Closing the Chain
Note: These chapters were written as the final links in the 2002 LancerTV chain story. The other writers were Jan, Cat, Geraldine, Winnie, Holly and Jane. The complete chain is in the files of the original WIPLash and Lancer TV Yahoo sites. I can’t do justice to each writer’s work but the story goes something like this:
In an effort to amuse a bored and injured Johnny, Scott and Teresa organize an outing to the lake. But the trio bumps into a felonious bank teller and his criminal buddies. Johnny is shot and left for dead while Scott and Teresa are forced to travel on with the baddies.
Johnny revives, finds his way to a line shack, patches himself up with carpet thread and wood ash and then sets out in search of his brother and “sister,” who are suffering various indignities at the hands of the bad guys. And they are bad, these guys. They decide Scott and Teresa are impediments and attempt to get rid of ‘em. And they’re pretty nasty to a married couple they meet on the road – the husband is killed and the wife suffers A Fate Worse Than Death (or close to).
Part 7-1, below, takes up the story after Murdoch has arrived home from a business trip to discover the ranch in an uproar because the young people haven’t returned from their outing. Our stalwart Scot sets out to find his family.
Warning: There are some cuss words in these chapters, and some darkness. Please don’t start reading unless you’re prepared to stop if you find something you don’t like. Complain to firstname.lastname@example.org
Murdoch cursed silently.
They were losing the moon. Dark clouds, heralds for the approaching storm, were rolling in with increased speed and the road ahead was becoming more and more difficult to make out. What should have been a two-hour ride to the lake already had stretched out to three and they hadn’t yet reached their destination.
During the last couple of miles they had been forced to slow to an easy jog, five men on horseback, picking their way in the uncertain light. By consensus, Cipriano had taken the lead, riding just ahead of Murdoch and Jelly. Although past sixty he still had the best eyes and trail nose of them all. At the back, Cortez and Quince, an unlikely pair who were nonetheless inseparable. Good men, Murdoch knew, but better when working together.
A flash of light in the distance. Lightning. Unusual but not surprising, he thought absently. Jelly said it’s been hot and humid all week. That’s why the young people went to the lake. Foolishness, he told himself, worry suddenly becoming anger. They should have known better – Scott especially. He was in charge. And Johnny not a week out of his sickbed. . .
“Boss?” Jelly’s call broke into his thoughts.
“What?” he answered sharply, more harshly than he intended.
“I jus’ thought mebbe you might wanna break out one them lanterns we got – so’s we could see.” There was hurt in Jelly’s voice and Murdoch realized ruefully he’d have to make amends. Sensitive old coot, he thought. Should be used to my bark by now.
“I’m sorry, Jelly,” he said, reining in so his new hand could draw up next to him. “I was just thinking about other things, letting my worry get the best of me, I suppose.”
“I know that,” the older man answered querulously. He kneed his reluctant horse on, now forcing Murdoch to play catch up. “I know where yer mind is. Same place as mine. Damn fool young’uns. But what about them lanterns? It’s gettin’ mighty dark.”
Before Murdoch could answer, there was another flicker of lightning and he saw Jelly flinch, lips moving silently as Cortez and Quince drew up alongside.
“We’re fine,” Murdoch said, nodding the pair on.
“Can’t help it,” Jelly said with a defensive look. “Don’t like thunder and lightning. Never have.”
“Well, it’s still a ways away from us,” Murdoch answered soothingly. “No, Jelly, no lanterns. Not yet. We may need them at the lake. It’s not too much farther.”
“Is everything all right?” Cipriano was suddenly beside them and eyeing Jelly with frank curiosity. “You are having problems, maybe?”
“Everythin’s jus’ fine.” Jelly’s chin went up, a sign, Murdoch knew, that he wasn’t happy about something. Whatever it was, he’d tell Murdoch in his own time. Or wouldn’t. That, he was learning, was Jelly.
Cipriano looked at Murdoch and gave a slight shrug. Then without a word, he spurred his horse into a fast trot, passed the two vaqueros and disappeared into the dark canopy of shadows ahead.
Murdoch and Jelly rode on in silence for a while, each lost in his own thoughts. Then:
“I blame myself, Boss, yes, I do.”
“Jelly . . .”
“No, I shoulda told ‘em not to go. Too long a drive for Johnny, bein’ as he is. Busted ribs. Dang cast on his arm. I shoulda knowed better. Or shoulda went with them myself. Kept an eye on ‘em. Teresa, she jus’ had her heart set on goin’. Couldn’t say no to that, now could I? An’ Johnny so nervy, like a wolf cub penned in a cage.”
“Well. . .”
“What coulda happened to ‘em, Murdoch? You ‘spose they got lost up here? Or forgot the time and got caught by the dark? Or mebbe they broke an axle or somethin’. That’s it. They’re probably sitting by that lake, got a nice campfire goin’, waitin’ for us get them out this lil jam they got themselves in – Dang!” Jelly’s monologue was interrupted by another flash of heat lightning blinking once, twice and followed by the low ominous rumble of distant thunder.
“Not too long now, Jelly,” Murdoch said into the ensuing silence. “Not too long.”
* * *
At the lake there was no wagon. No campfire, no trio of stranded young people smiling in relief at the sight of the would-be rescuers.
Murdoch’s heart sank as he dismounted from his big chestnut gelding and untied the lantern lashed to his saddle. He’d let Jelly’s prattle raise his hopes far more than he’d known. But the stark truth was now before him. His family was missing.
“Spread out,” he directed, gruffness masking his worry. “Look for wagon tracks. Maybe we can find out if they made it this far.”
Striking a match on his boot heel he lit the wick and held the lantern stiffly out in front of him. Around him, the others did the same and soon there were five small pools of light moving in silence, slowly scouring the ground, trying to make sense of the tracks they found in the soft earth.
“Awful lot of people bin here, Boss,” Jelly said. “Jus’ look at all them boot tracks.”
“Here, Señor,” Cipriano called. “There are wagon tracks here. And the mark of horses. Many horses.”
“How many?” Murdoch looked up; he could see Cipriano off to his left side, signaling his location with his lantern.
“It is difficult to tell,” Cipriano said. “I am going to follow the wagon tracks – they are much clearer.”
Grimly, Murdoch stared at the scuffled ground beneath his feet, willing it to yield a clue, a hint, something that would tell him what they should do next. Where they should search. A tiny glimmer of reflected light caught his eye and he bent down stiffly, fingers closing around a spent bullet casing. Oh no . . .
“Oh , SHIT . . . God!” From a point somewhere close to the lake, behind a clump of trees, there came the sound of someone retching and a voice Murdoch recognized as belonging to Cortez called out urgently, “Señor Lancer, I think you had better come here.”
Murdoch felt his throat constrict. Jelly by his side, he ran woodenly toward the lake and the lantern light swinging like a frantic pendulum. As they approached Cortez, they could see Quince kneeling near the water, his back toward them, lantern on the sand beside him. And off to the left of both men, barely distinguishable, a body.
“Is it . . .” Murdoch took a step forward then stopped. Jelly placed a hand on his sleeve.
“No, Señor,” Cortez said softly. “¡Gracias a Dios! No one we know.”
“Quince all right?” Jelly asked. He hunched his shoulders apprehensively as lightning flashed. “Gol-DARN!”
“Si,” Cortez gave a quick glance at his partner and then looked back at Jelly. “He found them – there is another. Two dead men. Shot. The heat of the day, an animal . . . “ His voice trailed off meaningfully.
“Yes.” Murdoch cleared his throat.
“You ‘spose they got anythin’ to do with that bank robbery, Boss?” Jelly asked.
“I don’t know, Jelly, but I do know we can’t just leave them here. The bodies should be taken in to Green River. Val will have to deal with this.”
“Tommy and I, we will do that, Señor,” Cortez said.
“Tom?” Murdoch asked the man still kneeling by the water.
“Yessir,” Quince turned his head. “I’m okay. Just took me back some, trippin’ over those boots. We can double up on my horse. He’s bigger. Put the, the bodies on Benito’s mare.”
“All right. Yes, Cipriano?” Murdoch turned to find the older vaquero at his elbow.
“The wagon moved on, traveling north,” Cipriano said. He looked silently at the bodies then back at Murdoch. “If they go far, they will be hard to track, even in the daylight. That is hard ground, rock.”
“North?” Jelly queried. “How far’s that line shack you got up here, Murdoch? The one the Rodriguez kid brings his purty little wife to all the time. You stop your grinnin’, Cortez.” The older man shook his finger. “Probably wants to keep her away from coyotes like you.”
“It is not far. Thirty minutes, forty,” Cipriano mused. “Perhaps . . .” he looked at Murdoch, one bushy eyebrow raised questioningly.
“Perhaps,” Murdoch said firmly, closing off speculation. He wanted to believe Teresa and the boys were safely camped somewhere, anywhere, and that there was no connection between the two dead men and his missing family. He wanted to believe any scenario except the one that most readily suggested itself. Clamping down on his emotions he looked at the men waiting expectantly.
“Let’s do what we have to do and then we ride.”
* * *
The lightning was more frequent now, the thunder louder. A light breeze had begun to blow while they were still at the lake. Now, just a half an hour or so later, it had become a gusting wind. With dismay Murdoch realized that no matter what they found at the line shack, their search might end right there, stymied by nature. He had lived too long in this country to miss the signs. They were in for it, about to be hit by a summer storm in full fury.
Perhaps the boys had seen the signs. Or Teresa. She knew how ferocious a freak summer storm could be. Maybe she told the boys they ought to seek shelter and not risk being caught out. That doesn’t account for the two dead men we found, a cold inner voice taunted. No, no it doesn’t, he reminded himself grimly.
Lost in thought he did not see Cipriano’s raised hand signal a stop and before he knew it he had loped over one small rise and was making his way down a second, steeper knoll. He looked up in confusion as Cipriano, with Jelly right behind, galloped up and grabbed at his horse’s reins, snapping, “¡Esperame -- no seas tonto!”
“He’s right, Boss,” Jelly scolded. “Wait! Don’t be a dang fool. You wanna get yer head shot off?”
Fool, am I? Murdoch looked angrily first at his segundo, then at Jelly. And then, with dawning realization, at the shabby line shack barely a hundred yards away. He was suddenly aware of how easily he could have been picked off.
The line shack was being used as a sanctuary by someone, Murdoch thought numbly. Someone who was either asleep or cautiously watching their every move. Although there was no sign of lamplight from within, smoke rose from the tin stovepipe and swirled across the tar-paper roof. Tied to the hitching post was an unfamiliar horse, weary hindquarters akimbo, off-hind foot cocked at rest.
“What do ya wanna . . .” Jelly began, only to be cut off as a brilliant jag of lightning shot across the night sky and was followed almost immediately by the cannon fire of thunder so loud it seemed to shake the ground beneath them.
As Murdoch tried to steady his spooked gelding he heard muffled shouting and saw the cabin door scrape open. Against the sound of the rising wind he heard his name being called and he watched in stunned disbelief as Teresa ran toward him, stumbling over her skirts, arms outstretched. He slid off his horse and ran toward her on unsteady legs, his relief at seeing her sapping his strength until he wrapped her in his arms and felt her heartbeat, fast as a bird’s, echo his.
“Murdoch, oh, Murdoch,” she cried, burying her face in his chest. “You came . . . you came. . . I was so frightened . . .”
“It’s all right, sweetheart,” he soothed as her tumbling words became great hiccupping sobs. “You’re safe. . .”
“No!” she said, pulling back from him in alarm. “You don’t know . . .” Her fingers, already knotted into his shirt pulled at the cloth insistently. He felt a tremor shake her body and as he looked at her closely he realized whatever it was that had frightened her so, whatever it was she had seen or experienced, it had almost been too much.
Teresa’s panicked gaze shifted, focusing on Cipriano standing slightly behind Murdoch.
“Los hijos?” he asked gently, his tone soft. “Where are Scott and Johnny?”
“Inside – they . . .” Taking a deep breath, Teresa fought to regain control of her emotions. “No,” she said swiftly as Murdoch closed his eyes. “They’re alive but they need help. I, I’ve tried to . . .”
Murdoch brought her close to his chest again and felt her squeeze him tightly. Then with a decisiveness he found inexplicably poignant, she grasped his hand firmly and led him toward the darkened cabin, Cipriano and Jelly following.
“Don’t bark your shins on our fortifications.” Scott’s voice, hoarse but recognizable, greeted Murdoch as he squeezed through the narrow space between the barely opened door and its rough frame.
“Son?” Murdoch heard the quiver in his own voice and tried, impatiently, to focus his eyes in the darkness. Fumbling in his pocket, he found a match and struck it on the door frame.
“Here!” Teresa quickly picked up a lamp and raised its glass chimney for Murdoch to light. Then she set it on top of the large, heavy woodbox that was preventing the door from opening completely.
Their “fortifications.” Murdoch unconsciously registered the military term as he saw in the lamp’s shadows his older son standing unsteadily by the window, a derringer held limply in his hand. Behind him Murdoch could sense Cipriano and Jelly squeeze pass the woodbox, could hear them striking matches and moving around the small cabin, lighting the remaining few lamps. Frantically, his eyes swept the room, searching for Johnny, following first Cipriano then Jelly as they hurried to a wide bunk built onto the back wall. He took a step toward them then his gaze locked on Scott. Scott the protector, the older brother standing guard, ready to defend his family.
Murdoch felt his stomach turn over. The defender was on the verge of physical collapse. There was a tightness about the eyes and mouth and he was holding his right arm awkwardly away from his side as he balanced tenuously on one foot. Murdoch saw Scott flash a self-conscious, slightly embarrassed smile and look away. And he knew he must be letting his fatherly shock and concern show.
“Yes.Well.” Scott tucked the derringer back into the waistband of his pants and took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. He let his eyes meet his father’s again.
Without another word, Murdoch moved quickly to his side and at Scott’s nod, gently helped him over to a chair.
“You’d better see to Johnny,” Scott murmured softly as he settled tiredly against the hard wooden back. Murdoch helped him lift his injured leg onto the small stool and then squatted down beside him, placing his hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“What’s the damage, son?” Murdoch looked pointedly at Scott’s arm.
“A . . .tear. Teresa’s taken care of it. I don’t know.” Scott’s head drooped exhaustedly. “Some broken ribs, maybe. My knee – something feels . . . .wrong.” Then he turned his gaze back towards his father. “Forget about me, Murdoch. Teresa’s taken good care of me,” he said, smiling crookedly at the young woman now standing at his father’s elbow.
Stiffly Murdoch rose and looked down at his ward. In the light he could see what had been impossible to distinguish before: her face was bruised, her lip, a small cut at the corner, swollen. Stifling a surge of anger, he made his voice as gentle and unworried as he could. “Teresa?”
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Better than Scott,” she added with a stern look. “I’m worried about him, and about Johnny.”
Murdoch turned to see Jelly’s concerned face mutely beckoning him.
