(A sequel to The Ghost of Johnny Madrid)
Enemies and Secrets
Down in the saloon, DarkCloud paced unhappily in front of Scott. “I think this is wrong. I think your going up there is wrong.”
Scott, hands on hips, waited until the doctor had stopped his protestations. “There isn’t anything to be done about it,” he said, “and continuing this discussion is serving no purpose.”
“I gotta agree with DarkCloud,” Matthew stated as he ran a hand through his dusty hair. “It’s obviously a trap, a trap that the Judge put a lot of time into.”
“Trap? What trap?” Tucson asked. “And where’s Murdoch?”
Scott, Matthew and DarkCloud turned.
“The Judge has him,” Matthew replied.
Tucson shot a quick look at Scott who grimly confirmed the fact with a curt nod.
“We were jumped. They took Murdoch and left me with a message to deliver,” Matthew added.
“Which is?” Tucson prompted.
“The Judge wants Johnny up in Salinas tomorrow afternoon.”
“Wait,” Tucson put up a hand. “Just wait! Johnny’s in no shape to make that trip.”
“Which is why I’m going instead,” Scott replied.
“You?” Tucson asked skeptically. “That hardly seems wise.”
“See, Scott,” DarkCloud said. “I’m not the only one who thinks so.”
“And as I pointed out, DarkCloud, we don’t exactly have any other choices,” Scott said impatiently.
Tucson crossed his arms, regarded Scott for a moment. “Is there a plan to this? ‘Cuz I don’t see what you’re thinkin’ you’re gonna accomplish by goin’ up there alone.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
Tucson nodded his head. “I had a suspicion.”
Scott acknowledged the gunfighter’s appraisal with a short nod of his own. “Would you be willing to come along? I could use some help.”
“Given who you’re dealing with, that may be an understatement,” Tucson replied. “Just tell me what you want done.”
“I’m planning on heading up within the hour. I’d like to be in Salinas by this evening. That’ll mean keeping a steady pace, especially as I’d like to do the last half of the trip from along the Coastals in order to keep clear of the open valley. Then once it’s dark, we’ll split up and ride into town.”
Scott nodded. “I’d like you to first track down Harley, then find Sheriff Hawkins and inform him of what’s been going on. From there, follow whatever orders the sheriff gives you.”
“And just what will you be doing in the meantime?” DarkCloud asked.
“I’ll be paying the Judge a visit.”
“Alone?” DarkCloud scoffed.
“I think that’s foolish and just askin’ for trouble,” Tucson added.
“Actually,” Johnny’s voice cut through the room, sending all the occupants into an immediate pivot. “It’s a decent enough plan.”
Everyone stood, frozen in shock.
“Johnny,” Scott finally breathed.
Johnny descended the remaining steps into the saloon and continued toward the men. Though his steps were deliberate and slow, and his hair was still damp with sweat, Scott could not find any indication of the brother he’d left on the floor upstairs just moments earlier.
“Yes, a rather good plan,” Johnny continued evenly with a hint of an acerbic smile. “In fact, it’ll do rather nicely. All except for one part.” He stopped in front of Scott, the smile fading into an expression of grim determination. “You’re not going. I am.”
Scott’s mouth opened in surprise as Johnny pushed past him as he continued for the doors.
“Johnny!” Scott grabbed his brother’s arm. “What—how did—” he halted as Johnny slowly turned. “Johnny?” The plea was laced with exasperation.
“Let go, Scott.” The voice was low, a warning.
Johnny’s face remained impassive even as Scott tried desperately to connect to the hard eyes.
“Yes, he did,” DarkCloud said, stepping to Johnny’s other side and grabbing him by the arm. “I can’t believe you’d go and do this—”
“DarkCloud,” Johnny’s eyes flicked a warning.
“Johnny,” Scott tightened his grip, forcing Johnny to look at him. “How could you after—after everything we went through upstairs?”
“Scott,” Johnny hissed angrily, his voice low.
“No!” Scott exclaimed. “You listen! We’d almost made it to the other side!”
“That’s enough, Scott,” Johnny glared coldly until Scott had released his grip. Then after allowing the callous look of the gunfighter to hold Scott’s eyes another few seconds, he abruptly turned toward the door. But the doctor moved, planting himself firmly once more in Johnny’s path, arms crossed defiantly. “DarkCloud,” he murmured in a tone that left no doubt it was a warning. “Remember how I mentioned we were gonna come to blows one day? Well, that day may be here.”
“Is it?” DarkCloud raised an eyebrow then gave his head a sarcastic lean. “You may be acting tough and talking tough, but we both know—we all know,” he gestured inclusively, “it’s just an act. Now do something sensible for once and get back upstairs where you belong.”
“I think maybe you oughta listen to DarkCloud, Johnny,” Matthew stated as he stepped up next to DarkCloud.
The corner of Johnny’s mouth curled up mockingly. “Oh, you too, huh? Now I’m really worried.”
Matthew’s brows furrowed, his expression wounded.
Abruptly Johnny shoved his way between the two men, knocking Matthew backward into Rosti.
“Johnny!” Scott exclaimed as he maneuvered around DarkCloud.
Johnny spun on his heel, a gun appearing in his hand—a gun Scott recognized.
Masking any surprise he felt, Scott regarded his brother with amusement, his hands on his hips. “So, now what? Am I supposed to be scared or impressed?”
“Neither,” Johnny snapped. “You’re supposed to realize I mean to go up to Salinas. And while the four of you could probably manage to forcibly drag me back upstairs, believe me when I say, I’m gonna make sure it’s damn uncomfortable for you. Now, the Judge has Murdoch and he wants me up there. I’m the key to getting him released.”
“You’re the prize in his game,” DarkCloud snapped.
“Then he’s gonna wish he’d stuck to blackjack,” Johnny replied with a smirk.
“You know it’s a trap, Johnny,” Scott said.
“Of course,” Johnny replied dryly. “You forget who you’re talkin’ to.”
“Just who am I talking to?”
A flicker of disgust crossed Johnny’s face before he deftly flipped the revolver back into place. Then after sweeping the room with casual indifference, he abruptly turned and left.
Scott stood silent, watching through the window as his brother walked past and headed across the street.
“Want me to go with him?” Tucson asked.
For a moment Scott didn’t reply. Then he sighed, shook his head, and turned toward Tucson. “No. You’d better stay here now.”
Tucson glanced toward the door. “But he shouldn’t be making that trip. At the least he needs someone to watch his back.”
“I know. And that someone’s me,” Scott replied, then turned toward DarkCloud and gestured. “But first I need to talk to you.”
DarkCloud nodded and followed Scott.
Once in the corner of the room, Scott sighed and lowered his voice. “What’s done is done. No use arguing about it.” His eyes trailed uncomfortably toward the door then flicked to the steps before returning to DarkCloud. “What I need to know, is whether he’s going to be able to make the trip. What can I expect?”
“I need to find out how much he took. He couldn’t have taken it all or he wouldn’t be walking. But there wasn’t much left, Scott. I had made up everything I had. And Matthew said there was no more to be had in Salinas.”
“How about the laudanum?”
“You’d better take it along. You’ll be needing it.”
Scott dropped his gaze thoughtfully toward the floor, rested his hands on his hips. “I don’t think he had any with him when he came down.” He gave a nod up the stairs. “Go on up. Get his saddlebag. Put what morphine is left in it along with the laudanum. Get us each a canteen of water and see if Rosti has some food that we could take along. Then meet us over at Solero’s. I’m going to go inform my bullheaded brother that he’s going to have company.”
DarkCloud sighed and smiled. “Feel free to call him a stubborn mule.”
Scott gave a depreciating chuckle. “Oh, DarkCloud, that’s just one of many comparisons that come to mind. None of which are very flattering at the moment.”
DarkCloud watched Scott leave the saloon, the smile on his face fading. He closed his eyes a moment, sighed heavily, then opened them to see Matthew, Rosti and Tucson watching him with guarded interest.
DarkCloud walked across the room. “We
could use your help.”
Johnny leaned his head against the paddock gate. He had found Barranca in the corral behind Solero’s, but he could tell that while Barranca looked well, he wasn’t in the condition for the fast pace Johnny had in mind for reaching Salinas.
Solero had appeared while Johnny had been checking over Barranca, the proprietor’s surprise at seeing Johnny up and about so overwhelming that Johnny had a hard time getting the man to quiet down long enough to ask him if he’d get the black saddled for him. Solero had quickly agreed and immediately hurried off to do as Johnny had requested.
Alone by the back paddock, Johnny found himself relieved to be able to close his eyes and put his head down. He knew the moment would be short, expected Solero—or Scott—to appear before long. But the sudden decision, the surge of energy expended in his determined confrontation with Scott and DarkCloud had left him feeling depleted, his head pounding with irritating consistency. Though his heart raced uncomfortably, forcing him to take large gulps of air in an effort to control and slow his breathing, the lack of accompanying pain told him he’d managed to pull off the treatment despite the condition he’d been in.
“So, tell me. Is it Johnny Lancer or Johnny Madrid being held up by that fence?”
Johnny stiffened, gave a weary groan as he forced himself to turn around. “What do you want, Scott?”
“I want you to answer my question.”
Settling his hands on his hips, Johnny sighed and closed his eyes. “You’re not gonna like the answer.”
Scott met the reply grimly. “Johnny, why? Why do you feel a need to be—”
“Madrid?” Johnny’s eyes opened and he glared. “The answer is as harsh as it is simple. Johnny Lancer might show some hesitation, some qualms about what might need to be done. Madrid won’t even give it an second thought.”
The grim pronouncement chilled Scott, but through sheer force of will, he remained impassively calm. “There’s no way I can talk you out of this, is there?”
“Then you realize I’m going along.”
“No, you’re not.”
Scott took a step forward, settled his own hands on his hips and met his brother’s determination with his own. “Johnny, I may have a hard time stopping you. But let’s face it, while DarkCloud’s medicine might be able to do some amazing things, it’s not a cure; it’s just a mask. You’re still physically a wreck, you aren’t well enough to do this trip and we both know what you’ve just put yourself through the last twenty-four hours. So you’d better get used to the fact that you’re going to have company, like it or not.”
“Dammit, Scott. Don’t be a fool! It’s me the Judge wants!”
“Yeah, well, so do I!” Scott snapped back. “In one piece!”
Johnny grunted in irritation, turned away to slam his hand against the top railing. As he did so, he was suddenly seized by the urge to sneeze. He tried to stop it, but knew in a second that the effort was futile and pain was imminent.
Scott saw Johnny stiffen, suddenly lean forward, the spasm of a sneeze catching him. With a groan of agony, Johnny put a hand to his chest while he grabbed for the railing with the other, his legs giving way. Scott grabbed for him, managed to keep him supported while he hunched forward, groaning and gulping for air, eyes watering from each painful breath. As the gasping subsided, Scott felt Johnny try to pull away. Slowly he released his grip, allowing his brother to straighten up, though Johnny still leaned heavily against the railing. Scott waited until Johnny had opened his eyes.
“Yeah, Madrid. You’ll make one hell of a formidable opponent, as long as you don’t sneeze.” At Johnny’s dark look, Scott added in deadpanned seriousness, “Face it; you need me. What happens if you get the hiccups?”
For a second the corner of Madrid’s mask was lifted, just enough for Scott to glimpse his brother, then the dark look dropped back into place.
“Hey, Mr. Lancer.”
Scott and Johnny turned toward the barn door to find the proprietor watching them with interest. Solero gave a nod to Scott as he brushed straw from his shirt. “What can I do for you?”
“Can you get my horse ready, too?”
Solero gave a nod, glanced at both men. “You goin’ somewheres together?”
Scott nodded. “We have some business in Salinas to tend to.”
“Salinas, again?” His eyebrows rose and he looked at Johnny, his gaze taking in the gunfighter’s pale color and dark, perspiration-streaked hair. “You sure you’re up to it so soon?”
His expression turning wry, Johnny shot Scott a look of irritation. “I’ll have a nursemaid.”
“We’re pressed for time,” Scott hinted.
“Oh, yeah.” Solero nodded. “I’ll get you set up.” He turned and went back into the barn.
Johnny looked at Scott. “Determined aren’t you, Brother?”
Scott smiled. “Only as much as you are, Brother.”
Johnny sighed and lowered his head. When he glanced up he noticed Scott’s attention was focused over his shoulder. Turning, he saw DarkCloud walking toward them, saddlebag and two canteens in hand.
“Now it starts in earnest,” Johnny mumbled.
Scott watched as DarkCloud approached, his eyes intently studying Johnny.
“We have problems.”
“What happened?” Scott asked.
DarkCloud shot Scott a dismal look before rounding on Johnny. “How much did you take?”
Johnny shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
“Look at me,” DarkCloud commanded.
Johnny complied, though his expression turned belligerent.
DarkCloud searched Johnny’s face. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Johnny snapped.
“A sneeze a few minutes ago about landed him on the ground.” Though Johnny shot Scott an annoyed look, Scott continued, “Why, what’s wrong?”
“There’s not even enough morphine left for two doses here. When I went up to get the things, I found the bottle on its side. The cap was off. Most of it spilled.” He looked at Johnny.
“I was a bit preoccupied.”
“No doubt,” DarkCloud replied sarcastically. “But I am worried about how much you’ve taken.”
Scott turned. “Johnny?”
Johnny met Scott’s look with weary resignation before facing DarkCloud. “Not much. If you must know, it hurts to breathe, I want to throw up, and I thought I’d be feeling a hell of a lot better by now.”
A small smile twitched the corner of Scott’s mouth, though he quickly masked it when DarkCloud didn’t seem as amused by Johnny’s answer.
“While I’m relieved to find out you didn’t take too much, that still leaves us with the fact that there isn’t enough in there for you to make the trip up to Salinas.”
“I’ll bring along some laudanum.”
DarkCloud shook his head. “Johnny, the laudanum will help relieve the cravings and symptoms you get from discontinuing the morphine, and it’ll take some of the sharpness off the pain, but it’s no substitute. It’s not going to act as fast, and it’s not going to provide the same relief. And you have to be careful of how much you take, because you’re going to want to take more in order to reach the same results. But the laudanum isn’t going to provide it.”
“I hear you,” Johnny cut in sharply. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Johnny, I don’t think you should attempt this. You’re asking for trouble. You physically can not do this.”
“I don’t seem to remember asking for your opinion,” Johnny hissed as he turned and headed for the barn door.
“As your doctor, I’m going to give it to you anyway!” DarkCloud retorted.
“There’s really no way to stop him,” Scott murmured, putting a hand on DarkCloud arm.
“There’s not enough morphine—and you know there’s none to be had in Salinas,” DarkCloud replied softly.
“Maybe we’ll find some.”
DarkCloud shook his head. “I’m afraid you’re going to get to Salinas and have a real mess on your hands, Scott—if not before.”
rubbed his forehead tiredly. “I
know. But we can’t leave Murdoch
to the Judge.” He turned and
glanced toward the barn. “I’ll
figure out something.”
A half hour later, Scott and Johnny were headed north along the old mission trail. The plan still remained to travel about halfway, then head toward the Santa Lucia Coastals and continue along the foothills there. Scott found himself continually checking on Johnny’s condition and knew it was probably annoying his brother. He tried to remain focused on the road ahead, yet his attention kept shifting back toward Johnny.
“You gonna stare at me the whole way up?” Johnny suddenly asked, glancing out from under the brim of his hat, which he had pulled low over his eyes.
Scott suppressed a smile. “I haven’t quite got that skillful subterfuge down, have I?”
“Nope,” Johnny replied, then suddenly kicked his horse to a fast lope.
Urging his horse on, Scott followed closely, a reprimand of caution forcefully swallowed. He worried that Johnny’s impetuous behavior was going to cause problems, but knew dictating his brother’s actions was out of the question. The most he could hope for was to be the voice of reason and maybe engender his brother to use a little restraint.
Over the next two hours they alternately pushed and walked their mounts. But as the second hour drew to a close, Scott noticed that Johnny was having a hard time masking his discomfort. He was beginning to lean toward his injured side, and though his head was down, Scott could see his jaw was tightly set. Pain was beginning to influence his movements.
“Hey, Johnny! Let’s take a breather. The horses could use it and so could I.”
“I’d rather get a little more distance behind us,” came the expected reply.
“And I’d rather we took a break,” Scott insisted as he nudged his horse up against Johnny’s mount causing the black to veer toward the riverbank. “There’s water and shade here. We’re stopping. Doesn’t do any good hurrying just to find ourselves sitting outside of town waiting for the sun to set.”
While Scott reined up and dismounted, he noticed Johnny remained in the saddle. Letting his reins drop to the ground, Scott walked around his horse until he stood at the head of Johnny’s black. Taking the bridle in one hand, he let the other trail along the horse’s neck. “Need some help?”
Johnny shook his head. “I can make it.” With a sharp intake of breath, Johnny swung his leg over and slid to the ground. He rested his head against the saddle for a moment before straightening up, giving Scott a weak smile. “You know, Scott, I can’t quite figure out why, but I think this trip gets more difficult each time I do it.”
Scott smiled. “We can still go back. I can get Tucson and go up as I had originally planned.”
Johnny shook his head, his voice lowering as his eyes trailed off toward the north. “I aim to take care of that judge myself. He made a big mistake when he decided to mess with mine.”
Scott crossed his arms and regarded his brother wryly. “Johnny, Murdoch’s not going to want you to go doing anything that’s…that’s going to put you into deeper trouble.”
Johnny turned, a sour look on his face. “Scott, the Judge went and took away that option when he branched into kidnapping.”
“Just because he’s crooked, doesn’t mean we have to go getting ourselves into trouble,” Scott argued. “There must be a way of handling this, and still stay within the law.”
“You don’t get it, do you, Scott? The Judge makes the laws, owns the law—he is the law, up in Salinas, anyway.”
“You’re taking a rather pessimistic view of those who could be in a position to help us.”
“I’m takin’ a realistic view, Brother.”
“Based on experience?”
“Based on experience.”
“Well, then, Brother, let’s hear your realistic plan.”
“I’m workin’ on it.” Johnny took a step away from his horse, hauled up short as he hissed an oath and closed his eyes. Scott put out a hand, but Johnny waved it away.
“Come on,” Scott countered sharply, ignoring Johnny’s protest to grasp him firmly around the back. “Save your energy for the Judge. I’m on your side, remember?”
“The good guys, right?” Johnny quipped as Scott helped him to the shade of a large oak.
“Always the good guys,” Scott agreed with a grin.
After getting Johnny settled, Scott fetched one of the canteens. Then almost as an afterthought, he took the bottle of laudanum out of the saddlebag and returned to his brother.
“A drink of both?” he asked as he knelt down.
Johnny gave the dark, laudanum bottle a look full of venom before curtly accepting the water from Scott’s grasp.
Scott waited a moment as Johnny took a drink, then asked, “Johnny, let’s not argue about this? We both know you could use it. It’s been a few hours and you’ve been pushing it hard.”
“I’d rather not—”
“You didn’t seem to have a second thought about using the morphine to get up off the floor,” Scott argued.
Johnny gave a sigh, grabbed the bottle, flicked off the cork, took a quick drink and replaced the cork in one smooth action. Then he handed it back to Scott with a dark look that dared him to say something. Scott wisely left the challenge unanswered, calmly accepted the bottle, stood up and returned it to its place in the saddlebag.
“Let’s give the horses a short break. I’ll take them down to the river for a drink.”
up the reins to the horses and walked them down the bank.
When he returned a few minutes later, he found Johnny resting easily.
Scott had no doubt he needed it. And
though he was relieved, the warnings and admonitions that DarkCloud had
privately imparted just before they rode out threaded uncomfortably through his
thoughts. “You must monitor his
symptoms closely. If what you say
is true, he’s gone a whole day without the morphine and just gotten the worst
behind him. While it seems he took just enough to get himself up on his feet
again, all he really has is laudanum to control the pain as those couple doses
of medicine aren’t going to amount to much in the long run.
So you have to watch his intake of laudanum closely.
You can’t afford to let him go too long between doses, or the severe
symptoms will return and the pain will get unmanageable.
He’s going to be difficult to monitor.
He doesn’t take well to anyone telling him what to do or when to do
had chuckled at this observation. “Oh,
so you’ve noticed?”
With a perplexed sigh, Scott settled down against another tree, drew his knees up and rested his clasped hands on them as he glanced across the couple of yards that separated him from where Johnny lay under the shade of an old oak. He took a deep breath, tried to force his thoughts and body to relax, but soon found himself admitting to the futility. He was too worried.
Careful not to disturb his brother, Scott stood back up and made his way along the bank of the shallow river. Out from under the shade, the early afternoon sun was hot and dry, the winds had yet to kick up; not a leaf, nor a blade of grass moved. The sun beat down on the top of his head causing him to glance wistfully back toward where he’d been sitting, his hat tossed off to the side near the base of the tree.
He turned back toward the river and glanced out across the valley floor toward the parallel ranges opposite of the Santa Lucia Coastals, the Gabilan and the Diablos. On the other side of them lay the San Joaquin, and nestled in a valley on the far side of the Diablos was the Lancer spread. He wondered how Teresa and Jelly were faring.
He then turned and glanced north following the meandering river trail toward Salinas, yet unseen in the distance. He was quiet for a moment, intent in staring off toward the invisible, then he sighed and shook his head. “Damn,” he muttered. He pivoted and looked once more at Johnny’s sleeping form. He wondered how much longer he should let him sleep. Rest was important, but so was getting near to the town before dark.
Night had fallen, darkness had
spread among the mesas and the plains of the desert floor.
The air had turned cold. Padre
Simon quietly went about cleaning up the dishes from supper as Johnny sat
staring into the fire. Though he
sat near enough, the heat couldn’t seem to penetrate the layer of ice that had
enveloped him since the afternoon’s events.
It had been just after their mid-day rest from the desert heat. They had put another thirty minutes behind them, Padre Simon handling the small cart, Johnny flanking on his horse, when the attack Padre Simon had long expected, happened. A half dozen men, their faces covered, had charged at them from around a butte.
was immediate. Johnny drew his gun,
dropping a man before he spurred his horse into a leap and fired off another
No! Stop! I pray you!” Padre Simon’s words echoed loudly.
of the corner of his eyes, Johnny saw that the priest had risen and was now
standing up in the cart, his hands raised in appeal.
“What the hell are you doing? Get down!” Johnny yelled.
Simon ignored him as the remaining bandits circled forward, edgy and suspicious.
more killing!” Padre Simon pleaded. “Please!
You can have what you came for!”
looked at Padre Simon in disbelief, his lips parting as if seized by a desire to
say something, but unable to form a response appropriate for his sheer dismay.
we get him.” The leader of the group moved his horse up close to the cart and
gestured his revolver in Johnny’s direction.
Padre Simon replied. “He was only
doing what he was hired to do.”
shot two of my men!” the leader snapped, then leaned forward.
“’Sides, I don’t think you’ve really got any say in the
matter.” He turned toward one of
his men. “Pedro, take him.”
his hands out to his side but the revolver still in his grip, sat motionless as
Pedro urged his horse forward. He
didn’t move, but kept a cool, impassive face.
He understood what needed to be done, even if Padre Simon didn’t.
stopped two yards away, his revolver pointed at Johnny’s face.
“Your gun. Drop it.”
emotion, Johnny complied, the revolver smacking onto the hard sand just a foot
away from his horse’s feet.
your horse,” Pedro commanded.
lowered his hands to his saddle, slowly swung his leg around and slid to the
ground. As his boots hit the sand,
he used the tactic that had saved his life many times, and would continue to do
dropped his left hand to the small of his back, where under his jacket rested
the modified revolver that he always kept near at hand.
Then in an action unforeseen by the bandits, Johnny dived under his
horse’s legs, coming up on the other side, his right hand grasping the dropped
revolver as he fired on the leader with his left.
His right hand swung up a half second later to send Pedro sailing
backward off his horse, clutching at a hole in his chest.
The sound of the rapid gunfire spooked a couple of the bandits’ horses,
affording Johnny a few extra precious seconds.
dammit!” Johnny shouted at Padre Simon as he launched himself behind the
fallen man’s horse for cover. “Get
saw one of the two remaining bandits secure control of his horse and swing his
gun around to find a target, any target, in the confusion.
Fearing for the priest’s life, Johnny slapped the horse he was near in
the rump, sending it galloping between the bandit and the small wagon.
The diversion gave him the needed time to fire, hitting the man in the
arm. As the bandit took off, the
remaining man, eyes wild with confusion and fright, took one last look at his
fallen leader and spurred his horse after his wounded comrade.
turned and ran for his horse. As he
launched himself upon it, Padre Simon’s voice called out,
Let them go!”
Johnny reined his horse around tight, his eyes blazing with fury.
“You want me to let them go?”
Simon calmly nodded and stepped down out of the wagon.
“We have dead to bury and wounded to tend to.”
felt his jaw drop as he stared at the priest in disbelief.
“They were trying to kill us—steal your precious artifact!”
His voice rose in anger. “And
why didn’t you use that gun you had? I
thought you were going to help! Instead
you stand up and start waving your hands like some demented fool, just asking to
be shot! Are you crazy?”
Father Simon looked up at Johnny and shook his head. “I don’t think so. Though
I’m afraid opinion has differed on that matter recently.”
what the Hell were you thinking? You
could have gotten us both killed!”
Simon paused, studied Johnny with a lifted eyebrow. “Are you finished?”
finished.” Padre Simon stepped
around to the back of the wagon. “There’s
work to be done.” He rummaged
around until he drew out a shovel. “I’ll
tend to the wounded if you’ll begin digging the graves.”
are crazy! I’m not going to go digging their graves!”
Padre Simon rested the point of the shovel in the sand and studied Johnny with mild confusion. “Well, I’ll dig and you tend to the wounded then. I’m not adverse to a little hard labor, though we’ll probably get a later start.”
you understand?” Johnny growled in sheer exasperation. “Nobody’s
going to go digging graves! We have
a lot of distance to cover—”
“Then how am I supposed to conduct a proper burial service and give them last rites?”
rites?” Johnny hissed. His
irritation reaching a climax, he swung out of his saddle and planted himself
firmly in front of Padre Simon. “There’s
gonna be no last rites! Do you
hear? Now get back in that
the first time, Padre Simon’s expression became stern and he regarded Johnny
with disappointment. “If you
won’t help, I will do it alone. However
I would think if it was your time, you would wish to have the comfort of knowing
you would be sent from these earthly cares with a proper burial.”
sighed, a low growl hidden underneath, the irritation on his face slowly turning
to disgusted exasperation. He
grabbed the shovel. “I doubt
I’m gonna be so lucky as to have the guy who finally plugs me be hounded by a
so, Johnny had set about digging three graves.
The other man had been wounded, and though Johnny protested, Padre Simon
bandaged him up, fed him, put him back on a horse, and sent him on his way.
be back,” Johnny had warned.
I don’t think so,” Padre Simon replied. “They expected to succeed, yet
they failed miserably against one old priest and a lone gunfighter.
They’ll be too embarrassed to even return to whoever hired them.
then Padre Simon set about giving the three dead bandits a proper burial,
complete with last rites and Latin prayers.
had sullenly refused to participate. He
was bothered by the priest’s action, irritated that Padre Simon seemed to put
as much care and concern into the burial Mass of three bandits as he would for
his own parishioners; bandits, who just a few hours before, had been intent on
robbing and killing them.
so now, after getting a few more hours behind them before the coming evening
forced them to stop for the night, Johnny sat morosely studying a fire that
seemed unable to provide him with any warmth.
inched closer to the blazing heat, bowed his head, tried to find some sense in
the conflicting emotions he felt—the gentleness and piety of Padre Simon, the
anger he felt when the priest seemed ready to give in to the bandits, the dead
faces of the same bandits that Johnny had killed in order to protect Padre
Simon’s life and the relic he had thought was so important, and finally the
heaviness in his heart as he watched Padre Simon tend to the bandits’ last
heard a noise beside him, felt a light touch on his shoulder.
you feel a need to talk?”
opened his eyes and scowled.
Simon smiled, a quiet reassurance of understanding, before lowering himself.
about what?” Johnny asked as he allowed the fire to reclaim his attention.
saved your relic.”
did what I was hired to do.”
at what cost?”
know my fee.”
you know that isn’t what I meant.”
irritation, Johnny turned to Padre Simon, his expression tight.
“Then what do you mean?”
Simon took the time to study Johnny’s eyes deeply. “I meant the cost to you.”
snorted, turned back to the fire. “In
my line of work, the answer is simple. The
fast and smart live, the slow and careless die.”
