It was a normal Saturday night in Green River…the town full of cowboys in various stages of inebriation. Val Crawford, the town’s scruffy sheriff muttered to himself as he broke up yet another fight, dunking the two miscreants in the horse trough and sending them staggering on their way. He had the feeling it was going to be a long night. Many of the ranches had recently finished the arduous task of rounding up and branding their cattle. Now it was time for the ranch hands to let off steam, which meant, Val reflected sourly, that he wasn’t likely to have time for a cold beer or two with his friends at the saloon.
He took a last look around and headed back toward his office, stopping when he saw two familiar figures riding into town. Val groaned as Johnny reined in Barranca and grinned down at him. Val recognised the look of barely suppressed mischief that usually meant the youngest Lancer had been cooped up for too long and was spoiling for trouble.
Scott reined in beside his brother and crossed his arms over the saddle horn. “Johnny’s been driving us crazy…you know how he gets when he’s not allowed to leave the house. Murdoch thought it would do us all some good if he came into town for a few hours.”
“And just what does the doc have to say about that?” Val enquired.
“Aw, hell, Val he doesn’t need to know. Come on, Scott, give me a hand down.”
Six weeks earlier Johnny had fallen awkwardly and had twisted his left knee. It had immediately swollen to twice its normal size leading to fears that he might have broken something. He had gritted his teeth against the pain as Scott and Murdoch had helped him to hobble into the house. Sam had been sent for and had arrived several hours later to find Johnny lying on the sofa in the great room, pale and sweating from the pain and refusing to take anything to ease it.
Sam’s examination had ripped a scream of pure agony from Johnny’s throat at which point Sam had declared that enough was enough. He had knocked Johnny out with a dose of morphine before completing his examination. The whole time he had been aware of the anxious family standing around waiting for his verdict.
“It’s too soon to tell,” was his considered opinion. “I don’t think anything’s broken but we won’t know for sure until the swelling goes down. It’s possible he’s damaged the ligaments that support the knee and that can be almost as bad as a break. He won’t be going anywhere under his own steam for a few weeks.”
The leg had turned out not to be broken much to everyone’s relief. That relief was short-lived as Johnny fretted and sulked about the restriction on his freedom of movement. He spent the first two nights sleeping on the sofa, unable to get up the stairs by himself and refusing to be carried ‘like a child.’ On the third day Teresa had left him alone for an hour only to discover that he was missing when she returned.
It was only after she, Scott and Murdoch had searched all the obvious places, including the barn, that it had occurred to Scott to check upstairs. He found his brother blissfully asleep in his own bed. When challenged later Johnny had snapped an irritable answer.
“I went upstairs on my ass.”
As Teresa had been in the room at the time he had found his ears being blistered by his father for inappropriate language and “a total lack of consideration for anyone else. Do you know how worried we were when you just disappeared like that?”
“I didn’t disappear. Just went to bed is all.”
“We worry about you, son.” Seeing the defensive look on Johnny’s face Murdoch softened his tone. “You know you don’t take proper care of yourself when you’re ill or hurt.”
Johnny recognised and appreciated the concern so he decided not to deliver the retort that had appeared too often in the early days; that he had been looking after himself for years. He was gradually coming round to the view that he liked having family that cared about him. He settled for giving his father a subdued version of his normal smile and Murdoch patted him fondly on the shoulder.
The following day he received another lecture, this time from Sam, about the permanent damage he could do to his knee if he didn’t do exactly as instructed. His leg was tightly strapped up from his ankle to mid-thigh prompting another round of complaints.
“It’s my knee that’s hurt. Why does my leg have to be all tied up like this?”
“Can you bend your knee?”
Johnny narrowed his eyes in thought and tried unsuccessfully to move his knee. “No.”
“Can you straighten it yourself?”
“No.” Johnny was starting to feel as if his uncooperative knee didn’t belong to him any longer. It was stubbornly refusing to obey the commands his brain was sending to it.
“Well, it needs to stay straight while the swelling goes down so you’ll just have to live with it.” Sam had been up all night delivering a baby and his patience was in short supply. “Besides, as I keep reminding you, I’m the doctor and I know what’s best.”
The following three weeks had been a living hell for the family as Johnny had become more demanding and uncooperative. At one point it became so bad that Scott and Murdoch had taken off for a few hours leaving Teresa to bear the brunt of Johnny’s temper tantrum. When they arrived home, feeling somewhat shame-faced, Murdoch had promised Teresa that he would buy her a new dress and hat as compensation. After that Murdoch, not normally the most patient of people, had gone out of his way to spend time with Johnny. He could sympathise with his son’s boredom and frustration, having felt the same way himself when he was recovering from Pardee’s bullet.
They discussed the daily happenings at the ranch and in town and Johnny drew his father out to talk about how he had built the ranch up from nothing. Murdoch spoke enthusiastically about the past except when the talk veered toward either of his marriages. Johnny was disappointed. He would have liked to know more about his parents relationship in the early days and, perhaps sub-consciously, wanted the reassurance that his father had loved him when he was a child. If it was reassurance Johnny was seeking he wasn’t going to get it as Murdoch closed down on him time and time again when the topic became too personal. Despite this Johnny came to treasure these times alone with his father, hoping that Murdoch felt the same way.
When Sam had eventually removed the bandaging and splints and provided a pair of crutches, Johnny’s mood had improved as he found himself able to range further and further a field. Over the last week he had been making progress with the use of a cane and had been pestering his father unmercifully to let him ride into town with his brother on Saturday. Murdoch had capitulated with bad grace in order to save his own sanity; Johnny as a demanding toddler had been bad enough…as an adult he was impossible.
So now Johnny was in town and hell-bent on having a good time. Scott was equally determined that his brother wasn’t going to overdo it. He dismounted and walked round to the right side of his brother’s horse. Johnny eased his left foot out of the stirrup, stood up in the right stirrup and swung his left leg carefully over Barranca’s back. Scott steadied him as he lowered his leg to the ground and supported him as he brought his right leg down, hissing with pain as he momentarily took too much weight on his left knee.
“I knew this was a bad idea.” Scott was already wondering how he was going to get his brother back in the saddle at the end of the evening, reflecting gloomily that he would probably have to stay sober in order to achieve it.
Once he had regained his balance Johnny pulled away from Scott’s supporting arm. “I’m gonna have a beer. You coming, Val?”
Val pushed back his hat before scratching his unshaven chin. “Reckon not. Town’s busy tonight…we’ve got a few strangers in that I need to keep an eye on. I’ll catch up with you later when I check the saloon.”
Johnny limped resolutely in the direction of the saloon, his brother hovering at his side and being totally ignored. As he pushed open the doors Johnny hesitated as he always did and scanned the interior. It looked like Val was right…there were quite a few men at the bar that Johnny didn’t recognise. He automatically checked that his gun was sitting comfortably on his right hip, a move that didn’t go unnoticed by his watchful brother. Scott chose not to say anything knowing it would be a waste of breath.
They pushed through the throng of drinkers and found a small unoccupied table in the back corner. Johnny sat down and lifted his left leg so that he could rest his booted foot on the opposite chair. He surreptitiously rubbed the front of his knee. The swelling had almost disappeared and most of the time he could ignore the aching at the bottom of his knee. He knew he’d been foolish to insist upon riding into town…the increased pain told him that…but if he’d stayed at Lancer one more second he’d have either shot his father or himself…or Scott…or Teresa – he really didn’t have much preference.
He eased back in his chair, pushed his hat back off his forehead and looked around. There was a poker game going on at one of the larger tables. He knew most of the men sitting around the table. However, the well dressed man dealing the cards was a stranger to him. Sensing that he was being watched the man looked in Johnny’s direction as his hands busily dealt out the cards. The two men studied each other for a few moments before the gambler turned his attention back to the game.
Johnny continued to watch him. The man appeared to be a few years younger than his father with dark hair now shot through with grey. His eyes were a piercing blue and it was those eyes that left Johnny with the uncomfortable feeling that he knew the man. He was distracted by Scott’s return to the table carrying two mugs of beer. Johnny took several satisfying mouthfuls before drawing Scott’s attention to the card game.
“Any idea who he is?”
“Joe,” Scott indicated the bartender, “said he’s a professional. Seems he’s been in town for a couple of weeks which is a bit strange. He can’t be making much money even if he’s winning every game.”
“I think I’d like to sit in and play a few hands.” Johnny eased his leg off the chair and stood up, gripping the edge of the table for support.
Scott sighed, picked up the glasses and led the way over to the table. The last game had just ended and a couple of seats had become vacant. “Mind if we join you?” Scott asked.
“Not at all.”
The soft Texas drawl startled Johnny although he couldn’t for the life of him think why. Blue eyes met blue in an appraising stare as Johnny settled in one of the chairs.
“Where’re you boys from?”
“We have a ranch a few miles outside town. I’m Scott Lancer and this is my brother, Johnny.”
The tiniest of reactions told Johnny that their names were known to this man. “Now you know who we are how about introducing yourself?” Johnny’s tone was sharper than he had intended. He caught and ignored the surprised look sent his way by his sibling. There was something about the man that was setting his nerves on edge.
“Thomas Markham.” His expression dared Johnny to contradict him, leaving the youngest Lancer even more confused.
After several hands had been played Johnny was fairly sure the man was cheating. There was nothing he could put his finger on but he’d played in enough crooked games of cards to know the signs. What he couldn’t figure out was why when the stakes never rose to more than ten dollars a hand.
When Scott went to the bar to get another round of drinks Johnny leaned forward and tapped a finger on the man’s arm. “I’d stop doing that if I were you. The folks around here don’t take real kindly to being cheated out of their money.” He had spoken so softly that no one else heard his warning.
Markham’s blue eyes sparkled. “I wondered if you’d noticed. You always were a smart one.”
Johnny pulled back. “Don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t recall ever running into you before…and I have a very good memory for faces.”
“Not good enough.” Markham scraped his chair across the floor and stood up. “If you gentlemen will excuse me I think I’ll call it a night.”
“Why are you here?” Johnny’s question caused Markham to stop and turn round.
“I’m looking for something I misplaced a long time ago. Good night, Johnny. It was nice to see you. I’m sure we’ll meet again soon.”
Johnny slouched back in his chair, stretching his sore leg, and thought about that. As he flexed his knee he inadvertently knocked against a man who was passing the table. The man swore as he lost his grip on the glass of beer he had been carrying. The unintentional contact sent a wave of pain coursing through Johnny’s leg. As he caught his breath he felt a hand wrapping itself in the front of his shirt. He was pulled to his feet, his knee giving way under him.
“You made me spill my drink,” the man hissed in Johnny’s face. “You’re gonna pay for that.”
Scott elbowed his way back to the table. “No problem, friend. Let me buy you a replacement.”
“That’s not what I had in mind. I sure hope you know how to use that gun ‘cause we’re going outside now.” He shoved Johnny away from him. Johnny struck the table hard and, unable to save himself, fell to the floor.
“My brother’s hurt and it’s not worth getting killed over an accident.” Scott reached down to help Johnny to his feet.
“It’s not your concern, blondie. Any man who wears his rig like that is fair game. Outside, boy, or are you yella?”
Scott saw the change come over Johnny’s face and closed his eyes. Murdoch had made Scott’s responsibilities clear…he was to look after his brother and keep him out of trouble. How was he ever going to explain this to his father?
Val was on his way out of his office when the crowd of interested spectators spilled out of the saloon. Johnny had already taken up his position in the middle of the street. He shifted his weight to accommodate the weakness in his left knee and waited. Val elbowed his way through the crowd and grabbed Scott’s arm.
“What’s goin’ on?”
“That gentleman over there,” Scott pointed down the street, a resigned note in his voice, “challenged Johnny.”
“And just what sort of a dull brained idiot would do something like that?” Val tore his hat off his head in annoyance and slapped it against his leg. “I don’t suppose Johnny bothered to tell him who he is?”
Scott sighed. “What do you think?” He looked over at his perfectly relaxed brother. Scott’s cool exterior masked a deep worry about Johnny. In the twelve months since arriving in California he had never seen a gunfight. He had heard people talking about them in almost romanticised terms, making the participants seem like modern day gladiators. He was aware that his brother had survived more than his fair share as a result of his prowess with a gun, and had seen the scars that were testament to a number of close calls. He had seen Johnny use his gun on many occasions in situations of immediate danger and had been astounded by his speed and accuracy; to see him facing this man off in such a cold-blooded manner was something entirely new, different and disturbing.
He knew that his brother shouldn’t be out of the house, let alone involved in a life or death battle. It was only the knowledge that his interference would distract Johnny and undermine his brother’s position with his opponent that kept him silent and on the sidelines.
“Well someone’s got to put a stop to this foolishness. I’m the sheriff so I guess it’s gonna have to be me.”
Val walked deliberately up the center of the street, preventing the two men from having a clear view of each other. He stopped a couple of feet away from Johnny’s opponent. “Do you have a death wish?” he asked bluntly.
The man shook his head in confusion. “What’s it to you, sheriff? I called him out fair and square and it ain’t illegal so you can’t interfere.”
“Oh, I know it’s legal. I just don’t like watching my friend having to kill a drunken fool and ruin his Saturday night.”
“If’n I was you I’d be more worried about your friend. He can’t hardly stand up straight so I’m betting his gun won’t even clear leather before I plug him.” The man smirked, confident that this would be an easy victory.
Val backed off, shaking his head in disgust. “I’ve seen Johnny take down two men with a bullet in him. Can’t see a sore leg slowing him down. A lot of men have underestimated Johnny Madrid; course none of ‘em is around to regret their mistake.”
Seeing that Val was moving out of the way Johnny flashed a dazzling smile at his opponent. He kept his gaze firmly fixed on the man’s face which was now covered in a thin sheen of sweat.
“Madrid? No one said anything about him being Johnny Madrid.”
“You can back down,” Val advised. “Ain’t anyone in this town’ll think any the worse of you for being sensible.”
The man’s eyes darted from side to side before he moved his right hand away from his gun. “I didn’t mean any offence, Mr. Madrid.”
Johnny’s grin disappeared. “None taken…and it’s Lancer now.”
As the man pushed his way into the crowd Scott and Val ran to Johnny, catching him as his strength gave out. They helped him over to the boardwalk and lowered him into a sitting position.
“You didn’t have to accept his challenge,” Scott snapped as all the worry of the last few minutes boiled to the surface.
“I don’t run from a fight.”
“Well, you sure aren’t in any condition to run from anything at the moment. You could at least have tried to talk your way out of it.” Scott’s annoyance was increasing by the second.
Johnny’s head was down, his breathing uneven. Scott sat down next to him, took hold of his brother’s chin and forced him to look up. Johnny’s eyes were dulled with pain, his skin pale and clammy. “Damn it, Johnny. Val, can you go and get Sam?”
A groan issued from Johnny. “No, don’t do that to me. Please,” he begged. “You know how cranky he gets.”
“You bring it on yourself, brother.”
The brothers sat in silence as they waited for the doctor to arrive. They were both anticipating the inevitable explosion. Ten minutes later Sam strode down the street carrying his bag, with Val trailing along behind. The sheriff wasn’t about to miss seeing Johnny get the telling off he so richly deserved.
“I assume someone can explain to me why you’re in town and not resting at home as I specifically instructed?” Sam’s gaze swept from one brother to the other and he was gratified to see that neither could meet his eye.
“Murdoch said…” Scott began unwisely, before taking a look at Sam’s expression and stuttering to a halt.
“I’ll be having words with your father, although I don’t imagine that he was expecting to find his younger son had become embroiled in a gunfight. Let’s get him over to my office so that I can see what damage he’s done.” Sam turned his attention to Johnny. “Do you want anything for the pain? No…no…don’t tell me…you’re fine.”
“I’d be just fine if people would stop ordering me around,” Johnny muttered as he accepted help from Scott and Val to get up. “And it wasn’t my fault.”
“It never is, John.”
Thomas Markham allowed the net curtain to fall across the window of his hotel room. He had had a perfect view of events unfolding in the street and had only left his vantage point when Johnny had disappeared from sight. He poured himself a drink from the bottle of whiskey standing on the nightstand and sipped at it thoughtfully.
It had been a major blow to his plans when he found out about Johnny’s injury. On a ranch the size of Lancer he should have been able to engineer a meeting with the boy without there being any witnesses. Finding out that his quarry was confined to the house for an indefinite period was an unwelcome irritation. He had been shocked to see Johnny tonight; had recognised him immediately. It had been so many years…it wasn’t really surprising that Johnny hadn’t known who he was. What had been a surprise had been finding out, six months previously, that Johnny was again living with that bastard, Murdoch Lancer.
He grimaced when he heard a knock at his door. The visit wasn’t unexpected. He pulled the door open to admit Ben Riley and walked back over to the window. As a temporary measure he had hired Riley to watch his back and to make enquiries about the Lancers. He wasn’t about to take the risk of asking around himself and having his interest reaching the ears of Murdoch Lancer. On the few occasions that the rancher had been in town Markham had kept himself out of sight.
“You didn’t say nothing about him being Johnny Madrid.” Riley had lost face when he had backed away from the fight. He was embarrassed and was looking for someone else to blame.
Markham turned back to regard his visitor. He’d given Riley his instructions as soon as he saw Johnny enter the saloon. “You wouldn’t have challenged him if you’d known. I wanted to see what he was made of.”
“If that sheriff hadn’t have interfered I’d be lying dead in that street out there.” Riley stepped toward his employer belligerently. “You set me up.”
A gun appeared in Markham’s hand. “I don’t like being threatened by the hired help. Pour yourself a drink and tell me what you’ve found out.”
The man retreated and poured himself a generous helping of whiskey. “The Lancer spread’s the biggest one around these parts. Murdoch Lancer built it up almost single-handedly according to local gossip. He had two sons by different mothers…the two you were playing cards with earlier. Funny thing is neither one grew up here. The older one, Scott, lived in Boston with his grandfather and the younger one lived in Mexico with his mother. No one mentioned him being no gunfighter.” He scowled at Markham who was now resting with his right hip and shoulder propped against the wall and his arms folded.
“How long have they lived here?”
“A year or so. Lancer sent for them when it looked like he was going to lose everything. Day Pardee and his boys had taken a fancy to the ranch. The three of them’re equal partners in the ranch now. Old man Lancer and the older boy’re well respected. The younger one’s regarded as being a bit wild and unpredictable but folks seem to like him.”
Markham unfolded his arms and pushed away from the wall. The partnership was unwelcome news. Johnny wouldn’t like the prospect of having to give up his share in a profitable business. He’d have to see if there was a way to extract the value of Johnny’s third share from the other two partners.
“The two boys seem to get on well together.” Markham was thoughtful.
“It sure looks that way. The blond was quick enough to try and protect his brother in the saloon.”
Yet another complication, Markham mused. He’d known about Scott of course; had heard the whole sad story of his mother’s death in childbirth. He’d never understood why Murdoch Lancer hadn’t fought for his son. Instead of moving heaven and earth to get the boy back he’d gone to Mexico and…Markham cut off that thought. Now wasn’t the time…soon, but not yet.
Johnny had fallen asleep on Sam’s examination couch and it was clear that he wasn’t in any shape to ride home. “He’s worn himself out…not surprising as he’s supposed to be resting. I can’t see that he’s done any lasting harm to his knee but he’s going to be in a lot of pain again for a few days. What were you and Murdoch thinking?” Sam addressed the still subdued elder Lancer son.
“Come on, Sam, you know how hard it is to keep him down even when he’s hurt. We didn’t think there would be any harm to it.” Scott felt uncomfortably as if he were back at Harvard facing a lecture from one of his professors. The unfairness rankled. It wasn’t his fault that his brother couldn’t get through one night without getting into some kind of trouble.
Sam took pity on the young man standing before him. “You can leave him here tonight. Bring a buckboard in tomorrow to collect him…he won’t be up to riding.”
“Thanks, Sam. I’ll be back in the morning and I promise we’ll tie him down if necessary to keep him quiet.”
Johnny’s recovery progressed slowly with no more trips to town. Murdoch had been furious when he heard what had happened, blaming Johnny for not backing away from the confrontation. Scott’s defence of his brother had fallen on deaf ears as had his reminder to his father that Murdoch had sanctioned the outing. No one listening would have known that it was Murdoch’s fears for his son’s health that had prompted the outburst. Johnny had listened to the lecture with his head bowed before retreating to his room. The issue hadn’t been raised since and Johnny had been doing his best to follow the treatment regime laid down by Sam. He loved his father deeply and hated disappointing him.
This was another new feeling for Johnny; since the death of his mother there hadn’t been anyone whose opinion had mattered that much to him. It made him feel warm inside when Murdoch acknowledged his efforts to be compliant and control his impatience.
The family breathed a collective sigh of relief when Sam declared that Johnny was recovered enough to ease back into his chores. He still had to take it slowly and rest frequently but the daily improvement was noticeable to everyone.
“We’re needing supplies,” Murdoch advised his sons one morning three weeks after Johnny’s disastrous visit to Green River. “Johnny, can you take the wagon in and collect them? Make sure you get help to load up. I don’t want you overdoing it.”
“Sure, Murdoch. I’ll be glad to get off the ranch for a couple of hours. You won’t mind if I stop in at the saloon for a drink will you?” A sparkle had appeared in Johnny’s eyes at the thought of getting away from the protective gaze of his family for a few hours.
“I don’t think I’d have a problem with that.” Murdoch smiled affectionately at his dark-haired son. “Pick up the list before you go and make sure you’re back in time for supper.”
Johnny hitched up the wagon and headed into town, enjoying the freedom. After visiting the necessary stores he called in to see Val. Val’s good natured grumbling failed to hide the pleasure he felt at seeing his friend up and around again. Johnny paid a couple of young boys to load the wagon for him and wandered over to the saloon.
Thomas Markham looked up from a game of solitaire as Johnny entered the saloon. His heart beat quickened as he realised that he was finally going to get the opportunity he had been waiting weeks to achieve. “Johnny, come and join me. I’ve something I’d like to discuss with you.”
Johnny looked round the saloon…it was quiet with only a few men having a drink. He took off his hat and threw it onto Markham’s table. “I reckon you owe me a drink after cheating me out of my money the other week. Joe,” Johnny raised his voice. “Bring me over a beer would ya? Mr. Markham here’s paying.”
“Sure thing, Johnny.” The bartender fetched a glass, rubbed it with a cloth and started to pour the beer.
Johnny pulled out a chair, sat and stretched his legs out, being careful not to overextend his knee. Most of the time now it was fine. It still had a tendency to ache if he did too much and it had given way on him a couple of times. Sam had reassured him that both problems would pass in time so long as he was careful.
Thomas Markham looked eagerly at the young man sitting in front of him. He had waited such a long time for this moment. He wanted to reach out and touch Johnny and his hands shook with the effort it took to deny himself that pleasure.
“I hear you’re part owner of a very successful cattle ranch. I imagine you can afford to lose a few dollars.”
Johnny’s stare was watchful and wary rather than unfriendly. He nodded his thanks to the bartender and took a long satisfying drink of the cold beer. “I don’t see what that’s got to do with anything. I don’t appreciate being cheated out of my hard earned money. I’m only surprised that no one else has caught you and run you out of town…or worse.”
Markham smiled, not in the least intimidated. “How’s your leg?”
“Better.” Johnny finished his drink and went to stand up. As he reached over to pick up his hat Markham laid a hand on his arm. Johnny’s eyes narrowed warningly. “Get your hand off me.” The order was delivered softly while still leaving the gambler in no doubt that Johnny was deadly serious.
Markham removed his hand hurriedly and sat back. The knot of anticipation was tightening in his stomach and he didn’t want to drive Johnny away until he had said what needed saying. “You didn’t ask me if I’d found what I was looking for.”
Johnny concentrated on settling his hat in just the right position on his dark hair. “Mister, I really couldn’t give a damn.”
As Johnny turned away Markham spoke again. “I knew your mother.” He saw Johnny go still…the stillness of a hunting cat before it leaps after its prey.
“Yeah? Sorry to tell you this but that don’t make you unique or someone I’d particularly want to talk to.” Johnny kept his back to the gambler, his voice conveying a disinterest that was utterly false. His mind was racing…who the hell was this man? Apart from a slight tugging at the edges of his memory he had no recollection of him. Had Johnny been looking at Markham he would have seen a quick flash of anger at the disrespectful comment about his mother.
“Why don’t we go to my room? What I have to tell you would be better done in private.” It was an effort for Markham to keep his voice even and reasonable. Even after all these years it hurt to hear anyone insulting Maria; to hear such words coming from Johnny aroused emotions best kept under control.
“Like I said, I’m not interested.” Johnny forced himself to walk toward the doors.
“I think you might want to hear what I have to say. The alternative is I go to the ranch and talk to Murdoch Lancer and I can guarantee you won’t like that.”
Johnny turned, eyes blazing. “Don’t threaten me.”
“It’s not a threat, Johnny. It’s a warning…a friendly warning. What have you got to lose? I just need one hour of your time.” Markham held out his right hand in a gesture of supplication.
Unbidden, Johnny’s thoughts returned to that day in Mexico when he had been rescued from the firing squad. The Pinkerton agent had told him that his father wanted to see him and was willing to pay one thousand dollars for one hour of his time. He’d been so desperate he’d have gone to hell for that money. Now he was being offered nothing but a threat…an effective threat as it turned out. Johnny wasn’t going to risk causing his father any anguish and talk of his mother, particularly from a man who might well have been one of her numerous lovers, could only cause his father pain. Whatever this man had to say it was better that he say it now.
“One hour and then you get out of Green River and stay away from my family.”
"Would you like a drink?” Markham held up the whiskey bottle, unaware of the echoes the question evoked in Johnny’s mind. The first thing Murdoch had done that fateful day almost a year ago was to offer him and Scott a drink. That meeting with his father had been a near disaster. If it hadn’t been for Scott’s totally unexpected presence and a need, unacknowledged at the time, to connect with the father he believed had abandoned him, he would have taken the money and left Lancer to its fate.
“You’re wasting time, Markham. If you’ve got something to say just say it.” The sense of déjà vu increased.
“I’d rather stand.” Johnny leaned against the wall and folded his arms without realising that Markham had adopted exactly the same position the previous evening while talking to the man who had called him out. He was poised on a knife edge, unsure if this meeting would end with him walking out or punching the smug look off Markham’s face.
Markham poured himself a drink and made himself comfortable in an armchair. “I knew your mother before you were born. She was eighteen and I was twenty two. She was so beautiful with long black hair and eyes you could drown in.”
Johnny looked away uncomfortably. He already hated hearing this man talking in that way about his mother. If it had been his father talking…but Murdoch still avoided all mention of her, the sense of betrayal no less than it had been twenty years ago. It had only been over the last few weeks when he had spent time alone with his father that he had fully understood how deeply hurt Murdoch had been when Maria ran away. The pain had been present in his eyes every time he had shied away from the topic. “Get to the point.”
“I was passing through Matamoros. I’d fallen out with my family…they didn’t approve of my decision to earn my living at cards. Maria was working at one of the cantinas. She was wild…a real force of nature.”
Johnny uncrossed his arms and pushed away from the wall. “I’ve heard enough. I’m not interested in hearing some story about you lusting after my mother.”
“Mind your mouth, young man.” Markham snapped, startling Johnny into silence. “Even as a child your smart mouth used to get you into trouble.”
“You knew me when I was a child?” The pieces began to fall into place. “You’re the bastard that my mother ran off with. You’re the one that stole me away from my home and my father.” Johnny felt more shock than anger. After all these years why was Markham here?
He had been brought up to believe that his father had thrown him and his mother out. He had said as much to Scott and Teresa the day after his return to Lancer. After sitting and watching his new found brother fighting three of Pardee’s men…an unequal fight that Scott hadn’t backed down from…and feeling the power of his brother’s fists for himself, he had thrown out that accusation. Teresa had been quick to defend Murdoch, telling him that his mother had run off with a man, a gambler. His denial had been immediate and aggressive. He hadn’t wanted to believe Teresa but her words had stayed in his head, refusing to be dismissed so easily.
He had tried over and over to find the courage to ask Murdoch if it was true. Every time he vowed to himself that he would ask the question his nerve had failed him. In the end he had spoken to Cipriano who had told him that there had been rumours, but that he would have to ask his father if they were true. He never had. During the past twelve months he had come to realise that Murdoch wasn’t the kind of man who would do what Maria had accused him of. He had come to accept what Teresa had told him and it appeared now that he had been right to do so.
Markham shook his head and laid his glass down. “You’ve got it all wrong, Johnny. I might have known that Murdoch Lancer would fill your head full of lies. He’s the one who was at fault.” He looked compassionately at Johnny…the poor boy had been so badly misled. “He stole you and your mother away from me. He isn’t your father…I am.”
The silence between them stretched on and on. Johnny’s head was filled with the sound of blood roaring in his ears. A twinge of pain in his knee knocked him even further off balance and he felt a hand steadying him and leading him over to the bed.
“Don’t touch me.” It came out as a plea rather than an order.
“Have a drink, son.” Markham savoured the word. He had waited so many years to call Johnny his son.
A glass appeared in front of Johnny’s face and he knocked it away, causing the water to scatter across the carpet. “Don’t you ever call me that. Murdoch Lancer’s my father. What is it you want? Money? Is this some kind of sick blackmail plot? I give you money so that you don’t go to Murdoch with these lies? Haven’t you hurt us enough? Thanks to you I grew up with nothing…abused…left on my own when my mama died. I could have been raised at Lancer, loved and protected. I’d never have had to turn to my gun to get respect.” Johnny stopped, appalled at having given so much away to this man. Why dignify his lies with anger and self-pity? Why wasn’t he laughing off the ridiculous claim and walking out on this madman? He had rarely felt less in control of his emotions and it frightened him.
“Do you think that I didn’t want to protect you…to love you like a father should? My Maria was so happy when she told me she was pregnant. I’d just received word that my mother was dying and I was intending to go home to make my peace with her. Maria begged me not to leave her and I wish to God I’d listened. By the time I got back to Matamoros Maria had gone. She’d married Murdoch Lancer and had run off to California. I was devastated. I knew I couldn’t compete with a rancher even if Lancer wasn’t as successful as it is now. I drank myself into oblivion trying to forget her…to forget my child that she was carrying.” Markham spoke passionately and with a compelling conviction. His blue eyes were alight with fervour.
Johnny sat on the bed, frozen, unable to move. He didn’t want to listen to this…wanted to get up and walk out of that room without looking back. His eyes were wide as he stared at the man claiming to be his father.
“After a couple of years I couldn’t stand it any more. I had to know that she was alright. I had to see my child. I didn’t even know if she’d had a son or a daughter. I rode to Morro Coyo. I found out that she’d had a boy; my son. Can you imagine how hard it was, to be so close to both of you without being a part of your lives? I’d been in town for weeks before she finally came in and she had you with her. I knew as soon as I saw you that you were my son. I hadn’t meant to speak to her, but she looked so sad and I couldn’t help myself. When she saw me her face lit up and she told me how unhappy she was. Her husband was only interested in his ranch. He paid her no attention…and you…he told her he regretted that you’d ever been born.”
“No…I don’t believe you. He loved both of us.” Even as Johnny protested he knew that he had nothing with which to back up that statement. Murdoch had never said one word to him to lead him to believe that.
“He loved you so much that he made no effort to bring you home,” Markham sneered.
“That’s not how it was. He tried to find us.” Was this the truth or only what he wanted to believe? Johnny knew Murdoch had paid the Pinkertons to find him a year ago. He’d just assumed that they and Murdoch had been looking for him for years. What if that assumption was wrong? Murdoch known where Scott was all his life yet had made no effort to contact him until Pardee threatened the ranch. Had it been the same with him…unwanted until he could be of use?
“And whose word do you have for that? Murdoch Lancer’s? Tell me, Johnny, how was it that he was able to find you when he needed a gunfighter to help save his precious ranch?” Markham could see the confusion on Johnny’s face as his comment hit closer to home than he realised.
With a supreme effort of will Johnny got to his feet. “I’m not gonna believe your lies. Stay away from me.” He snatched at the door handle and pulled the door open. “You don’t come to Lancer or anywhere near my family.”
Thomas Markham watched Johnny leave, satisfied that their first real encounter had gone as well as could be expected. Although he had fantasised about Johnny believing him immediately he had never really thought that was likely. He had sown the seed of doubt in the boy’s mind now. He had waited so long to get his son back that he could afford to be patient.
The drive home in the wagon passed in a blur. ‘Home.’ Was it truly home? What if Markham was telling the truth? If Murdoch wasn’t his father then Scott wasn’t his brother and he didn’t think he could cope with that. He’d wanted a brother all his life. As a child, a despised half-breed, he’d dreamed about having an older brother who would protect him from the taunts and the kicks. Scott was everything he could ever have wished for, and his father…Murdoch…he felt safe when his father was around. Damn Markham and damn his lies. He ruthlessly quashed his nagging doubts. The gambler had hurt his family before and Johnny wasn’t going to stand by and let him do it again.
He pulled the team to a halt in front of the barn doors and climbed down a little stiffly as his knee hadn’t responded well to remaining in one position for so long. Jelly bustled out and looked critically at the youngest Lancer.
“You’re white as a sheet, boy. You’ve gone and overdone it again. I told your pa it was too soon to send you into town on your own. Would he listen to me? No, siree. You git yourself into the house and out of the sun. Me and Frank’ll unload the wagon.”
Johnny stared at Jelly as if he couldn’t understand what the old handy man was saying. Eventually he just nodded and walked back to the house. He hung his hat and gunbelt up in the entrance hall.
Murdoch was sitting in one of the blue armchairs studying a contract. His smile of welcome froze on his face as he saw how unwell his son was looking. He crossed the distance between them and reached out to steady Johnny only to find his son backing away from him.
“What’s wrong? You didn’t do too much while you were in town, did you?”
Johnny lowered his eyes to his boots. “I’m kinda tired. I’m gonna lie down ‘til supper.” He looked up briefly, just a flash of dazed blue eyes, and then he was gone from the room.
Johnny reached his room and lay down on the bed. His head was throbbing in time to his heartbeat. He flung an arm over his eyes and tried to make sense out of what Markham had told him. Lies…all lies…but the gambler had seemed so sure of himself. What if it were the truth? What if he wasn’t a Lancer? Had he been living a lie all these years? His mother had always told him that Murdoch Lancer was his father. She had never had one good word to say about her husband…had filled his head full of hate for the man who had thrown them out to starve. Why would she have led him to believe Murdoch was his father if it weren’t the truth? Why lie to him? The obvious answer was that she had wanted him to grow up seeking revenge against her husband despite it being her who had betrayed the marriage. Had she hated Murdoch so much that she would have deliberately misled her son?
Of course she had lied about Murdoch telling her to leave…hadn’t she? She could have lied to Markham as well. The man might genuinely believe his claim. Johnny’s heart told him that Murdoch was his father, but he hadn’t survived this long listening to his heart. Even through his shock he had heard the ring of conviction in Markham’s voice.
He needed to think. There had to be a way to reach the truth without Murdoch or Scott having to find out. Johnny sat up as he realised that there were methods he could use to disprove part of Markham’s claim. He had said that Murdoch hadn’t loved him as a child and that he hadn’t tried to bring him home until he needed his gun. Both Maria and Cipriano had worked for his father then…they would tell him the truth. Then there were the Pinkerton reports, reports that Johnny had never asked to see but which might prove the lengths to which Murdoch had gone to find his missing wife and son. Feeling better now that he had a plan he lay down on his side and fell asleep.
Scott knocked softly on his brother’s door. When he didn’t receive an answer he pushed the door open. Johnny was sprawled across the bed fast asleep. Scott shook him gently on the shoulder and Johnny’s eyes fluttered open.
“Hey, brother. Murdoch said you didn’t look too good when you came home. Do you feel up to joining us for supper?”
Johnny felt only distress at hearing the affection and concern in Scott’s voice. Would Scott still care about him if Markham’s claim was proved to be true? Johnny hoped so, but without that bond of blood how could he be certain? He consciously retreated behind a hastily erected protective wall; a wall that it had taken almost a year for him to dismantle in response to the love of his…family.
After yawning and stretching Johnny sat up. “Sure, Scott. I just needed to rest for a while. I’ll be down in a minute.” He swung round and put his feet on the floor, running a hand through his untidy hair and then rubbing his eyes.
Rather than leaving him in peace Scott waited patiently while Johnny splashed some water over his face and changed into a clean shirt. He thought that Johnny still looked tired and subdued. “Did you have any trouble in town?”
Johnny stopped buttoning his shirt and looked up. “No. Why?”
“Jelly said you looked a bit shaken up.”
“Jelly needs to mind his own business,” Johnny snapped as he finished doing up his shirt and tucked it into his trousers. “You coming?”
Scott shut his mouth against the sharp retort that rose to his lips. Johnny knew perfectly well that Jelly was only expressing concern because he thought the world of him. Johnny’s moods had been up and down ever since his injury but he had never once turned on Jelly. Scott moderated his response. “He worries about you, you know that.”
“I don’t need anyone worrying about me. I’m used to taking care of myself.” Johnny’s heart sank as he said those words. It hadn’t been that long ago that he had finally started to appreciate the concern shown by Murdoch, Scott and the others. Until a few hours ago he would have said it was concern shown by his family…now he wasn’t even sure he had one.
“Ease up, Johnny. We’re only trying to help.”
Johnny sighed. “I know. Look, Scott, just leave it will you? I got over tired. I’m fine now. Let’s eat…I’m starving.”
After supper Johnny pulled Scott to one side. “I need to speak to Murdoch alone. Could you give us some time?”
Scott frowned. “There *is* something wrong. Talk to me, Johnny.”
“It’s nothing. I…I want to ask him about those Pinkerton reports and I’d rather do it on my own.”
“Why?” The question was blunt. “You’ve never mentioned them before. Has it got anything to do with that man who called you out?”
“It’s nothing to do with him. I just want to ask Murdoch some questions.”
Scott looked hard at his brother, sensing that he wasn’t being told the entire truth. He decided not to push it, which didn’t mean he wouldn’t raise it again when he thought Johnny was in a more receptive mood. “I’ll be in my room if you need me.”
Johnny hesitated in the doorway. Murdoch was studying the book shelves with his back to him. He reached up, selected a book and turned round, smiling when he saw his son. Johnny swallowed back his apprehension. Why was it easier to face off against a man in a gunfight than to ask Murdoch…his father… a simple question?
Murdoch scrutinised Johnny carefully. “You’re looking better. Where’s Scott?”
“He, uh, he’s gone to his room. Can I ask you something?”
Murdoch felt a flutter of nervousness. “Of course, Johnny. Come and sit down.”
Johnny perched uneasily on the arm of the sofa, fighting against an unreasonable fear of what he was about to find out. “I’d like to read the Pinkerton reports…the ones they wrote when they were trying to track me and my mama down.”
A frown appeared on Murdoch’s face. Johnny couldn’t tell if it was annoyance or something else. “I thought we had agreed that the past was over with. There’s nothing to be gained by going over old ground.”
“As I see it you’re the one who didn’t want to discuss the past. You didn’t give Scott and me much say in the matter. I know you don’t like talking about my mother and I can’t blame you for that. I wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t important.” Johnny resisted the urge to hang his head and kept his eyes on Murdoch’s face.
“Why is it so important now? We’ve got by this last year without dragging up things that are best forgotten.”
“I can’t forget them,” Johnny burst out. “How can I forget begging for food, being beaten because I was different? How long do you expect me to pretend that I wasn’t brought up to believe that you hated me…wished I had never been born?” He stopped speaking, stricken by the hurt he saw on Murdoch’s face.
“I never hated you and I’ve given thanks every day for your life. Having you and Scott living here is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given. I know your mother told you things differently, and I can’t begin to explain why she would have done that, but I want you to know that I have always loved you. I wish your life had been different…that things had worked out between me and your mother, but they didn’t and I can’t change that.” Murdoch felt a surge of guilt for not being entirely honest with his son. He didn’t think that the whole truth was something Johnny could hear without the chance of it driving him away and he wasn’t prepared to take the risk of losing his younger son again.
“Then let me read the reports.”
“I don’t have them. Year after year they said the same thing…that there was no trace of you or Maria. They contained no hope. I burned them.”
Johnny’s heart sank. “What about the later ones, the ones after they found out I was going by the name of Madrid?”
“I destroyed those too, after you and Scott signed the partnership agreement.”
“So there’s nothing to prove you tried to find me.” Johnny’s disappointment was palpable.
“Of course I tried to find you.” The feelings of guilt intensified. “What’s this about, son?”
Johnny flinched at the endearment. Was he Murdoch’s son? He felt no nearer to finding out. “It doesn’t matter. Forget I asked.” He pushed himself to his feet. “I need some air. I’ll see you in the morning.”
It was late before Johnny returned to his room and he found it impossible to go to sleep until dawn was creeping over the sky. He had resisted the temptation to confide in Scott…this was his problem and he would solve it in his own way. No one disturbed him and he found, when he eventually made it to the kitchen the following morning, that both Murdoch and Scott had left for the day. Maria bustled around preparing his breakfast while scolding him for failing to take proper care of himself. He established that Teresa was in Morro Coyo with Jelly and that Murdoch and Scott were at a meeting of the Cattleman’s Association. He groaned as he remembered that he was supposed to have gone with them.
He was still too unsettled to do more than pick at his food. “Maria? You worked here when I was a kid, didn’t you?”
“Si, I came to work for Senor Lancer just before he met your mother. I helped her give birth to you. You were an impatient child even then…you couldn’t wait to be born and arrived several weeks early.”
Johnny felt as if he’d been kicked by a mule. “Early?”
“Your mother said you wanted to be here for Christmas. You hadn’t been expected so soon…we were preparing for you to arrive in January.”
“Was…was Murdoch happy when I was born?”
“What a strange question.” Maria patted his cheek affectionately. “I have never seen him happier except when you and your hermano returned home.”
“He didn’t think it was strange that I’d been born early?”
Maria shrugged. “Men don’t think about such things and it was nothing unusual. All he was concerned about was that you and your mother were well.”
“What sort of a father was he? Did he like having me around?”
“He adored you. He spent every minute he could spare with you. If you were sick or upset he was the only one who could calm you down. I sometimes think your mother might have been a little jealous. Once you started to walk you would trot after him and scream when he had to leave you. You loved him as much as he loved you. It broke his heart when your mother ran away with you.”
“What did he do?”
“He searched for you for weeks. When he returned he had changed…he had closed his heart and the joy had gone out of his life. Before your mother left they had been talking about bringing your hermano home from Boston. Your father had been so happy…he was finally going to have his familia together. I will never understand why she took you away.”
Johnny went out to the barn and saddled Barranca. Maria’s words had helped to convince him that Markham was wrong and that he had lied about Murdoch’s feelings for him. The only nagging doubt was the fact that he had been born early. He pushed that uneasiness away…Murdoch hadn’t been concerned so why should he worry? He rode at an easy pace toward Green River. It was time to confront Markham and convince him to leave.
There was no sign of the gambler in the saloon so Johnny walked over to the hotel. Markham smiled broadly when he opened the door. “Johnny. I had a feeling you would be back.”
Johnny pushed past him and entered the room. “You lied to me yesterday. Murdoch, my father, not only loved me when I was child but did everything he could to find me when I was taken away. I want you to pack up and leave and I never want to see you around here again.”
“Perhaps I didn’t tell you the whole truth…I was hoping to spare you this. Yes he loved you…while he thought he was your father. The truth is, Johnny that he did find us. He caught up to us a few days after Maria left him. He tried to persuade her to return with him and, when she refused, he demanded that she hand you over to him. That was when she told him. She said she had been pregnant with my child when they met. She saw him as a better chance of security for her and the baby so she slept with him. A couple of weeks later she told him she was expecting his child and he married her. I have no doubt that he loved her and that love blinded him to the truth.”
“You’re lying again.”
“Am I? Think about it. I had left Matamoros just before the end of March. He didn’t get there until the second week of April. You were born on the twenty third of December. You’re a smart boy, Johnny. You work it out. He did, eventually.”
Johnny sat down heavily in the nearest chair. “What…what did he say?”
“He told her to take her bastard and get out of his sight.”
Her bastard. Was that all he was…all he’d ever been? Her bastard? He’d grown up being called that…had believed it for a long time. The insults had stopped the day he picked up a gun and proved he could use it. Regardless of how many times the term had been applied to him it had never hurt as much as it did that minute. Could love turn to hate that quickly? Had it been so easy for Murdoch to turn his back on the child he had professed to love so deeply? Was it so easy for him now to turn his back on the man he had always believed to be his father? The man he had come to love over the last twelve months. The feeling of profound loss hit him like a blow…the loss of everything he had ever wanted.
Markham watched the play of emotions crossing his son’s face before offering a glass of water. This time Johnny accepted the gesture and drained the liquid in several large swallows. Water wasn’t going to do it, Johnny decided…it wasn’t going to numb the pain of betrayal. He rose decisively, automatically adjusting his gunbelt and his hat.
“I need a drink.” Johnny hesitated, remembering. “I don’t have any money with me.”
Markham picked up his own hat and put an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. He was pleased to find that, although the boy stiffened, he didn’t pull away. “Let’s go to the saloon. You’ve had a shock…the least I can do is buy you a drink. Why don’t you stay in town tonight? We can talk some more tomorrow.”
Sad blue eyes turned his way. “I haven’t got anywhere else to go.”
A couple of hours later Val arrived at the saloon, alerted by the bartender to Johnny’s presence and condition. He found his friend sitting by himself with a half-empty bottle of tequila in front of him. Val pulled out a chair and sat, ignoring the scowl on Johnny’s face. He reached for the bottle only to have Johnny get there first and pull it out of reach.
“Go ‘way, Val.” Johnny’s speech was slurred and his eyes less focussed than usual.
“Can’t do that, Johnny. What’re you doin’?”
Johnny sneered. “What’s it look like?” He poured himself another shot, knocked it back and grimaced as the fiery liquid worked its way down to his stomach.
“It looks like you’re drunk. What’s Murdoch gonna say when he finds out? It’s the middle of the afternoon.”
“Don’t care.” Johnny reached for the bottle again.
Val stood, intending to lean over the table and take possession of the alcohol. He found himself looking instead at Johnny’s gun. “What in hell’s name’s got into you?” Val shouted as he backed off. “Do I have to haul your sorry ass over to the jail and send for Murdoch or Scott?”
Johnny put his gun away after several missed attempts. “I ain’t breakin’ no laws and I don’t need you runnin’ off to Lancer. I’m a big boy an’ I can look after myself.” Another shot of tequila was poured into the glass and disappeared down Johnny’s throat. “Go away.”
Val stood up. “You start any trouble an’ I will arrest you.”
Johnny ignored the sheriff as Val left the saloon. The alcohol wasn’t helping and he was starting to feel sick. He staggered unsteadily to his feet and stood swaying as he tried to decide where he should go.
Thomas Markham excused himself from his card game and put a steadying hand under Johnny’s right elbow. “You need to lie down, son. Let’s get you back over to the hotel.”
Johnny nodded vaguely and allowed himself to be led across the street. Once they had reached Markham’s room he collapsed face down on the bed. Within seconds inelegant snores could be heard as Johnny succumbed to his drunken stupor. Markham carefully took possession of Johnny’s gun and laid it on a small table set to the right side of the window.
The gambler sat on the edge of the bed and allowed himself the luxury of sweeping strands of silky black hair off the boy’s flushed face. So many years since he had been able to do that. Johnny had only been five when Maria had run out on him the same way as she had run out on Murdoch Lancer. Although Markham still loved her…would always love her…he was under no illusions about her. She was wilful and cruel and manipulated men until she became bored and needed a new challenge. That she had dragged his son down with her was something for which he would never forgive her.
With a last fond look at Johnny he got up, left the room and quietly shut the door. Riley was waiting in the foyer. “Johnny is asleep in my room. Keep an eye on him. Don’t let him leave until I get back and don’t let anyone take him. I have no intention of losing my son again.”
Val had been hesitating on the boardwalk, unsure what to do next, when he saw Markham helping Johnny to walk over to the hotel. That Johnny was letting the gambler that close to him didn’t feel right so Val made up his mind. Fifteen minutes later he was in the saddle and on his way to Lancer. He didn’t like going against his friend’s wishes but something was wrong and it was easy to see that Johnny was hurting.
It was almost supper time when Val rode under the Lancer arch. He found Murdoch and Scott in the great room having a drink. The Cattleman’s Association meeting had been long and boring and they had only arrived home a short time earlier. Neither had yet registered the fact that Johnny wasn’t there.
Val accepted a drink and tried to decide if there was an easy way to impart his news. He was a straightforward man, not given to subtlety, so he decided to confront the problem head on. “I thought you might like to know that Johnny’s in town…dead drunk and mean as a rattle snake.”
There was a moments silence as the two Lancers tried to make sense of this unexpected piece of news. “Why?” Murdoch asked, more confused than angry.
“Don’t rightly know. He told me to mind my own business. When I tried to take the bottle away from him he pulled his gun on me. By rights I shoulda arrested him there and then but I thought it might be better if you went into town and collected him.”
Scott laid down his glass and rose to his feet. “Is he still at the saloon?”
“No and that’s somethin’ else that struck me as odd. He was helped over to the hotel by that gambler fella…the one that’s been in town these last couple of weeks.”
“Gambler?” Murdoch felt as if a hand was twisting his gut. “Do you know his name?”
“Thomas Markham.” Scott supplied the information. “Johnny and I played a few hands of cards with him that Saturday we were in town. I’m pretty sure he was cheating, and Johnny must have noticed as well, but he let it go.”
Murdoch gazed into the distance, eyes unfocussed and spoke almost to himself. “Markham.”
“Do you know him, sir?” Scott queried.
“I’m not sure. I don’t recognise the name…and it can’t be…not after all these years.”
