The sound of the door crashing open brought him instantly awake. He rolled over and reached for his gun, only to find that it wasn’t where he had left it. His eyes fixed on the girl who was backing away, clutching his gunbelt to her chest.
“Puta!” he hissed.
There wasn’t time to turn and face the intruders before hands reached for him, pulling him from the comfortable warmth of the bed. He shivered as his feet hit the cold stone floor. The small room was now crowded with grey clad figures, the uniform distinctive and sufficient to strike fear into his heart.
“Get dressed, mestizo.”
The clothes that were thrust into his arms were far removed from his normal colorful attire. The loose white shirt and pants would mark him as a prisoner – a man of no importance.
The girl was whimpering now as one of the men approached her, snatching the gunbelt from her hands. “Go,” he instructed harshly. “You have done your job well.” A small pouch of coins was dropped to the ground at her feet. “No harm will come to your family.”
So that was it, the reason why she had thrown herself in his path. How could he have been so damned stupid? All those years he’d survived on his own, priding himself on his ability to get out of trouble, and he’d fallen for the oldest trick in the book. Well, guess he couldn’t really blame her. The rurales could be mean bastards when they were of a mind.
He hurriedly pulled on the trousers and slipped the shirt over his head, straightening his spine and staring them down silently, trying to work out how they’d even known he was in the area. He’d only been passing through, and hadn’t been anticipating any problems. A gun was pressed against his chest as shackles were fastened around his ankles. It wouldn’t be long before the metal started to chafe his skin. He’d seen men before who’d worn leg irons for years. Eventually, the marks didn’t disappear. Would he last long enough for that to happen to him or was there a firing squad just waiting outside the door? His feet were bare and he knew from previous experience that they would stay that way. In these harsh conditions, a man without boots wouldn’t get very far.
He shuffled toward the door without being told. Might as well get this over with, he thought resignedly. The local inhabitants had wisely decided to stay in their houses, although, he saw drapes twitching as some of the braver folk peered out to see what was happening. A dozen horses and men milled around, but, at least, it didn’t look as if they were intending to shoot him straight away. Wherever they were going, he’d have to walk – there was no way he could ride with his ankles chained. So damned predictable, and no one to blame but himself.
“Lo siento.” He turned toward the voice. Cierra was sobbing as she held out a hand imploringly. “Perdóneme por favor.”
“Yo le perdono.” He didn’t feel very forgiving, but it wouldn’t make things any better for him if he left her feeling so wretched. Sometimes people had little choice.
His wrists were tied and the other end of the rope was tossed to one of the mounted men. Walk or be dragged. No contest, really. He sighed as there was a pull on his arms, and took the first step.
The door closed with chilling finality. The condemned man pushed himself to his knees, crawling to the far corner of the cell. Twenty years! He shook his head in stunned disbelief. They might as well have just handed him a life sentence. Not that there had been anything legal about the proceedings. Less than twenty-four hours after his arrest, he’d been dragged in front of a tribunal, his guilt already established. Formal charges and evidence had been deemed unnecessary. The only order of business, so far as he could tell, was deciding whether he should live or die. All things considered, he might have preferred the death penalty. At least that would have been quick. The living hell he’d been consigned to could last for years. Now, he was locked away and no one would even know where he was. The shiver that ran down his spine wasn’t only caused by the damp, chill air.
Tomorrow, he’d be put to work and his torment would really begin. The guards would try to provoke him, to push him into retaliation so that they could punish him. It was a cycle he had endured before. The only way to survive was to pretend a submission that was utterly foreign to his nature. Eventually, if he couldn’t find a way to escape, they would beat the spirit out of him. But, he was a long way from that point – a long way from giving up. For tonight, he would try to sleep, harboring his strength to be ready for the days and weeks ahead. He’d find a way out. He swore that to himself with a fierce intensity. He would go home.
The day started early and with a flavor of what he could expect. Kicked awake, he was given a minute to relieve himself before being herded out into the yard. He shuffled his way into a line of prisoners approaching a rickety table. A bowl of slop and a stale hunk of bread were pushed into his hands. Under the watchful eyes of half a dozen armed guards, he sat with his back against a stunted tree and ate slowly. At a rough guess, there were twenty-five or thirty other inmates, all shackled as he was. They ranged in age from a boy, who looked to be no more than fifteen to the elderly man who had served them breakfast. All had the defeated look of men who no longer cared what happened to them. Their eyes were glazed and they moved slowly, never looking at any of the guards.
In addition to the guards in the yard, there were armed men on the walkway that ran along three sides of the prison. The stone walls looked to be in good condition and anyone trying to get to the heavy wooden gate would be shot down before they got within ten feet of it. The fourth side of the square contained the cells, offices and a basic infirmary. He’d seen them all on the way to his mockery of a trial.
The command was accompanied by another kick to his leg. Gritting his teeth, he pushed himself to his feet. He kept his head bowed to hide the hatred on his face. From under lowered lashes he saw the men being divided into groups. He was pushed toward the ones who looked to be the most physically fit. Another group of older men were given buckets of whitewash and told to start painting the walls of the yard. He and his new companions waited in silence.
“Today you will start work on the new prison block. With all you filthy peasants defying lawful authority this prison will soon become overcrowded.”
He recognized the voice of the camp commandant and risked a quick glance in the man’s direction. Captain Arriaga was immaculately dressed in grey jacket and trousers edged with silver trim. His white shirt was pristine and he wore a wide brimmed sombrero to protect himself from the rising sun. The arrogant bastard was strutting around like a rooster, his chest all puffed out. He wished he had his gun. The man wouldn’t look so proud, lying in the dirt coughing up blood.
“You will all work in the quarry, until there is sufficient stone to begin construction of the walls. Any man who does not work hard, or who tries to escape, will be shot.”
As several of the guards mounted their horses, others hurried to fasten manacles around the prisoners’ wrists. Chained hand and foot, it would be suicide to try to get away. The gate opened and they were ordered to form up into a column, walking two abreast.
“How far is it to this quarry?” Although he asked the question softly it carried far enough to reach the ears of the Captain.
“You are new here, mestizo, so I will forgive your stupidity. Prisoners do not ask questions. They do not talk unless they are given permission. You will learn the rules quickly or you will suffer a great deal of pain. If you cause no trouble for a month, you will be allowed one visitor, assuming there is anyone who cares about you.”
“And if I do cause trouble?” He regretted the words as soon as they left his lips, and the Captain’s contemptuous smile was all the answer he needed.
The quarry proved to be about two miles away from the prison. The guards rode; the picks, shovels and the rest of the equipment were transported by wagon. The prisoners walked. The short chains ensured that it was a slow and clumsy journey. As soon as they arrived at their destination, their wrists were unchained and they were given a small ration of water then put to work.
He hefted the pick in his hands, checking its balance and looked around. The guards were standing far enough away to keep them safe from attack. And, even if he could get out, where would he go? Without the keys to free him from his shackles, he would have to travel on foot and would be lucky to cover a mile before he was recaptured or shot. They had passed no houses or water and no one living within the shadow of a rurales prison would offer aid to an escaped prisoner. Whichever way he looked at it, he was stuck here.
“Get to work.” The shout was accompanied by the sting of a whip.
There was a sudden silence as all eyes turned to him, waiting to see what he would do. With an insolent smile, he raised the pick, bringing it crashing down on a large rock. There was a disappointed sigh from the other prisoners before they returned to work.
The day was long and hot, broken by periods of rest. Water was plentiful and the guards weren’t entirely unsympathetic if a prisoner collapsed from the heat. The whip was used sparingly, with the guards mostly contenting themselves with sitting in the shade, keeping close watch on the workers.
By mid-afternoon, he was almost on his knees with exhaustion. He stumbled over to the water barrel, wiping a grubby sleeve across his forehead to try and mop up some of the sweat pouring down his face. As he lifted the ladle to his mouth, he happened to look up at the rim of the quarry. He squinted against the bright sunlight, sure that he had seen a rider outlined against the blue sky. He poured some water over his hair, allowing it to trickle down his face and back. When he looked again the skyline was empty.
The sun was hanging low in the sky before work was halted for the day. There was no energy left for defiance as his wrists were chained and he began the long walk back to the prison. Each step was torture. He kept his head down, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other.
The quiet voice belonged to the young boy he had first seen in the yard. He shook his head, glancing at the nearest guard. The man was relaxed, no doubt recognizing that half-dead prisoners posed no threat. Although he tried to ignore the boy, the continued furtive looks in his direction soon began to weigh on his nerves.
“What do you want?” he asked wearily.
“Nothing.” The boy looked away.
With a heavy sigh he acknowledged that the boy was probably terrified, wanting no more than a kind word or two. “How did you end up here?” he asked, finally breaking his silence.
“I killed a man, one of the prison guards.”
The unexpected answer piqued his curiosity. “Why?”
“He was trying to force my little sister. I told him to stop. He laughed and told me to go away and leave him to have his fun. I took his gun when he wasn’t looking and I shot him.” There was pride in the boy’s voice, quickly replaced by a tremor. “They say they are going to execute me. Do you think they will?”
He had no doubt as to the answer, but how could he say it and destroy the thin sliver of hope lingering in the boy’s eyes. “Who knows? They would probably prefer to keep you alive to work. They can’t get any work out of a dead man.”
The misplaced gratitude made him feel sick. The boy was living on borrowed time.
“That was a fine meal, Teresa.” Scott leaned back in his chair, comfortably full of prime rib and mashed potato.
“It was excellent.” Murdoch smiled appreciatively at the young woman.
Teresa started to gather up the plates. “I thought I’d make some Mexican dishes tomorrow night, to welcome Johnny home.”
“Good idea. After eating trail rations for the last few days, I’m sure he’ll enjoy something hot and spicy.” Murdoch stood and walked over to the liquor cabinet. “Scott, would you join me on the porch for a brandy?”
The warm air was pleasant as Scott sank down into one of the chairs. He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the night. Long legs stretched out in front of him, he teetered on the edge of sleep. For the last two weeks, he’d been doing his own work and many of the tasks that would normally have fallen to his brother. There had been little time for leisure, but with Johnny due back tomorrow, he’d felt that he deserved an easier day. He’d returned early from the range, indulging in a long soak in the tub before pulling on clean clothes and sitting down to supper. Now, his body was sinking into a comfortable lethargy.
The door behind him opened and closed quietly and he lazily opened his eyes. His father was smiling down at him, holding out a glass of brandy. “Thank you, Sir.”
“You’ve been working yourself too hard, Son.” Murdoch sat with a sigh. “You could have left some of the jobs for the men.”
“One thing I learned in the cavalry was that the men respect an officer who pulls his weight. It’s no different on a ranch. Besides, I didn’t want Johnny to come home to a heavy workload. He’s had a long trip.”
“Yes, he has.”
Scott frowned at the note in his father’s voice. “You still worry about him, don’t you?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“I’m afraid so.” The brandy slipped down smoothly, setting up a warm glow in his stomach.
“I know I’m just being foolish. I worried about both of you for so long and it’s hard to break the habit.”
“I know what you mean. But, Johnny’s been a rancher now for almost three years. He’s made plenty of trips to Mexico on business without there being the slightest hint of trouble. I don’t think we have to worry about his past catching up with him any longer.”
Sleep had come easily. It was the waking that was hard. His feet were sore and blistered, his muscles ached and the thought of another day in the quarry sent his spirits plummeting. He reached the yard, looking around disinterestedly. His throat tightened when he saw that a sturdy post had been driven into the ground about two feet away from one of the outer walls. A weight settled on his chest and he looked around frantically, trying to see the boy he had spoken to the day before. The sudden silence was broken by a pathetic whimpering. The crowd of prisoners parted to reveal the boy being dragged toward the post by two of the guards.
Tears ran down the boys face as he was bound to the post. His lips moved silently as a dark cloth was tied across his eyes. His whole body shook as he forced out tremulous pleas, calling on God and, most heartbreakingly of all, calling for his mother.
Four of the guards took up their position as the Captain walked into the yard. “This prisoner is a condemned murderer and the penalty is death.”
The boy was quiet now as everyone waited in silence for the signal. There was no hope of a reprieve and everyone there knew it. When the order came, four rifles sounded in unison. Blood covered the boy’s clothes and splattered the newly whitewashed wall behind him. There was no doubt that the boy was dead. The body was cut free and carried away.
One of the guards approached him. “Clean up that mess.”
He looked at the man in shock. He’d seen a lot of death in his life, but this was one of the most callous killings he’d ever witnessed. With hatred in his heart, he snatched the bucket of water from the guard and did as he was told.
It had been a long day and Scott was later than he had intended. When Frank offered to tend to his horse he accepted gratefully and strode quickly to the front door, eager to see his brother. The great room was quiet. There was no sign of Teresa or Johnny, only Murdoch sitting behind his desk staring morosely at a stack of papers.
“He isn’t back yet.”
“Something must have delayed him.” Scott removed his gloves, setting them beside his hat on the table by the door. “His wire definitely said he’d be home today.”
“Yes, I know.”
“There’s still time. It’s not dark yet. Why don’t I go and see if Teresa can delay supper for an hour?”
“Good idea. She went to a lot of trouble. I’d hate to think it was going to go to waste.”
One hour passed, and then another, without there being any sign of Johnny. Eventually, they were all forced to concede that they wouldn’t be seeing him that night. The appreciative words of the other two Lancers, as the food was served, did little to lift Teresa’s spirits. They were part way through the meal when the front door opened. Scott turned in his seat and smiled broadly.
Johnny snatched off his hat, returned the smile and sauntered into the room. “Miss me?” he asked.
Johnny fanned out his cards, quickly sorting them into order, and pushed another fifty cents into the middle of the table. “Call.”
“You sure about that, Brother?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
Scott laid his cards on the table and Johnny groaned. “Damn, Scott. You keepin’ those Aces up your sleeve?”
“I hope you’re not accusing me of cheating?” Scott asked good-naturedly. “It just so happens that I have an affinity for numbers, and I have a fool-proof system.”
Silence greeted that announcement as the other men at the table looked to Johnny for clarification. “He means, boys, that he’s the only one with any money left so he gets to buy the next round.”
As Scott gathered up the money and called out orders to the bartender, Johnny lounged back in his chair. The saloon was busy, as it was most Saturday nights. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and the routine of coming here with his brother was a pleasant one. It had been a long time since he had gotten over the urge to see new places and find out what was on the far side of the next hill. He liked the familiarity – knowing people, and, being known in return as a rancher rather than a gunfighter.
The girl, however, who was pushing her way through the crowd to stand uncertainly in the middle of the room, was definitely not familiar. Johnny sat up, frowning as a few of the less sober customers began to whistle appreciatively, and make crude comments and suggestions. Johnny noticed that his brother had also seen her discomfort and was hurriedly making his way over to her.
“Señorita,” Scott said politely. “I’m not sure this is a safe place for you to be. Can I be of some assistance? There’s a boarding house…”
“I am looking for someone.” Her voice was low and Johnny had to strain to hear her words above the noise of the raucous crowd.
“If you tell me who it is, I’ll see if I can help.” Scott deftly moved the girl away from a small group of men who were staring at her.
Johnny didn’t hear her answer, as one of the other customers lurched drunkenly in front of him. Once the man had gone, he saw that Scott was looking in his direction, concern on his face. As Scott and the girl approached the table, Johnny stood up, a cold feeling settling in his gut.
“This is my brother, Johnny. Johnny, this is Cierra. She says that she needs to speak with you.”
“Sit down.” Johnny pulled out a chair. He knew his voice had been harsher than she deserved and caught Scott’s fleeting look of surprised disapproval.
“She’s come a long way,” Scott chided.
“If she’s come lookin’ for Johnny Madrid she’s had a wasted trip.”
“Madrid?” She shook her head in puzzled denial. “No, Señor, I have come to find Johnny Lancer.”
Johnny bowed his head to hide a self-deprecating smile. He’d jumped to conclusions and had just been put firmly in his place. The girl hadn’t even recognized the name. Although he had fought for years to rid himself of his past, he still felt a slight pang of regret. Looking up, he studied her more carefully. Her face and clothes bore the dirt of long and hard travel. Her hair was tangled and hung to her waist. He reckoned she’d be pretty if she was cleaned up. Dark crescents lay deeply imprinted under wide, haunted brown eyes.
“I’d have remembered if we’d met before,” Johnny said more gently. “Why don’t you tell us why you’re here?”
“I was asked to come by a man who said you are his friend. His name is José Joaquin Martinez. He needs your help.”
“How long?” Johnny’s question was abrupt and was accompanied by a dark glower.
They were in the great room at Lancer. The journey back had been fast and silent, with the girl riding behind Johnny, clinging fearfully to his back. She was huddled now in a corner of the sofa with Teresa sitting close by.
“He has been in prison for six months.”
“Why didn’t you come here sooner?” Johnny demanded.
“You do not understand, Señor. The prisoners are only allowed one visit each month and it does not take much for even that privilege to be taken away from them. For the first two months, José was not allowed visitors. The first time I saw him, he was cold and unwelcoming. I could not blame him for hating me. It was my fault the rurales captured him.”
“You’ve already told us that they threatened your family.” Scott sought to provide some reassurance. Cierra still looked terrified and miserable, and his brother’s pacing and harsh questioning weren’t helping.
She gave him a watery smile of gratitude before resuming her tale. “I went back to see him the next month and he gave me your name, Señor.” She looked at Johnny fearfully. “He asked me to find you.”
“But, you didn’t. You left him to rot in that prison for another two months.”
“I was afraid. I had never left my village before. How could I travel to California to find a man I had never met?” She sobbed dejectedly as Teresa put a comforting arm around her shoulders.
“Ease off, Johnny. She’s here now.”
“Don’t tell me to let her off easy, Scott. He could be dead by now for all we know. And, even if he’s still alive, d’you have any idea what those kind of prisons are like?”
“He is still alive,” Cierra said quietly.
“I think you’d better tell us the rest.” Murdoch had been listening silently up to that point, casting concerned glances in Johnny’s direction.
“When I went the following month, I was told that I could not see him – that he already had a visitor. I was curious to see who it was, so I waited. It was a man, well-dressed and riding a beautiful horse. I thought he might be someone who could help José and I held onto that hope for another month. When I went back, the guards laughed and said that he was no longer allowed visitors. They said he had become unmanageable, a wild animal who had to be tamed. I asked about the man who had visited him. Surely, someone as fine as that could do him some good? The answer they gave was what finally convinced me that I had to come.”
Johnny had gone perfectly still. “It was Emilio, wasn’t it? What did that bastard do?”
“Who’s Emilio?” Teresa asked.
“His brother. Half-brother,” Johnny amended quickly, throwing an apologetic look in Scott’s direction.
“Si, that is the name. Don Emilio Martinez. He has paid them, Señor. Paid them to lock up his own brother, and to keep him alive. That is how I know he isn’t dead. If he dies, the payments stop. It won’t matter how hard he provokes them, they will not kill him. He was sentenced to twenty years, and his brother intends for him to suffer every day of those years.”
José huddled in the corner of his cell. For three long months, he had clung on to hope, and the resolve to find a way to escape. The first time Cierra had visited him, he had been angry, believing that she had come to trick him again, or to mock his suffering. Only after she had gone, did he wonder if she might not have been sincere in her concern. He had been very well behaved for the next month, hoping that she would return, as by then, he had thought of the one man who might help him. His heart had swelled with anticipation when he saw her walking through the door. Setting aside his pride, he had begged her to find Johnny. He knew what a hard thing he was asking of her, and his optimism had gradually ebbed away as the weeks had passed without any sign of rescue.
When his hated older brother arrived, confessing smugly that he had arranged everything, José had tried to kill him. It had felt good to wrap his hands around Emilio’s throat, squeezing with a strength born of deep rooted hatred and a need for revenge. That had earned him a beating while his brother watched. He had bled on the rug while Emilio sat in a comfortable chair, sipping wine and laughing with the Captain.
The next few weeks had been hard. He had alternated between a state of numb disbelief, and wild optimism that Johnny would find a way to rescue him. For Emilio’s second visit, he had been chained to the wall. The Captain wasn’t going to risk further injury to his wealthy Patron. He had listened in silence to his brother’s tale of their father’s failing health, caused by the mistaken belief that his younger son had abandoned him to return to the wild ways of his youth.
“So, you see, mi hermano,” Emilio said, dark eyes glittering with malice, “his death will lie on your conscience.”
“Why?” The question was asked unwillingly, yet, he had to know for what reason he had been condemned to this hell.
Emilio moved closer, wrinkling his nose at the stench. “For twenty years, you and our father humiliated my mother. Your very existence was an insult, and the fact that he loved you, only rubbed salt into the wound. She died cursing you both and I swore I would find a way to make you pay. You will spend the next twenty years of your life doing penance for your sins.”
“My sins? I didn’t ask to be born.”
“You and your slut of a mother stole the love that was rightfully mine. My honor…”
José laughed. “Honor? You’re full of…” He choked as the guard smashed a fist into his stomach. His head lolled forward, long greasy dark hair falling across his face. Another blow fell and then another. He could hear his brother’s laughter and knew he was doomed.
Since then he had refused to work or to eat. Constant beatings, and lack of nourishment, were taking their toll and he didn’t think he would last much longer. A detached part of his mind found amusement in the increasingly desperate expression on Captain Arriaga’s face. Threats, pleas, orders were all ignored.
When his cell door opened he involuntarily cringed back against the wall. He was too weak to fight them and prayed daily for death to take him. His chains scraped discordantly across the stone floor as he was dragged out. He sagged in pathetic relief when he realized that he wasn’t being taken to the whipping post. He was coming to fear the lash which caused unimaginable pain without ever giving him the mercy of oblivion.
Self-disgust filled him at his cowardice. He tried to get his feet under him, succeeding as they arrived outside the Captain’s office. One of the guards knocked and then he was inside. A lingering pride made him raise his head.
The harsh oath startled him and he twisted round to look. “Emilio.” He spat the word as his guards tightened their grip on his arms.
“The Captain was worried about your health.” Emilio appeared recovered from his shock, his disdainful gaze sweeping José from head to toe. “So, he asked me to come and persuade you to see reason.”
“He is only worried about his money.”
“That is probably true.” Hard fingers gripped his chin. “You will not escape your fate so easily, mi hermano.”
José closed his eyes tiredly. “You have lost, Emilio. You always lose.”
