Johnny Madrid-Killer For Hire
Warning: Please don’t let the purple prose in italics turn you off to this story. There is more to it than you realize when first reading the story. Be patient and I hope you will see what I mean. Enjoy and know that, though this author often writes an injury into a story for one or the other of “our boys”, it’s only make believe and, in my mind, I’m always there ready to render aid, just in case there isn’t a doctor, or a handy brother, around to assist!
Johnny Madrid - Killer For Hire
As the cloying cloud of dust cleared, one ill fated gunfighter lay graveyard dead, drilled precisely through his evil, black heart with one single shot. The other victorious gunfighter stood tall and proud at the other end of the street, the setting sun shimmering brightly over his grim countenance. Twirling his still-smoking revolver around his gloved finger several times, he easily slipped it back into the ornately carved holster fitted rather snugly around the lean, black leather clad hips. Silver, ornately carved buttons ran up each side of the form-fitting trousers, perfectly matching the silver ornamentation on the short bolo jacket that ended at the gunfighter’s waist. The man gazed with steely eyes at the crowd gathered around the fallen gunfighter, the noise level rising with each murmuring arrival.
Striding confidently away from the deadly section of the street, the dark-featured half-breed mounted his waiting horse and galloped off in a cloud of swirling dust. The blinding white haunches of the gunfighter’s faithful steed the last anyone saw of Johnny Madrid, killer for hire.
A noise at the door to his bedroom startled Scott, as he was so engrossed in reading the almost laughable story. He had purchased the paper-backed book on a whim of curiosity in Green River when he had read the title. Quickly stuffing the “penny-dreadful” inside his “Count of Monte Cristo” novel, Scott looked up to see his father watching him, a frown upon his worried face.
“Still awake, son?” The older man asked quietly, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb the rest of the sleeping household.
“Yes, sir,” Scott replied, forcing a yawn and hoping his father couldn’t tell from across the room. He held up the leather bound tome in which he had stuffed the other book. “Just reading a little Dumas to relax.”
“Well, Scott, you’re new to Lancer, just remember that around here work starts before the sun comes up,” Murdoch warned gruffly. He’d been trying to be a little more lenient with his newly found sons, but oversleeping after staying up too late to read wasn’t to be tolerated. “You’d best put the book away for the night.”
Annoyed that his father, whom he’d known only a few weeks, was speaking to him as if he were a child, Scott frowned before glancing down at the book now lying on his quilt-covered lap.
“Yes, sir,” he said with barely concealed irritation, though it seemed to appease the older man. Murdoch gave his eldest son a quick glance before leaving the room, closing the door firmly behind him.
“I don’t see how reading another few chapters is going to hurt anything,” Scott muttered to himself, knowing that he was very capable of doing a hard day’s work with very little sleep. He’d done it often as an officer in the Union Army during the war. Settling back against the pillow, he tossed aside Mr. Dumas’ literary masterpiece and eagerly shuffled through the pages of the “penny-dreadful” to where he had been interrupted.
Scott became so engrossed in reading, he was completely unaware of how much time had passed. He fell asleep sometime in the early morning hours, the paper-bound novel lying face down across his chest.
“Hey, Boston!” Johnny burst into Scott’s bedroom after giving only a cursory knock to announce himself. His father had sent Johnny from the breakfast table to rouse his tardy brother from the comfort of his bed and tell him that chores awaited no man at Lancer.
Striding across the room, an evil grin on his face at catching his big brother sound asleep, Johnny quietly stole up to the side of the bed just as a beam of sunlight stretched out from the opened window to light upon the paperback book lying across Scott’s chest.
Poised for a strategic attack, his fingers crooked and ready to jolt his brother rudely awake, Johnny reached for the book instead. His deeply tanned face paled and the teasing grin quickly slid from Johnny’s lips as he carefully lifted the book and studied the cover artwork.
“Johnny Madrid - Killer For Hire,” Johnny mumbled softly as he read the title. His deep blue eyes, only moments earlier lit with good humor and devilment, lost their glimmer as he stepped back from the bed, the book held tightly in his hand.
Moving to the chair by the open window, Johnny sat heavily and held the book in his shaking hands for a long time, his eyes closed tightly, before glancing sadly across the room at his brother. Something resembling tortured anguish crossed the young man’s handsome features as he gazed at Scott, who slept soundly, as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
Johnny had never wanted his newfound brother to know about the Johnny Madrid found in the trash he held in his hands. For someone who had only known each other a short time, Scott had the uncanny ability to make his younger brother smile and feel good about being Johnny Lancer. Johnny didn’t know what he was supposed to do with the skewed information that Scott now had of him in his mind.
