An Alternative Homecoming

By Fay 

 

I greatly appreciate KC’s role as beta. Her feedback is entertainment in itself.

This is an AR story dealing with how the Lancer men could have met.

This story was going to be about 20 pages long for a Lancer fanzine. It sort of grew a bit! Two whole chapters (Scott’s long conversation with Murdoch as to why he was left in Boston) were inserted after the beta process and were a result of WIP readers wanting some of the story to consider Scott’s viewpoint. I had been too focused on Johnny (can you blame me? vbg) to realize that Scott’s character would miss out if he did not clear the air with Murdoch.

About two years ago one of the writers prefaced her story with the words to The Eagles’ ‘Desperado’. I can never now hear this song without thinking of the loneliness Johnny Madrid experienced in his life. Then while stuck in a traffic jam the other day listening to the radio, I finally (after hearing it hundreds of times) actually listened to the lyrics of Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. While a more modern and urban analogy, it epitomises the solitude of Johnny’s life pre-Lancer before he found his family, particularly his brother Scott.

Boulevard of Broken Dreams (“El Boulevar de los Suenos Rotos”) by Green Day

“I walk the lonely road

The only one that I have ever known

Don’t know where it goes

But it’s home to me and I walk alone

 

I walk this empty street

On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Where the city sleeps

And I’m the only one and I walk alone

 

I walk alone

I walk alone

 

I walk alone

I walk a …

 

My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me

My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating

Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me

‘Til then I walk alone …”

 

Feedback is always welcome.

 

Chapter One

Johnny trudged wearily through the parched countryside. His saddle weighed heavily on his shoulder and he hefted it, hoping to reposition it more comfortably on his aching frame. He had been walking for three hours now, he guessed. On cresting the last rise, he had spied a road in the distance and was making his way there purposefully. Just maybe there would be some passing wagons and he would be able to hitch a lift.

Heat radiating off the brown stubble covering the landscape shimmied a stultifying dance.  It beckoned him forward, but provided no solace from the relentless sun. He stopped, removed his hat and wiped his brow with his forearm. His canteen hung from the pommel of his saddle so he unwound the strings, uncorked it and put it to his lips. While far from refreshing, at least the tepid water was wet.

He stood, trying to get his bearings from the map he had imprinted in his mind, a replica of a map he had seen at a telegraph office three days ago. That road ahead should do the trick in his opinion. He took another gulp, winced, organised his gear and set out again. Twenty minutes later, a cloud of dust on the tree-dotted   horizon appeared to vindicate his choice of direction.

Hurrying a little, his coat in his left hand and saddle now under his right arm, he covered the last of the flat at a fast shamble and fairly scampered up the embankment to the road. The jangling of harnesses and the clomping of horses’ hooves thudding rhythmically on the hard track increased in volume before reaching a crescendo. Hailing the approaching stage, he was relieved, and a little surprised, to see that the team was reined in before him. The four brown horses came to a dusty stop just in front of him, waiting patiently as they enjoyed the unexpected rest.

He stood to one side, and casually enquired, “You going to Morro Coyo?”

“Unless I’m lost.”

“Mind if I get a lift?”

The stage driver looked at him, taking in his gun worn so low on his hip.

“Sure. We’ll take care of that gun of yours.”

Johnny paused, noting the shotgun trained at him by the co-driver. Johnny looked down at his rig and licked his lips in annoyance at having to hand over his gun. This gun that could become an extension of his arm in a fluid transformation too fast for the eye to detect. A pang of dismay hit him in the gut, but he could not expect a ride and ignore the request. With resignation, he removed it by the butt, hefted it once in the air before catching it, then handed it up to the driver and his guard.

He hoisted his saddle up on top of the stage, behind the driver, quickly checking that it seemed snugly placed and unlikely to fall off once the stage began rocking in earnest. A word of thanks and he opened the door to clamber in. A swift glance told him that the stage was full and that his presence would create a crush, squashing them all. To his right sat what could be a married couple. Well, he could hardly plonk himself in between, so he opted to squeeze himself onto the bench seat on the left. Not wanting to be rude enough to take the window seat from either man, the middle seemed the only logical option. He had only just manoeuvred his derrière into a hovering position above the seat when the stage took off with a lurch. For every action, Johnny found out that there was, indeed, an equal and opposite reaction. As the stage leapt forward, he was propelled backwards, awkwardly landing on the lap of a poker faced, dandified gent.

The priest to his left moved over a fraction, but the prim gentleman could only squirm a little in his endeavours to extricate his body from beneath its invader. He was not entirely successful, no stage ever seeming to sit three abreast comfortably.

Johnny nodded to the occupants, rapidly noting their reactions, then turned to the toff. The repugnance on his face was unmistakable and was therefore like waving a red rag to a bull. Johnny felt like he’d earned a little fun.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to mess up your outfit,” he offered, theatrically brushing off imaginary dust, which just might have been transferred from him to the immaculate suit of his travelling companion.

A muttered comment, sounding like an unconvincing ‘Can’t be helped’, reached Johnny. A boring journey could be livened up some if he could stir that formal gent up just right. Johnny managed to lean a little closer into the man. It was quite unnecessary, as there was a tiny space between him and the priest, but what the heck.

Out of habit, Johnny quickly sized up the other travellers. The couple facing him were a sober faced pair, both in dark travelling outfits. He was not quite sure whether they were a couple or not. The priest wore the customary long brown robe of the clergy, along with a skullcap. He sat quite contentedly, fingering a rosary as the miles went past.

Just the fancy dandy seemed to stand out from the group. He wore a snug fitting brown suit, but what struck Johnny most was his taste in frilly shirts. There were frills at both cuffs, as well as around his stiff neck, which was further constricted by a red bow tie. His red coat collar was co-ordinated immaculately with this colourful bow tie. One fine dude, indeed. He was the only fair haired person present. His ash blond hair vibrated with flashes of gold as the sun’s rays broke through the trees and reached his head next to the window.

It was this very passenger who broke the silence. “It looks like you’ve been on the road for some time.”

Johnny turned his face to regard the man more fully. He had a feeling that this was a polite way of saying that he was smelly.

“Yeah. Guess you could say that.”

There was a brief silence as the two strangers eyed each other.

“I guess you’re from a ways off, too?” Johnny in turn asked.

“Why do you think that?” the blond asked.

Johnny smirked. “Well, I ain’t never seen an outfit quite like yours before. So proper and stiff like. It don’t look like a man could properly breathe wearing something like that.”

The haughty look did not waver and the forthcoming reply was volleyed back without missing a beat. “And I’ve never seen an outfit quite like yours before, either. So … colourful, I guess is the word I am looking for. And it doesn’t look like a man could have enough hours in the day and still have enough time to get all those studs done up.”

The silence within the stage was profound. The clanking and jangle of the harnesses, the clomping of the horses’ hooves and the jolting of the stage were muted as the two men digested each other’s comments. The tension was broken by Johnny’s smile of acknowledgement.

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to make a pact not to borrow each other’s clothes.”

The blond could not resist a tug at the sides of his mouth as he responded, “That seems inordinately sensible.”

The priest joined the conversation, looking at Johnny. “Where have you come from?”

“Down south.” Johnny was not used to sharing details with strangers. The less said the better.

The priest continued. “Why were you carrying a saddle when you have no horse?”

Johnny sighed. He was in no mood for any inquisition. “My horse went lame.”

The man opposite interjected. “So you shot him?”

Johnny’s cold look pierced the man, who visibly shrank back into the seat. He appeared to want to seep through into the leather of the backrest if possible, in order to escape that frosty stare.

Johnny leant forward, one arm braced on his knee. He breathed icily at the man in the dark suit, menace cloaking each word. “Now, what makes you think that?”

“Nothing, mister!”

“Then why did you say it?”