Simon nodded. “And you are the
fast and smart.”
frowned and turned away. “We’re
alive, aren’t we?”
it doesn’t bother you that three men who had been living this morning are now
resting for eternity out in the desert back there?”
it bothers me,” Johnny snapped and stood up.
“But I didn’t exactly have a choice, did I?”
always a choice.”
I could have let them take your relic and kill us.”
may not have killed us.”
I wasn’t about to take that chance. And
how about the precious relic you were all fired to have protected?”
yes. But not at the cost of human
why the hell did you hire me?”
Simon shook his head, yet remained seated.
“I’m not sure.”
you’d better get one thing straight.” Johnny’s stance spread, he put his
hands on his hips. “I’ve been
hired to get you and that relic delivered safely and that’s exactly what I’m
going to do.”
take your job seriously.”
course I take my job seriously. If
I didn’t, I’d have been dead long ago—or at least out of work.
But I’m good at what I do, and I’m not about to let your crazy
notions mess up my record.”
good, I don’t have to be proud.”
you are. You’re proud of your
what if I am?” Johnny demanded, then began pacing the perimeter of the fire.
job is to kill.”
don’t know what’s with you. This
is who I am. This is what I do.”
He stopped before Padre Simon and glared down at the priest. “You knew that when you hired me. You were the one who put out a call for a gunfighter!
Well, surprise. That’s what you got!”
Padre Simon nodded slowly, almost sadly. “However,
I was hoping I had found a gunfighter with a soul—a conscious.”
in this line of work, Padre, those two things can be a liability.”
you wish you didn’t have them?”
clenched his jaw. “Damnit!
Don’t you understand? This
is what I’m good at. This is what
you have no other options?”
Johnny laughed as he turned, paced, pivoted.
“My options were destroyed when my father threw my mother and me out
when I was two. That man destroyed
any options I might have had! It
was either survive or be killed.”
he forced you to become a gunfighter? He
put the weapon in your hand, pulled the trigger, taught you how to kill?”
glared. “No, but he taught me how
you blame him for what you’ve become?”
Padre Simon paused thoughtfully. “That
hardly shows pride.”
glared another second then turned curtly and grabbed up his jacket.
“I’m gonna go check the perimeter.”
sure it’s fine.”
gonna check it anyway.”
God did not create us to be mindless animals.
He gave us free will and a conscious to help us in our decisions.
And that’s what life is. Choices
and decisions. Right and wrong.
We choose what paths to follow.” He
paused. “Would you have done it
the question, Johnny continued into the darkness, Padre Simon’s words clinging
to him, the chill of the desert night no rival for the heavy iciness in his
The comforting darkness turned increasingly cold, intermittent waves of pain attacked his wounds, and though with each ebb he tried to plunge back down into the refuge of numb escape, successive waves forced him further and further upward toward consciousness.
He gasped and shivered.
Scott knelt beside his brother, worry and concern on his face.
Johnny jerked, and his eyes shot opened. He blinked rapidly, concentration lining his face.
Scott watched the puzzled look deepen as his brother’s eyes darted quickly around, brows knitting in forced attention. “Johnny?” His voice held a note of urgency.
“We’re…outside?” It was half question, half observation.
Scott nodded; his brother’s statement had not relieved his anxiety.
Johnny nodded haltingly. “Good,” he said, blinked, swallowed. “I—I was concerned for a moment when I thought…I saw branches growing out of your head.”
Scott raised an eyebrow, then a smile began to cross his face, but it was cut short as Johnny moved to straighten up. The simple action caused his brother to gasp and clench his eyes shut.
“Hey! Hey! Easy does it!” Scott quickly put out a restraining hand.
Johnny acknowledged Scott’s reaction with a faint smile, then his eyes traveled upward and he squinted. “How long?”
Scott leaned back on his heels, rested his elbows on his knees. “Not long. About a half hour.”
Johnny grimly nodded, maneuvered himself back against the tree, but in spite of his careful movements, his breath was still arrested, ending in a groan, his face blanching.
Scott put a hand on Johnny’s leg. “I think you’re going to need some of the medicine.”
Johnny closed his eyes. He was silent a moment as he gathered his energy. Then he opened his eyes, gingerly pushed himself straighter. “There isn’t much. I hate to use it. I’d rather save it for later. I may need it.”
“Need it for what?” Scott pursed his lips, his dissatisfaction at Johnny’s response showing. “The morphine is not a miracle cure and you’re sure as hell not up to any gunfight! I do hope you realize that. And if you think I’m going—”
Johnny waved a hand, an amused smile managing to find its way to the corners of his eyes. “Gunfight?” He laughed softly, carefully. “Do I look like someone who could start a gunfight?”
Scott bitterly shook his head. “No, but you don’t look like someone who could ride fifteen miles either, and you’ve managed that.”
“Yeah, well, we’ve got a ways to go yet.” Johnny drew his leg up under him, moved forward to come to his knees. There he paused, head down, left hand supporting his weight, his right drawn up against his side, palm to chest.
Scott shook his head. “You’re going to have to take something, Johnny, or we might as well just sit here, because there’s no way you’re making it any further.”
Johnny gave a small sigh. “Go get the laudanum.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “Johnny, what you need is the morphine. It’s been about four hours since you took it this morning; it’s pretty well worn off.”
Johnny tilted his head enough to look at Scott. “I just took it to get up off the floor.”
“Yeah, well, now you need to get up off the ground.”
Johnny shot Scott a tight glare. “Just get me the laudanum.”
With a dissatisfied sigh, Scott stood up and walked to Johnny’s horse where he took out the bottle of laudanum. Without a word, he returned, knelt, uncorked it and offered the bottle to his brother, who hadn’t moved from his position.
With a bitter glance at the bottle, Johnny accepted it, brought it to his lips for a long drink then handed it back.
“It’s still going to take awhile to kick in,” Scott remarked as he pushed the cork back in.
“I know that,” Johnny replied bitterly, his head bent forward.
Scott made a quick decision to ignore Johnny’s comment. “You going to stay in that position?”
“I rather like it,” Johnny answered, a hint of sarcasm in his tone.
Scott pursed his lips, determined to avoid a conflict. “Keeps the pressure off your chest and side, doesn’t it?”
Johnny tilted his head again. “You’re gettin’ good, Boston.”
Scott watched as Johnny let his head droop forward. He suddenly felt a desire to snap back at the Boston comment. Generally it didn’t bother him; but now it irritated him. He sensed Johnny used it as a barrier between them: you’re Eastern, I’m Western, I’ve been through this before, you’re just learning, my old friends would know what to do, you’re just stumbling around in the dark…
It took another fifteen minutes before Johnny was able to get back on his horse. Scott’s concern for his brother’s condition continued to increase over the next hour as Johnny continued to push himself in his urgent desire to reach Salinas as quickly as possible. Knowing that a reprimand would be received with about as much appreciation as a bout of diarrhea while on horseback, Scott decided a different approach was called for. “Hey, Johnny,” he asked, purposely slowing his horse down, necessitating that Johnny do the same.
“Whose turn is it for a story?”
Johnny slowly turned his head, tilting it just enough so that he could give his brother the full effect of his utter disbelief. “You are kidding, right?”
Scott shook his head. “No. And if I remember correctly, it’s your turn.”
“Too bad. I’m out of stories,” Johnny replied and turned his attention back toward the trail.
“What were you dreaming about back there?”
“If I tell you a story, will you tell me one?”
“It’s a spy story.”
Johnny turned again. “Spy story?”
Johnny seemed to consider the new information, a hint of a smile on his lips. “A spy story could be good.”
Scott laughed. “Yes, I thought that might pique your interest.”
“Don’t know if my interest is peeked or not, but I’ll listen.”
Scott laughed again, stretched back his neck, regarded the sky thoughtfully a second, then began, “Let’s see. He was a young man under Sheridan’s command. I believe it happened, oh, fall of sixty-three, if I remember correctly.”
“What was his name?”
“His name?” Scott blinked, pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Uh, David, I believe. Yes, it was David.”
“David?” Johnny nodded to himself, looked back at the road. “David, the spy. Okay. You may continue.”
Scott smirked. “Why, thank you.”
Scott worked his face back to a deadpan expression. “Okay, let’s see. David was called into his commander’s tent. He’d been with the cavalry only a short time, but had already proved to be quite an able horseman and rather fearless—at least that’s what the word was.”
“Why was he considered fearless?”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “That’d be another story. Do you want to hear a spy one or not?”
“Spy,” Johnny replied.
“Okay, then. No more interruptions.” He cleared his throat, and as he ran his gloved hand along the mane of his horse, he began again, “David also had a flair for mimicking accents and had a reputation for being able to memorize quite well. His Company Commander had singled him out when asked by the colonel if he had anyone who might be willing to take on the rather risky venture of spying. David was surprised to be called to the colonel’s tent as he hadn’t realized he’d attracted any notice. Then over a rather expensive bottle of sherry, the colonel explained what he was looking for. At first, David was surprised, but he quickly realized that this was the sort of assignment he’d been looking for. Once he agreed to take on the task, the particulars were laid out for him. They needed him to carry a memorized, coded message into town to be delivered to another person who was in turn to give David a message to carry back. He was to pose as a landowner from Mississippi and the appropriate papers and transportation had already been arranged.
“Getting behind the lines proved easier than he had expected. There was a lot of movement going on at that time. And other than the fact that he had to take a rather indirect route, which took over a week instead of the normal three days, he arrived at the appointed destination where he was to board a train bound for the city. After arriving, it was a simple matter to find the appropriate shopkeeper, deliver the message and memorize the new one. At that point he expected the return to go as easy, attributing his lack of any obstacles to his own believability and finesse. However, he was in for a bit of a shock. The next morning, he awoke to the sounds of yelling in the streets and the far off roar of canon. The Federals were moving on the city earlier than expected. He immediately left for the depot, hoping to still be able to get his seat, however they were only allowing women and children on the train. Worrying that his message might have some vital information needed for his attacking comrades and concerned that he could be pressed into service for the Rebels, he acquired a horse—”
“Acquired it,” Scott insisted.
“Ah,” Johnny remarked, “nothing like a new acquisition when there’s a great need.”
Scott gave a chuckle. “I guess you could say that. Shall I continue?”
“Looking forward to it.”
Scott smiled, nodded. “Okay, he got a hold of a horse and immediately headed out of town. Of course he couldn’t head straight for his own side, but had to go with the general flow of traffic heading out into the countryside. However, he’d been told about a safe house, a northern sympathizer, who lived about fifteen miles out of town, so that’s where he headed. His plan was to make it there by nightfall, and then hopefully head across the lines during the evening. Because of the general clog of traffic along the roads and his unfamiliarity of the surrounding area, it took him until nightfall to reach his destination. The family was surprised to see him, actually a bit apprehensive at first, but he’d been told the appropriate code to use if he found need of their help. After being welcomed into their home, David was disconcerted to see one of the sons of the family, a young lad of about twelve or so, his face covered with a poultice and his arm in a sling. Upon asking what had happened, the mother prompted the young boy to explain. The young lad was quite abashed, and admitted that he’d been trying to get some honey, but had fallen out of the tree and right into a patch of poison oak. This produced a chuckle from the inhabitants, as it seemed this young man had been warned not to try to go after the honey in the first place.
“Well, a short while later, they were sitting down for supper when there came the sound of approaching horses. Looking out the window, the woman of the house discovered about a dozen Rebels congregating on the house. Thinking he’d be detained, if not worse, David at first deemed the situation serious, but then an idea came to him. He quickly grabbed the young man, herded him into a back bedroom, told the mother to get the poultice and wrap off and gave the boy strict orders to do a mountain of moaning. Then he ran out onto the porch just as the Rebel leader was ascending. ‘Thank Providence!’ he exclaimed. ‘Have you a surgeon with you?’
“‘What do you need with a surgeon?’ the officer asked.
“‘We have a sick boy who we fear may have the smallpox!’
“At these dreaded words, the officer immediately forbade anyone else from entering the home and sent for the surgeon, who then followed the spy to the dimly lit backroom where the young man lay, moaning and groaning as if in the clutches of a great fever. His face was swollen to twice its size, the eyes mere slits in a face utterly ravaged by the attack of the poison oak. The mother had taken the boy’s shirt off, so the rash could be seen extending over his torso and arms.
“The surgeon took one look and quickly backed away. ‘It’s the pox for sure!’ he exclaimed then immediately returned to the major. Through the open window, our spy could hear the learned physician’s pronouncement that it was the worse case of pox he’d ever seen, and that he doubted the young man would live to see the next sunrise.
“At this pronouncement, the major briskly gave orders that all were to mount and that a yellow quarantine flag be posted to keep any one else from approaching. Then off they rode, totally unaware of the deception that had been played on them.”
Johnny chuckled, turned and faced Scott. He pushed the hat back from his head slightly, his eyes crinkled in amusement. “That’s made up, isn’t it?”
Scott shook his head. “No, it’s the truth.”
Johnny snorted skeptically.
“It’s your turn now.”
“I didn’t know we were making up stories.”
“I swear, it’s the honest truth.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t have anything like a spy story.”
“Okay,” Scott nodded thoughtfully. “Then why don’t you tell me what you were dreaming about. I heard you mention Padre Simon again.”
Johnny’s jaw tightened. “Scott.”
“You said something about doing it differently,” Scott continued, ignoring the warning. “What would you have done differently?”
Johnny turned, surprise on his face. “I said that?”
Johnny looked away. “Padre Simon,” he sighed, was quiet a moment. “I was dreaming about helping Padre Simon get his relic across the desert.”
Scott pursed his lips. “You…would have done that differently?” he prodded.
Johnny shook his head. “No, no. I…I would have done things the same.”
Johnny sighed, closed his eyes. “Did you know you’re like sand in a boot?”
Scott chuckled. “Are you hinting that I’m an irritation?”
“I wasn’t hinting.”
“I still want you to tell me what happened.”
Johnny sighed heavily. “Padre Simon had a relic, I helped him get it to Caborca. End of story.”
“And nothing happened on the way?”
“We were ambushed, but they didn’t succeed. Padre Simon was fine, the relic was fine, we finished the trip. Satisfied?”
“Not really, but I guess that’s all I’m going to get.”
“That’s all you’re going to get.”
“My spy story was much better.”
Over the next few hours they managed to keep moving, stopping about every half-hour along the river for the horses to get a drink and for Johnny to take a small amount of the laudanum. The morphine he’d taken earlier had now completely worn off, leaving him battling not only the pain but the earlier symptoms of chills, nausea and fatigue. Scott was relieved to note, though, that the symptoms appeared to a lesser degree than they had before. This added credence to DarkCloud’s theory that their earlier endeavor had flushed most of the drug out of Johnny’s system, and the small amount he’d taken hadn’t really set him back. At the same time, DarkCloud had warned that a person’s reaction to morphine was difficult to predict, and that for weeks to come, the symptoms could return full force for short periods of time, rendering Johnny miserable, feverish and unable to function.
At one point when they stopped, Scott tried to get Johnny to take in a little food, but his brother adamantly refused to eat. Scott had a feeling it would probably come right back up anyway. Privately, Scott marveled that his brother had managed to keep going—chalked it up to Lancer pride and stubbornness, two traits he knew Johnny had received a healthy share of. This was tempered with the knowledge that Johnny hadn’t eaten anything of consequence for quite some time—something that was physically obvious.
They had put a total of another three hours behind them and were making for the Coastals, when it became apparent, even to Johnny, that he just wasn’t going to be able to go any farther. He tried to fight back the pain, tried desperately to keep control, but even though they’d slowed to a walk, the jarring stress of each step struck him with an ever-increasing force until there seemed to be no break in his torment. In stubborn pride, he clenched his teeth, resolved to make it another hundred paces. He wasn’t sure what an extra hundred paces was going to accomplish, but once he’d set the goal in his mind, he was damn well gonna reach it. He tried to fix a spot on the horizon, but his vision blurred so dizzyingly that the mountains in front of him were nothing but a mass of gold and gray; he looked back down at his hands holding the reins and tried to focus.
Bile was rising in the back of his throat as heat seemed to crawl from his torso along his arms and legs. Too late, he realized he should have said something to Scott, as he felt himself beginning to slip from his saddle.
“We’ve got a few more miles to go, and it’s going to be an hour or two before it’s dark enough to start for town,” Scott observed as he reined up his horse, his eyes searching across the valley floor toward the town rising up in the distance.
Aware that he hadn’t heard any response from Johnny, Scott swiveled in his saddle. Though Johnny’s horse had stopped, one look at his brother’s face quickly told Scott the reason his brother had offered no comment. Johnny’s face was covered in sweat and drained of all color, his eyes barely open as he swayed in his saddle.
“Oh, Lord,” Scott uttered. “Johnny?”
Johnny gave a tight, less than reassuring nod. “Still… here.”
“For how long?” Scott asked. “Come on.” He kicked his horse up next to Johnny’s. “Let’s find a place to rest before we lose you.” He glanced along the foothills. “Let’s get back in among the trees a bit farther, just to be safe. I see a good spot.” He turned back. “Can you make it?”
“Lead on, Lieutenant,” Johnny replied, tried to add a grin to his quip, but it was obscured when a wave of pain sent him hunching forward in his saddle.
“Try to keep with me here, Johnny, okay?”
Johnny response was a vague nod.
Scott quickly leaned over and grabbed the reins of Johnny’s horse.
It was only a matter of moments before Scott had led Johnny to a more secluded spot, surrounded by a grove of trees with a nearby outcropping of rocks that would afford a good view of the valley floor. Scott quickly dismounted. “Let me help,” he said, reaching a hand up.
Though Johnny managed an irritated look, the lack of any real challenge to it was more conspicuous. Without comment, Scott reached up and placed a hand on Johnny’s back as his brother toppled out of the saddle. He then found himself making a quick grab for Johnny’s arm as his brother’s legs suddenly buckled. “Whoa, there,” Scott said as he steadied Johnny. “I was thinking you’d prefer to sit over there under the shade of those trees.”
“Really?” Johnny shivered, grimaced, his face flushed and strained. “I kinda liked it right here.”
“Well,” Scott tightened his grip and began to head Johnny toward the trees. “That would have been a good spot, except that your horse went and peed there.”
Johnny groaned, managed to give a weak glare backward toward the two horses. “Sure it wasn’t …your horse?”
“Nope,” Scott affirmed. “Definitely yours.”
Unable to suppress a smile, Scott helped his brother settle down against a tree. Johnny gave a tight sigh, closed his eyes and leaned his head back while Scott squatted down to study his brother’s face. After a moment, Scott lowered his head, his clasped hands hanging loose between his knees. He took his own deep breath, then lifted his head and placed one of his hands on the calf of Johnny’s outstretched leg.
“Johnny. We’re having problems, aren’t we?”
Johnny opened his eyes. His coloring had changed from unnaturally pale to flushed, lips parted through which he sucked in short, quick cooling draughts of air, and his eyes had become abnormally large and dark. Johnny swallowed with apparent difficulty before taking a vague swipe at his face with the sleeve of his shirt.
“We, huh, Boston?” he grimaced a smile, continued in halting, breathless gasps. “You know…it’s…maybe… a good thing…you’re here. Though you never…heard me…say that.”
squeezed Johnny’s leg. He then
sighed as his expression grew more serious.
“The laudanum…it’s not enough, is it?”
Johnny gave a hesitant nod. “I just thought…hoped…it’d do more.”
Scott looked down at his hand resting on his brother’s leg. With a sigh he drew it away, glanced back up. “Johnny. This was unwise. Especially after what you’ve just been through the last couple days.”
“Scott, I just need… a little more medicine…and a couple minutes of rest.”
“Johnny, you’ve been taking an awful lot the last few hours. And you need more than a couple minutes of rest. You need about a week.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Realizing an argument would accomplish nothing, Scott shook his head and stood up. “I’ll go get the medicine. But then you’re going to take it easy until it’s dark enough to ride into town.”
Without waiting for an answer, Scott went to Johnny’s saddlebag, took out the bottle of laudanum and returned.
Johnny opened his eyes as Scott approached.
Scott knelt, pulled out the cork, helped his brother to take a short drink, then firmly drew the bottle away.
“Hey,” Johnny lifted a hand, smiled hesitantly. “It’s okay.”
Scott rubbed his forehead. “Are you going to explain to me what you actually think we’re going to accomplish up here. ‘Cause frankly, Johnny, I don’t see how your being here is going to do any good.”
Johnny closed his eyes and gave a tired sigh. “The Judge doesn’t really want Murdoch—he’s after me.”
“And so your plan is to give him what he wants and you think he’ll just let Murdoch walk out of there?”
“The Judge isn’t a fool.” Johnny paused, caught his breath, opened his eyes. “He has an important position in the community and Murdoch is a man with his own power. The Judge won’t hurt him.”
Scott pursed his lips before grimly replying. “But there’s nothing to stop him from hurting a gunfighter…or…” he paused, “…or perhaps turning a gunfighter in.” There was a moment of silence before Scott added, “Do you think he knows about the bounty?”
Johnny tried to shrug, but it turned into a wince.
“If he knows… Johnny, he could be planning on sending you to Kansas.”
“Don’t we need to take this into consideration? Doesn’t this change things?”
“Scott, there may not be a way to avoid it.”
“But you don’t have to go making it easy,” Scott countered.
“I’m not leaving Murdoch in the hands of the Judge.”
“You said yourself the Judge won’t hurt him. Give me a chance to go in and talk to him first.”
“No,” Johnny shook his head. “He’ll just take you too, and—and I can’t handle the Judge by myself right now.”
“So, you have a plan that consists of more than just walking into his office?”
“My main concern is getting Murdoch released. But I don’t plan to become a willing hostage either. While I don’t think he’d risk harming Murdoch, I also don’t trust him. Kidnapping shows desperation.” Johnny paused, leaned his head back against the tree, and caught his breath before continuing, “That’s why I wanted to be up here early. I want to confront him tonight—not when he’s expecting us.”
Scott looked surprised. “You’re planning to be well enough to meet him this evening, after the ride up?” He shook his head. “A bit optimistic, aren’t you?”
“I’ll do what needs to be done,” Johnny replied softly, closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree.
“I thought the plan was to come up early so that you’d have a chance to rest before meeting the Judge.”
Johnny shook his head but didn’t open his eyes. “Gotta catch him unawares.”
Scott put a hand out toward Johnny’s leg, but drew it back as Johnny crossed his arms and shivered.
“No,” Johnny shook his head, but his reply seemed immaterial as another wave of trembling seized him.
Scott handed Johnny the laudanum bottle, “Here, have another sip.”
As Johnny took a drink, Scott shrugged out of his jacket. “I’ll take that and you can have this,” he said as he took back the bottle and laid the jacket over Johnny’s chest.
“The laudanum would probably do me more good.”
“Yeah, well,” Scott stood up, “you get the jacket.” He walked back to Johnny’s horse and replaced the bottle in the saddlebag, then turned and gazed off through the trees. “We passed some rocks over there. I’m going to go climb up and see if there’s anyone moving about. I really don’t think we’ve attracted any attention, but I think it would be prudent to check anyway. Will you be okay for a few minutes?”
“I’ll be fine,” Johnny answered.
Johnny waited until Scott’s footsteps had disappeared down among the bushes, then he pulled the jacket up tighter against his chin. When another shiver sent pain jabbing through his chest and side, he allowed the moan to escape. With Scott gone, there was no need to waste energy on theatrics. He rode the waves of the pain, found the edges, slowly reined it in until he could manage it.
He could tell the laudanum was working, but silently wished for a dose of the morphine. Scott was right to worry. It was going to be difficult to make any believable stand against the Judge. He’d already used up all the energy and control he had. It was a realization that was hard to admit, but the hard fact was, he had nothing left to give.
He sighed, wondered what Murdoch was doing, wondered what he was thinking. Murdoch’s immediate safety wasn’t his main concern. Instead he was worried about what Murdoch would say when he learned what his younger son had done—and about what he still needed to do.
It was a good thing that Scott had come. No amount of determination was going to be able to make the wounds heal or take away all the symptoms that still clawed at his nerves, turning his thoughts toward the release the morphine provided.
Dismally he remembered how it had been before. The need, the desire, had continued for weeks after he’d quit using the laudanum. And by the time Harley and Wes had found him and taken him to Cisco’s, he hadn’t had the constant pain of fresh wounds reminding him of the medicine’s power to numb and relieve.
He drew in as deep a breath as was comfortable, realizing that the chill he’d been feeling was now being replaced by a crawling heat. He dragged the jacket down to his lap, took another deep breath. He could feel the sweat beading along his neck and forehead. He wiped it away with the sleeve of his shirt. He wished he’d had Scott leave him with a canteen of water. He glanced at the two hobbled horses nibbling quietly at the grass a few yards away. But getting up and retrieving a canteen was beyond his capabilities at this time.
Eyes closed, Johnny made to push the jacket off his lap. As he did so, he heard a crackling noise as his hand pressed on the jacket. He opened his eyes, realized his hand rested on one of the pockets. He gave it a pat, smiled with amusement as he imagined the myriad of possible lists and notes he might discover.
More as an opportunity to tease than out of real curiosity, Johnny pulled the papers out of Scott’s pocket. The recognizable handwriting turned the pain in his chest to a heavy stone, where it slowly sank to the pit of his stomach.
Murdoch stepped into the room, the door held open for him by one of the Judge’s men that he’d seen earlier. Once through the threshold, he paused as his eyes quickly scanned the room. It was a rather richly appointed, formal dining room, the centerpiece of which was a large mahogany table, huge enough to accommodate a dozen dinner guests. However, this afternoon, the table was set for two, one place at each end.
“I’m so glad you could join me for dinner.” The Judge stood at the far end of the room, a bottle of wine in his hands. “I was just picking out an appropriate vintage for our meal.”
“You can’t seriously expect me to dine with you?”
“What? You don’t eat?”
“You know very well what I mean.”
The Judge chortled, dismissed the remark and walked to the table where he picked up a wine goblet. “I believe you’ll enjoy this one. Had it shipped directly from France six years ago.”
“I demand that you release me, now.”
Ignoring the interruption, the Judge filled a second goblet, then picked them both up and walked forward, offering one to Murdoch. “We have so much in common, you and I,” the Judge said as he inclined his head to the proffered wine.
With clenched jaw, Murdoch accepted, but didn’t drink.
“I was amazed, really. Intrigued with the similarities,” the Judge continued.
Murdoch watched as the Judge took a sip of the wine, nodded his approval, then turned and walked along the length of the table, one hand pausing at intervals along the backs of the chairs.
“I really don’t see where we have anything in common,” Murdoch replied tightly as he sat his wine goblet on the table and crossed his arms.
The Judge pivoted slowly, smiled. “You’re so wrong, Murdoch—you don’t mind if I call you Murdoch, do you?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
The Judge shrugged, seemed ready to continue, when his attention was drawn to the doorway as one of the two guards, who were stationed on either side, responded to a knock. He nodded, pleased. “Our meal has arrived.” The Judge gestured toward the end of the table. “Please, have a seat. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the food. My cook is worth every cent I pay him.”
“What would make you think I’d even consider sharing a meal with you?”
The Judge paused beside his chair, raised an eyebrow. “Because you want to know what you’re really doing here.”
A quiet moment passed as the two men regarded each other, then the Judge smiled evenly and gave a nod once more toward the other end of the table before pulling out his own chair and sitting down.
Fighting back an urge to respond in heated disgust, Murdoch took his own seat, purposely leaving the untouched wine goblet where it sat in the center of the table. He watched without interest as the Judge’s man placed the tray of food on the table and laid out the meal.
“That’ll be all, Jasten,” the Judge dismissed.
As Jasten left the room, the Judge smiled across at Murdoch. “I prefer to eat my main meal early in the afternoon. I hope that will work for you.”
Murdoch glared wordlessly across the table.
The Judge sighed. “Please don’t let the food go to waste. My research is always very thorough, and I had my cook prepare the roast just the way you like it.”
“Enough of these games. What do you want?” Murdoch snapped.
“You know, I hear such glowing reports about your son, Scott—a remarkable young man, by all accounts. You must be quite proud of him.”
Murdoch’s jaw flexed in an attempt to keep his irritation in check. “What do you want, Judge?” he demanded, clearly irritated.
The Judge cut
off a small piece of meat, placed it in his mouth and methodically chewed. “Do you remember,” he mused, “when we last met?”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow. “I believe we met briefly in Sacramento a couple of years ago.”
The Judge nodded, then assumed an apologetic expression. “I hope you’ll forgive me when I admit to being unsure of the exact details at first. I’m in Sacramento quite often, you see.”
“For a retired judge, I hear you manage to stay quite busy.”
“Semi-retired,” the Judge smiled. “I’m not a man who could adapt well to true retirement—much like I believe you are.” He nodded and raised his wine goblet in acknowledgement.