Years ago, when Johnny Madrid had first started making a name for himself, a gunfighter to be feared and revered, the teenaged boy had reveled in buying each and every newspaper that had an article about his adventures, be they good or bad. All that mattered to him was that he had finally become somebody, and not that skinny little half-breed scrounging and begging for his next morsel of food.
At the time, the often elaborate stories in the articles, and later, the books, had stroked Johnny Madrid’s burgeoning ego. However, over the years, Madrid had grown weary of the fear his name engendered after the stories started becoming outlandish and then just outright lies. Soon, the daring and fictitious adventures of Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, had reached the elevated status of “penny-dreadfuls”; little paper-bound books that weren’t worth the paper on which they were printed, though, to the readers the stories were highly entertaining, and often frightening. The publisher of such works found money to be had in merchandising anything and everything they could about Johnny Madrid, whether it was true or not.
It hurt Johnny deeply to find that Scott had actually purchased one of those very same books and was apparently reading it.
Leafing through the pages of the book, Johnny sporadically read the author’s interpretation of the exploits of Johnny Madrid’s life as a young gunfighter and his anger grew.
Scott stirred in his bed. Raising a hand to swipe his hair from his brow, he opened his eyes blearily. Hearing the distinct sound of pages fluttering in the morning breeze flowing into the room through the open window, he frowned and leaned up on his elbows to look at the chair beside the window. Spying his copy of “Johnny Madrid - Killer For Hire” lying open on the seat, the object of the noise that had awakened him, his frown deepened into a scowl as he wondered how it had gotten there.
Slipping out of bed, Scott quickly grabbed the book and shoved it and “The Count of Monte Cristo” into the drawer in his bedside table. He certainly didn’t want Johnny to see that he had been curious enough to buy, much less read, the tawdry little book.
Swiftly attending to his morning ablutions, Scott hurried downstairs to the kitchen, still buttoning his shirt, only to find that he was much too late for breakfast. Everyone was already gone, having started their daily chores before the sun came up, as usual.
Several biscuits sat on a plate at the back of the stove, along with another plate of country ham. Stuffing a couple of the biscuits with slices of ham, Scott turned and dashed out the back door, munching as fast as he could chew on the first biscuit.
Upon reaching the barn, the harried man quickly gobbled down the other biscuit before leading his horse from its stall and placing the saddle on the animal’s back.
“Boy, when’re ya gonna learn to wear yer hat and gun when yer out on the range?” Amos, Lancer’s old wrangler, growled as he shuffled up to Scott to glare at his hatless head.
Dropping his chin to his chest in irritation, Scott mentally kicked himself for forgetting, again, the cowboy’s cardinal rule. He waited, a bit impatiently, for the forthcoming lecture from the wise old man.
“That there gun yer supposed to have ahangin’ on yer hip ain’t jest fer defendin’ yerself ag’in two-legged critters, ya know,” Amos expounded, his gray, rheumy eyes glaring angrily at Scott. To Amos, Scott was a young, upstart whippersnapper from back east. No account and as green as a newly sprouted sapling. Not worth anything but a whipping, if Amos had anything to say about it, which he did…constantly.
Scott simply nodded his head at Amos’s chastising words, satisfying the old man that his captive audience was listening. The craggy old wrangler continued, “And yer hat? It ain’t fer decoratin’ al the perty yeller hair. No sirree! That range sun’ll baker yer brains quicker’n spit, son. Why, I knowed a feller…”
“Scott?” Murdoch’s stern voice called out to his son from the barn door where he stood impatiently waiting for Amos to wind down. When he saw that Scott was in for one of Amos’ mind-numbing stories, Murdoch decided to take matters into his own hands. Scott was late enough getting started, so now was not the time to stand on formalities and manners. “What are you doing standing around here talking to Amos? And where is your hat and your gun, boy? You know…”
Grinding his teeth against the frustration at being treated like a ten-year old, Scott muttered an “excuse me” to Amos, before leading his big bay out of the barn and past his scowling father.
“What did you do last night, Scott, stay up after I told you to get some sleep?” Murdoch demanded as he kept pace with the long, ground-eating strides of his oldest son. Watching the young man loop the lead rein over the hitching rail outside the front door, Murdoch stood patiently beside the horse when Scott strode into the house.