“Murdoch?” Scott looked from his father to the lawman in concern. “Is Johnny in some kind of trouble?”
“I hope not, son. Can you get the horses saddled? I’ll let Teresa know that we won’t be here for supper. Sheriff Crawford I’m grateful to you for coming out here to tell us. It’s good to know that Johnny has such a good friend.”
Val shuffled his feet, embarrassed by the praise. “Something’s troubling him. If you need any more help just give me a call. I’ll ride back to town with you.”
Murdoch and Scott arrived in town, relieved to see Barranca still tied up outside the hotel. They dismounted in front of the saloon. Conversation had been kept to a bare minimum during the journey…Murdoch had pushed them hard. Scott knew his father well enough now to know that something was eating at him and it wasn’t just the fact that his younger son was in town, drunk, in the middle of the week. He had tried to raise questions about the gambler only to have them brushed aside.
Murdoch entered the saloon first, his eyes scanning the room through the gloom and the haze of smoke. He saw Markham sitting at one of the tables…recognised him immediately even after so many years. He crossed the distance between them and pulled him to his feet. “Where’s my son?” Murdoch shouted.
Markham smiled lazily and pried Murdoch’s fingers out of his shirt front. “Johnny is sleeping off a hard afternoons drinking at the hotel.”
“What the hell have you done?” Murdoch was red faced and angry.
“Told him the truth.” Markham sat down and began to shuffle the deck of cards. “He didn’t take it very well.”
“Scott.” Murdoch turned to his son. “Rent a buckboard, get Barranca and meet me over at the hotel.”
“I wouldn’t.” Markham cautioned. In contrast to Murdoch’s rage he appeared perfectly calm. “You have no right to take that boy anywhere. He doesn’t want to see you and if you try to take him against his will I’ll file charges of kidnapping.” Markham concentrated on the cards, ignoring the animosity pouring out of Murdoch. “Also one of my associates is keeping an eye on him and he has a very itchy trigger finger.”
“Kidnapping?” Scott was floundering out of his depth and appealed to his father for clarification. “What is he talking about?”
“It looks like you’ve got some explaining to do to your son, Murdoch. You might want to go somewhere more private.”
Murdoch ground his fingers into his palms and looked around. Everyone within earshot had stopped what they were doing to listen. “You’re not going to get away with this. You took him from me once before…it’s not going to happen again.”
Scott looked at Markham in shock. He had been present when Teresa had told Johnny that his mother had run off with a gambler. To his knowledge nothing more had been said on the subject, but it had been clear that Johnny had retained no memory of him. What had been said by this man to drive Johnny to drink himself into oblivion and why would his brother be accepting help from the person who had helped steal him away from his father?
Scott touched his father’s arm hesitantly. “We need to take Johnny home. I don’t care what he’s threatening…I’m not leaving my brother here.”
“Well, Murdoch? Do you want to take the chance that I’m bluffing?” Markham looked from Scott to Murdoch and smiled. “Why don’t we deal with this like civilised men? Johnny isn’t in a fit state to go anywhere. He’ll be safe with me. I have no intention of harming him. If he wants to see you tomorrow…”
“Of course he’ll want to see us tomorrow,” Scott burst out. “I don’t know what lies you’ve been telling him…”
Murdoch laid a restraining hand on Scott’s arm. “Leave it, Scott. He’s right. Now isn’t the time or the place.” Murdoch turned back to Markham. “I’ll be back in the morning and I will see my son. Let’s go, and Scott…get Barranca…Johnny won’t leave without him.”
“Why would Johnny want to leave?”
“I’ll explain when we get home. Markham, you make sure my son is still in town tomorrow otherwise I won’t rest until I hunt you down.”
Thomas Markham watched as Murdoch and his son, his only son, left the saloon. He felt a flutter of anxiety. Whatever game Murdoch Lancer was playing it was clear that he wasn’t going to relinquish his hold on Johnny without a fight. Markham’s fear was that in Scott, Murdoch might have his ace in the hole. How easy would it be to break the attachment that Johnny felt toward the man he had come to regard as his brother?
Teresa ran out of the house as soon as she heard the horses. Murdoch had only told her that Johnny had been taken ill in town and she was anxious to see for herself how he was. She stopped in dismay when she realised that Murdoch and Scott had returned without him. “Where is he? Is he alright?”
Murdoch dismounted and put his arm around her shoulders, steering her back inside. “He’ll be fine, sweetheart. He wasn’t feeling up to the ride home. We’ll go and get him in the morning. Do you think you could get Scott and me some sandwiches and coffee?”
As Murdoch distracted Teresa from worrying about Johnny, Scott took the horses to the barn. He left them in Jelly’s capable hands and, ignoring Jelly’s questions, set off to obtain some answers of his own.
He found Murdoch in the great room staring at the picture of Johnny that had been taken soon after they had signed the partnership agreement. “What’s going on, Murdoch? What has that man got to do with Johnny and why did he say we had no right to bring Johnny home?”
“Sit down, son. There’s something I need to tell you…something I should have told Johnny.”
Scott pulled off his gloves and dropped them into his upturned hat. After removing his gunbelt he sat on the sofa and draped his arms along the back. “I’m listening.”
Teresa returned with a heavy tray containing thick cut beef sandwiches, a pot of coffee, cups and two slices of apple pie. Scott leapt up to take the tray from her with a smile of thanks. He laid it on the table between the sofa and the leather chair where Murdoch was sitting. Scott kissed her on the cheek as she said goodnight.
He poured a cup of coffee for each of them and returned to his seat. “Well?”
“That man in town, Markham, he’s the one Maria ran off with.” An undying hatred for the man permeated every part of Murdoch’s body. “It’s a long story,” he sighed.
“I assume he’s told Johnny who he is so I don’t understand why Johnny would want anything to do with him. He’s never spoken about him…he didn’t remember him. It was only when Teresa said…” Scott hesitated. “He thought you’d kicked him and his mother out…you know that…he told you the first day we were here. Teresa told him that his mother had run off with a gambler. He didn’t believe her at first, but if he hadn’t come to accept it as the truth I don’t think he would have stayed. Why, after all these years, would Markham come looking for Johnny? He can’t have been expecting a warm welcome.”
“Markham thinks Johnny is his son,” Murdoch stated bluntly.
“That’s ridiculous. He didn’t meet Johnny’s mother until after Johnny was born. He must be out of his mind if he thinks he has any claim on him.”
“It’s not that simple, Scott. I wish it were. When Maria disappeared I sent out search parties to all our neighbours and the nearby towns. Word came back from Green River that she had been seen leaving with a man…a gambler who was going by the name of Robert Weston. He’d only been in town for a few weeks and during that time Maria had only gone into town a couple of times. It didn’t make any sense that she would run off with someone she hardly knew...that she would run off at all.” Murdoch’s thoughts drifted back to that dreadful morning when he had woken up to find his wife and son missing. He gave himself a mental shake and returned to the present. “I was only about a day behind them when I set out. I went on my own, leaving Paul, Teresa’s father, in charge of the ranch. They were travelling by wagon…Johnny was still a few months away from his second birthday so they couldn’t travel quickly. I caught up with them a few days later just this side of the Mexican border.”
“If you caught up with them why didn’t you bring them home?” Scott sat forward, his arms resting on his knees, and studied his father. There was something more…something that Murdoch was ashamed of.
“I tried. Maria was adamant that she wasn’t coming back so I told her I wanted to take Johnny home with me…and that was when she told me that Johnny wasn’t my son.”
“WHAT? You’re not telling me you believed her?”
“Not at first. She said that she had known this gambler before she and I met and that she had already been pregnant. I…I didn’t want to believe her. I loved Johnny so much.”
“Something changed your mind. What was it?” Scott’s disgust with his father was clear.
“The dates. I’d never thought about it. I met Maria in the second week of April and Johnny was born on the twenty third of December. At the time it had been a surprise, he wasn’t due until January, but once I saw him I didn’t give it another thought. She told me that he’d been conceived in March, before we met, and that he hadn’t arrived early…he’d been overdue.”
“Babies come early all the time. It doesn’t mean she was telling you the truth.”
“I know that, but at the time it seemed so convincing. You’ve seen Markham, his coloring and build…his eyes. When I saw him holding Johnny it was all too easy to believe that he was the boy’s father. I accepted what she said. I’m not proud of it now and I said things, terrible things that I wish I could take back.”
“And he’ll have told Johnny.” Scott’s voice sank as the full import of the situation hit him. “What did you say?”
“I…I called him a bastard.”
Scott rubbed his tired eyes. “But you don’t still believe that. If you did you’d never have sent for him or offered him a partnership…unless,” Scott tried to stop the unworthy thought. “Unless he was right at the start and you only wanted his gun.” He glared accusingly at his father.
“That’s unfair, Scott. Johnny is my son and your brother. I wish every day that I hadn’t listened to Maria and that I’d brought him home with me.” Murdoch shut his eyes against the memory of Johnny squirming in Markham’s arms and calling out for his papa. His son’s heartbroken sobs as he had yelled at Maria and then walked away would haunt him forever.
“You were convinced enough to call him a bastard…what changed?”
“I let them go and I came home.” Murdoch decided now wasn’t the right time to tell his older son that his journey home had taken him by way of Boston. Having lost Johnny he had made the decision to try and reclaim Scott from his grandfather. His visit to Garrett’s house in Beacon Hill, on Scott’s fifth birthday, had been a resounding failure. His only consolation was that he had finally seen his beautiful blond son.
“I cut myself off from all my friends and concentrated on the ranch. I barely ate and sleep was a luxury I never seemed to have. There were so many memories. Eventually Paul got so worried that he called Sam in. He didn’t get much of a welcome but, being Sam, he didn’t let that put him off. I told him what had happened…he and Paul were the only two I ever did tell. He called me a fool and some much stronger names. He told me that Maria had had a very hard pregnancy, something I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t fully realised. She hadn’t been able to carry Johnny the full nine months and had given birth to him three weeks early. He was a small baby although he was perfect in every other way. I had no real idea of what babies should weigh so when she said later he’d been full term I had no reason to disbelieve her. Sam told me something else as well. She had admitted to him that she had already lost a baby before Johnny was conceived.”
“It seems likely. I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been. As soon as the weather cleared I headed to Matamoros, hoping that I’d find them there. I didn’t, although I did speak to Maria’s aunt. She’d been living with her aunt when I met her. She confirmed that Maria had been pregnant and had lost the baby before we met. It had been very early on in the pregnancy but she said there had been no doubt that Maria had been expecting a baby…she had been sick right from the start. She said that Maria had flown into a temper when her lover left her even though he’d promised to come back. She miscarried that night. As it had been so early on she recovered quickly. I arrived in town a couple of weeks later and Johnny was conceived shortly after that. I never suspected a thing.”
Scott looked at the pot of coffee before deciding they needed something stronger. He poured them both a healthy shot of brandy. “Why would Markham still believe Johnny is his son? Do you know if he ever went back to Matamoros?”
“Maria’s aunt said that he returned about a month after Maria and I were married. He was distraught when he found that Maria hadn’t waited for him and apparently refused to believe the aunt’s story about her losing the baby. He thought it was just a ploy to stop him chasing after her. In any event he didn’t try to follow her…then. When he did turn up, over two years later, she must have lied to him and convinced him that he was Johnny’s father. I’ve no idea how long they were together after they left here. The trail had gone cold and it was only last year that Johnny was tracked down. I never expected that man to turn up again. The Pinkerton reports made reference to him from time to time. It appears that he makes his living cheating at cards. He’s certainly changed his name more than once in order to stay one step ahead of the law or a lynch mob.”
“I don’t understand why Johnny would believe him so easily. He must realise that you wouldn’t have welcomed him home if you didn’t think you were his father.”
“Markham believes Johnny is his son and half-truths can be very persuasive. Johnny asked me last night if he could see the Pinkerton reports. He must have been looking for proof that I had tried to find him. I told him I didn’t have the reports any more…that I’d burned them. It’s the truth, but an alternative explanation could be that they never existed in the first place. Then there’s the issue over dates and, if he’s told him what I said that day, about him being a bastard then reaching him is going to be difficult.”
“I don’t give a damn how difficult it is. I’m not losing my brother to more lies. He’s already lost his chance to grow up at Lancer because of his mother’s lies and your failure to trust your instincts. I’m going into town tomorrow to talk to him.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be that easy. Markham’s clearly hired himself some muscle and I’m not going to risk you getting shot. He’s here for a reason and he’s not going to want to leave without Johnny by his side. We need to think about the best way to handle this.”
Scott stood up decisively. “You can think about it all you want, Murdoch. You should have had the guts to tell him all of this long before now. I’m going into town tomorrow to talk some sense into my brother. Whether he likes it or not he’s coming home to Lancer where he belongs.”
Johnny woke up with a sour taste in his mouth and a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He groaned and turned away from the light streaming in through the window. After giving his stomach a few minutes to settle he cracked his eyelids open a fraction and found himself looking at a brightly colored bedspread that didn’t belong on his bed at Lancer. His feeling of nausea increased as he realised where he was and why he was there. He rolled over onto his back. Someone had removed his gun, undressed him and put him to bed…a fact which left him feeling vulnerable and embarrassed.
“Good morning. How are you feeling?”
The concerned voice came from the direction of the window…a direction in which Johnny didn’t want to look as the sunlight was sending stabbing pain through his eyes and head. “About as good as I look, I reckon.”
Markham laughed. “I’ve seen healthier looking corpses.”
Johnny groaned again. “You got any water? Damn, I haven’t had a hangover like this in…come to think of it I’ve never had a hangover like this.” Johnny made a mental note that alcohol coupled with a severe shock to the system could be a lethal combination. “And give me my gun. I don’t take kindly to anyone touching my gun.”
Once he had a glass of water in one hand, and his gun lying beside him on the bed, he began to feel better. “What time is it?”
“It’s a little after nine. Do you feel up to getting some breakfast?”
“Later.” Johnny wasn’t sure how much later, but he sure wasn’t ready to eat anything right that minute. “Where’re my clothes?”
“They’re just over the end of the bed.” Markham regarded his son sympathetically. The hangover might have been self-inflicted but with good reason. “You do believe me, don’t you son? I don’t know why Murdoch Lancer has been lying to you and…”
“Yeah, I believe you,” Johnny interrupted. He wanted Markham to go away so that he could sleep off his hangover. “And as soon as the room stops spinnin’ I’m outta here. I’ve managed fine without parents for most of my life. I made the mistake of letting one man get close believing he was my father…I’m not going through that again. I’d like to say I’m glad you came to find me but I’d be lying. The truth is I wish you’d never come here.”
During his solitary drinking session the day before he’d done a lot of thinking. He didn’t like the conclusions but it wouldn’t be the first time in his life that he’d had to do something he didn’t want. “I guess I’ve no right to the Lancer name. Hell, I’ve only used it for a year…it won’t be so hard going back to being Madrid.”
Markham was appalled. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. With Johnny Madrid by his side he would be untouchable. He wouldn’t have to worry about retribution from some of the men he’d cheated…men who turned out to have a long reach and powerful connections. He hadn’t come all this way just to have this ungrateful boy walk out on him the same way Maria had done all those years ago.
Markham suppressed his irritation and the urge to slap his son. Raising a hand in anger to a fully grown ex-gunfighter wasn’t guaranteed to ensure a long and profitable life. What he needed was to keep Johnny off balance long enough to gain his trust. He had so much to atone for…more regrets than he could comfortably handle. His mistakes of the past had been, he now knew, a mixture of over-zealousness and lack of maturity. It had been hard to step into the role of father to a boisterous toddler who had refused to accept his love…who had spent days and weeks screaming for his ‘papa’.
Both he and Maria had heaved a sigh of relief when the screams stopped only to find that Johnny had become withdrawn and unresponsive. As the boy grew older he had become more wilful and disobedient. What was a father to do in those circumstances? Maria hadn’t always approved of his methods and, looking back, he could see the wisdom in her words. Johnny’s reaction to him in the saloon that first night confirmed what he had hoped for…Johnny didn’t remember him. A clean start was what he needed with the boy…a start that didn’t include things best forgotten.
By the look on his son’s face which had an unhealthy green tinge to it, he wouldn’t be getting out of bed anytime soon and that posed another problem…that of Murdoch Lancer. He hadn’t been expecting the man to find out where Johnny was so quickly. It had been a shock to see him in town the previous evening. Maria had described her husband as a stubborn and driven man. If he said he was coming back to get Johnny this morning he would certainly make the attempt.
Johnny had snuggled back down into the pillows, his right hand resting lightly on his gun and his eyes barely open. Markham made his decision. “Murdoch Lancer and his son came into town last night.”
Blue eyes regarded him without expression. “What did he want?” In most situations Johnny was a master at hiding his feelings. This time he was sure he was failing miserably.
“He took your horse.”
“Barranca?” Johnny was immediately alert. “What’d he do that for?”
“I don’t know, son. He was very angry.”
“Did he…did he ask where I was?” Johnny tried to convince himself it didn’t matter. Murdoch wasn’t his father, knew he wasn’t his father, so why would he be concerned?
“I told him you were here.”
“And he didn’t want to see me? He…he just left?” The rejection was painful if not unexpected.
“He wasn’t happy to see me…to find that I’d told you the truth. I told him where you were but he didn’t make any attempt to come and see how you were. Scott was worried about you. Murdoch ordered him home.”
“Scott went? He just left me here? Does he know…did you tell him?”
“It wasn’t my place to tell him. I’m sure Murdoch has told him some version of the truth by now. I understand how much Scott means to you, even if he isn’t your brother. If it’s any consolation he wasn’t happy at being told to leave.” Markham saw a small smile appear on Johnny’s face. He would have preferred to tell his son that Scott had also willingly turned his back but, having seen them together, knew that wouldn’t have been credible.
“Murdoch Lancer doesn’t like losing, son. He never did. Now that you know the truth…now that he’s been caught out in a lie…he’s likely to come back today and demand that you sign over your share of the ranch. He can only have been using you as protection for his precious empire and the son he always intended to inherit it.”
“He can have it. I don’t want anything more to do with Lancer.” The lie tasted sour in Johnny’s mouth. He didn’t want the money…that much was true. He did want the man he had thought was his father and the man he still regarded as his brother. He wanted the unobtainable and it was more painful than a bullet wound.
“He’s caused you a lot of hurt. You shouldn’t be too hasty in throwing away your bargaining power. Make him and Scott buy you out. He can’t afford to try and break the contract in Court. He’d have to admit that he’d lied to you all along. What sort of an impression would that make with his friends and neighbours? Murdoch Lancer has his reputation to think of.”
“I don’t want to see him,” Johnny stated, decisively. He could cope with the pain, eventually, if he didn’t have to see Murdoch or Scott. “If he does turn up you can tell him that.” Johnny yawned. “Can’t keep my damned eyes open.”
“You rest now. I’ll sort everything out. Is that alright with you?”
“Sure. You sort it then I can leave.” Johnny’s voice faded to a whisper as his eyelids closed tightly against the light and the pain of betrayal and loss.
The atmosphere at Lancer was stormy. Scott had spent the night alternately hating his father and Markham and cursing the stupidity of a brother who would try and sort this out without confiding in him. Having heard Markham’s side of the story Johnny was likely to be hurt and confused. What made it worse was that he had lived at Lancer for twelve months without Murdoch once voluntarily discussing the past. Murdoch couldn’t have made himself look guiltier of deceit if he’d tried.
Scott had tackled his father after breakfast only to find him evasive. Murdoch still insisted that charging off and dragging Johnny back to Lancer wasn’t the answer. A more reasoned approach was required. Scott had snorted rudely and told his father that, in his experience, a reasoned approach was the least effective way of getting through to his hard-headed brother.
“So what exactly are you proposing to do?” Scott demanded. “You let him go once. Are you planning on doing it again?”
Murdoch flushed angrily. “I most certainly do not intend to let him go. Neither do I intend to force him back here at gunpoint…and believe me, Scott that is what it would take.”
“Perhaps he’ll speak to me,” Scott ventured. “He thinks you’ve lied to him so he’s not going to be in any hurry to see you. He knows he can trust me. I don’t care about Markham’s threats. Johnny would never let anything happen to me. If we can get him to listen to your side of the story we might be able to convince him.”
“I’m not willing to take the chance of you being hurt.”
“You’d rather take the chance of losing him again? Look, Murdoch, you go and speak to Markham. Keep him occupied. If Johnny’s at the saloon or anywhere else public there’s no problem. If he’s still at the hotel I can get in to see him without Markham knowing.”
Murdoch shook his head. “He said he had someone watching Johnny. No, Scott, I won’t let you take the risk.”
“Val will help us if we ask him. I’m sure we can find a way to distract this man long enough for me to get to Johnny. Once I’m with him I’ll be perfectly safe. We have to try. I spent nearly twenty-five years not knowing I had a brother. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life without him.”
Murdoch bowed his head while he considered his older son’s plea. It would hurt both his boys to be separated again, particularly under these circumstances. Everything he had found out about Markham all those years ago suggested that the man was an accomplished liar and that he would resort to any underhanded trick necessary to achieve his objective. Right now that objective appeared to be taking Johnny away from his family again for reasons that were not yet clear. He could find out more given time, only time was the one thing they were lacking.
“I agree…on one condition. You don’t try to get to your brother without Val’s help. I don’t want you ending up with a bullet in the back.”
Murdoch and Scott separated on the outskirts of town. Murdoch headed for the saloon and Scott took the back way to the jail. Murdoch’s hopes that Johnny might be at the saloon were dashed as he saw only a few ranch hands from neighbouring spreads and Thomas Markham. He masked his disappointment as best he could and looked with loathing at the man who had been partly responsible for condemning Johnny to a hard and brutal childhood. His own guilt rose to consume him. If only he hadn’t believed Maria or had spoken sooner to Sam…if only.
Murdoch threw his hat down on the table and pulled out a chair. “Where’s my son?”
Markham raised an enquiring eyebrow. “I’m surprised you’re still persisting with that pretence. We both know that Johnny is mine.”
An involuntary shudder ran down Murdoch’s spine as Markham claimed ‘ownership’ of Johnny. “Let’s speak plainly. I don’t doubt that Maria told you that you were Johnny’s father and that you believed it. We both know that she was capable of telling dreadful lies. I spoke to her aunt and…”
“She was lying to protect Maria. She didn’t want me following and upsetting her fine marriage to a rich rancher.”
“It wasn’t just her aunt that told me she’d lost the baby…your baby. Our doctor, the one who delivered Johnny said the same thing. You can ask him.”
“Why would I believe the lies told by a friend of yours? There’s nothing you can say that’ll convince me. Johnny is my son and he’ll be leaving with me in a few days. Before we go, though, you and I need to talk about that partnership agreement.”
Murdoch clenched his fists. “That has nothing to do with you and I have no intention of letting you drag my son down to your level. You are nothing but a cheap crook and a swindler and it won’t take much for Johnny to see through you and realise that you’re just using him.”
Markham laughed. “You’re the one that’s been using him. How convenient that you finally tracked him down just when you needed help to save your ranch. You had to make some promise to get the use of his gun. How long was it going to be before you told him the truth and stripped him of his share? You’re not going to get out of it that easily now. He’s authorised me to discuss a payoff and in return he’ll sign over his share to you and your son.” The thought of Scott caused Markham to narrow his eyes in thought. “Where is your son, by the way? I thought he’d be here backing you up. He hasn’t been stupid enough to go over to the hotel has he? I warned you last night. My associate would sooner put a bullet in him than let him near the boy.”
“Scott is back at the house,” Murdoch lied, hoping and praying that Markham would believe him.
“I play cards for a living, Murdoch. I know when someone is lying to me. It’s funny; I thought you were smarter than that. Now…about that contract…”
Riley was sitting on a comfortable chair in the foyer of the hotel when Scott walked in. He recognised Scott immediately from the confrontation in town a few weeks previously. Scott ignored him and walked to the front desk.
“I’d like to know what room Mr. Markham is in.”
The elderly desk clerk smiled at Scott. “Good morning, Mr. Lancer. Now let me see…ah yes, he’s in room number 8 but I’m sure I saw him go out earlier. Would you like to leave him a message?”
“No, thank you.” Scott pulled off his gloves and hooked them over the handle of his gun. “I think I’ll go up and wait for him.”
“I’m afraid that’s against hotel policy, sir.”
Scott reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out ten dollars. “I’d be obliged if you’d overlook it this time.”
The money disappeared into the man’s shirt pocket. “I’ll have to tell him you’re waiting for him when he returns.”
“Of course.” Scott started to climb the stairs, aware that he was being watched. The realisation that Johnny’s ‘guard’ was the very man who had called him out was a puzzle. He wondered if Johnny was aware of the connection between Markham and this man. He was part way up the stairs when he heard footsteps behind him followed shortly by a gun barrel being pressed into his back.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Riley asked.
“Not that it’s any of your business but I’m going to see my brother.” Scott continued to the upstairs landing before turning to confront the man.
“Mr. Markham’s left orders…the boy’s not to be disturbed.” The gun was now pointing steadily at Scott’s chest.
Scott looked over the man’s shoulder and a broad grin appeared on his face. “Sheriff, nice to see you. This gentleman was just explaining why he had pulled a gun on me.”
“Is that right?” Val growled. “I think I’d like to hear that. Drop the gun, mister. You and me’re gonna take a little walk over to the jail.”
Riley was smart enough to know when he’d been set up. He lowered his gun, turned and presented it to Val.
“You alright, Scott?” Val asked.
“I’m fine. Thanks for the assistance. I’ll call by later and file charges.”
The bedroom door was unlocked much to Scott’s relief. He didn’t think the desk clerk would have appreciated him breaking it down. The drapes were closed, leaving the room in semi-darkness. The bed was in a state of complete disarray with Johnny’s dark head nestled in a mound of white pillows. Scott crossed the room quietly and opened the drapes, allowing day light to stream into the room. There was a muffled complaint from the bed.
“Rise and shine, brother,” Scott announced cheerfully. “You and I have some things to discuss.”
Murdoch delayed Markham for as long as he could. He listened with mounting disbelief as the gambler laid out the terms under which Johnny would relinquish his share of Lancer. At the end he slammed his fist down on the table.
“This isn’t open for discussion. Johnny is my son. He is entitled to his one third share of the ranch and I have no intention of buying him out. If he is serious about this he can come and talk to me himself.”
Markham looked puzzled. “What’s your game, Lancer? Are you still so desperate for his gun or is it that you don’t like losing? It won’t take long for you to become a laughing stock all over again when people learn that Maria foisted her bastard on you for two years. How do you think Johnny will feel when word gets round that he isn’t a Lancer?”
“That’s blackmail. How can you claim to love him and then threaten to make all this common knowledge?”
“You buy him out on the terms we’ve discussed and let him go. If you don’t, I’ll make sure everyone knows the whole sordid story and that would break the boy’s heart. Do you want to be responsible for that on top of everything else you’ve put him through?”
As the bright sunlight invaded the room Johnny flung the bedcovers over his head. He was completely taken aback when he heard Scott’s deep voice as opposed to Markham’s soft, southern drawl. The initial surge of happiness was immediately buried deep behind Madrid’s protective barriers. He emerged cautiously from his cocoon only to find his clothes flying across the room to smack him in the face.
“Get dressed. We’re going home.”
Johnny untangled himself from his shirt. “I don’t have a home.”
Even though Scott had been expecting that answer it was unnerving to hear it being delivered without any emotion…no anger, pain or regret. He settled comfortably in the armchair and prepared to do battle. “So you’ve listened to Markham’s lies and now you’re just going to run out on us without hearing Murdoch’s side of the story.”
“I think I can live without hearing Murdoch call me a bastard…again.” The tone was impersonal…the emotions churning through Johnny were another matter entirely. He could tell from the slight smile on Scott’s lips that his remarks weren’t being taken at face value. Scott had come to know him too well over the past twelve months and was more adept than most at forcing him to bring his true feelings to the surface. This was one time he had no intention of letting Scott get through to him. He couldn’t afford to be misled again however well intentioned Scott might be.
With an effort Scott managed to mask his own anger with Murdoch over that particular comment. He suspected that Johnny already harbored a deep-seated feeling of insecurity caused by his upbringing…or lack of it. Scott had seen his brother’s face light up in almost child-like delight in response to praise from his father…and had seen him sink into abject misery when he felt he had disappointed Murdoch. Johnny was a mass of contradictions and Scott was certain that he had only just managed to scratch the surface during the course of the last year. “I’m not apologising for him or asking you to forgive what he said and did. I am asking you to do him the courtesy of hearing him out.”
“He told you?” There was a crack in the façade, allowing Johnny’s confusion and hurt to leak out. “Pity he never saw fit to tell me.” The crack closed, leaving Johnny once more in outward control of his emotions.
“If you give him the chance he’s got a lot of things you need to hear. You are his son, Johnny, and my brother, and I’ve no intention of letting you leave like this.”
Johnny decided he had heard enough. He wanted Scott to be his brother as much as he wanted Murdoch to be his father and Lancer his home. Wanting all those things and knowing that he couldn’t have them just made it worse. He pushed the covers off his legs and got out of bed. With his back to Scott he began to pull on his clothes. He was doing up the buttons on his shirt when he felt a hand coming to rest lightly on his arm.
“Don’t we mean anything to you?”
Johnny moved away far enough to dislodge Scott’s hand. “Of course you do. I can’t turn my feelings off that quickly. It seems Murdoch can, though. He turned his back on me quickly enough twenty years ago.”
“On the basis of the same lies.” Scott’s voice was starting to rise in frustration. “He was told the same things Markham has now apparently told you. He accepted them then and you’re condemning him for it. Take a hard look at what you’re doing. You’re falling for the same thing he did.”
“They’re not lies. This last year has been the lie…pretending we were a family. Murdoch even had me convinced he cared about me when all he wanted was my gun. I’m surprised he could stand having me in the same room. His wife’s bastard, a constant reminder of her betrayal and his stupidity.” With a sudden surge of temper Johnny lashed out, his hand catching the lamp on the table and sweeping it to the floor. The glass shade shattered and oil spilt over the carpet.
A small piece of the glass cut into Johnny’s index finger and he brought his hand to his mouth as drops of blood began to well up. “Families are nothing but trouble. Soon as I sort things out here I’m gone and I ain’t coming back.”
Scott’s heart sank as he found himself facing the same angry young man who had first confronted their father in the great room at Lancer a year ago. “You’re leaving with Markham? He’s nothing but a cheap crook and a swindler.”
Johnny gave Scott a pitying look. “I’m not leaving with him. For all I care he can crawl back under his rock. He’s nothing to me…I wish I’d never met him. I managed fine on my own before and I will again. All I need now is some travelling money to get me started…I figure Lancer’s had the use of my gun for a year and I don’t come cheap. You and Murdoch can buy me out of that phoney contract… and I want Barranca. Where is he?”
Scott was appalled by the way the conversation was going and was seriously considering punching his brother’s lights out and tying him over a horse. “He’s back at the ranch. If you want him you can come and get him.”
“Nice try, Scott,” Johnny smirked. “I’m not stupid enough to set foot on Lancer again. Knowing you I’d just find myself locked in my room.” His smile broadened when he saw Scott’s guilty look. “Get someone to bring him to town for me.” Johnny had finished getting dressed and was now concentrating on buckling his gunbelt.
“Markham had someone keeping an eye on you. Do you really think he came here just to tell you he’s your father and then let you ride off?” Scott saw the fractional hesitation in Johnny’s fingers. “It’s the same man who called you out last time you were in town.”
Johnny looked up. “Don’t believe you. Why would he do that?”
“You can check with Val if my word’s not good enough for you.” Scott caught the flash of shame before Johnny wiped his expression clean again. “He pulled a gun on me this morning so Val’s got him locked up.”
There was anger then that everyone was trying to manipulate him. “I might stop by and see Val later.” Johnny searched around and found his hat. He held his right hand out to Scott. “It’s been nice knowing you.”
Scott ignored the gesture. “This isn’t over.”
“Yes, it is,” Markham announced from the doorway. “Get out Mr. Lancer. I warned you last night to stay away from my son.”
Scott’s response died on his lips as Johnny pushed past them both and left the room without a word.
After Markham had gone Murdoch found himself standing in the street, his mind in turmoil. Friends and neighbours called greetings to which he replied automatically. The sun was high in the sky and it was a beautiful spring day. It wasn’t unlike that day in late fall when he had caught up with Maria…when he had last abandoned his dearly loved younger son. He began walking and his footsteps led him to Sam’s door.
The doctor was packing his bag, ready to set out on his rounds, when he heard the door open. He sighed…it was already late morning and he had a lot of patients to get to. His annoyance at the interruption faded when he saw Murdoch’s expression. Sam’s first thought was that one of the boys had been hurt or that Johnny’s knee was giving him more trouble than expected.
He ushered Murdoch into a chair and gave him a cup of coffee laced with whiskey. “What’s happened?” Murdoch’s answer was the last thing Sam had ever expected to hear.
“Will you talk to him? He might listen to you,” Murdoch begged after describing the events of the last two days. “I spoke to Maria this morning and she told me about his questions to her yesterday. She was devastated to think that she might have said something to upset him.”
“Does she know what’s going on?”
“No and neither does anyone else apart from Scott and possibly Val. I’m not sure what Scott told him. Neither of them will spread it any further and Johnny won’t say anything…he’ll just run. The sad thing is that Markham is convinced that he’s told Johnny the truth, that he is Johnny’s father.”
“Have you tried talking to Johnny?”
“Scott’s with him now. I didn’t think he’d want to see me. I’m hoping that Scott’ll persuade him to speak to me.”
“Did it ever once occur to you, Murdoch Lancer that your son needs to see you fighting for him?” Sam’s color heightened in annoyance. “He’s clearly been told that you had the chance to bring him home when he was a child and chose not to. I’d guess that he’s been told by Markham that you’ve known where he was since last night…and what effort have you made to try and see him? None. If he wasn’t feeling unwanted before I bet he is now.”
Murdoch had also flushed at the reprimand. “You know what he’s like, Sam. If I’d tried to see him he’d have walked out on me. It made more sense to let Scott speak to him first.”
“Maybe so but at least he’d have seen that you cared enough to try, and maybe the next time he wouldn’t have walked out on you.”
Murdoch’s shoulders sagged in defeat. “The truth is that I’m scared of saying the wrong thing to him. I’m not worried about what he might do or say. I’m scared that I’ll never see him again once he hears the truth. All I had to do that day was hold out my arms and take him. I just had to believe my heart when it was telling me that Johnny was my son. I loved him so much and I let him go. How can I ever expect him to believe a word I say again? Scott was right when he said I should have had the guts to tell Johnny all this when he came home…to beg his forgiveness. For the last year I’ve let him believe that I looked for him and couldn’t find him. All that he has come to feel for me has been based on a lie. He’ll never trust me again and who can blame him.”
“I don’t believe I’m hearing this. You’re talking yourself into making the same mistake you made twenty years ago. What Johnny needs right now is for someone to tell him the truth coupled with a healthy dose of love and support. Do you think you can manage that or would it be too much trouble?” Sam’s sarcasm found its mark.
“I didn’t come here for a lecture,” Murdoch snapped.
“Then what did you come here for? To ask me to do your dirty work for you or did you hope I’d help you come to terms with your guilty conscience? Well, I’ll tell you now, Murdoch, I won’t do either. If Johnny wants to ask me questions about his mother I’ll do my best to answer them. I am not going to seek him out as your emissary and you should be ashamed of the fact that it’s Scott and not you in that room with your son. If he rides out of here you’ll carry a large slice of the blame. And just what do you think he’ll do if he leaves? If he can’t be Johnny Lancer he’ll go back to being the very thing you hated. Madrid will be back to stay.”
Murdoch stood up and walked to the door, turning with his hand on the doorknob. He felt the hurt and the loss as acutely as he had twenty years ago. He had made the wrong decision then and Johnny had suffered for it. Now he was going to do the kindest thing he could to protect his son. “Even if I could persuade Johnny to stay Markham would still have won. He’ll make sure that the rumours start that he’s Johnny’s father, that Johnny is a bastard with no legitimate claim to the Lancer name or right to his share of the Lancer estate. Dirt like that will rub off on Scott and Teresa and everyone who works for Lancer. Johnny’ll never stand for that. He won’t see the people he cares about being hurt and humiliated. We’ll lose him as surely as if he rides out of town today. If I let him go now no one will ever have to know what happened. He keeps his pride. No, Sam, I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to buy him out of the contract.”
Johnny was angrier than he’d been for a long time. What the hell gave anyone the right to try and tell him how to live his life? He needed some space and privacy in order to think. He booked himself a room in the hotel and arranged with the desk clerk for someone to go out to Lancer to collect his belongings and his horse. The man was clearly bursting with questions but Johnny’s scowl prevented him from asking. Johnny had no doubt that it would be all over town soon that he had left the ranch. The realisation that this bothered him made him even angrier than he had been five minutes before.
His next problem was money…he didn’t have any with him and had very little in hard cash at the ranch. He would need some breathing space before he would be ready to hire on in a range war. He needed to hone his skills with his gun and regain his edge. Reasoning that Murdoch probably hadn’t had time to stop his line of credit at the bank he went over and withdrew enough money to get him through the next couple of weeks. The Bank Manager tried to engage him in conversation, asking after the health of his father and brother. He stuttered to a halt as cold blue eyes bored into him. Johnny felt no guilt at withdrawing Lancer money…he reckoned he was owed it as a down payment for services rendered.
He stood on the boardwalk scanning the street. He felt as if everyone was staring at him and talking behind his back. There would be a lot of people who would be happy to find out that he wasn’t a Lancer; people who had never warmed to the idea of a former gunhawk living among them. He self-consciously adjusted his gunbelt before pulling his hat off and running a hand through his unruly dark hair. As he resettled his hat his attention was caught by two strangers riding into town. They rode down the center of the street, slowly and deliberately, staring at the passers-by and forcing other people to move out of their way. Johnny knew what they were the minute he saw them. Without stopping to think what he was doing he stepped out into the street and into their line of sight. With his right hand on his gun and a smile on his face he watched them ride past. They both touched a finger to the brim of their hats in acknowledgement as they passed him. The challenge had been made and accepted and Johnny knew that it would only be a matter of time before one or both would seek him out. Not a bad way to start rebuilding his reputation.
Deciding that he was hungry, he headed for the cantina. The warm welcome he received was personal…nothing to do with the Lancer name…and was a balm to his damaged self-esteem. Rosita bustled around bringing him a selection of his favorite dishes. The anger and tension started to leave his body and he allowed himself to drift lazily on a cloud of well-being. He was part way through his meal when his mood shattered.
It had taken Scott some time to track down his brother. He wasn’t in the least put out by the scowl he received as he sat down at the table. “Are you going to sit and listen to me or do I have to tie you to that chair?”
The absurdity of the threat made Johnny laugh. “I’d like to see you try.”
Scott smiled. “Don’t tempt me, brother.”
“Boy, the Old Man’s sure got you convinced.” The humour had disappeared from Johnny’s eyes. “So, *brother*, what is it you want to say to me?”
Scott looked around the room. There were a number of people within earshot. “Wouldn’t you rather go somewhere more private?”
“Nope. I figure you can’t try nothing sneaky if there’s other people around.”
For the next twenty minutes Scott talked while Johnny ate, giving every indication that he wasn’t in the least bit interested in what he was being told. At the end of it Johnny threw some coins on the table, picked up his hat and got to his feet.
“Well?” Scott asked.
“That was quite some story. Seems to me I’ve got a choice. I can believe what you’ve just told me or I can believe Markham. Your information comes from Murdoch…a man who couldn’t be bothered to come and find me himself…who admits he believed I was a bastard and abandoned me. What proof do I have that he had a change of heart or that he tried to find me again until he needed my gun. Markham’s no better. I don’t recall ever seeing him before so I must have still been real young when he and my mama parted company. It seems he wasn’t in any hurry to claim me either. You know what, Scott, to hell with both of them. I don’t give a damn who my father is.”
Johnny turned to leave only to be hauled back round to face a furious Scott Lancer. “That’s bullshit, Johnny, and you know it as well as I do. Anyone watching your face when you talk about Murdoch could tell you that. Whether you want to admit it or not you love him; love him for the man he is and because you want him to be your father. You want to be a Lancer. Why would your mother lie to you all those years about that? She told you that Murdoch Lancer was your father. Why?”
“How would I know? All my parents have ever done is lie to me. What does family matter anyway?” Johnny’s expression softened. “Please, Scott, I’ve had enough. Seems like every time I let anyone get close to me I end up hurt. If you care about me at all just let me leave.”
“I can’t. The last year has been the best time of my life. You’re not the only one who was looking for a family, and I don’t buy into that ‘family doesn’t matter’ line. I didn’t realise it any more than you did until it happened. I believe Murdoch, but even if I didn’t I wouldn’t want you to go. We are brothers, Johnny, I feel it here.” Scott laid his hand over his heart. “We’re also friends; at least I thought we were. Friends don’t run out on each other.”
“Yeah, we’re friends. Maybe that’s better than being brothers; you get to choose your friends.” Johnny sat down again, tired, confused and affected more than he cared to admit by Scott’s passion. “I can’t make any promises. I can’t pretend this hasn’t happened, and I don’t think I can go on pretending to be a Lancer, but I’ll talk to Murdoch. I’m not going back to the ranch though.”
“You don’t need to. He’s in town somewhere. Give me time to find him. Where do you want to meet?” Hope stirred within Scott. If he could get his brother and father together they could straighten things out.
“Like I said…let’s keep it public. I’ll be over at the saloon if he wants to see me. If he doesn’t turn up…well, then I’ll have my answer.”
Markham was in a sour mood. He had just got Murdoch Lancer where he wanted him then Scott had interfered causing Johnny to walk out on both of them. The desk clerk had informed him about Riley’s arrest; another irritation in a day that was rapidly going from bad to worse. Riley was no use to him in jail so he paid a call on the irritating sheriff.
“I ain’t lettin’ him out and the judge ain’t in town to set bail.” Val crossed his arms and glared at the man who was causing his friend so much grief. “If he works for you maybe you can explain why he pulled a gun on Scott Lancer.”
“He simply misunderstood my instructions. Johnny wasn’t feeling well and I told him to make sure he wasn’t disturbed. No harm was done, Sheriff, so I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.”
“If you’re trying to offer me a bribe I’ll lock you up as well,” Val growled.
“If you’re going to be unreasonable it appears we have nothing to talk about.” Markham glared at Val who glared right back. “I’ll speak to the judge when he gets back into town. When do you expect him?”
Val grinned. “In about a month. He’s gone back east to visit his ailing sister.”
Markham ground his teeth together in frustration. “What if Lancer was to drop the charges?”
“Then I guess I’d have ta let him go.”
After leaving the jail Markham walked in the direction of the saloon. As he turned a corner he saw the two gunfighters riding into town. He broke out in a sweat and his heart started hammering in his chest. He backed up the way he had come and hid from view. When he risked a glance around the corner of the building he saw his son arrogantly step into the street and throw out a silent challenge. He had been right to come and claim him; with Johnny Madrid by his side he would be untouchable. Those men were going to be looking for him…he’d stayed here too long. If the boy hadn’t been laid up with his injured leg they would have been long gone by now. He couldn’t let Johnny slip through his fingers now. His life depended upon his son’s prowess with a gun and his reputation. Not many men would willingly stand up against a gunhawk of Madrid’s stature.
Fortunately it appeared that Johnny had decided, for reasons of his own, to make a move against these two men. Once he had taken care of them they could sort out matters with Murdoch and be on their way. If Johnny wouldn’t come with him willingly he would have to find a way to convince him. They had been apart for too long and needed time to build a relationship. Once they had been together for a while he was sure that Johnny would see it was all for the best. Since he couldn’t risk putting in an appearance at the saloon he returned to the hotel to wait for Johnny to come back.
Johnny strolled into the saloon. A delighted grin appeared on his face when he saw the two men he had noticed earlier. They were standing with their backs to the bar, drinking beer and watching…always watching. Without any hesitation Johnny walked up to the bar and ordered himself a beer. After a couple of mouthfuls he turned to address the men.
“I saw you gentlemen ride in. You got business here in town?”
“Maybe,” the older of the two replied. “Could be that you’re our business.”
“I’m counting on it. Whenever you’re ready. I’ll be sitting right over there.” Johnny gestured with his glass to a table in the corner.
He sat and lazily watched what was going on around him until the doors opened to admit Murdoch and Scott. He sat forward intently before forcing his body to relax. “I wasn’t sure you’d come. D’you want a drink?”
“No, Johnny, I’d just like to get down to business.” Murdoch hardened his heart against the shocked looks he was receiving from both of his sons. The thought of losing Johnny again was tearing him apart. It was only his belief that, whatever he did, the boy would be lost to him that was giving him the strength to face this meeting. Surely this was kinder than making his son go through the ordeal of having people question his legitimacy? “Markham has presented your terms for ending the partnership agreement and I’ve accepted them.”
“What are you talking about?” Scott demanded. “That’s not why we’re here.”
“Shut up, Scott. I’d like to hear what terms have been agreed.” Johnny had steeled himself for this meeting…had tried to mask his deep shock and disappointment…and now just wanted it to be over with.
“Twenty thousand dollars now and ten percent of the profits for the next ten years. He drove a hard bargain and it’ll take me some time to arrange things with the Bank. I’ll have my lawyer draw up the agreement confirming the terms.”
“What are you doing? I’m not signing any agreement to end the partnership.” Scott was looking at his father as if Murdoch had lost his mind.
“You don’t have to. I’m buying Johnny out personally and I’ll pay his agreed share of the profits out of my holding in the ranch.”
Johnny looked down at his hands. “So that’s it?”
“Why, was there something else you wanted?” Murdoch hated himself for the callous nature of that question.
“Yeah, I want Barranca. I’ve sent someone out to the house to get him and to collect my things.”
“I don’t see a problem with that.”
“YOU don’t see a problem? Tell him what you told me last night. Convince him that he’s your son and that you want him to stay. I thought that was why we were here.”
“Then you thought wrong, Scott. He wasn’t interested in fighting to keep me twenty years ago. It looks like nothing’s changed. There’s just one other thing, Old Man. Make sure your lawyer puts the right name on that paper this time. It’s John Madrid…not Lancer.”
During his confrontation with Murdoch, Johnny had been keeping an eye on the two men at the bar. They were too far away to overhear the conversation, but would easily have been able to see the highly charged nature of the discussion. One of the first things Johnny had learned as a gunfighter was to take advantage of an opponent’s weakness. Those two men were like vultures, cruising around looking for easy meat. Johnny cursed the impulse that had made him throw out such a blatant challenge; one that he was woefully ill-equipped to meet. Johnny Madrid would never have been so stupid even in the early days while he was looking to make a reputation for himself. If Johnny were being honest with himself he would have to admit that it was a deeply hurt Johnny Lancer that was looking for a fight.
He wasn’t surprised when he saw one of the men say something to his partner, put down his glass and start to walk his way. Again he wondered why they were in town. He didn’t get the impression that they were looking for him…that they even knew who he was…although they were certainly looking for someone. The man approaching the table would have been nondescript, just another face in the crowd, except for his air of supreme confidence. The gunfighter knew he was good and the notion of losing had never crossed his mind.
Johnny Ignored Murdoch and Scott and pushed to his feet. Scott, who had been arguing with his father, stopped in mid-sentence. Out of the corner of his eye Johnny saw Murdoch lay a hand on Scott’s arm and shake his head warningly.
“You ready to go outside?” The man asked, standing just far enough away so that he wasn’t invading Johnny’s personal space.
“Sure.” Johnny spoke with more confidence than he felt. “I’ll be right out.”
After watching his opponent leave the saloon he turned to Murdoch. “Maybe this is your lucky day. If he kills me you won’t have to pay to get rid of me.” A thought occurred to him, a cruel thought and one that should never have seen the light of day. He voiced it anyway. “Tell you what, Murdoch, if he kills me you can just pay that money over to Markham…to my father.” The words nearly choked him.
The realisation that he had been wrong and that he had wounded his son possibly past hope of recovery hit Murdoch hard. He shouldn’t be trying to push Johnny away, he should be doing everything in his power to draw him back to his family. They should be standing together against Markham’s lies not bowing to blackmail. “Johnny…I didn’t mean…Scott’s right, I should be explaining things to you, not encouraging you to run away. Won’t you listen to me, son?”
“I’m not your damned son and you don’t get to weasel out of paying Markham by pretending you care what happens to me.” Johnny was furious at what he saw as yet another betrayal…another instance of Murdoch putting money and his ranch before his well-being. “Go to hell.”
As he walked out into the street he knew that his anger might well get him killed. It was ripping through him…a throbbing pain that consumed him and left him feeling weak and helpless. Listening to Scott earlier he had taken a step toward believing what he was being told. He had wanted to believe it and, if Murdoch had said those things to him, he would have believed him. He didn’t want Markham to be his father, there was something about the man that repulsed him. That wasn’t how you were meant to feel about your father. He was sure he could eventually have moved past the fact that Murdoch had called him a bastard if everything else Scott had said was true. All it would have taken was for Murdoch to come to him and tell him…tell him what? That he loved him and wanted him to come home. Had that been too much to hope for?
Instead Murdoch had shown his true colors. No hint of affection, just cold hard business. Not so different from their first meeting. He should have trusted his judgement then and sided with Pardee. Dios, but it hurt. He didn’t care about the money, but maybe the satisfaction of taking it from Murdoch Lancer would help to make the pain go away.
As his thoughts turned inward he automatically took up the required position in the middle of the street. His right hand dangled loosely by his gun. He tested his injured knee until he was satisfied that it wouldn’t let him down. His eyes were fixed on his opponent yet he didn’t see him…he was lost in a world of hurt. He wondered what would happen if he was wounded rather than killed. Would Scott insist upon hauling him off to Lancer where he would be helpless to escape from the well-intentioned words? Or would Murdoch finally and publicly wash his hands of him? He wasn’t sure which would be worse.
