"Where have you been, Juanito?"
The boy scowled from under his unruly black bangs. "My name is Johnny. I'm not a niño any more."
"Si, I can see that." Hands planted on her hips, Maria returned her son's belligerent stare. "But, you are still underage. Your father and I were worried about you."
"He isn't my father." The deep blue eyes darkened further.
"He has been good to us, Juan...Johnny. You should show him more respect." She sighed as her son's mouth set in a thin line. He was so like his real father sometimes - stubborn, self-opinionated and only interested in himself. "Where have you been?" she asked more gently. "It is almost midnight." When he bowed his head and began to fiddle with the frayed edge of his shirt she knew she wasn't going to like the answer. "You have been in the cantina again!" she accused.
"What if I have? I'm almost fifteen."
“If Angelo finds out he’ll take a belt to you again. How many times does he have to beat some obedience into you?” It almost broke her heart to look at her wild son. He wasn’t a bad boy. It was just that he was finding it harder and harder to live the simple life of a peon. If he were given his head, he’d leave and his temper would likely get him killed. She crossed herself as she imagined him lying in an unmarked grave. She hadn’t stolen him away from Murdoch Lancer only to lose him now.
“I am too old to be beaten.”
Johnny’s hands were clenched at his sides, but she could see a hint of fear lurking behind the bravado. Angelo Madrid was a large man who was slow to anger, but had a heavy hand when pushed beyond endurance by the disrespectful behavior of her son.
“Why must everything be a battle? You will break my heart, mi hijo.”
Her words brought instant contrition. “Lo siento, Mama.”
Johnny crossed the small kitchen, his shy smile transforming his face. Oh, he was so handsome and could be effortlessly charming. He was already turning heads among the young girls of their village. She wondered if any had managed to lure him into the hayloft yet. Perhaps that was what he needed – a pretty girl to fall in love with. He was becoming a man almost before her eyes and each day brought her closer to losing him. He had so much passion for life – much like her, before she had made the mistake of falling in love with a man so driven to succeed that he had ignored her. No, that was not fair she decided. Her husband had worked hard and she had resented the amount of time he had spent on running his precious ranch.
“You are growing so quickly.” She reached up to pat his cheek. “Do not be in too much of a hurry to leave me.”
The smile disappeared. “There is a whole world out there and I am tired of taking orders from Diego.”
“Diego does what he must. This is Don Salvador’s land and he relies on Diego to make sure that the work gets done. The service we all provide is the price we pay for having a home.”
“We had a home.”
“That was in the past.” She was glad that Johnny had no memory of Lancer or his father. If he ever found out the truth, she would never be able to keep him by her side. “You should go to bed now. You have to be up at dawn. The harvest will not wait.”
“One day I will go back to California and kill Murdoch Lancer for what he did to you.”
Maria grabbed her son’s arm, truly frightened by the hatred in his voice. “You stay away from him. He is a powerful man and if you hurt him they will hang you.” Tears sprang to her eyes. “Promise me, Juanito.”
He looked away, muttering a sullen promise. She kissed him on the cheek, pushing him gently toward the corner of the room where his sleeping pallet lay. He lay down, turning his back on her as he pulled the threadbare blanket around his shoulders. She watched him for a moment, regretting for the thousandth time the hasty decision she had made all those years ago. There were tears in her eyes as she picked up the candle and made her way to the bed that she shared with the man who loved her.
As soon as his mother had gone Johnny rolled onto his back. He stared up at the small window and the night sky, too excited to sleep. He knew that he’d disappointed his mother, who believed, wrongly, that he had gone to the cantina in the hope that one of the men would take pity on him and buy him a glass of weak beer. That was a long way from being the truth.
He had been on his way home when he’d seen a man ride into town. That, of itself, was unusual as their village was a long way from any of the main routes. The man and his horse had both looked tired – as if they had been running for a long time. It was the animal more than the man that had first captured Johnny’s attention. He yearned to be able to ride. How often had he watched Don Salvador and his sons riding their beautiful mounts? If his own father hadn’t been such an unfeeling bastard he would have been the one living in luxury, respected as the Patron’s only son and heir. He repeated his silent vow. He would make Murdoch Lancer pay.
It was an effort to stop brooding upon the unfairness of his life. Better, though, to plan for the future. He resolutely returned his thoughts to the horse he had seen that afternoon. It wasn’t in the same class as the thoroughbreds owned by his master. Nevertheless, it had held its head up proudly despite the weariness in its gait.
Forgetting that he was expected home for supper he had followed the man to the small stable, listening as instructions were given to Manuel as to the animal’s care. As the man left the stable, Johnny’s eyes were drawn to his gunbelt. No one in his village owned a handgun. Only Diego, the Don’s overseer, had a rifle and Johnny’s ears tingled as he remembered being slapped around the head on the one occasion he had tried to touch it. More than anything Johnny wanted to own a gun. He imagined holding it to his father’s head and pulling the trigger. Guns meant power and inspired respect, both things that Johnny aspired to.
Fascinated by the man, Johnny had followed him to the cantina. The few people on the streets had stared at the gringo with a mixture of fear and scorn. He heard one word being whispered over and over – ‘Pistolero’. His heart beat faster. This man was a gunfighter. He had heard stories of these men who killed for money. He imagined himself with a gun strapped to his hip, feared and deadly. Everyone would know his name. Johnny Lancer – no, he would not use that bastard’s name. Johnny Madrid – si, that was a good name for a gunfighter.
The locals had stayed a respectful distance away from the gunfighter as he downed glass after glass of cheap whiskey. Johnny had watched, too scared to approach and ask the questions that were tumbling through his mind. When the man had succumbed to the liquor, his head falling forward to rest on the rough wooden table, Johnny had felt a twinge of contempt. He would never sink into a drunken stupor. His cause would be noble – protecting the peons from the unjust landowners. Secretly disappointed with the gunfighter, he’d finally made his way home, resolved to return in the morning and find out how to take his first steps on the path to greatness.
The following morning Maria woke just as the sun was rising. Angelo stirred sleepily as she gathered her clothes. She smothered a yawn. Waiting up for her wayward son had cost her many hours sleep.
“Buenos dias, mi amor,” Angelo greeted her. “I missed you in our bed last night. Did the boy come home?”
She knew that Angelo understood her concern, although he frequently warned her that Johnny was too adventurous and independent to stay penned in their small village for long.
“Si, he came home.” Maria hastily tied her apron around her waist and, with her back to Angelo, rested her hand briefly on her belly. After all these years who would have thought that she would conceive again? Excitement mingled with fear. At thirty-five a pregnancy was risky. Johnny’s birth had been hard and she had believed it had rendered her barren as no further children had followed.