“Yes, I did,” Scott admitted quietly as he came back outside with his hat and gun belt in hand. Returning to his horse, Scott glanced expectantly at his father, the older man’s arms crossed over his thick chest. Arching a brow, Scott looked the man directly in the eye, though he had to tilt his head up a bit in order to do so. “Was there something more you wanted, sir?” Though his voice came out soft and steady, inside Scott was ready to scream.
“Yes, in fact, there is,” Murdoch told him, a slight smirk lifting one corner of his stern mouth in a semblance of a smile. “Since you weren’t there this morning when duties were being handed out, you get what no one else wanted to do.”
Unfolding his arms, Murdoch gestured toward his son’s choice of attire; beige trousers and brown, custom-fit, long sleeved shirt. “You might reconsider Teresa’s offer to help you purchase more…appropriate clothing.”
“These trousers are fine,” Scott said almost loftily as he settled his tan safari hat atop his blond head before buckling the gun belt about his slender hips. The belt still felt strange to the Bostonian, having come from a civilized society that didn’t resort to gunplay to settle a dispute, Scott had been thrust into the “shoot first, ask questions later” law of the West and he wasn’t sure he would ever get used to it.
“All right,” Murdoch muttered doubtfully as he stepped back so Scott could mount his horse.
“So, what is this task that no one else wanted to do?” Scott asked, easily bringing his fractious horse under control with a firm hand and a soft voice as it shifted beneath him, eager to start the day.
Murdoch actually grimaced with distaste, and then said quietly, “the south pasture bogs…” At Scott’s groan, the older man nodded his head knowingly. No one in their right mind ever volunteered to clear the bog and check the fence that surround the half-acre area for breaks.
Though the place smelled of sulfur and death from the animals that had managed to blunder into the oily quagmire, Lancer cattle, and other creatures, were known to push down the fence in order to reach what little grass that could grow within the confines of the fenced-in area. Cleaning the bog was a dirty, thankless job and Murdoch was actually feeling a bit sorry that Scott had to be the one assigned to the chore. However, to the younger man’s credit, Scott merely nodded his head and guided his horse around his father to head to the south pasture and the job awaiting him.
The stench of the bog hit Scott a mile away and he was sorry he had eaten what little he had for breakfast. Wishing for a scented kerchief to tie over his nose and mouth in order to keep the odor at bay, the blond nevertheless proceeded on. Several times his horse balked and attempted to turn back toward the hacienda, but Scott maintained his superb mastery over the animal and kept him moving at a steady pace toward their smelly destination.
Suddenly, visions of gory battlefields filled the ex-cavalry officer’s mind and he shivered uncontrollably for several long seconds before regaining control over his body and mind. The bog smelled just like the aftermath of vicious battles in which Scott had been directly involved during the war, as well as reminding him of the Confederate prison hell-hole in which he’d been confined for a year and he thought he might lose his breakfast after all.
Arriving at a torn down section of the barbed-wire fencing, Scott dismounted and quickly hobbled his horse several hundred feet away beneath the shade of a stand of trees. Loosening the saddle girth to make the horse more comfortable, Scott left the animal contently grazing on a patch of lush grass as he made his way back to the broken fence line.
For hours the tall blond sweated and cursed as he repaired what he could and made note of the materials he would need to complete the job. As he walked the perimeter of the foul-smelling area, he noted the carcass of one of their beeves, having gotten itself bogged down in the thick, oozing quagmire. Pressing his bare forearm against his nose, Scott breathed through his mouth and quickly skirted around the dead animal and its cloying smell.
More and more Scott’s mind flashed back to memories he’d thought he had buried and locked away years ago. Stumbling over another unfortunate creature, all skeleton and hide now, Scott fell to his knees amidst the carnage and his stomach gave up the fight to tamp down the nausea. Vomiting up his breakfast, Scott hung his head and gasped for breath, though the stench surrounding him seemed to now permeate his very soul, much as it had years ago while struggling to survive in that Confederate prison.
Scrambling to his unsteady feet, Scott bolted toward the fence, his intent clearly to put as much distance as possible between himself and the memories the bog had released to haunt him. Slowing at the fence only long enough to sling a long leg between the top two strands of barbed wire, Scott didn’t even notice when the sharp barbs snagged and tore his expensive shirt, nor that the barbs had gouged painful grooves across the scarred skin of his back.
Gasping desperately, Scott jerked his shirt clear and continued on his headlong flight away from the bog as fast as his staggering steps could carry him.
