This story deals with such issues as devil worship & black magic
If such issues offend or upset you please do not read this story
With thanks to my betas Linda & Lacy
Gods & Men
was hot and heavy. Ash fell from
the sky like snow and covered everything it touched with a thin layer of dirty
grey dust. The fields continued to
burn, panicking the thoroughbred horses penned in the corrals.
Never before had the fires come so close to the hacienda and the precious
stock. Don Pedro gave the order to
open the gates and drive the horses away from the flames.
Water was scarce in this drought stricken land leaving him with no option
but to let the fires run their course through the dry grass.
Trenches were dug and everyone waited with baited breath to see if they
would contain the destructive element. As
day turned to night the fires began to die away leaving the barns and corrals in
retreated to his study. Even with
the windows closed the smell of smoke was everywhere.
He sat at his beautiful mahogany desk and contemplated the ruin of his
livelihood, and that of his people. He
couldn’t remember when it had last rained.
The tropical storms which, in the past, had filled the streams and water
holes had failed to materialise for the second year running.
The wells were running dry and his workers had started to leave, claiming
that the estancia and surrounding areas were cursed.
The heavy wooden door flew open to admit the one man Don Pedro feared. For six months the man had been preaching his sedition to the peons, stirring up trouble and recruiting disciples. At first the Don had tried to persuade the man to leave. When that had failed he turned to harsher methods which were equally unsuccessful. Now the man wielded so much influence that his death or disappearance would most likely trigger a blood bath.
The self styled priest with fanatical dark eyes wore a long black robe covered by a full length black cloak. His dirty and matted hair fell to his waist. He carried with him an odour of sulphur, and other unclean things, and Don Pedro shuddered.
old gods are angry,” the Priest ranted. “They
are tired of being ignored and they demand a worthy sacrifice.”
laced his fingers together to stop them shaking.
“There is only one God. Your
talk is blasphemous.”
are the one who insults the gods,” the man spat.
“How much more damage do they have to inflict upon you and your
household before you accept the truth? They
have returned and you and all men will bow before them.
If the rain festival is not held soon this land will be destroyed by
fire. Is that what you want?”
Don Pedro bowed his head in grief. “No,” he whispered, ashamed of his superstitious fears.
“Only the death of a brave warrior will appease their anger. The gods themselves will show me who is to be the sacrifice. I will work the ritual tonight.”
The priest left to make his preparations and Don Pedro put his head in his hands and wept for his cowardice and for the blight that lay across his people and his land.
The dank air of the cave caused the torches to flicker fitfully. Outside the rim of light cast by the torches was pitch darkness. The atmosphere chilled the blood as the hooded man kept up his unending chant flanked by his two acolytes.
He stared into the bowl of water, his breath casting ripples on the surface. As his chanting ceased the water turned milky white. Two more men entered the cave supporting a young girl. Fear and the drugs in her system had robbed her of her voice and the ability to move independently.
They stripped off her robe and laid her on the stone altar, holding her in place. She stared through glazed eyes at the man towering over her wielding a large knife. Watching, unable to move, she saw the knife descend. She found her voice then, but her scream tailed off as quickly as it had arisen.
Holding the girl’s still beating heart over the bowl the man resumed his chanting as he let her blood fall and mingle with the water. The water cleared and became like a mirror only it didn’t reflect what was in the cave.
Instead it showed a dark haired, blue eyed young man, bare chested and well muscled. The priest gave a sigh of pleasure and commanded the picture to expand to show what lay beyond the walls of the bedroom where the young man stood. As if through the eyes of an eagle he saw a vast land, prosperous, and green with cattle grazing in vast herds.
Nestled within this verdant paradise was a gracious white hacienda, leading to which was a roadway passing under an arch marked with a stylised “L”.
“Find him,” he instructed his minions as he allowed the picture to fade.
Johnny paused in the act of picking up his shirt as a sudden chill swept the room causing the hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end. Although it was only early morning, his room was warm and he looked around to see if he had inadvertently left a door or window open. He had the distinct feeling that he was being watched which, he told himself, was ridiculous given that there was no one in the room but him.
Something had set his nerves on edge, so much so that he jumped when his door flew open to admit his brother. His right hand instinctively flew to his hip where his gun would have been if he weren’t safe in his own room. Scott saw the gesture and grinned.
“You’re as jumpy as a cat this morning brother. Something got you spooked?”
Johnny concentrated on pulling on his shirt and buttoning it up. “Did no one ever teach you to knock?” he asked irritably.
Coming into the room Scott threw his arm around his brother’s shoulders. “What’s got you so cranky this morning? Come on, you’ll feel better once you’ve had something to eat.”
“There’s nothing the matter with me,” Johnny snapped, before relenting and throwing his brother an embarrassed smile. “Guess I just got out of bed on the wrong side this morning.”
His eyes swept the room before he headed for the door, giving himself a good talking to about over active imaginations.
As the brothers approached the kitchen they could hear raised voices, easily identifiable as belonging to their father and Maria. Murdoch sounded annoyed and Maria was almost hysterical, her rapid fire Spanish rising to a crescendo of sound. Scott turned to his brother and raised an eyebrow, waiting for a translation. Johnny had stopped dead and had turned pale. If Scott hadn’t known better he would have sworn that his brother looked scared.
“What’s wrong? Are you feeling ill?”
Johnny pushed past his brother and entered the kitchen. Maria crossed herself and then gripped his arm tightly, still talking without seeming to pause for breath. Hopelessly lost, Scott looked to his father for enlightenment.
Murdoch was scowling. “She says the house has been invaded by evil spirits. She seems to be convinced that your brother is in some sort of danger. I have tried to explain to her that it’s complete nonsense but she won’t listen.” He slammed his cup down on the table in irritation. “Johnny, perhaps you can talk some sense into her.”
Johnny’s blue eyes were wide and unfathomable as his feeling of unease returned. Maria took his continued silence as confirmation that he understood her fears. “You feel them too?” she asked before falling blessedly quiet.
Johnny looked from her to his father and brother. He backed up a few steps and shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He could see the hurt and puzzlement on Maria’s face and had an overwhelming need to get out of the house. “I ain’t that hungry.” He turned quickly and left by the back door.
“Sometimes I don’t know what gets into that boy.” Murdoch remarked. “I don’t want to hear any more talk of evil spirits or devil worshipers. Is that clear, Maria?”
Scott lingered in the kitchen after his father had left. Maria was standing at the sink with her back to him and he could have sworn that she was crying quietly. Although not nearly as demonstrative as his brother when it came to the elderly Mexican housekeeper, he was very fond of her and he didn’t like to see her upset.
“I’m sure my father didn’t mean to shout,” he told her untruthfully, hoping to draw her into conversation.
Maria sniffed and turned to regard the patron’s eldest son. “You will go and speak to Juanito. He was not telling the truth. Make him tell you. It is muy importante. You are the oldest. It is your job to look after him. See that you don’t let him down.”
Scott was stunned by the passion in the woman’s voice and was somewhat insulted by the suggestion that he wouldn’t protect his brother. Not that he had any idea what he was supposed to be protecting him from. “I’ll always watch his back. You know you can trust me.”
Sensing that she might have offended the young man Maria crossed to the table and patted his cheek. “Bueno.”
It took Scott some considerable time and effort to track down his elusive brother. He eventually ran him to ground clearing out a stream bed. Johnny had taken off his shirt and was perspiring heavily in the hot sunshine. He had discarded his hat but Scott noticed that he was wearing his gunbelt, a fact which struck him as odd. During the early months it had been almost impossible to separate Johnny from his gun, even at the dinner table. As time had gone on his need to have the weapon constantly at his side had diminished and it was unusual now for him to wear it when performing manual labor. Johnny had looked up in response to the hoof beats before returning to the task at hand.
Scott dismounted and unhooked his canteen. “You look like you could use a drink. I’ve brought some food if you’re hungry. It’s not like you to miss breakfast.”
Johnny accepted the canteen but not the implied question. He took a long, satisfying drink before pulling out a bandana and wiping his face and the back of his neck. “Don’t you have things to do? I don’t need no nursemaid whatever Maria says.”
“Maybe not but I’d say you need someone to talk to. Something was bothering you before you got downstairs this morning. Come and sit down.” Scott held out an encouraging hand to his brother.
Johnny sighed, recognising that he wasn’t going to get rid of his inquisitive sibling without some sort of explanation. After they had settled in the shade of an overhanging rock Scott unwrapped the sandwiches he had been carrying in his saddle bags. Johnny accepted one, laid it in his lap and stared at it. After a while he began to tear the bread to shreds without realising it. White crumbs dotted his black leather trousers.
After watching his brother destroy his lunch for a while Scott gripped his arm and shook it to attract Johnny’s attention. “You’re meant to eat it you know,” he admonished mildly.
“I need to get back to work,” Johnny went to stand up, only to discover that Scott wasn’t going to be that easy to dislodge. He sank back against the warm rock wall. “Look, Scott, it’s nothing. I just had this really odd feeling this morning and then with Maria sounding off like that….it’s nothing,” he finished lamely.
“You don’t jump at shadows, brother. This morning you looked like you’d seen a ghost.”
“Yeah, well maybe I did.”
Scott’s mouth dropped open in amazement. He managed a strangled, “what?”
“When I was about twelve years old I met this old man. I was running wild you know, had no home or family, and he caught me stealing food. He took one look at my eyes and told me that I was the spawn of the devil. He said that one day I’d pay for my wickedness.”
“You were just a child,” Scott burst out. “Any adult who could say such a thing to a child is the one who’s wicked. And I don’t understand what that’s got to do with what happened this morning.”
Johnny watched the specks of light dancing across the hard ground in front of him. “I think that old man was right. I think the time’s come for me to pay the devil his due.”
Felix Ortega hesitated outside the door leading to the Priest’s room. The black clad harbinger of doom had commandeered a bedroom in Don Pedro’s hacienda. Despite being highly placed within the Priest’s circle of retainers, Felix feared the man.
Prior to taking service Felix had been nothing more than a bully who had made his way with threats and intimidation. He had wandered from village to village taking what chances life presented before moving on. For a while he had worked for Don Pedro before being told that his services were no longer required after the Don found him mistreating a prize stallion. Felix had seen nothing wrong with his actions – the brute had needed to learn obedience – and had bitterly resented being dismissed.
He had been on the point of leaving the valley when the Priest appeared, preaching of the old gods, and he had appointed himself as the man’s bodyguard. Words had not been necessary. He offered protection and, in return, he received respect and the satisfaction of watching the haughty Don grovelling before him.
He raised a hand to knock on the door. After being commanded to enter he found his master standing by the window watching the setting sun.
“You have news for me, Felix?”
“Si senor. We have found the man from your vision.”
The Priest turned round, an exultant look on his face. “Tell me,” he commanded and moved to sit in a chair in the corner of the room. Felix fell to his knees and bowed his head submissively.
“His name is Johnny Lancer. He, his father and brother own a ranch in California near a place called Morro Coyo.”
“A rancher?” the Priest looked puzzled. “Why would the gods send me to look for a rancher?”
“There is more, lord. His mother was Mexican although his father is an Anglo. Until recently he went by another name – Johnny Madrid.”
“Madrid?” The Priest hissed the name, causing the hairs on the back of Felix’s neck to stand on end. “I have heard of him. He was a famous gunfighter.”
“More than that.” Felix was anxious to please. “He always took the part of the weak and needy. He was a legend throughout the border towns.”
“A killer with a conscience,” the Priest sneered. “A contradiction – a balance of light and dark - and a perfect sacrifice.”
“How will you get him here? He is settled with his family in California. If you try and take him by force there will be trouble.” Felix dared to ask.
“Trust in the gods, Felix. They will bring him to us and he will come of his own free will.”
Three weeks had passed since Scott and Johnny’s discussion by the stream bed. Despite Scott’s best efforts his brother had refused to say any more about it. Scott had taken the problem to Murdoch who had dismissed it out of hand and had made it clear he wanted to hear no more about it. Maria continued to keep a careful eye on the youngest Lancer but there had been no more outbursts from her and Johnny acted as if nothing had happened.
As the days went by Scott put the whole episode out of his mind and life returned to normal. Saturday night rolled around and the brothers got ready to go into town.
Johnny checked his appearance in the mirror. He had opted to wear a white shirt with black buttons and embroidery, black pants and an intricate metal linked belt. He ran a brush through his unruly dark hair and reached for his gunbelt. For the past few weeks he had been keeping his gun in his room again. He knew his father didn’t approve and he was trying to break himself of the habit. Each evening after work he would hang his gunbelt in the entrance hall intending to leave it there. Every night before going to bed he’d find himself unable to climb the stairs without taking his gun with him.
As he finished buckling his rig around his slim hips a chill swept through him. He froze in place, allowing his eyes to scan the room. For a split second he imagined that a man dressed all in black was watching him from deep within the mirror. He drew his gun, aimed and tightened his finger on the trigger. A sound behind him caught his attention. He swung round and found himself pointing his gun at his brother’s face.
Johnny holstered his gun smoothly and turned away from Scott’s shocked look.
“What was that for?” Scott’s anger didn’t quite hide the tremor in his voice. The family had learnt early on not to surprise Johnny or wake him up suddenly and they had all found themselves looking down the barrel of his colt on more than one occasion. It had been months since the last incident and Scott hadn’t registered the fact that Johnny had returned to his old habit of keeping his gun with him in his room.
“Nothing,” Johnny looked down and fiddled with the buckle of his gunbelt.
“I don’t believe you,” Scott was aggrieved. He waited in vain for Johnny to offer some kind of an explanation. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“Nope. You coming?” Johnny enquired as he headed for the door. An irritated sigh was the only answer he received from his brother.
The ride into town started off quietly although it didn’t take Johnny long to take Scott’s mind off the incident in his bedroom. They had no firm plans for the evening beyond having a few beers and playing some cards. They had been working hard and making arrangements for the upcoming cattle drive. It had been a couple of weeks since Murdoch had let them off the leash long enough to get into town for a few hours on a Saturday night. They were determined to make the most of their freedom.
They had been in the saloon for almost an hour when Johnny looked up from yet another losing hand and saw him. The young Mexican man stood in the shadows to one side of the doors. His brown eyes locked with Johnny’s sapphire ones and held his gaze for what felt like an eternity. The stranger looked away first and then shouldered his way out of the saloon through a group of drunken cowboys. They yelled insults after him before realising that Johnny was looking their way and shutting up.
Johnny laid his cards face down on the table, slouched back in his chair and considered what had just happened. He was brought back to reality by his brother yelling at him.
“Johnny? Wake up! Are you in or out?”
“I fold. The way my luck’s been running tonight I’m gonna end up losing next month’s wages as well as this months if I don’t quit now.” Johnny picked up his glass, drained the last of the beer and ran the back of his hand across his mouth. “I’m gonna get some air and then maybe big brother Scott’ll buy the next round.” He grinned at the other three men round the table and punched Scott lightly on the shoulder.
Scott grinned back. His luck with the cards had been as good as Johnny’s had been bad. He had a tidy profit sitting in front of him. “I guess I could manage that and I’ll even loan you some money ‘till next pay day – at a reasonable rate of interest.”
Johnny picked up his hat and stood up, stretching his back muscles. “Won’t be long.” He stepped outside into the evening air. As it was Saturday night there were quite a few people around. It took him a while to spot the man from the saloon who was standing in the entrance to an alleyway across the street.
After automatically checking the position of his gun and making sure the street was clear of horses and wagons Johnny strolled across. “Why were you watching me?”
The man, who Johnny reckoned looked no older than himself, lowered his eyes. “I apologise, Senor,” he replied in Spanish. “I did not mean to offend you.”
“I’m not offended,” Johnny replied in the same language. “I am curious though.”
“It’s Lancer,” Johnny replied, a familiar sick feeling settling onto his stomach. “Johnny Lancer.”
The young man looked confused. “I was told that you were Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny sighed. “I was. What do you want?”
“We need your help.”
“I’m not a gunfighter now, I’m a rancher. I don’t give that sort of help any more.”
A look of desperation appeared on the man’s face and he reached out and gripped Johnny’s sleeve. “Please listen to me. You are the only one who can help us. If you don’t come with me many people will die.”
Johnny shook free of the imprisoning hand and stepped away. “I can’t help you. You’ll have to find someone else.” He heard his brother calling his name from across the street and turned to wave in acknowledgment.
“The Devil has come to our valley, Senor. Will you stand by and watch us all perish?”
The breath caught in Johnny’s throat. “The Devil doesn’t exist.” He cursed himself for his lack of conviction.
“You are wrong. He is dressed in black and he brings fire and death.”
Johnny heard his brother call him again with a note of impatience in his voice. “Meet me here tomorrow morning around 11.” He turned and strode away before his common sense could tell him how stupid he was being.
Scott was frowning and peering across the street. “Who was that?”
“Just someone new in town looking for a job. I’m kinda tired, Scott, so I think I’ll head back to the ranch.” Johnny jerked backwards as his brother reached up to feel his forehead. “What’re you doing that for?”
“I’m checking to see if you have a fever,” Scott was only half joking. “It’s Saturday night, brother. We have the day off tomorrow and the night is still young. Come back inside and have a drink.”
“Leave me alone, Scott. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Johnny was fully aware of his brother’s concerned stare following his progress toward the livery stable. He wondered if Scott would come after him and was relieved to get to Barranca without any unwelcome company. As he rode out of town he wondered what price he was going to have to pay for the Devil having looked out for him all these years. In his heart he knew the answer.
It was mid morning before Scott emerged from his bedroom the next day. He had been so irritated with his little brother that he had drunk far too much and had stayed in town until the bartender had thrown everyone out of the saloon. He didn’t remember much about the ride home and had woken a short time before to discover he had slept fully dressed except for his boots.