“All right then,” he said, forcing himself to sound calm and matter of fact. “Let’s see about that brother of yours.” He flicked what was meant to be a reassuring smile at Scott and, arm around Teresa’s shoulders, walked with her across the room.
As they approached the bed, Cipriano edged past them toward the door, a bowl of water in his hands. Jelly rose, standing aside, and for the first time Murdoch could see his younger son clearly, could hear his harsh, ragged breathing. Throat constricting, he sat down and placed the back of his hand against Johnny’s fever-flushed cheek, the instinctive reaction only confirming what he already knew: the boy was burning up.
“How long has he been unconscious?” he asked Teresa hoarsely.
“I’m not sure, Murdoch,” she said anxiously. “Since we got here. He . . . collapsed and . . . Scott, how long have we been here, do you think?”
“A couple of hours?” came the exhausted reply. “It’s, it’s close to dawn, isn’t it? I think a couple of hours.”
“I fell asleep,” Teresa whispered fiercely, as if confessing a sin. Murdoch patted her shoulder.
“Best thing you could have done, sweetheart,” he said gently.
“No, you don’t understand.” She shook her head. “I should have done more. After taking care of Scott I should have cleaned and re-bandaged Johnny’s wounds, I should have . . .”
“Teresa!” There was a note of despair in Scott’s voice that tore at Murdoch’s heart.
“But, Murdoch,” she turned pleading eyes to his. “I was so afraid. The bandages were stuck to him, and I was afraid that if I tried to take them off . . .”
“Listen to me, young lady,” Murdoch said firmly, grasping both of her shoulders and forcing her to look at him directly. “I don’t know what happened today. But I do know, without anyone telling me, that you’ve had to do far more than anyone should ever expect of a young woman, or a man, for that matter. And I’m proud of you. More proud than I know how to say.”
“But. . .”
“No ‘but’s,’ darling. Now, I need you to help me. Can you do that?”
She nodded her head rapidly, and Murdoch saw her trying to blink back tears. He knew she must be very close to the edge; having a role to fulfill would help keep her from slipping into the abyss. Cipriano returned with a fresh bowl of water and Murdoch watched with silent approval as Teresa took the bowl from him, set it by the bed and began gently wiping Johnny’s forehead.
“He was shot, Murdoch,” Scott said quietly. “Some men on the run came across us at the lake – there was, there was gunplay and Johnny was shot.”
“Where?” Murdoch asked, lifting the ragged blanket poncho back over Johnny’s head. Carefully he pulled it away and then handed it to Jelly. “Here, in the side?” he asked as his eyes found the large dark stain at Johnny’s waist.
“Yes,” Teresa said. “And, and his leg – the left one.”
Taking a deep breath and biting his lip, Murdoch began to unbutton his son’s shirt. He forced himself to ignore the filthy, crumbling cast that still partially encased Johnny’s right arm. That could be dealt with later. When his fingers had fumbled open the last button, he spread the shirt wide, exposing below the fading, three-week-old purple and yellow bruises of the stampede accident a crude, frayed bandage encrusted with dry blood.
“Give me your knife, Jelly.”
Slipping the fingers of his left hand between the bandage and Johnny’s belly, Murdoch lifted the cloth slightly and inserted the knife, blade-side up. Carefully, he sawed away at the bandage. The sheeting material was tough, and under his breath he cursed its strength. When the fabric finally gave, he slowly peeled back the cloth until he got to the point where the bandage was stuck fast to Johnny’s skin.
Wordlessly he took the wet rag Jelly handed him and soaked the area of the wound, trying to loosen the fabric. It took several dunkings of the rag before he felt the bandage begin to give. As he pulled it back what he saw made him freeze. Beside him Teresa gasped.
Oh my God, son, he thought in silent anguish. My God.
The bullet had plowed a four-inch furrow through the fleshy part of Johnny’s side, just above the hip. When fresh, Murdoch knew, the wound would have been raw and painful, its edges gaping. But the wound had been sewn closed with six ragged stitches and now the skin around it was angry and hot, so swollen that the stitches had almost disappeared.
“Jay-sus,” Jelly breathed.
“What’s wrong?” Scott called in alarm. He began a struggle to stand only to be gently but firmly blocked by Cipriano.
“Your brother apparently did some embroidery on himself at some point, Scott,” Murdoch answered. He didn’t even try to keep the grimness out of his voice.
“Johnny stitched his own wound, Scott,” Teresa said. She looked across the room into his disbelieving face. Then she turned her gaze back to Murdoch and he saw tears running down her cheeks. “When we first got here tonight, when I helped Scott. . . I found a sewing basket, and a . . .a carpet needle on the table. It was all -- stained . . . I never dreamed.”
“No,” Murdoch agreed. He looked at Jelly. “Look for some whiskey, would you? There should be some around. I’d like to clean the wound. But I think I’d better leave the stitches for now. We’ll let Doc Jenkins deal with those, at home.”
“His leg,” Teresa said, brushing away her tears. She moved to the other side of the bed and began opening the concha buttons of Johnny’s calzoneras.
“May I have the knife, Murdoch? And that wet cloth, please.”
She worked silently for a few minutes and then Murdoch heard her quick intake of breath. He looked at her inquiringly.
“I, I don’t know,” she shook her head. “It looks like he did something – the wound seems to be packed with . . . Well, I don’t know.”
“Wood ash,” Cipriano said. “He would use ashes from the stove. It is an old trail remedy It stops the bleeding.”
“Found the whiskey, Boss.”
“Good. Thanks, Jelly. We’ll use some on the leg wound too.” Murdoch rose and went over to sit beside Teresa, peering closely at the ugly, crusted area on his son’s calf that she was now dabbing at with her cloth. Worriedly, he checked the other side of Johnny’s leg and was relieved to see a second dark wound, evidence the bullet had gone through. From the location of the wounds, he guessed nothing had been broken. But he had no doubt they had been painful and had bled profusely.
“I don’t know how he walked on this,” Teresa murmured.
“Walked on it?” Murdoch asked, looking at his ward with incomprehension. Abruptly realization hit. One horse outside. No buckboard. Scott with an injured, perhaps broken knee. Teresa bruised and cut . . . Numbly, Murdoch looked at his unconscious younger son . He cleared his throat. Coughed.
“Amigo.” Cipriano’s soft voice cut into his thoughts.
“I think it best if I leave, ride back to Lancer for a wagon and some vaqueros.”
“But, Cipriano, those men . . . they may be out there!” Teresa panicked. “They might come back . . .”
“That is why I must go now, chica,” Cipriano said kindly. “Before it is light. So I can return quickly and you can soon be home and safe.”
“Right! Let’s get goin’.” Jelly put the bottle of whiskey down on the table and looked expectantly at Cipriano, who raised his eyebrows in query at Murdoch and gave a barely perceptible shake of his head.
Jelly’s chest began to swell with indignation. Just like a banty rooster, Murdoch thought with amusement. Yet he knew it had cost the man something to make the offer: Jelly really did hate thunderstorms and a humdinger was going to break. Soon.
“No, Jelly, I need you here,” he said. And it was the truth, Murdoch reflected, looking over at Scott then back at Johnny. He felt Teresa’s hand slip into his.
“Cipriano . . .”
“Sí, Señor.” The vaquero’s smile was wide. “I will be very careful. And when it is light, I will stay away from the road. I should be able to find the Old Ones’ trail when it is light. If there are men out there I should not meet, I will not meet them.” He looked at Teresa. “You are very brave. Your papa would have been most proud.”
Turning on his heel, Cipriano stopped by Scott’s chair, gave the young man’s shoulder a light squeeze and was out the door before anyone could say more.
* * *
Sheriff Val Crawford was spending a most uncomfortable night.
It had started out just fine. Well, maybe fine wasn’t the best word to use. Here he was, riding posse on the trail of some pond-scum-dirt-bag, greedy-thievin’ varmints, sleeping on what had just had to be the hardest rock-ridden dried-up old creek-bed, and every few minutes the night exploded as if some damn fool was playing at recreating the Battle of Vicksburg. Lightning. Thunder. Rain coming. And then, just when he was finally sliding into the nicest kind of dream – this!
Awkwardly he shifted his arm, trying to get the blood flowing back into his numb hand. Trying NOT to wake the sleeping woman whose head was resting on his shoulder.
He’d thought at first it was part of his dream. That soft body pressing up to him as he lay on his side, breasts against his back, hips curling around his hips, knees tucked into his. It had stirred him, that touch, and he’d rolled onto his back and felt a head nestle on that part of the chest women’s heads always seem to find on a man. And his hand had slid over and down . . .
And he’d come fully awake. Eyes open. Heart racing. Nasty cuss word right there on the tip of his tongue ready to shout in anger except – except he didn’t want to wake the poor woman whose dirty, tear-stained face was now relaxed into the comforting unawareness of sleep. Didn’t want to force her into the harsh reality of a dead husband and whatever other brutal memories morning would bring. Slowly, carefully he’d removed his hand from where it was flaunting proprieties and let it rest on the ground.
He wondered who was on watch, McTeague or Hardy. Whoever it was, what would it look like, him cuddling up with a widow woman, her husband just dead. They ain’t stupid, Val chided himself. They gotta know the poor woman’s not herself.
A crack of thunder, brief but loud, seemed to rouse Maude. He could feel her stiffen, and heard a faint whimper. Without thinking, he let his arm come up round her shoulders protectively and she settled. He wasn’t sure why she had come to him for comfort. Maybe she hadn’t. Maybe in her grief she had mistaken him for her husband. Come his watch he’d have to find a way to scoot away and let her wake up on her own. Alone.
Val stared into the darkness, rethinking his plan of action. Sometimes you ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed, Val Crawford. How’d you come to the fool notion ya could drag this woman along on a posse? It would be downright inhumane. And dangerous. For her and for us.
No, he thought, we gotta get her back to town. See the doc. And mebbe she’s got some relatives she can wire, can help her out. Some of them good folks in town, they’ll help her recover her wagon and all those hair-loom things she got that’ll remind her of her husband. For better. Or worse.
The men he was seeking. Something weren’t quite right about them. Never knowed men on the run, posse on their tails, to stop and rob a couple of greenhorn homesteaders. Root through a wagonload of furniture. Molest a woman. Didn’t make sense. Would they have known ahead of time about that map Maude had gone on about? Naw. Couldn’t have.
Seven of ‘em. No, he remembered, five. Two dead back there at the lake. And not for the first time he thought: Miss Teresa. The puzzle of the clues they’d discovered by the lake just wouldn’t resolve itself. Nor would the twitchy worried feeling in his gut. It was an old partner, that feeling. He’d traveled with it long enough to know he could trust its instincts.
Abruptly, he came to his decision: Once it was light, he’d send McTeague and Hardy back to town with Maude. Smarter to have the two of them and their two horses, he reflected. He’d ride on alone. Go to Lancer to round up some vaqueros. And maybe he’d find Teresa safe and sound, sittin’ out the heat under some big ole shade tree, tryin’ to talk Johnny into lettin’ her play nursemaid just a little longer. ‘Cause after three weeks being laid up, Val was sure Johnny Lancer was feelin’ like a stud colt stuck in a cattle squeeze.
* * *
The rain came with the dawn.
First there was a quick tattoo on the roof, as if someone had splashed a pail full of water across the tar-papered boards. Then came the downpour, wind whipping the rain against the cabin’s grimy windows and across the threshold of the open door. In a dark corner an old leak dripped water into a tin can.
Murdoch moved from his chair and went to the doorway, leaning against the rough board-and-batten door as he absently watched the nearby trees bend and whip in the storm. The cool air was a welcome change from the cabin’s stifling heat. Jelly had let the fire in the stove die once he was sure they didn’t need more hot water. But the cast-iron held the heat.
He wondered how far Cipriano had ridden before the force of the storm hit. And how long it would take for him to reach the ranch, gather some hands, hitch up a wagon and return. Five hours, if we’re lucky, Murdoch estimated. Maybe more if the rain keeps on like this and the roads go bad. And then another three to get home. Too damn long.
Broodingly he stared at the rain bouncing off the hard-packed soil in front of the cabin. Puddles already had formed in the depressions and muddy rivulets ran down the rough wagon track that led up the knoll. He hoped Cipriano would think to bring the heavy canvas tarpaulins they used to cover wagonloads of grain. They could rig up something for the boys and Teresa.
The boys. How little he had been able to do for them. The medical supplies Maria had packed, his own rough and rudimentary knowledge of doctoring – both had proved woefully inadequate in the face of his sons’ injuries. Teresa had already done for Scott what could be done, wrapping his leg and cleaning the jagged tear that ran from his elbow to under his arm. She’d put in a few neat stitches where the tear was deepest and bound the wound carefully with a makeshift bandage. Murdoch and Jelly had merely rewrapped the arm with one of the fresh bandages Maria had packed.
But a tear like that . . .Infection was always a wily enemy, Murdoch knew. The knee injury was also worrisome. If it were indeed broken – well, knees rarely healed properly. Murdoch shook his head; he couldn’t bear to think of Scott crippled for life, his physical grace sacrificed for someone’s greed.
Someone’s greed, someone’s lust for money had placed in jeopardy what Murdoch Lancer had begun to value more than anything he had ever owned. Or hoped to own. They’d been together such a short time, this little band of strangers he now fiercely thought of as a family. Odd that they should have been thrown together by another case of greed. Day Pardee’s greed had killed Teresa’s father and forced Murdoch into asking for help from the two young men who he had imagined would be the least inclined to give it: The sons he had allowed to slip out of his life.
With a sinking heart Murdoch wondered if he was losing his younger son again. Johnny’s fever was so high, too high. His body already had taken a battering as a result of the accident. And less than eight months before, they had had to battle to pull him through the fever and illness caused by Pardee’s bullet.
His wounds . . . Murdoch shuddered as he remembered the ugly, strangely crusted leg wounds, those crude stitches. The thought of his son actually pushing a needle and thread through his flesh, not once but five more times; of Johnny poking wood ash and God knows what else into the holes in his leg in an attempt to staunch what must have been a lot of bleeding . . . Murdoch felt slightly sick to his stomach. He had had his share of injuries, had had to do his own doctoring, too. But what Johnny had done – and then to walk on that leg, mile after mile, for hours, to bring Teresa and Scott to safety . . .
Stubborn, stubborn. Murdoch shook his head and acknowledged, ruefully, that he felt unjustifiably proud of his hot-tempered, too-knowing younger son. And of Scott. And Teresa. He couldn’t claim a damn bit of credit for their courage and endurance, but he was proud of them just the same.
They had been through hell and back. As he and Jelly had cleaned Johnny’s wounds, pouring whiskey over the leg wounds and across the inflamed area on his side, Teresa had begun to tell them of the ordeal. Fatigue had had its way with her at last. Hollow-eyed, she had slumped into a chair and watched them rewrap Johnny’s wounds with clean bandages. And she had described, in a flat almost detached voice, what had happened. How a trip to the lake had become a nightmare. Johnny shot and left for dead. She and Scott taken hostage. Their break for freedom. Johnny’s resurrection. The endless walk. Her mask had cracked when she described the walk.
