sense the old
man was busting a gut not to cut in as he listened to what was unfolding.
His fingers twitched slightly, the colt an ever-present reminder at his
side. But so was Jelly, and he dug his elbow imperceptibly into the old
man's ribs, watching with satisfaction as Jelly's hands tightened in readiness
on the reins.
"Sorry, Mister Spencer - but I aint got no inclination to see my
grandfather in the near future. Or any future at all. We parted on less
than happy terms . . ."
A blur of speed and the colt leapt into his hand, even as Spencer's
henchman was still fumbling for his, mouth dropped unbecomingly in awe.
Johnny looked measuringly at Spencer.
"A little free advice, Senor. Go home and forget any idea of takin'
revenge on Harlan Garrett. The man aint worth it - aint worth the riskin'
of lives or liberty. Whatever he did to hurt you, I'm sorry for it. But
I aint no pawn to be used in a game between the two of you, and the sensible
thing would be to let me on my way."
Spencer listened to his words with something akin to respect, but
his resolve had hardened at the words, 'go home'. What home? He had no
home to return to, Garrett had seen to that. No home, and no family. His
bridges were burned. Garrett would pay for his crimes. He raised his head
and stared Lancer in the eye.
"Look behind you, Scott . . ." his voice hardened. "Even now, there's
a man with a Winchester aimed right at your friend's head. I can assure
you he won't hesitate to fire. Now, do as I say, and get down from that
wagon. Then your friend will be free to go about his business - return home
to your father with a message for Harlan Garrett."
Johnny froze. A seed of anger and dismay blossoming inside him.
But not by so much as a flicker did he allow it to show. He didn't need
to turn round. Sensing the presence of the third rider behind them, as he
moved from his place of concealment behind the rocks.
"Well, well . . ." he drawled lazily. "Looks like you took the
"Now lookee here," blustered
Jelly, eyes brimming with consternation, as he shifted on the seat and
turned to Johnny. "Nuff's a nuff - I aint gonna let you do this. Mister
Spencer, there's somethin' ye should know . . ."
"Detengase!" Johnny interrupted him quickly, gut clenching with
fear as he glared compellingly into the old man's eyes. "No, Jelly. Querdo."
But Jelly shook his head sorrowfully. "No me gusta, Hijo . . ."
"Less of the spic talk." The man behind them pulled back the lever
on the carbine meaningfully, and Johnny nodded reassuringly at Jelly.
"Sal di ahi - get outta here. It's for the best. Tell Murdoch,
and take care of . . .of Johnny for me while I'm gone?"
"Don't," whispered Jelly sadly, heart breaking as he looked desperately
at the man he loved like a son. "He won't thankee fer it."
Johnny smiled back with genuine warmth. Grateful in his heart for
the strong feelings of love and affection emanating from the old man in
waves. Tangible as the very air he breathed.
"Hasta luego, Jelly . . ." he paused, remembering something important,
as he threw the colt onto the ground. Reaching carefully inside his
breast pocket for the contract on the mare, and handing it to the distressed
old man. "Give this to Murdoch. Tell him I knocked ten dollars off the
And so saying, he swung down off the buck board and sauntered round
the back to Barranca as though he didn't have a care in the world. Unhitching
the palomino's reins, and smiling insolently at Venn Cullen as he hooked
his foot in the stirrup. Once up in the saddle, he watched as
Spencer nodded and the buck board trundled off down the road towards
Lancer. Only able to relax once Jelly was a small speck in the distance
and he was sure Spencer was about to keep his word.
"What happens now?"
He ignored the Cullen's and looked directly at Amos Spencer. Blue
eyes burning like fire in his tanned face. Spencer stared back at him unemotionally.
"We take a ride. You
hope it doesn't take your grandfather too long to travel here from Boston."
"Or what?" Asked Johnny evenly.
"Or you suffer the same fate as my son, David." Spencer's voice
fractured into shards of pain. "Murdered by Harlan Garrett just as surely
as if he put that noose round his neck with his own filthy hands!"
* * * * * * * *
The hand on his shoulder was soft and loving and he turned with
a sigh to face Teresa, expecting to see censure in her soft brown eyes.
Knowing in all honesty he deserved it for the hard, irrational anger that
had dogged him since Scott's accident. It was there, just a flicker of
it as she gazed back at him and another emotion surged to meet it. Was
that compassion he saw?
"I'm about to make some coffee. Would you like some?"
He shook his head quickly. "No - thank you. Maybe later."
She turned to go. Blue skirts swishing round her like a bellflower
as her hips swung past his desk.
"Teresa . . ."
"Yes?" She paused expectantly, and he sighed once more. "You think
I've been too hard on him, don't you?"
Her shoulders straightened. "It was an accident, Murdoch."
"A damned irresponsible one."
"Maybe," she acknowledged. Turning to face him again, and standing
in front of the desk like a penitent schoolgirl. "But there was no need
for you to say a single word. He already blames himself far more than
you ever could."
Murdoch sighed in resignation at her words. The gentle rebuke eating
away at his already simmering sense of guilt. Remembering the acute
anguish in Johnny's eyes when they'd stretchered Scott's limp body back
into the hacienda, the restless tension radiating off him in waves as
they waited anxiously for Sam Jenkins to arrive. Teresa was right, and
he knew it. No one punished Johnny better than Johnny. No one could make
him feel worse than he already did.
Placing his pen down
carefully on the desk, he closed the ledgers with an emphatic snap and
looked up at her again. "Since when did you become so wise?"
She melted visibly, face softening as she regarded him fondly.
"I have a good teacher - most of the time."
He nodded with tacit understanding, ruefully accepting the verbal
hit and rolling with it as his due. "But not all of the time."
"No," she agreed. "He can be wrong-headed some of the time. But
generally, his heart's in the right place, even if he doesn't always know
how to show it."
Murdoch's lips tightened with frustration and a touch of shame.
"He doesn't, does he . . . "
They both looked up suddenly as the buckboard clattered up outside
the house at an inordinately fast rate. Murdoch half-rising to his feet
as he raised an eyebrow at Teresa and she shook her head to remind him.
"Murdoch . . ."
"I know, I know." He smiled wryly. "I'll try my hardest - even
if he didn't get the mare."
She dimpled up at him. Taking his arm as he walked her across to
the French windows, conscious of a lightening in her breast at the thought
of the tension being resolved at last. Maybe Johnny would forgive himself
a little now, be happier again. She'd missed his smile, the warmth it
seemed to bring into the hacienda, the way it lit up a room.
The French window crashed open with a bang. Jelly burst into the
library like a rocket, nearly cannoning into them in his haste and agitation.
"We gotta git back there, Boss . . . we gotta git goin' now, if'n
there's any chance o' trackin' them . . ."
"Jelly, calm down!" Murdoch said sharply, taking the old man firmly
by the shoulders and surprised to find them shaking.
"Where's Johnny?" Teresa
asked fearfully, a wash of sudden precognition sweeping over her as her
hand flew to her throat and cold began to steal through her veins. "Jelly,
where is he?"
Jelly took a breath, eyes twitching pleadingly up to Murdoch as
he managed to master his distress. "The man in the telegram . . ."
Murdoch looked at him quickly. "Spencer?"
"Thet's him . . . Spencer. The one what's after Scott. Him an'
two riders, cut throats if I ever saw the like . . . they ambushed us
on the River road. Threatened to put a bullet in my head, an' Johnny .
. . " He gulped, dashing his hand quickly across his face. "Johnny went
with them, meek as a lamb."
Murdoch's gut began to tighten. "Johnny? But Spencer's after Scott.
He wants to hurt Garrett . . ."
"Dang fool, dang fool boy." Jelly's voice wobbled, as his shoulders
slumped in distress against Murdoch's grasp. "Fer some reason they thought
Johnny was Scott. He only went along with it, pretended Harlan Garrett
was his grandpappy! Wouldn't let me say a blamed word otherwise."
Murdoch turned aside. His hands dropping from Jelly's shoulders
in stunned silence, as he gazed unseeingly through the open doorway towards
the hills. Out across the acres of land. His land. The source of all
his comfort in the past. The mountains in the distance, shimmering with
heat as they danced before his eyes like hazy ghosts. He thought of them
fancifully as his mountains. Guardians of his land. Feeling safer somehow
because of their presence, their enormity. As though Lancer were held in
the hollow of a benevolent hand. But now they seemed to mock at him, to
emphasise the vast and rugged country they lived in. And Johnny was out
there . . .
"Why . . .?" The word left his lips unbidden, unaware even, of
saying it out loud.
But Teresa picked him up on it at once. Her own voice cracking
with anger and distress as she backed away from him through the French
windows, fists clenched under her jaw.
"You know why. Because
he loves Scott so much, he'd do anything for him - even die for him!"
"Teresa . . ."
"No." Tears began running down her face unheeded. "Because he doesn't
believe his own life's worth anything. Not to himself. . . and . . . and
not to you!"
He reached for her blindly but she evaded his grasp. Spinning on
her heel and fleeing in the direction of her beloved garden. Teresa's
garden. The place she always turned when in need of solace. He watched
her dully. Steps erratic, brown hair flying out behind her like a banner.
He would go to her later, find her when she'd calmed down a little .
He turned back to Jelly. The old man had been silent through the
whole interchange, but bristling with his own unspoken views on the subject.
Murdoch noted laconically they were not all that different to Teresa's.
"Jelly . . ."
"Here . . ." Jelly rummaged in his breast pocket. Eventually withdrawing
a piece of folded paper and handing it over, his lips drawn into a tight
accusatory line. "Johnny asked me to give you this."
Murdoch took it. Unfolding it slowly, his hand shaking slightly
as he read the bill of sale for Jed Tilbury's mare. The words and figures
blurred before his eyes, but not before he noticed Johnny had wrangled
an extra ten dollars off the price tag. He looked up at Jelly again. Seeing
the man's own sorrow reflected back on his face.
"I suppose you think I'm a stubborn fool?"
"T'aint my place ter think." Jelly turned abruptly aside, but not
before Murdoch heard the grief in his voice.
He placed his hand on the old man's arm. "Since when? Oh, it's
alright Jelly - you can say it, because it's true. I was so angry because
of Scott's accident I needed someone to blame when it was really no one's
fault. I couldn't yell at Scott, so I yelled at Johnny instead. I was wrong,
Teresa and Scott spared no bones in showing me that and I had planned
to talk to Johnny when he got home today . . ."
Jelly looked up measuringly. "Best you tell him that y'self when
we find him. I've a notion he'll be glad ter hear it
Murdoch swallowed hard.
"Go round up Cipriano and some of the men. We'll ride back to where you
were ambushed and start searching. This man Spencer - what's he like?
What do you think his motives are?"
Jelly thought back to the man on the roan. Not at all what he'd
expected. No Foley, this. No low-down, fire-breathing villain out to make
a name. He racked his brains hard, trying to sort through the impressions
in his mind. Spencer had been broken. Broken and implacable. A hard determination
burning in his eyes, a need for justice riven in his soul. Bitter justice.
The room reeled before his own blurry eyes, and Jelly clutched
hold of the door jamb to steady himself as he thought again of Johnny.
Johnny on the receiving end of the wildfire that burned in Spencer. A
fire he sensed was capable of terrible destruction.
"Jelly?" Murdoch's voice was sterner now, and the old man straightened
"He's lost his soul, Murdoch." He nearly faltered again, but Johnny
was out there and Johnny needed him. He wasn't about to fail him now.
"As fer what his motives are? Man has a score to settle. A burnin' hurt
thet's eatin' him from the inside out. Spencer wants Harlan Garrett to
know what it's like ter hurt like thet and he plans on usin' Scott . .
. Johnny, ter do it!"
* * * * * * * *
By Johnny's reckoning, they'd been travelling steadily northwards.
The mountains closing in on them like bell shaped pinnacles, a light
wind fluttering the leaves of the young cottonwoods and desert willows.
Moving into more rugged hill country as the afternoon stretched onward
- hazy, burning blue.
They'd left him untied. Bunched between the Cullen brothers with
Spencer bringing up the rear. Aware the whole time of Venn Cullen's
gun at his back and the repeated verbal threats that he wouldn't hesitate
to use it if Johnny attempted to escape.
He was on the alert the whole time, though. Keeping his eyes and
ears open for any opportunity, taking note of the terrain. He knew roughly
where they were. Still on Lancer land and would be for a while. He figured
they wouldn't pitch camp too far from the Estancia. Near enough to exchange
messages with Murdoch and Harlan Garrett . . .
His mouth crinkled into
a wry grin in spite of his predicament. Picturing the look on the old
bastard's face when he realised they'd mistaken him for Scott. Johnny Madrid
- half-breed Mex, grandson of the illustrious Harlan Garrett. If it wasn't
fraught with so much danger it would be funny. He chuckled out loud.
"What you smilin' at, boy?"
Venn Cullen. A thread of menace underlying his Texan drawl. Of
the Cullen brothers, instinct and experience told Johnny this was the
one to watch. He'd come across his type so many times before. A vicious
killer. Little better than a beast in man's clothing, though he'd rather
face the beast any day. Venn Cullen enjoyed the killing for its own sake.
The pain and brutality of it, the pathetic sense of power it gave him.
Men like him had an innate visceral cunning, an eye to the main chance.
The lawlessness down on the Borders attracting them like the promised
land. The scum, the cabron. Bad men who could be hired at the drop of
a hat for just about any nefarious job that needed doing.
He wasn't so sure about Yancy. The man seemed almost simple. But
Johnny knew a man like that used to cruelty and killing could be dangerous
too. A man with no boundaries. With no savvy or conscience to care.
He turned insolently back to Venn. "Just thinkin' about what my
old man's gonna do to you when he catches up with us."
"Best hope he don't, Lancer."
Johnny's eyes were deadly. "For your sake, Cullen."
Their glances locked and held, both men taking the measure of each
other in the space of a heartbeat. Johnny hardening into Madrid, slipping
him on like an old coat as his blue eyes burned like ice.
"Whatever Spencer's payin' you - my old man'll double it."
A slow, cold smile spread across Cullen's face. "It aint money
Spencer's after, Scotty-boy. He wants ter see yer grandpappy bleed.
Wants ter see him beg fer yo miserable life . . . before he puts a rope
round yer neck and stretches it in front of him."
By not so much as a flicker, did Johnny's face betray the quick
jump of dismay he felt at Cullen's cruelly casual words. Shifting back
round in the saddle as he considered his meagre options. By now, Jelly would
have alerted Murdoch. They'd be out looking for him. A few hours behind,
granted. But out there.
The terrain they were
riding was dry and rocky. Not good for tracking as they climbed steadily
into the lavender shaded hills. He knew he couldn't rely on them following
that way. Even Cipriano, the best tracker on Lancer, wouldn't be able to
pick up much of a trail on this kind of ground.
He looked up at the sun. It was already arcing over the horizon
- must be gone four o' clock. The shadows longer on the ground despite
the haze of shimmering heat still radiating off the rocks.
The brief conversation with Cullen had confirmed his gut feeling
about Spencer. The man had gone beyond reason, and all that drove him
was a blood desire for revenge against Harlan Garrett. Johnny had seen
it once or twice before. Men who were eaten alive by hatred, who cared
nothing for their own lives any longer as they pursued their nemesis. Consumed
by hellfire - by their need for retribution, the curse of vengeance.
Mierda - what had Garrett done to this man?
A man whom, Johnny sensed had been inherently decent. Clearly unused
to moving in the same circles as men like the Cullen brothers and wealthy
enough to afford their sordid services. What was it Spencer had said earlier,
something about his son?
'Or you'll suffer
the same fate as my son, David . . .'
Johnny remembered Spencer's agony. The way the man's voice had
splintered into inconsolable grief.
'Murdered by your
grandfather just as surely as if he put the noose round his neck with
his own , filthy hands!'
He shivered slightly.
Was this what had been planned for Scott? To take him and hang him in
front of Harlan Garrett? Not while he was alive and could do anything
to stop it.
He shifted in the saddle. Sitting up a little straighter as he
looked carefully around at the wilderness. There was a wooded slope across
to his right. A man could find cover and get lost pretty easily in those
dense trees. But there was a large expanse of craggy, boulder-strewn ground
to cover before he could reach them and he'd be an easy target. Any reasonable
shot with a carbine would stand a good chance of plugging him - and
he had a feeling Venn Cullen was more than a reasonable shot.
He narrowed his eyes. Trying to gauge the distance, the time it
would take the palomino to stretch across the tract of open land. One
and a half, two minutes maybe flat out at full gallop? He'd be lucky to
make it, and no good dead. He had to get back to Lancer. To warn Scott
. . .
There was a stack pile of flattish boulders some fifty yards ahead.
They looked for all the world as though some giant child had used them
as building blocks to construct a ramshackle tower but they might break
that stretch of open land, if he could make it as far as them first. Once
behind the stack, he'd have a better chance of outrunning pursuit. Especially
on Barranca. His mind flashed back cruelly to the last time he'd asked something
like this of the palomino. The day of Scott's accident. That time had been
a prank . . .
"A bloody, foolish
prank . . ."
Murdoch's words still
stung and he felt a burn of sudden pain. The worst thing was, the old
man was right. It had been a bloody stupid thing to do and Scott had paid
the price. He pulled himself up short. No time for that now. No time for
distractions. There'd be plenty of time to worry about Murdoch when he
got home and made sure Scott was safe.
They were almost adjacent to the stack now. If he was going to
make a move, it had to be soon. Then suddenly, the Gods were on his side.
A venomous sibilant hissing and Yancy's horse reared in fright. Skittering
backwards in head-tossing panic, as the man was nearly unseated in his
fight to keep control. An angry Diamondback - rising up on it's coils. Tail
erect and shaking furiously as it reacted aggressively to the huge intruders
in his territory.
Johnny didn't waste a second. Digging his heels into the palomino's
ribs as he drove towards the pile of boulders. His action was totally
unexpected and the pony was at a flat run almost before they realised he
was breaking for it.
He hunched in low over Barranca's neck, hearing the inevitable
shout behind him as the palomino lengthened his stride. The ground was
a rocky blur and dangerous. Scattered with stones and dips that flashed
by below him as he grit his teeth, sweat dripping down his face. Expecting
to feel the thump of a bullet in his back, grimly intent on getting
behind the stack of boulders so he could put them between him and the
Cullen's before heading for the safety of the trees.
He heard the spit and whine of the bullets, or thought he did.
At least he heard the reports as they jumped and scattered off the ground
around him. Driving Barranca like a spear and bending even lower Comanche
style as he leaned in close to the pony's side and prayed.
'Not far . . . not far now.'
He reached the stack with a surge of fierce joy. Raising his head
cautiously to risk a look back over his shoulder as he heard a yell, a
volley of shots, but none of them even came near him. He flashed in behind
the column of rocks, out of their firing line now, and focused on the
fringe of trees ahead.
Suddenly, running at full gallop, he saw the hidden ravine before
him. A rocky gouge with scrubby brush and solid rock beneath. He sawed
back urgently on the reins as the ground vanished before his very eyes. He
was almost at the lip of the crevasse now. Trying desperately to slow down,
to stop the palomino's headlong flight, but their impetus was too great.
Wheeling the pony at
the last minute, he lost his grip on the saddle and felt himself go over
head first. His fingers clawed frantically for holds as he hurtled painfully
against the sides of the ravine and bounced off a rocky outcrop. Crashing
through some sharp brush as he fell headlong into the darkness and hit
the ground with bone-jarring impact. The light hazed before his eyes.
Spinning and receding in a spiralling pinwheel of brilliant white. Then
the darkness flooded in.
* * * * * * * *
Next Afternoon . .
Scott regarded his father
in shocked silence, face almost as white as his pillows while Murdoch's
voice faltered to a halt.
"There was no point moving on after dark. The trail had long since
gone cold, so we pitched camp and tried picking it up again at first
"Why wasn't I told?"
"We didn't . . . I didn't want to worry you. There was a good chance
we'd find them and bring Johnny home before . . ."
"Before what?" Countered Scott, a hint of cold anger in his tone.
"Before I discovered Johnny had sacrificed himself in my place?" He
shifted painfully in the bed, grimacing involuntarily as his heavily bandaged
shoulder failed to support him. "So what happens now?"
Murdoch sighed, keeping a tight rein on his own as yet nameless
fears. Staring unseeingly at the pattern on the counterpane as he ran through
the list of platitudes. For his benefit, or for Scott's? He wasn't really
"I've got men out there combing the hill-country. We know they
headed north. The tracks we did find led towards the San Benitos and
Cipriano knows that country like the back of his hand."
"So what if he does," barked Scott, his feelings betraying him
now. "It's a vast area. You know how rugged it is, how easy it is to
hide in those mountains."
"Easy Scott," Murdoch looked up sharply. "We'll find him . . .
we 'will' find Johnny. And we have to assume this man Spencer will contact
us - contact your grandfather, once he arrives. That at least buys Johnny
"Not if they discover they have the wrong Lancer." Scott turned
his head miserably into his pillow. "He's of no use to themthen . . .
Oh Johnny, you fool!"
Murdoch swallowed hard. Scott had just voiced his own blackest
fear. He placed a clumsy hand on Scott's tousled hair. "Johnny's no fool,
son. I've never met anyone sharper or more adept at using his wits.
He's been in dangerous situations before . . ."
"Not in my name," said Scott angrily. " I can't believe he went
along with them in my name. Did he really think I'd thank him for it?"
"He did it for you -
to keep you safe," said Murdoch, remembering the accusation Teresa had
flung at him earlier, with a sharp stab of pain. "Perhaps he did it in
his own name. For love."
Scott stared back at him miserably, a wealth of frustration and
anguish in his eyes. " I won't let him die for me, Murdoch. I . . . I
couldn't bear it."
"He won't, " said Murdoch fiercely. "We'll search until we find
him and wait for your grandfather to arrive . . ." He frowned grimly.
"And then maybe, we might just get some answers."
* * * * * * * *
Harlan Garrett climbed down from the stage. Impervious to the men
struggling with his baggage as he stood in the dusty street and looked
around him with undisguised distaste. The place had not changed in the year
since he'd last seen it. It was still a dirt-covered, Godforsaken hellhole
How could Scott stand it?
The heat, dust, and lack basic amenities. They were an anathema
to him. They should have been an anathema to his grandson too. Incomparable
to the advantages of Boston, the civilisation and facilities the Eastern
city had to offer. It was incomprehensible to him. One of life's mysteries
that Scott should apparently prefer his life out here with that damned
raw-boned Scot and his half-breed transgression.
"Mister Harlan Garrett?"
He turned impatiently to the speaker. White shirt, black tie. Small
wire-framed glasses. A telegraph operator? "I have a telegram for you,
Sir. To be delivered immediately upon your arrival."
He'd guessed correctly then. Taking it curtly from the man's hand,
and nodding to Loder standing discreetly with the luggage. "See to the
Loder nodded obediently.