That he already had an older brother was a secret she would take to her grave. The boy, Scott, would be almost eighteen now. She could still remember the arguments with her husband. She had seen Scott as a rival for Murdoch’s love and attention and it hadn’t sat well with her when it was suggested that Scott should be brought to Lancer. It wasn’t as if Murdoch had ever seen his first born son. Why the sudden urge to disrupt the child’s comfortable life? And, Harlan Garrett, Scott’s grandfather would not easily let the boy go. Letters passing painfully slowly between Boston and California made that clear.
They would have had to hire a lawyer at a time when they had little money to spare. It would have been necessary for Murdoch to travel to Boston and remain there for weeks – or even months. How would the ranch have survived? More to the point - how would she and her baby have survived?
In the midst of their rows, Murdoch had made an excuse to go away for a week and, during that time, she had met Robert Weston. He was a gambler, moving from town to town, who had been charming and understanding. He was the one who had suggested leaving her husband – just for a few days – to teach him a lesson. As a friend, he had offered to help. How naïve and foolish she had been then.
Three days after leaving Lancer, Robert hadn’t been so charming. He had forced her into his bed despite her cries of protest. Then, he’d thrown the hard, unpalatable truth at her. She had betrayed her marriage and had kidnapped her own child. Murdoch Lancer would never take her back, but he would take Johnny away from her.
In pain from the vicious rape, lost and penniless, she had been left with no option except to stay with him. He had never treated her as roughly again, but she had never forgiven him. Johnny had hated him and for days the little boy had screamed for his papa until Weston had lost patience. He had smacked her son until Johnny’s sobs had died away to a terrified silence. She could have lived with her own humiliation. Seeing her baby watching the world with wide frightened eyes was more than she could bear.
It had been a year before she finally had a chance to escape. During that time Johnny had turned from a happy, adventurous toddler into a sullen, disobedient child. Although she had thought of returning to Lancer, she knew that it was too late, and there was always the fear that she would encounter Weston somewhere along the route. So she had taken her carefully hoarded money and disappeared into the labyrinth of small villages spanning the Mexican border. For years, her fear had driven her from one village to another, taking any menial job available to her in order to survive.
Then, one day they had arrived here and she had met Angelo. Although they could not formally marry, he treated her as his wife and Johnny as his son. The last five years had been among the happiest of her life. They had a home and sufficient food on the table. Angelo worked in the fields for their Patron and she helped out at the hacienda. Johnny had received some basic tuition at the local Mission school. However, he was now old enough to be working side by side with his step-father. Most of the time he labored without complaint. If only he wasn’t so easily distracted.
As Angelo began to dress she went out to the kitchen. Johnny was fast asleep, sprawled across his thin mattress. Despite what Angelo might think she was under no illusions about her son. He would never settle for life in a small village. She could only pray that the lies she had told him wouldn’t lead him back to California. At least, God willing, she would have a new baby to console her. Soon, once she was past the uncertain first few months, she would break the news to Angelo and Johnny. Until then, it would remain her secret.
Johnny bowed his head to hide another yawn. He’d had far too little sleep and it was going to be a long, hard day. The corn crop was ready for harvesting. While the men and older children labored in the fields, the women would be drying and salting meat, preparing pickles and preserves, and generally ensuring that there would be enough food to see them through the winter.
Johnny didn’t mind hard work. What he hated was working under the orders of Diego. The man abused his position, mistreating the villagers and stealing to line his own pockets. Johnny had heard it whispered that Diego had taken a liking to Maria and had been very unhappy when she turned him down in favor of Angelo. Maybe that explained why Diego always treated him so harshly – giving him the hardest jobs and taking any opportunity to inflict physical pain. The man was a coward, Johnny decided, taking out his temper on a boy because he was afraid to take on Angelo. The abuse never happened in front of witnesses and Johnny had kept it to himself. When he was old enough, he would take his own revenge for every blow and kick.
He ate another spoonful of porridge as he thought about the day ahead of him. Soon the Don’s wagons would arrive to collect the workers. The men would go to the fields and the women would go to the hacienda to work in the large kitchen. If he hurried, there might just be time to go and speak to the gunfighter at the cantina. He rushed through the rest of his breakfast, carefully avoiding the look of displeasure he was sure he would find on his step-father’s face.
Once he was finished, he carried his bowl to the basin of warm water and then grabbed the bucket. “I’ll go and fetch some water before we leave.” He was out the door before anyone could call him back.
The cantina was only a few minutes walk away. There was a curtain over the doorway to keep out the insects and he hesitantly pushed it to one side. He could hear snores coming from the direction of the table where the gunfighter had been the previous evening. Voices drifted out of the kitchen behind the bar, where the owner, Raul and his family, would be gathering for their own breakfast.
Johnny moved quietly, being careful to avoid colliding with the rickety wooden tables and chairs. His eyes quickly adjusted to the gloomy interior and he saw that the man hadn’t moved. The sour smell of whiskey and sweat tickled his nose and caused his stomach to churn.
“Señor?” His voice hitched with fear, but the man didn’t move. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Señor?”
Johnny crept closer, his eyes drawn to the gun strapped to the man’s hip. Without thinking he held out his hand, edging nearer and nearer until his fingers could almost reach the smooth metal of the handle. His heart was beating wildly as he prepared to touch the weapon.
“What the hell d’you think you’re doing?” a harsh voice slurred.
Johnny jumped back in shock only to find himself pinned in place by an iron grip on his wrist. He looked up, his eyes wide with terror, to meet the cold grey stare of the gunfighter.
“Let the boy go. He did not mean any harm.”
The hold on his wrist was too tight to allow Johnny to do more than look quickly over his shoulder to where Angelo stood just inside the doorway. He was so shaken that he didn’t immediately take in the fact that Angelo had spoken in heavily accented English.
“Is he your brat?”
The gunfighter’s words came out thickly, sounding as if his tongue was too large for his mouth. Johnny recognized it as the effects of too much alcohol. He gasped as the man lurched to his feet, dragging him over to his step-father.
“Si, Señor, the boy is mine.”
Angelo stood his ground and, for once, Johnny didn’t dispute the relationship. Fear hammered in his chest and it took a moment for him to realize that he didn’t just fear for his own life. He waited passively, his teeth shut tight against the pain of being manhandled.
“You should teach him some manners,” the man continued. “No one touches my gun. Do you understand?”
The question was directed toward Johnny, who nodded vigorously. His wrist was released before the man staggered back to his chair. Johnny bowed his head to inspect his abused skin. He had an unpleasant feeling that his backside would soon be equally painful. A sideways look at his step-father confirmed that impression.
“The wagons are waiting. You and I will discuss this later.”
“Lo siento, Papa.” Johnny dredged up his most ingratiating smile which had saved his skin on more than one occasion. The stony look on Angelo’s face, however, gave very little room for hope this time.
“You keep your boy away from me. If I see him again, he won’t get off so lightly.”