His head was pounding and he felt quite sick. He was hoping his father had gone to church so that he would have time to recover before having to face him. He quickly discovered that his luck from the night before had run out. Murdoch was sitting in the high backed leather chair by the fireplace reading a newspaper. A pot of coffee sat on the table at his elbow. The smell of the coffee started to do unpleasant things to Scott’s stomach.
Murdoch looked up as he heard a faint groan issue from his eldest son. “Good morning. I take it you enjoyed yourself last night. Your brother was looking a great deal better than you when he went out earlier.”
“Morning,” Scott mumbled before sitting down on the sofa. “Johnny didn’t stay in town long last night. Did he seem alright to you this morning?”
Murdoch picked up the pot and poured himself some coffee. “Want some?” He smiled at the nauseous expression on his son’s face. “He was very quiet. I assumed he had a hangover, like you.”
“That’s not very likely. He only had a couple of beers and you know how much it takes to make Johnny feel ill.” Years of drinking tequila, which Scott regarded as the worst kind of poison, had made Johnny highly resistant to the effects of alcohol. “Did he say where he was going?”
“He said he was going to meet someone. He didn’t say who it was or where he was meeting them. Is there a problem?”
“I hope not.” Scott hesitated to say anything about the incident the previous evening. He shrugged. “He was acting kind of odd last night. Before we went out I went to his room and he pointed his gun at me. In town he was talking to some stranger in the street and then said he was coming home.”
Murdoch’s expression darkened. “If this is more of that nonsense that you and Maria were spouting the other week I don’t want to hear it.”
“It’s not nonsense,” Scott shot back defensively. “And I was only telling you what happened. I think I’ll see if there’s anything to eat.” As he left the great room and headed for the kitchen he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong and that his brother was in trouble.
Maria was alone in the kitchen when Scott got there. There was an expression of terror on her face. “Something bad is happening. Where is Juanito? How could you let him go out on his own?”
“Johnny is all grown up, Maria. I can’t watch him every minute of the day.” Even as he said it Scott felt guilty. Maria’s words came back to haunt him. <You are the oldest. It is your job to look after him.>
“I’ll talk to him when he gets home,” Scott promised.
Murdoch, Scott and Teresa sat down to a light lunch with no sign of Johnny. The only one of the three to be concerned was Scott and he kept that concern to himself. The afternoon passed and still Johnny didn’t appear. As it got close to dinner time Murdoch started to scowl and looked pointedly at the clock.
“Where’s that boy got to? He knows better than to be late for dinner.”
Dinner came and went, by which time Murdoch was in a towering rage. “I’ll be having words with that young man when he gets back.”
The uneasy feeling that had been plaguing Scott all day came to a head. “I don’t think he’s coming back.”
The young man’s name was Felipe. Johnny listened in silence as he told his story.
“You will come, senor?” he asked Johnny anxiously once he had finished explaining about the prolonged drought and the Priest’s stranglehold over the valley.
“Si, I’ll come and if we’re gonna be travelling together you’d better start calling me Johnny. Go over to the cantina and get something to eat. I’ve got some things to do before I leave.” Johnny dug some coins out of his pocket and offered them to Felipe.
Felipe was too hungry to be proud and he accepted the coins gratefully. “Gracias senor….Johnny.”
Johnny walked slowly to the jail hoping to find Val. A heavy weight lay on his heart. He had left Lancer that morning with a feeling of absolute certainty that he wouldn’t be returning. Now he wanted to leave his family some word of farewell.
“What’re you doin’ here?” Val asked grumpily. He had met up with Scott in the saloon after Johnny had left the previous night and wasn’t feeling a great deal better than the blond Lancer.
“Nice to see you too Val,” Johnny grinned as he took in the green tinge to his friend’s complexion. “Gotta leave town for a few days, amigo. Can I leave a letter for Murdoch and Scott?”
Val sat up a little straighter. “You running out on them, Johnny boy?”
Johnny sighed. “Not in the way you’re thinking. Something’s come up and I don’t have time to go back to the ranch.”
“What’s come up,” Val persisted, not liking the air of sorrow surrounding his friend.
“Best if you don’t know. I don’t want anyone coming after me.”
Val slammed his fist down on the desk, sending an untidy stack of old wanted posters sliding to the floor. “You’re goin’ to Mexico. Dammit, Johnny, it’s still not safe for you down there. What could be so all fired important that it’d make you cross the border?”
Johnny flinched at Val’s anger. “Trust me, Val. I wouldn’t be going if I had a choice.”
“I’ll give you a choice.” Val’s voice had risen perceptively in volume. “You can either ride home and speak to Murdoch and Scott or I can lock you up and send for them.”
Johnny knew his friend was only making threats because he was worried so he kept hold of his temper. “You ain’t locking me up, Val. This is something I’ve got to do. It’s time for me to repay a debt.”
Val studied the young man. Determination was written into every line of his body. He had the uncomfortable feeling that if he tried to restrain his friend he’d find himself looking down the barrel of Johnny’s gun. He slumped back in his chair. “What d’you want me to do?”
“You got some paper and a pencil?” Johnny asked.
Val searched his desk drawer, finally locating the requested items. Johnny hastily scrawled a note which he then folded in half.
“Don’t read it,” he warned before lowering his eyes against the affronted look on Val’s face. “Get someone to take it out to the ranch in the morning. That’ll give me enough of a head start. If Scott or Murdoch say they’re gonna try and find me you’ve got my permission to lock them up for their own protection.” A tentative smile appeared on Johnny’s face. “It’s not safe for them to come after me.”
“Don’t do this,” Val begged his friend.
Johnny stood up to leave. “Take care of yourself, Val.”
He closed the door softly behind him leaving Val with the feeling, deep in his gut, that his friend had no intention of ever returning home.
Johnny looked in amazement at the amount of food spread out on the table. Felipe was eating enthusiastically. Johnny understood hunger. He had lost count of the number of nights he had gone to sleep with spasms in his stomach brought on by too little food.
As soon as he’d had money in his pockets he’d spent it on food – any food – trying to wipe out the memory of being hungry. On more than one occasion he had eaten more than his stomach could cope with, only to be left feeling sick and wretched.
He’d learnt quickly to pace himself and, for the last few months since returning to Lancer, he hadn’t had to worry where his next meal was coming from.
He slipped into a chair opposite Felipe who barely acknowledged his arrival. “You need to slow down,” Johnny advised. “You’re gonna be real sick later on if you don’t.”
He saw a flash of rebellion. The young man had spirit – deeply buried perhaps – but still there. This came as no surprise to Johnny. To have travelled so far from home on his own had taken courage.
Rosita bustled over, smiling at one of her favorite customers. “Buonas diaz, Juanito. Esta usted bien?” <Are you well?>
Johnny smiled and answered her enquiry as to the state of his health in the affirmative. She began to clear the empty dishes from the table. Johnny grabbed a plate and a couple of tortillas, eating absent mindedly.
“Tell me about Don Pedro. Is he a good man?”
“Si, the patron is a good and a fair man.” Felipe’s expression was open and warm. “He lives alone since his wife died and he has no other familia. He treats his workers well and he adores his horses.”
Johnny’s interest was caught. “Horses?”
“They are magnificent. Many of them are palominos and all are of the very best blood lines. His familia have been breeding horses for generations. You will see them and you will be amazed.”
Johnny looked up at Rosita who was waiting patiently by his right shoulder. “Can I get you anything else?” she enquired.
“No, Rosita, we need to get going,” Johnny looked meaningfully at Felipe who produced the coins Johnny had given him earlier. Johnny kissed Rosita on the cheek and led the way back into the street.
“I assume you’ve got a horse.” Johnny fetched Barranca from the hitching rail, noting the approving looks Felipe was giving his beloved horse. Perhaps when all this was over Barranca could find a home with Don Pedro or even Felipe himself. They walked together to where Felipe had left his mount. The animal was sound and serviceable but certainly not one of those the young man had just been describing so enthusiastically.
As they rode out of town Johnny was mapping the journey in his mind. They were headed for a part of Mexico he had never visited. Given the outcome he was expecting from this journey it wouldn’t much matter if anyone recognised him as Johnny Madrid.
As soon as the town boundaries were behind him he mentally shed the name ‘Lancer.’ That was a different life – a good life – which had lasted for too short a time and which was now over.
Johnny pushed them hard, only stopping once night had fallen. He was almost certain he could trust Val not to go racing off to Lancer with the news that he was leaving but he wasn’t taking any chances. He told Felipe to take care of the horses while he set up camp. He watched the young man carefully and was pleased to see the effort he put in. Even Barranca seemed to have taken to him and that told Johnny a lot about his travelling companion.
Long after Felipe had settled down for the night Johnny sat and stared into the fire. He felt surprisingly at peace with himself. He reckoned he’d had a good run and he’d been lucky enough to find his family before the end. His only regret was that he hadn’t been able to say good-bye to them properly. He could just imagine the looks he would have received had he told them he was going to Mexico to take on the Devil. If he didn’t know better he’d say he was crazy too. His one fear was that his family would come after him. There was nothing they could do to help and he wasn’t prepared to stand around and watch them get hurt. He had been very careful not to tell them exactly where he was going. Knowing that he was headed for Mexico wouldn’t be of much use to them. The area he was going to was remote and wasn’t close to any of the normal routes across the border.
The flames flickered and a voice, filled with hunger, entered Johnny’s mind. “Soon,” it said. “We’ll meet soon.” Johnny shuddered and pulled his jacket tighter around him. He needed to get away from the eyes watching from the fire. He stood up and walked into the welcoming darkness.
“What do you mean – you don’t think he’s coming back?” Murdoch bellowed. “What sort of trouble has he got himself into this time?”
“You’re the one that doesn’t want to talk about it,” Scott retorted.
“Not more of that ridiculous talk about evil spirits. Has everyone in this house gone mad? Just tell me where your brother’s gone.” Murdoch’s temper, already on a short fuse, threatened to explode in Scott’s face.
“If I knew, I’d tell you. If he’s not back by morning I’m going into town. I think this has something to do with that man I saw him talking to last night.”
“You’re serious about this, aren’t you?” Murdoch looked closely at his normally level headed and practical son. “You really think there is something unnatural going on.”
Scott ran a hand through his well groomed blond hair and frowned. “I don’t like it any more than you do. I wasn’t brought up to believe in ghosts or evil spirits but there are some very old and strong traditions in Mexico that do believe in these things. Johnny was brought up in Mexico. Who knows what he was told as a child.” Scott turned an accusing stare on his father, holding him at least partially responsible for the fact that Johnny hadn’t been brought up safely at Lancer.
“He’s not a child anymore. He hasn’t been a child for far too long. Whatever stories he might have been told all those years ago…..well, he can’t still believe them.”
“What if they’re not just stories?” Scott was having a hard time believing he could think that, let alone say it.
“Now you’re just being foolish.” Murdoch snapped before getting a good look at the torment on his eldest son’s face. “We’ll both ride into town tomorrow and get some answers. I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for Johnny’s behaviour.”
The next day, as Johnny and Felipe got steadily further and further away, Scott and Murdoch arrived in Green River. They checked the livery stable, hoping to find Barranca. They were disappointed to find that there was no sign of Johnny or his horse. As they hesitated outside, debating where to look first, they heard Val calling out to them.
The sheriff hurried down the street, relieved that he wouldn’t have to ride all the way to the ranch to deliver Johnny’s message. As he got closer he slowed down, suddenly assailed by doubts. He had been in two minds about riding out to Lancer as soon as Johnny had left him. In the end he had been unable to betray his friend’s trust.
“Morning Mr Lancer, Scott. If you’re looking for Johnny he ain’t here. He left this for you.” He held out the piece of paper. Murdoch and Scott exchanged concerned glances before Murdoch took it, unfolded it and hastily scanned the contents. He handed it over to Scott. The note was short and to the point. Johnny had left and wasn’t coming back. He gave no reasons and didn’t say where he was going.
“Do you know what it says?” Murdoch scowled at Val.
“He told me not to read it. I know he’s gone and I reckon he’s gone to Mexico. Leastways he didn’t deny it.”
Scott’s hands were shaking. How could he protect his little brother if he just took off like this? A wave of compulsion washed over him. Ignoring his father and the sheriff he turned and walked back to where he had left his horse. He was pulled to a halt before he could mount up.
“Where are you going?” Murdoch tightened his grip on his son’s arm.
“I have to find him. It’s my job to look after him….I’m the eldest.” Scott spoke as if reciting a lesson learned by rote. “I’ve got to watch his back.” He tried to pull away; no longer aware of where he was or to whom he was speaking. His entire being was filled with a need to find and protect his brother. He had no idea where Johnny had gone but he did know that he could find him if only he could get rid of whatever it was that was preventing him from moving.
“Val,” Murdoch whispered. “What’s wrong with him?”
Scott’s normally placid blue eyes were stormy as he reached over to prise the fingers off his arm. Murdoch Lancer was a powerful man. In normal circumstances Scott shouldn’t have been able to dislodge his hand. Murdoch felt his grip loosening and a fear assailed him that he was about to lose both his sons. He reached out with his other hand only to find that he was too late and that Scott was now free and backing away from him.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with him but I reckon you’d better do something real quick or he’s gonna run out on us.” Val advised.
Murdoch drew in a deep breath and did the only thing he could. He hit his son and caught him as he slid, unconscious, to the ground.
Murdoch Lancer didn’t like things that he didn’t understand. Right about now, therefore, he didn’t like very much. His youngest son had disappeared without leaving an explanation while his eldest son was acting entirely out of character. He still couldn’t come to terms with the look he had seen in Scott’s eyes and his unusual strength. He didn’t even want to think about the fact that he had knocked Scott unconscious to stop him from disappearing as well.
Now he had just found out that Val had known for the better part of a day that Johnny was going to Mexico and hadn’t done anything about it. With Johnny absent and Scott still unconscious Murdoch turned the full force of his anger on the luckless Sheriff Crawford.
“You knew he was running out and you did nothing to either stop him or send us word,” Murdoch roared.
“What was I supposed to do?” Val’s own temper had frayed. He knew that Murdoch had every right to be angry with him and, as a result, he was feeling defensive. Johnny was his friend, he’d asked for a favour and Val had obliged. Now he was facing the wrath of the most powerful land owner in the district. If he ever got his hands on Johnny again he’d make sure he paid for this.
“You could have locked him up.”
“On what grounds? Oh I threatened him all right and I’d have got a face full of his gun if I’d tried. He’s a grown man, Mr. Lancer. If he wants to go to Mexico what right does anyone have to stop him?”
“He’s clearly not in his right mind. He’s a wanted man in Mexico with a price on his head that’ll have bounty hunters as well as the rurales crawling out of the woodwork. You could have locked him up for his own protection.”
Val snorted rudely. “I’d like to have seen you try to stop him.”
The angry shouting penetrated the fog clouding Scott’s mind. He tried to work out why he was lying down and why his jaw hurt. The last thing he remembered was reading Johnny’s letter. He was uncomfortable and whatever he was lying on wasn’t his nice soft bed at Lancer. He wished whoever was yelling would shut up and he opened his eyes, intent upon making his views known.
It took a while for his eyes to focus. He found himself looking through bars and realised he was in one of Val’s cells. The noise was coming from his father and the Sheriff who appeared quite content to yell at each other all day. Scott swung his legs over the side of the cot and sat up. The pain behind his eyes increased and he had to wait for a wave of dizziness to pass. He moved his jaw cautiously from side to side to reassure himself that nothing was broken or dislocated. Everything seemed to be in the right place although it was aching fiercely.
Having made it to his feet he staggered the short distance to the door only to find that it was locked. His sense of unreality increased. He took hold of the bars to keep himself upright. “Perhaps you two could stop arguing and let me out of here,” he suggested loudly.
There was a sudden silence as the two men in the outer office turned to regard him. “How’re you feeling, son,” Murdoch asked hesitantly.
“Like something hit me. What’s going on? Will someone unlock this door?” Scott was becoming more exasperated by the minute.
Murdoch and Val both approached the cell warily. “Don’t you remember what happened?” Murdoch asked.
Scott gave up his attempt to stay upright and returned to the cot, sitting down heavily. “If I remembered I wouldn’t be asking you, would I?”
“You….I mean it was as if…I don’t know how to explain it,” Murdoch finished lamely.
“It was like you were possessed,” Val muttered, ignoring the sour looks he was receiving from Murdoch. “Your eyes turned funny and you kept saying that you had to protect Johnny. Then you tried to run out on us.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed as he tried to decide if the lawman was perpetrating some sick joke. The look on Val’s face convinced him otherwise.
“How can I protect Johnny if I don’t know where he is?”
Murdoch rubbed a hand over his face. “That’s the thing. It seemed like you knew where he was, or at least how to find him.”
Scott concentrated hard. What Murdoch had just said rang true. Somehow the connection between him and his brother would allow him to find his missing sibling. He stood up with a renewed sense of purpose. “Let me out of here.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, son. I don’t want you disappearing as well. The Sheriff was just about to go and make some enquiries. See if anyone spoke to Johnny before he left. It’d be best if you stayed where you are until he gets back.”
Val beat a hasty retreat as Scott told his father, forcefully, what he thought about that suggestion. As a precaution Val took the keys with him. The sound of the Lancers’ arguing followed him down the boardwalk.
As the heat of the day became oppressive, Johnny and Felipe found some shade near a stream and took shelter from the unrelenting rays of the sun. “How far?” Johnny enquired.
“It took me four days but I was travelling slower than we are now. I wasn’t sure of the way.”
“Who sent you?”
“Don Pedro asked me to come and get you. I don’t know how he found you. The name of Johnny Madrid is well known in Mexico, even in our isolated valley. I had never heard of Lancer before.”