His instinct for survival, an instinct that had kept him alive for more years than he cared to remember, came to the fore. His vision focussed and he saw the tell-tale sign that told him his opponent was about to draw. Quicker than thought his own gun was in his hand and he was firing. He felt a flash of fire raking his left arm as a bullet creased his skin…then it was over. He felt no satisfaction in the kill…didn’t even know the name of the man now lying lifeless in the dirt. He holstered his gun and walked away.
Markham had again watched the drama playing out from the comfort of his hotel room. Johnny’s speed and accuracy were even more impressive than he had dared hope for. The fear that had gripped him ever since he had seen the two men ride into town started to fade. There was only one of them left and if he dared to make his move Johnny would save him. Word would soon get out that he was under the protection of Johnny Madrid and then he would be untouchable. He would be able to negotiate an extension with the consortium of men he had made the mistake of cheating. All he needed were a few high stakes games…no…he didn’t even need that. What he needed was to get his hands on the money Murdoch Lancer was going to be paying Johnny. That would be more than enough to settle all his debts.
He waited impatiently for his son to return. He had seen Johnny walking toward the hotel leaving Murdoch and Scott standing forlornly on the street. He had watched as Murdoch had prevented Scott from interfering, and could tell from the look on their faces that they were arguing. When Johnny didn’t appear he ventured downstairs to speak to the desk clerk. He was disconcerted to find that Johnny had booked himself another room. The boy was skittish, like an unbroken colt. Markham sensed that he was going to have to break him quickly or he was going to lose him. Although he acknowledged now that he had been too hard on Johnny when he had been a child he still felt that Maria had been far too soft with him…offering comfort after well deserved punishment. This time there would be no one around to undermine his authority. The sooner Johnny learned to obey him without question the better things would be. He didn’t want to have to hurt his son again but the stakes were too high to allow him to be lenient with the boy. The desk clerk volunteered the information that he couldn’t spare anyone to go out to Lancer to collect Johnny’s things until tomorrow. Satisfied that his son would be staying in town for at least one more night, Markham returned to his room to plot his strategy.
As Johnny walked away Scott ripped himself out of his father’s hands. Until the very last second he had been convinced that Johnny was going to be outdrawn. He glared furiously at Murdoch. “Johnny’s right…you can go to hell.” He turned away only to be pulled back by his father. Murdoch’s grip was tight enough to bruise and more than firm enough to stop Scott walking away from him.
“Don’t make a scene, Scott. We need to talk.”
“You did all your talking in the saloon.” Scott stood still only to avoid attracting further attention from the curious onlookers.
“Yes, I did and I made a mistake. Do you want to help find a way to bring your brother home?”
“After what you just did to him? No, I’m not sure I do. He can only take so much rejection. You saw him out there. Did you think he was going to win?”
“I thought we’d lost him.” Murdoch loosened his grip but didn’t relinquish his hold on his son’s arm.
“We have lost him…you’ve lost him. Why did you do it?” Confusion, pain and anger all competed for prominence and pain won. The pain of losing a brother…a friend…the person Scott had felt closest to and had come to rely on always to be there.
“Come home and we’ll talk about it. There has to be a way to make him see what Markham really is.”
“You still don’t get it, do you Murdoch? Johnny doesn’t care about Markham. He cares about you and you’ve just stabbed him through the heart again. He loves you, don’t ask me why, and all you’ve managed to do is convince him that you were just using him. You’ve played right into Markham’s hands and I don’t see how we’re going to reach him now.”
Johnny sat by the window watching the people going about their everyday business. The body had been removed from the street under Val’s direction. He had seen his friend looking over at the hotel before shaking his head and walking back toward the jail. Murdoch and Scott had gone. He supposed he’d see them when the agreement was ready to be signed. If he hadn’t had to wait for Barranca to be brought back he’d probably have taken off without waiting for Murdoch’s ‘blood money.’ He couldn’t see it any other way. Payment for services rendered. It was ironic really that the son of the man Murdoch had professed to blame for the loss of his wife should be instrumental in saving the ranch…the only thing that really seemed to mean anything to Murdoch Lancer.
How had he allowed himself to be taken in for so long? He’d always been a good judge of character. It wasn’t as if he’d turned up at Lancer that day with any fond feelings for the place or the man his mother had told him was his sire. He’d hated Murdoch Lancer for throwing them out…had been prepared to take the man for every penny he could before blowing his brains out. Murdoch had known that from the first moment they met. He knew it had been written all over his face although he suspected that there had been some other emotion there as well…a desire to be accepted. When he’d ridden to Morro Coyo the next day he hadn’t been lying when he told Day he was looking for his best shot. It wouldn’t have taken much for him to side with Pardee.
What had stopped him? He’d asked himself that a thousand times and had never come up with a satisfactory answer. Part of it was to prove Murdoch wrong…he’d assumed the worst, even going so far as to throw out accusations. Scott and Teresa had been factors as well. He’d felt no attachment to them but neither had he wanted them to get hurt and there was no doubt that both would have suffered had Day won. Lancer itself had exerted a pull on him. It was the most beautiful place he had ever seen, and the thought of Day Pardee and his bunch of cutthroats taking it over had repelled him. The violent deaths meted out to helpless farmers had hit close to home. He’d seen such tactics so often in the past, tactics that he neither employed nor approved of, and this time it had hit too close to home. Home…Lancer.
Was there any hope? He could hire a horse and ride out to the hacienda. Beg Murdoch to let him stay, get down on his knees if he had to. What was the use of pride if it left you feeling miserable and alone? He didn’t want to leave. He wanted his family back. He didn’t want to be ‘Maria’s bastard’. He wanted to be Johnny Lancer. He wanted to belong. He’d done it once before after the affair with the Strykers. He’d swallowed his pride and gone back. Murdoch had said dreadful things to him that day, things that he’d come to believe were for his own protection. Had he been wrong about that as well? Had Murdoch believed every cruel word he’d thrown at him?
A knock on the door startled him out of his thoughts. He realised with a shock that it was getting dark. He had been alone with his miserable thoughts all afternoon. He looked at the door as if he could somehow see who was on the other side. Perhaps Murdoch or Scott had come back to get him, to take him home. They could talk and get it all sorted out so that he didn’t have to go back to living by his gun.
“Johnny, son, it’s getting late and you need to eat.”
The disappointment was acute. It appeared that only one man was claiming him as a son and it wasn’t Murdoch Lancer. The door knob turned but he had locked the door behind him. The knock sounded again, louder this time.
“Open this door, Johnny. I won’t tell you again.”
A memory hit Johnny out of the blue. ‘Do as he tells you, nino. You don’t want him getting mad at you again. You know what happens when he gets angry.’ His mother’s voice, frightened and pleading.
“Don’t make me lose my temper with you, boy.”
Without even thinking about it Johnny hurried to the door and unlocked it. Markham’s face was red and bad tempered. A small, deeply buried part of Johnny’s consciousness cringed in fear. Markham stepped into the room and closed the door behind him.
“Do you remember what I used to do to you when you disobeyed me?” The tension of the day and fear for his own life made Markham careless and robbed him of his good intentions. He had been waiting for hours for his son to come to his senses and finding the door locked against him had been the final straw.
Johnny did remember. He may not have remembered the face of the man holding the belt but he did remember the pain. The more he’d cried out the harder the man had hit him, until he’d learned to keep quiet with silent tears running down his cheeks. He nodded, his mouth too dry to speak, his pupils wide and dark.
“You keep that in mind and don’t try my patience. Don’t think about running out on me either. If I have to take a belt to you again to keep you in line I’ll do it. Now sit down and listen to me. It’s time I explained to you how things are going to be from now on.”
As Johnny took a step backwards he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror hanging above the dresser. The face that looked back at him was that of a man, strong, confident and capable. It wasn’t the face of a helpless child. The hardships of his childhood had forged him into the person he was today. Someone with courage, who wouldn’t consider backing down from a fight or turn his back on what he knew was right. However much he might be hurting no one spoke to him, threatened him, like that and came away unscathed. As these thoughts crossed his mind he found himself tapping his fingers on the handle of his gun…an almost unconscious gesture. He saw the anger drain out of Markham to be replaced by fear. It hit him then that this pathetic specimen wasn’t, couldn’t be, his father. Clearly he believed his claim, and Johnny might have felt pity for him but for the memory that his harsh words had just invoked.
Far too late Markham realised his mistake. He found himself looking into the hard, expressionless face of a stranger. Someone ready and willing to shoot him down without a hint of regret. Markham had assumed that the shock of learning about his true identity coupled with Murdoch’s rejection would have left Johnny vulnerable. Clearly he had miscalculated. “I’m sorry, son. It’s been a difficult day. Why don’t we sit down and talk about things calmly? I spoke to Murdoch and…”
“I know what you discussed.” Johnny’s voice was as cold as his demeanour. “It doesn’t matter now. I’m going back to Lancer.”
“You can’t.” Markham took a step closer to his son, aggression once more overriding caution. “Lancer’s agreed to pay you off. He doesn’t want you any more.”
“I guess I won’t know that for sure until I ask him. Maria lost your baby and for that I’m sorry, but you don’t get to claim me as your son. You’re the one who’s been living a lie all these years, not me. If Murdoch doesn’t want me to stay then I’ll leave, but I ain’t giving up the Lancer name and I’m not going back to being a gunfighter. Johnny Madrid’s been dead and buried these last twelve months and I’m planning on leaving it that way.”
Markham felt panic setting in. “Those two men who came into town today…they were looking for me.”
Johnny picked up his hat, pushed his hair out of his eyes, and settled it comfortably on his head. “Then I reckon I did you a favour ‘cause there’s only one of them left.”
“He’ll kill me. I need you to protect me.” The bully had disappeared to be replaced by a desperate man begging for help.
“If you’d wanted my help you should have thought twice about reminding me of all those beatings you gave me when I was little. It’s been a long time since I’ve let anyone threaten to take a belt to me.” Johnny’s eyes were a hard, brilliant blue and his tone left no room for argument.
Markham crossed the distance between them and grabbed two handfuls of Johnny’s shirt. “Please, you have to help me.”
Johnny looked down distastefully before taking hold of Markham’s wrists and pulling his fingers out of the material. He shoved hard and Markham staggered backwards, yelping in pain as his hip struck the side of a chair.
“If you want my advice…get out of town as fast and as quietly as you can.” Johnny pulled the door open.
Desperation took hold of Markham. “If you walk out on me I’ll make sure that everyone in this dirty little town knows you for what you are…my bastard. There are plenty of people here who aren’t happy to have a gunfighter in their midst but who’ll tolerate you because of the Lancer name. What do you think’ll happen when they find out the truth? What will they think of your high and mighty Murdoch Lancer? How will Scott and that little girl Teresa cope with the embarrassment?”
Johnny stopped, one hand on the door frame, then walked out and closed the door quietly behind him.
It was dark out in the street as Johnny considered his next move. He wasn’t quite ready to return to Lancer despite what he’d told Markham. He considered going to see Val before settling on a visit to Sam. He trusted the old doctor…knew he would never lie to him. He still couldn’t understand why Murdoch had seemed so keen to see him leave. Had he been looking for an opportunity like this all along? He needed reassurances before he would feel ready to confront his father.
There was a light shining through the parlor window at the front of Sam’s house, a sure sign that he was at home. Johnny stepped up onto the porch and knocked at the door. He could hear Sam muttering about being disturbed as the doctor made his way down the hallway. Sam opened the door and held up the lamp he was carrying to see the face of his visitor.
“Johnny, this is a surprise.” The light fell on the sleeve of Johnny’s white shirt. “You’re bleeding. Good heavens, boy, get in here at once.”
Johnny looked at his left arm, confusion plain on his face. He had forgotten all about the bullet wound sustained during the gunfight earlier in the day. The injury wasn’t serious but, he now realised, it was still bleeding fitfully. “I...uh...I didn’t notice.”
Sam led him to the back room that he used for consultations and told him to remove his shirt and sit on the couch.
“It’s nothing, Sam. Don’t fuss.”
“It’s a bullet wound and it needs to be cleaned out otherwise it could become infected. I assume you don’t want that?” The question was rhetorical. Sam heated some water before using a clean cloth to wipe away the accumulated blood and dirt. “It’s not deep enough to need stitches but you will need to keep it covered and clean. I heard about that gunfight. What did you think you were doing?”
“I was challenged. I don’t run from a fight.” That was the truth so far as it went…except that he’d been quite prepared to run rather than face the anticipated fight with Murdoch about his parentage. He’d been so afraid of what he was going to hear that he had opted for the easy and cowardly way out.
“By all accounts you provoked this one.”
“Yeah.” Johnny looked away shamefaced and concentrated on doing up his shirt.. “Sam? Can we talk?”
“What about?” Sam asked the question although he was fairly sure he knew what the answer was going to be.
“There’s a man in town…says he’s my real father.” Johnny kept his head down. He couldn’t look anyone in the eye and talk about this…not yet. “He says he was with my mama before she met Murdoch, that she was already expecting me when she and Murdoch met. You were there when I was born and Maria said I came early, that I shouldn’t have been born until January. So I was wondering if this man could be telling the truth.” He did look up then and gazed trustingly at the man who was more than just his doctor.
“Let’s go and sit somewhere more comfortable. You look like you could use a drink and I know I could.”
Sam’s parlor was simply furnished. It was clean and comfortable but bare of all the personal touches a woman would have brought to the room. A carved wooden table sat in the center of the room surrounded by mismatched armchairs. There was a sideboard of a darker wood along one wall with a mirror above it. The top of the sideboard was covered with a white lace cloth on which stood a clock and a tray containing crystal glasses and two decanters, one of brandy and one of whiskey. The glasses had been a present from a grateful Murdoch Lancer after Sam had saved Johnny from Pardee’s bullet. Under the window was a small table groaning under the weight of medical journals. Lamps were dotted around the room giving it a warm and homely feeling.
Sam opened one of the doors at the front of the sideboard and brought out a bottle of tequila. Johnny grinned, his hangover from the morning forgotten. Sam carried over the bottle and a glass and indicated that Johnny should help himself. After pouring himself a healthy measure of whiskey he took a seat opposite his visitor.
“Your mother was a beautiful woman. She had a face that could render a man speechless. But, to put it as delicately as I can, she wasn’t built for carrying children. She was already expecting you when she came to Lancer. She was very vague as to dates and it wasn’t easy to tell how far along she was. Doing the best I could from what Murdoch told me I reckoned that you were due sometime around the second week in January.
“It was a very difficult pregnancy which wasn’t helped by your mother’s volatile temper. We had a few scares during the first three months. I was very worried about her…and you. Her pains started early, just before Christmas. Giving birth is a very emotional experience for a woman. After you were safely delivered she started to cry. She told me that you weren’t her first child…that she had miscarried a baby early in pregnancy before she met your father. She said that she had only just been certain she was pregnant when it happened. As it was so early on she recovered rapidly and when she met Murdoch a few weeks later there would have been nothing to alert him to what had happened. I was her doctor and she told me that I must not betray her confidence. I’m ashamed to say that I did betray it a few years later when I told your father and I’m just as guilty of it again tonight.
“You were a small baby, not surprising as you arrived about three weeks early, but even at that age you were a fighter. Although your birth weight was low you were perfectly healthy and were soon thriving. No one questioned your early arrival…your parents were simply happy to have you in their arms.”
Johnny sat transfixed, the glass in his hand forgotten. Apart from his brief discussion with Maria the other day no one had ever spoken to him about his birth and the time he had lived at Lancer as a young child. “Did Murdoch…did my father love me?”
“He was a typical doting father. You could do no wrong even when you got into the most terrible mischief as a toddler. You must understand, Johnny, that losing Scott had been a bitter blow for him. He’d never even seen your brother although he loved him as much as he loved you. You were a precious gift to a man who had lost his first family and he was determined to give you everything he’d been unable to give to Scott. He’d had such high hopes of finally bringing Scott home…hopes that were dashed when your mother ran off with you.”
“Why would he believe her lies…if he loved me so much?” This was the heart of the problem and both men knew it.
“I can’t answer that for you. You’ll have to ask Murdoch.” Sam saw the disappointment but it was a question that only Murdoch could deal with.
“I saw him today. He didn’t tell me anything, just talked about buying me out of my share of Lancer. Do you know why? Doesn’t he want me?” The pain was growing again together with the uncertainty. Johnny wasn’t sure he could face being rejected again.
Sam knew perfectly well why Murdoch had acted as he had and vehemently disapproved. “I’m sorry, Johnny, that’s something else you need to discuss with him.”
The stresses of the day coupled with the alcohol and blood loss were conspiring to send Johnny to sleep. “Why don’t you stay here tonight?” Sam offered. “I can make up the spare room for you. You can go home tomorrow.”
Johnny nodded tiredly. Yes…he could go home tomorrow.
Vernon Gill stared morosely at his drink. He and Robbie Caldwell had been partners for a lot of years. When that cocky kid had thrown out his challenge they had been amused. Discrete enquiries had identified him as Johnny Lancer, a rancher of all things, who clearly had a death wish if the way he wore his rig was any indication. They’d seen him arguing with his family and had tossed for the right to send him to hell. Robbie had won, only now it was clear that he had lost. The boy had been the fastest thing Vern had ever seen and now he knew why. Of all the godforsaken places to find Johnny Madrid masquerading as an honest law abiding citizen. Now Robbie was dead, Madrid was alive and Vern wasn’t stupid enough to challenge him.
He had a job to do, squeezing that no good cheating gambler until he squealed. He either came up with the money or ended up lying in a ditch, Vern wasn’t particular. He and Robbie had established quickly that Markham was still in town. It was even being suggested now that he had hooked up with Madrid, presumably for protection. That would explain the family disagreement they had witnessed earlier. The afternoon had passed without Markham making an appearance. About an hour ago, however, he had turned up in the saloon and had persuaded some of the ranch hands to get into a game. Vern knew he was cheating, he always cheated. It was his job to make sure Markham understood the mistake he had made in cheating his employers.
Hours passed before Markham left the saloon. Vern was right on his heels and caught up with him just as he was about to cross the street. “You and me need to talk.” Vern took hold of the gambler’s arm and manhandled him into an alleyway.
He pinned Markham up against the wall. “My employers want their money back. As an alternative they’ll settle for me ending your miserable existence.”
“I can get you the money and revenge on the man who killed your partner.” Markham had spent a long time deciding how best to save his own skin while at the same time keeping hold of his son. “First you need to help me break someone out of the jail. It shouldn’t be hard, that sheriff isn’t up to much.”
“What exactly are you offering?” Vern hadn’t relaxed his stranglehold despite the fact that his interest had been engaged by the proposition.
“Johnny Madrid. He’s worth a lot of money, alive, in Mexico, and I can get him for you.”
Murdoch Lancer had never been an indecisive man but right now he didn’t know what to do for the best. He had tried to explain to Scott why he had acted as he did with Johnny earlier in the day. Scott’s response had been scathing and not in the least bit understanding. Teresa, Jelly and everyone else at Lancer were now aware that something was wrong, although neither Scott nor Murdoch had felt inclined to explain why Johnny was still in town and why he might never return home. The one saving grace was that Johnny’s belongings and horse had not yet been collected as he had threatened. Scott had informed his father that he expected him to sort things out, failing which he would find himself losing both sons for the second time. Murdoch had no reason to disbelieve the threat, although quite how Scott expected him to resolve matters wasn’t clear. They had been barely on speaking terms by the time Scott retired to his room for the night.
On the face of it the choice was simple. He either let Johnny leave, with the risk that Scott would leave as well, or he try to talk his younger son out of his decision. The risk was that talking to him might make matters worse than they already were. He had seen, and been devastated by, the effect this had already had upon Johnny. He had honestly believed that his son was going to be outdrawn simply because he was too hurt and confused to care. Would it do more harm than good now to try and convince Johnny that he was his son and belonged at Lancer? What if his actions both in the distant past and earlier in the day had done so much damage that Johnny would still walk away?
In truth he could no longer image a life without his sons. The thought that one day they might come home was what had driven him to make Lancer what it was today…a successful business, a comfortable home and a legacy for his boys. Scott would never forgive him if he didn’t try to bring Johnny home, and he knew in his heart that he would never forgive himself either. He went to bed with a heavy heart but with his mind made up.
It was still dark when Val woke to someone pounding on the front door of the jail. As he had a prisoner and hadn’t had time to recruit a temporary deputy he had decided to spend the night sleeping in the other cell. It was cold and uncomfortable and it had been late before he had finally drifted off to sleep. Val could be short tempered at the best of times and he was far from amused at being woken up at some god-forsaken hour of the morning. Still half asleep he stumbled to the door and unlocked it. Thomas Markham pushed past him causing the bemused sheriff to turn his back to the street.
“What the hell are you doin’ here?” Val asked, rubbing a hand over his tired eyes.
A slight noise behind him made him half turn. The movement was enough to ensure that the knife held by Vernon Gill caught him in the back but without embedding itself in his heart as first intended. A surprised gasp was the only sound Val uttered before collapsing to the ground. Vern pulled him back inside the jail and closed the door. He knelt down to feel for a pulse and was on the point of stabbing the helpless lawman again when Markham stopped him.
“What the hell are you doing? I didn’t tell you to kill him. You could have knocked him out.”
Vern looked dispassionately at the bleeding sheriff. “What’s it to you? We’ve a better chance of getting away if he’s dead. There won’t be anyone to lead the posse.”
“He’s not going to be in a fit state to lead a posse now,” Markham snapped, horrified by the needless show of violence. “I won’t be a party to murder. Leave him. Hopefully someone’ll come along before he bleeds to death. Get the keys and let Riley out. We need to get him out of town before anyone sees him and then we have to get to the livery stable. My guess is that Johnny will try to leave town early in the morning.” Markham had watched Johnny when he left the hotel the previous evening and knew that he had called at the doctor’s house but hadn’t left again. It was a fair bet that the doctor had confirmed Murdoch Lancer’s lies and that his son would head back to Lancer in the morning if something wasn’t done to prevent him.
After releasing Riley, Markham gave him his instructions and Vern showed him where to find his horse. If all went according to plan the three men would meet up a few miles south of town by mid morning and they would then head for Mexico with Johnny as their helpless prisoner.
The sun was rising when Johnny woke up, momentarily confused as to where he was. He had slept soundly, reassured by Sam’s words about his father’s feelings for him. As he had settled down in Sam’s spare room it had occurred to him to wonder if Markham had made the same threat to Murdoch as he had made to him earlier. Johnny couldn’t understand why his father would have given in to such a threat but at least it was an alternative explanation for his behaviour. The other possibility, that Murdoch didn’t care about him any more had, for the moment at least, been relegated to a very small part of Johnny’s mind.
He quickly pulled on his clothes, keen to be on his way. There was no sign of Sam and Johnny was reluctant to disturb the elderly doctor at such an early hour. He would find a way to express his gratitude once he had resolved matters with his family.
The streets were deserted as he walked to the livery stable. There was no one around when he got there. He selected a horse and a saddle intending to leave Davey, the liveryman, a note and enough money to cover the rental. He was in the process of saddling the horse when Markham walked through the door.
“I thought I might find you here.”
“You’re wasting your time,” Johnny informed him as he bent down to buckle the girth.
“I don’t think so.”
There was something about Markham’s tone that alerted Johnny only he was too late to avoid the blow to the back of the head that left him sprawled on the hay covered floor.
Markham had impressed upon Vern that he wasn’t to use any more force than was absolutely necessary. He had no wish to see his son hurt while bowing to Vern’s professional opinion that Johnny could only be taken safely if he was unconscious. Now he stood to one side, watching as Vern efficiently tied Johnny’s wrists and ankles. He hated to see his son being treated like this, but there really had been no alternative. A bandana was forced into Johnny’s mouth and tied tightly in place to prevent him from calling for help when he woke up. Vern unbuckled Johnny’s gunbelt and straightened up, satisfied that the young gunfighter was now helpless.
As Vern went to fetch the wagon Johnny began to stir. Markham knelt down by his son’s side and reached out to brush the hair out of Johnny’s eyes; eyes that were now open and very unfriendly. Johnny pulled back as far as he could, his movements severely restricted by his bonds, and glared.
“This is for your own good,” Markham told him. “You’ll thank me for it eventually. I can’t let you go back to Lancer and be humiliated by that man again.”
A glacial stare accompanied the unintelligible curses that issued from behind the gag. Johnny set to work on the rope around his wrists, twisting and pulling and ignoring the pain from the abrasions.
“Stop that.” Markham’s voice was sharp, the command totally ignored by Johnny who continued his efforts to get free.
A slap across the face produced a muffled grunt but no noticeable lessening of Johnny’s frantic attempt to free himself. Knowing it was a lost cause didn’t deter him, but he had only succeeded in making his wrists bleed by the time Vern returned. Even tied as he was he tried to fight their efforts to get him into the wagon. Eventually even Markham had to concede that trying to remove Johnny quietly from town while he was conscious and uncooperative was going to prove impossible.
“I’m sorry, son,” Markham said with genuine regret, before giving Vern permission to knock Johnny out cold.
When Johnny woke up again he was in the back of the wagon with his knees bent and a rope running between the bindings on his wrists and ankles. The enforced awkwardness of the position was causing his barely healed knee to protest furiously. He had no scope for movement at all. Something heavy was covering him from view and the only sounds he could hear were the creak of the wood and springs of the wagon bed, and the horses’ hooves on the hard packed road. So far as Johnny could tell they were travelling quickly but not at a reckless speed that would have attracted attention. The speed was sufficient to throw him around uncomfortably and he suspected that he would end up with an unpleasant array of bruises. The gag was still firmly in place and no amount of effort on his part could dislodge it.
It was hard to think while being jostled around, helpless to save himself from coming into painful contact with the sides of the wagon. This kidnapping made no sense to him and he felt angry and irritated rather than being concerned. The last time Markham had taken him he had been a child, too young to realise what was happening. Now he was an adult and more than capable of fighting back. Markham couldn’t hope to keep him as a prisoner for very long and wasn’t likely to allow anyone to threaten him with lethal force to keep him under control. They would have to untie him some time and when they did they would find themselves very sorry that they had tried to interfere in his life. He would have to be patient. For the moment at least he was helpless as, for the second time, Markham carried him further and further away from home.
When Murdoch arrived in town he found everything to be in an uproar. Val had been discovered at daybreak lying in a pool of blood, unconscious and barely alive. Sam had been sent for and the anxious townsfolk were awaiting news. The doctor had performed emergency surgery at the jail and had then arranged for Val to be moved to his house. So far no one had been able to come up with a motive for the stabbing and Murdoch was shocked to discover that no one had realised that there had been a jailbreak. Val hadn’t mentioned having anyone in custody. Murdoch sought out the mayor and explained about the arrest the previous day and the man’s association with Thomas Markham.
The Mayor, an officious little man, seemed to be at a loss as to how to proceed. Val hadn’t had a deputy and there were no obvious candidates to take over for the seriously injured sheriff. Murdoch’s first priority was still finding Johnny so he ignored the Mayor’s less than subtle hints that he might like to take charge. Given his son’s friendship with the sheriff he was surprised that Johnny hadn’t already put in an appearance. He would have expected his son to either be by Val’s bedside or, more likely, off tracking whoever had inflicted the injury.
His enquiries at the hotel drew a blank, Johnny hadn’t been seen since the previous evening and neither had Markham. Murdoch had an unpleasant feeling that Markham was probably up to his neck in what was going on although he couldn’t imagine the gambler wielding the knife himself.
As Barranca was still at the ranch Johnny would have had to make alternative arrangements if he had wanted to leave town. Enquiries at the livery stable also failed to provide any information as to the whereabouts of his missing son. No horses had been hired out according to Davey and he hadn’t seen Johnny for weeks.
After continuing his fruitless search for over an hour Murdoch decided to check on Val’s progress.
“He’s very weak,” Sam informed him. “He lost a great deal of blood although he was lucky that the knife missed hitting any vital organs. I’ve closed the wound but it’s far too early to tell whether or not he’ll recover. In all honesty, Murdoch, I’m not even sure that he’ll regain consciousness.”
“Sheriff Crawford is tough and he’s in good hands.” Murdoch smiled at his old friend. “I’m surprised Johnny hasn’t been to see how he is.”
Sam paused in the act of pouring two cups of coffee. “You haven’t seen him?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I’ve looked all over town. No one’s seen him since last night.”
“He stayed here last night. We talked and he said he was going back to Lancer this morning. He’d left before I woke up. Maybe you missed him on the road.”
Murdoch’s face filled with hope. “He was going home? Are you sure?”
“I’m positive, Murdoch. That boy just wants to be loved and wanted. It shouldn’t be too hard for you to convince him to stay.”
The ride home seemed to take forever. Murdoch could only hope that Scott and Teresa had persuaded Johnny to stay knowing that he would soon be home. He rode into the yard, dismounted and gave the care of his horse over to one of the ranch hands. Scott met him at the front door.
“Where is he?” Murdoch asked.
“Who?” Scott asked, confused.
“Your brother. Sam said he talked to him last night and that he was coming home. There was no sign of him in town so I assumed he’d be here.”
“He isn’t here…he hasn’t been here.” Scott’s momentary hope had been smothered by concern. “Perhaps he’s just taking his time, thinking things through.”
“Get some men together,” Murdoch ordered. “Tell Teresa we need rations for three days.”
“Why? Where are we going?”
“There was a jailbreak last night. Val was stabbed and the prisoner has disappeared. My guess is that Markham had something to do with it.”
“What’s that got to do with Johnny?”
“Markham’s missing as well. If Johnny told him that he was coming back to Lancer he might have decided to take steps to stop him. The man is obsessed with the idea that Johnny’s his son. I think that he might have kidnapped your brother again and we have to find him before it’s too late.”
“Murdoch.” Scott laid a restraining hand on his father’s arm. “We have no idea where to look. We don’t even know if Markham has taken Johnny. We need to think things through. You said that Val was stabbed. How badly has he been hurt? Has he said anything about who was responsible?”
“Sam told me that he’d been seriously hurt and he’s not sure if Val is going to pull through. I’m guessing that he hasn’t been awake to say what happened.” Murdoch’s frustration boiled over. “We can’t just sit around here doing nothing.”
Scott reflected on the role reversal. Normally he was the one urging action with Murdoch being the voice of reason. Unfortunately where Markham was concerned, there was very little evidence of Murdoch showing any reason or common sense at all. “Do we have any idea how long Johnny’s been missing?”
Murdoch began to pace agitatedly backwards and forwards. He couldn’t keep still, he had to do something. “He stayed with Sam last night. Sam didn’t see him this morning so we can only guess at what time he might have left the house.” Murdoch pulled out his watch. “It’s almost three. If he were coming home he’d be here by now.”
“If Markham took him first thing this morning they could be miles away by now…in any direction. We need to go back to town and find out if anyone saw anything unusual. If Johnny has been kidnapped he wouldn’t have gone quietly so the only way they could have smuggled him out of town is in a wagon. That means they can’t be going as fast as they would on horseback. The alternative is that he’s simply left. Face it, Murdoch, without some sort of lead we could be riding around for days without finding any trace of him whether he left voluntarily or not.”
Scott was making sense and Murdoch knew it, but he’d been in this position before and had felt as out of control then as he did at that moment. Losing Scott to his grandfather had been bad enough but at least he had known that his son would be loved and well cared for. When he had realised that Maria had run off with Johnny he had felt heart stopping panic, unable to think clearly. Paul had helped him through the initial crisis, had counselled and reassured him. It had been logical that Maria would have headed for Mexico. She and Markham had made no effort to hide their tracks, perhaps believing that he wouldn’t go after them. The final time had been when he realised far too late what a fool he had been for believing Maria’s lies. On that occasion he had support from Paul and Sam although his search had been fruitless and had left him with a devastating feeling of loss and terror for what the future might hold for Johnny.
The same terror gripped him now, the same fear that he would never see his younger son again. Only this time he could lean on Scott, someone who loved Johnny as much as he did. Scott’s presence was a comfort and a blessing.
Scott saw the fear and loss on his father’s face. “Johnny isn’t a child this time. He’s more than capable of looking after himself. If Markham has taken him then I don’t understand what he hopes to gain. Johnny will do everything he can to escape and he’s not going to take kindly to anyone trying to force him to go somewhere he doesn’t want to be. I’ll get the men together then we can ride into Green River.” Scott began to walk toward the barn before stopping and turning back. “If Sam is right and Johnny was intending to come home then that’s what he’ll do. Even if we don’t find him, he’ll find a way. Markham isn’t going to win this time.”
Johnny was hot, sore, uncomfortable and in a towering rage by the time the wagon pulled to a halt. As the cover was pulled back he turned his eyes away from the bright sunshine.
Vern looked at their prisoner. The boy was flushed and had a nasty cut on his right cheek that had probably been caused by a hard collision with the side of the wagon. He pulled out his knife and held it up. “I’m gonna cut your feet loose. Don’t try anything stupid.”
The knife severed the rope between his wrists and ankles and Johnny stretched cautiously. The muscles in his legs and shoulders cramped unpleasantly and an alarmingly sharp stab of pain shot through his sore knee. He bit down hard on the cloth in his mouth to prevent a groan escaping, unwilling to show any sign of weakness. Once the rope around his ankles was cut the blood started to circulate to his feet again and he added a bad case of pins and needles to his list of woes. He would have been delighted to try something, stupid or otherwise, but his body wasn’t in the mood to cooperate.
He was pulled toward the tailgate of the wagon and jerked into a sitting position. Vern held him there long enough for him to get some feeling back into his legs and feet. He took the opportunity to look around. They were in a heavily wooded area that appeared to be some distance from the main road. Behind them was a cliff face and Johnny could see the entrances to some caves. He squinted up at the sun and worked out that they were travelling in a south-westerly direction and that it was now late afternoon. There were no recognisable landmarks to tell him exactly where he was or how far he was from home.
He studied his captor, recognising him as the other gunfighter from the saloon. He frowned, wondering how this man had become hooked up with Markham. The gambler had said that the two men had been sent to kill him. He saw that the man was giving him an equally appraising stare, a mixture of dislike and anticipation.
Turning his head he saw another man leading the horses over to a small stream. He looked familiar and Johnny finally placed him. He was the man who had challenged him, the man that Scott had said was working for Markham. He was also supposed to be in jail. A chill ran through Johnny’s body. Had he been released or had he escaped? If it was the latter then was Val alright? He looked round frantically for Markham. He had too many questions and he couldn’t ask them with a gag in his mouth.
A tug on his arm brought his attention back to the gunfighter. “Get down and go sit by that tree,” Vern instructed, pointing to a tree close to where the horses were being watered.
Johnny slid down carefully, trying to avoid putting too much weight on his injured knee. Even if he could get free he wouldn’t be able to make a run for it, and getting on horseback would be no easy task either. Once he was seated by the tree Vern wrapped a rope around his chest and upper arms pinning him to the trunk. Satisfied that Johnny was secure he walked away and began to unsaddle his horse.
It was several minutes before Markham came back into view having been checking out the cave system. He collected a canteen and walked over to Johnny. “You must be thirsty.” He reached over and untied the bandana before holding the canteen so that Johnny could drink.
Johnny welcomed the liquid and drank his fill without comment. Once he had had enough he turned away. “That man,” Johnny nodded toward Riley. “Scott said he’d been arrested for pulling a gun on him. How’d he get here? Is Val…Sheriff Crawford…is he ok?”
“So far as I know the sheriff is fine,” Markham lied. “The Lancers dropped the charges and Riley was released.”
Johnny turned back and narrowed his eyes in thought. If Murdoch wanted rid of him then it would make sense to drop the charges. What would be the point in making a fuss? He couldn’t square that thought with Scott’s reaction to Murdoch’s agreement to buy him out. Something wasn’t right. “If I find out you’ve lied to me you’re gonna be real sorry. Val’s been my friend for a lot of years.”
“I assure you, Johnny, I have never wished any harm on the sheriff.”
“And what gave you the right to put a guard on me anyway?” Johnny asked belligerently.
“You said you didn’t want to see Murdoch Lancer. I admit I may have gone too far in assuming you wouldn’t want to see Scott either, but I was just trying to comply with your wishes.”
Johnny had a vague recollection of the conversation…clouded by the after effects of too much tequila. He had said he didn’t want to see Murdoch and recalled telling Markham to sort things out. Damn…that hangover had sure affected his good judgement!
“I suppose you went too far when you told him to call me out too? Real nice concern you showed for me that night.”
“I wanted to see if you were as good as people said and Riley was never any real threat to you.”
“You didn’t tell him, did you? He had no idea who he was facing.” Johnny laughed. “You’re a cold hearted bastard.”
“Don’t you use that language to me, young man.” Markham snapped. He studied his son’s face before reaching over to touch the cut on Johnny’s cheek.
“Keep your hands off me.” Johnny’s tone was icy.
“I know you’re angry, son…”
“And don’t call me that. I’m not your son and you’re crazy if you think you’re gonna get away with this. Murdoch and Scott will be out looking for me.”
Markham looked down pityingly at his recalcitrant son. “You’re deluding yourself, Johnny. Yesterday Murdoch was quite willing to buy you out of your share of Lancer. Today he gets rid of you for nothing. Those are the harsh fact and you need to start coming to terms with them. Did he show you any affection yesterday? Did he try to deny that you are my son? You may have talked yourself into believing that you’d be welcomed back at Lancer, but did he give you one shred of hope that that would be the case?”
Johnny wanted to deny Markham’s words, to throw them back in his face. Murdoch had given him hope, right at the end. It was with a sinking heart that Johnny realised it had only been after he had told Murdoch to pay the money to Markham if he was killed in the gunfight. He clung onto Sam’s words, to his mother’s admission that she had lost a child before he was conceived, but did that make him Murdoch’s son or not? Had she been as much of a whore then…his mind rebelled at the word…as she had been when he was growing up. Had she been with men before Markham, before Murdoch? How could he be sure of anything when Murdoch himself had seemed quite willing to let him go? All his doubts resurfaced and they were reflected plainly on his face. He lowered his eyes and shook his head.
“I know it’ll take time for you to get to know me and to accept the truth. All I ask is that you give it time.” Markham spoke calmly and persuasively.
Johnny’s head jerked up. “I don’t want to get to know you and you sure as hell had no right to kidnap me.” He wrenched furiously at the ropes that were holding him prisoner.
Markham kept a tight hold on his temper. Johnny was displaying the same defiance he had as a child, defiance that he had tried to beat out of him. He had spent long years regretting his treatment of his son and yet he felt the same urge to punish him now as he had then…an urge that he had to keep under control in case it damned the relationship before it had even had a chance to form. “It was the only way. Do you think I like keeping you tied up? I’d let you loose only I can’t trust you. You’ve been seduced by that man’s lies, by his big, beautiful ranch and by the idea of having a brother. You need to see him for what he really is. As your father it’s my job to help you see the truth and, once you do, you’ll come with me willingly and these…precautions…won’t be necessary any more.”
“Precautions?” Johnny’s temper had well and truly snapped. “What you’re doing is against the law. Even if I were your son you’d have no right to hold me prisoner. You’re a sick, deluded son of a bitch if you think this is gonna make me hate you any less than I do right now.”
All Markham’s good intentions evaporated in the face of such blatant and sustained disrespect. “You mind your manners, boy, or you’ll spend the night with this back in your mouth.” He held the bandana up so that Johnny could see it and was gratified to see Johnny subside, fuming but silent. His son had clearly been allowed to run wild for far too long and required a firm hand. “It’s for you to earn my trust and it’s up to you how long that takes. I’ve waited a long time to get you back and I’m prepared to be patient. Just make sure you don’t stretch my patience too far.”
Sam had just finished checking on Val when he heard a knock at the door. He was surprised to find Murdoch and Scott standing on his porch. “Is something wrong?”
“Johnny never made it home. I think Markham’s taken him again.” Murdoch’s face was lined with worry.
“Come in.” Sam moved to one side to allow the two men to enter. He ushered them into the parlor and poured them both a drink. “Have you any idea where they’ve gone?”
Murdoch accepted the glass and turned it around in his hands. “We were hoping Val might know something. The man who escaped was working for Markham. Maybe Val heard something, anything that might give us a clue.”
“He hasn’t said anything. He hasn’t really regained consciousness. You’re welcome to stay if you think it might help.”
Scott drained his glass. “Why don’t you stay here, Murdoch? I’ll get the men and we’ll start making enquiries around town. It’s too late to set out tonight anyway.”
When Murdoch nodded distractedly Scott took his leave of Sam and left to set up a search pattern round Green River. Sam saw him out and then rejoined his friend. “Scott’s a good boy and he’s smart. If anyone knows anything he’ll find out.”
“I’ve made such a mess of things, Sam. If I’d just told Johnny the truth this would never have happened. I have to find him. I can’t lose him again, not like this.”
“You won’t lose him. He could charm the birds out of the trees if he wanted to. Even if you don’t find him he’ll find a way to talk himself out of this mess. I’m going to sit with Val for a while. I’ll let you know if he wakes up. There’s food in the kitchen if you get hungry, just help yourself.”
It was several hours later that Val began to regain consciousness. Scott had returned with the news that Markham had been seen leaving town driving a wagon. He had been accompanied by a stranger on horseback but there had been no sign of Johnny. He had been heading south and the Lancers passed the time by making plans for the following morning.
Sam called them into the room when he saw signs that Val was waking up. The sheriff was still deathly pale, lines of pain deeply etched into his face. Vague thoughts and images were running through his mind…voices talking as he lay on the floor, his back feeling as if it was on fire. He’d been unable to focus on the words until he heard them mention Johnny and then he’d struggled to keep his tenuous grip on consciousness. What he had heard had chilled him to the bone…the intention to take Johnny to Mexico and sell him to the highest bidder. He had tried so hard to stay awake, to warn someone, but a warm lethargy had stolen over him even as his life’s blood had congealed on the floor around him. Now he could hear voices again and although he didn’t recognise them through the haze clouding his mind he knew he was safe and that he needed to tell them what he knew.
Sam took a gentle hold of Val’s hand. “Val, it’s Sam. Do you remember what happened to you? Can you tell us who did this to you?”
Val was concentrating too hard on what he had to say to listen to the questions. His mouth was dry and it was difficult to push out the words. “M…Markham…J…Johnny.”
To the three men in the room it appeared as if Val was answering Sam’s question and they exchanged stunned glances. Markham they could understand…but Johnny? What could possibly have induced him to help Markham break Riley out of jail and to be a party to the attack on Val? Why would he have left his friend dying in a pool of blood?
Murdoch sat down suddenly as his legs gave out. He put his head in his hands. “Oh my God, what have I done?”
Johnny had given up the hopeless task of trying to free his hands. He sat with his head tilted back resting against the tree and his eyes closed. Markham’s mood swings were causing him concern. There was a vindictiveness about the man that did not bode well for Johnny’s continued well-being. His only memories of Markham were painful ones and it wasn’t hard to guess why his mother had eventually run off again. Johnny was coming to believe that if he continued to defy Markham there was every chance that the gambler would carry through on his threat to take a belt to him.
The anger he felt about that was threatening to overcome his already limited self-control. Since taking to the gun to protect himself Johnny had only been seriously beaten once, when he was in the hands of the Rurales who had taken a whip to his back, and he had no urge to repeat the experience. Just thinking about that time in his life caused involuntary shivers to run down his spine. His only consolation was that the treatment meted out by the Rurales had been mild compared to what would have happened to him had he been handed over to Emilio Castaneda.
One thing was certain; he had to find a way to escape. Where he would go after that was less clear in his mind than it had been twenty-four hours before. Returning to Lancer was looking more and more like wishful thinking. In one respect Markham had been right…Murdoch had given him no reason to believe that he would be welcomed back. How could he have been so blind? He promised himself that he would get loose and then get as far away from California as he could…away from the heartache.
The more he worried at the problem the clearer it became that there was only one possible way out of this, he had to gain Markham’s trust. Even that might not be enough. He had seen the way Vern had looked at him. The gunfighter was clearly out for revenge and didn’t care how he achieved it. He dismissed Riley as an ineffectual fool while not underestimating the fact that he was armed.
He couldn’t capitulate too easily or Markham would know something was wrong. It had to be a gradual process and that meant keeping his temper and his mouth under control. If he did anything more to provoke Markham he would find himself gagged again…or worse. He sighed before allowing himself the momentary solace of imagining that he had a father who cared enough to come looking for him. He wondered about Scott. Would his brother be prepared to stand up to Murdoch and try to find him? Would it even occur to Scott that he was in trouble? He trusted Scott in a way that he’d never trusted anyone else before. His heart told him that Scott wouldn’t let him down.
As Johnny appeared to doze, Vern studied him. The relationship between Madrid and Markham bothered him. He hadn’t been close enough to hear their conversation earlier, but he had heard Markham call Madrid ‘son’ at the livery stable. The air had fairly crackled between the two men until Markham had said something that had caused Madrid to shut up. If they were related it was unlikely that Markham really intended to take the boy to Mexico. On the other hand Madrid wasn’t happy to be in Markham’s company and would almost certainly take off if he could. Vern didn’t appreciate being played for a fool. He would watch and listen and, if necessary, kill the gambler and Riley and take Madrid to Mexico himself.
Riley had set up camp and now had some beans bubbling over the fire. Their departure had been too hurried to allow them to obtain proper provisions and something would have to be done about that. Markham was in no hurry to continue their journey south and he certainly didn’t intend to cross the border. He decided that they would stay hidden where they were for a few days in case they were being tracked by a posse or by the Lancers. Vern had laid a couple of false trails and seemed to feel that, without the sheriff to lead them, any posse would be easily misled.
Markham filled a plate and carried it over to Johnny. As the gambler reached him Johnny opened his eyes. He kept his expression carefully neutral. His stomach rumbled in anticipation of getting something to eat. He hadn’t eaten since the previous day and he was starving. In addition to the plate Johnny noticed that Markham was carrying a length of rope.
“I’m going to tie your feet and then I’ll untie your hands so that you can eat. I won’t tolerate any bad behaviour. Are we clear on that?”
Johnny swallowed down the urge to tell him to go to hell. Deciding that he had nothing to lose he answered quietly. “Yes, pa.” The words almost stuck in his throat and he had to lower his head to hide his expression.
Markham beamed happily. “I always told Maria that all you needed was some discipline.” He put down the plate and looped the rope around Johnny’s ankles, tying it less tightly than he might otherwise have done. He slipped his knife between Johnny’s wrists and cut the cord.
With his feet tied and the rope still around his chest Johnny knew he stood no chance of getting away but he was enormously happy to have his hands free. His fingers were numb and he had to wait for the feeling to return to them before picking up the plate and spoon. He winced when he saw the state of his wrists and was surprised to see an expression of concern cross Markham’s face.
“I’ll clean those cuts for you after you’ve eaten. You can sleep in one of the caves tonight, it’ll be more comfortable. I’ll even untie you if you give me your word that you won’t try to leave.”
Johnny shook his head as he continued to shovel food into his mouth. “I can’t do that. You might be my father but I’m not a child, and I have a right to decide how I live my life.”
Markham’s expression darkened again. “You always were wild and disobedient. It’s obvious you grew up without the positive influence of a father, someone to look up to. It’s time we put that right.”
Johnny couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Markham was a card sharp, a thoroughly dishonest man who made his living by cheating people out of their money. He was a man who thought that there was nothing wrong with beating a small helpless child. If that was the kind of father he would have been then Johnny could only be grateful that it wasn’t Markham who had raised him. In contrast, Murdoch Lancer was a hard worker who treated people fairly and who had built up a thriving ranch thanks largely to his own efforts. Johnny suspected that he wouldn’t have escaped discipline had Murdoch raised him but he was certain that he would never have been subjected to abuse. There was no doubt in his mind as to who would have been the better role model. He bit his bottom lip to stop himself expressing his thoughts out loud.
Markham was still talking. “A son owes obedience to his father.”
“The kind of obedience you gave to your father? Earning a living cheating people is a real good example for a kid.” The words slipped out before Johnny could stop them.
Markham’s blow, diverted at the last minute from his son’s face, knocked the plate out of Johnny’s hands. “Riley,” he bellowed. “Get him out of my sight. Put him in that cave over there.” Markham pointed to a small opening in the rock face. “Make sure he’s tied tight enough that he can’t slip his bonds and keep watch tonight.” He turned his attention back to Johnny. “We’ll discuss this further tomorrow. You’ve brought this on yourself and I think it’s time you were reminded of what happens when you defy me.”
Val lapsed back into unconsciousness without saying anything further. Scott led his father back to Sam’s parlour and pressed a glass of whiskey into his unresisting hand. “I don’t believe Johnny had anything to do with that jail break.”
“I wish I was as certain, son. He walked a fine line as a gunfighter. Maybe this has pushed him over the edge.” Murdoch was shaking so hard that he had to put the glass down.
“You don’t seriously think that Johnny would’ve stood back and let someone stab Val? That he would have walked out on his friend and left him to bleed to death?” A horrible thought occurred to Scott. “You’re still going after him, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know, Scott. If he was there when Val was attacked, and we bring him back, he’d face going to jail. If Val dies, which isn’t out of the question, he’d hang.”
“So you can’t even be bothered to find out his side of the story? Earlier today you were convinced that Markham had kidnapped him. Now you’re just as willing to believe he tried to kill one of his best friends. If that’s what you think of him it might be better if you didn’t claim him as your son.” The bitterness and contempt rolled off Scott’s tongue. “I’m going to get him back and I’m taking the men with me. You can come or not, it’s your choice. If you don’t come you won’t see him again. He’ll take it as final proof that Markham is telling the truth and that you don’t care about him. Think long and hard before you make your mind up. We’ll be leaving at first light.” With a final disgusted look at his father Scott walked out, allowing the front door to slam behind him.