Raul and his family, disturbed by the sound of voices, were now clustered in the doorway leading to the kitchen. Johnny saw little Cara, her dark eyes wide open, peering round her father.
The gunfighter glared at them. “Bring me some food.”
There was incomprehension on Raul’s face. Only a few people in the village knew any English. When he was younger, Johnny had pestered his mother about this, arguing that he should learn the gringo language as he was part American. Eventually, she had given in to his pleas and he had soaked up everything she could teach him. Feeling responsible now for the gunfighter’s anger he took a step forward.
“Alimento,” he explained, disgusted to find that his voice was shaking.
“Gracias, Juanito.” Raul gently disentangled Cara’s hand from his shirt and shooed her back into the kitchen.
Once they had gone, Angelo turned his attention back to Johnny. “Go. Apologize to Diego and tell him I will be there in a minute.”
Johnny scowled, forgetting his fear when faced with the prospect of groveling to a man he despised. His reluctance did not sit well with his step-father.
“You will obey me in this, boy.”
The controlled anger in the softly spoken words crushed Johnny’s defiance. He was already facing a taste of Angelo’s belt. Why make his punishment any worse? Biting back the words that would only guarantee he’d be unable to sit down tonight, he lowered his eyes. “Si, Papa.”
The gunfighter was ignoring them now, sitting with his head resting in his hands. He didn’t move as Johnny gratefully escaped outside. The sound of Angelo’s voice followed him.
“Now, Señor let us be clear. You will not threaten my son again.”
As Johnny ran to the far end of the village, and the waiting wagons, he felt a warm glow inside. His real father might not love him, but there could be no doubt that Angelo Madrid did.
Johnny’s steps slowed as he saw that everyone was looking at him. There were some smiles from his friends, but the majority watched him in disapproval. Heat rose in his cheeks as he forced himself not to hang his head in shame. His behavior would reflect badly on his mother and Angelo. He had heard some of the women once gossiping about his mother, and how little control she had over her ‘blue-eyed bastard.’ He’d lived with that taunt for as long as he could remember. Those who envied his mother’s beauty chose to disregard the fact that he had been born within a lawful marriage.
Diego, and more humiliation, lay ahead. He stopped, waiting for the overseer to turn and acknowledge him. Diego was purposely ignoring him, which gave him time to steady his breathing. He reminded Johnny of a rat with his lank dark hair and sharp features. Unfortunately, this rat had teeth and could cause his family a great deal of trouble.
Before Diego could draw breath to berate him, Johnny took the initiative. “I am sorry. It is my fault that we are late.” A hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently, reassured him that Angelo had arrived.
“Be very careful, mestizo, that I do not ask Don Salvador to throw you and your worthless mother off his land.”
Johnny’s whole body quivered with outrage at the insult to his mother. It didn’t help to know that he and Angelo were being deliberately provoked, goaded into saying or doing something unforgivable. Diego would take pleasure from depriving them of their home, to repay Maria for slighting him. Johnny’s forward movement and his intention to punch the man in the face were halted by Angelo’s hand, which still rested on his shoulder.
“It is unworthy to use your position to satisfy your petty vendettas.” Angelo placed himself between Diego and Johnny. “We have kept the Don waiting long enough. Johnny and I will answer for that. But, if you ever insult my woman again, I will tear out your poisonous tongue.”
Voices were raised in support and beads of sweat appeared on Diego’s forehead. “Get in the wagons,” he shouted unsteadily, before storming off to mount his horse.
Angelo steered Johnny toward the second wagon. Johnny twisted round to look up at his step-father, intending to offer another apology.
“I do not want to hear another word from you,” Angelo told him harshly. “Keep your mouth shut, work hard and we might be able to get through this day.
Even though it was late October, the air was hot and heavy and sweat was running down Johnny’s back by the time they reached the cornfields. Rows and rows of stalks, heavy with the golden ears of corn, stretched away into the distance and Johnny felt his heart sink. The only way to harvest it was to chop down each stalk, and stack it up to dry. Then it had to be loaded into wagons, taken back to the hacienda and the husks removed. That latter task fell to the old men and younger children. This was the first year that Johnny, now that he was fourteen, had been given an adult’s role in the harvest. At one time, he had eagerly anticipated it. Now, the burden chafed at him, reminding him once again that he should be living as a favored son, rather than as little more than a slave.
He shuffled slowly along in line behind Angelo until he reached the wagon where the tools were being handed out. Diego scowled at them both, but made no further comment. While Angelo’s back was turned, Johnny smirked impudently at the overseer, enjoying the sight of the man’s face turning red with fury. Then, with a resigned sigh, he accepted the long handled knife and set to work.
Johnny’s muscles ached. His arms and legs were so tired that he couldn’t control the slight tremor that ran through them. He had spent such a large part of the day stooping down that he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to straighten his back again. He had labored hard in the hot sun, silent and uncomplaining. Diego hadn’t ventured too close, although Johnny had seen the overseer directing dark glances toward Angelo whenever he passed. The end of the day’s work brought relief, coupled with resignation.
As they dismounted from the wagon Angelo took firm hold of his arm, directing him to the back of the stables. Johnny’s slim hope that he might escape punishment for his earlier misdemeanors evaporated as they turned the corner away from the prying eyes of the other villagers. Without a word, Angelo unbuckled his belt and Johnny swallowed nervously. He didn’t have to be told to bend over the water barrel. He gripped the rough wooden edges and clamped his jaw tightly shut.
Even though he was expecting it, the first stroke brought tears of mingled pain and humiliation to his eyes. By the time the tenth stroke fell, the tears were running silently down his face. He heard Angelo moving away. Sniffling quietly he straightened up, scrubbing his dirty hands over his cheeks to remove the betraying dampness. When he finally turned to face his step-father, he could see that the second and far worse part of the punishment was still to come.
“I am disappointed in you, Juanito. Why do you cause us so much trouble? Do we not love you and take care of you? Why would you want to speak with a gringo pistolero? Such men have no honor.”
There was no anger in Angelo’s voice, only sadness. Johnny could have coped with anger. “I don’t mean to cause you trouble.” He bent his head, scuffing his toes in the soft dirt.
“Can you not be content with what you have?”
“What do I have?” A sudden spurt of anger made Johnny reckless.
“You have a home, work and food to eat. There are many people who would be grateful for these things.”
“This might be enough for you and my mother. I am going to take back what is rightfully mine.”
“With a gun?”
“If I have to.”
Angelo shook his head sadly. “In time you will realize how foolish you are. You will stay away from the pistolero, and this evening you will remain at home and think about how you have shamed us.”
Johnny bit his tongue, turning away to hide his anger at being treated like a child. So far as Angelo was concerned the subject was now closed. They walked home together to find that his mother had already been told of his escapade. Johnny couldn’t tell if she also knew of Diego’s insults and Angelo’s defense of her honor. He set about his chores in tight lipped silence. When supper was ready, he perched unhappily on the edge of his stool, finding no sympathy in his mother’s dark eyes.