“The way you wear your gun, I suppose,” the man offered uneasily.

“Since when did that mean that a man would destroy an otherwise perfectly good animal?” The ice was now brittle.

The man squirmed. “I guess it doesn’t,” he squeaked.

“That’s right.” Johnny sat up. “I’m glad we got that settled.” He nodded his end to the conversation.

He attempted to wiggle his back so he could sit more comfortably, but his actions were interrupted by the priest, who did not seem to understand the hint that was obvious to them all: the newest passenger did not feel like talking.

“What brings you to these parts?” the priest queried.

Johnny glanced at him. His feelings about religion could be tumultuous, but he could not bring himself to ignore the man.

His reply was succinct. “A business deal.”

The priest nodded.

Johnny did not miss the priest’s eyes dropping to Johnny’s now empty holster. He did not miss Fancy Dan also checking out his empty rig.

Johnny’s eyes swivelled to the man on his right. Two pairs of blue eyes met. Both cool, both assessing, both unflinching. Both similar, yet both different.

“That all right with you?” Johnny challenged the young man.

A blond eyebrow rose and a dip of the head followed.

The priest was persistent in his endeavours to create a conversation to relieve the tedium. He did not seem capable of gauging the mood and demeanour of his companions very well, however.

“What about you?” he asked the blond. “What brings you to this country?”

“Business … family business,” was all that was proffered.

The lady chimed in, seemingly oblivious to the feelings of the reticent gentlemen seated opposite her.

“And where are you from?”

"From back east, Ma’am. Boston, Massachusetts.”

“Oh, my!” she exclaimed in wonder. “That’s such a long way away. How long have you been travelling?”

“Nearly two weeks. The railway crossing was just over a week.”

“Oh, how wonderful to come from somewhere so civilized! I’ve never been east of Stockton! I bet things are a lot different there!”

“Indeed, Ma’am, they are.”

“Just how are they different?” The lady was fascinated, waiting with bated breath to hear about this so distant lifestyle.

“Well, more of the streets are cobbled or paved, many buildings are made of brown stone or bricks rather than wood or adobe. Some streets are lit with gas lamps at night time. People don’t go about wearing side arms as a matter of course, and clothing, well, that has already been discussed.”

This last comment was accompanied by an angling of his head in Johnny’s direction, a slight smirk dangling off the edges of his lips.

The little he divulged had her hanging on every word.

“And I heard that there is live theatre and opera!” 

Her eyes sparkled with longing thoughts of a far off glamour not present in life out west. “And do you go to these spectacles very often?”

“Several times a month.”

The lady’s hands clasped to her bouncing bosom. “Oh, that must be thrilling!”

A snigger of derision from Johnny caused the easterner to turn to the source of the interruption, eyebrows raised quizzically. “I didn’t quite catch what you said,” he prompted. While a statement, it begged a response.

Johnny spread his hands as a gesture of negation. “Nothin’. I guess I’m just jealous that I’ve spent my whole life missing out on such thrilling events. Seems like I’ve been hard done by.”

Johnny maintained his steady gaze, but thought that he detected humour in the eyes of the Bostonian. He perceived the man composing a reply, but the unexpected slowing down of the stage drew their attention to the window.

Nothing could be seen at first, but the boulders to either side of the road caused that familiar frisson to travel up Johnny’s spine. The coach came to a stand still, as Johnny urged the occupants to get down on the floor away from the windows. He cursed his lack of firearm. Crouching low, he not only looked forward, but peered around in all directions trying to ascertain the extent of any danger facing them.

To Johnny’s surprise, the easterner did not cower down like the others, but was also endeavouring to decipher the origin of the interruption to their journey. The stranger in question abruptly asked, “See anything?”

“Yeah. Two men in front, with weapons drawn.”

Johnny was surprised further when the man commented rather impatiently, “Besides them! My guess is that there are more behind the boulders or up on that rise.” He had not thought that this man would have it in him to think laterally and see beyond the obvious.

“Nope, nothing besides them, but I have to agree. They are likely to have backup.”

Voices came to them from outside. “Throw that gun down real easy. Don’t get sudden!”

The clunk of what they presumed to be the guard’s shotgun could be heard hitting the dirt.

“OK! Put the brake on and tie off the reins!”

Silence reigned. It appeared as though these directions were being complied with.

“Now, get down! Both of you on this side!”

Noises of boots scraping on the side of the coach were easily discernible.

“Now, get over here!”

Sounds of boots scuffling in the dirt and some muttered curses were followed by determined footsteps marching to the stage door. The footsteps heralded the appearance of a man. What he lacked in cleanliness and dress standards, he made up for in aggression. His rifle was aimed steadily in the direction of the group in the coach. Leering anticipation cloaked his face.

“Your turn. Get out one at a time, slow and easy. Hands in the air so I can see ‘em!”

The occupants looked at each other, trying to find some comfort in their fellow passengers’ eyes. The priest descended first, then turned to assist the lady down the stairs. Her husband, or mere fellow seat occupant, followed. Johnny had not bothered to discover if there was any relationship between them, his conversation not having strayed that way.

The two remaining captives looked at each other. With a deep breath and a quirk of his eyebrows, the blond made the next move to leave the coach. Johnny followed, his mind clawing desperately for some sort of action plan.

The passengers were herded to one side. Like cattle to the slaughter, Johnny thought.

They all complied with the direction given, not really being able to do any different. Johnny was able to get his first sustained look at their assailants. The two men were both in their late twenties, both as scruffy and disreputable looking as the other.  Their clothes were filthy, bearing witness to long days on the trail without the amenity of a bathhouse. Both faces needed a shave, but even that would not improve their looks any. They were hard, malicious faces. They were faces bent on following their own agenda, without consideration to anyone else except for what they could get from other people. What they could get by fair means or foul. Mostly foul.

Johnny had seen their type too often before. No soul to offer any hope. No conscience to give someone an even break. No future except in hell. The worst type of person to come up against, as they possessed a tunnel vision which could not be rerouted. Minds beyond reasoning.  Immediate goals, which met their short term desires.

If they were to stand a chance, Johnny felt they needed to do something soon. But what? He couldn’t see him being able to trust any of the passengers to watch his back or to cotton on to any plan he hatched, with maybe the exception of the easterner. There was something beneath the surface of that man which contradicted his ostensibly foppish exterior. 

Johnny’s mind was racing, but even as he churned over various plots in his mind, a third man appeared from the boulders nearby. His rifle was aimed and steady. Aimed at them. He had obviously been watching the backs of the other two. Now he appeared, weighting the opposition further in favour of the bandits.

Johnny cursed silently. The odds of them getting out of this were even worse now.

The newcomer was a Mexican. About Johnny’s height, he wore the Mexican style of clothes favoured by Johnny. The conchos on the side of his pants flashed in the sun. His red embroidered shirt was tucked loosely into the waistband of his pants, and he wore an extra ammunition belt slung diagonally over one shoulder. His black hat was round, rather than oval shaped, but nowhere near as big as a sombrero. It, too, flashed silver as the studs around the hatband reflected the sun’s rays.

The Mexican guarded them, while the two gringos began hauling bags off the top of the coach. They rifled through the belongings, ransacking the contents quickly. Once completed, they stood up, both spitting mouthfuls of expletives. They looked at each other in fury, then turned their rage on the coach driver. One of them grabbed the unfortunate man by the shirtfront.

“Where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“The payroll!”

“What payroll?” he asked, his voice quivering in marked fear.

“The one for the mine! It was supposed to be on this coach,” he was informed.

“Yes, it was, but it wasn’t ready, so it was going to be loaded on the next coach.” The driver’s reply was simply unacceptable to the highwaymen.

“Liar! Where is it?”

“I’m telling you the truth, Mister! We don’t have no payroll on board!”