“So you were sent to find Johnny Madrid?” Johnny was thoughtful. Felipe had been lied to, of that he had no doubt. He had been sent to find a gunfighter that the peons believed could defeat the Devil. Felipe had explained about the drought. Johnny knew enough from his years of wandering to know that this wasn’t the first time the weather had played tricks like this. Someone had convinced Felipe and the others, Don Pedro included, that some force was manipulating the weather.
Johnny was very curious about Don Pedro Mendez. The man was likely to be highly educated and not given to flights of fancy. A powerful evil was at work if such a man believed the stories Felipe had related. Johnny had no doubt that his part in what was to come had nothing to do with defeating anyone and everything to do with laying his life on the line. For a moment he unconsciously fought against the compulsion to continue on to whatever fate awaited him.
Many miles to the South the Priest felt Johnny’s rebellion. He smiled to himself. This boy was worthy. He threw some herbs on the fire and his eyes glazed over as he tightened his hold upon Johnny’s soul. The battle was brief. The Priest was far too strong in the ways of evil. As he felt Johnny’s surge of disobedience fade he caught the echo of something else….something far distant. A challenge to his authority. He frowned and called out for Felix.
Felix crept into the room, disturbed by the anger in his master’s tone. “Yes, Lord.”
“Prepare a sacrifice for tonight. There is something out there that wants us to fail. We need to find out what it is so that we can deal with it.”
Felix bowed his head and went to make the arrangements. The blood sacrifices sickened him although he tried to hide that from the Priest. Truth be told it sickened all of the men, but it was a price which had to be paid for the power they wielded. The Priest had assured them that, once Madrid had been sacrificed, the Gods would bring the rain and it would only be necessary to sacrifice animals in the future to keep them content. Having seen the madness in the Priest’s eyes, Felix doubted that this was the truth.
Scott and Murdoch weren’t on speaking terms by the time Val returned. Scott was lying down with his eyes firmly closed and Murdoch was pacing restlessly around the small office.
“Well?” Murdoch demanded.
“He was in the cantina yesterday with some young Mexican that Rosita didn’t recognise. She said Johnny seemed fine and that they were talking about horses. She remembers them mentioning palominos ‘cause she knows how attached Johnny is to Barranca.”
Desperate to find a logical explanation for his son’s abrupt departure Murdoch latched on to this. “That boy’s been intent upon getting us into horse breeding ever since he came home. It wouldn’t surprise me to find this is all some ploy to get us into that line of business.” Murdoch sounded pleased to have found a logical reason for Johnny to be headed for Mexico without telling them what he was doing. He and his youngest son had indulged in many shouting matches on the subject of diversifying into the horse breeding business.
Val looked sceptical. “That don’t fit with the way he was acting yesterday and it sure don’t explain what happened with Scott.”
“Nothing happened with Scott,” Murdoch said sternly. “It was all a mistake. You can let him out now, Sheriff.”
Scott had opened his eyes and sat up to listen to what Val had to say. An expression of pure cunning crossed his face which had disappeared by the time Val reached the door with the key.
“I’m not sure about this.” Val unlocked the door and handed Scott his gun.
Without a seconds hesitation Scott crossed to the front door and pulled it open. “You’re both fools. I’m going after Johnny. You can either come with me or stay out of my way.”
Murdoch and Val looked at each other in shock with Val recovering first. “Give me an hour to sort out a deputy. I’m coming with you.”
Scott nodded and turned to his father. “What about you?”
Murdoch admitted defeat. Whether he liked it or not something was wrong. His youngest son was in danger. He had failed to keep him safe as a child….he couldn’t abandon him as an adult. “I’ll send someone out to the ranch to let Teresa and Jelly know we’ll be gone for a while. Why don’t you go and organise the supplies we’ll need? We can get in a few hours travelling before it gets dark. Are you sure you can find him?”
“Trust me Murdoch. Whatever it is that’s drawing him back to Mexico isn’t going to have it all its own way. I’ll find him.”
In the darkest hour of the night the Priest offered up his sacrifice and begged the Gods to show him his enemy. As he had done weeks before he allowed the heart’s blood to fall into the water in the bowl. This time he wasn’t shown a grand hacienda and a black-haired man. He was shown a camp fire around which three men lay sleeping. He studied and dismissed the oldest man. His gaze swept across the second man before settling upon a young blond. A puzzled frown creased his forehead. Who was this man and what was his connection to Johnny Madrid? He thought back to the day that Felix had brought him the news. Madrid had a father and a brother.
The Priest studied the man. How could this slender blond Anglo be Johnny Madrid’s brother? Nothing else made sense though. He was certain this was the source of the opposition he was sensing. They were on the boy’s trail and, unless they were delayed, they would arrive before the full moon and the night predetermined for the ceremony. He would have to take steps to contain his prize before the others arrived.
Dealing with them would be easy now that he was forewarned. He would take great pleasure in making them watch as he tore out the boy’s heart. Then, of course, they would have to die as well. A thought occurred to him….a very appealing thought….and he smiled as he ended the vision.
“Madrid will be here in a few days. Make sure that his accommodation is ready for him. We will shortly have other guests as well: tell Don Pedro that I will give him his instructions tomorrow.”
The men bowed respectfully and filed out of the cave leaving the Priest alone to refine his plan….and he was very happy with his new plan.
Twilight descended and Johnny began to look for a place for them to camp for their third night on the trail. They slowed their horses to a walk and Felipe pointed ahead to a range of mountains in the distance.
“Tomorrow, by midday, we will reach a pass through those mountains. It is long and narrow and, at the far end, is the estancia of Don Pedro.”
Johnny kept his eyes firmly fixed on the mountains as the red sun sank behind them and disappeared. His fate awaited him in those mountains although the exact nature of that fate wasn’t yet clear to him. Later, as he lay unsleeping and gazing up at the inky blackness of the sky, he felt a familiar comforting presence. It wrapped around him like a blanket making him feel safe and warm. He clung on to it until the significance registered: his brother was following him. This wasn’t how it was meant to be. He would pay the price demanded of him and perhaps one day his family would find out what had happened to him. The course of his life had long been leading to this moment. No one, not even his brother, was going to stop him fulfilling his destiny. He pushed aside thoughts of Scott, ignoring the wrenching feeling of loss.
He roused Felipe well before dawn, ignoring the young man’s complaints and questions. They reached the entrance to the pass before the sun had reached it’s highest point. The way was narrow and steep sided and it took all of Johnny’s considerable skills as a rider to persuade Barranca to go forward into the darkness.
They journeyed slowly for an hour before the way opened up. Johnny blinked in the sudden brightness and found himself looking down into a valley that spread as far as he could see in every direction. A winding path led down to the valley floor. He could feel Felipe’s excitement at the prospect of reaching home, particularly as he had brought with him the one man who was supposed to be able to defeat El Diablo.
The area closest to the mountains was uncultivated. Where once there had been acre upon acre of lush grass now there was only yellowed, withered, vegetation. Johnny’s eyes followed the tracks of streams and rivers, all now dried out and dusty.
In the far distance he saw the sun strike a white hacienda in front of which he could see fenced off corrals and barns. The heat was oppressive and the whole valley was tainted by the smell of death.
“Once this valley was so beautiful,” Felipe said wistfully. “The grass was green and the water sweet. Huge herds of horses grazed as far as the eye could see. Breeders would come from miles around to buy stock. Now no one comes because the valley is cursed.” He turned expectantly to Johnny. “You will lift the curse and things will be as they once were.”
Johnny pushed his hat back off his head and let it dangle down his back. He couldn’t bring himself to tell this eager young man the truth. He unhooked his canteen and took a long drink before passing it to Felipe. “Let’s get this over with.”
The hacienda proved to be further away than it looked so it was mid-afternoon before they arrived. An elderly, distinguished looking man came out to meet them. Felipe slid off his horse and stood with his eyes respectfully downcast.
“Don Pedro, this is Johnny Lancer. Johnny, may I introduce Don Pedro Mendez?”
Johnny dismounted gracefully and waited as custom dictated for Don Pedro to speak first. No one, seeing his relaxed stance, would have guessed what emotions were churning through him.
Don Pedro studied the young man. The dark hair framed a handsome face with startling blue eyes. There were laughter lines at the corners of his eyes and lips but, unsurprisingly, no evidence of humour. His hand were darkly tanned, strong and capable. His right hand was resting on the handle of his gun in what appeared to be a familiar and instinctive gesture. The positioning of the gunbelt wasn’t lost on the Don. The Priest had explained the young man’s history and heritage. Once again he felt shame about his part in luring this boy to his death.
Johnny’s mouth turned up in a lopsided grin and Don Pedro realised, with a shock, that the young man standing so calmly before him had not for one minute believed the story he had been told by Felipe. Felipe, himself, was innocent of any deception. He had been spun a web of lies before being despatched to California to find this man.
“Senor Lancer, I am grateful to you for coming.” This, at least, was the truth. If the sacrifice brought the rains, the valley and all its inhabitants would be saved. Don Pedro could no longer bring himself to think about the possibility that the sacrifice would not bring about the desired result.
Johnny had been studying Don Pedro in turn. There had been strength there once; before the man’s hopes and dreams had been turned to dust even as the water had dried up. Now there was only fear and a pathetic hope that, somehow, Johnny’s presence would make a difference. “I’d feel more comfortable if you called me Johnny.”
Don Pedro inclined his head. “As you wish. Welcome to my home, Johnny. You must be tired. Come inside and I will get one of the servants to prepare a bath for you. Later, when you are rested, we can talk.”
“I’d like to take care of Barranca first.” Johnny patted his horse affectionately.
Don Pedro could respect a man that would put the care of his horse before his own comfort. “Felipe will show you to the stables. I will be in my study when you have finished.”
Johnny took a long time brushing Barranca. “You’ve been a good friend,” he told his beloved horse as he fed him an apple. “If things go the way I expect you and me won’t be riding out any more. It looks to me as if you’ll be well taken care of here.”
He ran his hands through Barranca’s silky mane, remembering the first time he’d seen the horse. Barranca had been wild; untameable, Cip had said. Johnny had known immediately that the palomino was his. Barranca hadn’t given in easily and Johnny had been careful not to break his spirit. It had quickly become obvious that Murdoch had regarded him much like an unbroken colt. He had tried, at first, to break Johnny before realising that his heavy-handed methods weren’t going to work. Lately, after a number of false starts, they had begun to move toward an understanding.
Johnny slammed his hand against the partition between the stalls. Why couldn’t they have had longer together as a family? Why now, when life was good? And why was his beloved brother walking into danger? Didn’t Scott understand that this was to be his sacrifice and no one else’s?
Barranca snorted and sidled uneasily, sensing the anger in his master. Johnny soothed him and crooned softly until Barranca settled. With a heavy sigh he left the stables and returned to the house.
He was directed to the study and knocked on the door. The black clad figure that opened the door came straight from his worst nightmares. The man was tall and his robes hung loosely from his thin body. His face appeared skeletal, the translucent skin tinged with yellow. The impulse to run was almost more than he could withstand. He looked into the face of pure evil and saw his death.
It took all his strength of will to enter the room. Don Pedro sat behind his desk, his hands clasped tightly together. Johnny crossed to a chair and sat down without being invited. The move was born of necessity; he wasn’t sure his legs could have supported him any longer.
“Tell me,” he demanded of the demon in human form.
“The Old Gods demand a sacrifice before they will send the rain. You have been chosen but then you knew that already didn’t you?” The Priest was staring intently at his captive.
Johnny didn’t want to acknowledge the truth of that question. “When?”
“On the night of the full moon….three days from now.” The voice sent shivers down Johnny’s spine, a fact that did not go unnoticed. “Until then you will be confined to your room.”
“No. You’re not gonna lock me up. I came freely and you have my word that I won’t run. You can post as many guards as you like,” Johnny’s stare was a challenge. “I want to see what I’m giving my life for. You owe me that at least.”
The Priest considered this. “Very well. One of my men will accompany you at all times. You have two days of freedom left. On the third day there is much to be done to prepare you for the ceremony.” He didn’t feel it necessary to mention that Johnny’s father and brother would be arriving before then. He needed the boy to be safely locked away before that happened, oblivious to the presence of his family.
The Priest went to the door and called for Felix. “This is the man who will be guarding you,” he explained to Johnny. “Felix, this is Senor Madrid. You will stay with him at all times. He has the freedom of the hacienda and estancia until I say otherwise. If he tries to leave the valley you can use any force, short of killing him, to stop him.”
Johnny kept his face expressionless as he stared at the man who was to be his jailor. Felix was shorter than him by a good two inches but made up for his lack of stature with muscle. He had cold, brown eyes and a scar on one cheek. He was carrying a rifle in addition to a pistol and a knife. Having completed his inspection Johnny grinned and received a scowl in return. His grin widened and he saw uncertainty appear on Felix’s face.
The Priest watched the silent exchange with appreciation. This boy had the heart and courage of a lion. His death would bring immense pleasure to the Gods and would guarantee him their everlasting favour. He held out a hand to Johnny. “Your gun and any other weapon you have on your person.” He waited impatiently as Johnny hesitated. “You can either hand them over or Felix will take them from you. If you have to be forcibly disarmed you will be locked in your room until the ceremony. It is your choice.”
Johnny could see that Felix was far from happy at the prospect of trying to part him from his gun. He had no doubt that Felix’s initial attempt would fail if he resisted but, eventually, his gun would be taken from him. Any pleasure he might get from killing Felix would be far outweighed by the prospect of spending his last few days of life locked up rather than riding free on Barranca.
He stood up and slowly unbuckled his gunbelt, caressing the smooth leather. Unable to bring himself to place it in the Priest’s unclean hands he laid it and his knife on Don Pedro’s beautiful desk.
“Felix will show you to your room. Don’t try to get away from him.”
Johnny ignored the Priest, inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment to Don Pedro and followed Felix from the room.
Scott was restless and unable to settle. Murdoch had insisted that they stop when it got too dark to travel safely. He was tending to the horses while Val set up camp. Scott paced around, battling a compulsion to grab one of the horses and ride off into the night. He knew in his heart that Johnny had reached his destination and that they would be cutting it fine to get there in time.
His conscious mind had no idea what they were dealing with, a fact that was causing a great deal of friction with his father. Val was, surprisingly, more accepting of the bizarre situation they had found themselves in.
Something inside Scott was insisting that he would make better time on his own. He curbed his impatience and waited for his chance to take one of the horses and get away. Val produced supper and Scott ate very little, his appetite having deserted him. Murdoch brought over a cup of coffee. Scott’s attention was focussed solely on his brother and trying to maintain the link between them. He could feel Johnny trying to break that link and it was becoming harder and harder to sense his brother’s presence.
Scott drank the coffee without paying it any attention. Fifteen minutes later he felt a heaviness settling on his muscles. His eyelids started to droop. He tried to struggle to his feet. Murdoch took hold of his arm and pushed him gently back against a tree. Scott slid to the ground as the strength in his legs gave out.
“I’m sorry, son. We can’t take the chance of you running out on us.”
A look of hurt and betrayal crossed Scott’s face just before the sleeping powders took effect and sent him falling into oblivion.
The bedroom was simply but stylishly decorated. The white walls were plain while brightly colored rugs lay scattered across the polished wooden floorboards. In addition to the large four poster bed the room contained a wardrobe, two armchairs and several small tables. The two large windows faced to the North and allowed Johnny to look out over the corrals. In the distance he could see the mountain range he had passed through earlier in the day. On the other side of those mountains was his home and family. He turned away from the view and the memories.
A tub of water sat in the middle of the floor. Johnny had pointedly slammed the door in Felix’s face after saying that he had no intention of having an audience while taking his bath. Well, he hadn’t been that polite! The servants had laid out an array of sweet smelling soap, a razor and several large, soft towels. He briefly, and somewhat childishly, considered cutting his throat with the razor but that sort of death would be meaningless.
Johnny sat in one of the chairs and pulled off his boots and socks. After removing his shirt, trousers and drawers he stepped into the warm water. He accepted this luxury as the great gift it was in a land where water was so scarce it would drive a man to madness. The stench from the Priest lingered in his nostrils and he scrubbed himself vigorously to try and get rid of the smell. He soaped and rinsed his hair before lathering his face and scraping off several days worth of dark stubble.
Once he was finished he lay back and watched as drops of water fell from his body to hit the surface, causing ripples to spread out in every direction. Scott had once said to him that when he went he wouldn’t even leave a small ripple. Johnny knew now that his brother was wrong….had always been wrong. His death here would mean life for the people of this valley.
<A life of servitude for Don Pedro and his people> a rebellious part of his mind insisted.
<Better than dying,> he admonished himself. <While you’re alive anything is possible.>
While he lay quietly he imagined he could hear Scott’s voice in his head telling him not to give up….to fight. Johnny knew it was too late for that. It had been too late when he was ten years old and killed for the first time. He had made a pact with the Devil that day. He had bought himself another twelve years of life. He’d tried to use that time to do some good where he could and, in return, he’d been allowed to find his family. The need to protect his family was paramount. He closed his mind to his brother’s pleas and ruthlessly tried to sever the connection between them.
A soft knock at the door heralded the arrival of one of Don Pedro’s servants. He brought with him some clean clothes and departed with the clothes Johnny had been wearing. He also relayed an invitation to dine with the Don.
After the servant had gone Johnny got out of the cooling water and towelled himself dry. He reached for the light grey shirt and black trousers. The material was soft and comfortable and moulded itself to the shape of his body. He didn’t allow himself to wonder how the Don had known his clothing size. His instinctive reach for his gun was brought up short by the memory of its absence. Johnny picked up his beads and wound them around his wrist, before taking them off and putting them on again. He stilled his nervous fingers and took a deep breath.