After cleaning up the dishes his mother collected her shawl. “We will not be gone long,” she told him. Then, before leaving, she cut a slice of fresh baked bread, spreading it thickly with preserve. “Perhaps this will make you feel better.”
Johnny waited until his mother and step-father had gone before biting into the bread, closing his eyes as he savored the sweet taste of the preserve. His mother had brought home two jars as part payment for her work that day at the hacienda. It was almost enough to make him forget the dull aching in his muscles and the infinitely worse pain across his buttocks.
His parents had gone out to meet their friends in the village square while he, because of his own stupidity, was confined to their small airless home. He paced restlessly, unable to sit comfortably, and too hot and irritated to settle to sleep.
Today’s humiliation had been the final straw. He loved his mother and wanted her to be proud of him, but he couldn’t stay here to be ordered around by men like Diego. With renewed determination he began to rummage in one of the storage baskets. He pulled out his spare shirt, which was even more threadbare than the one he was wearing. That was shoved in a sack together with some of the bread and a flask of water. His rolled up his blanket and added that to his meager stack of possessions. Finally, he went into the bedroom, picking up a beaded bracelet belonging to his mother and slipping it over his wrist. He prayed that she would forgive him for taking it, and that she would understand his need to have something to link him to her.
He looked around. This had been the only real home he had known and it was harder than he expected to leave it. This could still all be for nothing as he had yet to convince the gunfighter to take him along. But, this was his chance to find a better life. Fear fluttered in his belly at the thought of what he was about to do. Only the thought that it could be months or even years before another stranger passed this way spurred him on. He needed someone to teach him and besides, he wouldn’t survive long if he was on foot, alone and without any dinero to pay his way. No, he had to go now. He slipped out into the night being very careful not to be seen.
Maria sat in the shade of a lime tree, her face tipped up to catch the slight breeze. Her pregnancy was making her feel uncomfortable and she was sure that a few of her neighbors already suspected her condition. Soon, she would no longer be able to keep it a secret. She looked across the square. Angelo was in the midst of an animated conversation with a group of his friends. He was a good man and would make a wonderful father. If only Johnny’s father had been as devoted to his family and less interested in his land. At least, that was how she had thought at the time. Looking back now, through more mature eyes, she could see how she had misjudged him.
That mistake, and the lies that followed, were going to cost her more than her marriage. The news that Johnny had tried to talk with the gringo stranger had left her feeling faint. Her son’s interest in a gunfighter could only arise from his vow to make his father pay for crimes that he had never committed. How had the innocent questions of a young child led them to this moment? Would Johnny even believe her now if she told him the truth?
Exhaustion washed over her. They should return home. Johnny had been left alone for too long. He had deserved his punishment, but now she wanted to see him and to reassure herself that he was safe. As she started to rise Angelo hurried over to her.
“You look pale, my love.”
His concern warmed her heart. “Just tired. You stay and talk with your friends. I am going home to make sure that Juanito is behaving himself.”
“I will come with you.”
“There is no need.” Maria made up her mind. “I will be waiting for you. And, I have something to tell you.”
“Then, you go ahead and make sure the boy is in bed. We wouldn’t want to be disturbed.” His dark eyes twinkled as he smiled down at her.
She felt the heat rising in her body, pushing away her tiredness. It had been like this with Angelo since the day they first met. Her love for him had grown and deepened as the years had passed. Every Sunday she went to the small chapel and gave thanks for having met him. She blew him a kiss and set off back to their house.
She turned the corner and caught her breath in fright as a figure moved out from the shadows. Belatedly recognizing Diego she berated herself for over reacting. She gave him a brief nod of greeting and adjusted her steps to pass him by.
“Not so fast.” Diego moved quickly to intercept her, taking tight hold of her arm and pulling her off the path.
Angry, rather than afraid, Maria struggled against his grip. “Are you out of your mind? Let me go.”
He circled his other arm around her waist, jerking her closer despite her struggles. “Your man and that bastard son of yours embarrassed me today. It would only take one word from me for Don Salvador to send you all on your way.”
Fear clutched her heart. Winter was coming soon and finding another home and work would be difficult. “Johnny is young and foolish. Angelo punished him for his behavior today. Please do not be too hard on him.”
“He thinks he is better than the rest of us.” Diego bent his head and nuzzled her neck. “So do you. You have looked down on me since the day you arrived.”
“That is not true.” Tears pricked her eyes as she felt his hands roaming over her body. “What do you want?”
“What do you think I want? You are nothing more than a whore who left her husband and has been passed around from hand to hand since.”
“No!” she protested, her body now shaking uncontrollably.
“Tomorrow, while the men are working in the fields, I will come to see you. If you please me, I will say nothing to Don Salvador. It is your choice. I am sure it will not be the first time you have sold your body for favors from a man. You can either be waiting for me, or you can all pack up and get out tonight.”
Maria lifted her hand, intending to slap his face. He caught her wrist, twisting it painfully. “Think carefully about your answer. And, if you say one word about this to anyone, I will see to it that your boy has an unfortunate accident.” He stepped away, looking her up and down with a lascivious leer. “Sleep well, Señora.”
“Cara!” Johnny peered round the doorway leading to the kitchen at the back of the cantina. “Cara!”
The little girl looked up and a broad smile lit up her face. Johnny put a finger to his lips to warn her to keep quiet. He had been waiting impatiently until her parents were both occupied with serving customers in the bar. Each minute had been torture for him as he had fretted about being discovered.
Cara climbed down from her stool and ran over to him. She was only seven years old, and Johnny mostly treated her like a slightly annoying little sister. He would have liked a sister. He pulled her outside, seeing her eyes widen when she saw the sack that he was carrying.
“What are you doing, Juanito?” she whispered.
Johnny ignored the question. “Where is the pistolero?” he asked urgently. Soon his parents would return home and find that he was missing. He had to be safely out of the village before they came looking for him.
“He is a bad man.” Cara’s face crumpled and Johnny wondered if she was going to cry.
“I need to speak to him and I don’t have much time.”
“After supper. Papa said that he was glad, even though the man paid with a shiny silver coin.”
“Damn.” Johnny frowned. “Promise that you won’t tell anyone you saw me.”
“Don’t go.” Cara clutched his sleeve. “I will miss you, and your mama will be sad.”
“I’ll come back soon. Don’t cry,” he begged as he saw her eyes welling with tears. “Keep my secret, little one.” He kissed the top of her head before turning away and racing toward the stables.
Everything was in darkness. It was only a small building with stabling for a couple of horses. In the back was a small tack room, and above was a hay loft. It was so quiet that Johnny could hear the mice scurrying around in the straw. There was no sign of the gunfighter, although the moonlight edging through the gaps in the walls showed him that the horse was still there, saddled and ready to leave.
