The Final Sacrifice
This story follows on from Of Gods & Men and The Devil’s Daughter. It contains the same themes.
It is also a Death Fic, so you have been warned.
Johnny looked down at the black stone altar, his heart thudding in remembered fear. He stretched out his fingers to touch the ragged strand of rope, which three years earlier, had bound his right wrist. He had been a willing sacrifice then – or so he had believed – chosen to redeem his pledge to the Devil so that this valley might live again.
A fierce wind swirled around him as he walked to the edge of the platform. The courtyard far below him was empty and desolate, lit by the light of the full moon and a sky heavy with stars. The last time he had been here the whole area had been filled with terrified people, herded like animals to this place to watch him die.
A movement by his side caused his breath to catch in his throat, even though he knew this was nothing more than a dream and that his body lay safely many miles to the north at Lancer. For the past three nights he had stood here, wondering why, after all this time, he was being reminded of his close brush with death.
This dream was different though. There was someone else here with him. Fingers brushed his hand as he turned and the blood drained from his face in shock. There was a child standing beside him – a child who should not exist. He was slender, with a serious face and thick blond hair. There was no possible room for doubt. The boy was Scott’s son.
Unbidden, Johnny recalled Murdoch’s words to Scott during their first meeting at Lancer.
‘You’ve got your mother’s eyes.’
This boy’s eyes also betrayed the other half of his heritage. They were a wide, fiery green and they brought back memories that Johnny had ruthlessly suppressed. Those eyes were now studying Johnny with frank curiosity and no trace of fear.
“Tio,” the boy finally said.
“Si,” Johnny acknowledged.
That seemed to satisfy the child and he caught Johnny’s hand, a shy smile transforming his face.
“¿Cuántos años tienes?” Johnny asked. “¿Y, dónde está tu madre?” It struck him as odd that he was speaking Spanish, yet the boy clearly understood.
“Mi madre está muerta.”
” ¿Tu edad?”
The answer was a shrug of the shoulders. The boy looked to be about ten years old, which was impossible, but no more so than the fact that he lived at all. Scott had been an unwilling sexual partner with the boy’s mother, killing her immediately afterwards. There was no possibility of her having conceived a child, yet that child now stood beside him.
As Johnny tried to find the right words, he saw that his surroundings were starting to fade. Something was tugging at him, determined to unite his mind and his body. Even as he resisted the pull on his consciousness, he saw the child look beyond him. If the boy was trying to hide his feelings, he was failing miserably. Johnny recognized only too well, that look of hopeless longing.
He turned to see what had attracted the boy’s attention. A room shimmered before him and he felt as if he was looking into a deep pool and seeing only a reflection of reality. It was his bedroom where he lay asleep, his legs tangled in the bedclothes and his chest gleaming with sweat. A faint light shone outside the window, evidence that it was past daybreak. That explained why Scott was there, leaning over and shaking his shoulder.
“Papa.” The word emerged floating on a brief sigh.
Johnny turned back to the boy. A solitary tear rolled out of one green eye and down the thin face.
“He did not want me to be born,” the child continued. There was no bitterness, just a sad and unsettling acceptance.
Johnny’s throat tightened. To deny that statement would be a lie. Scott had told him that Isabelle had said there would be a child. His brother had already decided that she had to die, but the thought of fathering a child to be a hostage to her evil had been more than he could cope with. “If he knew you lived, he would come for you. He would love you.”
Hope flared on the child’s face. “You will tell him? I’ve never had anyone love me before.”
Johnny’s vision wavered again. He looked over his shoulder. Scott had increased his efforts to wake him. The child’s hand slipped from his grasp and panic almost overwhelmed him. It wouldn’t be long before he was called back from this dream and he wasn’t ready to leave it and this lonely child.
“What’s your name? Where can I find you?” he asked as his vision cleared.
The boy had gone and Johnny looked around frantically. “No! Dios, no! Wait!”
“We’ve waited long enough for you to wake up.” Scott didn’t sound amused. “We’re already behind schedule and Murdoch’s not feeling very tolerant this morning.”
Johnny’s eyes shot open. “Scott!”
“I was starting to think that the only way to wake you would be with a bucket of cold water.” Blue-grey eyes narrowed suddenly. “Are you alright? You look pale.”
“I’m...fine.” Johnny disentangled his feet from the covers. “Give me five minutes to get dressed.”
“Alright. I’ll saddle your horse. If you want my advice, you’ll avoid the kitchen.”
“Murdoch’s pretty steamed, huh?”
“You could say that. This is the third morning this week you’ve overslept. So, get a move on, Brother.”
Johnny waited for Scott to leave before sitting up and lowering his head into his hands. The reason for his dreams was now clear. This was the Devil’s next move in a deadly game. What he had to figure out was whether or not to tell Scott that he had a son.
By the time Johnny reached the yard it was full of men, horses and wagons. A landslide had blocked off one of the main water courses and Murdoch had pulled most of the hands off other jobs to clear it. He had also put his sons in charge, which probably explained his bad temper. Johnny knew he should have been up hours ago to help load the wagons with tools and provisions to last them for several days.
He stood by one of the pillars and watched Scott pull order out of chaos. His brother moved easily among the men, issuing orders and stopping now and then to talk to them. Scott looked happy. The outdoor life suited him and he was a natural leader.
There was no mistaking Murdoch’s bellow and no easy way to avoid the confrontation. Johnny shoved his hat onto his head and walked over to his father.
“There you are, Son. Scott said you weren’t feeling well.”
Johnny silently thanked his brother. “I’ll be alright, Murdoch. Just having trouble sleeping, is all.”
“Are you sure? Scott’s right. You do look pale.”
Dios! How he liked having a father and brother to fuss over him. “Trust me, old man, I’m fine.” No longer defensive in his dealings with his family, he could allow his gratitude for their concern to shine through. “We’d best be going. We’ll send one of the hands back tonight to let you know how the job’s going.”
Murdoch nodded and stepped back. Johnny walked to Barranca and mounted quickly, giving Scott a rueful grin. “Guess I owe you.”
“You certainly do, but don’t worry; I’ll find a way for you to repay me.”
Johnny turned to look at his father and raised a hand in farewell. A shiver crawled down his spine as he touched his spurs to Barranca’s flanks and rode out of the yard.
“It ain’t as bad as it might have been.”
Scott, who had been automatically calculating the number of hours necessary to shift the debris, raised an eyebrow. “Your optimism never ceases to amaze me. Would you care to explain?”
Johnny, standing with his hands on his hips, cocked his head to one side. “None of the really big boulders came down,” he explained. “We would’ve had to blast them and that would likely have brought the rest of the hillside down on our heads.”
He was certainly right about that and Scott was relieved to see that his brother had pulled himself out of whatever had been pre-occupying him. It was the instability of the ground above them that had led to the unwelcome conclusion that they would have to clear the blockage by hand.
The uneven mound of small rocks, loose earth and uprooted trees covered an area over fifty feet long. It was completely damming the river that fed into one of the largest waterholes on the property. After a hot, dry summer the water level was already worryingly low. Soon, if they were lucky, the rains would come to swell the rivers and streams.
“We’ll have to use chains to haul the trees,” Scott said thoughtfully. “The rest can be loaded onto wagons and dumped a safe distance from the water. The last thing we need is for it all to be swept back into the river if we get a sudden flood.”
“Well then, Brother, we’d best get started.”
Scott nodded. “Take half the men and start digging. I’ll take the rest and we’ll get those large trees moved. We can swap the crews over this afternoon. Make sure everyone gets regular rest periods and plenty of water.”
“How long d’you reckon it’s gonna take?” Johnny asked as he stripped off his gun belt and pulled on a pair of thick work gloves.
“Three or four days. At least the worst of the summer heat is over with, but it’s not going to be pleasant.”
It was, in fact, appallingly hard work. Scott had no time to think of anything but the job at hand and only managed to exchange a few words with Johnny during the course of the day. As the sun began to set, a couple of the men lit fires to make coffee and heat large pots of beans and bacon.
Scott wiped a grimy arm across his forehead as he mentally tallied the numerous abrasions he had acquired while wrestling with uncooperative branches. Despite all their efforts, the pile of debris looked to his tired eyes only slightly smaller than it had that morning. His muscles were aching so badly that it was becoming increasingly hard to stay upright. He leaned heavily against one of the wagons.
“I brought you some coffee. Looks like you could use it.” Johnny held out the cup before levering himself up onto the tailgate of the wagon.
“Thanks.” Scott sipped the steaming liquid cautiously. It was thick and potent and went a long way toward clearing the dust out of his mouth and throat. He slowly realized that Johnny was staring at him with an unsettling intensity. “What?”
The piercing blue gaze dropped. “Nothing.”
Scott shrugged away his curiosity, too tired to pursue the matter. Johnny, he saw, was picking at a loose splinter of wood in the side of the wagon.
“I was...Well, I’ve been doing some thinking,” Johnny continued, his head bowed to hide his expression.
“Go on,” Scott said, exhaustion making him impatient.
Johnny stopped tormenting the wood and looked up again. “About Isabelle.”
Scott felt like his brother had punched him in the gut. “We agreed never to talk about her,” he replied coldly.
“Yeah, I know. It’s just that...”