The two thieves looked at each other. “Come on, Joe, let’s check this coach a bit more carefully!”

The driver was thrust aside as the grip on his shirt was released.  He rubbed his neck, sweat pouring from his face, consternation emanating from his being in waves.

The second search was lengthier and more thorough, but still yielded no treasure. The efforts of the bandits became more frantic and rough as the realization struck home that there would be no loot to abscond with.

It was the thief named Joe who slammed his fist into the side of the coach. “Dammit!” he hollered in defeat. He hung his head, but only for a second. A decision was made. His head snapped up and he marched over to the stagecoach guard. The man was hauled unceremoniously away from the group and pushed as he was released. The push sent him forward onto his knees. Throwing his hands in front, he prevented himself from falling flat on his face. He made to get up, but was stilled when the cocking of a gun resounded in his ear.

Joe turned towards the driver. “For the last time, where’s the money?”

“Honest! There ain’t none! We can’t give you nothin’!”

“That’s a pity.”

With that, the trigger was pulled. The defenceless man had no chance. He jerked and yelped in anguish as the bullet hit. He then swayed before slowly leaning over and collapsing onto the ground. A pool of blood stained the earth beneath him as the leg wound bled profusely.

Utter silence followed the reverberation of the bullet leaving the gun. The group was transfixed, staring at the gory scene in front of them. The priest crossed himself and began muttering prayers, then the first sound was heard. The woman screamed. A shrill, terrified scream that lanced through their ears and continued in a new wave to wash over and through them.

“Shut up!” Joe’s companion turned his gun on her, threatening to mete out the same punishment.

“Hey! Easy! She didn’t mean nothing. She’s in shock,” Johnny attempted to placate their captors. As he spoke, he noticed the blond put an arm around her and talk soothingly to her in an effort to quieten the distressed woman. Her screams had stopped, but her sobs were loud and raw. Fortunately, she was now ignored, but he had drawn attention to himself.

The Mexican approached him, a sneer etched into his face. “Well, mestizo, what’s the lady to you?” Johnny did not miss the emphasis on the second word.

“Nothing. She don’t mean no harm to you, that’s all,” he answered softly so as not to anger him any more than necessary.

“You like white women, do you? Or by the looks of you did your papa like white women? So what’s your story? Your papa find a white whore to suit his needs or was your mama only too happy to have a white Gringo’s seed planted in her?”

Johnny clenched his jaw so tight he thought it would snap. Anger, white hot anger, slashed through him. Madrid came to his aid, providing the familiar mask behind which he could hide his fury and hurt from these cruelly vicious eyes.

“You gonna answer me?”

Johnny was not prompted again. The Mexican leaned forward and spat in Johnny’s face. The globule of spit hung for a second before beginning its descent further down his cheek. Johnny detected an abrupt movement from the corner of his eye. As Johnny wiped his face on his left sleeve, he simultaneously grabbed hold of the Boston man’s arm with his right hand. His grasp was fiercely strong and stopped the Easterner completing his ill-conceived action.

Johnny glanced briefly in his direction. “Don’t worry on my account. It ain’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.”

He then returned his eyes to the Mexican standing before him, Johnny’s complacent stare seeming to ignite the Mexican’s ire. As the thug made a move, to do what Johnny did not find out, his compadres called him over.

Their attackers spoke quietly, but heatedly, to each other. An agreement was reached.

Joe turned his attention to the motley group again. “Hand over your valuables! Nate, use this hat.” Joe handed Nate the co-driver’s hat, while the other two men kept watch, guns trained and ready.

The priest had nothing bar a small money pouch dangling from his belt. Nate was clearly disappointed. “Hell, padre, it don’t look like you even got enough on you to buy us a beer!”

He turned to the man who had been sitting opposite Johnny. Not the lady’s husband, Johnny had now decided, as he had made no attempt to comfort her, that duty having fallen to the Bostonian. The man yielded a small wallet containing a few bills only and a silver fob watch. The woman passed over her bag with trembling hands. Nate seized her left wrist. “Give me that, too!” he ordered, gesturing to her wedding band.

"Oh, no! I never take it off!”

“You will today, lady! Get a move on or I’ll shoot your finger off!”

She jumped at his callousness, then hastily tried to comply, twisting and turning it until it gradually slid over her knuckles.  It was added to the booty in the hat.

Johnny was next. He gave them what little he had and it was plain that the scant pickings from him fed their antagonism. The last victim was the blond. His billfold was beautifully crafted. Soft leather tooled with finely embossed patterns. Nate seized it and his eyes lit up at the size of the wad of cash.

“Whooee! Looks like we got ourselves a rich fella!” he gloated with glee.

Joe’s interest was piqued. “Yeah?  What’s your name?”

“Scott.”

“Scott who?”

“… Garrett.”

Joe thumbed through the wallet contents opening out several pieces of paper. He read slowly, then stopped and stared. 

“Well, fellas, it looks like we hit pay dirt!” he exclaimed. “Come and get a look at this!”

The other two robbers approached, still covering the group with their rifles. Glancing at the latter, sly smiles spread over their faces like a contagion further contaminating an infection.

Joe approached Scott. “Looks like we don’t need no mine payroll after all. You’ll do nicely. If your pa is as loving and anxious to see you as he says in that letter, he’ll pay up. He’ll pay up good to make sure that this here reunion he’s talking about actually takes place. We’ve heard of him and his spread.”

Joe’s sneer sent a shiver down Johnny’s spine. He knew the odds of this man’s father getting his son back safe and well, even if he did pay up. Johnny cast a glance at his travelling companion, the man he now knew to be called Scott. Scott stood ramrod straight, his face devoid of expression. But Johnny noted that that same face was white and pinched. He realized that Scott was quick enough on the uptake to understand that his chances of survival were slim.

“We’ll take him with us. Tie him up!”

“We ain’t got enough horses, Joe,” complained Nate.

Joe stopped, thinking. “We can take one of them coach horses and use that saddle that was on top of the stage.”

Scott was seized roughly and hauled away from the group. As Scott’s hands were tied, Johnny was thinking furiously, but he saw no way to take on the three of them when he was unarmed.

One of the horses was unhitched and the saddle placed on its back. It was skittish and unhappy, making life awkward for the men. Once the saddle was in place, Scott was ordered into the saddle. His hands were further bound to the pommel, making it impossible for him to direct the horse. The reins were taken up by one of the bandits, and his horse led behind the others.

Scott locked eyes with Johnny as he passed. Johnny felt like he had let this man down. Let him down badly. And for some reason, he felt that if the situation had been reversed, Scott would have done his utmost to assist him.

The outlaws left in single file. The stranded group could do nothing but watch them silently until they disappeared behind a hillside and were lost to view.

 

Chapter Two

Galvanized into action, Johnny checked out the wounded man, who was coming to and moaning softly. He ripped the trouser leg and checked for an exit wound. Satisfied that the bullet had gone right through, he then asked the driver if there was any alcohol on board.

The driver was evasive, until Johnny leapt to his feet and grabbed him by the lapel of his jacket. Johnny brought his face menacingly close to him, hissing ferociously.

“Let’s get something straight. There is a wounded man lying at your feet in agony. That wound is likely to get infected. I need some alcohol to clean the wound and I don’t give two hoots whether you have whiskey on board for ‘medicinal’ purposes. I ain’t about to tell your boss. Get it and get it now!”

At the last word, Johnny thrust the man from him, contempt on his face.

Johnny turned to the others. “Find me some clothes you can tear up to make bandages,” he instructed.

The driver located a canteen under the seat and swiftly brought it down to Johnny.

Johnny glared at the canteen thrust at him. “I said whiskey!” Johnny complained.

“It is. I pour it in the canteen so no one knows.”

Johnny just shook his head slowly. He was not impressed at the careless attitude of the driver to his responsibilities, but ironically glad that the whiskey was indeed at hand.