The sun slowly sank into the western sky. Dinner, served precisely at six o’clock, had been served, eaten and the table cleared away an hour earlier. Now Murdoch sat in the great room with his youngest son and Teresa, the former idly playing with one of the pawns of the chess set sitting before him and the later carefully applying stitches to her embroidery project.
Glancing at Johnny, Murdoch couldn’t help but notice the haunted expression in the boy’s blue eyes as he gazed, unseeing, at the chess piece he held in his hand.
“John? Are you all right?” Murdoch asked gruffly. As a father of two grown boys recently returned home after being absent for so long; Johnny twenty years and twenty-four for Scott, Murdoch didn’t have a clue as to how to connect with either of them, though he had found that talking with Scott was much easier. Johnny was, as the old oriental saying went, “an enigma wrapped within a puzzle”. Ever since the young man had come to Lancer, Murdoch didn’t think he and Johnny had had a civil conversation with each other, and he could see from the blank expression now in his son’s eyes that this would be no exception.
“’m fine,” Johnny said softly as he carefully set the pawn back in its place and rose from the stool on which he’d been sitting. “I’m gonna go to bed. Kinda tired.” He shot a shy glance toward Teresa, who had set her tapestry aside to look up at him with a sweet smile on her face. “’night, Teresa. Thanks for the chocolate cake. It was real good.”
“Oh, Johnny, you’re very welcome!” She gushed as her smile broadened into a big grin. “There should be some left for lunch tomorrow.”
“If I don’t eat it for breakfast,” Johnny quipped with a crooked smile and sparkling blue eyes. Then the smile was gone as swiftly as it had appeared when he glanced back at his father. “’night, Murdoch.” Without waiting for a response from the older man, Johnny swiftly strode across the great room, his spurs jingling rhythmically with each step he took.
“Good night, Johnny!” Teresa called after her “brother”, a frown marring the smooth skin of her brow. She glanced across the room at Murdoch and noted his dark expression. Rising to her feet, she tugged her jeans into place and walked over to the desk to settle a slim hip on the edge, her booted foot swinging gently as she watched him closely. “What’s going on, Murdoch?”
Startled out of his pensive reverie, Murdoch dropped his pencil into the middle of the ledger on which he’d been attempting to concentrate and leaned back in the chair, a soft smile lighting his face as he gazed at the girl who had become his ward after her father, Murdoch’s Segundo, had died.
“Nothing’s going on, Teresa,” Murdoch said quickly, too quickly for the young girl who knew the man as well as she had known her deceased father.
“Uh huh, and that’s why you and Johnny aren’t speaking except for grunts and growls,” she ventured with a knowing nod of her head. “You’re still worried about Scott and Johnny not fitting in here at Lancer, aren’t you?”
“Young lady, when did you learn to read minds?” Murdoch said gruffly as he tried to hide the surprise in his eyes at her perceptiveness.
“Oh, it doesn’t take much…when your face is like an open book,” she said primly, sliding off the desk. She walked around the back of the leather chair to slip her arms around his neck. Laying her cheek atop his head, she sighed. “It’s just going to take time and a lot of adjusting for them, and you, but they’ll come to love Lancer as much as we do, Murdoch. Mark my words.”
“Oh, Teresa,” Murdoch said in a heartfelt whisper, “I pray that you’re right.” Grasping her wrists gently, he hugged her arms close to his chest. “I don’t think I could bare it if either one of them left.”
“I know,” Teresa agreed. “I think I love them both already, and I’m not actually related!” She started counting to ten, but only got halfway when Murdoch growled beneath his breath and quickly surged to his feet, dragging her out from behind the chair and holding her at arm’s length.
“If either one of those boys has said or done anything inappropriate…” Murdoch snarled, on full protect mode, even against his own flesh and blood. He then saw the laughter flashing in his ward’s eyes and he dropped his own eyes to the floor with a crooked grin on his face. “You got me, you little minx!”
“Oh, Murdoch!” Teresa exclaimed as she threw herself into his arms, her laughter filling the older man’s heart with joy. “You should have s-seen your face!”
Holding Teresa close, Murdoch closed his eyes and reveled in the easy camaraderie he shared with this girl he thought of as his own daughter, and wished that he could feel the same closeness with his sons.
Again, as if reading his mind, Teresa hugged him tightly. “Don’t worry, Murdoch. How could either of them resist loving you?” She stated matter-of-factly.