“There’s no possible reason for us to have this conversation.” Scott moved away and was brought to a standstill by Johnny’s fingers digging into his arm.
“You said she told you there would be a child.”
Scott fought to keep hold of his temper. “You seem to be overlooking the fact that I killed her.”
“Her body disappeared.”
“What are you trying to suggest? That she isn’t dead? That she survived to give birth to my bastard?”
Johnny looked troubled. “I’m just asking – what if there was a child?”
Scott’s anger refused to stay leashed any longer. “Any child of hers would be as unnatural as she was and I’d sooner see it dead than acknowledge it as mine.”
Johnny’s grip slackened and Scott took the opportunity to pull free and walk away into the gathering darkness.
Johnny could feel his brother’s pain, confusion and anger. It had been two hours since Scott had walked away from him and since then he had been silently cursing himself for being the worst kind of fool. If he hadn’t been so tired he would have handled it better. He should have waited until this job was done and they were back at the hacienda. Only, he couldn’t rid his mind of the boy’s face, filled with a longing he understood only too well.
He wasn’t naive and recognized that he was being manipulated. But that just meant that he had to be on his guard. The boy had already touched his heart, not least because someone was using him as a pawn.
Scott’s emotions were finally settling. Johnny didn’t question how he knew that. Once before he’d felt this deep connection which had allowed Scott to track him to Mexico and save him from a painful death. On that occasion he had deliberately closed his mind to his brother in a forlorn effort to keep Scott away from danger. Now he welcomed it.
Around him the camp was settling for the night. Exhausted men fell into their bedrolls and already soft snores could be heard. Johnny stood up and moved silently into the darkness, threading his way confidently through the trees. He found Scott sitting on a log, his face pale with his eyes wide open and dark.
“D’you mind some company?” Johnny asked.
Although Scott only looked at him silently, he did move far enough so that Johnny had room to sit down.
“You missed supper.”
“I wasn’t hungry.”
Johnny waited, all his senses tuned to the distress that was surrounding Scott like a cloud.
“Why did you...?” Scott’s voice caught. “I didn’t mean what I said.”
“Isabelle had to die. I know that. But, how does anyone come to terms with killing their own innocent child?”
“You believe she was carrying your baby?”
“I don’t know what to believe. She was convinced that...” Scott turned his head and his torment was clear. “I...I wasn’t gentle with her. God, Johnny, I’d never treated a woman like that before.”
“You were forced into an impossible position. You can’t blame yourself.” Then, because he could feel Scott’s pain as clearly as if it were his own, he made his decision. “I’ve seen your son.”
The reaction wasn’t unexpected. Scott rose abruptly to his feet. “Why are you doing this?” he hissed. “Why bring it all up again now?”
“Because it’s true.” Johnny stood and touched Scott on the arm, feeling the tremors running through his brother’s body. “I’ve been having these dreams...”
“You expect me to take this seriously?” Scott asked. He folded his arms and glared coldly. “Well, Brother, if you’re so sure you’ve seen my son why don’t you tell me all about him?”
“He looks like you, except for his eyes.”
“How can you tell? Even if there was a child he couldn’t be much more than a year old.”
“He’s older than that. About ten or eleven. Look, Scott, I know this doesn’t make sense, but none of what’s happened to us makes sense. Can you explain how you knew where to find me in Mexico? Or, why no one in town except us remembers Isabelle?”
Scott’s aggression ebbed away and a deep line furrowed his brow. “I can’t...I don’t think I can accept this.”
“You have no choice. Your son is out there somewhere and he needs you.”
“You’d better tell me the rest.” Scott sat down again and bowed his head so that his face was hidden from view.
Johnny remained standing as he described his dreams. Whether he knew it or not, Scott had barricaded his mind and Johnny caught no hint of what his brother was thinking. “I told him you would love him,” he finished.
“Then you’ve made a promise I’m not sure I can keep,” Scott said softly. “For all we know he could be as evil as his mother. Even if we could find him, how could I risk bringing him back to Lancer?”
“You’d condemn him because of his mother?” Johnny felt a familiar pain. Too often in his childhood he had been measured by Maria’s standards and unfairly judged. She had been nothing more than a whore in the eyes of most of their neighbours, therefore her son had to be as worthless as she was.
Scott must have realized what he’d said as he looked up in concern. “Isabelle wasn’t the same as Maria and you aren’t the same as this boy. Your mother made mistakes; Isabelle had sold her soul to gain power over men.”
“And I sold my soul to get revenge on the man who killed my mother. Is that what you want for your son?”
“I don’t know what I want for him. I’m sorry, Johnny. I haven’t seen him. I can’t imagine what he looks like. And, I can’t imagine being a father to him.”
“D’you think that’s how Murdoch felt about you? After all, he didn’t see you for five years after you were born.”
“Is it? Just because he didn’t hold you as a baby, or play with you when you were growing up, doesn’t mean he didn’t love you.”
“Why is it so important to you?”
“For the same reason it should be important to you. Your son thinks you don’t want him. We both grew up feeling that way. I don’t know about you, living like you did in that fancy house, but that hurt a hell of a lot when I was a kid.” Johnny knew he was being cruel, but he also knew Scott would never forgive himself if he didn’t try to find his son.
“Damn you, Johnny!” Scott shot to his feet, grabbed Johnny by the front of his shirt and drew back his fist.
“It won’t make you feel any better.” Johnny braced himself for the blow and then saw in the fitful light from the moon that tears were streaking Scott’s cheeks.
Scott’s hands dropped to his sides and he turned away. “I didn’t kill him.”
Johnny put an arm around his brother’s shoulder. “No. He’s alive and healthy. A bit skinny, just like his papa. He needs Teresa and Maria to fatten him up.”
The ghost of a smile hovered on Scott’s lips. “How do we find him? And how do we explain to Murdoch?”
“He was speaking Spanish, so my guess is that he’s somewhere in Mexico. He’s probably not too far away from Don Pedro’s estancia seeing as he was at that ruined temple in my dream. As for Murdoch...we’ll think of something.”
“We can’t just ride into Mexico in the hope of finding him. We could be gone for weeks.”
“There’s one way. I can try and reach him through my dreams again and see if I can get him to tell me where he lives.”
“What if that doesn’t work?”
“He was brought there for a reason. I think we’re meant to find him.”
Scott shook his head. “No. All it means is that we’re meant to look for him.”
Even though he was so tired that his muscles were shaking, Johnny couldn’t settle to sleep. He tossed and turned, pulling the blanket over himself and then pushing it irritably away. He didn’t need to look to know that Scott was staring at him. He closed his eyes and tried to force his body to relax. And, all the time his thoughts refused to quiet down. Only in dreams could he make contact with Scott’s son and the very urgency of his need to sleep was preventing him from achieving it. The hours of darkness crawled by with Johnny knowing that Scott was just as awake and anxious as he was. Finally, giving up the battle, he opened his eyes...
“I thought you weren’t going to come back.”
Johnny’s breath caught in his throat as he found himself once again tied to the black stone altar. For a moment of mindless panic he struggled against the ropes which held him spread-eagled and horrendously vulnerable. The full moon hung low in the sky and the sound of thunder mingled with the moaning of the wind...the moaning of lost souls. The cool air brushed across his chest, making him shiver. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to lie still until he had his breathing back under his control. Then, he turned his head toward the sound of the voice.
The boy stood beside him, the heavy serrated knife held clumsily between his two small hands. “My father should have done as he was told,” the boy said, his face and voice both free of emotion. “If he’d killed you, my mother wouldn’t be dead.”
Johnny flinched as the boy leaned over and ran the tip of the knife down his chest. Even though there was no weight behind it, bright beads of blood sprang from the shallow cut. He jerked against his restraints as his heart fluttered in fear. “Your father wants to find you, but we need your help. We don’t know where to look.”
“He wants to kill me.” The boy held the blade before his eyes and stared in fascination at the blood.
“That isn’t true,” Johnny protested. “Cut me loose and we can talk.”
The boy sat down on the edge of the altar and there was no sign that he even knew what he’d just done. “What did you feel when you killed the first time?”
Johnny studied the boy’s face, noticing a bruise on the left cheek and an abrasion on his arm. “Who hit you?” As he spoke he was trying to loosen the ropes around his wrists.
The boy ignored the question. “You killed the man who murdered your mother.”
“Yes.” He felt the rope around his left wrist slacken although he still couldn’t free his hand. “Tell me your name and where we can find you. Let us help you.”
“No one can help me.” With a heavy sigh the boy stood up, the knife still gripped awkwardly in his hand.
“Don’t make the same mistake I did,” Johnny begged. “I was alone. You don’t have to be.”
“It’s too late.” The boy replied without any hint of regret. He raised the knife high above his head, his thin arms trembling with the effort.
Johnny watched in horror as it flashed down toward him. When the blade entered his chest he felt a searing pain and screamed his brother’s name.
Scott hadn’t realized that he’d fallen asleep until he was abruptly jerked awake. “Johnny!” He rolled over and covered the short distance on his hands and knees.
He wasn’t the only person awake. Everyone in the camp must have heard Johnny’s anguished scream. Scott was barely aware of the rumble of voices around him as his only concern was the man lying on the ground.