“And he kept saying it was only a little longer and he was all right.” She had looked pleadingly at Murdoch, tears again tracking down her face. “And Scott,” she said, looking over at the far side of the bunk where Jelly had forced the weakly protesting older brother to lie down. “Scott was in such pain. I let Johnny make me ride. I didn’t realize . . .”
They had persuaded her, finally, to use the table as a bed, to try to find sleep. Jelly had spread his bedroll on the uneven planked top, hoping to give her some comfort. Although she had dropped off, as Scott had earlier, unable to fight off exhaustion any longer, she did not rest easy.
Murdoch knew that Teresa’s cuts and bruises would soon heal. And after she described her fall down the rocky slope, her tone matter of fact, he knew he should watch her carefully for the aftermath of concussion. But what he was most worried about were the wounds she might be hiding within. Terror made deep scratches on your soul.
Behind him Murdoch heard a faint cry and he moved swiftly to where she lay, curled like a small child. He saw her move restlessly, brow furrowed, and he took her hand, whispering gently to her until whatever bad dream had her in its grasp released her. In the chair beside her, Jelly slumbered on. Arms crossed, chin on his chest. And for once, Murdoch thought with amusement, no snoring.
Edgy, tired, he went back to his post, the chair he had placed close to the wide bunk where his sons lay, one sleeping, one . . . What was the difference between sleep and unconsciousness, he wondered. Health and injury, perhaps. Renewal and -- what? Defeat? When the body’s defenses could no longer protect you? Ach, Murdoch Lancer. That’s the dour Scot speaking in you now. You told yourself you wouldn’t give him voice. Do something useful.
Resolutely he picked up the bowl of tepid water on the floor by his chair, carried it out to the small front porch, emptied it, then scooped it into the rain barrel now overflowing from the roof’s run-off. He carried it back to the bedside, warily watching the sloshing contents, and almost dropped it when he realized Johnny’s eyes were open, staring unseeingly at the ceiling above.
Johnny was still, his only movement the labored rise and fall of his chest. There were beads of perspiration on his forehead, and his cheeks and exposed chest were damp. Murdoch dipped a cloth in the fresh water and placed it on his son’s forehead, seeing him flinch when the cool cloth met hot skin.
“Son?” he asked, the word escaping his thoughts before he could catch it. But it felt right.
“Murdoch.” The voice was barely a whisper. He had to lean close to hear it.
“Beside you, John,” Murdoch answered. “He’s fine. Sleeping.”
“T’resa?” There was a breathlessness now that Murdoch found worrying.
“She’s sleeping too, son,” he said. “She’s fine. She’s safe. They both are . . . Ssh, don’t try to talk.”
There was a long silence. And if it hadn’t been for the fact his son’s eyes were still open and he was staring at the ceiling as if he had found something compelling in the rough, woodsmoke-blackened boards, Murdoch would have thought him unconscious. But he heard again the faint, hoarse whisper.
“Get them . . .home.”
“Yes, son, we’ll get you all home, soon.” Impulsively, he took Johnny’s hand. “What you did, Johnny, for your brother and for . . .” He stopped, suddenly awkward, inarticulate. The rain on the roof sounded incredibly loud.
“Had to . . .”
“But . . .”
“Promised. . .”
“Promised who, son?”
Johnny’s eyes, sunken deep above dark circles, suddenly caught his and he was lost in their depths, depths so clear and so blue that he saw reflected in them a memory he’d thought well-hidden, of the absolute faith and the incorruptible honesty he’d once found in a toddler’s gaze.
But it was Johnny’s words that shook Murdoch to the core, made his throat ache so that he felt he was going to choke.
”You. Made a . . . promise . . . to you.”
* * *
Skinner Madrigal shifted miserably in his saddle and poked at his hat, trying to tilt the brim so as to redirect the rain dripping steadily onto his lap. Back might as well be as wet as my front, he thought. Damn rain.
They’d ridden through the night, making good time while the moon was still out, slowing almost to a standstill as the storm clouds moved in and the light went. But moving, always moving. Michaels had insisted. All of a sudden the man’s in a hurry, Madrigal thought, staring resentfully at the rider just ahead. It had to be almost noon and they hadn’t stopped for hours.
Damn Tom Michaels anyway.
The fact that he was soaked to the bone, cold, tired, hungry and more scared than he’d been since he was an eight-year-old dirty-nosed kid waitin’ for his pa to whup him in the woodshed – all that could be laid at the door of only one man, Goddamn Tom Michaels of the big plans and the big dreams and the big we’re-gonna-be-rich-boy talk. Shit.
To hear Michaels talking, the money in that bank was just beggin’ to be stole and all they had to do was walk in and ask. Real easy, Michaels said. Six of us for the job. Him the brain, waitin’ on us outside of town. In and out. No one gets hurt. And we’d be on our way. Off to Mexico, each of us havin’ our own big hacienda and bossin’ around a bunch of them vaqueros. With some purty little Mex gals there to take care of everythin’ a man needs takin’ care of.
Well, it weren’t that way. It had all come apart and Ezekiel had gone loco, shootin’ off that fancy gun of his. And for the first time in his life, Madrigal had pointed and fired his own gun at another man. Too nervous to aim, hoping he didn’t hit nothing, but firin’ it just the same. Then Drifter got it. And Tom’s brother Vern. And then they were hightailin’ it out of there, him feelin’ sick to his stomach, and at the other end, too, and sure that if he opened his mouth he’d start pukin’ and never stop.
Beside him Ezekiel’s horse suddenly shied, crashing his rider’s knee into Madrigal’s. “Watch it!” Madrigal snarled, startled, then cringed as Ezekiel looked at him expressionlessly. The man’s cold dead eyes gave Madrigal the shivers. He remembered a different look in the bank, and later, with that greenhorn couple on the trail and the others, Lancer and the girl. There was something not right about the man, Madrigal was sure.
Mebbe you too, Madrigal told himself. Ya felt sick in the bank but after that it got easier, didn’t it? No, it was after the woman. After what happened with the woman. Bill weren’t too comfortable with that. Didn’t say much but didn’t want no part of it neither. Bill, now, Bill’s dead, boy. So’s his partner, Case. And Vern. And Drifter.
He didn’t want to think about Drifter. Maybe Michaels had been right and Drifter had been too far gone to help. But that couldn’t change the way his belly churned as he remembered the look on Michaels’ face when he and Ezekiel had come back from dealing with that Lancer feller, when Michaels told them his kid brother had died. Nothing in his face had moved when he told them. Not his eyes, not even his lips. And then he’d walked over to Drifter, pulled out his revolver, placed it pointblank against the unconscious man’s forehead and pulled the trigger. The speed and brutality of it had stunned Madrigal and he had stood there, mouth gaping, telling himself, “That coulda bin me.”
“He wasn’t going to make it anyway.” Michaels looked at Madrigal, challenging him to argue.
“Gotta get rid of liabilities,” Ezekiel had agreed. “Ain’t that right, Skinner?”
Remembering, Madrigal shivered. He was in over his damn fool head. He should have stuck with driving mule teams, like his pa.
Ahead, he saw Michaels pull up and turn in the saddle, a hand on his horse’s hindquarters, waiting for Ezekiel and Madrigal to come alongside.
“We have to go back.”
“Back? Back where? You’re crazy, Tom Michaels!” The words burst out before Madrigal had a chance to think about them. Of all the fool . . . “Whadda ya mean? We bin riding all night and half a day, must be. Ain’t stopped for food or to give the horses a breather or even to take a leak, for crissakes. And you wanna go back?”
“We got some unfinished business to attend to.”
“What makes you think that, Tom?” Ezekiel’s tone was curiously casual, as if the answer really wasn’t very important to him. But Madrigal knew enough about Ezekiel by now to know that nothing the man did was ever done casually. Everything was calculated; even his rampage at the bank. He seemed to have been expecting, no, planning to kill someone in that bank. So when the manager began to mop his perspiring brow and the first teller unwisely twitched his raised hands, Ezekiel had smiled almost as if something pleased him. And he shot them dead.
“I am the prophet of Jerusalem’s destruction,” he had told Madrigal when they first met. “God has chosen me as his instrument.” Madrigal couldn’t remember his Bible very well and he couldn’t see God choosing Ezekiel for much of anything. But destruction, yes, that was something that seemed to follow the man.
“What makes you think that?” Ezekiel repeated. He stared at Michaels intently as he slipped a hand under his oilcloth slicker, pulled his snoose tin from an inner pocket and wedged a wad of the tobacco inside his cheek. “Now, we have a pair of saddlebags stuffed with money that other folks think belongs to them. There’s a string of dead bodies behind us, one of ‘em a pretty little gal. And another woman we didn’t treat very politely.” He shifted the snoose to his other cheek. “Tell me. Why do we have to go back?”
“All right. First. That woman, the greenhorn’s woman,” Michaels said, returning Ezekiel’s gaze without acknowledging Madrigal. “There was something she was screaming about . . .”
“She was screamin’ about a lot of things.” Ezekiel spat and with his sleeve wiped a thin brown stream of tobacco juice from the side of his mouth.
“No, this was before, when Case knifed her husband.” For the first time, Michaels turned his eyes to Madrigal. “You catch what she said, Skinner?”
“Well, ah, she was screamin’ somethin’ about a key,” Madrigal ventured, relieved to be able to offer some tidbit of information, no matter how useless. “Tellin’ a dead man he shoulda given up his keys or suchlike. Didn’t make no sense.”
“THE key, Skinner, THE key,” Michaels corrected, his eyes narrowing. “She was saying her husband should have given up the key to that map. Like she thought handing it over woulda saved him. Wouldn’t have made any difference. Case would have stuck him anyway.”
“Key? Whadda ya mean?” Madrigal asked. “Whoa, boy,” he said, as his horse shifted impatiently.
“I looked at that map the other night – and the letter, too,” Michaels said. “They’re useless. Neither one of them tells you much about where that uncle’s got his claim. But there’s something in the letter that makes it sound like there’s another piece of paper. A key that tells you what’s what on that map. We have to go back and find the key.”
“You think that woman’s just gonna be sittin’ there waiting for us?” Madrigal tried to make his voice sound neutral and knew he was failing miserably.
“An’ the posse?” Ezekiel cocked his head inquiringly.
“Listen,” Michaels said. “With any luck that bit of backtracking and double-tracking we did at the river threw off anyone trying to follow our trail. Even if it didn’t, this rain’s taking care of things for us. And remember, those greenhorns weren’t on the regular road – they got themselves twisted around and took that old drovers’ road by mistake, I reckon. Woman’s probably still there, still crying.”
“What if she’s not?” Ezekiel scratched his chin thoughtfully. “What you got in mind then, Tom?”
Michaels’ smile made Madrigal uncomfortable. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what Michaels had in mind. The whole gold mine scheme had sounded like a pie-in-the-sky plan from the beginning. Mexico was a heap more to his liking. And now, after the deaths of the others, of Bill and Case, Vern and, Vern and Drifter – well there was more than enough money for each of the three of ‘em to buy just about any spread they wanted.
“I think it’s time I paid a little visit back in Green River,” Michaels said softly. “Yup, Tom Michaels, former bank teller at the Green River Cattleman’s Savings and Loan, now the well-off young man who inherited his uncle’s mercantile over in Nevada, he’s about to return to visit with old friends.”
“You sure that’s wise?” Ezekiel asked.
“Listen.” Michaels’ voice was harsh. “There isn’t anyone who can tie me in with that robbery. That’s how we agreed it would go. And that woman and her man, I wasn’t part of your little game, now was I? No,” he shook his head. “The only person who could’ve linked me to all this was that Lancer girl, Miss Teresa. An’ you boys took care of that for me, and the sons, too, right? Or maybe that’s the second bit of unfinished business we have to take care of?”
“Naw,” Madrigal said quickly, ignoring Ezekiel. “Naw, they’re dead, Tom. The way Lancer was bleeding he didn’t last the night and the girl, she couldn’a survived that fall.”
“’Couldn’t?’” Michaels eyed Madrigal closely.
“Didn’t.” Ezekiel pronounced firmly. He spat and the stream of brown tobacco juice hit a puddle just beside Madrigal’s horse’s foot.
“All right.” Michaels looked at them both carefully then paused, thinking. “All right, this is what we do. We head back and see if we can find that woman. If we can’t, then I do my visiting. There’s a line shack somewhere back there – I remember seeing it one time when I was doing a little exploring around that lake. No one’s going to be using it this time of year. You two can hole up there.”
“I don’t know . . .” Madrigal said doubtfully.
“Skinner, you worry too much.” Ezekiel readjusted his slicker, pulling the edges forward so that his thighs were protected from the unrelenting rain. “Anyone looking for the men who robbed the Green River bank is gonna be huntin’ six men – mebbe four if they come ‘cross Case an’ Bill and figger they was in on it. But then they’d find that other Lancer’s body and mebbe they’d think Johnny Madrid’s past caught up with him. That who you said he was, right, Tom? Madrid?”
“Yeah. That was the rumor I heard.”
“All right then,” Ezekiel said.
“And that second bit of business.” Michaels looked at Madrigal, his expression blank. “The girl. And the other one.”
“Told ya. Already taken care of,” Madrigal retorted, his heart racing. He pushed himself back in his saddle with feigned nonchalance and forced himself to look expectantly at Michaels.
“Yeah, well, I think we’ll just go and check on that, too,” the former teller said.
“Let’s get on with it,” Ezekiel said impatiently.
“Are you coming, Skinner?” Michaels’ voice was unnaturally soft.
“Sure, Tom,” Madrigal said, touching his gelding with his heels. “Sure.”
Goddamn it, boy, he thought, his insides churning again. You are way in over yore fool head.
* * *
Eyes closed, he lay drifting, wondering whether the rumble of his brother’s voice was real or just fever playing another one of its tricks. If he kept his eyes closed and waited, then maybe he’d know.
He didn’t feel as hot as he had earlier, when he had opened his eyes to find himself revisiting an old nightmare. Then, his skin had felt as if seared and each breath flamed a fire burning in his side. Only when the cool, wet cloths on his forehead and chest had done their job had he realized it was Murdoch and Jelly above him, pinning his shoulders to the bed, stilling his fists at his sides. Only then did he know he was not in a dirty, urine-sodden, rat-infested cell, defending himself from the boots and rifle butts of four jaded rurales softening up the mestizo for their captain’s whip.
Strange to have someone around to help fight the demons from his past and watch his back when illness made him helpless. Comforting but strange. And a little humbling, too. Made a man want to walk carefully and mind where he put his feet when there were people believing in him and counting on him. Not just any people. Relations. Say it, Johnny Madrid . . .Lancer. Say the word. Family.
Abruptly he remembered the scene he’d come upon – when? Last night? Last week? Time was playing tricks on him. Earlier, when the old man had chased away the rurales. No, the dream about the rurales. Then. He’d said something about it being mid-morning. So it must have been just last night that he’d found them. Scott all trussed up and bleeding, and Teresa, scared but trying to be strong, fumbling with the ropes around Scott’s ankles. Both of them sounding so glad to see him alive; and him with that lump in his throat, scared he wouldn’t be able to get them away from that place far enough or fast enough . . .