“Lost?” Emilio laughed. “I have not even begun.”
José’s eyes snapped open at Emilio’s confident assertion. It was with a feeling of deep apprehension that he was taken from the office and down the narrow hallway to the infirmary. Terror gripped him as he was strapped to the doctor’s operating table.
“This will be a lesson in obedience, mestizo,” Captain Arriaga snarled.
His head was immobilized. There was the sound of hurried footsteps and then the doctor was looming over him, holding a cup and demanding that he be kept still. Cruel fingers pried his mouth open and a stream of thin gruel was poured in. His efforts to fight back were brutally repressed. Unable to move, and with his mouth held open, he had no choice but to swallow. He gagged and choked and still the doctor continued his task, pausing only when the cup had to be refilled. By the time they had finished, he was covered in the disgusting concoction, but enough had settled in his stomach to satisfy his tormentors. A damp towel was used to wipe away the worst of the mess as Emilio looked down his aristocratic nose with distaste.
“Let me explain how things will be from now on.”
José was too sore and miserable to rise to his brother’s bait. His stomach cramped and he fought against the ignominy of being sick.
“Every day that you refuse to eat, you will be brought here and forcibly fed. It will be painful and humiliating. But, in case that is not sufficient incentive to behave, your actions will also serve to deny one of the other prisoner’s his rations. You will not die, but you will be condemning another man to a slow, lingering death in your place. Will your conscience allow that, hermano?”
Horror at his brother’s cruelty rendered him mute. It also awoke in him a renewed determination to survive and to find a way to take his revenge. Hatred and contempt filled him and he did nothing to hide those feelings. Emilio’s confident smile wavered.
“Any punishment you earn,” Emilio continued, “will be shared with others. You will work without complaint until you drop. You will follow orders without argument. If you are whipped, you will not suffer alone. Is this clear?”
“I will see you dead and in hell.” José pushed the words past his bruised throat.
“I am sure you would like to try.” Emilio turned away dismissively to address the Captain. “Keep me informed, discreetly, of his progress. I will return next month.” A final contemptuous look raked José. “Adios, hermano.”
Murdoch pressed glasses of brandy into his sons’ hands. Both looked stunned by Cierra’s story. She was now in the care of Teresa, physically exhausted and drained by the strain of making the difficult journey from her home. Johnny’s antagonism hadn’t lessened and the girl had looked grateful at being given the chance to escape from his harsh stare.
“How could he do that to his own brother?” Scott asked.
Johnny shook his head, wordlessly, sniffed the brandy and grimaced.
“What are we going to do about it?” Scott pressed.
There was no mistaking the gratitude in Johnny’s smile. Before his sons had come home, Murdoch had wondered how two such different young men would respond to each other. He couldn’t have been happier with the answer. Oh, they had their ups and downs, squabbling like any normal siblings. But, when it mattered, they were ready to support each other.
“Before we decide what to do, I’d like to know a little more about the Martinez family. What can you tell us about the older brother, Emilio?” Murdoch settled himself comfortably in one of the armchairs. He had a feeling this was going to be a long night.
“He’s a mean bastard,” Johnny growled, still tense and angry.
“Sit down, John, and start at the beginning,” Murdoch encouraged, knowing how much Johnny hated talking about his past.
Initial resistance faded away as Johnny joined his brother on the sofa. “I first met José when we were both kids. I think he was the first person I’d come across who had blue eyes like mine. It sorta brought us together.”
Murdoch forced himself not to react to the lingering pain in his son’s voice.
“He was a couple of years older than me, and Emilio was ten years, or more, older than him. We settled for a while in a village owned by Don Ricardo Martinez. There were rumors that José was his son, but I was too young to understand the implications of that. His mother was American, a real sweet lady who’d owned a small ranch with her husband. She’d been widowed young and José was her only child. Oh boy, but he was wild. He’d get into all sorts of trouble and drag me right along with him.” Johnny’s eyes became unfocussed as he remembered, and there was a slight smile on his lips.
“Emilio used to ride to the village from time to time, throwin’ his weight around. His father was El Patron and he could pretty much do what he liked. José was the only one to stand up to him. It’s funny now to think of it. There he was, maybe eight years old, scrawny and dirty, facing down a young man who had the power to snuff him out like a candle.”
“Do you think Emilio knew?”
“Yeah, Scott. Reckon that was why José got away with as much as he did. Turned out that Don Ricardo loved the boy and his mother, and made sure everyone knew they were under his protection. His wife, though, she wasn’t happy. She was one hard-faced puta and I think the only person she ever cared about was Emilio. I heard later that she made Don Ricardo send José and his mother away.”
“I can understand why the Señora would have been unhappy,” Murdoch interjected softly.
Johnny shrugged. “Wasn’t an unusual situation. It was one of those political marriages to unite two of the old Spanish families. I don’t think there was any love on either side. A lot of the wealthy landowners married for money or power and had bastards scattered around. I think the trouble here, was that José’s mother wasn’t some servant who could be sent back to her family with a bag of gold to ease the shame. And, worse than that, he was a mestizo.”
“Johnny,” Murdoch chided gently. “You know my views on that word.”
“Just telling it like it is.”
“So, what happened?” Scott leaned forward.
“We moved on, just like we always did. When I was sixteen I went back. I’d always wondered what had happened to him, you know? Well, it sure wasn’t what I’d expected. His mother was dead and he was living in the hacienda. Don Ricardo had acknowledged him as his son and moved him in. The Señora and Emilio were real unhappy, but the Don wasn’t the kind of man you crossed. I stayed for a while and you can imagine how they felt, having another mest…” Johnny cleared his throat uncomfortably.
“Thing was, José was restless. He didn’t like being told what to do and he hated his brother as much as Emilio hated him. He used to talk about riding off, looking for adventure.” Johnny smiled. “He did that alright. A couple of years later I went back and, when I left, he came with me. After a while he went off on his own. Got into trouble with the authorities, did some time in a Mexican jail. He even became involved in some of the uprisings against the land owners. He and I crossed paths occasionally. Last I heard, his father had paid the rurales to leave him alone and he was back at the estancia. I sent a message to him when I settled here, letting him know he had a place to stay if he was ever in California.”
“What about Emilio?” Scott asked.
Johnny sneered. “He stayed home and learned how to boss people around. And, once I get José out of that hellhole, I’m gonna help him get his revenge.”
“We, Brother,” Scott said forcefully. “I’m not letting you go off alone.”
“This is my problem.”
“I’d like to make a suggestion.” Murdoch stood up, walking over to stand in front of the fireplace so that he could watch both of his sons. “You’ve told us that Don Ricardo did everything he could to protect his son. Assuming that he’s still alive, wouldn’t he have enough power to free him, especially if he’s being held illegally.”
“That’s a good point.” Scott lifted his glass in a half-salute. “Is José’s father still alive?”
“Far as I know he is. But, we’ll just be wastin’ time.”
“And what happens if you go charging into that prison and get killed trying to break him out?” Murdoch asked reasonably. “No, Johnny, the sensible thing is to go to his father.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Johnny conceded grudgingly. “I just don’t like to think about him being locked up in that place.”
“Then,” Murdoch said with a fond smile for his youngest son, “I suggest you and
Scott go and pack, so that you can leave first thing in the morning.”
“I assume we’re not going straight to the hacienda.”
The brothers had stopped to water their horses at a small stream. Scott bent down to soak his handkerchief, using it to cool the back of his neck. It was hot and airless without even a breath of wind. The only sounds were the contented snuffles of the horses, the jingle of tack and insects droning in the late afternoon sunshine.
“Nope.” Johnny scooped up a handful of water, drinking with a quiet sigh of pleasure. “We’ll go to the village first. See how the land lies.”
“Will you be recognized?”
“Hard to say. I ain’t been there for more than six years. They were real nice people, though. There weren’t many places where a blue-eyed kid was accepted without question. Reckon I had José and his mama to thank for that.”
“Why didn’t you stay?” Scott gathered up the reins, backing his horse away from the water and preparing to remount.
“I don’t know. Mama never really settled anywhere. Maybe she was afraid Murdoch or that gambler would find us if we stayed too long in one place. We were only there for six months, but I reckon it was one of the happiest times I can remember.” Johnny’s expression was pensive as he swung up onto Barranca’s back. “Just before we left, José came up with this crazy idea about us becoming blood brothers. He said that way we’d never forget each other.”
Scott watched as Johnny turned his left hand over so that he could look at his palm. A thin, almost invisible, white line crossed the tanned skin. “Is that where that scar came from?”
“Yeah. He found a sharp stone, and before I knew what he was doing, he’d cut both our hands. It hurt like hell.” Johnny grinned suddenly. “You should have heard my mama yellin’ when I got home with blood dripping all over her clean floor. She gave me a smack across the head for bein’ stupid, then fussed over me for hours. It was kinda nice, especially as it didn’t happen too often.”
The thin thread of sadness in Johnny’s voice stirred Scott’s sympathy. He would never criticize Maria, he hadn’t known her or what drove her to act the way she had. Whatever her failings as a mother and wife, Johnny loved her. It didn’t prevent Scott feeling anger at her decision to tear Johnny away from a place where he was welcomed and happy – where he had a friend. “We’ll find a way to get him out.”
Johnny’s response was matter-of-fact, a reflection of his unyielding determination. “I know. It’s a bad place to be and he never took much to being trapped between four walls.”
“How much further to the village?”
“We should be there by nightfall. The hacienda is another half a day’s ride. There’re a few villages scattered around and everyone owes their livelihood to Don Ricardo. Heaven help them when Emilio inherits.”
This wasn’t the first time that Scott had visited a Mexican village. That experience, as the ‘guest’ of Vicente Silva, had been educational, if not exactly voluntary. However, he’d never before been to a place where Johnny had lived as a child. He looked around with interest, trying to imagine what it would have been like. The houses although small, were well maintained. The children, running and playing, looked happy. The few adults watched his and Johnny’s progress warily, without any overt hostility or fear.
He glanced sideways. Johnny looked relaxed, smiling faintly and clearly lost in happy memories. The mood wouldn’t last. Soon thoughts of the past would become buried beneath the harsh truths of the present. Both knew what it was like to be in prison, helpless, degraded and without hope. There could be no doubt about their commitment to securing José’s freedom. If they were lucky, the task could be accomplished through diplomacy and a healthy dose of bribery. If there was one thing Scott had learnt during his association with Johnny, it was that money was a powerful motivator south of the border.
A crudely carved and painted sign marked one building as being a small cantina. The brothers dismounted, collecting their rifles and saddlebags before entering through the narrow doorway. Three mismatched tables and a counter made the room look crowded even though there were no other customers. The tempting aroma of spices wafted through from the kitchen doorway, causing Scott to lick his lips. Eating on the trail was all well and good, but it would be a relief to eat something they didn’t have to catch and cook for themselves.
“Buenos noches,” the owner, a small cheerful man, greeted them, wiping his hands on his apron.
Scott held back content to let Johnny take the lead.
“We could do with a hot meal, a drink and someplace to bed down for the night,” Johnny replied, laying his gear on one of the tables.
Scott noticed that his brother had his hat pulled down low, shading his eyes. In the dim light, it was unlikely that he would be recognized quickly.
“My wife is making tamales and beans. They will be ready soon. In the meantime, we have tequila or beer.” The man leaned over and whispered conspiratorially. “I recommend the tequila. The beer tastes like horse piss.”
Johnny smiled broadly. “Then I guess we’ll follow your advice. And, tamales and beans sound real fine.”
The man laughed, placing a bottle and two glasses on the bar. A bowl of quartered limes and a small dish of salt quickly followed. “This is only a small village, but you are welcome to sleep in here tonight.”
“Gracias.” Johnny poured the drinks, grinning as Scott eyed the liquid with justifiable suspicion. “Come on, Brother, it ain’t gonna bite.”
“No, but the last time I drank tequila with you, I felt like I’d been kicked by a mule.”
“You have no sense of adventure.” The contents of Johnny’s glass disappeared down his throat and his eyes widened in appreciation. “Boy, that’s powerful stuff.”
“This bottle was given to me by Don Ricardo,” the owner confided. “The Patron is a very generous man.”
“So we heard.” Johnny bit into a slice of lime. “That’s why we’re down this way. Hoping we might see him.”
“You are looking for work?” The man’s gaze slid to Johnny’s gun.
“Not that kind of work.” Johnny removed his hat, slapping the dust off it before setting it down by his saddlebags.
A puzzled look crossed their host’s face. “Do I know you, Señor?”
“Yeah, Señor Torres, I reckon you do.”
José stared at the bowl, acutely aware that he was being watched by the guards and his fellow prisoners. In the days since Emilio’s last visit, word had spread about the terms of his captivity. Now, none of the other prisoners ventured near him. No one wanted to be singled out to share in any punishment that he might earn. They looked at him resentfully, as if it were his fault that they too were being threatened. The Captain was standing in the doorway, a cruel smile on his lips. José suspected that it would please his jailor if he were to rebel against Emilio’s dictates. He dipped his spoon into the thin stew before staring defiantly at the Captain and bringing it to his lips. He took his time, ignoring the hostile stares. After he had finished, a guard inspected the bowl to ensure that he had eaten everything. Captain Arriaga waited for the guard to report before returning inside.
He stretched out his legs, looking without interest at the leg irons circling his ankles. He barely even noticed them now, and it was becoming harder to remember a time when he hadn’t worn them. Soon, he would be locked up again for the night and the dark thoughts would return. He welcomed them now as, little by little, his humanity was stripped away. He no longer cared about anyone else and in this, his half-brother had miscalculated badly. All that mattered was surviving to wreak his revenge. If he appeared cooperative, it was only an illusion designed to lull his captors into a false sense of security. He ate because he needed to remain strong, not because of the threats of retribution. He worked, to avoid the pain and blood loss inflicted by the lash. They thought they had broken him. They were wrong.
Señora Torres cleared away the remains of their meal, blushing in response to Johnny’s effusive thanks. The cantina remained quiet. Only one other table was occupied by an elderly gentleman whose dog was curled up at his feet.
Johnny grinned across the table at his brother. “That sure beat your cooking.”
“Almost anything beats my cooking,” Scott agreed equably. “But, that was a fine meal. And, I didn’t have to put up with the noise of you trying to shoot the fish for our supper.”
“Shoot, Señor?” They had been joined by the proprietor for their meal and he looked between the brothers in confusion.
“Johnny doesn’t understand that fishing is supposed to be a quiet and restful pursuit,” Scott explained. “Patience isn’t one of his virtues.”
“I’ve got plenty of other virtues, though.”
“Really?” Scott raised an eyebrow in polite query. “Care to name some?”
Johnny’s smile broadened. “Let’s see if I can remember. Yeah.” He carefully hid his amusement. “I can ride harder and draw faster and talk sweeter than any other man ever born.”
“You know, sometimes I wish I’d never told you about that.”
“Don’t forget the rest,” Johnny smirked.
“Yes, I know. The strength of Samson. The courage of Achilles. The wisdom of Solomon. The beauty of Apollo. The purity of Galahad. The list just goes on and on. Violet had one hell of an imagination, although, I think Chapel spiced it up a bit to get back at Drago.”
Señor Torres’ bemused look brought Johnny back to the reason for their visit. “We need to get in to see Don Ricardo, and it would be a damn sight healthier for us if we could do it without Emilio finding out.”
“It is impossible. The Patron has not left the hacienda for many months. My nephew works there and he says that the Don is dying of a broken heart. For years he protected José. You were his friend and you know this, Señor. Imagine then how he felt to have all that love and care flung back in his face.”
“Go on.” Johnny’s voice was cold.
"José was entrusted with the task of negotiating an important contract. I was told that Don Emilio argued against it, but the Patron would not be swayed. A large sum of money was handed over and then José vanished, taking the money with him. Search parties were sent out to find him. It took a long time before information came to light. José had gone far to the south and was financing a revolt against one of the big landowners. His brother sent a message begging him to come home for his father’s sake. He refused.”
Johnny’s anger was threatening to choke him. Emilio had covered his tracks well. If it hadn’t been for Cierra, no one would ever have known the truth. “Emilio lied. He paid the Rurales to arrest José and put him in prison. We know where he is, but getting him out won’t be easy. That’s why we need to speak to his father. Don Ricardo will know who to approach.”
“Are you sure? Don Emilio is a hard man, but surely, no one could do this to their own brother.”
“We’re sure,” Scott replied. “We’ve spoken to someone who was there when he was arrested.”
“Then, I wish you luck. But, I still say that what you seek is impossible. All the men are loyal to Emilio. You will not get close to the hacienda without being stopped.”
“Maybe there is a way,” Scott said thoughtfully. “Emilio will recognize you, but he has no reason to suspect me. Common courtesy should ensure that he gives a weary traveler a room for the night. Once I’m in the house, I’ll be able to find a way to speak to José’s father.”
“I don’t like it, Scott. Emilio’s a ruthless bastard who’d have your throat cut if he found out what you were up to.”
“He won’t find out. I’ll have to avoid using the Lancer name, in case he knows of the connection. We can come up with a plausible story to explain why I’m in the area. Once I’ve spoken to Don Ricardo, I’ll be under his protection. It has to be worth the risk.”
“You know that Murdoch’ll have my hide if anything happens to you?”
“We don’t have any other choice. We’ve already agreed we can’t leave José where he is. Neither of us has any influence down here, so we don’t have a hope of talking anyone into letting José loose. If we try to break him out, we’ll likely both end up locked up with him, assuming that we survive the attempt. I don’t think our father would be too happy about that either and I have no pressing urge to find myself back in prison.”
“Why do you always have to be so damn logical?” Johnny groused.
“That’s what happens when you’re raised by an accountant.” Scott’s smile faded quickly. “You know I’m right.”
“Don’t mean I have to like it.”
“Believe me, I’d be happier if there was a viable alternative.”
“Alright, we’ll do it your way. But, if you get any hint that Emilio suspects you, you hightail it out of there as fast as you can.”
“Don’t worry, Brother.”
The hacienda was impressive. Scott led his horse up the driveway, taking in the gleaming white walls and carefully tended grounds. He’d loosened one of the animal’s shoes a mile or so back up the trail and had been walking it carefully ever since. Two men stepped out into the sunshine to greet him. One of the men matched the description he’d been given of Emilio. The other, his gun slung low on his hip, was hard-eyed and watchful.
“You have no idea how happy I am to see this house,” Scott said, forcing out a smile. “My horse pulled up lame and I think he needs to be re-shod.”
“I am Emilio Martinez. Welcome to my home. You look tired. One of my men will see to your horse. Please, come inside.”
“That’s very kind of you. My name is Scott Garrett.” Scott extended his hand, although, in truth, the last thing he wanted to do was shake hands with a man who could condemn his own brother to brutal slavery.
He was ushered into a cool hallway where a servant hurried to take his hat and gloves. The house was very quiet. A large portrait of an aristocratic gentleman hung on the wall just inside the doorway. He could see the resemblance to Emilio, although this man had a kinder face.
“My father, Don Ricardo,” Emilio explained as he saw the direction of Scott’s gaze.
“I hope I will have the opportunity to meet him.”
“That is unlikely. He is very unwell and rarely leaves his room. Can I offer you a drink?”
Scott sat on one of the armchairs and accepted a glass of wine. His feet felt like they were on fire. His boots hadn’t been made for walking over blisteringly hot ground. However, that was nothing when compared to the conditions in which José was being forced to work. Cierra had explained about the quarry and the long walk there and back, barefoot and chained. He had never killed a man in cold blood, but the urge to draw his gun and blast Emilio to hell was very strong. He took a sip of his wine, silently cautioning himself to be careful.
“Are you just passing through, Señor Garrett?”
“Please, call me Scott. I’m trying to locate some good breeding stock for my employer. He’s worried that his herd is becoming too inbred and wants to introduce some new blood.”
“Have you come far?”
“The ranch I work for is outside Stockton, in California.”
“Then, you are a long way from home.”
“Yes, I am, and I’m not making much progress with my search. Perhaps you have some stock that my employer might be interested in purchasing.”
“It is possible. Why don’t you stay for a few days and I will arrange for my Segundo to show you around.”
“I don’t want to impose on your kindness.”
“It is no imposition. A room will be prepared for you. I’m sure you would like to bathe and rest before dinner. Tomorrow we can talk business.”
“How can I refuse such a gracious invitation?”
“I did not know we were expecting a guest.”
The heavily accented female voice drew Scott swiftly to his feet. The young woman entering the room had a natural grace which balanced her formal clothing and severe hairstyle. Although lacking any pretense of beauty she would still attract admiring glances.
“My wife, Laurene,” Emilio said with unmistakable pride.
Scott shot him a quick look. He hadn’t imagined that a man capable of such cruelty toward a member of his family, could experience, and display, such open affection.
“Laurene, this is Scott Garrett. A problem with his horse led him to our door. I have invited him to stay.”
Laurene held out her hand, her smile welcoming. Scott stepped forward, bringing her hand to his lips in an instinctively gallant gesture. “My pleasure, Señora. I will try not to be a burden.”
“I am delighted that you have decided to stay. It is rare for us to have company. Finish your wine and I will show you to your room.”
“I am afraid you must excuse me.” Emilio crossed the room to kiss his wife on the cheek. “I have some business to attend to. Dinner will be served at seven.”
Fifteen minutes later, Scott was looking around a comfortable bedroom. He sat on the bed and pulled off his boots with an undisguised sigh of pure relief. Now, all he had to do was find out which room belonged to Don Ricardo and convince this man, who had no reason to believe him, that his eldest son was responsible for the disappearance of his younger son. And, he had to achieve all that without alerting Emilio to his true intent. He lay back on the bed and groaned. This was not going to be easy!
Once he was sure that his unexpected guest was safely out of the way, Emilio sat at his desk, thinking. With an abrupt movement he pulled a sheet of paper toward him and began to write. Once he had finished he sent for Tomas. “I want you to go to the prison and give this letter to Captain Arriaga.”
Tomas accepted the sealed missive. “Anything else, Patron?”
“Si. I am no longer convinced that it is safe to leave José there.”
Tomas raised an eyebrow. “Is there a reason to be worried?”
“I hope not. I do not intend to be cheated out of my revenge. That is why I want you to move him someplace further away.”
“Take him to the mountains. There are many mining operations there which will pay for strong labor. Sell him to one of those.”