Johnny’s face was contorted in agony. He was on his back, his arms and legs rigidly spread eagled. The screams, wordless now, rose in volume.
Filled with terror, Scott reached down and pulled Johnny toward him. “Johnny! Wake up. It’s just a dream. Johnny!”
The screams were becoming breathless and Scott could feel Johnny’s heart laboring under some unseen strain. In desperation he drew back his arm and used all his strength to smack his brother across the face.
The screams stopped abruptly and Johnny went limp. For one horrendous moment Scott thought his brother was dead. Hands were pulling at him, trying to pry Johnny out of his arms. “Leave me alone,” he snarled.
Johnny’s eyes opened, a deep blue filled with horror and fear.
“It’s alright.” Scott tightened his grip as Johnny started to shake. “You’re back. It’s over.”
“Scott?” Johnny’s eyes rolled back and he collapsed.
Scott laid him down and felt for a pulse. It was there, beating strongly and erratically.
“Senor Scott, what just happened?”
Shocked, Scott looked up at Cipriano. “A nightmare.”
“I think perhaps it was more than that.”
Scott couldn’t think and was a long way from being able to take charge. He sat in a daze as Cipriano efficiently wrapped Johnny in blankets and gave orders for the fires to be built up and breakfast cooked. As the implications of what had just happened hit Scott, he began to tremble.
“Coffee, Senor.” Cipriano pressed a cup into his hands. “Drink it,” he ordered gently. “Your hands are like ice. Juanito is sleeping peacefully now. Stay with him until he wakes up. I will organize the men.”
“De nada. Your hermano needs you.”
Scott edged closer to Johnny. The color had returned to his brother’s face and the lines of pain and terror had gone. He drank the coffee and ate the food that Cipriano gave him. Beyond that he saw and heard nothing except Johnny’s face and the deep even sounds of his breathing.
Time passed without him being aware of it. Johnny hadn’t moved and that in itself was frightening. Asleep or awake Johnny was rarely still. A sigh was the only warning Scott received before Johnny opened his eyes. Scott leaned forward and made sure that Johnny was looking at him. “Welcome back, Brother.”
“Welcome back, Brother.”
The heartfelt warmth of those words and Scott’s reassuring presence wrapped themselves around Johnny’s overstressed emotions. He struggled to free himself from the imprisoning blankets and ripped his shirt open.
“Take it easy.”
Scott’s hand came to rest on his shoulder. Johnny stared at the unblemished skin of his chest, running trembling fingers over the place where the knife had entered his body.
“Are you alright?” Scott asked, as Johnny leaned heavily back against him. “What happened?”
Johnny couldn’t push the words past the tightness in his throat. If he told Scott that his son had coldly and deliberately driven a knife into him, Scott would never be able to cope. The lingering echoes of his own screams still rang in Johnny’s ears. The pain had been real and far worse than anything he had ever experienced before. The blade had hacked its way through skin and muscles, tearing his chest open, but it had been the dead and soulless eyes of the young boy that he couldn’t forget or come to terms with.
“Nothing…nothing happened.” He was glad that he had his back to his brother as he felt Scott’s start of surprise.
“Why are you lying to me? Something almost killed you.”
Johnny pulled away and stood up, his legs shaking. “It was just a dream.”
Scott’s fingers dug into his arms and forced him to turn around. “Someone tried to kill you. Do you want to hear what I think?”
Johnny tried to pull away from Scott’s bruising grip and, when that failed, he turned his head away.
“Look at me!” Scott demanded harshly. “You were tied to the altar, weren’t you? And then someone tried to cut out your heart. If you’d been on your own, you wouldn’t have been able to wake up and you would have died.”
Johnny couldn’t look his brother in the eye. “Yes.”
“Who was it? Or do you want me to guess?” Scott gave a harsh laugh, edged with hysteria before he released his grip. “Don’t ever tell me again that I should love him.”
For the rest of the day Scott worked himself and the men to a standstill. Warned by the sullen faces and mutinous mutterings of men pushed past the point of endurance, Johnny wasn’t surprised when Cipriano sought him out in the late afternoon. He accepted the canteen of water held out to him by the Lancer Segundo.
“He is driving them too hard.” There was worry in Cipriano’s voice.
Johnny drank and watched as Scott, with devastating and unforgivable venom berated Walt in front of half a dozen other men. “I’ll deal with it.” He swiped his sleeve across his forehead before walking across to his brother.
Walt stalked away, the back of his neck red and his shoulders rigid.
“You trying to make them all quit?” Johnny asked.
Scott’s lips compressed into a hard line. “If you have something to say, I suggest you say it.”
“Just this. It ain’t the men you’re mad at.”
Johnny refused to be baited. “What happened last night wasn’t your fault.”
“Really?” Scott folded his arms and it felt like an invisible barrier had been erected between them.
“You gotta stop beating yourself up over it,” Johnny persisted.
“Thank you for your advice. Now, if you’ll excuse me…?”
Johnny moved into Scott’s path. “You’re ready to drop and so are the men. I’ve told Cipriano to stop work for the day.”
“Then it looks like you have everything in hand.”
“Look, Scott, we’re making good progress. By the end of tomorrow it’ll be almost done. Why don’t you go back to the hacienda tomorrow and let me finish up?”
“Despite what you might think, I don’t walk away from my responsibilities.”
With some difficulty Johnny resisted pounding some sense into his brother with his fists. He moved aside. “Have it your way.”
Scott brushed past without another word, leaving Johnny alone with his thoughts and fears.
Johnny sat huddled in his blanket, leaning up against a wagon wheel. The wooden spokes dug into his back, preventing him from finding a comfortable position. All around him the men were asleep, their tempers having been soothed by hot food and strong coffee laced with whiskey. Scott’s disapproval had been no less potent for being silent. Johnny didn’t care. They had to get this job finished so that they could go home. That wouldn’t happen any time soon if half the men decided to leave.
For the last couple of hours he had kept himself busy checking the horses and supplies and talking to the men. He’d finally reached the point where he couldn’t deny the truth any longer – he was afraid to close his eyes. He squirmed restlessly. He’d chosen this spot hoping that the discomfort would help to keep him awake.
He looked over at one of the fires, which was now dying to a flicker. Scott lay beside it, his back turned away. Johnny gritted his teeth to stifle the impulse to beg Scott to come and sit with him. His brother was carrying enough misplaced guilt without finding out that he was, for the first time in his life, terrified of the dark.
Terror invaded every part of his body, causing him to break out in a cold sweat. Imagining the agony of the knife cutting into him had been nothing compared to the reality. He couldn’t face that again. To be sacrificed over and over…He wrapped his arms around his body as he began to shake. How long could he survive without sleep? How long before he found himself back in the temple, bound and helpless? Despite his fear, his eyelids were starting to droop. He forced them open as a mind numbing lethargy swept over him. Dios! He was being pulled into sleep whether he wanted it or not.
“Scott!” The name emerged as a feeble croak, not nearly strong enough to span the distance between himself and his brother. “Help me.”
The firelight wavered and he saw what was waiting for him on the other side of night. Something touched his arm and he flinched away with an incoherent protest.
“It’s alright, Johnny. I’m here. I won’t let them take you.”
Johnny’s breathing was harsh, his voice struck from him by the horror hovering in the darkness. Wide-eyed, he looked at his brother who was now hunkered down beside him. But, Scott wasn’t looking at him. He was staring at the sight that had paralyzed Johnny…the sight of Isabelle and the black Priest flanking a child with blond hair and green eyes, who held in his right hand a knife dripping with blood.
For the rest of the night Scott kept a vigil over his brother. Although Johnny occasionally dozed, it never lasted for more than a few minutes at a time. Scott felt no urge to sleep. His thoughts were consumed by the vision he had seen. The child – his son – had been clear, sharply defined and substantial. The figures of Isabelle and the Priest had wavered and shimmered like a mirage in the desert.
He had never been burdened with a fanciful imagination and had always been at a loss to explain the events in Mexico and in Green River two years ago. He didn’t believe in ghosts, yet he had seen two people who had died violently by his hands. Chills chased up and down his body. He pulled the blanket closer in a futile attempt to banish them.
Johnny was also shivering as if he was in the grip of a virulent fever. Scott leaned over and brushed his fingers across Johnny’s forehead. His brother’s skin was icy, covered in a thin sheen of sweat. When Johnny recoiled from the touch, Scott caught a glimpse of eyes so dark as to be almost black.
Scott shrank back. What could he do? His brother was suffering because of him. It was his son who… He turned away and doubled over, retching miserably. His hand, when he wiped it over his mouth, was shaking. The knife had been stained with Johnny’s blood. The scar on the palm of his left hand started to throb. That same knife had been used to seal the unholy pact with Isabelle. The wound had been slow to heal and, even now, he didn’t have as strong a grip as he’d had previously. Would this nightmare only end when he and Johnny were both dead? Or, would that be the true beginning of a nightmare from which they could never awaken?
His son. He’d felt something when he looked into those familiar green eyes – and, it wasn’t hatred. What had the boy been told? Was it too late to redeem him from a life of suffering? Did he even have the right to try? The child was being used to lure him in and he could see the consequences with painful clarity.
“We have to go back.” Johnny’s voice sounded raw, as if talking was a great effort for him.