Slowly, almost reluctantly he opened his eyes and turned his head toward the sound of his brother’s voice. There on the bed beside him, sitting with his back cushioned by a pillow pushed against the cabin wall, was Scott. Without thinking, Johnny reached out, wanting touch to reassure him that he was seeing his brother and not some fever-induced apparition. And though he wanted to say “Scott” what came out of his mouth was a hoarse, low groan as pain flared in his chest and side.
“Easy, son.” Murdoch’s face was above him and he felt his father’s hand brush against his forehead then lift, hesitate and rest lightly on his upper arm. “His fever seems lower,” Murdoch turned, murmuring to someone.
“T’resa,” Johnny said as she moved from Murdoch’s side and sat down on the bed. She slipped her hand over his, gently holding his fingers just below the edge of the stained, crumbling cast. He saw that her eyes were luminous with tears, which worried him. “You okay?” he asked, his voice suddenly playing him false so that the question came out as a weak whisper. She nodded vigorously, a slight smile even beginning to tug at her lips, and with relief he turned his head, again searching out his brother.
‘You had me wondering, Boy,” Scott said as their eyes met, locked, and said the things that couldn’t be said aloud.
“’M fine, Scott. Just tired, that’s all.” He began to try to rise, wanting to sit up -- suddenly, fiercely, wanting everyone to stop looking at him with worry written all over their faces. Jelly over there, standing beside Scott, his mouth all drawn up like a prune. Stewin’ . . . He gasped, closing his eyes as pain caught him again, this time a knife slipping between his ribs, forcing him to draw ragged, shallow breaths. Involuntarily his left hand came up and pressed his ribcage and he let his shoulders sink back to the bed.
“Relax, Johnny, just relax.” Murdoch ‘s tone was soothing as he opened Johnny’s shirt and pressed gentle, knowing fingers on fading bruises. “Hurts?” he asked as Johnny flinched. “More than, say, a few days ago?”
“Murdoch?” Scott questioned anxiously
“It’s nothin’, Scott.” Johnny looked meaningfully at Murdoch.
“It’s not nothing, John,” Murdoch said quietly, ignoring Johnny’s glare. “It looks like you’ve re-injured those ribs, which explains why you’ve been having some breathing troubles. Did you fall? Lift something heavy?”
“Me.” Scott looked at Johnny again. “He lifted me.”
“Look, Murdoch . . .” Johnny began, then paused, trying to catch his breath. “No,” he said as Murdoch started to rise. “Wait . . . please. Help me . . . sit up.”
“No, you need to rest, son.”
“Can breathe better sitting up,” Johnny said. He stared steadily at Murdoch and was relieved when his father sat back down on the bed and returned his gaze uncertainly. Murdoch reached out, felt his forehead.
“You still have quite a fever.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“This wound in your side – be better not to move too much and put more strain on your sewing job.” Murdoch’s mouth twitched slightly.
“I know. Not going anywhere – yet.” Johnny gave a quick smile, his eyes holding his father’s.
“All right, son,” Murdoch said, exhaling noisily. “Jelly, can you give me a hand?”
By the time they’d managed to help him upright and Teresa had placed a couple of rolled blankets behind his back and the wall, Johnny had begun to rue his own stubbornness. He was hurting far more than he cared to admit even to himself, the slightly increased ease of breathing barely compensating for all the dizziness and pain. But he thought better being upright, and something had been bothering him, nagging at the edge of his thoughts. Something important.
“The two of you look like a pair of them bookends in Murdoch’s library,” Jelly observed, looking from Scott to Johnny then back. “Or mebbe a team of matched mules, more like.”
“Thanks, Jelly,” Scott said dryly and Johnny felt a smile start as he watched the grizzled handyman try to cover his concern by fussing over the little potbelly stove.
“Cipriano oughta be here by now,” Jelly continued, moving the coffee pot to the hotter part of the stovetop and pushing what Johnny suspected was a pot of beans and jerky to the stove’s cooler edge. The smell of food made him feel slightly sick to his stomach and he swallowed hard.
“You must be thirsty, Johnny.” Teresa stood by the bed, a cup and canteen in hand. Numbly he stared at the canteen. As if from afar he heard Murdoch and Jelly discussing Cipriano and a rescue party and a wagon. But all his attention was focused on the canteen. Because there was something he was forgetting and the canteen was a reminder, a piece of string around his finger.
“Johnny?” Teresa’s voice was concerned.
“Teresa, honey, didn’t you say you . . .knew one of those men we met at the lake?” He tried to make his voice gentle, relaxed, but even he could hear the strain. His left hand found one of the concha buttons on his pants and he fiddled with it, waiting for her answer.
“Yes, Tom Michaels. But . . .”
“Tom Michaels?” Murdoch broke in. He looked at Teresa questioningly. “Tom Michaels left the Green River bank about three months ago. His uncle died and left him a store, somewhere in Nevada, I believe. No one mentioned his name in connection with the robbery – I assumed it was strangers. Are you sure, Teresa?”
“Oh, yes, Murdoch,” Teresa nodded. “He, he spoke to me. Called me by name. He was . . . horrible.” She shuddered.
“Murdoch,” Johnny said urgently, struggling forward. Off-balance, he stuck his left arm out in front of him to catch his weight and tried not to fall over. He heard Scott grunt and felt his brother’s hand on his back, grasping his shirt, clumsily hauling him back upright. “Listen to me, you’ve got to get Teresa away from here. And Scott.”
“Now wait a minute . . .” Scott protested, loosening his grip on Johnny’s shirt.
“What?” Distractedly Murdoch looked from Teresa to Johnny. He shook his head. “No, no – she’s safe here. Those men are long gone. Cipriano will be along soon and . . .”
“Johnny,” Scott broke in. “Michaels thinks we’re dead. As far as he’s concerned, Teresa is lying at the bottom of a gully and I bled to death, staked out in the sun.” He paused, giving his brother a roguish smile. “With ants crawlin’ over my eyeballs.”
“Scott!” came Murdoch’s sharp reproach. But Teresa let out a choked gasp, then laughed, and Johnny knew that was what Scott intended. To defuse the anxiety mounting in Teresa’s face by confronting it dead on. He almost felt like smiling himself, hearing his own words come from his brother’s mouth. But his surge of strength was waning, and he knew he had to persuade Murdoch and Scott to listen before weakness had the upper hand.
“Scott’s right,” Murdoch grimaced. “Those men left you all for dead. They must know they have a posse on their trail. Why would they risk hanging around this part of the country? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Murdoch, please,” Johnny urged. “I had a lot of time to think last night, coming here . . .” He stopped and leaned back against the wall, waiting for the dizziness to pass, feeling suddenly over-warm, suffocated.
“Rest, Johnny.” Murdoch was leaning over him, catching him as he began to list sideways toward Scott and awkwardly trying with one hand to re-arrange the blankets behind him.
“No, wait!” In frustration Johnny struck feebly with his good arm at his father’s restraining hand. He felt his side and ribs protest and he hunched against the pain, still breathless but desperate to make himself understood. Murdoch’s eyes met his and he had to harden himself to the emotion his father wasn’t bothering to hide. So when at last he could speak there was a coldness in his voice that sounded like anger.
“Will you listen to me, old man?”
Murdoch straightened, stiffening as if he’d been slapped. Beside him, Johnny heard Scott’s sharp intake of breath. But at least he had his father’s full attention.
“Don’t you see?” Johnny pled, his tone softening. “Sooner or later one of those men is going to start thinking about Teresa and worrying. And he’s going to regret he didn’t -- well, I’m sorry, honey,” Johnny looked quickly at Teresa, “he’s going to regret he didn’t go down to the bottom of that gully and put a slug between your eyes. And maybe he or another one of ‘em is going to start thinking about Scott, and how they left him alive.”
His strength going, Johnny closed his eyes. “Murdoch, I know it sounds far-fetched, I know you think it doesn’t make sense,” he paused, trying again to catch his breath, and weakly raised his hand in protest as his father began to speak. “You have to . . .trust me on this. Take Scott and Teresa home, back to Lancer. Use the Old Ones’ Trail – you hafta know it. The one Cipriano talks about.”
“Johnny’s right,” Scott broke in. “You have to get Teresa back to Lancer as soon as possible. Murdoch, you said everyone seems to believe the robbers were strangers. Don’t you see what that means? Teresa is the only person who can identify Tom Michaels as part of that gang. You must get her to safety.”
“Well, Cipriano’s ‘sposed to be here any time now,” Jelly put in.
“Don’t wait,” Scott said.
“What are you proposing?” Murdoch asked gently. He sat down on the bed again, looking from one brother to another.
“Take Teresa -- now,” Scott said.
“An’ you,” Johnny added, opening his eyes in alarm.
“No, Johnny,” Scott shook his head. “I’d only slow them down. There’s only three horses.”
“Look, Boston. . .”
“I’m not going anywhere without you two,” Teresa cried. “Both of you!”
“No one’s going anywhere.” Murdoch’s powerful voice overrode the others. “Son, I’m not arguing with you about this,” he warned quickly as Johnny started to protest. “Save your breath. I understand what you’re saying and, believe it or not,” a smile flickered across his face, “I do trust your instincts. But I cannot do what you’re asking.”
“Murdoch . . .” Exhaustedly, Johnny tried to mount another argument. But he saw his father was having none of it.
“No.” Murdoch shook his head. “There’s still a lot we don’t know about one another but I’m sure about this. We are a family. And, by God, whatever has to be faced, we face it as a family, together.”
* * *
Not for the first time that cold, wet morning did Val wonder what kind of penny-pinching foolishness had made him think he could put off replacing his torn and cracked old rain slicker. He doubted the oil-cloth had a drop of oil still in it; it was only mid-day but he was drenched and still, he guessed, a good four or five hours away from Lancer.
The rain was unrelenting, a steady downpour since shortly after dawn. He’d been up long before, slipping carefully away from Maude’s unconscious embrace to tap the dozing Hardy on the shoulder and send him to off to bed. Val wasn’t sure who was more embarrassed, the sleepy man on watch or himself; each had avoided the other’s eyes. He’d stoked up the fire, put the first pot of coffee water on to boil and had sat, watching the flames, until the sky began to lighten and the first pelts of rain began.
He’d had to gently shake Maude’s shoulder several times before she wakened. And when she sat up, he saw that her eyes were vacant and uncomprehending. He had pressed a coffee cup in her hand but while she held it cradled between her palms, she made no move to raise it to her lips. Silently, McTeague had gone to the wagon, rummaged in its depths and emerged with a rain slicker, which he handed to Val. When he placed it around her shoulders she gave a small shudder, and sat, tears streaming down her face, staring off at the gray horizon.
Both McTeague and Hardy had seen the wisdom of Val’s decision to send Maude back to Green River. But neither had been enthusiastic about his plan to continue on alone.
“Don’t like it, Sheriff,” Hardy had said, playing with the holes in his battered hat. “We oughta stick together. Them guys is pure evil. You don’t wanna be on your own if you meet up with ‘em.”
“Why don’t you ride back with us,” McTeague urged. “Once we get this lady here all cared for and settled we can set out again, the three of us.”
They hadn’t managed to sway him, but in an ornery sort of way Val had been pleased by their objections. The only two members of his posse who’d stuck with him and were still ready to keep on hunting were two men most of the town’s so-called upstanding citizens held in low opinion. Joe Hardy the jug-headed saloon swamper and Tim McTeague, the undertaker’s ne’er-do-well son, more useless, it had been whispered, than the dead men his daddy buries. All those other fellers, Val thought, so hotted up to be heroes, well they’d cooled down to be pains in the butt. But not these two.
It had been decided between them that Maude would ride with McTeague, who’d seemed more comfortable dealing with her than Hardy. McTeague had a mother and two sisters; Hardy only his dog, Pester. Besides, Hardy had argued, he did like his chaw. What that had to do with anything Val couldn’t tell but he figured since McTeague was nodding knowingly an understanding had been reached. In the end, all three of them were needed to get Maude into the saddle because, well, the lamps were lit but no one was home. Poor, poor lady.
Stomach rumbling, Val rooted in his vest pocket and came up with a piece of beef jerky. After five-six hours in the saddle, riding through a storm that would do Noah proud, a man sure would like a cup of coffee, he thought wistfully. But even if he felt he could spare the time, which he didn’t, he doubted he’d be able to find anything dry enough to let him start a fire.
He spurred his black from an easy jog into a fast trot and waggled his wet shoulders, trying to shrug off the chill that seemed to have settled on him permanently. Next payday he was going to buy himself that new rain slicker, walk right into ole Buskirk’s Drygoods and slap down some money without a second thought. Even if the sun was shining outside and it looked like they were in for a drought. He was going to remember this ride, and being cold and wet. And if it took shelling out hard-earned cash to avoid feelin’ this miserable, then he was gonna shell out hard-earned cash.
His nose was running and he swiped at it uselessly with the back of his wet hand. Rain wasn’t showing any signs of lessening, he noted glumly. Whatever tracks or signs his prey had left now were long gone. Even Cipriano would be stumped, Val thought, and he’s the best I ever seen, barrin’ my own daddy. Mebbe even better’n him, he admitted. The old man’s got the trackin’ nose of one of them coonhounds.
He was sure it wouldn’t take much persuading to get Murdoch Lancer to lend him some vaqueros. That was, of course, unless Cipriano and the vaqueros were already out on their own quest, looking for Teresa. Val shivered. He hoped he was wrong about that. But the thought kept nagging at him, like a bad toothache. Worse. He thought of Maude. Hardy had it pegged. Those men were evil, or as his daddy used to say: blacker than the devil’s dirt.
Val’s stubby fingers scratched at his beard. Maybe it was time to go back to pushin’ cows. Hell, he wouldn’t even mind ridin’ drag again. Eatin’ dust was a damn sight easier than tryin’ to keep Green River clean.
* * *
Cipriano swore. In Spanish, because his own language had the most satisfying swear words. Aloud, because his wife Elena wasn’t there to threaten him with soap, as if he were a small naughty boy. And at great length, with a great deal of color and imagination. Because the roadbed just before the bridge had washed out and there was now no way to get his wagon across the rain-swollen stream.
Disgustedly, he hauled back on the wagon’s wooden brake, wrapped the reins around the whip socket and stiffly climbed down onto the wet road to survey the situation close up. Rodriguez rode up beside him and dismounted.
“¡Carajo!” the young vaquero breathed, shaking his head.
“No hay nada que hacer,” Rodriguez said. “¿Y después?”
What next? Cipriano wished he knew. Rodriguez was right. There was nothing they could do about the road. A torrent of water had escaped the banks of what was usually a quiet little arroyo and the bridge approach was now entirely cut off. Neither of the two alternatives which immediately came to mind was remotely acceptable. They could not give up, nor could they afford the time to go all the way back to Lancer and from there head for the Green River road and, eventually, the line cabin. That would take days.