Warning the man that he was going to feel his injury sting, Johnny poured some liberally over both the entry and exit sites.

Taking the makeshift bandages, he efficiently bound up the man’s leg. “That’s all I can do for the moment,” Johnny stated, as the man murmured his thanks.

Standing, Johnny quickly surveyed the scene. “I am going after them. I’ll take one of the horses. Which one would be the best to try riding bareback?” This last question was addressed to the driver.

“Well, you could try this one, but what do you want to go and follow them for? We’re well rid of them, I’d say,” whined the driver.

Johnny turned on him, clasping the back of his neck as he dragged him closer. “Because, while it may have escaped your notice, they have taken one of your passengers with them! He doesn’t stand a chance unless someone does something to try to help.”

In disgust, Johnny pushed the man away. “Are there any weapons they didn’t find?”

“No, they raided the strongbox and took our shotgun as well.”

“Damn!” Johnny swore.

Turning, he snatched a canteen from the driver’s seat. He held it up, a silent query clearly evident on his face.

“Yeah, that one’s got water in it,” the stage driver confirmed.

Next, Johnny unhitched the horse, hoisting himself on its back.

“If that wound of his keeps bleeding, you are going to have to use a tourniquet. Just remember to loosen it every fifteen minutes or he’ll end up losing the limb.”

Johnny nodded grimly at the group and set out after the kidnappers.

Heat shimmered off the ground’s surface and mirages beckoned him on to false promises of a watery paradise ahead. The blurred horizon was always too far and his quarry was always out of reach.

At first the going was easy as there had been no attempt to disguise the tracks, but as time wore on, Johnny had to draw on all his skills to stay on their tails. Towards dusk his instincts kicked in as that familiar tingling at the back of his neck began nudging his senses.

Dismounting before the next rise, he tied the horse up under a tree. He stood still to listen, ears straining for any unusual sound. Only the odd bird call was evident. Nothing else. He edged his way up the hill, taking cover behind clumps of bushes and rock outcrops.

He smelt their presence first. Smoke from a camp fire wafted his way. It was barely discernible, but definitely indicating a camp nearby. Johnny inched his way forward to a group of boulders. Squatting behind them, his senses were on alert. He knew they were close, but were they all together? He peeked around the boulder to his right and edged carefully further along. Then he saw it. Ahead was a clearing, a flat piece of land encircled by the odd tree and various rock formations. He couldn’t quite make out where everyone was positioned, so he decided that circling the camp in ever decreasing spirals would help him ascertain the bandits’ whereabouts. He did not want to get closer, only to find that he had missed someone on the perimeter who could sneak up on him from behind.

He continued at a painstakingly slow pace around to the right. After ten minutes he was rewarded by finding the remuda. The horses were there, nickering to each other, but not overly concerned at his approach. He noted that all the animals were accounted for.

Just as he was about to push on, he caught a movement. One of the men, Nate it seemed, was checking on the horses. Johnny watched, then, as a plan hit him, he manoeuvred himself into position. With the utmost care, Johnny withdrew his boot knife, then gradually crept noiselessly forward. A mountain lion could do well to study his actions, so light-footed and graceful was his advance.

Johnny surged confidently, one hand around the man’s mouth, the other at his neck with the knife. He whispered his instructions clearly. “Face that tree with your hands over your head. Move in any other way or speak and nothing will stop this knife from greeting your innards!”

The man had frozen at Johnny’s appearance. He moved to comply, shuffling forwards slowly to the tree trunk. It was as he made to put his hands on the trunk above his head that he reacted. His elbow to Johnny’s ribs was sudden. Johnny cursed his stupidity in wanting to catch the men alive and dispense with bloodshed.

The two grappled and fell to the ground, rolling over and over. Panting and grunting, they both fought for control of the knife. Johnny ended up pinioned under the other man. Nate grasped Johnny’s hand and twisted it downwards towards Johnny’s neck. They were virtually motionless as the knife hovered above Johnny’s face, the only movement being the quivering of their arms as each tried to overpower the other. Somehow, Johnny kicked his legs, giving him some leverage to roll over once more, this time with Nate ending up underneath him. As the movement ceased, Johnny took advantage of a weakening of Nate’s resistance. He pushed hard and the small, but lethal, knife penetrated the bandit’s chest. Nate jerked suddenly, sucking in air and then gurgling. His face registered surprise as he looked at Johhny. Eyes glazing over, his head lolled to one side and he lay still.

Johnny removed himself from over Nate’s body and sat back on his haunches. After a moment, he checked to make sure he really was dead, then withdrew his knife and wiped it on the man’s pant leg. Replacing it in his boot sheath, Johnny stared at his victim. Killing never got any easier for him. Bile rose in his throat and he found himself abruptly turning to dry retch. It had been so close as well. It could easily have been him lying dead in the dirt with no one to mourn his passing.

A few gulps of calming fresh air and Johnny took stock. He dragged the body out of sight, then reached for the man’s gun. After checking that the weapon was loaded, Johnny crept surreptitiously to the edge of the campsite. He paused behind a boulder and studied the scene before him.

The two robbers turned kidnappers were sitting side by side next to the fire. They were talking quietly and passing around a whiskey bottle. Unexpectedly, Joe stood and swaggered over to Scott, who was bound with his back to a tree on the edge of the camp and only half visible in the firelight. He stood over his prisoner, then bent to offer him a drink of the alcohol. Just as the bottle was about to reach Scott’s lips, he pulled it away and laughed raucously at some joke only obvious in his own imagination.

“So, how much do you reckon your daddy will pay up to have you returned to him? He sure seems to be looking forward to seeing you.”

Scott’s lack of answer cost him. He received a savage kick in the ribs which he could do nothing to prevent with his hands bound behind him. The thud of the booted foot on the man’s body sickened Johnny.

“When I speak to you, you will answer! Do you hear me, boy?” thundered an enraged Joe. “I asked you how much you think we can get out of your old man? That ranch must be worth a pretty penny.”

Scott was bent over groaning and gasping. He straightened his body slowly and looked his aggressor in the eye. Stoically, he panted a reply. “I really don’t know how much it is worth and I think you’ll find that whatever it is, I am simply not worth that much to him!”

Scott’s disdain enraged Joe further.  Joe drew his leg back to kick him viciously again. Johnny flew into action before the kick could connect. He drew on the man, who dropped immediately as two bullets struck him, then he swivelled to aim for the Mexican. Too late, unfortunately, for the Mexican was firing deliberately at the prisoner. Scott grunted a split second before Johnny heard a cry, followed by a curse, from the Mexican. His opponent moved swiftly. A bullet whizzed past Johnny and had him ducking for cover, while the man disappeared into the inky blackness beyond the fire.

Johnny hesitated between going after him and seeing to the prisoner. He was loath to leave the wounded man tied up like a sitting duck, but felt he needed to find out just where the enemy was lurking. He moved through the lightly wooded area, stealthily progressing and attempting to gauge the man’s whereabouts. Too late, he heard the horses whinny, then the sound of hooves receding in the night.

‘Dammit!’

Johnny had wanted to take two of the horses and tie them up elsewhere, while setting the rest free, but had not done so for fear of creating a ruckus. He had not wanted to draw attention to his actions as he didn’t know if there were just the three bandits at the campsite or whether they had linked up with other gang members. Now he would pay for it with one of the men running free. He could only hope he had wounded the man and wounded him badly enough to remove any further threat to them.

Johnny returned carefully to the campsite, taking pains to prudently check that the Mexican had not double backed to bushwhack them. Satisfied that all appeared safe, he swiftly made his way to Scott, who was slumped against the tree trunk. The Easterner was moaning softly, head lolling to one side and face grimacing in pain.

“Hey, Scott? Come on, buddy, let me get you untied.”