Tipping the Telegraph Operator, and waiting patiently whilst his master
unfolded the flimsy piece of paper.
"Dear God . . . that bloody fool of a Scot! I warned him, by God.
I told him to protect him . . ."
Garrett's face drained of all colour, and for a moment Loder thought
he might collapse. Putting his arm out reflexively to catch him, but
Garrett knocked it brusquely aside.
"Take the luggage in to the hotel, then find me some reliable transport.
We have no time to lose."
Loder hesitated, watching as Garrett re-read the telegram. Sharp
eyes dissecting every word as he looked for anything that could be of
use to him, anything that might give him an edge. Loder knew his master
of old and Garrett was the most thorough man he'd ever come across.
"May I venture to ask Sir, Master Scott . . . "
Garrett paused, and for a moment his eyes were shadowed with fear.
"That madman Spencer has him. Murdoch Lancer failed to keep him safe
. . . well, what the hell are you waiting for, man? I need to get out
to that damned ranch."
He waited in the hotel lobby. Looking around him with remembered
disgust at the lack of luxury, the shabby furnishings. The bright Mexican
influence of vibrancy and colour was everywhere. But there were bad
memories lurking for him here. Memories of his last disastrous foray
West to reclaim his grandson. He'd thought his plan foolproof. Banking
on Scott's inherent decency as he'd used a two-pronged attack to draw him
home again. But it had failed spectacularly, and he'd almost lost the
boy for good. Those treacherous Deegan brothers had double crossed him.
Greedy as well as stupid when they'd made a bungled ambush attempt to rob
him, shooting Scott in the process.
Scott . . .
He'd been a fool to entrust
his safety to Murdoch Lancer. He should have followed his instinct and
used his not inconsiderable influence to send men out here to do it for
him. To keep Scott out of Spencer's hands. His stomach tightened with fear
again. The situation was sliding away from him, spiralling out of his grasp.
It was not a scenario he was used to. Controlling and manipulating every
aspect of his life, his business dealings and contracts. Reluctant to relinquish
any element of trust to his subordinates, to turn his back for a moment
on those he barely trusted to run his company alongside him.
Scott was the only person since Catherine, other than Catherine,
to enter his barren heart. His marriage had been one of convenience.
A cold, arranged affair between two people with different goals. He'd
been dutifully relieved when Adelaide had died a few years after giving
birth to Catherine, wondering how such a merry-hearted child could have
been a product of their stilted union.
But then Lancer had taken her from him. That dour, graceless Scot,
with nothing but his empty purse and a sack load of dreams had waltzed
into her life and whisked her away. To this day, he could scarcely believe
it. That she should relinquish all his hopes for her, his plans - his
It hadn't taken long for his worse predictions to assert themselves.
Life out West hadn't suited her delicate constitution, even Lancer had
admitted that. The heat dust, and hostile land had worn her down. Sucked
her spirit dry. It had killed her. Or rather Murdoch Lancer had killed
her. Too busy chasing his own rainbows to see what it was doing to his
Garrett sighed restlessly. Taking a sip of the benighted excuse
they called whisky out here, and staring broodily into the bottom of the
glass. He would never forgive Lancer. He never could. The only good thing
to come out of the whole sorry fiasco had been Scott. His Scotty.
And he'd taken him back East with him. Determined the harsh country
and that God-damned Scot would not deprive him of the only thing he had
left. The golden child who'd brought light and sunshine back into his
life - hope for the future, for Garrett Enterprises.
Unfolding the telegram, he read the curt words again. Spencer.
Spencer had Scott. His knuckles tightened white, hands shaking slightly.
He was to ride out unaccompanied, to a specified point. To give himself
up in exchange for Scott's life. But Garrett was no fool, and under no
illusions. If it was just a question of wanting him dead, Spencer would
have found that relatively easy to arrange back in Boston. There
were plenty of men willing to cut a person's throat for a few dollars -
no awkward questions asked. So why would the man go to all these elaborate
lengths unless he wanted more?
He thought back to the
Board Meeting with an uncanny flash of insight. What was it Spencer had
mine, I will repay, saith the Lord."
And Scott - his beloved
Scott, was to be the tool of that vengeance. An unwitting pawn in a madman's
* * * * * * * *
Johnny opened his eyes slowly. Drifting with the tide. Content
just to lie and let it take him where it chose as the pain in his skull
throbbed and surged in rhythm with the blood in his veins. His fingers
closed on sand . . .
'What was he doing out in the open?'
It was hard, so hard to think. To get past the barrier of hurting
in his head. Easier just to drift - to float on the tide.
"No you don't, boy."
A voice, unfamiliar and yet . . . He opened his eyes again. Forcing
them to remain open this time as he looked straight up and saw a star.
Bright white. Clear above him and hazy round the edges as his vision tried
to sharpen. He lay perfectly still for several more minutes hoping the
star would not go away.
When it didn't, he moved his head then wished he hadn't. Red hot
needles of pain lancing down through the top of his skull as the star
swung drunkenly in the sky and threatened to crash down on him.
His stomach heaved as the world tip-tilted. Struggling up onto
his side to retch miserably in the dust, someone supporting his head
and shoulders as he did so. He shuddered convulsively, waiting as the
nausea eased and becoming aware of other newer torments, as he broke out
in a film of sweat.
His neck was stiff and his head felt blindingly heavy. He was one
great morass of pain. He'd fallen . . . Memories struggling in an inchoate
tangle of threads as he tried his best to recall what had happened to
him and why.
"Scott . . .?" The name on his lips, unbidden.
"Well, at least you remember your name." That voice again. There
was nothing menacing about it, and yet . . .
He forced himself to
focus. To work it out in reversal, one step at a time. He'd fallen. The
shock and loss of control, an instantaneous surging of fear and agony
as his body had crashed and bounced off solid rock. Running - he'd been
on Barranca and running for his life, trying to escape!
It came back to him then, all of it.
Amos Spencer and the Cullen brothers. Scott's life in danger because
of something Harlan Garrett had done to Spencer's son. They thought he
was Scott . . .
His heart jolted with terror. Had he inadvertedly betrayed Scott,
let slip he was the wrong brother? His eyelids fluttered wearily as the
words rose up to mock him. The wrong brother, the wrong son.
'Madre de Dios,' he was already responsible for Scott's accident,
for Murdoch's justifiable anger and disappointment. He couldn't let either
of them down again. Not when Scott's life was at stake!
"Come on, man. I know you're awake."
He looked up into Spencer's face. Still a little blurry round the
edges, but it was bearable to keep his eyes open now and he forced a sardonic
grin. "Damn - and I thought you were a bad dream."
Spencer smiled grimly back at him. "Nearly one you didn't wake
up from. It's too soon for that, would have been too easy."
Johnny swallowed hard. Throat raw with retching and relief. They
still thought he was Scott then. There was still a chance he could save
his brother's life.
"Panicked. One of the Cullen's is looking for it now."
Johnny exhaled carefully. So far then, fate had been good to him.
He remembered the leather pulling through his hands, his muscles popping
and straining as he'd fought to save the palomino from it's headlong rush
to edge of the ravine. Terrified he'd left it too late, that the horse
had followed him over and crashed down onto the rocks below. He blanked the
thought from his mind, glad at least Barranca was alright.
He looked around him cautiously and took better stock of his surroundings.
It was night. The sky a rich shade of cobalt blue deepening into blackness.
He 'd been laid on a bedroll near the entrance of a cave and nearby,
someone had lit a fire. The dancing flames threw eerie shadows up on
the pink-stoned walls in a nightmarish flicker of dark blood red.
He ached all over. Especially his left knee and hipbone, his collarbone
on the same side. That must have been how he'd landed, or maybe he'd bounced
extra hard off the wall on his way down. He just couldn't seem to remember.
So close, he'd been so close. But it was no good crying over spilt
milk and he'd have to make the best of things and revise his strategy.
Play along and make them keep believing he was Scott. He felt weak and
oddly shaky, like a feather on the wind. His head was the worst, throbbing
and spinning every time he moved, making it hard to think or speak. A concussion
at least. A fracture maybe?
He had to keep his wits about him. Had to stay in control. Apart
from anything else, he was under no illusions regarding this charade.
The minute they discovered he wasn't Scott, his usefulness was ended.
As Johnny Lancer he was worthless to them - but as Scott, he still stood
the ghost of a chance.
'Chance of what?' Whispered a small dissident voice in his aching
head. That Murdoch would reach him before Spencer tipped completely over
into madness? Exacting revenge on the man he blamed for the loss of his
son. A man named Harlan Garrett.
He shivered suddenly, teeth beginning to chatter as shock settled
into his battered body and he hunched against the cold.
"Here." Spencer crouched beside him again. Pulling the bedroll
up to his chin, and helping him none to gently onto his relatively uninjured
right side. "Coffee's fresh. Get some inside you, it'll ward off the
He held a tin mug up
to Johnny's lips, and watched as he took it gratefully. Gulping back
some of the scalding liquid, desperate for its warmth and recklessly regardless
of the brief lurch of nausea it caused.
"G . . . gracias."
Johnny eased back onto the bedroll. Closing his eyes against the
tilting any such movement created and trying to lie as still as possible.
He sensed Spencer had remained at his side. Squatting on his heels as
he regarded him silently, consideringly.
Johnny sighed. "Spit it out, hombre."
"Just that. You speak Spanish like it's second nature to you, yet
you were raised in Boston. There's no trace of an East Coast accent or
inflection to your speech."
Johnny tensed. He had to be careful here. Play his cards right,
or the game would be lost. "Just how much do you know about my family,
Spencer? About the way I was raised?"
"As much as I need to, that you're Garrett's grandson. The only
thing he cares about in the whole damn world. He doesn't think much of
your father, though."
Johnny smiled in spite of himself. "Reckon you can say that again.
Never forgave the old man for marryin' his daughter . . ." He paused,
measuring his words out slowly. "My childhood wasn't easy. Felt like
I was alone most of the time. When Murdoch Lancer - when my father sent
for me after all these years, it seemed like a second chance. A fresh start.
I guess I was glad to take it. To put my past behind me and look ahead
to the future."
And yet again it was no word of a lie, he thought ironically. He
was certainly speaking for himself, and maybe for Scott too. His brother
had allowed him snatches and fragments of his life as a child in Boston.
A life of wealth and privilege with everything money could buy, but a
life of some loneliness too. Surrounded by servants, a Nanny, a Personal
Tutor; then when he was older, sent away to boarding school with a manservant.
Given every luxury that old man Garrett could afford, but watching wistfully
from his gilded cage as other children had chased each other shrieking through
Spencer sat back on the
ground, knees cracking as he stretched them out in front of him with a
grunt of discomfort. "The war can't have been easy. I lost my eldest son
- Mike . . ."
Johnny looked down, voice whisper soft. "War's a terrible thing,
Mister Spencer. No man should ever have to know it. Still feels like
I'm fightin' mine sometimes . . . I'm sorry about your boy."
But it was the wrong thing to say, and Spencer flooded with a surge
of bitter memories, his body tensing with anguish. "Which one, Lancer?
Mike? Or David, the one murdered by your grandfather. You said it yourself.
A fresh start, a second chance at life. Harlan Garrett's taken everything
from me. Everything I worked for all my life, every single thing I had
left. That greedy, evil old man . . ." His voice trembled then hardened,
as he got abruptly back to his feet. "He's not getting away with it this
time. Money, position, powerful friends - they're no good to him out here.
He's going to suffer for what he's done. I will make him pay!"
"How Spencer? How's he gonna pay?"
Johnny raised himself up on his right elbow ignoring the wave of
pain in his temples and the jarring ache of his bones. He'd thought he'd
was making some ground, getting somewhere. But any chance he had of softening
Spencer up was vanished like dust in the wind.
Spencer turned his back on him. Form silhouetted against the night
sky as he stood at the entrance to the cave and gazed unseeingly across
the wild terrain.
"He's going to know how it feels to lose the only thing he loves.
The only thing left in the whole wide world." His voice thickened and
died away. Johnny knew then he was weeping. "And when he knows how it feels,
knows the pain of it for himself . . . well then, Scott - I'll kill him
with my own two hands."
* * * * * * * *
"You may as well go to
bed, darling." Murdoch looked across at the brown-haired girl standing
motionless in the window. She'd been there for nearly half an hour now.
Watching the white ribbon of road winding out towards the gateway for any
sign of riders.
"Cipriano won't be back this late. They must have pitched camp
up in the mountains. For all we know, they've already found him . . .
But he knew in his heart they hadn't, and he knew she knew it too.
The hours ticked by with excruciating slowness. There'd been no word
from Cipriano, and no word from Spencer. It was as though Johnny had
vanished from the face of the earth.
He tried not to think of the way they'd parted. But it came back
to disturb him with accusatory reproach, the memory of his anger like
a dagger in his heart. Yearning to be out there with Jelly and Cipriano
- combing the San Benitos for Johnny, searching for his son. But someone
had to stay here to keep Scott safe, to wait and meet with Harlan Garrett.
The dagger twisted even harder. This was all Garrett's doing. The
man and his devious machinations. Would they never be rid of him, never
be free of his chains?
The man had haunted him almost since first setting foot on these
shores. Dogged his footsteps like a malignant shadow, a vengeful spectre.
Deep in his soul, he'd always blamed Garrett for Catherine's death, just
as Garrett had always blamed him. If the old man hadn't moved her when
she was so weak, so heavy with child . . . But there was no point dwelling
on 'what might have been'. Not when 'what was', was so potentially devastating.
Johnny - Johnny was out there with a man who according to Jelly,
had lost his very soul.
What in God's name had possessed him to do such a foolish, quixotic
thing? Such a brave thing. Murdoch knew it was a no win situation. Spencer
was determined to take his revenge on Harlan Garrett's grandson and if
he discovered he'd been deceived, Johnny's life would be worth less than
a plugged nickel. Murdoch looked up dully at Teresa. She hadn't so much
"Teresa . . . "
"I can't," she said wanly.
"There's no point asking me to. Besides, it's only just got dark."
He got up from the chair. Crossing the room to her side and placing
a massive hand on her shoulder as he joined in with her vigil.
"I know you blame me in part for this . . ."
She stiffened fractionally beneath his hand. Dismay in his heart,
and a slight sense of panic at the thought of losing her support. It was
the one thing in his life he could count on, one thing that was always
there for him, unswerving in her love and encouragement. She had always
been his advocate, his staunchest ally through thick and thin. The thought
of losing her as a result of his own blind, bull-headedness was like crossing
some kind of personal Rubicon.
Almost as nightmarish as the thought of losing Johnny.
His grip tightened on her shoulder. Trying to hold onto her physically
as well as mentally. Unaccustomed and alien tears blurring his vision
as he looked down at the top of her sweet head.
"I was wrong, Teresa. God knows, I was wrong. I . . . I'd do anything
to tell him so, to have him safely home."
"I'm so afraid, Murdoch." Her voice was lost to him - distant.
"I have a feeling I'll never see Johnny again. That this time, he won't
be coming home to us."
His own voice froze in the back of his throat. "No, Sweetheart.
You mustn't think that - mustn't say it. Johnny's smart and he's tough,
Johnny's . . ."
"A man, Murdoch. He's just a man, only human. He can be hurt, God
knows, we've seen that. He can bleed, he can die!"
She took a step away from him then. Burying her face in her hands
as she started to cry. And he watched her, powerless and incapable of
comforting her, stricken when confronted by her grief.
A flicker out of the
corner of his eye, and he looked up dazedly. Heart lifting then falling,
as he saw the dark shape of a buck board approaching along the pale driveway.
He knew who it was at once. Some deep inner instinct divining it was Harlan
Garrett before he could even tell how many passengers there were. Teresa
had seen it now. Noting the grim expression on his face, and drawing her
"It's him, isn't it?"
"Garrett." The name like a curse on his lips. "You'd better go
. . ."
"I'll see if Scott is awake."
He nodded down at her. Watching as she wiped away her fears and
pinched some colour back into her chalk-white cheeks. Putting on a brave
face for Scott, shelving her own pain to save his as she headed through
the archway towards the stairs.
Murdoch turned blindly to the French windows as the buck board
rolled to a halt. As the man responsible for this whole deadly mess stepped
down from the wagon and stood for a second in front of the hacienda, turning
his face to the light. Murdoch froze, shocked by the bitterness he saw
etched there. The haggard lines of pain. This was not a Garrett he knew.
He took a deep breath, moving across to the sideboard to pour himself
a drink as he waited for Isidro to show the man in. Looking up as Garrett
came slowly down the steps into the room. The man looked as pleased to
be here as he was to have him. Face grey with fatigue and weary with miles
of travel. Murdoch indicated the array of bottles and decanters, not wasting
any time with false preliminaries.
"Brandy, a large one."
Murdoch did as bid. Indicating a chair by the fireplace as he poured
the golden liquid into a glass and took it across. Sitting opposite
on the end of the sofa as both men regarded each other warily.
"So . . ." Garrett's
voice was hard, brittle. "In spite of my warning, in spite of everything
- that madman Spencer managed to take my grandson."
Murdoch looked up in shock. This was unexpected and totally out
of the blue. "How do you know that?"
"This." Garrett took the telegram from his breast pocket and placed
it on the table beside him. "Spencer at least, was good enough to keep
Murdoch stared dully at the piece of cheap paper, a deep pain somewhere
in the centre of his chest. "What does it say?"
"I'm to go alone to a designated place of rendezvous." His mouth
curled into a disdainful sneer. "With ten thousand dollars of course.
Spencer's sanctimonious desire for revenge doesn't seem to preclude accepting
a ransom sum."
Murdoch nodded slowly. "And you have the money on you?"
Garrett smiled nastily. "Afraid I'll ask you to chip in?"
Murdoch snapped his head up quickly. "Do you think I wouldn't?
That's my son out there."
"And my grandson. Whom you failed to protect."
Their eyes locked and held. Murdoch was tempted, so tempted not
to tell the man the truth, but God, he couldn't do it. There was too much
at stake here to base on a foundation of deception and lies. Taking a
weary sip of his whisky, he smiled back laconically.
"You're right. I did fail to protect him. I misjudged Spencer's
determination, and my own son's courage. For that alone, I deserve to be
censured. But I'm not the one who set this whole sorry chain in motion.
What did you do, Harlan? What happened to make a man like Spencer resort
Garrett looked away from him then. Sliding his eyes towards the
fire and staring into the heart of the flames. "It was business. The man's
a bad loser . . ."
"What did you do?"
"He's been a thorn in
my flesh for years. There were some shipping contracts I'd wanted for a
long time . . . " He took a mouthful of his brandy. "Suffice to say, I
acquired his Company. Persuaded his son to sign over half the shares. The
rest was easy. Spencer had mismanaged things since the end of the war
and it was ripe for a buy out. But . . ."
Garrett shook his head slightly, as if absolving himself of all
blame. "The son committed suicide. Couldn't face up to his weaknesses,
his failures. Hung himself from the balustrade in Spencer's own house,
and of course, Spencer blames me for it. Nothing to do with the fact his
son was a . . . well, that doesn't matter now."
"My God." Murdoch's voice trembled softly with anger. "Just business?
The man lost his son!" The words cut at him. Deeply ironic, irrefutably
cruel. Johnny . . .
He looked across at Garrett with disgust. "No wonder he hates you.
If any man - any man, took one of my sons from me, there'd be no place
on earth he could hide."
There was a moment's silence, broken only by the sonorous ticking
of the clock. The crackle and spit of the fire. Each man absorbed with
his own troubled thoughts. Murdoch spoke first, knowing the time had come
to be honest but dreading it nonetheless.
"Are you prepared to do it?"
"How can you ask?" Garrett looked up angrily. "How dare you. No
one loves Scott more than I do, I raised him. He means more to me than
. . ." His voice broke for the first time, and in the firelight's dancing
shadows he looked worn and bowed with sudden defeat.
Murdoch nodded, wrestling his own agonising demons as he took a
hard breath. "It's not Scott, Harlan. He doesn't have him. Scott's upstairs
recovering from a riding accident. Spencer took Johnny by mistake, and
Johnny . . . well, that love you were just talking about, Johnny went along
with it to protect his brother. To keep him safe. . . "
His own voice faltered then. Throat thickening and swelling with
uncontrollable pain as he was rendered speechless by his grief.
Garrett was speechless
too. Face sagging with incredible joy as for a moment, his features were
stripped naked of all emotion. Fingers tightening convulsively round
his glass as he started forward in his chair.
"Not Scott . . . do you mean to tell me Spencer doesn't have my
"No," said Murdoch gruffly. "He has my son."
"Where is he? Where's Scott?"
Murdoch studied him with grim acceptance. This then, was no more
or less than he'd expected from the man. Foolish to find that even now,
a small part of him felt disappointed. After all these years he should
know better, he'd had ample proof of the kind of man Garrett was. And yet,
he was Catherine's father, Scott's grandfather . . .
"What about Johnny?"
The words were said softly, but with a hint of steel behind them.
A challenge that fell between the two men like a gauntlet in the snow.
Garrett put his empty glass down on the side table.
"That's up to you. He's not my problem."
"Wrong," grated Murdoch, voice shaking with suppressed anger. "Spencer
took Johnny because of you and your amoral dealings. I lost my wife
because of you, my son for most of his life . . . I won't let you take
Johnny from me."
Garrett shook his head, equilibrium almost returned now. "Spencer
must have realised by now he's made an error. How anyone could mistake
Scott for that . . ."
"That what, Harlan?"
Garrett hesitated. The
menace in Murdoch's tone was unmistakeable. Shadows hollowing his craggy
face, making it hooded and implacable.
"That son of yours," finished Garrett lamely. "The boy's a Mexican.
As different from Scotty as chalk from cheese. Inconceivable Spencer should
ever imagine he was my grandson. It's just another example of the man's
foolishness," he paused and shook his head a second time. "But it means
Scott's still in danger. Once he realises he has the wrong son, he'll come
after him again . . ." He looked up in alarm. "In that event, I trust
you've taken adequate precautions?"
"Scott's safe." Murdoch watched as Garrett settled back in his
chair. "But you haven't answered my question, Harlan. What about Johnny?"
"I came out here to protect my grandson." Garrett's eyes narrowed.
Fingers steepling together as the man ran rapidly over his options.
"From what I've seen and heard so far, it's lucky I did. You're clearly
not capable of doing an adequate job."
"Are you refusing to meet Spencer?"
Garrett smiled dismissively. "There's no need for me to. That ball's
in your court now, Murdoch. John Madrid is your problem. But then again,
he always was, wasn't he?"
* * * * * * * *
Dawn. Clear and beautiful
as the first time. A hint of chill in the golden air. Johnny leant awkwardly
against the wall at the mouth of the cave, and looked out across the landscape.
To his right, the banks sloped gently upward. Now and then, a leafy cottonwood,
or bunch of brush amongst the scattered rose-coloured rocks.