Tomas shook his head. “Those men do not live long lives. I thought you wanted him to suffer.”
“So long as he feels pain and misery before he dies, that will be enough. It is better than risking someone finding out where he is and rescuing him.”
“Is it this stranger who has made you so uneasy?”
“Perhaps.” Emilio drummed his fingers on the desk, trying to isolate the source of his unease. “Leave immediately.”
“Si, Patron. It will be my pleasure.”
From his vantage point, Johnny could see the back of the hacienda, including the barns, outbuildings and corrals. He had shadowed his brother until Scott had turned into the driveway leading to the house. The bad feeling hadn’t left him. He had never expected that they would be forced into a position where Scott was alone and vulnerable.
Everything looked as well tended as it had on his previous visits. He’d never gotten close to the hacienda when he was a child and had been unwillingly impressed as a fledgling gunhawk. He’d ridden up to the front door, full of sass, only to be thoroughly charmed by Don Ricardo. He’d been welcomed as José’s friend and treated like a king except by the sour faced Señora and her coldly arrogant son.
He’d tried not to feel envious of José’s good fortune. It had been surprisingly painful to watch father and son interact, wondering what it would be like to be loved that unconditionally. Now he knew and it was better than any of the fanciful imaginings of a young boy.
José, even then, had pushed the boundaries, almost as if he was testing his father’s love. For the duration of Johnny’s first visit they had run wild, ignoring all social conventions. José had obviously, and maliciously, delighted in upsetting his step-mother, who had been too well bred to do more than look down her aristocratic nose at him.
Late one evening, unable to sleep, Johnny had wandered out into the secluded garden. He had heard raised voices coming from the great room. With no sense of shame he had stayed in the shadows, listening to the Don and his wife arguing. Don Ricardo had made excuse upon excuse for his younger son’s behavior. He had even gone as far as blaming his wife for forcing him to leave José fatherless for so long. ‘Was it any wonder,’ Don Ricardo had flung at her, ‘that the boy was wild and ungovernable?’
Johnny had retreated then, belatedly embarrassed about eavesdropping on such a personal conversation. José’s behavior in the years following that perhaps explained why the Don had now fallen for Emilio’s lies. There had always been a self-destructive side to José that Johnny recognized well. Maybe, if he’d been pulled out of his life by Murdoch when he was in his teens, he might have rebelled as well. As it was, his father had rescued him back from the brink at a time when he had yearned to be saved.
He vividly recalled Murdoch recounting the words of Sexton Joe and Isham on the night when they had come to murder him. ‘Fallen angels,’ was what Sexton Joe had called gunfighters. Johnny thought that was an apt description, but what touched him the most was Isham’s assertion that he had never quite hit bottom. Sometimes Johnny wondered if, in his own way, José had.
He looked to the east. José’s prison lay less than a day’s ride away. To be so close to home, yet unable to reach it, must be killing his friend. A rider, cutting east from the corral, drew Johnny’s attention. If it had been earlier in the day he wouldn’t have thought anything of it. However, it was now late afternoon and this man was in a hurry. Added to that was the fact that the rider was towing a second horse. Johnny looked indecisively back at the hacienda. He was supposed to wait in the village for Scott to send word. He gathered up Barranca’s reins. He’d never been very good at waiting. It wouldn’t hurt to trail the rider for a few miles. He was unlikely to hear anything from Scott until tomorrow anyway.
“Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone, Brother,” he breathed softly as he settled into the saddle and touched his spurs to Barranca’s flanks.
It was a few minutes before seven when Scott left his room, having bathed, shaved and changed into clean clothes. As he closed the door, he saw one of the servants approaching carrying a tray. The man lowered his eyes respectfully as he passed. Balancing the heavily laden tray, awkwardly, the man fumbled for the handle of a door a few rooms further down from Scott’s own.
Scott quickly covered the distance between them. “Let me help you.” He reached for the handle and pushed the door open.
“Gracias, Señor.” The servant edged into the room.
“De nada,” Scott replied, taking the opportunity to look inside. The room was dark, with heavy drapes tightly closed across the windows. A huge four poster bed dominated the room. Opaque drapes surrounded it, preventing Scott from seeing if it was occupied. The stale smell of sickness permeated the room. He took a step inside as the servant laid the tray on a table and approached the bed.
“I have brought your supper, Patron.”
If there was any answer Scott didn’t hear it.
“Señor Garrett. You should not be in here.” Laurene’s voice was filled with disapproval.
“My apologies, Señora.” Scott moved smoothly back into the hallway. “Your servant looked like he needed some help and…”
“That was thoughtful of you, Señor, but quite unnecessary.”
Scott accepted the rebuke, not wanting to draw attention to his curiosity. He offered Laurene his arm, along with his most charming smile. A trace of pink appeared in her cheeks as she accepted his unspoken offer. He escorted her to the ornate staircase, noting that Emilio was waiting at the bottom.
“I was becoming concerned, my dear.”
Scott held his breath as Laurene gracefully descended to the entrance hall.
“I was momentarily detained,” she replied, making no reference to Scott’s presence in her father-in-law’s room.
“I have instructed my Segundo to cut out some cattle tomorrow morning,” Emilio informed Scott as they entered the dining room.
Scott nodded, distracted by the grandeur of the room they had just entered. It was awash with candle light, which caught and reflected from the crystal glasses and silverware. Numerous vases contained elaborate arrangements of flowers, adding color and life to the scene. One wall was dominated by a large fireplace, with a portrait above it of Don Ricardo and an elegant lady. It was a formal picture, but even so, Scott could detect no warmth between the couple.
The scrape of a chair brought his attention back to the table. Laurene was already seated. He took his place opposite her and Emilio sat in the chair at the head of the table. As soon as they were all seated there was a flurry of activity. A formally dressed servant poured wine as a young woman ladled out soup from a large tureen. Scott noticed that her hands were shaking as she served Emilio.
“Has your family lived here long?” Scott asked, to break the awkward silence.
“My grandfather settled this land,” Emilio replied, frowning at the girl, who backed away to stand by the wall.
“You have an impressive home.” Scott sampled the soup, grateful that he was used to eating spicy food.
“Gracias, but I am more interested in hearing about your employer’s ranch.”
“Emilio,” Laurene chided softly. “Must we discuss business at the dinner table? It has been so long since we have had a guest.”
“I won’t impose upon your hospitality for long, Señora. I will be on my way tomorrow.” He and Johnny had agreed that it would be unsafe for him to linger at the estancia any longer than one night. If he didn’t return to the village by nightfall tomorrow, his brother was likely to come looking for him.
“You misunderstand me,” Laurene continued. “It is a pleasure to have company. With my father-in-law so ill we seldom travel or entertain visitors.”
Scott saw a flash of anger on Emilio’s face. “I am sorry to hear that. Do you have any other family?”
Emilio’s spoon hit the dish with considerable force. “No one of consequence. What about you? Do you have family in California?”
The soup plates were gathered up and cleared away. Scott picked up his glass, sipping the wine, covering his reaction to Emilio’s words. ‘No one of consequence!’ The dismissal was chilling, especially as Scott had a good idea of the conditions in which José was being held. Laurene looked as if she wanted to pursue the point, the impulse being quelled by a severe look from her husband.
“I have a father and a younger brother,” Scott finally replied. A plate of chicken and rice was placed in front of him. The meat, when he cut into it, was tender and had been flavored with spices and lime. “This meal is wonderful and very welcome after living on trail rations.”
Laurene smiled at him. “We have an exceptional cook.” She took a small bite of chicken before laying down her fork.
“Are you feeling well, my dear?” Emilio asked before adding with unmistakable pride. “My wife is carrying my heir.”
Scott began to feel a little nauseous himself. “Congratulations.” He hoped that he sounded sincere. Laurene’s pregnancy would give Emilio even more of an incentive to keep José locked away.
Laurene’s hand hovered over her belly and Scott could now see the slight rounding which he had missed earlier. He returned his attention to his food, although he no longer had any appetite. The sooner this meal was over, the happier he would be. Once everyone was asleep, he would speak to Don Ricardo in the hope that he was well enough to understand that his younger son’s life depended upon him.
The daylight was fading and still the man in front of him pressed on. Johnny reined Barranca to a standstill, torn between continuing and returning to the village. They had traveled far enough for him to be reasonably sure that the man he was following was headed for José’s prison. He chewed his bottom lip as he considered his options. It would soon be too dark to travel safely, which meant that he was facing a night in the open. In the morning, he could either continue or turn back. It was the presence of a second horse that brought him to his decision. If the horse was for José it meant he was to be moved and Johnny couldn’t risk losing track of his friend. Also, once out in the open there was a good chance of staging a rescue. Enlisting the aid of Don Ricardo had always been a long shot given the fragile nature of his health. This might be his only realistic chance of saving José.
He rode a little further before branching off the trail. He had no food with him and wouldn’t be able to risk a fire, but those were small inconveniences. A small stream provided fresh water for him and his horse. He spread out his bedroll before removing the saddle and allowing Barranca to graze. Settling himself comfortably, he gazed up at the night sky and the slowly emerging stars. It had been a night like this when José had saved his life, strengthening a bond that was already strong between them and placing upon him a debt that he was determined to repay. He closed his eyes and remembered.
“Why did you become a gunfighter?”
The unexpected question brought a frown to Johnny’s face. He finished turning the fish in the frying pan as he considered his answer. “I’m good with a gun. It pays well. And,” he added mischievously, “It sure beats herding dumb cows around.”
“What was it like the first time you killed a man?” José persisted.
The first time he’d faced a man in the street had been terrifying, and exhilarating, and he’d never felt more alive than in the seconds before his gun had cleared leather and he had fired at another human being. “He was the one who called me out. He thought that I’d be an easy kill. He was wrong.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“No, I guess I didn’t. Pass me your plate.” He grinned at the look of frustration on his friend’s face. “Why’d you want to know anyway?”
“Maybe I’m tired of herding dumb cows around.”
At eighteen, Johnny had seen more of the dark side of life than he cared to remember. He’d made his choices and would live or die by them. José didn’t need to take those kinds of risks. “What would your father say if you told him you were plannin’ to run out on him?”
“He doesn’t need me. He’s got Emilio.”
“He loves you and that ain’t something you should be lookin’ to throw away.”
José accepted the plate of fish, sitting down on a rock with an irritated sigh. “I’m bored, Johnny. Emilio runs the ranch and he treats me worse than any of the other vaqueros. Why do you think you and me are stuck out here watching the herd? He says I don’t need to know anything about the business side of things because he’ll inherit everything when our father dies.”
“Doesn’t your father see how he treats you?”
“I guess so, but he never says anything. He and my bitch of a step-mother spend most of their time traveling around visiting friends. At least, that means I don’t have to look at her sour face.”
“It can’t be easy for her to have her husband’s bastard living in their home.”
José leaned forward intently. “Which is why I’d be doing everyone a favor by moving on. Take me with you, Johnny. I’m tired of being fenced in and having to obey all Emilio’s orders.”
"You don’t want to ride with me. Any gunfighter would see you as fair game and I don’t want to have to explain to your father that you got yourself killed in some backwater town.”
José hurled his plate away, his expression one of pure fury. “You’re just like them. You don’t believe I can survive on my own.”
“That ain’t what I said. Look, amigo, I’ve been living by my gun for almost three years. I’ve got a reputation that attracts trouble. I can handle it, but these men are fast and they’ll go after you to get to me. I think you’re a fool for wanting to walk out on your family, but you’re old enough to make up your own mind.”
“So, you’ll let me come with you?”
“No. When I leave here it’ll be alone.”
“I thought we were friends? What happened to that blood oath we swore?”
“It’s because of that I can’t let you come with me.”
Without another word José stood up and walked away. Johnny started to rise to his feet and then dropped back down onto the grass. There was nothing he could say that would make things any better between them. Knowing José, he’d brood about it for a couple of hours and then get over the disappointment.
He lay back, listening to the sound of the cattle moving around and letting the heavy night air lull him to sleep. The sound of a gun being cocked brought him sharply awake. It was dark, but the light from the dwindling fire showed him that their camp had been invaded by three men.
“Keep your hands where we can see ‘em, cowboy,” one of the men ordered. “Me and my friends are fixin’ to give some of those cows a new home and we don’t want any trouble from you.”
Johnny sat up, keeping his hands in clear view. His gun was in its holster strapped to his hip and was a useless as if it had been on the far side of the camp. A quick look around reassured him that José hadn’t returned.
“I’m just a hired hand, Mister. It don’t matter to me how many of those cows you steal. They ain’t worth risking my life for.”
Johnny was jerked to his feet and his gun was pulled from the holster and tossed to the man who appeared to be the rustlers’ spokesman. His hands were tied in front of him and he was pushed back to the ground. The irony of the situation didn’t escape him. After lecturing José on the perils of life as a gunfighter, he was the one who had been caught by a gang of cattle thieves.
While two of the men began cutting out some of the cows, the third remained on guard. Johnny squirmed around, trying to find a comfortable position. If he was lucky, the men would take the animals and leave him here. If he wasn’t, they’d put a bullet in him to make sure the only witness could never testify against them. It wasn’t unknown for cattle rustlers to be strung up without the benefit of a trial, so they didn’t have anything to lose by killing him.
He would have to work fast. For the moment, at least, he only had one man to worry about. His guard, confident that a bound man was no threat, had his back turned and was bending over to pour himself a cup of coffee. Silently, Johnny pushed himself to his feet. As the man turned, Johnny covered the distance between them and used the force of his body to throw his adversary off balance. As the man tumbled to the ground with a shout, Johnny dived for his knife which was lying beside frying pan. He fumbled awkwardly for the handle, finally getting a grip and rolling over. The rustler’s gun was pointed straight at him and he only had a split second to stare death in the face, before he heard the shot.
Six years later, Johnny still had no trouble remembering the events of that night. The bullet had come from José’s gun, catching the rustler in the throat. The man had died, drowning in his own blood. As the other two men had spurred their horses back, José had cut Johnny free, trembling so hard that the knife had slipped more than once in the process. Johnny had taken possession of the gun, grateful that his fingers hadn’t had time to stiffen up. With cool and practiced ease, he had shot the other men from their saddles before they had even had time to realize what was happening.
The shock of killing a man had quickly worn off for José. The incident had made him even more intent upon leading his own life. They had ridden together for a while and Johnny could still picture the anguish on Don Ricardo’s face when his son had told him that he was leaving. Emilio, predictably, hadn’t bothered to hide his own delight. Eventually, their lives had taken them in different directions. José had become embroiled in a failed revolt. He’d been arrested and thrown into jail, being saved by his father’s influence and money. They couldn’t rely upon that this time, even if Scott succeeded in speaking with Don Ricardo. No, the only way to rescue José was by direct action and Johnny would have no qualms about killing anyone who got in his way.
Scott lay on the bed fully clothed, waiting for the household to settle down for the night. With only his thoughts for company, it wasn’t long before his mind began relentlessly roaming over the various consequences of what he was about to do.
He didn’t know José and only had Johnny’s assessment of his friend’s character. But, no one deserved to be unjustly imprisoned and any right thinking person should offer their aid. That wasn’t what was troubling him. It wasn’t in issue either that Emilio was a cold blooded bastard except…Scott thought back on Emilio’s behavior at dinner. He had dismissed José as being of no consequence. His staff feared him. It was likely that he was misleading his own father and contributing to the elderly man’s frailty. Yet, he loved his wife and she loved him, so was he totally irredeemable?
Perhaps a better route would be to appeal to Laurene’s good nature to try and secure José’s release. She seemed to have an influence over Emilio that others lacked. Surely, she wouldn’t approve of her brother-in-law’s captivity? It was a risk, but no more so than approaching a sick old man in the middle of the night, with a story he may or may not believe. He could sound her out in the morning and, if necessary, contrive a reason to stay another night. Johnny wouldn’t be happy and that couldn’t be helped. Having made his decision, he undressed and went to bed.
After a disturbed night’s sleep, Scott found it almost impossible to open his eyes when he heard the rooster crowing in the yard. Trying to decide how to approach Laurene was what had given him a restless night and he was still far from convinced that he had made the right decision. A wash and shave improved the situation, although he couldn’t stifle a succession of jaw cracking yawns. As he made his way downstairs for breakfast, he tried to push away his misgivings. When he reached the dining room he saw no sign of his host. A servant hurried over to pull out one of the heavy chairs. Tempting smells were emanating from the dishes of food lined up on the sideboard.
“Buenos Dias, Señor. Please sit and I will serve you.”
“Gracias. Will Don Emilio and the Señora be joining me?”
“Don Emilio eats breakfast with the Patron. The Señora will be here shortly.”
Scott poured himself a cup of coffee while musing on the servant’s choice of words. Don Ricardo might be ill, but he was still the Patron. He wasn’t sure how well that would sit with Emilio.
A plate laden with huevos rancheros, corn tortillas and spicy sausages was laid in front of him. He had only taken a couple of bites when the door opened and Laurene entered the room. He stood and moved round the table to pull out her chair. “Good morning, Señora.”
She nodded her thanks and waved away the servant. Scott noticed how pale she looked, with her pallor being emphasized by her severely tailored dark dress.
“You should eat.” He went over to the sideboard and served her with a small amount of each dish.
“These are not the manners of a rough American cowboy.” She looked and sounded amused.
Scott returned to his chair. “One of the benefits of being brought up in Boston.”
“Yet, you told us last night that you have a father and a brother in California.”
“I was raised by my grandfather. Johnny is my half-brother. He was brought up in Mexico by his mother.”
“A child of a mixed marriage.”
It was a comment, rather than a question, and Scott felt uncomfortably that it hadn’t been meant for his ears. He waited to see if it would provide the opening he needed.
Her face was troubled when she looked up at him. “Do you love your brother?”
“Yes.” He watched her expression carefully. “Forgive me, Señora, but I heard some talk last night of your husband having a brother.” The lie bothered him as did the fact that he was trying to lure her into a conspiracy against her husband. But, a man’s life was at stake and he couldn’t afford to have any scruples.
Only the sound of a clock ticking broke the silence. Laurene’s indecision was painful to see and it was a long time before she spoke. “Like you, he has a half-brother.”
Scott picked up his knife and fork, trying to convey only a polite interest in the subject. She followed his lead, turning her attention to her breakfast.
“Does he live here?” Even to his own ears Scott’s question sounded forced.
“Not any longer.”
This was worse than he had expected and left him with only one option if he wanted to enlist her help. “Do you know where he is now?”
“That is a strange question. What is your interest in José?”
“I’m afraid I came here under false pretenses.” Seeing her sudden and understandable apprehension, he hurried on. “I mean you now harm, Señora. My brother spent part of his childhood living in one of the villages belonging to your father-in-law. He and José were friends. A week ago, we received word that José was in trouble.”
“José is always in trouble. That does not explain why you have lied to us and why your brother did not come himself.”
“Johnny is close by. I came because your husband would have recognized him.”
“I still do not understand.”
Scott took a deep breath. “José is being held in a prison, falsely convicted and sentenced to twenty years hard labor.”
Laurene paled further and swayed in her seat. Scott reached her side quickly, steadying her and pressing a glass of water into her hands.
“We must tell Emilio.”
“Your husband already knows.” Scott delivered the news without any feeling of pleasure. “He is the one who arranged it.”
“You lie.” Rather than being filled with conviction, her words begged him to agree with her.
He kept his eyes fixed on hers, hoping she would be able to see his sincerity. “It’s the truth and I’m asking for your help to free him.”
Her hands moved to rest on her belly. “If what you say is true, he will come for Emilio and…and our child.”
“I can’t promise that he won’t want revenge for what has been done to him, but I don’t believe that he would harm either you or your child.”
“Why are you telling me this? Why did you come here?” Her voice was rising, tinged with hysteria.
“I came to try and speak to Don Ricardo. We thought, once he knew the truth, that he could use his influence to free José.”
“He would do anything for José.”
Scott was caught off guard by the bitterness in her voice. “My brother told me of José’s history. I can understand why Emilio would resent the circumstances of his brother’s birth. Surely, though, that doesn’t justify locking him away for the rest of his life? And, that’s exactly what he’s done. Make no mistake. José will die in that prison if someone doesn’t get him out. Shall I tell you what the conditions are like?”
Scott pressed on, disgusted with himself even though he knew he had no choice. “He is held in shackles, forced to work all day and whipped, or beaten, if he disobeys an order. His cell will be filthy and lacking any comfort. The food…”
“Stop!” Laurene rose shakily to her feet. “I want you to leave.”
“Will you help us?”
“Understand this, Señor Garrett. I am fond of José, but I love my husband and I will love my baby. I will not do anything to put either of them at risk. If you do not leave immediately, I will tell Emilio why you are really here.”
“That could very well be a death sentence.” The hard set of her mouth was the only answer he received. “At least let me inspect the herd, as arranged. He will think it strange if I suddenly leave.”
“Very well. Just remember that I am already betraying my husband’s trust by keeping this between us. Don’t press me any further.”
Scott was cursing himself for being every kind of fool as he rode out with Emilio and his Segundo. He had been so sure that Laurene would help and, as a result of his miscalculation, had managed to throw away his chance of talking to José’s father.
They spent the morning inspecting the herd while Scott struggled to maintain his façade of interest. By the time they returned to the hacienda, he had committed his fictional employer to the purchase of two hundred head of cattle.
Laurene was nowhere in sight as he collected his belongings and thanked Emilio for his hospitality. His relief at leaving unscathed was tempered by a strong feeling of guilt, which increased the closer he came to the village. He wasn’t looking forward to explaining his failure to his brother.
When he arrived at the cantina, he was surprised that Barranca wasn’t tied up outside. As he entered the small building, he was beckoned through to the kitchen by the proprietor.
“Where’s Johnny?” he asked.
Señor Torres looked worried. “I do not know. He did not return last night.”
“Maybe he camped out to keep an eye on the hacienda,” Scott suggested.
“Si, maybe so. Did you speak to Don Ricardo?”
“No. I’ll explain when Johnny gets back.”
Scott settled down with a glass of beer and a bowl of stew to wait for his brother. Although he had kept his concerns hidden, he had a nagging feeling that Johnny was in trouble.