“Ah, the point.” The Judge sat his goblet down. “I checked into the details of when we met. Found out it was about a year and a half ago. Do you remember why you were there?”
Murdoch’s expression turned sour. “I have a feeling you’ll remind me.”
The Judge nodded. “You were nominated by the county to run for state office.”
“I turned it down.”
“Yes,” the Judge repeated, pausing for emphasis, slowly enunciated his next phrase. “You turned it down.” Another pause. “And I had to wonder, why a man of your obvious leadership qualities and political interest, someone of your considerable land-holdings, would turn down a chance to run for office.”
“I hadn’t the time nor the interest.”
“I find that hard to believe, Mr. Lancer. Your sons had recently returned, freeing you up to pursue other goals and opportunities. You were president of the Cattleman’s Association.”
“I am no longer.”
“Which I also find interesting.”
“And I asked myself: why would you turn down such an opportunity to serve your state, your neighbors and friends?”
“I told you, I had no interest in pursing a political career.”
“Oh, come now. That may have been what you told Sacramento, but I think we both know the real reason.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Come now, Murdoch. Isn’t the truth that you didn’t want to be involved in an election process which would have put you and your family under public scrutiny— or to be more specific, your son, Johnny.” He chuckled to himself. “Though I must admit, Scott’s easy personality, his war record and business sense could almost have made up for Johnny’s, shall we say, rather tarnished past.”
“That had nothing to do with it,” Murdoch countered strongly.
“Oh, please. There’s no need to protest the obvious to me. As I said, we are very much alike. I understand your predicament. The difficulty a son like Johnny would pose. See, my own son, unfortunately, is also a bit of an embarrassment.”
“Johnny is not an embarrassment.”
“No?” The Judge looked surprised. “You mean you approve of how he’s lived his life, what he’s done here, for instance?” When Murdoch didn’t answer, the Judge smiled and nodded. “I thought not.” He stood up. “Now the reality of this situation is this. While you have another son, I only have one. So I am willing to trade you Johnny for James.”
“What are you talking about?” Murdoch demanded.
“Simply this. I need James freed. I need your testimony revoked, and that of your son, Scott. If you do so, I won’t reveal the little secret you tried so hard to keep under wraps.” He paused. “Murder warrants are pretty serious business, don’t you think?” He paused again, seemed to enjoy what he was saying. “Though if you’d prefer, I’m sure I could take care of your little problem permanently and no one need find out.”
Murdoch narrowed his eyes. “Go to Hell, Wakeman!”
“Judge Wakeman,” the Judge snapped. “And don’t you forget it.” He motioned to the two guards at the door before turning back to Murdoch. “I’ll give you some time to think over my offer. I’d hurry, though. I expect Johnny at any time.”
“I made sure my message was very clear. He’ll be here.”
Scott climbed to the top of the rock formation and looked out across the darkening valley floor. It wouldn’t be long before it would be evening and they would be able to enter Salinas unnoticed.
what do we do once we get there? Freeing
Murdoch is our main goal, sure. But
how can we really pull this off? Johnny
isn’t… Scott rubbed his
eyes tiredly. Let’s
face it, while he may have made it up this far, which to be honest I didn’t
think he would…heck, I was betting he wouldn’t…he really isn’t up for
something like this, no matter what he professes.
But now that we’re here, what do we do?
Johnny can’t be expected to make an effective stand against the
Judge—even if it’ll be more verbal than gunplay.
I give him five minutes on his feet before he collapses, and that’s
being generous. He’s been looking worse by the hour. He needs more medicine than we’ve got and there’s no way
to secure any more morphine. And
I’m sure the slightest attempt to locate any would run up a red flag to
Wakeman’s organization. Not
something we want to do.
Murdoch probably suspects that we’re going to attempt to rescue him, but is he aware of what Johnny has put himself through, the very real possibility that the Judge may be aware of the bounty and be planning to use it against him?
Scott sighed again, turned away from the view of the valley floor and headed back toward the clearing.
“I saw no movement of any—” Scott stopped, immediately registering concern at the stricken look on Johnny’s face as his brother glanced up at the sound of his approach. “Johnny. What’s wrong?” Scott hurried forward then came to an abrupt halt as he noticed a couple of pieces of paper on his brother’s lap, their familiarity causing his breath to catch in his throat as his heart plummeted. “John—”
“How long have you had these?”
Scott cautiously met his brother’s betrayed look as he carefully weighed his next words. “The day Harley left, I had gone after him and tried to convince him to stay. I guess,” he paused, ashamed to continue, “Harley saw right through me, saw that my reluctance to see him go was as much for me as for you. He saw that I was afraid.”
“Afraid?” Johnny’s expression turned darkly guarded. “Afraid of who? Me?”
“No,” Scott quickly answered. “No, afraid of them—Harley, Cisco, Wes… Afraid that I wouldn’t measure up. Afraid that—that you were pushing me away because you didn’t trust me, didn’t think I could help you like they had. That while I might be your brother, they—” he gestured toward the letters, “they had been your friends. And I could never hope to gain the familiarity and trust that you shared with them, the bond that had developed.”
Johnny glanced uncomfortably down at the letters on his lap, letters written in his darkest moments. “You have it wrong, Scott. I didn’t trust me. I didn’t trust—” there was a pause and Johnny looked up. “I didn’t trust what I might say or do. I didn’t trust Johnny Lancer to keep Johnny Madrid under control. And I didn’t want you to see—” he held up one of the papers, “him.”
Scott took a step closer and knelt. “I’ve seen that part of you.”
“Glimpses, Scott. Glimpses. Brief moments when I had to let that part of me out, because I had no choice. But you’ve never really had to confront Madrid.”
“Have you?” Scott broke in softly, causing Johnny to frown.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Have you ever confronted Madrid?” Scott repeated.
“It was my life, remember?”
“Oh, I’m not disputing that. Sure. You lived it, but have you ever confronted it? Did you ever face the Johnny Madrid of those letters, the one who was looking for an escape from life?”
Johnny’s gaze dropped and he closed his eyes. “Scott, losing my memory, forgetting everything that had happened the last couple years—trying to rediscover who I was, or who I’d become, forced me to face Madrid. And the more I learned and discovered…” There was a pause; Johnny looked back up. “Death became a preferable alternative.”
“But once you regained your memory, you realized your life wasn’t so dark, right? Johnny Madrid hadn’t become—hadn’t done what you’d thought.”
“He’d done enough, Scott. And that’s what so hard to live with, and that’s what you haven’t confronted.”
“How can I, when you refuse to talk to me about it?”
“There’s the Pinkerton file,” Johnny replied without emotion.
“Is that what you want—you want me to read that report? If that’s what you want, I will. But I would prefer to hear it from you, rather than as cold, hard facts put down in a report by a detached third party.”
“It was a cold, hard life, Scott.”
“But you survived.”
“But my survival meant a lot of people didn’t.” Johnny paused, pursed his lips a moment, his gaze trailing down to the letters before returning to meet Scott. “Do you remember once, a couple years ago, you asked me if I was killing time?”
“Killing time, amongst other things,” Scott echoed then nodded uncomfortably. “I remember. I was afraid I was going to lose a brother I’d just met.”
“Well, you were right, Scott. I was killing time,” Johnny replied grimly. “And I’d been killing time for years. Simply walking down the path I’d—I’d been on for so long that…” He shook his head in resignation. “I didn’t really care when or where or how it ended. I had no fear of the end; it was, in a way, my goal.”
“You had no other plans?”
“Plans?” Johnny gave a cautious chuckle. “I planned my next meal, I planned where I’d sleep for the night, I planned where I’d sit, who I’d sit with or which job to take. On rare occasions, I’d think about what to do the next month, but,” he paused and shook his head then looked up at Scott with a strange intensity, “I never did plan to make it to thirty.”
Mortified, Scott looked away. “I said that, too.”
“But once more you were right. That’s the path of Johnny Madrid—killing time until death finally caught up.”
“But you did a lot of good things, too, Johnny,” Scott argued.
“There was very little good.”
“But the peasants you helped, the people you protected and fought for—”
Johnny shook his head. “See Scott. That’s what I’ve been saying. You haven’t confronted Madrid’s past— my past; and though I’d like to ignore it, bury it in an unmarked grave, I realize I can’t. Quit trying to turn me into something I’m not.”
“A legend? The myth of the adobe huts in Mexico? The hero Jamie wants you to be?”
Johnny snorted bitterly, his eyes suddenly avoiding Scott’s. “I wish I could set him straight. He’s a good kid and I hate to see him get confused.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Johnny. Seems to me, he sees things better than a lot of people.”
“Sometimes, but not this.”
Scott was silent for a moment, then continued, “Perhaps in confronting your past, you need to acknowledge the good along with the bad.”
“The bad far outweighed the good, Scott.”
“Tucson once told me, there are two types of gunfighters. Those that have a bit of talent and talk a good game, who hope to be lucky enough to fall into a secure job somewhere along the line.”
Scott nodded. “Then he said there is the other type. Those like Sexton Joe, to whom killing is a sport. Men who are already dead, who exist merely to spread death.”
“Like what the Kid would have become,” Johnny whispered.
“Then I—I asked him… which you were.”
Johnny looked up. “And what did he say?”
“Neither. Both. He told me to ask you.” Scott paused, caught Johnny’s guarded look, faced it firmly and without hesitation. “But I don’t need to ask. I know the answer. You’re my brother, who found a way to survive against odds stacked against him. Someone who tried to bring honor and pride to a job littered with cowards, braggarts and cold-blooded mercenaries. Unfortunately, you were only one man, and the dirt of your profession, the darkness of those around you, tainted what you hoped to accomplish and slowly consumed your soul, destroying your will to live.”
Johnny suddenly chuckled. “And you didn’t trust yourself to say the right thing?”
“I didn’t think you’d trust me enough to share this side of you, to see this part of your life. That you would have been more comfortable with Harley.”
Johnny’s smile, though tired, widened. “Okay, Scott. You want know a deep secret, huh? Well, here’s an important one for you. The truth is, I feel like hell.”
Scott reached forward as Johnny leaned to the side, exhaustion and pain erupting in a low moan. His face grim, Scott drew Johnny’s head against his shoulder. For a moment he just offered his quiet support, felt the tremors, the tension building as Johnny fought down waves of pain. Finally he knew it was time to speak, to acknowledge the unavoidable. “Johnny, we’re going to have to give you some of the morphine.”
Scott felt more than heard his brother sigh, “I know.”
“Shall I go get it?”
Scott felt his brother swallow, shiver. “No…not yet. Just before…we head…into town.”
“What are we going to do in the meantime? I don’t think you should have any more laudanum.”
Johnny gave a tight, short chuckle, pulled away enough to lean back against the tree. “How ‘bout a story.”
“Your turn,” Johnny said, closed his eyes.
Scott raised an eyebrow. “What type of story?”
“Something that doesn’t include your grandfather… your cat…or bathtubs.”
“How ‘bout another war story?” Johnny asked.
“A war story?”
“Musta met someone interesting…how ‘bout that fancy soldier fella you had your picture taken with?”
“Sheridan?” Scott gave a soft snort. “Friend of Grandfather’s. I was a lowly lieutenant. General Sheridan didn’t really know me, but Grandfather knew him and after the war had it arranged to get the picture taken.”
Johnny opened one eye.
“The ladies loved the picture, however.”
Johnny’s other eye opened. “Scott?”
“Hey!” Scott raised both hands in surrender. “I might not look it out here, but back in Boston, I’ll have you know, I was one dapper gentleman with a string of ladies that would send you crying in shame.”
Johnny snorted and closed his eyes. “Better find a more believable story, Boston.”
Scott laughed, settled down next to Johnny against the tree. “Okay.” He sighed. “Well, I could tell you another spy story.”
“About David the Spy?” Johnny opened his eyes.
Scott nodded. “If you want.”
“Was he a friend?”
Scott paused and seemed to consider the question. “Not a friend, really. More of an acquaintance. He was also under Sheridan’s command, so that’s how I knew him.”
“He rode with you?”
“He was another of Sheridan’s lieutenants,” Scott replied then smiled. “Actually, just days before the war ended, he was promoted on the field to captain.”
Johnny seemed to consider this information. “Hmmm. Captain David, Federal Spy. Sounds like a book.”
Scott chuckled. “Do you want to hear the story?”
Johnny nodded, suddenly leaned down, hissing a moan as he dragged the jacket back up around his shoulders.
“No, I just happen to like your jacket,” Johnny replied peevishly. “Start your story.”
“Okay. Well, it was about two months after he’d carried the coded message. There was need for someone to infiltrate behind the lines and give a report as to positions, troop strength and the possibility of submerged mines in the river. David once again volunteered. This time he was to pose as a Northern deserter. All was well prepared for his role. He was put in irons, all papers and letters carefully destroyed that could incriminate him, then he was taken to the rivers edge, a few miles from the fort and river batteries he was to infiltrate. Under the cover of darkness, he was put into a rather leaky, dubious looking boat and set out down the river. It was hard going, keeping the boat on course with wrist shackles on. He had opted not to use any oars, but merely his hands, as he wanted to make sure his escape appeared genuine and impromptu. He’d also been meticulous about his appearance. For five days before he left, he hardly ate or slept, and neither washed nor changed his clothing to give his countenance more of a rough, hollow demeanor.”
“Hmmm?” Scott cocked his head at the interruption.
“You always gotta get like this when you tell your stories?”
“Like you’re reading it from one of them blasted books.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “Let me tell my stories my way, and you tell yours your way.”
Johnny grimaced, tried to settle in more comfortably against the tree. “Skip to the action, okay?”
Scott chuckled, grinned, clasped his hands and leaned back. “As morning arrived, David had been paddling for hours; he was exhausted, cold and wet. Eventually he allowed the boat to drift in toward shore, where he collapsed from fatigue. He was quickly picked up, obviously had been under scrutiny from pickets for some time, and hauled in front of a colonel, to whom he told his story. Of course, he was under suspicion immediately and placed under guard. For two days, he was kept under tight surveillance. This was not all bad however, as it gave him a chance to rest, and though the food was meager, it was adequate to get his strength back. At length, another prisoner was brought in with him. The man was friendly, talked of family, local news, friends… He said he’d been detained without a pass, but that it was all a mistake. David watched him carefully, knew the man was really there to check on his story. So, David let the man talk while he kept his own story to the letter. Eventually, the man pretended to let slip a small fact that he had a sister in the north to whom he often wrote. After another day or two, David caught him slipping the guard a small piece of paper. David waited until the change of guard, then asked to be taken in front of the commanding officer, as he had a confession to make. Once there, of course, he related to the colonel all that had taken place, incriminating both the man and the guard. He knew it was all a ruse, but played along nevertheless. He was put back in his cell, the other man now inexplicably gone.
“The next morning, he was brought in front of the colonel once again, this time the man from his cell was there, no lowly private this time, but a captain. Seemed David passed inspection. He was released, given a simple set of clothing, sworn in and attached to the colonel’s regiment. By the next day, he was out surveying on an island, chaining distances.
“David spent the next two weeks around the fort doing different jobs, which afforded him every opportunity to inspect the rebels’ fortifications and preparations. Then something unforeseen happened. He, along with the rest of his company, were called in to report. They were informed that they were being sent up river in support of a skirmish that was taking place.”
“David was being sent to fight against his own side?”
Scott nodded dismally. “His biggest fear. But there was nothing to do about it at the moment. So, David and the rest of the men were given mounts and ammunition and sent on their way.
“They’d gone about an hour along the river when the sound of a battle reached their ears. About another hour later, they stopped for a rest and a chance to water horses. David saw his moment for escape. He took his time, watered his mount, then hanging his jacket on a bush near where his horse was hobbled, he made for the brush as if to see to nature’s call. Once deep in the bush, he took off at a fast run, determined to find a place to cross the river. He knew it would only be fifteen minutes or so before someone would begin to wonder where he was, so he knew he didn’t have much time. At the most, he hoped for a thirty minute head-start before they caught up to his trail, and he knew without a doubt that they would try to recapture him, as it would now be obvious that he’d been a spy all along.
“He’d been running in the brush close to an hour, unable to find an area to cross the river. The going was slow; brambles and thick undergrowth were impeding his progress and also making it impossible to hide his trail. He tried for the water’s edge again, found that though the river was wider, it was slower in this area. Making his way down to the water, he was stripping off his clothes when he noticed the flash of sunlight on metal on the other side.”
Scott nodded. “Yes, but what would they make of a man suddenly making for their side? Then to add to the difficulties, he heard the crash of underbrush and voices behind him.”
“The rebels were catching up to him.”
Scott nodded again. “Yes, it looked like David was in a tight predicament.”
“What did he do?”
“He finished stripping, took his clothing and stuffed them under a log that lay along the edge in the mud, hoping they’d remain unseen and therefore keep his intent hidden from the rebels awhile longer. Then determined, he struck out for the opposite shore. David was a good swimmer, could swim rather long distances under water, but the water was dark and murky, making it difficult to see where he was going. He tried to aim for areas where there were larger boulders sticking out of the water, hoping he could come up for a quick breath of air in their shadows. The idea seemed to work. He’d gotten over halfway across without being seen, had come up near a rock, when he heard shots fired. At first he assumed he’d been spotted, then he realized the shots were being fired across the river. The two opposing forces had engaged each other, and now David found himself stuck in the middle of the river with bullets flying over his head.
“For a few minutes, David was unable to do anything but hunker down in the water and think. The next distance he needed to cover was quite long without much for cover. As he was listening to the yells and shots fired, he noticed a rather large log floating down the river. Without a second thought, he fixed its position and struck out. Luckily the two sides were so intent on shooting at each other to notice the log, for when he came up, he had miscalculated and surfaced a number of yards away. He had to dive quickly back under the water before reaching it safely. Even once he had contact with the log, he had to be very careful. He needed to stay hidden from both sides, as each would assume he was working for the other and try to shoot him. He tried to keep as much underneath as possible, coming up for small gulps of air. He let the log float slowly toward the Union side of the river, until he reached a spot where the water had grown too shallow. There he lay flat in the mud, let the log roll over him for protection, and waited until the rebels had given up and left.”
“How long did that take?”
Scott grimaced. “They were rather resolute in their desire to find the missing spy, so they stayed on that opposite bank until late in the afternoon.”
“So David had to lie there in the mud with a log over him for a number of hours?”
Scott nodded. “By the time he felt it was safe, he was pretty badly bruised and scraped from the log banging against him in the water, and he’d become rather stiff, cold and swollen. Didn’t help that he’d taken on the company of a couple of leeches, too.”
“Leeches?” Johnny gave a slight shiver. “Bet David rethought volunteering for spy duty after that.”
Scott shook his head. “No. He was quite willing to take on another assignment. The intelligence he’d gathered, the plans and information, all proved quite useful to the Northern cause.” Scott was silent a moment, then added, “besides which, David still felt like…”
Scott shrugged, sighed. “I’m not sure, really. He…he just acted like he wasn’t satisfied…like there was something else to prove…”
Scott shrugged again.
“What happened to him? Was he ever caught?”
Scott shook his head. “No, he was never caught spying.”
“But he continued, huh?”
“He…he took on only one other job.”
“What was it?”
“That’d be another story,” Scott replied with a grin, put his hands on his hips. “And I think you already owe me.”
Johnny shot Scott a sour look. Then he shook his head and leaned it back against the tree. “What d’ya wanna know?”
Scott hesitated, his eyes settling on the papers on Johnny’s lap. “I want you to explain to me…” He hesitated, then indicated the papers. “Even to Francisco, you say you’d have done it differently. If not helping Padre Simon, then what? Kansas?”
Johnny sighed, grimaced, looked up with exhaustion. “Kansas. Texas. Santa Fe. Santo Tomas.” He shrugged. “Scott, I’d’ve just done it differently, okay?”
“What? Everything?” Scott waited, but there was no reply. “There wasn’t always a choice, Johnny.”
“There’s always a choice,” Johnny countered evenly, let his head tilt back.
“But you might not have lived.”
“And this is?” he indicated the letters.
Scott knelt down, picked up the papers. “Maybe not. But you are now. Johnny Lancer is alive.”
Johnny inhaled, set his jaw firmly. “Only as long as he can keep one step ahead of Johnny Madrid. And it’s not getting any easier.”
Scott looked at the papers a moment, slowly folded them. “It is when you have help.”
Johnny snorted softly. “You don’t want to go up against Madrid, Scott.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Scott countered, let a smile touch his lips. “I hear he’s not so bad. His heart’s in the right place.”
Johnny chuckled wearily, rubbed his fingers across his forehead before dragging them tiredly down the side of his face. “I’m too tired to argue with you.” He shivered, swallowed a groan as he closed his eyes and crossed his arms.
Scott reached out, tucked the jacket up under his brother’s chin. “Never go up against a Harvard-educated man who excelled on the debate team.”
Johnny opened his eyes to mere slits. “Oh, I don’t know,” he replied. “I hear they’re mostly a lot of hot air. Even if their heart’s in the right place.”
Scott laughed softly, then sobered as his gaze fell on the letters he still held. “Do you want these?”
Johnny hesitated then slowly shook his head. “They’d probably start a good fire.” Then his brows furrowed and he studied Scott a moment. “There were three.”
“DarkCloud’s.” Scott nodded, glanced down. “Yeah, I know. He gave it to Murdoch.”
Johnny sighed tiredly, shook his head and closed his eyes.
“DarkCloud thought he was helping us understand what was going on.”
Johnny shrugged in studied indifference.
“They were hard to read,” Scott said softly.
“They were hard to write.” He opened his eyes, but there was no belligerence in them, just exhaustion. “Let it rest, Scott. It’s something I’d just as soon forget.”
Scott nodded grimly, watched as Johnny sighed and closed his eyes once more. Maybe you need to forget…but I need to remember… Quietly he stood up, walked to the horses and put the papers in his saddlebag. He then turned, glanced up at the sky through the ring of trees, saw that it would soon be dark enough to proceed. He glanced over at Johnny, saw him wince tightly as he tried to adjust his position against the tree.
“How ‘bout that story now,” Johnny asked as he noticed Scott studying him.
“We’ll be able to head into Salinas soon,” Scott replied.
Johnny cocked his head, glanced up at the sky. “We’ve got enough time for the final exciting story of David the Spy.”
Scott shook his head with a smile, ran his hand through his hair and sighed. “Think you like David.”
Johnny shrugged. “He was smart, knew how to get what he wanted, and he had a cause and stuck to it. What’s not to like?”
“Things didn’t always work out as he wanted.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “No?”
Scott shook his head. “No.”
“You said he didn’t get caught spying.”
“And he wasn’t,” Scott replied.
Scott shrugged, glanced around the clearing absently. “Just because he wasn’t caught doesn’t mean he escaped unscathed.”
“What do you mean?”
Scott shook his head, glanced down at his feet. “We really should be getting you some medicine.”
“I want to hear what happened to David.”
Scott glanced at Johnny and chuckled softly. “Or what? You’re going to threaten to just sit there?”
Johnny crossed his arms over the jacket, made a passable attempt to appear insulted. “I’ll make you pay later.”
Scott laughed, nodded his head. “Okay.” He walked forward. “I never could say no to you.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “Scott, you’re always sayin’ no to me. I just don’t pay any attention.”
Scott chuckled as he slowly lowered himself next to his brother. Leaning back against the same tree, he glanced up at the sky where he could vaguely make out the first stars appearing. “Okay,” he sighed, glanced sidelong at Johnny. “The last of the David the Spy stories.”
Scott rubbed his shoulder absently, his gaze trailing off across the clearing. He was quiet a moment, seemed to be gathering the threads of the story. Finally he gave a slight nod and pursed his lips. “Okay. This is what I heard. There was a need for someone to pose as a British gentleman. The fact that David had lived in England for a year increased his desirability for this job, as it was imperative to find someone who had spent enough time in England to be able to field any questions with accuracy and credibility. And adopting a believable British accent was no difficulty, as he’d made it a practice while in England to try to adapt to their customs and language, in order to blend in while at parties and the like so that no one knew he was from the ‘colonies.’ David was once again more than willing to take on the job. He’d…he’d had an itch to do something…well, I guess, reckless—”
“More reckless than joining the war in the first place?” Johnny cut in.
Scott nodded thoughtfully. “Well, I guess so.”
“Perhaps he was just tryin’ to prove something,” Johnny murmured as he closed his eyes.
Scott raised an eyebrow, opened his mouth to say something, then gave an amused shake of his head. “Yes, well, the job was explained like this. The Rebels had developed a rather detailed cipher system. It had been confounding the Federals for quite some time. The plan was to send three separate individuals behind the lines to try to secure a copy of the codes.”
“Three different men? Why?”
“Well, because they hoped one of them would be successful.”
Scott was silent a moment. “Well, yes, one.”
“And the other two?”
“They didn’t expect to hear from again. The sentence for spying was hanging. And this was a rather risky undertaking.”
“Nasty business, hangings,” Johnny murmured. “David was a bit of a risk-taker.”
Scott cleared his throat. “Do you want me to go on?”
Johnny nodded his head.
“David didn’t meet the other two, for reasons of security of course. He knew one was to be posing as a photographer and another was a negro who was to infiltrate the groups of slaves about the camps and try to get in as a cook or something that would bring him near headquarters.”
“Now that took a lot of guts,” Johnny assessed.
“David’s infiltration was easy in comparison. Command just waited until they’d captured an appropriate blockade runner coming from England. They quickly replaced most of the crew, leaving the captain and a few regular hands, put David aboard, and had the captain finish his run. The captain was told that if he followed orders, he and his boat would be spared after he finished his job. Anyway, David was put ashore as a representative of England. It was pretty well acknowledged, especially in the North, that the English weren’t going to come to the aid of the Confederates, especially after their disastrous showing at Gettysburg. To the South, it seemed to be a difficult fact to accept, a hope they didn’t want to give up.”
Johnny nodded. “Hope is sometimes the only thing left keeping you going.”
Scott looked at Johnny. “Yeah, I think that’s how it got for the South at the end. They just couldn’t give up their hope.”
Johnny looked at Scott for a moment. “So, what happened next? What happened to David?”
Scott smiled, suddenly stood up, brushed the leaves and twigs from his pants and stretched. “Well, not much at first. He was welcomed as a British representative, shown great courtesy, dined with the Confederate commanders. He’d been with them about two—three weeks or so, was getting to know their routines and such. He’d begun to piece together how their operation worked, who the different couriers were, at what times of day they arrived and left and who would be in charge of them …that sort of thing. Now it was a matter of waiting for the right time.”
Scott paused, was quiet for a moment, then walked across the clearing toward a tree. He put his hand on it, letting it support his weight. “David was out with one of the staff officers one morning; they’d been out making a round of visiting the pickets. As they were returning there was a great commotion in camp, loud, angry voices… As they drew into the middle of camp, the officer asked one of the men to tell him what was going on. The man replied that a spy had been caught.
“Well, David’s heart about stopped. Just the word ‘spy’ gave him pause. He tried to appear merely interested, but he couldn’t help the feeling that the entire camp could hear the beat of his heart over the noise. He quickly dismounted and followed the officer to where all the men were gathering….”
Johnny waited for Scott to continue. After a moment, Scott turned and looked at Johnny.
“It—it was a young negro man. He’d been caught going through papers in the tent of the commander. They were beating and pushing him, screaming, demanding that he name his accomplices.”
Johnny met Scott’s eyes, frowned. “Then it was a good thing that they kept the identity of the three men separate from each other.”
Scott didn’t blink, just regarded Johnny with a strangely haunted expression. “The young negro knew David…and David knew him. They’d known each other before the war. Their…their eyes met for a moment, and David knew just one word from the other man would expose him. But David’s shock had been so great that he’d started toward the group of men holding the young man, had even called out to them to stop what they were doing.”
“The—David said the young man, the old friend of his, lashed out angrily, screamed some obscenity about the British and their meddling ways, damned them all…”
“He saved his friend,” Johnny broke in quietly.
Scott nodded, turned back toward the tree. “David—David said…David said that they beat his friend again in an effort to get information out of him, yet he never revealed anything he knew. Eventually they gave up, dragged him to a tree, and hanged him.”
Johnny regarded Scott silently for a moment. “What happened then? Did David get the codes?”
Scott shook himself, seemed to take a moment to gather the threads of the story again. “Yes.” He nodded. “That evening, when the camp was asleep, he took out his valise, in the base of which was a false bottom. He had six small bottles of Greek fire.”
“David was well prepared.”
Scott snorted. “He wasn’t supposed to use it except as a last resort. It was late fall, the ground was dry, there hadn’t been much rain, and the armies were all surrounded by brush and trees. But he didn’t care anymore.”