Sam had been washing up when he heard the door slam. He walked into the room drying his hands. “Was that Scott?” He dropped the towel onto a chair and closed the drapes to shut out the darkness. “Murdoch?”
“Yes…yes, he’s gone back to the hotel.”
“You should turn in as well if you’re going to get an early start.”
Sam waited for a response, but Murdoch remained where he was, unspeaking and unseeing, replaying over and over in his mind the moment when he had abandoned Johnny as a child. That one dreadful moment had sealed Johnny’s fate…had ensured that he grew up in the very worst possible way. Somehow Johnny had survived all that life had thrown at him and had become a decent human being, a man that anyone would be proud to call their son. Only he had turned his back on his son again and this was the result.
“What Val said…?” Murdoch began, feeling ashamed that he was even questioning Johnny’s actions.
“Val is a very sick man. I’d be surprised if he knew what he was saying. You don’t think…? Murdoch; surely you don’t think Johnny had anything to do with what happened?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“That explains why Scott slammed the door on his way out. You’ve always been a fool where Johnny is concerned. You keep ignoring your instincts. What do they tell you this time?”
Murdoch sat stony faced and examined his feelings. Twenty years ago he had taken the easy way out. He had known that Maria wouldn’t return with him and hadn’t been willing to challenge her and her lover for custody of Johnny. Five years earlier he had taken the exact same decision when it came to Scott, only that time it was because he had felt that it was in Scott’s best interests. It had been so much easier to leave Johnny believing that the boy wasn’t his son. If he were being honest with himself he would have to admit that he had always known Johnny was his…that he had never entirely believed Maria’s lies.
Believing the worst of Johnny now would just be another instance of him avoiding the hard choices. If he didn’t go after Johnny he would never have the chance to explain his actions to his son and tell him how much he loved him. It would also spare him the pain of either not finding Johnny or of being rejected by him. It was cowardly and Johnny deserved better. He had always deserved better. His young son’s screams echoed in his head again as they had so often in nightmares over the years.
Murdoch stood up and looked sorrowfully at his old friend. “I’m going to find my son and try to persuade him to come home. It’s time to be honest with him. I only hope he can forgive me.”
“He wants to, I do know that. He’ll have some hard questions for you and he’ll demand the truth. Don’t let him slip through your fingers again. Maria robbed both of you of too many years together.”
Murdoch walked back to the hotel where he and Scott had both taken rooms for the night. He hesitated outside Scott’s door before knocking softly. When Scott opened the door Murdoch could see that his son had been preparing to go to bed…his boots were lying on the floor and his shirt was undone. There was no warmth in Scott’s eyes as he turned away and walked back into the room.
“Well?” Scott asked.
“I was wrong to doubt him. He and Val go back a long way…I don’t know the whole story of their friendship but I do know they’d do anything for each other. If Johnny had been there when Val was stabbed he’d have killed Markham on the spot before getting help. I want my son back and I’ll do whatever it takes to make him believe that.”
Scott nodded in satisfaction and his expression softened. “Then tomorrow we go and find him and we make sure that Markham can’t hurt him again.”
Vern lay by the fire, his eyelids heavy with sleep. Madrid had been incarcerated in one of the small caves dotted around the hillside. Riley was stationed outside the cave on watch. Before settling down Vern had offered to take over if Riley woke him up in four hours. The offer had been gratefully accepted. Markham had decided to bed down in one of the other caves, a fact that suited Vern just fine. He was planning on having a little talk with Madrid and didn’t want to be disturbed. Something wasn’t right and he intended to find out what it was.
It felt like he had only just fallen asleep when Riley shook his shoulder to wake him up. His gun was in his hand quicker than thought and before he was fully awake. Riley recoiled, almost falling backwards in his scramble to get away. Vern didn’t bother to apologise. He was almost certain that he would have to shoot Riley before this job was over. Having the man afraid of him just made it that much easier. In the short term though he needed Riley’s cooperation.
“How much is Markham paying you?” Vern asked as he stretched the kinks out of his spine.
“What’s it to you?” Riley asked defensively. He neither liked nor trusted the gunfighter.
“It looks to me like Markham is playing us both for fools. I’ve a feeling that he has no intention of going through with the plan. I don’t like being double crossed. I’ve a deal for you if you’re interested.”
Riley had no reason to either like or feel loyalty to Markham. The man had, after all, set him up when he withheld information about Madrid’s identity. If Vern had something better to offer than the ten dollars a day Markham was paying then he was prepared to listen.
After satisfactorily concluding his business with Riley Vern took up position outside the cave. He listened to the faint nocturnal noises of the birds and animals as he waited for Riley to fall asleep. He was a patient man and it was a full hour before he made his move. He ducked under the low hanging entrance to the cave and straightened as the ceiling rose sufficiently to allow him to stand upright.
At thirty nine years of age Vern could almost be regarded as ancient in gun fighting terms. He had made his living as a hired gun for over half his life and he was very good at his trade. He’d heard of Johnny Madrid from time to time although they had never crossed paths. Vern had spent most of his working life in Texas and Arizona and had rarely ventured into Mexico. He was of a similar height to Johnny but far more heavily muscled; muscles that were starting to run to fat. His straggly brown hair framed a face that would have been pleasant except for his eyes; they were slate grey, cold and hard.
He was smart enough to know that his time, and his luck, were running out. He and his late partner had been sent in search of Markham by a wealthy consortium of gamblers in Texas; men who were more interested in making a point than in recovering their money. His instructions had been to recover the money if possible and to kill Markham whether he came up with the money or not. He was being very well paid for his services.
Markham’s proposal had appealed to him on two levels; revenge for Robbie’s death and a means to boost his retirement fund. One way or another Madrid was going to Mexico. Markham could stay alive long enough to help. Iif he became a hindrance Vern would happily put him out of his misery. Recent developments suggested that Markham was planning on double crossing him so Vern was going to take steps to pre-empt him.
It was dark inside the cave and very quiet. Vern could hear deep regular breathing that told him that Madrid was fast asleep. He felt in his pocket for a match and a candle. The light from the candle made very little impression upon the darkness and Vern moved forward cautiously. His foot came into contact with the edge of the bedroll and he held the candle so that it illuminated the man lying on the ground. Johnny was curled on his side. His hands were bound in front of him and a rope was tethering his ankles together. Vern noticed a subtle change in the boy’s breathing and drew his gun.
Seconds before the candle was lit Johnny’s senses had told him that he was no longer alone. He kept his eyes shut, wondering if this was going to be his chance to escape. As the man leaned closer Johnny readied himself to lash out with his hands. He froze when he heard the sound of a gun being cocked followed by a soft warning.
“I know you’re awake and just itching to try something. I don’t recommend it.”
Johnny sighed, relaxed his muscles and opened his eyes. Through the gloom he could just make out the gun pointing at his chest. He pushed himself up, helped by Vern who grabbed his arm and slammed him back against the wall. As his head connected with the stone Johnny saw stars. By the time his vision cleared Vern was standing over him, the gun held loosely down by his side.
“What’s your connection to Markham?”
Johnny considered the question and all its implications. The hesitation didn’t please Vern. He’d noticed Johnny limping earlier so he aimed a kick at the injured knee. Johnny gasped and pulled away.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’d never met the man until a few days ago. How about you tell me what’s going on? Where are we going?”
“Mexico.” Vern watched closely for a reaction. The boy was good at hiding his feelings; just not good enough. “Mr. Markham cheated my employers and they want their money back. Only trouble is he doesn’t have it so he made me a proposition. Care to guess what it was?”
Johnny knew he’d given himself away and inwardly cursed his lack of self-control. “How much does he owe?”
“Ten thousand give or take.”
“I’m not worth anything like ten thousand.”
“Markham reckons there are a number of people who’d be happy to see you dead so he’s proposing an auction of sorts. The highest bidder gets the prize…you. I’m sure that’ll drive up the price.”
Horror warred with anger and anger won. “That lying son of a bitch. I’m not a piece of horseflesh to be sold off to the man with the most money.”
Vern smiled. “So there is something more. I’ll ask you again…what’s the connection between you two?”
With a steady stare Johnny shook his head. In addition to being a gunfighter Vern was adept at inflicting pain and he was a very good judge of character. He knew that Madrid wouldn’t call for help. He concentrated his attentions on the left knee. Johnny’s attempts to shield it became more and more feeble as the pain ripped through his body.
“We can stop any time you want to answer my question,” Vern informed him. He watched with admiration as his victim’s jaw muscles tightened, allowing not a single sound to escape.
Johnny had almost given up the fight to stay conscious when the attack stopped. He could hear angry voices speaking meaningless words. He closed his eyes and sank slowly into the darkness.
Markham came awake suddenly, unsure what had woken him. He rose and walked outside. It was still dark although the moon was casting enough light for him to see by. He saw a dark shape lying by the fire. When he turned to look toward the cave where his son was sleeping he stiffened in shock. There was no at guard on the entrance. Fearful that the boy might have found some way to elude him he hurried into the cave and stopped dead. The light from the candle showed him Johnny rolled into a protective ball being systematically assaulted by Vernon Gill.
Memories of Johnny as a small child crowded in on him. The love he had felt for his son washed over and through him, replacing his anger at Johnny’s persistent rejections of his overtures of friendship. The need to protect his son became paramount and he crossed the short distance separating him from the gunfighter. He pushed Vern away from Johnny and yelled at him to stay away from his son. He knew immediately that he had made a mistake as a predatory smile appeared on Vern’s face.
“I guess that answers that question. Pity your boy there was so stubborn. He could have saved himself a lot of pain. I don’t take to being cheated any more than my employers do. We’re going through with the plan and if you don’t like it I’ll put a bullet in you right now. You’d better see to him…we’re leaving in the morning.”
Markham was unarmed otherwise he’d have been tempted to take his chances there and then. As it was he was severely disadvantaged and his primary concern was for Johnny. He followed Vern outside and collected some water and a cloth. Riley was still asleep and Markham considered trying to wake him.
Vern saw the direction of Markham’s gaze. “You’d be wasting your time. Riley and I have come to an understanding. Get back in there and make sure Madrid’s fit to leave at sunrise.”
Cool water on his forehead woke Johnny. A soothing voice told him to take it easy so he relaxed feeling oddly safe and secure. He wondered if he was back at Lancer…the voice had been so loving and warm. His head was pillowed on something soft yet unyielding and he moved around restlessly in an attempt to get more comfortable. A hand stroked his hair and the voice told him to rest. His fitful movements had told him one thing…the ropes had been removed from his wrists and ankles. He was starting to drift again when the importance of that fact jerked him into full wakefulness. He was shocked to discover that he was lying with his head on Markham’s lap and that it was the gambler who had been treating him with such tenderness.
“Get away from me,” Johnny spat. “D’you think I don’t know what you are? Your hired gun told me where you’re taking me so don’t pretend that you give a damn about how I feel.”
Markham easily fended off his son’s attempts to move and he placed a loose grip on Johnny’s arms. “It was necessary. He was going to kill me. I only did it to buy some time and so that he would help me get you away from Green River. I swear it was never my intention to take you to Mexico. Once I was sure it was safe I’d have made sure that he was put out of the way for good. It’s all gone wrong, son, so it’s important that you trust me. We have to find a way out of this mess.”
Johnny gave up the fight to move. “Give me my gun.”
“I can’t.” Fear edged Markham’s voice. “Vern will kill me if I try to get to a weapon and he’s persuaded Riley to work for him. You need to rest and regain your strength then we might stand a chance.”
“Men like that don’t give you a chance.”
Markham supported Johnny’s shoulder and held a cup of water so that Johnny could drink. “How’s your knee?”
“What do you care? Last night you were threatening to punish me for speaking out of turn.”
“Yes, I was, and I was wrong. I’d spent years regretting how I treated you when you were a child and yet I was ready to make the same mistakes all over again. Do you know how I felt that day I first saw you? I fell in love with you on the spot and I’ve never loved anyone as much as I loved you…not even your mother. My feelings for you have never changed. A father never stops loving his son.”
“You had a funny way of showing it.” The comment didn’t come out as harshly as Johnny had intended.
“You weren’t an easy child. You were always getting into mischief and sometimes you would get hurt. I was afraid that one day you’d take too great a risk and that I’d lose you. I thought I was acting in your best interests.”
“You beat me,” Johnny’s voice was soft, full of pain and uncertainty. “I was just a child…too young to know that I was being bad.” His voice sank to a whisper. ”I never meant to be bad…never deserved to be hurt so much…to be thrashed so hard that I couldn’t sit down.” He raised his eyes in a silent plea for reassurance. “How could you do that if you loved me so much?”
“Sometimes if you love someone enough you have to hurt them to keep them safe…to teach them the rules.”
“I don’t buy that. You’re talking about control not love. Murdoch wouldn’t have…” Johnny hesitated and looked warily at Markham. What he saw was sorrow rather than anger. “A loving father doesn’t kidnap his son.”
“You’re wrong. That’s exactly what any father in my position would do. Murdoch Lancer was using you and, in time, he would have hurt you…has already hurt you. His lies and false promises were holding you prisoner just as surely as chains or a locked door. He’d have cut you loose as soon as it suited him and you would have had nothing.
“I was devastated when Maria ran off with you. I’d been out of town for a few weeks and when I came back you’d both gone. You were five years old, the most important thing in my life. I tried to find you but she kept moving around and eventually I lost track of you completely. A few years later I heard that she was dead and that you’d disappeared. I came to believe that you had died as well.
“Several months ago I heard that Murdoch Lancer’s two sons had returned home. Obviously I knew about Scott and the other ‘son’ could only be you. What I couldn’t understand was why, after all this time, he was claiming you as his son. Once I heard about Day Pardee I had my answer. He needed a gunfighter to help save his home and he cold bloodedly set out to bind you to him. He even used Scott to tie you in to his ‘happy family’. Tell me, Johnny, if it were your son being deceived like that what would you have done?”
“What would you have done?” The question returned again and again to haunt Johnny during the remaining hours of the night. What would he have done? The answer was that he would have done whatever was necessary to protect a child of his own…but he would never have resorted to the same desperate measures employed by Markham. To be abducted, taken forcibly away from home and held prisoner was not something Johnny could ever imagine doing to his own child.
He lay on the bedroll with a blanket covering his body, providing some warmth against the chill that had seeped into his bones. Markham sat beside him, his presence surprisingly comforting. His admission of love had shaken Johnny and had caused him to review his own feelings. Murdoch had never made such an open declaration and that had never bothered him…until now. Despite Markham’s firm belief Johnny was as certain as he could be that Murdoch was his father. Some time during the last twelve months he had simply embraced the idea that Murdoch did love him and that he loved him in return. Now he was left wondering if the deep feelings he had developed for his father had ever been reciprocated.
Set against Markham’s affectionate words was the memory of the beatings inflicted upon him when he was a child and his recent violent kidnapping. It was thanks to Markham that he was on his way, unwillingly, to Mexico where his life might very well be forfeit. He should hate the man with every fibre of his being…so why didn’t he? However hard he tried to tell himself that he shouldn’t trust or believe Markham he couldn’t remain unaffected by the gambler’s words.
Pain and confusion wouldn’t let him sleep. If Murdoch was his father why hadn’t he fought to keep him as a child or as an adult? Why had he been so keen to drive him away? As he tossed and turned uneasily he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Try and relax, son. You need rest.” The words were infused with loving concern and Johnny latched onto them, allowing them to lead him into an uneasy sleep.
Johnny was rudely awakened by Vern’s arrival. “It’s time we were moving. I want to get across the border as soon as possible.” Vern threw a length of rope at Markham. “Tie his hands.”
The rope hit Markham in the chest and fell to the ground. He made no move to pick it up. “No. He’s hurt and he isn’t going to give you any trouble.”
Johnny sat up and watched the confrontation. Markham was taking a serious risk as Vern had no reason to keep him alive.
“He’ll give me trouble all right. Even half dead that one would be trouble. Tie his hands and get him into the wagon. If you do as you’re told I might let you live. If you don’t I’ll kill you now and then who’ll look after your boy?”
“Do as he says,” Johnny advised quietly. He had no wish for anything to happen to Markham while his feelings for him were so conflicted. “There’s no point getting shot over an argument you can’t win.” He held out his hands, right loosely crossed over left.
Vern laughed. “I wasn’t born yesterday, Madrid. Behind your back.” He turned to address Markham. “You make sure and tie him nice and tight. If he gets loose I’ll put a bullet in him. Nothing fatal, just enough to slow him down. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
Markham helped Johnny to his feet before picking up the rope and doing as instructed. Once Vern was satisfied that Johnny’s arms were immobilised he indicated that the two men should precede him out of the cave. Riley had hitched the team to the wagon and was now saddling the horses. He smiled in response to Markham’s unfriendly stare.
Johnny’s knee had swollen and stiffened overnight and Markham had to keep a firm grip around the young man’s waist in order for him to cover the short distance to the wagon. Abused muscles and ligaments screamed in protest and Johnny was sweating profusely by the time he was settled in the wagon. This time he was allowed to sit up and his feet were left free. He knew with an absolute certainty that he wouldn’t be able to get out of the wagon without help and that it was going to take a miracle to stop Vern from taking him to Mexico to face an undoubtedly painful and prolonged death.
Murdoch, Scott and the men they had brought from Lancer met at the livery stable at first light. They had saddled their horses and were about to leave when Sam arrived, tired and out of breath.
“I’m glad I caught you. Val came round about an hour ago. Johnny wasn’t there when he was attacked. Markham had someone with him. He didn’t see who it was and didn’t recognise the voice. They were talking about Johnny…about taking him to Mexico and collecting one of the bounties on him. Murdoch,” Sam took hold of his friend’s arm, “they are planning on letting it be known that Johnny’s for sale to the highest bidder.”
Scott had seen Murdoch angry before, but he had never seen such unbridled fury on his father’s face. “No one’s going to sell my son. Scott…get the men mounted up.” Murdoch swung up into his own saddle and looked down grimly at Sam. “We’ll get Johnny back and I’ll make sure that Markham wishes he’d never been born.”
Murdoch knew that it would be an almost hopeless task trying to track Johnny and his kidnappers. There had been too much traffic in and out of town for them to be able to pick up a clear trail. The posse sent out by the Mayor the previous day hadn’t returned, but neither Murdoch nor Scott were holding out any hope that they would have caught up with Markham. The harsh fact was that the two best trackers were Val and Johnny and that, without proper leadership, it would be easy for the posse to be led astray.
Over the last year Johnny had passed on some of his tracking skills to his brother. Knowing that Markham had left with a wagon, and that he was headed south, cut down the options. The pace initially was slow as Scott did his best to find usable tracks. He spotted, and ignored, the first false trail. When they reached a fork in the road at which the tracks split into two Scott could easily see which way the posse had gone. The question was had they gone the right way?
Scott stood in the roadway, holding his horse’s reins, and considered the two sets of tracks. Murdoch fidgeted impatiently. With a deep breath Scott made up his mind. He looked up at his father and pointed in the opposite direction to that taken by the posse. Murdoch nodded and urged his horse forward. From that point on he set a punishing pace for both men and horses, and it was only Scott’s urging that persuaded him to stop for an hour during the hottest part of the day. He was a man driven by guilt and an obsessive need to retrieve and protect his youngest son. He carried with him a fear that Johnny might not appreciate his concern and might well rebuff his attempts at reconciliation.
While Scott spoke to the men Murdoch rested in the shade of a small stand of trees just off the roadway. He was tired…had barely slept…and was running on pure adrenaline. He knew that Scott was doing the same. His eldest son was looking pale and exhausted with dark crescents under his eyes. He watched as Scott dealt with the men, answering their questions, and felt such pride. Scott was a natural born leader, something he had demonstrated from the moment of his arrival at Lancer. He would move heaven and earth to find his brother and, Murdoch was ashamed to admit, might be the only person now capable of drawing Johnny back to Lancer.
Maria had given him a precious gift in the form of his youngest son…a gift that he had thrown away twice. There had been some justification twenty years ago but what possible excuse could he offer for his actions over the last few days? He had acted from the best of intentions to try and spare Johnny the hurt and embarrassment of being branded a bastard. That was how he had rationalised it. Wasn’t it nearer the truth to say that he had acted to spare himself?
When he had married Maria and brought her back to Lancer there had been those who had snubbed her simply because she was Mexican. Marriages such as theirs were unusual and the unkind gossipmongers had taken great delight in speculating that she had trapped him into marriage because of his land and prospects. He had genuinely loved her. She had bewitched him from the moment they met. No one had been more surprised than him to find the attraction was mutual…or so he had believed at the time.
She had been quick tempered and demanding, entirely self-centered until Johnny’s birth. He had no doubt that she had loved her son and, after seeing her and Markham together, that she had loved the gambler as well. Murdoch now believed that she had only married him to spite the man who had dared to leave her, even if only temporarily, when she had demanded that he stay by her side. She had cold bloodedly set out to get pregnant to replace the child that she had lost as a result of her own highly strung nature. These, rather than her desertion, were the reasons he had been unable to discuss her with their own child.
He looked up to find Scott standing in front of him holding out a canteen of water. He flushed, embarrassed at having been caught lost in thought. As he accepted the canteen he looked carefully at his son. His actions had deeply disappointed Scott who was being frigidly polite only because they weren’t alone. Had it just been the two of them he wasn’t sure that Scott would even acknowledge his existence.
“What happens if we don’t catch up with them before they reach the border? They were the best part of a day ahead of us. If there are no hold ups they’ll cross the border some time tomorrow.” This was Scott’s worst fear, especially after hearing what Val had said to Sam.
Murdoch drank deeply of the lukewarm water before handing the canteen back and getting to his feet. “We have to believe we’ll find them before that happens.”
Scott glared at his father. “What if we don’t?”
Murdoch sighed and stood up, stretching his back. “Then you and the men go home and I’ll try to find Johnny. If Markham is planning on collecting one of the bounties word will get around.”
“I’m not going home without Johnny. You can send the men back if you want but I’m staying.” Scott’s tone and posture made it clear that he was not to be dissuaded. His back was rigidly straight and his hands were clenched into tight fists at his side.
Murdoch conceded the point although he wasn’t happy about it. If it became known who they were and that they were Johnny’s family they could be in great danger themselves. “We have to be careful. I don’t want the men crossing the border and I would rather you went home as well, but…” Murdoch put his hand on Scott’s shoulder, “I know you won’t. It’s vital that no one finds out who we are or that we have any connection to Johnny.”
Scott nodded and relaxed. “I don’t understand why Markham would do this? If he really believes Johnny is his son how could he even consider taking him to Mexico?”
“From what Sam told me it looks as if Johnny had rejected Markham. If he was coming back to Lancer it can only have been because he believes he belongs there. Maybe Markham couldn’t cope with that.” Murdoch pulled his hat off and wiped his forehead with a bandana. “Truthfully, Scott, I don’t know. I only met the man once before this week and we didn’t exactly have a cordial conversation. All I know of him has come from the Pinkerton reports and they suggest that he is a man without conscience….a man who would do anything for money.”
Apart from a brief stop in the middle of the day Vern had kept them on the move. Johnny had been untied for five minutes and allowed to see to his needs. He had been mortified to find that he couldn’t walk unaided as his damaged knee became more and more troublesome. By the time they stopped for the night he was in serious trouble. The pain was so intense...his weakness compounded by lack of food and long hours sitting in the hot sun in the back of the wagon…that there were times when he was only semi-conscious and far from lucid.
He came round from one such episode to find that he was lying under a shady tree. The sun was setting and the air was hot and still. His hands had been freed as Vern had finally accepted that he was in no shape to mount an escape attempt. Markham offered him some water, cautioning him to drink slowly.
“I need to take a look at that knee.” Markham knelt down and began to unbutton the conchos on the side of Johnny’s pants. The movement of the leather against his leg caused Johnny to gasp as even that slight pressure sent needles of pain through his knee.
Vern watched from a safe distance, regretting the impulse that had made him hurt his prisoner so badly. The boy looked as if he needed medical attention or, at the very least, someplace to rest up. The gunfighter had been worrying the question of what to do next round in his mind during the long day on the trail. He had some tenuous connections in Mexico but no one that he could immediately turn to for help. Markham hadn’t been specific about who exactly might pay to get their hands on Madrid so he had no obvious starting point.
Although he had heard the story of Johnny’s capture and subsequent rescue from the Rurales Vern didn’t particularly want to become mixed up with them as they were as likely to shoot him as pay him. Markham had hinted that there were some private bounties posted by landowners who had been unhappy about Johnny’s preference to fight on the side of the peasants. He had to find someplace to hole up so that he could start to sound out the market.
He was relieved that he had spared Riley…the man would be useful for guarding the prisoners while he made his enquiries. At the rate they were travelling they would be in Mexico by the next afternoon and then they could disappear while he worked something out. He still didn’t understand what was going on between the gambler and Madrid or why Johnny had been using the Lancer name if he was Markham’s son. He shook his head in frustration. There were too many damned questions and he was going to make sure he received all the answers before this job was over.
Markham had eased the leg of Johnny’s pants away from his injured knee. He carefully probed the swelling and grimaced at the bruises covering his son’s leg. The knee itself felt hot to the touch and Johnny moaned as he tried to move away from the unwelcome fingers.
“I need water,” Markham informed Vern. “Maybe if we can cool the skin the swelling will start to go down. He needs something for the pain. Intense pain like this can strain the heart.”
“I ain’t no doctor,” Vern growled. “Best I can do is a bottle of whiskey.” He grudgingly went and retrieved the bottle from his saddlebags and handed it to the gambler. “Just make sure you don’t get him so drunk that he’s puking his guts up tomorrow. I wouldn’t want anything to spoil his ‘happy’ homecoming.”
Markham opened the bottle of whiskey while Riley went to fetch some water from a nearby stream. Johnny’s blue eyes were open but dull and lifeless as he tried to ride out the waves of pain from his injured knee. Markham smoothed sweat soaked hair from his son’s forehead and encouraged him to hang on; promising help and a respite from the pain. He helped Johnny to sit up and held the bottle to his son’s lips.
The smell of the alcohol assaulted Johnny’s senses and he tried to turn his head away. “No,” he mumbled. “Don’t need it.”
“Yes, you do. It’ll help to dull the pain. Let me help you.”
“Don’t need any help.” The strained expression on Johnny’s face made his words a lie.
“Just drink a little,” Markham coaxed. “You can do that for me, can’t you?”
The voice stirred a memory in Johnny’s brain, a memory of a desperately ill small child wracked by virulent chills being held safely within his father’s arms. He could hear his mother sobbing and praying but most of all he could hear his father’s comforting voice telling him to be strong and to fight the illness.
“Papa?” The word escaped as nothing more than a whisper. Some of the tension left his body and he nodded. In his weakened state several mouthfuls of the strong liquor were enough to make his head swim and distance him from the pain. He relaxed further, allowing his head to rest on Markham’s shoulder.
“Good boy. I’m going to lay you down now. We need to cool your knee down and try to reduce the swelling.” Markham saw that Johnny was about to protest. “I’ll be right here…I’m not going to leave you.” He lowered his son gently back to the ground. before turning his attention to Riley who had arrived back with a canteen of fresh water. “Find something we can use as a bandage.”
Riley looked quickly at Vern and received a nod of assent. He rummaged through the saddlebags and came up with a clean shirt which he tore into strips. While he was doing that Markham was encouraging Johnny to take more small sips of the whiskey. Markham instructed Riley to hold Johnny down, cautioning him to be gentle. The water was ice cold and Johnny cried out in pain, trying to pull away, as Markham tied the wet bandage tightly around his knee.
For the next three hours Markham felt as if he was inflicting torture on his son. The bandage had to be immersed in the cold water and reapplied on more than one occasion as the heat radiating from Johnny’s knee warmed up the damp material. Markham kept plying Johnny with the alcohol until the young man sank into a pain free stupor.
Vern had been watching Markham closely, impressed despite himself, at the gambler’s devotion to the boy. As the night grew cooler he built a fire and made some coffee. He carried a cup over to Markham. “How’s he doing?”
Markham sat back with a sigh and accepted the coffee. “Better than he was. The swelling around his knee seems to have lessened and it isn’t as hot.” He took a sip of the bitter coffee before looking accusingly at Vern. “He’s still weak. He needs food and rest and he could do with seeing a doctor.”
“We’ll be over the border tomorrow. According to Riley there’s a Spanish Mission near Tijuana. They should have someone who can help. We’ll find somewhere to stop, then I’ll fetch supplies and find someone to take a look at him. I want him fully aware when he gets what’s coming to him.”
“Just give me a chance and I’ll find a way to pay your employers back. He’s my son…please don’t do this.”
“This has nothing to do with my employers. He killed my partner…”
“In a fair fight.”
“This was your idea, remember? You’re the one who talked me into it. You disgust me, Markham. All you were interested in was saving your own life and you were prepared to sell out your son to do it. It’s a little late to develop a conscience. With the money I get for him I’ll be able to retire.” Vern drained his cup and tossed the dregs of the coffee into the bushes. “We leave at daybreak.”
Scott studied his father’s profile in the flickering light from the fire. They had stopped for the night when it had become too dark to travel safely. Both men had known, without words being necessary, that they weren’t going to catch up with Johnny on this side of the border. They couldn’t even be certain that they were on the right road. Murdoch looked haggard and Scott regretted the impulse to blame his father for everything that had happened over the last few days. He had deliberately stayed away from Murdoch…so angry about the loss of his brother that he wasn’t sure he could moderate his language. He looked up as Cipriano brought over two bowls of stew, one for him and one, he realised, for his father. The Segundo looked meaningfully from Scott to his patron.
“He needs you,” Cipriano said simply, before walking back to the fire.
"Scott carried the bowls over to his father. “Mind if I join you?”
Murdoch accepted the food only to lay it down. “I’m not hungry.”
“You have to eat. Johnny is going to need our help and you won’t be much good if you keel over from lack of food.”
While accepting the wisdom of Scott’s advice Murdoch couldn’t put it into practice. He felt nauseous every time he thought of Johnny’s situation and his own part in creating it. If he had only been honest with the boy when he came home or even the other day in town this might all have been prevented.
Seeking to offer his father some reassurance Scott misread the true cause of Murdoch’s worry. “We’ll find him.”
“Will we…and even if we do will he want to come home?”
The presence of Cipriano and the men caused Scott to moderate his tone while doing nothing to reduce the strength of his reawakening anger. “Stop feeling so damned sorry for yourself.” Scott registered his father’s shocked look. “Right now I wouldn’t blame Johnny if he turned his back on you and you’d just have to learn to live with it. If you’re lucky he might give you a chance to explain. He’s spent his entire life being hurt, mostly as it turns out, by his parents. You’re not going to give up on him and we *are* going to find him. I’ve no intention of leaving him at the mercy of that son of a bitch. You’re his father and it’s time you put his needs before your own.”
Scott’s unrestrained scorn and fury hit Murdoch like a physical blow. “I’m sorry. I…”
“I don’t want to hear it. When we find Johnny you can apologise to him…if he’ll let you. We need a plan and we need it now. Markham will have Johnny across the border tomorrow and we’ve no chance of catching up before that happens. Where might he take him?”
“There are a lot of small border towns. He could be headed for any one of them.”
“He’s going to want to keep Johnny under wraps until he can get word out that he’s in Mexico and for sale. It would be too risky to keep him in a town. We both know that Johnny’ll try anything to escape and, from what I’ve heard, he has a lot of friends among the ordinary people.” Scott was trying hard to take the emotion out of the situation so that he could think of it as a military problem. “Did the Pinkerton reports say anything about who might want him…apart from the Rurales?”
Murdoch thought back to the reports…reports that had shocked him deeply. To find that his son had become a notorious gunfighter had left him floundering, unsure what to do. If it hadn’t been for Pardee he recognised that he would probably never have sent for Johnny or Scott. Even when facing the threat to his ranch he had still been in two minds about sending for the angry, young gunhawk…only being persuaded after Paul had been killed and he had been injured. Now he couldn’t imagine life without both his sons.
“The landowner that Johnny was fighting against when he was captured has a large spread near Tijuana. The reports suggested that he wasn’t particularly happy when the Rurales picked Johnny up. He’s the kind of man who likes to take his revenge personally. And he certainly wasn’t happy when they let him escape from that firing squad. He had a large bounty out on Johnny at one time. I’ve no doubt the Rurales would pay to get him back as well if they had to.”
“Then wherever Markham has taken him, word will probably reach Tijuana. It seems to me, Murdoch, that it’s as good a place to start as any. I suggest we send Cipriano and the men back to Lancer tomorrow. Jelly is going to need Cipriano’s help to run the ranch. And just so that we are clear…I don’t care how long it takes but I’m not leaving Mexico without my brother. I’m going to try and get some sleep and I suggest you do the same.”
When Johnny next woke it was daylight and he was again tied up and lying in the back of the wagon. This time Markham was sitting with him and Riley was on the driver’s seat. Johnny’s muscles felt heavy and unresponsive and he fretted against his weakness as it left him dangerously vulnerable.
“Water?” he queried, his mouth and throat dry.
Thomas Markham was startled out of his own thoughts by the softly spoken question. It had been many years since he had visited Mexico. After losing track of Maria and Johnny he had gone back to Texas and, from there, had travelled wherever high stakes card games could be found. He had avoided California as well, not wanting to run up against Murdoch Lancer. Six months earlier he had been in San Diego, having found it prudent to get as far away from Texas and Arizona as possible in the hope of throwing Vern’s employers off his trail. His intention had been to work his way up the coast to San Francisco.
He could still picture the saloon that he had been sitting in when someone at the table had made a passing remark about Murdoch Lancer and his two sons. When questioned, the man had elaborated and had told the story of Johnny Madrid, his miraculous rescue from a firing squad and his subsequent reappearance as Johnny Lancer. It appeared that Johnny had been in San Diego a few weeks earlier on a cattle buying trip for the ranch and had been recognised as Madrid. Small town gossip being what it was it didn’t take long to find someone who had allegedly heard the whole story of the ‘family’ reunion.
The shock of finding that his son was still alive had been severe. All those years Johnny had been out there, growing up on his own and becoming a legend with a gun. Even Johnny’s prowess with a gun didn’t fully explain why Murdoch Lancer would send for him and apparently acknowledge a relationship. He knew why Johnny had gone. Maria, while acknowledging privately that he was the boy’s father, had nevertheless insisted upon telling Johnny that he was a Lancer. She had hated Murdoch for his neglect of her, but worse than that in her eyes, had been the undeniable bond between the man and Johnny. She had felt excluded and jealous, and she confessed, had often thought of telling her husband that Johnny wasn’t his. Only her fear of being thrown out, penniless and alone, had prevented her. The final straw had come when Murdoch had started talking about fetching Scott from Boston. Why would she want to raise someone else’s brat and be reminded every day of Catherine, a woman that Murdoch clearly still loved and mourned? She feared that if Scott came to the ranch Johnny would be regarded as second best…not pure blooded like Murdoch’s son. She had wanted Johnny to grow up hating the Lancer name and everything and everyone associated with it. She wanted her son to be the instrument of her revenge for every slight, real or imagined, that she had ever had to suffer at the hands of her husband and his friends who disapproved of the fact that he had taken a Mexican woman as his wife.
Markham had hated hearing her pour her poison into the little boy’s ear. Johnny had been far too young to understand any of it but it had confused him. He had avoided using the affectionate term ‘papa’ unless he was hurt or sick when occasionally the word had slipped out. No wonder it had been so hard to form a loving relationship. He and Maria had argued often about this subject but she had never backed down and, when angry, had been prone to threaten to leave and take the boy with her. In the end he had kept quiet, unwilling to risk her doing anything to deprive him of his son.
Now he looked down at that son, fully grown into a man that anyone would be proud of. He smiled affectionately and saw a glimmer of a smile in return. He manoeuvred Johnny into a sitting position and held the canteen to his lips.
Johnny drank deeply while watching the passing countryside. He had spent five years of his life prowling the border and it didn’t take him long to recognise where they were…and to realise that he was in very serious danger.
Johnny looked around his new home…prison…and sighed. They had crossed the border a few miles east of Tijuana and it hadn’t been long before they had stumbled across a deserted cabin. It was only a small building consisting of one bedroom and a larger room containing a table, chairs and a range for cooking. At the back of the cabin was a small outhouse. Johnny wasn’t surprised that they had found somewhere so quickly. A lot of peasants had died in the uprising the previous year against the local landowner, an uprising in which he had played a prominent role. He could even remember the name of the family who had once occupied this house, and who he knew for a fact were all dead.
Boards had been ripped from an old fence and nailed across the bedroom window before Johnny had been helped from the wagon and locked in. Somewhat to his surprise he had been untied although Vern had warned him to stay away from the window, leaving the threat hanging and Johnny in no doubt that he would regret it if he disobeyed. He lay on the lumpy mattress his sense of smell assaulted by the strong smell of mildew, and considered his options.
His knee was painful but he’d survived worse and the pain alone wouldn’t have been enough to keep him down. Unfortunately his knee was also unreliable and he couldn’t guarantee that he could put any weight on it without it giving way. However, it was healing and wasn’t as bad as he was leading Vern to believe. Having his opponent underestimating him was a very good thing in Johnny’s experience.
Although he had been given a canteen of water it had been days since he had eaten a decent meal. The lack of food was making him feel light-headed and his stomach was becoming prone to unpleasant bouts of cramping. He had heard some discussion between Vern and Riley, enough to gather that Vern was going into Tijuana to fetch supplies and to spread the word about Madrid. Johnny reckoned that once Emilio Castaneda heard he was back in this part of Mexico a sore knee would be the least of his problems.
Once again he damned Thomas Markham for reappearing in his life. If the gambler had just stayed away he’d be safe at Lancer with his family. For his own selfish reasons Markham had put the idea of collecting one of the bounties in Vern’s head and nothing was likely to provoke a change of heart. It was a surprise to find that he believed Markham when he said that he had never had any intention of allowing matters to go this far. Over the last twenty four hours Markham had treated him as a father should treat a child. He had taken care of him, providing comfort and support.
Markham believed his claim that Johnny was his son…that was now undeniable…and his love was openly acknowledged without embarrassment. It was little enough to set against the memories of abuse and Markham’s recent actions. It should have made no difference and a part of Johnny’s mind questioned why he was allowing the man to get so close to him. What shocked Johnny the most was the recognition that he was starting to care about what happened to Markham and he shied away from the thought. He didn’t need…didn’t want…to form any more attachments.
Over the last year Murdoch had treated him fairly, had appeared to care about him, but had never displayed such open affection. Since his mother’s death Johnny had been starved for affection, which was one reason he had grabbed with both hands the love and friendship offered by Scott. Scott…his brother…had demanded nothing in return with the result that he had earned his younger brother’s undying love and gratitude. Dios, he missed Scott. He hoped that Scott had realised something was wrong and was looking for him, but would Murdoch be with him? He wasn’t sure he wanted to see Murdoch again, although right now he’d take rescue in any form even if it meant having to confront his father about his recent and past betrayals.
Recognising, and raging against, his present helplessness he did his best to settle down and rest. When he was stronger he could think about getting his hands on a gun. Once he was armed, injured or not, nothing was going to stop him escaping.
Vernon Gill drove the wagon into Tijuana as the sun was setting. Compared to the towns he was used to it was a pitiful place, poor and rundown. The locals appeared dispirited and, although he could feel people watching him, no one had the guts to look him in the eye. He tied the wagon up outside a small general store. The storekeeper had been on the point of closing for the night but thought better of it when he saw Vern’s hard-eyed stare and low-slung gun.
Vern wasn’t sure how long they would have to stay so he stocked up on staples such as flour, coffee and beans. He also purchased some pickled vegetables, ham, eggs, bread and a couple of stringy chickens that would at least give them something to eat that night. He decided that he or Riley would have to go hunting for fresh meat, if there was any to be found in such harsh surroundings. He added a bottle of whiskey to the list, settled the bill and told the storekeeper he would be back in an hour to collect his purchases. Having just sold more in fifteen minutes than he usually sold all day the storekeeper was amenable to staying open for an extra hour.
Needing information and a drink Vern headed for the nearest cantina. The few men patronising the small establishment took one look at his gun before moving quickly out of his way. He ordered a beer and stayed by the bar to drink it.
“Why’s everyone so nervous?” he asked the bartender.
“No reason, senor,” the man lied.
“Who’s the big dog in these parts?”
“The big dog?” The bartender feigned ignorance.
“Quit stalling,” Vern growled. “Who’s in charge?”
“Senor Castaneda owns most of the land around here.” The bartender looked around fearfully as if the mere mention of the name would cause the man himself to appear.
“Ever heard of a man named Johnny Madrid?” Vern was surprised to see a smile appear on the man’s face.
“He is a hero, senor. He fought against Senor Castaneda. He brought hope to the people.”
“What happened?” Vern asked curiously.
“He was captured by the Rurales along with most of our young men. He was sentenced to death but the rumours say that he escaped. I hope those rumours are true.”
“I don’t imagine Senor Castaneda would be too happy if Madrid got away. Did he ever offer a bounty on the man?”
The bartender turned away. “I do not know.”
Vern grabbed the back of the man’s shirt and spun him round. “I don’t believe you. Unless you want to find yourself needing a doctor I suggest you tell me the truth.”
Hardship had, long before, beaten the resistance out of most of the townsfolk and the bartender was no braver than most. He lowered his eyes submissively. “There was a bounty…a fortune…but no one in this town would ever do anything to collect it.”
Vern shook the man impatiently. “How much?”
“Five thousand American dollars.”
A smile spread across Vern’s face. “Five thousand…that’ll do for a start.” He finished his drink and walked out, his mind filled with plans for his approach to Senor Castaneda.
Johnny heard the wagon return and, shortly after, smelled cooking. He hadn’t seen Markham since their arrival…Vern had felt it was prudent to keep the two men apart while he was away. When he heard the key turning in the lock Johnny struggled into a sitting position. He was tired of facing his enemy flat on his back. He relaxed when he realised his only visitor was going to be Markham and that the man was carrying two plates of stew.
“How are you feeling?” Markham asked as he passed one of the plates to his son.
“Hungry.” Johnny accepted the plate eagerly before moving so that there was room for Markham to sit down on the bed.
They ate in silence. The food wasn’t particularly good but it was filling so neither man was in the mood to complain. After they had finished Markham reached for Johnny’s leg. “I should check your knee.”
Johnny pulled back. “I don’t reckon there’s much more you can do except maybe see if you can find anything to splint it with. Sam said I needed to keep it still last time.” Johnny forestalled Markham’s move to feel his forehead. “I ain’t got a fever.”
Markham frowned. “Stop shutting me out. You need someone to take care of you. You were willing enough to accept my help last night.”
“Didn’t have a choice,” Johnny knew he was sounding ungracious and ducked his head. “Sorry.”
“We’ll get out of this, I promise.” Markham laid his hand on Johnny’s arm and saw his son give a small nod of acknowledgment.
“Can…can you tell me what it was like when I was little? I don’t remember much and mostly it isn’t stuff you’d want to remember. Last night…was there a time when I was sick…really sick?”
“Yes, son, there was. We thought we were going to lose you. An illness swept the town where we were staying, sickness and high fever. Some of the older people and a number of the children died. We were frantic when you developed the symptoms. You were only about four years old and you were very ill for days.”
“You stayed with me…I remember. You held me even though my mama was afraid that you would be infected as well. You never left me.”
“Maria was frightened. She wasn’t good around sickness. She was afraid that she was going to lose both of us but I wouldn’t give up hope for your recovery. We were lucky, luckier than most. You made a full recovery and neither your mother nor I became ill.”
“Did we move around a lot?”
“More than I would have liked. When you earn your living at cards you can only stay in one place for a short time before word gets round and people refuse to play with you. I kept hoping that I would get my one big break so that we could find someplace to settle down. Eventually Maria refused to travel with me any more so we rented a place near Nogales. You and she would stay there while I went round the nearby towns. I had to travel further and further afield, into Arizona and, after one trip I came home to find that she…” Markham paused, the same pain on his face that Johnny had seen on Murdoch’s whenever Maria had been mentioned.
“She’d run out on you…just like she ran out on Murdoch.”
“Yes. I was told that she had hooked up with some man and left with him.” Markham gave a harsh laugh. “I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised. She’d done it to me before and she’d done it to Lancer. I tried to find you both. I missed you so badly…my little boy.”
Markham sank into his memories leaving Johnny feeling distinctly uncomfortable. The gambler had been duped by Maria, had been fed a cruel and vicious lie, and Johnny found himself reluctant to tell Markham that he was sure they weren’t related. Knowing that he was being cowardly, but justifying it to himself as compassion, he decided that confronting the issue could wait until they were safe.
Johnny scowled when the door opened again to admit Vern. His captor pointed to Markham. “Get out.”
Johnny had learned a long time ago to pick his battles, something that Markham needed to be reminded of on a regular basis. “Do as he says. When the time’s right to stand up to him you’ll know.” Johnny flashed a brief, unsettling smile, in Vern’s direction.
After Markham had reluctantly left the room Vern advanced on Johnny. “You think you know it all, don’t you? Why can’t you just accept that you’ve been outgunned this time?”
Johnny’s soft reply dripped with insolence. “You haven’t the guts to find out whether or not you’ve outgunned me. Your partner at least had the courage to face me like a man.”
A backhanded blow snapped Johnny’s head around and he cautiously felt his teeth with his tongue to make sure none had been loosened by the vicious attack. “You’re a real big man, aren’t you? Give me my gun and face me in a fair fight.”
Vern was red-faced and furious at the insult. “You’re going down, Madrid, and I’m gonna stand and watch. Does the name Castaneda mean anything to you?” Vern saw a fleeting look of dismay. “I see that it does. Tomorrow I’m gonna pay Senor Castaneda a visit and then we’ll see how brave you are.”
Johnny was seething with frustration. He remained securely locked in the bedroom and several hours work trying to break through the boards over the window with his bare hands had only resulted in numerous splinters piercing his fingers and a fracturing of his already fragile temper. He had woken that morning to find that his knee was considerably less swollen than the day before with a corresponding lessening of the pain. The short trip from the bed to the window had still been difficult as the weakness persisted but Johnny was determined that nothing would prevent him trying to get loose. The thought of Castaneda getting hold of him brought him out in a cold sweat.
Earlier in the day Markham had brought his breakfast and had stayed with him while he ate. Johnny could tell from the gambler’s strained expression that Vern had told him the plan…probably with great satisfaction. Johnny wished that he could get his hands on a gun. He would wipe the irritating smirk off his captor’s face and send him to hell to rejoin his partner.
He jumped guiltily when the door was unexpectedly thrust open, unable to move quickly enough to get away from the window. He was in no hurry to let Vern know how well he was recovering and he knew that if he was caught trying to escape he would probably find himself tied up again.
Vern stood in the doorway, his expression telling Johnny that he knew exactly what his prisoner had been up to. “You sure ain’t no good at taking orders. I told you to stay away from that window. Get back over to the bed.”
Johnny gritted his teeth and hobbled across the room, relieved to find that his knee supported him. Once he was seated he looked apprehensively at Vern, fully expecting retribution for his disobedience. Vern crossed to the bed and his hand shot out to grasp Johnny’s injured knee. Johnny gave an involuntary cry of pain and sagged back against the pillows as he was hit with a wave of dizziness and nausea.
Vern removed his hand. “Just where the hell did you think you were gonna go even if you had broken out of here?”
Johnny’s breathing was harsh. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” He braced himself for further pain.
Vern laughed. “You wouldn’t have made it to the horses without falling over. I thought you were smarter than that, Madrid. You ain’t in any position to go up against me and the sooner you accept that the better.” He regarded his troublesome prisoner critically. “I’ve brought one of the missionary priests to take a look at you. I want you nice and healthy for when I hand you over to Senor Castaneda. His name’s Father Benedict. Do you know him?”
Johnny kept his head down, his eyes screwed shut against the pain. “No.”
“Good. I don’t want word getting out about who you are or where you’re being held. Riley’s taken your father out to do some hunting so he’s out of the way and I’ll be in the room the whole time the priest’s here. If you try anything, or say one word to make him think you’re being held prisoner, the good Father won’t make it back to the Mission. Are we clear?”
“Si,” Johnny spat the word at Vern.
Vern walked back to the door, opened it and called out, “You can come in now, Father.”
Father Benedict was an elderly monk and, contrary to Johnny’s denial, had been at the Mission during his last ill-fated visit to the region. A slight shake of Johnny’s head was enough to warn him off any sign of recognition. Father Benedict coughed to cover his instinctive greeting for the young man who had been such an inspiration to the people. “I understand that you have been injured. I have some training although I do not have the skills of a doctor.”
“It’s my knee.” Johnny unbuttoned the side of his trousers and couldn’t stop himself wincing when he saw the vivid bruising and residual swelling. The movement had pulled the sleeve of his shirt away from his right wrist and he caught the monk’s shocked expression as he saw the evidence of rope marks. Johnny hastily pulled the material down to cover the abrasions and bruising.
“What happened?” The monk asked, raising eyes filled with compassion to Johnny’s face.
Johnny hesitated, his gaze sliding across Vern’s face and then away again. “I fell.” He could tell that Father Benedict didn’t believe him and was grateful that the old priest had his back to Vern otherwise his expression would have given him away.
While Vern hovered in the background Father Benedict examined Johnny’s knee before rummaging in his satchel and bringing out two packets of herbs. He held one packet out to Vern. “Make these into tea and see that he drinks a cupful every two hours. It will help to control the pain.”
He watched Johnny carefully for a reaction. When Johnny just nodded he felt his anxiety increase. Johnny had spent some time hiding out at the Mission before being captured by the Rurales. Despite their many differences he and the young gunfighter had been drawn to each other. Perhaps sensing that his time on earth was about to come to an end Johnny had spoken about his life. He had made it clear that he wasn’t looking for absolution, just understanding. Father Benedict had been happy to oblige. One of the things Johnny had confided to him was his hatred of any pain medication which slowed his reflexes and left him vulnerable.