He opened the door to find Felix leaning against the wall with his arms folded and a scowl on his face. “I’m dining with Don Pedro. I assume you can show me the way to the dining room.” Johnny took perverse pleasure in treating the man like his own personal servant. He saw Felix’s fingers flexing over the handle of his gun and grinned. “You can go and lurk somewhere while I get something to eat.”
The effort it cost Felix not to shoot him there and then was clearly visible on the man’s face. “Enjoy it while you can Madrid. In three days you’re a dead man.”
Johnny found Don Pedro in the dining room. He was relieved to find the Priest wasn’t present. He doubted if he could have stomached sitting down with the man. He accepted a shot of tequila before sitting down at a table that could easily have seated fifteen to twenty people.
Don Pedro looked uncomfortable. Johnny could understand that. He was, after all, lending his support to what was, in reality, nothing less than murder. The table was spread with a variety of dishes. Johnny found, to his surprise, that he was hungry and the smell of the food set his mouth watering.
He sampled some enchiladas stuffed with chicken and covered with a delicious tomato and chili sauce. Next he tried a spicy lamb casserole with potatoes and vegetable tamales. He was aware of the Don watching him while turning a fine crystal goblet full of red wine round and round in his hands. Johnny had declined the wine and, as he finished eating, he looked longingly at the bottle of tequila. Seeing the look, the Don collected the bottle and a glass and set them in front of his involuntary guest.
"Why did you come?” Don Pedro asked.
“You wouldn’t understand. You don’t know me or anything about my life.” Johnny drained his glass and reached for the bottle again.
“What of your familia?” The Don persisted.
Johnny sighed. “They wouldn’t understand either.” He hesitated a moment before asking his own question. “D’you know what’s gonna happen?”
“Will you tell me?”
Don Pedro looked searchingly at him. “Are you sure you want to know?” He didn’t relish imparting his knowledge to the man who was to be the victim of the ritual.
“Please, I need to know.”
Don Pedro bowed his head and laced his fingers together. “I have never witnessed one of the rites. They are Aztec in origin and I had believed that they had not been practiced for hundreds of years. It appears I was wrong. There are the remains of an Aztec temple in the hills a few miles from here. I have only been there once….the area around it has always felt evil….and none of the workers ever goes there. The Priest,” Don Pedro practically spat the word, “has decreed that everyone will attend the ceremony. As I understand the ritual you will be drugged to make you cooperative while still leaving you awake and aware of what is going on. You will be bound to the altar and….”
“And what?” Johnny whispered, his face ashen.
“The Priest will cut into your chest and…. rip out your heart.”
Johnny pushed away from the table with a mumbled apology and fled the room through the French doors leading to the garden. Don Pedro’s quick move to forestall him caused him to knock against the wine bottle. He stood helplessly watching the red stain spread across the white linen table cloth.
Once outside Johnny doubled over and retched violently. <Madre de Dios….Madre de Dios….what have I done? Scott….brother….help me.> His silent plea winged its way north only to rebound as it collided with the shutters slammed across Scott’s mind by the sleeping powders. Johnny felt the emptiness; the lack of his brother’s presence. He was alone and abandoned and his fate would claim him whether he wished it or not.
Felix stood in the shadows of some stunted bushes at the side of the house, watching as Johnny fell to his knees, and grinned. He was still standing there when Don Pedro left the house fifteen minutes later. The Don found Johnny huddled miserably on the ground, the smell of his vomit souring the air.
“Let’s get you to bed,” Don Pedro spoke gently to the young man and bent down to help him to his feet.
“I’ve done some bad things,” Johnny whispered. “Very bad things. My family don’t know. I made a bargain….with the Devil. Now he’s come to collect. Don’t let my family find out. Promise me you won’t tell them.” He clutched at the sleeve of the Don’s jacket. “Promise me.”
Don Pedro tenderly disentangled Johnny’s fingers from the fabric. “I’ll tell them you died bravely. That you gave up your life to save the lives of many. You won’t be forgotten and I won’t let the Devil claim your soul.”
“It’s too late….too late.” Johnny lapsed into silence and allowed the Don to escort him back to his room. He didn’t protest when the elderly gentleman helped him undress and encouraged him to slide beneath the cool sheets. He closed his eyes and, exhausted, drifted into a world of nightmares.
Scott woke up slowly to find that it was full daylight. His mouth was dry and his head ached. He squinted into the bright light and tried to remember where he was. He looked down in shock and disbelief at the ropes circling his wrists. Val and Murdoch exchanged concerned, and rather guilty, looks before Murdoch hesitantly offered his son some coffee. The look Scott gave him froze him to the spot.
“Do you want Johnny to die?” Scott’s anger lashed the two men. “He’s been trying to shut me out and you’ve filled me full of drugs that will make it even harder for me to track him.” Scott looked at the position of the sun. “We’ve wasted a good couple of hours which means we’ve even less chance of getting there in time.”
Scott struggled to his feet and got to work on the ropes holding him prisoner only to be stopped by Murdoch catching his arm. “In time for what?” Murdoch was feeling hopelessly lost and confused.
The look on his father’s face gave Scott pause. “To stop him from being killed.” He saw shock replace the confusion as his father’s hand dropped nerveless to his side.
“How…how do you know?”
Scott held his bound hands out to his father as he considered the question. “Trust me, Murdoch. Something evil is at work here and Johnny’s going along with it.”
“I don’t understand.” Murdoch’s frustration and fear for both his sons was clear. He made no move to untie Scott and saw his son drop his hands with a look of irritation evident on his face.
“Neither do I.” Scott confessed. “Not fully anyway. All I know is that he isn’t going to fight whatever it is that has drawn him to Mexico and that means he’ll die. We have to leave now and push on as fast as possible. He’s trying to stop me from finding him so I need a clear head. This is your last warning; don’t try and stop me again.”
Val looked from the determined blond to the distraught rancher. “Johnny and I’ve been friends for a long time. I know it’s not the same as being kin but I care for the boy. I don’t think I’d ever rest easy if he died ‘cause of somethin’ I did. Murdoch, I’ve seen how much these two mean to each other. Sometimes it’s like they know what the other is thinking.
“I’m a simple man. I don’t believe in ghosts and suchlike but I do believe in the connection Scott and Johnny have. For what it’s worth, I think we have to take Scott at his word and not get in his way.” Val stopped talking, surprised and embarrassed by his own eloquence.
Murdoch considered Val’s words. He was only just getting to know his sons but the fact that his boys had developed a deep bond was undeniable. To start with he had been surprised: Johnny was fiery and passionate while Scott was calmer and more analytical. On the surface they appeared to have no common point of reference except shared blood, which, in the beginning, had meant nothing.
The link between them had become apparent quickly; they both had a deep sense of right and wrong. They might go about things in a different way but their values were the same. While Scott had been defying his grandfather and joining the Army to fight against the evils of slavery, Johnny had been taking his first steps toward becoming the friend and protector of the weak and helpless in Mexico.
Both had been prepared to die for what they believed in and both had come close to losing their lives; Scott in a prison camp and Johnny in front of a firing squad. It saddened him that he couldn’t claim any credit for their principles or convictions. The best he could offer was to stand aside and let Scott do what he felt was necessary. He looked into his son’s eyes. They were no longer calm and rational and Murdoch was forced to confront the reality; something was working through Scott to save his youngest son.
He straightened his shoulders and marched determinedly in the direction of the horses. Val heaved a sigh of relief and hurried to untie the blond. Scott smiled and returned to the task of trying to track down his elusive brother.
Johnny had tossed and turned for hours, throwing off the covers in his agitation. His dreams were dark and disturbed. At midnight the Priest entered his bedroom after sending Felix to his own bed. Having studied Johnny from a distance for so many weeks he couldn’t resist the temptation to take a good long look into the young man’s mind.
What he found there was fascinating. He stripped away the layers of Johnny’s past….the fears of his childhood; the exact moment when he stepped on the path to manhood and a life as Johnny Madrid; his brush with death in front of a firing squad.
He saw the secret satisfaction each time Madrid won a gunfight accompanied by a growing darkness as the power of dealing out death started to take hold of his soul. Then the moment when the young gunfighter rejected that power and turned his skill with a gun to other uses. Through all the trials of his short life he never quite relinquished a bright spark of goodness.
Finally he found what he was looking for. A chance meeting on a stage coach with the blond man the Priest had seen in his visions. The shock and disbelief of finding that this man….Scott….was his half brother. An initial contempt for the Easterner had grown into something else; something so powerful that it was now drawing this brother here. The Priest rubbed his hands together as he contemplated how he was going to make use of that connection.
In the early hours of the morning Johnny’s mind, like that of a trapped animal, shut down in a last ditch effort at self-preservation. The door slammed shut and the Priest found himself unable to sense the boy’s thoughts. He frowned, worried that this development might prevent Scott Lancer from finding his way to the valley. His powers were waning as night turned to day and he would have to wait impatiently until nightfall before he could seek out the location of the pursuers. He went to wake Felix and then retired to his room to finalise his preparations.
It was well past dawn before Johnny woke up from a deep, dreamless sleep. It was the sound of someone coming into his room that roused him. Don Pedro watched as dark lashes lifted to reveal clear sapphire eyes. Realising that he had company Johnny made an embarrassed grab for the sheet and pulled it up over his chest. His eyes slid away from the Don as he contemplated his humiliating loss of control of the previous evening.
He had lived with the spectre of death for so long that he had often forgotten that it was hovering at his back. He had faced death every time he was called out, every time he signed on for a range war. He had been ready to die in front of that firing squad, resigned to the fact that his life was over. For many years he had lived each day as if it was to be his last and so he had not had any regrets when he was captured by the rurales and sentenced to death. All that had changed with the acquisition of a family. They were his weakness and in that weakness he had called out for his brother. It was with a sense of relief now that he considered the lack of response. That part of his life was closed. He would make the most of the next two days and, at the end of it, would die with the same dignity he had worked so hard to master all these years.
“I wanted to see how you were feeling,” Don Pedro interrupted his thoughts.
“I’m fine.” Johnny smiled faintly. How often had he said that to Sam when it was far from true? This time it was the truth. “What time is it?”
“It is almost nine o’clock.”
Johnny sat up, threw back the sheet and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He saw that someone had cleaned and returned his clothes and he pulled on his leather trousers and dark blue shirt. A bowl of water had been set on a table. He washed quickly, eager now to be out in the sunshine.
“Do you want something to eat?” Don Pedro asked, amazed by the change in Johnny. He was positively radiating energy and life.
Johnny considered this. “I’m going for a ride. I’ll get some food from the kitchen to take with me.”
Felix had positioned a chair to one side of the door and looked up with a nasty grin as the door opened. The grin disappeared as he got a good look at Johnny’s face. It was the face of a man at peace with himself. There was no trace of the weakness displayed the previous evening. Felix felt a grudging admiration for his young charge.
Ignoring Felix completely Johnny headed for the kitchen. His arrival caused a stir amongst the staff who were not used to visits from the Don or any of his guests. Johnny smiled broadly at the portly cook and thought fondly of Maria. Senora Beatriz Avila had been in charge of Don Pedro’s kitchens for over twenty years. She was not about to have her domain invaded by anyone; not even by a handsome dark haired boy with the bluest eyes and brightest smile she had ever seen. She picked up her wooden spoon and advanced on the intruder.
“Usted no tiena ningun negocio aqui. Salga.” (You have no business in here. Go away.) She scolded, waving the spoon threateningly in his direction.
Johnny knew he had no business in the kitchen and that he could, and should, have sent one of the servants but it was a small reminder of home and he wasn’t planning on leaving until he had charmed some food out of the cook.
He held his hands up in a gesture of apology. “No disculpo, senora. Perdoneme por favor.” (Excuse me. Please forgive me.) He turned on his best ‘little boy lost’ look; the one he used with Maria to great effect. He saw the cook’s expression soften and some of the younger women giggled.
“I suppose there is no harm,” the woman admitted. “What do you want?”
“I’m hungry and I was wondering if you had anything I could take with me when I go out riding. Whatever you’re cooking up in here sure smells good.” He ducked his head and looked at the cook from under his lowered lashes.
Senora Avila regarded him sternly for a moment before a twinkle appeared in her eyes. “Sit over there and don’t touch anything.” She pointed to a chair.
“Gracias,” Johnny did as he was told and very shortly had some sandwiches and pie wrapped in napkins placed in front of him. A canteen of cold water and some apples completed his feast and he kissed the surprised woman on the cheek before leaving by the back door.
Felix, who had watched this little display with a fair degree of envy, stomped after him. He caught up with Johnny at the entrance to the barn. “Quite the ladies man aren’t you, Madrid?”
Johnny stopped suddenly and Felix almost collided with him. “Well at least I got some lunch which is more than I can say for you.”
Johnny received an enthusiastic greeting from Barranca and handed over one of the apples. As he went to get his saddle he noticed that his rifle was missing. He felt a twinge of disappointment although it was hardly surprising. Having saddled his horse he mounted up and led the way out of the yard.
He allowed Barranca his head and they flew across the fields. He didn’t bother looking back. Felix was also mounted on a fine animal and Johnny knew his guard wouldn’t be far behind. The wind rushing past pushed his hat off his head as he bent low over Barranca’s neck. He wished he could ride like this forever.
The growl of thunder followed by flashes of lightening caused him to pull hard on the reins and bring his horse to a standstill. He looked up at the sky. There was no sign of any clouds, although the air felt charged as it often did before a storm. He urged Barranca forward again, this time at a walk. He had almost reached the foothills of the mountains to the south of the hacienda and a sudden chill swept through him as he identified shapes that were not natural in formation set high up in the mountain range.
Don Pedro had told him that the area around the temple ruins felt evil and Johnny could now attest to that. The smell of death and suffering lay all around him. If he closed his eyes he could hear the screams of countless other men, women and children sacrificed in this place. He could feel their terror and despair as their lives were cruelly torn from them. He began to tremble. The thunder rumbled again, closer this time, and a bolt of lightening struck a dead tree nestling at the edge of the foothills, causing it to burst into flames. Barranca rolled his eyes, terrified by the noise and fire, and the fear he felt transmitted from his rider.
Johnny gathered the reins and urged Barranca away. As the sun rose higher he began to look for some place to stop. He was concerned for his horse given the lack of water and suspected that he would soon have to return to the hacienda. He spotted a small, stunted grove of lime trees with enough leaf cover to provide some relief from the hot sun.
He dismounted in the shade; ground tied Barranca, and carried his canteen and the food over to the trunk of one of the larger trees. Felix had to content himself with taking several large mouthfuls of water from his own canteen and could only watch with bad grace as Johnny devoured his food before settling back for a nap.
Felix couldn’t understand why the Priest was giving this insolent boy so much latitude. If he’d been in charge he’d have locked him in a cold, damp cellar until the ceremony. Felix entertained himself with thoughts of the ritual itself. He was prepared to set aside his own distaste for that method of killing on this occasion. He fervently hoped that Madrid would lose his nerve and try to escape so that he could hurt him a little.
Johnny woke up, stretched and resettled his hat on his head. Once again his hand strayed to his hip only to fall away empty.
Felix saw the gesture and smiled nastily. “Missing your gun, Madrid?”
“Yeah, well, I could take yours if I had a mind.”
A gleam appeared in Felix’s eyes. “I’d like to see you try.” He shifted his weight so that his feet were solidly planted on the ground. On the left side of his belt he carried a large hunting knife in a sheath. He pulled it out and tossed it into his right hand where it glinted in the afternoon sun.
Johnny eyed the man warily. Felix was all muscle and a good deal heavier than he was. The knife was wickedly sharp and it was clear that Felix would be more than happy to use it. Johnny had never been one to back down from a challenge and he now needed something to occupy his excess energy. His breathing quickened in response to the rush of adrenaline entering his system.
His movements over the dusty ground were as graceful as a cat. He circled the man, getting closer and closer, while staying out of range of the knife. Felix waved the weapon threateningly from side to side as he took several small steps backwards. There wasn’t a flicker of emotion on Johnny’s face as he backed the man toward the tree roots that were waiting to trip him up.
The heel of Felix’s boot caught under one of the roots and he flailed his arms wildly in an attempt to stay upright. Johnny launched himself at the man, grabbing his right wrist and pushing him backwards. They both landed hard on the ground, the breath being forcibly expelled from their lungs. Johnny kept an iron grip on Felix’s right arm and fumbled with his left hand for the handle of the gun.
Felix swung his left fist at the side of Johnny’s head and caught him just above the ear. The blow stunned the young Lancer and his grip slackened. Felix bared his teeth and leant in, forcing the knife toward Johnny’s face. Abandoning his attempt to reach the gun Johnny’s left hand joined his right in trying to keep some distance between him and the knife.
Felix hit him again and his vision blurred. He managed to push the knife away only to lose his grip completely when Felix delivered a hard blow to his side. As he rolled away the knife caught his arm and he gave a hiss of pain. While Felix was enjoying his victory Johnny’s hand shot out and captured the gun. He was on his feet in a heartbeat with the revolver aimed steadily at Felix’s head. His finger tightened on the trigger as Felix struggled to his feet.
“Even if you shoot me you won’t get away and I guarantee you’ll be locked up somewhere dark and unpleasant. How does it feel, Madrid? Knowing you’ll never see the sun again?”
Johnny’s arm began to shake with the effort of holding back on pulling the trigger. Felix’s words rang true. He couldn’t get away and he was on the point of losing his last day of freedom. Was it worth it? <Almost> he told himself. He lowered the gun, turned round and flung it as far away as he could. As he mounted Barranca he could hear Felix laughing. It was the sound of the truly insane. Johnny closed his mind to the sound and spurred his horse back in the direction of the hacienda.