Scott did not respond to him. Johnny seized his knife and cut through the tight bonds. As they gave, Scott’s body sagged further. Johnny caught him gently.

“I got ya,” he soothed. As he lay him down on his back, he noticed Scott’s eyes on him.

Scott groaned and whispered, “You came after them. Why?”

“Well, I don’t take kindly to stage coaches being held up and schedules getting delayed. Besides, they took my saddle!” Johnny explained.

The stranger regarded him. His eyes were surprisingly clear and perceptive for someone in so much pain. Johnny had the distinct impression that this man saw right through him. His subterfuge had been seen for what is was.

Pain pulling at his mouth did not prevent the Bostonian both from using his manners and speaking from the heart. “Thank you.”

Johnny held his gaze a moment longer, then broke it as he began to check his wound.

“I’m gonna need to check this out and see how you’re doing, OK?”

Scott nodded grimly.

Johnny undid his shirt. The wound looked gruesome. It still oozed fresh blood, but crusts of already drying blood were spread over his shoulder and down his torso. His shirt and jacket were stiff and sticky with blood. Keeping his face impassive, Johnny explained that he would need to lift him and roll him over a little.

“Checking for an exit site, huh?” grunted Scott.

Johnny was a little surprised. He didn’t think that this man would even know that bullets left an exit wound, which was often worse than the entry point.

“Yeah. This’ll hurt a little,” he warned him.

Johnny handled him as gently as he could. Checking the back, he noticed no further holes.

‘Damn!’

"Nothing, I gather?”

Johnny looked at Scott and shook his head. “No, nothing.”

“Uh huh.” Scott nodded in comprehension.

“Just let me get something to put on the wound. Be back in a second.”

Johnny went to Joe’s dead body. He reached for his shirt and tore a large section off it. He then quickly returned to the injured man. Wadding up the material, he pressed down on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry this is none too clean, but there ain’t no other choice,” Johnny apologized.

“That’s fine.”

“Now, what I’m gonna do is go check their saddle bags and see what I can find. Can you hold that on your shoulder for a minute?”

Scott murmured his understanding as Johnny left to check as briefly as he could on the saddles and saddlebags. He was back in a few moments.

“Now, I haven’t found a great deal, but there are some more shirts in here that we can use for bandages. I also found some whiskey.” Johnny looked down at Scott. He saw pain in his eyes, but he also noticed the sharp intelligence. For a city slicker, this man was a host of contradictions. Johnny knew that Scott knew what Johnny was going to say next. It was evident in his eyes even before Johnny spoke.

“I’m going to have to get that bullet out. It’s lodged in there somewhere and if I leave it in there, infection will set in. Do you understand?”

”Yes, I thought as much.”

Johnny explained what he was going to do, but even so, he felt that explanations were superfluous. This stranger was surprisingly aware of the realm of bullet wounds. It seemed incongruous to Johnny, but he didn’t have time to figure it out just then.

“So, I’m gonna have to clean the wound, wash it out and get that bullet. And it’s gonna hurt some. Sorry I ain’t got no painkiller. We’ll have to make do with the whiskey. All right?”

Scott merely nodded, his mouth set in a straight line.

As Johnny prepared for the makeshift operation, he was aware of Scott’s eyes on him, taking in every detail of his movements.

Firstly, Johnny collected as much wood as he could so he could stoke up the fire and provide more light to see by. He also set up a pan with water in it to boil.

Next Johnny washed his hands as best he could in the warmed water. He set his knife on a rock next to the campfire so that it would heat and become as sterile as he could make it. He then washed the wounds with the lightest of hands, but still Scott jerked away from his touch.

“Sorry,” Scott muttered.

“That’s all right. Believe me, I know that this ain’t no fun.”

Johnny wiped dried and excess blood away. Unfortunately, his actions had started the bleeding again. He pressed a relatively clean piece of shirt on the site. Taking Scott’s hand, he moved it so Scott could press on it himself.

“Now keep some pressure there while I finish getting ready. He made sure that he had enough shirts torn into strips to use as bandages and placed them on a jacket found in one of the saddlebags.

Lastly, Johnny turned to Scott. “I think you might need a bit of this. Probably not the quality you are used to, but it was the best I could do.”

Lifting Scott’s head, he poured the liquor sparingly into Scott’s mouth. When Scott indicated that he had had enough, Johnny urged one more gulp.

“Take some more. I’m telling you, you’ll need it.”

Johnny poured whiskey over the knife, making sure to cover both sides of the blade.

“You ready?” Johnny asked.

Scott shook his head. “Your name. I don’t know your name.”

“Johnny.”

“Johnny. OK, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Here, place this in your mouth and bite down on it,” Johnny commanded, handing him a tight wad of cloth. “Ready?”

Scott nodded yet again this night.

Liberal amounts of whiskey poured onto Scott’s wound saw him recoil. A muffled groan emanated from his mouth. Johnny reached over him with the knife. Scott’s stoic acceptance of his fate unnerved him somewhat. He hoped that he could get that bullet out fast without dragging out the man’s agony.

Johnny continued to explain the procedure he was following. “I’m just gonna have to sit astride you so you don’t move unexpectedly on me and cause more damage. Try to stay as still as you can.”

He placed the tip of the blade into the wound, and as expected the man bucked and gave a stifled yelp.

“Stay still!” Johnny ordered.

His patient squeezed his eyes shut and tensed, but stayed miraculously still and relatively silent. Johnny probed and swore under his breath when he couldn’t locate the lead bullet. A suppressed moan emanated from the injured man as Johnny’s ministrations continued. Finally, Johnny felt contact with the metal. Gouging deeper, he sank the blade under the bullet and levered it to the surface. Scott groaned again and twisted as far as the weight of Johnny’s body would allow. Perspiration beaded his forehead, but he finally lay back exhausted when the invasion into his body ceased. Scott spat out the gag he had been biting on. His breaths came in ragged pants as he sought to recover from the pain that had been inflicted upon him.

Johnny glanced at Scott’s face. As quickly as he could, he irrigated the wound with water. Then, he paused. “Scott, I need to pour some more whiskey on. It really does a great job of cleaning it, but it’s gonna hurt.”

Scott opened his eyes and sought Johnny’s. “OK. I’m ready.”

Johnny acted fast. This man had suffered enough. And he had suffered bravely. A stifled groan was bitten back as the easterner concentrated on staying still and coping with the onslaught of fresh agony.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have a needle and thread. You need a few stitches, but I can’t do nothing about it just yet.”

Scott opened his eyes again and focussed on Johnny. “I know. Can’t be helped.”

Johnny smiled at him. “Seems I’ve heard those words already today.”

Surprisingly, his wounded patient smiled back. Johnny was impressed by this man’s courage. An understated courage. Johnny had the feeling that he would like this man by his side if the chips were down.  And this feeling surprised him. Fancy Dan was a man who was not what he seemed. There was more to him. And Johnny could not help but like him for it.

Johnny made short work of organizing the bandages, addressing Scott as he spoke. “I’m going to have to lift you to wrap these bandages in place. I’m sorry if I hurt you in the process.”

Scott looked at him. His stare was unfathomable. “You do what you have to do.  And whatever that is, I am grateful.”

Johnny nodded, but did not speak. He leaned forward, putting his hands under Scott’s  shoulders. As gently as he could, he lifted him up. An ‘ooph’ escaped Scott’s lips. Johnny sat him up, but Scott did not have the strength to stay upright. He leaned forward onto Johnny’s chest, eyes flickering in disorientation.

Johnny paused for a moment before starting. Visible in the flickering firelight he could make out an old puckered scar. The disfigurement jarred with the image of the proper, protected dude.