The animal looked better rested than it had the previous day. Johnny moved slowly toward it, soft words spilling from his mouth. The horse’s ears pricked forward as he approached. Reaching out, he touched the side of its face, his fingers running over the velvety smoothness. When he heard a metallic click he thought nothing of it, being entirely absorbed with the silky feel of the horse’s mane.
A footstep alerted him to danger. Sudden fear ripped through him and he started to turn. A rough hand clamping down over his mouth cut off any sound. What froze him to the spot was the feel of a gun barrel pressed between his shoulders.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
To Johnny’s relief his mouth was uncovered and the gun was removed from his back. A hand on his shoulder spun him around to face the gunfighter. “I want…” he licked his dry lips. “I want you to take me with you.”
The man’s laughter filled the air. “Go home, kid.” He holstered his gun before pushing past Johnny and slinging his saddlebags across the back of his horse.
“I want you to teach me to be a gunfighter,” Johnny persisted, angered by the curt dismissal.
“So that I can kill my father.”
The gunfighter turned back to stare at Johnny. “Well that ain’t the answer I was expecting.”
Johnny stood his ground, even though he was so terrified he could barely speak. “Will you teach me, Señor?”
“You don’t need to be a gunfighter to shoot someone in the back.”
Johnny looked at the man in disbelief. “I want to face him man to man, not shoot him like some coward in the dark.” As a look of anger settled on the gunfighter’s face, Johnny edged backwards. Once again, he had managed to say the wrong thing.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Well, Johnny Madrid, you’ve got a lot to learn so here’s your first lesson. You’ve got to do it to them before they do it to you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will, when you’re older.” The man turned back to his horse, checking the buckle on the bridle.
“Will you take me with you?” Johnny persisted
The horse’s ears pricked forward seconds before Johnny heard the sound of hoof beats. Curious, he began walking toward the door. The gunfighter’s left hand landed hard on his shoulder, yanking him backwards. His protest caught in his throat as he saw that the man had drawn his gun. The grip was bruising as he was dragged to the side of the window.
“Keep out of sight and don’t make a sound,” the man ordered.
Johnny swallowed nervously. “I should go home, Señor. My mother…” The gun was only inches from his face. Even though a small part of his mind told him that the man wouldn’t shoot, he was still too frightened to continue.
There was no relaxation in the grip on his shoulder as the gunfighter peered carefully through the window. Muttered curses reached Johnny’s ears.
“Who are those men?” He could see three figures dismounting outside the cantina, although he couldn’t see their faces.
Johnny looked at the man quizzically as he had never heard that term before and it meant nothing to him. “What do they want?”
“Don’t you ever shut up?” the gunfighter growled as he began pulling Johnny toward his horse.
Johnny tried to struggle free until a blow to the side of the head made him stumble.
“I ain’t leaving you behind to go running off, telling them where I am.”
“I won’t say anything. Por favor, Señor, let me go.” In desperation he twisted, kicking his captor on the shin.
The man swore, bringing his gun down hard on the back of Johnny’s head. Johnny staggered, saw stars and then crumpled to the floor.
Maria couldn’t stop shaking. She had remained, rooted to the spot, since Diego had left her. Her fear and anger were battling each other for supremacy. In the end, because she wasn’t a coward, anger won out. How dare he assume that he could speak to her like that and get away with it? Once she told Angelo, and spread the word about his threats, he would be powerless to hurt her or Johnny.
She straightened her clothing, shuddering as she remembered the feel of Diego’s hands on her body. It wasn’t far to their house, but she waited until she was sure that she was composed before covering the remaining distance. The house was quiet and she thought, at first, that Johnny must be asleep. When she turned up the lamp, she realized that he wasn’t in the kitchen and that his mattress was still rolled up in the corner.
“Johnny?” she called as she hurried into her bedroom. “Johnny?” Her voice began to rise as it became clear that her son wasn’t in the house.
Her stomach turned over and she fought down the urge to retch. There was only one place Johnny could be, and it was all her fault. If not for her selfish stupidity her son would be growing up at Lancer with all the love and protection he deserved. She pressed a hand across her mouth to stifle the heart wrenching sob that had risen in her throat. Decisions made in the heat of the moment so many years ago came back to haunt her. She spun as the door opened, hoping that it would be her wayward son returning home.
Angelo’s smile died when he saw the stricken look on her face. “What’s wrong?” He quickly crossed the short distance and took her in his arms.
She buried her face against his chest, drawing strength from the power in his arms and the depth of their love. “Johnny has gone.”
If Angelo suspected there was more to her distress than this, he didn’t question it. Even he didn’t know the true nature of her deception. She had been as afraid of losing him as she now was of losing her son.
“Stay here. I will find him and bring him back. He cannot have gone far.”
“What if he has gone with the pistolero?”
“Do not worry. That man did not want anything to do with Johnny. Even your son, with his silver tongue, would not be able to persuade someone like that to take him as an apprentice.”
“Hurry.” She pushed him away, a bad feeling gnawing at her. “Bring him home and I will tell him the truth about his father.”
Angelo looked as if he would question that, then nodded and turned away.
“I love you,” Maria whispered as the door closed behind him.
Angelo felt more irritation than concern as he strode quickly toward the cantina. He didn’t doubt that Johnny had tried to talk the gunfighter into taking him along. Neither did he doubt that the man would have refused. The boy was becoming troublesome and he didn’t know how to deal with him. It gave him no pleasure to thrash Johnny and, truth be told, his step-son was now too old for such punishment. There must be a way to convince him to settle down.
Maria’s parting words made no sense to him. He had never pried into her short marriage to Murdoch Lancer. She had told him that her husband had thrown her and their son out, and he had always accepted that without question. Now, he wondered if that was the truth. Well, the sooner he found the boy and took him home, the sooner he would find out. He was also anxious to learn what Maria had been hinting at earlier. For the last week he had been wondering if she might be expecting his child. While he loved Johnny as his own son, he would have liked a child of his own blood.
The sound of horses made him stop and look around. The riders were traveling quickly and he hastily stepped to one side to avoid being ridden down. The three men stopped outside the cantina and dismounted. Angelo reached the horses as Raul came out to investigate the unexpected arrivals.
“We’re looking for a man – a gunfighter by the name of Cole Newton.”
Raul looked helplessly at Angelo, who stepped forward to confront the men. “Most of the people here speak only Spanish,” he said respectfully. “I speak some of the gringo language.”
The men exchanged irritated glances. “A gunfighter. Has he been here?”
“Why do you ask?” Angelo had no interest in protecting the pistolero. He was, however, concerned about Johnny, especially, if his son was with the man.
“Newton’s a backshootin’ murderer and we intend to see that he’s stopped before he can kill any more innocent men, women and children,” the man growled.