“I know.” It didn’t matter how much he wanted to deny it, there was only one course of action open to them. “Tomorrow.”
“Si.” Johnny’s eyes blazed in his pale face. “Tomorrow.”
Isabelle perched gracefully on the edge of the altar, settling the folds of her skirt around her. The feel of the smooth red satin almost made her purr with pleasure. She tipped her head back so that the breeze caressed her face. All her senses were strained to their limits as she drank in the sheer joy of being alive. For two years she had existed as a bodiless soul, tortured and abused. To be given a second chance...Well, she wouldn’t fail.
“You were a fool to believe that Johnny would give in so easily.” She looked distastefully at the Priest with his long matted hair and slovenly robe. “He will fight to the end.” Her right hand strayed to the scarf encircling her neck. It concealed the bruises caused by Johnny’s attempt to strangle her.
“It is his brother who gives him the strength to resist,” the Priest replied.
“Perhaps.” Isabelle considered Scott Lancer, remembering how it felt to have him thrusting deep inside her body. She smiled sensuously. “At least we know that neither of them will dare sleep, which will make them very vulnerable by the time they arrive here.”
“You are sure they will come?” the Priest asked.
“What choice do they have?” She turned to look at her son. “You did well, Adam.”
“Speak English,” she snapped. The child meant nothing to her. The faint spark of his life had been snatched from her dying body and given a new home in which to grow. He was a tool to be used – nothing more.
She recognized the look on his face. His father had worn it when she had forced him to honour his promise to marry her. There was a similar inner strength in this slender boy and an irritating streak of wilfulness. However, he was needed and she should placate him.
“I’m sorry, my son. I did not mean to be so harsh.”
The defiance disappeared, to be replaced by a tremulous smile. His hand slid into hers. Just in time, she stopped herself from pulling away.
“I did what I was told,” Adam continued. “I stuck a knife in my tio and you came back to me. Why can’t we leave them alone? We don’t need them.”
“They must be made to pay for what they did. Your father broke his word to me and he abandoned you.”
“He didn’t know about me. My tio told me.”
Isabelle’s eyes blazed with green fire. “Your uncle lied to you to protect his brother.”
Adam’s mouth set in a stubborn line. “He wouldn’t lie to me.”
The Priest laughed. “You can’t control him any more than you could control his father.”
“Shut up!” She stood up, dragging her son with her. She pushed Adam toward the Priest. “Keep a close eye on him. I won’t be happy if he runs off.”
Adam twisted in the Priest’s pitiless grip, tears sparkling in his eyes. “I hate you,” he shouted. The tears trembled and fell. “I want my papa.”
“You’ll see him soon enough,” Isabelle replied cruelly. “You can ask him how much he loves you and then you can watch him die.”
Cipriano watched his two young patrones slowly, and stiffly, emerge from their bedrolls. Both looked to be on the verge of collapse, with dark shadows stamped under their eyes. He crossed himself quickly. Evil had returned to haunt them. The other men were silent, infected by a sense of hopelessness and loss.
The strain between the brothers, though, had disappeared. They were at peace with one another and united with a common purpose. Over the years, he had observed the two very different young men form a strong unbreakable bond. Three years ago, they and their father had returned from an unexplained trip to Mexico. Whatever had happened there had changed them all, pulling them closer together as a family. Maria had insisted that they had confronted the Devil and defeated him, although she never said such things within earshot of Murdoch Lancer. A year later, the brothers had disappeared for days, causing great concern. When they eventually returned home, Scott had been bearing a deep wound in his left hand, a wound that he had refused to discuss. On both occasions, they had closed ranks, much as they were doing now.
Grasping his courage with both hands, he walked over to them. “The men are waiting for their orders.”
All the heavy debris had been removed and the water was beginning to flow again. However, the river bed was still clogged with mud and the lighter stones that had settled on the bottom. The only way to clear it would be to stand in the water and shovel it out, a task that would become even more difficult as the flow of water increased.
“Start downstream and work back from there,” Scott instructed.
Cipriano nodded his approval. That would protect the workers for as long as possible from having to work in deeper, faster flowing water. “We should be finished by the end of tomorrow. The men will be happy to return home.”
A quick look passed between the brothers before Johnny stepped forward. “We want to leave you in charge.”
A feeling of alarm swept over Cipriano. It was not like either of them to leave before a job was finished. “The men will ask questions.”
“To hell with...” Johnny blurted.
For a moment longer Johnny’s eyes blazed, then he bowed his head. “Lo siento, Cipriano.”
“Johnny and I have to go away for a while.”
“Is that wise, Senor Scott? Both of you are tired. You should go home and rest.”
“That isn’t possible.”
“Your father will worry.”
“That’s why we need your help,” Scott continued. “It is very important that you stop him following us.”
“He will want to know where you have gone.”
“What’s the date?” Johnny asked.
Cipriano frowned at the abrupt change of subject. “Twenty-seventh of October.”
“Then you only have to stop him worrying for five days.”
Cipriano looked from one to the other, an icy fear gripping his heart. “El Día de los Muertos!”
“Tell him that we’ve gone to check that there’s been no more earth movement that could cause problems during the winter.”
“Let him know that we’re gonna check out the supplies in the line shacks while we’re out here,” Johnny added. “Convince him there’s nothing wrong.”
“I will do my best. But, what do I tell him if you do not return?”
Johnny’s eyes were dark as he answered somberly. “Tell him we have gone to visit Don Pedro. He’ll understand.”
It was dusk on the twenty-ninth of October when they came within sight of the steep cliffs guarding the valley owned by Don Pedro Mendez. For the last hour, their horses had been skittish and hard to handle, as if they could sense the evil that awaited them.
Johnny slid to the ground, keeping hold of the saddle horn to steady himself. His eyes were hooded and his whole body ached. Sleep had been in short supply for the last two nights and it had been almost a week since he’d been able to rest easily.
Scott looked no better than Johnny felt. Each night, they had taken turns to sink into exhausted slumber for an hour, only to wake gritty-eyed and feeling worse than they had before. A pair of burning red eyes had haunted Johnny’s dreams. Although Scott hadn’t admitted it, Johnny suspected his brother had seen the same thing.
“We should camp here tonight and go through the pass first thing in the morning,” Scott said, his voice strained.
The pass was long and narrow. The last time Scott had traveled it, he, Murdoch and Val had been ambushed and taken prisoner. Johnny didn’t argue. He had no urge to enter that confined space in the dark. Relinquishing his hold on the saddle, he walked unsteadily away to find some wood for the fire. Scott watered and unsaddled the horses, each task taking far longer than normal. Once he’d coaxed the fire into life, Johnny put on a pot of coffee. Neither of them had much stomach for food, although Johnny accepted the strip of jerky that Scott unwrapped and handed to him.
“I don’t remember much about my last journey here,” Scott said as he settled against his upturned saddle. “Murdoch told me afterwards that I led them straight here and then collapsed. By the time I woke up, we were in the hands of the Priest’s men.”
“What do you think is waiting for us this time?”
Scott gave a forlorn sigh. “Possibly. I don’t understand, though. If we’re both already damned, why lure us back here? Why not just kill us?”
“I wish I knew the answer to that.”
The Priest stared intently into the bowl of water. It amused him to watch the brothers, so close to each other, knowing that one was damned and one wasn’t. These men had caused his death and consigned him to eternal damnation. He’d found out, too late, that his life had been a lie. He hadn’t been a favored acolyte of the old gods – he’d been a tool of the Devil. And, his master hadn’t been pleased with his failure. He still cringed every time he remembered the never ending pain and torment, hunger, thirst and a fear so strong that it never left him.
The door opened and a subtle scent wafted into the room. He wrinkled his nose in disgust as Isabelle joined him. She peered round to study the picture in the bowl. Leaning over, she stirred the water with one blood-red fingernail. The vision dissolved as the surface shimmered.
“What do you want?” he snarled, irritated by the interruption.
“Is everything ready?” She ran a finger over the layer of dust on the table.
“They will be here tomorrow. We will be able to take them without difficulty.”
“They are to suffer before they die.”
“I’m sure you’re adept at making men suffer,” he replied snidely.
Isabelle ignored the sarcasm, continuing to draw pictures in the dust. “Where did you put the boy?”
“He’s locked in one of the bedrooms.” The Priest scowled at the reminder of the child, who had kicked, bitten and scratched the whole way to the room.
“Good. It is almost time for father and son to meet.”
“What about Madrid?”
Isabelle licked her lips. “I have something very special planned for him.”
After another sleepless night it was almost a relief to see the sky beginning to lighten toward dawn. Johnny looked over to where Scott lay, not fooled for a minute by the fact that his brother’s eyes were closed. He leaned forward to build up the fire before taking the coffee pot down to the stream to rinse it out and fetch fresh water. A strong wind was blowing and the sky was heavy with the promise of rain. The sooner they got on the road, the better it would be, otherwise, they might find themselves in for a very wet ride. By the time he returned to their camp site Scott was up and staring at the sheer cliffs ahead of them.
“Do you think Don Pedro will help us?” Scott asked without turning round. “He didn’t put up much of a fight last time.”
“He didn’t have any choice last time. His land and his people were dying.”
Scott swung round, an expression of angry disbelief on his face. “How can you make excuses for him? He was prepared to stand by and let you die.”