The view down the cut was similar. A superb vantage point. Any
one approaching would be seen from hundreds of yards away. Venn Cullen
had chosen this place with care. A movement, and he could see Yancy returning.
Hope leaping in his heart as he saw the man was not leading Barranca.
"Mi bonito compadre . . . "
A few seconds of brief elation at the thought of the palomino running
free. Pride in his cleverness at eluding capture; cleverer than his master,
Johnny thought ruefully, a wall of frustration inside him again. He wasn't
capable of making it more than a couple dozen yards.
The sun was rising red and bright, breaking through a notch between
the mountains. There was a sweet dry tang in the air, the distant tree-tops
mauve against the sky. He breathed appreciatively. Still able to admire
the beauty despite the precariousness of his own deadly situation.
Venn Cullen had seen his brother now, moving past Johnny to the
mouth of the cave. Spencer still lay rolled and sleeping in his blankets.
Worn out by all the unaccustomed exercise, and powerful emotion.
"You took yo' time, boy."
"Aint no sign of him, Venn. Looked me high an' low, but tracks
was the devil to follow."
"Hell. We don't need thet cayuse roamin' loose - runnin' into anyone
who might be lookin' . . ."
He caught sight of Johnny's grin. Squatting on his heels and thrusting
his face menacingly up against him. "What - smilin' agin, boy? All thet
happiness gon' git yuse in trouble one day. Yo' aint got no cause to be
smilin', not after we broke our backs haulin' yuse outta thet gulch."
Johnny met his gaze unflinchingly.
"The offer's still open, Cullen. You get me back, my old man'll double
what Spencer's payin' you."
Cullen looked at him speculatively, eyes narrowed. "You take me
fer some kinda fool, boy? This here's sure-fire money. I take yo' back,
all thet's waitin' fer me an' Yancy is a rope with our name on it."
Johnny shifted painfully, and tried to ignore the pounding in his
head. "Not necessarily. You got my word."
"Thet don't mean nuthin' to me."
"And his does?" There was a hint of frustration back in his tone.
"The man he's up against . . . my grandfather, he's one of the most powerful
men on the East Coast. This aint some range war you've stumbled into this
time, you're in way over your heads. I know my grandfather, he don't give
"Yo'd best hope he does."
Johnny shrugged painfully, unable to help a short grunt of discomfort
as his collarbone hitched for a second. Broken, he thought wryly. Definitely
"I also know my old man. It's like I said - he'll pay you. Pay
you good if you get me back."
Cullen was quiet for a while, face sharp and creased with cunning.
"What's Spencer payin' you?"
Venn chewed his lip. Staring up at Yancy who was watching the proceedings
in silence, a greedy look on his face.
"Y'oughta think on it,
Venn. It's a lot of money. Almost a thou . . ."
"Shut yo' mouth, Yancy. Shut yo' damn mouth!"
Venn sprang to his feet, pushing Yancy back against the wall of
the cave. His knuckles whitening as his fists clenched on his brother's
shirt-front, holding him suspended for at least five seconds. Johnny saw
the rage in him. His own muscles tense and guarded, every instinct screaming
alert as he waited for the violence that filled the very air. He held
his breath for another second, then Venn let Yancy go.
"Git out, Dummy. See to yo' horse. I'll take care of this."
He turned back to Johnny. "Mebbe there's somethin' in what yo'
say. The old man won't go fer it though, he's hell bent on hangin' yuse."
Johnny exhaled slowly. "I'm no use to you dead."
Venn smiled unpleasantly. "I'm no fool, Lancer. I aint about to
take yo' back on trust. But yo' kinda sowed a seed in my head with thet
ransom idea. Kinda makes more sense then sittin' around on our behind's
and waitin' fer what Spencer'll pay us. Darn sight more reward in it, too."
He looked across at the sleeping man. "Course, he's the problem
"What will you do?" Johnny's gut tightened with apprehension. This
wasn't what he wanted, not what he'd planned when he'd raised the stakes
Cullen laughed softly. "Don't yo' worry none, boy. I'm gonna give
me some thought on this. Yo' pray hard enough, yo' might not end up at
the end of no rope . . ." His face hardened. "If yo' lyin' 'bout yo' daddy,
I swear it might be worse!"
* * * * * * * *
Scott shifted restlessly,
trying to find a position, any position that might ease his aching leg.
He could see the hills from his bed. Watching as the dawn rose across
the peaks in a herald of spectacular colour, the outline fading from blue
to pale mauve as his eyes were drawn inevitably back to them again and
again. Johnny was out there somewhere. Alone with a madman bent on revenge.
He moved again, every cell screaming with frustration. Damning
the moment he'd challenged Charlie and attempted to take that wall.
Funny how life had a habit of playing dirty tricks on you. Of turning
the tables and taking the hand.
Part of him felt so bitter with Johnny, so angry. Who the hell
was his brother to take such a step in his name? To be presumptive enough
to leave him here with nothing but a burden of worry and guilt. He could
hardly bear it. The thought of Johnny suffering in his name . . . even
dying in it. It was more than he could stand.
There was a soft tap at the door and Teresa came in. Still in her
dressing gown, hair dishevelled in a dark cloud round her head. He looked
at her closely and saw she'd been crying. Eyes red-rimmed and swollen,
lashes matted together in clumps. He held out his hand to her. Their fingers
clasping gratefully, as she sat in the chair at his bedside and lifted her
"You have to talk to him, Scott."
He infused his words with a comfort he was far from feeling. "He's
doing everything he can, Teresa . . ."
"No," she lifted up her head and looked him squarely in the eye.
"Your grandfather arrived last night while you were asleep. He's in the
west wing. I . . . I overheard him talking to Murdoch . . . "
She felt his muscles tighten and become still. "And when was I
supposed to know this?"
She regarded him unhappily. "He did look in on you last night when
you were sleeping. Murdoch didn't want to wake you."
"Considerate of him."
Scott's tone was bone dry.
"But that's not the point," she continued, voice faltering. "When
your grandfather found out they took Johnny not you, he refused to help.
Said it was none of his business . . ." She pulled her fingers from his;
getting restlessly to her feet and moving across to the window. "Maybe
I shouldn't be telling you this - Murdoch will probably be so angry with
me. But I had to, Scott. If anyone can persuade Harlan Garrett to help Johnny,
than you can."
She paused, turning for the first time to look properly at the
man in the bed. Immediately chastened as she saw his white frozen face.
The lines of anxiety etched round his mouth.
"Oh Scott, I'm so sorry. I . . . I shouldn't have said anything
to worry you. I'm just so afraid."
"No," he said quietly. "I have a right to know. There's a lot at
stake here, Teresa. Johnny's life, my name. Thanks for not keeping me
in the dark."
But she was frowning now. Peering perplexedly out of the window
as she watched a buck board come bouncing down the long drive. Two of the
vaqueros standing guard moved out to intercept it, escorting it up to
"There's another visitor, a man."
"Anyone we know?" Scott felt a sudden surge of hope, but he knew
he was clutching at straws.
"No," she shook her head sadly. "A stranger. Looks like a lawyer
or a business man of some kind. Wonder what he wants so early?"
* * * * * * * *
The man was shown into
the library. Lingering beside the bookcase and examining the extensive
collection with some surprise. Everything from Austen to Emerson, Melville
to Twain. He grimaced at one title; 'A handbook of Animal Husbandry',
moving quickly on through others regarding veterinary medicine, and agricultural
techniques. Exclaiming with delight as he came across a volume of Coleridge's
works and sliding it out to look for his favourite in the index.
"You like Coleridge, Sir?"
The tone made him jump. Looking up at the huge man who'd entered
through an archway with a surprisingly quiet tread. He inclined his
" 'Frost at Midnight.' It's my favourite poem . . . " He closed
the book with a snap. Pushing it back onto the shelf, and looking frankly
at his host. "Mister Lancer, I presume?"
"You presume correctly. And there you have me at a disadvantage."
The man nodded again, wasting no time with preamble. "My name is
Edward Moffat. I have come to warn you, Sir."
Murdoch became very still. Running his eyes over his visitor, from
the neatly parted grey hair, down to the flawlessly shiny shoes. Clipped
English accent, and intelligent face.
"Warn me about what?"
Moffat sighed slightly, turning the brim of his hat between his
hands as he tried to read the expression of the man in front of him. "I
work for a man called Amos Spencer . . . "
He didn't get any further. Eyes starting out of his head as Murdoch
pulled a revolver from beneath his waistcoat and thumbed back the hammer
with a loud click.
"Where's my son - is he alive?"
Moffat recovered at once.
Staring calmly but unhappily back at the gun and standing as still as
he could. "Then I fear I'm already too late. Please allow me to explain."
Murdoch nodded, face closed and grim. "It had better be good."
"I'm Mister Spencer's manservant. I've worked for him since 1858
- came out here after the Indian Mutiny . . . that's her Majesty's India,
Sir. I was a Sergeant-Major in the Fusiliers, based in Meerut until the
massacre. My family were slaughtered, and most of my friends. I'd lived
in India so long, there was nothing to go home to, so I thought I'd try
my luck out here instead. Amos Spencer was a good man. Principled, honest.
I watched him build up his father's shipping empire into one of the most
successful on the East Coast . . ." Moffat paused, and sighed. "Then the
war came. The European embargoes, the blockades, naturally Spencer Shipping
lost some trade. And then Master Michael . . ."
"Mister Spencer's eldest son. He was killed during the war, in
'63. His mother died of grief soon after."
Murdoch listened to the whole, sorry story. Keeping the gun level
and primed as he aimed it unwaveringly at Moffat the entire time. Waiting
until the man got to the part he had almost predicted.
"Harlan Garrett knew about Master David. He must have had him followed.
Garrett blackmailed him into signing that document - threatened to tell
his father. And the awful tragedy was that Mister Spencer knew - he'd always
Murdoch lowered the gun slowly. "My God . . ."
The whisper was forced out of him. Whatever his personal thoughts
about Amos Spencer's son, he was stunned with disbelief at Harlan Garrett's
callousness. The man's moral turpitude. No wonder Amos Spencer hated him,
had burned all his bridges and headed west to seek revenge. He wasn't sure
he wouldn't feel the same if someone had set out to systematically
destroy him, had been responsible for the death of his younger son . .
He steadied himself against the side of the desk, heart hardening
as he thought painfully of his own boy. Johnny wasn't involved in any of
this morass of depravity, and yet it was Johnny paying the price. Johnny
- because of his intense love for Scott; his need to keep him safe.
Another reason kept nudging at the fringe of Murdoch's conscience.
One he was forced to acknowledge with a sense of grief and guilt as
he considered his own part in it. Teresa had put it best.
"He already blames himself - far more than you ever could."
Right as always, she'd hit the nail on the head. The lack of self-esteem
that shadowed Johnny. His sense of never quite being good enough. Murdoch
sighed heavily, and looked back up at Moffat.
"That's a powerful set of reasons for revenge. Who's to say I wouldn't
feel the same. But my son is innocent in all this, Spencer is wrong
to have taken him."
Moffat nodded unhappily. "I realise that, Mister Lancer. I'm not
trying to excuse his behaviour, just explain it somewhat. He's a good
man at heart, but he's blinded by pain. Damaged by grief. I'm not sure
he's rational anymore."
"Why are you here?"
Moffat spread his hands helplessly. "I wanted to prevent it, but
I'm obviously too late. I had hoped to take Mister Spencer back to Cape
Cod with me. To care for him properly and stop him from pursuing this course
"Yes," Murdoch inclined his head sharply. "You're too late. The
irony is that Spencer has the wrong man. He took my younger son, Johnny.
And he, I can assure you, is no relation to Harlan Garrett whatsoever!"
"What will you do, Sir?"
Murdoch smiled bitterly. "Harlan Garrett refuses to meet any of
Spencer's terms on Johnny's account. I intend to meet Spencer in his place.
I want my son home safely, Mister Moffat. Care to help me?"
Moffat exhaled in relief. "I was hoping you'd say that, Mister
Lancer. If there's anything I can do to help resolve this satisfactorily
. . ."
Murdoch moved across to the archway and called loudly for Juanita.
"You must be hungry. I'll arrange some breakfast for us. But first of
all, I want to make something very clear to you." He looked Moffat straight
in the eye. "Johnny's life is my priority. If Amos Spencer has to die in
order to ensure my son's safety, I assure you, I won't hesitate."
"I understand . . ."
"Do you?" Murdoch didn't waver in his scrutiny. "Johnny's innocent
in all of this. If anything happens to him . . ."
"I understand." Moffat repeated the words softly. "I promise I'll
do everything I can."
* * * * * * * *
Johnny woke with a jump
from a troubled doze. Disorientated for a few seconds and lost in a cloud
of fog. His mouth was too dry, head too dizzy, wondering for a moment
where he was as the mist began to clear. Memories returned like nightmares
and it was hard, so hard to disassociate the two as he looked into Amos
"Here, drink some water, boy."
Johnny reached for it thirstily. Wincing with a gasp of shock as
his collarbone caught in a fiery hitch of agony. "Gracias . . . thanks."
He must remember not to speak Spanish, he thought hazily. It had
already made Spencer suspicious once, and he didn't want to go that
route again. But it was difficult to focus his thoughts and his head
banged and throbbed with a relentless, repetitive rhythm. The water tasted
wonderful but added to his problems, and he grimaced reluctantly as he
handed the canteen back to Spencer.
"I have to . . . I have to take a walk."
Venn Cullen raised his head behind Spencer's back, and for a brief
second, Johnny saw an unmistakable expression in his eyes. His own instincts
screamed alert as he tried to struggle awkwardly to his feet. Watching
Cullen in dismay as the Texan lowered his head again, the expression
vanished and gone.
"Here," Spencer's voice was gruff. "I'll take you."
He held out his arm as Johnny clutched at it gratefully. Surprised
and more than a little uneasy as his head continued to lurch and swim.
He paused for a second, gathering his strength and regaining his balance.
It was a combination of a cold night and hard ground, he told himself.
Dehydration and lack of food. Then honestly; ' There's something badly
wrong with my head.'
They moved out of the cave and Johnny was amazed to see it was
already late afternoon. The distant peaks of the mountains sunset-flushed
against the blue sky. Sun, pink-tinted and mellow. He was glad of it's
touch upon his skin.
He paused for a second, closing his eyes briefly as he soaked up
the warmth, imagining with a slight tinge of embarrassment it was giving
him back his strength.
"Take your time." Spencer's
voice was surprisingly patient, and typically, had completely the opposite
effect on Johnny as he pulled himself together and took a few more halting
steps. Moving round behind the cave to a boulder-strewn area and looking
over his shoulder with a wry smile.
"I can manage this part for myself."
Spencer waited for him. Looking away, a frown creasing his forehead
as he stared unseeingly at the breathtaking views. He didn't see what
Johnny saw. The beauty and colour meant nothing to him. His heart was cold
and grey as a stone, as heavy in his breast as a lead weight. The richness
around him, the lush palette of rainbow shades and riot of scenery was
almost too much for him to bear. Too vital, too alive. It mocked at him
instead. Everything in his world was monochrome. Bleak as a winter landscape.
Frozen and iron-hard like his soul.
Johnny did up his pants and straightened again. Head groggy as
he put a hand out to the sun-warmed stone. "You need to watch your back."
Spencer looked at him sharply. "Don't get clever with me."
Johnny took a breath. "I'm just sayin' Venn Cullen can't be trusted.
I've seen his kind before, know how they operate. The man's plannin'
on takin' you out and usin' me for ransom."
Spencer laughed shortly. "Tactics, Mister Lancer? Divide and conquer?
I'm a little too long in the tooth to fall for that."
Johnny shrugged. Or at least he would have done if his shoulder
didn't ache so damnably. Catching himself, and fighting for control as
his various bumps and bruises reminded him again of their presence.
"Cullen's a killer. Loyal as a mad dog. He plans on killin' you
and tappin' my old man for money."
"And you know this for sure?"
A small, sardonic smile laced Johnny's lips. "I suggested it, kinda
. . . "
He was gambling now,
and he knew it. Watching Spencer's face carefully as he fought to keep
his vision focused and true. But everything kept blurring round the
edges and it was anything but easy.
"Thought I might be able to persuade the Cullen's to take me back
to Lancer. Said my old man would double whatever you'd promised them .
. . " He paused, and shook his head regretfully. "But it all sorta backfired.
Cullen's got the idea of killin' you and holdin' me to ransom instead."
Spencer was silent for a few seconds, face creased into deep lines
of strain as he pondered Johnny's words. "I ought to kill you now and
"You'd still have to take on the Cullen's."
"Thanks to your meddling. I never should have trusted Bergstrom
. . . "
"Never mind." Spencer spun back round to face him. "How can you
be sure of this?"
"Like I said," repeated Johnny dryly. "I know men like Venn Cullen
and his brother. How they operate, how they think. They're bidin' their
time - but they will kill you, and it's gonna be soon. Most likely tonight."
Spencer took him by surprise then. Grasping hold of his shirt-front
and thrusting him up hard against the side of the rock-face. The world
tip-tilted on it's axis. His shoulder bursting in agony, head lurching in
an explosion of sickening pain as for a second, he nearly lost it. He closed
his eyes as he fought desperately to right himself, to stave off the
clouds of darkness that edged in all around him. Aware of Spencer's voice
in the background, low and menacing. Threaded with all the anger and frustration
he was taking out on him.
"No . . . alto!" The Spanish word was on his lips before he could
bite it back, Scott's face in his head like a talisman as he tried to
weather the storm. Then confusion . . .
"Lancer. Scott Lancer, can you hear me?"
"Scott . . ."
He opened his eyes groggily
and found he was on the ground. Blinking several times, he supposed
he must have passed out for a couple of seconds. He took a shaky breath
and focused back up at Spencer.
"What . . ."
"You must have cracked your head pretty hard when you fell." The
anger still lingered in Spencer's voice, but he knelt awkwardly down
at Johnny's side. "You blanked out for a minute or two."
Johnny pulled his injured arm in across his chest and tried to
struggle to his feet. His swollen knee protested loudly but it was nothing
in comparison to his head, and for a terrifying second, he was afraid
of fainting again.
"Here." Spencer placed an arm beneath his good shoulder. Heaving
him up until his back was leaning against the rock, and stripping off
his wide neckerchief.
Johnny watched through slitted eyes as the man folded it diagonally
into a triangle, and eased it over his injured arm into a tube-shaped
Johnny grit his teeth and nodded carefully. "Some. Thanks."
Spencer sat back on his heels regarding him coldly. "If what you
say is true . . ."
"If what you say is true," Spencer ignored him and continued; "then
you've placed me in a very difficult situation. I needed the Cullen's,
they were part of my plan."
Johnny kept quiet. Partly out of prudence and partly because his
head still hurt too darn much for talking. Fear hovered in the back of
his mind. Fear like the wings of a huge black bird waiting to swoop down
on him, its claws extended to carry him away. He tried resolutely to push
it away, but the image was stubborn and persisted. Growing in stature as
the shadows spread and threatened to engulf him.
Forcing his fears to
one side, he concentrated hard on Spencer's face. Trying to read the
man's eyes and deliberately rolling his shoulder until he felt the bone-ends
shift and catch. He was almost grateful for the shaft of fiery agony,
stifling a gasp as he pulled himself straighter. The pain waking him up
as the darkness retreated for a while.
"They have a plan of their own, Spencer. One that doesn't involve
you or Harlan Garrett."
Spencer looked at him curiously. "Why tell me? What's your motive
in all this?"
Johnny eased himself forward with a grunt, making it to his feet
this time as he steadied himself against the rocks and took a deep breath.
"I told you. I know men like Venn Cullen. He'll kill you and he'll
kill me. His kind don't leave no witnesses. Sides . . ." Johnny looked
him candidly in the eye. " I aint a murderer, Mister Spencer. Wouldn't
want to have your death on my conscience."
Spencer laughed caustically. "Make no mistake about me, Scott.
My plans haven't changed because you're being noble. I need you alive
for now, but only until it's time to meet your grandfather."
Johnny forced his lips into a small dry smile. "I never figured
for a minute they had. I aint much of a gamblin' man, but I do believe
in playin' the odds and it's a dead cert Cullen will kill us both."
"But shorter in your favour if I owe you my life?"
"Maybe . . ." Johnny let his voice trail off in pain and exhaustion.
"Anythin' that buys a bit of time."
Spencer gave a short unexpected bark of laughter. "I don't know
whether to admire your honesty or mock your stupidity. No wonder you couldn't
work for Garrett. The man's a liar and he never tolerated fools gladly.
In fact, it's amazing you're related at all."
Johnny grimaced wryly. "Aint it just," he paused, a sudden sense
of sorrow and irony in his heart. "I guess I'm more like my old man.
Stubborn, and wrong-headed sometimes, but we both have a likin' for the
truth . . ."
His voice stuck on the
lump in his throat. And that in essence was the fact of it. He and Murdoch
were alike in so many ways. Oh, not identical by any means. There was
a lot of his mother's romantic soul inside him. He though of it as a gift
from her, something he had the luxury of indulging more as he got older.
Something that coming home to Lancer had given him. Time and space and
a lot more safety. The freedom to enjoy the beauty of the world around
him, a world he embraced with all his heart.
The perfumed peace of Teresa's garden after a hard day out on the
range. Listening to her tell him about her day with love in his heart,
and peace in his soul. Trying to memorise the names of her beloved plants
as she patiently pointed them out to him, laughing good-naturedly at his
pronunciation of the difficult Latin words. Or sometimes merely sitting there.
Relaxed and side by side in tranquillity. The sun on his face, her hand
on his arm. The drowse of the bees in the golden silence.
He had Teresa to thank for another of his favourite places. The
spot at the head of the valley overlooking Lancer. A huge earth-embracing
vista of green hills and rolling vale, the shining serpent of river bisecting
it. Purple shaded mountains majestic in the distance, tall snow-capped
sentinels like guardians of the land. His land.
The words still thrilled him. It was his birthright - his and Scott's.
A place of beauty and abundance, challenge and allure. Something worth
fighting for, like he'd fought Pardee. Somewhere worth the risking of it
all - of a man's blood, sweat and tears. His heart and soul. He was closer
to understanding his father when he thought about Lancer. What drove
him, what motivated him. The chains that anchored him so resolutely to
Whatever happened to him now, whatever the outcome of this whole
sorry mess, he'd known home and he'd known family. The simple right
of having your own bed to sleep in, a favoured spot by the fire.
Someone who knew how many sugars you took in your coffee, that you liked
your food spicy, your steak underdone. Who tolerated you insisting that
your bedroom window stayed open all day long. Little things, dumb things.
Things most folk took for granted. Things that still meant more to him
than words could ever say.
And that brought him right back round to Murdoch. To the man who
was his father. The twisted, complex game they played. Retreating then
advancing, advancing then retreating. Both afraid, both still angry,
both seeing in the other a mirror of themselves.