Johnny nodded. “He was mad and wanted to get even.”
Scott nodded. “It was a still evening, and lightening was streaking across the sky, portending a violent thunderstorm… It suited David’s mood. He was also amused that the impending storm would lend credence to the idea that the fire was started by lightening. David left his tent, pretended to be going for an evening stroll, made his way to a picket line and threw two bottles into the woods. A fire immediately erupted, sending men dashing about in confusion. Then he made his way back to camp, throwing another two bottles into the woods at different places. By the time he returned, the camp was in an uproar. In all the commotion, he managed to enter the commander’s tent and break open a locked box that he knew contained the codes. He hid the papers in his vest and was leaving the tent when he ran into the commander. The commander immediately pieced together what was happening and drew his revolver on David. David, however, at this point was not to be deterred. Assuming an aspect of resignation, David gave a slight bow, but came up to throw a punch at his unsuspecting captor.”
“I think I’m liking this David more all the time,” Johnny remarked.
“That’s pretty much it, then,” Scott said with a slight shrug. “David used the other two bottles to block his escape and made his way back to his own lines in all the commotion.”
“It was a good thing he had the Greek fire with him.”
“A lot of men died in the fires that David started,” Scott replied coolly.
Johnny shrugged. “David did what had to be done. There really was no choice.”
“There’s always a choice.” Scott held Johnny’s gaze a moment before turning away. “I saw David soon after that. He was changed.”
Scott shrugged. “Just changed. He wasn’t the same after that. The war had become more than a way to escape, more than a chance to find respect for himself, more than a chance for glory…more even than proving something.” He paused. “The war took on a new meaning…and a hard dose of reality. He… he turned it into a crusade. He became obsessed with fighting for the cause and lost all interest in glory.”
“Causes can be a difficult thing to fight for. Even the noblest and purest ones have a tendency to discolor.”
Scott looked at Johnny for a moment. They regarded each other in silent agreement. Then Scott turned away and sighed. “Yeah, well, that was the end of David’s spying career. Not for lack of desire on his part, I’m afraid. But because of the high profile position he’d been in, they were reluctant to make use of him again.”
“What’d he do then?”
Scott shrugged. “He led raids, fought in battles, followed orders…” he shrugged again, glanced up at the treetops. “I think it’s dark enough. We should get going.”
As Johnny nodded and closed his eyes, Scott suddenly noticed his brother appeared extremely pale, even in the growing darkness. Concerned, Scott crossed the clearing and knelt down. “Johnny, it’s time to take some of the morphine.”
“I know,” Johnny replied softly, opened his eyes. “Just a small dose, though.”
“I don’t want to use it all up.”
Scott nodded grimly. “I wish we had more.”
Johnny snorted softly. “You’re not the only one.”
Scott stood up, retrieved the syringe and bottle of morphine out of the saddlebag. He quickly drew a small dosage into the glass cylinder and replaced the bottle. Ready, he walked back to Johnny and knelt down. “It’s getting hard to see,” he murmured.
“That’s right. Fill me with confidence before you jab that thing in my arm.”
Scott’s lips twitched in amusement, while he inwardly thanked his brother’s use of levity in a situation neither was happy about.
Johnny unfurled his arm and slid his own sleeve up. Without hesitation, Scott took a firm hold of his brother’s arm.
Lips pursed, Scott quickly inserted the needle and released the medicine. He heard the imperceptible intake of breath as he withdrew the needle and glanced up quickly, but as usual, Johnny’s eyes were closed.
He waited a couple of seconds, his own bitter expression fixed on the syringe in his hand.
“Hey, Scott. It’s okay.”
Scott glanced up. Johnny was regarding him with a look of awkward chagrin. The familiar half-grin on his face was no longer burdened by heavy pain. Unfortunately, Scott noted, the morphine couldn’t seem to mask the exhaustion that was still visible behind his brother’s eyes. “I hope we’re not making things worse by concealing the pain.”
Johnny gave a shake of his head. “Don’t know why you’re even worrying about it, Scott. Without it, I can’t force the Judge’s hand.”
“I know. The medicine masks the pain, giving you the ability to confront the Judge as Madrid.”
Johnny’s smile turned laconic. “Then it’s fitting, huh?”
Scott sighed heavily. “In a macabre sort of way, I suppose. Masking pain so that you can wear your Madrid mask.”
“Hey, Scott.” Johnny put out a hand and gave his brother’s shoulder a playful pat. “When I go see that Judge, I’m gonna scare the hell outta him so bad, he’s gonna be begging us to take Murdoch and leave.”
Scott forced a smile. “I hope so. Because—God, if something happens to you…”
“It won’t,” Johnny cut in, gave his brother’s shoulder another squeeze, then put out his hand. “Help me up. We’ve got a sheriff to stop in and see before we take on the Judge.”
Scott stood up, reached down and carefully helped Johnny to his feet. “What happens if the sheriff’s still over in Monterey? I was wondering, maybe it’d be wiser to stop in and see Harley.”
Johnny shook his head again, steadied himself against a tree. “I don’t want Harley involved in this any more than he’s already been.”
“But, Johnny. He could help and he’s on this side of town. We need to find out where the Judge’s offices are anyway, and if the sheriff isn’t around, we need to let someone else we can trust know what’s been happening.”
Johnny studied Scott for a moment. “I thought you didn’t want Harley around.”
“Now where did you ever get that idea?” Scott chuckled. “Why, he tells the best Johnny Madrid stories around.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow in alarm. “What stories?”
“Oh, you’ve probably heard them already.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Scott smiled, put his arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “Come on, Brother. Let’s stop in and see Harley first.”
An hour later, Scott and Johnny rode through the western edge of Salinas, entering from the Monterey road. They hoped their decision to avoid either of the southern roads would help them enter the town unannounced. In addition, Scott knew Harley’s house was located near the western edge of town. Since Scott had actually been to Harley’s, Johnny allowed his brother to lead the way.
The streets were fairly quiet; night had completely fallen. A few voices carried through open windows along with the sounds of livestock being cared for. Occasionally a rider or a buggy was seen, but mostly they saw locals walking about.
“This is it,” Scott said as he pointed to a blacksmith sign that hung above a well-cared for building. “The house is behind. And there,” he pointed off to the side, “is where I saw Barranca. That’s why we stopped here. If that wasn’t a surprise, coming along and finding Barranca like we did.”
Johnny nodded. “Real lucky, I guess.”
“I’d venture to say: Providence.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “I prefer to think it was luck.”
Scott opened his mouth to comment, but Johnny reined his horse away and headed toward the house behind the blacksmith shop. Scott followed.
After dismounting, Johnny took a few extra seconds to prepare himself before he stepped stiffly back from his horse. As he did so, he caught Scott watching him.
“Stiff,” he explained.
Scott raised an eyebrow. “Is that all?”
“All I’m tellin’ you,” Johnny replied dryly, then added a grin to take the edge off his retort. “Come on, Auntie Scott. Let’s see what Harley can tell us.”
Together they stepped up on the porch, Johnny pausing to glance back across the couple of corrals and the back of the workshop. “Harley has a nice place.”
“Yes, he does,” Scott agreed, then knocked on the door.
Little Wes’s unmistakable squeals were immediately heard along with the sound of footsteps. Johnny caught the flick of a curtain, then the door was quickly opened.
“Johnny! Scott!” Mary greeted, then quickly stooped as she made a grab for the toddler, who seemed intent on escaping the confines of the house. He immediately let loose a loud screech that left no doubt as to his opinion of his capture. Mary smiled apologetically and turned back toward the interior. “Mom! Would you help with Wes?”
Soon an elderly lady appeared in the doorway. She studied the men for a second before herding little Wes back into the house.
“Do you gentlemen care to come in?” Mary asked.
Scott shook his head. “No. We don’t plan to stay long. We’d just like a few words with Harley.”
“Oh,” Mary looked apologetic. “I’m afraid he’s not here.”
“Will he be back soon?”
Mary shook her head. “No, not for a couple days, at least. He received a note from a friend of his, another blacksmith up in Castroville. Seems Paul had a large contract to fill and had just broken an arm. He sent a wire to Isaac and asked him to help finish the work, and that he’d give him half the money. And, well, with another one on the way, Isaac thought the money might come in handy.”
“Damn,” Johnny muttered.
Scott and Mary turned to Johnny, who was leaning against the doorway.
Mary frowned. “Johnny. Are you supposed to be up and around already? I mean, the last time I saw you—”
Johnny straightened up, grimaced. “I’m fine,” he answered wearily.
Mary looked at Scott with furrowed brows, but Scott returned her look with a curt shake of his head.
Mary’s frown increased. “Johnny, are you sure you’re feeling well?” She stepped back from the door. “Why don’t you come in and sit a spell? I can at least offer you something to drink.”
“No, ma’am,” Johnny replied quickly. “We have…we have other business to attend to yet this evening.”
“Though,” Scott added, “you still may be able to help us.”
“I’d be happy to. What do you need?”
“Do you know where the sheriff from Paso is staying?”
“Well, he had been at the American Hotel, but last I heard he left two…no three days ago to take the prisoners to Monterey. I don’t believe he’s come back yet.”
“Not doin’ well, are we?” Johnny grumbled and gave a sigh, which sounded half like a moan. “How about the Judge?”
“What about the Judge?” Mary asked.
“Do you know where he keeps his offices?” Scott asked.
“Of course,” Mary replied. “Why do you need to know that?”
“We need to talk to him about—”
“About what happened with his son,” Johnny interrupted.
Mary crossed her arms. “I can’t believe he has such a horrible brute for a son.”
“I’m sure James has caused the Judge untold embarrassment,” Scott agreed.
“James is in Monterey, right?” Johnny asked.
Mary nodded. “The sheriff took them all over. From what I heard, the Judge was so angry with James that he’d hardly talked to him. He did hire him a lawyer from San Francisco, though.”
“Of course,” Johnny murmured.
“So where does the Judge have his offices?”
“Oh, about six blocks from here. You continue on east three blocks, head north two blocks, and then east again a block. There’s a two-story building sitting on the corner, Main and Second Street. He owns half the buildings on that block. His offices are on the second floor, I believe.”
“Thank you,” Scott tipped his hat. “You’ve been a tremendous help.”
“Yes, thanks,” Johnny nodded, then paused. “Could we ask you another favor?”
“Could we stable our horses here for the night?”
Mary cocked her head. “I see no problem with that. There’s plenty of bedding and grain in the barn. Feel free to help yourself. You’ll only be staying the night, then?”
Scott and Johnny glanced at each other. “That’s the plan for now,” Scott replied.
“Isaac will be disappointed to have missed you.”
“Tell Harl I’ll get in touch with him. And tell him I said to stay out of trouble,” Johnny smiled.
Mary smiled back. “Oh, I’m always telling him that.”
Johnny grinned. “I’m sure he listens better to you than he ever did to me.”
Mary laughed softly. “Check back before you leave tomorrow. I should have some fresh baked bread.”
Scott nodded appreciatively. “That’s definitely a good reason to stop by.”
Johnny gave a quick grin and followed Scott off the porch and to their horses.
“You want me to help?” Scott asked as he took up his reins.
“Nope,” Johnny answered, following Scott as he led the way around to the back of the barn.
Johnny entered, found a lantern hanging inside the door and lit it. Together the two of them bedded down the horses, Scott taking on the heavier chores.
Eventually, Scott noticed Johnny bending over, breathing cautiously. With a shake of his head, he admonished, “Would you sit down before you fall over.”
“I don’t wanna sit.”
“Then lean against the wall. I’ll finish up here.”
Johnny barely looked up, surprised Scott by allowing his brother to finish bedding the horses without at least a quip while he leaned against a stall railing.
Once finished, Scott placed his hands on his hips and surveyed his brother with a shake of his head. “You really want to walk all that distance?”
“Not really,” Johnny replied, straightening up. “But we’re much less likely to attract any attention this way.”
“You’re probably right, unless I end up having to carry you. I have a feeling that’s bound to attract some attention,” Scott said with a smirk as he picked up their saddlebags.
“I can take mine,” Johnny said reaching out.
“No, you don’t. You already walk sort of hunched over to one side.” Scott blew out the lantern.
“I hope this isn’t an indication of the humor I can expect for the evening,” Johnny muttered as he followed Scott out to the street.
“I figure humor is the only thing that’s going to get us through.”
Johnny paused before stepping up on the boardwalk. “Are you gonna be like this all night?”
“Brother,” Scott said, looping an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “I plan to collect on every sleepless night you gave me this past month.”
Johnny groaned and let Scott herd him forward. “It’s gonna be a long night, then, isn’t it?”
Scott chuckled. “You’ve been warned.”
They walked in darkness for a couple of blocks until they saw the first street lamps.
“Salinas is getting pretty fancy,” Scott remarked.
“Probably the Judge’s doing,” Johnny observed without humor.
“One more block and we head north.”
Their shadows rippling along the front of the buildings, Scott and Johnny walked to the next corner where they turned north. Sounds of night-life had reached a peak as the number of saloons in the area increased. Luckily no one paid them any attention as they made their way along the buildings. Eventually they came to a saloon that Johnny recognized. It was the spot where Tucson and he had stopped when they’d come up for the town’s supplies the first time.
Thoughts of that other time came back to him. Reminders of the empty chill he had felt in his soul, the heaviness of heart, the knowledge that he was trapped by a life that had slowly sucked away everything that was decent and good—leaving him without hope or purpose—suddenly crept up on him like a cat in the shadows.
He shivered and suddenly stumbled.
Automatically he threw out his arms, then gasped a moan as he unsuccessfully attempted to swallow back the cry that escaped.
Firm hands grasped him, saved him from falling to the ground; he clutched frantically, thankfully.
“Hey! Hey! What happened? You okay?”
Johnny steadied himself under Scott’s support, his jaws clamped tightly against another outburst. After a couple of soft grunts that tested the extent of the pain, Johnny swallowed. “I—I didn’t see the step.”
Scott glanced curtly at the edge of the boardwalk then back at his brother’s face, white and shiny in the glow of the street lamp. “Johnny, you’re not looking well at all.”
“I think I pulled something,” Johnny murmured, attempted to shake off Scott’s help, seemed to think better of it as his face contracted in a grimace of pain. He leaned heavily against the corner of the building.
“Pulled something? Or ripped something?”
Head down, eyes closed, Johnny gave a soft shake of his head. “Just give me a minute to catch my breath.” He opened his eyes, looked up, met Scott’s concerned expression with one of chagrin. “Guess I need to learn how to walk,” he said, then winced as he tried to straighten up.
Scott’s eyes widened with understanding. “What did you go and mess up?”
Johnny grimaced. “I’m not sure, but it hurts like hell.”
“Wonderful.” Scott shook his head, quickly glanced down both sides of the street. No one was around. “You want to sit down?”
Johnny shook his head. “Someone might come by.”
“Then let’s go over to the saloon over there, find a quiet table for a half hour, and give you a rest.”
Johnny shook his head.
“Oh, don’t be such a stubborn fool. A half hour isn’t going to make a difference, and we could both do with a drink and some food.”
“I know you’re not feeling well, but you have to eat—”
“That’s not it, Scott,” Johnny paused as he closed his eyes and took a ragged breath. He forced himself erect, one hand pressing against his chest. “We don’t want anyone to know we’re here.”
“As I said, we’ll pick a quiet corner—”
“Scott,” Johnny shook his head. “You don’t understand. I made an appearance here as Madrid. So now there isn’t a saloon, shop or any place I can go, where I won’t be recognized.”
Scott rubbed his forehead bitterly. “I forget the effect Madrid has…the reputation.”
Johnny chuckled dryly. “Yeah, well, it’s more a curse than an asset. Especially at times like this.”
“We should probably get you another dose of the morphine. You look like you could use it.”
Johnny shook his head. “Not until we find where the Judge is. If I go and use it all up now, what will we do if he’s not around?”
Scott nodded. “Okay. But give me an arm,” he said as he adjusted the two saddlebags that hung over his shoulder. “At least I can hold you up.”
“Very funny, Brother.”
“Would be, if it weren’t true, Brother,” Scott countered humorlessly.
Scott and Johnny crossed the street, stepped up onto the boardwalk and headed east. Scott was painfully aware that Johnny’s discomfort was greater than he was letting on, and that it was increasing with each step they took. He could feel the tension along his brother’s back, hear the sharp intake of breath. At the end of the second block, Scott stopped.
“I think that’s the building.”
Johnny studied the building for a moment, nodded in agreement. “Just like Mary described.”
“You do have a plan now, right? Something that won’t get us both killed.”
“Have I ever failed you?” Johnny asked with a weak chuckle.
Scott studied him out of the corner of his eye. “Well, not really. However, your plans sometimes get us in trouble.”
Johnny pushed his hair back from his forehead, stepped to the edge of the boardwalk. With one hand on a post, he squinted toward the building, studying it for a minute. “I think there’s two men on the first floor. I’ve only seen one, but it looked like he turned and talked to someone.”
Scott watched the building, eventually saw the shadow of a figure fall across the lit window. “Okay, so what do we do? Something tells me your plan does not entail making an appointment.”
“No,” Johnny smiled. “But it does call for a bit of acting.”
“This should be interesting.”
Johnny nodded. “I’m gonna go out to the street, yellin’, making a commotion, acting drunk while you wait around the corner of the building. I’ll act obnoxious enough to get one of the men out to get me away from the building, then you’ll jump him—”
“Hey! Hold it! What was all that about being recognized?”
“It’s dark enough. Besides, I’m the one who can barely walk anyway.”
“Yeah, and what happens if he decides to get physical? Hmmm? Don’t like to put you down, Brother, but there’s no way you’re going to win in a fist fight.”
“You’ll be there to back me up. ‘Sides, I’m just a drunk. I’ll get him to herd me along.”
“That’s my problem. You just be ready to jump the guy when I get him to the corner. ‘Cause jumping’s not something I think I’m up to right now.”
Scott sighed, let the saddlebags slip down his shoulder to his hands. “Johnny,” he shook his head, “Something tells me this isn’t going to go as planned.”
“Sure it is.”
“Well, keep your hat down low, and take off that red bandana, otherwise you’ll be recognized for sure.”
Johnny smirked, undid the tie and handed it over. “Hey, they worked great as a calling card.”
“So I heard. But the plan is not to draw any attention.”
“Yeah, well, the scar’ll do the same thing.”
“Pull up your collar.”
Johnny adjusted the collar of his jacket as he gave his brother a wry grin. “Anything else, Mother?”
“Yes. You’re taking another dose of that medicine. Otherwise I fear your moans and groans will give you away.”
With a dismal nod of resignation, Johnny slowly followed Scott into the darkened alleyway. There Scott helped Johnny sit down against the side of the building, before crouching next to him to lay the saddlebags out on the ground. Quickly and methodically, in an attempt not to dwell on what they were doing, Scott produced the syringe and morphine, drew in a small amount to the glass cylinder and administered the dosage, all without glancing up to meet his brother’s eyes. Privately he was glad to be crouched in the shadows. Once finished, he silently rewrapped the syringe and placed it back in the saddlebag before glancing up at his brother.
Johnny was sitting, his back up against the side of the building, legs drawn up, arms now crossed over his knees, his head bent down between them.
The faint light from the street lamp tried dismally to reach into the alley. Scott paused, the morphine bottle in his hand and grimly studied it. Only one small dose was left. He hoped they were successful with the Judge, and then they could rent a room in a hotel for a couple of days to give Johnny a chance to rest up and get back on his feet.
He could tell Johnny was exhausted, his body worn out from all he’d been putting it through the last month. It was painfully clear that his brother was in desperate need of a rest. His drawn, dull coloring, the audible fatigue in his voice, the labored, irregular breathing and the fact that he’d gone without a decent meal for quite a few days, were soon going to combine to render Johnny unable to function. The mental and physical stress was taking its toll; Johnny just didn’t want to admit it.
“Hmmm?” Scott asked, quickly sliding the bottle into the saddlebag.
Johnny managed a weak smile. “Ol’ Judge Wakeman hasn’t got a clue what’s about to hit him.”
“A bit optimistic about our chances, aren’t you?” Scott asked, adjusted the saddlebags over his shoulder before holding out a hand to help Johnny to his feet.
“Not at all,” Johnny replied, paused for breath as he leaned against Scott for a second before straightening up. “You—me—we’re an unbeatable combination.”
With an amused shake of his head and a firm grasp of his brother’s elbow, Scott helped Johnny out of the shadows and to the corner.
“Just a minute,” Johnny said.
Johnny unbuckled his gun belt.
“What are you doing that for?” Scott asked.
“I’m trying to decrease my chance of getting shot or noticed. I’m a drunken cowboy, remember, not a hired gun.”
“You’re not a—” Scott caught himself as he sheepishly realized his quick and adamant protestation only served to display his feelings on the issue. “I understand,” Scott nodded as he took the gun from Johnny.
Johnny barely raised his eyes, but smiled. He started to turn toward the street then paused as a thought came to him. He pointed toward the holster. “Take care of it, will you? Last time I handed over my gun to you for safe keeping, I seem to remember getting it back in pieces.”
Scott chuckled and returned the look with a half-grin. “I promise to take care of it like it was my own.”
“Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel any better,” Johnny gave an exaggerated sigh, turned and headed for the street.
Scott watched as Johnny approached the corner of the building before stepping back into the shadows to watch. Privately he wondered at the absurdity of their plan.
“Leticia! Leticia!” Johnny called out in the slurred speech of a man who’d had a few too many at the bar. “I know you’re in there! Come on out here or—or I’ll com’in and get ya! You and Shorty! I know ‘bout ya both! I do! Tanner at the bar told me, so I know all ‘bout it! C’mon out here like a man and face me! Or are ya too chicken? Huh? Hey! Leticia! You know why we call ‘im Shorty? It ain’t got nothin’ to do with his height!”
Covering his mouth with his hand, Scott bit back a laugh as Johnny continued to berate the fictional Leticia and cast questionable doubt on Shorty’s attributes, or lack of.
Johnny stumbled loudly up onto the boardwalk and began banging on the door. “I’m gonna come in there’n –”
Suddenly light spilled out into the street as the door was jerked open. Johnny fell back into the shadows in feigned surprise and tottered unsteadily as he looked up at the man who stood in the doorway, with arms crossed aggressively across his chest.
“You ain’t Shorty,” Johnny mumbled, blinking as if in a drunken stupor.
The man squinted into the darkness. “No, I ain’t. And there’s no Shorty here.”
Johnny staggered to the side, then drew himself up. “You mean she’s taken up with you, too?” He stumbled forward as he dipped his head to keep his face in the shadow of his hat brim. “Then I’ll jus’ hav’ta settle with you first ‘for I track down that two-bit skunk.” Head still down, he made a motion to enter. “Leticia! Leticia, you get out here! See for yourself the sorta real man you lost when ya took up with this buffoon.”
“Now just wait a minute!” The man grabbed Johnny by the shoulders. “I don’t know what problems you got with this Leticia, but she ain’t here.”
“Sure she is! Tanner at the saloon told me she lives here.”
“I told you, there’s no Leticia here.”
“Yes, she does! Two-story buildin’, corner Main and Fourth”
“This is Main and Second.”
“No, it ain’t.”
“Yes, it is!”
“Leticia! Leticia, you get out here, or I’m gonna come in after you!”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Jed!” Another man came to the door. “Take this drunk down to the right building. Then he can holler for his damn girlfriend all he wants. He must be talking about that boarding house further up two blocks.”
The man studied Johnny with some disgust. “Ah, Bill, couldn’t we just send him on his way?”
“Leticia!” Johnny called again as he tried to squeeze between the two men. “I see you need two men to replace me! Or is it three? Is Shorty in there with you, ‘cuz I’m gonna rip his face off!”
“Come on, Cowboy. Your girl ain’t here,” Bill said, putting a hand out to block Johnny’s way.
“’Course she is. You’re just tryin’ to hide her, but I know—”
“Oh, come on!” Jed grabbed Johnny by the arm. “I’ll take you to where she is.” He turned and nodded to Bill. “I’ll take him down there.”
Bill laughed. “No stops of your own along the way, Jed.”
Jed shook his head then started down the boardwalk. “This way, Cowboy. Your lady love’s just a few blocks away and I’m sure she’s just pinin’ for you.”
“You think?” Johnny staggered, leaned heavily on the man. “She’s a fine girl. Just the sweetest thing ya ever saw. Long black hair, shoulders so sweet you could nibble on them for weeks. I tell you, when I laid eyes on her this afternoon, I jus’ knew she was gonna be mine!”
“One lucky gal, huh?” Jed said as they approached the corner of the building and stepped off the boardwalk. As they did so, Johnny pretended to stumble, making a quick grab for the man’s revolver at the same time that the sound of a gun being cocked was heard from the shadows.
“What is this?” Jed demanded, raising his arms. “If it’s money you’re after, I ain’t got but—”
“No, it’s not money,” Scott replied as he stepped out of the shadows, his eyes following Johnny as his brother stepped away from Jed to lean against the side of the building.
“Nice jumping,” Johnny remarked sarcastically as he bent forward and placed his hands on his knees.
“You never gave me a chance.”
“Always have to be fashionably late, don’t you?”
Keeping his gun aimed at Jed, who was following the exchange with interest, Scott side-stepped toward his brother. “How are you doing?” he murmured.
Johnny shook his head but didn’t respond.
“Johnny?” Scott pressed, no longer concerned about keeping his anxiety out of his voice.
“A minute,” Johnny whispered, head still forward.
“Johnny?” Jed’s eyebrows drew into a frown. “As in Madrid?”
“That would be the one,” Scott replied dryly.
Jed’s frown deepened. “The Judge’s ‘spectin’ you tomorrow.”
“Well, we happen to be free tonight,” Scott snapped.
Jed started to lower his hands, his eyes narrowing on Johnny. “You sure he’s Madrid? I mean, he don’t look—”
Johnny’s head snapped up and he abruptly leveled the gun he’d taken off Jed. Even Scott raised an eyebrow at the speed, though he was more impressed with how steady and controlled the hand looked which held the gun, while Johnny himself still looked sickly pale and shaky.
“Listen up and listen good,” Johnny said, his voice firm, though Scott caught a wince under the tightly clenched jaw. “How many men are in the building?”
“My partner, Bill. Then there’s the Judge and his assistant upstairs.”
“Okay. Here’s what I want you to do. You call out to your friend in there, tell him that I’ve passed out drunk and you need his help.”
Jed’s lip curled. “If you’d’ve passed out dead drunk, I’d’ve left you where you lay.”
“Well, I guess you turned humanitarian,” Scott remarked. “Now do as he said.”
Jed sighed, glared for a second at the two pistols pointed at him as he seemed to quickly go over any other options. After finding them lacking in wisdom, he turned toward the corner. “Hey! Hey, Bill! I need your help here! This damn fool passed out drunk!”
“Nice touch,” Johnny muttered.
“Well, you are a damn fool if you think you’re gonna get away with this,” Jed hissed back.
Johnny made an abrupt motion with his gun indicating Jed should call out again.
“Hey, Bill! C’mon! He’s heavy!”
There was the sound of the front door opening, but no footsteps. “Oh, just leave him!”
“Come on, Bill! It’s dark here. A horse might step on him or somethin’.”
“Would serve him right,” Bill grumbled. “Though I s’pose the Judge won’t like all the gawkers, come mornin’.” He closed the door and, still grumbling to himself, walked to the end of the boardwalk. As he stepped off to the dirt alley, he suddenly found the business end of a pistol against his temple. “What—?”
“Don’t make a sound and step back into the shadows,” Scott commanded in a low voice.
Bill complied, careful not to move his head, though his eyes were darting frantically among the shadows. “Jed?”
“It’s Madrid,” Jed explained sourly.
Bill studied Scott with open skepticism. “Uh, don’t think so.”
“Not him, stupid,” Jed snapped. “Him,” he gestured with one still upraised hand toward Johnny.
Bill snickered. “The guy holding up the wall?”
“The guy with his gun aimed for your manhood,” Johnny replied as he slowly straightened up. “You wanna be like Shorty, just try me. I’d be happy to oblige.”
Bill glanced quickly at Jed, who gave a small shake of his head in warning.
“Okay, then,” Scott interrupted. “Next move?”
“First, my gun.”
Scott grinned, held out Johnny’s holster while he kept cover on their captives.
“Now,” Johnny said as he buckled on the holster, “we take them on in and tie them up. Grab the saddlebags.”
With a quick check down the street and an admonition to make no sound unless they wanted to have it punctuated by death, the two captives led the way to the front of the office building.
Scott opened the door, quickly scanned the entry then held it open as he gestured the two men and Johnny in.