Already he had been too long delayed, first by the fall he had taken very early that morning, in the dark, and later, back at the rancho, when he had found the only wagon left in the corral was up on blocks with its front wheels off. And all the vaqueros except Rodriguez out on the range.
“Cipriano, Otilio,” the segundo corrected absently, his eyes fixed on the rushing water. “You are a married man now, and someday el padre de familia.”
“Si, Cipriano, then,” Rodriguez said, sounding pleased. Then his voice turned somber. “What do you want to do – must we return now and go by way of Green River?”
“No, no.” Cipriano shook his head. He rocked back on his heels, arms crossed across his broad chest and squinted up into the rain. “¡Hijo de la chingada!” he swore again. “This rain – well, we must unharness the horses and take the Old Ones’ trail. There is nothing else to be done.”
“But, Señor,” Rodriguez protested. “You told me the trail is no longer fit for travel, that this morning it slowed your journey.”
“We have no other choice,” Cipriano said brusquely. “Besides, that was a different part of the trail that I followed. Perhaps it will be different, better, on the upper section.”
“And if it isn’t?”
“Time is passing. We have no choice,” Cipriano repeated. The thought of having to force Scott and Johnny to ride on horseback over a muddy, rugged trail filled him with gloom. But he did not believe they could wait the several days it would take to bring in a wagon by the Green River route. Perhaps the health of Murdoch’s elder son would not be threatened, although he was suffering much pain. But el hijo menor . . . Johnny was very ill.
“Sí, I was just thinking. Excuse me. Farther up, on the trail, there will be a place to cross this riachuelo. Very narrow but it always has been good, in any weather.”
Clapping Rodriguez on the shoulder, Cipriano walked back to the wagon, pulled himself up so that he was balancing against the raised tailgate and surveyed the tarpaulin-covered box. Together he and Otilio had struggled to pull two layers of the heavy canvas over the mattress, blankets and basic supplies they had hastily collected. He hoped the shelter would continue to do its job while they rode on.
“Do you remember where you placed the extra coats, for the rain?” he asked. “Otilio?” He could see the top of the young man’s sombrero bobbing behind the team as he unhitched the traces. No need to tell this young man anything twice, Cipriano thought approvingly. He is very quick and thinks ahead.
“In the front, señor,” Rodriguez answered, looking up. “Do you want me to find them when I am finished here?”
“Sí, gracias, we will take them along,” Cipriano said. He stepped down from the tailgate and walked to the front of the wagon. Tucked beneath the seat was his rifle and an extra revolver. Otilio caught his eye but said nothing. Cipriano tucked the revolver in his waistband and handed Rodriguez the rifle.
“Please carry this for me,” he said. “I must be getting old but I think I will find it easier to have both hands free for riding without a saddle.” Catching Rodriguez’s worried look, Cipriano grinned. “Ah, Otilio, think what a story you can tell your compañeros if I fall off in the mud.”
“That is a story I would prefer not to tell, señor,” Rodrguez said seriously.
“Then I will try not to give you reason to tell it,” Cipriano answered with equal seriousness. “Let’s ride.”
* * *
The fly was caught, struggling in the web that stretched across the upper corner of the grimy window. The egg-laden spider waited, watching, Murdoch supposed, the fly’s cycle of fight and surrender.
Murdoch turned to find Jelly behind him. He raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“You want me saddle up and go out and look for ‘im?” Jelly asked in a low voice. It’s getting’ late. Too late, I’m thinkin’. Purty soon we’re gonna find ourselves spending another night here.”
Murdoch looked back out the window. Rain was falling steadily, as it had all day. The light outside was as dim and pewter gray in late afternoon as it had been in early morning. Despite summer’s long days dusk was advancing; even if Cipriano drove into the yard right now they would be hard-pressed to make it to Lancer before night fell.
“No, Jelly, thanks.” Murdoch shook his head. His eyes fell first on Teresa, curled sleeping in a chair by the stove, and then on the wide bunk where his sons slept soundlessly. He continued quietly, matching his tone to Jelly’s. “I’d rather have you here. I’m sure Cipriano will be along soon. He probably had to track down a wagon – didn’t you tell me there’s a couple of crews out mending fence? But I think you’re right,” he gave a quick smile. “I think we should plan to spend the night here.”
“Well, then.” Jelly’s hands moved unconsciously to his braces, stretching them out from his chest with his thumbs. It was a little tic they were all beginning to recognize and, Murdoch knew, usually preceded a pronouncement of some sort. “Supper,” the handyman said. “We need us somethin’ more’n beans. I’m gonna poke around and see what I can find.”
“You do that, Jelly,” Murdoch smiled. But he fell somber as he glanced again at his sleeping family. It was unusual, no unnatural, to see any one of them so still. More quickly than he would have expected, he had adjusted to his previously quiet, rather staid household becoming something close to controlled chaos. As the center of a working ranch, the house had always seen people coming and going. But these past months had been different, so very different. The comings and goings were now those of a family.
And the sounds. The sounds were different. Doors slamming, spurs jingling. Someone whistling in the morning while shaving. Young men’s laughter. A crisp Boston accent. A soft Southwestern drawl. Many was the time he had sat at his desk listening to the sound of his sons’ voices rise and fall as they bantered, discussed, argued, teased.
Exhaling heavily, Murdoch reached in his vest and drew out his watch. It was nearly half-past five. Cipriano was long, long overdue.
“Murdoch.” Johnny’s hoarse whisper called him over to the bed.
“How are you feeling, son?” he asked, sitting down. He tried to hide the apprehension he felt at the sight of Johnny’s over-bright eyes and flushed cheeks, a sign the fever was rising again.
“Good, Murdoch, I’m good,” Johnny said softly, pulling that crooked little grin which Murdoch was learning meant his son wanted to move on to something else. All at once he had a flash of the boy Johnny must have been. His throat hurt.
“What time is it?”
“Half past five.”
“Cipriano’s pretty late then, isn’t he?” Johnny asked, his eyes holding Murdoch’s meaningfully.
“Yes, well, he probably was delayed by something, at the ranch,” Murdoch said, looking away.
“Or by someone, on the road?” Johnny suggested. He reached for his father’s sleeve. “Murdoch . . .”
“The topic’s not open for discussion, Johnny,” Murdoch said firmly, placing his hand on top of his son’s briefly. Then, self-conscious, he stretched for the tin cup sitting on the wobbly table by the head of the bed. “Thirsty?”
Johnny shook his head. “How’s Scott?” he asked, eyes searching out his brother sleeping beside him. “He been awake?”
“An’ he ate somethin’, him and Teresa both,” Jelly broke in. Spoon in hand he came over to the bed. “An’ that’s what you’re gonna do, too, Johnny Lancer. If ya got any sense about ya. Which I doubt.”
“I got enough sense not to eat too much of your cookin’.” Johnny was becoming breathless again. Murdoch could see him struggle for air as he responded to Jelly’s jibe. “More’n I can say about my . . . educated brother.”
“Do I hear someone taking my name in vain?” Scott shifted his weight, rolling clumsily onto his side in an effort to sit.
“Oh, fer . . .” Jelly scurried over to Scott, helping him upright and arranging the pillows behind his back. Suddenly the older man straightened, cocking his head, listening. “What’s that horse doin’ whinnyin’ out there – someone comin’?”
“I didn’t hear anything,” Murdoch answered. “Whoa, Johnny,” he cautioned, placing a restraining hand on his younger son’s chest. “It must be Cipriano.”
“Lemme go give him a hand. An’ a piece of my mind,” Jelly sputtered. “Keepin’ us waitin’ here. An’ worryin’. . .”
“Jelly?” Teresa was awake. Murdoch saw her give a rueful smile as Jelly passed her his spoon on his way to the door. “Give that pot a stir, would ya, Teresa?”
“Wait . . . Jelly!” Johnny called out as the handyman pulled open the cabin door. “Murdoch, don’t let . . .”
The first shot came through the open door and slammed into the wall above the stove just inches from where Teresa stood frozen in place, Jelly’s spoon still in her hand. “Down, T’resa, get down,” Johnny shouted, struggling off the bed. But even as Murdoch lunged for the terror-stricken young woman, bringing her down roughly to the floor, a second shot rang out and he saw Jelly reel back across the threshold, clutching his right shoulder.
Stunned, Murdoch watched as Johnny staggered across the cabin floor, pulled Jelly inside and slammed the door shut. He saw Jelly fall and Johnny sink, eyes closed, chest heaving, slowly down the wall to the right of the door.
“Murdoch!” He heard Scott calling urgently from somewhere behind him and turned his head to see his elder son trying to drag himself across the floor toward where he and Teresa now lay. “Where’s your rifle?”
“Forget it, Scott,” he rasped. “Stay down.” He drew his revolver out of its holster and squeezed Teresa’s arm. “Are you all right, sweetheart?” he whispered gently. He could feel her trembling but she nodded quickly. “I’ll see to Jelly,” she said.
“No! Stay down!” Murdoch ordered with alarm. “Promise me?”
“T’resa,” Johnny said softly, his eyes still closed. “Just wait, honey, ‘kay? Just . . . just wait ‘til we know what we’ve got here. Murdoch,” he called, opening his eyes to look at his father. “Toss me Jelly’s gun?”
“Johnny . . .”
“What? . . . You gonna do this all by yourself, old man?” Johnny drawled, a bemused smile relaxing for a moment the pain lines in his face. “I don’t think so. Now quick, before whoever’s out there gets to being nosy.”
Conceding, Murdoch crawled to Jelly’s side and pulled the handyman’s gun from its holster. He passed it to Johnny and then crabbed back to the cabin’s far wall where his rifle stood, barrel upwards, in a dark corner. As he passed the rifle to Scott, there was the sound of breaking glass, and he knew Johnny had knocked out the window and was already searching for the ambusher.
As Murdoch made his way toward the front of the cabin he saw Jelly stir, rolling from his side to his back with a groan. The injured man’s hand came up to his bleeding shoulder, covering the slowly growing patch of red . With relief Murdoch saw the wound appeared to be in the fleshy area just under the joint .Quickly Murdoch pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and slipped it under Jelly’s fingers.
“Sorry, Boss,” Jelly murmured.
“Not your fault, Jelly. Can you hold this in place?”
“Sure. Go on.”
“Johnny? See anything?” Murdoch called.
“No,” Johnny said, his eyes still scanning the wooded areas beyond the clearing. “What about you, Scott?”
Murdoch crawled to the wall opposite to the one where Scott had positioned himself and peered out the small dirty window that faced the shed where the three horses were sheltered. He watched carefully, hoping for an outline, a flash of movement, something that would tell him who and what that they were up against. But there was nothing.
Nothing except rain.
* * *
Tom Michaels turned to Madrigal and regarded him coldly.
“That was smart, Skinner. Real smart. Now we’ve got ourselves a welcoming party.”
Madrigal hunched miserably against the base of the large, chest-high boulder they had picked for their watching post. He didn’t know what had possessed him to fire on the old coot who’d opened the cabin door. True, he’d felt jumpy all day, ever since Michaels had decided they should turn around. And he’d been spooked by those horses carrying on, callin’ to each other like old friends. Michaels had swore to them the line shack would be empty. Well, it weren’t.
“What ya want to do now, Tom?” Ezekiel asked. “You figger three of ‘em?”
“Three horses,” Madrigal ventured.
“Yeah. And one of them’s ours,” Michaels said thoughtfully.
“You sure?” Ezekiel sounded doubtful. “Just another bay, as far as I can tell. Black mane, black tail. No socks, no blaze.”
“It’s Vern’s,” Michaels said flatly. “I know it.”
“Don’t mean nothing,” Ezekiel said sourly. He hunkered down, his back against the rock, and pulled out his snoose tin. Finding Madrigal’s eyes on him he held out the tin in invitation and shrugged when it was refused.
“Sorry, Tom,” Madrigal began. But he saw that Michaels wasn’t listening. Apparently deep in thought, he was staring at the line shack as if the small structure itself would answer all his questions. And maybe it would, Madrigal thought. Himself, well, he didn’t much give a damn who was in there or even who it was he’d shot. He just wanted to get as far away from here as soon as he could. Damn Tom Michaels and his damn unfinished business.
“That big chestnut,” Michaels said finally. “I know that horse, too.”
“Didn’t know you was such an expert on horseflesh, Tom.” Ezekiel spat and a large blob of brown spit landed by the toe of Madrigal’s boot. Madrigal flinched.
“Belongs to Murdoch Lancer,” Michaels said slowly, looking down at Ezekiel. “That chestnut – big, four white socks and, I bet, a full white blaze, almost a mask. Everybody in Green River knows that horse.”
“You think old man Lancer’s out here looking for his boys?” Madrigal asked. “And that girl?” His mouth went dry when he thought of the girl. Miss O’Brien. Such a pretty little thing. Dyin’out there like that, at the bottom of some gully. She didn’t deserve that. But better’n what woulda happened if we’d drug her back to camp alive. Michaels hadn’t been part of what happened to that greenhorn’s woman but he sure as hell made it plain he was gonna “dance” with that gal. And as for Ezekiel. . . .
Madrigal shivered. The rain was chilling him to the bone. Michaels was ignoring him again, staring at the cabin; Ezekiel was squattin’ down, lookin’ like he was ready to wait out the world. Madrigal clutched his rifle and tried to look vigilant. Like a hard case. But I ain’t a hard case, not like Ezekiel. Or even Michaels. Lord, ya gotta know that. Didn’t have no part in what they did to that woman. And that gal, well, didn’t I persuade that loco coyote we could just leave her there? Shootin’ a man’s one thing, Lord, but messin’ with a woman . . .
“I think we’ve got to find out what Murdoch Lancer’s doing in that cabin and maybe have a little ‘talk’ with him,” Michaels said. He looked at Madrigal. “Maybe Mr. Lancer’s discovered some of our ‘unfinished business.’”
“Aw, Tom, I told ya,” Madrigal spoke in an aggrieved tone but his heart was pounding. He tried to look unworried, contemptuous even. Like Ezekiel. “Look, we could ride out right now and no one’d be the wiser. Head for Mexico, just like we planned.”
“Murdoch Lancer’s found Vern’s horse.” Michaels eyed Madrigal curiously. “Doesn’t that suggest something to you, Skinner? Don’t you think that if Mr. Bigshot Rancher has found the horse maybe he found something else, too?”
“Means he probably stumbled on those bodies, back by that lake,” Ezekiel put in. He put his head back against the boulder, letting the rain wash over his face. “It means, Skinner, that he knows at least one of his boys is dead.”
“Mebbe he don’t care much,” Madrigal retorted, desperate now to head the other two from the path they seemed intent on taking. “Tom, you said you heard Madrid and his old man was always buttin’ heads . . .”
“Think, you dumb jackass!” Ezekiel hissed. “It means Lancer knew the girl and Madrid and that other one, the other son, was out there by the lake. He come looking’ for ‘em. An’ I got me a feelin’ he ain’t gonna give up just ‘cause he found his Mex bastard.”