'When he got home . . . '
His thoughts stuck and
held as he smiled a little sadly. 'If he got home,' more like. He looked
up to find Spencer still watching him curiously. Shaking himself out of
the reverie, as he limped laboriously back to the cave. Johnny could feel
the tight control of Spencer's anger and sense the man's tension. It radiated
off him in waves.
"You'll keep your mouth shut if you know what's good for you. I'll
deal with the Cullen's, but I'm warning you, Lancer. One false move,
one more word out of turn and you'll be sorry. Very sorry. Is that understood?"
"Si," replied Johnny dryly, relapsing into Spanish in spite of
himself. "Ya lo se - I understand."
* * * * * * * *
Scott submitted stiltedly
to the hug. Trying not to wince as it jolted his shoulder, but more than
a little awkward because of the incongruity of it. As a child, he'd never
been hugged by Harlan Garrett, and as an adult, not even when he'd said
farewell and left on the eve of war.
His grandfather had never favoured physical contact. A hand on his
head, perhaps on his shoulder. Proprietary and proud if he'd done something
well or said something clever, but never a hug, and certainly nothing as
demonstrative as a kiss.
He pulled clumsily away. Aware of Murdoch watching impassively from
the doorway, face etched and immobile with anger and grief.
"Scott - my poor boy. Look at you!"
"I'm fine, Sir, " he muttered quickly. Feeling his face flood with
colour, as he remembered the way Harlan always had of making him feel
ten years old again, mind rising in quick rebellion against it.
"Fine? You don't look fine. . . " Garrett shot Murdoch a cold, accusatory
glance before turning back to Scott. "But at least you're safe. That mad
man Spencer . . ."
"Has Johnny instead of me," finished Scott, trying to keep his voice
as even as possible.
"Yes, yes. Unfortunate." Garrett shook his head. "I've already discussed
that with Murdoch. Spencer will surely realise he's made an extraordinary
mistake and release him soon enough. He's used to fending for himself,
isn't he? To looking after number one. I'm sure he'll be just fine."
"My God!" Scott's voice was quiet, but vibrant with anger. "Teresa
was right. You're not going to do a damn thing to help him, are you?"
Garrett looked up sharply. "There's no need to. Damage limitation,
Scotty. Why pander to a man like Spencer? He'll release Madrid soon enough."
"His name's Lancer," grated Murdoch from the doorway. "Johnny Lancer."
"Does it matter?" Said
Harlan dismissively. "He's probably on his way home right now."
Scott forced himself upright against his pillows, ignoring the ache
in his shoulder. "Oh you think so, do you? Assuming they haven't hurt
him already, that is. Add to that the fact he's been with them, seen their
faces, where they're holding him. Mighty obliging of them to just let him
"Scott's right," said Murdoch matter of factly. "Once they realise
he's not Scott they'll kill him straight away. Johnny will play along with
this charade as long as he can. It's his only way of staying alive."
Garrett sat up a little more rigidly. "But that's good from our
point of view. It means that Scott's safe for now. Or as safe as it's
possible for him to be in this Godforsaken land."
There was a second's taut silence. So tense you could hear a pin
drop. Scott was the first to break it. Eyes narrowing to hide the sudden
rush of pain and disappointment inside him as he beheld the man he still
loved in spite of this - in spite of it all.
"Don't you see? Don't you understand? Safe means nothing tome -
nothing at all if Johnny's in danger. He's my brother and hard as it
may be for you to understand, I love him and I'm not about to let him die
in my name."
"But Scotty . . ."
"No. I'm asking for your help, grandfather. If you love me as you
say you do, you'll go and meet with Spencer. Murdoch will ensure your
safety but you 'will' do this. If you don't - if anything happens to Johnny
as a result of that, I swear on oath I will never see or talk to you again."
Garrett swallowed hard, staring searchingly into Scott's burning
eyes. This was a Scott he didn't recognise, didn't recognise at all. Lancer's
influence, no doubt. That damned Scot . . . He rued the day Catherine had
ever set eyes on him. Of all the fine young men who had wooed her, all
the eminent suitors he'd approved of . . . She'd been as beautiful as the
morning dew. Clever too, for a female. Not the son and heir he'd hoped
so desperately for of course, but such a merry, biddable daughter. Everything
a father could wish for, before the Scot. Before Murdoch Lancer.
Once she'd met Lancer
that was it. He hadn't recognised her then. Blind to his anger, impervious
to his entreaties - recklessly wilful in her ill-considered desire to marry
the Scot. A nobody; no money, no prospects, barely off the boat from Inverness.
She'd consistently flaunted and disobeyed his wishes and orders. Continuing
to see Lancer behind his back. Sneaking out of the house for assignations
and liaisons; protected by the shining surety of her love as it glowed
like a shield all around her.
And eventually, his worst fears had come true. He'd lost her. Stolen
from him by the man mountain in the doorway. The same man who had now
stolen his precious grandson. Had stolen Scotty.
He brought himself back to the present with a jerk. Looking at Scott
once more but seeing a stranger staring back at him. A stern-faced implacable
man, no longer a malleable boy.
He took a deep breath, nodding tersely as his mind raced in circles
searching for answers and solutions to his problem. He wasn't about to
die for that half-breed Madrid, but he couldn't bear the prospect of losing
Scotty either. Maybe there was another way, but for the moment, he would
have to play along.
"Scott . . . " He placed a conciliatory hand on his grandson's arm.
"I know your half-brother means a lot to you." He leant in closer to
the bed so that only Scott could hear him, bending down to whisper in
his ear. "Perhaps we can work this out so both of us are happy. If you
were to agree to come back to visit me in Boston . . ."
Scott flinched wildly away from him, pain and anger jostling for
position on his face. "And if I don't, you leave Johnny to those wolves?"
"Scott?" Murdoch took a step forward from the doorway. "Is everything
"Some privacy if you please, Murdoch. It isn't much to ask!" Harlan
turned to glare at him, hand tightening warningly on Scott's forearm.
"Scott?" Murdoch said again, unwillingly this time.
Scott breathed in deeply, trying to calm his racing heart rate as
he considered the choices being offered him. "It's alright, Murdoch. Just
give us two minutes, please."
Murdoch looked at him
hard, but Scott had turned away towards the window and refused to meet
his eyes. He left the room reluctantly, instinct vying with the certainty
that Garrett couldn't be trusted. But he was Scott's grandfather, had been
responsible for raising him, and whatever Murdoch thought of the man, there
was no doubt Scott had become a fine person. A son to be proud of.
"Get it said, grandfather," Scott grated unhappily, shaking his
arm free of Harlan's grasp.
Garrett regarded him pleadingly. " If you want me to go and meet
Spencer, then I will."
"You will?" Scott became still. Looking up into his face with a
sudden flare of hope in his heart.
"For you, Scott. I'll do it for you. And when you're well again,
you can come and stay with me in Boston for a couple of months. I've missed
you, more than you can possibly imagine. There are no strings of course.
If, at the end of your visit you should decide to return out West, then
I won't stop you. I'm just asking you to spend some time with me - I think
you owe me that."
Scott studied the familiar face. It was so well known to him, and
yet no longer part of who he was today. He knew in his heart he belonged
here now, at Lancer. And yet, his grandfather did look lonely - lonely
and suddenly old.
He swallowed back the lump in his throat. A month or two couldn't
do any harm . . .
"Agreed. Do this for Johnny and I promise I'll come back to Boston
with you as soon as I can travel."
Both men looked up as Murdoch, unable to stay outside the bedroom
any longer, walked back in through the door.
"I'll do it for you," repeated Harlan again, unable to keep a note
of triumph from his tone. " And hopefully we'll bring your brother home
Murdoch stiffened suspiciously. He'd known Garrett too long to be
so easily fooled. The man didn't have a charitable or altruistic bone
in his body. Things weren't looking any better for Johnny, in fact they
looked considerably worse.
He knew then he was going
into those foothills alongside Garrett tomorrow. There was no way he
was entrusting Johnny's safety to this man alone. His life meant nothing
to Garrett. In fact, it might even suit his purpose if Johnny were
to die. One less thing keeping Scott in California, one less obstacle
in his plan to have Scott back in Boston at his side.
Footsteps on the staircase jolted him out of his grim reverie. Jelly,
followed closely by Teresa, her face a pale blur in the gathering shadows
on the landing.
"Boss . . ."
"What is it?" His heart gave a sudden leap of fear. Oh God, no!
Not now, it couldn't be possible . . .
"Cipriano's back." Teresa's voice was breathless and full of tears,
but it told him immediately his terror was unfounded. As far as they
knew, Johnny still lived.
"They found the palomino," finished Jelly gruffly. "He's out front."
Murdoch was aware of his legs moving stiffly towards the staircase,
but he couldn't remember getting out through the doorway. Cipriano met
him by the archway, his hand on the shivering pony's neck as he looked
up unhappily into his boss's face.
"We found him wandering, Senor. Not hurt."
"Where?" Barked Murdoch curtly, regarding the palomino's sweating,
burr-studded coat with something akin to dismay. Remembering with a pang
of sudden pain, how much care Johnny took of the horse - his beloved pride
He put his hand out to the pony's nose, feeling the nostrils flare
with nervous reaction. Stroking him gently, as he sought to calm him down.
He drew a little comfort from it. As if by touching this horse that Johnny
loved so much, he was somehow closer to his son. Comforting Johnny wherever
he was. He only hoped Johnny could feel it somehow - that he knew how
much his father cared . . .
Cipriano was talking again. Breaking into his painful thoughts with
practicalities, and he was glad.
"The San Benitos, Senor.
He was at the base of Nublado Canyon. It was not easy to catch him . .
. mal caballo . . ."
"Cloud Canyon - that's what, three hours from here? Four or more
from Morro Coyo?"
"Si Senor. There are many caverna there. Modoc."
Murdoch nodded slowly. "Many places to hide out. To keep a man prisoner."
"Es verdad," nodded Cipriano. He looked up uneasily at the fading
sky, trying to estimate the hours of daylight left to them. The sun was
dying fast and although it was possible to ride out into the mountains
at night, it was highly unlikely they'd find anyone in the dark. There
would certainly be no tracks to follow.
Murdoch agreed. "I want men out there at first light, Cip. I want
them combing those hills and searching those caves."
"What about you?" asked Jelly bluntly. "You goin' with Garrett?"
"Yes," said Murdoch slowly. "Bet your life I am, Jelly."
But the old man shook his head soberly. Eyes flicking involuntarily
up to the silent bedroom window overlooking the courtyard and gardens.
Johnny's room, Johnny's window.
"It's Johnny's life we're bettin' on, Boss. Best we don't lose the
* * * * * * * *
Johnny sat back against
the wall at the lip of the cavern and kept his eye unobtrusively on Venn
Cullen. He was waiting for the man to make his move. That old Madrid
instinct on full alert now as he watched the firelight dancing on the
walls, the flickering shadows highlighting the cruelty of the eldest Cullen's
It was clear something was in the air by the obvious way Yancy kept
looking at his brother for a clue. If things hadn't been so desperate,
Johnny would have laughed. Yancy had all the subtlety of a stampeding herd
He shifted slightly trying to find a position, any position that
might afford him a little more comfort. His knee hurt and his shoulder
ached but they were nothing in comparison to his head. It felt about ready
to explode, as though someone had tied a belt around it and kept hitching
it up a notch.
He forced himself to concentrate again. Taking note of Yancy's Winchester
propped against the wall roughly four feet away from him. The pot of coffee
warming on the fire. Easing the blanket off his legs as though he were
hot, but in reality giving himself more freedom in which to act whenever
the time came, and he sensed it was coming soon.
Spencer had been out of the cave for a smoke. The aromatic scent
of the expensive cigars he favoured wafting back to them on the night air,
and reminding Johnny unbearably of Murdoch and Scott.
Their love of smoking was the subject of a fierce, on-going battle
with Teresa over the lingering smell of tobacco in the hacienda. He smiled
a little, picturing her face. Her fury as she kept catching them smoking
indoors long after banning them to the veranda.
The fiery-eyed indignity as she'd stamped her feet at them, shooing
them back outdoors like a tiny virago. Two grown men quaking in their
boots at her wrath and her only reaching as high as their breastbones.
He'd reaped the benefit of that particular storm. She'd been as
pleased to find him bringing in the evening's firewood for her as she'd
been angry with Scott and Murdoch. Cooking his favourite supper as a
reward. The tamales had been so hot that night, Scott's eyes were red
His breath caught slightly
in the back of his throat at the thought of never seeing her again. Of
never seeing any of them again. He had to get out of this, he'd been in
worse situations hadn't he?
He tried to shake off the insidious wave of depression that smothered
him, dark as the night. It was pointless feeling sorry for himself, stupid
and self-indulgent. He had to stay sharp, had to stay fast. One slip
up, one missed look or expression could cost him his life.
Spencer came back into the cave and gave him a hard stare. He was
wearing his corduroy coat and had his hand in the pocket. Johnny tracked
it down with his eyes. Muscles tensing suddenly, as he recognised the
outline of a colt. His colt, he wouldn't mind betting. His fingers burned
for it. For the reassuring feel of it against his own palm instead of
Spencer's. He could do a lot of damage with that colt - earn his freedom
with it in a second or two . . .
He edged a little closer to the fire holding out his hands to the
flames. Yancy got to his feet and moved to the entrance of the cave,
eyes finding Venn's in a split second as Johnny realised this was it.
"Spencer . . . "
He reached for the coffee-pot as Venn whirled to one side, hand
snaking down to his gun. Yancy spun to fire but Spencer was ready for
him. Hand flashing out of his pocket as he pulled the trigger simultaneously.
Johnny dashed the boiling coffee at Venn Cullen's head, following
up with the pot itself and striking the Texan a glancing blow on the
temple. The man fell back shrieking and cussing as Johnny knew he had
no time to waste. Staggering to his feet and reaching for the Winchester
with his good arm.
"Hold it, Lancer!"
Spencer. Johnny froze, his fingers inches from the rifle's stock.
Whole, he would have risked it; snatched it up, rolled and fired with
it. The odds at least 50/50 in his favour. But battered like this, he knew
he'd never make it.
"Over here." Spencer gestured towards the mouth of the cave, and
giving the Winchester one last regretful look, Johnny limped across to
the man's side stepping cautiously across Yancy's body and looking down
at the neat, bloody hole in the centre of his forehead.
He raised an eyebrow. "Nice shootin'."
Spencer smiled coldly.
"I belong . . . belonged to a small arms shooting club. Never shot anything
but a paper target before."
Johnny regarded him evenly. "Man's different to a paper target.
A whole different prospect."
But Spencer shook his head in disgust. His eyes, as Johnny's, on
the dead man lying at his feet. "That's not a man. It won't be missed."
Johnny looked back across at Venn. Sensing the slight movement even
before he saw it. Lurching sideways into Spencer as Cullen reached for
his colt, rolled onto his back and pulled the trigger. They barrelled
into the wall of rock behind them and Spencer gave a grunt of shock as
Johnny dragged him away from the cave entrance. He wasn't surprised to
find two horses ready and waiting just outside, giving Spencer a mental
ten out of ten for preparation and ingenuity. He only hoped the man had the
sense to release the other three. He had.
"I . . . I brought them up just now."
Johnny nodded, as he heaved himself into the saddle. Hearing a footfall
behind them and expecting the burn of a bullet between his shoulder blades
at any second. He grit his teeth and bent low across the saddle-horn.
Trying to ignore the fire in his collar-bone, the thump in his head as he
nudged the bay pony into a lope down the side of the steep canyon, aware
of Spencer alongside him and Cullen behind them in the dark.
A couple of shots spat up off the rocks around them. But the light
was too far gone for a man to shoot accurately and short of a lucky shot,
Cullen was whistling in the wind, wasting ammunition.
After riding in silence for fifteen minutes or so, Johnny eased
up cautiously. Rubbing a shaky hand across his temples as he looked over
at Spencer. He could barely make out the man's face in the darkness but
he could imagine the look on it. Grim and uncompromising, mouth tight
with fury taut with pain. His heart sank a little, not sure if his own
situation had improved at all, as he considered the new turn of events.
Spencer was angry - dangerously angry. Hunted and on the run because
of something he'd done. He grinned in the darkness - he couldn't help it.
Remembering something Scott had said to him once, just a few weeks after
they'd first met.
"I have to admire your
talent for pissing people off, little brother. It's just about the best
I've ever seen."
And now they had a vengeful
Venn Cullen on their heels. Johnny was under no illusion what would happen
when he caught up with them. No question of money or ransoms now. It would
be over, pure and simple. A particularly nasty form of revenge to pay
for the death of Yancy - the spoiling of Venn's plans.
Johnny sighed. Relaxing his shoulders as much as he could and trying
to familiarise himself with the bay's gait. He was already more than uncomfortable.
Teeth chattering helplessly, although whether due to cold or shock he
wasn't all that sure. If only his head would stop aching for a while, just
a little while. It was becoming harder and harder to concentrate on anything,
to hold himself straight and focus with any clarity on what was happening
Now more than ever, he needed to keep some control of the game.
He was thinking in Spanish almost continuously. Reverting to the language
he'd grown up with - his mother tongue. Spencer was already suspicious and
now he was truly desperate. A man on the run for his life. One error, just
one mistake, and Johnny knew it would be finished.
He was already a liability. Hurt and slow. Caught between the devil
and the deep blue sea. Madre de Dios - thank God it wasn't Scott out
here. He clung to that for consolation. The one ray of light in a well
of darkness, the one glimmer of hope on his horizon. His brother was
at home, safe and sound.
Spencer had come up alongside him and he hadn't even noticed. He
really must be slipping. Pulling back on the reins with his good arm as
he looked tiredly across and saw the moonlight bounce dully off the metal
barrel of the colt. This was to be the way of it, then. A bullet in the
back of his head out here in the wilderness?
An ignominious ending to what, after all, had not been much of a
life. Better by far that Scott should live and he should die. He'd cheated
death so many times before, it was inevitable it would outwit him one
day, that it would take the final trick.
He smiled crookedly in the darkness, lifting his head as the world
spun around him. The bright cold stars, the rocks looming like tombstones
out of the earth to engulf and claim him. His strength left in a rush
of heat and cold and he knew in one terrible lurching moment, he was falling
from the saddle. The hard ground surged to meet him in a billow of blackness
as he hit and knew no more.
* * * * * * * *
Murdoch looked across
at Jelly and Cipriano yet again. Knowing they both understood their instructions
backwards, but needing to go through it once more for his own peace of
He watched as they left for their horses, Isidro and Jorge were
already saddled up and waiting by the corral gate. Jelly hesitated, half-turning
back to Murdoch as he let Cipriano go on ahead. The old man was straight-faced
for all the world as though he were disappointed in him, and Murdoch of
course knew why.
Their eyes met. No words were exchanged or needed to be, the talking
had all been done. All that was left was to bring Johnny home. Then maybe
the wound between him and Jelly would be healed. He hoped it would be so
- he missed the man's wise counsel.
He wasn't so sure about the rift between him and Teresa. That worried
him more than words could say. He was afraid, so afraid of losing her
- just as he was scared of losing Johnny. Deeply upset since Jelly had
returned home with his devastating news, she'd spent the last eighteen
hours adroitly eluding him. Spending time either in her garden, or alone
with Scott. Steadfastly avoiding his eyes whenever he came into the sickroom,
and turning to look away. He knew she still blamed him for his anger towards
Johnny, and he knew in his heart she was right.
He was able to admit it honestly to himself. He'd allowed his frustration
to blind him to a sense of fair-play. His anxiety for Scott had excluded
his awareness of Johnny and now this situation with Spencer had risen
to haunt him like a malevolent ghost.
Johnny. He just wanted him home again. Home and safe, so he could
sit him down and explain why he'd been so angry. Tell him everything
was alright - who the hell was he kidding?
He just wanted to hear the sound of Johnny's laughter ringing through
the hacienda again. Teasing Jelly and fooling with Scott. Getting under
Teresa and Maria's feet in the kitchen as they pretended he was a nuisance
to them, but loved it all the same.
He sighed. Turning back to the buck board and meeting the unexpectedly
sympathetic eyes of Edward Moffat. The quiet Englishman had insisted on
coming and quite frankly, Murdoch was glad of both his company and assistance.
Anything that might help sway Amos Spencer from his deadly purpose, his
terrible revenge. Anything that meant he didn't have to share a journey
on his own with Harlan Garrett.
His anger simmered relentlessly
towards the man. Scott's grandfather or not, his relief and lack of remorse
left a singularly nasty taste in Murdoch's mouth and he could hardly bear
to look him in the eye. Himself, Moffat and Garrett. Strange bedfellows
indeed. Each of them pursuing their own agendas, although of both men
thrust upon him, he knew which of the two he trusted more. There was no
Hooking his foot into the stirrup, he watched as the object of his
mistrust came out of the hacienda carrying a leather satchel. Garrett
looked up at him, then across to the buck board where Moffat was waiting.
"The wire said alone, Murdoch. Do you think this is wise?"
Murdoch nodded grimly. "He's my son, Harlan. I'm coming, like it
Garrett shrugged unconcernedly. "On your head be it, then. I'll
uphold my end of the bargain for Scott's sake . . . " he indicated the
satchel and placed his foot onto the plate. "But I expect you and your
men to protect me as promised." His eyes fastened on Moffat sitting impassively
on the seat beside him, a quick frown settling across his features. "Who's
Not by so much as a flicker did Edward Moffat betray any of the
feelings he might harbour towards this man. His grey eyes remained steadfastly
calm, his face a mask of polite civility.
"My name is Edward Moffat." He nodded briefly. "I'm Mister Spencer's
Garrett paused in the act of climbing onto the buck board, a look
of bemusement crossing his face. Then unexpectedly he laughed. A terse
bark of genuine amusement as he looked back over at Murdoch.
"Hardly the 'Three Musketeers', my dear Murdoch. A motley crew indeed."
His knuckles tensing white with anger, Murdoch nodded curtly back.
"Sometimes we have to walk with the devil to be on the side of the angels,
Harlan. And just for the record, Johnny's depending on us to get him out
of this bloody mess. Anyone who lets him down will personally answer to
* * * * * * * *
Drifting. He was drifting,
light as thistle-down through time and space and content just to do so.
It was pleasant here in the void, peaceful and safe. No one wanting anything
from him, no one yelling at him, disapproving of him or hemming him in.
Just him, alone. Like he always had been . No one to answer to except
his own conscience, no one to hurt him or let him down. He let himself
float along with it, not bothering to question where he was, or why. Letting
the dreamlike state he was in submerge him for a while. He just wished
the drumbeat would stop. The singular rhythm in the back of his head, beating
and pounding with unceasing monotony and a relentless lack of remorse.