Johnny rode within sight of the prison. The outer walls, stone built and sturdy, would withstand the assault of a small army. The wooden gate would be locked and barred. The area around the prison had been cleared of trees and bushes. There was no way to approach it without being seen. He didn’t need to see inside this particular jail to know what it would be like. There would be guards stationed on platforms running the length of each wall. More guards would be at ground level. The prisoners’ movements would be restricted by leg irons and, as he knew from personal experience, those chains were a powerful deterrent.
He’d seen no sign of the man he’d been trailing. That caused a niggling little worry in the back of his mind. Still, there wouldn’t have been time yet for the man to reach the prison and spirit José away. He would just have to be patient. When the branches of the tree under which he was sheltering exploded in a hail of bullets, Johnny ducked low and reached for his gun.
“Touch your gun and you are a dead man.”
Johnny froze, trying to pinpoint the location of the man who had spoken. “What the hell are you shootin’ at me for?” he called out, covering his shock with aggression.
“If we had been shooting at you, you would be dead. Unbuckle your gunbelt.”
Johnny had worked out the direction now and he was in no hurry to disarm himself. “If this is a robbery, you might as well show yourself.” He kept his hands in plain sight, making no effort to comply with the previous order.
Johnny heard a stamping of hooves, the rustling of leaves, and then the man he’d been following rode forward. He was no longer leading the spare horse and was flanked by two burly men, armed with rifles and wearing the grey uniform of the rurales.
“Mierde!” Johnny swore under his breath. He took a moment to compose himself, calling on the icy calmness that had seen him through more gunfights than he could count. “What’s this about?”
“Remove your gunbelt and dismount.”
Faced with such unfavorable odds, Johnny did as instructed. “Now are you gonna tell me what’s going on?”
“You have been following me and I want to know why.”
“You’re loco. I haven’t been followin’ anyone.”
One of the rurales had dismounted and was trying to search Johnny’s saddlebags. Barranca tossed his mane, sidling sideways to show his displeasure.
“What is your name?”
That put Johnny in a quandary. Even after three years it was probably unwise to use the name ‘Madrid’ in this part of Mexico. Would announcing himself as Johnny Lancer be any safer?
“There’s a brand on his saddle,” the guard called.
Emilio’s man dismounted, keeping carefully out of Johnny’s reach as he walked over to Barranca. Now that he could get a look at the man, Johnny had the uncomfortable feeling that he should recognize him.
After studying the brand, the man subjected Johnny to an equally intense scrutiny. “This could be a problem,” he eventually informed his companions. “Tie his hands. We are taking him with us.”
“I don’t know who you think I am…” Johnny began as one of the guards pulled out a length of rawhide and headed toward him.
“I know who you are, and, I know the name you used when you were a gunfighter. I do not know how you found out about José, or what your connection is to that gringo who turned up at the estancia yesterday. Before we have finished you will answer both those questions and then we will decide what to do with you.”
The prison yard was almost deserted. A few elderly prisoners were carrying out basic repairs, watched by a couple of bored looking guards. They all turned to stare at him as he dismounted. One of his escorts led Barranca away, jerking back as the animal tried to bite him. During the short journey, Johnny had dredged up the name of his captor. Tomas had always been loyal to Emilio, which made him José’s implacable enemy.
“Watch him. I will speak to Captain Arriaga.” Tomas strode away toward the main building.
The prisoners had gone back to work, sawing wood and hammering nails. The more able-bodied, José among them, would be working in the quarry. Johnny contemplated the mess he was in. No one knew where he was, although he was confident that Scott would eventually figure it out. He was facing a hard interrogation and his stupidity in walking into a trap had put his brother at risk. All things considered, this was one gigantic foul up.
He wondered how long he would be made to stand here. The leather binding his wrists was tight enough to be uncomfortable and his fingers had started to throb. An unpleasant sensation began in his stomach as he realized this would soon be the least of his worries. He had little doubt that Tomas would carry out his threat, and that the bastard would enjoy himself.
By the time that Tomas returned with the immaculately dressed Captain, Johnny had made his decision. It would take very little for them to work out that Cierra had betrayed José’s situation to him. She was still at Lancer, but her family was still living in the village where José had been captured. His silence was unlikely to save them, but it was all that he could offer to them and to Scott. Beyond that, he was prepared to rely heavily on the Lancer name and influence.
The Captain looked agitated. That could be good or bad, and only time would tell how the man would react. Johnny straightened up and launched straight into a verbal attack.
“My name’s Johnny Lancer and my family swings a lot of weight here, and in California. Your dirty little deal with Emilio Martinez ain’t a secret any more. If you want to save your skin, you’ll let me and José go.”
Tomas took one quick step forward and backhanded him across the mouth. Johnny’s head snapped to the side. “Be silent.”
“Take him to my office. We will question him there.”
The guard’s hand closed on his arm and he was led inside. He stumbled as he entered the building, his eyes taking time to adjust to the dimmer light. He was again left standing as the Captain walked round his desk and sat in a comfortable leather chair. Tomas perched on the edge of the desk and glared.
“You were once known as Johnny Madrid?” Now that he was back in his office the Captain looked and sounded more confident.
“You were sentenced to death.”
A chill ran down Johnny’s spine. “My freedom was paid for.”
“Ah, yes. A bribe was offered to the man in charge of the firing squad. He, of course, had no authority to take the money and release you. I would be within my rights to have you taken out right now and shot.”
“That would be real stupid.” Johnny’s palms became damp at this threat of immediate execution.
“What do I gain by sparing your life?”
“My father will pay for my release.” Johnny glared at Tomas. “He’ll also pay to ransom José.”
“His freedom is not for sale.”
“He’ll be free soon enough. Do you really think I was dumb enough to come here without any backup? Murdoch’s sent word to your superiors. My guess is that someone’ll be on their way right now to investigate. When they find out the truth they’ll strip you of your rank and lock you up in one of these hellholes,” Johnny finished maliciously.
“You have nothing to bargain with,” Tomas interjected. “Don Ricardo’s bastard is to be moved and there will be no evidence that he was ever here. You were lawfully sentenced to death, so no one can criticize Captain Arriaga for having you shot.”
“You’re making a big mistake…” Johnny began, desperation creeping into his words.
“You made the mistake when you became involved in something that is none of your business.” Tomas stood up, a cruel smile on his lips. “You will be taken to a cell and prepared for questioning. Believe me when I tell you that soon you will beg for the mercy of a bullet.”
After Johnny had been dragged from the room, Captain Arriaga crossed to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a glass of wine. His hands were not entirely steady as he considered the implications of Lancer’s threats. “He is unlikely to tell you anything.”
“Do not be too sure.”
“You think that the other man at the hacienda is connected to him?”
“It would be too much of a coincidence if he was not,” Tomas answered thoughtfully.
“I do not like this. No one was supposed to know of our arrangement.”
“It is too late to worry about that now, although I intend to find out who betrayed us.”
“The girl!” Captain Arriaga began to sweat. He’d been told that the prisoner was to have no visitors, yet, in a moment of weakness he had sanctioned her visits.
“The one who helped us to capture him,” the captain admitted warily. “She came to see him…”
“You fool.” Tomas scowled fiercely. “You were told not to let him talk to anyone.”
“I did not see the harm. She was only some peasant girl. Who would she tell? Besides, every man deserves something to look forward to.”
“Send men to the village to find her. She will not be so hard to break.”
“What about Lancer?”
“Leave him to me. By tomorrow, I will know all that he can tell me. Then I will return to the estancia to get fresh instructions from Don Emilio. Let me know when the prisoners return from the quarry. I am sure José will enjoy being reunited with his friend.”
A blow to the head stunned Johnny long enough for his guards to pull off his boots and socks, and then fasten shackles around his ankles. One of the men hauled him to his feet and stood behind him, pinning his arms down. The other readied the manacles which were attached to the wall. Johnny’s breathing was harsh and uneven as he fought his way back to full consciousness. The leather strapping tethering his hands in front of him was removed and then his shirt was ripped from his body. His furious resistance only postponed the inevitable moment when he was slammed face first against the wall. He caught his breath as the rough stone grazed his cheek and bare chest. Both arms were raised above his head and the metal closed around his wrists to lock him inescapably in place.
The guards left him alone, closing and bolting the door behind them. Johnny rested his throbbing forehead against the cold wall and prayed for the strength to keep silent. As he waited, the damp air chilled him and he began to shiver. Gritting his teeth he tried to will his muscles to stillness. The silence grated on his nerves and the sour smells, which now included his own sweat, made his stomach roil.
The ground under his bare feet was littered with small pebbles. As he tried to adjust his position he found himself hampered by the short chain between his ankles. All his movements were limited and he discovered that there was no possibility of turning around. A glance over one shoulder showed him the outline of the door, while twisting the other way only showed him a blank wall. There was very little light in his prison and that feeble amount was filtering through a barred opening he had noticed in the door before he was knocked senseless.
His first priority was to crush the growing feeling of panic. His entire situation was designed to make him lose control so that he would be an easier target when Tomas came to interrogate him. Concentrating on his breathing helped. His breaths grew steadier and his heart rate slowed down. He tested his chains next, swiftly concluding that there was no possibility of slipping his hands through the tight bands of metal. Temporarily defeated, his shoulders slumped.
He had no doubt that they were deliberately leaving him alone. The growing fear of what they would do to him was nibbling at the edges of his mind. It was an effective tactic, intended to lower his resistance and, try as he might to deny it, he knew that it was working. The only way to combat it was to turn his mind to other things.
He began to think about Scott and how angry his brother would be that he had ridden into danger without a word about what he was doing. He could almost hear the lecture now about his continued disregard for his own safety. His slight smile wavered and died as he considered the danger that Scott was now in. In anger and despair he jerked down on the chains, only succeeding in bruising the skin around his wrists.
The discomfort reminded him of José and how much his friend must have suffered during the last six months. That fueled his anger, turning him away from his own plight. Perhaps, when they had finished with him, he would be able to see and talk to José. At least then he could see what condition his friend was in.
He heard footsteps in the corridor outside his cell and his breath caught in his throat. There was the sound of voices and then the footsteps moved away. He swallowed and took a shaky breath. His arms and legs were tiring and the muscles in his shoulders were screaming for release. He closed his eyes and waited.
It was getting late and Johnny still hadn’t returned. Unable to sit still any longer, Scott was outside the cantina, pacing restlessly from one end of the small village to the other. Curious stares followed his progress. He knew that Johnny had been recognized. The Lancer name and the real reason for their visit were known only to the owner of the cantina. Speculation was rife, but so far everyone seemed to have concluded that he was here to do business with Don Emilio and that Johnny was working for him.
His agitated progress around the village wasn’t helping and could only lead to suspicion. He reminded himself that Johnny had survived for a lot of years on his own. Somehow, that didn’t bring much comfort. Johnny’s anger and worry about his friend were strong enough to override common sense.
It was looking more and more likely that Johnny had ridden off to José’s prison, although Scott couldn’t imagine what good his brother thought that would do. It left him with a dilemma. If he was wrong, it would only complicate matters if he left the village. Alternatively, he could be right and still might miss Johnny on the trail. If Johnny had only gone to check out the security of the prison, he would likely be back sometime tomorrow. He decided to give his brother another day. If Johnny didn’t turn up by then, he would most likely be in trouble.
Calmer now that he had formulated a plan, Scott went to the stable at the back of the cantina and spent an hour grooming and feeding his horse. A trip to the stream just outside the village cleansed him of the worst of the sweat and grime coating his body.
Señor Torres was behind the counter when he eventually returned to the cantina. As there were no other customers, the proprietor drew two glasses of beer, joining Scott at the table. Scott took a mouthful, grimacing as he swallowed. It had been no exaggeration to describe it as horse piss. It was only his worry about Johnny that had enabled him to drink a glass of it earlier without noticing the taste.
“Your hermano is impulsive. He was like that as a child. He and José were always getting into mischief.”
Scott sighed wearily. “He certainly knows how to find trouble.”
“I do not mean to pry, but I was wondering how Johnny came to be living with you and his father. His mother never spoke about his father, so we assumed that he did not want anything to do with the boy.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth.” Scott pushed the glass away with an irritable shove. “Johnny was born on Lancer and our father was devastated when his mother chose to leave.”
“He never said that he had a brother,” Señor Torres continued. “José was like a brother to him while he lived here.”
Scott felt a pang of jealousy, which he quickly suppressed. “He didn’t know about me, and I had no idea that he existed either. I was living in Boston, he was in Mexico, and we only met three years ago.”
“You have become close?”
“We have become friends as well as brothers.”
Señor Torres’ expression was grim. “It is a pity that José was not so lucky.”
“Don Emilio didn’t look to me to be the kind of man you would want to cross. The only person he seems to care about is his wife.”
“He was devoted to his mother, which is why he could never forgive Don Ricardo for straying from his marriage. Perhaps, if José had been sent away, things would have been different, but the Patron dotes on the boy. Emilio always had to work hard to gain his father’s approval, even though he is the undisputed heir. José took many years to settle down and the Patron continued to indulge him. I have lost count of the number of times Don Ricardo had to solve problems caused by José’s wild behavior. It is true that he had changed in the last few years. He had become more responsible, which is why he was sent on the journey to negotiate business with one of Don Ricardo’s business associates.”
Scott frowned as he considered the betrayal which had followed that decision. “What do you know about Señora Martinez?”
“The people who work at the hacienda say she is fair, although she shows no warmth toward them. That is the way with many of the older families.”
Scott could understand that having grown up surrounded by servants. However, his grandfather had never been a cold man. He expected his employees to work conscientiously but, in return, he rewarded them well and treated them with courtesy. It was in some other households in the city that Scott had seen men and women worn down by ceaseless demands and little or no praise and encouragement. The situation at Lancer was very different, and had surprised him at first. It was almost like an extended family and he had taken time to adjust to the informality.
“How long have she and Emilio been married?”
“It must be almost two years.” Torres wrinkled his brow in thought. “Si. It was not long after the old Señora died.”
“Do she and José get along?”
“I do not know. She rarely visits any of the villages on the estancia. I never saw her with José and he never spoke of her when he was here.” The proprietor gave Scott an apologetic shrug before getting up to serve two customers.
Scott took another small sip of the beer before pushing the glass away again and morosely contemplating a long evening filled with nothing other than worry and uncertainty.
“What do you intend to do, Señor?” Torres asked as he returned to the table.
“Wait. If my guess is correct, Johnny has gone to take a look at José’s prison. If he’s not back by tomorrow night, I’ll get ready to leave the following morning.”
“You think he is in trouble?”
Scott could only nod although he couldn’t bring himself to say the words out loud. With every hour that passed, he was becoming convinced that Johnny was either dead or in the hands of their enemies.
Johnny was numb with cold by the time the door opened. Caught on the edge of dozing off to sleep, he wasn’t fast enough to turn his head to see who entered. Not that it mattered. He knew who it would be. He kept as still as he could and, despite the cold, found that he was sweating.
“I know about the girl.”
Tomas was standing so close behind Johnny that he could feel the man’s breath on the back of his neck.
“What girl?” Johnny asked. The hard blow he received to the left side of his lower back made him gasp.
“The little Señorita that José slept with before she sold him out.”
There was clear satisfaction in Tomas’s voice. Johnny bit back a retort, hoping without much conviction to avoid provoking further violence.
“Captain Arriaga has sent men to bring her here,” Tomas continued.
Johnny would have reacted to that if he hadn’t known that she was still safe at Lancer.
“Do you not care what happens to her?” Tomas pressed.
“I told you. I don’t know about any girl.”
Tomas’s fist connected again with the same spot on his back, pushing him against the wall. He choked back the bile that rose in his throat.
“I will make sure you are close enough to hear her scream. Maybe then you will remember her.”
The callous words incensed Johnny. “Why does it matter to you who told me? My father…” The force of the blow cut off his words, leaving him temporarily incapable of speech.
“Your father will be lucky if he gets your body back for burial.”
Johnny heard Tomas stepping away and his gut tightened. Here, in this terrible place, the Lancer name wasn’t going to help him…and, he knew what was coming next.
“Who is the blond gringo?”
“I don’t…” Johnny stopped, swallowing hard as he heard a familiar swishing sound.
“Your friend, when he first came here, became well acquainted with this whip. It tamed him, and it will tame you. I see from the marks on your back that you know what to expect. That knowledge will not make this any easier to bear. The only thing that will save you is the truth. I will ask the question again. Who is the blond gringo?”
Johnny’s silence was met with chilling laughter. The whip snapped and the tip bit into his shoulder. He arched his back in response to the pain, barely managing to hold back his shocked cry.
“I would have been disappointed if you had answered, mestizo.”
“I can’t tell you what I don’t know.” Johnny cringed as he heard the whip whistling through the air. He tugged desperately at his chains as the thin leather cut into his back. He felt a trickle of blood running down his spine.
“José will be back soon. Perhaps it would be more effective if I took the whip to his back. How long could you watch him being beaten, listening to him begging for mercy?”
Johnny lowered his head, despair making him weak. To choose between his brother and his friend….”My answer will be the same.”
Another stroke fell, tearing Johnny’s skin. His hands closed around the chains tethering him to the wall and he bit down on his lower lip to stop himself from crying out. The question was repeated and was met with silence. He waited for the next blow…and the next. After several more lashes Tomas stopped, breathing hard. By that time, Johnny’s legs were shaking with the effort of holding him upright.
“Perhaps you are right and that it does not matter who told you about José. And, maybe you are telling the truth when you say that you do not know the stranger. It will be simple enough to ask him if he knows Johnny Madrid Lancer.”
Johnny heard the door open, his thoughts chaotic as he grasped the meaning of the threat. Tomas was speaking to the guards, but his voice was too soft for Johnny to make out the words. The key was inserted in the lock, freeing his hands only long enough for his arms to be wrenched behind his back and bound.
He was dragged outside, eyes widening in shock as he realized what was about to happen. He was pushed against the post, crying out as his lacerated back connected with the wood. A rope around his chest pinned him in place and a black cloth was tied around his eyes, cutting off his view of the line of chained prisoners straggling in through the open gate. There was no time to think; no time to form any words before the rifles fired.
José raised his head and gave a dispirited sigh. The walk back from the quarry was becoming harder with each day that passed. Despite eating everything that he was given, he was growing weaker and his fear was that he wouldn’t have the strength to escape if the opportunity arose. The chains on his wrists and ankles were weighing him down and, if he were being honest with himself, he would have to acknowledge that the prospect of regaining his freedom was only a distant dream.
As he stepped through the gate, he returned his gaze to the ground. Most evenings Captain Arriaga was waiting to taunt him and he didn’t think he could cope with that tonight. It was only when he almost barged into the man in front that he realized everyone had stopped. Without any real interest he followed the direction they were looking. Three of the guards were standing in an uneven line, rifles pointed at a man who had been bound to the post and blindfolded. The rifles fired making José flinch as he recalled the boy who had been executed there the day following his arrival.
As the smoke cleared he saw a man he recognized and his exhaustion fell away from him. With a wordless snarl, he headed for Tomas with murder in his heart. It only took one guard to stop him and José’s feeble struggles had no chance of dislodging the hands now gripping his arms.
“I have a surprise for you, mestizo.” Tomas strolled over to the post, took hold of a handful of the man’s dark hair and pulled down the blindfold.
José’s heart stopped. “Johnny?”
“Your friend came to rescue you.” Tomas’s laughter rang around the yard. “He did not do a very good job.” He turned to José’s guard. “Take him to the Captain’s office.”
José fought with everything he had to stop himself being removed from the yard. As he was bundled into the building, all he could see was the look of blank incomprehension in Johnny’s dazed blue eyes.
Johnny’s mouth was dry with fear and it took him a minute to realize that he had, yet again, faced a firing squad and survived. He’d been convinced that his life was over and there hadn’t even been time for regrets. When he heard the rifles fire he expected to feel the pain from the bullets tearing into his body. Instead there had been…nothing. It was only when his blindfold was removed, and he saw José, that he realized it had all been a cruel trick. José had been dragged away before he could summon up any words. The physical change in his friend was horrifying, but the way José fought showed that he had not lost his fire.
His heart rate slowed and the involuntary tremors in his muscles gradually faded. The three guards, who had formed the impromptu firing squad, were now laughing and talking. The other prisoners were continuing their slow journey back to their cells, under the watchful eyes of the guards mounted on the walkway. The atmosphere was laden with despair and resignation. Unwilling to fall into the trap of giving up hope, Johnny tugged at his bindings. That had the unfortunate effect of reminding him about the state of his back. A partly suppressed groan attracted Tomas’s attention.
“Did you really believe that I had finished with you?” Tomas asked. “Emilio will enjoy the joke when I tell him.”
“Espero que usted queme en el infierno, usted bastardo,” Johnny spat venomously.
“I think you will be in hell a long time before me.” Tomas walked round to the back of the post and Johnny felt him checking the security of the knots. “You will be safe enough here while I go and talk with your friend.” He returned to face Johnny, smiling at the fury on the younger man’s face. “Take a good look around you, mestizo. This will be your home for the next few days. After that…” He shrugged. “Who can say what the future holds.”
After Tomas had gone, Johnny was ignored. For a while, he tried to loosen the rope around his wrists by rubbing it against the coarse wood. If he could get his hands free, he might have a chance of getting his hands on a gun. Common sense told him that he wouldn’t make it five feet without being either shot or subdued. Still, it was better than doing nothing. He couldn’t just wait tamely for whatever Tomas had in mind to do next.
Tables were being set up in one corner of the yard. Johnny saw two men struggling to carry out a large cooking pot. Steam was rising from it, but he was too far away to tell what the pot contained. His experiences of prison food had not been happy ones, yet hunger made his stomach growl loudly. It had been almost a day and a half since he had eaten anything. Baskets of bread were brought out, by which time his mouth was watering. Heavy earthenware pitchers were next, followed by bowls and cups.
One of the guards walked over to him, considering him silently. When the man reached for the knife in the sheath attached to his belt, Johnny’s muscles tensed.
“I will cut you loose so that you can eat. Do not cause any trouble.”
The knife cut through the rope around his chest. He eased himself, carefully, away from the post, the movement reopening some of his wounds. He could feel several thin trickles of blood running down his back. He turned so that his hands could be freed, almost moaning with relief when his arms dropped to his sides.
The chain between his ankles made his movements slow and clumsy. He concentrated on the uneven ground as he made his way over to the table. His back felt as if it was on fire and it didn’t seem likely that anyone would tend to it. Well, he’d had worse and survived. Only, he’d thought those days were over. He raised his head as his pride reasserted itself, aware that the other prisoners had moved out of his way. No one would look at him. That’s how it was in a place like this. You kept yourself to yourself and avoided making friends, because friends could be used against you.