“Get on to bed with you, youngster,” Murdoch ordered brusquely, though the affectionate smile that lit his eyes belied the gruffness.
“Good night, Murdoch,” she told him as she kissed his beard-roughened cheek and practically skipped from the room.
Settling back down in his desk chair, Murdoch’s mind returned to the sullen expression he’d seen in Johnny’s eyes and pondered the reason. Not finding an answer to his concerns, Murdoch’s mind then turned to Scott’s suspicious absence.
Earlier in the evening, before supper, Murdoch had sent Pedro out to the bogs to see if anything was amiss with his eldest son, but the young boy had returned stating that Scott and his horse were no longer there. Questioned as to whether the fencing he’d seen was intact, Pedro had reported that it appeared several strands had been temporarily repaired, but that it looked as though more supplies would be needed for a more permanent fix.
Having dismissed the boy to his own supper, Murdoch had curtly informed Johnny and Teresa that they would not wait for Scott to join them. It never entered his mind to send someone out to make sure his son hadn’t gotten lost on the vast range that was Lancer.
Sinking to his knees beside his horse, Scott hung his head as another, stronger wave of nausea surged up from deep within. Moaning in dread as the bitter taste of bile filled his throat and mouth, Scott fell forward onto his hands and gagged on the liquid that was all his stomach could produce. Panting heavily, he covered his face with dirt-encrusted hands as he tried to keep the demons that threatened his sanity once again at bay.
For years after his incarceration Libby prison, Scott had fought the very same demons and, after a fashion, had subdued them long enough to lock them away in the dark recesses of his mind, ever mindful to keep away from anything that might stir the demons awake. Then, like today, something completely unexpected would come along to trigger those memories and he was helpless to control them.
Falling over onto his side, Scott drew his knees up until they were pressed against his chest. He then wrapped his arms tightly around his legs. Burrowing his feverish face against the battered fabric of his trousers, he tried to mentally shy away from the memory of being lashed with a whip until he was barely breathing, praying that God would take him. His fervent prayers hadn’t been answered, at least not in the way he’d wanted. However, the most horrible memory proceeded the cruel and inhumane whipping that he had survived, if only just barely.
The fuzzy recollection of lying in the hospital chambers riddled his mind with memories of huge cockroaches crawling across his face and rats as big as small cats feeding on the rotting flesh of his dead comrades who had finally escaped the living hell, but only through death.
Johnny paced his bedroom in his stocking feet. Fully dressed except for his boots, he waited impatiently for his brother to come home so that he could have it out with him about the book he’d found in Scott’s room that morning. Hearing a noise in the hallway, he hurried to the door and swung it open, only to startle Murdoch, who had come upstairs to see if Scott had come in and gone to bed without any of them knowing he was home.
“Have you seen your brother this evening, Johnny?” Murdoch asked the younger man.
“No,” Johnny answered quietly, his eyes dropping to the floor when Murdoch seemed to study him too closely. “Ain’t seen ‘im.”
“John…” Murdoch began, only to stop abruptly when Johnny raised piercing blue eyes to glare at him.
“What? Don’t you believe a gunslinger’s word, old man? I said I ain’t seen ‘im!” Stepping back into his room, Johnny shut the door in his father’s face and stalked over to where he’d kicked off his boots to drag them angrily onto his feet. Sudden pounding on the wooden portal to his room made him jump and he whirled around to confront the furious man standing in the open doorway.
“I don’t know who put the burr under your saddle, young man, but you’d better clear it out real quick before you buck so hard you’ll regret it,” Murdoch growled lowly, though his voice carried clearly across the room and even down the hall to Teresa’s bedroom.
“What makes ya think I don’t already regret it, old man?” Johnny ground out from between gritted teeth.
Sucking in a deep breath, as if he’d sustained a sucker punch to the midsection, Murdoch could only stare at his son in shock. Gearing his hurt and anger back to a more manageable level, Murdoch instinctively knew that, as Johnny’s father, he had to set the rules and guidelines now, before it was too late for either of them.
“Son, I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve your antagonism and resentment, but I will not tolerate it another minute, am I understood? If you can’t speak to me as an adult, then I fear that we have nothing more to say to one another.”