He turned back to Vern. “Mix the others with a little water and spread them over his knee before bandaging it. They will draw out the heat and reduce the swelling. Keep the leg immobilised so far as you can and make sure he doesn’t put any weight on it for the next two days. I will come back in a few days to see how he is getting on.”
“No need, Father. We’ll be moving on soon.” Vern accepted the herbs and prepared to usher the priest from the room.
As Father Benedict packed up ready to leave Johnny reached over and touched him on the arm. “Thank you.”
“God go with you, my son.” The priest sketched the sign of the cross in the air over Johnny’s bowed head. He feared that the young man was in great danger. Anyone knowing Johnny’s history would know that he would not have voluntarily returned to Tijuana. If only Senor Castaneda’s grip on the countryside were not so tight…if only there was some way to repay Johnny for his efforts on their behalf in the past.
Once the monk had gone Vern went to the range and set a pot of water to boil before adding the herbs. The resulting brew smelled and tasted vile and it was all Johnny could do to force it down. If he hadn’t been desperate to control the pain and increase his chances of escaping he would have hurled the cup at the wall.
Vern went outside and chopped down two reasonably straight and slender branches from one of the stunted trees. Once back in the cabin he searched through drawers in a dresser and came up with an old petticoat. He ripped it into several long strips.
Johnny watched him silently, cursing his inability to move freely and with his usual speed. He ground his teeth together as Vern laid the branches down on the bed and reached for his leg. Despite an obvious effort on Vern’s part to be gentle, Johnny’s head was swimming by the time the gunfighter leaned over to tie off the last bandage. Vern’s movement caused his gun to swing temptingly toward Johnny and he reacted without thinking. As he snatched for the gun Vern jerked away and gave Johnny’s knee a vicious twist. Johnny’s scream rose, and then faltered, and he blacked out.
Emilio Castaneda was a vigorous man in his early fifties. He was tall and thin with sharp aristocratic features. He had a neatly trimmed black moustache and his dark hair was tied back at the nape of his neck by a black ribbon. His dark suit was immaculately tailored and his white shirt was in pristine condition. He was handsome and wealthy, arrogant and vicious. He regarded Vern with contempt. The only reason the gunfighter had been allowed into his presence was the fact that he had said he had information about Johnny Madrid.
Emilio hated Madrid. He had offered the young gunhawk a small fortune to buy his services. Instead of being grateful Madrid had hurled his generosity back in his face and had set himself up as the champion of the worthless peasants. With Madrid’s help and encouragement they had developed a backbone and had had the nerve to demand better wages and conditions. He had been forced to call in the Rurales to deal with the problem…which they had done before being stupid enough to allow Madrid to escape from a firing squad.
He sat behind his desk and watched as Vern fidgeted uncomfortably. He had not invited the man to sit and it had been a condition of the meeting that Vern surrender his gun. Emilio liked to keep unexpected guests off balance.
“What can you tell me about Madrid?” Emilio saw that Vern was looking around the room, taking in the wealth of his surroundings.
“I can get him for you…for the right price,” Vern responded.
“I am prepared to be generous.”
“Ten thousand dollars.” Vern licked his lips nervously. The landowner was intimidating on a personal level, added to which he had a very well armed pack of bodyguards. Vern didn’t like being without his gun.
Castaneda laughed. “Not even Johnny Madrid is worth so much money.”
“I hear tell that you’re desperate to get your hands on him. How about I throw in his father as well? I’m sure you could find some use for him.” Vern watched as his host drummed his fingers on the desk.
“Seven thousand, five hundred dollars…and I get both of them.”
Vern smiled nastily. “Deal. How quickly can you get the money?”
“The money is available any time you are ready, Senor Gill. When can you deliver your part of the bargain?”
Vern didn’t want it to be obvious that Madrid was so close. He didn’t trust Castaneda not to have him followed and wasn’t about to give Castaneda the chance to take the young man without paying. “Two days.”
“Very well. Send word when you are ready to make the exchange.”
After Vern had left Castaneda called in two of his men. “Watch him and if you see any sign of Madrid I want to know immediately.”
As Vern was leaving his meeting with the landowner Murdoch and Scott were riding into Tijuana. As this was Scott’s first visit to Mexico he looked around curiously. The town was poor, desperately impoverished, and he felt his anger growing again. This was the kind of town his brother had been condemned to living in as a child by Maria’s lies and Murdoch’s abandonment. He turned a piercing glare on his father and caught his breath. Murdoch looked completely stricken…a man weighed down by guilt. Scott realised that his anger was nothing compared to the emotions coursing through his father. He wasn’t blaming Murdoch any more than Murdoch was blaming himself. He felt his anger draining away.
They dismounted in front of the cantina and Scott followed Murdoch inside. Curious stares followed them as they crossed the short distance to the bar. Neither man acknowledged Cipriano who was already seated at one of the tables.
When told to take the men back to Lancer the large Segundo had shaken his head and refused. He was very fond of the youngest Lancer and was fiercely protective of his patron and the older Lancer son. “Tijuana is not a safe place for two gringos,” he stated bluntly. “If you start asking questions you will wind up dead in an alley. Trust me, I know these things. I can find out what we need without arousing suspicion.”
Murdoch’s expression had turned thunderous. “I gave you an order. I need you back at the ranch.”
Cipriano had stood his ground. “The ranch will survive without me. Tell me, Patron, how will Senorita Teresa manage if none of you return? Will she think that it was right for you to put your concerns for the ranch above your concerns for the lives of your sons?”
Scott stepped between the two men; Cipriano didn’t know how far he had strayed onto dangerous ground. “Murdoch, he has a point. He can do us more good here than back at Lancer.”
Murdoch narrowed his eyes as he stared at his son. “Have it your own way. You’d better explain to him what’s going on.”
Scott’s explanation to the Segundo had been brief, just enough to let him understand how dangerous Markham was to Johnny. They had parted company shortly afterwards and the remainder of the men had turned north and headed back toward Lancer.
Now the three of them were in a cantina in Tijuana, each hoping that they had made the right decision and that, somehow, they would find Johnny in time. The bartender acknowledged Murdoch and Scott and provided each with a beer. Murdoch looked morosely around the room and left it to Scott to initiate conversation.
“Is there a hotel here?” Scott asked the attentive bartender.
“No, Senor. We only have a few rooms upstairs but I am afraid they are all occupied.”
Scott sighed…it appeared they were looking at another night camping out. “Is there nowhere else we might be able to get a bed for the night. My father and I have travelled a long way and we need to rest our horses.”
“You could try the Mission. The priests will sometimes put up travellers. It is only about half a mile outside town.”
“Thank you. Murdoch, are you coming?”
Murdoch pulled himself out of his bleak thoughts. He had been imagining Johnny living in a town such as this in abject poverty. Life for a child of mixed race would have been difficult and he had seen for himself the marks on his son’s body that spoke volumes about how he had been treated. He wondered if Markham had inflicted any of those scars and swore that he was going to kill the gambler when he caught up with him. If only he hadn’t believed Maria’s lies Johnny’s life would have been so different.
Father Benedict looked up from his task of weeding the small vegetable patch as he heard horses approaching. He shielded his eyes against the late afternoon sun and peered short-sightedly down the dusty road leading from town to the Mission. It was normally a matter of some concern if riders were seen. The only people in the vicinity who rode anywhere were employed by Senor Castaneda and he had no love for the Church. He despatched young Brother Paulo to warn the other priests to stay out of sight before straightening up as far as his weary bones would allow.
As the two men reined to a halt in front of him he found himself looking at strangers…Anglo strangers. The older of the men looked tired and strained and the younger appeared to be angry and tense. He smiled a greeting. “Good day. Can I offer you some refreshments?”
The younger blond man smiled in response. “We were hoping you might be able to provide us with a bed for a couple of nights. We’ve been on the trail for a few days and it would be nice to sleep somewhere other than on the ground.”
“Of course. Weary travellers are always welcome at our door.” Father Benedict turned toward the main building and raised his voice. “Brother Paulo, come and care for our visitor’s horses.”
The men dismounted and handed over their animals to the care of the eager young priest. Murdoch looked around distractedly and only moved when Scott tapped him on the arm.
“Come inside and have a glass of wine with me. Supper will be served shortly.”
Father Benedict escorted his guests to his small study. It was clean and simply furnished. On the way he gave instructions for one of the spare rooms to be made ready. Once they were all seated the priest poured everyone a glass of red wine and sank gratefully into the chair behind his desk. “My name is Father Benedict. I am in charge of this Mission.” He waited politely for his visitors to return the courtesy by giving their names and was surprised to see them exchanging questioning looks.
Finally, after the silence had stretched on for some considerable time the older of the two men gave a resigned sigh. “I am Murdoch Lancer and this is my son, Scott.”
Father Benedict gasped in astonishment. “Johnny’s father?”
Through a mixture of shock and apprehension Murdoch eventually managed to speak. “You know my son?” He leaned forward eagerly. “Have you seen him recently?”
“Murdoch,” Scott laid a warning hand on his father’s arm. “We don’t know if…”
“If you can trust me?” Father Benedict interjected.
Scott stared at the priest steadily and nodded. “I mean no disrespect but we’ve been told that the landowner in these parts has a bounty out on my brother.”
Father Benedict suppressed his surprise at finding that Johnny had an Anglo brother and that he had, apparently, been reconciled with his father. Johnny had said very little about his family during his last stay in Tijuana. He had mentioned his mother’s death when he was a child, had told the priest his estranged father was a California rancher named Lancer but had said nothing about having a brother.
“You know Johnny’s history in Tijuana?” Curt nods indicated that the two men did. “When the revolt against Senor Castaneda failed Johnny hid here for a few weeks. There are cellars under the Mission that no-one knows about. He had been shot, not seriously, and he needed time to recover. Castaneda had called in the Rurales and they were swarming all over the countryside. Johnny hoped that if he waited they would think he had left and would go away. He was almost at the border when they captured him and took him away. During the time he spent here I like to think that we became friends. He told me many things about his life, including his real name. I did not gain the impression that he would ever seek you out, Senor Lancer, so before I tell you what I know, I would like you to tell me how you come to be here looking for him.”
Murdoch suppressed his impatience. “After Johnny was captured he was sentenced to death. He was rescued from a firing squad by a Pinkerton agent in my employ. I had been looking for him for years and had only recently found that he was going by the name of Madrid. He returned to Lancer and we were reconciled. Scott is his half-brother from my first marriage. He was raised in Boston and neither he nor Johnny knew of each others existence until twelve months ago. I’m sorry to be blunt, Father, but Johnny is in danger. He has been kidnapped by a man who intends to sell him to whoever will pay the most money. We’ve been chasing them for the last couple of days. Have you seen him?”
“I saw him earlier today. He has hurt his knee and I was asked if I could help. I had a feeling that he was in trouble.”
“Where is he? How badly has he been hurt? He was only just getting over a knee injury when he was taken.” Scott asked the questions eagerly.
“He is at a small cabin a few miles east of here. The injury looked painful but not too serious although I doubt if he can walk far and I’d be surprised if he could ride. I left him something for the pain and the fact that he was willing to take it convinced me that all was not what it appeared.”
“How many men were guarding him?” Murdoch queried, quelling his rising excitement.
“I only saw one although I have the feeling there were more.”
Scott rose to his feet. “We have to go and rescue him.”
Murdoch shook his head. “It’ll be dark before we get there and we don’t know how many men we’re facing. Remember that Markham had that man broken out of jail and that he had help.” Murdoch turned back to the priest. “Is there somewhere close by this cabin we could hide out and get a feel for the situation?”
“There is a hillside behind the cabin which has a number of small copses of trees. You would be well hidden while still having a good view of what was going on.”
“Can you show us?” Murdoch smiled at the priest as he received a nod of assent. “We’ll leave before first light.” He looked into the impatient face of his son. “By this time tomorrow we’ll have your brother back.”
Johnny looked morosely at his bound wrists. Vern had been more than a little upset by Johnny’s abortive effort to take his gun, especially coming hard on the heels of his obvious attempt to break through the boards over the window.
He hadn’t remained unconscious long after Vern’s vicious retaliation and had woken up just as Vern finished yanking hard on the cords now biting into his wrists. Seeing that Johnny was awake the gunfighter had grabbed a handful of Johnny’s shirt and pulled him up until they were face to face. “You try anything that dumb again and it’ll be my pleasure to beat you unconscious before tying you to this bed. I knew it was a mistake to cut you any slack.”
“Don’t know why you bothered. I don’t expect Castaneda’s gonna give a damn about the state of my health.”
“Maybe not, but I do. I want to see if you’re man enough to walk when I exchange you for the money or if you have to be dragged.”
Johnny’s eyes blazed furiously. “I ain’t a coward. Not like…” He didn’t get to finish before Vern hit him across the face.
“I guess we’ll find out soon enough.” Vern had shoved Johnny back against the pillows and stomped angrily from the room.
After waiting for his head to clear he had stumbled clumsily to the door to find it locked…no real surprise, but he lived in hope that Vern might have been angry enough to have become careless.
After a while he heard voices and recognised Markham’s distinctive accent. Shortly after that he heard someone riding away and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that it was probably Vern on his way to do his deal with Castaneda. Johnny swore to himself as he looked round the room to see if it contained anything that might help him get loose. It didn’t take long to establish that he wasn’t going to be that lucky and he retreated to the bed to brood.
It was dark by the time the door was unlocked allowing Markham to bring him his supper. Deep lines marked the gambler’s face. Worry for his son consuming his every thought. Vern had told him about Johnny’s escape attempts before riding off to speak to Castaneda. The gunfighter had been very angry and had made it clear that any more foolish behaviour on Johnny’s part would be severely punished.
Now Markham looked into the defiant face of his son and finally realised that he would never have been able to bend Johnny to his will. However poor the odds might be Johnny would fight them to the bitter end. Meeting such courage and determination was humbling for a man who made his living as Markham did…preying on the gullible before moving on to look for his next victim. If…when…they were free from this mess he would have no choice but to let his son go if that was what Johnny wanted. He felt an aching deep inside at the thought of losing his son again after so many wasted years. He laid the tray down on a small table beside the bed and Johnny held out his hands.
“Get me out of these ropes,” Johnny demanded fiercely.
“I’m sorry, son. I can’t. If I untie you Vern will just hurt you again.”
“To hell with him. Untie me.”
Markham shook his head, unable to meet the accusing stare of his son.
“Then to hell with you too. Get out.”
Ignoring Johnny’s impotent fury Markham pulled the only chair over to the bed and picked up the spoon, filling it with scrambled egg and smoked ham. Johnny’s scowl deepened. “I can do it.” Johnny’s independent stubborn streak was refusing to bow to the reality of the situation.
“No you can’t,” Markham announced reasonably before presenting the laden spoon to his son.
Johnny’s hunger overcame his irritation and he opened his mouth. “I’m guessing Vern’s been to see Castaneda,” he said between mouthfuls.
“Yes. He hasn’t said what happened but he’s looking mighty pleased with himself. He’s put Riley on watch in case any of Castaneda’s men were following him.”
“I’m not letting him do it…hand me over to that sadistic bastard.” Given his present predicament the quiet announcement ought to have sounded ridiculous only it was backed up by a steely determination.
“Tell me about him…Castaneda. Why is he so keen to get hold of you?”
“Oh, he’s a typical big landowner…” Johnny ground to a halt as an image of Murdoch popped into his head. His mother’s hatred for her husband had partly shaped his view of ranchers, mean and vicious bastards only concerned with making money at the expense of their workers. That was how Maria had described Murdoch and Johnny hadn’t met many big landowners in his time as a gunhawk that would have made him change that view.
Then he had gone to Lancer and had found himself in a completely different world, a world where the workers were not exploited and respected their patron. He had watched very carefully how Murdoch interacted with his employees, looking for some sign that he was the selfish unprincipled man described by his mother. At first he had thought that perhaps Murdoch was hiding his true nature in order to impress his…his sons…but it had gradually dawned on him that he was seeing an honorable, hard working man who respected the people he employed. A pain started in his chest as he thought of everything he had lost.
Markham watched the play of emotions crossing Johnny’s face and his heart sank. “You were telling me about Castaneda,” he prompted gently.
“Yeah, sorry. He…he was exploiting the people…paying them next to nothing and pushing up prices in the town by holding back supplies. They were starving so they tried to fight back. Castaneda started hiring guns to intimidate them and he offered me a job. Once I saw what he was up to I turned him down and tried to help the people instead. It was a lost cause…I should have realised it. A lot of the young men were either killed by Castaneda’s men or captured and executed by the Rurales. If it hadn’t been for Murdoch…” There it was again, the pain of loss and betrayal.
Johnny knew he had to change the subject only there wasn’t a single topic of conversation that wasn’t going to dredge up memories that he had worked so hard to bury. He only knew that he couldn’t think of Lancer or anyone associated with it. He drew in a shaky breath. “Can you tell me more about when I was little? What was it like being a family?”
‘What was it like being a family?’ Johnny’s need for reassurance that he had, even if only for a short time, experienced what most people took for granted spilled over into that question. How often had he tried to ask Murdoch only to back away? Knowing how much it hurt his father to talk about Maria had kept the words locked in his throat. The desire to know about his early childhood, before his life had descended into misery, had become an ache that he had ruthlessly pushed away time and time again.
Thomas Markham smiled. “It was the best time of my life. I had the woman I loved and the son I adored.”
The apparent sincerity of that statement took Johnny’s breath away. Here was a man giving him everything he had so desperately wanted from Murdoch…an affirmation of love for his mother and himself. Then he remembered that Markham had beaten him…more than was justified to punish a young boy for his transgressions…and his mood darkened.
“It wasn’t always the best time of my life, though, was it?” Even as he said it Johnny wondered about that. His life had been hard, at times it had been brutal, but through it all he had never doubted his mother’s love. Now he had to factor in the love of a ‘father’ rather than the endless parade of ‘stepfathers’ who had no affection for him. Markham may have been harsh but Johnny was coming round to the view that there was a danger he was taking those memories out of context. He saw guilt and sadness as Markham turned away from his accusing stare.
“I need to know…I only have hazy memories. Were there times when we were happy?” The question was almost apologetic.
“Yes, Johnny, there were many times. It wasn’t an easy life…I’ll admit that. Money was often scarce and the constant moving around was difficult for you and your mother. I know I was hard on you sometimes, too hard, but I always loved you and only wanted what was best for you.”
Johnny shifted uneasily on the bed and tried to find a more comfortable position for his sore knee. He hated not being in control and Markham’s continued refusal to untie him was irritating him. “Scott told me that I’m not your son, that my mama lost your baby. I talked to our doctor, Sam, and he told me the same thing.”
“Scott was only repeating what he had been told by Murdoch and I doubt if your doctor was being impartial. The fact is that they lied to you.”
Johnny considered that statement. In between trying to think up ways to escape, he had given his parentage a lot of thought. “No, I don’t think they did. I know you believe that you’re my father but some things just don’t add up. Murdoch may have believed my mama when she said I wasn’t his but he would never have welcomed me back if he’d still believed that. I accept he wanted my gun, wanted help to fight off Pardee, but he didn’t have to offer me a partnership and he didn’t have to go through with it either. If he’d still thought I was your bastard he wouldn’t have been able to stomach me being around this long, and he certainly wouldn’t have treated me as well as he has…he wouldn’t have treated me as a son.”
“So he’s convinced himself. That doesn’t mean it’s the truth. Maria was pregnant with my child when I left Matamoros. I was there when she told Murdoch Lancer that he wasn’t your father. All the time we were together she assured me that you were my son.”
“Just like she assured me that Murdoch had thrown us both out. Face it, Markham, she lied to everyone she met. What makes you so sure she was telling you the truth?”
“What makes you so sure she wasn’t?”
Johnny shook his head. “I can’t be sure. All I can tell you is that she raised me to believe Murdoch was my father. She never mentioned you.” Johnny looked away from the hurt on Markham’s face. “I believe that Murdoch Lancer is my father…I’m sorry.”
“But he doesn’t want you.”
“I know.” It was a painful concession. “Look, we may not get out of this alive so I need you to know that I don’t blame you for your part in taking me away from Lancer when I was a kid. My mama was a convincing liar. Maybe she even believed the stories she told. You had no reason to disbelieve her and it’s kinda comforting to know that you cared enough about both of us to want us with you. Being wanted wasn’t something I grew up taking for granted. I guess it was one of the only times I had what every kid wants, a mother and a father who loves him.”
Markham’s blue eyes, so like Johnny’s, had darkened as he listened to his son reject him. “I wish I’d found you sooner, before Murdoch Lancer came back into your life. Oh, I can understand why you would want to be a Lancer, living on a fancy ranch with people respecting you because of how much money you have.”
“It’s not like that.” Johnny caught himself by surprise with the vehement denial. “Yes, I had a nice house and fancy things around me but we had to work damned hard for them. If people came to respect me, or Murdoch or Scott it was because of what we did, not because of our surname. And I’ll tell you this…it’s a lot more satisfying than being respected because of how fast you are with a gun. Besides it don’t matter none ‘cause I won’t be going back there.”
“You won’t be coming with me either, will you?” Although Markham hoped Johnny would deny this he knew what the answer was going to be.
“No, nothing’s changed.” That wasn’t quite true and they both knew it. The reality was that not enough had changed and never would.
“They’ll send more men to kill me. They won’t give up. Won’t you at least stay with me until I can get enough money together to pay them back?”
Johnny hesitated, torn between the belief that Markham wasn’t his father and a feeling that he owed the man something to compensate for Maria’s lies. “We’ll get word to them that if anything happens to you they’ll have to answer to Johnny Madrid. That’s the best I can do. I need to make a new life and I can’t do that if I’m having to look out for you.”
In his moment of desolation at his son’s rejection that was a small crumb of comfort and was far more than he deserved.
Murdoch and Scott were in position on the hillside overlooking the cabin well before daybreak. They had managed to get word to Cipriano who joined them as the sun was starting to rise. Scott contained his impatience as best he could. Charging in without knowing how many men they were up against would only serve to put his brother in danger.
It wasn’t long after Cipriano’s arrival that they saw Johnny being escorted to the outhouse. They weren’t close enough to see his face but it was clear to all three men that he had been hurt again. His bound hands confirmed that he wasn’t there voluntarily.
Murdoch strained his eyes to try and recognise the man holding a gun on his youngest son. “That isn’t Markham.”
“No, it isn’t,” Scott concurred. “I think it’s the man, Riley, that Val arrested.” He laid his hand on his rifle despite knowing that it would be an impossible shot.
After Johnny had been taken back inside they saw Markham and then a third man that none of them recognised. They all recognised what he was when they saw how he was wearing his gun. For the next few hours all was quiet. The sun rose higher in the sky and the day became uncomfortably hot. The small stand of trees provided very little shade from the heat of the day.
“We can’t just sit here all day,” Scott complained.
“We’ll sit here for as long as it takes. I don’t like the odds and we can’t risk your brother’s life by moving too soon.” Murdoch looked sternly at Scott and then his expression softened. “I want him back as much as you do. If necessary we’ll wait until nightfall and try to take them by surprise.”
The practical part of Scott’s brain acknowledged what his father was saying. The emotional part was crying out to him to rescue his brother and end the torment of being so close yet so far away.
“Senor.” Cipriano’s whisper drew both men’s attention back to the cabin.
The unknown gunfighter was leading a horse round from the back of the building. He was accompanied by Riley and appeared to be leaving instructions. He mounted up and rode off in the direction of the town.
The odds had just improved and Murdoch wasted no time in taking advantage of that. “Cipriano, I want you to ride down and draw Riley and Markham into the open. Neither of them will recognise you so they won’t connect you to Lancer. Scott and I will work our way down to those rocks down there.” Murdoch pointed to a natural outcropping of stone two hundred feet or so away from the front of the cabin. “Just make sure that you stay out of the line of fire.”
Markham was sitting at the table playing cards with Riley when they both heard a horse approaching. He didn’t pay it much attention, assuming that Vern had forgotten something and had come back. His mind was wandering over the events of the previous evening and his brief discussion with Johnny over breakfast.
Johnny had proved to be in a foul mood…hardly surprising as he was still in pain and had spent the night tied up. He had again demanded to be untied and had become sullen when faced with a continued refusal. Vern had made it clear the previous day that Johnny was to remain restrained and that if Markham disobeyed him it would be Johnny who would pay the price. His attempts to explain this were met with contempt and a hard blue stare that sent rivers of ice running down his spine. His son was not a man who took well to being thwarted.
Johnny had refused to drink the herbal pain medication left by the priest and had eaten his breakfast with very bad grace and a minimum of conversation. After finishing the food he had curtly told Markham that, if he wasn’t going to help, then he could leave him alone.
Before leaving to send a message to Castaneda Vern had checked on his prisoner. Markham heard raised voices…Vern telling Johnny to behave himself and Johnny responding with some crude suggestions as to what Vern could do with his orders. The sound of several blows followed with Riley preventing Markham from going to his son’s aid.
Vern had stomped out, red-faced and angry and had announced that he’d had enough of Madrid and was going to arrange to hand him over that evening. Nothing that Markham could say would dissuade him and he left shortly afterwards. Markham had begged Riley to let him check on Johnny but the man wouldn’t budge and so he had settled down to pass the time as best he could. He was coming round to the view that he would have to try and take Riley down himself when he heard the hoof beats.
“Stay here,” Riley growled. He collected his rifle and stepped out onto the porch.
“Buenos diaz, Senor,” Cipriano greeted the man with a friendly smile.
“What d’you want?” Riley asked ungraciously as he brought his rifle to bear on his unwanted visitor.
“Some water, por favor.” Cipriano started to swing out of his saddle only to be brought up short by the sound of the rifle being cocked.
“No water. Strangers ain’t welcome here.” Riley sensed a movement behind him as Markham followed him outside and started to turn. Scott’s bullet caught him cleanly through the heart and he crumpled to the ground.
Markham took a step forward, confused, and then froze as Murdoch and Scott emerged from their hiding place.
Murdoch pointed his gun at the gambler. “Stay right where you are or I’ll send you to hell where you belong.”
With a look of pure loathing Scott pushed past Markham and entered the cabin. His frantic gaze swept the small room, looking for some sign of Johnny. In half a dozen quick strides he crossed to the only other door and reached for the handle while calling his brother’s name. Realising that the door was locked he rattled the handle impatiently and called out again. The lack of any response worried him and he hurried back outside.
“Johnny’s locked in the bedroom and he’s not answering me,” he informed his father. He turned on Markham and his animosity caused the smaller man to retreat. “Where’s the key?”
The fear on Markham’s face was for Johnny, although neither of the Lancers realised it and likely wouldn’t have believed it. Markham knew Vern wouldn’t have killed Johnny, however angry the boy might have made him, but it appeared he had used force to shut Johnny’s mouth. He pointed a shaky finger at Riley’s lifeless body. “In his pocket.”
Scott knelt down, ignoring the blood staining Riley’s shirt, and began his search. As soon as the key was in his possession he was on his feet and headed back indoors. He unlocked the door and pushed it open. His first sight of his brother provoked a curse before he yelled for his father.
Murdoch holstered his gun, took firm hold of Markham’s arm and pushed him into the cabin. Johnny lay on the bed, unconscious. A bruise marred the line of his jaw and a half healed cut on his cheek had reopened to weep small droplets of blood. Scott was sitting beside his brother working on the rope that was tethering Johnny’s hands together. The rough splint on Johnny’s left leg was evidence of further injury to his knee.
Murdoch grabbed Markham’s shirt and pushed the gambler up against the wall. “Is this how you think a father should treat his son?” He shouted, almost overcome by a murderous rage. “Kidnapping him, tying him up and beating him unconscious? Is this how you treated him when he was a child? I ought to kill you now. Scum like you don’t deserve to live.”
As he struggled back to consciousness Johnny heard Murdoch’s voice. Words of reassurance told him that Scott…his brother…was taking care of him and he felt a momentary sense of peace. He didn’t waste energy that he didn’t have on wondering how they had found him. He forced his eyes open. Scott was staring down at him, concern written all over his face. Johnny tried to smile but was defeated by the aching in his jaw. One of these days, he told himself ruefully, he had to learn to control his impulse to mouth off.
Murdoch’s continued tirade clashed with Markham trying, unsuccessfully, to protest his innocence. Relief at being rescued quickly became secondary to Johnny’s simmering resentment at Murdoch’s treatment of him back in Green River. “Help me sit up,” he whispered to Scott.
Scott knew that arguing with his brother would be a lost cause and slipped an arm under Johnny’s shoulders. “Take it easy,” he cautioned.
“I’m fine.” Johnny saw the scepticism on Scott’s face. “Honest, Scott. It’s not as bad as it looks.”
Murdoch’s fingers were locked in a death grip on Markham’s shirt as he pressed the gambler back against the wall, yelling at him with his face only inches away from the man that he was within a heartbeat of killing.
Johnny cleared his throat. “Murdoch.” The word emerged with pathetic weakness and he turned to look pleadingly at his brother. “He isn’t responsible for this. You have to stop Murdoch before he does something he’ll regret.”
Scott couldn’t ignore his brother’s plea. He set aside his own view that Markham deserved to feel the full force of Murdoch’s anger and thought it unlikely his father would regret anything. Leaving Johnny sitting with his back against the pillows and the headboard of the bed he moved to intervene.
When he felt a hand on his shoulder Murdoch turned his head, furious at the interruption. His anger waned when he realised it was Scott.
“Johnny needs you.”
Johnny…his son. Murdoch relaxed his grip and shoved Markham away from him. He turned, a greeting on his lips, and the words died unspoken. Johnny might need him at that moment but it was clear he didn’t want him, the cold eyes and expressionless face told him that. There was no warmth, no hint of pleasure and Murdoch felt as if a door had slammed shut between them.
“Don’t touch him again. This isn’t his fault.” Johnny saw the confusion on his father’s face but was in no mood to explain. They needed to move somewhere safer and then he had to persuade them all to leave. He swung his legs awkwardly over the side of the bed and went to stand up. Scott immediately put an arm around his waist to support him and Johnny gratefully accepted the aid. It felt good to have his brother by his side again.
The splint was doing its job of keeping his knee immobile and the pain had reduced to a manageable ache. It would take time for the strength to return and, in the meantime, he knew that he wasn’t fit for the sort of hard riding that would be necessary to see them safely over the border. He made it as far as the main room of the cabin and indicated to Scott that he needed to sit down.
He managed a slight smile when he saw Cipriano, a smile that quickly disappeared when he turned back to issue instructions to Murdoch. “We aren’t safe here and I ain’t in any fit state to ride. Markham, can you and Cipriano hitch up the wagon?”
Markham looked from Johnny to Murdoch, aware that the large rancher was still looking murderous. “Of course. Where are we going?”
Once Markham and Cipriano had left Murdoch turned on his younger son. “Why are you protecting that man?”
“Because he’s believed all these years that he’s my father. Because, despite everything, every lie my mama told him, he never stopped loving her, or me.” Johnny’s blue stare was a challenge.
Murdoch sat heavily in a chair opposite his son, his thoughts in turmoil. Johnny seemed to be acknowledging that Markham wasn’t his father yet it was clear that some level of attachment had been achieved. How was that possible? Markham had not only kidnapped Johnny, he had brought him to Mexico with the specific intention of selling him out to one of his enemies with undoubtedly fatal results. “I don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t suppose you do. How could you understand the impulse of a father to protect his son?”
“Johnny, that’s not fair.” Scott might have his own issues with his father’s behaviour but he knew that Murdoch had been trying to do his best. “How was Markham trying to protect you? He’s brought you to the one place you were almost guaranteed to wind up dead.”
“He didn’t bring me here, Vern did.” Johnny shook his head in frustration. He didn’t know what to think. He owed Markham something for his mother’s lies and, if he was being truthful, had started to feel something for the gambler. Balanced against that was his sincere belief that Murdoch was his father which meant that the life he really wanted was still within his grasp. His relief at being rescued was far more profound than simple gratitude. Murdoch had come looking for him, but was it a sign of good faith with hope for the future or guilt?
Now wasn’t the time to seek the answers and, if he had his way, they would leave him and Mexico as fast as possible. “There isn’t time to explain it all now. Vernon Gill is a gunfighter who was sent to collect a gambling debt from Markham. He’s decided to collect by handing me over to Emilio Castaneda. Have you heard of him?” Murdoch and Scott nodded. “Then you know how powerful and dangerous he is. What you probably don’t know is that there will be someone working for him who will have been paid by the Rurales to keep them informed of anything important. That means that they’ll know I’m back in Mexico and they’ll be on the lookout for me. I haven’t a hope of getting across the border while I can’t ride. I want you to take me to the Mission and then get the hell out of Mexico. I’ll make a run for it in a few days when my leg’s stronger.”
The vehement refusal to leave him came from both Lancers at once. “No, Johnny. The last time you tried that you ended up in front of a firing squad. I’m not taking any chances. We’ll wait this out together until you’re well enough to leave.” Murdoch looked sternly at his son. “You really have no choice, you know. If Markham wants to save his own skin he can go and I think it would be a good idea if Cipriano left but…”
“I’m not leaving,” Markham’s voice interrupted the discussion.
“Neither am I,” Cipriano stated quietly. “The wagon is ready…we should go.”
Cipriano went to fetch Murdoch’s and Scott’s mounts while Johnny, complaining bitterly and impotently about the situation, was helped into the back of the wagon. With Markham at the reins they left the cabin as quickly as they could and headed toward the dubious safety of the Mission.
Their luck held and they reached the Mission without being spotted. Father Benedict directed Scott and Markham to the concealed entrance to the cellar complex and they soon had the furious young man safely secreted away from prying eyes. The two men ignored his increasingly desperate orders to leave Mexico. On their way out, and with a mumbled apology, Scott locked the door behind them to prevent his impulsive brother from doing anything stupid like trying to give himself up to save them.
Murdoch pulled Cipriano off to one side. “Can you get rid of the wagon? Then go back to town and keep your eyes and ears open. Hopefully Johnny will be fit to ride in a couple of days. We need to know what Castaneda is doing and Johnny thought that word would probably have reached the Rurales as well. Be careful.”
Vern’s meeting with Castaneda had gone as well as possible given that neither man trusted the other. It was agreed that Castaneda would wire half the money to a bank in Texas and that Vern would send word of Madrid’s whereabouts once he had confirmation that this had been done. The remaining money would be sent once Castaneda had Madrid and Markham in his hands. Vern had impressed upon the landowner that he wouldn’t appreciate being cheated and Castaneda returned the compliment. They ended the meeting in no doubt that any attempt at a double cross would leave them watching their backs for the rest of their lives.
Vern rode into town with one of Castaneda’s men so that the arrangements could be put in place. Once the money had been transferred, Vern set up a time and place for the exchange and the two men parted company. Vern headed back to the cabin well pleased with the way things were working out. He intended to send Riley with Madrid and Markham while he kept out of sight. With so much money within his grasp he wasn’t going to risk his health by turning up himself.
The silence that greeted his arrival at the cabin caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stand up. He had approached from the rear and frowned as he realised that the horses and wagon were all missing. He dismounted and drew his gun, circling round to the front of the building. In front of the porch he saw a stain that he recognised immediately as dried blood. He followed the trail of blood to some bushes at the far side of the cabin. His breath caught at the sight of Riley’s dead body.
He spun round, crouching low, expecting a bullet to come flying his way any minute. As the silence stretched on he brought his breathing under control and approached the front door. It stood partly open and he pushed it cautiously. The door to the bedroom stood open and it was obvious that the building was uninhabited.
There was nothing to tell Vern what had happened. Either Madrid and Markham had staged a successful escape attempt or Castaneda had found and taken them. Neither scenario brought Vern any comfort. Without Madrid in his hands he was a dead man.
It was with a certain degree of apprehension that Murdoch unlocked the door leading to the storeroom where Scott had incarcerated his brother. While understanding Scott’s reasoning, Murdoch hadn’t approved of the decision. He found his younger son limping around the confined space like a caged wounded animal.
Murdoch picked up the tray he had laid down on the floor. It contained a bowl of warm water, a cloth, towel and some ointment. He entered the room, deliberately leaving the door open behind him. He saw Johnny hesitate, torn between the desire to escape his confinement and the realisation that he probably wouldn’t get very far.
“Why don’t you sit down and let me clean those cuts?” Murdoch suggested.
Without a word Johnny made his way unsteadily to a wooden packing crate and sat down, blue eyes steadily fixed on his father. Murdoch groaned inwardly as he stiffly lowered himself to his knees in front of his son. Taking the damp cloth he carefully cleaned the cut on Johnny’s cheek.
“Father Benedict tells me that if you’re careful of your knee you should be able to ride in a couple of days. He recommends some gentle exercise to strengthen it.” Apart from a noticeable tensing of the jaw muscles Johnny gave no sign that he was even listening.
Murdoch sighed and turned his attention to Johnny’s right wrist. The skin was torn and bruised and he heard Johnny suck in a shaky breath as he washed and dried the abrasions before applying the cream provided by Father Benedict. Once he had tended to Johnny’s left wrist as well Murdoch heaved himself to his feet and, ignoring the unfriendly glare, sat down beside his son.
Johnny shifted fractionally; an almost symbolic move to distance himself from the older man. The part of him that was rejoicing at seeing his father and brother again paled into insignificance against his feelings of anger at Murdoch and fear for the safety of his family. Finally he forced out the question. “Why did you come after me?”
“Because you are my son, I love you and I want you to come home.” Murdoch realised with a shock that this was the first time since his sons had come home that he had told Johnny he loved him. He had never been a demonstrative man…his strict Scottish upbringing had seen to that…and he had been repressing his feelings for his boys, fearing rejection.
Johnny laughed. “Nice try. That wasn’t what you said last time. Seems to me you change your mind depending upon which way the wind’s blowing. Let me tell you something, old man. You only get to disown me so many times before I stop coming back.”
Murdoch did his best to hide his disappointment but could tell that Johnny’s keen gaze had pierced through his pretence. “Sam said you were coming back to Lancer.”
“Doesn’t mean I would’ve stayed.” Johnny’s eyes slid away and he studied the opposite wall, unsure who he was trying to convince.
“But it does mean you were prepared to listen.”
“I was prepared to listen that day in Green River. Only trouble was what you said sure wasn’t what I wanted to hear.”
“What did you want to hear, Johnny?”
The stare Johnny turned on his father was hard and unyielding. “Oh no, Murdoch, you don’t get away that easy.” His tenuous hold on his temper snapped. “What the hell d’you think I wanted to hear?” He ran a hand through his hair, his mouth set in a rigid line as he struggled to master himself. “How about the truth? It’s about time someone told me that.”
“I was just trying to do what was best for you…”
“And just who gave you the right to make decisions for me? I’m all grown up in case you haven’t noticed. I’ve been taking care of myself for years. Do you know how tired I am of people trying to run my life for me? And Scott’s as bad as the rest of you. What the hell right did he have to lock me up?”
“We only wanted to keep you safe.”
“That’s a joke. You did a damn poor job of keeping me safe when I was a kid and you ain’t doing any better a job now. If you’d told me the truth that day I’d probably have swallowed my pride and gone back with you and Scott. Your high handed decision to lie to me kept me in town long enough for Markham to con Vern into helping him kidnap me. Take a good look around you, Murdoch. We’re in Mexico and now I’m not the only one who isn’t safe.
“If Castaneda gets hold of any of us we’re as good as dead. If the Rurales grab us we’ll wish we were. Facing that firing squad was the easy option. Have you any idea what it’s like in a Mexican prison?” Johnny suppressed his involuntary shudder. “No, of course you don’t. How could you? You’ve been living safe in California all these years.” The bitterness flowed from Johnny in crashing waves. “There’s no way I’m letting Castaneda capture me and I ain’t going back to that prison. On my own I might stand a chance; with you and Scott to look out for I haven’t got a prayer. You want to keep me safe? Wait until it gets dark and then go home because if it comes to it I’ll go down fighting.”
Murdoch stood up and looked down at his son. “We aren’t leaving. We will face this as a family.”
“Damn you. I’m not gonna sit around and watch you and Scott get killed.” Johnny lurched to his feet, intent upon doing something, anything to bring this insanity to an end.
He was half way to the door when Murdoch hauled him back. “You’ll stay right here, young man.”
“You’ve got some nerve,” Johnny yelled, trying unsuccessfully to free himself. “You’re no better than Markham. Come to think of it I’d rather spend time with him than you. He loved my mama and she loved him. You were just a poor second.” Johnny braced himself for the blow he was sure was going to follow that particular piece of viciousness. If he couldn’t reason with his father then he’d drive him and Scott away any way he could. The grip on his arm tightened and then relaxed.
“You don’t mean that.”
“Shows how much you know.” Johnny wondered how far he would have to go before he pushed his father over the edge. “She was quick enough to run away from you when Markham turned up again. She just saw you as a meal ticket… and why not? You were gullible enough to let her palm her bastard off on you.”
“That’s not true and you know it. You’ve spoken to Sam…he told you what your mother told him.”
“You saying we can trust anything she said? My mama was just a no-good lying whore who…” This time he had gone too far and the blow fell. He raised his hand to his stinging cheek and waited for Murdoch to reject him.
Murdoch pulled Johnny round to face him. “I’m not going to apologise for that. I never want to hear you speak of your mother like that again. Whatever you might think, I loved your mother and I believe, for a while, she loved me. I don’t know and I don’t care what she felt for Markham. I do know that I am your father and I will have some respect.”
“That’s pretty much what Markham said, only he managed not to hit me.” Johnny smirked, confident that he would soon have what he wanted.
Murdoch shook his head sadly. “You may be a man but right now your judgement is questionable. I have no idea what Markham has been saying to you or why you’re standing up for him. I do know that I’m not going to let you do anything to compromise your own safety. If you can’t be trusted to make the right decisions then I’ll make them for you. You are not going to push Scott and me away like this. You’ll stay in here, do as you’re told and, as soon as you’re fit enough, we will head for the border.” Finally releasing his hold on his son Murdoch walked purposefully to the door and locked it behind him.
The dejected slump of Murdoch’s shoulders told Scott that the meeting with Johnny hasn’t gone well. He wondered how much harm his decision to lock his brother up had done and he was concerned that Johnny hadn’t followed Murdoch to the dining room. “How is he?”
Murdoch lowered himself onto the bench beside Scott and opposite Markham and Father Benedict. “Foul mouthed, hurting more than he’ll admit and in no mood to cooperate.”
“Why isn’t he with you? I thought we agreed that keeping him locked up wasn’t the answer.”
“I changed my mind. You were right, Scott. He’ll do anything he can to drive us away and, if we don’t leave, I’m afraid of what he’ll do.” Murdoch turned to Markham. “This is entirely your fault. If you hadn’t interfered in his life again he’d be safe. Have you any idea how hard his life was while he was growing up? How long did it take for Maria to run out on you as well? She dragged that poor boy from one town to another, usually with some man who probably wasn’t happy to have a kid along for the ride. Why couldn’t you just have left him at Lancer where he belonged?”
“He’s my son…I believed that twenty years ago and I still believe it now. That’s why I took him when he was a child and I’d remind you that you were quick enough to reject him when Maria told you the truth.”
Murdoch slammed his fist down on the table. “How can you persist in this delusion? Johnny is a Lancer and Lancer is where he belongs. As for my decision to leave him with you and Maria…yes I believed her, and I was wrong, but that is in the past. What matters is the here and now and what we do about unravelling this mess that you’ve caused.”
Seeing that Markham was about to respond in kind, and escalate the hatred simmering between the two men, Father Benedict intervened. “This destructive behaviour must stop. You need to bury your differences and work together to overcome a very serious threat. Senor Castaneda is a vicious man who will stop at nothing to take his revenge on Johnny and on anyone else who gets in his way. Last time Johnny was here we were lucky…Castaneda suspected we had helped him but stopped short of taking retribution against us. He won’t show the same self-control this time. Johnny understands how men like Castaneda think…you need him. Keeping him locked up isn’t the answer. It is time you all trusted him to make the right decisions and you need to live with those decisions even if you don’t like them.” He looked severely at the three men. “I’m going to let him out and then I will leave you all to talk. Understand this; there are a lot of lives at stake. Johnny knows this. You have a choice…you can either help him or you can get in his way and likely get him killed. I hope you can all live with whatever you decide to do.”
Johnny had been left open-mouthed with astonishment when Murdoch has walked out on him. He had been so sure that his hateful words would have the desired effect. Instead of being angry his father had seemed only disappointed and then had had the nerve to lock him up again. Johnny could feel his fury rising to an almost unmanageable level. They had no right to treat him like this. They didn’t know what was at stake.
When, a short time later, he heard the key turning in the lock he turned toward the door. The angry words died on his lips when he saw Father Benedict. The priest entered the room then stepped to one side. “Come and eat.”
“They don’t understand.” It was a plea for reassurance.
Father Benedict folded his arms, his hands pushed inside the loose sleeves of his robe. “How can they? They haven’t seen what you have seen. They can’t truly understand the life you led. I do know that they are not going to leave you. They love you and I believe you love them.”
Johnny lowered his head and considered that. When he looked up again the turmoil of his thoughts was clearly mirrored in his face. “You’re wrong. I can’t afford to love. Everyone I’ve ever cared about except for Scott has hurt me.”
Father Benedict nodded. “Those two men both believe you are their son. Their actions are motivated by love but are not unselfish. I have spoken with Scott and he believes that Murdoch Lancer is your father…that he is your brother. But more important than that is the fact that it is you he loves. It doesn’t matter to him if you are Johnny Lancer, or Madrid or this man, Markham’s son.”
“But it matters to me. You have to help me, Father. I’m lost and I don’t know who I am any more.”
Neither Johnny nor Father Benedict noticed the passage of time as afternoon turned to evening. For Johnny it felt as if a dam had burst as all his hopes, fears and uncertainties flooded out. The kindly priest listened patiently, offering words of encouragement where necessary. By the end Johnny was physically and emotionally drained but more at peace with himself than he had been since his fateful meeting with Thomas Markham.
He sat for some time after the priest had left, grateful for the solitude. In such a time of crisis it was self-indulgent and he knew it couldn’t last. He embraced the gift of silence…the time to be himself…and felt his strength of purpose renew itself.
It was dark by the time he opened the door leading to the dining area. The small community of priests were finishing up their evening meal. Scott, Murdoch and Markham sat at a table by themselves clearly uneasy in each other’s company. As Johnny watched he saw Scott push his bowl away and stand up. Scott’s sudden stillness as he caught sight of his brother drew the attention of the two older men.
A host of emotions crossed Scott’s face….pleasure, apprehension and guilt being the most prominent. Johnny pushed away from the door frame and walked as steadily as he could until he reached Scott. He held out his right hand. “It’s good to see you, brother.”
The significance of the greeting wasn’t lost on any of the men. Scott studied Johnny carefully before a slow grin lit up his face. Ignoring the outstretched hand he gave Johnny a quick hug. He felt Johnny stiffen and then relax. With an arm around his brother’s shoulders Scott steered him over to the bench and pressed him gently down. He pulled over a clean bowl and ladled out some soup. “You must be hungry.”
Johnny nodded, his eyes now riveted on his father’s face. “I’m sorry. You were right. I was trying to push you away. If we get out of this alive I’d like to come back to Lancer and talk. I ain’t making any promises that I’ll stay…” Johnny hesitated as he realised he still didn’t know if his father wanted him to stay.
A feeling of warmth infused Murdoch as he realised that Johnny was opening the door between them again. It would be his job to ensure it stayed open long enough for him to say what needed saying so that Johnny could finally make an informed decision. “I’d like the chance to explain my actions and I hope that you can find it in you to forgive me and stay at Lancer where you belong.” Murdoch saw the first hint of a genuine smile from his son before Johnny shuttered his emotions away again.
Thomas Markham watched and listened with a heavy heart. He pushed the bench away from the table and the harsh scraping sound drew three pairs of eyes in his direction. “It appears you’ve won, Murdoch. I hope you’re happy that you’ve taken everything I’ve ever cared about away from me.”
Only Johnny showed any sorrow. “You threw it away. I told you that there was nothing you could do to make me stop hating you. I was wrong. I don’t hate you any more…I pity you. You had the chance to be a good father to me but you couldn’t see past your own needs. You wanted a son to do your bidding, to obey you without question. Couldn’t you see, even when I was little, that I was never going to be that kind of son?”
Markham stood up and gazed down at Johnny. “I think it would be easier to live with your hate than your pity.” For the space of several heartbeats blue eyes locked on blue then Markham turned away and left the room.
Emilio Castaneda paced up and down, his irritation rising with each step and each passing minute. He had decided to make a personal appearance, impatient to take possession of the young man who had caused him so many problems in the past. However the time set for the exchange had come and gone without there being any sign of Vernon Gill and his prisoner. Castaneda cursed loudly and kicked a stone out of his way. He did not appreciate anyone making him look like a fool, nor did he like paying money for merchandise that failed to arrive. He wondered if Gill and Madrid had set this up between them or if it had simply been a blatant attempt to swindle him. Either way someone was going to pay dearly.
He swung back toward his men. They were fidgeting restlessly, used to his moods and fearful of his black temper. “Tear the town apart. I don’t care what you have to do or who you have to hurt…find Gill and kill him. If you find Madrid I want him alive.”
He raised his eyes to the hillside overlooking the clearing where the meeting was to have taken place. He knew that the Rurales would have someone watching him. He scowled fiercely. They had had their chance to kill Madrid…now it was his turn.
The atmosphere between the three Lancer men remained strained. Too many things needed to be said but remained unspoken as now wasn’t the right time. Their only comfort was that they had finally accepted that they needed to trust one another and work together. Scott and Murdoch watched as Johnny ate an impressive amount of the simple fare provided by the monks. Scott thought that his brother looked as if he had lost some weight, his face appeared thinner and there were lines of pain around his eyes. The bruise on his jaw had turned purple and black and the cut on his cheek looked as if it might leave a scar.