“It was my choice, Scott. I didn’t have to come here. Besides, he was kind to me, and there was nothing he could have done to stop the Priest.”
“He was a coward.”
Johnny sighed as he put the coffee pot on the fire. This was an old argument. Neither Scott nor Murdoch had been willing to forgive Don Pedro for his part in the plot to kill him. “I guess we’ll find out soon enough whether or not he’ll help us this time. It’s only a half day ride to the hacienda.”
Scott didn’t answer. He just turned back to stare at the cliffs. Johnny walked forward hesitantly. His brother was hurting and there was no easy way to say what was on his mind. “We should talk about what we might find when we get there,” he said.
“My son, you mean?” Scott’s back was still turned toward his brother.
Johnny couldn’t read anything in the non-committal tone and that worried him. “Yeah.”
It seemed to take forever for Scott to turn around. “That night – when you almost died – what happened?”
Scott’s piercing gaze was now pinning him to the spot, giving him no way out of the conversation that he’d started. “I...I was tied to the altar.” Johnny cleared his throat. “My chest was bare and I was wearing the same kinda white pants I had on when...” His heart began to pound painfully as the memory resurfaced. “The boy was there and he said if you’d killed me when you were supposed to, that his mama would still be alive.”
Scott’s expression didn’t change. “Then what happened?”
“He asked how I’d felt the first time I killed a man. He knew,” Johnny hesitated as an older, deeply painful, memory returned to haunt him. “He knew that my mama had been murdered and that I’d taken revenge. I tried to tell him that it was different for him; that he wasn’t alone.” He bowed his head to hide the horror in his eyes. The picture of his mother’s lifeless body was there in his mind as clear as the day it happened. He drew in a shuddering breath. Dios! There was so much blood.
“He didn’t listen,” Scott stated, still sounding cold and remote. “He had no reason to believe you.”
Johnny couldn’t drag himself back from the edge of the abyss. He tumbled helplessly back into that night when he had cowered in a corner while Raphael, in a drunken rage, had beaten his mother to death. He had expected to die too, would almost have welcomed it rather than being cast out into an unforgiving world, unloved and unwanted. He wrapped his arms around his body to stop himself shaking. He had to think; to concentrate. Another child needed his help. He couldn’t stand by and watch his nephew suffering as he had suffered.
“He said it was too late to change what he had to do.” He couldn’t continue because that would mean admitting to Scott that the boy had stabbed him.
“Why are you protecting him?”
“He’s just a little boy.”
“He’s an inhuman monster and, despite what you’re not saying, I believe that he tried to kill you. But, why you? I’m the one who killed his mother?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps they aren’t able to reach you through your dreams.” Johnny looked for compassion on his brother’s face and was disappointed. “Look, Scott, there’s something else you need to know. Someone had been beating him.”
“Why should I care? He’s evil and has to be destroyed.”
Johnny edged forward, concerned by Scott’s lack of emotion. “Is that how you feel about me as well? I killed a man when I was ten years old. I didn’t have to do it. He was so drunk I coulda walked out the door and he’d never have noticed.” Johnny had never even admitted that to himself before. It had been easier to live with a lie rather than the truth. “He passed out after he killed her. I took his gun and shot him in the head. I didn’t even have the satisfaction of seeing his fear or listening to him beg for his life, like my mama did. If I hadn’t run, I reckon his friends would have strung me up for murder.”
“You’d just watched him kill your mother. I doubt if you were in your right mind when you shot him.”
“Why’re you ready to make excuses for me, but you won’t fight for your own son?” Johnny asked, with calculated brutality.
Scott flinched and all the blood drained from his face. “I know you. All I know about this boy is that he shouldn’t exist, and that the world will probably be a safer place once he’s was dead.”
“There’s a lot about me you don’t know. I’ve done a lot of bad things and I was given a second chance. Promise me that you’ll give him a chance too.”
“I’m sorry, Johnny. I can’t do that.”
The wind began to swirl around them, blowing dust into Johnny’s face. He instinctively closed his eyes and turned his head away. The howl of the wind contained an evil laugh which made his gut tighten in fear. He was forced backwards until he collided with the trunk of a tree. He raised a hand to protect his face, as the pressure held him in place. He had only one thought. They had to get out of here. He forced his eyes to open and looked back to where Scott had been standing, only to find that his brother was no longer there.
Johnny shouted until he was hoarse. Again and again he set out from their camp, desperately searching for any sign of his missing brother. Finally, shaking with fear and exhaustion, he had to accept that Scott had vanished without a trace. It wasn’t a natural disappearance either. There hadn’t been time for anyone to grab Scott and get away in the short time that Johnny had been distracted by the wind.
His hands shook as he saddled both horses. They were nervous and hard to handle, so he had to waste precious time in talking to them and calming them down. He didn’t doubt that Scott was now a prisoner of Isabelle and the Priest. Where would they take him? The most likely place was the ruined temple. There was a maze of passageways underneath it and a dozen places where Scott could be confined. Although that all made perfect sense, he found himself swept away by the urge to go first to the hacienda.
He mounted Barranca, towing Scott’s horse behind him. Neither animal wanted to enter the narrow passageway. He used his spurs, forcing Barranca into the darkness. Once he was inside he had to go carefully. He couldn’t risk injuring either of the horses. Forcing down his panic, he concentrated on the path. As he settled into a rhythm, he tried to open his mind to Scott, hoping to get some sense of his brother’s condition and location. All he could feel was a dark whirlpool, which threatened to draw him down and overwhelm him. As wave after wave of nausea crashed over him, he wrenched his mind back to his present surroundings.
When he saw the other end of the passage opening up ahead of him, he stopped the horses and drew his gun. He wasn’t going to ride blindly into a trap. He moved cautiously forward. The plateau overlooking the valley was empty. He kept close to the wall until he was sure that no one was lurking in the rocks above him. Johnny dismounted and walked toward the path that would lead him down into the valley, gasping in disbelief as he looked around him.
It was as if he had stepped back in time. The bushes and trees were dry and withered, the stream beds looked to be almost empty and all the fields were brown. There was no sign of any of Don Pedro’s workers. The land was dead and deserted. Johnny rubbed his weary eyes. How could this be? He had stayed in contact with Don Pedro and had been assured that the estancia was prospering again. Had the Don been lying to him, or was the reality far worse?
Stumbling in his haste, he ran back to the horses. There was no question now of going straight to the temple. He had to go to the hacienda and find out what had happened. The knot of fear in his belly tightened. There were been hundreds of men, women and children living on this estate. It had been for them that he had been prepared to lay down his life to atone for past sins. If anything had happened to them because his life had been spared...
He spurred Barranca down the path, one hand gripping the reins of Scott’s horse. He bent low as he urged the animals to greater speed. The ground was cracked and uneven, but it was only when he felt Barranca miss his footing that common sense told him to slow down. He pulled to a stop, his breathing harsh.
“Lo siento,” he whispered in Barranca’s ear.
Both horses were trembling with the effort, their bodies covered in sweat. Johnny slid to the ground and walked them to a small patch of shade under a gnarled tree. He reached up to one of the lower branches and stripped off a handful of leaves. The dull green was marred by black spots and they disintegrated almost as soon as he touched them. He wiped his hands down the sides of his trousers to remove the dust and sweat.
The air was oppressively hot and Johnny could see storm clouds gathering in the distance. He turned to the south, where the foothills lay guarding the entrance to the temple. It was almost time – he could feel it. There was the stench of death hanging in the air. He would have to pay for the reprieve granted to him three years ago and the price would be his heart’s blood. Surprisingly, that thought calmed him. He searched his mind for the source of the comfort he was feeling. Not that it mattered. He knew the truth now and could die with a clear conscience. The Devil no longer owned him. Death would be an end to suffering...not a beginning as he had once feared.
“Not far now,” he murmured, as he pulled himself back into the saddle.
He kept the pace to a steady trot as he passed broken down fences and neglected fields. When he came in sight of the hacienda, he could see the same stark evidence of neglect. There was nothing living, no people, no horses in the corrals, no cattle. The only relief was that there were no bodies, no signs of violent death. The valley had been abandoned, given back to the evil that filled every breath he took and every beat of his heart.
He rode to the barn, slipping from the saddle and leading the horses inside, out of the sunlight. He took his time to unsaddle them and make them comfortable in adjoining stalls. Whatever was waiting for him could wait a while longer. Scott was here, he could feel his brother’s presence, although not his waking mind.
His steps back toward the house were confident. His right hand rested on the handle of his gun and he kept his head high. He stopped outside the front door and waited. When it opened and two figures stepped out, he summoned up an insolent smile.
Isabelle was breathtaking. Her dark hair fell around her creamy shoulders while her breasts strained against the tight red bodice of her dress. As she walked toward him, her hips swayed provocatively, enticing him into her snare. Except, he knew what she was, and had tasted firsthand the depth of wickedness that resided within her voluptuous body. He took his time, lazily surveying her from her head to her toes, before turning away to look at her companion.
He couldn’t quite suppress the visceral fear that swept over him as he looked at the Priest. The swirling red eyes captured him and he took an unwilling step forward. He swallowed and took a tighter hold of his gun, although the weapon remained in its holster.
“I’ve come for my brother,” he said.