But it didn't leave him. Instead it just got louder and louder -
and with it came the pain. Washing back over him in a flood of agony as
his head began to hammer and throb like a Blacksmith's forge. He groaned,
unable to help himself as his fingers groped in the dirt beside him. He
was back on the ground yet again.
"Here . . ."
A canteen against his lips. Water, warm and stale. He reached for
it clumsily, sucking on the rim of the spout as someone held his head forward
and he drank. Opening his eyes, swimming up from a great depth, as he
fought to focus and stop his head from spinning. So hard to think, so hard
to concentrate. He just wanted to go back to the void.
"Scott - come on, man. Wake up."
He focused then. Vision clearing and settling on Amos Spencer's
face as the man knelt over him. He'd expected darkness, but found daylight
instead. A wide sky clear above him, the air cold and sweet in his lungs.
His eyes moved past Spencer, watching as an eagle soared in the blue above
them. Swooping and whirling fierce and untamed, until it vanished, a small
speck lost on the horizon. He sighed with envy and regret, begrudging
it's liberty. It's freedom from earthly restraint.
"What . . . what happened?"
Spencer regarded him grimly. "You passed out again. Fell off your
horse. You're making quite a habit of it."
Johnny swallowed hard. The frantic events of the previous night
rushing back at him in a sudden deluge. "How long?"
"We've wasted four hours.
Cullen must have recaptured a ride by now. He can't be far behind us."
Johnny closed his eyes briefly in dismay. "Your best bet is to leave
me. You gotta chance on your own . . ."
Spencer smiled humourlessly. "Now why suggest something like that,
Scott? It's not by any chance part of a plan you cooked up with Cullen?"
Johnny smiled sadly despite his pain. "Boy, old Harlan really did
a job on you, didn't he Mister Spencer?"
"He took everything," said Spencer bitterly. "Everything. What do
you think that feels like, man? How could you possibly know?"
"Better than you think," replied Johnny softly. "I know what it's
like to be alone. To think there's no one who gives a damn if you live
or die anymore. I know how it feels when the hate eats away at
your gut from the inside out - when it burns so bad, just like fire."
Spencer was still. Face deathly pale as he watched him intently.
"How could you know, how could you possibly know? You . . . you've had
everything. Never wanted for anything. That devil made sure of that."
"No . . ." said Johnny weakly, passing a shaky hand across his eyes
as a flood of unpleasant memories forced their way past his defences.
"My life . . . mi vida . . ." he paused, upset and confused by the past
and the present as he remembered again he was playing a part. "I was lied
to. Forced by fate and happenin's to become a man I never really wanted
to be, to do things I never wanted to do . . ."
Spencer laughed wretchedly. "I know Garrett lied to you about your
father . . ." he hesitated uncertainly. "And yet you still came out West.
Are things - did you and your father manage to rebuild those bridges?"
Johnny was still, eyelids downcast. Remembering the last bitter
exchange he and Murdoch had shared across the breakfast table. The tense
angry words, the clenching in his gut. The whole world swam for a hazy
'Madre de Dios, his head ached so much.'
"Scott?" Spencer's tone
was softer. Kinder now for the very first time and Johnny forced his
eyes open again.
"It's takin' a while - Murdoch 'n me. But I want it - I want it
so bad . . . " his voice broke slightly as he looked up at Spencer's
face. "Your boy, David. You loved him a lot I guess?"
Spencer was silent for a long time. Wrestling his emotions as he
confronted the demon that had haunted his memories since the day David
died. He had loved the boy, he had. That's why he'd tried so hard to save
him from himself, forced him to give up his music. To channel his thoughts
and interests away from the kind of lifestyle he'd been leading.
But perhaps he'd been wrong. The thought haunted him still. He'd
turned away from David because of his own prejudices, his own distaste.
He'd sacrificed his boy, his precious boy, to his own expectations and
lack of understanding. Whatever David had been, first and foremost he was
his son. A son who'd paid with his life in a last ditch attempt to save his
father. He groaned in confusion, placing his head into his hands.
Another image flashed through his mind. Mike, tall and upright in
his uniform. So proud and brave as he'd left for the war. And this boy
here, the grandson of his greatest enemy. The man he'd promised to destroy.
He'd sworn to hate this boy but couldn't help admiring him. His nonchalant
audacity, defiance in the very face of danger. The way he'd sacrificed
his freedom so readily to save the life of that old man, what had his
name been? Somebody Hoskins?
He looked again at Scott Lancer. The man had saved his life last
night. Pushing him away from Cullen's bullet seconds before it would have
taken him in the chest. An enigma this man. He'd warned him about the
Cullen's too, in spite of the fact their plan might have worked in his
Spencer took note of the bruised swollen face. The ghastly pallor
beneath the tan. Scott Lancer was clearly ill. Much worse than yesterday.
Strands of dusty black hair stuck lankly to the beads of sweat on his
forehead and for a moment, he looked so absurdly young, it was hard to believe
he'd been through a war. Fought for his own life and taken others.
He closed his eyes on a sob of pain. David's face juxtaposed on the
face of the man at his feet. His son, Murdoch Lancer's son. He was responsible
for the suffering of them both - him and that devil Harlan Garrett. My
God, what had he done? What had he been forced to do?
"Here," Spencer held the
canteen back to Johnny's lips. His hand shaking as he brushed the sweat-soaked
hair back off the man's brow, noticing with a quick stab of dismay the trickle
of dark blood dripping from his ear. He undid his bandanna and poured
a little of the water onto it, wiping the blood away as he hardened his
heart once more. It was too late to turn the clock back. He'd made his
bed and now he had to lie in it. To see things through to the bitter end,
whatever that might be.
"In answer to your question, yes I loved my son. I didn't understand
him - maybe I didn't really try. I was too busy with my grief, too busy
with the Company . . . There never seemed to be enough time for us to
really talk. And then your grandfather stole time from us forever."
"I'm sorry . . . " said Johnny tiredly. Spencer's words had hurt
him unexpectedly; had been far too close to home. The man could have been
describing him and Murdoch. Their shaky, fractured relationship with all
its fragile faults.
"So am I, " said Spencer harshly. He re-stoppered the canteen and
got to his feet. Shading his eyes from the morning sun as he looked back
towards the heart of the hills. The day was stretching forwards and time
was not on their side. "We need to get going. Cullen can't be all that
far behind. Can you stand?"
"Si," said Johnny weakly, knowing it might not be true. He struggled
up onto his good knee, swaying dizzily as he strove for lucidity and balance.
Spencer grasped his elbow. Dragging him to his feet and placing an arm
around his shoulder as he helped him across to the bay.
Johnny's heart sank at the thought of having to ride again. Not
even sure if he'd manage to get up into the saddle, let alone be able
to stay put there. He wished to God it was Barranca; the horse he knew
as he knew his soul. But he'd long since given up on wishes. Life and
bitter experience had taught him they didn't very often come true.
"Will you be able to ride?"
In truth, he didn't really know. But he summoned his last vestiges
of strength and began to haul himself up. Spencer assisted him carefully.
Waiting until he was at last in the saddle, struggling until the giddiness
settled into an uneasy swaying instead of a wild ride.
"I can do it."
As the horses began to move forward, he only hoped he could.
* * * * * * * *
It was warm in the barn.
Sweet and musty with the scent of hay. Dust motes danced in the bolt of
yellow sunlight streaming in through the door and she watched them for
a moment, thinking they were something he would have pointed out to her.
"Look at them, Teresa . . . little specks of gold just floatin'
in the air."
She swallowed back her tears. The Lord knew she'd cried enough of
those already. Rummaging in her pocket for the slightly wrinkled apple
she'd found ignored in the fruit bowl earlier. It was just something else
to remind her of Johnny. He was the one who ate all the apples. Picking
one up every day on his way out of the door - to eat later or sneak to
Barranca, she wasn't ever sure. Always smiling slightly to herself as she'd
watch him take one from the fruit bowl; toss it adeptly into the air a couple
of times then stick it absent-mindedly in his pocket. The memory made her
sad all over again.
She moved across to the stall in the corner and clicked softly to
it's golden occupant. "Hello, Barranca."
The pony thrust his head over the rail at her. Nose questing for
the apple immediately, nudging and buffing at her shoulder as he searched
out the scent of it. She held out her palm. Tangling her fingers in the
blond mane as he lipped greedily over the fruit and took it from her; crunching
loudly in her ear as she waited for him to finish.
Jelly had said the palomino was uninjured. Scratched and scraped
by rocks and burrs, panicked and bad-tempered when they'd brought him home.
She sighed as the tears pricked back at her again. If only they could bring
Johnny home in the same condition, a little ruffled and bad-tempered but
not seriously hurt.
Leaning against the pony's broad neck, she closed her eyes. Praying
as hard as she'd ever prayed in her life for Johnny to be alright. It
was so unfair - all so unfair.
Johnny didn't deserve any of this. None of it. Part of her, the
practical part of her told her firmly it was Harlan Garrett's fault.
Harlan Garrett and Amos Spencer combined. But a treacherous little voice
in her heart whispered that Murdoch deserved his own particular slice of
blame for the contributory role he'd played in things.
She'd tried arguing herself out of it. Telling herself that Murdoch
hadn't earned her censure. But a cold little seed at the core of her
remained resolutely angry with him. Clutching onto her pain like a talisman,
as she held him partly responsible for what had happened to Johnny.
And it wasn't the first time either. Watching on several occasions,
more than she was comfortable remembering, as Johnny had withdrawn from
Murdoch's ire. Working too long, too hard. Face becoming sharper as the
weight fell quickly off him. Sitting miserably at the meal table as he
pushed his food around the plate with his fork. Johnny, who so loved to
eat. Murdoch's grim silence hanging over them all like a heavy mountain
storm as he brooded for days - sometimes weeks.
She and Scott did their
best to deflect it and she recalled with a quick pang, the ironic gleam
in Johnny's eye as he realised all too well what they were doing. Grateful
to them anyway - even if it never seemed to do much good.
The storm always blew out eventually. After a few days or weeks
Murdoch would relent and ease-up. Making some sort of reconciliatory
gesture that Johnny would seize on eagerly. A trip to Modesto maybe,
his opinion on some matter to do with the ranch. Life would return to
normal again for a while. At least until the next time.
She gave up fighting the tears. Not knowing until this minute how
deeply affected she'd been by it all. Scott's accident, Murdoch's conduct,
Johnny's danger - and now the arrival of Harlan Garrett.
She felt raw and run down. Filled with a cold nameless dread that
refused to leave her. Waking or sleeping, it was always there to torment
her. Stealing her slumber with clawing fingers, dogging her consciousness
like an oppressive shadow. A dancing blackness on the fringe of her soul.
It was Johnny. She knew it. The sure knowledge that something terrible
had happened to him. That he was being taken further and further away
from them, engulfed by the darkness that lurked just outside the corner
of her eye.
She knew it deep inside. Sensed it in her heart. From the moment
this whole nightmarish chapter of events had begun, she'd felt the shady
wings of disaster. A nagging premonition of tragedy hovering like a portent
A tear slid silently down her cheek and the palomino stirred uneasily
beside her as though sensing her distress. Shaking his head, as he blew
through his nostrils at her and butted her shoulder in search of another
But she had nothing left to give him. Bracing her shoulders as she
choked back her sorrow and scrubbed at her face with the back of her hand.
The mare in the next stall snickered softly at her. A beautiful
grey with big soft eyes. Any other time, Teresa would have been enchanted
by her. But this was Tilbury's mare, delivered by one of Tilbury's men
the day after Johnny had been taken. She could hardly bear to look at the
poor thing now. Moving through the stream of light back to the door, she
fought the cold fear struggling inside her as she prepared to walk across
the yard to the house.
Perhaps she was wrong.
Maybe she was just being hysterical. Blowing all her worries up out of
proportion instead of having her usual faith in Murdoch. In Johnny himself.
But something told her Johnny needed them. Needed them desperately
wherever he was. And all the while, his time was running out.
* * * * * * * *
They rode on through the
morning. Or rather Spencer rode and Johnny slouched miserably in the saddle.
Holding onto the horn and trying to let his body fall into the bay's rhythm
as much as possible to avoid every jarring footfall the animal took.
Spencer watched him covertly. Amazed at the man's fortitude. His
determination in spite of his more than obvious discomfort.
Johnny was hanging by a thread now.
Wounds and broken bones had stiffened and he sat silently in hell.
Discovering with each stride of his pony some new pain that made his life
just that bit more dismal. The bay missed a step and he drew a sharp breath,
hurt stabbing right through his temples as the awkward movement jolted
"Lancer?" Spencer had swivelled round to face him, taking note of
his white face and pain-racked expression.
"I can make it." The words hurt his throat in a sudden rush of memory.
He'd said them once before, to his brother a lifetime ago.
"Maybe we ought to stop again, rest awhile . . ."
"We don't have time. Cullen's doggin' us pretty close."
The bay missed his step again and stumbled. Johnny shifted weight
as for a moment, the whole horizon seemed to blur and reel. He caught
hold of the saddle-horn tighter, taking in breath in a reflex that hurt.
That really hurt.
Spencer drew up short and reached over to him as he braced himself;
the roan barging clumsily into the bay's flank amidst the undergrowth
"I . . .I'm alright."
His pulse raced with a
sullen difficult beat. The sky still spun and he felt the cold, familiar
fear that he might fail his family in the worst kind of way. That he would
let them down. Betray himself somehow and in doing so, betray Scott too.
'Hold on,' he told himself. 'Hold on.'
He straightened reflexively. Swallowing hard as he fought against
the darkness that threatened to swamp him so totally.
"We'll stop." Spencer said again. "When we reach the top of the
ridge, we're stopping."
But Johnny shook his head stubbornly. Knowing Cullen was too close
to them to afford the luxury of a halt, even a short one. Turning the bay's
head on uphill and digging his heels into it's flank, too much in misery
to argue but determined not to hinder their progress.
An object hissed out of thin air and bounced off the saddle near
his thigh with a high-pitched whine. In the next heart-beat as he realised
they'd been ambushed, the bay plunged in panic rearing backwards.
He fought it, finding life in his sore muscles as he struggled for
control. His only thought to get under cover, to get out of Cullen's range.
But the bay stumbled and he slipped sideways, hitting the ground with
a slow thump but in shelter on the downward slant against a boulder. Trying
hard to catch his breath as Spencer slid down beside him and drew
"Are you hurt, son?" He asked tersely, straining his eyes back down
The force of the fall had made any feeling uncertain for a second,
but Johnny drove himself up and grabbed at his horse's reins. Dragging
the terrified animal closer so he could loop the tackle round the nearest
Spencer cursed violently. Grasping his good arm and pulling him
roughly back into the safety of the pink-shaded stones. "Stay down .
He scanned the terrain below them. Searching frenziedly through
the rocks and shadows for any sign of Venn Cullen as Johnny sank back
against the boulders feeling the sweat running down his cold skin. His
broken shoulder was a source of deep pain and there was a weakness in
his limbs, a giddiness in his head that sent the landscape reeling.
"Can you see him?" He
fought to clear his head once more, appalled at his own weakness. Terrified
of passing out again as for a moment, his vision laced with black.
"I can't see anything." Spencer's voice was curt with frustration
and he gripped Johnny's colt a little tighter. Johnny looked longingly
at the gun. His gun. The need to feel it in his hand once more, a sudden
"Save the bullets . . ." he murmured weakly. "You won't hit anything
at this range."
He took a breath, pushing himself up against the stone. Inching
higher on his sore protesting body and trying to ignore each wave of
pain. A movement to the right up amongst the craggy rose-hued canyon,
and he knew where Cullen was. Touching Spencer gently on the arm as they
looked at each other in mute understanding.
"To the right. The craggy outcrop . . ."
Spencer nodded brusquely. All business now, as he tightened his
grip on the .45 and regarded Johnny searchingly. "I won't be long."
"Wait . . . " Johnny's voice was naked with unease. Hating the fact
he was so helpless; knowing he had no choices left. He was dependant
on his nemesis - on the man that planned to kill him. The irony of it
struck rich and deep and he closed his eyes in defeat.
"Keep to the right. The overhang from the canyon wall will keep
you outta his line of vision. He may not see you till you're almost up
Spencer inclined his head briefly. Moving off at a surprisingly
spry crouch through the scrub, leaving him alone and able to succumb
to his pain and fear for the first time since they'd resumed their flight
from Cullen in the morning. He drew up his knees and rested his forehead
on them. Closing his eyes and clenching his teeth in agony. Mainly from
the fire in his shoulder, although the ache in his head was worsening
and he knew in his heart it was much more serious overall.
He wouldn't last much longer; couldn't last much longer at this
rate. Whatever fate Spencer had planned for him might be thwarted by the
hand of fate - and that was assuming they escaped from Cullen.
A single shot, and his
eyes snapped open. Ears straining to hear something, anything that might
indicate what was happening. Unable to stand it any longer, he lurched
painfully to his feet. Stumbling as quietly as he could in Spencer's footsteps
towards the overhang.
No shots were fired at him but his flesh flinched anyway. Expecting
to feel the familiar thud of a bullet in his body with every step he
A pair of Blue Quail flew squawking out of the scrub ahead of him
and he jumped out of his skin. Heart pounding so much he was forced to
pause, as his head whirled like a pin-wheel and he thought he was going
He put a hand out to steady himself, groping blindly for a hold
on the rocky wall. Sweat dripping off him profusely as he gulped some
air into his lungs and tried to stop the world from reeling.
A hand on his shoulder, and he hadn't even heard Spencer come up
behind him. Straightening up dizzily as he rocked on his feet. "Where's
"Gone," said Spencer abruptly. "Took a pot-shot at me then took
"He's playin' with us . . . " murmured Johnny tiredly, each word
an effort on his tongue. "Bidin' his time."
Spencer nodded, his lips compressed as he put his arm out and helped
Johnny upright again. Waiting for a moment as the younger man strove to
regain his balance, leaning heavily against his shoulder as he fought
The situation was running away from him. His preconceptions shattered,
all his plans awry. Instinctively, he hitched his arm tighter as
Johnny trembled against him - muscles shaking and dangerously weak. The
man's courage sobered him. His determination and dogged obstinacy an increasing
admiration. Hard, so hard, to reconcile this brave man with his
grandfather. With the evil that was Harlan Garrett.
Johnny smiled sadly as
his heart lurched. He was honoured, so honoured to bear Scott's name. Hard
to imagine that the name of Johnny Madrid should ever be mentioned in the
same breath as that of Scott Lancer. The photograph flashed through his
mind. Scott, dripping with navy and gold tassels. Standing next to a General,
no less. His brother, the soldier. The war hero. He was suddenly ashamed
he'd made a mockery of it. Joked, and pulled Scott's leg.
He'd never told Scott how impressed he was by the picture. That
secretly, he was proud as a peacock. His brother consorted with
Generals - knew men that had helped shape a nation. Why hadn't he ever
bothered to tell him? Why had he pretended to scoff?
They made their way slowly back to the horses. Spencer's heart as
heavy as their steps as he wondered whether or not Lancer would be able
to re-mount the bay. He allowed the man to rest against the boulders
while he un-tied his horse and led it as close as he dared.
"Can you do it?"
"Si . . ." said Johnny vaguely. But when it came down to it, his
weakness and lack of wind really scared him. Tightening his grip on Spencer's
hand for a moment as the man helped him place his foot in the stirrup.
It more than hurt to pull himself up, sapping any strength he had left
and stealing the oxygen from his lungs so that he struggled to breathe.
He leant across the pony's neck, heart beating like a hammer. Dazedly
wondering how long he would be able to stay conscious. To perpetuate this
masquerade, this deadly game he was playing. Not much longer, he knew
it in his heart. He wasn't going to make it too far further. Running on
willpower and adrenalin alone as he nudged the pony forwards and clung
on by the skin of his teeth.
* * * * * * * *
They were climbing into
the foothills now. The day stretching further onwards as the morning spanned
into afternoon; sun climbing higher in the sky.
It was clear and cloudless, a perfect shining blue. But Murdoch
had no use for the beauty all around him, the stunning rugged scenery.
He was preoccupied with his thoughts, preoccupied with Johnny. Shifting
uncomfortably in the saddle as the old niggle started at the base of his
spine and the hours of hard riding began to take their toll.
He tried to focus on the task ahead of him but it stretched away,
unknown. He was riding into uncertainty, into deep and dangerous waters.
The man on the buck board not least of his worries as he glanced involuntarily
across at him, anger rising up inside him all over again.
He didn't trust Spencer, he couldn't trust Garrett. Hell, he wasn't
even sure of Moffat. The quiet Englishman saw so much more than he said
but was out here to save his master if there was any small chance that
Murdoch knew the odds weren't good. That Johnny's life really depended
on him and him alone. A slender, gossamer thread. He braced unconsciously.
Trying to ease the kinks out of his traitorous spine and failing miserably,
back aching regardlessly as he felt each one of Caledonia's jolting steps.
Johnny was waiting for him somewhere in these hills. Waiting and
relying on him. Biding his time and pretending to be Scott as he played
a difficult and deadly game of chance. The stakes were too high - he was
gambling with his life. Murdoch hoped his son would somehow beat the odds.
And it wasn't the first time either. He'd played a similar game
with Pardee, the same one with Warburton. A deadly dancing masquerade
as he'd risked his life for Lancer. No, if Murdoch was being truly honest,
it wasn't just for Lancer. In his heart, he knew it was for him. On both
occasions Johnny had done it for him. The first time for redemption, to
prove himself in his father's eyes. And almost, he'd paid the ultimate
price as he'd taken Pardee's bullet in his back.
It had been simpler with Warburton. Or at least it had started out
that way. Johnny had done it to keep him safe. To keep one foot in the
enemy's camp so he could gain access to their plans for moving the herd.
That it had ended as a matter of honour spoke volumes for his son. For the
paradoxical mix of obduracy and integrity that was Johnny. The nobility
at the essence of the man.
Murdoch sighed and reached inside his waistcoat. Drawing out the
ornate Hunter and studying the heirloom timepiece his father had handed
down to him. Two hours until the rendezvous, he both dreaded and wanted
it. Desperate to see Johnny, to be able to reassure himself his younger son
was safe, but deeply and terribly afraid. The nagging feeling that something
was wrong an ever present and malignant voice taunting in the reaches of
He tried shaking free
of the fear. Remembering the bitter words, the angry scenes. Regrets mingled
with recriminations and wishes with wantings. He told himself he only needed
a chance - one chance to have Johnny safe and well before him. To take him
in his arms and tell him all the things he'd garnered in his heart. He'd
been stupid, stubborn. A fool. Taking it for granted that there was time
a-plenty to indulge in the luxury of self-righteous anger and fatherly
disapproval as he tried to wear the patriarchal coat so new to him.
He should have known better. One thing this land, this harsh, uncompromising
land had taught him, was that time was precious. A gift from the Gods.