Johnny wrapped the bandages around him awkwardly, but in the end he was finished. He tore the end of the strip down the middle and wound one half back the other way until it met with its other half. Johnny tied a knot, checked that the bandage was firm enough as well as being smooth, then ever so carefully laid Scott down.

He then hopped up. Fetching a bedroll which had been unrolled by one of the bandits, he brought it close to the fire and manoeuvred Scott onto it. Next he collected a blanket and wrapped it snugly around the wounded man.

“You need to drink to make up for the blood loss,” encouraged Johnny as he held a canteen to Scott’s dry lips.

Scott took several sips, but then turned his head away.

“No, that ain’t enough. You need more. Just take your time and sip it. We got all night.”

Scott was looking fatigued and Johnny insisted on forcing more water on him until he was satisfied that he had consumed sufficient for the time being.

Johnny laid him back down and considered this enigma. A foppish dandy on the outside, steel on the inside. And smart steel at that. This man had comprehended what was happening at the hold-up before it really happened.

Johnny reached for a pair of pants he found in one of the saddlebags. Folding it, he made a makeshift pillow for Scott. He worked his hand under his head and lifted it up fractionally so he could insert the clothing.

“Thank you,” murmured Scott.

‘Steel with manners’, Johnny thought.

 

Chapter Three

“So, how are you doing?” Johnny enquired.

“Not too bad,” answered Scott. “Thanks to you.”

“You’re welcome. It wasn’t your fault you got hurt. Don’t like to see an innocent man suffer, especially at the hands of scum like that.”

“What made you come after me? Or was it just the saddle you wanted?”

“Well, I’m mighty proud of that saddle. Otherwise I wouldn’t have lugged it for the last five miles before I came across the stage,” Johnny agreed.

Scott looked at him, knowingly. Johnny dropped his eyes.

Scott offered an observation. “You’re mighty quick with that gun,”

“Yeah, well it’s the quick and the dead where I come from.”

“Down south?”

Johnny smiled at him, in remembrance of their conversation on the coach. “Yeah.”

“Are you a gunfighter?”

“Yeah, gunfighter, gun hawk, pistolero. Take your pick.”

The Easterner nodded, but remained unimpressed.

“How about I see if I can find something for you to eat?” Johnny suggested.

Scott closed his eyes. A gasp escaped his lips. Johnny leaned forward, placing a hand on his good shoulder.

“Easy.”

Scott gritted his teeth and felt surprisingly comforted by this stranger’s touch. He opened his eyes and sought Johnny’s again. He nodded his appreciation.

Johnny left him, then. He stoked up the fire again and rummaged for some food in the saddlebags. He held his prizes up to Scott.  ”Hey! We got us some coffee and some jerky.” A moment later, he called out again. “I found some biscuits as well!” 

Johnny squatted by the fire and as he worked, he talked to Scott. He cut some jerky up and placed it in the water.

“There’s nothing like good jerky broth. Set you on your feet in no time. When’s the last time you ate?”

“Late morning, I think.”

“Well, you need something in your stomach.”

“To be honest, I don’t know if I could handle it,” Scott confessed.

Johnny turned to him, resting his forearms on his thighs. “You’re gonna have to. You need to keep your strength up. You lost a lot of blood and there’s a good chance your body will be struck by infection. I don’t wanna scare you none, but you probably ain’t never seen a bullet wound, and I’m telling you, they can cause some fearsome problems. The bullet wound itself can be relatively minor, but the infection can take a hold and be merciless. And it ain’t fussy about who it strikes.”

Johnny tensed as he perceived a colour change in Scott’s eyes. From blue grey, they turned dark and sombre. Haunted eyes where the ghosts still lingered, not having been laid to rest. He edged closer to Scott under the pretext of covering him up better. As he adjusted the blanket around his neck, he rested his hand on Scott’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry. I guess I called that wrong and spoke out of turn.”

Scott looked at him enquiringly, feigning ignorance, pretending to misunderstand Johnny’s intuition. But as he stared into his rescuer’s eyes, he saw that dissembling was of no use when dealing with this extraordinary man.

“I was in the war. I saw many bullet wounds.”

Johnny nodded sympathetically. “And a lot more, I’ll wager.”

Scott closed his eyes. Whether it was due to pain from the past or the present, Johnny was unsure. He was just about to leave him to his rest or to his memories, when Scott continued speaking. “Yes, bullet wounds, bayonet wounds, bodies mutilated by canon fire, amputations, starvation, betrayal. I guess you could say that I am no stranger to any of it.”

Johnny stayed stock still. It was not often that he was surprised by people, but this man seemed to constantly surprise him.

“You must have seen some sights that no man should ever see. I’m sorry. You seem to be a decent man. You shouldn’t have had to live through that.”

Scott surprisingly chuckled. “Yes, it was all quite different from my life in Boston.”  He then sobered, “I had seen men stabbing others in the back in business deals. Cutthroat paperwork. But I had never seen men do it to each other physically. Countryman against countryman. And they were so young. WE were so young”

There was a profound silence. Johnny noted the pain on the man’s face. He had a feeling it was memories, rather than the gunshot wound, which caused the tense lines marking his handsome face.

“If you were from Boston, and mighty rich at a guess, why were you in the war?”

“I suppose you could say that I felt an obligation.”

“An obligation to who?”

“An obligation to those who didn’t grow up with my advantages. To the slaves.”

“I’ll wager that not many other well-heeled men felt that same obligation.”

“Maybe not, but by the end the war I sure had a first hand understanding of what it was like to lose one’s freedom and to be treated as sub-human.”

“Were you taken prisoner?” Johnny ventured.

“Yes, I was captured. Spent a year in Libby prison.”

Johnny stiffened in surprise. But it all made sense.

“Is that where you got that scar on your back?”

Scott looked at him, nonplussed. They locked eyes, blue upon blue.

“I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“Why? Ain’t nothing to be ashamed of. What happened?”

Scott sighed with the pain of remembering. “One of my men went crazy. He couldn’t take the incarceration any more. He just went beserk. He thought our soldiers were the enemy. I grabbed him so he wouldn’t hurt anyone and in the mêlée I was stabbed. He didn’t really register who I was. Anyone and everyone was the enemy for him by then.”

“So you were an officer?” Johnny surmised.

“Lieutenant.”

I suppose I should salute before I speak to you, huh? You must have been pretty young to be a lieutenant?” queried Johnny.

Scott snorted. “Hell, everyone was young!”

Pain lanced through him, overcoming him as he moaned and curled on his side, drawing his legs up in agony.

Johnny washed a rag in some canteen water and wiped it over Scott’s face.

“Thanks. That feels good,” Scott panted.

“Any time. Can’t neglect my patient.”

Scott breathed deeply in order to regain his composure. He smiled thinly and studied this man. A contradiction if ever there was one. Gawdy, showy attire, and worn and dusty at that. A man who wore clothes to be noticed, but he was self-effacing at the same time. A brave man who would be a formidable opponent, yet who obviously had a gentle and kind heart. A man who hadn’t needed to come after him, yet he had risked his life to do so. For a stranger. For a stranger he may have even derided for his wealthy background. But he had done so. Scott knew the saddle didn’t come into it.

“So, why did you really come after me?” Scott asked.

Johnny played at stirring the jerky broth.

“Those men are no good varmints. You don’t deserve that. You seem decent.”

Johnny continued to concentrate on the jerky broth he was concocting.

Out of the blue, Scott asked a question which froze Johnny.

“Why did that Mexican spit on you? You are of Mexican descent, aren’t you? Why did he call you a ‘mestizo’?”

Johnny hunched his shoulders and even in Scott’s miserable state, he knew he had broached a forbidden topic. He could only imagine it was the pain that caused him to breech common etiquette. That, and the need to keep talking to hide that very pain.

“Sorry. It’s none of my business,” Scott apologized.

Johnny still had his back to him. Scott was surprised when Johnny answered. In fact, this man constantly seemed to surprise him.