He picked up a bowl, which was quickly filled with a thin stew. There had been times in his life when even that unappetizing food would have been welcome. Now it was just an unwelcome reminder of what he had thrown away by his impulsive decision to follow Tomas. His unthinking stupidity could very well have signed death warrants for himself, his brother and his friend.
José leaned heavily against the wall, his intense stare boring into Tomas. The presence of an armed guard kept him passive, when all he really wanted to do was to rip the man’s throat out for what he had just done to Johnny. It was only gradually sinking in that his friend had come to try and rescue him. Having been abandoned and alone for so many months, it was hard to come to terms with the fact that someone cared enough about him to risk their own life.
“Your brother sent me to fetch you, mestizo.” Tomas was showing no sign of being intimidated by the hatred directed toward him. “When I left the estancia, I did not expect to have the pleasure of capturing your friend and whipping him until he was sniveling and begging for mercy.”
José laughed harshly. “You delude yourself.”
Tomas ignored the comment. “Are you not curious about where I am to take you?”
“What could be worse than being here?”
“There are many worse places. For example, you could be laboring in the bowels of the earth where the sun never shines.”
José couldn’t hide his shock. He had heard about mines whose owners weren’t fussy about where their workers came from. To be sold into such slavery amounted to a death sentence. “You forget that others now know what has happened to me.”
“That is unfortunate, but only proves that you cannot remain here.”
“I do not like this.” Captain Arriaga was sweating as he poured himself some more wine. “Murdoch Lancer is well known on both sides of the border. Holding his son is reckless.”
“Letting Madrid go is reckless. If he disappears, no one will be able to prove anything. By the time Lancer comes looking for him, all the evidence will have been destroyed.”
“Questions will be asked. Let them both go. I will tell my superiors that it was all a dreadful mistake – that José was mistaken for someone else and released as soon as we established his true identity.”
Tomas snarled at the Captain. “And, in the meantime he and Madrid will tell anyone who will listen that this was all the work of Don Emilio and that you knew very well what was going on.”
“Don Emilio will deny it. His word will be accepted. Everyone knows that José has always hated his brother and would do anything to tarnish his good name.”
“You are a sniveling fool. Do you think they will stop at making accusations? Look at him.” Tomas pointed at José. “See the hatred. If you let him go, you and Don Emilio are dead men.”
“I should never have agreed to be involved.” The captain wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.
José kept silent, knowing that his survival might depend upon the events of the next few minutes. Tomas was right. If…when, he regained his freedom, everyone involved in his captivity would be living on borrowed time.
“You were eager enough to collect the monthly payments from Don Emilio.”
“There must be something we can do.”
“The safest course is to kill them both. The only trouble is that there is another complication.”
The captain groaned pitifully. “What more could go wrong?”
“Yesterday a man – a gringo – came to the hacienda looking for help. I believe that there is a connection between him and Madrid.”
José’s thoughts flew back to the letter he had received from Johnny, after his friend’s return to Lancer. ‘You won’t believe this, but I’ve got a brother,’ Johnny had written. ‘I guess he’s my half-brother seein’ as we had different mothers, and we sure don’t look alike. He’s tall, blond and full of fancy eastern manners. I don’t know what to think of him yet, except that he’s got real guts and he saved my life when we went up against Day Pardee and his men.’
He realized, belatedly, that Tomas was staring at him. He clamped his mouth shut and bowed his head.
“You know who it is,” Tomas accused. “Madrid took a hell of a beating rather than betraying him. Who could be so important to him?”
“How would I know? I hadn’t seen Johnny for years.”
“But, you knew he had gone back to his father.” Tomas strode over, yanking José’s head up. “What else did he tell you?”
“Nothing.” José stared steadily at his tormentor.
“Lock him and Madrid up,” Tomas ordered. “I do not want either of them to leave their cells until I get back.”
“Where are you going?” Captain Arriaga’s voice was trembling with fear.
“Back to the estancia to talk to Don Emilio. If the stranger is still there, we will deal with him. I will return with your orders as soon as I can.”
The food had done nothing to assuage the gnawing hunger in Johnny’s belly. His back was a mass of throbbing pain and leaning forward to inspect the chains around his ankles made his senses swim. He straightened up with a groan and picked up the cup containing blessedly cool water. He had found a patch of shade, from which he could watch the doorway through which José had been dragged and from where he had a good view of the rest of the yard.
The other prisoners had been returned to their cells, no doubt grateful for the opportunity to sleep. No one seemed to know what to do with him, so he had been left in peace to wonder if this was where his life was to end. Emilio couldn’t afford to let him go, or to keep him locked up here. If he and Scott didn’t return soon Murdoch would come looking for them, and it was unlikely that their father would come without the weight of some lawful authority. Only, he was likely to arrive too late.
He struggled to his feet as he saw two guards headed his way. Even as a gunfighter, he had had his pride and he knew the value of appearing self-confident.
“Come with us.”
“Where?” The question slipped out before he could stop it. He waited for some retribution for daring to speak to the guards. That was another rule you learned quickly in prison if you wanted to avoid further pain.
“We have orders to take you to the doctor.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow in surprise, before nodding and shuffling awkwardly along flanked by the two men. As they were entering the building one of the guards caught his arm.
“This doctor can be a hijo de puta, but he knows his trade. Keep your mouth shut and let him do his job.”
Johnny stopped just inside the doorway and looked around. A cabinet stood against one wall, filled with bottles and surgical instruments. The overwhelming smell was a combination of antiseptic and herbs, making him think of Sam’s small office in Green River. The largest object in the room was an examination table. He shuddered as he saw the straps attached to it. The doctor, who was standing by the table unbuckling one of the wrist straps, looked severe and impatient. His apron was covered in the rusty stains caused by dried blood. Johnny took a half step backwards, colliding painfully with one of his guards.
“Bring him over here.”
“No.” Johnny had suffered enough at the hands of Tomas. The thought of being restrained in this room, at the mercy of this hard-faced doctor, was more than he could cope with. “You ain’t tying me down to that table.”
“Tied down or sedated.” The doctor sounded bored. “It is bad enough that I have to work in a place like this. I am not prepared to risk being assaulted by my patients.”
“You ain’t sedating me either.” Johnny looked round at the door which was blocked by his guards. “I don’t need no doctor.”
“Do you want your back to fester? Maybe you would prefer a dangerously high fever. Or perhaps, you could show some common sense and let me treat you.”
Johnny swallowed back another denial. As much as he hated the idea, the only sensible course was to allow the doctor to tend to his wounds. He moved forward hesitantly. With the leg irons it was hard to climb onto the table. He turned onto his front and allowed the doctor to fasten the straps around his wrists. He flinched as he felt another strap being secured across his legs to hold them down.
The touch of a damp cloth on his back was surprisingly gentle. He clenched his fists, forcing himself to relax. The doctor took his time, wiping away the blood and dirt encrusting the open wounds.
“This will hurt,” the doctor warned. “However, it is necessary if you want to avoid an infection.”
Johnny cried out as a cloth soaked in raw alcohol was systematically applied to each lash mark. He strained against the straps holding him prisoner, twisting ineffectually to try and escape this new pain.
Johnny only vaguely heard the words. His breath was coming in heaving gasps as he tried to ride out the agony. Gradually, the sensation became tolerable. He felt the straps loosen and fall away, yet, still he could do nothing except lie there trying to catch his breath. Finally, he was able to sit up.
The doctor was holding out a loose white shirt. “I want you to keep your back covered. I will arrange for you to be brought back here tomorrow, so that I can check how the wounds are healing.”
Johnny pulled the shirt over his head, giving a soft gasp as the material came into contact with his tender skin. “Gracias.”
His legs were far from steady as he stumbled from the room. Instead of being taken back to the courtyard, he was steered toward the cells. The memory of what had happened to him in one of those rooms made him sweat. He couldn’t be sure that Tomas wouldn’t try some other method to get him to betray Scott.
He was pulled to a halt outside one of the cells. The door was unlocked and he stepped inside. As soon as he entered the room he knew that he wasn’t alone. He squinted into the darkness as a figure came toward him. Hands grasped his arms and he was pulled into a rough hug.
Johnny held onto his friend, feeling how pitifully thin José had become. “I’m sorry, mi amigo. I came as soon as I heard what had happened to you.”
“Johnny, you have to listen to me. Tomas is going back to the estancia and if he finds your hermano there, he will kill him.”
Even with his arms wrapped around himself Johnny found it almost impossible to stop shivering. José was sitting next to him on the mattress his right shoulder resting against Johnny’s left one. Having been deprived of even basic compassion and company for so long Johnny could understand his friend’s need for physical contact. He had been surprised that they had been confined together. He would have been willing to bet that Tomas would have wanted them kept apart. He suspected that this had been the captain’s decision and that Tomas hadn’t been told about it before he left to report to Emilio.
There had barely been time to digest José’s warning about Scott’s safety before the door opened again to admit one of the guards. He had brought them another mattress, a lamp and a bucket of clean water. José’s reaction had convinced Johnny that this was an unusual kindness and he was still wondering about the significance.
José had said very little so far and Johnny was prepared to wait. After six months of minimal conversation it would take time for José to get back into the habit of talking. While he waited he surveyed their surroundings, which did nothing to improve his mood. The cell was no more than ten feet square, with an oppressively low ceiling. The only break in the monotony of the grey stone walls was the thick wooden door.
Johnny’s shivers intensified. The cell was damp and cold, but he was starting to wonder if the chills related to the lash marks on his back. Fighting a fever in these conditions would be difficult so he clung to the belief that the doctor had taken enough care to head off the possibility of an infection. The musty smell reminded him of the cell where he had been confined before he and his luckless companions had been marched off to face a firing squad. That thought depressed him further.
“I had given up hope.”
José’s soft admission jolted Johnny out of his own thoughts. “I came as soon as Cierra told me about your imprisonment.”
“I didn’t doubt you.” José’s voice strengthened. “I doubted her.”
“She wanted to make amends for her part in your capture.”
José’s hands were clasped tightly together. Johnny looked at the torn nails rimmed with dried blood. His friend’s feet were in no better condition and, under the ragged edges of his trousers were the red marks caused by the leg irons. Soon those marks would become permanent. Johnny’s anger with Cierra returned, even though he knew he was being unfair in judging her.
“Tell me about your hermano.”
“He is a good man, who believes in fairness and justice. As soon as he heard Cierra’s story, he offered to come with me.”
“You are fortunate to have a brother you can trust.”
There was a frightening lack of emotion in the words. Johnny looked hard at his friend, disturbed by José’s inability to meet his gaze. “We’ll find a way out of this,” he promised. “Scott was trying to get to your father to tell him the truth and Murdoch won’t sit still for long if we don’t make it home soon.”
“Emilio said my father was ill.”
“We were told the same thing. I wish there was more I could tell you.”
“What does it matter? He believed Emilio’s lies.”
“He had no reason not to,” Johnny said gently. Feeling betrayed by a parent was a hard thing, as he had cause to know only too well.
There was a spark of animation in José’s face. “He could have trusted me. He should have known that Emilio would lie to hurt me.” The emotions fled, leaving José’s face blank and unreadable. “Tell me, what would your father and brother do if you disappeared without a word?”
“They’d come to find me,” Johnny stated without hesitation.
José’s shoulders sagged. “I believed my father would come to find me too. I was wrong.”
“He’s sick. He’d come if he could.” Johnny’s words rang hollow even to his own ears.
“He’s sick because he believed Emilio. When my hermano told me that he had arranged my captivity, I tried to kill him, and was beaten. I still believed then that my father would come. During his next visit he taunted me with our father’s failing health. Emilio told me that it was the belief in my betrayal that was killing him.”
José brushed a strand of lank hair out of his eyes and Johnny saw the resignation, the complete absence of hope.
“I know I caused him trouble when I was young,” José continued, “but for many years I have stayed close to home and have worked hard. Don’t I deserve his trust?”
Johnny gripped his friend’s thin arm. “Don’t torture yourself like this. Once we’re free…”
José’s laugh grated across Johnny’s nerves. “I will never be free of Emilio until one of us is dead. Even if we escape from this place he will haunt me.”
Laurene stood by the partly open window, staring out at the sunset. Normally the sight of the vivid blue of the sky fading to pink and orange brought her a sense of peace. This night was different. Her life, privileged, dull and secure had been turned on its head by the words of a stranger. She had spent the day trying to persuade herself that Scott had lied, but she had seen the sincerity on his face and heard the uncompromising honesty of his words. José had been gone for six months. The knowledge that he had spent that time as a prisoner turned her stomach.
The gentle evening breeze stirred the hot air in the room, although it was insufficient to have any noticeable effect on the temperature. She turned back to look at the still figure on the bed. Don Ricardo had always seemed strong and healthy. In private he had smiled often, his eyes twinkling. In public he had been kind and generous, except toward Emilio. Her husband had never complained, had never spoken of his mother’s humiliation. Yet, his hatred for José had always been plain on his face. But, to go to such lengths to punish José for the indiscretion of his parents was cruel.
She hadn’t questioned the news that José had taken the money and run off. Servants’ gossip had told her that the hardworking young man hadn’t always been so reliable. The following day Don Ricardo had been felled by severe pains in his chest. The doctor blamed a weak heart, although he couldn’t explain why the Don remained bed-ridden. She could. José had broken his father’s heart, taking away his will to live. Only it wasn’t José’s fault. How could her husband live with himself, knowing what he had done? How could she?
She lit the lamp by the bedside, keeping the flame turned down low. A querulous query from her father-in-law almost broke her heart. “I am here, Papa. Is there anything I can get for you?”
“Turn out the light. I want to sleep.”
“You have slept for most of the day. You will never get strong again if you do not eat.”
“There you are. I have been searching for you.”
Laurene stiffened at the sound of her husband’s voice. “I thought your father might like some company.”
Emilio’s footsteps were muffled by the thick rugs covering the floor. “That was a kind thought.” He reached her side and kissed her cheek. “How are you feeling this evening, Father?”
Laurene had never noticed before that there was a change in her husband’s voice when he spoke to his father. He was polite, and his words always conveyed concern. However, there was no warmth as if he was only asking out of a sense of duty. She clasped her hands together to stop them shaking.
“I am very tired.”
“Then, we will leave you to rest.”
“Wait,” Laurene called as Emilio took her hand to lead her from the room. “I was wondering…” Her courage failed her and she found that she couldn’t continue.
“Wondering about what, my dear?”
“About…about José,” she blurted. “You told me that you know where he is. Perhaps if he was told how ill…”
“Messages were sent.” Emilio’s face had darkened with anger. “He refused to return.”
“José?” Don Ricardo’s voice wavered. “Mi hijo. I miss him.”
Emilio released her hand, striding back to the bed to confront his father. “José betrayed you. You do remember that? He threw all your love back in your face and laughed as he stole from you.”
Laurene had never been afraid of her husband before. Even when he had been angry with one of the workers he had always been in control. There was nothing controlled about his anger tonight. His hands were balled into tight fists and his face was flushed.
“Si,” Don Ricardo replied resignedly. “I remember.”
“Do not waste your time thinking about him. He will never come home.”
With those chilling words Emilio strode from the room. Laurene took a moment to straighten the bedclothes before following her husband. He was waiting in the hallway, his fury unabated.
“Why did you have to speak of that bastardo in front of my father?”
Emilio had never used coarse language in her hearing before, even when talking about his half-brother and the woman who had led Don Ricardo to stray from his marriage. She bowed her head to hide her fear. “I thought it might help.”
“Ah, my love, you have a kind heart.” Emilio’s voice softened. “José has been nothing but trouble since he was a child. He never appreciated how much it cost our father to acknowledge him. To speak his name only rubs salt into the wound. Now, put him from your mind. We have our own child to think of.” He gently rested his hand on her rounded belly.
It was the thought of that child, and of the revenge that José would seek if he were to regain his freedom, that kept the truth locked away in her heart. And she told herself that, in time, she would forget the price being paid by an innocent young man so that she could keep her family intact.
Scott hadn’t noticed it growing dark. His restlessness had driven him out of the cantina, after an early supper, to sit in the small square. A few of the villagers had called out a greeting as they went about their business. None had tried to engage him in conversation. He had long ago given up even the faintest hope that Johnny would return that evening. Behind the calm façade that he was used to presenting to the world, worry beat relentlessly at his mind.
The air was soft and warm, with only the sound of the cicadas disturbing the peace of the evening. Scott closed his eyes and tried to imagine what life must have been like for his brother growing up in villages like this one. He’d seen the young children, barefoot and grubby, racing around happily without a care in the world. At their age, he’d been dressed in tight uncomfortable clothes, listening to a succession of tutors droning on about subjects that didn’t interest him. The idea of him running around the streets playing with his friends would have scandalized his grandfather and most of the other members of Boston society. Not that he’d been unhappy. He just hadn’t known that any other kind of life was possible.
“You should come inside.”
Scott looked up. “I think I’ll stay out here a while longer.”
“Would you like some company?”
Scott moved toward the end of the bench so that Ramon Torres could sit. The owner of the cantina looked as worried as he felt. “I’ve been trying to imagine what it was like for Johnny when he was a child.”
“It is hard to say. He and his mother lived here for such a short time.”
“What was his mother like? I’ve never even seen a picture of her.”
“She was very beautiful, but she had a temper.” Ramon smiled. “If something did not please her, the whole village knew about it.”
‘You have your mother’s temper.’ That was how Murdoch had greeted Johnny when they had first been reunited. Yet, Scott had often noticed that Johnny’s temper didn’t involve him shouting or losing control.
“Was she a good mother?”
“Johnny was her whole world.”
Although Scott was happy to hear this, it left him no nearer understanding why she had lied to Johnny about his father. Unfortunately, some questions could never be answered and Johnny seemed to have come to terms with that. He stood up and stretched to work the kinks out of his back. “I think I’ll check on my horse and then turn in. I can’t just wait here and hope that Johnny comes back, so I’m going to leave at daybreak. If he’s in trouble, I need to get to him as soon as possible.”
Ramon stared at him. “What do you think you can do? If he has been captured by the rurales, he will be in the same prison as José. You risk your own life by going after him.”
“I don’t know what I can do.” Scott’s voice rose in frustration. “I do know that I can’t stay here worrying about him.”
“You could be riding into a trap.”
“That’s a chance I’ll have to take. I’m not necessarily any safer staying here.”
“You could try again to send word to Don Ricardo.”
“I appreciate your concern.” Scott made an effort to moderate his tone. Ramon was trying to help, and it wasn’t right that he should take out his anxiety on the only friend he had in this village. “I’ll be careful and, if Johnny does come back, tell him to wait here for me.”
“You are as impulsive as your hermano. I will pray for your safety.”
Scott’s smile was bitter. “Pray for Johnny and José,” he said.
The oil in the lamp was running low. The flame danced in the chill air, forming fragmented patterns on the grey wall. José had fallen asleep, curled up and wrapped in a blanket. Months of unrelenting hard work and inadequate food had sapped the strength from him, leaving him gaunt and exhausted. He had almost a week’s worth of dark beard and the sour smell of sweat clinging to him. He had said that they were allowed to bathe and shave once a week after which they were given clean clothes. Those clothes were little better than rags, providing no protection from the sun in the day and the cold at night. José’s skin had been burned a deeper brown than Johnny remembered, making his blue eyes even more noticeable.
Johnny lay on his side, unable to sleep. The unrelenting ache in his back beat in time to his heart, but that wasn’t what was making it impossible for him to close his eyes. Scott had once told him about the conditions of his year-long imprisonment during the war. He had emerged emaciated and weak. All that had sustained him during those harsh months had been the knowledge that his grandfather and friends would be waiting for him upon his release. José, in contrast, believed he had been abandoned without the chance of a reprieve. Of more concern than the physical deterioration was his clear emotional fragility. Had he been damaged beyond repair? He had said that he was no longer interested in going home. So far as he was concerned he had no home. All he cared about was killing Emilio, even if it resulted in his own death. There was nothing to look forward to – no future.
Once, Johnny had believed that. During the night that he had believed would be his last, he hadn’t been able to stop himself thinking about what his life would have been like if he’d grown up at Lancer. The bitterness had soured his stomach, making it harder than expected to face the fact that he was about to die. It wasn’t as if this was anything new. Each time he faced another man in a gunfight he risked his life. It really made you appreciate living when you knew you could die any time. Not that he’d been careless, or had taken stupid risks, despite what Scott might have thought. “You’ll be dead before you’re thirty,” Scott had once told him, and maybe he was right. Only, he hadn’t expected it, not now that he was respectable.
Even though he was fast asleep, José was shivering. Johnny rose slowly to his feet and draped his own blanket over his friend. A sigh and an unintelligible mumble was the only acknowledgement he received before José settled into a more peaceful sleep. The lamp guttered and went out, plunging him into darkness. He stood still, disorientated, listening to José’s steady breathing. After shuffling forward, his foot caught the edge of his mattress and he lowered himself back to the ground.
Deprived of his sight, he could no longer turn his thoughts away from Scott and the danger that was drawing ever closer to his unsuspecting brother. Tomas might only have guessed at the connection, but neither he nor Emilio would let lack of proof stand in their way. Although he wanted to believe that Scott would have left the village, that was unlikely. His own unexplained disappearance would have put Scott in a very difficult position and he doubted that his brother would have immediately forsaken the agreed rendezvous. The only real hope was that Scott had achieved his objective to successfully enlist Don Ricardo’s help. If Scott had failed…
No, damn it! He wasn’t going to give up and he knew that his brother wouldn’t either. Now wasn’t the time for regrets. Tomas was on his way back to his master and Captain Arriaga was wavering about his part in Emilio’s scheme. If he’d read the man right, the captain would be susceptible to a bribe. José had had nothing to bargain with. Johnny Lancer was more fortunate. Money and influence, coupled with a healthy dose of arrogance, might just be enough to extricate them from this hell hole with their hides more or less intact.
The sound of the key being turned in the lock roused Johnny from a fitful sleep. He had no idea how much time had passed since he had been locked up, but the heavy weight of his eyelids convinced him that he hadn’t had nearly enough sleep. At some point, he must have rolled onto his back as his shirt was sticking to his skin, no doubt held there by dried blood. He debated trying to remove it and then decided to wait and see what lay in store for him first.