“Markham explained what’s been happening. I’m not sure I fully believe him and I certainly don’t trust him. Val heard them talking about collecting a bounty on you when they broke Riley out of jail.” Murdoch saw Johnny’s expression change and looked at him in horror as he realised that Johnny knew nothing about the jailbreak or the injury to his friend. “I’m sorry, Johnny, I thought you knew.”
“Knew what?” Johnny’s frantic gaze flew from his father to his brother. “Markham said you dropped the charges and Val let Riley go. They didn’t…Val isn’t dead?”
Murdoch could feel his anger rising again. Was there no end to the lies that Markham had told Johnny? “He was stabbed in the back. He was holding his own when we left. I won’t lie to you, Johnny, it was a very serious injury but he had regained consciousness and he was able to tell Sam what Markham had planned for you.”
Scott noticed with dismay that all the color had left his brother’s face. Knowing how close Johnny and Val had been for a number of years the shock was understandable. What he didn’t realise was that Johnny was battling an almost homicidal rage.
Everything Johnny had started to feel for Markham shattered, leaving a cold emptiness inside of him. The man had lied…over and over to get what he wanted. Johnny had been prepared to believe that Markham loved him despite the beatings and the threats that he had thrown around so freely. During the last few days he had felt that he was finally seeing the kind of man…father…that Markham could have been. Instead he was simply another lying, self-serving bastard like so many other men Johnny had had the misfortune to meet over the years. Although he had never come close to feeling the love of a son for Markham, he had started to care what happened to him. Now all he wanted was to put a gun to the gambler’s head and pull the trigger.
He was on his feet and headed for the door before those thoughts had a chance to settle. His right hand rested on his gun, his face a mask of uncontrollable fury. He felt a hand on his arm and shook it off irritably. The look he turned on Scott froze his brother to the spot. “I’m gonna find Markham.” Blazing blue eyes swept from his brother to his father. “This is between the two of us. You don’t get any say and you don’t want to get in my way.”
He found Thomas Markham in the small walled courtyard at the back of the Mission. It was the only place outside the main building where they would be safe from prying eyes. Johnny’s left hand landed hard on Markham’s shoulder and he spun the man around. A thoroughly unpleasant smile appeared on his face as he saw the gambler’s fear. He hadn’t drawn his gun despite the temptation. He drew back his right arm and smashed his fist into Markham’s face, driving him to the ground.
“You told me Riley had been released. You said nothing had happened to Val. Have you ever, just once, told me the truth about anything? Dios, what a fool I’ve been, listening to your lies, believing you cared about my mama and me. You twisted everything that could have been right and good and turned it into something mean and ugly. Do you know how much Val means to me? Do you even understand what it means to care about someone?” Johnny punctuated his questions by kicking Markham, ignoring the pain of his injured knee.
Markham tried to roll away and, when that failed, he drew his knees up to his chest to try and protect himself. “I didn’t mean for the sheriff to get hurt. It was Vern…”
“Stop it,” Johnny yelled. “For once in your life stop making excuses.”
Two large hands closed around his upper arms and he was pulled gently away. “Leave him, son.” Murdoch forced Johnny to turn and look at him, easily preventing the distraught young man from freeing himself. He pulled Johnny into his arms and held him until the struggles ceased and Johnny’s rapid breathing slowed to normal.
“We should sit down and discuss the threat from Castaneda and the Rurales. We need to prepare contingency plans in case they find us either here or while we’re headed for the border.” He looked down and saw a slight nod from his son. Keeping one arm round Johnny’s waist he turned to Markham who was still cowering on the ground. “It would be my pleasure to tell you to get out and fend for yourself. The only reason that I’m not going to do that is the danger it would pose for my sons. Once we are safely across the border we’ll decide what to do with you. For now I want you where I can see you so get up.”
The night passed quietly. Father Benedict arranged for pallets to be moved into the small storeroom and the three Lancers took turns keeping watch from the bell tower. Markham had been allowed to sleep undisturbed as none of the man wanted to either give him a gun or entrust their safety to him. Johnny had insisted upon taking his turn at sentry duty. Dawn was breaking, turning the sky into a washed out blue, when he heard footsteps coming up the stone staircase. A small smile appeared as he smelled the freshly brewed coffee. It had turned chilly in the early hours when he relieved his father and he had been glad of the heavy woollen poncho donated by one of the priests. He cast a last look out over the deserted landscape and turned to greet his brother.
“Breakfast will be ready soon and then you can get some more rest.” Scott handed over the cup before resting his shoulder against the cold stone. “Don’t even think about arguing with me. The sooner we can get over the border the better…and the safer it’ll be for those who’ve been helping us.”
“Yeah, I know. I still wish you and Murdoch would…Don’t glare at me, Scott, I know you ain’t gonna go. D’you want to know the truth, brother? Last time I was here I was sure I wasn’t gonna make it and I didn’t have any regrets. If I had to die then at least it was because I’d been doing something I believed in. This time if…well if we don’t make it…” he shrugged. “Guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m glad you and Murdoch are here.”
Scott ducked his head and nodded, feeling relief flood through him. He knew the danger they were in was very real, and that there was a chance that not all of them would make it home, but for the first time in days he was starting to feel that they were a family again.
“How long do you think before you’re able to ride?”
“A day or so I reckon. It’s getting stronger all the time. I’ll get Father Benedict to take a look at it later.”
The warmth provided by the coffee was beginning to make Johnny feel drowsy. He stifled a yawn and stretched his tired muscles. “Think I’ll take your advice, grab some breakfast and hit the sack.”
He scanned the horizon once more and gasped in horror at what he saw. Plumes of thick black smoke were rising into the sky from the direction of the town.
It was a sombre and subdued group of men who met for breakfast. Johnny was pale and angry while Murdoch and Scott were horrified at the lengths to which either Castaneda or the Rurales were prepared to go to flush out their quarry. Fortunately Johnny’s own common sense had told him that it would be suicide for him to ride into town without knowing exactly what was going on. Father Benedict had dispatched one of the monks just after daybreak with instructions to find Cipriano and bring him back to the Mission.
Markham morosely fingered his sore mouth and endured the accusing stares of Johnny and the Lancers. The pain of Johnny’s rejection was sharper than any physical pain from the pounding he had taken at his son’s hands the previous evening.
His hatred for Murdoch Lancer had never been greater, surpassing the rage that had filled his mind when he had learned that Maria had married the rancher and disappeared to California with his unborn child.
He sat apart as the three men discussed possible options, and cast sideways glances at Scott. He had lost everything that had ever mattered to him. Maria had left him twice, separating him from his child, and now Lancer had deprived him again of his son. He frowned thoughtfully and then smiled to himself. He would see how Murdoch Lancer enjoyed losing his son.
While they waited for Cipriano, Father Benedict examined Johnny’s knee. The swelling had virtually disappeared and Johnny insisted that he was no longer in pain. His father and brother were sceptical but, knowing Johnny, not surprised and kept their opinions to themselves. The splint was removed and Johnny described the exercises that Sam had given him when the injury first occurred. The priest warned him not to overdo it but could see no reason why he shouldn’t follow the doctor’s advice with a view to strengthening the supporting muscles.
It was mid-morning before Cipriano arrived, having been very careful to ensure that he hadn’t been followed or aroused any suspicion. “It would be as well if you kept out of sight,” he warned. “Senor Castaneda has men scouring the countryside and it is only a matter of time before they come here.”
“We saw the smoke. What’s happening in town?” Johnny enquired impatiently. He was finding it increasingly hard to sit around and do nothing while people…friends…were in danger.
“He had his men burn some of the buildings on the outskirts of the town…barns and storage mainly, although it included the entire stock of grain. The message is that they will start burning homes if Johnny doesn’t surrender by dawn tomorrow.”
Johnny opened his mouth to speak only to be forestalled by his father. “No, Johnny. This isn’t open for debate. You are not handing yourself over to that man.” Murdoch held Johnny’s gaze until the younger man looked away.
Scott poured some coffee for the Segundo and placed the cup in front of him. “What are the chances of us reaching the border?”
Cipriano shook his head. “We might make it but Johnny…”
“Then you should go.” Johnny ignored the frown that settled over his father’s face.
“We will go when you are fit to travel.” Murdoch’s tone brooked no argument from his younger son.
“I don’t want to hear it, John. We are staying together.”
Johnny’s mouth set in a stubborn line and he glared at his father. “How can you expect me to sit around and watch Castaneda burn the town to the ground? Have you any idea how many people that would affect? And his men won’t just stop at damaging property. Men, women, children…anyone who gets in their way will get hurt.”
“You can’t spend your life protecting other people.”
“No?” Johnny rose stiffly to his feet. “Why not? What the hell does it matter whether you’re my father or he is,” Johnny turned to point at Markham, “if I can’t live with myself and my decisions? These people knew me as Johnny Madrid, not Johnny Lancer or anything else. Believe it or not it was a name that gave them courage and hope and it had nothing to do with who my parents were. This last week I’ve been pulled in every direction, rejected and manipulated, brought to a place I never intended to come back to. Now I’ve had enough. Not one of you has the right to tell me what I can and can’t do.”
Johnny turned furiously on Markham. “All you wanted was someone to protect your lying, cheating hide. Would you even have bothered to come and find me if I hadn’t been good with a gun? And you,” Johnny swung round to glower at his father. “You ran out on me when I needed you the most and now you think you have the right to make my decisions for me. Why can’t you all just leave me alone to do what’s necessary?”
“Because we love you,” Scott’s quiet voice cut through the highly charged atmosphere.
Johnny closed his eyes and bowed his head. “I know and that’s what makes this so hard.”
Father Benedict walked right into the caldron of steaming emotions with news that he regretted couldn’t wait. “There are riders coming. You must hide. You, Senor,” he addressed Cipriano, “come with me to the Church. They may have seen you arrive so it wouldn’t do for you to disappear.”
“Who is it?” Johnny’s hand rested on his gun as his father and brother exchanged concerned looks.
“The Rurales. You must get out of sight…please, for all our sakes. If they find you here there is no telling what they will do.”
Johnny nodded reluctantly and allowed Scott to hustle him from the room.
Father Benedict knelt before the altar and prayed for strength. Cipriano sat in one of the pews to the Priest’s right and also bowed his head in prayer. The peace of the Church was shattered by the sound of boot heels and spurs. Father Benedict crossed himself before getting slowly and stiffly to his feet. He turned and looked into the smiling face of Captain Vasquez. The area commander of the Rurales inclined his head in greeting.
“Captain, this is a surprise.” Father Benedict hoped his voice didn’t betray the fear he was feeling.
Vasquez laughed. “Is it? Somehow I doubt that.”
“Can I offer you and your men some refreshment?”
“No need to concern yourself about my men. Shall we go to your study? There are things that should be discussed privately.” The officer looked around, his gaze resting for a moment on Cipriano.
The Priest noted the enquiring look on Vasquez’s face and hurried to lead the way out of the Church. Once they were seated in his study Father Benedict waited patiently for the Captain to begin speaking.
Vasquez was in no hurry. He inspected his glass of wine, swirling the red liquid around and sniffing it appreciatively before tasting it. “You keep a fine cellar,” he remarked, watching for a reaction.
“Wine is one of the few pleasures granted to us,” Father Benedict replied with a steady stare.
“Ah, yes, the Church allows us so few indulgences.” Vasquez smiled again as he laid his glass on the desk. “There is much unrest in the region,” he began, conversationally. “It leaves a man with very little time to himself…to enjoy such pleasures as he can. I would be very happy if a way could be found to return things to normal.”
“If the Church can be of any assistance…”
“There is a rumour, no doubt you have heard it, that Madrid has returned. Personally I find that surprising. He was young and headstrong but not reckless. Perhaps if he is here it is only because he did not come willingly.”
“The rumour has reached us. Senor Castaneda seems to believe it.”
“That is the root of my problem, Father. My informants tell me that Castaneda paid a man to hand over Madrid. This man, foolishly, failed to keep his side of the bargain and has now disappeared. My superiors have been concerned for some time about Castaneda’s grip on this region. He believes that he is a law unto himself and that cannot be tolerated. His actions in town today have only served to cause more trouble.” Vasquez returned to contemplating his wine. “There is another rumour, that Madrid isn’t what he appears to be, that he is related to an influential rancher in California. This man, his father I believe, was the one who paid for his freedom last time he and I had the misfortune to cross paths. It is one thing to execute a misguided revolutionary and quite another to torture and kill the son of such a man.”
“What are you suggesting, Captain?”
Vasquez sighed. “Let us speak plainly. I know that Madrid is here and, if I wished, I could take him and whoever might be helping him. However, it would be in everyone’s best interests if he were to leave Mexico. The mood of the people is unpredictable. Making a martyr of this young man might be personally satisfying but would be extremely counter-productive. Tonight my men will ‘distract’ Castaneda and his followers. Pressure from higher sources than me will ensure that he eases his stranglehold on the people. By tomorrow morning Madrid will be out of the country. This is his final chance. If he ever returns and is captured there will be no leniency for anyone. Is my meaning clear?”
“Perfectly clear.” Father Benedict had known the Captain for a number of years and had his own views on his trustworthiness. “Should this message reach the ears of Senor Madrid how will he know whether or not to trust it?”
“You have my word.”
“His word!” Scott stated incredulously. “It’s a trap.”
Johnny sat back in his chair and stretched out his legs to ease the ache in his knee. “Vasquez and I…well we came across each other from time to time. He always treated me fairly. He was in charge when I was captured the last time and he led the men that took me to that hell of a prison. He could have made my life miserable on that journey and he didn’t. He made sure no one hurt me and always gave me my share of the food and water. He wasn’t real happy about where he was taking me either.”
“But he still took you there.”
“Yes, Scott, he did. It was his job. Not all of the Rurales are evil bastards…there are some decent men as well and Vasquez is one of them.” Johnny’s lopsided grin made an appearance. “Of course he’s also out to advance himself so I ain’t gonna trust him blindly.” He turned to Father Benedict. “You spoke to him…what do you think?”
“There has been tension between Senor Castaneda and the Rurales for a long time. I believe that Castaneda’s vendetta against you has given the authorities the excuse they have been looking for to rein him in. Vasquez is hard and I wouldn’t want to cross him but I have never found him to be deceitful. I believe you can trust him.”
Johnny considered the Priest’s words, head bowed and fingers laced together. When he raised his head his mind was made up. He took his time studying the expression of each of the men in the room with him. Scott radiated support and returned his brother’s stare bravely. Cipriano was quietly determined. Markham’s expression was unreadable and that caused Johnny momentary concern. Finally he looked at his father.
“It’s your call, Johnny. Whatever you decide to do we’ll support you.”
Johnny tried to sleep. He willed his body to relax, closed his eyes and stilled his racing thoughts. The harder he tried, the more elusive sleep became. He was physically and mentally exhausted, but the jolt of adrenaline that came with the thought that he might soon be safely back over the border wouldn’t let him rest.
When he levered himself off the thin pallet he was encouraged to find that his knee hadn’t stiffened up and that it was feeling stronger than it had in days. He still wasn’t up to prolonged hard riding but, if Vasquez was to be believed, it shouldn’t be necessary for them to push themselves to the limit.
He wandered upstairs and established that Scott was keeping watch from the bell tower. He collected two cups of coffee and went to join his brother. It was late afternoon and they had decided to leave at midnight in the hope that they could cross the border while it was still dark. He had no idea where his father or Markham were and had no interest in finding them. He had enough to think about without having to deal with either of them right now. He passed Cipriano in the courtyard. The Segundo was checking over the saddles and tack to ensure that everything was in good order.
The climb up the narrow stairs to the bell tower was difficult especially as he was trying to balance the two coffee cups at the same time. He made it to the top with his dignity, and the coffee, more or less intact. He returned Scott’s welcoming smile and handed over one of the cups.
Scott took a sip of the coffee. “Thanks. How are you feeling? Did you get any sleep?”
Johnny perched on the edge of the parapet. “No, too much to think about I guess.” He looked out over the countryside. “This place wouldn’t be half bad if it wasn’t for Castaneda. He does nothing to help the people, just grinds them deeper and deeper into the ground. Last time I was here, well I thought we had a chance. What a damn fool idea that was. Castaneda might lose today but he’ll be back on top of the heap tomorrow or the next day and nothing will have changed.”
“Maybe not. It sounds as if he’s made some highly placed enemies along the way. You did your best for them. It’s hard for one man to make that much of a difference.”
“Yeah, I suppose so. Felt good though, seeing those people with hope in their eyes for once.” Johnny smiled at the memory.
“What about you? Do you have hope?” Scott watched his brother over the rim of his cup as he took another mouthful of coffee.
Johnny’s expression closed down and he turned away. “Me? I always have hope.”
“Murdoch thinks we should hand Markham over to the sheriff in San Diego. We need to find out how Val is but at the very least he’ll be facing charges of attempted murder and kidnapping.”
Johnny swung back round angrily. “I don’t recall anyone asking my opinion. You can file whatever charges you like but I ain’t testifying.”
Johnny’s vehemence caught Scott by surprise. He crossed the short distance between them and took hold of his brother’s arms. “What are you talking about? Val heard Markham talking. This was all his idea. Besides he confessed as much to me and Murdoch. He sold you out to Vern in order to save his own neck. If he hadn’t made the suggestion Vern wouldn’t have gone anywhere near you. He may not have intended for you to end up here but that doesn’t make any difference.”
Johnny stood perfectly still. “Does to me.”
“What’s been going on between the two of you? When we saw him in town that night you didn’t even recognise him. Now you’re trying to protect him even though you know he was involved in trying to kill one of your best friends. How do you think Val’s going to take that?”
“The hell he will. You look me in the eye, brother, and you explain it to me because right now you’re not making any sense.”
Looking Scott in the eye wasn’t something of which Johnny was capable so he kept his eyes firmly fixed on his brother’s chest. The words wouldn’t come and he shook his head miserably. Scott shook him hard and then released him, turning away in disgust.
Johnny ran his tongue over dry lips. He didn’t want Scott to be upset with him…he needed his support. Finally he forced the words out. “I didn’t know who he was…not then. I didn’t remember until he threatened me. Then it all came back…all the things I’d tried so hard to forget. He hit me, Scott, when I was a kid. Some times he hit me real hard.” Johnny looked up and saw the rigidity in Scott’s posture.
Scott turned slowly, his anger gone to be replaced by concern and puzzlement. “Then why protect him?”
“What if he is my father? Maybe I deserved the beatings he gave me. I ain’t never been much good at controlling my temper…or my mouth. What if I gave him cause?”
Scott grabbed his brother’s arms again, saw Johnny flinch and let him go. “There is a world of difference between disciplining a child and abusing them. I’ve seen the scars, brother. Is he responsible for any of them? Did he take a belt or a whip to you? If he did I’ll shoot him myself.”
“He said he was sorry,” Johnny mumbled, hoping to deflect Scott’s anger. “He told me he’d always loved me. Ain’t anyone other my mama ever said that to me before.”
Scott took a deep breath to try and calm himself. He wanted, more than anything, to shake some sense into his younger brother but sensed that any physical act would be counter productive. “Words are easy, Johnny. By themselves they mean nothing. What has he done to prove how he feels? How do his actions compare to Murdoch’s? Murdoch may not have said that to you but that doesn’t mean it isn’t how he feels. Have you ever told Murdoch how you feel about him? I know I haven’t but it doesn’t make it any less true. Think about why Markham came to find you now. He was in trouble and he needed someone who was good with a gun. You know all this…hell you said it to him yourself this morning. He was determined to keep me and Murdoch away from you. He didn’t want to chance us helping you see through his lies. He wanted you to leave with him, didn’t he? What happened when you refused, when you told him you were coming back to Lancer?”
Johnny kept his eyes firmly fixed on the floor. “He threatened to take a belt to me.”
Scott almost laughed at the absurd threat. “The man’s not right in the head. I’m guessing that didn’t work so he moved on to a new plan. He enlisted the help of this gunfighter, broke his man out of jail and they ambushed you. By the look of your face and the marks on your wrists I’m guessing you didn’t go quietly. He was quite happy to beat you into submission then. So when exactly did he have this change of heart that’s gotten you so convinced?”
Johnny swallowed hard and raised his eyes to his brother’s face. “When Vern took over. He looked after me, Scott. Vern damaged my knee pretty bad and Markham took care of me.”
“And that was enough? All those years of abuse and you forgive it all because he did what any normal parent would do if their child was hurt?” Scott’s anger and frustration with his brother was rising.
Johnny hung his head. “You weren’t there…you don’t understand. He’s so sure he’s my father. It felt good to have someone tell me they’d loved me when I was a kid. My mama tried, and I think she did love me, but she loved herself more. Then after she died…well, there wasn’t anyone for a long time. It filled an emptiness inside me.” Johnny saw the hurt on Scott’s face. “It’s different from between you and me. We’re brothers now whether we share the same blood or not. I know you didn’t have Murdoch when you were growing up but you had your grandfather and he loved you. I never had a father or grandfather to love me.”
“Yes you did. You just don’t remember because you were so young when you were taken away. Murdoch loves you…he loves both of us and, I believe in his own way, he always has.”
“Does he? He didn’t love me when he called me a bastard and he was quick enough to turn his back on me when Markham showed up again. Oh boy, he sure didn’t waste any time in agreeing to buy me out.”
“And whose idea was that?” Conscious that he was now yelling Scott moderated his tone. “He thought he was doing what was best for you. Markham threatened to tell everyone you were his son and Murdoch was worried about how that would affect you.”
“So just who was Murdoch really trying to protect, Scott? Him or me? Bad enough having a retired killer living at Lancer without everyone finding out I’m not entitled to the name.”
“He thought it was what you wanted. I might not have agreed with his reasoning but I’m convinced his decision was motivated by concern for you. Do you really think he would sacrifice either of us because he was worried about his reputation? And he certainly wasn’t trying to take your name away from you. He believes you’re his son. I thought, from some of the things you’ve said, that you believed it too.”
Johnny felt his confusion growing again. He knew he was being unfair and that he was trying to deflect his anger from where it truly belonged. The truth was that he was protecting Markham for one reason only. “I want to believe I’m a Lancer but how can I ever know for sure? If we take Markham back and he’s convicted for what happened to Val he could hang. I can’t stand by and let that happen when there’s a chance he’s my father.” Johnny’s voice sank to a whisper. “Please don’t make me do this.”
Scott could sympathise with Johnny’s dilemma and could see how much it was hurting his brother. He willed himself to argue this out logically…to make Johnny understand. “Look at what he’s done. It goes far beyond what he’s done to you. Everything that’s happening here is because he sold you out. Val’s injury was a direct result of his decision to save his life by betraying you. It’s time you woke up to the truth about this man. He’s dangerous and vicious and he needs to be made to pay…legally. It has nothing to do with whether or not he’s your father. He’s broken the law over and over for his own selfish reasons. It’s not a question of choice.”
Johnny raised his head. “Yes, it is. While he’s in Mexico no one can touch him. If you’re so set on doing things legally then there’s something you’re forgetting. We have no right to take him back across the border.”
Scott felt his mouth open. “You’d let him go? After all that he’s done?”
“Yes.” This time Johnny did look Scott in the eye. “And I won’t let you or Murdoch force him across the border either.”
As reason clearly wasn’t going to work Scott decided it was time for more direct action. “I think it’s time you and I had a little talk with our father.” He took a firm hold of Johnny’s right arm and pushed him toward the stairs. Johnny tried to resist but in his weakened condition he was no match for his brother.
Murdoch and Father Benedict looked up in amazement as Johnny was propelled through the doorway leading to the study. Scott deposited his brother none too gently on a chair. “Stay there,” he ordered.
“Scott? What’s going on?” Murdoch looked from his older son’s furious face to the surly expression of his youngest.
“He wants us to let Markham go. He says we have no right to take that despicable lying bastard back across the border.”
“Calm down, son. He’s right.”
“And you can live with that?” Scott made no effort to hide his incredulity.
“Of course not,” Murdoch snapped. “But neither am I happy with the idea of breaking the law. If Markham crosses the border voluntarily then we can hand him over to the law to deal with. He might prefer that to what would happen to him if he was picked up by Castaneda or the Rurales.”
“He beat your son when he was a child. He kidnapped him and brought him back to Mexico to be killed. Val’s seriously injured…he could be dead for all we know. How can you stand back and let him get away with it?”
Murdoch’s expression darkened. “Is that right, Johnny? Did he abuse you?”
Johnny had been rubbing his arm where Scott’s fingers had bruised him. “What does it matter? It was a long time ago.” He shrugged. “I survived it. It’s not like he was the only one.”
“He was the only one who claimed to be your father,” Murdoch snapped. “Do you think that’s how fathers are supposed to treat their children?”
“How am I meant to know? It’s not like I had anyone else around to show me any different.”
Murdoch rose from his chair and knelt down in front of his son. He took hold of Johnny’s chin and forced the young man to look at him. “Do you think I would have treated you like that?”
Johnny made no move to pull away. He didn’t even have to think before he replied. “No. I reckon we might have had a few trips to the wood shed but…no, you wouldn’t have treated me like that.”
Murdoch nodded, satisfied with the answer. He returned to his seat. “I’m sorry, Scott. I hate what that man has done as much as you do but if he won’t cross the border of his own free will there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“So what do we do?”
“We give him the choice. He can stay here and face whatever consequences there might be or he comes back to California with us and takes his chances in a Court of law.”
Markham was given the choice of staying in Mexico or returning to California. After due consideration he announced that he would prefer to cross the border. What he didn’t say was that he had no intention of leaving Johnny and that he still had plans relating to Scott. Johnny told him bluntly that he would have no part in pressing charges but that there was nothing he could do if Murdoch and Scott were intent upon handing him over to the sheriff in San Diego. The relationship between the Lancers, which had started to reform, was in serious danger of breaking wide open. Scott’s attempted apology for manhandling his brother fell on deaf ears as Johnny again withdrew from his family.
As midnight approached Scott and Cipriano went to saddle the horses. Scott dragged an unwilling Markham with him, leaving Johnny and Murdoch to say their good-byes to Father Benedict. When they reached the small stable Scott thrust a saddle at Markham and pointed to one of the horses. Markham glared with hate-filled eyes at Scott’s back as the young blond efficiently readied his horse.
The intensity of the stare penetrated Scott’s pre-occupation and he swung round to find the gambler still standing where he had left him. All the worry of the last few days boiled over. Scott strode back to Markham, took hold of the saddle and flung it away before taking hold of Markham’s arm and pushing him up against the partition between the stalls.
“I don’t know what you’ve said to Johnny to make him stand up for you but I do know that you’ve done enough damage to him. Do you have any idea what his life has been like thanks to you and his mother? He dragged himself up from the time he was ten years old. He turned to the gun to protect himself and, if he hadn’t been so damned fast, he would have been dead years ago. If Murdoch…his father…hadn’t hired the Pinkertons to find him he’d have died here last year in front of a firing squad. That is what you have brought him back to. He’s had twelve months of knowing what it’s like to have a real family, a home and security. If you love him like you say how could you take him away from that? You hurt him when he was a child and you’re doing it all over again.”
Scott shoved Markham hard against the wall before releasing his hold. “You do anything to put him in further danger and I’ll kill you without a second thought or any regrets. Why don’t you do the decent thing for once and help us persuade him that he belongs at Lancer?”
“I can’t. Why don’t you understand that? He’s all I’ve got left, all there is to remind me of Maria. I lost him once; I don’t want to lose him again.”
“You have lost him, you’re just too stupid to realise it. You lost him when you tried to beat the spirit out of him when he was little.” Scott pointed to the saddle. “Pick it up. We’re leaving in ten minutes.” Fists clenched at his sides Scott left the stable before the urge to hit Markham became too much to resist.
Under the watchful eye of Cipriano Markham saddled the horse. He picked up one of the saddlebags and fastened it in position. With the horse between him and the Segundo he cautiously unbuckled the saddlebags and put his hand inside. After rummaging around for a minute he came up with a small pocket knife which he hurriedly secreted in his shirt. All he needed now was the opportunity to use it and Lancer would be mourning a son.
As Scott entered the courtyard he saw Johnny and Murdoch approaching with Father Benedict. Johnny turned and embraced the priest. “I guess that’s the second time I owe you for saving my hide.” His smile was warm and sincere. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Father, but I hope there isn’t a third.”
Father Benedict laughed. “It’s always a pleasure to see you, Johnny. Perhaps next time it will be in less difficult circumstances.”
Murdoch offered his hand to the priest. “I’m grateful. I’ll find a way to send a donation for the Mission. I’m sure I can trust you to see that the money gets to where it can do the most good.”
“Gracias, Senor Lancer. There are many needy families who would welcome a little extra money, particularly now.”
“And remember that you are always welcome at Lancer.” Murdoch looked at Johnny who suddenly found something of great interest to look at on the ground. Murdoch sighed. “It’s time we were going.” Murdoch walked off to join Scott.
Father Benedict looked at the downcast dark head. “Do you want some advice?”
Vivid blue eyes were raised as Johnny considered this. “Si, Padre.”
“Trust your heart. These men,” Father Benedict turned Johnny gently to look at Scott and Murdoch. “They are good men. Think very carefully before you walk away from them.”
“They don’t respect me.”
“Respect is earned, Johnny. Did you show your father any respect when Markham told you what happened when you were a child? Did you go to your father and ask him to explain?”
“No, but that wasn’t ‘cause I didn’t respect him.”
“Whatever the reason, you decided, without giving your father the chance to explain, that Markham was telling you the truth. You made the decision to leave without a word to your family. How much respect have you given them since they rescued you? Time and time again you have stood up for the man who is responsible for all that is going on around us. How can that be justified? How could you turn your back on your friend and expect your family to understand?”
Johnny ducked his head and kicked at the small stones littering the ground. “I haven’t turned my back on Val and I changed my mind about leaving,” Johnny stated defensively. “I was gonna go back only Markham grabbed me. I’ve said I’ll go back and talk to them…just not sure I’m gonna stay afterwards.”
“That’s your choice. Try and make it with an open mind. You are angry and hurt but you are not the only one who has suffered. Remember that and do not place blame where it does not truly belong.” Father Benedict looked sympathetically at the young man in front of him. “You should go. I will pray for you.”
Captain Vasquez sat on his horse and watched as the five men rode away from the Mission. He had made no effort to conceal himself although the night was dark enough to shield him from the eyes of a casual observer. He had his men positioned in strategic locations between the Mission and the border to prevent Castaneda’s men from interfering..
Earlier in the day he had paid a visit to Emilio Castaneda. They had known each other for many years. There was no friendship between them but there was an understanding. Most of the time Castaneda and the Rurales left each other alone. Occasionally they had a common purpose as when Madrid had become involved in the peasants’ revolution. On other occasions they clashed…as now.
Castaneda had been furious at being told to let Madrid leave. His fury was fuelled by the knowledge that he had paid for the young man and would now be deprived of seeking his revenge. The information about Madrid’s true name helped to calm the landowner and a promise of recompense for his outlay was the deciding factor. He promised not to interfere. Vasquez was sceptical about that promise and his men were on high alert.
Unknown to any of them, another man was watching the Mission. Vern had been in hiding since finding Riley dead and Madrid missing. Although he had half of Castaneda’s money he wanted, as a matter of professional pride and personal self-interest, to recapture Madrid, hand him over and collect the rest. He had been keeping an eye on all the comings and goings and had finally worked out where Madrid was holed up. His problem was that there were far too many armed men around to allow him to make any move.
He frowned when he recognised the two men from Green River and his frown deepened when he realised that Markham was part of the small group fleeing in the direction of the border. Taking action against Madrid in Mexico with the Rurales around would be suicide. He trailed along behind at a safe distance, just waiting for his opportunity to strike.
The night was still and sound travelled a long way. Johnny bent low over his horse’s neck, urging the animal on to greater speed. The pain in his knee increased with each passing moment and he wanted to get across the border before he lost his increasingly tenuous grip on consciousness. He had the impression of Scott riding close to his right hand side and didn’t doubt that his brother was watching him anxiously.
Sound intruded, the sound of pounding hoof beats cutting across their back trail. Indecipherable words were shouted after them followed closely by the noise of gunfire. Johnny bent lower and stifled a cry of pain as his knee banged against the heaving side of his horse. To stop now would get them all killed. More shouts and shooting heralded the arrival of some of Vasquez’s troops. The hunters became the hunted and Castaneda’s men swung away to seek whatever shelter they could find from their pursuers.
Johnny was only hazily aware of their arrival at the border. When Scott would have pulled up Johnny waved him on. “Still not safe,” he ground out. “Be ok.” He clung onto the reins and the horse’s mane and pressed forward. He lost track of time and distance and his next clear memory was of lying on the ground in daylight. Someone had covered him with a blanket to guard against the chilly early morning air. He pushed himself up on one elbow. “Where are we?”
Hearing his brother’s voice Scott rose from his seat by a small campfire and carried over a cup of coffee. “Not far from San Diego. You passed out a while back and we needed to rest the horses. How are you feeling?”
“Happy to be out of Mexico.” Johnny studied his brother’s face. “Are we going to be alright?”
The look on Johnny’s face made his meaning clear and Scott felt a small glimmer of hope. “We are if you accept my apology. I was out of line. After all that’s happened the last thing you needed was me hauling you off like that.”
“I know why you did it but you’ve gotta understand, Scott, that I can look after myself and make my own decisions.” Johnny looked down at his sore knee and a self-conscious smile appeared on his face. “Well mostly I can look after myself.”
“There’ll be some breakfast soon. Do you want to rest up today? Murdoch and Cipriano can take Markham into San Diego and we can follow when you’re ready.”
“I wish…” Johnny shook his head. “Why does it have to be like this?”
Scott sat down beside his brother. “He’s broken the law, Johnny. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“Yeah, Scott, it does but…not today. Don’t let them take him today. I’ll be able to ride tomorrow and then we can all go. I owe him that much.”
Scott’s view was that Johnny owed the man nothing but contempt. His dearest wish was to separate his brother from Markham and to never have to think about the gambler again. Unfortunately, if they laid charges against him, getting him out of Johnny’s life would be even more complicated. Having seen the injury done to Val, and irrespective of the harm done to Johnny, Scott was in no doubt that Markham should be handed over. Cipriano was keeping any eye on their prisoner to keep him away from Johnny and to prevent an escape. The large Segundo was taking his responsibilities very seriously.
“Tomorrow.” Scott agreed. “You rest and I’ll bring you something to eat in a little while.” He stood up and brushed the dust off his pants before making his way back to the camp fire.
The day passed quietly. Johnny alternately rested and exercised his knee to stop it from stiffening up. The pain was receding again after the exertion of the night before. Johnny was satisfied that the underlying injury was healing. The journey back to Lancer wouldn’t be pleasant but wasn’t likely to do further damage. As it began to go dark he found himself becoming more and more on edge. He couldn’t settle and his eyes drifted constantly round the small camp. Something didn’t feel right. His rig had been retrieved from the cabin during his rescue and it was a comfort to be wearing a gun again. He kept his right hand close to the handle as he walked slowly over to where Murdoch and Scott were sitting.
When Murdoch looked up he could see that something was wrong. “Trouble?”
“I think so. Feels like there’s an army of ants crawling up and down my back.”
“Well whoever it is we don’t want to let them know we’re suspicious.” Murdoch kept his voice low. “Scott, why don’t you and Cipriano check out the perimeter of the camp? Keep is casual and be careful. Johnny, can you keep an eye on Markham?”
“Sure.” Johnny looked over at Markham who appeared to be downright miserable and pre-occupied. Johnny couldn’t blame him for that. He saw Scott walk over to Cipriano and bend down to speak to him. The two men then left the camp, travelling in opposite directions. Johnny didn’t like the way Markham’s gaze followed Scott. There was a real venomous dislike directed toward his brother. He wondered if that was the source of his unease – a threat from within the camp rather than outside it.
Markham climbed to his feet as Johnny approached. He had been kept away from his son all day, mostly by the large and intimidating Mexican. He had tried appealing to both Murdoch and Scott only to be summarily dismissed by both men. He was certain that if he could have time alone with Johnny he could persuade him to aid an escape. Murdoch Lancer may have taken his son but he wasn’t going to take his freedom as well. He could feel the comforting presence of the small knife. Perhaps if he could get Johnny back on his side he would forego the pleasure of killing Scott.
“I’ve been worried about you. They wouldn’t let me speak to you.”
Johnny’s expression was hard. “You’d better not be thinking of trying anything. I saw how you were looking at Scott. No one gets to mess with my brother.”
“He’s not…” A movement behind Johnny drew Markham’s attention. His eyes widened in shock as he saw Vern emerge from the shelter of the trees. Vern had his gun pointed steadily at Johnny’s back.
“Everyone keep nice and still,” Vern instructed.
Johnny froze his hand half-way to his gun. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Murdoch carefully moving his right hand away from his weapon. He steadied his breathing and prepared to turn and fire.
“No you don’t, boy. Even you ain’t that fast. Drop the gun belts, gentlemen.”
Johnny turned his head so that he could look properly at his father. Murdoch shook his head and began unbuckling his gunbelt. Johnny looked down and followed suit. As his gun hit the dirt he turned to face Vern. “What do you want?”
Vern laughed. “You. If I turn you over to Castaneda then maybe I won’t have to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life.” He didn’t remove his eyes or his gun from Johnny as he instructed Murdoch to fetch some rope.
“You go back to Mexico and Castaneda will kill you. Won’t matter if I’m there or not.” As Johnny spoke he was listening intently. Scott and Cipriano weren’t far away and he wanted to be in a position to seize the advantage when one or both of them returned. The slight sound was enough to tell him that someone was approaching. Unfortunately it also registered with Vern.
“Guess I’ll have to cut my losses.” Vern’s finger tightened on the trigger as Johnny made a dive for his gun. A blow from behind knocked him sideways and he landed hard on the ground. As he gasped for air he heard two shots in quick succession. He rolled over onto his back, his hand groping for his gun.
He heard Scott yelling his name and then his brother was beside him. “It’s ok, he’s dead. Are you hurt?”
Johnny shook his head and allowed Scott to help him sit up. As his vision cleared he saw Thomas Markham lying face down on the ground. A feeling of unaccountable panic gripped Johnny as he pushed Scott away and crawled over to the gambler. His hands shook as he reached out to turn Markham over. The blue eyes were open and lifeless and a red stain was spreading out across his chest.
“No!” Johnny raised pain filled eyes to his father. “Why?”
Murdoch moved in behind Johnny and laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “He pushed you out of the way. If he hadn’t, that bullet would likely have killed you.”
Johnny leaned back against Murdoch’s chest, his emotions in turmoil, and closed his eyes.
A week after Markham’s death the Lancers arrived back in Green River. It had been a traumatic week for all of them, Johnny in particular. He had been emotionally unreachable from the moment that he had finally realised and accepted that Markham had died to save his life. On their arrival in San Diego Murdoch accompanied his younger son when he delivered Markham’s body to the undertaker. Arrangements had been made for the burial and for a headstone to mark the grave. If Murdoch hadn’t seen for himself the devastation on Johnny’s face he would have balked at paying for the funeral. He had received no reaction when telling Johnny that he believed Markham’s real name to be Robert Weston, the name he had been using when Maria ran off with him.
Scott and Cipriano had been sent to report to the sheriff and to send telegrams to Lancer and to Green River to see how Val was doing. They met up at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Johnny roused himself sufficiently to demand his own room. Normally when travelling together the brothers were quite happy to share a room. On this occasion Johnny refused the company. After checking in he went straight to his room and stayed there until Scott fetched him for dinner.
It was agreed that Cipriano would start back home the following day. Markham’s funeral was to be held in the late afternoon and Murdoch wanted to give Johnny a few days to rest up afterwards. Both Murdoch and Scott offered to accompany Johnny to the brief service and received a blank stare before Johnny declined. Not even a reply from Sam to say that Val was on the mend was able to pierce Johnny’s preoccupation.
The following morning Murdoch and Scott purchased some new clothes, including a dark suit for Johnny. Both watched with heavy hearts as he left alone for the cemetery. While Johnny was at the funeral Murdoch made a decision and wired the Pinkertons. The next few days followed a pattern with Johnny appearing for meals and then returning to his room. Even when he was with them it felt as if he was a million miles away. He was polite and distant and ignored any personal questions. His father and brother began to worry that he would change his mind about returning home and were relieved when he turned up at the livery stable at the appointed time, packed and ready to go. He rode with his hat pulled down low over his eyes, trailing along some distance after the other two. They had given up stopping and waiting for him when it became clear that he was just going to fall back again as soon as they started moving. Nights on the trail were quiet and strained.
Scott had never been happier to see Green River than he was that afternoon. “Are we going to check in with Sam before going home?” he asked Murdoch.
Murdoch glanced back over his shoulder at Johnny who wasn’t showing even a spark of interest in his surroundings. “I think that would be wise. We can see how Val is and ask Sam to take a look at your brother.” He slammed his hand against the saddle horn. “I just wish he’d talk to us.”
“So do I, but at least he’s coming home with us.”
“For how long?”
“We need to be patient with him. I still don’t understand what Markham did to make Johnny care about him. From the little that Johnny did say it’s clear he had next to no happy memories about the man. Whatever it was that changed appears to have left him unable to cope with Markham’s ‘sacrifice’.” Scott spoke bitterly. “It’s almost as if his kidnapping and Val’s injury never happened.” He cast a sideways look at his father. “Did you tell him about the knife?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I wasn’t sure how he would take it. We’ve no idea what Markham intended and your brother isn’t being very receptive right now. I know I should be grateful that he pushed Johnny out of the way, but I can’t help thinking that his death is going to make matters worse rather than better.”
As they reached the main street the sounds of a busy town roused Johnny. He sat up straighter and rested his hand on his gun, seemingly unaware of where he was. Looking ahead of him he saw Murdoch and Scott heading toward a house…Sam’s house he realised with a start. He brought his horse to a standstill, making no move to dismount.
Scott looked back as he tied his mount to the hitching rail. “Damn,” he muttered when he realised that Johnny was still sitting on his horse in the middle of the street. “Go and get Sam.”
Murdoch nodded, stepped up onto the porch and pushed the door open, calling for his friend. Scott walked back to his brother and caught the reins, patting the horse’s neck. Johnny looked down at him. “Why’re we here?”
“We thought you might like to see Val.”
“What else, Scott?”
“It wouldn’t hurt for Sam to take a look at you…see how your knee’s holding up.”
“I don’t need no doctor. I just want to go home.”
Scott held back his reaction to Johnny calling Lancer his home. “Just visit with Val for a few minutes. We can ask Sam to come out to the ranch tomorrow.”
Johnny shrugged. “Sure.” As Scott let go of the reins Johnny guided his horse over to the rail and dismounted. He really didn’t want to talk to anyone but Val was a good friend and he knew he’d regret not calling in to see him. When he looked up at the house he saw Murdoch and Sam both standing on the porch watching him.
“I’m happy to see you Johnny.” Sam was smiling at him. “You had us all worried. Come inside and see Val. He’s as crotchety as ever but he’ll be glad of the company. Murdoch tells me you injured your knee again. I’ll check it over for you and…”
Johnny pushed past the two men and headed for the room Sam used for patients who had to stay over. Val was sitting up in bed scowling at a newspaper. Johnny stood in the doorway watching his friend. He couldn’t help feeling that it was all on account of him that Val had been hurt. It would all have been so much simpler if he’d just gone with Markham when he’d asked.
As Val went to turn the page he looked up. “Dang it, Johnny. What’re ya doing standing there? Get over here and let me take a look at you.”
“Hey, Val.” Johnny made no move to enter the room. “How are you?”
“All the better for seeing your smiling face,” Val announced sourly. “You do get yerself into some damn fool messes. Leastways it sounds as if that bastard Markham got what was coming to him.”
“Yeah? I guess you missed the part where he took the bullet that was meant for me.” Johnny’s face was clear of all emotion. “Glad you’re gonna be ok.” Johnny turned and walked out, ignoring Val’s frantic pleas for him to come back. “I’m going to the saloon,” he announced to no one in particular as he retrieved his horse.
“What the hell just happened?” Scott watched as his brother walked down the street, leading his horse behind him.
They found Val struggling to get out of bed and muttering to himself. His face was pale and beads of sweat had popped out on his forehead. “What’s gotten into that boy? I thought he’d be happy that Markham was dead. Where’re my pants?”
“Settle down, Val. You’re in no shape to be going anywhere.” Sam steadied his patient and led him back to the bed. “Murdoch?” Sam looked to his friend for an explanation.
“I wish I could tell you, but the truth is neither Scott nor I have managed to get to the bottom of what happened. All I know is that Markham’s death has affected Johnny very badly. We need to get him home. Can you come out to the ranch, Sam? Give us a day or two to get him settled back in.”
“Of course, Murdoch. Anything I can do, just ask. You should get over to the saloon. I’d say too much liquor is the last thing he needs right now.”
When Murdoch and Scott reached the saloon they found Johnny sitting by himself with an unopened bottle of tequila in front of him. As they watched, they saw him reach out for the bottle and then pull his hand back before he touched it. He didn’t acknowledge their arrival, simply continued to stare at the alcohol as if trying to make up his mind about it.
“You really don’t need that, son,” Murdoch said gently. “It’s getting late. Would you rather stay in town tonight and ride home tomorrow?”
Johnny raised his eyes to his father; eyes that were dull and lacking in their usual sparkle. “Home.”
It may only have been one word but it was enough to give Murdoch hope. He nodded, stood and slipped his hand under Johnny’s elbow to encourage him to stand up. “We’ll be there before you know it. Everyone will be glad to see you.”
Johnny pulled to a halt. “Val!”
“He doesn’t understand what you’ve been through…none of us do. You can explain it to him when you’re ready. He’s been worried about you, just like the rest of us. It’s hard when you won’t talk to us.”
“Can’t talk about it…not yet. I’m so tired, Murdoch.”
“I know, son, I know. Don’t worry about anything now. Let’s get you home and you can rest for as long as you like. Then, when you feel up to it, we can talk.”
The rhythmic movement of the horse was having a soporific effect on Johnny. He felt as if his mind was filled with a fog that was stopping him from thinking or seeing clearly. He decided that might be a blessing. He was relieved to be going home while not knowing if he would be able to stay. There were so many things that needed to be said and he didn’t have the energy. His muscles were heavy, his movements sluggish, as if he was trying to wade through quicksand. He felt as if he would disappear under the surface for ever if he closed his eyes.
When his mother had been killed he had experienced grief and loss but they were mixed with fear and anger. He had been so focused on staying alive that he hadn’t had the time to give in to his grief. Now he had no point of reference, nothing to tell him that he was suffering from a profound sense of loss. His identity as Johnny Lancer had been stripped away from him by Markham’s unshakeable belief that he was his father. His struggle to reclaim that identity had been hampered by his growing feelings for Markham and the belief that he had been abandoned by the man he had always believed to be his father.
Having finally convinced himself of his parentage he had found that conviction shattered again by Markham’s final selfless gesture. In his young life he had lost both his mother, and the man he might have come to love as a father, to violent acts. He had been an unwilling witness to both deaths. His grief over Markham’s death wasn’t so much for the man himself as for the man he could have been…the loving father who could have made such a difference to the course of Johnny’s life. He had told Markham that he didn’t hold him responsible for taking him from Lancer as a child. He could, and did, hold him responsible for setting in motion recent events. How could he reconcile that with the undeniable fact that Markham had died saving his life?
He had stood up for the man against Murdoch and Scott even after Markham admitted abusing him as a child. How the hell could he have let him get under his skin so badly? He despised people like that and he had known more than a few in his life. Why had it made so much difference that Markham had believed his claim of parenthood? Did that make it better or worse? Surely it didn’t give him the right to beat a small, helpless child to within an inch of his life? He needed to get a grip. He had a life…a good life and family who loved him. Doubt sprang back into his mind, doubt fuelled by Markham’s words and his mother’s lies. His head was spinning…his grip on the reins slackening.
A touch on his arm. “We’re here, brother. Let me help you down. Murdoch’s told everyone how tired you are so they’ll leave you alone until you’re ready.”
‘Brother?’ Yes…that felt right. Johnny swung out of the saddle and made his way automatically to the front door. Teresa was waiting inside. She hugged him and he felt tears soaking into the front of his shirt. He said something…he hoped it was reassuring but he couldn’t be sure. Scott’s firm grip on his arm steered him toward the stairs and then he was in his bedroom. His bed looked so inviting. He sat down and was vaguely aware of Scott tugging his boots off. He followed his brother’s instructions and undressed before sliding between the clean fresh-smelling sheets. He closed his eyes and allowed sleep to carry him away.
For the next two days Johnny simply existed. He woke up, ate and rode out on Barranca. He returned for the midday meal before disappearing again until supper time. He filled his hours by sitting under a tree or lying dozing in the shade. After supper on the first day he excused himself and returned to his room where he immediately fell into a deep sleep.
When he spoke at all he was polite, behaving more like a guest than a man living in his own home. By the afternoon of the second day Murdoch was so concerned that he sent a message to Sam asking that he visit the following day.
On the morning of the third day Johnny woke to find that the lethargy that had been plaguing him had disappeared. His head had cleared and he felt more energised than he had in days. Unfortunately, he also felt angry. That most of the anger was directed inward wasn’t something he was prepared to acknowledge. He wasn’t yet ready to examine how or why he had let Markham affect him so deeply.
He focused instead upon the lies told to him by Murdoch, his mother and Markham. Two of the three were dead, leaving only one possible recipient for his newly awakened and explosive temper. He stormed into the kitchen, ignoring the startled looks from Teresa and Maria, and glowered down at his father.
“You and me need to talk,” he announced abruptly.