The room was a rather large entry with two simple wooden desks and assorted cabinets. Johnny proceeded to the back of the room, where an open door led to another room furnished with a loveseat and a few chairs. He motioned for the others to join him.
“Where’s the upstairs?” Johnny asked.
Bill nodded back toward the entry. “There’s stairs at the end of the hall out there.”
“Where’s the Judge’s office?” Scott asked.
“Upstairs. Door at the end of the hall on the left,” Bill answered. “But he’s got an assistant outside his door.”
“An assistant?” Scott mused.
“Bodyguard,” Johnny clarified then turned his attention on Bill. “Is he a hired gun?”
Bill looked amused. “The Judge prefers the term, assistant.”
Jed added, “I wouldn’t suggest you get on his bad side, ‘specially if he’s hungry. And we’ve been workin’ late.”
Johnny looked at Scott and rolled his eyes. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.” He motioned to Scott. “Get out the rope and tie their hands behind their backs.”
Scott sat down the saddlebags and retrieved a couple lengths of rope. In moments he had the two men’s hands tightly bound.
“Okay, now take a longer length of rope and throw it over the beam up there,” Johnny instructed.
Scott and the two men glanced up. A stout beam ran the length of the room. After finding a suitable length of rope, Scott took aim and tossed it over the beam; an end soon dangled on either side.
“Now tie their wrists to the rope, one on each side—and make sure you have the rope really taut.”
“Hey, that’s gonna hurt!” Bill complained.
“And gag them,” Johnny added.
Scott grabbed a couple of the red bandanas Johnny had brought and proceeded to silence the men’s objections. Then he tied one end of the rope to Jed’s wrist. As he went to tie the other end to Bill’s, Johnny added, “Make sure the rope is so tight that they almost have to stand on tiptoe.”
At Scott’s questioning look, Johnny explained, “That way, they got enough problems tryin’ not to pull each other’s shoulders out of their sockets without banging around, creating noise. You can be darn sure they’ll be as good and still as a couple of choir boys.”
Scott swallowed back a grin as he went back to securing Bill’s tied wrists. When he stepped back to survey his work, the two men were leaning over, practically on tiptoe, their arms pulled up behind their backs, their expressions anything but relaxed and comfortable.
Scott gave an appreciative shake of his head. “That’s pretty good, Johnny.”
“Yeah,” Johnny muttered and motioned back toward the front entry. “Learned it from someone a couple years back.”
Scott stooped and picked up the saddlebags before coming up beside Johnny who had lowered the revolver to his side. Without the focus of a raised gun, Johnny’s rigid posture and steady stance had disappeared. He looked tired again, and worn out.
“A few years back, huh?” Scott smiled as he gave Johnny a light, reassuring touch to the elbow. “What, Cisco came up with it?”
Johnny looked at Scott askance. “Now that would give Cisco a laugh,” he said, a half-grin flicking across his face as he turned and started for the door.
Scott heard a soft chuckle.
“’Cuz he was on the other end of the rope.”
“Come on. We got an assistant to find and a Judge’s butt to light a fire under.”
Scott followed Johnny back to the front room and closed the door on the two men. “That may have been the easy part.” He glanced toward the hallway. “How do we sneak up the steps and get this guy? We won’t even know exactly how he’s positioned until we get up there.”
“Does call for a bit of thought.”
“Maybe we just order in a meal and let the aroma of the food bring him down.”
Johnny chuckled then started for the hall. “Let’s see if we can—” He suddenly stopped and put a hand up.
Scott halted. They could hear the sound of footsteps from above.
Johnny made a quick motion for Scott to go to the left side of the doorway, while Johnny flattened himself against the right side. They had barely positioned themselves when they heard someone descending the stairs.
“Hey, Jed! You ‘round? The Judge says he’s gonna be workin’ late.”
Scott glanced at Johnny as the man could be heard in the hall heading in their direction.
“He said to go ahead and order some food brought over.”
At that pronouncement, Scott shot a grin at Johnny, only to find it reflected back.
As the man stepped through the threshold, Johnny reached out and snagged the weapon from his holster. The Judge’s assistant stared, mouth agape, as he found himself with two pistols pointed at his face. “What the hell—”
Johnny pressed the barrel of his gun under the man’s chin, cutting off the rest of his remark.
“I’m guessing you want him tied up with the others?” Scott asked.
Johnny nodded. “But first,” he moved so that he stood directly in front of the man. “Where’s Murdoch Lancer?” When the man returned the inquiry with narrowed eyes. Johnny cocked his gun and leaned in closer. “You may not have noticed, but I’m tired and not in the best of moods. So let me give you just one piece of advice—don’t mess with me. Now once again, where’s Murdoch Lancer?”
The man’s eyes darted quickly to Scott, but receiving no indication of help in that quarter, he swallowed again and met Johnny’s piercing stare. “I don’t know,” he replied with a hint of belligerence.
“You mean,” Johnny paused for effect and cocked the gun, “you’re expendable?”
Once more the eyes darted to Scott and back. “I—I just mean—I haven’t seen him.”
“But the Judge does have him?”
The man nodded his head, flinching as Johnny pressed the gun against his neck. “Yes. I just don’t know where he’s being kept. Somewhere in the adjoining building, I think.”
Johnny nodded to Scott and withdrew the weapon. “Take him to the back.”
Scott grabbed the man’s arm and twisted it behind his back, then pressed his revolver against the man’s side as he led him to the back room where the judge’s assistant’s eyes widened at the sight of Jed and Bill’s precarious arrangement.
“You don’t want me to add him to the mix, do you?” Scott asked.
“No, we don’t have time for that. Just tie him securely in that chair.”
While Johnny kept a cover, Scott trussed up the third man. Once finished, Scott straightened up, his attention lingering on his brother as he took stock of Johnny’s appearance.
Johnny was looking worse by the moment. The energy that generally emanated from him had evaporated, and Scott had the sensation that Johnny was going through motions so familiar to him as to be mere rote.
Johnny gave a tired smile accompanied by a shrug. “Here.”
“Ready to surprise a certain Judge?”
Johnny nodded, gestured toward the door. “I don’t think the Judge is gonna like our surprise.”
“Too bad. We’ve worked so hard on it.” Scott replied then stepped to the side to let Johnny go into the hall first. As Johnny passed, Scott watched with some foreboding. Despite the relative ease with which they’d gained entrance and were now proceeding with their plan, Scott was worried whether Johnny was really going to be able to keep up his end. Fighting back the fear that it was Murdoch’s life that hung on their actions, Scott followed Johnny down the hall toward the stairs.
At the staircase, Johnny put a hand on the banister and without meaning to, paused. This was the first thing that night that had truly surprised him. He hadn’t meant to stop, had every intention of continuing his climb up the steps, but his feet had come to a standstill, one on the floor, one on the step. Bending forward, he placed his free hand on his knee.
“Johnny?” Scott tersely whispered.
He didn’t need to turn around to hear the anxiety in Scott’s voice, could picture exactly the expression on his brother’s face. A hand touched his shoulder. He took a breath, tried to stand up, but found to his dismay that he couldn’t force his body to obey. Strength suddenly eluded him, and he was feeling the familiar rising nausea.
“Johnny.” Scott had moved up closer, the other hand settling on his arm. “Are you going to make it?”
Johnny forced a nod, then tilted his head up to look at Scott. “I’ll make it.”
“You look like hell.”
“I feel like hell,” Johnny murmured, then grimaced a smile. “But I promise not to pass out.”
Scott returned the joke with a sidewise look. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
Johnny gave a soft, sarcastic chuckle, then started slowly up the steps. Though he tried to ignore Scott, he was painfully aware that his brother was keeping one hand on his back like a protective parent.
When the steps finally came to an end, Johnny leaned against the wall at the top of the landing. He could feel a hot sweat running along the side of his face, down his back and neck. Disconcerted, he noted that his vision was blurring, and he blinked repeatedly in an attempt to regain his focus.
As Scott saw Johnny begin to falter, he grabbed him by the upper arms. He noticed that Johnny’s eyes seemed unfocused and his breathing, which had recently been harsh though even, was now sharp and painful.
Johnny clenched his jaw, bit back a moan as he closed his eyes.
“Johnny,” Scott murmured. “I can’t lose you now.”
Johnny shook his head, mumbled something Scott could only guess at. In an act of grim determination, Scott flipped open one of the saddlebags and fished out the laudanum. He quickly opened the bottle and put it to Johnny’s lips.
Johnny shook his head, put a hand up to ward it off. “Won’t—help.”
“At this point,” Scott muttered without humor, “it can’t hurt. Now you take a good long drink, then I’ll give you a minute, and if you’re not up to pulling this off, then I’m taking you to the nearest hotel and I’ll see what I can do with the Judge myself.”
Johnny twisted his head away from the mouth of the bottle. “Can’t—”
Scott cupped his brother’s jaw in his hand. “Yes, you can. Now swallow,” he ordered softly then muttered, “I knew this was a bad idea, yet I let you talk me into it. I should have stuck with my plan. It was a better one.”
Johnny forced down Scott’s hand, swallowed before settling a tight, clear look on his brother. “Make no mistake. It was—a bad idea.”
Scott chuckled softly, put the laudanum back in the saddlebag. “It was a good idea,” he re-iterated. “And you know it.”
“Maybe for someone—from Boston,” Johnny retorted in a whisper.
“Come on, Brother,” Scott smiled as he placed his brother’s hand on his shoulder. “We’ll do this together.” As Scott secured an arm around Johnny’s waist, he added, “Though you know, the Judge is never going to believe you’re Johnny Madrid.”
“Sure he will,” Johnny whispered as they made their way slowly to the end of the hall. “It’s all a part of my great plan. He’ll take one look at me, be so overcome with remorse and sympathy, that he’ll just hand over Murdoch and buy us a meal, to boot. Heck, he’ll probably even spring for a hotel room for the night.”
Scott chuckled, whispered back, “Now who’s the one with notions?”
In silence, they approached the last door. Johnny stopped, raised an arm to force off Scott’s help and straightened up. As he drew his pistol out, he gave Scott a faint smile of reassurance. Scott tried to return it, but found he was unable to watch as Johnny slid on the mask of the gunfighter, eerily enshrouding the exhaustion and discomfort in an expression of cold, calculated indifference.
Scott looked down at the pistol in his own hand. Now was the time for action. He stepped to the side as Johnny reached for the doorknob. With a last, quick nod to each other, Scott watched as his brother thrust open the door and stepped through the threshold.
A well-dressed man in his sixties, sitting behind a massive, ornate desk, glanced up with surprise.
“I believe you have something of ours,” Johnny stated as he took another step.
Out of the corner of his eyes, Scott saw a shadow of movement from between the door and the frame. Even as he opened his mouth to yell a warning, he knew it would be too late.
The door was forcefully slammed against Johnny, throwing him off balance just as Scott cried out his warning and launched himself back against the door. He was rewarded with a grunt of surprise from the other side. While Scott was regaining his own footing, a hand shot out from behind the door, grabbing him by the arm. He found himself jerked head first into the room where he crashed into a chair, the impact ripping the revolver out of his hand. As he pushed himself back to his feet, he heard a noise from behind. He crouched low, one arm swinging up in defensive position, the other already launched for a target. And while he managed to land a solid jab to his opponent, he found himself the recipient of a mind-numbing blow to his jaw and another to his gut. He collapsed in a heap as he realized not one, but two men, had been behind the door.
As the full thrust of the door had sent Johnny reeling to his knees, he heard Scott’s belated warning. The force of the impact to his injured right side had sent his head spinning and he gasped loudly for breath. As he staggered to his feet, he noticed with mild confusion that the Judge was still seated at his desk, his expression not one of surprise, but of superior amusement. Before he’d had a chance to do more than register that fact, he realized that a door on the left side of the room had opened and three men were quickly entering, weapons raised.
While his brain told him the battle was over, his pride and stubbornness refused to acknowledge defeat. In desperation, he raised his weapon as he made for the desk, but had gained, at the most, three steps when he became the recipient of a flying tackle. In the second that he was airborne, Johnny knew he was going to land on his injured side, the product of which was destined to be unbelievable agony. He crashed to the floor with a guttural groan that he had no control over.
Scott looked up just as one of the Judge’s men made the running leap for Johnny. As the pair landed in a tumultuous and ungainly mass of legs and moans, Scott struggled to feet. “Don’t hurt him!” he yelled as he started forward. However, his attempt to go to his brother’s aid was immediately thwarted when he was quickly seized by the two men he’d already become familiar with. In distress, he tried to yank his arms out of their grasp, but their hold was secure. His attention was diverted as the Judge chuckled and stood up, casting an amused expression about the room.
“Don’t hurt him?” the Judge echoed humorously. “Now that’s a rather interesting request, don’t you think? Especially when you are the ones who came bursting in here with guns drawn.”
The man who had tackled Johnny rose to his feet. Johnny lay still for a moment, then slowly he rolled to his stomach, murmuring a half-strangled moan. When the man made a motion to reach down to him, Scott tried unsuccessfully to pull away from his own captors.
“Don’t touch him! Leave him alone!” he ordered.
The man looked over at Scott, shrugged, then straightened up, leaving Johnny untouched.
The Judge slowly walked around his desk until he could get a clear view of Johnny sprawled out on the floor at his feet. He shook his head then glanced at the man standing over him. “Amusing, isn’t it, Denton?”
The man snorted with ill-concealed contempt as he stepped away.
The Judge glanced over at Scott. “You know, I was beginning to wonder what was taking you so long.” He paused, crossed his arms and leaned nonchalantly against his desk. “So, this is the famous—or should I say infamous?— Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter.”
Johnny gathered his strength, the rigidity and delay in his movements a sign of the concentration needed, as he painstakingly forced himself to his hands and knees. Slowly he raised his head, replied in halting yet measured words, “So, this is Judge Wakeman, the famous—or should I say infamous?— crooked politician and kidnapper”
The Judge’s lips curled and he gave a sharp nod to Denton and another man, who quickly stepped forward and hauled Johnny roughly to his feet.
With uneasy foreboding, Scott tried once more to shake off his captors, but their grip was sure.
The Judge straightened up and stepped directly in front of Johnny. Slowly he looked him over as he appraised him from head to toe. “You know,” he said, settling his hands on his hips, “it’s interesting, but somehow, you don’t look so tough.”
“Yeah, well,” Johnny returned the look, though it took every ounce of concentration he had to keep his feet under him. “Somehow you look just as stupid as I thought you would.”
The Judge’s eyes narrowed for just a second then he tilted back his head and laughed loudly. As he leaned back against his desk, he raised a finger and shook it. “I do have to give my son some credit. He did get something right. You do have quite a mouth on you.”
“Must be proud of your son…learning to identify body parts. Hear he’s also learned how to imitate an ass.”
The muscles in the Judge’s jaw contracted and he abruptly straightened up, his expression tight. Yet in the next second he’d regained his superior, congenial posture and, turning his attention away from Johnny, he walked across the room to Scott. “You must be Scott. I’d hoped to get a chance to make your acquaintance. I’ve learned so much about you.” He crossed his arms. “You father speaks quite highly of you, you know. And he has every right to, though I’m not quite sure what he’s going to say when he learns you burst in on me like this, with weapons drawn.”
“Don’t play games, Judge. You started this by kidnapping our father and sending that message to Johnny.”
“Message?” The Judge feigned confusion, then smiled. “Oh, you must mean the invitation to meet me tomorrow at five o’clock. One could hardly call that an invitation for a break-in.”
“It is when you’ve kidnapped our father!” Scott snapped angrily.
“A guest,” the Judge enunciated carefully. “Your father is staying here as a guest. And you would have a hard time proving otherwise.”
“I don’t need proof!” Johnny retorted, drawing the Judge’s attention, as he tried to break away from his captors. With a sharp jerk, he was yanked back into place, the ensuing pain sending him to his knees.
“Johnny!” Scott tried to step forward, yet was held firmly in place. He could do little but glare at his captors.
The Judge studied Johnny for a moment, then sighing dramatically he shook his head and turned back to Scott. “He’s quite a mess, isn’t he?”
Scott glowered, yet remained silent.
The Judge pivoted back toward Johnny. “You know,” he mused, “I’ve heard the most interesting things.” He stepped in front of Johnny, who was relying heavily on the support of the men on either side to stay upright. “I’ve been told you were wounded. Is that true?”
Clenching his jaw, Johnny forced himself erect, his eyes tight and unwavering.
The Judge rubbed his chin with one hand while he thoughtfully tilted his head. “My son, you see, he thought you’d been shot up. He also claimed you’d taken a bit of a beating in that ill-conceived showdown out in the street, then took a few close ones again down in Soledad. If that’s true, you have more lives than a cat. So tell me. What sort of shape are you really in?”
Johnny remained silent.
The Judge gave a deep, disappointed sigh. “If you insist.” He made a motion toward Johnny’s neck.
The man to Johnny’s left reached over and pulled back Johnny’s collar, exposing the recent scar of a bullet graze.
“Well, so that part is true,” the Judge observed. “I wonder what other surprises you’re hiding.” He nodded to the one man who wasn’t occupied with a prisoner. “Ryan.”
Ryan stepped forward and began unbuttoning Johnny’s shirt as the Judge walked to a corner cabinet, stocked with assorted liquor bottles and glasses.
Johnny tried to pull away, but the action produced little except more pain; besides he knew he was too weak and unsteady to stand alone. With a piercing glare, he wordlessly allowed the Judge’s man to unbutton his shirt.
“Johnny,” Scott breathed softly. Though he tried to watch, he found himself turning his head. Pity was not something his brother would welcome.
Johnny didn’t flinch, moved not a muscle as Ryan finished opening his shirt to expose the bandaged chest and side.
The Judge, finished with pouring himself a drink, turned around, raised an eyebrow at the sight, then chuckled and shook his head. “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny. How the devil did you ever make it up here?”
Johnny slowly shifted his gaze to the Judge, his expression icy and detached. “Believe I already explained it to that moronic son of yours,” he replied coolly. “Sold my soul to the devil, just for the pleasure of being the one who gets to bring you down.”
The Judge laughed, took a sip of his drink. “Sold your soul to the devil, huh? Well, that pretty much explains it. Though I hope the price didn’t bankrupt you.” He motioned to Ryan again. “The saddlebags.”
Scott watched apprehensively as Ryan picked up the saddlebags and began rummaging about in them. A length of rope, a couple of cups, a small tin of beans were produced before Ryan drew out a couple of bandanas, the sight of which elicited a slight chuckle of amusement from the Judge.
“That was pretty good,” the Judge remarked with humor.
“James thought so,” Johnny replied.
Ryan dropped the one saddlebag to the floor and opened the other. This time he withdrew the bottle of laudanum and the almost empty morphine bottle. Ryan passed the items on to the Judge, then reached back in and pulled out the cloth-wrapped syringe.
Scott’s gaze quickly darted to Johnny, but Johnny’s expression revealed nothing. He seemed to take no notice of the items the Judge now held.
“Well, well. What have we here?” the Judge murmured. “Morphine, laudanum, syringe—” He nodded with feigned concern. “Looks like the price did get a bit high, hmmm? Something you could ill-afford, am I right, Madrid?” He smiled. “Word is, you’re washed up.”
“He’s not washed up! He’s—” Scott stopped.
“What?” The Judge turned, regarding Scott with amused interest. “He’s just as deadly and cold-blooded as ever? How about accurate and nerveless?” He chuckled, held up the items for display. “Come now, once a gunfighter starts getting shot up so bad he needs laudanum and morphine to function, it’s a pretty clear signal that he’s reached the end of his career.” He turned and walked back to Johnny. “Isn’t that true, Madrid? Interesting thing, though,” he paused, clearly enjoying the upper hand he now held. “It’s not the first time, is it? Took some digging, but I think you’ve had this problem before. Must say, I’m surprised you managed to make a comeback that other time. Think you have it in you to do it again?” he asked, holding the bottle of laudanum up in front of Johnny’s face.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed and he lunged forward. The two men roughly jerked him back as Ryan protectively stepped in front of the Judge to firmly plant his palm on Johnny’s bandaged chest and thrust him back into place. With an unchecked cry of pain, Johnny closed his eyes and held his breath. He could feel the sweat beading along his bandages, had to concentrate to fight off the rising nausea. When sheer necessity forced him to take a breath, he did so in short, painful rasps.
The Judge touched Ryan’s shoulder, who stepped off to the side. “Now Madrid, is that any way to behave when I’m trying to have a civil conversation?”
Johnny opened his eyes, glared silently, but his breathing remained irregular and guttural.
The Judge looked down at the morphine bottle then held it up to the light. “Is this all you have left, Madrid?” he tisked. “That’ll never do, will it?” He paused, looked at Johnny with simulated empathy. “You must have been conserving this meager amount, just hoping to locate some more when you reached town.” He paused again and smiled. “How wonderfully and pathetically sad, don’t you think, Mr. Ryan?”
“He doesn’t need it!” Scott snapped.
The Judge turned, his expression incredulous. “Oh, please, Young Mr. Lancer. He doesn’t need it?” He gestured vaguely toward Johnny as he walked toward Scott. “One look at him, and anyone could tell he needs it. And he needs it badly.”
“No he doesn’t! He just—”
Scott hesitated, glanced in surprise at Johnny, who had tilted his head just enough to look at him. Their eyes met for a second then Johnny blinked and painstakingly secured his feet under him.
The Judge noticed the action, smiled and walked back to Johnny. “You have something to tell me, gunfighter?”
“Yeah,” Johnny wavered for a second, then found his balance. “Go to Hell.”
The Judge laughed. “If that was supposed to be witty, Madrid, then you’re losing your touch.”
“Possibly—but you’re gonna lose this war.”
The Judge leaned in closer, his eyes flashing with anger. “I’m going to bring you down, Madrid.”
Johnny forced his gaze to remain steady, managed to push back the roaring in his ears as he dragged through the pain-filled haze the necessary breath to continue his hand. “Down?” he scoffed. “To what? Your level?” he managed a hoarse chuckle. “You ain’t got enough men or shovels for that.”
It only took a flick of a gaze to send the message to one of the men, and Johnny found his head jerked back by the roots of his hair. Reflexively he arched his back, then gasped as the reaction pulled at his chest and side muscles. He clamped his jaw tight, forced his eyes open to stare with lethal malevolence.
The Judge returned the look with a benevolently superior smile. “Search them, then take them away,” he ordered softly. “Then you’d better check on the men downstairs. I have a feeling they’re probably not in the best of moods.”
Johnny was dimly aware of hallways, descending stairs, corners. He tried to keep a focus on Scott’s back as he was dragged along between the Judge’s men, but found that his brother’s back had a disconcerting habit of fading to gray in a halo of pulsating stars. A hissing roar ebbed and flowed in his head, adding to the chaos of his senses. He was inordinately glad he hadn’t eaten all day as his stomach felt like a hard mass of muscles just waiting to heave. Every breath had become a painful fight, the goal of which was not to moan with every inhalation. He figured he’d won roughly half the time.
A door was opened. The shape of a table. He was thrust forward, fell against it hard—instinctively grabbed for the edges. A loud groan was evidence of that lost fight.
As Scott was being propelled into a chair, he heard the jar of the table and the cry of pain from his brother. Impulsively he stood up as his eyes searched past his own captors to locate his brother.
“Sit,” one of the men commanded, an accompanying shove punctuating his sentence.
Scott landed forcefully in the chair, craning his neck in an effort to seek out his brother.
Johnny was leaning forward over the table, his hands gripping its sides in white-knuckled urgency. His shirt, damp with sweat, clung to him limply, sticking to the thick bandages.
“Sit in the other chair,” commanded one of the men who stood near Johnny.
Johnny didn’t move.
“I said, sit!” the man growled in warning.
Johnny waveringly raised his head, blinked with confusion. “Sit,” he echoed the word as if it wasn’t in his vocabulary.
“Oh, hell,” the man snapped, jerked Johnny away from the table by the shoulders and dragged him over to the chair next to Scott.
Scott made a grab for Johnny, who would have toppled to the floor otherwise. Ignoring the chuckle from the man who’d shoved Johnny, Scott pulled his brother in close, supporting his brother’s head with his shoulder. Scott continued to support his brother while the four men took up positions around the room, one near the door, two leaning in discussion against the table, the other straddling the only other chair in the room.
Johnny’s eyes were closed, his hair and unbuttoned shirt damp with perspiration, tremors sporadically coursed through his frame. Scott felt an urge to pull the edges of Johnny’s shirt into place in order to cover the sight of the bandages from the prying eyes of the Judge’s men, but he didn’t want to move Johnny in order to do it. After a moment, Scott felt a slight change, sensed his brother was fighting back to consciousness. Dismally he wondered if it wouldn’t be better if Johnny stayed ignorant of what was happening.
“Cis…” Johnny groaned, raised his head from Scott’s shoulder. “Where…?” He hesitated, turned, his brows furrowed in confusion. Then he shook his head as if trying to clear away the fog and his expression gradually cleared. “The Judge,” he murmured.
Scott nodded silently.
Johnny swallowed, closed his eyes, cut off a moan. When he opened them again, Scott saw a hint of his brother’s acerbic humor. “Think we won yet?”
Scott gave a slight smile, shook his head. “Doesn’t look too promising for the good guys right now,” he replied softly.
Johnny tried to smile back, but his expression turned to one of gray agony, and he closed his eyes again as he leaned his head back against his chair.
“Johnny,” Scott whispered, mindful of the men in the room. “We need to get you some help.”
Eyes still closed, Johnny shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“Johnny,” Scott warned.
Johnny forced his eyes open, focused tightly on Scott, the action visibly depleting his concentration. “Don’t, Scott.”
Scott pursed his lips, shook his head unhappily. With a sigh he scanned the room, pausing to take in the amused expression of each of the four men who were clearly enjoying being witness to the misfortune of the gunfighter Madrid.
“Looks like Madrid ain’t so tough now,” one of the men snorted. The others laughed.
The Judge stepped into the room, made a motion to the guard to remain outside.
Murdoch, sitting in the only chair in the small, windowless room, looked up without surprise.
“Well, I must say,” the Judge began, “Scott sure is a handsome young man. Very cultured, and his loyalty would be positively admirable if it weren’t so misplaced. But other than that, I find I’m quite impressed.”
“Scott?” Murdoch raised his head slightly. “Scott’s here?”
The Judge nodded as he casually approached Murdoch. “Yes, he is. In fact, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting both your sons.”
“Johnny made—” Murdoch paused. “He’s here?”
The Judge once again nodded, then smiled amicably. “Yes, Johnny’s also here. Though I have to admit, I don’t know how you are able to put up with that mouth he has.” The Judge shook his head. “I can see where that’s probably been a source of some difficulties…if not just mere friction.”
Murdoch remained silent, regarded the Judge with suspicion.
“Scott on the other hand, well…” the Judge gestured openly. “It’s quite obvious that he has manners, education, has been brought up in cultured society. I can see where he must bring you great satisfaction.”
“Yes, yes,” Murdoch said with a wave of his hand. “I’m very proud of Scott. Haven’t we been through this before?”
The Judge smiled and gave a hearty chuckle. “Yes, I guess you are right. It’s just that earlier, I was going on only by what others had said. Now I’ve had an opportunity to meet them both for myself. I found it quite interesting.”
Murdoch’s expression soured. “You’re attempting to draw a comparison between my two sons. Well, I’m not playing your game.”
The Judge looked surprised. “So, you’re not interested in what happens to Johnny?”
“Of course I’m interested. I’m just not about to be another one of your pawns, or allowing Johnny to become one either.”
“I didn’t make him a pawn,” the Judge said as he held a finger up for emphasis. “He entered this game, full knowing what was at stake. However I do sympathize with the predicament he’s put you in. His decision to go off and hire out wasn’t a career move he discussed with you, I’m sure.”
Murdoch looked unimpressed. “I’m sure you’ve learned that he’d lost his memory. He didn’t remember who he was.”
The Judge paused and smiled meaningfully. “Who he was? Or who you wished him to be?” When Murdoch didn’t reply, the Judge continued. “Don’t you find it interesting that the only part of his past he forgot was the time he spent with you?”
Face impassive, Murdoch leaned back in his chair. “I told you I wasn’t playing this game.”
The Judge chuckled, paced around the room, paused beside a small square table that sat near the wall. He leaned against it and faced Murdoch. “That’s where you’re so wrong,” he said. “Remember the Kansas bounty?”
“I’m fully aware of it,” Murdoch replied curtly.
“Then you either play my game, or I’m getting in touch with the authorities, and I’ll see to it that he’s shipped off to Kansas.”
Murdoch didn’t reply.