“Children?” Angelo’s blood ran cold. He turned to Pedro and reverted to Spanish. “The pistolero – is he still here?”
Raul shook his head. “He left a short while ago.”
“Have you seen Johnny?”
“Not since this afternoon.”
Angelo felt his chest tighten. “The gunfighter was here. He has not been gone long.”
“Where did he stable his horse?”
“I will show you.” Angelo led them back down the street to the stable, hoping to find Johnny there. He stood in the doorway as one of the men searched the small building.
“Ain’t no-one here, Jim. I don’t reckon he’s been gone long, though.”
“It’ll be impossible to track him in the dark. Damn, we were so close.” Jim chewed his bottom lip indecisively. “We’ll bed down here for the night and set off at daybreak.”
As Angelo anxiously scanned the stables for some sign of Johnny, he saw a threadbare sack lying in the middle of the floor. His feet were almost unwilling to move as he walked toward it then squatted down and picked it up. As he pulled each item out into the light, he could feel his fear growing. He rested a hand on the floor to steady himself. His fingers brushed against something damp and he held them up, looking at them in blank disbelief. He heard the men leaving as he stared at his blood-stained fingers.
“Señor, por favor, I need to speak with you,” he called.
The three men stopped and Jim turned impatiently. “What?”
Angelo pushed himself to his feet. “Tell me what this man has done.”
Something in his face must have convinced Jim that this wasn’t an idle question. “A couple of weeks ago he got drunk and killed a farmer, his wife and two young children. It wasn’t the first time, only this time there were witnesses who were prepared to stand up and give evidence. He was arrested and the sheriff was holding him until the circuit judge arrived. He busted out of jail, killing the sheriff and wounding one of the deputies. We’ve been on his trail ever since.”
“I think…I think he has taken my son.”
“How old is your boy?”
“Fourteen. He wants,” Angelo’s voice caught. “He wants to be a gunfighter.”
“He’s made a hell of a bad choice if he’s had anything to do with Newton.”
“I must come with you tomorrow.”
Jim shook his head. “No offense, but this man’s a killer so unless you can ride and shoot you’d just be a liability.”
“Then I will go alone.” Angelo stubbornly stood his ground.
“You do that and you’ll end up with a bullet in your back. If he has taken your son, it’s only because he thinks he might need a hostage. I reckon he saw us ride in and decided to take some precautions.”
“I will not let him hurt my son.”
Jim blew out a harsh breath. “Alright. If you can come up with a horse, you can ride with us. But, you do what I say and you stay out of the way.”
“Gracias.” Angelo recalled seeing Diego in town earlier. As much as he hated the man, he would humble himself and beg for the use of his horse. In fact, he would ride to hell itself to save Johnny.
Johnny’s head hurt and he’d never been more frightened in his life. He’d woken to find himself lying in the shelter of two large tree roots, with the gunfighter standing only a few feet away, staring out into the darkness. His fingers, tentatively probing the side of his head, had encountered a patch of hair matted with dried blood. Bile rose in his throat and only sheer willpower kept his supper in his stomach. After pushing himself into a sitting position, Johnny miserably wrapped his arms around his body and tried to stop shaking.
He had never been away from his village alone after dark and every sound made his heart beat faster. The rustling of the leaves, the creak of a branch or the call of bird caused him to break out into a cold sweat. The fitful light of the moon created patches of deeper shadows which Johnny peered at, convinced that some vicious animal was lurking there, ready to pounce. If he listened carefully he could just hear the faint sound of water in the distance. He drew in a deep breath, smelling the odor of crushed leaves and disturbed moss. Reaching out. he touched the rough bark of the tree, needing something solid to anchor him to a world that had suddenly gone mad.
With no idea of where he was he didn’t even think of running. Besides, the cold-eyed man holding him prisoner had made it very clear what would happen if he didn’t behave. Suddenly, all his romantic notions of leaving home to find fame as a gunfighter evaporated in the face of the cold hard reality of what he had done and how ill-equipped he was to survive on his own.
“Where are we going?” he stammered finally, unable to stand the absence of a human voice, even an unfriendly one.
“Shut up,” the man snapped.
The gunfighter’s cold gaze swept over him and he shrank back, grinding his teeth together to stop them chattering. Somewhere in this terrifying darkness were three men who were hunting the pistolero. If they killed the gunfighter, would they think to spare the life of a scared boy? Johnny almost whimpered as he tried to squeeze deeper into the shelter of the tree. Perhaps, if he was lucky, the gunfighter would leave him here and he would be able to find his way home.
After a while, the man walked over to his horse and untied the bedroll. “Take this and get some sleep.”
The bedroll was thrust at Johnny who clutched at it, surprised by the unexpected kindness. “Gracias,” he whispered.
His fingers fumbled with the ties. When he eventually managed to unroll it, he found a blanket which he wrapped around his shoulders. The rough cloth warmed him and brought a measure of comfort. He lay down, eyes wide, convinced that he wouldn’t be able to sleep. Gradually, the rhythmic rustle of the leaves calmed him and he closed his eyes.
He was shaken awake while it was still dark. Breakfast consisted of a stringy piece of dried meat and a few mouthfuls of water. He thought longingly of his mother’s thick porridge, sweetened with honey. His chest ached as he considered how much he had hurt her by his wild plans to run away. When he got home he would make it up to her. He would settle down to the life he was meant to have and would stop reaching for a future that was closed to him. But, his thoughts lacked conviction and he bowed his head to hide the uncertainty on his face.
“We leave in five minutes,” the gunfighter informed him. “If you need to…” He indicated the scrubby bushes just beyond the clearing. “Just don’t take too long.”
Johnny scrambled to his feet, noting the dark circles under the man’s eyes and the heavy scent of fear in the air. Somehow, it was heartening to know that this man was afraid. It made him seem less intimidating. He backed away slowly until the gunfighter was out of sight. The sky was lightening toward dawn and he realized that this might be his only chance to escape. The trees closed in around him as he tried to decide upon a direction. There were no landmarks, nothing to tell him which way safety lay.
“Come on, boy. It’s time to leave.”
The words spurred him into motion and, without making a conscious decision, he began to run. Branches whipped across his face, tree roots threatened to trip him up, but still he kept going. His breath came in heaving gasps as he pushed himself to greater speed. The blood, hammering in his ears, blocked out all other sounds. He fought down the urge to stop and look behind him. He had to find someplace to hide. Swerving to his right, he spied a fallen tree out of the corner of his eye. He flung himself behind it, pressing himself as close to the ground as he could. Now that he was no longer moving, he could hear the sounds that indicated pursuit. He screwed his eyes tightly shut and waited.