“There’s no telling how long he has been out here.” Michaels’ tone was thoughtful. “But I’m beginning to think he’s only got that one old guy along for company, the one Skinner shot. Three horses in the shed, one of ‘em Vern’s, one of ‘em Lancer’s chestnut. Third has to belong to the old bird. Maybe you did us a favor after all, Skinner,” Michaels smiled. “Instead of two old men to deal with we might have us only one, or one and a half. You see where you got the bastard?”
“Shoulder,” Ezekiel said.
“Whadda ya wanna do, Tom?” Madrigal asked, struggling to keep the relief from showing in his face. “Wait until dark, rush ‘em?” Damn, he didn’t want any part of this. He’d gotten away with his hide in one piece so far, but it sure seemed Michaels had his heart set on changing that.
“No, I don’t think we have to wait that long.” Michaels said. “Just Old Man Lancer and that other feller in there. Shouldn’t be much problem, eh, Ezekiel?”
“Looks like that shack’s got only three windows – you see any in the back, Skinner, when you were checking it out?”
“Nope,” Madrigal shook his head. He thought he knew where Michaels was going with this and he didn’t like it. If they were going to take on the men in the shack, he’d rather do it under cover of dark. Even if it was only two old men they were taking on, and even if one of them was wounded, darkness would help hide him from their quarries’ guns.
And from Tom Michaels’s too-knowing eyes.
* * *
Teresa slowly brought her hand up and placed it under her bruised cheek, cushioning her face from the hardness of the floor. Her heart had stopped racing, although it seemed as if everyone in the small shack must still be able to hear its loud thump-thump. She had hardly dared move a muscle since Murdoch had pulled her down to safety. Johnny had asked her to hold tight and that’s what she would do. For now.
The floor was filthy. She could smell the old dirt that chinked the cracks between the floorboards and see new clumps of dried mud around the stove and under the table. Somewhere near her, at a window, was Scott. She couldn’t see him, but if she moved her head just slightly she could see Johnny and Murdoch and Jelly. As she watched, Jelly’s fingers moved, pressing Murdoch’s handkerchief more firmly against his wound.
“Jelly!” she called softly.
“It’s all right, Teresa,” Jelly said. “Just a graze.”
“Teresa, stay put,” Scott ordered from behind her.
“Honey, we just don’t know who’s out there,” Johnny said, his attention still focused outside. He was kneeling on one knee by the window, his injured leg stuck out awkwardly, his weight against the wall. She saw him raise his left arm, gun awkwardly in hand, and wipe his face on his forearm. There were dark rings of perspiration under his arms and a trail of wetness down his back. Fever, she thought with a sinking feeling. How can he fight a fever and whoever is out there?
“Still nothing?” Murdoch asked.
“Nothing,” Scott confirmed. “Whoever it is they must be going to try to wait us out, wait for dark.”
“We can’t let them do that.”
“What are you going to do?” Teresa made her voice as calm and low as possible but she could feel her heart begin its mad race again. She felt so helpless lying there on the floor, waiting. If only there was an extra gun, she could be of some use.
As if he had read her thoughts she heard Johnny ask, “Scott, where’s the derringer?”
“I’m not sure. Teresa?”
The derringer! She had forgotten about the derringer. “Under the mattress,” she called, remembering. Cautiously she craned her head back in a vain attempt to see Scott. “It’s close. I can get it – won’t even lift my head from the floor. I promise,” she said lightly, ignoring Murdoch’s stern “No!” in the background.
“’Kay, T’resa,” Johnny agreed quietly. Again his arm came up and she saw him swipe at his eyes with the back of his wrist.
“Scoot back . . .” he directed, ignoring her worried query. “On your stomach . . .We’ll, we’ll get you a new dress,” he teased weakly.
“Found it,” she said after a minute. “Are you going to let me use this thing and be of some use?”
“We are not!” Murdoch’s tone was one of protective outrage. Teresa heard a chuckle from Scott.
“No, Teresa,” Johnny said gently. “Might as well give you a pea shooter as let you aim that outside.”
“Then what?” she questioned. She saw Johnny look behind her, toward Scott.
“For ‘in case,’” he said. His eyes met hers and she knew, suddenly, what “in case” meant.
There was an awkward silence. Then she heard Murdoch clear his throat. “What do you have in mind, boys?” he asked. “You don’t think we should wait, see what their next move is?”
“I think that’s what they’re expecting,” Scott said. “Whoever it is, they probably think there‘s only three of us in here at most.”
“What do you have in mind?” Murdoch repeated.
“A frontal assault,” Scott declared. “Most unexpected.”
“We’re going to force their hand, call ‘em out,” Johnny said shortly. He was looking out the window with an intensity that gave Teresa a feeling of foreboding. He and Scott were about to take some sort of risk, gambling they could upset the odds, of that she was sure. They didn’t seem to need to talk about it with one another; they just seemed to know. As different as her guardian’s sons were, they were enough alike in their approach to danger that she felt a shiver of fear go up her spine. These two men were her brothers. Oh not by blood, but for reasons she no longer attempted to understand or explain.
“No,” Murdoch shook his head, “you can’t . . . “
“We have to.” Johnny looked at Scott. Teresa bit back the questions she wanted to ask. She knew that neither of the brothers had the energy to deal with them now.
“Murdoch,” Johnny said. “I need you to cover me from the side, from that window there. If you can help him up here, Scott’ll take the front, here . . .”
“Cover you?” Murdoch asked in disbelief.
“Yeah, that’s what I said. Cover me.” Johnny paused for breath but, Teresa noticed, carefully avoided making eye contact with Murdoch. “Back of this shack’s our only . . . only weakness. No windows – that’s how they’d want to come at us.”
“Johnny . . .”
“It ain’t open for discussion, Murdoch.” Johnny pulled a wry grin and looked at his father. Then, becoming serious once more, he turned back to the window. “It’s got to be done – our only chance to get an opening on ‘em. And who else, Murdoch? You? You gotta take care of Teresa. Scott? He can’t even stand on that knee let alone run.”
“And you can, Johnny?” Teresa asked angrily. She sat up, suddenly impatient with them, with their worry and their, yes, their self-sacrifice. “You think you can run? You can’t even talk without looking like you’re going to fall over. And you want me to lie here on the floor, like some little ninny, and let you all risk your lives . . .”
“T’resa . . .” Johnny ducked his head and for a minute she didn’t know whether he was laughing at her or -- Then she saw his chin lift, and his blue eyes met hers and she fell silent.
“I’d like to help,” she said finally. “Something. Anything.”
“Okay, you point your pea shooter out that side window, where Murdoch is now,” Johnny said. “Anything moves, you pull the trigger, ‘kay? Won’t hit anything but you can add to the racket.”
“Murdoch,” Scott asked, “ I need your help -- are you ready?”
As she crawled to her place by the window, Teresa saw Murdoch nod his head grimly then crab toward Scott, helping his son move up to a post next to Johnny. Her heart caught in her throat as she saw her guardian reach out and encircle his sons in a brief embrace before taking up watch at the side window. Johnny crawled toward the door, swinging his injured leg clumsily to avoid bending it. Already his breathing had taken on that ragged sound that had so scared her as they had walked through the long night. Suddenly he looked back at her and she saw that crooked little half-smile that always made her think of a small boy being mischievous. She tried to muster a smile in return.
“Let ‘er buck, Johnny,” she whispered as he reached for the door.
* * *
Half staggering, half running, Johnny made his way along the front of the line shack. He heard Scott squeeze off two shots, then what seemed like a hailstorm of bullets tore into the wall of the shack, just behind him. He turned the corner, ducked past Murdoch’s window and made for the rear of the cabin. There was a sagging woodshed back there, partially filled, that might just give him the cover he needed.
Breathing was agony, his chest felt as if he’d fallen on a carpet of knives. He couldn’t drag enough air into his tortured lungs. And the hot poker was back, stabbing at his calf, making each step a torment. He heard his own gun explode against the background of Scott’s rifle shots and, yes, that funny little pop of the derringer. But he hadn’t even bothered to try to aim at anything so intent was he on making it to the woodshed.
And staying conscious. He’d thought he could do this. That he could force his body to ignore what had happened before and respond as it always had. But nothing was working properly. And he was having to fight off the blackness that was drawing across the edges of his vision like the curtains Teresa pulled in the Great Room at night. Heavy, dark curtains.
A bullet dug into a round of wood near his face, so close that it chased away the darkness. Swearing softly he forced himself to focus on the trees beyond the corral where his instincts had registered a flash of movement. He could hear guns firing at the front of the cabin, and he tried to distinguish between the sound of Murdoch’s revolver and the guns of the ambushers. One? Two? He couldn’t be sure.
The rain was relentless, the staccato beat on the woodshed roof almost unnatural. He leaned wearily against the stack of firewood, trying to take some of the weight off his screaming leg. Perspiration was streaming down his face, its saltiness burning his eyes, and he brought his right arm up quickly, trying to wipe away the damp. But the movement caused his side to flare, and he had to bend into the pain, breathing quickly, shallowly. His left hand found the burning area and came away bloody.
Two more shots exploded behind his head, and he wondered dully if he was dealing with one gunman or two. Or more. They should be moving in closer now. Forced into tipping their hand. What if they don’t? What then? Oh, Madre, I wish I knew. Chest heaving painfully, he let his head loll back, hoping to draw in more air and heard the pop of the little derringer, like a deadly child’s toy, sound on its own.
Oh, T’resa, honey, he thought desperately, I hope you ain’t wasting your ammunition. ‘Cause if this doesn’t work, you just might need it. The sudden crack of Scott’s rifle startled him. Then he heard a single gun fire in response. Three, I think, Johnny told himself. Think there’s three of ‘em. He transferred his revolver into his right hand, testing. It felt heavy, too heavy, but a lot more natural. No, he thought, can’t do it, boy. Not enough strength to hold it steady.
He wiped his eyes again with his sleeve. Damn sweat, s’making it hard to see. Blearily he tried to focus on whatever it was that was moving off to his left. He heard Scott shout something about losing someone. Who? Who was Scott losing? He shook his head, trying to clear his vision. But that only seemed to make things worse. Oh, God, if only he could get some more air in his lungs. Wouldn’t feel so dizzy then. He felt himself stagger and without thinking he put out his right hand, trying to catch his weight against the stack of cordwood. A dull throb of pain pulsed through his arm.
“You stop right there, mister.” The voice came from in front of him but he had to lift his head and squint to bring into focus the outline of a man. Holding a gun. On him.
“Jesus!” the voice said.
“What? What’s wrong? You got him covered?” There was another voice, different, calling from farther away. Johnny turned his head dully. He tried to bring up his gun but his hand didn’t seem to be connected to him. It seemed to have a mind of its own, its fingers opening, dropping the gun . . .
“You’re crazy, Skinner.”
“No, no, it is. See for yourself. It’s okay. Look at him. I got him covered. An’ he ain’t doing too good anyway -- he dropped his goddamn gun.” The voice was jubilant, like its owner had found himself a little fiesta. Something was wrong, very wrong. Pull yourself together, boy, Johnny told himself. Can’t do this . . .
“Well. . .”
“Drill him, I said.”
“But . . ”
“Damn it, I said . . .” The second voice was suddenly very close and Johnny felt a hand grab his shirt, pulling him forward then releasing him, so that he fell against the wall, the splintery roughness of the unplaned wood digging into the skin of his back. A face pushed close to his, vaguely familiar, but still unknown. Don’t know who he is, Johnny thought, but I know what he is. The man’s fetid breath was hot on his face and then gone.
“I’ve had it with you, Madrigal. You’re just about the yellowest bastard I ever met.”
“Ezekiel . . .”
“You gonna shoot him, Madrigal, or should I shoot YOU?”
“The man’s almost on his knees, got no gun . . . Shoot me? You’re loco!”
“And you’re useless. I bin watching you since the beginning. Knew you was gonna be the one, the weak one – you just ain’t got no mettle to you at all. Even now, when it’s so damn easy, like shootin’ a rabbit in a cage. Even when it’s your chance to make yourself a legend, ‘The man who killed Johnny Madrid.’”
Johnny blinked, trying to concentrate. The man was talking about him. Well, Johnny Madrid. Why? He heard the sound of a rifle shot – Scott again. Sorry, Scott. Not bein’ much help here. Damn . . . if my eyes would only just go in the same direction. Now two revolvers, having a conversation. Murdoch? And someone else. Not these two. These men are arguing. And it’s raining, raining so hard . . .
“Am I gonna have to do your work for ya, Skinner? Like always?
“Look at him, Ezekiel – enough. Let’s leave him be. Get out of here and go to Mexico, like we planned. Been enough killin’.”
“But not by you, Skinner, none by you. Now draw, damn it, before I drill you.”
Johnny heard a hammer drawn back, cocked. He fumbled at his hip, instinct making him reach toward a holster that wasn’t there. But his cast crashed against his side and the pain was bad. The sodden ground suddenly came up to meet him and his cheek rested against a cushion of wet and muddy woodchips.
Pull back those curtains, Teresa. I can’t see.
* * *
Later Val would admit that he might have left it just a little too long. That he might have misjudged the range a little, been a little too cautious. He would admit that he had been scared shitless and sure it was all going to go sour on him. But that was only later, much later, when he and Hardy and McTeague were well into the bottom quarter of a bottle of whiskey, the saloon was empty and night on its way toward morning.
At the time all he could think of was that he’d get only one chance and he’d have to get it right. As he’d moved quickly but cautiously through the trees toward the line shack, his eyes were glued to the two men facing off over the fallen figure of Johnny Lancer and he desperately counted off the yards. From the front of the cabin he heard the continued exchange of gunfire and assumed Cipriano and the Rodriguez kid were, as he was, moving cautiously. Val knew a lot of lawmen figured the best way to handle these kinds of jams was to go in guns blazin’. But he had seen a lot of innocent folk die in situations like that and he had no intention of letting that happen here.
Cipriano and Otilio had near startled the pants off him earlier when they’d ridden up to him at the fork near the lake, where he’d been trying to decide whether to hunker down for the night or try to push on to Lancer. They seemed to have come from no where. Some old Indian trail, Cipriano had said. Yo-something people? Yokuts? Val couldn’t remember; he wasn’t good at names. The bridge was washed out, Cipriano had told him. This trail was rough but passable.
But in the end there was no decision to make; when he had learned about the line shack, about his injured friends and the stranded wagon, Val had simply turned his horse and followed the two vaqueros. After a half hour’s hard ride along the rain-slick rocky trail they had heard the sounds of gunfire and split up, Cipriano and Otilio to work their way toward the front of the shack, Val to head for the rear.
He had been shocked to realize the man in the woodshed was Johnny, and part of him had ached as he helplessly watched his friend fight his losing battle against unconsciousness. But the other half of him considered matters of distance and speed as he moved closer, controlling the urge to pull that trigger until he knew his shot would be true. And at that, he would say later, maybe he had still been a little too far away. ‘Cause he hadn’t really planned to kill that man with a bullet. A noose would have been a lot more satisfying for all concerned.