Johnny was back in his room when he received the expected visit from the Priest. He’d cursed himself all the way back for rising to the bait and knew that the first thing Felix would do would be to report back. The stinging pain in his arm from Felix’s knife was a tangible reminder of his stupidity. He had pulled a chair up to the window and had been watching the colors drain out of the sky as night fell. In two more days his life would be almost over. When the Priest arrived his pride drove him to his feet. He wouldn’t cower before this thing; he couldn’t think of the Priest as a human being.
“Felix believes you need to be punished. What do you say?”
Johnny’s eyes were cold and his face expressionless. “I’m not gonna beg. Do what you like.” He deliberately turned his back and stared out through the bars on the window.
The Priest laughed, causing Johnny to cringe inwardly. “You’ve got spirit. That’s why you were chosen. If you had used the gun you would indeed have been punished. Don’t try my patience any further.”
His fingers curled into the palms of his hands as Johnny fought to control his temper. “I don’t see what you could do to me that’d be any worse than what you’ve got planned.”
“You prize your self-control.” A tension in Johnny’s stance told the Priest he was right. “I have ways of depriving a man of that self-control. If I wished I could have you on your knees begging for mercy and whining like a little child. Is that how you wish to meet your death?”
Johnny’s shoulders sagged and he bowed his head in defeat. “No.”
“Then there will be no more outbursts of temper.”
Satisfied that he had made his point the Priest left his prisoner alone and returned to his room. He lifted the lid of a large wooden chest. The chest was covered in grotesque carvings and the black wood had been polished until it shone. He removed a large bowl and carried it carefully over to a table. Next he lifted a large pitcher and poured water into the bowl. He pulled over a chair, shed his black cloak and sat staring into the water. His mumbled incantations swirled in the air around him as the surface of the water shimmered and showed him what he wanted to see.
As the day had gone on Scott had become more and more frustrated. The link to his brother had disappeared as if it had never existed. He pressed on toward a range of mountains, confident that his brother was somewhere on the other side, but unable to find the path that would take them to him. As the last of the light left the sky his eyes travelled up and up to the highest peaks. To climb over the mountains would be an impossible task which meant that there had to be a way through. The range ran for miles in each direction and the foothills were still some hours away. They could search for weeks and not find what they were looking for.
Val and his father were setting up camp and he knew they were keeping a close watch on him. He could feel their eyes following his every move. He slammed his fist into a tree, ignoring the pain as the rough bark skinned his knuckles. Murdoch was by his side in an instant, taking his arm and leading him to sit by the camp fire. Val silently handed over a piece of cloth which Murdoch soaked in the water heating over the fire. He took Scott’s hand and wiped the dirt away from the cuts.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. The grief and loss on his son’s face took his breath away.
“I can’t find him.” Scott stared into the fire. “He’s gone.”
Panic gripped Murdoch. “Dead?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so, I’d have felt it. I’ve let him down. I should have seen what was happening and stopped him.”
“No, son, there was nothing you could have done. You’ve got us this far. Why don’t you rest and see what tomorrow brings. Perhaps you’re just too tired or trying too hard. Go to sleep and I’ll keep watch.”
Val fetched Scott’s bedroll and they soon had the broken hearted young man settled down for the night. He lay on his back staring at the stars, unblinking and unsleeping, while Val and Murdoch sat silently with their fears that they were going to be too late.
The Priest sat back with a ferocious scowl. The boy was close but not close enough. He needed him to reach the valley some time tomorrow. It would take time to prepare Scott and time was rapidly running out. Madrid was proving to be most uncooperative….he had clearly shut his brother out. Something would have to be done to change that. The scowl disappeared as he saw his solution. This was one order Felix would be happy to carry out.
He thought about the other two men. From rummaging around in Johnny’s mind he now knew who they were. They had no part to play although it would be satisfying to make Murdoch Lancer watch as both his sons were destroyed. He would instruct his men to try and take the rancher and the sheriff alive. If all went according to plan they should reach the valley by early afternoon tomorrow so the welcoming committee would have to be despatched at dawn.
He could feel his anticipation growing. He had waited years for an opportunity like this….he had wandered from place to place, always seeking and never finding, until he had stumbled upon the entrance to this valley. He had known immediately that this was what he had spent his life looking for. When he found the ruined temple his happiness was complete. It had not been hard to influence the ignorant and to manipulate the greedy and vicious men, like Felix. He could taste his victory and it would be so sweet. On that thought he went to deliver his orders.
Johnny was up and out bright and early the following morning. He opened the door to find Felix lying stretched out on a mattress laid across the doorway. The man was snoring inelegantly and Johnny suppressed the urge to kick him. Instead he stepped over the prone body and made his way to the corrals at the front of the house.
The sun was rising and the sky was deeply tinged with red. The air was perfectly still and, as Johnny looked over toward the mountains, he could see the beginning of storm clouds. Thunder rumbled again in the distance. The horses in the corrals were nervous and skittish. They were as beautiful as Felipe had said. Johnny called softly to them and several came to investigate this new human. He opened the gate and slipped inside, unaware that Don Pedro was watching him from the porch.
The Don watched as the young man interacted with the horses. It was as if he watched an intricate dance as the animals approached and retreated only to return again to listen to the soft, melodious voice. Johnny, himself, was lost in the wonder of the moment. He ran his hand over the animals’ necks as they competed with one another for his attention. He spoke to them, noting the intelligence in their eyes, forgetting for a blessed period of time what lay in store for him.
The spell was shattered abruptly. “Liar.” The young voice was raised in anger and Johnny looked round in confusion as the horses scattered.
“I brought you here to kill him. You didn’t tell me you were his lapdog.” Felipe’s expression was furious.
Johnny made his way back toward the fence. “I never lied to you. I came because I have a debt to pay. Killing that so-called Priest was never something I promised to do. If that was what you thought then I’m sorry but I’m not the one who lied to you. This valley needs rain or everything will die. There is power here that just needs to be unleashed and then everything will be all right.”
“He is the Devil,” Felipe hissed. “If the rains come we will never be rid of him. Do you know what it is like living under the hand of the Devil? My people will never be free. The sacrifices will go on and on until there is no one left. Our souls will be damned for all eternity. That is what you are condemning us to.”
All Johnny’s anger and uncertainty rose to the surface. “I know what it’s like to be owned by the Devil. He’s owned me since I was ten years old. Don’t lecture me about that. I made my bargain and I’m gonna stick with it. This isn’t my fight. You’re the ones who let him move in here. You can find a way to get rid of him when I’m gone.” He turned and walked away in frustration.
“The great Johnny Madrid,” Felipe sneered. “Defender of the weak and helpless. What a legend you made for yourself and all this time you have just been a coward. Well I am not afraid. I will kill him even if it means I will burn in hell for all time.”
Johnny spun round and saw that Felipe was holding a gun. He began to run as Felipe turned and walked toward the hacienda. Felix stepped out of the shadows and raised his own gun. Felipe’s eyes went wide as Johnny screamed a warning. A single shot rang out and Felipe collapsed soundlessly to the ground.
Johnny vaulted over the rails, reaching Felipe at the same time as Don Pedro. Johnny fell to his knees and raised Felipe in his arms. The young man was still breathing, in short painful bursts. “Promise me you’ll save my people,” he whispered before blood bubbled up in his throat choking him. He coughed once, gave a little gasp and went limp in Johnny’s grip.
Don Pedro leaned over and closed the dead man’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I should have stopped him. He was headstrong.”
Johnny laid Felipe down gently. “He was right. I have been a coward. The rains won’t save this valley. It’s not the drought that’s killing it.”
He got shakily to his feet. Felix was standing a few yards away, having walked over to admire his handiwork. A pressing need for revenge ripped through Johnny just as Felix’s bullet had ripped through the flesh and blood of Felipe’s heart. For the second time Johnny hurled himself at Felix, fists flying. He smashed the man’s face over and over, hearing bone break and feeling hot blood spurting over his fingers.
He could hear a babble of voices all around him. The words meant nothing; the people meant nothing. As he continued to pound Felix his mind screamed one word; Scott. Hands reached for him and dragged him off. Felix was on his knees, hands raised to his ruined face, sobbing curses. As the mist cleared from Johnny’s eyes he saw the Priest approaching with a self-satisfied expression on his face.
“Take him inside. I’ll be there shortly.”
As Johnny was dragged away he had the horrible feeling that he had just played right into the Priest’s hands and that Felipe had always been destined to die that morning.
Scott woke with a start and cried out, startling Murdoch and Val from their uneasy slumbers. He scrambled to his feet. “We have to go right now. Leave everything.”
“What just happened?” Murdoch asked groggily.
“Johnny. I know where he is.” Scott looked around the clearing where they had made their camp and pointed to an all but invisible track. “That way. There’s a way through the mountains. We have to hurry. Something bad’s about to happen.”
They wasted no time in arguing with him. The horses were saddled and they were on their way in minutes, abandoning everything else. As they approached the face of the mountain they could hear thunder and the sky began to darken as clouds crossed the face of the sun. Their progress was slow through trees and bushes and the trail ended at a sheer rock face. Scott led them unerringly to the west for about twenty yards and pointed to an opening.
Murdoch eyed the narrow entrance doubtfully. “Are you sure? Once we go in there’ll be no turning back.”
“I’m sure.” Scott touched his spurs gently to his horse’s flanks and led the way into the darkness.
Johnny sat on the end of his bed and brooded. Nothing about the events of the last hour made sense. Why had Felipe been killed? Despite having a gun he had been no immediate threat and could easily have been disarmed. Instead he had been shot down like a rabid wolf. If his death had been designed to provoke a reaction it had succeeded. Johnny knew he was going to be made to regret his actions and that he had sacrificed his last day of freedom for the transient pleasure of beating Felix’s face to a pulp.
What bothered him was that the Priest hadn’t needed any excuse to lock him up. That could have happened at any point since he first arrived. He had been surprised, and grateful, to have had any freedom; had expected it to be taken away at any moment. He hadn’t, for a minute, trusted the Priest’s word.
Felipe had been killed for a reason, of that he was certain. So what else had happened? He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration and was assailed by the sweet smell of blood. He looked at his hands. They were covered in blood from both Felipe and Felix. Bile rose in his throat. He pushed himself off the bed and strode to the wash basin, plunging his hands into the cold water. The sight of the blood and water swirling together caused his stomach to cramp so he washed and dried his hands quickly and retreated back to the bed.
He cast a covert glance at the two hard-eyed men that had deposited him back in his room before taking up position inside the room and on either side of the door. He wondered where the Priest was; he’d been expecting him to arrive before now. He didn’t believe that the inhuman monster was delaying in order to tend to Felix so his continued absence couldn’t be a good sign.
Felipe’s words returned to haunt Johnny. Had he been wrong all along? He had been so wrapped up in his own fatalistic thoughts that he hadn’t fully considered what would happen once the rains came. What would have happened if he had come with the intention, not of being a willing sacrifice, but of killing the man holding this entire valley hostage? Was his death ultimately going to be meaningless? Was it too late for him to fight back?
He continued to worry the problem around in his mind. There was a reason the Priest had wanted him to lose control. A thought occurred to him….a dreadful, unthinkable possibility. Before he could act on the thought the door opened to admit his nemesis. The Priest was carrying a cup from which rose a smell that almost sent Johnny’s already sensitive stomach over the edge.
“Why?” He couldn’t help himself; he had to know.
“You know why.”
And Johnny did know. Felipe’s death had forced his mind to open….had made him call out to Scott. But why would his captor want him to do that unless….He tried to hide his dismay. The Priest’s laugh echoed around the room.
“You set him on the right path again. You do want to see your brother again before you die, don’t you?”
The blood was roaring in his head, his terror for his brother almost more than he could stand. He reached out to Scott once more and then cut the connection, hoping that he wasn’t too late.
“He’s found the pass through the mountains. He’ll reach the valley soon. I can’t allow you to sever the link again. He needs to be distracted so that my men can take him without injury. We need to keep the pathways of your mind open so I must insist that you drink this.” The Priest held the cup out.
Johnny’s move to knock the cup to the ground was forestalled by his two guards. They had flanked him without him being aware of it and the grip they took on his arms left him no room for manoeuvre. He was pulled to his feet and brought face to face with the black clad monster. He kept his mouth firmly closed and turned his head away.
Fingers grasped his chin and his head was forced round. He found himself staring into dark, deranged eyes tinged with an unnatural red glow. He became lost in those eyes, unable to look away. The hold on his chin disappeared as he became drawn into the swirling reds and browns.
“Open your mouth.” The instruction came from a long way off and Johnny obeyed it without thinking. The vile tasting liquid slid down his throat and hit his stomach. He lost all feeling in his legs and sagged helplessly in the mens’ bruising grip.
“Put him on the bed,” the Priest instructed and Johnny found himself lying down, fighting a strong feeling of vertigo.
By the time he was left alone he had no concept of where he was or why he was there. He was lost in a maze of distorted memories. When he was ten years old his mother had been murdered by her latest lover, Raphael. Johnny had been forced to watch the frenzied attack, unable to do anything to help her. After it was over he had prayed to anyone who would listen that he might get the chance to kill the bastard who had deprived him of the one person in the world that he loved. God hadn’t answered but the Devil had.
In his mind’s eye Johnny saw a large black carrion crow with red eyes watching him steadily and promising him revenge on Raphael and the whole cruel unfeeling world if he pledged himself to the Devil’s service. Johnny agreed without hesitation.
Raphael’s face became only the first of many dead faces that followed Johnny through his young life. He killed without mercy, for the glory… the reputation and the money and….No, that wasn’t right. He felt as if he was struggling through quicksand as he sought the truth. He hadn’t always been like that had he? Was he always a cold-blooded killer doing the Devil’s work?
Pain shot through him as he battled against this misrepresentation of his life. The harder he fought the more intense the agony became until he found himself screaming and begging for it to stop. His breath came in harsh gasps and his fingers clutched the bedcovers.
Voices began to speak to him, urging him to accept that he was evil, that there had never been a single redeeming aspect to his life. He knew that was a lie. If he had been that wicked he would never have had the love of his father and brother….they would have rejected him instead of opening their hearts to him. He cried out for them to save him; to save his soul from everlasting torment. He held on as long as he could until a particularly vicious blast of pain sent him into merciful unconsciousness.
It was not long after they entered the narrow track through the mountains that Murdoch and Val realised something was wrong with Scott. The young blond was swaying alarmingly in his saddle and wasn’t answering their concerned questions. The path was just wide enough for Murdoch to bring his horse abreast of his son. He took hold of the reins of Scott’s horse and pulled it to a standstill.
Scott had lost all the color from his face and his eyes were dull as if he were in pain. Tremors were ripping through him. He leant forward and retched, only the proximity of the rock walls on one side and his father on the other preventing him from falling off.
“What’s the matter?” Val’s voice was full of concern.
“I wish I knew. He doesn’t seem to be with us any more and something’s made him sick.”
Scott’s mind, inextricably linked with Johnny’s, was pulled into his brother’s nightmares. The fear, pain and anguish pulsed through Scott, tearing away his own identity and leaving him lost.
“We’ve got no choice but to press on,” Murdoch growled. “Once we get out of this god-forsaken pass we can take a proper look at him. I’ll lead the way. You get up here and stop him from falling off.”
Johnny’s screams echoed in Scott’s head. He shared his brother’s pain and his moans set his father’s and Val’s nerves on edge. As they neared the end of the trail Scott passed out. Val grabbed his arm and managed to keep him on his horse. Murdoch looked back and then forward again as they emerged from the darkness into bright sunshine and right into a carefully planned ambush.
For the hundredth time Murdoch tested the ropes binding his wrists. He and Val were sitting with their backs up against the stone wall. Scott was stretched out at their feet, bound and deeply unconscious. They were in the shade, which was a mercy as the sun was high overhead and the heat was stifling. Thunder could still be heard in the distance, punctuated by the occasion flash of lightening. To the far horizon dark clouds could be seen boiling up over the mountain range.
They had been met by six guns in the hands of men who looked as if they would have no problem using them. Murdoch had been ordered to dismount and discard his gunbelt. He had then been told to remove Scott’s gun and lower his oblivious son to the ground. Val had tossed his gun away as instructed and had dismounted as soon as Murdoch had taken Scott’s weight.
All Murdoch’s questions had gone unanswered as they had been securely tied. They had been informed that they would be on their way to some unspecified location as soon as Scott was fit to ride. The shadows were lengthening before there was any movement from Scott.
“Can you at least give him some water,” Murdoch begged the man who had proved to be the spokesman of the group.
A canteen of water was fetched and the man hunkered down beside Scott. He removed the cork, put a hand under Scott’s shoulders and lifted his head slightly before putting the canteen to his lips. As the water entered his parched mouth and throat Scott opened his eyes, squinting against the light. Realising that he was in the grip of someone he didn’t know he jerked his head away, causing water to spill onto the ground. The dry earth absorbed the liquid greedily and the man released his hold on Scott’s shoulders. His backhanded blow snapped Scott’s head around.
“We don’t waste water here.”
Murdoch cried out in protest and tried to get to his feet. The sound of a pistol being cocked stopped him cold. “My orders were to take you alive if possible. Putting a slug in you won’t make me lose any sleep.”
Murdoch sank back. “Who’s giving the orders? Where’s my other son? Is he still alive?”
“He’s alive. Won’t be for much longer though. Don’t worry, you’ll get to say your goodbyes. It’s time to get moving. We’ve got a long way to go.” The man turned to his companions. “Get them mounted.”
Scott was pulled to his feet. “How did you know we were coming?”
“Your brother told us. Now stop wasting time and get over to that horse.”