Angelo and the three bounty hunters had left the village just before dawn. Maria hadn’t slept, instead, spending the night safely wrapped in Angelo’s arms, listening to his assurances that Johnny was a resourceful boy who would survive his ordeal. Guilt for all the bad decisions she had made in her life had clogged her throat, rendering her incapable of confessing the truth. She had seen Angelo watching her, a puzzled frown on his face, but he had not asked the questions she had been dreading. Once Johnny was home, she would tell them both what had really happened between her and Murdoch Lancer.
She was finally alone, having sent away all her well-meaning friends. She had not been able to face listening to their glib promises that all would be well. But, there was one thing that might provide some solace. She picked up her shawl intending to seek out the padre at the local Mission. He would listen to her confession. She had almost reached the door when it opened and Diego walked in. Although her heart leapt fearfully, she tried her best to keep her expression bland.
“You are not welcome here.”
“I told you I would be paying you a visit today.” Diego remained standing between her and the door.
“Your precious son is only getting what he deserves.”
“You bastard!” Maria stayed just out of reach, having no wish to allow him to touch her again.
“I expected you to show some gratitude. After all, I let Angelo take my horse. I could have refused.”
“Then everyone in this village would have seen what kind of man you really are.”
Diego moved slowly toward her. As she tried to dart past him, he caught her arm and pulled her back. “I will show you how much of a man I am.”
She raked her nails down his face, drawing blood and making him hiss with pain.
“Puta!” he snarled before he twisted her round so that one arm pinned her against his chest. He used his other hand to muffle her screams as he pushed her toward the bedroom.
Johnny wasn’t sure how much time had passed since he had escaped from the gunfighter. He could no longer hear the man’s curses or the sound of him stumbling around in the undergrowth. He raised his head and looked around. Everything seemed peaceful so he scrambled to his knees, hardly daring to breathe. Although it was daylight, the sun hadn’t yet risen far enough to chase away all the shadows. Johnny wasn’t sure which frightened him the most – staying where he was, or forcing his reluctant legs to take him in search of a way home. It was only the belief that Angelo would be looking for him that finally forced him into motion.
He rose to his feet, looking around and wishing that there was something to show him the correct route. Having been unconscious for the whole of the journey the previous night, he didn’t even have the advantage of being able to recognize any landmarks. The likelihood was that he was still on Don Salvador’s land. His mother had once told him that you could ride for hours in any direction and still be on the estancia. He had often wondered if it was the same on the land owned by his father. What must it be like to own everything you could see in any direction? Resentment and hatred rose again, giving him the courage and resolve to continue.
It had been dark when he was snatched from the barn, and the moon had been high when he awoke. Johnny had no idea how far a horse could travel in two or three hours, but it couldn’t be an impossible distance for him to walk. Once he was clear of the trees, he might even come across some workers or an isolated farm.
He decided that the best starting point was the small clearing where they had spent the night. Perhaps, he would find some sign that would point him in the right direction. With every sense strained to the limit he began to walk.
Johnny sank down to the ground, leaning over to rub the sole of his right foot. A smear of blood mingled with the dirt on his fingers. His bare feet were cut and bruised and his hair was sticking to his forehead as sweat poured down his body. The sun had risen toward noon and he was no nearer finding help. Try as he might, he’d been unable to locate the clearing again and any sense of purpose had been steadily ebbing away.
He had seen no trace of the gunfighter, although he had discovered, to his surprise, that this forest was never completely silent. In addition to his footsteps and harsh breathing, there were the noises of small animals and birds and, sometimes, the sound of water.
He leaned back against a tree and closed his eyes. He was tired, hungry and still a little afraid. Common sense told him that the trees would end eventually, but he was finding this feeling of confinement hard to handle. As his breathing settled into a steadier rhythm, he began to imagine that he could hear the sound of horses. He leaned forward intently. As the sounds came closer, he pushed down his first impulse to run in that direction. What if it was the gunfighter? He crept forward slowly, and carefully, until he found that he was looking down onto a well used roadway. Four riders were traveling at a steady speed toward him. As he watched, he realized that one of them was Angelo.
Relief and joy surged through him, feelings that immediately disappeared as he heard a noise behind him. He rolled over onto his back, calling out in alarm as he saw the gunfighter looming over him. Almost rigid with fear, he didn’t resist as he was pulled to his feet and pushed forward until he was visible to the men on the roadway.
“Stop right there and throw down your weapons.” The gunfighter was partly shielded by Johnny’s body as well as having the protection of the trees.
Johnny, standing exposed and vulnerable, shot his step-father a terrified look. “Papa,” he stammered, before falling silent as the gun touched the side of his head.
“Let the boy go, Newton. If you give yourself up, I’ll guarantee you a fair trial. If you try to get away, all you’ll get is a bullet and a pine box.”
Newton snorted derisively. “We both know there ain’t gonna be a trial. Throw down your guns and get off them horses or I’ll put a bullet in the boy now.”
Johnny squirmed as the gunfighter tightened his grip. None of the men were making any move to obey Newton’s orders and he could feel the tension in the man’s body. He jumped in alarm as the gun fired close to his ear. The bullet hit the ground only feet away from the lead horse and the animal sidled nervously.
“I’m losing patience,” Newton shouted, pressing the gun against Johnny’s temple again.
“Please, do as he says.” Angelo’s voice was thin and strained.
The lead rider turned round and said something that Johnny couldn’t hear. He saw Angelo’s head drop and, in that moment, he knew that these men were not going to do what Newton wanted. The gunfighter must have realized the same thing as he shifted his grip and began to drag Johnny backwards.
The gun moved away from his head and he took his chance, lashing out with his foot. The man stumbled, his grip loosened and Johnny dropped to the ground. He heard two gunshots as he crawled toward the nearest shelter. When he felt hands on his arms he began to struggle and cry out, almost incoherent with terror.
“Johnny, hush mi hijo. It is over. There is nothing to be afraid of now.”
“Papa?” Johnny allowed Angelo to pull him into his arms and hold him tightly until the tremors passed.
By the time Johnny was calm, the three men who had been with his step-father had dismounted and were standing round the body of the gunfighter. Johnny looked in fascinated horror at the blood staining the front of the man’s shirt and at the sightless grey eyes.
“Are you alright, boy?” one of the men asked.
“That was a brave thing you did,” the man continued. “If we’d let him get away, he would have killed you anyway once you were of no further use.”
“What will you do with him?”
“We’ll take his body back to Sonora and collect the bounty.”
Johnny walked over to where the pistolero’s gun lay abandoned in the grass. He bent and picked it up.
He looked up to see the leader of the three men holding out the gunbelt. “For me?” he asked softly.
“I’d say you deserved it. Maybe you can sell it and make some money for your family.”
Johnny slid the gun into the holster and fastened the buckle. He stood with Angelo’s arm around his shoulders as the body was wrapped in a bedroll and secured over the back of one of the horses.
“Take good care of your boy,” the leader shouted back as he mounted up and led the way back onto the road.