Sheriff Val Crawford’s bullet had entered the back of Ezekiel’s skull, fracturing the parietal bone at a point about one and a half inches below the crown of his head. In the report Doc Jenkins would make out for Green River’s official records, it was neatly recorded that the bullet traveled downward through the victim’s cerebrum and emerged just below the nares. The exit wound had been anything but neat, which the doctor hadn’t mentioned. He covered nearly two pages of paper in his spidery black copperplate before concluding what Val had seen immediately: Ezekiel was dead before he fell.
At the sound of Val’s shot, the other man standing over Johnny had dropped his gun as if it were hot and raised his arms, shouting: “Don’t shoot.” Val had had to bite back his anger and worry to act the cool professional as he pulled handcuffs from his belt and cuffed the gunman with his arms around the woodshed’s post. Then and only then could he kneel in the wet to check on Johnny.
“Hey there, amigo,” he had said softly as he gently turned his unconscious friend onto his back. Fresh crimson staining at Johnny’s waist prompted him to unbutton the heavily soiled shirt. From the front of the cabin there had been a burst of gunfire and a lot of shouting. But Val was oblivious to it all, numbed by the sight of the ragged, bleeding wound and the torn-open stitches. Suddenly he had been aware of a hand on his shoulder and he had looked up to see the strained face of Murdoch Lancer.
“It’s over,” Murdoch had said. “Let’s get him inside.”
* * *
The air in the line shack was stifling.
Scott raised a shaky hand to his forehead and pushed damp hair back from his eyes. The wound in his right arm throbbed steadily, the tear a pulsing zigzag of pain. In the heat of battle he’d felt nothing, the weight of Murdoch’s rifle ignored as he had aimed and fired, aimed and fired. Now, sitting up in bed in this crowded, hot cabin, danger over, the pain of his injuries returned and he felt ill.
“Scott?” Murdoch was beside him and his father’s hand felt cool on his hot forehead. “You’re feverish, son. How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine, Murdoch. It’s just hot in here.” Scott looked around the room, seeing Teresa at the stove, lifting the coffee pot off the heat and Jelly dozing in a chair by the table, his good arm propping up his head. Cipriano and Val had pressed themselves into a corner, trying to stay out of the way, and over second helpings of dinner were deep in conversation.
The cabin would have been hard pressed to accommodate many more people, Scott thought. Even if they had wanted to bring the two prisoners inside – which Val said he most definitely did not want to do. “Them animals” belonged just where he had them, the sheriff had declared. Outside. He was only sorry he’d had to impose on the horses and make them share the shed with polecats. “Horses don’t like the smell of polecats,” Val had drawled. “An’ neither do I.”
Rodriguez had volunteered to take the first watch and stand guard over the prisoners while Val ate. He’d smiled shyly when Jelly had made a weak joke about barging in on the “bridal suite,” which reminded Scott that a few months ago a newly married Rodriguez had indeed asked for time off to take his very young bride on a trip to this cabin. Before ducking outside, the vaquero showed Teresa the small food safe he’d built into the floor so that his wife could store her home-preserved foods. Dinner that night had been almost luxurious.
“I think we’d better build bigger line shacks at Lancer if we plan on doing much more entertaining like this,” Scott said lightly.
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather not,” Murdoch answered with a straight face. Then, his tone serious: “How’s the arm?”
“Sore. Stiff. About what you’d expect.” Scott shrugged. He looked away from his father’s enquiring gaze to where his brother lay motionless beside him. “He hasn’t moved or stirred, Murdoch. And his fever must have shot up again – I can feel the heat from here.”
Murdoch walked around the end of the bed and sat down beside Johnny. His hand made its too-familiar journey to feel his younger son’s forehead, and then he pulled back the unbuttoned edges of Johnny’s stained shirt.
“Is it bleeding again?” Scott asked, disturbed by his father’s grim face. Wordlessly Murdoch nodded. “He can’t afford to lose more blood,” Scott said. He could hear the anxiety in his own voice and paused, trying to tamp down the worry. “You’ve got to do something.”
“I am, Scott,” Murdoch‘s reply was gruff, his hands busy folding a large scrap of cloth into a square. He pressed the square onto the wound and held it there. “I want to avoid cauterization, if at all possible,” he said, his expression almost beseeching. “I don’t -- I don’t want to put him through that if I don’t have to.”
Cipriano had moved silently to the foot of the bed; Scott looked up and saw him watching his father, deep lines of fatigue and worry creasing his face.
“Old friend,” the segundo said softly. Murdoch raised his eyes. “There is the ride tomorrow. Once we get to the wagon it will be all right. But on the trail . . .” Cipriano shook his head. He stared at Murdoch’s hands fixed on the bandages at Johnny’s side. “Perhaps it would be better to use the knife now, while he is . . . asleep.”
“Murdoch,” Jelly’s voice was just above a tired whisper. He still sat with his head propped, Scott noted, but he had shifted in his chair so he could face the bed. “You gotta do it. It ain’t doing that boy any favors to let him lose more blood. Sounds like he lost more’n his share yesterday and more tonight. Sure ya got it stopped earlier. But it’s bleedin’ again, ain’t it.” Jelly paused, lifting his head off his hands. “Only one thing to do.”
The silence that followed was broken by the sound of the stove lid rattling as Teresa replaced it in its collar after adding some wood to the fire. “You’ll have to wait a few minutes, until those catch on,” she told Murdoch. She caught Scott’s eye, nodded slightly and then turned to Cipriano. “Would you please pass me that bowl, from the head of the bed? We’ll need more fresh water.”
Scott stared at her in surprise. Such calm acceptance, he thought. She knows what has to be done. Here I am, telling Murdoch he has to do something and now I want to him to wait. To see if pressure will help. Or if the bleeding will stop on its own. Or maybe wood ash would help – what Johnny used before. Anything but a red-hot knife searing my brother’s skin.
But the words of protest died in his throat as he looked at Johnny’s waxen, pale face. Cipriano was right, he reflected. Even if the bleeding were to stop now there was still the trail to face tomorrow. Over dinner, it had been discussed. How they would manage. Who would ride with whom. How Val and his two prisoners would ride with them back to Lancer, closer now than Green River.
The prospect of climbing back onto a horse – no, Scott corrected himself gloomily, of being pushed up and onto a saddle – was less than appealing. Through his tattered trousers he could see that his knee had swollen to nearly twice its size and it was now so sensitive to touch that he had almost bitten through his lip earlier when Murdoch and Val had carried him back to the bunk. But worse yet, Scott knew, would be the torture of wondering whether Johnny was slowly bleeding to death during a ride that was going to be difficult for even the healthy.
“The fire’s hot, Murdoch.” Teresa’s voice interrupted his train of thought. With dread Scott watched her take the knife Cipriano offered, her hand confidently closing around the carved wooden handle. She checked the chimney damper to make sure it was open and then squatted next to the stove’s belly, opening the door just slightly to make sure the tin pipe would draw and not smoke. Satisfied, she raked the red embers with a small iron poker and placed the knife carefully so that it was resting with its blade in the fire but its wooden handle was protected from the stove’s heat.
“Yes, Val,” Scott answered, his eyes still fixed on the knife in its bed of embers.
“I don’t like to butt in here, but I think mebbe you ought to let us move ya over to a chair . . . or somethin’.”
For a moment Scott was uncomprehending. “No,” he stammered, “he’ll need me.”
“We will need to hold him, Sheriff Crawford and I, even though he is not awake,” Cipriano said softly as he placed one of the ladder-back wooden chairs close to the bunk. His eyes met Scott’s. “You cannot help, chico.”
Understanding then, Scott nodded, the lump in his throat making it impossible to speak. As Cipriano and Val helped him over to the chair he saw Murdoch lift his hands slightly from the wound and peer under the now-red square of cloth. What he glimpsed must have displeased him for he grimaced and pressed on the wound again.
“I, I think it’s almost ready, Murdoch,” Teresa said.
“Mebbe you should let Cipriano do this, Boss,” Jelly suggested.
“No, I’ll do it,” Murdoch shook his head. He glanced at Cipriano then Val. “Can you help me roll him on his side?”
Carefully, the three men turned Johnny’s flaccid body so that he was resting on his left side, facing the center of the bunk. Murdoch gently lifted the injured arm, its disintegrating cast now re-enforced by wooden splints, as Cipriano placed a pillow under it, in front of Johnny’s chest. Then Murdoch cut through the blood-soaked bandage and unfastened the top five concha buttons at Johnny’s hip.
Teresa sat down on the edge of the bed, a bowl of water balancing on her lap, and began washing the area around the ugly wound. Once again Scott found himself wondering at her calm – and her resiliency. The bruises on her pale face, mementos of her fall, were now a livid purple and she was moving stiffly, although trying to hide it. She had been through so much. Yet here she was helping, caring . . . What a strong, brave woman you are, Teresa O’Brien, Scott thought, watching her rise and go over to the stove. What would I, what would we all do without you?
Reluctantly Scott turned his thoughts back to what his father was about to do. He saw Murdoch nod, and Val knelt on the bed, taking a firm hold on Johnny’s legs while Cipriano placed his hands on Johnny’s shoulder and the upper part of his broken right arm. Just then the unthinkable happened: Johnny began to stir, his body restless against the restraining hands
“Quick,” Murdoch rasped to Teresa. Scott sucked in his breath as she cautiously passed the hot knife to his father. The glowing blade was an obscenity. Scott thought he could not look at it yet he found he could not look away. His left hand found the edge of his chair and gripped tight.
A low moan made him search out his brother’s face. Johnny’s eyes were flickering open and Scott tried to will them closed again, to have his brother fall back into unfeeling unconsciousness. Murdoch was leaning over the bed now, placing his left hand just below Cipriano’s on Johnny’s shoulder, the knife, in his right hand, frozen above the torn, bleeding skin. Then the glowing blade dropped, swift, sure. And there was a sound that Scott recognized, but which he did not want to acknowledge. Because the memory of it was bad, almost as bad as the smell. Which made his stomach turn and his intestines cramp.
But it was the animal-like cry of anguish that made him feel as if the searing insult of Murdoch’s knife had been aimed at his own heart. He saw his brother’s eyes widen, his agony nakedly on display, tears starting and mucus running from his nose as he began to buck and heave, fighting Cipriano and Val. Murdoch shouted something but Scott didn’t hear it; Johnny’s pleading eyes had locked with his, and he entered his brother’s world of pain.
Clumsily he lunged to the bunk, half sitting, half sprawling across the bed’s width. The hand flailing at Cipriano’s grasp fought free and reached out to him shakily. And he took it, capturing it in his own and returning its paralyzing grip.
* * *
It was if the previous day’s storm had never happened. By Val’s reckoning, it was not quite eleven in the morning but heat was already in the air. By mid-afternoon, he figured, all but the shaded parts of the trail would have dried out. But he hoped afternoon would find them either at Lancer or very close.
Cipriano had understated it: the trail was mierda. Narrow, slippery, grown-over – more footpath than trail. And whoever “the Old Ones” were, Val thought glumly, they had something against walking in a straight line. All the twisting and turning was making it hard for him to keep an eye on his prisoners as their odd little troop of riders traveled single file.
Just ahead of him rode Michaels, the bank-teller-turned-thief-and-killer. The leader, as it turned out. Scum. With dead eyes and, Val suspected, an even deader sense of decency. Different from the other one. Whatshisname – Madrigal. Now there was a whole heap of stuff going on in that one’s head, Val thought. But it was hard to figger whether the man was sorry for what he done or just sorry he got caught. Mebbe a little bit of both. Kinda man ya can’t trust to be totally straight with ya no matter what side of the law ya chose to be on. Madrigal, with the body of the third man, the killer, lashed to his saddle, was best off riding ahead of Michaels.
Val shifted his weight and leaned away from his saddle, holding onto his saddlehorn with one hand and craning his neck like Jelly’s damned old pet goose in a vain attempt to see Cipriano, who was riding somewhere ahead of Madrigal. He was uneasy when they got too spread out. He’d seen too many lawmen lose their prisoners, and more than a couple their lives, because they’d gotten careless. It was easy to do in a group, he admitted to himself. You get to relyin’ on numbers instead of horse sense.
He and Cipriano had tried to plan things out the night before, talking about all the what if’s and the maybes. But it still had taken some time to sort things through before setting out that morning. Val’s head had starting aching long before he got around to hauling himself into the saddle.
Ten people: two of them unable to ride on their own, two of them a little wobbly, two of ‘em outlaws who needed close watching by the remaining four. One dead body. Ten horses, eight saddles. Finally, Val had testily demanded that he and “the vermin” be positioned in the middle of the group and left it to Murdoch and Cipriano to resolve the rest. Then he’d stomped back into the line shack to scrounge the last of the morning’s coffee from Teresa.
To be fair, Val knew Murdoch’s injured sons had each presented the worried father with different problems, Scott because he was conscious and Johnny because he wasn’t. In the end, Murdoch had decided his older son should ride with him and the younger with Cipriano. His big chestnut gelding was known as a rocking chair ride, quiet-natured and with easy, comfortable gaits which would cause less discomfort to an injured man awake enough to feel every jolt or stumble.
And then there was the matter of Murdoch’s back; he still had not recovered the full animal strength Pardee’s bullet had stolen from him the year before. Cipriano would be more than capable of handling Johnny’s unconscious weight.
Still, Val reflected, it had been a near thing a few miles back. Only Cipriano’s horsemanship had averted tragedy. Stupid, jug-headed nag -- used to being driven instead of havin’ someone on his back – panicked on that side-slope above the creek and lunged ahead into Teresa’s horse. Thought Johnny was going swimmin’ for sure.
Val’s hackles rose at the sound of Michaels’s voice. Son-of-a-barnyard was just too damn slick and full of hisself. Actin’ like he’s decent folk instead of the pig he is. As if he had nothin’ to do with those folks lyin’ dead back in Green River. And Maude, what happened to Maude and her man.
Collecting himself, Val tamped down his anger. “Yeah, Michaels?”
“Aren’t we going to stop? A man does need to relieve himself sometimes, Sheriff.”
“Ain’t stoppin’ here, Michaels,” Val shouted back, irritated Michaels seemed to think him fool enough to break up the group while on such bad ground. “You shoulda went earlier.”
There was no answer. Val settled back into his saddle and pulled a tattered bandana from his vest pocket. He wiped his face and stuck the bandana back in his vest. Then, leaning sideways in his saddle and facing the uphill slope, he slowly, deliberately and thoroughly blew his nose, placing a thumb over first one nostril then another.
“Val!” Scott Lancer called from behind him.
“Yo, Scott,” Val craned his head around to face Scott and Murdoch. The elder Lancer brother looked a mite peaked, Val thought. But he sure was hangin’ in there. Must be hurtin’, but a man wouldn’t know it. Tough, Scott is. Real tough.