Scott was pushed toward his horse and boosted up into the saddle. His eyes were drawn to the clouds hovering over the far distant peaks. Even without being told he knew where they were headed. Once everyone was mounted they set off at a fast pace, angling away from the house Scott could see in the distance; a house where he knew with certainty that his brother was being held prisoner.
Within the valley itself the Priest’s power was limitless. He watched contentedly as his plan unfolded. Once he was satisfied that the older Lancer son was safely on his way to the ruined temple he gave instructions for his buggy to be harnessed. With Felix out of action he had promoted Salazar Diaz to be his second in command. Diaz waited patiently as the Priest finished packing the last of the items into a large bag.
“Madrid should be awake soon. You can let him out of his room, he’ll be too weak to try anything. Keep a close eye on him and on Don Pedro. Make sure they are both at the temple by midday tomorrow. At daybreak get some of the men to start rounding up the peons. The ritual will start at nightfall and will end at the rising of the full moon. Once Madrid is dead the rains will come and we will all get our reward. Do you understand your orders?”
“Si, senor. You can trust me.”
With a last look around the room the Priest swept out full of anticipation for his coming encounter with Scott Lancer.
Even in ruins the ancient Aztec temple was an impressive and awe inspiring sight. It had been built high in the hills on a natural plateau. The late afternoon sunlight struck the walls, giving glimpses of faded whitewash and traces of blues and reds that at one time would have been spectacularly vivid.
Murdoch found that he couldn’t take his eyes off it as they travelled closer and closer. “What is that place?” He spoke softly and received only a wordless shake of the head from Val who was riding beside him.
Scott heard his father’s words and the fear in his voice. He kept his head down, unable to look at the evil place to which they were being taken. Like Johnny, he could feel the resonance of past fear and he could almost taste the blood that seemed to permeate the stiflingly hot air. His first glimpse of the temple had told him what he was facing. What he still didn’t understand was why his brother seemed to be a willing participant.
With his hands tied behind him the journey had been difficult. As they started up the steep and winding pathway it became more of a struggle to stay on his horse. He gripped hard with his knees and tried to relax into the rhythm. He could hear muttered curses from his father and Val as they also fought hard to stay in the saddle.
Eventually the path levelled off before a set of broken down gates leading to a forecourt. The paving was broken and weed infested. Broken statues lay all around, still hideous and designed to inspire fear. The forecourt was in the shape of a quadrangle with a flat topped pyramid structure in the centre, rising to twenty feet in height. The top of the pyramid was accessed by steps set into each face. There were several entrances to the building at ground level as well as a high walled tunnel leading from it to the remains of a number of other buildings to the west side of the complex.
Their captors brought the horses to a halt and Scott’s eyes tracked up the steps to the top of the building. Rising from the top was a massive rectangular stone altar. Wooden posts stood at each corner and Scott could see that substantial metal rings hung from each post. Threaded through each ring was a length of thickly woven rope. Scott’s heart missed a beat and he had to force himself to keep breathing normally.
The leader of the group pointed to Val and Murdoch. “Lock them up.”
The two men were forced from their horses and pointed in the direction of one of the entrances to the main building.
“Wait a minute. What about my son?” Murdoch was resisting the attempts of two men to get him to move toward that opening.
The man shrugged. “I have different orders about him. Get going before I decide it’d be easier to put a bullet in you.”
“Murdoch,” Scott spoke strongly despite the sheer terror that was coursing through him. “You can’t help Johnny if you’re dead. Do what they tell you. I’ll be ok.”
Murdoch’s mind was made up for him when he felt a gun barrel being pressed to the back of his head. With a last look at his son he began walking and soon he and Val were swallowed up by the darkness.
Scott slid down from his horse without being told and looked around. One of the smaller buildings looked to be more or less intact. A strong aura of evil emanated from that building. Almost of their own accord his feet took him in that direction. As he neared the door it opened and he passed from the bright sunlight into a dimly lit, windowless room.
A pressing need to be sick woke Johnny and propelled him out of bed in search of a basin. Once it was over he wiped his mouth on a towel, poured himself a glass of water and slumped into the nearest chair, feeling as weak and helpless as a new born colt. He sipped the water cautiously, not wanting to overload his rebellious stomach. Glancing out the window he reckoned it was late afternoon. This time tomorrow….no, he wouldn’t let his thoughts stray that far.
His mind was fuzzy and a headache pounded behind his eyes. He tried to remember what had happened to make him feel like this. Nothing…..there was a gaping hole in him memory. He could recall getting up and going outside and then….From the way he was feeling he deduced that he’d been drugged but had no idea when or why.
After finishing the water he took a chance on standing up. His muscles shook and ached much as they did after he had been confined to bed for too long with an illness or an injury. He reached the door and turned the handle. He was almost surprised to find that the door wasn’t locked. A figure detached itself from the shadows in the hallway. The man, who looked only vaguely familiar, seemed content to wait to see what Johnny was proposing to do. His forehead creased in thought….where was Felix, his ever present bodyguard? He had the feeling he should be remembering something….something important.
He needed company. At home he felt most at ease in the kitchen with Teresa and Maria fussing over him. He hesitated on the threshold of Don Pedro’s kitchen and watched the bustle of activity as the staff prepared the evening meal. Senora Avila looked over and saw him. Her protest died on her lips as she got a good look at his pale face. She bustled over and took hold of his arm.
“Oh, you poor boy. You don’t look well. Sit down and let me get you some broth and fresh baked bread.”
In a very short space of time Johnny found himself sitting at the table with a large bowl of soup and a plateful of warm bread and butter in front of him. Senor Avila picked up a napkin and tucked it under his chin before patting him on the cheek as if he were a small boy again. “You eat that. You’ll feel much better.”
Johnny ducked his head in embarrassment and then raised his eyes and gave the woman a shy smile. He ate slowly, savouring every mouthful of the spicy vegetable soup. A glass of milk was handed to him. “This will settle your stomach,” the cook told him.
She stood back and watched him. She knew his name and his reputation; they all did. It had come as a shock to find that he was so young, with a sweet innocence about him. The reason for his presence at the hacienda was unclear. At first they had hoped he was coming to kill the Priest but instead he had just delivered himself into the man’s hands. Senora Avila had no doubt that the boy was a prisoner, albeit on a long leash for now. Rumours abounded, the most unsettling of which was that the Priest was to work a dark ritual on the night of the full moon. She wondered what part Johnny Madrid would be playing if that rumour turned out to be correct.
When Johnny had finished he wiped his mouth and laid the napkin on the table. “Gracias, senora.”
The elderly lady, who reminded him so much of Maria, smiled fondly. “Beatriz.”
“Beatriz. Do you know where I can find Don Pedro?”
“At this hour he will probably be in his study. Do you need anyone to show you the way?”
“No, I can find it.” Johnny stood up slowly and took her hand, raising it to his lips.
Spots of color appeared on her cheeks and her eyes sparkled with mischief. “You get out of my kitchen now, boy. I’ve a lot to do. Dinner will be served in two hours. You make sure you’re hungry again by then.”
It took time for Scott’s eyes to adjust to the more subdued light in the room. He stood with his back to the door as shapes came into focus around him. There was a table, a couple of chairs and a lit brazier in the corner with a pot of some unidentifiable liquid bubbling on top of it.
A dark shape rose up from one of the chairs before him. Skeletal fingers reached up to push back the hood of a long black cloak. Scott stiffened in shock as he took in the Priest’s appearance. The apparition smiled, displaying rotting teeth. A foul odour swept over Scott and he gagged against the nausea welling up in his throat.
The Priest studied the young blond. On the surface he appeared as different from his brother as night is from day. However, they carried with them the same strength of purpose and courage. He tried to probe deeper and was defeated by strong barriers to the mind, held rigidly in place. His smile widened; this would be a challenge and he was never one to back down from a challenge.
Scott felt the assault on his mind, like an insidious intrusion. He felt violated until something within him fought back and repelled the invasion. The man….creature….stepped closer. Scott raised his chin defiantly and stared it down.
“Who are you?” the Priest asked curiously.
Scott frowned, puzzled by the question. “Scott Lancer. Where’s my brother.”
“What are you?” the Priest persisted.
Scott shook his head. “Stop playing games. I know what you’ve got planned and it’s barbaric and goes against all decency.”
“How do you know?”
This gave Scott pause. For the last few days he had felt as if he was living in a dream world. He was close to his brother but had never experienced anything like the intense connection he had been feeling. He had simply accepted without question that he could find Johnny; had known without a shred of tangible proof that his brother was in mortal danger. He’d been unable to explain it to his father or Val and that hadn’t mattered. All that had been important was reaching this place before Johnny could give up his life for….for what?
What was going on? He had been raised to believe in God while having no time for the idea of the Devil. Johnny had seemed convinced that the Devil existed and maybe, after looking at this man, he hadn’t been far wrong. This creature intended to sacrifice his brother to the old Aztec gods; Scott knew that with a certainty. He even knew how the ritual was to be performed and which god it was to be dedicated to. How he knew these things was a mystery to him. He had never been that interested in Mexican history while living in Boston. Since meeting his brother he had learned something of that country’s most recent past while never giving a thought to its more ancient history. He knew of the Aztecs, that they had existed, and nothing more. Except that it seemed that he now knew a great deal more.
“I….I don’t know.”
The Priest turned away and stirred the pot on the brazier. “This will be ready soon.”
A strong sense of foreboding settled over Scott. “What is it?”
The Priest ignored the question. “Sit down.”
Such was the tone of command that Scott sat. “Can I see my brother?” He hated himself for the plaintive note in his voice.
“Tomorrow.” Picking up a cloth the Priest lifted the pot over to the table. Using a ladle he transferred some of the hot liquid to a cup. “This needs to cool down. You have to open your mind to me. There is a lot to do before the ceremony tomorrow night. You must stop fighting me. What I do is for the good of the land. The people are ignorant and have forgotten where their true loyalty lies. I’ve been sent here to remind them.
“Once the rains come they’ll understand and accept the new order of things. The storm is gathering. Have you heard it? It’s just waiting for the proper sacrifice before breaking over these mountains and gifting the valley with rain. Why can’t you see that it is all for the best? If I hadn’t come here everyone and everything would have perished. The old gods have been ignored too long and their patience has run out. Given the proper respect they can be benevolent. All that is required is your brother’s life. Is that too much to ask?”
Scott had been listening, mesmerised by the voice. What it was asking was reasonable….wasn’t it? One man’s life to save a whole community. This was Johnny’s debt to pay. Why was he trying to interfere? His eyelids started to droop as the singsong voice continued to pour its poison into his ear. Johnny had made the decision to come here. It was his choice. It was time for him to atone for all his sins.
Murdoch and Val had been untied and thrust into a small cell set into the bedrock of the mountains. The door was securely locked, there were no windows and they had only a small oil lamp for company. Apart from a couple of thin mattresses laying on the floor the room was completely bare. With a groan Murdoch lowered himself onto one of the pallets. His back was paining him but it was nothing compared to the aching in his heart for his two sons.
Like Scott, he had seen the altar and all his fears for his family had coalesced into a dreaded certainty that neither of his sons was destined to survive. That he was also likely to die bothered him not at all. Without his sons by his side he was nothing. He felt regret about Val’s involvement while knowing that nothing would have persuaded the lawman to stay behind.
“They’re planning on killin’ Johnny,” Val stated bluntly. “What I don’t understand is why they’ve separated us from Scott.”
Murdoch shook his head forlornly. “I guess we’ll find out tomorrow. I just hope….that I get a chance to see them both before….before it happens.”
“They said you’d get to see Johnny. Whatever’s gonna happen involves Scott so I figure you’ll get to see him too.”
On that cold note of comfort they settled as best they could to wait out the long night.
“No,” Scott jerked awake. “You’re insane if you think I’m going to believe that my brother’s death is justified.” In his first rush of anger he’d risen to his feet and was now measuring the distance between himself and the open door. With his hands tied and men stationed outside he knew he had no hope of escape but he had no intention of sitting tamely and listening to this madman.
The Priest looked at the young man with displeasure. He had hoped to be able to influence him, as he had so many others over the years, using the power of his voice alone. It appeared that he was going to be more resistant than his brother. No matter… he had other resources open to him, one of which was cooling in the cup sitting on the table.
“Stefano,” the Priest’s voice was harsh. The leader of Scott’s captors appeared in the doorway. “I want him secured over there.” He pointed to the far wall.
Scott looked, and saw a metal ring set in the wall above head height. Stefano, with the help of another man, pushed Scott toward the wall. Scott resisted every step of the way and was beaten to his knees before his wrists were untied. He was pulled into an upright position and his hands were securely bound to the ring.
Seeing the Priest advancing on him carrying the cup of noxious smelling liquid, Scott did his best to steady his breathing. His head was jerked back as Stefano took hold of a handful of his hair. He was concentrating so hard on the approaching black clad monster that he missed the movement by Stefano’s companion to lock shackles around his ankles, immobilising him completely. His curses, through gritted teeth, were inaudible.
The Priest stood before him, a look of triumph on his face. “Once you drink this you will be open to any order I might choose to give you. You would slit your father’s throat if I told you to. Shall I make that my first instruction?” The Priest paused to consider. “Perhaps not. I wouldn’t want him to miss tomorrow’s celebrations.” He moved closer to Scott and smiled at the mixture of loathing and apprehension he saw on his prisoner’s face. “Shall I tell you what your role is to be?”
Scott felt fear and fury in equal measure. He kept his mouth firmly shut and glared defiantly.
“Before I tell you, there’s something you need to know about this potion. It leaves you fully aware of what you’re doing while preventing you from doing anything about it. Your brother will be given some before the ceremony begins tomorrow. He’ll be helpless to resist, just like you.” He stared into Scott’s eyes, admiring the young man’s determination not to look away. “Let me explain what’s going to happen.”
Scott listened helplessly, wanting nothing more than to scream a denial. The smell from the cup, held so close to his face, was wrapping tendrils of evil around his mind. He tried to pull away from it and Stefano tightened his grip. As the fumes took hold he felt his resistance waning. The muscles of his jaw relaxed and the liquid entered his mouth. His efforts to spit it out were frustrated as Stefano clamped his free hand over his mouth, holding the liquid inside. Scott breathed through his nose and struggled against the urge to swallow. Frowning, the Priest reached over and pinched his nose closed. The need to breathe overrode every other instinct and Scott swallowed hard. His nose and mouth were released and he gulped in a lungful of air.
There was a noise in his head like the buzzing of a swarm of bees. He couldn’t get his eyes to focus and the Priest’s voice seemed to be coming from a long way off.
“You can cut him down now. He’s no longer a threat.”
Stefano sliced through the ropes tethering Scott and watched as their prisoner slumped to the floor. ”Lock him up.” The Priest instructed. “Keep him away from his father. He’ll need another dose of the drug in the morning and again before you get him ready for the ceremony. He’s to have no food and nothing else to drink. Scott?” The Priest waited until the tortured blond looked up from his huddled position on the floor. “You will do exactly as this man tells you. Is that clear?”
Scott’s mind rebelled against the command even as he found himself nodding his acceptance. The shackles were removed from his ankles and he was instructed to get up. He walked obediently to his cell, raging inwardly about his inability to resist. After being locked in he sat with his back to the wall, full of self-loathing with the knowledge of what was to come.
Johnny knocked on the door to Don Pedro’s study and waited for the invitation to enter. Don Pedro rose from his seat behind the desk and ushered Johnny to a comfortable chair near the large window. He had heard the boy’s agonised screams earlier, as had everyone in the hacienda, and hadn’t been expecting him to be up and about at all for the rest of the day. He didn’t know what had been done to Johnny to cause him so much pain and searched his face anxiously for any sign of physical abuse. Apart from a slight loss of color and tightness around the eyes Johnny didn’t appear to be any the worse for wear.
“How are you feeling?” The Don asked, as the silence threatened to become uncomfortable.
“I was sick earlier.” Johnny looked embarrassed by the admission. “I went down to the kitchen and Beatriz fixed me up.”
Don Pedro felt his mouth drop open. In twenty years Senora Avila hadn’t let him enter the kitchen and she certainly hadn’t invited him to call her by her first name. “You must have quite a way with women,” he managed to say eventually.
“Yeah. They all seem to want to mother me.” Johnny dropped his gaze to his hands and made a conscious effort to stop fiddling with the beads around his wrist. He missed his own mother so much. Not even her lies about Murdoch had been able to change his feelings for her. Maybe, if there were a God, his life would be sacrifice enough and he’d be allowed to see her again. No….whatever he did, he was destined for hell and after all the men he’d killed he’d be ashamed to face her. What would it be like….to burn in hell for all eternity? He would find out soon enough.
Johnny was aware of Don Pedro’s concerned stare and mentally shook himself. “I need to ask you something. Will you look after Barranca for me? He doesn’t take to many people but I figure he’ll take to you. I’ve seen your horses and how well they’re looked after. You understand them. He’s got spirit; I never really broke him. We just came to an understanding. Promise me you’ll never let anyone break his spirit.”
“I promise.” Don Pedro could see what had bonded this young man and his horse. Neither one of them had been broken to the bit. There was a wildness in both of them that nothing could ever tame.
“There’s something else. My family….I don’t want them finding out what happened to me. I don’t ever want them coming here. I would like them to have my gun if you could get it back from….Just send it to the Lancer ranch near Morro Coyo. That way they’ll know I’m dead and they won’t come looking for me. Could you do that for me?”
“Si, Johnny, I’ll make sure they get it.
Johnny had no interest in food that evening. After enduring a scolding from Beatriz he wandered out into the night air. The security around the hacienda had been noticeably increased and he was roughly told to stay away from the horses. No chances were being taken on him mounting a last minute escape attempt. There was no sign of the Priest and, when Johnny asked one of his ever present guards, he was told that the man was already at the temple making preparations for the events of the following night.