“Racism ain’t confined to white people, you know. Many whites think that other races are beneath their contempt. They don’t like mixed marriages because it weakens the pure blood. Well, Mexicans, black people, Indians and Chinese don’t take it kindly when their own kind mix with whites. They don’t want no white blood tainting their race.”

Scott nodded his fledgling understanding.

“Well, you may have noticed that I have blue eyes. My mama was Mexican and my father was Gringo. That makes me a half-breed, a mestizo. So that means I don’t fit anywhere, at least not properly. I’m neither white, nor Mexican.”

Scott looked at him, aghast. Although he had fought in the war to end slavery, to condemn racism and to encourage freedom of choice, he had always approached his views as a white man, albeit one who promoted liberty. He had never thought that other races might consider the white man to be a lower class individual.

Johnny continued his explanation, a resigned mask settling on his features.

“The Mexicans don’t like mestizos because it means one of the parents had ‘relations’ with a Gringo. They don’t like to think that any woman would think that a Gringo was worth …um, going with, if you get my drift. Or it can mean that a Gringo forced himself on a Mexican woman. Or it worries them that a Mexican man might have preferred a white woman to a Mexican one. So, whatever the situation, nobody approves of the Gringo half.”

Here, Johnny snorted and gave a shake of his head. “Of course, the whites don’t like the thought that a white woman might choose a Mexican lover. Or they presume that a Mexican man raped a white woman and the lady was overpowered, with no say in the matter. Or yet again if a white man has relations with a Mexican woman and sows a few wild oats into the bargain, the resulting child is regarded as no more than a mistake to be gotten rid of.”

Johnny concentrated on the broth, then sighed deeply. “So, a mestizo, which is what I am, is accepted by no one and despised by both societies.”

Scott’s mouth gaped. He was appalled to the extent that he suddenly found his stomach retching in dismay and denial that mankind could be so cruel. He had seen it in wartime, but was horrified that this happened to Johnny in peacetime. And if he didn’t miss his guess, this had happened throughout this man’s life, from very early on in childhood.

Scott found himself held by Johnny as he retched foul bile. His stomach roiled and rebelled, then gradually settled to the calming litany of Johnny’s softly spoken voice.

Scott lay back, panting and perspiring. His wound felt like fire burning through his very being. Johnny wiped his face again, carefully.

“Settle down, hey amigo? Just relax and I’ll have this broth ready in a moment,” Johnny urged.

“Sorry,” Scott muttered.

“Ain’t nothing wrong with a good puke. It happens to the best of us,” Johnny placated with a dazzling grin.

A weak grin was offered in return from Scott.

“I’m sorry for the way you have been treated. Was it like that all your life?”

Again, Johnny was quiet a moment. “Yeah, for as long as I can remember. I don’t suppose it was when I was a baby before my Mama left my father, but I’m not sure. He kicked us out, so maybe he couldn’t really cope with a half-breed son. Maybe it was all right having a Mexican woman, even a Mexican wife, but perhaps having a half Mexican son was harder than he thought. Maybe he found it too hard to hold his head up in the community, you know?”

At that, Johnny looked up. His piercingly blue eyes were matter-of-fact, accepting even. But this was on the outside. Scott felt certain that there was a world of hurt on the inside.

Scott locked eyes with this man who had risked his life to save a stranger. He had never felt so sure about a man as he did right now, yet he scarcely knew anything about him.

Scott could not withhold his thoughts about Johnny’s father. “More fool him. If he threw you out, I’d say it was his loss.”

Johnny’s smile was dazzling. The sort of smile that charmed and wooed. The smile of a man with a well-developed sense of humour. A smile that engaged the unwilling, that disarmed the antagonistic. A smile that made a person feel happy and calm.

“Thank you, but I got over that a long while ago. No sense in brooding,” Johnny asserted.

“Sorry, but I don’t believe you. Does a person ever really get over that?” Scott countered.

Johnny’s body jolted physically.

“A body HAS to get over that. No sense in wallowing in a past that you can’t change or yearning for a life that can never be. It’s a waste of energy.”

Scott pursued the subject doggedly. “So, how old were you when you were thrown out?”

“Two.”

Scott gasped in dismay. Who could do that to an innocent two year old?

“And you’ve never seen him since?”

”Nope.” Johnny gave assiduous attention to his cooking as he fielded these unremitting questions.

“What about YOUR pa?” Johnny deftly diverted the conversation.

“I’ve never met him.”

”But those bandits said that your pa was rich and would pay to get you back!”

“So they thought. I don’t know. I am actually going to meet my father for the first time. He has a ranch not too far from here.”

“So you grew up without your pa?”

Scott eyed him and sadly nodded.

Johnny’s irrepressible ability to see the good in any situation came to the fore again.

“Well, I guess you could say that we have something in common.” His grin was contagious. To Scott it acted like a medicine, chasing away sombre thoughts and ills.

Johnny persisted. “So your ma is from Boston?”

“Yes, but I was born here in California. She died giving birth to me.” Scott’s voice hitched. He had never known his mother and to be frank, he was somewhat dispassionate about her, never having any memories of her. Why the thought of her would distress him now, he didn’t know. But it did.

Again, his companion eased the physical and mental pain. “Hey, take it easy. Just relax. Try not to talk, eh?”

Scott’s shoulder was burning. And breathing hurt because of the battering he’d sustained in the rib area. He began panting and tried desperately to ward off groans of agony and anguish. He felt hot, then cold. For some reason, he wanted to keep talking to this man. Talking seemed to stave off the pain a little, giving him something else to concentrate on. Normally he wanted to leave things well enough alone, so he was surprised at himself.

“What about your mother?” Scott prodded.

“She died.”

“I’m sorry.” Scott offered.  “Looks like, unfortunately, we have even more in common. How old were you?”

“Eleven.”

“You said you haven’t seen your father since you left, so who brought you up?”

Johnny didn’t answer. He poured some of his jerky broth into a mug. Seizing a biscuit, he scooted back to Scott, blowing on the liquid to cool it.

Scott wondered if he would reply. He concentrated on his face. A good face, he decided. A warmth escaped when he allowed it. When it wasn’t hidden behind a protective armour. When he felt he could relax and trust. Scott didn’t think that Johnny had ever had many times in his life where he could confide and trust. Remembering him in the stagecoach, Scott thought that he seemed to wear his cloak of aloofness too well.

I suppose if you don’t relax and connect with people, you can’t get hurt’, Scott surmised.

Johnny surprised him by opening up further. “I guess you could say I brought myself up. You might have noticed I don’t have your polished manners and appearance!”

What surprised Scott was that Johnny was not being aggressive or negative. He was merely stating the obvious as he saw it.

Scott considered him for a fraction of a second before speaking. “Everyone I knew in Boston was well turned out and courteous in the extreme. On the surface, that is.” Scott stopped, locking glances with Johnny. “Yet, you know something? That means nothing. When the chips are down, I can’t think of one of them I’d like to have by my side. There’s a quote I once heard and I keep meaning to write it down for posterity: “The true measure of a man is not how he behaves in moments of comfort and convenience, but how he stands at times of controversy and challenges”. I might have just met you, but I get the feeling that you fit the bill.”

Johnny stopped blowing on the soup. He was immobile, face impassive, shocked even.

“You don’t know me,” he argued.

“I’ve seen enough of how men act under pressure to gauge a decent and trustworthy man when I see one.”

Johnny couldn’t speak as the steady gaze of his patient seemed to strip his soul bare and leave his emotions exposed. He swallowed, shaken with feelings normally best kept hidden. He didn’t know why this man’s opinion should matter so much to him, but it did.

Unsure that he would be able to speak, he offered the broth to act as a diversion. “Here, this should go down a treat.’