José was awake, sitting wedged tightly into a corner of the cell, his eyes almost black in the dim light spilling in from the corridor. This was how it had been, Johnny realized. The dawning of a new day had brought nothing but pain and humiliation. With fierce determination he pushed himself to his feet and stood between the open doorway and his friend. Two guards entered the cell, one armed with a rifle and one carrying two bowls. A quick glance over his shoulder showed him that José had bent his head with a submission that would have been utterly foreign to the proud young man Johnny had known in the past. When he turned back, Johnny’s own stare was level and defiant.
The guards ignored the challenge, depositing the bowls and a fresh lamp on the ground and then leaving. Johnny waited until the door had been closed and locked before carrying one of the bowls over to his friend. José looked at him sadly.
“When I found out that this was all Emilio’s doing, I refused to eat or work. I had nothing left and just wished to die.” He dipped his spoon into the porridge, stirring it listlessly. “They sent for Emilio and he…I was taken to the doctor’s office and they forced the food down my throat. I wish I had the courage to keep defying them.”
“You have to trust me, Amigo. I’ll find a way out of here.” Johnny forced himself to swallow a mouthful of the tasteless food.
“I’m sorry. I should not have asked Cierra to find you.”
Johnny laid down his bowl and forced José to look him in the eye. He held up his hand where the thin white scar was still visible. “Do you remember this?”
“Is that why you came? Because of a game we played as children?”
“It wasn’t a game – not to me anyway. You were the closest thing I had to a brother before I met Scott and that ain’t somethin’ I’m ever gonna forget. And, I’ll tell you something else. You’ll always be welcome at Lancer, so don’t you ever think you ain’t got a home and someone who cares about you.”
José nodded and lowered his head to concentrate on his food. But, Johnny had seen the stray tear that had slid down his friend’s cheek and he swore to himself that he’d do anything in his power to help José take his revenge on Emilio, and to hell with the consequences.
It was close to daybreak and Emilio had been in the barn for hours, grateful to have some distraction from his thoughts. He had been called from his warm bed in the early hours of the morning with the news that his favorite mare was about to foal. The colt, sired by one of his prize stallions, had arrived without mishap and now stood on shaky legs, feeding from his mother.
Emilio’s thoughts drifted to the day when his wife would present him with his first son, and how proud he would feel. Although he loved Laurene, he could confess to himself that he had been growing anxious by her failure to conceive. He wanted his father to see that he was capable of carrying on the family name and that there was no place for José. It was his father’s suggestion that a way might be found to legitimize his bastard half-brother that had finally led him to take drastic action. This land belonged to him and his sons, and he could not allow that rightful inheritance to be jeopardized.
By now, José would know of his fate. In some respects, it was more merciful than he had intended, but it was undoubtedly for the best. As always, thoughts of José made him feel sick to his stomach. The mestizo had stolen the love that should have belonged to him and his mother. He had been on the verge of losing control yesterday when Laurene had spoken of José in his father’s presence and only the fact of her pregnancy had stopped him from being harsher with her.
“Don Emilio, there is a rider coming.”
Emilio stepped outside in response to the shout, curious and a little concerned about who would be arriving at such an early hour. The rooster began to crow as the sun crawled over the horizon. Soon the estancia would wake and he would join his father for breakfast. It was a comforting ritual which allowed him to emphasis his authority over the old man, while still maintaining the façade of a dutiful son.
The rider was now close enough to be identified and Emilio felt his heart skip a beat. What was Tomas doing back so soon? His orders had been to take José and sell him to one of the unscrupulous mine owners, a task that should have taken days to accomplish. Both horse and rider looked almost dead from exhaustion. The animal came to a shuddering halt, head down and sides heaving. Tomas was swaying in the saddle, his fingers locked around the reins and his eyes half-closed.
“Help him,” Emilio ordered brusquely. “Take him into my study and bring a pot of coffee and some food.”
Two of the vaqueros caught Tomas as he slid from the saddle. He leaned heavily on them as he was led into the house. Another man took charge of the horse and Emilio suddenly found himself standing alone with a dozen unanswered questions tumbling through his mind. He shook off the lethargy that was holding him pinned in place and strode purposefully into the house.
Laurene was descending the staircase, her dark hair lying loose over her shoulders and her eyes still heavy with sleep. “I heard shouting. Is anything wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong. Go back to bed. You need your rest. I will send someone to wake you when it is time for breakfast.”
The two vaqueros who had assisted Tomas hurried past with their eyes averted from the sight of Laurene standing there in her night robe. Emilio saw her flush as she realized how inappropriate it was for her to be wandering around the house improperly dressed. He waited only long enough to see her turn to go back to their room before he continued on his way to his study.
Tomas was sitting in one of the armchairs, his head resting on the back of the chair and his eyes closed. He was breathing almost as harshly as his horse had been. Emilio closed the door firmly behind him, noting with approval that a plate of cold meat and bread, together with a coffee pot and two cups, already waited on his desk. After pouring the coffee, he pressed one of the cups into Tomas’s hand. With a weary smile Tomas drank the bitter liquid. Emilio waited for Tomas to summon up the strength to speak.
“I was followed to the prison.”
Fear lodged itself in Emilio’s throat. “Who?”
“A gunfighter. Or, at least he was. Johnny Madrid.”
“Madrid?” He remembered the name and the cocky young man that it belonged to. “What happened?”
“He was careless. Now that he is a rancher he has grown soft.”
“A rancher?” Emilio found himself floundering, unable to follow the disjointed direction of Tomas’s story. Then, a half-remembered conversation sprang to mind. José had received a letter and had been happily recounting its contents to his father when Emilio had walked into the room. ‘Si. His gringo father claimed him and now he is an important man in the San Joaquin.’
Emilio’s hand was shaking as he poured more coffee. He was almost afraid to ask the next question. “Is he dead?”
“He is locked up with José. Patron,” Tomas’s voice took on a note of urgency, “where is the gringo who was here two days ago?”
The pieces began to fall into place as Emilio contemplated the disaster that was now looming. “He left yesterday. You think he and Madrid are connected?”
“I think you cannot afford to take the chance. I took a whip to Madrid’s back and he still denied knowing this man. I believe he was protecting him.”
Emilio walked over to the window, pushing it up to let in some air and staring out at his domain. “He said his name was Scott Garrett and that he was the foreman of a ranch near Stockton.” He turned back slowly. “He told us that he had a father and a brother.”
Tomas stared at him, an unpleasant smile creeping across his tired face. “They are brothers.”
“We have to find him. He must not be allowed to get word back to his father.”
“According to Madrid, Murdoch Lancer already knows. What would you have me do, Patron?”
Emilio sat heavily in his chair. “If we are right, and he is Scott Lancer, the most likely place for him to be is at the village where Johnny and his mother used to live. Take him to the disused farmhouse at the eastern border of the estancia and wait for me. Send me word once you have him and do not harm him. I need to be certain.”
“What about José and Madrid?”
“They are safe where they are for now. Once we have finished with our uninvited guest, and you have rested, you will make them disappear.”
“Si, Patron. It will be my pleasure.”
“You are a loyal friend, Tomas. I will not forget all that you have done for me.”
Tomas bowed his head, then heaved himself to his feet. “I will take Luis and Fernando with me. I will send word once he is secure.”
Laurene had been unable to keep her curiosity in check and had crept back downstairs as soon as her husband had entered his study. From her room, which overlooked the front of the house, she had seen Tomas’s arrival. She hated and feared him, and suspected that he was also implicated in José’s disappearance. It was always a relief when he was away doing her husband’s biding. It was clear from the look on Emilio’s face that his return this morning was unexpected and the matter must be urgent as Tomas appeared to have ridden through the night, almost killing himself and his horse in the process.
She had tried listening through the door, but only faint sounds filtered through the heavy wood. Heedless of the curious stares of the servants, she walked through the kitchen and round to the back of the house. She pressed herself against the wall by the study window. The voices were clearer now, although the words remained indistinct. Her heart had thundered in fear when the window opened. That fear had intensified when she heard her husband and Emilio discussing Scott, José and a man called Johnny Madrid, or perhaps it was Johnny Lancer – she was too distressed to follow the twists and turns of the conversation. What she did know was that Emilio was now contemplating the murder of three men, including his own brother.
She could no longer turn a blind eye to what was happening. If only for her husband’s sake she had to find a way to stop him. Shaking so hard that it felt as if she had a fever, she went back inside. She couldn’t risk approaching her father-in-law while Emilio was in the house. She would have to wait until Tomas sent word and her husband left to deal with Scott. Would that leave her with sufficient time even if she could get Don Ricardo to listen to her?
“This is not right.”
Johnny dragged his attention away from the shackles around his ankles. “What?”
“The only day we do not have to work is Sunday.”
“I guess Tomas and the captain don’t want to take any risks by lettin’ us out of here.”
Having listened to José’s description of the conditions in which they were forced to work, Johnny wasn’t too unhappy at the reprieve. On the other hand, it left them with no chance at all of escape.
“How is your back?”
“I’ve had worse and it don’t feel infected. Reckon that doctor knew what he was doing.”
José’s eyes narrowed and a deep line formed between his eyes as he frowned. “He is the bastard who forced me to eat.”
Johnny chose his words carefully. José had no reason to trust or be grateful to anyone here. “He follows orders, although that don’t even come close to excusin’ what he did to you. He only treated me because someone told him to.”
“Then, you are fortunate.”
José lay down, turning his back to Johnny. For a long time Johnny just stared at him, trying to reconcile this bitter young man with his memory of the friend who knew how to laugh and enjoy life. Finally, he made himself as comfortable as possible and dozed.
When the door opened he came immediately alert. José had rolled over and was staring with wide hate-filled eyes at the guard standing in the doorway.
“You will come with us.” The guard pointed his rifle at Johnny. “The captain wants to see you.”
José’s anxiety was palpable. Having been alone for so long it was only natural that he would fear solitude.
“I’ll be back soon,” Johnny promised as he rose clumsily to his feet. It briefly crossed his mind that the Captain might have decided to follow through with his threat of a summary execution. But, he didn’t think Arriaga would do something like that without express instructions from Emilio or Tomas.
He preceded the guard out of the cell and into the long hallway. Most of the doors were open, and quick glances into the cells confirmed that they were unoccupied. For the other prisoners, this was just another day laboring in hell. They turned a corner into a wider hallway and the guard seemed content to allow Johnny to shuffle along at his own pace. They passed the infirmary and Johnny gave an involuntary shudder. The pain of the treatment had been almost as bad as the whipping that had preceded it.
Johnny halted as instructed, waiting while the guard sought and received permission to enter the office. He fixed his gaze on Captain Arriaga, knowing that such blatant defiance would unsettle the man. It was a calculated risk which could back-fire disastrously if he had misjudged the situation.
The captain did not look as if he had slept well. His grey hair was untidy and he looked as if he hadn’t changed his clothes which were now disheveled. A cold smile settled on Johnny’s lips as he stared at his jailor and he was gratified when Arriaga looked away.
“You can go, Ruiz.”
The guard took a hesitant step forward. “Captain?”
“Get out,” Arriaga ordered again.
Once the door had closed behind Ruiz, Johnny looked around. The office was built against the outer wall of the prison. The room was light and airy thanks to two windows, through which, Johnny could get a tantalizing glimpse of freedom. The windows were heavily barred and thick wooden shutters stood open against the wall. The desk and furnishings were of good quality and far better than would be expected in a place like this. The captain had been living well on Emilio’s money.
Johnny lazily turned his attention back to the captain. “It’s Lancer.” He made his way, uninvited, to one of the chairs and sat down, being careful not to put any weight on his back. Although designed to prove that he wasn’t afraid of Arriaga, it was also a necessity. The aching in his back was making Johnny’s head spin.
Arriaga’s mouth set in a hard line. “I did not tell you to sit.”
Johnny said nothing, content to wait the captain out. It would diminish Arriaga’s authority further if he had to send for one of the guards to haul Johnny back to his feet, and they both knew it.
“You have to understand that Don Emilio is a powerful man.”
“So is my father.”
“Yes. So, you can see my dilemma.”
“There is a simple solution. Release us and disappear.”
“I cannot do that. I have a family to consider.”
Johnny’s temper flared. “José has a family,” he shot back before forcing himself to regain control. “I think you underestimate what will happen when his father learns that you accepted money to keep José a prisoner.”
“He will not find out.” Captain Arriaga’s confidence withered in the face of Johnny’s implacable expression. “The gringo! Tomas was right to be concerned.”
Again Johnny held his tongue. If, by some mischance, Scott ended up here as well, he didn’t want their relationship to be known.
“I sent for you in order to make a proposal. I will release you, on condition that you leave Mexico and keep my part in this a secret.”
It was the offer of a desperate man, and that made the captain dangerous. “I can’t do that. I won’t leave José here.”
“You are a fool. When Tomas returns, you are both dead men.”
“You think Emilio will let you live? You know too much.”
“What would you have me do?” Arriaga begged. “If I turn José loose he will kill me.”
“You have my word that I won’t let that happen.”
“No.” Arriaga shook his head. “No, I cannot…”
“It’s the only hope you have,” Johnny pressed.
“I must think.”
“Don’t take too long,” Johnny warned, reining in his frustration. They were so close that he could almost taste freedom.
“I was told to keep you locked up. To prove to you that I am not heartless, I will allow you both to spend some time in the yard.”
“What about the leg-irons?” Johnny asked hopefully.
Captain Arriaga almost looked apologetic. “They stay, Señor. I cannot afford to trust you.”
“Think hard, Captain. Once Emilio sends orders, it’s over for all of us. What will your family do then?”
Scott opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling and wondering where he was. As he turned his head he saw a shaft of sunlight coming through the small window. “Damn!” He scrambled to his feet and rushed outside. From the angle of the sun, he could see that it had been several hours since daybreak and that he had overslept.
Despite being bone weary he had found it impossible to settle the previous night. Lying on a hard floor hadn’t helped and he had tossed and turned uneasily for hours. Finally, he had felt himself drifting to sleep, confident that he would waken at first light.
“Good morning, Señor.”
Scott whirled round to confront Ramon. “Why didn’t you wake me?” he demanded. “You knew I wanted to be on the road at daybreak.”
“You were very tired and I did not want to disturb you.”
Scott glowered at the man before pushing past him to retrieve his bedroll. He was angry with himself and angry at Ramon, and just wanted to leave as soon as possible.
“You should eat. It is a long ride. My wife has prepared some food for your journey.”
Scott bit his tongue. Ramon Torres and his wife had been kind to him and Johnny, and they didn’t deserve the rough edge of his temper. “Gracias, Ramon, but I don’t have any more time to waste.”
He gathered up his belongings and stepped outside again. With his hands full, he wasn’t prepared to be confronted by three men. He came to an abrupt halt, narrowing his eyes as he considered the man who was standing slightly ahead of his two companions.
“You will come with us.”
“I think you gentlemen have made a mistake.” Scott had recognized the man now, although he kept that knowledge to himself. He took a step forward, halting again as he found his way blocked.
“It is no mistake. Yesterday your hermano was put in front of a firing squad and shot. Now, it is your turn.”
“What?” Scott’s mind refused to accept what he was being told.
“Before he died, Johnny told me all about you.”
The initial shock was replaced by an unshakable certainty that this man was lying to him. Johnny would never have betrayed him. He sucked in a deep breath as he considered his predicament. The men were so confident that they had the upper hand that none of them had drawn their guns. Scott flung his bedroll and saddlebag straight at the spokesman’s grinning face, then lashed out at the larger of the remaining assailants. Using the force of his momentum, he dodged past the third man, heading for the horses that were standing peacefully only ten feet away. He had his hand on the reins of one of the animals when a bullet plowed into the ground a few inches away from his feet.
“Stay where you are.”
Scott let the reins slip through his fingers to trail along the ground. He didn’t move as he felt his gun being lifted from its holster. Neither was he foolish enough to resist further when his arms were pulled behind his back and bound. Only then did he turn back to face his captor, silent and defiant. It took only a few minutes for them to find and saddle his horse. Once he was in the saddle, he looked down at Ramon, who had remained a terrified spectator. No words passed between them. What could he say that wouldn’t betray the truth? He kept his back straight and his head high as he was led away.
Laurene dressed slowly. The panic fluttering in her chest was exacerbating the nausea that had plagued her for the last few months. The women told her that it would soon pass and that it was a sign that she would bear her husband a healthy son. The words were comforting, although she found it hard to believe in the simple wisdom of the peons. After two years of marriage, she had been on the point of despair about the lack of a child. Emilio had never said a word of reproach, but she had lived with the constant fear that he would stray as his father had done.
She had been lucky enough to make an acceptable marriage, where they had come to love each other. It was that love that would give her the strength to save Emilio from the snare he had caught himself in.
For the next two hours, she occupied herself with the mundane tasks involved in running a household. Emilio, so far as she was aware, hadn’t left his study and she did not seek him out. Over and over she rehearsed what she would say to Don Ricardo, although she came no nearer to coming to terms with what was happening around her.
Because she was waiting and watching, she saw Fernando return alone. That could only mean that they had succeeded in their task and that Scott was a prisoner. Shortly after that Emilio left, grim faced and silent.
Laurene hurried to her father-in-law’s room. She pulled back the drapes to allow daylight to chase away the gloom before approaching the bed. “Papa.”
When Don Ricardo didn’t stir, she reached out a hand to shake him gently. “Papa. Wake up.”
The old man’s face was covered in confusion as he opened his eyes and stared at her.
“I need your help,” she persisted. “José needs your help.”
As always, his younger son’s name touched Don Ricardo’s awareness. “José left me,” he replied sadly.
“Not willingly. He was abducted and locked away. Por favor, Papa, you must listen to me.”
“What are you saying?”
“A stranger came to the hacienda. He told me that José was in prison. He said…” She hesitated now that she had come to the point. “He said that José was being held on Emilio’s orders.”
For a second, she feared that the news was going to provoke another seizure. Don Ricardo’s pale face took on a waxy sheen and his breathing became ragged. As she leaned forward in concern, he seemed to rally.
“Help me to sit up.”
Laurene slipped her arm behind his shoulders, supporting him as he slowly pushed himself upright. She slid a pillow behind his back to help make him more comfortable.
“I knew that Emilio hated his brother, but how could he do such a dreadful thing. My poor boy. How much has he suffered because I was too blind to see the truth?”
“We do not have much time,” Laurene urged.
“Tell me what you know.”
She stumbled her way through the information Scott had provided and recounted the conversation between Emilio and Tomas.
“Johnny? Ah, yes, I remember him. He and José were good friends. You say this gringo is Johnny’s hermano?”
“Si, papa, and he is in great danger.”
“He knows where my son is being held?”
Laurene nodded. “What can we do? Emilio has much on his conscience, but he does not yet have blood on his hands.” She withstood his searching scrutiny without flinching.
“You do this for Emilio?”
“I love him and I want our child to have his father.”
“You would stand by him, even if I disinherit him and cast him out?”
“He is luckier than he deserves. And, be warned, mi hija, José will want his revenge.” Don Ricardo paused to catch his breath. “Send word to Colonel Léon. Ask him to rescue the gringo and find a way to release José and his amigo. Tell him also that it is my wish that Emilio should be returned here to me.” He tugged at the signet ring on his little finger. “This ring will convince him of the truth of the message.”
Laurene closed her hand over the ring. “I will do whatever is necessary to save my husband.”
After his inconclusive meeting with Captain Arriaga, Johnny had been taken to the infirmary. On this occasion, he was spared the ignominy of being strapped down as the doctor inspected his back. The thin cuts were healing, he was told, and there was no obvious sign of infection. Cream was applied and then he was told he could put his shirt back on. Having heard of the doctor’s part in forcing José to eat, it was all Johnny could do to stop himself from punching the man in the face. It was a relief to be sent on his way with a dismissive wave.
Although there was some room for cautious optimism, José didn’t react to Johnny’s description of his conversation with the captain. José seemed to have sunk back into a deep pit of hopelessness, and Johnny was no longer sure that he could reach him. After a while they had been ordered outside. Being in the open had immediately lifted Johnny’s spirits, but José had quickly found a patch of shade and had been sitting with his head bowed ever since.
Johnny took the opportunity to walk around the yard. His seemingly aimless wanderings took him to every corner as he tried to find any chance of an escape. There were four guards on the upper walkway. Between them, they had a clear field of fire covering every inch of the yard. There were two stairways leading up to their positions, and any attempt to climb one would be suicide. Johnny wasn’t even sure that the chain between his ankles was long enough to allow him to reach from one step to another.
There were only two guards in the yard itself, both armed with rifles. Johnny considered their chances of overpowering one of the men, deciding that the odds were not favorable. His path brought him close to the post where he had faced the firing squad and his palms began to sweat. José had told him about the execution of the boy and the horror had been clear in his eyes and voice.
There were only a few other prisoners around, all of whom were studiously ignoring him and José as they went about the tasks assigned to them. The gate opened to admit a wagon. Johnny’s interest didn’t go unnoticed and he quickly found himself herded well away from temptation. He dropped to the ground beside José, watching as the prisoners unloaded baskets of bread and vegetables. He licked his lips, measuring the distance from his location to the wagon.
“It is a very foolish thing you are contemplating.”
Johnny turned his head. The guard standing behind him was the one who had spoken to him the previous day. If he had hoped to take even a shred of hope from that he was quickly disappointed. The guard’s grip on his rifle was firm and it was pointing unwaveringly at Johnny’s back.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Johnny replied, turning to look back at the wagon.
“You spoke with Captain Arriaga this morning.”
“Yes.” Johnny glanced sideways at José who had raised his head and was also watching the activity around the gate.
“Whatever you said to him, he was very unsettled. An hour ago he took his horse and rode away. Some of us believe that he does not intend to return.”
Johnny could not keep his shock from showing and he quickly looked around again. The captain had been their one hope of freedom. If he had abandoned them…”Why do you think he will not come back?”
“He left orders. If either of you tries to escape, you are both to be shot. He also said that a man would be coming here soon – the same man who brought you here, Señor. We are to do whatever he says…and then forget that either of you ever existed.”