To waste it was foolish, to squander it downright wrong. Never had the
adage 'Seize the Day' been as apt as it was out here when each day was
so treasured and every minute rare.
He refused to believe it might be too late but Teresa's face haunted
him. Her fear was infectious and he knew she believed something awful
had happened to Johnny. He only hoped with all his heart, that this time,
she was wrong.
* * * * * * * *
By noon the journey had
become a nightmare for Johnny. They were moving down from the foothills
now, but each step was laborious; potentially dangerous as the trail
became slippery with pebbles and scree, the horses missing their footing
more than once.
After a while, the jolts of agony seemed to lessen and settle into a
continuous litany of torment as he hung on for grim death and rolled with
the gait of the bay.
"Lancer?" Spencer's voice was abrupt as the man brushed up against
"Umm . . . " His head ached in the sun's bright glare making it
hard to even speak. He blinked back the sweat in his eyes and rubbed them
to make the film go away.
"Not long to go, now."
Johnny nodded tiredly. Still playing the wretched game but knowing
he could barely last another minute as the country swung madly before him
and he sank a little forwards in the saddle.
"That's it," said Spencer curtly. "Your face is white as my shirt.
We'll rest a while."
"Cullen . . . "
"We'll take cover. Fifteen minutes or so won't hurt."
He reined in the roan behind a hollow in the rocks. Dismounting
quickly and turning to help Johnny down from his horse. But Johnny had
beaten him to it, leaning against the animal's neck as he panted quickly
"Sit down, Son."
"I just need a minute. A minute . . . " He handed Spencer the bay's
reins, crouching slowly down against a pile of boulders as he wiped a
sticky hand across his sweat-drenched hair. Spencer returned and handed
him the canteen.
Johnny drank because he
knew he had to, but his stomach wrestled and heaved with it and he fought
against throwing the whole lot up.
The daylight went from grey to black.
"Scott . . . " Spencer was at his side in an instant.
"Watch out for Cullen," he whispered, eyes closing as he leaned
back. His balance was simply gone again, his head a weight of pain. "I'm
a little tired, that's all."
He heard Spencer bend near him. Felt the man's shadow across his
face, the surprise of his touch on his brow.
"You're burning up."
The light began to come back slightly but it was copper-tinged and
shifting with illusion. Amos Spencer as a focus at the centre of it.
"What do you care?" The words were out before he could help them,
maybe because his head felt so light; because everything no longer seemed
real anymore. His eyes opened. Blue fire burning with delirium as he
tried desperately to pull his vision back into some sort of clarity.
The hand stilled on his forehead but he was hurting too much to
care. The ground pitched and spun beneath him, whirling like the widest
mustang he'd ever ridden; stomach trying to heave as he fought and refused
to let it, refusing to submit to the panic that pervaded his very soul.
"Don't worry about me," he murmured. "I'm Harlan Garrett's grandson
- tough runs in my blood."
"Sure it does."
Was it just his imagination, or was there a hint of humour in Spencer's
tone? But he was too tired to pursue it, succumbing at last to the fog.
Spencer pushed him back firmly and he felt the coolness of a damp cloth
on his brow. The cold was comforting but it made him start to shiver.
"Lie back. Don't be so
stubborn . . ." The man's voice was strangely subdued. "Although I guess
stubborn runs in your blood, too?"
Johnny smiled weakly as he gave in at last to the man's ministrations.
Drifting down through the layers in his mind as he let himself rest for
a moment, just a moment. Tilting back his head to the vast plains of
blue - the endless tracts of sky up above him. The scree slope slipped
and rustled as Spencer sat down at his side. Sighing heavily as he looked
out across the valley with a jaundiced eye.
"It's so bleak. So lonely."
"So beautiful," murmured Johnny. "Es bello. Wild, untamed and free."
"It's certainly those things," agreed Spencer tacitly, as he watched
the face of the man beside him. "You love it, don't you?"
"Si," said Johnny softly. "It's here . . ." He pointed to his heart.
"Inside my soul, mi alma. Every rock and stone of it. Every blade of grass."
His breath caught for a second, the words reminding him of his father.
Of that first day in the library; his father, him and Scott. The three
of them tight with anger and doubt, awash with the fear of rejection.
It seemed almost a lifetime ago yet barely a heartbeat away. How much
had changed and so little. His eyes fluttered closed in distress.
"Your son," he whispered. "David . . . Did he know how much you
Johnny felt rather than saw Spencer's sharp intake of breath, the
grief and despair in his heart. And for a second he wondered if he'd
pushed too hard. But it didn't seem to matter anymore.
"No," said Spencer desolately. "I don't think he did . . ." The
words were raw with honesty. Gaunt and exposed like the wilderness around
them as Spencer felt the shades begin to peel back from his eyes. "Oh
God . . ."
He buried his face in
his hands and wept. Body shuddering with long-suppressed tears of sorrow
and pain, anger and shame. Memories resurging like bittersweet gifts, blunting
and sharpening the hurt in his heart. Opening and cleansing the stain
on his soul.
A hand on his shoulder, and he turned into the man's sympathetic
embrace. Crying and heaving as the sobs shook him like a winter storm
and pathetically glad of the silent comfort; the wordless presence of another
human being. His tears were for Lucille, for Mike; but mostly his grief
was for David. David who had paid the ultimate price in his name. To save
him from disgrace and social condemnation . . .
Disgrace and shame be damned - all he wanted was his son. To hold
him once more in his arms and tell him everything would be alright. To
tell him how much he loved him . . .
"I'm sorry Son . . . " It was choked out of him on a sob.
For David, for Lancer, he was no longer sure. Maybe for both of them.
Johnny tensed for a moment, the words so close, too close to home.
If he closed his eyes he could almost hear Murdoch. Pretend it was his
father who'd said what he wanted to hear so badly.
"Esta bien . . . it's alright." He whispered quietly. "It'll be
alright . . ."
The balance of power had shifted subtly between them but somehow,
he wasn't sure that it would ever be alright again.
* * * * * * * *
"Jelly," Cipriano reined
in his horse, pointing up to the head of the cutand the ominous specks of
black wheeling and dipping in the air. Vultures circling like grim harbingers.
"I seen 'em," said Jelly grimly, heart refusing to believe what
his head insisted on telling him . "Looks like them old Modoc caves set
back in the rock."
"Si," agreed Cipriano uneasily. "Do you think . . . "
"No," snapped Jelly. "No I don't think. C'mon - let's git on up
He dismounted at the mouth of the cave. Wanting more than anything
in the whole world not to have to go inside as a cloud of blowflies buzzed
around his head and a sickly sweet stench assailed his nostrils. Fear
tugged again at his heart. He knew that smell. Pulling up his kerchief
and batting the flies away as he stepped into the gloom and waited for
his eyes to adjust in the half-light.
He froze, worst fears realised as he saw the dim shape of a body
next to the burnt-out fire. Moving forward hesitantly as he crouched down
and turned it over. He gagged in horror, recoiling from the evil smell
and swollen, blackened face. Turning aside and relieving himself of his
breakfast onto the floor of the cave.
"Jelly?" Cipriano's anxious voice from the cavern's entrance. Taut
and strained with dread as he heard the unmistakeable sounds of the older
"It aint him . . . " Jelly staggered back into the sunlight. "It
Cipriano crossed himself rapidly, shoulders sagging in relief as
he placed a quick arm around his friend and helped him down over the ragged
Jelly took a cleansing breath. Trying to rid the corruption of death
from his lungs. "Looked like one 'o them Cullen fella's that took Johnny
back on the road. There's bin some trouble here. Shell casin's scattered
on the ground. Seems like someone lit out in an awful hurry."
"Si," said Jelly slowly.
"Be like him to high tail it. But there aint no sign of the other two,
and if Johnny escaped, you kin bet yer life they're after him. Come on,
we'd best git goin'. Catch up with Murdoch and old man Garrett."
They moved back to where Isidro and Andreas were waiting with the
horses. Jorge was shadowing Murdoch in the buckboard. The second best
rifleman on Lancer, his skills were best used there. Jelly told the two
men the news, watching their faces flood with quick relief as he reflected
how Johnny was loved. Damn it, but the man had a way with him. A way of
getting in under your skin.
His breath caught slightly in the back of his throat. Worry and
guilt plaguing him in equal accursed measures. If he hadn't been with
him that day on the River Road, there was no doubt Johnny would not have
He would have become Madrid in an instant. Quiet and deadly, cold
and still as a snake. Jelly wouldn't have given much for the Cullen's
chances - not against Johnny Madrid.
The horses began to pick their way down the other side of the valley
and he pondered the man who was Johnny. The man that he loved like his
own. Easy to think of him as a perpetual boy, there was something almost
innocent about him. But Johnny had been a man since he was twelve years
old. Since the day he'd watched his mother die and first strapped on a
Jelly sighed. Watching the sorrel lift his feet and tread carefully
across the shifting scree slope. The key to Johnny was simple, there
was nothing complicated about a man who was searching for love - for
acceptance. The right to be himself. It was plain as the nose on your
face, except that Murdoch just couldn't see it. Or maybe he was afraid
to see it - of being needed that much. If ever a man had his fingers burned
. . .
Everything Murdoch had ever loved had gone. Been taken from him
under the cruellest of circumstances. Oh Jelly knew the signs alright;
the heart that had hardened against the hurt, the big unyielding man
with his big unyielding soul.
Murdoch Lancer was scared. Scared to love his sons because love
had brought him pain. Pain and loss, grief and loneliness. The shattering
of all his fragile dreams. Love was a risk, the biggest gamble of all.
Especially when you loved a man like Johnny. Jelly felt a lot like that
himself sometimes. Johnny burned like the brightest star, but the brightest
stars died first. They left the dark sky around them.
"Jelly . . ." Cipriano's
voice broke into his reverie. The Segundo had reined in ahead and dismounted
from his pony. "Tracks. Looks like two separate sets. Two horses maybe,
being followed by one more."
Jelly frowned. "Thet don't make no sense. Should be one set followed
by two - if Johnny did escape . . ."
Cipriano nodded in agreement. "No entiendo. I don't understand it.
But the two are older - estoy seguro."
Jelly fought to figure it out but try as he might, he couldn't make
head nor tail of it. It didn't make him feel any better, either. Worry
settling down inside him as he wondered what kind of trouble Johnny was
* * * * * * * *
Harlan Garrett stared
up into the branches of the gnarled oak. Running his hand across the
rough dry bark, almost giddy with relief.
"Gallows Oak, you say?"
"Yes," said Murdoch abruptly. "Two rustlers were lynched here over
twenty years ago. Trouble was they made a mistake and hung the wrong
unfortunate drifters in the wrong place at the wrong time. The real
thieves were caught down near Barstow."
Garrett swallowed hard. He now knew why Spencer had selected this
meeting place. The twisted reasoning behind his choice. The boy David
had hung himself. Spencer obviously planned to pay him back in kind. He
just thanked God Spencer had taken Madrid instead of Scott. The half-breed
instead of his own beloved grandson.
Madrid had probably spent his entire youth a hairsbreadth away from
being hung. Cheated a rope since he'd grown tall enough to look a hog
in the eye. He narrowed his eyes with distaste, incredible to imagine
the man was actually related to his own grandson even through the intractable
The morning hours had passed swiftly. Miles of dusty trail were
eaten up in their wake and now they'd reached a crossroads - if it could
aspire to be called that. A place where the rutted track forked into
two, the ancient oak bisecting the middle. It was impassive and impressive.
Green-boughed and almost sentient as it dominated the landscape all around
The fork to the left led to the mouth of a canyon. A wild flower-studded
beautiful place. There were balsams and spruce, cottonwoods and alders.
The rocky ground interspersed by and luxuriant with sagebrush that shimmered
and glowed like a hazy blue carpet.
The terrain up to the right was tougher, more rugged. A craggy boulder-clad
slope. Hollowed and shaded with rose-coloured rocks, purpled and shadowed
with hidden ravines. The trail narrowed as it wound up into the heart
of the hills; almost impassable for a buck-board, precarious even for
It was to this side Murdoch turned. Searching up as far as his eye
could strain for any sign of Spencer, any sign of Johnny. But all he could
see was the distant speck of a bird of prey dipping and soaring up high
in the blue. Unaware it was perhaps, the same bird his son had watched
earlier, free and untrammelled of human concerns. He envied it's vantage
point. Wishing he too had the ability to see for miles around, to detect
the slightest movement down here on the ground. He signalled quickly
to Jorge who was concealed behind them, indicating he was to stay put.
"Seems to me Mister Spencer will bring your son down that way."
Moffat had moved soundlessly
to his side, looking up into the rough-hewn foothills as he shaded his
eyes from the sun. Murdoch stared round at him sharply.
"Speaking from knowledge, Moffat?"
"Yes and no . . . " Moffat paused, an unexpected smile creasing
his face for a moment. "Military tactics, Sir. Twenty-five years in the
best army in the world."
Murdoch raised an eyebrow. "My eldest son might disagree with you,
but my father certainly wouldn't. Three of my uncles fought at Waterloo
and my father was in Nelson's navy."
"My father too. Broke his heart when I didn't go to sea. But it
was the East that called me back then, India I wanted to see . . . "
His voice trailed away sadly and Murdoch recalled he'd lost his family
during the Mutiny.
"I'm sorry, it must have been hard."
Moffat braced himself unconsciously. "My eldest boy was fourteen
when he died, he'd be a man now. No harder than it was for Amos Spencer,
no harder than it must be for you."
"I aim to get my boy back," said Murdoch gruffly. "I'm not going
to let anyone take Johnny."
Garrett snorted loudly. "Spencer's a mad man. How will you stop
him? He may not even believe you when you tell him he has that . . . when
you tell him he has the wrong man."
"He'll believe me," said Moffat quietly, face closed with aversion
as he regarded the man in the wagon. "He's not mad, just mad with grief."
Garrett snorted again. Stretching back with a grimace of frank distaste
as he tried in vain to make himself comfortable on the wooden seat
"We'll soon see, won't
we? My bet's on him taking the money for starters. And who knows what
he'll do when he finds out he's been duped by that son of yours, Murdoch.
Most likely try to shoot me on the spot. I hope your contingency plan will
work, my life is in your hands!"
Murdoch stared back at him for a heavily pregnant moment, taking
a breath as he turned away. "And so is Johnny's . . . " He searched the
rocks again and prayed his son was alright.
* * * * * * * *
"Nearly there, Scott."
Spencer looked across at Scott Lancer and wondered how the man managed
to stay in the saddle. He could barely keep hold of the reins, lolling
forwards like a broken doll his head hanging down on his chest.
It was less than a mile to Gallows Oak. He'd plotted it all so carefully
in his head. Everything down to the last minute detail, no stone left
unturned. He shifted his leg slightly, looking at the length of rope attached
to his saddle. Coiled like a snake and loaded with meaning; symbolic of
his son's life and death. He'd come out West so filled with hatred, so
consumed with the desire for revenge that somewhere down the line he'd lost
The land stretched for miles all around him. Bleak and lonely, just
as he'd said. But now he could see a little of what Scott Lancer saw
in it. The aching challenge of wilderness, the unfettered savage beauty.
The lure of it that stopped him going back East. Maybe the man was right,
maybe it could get into your soul.
He smiled grimly at himself. Mocking his foolishness, his own sentimentality
even as he wondered at it. He'd thought life had no more loveliness to
offer him, had stripped him of all ability to feel. And yet there was something
about this place, this country. Something that stirred at his heart .
The shot took him completely by surprise. Splitting agonisingly
through flesh and muscle in his upper left arm and making him reel backwards.
Another four inches to the right and it would have been through that very
heart he'd just waxed lyrical about.
The roan wheeled, rearing in panic as his fingers slipped and scrabbled
at the reins.
Cullen . . .
Spencer grit his teeth and held on. Looking across at Lancer in
dismay as he saw the man could not control the bay. Sliding sideways
as another shot echoed round the canyon walls and the roan bucked it's
He dismounted quickly. Just in time to catch the boy before he crashed
to the ground and half-leading, half-dragging him across to the temporary
safety of a small dry gulch. Fumbling with the colt as he waited for Cullen's
next move, the wound in his arm dull and heavy with pain.
Johnny looked at him dazedly,
the whole world spinning before his eyes. "Your arm . . ."
"It's not much. What about you?"
Johnny swallowed, the pulse hammering in his ears. Panic-stricken
and slightly delirious now as he felt his senses slipping away. 'I'm worse,'
he thought. 'I'm getting worse. My head . . .'
But all he said was; "I'm okay. Watch out for Cullen."
Spencer looked at him sharply seeing straight through the lie. But
he had no time to deal with Lancer now, searching desperately amongst the
rocks as he hunted for any sign of Cullen in the shadows.
"C . . . can you see him?"
"No," said Spencer tersely. "Lie still. Perhaps he's playing games
again, still biding his time."
"No . . . " muttered Johnny vaguely. "This is it - he's had his
fun. Watch . . . watch your back."
His eyelids fluttered heavily, it was hard, so hard to hold on.
The darkness grew too deep; expanding and engulfing him. A place unto
itself, all tangled and mazed like a big ball of string. He tried to
come back again, wanted to stay awake, but everything just kept fading
"Murdoch . . ." The word barely a whisper on his lips. "Are you
there, Murdoch . . ."
Spencer looked down at him. Noticing the glazed eyes and parchment-like
skin with alarm. Torn between clasping the feeble, groping hand and keeping
watch for a vengeful Venn Cullen.
"Murdoch . . ." Johnny's
voice was weaker now. "Please Murdoch, por favor. Lo siento . . . I'm sorry
. . . "
Spencer bit his lip against the ache from his own wound. Taking
the flaccid fingers in a comforting grip as his heart contracted with
"It's alright, boy. Don't talk now, save your strength."
"I never meant . . . "
"I said hush, boy." He swallowed hard, looking down at the face
in front of him as the features began to fade and alter. The blue eyes
were lighter, the hair became brown. Changing into the face of his son,
the son he'd neglected and lost. His body surged with love and emotion.
Garrett, the wilderness, Venn Cullen forgotten. Taking his son into his
arms as he buried his face in his hair.
"I'm sorry, David. So sorry. I love you so much, my son."
Holding him close and rocking him gently as he protected him from
the world and all the evil in it. From all the hurt and grief that had
haunted his memories for so long. Expunging the guilt that devoured his
soul, twisting and turning inside him as it ate and corroded his being.
Dispossessed him of who he was.
The darkness had swallowed Johnny whole but he sensed the arms around
him. Sinking into the warmth and comfort of them with a sigh of relief
and gratitude. Reality shifted and memories jumbled.
'Scott, where was Scott . . .'
He recalled for some reason of insanity he wasn't allowed to say.
Either that or there was danger involved, he just couldn't remember anymore.
Resting his pounding surging head against his father's shoulder as the
swathe of quasi-panic left his body and he felt the gentle fingers in
"Rest easy, son. Relax now." The voice was gentle and soft. it filled
him with fresh despair.
"My head - it hurts so much . . . "
"I know, I know. Just close your eyes and rest."
He wanted to, he really did. But the inner voice of instinct that
kept him alive was pulling and tugging at him now. Vaguely aware of a
grim edge of danger, a dark cloud of threat that kept him from falling
. . .
He tried to fight the shadows, struggling up through the pain and
disassociation as he responded to the warning getting louder in his head.
Pushing ineffectually at Spencer's shoulder as he sought to sit upright
again and the world became copper-edged.
He no longer knew where he was, just that he was in trouble. There
was grave danger somewhere out there. He saw the blur of movement as a
figure detached himself from the rocks behind them and knew the man meant
"No . . ."
The word was almost too much effort. Trying to impart the urgency
to his companion as he summoned one last supreme effort and lifted up
Spencer saw the fever in Johnny's eyes a moment too late. Spinning
and half-turning, the colt rising ineffectually in his hand as he pivoted
to face Venn Cullen. The Texan grinned nastily at them. Leaning nonchalantly
against a large boulder, the carbine cocked across his arm and pointed
at Spencer's chest.
"Well lookee here. Seems like you two got all nice n' friendly now.
Yo jist drop that gun, Mister Spencer - easy now."
Spencer straightened slowly and let the colt slip from his fingers
into the dust. He regarded Cullen steadily, striving to keep his voice
"Why don't we settle this like Gentlemen, Cullen. I'll pay you as
promised, with a bonus of five hundred dollars on top."
Cullen's smile tightened, eyes as hard as flint. "Only fivehundred?
Don't seem like much fer Yancy's life."
"A thousand then."
Johnny watched as the
man pretended to consider, clinging on desperately to lucidity as he
fought to stay awake. He knew Cullen was dragging this out for pleasure.
The Texan had no intention of letting either of them walk away alive.
Sweat trickled down into his eyes, the salt stinging and burning as he
dashed it clumsily aside with his good right hand. One way or another
he would be out of this soon. He knew that now, accepted it deep in his
The world was receding from him. Retracting and diminishing along
with all sense of time and space, being and self. It was as though he
were floating like that old eagle he'd seen. Soaring and gliding on a
thermal. Moving into a vacuum of sunlight and drifting down a dreamlike
path towards freedom from pain in his head. Away from the ache of loneliness
that ate and eroded his soul.
The colt . . . His colt blurred hazily before him in the dust and
the urge to die with it in his hand was like a raging fire inside. The
gun was a part of him and he wanted to feel it against his palm. A reassuring
solidity of wood and metal that fitted into the hollows of his body with
all the surety of belonging, of right. Like the old familiar handshake
of a friend.
It was who 'he' was. Johnny not Scott.
Madrid or Lancer? He was no longer sure if he cared. Maybe he was
always destined to be both - two men in one. Two halves of one soul.
He breathed in shakily. No longer afraid when it hurt him so badly,
not needing to feign his helplessness as he wasn't so sure he could move.
Cullen laughed. Pulling back the lever on the carbine with a lazy
flick of his thumb, his mouth twisted in a mocking sneer as he shook
his head finally at Spencer.
"It aint about the money no more. You killed my brother, Mister
Spencer . . ."
"You were planning to double-cross me. To kill me."
Cullen snorted. "Lancer tell you that? D'he tell yo' it was his
Spencer smiled suddenly,
recalling the look of self-chagrin on Scott Lancer's face as he'd admitted
his duplicity back at the cave. He'd accused the man of stupidity then;
but Lancer was one of the least stupid men he'd ever had the privilege
to meet. He looked up at Cullen again. The hard evil corded in his cruel
face, cunning cast to his calculating eyes. Contrasting it all with the
man at his feet. The man who's life was ebbing away even as they spoke.
"He told me," he said evenly. "For all the reasons he came with
us in the first place when you held the gun at the old man's head. For
all the reasons a man like you could never understand."