“Scott’s resting,” Isabelle replied. “When he wakes up we have a surprise for him.”
“I always knew you were smart.” Isabelle moved closer, reaching out to trail a blood red fingernail down his arm. “His name is Adam.”
“How can you use your own child?” Johnny moved out of reach.
“He is fulfilling his destiny. You understand that, don’t you?”
“I want to see Scott.” Johnny wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of admitting that he did understand.
“You can see him tomorrow.”
“What happened to Don Pedro and his people?”
The Priest gave a harsh laugh. “They died.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It doesn’t matter what you believe,” the Priest snarled. He turned to Isabelle. “Enough talk. Do with him what you like, but make sure he’s ready for tomorrow.”
Even though he knew it was pointless, Johnny drew his gun. “Scott!” he yelled. The gun flew from his hand and he felt himself hurtling backwards. His back collided with a fence post. He grunted in pain as he slid to the ground. When he looked up into Isabelle’s green eyes, he knew that more agony awaited him.
“I’ve waited a long time to repay you for trying to kill me,” she purred.
She reached down and touched him on the forehead. Johnny screamed and his world went black.
Adam watched the man lying on the bed. It had been a long time since his father had been carried in by the Priest and he still wasn’t showing any signs of waking up. Adam edged closer, suddenly fearful that his father might be dead. He reached over, resting his hand on the dark blue shirt. The heartbeat was strong and reassuring, causing Adam to whimper in relief.
He studied the still face. The skin was dirty and bruised and the eyes were ringed by deep shadows. The blond hair lay limply across his father’s forehead. The clothes, which were far softer and finer than any Adam had seen before, were also stained and torn. A thin strip of leather was pinning his wrists together. With a sob Adam tried to pry the knots apart.
Movement on the bed sent Adam scurrying quickly backwards. He watched in silence as his father’s eyes opened. He saw the look of anger as the man realized his hands were tied. Adam pressed himself into a corner, afraid of what would happen when he was noticed. His father’s movements were slow and clumsy, and Adam could tell from the bruises how much he must be hurting. He clutched the drapes for support as the blue gaze settled on him.
Even as a very small child he had sought love and affection. But, all his life he’d seen only fear and hatred on people’s faces. When he saw that same look from his father, he crumpled to his knees, bent his head and sobbed. He didn’t notice his father getting up from the bed until he heard movement beside him. He flinched away, expecting a blow.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
Adam looked up and found that his father was kneeling in front of him.
“What’s your name?”
“Adam. Papa...” He stopped as his father shook his head.
“Call me Scott.”
Adam felt miserable. No one wanted him. Even his own father wouldn’t claim him.
“Come and sit on the bed. It will be more comfortable.”
Obediently Adam followed Scott back to the bed and perched on the edge. He’d learned a long time ago that disobeying adults only caused him more pain. “I tried to untie you,” he offered.
Scott looked down at his hands. His wrists were scraped and bruised and his fingers were swollen. “How did I get here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is Johnny here?”
Adam bit his lip. He’d seen his tio riding in and, later, had heard screaming that had terrified him. He nodded. “Si, Papa.” Scott didn’t look pleased, but this time didn’t correct him.
“How long was I unconscious?”
The little boy thought about that. He’d watched the sun crossing the sky and had felt the air becoming hotter. “He brought you here before noon, and the sun will soon be setting.”
“Who brought me?”
Adam shuddered. “The black Priest.”
“Who else is here?”
The sudden flash of anger scared Adam and he edged further away. “Lo siento,” he whispered.
The anger disappeared, leaving no trace of what Scott was thinking. “Tell me about yourself.”
Adam looked at his hands which were squeezed together on his lap. “I lived with Carlos and Manuela. They told me my real parents didn’t want me.” A tear ran down his cheek and he sniffed back the flood that threatened to follow.
“Were they kind to you?”
“I was...” He searched for the right word. “I was different. All the other children had black hair and dark eyes. Carlos said my eyes came from the devil and that it was his job to beat the evil out of me.” Adam couldn’t look at this father. Everyone in the village had said he was evil and since he had stabbed his tio, he knew they were right. He didn’t deserve to live or to have anyone love him.
“How did you get here?”
Adam thought he heard a note of sympathy in Scott’s voice, but experience told him he must only be imagining it. “The black Priest came to the village. He said it was time. I...I didn’t want to go with him. He scared me and I tried to run away, but they caught me.” He shuddered as he remembered the terror he had felt and the relief on the faces of Carlos and Manuela as he was dragged screaming from his hiding place. “During the day I had to ride with him and at night he tied my feet so that I couldn’t get away. He took me to a horrible place where I could hear the lost souls crying in the wind. He said if I did what he told me I could have my mama back.”
“What did he tell you to do?”
“He said that my tio would come to me and that I should make him like me. He...he hit me because he said my tio would feel sorry for me and would want to help. I felt safe when Tio Johnny was there. Then I was told that I had to...I had to...” The tears were falling freely and Adam’s throat was too tight to let him continue.
“He said you had to kill Johnny,” Scott said. “What did he promise you in return?”
“So you stabbed him.”
“I didn’t want to...not even to get mama back. So he made me drink something. It made me sick and I couldn’t fight him anymore.” Adam buried his face in his hands. “Lo siento, Papa. I’m sorry.”
Scott didn’t know what to think. Since learning of Adam’s existence he had worked hard to eliminate any of the normal feelings a father should have for his son. It might have been different if he’d been confronted by a year old baby who could have been brought up in a loving household. Instead of that, he was being expected to come to terms with having a ten year old son. The whole idea had been so ridiculous that it hadn’t been difficult to convince himself that this was some hell-spawned demon – until now.
He only had to look at the boy to know that his life had been horrendous. There were bruises on Adam’s thin arms and on his face. His eyes were those of a wounded animal, who expected no kindness from anyone. The similarities with Johnny’s life were obvious and Scott could only believe that this child had been deliberately abused to stir his sympathy. Adam was trembling like a leaf in a strong wind and, almost unwillingly, Scott felt the ice around his heart cracking. If he hadn’t been bound he would have taken his son in his arms and held him until the tremors stopped.
“Come here, Son.”
Adam looked up, his face tearstained and his eyes afraid and unsure.
“I need you to trust me,” Scott continued. “I know that’s a hard thing to ask, but it’s important.”
“Do you hate me?”
Scott bowed his head, searching for the words he needed to say. “You’re my son. How could I ever hate you? I know how powerful that drug is. Whatever you felt inside, there was nothing you could have done. Besides, you wanted your mother and I can understand that. My mother died when I was born. If I’d been given the chance to get her back I’d have taken it.”
Adam moved closer. “Mama’s wicked.”
“She doesn’t love me.”
“She doesn’t love anyone.”
“Is that why you killed her?”
“She was hurting Johnny and I won’t stand by while someone hurts my family.” Scott stared intently at his son. “Do you understand? I won’t let anyone hurt a member of my family.”
Adam edged another few inches along the bed, a shy smile briefly tugging at his lips. “You won’t let them hurt me?” he asked.
“Mama says she’s going to kill you and Tio Johnny.”
“She’ll try, but she won’t succeed. Come, sit by me and tell me everything you’ve seen since you came here. Maybe then we can figure a way out.”
Johnny felt a pressure across his throat and his eyes shot open. Something was slowly strangling him. He forced his arms to move, his fingers scrabbling to loosen whatever was restricting his breathing and found - nothing. He could hear the blood roaring in his head when he tried to breathe. His chest was tight and his vision blurred as his own panic made it harder for him to draw in the air he needed to survive.
“Now you know what it feels like.”
Isabelle’s voice, dripping with malice, penetrated his blind terror. The pressure eased, allowing him to gulp in some air. He sat up slowly and looked at her. She was sitting in front of the window, framed by the red glow of the dying sun. He slid from the bed, but only managed one step before the tightness around his throat returned. He fell to his knees, dark spots now floating before his eyes.
“Do you remember doing this?”
Johnny raised his head with an effort. Isabelle had removed the scarf from around her neck. The bruises caused by his hands were as vivid as the day he’d inflicted them. He could still remember the feel of her smooth skin and the terror in her green eyes as he’d squeezed tighter and tighter. His only thought had been to kill her before she could force Scott to marry her and damn his brother forever. He’d failed and Scott had forfeited his soul by killing her on their wedding night.
“You know that you and Scott will both die tomorrow,” Isabelle said.
Johnny glared silently at his tormentor and tried, unsuccessfully, to swallow past the pain in his throat. It was very little consolation to know that she didn’t intend to kill him yet. He knew from their last encounter how much pain she could cause. He wanted to ask about Scott, but it was hard enough catching sufficient breath to remain conscious.
“I’ve been trying to decide which one of you to kill first,” Isabelle continued. “You caused me a lot of pain, but Scott, well he shot me and sent me to hell. I underestimated him. I didn’t think he had it in him to commit murder.”
Johnny pushed himself backwards until he could rest his back against the bed. If he concentrated on his breathing, he could just about manage to stop his own fear from suffocating him.
“Then there’s the boy to consider. He has potential, but there is too much of his father in him to make him truly evil.”