Standing in Johnny’s bedroom, the two men resembled marble statues, neither one willing or able to bend the slightest. For Johnny, having grown up on his own since he was twelve years old, he had learned quickly to fight his way up the food chain in order to be the alpha male in any given situation. Just as Johnny had learned the hard way to be unbending, Murdoch had also done the same, the exception being he had learned his lesson as an adult, not a young boy. Bending didn’t come easily for either stubborn man cut from the same bolt of cloth. However, Johnny saw a bit of something soften in his father’s eyes and he relaxed slightly himself.
“John, I just want…” Murdoch didn’t know how to articulate what it was exactly he wanted from his sons, but, unknown to him, his desperate need to voice his feelings shone in his gray eyes.
Relaxing his tense shoulders a bit more, Johnny simply nodded his head as if he understood what his father couldn’t say, and then surprised Murdoch further by asking, “What’d you say to Scott this mornin’ to make him leave?”
“What?” Murdoch demanded, the earlier anger right back in place as he whirled around to look across the hallway into Scott’s tidy room.
“He ain’t home, and I know he’s not doin’ any work in the dark,” Johnny accused as his eyes looked across the hall into Scott’s room, as well. “It ain’t like him not to come home.” Johnny quickly dropped his eyes when Murdoch turned around to look closely at him.
“Do you think he left Lancer?” His throat suddenly dry at the thought, Murdoch whirled around and strode across the hall into Scott’s room, Johnny right on his heels.
Without a word said between them, both men began to systematically search Scott’s room to see if he’d packed his belongings and left while no one was looking.
Searching through the bedside table, Murdoch found the leather-bound book Scott had been reading the night before. Setting the expensive tome on the nightstand, Murdoch gasped in shock when he unearthed the “penny-dreadful” and read Johnny’s alter-ego’s name on the cover.
At his father’s gasp, Johnny quietly moved to Murdoch’s side. “What is it?” He asked as soon as he reached his father’s side, his hand reaching out to the object in Murdoch’s trembling hand. “Is it a note?”
Swiftly jerking the book out of Johnny’s grasp, Murdoch whirled to face his son, now holding the book behind his back out of Johnny’s reach.
“It’s nothing,” the older man exclaimed quickly, unable to look his son in the eye.
“It’s that damn book, ain’t it?” Johnny snarled as he slammed his right fist into the palm of his left hand and growled beneath his breath. Pivoting on his heel, he bolted from the room before Murdoch could say anything.
Twitching in reaction to the agonizing visions flashing across his mind’s eye, Scott didn’t hear the sound of a horse’s hooves slowly walking toward his curled up position. Nor was he aware of Johnny as he knelt on the ground behind Scott, his brows furrowed in concern at his brother’s almost paralyzed stiffness.
“Scott?” Johnny called out as he reached out his right hand to attempt to roll the moaning blond over onto his back. He quickly jerked his hand back when Scott cried out as if in pain at the movement. Despite his anger at his brother’s betrayal in reading the book about Johnny Madrid, Johnny was frightened and very concerned for Scott.
“Hey, Boston,” the ex-gunfighter crooned, his voice as soft as velvet as he leaned over Scott’s rigidly held form. “It’s me, Johnny. Can you open your eyes and look at me?” When he received no response from his request, Johnny sat back on his heels and looked around. Scott was lying in the middle of open range, with no cover for miles. Dark storm clouds were building quickly overhead and Johnny knew that he would never get Scott back to the hacienda before it began to rain.
Climbing to his feet, Johnny hurried over to grab the reins of Scott’s horse. He tightened the loosened girth on the saddle and tied the reins securely to the saddle horn before slapping the horse on his hindquarters to send him home. The horse jumped and then took off at a gallop. Johnny then dropped back down onto his knees beside his brother and attempted to gain his attention, only to receive another cry of terror for his efforts. He was fairly certain Scott wasn’t injured, as he could see no blood or other damage in the waning light.
The wind picked up, blowing particles of sand and bits of dried grass about like so many tiny missiles and Johnny knew that he had to do something.
Rolling Scott quickly over onto his back, Johnny forced the blond’s long legs down, holding them there with his knee. Scott cried out as if in pain and tried to draw his knees back up. Johnny pulled back his right fist and struck Scott’s unprotected chin. Scott fell back to the ground unconscious and Johnny was able to lift him up and place him into the saddle. However, holding Scott and mounting behind him proved to be a much more difficult endeavor, but Johnny persevered and was soon riding slowly back toward the hacienda, his unconscious brother held tightl as he gave the horse its head and prayed it would take them straight home as the storm clouds released the rain in torrents.