Cullen tensed with anger, the devil leaping into his eyes as he
gripped the carbine tighter. "Yo'll pay for that, Spencer. Just like
yo'll pay fer Yancy . . . "
There was enough of Madrid left in Johnny for him to know the second
Cullen tipped over the edge. He had a shimmering moment of perception
- the same one that pre-empted every duel he'd ever fought. The gift or
curse that enabled him to see the movement before it began; the flicker
of intent in an opponent's eye just in time to draw and take him out.
The first reach of his groping hand found the colt and for a fleeting
second, it felt like coming home. Swift as light he raised the hammer,
lurching drunkenly to his feet then stumbling as his body let him down.
But the momentum was enough to send Spencer sprawling sideways as
Cullen's bullet whistled harmlessly through empty air. Johnny was vaguely
aware of someone calling his name, a voice familiar and urgent.
He was seeing things through a red haze. A strange dimness in his
vision as he tried to aim the colt, muscles tense and trembling with
exertion. Mindful of the darkening blur that was Cullen as the man gave
a shout of fury and Johnny saw him raise the carbine again. The colt kicked
back in his palm with a strong leaping intensity, the odour of cordite
sweet in his nostrils as he looked up and saw Cullen fall.
The sky roared round his head, beating and pulsing with crimson
as someone caught him gently in their arms and laid him back on the sun-baked
earth. The world shivered and he reached for a hand, a touch. Grasping
desperately onto warm strong fingers but he couldn't maintain a grip.
His hand fell back uselessly to the ground as the pain began mercifully,
He was so tired, so very
sleepy now. Muscles softening and dissolving as the light began to fade.
There were voices calling out to him, calling out his name. And he tried
to answer, he wanted to, but his mouth didn't seem to work.
The sun seemed suddenly brighter with streams of golden light. Bathing
his body in a soft cocoon of warmth and safety as he sank towards it with
a sigh of relief. Maybe he could rest a while now, perhaps at last they
would let him sleep. He felt an aching wistful yearning that hurt inside
his heart; so much he wanted to tell them, so many words unsaid . . .
But he was drifting with the radiance, beginning to let go. Eyelids
closing softly as he fell towards the light.
Johnny's head rolled to one side and Spencer watched as his fingers
opened loosely like a flower in the sun. And somewhere above him up high
in the blue, the eagle soared towards the heavens on wings of freedom
in the azure plain of sky.
* * * * * * * *
A single shot. Echoing
through the still hot air from somewhere close by in the foothills. Murdoch
snapped his head up like a whippet, his eyes meeting Moffat's uneasily
as he strained his ears and listened hard. But there was no second shot
and he stood for a minute racked with indecision.
"I made it up in those rocks."
Moffat nodded. "Less than half a mile away."
And then the second shot. Murdoch set his jaw and obeyed his instincts.
Hitching his foot into Caledonia's stirrup and swinging up onto the
bay. "I'm going up there."
Garrett looked up sharply. "You can't leave me here alone."
Moffat smiled urbanely as he joined him up on the buck board. "Don't
worry, Mister Garrett. No one's going to leave you alone because we're
Garrett glared at them both, hanging on tightly to his hat as the
wagon jolted forward. "This is madness. We could be heading straight
into a trap."
"Could be," agreed Murdoch coldly, unable to hide his disgust. "On
the other hand Johnny might need us. In which case, I plan on being there
His first assessment of the trail was proving correct. It was risky
if not downright perilous and the buck board bounced and lurched along
with an uncomfortable Harlan Garrett clinging onto the side for dear life.
Moffat just sat there imperviously, tooling the reins with ease.
A stealthy approach was impossible but Murdoch was beyond caring
now. He'd had a bellyful of it all. Garrett, Spencer, his own gnawing sense
of guilt. He wanted his life back again, his family gathered around him.
Teresa to look at him with love and warmth in her eyes.
A Scott that wasn't angry - a Johnny who was there. Things he'd
become complacent about, had taken too much for granted. He swore deep
down in his soul he would never be so self-satisfied again. That he'd never
just assume he'd been gifted some kind of immunity. He ground his teeth
with the irony.
For years he'd believed he was born under an unlucky star as one
by one, all those he loved were lost. Railing as the cruel hand of fate
had stolen his wives, his sons, his friends from him. Becoming one of the
wealthiest most powerful men in the whole of California, whilst shoring-up
his aching forsaken heart against the pain of isolation. The threat of
a lonely old age.
And it got worse before
it got better. There'd been a moment when Pardee had first come to the
valley he'd actually believed he might lose Lancer. That the only thing
to sustain him through the years of loss and loneliness would be stripped
from him by pirates.
Thanks to his sons that hadn't happened. Thanks to the miracle he'd
thought would never come to pass. But happiness was seductive. It had
lured him into a false sense of security, an expectation of comfort and
companionship that was fragile and brittle as glass. It only took one
small stone to shatter it into pieces again - jagged broken shards around
"Mister Lancer . . . "
Moffat pointed ahead but Murdoch had already spotted the horses.
A bay and a roan cropping desultorily at the scrub as they wandered about
unhobbled. The bay's reins trailed on the ground behind him, catching
and tangling in the undergrowth as he raised his head at their approach
and snorted uneasily.
"Do you see anything?" He turned to Edward Moffat as the Englishman
stood up on the buck board and searched the rocks with practised eyes.
"There . . . to the right. Up a little, two men, one of them's .
. . one of them is Mister Spencer."
Murdoch followed his pointing finger. Heart leaping into his throat
as he recognised the flash of a salmon shirt, the glint of black hair.
"And Johnny's with him," he said grimly. "Where are the other two?"
"They're pinned down," said Moffat brusquely. "There's something
odd about this . . . "
"Oh for heaven's sake," muttered Garrett irritably. "Why don't you
just get up there and finish it? Can't you pick Spencer off from here with
a rifle shot?"
"Si Senor," agreed Jorge, as he rode on up behind them. "I could
take him out from here."
"With respect, Sir," Moffat's voice was cold with angry civility.
"We need to know what's going on before anyone has to die. There's been
many a battle lost by rushing in too hastily."
"I agree," grunted Murdoch,
as he continued to scan the rocks. "Up there, behind them. One man with
"I see him, Sir."
"Murdoch," said Murdoch gruffly. "It's Murdoch. I'm going to circle
up on his flank. Can you make that climb to their front?"
Moffat smiled slightly. "This is my kind of terrain, S . . . Murdoch.
Reminds me of the North West Frontier."
"Here." Murdoch tossed him the spare carbine from the back of the
buck board and looked at him hard. "Remember - I want Johnny back alive."
Moffat nodded soberly. "I promise you that's my priority, but I
intend to talk to Mister Spencer if I can."
"You're both a pair of idiots," scoffed Garrett as he leant back
on the seat of the buck board. "The man's mad. He won't listen to either
of you, and what about me? Is it safe to leave me down here by myself?"
Murdoch couldn't bring himself to answer. Dismounting in one quick
movement and turning back to Jorge. "Stay here with Mister Garrett, but
keep your sights on the man with Johnny. Don't fire unless I signal,
He turned without another word and strode on off to his right. Moffat
however, could not resist one final mild rebuke. "You're quite welcome
to join me, Mister Garrett."
He grinned quickly to himself as he waited half a second, then turned
to face the arduous track that led on up through the rocks.
Murdoch climbed as noiselessly as he could. Eyes drawn irresistibly
to the man with the rifle as the short journey seemed to take a lifetime.
If he didn't know better he'd swear that Spencer and Johnny were pinned
down together. Frowning as nothing made sense to him any more. He wished
that Scott was with him. Not just because he was the best damn carbine
shot on Lancer, but for the actual comfort of his physical presence.
The optimism that having one of his sons at his side always seemed to
generate within him.
He was closer now. Inching
up behind the outcrop and watching with alarm as the rifleman outflanked
Spencer and Johnny, confronting them with the carbine as he stepped into
the open. Murdoch could just about make out Moffat working round behind
them, finding a second of admiration in him for the adept way in which
the Englishman had moved so quickly up the incline.
There was no sign of anyone else. Whatever had happened to the second
piece of scum, he was definitely not here now; of that Murdoch was sure.
Spencer had climbed to his feet and was exchanging words with the gunman
but Johnny still lay on the ground. Murdoch moved forward until he was
in earshot, straining hard to hear what the rifleman was saying and able
to discern his Texan drawl.
"D'he tell you it was
He saw Spencer smile,
glancing from the Texan down to Johnny and back again.
"He told me - for all
the reasons he came with us in the first place when you held the gun
at the old man's head. For all the reasons a man like you could never
The Texan was angry now.
Hands tightening on his carbine as he levelled it at Spencer's chest.
Whatever had happened up here in these mountains, it was clear these men
had fallen out. That bizarrely, Johnny and Spencer had formed some sort
of alliance and were in it against this man. It was also clear that Johnny
was hurt. His normally vital son lay limp and inert in the dust and Murdoch
could see the sling on his arm, the livid mottled bruises all over his
"Yo'll pay for that,
Spencer. Just like yo'll pay fer Yancy . . ."
It took Murdoch a couple
of seconds longer than Johnny to know what the Texan intended to do.
Rising up from his hiding place with a shout of alarm as he saw Johnny
reach for the discarded colt.
The name was torn from his lips but he didn't know if Johnny even
heard it. Crying out as he saw him stagger against Spencer and lift the
colt to fire. The report was deafening, uneerily loud. Or maybe it was
the sound of Murdoch's heart.
He watched in slow motion as the bullet found a home. The Texan
was dead in an instant and Johnny fell back into Spencer's arms. Murdoch
leapt forward. Terror and denial both fighting for a place inside him
as he moved like a man in a dream. A nightmare. His limbs were all unsteady
and he seemed to take too long in getting there.
Kneeling down in the dirt beside Spencer. Hardly even aware of the
man as he reached for one of the long brown hands and lifted Johnny's
head. His face was white - his eyes wide open. But they were only the
windows of a departing soul. Johnny didn't know him, consciousness had gone.
And Murdoch knew he spoke to Johnny - he called him over and over,
keening and shouting his name. He watched as his son's eyes whispered
closed. Watched as the fingers slipped from his grasp. Watched as his
own heart was broken as he knelt in the dust at Johnny's side.
* * * * * * * *
Moffat sprang forward
in dismay. Raising the carbine to eye level as he aimed at the cutthroat's
head. But the Lancer boy beat him to it. Somehow finding the strength
to reach for the revolver on the ground as he cannoned into Spencer and
knocked him safely aside.
The movement undoubtedly saved Spencer's life. Moffat knew he would
have been cut down by the rifle bullet as sure as night followed day.
There was a horrid silent pause as the cordite cleared and he watched
with some amazement as Spencer caught the Lancer boy in his arms tenderly
as a baby.
Lowering him onto the ground with infinite gentleness as he supported
the lax body, own face creased and grey with distress as he smoothed
aside the sweat-matted hair.
Blood dripped steadily onto the rocks from a wound in Spencer's
arm but the man disregarded it totally. All his focus, all his attention
was on the man he held in his arms.
Moffat's heart sank. He was a soldier, he'd seen death enough times
not to recognise it now in the face of Johnny Lancer. He watched as Murdoch
approached his son. The big Scotsman looked afraid, uncertain. Ignoring
Spencer completely as he knelt on the ground and lifted one of the limp
Another time, another place. Moffat remembered hearing the gunfire
from the parade ground. Leading his frightened patrol through the ugly
crowds as they barely made it back across the city with their lives before
the rumours on the street became reality.
All of them with families in the cantonments - terrified the mob
had got to them first. He'd known the minute he'd dismounted his horse.
The bungalow door wide open, one of his wife's dresses strewn across the
lawn where a looter had left it, an obscene mass of satin ruffles; incongruous
Their bodies had been inside. His wife's across the doorway to the
nursery, his two younger children's in the room itself. The wizened body
of their Indian Ayah stretched over them, protecting them even in death.
But no sign of his fourteen year old son. He'd torn frantically through
the bungalow, searching room by room for any sign of him. Eventually
finding the boy in the garden, one of his spare revolvers in his hand.
His heart had surged for a moment when he'd seen he wasn't dead.
Living long enough to clasp his father's hand and apologise for failing
to protect his mother and sisters from the mob before dying silently in
The pain of it had never left him. Keener perhaps than if they'd
all been dead when he'd arrived. The grief and anger engraved upon his
soul forever as he held his dying son in his arms.
And watching Murdoch Lancer brought it all back to him now. Hardly
able to look at the lines of disbelief on the man's face as he clung onto
hope but gave into despair. Moffat sighed in sympathy and understanding,
wretched as yet another man lost his son.
He was so distracted he almost missed the footfall behind him. The
scrabble of loose shale as someone else approached. He turned quickly
and saw Harlan Garrett climb with difficulty over the ridge. The man's
face was red with exertion but the look on it unmistakable as he laid
eyes on Amos Spencer.
Spencer turned as if sensing him. Straightening up slowly as he
relinquished 'Scott Lancer' to his father, and looked across at his nemesis.
The silence stretched between them as their glances locked and held -
the contrast between the two men almost shocking.
Spencer blood-stained, dusty and bedraggled. Several days growth
of beard on his chin, a lifetime of sorrow in his eyes. Garrett began to
smile. Coldly, deliberately, lips curling into a taunting sneer as he
regarded the man who'd drawn him out West. This joker, this loser . .
He'd even failed in his revenge. Garrett laughed out loud at Spencer's
bewilderment. The man's dawning realisation that Johnny Madrid meant nothing
whatsoever to him, Harlan Garrett.
"Who?" The one word, soft and anguished as he looked again at Madrid's
Garrett laughed. Louder this time as he recovered his wind from
the climb. "The wrong son, Spencer. You took the wrong son. Scott - my
Scott, is safe and well. This man here is his half-brother. He means nothing
to me, nothing at all."
"My God . . . "
"You couldn't even get that right," gloated Garrett, turning the
screw a notch tighter. "Look at him - the man's half-Mexican. Did you
really think for a second he was any grandson of mine?"
"But he said . . ."
"He did it for his brother,"
said Moffat quietly, watching his master's face anxiously as he tried
to gauge Spencer's state of mind.
Despite his appearance, despite the pain in his eyes, something
seemed to have changed. The mania had vanished from him. The rigid obsession
consuming him, gone. And with it the hatred had dissolved. Something had
happened out here in these wild hills. Something to do with the man on
Spencer turned to look at Johnny again. Watching in agony as the
big man who must be Murdoch Lancer cradled him against his chest. Their
eyes met for a second in shared sorrow and Spencer shook his head dazedly.
"What . . . what's his name? Tell me his name?"
"John," said Murdoch softly. "His name is Johnny."
"Johnny . . . " Spencer whispered it carefully. "It suits him better
"You never said a truer word," vowed Garrett with feeling. "How
even you could have mistaken that . . . could mistake him for 'my' grandson.
It almost beggars belief!"
"It's my fault," said Spencer dully. "He tried to escape and he
fell. I didn't realise he was so badly hurt - he never once complained."
He turned back to face Garrett again. "I was bringing him home to you,
Garrett. It took a man I was determined to kill to teach me how to forgive.
To show me that life could be kind . . . " He wiped a trembling hand across
his face but braced his back and pulled himself up straight. "I may be
to blame, but it's your fault too. You destroy lives, Garrett. Mine, my
son's - this man's. How many others have you ruined? Probably too many to
"I'm a businessman," said Garrett coldly. "This country was built
because of men like me who take risks and create wealth. I never do anything
outside the law."
Spencer laughed bitterly. "No. I'll concede that at least. You just
pay others to do it for you. You use and abuse, twist men's lives to
suit your purpose. You know what? The devil can take you. You're not
even worth my time!"
He turned away in disgust, unable to look at Harlan Garrett anymore.
Knowing the final victory was in surrender, the giving-up of hate. Somewhere
in these mountains Johnny Lancer had taught him that. He only prayed the
price was not too high.
Garrett stiffened, sliding
his hand inside his coat pocket as he stared at Spencer's back. Moffat
caught a glimpse of dull metal, sunlight on the barrel of a gun. Leaping
forward with a cry of warning on his lips as Garrett aimed it dead centre
between Spencer's shoulder-blades, his finger tightening on the trigger.
There was a loud report as Moffat barrelled into him. Both men crashing
sideways into the dust as Spencer escaped death for the second time
A clatter of horses hooves and Jelly and Cipriano appeared over
the crest of the hill, a look of almost painful anxiety on the old man's
whiskered face as he took in the scene at a glance. Sliding down off
the sorrel and almost tripping in his haste to reach Murdoch's side.
Moffat sat astride Garrett on the ground, taking a grain of satisfaction
in grinding his knee into the small of the man's back and feeling him
squirm in discomfort. He checked the revolver and pocketed it grimly, reflecting
that this was one time the 'famed businessman', had not acted within
the auspices of the law. And in front of witnesses, too.
Jelly's legs were shaking as he knelt alongside Murdoch and Johnny.
Reaching out tentatively to touch Murdoch's shoulder, a world of enquiry
in his watery eyes.
But Murdoch was almost catatonic. He looked up at him dully and
Jelly watched in dismay as his face crumbled and a lone tear began to
roll down his cheek. The Boss never cried, thought Jelly as his own chest
tightened with anguish. In the last two years since he'd been at Lancer,
the Boss had never cried.
"Here . . . you take him." Murdoch's voice was thick with grief.
"I . . . I can't."
Jelly swallowed. Blinking hard as Murdoch relinquished Johnny's
limp body over to him. A wrenching sob rising in his own throat as the
dark head rolled back on his arm. He loved this boy so much - God how
he loved this boy. The thought he might have lost him was more than his
old heart could stand.
"Come on Johnny, come on boy. I never . . . never did tell ye 'bout
thet nun and her corset like I promised . . . don't do this to me, son."
He ran a gentle trembling hand across the dusty head. Memories fond
and absurd all jostling for space in his mind. Chasing a laughing Johnny
round the courtyard with a pair of scissors and threatening to cut his
hair, whilst Scott and Teresa had wept with mirth. That had been in retribution
for finding an eyebrow shaved one morning when he'd woken. He'd wagered
it for a bet one evening whilst a little worse for wear and refused to
pay-up when he'd lost. Johnny had claimed it anyway; sneaking into his
room in the night.
"It didn't take long ter
grow . . ." he said softly, voice breaking as his fingers hesitated on
the soft hair; wiping it back from Johnny's eyes even though he knew
the gesture was futile.
And Johnny didn't answer him. Lashes dark on his cheekbones, the
bright blue eyes closed fast. Jelly started to cry and didn't care who
saw it. Hurt beginning to expand like a great black hollow inside him as
he feared he'd lost the person he loved most in the world.
BITTER JUSTICE - PART
There are two endings
to this story.
PART A - - Requires major warning of a main character death with all its
associated ramifications and consequences for those left behind.
PART B - - Contains a happier ending. If you don't wish to read
about a major character death then this one is more applicable.
Whichever part you opt for, I hope you enjoy it.
Thanks for reading.
Lisa Paris - 2003.
Eight weeks later . .
Sunset. A symphony of unimaginable flaming colour hung across the
valley. Breathtaking golden veils misty and ethereal, shining in rays
of bright glory so beautiful it almost pained him to see. He paused for
a moment, taking time to slow his steps. But it didn't take too much effort
and his feet dragged of their own will. Each step had seemed so much
harder during the last eight weeks . . .
The sky was ablaze now. Bands of vivid rosy-clouds that shimmered
against the blue. But only the blue hurt his eyes to look at - anything
but the blue.
She was there of course. Just where he'd known she'd be. Skirts
spread around her like a pale flower as she sat on the marble bench at
his side. At his grave.
He swallowed hard. Ridiculous to be so afraid to approach her, to
intrude yet again on her grief. But the anger she still felt for him
was like a barrier between them, a barrier that might never be breached.
He took a last painful look at the sky and walked across the lawn to sit
beside her on the bench.
"It's getting late, honey. Aren't you coming in?"
"Maria's preparing your supper," she said remotely, staring away
from him, her face as wan as the marble tombstone beside them.
"I don't care about the supper," he said with a flash of sudden
anger. "Teresa, this can't go on."
"No," she answered quietly. "It can't."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
She sighed restlessly. "I'm thinking of going away for awhile. To
stay in Stockton with the Barclays. You know Victoria asked me at . .
. at the funeral."
"Yes," he replied morosely, heart breaking all over again. "She
"Well, I'm going to accept. Now that Scott's gone to Boston, you
don't need me here. I want a change - I need a change. There are too many
memories, too much at Lancer that reminds me of him."
This then, was what he'd dreaded hearing. That she was leaving him
too. His breath caught like ice in his throat, the words lost like ash
on his tongue.
"Teresa, I . . . "
"I worry, you know . . . " She stopped him from finishing. Twisting
her hands compulsively together as she stared down at the grave. "What
if he doesn't like it here - what if he's lonely all by himself?"
He swallowed hard. His heart ached for her, body ached to comfort
her. But he knew he no longer had the right. She'd made that very clear.
"I'm sure he likes it, darling," he tried to keep his voice even.
"Remember how much he loved your garden? How he used to sit out here
with you most evenings to watch the sunset . . ."
She was silent for a long time, but he had no wish to encroach upon
her solitude. Listening to the breeze as it shushed through the treetops,
watching the distant peaks of the mountains as they sparkled mauve like
A butterfly danced past his hand, wings a ghostly flutter in the
twilight as it landed briefly on the grave and was gone. Vanishing mysteriously
into the shadowy evening like a dream. He sighed, almost afraid to talk
to her but knowing it was his last chance.
"Don't go, Teresa. Not because you're angry with me."
He felt her stiffen beside
him, her restless fingers still for once. He took a chance and reached
out for them, marvelling that just his palm could encompass both her tiny
hands. Encouraged that she didn't pull away.
"You say that I don't need you here - I've never needed you more.
And Scott won't be gone for long, he promised he'd come home again .
A single shining tear fell on his hands and he looked across at
her lowered head, the thick brown hair and sweep of lashes against her
creamy skin. She was no longer a girl, this child of his. A woman now,
fashioned by the bitter hand of grief but all the more beautiful for it.
Every sweet curve of her rich with the age-old secrecy of her sex - the
enigma that had always eluded men. He was unsure of this Teresa, even
a little scared of her. Amazing that such power could be wielded by hands
as small as these, by a person who only reached as high as his breastbone.
But he wasn't fooled for a moment by her size. Her heart was wide
as the darkening sky, her spirit vast as the land. He knew he deserved
all her anger, but wanted to ask her forgiveness. He needed her love once
"I knew, you know. I knew he wasn't coming back this time."
Her voice was so quiet he had to strain to hear her words. But she
still wasn't looking at him. Gazing off through the trees and the nodding
banks of roses, her face pale and shuttered in the dim light.
"That morning in the kitchen, the shadow was there. I should have
said something - should have stopped him leaving . . ."
"No," he said painfully. "I sent him after Tilbury's mare."
"But I knew," she said again, voice breaking in suppressed agony.
"I knew and I let him go."