“Why bother with a handkerchief if you’ve got that little trick down so well?” Scott’s voice was light, teasing, and Val grinned. Johnny sure got hisself one helluva brother, the sheriff thought. Old man’s not bad, neither, if he’d just learn he don’t need to ride Johnny with them spurs or that big ole Spanish curb bit.
“Bandana’s for keepin’ your face clean,” Val shouted back. “What civilized folk do. What do them dandies in Boston do, Scott, ‘pear in public with dirty faces?”
“I don’t know, Val,” Murdoch put in. “I think they’re pretty fastidious in Boston. I hear they even have a law against spitting in public.”
“Naw?” Val turned around and looked at Murdoch in disbelief, sure the man couldn’t be serious. He saw Scott leaning heavily against his father, head resting on Murdoch’s shoulder, eyes closed, and thought better of continuing the conversation. Val jerked his chin, nodding to Murdoch, who crooked his neck in an attempt to catch sight of his son.
The sheriff saw a smile spread across the elder Lancer’s face as he realized Scott was finally dozing. With a wave, Val turned to watch the trail ahead.
Not much farther now, he reckoned. He’d better keep an eye peeled for the end of this narrow stretch. Prisoners get ideas when they see open ground ahead of ‘em. After all, these men had no reason to want to stick around. There’d been too much killin’. Not for the first time Val wondered how some folks could think money that important.
Well, hell, he reminded himself, all that bank money you was so careful to divvy up and stick in everyone’s saddlebags – put it all together and a man could sure buy hisself a pretty place. Wouldn’t have to scratch out a livin’ or worry whether cattle prices was goin’ up or down. Could sit back and enjoy yourself – if ya didn’t remember all the blood that was spilt beforehand. If ya didn’t think of all those poor people who put their life’s savin’s in that bank so’s they had a hope of getting’ ahead. If ya didn’t have a sense of what’s right and what’s . . . Whoa, boy!
The line ahead of him had stopped, and Val had to rein in sharply to avoid bumping into Michaels, who was riding his brother’s lame bay gelding bareback They had come across a narrow little gully split by a swollen creek. There was open ground on the other side of the creek, but on this side, the trail threaded through a rock passageway.
Otilio and Jelly were already on the other side of the creek, Teresa beginning to cross. Val noted the young vaquero had his gun out, ready to deal with possible trouble. Kid’s a smart one, he thought, watching Cipriano knee his mount to follow Teresa down toward the creek. Lancers are lucky to have him.
His thoughts on Otilio, Val was not prepared for what happened next. He’d been waiting for Michaels or Madrigal to make a move. But somehow this didn’t seem to be the time, or the place, not with Otilio sitting there with a gun trained on them. Not when everyone was still bunched up close enough to spit.
But Cipriano ran into difficulty crossing the creek. Again his mount, broken to harness only and so used to being part of a team, had panicked. Once Teresa crossed the gully the green horse lunged forward, determined to join his usual workmate. Val saw Cipriano haul back sharply on the reins as he clutched desperately at Johnny, trying to balance them both. Johnny’s lolling head snapped back against the segundo’s chest as Cipriano struggled to hold him in the saddle without applying pressure to the splinted arm or injured side. Val heard Otilio anxiously shout a suggestion while behind him Jelly and Teresa watched.
It was then Michaels decided to make his move. While everyone’s attention was focused on Cipriano’s battle with his horse, Michaels dug his heels into his gelding, urging the reluctant horse past Madrigal and into the gully. The bay crashed into Cipriano’s horse, which bucked in fright, throwing both Johnny and Cipriano high onto his neck and obstructing Val’s view of his escaping prisoner. Cursing himself, Val drew his gun as he tried to knee his horse past Madrigal. But Madrigal’s horse, made nervous by the chaos, had begun its own skittish dance and blocked his way.
Michaels had gained the other side of the gully when a shot rang out. As Val managed to push beside Madrigal at last he saw Otilio was off his horse and running toward the fallen Michaels, who was sitting dazedly in the dirt. Somehow Cipriano had safely made it to the other side of the creek, his horse now contentedly standing side by side with its teammate and Johnny once again sitting protected by the segundo’s great strength.
“I am sorry, Señor,” Otilio apologized when Val dismounted and knelt with him beside Michaels. “I did not know what else to do.” The young vaquero’s eyes were worried. Val clapped him reassuringly on the shoulder.
“Ya done good, kid,” the sheriff said. He unpeeled Michael’s blood-stained fingers and surveyed the damage; a bullet crease in the upper arm. “C’mon, Michaels,” he ordered roughly. “Git on your feet.”
“I’m injured, Crawford,” Michaels said. He lifted his hand and looked at the wound, paling at the blood. Beads of perspiration appeared on his forehead and he suddenly bent forward and lost his breakfast into his lap.
“You’ll live to hang,” Val answered grimly. “And I think yours just might be the first hangin’ I’ll watch firsthand.”
* * *
The distant hills stood out against the night sky. Standing by the great arched window behind his desk, Murdoch found himself staring through the moonlight at their dark contours, his mind blank, waiting.
Startled, he turned back to the darkness of the unlit room. He heard a match strike, a glass chimney lifted and in the glowing lamplight he saw Marie-Elena Justiniano, Cipriano’s wife.
“The doctor suggested that you rest, Señor,” she said quietly as she moved around the large room to light another lamp and then another. “He did warn you that he might be busy for some time.”
“I can’t sleep.” Murdoch turned to the window again, his back to Elena. “Have you, have you been with the doctor, Señora?” he asked finally. There was a coolness between them of long standing; tonight he regretted it even more than usual. But he had no idea how to resolve it.
“Sí, Señor, Maria and I. We were there.” Her voice was composed, calm.
“He is almost done. Just now he is sitting with Teresa, talking. I am to tell you that he will be downstairs very soon.”
“Elena?” Murdoch turned. She was beside him, looking out the window. Then as he waited, he saw her features soften and when she looked at him he saw compassion in her eyes. His throat constricted and he swallowed convulsively, fighting the urge to weep.
“Wait for the doctor, Señor. He will tell you – they are going to be all right.” She touched his sleeve gently, a bird lighting on his arm, and was gone.
He sank down into the chair behind the massive desk and put his face in his hands. Patience was not one of his strong points and he’d already been waiting so long. He felt – shattered, that was the word. Shattered. His protective carapace – his turtle’s shell, Catharine used to gently tease – had split along invisible fracture lines, leaving him exposed, vulnerable. Again. Is it always this way? When you risk opening your heart do you always find such joy mixed with such pain?
Fiercely he drew his hands down over his stubbled cheeks then sat back heavily in his chair. God, he was tired. It had been a long two days. Or was it three? He’d lost track of time, his trip to Phoenix happening in another life. Today’s journey from the line shack had been excruciating, the ride along the trail impossible. The incident with Michaels had rubbed raw on nerves already on edge.
Although he had tried to control his growing sense of dread, Murdoch had found himself descending further into the dark depths the longer they traveled. His mood didn’t lift even when they reached the abandoned wagon and settled Scott, Johnny and Teresa into the relative comfort of the blankets and old pallets Cipriano had scavenged from the bunkhouse stores.
O life! thou art a galling load, Along a rough, a weary road . . .
Again he heard Catharine’s voice, her musical laugh as she gaily chided him: Oh, Murdoch, even Mr. Burns at his gloomiest cannot ruin my mood. Read me something happy, as light as this morning’s sun.
You would be proud of Scott, Catharine. Our son has grown into a fine man. Not withstanding Harlan. Despite me.
“Murdoch!” Samuel Jenkins strode briskly into the room rolling down his sleeves and buttoning his cuffs. “Sorry to have taken so long, but I wanted to spend some time with Teresa, just to let her talk. Fine girl you have there. Can I take the liberty of pouring myself some brandy? And you?” The doctor stood near the sideboard, his hand hovering expectantly by the crystal decanter. When Murdoch waved his hand, Jenkins set out two glasses, poured into each a stiff shot and brought them over to Murdoch’s desk.
“Here,” he said, pushing a glass across the mahogany expanse. “ Drink this.”
“Sam . . .”
Resentfully Murdoch picked up the glass and took a swallow. Then another. The brandy was smooth. And really, he thought, very good. He raised the glass to his lips again and as he did so he caught Jenkins smiling at him.
“Samuel . . .”
“They threw true, Murdoch. Your boys. Bred from strong stock. They’re tough, maybe as tough as their old man.” The doctor leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his eyes. Murdoch waited, holding his breath, knowing Sam would not be rushed. That he would give his diagnosis his own way, the sugar first, before the bitter medicine.
“Teresa is fine,” Jenkins began. “I’d like to keep an eye on her to make sure she doesn’t suffer any ill effects from that fall. She may have headaches and, if she overdoes it, dizzy spells.”
Murdoch snorted in disgust. “Overdoes it? She’s already been through hell, Samuel.”
“I know,” Jenkins answered gently. “But I truly believe that she will be fine. She told me quite a bit about what happened and all I could think of, as I listened, was how proud Paul would have been.”
“She did a beautiful job with Scott’s arm,” the doctor continued. “I didn’t disturb her stitches. I think the tear will heal and, if we are lucky, we won’t have to worry about infection.”
Suddenly restless, Murdoch got up and went again to the window, standing with his brandy, looking out into the dark. “And Scott’s knee?” he asked, trepidation in his gut.
“I’m very much inclined to think the knee isn’t broken,” Jenkins said. He raised his hand in warning as Murdoch let hope lighten his features. “It’s difficult to tell, in cases such as these – so much swelling. Not to mention pain. The kneecap was displaced – entirely different from a broken joint,” the doctor hurriedly explained. “I reduced the dislocation and have given Scott a hefty dose of laudanum to help him sleep.”
Murdoch exhaled heavily. His fear that Scott would be crippled, lamed for life, was not entirely banished. But he could let himself hope; his old friend did not believe in offering false hope. But he did have a habit of saving the worst news for last.
Murdoch looked closely at the doctor, trying to read the expression on Samuel’s weathered and creased face. But Sam was an old hand at finding the right words, and he sat, swirling his brandy, appearing deep in thought. Long minutes passed; Murdoch’s stomach tightened with dread.
“And then there’s Johnny,” Jenkins said at last. “No, no,” he added hastily as Murdoch sank heavily into his chair. “He’s holding his own, Murdoch. In fact, he’s doing far better than my medical experience tells me is reasonable.” The doctor shook his head. “A man’s body can only take so much. I would have said Johnny’s has about had its limit. Hasn’t been that long since you dug Pardee’s bullet out of his back. And we almost lost him then to infection and pneumonia. Then he goes and gets himself tossed off a green horse and nearly trampled.”
“Well,” Murdoch began, unsure where Jenkins was leading with this.
“You tell me,” the doctor said, leaning forward, his elbows on Murdoch’s desk. “What drives a man, already banged up and hurting, to ignore two new bullet holes in his hide and go off and do what Johnny did? In all my years of doctoring in these parts, I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”
The old doctor sat back wearily and took a long sip of his brandy. “I don’t know how he managed to walk on that leg,” Jenkins said, shaking his head. “And frankly I don’t even want to think about him pushing a needle and thread through that wound. It’s a wonder he didn’t pass out and bleed to death then and there.”
“He’s, he’s used to being on his own, Sam,” Murdoch answered, forcing his wavering voice to cooperate. “He’s had to do for himself all his life.”
“Maria has a lot to atone for,” Jenkins said bitterly. He looked quickly at Murdoch. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” Murdoch shook his head. “You’re not saying anything I haven’t already said to myself – several times over. But I have to take responsibility, too, Sam.”
Jenkins waved his hand dismissively. “Well, then,” he said after a moment, his tone again the brisk bedside voice of a doctor. “What we have to watch for now is infection. Not that wound in his side – the cauterization has probably taken care of that. But the leg wound. I’ve used carbolic and we will have to hope that does it. I have removed the old cast and splinted the arm for the night – tomorrow we’ll put on a new cast.”
“He lost a lot of blood. . .”
“Yes,” Jenkins agreed, “so you said. And it will take him quite a while to regain his strength. You did the right thing, Murdoch, the cauterization. The only thing.”
There was a silence between them. Finally, Jenkins stretched, put down his glass and rose. “Elena has been kind enough to offer me your guestroom – I think I will take advantage of it.” He looked at Murdoch appraisingly. “That’s my prescription for you, too – after you check on your, er, family.”
Murdoch’s head jerked up.
“Check on your family, Murdoch,” the doctor said kindly. “They are probably asleep – the best medicine there is . . .aside from a father’s love.”
* * *
The doctor was right; his family was asleep. Elena met him at Teresa’s door holding her index finger against her lips. But she waved him in and watched as he tried in his big boots to walk softly across the floor. Teresa slept on her side, her long hair spread behind her, her bruised face almost lost in the soft depths of the snowy white pillow. She looked relaxed, at peace, and very, very young. He touched her cheek lightly with the back of his hand, again feeling close to tears.
Scott’s door was open, his room dimly lit by a single lamp. From the threshold Murdoch could see his elder son’s lean, fine-featured face was finally smoothed free of worry. Propped up against several pillows to relieve the pressure on his broken ribs, Scott was snoring lightly, his mouth open. Murdoch found himself drawn to the bedside, unable to resist a father’s need to check on a child.
The lamps in Johnny’s room had yet to be turned down. As he stood by the door Maria squeezed past him, carrying a basket full of bloodied cloths and what could only be the remnants of the destroyed cast.
“Gracias, Maria,” Murdoch said helplessly, averting his eyes.
“Do not trouble yourself, Señor,” she said. “It is all right.” She glanced toward the bed. “Please, see to your son – I think he may be waking. Sí,” she nodded with a smile as Murdoch looked at her in disbelief. “His eyes – I saw before, just a little movement.”
There was a chair by the bed and Murdoch moved to it, his eyes fixed on Johnny’s face. Maria must have been mistaken. There was no movement; his younger son’s usually mobile face was still and pale, a waxy mask. There were smudged circles under his eyes, hollows in his cheeks. The sheet had been drawn up, covering the wound at his side. Nestled in the dark hairs of Johnny’s chest was the medal – Murdoch always thought of it as that. The medal, the reminder of his son’s other life, of Johnny Madrid. The father extended a tentative finger and touched the gold oval. Was this what was protecting his son?
Lost in thought Murdoch nearly missed the small sideways turn of the head, the trembling of eyelids as Johnny weakly struggled to wake. But now he realized Maria was right and he reached out to take his younger son’s hand in his, speaking softly. Johnny’s head turned, following the sound. Murdoch bit his lip as Johnny’s eyes flickered open and held his.
“Murdoch . . .”
“Sssh, rest easy, Johnny.”
“We . . .home?”
“Yes, son, we’re home.”
There was a long silence. Murdoch waited, watching as Johnny’s eyes slowly closed. Then, just when he thought his son had fallen back asleep, he heard his name whispered and he bent low to listen. “Yes?”
“Gracias, old man.”
Murdoch ducked his head, collecting himself.
"No,” he said, when he finally trusted himself to speak. “No, it is ‘the old man’ who says thank you, to his son.”