The sky was overcast and the air was heavy. Thunder continued to rumble interspersed with flashing of lightening. The atmosphere was oppressive. The stock was restless and Johnny itched to go and calm them.
“Alright, Madrid, it’s time for you to go inside.”
The voice came from behind him. Johnny masked his shock. The man had approached him without him even being aware of it. “I like it out here.” He didn’t bother trying to keep the challenge out of his voice.
“I’ve got my orders. You’re to be locked up now. You can either walk back to your room or get dragged. It’s all the same to me. And just so’s you know….you don’t get any more food or water so I guess you should’ve eaten your dinner after all.”
The sneering tone was almost more than Johnny could cope with. There were several other men within earshot who all looked ready and willing to take him back to the house if he failed to co-operate. Deciding that he still had his pride he turned and stalked away in the direction of the front door. He took some solace from the fact that the man had to hurry to keep pace with him.
He reached his room and wasn’t reassured when he found two other men waiting for him. His eyes fell on the bed and the ropes that had been securely tied to the posts at each corner.
“Our master is concerned that you might attempt to harm yourself. It wouldn’t be the first time that one of those selected for sacrifice has taken the less painful option.”
Johnny saved his breath and concentrated on resisting the men’s efforts to bind him.
Three against one were never going to be favourable odds and it didn’t take them long to subdue him. Painful knots confined his wrists and ankles leaving him in no doubt about the hopelessness of his position. The exertion of the fight had left him breathless. As his breathing slowed he used the only weapon he had left and hurled insults at the men, questioning their manhood, courage and the virtue of their mothers. His angry and vicious words earned him a slap across the mouth and a threat to gag him if he didn’t shut up. He tasted blood and that shocked him back to sanity. He bit down on his lower lip to prevent more curses escaping. He wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of humiliating him further. The men laughed and taunted him, looking for an excuse to make good on their threat. He turned his head away and miserably contemplated the long night ahead.
Eventually they left him alone with his thoughts and regrets. Later still he slept only to be woken at daybreak by the sound of horses and wagons and angry voices. He gathered that the Priest’s men were rounding up the household staff and their families ready to take them out to the temple. He heard Don Pedro’s voice raised in protest at the way his people were being treated. Those protests fell on deaf ears. Johnny could hear children screaming and women sobbing at the harsh handling they were receiving. He struggled uselessly against his own bonds, gasping as the ropes bit into the tender flesh around his wrists.
After a while the protests faded away to silence. He waited with his heart hammering in his chest knowing that it would soon be his turn. The waiting was hard and it was almost a relief when the door finally opened. He was about to take his final journey.
Tired, his muscles aching from the immobility of the night just ended, Johnny waited as the horses were led round to the front of the house. His senses, finely honed by his years as a gunfighter, seemed to him to be abnormally heightened. He listened to the horses stamping their feet and snorting in response to the highly charged atmosphere. The harsh voices of his guards grated on his sensitive nerves. He felt every beat of his pulse as his heart pushed the blood through his body. He realised, with a shock, that he had never felt more alive.
The hacienda was deserted except for himself, Don Pedro and five of the Priest’s men. Those men were heavily armed and Johnny smiled mockingly as he wondered what trouble they were expecting. He looked down at his securely bound wrists, the ropes biting into skin already torn and bleeding. It had been a relief when he was finally untied from the bedposts. That relief had been shortlived as he hadn’t even been given time to stretch his weary muscles before a length of rope had fettered his hands once more. Were they expecting him to try and escape? Any such attempt would be doomed to failure. Perhaps they were simply trying to emphasis the hopelessness of his positon. His smile broadened and he raised his head proudly as he saw the men eying him warily. Let them worry and wonder if he had anything planned.
In contrast to his seemingly relaxed stance, Johnny thought that Don Pedro looked like a man who had lost all hope; his complexion was grey and his posture stooped, not at all like the proud man that had greeted him a few short days previously. Johnny couldn’t help feeling sorry for him; his short time as a part owner of Lancer had taught him the meaning of responsibility for others. Sometimes distasteful things had to be done for the greater good. That thought sobered Johnny. Was this for ‘the greater good?’ The gap in his memory teased him again with a hint that someone had vehemently disputed this. His eyes narrowed as he concentrated on following the thought only to be defeated again by the gaping chasm in his mind.
He looked up at the sky. In contrast to the bright sunshine of previous days it was dark and overcast with heavy clouds scudding across the face of the sun. There was clearly a storm brewing and it crossed Johnny’s mind to wonder what would happen if it began to rain before the Priest could conduct his sacrifice. No doubt he’d go ahead with it anyway, justifying it as thanks to his gods for sending the rain. In his experience fanatics could always find a way to explain their actions.
He mounted a handsome bay horse and followed Diaz out of the yard at a fast trot. The day was advancing toward noon as the small procession of riders approached the entrance to the temple compound. Johnny kept a tight grip on his feelings as they rode through the gates.
His eyes were drawn upwards to the altar and his stomach muscles clenched in fear. The forecourt was crowded with groups of workers and their families being closely guarded by watchful men carrying rifles. The sounds of human despair ceased and Johnny realised that all eyes had turned to watch his progress to the foot of the pyramid structure. His direct blue gaze swept across the mass of people, seeing fear, hope and sympathy on their faces.
He dismounted and watched his horse being led away, waiting patiently to see what would happen next. He wasn’t surprised to see the Priest approaching him. Over the years Johnny had seen many predators, both four legged and human, and this creature was a perfect example. Johnny felt sickened by the mixture of anticipation and blood lust being directed toward him. His fingers curled into the palms of his hands to hide their tremors.
Johnny’s eyes followed the line of the Priest’s arm as he pointed toward one of the entrances to the main temple building. He grimaced as the barrel of a rifle prodded him between the shoulder blades causing him to stumble. His legs felt like lead weights as he forced himself to move forward.
The doorway led to a winding passageway that worked its way steadily underground. The walls were lined with torches set in brackets that cast just enough light to show the way. Johnny followed the Priest, acutely aware of Diaz and a couple of the others following him. It was easy to lose track of time and Johnny wasn’t sure if they’d been walking for five minutes or an hour by the time the passage opened out into a natural cave. The few torches did little to dispel the gloom and, looking upwards, Johnny could no longer see the ceiling.
“You’ll remain here until it is time.”
Johnny flinched as the Priest stepped close to him. He felt his skin crawl as fingers gripped either side of his face, forcing him to look into eyes filled with the promise of a painful death. He felt his mind being assaulted, all his worst memories pulled to the surface.
“So many sins for one so young.”
Johnny heard the voice and was overcome with a sense of soul crushing misery. He had sinned and there was no one to grant him absolution. He called on God to forgive him and felt the Priest withdraw from his mind with a hiss of pain.
“Chain him up and keep a close watch on him.”
The ropes around Johnny’s wrists were replaced by cold metal as he was pushed into a corner of the cave and chained to the wall. He bent his head and prayed.
Voices, echoing faintly down the passage, woke Johnny. He was shocked to realise that he had been asleep. His arms, chained above his head, were numb and the muscles in his legs shook with the effort of holding him upright. Several men entered the cave carrying torches. They were followed by the Priest who was carrying several items of clothing that he deposited on the ground at Johnny’s feet. Diaz, Johnny noted, was carrying a flask and a cup.
Diaz held out the cup as the Priest took the flask, removed the stopper, and poured out the liquid. Johnny remembered what Don Pedro had told him. A cold determination settled over him; he was not going to his death filled full of drugs.
“Not like this,” he protested. “I won’t be led like an animal to the slaughter house.”
“It is part of the ritual,” the Priest snapped. “There are formalities that must be observed.”
“Wouldn’t your gods prefer to have me walking like a man; a willing sacrifice? You’ll get your death, there’s nothing I can do about that now, but I’ll get to keep my dignity. Is that too much to ask?”
Johnny held his breath as the Priest considered the proposition. “I don’t deny it has a certain appeal. Do I have your word that you won’t cause any trouble?”
“Yes.” Johnny couldn’t interpret the smug smile that appeared on the Priest’s face.
He sighed with relief as Diaz laid the cup down and produced the key for the shackles. His arms were heavy as they dropped down to his sides. He felt the pins and needles of returning circulation.
“Get undressed and put those on,” the Priest indicated the clothing lying on the floor.
It was an effort to get his numb fingers to follow instructions and Johnny fumbled with the buttons of his shirt. The cold air caressed his bare chest, raising goose bumps, as he slid the garment from his shoulders. He unbuckled his belt and unbuttoned his trousers to leave himself standing wearing only his drawers, socks and boots.
“Everything.” The Priest was growing impatient.
Johnny swallowed hard before removing his remaining items of clothing. He reached down for the loose fitting pair of white cotton trousers and pulled them on. The only remaining item was a black robe which proved to reach to a point midway between his knees and ankles. He fastened the buttons at the front, grateful for the warmth provided by the heavy material.
His hands were tied, behind his back this time, and Diaz took hold of the upper part of his right arm to lead him, none too gently, back to the passageway to the surface. The floor was uneven and littered with small pebbles. Johnny walked unsteadily as the sharp pieces of stone sank into the tender skin on the soles of his feet. He found himself almost glad to have someone gripping his arm.
Close to the surface the passageway branched off and Johnny found himself emerging into a long corridor enclosed by ten foot high walls. The corridor ended at the outside wall of the temple. Johnny was pulled to a momentary halt and the Priest moved ahead of him. They climbed the steps cut into the outside of the building and emerged into the open air.
It was growing dark although it was too early for moonrise. Johnny lifted his face to the breeze, allowing it to cool his sweat dampened skin. Thunder crashed overhead, tormenting already over-taxed nerves. Johnny took his last step up to find himself standing on the flat roof of the temple. An armed guard stood at each corner looking down toward the people gathered in the forecourt. The crowd had been positioned far enough back that they had a good view of what was happening above them. They stood in complete silence.
To the south side of the platform stood a group of half a dozen men, robed in black and hooded so that Johnny couldn’t make out their features. Braziers and torches had been positioned close to the altar. Now that he was closer to it Johnny could see that it was black polished stone which was completely plain and unadorned. He licked his lips nervously as he beheld a large, heavy knife lying on the altar. His imagination ran riot as he anticipated it ripping into his flesh.
He felt a tugging on the ropes around his wrists as the knots were untied. Under the watchful gaze of the Priest he was pushed toward the altar where his robe was removed leaving him bare chested and exposed to the steadily increasing wind. He found himself frozen to the spot, unable to think or move.
Four of the hooded men detached themselves from the small group taking up position with one at each corner of the altar. Once he was lying on his back the men bound him, spread-eagled, so that his skin was stretched tightly over his ribcage. His breath was coming in short shallow bursts and his eyes were wide with uncontrollable terror. He struggled mindlessly against the restraints as he watched the Priest pick up and study the knife. He whispered something to Diaz, who nodded and disappeared down the steps.
Moving so that his back was to Johnny, the Priest looked down upon his captive audience. He raised his arms above his head, the knife pointing into the night sky.
“For thousands of years this land was ruled by the Aztec gods…Quetzacoatl, the feathered serpent, Tonatiuh, the lord of the sun and many more. They were honoured by the rulers and the people and, in return, they provided protection, food and rebirth as season followed season. They rightly demanded sacrifices as proof of worship and respect. The arrival of the Spanish changed all that.” The Priest almost spat in disgust. “They destroyed the old ways and drove out the old religion, and the gods retreated to regain their strength and plot their revenge.
“Now they are ready to return. For the last two years there has been no rain in this valley; the gods have withheld it as punishment for being ignored. They are ready to retake their rightful places in the universe and they demand your respect for they could destroy each and every one of you. I am an emissary of the Storm god, Tlaloc. Look around you and you will see the evidence of his presence here tonight. The thunder is his voice and the lightening is his eyes watching all of you and judging if you are worthy to survive.”
Johnny heard a rising babble of voices, competing with the thunder and the wind that was now gusting around the platform.
“BE QUIET.” The Priest roared and the voices fell silent. “Tlaloc has chosen his sacrifice. He will send the rains and the valley will prosper under my direction. Get down on your knees and worship the gods.”
Unable to see what was going on Johnny could nevertheless picture what was happening. The power emanating from the Priest would not be denied. A momentary break in the cloud cover showed Johnny that the full moon had risen and that it was standing directly overhead. His time had just run out.
He was jolted out of his thoughts by the sound of his name. He lifted his head as far as he could, suddenly aware that the Priest had turned to look at him with triumph.
“Murdoch,” he breathed the word, unable to comprehend how his father had arrived at this place. His confusion increased when he recognised Val standing beside his father, both obviously prisoners. If his father was here then where was…..
The two remaining black clad figures were now walking toward him. The taller of the two reached up and pushed back his hood and Johnny finally understood the true extent of the Priest’s cruelty.
Scott reached over and took the knife from the Priest, before positioning himself on the left side of the altar. Johnny had eyes only for his brother. “Scott…brother…don’t do this. I know what he’s done to you. You have to fight it. Listen to me,” he begged.
Scott raised his right hand, the knife held firmly in his grasp. The Priest moved to stand beside him with an expression of pure delight on his face.
Johnny locked eyes with his brother; his sapphire stare boring into unfathomable stormy grey orbs so unlike his brother’s normally calm and even gaze. He was so intent upon the sight of Scott’s face that he didn’t realise that the knife was now flashing downward toward his exposed chest.
When Murdoch had been led out on to the platform and had seen Johnny bound to the altar he had fallen into a profound state of shock. It had been all he could manage to call his son’s name. As he saw the two hooded figures walking toward Johnny he had felt a deep hatred for the men who were about to kill his son. When he realised that his beloved younger son was about to be murdered by his equally cherished older son his heart almost stopped beating. Unable to speak, his throat closed with grief, he stared at Scott’s profile, trying to see something in his face to explain why he was about to butcher the brother that meant the world to him.
As the knife descended his knees buckled and he was only kept upright by the strong grip of his guard. He turned away, unable to watch the death of his sons. He had no doubt that Scott’s killing stroke would end his life as surely as it ended his brother’s.
Val stared at the scene before him in horror-struck silence. Suddenly he saw what Murdoch had missed. “Murdoch….look.”
The knife descended and Johnny gasped as the tip penetrated his skin. He grasped the imprisoning ropes as he waited for the tearing agony to begin. For an eternity he lay perfectly still, eyes locked on his brother’s face.
Scott shook his head in confusion and withdrew the knife. The shallow cut wept crimson blood that ran in a fitful stream down Johnny’s bare chest. Scott’s hands began to shake as he stared at the knife.
The Priest urgently placed his hand on Scott’s shoulder and leaned in to hiss directly into his ear. “Why are you fighting me? You know what you have to do. The instructions were clear. How dare you defy the gods?” His voice rose hysterically. “Use the knife and cut out his heart,” he demanded as his lean bony fingers tightened their grip on Scott.
Scott’s head was bowed as he nodded and took a firmer hold on the knife. He took a deep breath before looking dispassionately at Johnny. The silence stretched between them as the Priest fidgeted impatiently.
“Scott?” Johnny whispered as the knife was again raised high in the air. “No….”
Scott’s first stroke severed the rope holding Johnny’s left arm immobile. The second slashed through the rope restraining his right arm. A split second before the knife fell Johnny had seen the change in his brother’s eyes….once again they were a familiar grey blue filled with recognition and love.
The ghastly smile that had appeared on the Priest’s face froze in place as Scott swung round and buried the knife in his gut. Scott’s left hand shot out, and he took hold of a handful of the Priest’s robe, preventing any backward movement.
“That’s my brother, you black hearted bastard. My job is to protect him, and nothing,” Scott punctuated the word by twisting the knife in deeper, “nothing would ever make me kill him.”
The Priest gasped soundlessly, his hands groping for the handle of the knife. Scott wrenched the knife out, not caring how much pain he was inflicting and plunged it into the Priest’s heart. “Go back to hell where you came from.” He released his hold on the robe and watched as the man crumpled to the ground.
Johnny realised the danger they were in, surrounded by hostile, armed men. He sat up and attacked the knots securing the ropes around his ankles. Scott had his back to him so Johnny couldn’t see his brother’s face but he could see that there was no movement at all from his blond sibling. His frantic efforts to attract Scott’s attention were swallowed up by an ear splitting clap of thunder. The night was immediately lit up by forked lightening that struck the platform, blasting shards of stone in every direction.
The four acolytes that had bound Johnny to the altar looked fearfully at each other and began to back away toward the nearest exit from the exposed platform. Screams drifted up from the people gathered in the forecourt as they began to scramble over each other to get away. Shots sounded as the armed men on the roof of the temple fired down into the mob to try and restore order. As people fell, wounded and dying, all the months of pent up fear and anger bubbled to the surface. Without any need for direction many of the men turned from their headlong flight and flung themselves instead on the armed men within reach.
Don Pedro saw the vulnerability of the men on the platform. Johnny was still struggling to free himself while his father and friend remained bound and helpless. His elderly legs weren’t capable of great speed and his breath was coming in harsh gasps as he climbed the steps to help them.
Finally jolted out of his own shock, Stefano, who had been shadowing Scott, tore at the buttons holding his own robe in place. The heavy material refused to part, leaving him unable to reach his gun. Seeing that Scott still hadn’t moved he launched himself at the unsuspecting young man only to find his way blocked by an irate and very determined Johnny.
“You leave my brother alone.” Johnny’s first blow knocked Stefano backwards. Unable to keep his balance he fell, landing on his backside. Johnny kicked him hard in the stomach and he doubled over. A further kick, this time to the head, sent his senses reeling. In a daze, he was only vaguely aware that Johnny was now kneeling by his side and taking possession of his gun.