"Oh sweetheart . . ." he wanted so much to touch her. To pull her
into his arms as he'd done when she was a tiny girl. But the wall was
still there between them, a little crumbled perhaps, but still impregnable
"Johnny would have laughed. He would never have stayed."
And he knew in his heart it was true. That really, they had only
had him with them on borrowed time. A brief glimpse of summer then gone.
Like a butterfly - like his mother, vanishing into the sky on a flash
of jewelled wings. Something so beautiful was never meant to stay for long.
He'd always felt it from the very first. That Johnny was elusive,
here today and gone tomorrow. He only wished tomorrow had never come.
"Maybe I should have tried," there was no question in her statement,
just a self-condemnatory acceptance that cut him like a knife. So this
then, was the crux of her grief. She was holding herself responsible for
It was tragic and sadly ironic that Teresa of all people should
confess to this, when the rest of them were already crippled with blame.
Scott, so angry and silent at the funeral. Rigid with pain and self-recrimination
as he'd stared dully at his brother's coffin on the bright morning they'd
buried him. Murdoch knew Scott saw himself lying there in Johnny's place.
That he was racked with guilt, and a fury so black it had engulfed him.
No matter what anyone said in mitigation, no matter it wasn't his fault.
Johnny had given him the greatest, the ultimate gift. And Scott almost
hated him for it. Except that he loved him too.
Murdoch forced himself to remember the cruellest day. The day out
in the foothills holding Johnny in his arms. He could still feel the
sense of unreality, the dazed denial in his head. But all the while his
heart had known the truth. Calling to him brokenly, crying out his name.
He wasn't sure if Johnny even heard him, he hoped, oh he hoped that he
had, but his son was gone from him. Radiant and sure, with his brilliant
blue eyes and his gift of a smile - all the bold force of his own life
expended in one last magnificent legacy. The bequest of that life to
If only Johnny had known him at the end. But Murdoch was so afraid
he hadn't. His son's eyes had been open, but there had only been the fading
light - the uncanny flicker of a leaving soul, it's life-essence gone
Why must death always find someone to blame?
Murdoch pondered this
question sadly as the crickets began to sing. The day descending in a
last dramatic finale of purple and gold as the sky darkened and he could
see the moon beyond the hills.
He sighed gently, and turned back to the girl at his side. "What
would he say if he could hear you?"
She didn't answer for a long time. Another tear splashing on the
back of his knuckles even though she never made a sound. Then honestly;
"he'd say it wasn't my fault. That I shouldn't feel guilty."
Murdoch felt a flush of relief. "Yes he would. And he'd be right.
It's no more your fault than it is Scott's - then it is mine, perhaps.
He even forgave Amos Spencer . . ."
He was silent himself then. It had been one of the hardest things
he'd ever done in his life, refusing to press any charges against Spencer.
Scott had been disbelieving and furious with him, egged on by Harlan Garrett
who was facing a bitter justice all his own. But Scott hadn't been in
the mountains that day . . .
He hadn't seen how much Spencer had grieved for Johnny, or heard
the words the man had spoken to Garrett and Cullen about him. And for
once in his life, Murdoch had known with a certainty that brooked absolutely
no argument at all, it was what Johnny would have wanted. He 'd been unequivocal
about it. Refusing to budge in the face of all Scott's impassioned entreaties
and Garrett's mock-solicitation. He had heard Johnny's voice in his heart.
Spencer and Moffat had returned to Cape Cod. The man had wanted
to come to the funeral, but Scott was far too distressed, and Murdoch
could not allow it. But he also refused to have Garrett there.
The thought of the architect at the root of all this pain weeping crocodile
tears over the body of his dead son was more than he could bear. He took
a grain of consolation from the news Spencer had sought legal advice
regarding the dubious takeover of his company - that Garrett had offered
the man a substantial sum of money in return for forgetting his murderous
intent back in the foothills that terrible day. But it was meagre solace.
Scott had gone back to Boston with his grandfather. And even though
Murdoch knew it was to get away from Lancer and the ghost of Johnny that
haunted them all, it still hurt more than words could say. Watching as his
white-faced eldest son had climbed painfully into the coach, leaning heavily
on the stick he was still required to use as he recovered slowly from
the damned accident. It was yet another cruel reminder of everything fate
had stolen from them.
Things between Scott and Garrett were at their lowest ebb, and Murdoch
could have wept for his eldest son as he watched Scott floundering between
anger and blame. Scott was hopelessly lost right now. Almost as lost as
he was. Torn, as he searched for some kind of reason for what had happened,
the right person to accuse of Johnny's death. But there were no easy
answers. Maybe they were all a little to blame - maybe that was why it
was so hard.
Teresa had started to
cry in earnest at his words, shoulders shaking as a desperate sob escaped
her lips. "Why Murdoch, why? Johnny was so good . . . he cared so much.
Why couldn't life ever let him be happy? It's not fair - it's just not
He could restrain himself no longer. Taking her rigid little body
into his arms as she shook and shuddered against him with pain. "It isn't
fair, darling. Nothing about this is fair. What happened to Amos Spencer,
what happened to Scott, to us . . . "
"But Johnny paid the price."
"We all did. Maybe more so then he did. Johnny died for love - the
biggest reason of all, knowing in his heart he was keeping Scott safe.
He loved his family more than anything, Teresa. He paid that price of his
own free will."
She stilled against him then, the convulsive shivering done. "I
just wish . . . "
"Wish what, darling?"
"I just wish I'd told him what he meant to me - how much I loved
Murdoch rested his cheek on her hair, the echoing hurt inside him
almost unbearable. "Poor little heart - he knew. He knew alright."
But he wasn't sure the same could be said of him.
She didn't bother arguing. Curiously glad of his warmth and support
despite the fact her anger toward him was still unresolved. Eased a little
maybe, but not yet finally cured. Perhaps it never would be, the means
of that cure was gone forever. Gone just like her dreams.
Those hazy golden dreams of innocence and youth when life was a
gift forever, and time was on her side. But time itself had cheated her
and fate had played her false. Stolen her hidden hopes for the future,
stolen her secret heart.
She got unsteadily to her feet. "I won't go to Stockton."
But he shook his head resolutely. "No, I was being selfish. It will
do you good to . . . to get away. And Victoria will take wonderful care
of you," he paused, and she heard
his voice tremble slightly. "Just promise that you'll come back to me."
She stared at him startled, and became still. For a second she'd
heard the echo of another voice, seen the shadow of a pair of bluer eyes,
the warmth of a precious smile. The evening shimmered and was still.
"He needs you, querida . . . "
"Johnny?" She called out to him, knowing in her heart she couldn't
reach him, but filled with wild longing all the same.
"Don't give up hope, they need you now . . . "
"But I need you!" The words burst inside her, but she wasn't even
sure she'd said them aloud, pain hammering in her head like a drum. "I
She felt it then, a sigh like a kiss. The merest ripple of night
air across her face, her lips.
"I know. I love you too, I always will. That's why I want you
to be happy, to stay where you belong."
"How?" The tears choked her again, tightening in her throat with
a bittersweet ache. "How can I be happy without you?"
"I'll always be with you, but they need you now."
He was leaving again, and she knew it. Reaching for him blindly,
but knowing he couldn't stay. Never more conscious of the frailty between
eternity and time, dream and reality, and knowing at last in her soul,
that love could transcend it all.
"Goodbye . . . "
"Hasta Luego, amada
. . . "
"Teresa? Teresa honey?"
The night air hazed and closed around her with a snap. Surging back
to clarity as she lifted up her head. Wiping away her tears with the back
of her hand, and looking into Murdoch's anxious face.
"It's alright, I . . . I heard you." She blinked again, taking a
big breath of the heady scent of jasmine wafting on the breeze to steady
her senses and putting her hand on his arm, her first spontaneous gesture
towards him for weeks.
"Why don't we both go to Stockton, Jelly too? Until Scott's due
back, of course."
Murdoch regarded her with a glimmer of hope in his shredded heart,
but honesty forced him to tell her the truth. She was no longer a child
"There's something you ought to know first. About Scott . . . There's
a chance he might not come home . . . "
But she shook her head at him with a small sad smile. "He's coming
back to us - I know it . . ." The words hurt them both unexpectedly, remembering
another long-ago time she'd spoken them, about Johnny then and not Scott.
"Have faith, Murdoch," she paused. "I just know it. Scott will be
Just as she'd known Johnny wouldn't, somewhere deep down inside.
A different pain, a different poignancy, and one that would live with
her forever. She linked her arm through that of her guardian's and led
him away from the bittersweet spot they'd chosen for Johnny in the garden.
A walled corner in the dappled shade of a tree. Surrounded by roses
and scrambling jasmine, by borders of sweet-scented herbs. A quiet sanctity
of beauty and harmony, peace and serenity. Framed forever by the land
he'd loved so much, the benevolent watch of the distant mountains, the
sky that had echoed his eyes.
Behind them in the half-light, the butterfly danced on pale wings
- fluttering briefly in the fragile night-scented breeze. A breathtaking
flash of summer, then gone . . .
* * * * * * * *
Lisa Paris - 2003.
Eight weeks later . .
Sunset. Murdoch paused on his way out to the garden. Taking an appreciative
moment to admire the flaming ruby splendour of the sky, holding his
breath at the streaks of gold and swathes of pink, the gorgeous tints of
amber. But it was the blue in between that moved him the most. The summer-bright
azure of day - the blue of Johnny's eyes.
A quiet murmur of voices from the corner of the garden, and he knew
where they were. Slowing his steps as he observed them covertly for a
minute or two, his tall figure concealed by the shadows at the base of
the high white wall.
Scott and Teresa sat on the bench beneath the tree, the walking
stick his eldest son still relied on propped carelessly alongside him.
A trill of mirth, and Teresa threw back her head. Throat gleaming
white as a pearl in the dimming rosy light as she laughed at something
Scott had said.
Murdoch moved forward, feet crunching on the gravel path as he approached
them, smiling a little tentatively as he met their upturned faces.
"Didn't you hear the iron? Supper's nearly ready."
"Sorry Sir," Scott got to his feet, his movements still slightly
awkward as he reached for his stick. Teresa held it out to him, waiting
patiently as he adjusted his balance before taking hold of his arm. She
paused uncertainly, looking up at Murdoch with a question on her lips.
He shook his head at once. "Go on in, darling. We won't be long."
She nodded understandingly; flashing him a quick, bright smile,
as she turned round to Scott and measured her steps to match his stride.
Walking him back towards the hacienda as Murdoch watched her with pride.
Things were nearly better
between them again. He was not foolish or conceited enough to imagine they
hadn't changed, he knew in his heart that Teresa had lost the blind faith
she'd once had in his infallibility. But he hoped perhaps she might love
him a little the more for it one day. For being human enough to err;
for loving them enough to admit it.
Murdoch sat down on the bench they'd just vacated and regarded his
younger son. The swathe of bandages round his head as white and gleaming
as the star-flowered jasmine rioting over the garden walls.
"Sam had better not know how long you were out here this afternoon,
Johnny smiled a little ruefully, fingers moving up to touch his
head. "I was kinda hopin' the sun might encourage this to grow."
Murdoch nodded sympathetically, thinking of his own eroding hairline.
"It will, son. Teresa will be nagging you to get it cut again before you
know it . . . " he paused and grinned slightly. "Just call it Jelly's
Johnny grinned too, remembering the incident with the eyebrow. "I
didn't realise you knew about that."
"Oh," said Murdoch ruminatively, "I know a lot more about what goes
on round here than you realise, " their eyes met with understanding before
he continued. "But don't worry about the hair, it's already grown back
"Si," said Johnny wryly, "Like a fuzzy black peach, according to
my dear brother, that is."
Murdoch laughed, he couldn't help it. The urge to run his fingertips
over the downy black fuzz growing back on Johnny's head was almost too
tempting to resist.
"It reminds me of when you were a baby. A tiny brown scrap with
a fuzz of black hair and eyes as bright as the sky . . . he paused suddenly,
and cleared his throat in embarrassment. "And I promise never to repeat
that in front of Scott."
"Se bueno . . . " Johnny
laughed too, but his throat was unaccountably tight as he looked up from
his pile of cushions on the couch. "He'd never let me hear the end of
They sat in silence a minute longer. Murdoch watching Johnny watch
the sunset. A deep peace in his heart as he thanked God for this moment
- but then he'd done rather a lot of talking to God during the space
of the last eight weeks.
They'd come so close to losing Johnny - closer than ever before.
Bringing him back from the foothills that day far more dead than alive.
It had probably been Jelly who'd kept him with them on Earth. Jelly who'd
held onto him - talking non-stop to him when Murdoch's own throat had
refused to work.
Jelly with tears streaming down his face who'd refused to give up
hope. Holding Johnny in his arms as he'd threatened him, begged and cajoled.
Jelly, and surprisingly, Amos Spencer. The man could hardly bear to leave
Murdoch wondered at the strangeness of destiny. Spencer had come
West in search of bitter justice, but ended up finding himself instead.
Himself and a man called Johnny.
His own anger had dissipated in the face of Spencer's devotion to
his younger son. That coupled with Johnny's obvious forgiveness and sympathy
for the man. A man who had lost his dignity, who'd lost his very soul.
But Johnny had given it back to him - given him the hope to carry on.
He now knew Spencer had been bringing Johnny home to him that day,
that nightmare day in the foothills before fate and Venn Cullen had leant
a deadly hand.
"Amos all packed?" Johnny interrupted his thoughts and he looked
up to find his son watching him with uncanny perception.
"Yes. He and Ned leave for Napa tomorrow as planned, now Sam managed
to persuade them both you were on the road to recovery."
Johnny nodded slowly. "I hope this winery thing pays off. It'll
be good to have them within ridin' distance."
"A most satisfactory use
of Harlan's ten thousand dollars," mused Murdoch with dry pleasure.
Johnny smiled suddenly. "My devious big brother - Scott should go
into politics. That was some deal he broke. Amos agreein' to forget the
pot-shot old man Garrett took at him in exchange for the money. Couldn't
have done it better myself."
Murdoch snorted. "I'd like to see Garrett pay with more than money,
Johnny. That man nearly cost you your life."
But Johnny looked up at him, the sunset reflected in his eyes. "The
only thing he cares more about than the money is Scott, and we already
went down that route once."
Murdoch shivered. The memories still haunted him. The stink of carbolic
in the kitchen and throughout the hacienda. Sam Jenkins issuing orders
with a grim pessimistic look on his normally jovial face. The whole of
that awful night passing in a stupor of boiling water, flickering lamplight
and hushed voices. The tense brooding atmosphere of fear.
Death had stalked the hacienda during those endless dark hours,
and for many of the difficult days afterwards. Murdoch had gone outside
in the end, out to this very same spot to wait whilst Sam Jenkins had
bored a hole in his son's head. Carrying out trephining surgery in order
to release the pressure from the blood-clot in the protective outer layer
around Johnny's brain.
Murdoch remembered Teresa. White-faced and unnaturally calm until
Sam had asked her to shave off Johnny's hair. She'd wept then; her tears
falling silently as she snipped off the soft black strands she'd nagged
him about so often in the past and watched as they drifted to the floor.
And then there was Jelly. Torn between empathy and anger as he'd
watched over a silent Amos Spencer, the anguish of the two men almost
palpable as they'd waited for news of a man both had come to love in
As for himself - Spencer's contrition had been as sour as bitters
on his tongue. He'd been unable to forgive him anything that night, and
for long nights following after that. Hardly able to talk to anyone at
all except for Scott, Jelly, or Ned Moffat; and Teresa hadn't wanted
to talk to him.
Harlan Garrett had stayed
with them for a week. Insisting he wanted to press charges against Amos
Spencer for attempted extortion until a very long and apparently painful
interview with Scott one night while Johnny still lay critically ill.
Garrett had departed the very next morning. Leaving behind ten thousand
dollars for Amos Spencer and a deed witnessed by Scott declaring the
money was a bonus payment for the sale of Spencer Shipping.
Scott had only told them the essence of what was said, and Murdoch
suspected they'd never really know what had happened between grandfather
and grandson. He'd gone up to find Scott later, tight-lipped and grieving.
Wrung out with a combination of anger and sorrow as he mourned the passing
of a love that would never be the same again.
"It was good to hear Scott laughing," he remarked contemplatively,
watching as the sky began to turn the distant mountain tops purple against
the horizon, the lowering clouds a crowning cloth of gold.
"He'll make it," said Johnny softly. "He's tough and he has us."
"Yes he does," Murdoch replied, a sudden lump in his throat. "And
you, will you make it, Johnny?"
There was a moments profound silence, and then the cicadas began
to sing as Murdoch saw his younger son raise a sorely wasted hand
to his head once more.
"So Sam says."
"What do you say?"
Johnny closed his eyes in pain. Remembering that last day back in
the hills, remorse a wakened grief for all that he'd done wrong. All
the lives he'd taken as Madrid - all the casual arrogance of his youth.
His day had ebbed and he'd known it; sensing the brush of death's dark
wings as sure as his name was Madrid. He smiled with aching sorrow in
his heart - or was that Lancer?
He should have died that
day, maybe for a moment he had. There was a nebulous impression of warmth
and golden light, a feeling of safety like he'd never known before. It
hung in the back of his consciousness like a glorious summer's day, like
a soft and gentle dream that lingers on the fringes of morning.
He couldn't quite believe he was still here. Afraid he was living
an illusion and it would all fade into a cruel nothingness as death truly
called him home a final time.
Murdoch's voice - questing and gentle. Johnny looked up and remembered
not to shake his head. Sam had lectured him severely and often about that,
so he waved his hand dismissively instead as he stared at his father's
"I'm alright . . . "
"Can't you tell me, son?" asked Murdoch quietly, looking beyond
the careful facade.
Johnny sighed slowly, his voice so soft Murdoch had to lean forward
to hear him. "Murdoch, I think I died."
Murdoch was still for a heartbeat as he tried to repress a shiver.
There'd been a moment that day, a brief moment when he'd fancied Johnny's
soul had gone from them forever. He'd sensed it in his son's eyes, the
way his hand had fallen from his grasp. Felt it leaving in a stream of
But he didn't say any of that. Knowing instinctively that Johnny
was troubled by the memory of it and choosing his words carefully as he
looked at his frail son.
"You nearly did. Sam said that if it had been any longer, the bleeding
might have burst through the outer layer and gone into the brain itself.
He couldn't have done anything then - we would have lost you."
"But I felt myself going . . . separating . . . "
"A hallucination, Johnny.
You had a very severe head injury. A skull fracture."
"Tal vez - maybe. It's just that . . . no entiendo."
"What don't you understand?"
Johnny looked up at him frankly, eyes burning brightly in his thin
face. "I haven't exactly lived a God-fearing life, Murdoch." He laughed
sardonically. "You read the report on me, you know what I did. There's
only one place I should be headed when I go, and that's down. That old
devil, he's got my mark. Reckon he's had it from the very first day I
picked me up a gun."
Murdoch looked down with a small smile, hoping Johnny couldn't sense
the sudden pain in his heart. "You'll be in good company then, my son.
I'll be waiting there before you, probably my father too. If all it takes
is for a man to pick up a gun . . . "
"That aint all it takes and you know it." Johnny looked away in
distress. "It's a different thing to take up a gun in wartime like Scott
did, to take it up in defence . . . "
"Hold it," said Murdoch abruptly. "You just hold it right there.
Did you ever take a life for the hell of it, ever shoot down an innocent
man with intent?"
But Johnny stared at him blankly. "You just don't understand. Know
what I was, Murdoch? I was a killin' machine. Well-oiled and efficient
as any gun you'll ever see. So what if the men I took out were men like
me, border-scum and riff-raff, cobarde. That still don't make it right
- it never gave 'me' the right!"
"You lived in a tough world, Johnny," Murdoch frowned. "You did
what you did to survive. The gun bought you some time - enough years
for you to make it home again. The freedom to chose what kind of man you
really are." His voice strengthened with sincerity. "Do you know what
Amos Spencer said back in those hills?"
"Murdoch . . . "
But Murdoch ignored him totally. "He said; 'it took a man I was
determined to kill to teach me how to forgive. To show me that life could
be kind . . .' He was talking about you, Johnny. About how you saved
He paused for a long moment,
remembering all the days before Johnny had been taken from them. His
own lack of forgiveness and understanding in his treatment of his son.
Looking up at the silent man before him and stretching out his hand.
The fingers this time were hard and warm. Vibrant once more with
the restless life-force that ever characterised Johnny. He clasped them
tighter, determined not to let them slip away this time, resolute he
would never lose his grip.
"I need to ask your forgiveness, Johnny," he said softly. "I was
wrong - my behaviour towards you unfair. I guess that's what linked me
to Amos, the fact we were both faced with the loss of a son and the knowledge
of our own complicity in it. I just thank God I have the chance to say
Johnny's fingers trembled for the tiniest moment. Holding on tightly
as the bond between them strengthened, the need for words invalid now,
as the healing embraced them and grew.
The distant mountains faded into dark as the sunset clouds melted
tracelessly away. The sun lingered stubbornly on in a last ruddy ball,
glorious and defiant to the very end. Murdoch looked towards the twinkling
lights of the hacienda - warm and inviting as the day gave up its secrets
to the night.
"It's about time I got you back inside. Teresa will be out looking
for us soon. She's been mighty protective of you lately."
Johnny smiled a little in the twilight. Glad of the deepening shadows
that hid his face from Murdoch's sharp-eyed view, the hope in his heart
still too fragile, the dreams that he cherished too new.
Taking hold of his father's arm as they made their way haltingly
up the path. He hesitated for a moment. Turning back for one last look
before the mountains were swallowed completely by the night. Pale roses
climbed like ghosts across the walls and the jasmine dripped like white
tears through the leaves. In the velvety shadows beneath the kindly branches
of the tree, the marble of the curved bench shone soft and lustrously
as pearls on a woman's throat.
"What is it, son?" Murdoch asked him questioningly.
"Oh, nuthin' . . . " Johnny was abashed and somewhat embarrassed
now. "Just a thought, stupid really."
Johnny lifted his face
to the brightening moon and took a deep breath of flower-scented air.
"Only that if . . . when it does happen . . . I'd kinda like to be buried
here. Somewhere the mountains can see me, somewhere that's peaceful and
Murdoch tightened his arm around him. The thought still a little
too close to bear. "You'd better tell it to your grandchildren, Johnny.
I'll be long gone by then."
"Oh no . . . " Johnny grinned, his heart lightening again. "You'll
be here as long as those old mountains - just keepin' an eye on the land."
They walked slowly back to the hacienda, to the welcoming glow of
the lights. Behind them in the darkness of the trees, the day's last butterfly
glimmered like a moonbeam amid the flowers. Fluttering on dim and ghostly
wings as it danced away and vanished in the shadows . . .
* * * * * * * *
Lisa Paris - 2003