The Judge’s smile became cold. “The game is simple and the rules are easy. I told you that I want my son freed. Now I need your testimony and Scott’s retracted, and I need to get rid of Johnny. Let’s face it, an infamous gunfighter doesn’t exactly make the best of witnesses to begin with. However he was the one directly involved. So if he disappears to, shall we say, previous haunts, it’ll color the court’s view of earlier testimony and cast doubt on what happened.”
“And with him gone, the town will crumble. Isn’t that really the crux of this?”
The Judge merely smiled. “Now, his disappearance can happen in any number of ways; I am, after all, a reasonable man. All I’m concerned with is that he’s gone. Mexico is fine with me. But so is sending him to Kansas under a murder warrant. As I said before, I have no problems with getting someone else to take care of him permanently if you choose. Which, I have to admit, I can fully understand if you’d prefer.”
“He’s my son!”
“Yes, so? Doesn’t his mere presence put you, Scott and Teresa at risk? Jeopardize everything you’ve worked for all your life? The ranch, your standing in the community, friends and family? Doesn’t having him around pose a threat to all of that?”
Murdoch scowled. “He’s my son,” he reiterated.
“I’m not disputing that sad fact. But can you truly tell me you never wished he were back in Mexico so that you didn’t have to worry and be tormented with the knowledge of what he’s done—and could do again? Of the danger having him around poses?”
“We’re learning to deal with it.”
“So it doesn’t bother you?”
“Of course it bothers me. It would bother anyone—” Murdoch halted as a look of triumph crossed the Judge’s face. “You’re putting words in my mouth.”
“Perhaps,” the Judge conceded amicably. “But I doubt I’m putting the thoughts in your head.”
Scott looked up as the door opened. He was surprised to see the Judge enter. He watched warily as the older man circled the table to stand in front of them. Subconsciously the arm that encircled Johnny’s shoulder tightened in a futile effort to protect his brother from the Judge’s reach.
“My, my. Madrid’s still not feeling too well, is he?”
Scott narrowed his eyes, felt Johnny move under his embrace. “What the hell do you want now?”
The Judge took a small step back, raised an eyebrow in mock consternation. “Why, young Mr. Lancer, I simply came to tell you that one of my men would be happy to take you to see your father, if you’d like.”
The Judge nodded.
Without loosening his grip, Scott glanced at Johnny. “We’ll need some help. I don’t think Johnny can—”
“I said, you can go see your father.”
Scott glanced up, surprised. “I’m not leaving Johnny.”
“He and I will be along in a few minutes.”
“I’m not leaving him,” Scott repeated.
“Then you’re not going to find out how your father is.”
Scott clenched his jaw.
“Go,” Johnny whispered, pulled away weakly. “See that Murdoch’s okay. I’ll—I’ll be fine.”
Johnny shook his head. “Go, Scott. Make sure…he’s okay. I’ll—I’ll be along.”
With an expression that showed his reluctance, Scott slowly stood, carefully releasing his grip on his brother. He then turned and regarded the Judge coldly. “If you do anything to him, anything, I will hunt you down-”
The Judge chuckled. “Young Mr. Lancer. I have no intention of allowing any harm to come to your brother. You have my word. I simply want a moment with him, and then he’ll be allowed to join you and your father.”
With clenched jaw, Scott allowed himself to be led away by one of the guards. At the doorway, Scott paused for one last look back. Johnny sat hunched forward in the chair, his face hidden under the shadow of his hair. Scott found it disquieting that his brother hadn’t even bothered to watch him leave.
Johnny looked up as the door closed, meeting the Judge with a laconic smile. “So, it’s just you and me. Oh, yeah, and your bodyguards.”
The Judge met the cool look unflinchingly, though he found himself surprised that he even had to remind himself that he was the one with the upper hand. “A chance to get to know one another better,” he replied indolently.
The laconic smile widened ever so slightly. “Come now, Judge. I think we can dispense with the hollow words of courtesy. You know who I am—and I know exactly what you are.”
“And what you are,” the Judge nodded appreciatively.
Johnny gave a slight chuckle, forced himself to sit more erect. “You know, I once asked your son if I’d made his life hell. Kinda makes it all worth while knowin’ I had the same effect on you.”
The Judge’s smile curdled. “Don’t flatter yourself so much, Madrid. You’re a mere inconvenience.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “Mere inconvenience, huh? Guess I’ll have to see what you do for a real problem.”
“Madrid,” the Judge shook his head. “Between that mouth of yours and that over-inflated ego, it is a surprise you’ve managed to stay alive so long.”
“It’s just that I’m so damn good at what I do.” He smiled slightly. “Though it doesn’t hurt that I learned that some of the worse snakes wear some of the nicest clothes.”
The Judge chuckled. “Damn, you would have made a nice addition to our organization. It’s too bad we couldn’t have come up with a cooperative agreement.”
“Sorry,” Johnny replied, the corner of his mouth curling just enough to show he was enjoying the conversation. “Have a real aversion to snakes.”
The Judge shook his head, laughed, “I must confess, that despite all else, I am quite impressed with your survival instincts. Not many men can claim to have been through what you have, and live to tell of it. Though, if I’m not mistaken, without a bit of help from some friends, you might not have made it out of Texas.”
Johnny didn’t reply, merely stared coldly.
The Judge walked to the table, casually ran his fingers along the surface. “But the murder of a woman can weigh heavily on the conscience of any man, even a gunfighter. Isn’t that true, Madrid?”
“Protesting my innocence to you would be pointless.”
The Judge turned and smiled. “True. Innocence or guilt is not for me to judge, but rather for the courts in Kansas. But then, in your unfailing determination to survive, you never did wait around to let the courts decide, did you?”
“I’m sure you’re the last one I need remind that not all courts are fair—or all judges impartial.”
“And why should they be?” the Judge taunted. “What a colossal waste of time, money and talent if the courts only served the weak, poor and helpless. Really, now, what would this great country of ours come to? Instead I find that it is infinitely better served by the shrewd and skillful who best know how to use it to advantage.”
“Something you’re quite skilled at, I’m sure,” Johnny mocked.
The Judge appeared amused. “Madrid,” he chuckled, “that’s why I’m here and you’re there.”
“And why your son is in Monterey awaiting a trial date,” Johnny replied with a cool grin.
The Judge met Johnny’s look evenly, shifted his position as he glanced smoothly about the room. “Your brother…I find him quite remarkable. The way he’s accepted you, your past, the distinct differences between you.”
The Judge smirked, shrugged. “Just wondering if you’ve given any thought to the idea that his good manners may be keeping him from saying what he truly feels.”
At Johnny’s scowl, the Judge held up an apologetic hand. “Sorry. Sorry. That was unfair of me. What I mean is,” the Judge paused dramatically, as if searching for suitable words, “it’s rather considerate of him the way he’s tolerated your rather cloudy past, modified his behavior to satisfy your rather tragic and immature needs.”
Johnny held his silence.
“Very different from your father, right? I mean, I hardly doubt one would call Murdoch Lancer nonjudgmental.”
“He is who he is,” Johnny replied without emotion.
The Judge smiled. “And you are who—” he paused, hesitated as he frowned, his head cocked questioningly to the side. “Just who are you?”
“Merely someone who enjoys being a thorn in your side,” Johnny replied dryly as he forced back a tremor and tightened his gaze.
“Oh, that’s but just a momentary pleasure, dear Johnny. A reason for living right now.” The Judge grinned back. “What I want to know is, who will you be when this is all over? When the job is done, when the lights are out, who are you then? And who are you in your dreams and in those first seconds when you wake up?” He stepped forward, leaned in close, his voice lowering to an ominous drone. “It’s sad, really. Quite pathetic. Johnny Lancer. That unattainable goal. Someone who should have been but wasn’t—and never can be. It must be a constant, hollow ache knowing you’ll never truly be him. How truly sad for you.”
Johnny looked up, fought back the rising symptoms and tried to keep the pain from showing on his face as a tremor coursed through his body. He mentally cursed himself as he felt himself blink. “How sad for you, your loser son’s going to jail.”
The Judge’s benevolent smile hardened into a mask of anger, yet he kept his voice calm. “You’re needing it now, aren’t you, Madrid? I can see it in your eyes.”
“What I need…is some fresh air. Your breath stinks,” Johnny retorted, but he knew the Judge could tell that he was visibly fighting to remain in control, that he was losing the battle against his own body.
The Judge smiled archly. “You won’t think it rude of me if I tell you I let my men bet on how long it takes until you’re begging.”
“Begging to be spared your tedious speeches?”
“You know, Madrid, what I ought to do is wait until you’re crawling in agony, and then have one of my men break your old man’s legs while you lay on the ground in wretched misery, unable to help him.”
Instinctively Johnny lurched to his feet, staggered forward as the pounding pain screeched to an apex and burst out through his chest, culminating in a cry he was unable to control. He grabbed for the table and hunched over it.
“Then again,” the Judge moved in close, his breath a whisper in his ear, “it’d probably be even more amusing to let some of my more physical boys have a turn on that brother of yours. Though I’d hate to see what they might do to that pretty face of his.”
Gathering much needed strength from the fury the words ignited, Johnny snapped his head around to glare with heated ferocity. “You do what you want to me. But if you value your life, you’ll see to it no harm comes to Scott.”
Though the Judge met Johnny’s look with orchestrated amusement, Johnny saw a momentary flicker of doubt behind his eyes.
“Bring him along,” the Judge snapped curtly as he turned and headed for the door. “And don’t bother to be gentle.”
Scott walked along the hallway, keenly aware of his escort who shadowed him closely, gun drawn. He briefly thought of telling the man that the weapon was unnecessary, as he wanted to be taken to see Murdoch just as much as the man wanted to get him there. And with all these blasted corridors and turns, he certainly couldn’t find the way by himself. Heck, he was beginning to feel like he’d been going around in circles.
“Stop here,” the command came suddenly as they rounded a corner.
Scott halted, glanced at his guard, then turned toward the door. Abruptly the realization that he was finally going to see Murdoch hit him. Unfortunately this was not the way he would have preferred. There was so much Murdoch needed to know, so much to be conveyed. But how to do it, with guards watching and listening? Yet it was necessary for both Murdoch and Johnny that their father understood what had been happening, what Scott had learned about Johnny, and what Johnny had been going through.
The guard gave the door a quick rap.
The guard motioned for Scott to open the door, which he did without further prompting. As he pushed the door open, Scott immediately noticed his concern was valid. Another one of the Judge’s men stood off to the side of the windowless room while Murdoch sat in a chair in the center. As Murdoch looked up, Scott was relieved to see that though their father sported a few bruises, he appeared otherwise unharmed.
Murdoch acknowledged Scott’s entrance with a cautious smile before shifting his attention to the doorway behind Scott in an obvious search for Johnny.
“Murdoch,” Scott greeted somberly.
“Scott,” Murdoch replied in a similar manner, though his eyes gave away his anxiety as a guard closed the door.
Feeling the point of the pistol press against his spine, Scott walked to the center of the room. Quickly he made note that there were no other doors. Other than the table, an unoccupied chair, and a half-filled bookcase along one wall, there were no other furnishings. Four lamps attempted, with little success, to add some light to the windowless room.
After casting a distinct and unmistakable look of irritation at his guard, Scott walked to the vacant chair and sat, its placement far enough away from Murdoch to rule out any possibility of talking privately.
“How are they treating you?” Scott asked softly with an acknowledging glance at the bruises.
“Looks worse than it is. How’s Matthew?”
“Fine,” Scott answered.
“And you?” Murdoch’s question was weighted heavily with the unspoken ‘and’.
“I’m fine,” Scott replied, then added carefully, “Johnny’s with the Judge.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed slightly and his lips pursed.
“They’re supposed to be coming soon.”
Murdoch held Scott’s gaze steady. “How’s—”
Scott locked his eyes firmly with his father’s—a look that immediately arrested Murdoch’s question, warning him that he was unable to answer.
Murdoch turned in his seat to confront the guard standing in the corner. “I want my other son brought here now.”
“The Judge will bring him in due time.”
Scott sat back in his chair, tried to force himself to physically relax as he’d seen Johnny do in tense situations. Even after two years, Scott was amazed at how, in even the most difficult times, his brother could manage to appear to be at ease. Though in reality, Scott had learned, his brother was operating at lightning speed, running through every possibility and contingency. This time it was up to Scott to get them out of the mess they were in, and he had to get Murdoch to understand that. They could not rely on Johnny this time. It was their turn to save him.
He also needed to prepare Murdoch for the sight of his son. Murdoch had no knowledge of how rough the last couple of days had been for him, his decision to stop the morphine, then his reluctant acknowledgement that it was the only thing that was going to enable him to reach Salinas. The return of the debilitating pain, even though he tried to moderate it with the laudanum. And the warning from DarkCloud that it would be days before the morphine was totally out of his system. Then there was also the additional facts that Johnny had simply not eaten for days, was refusing even liquids for fear of being sick, as the pain from his wounds, especially the chest wound, became so severe as to leave him debilitated.
Yet the question remained, how to let Murdoch know all these things without informing the Judge, and consequently giving him more ammunition?
Scott knew Murdoch was watching him closely, looking for some sign.
“Johnny,” Scott paused, gave the merest shake of his head as he spoke his brother’s name, “will be relieved to see you.”
Murdoch’s brows furrowed for a heartbeat.
Then the doors opened.
Determination and sheer willpower had been sufficient to give Johnny the strength to make his way down the hall. In fact, he’d barely made it through the doorway when he pitched forward, blacking out.
When he came to, he was being dragged down the corridor, rough hands under his arms. His chest and side seared as if he’d fallen into a fire, and he found himself fighting back the urge to take a breath. Pure instinct took over and he inhaled with an audible gasp—the pain so overwhelming that he would have welcomed the relief that unconsciousness would bring.
In a desperate attempt to alleviate some of the pressure to his wounds caused by being hauled under the arms, he tried to get his feet under him. He managed to succeed for a couple of steps, the men slowing to give him a chance to keep up. But the minor relief was short-lived; his knees seemed to melt beneath him, his head suddenly filled with a mind-numbing roaring and his vision became distorted by a haze of stars.
“Oh, for goodness sakes! Just drag him along,” he heard the Judge grumble loudly. “This Madrid is too damned stubborn to realize when it’s more judicious to conserve one’s energy.”
Unable to respond, barely able to breathe, Johnny was dragged around a corner of the hallway.
There the procession came to a stop, and with a chuckle the Judge stepped forward to the door.
“Ready to see your daddy, Madrid?”
As the Judge opened the door, Johnny gathered his feet back under him, wobbled unsteadily as he tried to straighten up, closed his eyes as he searched for the energy necessary to drag in a much-needed breath.
As he opened his eyes, he saw the surprised looks on Scott’s and Murdoch’s faces. With gritted determination he stepped through the threshold, but the control came to a blunt end. The room wavered, his face and hands grew numb, and although he knew his eyes were open, the room fell into total darkness. He tried to finish the step, but his legs ceased to exist and he landed painfully to one knee. With a torturous gasp, he pitched forward, his hands breaking his fall.
Through the chorus of chuckles, he heard Murdoch’s voice snap, “What the Hell have you done to him?”
There was a momentary lapse of silence, followed by the sound of footsteps. He blinked. Grayness leaked through the pitch black until he could just make out the toe of a pair of expensive shoes.
“Do to him?” he heard the Judge laugh. “Why nothing. That’s the beauty of this. He did it all to himself.”
Aware that he was the center of attention, Johnny tried to bring his head up, but his arms began trembling from his weight and he slowly sank forward, his forehead coming to rest on the hard floor.
There was the sound of a chair scraping the floor.
“Let him go,” Murdoch hissed.
“Go? Go where? Do you see anyone holding him down? Or preventing him from leaving?” the Judge chuckled again. “What do you think, Madrid? You want to show us how you can get up and leave?”
“Damn it!” Murdoch’s voice…footsteps.
“Remain where you are!”
Johnny rolled his head, opened his eyes, saw Murdoch standing, his fists clenched to his side, while a man now held a gun to his chest. Nearby, still seated yet watching with rigid attention, Scott seemed ready to bolt, his eyes darting from Murdoch to the Judge and down to Johnny.
“Willing to save your half-breed gunfighter son again, Murdoch? Despite the amazing disappointment he’s been?”
“That’s it!” Scott leapt to his feet. “I’ve had enough!” As another gun swung around to point in his direction, Scott growled, “What? You’re going to shoot me? And how are you going to explain a dead body?”
“You’re mistaken if you think a dead body is going to deter me,” the Judge replied, all humor gone from his tone. “You see, all problems can be broken down into simple mathematics—and a dead body is only one variable to be taken into account. Now if you want to push me…”
Scott glared coldly, took a step forward.
“Scott,” Murdoch warned.
“Don’t,” Johnny forced the word up out of his chest, gritted his teeth to keep back the accompanying groan.
Scott glanced from Murdoch to his brother.
With a grin of satisfaction, the Judge turned to Murdoch. “So, you think he’s worth saving? If so, then save him. You know what to do. And given what disappointments our sons turned out to be, I think it’s an even trade.”
“Johnny’s not a disappointment!”
“Oh? That’s not the feeling I got from you earlier,” the Judge said. “A son who chooses to return to the gun whenever something doesn’t go his way, who prefers a weapon to words, a son of secrets, mysteries, a murky past at best, who’s made a life out of flaunting authority and rules. Your frustration is understandable.”
“I told you, I refuse to be a part of this!” Murdoch snapped angrily. “I refuse to be blackmailed!”
“Don’t think of it as blackmail. Think of it as a chance to save your son’s life.”
There was a knock on the door, drawing everyone’s attention.
“Who is it?” the Judge snapped, irritated by the interruption.
One of the guards opened the door. Ryan stood at the threshold. He nodded differentially toward the Judge.
“Ah, Mr. Ryan.”
“Judge Wakeman, sir,” Ryan replied. “A moment of your time.”
The Judge nodded curtly to his men. “I’ll be right back.” He walked out the door, shutting it behind him.
Out in the hallway, the Judge smiled and nodded as he clasped his hands behind his back. “By your expression, Mr. Ryan, I’d say you’ve learned something useful.”
Ryan returned the smile with a nod. “It was as you expected, sir. He knew for some time.”
With a chuckle, the Judge rocked on his heels as he brought a hand around to dip into his vest pocket. He produced a watch, which he quickly glanced at. “I have a feeling this won’t take me as long as I thought.” He then glanced back up at Ryan, his enjoyment apparent. “Yes, Mr. Ryan. I am amazed at how easy they keep making this for me.”
Scott watched as the door closed, then shifted his attention back to his brother. Johnny’s eyes were closed, lips thin and white. As if sensing his brother’s attention, Johnny’s eyes opened, searched out his brother.
“Oh, hell!” Scott exclaimed. “Shoot me if you want to!” With a glare of defiance, Scott dropped to the floor beside Johnny before the guards had a chance to react. “Johnny,” he murmured, leaning in close. “What can I do?”
Johnny lifted his head slightly, swallowed back a groan, gave a slight shake. “He’s got me. He knows it,” Johnny whispered haltingly, “Get—get Murdoch to go along with him. Just get out of here. Wakeman…” he stopped, had to catch his breath, “Wakeman’ll make a mistake again. And…and there’s the sheriff…”
Johnny shook his head, shivered as if cold. “I—I can’t—can’t help you, Scott.”
Suddenly the door opened. Scott looked up, disheartened by the Cheshire smile on the Judge’s face.
Scott leapt to his feet as every gun in the room beaded on him.
“Scott!” Murdoch stepped close enough to reach out for his son’s arm.
Seething, fists balled, Scott glared about the room.
The Judge chuckled. “Oh, you Lancers. I must say. You sure do make interesting subjects. I had no idea digging into your pasts would uncover such a wealth of information. Isn’t that right, Murdoch?” He smiled. “Have you thought it over then?” He swept a hand down toward Johnny’s trembling form. “Consider the advantages of ridding yourself of a son you were loath to claim in the first place.”
“That’s enough!” Murdoch bellowed as he pulled Scott behind him and stepped forward.
“Enough? Oh, hardly, Murdoch. Just think, you will once again be able to run for office without worrying about a gunfighter son casting unwanted attention on your campaign. No more worries about unsavory enemies—or friends of Madrid—showing up with revenge or worse in mind, which ought to be of interest to you, too, Scott,” the Judge nodded knowingly.
“I’d rather have my son,” Murdoch replied tightly.
“Would he rather have you?”
Startled, Murdoch glanced at Johnny, who was attempting to push himself to his hands and knees.
“You know, Murdoch, I wonder,” the Judge turned and paced across the room. “You Lancers seem to enjoy keeping your secrets. Johnny, his past; his, shall we say, difficulty with laudanum.” The Judge paused, turned around with a slight smile. “Yes, makes me wonder, does Johnny know the agents you hired to find him back in sixty-eight succeeded in tracking him down? Yet you chose not to have them act after you found out who he was…and what he was. Isn’t that right, Murdoch?”
Murdoch took a step backwards, his mouth dropping open in an uncharacteristic expression of mortified shock. Immediately his attention shifted to Johnny.
Johnny had managed to pull himself to his hands and knees. His head was bent forward, the rest of his body tense and motionless as the man who’s been backed into a corner with a cocked gun pointed at his face. He appeared to be awaiting the inevitable.
“Hmmmm,” the Judge murmured to himself, laughed as if he’d just shared some private joke. “Well, I can see the secrets run deep in this family.” He stepped closer to Johnny. “What do you have to say about that, Madrid? Your father never sent for you, even though he knew where you were, until he needed your gun.”
Johnny remained motionless.
The Judge abruptly nodded and motioned. The two men who had dragged Johnny into the room quickly stepped forward, bent down, grabbed him by the upper arms, and hauled him to his feet.
Mere pain was abruptly replaced by torture. Johnny tried to control it, mask it, meet the Judge with cold indifference, but knew he’d been unsuccessful by the gratified look of pity the Judge settled on him. “Oh, Madrid. How discouraging this must be for you. To realize the very thing you keep trying to change is the only reason you were wanted in the first place; probably the only reason you’re kept around now.”
“That’s not true!” Scott interrupted.
The Judge pivoted and gave a curt nod. The two other guards each shoved the barrels of their pistols under Murdoch and Scott’s jaws.
“I’m not talking to you,” the Judge said. “This is between Madrid and me.”
“I want you—” Murdoch stopped as the point of the revolver pressed his head back so far he couldn’t swallow.
“Tie and gag them,” the Judge instructed Ryan who had accompanied him into the room.
Ryan came forward, produced some rope and the red bandanas he had discovered earlier in their saddlebags. The Judge chuckled as they were used on Scott and Murdoch. “Rather fitting, don’t you think, Mr. Ryan?”
Ryan nodded. “I’m enjoying it.”
The Judge then pivoted back to Johnny, who was barely able to stand, even with the aid of the two guards. “And what, Mr. Ryan, do you make of this?”
“Madrid?” Ryan laughed sarcastically as he came forward to regard Johnny with amused contempt. “Well, to be honest, Sir, he doesn’t look like a hell of a lot to me.”
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“Well, they must be in his case.”
“Not quite the stuff of legends, is he?” the Judge remarked as he eyed Johnny. “I admit to being disillusioned, too, given the trouble he seems to have caused my son.”
Johnny raised his eyes. “Your son’s a pathetic little worm of a man…and you’re just a snake.”
With a jerk of the Judge’s head, the guards hauled up tightly on Johnny’s arms, bending him backward. He gasped in a strangled breath, yet managed to keep his glare on the Judge’s face.
The Judge leaned in, pressed his hand against the bandaged chest. Johnny swallowed back a groan and closed his eyes.
“I’m a snake with a lethal bite,” the Judge hissed. “It’d be wise not to forget that.” He pressed harder then smiled as Johnny moaned, sagging heavily against the guards. “Tell me, Madrid,” the Judge murmured, “what was the most you got for killing a man?”
Johnny felt the question burn him even more than the palm pressed against the wound to his chest. Forcing his eyes open, he managed to get his knees locked once more, was acutely aware of Murdoch and Scott watching, hearing every word.
“I’d kill you for nothing,” he replied coldly.
The Judge laughed. “You know, Mr. Ryan, it would be interesting to let the people see him now—see him for what he is; a broken-down killer, someone who bartered money for life, like a whore selling favors to the highest bidder. Find a bit of talent with a gun, add some flash, the right clothes and a swaggering walk, and what do we have, but Johnny Madrid.”
As the Judge spoke, Johnny lost his focus. He’d fought to keep it, but had found himself trading vision for the ability to remain on his feet. He heard the words, felt the reality of them, knew all in the room sensed the truth of what the Judge had spoken.
“You heard the latest, of course,” the Judge continued conversationally.
“You mean, divine intervention?” Ryan scoffed.
The Judge nodded in mock seriousness. “Oh, yes. Saved by the Lord. Makes you wonder for what, though doesn’t it? What could God possibly have in mind for a hired killer? Think he has someone he wants Madrid to take care of for him?” the Judge laughed. “Maybe that’s it. What do you suppose? A holy assignment? Madrid, the Lord’s new Angel of Death.” The Judge laughed again as he reached into his vest and produced a pocketknife. In a methodical set of movements, he flipped it open and quickly cut through the bandaging exposing the inflamed wound, the dark bruise radiating outward from the center of Johnny’s chest.
“Well, look at that,” he said as he reached out to touch the wound. “What do you make of it, Mr. Ryan?”
The young man chuckled. “Now that has to be the most amazing piece of dumb luck I’ve ever seen.”
The Judge nodded his head then turned his attention solely on Johnny. “And what do you think, Madrid? Do you believe that story? Were you saved by a Saint?”
Johnny forced himself to meet the Judge’s eyes. Though he knew the Judge was touching the wound, he couldn’t feel it. The surface had gone numb. The pain itself came from deep within, cracked ribs and bruised lungs that fought for air. He knew the Judge had asked a question, but in the heavy fog that paralyzed his brain, he’d been unable to comprehend the words.
“I’m waiting, Madrid,” the Judge sighed dramatically. “Were you saved by a Saint?”
Johnny blinked, wavered, fought to remain on his feet, but the room was spinning sickeningly.
“Were you saved by a Saint or not?” the Judge growled.
Scott saw Johnny tremble, could tell he was battling not only unbelievable agony, but also his body’s desire for the medicine it knew could give him relief. In anguish, Scott glanced at Murdoch, was left almost breathless by the sheer horror he saw on his father’s face, a line of suffering for every torture witnessed.
“No.” The word was almost inaudible.
Gritting his teeth against the cloth in his mouth, Scott tore his gaze from his father’s anguished expression to focus once more on his brother.
“Why not?” the Judge commanded.
Johnny flinched, his knees buckled, and his entire weight fell to his guards.
“Why not?” the Judge demanded as he grabbed the back of Johnny’s head, forcing his eyes upward to meet him.
Scott heard his father’s breath catch, a muffled moan escaping through the gag.
The Judge laughed softly and released his grip, allowing Johnny’s head to droop forward. “No, you’re not,” he agreed in quiet triumph. Then he turned on Murdoch and Scott, his expression one of superior satisfaction. “Is he?” He paused, seemed to savor the moment, then turned and nodded to the men. “Untie them and leave them here. Keep two guards posted.” He turned back to Scott and Murdoch. “Much as I’ve enjoyed this little family get-together, I have some business to attend to. But I’ll be back. Then perhaps we can come to an agreement to satisfy all concerned.”
Harley stretched out his muscles, groaned with satisfaction at the amount of work he had accomplished. Paul’s sending for him had certainly been providence. The extra money he could make in the few days would come in very handy in the coming months.
He rubbed his eyes, regarded the faint glow visible in the west, an echo of colors that signified the sun setting beyond the ocean. He thought of little Wes and smiled. Perhaps next summer they could take a few days and visit Monterey. Little Wes would enjoy watching the large sailing ships putting in at the wharf and he could treat Mary to something special at one of the many shops, well stocked with the influx of Eastern and European goods.
With a smile on his face, he sighed and rubbed his shoulders. Yes, he would definitely put aside a little of this money for something special.
He turned and walked around the shop toward the outhouse in back. A quick little visit, then he’d go in and help Paul get some supper together. He felt sorry for him. Bachelor that his friend was, he had no help with the domestic chores either.
Thoughts still on his good fortune, he reached for the outhouse door and swung it open.
With mouth agape, he stared.
In the shadowy interior stood Paul, frozen in the act of grabbing for a suspender, which dangled along his back. In itself, this would have been an unimportant incident. However, the hand that did the groping belonged to the arm that had just recently been supported in a sling.
Harley closed his gaping mouth, crossed his arms and regarded Paul suspiciously. “You’ve made a remarkable recovery. I think you’d better fill me in on the details before I really break that arm.”
room melted, swirled, and suddenly he was alone in a black void.