Murdoch lay in his bed, his arms crossed behind his head as he listened to the steady drum of the much-needed rain pounding the tiled roof of the hacienda. He pondered the moment of almost camaraderie he and Johnny had shared earlier in the evening and prayed that it was only the beginning. He had his doubts, however, especially after the way his youngest son had fled the house after Murdoch discovered the trashy book in Scott’s bedside drawer. Closing his eyes tightly at the words he’d ashamedly read before tossing the book into the fire in the great room, Murdoch wished he’d never read them. It was bad enough that he had had to read the chilling reports from Pinkerton agents over the years concerning Johnny Madrid. He knew there wasn’t usually a word of truth in those “penny-dreadfuls”, so aptly named in his opinion, but Murdoch also knew that people bought them by the handfuls.
A noise downstairs got his attention and he bolted upright, springing out of bed at the sound of his name being shouted from below. Foregoing his robe, Murdoch raced out of his room in his nightshirt to collide with Teresa in the hallway, who had had the sense to don her robe before leaving her room. They exchanged fearful glances before they both turned and ran down the stairs to be confronted with a soaking wet Johnny holding his equally drenched and unconscious brother tightly in his arms. Staggering beneath his brother’s slightly heavier weight, Johnny looked up the stairs to see Murdoch racing toward them.
“Hurry!” He cried out, his strength quickly waning.
Murdoch reached his sons before Teresa, but only because she’d veered off to run into the kitchen to stir up the fire and get some water boiling. Gathering Scott’s sodden form into his own arms, Murdoch carried him into the great room and laid the limp man on the sofa.
“What happened, Johnny? Is he hurt?” Noting the deep purple bruising on Scott’s left cheek, Murdoch gently probed the area to assure himself that the jaw wasn’t injured.
“I don’t know, Murdoch. I found ‘im lyin’ on his side in the middle of the range curled up as tight as he could be. He had his arms wrapped around his legs and…and I had to knock ‘im out in order to get him home.” Johnny dropped his eyes to look at the water-wrinkled fingers of his hand to avoid Murdoch’s certain censure. “H-He wouldn’t talk to me…or even look at me.”
“It’s all right, Johnny. Why don’t you go change into some dry clothes and bring a nightshirt for Scott, okay?” Murdoch said soothingly, seeing Johnny shivers despite the boy’s attempt to suppress them. “Go on, now. I’ll take care of Scott until you get back.”
Johnny eyed his father for a long moment, and then seemed to find what he was looking for as he ran from the room to do as he was asked.
Heaving a sigh of relief at not having to argue with his youngest son, Murdoch proceeded to unbutton Scott’s shirt and trousers in anticipation of removing the wet clothing for dry.
Returning in mere minutes to his brother’s side, Johnny’s hair was still dripping wet. Though he had worn his hat, the wind had blown it from atop his head and he hadn’t had a free hand to replace it. He thrust the nightshirt toward Murdoch, who quickly took the offered item and set it on the floor by his knees.
“All right, Johnny, help me get these wet things off him,” Murdoch ordered as he worked Scott’s limp right arm out of the wet sleeve with some difficulty.
“Yeah, sure,” Johnny agreed quickly, more concerned with getting his brother warm again, than balking at an order brusquely given by his worried father. “I’ll hold ‘im up and you get the rest of the shirt off.” Grasping hold of Scott’s shoulders, Johnny pulled his brother upright and then slipped his arms around Scott’s waist. The rain-soaked blond head dropped limply against his shoulder.
Pulling the shirt free of Scott’s trouser waistband with a hard tug, Murdoch tossed the sodden shirt aside. When Scott’s back was exposed Murdoch gasped in shock and rage at the crisscrossing scars that literally covered the pale skin from Scott’s neckline to below his waist where the trousers blocked further view of the fair skin.
“Oh God,” Murdoch hissed and didn’t know if he was praying or cursing as he carefully touched a trembling finger to the raised scar tissue as if it might still be painful. The angry red marks where the barbed wire had scraped across Scott’s back weren’t bleeding, but looked tender, nonetheless.
Upon seeing the shock on his father’s ashen face, Johnny leaned forward so he could look down his brother’s back at what had upset Murdoch. Such fury settled on Johnny’s face that Murdoch was stunned.
“Who the devil did that to him?” Johnny growled in a deadly, low voice.
“I-I don’t know,” Murdoch answered quietly, the horror he’d felt quickly being replaced with a fury matching Johnny’s. “But, I’m sure as hell going to find out.” Stooping to pick up the nightshirt, Murdoch quickly slipped the dry garment over Scott’s fair hair in order to cover the atrocity done to his boy before Teresa could come back in to see.