Scott looked up from his breakfast and decided to keep his mouth shut when he saw the ferocious scowl on his brother’s face. Murdoch, who had been expecting an outburst, put down his cup and folded his paper.
“Sam should be here any time. Why don’t we wait until he’s had a chance to check you over?”
“I don’t need to see Sam.” Johnny snapped aggressively. “I thought you wanted to talk. That’s why I came back. I guess that was just one more lie. You know what, Murdoch? I’ve had enough. I can’t do this. We’re just fooling ourselves if we think we can work this out.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t talk this through with you…I will. I’m just not sure you’re ready. This whole thing with Markham has affected you and I think talking to Sam might help.”
“I don’t need to talk to a doctor. I need to talk to my father.” The word was thrown out as a challenge before Johnny lowered his eyes and his voice. “I need to talk to you.”
Murdoch nodded. “Why don’t we get away from the house for a while? We could ride up to the stream in the south pasture.” He could see his son fidgeting furiously with the beads around his wrist. “Just you and me. We can talk in peace there. No one will interrupt us.”
Johnny made up his mind. He could feel himself to be on the verge of taking off. The idea of being out in the open was appealing and it would be easier for him to leave if he didn’t like the way things were going. “Sure. I’ll saddle the horses.”
He left the kitchen with an angry clanking of his spurs. Only a very faint limp now marked the injury that had incapacitated him for so long. Scott let out his breath and raised his eyebrows. “I thought you’d lost him.”
“So did I. Tell Sam where we’ve gone. He’s welcome to stay although I’ve no idea how long this will take or if Johnny will be back with me when it’s over.”
“What if he decides to leave?”
“Then, we let him. He needs to feel in control of his life again. If we let him go he may come back. If we try and keep him we’ll lose him for sure. I know this is hard for you, Scott. Believe me; I don’t want him to go either. It would be a tragedy if Johnny threw everything away now.”
While they had been talking the two women had been packing some food and refilling the canteens with water. Teresa passed them to her guardian with a tearful sob. “Please make him stay. It won’t be the same if he leaves.”
“No, it won’t.”
As the door closed behind him he could hear Teresa crying and Maria trying to console her. He shut his mind to her distress, and to the strain he had seen on Scott’s face. He only had one priority and that was to finally convince his younger son that he had a home and a family who loved him.
Nothing was said between the two men as they rode out. Murdoch had picked a particularly beautiful part of the ranch, knowing how much Johnny was affected by the rolling meadows, clear, quick flowing stream and lush foliage. His son had spent so much of his life in a part of the country where trees and flowers struggled to survive against the harsh weather conditions. Grass, if it existed at all, was often brown and withered. He had seen the wonder in Johnny’s eyes as he had taken in the beauty that was ‘Lancer’ and he was determined to take advantage of the pull of the land.
They found a spot where they could gain shelter from the sun yet still hear the water bubbling over the small stones and rocks in the streambed. They unsaddled their horses and left them to graze. Murdoch lowered himself to the ground and sat with his back up against a large boulder. Johnny paced restlessly back and forth unsure now how to begin.
“Would it help if I told you how I met your mother?” Murdoch offered.
“Yeah, why not? Then you can explain to me how come you loved me so much that you left me with her and that lying bastard.”
“I did love you, son. I still do and I always will. This isn’t an easy story to tell…”
“You think it’s easy to hear?” Johnny had stopped his pacing but the tension in his body remained.
“No, I don’t. I’ve been wondering why you didn’t tell me about Markham. I assume he’s the reason you asked about the Pinkerton reports. Did you know then that he was claiming to be your father?”
Johnny kicked irritably at the grass at his feet. “He told me. He said you hadn’t tried to find me. I knew…I thought I knew that it was a lie. I figured if you had the reports it would make what he was telling me untrue.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Cause I didn’t want to hurt you. I’d seen how closed off you became whenever my mama was mentioned. You always changed the subject. I didn’t want you knowing he was around. I was trying to protect you.” Johnny made the admission grudgingly. “Turns out I needn’t have bothered. You already knew what he had to say, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Murdoch had been harbouring the secret fear that Johnny hadn’t told him because he didn’t trust him. The shatteringly simple truth behind Johnny’s silence was now revealed. The legacy of hurt and betrayal had reached out and ensnared his boy, and he hadn’t even seen it happening.
“And the only way you could have known was if he was telling me the truth. You caught up with us and you left me with them. How could you do that?” Johnny turned away angrily. “No, you don’t have to answer that. I know what made you do it. You called me a bastard. Did you hate me that much? I was a baby for God’s sake. I’d done nothing to deserve that.”
“It was a cruel thing to say, but it was never directed toward you. It was your mother and her lover I wanted to hurt. I had just lost everything that mattered to me. I was lashing out, hoping to make them feel a fraction of the pain I was feeling.”
“So that was all you were thinking about? Yourself and how much you’d been hurt. What about me? Did you give one seconds thought to what my life was gonna be like if you walked out on me?”
The silence stretched on as Murdoch looked uncomfortably at the ground. “You didn’t, did you? You just washed your hands of me and didn’t give a damn what happened. And you expect me to forgive you for that? Screw this…” Johnny turned and headed for Barranca.
“No, I don’t expect you to forgive me.” The quiet admission stopped Johnny in his tracks. “How can I when I’ve never managed to forgive myself? I hoped…I thought that over this last year I had perhaps gone a small way to making it up to you.”
Almost unwillingly Johnny turned back. “I was brought up to hate you…told that you had tossed us out. This last year I began to believe that wasn’t how it happened. Seems there was some truth in it after all.”
Murdoch pushed himself stiffly to his feet and walked over to where his son was standing. He laid his hands gently on Johnny’s shoulders. “I can’t stop you if you want to walk away but will you answer something for me first?”
His emotions were threatening to choke him as Johnny nodded.
“Markham…” Murdoch felt Johnny try to pull away and tightened his grip. “Please, son.” He waited until Johnny stilled. “He was told the same lies that I was. He believed you were his son, yet he hurt you over and over when you were young. If it hadn’t been for him Val wouldn’t have been hurt, you wouldn’t have been taken to Mexico and a lot of people’s lives would have been easier. Knowing all that, how could you stand up for him? How could you forgive him and yet hold my actions against me?”
The raw emotion on Johnny’s face was painful to see. “Because I love you.”
Murdoch closed his eyes against the tears that were threatening and gave a deep sigh before squeezing Johnny’s shoulder gently. “Come and sit down.” He released his hold and draped an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “You don’t need to say anything…just listen for a while.”
Johnny didn’t resist as he was steered over to the boulder against which his father had been resting earlier. He felt a momentary loss as Murdoch withdrew his arm. He perched uneasily on the boulder and waited.
Murdoch stood in front of his son giving no indication of how painful this was going to be for him. “Too many things have remained unsaid and I accept full responsibility for that. It’s time you understood how much I loved your mother and how important you were…are…to me. I arrived in Matamoros in the middle of a festival. I had intended only to stay for one night. As things turned out I stayed a lot longer than that.
“I met your mother that night. She was the first woman I had really taken notice of since Catherine’s death. She was young and wild and captivating. She talked me into staying longer than I had planned and we quickly became lovers. She said nothing to me about any previous relationships and I didn’t ask. She certainly didn’t tell me that she had lost a child. A few weeks later she told me she was expecting my child. Although it was a shock it was also, to my mind, a miracle. I had lost everything that mattered to me when Catherine died and Harlan took Scott. To have this incredible woman by my side as my wife and the mother of my child was a gift I grasped with both hands.”
Johnny watched his father carefully, seeking some note of insincerity and finding none. “So you married her and brought her back to Lancer. What went wrong?”
“I’ve asked myself that over and over. The life of a rancher’s wife is hard and Maria found it difficult to adjust to it. She didn’t have an easy pregnancy and made no effort to control her temper. She wanted the baby as much as I did but her behaviour was causing concern. We were both overjoyed when you were born and for a while she settled down. She loved you and was a good mother to you but our relationship deteriorated. It was only afterwards that I could see there had been warning signs. At the time I only know that I was happier than I had been in years. I began to think that it was time to take Scott back from Harlan and bring him home. You were growing up, toddling all over the place and getting into all sorts of mischief. The thought of having my two boys together…it was a dream that finally seemed to be within my grasp.”
Johnny felt a faint stirring of sympathy for his father. He had been so immersed in his own hurt that it hadn’t even occurred to him that his father had been through the loss of a child not once, but twice. “It must have been hard for you…not having Scott, I mean.”
“Yes, it was. We had even fixed on a date for me to travel to Boston when Maria disappeared with you. I was frantic with worry. My first thought was that someone had kidnapped you both. In my worst nightmare I could never have imagined the truth. The first time I saw Thomas Markham he was holding you in his arms. You were asleep, so peaceful and settled. The shouting woke you up. You gave me a big smile and called me ‘papa’ but by that time Maria had told me that you weren’t my son. Everything she said made sense. I could even see a resemblance between you and Markham. I believed her and my world fell apart.”
“If you loved me you could still have taken me with you.”
“Oh, Johnny, can’t you see why I couldn’t do that? I might have had a legal right, you were born while your mother and I were married, but how could I ever be justified in taking a child away from his parents?”
Johnny’s heart sank. “There was something else, old man. When it came down to it you didn’t love me any more.”
“I wish I could tell you differently but that day, when I chose to walk away…you’re right…I didn’t love you.”
It had been weeks since Murdoch had seen a genuine smile from his younger son. The one that was creeping across Johnny’s face was a pale imitation but, nonetheless, it was a smile. And it was the last thing Murdoch had expected to see.
“Well that’s what I get for pushing when I didn’t want to know the answer,” Johnny stated as the smile disappeared. “I guess I should be grateful that you didn’t lie to me.” He turned away and headed determinedly for his saddle.
“I’ve never lied to you.”
Johnny spun round, an angry retort on his lips. The words never came as he looked long and hard at Murdoch and silently acknowledged the truth of that statement. “Doesn’t matter.” He turned away again.
“Yes it does. Don’t you think I deserve some credit for that at least? I’m prepared to be honest with you if you will look at things with an open mind. This has gone beyond just being about what happened twenty years ago. It’s time you faced up to the truth of what Markham did to you.”
Johnny stopped walking and stood perfectly still. “He didn’t…”
“Dammit Johnny. Will you, for one minute, stop and listen to yourself? You set so much store by the truth yet you’ve blinded yourself to all his lies and manipulations.” Murdoch watched Johnny force himself to resume his course. “Don’t you walk away from me, young man. We are going to talk about this otherwise it’s going to tear you apart.”
Johnny kept walking. He had almost reached his saddle when he was roughly forced to a standstill. He gritted his teeth and turned to look into Murdoch’s angry face. “You gonna hit me again?” He demanded, insolently.
“Is that what you want? Would it make this easier for you?” Murdoch’s furious stare forced Johnny to look away. “If that’s the kind of ‘love’ you’re looking for you won’t find it at Lancer.”
“I don’t…” Johnny hung his head. “No, that’s not what I want.”
“Good. I want to try and understand what that man did to you. What can you remember about Markham from when you were a child?”
Johnny took a couple of steps backwards and folded his arms tightly across his body. “Not much,” he replied evasively.
“That’s not good enough, Johnny. You’ve damned me for making some bad decisions so I want to know just what it is you’ve forgiven Markham for.”
Johnny licked his lips and looked furtively from side to side. Murdoch was now standing between him and Barranca, blocking his route to freedom. He felt a tightness in his chest as his breathing quickened in response to the memory. “He’d shout…lose his temper. I don’t remember individual occasions. I just remember being afraid, and him hitting me, and my mama screaming at him to leave me alone. I learned pretty quickly not to make any noise cause that made it worse. Then, when it was over, my mama would hold me and promise it wouldn’t happen again…but it always did. Then, one day, he wasn’t there any more and I guess I blocked him out of my mind. She never mentioned him to me again. When he turned up in Green River I’d no idea who he was.”
“Until?” Murdoch prompted gently.
“Until he lost his temper and threatened me. That’s when I decided to go back to Lancer only…”
“Only he kidnapped you.”
Johnny lowered his head. “Yes.”
“And that was acceptable behaviour? You didn’t see anything wrong in him making a deal with that gunfighter, breaking his man out of jail, being a party to a murder attempt and then tying you up and threatening to sell you to whoever would pay the most money?”
“It wasn’t like that.”
“It was exactly like that,” Murdoch roared, his temper finally exploding. “Somehow he’s managed to convince you that he didn’t mean for all of this to happen. Whether he meant it or not he has blood on his hands.” He took several deep breaths to try and calm himself down. “What was your first thought when you were taken?”
“I was angry.”
“What about when he told you that you were being taken to Mexico?”
“He didn’t tell me…Vern did, just before he tried to cripple me. I was angry then too but things changed. Vern took over and Markham did his best to protect me from him.”
“You wouldn’t have needed protecting if he hadn’t sold you out in the first place. Can’t you see, Johnny? Everything that’s happened can be traced back to Markham. He hurt you and Val, and put a lot of people in danger including your brother and Cipriano.”
“Didn’t ask anyone to come after me.” Johnny fought the urge to squirm under Murdoch’s accusing glare.
“No, you didn’t and you’ve been damned ungrateful that anyone bothered. If we hadn’t cared enough to come after you where do you think you’d be right now? Dead or wishing you were? Do you know how badly you’ve let Val down? Can you even begin to imagine how much it’s hurt your brother to see you stand up for the man who has hurt you over and over again? After Markham died we found a knife hidden in his shirt. What do you think he intended to do with it?”
Johnny’s eyes widened in shock as he remembered the look Markham had been giving Scott just before Vern showed up. He was hit by a wave of dizziness as his mind tried to comprehend what he had done. His steadfast defence of Markham could have resulted in Scott’s death. He felt a strong hand guiding him to sit on the grass under a tree. After a minute a canteen of cold water was pressed to his lips and he drank automatically.
“Scott,” he whispered. “He was going after Scott.” He saw the surprise on Murdoch’s face. “That night…the way he was looking at Scott...”
Murdoch’s expression turned thunderous. “How can you, in all conscience, defend a man who tried to kill your best friend and was prepared to do the same to your brother?”
Johnny shook his head in denial. “I thought he’d changed.”
“Based upon what evidence? You’re a good judge of people…or at least you were. Were a few kind words really enough to convince you?”
“Yes…no…he could be my father,” Johnny finished lamely.
“He isn’t your father, but even if he was, his behaviour was inexcusable. The fact he believed his claim makes it worse. Don’t you see that?”
“How can you be so sure?”
Murdoch lowered himself to the ground so that he was sitting beside his son. “I know what Sam told me and I spoke to Maria’s aunt. I have no reason to disbelieve either of them.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me? That day in Green River you could have said something, but you didn’t. All you were interested in was buying me out and getting me out of your life.”
“I know that is what it must have looked like.” Murdoch conceded. “I made a mistake. I thought it was what you wanted and I didn’t want to put you through the shame of having Markham brand you a bastard in front of everyone.”
“Sounds to me like it was yourself you were trying to protect.” Johnny’s own guilt was threatening to overwhelm him and he found himself taking refuge in his anger.
“Do you really think I would have spent years looking for you, worrying about you, just to toss you away?”
“Why not? You were quick enough to do it after I shot the Stryker kid. It’s not like you’d ever said anything to me to make me think you felt any differently. Maybe you just got tired of waiting for me to get broken in.”
“Stop attacking me, Johnny. It isn’t me you’re angry with.”
“You can believe that if you like, old man, but you’d be wrong.” Johnny scrambled to his feet. “I’m going into town. I owe Val an apology if he’ll hear me out.”
Murdoch stayed where he was and watched as Johnny saddled Barranca. “What about the rest of us? What about Scott?”
Johnny stopped what he was doing and glared. “You don’t get to make me feel guilty. I ain’t staying where I’m not wanted. You tell your lawyer to finish drawing up those papers. If you’re so sure I’m a Lancer then I guess you won’t mind paying me what you owe.” Johnny swung into the saddle. “Tell Scott I’ll see him when the papers are ready.” Without waiting for an answer Johnny touched his spurs to Barranca and the powerful horse leapt into motion.
Murdoch stayed where he was for a long time after Johnny had left. It was only as the sun set that he climbed to his feet, saddled his horse and turned for home.
Murdoch’s arrival back at Lancer put him right in the middle of a nightmare. He looked around the yard in stunned incomprehension. It looked like a battlefield with some half dozen men sitting or lying wounded. Those who were unhurt, or less badly wounded, were trying their best to assist friends and colleagues who couldn’t help themselves. Frantic voices shouted to and fro as men were carried or helped into the house.
“Boss.” Murdoch turned at the familiar voice and swung out of the saddle.
“Jelly. Are you alright?” Murdoch took hold of Jelly’s arm and inspected the old handyman.
“I’m fine.” Although physically unharmed Jelly looked shocked and his voice trembled with emotion. “There wasn’t nothin’ we could do. There were too many of ‘em and they came in shootin’. They shot the place up and then rounded up whoever was still standing.”
“How bad?” Murdoch’s heart was in his throat as he waited for the answer.
“Ain’t no-one dead which is a miracle iffn you ask me. Pete and Carlos are shot up pretty bad and won’t be up and about for a while. The rest are flesh wounds mostly. Thing is they…they took Scott and Teresa.”
“Who? Who did this?”
“The man in charge was a fancy Mexican Don. He looked at us like we were bugs to be squashed. They tore everything apart looking for Johnny.”
“Castaneda,” Murdoch whispered. “Oh, dear God. It never occurred to me that he’d come after Johnny here. Were they alright? Were Scott and Teresa alright when they left?” Murdoch felt as if he was going to pass out as Jelly looked away and fiddled with his suspenders. He took a deep breath and forced his panic away. “Just tell me, Jelly.” He instructed quietly.
“Teresa was crying but they hadn’t hurt her that I could see. They worked Scott over when he wouldn’t tell them where Johnny was. Then when they found Teresa he fought them. He was unconscious and there was blood on his face. I’d say he’d been hit hard.”
Murdoch ground his nails into the palms of his hands. “What did the bastard say?”
“He wants Johnny. Said he’d let Scott and Teresa go if Johnny gave himself up.” Jelly looked around. “Where is the boy anyway?”
Murdoch gave momentary thanks that Johnny hadn’t returned with him. “He’s gone to town to speak to Val.” He saw the look of horror that crossed Jelly’s face. “What?”
“I’ve sent Frank into town to fetch Sam. If Johnny’s visiting Val…”
“He’ll get to hear about this in the worst possible way and there won’t be anyone there to stop him. He’ll surrender to Castaneda to save Scott and Teresa.”
Johnny pushed Barranca hard, his anger spurring him on. But not even Barranca could keep up the pace indefinitely and eventually he had to slow down. He had been shocked by Murdoch’s verbal attack on him and shaken by the growing realisation that some of the harsh words had made a horrible sort of sense.
He had been so intent upon making excuses for Markham that he had lost sight of what was important. He felt sick when he thought about how desperate he had been for love and acceptance. He had wanted to believe Markham’s lies because searching for the truth wasn’t something he had been able to face. Now, for the sake of his sanity, he had to do what he should have done when all of this started. What was the truth? Among all the falsehoods told by his mother and Markham where did the truth lie?
‘Think,’ he told himself. ‘Use your head for once.’ He slowed Barranca to a walk and forced his mind back over the events of the last few weeks. Then he went further back and examined his relationship with Murdoch starting with his anger and sass that first day. It had been hard going to start with and there had been more than one occasion when he had felt like walking out and never returning. Slowly but surely that impulse had died to be replaced with a determination to make things work. And they had been working until Markham’s arrival.
Did he want Murdoch to be his father? The answer to that was unequivocal. Did he believe that Murdoch was his father? That was harder. He could never be certain. He trusted Sam and Murdoch believed what he had been told by his mother’s aunt. Was that enough? His mother had always told him that Murdoch was his father. She had never spoken of Markham. How much could he trust her word? She had lied so often…had hurt so many people with her lies. He could never stop loving her, but could he believe her? He almost laughed at that. He’d become adept at believing lies when it suited him. There was a good chance that Murdoch was his father, and he decided that was enough.
Could he move beyond the knowledge that Murdoch had walked out on him when he was a child? It hurt and a little bit of that hurt would always remain, but Murdoch had acted and reacted honestly to what he had been told. Murdoch was as much the innocent victim of those lies as Johnny himself. The complicating factor was that Markham had also been taken in by those same lies. Johnny could believe Murdoch when he said that he would never forgive himself for believing what Maria had said to him. Maybe he couldn’t forgive himself…but he could accept forgiveness from his son.
The incident in Green River was closer and had been fuelled by misconceptions on both sides. Johnny remembered, with shame, his emphatic announcement to Markham that he didn’t want to see Murdoch and his lazy acceptance of Markham’s offer to sort things out. If he had only had the guts to confront Murdoch face to face instead of crawling inside a bottle to hide, things could have been so different.
And then he came to the major stumbling block. The fact that he had cast off his family and friends in favour of a man who had lost whatever decency he might have had a long time ago. He had flung their loving concern back in their faces. It horrified him now to think that he had been prepared to believe Markham’s words when his actions had brought nothing but harm. All his actions until the last…that one final act that had saved Johnny’s life at the cost of his own.
He had told Murdoch today he wouldn’t stay where he wasn’t wanted. Even after all he had said and done he had been wanted and he had thrown it away. He didn’t deserve that sort of unconditional love. It was too late for him to crawl back now and beg forgiveness. He’d burned his final bridge by rejecting everything Murdoch had said to him and riding away.
He looked up to see that he had reached the outskirts of town. He squashed the temptation to ride straight through and out the other side. He’d come here to see Val. He owed his friend…his former friend probably…the right to chew him out. A night in the hotel and then he’d be on his way. That way he’d save everyone a lot of trouble.
Johnny arrived at Sam’s house to find the doctor absent. He felt an almost guilty sense of relief. He had let so many people down. Now, he was about to lose one of his best friends. He and Val had been friends for years. To most people it seemed an unlikely friendship, but it had been grounded in mutual respect and trust. They each understood what made the other tick. They had fought together, argued and indulged in spectacular drinking sessions. At one time or another they had saved each other’s lives and Johnny had come to regard Val as one of the anchors in his life. He could be a bad tempered and ornery anchor at times, but Johnny knew that there was a good and kind heart beating under that rough, scruffy exterior. He smiled to himself as he thought back to Val’s gruff embarrassment when he admitted to buying blankets from Lone Crow’s widow to provide food for the children. Val sure didn’t like being caught out doing a good deed. The smile faded and Johnny stepped quietly into the bedroom.
Val was asleep, snoring inelegantly and muttering to himself. His color was better than when Johnny had seen him briefly a few days earlier. He looked round the small, comfortably furnished room, and picked up a chair, which he carried to the bedside. He settled himself as comfortably as he could to wait.
The time passed slowly and Johnny could feel himself becoming more and more nervous. He kept glancing at the door, contemplating making his escape before Val woke up. ‘Taking the easy way out’, he chided himself. He owed Val better than that. He tried to keep still, forcing his hand away from the conchos on his pants and the beads around his wrist. He laced his fingers together, placed his hands in his lap and waited some more.
By the time Val eventually woke up Johnny was pacing the room. With a final earth shattering snore Val opened his eyes. He looked blearily at the young man standing at the foot of his bed. Half-way between sleep and wakefulness Val automatically reached for his gun. Much to Sam’s displeasure he had insisted on hanging it from the bedpost.
“You won’t need that,” Johnny said quietly before adding in an undertone, “I hope.”
“God damn it, Johnny, you know better than to creep up on a man while he’s sleeping.”
“I came to see how you’re feeling.”
“Ready to be out of bed, only that know-it-all doctor won’t listen to me,” Val grumped, losing what little color he had in his face as he tried to sit up. “What about you?”
“Not doing so great,” Johnny admitted. “Seems like everything I do these days is wrong. I’m moving on before I hurt anyone else.”
“Well, that sure sounds like one of your normal harebrained plans. Things get rough so Johnny Madrid just ups and leaves. Never figured you for a quitter, amigo.”
Johnny flinched at the word. “I ain’t your amigo. Leastways I don’t think that’s how you’ll see me by the time we’re done.”
“What the hell are you talkin’ about? If you expect me to apologise for what I said about Markham I ain’t doin’ it. Didn’t think that’d end our friendship though.” Val reached out a shaky hand and picked up a glass of water. “You’ve obviously got something stuck in yer craw so just spit it out.”
Johnny sat down and studied the bed cover. “You know I ended up in Mexico? When Murdoch and Scott caught up with me I was in a pretty bad way. Vern, the gunfighter who knifed you, had injured my knee again. Markham was as much a prisoner as I was and he took care of me. Scott told you that he was claiming to be my father?”
“He told me. Didn’t believe it. He was no good.” Val looked challengingly at his friend to see if Johnny was going to dispute that.
“I believed it. Now I’m not so sure, but at the time, I thought he could be my father. When Murdoch told me what had happened to you I punched Markham in the mouth. Dios, I was so angry with him. Then…then I started making excuses for him. When Scott and Murdoch wanted to bring him back to face charges I refused to go along with it. I decided I wasn’t going to press charges and that I wouldn’t let them drag him back across the border.”
Val considered this without expression or comment. Eventually Johnny couldn’t stand it any longer. “You understand what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, Johnny. I ain’t as stupid as most of the folks around here think. Never thought I’d see the day when Johnny Madrid turned his back on a friend.” Val closed his eyes, tired, surprised and more disappointed than he cared to admit.
“I’m sorry, Val,” Johnny hung his head in abject misery.
There was a hint of moisture in Val’s eyes as he forced them open. “D’you feel better now that you’ve got that off your chest? Did you think you could beat yerself up about it for a while and then forget it?”
“What’s going on in here? Johnny, I missed you at the ranch.” Sam had walked through the front door and heard Val’s raised voice. “Val, you’re supposed to be resting.”
Johnny turned from the hurt face of the man in the bed to the concerned face of the doctor. “Nothing’s going on.”
“Is that all I am, Johnny…nothing? Ya know what? When I first met you I wouldn’t have given you three months much less three years. You were a self-destructive little bastard.” Val had chosen his words with care and didn’t miss the anguish on Johnny’s face. “I used to think maybe it was partly due to me that you’ve survived this long, but most of the credit goes to your pa and your brother. I guess that wasn’t good enough for you. Has your pa thrown you out yet?”
“No,” Johnny whispered. “And you were never ‘nothing’ to me.”
“You want to know why he hasn’t thrown you out?” Val continued aggressively. “The same reason I ain’t gonna toss our friendship in the trash. Saying things like this don’t come easy to me, but I care what happens to you and I’m not the only one. You’ve a good life here if ya weren’t too stupid to see it. I’ll never understand why you sided with Markham, but I guess you had your reasons. What I need to know is – can I trust you?”
“Val, you need to settle down,” Sam cautioned. “This can wait.”
“No, it can’t doc. Look at him. He’s plannin’ on running out. It’s time someone knocked some sense into him.”
“Johnny?” Sam queried.
“I don’t know if you can trust me. Not sure if I can trust myself right now so it’s best if I leave.” The effort to rise was almost beyond him. “Bye, Val.”
Johnny had almost reached the door when it slammed open. Frank, who had been sent into town by Jelly following the attack on the ranch, looked round frantically.
“Doc, you need to come to the ranch.”
Johnny grabbed Frank’s sleeve. “Why? Who’s hurt?”
Frank registered Johnny’s presence for the first time. “They hit us hard. There wasn’t anything we could do.”
“Who? What happened?” Panic was rising in Johnny.
“Some big Mexican honcho.”
Johnny’s mouth was almost too dry to speak. “Castaneda!”
While Sam collected his supplies Johnny extracted all the information he could from Frank. His questions were short and to the point and his quick brain analysed all the facts. This was what he was good at, thinking on his feet and coming up with a viable plan. Val lay wearily back against his pillows and watched his friend come to life. Johnny had shown very little outward emotion when told that Scott and Teresa had been taken as hostages. Only Val, who knew him well, saw the anger followed by the brief signs of relief when told that Murdoch hadn’t been at the ranch when Castaneda had launched his attack.
“You’re not thinking of giving yourself up?” Sam asked anxiously as he carried out his final inventory before snapping his bag shut.
Johnny shook his head. “Castaneda can’t be trusted. He’d take me and still kill Scott and Teresa. This is what I want you to tell Murdoch…”
Sam and Frank left to follow their respective orders. Sam had warned Val to stay in bed and the sheriff waited until he was sure the doctor had left before throwing back the covers. Johnny grinned and handed him his clothes.
“Don’t overdo it,” Johnny warned.
“Don’t worry about me.” Val stifled a gasp as he bent gingerly down to pull on his pants. “Get going.” He waited until the young man had almost reached the door. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
Johnny frowned and regarded his friend as if he’d gone mad. After a moment’s thought he smiled as he realised what Val meant. The excitement was pumping through him and he finally felt as if he was taking back control of his life. “Yeah, it does.”
“Be careful,” Val cautioned.
Johnny’s smile was reminiscent of his previous life as Madrid. It was a smile Val had seen many times before and had been the last thing a number of men had seen before breathing their last. At that moment Val wouldn’t have taken odds on Castaneda’s survival.
Scott was aware of something cold and wet on his face. He tried to lift a hand to swat it away only to give up defeated when his hand wouldn’t move. The simple action of turning away seemed to be beyond him as well. His head and chest hurt and there was a pounding pain behind his eyeballs. He cracked his eyelids open and saw stars. That worried him for a minute until he realised he was lying down, outside, and that he really was looking at stars in the night sky.
“Scott, are you awake?” The question was asked in a whisper.
“Shh.” A cup touched his lips and he drank the water gratefully.
He tried to sit up and the world spun. When he next woke up the pain was slightly more bearable and it was daylight. A pressure on his shoulder drew his attention and he saw Teresa cuddled up next to him on the hard ground, her head on his chest and her arm flung across him. She was fast asleep and he remained still so as not to wake her.
It was impossible for him to turn his head more than a few inches either way so he swallowed his impatience and settled for listening to the sounds around him. He could hear people moving around. Conversation was muted, but the words he heard were in Spanish. The memory of gunshots and wounded men screaming jolted him. The attack had been sudden and unexpected. They had been overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers and the invaders’ complete disregard for human life.
He had been forced outside at gunpoint to face an arrogant, cruel featured Mexican sitting on a jet black stallion. They had pushed him to his knees in the dirt, inches away from the animal’s front hooves. The man hadn’t given his name, but Scott had been in no doubt who he was facing. He had sent up a quick prayer of thanks that his father and brother were gone. Castaneda had known who he was and knew his connection to Johnny. He had been questioned as to Johnny’s whereabouts and had remained stubbornly silent. Several kicks to the ribs had left him gasping for breath while making him no more inclined to provide information. After a while Castaneda had grown impatient. He had ordered his men to search the house while Scott had been held in place by a rifle barrel pressed between his shoulder blades. Scott had kept his mouth shut and his eyes proudly raised and had watched Castaneda twitch with annoyance.
They hadn’t found Johnny of course and it irritated Scott that Castaneda thought his brother might have been hiding. They did find Teresa and her frightened screams had forced Scott to his feet, his own precarious position forgotten. Ignoring the command to stay where he was he had tried to fight his way to Teresa’s side. She was being held against the chest of one of the men who had pressed his dirty hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. Her eyes were huge and terrified as she struggled against her captor. It was only his relationship to Johnny, Scott realised bitterly, that had saved him from a bullet in the back. It didn’t save him from being roughly restrained by two men before having his senses beaten out of him by the butt of a rifle.
He shook off the memory and tried to evaluate his present position. In addition to the pain in his head and the aching in his chest he felt as if any movement would cause him to vomit. He tried moving his arms and was brought up short with a familiar clanking sound. His left leg moved without restriction, but the right moved only a matter of inches so he was clearly chained to something. It appeared that Castaneda wasn’t taking any chances, although he couldn’t see any evidence of Teresa being bound.
They were outdoors, but sheltered. He could hear a gentle wind blowing through the branches of the trees. He could only hope they were still on Lancer and not on their way back to Mexico. Worry for his brother consumed him. He had no idea what had happened between his father and Johnny the previous day. He did know that Johnny hadn’t been thinking clearly since Markham had turned up. In the past Johnny could be impulsive, and sometimes foolhardy, but Scott would always have trusted him to make the best decision possible. Now he wasn’t so sure. How would Johnny react to this new threat? Would he be able to work with their father or would the two men find themselves at odds again? Could he trust his brother? The answer came quickly and brought him some comfort. He could trust Johnny with his life.
“Good morning, Senor Lancer.” The voice was cultured with a noticeable Spanish accent. “I trust you are feeling more cooperative today.”
Teresa stirred and lifted her head from Scott’s chest. Seeing the man looming over them she instinctively drew closer to Scott’s side.
“Help me sit up,” Scott rasped, his throat and mouth parched. Through gritted teeth he willed himself not to be sick. Teresa kept a firm grip on his arm and he could feel her trembling. His hatred for Castaneda increased. What kind of animal used a young girl as a pawn in a deadly game?
Castaneda stood back and watched. His anger of the previous day had changed into a keen anticipation. Once he had Madrid he would make him beg for mercy for his brother and the girl. The thought of having the young gunfighter grovelling in the dirt made him lick his lips. Even better would be seeing the look of sheer helplessness as he skilfully parted Scott Lancer from his life. Perhaps he might show some compassion for the girl…after she had watched both her ‘brothers’ die. His lips curled into a cruel smile and he looked into the angry, slate-grey eyes of his blond prisoner.
“You Americans are weak. You and your men should have fought to the death to protect your home. You place too high a value on the lives of people who mean nothing. Allowing yourself to be captured has given me the advantage I was seeking over your brother. Madrid will be here soon.”
“I wouldn’t count on it…at least not in the way you’re expecting.” Scott’s voice rang with confidence.
“It is only a matter of time,” Castaneda replied complacently. “If he is too cowardly to trade himself for you…”
“My brother’s no coward, unlike you,” Scott cut in angrily.
Castaneda laughed and backhanded Scott across the mouth. “It appears you have a loose tongue, just like your brother. It will be my pleasure to watch you both die very slowly.” He saw the comprehension dawn just before he turned away to go and enjoy his breakfast.
From his vantage point high above the camp Johnny watched as Castaneda hit his brother before walking away. His anger screamed at him until he forced it away to a place where it couldn’t interfere with what he had to do. He was too far away for sound to carry or for him to have a clear view of Scott’s condition. At least his brother was awake and aware. It had taken very little time for Johnny to locate the camp the previous evening. Castaneda hadn’t taken any great pains to hide his tracks. It had taken longer to work his way, unnoticed, into a position from which he could observe what was going on. He had counted over a dozen men in the camp with another half dozen on guard duty at any given time.
Johnny reckoned he had two advantages over the Mexican Don. The first was that Castaneda had an utter contempt for those he regarded as being his inferior, which pretty much encompassed everyone. He was used to dealing with peasants who had been cowed by his strong-arm tactics. According to Frank he had met with little resistance at Lancer, the attack having been so sudden. That would color Castaneda’s views of the situation. Scott had stood up to him and had been severely beaten as a result. Johnny had seen the glint of metal as the early morning sun had reflected off the chains on his brother’s wrists and ankle, and suspected that Scott was the only man Castaneda wouldn’t underestimate.
His second advantage was that Castaneda believed he understood him. It wouldn’t occur to the Mexican Don for one minute that Johnny would do anything other than tamely hand himself over. Although the thought had, fleetingly, crossed Johnny’s mind he knew that it would amount to nothing more than a death sentence for Scott and Teresa as well as himself.
Satisfied that he knew the lay-out of the camp, and the disposition of the sentries, Johnny began to work his way back to Barranca. If all had gone according to plan there should now be a sizable number of men assembled at Lancer waiting for him. Frank had been despatched to Spanish Wells while Val, unknown to Sam, had volunteered to organise the men from Green River. There had been a short battle of wills between Val and Johnny, which Johnny had won, and Val had grudgingly agreed that he wasn’t in any fit state to participate in the fight itself. Sam had been tasked with explaining to Murdoch and persuading the rancher to sit tight until Johnny arrived.
It was with mixed feelings that Johnny rode under the Lancer arch an hour later. To the casual observer the estancia appeared to be deserted. Johnny’s instructions had been for the men to arrive in small groups throughout the night and then keep out of sight. He didn’t want Castaneda to get wind of the force gathering against him. He left Barranca in the yard and walked into the devastated great room which was filled with friends and neighbours all eager to help.
Questions flew at him from every side as he stepped through the door. He ignored them all as his keen eyes ranged the room looking for his father. The smile of relief that Murdoch sent his way warmed his heart.
Murdoch pushed his way through the crowd of people to his son’s side and then halted within touching distance. “Thank God you’re here. I was afraid of what you might do when you heard.”
For just a moment all Johnny’s emotions were written clearly on his face. Hesitantly Murdoch reached out and pulled his son into a quick embrace. “I don’t want to lose you, son.”
“Lo siento,” Johnny whispered, before pulling gently away. He lifted his head to look around the room, touched that so many people had answered the call for help. “I need some paper so that I can draw a lay-out of the camp. I’ve seen Scott and Teresa. They’re both alive and Scott was awake before I left. Castaneda’s had him chained up so there won’t be much he can do to help. We need to hit them soon. He won’t be expecting it. You all need to understand that he has no regard for human life. It’ll be a case of killing or being killed. Anyone who can’t accept that should stay here.”
There was a murmur of sound around the room, but no-one looked ready to back down. With Murdoch’s arm draped reassuringly around his shoulders Johnny made his way over to the desk. He quickly sketched out a plan of the camp, identifying the location of the look-outs and the hostages. Orders were delivered in a clear and concise fashion.
Murdoch stood back and watched as his son took charge. He exuded confidence and Murdoch felt a pride swelling inside him. Although it was a shock to see Johnny become so completely immersed in his Madrid persona it was also a graphic illustration of just how good at his trade Johnny had been. The sheer force of Johnny’s personality, which had been missing for the last few weeks, gave Murdoch the confidence to believe that Castaneda would be defeated, and that Scott and Teresa would be safely rescued.
Once everyone knew what they had to do, Johnny pulled his father to one side. “How bad is it here?”
“Two seriously wounded and another seven with more minor injuries. Sam’s been working flat out and he’s confident that everyone will make a full recovery.” He placed a hand on Johnny’s arm. “I don’t want you to leave when this is over.”
“I don’t want to leave either,” Johnny admitted. “I don’t know if we can get past what happened, but I’d like to try. It seems to me that we both managed to make some lousy decisions. I don’t have any excuse for mine and I need to come to terms with that. It’d be a hell of a lot easier if I had some help.” Johnny looked hopefully at his father.
“Whatever you need, son. We’ll talk about it some more when we’ve kicked Castaneda off our land and brought Scott and Teresa home.”
“I ain’t planning on kicking him off,” Johnny responded savagely. “I’m gonna bury him once and for all.”
Scott rested his back against a tree and tugged irritably at the chain leading from his ankle to another small tree a few feet away. The metal circling his wrists was chafing the skin and was tight enough to compromise his circulation. From the anxious glances that Teresa kept sending his way he suspected he looked as bad as he felt. He kept his breathing shallow to minimise the pressure on his sore ribs and gave her a reassuring smile. Her appeal for water had gained them a small cupful and Scott had insisted that she drink her share. He was proud of the fortitude she was showing in the face of extreme danger. Castaneda’s parting remark had left neither of them under any illusions as to his intentions.
“Johnny and Murdoch will come for us,” he reassured the girl. “When the shooting starts I want you to get behind those rocks over there.” He drew her attention to a pile of four large rocks about two hundred yards from where they were sitting.
“I’m not leaving you.” Teresa told him steadfastly.
“You have to,” Scott replied gently. “If you can get to safety they’ll have one less hostage to use. Promise me, Teresa.”
Teresa bowed her head, a tear trickling down her face, and nodded.
Scott watched as Castaneda’s men woke up and the camp settled down into a routine. He took in every detail of the surrounding terrain, certain now that he knew where they were. He mapped in his mind the routes that could be taken to reach this spot and the likely locations of any sentries. At mid-morning he saw Castaneda call four men over to him. After receiving their orders the men saddled their horses and rode out. A few minutes later two men walked over to Scott and pulled him to his feet.
While one held his arm, the other unlocked the shackle around his ankle. Teresa rose shakily to her feet. “You ain’t going no-where.” The man pushed her back to the ground and locked the chain around her ankle.
“Leave her alone.” Scott wrenched his arm free and tried to go to her aid. A hard punch to the kidney dropped him to his knees, his head swimming.
Teresa scrambled toward him. “Don’t make them angry,” she begged. “I’ll be alright.”
Scott’s vision was starting to clear as he was dropped to the dirt at Castaneda’s feet. He pressed his hands, palm down, on the ground and levered himself painfully to his feet. Once he was upright he gritted his teeth and straightened his back. He locked his knees and concentrated on stilling the tremors in his tired muscles.
Castaneda watched the visible effort on his prisoner’s face. “My men have gone to meet Madrid. They should be back in an hour or so. I have been giving some thought as to how we should pass the time until he gets here. I decided it might be entertaining to let you know what will happen once he arrives.” He saw Scott’s jaw muscles tense. “He has caused me a lot of problems and a considerable amount of inconvenience. I intend to make him beg for mercy.”
Scott’s eyes were cold. “He won’t beg.”
“You are right, of course. He won’t beg for himself.” Castaneda looked appraisingly at Scott. “He’ll beg for your life.” He turned and pointed at Teresa. “And hers.”
Scott took a step forward and was gratified to see Castaneda retreat slightly. His two guards grabbed his arms and pulled him backwards. “Don’t you touch her,” Scott warned. “People like you are despicable. You think you can abuse your position for your own ends and you don’t care who gets hurt along the way.”
Rage suffused Castaneda’s face. He wasn’t used to defiance and he certainly wasn’t going to let it pass unpunished. He looked around him and spotted two trees close together. “Tie him between those trees and bring me my whip.” He saw Scott’s eyes widen in shock before the young man was dragged away.
Scott resisted furiously as the chains were removed and his wrists secured with rope to the lowest branches of the trees. His thoughts were all with Teresa. He was already incensed that she was being subjected to this ordeal and now she had to cope with this. He could only hope that she would have the sense to look away. He had seen men whipped before and knew what a horrendous spectacle it was. He also knew what it was like to be on the receiving end and his gut clenched with fear. Ten lashes had been the first part of his punishment following the unsuccessful escape attempt during the war. Solitary confinement had followed. Nothing had hurt him as much as being the sole survivor and that, more than anything that followed, had almost broken his spirit. He was brought back to the present by the cold touch of a knife as it was used to cut away his shirt. He could hear Teresa sobbing as he braced himself for the first blow.
Johnny had been back in position overlooking the camp for nearly an hour when he saw Scott’s confrontation with Castaneda. He blanched when he realised what was about to happen. Lying prone by his son’s side Murdoch gasped in horror. Both men knew that there was nothing they could do without wrecking the carefully laid rescue plan. Moving too soon would be disastrous. Johnny fumbled in his pocket and drew out the watch Murdoch had given him shortly after his arrival back at Lancer.
“Ten minutes.” He spoke the words quietly, fear for his brother coursing through him.
They had surrounded the camp and had drawn steadily inward, silently neutralising the guards. Even with the sentries out of commission Castaneda had a considerable force at his disposal. They had waited for him to send men out to the meeting place where Johnny was supposed to be surrendering. They would be intercepted at a safe distance from the camp. In ten minutes there would be a diversionary frontal assault, a quick dart in and out to stir things up. In the ensuing confusion the men secreted behind trees and rocks would make their way down to ambush Castaneda and his men. The plan was workable and carried with it a good chance of success except that Scott was about to be tortured and for ten long minutes there wasn’t a single thing they could do about it.
Johnny put the watch away and carefully drew his gun from its holster. He kept it low to the ground to avoid any risk of the sun hitting it and giving away their position. Murdoch hadn’t moved…his eyes were glued to his older son. So far as Johnny knew their father had no idea that Scott had been through this before. Thanks to Cassidy he knew about the unsuccessful escape attempt during the war. Scott hadn’t shared any of the details with him and Murdoch hadn’t pressed him. Johnny, from personal experience, knew exactly what thoughts would be running through his brother’s mind. He couldn’t just wait there and let this happen. Before he could move he felt his father’s hand on his arm.
Murdoch’s face was deeply lined with worry but there was anger sparking in his eyes. “If we move now they’ll kill him.” Restraining himself and his younger son took every ounce of self-control Murdoch possessed. “We have to wait.”
As Scott’s shirt was removed Castaneda moved closer. Scott’s skin was lightly tanned and Castaneda looked, fascinated, at the tell-tale signs of a previous beating. The thin white lines were very faint and might have gone unnoticed but for the fact that Scott’s back was sun bronzed. This was unexpected. He ran a finger down one of the lines and felt Scott flinch away from him. He walked round to confront his prisoner, the coiled whip held loosely down by his side. He saw the muscles in the young man’s arms trembling. Although he would have liked to believe this was through fear he wasn’t that naïve. “It seems I won’t be the first to take a whip to your back. Did you cry out that first time?” He held Scott’s steady gaze. “Somehow I doubt it. Let me assure you that this time you will. The first sound Madrid hears when he gets here will be your screams. Shall we begin or would you like a little longer to remember what it was like?” Castaneda uncoiled the whip and ran it through his gloved hand.
Scott’s eyes were drawn to the thin strip of leather that could produce unimaginable agony. The last time this happened his senses had been dulled by the shock of losing all his men. The punishment had been carried out quickly and then he had been cut down and tended to by the doctor. The camp commander had ordered the flogging as an object lesson for the other prisoners rather than as a brutal and sadistic act. Scott had known at the outset that he was facing ten lashes, although the punishment had seemed to last for an eternity. This was entirely different. This time the aim was to break him. Every man had his breaking point. The only unanswered question was how much could he endure before he could no longer keep silent?
Castaneda walked out of his sight and he heard the crack as the Mexican flexed his arm and allowed the whip to fully uncoil. Scott flinched, anticipating the pain. Complete silence fell over the camp as everyone stopped what they were doing to watch. Teresa stuffed her fist into her mouth to stifle her sobs, turned away and closed her eyes tightly.
Emilio Castaneda rotated his shoulders to loosen the muscles before drawing back his right arm. He fixed his gaze on Scott’s left shoulder and brought the whip down. This was his preferred method of punishment and he had spent many years perfecting his technique. The blow was hard enough to raise a painful welt without breaking the skin. That would come later. He knew exactly how to prolong the agony without rendering his victim unconscious. He smiled and snapped the whip out to the side, landing the next blow across the lower back. He saw Scott jerk soundlessly against his bonds.
After laying on another half dozen lashes he held out a hand for a canteen of water. He walked round to face Scott again, allowing the whip to drag in the dust. Scott’s face was streaked with sweat and there was blood on his lower lip. While Castaneda drank Scott watched him with his teeth clenched together and hatred in his eyes. He clung onto that hatred in the hope that it would give him the strength he would need to endure the torment. Despite his earlier optimistic words to Teresa he had no idea what was going to happen. It was his fervent hope that Johnny wouldn’t trade himself, because it was quite clear that Castaneda wouldn’t keep his side of the bargain.
Castaneda replaced the stopper in the canteen. “Shall we continue?”
Johnny pulled out the watch again and squinted at the dial. Two minutes…two more minutes. His anger was now too hot to ignore. He had watched in enforced silence as Castaneda had brought the whip down on his brother’s back over and over again. During the pause a few moments earlier he had dragged his gaze over to Teresa. The girl was huddled on the ground unmoving. He touched his father on the arm and indicated that they should start moving toward the perimeter of the camp. With all the attention being focussed on Scott and Castaneda it should be a simple enough process to get themselves within range.
At various points around the camp other attackers were also starting to move closer. All the men had been horrified at the sight before them. Any doubts they might have had about what was required had quickly been swept away. Everyone was in position by the time Cipriano accompanied by nine other men rode straight into the camp with guns blazing.
Scott’s head shot up in surprise as the previously tightly organised camp degenerated into chaos. While Castaneda’s men struggled to draw their pistols or reach their rifles other men emerged from places of concealment and, without any hesitation, began picking off the men who had wreaked havoc on Lancer only the previous day. Secured as he was, Scott’s view of what was happening was limited to the area immediately in front of him. A sudden sense of extreme vulnerability swept over him and he began to struggle to free himself. He froze as a knife touched his neck.
“Your brother has no honor,” Castaneda hissed in his ear.
“Honor,” Scott spat back. “What would you know about it?”
“I’m surprised to see you so far from home, Emilio.” Johnny’s voice was soft. “Who’s been oppressing your workers while you’ve been away?”
Castaneda slid the knife round to rest across Scott’s throat. “Call off your men, Johnny, or I’ll cut his throat.” He kept the knife pressed against Scott’s skin as he moved round to put Scott’s body between him and Johnny. He sneered at the dark-haired young man.
The sounds of battle were receding as Castaneda’s men were overwhelmed and disarmed. Scott swallowed the bile that had risen to his throat, feeling the sting of the blade as he did so. Johnny was behind him so he couldn’t see his brother’s reaction to Castaneda’s words.
Murdoch watched his son as Johnny appeared to consider Castaneda’s order before shaking his head. “No,” he said regretfully. “I can’t do that.” Johnny swiftly raised his gun and squeezed the trigger. The shot called for absolute precision and he prayed that his brother would keep perfectly still.
As soon as Scott heard his brother say ‘no’ he knew that Johnny was going to take a shot at Castaneda. His first thought was that the shot was impossible as Castaneda was almost completely shielded by his body. He wanted to call out, to tell his brother not to take the risk. The bullet could as easily hit him as his captor and, if it missed completely, it would only take Castaneda a split second to make good on the threat to cut his throat. The knife blade bit deeper into his skin as he forced himself to stay still. He felt a disturbance in the air at the same time as he heard the sound of the shot. The bullet caught the Mexican in the side of his head, spraying blood in a gory red fountain. Scott saw the look of surprise on the man’s face in the split second before the light died in Castaneda’s eyes.