He heard footsteps, echoing as if from a great distance…
darkness slowly lifted and Reveles came into view.
you see now, Juanito? Cisco sees
are you talking about?” He asked, confused.
He looked around quickly. “Is
shook his head. “No, Johnny.
He’s not. But he knew, he
tried to tell you, too. So did
Padre Simon. Listen to them if you
won’t listen to me.”
what? I can’t hear.”
while there’s still time, Johnny. Listen.”
“To what? Reveles! Reveles!”
Johnny gasped, groaned, fought hard to stay in the warmth of oblivion.
Johnny opened his eyes. All was swirling gray fog. He tried to open his mouth, ask where he was, but his stomach lurched and he rolled instinctively to his side, cradling his stomach and side with his arms.
He felt two hands move in to grasp him, one positioned along his back, the other cradled his chest in support. He trembled, moaned, as the nausea continued to rise.
“Shhh. I know it hurts, but you’ve got to breathe. Just take it slow.”
He tried to suck in a quick breath, groaned as his stomach contracted, swallowed back the bitter bile. Suddenly his body began shivering, and he moaned as the nauseous heat was unexpectedly replaced by a crawling chill.
“Damn. This was a colossal mistake.”
“Scott,” Murdoch demanded, his voice heavy with anxiety and distress, “what happened to him? He looks…Lord, he looks worse… What’s been going on?”
Scott felt Johnny tremble under his hands. Quickly he hazarded a glance at their father who was kneeling close by, worry exposed in his expression.
“He—after you left with Matthew, he refused to take any more morphine,” Scott whispered. “He wanted to be off it when you returned. He—he said he needed to be able to think more clearly.”
Murdoch put a hand out to touch Johnny’s fevered brow, his expression growing more anxious. “He stopped the…” He looked back up. “That wasn’t a good idea.”
The look on Scott’s face turned bitter. “That’s an easy observation to make now.”
“Scott, that’s not what I meant. It’s just that DarkCloud was quite adamant about getting his wounds healed first.”
“Yeah, well, it was something he needed to do, and I helped him, so I’m as much to blame as he is,” Scott replied, then was distracted as Johnny let out a soft moan again as he gulped for air. “Shhh, Brother. Shhhh. Slow. Take it slow. I’m here.”
Murdoch brought a hand up to press against his temple. Dismally he glanced about the room, trying in vain to figure a way out of their predicament.
After the Judge had left, the two guards had untied them and then to Murdoch’s surprise, they had left the room, though from the murmur of voices outside the door, he knew they were positioned nearby in the hallway.
“I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get us out of here,” Scott said in an echo of Murdoch’s thoughts. “It’s clear Johnny won’t be able to help.” He glanced quickly about the room. “We have no medicine, not even any new bandaging.” He looked back down. “Those ribs really need to be bound up…and I should take a look at his wounds.”
“I wish you boys had stayed in Soledad.”
“The Judge finding out about DarkCloud using morphine for Johnny’s injuries, then setting up the shortage and getting his hands on you, worked right into his plans.”
“That bounty doesn’t help.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Scott agreed with a sigh. “And his finding out that Johnny had a history with laudanum, and that his injuries are pretty severe added even more weapons to his arsenal.”
“Can you…not discuss me…like I wasn’t…here?”
Scott and Murdoch looked down, surprised.
Slowly and painstakingly, Johnny rolled his head, then tilted his shoulders slightly until he could look up into their worried faces. Though his words had held a note of humor in them, there was nothing humorous about his pale, sweat-streaked face.
“Johnny.” Scott tightened his grip in relieved welcome.
Johnny managed to return the greeting with a forced smile.
Murdoch tentatively reached out to touch his son’s shoulder. “Johnny.”
Johnny shifted his attention to Murdoch, met the uncomfortable look guardedly.
“Johnny,” Murdoch paused, swallowed heavily. “What the Judge said—”
“Murdoch,” Johnny cut in, winced, closed his eyes before continuing, “not now.”
“But I need to explain—”
“No,” Johnny bit back a moan, swallowed it, opened his eyes then let his head roll back to press on the cool, wood floor. “It won’t—help—the current—situation.”
Murdoch sighed unhappily, glanced quickly at Scott who gave a slight shake of his head.
“We—we need…to get the Judge to…release you,” Johnny continued softly, haltingly. “If we agree…to his plan—”
“His plan entails sending you to Kansas or Mexico—neither of which I’ll consent to,” Murdoch firmly declared. “Not to mention this preposterous condition of retracting our statements so that son of his can walk free.”
Scott felt Johnny sigh under his hands, watched as his brother tilted his head once more to regard Murdoch in weary defeat. “Murdoch, he…he has me. He…knows it. We’ve—” He had to stop, close his eyes for a second. “We’ve played—I’ve played…right into his hand.”
“We’ve all been overwhelmed by him at some point,” Murdoch argued.
“You can’t just give up, Johnny,” Scott added.
“I…I thought…you were always accusing me…of being too stubborn.”
“Johnny,” Scott murmured with a shake of his head.
“Son.” Murdoch slid his hand along Johnny’s back, took a deep breath, then continued firmly, “I won’t let you be a pawn in his game. And I will not let you go. It took too long for me to find my family to allow it to be torn apart this way.”
“We may not…have a choice.”
“There’s always a choice,” Murdoch replied firmly.
A hint of a smile touched Johnny’s mouth. “I… keep hearing…that.” Then he closed his eyes, moaned softly as he curled back onto his side.
Scott watched a moment, saw his brother swallow heavily, his breathing tightening, perspiration beading afresh along his face and neck.
“We’ve got to get his ribs bound,” Scott said.
“We need to get him some medicine,” Murdoch emphasized.
“I…can do…without—” The sentence was left unfinished as Johnny clenched his jaw against a sudden tremor.
Scott gritted his own teeth, glanced up at the ceiling, his face mirroring his brother’s agony as he clasped him tightly.
“I wonder how long before—”
The door suddenly opened and Ryan entered, the door held open by one of the guards.
“The Judge is going to be a few hours. He asked me to take you to your rooms.”
Scott stood up. “You’re not separating us! My brother needs help, medicine—” He stepped around Johnny, his stance combative. “You just try to separate us and I’ll rip you apart with my bare hands.”
“Careful, Scott,” Johnny murmured.
Scott quickly glanced down. Johnny was rolling to his hands and knees, his movements slow and labored. Murdoch was trying to steady him.
Ryan chuckled. Scott quickly looked back up and noticed that Ryan’s smile was strangely reminiscent of the Judge’s.
“The Judge asked me to prepare a room for the two of you, as Murdoch already has a room with us. However, if you insist on giving me problems, I won’t hesitate to split you up. That was my preference to begin with.”
For a moment Scott didn’t move, his bearing tense and angry, then he took a reluctant step backward. Without a word, he knelt down and helped Murdoch bring Johnny to his feet.
“I don’t like being separated from you, Murdoch,” Scott murmured.
Murdoch gave a covert shake of his head. “Don’t worry about me. Just take care of Johnny.”
Scott nodded grimly as the guards entered the room, one leading Murdoch away at gunpoint, the other stepping just inside the door, gun drawn.
Ryan walked back out to the hall and motioned. “Let’s go get you more comfortably situated.”
Scott did not miss the sarcasm.
Scott had no idea what time it was. The room, once again, was windowless. Two simple cots and a bedpan were all that occupied the room.
Scott had been immediately relieved when the room turned out to be only two doors away, as Johnny’s poor condition was weighing greatly on Scott and it would have been impossible to move him any farther.
Despite the meager furnishings, Scott availed himself of the one positive item, a thin sheet from one of the cots. He immediately ripped it into strips so that he could bind Johnny’s ribs and cover his chest wound. Unfortunately, Johnny’s discomfort, exhaustion and pain level soon met its limit and he passed out as Scott was tightening the bandages.
And so, in restless oblivion, Johnny passed the time as Scott kept a silent, troubled vigil.
Harley jumped off his horse and dashed up the porch to his house. “Mary!” He pounded on the door. It took a moment before he heard the sound of movement and the door was opened.
“Mary!” he exclaimed in relief as he grabbed her in his arms, practically crushing her in his joy at seeing she was unharmed. “I was so afraid—” he stopped, held her at arm’s length as if to confirm to himself that she really was there. “Wes?”
Mary regarded her husband with brows furrowed in perplexed amusement. “Little Wes is fine. Why?”
Harley chuckled, shook his head. “Oh, Mary, you’re going to laugh. I—” He stopped as his look darkened. “You’re fine.”
Mary nodded, her confusion at her husband’s behavior increasing. “Yes,” she replied hesitantly. “We’re fine.”
“Why?” Harley asked, then shook his head. “I mean, I thought—” He shook his head again, released Mary and stepped back. “I mean, I thought something had happened to you.”
Mary cocked her head. “Now why would you think that, Isaac? I said we’d be careful. My mom is staying with me and –”
“I know. I know,” Harley replied as he raised a hand to interrupt her. “But, Mary, it’s—the whole thing—Paul’s—it was a ruse. He didn’t have a broken arm. Someone hired him to get me away from here.”
Mary looked startled. “Hired him? Who?”
Harley’s expression turned sour. “I can only guess, but I’m willing to bet it was the Judge.”
“The Judge? But why?”
“Because we could put his son away.”
Mary still didn’t look convinced. “Well, obviously you’re wrong, since Wes and I are fine. Nothing’s happened at all.”
Perplexed, Harley rubbed his beard and sighed. “Yeah. I thought for sure they were getting me away so they could take you again.”
Harley’s expression sharpened. “Unless what?”
“Well,” Mary suddenly looked confused, “I don’t know for sure. I mean, it may not be anything. But Johnny and Scott were up here last night.”
“Johnny and Scott?”
“Are you sure?”
Mary rolled her eyes. “Isaac, I think I know what they look like.”
“Yeah, but Mary, Johnny shouldn’t have been able to make that trip up, and I can’t believe Scott would even let him.”
“I thought that too, Isaac. In fact, I didn’t think Johnny looked well at all. I asked them to stay for awhile.”
Mary shook her head. “No. They seemed disappointed you weren’t here. Then they asked about Sheriff Hawkins and then…”
“Well, they asked about Judge Wakeman.”
“What did they want to know?”
“They wanted to know where his offices were. They said they needed to talk to him.”
Harley tilted his head back thoughtfully, sighed. “They said they wanted to talk to him?”
“That doesn’t seem to make sense.”
“Well, you can ask them about it when they come back for their horses.”
“Yes. They asked if they could bed their horses down for the night. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
Harley nodded, but his thoughts were troubled.
The Judge stood in front of the window in his office, hands on hips, a smile on his face. As he made casual note that he could see the first rays of morning were appearing, he mentally congratulated himself on a productive evening. The invigorating exchange with Murdoch, the timely appearance of Johnny and Scott, the even more rewarding moments spent out-maneuvering them, the bonus of discovering he’d been right in his assessment of Murdoch’s use of the Pinkertons, and now—the propitious information that Sheriff Hawkins had fallen victim to an unfortunate accident. Some days just couldn’t get any better.
He turned back and faced Ryan. “This is certainly good news.”
Ryan smiled. “I thought you’d be pleased.”
“Thrown by his horse, you say.”
Ryan nodded. “That pass can be rather dangerous. Horses are so easily spooked along there. Why, it could have been anything—a rock falling, a snake, a couple of rabbits…”
The Judge smiled knowingly as he walked over to Ryan. “I hope these…rabbits…were well paid.”
Ryan nodded. “And on their way south.”
Murdoch sat on the small bed, his back up against the wall, unaware that the expression he was leveling on the opposite side of the room was the same expression he was rumored to have used against a temperamental bull. The bull’s manhood, it was said, dropped off right then and there, and Murdoch had the animal butchered the next day for beef jerky.
Murdoch’s jaw clenched tightly, his lips pursing to a thin line as his thoughts worried unsatisfactorily. He was mad and getting more disgusted by the second.
Worry had long been his personal demon. Setbacks, financial reversals, hardships. They were all obstacles to navigate, the stuff life was made of, that which separated the men from the boys.
He hated to worry, to feel that chest-crushing, energy sapping, thought-clouding emotion that rendered a man useless. In fact, he had done everything in his power to avoid it, ever since it almost destroyed him twenty-four years earlier when Maria had taken off with their son. The ensuing worry, the gnawing dread and fear of finding out what had happened to them—or worse, never finding out—had totally consumed his life for a couple of years. In a decision eventually born of instinctive survival, he vowed never to let anyone cause him to feel that way again.
He closed his eyes, his shoulders suddenly sagging.
Yet now he was worried. Not for himself, but for his sons, especially Maria’s boy. The son who had proved to be the worry he had never truly been able to escape.
He went over the series of problems in his mind once again and tried to find a solution. As he did so, he began to wonder how much of the Judge’s desire to get rid of Johnny was based in revenge.
There was also the fact that Sheriff Hawkins had been a witness. How the Judge planned to deal with his involvement, Murdoch couldn’t guess. As to the rest of the residents of Soledad, Murdoch surmised that the Judge was relying on their lack of leadership against his money, power and local popularity, once Johnny was gone. Or perhaps he planned to make a deal with them. All they wanted, after all, was to keep their homes and land.
And then there was the simple truth of Johnny’s condition and what his son had willingly put himself through in order to make it to Salinas to take on the Judge. And this was compounded by the fact that Johnny had quit taking the morphine so that, as Scott had related, he could think clearer.
Murdoch was not sure he wanted to know. He sighed, opened his eyes, his face drawn. And now to be faced with the prospect that Johnny knew the truth about the Pinkertons, the truth about how he had been sent for, why he had been sent for. The worst worry Murdoch had ever tried to bury had been dug up and exposed. Exposed like an open wound, which no amount of bandaging could heal.
Scott jerked, wondered if he’d actually slept or had just been dropping into sleep. He glanced at the lamp on the wall; the flame looked about ready to go out. He must have been asleep.
In surprise, Scott glanced down on the bed where Johnny lay, watching him. Though he looked far from well, his brother appeared to have gained the upper hand against the constant nausea and pain.
“I could say the same thing,” Scott remarked as he put a hand on his brother’s shoulder and squeezed. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything to offer you. They didn’t even leave us some water.”
Johnny grimaced. “The way my insides are at war, I woulda refused anyway.”
Scott regarded his brother’s cracked lips. “Johnny, we need to get some liquids into you. You’re getting dehydrated.”
“That’s the least…of my worries,” Johnny responded wryly.
Scott adjusted his position on the bed.
“Don’t,” Johnny whispered.
Scott held his position, noted immediately that Johnny’s eyes had closed and that he’d lost what little color he’d had in his cheeks.
Johnny swallowed, opened his eyes. “Don’t move the bed. I’m hoping…if I don’t move for the rest of my life…I just might live.”
Scott chuckled softly. “Sorry. I’ll be more careful.”
“How long’s it been?”
Scott shrugged, glanced vaguely about the room. “I haven’t any idea. But from the looks of the lamp, I’d say it must be morning by now.”
Johnny gave a tentative nod, swallowed again. “Scott, I…I need you to get Murdoch…to go along with the Judge’s offer.”
Scott’s expression clouded. “Johnny, he’s not going—”
“You have to.”
“What? And we’re supposed to just stand by while the Judge has you hauled off to Mexico?”
“Better ’n Kansas.”
Scott paused, studied his brother thoughtfully. “The Judge has no intention of letting you go.” When Johnny didn’t respond, Scott weighed his words carefully, “You know this, don’t you? In fact, I’d say it’s rather obvious. You’ve humiliated his son. Worse yet, you’ve humiliated him. And I think it’s fair to say, humiliation to the Judge is probably tantamount to premeditated murder in his book. All these threats of sending you to Kansas are just that, threats. He wants you dead and nothing short of that will make him happy. But he can’t just go and kill you, as that would only incite Murdock to a stronger resolve to see justice served. And Murdoch and that sheriff are the only real threats the Judge has, as far as this actually going to trial. But killing Murdoch is not an option. He’s too important a man. There’d be too many questions asked, an investigation, something the Judge doesn’t dare risk. So then he can’t kill him, and he can’t just kill you. No, he has to make it look like he’s agreeing to a trade. Your life for his son’s life. However, it would work out even better if he could create a rift between you and Murdoch, have you make the decision to leave on your own. But we both know you’d never even make it out of the county—probably not even out of the town—alive, isn’t that right?” Finished, Scott waited.
Johnny closed his eyes and for a moment didn’t answer. Then with a hesitant sigh he opened them again. “If you were so sure this was a bad idea, what’d you come along for?”
Scott looked down as disappointment haunted his eyes. “If we get out of this, ask me again.”
Dissatisfied, Johnny pursed his lips but hadn’t the strength to pursue. “So, what’s your plan then, Boston? Since you’ve spent so much time and effort thinking this out, have you also realized that, no matter what we may think of the Judge, some of what he says is true?” Johnny hesitantly rolled so that he could get an arm under him and slowly pushed up from the bed. “I’m tired of running. I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of looking over my shoulder. But it’s what my life has consisted of for so many years. I’m paying the price for my earlier decisions. It’s not right I drag you and Murdoch—Teresa and the ranch—into the mess my life turned out to be.”
“It isn’t a mess. The last two years haven’t—”
Johnny snorted, grimaced, straightened with an effort. “Scott. Warburton, that Stryker kid, McCall’s Crossing, how about that horse trader, Wilf, trying to set up his own death by the hand of Johnny Madrid? Then there’s also Drago…” He paused as Scott looked away uncomfortably. “It’s just going to keep happening. It’s inevitable and I got to quit fighting it, accept that someone with a past like mine…” He shook his head slightly. “There is no future when you can’t escape the past.”
Scott watched as Johnny gingerly settled his back up against the wall. In a carefully measured tone, he asked, “Am I talking to my brother—or—or to the Madrid of those letters?”
Johnny turned sharply on Scott and though a tremor of pain was visible, he managed to hold the look for a few seconds. Then he wearily leaned his head back against the wall in an attitude of resignation. “Think what you like.”
Frustrated, Scott gripped Johnny’s upper arm. “Quit playing with me, Brother. I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to drive me away, too, in that pig-headed way of yours of assuming you know what’s best for everybody. That, ‘poor me, I’m such a mess’ bull. I’m not buying it. So buck up, Brother, and get ready to do your part, ‘cuz we’re all getting out of this together. And I’m warning you now, if you don’t cover my butt when I need it, I’m going to clobber you when this is over.”
With one eyebrow rising in amused surprise, Johnny regarded his brother. “Whoa, Boston. What side of the bed did you get up on?”
Scott’s expression remained unyielding. “Side of the bed? What side of the bed?” Scott’s voice rose as he shook a finger. “I spent the night sitting up against a hard wall, nurse-maiding you. Heck! I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in Lord knows how long, thanks to you! I’m tired, cranky and definitely not in the best of moods. So you’d better toe the line!”
Johnny managed to swallow back a smile and assumed a properly contrite expression. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
“That’s better.” Scott nodded, let his hand drop as he sat quiet for a moment. “How’s your chest?”
Johnny grimaced. “It only hurts when I’m awake—or I breathe.”
Scott chuckled then became thoughtful. “But the Judge…he thinks you need the morphine more than you do. He doesn’t know you’d already stopped taking it.”
“Scott,” Johnny looked up, then dropped his eyes uncomfortably, “I—I still want it. It… Everything hurts and I—I think about it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.”
Scott pursed his lips, closed his eyes and sighed. Then he reached out and gave Johnny’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “I know. But the worse is behind. And that’s something he doesn’t know.”
Eyes still lowered, Johnny nodded.
“And that’s something we can use. He’s trying to exploit it, play it against us.”
“I know.” Johnny nodded again, then looked up. “He wants me begging and…” He sighed, closed his eyes and tilted his head back against the wall. After a moment, he opened his eyes, but he didn’t look at Scott. He focused on a far corner of the room, his voice lowering. “It gets bad, Scott. I don’t want to be begging.”
“You won’t. I won’t let it happen. I promise. But we might be able to use the knowledge against him.”
Johnny looked unconvinced, but he nodded.
Murdoch stood off to the side as the guard opened the door. As he was ushered in, he immediately recognized the formal dining room he’d been in earlier.
The Judge was already there, standing by the long buffet table, dishing up a plateful of food. He turned around and casually motioned toward the assorted platters. “Please, help yourself. Breakfasts are generally more informal. I hope you’ll forgive me for already starting. After such a lengthy and productive evening, I find that I have quite an appetite this morning.”
Murdoch regarded the Judge coldly. “Where are my sons?”
As the Judge settled a piece of ham on his plate, he responded without looking up, “They should be along any moment.” He scooped up a helping of scrambled eggs, positioned it, regarded his plate a second before adding on a helping of sliced fruit. “There,” he nodded, turned and looked at Murdoch with a congenial smile. “There’s coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice on the table.”
“I’ll wait for my sons.”
The Judge nodded as he headed for the table. “As you wish. Feel free to help yourself to the coffee as you wait, and please have a seat. No need to stand.”
The muscles along Murdoch’s neck tightened. “I am not amused by this situation. I don’t understand how you possibly think you’re going to get away with this.”
The Judge set his plate down, reached over to pour a cup of coffee. “Are you still upset?”
“Upset? That doesn’t even come close to describing it,” Murdoch replied curtly.
The Judge looked up, one eyebrow raised. “Worried about how your son is going to handle that little piece of information about the Pinkertons?”
“You had no right to tell him that!” Murdoch retorted as he strode toward the Judge.
The Judge seemed amused. “Perhaps not. But if you had been honest with him to begin with, my information would have lost all the impact and been rendered useless. So, I guess I should really be thanking you.”
“Thank me, curse me, I really don’t care. I will see to it that you pay for this.”
“For what? For telling your son what you were afraid to?”
“I would have told him.”
“That’s no concern of yours. It was between Johnny and me.”
“Yes. Interesting that. Between you and your son.” The Judge mused. “Actually, there seems to be a lot of things unsaid between you and your son. Though I have to admit, Murdoch, you do have my sympathy. Really. It must have been hard for you, coming to terms with the fact that your son had been brought up wild for twenty years, had chosen the path of the gun-for-hire. I honestly don’t know how I would have handled the news, either.”
“Save your sympathy. I will see that you’re brought to justice.”
“Without proof?” The Judge smiled, shook his head. “No, Murdoch, you have no choice but to accept my offer. And the sooner you realize it, the better for all concerned. I still think you should be thanking me for getting rid of your problem.”
The Judge stopped, glancing toward the door as it suddenly opened. “Speaking of problems, if it isn’t the Favorite Son and the Black Sheep now.”
Murdoch shot the Judge a venomous look of disgust, but he held his tongue. He was more concerned with seeing how his sons had fared—and the look he might receive from his youngest.
Unfortunately, Johnny seemed but vaguely aware of where he was and Scott was too busy helping him stay on his feet to notice the Judge’s statement or Murdoch’s irritation.
In a sad acknowledgement of his weak state, Johnny had found it necessary to allow Scott to help him up off the bed and out of the room. This had been embarrassing enough, but when he reached the hallway and noticed one of the guards smirking, clearly enjoying his infirmity, Johnny had tried to push off Scott’s help. Scott, however, had ignored him and kept a steady grip as they made their way down the hall.
As the door opened, the first thing that struck Johnny was the aroma of food, which immediately set his already weak stomach into a flip-flopping upheaval. As he took in the sight of the Judge’s self-satisfied expression, he gained the necessary resolve to quell his rebelling stomach. At the same moment, he felt Scott’s grip tighten on his arm and recognized it as his brother’s own reaction to seeing the Judge.
“Ah, you’re just in time for breakfast,” the Judge greeted formally. “Your father was stubbornly refusing to eat until you arrived. I don’t understand his reasoning myself, but he seemed to think it necessary. So, now that you’re here, why don’t you boys have a seat and help yourself. My chef has set a very nice spread for us this morning.”
Scott ignored the Judge as he led Johnny toward Murdoch, who stood at one end of the table. As he did so, he noticed Jed and Bill, off to the side, watching their entrance with open amusement.
Once there, Johnny pulled away from Scott’s grip, preferring to use the table for support. For a moment he stood, hunched over, eyes closed. Then with palms pressed against the top of the table, he slowly raised his head and fixed an appraising eye on the Judge. “You still think you can win?”
“You still aren’t aware you’ve lost?” the Judge replied mockingly as he set his cup down and walked the length of the table. Though Scott kept his position next to Johnny, the Judge ignored him. “Face it, Madrid. You’d be better off in Mexico and so would everyone else. Something everyone in this room knows is true, even if they won’t say it.”
“Leave my son alone,” Murdoch came up close to Johnny’s other side.
The Judge shot him a briefly irritated look before turning his attention back to Johnny. “I can say these things. And do you know why? Because I know you, I understand you. There’s a similarity between us. We both know what we want and take it. We don’t let people or things or feelings get in our way. We know how to use opportunities and the people who present them, to our best advantage.”
“I’m nothing like you,” Johnny said as he narrowed his eyes. “You take pleasure in hurting others.”
“Oh, that’s right. You do it for the money,” the Judge laughed then fell silent. With a condescending smile, he reached into a vest pocket and pulled out the modified revolver. “Here’s the only difference between us, Madrid,” he said as he placed it on the table.
Clenching his jaw, Johnny closed his eyes from the sight of the revolver lying between his palms.
The Judge’s smile became increasingly amused. “So, what are you thinking now, Madrid? Wishing your hands didn’t shake so you could pick it up? Wishing you had the strength to fire it?”
“Wishing it had some damn bullets,” Johnny hissed.
The Judge laughed quietly. “And if it did, what would you do?”
“I told you before.” Johnny tilted his head, his eyes darkly menacing. “I would not hesitate to shoot you.”
The Judge leaned in closer, stared hard. “See, Madrid. That’s the difference between us. You wouldn’t hesitate to kill me, while I would hesitate to kill you. And in hesitating, I would decide if there wasn’t some better way to totally crush you—thoroughly destroy your very life more perfectly than even death could achieve. I would enjoy conquering you, humiliating you, destroying everyone and everything you cared about until you were begging for death. And still I would search for just one more ingredient to complete the scenario, one more agony I could bestow. And after I had received all the enjoyment I could get from watching you suffer, then and only then, would I kill you.” He paused. “For you see, Madrid, death to you is a job finished; a man is dead, the deed is done, the goal has been met. For me, it is merely the relief I provide my enemies once I’ve grown tired of them.” He laughed lightly, straightened up. “So you see, Madrid, you are an amateur.”
“I think we’ve heard enough,” Murdoch growled, putting a hand on Johnny’s shoulder in a desire to separate him from the Judge.
“Johnny, don’t listen to him,” Scott added.
“Don’t listen?” The Judge echoed while making a quick motion, bringing the guards in closer. “I haven’t even begun. And unless you want to be physically removed from this room, I’d suggest you both step back.” His eyes flicked temporarily toward a couple of guards. “Barrett. Kaufman.”
Murdoch and Scott quickly glanced at each other.
“I mean it,” the Judge warned as he made another motion, and Murdoch and Scott both found themselves the recipient of a tight grip around their upper arms.
Scott gritted his teeth, but stepped back.
“There,” the Judge acknowledged with a nod. “Where were we? Oh, yes,” he reached into his other pocket, drew out three papers which he unfolded with care before placing them on the table beside the gun. Lastly, he dropped the mutilated medallion on top of the pile. “You see, Madrid. I know all about you. I know what you fear and how deep that fear is.”
“You don’t know anything about my brother!” Scott retorted as he yanked his arm out of Barrett’s grasp and pushed his way between the Judge and Johnny.
A flicker of surprise crossed the Judge’s face as he stepped backward, one hand reaching toward the head of the table. Scott noted it, but had no time to contemplate the meaning as Barrett grabbed both of his arms and twisted them behind his back. When he glanced at the Judge again, the expression of surprise was wiped clean; malevolent control was all that was visible.
“Young Mr. Lancer, I do know your brother, probably better than you. However, I am disappointed at your lack of manners. Must I ask you to leave?”
Scott glared, attempted to shrug off Barrett’s grip, but was unsuccessful. “I’m not standing by, listening to you insult my brother.”
“Then you may leave.”
“I’m not leaving!”
“Then you’ll be quiet,” the Judge growled threateningly.
“Scott,” Murdoch gave a quick shake of his head as warning that they needed to keep together if there was any chance of escaping.
The Judge glared at both men until satisfied that the outburst had been quenched. Then he stepped up to Johnny, leaned a hip against the table and crossed his arms.
Johnny hadn’t moved. During the entire exchange he had held his position, standing hunched over the table, palms spread out supporting him. His revolver, the letters he had written, the medallion he had worn, all in a pile between his hands.