“Are you ready to come home, Johnny? Your mama is worried about you.”
“Si, Papa.” Johnny hung his head. “Lo siento. I should not have disobeyed you.”
“It was a foolish thing that you did, but perhaps it has taught you a lesson. We will discuss your punishment when we get home.”
The sting of Angelo’s words was removed as he pulled Johnny close for a moment before releasing him. He mounted the horse and held out his hand so that Johnny could scramble up behind him. He settled himself as comfortably as he could for the long journey home.
The village was unusually silent as Johnny and Angelo rode past the first houses. Johnny, clinging to Angelo’s back, peered around curiously. Although he knew that his mother would scold him, he was looking forward to being reunited with her and telling her of his adventures.
It was only when Angelo stopped the horse that Johnny noticed the villagers huddled in groups outside their homes. The women were crying and the men wore the same somber expressions that Johnny remembered seeing when old Raul had died last winter. A sudden fear squeezed his heart and he slid from the horse’s back, looking around for his mother. Loretta, his mother’s best friend, was standing outside their home with a black shawl clutched around her head. Johnny took a step forward before stopping and looking back at Angelo for reassurance. The expression on his step-father’s face terrified him.
Turning back, he walked hesitantly toward Loretta. “Mama?” he asked, his voice breaking on the words.
Loretta reached out to him and he shied away. “I am sorry, Juanito.”
Shaking his head in denial, Johnny tried to push past her, only to find his way barred by the Priest from the local Mission.
“The boy should not see her like this.” His words were directed to Angelo who had arrived, white faced and silent at Johnny’s side.
“Why?” Johnny demanded. “How…?” He looked around, seeing what he had missed before.
Diego was standing to one side, his wrists bound and his face bearing the marks of a violent attack. Johnny didn’t think, just backed up until he reached the pistolero’s gunbelt, which was still hanging from the saddle horn. He pulled out the gun and carefully eased back the hammer as he had seen the gunfighter do. With the weapon held loosely in his right hand, he walked over to confront Diego. Although he could hear mutterings from the other villagers, no one tried to stop him as he raised his arm and pointed the weapon at the cowering man’s head.
“Johnny.” Angelo’s voice was choked with tears. “If you kill him it will be murder.”
“No.” Johnny was surprised to find that his voice was steady. “It will be justice.”
“They will hang you, mi hijo. Maria would not have wanted that.”
“Don’t you want him to die?” Johnny kept his eyes and the gun trained on Diego.
“Si, and he will die at the hands of the law. Maria is gone. I do not want to lose you as well.”
Johnny’s arm began to shake. It would be too easy to pull the trigger and take the life of this sniveling coward. With a sigh, he lowered the gun. “Shooting you would be a better death than you deserve.” He walked forward and spat into Diego’s face. “I will enjoy watching your body dancing in the wind.”
As he turned away, his whole body began to tremble as silent tears rolled down his face. Diego’s pathetic sobs and excuses faded into the distance as he swayed unsteadily. A strong arm around his waist kept him upright as the full horror of what had happened swept through him. His mother was dead, killed by a cowardly, jealous man who had thought only of his own pleasure. His heart hardened. The law would execute Diego. He would seek his vengeance against the man who had thrown him and his mother out to starve. The weight of the gun in his hand was comforting. One day, he would use it to exact his revenge.
The hand resting lightly on his shoulder felt warm and comforting. Johnny leaned back until he was resting against his father’s chest.
“Are you alright, Son?”
As a young child he had dreamed of that question being asked with just this degree of warmth and concern. “I’m doin’ fine, Murdoch.” It was easier now, ten years since his mother’s death, although he still had to bend his head to scrub away an errant tear. “Thank you for coming with me. I know it ain’t easy for you, either.”
They’d arrived in the village the previous evening. To Johnny’s eyes it looked smaller and shabbier than he’d remembered. However, the welcome had been sincere. They had spent the night with Cara and her family. The little girl was now an attractive young woman who had flung herself into Johnny’s arms.
In the dark hours of the night, he had related the story of his childhood for the first time. Now, in the early morning, he knelt with his father at his mother’s grave.
“I’m glad you asked me.” There was a catch in Murdoch’s voice. “I often wondered if she was happy.”
“I think she was – once she found Angelo.” Johnny looked over his shoulder and smiled. “Although, I gave her a few sleepless nights.” His smile faded at the thought of her dying never knowing that he was safe…never having the chance to say goodbye.
“That’s what children do.”
“I hated you so much.” Johnny could feel his father’s tension. “I wish I knew why she lied to me.” He sighed as he stood up, offering his hand to Murdoch to help his father to his feet.
“What happened to the man who killed her?”
“Don Salvador handed him over to the authorities. He was found guilty of…” Johnny still found it hard to say the words, “rape and murder. He was hanged. She had fought him real hard. I think that’s why…” He looked again at the grave. “She wasn’t a whore, like some people said.”
“I know she wasn’t.”
The quick agreement reassured Johnny. “By the time Angelo and I got home she’d been washed and dressed in her best clothes. Her face…”
“You don’t have to do this, Son.”
“Yeah, I do.” Johnny drew in a shuddering breath. “He’d smacked her around a lot and she had bruises on her face and arms. The marks of his fingers were around her throat. When I saw her, I damn near changed my mind about lettin’ the law deal with him.”
Murdoch’s fingers tightened on his shoulder. “I’m glad you didn’t kill him.”
“I wanted to, and I came close,” Johnny admitted. “If it hadn’t been for Angelo…”
“What did he do after…after your mother’s death?”
Johnny smiled sadly as he thought of his step-father. “I don’t know. I never settled after mama was gone and took off a few months after the trial. I was fifteen. I had Diego’s horse and a gun, and I’d been practicin’ whenever I could sneak away for an hour. I was full of hate and that got me through my first year on my own. Guess I was lucky that I didn’t come across any of the real good gunfighters until I had a chance to realize that hate alone wouldn’t keep me alive. I came back a couple of years later and found that Angelo had left. No-one knew where he’d gone.”
“He sounds like a good man.”
Johnny had to wonder what it cost his father to say that. “Yeah. I think you would have liked him.”
He had learnt one other thing during that visit and that knowledge would stay locked away. Had Angelo known about the baby? In many ways, Johnny hoped not. It had been hard enough for Angelo to lose the woman he loved without also finding out that he’d lost his unborn child. Had life been kinder, Johnny knew that he would have had a younger brother or sister. It was hard to imagine, but then it had only been a couple of years since he’d discovered that he had an older brother.
Although this journey into his past had been necessary so that he could lay it to rest, he was now anxious to return to Lancer, Scott, Teresa and his friends. He had a new life now – a good life. He bowed his head and said a brief prayer for the souls of his mother and unknown sibling. When he looked up again his eyes were clear. “Let’s go home.”