Bound as he was, his reflexes slowed by pain and exhaustion, Scott could only stand, eyes now firmly closed, and pray that Castaneda’s final act wouldn’t be to drive the knife into his throat. He felt a sharp pain and something wet trickling down his chest. Everything was quiet as he cautiously opened his eyes, surprised to realise that he was still breathing.
He heard a shrill scream from Teresa and then a jumble of voices. His vision dimmed as relief swept over him. There were reassurances from his father who was now supporting him. He realised that his arms must now be free and that he was being lowered to the ground to rest with his head against his father’s broad chest. Someone draped a jacket over his shoulders. The material brushed against the painful wounds on his back and he bit back a cry of pain. His thoughts were consumed by the memory of the agony of the lash, the pain burning through his skin. The details of his recent flogging merged with more distant memories. Pain and loss overwhelmed him. He couldn’t think…didn’t know where he was.
He was drawn back to the present by his brother’s voice. It was an effort to open his eyes, to produce a weak smile. Johnny’s face was filled with indecision and concern. Scott marshalled his resources. “You did the right thing.” He was surprised how weak his voice sounded. He really was very tired. He closed his eyes again with the vague thought that it wouldn’t hurt if he was to sleep for a few minutes.
Scott woke up to find himself in his own bed. He was lying on his side, a cool breeze from the open window brushing across his exposed skin. He could hear voices which sounded as if they were coming from a great distance. He concentrated hard, trying to understand the words. His father’s voice was raised in anger.
“Damn it, Sam, someone has whipped him before. Look at his back.”
Then Johnny’s, softly spoken, but emphatic. “That doesn’t matter right now. Scott’ll tell you about it when he’s stronger if he wants to.”
“You knew?” Scott heard shock and accusation in Murdoch’s voice followed by the sound of his footsteps as he began pacing around the room.
Scott struggled to speak, to defend his brother. It wasn’t Johnny’s fault that this had happened to him before. His father’s next words shocked Scott to the core.
“He knew how bad it was going to be and we just let it happen. We watched that bastard beat him.”
Horror engulfed Scott. They had been there…had seen what was happening and had done nothing to stop it. He had felt an irrational shame when he had been punished in front of the other prisoners and the guards in the prison camp. At least that time there had been no possibility of him crying out. A tightly rolled piece of leather had been forced between his teeth to stop him biting his tongue. It had served a dual purpose, acting as an effective gag, muffling his grunts of pain. That same feeling of shame resurfaced, mixed with a feeling of betrayal and the knowledge that he had been close to begging Castaneda to stop.
“You need to calm down, Murdoch. Scott doesn’t need to know that yet. He’s very weak. Now I have to finish cleaning out his wounds and that is better done while he’s unconscious. When he wakes up we need to get some fluids into him and then I’ll give him some morphine.”
The pressure on his back as Sam returned to his task couldn’t be ignored and the agonised cry escaped from Scott’s lips before he could prevent it. Johnny was immediately by his side offering the reassurance of his presence only this time Scott couldn’t take comfort from his brother’s proximity. He had been close to breaking. His family would have seen his weakness. Shame and anger wouldn’t allow him to look at his brother.
“It would be best if you two left us alone. I don’t imagine Scott is feeling up to talking to anyone right now.”
Scott heard murmured protests in response to Sam’s words and then footsteps, followed by the door opening and closing.
“I’m nearly through, Scott.”
Scott acknowledged that and then found that there was something he needed to know. “Teresa?”
“Don’t you worry about Teresa. Maria is looking after her. She wasn’t hurt and I’ve given her some sleeping powders. She’ll be fine when she wakes up in the morning.”
A glass appeared before Scott’s face and he took a couple of sips of the water. His throat was sore, dry and dusty, and he found swallowing to be troublesome. “No more,” he protested weakly. He could hear Sam rummaging about in his bag.
“I’m going to give you a shot of morphine. No reason why you should have to stay awake while I bandage you up.”
“Don’t want…” The prick of the needle as it entered his arm cut off further argument. Warmth spread through his body and Scott gave up the fight to stay awake.
Johnny lay fully clothed on his bed and reflected upon the events of the last few hours. Castaneda was dead with Johnny’s bullet in his brain. Everyone watching had been overawed by the shot, rendered speechless by the precision. Johnny would have preferred to make him suffer, but in the end, there had been no choice. Castaneda would have slit Scott’s throat without a second thought. The shot had been risky. Had Scott moved even a hairs breadth as the bullet had sped toward its target he, rather than Castaneda, would be dead. Johnny hadn’t allowed himself to hesitate or to think about the consequences. If he had, he knew he would never have been able to pull the trigger and his brother would have died.
As Castaneda’s lifeless body slid to the ground Murdoch had reached over to squeeze his arm and tell him how proud he was of his handling of the whole situation. At the time the praise hadn’t meant a lot…he was too focused on releasing Scott from his bonds…but now, in the darkness, he could savour it.
It had taken some time to locate the key to release Teresa and the girl had been almost hysterical by the time the shackle was removed from her ankle. She had regained some of her composure once she had reassured herself about Scott’s condition. Johnny felt a surge of pride for the way in which Teresa had coped with her abduction and imprisonment. He had reassured himself that she was sleeping peacefully before seeking the sanctuary of his own room.
In Val’s enforced absence the prisoners had been handed over to Gabe, the sheriff from Spanish Wells. Murdoch had agreed to go into town the next day to lay formal charges. Castaneda had been the only fatality and his body was to be returned to Mexico for burial. Murdoch had asked Gabe to get a message to Father Benedict at the Mission in Tijuana and had no doubt that the people there would soon be celebrating the death of the tyrant.
Murdoch had insisted that he eat something after Sam had ejected them from Scott’s room. Johnny had picked at the food until Sam had come downstairs to report that Scott was now sleeping. The shock of the attack on Lancer and the brutal personal attack on his brother had finally convinced Johnny that his family meant more to him than his pride or any lingering resentment about the past. If they were prepared to forgive him for siding with Markham, then he wasn’t going to throw away his chance at a future.
He was grateful that Murdoch had left him alone with his thoughts. They had spoken briefly while Sam had been examining Scott. Murdoch had reiterated his hope that Johnny would stay, making it clear that it was Johnny’s decision and that they would abide by it. He wanted to stay…wanted his family back the way it had been. He knew that dream was unrealistic but he was too tired to think clearly. Sleep beckoned. It had been over thirty-six hours since he had last closed his eyes. He reached over and turned down the lamp on the bedside table. The warm darkness enveloped him and he drifted into a deep sleep.
Hands shaking him and a concerned voice calling his name startled him. His heart was hammering in his chest, he was soaked in sweat and he felt completely disorientated. He tried to sit up and reach for his gun, struggling furiously as his shoulders were pressed down against the mattress.
“Johnny, calm down. You were having a nightmare.”
Murdoch’s words penetrated Johnny’s panic. He lay back, eyes wide and frightened. The memory of his nightmare was vivid and drenched in blood. “Scott,” he gasped.
“Scott’s sleeping peacefully.”
Johnny sat up, helped by his father’s steadying hand. He couldn’t stop shaking as the sweat dried on his body. “Cold,” he complained.
Murdoch reached into the chest at the bottom of the bed and pulled out a blanket. He unfolded it and wrapped it around Johnny’s shoulders. “I can go and make us some coffee if you’d like to talk about it,” he offered.
Johnny clutched the blanket tightly and nodded. As soon as he heard Murdoch walking down the stairs he crept quietly across the hall and eased open the door to Scott’s room. There was enough light from the lamps to show that his brother was settled, his face free from the lines of pain that had been so obvious following his rescue. Johnny’s breathing started to return to normal, although he couldn’t shake the pictures conjured up by his nightmare.
He returned to his own room and sat down on the edge of the bed. It wasn’t long before Murdoch rejoined him carrying two steaming mugs of coffee. They sat in silence as Murdoch patiently waited for Johnny to begin speaking. The silence grew to uncomfortable proportions as Johnny tried to find the words to describe the horror of his dream.
With a resigned sigh he laid his cup on the table. “I saw Scott…in my dream. It was all so real, like it was happening right before my eyes. He was being hurt, whipped, and then…” Johnny’s voice trailed away to nothing.
“It’s over, son. Scott’s safe and he’s going to make a full recovery. You heard what Sam said.”
“I know, only it wasn’t like that in my dream. He died, Murdoch. The images were all mixed up, the faces kept changing. Sometimes it was Castaneda who was torturing him and then it was Markham. Thing is…when he died…I was the one holding the knife. I killed my own brother.” Johnny’s eyes were wide and unfathomable as he raised them from contemplating his hands.
Murdoch moved closer to his son and put a comforting arm around him. “I understand why you’re feeling guilty. I feel the same way. What we had to do, leaving Scott at Castaneda’s mercy went against every instinct I have. I would have given my own life to save him that pain and I know you feel the same. But we made the right, the only, decision open to us. If we’d moved prematurely Castaneda would have killed him and would probably have killed Teresa as well.”
Johnny pulled away and hunched further into the blanket. “Will it ever go away?”
Murdoch considered the question, sensing that it went deeper than Johnny’s immediate concern for Scott. “It will if you let it.”
“I want to. I’m just not sure how easy it’s gonna be. I’m so ashamed, Murdoch. All those excuses I made for Markham…the things I said to you. You were right when you called me ungrateful. I’ve never had anyone care about me enough before to put their own lives on the line. I don’t know how to make it right.”
“There’s no quick or easy answer, son, but if we work together we can get past this.”
“But it won’t ever be the same.”
“No, Johnny, it won’t. We have to work on trusting each other again and being more open about our feelings. Maybe, eventually, it’ll be better.”
A deep sigh was the only response Murdoch received. “Give it time, son. Why don’t you lie down again and get some rest? Scott will be anxious to see you in the morning.”
“D’you think he knows that we were there and did nothing to stop Castaneda?”
“He knows that you saved him and Teresa. We’ll tell him the rest of it, together, when he’s stronger.” As Murdoch was speaking he was gently easing Johnny back into bed. He waited until his son’s eyes had closed and his breathing had deepened. Once he was satisfied that Johnny was asleep he left to check on Scott before falling exhausted into his own bed.
Scott drifted in that pleasant limbo that lies between sleep and the waking world. He had the vague thought that he didn’t want to wake up and tried to burrow back into the darkness. He was warm and comfortable and had a lurking suspicion that there was some good reason not to open his eyes. Pain intruded and with the pain came memory.
His muted gasp was sufficient to alert his dark-haired brother who had been standing by the window, gazing thoughtfully at the green rolling landscape. Johnny turned his attention to the man on the bed. “Scott?”
Scott heard his brother’s voice. That one word, softly spoken and infused with such loving concern. His chest tightened painfully. How could his family profess to care about him? They had left him in the hands of that monster…had watched his humiliation. <There must have been a reason,> the rational part of his mind pleaded with him. He pushed the thought away. The memory was too raw and the pain too intense. He couldn’t rationalise what had happened…not yet and perhaps not ever.
He felt an arm slip under his shoulders, turning and lifting him so that his head was raised from the pillows. He couldn’t open his eyes. He wasn’t strong enough to look his brother in the eye without bitterness and condemnation. A glass touched his lips and he drank. The foul taste told him that there was medicine mixed with the water. He swallowed it gratefully. It would give him the excuse he needed to hide from his shame and anger. His sense of reality faded, with his last conscious memory being of his brother telling him to rest and reassuring him that he was safe.
Johnny carefully laid Scott down, ensuring that he was resting on his side so as to avoid pressure on his back. His brother was swathed in white bandages. Blood had seeped through to stain the bandages covering his back. They would have to be changed next time Scott was awake. The sight of the blood mixed with the vivid memory of his dream made Johnny feel nauseous. Worse, though, was the feeling that something had irrevocable changed between him and Scott. Normally if one of them was hurt or sick, having the other around was a source of comfort. Instead he had felt his brother withdraw from him just now and that could only mean that Scott blamed him for what had happened with Castaneda. Johnny wondered despairingly how long the echoes of Markham’s betrayal would linger. Would his relationship with Murdoch and Scott be forever tainted by suspicion and doubt? Was this to be the final legacy left by all the lies told by Markham and his mother? How could he stay when his mere presence would be a constant reminder to his brother of what had happened to him?
For the remainder of the day Johnny avoided Scott’s room. There was a lot to be done to repair the damage caused by Castaneda’s raid. They were shorthanded as a result of injuries sustained. Johnny visited with each of the injured men and came away confused as none spoke a word of blame and all appeared genuinely happy that he had returned safely to Lancer. Unable to face either Murdoch or Scott he threw himself into the manual work required, working late into the afternoon without a break.
From a distance Murdoch kept an eye on his younger son. He respected Johnny’s need for some privacy and could understand his urge to seek release from the tension pervading the ranch in hard physical work. His concern grew as the day progressed when Johnny made no effort to check on his brother. Scott had slept for most of the day and had been uncommunicative and distant when awake. It was noticeable that he had neither welcomed Murdoch’s presence nor asked after Johnny. There was a haunted look in Scott’s eyes that Murdoch couldn’t entirely decipher. His older son was clearly in pain but there was something deeper than that bothering him. Too much damage had been done in the past by silence. Murdoch resolved that this time the problems would be dragged kicking and screaming into the light and dealt with once and for all.
As the oppressive heat of the day started to wane Murdoch carried a glass of cold lemonade and a towel over to the fence where Johnny was working. His son had stripped off his shirt and rivers of sweat were running down his muscular torso. “Time to call it a day, son.” He handed over the towel which Johnny draped around his shoulders.
Johnny reached for the glass and drained the refreshing liquid in three large swallows. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and considered Murdoch’s words. Finally he nodded and began to pack away his tools. “How’s Teresa?”
Murdoch smiled fondly. “She’s been baking all day. She says it helps her forget what happened.”
“They…they didn’t hurt her, did they?”
“Apart from a few cuts and scrapes she’s fine. We know she had the sense not to look when they were…” Murdoch saw the look of remembered horror on Johnny’s face. “You’re avoiding Scott, aren’t you?”
Johnny pulled the towel off his shoulders and rubbed it vigorously over his upper body and arms. “Just haven’t had time to check on him, is all,” he lied.
Murdoch caught his son’s arm. “Inside, young man. There have been enough lies and misunderstandings recently to last us a lifetime.”
“Ain’t lying.” Johnny pulled free and reached for his shirt before throwing it violently into the dirt. “He doesn’t want me there.”
“Has he said that?”
“He didn’t have to. Dios, Murdoch, how can you stand to be around me? Scott’s lying up there hurt because of me. I turned on my family and friends and blamed you for making some hard decisions. I’ve screwed everything up.”
“The only way you will screw up, Johnny, is if you walk away from us. Come inside and talk. We both feel badly about what happened to Scott and, if it’s any comfort, he hasn’t been very receptive to me either today.” Murdoch waited as Johnny’s gaze ranged from the house to the barn and back again. He wasn’t sure what he would do if his son rejected this overture. He sensed that if Johnny left now he wouldn’t come back.
Johnny bent down and retrieved his shirt. “I need to clean up.”
There were no promises in Johnny’s words but neither was there an outright rejection. Murdoch nodded and walked back to the house. A final glance before walking through the front door showed him his son standing exactly where he had left him.
Murdoch’s patience was rewarded when he heard the door open to admit his son. Johnny’s damp hair was clinging to his forehead and cheeks. The worst of the dust and grime had been cleaned off his face and hands. Johnny walked into the room, head down as he concentrated on buttoning up his shirt. He crossed to one of the sofas and sat stiffly at one end.
“There is something we need to clear out of the way first,” Murdoch began. “I’d like you to hear me out without interruption. In a sense you were right when you said that Scott was hurt because of you.” He saw his son frown. “That does not make it your fault. When you first crossed paths with Castaneda you did something to be proud of. You had choices and you could have chosen to take his money and become no better than he was. Alternatively, you could have ridden away and left the people without hope. You chose to fight for them because you believed it was the right thing to do. I agree with you and I am very proud to have sons who are prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in.
“Castaneda came after Scott because he wanted you. He hurt him because Scott stood up to him. He would never have come here if Markham hadn’t set in motion the events that took you back to Mexico. He kidnapped you, Johnny, took you by force from your home. How can you be held responsible for that?”
“I should have told you when he first showed up. I let my guard down, let him get to me. He never should have been able to take me.”
“You were hurt, physically and emotionally. He took advantage of that. He would have done anything to keep you. You were a possession and, although he may have said he loved you, that brand of love could only be destructive.”
Johnny sank slowly back against the cushioned bulk of the sofa. “It wasn’t always like that. There were times when I thought…when having him around felt good. He’d talk about my mama and that gave me a connection to her.” Johnny’s eyes were bright with unshed tears as he looked up. “I miss her.”
Murdoch kept his distance, although every bone in his body was aching to take this young, vulnerable son of his into his arms and make the hurt go away. “I know you do and I’m sorry I haven’t spoken to you about her.”
“Markham said he never stopped loving her. When did you stop?” The question was posed aggressively as Johnny tried to hide his hurt behind a shield of anger.
“The day I found out she had lied to me about you not being my son.”
“I wish you hadn’t believed her.” Johnny’s head drooped. “I wish I could be certain she was lying.”
Murdoch walked to his desk and withdrew an envelope from the top drawer. He placed it on the seat next to his son. “These are copies of the Pinkerton reports. I sent a telegram from San Diego and asked for them to be sent. They will hopefully convince you that I tried for many years to find you.”
Johnny looked at the envelope before picking it up and handing it back. “I don’t need to see them. You’ve told me you looked and that’s enough for me. I should have trusted you when you told me that before.”
Murdoch nodded and returned the envelope to the drawer. “Will you give this family a chance? I know that you have doubts and conflicting feelings for Markham. Whether I like it or not he was a part of your life and that can’t be easily dismissed. Also, we both owe him a debt for saving your life.”
“That’s the hardest part,” Johnny admitted. “I can hate him for what he did, he almost cost me my brother and my friend, but how can I hate the man who died in my place?”
“You are one of the most compassionate men I have ever met. You look for the good in people and, mostly, they respond. Eventually you will come to terms with your feelings for Markham. Whether or not you believe I am your father I want you to know this…I love and cherish you as my son. I am proud of your courage and your convictions. I will honor any decision you make about your future but I hope and pray that it will be a decision to stay at Lancer.”
“What about Scott? What happens if he doesn’t feel the same way?”
Murdoch walked over to stand in front of his son and held out his hand in encouragement. “Why don’t we go and ask him?”
Johnny shook his head in denial. “He’s been through so much. He isn’t strong enough for this right now.”
Murdoch’s hand didn’t waver. “Then the least we can do is go and see how he is feeling.”
Johnny reached out and allowed Murdoch to pull him to his feet. He didn’t object when Murdoch then placed an encouraging arm around his waist. His feet were leaden as he walked toward the stairs. He wasn’t sure he had the courage to face the rejection he knew was coming.
Maria pulled the thin sheet over Scott before gathering up the soiled bandages and putting them in a basket. He had insisted that she be the one to look after him. He didn’t want Teresa to see the results of Castaneda’s cruelty. Scott hadn’t uttered one word of complaint during the painful process of cleaning and redressing his wounds. He had buried his face in the pillows and only his hands, white knuckled where he gripped the bed clothes, had betrayed his agony. Maria had been encouraged to find no hint of an infection. Dr. Jenkins, who she held in the highest regard, had done a fine job of tending to the injuries, although nothing could disguise the fact that the young man would be left with more scarring on his back. She felt angry that anyone could treat another human being like this. In her mind it was only fitting that Johnny had been the one to send the Mexican Don to hell. He had exacted revenge on behalf of his brother, which was as it should be.
Scott lay on his stomach, fast asleep, thanks to a substantial dose of laudanum. He had accepted the offered medication without comment and she wondered about that. He wasn’t nearly as bad a patient as his younger brother, while having the same dislike of drugs. She understood Johnny’s reluctance. They slowed his reactions and left him feeling vulnerable. She suspected Scott’s distaste came from a different source and that he didn’t like the feeling of losing control. He was a strong young man, in both body and mind. His willingness to let go was troubling and she worried about the effect this would all have upon him. Added to that was her concern that Johnny wasn’t by his brother’s side and Scott’s apparent complete indifference to that fact.
As she finished tidying up she heard the door open. The patron led the way into the room with Johnny trailing along behind. Maria could see no enthusiasm on the youngest Lancer’s face. In fact, she could have sworn that there was a fleeting look of relief when Johnny realised that his brother was asleep.
“How is he?” Murdoch asked quietly.
“His wounds are starting to heal.” Maria watched Johnny walk hesitantly over to the bed. “He is…sad. He needs his hermano.” She didn’t try to hide the note of censure in her voice.
Johnny reached out tentatively and felt Scott’s forehead. He pulled his hand away hurriedly as his brother mumbled something in his sleep. Maria’s words reinforced his growing belief that he had been acting selfishly. Scott did need him…he needed all his family. Scott was a very private person who found it difficult to talk about personal issues. He would be burying his hurt beneath a protective shield where it would eat away at him. Johnny knew what that was like and he wasn’t prepared to allow it to happen to Scott. His brother needed help and encouragement to overcome what had happened to him. Allowing him to shut it away inside would be the worst thing they could do. If Scott had issues with his brother’s actions he had to confront them. They meant too much to each other to allow this to poison their friendship.
He raised clear blue eyes to the housekeeper. “I’ll be here.”
“Bueno. Now leave him to rest and come and eat. You haven’t been taking care of yourself.” Maria continued to scold Johnny affectionately as she ushered him out of the room.
Murdoch pulled a chair close to the side of the bed. He checked Scott’s temperature as Johnny had done, satisfied to find that there was no trace of a fever. “I know you aren’t going to want to talk about this,” he told his sleeping son, “but I think we have to. I’m not going to let Markham’s actions pull this family apart again.”
Scott slept through the night and woke up to find that he was alone. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, as a nagging disappointment intermingled with his initial relief. His head was fuzzy with the after effects of the laudanum and he was very thirsty. He lay still and considered his injuries. He no longer felt disorientated which meant that the worst of his concussion had passed. The aching in his ribs was manageable so long as he didn’t breathe too deeply and his various bruises had subsided to a dull throb. Not surprisingly the worst pain was coming from his back, although it was now bearable. He knew from bitter experience that the physical wounds would heal quicker than the mental scars they would leave behind.
Memories that he had worked so hard to suppress were lurking just beneath the surface. He could feel them fighting for release, demanding attention. He wasn’t strong enough to battle them alone, not now that they were reinforced by the bitter knowledge that his family had seen his humiliation. He pushed himself up into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. His vision contracted alarmingly and a pounding pain settled in each temple. He waited patiently for his body to adjust to his upright position. Once he was sure that he wasn’t going to pass out he stood up and began to search for some clothes.
Ten minutes later Johnny arrived in his brother’s room and raised an eyebrow when he saw what Scott was doing. “Sam would blister your ears off if he saw you out of bed.”
“There’s no reason he has to find out.” Scott eased his arms into a shirt and did up a couple of the buttons. He considered bending down to retrieve his boots before deciding against it.
“I guess it won’t do any harm so long as you don’t overdo it.”
The sight of his brother stirred the very memories in Scott that he didn’t want to revisit…memories of his family watching as Castaneda broke down his resistance. He forced his thoughts down a different route – denial had worked before and it would work again. “How are you and Murdoch getting along?”
Johnny leaned against the dresser and absent-mindedly began to fiddle with an ornament that had been sitting beneath the mirror. “We managed to say a few things that needed to be said. It wasn’t always pleasant, although there were moments that weren’t so bad. He made me think about what Markham did…made me realise that I’d been so taken in by Markham’s bullshit that I couldn’t see past the words. I felt sorry for him, felt I had to make up for all my mama’s lies.” Johnny laid the ornament down gently. “I lost sight of the fact that Murdoch’s a decent man and that he’d been hurt as well. Hearing the truth ain’t always easy though. Boy, did I get angry with him. I threw it all back in his face and rode away.”
Scott sat down on the bed, solemn blue eyes fixed on his brother. “What made you come back?”
“I was with Val when Frank came into town with news of Castaneda’s raid. Val had been chewing me out real good, and forgiving me all at the same time.” Johnny smiled as he thought of his friend before sobering again. “I was still gonna leave ‘cause I was too gutless to come back and apologise. Soon as I heard what had happened I knew I had to stay at least until you and Teresa were safe. Then when I came back the old man looked so happy to see me and stood back to let me plan the rescue. That’s when I knew that he didn’t hold it against me that I’d sided with Markham.” Johnny took a deep breath. “So I reckon it’s your turn now.”
“I never held it against you,” Scott said quietly. “I’ll admit I couldn’t understand why you would stand up for him after all he did to you, but I never blamed you for it.”
Johnny knew there was something buried beneath the words…something that Scott wasn’t saying. “Then what do you blame me for?” He waited, heart hammering in his chest as the silence stretched out between them. “You blame me for Castaneda.”
“No.” Scott’s denial lacked conviction.
“Couldn’t fault you if you did. I’ll go if it makes you feel better.”
“I don’t want you to go. I don’t want to be alone.” The admission startled and unsettled Scott. “During the war, after the escape attempt went wrong, they locked me up on my own.” He felt a cold chill creep down his spine.
Johnny crossed the room and sat down beside his brother. “You aren’t alone this time.”
Scott’s eyes became unfocussed. “He wanted to break me, to take away my dignity and self-respect. He wanted me to beg in front of his men…in front of Teresa.” Scott bowed his head against the memory. “He almost…”
“No,” Johnny interrupted fiercely. “Whatever you might think, Castaneda never came close to winning.”
“You don’t know that,” Scott whispered.
“I know you. I heard how you stood up to him and his men when they came here. You did your best to protect Teresa even though the odds were hopeless. You would never have given him the satisfaction.”
A little warmth seeped into the cold places in Scott’s mind…the places where he kept his doubts and uncertainties locked away. “There’s more. I heard Murdoch talking to you and Sam. Why, Johnny? Why did you stand back and let it happen?” Scott’s need to understand was inextricably mixed with his anger. “You could have stopped it.”
Johnny stood up and began to pace, aware of Scott’s accusing stare following his every move. He quelled his nervous energy and forced himself to a stop in front of his brother. “We had no choice.”
That wasn’t something that Scott was willing to accept, not while the emotional wounds were so raw. “How long?”
“Not long,” Johnny lied and saw that his brother knew it for a lie. “An hour. We’d taken care of the sentries, but it was still risky attacking the camp. The plan had all been set in motion. If we’d moved too soon Castaneda would have had time to kill you and Teresa. Once Teresa was chained up and you were strung between those trees you were both easy targets. I know this is hard for you, but you understand how things work. Have you never had to wait for just the right moment to attack?”
The sound of the door opening saved Scott from having to answer. Murdoch felt the tension the minute he stepped into the room. “What’s going on?” he asked, looking from one son to the other. His gaze settled on Scott. “You shouldn’t be out of bed.”
“He knows, Murdoch,” Johnny stated softly. “He heard us talking and he knows we were there when Castaneda whipped him.”
Scott rose unsteadily to his feet. It had just about been bearable talking to his brother as he knew that Johnny had been through the same things while a prisoner of the Rurales. He had never wanted his father to know what had happened to him during the war. If Dan Cassidy and his wife hadn’t turned up Murdoch would never even have known about the escape attempt. His father couldn’t understand what it had been like and it wasn’t in Scott’s nature to look for pity.
“I need some air.” His steps faltered as his injuries and his highly charged emotional state conspired to upset his balance. A strong arm snaking around his waist steadied him and he allowed Johnny to lead him back to the bed. He leaned back against the soft pillows and closed his eyes. He felt a pressure on the bed as his father sat down.
“I’m sorry, son. What else could we do? We couldn’t risk you or Teresa being killed.”
Scott’s inherent honesty made it impossible to dismiss Murdoch’s words. He asked himself what he would have done if the roles had been reversed. Would he have allowed his emotions to rule his head or would he have made the hard decision to wait for the best opportunity to present itself? Hadn’t he, Murdoch and Cipriano had to wait before rescuing Johnny? They hadn’t known what condition he was in or what was happening to him, yet they had bided their time. This was no different. His anger ebbed away leaving him feeling tired and empty. He nodded to show he understood and felt a fleeting reassuring touch on his arm.
He wasn’t aware of anything more until he next opened his eyes. He was confused to find that Murdoch was no longer in the room. Johnny was leaning back in the chair with his booted feet resting on the edge of the bed.
Seeing that Scott was awake, Johnny swung his feet down and leaned forward. “You fell asleep. I talked Murdoch into leaving…didn’t think you’d want him asking too many questions just yet.”
“Thanks.” Scott reached over for the glass of water on the nightstand, relieved to see that his hand was steady. “I guess it was a shock for him.”
“You don’t have to tell him anything.”
“I know,” Scott acknowledged before changing the subject. “I haven’t told you yet what good shooting that was. If you hadn’t taken Castaneda out he’d have killed me, wouldn’t he?”
“Yeah. It wasn’t his style to give up. Just glad you kept still.”
“I trust you.” There was no doubt or hesitation in the words and Johnny smiled gratefully.
“How are the men who were shot? Maria told me no-one died.”
“We were lucky.” Johnny paused before laughing bitterly. “Hell, it’s not like we’ve had much luck since Markham showed up.
“Yes we have, brother. You’re back home where you belong.”
Johnny turned away to hide the doubt in his eyes. He’d learned the hard way to forgive and had been forgiven in turn. That had been a real eye opener for someone brought up in a society where offering an apology was seen as a sign of weakness. He was secure now in the knowledge that Murdoch loved him. What he couldn’t shake, no matter how much he wanted to, was the persistent voice in his head insisting that he had no right to live at Lancer – that he had no right to the Lancer name.
It was a relief to be outside. The air in the small courtyard was pleasantly warm. In a few hours the heat would be oppressive so he would enjoy his freedom while he could. He had been finding it increasingly difficult to be confined within the four walls of his bedroom and had escaped as soon as Sam had given his permission.
The doctor had clearly been pleased with the extent of his physical healing. It would be a few days before he could return to manual work, but perhaps he could persuade Murdoch to let him work on the books. He didn’t like being idle.
Scott smiled to himself. It hadn’t been so long ago that he had been quite content to do as little work as possible, saving his energy for more pleasurable pursuits. All he wanted now was for life to return to normal. With all that had happened, starting with Johnny’s injury, it had been weeks since he and his brother had been able to work side by side on some mindless, but satisfying, task. He was worried about his brother. Johnny said that everything was fine. Scott knew him better than that and could see the doubt and indecision eating away at him.
He knew that, in turn, Johnny and Murdoch were concerned about him. Sam had probed gently, trying to establish if there were any lingering emotional problems. Scott readily accepted that his ordeal at Castaneda’s hands had brought back unpleasant memories as well as adding a few new ones. It had also made him doubt his inner strength, something that he wasn’t planning on sharing with anyone.
In truth, he couldn’t say what might have happened if his torture had continued. Rescue had saved him from having to find out. His doubts had arisen from his pain and weakness. Now he could recognise and accept that his experiences, both good and bad, had made him into the man he was today. He was prepared to embrace them, learn from them and move on. He had said as much to Sam, truthfully and with a clear and steady gaze.
There had been no nightmares and there was no ongoing resentment against his family. Johnny and Murdoch had done what they believed was best, and they had been right. If they had moved prematurely to save him, and Teresa had been hurt or killed as a result, he would never have forgiven himself.
He and Johnny had talked and had found peace. Murdoch, perhaps warned to tread carefully, had not raised the issue further. Scott had seen a strained look about his father these last few days. As much as he didn’t want to talk about the past Scott felt that, this time, it might be necessary to achieve closure. The door leading from the house opened and Scott looked up, smiling when he saw his father standing uncertainly in the opening.
“I was wondering if you would like some company.”
“I’d be glad of it,” Scott answered honestly. “I feel as if everyone has been tip-toeing around me.” He moved along the bench so that Murdoch could sit next to him.
“We didn’t want to intrude. I can understand why neither you nor Johnny enjoys having us hovering over you when you’re sick.”
“It isn’t an easy thing to get used to,” Scott admitted.
“Sam is delighted with your progress. He tells me that the damage to your back should heal without any complications and that he expects a full recovery.”
<Except for the scars,> Scott thought. <They won’t disappear.>
“We haven’t really talked about what happened.” Scott saw an apology forming on his father’s lips and hurried on. “I understand why you had to wait and how hard it must have been. It was difficult at first knowing you’d seen me like that.”
“If there had been any other way…” Murdoch began.
“There wasn’t, and I don’t want you or Johnny to feel guilty about it.”
They lapsed into an easy silence, enjoying the warmth and the privacy. Scott allowed his eyelids to drift shut and listened to the drone of the insects. The effect was soporific. Realising that now was the perfect time to say what he wanted to say to his father, he stretched slowly and opened his eyes.
“Grandfather was furious when I enlisted.” Scott grinned faintly. ‘Furious’ didn’t even come close to the near apoplexy suffered by Harlan Garrett when he found that his beloved ‘Scotty’ was intending to go off and fight.
“I imagine he was, but you did it anyway. You are very like your mother…once your mind is made up nothing will change it.”
Scott heard the wistful tone in his father’s voice. “Once he realised that I was serious he stood back and let me go.”
“Your grandfather can be a hard man, but I believe he always has the best interests of his family at heart. He could have made it very difficult for your mother and me to marry. He chose not to once he realised that we truly loved each other.”
Scott had the feeling that his father was being somewhat charitable. He still had no idea why Murdoch hadn’t claimed him as a child and strongly suspected that some of the blame for that might lie at his grandfather’s door.
“Being in the Army came as a real shock. I was used to doing pretty much as I pleased. All of a sudden there were rules and regulations, responsibilities. After a while I began to enjoy myself, strange as that might sound, then…”
“Then you were captured?”
“Yes. Every day in that camp was a struggle for survival. The conditions were basic and gradually worsened as the war dragged on. When Dan Cassidy came up with an escape plan I didn’t even have to think about it. Then Dan was taken ill and I was left in charge. We had no idea that he had inadvertently betrayed the escape. We had almost made it when the guards sprung the trap. They told us to stay still, but then one of the men panicked and began to run. Someone fired a shot and all hell broke loose. By the time the camp commander had restored order I was the only one who wasn’t either dead or dying.”
Scott felt a comforting touch on his shoulder. “You don’t have to do this, son,” Murdoch said gently.
“Yes, I do. I need to tell you so that you’ll understand.” Scott took a deep breath and licked his lips nervously. “I was dragged back into the camp, stripped to the waist and chained to the whipping post. All…all the other prisoners were marched out to watch. I suppose it was over quickly. I don’t remember much about it now except the pain and the feeling of humiliation. Then they locked me up on my own for two weeks.”
“Johnny knew, didn’t he?”
Scott nodded. “He saw my back one day a few months after we came here. I’d been working on my own and had decided to go for a swim to cool off. I was still having trouble coping with the heat back then. Johnny turned up just as I was getting out of the lake. He didn’t say anything, but I knew he understood. We’d both seen his back after he was shot during the fight with Pardee’s men. He just waited, left it up to me to say something, so I told him. We spent a long time talking. I think that was the day we finally started to trust one another with parts of our history we’d always kept hidden.”
“If I’d known…”
“It would have made no difference,” Scott interrupted. “You would have done the same thing. It’s all in the past now, Murdoch. I can put it behind me. I need to know that you can too.”
“All that matters is that you are going to be alright.”
It wasn’t quite the answer that Scott had been hoping for. He knew that both his father and his brother would feel a measure of guilt for a long time to come. “I’m coping just fine, Murdoch.”
Scott risked a look at his father. Murdoch appeared more relaxed than he had before, although there was obviously something wrong. “Johnny isn’t coping, is he?”
“He says he is.”
Scott flinched as the palm of his father’s hand slammed down onto the stone bench.
“I don’t know what else to do. We’ve talked and I thought we’d made progress. Something is still bothering him.”
“Would you like me to try talking to him?”
“Maybe you’ll have more luck. Are you sure you feel well enough?”
“I think I’m up to handling my brother,” Scott replied with a smile.
“No, Scott, there’s nothing more to talk about. I’ll be just fine if everyone will just stop pushing me.” Johnny paced around the room in agitation. He was tired, had only intended to call into Scott’s room to check on him, and was in no mood for an in-depth discussion about his feelings.
He had been pleased to find his brother up and dressed. Scott had been sitting writing a letter at a small table placed under the window. The window was open to capture the slight evening breeze. Johnny had perched on the edge of the bed and had immediately found himself facing some hard and direct questioning.
“We’re worried about you.”
“Look, I’m tired. I just want to wash up, grab something to eat and go to bed. Have you any idea how much work needs to be done around here?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“I’m not.” Johnny plopped down into a chair and stretched his legs out in front of him. His lopsided grin appeared. “Well, I guess I am. Thing is, I’ve done all the talking that’s gonna do any good. There ain’t a damn thing you or Murdoch can say that’ll make any difference. I know what Murdoch and Sam have told me. It’s hard…not being certain. All my life I believed Murdoch was my father. Now…I think he is and I sure want him to be and I have to decide if that’s enough.”
“What if it isn’t? You’re not going to throw this all away just because there’s a small chance that Murdoch isn’t your father? He believes he is and I believe you’re my brother. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“It matters more than you know. The fact that you both came after me and stood by me even when I was pushing you away…I can’t tell you what that means.”
“Then you’ll stay?”
“I’m working on it, Scott.” Johnny stood up and yawned. “You joining us for supper?”
Scott admitted defeat. “I’m here if you want to talk.”
“Yeah. Right now you can do the talking. What did Sam have to say? When’re you gonna be able to work again?” Johnny pulled Scott to his feet and pointed him in the direction of the door, listening intently as Scott gave in and related what Sam had told him that morning.
For the next two weeks everyone tried their best to pretend that things had returned to normal. It was like walking on eggshells…every word was analysed before it was spoken. Johnny was finding it harder and harder to act as if he had managed to put everything behind him. The reality was that he couldn’t shake the nagging doubt about his parentage and his right to live at Lancer. It was a relief when Sam cleared Scott to return to work. Murdoch made sure that he gave them jobs where they could work together and Johnny held on tight to the feeling of contentment he had when Scott was by his side. ‘His brother’ – that was how he still thought of Scott and he didn’t think anything would ever change that. He wanted to stay at Lancer…had to try to find a way to overcome his uncertainty or learn to live with it.
After another week, as the strain was beginning to tell on the whole family, Johnny was beginning to think that the whole situation was hopeless. The forced politeness was getting on everyone’s nerves. As the brothers arrived home one afternoon, tired and dirty, Johnny was on the verge of packing up and leaving. His shoulders were slumped dejectedly as he walked through the front door and hung his hat and gunbelt on the stand. He was thinking of heading straight upstairs when he heard Murdoch calling his name. With a sigh he walked into the great room and stopped dead when he saw that they had company.
The elderly Mexican lady rose slowly to her feet and stood leaning heavily on a cane. She looked frail and was stooped with age, her once dark hair now silver-grey. Tears began to roll down her cheeks as she stared at Johnny. Scott, who had walked in behind his brother, looked enquiringly from the woman to his father.
Murdoch stood up and moved to stand beside their visitor. “This is Senora Katiana Reyes, Maria’s aunt. Senora, these are my sons, Scott and Johnny.”
Johnny couldn’t move and he found that his voice had deserted him as well. He had known before Murdoch spoke that she was his Tia, there was an unmistakeable resemblance to his mother. He stood, rooted to the spot, as she made her way slowly over to him. She raised a shaky hand and touched his cheek. Johnny closed his eyes, leaned into her gentle caress and imagined that it was his mother. He felt himself floundering, his composure shattered.
“Juanito.” Her voice was cracked with age. “I never thought I would have the chance to meet you. You are so like your mother.”
“I asked the Pinkertons to try and trace her after Markham’s death,” Murdoch explained. “I didn’t say anything to you as I didn’t know whether or not they would be able to locate her, or if she would be willing to come here to meet you. I thought it might help if you had someone you could talk to about your mother.”
The smile Johnny gave his father was bright, open and lit up his whole face. “Gracias, Murdoch.” Johnny took the woman’s hand and led her back to the sofa. “Tia Katiana, it is a pleasure to meet you.”
Murdoch walked over to Scott and took his arm. “I’m sure your brother would like some time alone with his aunt.”
“What I’d like,” Johnny said hesitantly, “is for you and Scott to stay. That is if you don’t mind.” He knew what he was asking of Murdoch and waited with bated breath for the answer.
Murdoch looked for Scott’s agreement before giving his sincere answer. “We’d be happy to stay.”
They talked long into the night, but the one thing Johnny couldn’t bring himself to talk about was his fear that Murdoch wasn’t his father. Eventually the strain of the long day began to tell and Katiana announced her intention of retiring for the night.
“Johnny, would you see me to my room? I am not as steady as I once was.”
Johnny helped his aunt to her feet and walked with her to her room. As they reached the door he felt a momentary indecision. Seeing his hesitation she opened the door invitingly. “There is something on your mind. Would you like to come in and talk about it?”
“It’s late and you’re tired. It can wait until the morning.”
“It has waited long enough, Juanito. Your doubts about your father are written all over your face. Your mother always wore her emotions where everyone could see them and you are no different. Come inside.”
Johnny preceded his aunt into the room and perched uneasily on the arm of a chair set beneath the window. Katiana sat in another armchair a few feet away and smoothed her skirt before beginning to speak.
“I raised your mother after her own parents died. She was like a daughter to me and we were very close. She was so beautiful and full of life that she attracted a lot of young men. She fell in and out of love all the time. It was a game to her. I think she liked the attention and the idea of being in love. Her first serious relationship was with the man you know as Thomas Markham. Compared to the local boys she was used to, he was exciting and dangerous. Soon she began to get sick and I knew that she was expecting a child. She begged Markham to marry her, but he was in no hurry. Don’t misunderstand me, he loved her, I am sure about that. I do not believe that he was ready to settle down and take on the responsibilities of a husband and father.
“Then he found that his own mother was dying. Maria pleaded with him not to go. When he refused her she demanded that he take her with him. When that didn’t work either she lost her temper, screaming hysterically at him. I was worried about the baby, rightly so as it turned out. The day he left she cried for hours and then she came to me to tell me that she was bleeding.” Tears appeared in Katiana’s eyes. “She lost the child and she was inconsolable.”
“Are you sure?” Johnny’s own compassion for his mother and aunt was mixed with a desperate hope for himself.
“Si, Juanito. It was confirmed by the doctor. She blamed Markham and set out to find someone else before he returned. Her relationship with your father started out as a cold-blooded act of revenge, although it did not remain that way. She told me that she was falling in love with him and then she fell pregnant again. Murdoch Lancer didn’t hesitate. He offered her marriage and she accepted. He is, and was, an honorable man and he loved your mother deeply. He knew nothing about Markham or the miscarriage. Maria had sworn me to secrecy and I could see no harm in it. If I had only known what heartache that secret would bring to you and your familia in the future.” She shook her head sadly before resuming her tale.
“They married and moved here and that was the last time I ever saw her. She wrote to me regularly at first and gave me news of your birth. Then the letters became less and the ones that did arrive were full of bitterness. She had convinced herself that your father no longer loved her…that he was obsessed with his first wife and the need to reclaim your hermano from his grandfather. The letters stopped and I heard nothing more until Senor Lancer turned up seeking news of you and your mother. He told me that Maria was with Markham, although he was using a different name then, and that she was claiming that you were Markham’s son. I told him then what I have just told you now. He was distraught. He spoke of you with such love and it was painful to see the loss in his eyes.
“Maria never contacted me. If she had I would have sent word to Lancer. I have always remembered you both in my prayers and I hoped, one day, to get the chance to meet you. I know Maria is dead. Perhaps before I leave you could tell me how she died.”
“It will be hard for you to hear, Tia.”
“I suspected as much but I would still like to know.”
Johnny bowed his head in acknowledgment. “The time I spent with Markham convinced me that he believed his claim to be my father. Did he ever speak to you about it?”
“He came to me when he returned to Matamoros and found that Maria had gone. He refused to believe what I told him. I couldn’t blame him for that…it is a hard thing for a man to lose everything. It takes a strong man to come to terms with that and move on. Your father lost everything twice and yet he had the strength to move forward and build a legacy for you and your hermano.”
“I have been such a fool.” Johnny hung his head. “I found everything I had ever wanted, a father, brother and a home, and I was ready to throw it away.”
Katiana stood up and walked over to her nephew. She waited until he raised sorrowful eyes to her face. “You were hurt and confused. Lies and half-truths became hopelessly entangled with the truth. Can you accept the truth now?”
Johnny considered her words. He could accept the truth that Murdoch was his father. His doubts and uncertainties drained away, leaving him to face only one regret. “Markham died saving my life. He pushed me out of the way of a bullet because he believed he was my father.”
“His belief was none of your doing. He gave you the gift of your life. If you want to honor his memory you will accept that gift and get on with your life. If you give up what you have here it will have been a pointless sacrifice.”
A feeling of peace settled over Johnny. He stood and smiled down at his aunt before kissing her on the cheek. “You are a wise lady and I am glad you are here. Tomorrow I’ll show you Lancer. It’s a wonderful place, the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Then I will tell you what you want to know. There is a Catholic Church in Morro Coyo. It is small but welcoming. I would like to take you there to say prayers for my mama and for Thomas Markham.”
Tears sparkled in Katiana’s eyes. “I would like that and I am very much looking forward to seeing my nephew’s birthright.”
“Buenos noches, Tia.”
“Sleep well, Juanito.”
Johnny left his aunt’s room and stood undecided in the hallway. He could see a glimmer of light seeping out from under the door leading to his father’s room. He knocked lightly on the door and entered the room before his nerve could fail him. He saw surprise and then concern on his father’s face and hastened to reassure him. “There’s nothing wrong.”
“Did you get your aunt settled?” Murdoch made no move to approach his son, content to give him space and the freedom to make his own decisions.
“Yeah. She’s quite some lady.” Johnny smiled fondly. “We’re going to the church tomorrow to say prayers. That’s what made me think. I never thanked you for paying for Markham’s burial.”
“I did it for you.”
“I know. You’ve done a lot for me, you and Scott both. Just want you to know I’m grateful.” Johnny made up his mind in a rush. “You know the whole time I was with Markham I was wishing you were my father.” He lowered his eyes, embarrassed.
“And now?” Murdoch asked gently.
Johnny’s smile lit up the room and touched Murdoch’s heart. “Now I know that wishes sometimes come true. Night, Murdoch.”
“Good night, son.”
After Johnny had gone Murdoch walked over to his dresser and opened the top drawer. After a brief search he pulled out an object wrapped in a square of white silk. He carried it over to the bed and laid it down, staring at it for a while, before carefully unfolding the material. The miniature portrait of Maria looked back at him. The artist had failed to capture the vivacity of his subject and the painting was flat and lifeless. Murdoch had caught a glimpse of Maria’s boundless capacity for life and love in his son only a short time before. It would take time for Johnny to regain his former carefree enthusiasm and Murdoch had worried that it might never return. Now he was confident that it would.
Over the years his feelings for Maria had changed. Love had turned to hate and that hate would have destroyed him if he had let it. Now he felt only sorrow for a life wasted. “You would be proud of our son,” he told the painting. “He is a remarkable young man.” He pulled the silk closed and returned the portrait to its resting place. Sleep would come tonight with a light heart.
It was a normal Saturday night in Green River, the first since Sam had confirmed that Val was fit to return to work. Val’s recovery had been set back by his decision to leave his bed and round up help after Castaneda’s attack. He had been back in bed trying to look innocent by the time Sam returned. The doctor hadn’t been fooled and everyone within earshot had been treated to the sound of Sam explaining heatedly to Val the likely consequences of his stupidity. Val, of course, had replied with equal passion and the row had raged for some time much to the amusement of the townsfolk.
Having broken up a fight between two drunken cowboys Val was on his way back to his office when he saw a couple of familiar figures riding into town. He stepped back onto the boardwalk and waited. In the weeks following Castaneda’s defeat Johnny had visited him on several occasions. It had taken time for the young man to open up to his friend and Val wasn’t sure he’d ever fully understand why Johnny had allowed Markham to get so close to him. There had been an undeniable sadness hanging over Johnny until after the visit from Senora Reyes. Johnny wasn’t quite back to normal, but Val sensed that he would get there eventually.
Scott had also visited to express his gratitude for the sheriff’s efforts. He, too, had been subdued to start with before seeming to put his ordeal behind him. It was noticeable to Val that the two young Lancers were most relaxed when in each other’s company.
The brothers reined in their horses and smiled down at the sheriff. “Good to see you off your lazy backside at long last,” Johnny informed his friend.
Val scowled darkly. “Just give me one excuse, amigo, and you’ll be spending the night keeping me company over at the jail.”
“How about we buy you a drink instead?” Scott offered. “I’d hate to have to go home and tell Murdoch that Johnny was in trouble on his first night out in weeks.”
Val considered this. The thought of a nice cold beer was appealing. He licked his lips and couldn’t quite prevent a smile spreading across his face. “I guess I could be persuaded.”
The brothers dismounted and tied their horses to the rail. Scott stood back to let Johnny go ahead of him. There was a momentary hesitation before Johnny resolutely pushed open the doors leading to the saloon. He surveyed the scene, his eyes automatically going to the table where Markham had been sitting the first time he’d seen him. There was a card game in progress and Johnny studied the men around the table carefully. He relaxed when he realised that they were all local. He turned to his brother and friend, smiled and then walked to the bar, placing a couple of coins on the counter. “First round’s on me.”