Johnny suspected that the horror he felt was reflected in his eyes. How could any mother talk about her son so dispassionately? It was clear that Adam was nothing more to her than a tool to be used and then discarded. He tried to push words past his bruised throat, grimacing in frustration as only an unintelligible grunt emerged from his mouth.
Isabelle rose gracefully and glided over to look down at him. “He’s getting along very well with his father. You’d be proud of Scott for not turning against the unnatural little bastard he sired. Or, maybe you wouldn’t. After all, Adam would have killed you if you hadn’t woken up. What a sad end that would have been for the great Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny gathered his strength and reached for her. She stepped back quickly, a frown marring her beautiful face. He fell back as the pressure increased again. Everything went black and he slid sideways, choking and unable to breathe.
“See what you made me do?”
He felt himself being pulled upright. When he could open his eyes again he saw that she was kneeling in front of him, her hands pressing him back against the side of the bed. He didn’t like the appraising look on her face.
“You are a very handsome man.”
Her right hand moved quickly to grasp his chin. He tried to turn away as she bent forward. Ignoring his efforts she brought her lips down on his in a kiss that was full of promise. Bile burned in his throat as he forced his arm to move. His fingers closed around a handful of her hair and he pulled her head back.
“Go back to hell, Bitch,” he rasped.
Isabelle freed herself without difficulty and stood up. “You’re no better than your brother.” She returned to her chair while Johnny watched her warily. “Now, where were we?”
Johnny gasped as the iron grip returned to crush his throat. It wasn’t long before his world became filled with nothing more than the effort to keep breathing.
Scott woke to find Adam pressed up against his side. He lay still, not wanting to wake the boy. It hadn’t taken much to get his son to trust him and that, in itself, was heartbreaking. A few kind words had been all that was required and that told Scott all he needed to know about the boy’s life. He had stopped questioning how Adam could exist. He no longer cared. All he wanted was to take his son home to Lancer and repair the damage done to him.
It was daylight outside and he still had no idea how they were going to escape from this trap. Time was fast running out. It was the Day of the Dead and, according to local superstition, the gates of the underworld would open at midnight. Three years ago he would have laughed at the suggestion that the dead could walk among them. He knew better now and it seemed likely that midnight would be the time appointed for him and Johnny to die.
Adam had done his best, but he only had limited information, having been locked up alone for most of the last few days. He had only seen the Priest and Isabelle. As Scott could remember nothing about his own abduction, he didn’t know if there were any others involved. He was desperately worried about Johnny. He’d stretched his senses to their limits in the hope of finding the connection they’d shared the last time they’d been here. There had been moments when he’d thought that he’d touched his brother’s mind, but the feeling was elusive. Even if he could get his hands loose and find a way out of this room, he wouldn’t leave without his brother.
He spared a passing thought for Don Pedro and his people. What had happened to them? The room he was occupying with Adam was covered in dust and had a musty smell which suggested that it hadn’t been used for a long time. The Don had been willing to stand by while Johnny was sacrificed to appease the old gods and bring the rains. What would have made him abandon his home now?
Adam stirred, muttering something under his breath before settling again. Scott watched him, amazed by the depth of love he felt. More than that, though, was the impulse to protect the boy. For the first time, he really understood his father and how hard it must have been for Murdoch to leave him in Boston.
He tensed when he heard the key turning in the lock. That slight movement woke Adam who stared at him with wide green eyes.
“Don’t be scared,” Scott said. He swung his legs off the bed and stood up. Adam stayed huddled behind him.
When the door opened and Isabelle walked in, Scott’s expression hardened. She was wearing the same dress as she had during their travesty of a wedding. Her smile reminded him of the look of smug satisfaction she had given him before forcing him into her bed. The memory of that night turned his stomach. He swallowed down the bile that had risen in his throat. He had forfeited his soul when he pulled the trigger and sent two bullets hurtling into her body. When he closed his eyes, he could still see her lying there with an expression of surprise on her beautiful face and blood staining her skin. To see her now, alive, shook him to the core.
“Where’s my brother?”
“Is that any way to greet your wife?” she asked with deceptive sweetness. “After all, today is our anniversary.”
“I asked you a question.”
“And I have no intention of answering it.” She moved closer, stopping just out of reach. “You look tired, my darling.”
Scott took a step toward her and she held up her hand in warning. “I hold your brother’s life in my hand. If you don’t behave, he will experience a depth of suffering that you can’t even begin to imagine.”
“Not this time, bitch.” Scott took another step and Adam screamed.
Scott swung round. Adam was curled up on the bed, his knees drawn up and his arms wrapped around his stomach.
“If a threat to Johnny won’t keep you in line, maybe this will,” Isabelle hissed.
Scott pulled Adam against him. The boy was almost rigid and was crying inconsolably. “Alright!” he shouted. “You’ve made your point. Stop hurting him.”
Adam went limp, his face pressed against Scott’s chest and his tears soaking the front of Scott’s shirt.
“I’m surprised,” Isabelle continued. “For a man who didn’t want a child, you’ve become very attached to the brat. Doesn’t it bother you that he was willing to kill Johnny?”
Scott felt Adam pulling away from him, leaving him with a forlorn sense of loss. “What bothers me is that you could use an innocent child to get your revenge.”
“Is he innocent? I wonder.” Isabelle smiled sweetly. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
“Let him go.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. I have his future all planned out. Shall I tell you?”
Scott glared at her in silent hatred. Adam had retreated to the far side of the bed, no doubt devastated by the reminder that he hadn’t been wanted.
Isabelle looked unperturbed. “Once you and Johnny are dead your poor father won’t have anyone to inherit his estate. Imagine how happy he will be to learn that he has a grandson. He’ll welcome us with open arms and once he’s dead…Well, I’m sure you can guess the rest.”
“Adam won’t go along with your lies.”
“He’ll do as he’s told. There are ways to control him, as you know very well.”
“Murdoch won’t just accept this.”
“Of course he will. Losing both of his sons will hit him hard and, remember, you had quite a reputation with the women in your youth. It really isn’t hard to believe that you might have fathered a child or two along the way. Your father has no memory of ever meeting me before and it will be even easier this time to manipulate him and that pathetic little girl. What was her name? Ah yes, Teresa.”
Scott felt cold. Two years ago Murdoch and Teresa had been no match for Isabelle. She had warped their minds to the point where Murdoch had been willing to disown Johnny and see him return to the life of a gunfighter. “Take your revenge against me, but leave the rest of my family alone.”
“I’m afraid you have nothing to bargain with. Enjoy your last few hours of life.” Isabelle’s cold stare raked him from head to toe before she left the room, locking the door behind her.
During the remainder of the day, Scott told Adam about Lancer and about his childhood in Boston. The boy, reluctant at first to respond, had eventually listened attentively, asking many questions. It had been a relief when Adam had moved closer again as Scott had been worried that Isabelle’s callous words had done irreparable damage. As the sun began to set, however, Scott could see that the terror Adam had been suppressing was gradually working its way to the surface. By the time the door opened again, and the Priest walked in, the boy was almost incoherent.
“Stay close to me,” Scott said. “No one is going to hurt you.”
Adam clung to him. “I don’t want you and Tio Johnny to die.”
“Don’t...” Scott’s intended words of reassurance died as he was caught by the Priest’s eyes. They were a swirling maelstrom of madness and he was being sucked in, lost in a profusion of reds and browns.
He woke from that nightmare vision, chained in the back of a wagon, with no memory of how he had come to be there. He looked around, dazed and confused. He sighed with relief when he saw Adam. The boy gave him a tremulous smile before bowing his head. Scott manoeuvred himself into a sitting position and looked around, his heart sinking when he saw that Johnny wasn’t with them. The unnatural silence was broken only by the sound of the horses hooves striking the sun baked earth and the creaking of the wagon wheels.
He twisted round to see where they were. A jolt of fear struck him when he saw that they were approaching the main gates leading to the temple. He remembered this place and the blind terror he had experienced when he’d last entered these gates as a helpless prisoner.
The hideously deformed statues had decayed further, as if the earth was trying to regain its foothold in a place that had only ever known evil. The gates hung limply from hinges that were broken and twisted. Unwillingly, Scott’s gaze traveled up to the top of the pyramid in the center of the forecourt. His death lay there, a death he wasn’t yet ready to accept. Mixed with the fear was an anger that ran hot through his veins. He hadn’t been given the chance to say a final goodbye to his father. He hadn’t been given the chance to be a father to his own son. A chill ran down his spine, leaving him shaken.
The Priest stopped the horses and climbed down from the seat. He unlocked the chains securing Scott to the side of the wagon, leaving the leather binding around Scott’s wrists. Before Scott could untangle himself, the Priest snatched Adam out of the wagon, pressing a knife against the boy’s throat.
“Stay still,” Scott called, fear clutching his heart for his son.
Adam whimpered pitifully, but didn’t move.
“There is a door ahead of you,” the Priest said. “It leads to a passageway. If you try anything, I will slit the boy’s throat.”
Scott swallowed and nodded. He walked slowly toward the door and stepped inside. The enclosed passage turned into a corridor, flanked by walls standing at least ten feet high. The air was heavy with the memory of the thousands of men, women and children who had made this journey before him. Their terror and despair invaded his mind causing his steps to falter. His breathing was quick and shallow as he reached the outer wall of the temple and the steps cut into the side. Only the threat to his son kept him moving.