“So, Madrid. As you can see, I know you very well, don’t I? And that’s why you’re going to agree to my terms. While the threat of death will give me no power over you, I do know what will.” He flicked one of the papers and chuckled. “See, if you don’t cooperate, I will begin by crushing the empire your father has worked so hard to build. I will destroy his name, and use every imaginable insinuation and suggestion to implicate his holdings and power to his good fortune of having a gunfighter for a son. I’ll drag his name, along with yours, through the mud of lawsuits and courts. The scandals will be horrendous. And along the way, any chance for Scott to lead a normal life will also be destroyed by his association with you. And though it might take some time, I’ll see to it that they come to curse the day you entered their lives.”
He then chuckled, reached over and flicked the gun with one finger so that it slid up against Johnny’s hand. “Guns kill, Boy,” he murmured. “I find it’s so much more satisfying to destroy.”
Johnny looked up, fixed the Judge with an unwavering gaze. “Thanks.”
“For showing everyone…in this room…what pure evil is.”
The Judge’s jaw clenched tightly, his fists balled in rage.
“You seem to think you know a lot about us,” Murdoch interrupted in a desperate attempt to divert the Judge’s attention away from Johnny.
The Judge’s head snapped around and he slowly straightened up, the balled fists relaxing. “I make it a priority to know everything I can about my opponents before engaging them in battle. I find it’s both prudent and sensible.” A malignant smile spread across his face and he gestured in Scott’s direction. “For instance, young Mr. Lancer, here.” He cocked his head toward Scott. “The only thing more impressive than his war record is perhaps his record with the ladies in Boston. Couldn’t quite find a spot for yourself there, could you?” He regarded Scott with an indolent smile as he crossed his arms. “A little bit of a trouble-maker in Harvard, but decent enough grades. Would have preferred to stay at college for life, wouldn’t you? But your grandfather had other ideas, wanted you to join him in business.” The Judge shrugged. “But sitting in an accountant’s office just wasn’t quite what you wanted out of life, was it? And even though he gave you the opportunity to run his import/export business and even offered to buy you a business of your own, nothing seemed to settle you down. After the war, it seemed one randy party after another, some noteworthy drunken revelries, along with a string of Boston Belles, rather made up your reason for living.”
Scott dropped his eyes uncomfortably, then hazarded to glance over at Murdoch. But Murdoch’s attention was carefully fixed on the Judge.
“And as for Johnny, here,” the Judge’s expression hardened once more, though he forced a laugh. “I was hard-pressed to find a month in his life when he wasn’t creating a stir somewhere!” He bent over and whispered in Johnny’s ear, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Death and chaos seemed to have been your constant companion.”
The Judge straightened up, regarded Murdoch with superiority. “And you, Murdoch, were far from uninteresting. Your dissatisfaction in the life your son decided to pursue is just one of many items I uncovered. There’s the little matter that your marriage to Johnny’s mother was, shall we say, a bit rushed. It wasn’t really a surprise to find out that she later ran off with a flashy gambler. I mean, she was, after all, rather loose, isn’t that so?” He paused, raised an eyebrow and smirked, enjoying his revelations. “Couldn’t you keep her satisfied?” He chuckled, cocked his head to the side thoughtfully. “I wonder, did it ever occur to you that Johnny might not even be your son?”
Though Murdoch tried to keep his face impassive, he noticed Johnny’s head raise, the muscles in his shoulders contract.
“Of course it did,” the Judge continued smoothly. “I mean, who wouldn’t wonder?”
“Johnny’s my son,” Murdoch stated firmly.
“Are you sure?” the Judge asked. “I mean, let’s be honest, here. You’d been married barely, what—six months when he was born? And her subsequent behavior didn’t exactly instill a sense of scrupulous morals. Can’t imagine anything more absurd than an abstinent whore.”
“How ‘bout an honest judge!” Johnny lunged across the table, right arm cocked for a blow.
The Judge’s expression quickly changed to shocked surprise as Johnny’s fist connected with his jaw.
Immediately, the entire room erupted with action. Ryan lunged for Scott, grabbing him in a vise as he pressed his gun to Scott’s temple. While Kaufman locked Murdoch in a tight grip, Barrett hauled Johnny off the Judge. Johnny, however, would not be deterred, and Jed was forced to come to Barrett’s aid, landing first one blow to Johnny’s left jaw then a second solid punch to his torso.
The blows dropped Johnny straight to the floor.
“Call them off!” Murdoch cried as he tried unsuccessfully to pull out of the grip Kaufman had on him.
Scott froze, vaguely aware that he had screamed something in horror as he’d seen Johnny drop wordlessly to the ground. But in a corner of his mind, the elusive thought had returned. The Judge had made an odd movement toward the head of the table, one that Scott found peculiar. It reminded him of something, but he couldn’t quite place it; there was just too much else going on to concentrate.
“Let me go!” Scott growled.
“Ryan,” the Judge called, his eyes fixed warningly on Scott while he pulled a white handkerchief out of his pocket and touched the corner of his mouth; it was soon stained red with drops of blood. He flashed Scott a lethal glare. “No one touches me,” he hissed. He then pivoted sharply to Ryan. “If either Murdoch or Scott say another word, I want you to have the boys take Madrid into the next room and have all the fun you want, since it appears the threat of separation isn’t enough to keep them in civilized manners.”
“It’d be a pleasure, Sir.”
“Are we understood?” the Judge demanded. Without waiting for an answer, he nodded curtly to his men, indicated Johnny with a flick of his wrist, then with a sharp pivot he stepped to the head of the table where he picked up his fork and took a bite of his food. “Damn! It’s cold.” He dropped his fork in irritation and faced Johnny’s limp form, held up between Barrett and Jed. He wiped his hands on a napkin, tossed it on the table and stepped forward.
“Madrid,” he hissed.
Scott watched with growing uneasiness as Johnny rolled his head slightly, but seemed unable to find the strength to lift it.
“I’m talking to you, Madrid.”
Though Johnny shuddered, he remained limp and unresponsive.
The Judge gestured to Ryan who went to a cupboard and opened it. When he turned back, Scott saw that he was holding two bottles, the laudanum and the morphine.
Ryan walked over to the Judge and handed him the bottles. The Judge regarded the bottles with amusement before thrusting the morphine under Johnny’s nose. “Is this what you need, Madrid?”
Johnny lifted his head, blinked, his attention fixed on the small, dark bottle.
Scott felt a chill of dread crawl up his spine, had to force his breathing to remain steady. After spending the last week with his brother, Scott knew just how much will and concentration it was going to take Johnny to remain impassive, knew the horrible need he would be fighting not to show.
And he remembered the promise to his brother: I won’t let it happen. I promise.
Something in the Judge’s movements, Scott…there was something, think quick! Come on, it reminded you of something that you saw…… Desk…hidden shelf…Grandfather has a desk in that one office with a hidden shelf underneath…… The Judge…the Judge has a gun hidden there!
Scott leapt up. “We agree! Just let him have some medicine! Give him a chance to get well.”
“Scott!” Murdoch exclaimed, dismayed, while Johnny weakly tilted his head to turn an incredulous expression on his brother.
Ignoring Johnny, Scott turned to Murdoch, his arms spread out to his sides. “It’s for the best, Murdoch.” He lowered his voice then secured Murdoch’s full attention. “We’ve known Johnny has never fit in. He—he hasn’t really tried. We hoped it would work out, but he’d lived just how he wanted to for too long. He has—there’s too much past to fight.”
Murdoch stared at Scott, his lips parting in surprise as Scott continued.
“You said it yourself, Murdoch. It’s best if it happens now.” He paused, his gaze tightly locked. “We have no choice.”
For a moment Murdoch’s brows knit, then one lifted and Murdoch nodded curtly. He turned to the Judge. “I have your word. Nothing to Kansas.”
“And you’ll give Johnny a chance to heal up before sending him to Mexico?”
The Judge lifted a finger. “As long as you keep your part of the bargain to withdraw your statements.” He motioned to Ryan who went back to the cupboard and opened a drawer, where he produced a couple of papers, a stylus and ink well.
“How about Madrid there?” Ryan asked as he placed the papers on the table. “You want him to sign?”
The Judge laughed, “I’m not worried about Madrid’s statement.”
Scott glanced quickly at Murdoch, stepped forward, noted that Johnny was watching him intently, the confusion earlier displayed having turned into open-mouthed disbelief. He heard a groan suppressed as his brother tried to force himself upright. He was unsuccessful; the pain was too great and he was too weak.
“Let me give him some medicine,” Scott pleaded. “He’s in a lot of pain. Then I’ll sign anything you want.”
“How about if you sign first and then you can take care of him.”
“Please. It’s unnecessary to keep him suffering. It won’t take but a minute.”
“Scott…” Johnny spoke the word quietly, but the disappointment was palpable.
Scott glanced quickly at Johnny but avoided eye contact. “You know it’s for the best. You’ll thank me later.”
Johnny shook his head, tried to catch Scott’s eyes, but Scott turned away. Johnny made another attempt to straighten up and pull an arm from Barrett’s grasp, but his chest contracted in a spasm of pain forcing a harsh gasp from his throat and he sagged heavily in his guards’ arms.
Scott started to turn back, hesitated with one hand outstretched toward Johnny, then pulled back. He took a deep breath and faced the Judge.
The Judge studied Scott and Johnny carefully, enjoyed the feeling of total defeat he was witnessing. A smile of victory appeared. “Go ahead. I have a feeling I’m going to get some pleasure out of this anyway.”
Scott shot the Judge an irritated look, but held his tongue. Curtly he turned to Ryan. “Do you have the syringe? The medicine acts faster that way.”
“Scott, don’t,” Johnny whispered.
Ryan regarded Scott a moment, quietly sized him up, then with his own amused grin, he nodded and walked to the cupboard.
Scott stepped beside Johnny, his expression dismal, but determined.
Johnny swallowed, forced himself erect, shook his head. “Scott, no.”
“Johnny, please, there’s no way to beat this, okay? You need a chance to get healthy, get back on your feet—”
“Scott. Not…you said—”
“Bring him over here,” Scott interrupted as he motioned to the head of table and pulled a chair out. “I need a flat surface.” He shoved the Judge’s dishes out of the way, visually flinching as he heard Johnny curse as his brother attempted to pull away from the guards’ grasps, the moan becoming a cry of pain as they forced him into the chair.
“Scott, are you sure?”
Scott turned to find that Murdoch had come up beside him. Although he was no longer being held by Kaufman, the guard still followed him closely.
Scott nodded to the other end of the table where Ryan stood with the papers. “Go ahead and sign. I won’t be long. I just want to get this over with.”
Murdoch hesitated a moment, then nodded and walked toward the end of the table while Scott turned to the Judge with hand outstretched.
The Judge regarded Scott with gratified superiority, handed him the syringe before leaning in next to Johnny. “Do you feel beat yet, Madrid? Because you sure look it.”
“Would you quit insulting my brother!” Scott snapped. “He may not care, but I do. And right now, on my list of people I’d like to see dead, you’re at the top!”
The Judge straightened up, fixed Scott with a sarcastic smile. “I’d be careful of how you speak to me.”
“Get out of my way so I can do what I have to.”
The Judge’s smile widened. “I think I’d like to watch.”
“Then move over there,” Scott nodded toward the other side, “and stay out of my way.”
In movements that showed his tense frustration, Scott grabbed the morphine bottle off the table and opened the top. He could feel all eyes in the room on him, but the only pair that bothered him was those of his brother. He placed the open bottle on the table and unwrapped the syringe from its cloth. As he drew the appropriate amount into the cylinder, he heard a dry, raspy plea.
Scott closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath, noted the Judge was watching, his arms crossed and the satisfaction of victory on his face. With a sigh he placed the bottle on the table, then turned to look at his brother.
Johnny sat hunched over in pain, trembling and covered in a sheen of sweat, his lips thin and white, arms crossed tightly against his chest.
“Give me your arm. I need to roll up your sleeve.”
Johnny shook his head weakly. “No, Scott…”
“Your arm, Johnny. Let’s get this over with.”
“If you don’t pay attention and follow instructions, I’ll have to clobber you later.”
Johnny blinked as he realized Scott had fixed him with a deep stare. Blearily, through the haze of pain, need and confusion, he grasped at the connection. Scott was telling him something. But…what was it he’d said? Clobber…clobber…if you don’t cover my butt when I need it…
Johnny closed his eyes, sighed then surrendered his arm.
his lips, lowered his head in order to hide the relief that he felt. Johnny understands.
Scott grasped the proffered arm firmly in his hand, guided it to the table where he placed it flat on the surface. Then making a show of his reluctance, he sighed, fidgeted, adjusted…
“Get on with it,” the Judge snapped.
Scott glared. “I am!” Balancing his hip against the table, he leaned down and in perfect planning, jostled the morphine bottle with his elbow. The bottle toppled over, spilling its contents. “Damn!”
“Get something to wipe this up!” the Judge ordered.
The Judge’s attention diverted, Scott grabbed for the bottle with one hand while he took a step toward the head of the table and thrust his hand underneath. Cold metal met his touch. “Okay!” he yelled, pulling the gun out, cocking it and sweeping the room with its barrel. “There’s been a change of plans!”
Johnny had fought to keep his concentration, knew he had to be prepared to act when needed. He’d seen Scott knock over the morphine bottle, saw the quick reaction to rescue it that masked his brother’s true intent, followed by the look of triumph on Scott’s face as he drew out the hidden revolver.
But in the following seconds, other weapons were quickly being drawn, the nearest of which belonged to Barrett. So Johnny did the only thing he could; he used his body as a battering ram. Propelling himself toward his goal, Johnny slammed headlong into the guard, the two men crashing to the floor.
Murdoch had also been prepared for something. He had no idea what, but he knew his eldest well enough to realize that Scott’s actions and words had been for the Judge’s benefit; his son had a plan. His familiarity with his Scott’s preference in tactics led him to surmise that the offensive maneuver would be cloaked in deception and misleading information.
The moment came unexpectedly. Though Murdoch had been preparing himself, he still was taken by surprise as a revolver suddenly appeared in Scott’s hand. Murdoch was, however, prepared for his next move—taking out Ryan.
This proved to be a relatively easy task, as just seconds earlier, both men had been bent over the legal statement the Judge had thoughtfully prepared. Their real attention had been on the other end of the table where Scott was reluctantly preparing the morphine. It was simply the matter of a quick jab of the elbow to Ryan’s face and Murdoch’s man was screaming in pain. Not one to let a good thing go wasted, Murdoch lost no time in propelling his larger mass on Ryan, forcing him to the ground as they both fought for control of Ryan’s weapon.
The Judge rounded threateningly on Scott as he gestured to Kaufman. “Get him!”
Scott pointed the gun at the Judge. “Tell your men to back off, or this gun just might go off unexpectedly. I don’t think you want that to happen.”
The Judge clenched his jaw. Then a shrewd look came over his face as he pointed behind Scott where Johnny and Barrett had landed. “Neither do you.”
Scott’s chest contracted. He wanted to turn, but didn’t dare. “Johnny?”
He heard a soft groan, a scrape of a chair.
“Here,” Johnny replied haltingly, swallowing pain. “Have a gun, but—”
“There’s two more pointed at my face.”
“I’ve got Ryan,” Murdoch added as he came up from behind the table, his arm around Ryan’s throat, the revolver pressed into his side.
“So, it’s our three to your two,” Scott remarked.
“Perhaps,” the Judge conceded. “However, I happen to feel quite confident that you will not shoot me, nor will your father shoot Mr. Ryan. How confident are you about my men’s aversion to murder?”
Scott met the Judge’s superior look with steady conviction, but felt the dread of reality in his chest. It was, as they said, a Mexican standoff; as his brother was fond of pointing out, Scott’s Spanish wasn’t all that good.
Johnny could feel himself losing the battle to keep his arm steady. The gun felt like it weighed twenty pounds. He was kneeling on top of Barrett, one knee in the middle of the man’s back, one hand grasping him firmly behind the neck while the other tried to hold the gun steady—something that was becoming woefully clear he couldn’t manage indefinitely. Meanwhile, Jed and Bill stood unmoving, their guns drawn and aimed at his face.
He tried to think of a plan, some action to take, anything, but his brain felt heavy and muddled, and his head was roaring with a pounding headache that was making him sick to his stomach.
“Looks like all we have to do is out-wait you,” the Judge remarked as he glanced at Johnny. “Don’t worry, Barrett.” He smiled humorously and lowered his voice as if imparting a secret. “It shouldn’t take too long. He’s not holding up so well.”
Scott gritted his teeth and glanced at Murdoch. “Bring Ryan here.”
Murdoch nodded and slowly forced the younger man around the table.
“How are you doing?”
The question was met with silence. Concern flooded Scott, he wanted to turn around, but knew he had to keep not only the Judge and Kaufman in his sights, but also cover Ryan as Murdoch moved him across the room.
He heard a small sound, breath catching. “It’s time… to end this.”
Scott understood, accepted what needed to be done. “Judge,” he cocked his gun, “this isn’t going to end pretty. But I guess I’d given up on a neat and tidy ending a while back.” He sighed, leveled the gun at the Judge’s face. “You mentioned my war record, thought it was so exemplary. Interesting,” he mused out loud. “Many a person wouldn’t agree with you.” He dismissed the thought with a shrug. “You forgot one thing, however. In a war one is forced to do things they wouldn’t do under normal conditions. Kill, for one. Survival sometimes depended on it and as you can see, I survived. And right now, survival sounds damned good.” He then chuckled softly, “Judge, war is not only hell, it puts a little bit of the devil in everyone involved.” He paused for emphasis, leaned in slightly in mimic of the Judge’s own earlier action, his voice dropping threateningly. “And I was involved, heavily involved. So you’re wrong if you think I won’t shoot you, because I will. And damn the consequences. And you know why? ‘Cause you’ve messed with the one thing I’ve found that gave my life purpose after the war. You’ve messed with my brother and my father…and now I’m going to enjoy messing with you.”
The Judge’s eyes widened at the sight of the dark barrel pointed at his face. He shot a quick glance at the young man holding the gun and was not encouraged by the expression he saw on the face, the dark intensity of death resolved. And he came to a sudden realization: the stakes had risen as the pawns were threatening the king.
Scott heard Murdoch approach and knew his father would try to stop him. But Scott also knew Johnny’s chance at a future, and therefore his chance at a future, was in his hand. And there was no doubt in his mind that the Judge deserved what he was going to get.
Scott closed his eyes for a second, steeled his resolve—
Johnny had heard Scott call his name the first time, but had been unable to bring in enough air to answer. Each breath was torture and held the prospect of heaving in front of the entire room. Sweat ran into his eyes, blurring his vision, and he could feel his entire body trembling from exertion and pain. He could feel that he was close to blacking out and acknowledged dismally that he wasn’t going to be any help and wouldn’t be covering nobody’s ass today.
He heard his name again, managed to croak out an answer. Heard a momentary silence, then a voice began to speak; one that sent his disconnected thoughts into a spiral of confusion. Somehow, he thought he heard himself, but knew he wasn’t talking, knew it wasn’t his voice proscribing the verdict of death, though the voice was eerily calm and familiar. He tried to raise his head, succeeded enough so that he could lift his eyes to see who was talking. Immediately he recognized the too-familiar panic on the face of the Judge, an expression he’d witnessed all too often—the petrifying shock at the knowledge of imminent death.
“Scott,” he breathed. He heard Scott take a quick breath, saw him tighten his finger on the trigger.
The door banged open, startling everyone in the room.
Scott flinched; the bullet harmlessly shot past the Judge’s shoulder, burying itself in the polished woodwork.
Ryan jabbed his elbow into Murdoch’s stomach then smashed his fist into the older man’s chin causing Murdoch’s gun to fly out of his hand and careen across the table, landing with a metalic clank on the opposite side.
Johnny barely had the chance to acknowledge the time honored maxim: surprise is generally the bane of captors and the boon of captives—for in the next second he found himself the recipient of a powerful kick to his upper left chest. Gun was forgotten and breathing became impossible, as he flew backward, landing flat on his back with a gasping thud.
“Guards!” Heading toward the door, the Judge screamed and pointed in Johnny’s direction, “Kill him!”
“Dammit! Not Johnny!” Scott frantically yelled as he saw his chance evaporating. He gripped the gun tightly, recocked and aimed.
Shock. Confusion. Harley’s voice. Fired. Harley’s voice? What the Hell?
Two men at the door. No, three. Guns raised. But not the Judge’s guards. But…
“Harley? Tucson? DarkCloud? What the—?”
Harley stood, gun panning back and forth across the room, his eyes taking in the scene. Tucson stood next to him, shadowing his movements, while DarkCloud stood behind them both, uncharacteristically armed. The room’s occupants were frozen, unmoving, startled by the appearance of the blacksmith and the men from Soledad. It took Harley a couple of seconds before he felt confident of the situation, then he smiled, made a show of tipping his nonexistent hat. “Pardon me, but we thought we might be of assistance.”
“What the Hell are you doing here?” the Judge snapped.
“Got tired of playing your game,” Harley replied dryly.
Murdoch pushed himself to his feet and made a quick motion to DarkCloud. “Johnny,” he gestured urgently.
DarkCloud nodded and lost no time in pushing his way between Tucson and Harley.
Harley glanced at where Johnny was lying, made the quick decision that DarkCloud’s ministrations were what his friend needed most right now. “Tucson, the guns,” he ordered curtly.
As Tucson walked around the room, gathering up the guns from the Judge’s men, Harley moved next to Scott, who still seemed stunned.
“Hey, Scott,” Harley said. “You okay?”
Scott nodded, made a wry face then shook his head before lowering the gun still clasped in his hand. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” He ran his fingers through his hair, rubbed his face. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He turned and glanced at Johnny. “Johnny—”
“Give DarkCloud a moment with him,” Harley said.
“You aren’t getting away with this,” the Judge cut in darkly.
Harley raised an eyebrow, turned and studied the Judge in amusement. “Get away with what?”
“Breaking in here. Threatening me and my men.”
“You must be joking! We were rescuing people you’d kidnapped.”
“Kidnapped?” the Judge laughed. “You can’t be serious. What was going on when you entered just now? Hmmm? We were being held at gunpoint. Not the other way around. I think you’re going to have a very hard time proving otherwise.”
Harley glanced at Scott.
Murdoch walked up. “Ah, but I’m sure we could cast plenty of doubt about your character and integrity if we tried hard enough. And I, for one, have never turned away from a bit of hard work. In fact, I think I’d rather enjoy it.” He crossed his arms and met the Judge’s cold look evenly.
“I’ll eat you alive.”
“Try it,” Murdoch replied. “You might discover I’m a bit tough to swallow.”
The Judge glared, his jaw working to hold his words in check. “I still know about Kansas,” he threatened.
Murdoch nodded. “And we still know about your son. So I guess it’s even. You keep Kansas to yourself and I’ll not drag your name into the mud over this incident.”
“With what?” the Judge sneered. “A blacksmith, a two-bit gunfighter, an Indian as witnesses?”
“There’s also my father-in-law and Matthew who are downstairs guarding some of your other men,” Harley added helpfully.
The Judge growled softly and clenched his fists. “Get out of here. Take your accursed sons with you and just get out of here!”
Murdoch smiled and nodded. “It’s been a pleasure visiting, Judge Wakeman. Hopefully we’ll not have a chance to do it again.” He turned and walked to where DarkCloud knelt beside Johnny.
“Okay, Judge, in the corner with the rest of your men,” Harley instructed with a nudge of his revolver.
The Judge brusquely pivoted and walked to the corner where Tucson had grouped all the men together.
“I need to see Johnny,” Scott said to Harley. “Keep an eye on things, would you?”
Harley nodded then watched as Scott hurried to Johnny’s side before turning to join Tucson.
“Will we be leaving soon?” Tucson mumbled. “I don’t particularly like the looks I’m getting.”
Harley smiled and nodded. “As soon as we can move Johnny.” He paused and glanced back to where Johnny lie, Scott, Murdoch and DarkCloud all kneeling nearby.
“How are we doing?” Scott asked anxiously as he put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
DarkCloud glanced over. “It could be a lot worse.” His expression turned irritable. “Then again, he could have been doing a lot better by now, too.” He shook his head. “Fool ideas.”
Johnny coughed, groaned, tried to turn onto his side.
Scott squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “Hey, Johnny. I’m here.”
Johnny opened his eyes, then blinked as he swallowed back another moan. “Wha—?”
Scott smiled. “Good guys won.”
Johnny grimaced a smile back. “Never doubted it.”
“Lord knows how you tried to do enough damage,” DarkCloud harrumphed. “Bruises, welts, cuts, and if that kick had landed square in your chest instead of off to the side, we’d be probably talking about caskets about now.”
Johnny’s brows drew into a frown, his attention still focused on Scott’s face. “Let me guess. The dark cloud of depression has followed me.”
Scott laughed, then replaced the grin on his face was a stern look after DarkCloud leveled him with a sharp glare of his own. “Johnny,” he admonished, “the good doctor is trying to take care of you.”
Johnny closed his eyes, sighed, seemed suddenly like he was fading out.
“Hey, Johnny,” Scott gave a little shake.
“Can you walk? We need to get you out of here, get you to a hotel where you can rest up.”
Without opening his eyes, Johnny nodded.
“Here, I’ll help you,” Scott shoved his gun into Murdoch’s hand and positioned his arms around Johnny’s shoulders.
With clenched teeth, Johnny rolled around, put one palm on the floor, pushed against his chest with the other. He suddenly froze, closed his eyes, his face draining of color.
“I’m gonna be sick,” he mumbled.
“Listen, Brother,” Scott lowered his voice, adopted a stern attitude. “You get sick now, it’s gonna hurt like hell, and I’m not about to be embarrassed by having you cry in front of the Judge.”
Johnny opened his eyes, his look deadpan. “You, Boston…are all heart.”
“Let’s get your sorry carcass up off the floor,” Scott replied as he shifted position in order to allow DarkCloud room to get an arm around his brother’s other side.
out of their way, attention diverted by the gun he now held in his hands.
Suddenly his head came up and he glanced back toward the table.
There, beside the letters written by Johnny Madrid, lay the infamous
gunfighter’s modified weapon. Murdoch
walked over, paused, his lips pursing. Johnny Madrid…Johnny Lancer…the gunfighter…his son…
He picked up the letters, let his eyes trail over them a moment, shook himself as he heard a grunt followed by a swallowed moan. Self-consciously, he folded the words written by Madrid, stuffed them in his pocket and glanced over his shoulder. Johnny was on his feet, swaying unsteadily, supported by Scott and DarkCloud.
We have another chance…
The thought came to him quickly, out of the blue. Then he glanced back down at the weapon and medallion.
If I haven’t ruined it by hiding the fact that I didn’t send for him right away…
He picked up the gun. He’d never held it before, was surprised by its feel, the difference in weight and balance. With a grim nod of acknowledgement to a history he could only guess at, he stuffed it into his inner vest pocket, did the same with the medallion, and abruptly turned.
DarkCloud and Scott were helping Johnny make his way to the door. As they drew up even with the Judge and his men, still held under guard by Harley and Tucson, the Judge suddenly stepped forward.
Perceiving a threat, Harley stepped up, indicating with a jerk of his weapon that it’d be prudent for the Judge to move back into place. The Judge pointedly ignored him.
“This is long from being finished, Madrid,” the Judge hissed, the threat unconcealed.
Johnny halted, lifted his eyes, seemed to tap into some buried strength as he forced himself upright to meet the Judge squarely.
“You may have been able to beat me if I was alone. But I wasn’t. I had Scott. So you didn’t stand a chance in Hell.”
As the Judge ground his teeth, Murdoch found himself fighting the urge to interfere.
“We will finish this, Madrid.”
Keeping his grip on Johnny, Scott stepped between the two men. His eyes narrowed, and he appeared to analyze the Judge with contempt. “Are you sure you want to push this to a finish?” Scott asked. “I’ll make sure not to miss next time.”
“You and your brother are dead. It’s just going to take a little longer.”
“You lost. Get over it,” Scott retorted, then added with an icy smirk, “Good day, Judge.” He nodded to DarkCloud and the two continued out the door with Johnny between them.
Murdoch stood an extra moment and regarded the Judge carefully. The weight of the revolver was heavy in his vest pocket. “Leave my sons alone, or I’ll come after you myself. Lancer is nothing, if I don’t have my sons. It’s a truth I had a hard time learning, and cost me a bullet in my back. But once I learn something, I never forget it. I know what it’s like to be dying and have no one to care. All I own is nothing, if I don’t have my sons. For in the end, Lancer is their legacy. What I created, I created for them. Think about that. What are you leaving your son?” He gestured vaguely, shook his head. “Is this your legacy?”