Seeing that Johnny was now armed Diaz released his hold on Murdoch and brought his own gun to bear on the former gunhawk. Johnny’s smile was the last thing he saw before he joined his master in hell.
After a brief acknowledgment for his father and Val, Johnny took off, intent upon neutralising the armed men standing at each corner firing down onto the people below. Murdoch sensed a movement behind him. For a large man he could move quickly when he had to and, as he spun round, he found himself face to face with an elegantly dressed Mexican.
Don Pedro struggled for breath. “Let me help you. Turn round and I will untie these ropes.”
Murdoch wasn’t going to waste any time on unnecessary pleasantries and he did as instructed. Once he and Val were free he pointed to Diaz’s gun. “Johnny could use your help. I’m going to see to Scott.”
Val picked up the gun. “I’ll watch Johnny’s back. You need to get Scott out of the line of fire. I don’t reckon he has any idea what’s goin’ on round about now.”
Murdoch approached his son cautiously, aware that he was still armed with a knife. “Scott, its Murdoch. Can you turn and look at me, son?” He kept a prudent distance between them. “You’re not safe here. Johnny won’t be happy if, after all this, you go and get shot.”
“Johnny?” The sound was so faint that at first Murdoch thought he had imagined it. “They told me to kill him…to kill my own brother.”
Murdoch took a tentative step forward. “You saved his life. He’s fine and you will be too.”
Scott turned slowly to face his father, the knife held out between them. “See the blood? That’s Johnny’s.”
“No it’s not. You killed that monster that was going to sacrifice your brother. Look at his body and you’ll see I’m telling the truth.”
The drugs flooding his system and the severe shock that he had just experienced combined to overwhelm Scott’s mind. A brief lucid moment, in which he just had time to ask what had happened, was followed by a merciful collapse. Murdoch caught his son and held him tightly against his chest as the first drop of rain fell.
Having a gun in his hand once more energised Johnny and he despatched two of the Priest’s men with clinical efficiency. A stinging pain in his left arm warned him of other enemies and he spun to fire only to see the man that had shot him collapse from a well-placed bullet.
“Thought you might need some help,” Val commented, picking up a discarded rifle.
“Hey, Val, what’re you doing here?” Johnny fired again and another man fell, clearing the roof of danger.
Val threw him the rifle and collected another one for himself. “These’ll be of more use.” Side by side they fired down on the armed men below until it became apparent that they were either going to give up or be overwhelmed by the mob of angry peons.
“Scott said you were in trouble and needed bailing out,” Val continued as if the conversation had never been interrupted. “Looks like he was right. When are you goin’ to learn to stay outta trouble?”
"Oh, come on Val, this time it really wasn’t my fault,” Johnny protested.
“I wish I could believe that, buddy.”
The cold stinging rain reminded Johnny that he was only partially dressed. Now that the fight was over he could feel the adrenaline draining out of his body. He felt a throbbing pain from the bullet crease to his arm and the superficial stab wound to his chest. Weariness crept over him as he picked up a discarded robe and draped it around his shoulders. Looking past the altar on which he had nearly lost his life, he saw his father standing protectively over his unconscious brother, holding a rifle and clearly looking for any excuse to use it. As his eyes swept around he saw Don Pedro standing by himself, looking lost. He caught the Don’s eye and inclined his head. Don Pedro bowed in return, a gesture of respect that brought the color to Johnny’s cheeks.
Val watched the silent exchange with interest. “Who’s that?”
“Don Pedro Mendez. This is his land.”
“And he let this happen?” Val scratched his head in bewilderment and directed a less than friendly glare at the man.
“Don’t be too hard on him, amigo. He’s a good man who was caught in a bad situation.”
Val’s snort clearly demonstrated his scepticism. “Why don’t you go over to your pa? I’ll have a word with this Don Pedro character and start gettin’ things sorted out. We’ll likely need a wagon to get Scott outta here. How far to his hacienda?”
“A couple of hours by wagon. Less on horseback. There won’t be anyone there though. They were all brought here to watch…..” Johnny’s blood ran cold as he considered how things might have turned out.
Val had been around long enough to recognise a man on the verge of collapse when he saw one. He pushed Johnny gently toward his father before stomping off to introduce himself to Don Pedro. In deference to Johnny he decided against giving the man a piece of his mind right that second.
“Murdoch,” Johnny couldn’t look his father in the eye. “How’s Scott?”
"He’s still unconscious.” Murdoch walked slowly over to where his son was standing, head down and clutching one of the black robes around his chest. He reached out and gently tilted Johnny’s head up so that he could look at him. “Why Johnny?”
“Can we talk about it later? I just want to get out of here and we need to get Scott under some sort of cover. Val’s organising a wagon. Can you carry him? I don’t think….” Johnny felt a wave of dizziness wash over him and he began to shiver in the cold rain. “It hasn’t rained here for two years, you know? Can you imagine what that must have been like? Everything they’d ever worked for was just turning to dust. No wonder they thought the Devil had come to the valley. Maybe he had. Maybe….” Johnny’s voice trailed off and Murdoch found himself lowering his younger son to lie beside his brother.
“Val.” The rancher’s bellow got the sheriff’s attention. “I’m going to need some help to get these two moved.”
Twenty minutes later Murdoch had his sons safely stowed in the back of a wagon. Val had rigged up a canopy that was sturdy enough to keep off the worst of the rain. One of Don Pedro’s stable boys was instructed to drive the wagon back to the hacienda while Murdoch commandeered one of the horses so that he could ride behind and keep an eye on the precious cargo.
Val had tried to introduce Murdoch to Don Pedro only to stutter to a halt at the look of intense loathing on Murdoch’s face.
“My house is at your disposal,” Don Pedro advised.
“We’ll be leaving as soon as my boys are fit to travel and I will be making the authorities aware of what happened here.” With that said, Murdoch had pointedly turned his back, quelling the urge to inflict physical violence on this man who had been prepared to stand back and let his sons be murdered.
After a long and very wet ride Murdoch and the wagon approached the hacienda. Murdoch spared the magnificent house only a passing glance. The only reason for setting foot in Don Pedro’s home was to secure some place comfortable for his sons. He had been relieved that neither Scott nor Johnny had woken up during the difficult journey. The rain was falling so heavily that it was impossible to see more than a few yards in any direction. The earth, so long starved of moisture, was absorbing the water hungrily but it wouldn’t be long before the tracks turned to rivers of mud.
Murdoch dismounted stiffly and hurried round to the back of the wagon. Johnny’s head was resting on Scott’s chest and Scott’s arm was flung protectively across his brother. A number of wagons and horses had arrived back before them and men hurried out to help carry the boys inside.
An elderly woman, who introduced herself as Senora Avila, took charge and Murdoch was directed to a ground floor bedroom that proved to contain two large beds.
“You need to get them dry and then you need to get dry yourself,” Senora Avila counselled him. Murdoch looked down at his soaking wet clothes having given no thought at all to his own comfort.
Murdoch peeled off Johnny’s thin pants and got him as dry as possible before directing two of the men to put him in bed. As the blankets were pulled over his naked body Johnny gave a contented sigh and turned his head to nestle his cheek in the pillows.
With fingers shaking from cold and stress Murdoch unbuttoned Scott’s robe. The heavy wool had absorbed most of the rain but Scott’s skin was icy to the touch and the lack of any color in his face worried Murdoch deeply. He lay where he was put, making no sound or movement to show he was still alive.
Senora Avila bustled back into the room with a handful of clothes. “See if any of these fit. Breakfast will be ready soon. I will bring it to you. You need to eat. Your sons will need your strength when they wake up.”
Murdoch surrendered gratefully to her orders and settled down to keep watch over his sons.
The day continued to be dark and very wet. A bedraggled Val stopped by to say that they had everything under control. He told Murdoch he would be back once he’d changed and had something to eat. Shortly after his visit Johnny began to stir. Murdoch leaned forward eagerly and waited for blue eyes to open. Johnny had slept deeply and peacefully. Murdoch had checked out his wounds and had satisfied himself that they were superficial. He had bandaged the flesh wound on Johnny’s arm and had wrapped bandages around his chest to avoid the risk of infection.
Johnny stretched languidly before opening his eyes. A smile for his father quickly turned to concern as he saw how still and pale his brother was. He was out of bed before Murdoch could stop him, dragging the sheet with him to try and preserve some illusion of decency. He took hold of Scott’s right hand and caught his breath when he realised how cold it was.
“We need to warm him up.”
“You need to get back into bed,” Murdoch tried to be stern but the truth was he was overcome with relief to have Johnny back.
Johnny pulled the blankets off his bed and added them to the pile already wrapped around his brother. Taking hold of Scott’s hand again he began to rub it, calling softly to his brother, begging him to wake up. Scott’s breathing deepened and the unnatural pallor left his face. He opened his eyes.
"Welcome back, brother.”
Scott pulled away, looked from his brother to his father, and smiled. The smile faded almost as quickly as it had arisen as he remembered with horror the heinous act he had almost carried out. His mental withdrawal from his family was as clear as if he got up and walked out of the room.
Johnny saw his brother’s distress. “I know what they gave you and by rights you should have done exactly what they told you to do. I don’t know how you did it….resisting their orders and killing the Priest….but I ain’t gonna complain about it.”
Scott pulled the blankets further up his chest and turned away, filled with an unreasoning guilt. He couldn’t get past the feeling of despair he had experienced as he had watched himself raise the knife and ….he swung his head back round to stare at Johnny’s chest. The sight of the bandages made him feel sick….he’d stabbed his brother.
“It was nothing, Scott. Murdoch, get these off me. He needs to see for himself.” Johnny was frantically pulling at the bandages.
“Settle down, both of you. Scott, it was a very minor wound that’s already started to heal. Johnny, you get back in that bed at once. You’re both still exhausted and need to rest. I’m going down to the kitchen to get you some food after which you’ll both go back to sleep.”
Johnny grumbled as he got back into bed. “I don’t appreciate being treated like a child.” He darted a look across at Scott, relieved to see a slight smile on his brother’s face. “Anyway you can’t go to the kitchen. Beatriz won’t allow it.”
Murdoch smirked. “Senora Avila and I have come to an understanding. She told me I was welcome any time. Now you two stay put and I’ll be back soon.”
By the following morning the rain had eased although there was no sign of it stopping. Murdoch woke from the first good night’s sleep he’d had in days and went to look in on his sons. Scott was still asleep; Johnny’s bed was empty. Cursing all stubborn younger sons, Murdoch made for the only logical place and, as expected, found Johnny in the barn with Barranca.
Johnny heard his father’s unmistakeable heavy tread, clasped his hands behind his back, lowered his head and began tracing circles in the dust on the floor with the toe of his boot.
“I see you found your clothes,” Murdoch commented mildly.
“Yeah, Val brought them back for me. There’s no use you telling me off….I ain’t sick and I don’t need to be in bed.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you off. I’m glad you’re out here, it’ll give us a chance to talk. Why don’t you come and sit down.” Murdoch gestured toward some bales of hay. He still couldn’t get over how his self-sufficient son could at times manage to look like a naughty school boy.
They sat side by side with Murdoch studying the top of Johnny’s dark head as his son still refused to meet his eyes. “Do you want to tell me what this was all about?”
Johnny’s busy fingers were pulling lumps of hay out of the tightly packed bale. “Not sure how to explain it,” he mumbled. “It was just something I had to do.”
“That’s not good enough. You ran off without any explanation. You did your best to make sure we couldn’t find you and your brother was convinced that you weren’t fighting this Priest person who’d apparently decided to sacrifice you to his ‘gods’. I want to know why.”
“D’you believe in the Devil, Murdoch? A lot of years ago I made a deal with him. He almost collected his payment that day in front of the firing squad. I wasn’t meant to survive that. When Felipe….” Johnny’s heart thumped hard in his chest as the missing pieces of his memory fell into place. “That bastard had him killed.”
“I’m sorry Johnny I don’t know who you’re talking about and, in answer to your question, no I don’t believe in the Devil.”
“That’s what I told Felipe but we were both wrong. You saw the Devil yesterday. Scott killed him.”
Murdoch stood up, towering over his son. “We need to get you to a doctor. I don’t know what that man did to you but….”
“I ain’t crazy. The Devil’s real. He’s the dark part of your soul where you’ll make any promise just to survive. That’s what I did. And coming here was my way of making up for all the bad things I did in my life; for all the killing. Yesterday was my time to die only I didn’t and I only hope the fact I was willing to die is going to be enough.”
With a last searching look at his father Johnny left the barn and walked back to the house, oblivious of the looks of respect he was receiving from everyone who saw him.
Murdoch was so deep in thought that he almost ran into Don Pedro when he eventually left the barn to return indoors. He had spent some time the previous day talking to Val about the Don and had been surprised to find that Val had been quite taken with the man.
“You and I need to talk,” Murdoch stated bluntly.
Once in the privacy of the study Don Pedro offered Murdoch a drink. Although it wasn’t yet midday both men silently acknowledged that some liquid fortification was required for the discussion ahead.
“I think you owe me an explanation as to why I almost lost both my sons yesterday.”
“Yes, Mr. Lancer, I do.”
For the next hour Don Pedro described the worsening drought, the arrival of the Priest with his dark practices and the insidious way the man had taken control of the valley. “When he arrived we had been without rain for eighteen months. We were barely holding on. When we reached the season when it should have rained and it didn’t we had no hope left. He’d been gathering men around him, dangerous, vicious men. Then the fires started and you must be able to understand how frightening that was. He convinced everyone that the old Aztec gods had returned and that they were displeased. He told us that there was only one way to make them send the rains. When you’re frightened and desperate you’ll cling onto any hope for your salvation.
“I don’t know how he chose your son; he told me the gods showed Johnny to him. He made me send one of the young men, Felipe, to find him. Felipe thought he was bringing back Johnny Madrid to defeat the evil that had invaded our home. He had no idea what he was really bringing him to. But Johnny knew and he came willingly and, for that, I owe him a debt of gratitude I can never repay. He came and he stayed and he was willing to die for us. He believed the Devil had brought him here. I believe it was God and that God also guided your other son.”
“Why didn’t you send for outside help? There must be towns near here. You are clearly wealthy. You could have afforded to buy food and have water brought in.”
“Don’t you think I tried? Once the Priest and his men took over it was impossible to leave the valley. What would you have done?”
“Not this. Never this. I’d have fought back.”
“And you would have died and then who would have looked out for your people? I have a responsibility for hundreds of people. If one life could have saved them all, well that isn’t such a bad bargain. Ask your son. He understood.”
“Then that is the difference between us because I never will.”
Scott had woken to find himself alone. His clothes, which had been washed and ironed, lay across the foot of the bed. Ignoring his fatigue, and the aching in just about every muscle he possessed, he got up and dressed. The effort of fighting the effects of the drug had almost made his body shut down. He had been drifting in a void when his brother’s voice and touch had drawn him back. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
He had been used….by something or someone….and he felt dirty and ashamed. He hadn’t questioned it while it was happening until the end when he knew he had to take back control to save Johnny’s life. Feeling somewhat foolish he let his thoughts reach out to his brother and felt….nothing. Whatever had connected them was gone and he began to doubt that it had ever existed….had ever been more than just a figment of his overheated imagination.
He sat by the window and watched the rain, not responding when he heard the door open and close softly.
“Murdoch won’t be happy to find you out of bed,” Johnny informed his brother. “You need to rest up so that we can head home before this rain makes it impossible to travel.”
“What happened, Johnny? Why did you leave us?” Scott’s eyes followed the trail of water as it ran down the windowpane.
“It was something I had to do, only I guess it wasn’t my time otherwise you wouldn’t have found me. I didn’t want you or Murdoch getting hurt and I knew you wouldn’t have let me come if you’d known.”
“Did you feel it? It was as if I could reach out and touch you. I knew where you were and the other day I was inside your nightmares.”
“He….the Priest….he made me open my mind to you. He wanted to make sure he could capture you so’s he could use you to kill me. He sure made a mistake about that. It’s over, Scott. The Devil lost.”
“Did he, brother? I wish I could be so sure.”
The rain continued to fall and Murdoch began to fret that they would find the roads impassable. After two days Scott declared himself well enough to travel and refused to be dissuaded. The night before they were to leave Johnny sought a private meeting with Don Pedro.
“I’ve spoken to Murdoch. He ain’t happy but I’ve persuaded him not to make trouble with the authorities. He doesn’t understand what it was like for you and your people and I think he’s feeling kinda guilty that he didn’t see what was happening before I took off.”
“No one here will ever forget what you and your brother did for us. Will he be all right?”
“Yeah, I’ll make sure he is.” Johnny picked up a paperweight from the desk and turned it so that the light from the lamps sparked off the crystal. “I’m sorry about Felipe. He was a good man. He didn’t deserve to be used like that.”
“He had his part to play. I pray that he has found peace.” Don Pedro remembered something that Johnny didn’t yet know. “We found Felix. His throat had been cut and his body left behind the barn. It apprears his master had no further use for him.”
And that dark place in Johnny’s soul rejoiced.
As Val and the Lancers rode away from the hacienda the Devil sat and brooded about the failure of his plans. In irritation he kicked the Priest’s soul and tried to find satisfaction in the whimper of pain. Everything had been working out perfectly until there was outside interference. He mentally added Scott Lancer to the list of souls he wanted to collect. He wondered what he would have to do to persuade that young man to sell his soul as his brother had done.
Tormenting a soul as black as the Priest’s was of only limited amusement. Far better were the souls of those who were inherently good but who had either made a bargain or a mistake that he could capitalise upon.
Twice now he had been cheated out of Johnny Madrid Lancer’s soul. Twice the boy had been snatched away at the last moment from the jaws of death and eternal damnation. Well, he had time, and it would only be a matter of time before a third opportunity presented itself. Next time he wouldn’t fail.