The building had been abandoned a long time ago. That much was clear from its dilapidated appearance. The front door hung only from the top hinge, tiles were missing from the roof and the area surrounding it was overgrown and neglected. The floor on which Scott had been forced to sit was covered in a thick layer of dust and there was ample evidence that various animals had made temporary homes in the building. The main room, which was devoid of furniture, smelt musty.
Scott sat where he had been put. The journey itself had been long and accomplished in silence. They had passed several groups of peons laboring in fields and, once, a substantial number of vaqueros herding cattle. None had offered assistance, although some had given him sympathetic looks. Here, Emilio’s word was law and he could expect no aid.
Of his three captors, one had been dispatched to fetch Emilio. The man who had taunted him about Johnny’s death was, he discovered, called Tomas. The other was Luis. It was clear that Johnny had been captured and Scott clung to the belief that his brother was still alive. Since arriving at their destination he had been diligently working on his bonds. For the last few minutes, however, Luis had been watching him suspiciously and he had temporarily abandoned his efforts. Tomas remained outside, no doubt waiting for his master to arrive.
The sound of hoof beats was followed by voices and, shortly after, Emilio strode into the room with Tomas by his side. Scott tried to get to his feet, his efforts thwarted by Luis who pressed him back to the floor.
“What’s this about?” Scott demanded. “I was getting ready to leave when your men ambushed me.”
“Do not play games with me, Señor Lancer.”
Scott tried to hide his reaction, although Tomas’s earlier words had made it pretty clear that they had worked out who he was. He wondered if Laurene had betrayed him. “My name isn’t Lancer.”
Emilio’s nod was almost imperceptible. Tomas leaned over and hauled Scott to his feet while Emilio stepped closer. “I abhor violence, but for you I will make an exception. You came to my house and used a lie to gain entrance. You were honored as a guest. Now, you will tell me why you were really there.”
“My horse was lame…”
Tomas’s hard fist buried itself in Scott’s stomach. He doubled over, retching and trying to catch his breath.
“I will not tolerate any more lies. You came because someone told you about José. I want to know who you spoke to about him.”
“You’re wrong. I don’t even know who José is.” The next blow sent Scott to his knees.
“Perhaps I should take my whip to you,” Tomas sneered. “We can see if you last longer than your mestizo brother.”
The visceral fear that threat provoked was combined with a deep anger at hearing that his brother had been tortured. With great reluctance, he also accepted that lying was not going to save him. He raised his head. “What do you want?”
Tomas pulled him back to his feet. “Is my brother still alive?” he asked, trying to ignore the smug satisfaction on Tomas’s face.
“For the moment.”
Relief loosened the knot of fear in Scott’s gut. “We came here to tell Don Ricardo about José’s imprisonment. We knew that Johnny was likely to be recognized, so I offered to make the approach.”
“You spoke to my father?”
Scott shook his head. It would be too easy to disprove any lie. “No. It was clear that he was too sick to help. By the time I returned to the village to tell Johnny, he had disappeared.”
“You spoke to no one else?”
“Who else could I have spoken to?” Scott hedged, avoiding an outright lie. He could see that Emilio was relaxing in the belief that his scheme had not been betrayed. “You understand that our father knows that we came here. If we don’t return, he won’t rest until he has uncovered the truth. It isn’t too late to undo the harm and make things right.”
“This is a lawless land, Señor Lancer. Men die all the time.”
“There were witnesses when I was taken by your men.”
“People’s memories are short. If your father comes, I can truthfully say that I did not see Johnny and that you were alive when we parted company.”
“He knows where José is being held,” Scott continued.
“There are no records, and soon there will be no evidence that he, or your brother, were ever there.” Emilio’s cold stare raked over Scott. “José and my father always underestimated me. I regret that you should have to pay for their stupidity with your life, but you must see that there is no alternative.” He turned his attention to Tomas. “Wait an hour and then kill him. By that time I will be back at the hacienda. Tomorrow, when you have rested, go back to the prison and deal with the other two.”
“You are willing to have three men killed because of your jealousy?” Scott asked incredulously.
“I would have expected you to understand. What did your mother think when your gringo father took a Mexican woman to his bed?”
Normally, Scott discouraged any discussion of Murdoch’s marriages, but right now the only way to postpone his death, and keep any hope alive for Johnny and José, was to keep Emilio talking. “My mother died when I was born. Murdoch and Maria were married at the time of Johnny’s birth. Even had that not been the case, I would never hate him because of his heritage, or blame him for the actions of his parents.”
Emilio stepped closer, the veins in his temple throbbing. “My father betrayed his marriage and humiliated my mother. Do you expect me to believe that you would not have been angry had that happened to your mother?”
“Then, blame your father, but you can’t hold José responsible. What you did to him was unimaginably cruel. Don’t make it worse by killing.”
“What do you think would happen if José was freed? Do you honestly believe that he would agree to forget or forgive what happened?”
“Johnny and I can reason with him…”
“Why are you listening to this, Patron?” Tomas interrupted. “Killing them is the only way to find peace. Think of your wife and the son she will bear you. José will take his revenge on your whole family. None of you will be safe.”
“However much you hate your brother, you can’t believe he would hurt an innocent woman and child?”
“He was broken on my orders. He is no longer the same person your hermano knew. He is wild, dangerous and unpredictable. There is no choice.”
“There is always a choice,” Scott began, furiously.
Tomas turned on him, slapping him brutally across the mouth. “Don Emilio has listened to enough.”
Scott tasted blood as his head reeled from the force of the blow. Luis’s hand closed around his arm, steadying him and keeping him upright.
“You should leave, Patron.” Tomas began to usher Emilio toward the door.
“Wait!” Scott called, trying to free himself from Luis.
Tomas stopped, slowly drawing his gun. When he turned back to look at Scott his face was contorted with fury. Scott became very still, staring into the cold brown eyes.
“I will tell your hermano of your death before I send him to join you.”
The emptiness of the building magnified the shot, and then there was silence.
Scott didn’t look at the body lying at his feet or at the man who had fired the fatal shot. His attention was focused on the tall figure silhouetted in the doorway. As the man stepped further into the room, Scott could see clearly the cutaway blue jacket with red facings and cuffs intricately embroidered with gold thread. Even without the uniform, though, it would have been obvious from the erect bearing and the air of effortless authority, that this was a military officer.
“Señor Lancer?” The voice was deep, cultured and reassuringly warm.
Still shaken by this unexpected intervention, Scott could only nod. Although Luis’s hand had disappeared from his arm, he found that it was impossible to move his legs. By leaning back slightly he was able to brace his shoulder against the wall, which had the benefit of keeping him upright. He had been so sure that his life was over, yet, it was Tomas who lay face down in a pool of blood.
It was Emilio who found his voice first, and there was no noticeable lessening of the arrogance that had repulsed Scott from the time of their first meeting.
“You have no business here, Colonel.”
The colonel spared Emilio only the briefest of glances before turning his attention back to Scott. He gestured to one of his men and Scott felt the ropes pinning his arms loosen and fall away.
“Thank you.” He rubbed his wrists, which had been bruised and abraded by the rough rope. It was only then that he noticed the spatters of blood marring the front of his shirt – Tomas’s blood. He should feel satisfaction that this vicious man who had whipped Johnny, and threatened his own life, was dead. Yet, all he felt was sadness that one man’s hatred for his own brother had brought them to this point.
“You are on my land and this man is my prisoner,” Emilio persisted, looking distastefully at Tomas’s body before stepping between Scott and his rescuer. “You have no right to interfere, or to kill one of my men. You will leave.”
The colonel did not look either impressed, or discomfited, by Emilio’s vehemence. “I am here at the request of Don Ricardo and, if I am not mistaken, this is his land rather than yours.”
“My father?” Emilio sounded incredulous. “My father has not left his bed for months, and barely remembers his own name.”
“Perhaps this will convince you.”
The colonel held out a ring and Emilio stiffened. “Where did you get that?” He stretched out his hand, only to have the colonel close his fingers over the ring and return it to his pocket.
“You will return to the hacienda, and remain there under guard.” The colonel’s stern expression softened as he turned toward Scott. “Señor Lancer, I believe you know where José Martinez and your brother are being held prisoner.”
Scott didn’t stop to wonder how the colonel knew, he was simply grateful to finally have a powerful ally. “They are in a rurales prison, a day’s ride east of here.”
“I know the place, and I know the commander. He is a spineless man who would do anything for money. I have a dozen men waiting outside. Two will escort Emilio back to his father. The rest of them will accompany us.”
“You have no authority…” Emilio began heatedly.
The colonel stepped in closer. “You are not yet the Patron and, even if you were, you are not above the law.”
“How did you know?” Emilio demanded as two of the soldiers moved to flank him.
“That is not for me to say,” the colonel replied. “You can ask your father.”
As Scott brushed past, Emilio caught his arm. “You said you would try to reason with José.”
Even in defeat there was nothing conciliatory about Emilio Martinez. “That was before you ordered Tomas to kill me.” Scott twisted himself free. “But, for José’s sake, rather than yours, I will do my best.”
Emilio rode in tight lipped silence. He paid no attention to his escort and refused to consider himself as a prisoner. Someone had betrayed him and he was facing the ruin of all his plans. The knowledge that his carefully laid schemes were unraveling before his eyes added fuel to a fire that had been burning since the day he discovered he had a bastard half-brother. His first priority was to reach his father and undo the damage before José was released. With his father’s authority to back him up, his brother would not dare try to kill him.
He was outwardly calm and inwardly furious by the time he arrived back at the hacienda. He dismounted, leaving his horse for one of the vaqueros to care for. “You will stay outside,” he curtly ordered the soldiers before striding into the house.
He turned toward the weak voice coming from the great room. For months he had watched his father waste away, yet it still came as a shock to see how weak and diminished the Don had become. Don Ricardo had never been a large man, yet his proud bearing and upright stance had always given him a formidable presence. The man sitting huddled in a chair with a blanket covering his legs was almost a stranger. Emilio didn’t bother to hide his contempt as he walked into the room. Confidence was the key to achieving his objectives.
“What have you done mi hijo?” Don Ricardo asked, his voice wavering.
“I dealt with your mistake,” Emilio spat bitterly.
“Does José live?”
Emilio was tempted to lie, to see the hope fade from the old man’s face. “It would be better if he were dead,” he said callously.
“How could you do this to your hermano?”
Emilio gave a bitter laugh. “To make you suffer, as you made my mother suffer. Did you even once think of her when you were acknowledging your bastard and bringing him into our home?”
“Your mother had no warmth and a man can only live without love for a short time. Surely you can understand. You know what it is like to love a woman.”
“You disgust me.” Emilio crossed the room to stand threateningly over his father, gratified when the older man shrank away from him. “Do you have any idea what harm you have done by sending the colonel to free him?”
“Leave him alone.”
Emilio turned slowly to stare at his wife. Lourene was standing in the doorway, her face pale and frightened. “This is between me and my father.”
She took a step into the room, holding a hand out imploringly. “I had to tell him. You do see that?”
“You?” He looked at her blankly until comprehension hit him. Scott Lancer hadn’t lied – he hadn’t spoken to his father. “Lancer told you?” He walked over and took a firm hold of her arm, forcing her to stand still and look at him. “What were you thinking?”
“I did it to save you.”
“Save me?” Emilio sneered, pushing her away. He felt no compassion as he saw tears spring to her eyes. “You stupid bitch. You have not saved anyone. What you have done is condemn us all.”
It wasn’t until Colonel Léon insisted upon stopping for a few hours that Scott learned the truth behind his rescue. They had already clashed over the issue of sending a lone rider ahead to demand the release of the prisoners. The colonel had been perfectly polite and utterly implacable. The only safe course of action was to arrive in force and without any advance notice. To do otherwise would jeopardize the lives of the two captives. Common sense had eventually prevailed over Scott’s fear for Johnny and José’s safety, and he had conceded the point with reasonably good grace.
Stopping, even if only for a short time to rest the horses, had provoked a further argument. When it had become clear that he would not be allowed to continue on alone, Scott had dismounted and stalked away into the darkness, his heart racing and his hands tightly balled into fists. A measure of calm gradually stole over him. He’d lost track of how long they had been riding and had to admit that killing their horses would help no one. Feeling rather chastened he went to find the colonel.
Several small fires had been lit to push back the darkness. Groups of men were gathered around each one, talking quietly. The colonel sat alone, smoking a cigar. The pungent smell of the tobacco mixed with the stronger odor of freshly brewed coffee. For the first time, Scott noticed how the landscape had changed. There was no longer any evidence of cultivated fields. This was a harsh and unforgiving land, scoured almost bare by relentless sun and wind. Scrubby bushes clung to the thin soil, growing in the shade of rocky outcroppings.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Scott asked.
“Of course not. Sit down. Would you like some coffee?”
Scott nodded and sat heavily on the ground. He was tired and hungry, but all he wanted was to reach the prison and free his brother and José. He accepted the cup, holding it out until the colonel had filled it to the brim.
“You think that I do not understand your worry,” the colonel continued. He drew on his cigar, giving a contented sigh as the smoke trickled into the night air. “That is not true, but you need to understand how things work here in Mexico. Captain Arriaga, the commander of the prison, is highly placed in the Rurales. My rank is in the Mexican Army so I have no authority over him. That is why I must make a show of force. It is also why one man alone would have done more harm than good.”
Scott sipped the coffee as he considered this. “So we have to arrive in daylight without giving the impression that our mission is urgent.”
“Ah.” Colonel Léon gave a satisfied smile. “You understand tactics. Perhaps you have also worn a uniform.”
“I was in the Union Cavalry.”
The colonel nodded, as if this was not a surprise. “The hard part will be gaining entry to the prison. Even once that has been achieved, it will not be easy to part the rurales from their prisoners.”
“There is no need. If it was my brother in peril I would also be impatient.”
“It’s a pity Emilio doesn’t feel that way.”
“He and José have always hated each other. Sadly, much of the blame for that must rest on the shoulders of their father. He married out of duty and bred a son to carry on his family’s name. José was conceived out of love and I think Emilio always knew that.”
The colonel’s expression gave nothing away as Scott studied him in the flickering firelight. There was a fierce intelligence and curious appraisal behind the courtesy. The man was nearer sixty than fifty Scott guessed, with a lifetime of experience. The lines at the corners of his mouth and eyes were more likely the product of laughter rather than disappointment. Scott decided that he liked what he saw.
“How did you find me? How did you even know to look for me?”
“Now that, Señor, is a strange tale.” Colonel Léon refilled both coffee cups before continuing. “I was in the middle of my noon meal when I was told of an unexpected visitor. It is not often that Señora Martinez visits my home, uninvited and alone.”
Scott bowed his head to hide his surprise. There was a lengthy silence, as if the colonel expected some response.
“She was distressed, poor woman, and it took some time to make sense of her words. I might not have believed her, except that she gave me Don Ricardo’s signet ring as proof.”
“What did she tell you?” Steam rose from the cup as Scott stared into the dark liquid.
“She said that José had been a victim of his brother’s jealousy. She begged for my help to free a gringo stranger from her husband’s clutches, and she spoke of a man whose name I recognized.”
Scott raised his head slowly. “Johnny Madrid – my brother.”
“Si. I cannot honestly say that I remember much about him as a child, although his mother…Ah, she was a stunning woman. I did meet him once when he was older and visited the hacienda. He was a very self-assured young man.” The colonel watched Scott steadily while drawing on his cigar.
Scott smothered a smile. “I have a feeling you’re being polite.”
“Perhaps. Now, Señor, I would advise you to get some rest, except that I have a feeling that I would be wasting my breath.”
“I’m afraid so.” Scott looked out into the darkness. “I am very grateful to you for your help…and for my life.”
“Perhaps you can repay me. It would be a tragedy for my old friend to lose either of his sons. You must try to dissuade José from taking revenge on Emilio.”
“I doubt if he’ll listen to me and, if I were in his shoes, I’m not sure what could convince me to forego retribution.”
“If José kills his hermano, he will hang.”
“He might feel that is an acceptable price,” Scott said bleakly.
It was a strange feeling, knowing that the remainder of your life could be counted in days rather than years. Johnny felt as if his life had come full circle, only this time, he couldn’t resign himself to his fate. He had faced death many times in his short life, but in a gunfight there was always the chance of survival and that wasn’t just a matter of skill and practice. Luck played its part, too, and he’d often felt that he was luckier than most. He clung to the hope that his luck hadn’t deserted him.
He and José had talked for most of the night. There had been no regrets, just a fierce determination to remember the good times. Johnny had spoken at length about Lancer and his family, while José had talked fondly about his father. The darkness had helped; it was always easier to talk in the dark. Eventually, they had slept until the guards brought their breakfast.
Captain Arriaga had not returned and there was an air of uncertainty hanging over the prison. Johnny heard the other prisoners being herded out and, shortly after, he and José were taken back to the yard. To their surprise, a tub of warm water and soap waited for them.
It was a small kindness for condemned men and they scrubbed themselves as clean as they could. When they were finished, José’s damp hair fell to his shoulders, while Johnny’s curled around the collar of his shirt. The pain in his back had softened to a dull ache. The pulling sensation whenever he moved too quickly was only an annoyance.
As they sat in the sun he could see that the lines of exhaustion on his friend’s face had eased and that José’s eyes were clearer than they had been two days ago.
“I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”
“Don’t give up yet, mi amigo.”
“I gave up hope a long time ago, and then you came and I knew I wasn’t alone any more.”
Johnny ducked his head. He understood the curse of loneliness. Although he had had good friends, there had been a hole in his life where his family should have been – a hole that no longer existed. Dios! He hoped that Scott was safe. How would Murdoch cope if they both died?
“You are thinking of your family.”
“I hope that my father learns the truth – that I did not turn my back on him.”
“There is still time…” Johnny’s head shot up as he heard shouting from the guards on the walkway. Men hurried to remove the heavy bar across the gate. With a sick feeling in his stomach he knew that he was wrong and that there was no time left.
He stood up and held a hand out to José. His friend’s grip was firm and his face calm as he let Johnny help him to his feet. Side by side they waited for the gate to open.
The yard filled with riders. José’s first thought was one of relief. He had been expecting Tomas, followed by a quick death. He felt little interest in these new arrivals. They wouldn’t be concerned about his plight, even if the guards should be lax enough to let him approach them. A fly buzzed close to his face and he raised his hand to brush it away. Two of the guards had moved closer, rifles raised and pointed at him and Johnny. Any minute they would be forced back inside, away from the prying eyes of these men.
It was Johnny’s watchful stillness that drew José’s attention back to the riders. They were soldiers, he realized, and their leader was…. He narrowed his eyes against the bright sunlight and peered through the dust stirred up by the horses. Hope replaced apathy and he would have moved if not for Johnny’s hand gripping his sleeve. Following the direction of Johnny’s gaze, he saw a slender blond man riding behind the colonel. So this was Johnny’s hermano. Scott was staring at them, not quite managing to hide his feelings. José felt a pang of jealousy, quickly repressed.
“My name is Colonel Léon and I wish to speak with Captain Arriaga.” The colonel’s voice rang clearly around the yard.
The only sounds were the stamping of hooves, the jingle of tack and the creak of leather. One of the soldiers dismounted and came to hold the colonel’s horse steady as the colonel swung out of the saddle. Léon’s gaze raked the watching guards.
“Well?” he demanded. “Where is he?”
“Captain Arriaga is not here.”
“Then I will wait in his office until he returns. Who is in charge in his absence?”
A heavily built man pushed through to stand before the colonel. “I am.”
“Who’s he?” Johnny asked softly.
“Paulo.” José spat on the ground to show his contempt. “He is a mean bastard.”
The two guards had moved closer, a tangible threat and José could almost taste the tension in the air.
“I am here at the request of Don Ricardo Martinez,” the colonel continued. “He has received word that his son is being held here.”
Paulo gestured to one of the guards who shoved José forward. As he stumbled, he saw the other guard blocking Johnny’s path. He clumsily crossed the yard as Scott dismounted to stand just behind the colonel. The look of concern on Scott’s face was a bitter contrast to the delight Emilio had shown at seeing him tortured and humiliated.
He was still some distance away when Paulo ordered him to stop. José didn’t under estimate the seriousness of his position. His release was not a foregone conclusion and any display of defiance would be risky. He stopped and lowered his eyes, his heart beating wildly.
“You speak of this prisoner,” Paulo said. “He was tried, convicted and sentenced to twenty years hard labor.”
“There are concerns about the legality of that conviction.” The colonel spoke as if the matter was of no great importance. “You also hold another man, Johnny Lancer. He has not been convicted.”
“You are mistaken, Colonel. The man is a notorious gunfighter who is under sentence of death.”
José risked a quick glance at Scott who looked pale, but remarkably composed. The colonel turned to say something to the blond man before answering Paulo. José was sure that it would be an admonition to keep hold of his temper.
“It is a very hot day. We would be more comfortable continuing this conversation inside with a cool drink.” Colonel Léon held out his hand and one of his men handed him a saddlebag.
Paulo showed his stained, uneven teeth as he smiled. “Come this way, Colonel. I am sure we can resolve any…misunderstandings.”
As the colonel and Paulo walked away José smiled to himself. He wondered how much money the colonel had brought with him, and how much he would be forced to part with. With Captain Arriaga gone, Paulo could take the bribe, while proclaiming himself blameless of any wrongdoing. With freedom finally within his grasp José allowed himself to think of Emilio and relish the prospect of taking his revenge.
For the men left in the yard there was nothing to do but wait. Everyone was on edge. The colonel’s men had dismounted and all held their rifles loosely at their sides. José studied Scott. There was no resemblance to Johnny, whereas he and his friend could easily be mistaken for brothers. The well-bred face was bruised and dirty, and there was blood on Scott’s shirt. As Scott bore no signs of serious injury José wondered whose blood it was.
He turned to look at Johnny. His friend’s relaxed stance was deceptive. José had ridden with Johnny long enough in the past to know that the younger man was wound up tight like a spring. Also, Johnny had told him the story of his reprieve from the firing squad, including the attempts by his captors to renege on the deal. It was clear that Johnny was taking nothing for granted and, if trouble started, he was ready to go down fighting.
Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the colonel and Paulo to return. Both men were smiling and the colonel immediately walked over to José and embraced him.
“You are free, my friend.”
“He is also free to leave.”
It didn’t take long for Paulo to persuade his colleagues of the wisdom of releasing the two prisoners. As one of the guards bent to unlock the leg irons, José watched Scott striding across the yard to shake Johnny’s hand. Both men were smiling broadly, happy to be reunited. Once Johnny’s shackles had been removed he dragged his brother over to José and the colonel.