“I’ll kill ‘em,” Johnny vowed quietly as he gently lowered Scott back down onto the sofa cushions after Murdoch had covered the wet area with a blanket. “I’ll hunt ‘em down and make them sorry they ever touched ‘im.”
“Shhh, Johnny,” Murdoch warned quietly, his eyes on Teresa as she walked quickly into the great room, balancing a basin of hot water in her hands and carrying several thick cotton towels. “Calm yourself, son. We’ll discuss this later.”
Smiling appreciatively at Teresa, Murdoch quickly made room on the coffee table for the basin and accepted one of the towels in order to dry Scott’s hair. Handing the towel off to Johnny, Murdoch looked pointedly at the angry man before darting a quick glance toward Teresa to see that she had moved over to the fireplace to stoke the banked fire to life.
“Not a word, Johnny,” Murdoch hissed. “Please.” Sighing in relief when Johnny simply nodded his head in agreement, the older man quickly set about removing Scott’s sodden trousers while Teresa was otherwise occupied.
Gently toweling Scott’s hair dry, Johnny tamped his raging anger down into a manageable burn. He made a promise to himself that he would avenge his brother if it was the last thing he did.
He hadn’t intended on falling asleep, but Scott’s scream of agony was all it took to jerk Johnny to his feet, his Colt instantly in his hand as his eyes searched anxiously for his brother’s attacker even as he moved closer to the sofa.
“What is it, son?” Murdoch asked Scott as soon as he reached his side from the chair where he’d been sleeping only seconds earlier. Trailing gentle fingers across Scott’s sweat-slicked forehead, Murdoch was stunned when his eldest son flinched away from his touch and whimpered as if Murdoch had struck him a painful blow. “Scott? Son, it’s Murdoch. Can you open your eyes for me?”
“Grandfather?” Scott muttered breathlessly as he rolled his head from side to side, but never opened his eyes.
With his heart hammering in his chest, Johnny quickly holstered his weapon when he saw that there was no imminent danger. He moved to kneel on the floor beside his father and placed both hands firmly on Scott’s shoulders. Leaning forward, he gave his brother a hard shake.
“SCOTT!” Johnny shouted in the man’s pale face. “Open your eyes and look at me!” Johnny ordered loudly, in a no-nonsense voice. To Murdoch’s amazement Scott’s pale blue eyes fluttered open for a second before dropping closed once again and he resumed the rocking of his head from side to side. “SCOTT!” Again a hard shake and Scott’s eyes flew open fully as he stared in wild-eyed terror up into his brother’s face mere inches from his own.
“H-Help me,” Scott whispered and then flinched fearfully when Murdoch moved around to crouch behind Johnny, intense worry on his face. “Back…hur’s.”
“Scott, we saw your back,” Johnny said evenly, though he wanted to scream and curse. It just seemed so inconceivable that someone could do something so heinous to his Boston blueblood brother. And how Scott’s grandfather could have allowed this to happen to his only grandson was beyond Johnny’s understanding.
Having nearly identical stripes upon his own back from a severe whipping doled out to him as a child by his stepfather, Johnny felt an overwhelming bond with his brother. Shared pain between brothers went a long way to bridging the gap between blueblood and mixed heritage, and Johnny knew he would fight to his very last breath in order to protect his brother from having to feel that kind of pain ever again.
Suddenly the thought of Scott having been curious enough about Johnny Madrid’s past to read one of those “penny-dreadfuls” paled in comparison.
“J-Johnny?” Scott said brokenly, his blue eyes haunted as he glanced nervously at his father hovering over Johnny’s shoulder.
“It’s okay, Scott. I’m right here and I’m not gonna leave you, okay?” Johnny swore fervently. Slipping his hand beneath the blanket that covered Scott’s shivering form, Johnny clasped his brother’s cold, trembling hand within his own and held on tight, willing Scott to draw strength from him in order to fight his demons. “We’ll fight ‘em together, brother. Now, close your eyes and go to sleep.”
Looking deeply into Johnny’s intense blue eyes, Scott slowly relaxed his tense muscles and closed his eyes with a slight nod of his blond head. Soon his breathing had slowed to a soft, slow cadence that proved Scott had taken his brother at his word to watch over him and keep the demons at bay. He slept peacefully the remainder of the night with his new guardian watching over him faithfully.
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