The air was completely still as he stepped out onto the platform. Torches cast ghastly shadows on the stone, giving him enough light to see that Johnny and Isabelle were already there. Johnny’s hands were tied in front of him and the other end of the rope was fastened to a pillar standing at one corner of the black stone altar. That stone was cracked, making the altar useless, but Scott didn’t think that would prevent what was about to happen.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” Isabelle said.
Scott ignored her, looking instead at his brother and the dark bruises marring his throat. They were identical to the bruises on Isabelle’s neck and he knew then how his ‘wife’ had been occupying herself while waiting for night to fall. Johnny’s eyes were dark, filled with hatred and something Scott had rarely seen before – fear.
“Are you alright?” Scott asked.
“Yeah. I’m sorry, Scott.”
“This isn’t your fault, Brother.”
Johnny shook his head. “You’re wrong. If I hadn’t made that deal...”
“You were only a child. You didn’t know what you were doing.”
“I do like a touching family reunion,” Isabelle sneered. “What a pity you won’t have more time to say goodbye.”
Scott backed away as the Priest dragged Adam forward. Tears were running down the boy’s face and Scott could see that there was a shallow cut on his neck. The sight of his son’s blood filled him with impotent fury.
“It’s time,” Isabelle said and the look of hungry anticipation on her face made Scott’s blood run cold. “Which one of you wants to go first?”
Adam squirmed out of the Priest’s grip. “No! I won’t let you kill my papa.”
The Priest raised the knife. “Then I’ll start with you.”
Scott saw the knife flashing toward his son and hurled himself forward, knocking Adam out of the way. He heard the boy’s startled shout mingling with Johnny’s cry of fury and disbelief. His relief at having saved his son was short lived and he gasped as the knife plunged into his chest, the serrated edge tearing through his flesh.
He had never felt such agony, and no power on earth could force back the scream that was torn from him. He could feel his heart pumping, desperately trying to keep him alive. The pain increased as the knife was twisted and ripped out, allowing his blood to flow freely. He wasn’t sure if he was still standing and his vision was too blurred to allow him to see what was going on around him. As his breathing faltered, he tried to call out to his brother...to his son. He was isolated in a sea of pain and he had nothing left to anchor him to the living.
The pain began to recede, leaving behind a numbness that was even more frightening. His soul. was destined for hell and he wasn’t ready. He didn’t want to leave his family – not like this. He took another faltering breath, choking on the liquid which was bubbling up in his throat. All sight, all sound had disappeared, leaving him floating in an empty, desolate place, terrified of what awaited him. He fought for life, even though he had just enough awareness left to know that it was hopeless. Then, just as his thoughts scattered, he felt a sense of peace wrapping around him accompanied by the knowledge that, by his final selfless act, he had earned his redemption. Sad, but no longer afraid, he let go.
Johnny’s eyes were wide with horror and disbelief as the Priest pulled out the knife and Scott slid to the ground. Isabelle’s laughter mingled with Adam’s frightened sobs. Johnny strained to the limit of his tether, falling to his knees as he desperately sought to reach his dying brother. Scott’s eyes were open and it was clear he was straining to breathe. Blood trailed from the corner of his mouth and his head lolled to one side as his chest fell still.
“No! No!” Johnny screamed. “Scott!” He turned on the Priest. “I’m gonna send you back to hell, you bastard.” His voice cracked under the strain. His brother was dead. Dead.
“I have done my master’s bidding and have been granted eternal life,” the Priest said smugly. “It is you who will suffer in hell’s fires. You don’t need to mourn your brother. You will be reunited soon enough.” He walked toward Johnny, the knife held out in front of him.
Johnny watched the blood – his brother’s blood – dripping from the blade. This couldn’t be happening. He clung to the belief that this was another nightmare. He’d wake up soon...he had to wake up. This couldn’t be real. He raised his eyes to the Priest’s face, which was filled with a twisted look of satisfaction, and his stomach lurched.
Grief and anger lodged in his throat, choking him. He wrenched against the rope holding him prisoner. He had to reach Scott. Thin screams brought his attention back to the boy. Adam was twisting in Isabelle’s grip, his eyes wide with horror as he stared at Scott’s body. Johnny took a breath to speak, to reassure the child. Before he could get the words out the boy faded from sight.
“What did you do to him?” he yelled.
“Did you think he was real?” Isabelle asked. “He was never anything more than an illusion. Scott died to protect a child who never existed.”
“I have no reason to lie. It amused me to play with your minds.”
Johnny’s sanity hovered on the brink as his mind refused to accept what he’d just seen and heard. Scott couldn’t have died for nothing. That would be the ultimate cruelty. And now, his brother’s soul would be tortured for all eternity. Turning away from Isabelle he tried to crawl closer to Scott. The rope pulled him up short and, no matter how desperately he tried, he couldn’t cover the final few inches. He kept his eyes firmly fixed on Scott, still hoping, in a small corner of his mind, that this was just a bad dream. He choked back a sob as his brother’s lifeless eyes stared back at him. The belief that he had held to all his life, that there was good in the world, splintered and died. His warmth and compassion fled, to be replaced by a ferocious need to seek revenge for Scott’s death. He closed his eyes to hide the tears that he refused to shed in front of his brother’s murderers. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing him torn apart by grief. Scott deserved better than that. He deserved vengeance. Whether Adam had been real or not, Scott had sacrificed his life in the belief that he was saving his son.
Saving his son...!
The emerging madness retreated as the implication crashed upon Johnny like a thunderstorm. He opened his eyes and gave a short bitter laugh. “You stupid bastards don’t know what you’ve done, do you?”
He rose shakily to his feet. The Priest was standing within touching distance, the knife still threatening and a look of confusion on his face. Johnny turned toward Isabelle. She had become very pale, as if she understood his meaning.
“You were told to send his soul to hell. Your master knew he couldn’t have mine, so he decided to settle for Scott’s. And you screwed it up. Scott gave up his life for his son. It was the final sacrifice a father could make.”
“No!” Isabelle’s voice rose in a shriek. “I won’t go back. Help me!” She held out a hand to Johnny. “Please, help me.”
The knife clattered to the ground as the Priest raised his hands to his head. Johnny smelt sulphur and backed up hastily as the bottom of the Priest’s robe caught fire. The flames danced their way upwards and he began to writhe and scream as he tried to beat them out with his bare hands. The stench was appalling and Johnny saw Isabelle backing away, terror etched on her face. Her screams joined those of the Priest as flames began to swirl around her ankles. Her foot caught on a broken flagstone and she fell to her knees. The flames rose higher until Johnny could barely make out her face within the pillar of fire. The screams lingered on the air long after their bodies had fallen still. He watched, with grim satisfaction, until both had been completely consumed.
Silence fell. It was the silence of loss and loneliness and Johnny recognized it well. Tears streamed down his face as he groped for the knife. The handle was slick with Scott’s blood and he cut himself several times before the rope strands parted. As soon as he was free he severed Scott’s bonds and hurled the knife away. He pulled his brother’s lifeless body into his arms, gently closing Scott’s eyes.
“Why, Scott? It wasn’t time for you to leave.” Even though he knew that it was far too late, he pressed his hands against the wound in Scott’s chest. “You weren’t the one who was supposed to die. Why didn’t you let the Priest kill me that first time? Why did you have to die?” His voice cracked, raw with emotion and he bent his head, surrendering to his grief.
He stayed there for hours, rocking his brother’s lifeless body in his arms. He remembered their first meeting and his own mocking reaction to the overdressed eastern dandy. Scott had repaid that mockery by saving his life. Their friendship had grown slowly and had put down deep roots. They’d been through good times and bad, but there hadn’t been a day when he hadn’t known his brother was there, watching his back. He choked as he pictured Scott’s slow smile and the streak of mischief that had lurked just below the surface.
He didn’t have the courage yet to think of his return home and the explanations that would be necessary. He couldn’t yet imagine a day that didn’t have Scott in it. As a family they would support one another, but the loss of a beloved brother would leave a void within him that time could never fill.
It was close to daybreak when he heard a sound. At first, he thought it was the cry of a bird, but as he listened more closely he realized that it was something else. Reluctantly, he relinquished his hold on Scott, laying his brother carefully on the cold stone. Making his legs move was difficult as they had grown stiff and numb. With one hand on the altar he pulled himself to his feet. The sound was coming from the far side of the black stone. He moved silently until he could see.
A young child, not much more than a year old, was sitting on the ground, crying piteously. Johnny drew in a sharp breath. The boy had blond hair and the tears were falling from distinctive green eyes. He shook his head in denial. Hadn’t he lost enough?
The child looked up at him and the tears stopped. He held out his hands, whimpering as Johnny moved sharply away.
“Take care of my son, Brother.”
The words were no more than a whisper on the air and Johnny looked around wildly. The child was still now, watching him with wide eyes.
Johnny drew in a shuddering breath. “Adam?”
“He is a gift.” The thought insinuated itself in Johnny’s mind, accompanied by a fleeting sense of peace.
He bent down and scooped the child up into his arms, holding him close. Fresh tears pricked his eyes. “Gracias,” he whispered. “Gracias.”
With a lighter heart, Johnny turned to watch the sun rise.