“This is my brother, Scott,” he announced happily. “Scott, this is José.”
Scott held out his hand. “I’m pleased to finally meet you.”
“Johnny has told me a lot about you. He is a fortunate man to have a brother he can rely on.”
Scott’s smile disappeared. “I met your brother,” he said flatly.
José’s stomach roiled. “How is my father?”
“I only saw him briefly. He does not seem to leave his bed, although he acted quickly to enlist the aid of Colonel Léon as soon as he heard what had happened to you.”
“What of Emilio?” There was a cold place in his soul where his conscience had once lived. He needed to know where to find his enemy so that he could destroy him.
“He is at the hacienda under guard,” the colonel answered. “Even in that, I have overstepped my authority. This is not a military matter, although I was glad to do this service for my old friend.”
“We should get out of here,” Johnny said, his watchful gaze roving around the yard. “Even with your men here I don’t trust these greedy bastards to keep their word.”
“You are very sensible. Come, José, I have brought more appropriate clothing for you. You can use the Captain’s office. Somehow I do not think he is intending to return.”
“And I need to find my gun and Barranca,” Johnny said. “Come on, Brother, let’s get moving.”
Finding Barranca, restless, but well cared for, helped to release some of Johnny’s tension. His gun belt was already securely fastened around his hips and now he rummaged in his saddlebags for a clean shirt. He carefully eased the shirt he was wearing over his head, feeling a renewed pulling on the healing wounds on his back.
“I was worried about you.”
Johnny could feel his brother watching him and, no doubt, assessing the severity of these new marks. “Yeah, I was worried about you too.”
“Tomas said that he whipped you, and that you told him who I was. I didn’t believe him, but I wish you had told him to spare yourself the pain.”
Johnny pulled on his blue flowered shirt, enjoying the feel of the soft material against his skin. Then, the significance of Scott’s words sank in. His fingers stilled in the act of doing up the buttons and he turned to stare at his brother. “Tomas? You’d better tell me what happened, ‘cause last I heard he intended to kill you if he got his hands on you.”
“That was certainly his intention. I was Emilio’s prisoner when the colonel turned up and rescued me. Tomas was killed by one of the soldiers.”
“That colonel said he’d been sent by Don Ricardo. Guess Murdoch was right when he said we should try and talk to him.”
Scott bowed his head. “I didn’t speak to him. Did you know that Emilio is married?”
“No, and I pity any woman who has to spend her life with him. Why?”
“I told her about José and asked for her help. She refused, but I guess she must have changed her mind because she’s the one who went to speak to the colonel.”
“That was either brave or stupid of her. Emilio won’t forgive her for that.”
“There’s something else – something that José doesn’t know.” Scott looked up, a frown creasing his brow. “She’s pregnant.”
“How far along is she?”
“Only a few months. I wouldn’t have known if Emilio hadn’t bragged about it. The fact that she’s carrying his child might save her from the worst of his temper.”
“It won’t matter none soon,” Johnny said matter-of-factly.
“Do you know what will happen if José goes after Emilio? He’ll end up back in jail, on the run, or worse.”
“What the hell do you expect him to do? Go home and pretend like none of this ever happened?”
“I know there isn’t an easy answer…”
“Yeah, there is. Damn it, Scott, you know what it’s like to be locked up. You held onto the memory of a loving grandfather and friends. What did José have to hold on to? Nothing! That hijo de puta had him force fed and beaten, and then laughed in his face. Could you forgive that? And, do you know what the law will do about Emilio? Nothing. He’s too important to be put in jail. Besides, you’ve seen how it works here. Money can buy you anything.”
Scott reached out to grip Johnny’s shoulder, squeezing it gently. “I know all that. There has to be some alternative. Why don’t you see if he’ll come to Lancer, at least for a while? After all that he’s been through, he needs a safe haven while he recovers his strength.”
“D’you think I haven’t tried?”
“I’m sorry, Johnny, I wasn’t trying to be critical. If José goes after his brother, then he’s no better than Emilio.”
Johnny shook his head, angry with himself for losing his temper with Scott. “I don’t know what to say to him. How can I talk him out of the same thing I’d do myself?”
“I don’t know, Brother, but somehow you’ve got to try.”
Scott felt as if he was sitting on a powder keg. Each side was eyeing the other, waiting for some act of treachery that would inevitably turn the yard into a killing field. Johnny was prowling around and Scott had the feeling that his brother wouldn’t have minded the excuse to put a bullet in a few of the prison guards. After hearing a brief description of the barbaric treatment meted out to José, Scott could sympathize with that impulse. It had been no more than half an hour since the deal was struck to free the two captives, yet Scott felt as if they had been inside the prison for hours. The longer they stayed, the more chance there was of something going wrong. He kept his hand close to his gun and didn’t allow his attention to stray.
When José finally emerged with Colonel Léon, Scott found it hard to hide his surprise. Rather than a ragged and subdued prisoner, José looked every inch the self-assured young Mexican nobleman. His black trousers and short black jacket were intricately embroidered, as was his white shirt. He had pulled his long dark hair back and tied it at the nape of his neck with a black ribbon. Striking blue eyes glittered like shards of ice in his tanned face. Only his work ravaged hands spoiled the picture, until José pulled on supple leather gloves. His gunbelt was a low slung as Johnny’s and he looked comfortable wearing it.
Johnny strolled over to his friend and gave a low whistle. “Boy, you sure clean up well.”
José’s smile was brief. “I have a point to make.”
“You’re going back to the hacienda?”
José lowered his head and concentrated on straightening his gloves. “When I was first brought here, all I wanted was to go home to my family. Then I found that I have no home, and no family.”
“That ain’t true,” Johnny protested.
“Si, mi amigo, it is, and I want my father to understand what he threw away when he chose to believe Emilio’s lies.”
José’s words were as cold as his eyes. Scott was unsettled, not only by this frightening lack of emotion, but also by José’s marked resemblance to Emilio. “What about your brother?”
“I will look him in the eye and see his fear before I pull the trigger.”
“His wife is pregnant.” Scott blurted the words hoping for a reaction, for something to show that this man still retained a shred of humanity.
Johnny’s lips were compressed into a hard line, leading Scott to believe that he was treading on dangerous ground.
José’s expression, however, didn’t change. “Why do you believe that matters to me?”
“She’s the one who saved you. It was Laurene who went to your father and told him the truth.”
“I have no quarrel with her or her child.”
“Do you want to hang?” When he received no answer Scott turned beseechingly to his brother. “Johnny, say something.”
“It ain’t our decision, Scott.”
“What about you?” Scott challenged the colonel. “You have been a good friend to Don Ricardo. Do you want to see him lose both of his sons?”
“I have done all I can. This is a family matter and my friend would not thank me for interfering.”
José inclined his head respectfully to the older man. “Gracias, Colonel. Now, I believe it is time for you to take your men home.” His haughty stare lingered for a moment on Paulo who had been standing to one side, shamelessly eavesdropping. “If you see Captain Arriaga again, tell him from me that his days are numbered.” Without waiting for a response, he strode toward the horse that had been readied for him. He swung into the saddle and spurred the animal through the open gate.
“Are you just going to let him go?” Scott demanded.
Johnny settled his hat on his head. “No. I’m going with him, and I’m gonna make sure he comes out of this alive.”
Scott nodded slowly. “We’re going with him.”
“This ain’t your fight.”
“It became my fight when Emilio tried to have me killed.”
“Then we’d best get going. We don’t want him to get too far ahead.”
With a brief word of thanks to the colonel and his men, the brothers mounted up and set off in pursuit of a man hell bent on destruction.
He will be here within the hour, Patron.”
An unaccustomed flutter of nerves disturbed his stomach. “Gracias, Hector. Does he travel alone?” He could see the puzzlement on his servant’s face. Hector, and everyone else on the estancia, had heard the lies spread by Emilio. Although José had been well liked, no one had questioned the tale.
“There are two men with him. One dark and one fair. It is likely that one is Señor Garrett, who visited here a few days ago.”
Don Ricardo did not correct the mistake. The Lancer name would be mentioned if, and when, he chose. The damage done by Emilio had to be contained at all costs. “Ask my son and daughter-in-law to join me.” There was no reaction despite the fact that Hector would be well aware that Emilio and Laurene no longer shared a room. “Then, you will tell all the household staff to return to their homes. I will send for them when I am ready.”
“Si, Patron.” Hector did not look happy, but it would never occur to him to argue with his employer.
Once he was alone again, Don Ricardo rose unsteadily to his feet. His hand shook as he took a firmer grip of his cane. Months lying in bed had left his muscles weak and unresponsive. Worse than that was the knowledge that he had let José down. While he had been comfortable and cared for, his younger son had been imprisoned and abused. The joy he felt at the prospect of seeing his much loved son was tempered by a deep apprehension.
He was lowering himself into the chair behind his desk when Emilio strode into the room. His only legitimate son had inherited a full measure of his ancestors’ arrogance. In other circumstances he would be proud of his heir. Emilio had the strength of purpose and business acumen necessary to successfully run a large estate. If only hatred of his younger brother had not soured him.
“I hear that your bastard is almost here.” Emilio’s dark eyes were filled with hatred, and there wasn’t an ounce of contrition in his voice.
He chose to ignore the disparaging tone. There was nothing that he could say that could forge a relationship between his sons. “José will be here soon. I want to talk to you before he arrives.”
A swish of silk drew both men’s eyes toward the doorway. Laurene was wearing a dark grey gown and her hair had been simply, but elegantly, styled. Don Ricardo nodded approvingly. She understood the importance of this reunion, even if her husband chose to pretend otherwise. There was a surprising amount of strength in this woman, strength that would be needed by all of them in the next few hours. Despite the care she had taken with her appearance, she remained pale and her face bore evidence that she had been crying. The look of longing that she sent toward her husband was heart breaking, as was his contemptuous glare.
“Why is she here?” Emilio turned his back to her and walked over to one of the armchairs.
“She is your wife and deserves to hear what I have to say.”
“She deserves nothing other than to be sent back to her family in disgrace.”
A muffled sob was Laurene’s only reaction. She still stood as if frozen to the spot.
“She is your wife and the mother of your heir,” he said with disapproval. “You will not repudiate her. I am still the head of this family and you will obey me.” He met Emilio’s disbelieving stare, refusing to cede his son the advantage. After all, he had lived for over thirty years with a woman he despised. It was the way things had to be and Emilio must be made to accept it.
“Why should I listen to you?” Emilio demanded. “What will you give me for my obedience?”
“It is not what I will give you – it is what I can take away from you if you continue to defy me.” Don Ricardo maintained his scrutiny until Emilio lowered his eyes. Satisfied, he turned his attention to his daughter-in-law. “Sit down, my dear. You need to take care of yourself and my grandson.”
Laurene settled herself in a chair opposite her husband. She clasped her hands together in her lap while Emilio sat with a thunderous scowl on his face.
“You had better talk quickly, Father. Once your mestizo bastard arrives, one of us will likely wind up dead.”
“I do not intend for either of my sons to die.” Once again, Don Ricardo let the insult pass, although it weighed heavily on his heart. There were more important battles to fight and he had to harbor his strength. “I sent Colonel Léon’s men away.”
“So you finally came to your senses. You had no right to involve Léon or his men in our business.”
“Colonel Léon will be discreet, and it was preferable to involving the rurales. However, this is now a family matter.”
“What about Madrid and his brother? Will you send them away also?”
“I would, had you not involved them. They have both earned the right to be here.”
“They have earned nothing. They…”
“Emilio, you will be silent for once and listen.” Years of leadership gave his voice strength. “We do not have much time.”
Home. It was all he had thought of during the early weeks of his captivity. He had been able to close his eyes and picture the elegant house, and imagine riding for hours under a clear blue sky. The sun was shining as they rode through the gates, yet José felt as if he was wrapped in a dark cloud. He was utterly exhausted, yet, resolute, but there could be no joy in this homecoming. The journey had been hard. It had been months since he had ridden, months since he had done anything without his movements being restricted by chains. There were marks on his ankles that he didn’t think would ever fade. The marks on his soul were just as lasting.
Johnny rode beside him, alert and watchful. Scott was slightly behind them, and José knew that his decision to return had caused dissention between the brothers. He felt no guilt. Their relationship was strong enough to overcome their disagreement. Although he was touched by Scott’s pleas that he travel to Lancer to give himself time to think, and recover from the depravations of the last six months, it was not an option he was prepared to consider. Late last night, when they stopped to rest, Johnny had finally told Scott to either accept it and shut up or, go home. Since then the blond had been simmering, and silent.
There was no one in sight as they arrived at the hacienda. That didn’t surprise him. His father would not want any witnesses. Outwardly, nothing had changed in the time he had been away and it was just as he remembered. He wished that he could feel something – anything – rather than this bleak emptiness.
José dismounted stiffly, taking a few minutes to straighten his clothes and adjust his gun belt. The time also allowed him to wipe away any expression. Then, followed by his companions, he walked into the house.
The sight that met him stole his breath. His father, a pale shadow of the man he had been, sat behind his desk with Emilio standing beside him. It was a clear message and José was only vaguely aware of the third person in the room as he stared in shocked betrayal at his father.
“Welcome home, mi hijo.”
The words he wanted to say lodged in José’s throat as he turned his eyes to his brother. Emilio’s self-satisfied expression was enough to make him reach for his gun. Johnny was faster and his was wrist caught in a firm grip just as his fingers closed around the handle.
“Wait.” Johnny’s voice was low. “Hear your father out.”
“Why?” José wrenched his arm free, although he left his gun in its holster. “All he’s going to do is tell me how he’s sold me out.” His hot stare returned to his father. “Isn’t that right? You don’t give a damn that I’ve been living in hell for the last six months, or that it was my own brother who condemned me.” His gut churned as he found that he was unable to control either his words or his feelings.
“You are wrong,”
The protest sounded weak to José’s ears. “Then, explain to me why he is here and not in jail awaiting trial.”
“There can be no trial.”
“I don’t understand.” Scott stepped forward. “Your son is responsible for kidnapping and attempted murder. How can you expect him to walk free?”
“Señor Lancer. Forgive my lapse in manners. You are welcome to my home, and Johnny, it pleases me that you have returned to your own father.”
“I don’t care what pleases you, old man,” Johnny snarled. “Scott’s right. Have you any idea what José’s been through? D’you want to see his back, or the marks on his ankles from the shackles he’s been wearing? You’re a pathetic excuse for a father if you can stand to be in the same room as the man who had your son tortured.”
“They are both my sons.”
José walked slowly toward the desk, struggling to master his breathing. When he reached it, he placed both hands, palm down, on the polished surface and leaned over. “How can you say that?” For a moment he felt like a young child again, begging for his father’s love and approval.
Don Ricardo seemed to shrink further back into his heavy leather chair. “Do not think that I condone what Emilio has done. How could I? I love you.”
The words of affection washed over him, leaving him feeling cold. Words meant nothing if they were not accompanied by action. “That didn’t stop you believing that I’d stolen from you.” His voice sank to little more than a whisper. “It didn’t stop you believing that I didn’t love you.”
“I was weak and foolish. I…I wasn’t well.” Don Ricardo’s voice shook. He held out his hand in supplication and José could see how heavily wrinkled and slack his father’s skin had become. “I have decided to return to my family’s estates in Spain. I want you to come with me. It will be a new start for both of us.”
“Go to hell.” José pushed himself back from the desk, every muscle quivering in outrage. “You expect me to keep silent so that Emilio can keep his reputation and this estancia?”
“Si, that is what must happen. If you try to force the issue, you will find that no one will believe you. There will be no witnesses who will agree to testify before a court.”
“Scott and I will.” Johnny rested his hand on José’s shoulder.
“You do not wish to stand up in front of a Mexican tribunal, Señor Madrid.” There was heavy emphasis on the name and no room to misinterpret the threat.
“I didn’t come here expecting a trial.” José drew his gun and, this time, no one tried to stop him. Emilio had moved away from the desk and was clearly unarmed. To kill his brother would be murder, and a sin for which God would never forgive him. His head began to ache as he ruthlessly suppressed his emerging conscience. “Do you know how often I have imagined this moment? Every day, while I was working under the whip in the quarry, and every night when I was locked away in the dark, I kept myself sane by picturing your death.”
“Would you leave my child fatherless?”
José hid his surprise. He had forgotten that Laurene was in the room. “Yes.” Neither his gaze nor his gun wavered.
“Do you not remember what it was like as a child believing that your father was dead?” Laurene persisted.
That struck an unexpected chord. It had been many years before he was told the truth about his parentage. “My father is dead,” he replied harshly, unwilling to dwell on the memory of a young boy who had been told that his father had died before his birth.
“The man I knew before was capable of pity.”
“Any pity I might have had was beaten out of me on the orders of your husband.” He wished that were true and that he was as truly heartless as his brother.
“José, por favor, mi hijo, he is your hermano. Think, I beg you, of the consequences of killing him.” Don Ricardo’s voice wavered.
“It seems, Brother, that you have plenty of people willing to speak up for you.” José’s finger tightened on the trigger. “Don’t you have anything to say? Shall I tell them how you watched while I was beaten? Or, perhaps, I should describe what it was like to be strapped down and have food forced into me. You do remember that, don’t you? Will they still beg for your life after that?”
Emilio had gone pale. “If you kill me, you will hang.”
“Do you think I care anymore?” José tried to bring himself to the point where he could apply the pressure necessary to send a bullet speeding toward Emilio’s heart. It would be justice, he told himself, yet, he couldn’t do it.
“You owe me a life.” Laurene walked to her husband and took hold of his hand. “I am the one who saved you. You have a debt to repay and the price is my husband’s life.”
José saw the look of surprise on Emilio’s face. Then, he felt a gentle touch on his arm.
“She’s right, amigo. You’re better than he is, and you ain’t never killed a man in cold blood. It’s something that never leaves you.”
José closed his eyes and turned away, sick with the knowledge that Johnny was right. “I have nothing left,” he whispered.
Johnny’s grip tightened. “Yes, you have. You’ve got your pride and your principles, and friends who care what happens to you.”
“It isn’t enough.” He opened his eyes and looked at his friend. “You know what it’s like to have a family. How would you feel if all that was taken away from you?” The look that Johnny sent toward his brother answered the question more eloquently than words. “I can see that you understand, perhaps better than most others would.”
“Come with me to Spain,” Don Ricardo urged.
He felt very tired. “Will you disown Emilio? Make him pay for what he did to me?”
Don Ricardo shook his head, unable to meet his son’s penetrating gaze. “I cannot. It is a matter of family honor.”
“Then, I want no part of this family.” He turned to leave, wanting nothing more than to get as far away from this place as he could.
“What will you do?” Don Ricardo asked. “I can give you money…or land…”
Anger surged through José. “I don’t want anything from you!”
He strode from the room, the tears in his eyes almost blinding him. He was fumbling to untie his horse’s reins when he heard footsteps behind him.
“Where’re you gonna go?”
José rested his aching head against his horse’s neck. “I don’t know.”
“Then, why not come back to Lancer with us? You’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”
He couldn’t answer; his throat was too clogged with tears. But, Johnny seemed to be content to wait. “I thought it wouldn’t hurt,” he finally mumbled. “I’d convinced myself that my father didn’t care, and that nothing he could say would touch me.”
“I grew up believin’ that Murdoch didn’t give a damn about me. I guess that’s one of the reasons I became a gunfighter. I wanted to show him that his unwanted mestizo son could amount to something.”
“Did it make it easier?” José straightened and turned. He didn’t care if Johnny saw the pain in his eyes. His friend would never scorn him for his weakness. And, Johnny would understand that he wasn’t just mourning the loss of his father.
“Nope. It still hurt like hell. But, I found I could either learn to live with it, or let it destroy me. Because you had the guts to walk away without pullin’ the trigger, you’ve got that choice too.”
“I wanted to. Dios, Johnny, I wanted to see him dead.”
“Yeah, amigo, I know, and I know what it cost you.”
Johnny could hear Scott’s raised voice as he walked back into the hacienda. It took a lot to make Scott lose his temper, but when he did, you sure didn’t want to be on the wrong end of it. He stopped just inside the entrance to the great room. Emilio had made his way over to one of the sofas and, Johnny was pleased to see, was noticeably shaking. His wife was sitting next to him and Johnny wondered fleetingly how their lives would play out.
Don Ricardo was still sitting behind his desk while Scott demanded to know how he could throw José’s love back in his face. Under this sustained onslaught the Don looked close to collapse.
“Leave it, Scott. It ain’t gonna make any difference.” Johnny strolled into the room, aware that everyone’s attention was now fixed on him. He stopped in front of Emilio. “If anything happens to José in the future you’ll answer to me,” he drawled softly. “And it won’t be a quick or painless death.” He waited for Emilio to look away.
“As for you,” he continued, walking over to the desk and picking up a heavy glass paperweight. “You’re a gutless bastard. You’ve ripped your son’s heart out and you’re gonna have to live with that if you can.”
“I had no choice. I couldn’t disgrace my family’s name.”
“That’s a pile of crap, and you know it. This is all your doing. If you’d been so all fired worried about your family name you never would’ve got yourself a half-breed bastard. The truth is that you let José down when you believed Emilio’s lies, and now you’re too embarrassed to admit it.”
“I have offered José a new life…”
The paperweight hit the desk with a thump. “He never wanted your money, or your land. All he ever asked for was your love and,” Johnny paused, “your trust.”
Don Ricardo’s mouth quivered as he hovered on the verge of tears. “Is he still here?”
“I need to speak with him. Will you help me? I am not very steady on my feet.”
Johnny kept his arm firmly around Don Ricardo’s waist until they stepped outside. José was sitting on a bench by the fountain in the courtyard, his hands clasped together and his head bowed.
“He needs you,” Johnny said softly, dropping his arm and stepping back.
“Gracias, Johnny.” Don Ricardo walked slowly toward his son, leaning heavily on his cane. He stopped several feet away from José. “I loved your mother, and I will love you until the day I die. Will you stay a while and talk to me?”
Johnny watched until his friend raised his head, then he turned away.
“Will he be alright?”
He wasn’t surprised to find that his brother had come out to join him. In this, he had been far luckier than his friend. “I don’t know, Scott. I hope so.”