Johnny raised Scott’s head and shoulders. Supporting him with one arm, he tilted the mug so that Scott could sip the brew. After several sips, Scott wanted to stop. He averted his mouth and lifted his hand to push the mug away.

“Nope. Can’t let you get away with that. You need to drink it all. If infection strikes, you might be too ill to take anything.  So drink up!”

Johnny did not relent until Scott had consumed the whole mug. He then lay him back down carefully. Scott closed his eyes, but there was no peace on his face. His face was contorted into a grimace. As Johnny watched, the etchings of pain gradually died away and left his face smoother. Johnny hoped that he had fallen asleep.

This was not to be. His patient was in a talkative mood. “Didn’t your mother ever try to contact your father again?”

Johnny sighed. He had hoped that this topic of conversation had been concluded.

“Nope.”

“Did she remarry?”

“Nope.”

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

“Nope.”

“So there was just you and your mother?”

Johnny did not feel that he could tell a total stranger about his mother’s many lovers, so he opted for the easy answer. “Yep.”

There was a silence and for some unaccountable reason, Johnny broke his life’s code of not offering unnecessary information to anyone about anything. Especially his past.

“Until I was eleven, as I said.”

“How did she die?”

Johnny was pensive with vivid memories. When Johnny did not at first answer, Scott broke into his thoughts with an apology.

“I’m sorry. I had no right to ask.”

Johnny continued his silence, but wondered what it mattered now. So he began hesitantly. “She was murdered. A man beat her to death.”

Scott’s indrawn gasp was of pain. Pain for the small boy that this man had once been.

“I’m so very sorry.”

They were both silent for a while. Scott moved to get more comfortable, and couldn’t stifle a moan of agony. Perspiration broke out on his face. Noticing it, Johnny wrung out a fresh cloth and applied it to his forehead. A sigh of what could almost be called pleasure escaped Scott’s lips.

“Thank you.”

“If you were eleven, you can’t really just have brought yourself up! Who looked after you?”

A wry smile toyed with the corners of Johnny’s mouth. “Well, the nuns and padres tried, but I guess I’m not much use at taking orders, you might say. I lasted about six months and then made a break for it. I suppose when I was at the orphanage, I felt like you must have in that prison camp you were in. I just wanted out so I could make my own decisions.”

“But you were eleven!”

“Nearly twelve!”

“Do you mean to say that you’ve really been on your own since you were eleven?”

The compassion in Scott’s eyes brought back the loneliness and misery that Johnny had thought he had suppressed many years ago.

“Believe me, it was better that way.”

“And what happened to your mother’s killer?”

Johnny couldn’t answer. He got up and squatted closer to the fire before stoking it up. His back was the Scott, his head bent. After some time, he turned and looked over his shoulder at Scott. But Scott’s honest stare was too hard to hold, and so he turned away again.

He finally stood up and bent over Scott to check on him. He rested back on his heels and leant his arms on his thighs. Scott eyes were still locked on his. Johnny swallowed, then bowed his head to examine his hands which were dangling loosely.

He then looked up into those magnetic slate grey pupils once more.

“I killed him. I was too small and too slow to protect my mother. He came for me, then. He’d left his holster hanging on a chair. I grabbed his gun and killed him before he got me first.”

Johnny held his stare. “And I decided then and there that no one was going to find me at a disadvantage again. I wasn’t gonna be anyone’s punching bag no more. I wasn’t gonna be a victim any more!”

Instead of the disgust he expected, Johnny found a nod of agreement and acceptance from Scott.

Scott’s response gripped Johnny. “That’s much the same as I felt when I escaped from Libby. There’s something about being helpless and at someone’s mercy which makes a person fight, if he has to, in order to make sure that he isn’t defenceless again. Makes him value freedom and the way he spends his remaining time left on this earth.”  

It was a revelation to him that this stranger could comprehend and acknowledge how Johnny felt. There were few people that Johnny ever considered who were on the same plane as him. Few that he connected with in the way he gelled with this Easterner with his unusual accent and his strange clothes.

The object of his scrutiny was looking more uncomfortable. Sweat was beading his brow and he squirmed in an effort to get more comfortable. Low moans broke through the man’s defences.

“Easy, Scott. I’ll keep an eye on you. Just rest.”

Scott glanced over with a weak smile, which did nothing to fulfil its intention of hiding his pain.

“Yeah, I guess I might at that.”

“Hey, before you drift off, where were you headed? You never said.”

Scott moaned. He was obviously experiencing troubles focusing. “Morro Coyo.”

“And who is your father?”

<<The true measure of a man is not how he behaves in moments of comfort and convenience, but how he stands at times of controversy and challenges.>>

 

The above quote is by Martin Luther King, but I have used Author’s licence to reproduce it here nearly 100 years before it was uttered! Thanks to Ros, who came across it.

 

Chapter Four

Scott’s head lolled languidly. His speech came out slurred and fatigued. “His name’s Mmmm…”

With a sigh, Scott lost consciousness.

Johnny contemplated the Bostonian. He looked pale and weak. A fever taking hold did not bode well.

Sighing with regret that this man had been caught up in a circumstance not of his making, Johnny adjusted the blanket around him. He attempted to cool him off with a damp rag, then made himself comfortable for what looked like a tiring vigil ahead.

While Scott was unconscious for the rest of the night, several times he roused enough to moan in pain and writhe in an attempt to position his body so as to alleviate his discomfort.

As the new day dawned and the grey ceded to a more golden light, Johnny reheated some more of his jerky broth for Scott. He knew that they couldn’t stay there. He was unsure if the Mexican would come back, but he also knew that they were not that far from help in Morro Coyo.

Johnny had retrieved his gun from one of the dead bodies and felt more at ease knowing that his customized revolver was sitting snugly ensconced in his rig at his right hip.

He woke Scott and managed to get him to sip his way through another cup of the broth.

“Scott, we are going to have to get going. We could be in Morro Coyo before noon, then we could get you to a proper doctor and get that wound cleaned up properly. But to do that, you’re going to have to ride.”

Scott glanced up at his saviour. Swallowing with effort, he nodded. “I think you should get going without me. Leave me behind. I’ll only slow you up.”

Johnny glared at him before responding. “I didn’t ride out to look for you, only to abandon you. You are coming back with me whether you like it or not.”

A weak smile played around Scott’s mouth. “You sure you weren’t in the army? You sound like officer material – used to giving orders!”

Johnny grinned back. It was a grin that lifted Scott’s spirits. Engaging, charming and conspiratorial. So much at odds with the way this man wore his holster. This man who could very obviously be dangerous in the right circumstances, but who at the moment was brightening the new day with his presence.

“I WAS in the army, actually, the Mexican army. But I don’t take kindly to being told when to spit and polish or being given orders in general. And that includes yours! So, can you ride? Do you think you can manage if we ride double?”

Scott chuckled weakly. “Well, if you are asking if I am well enough to ride, then yes, I’ll manage. If you want to know if I know how to ride, then is being a former cavalry officer a good enough reference for you?”

Johnny whistled. “Whooee! You sure are a hard man to pinpoint. It’s not often I get surprised. Cavalry, huh?

Scott began to laugh, but was quickly engulfed in searing pain. He could not suppress the groan which emanated from between clenched teeth. He lay down panting as Johnny sponged his forehead with cool water. Scott was beginning to burn up. Infection was a real threat. Johnny recognized this and knew that he needed to ready a horse without delay. As he moved to do so, Scott grabbed Johnny’s arm.

“I can manage my own horse. We’ll be faster that way.”

Johnny looked at him sceptically, but then nodded in agreement. “You just rest and I’ll saddle the horses.”

Johnny made short work of breaking camp and readying the mounts, but when he returned to Scott’s side, he was dismayed to see him decidedly woozy. He helped him up as gently as he could. The injured man had paled considerably and wavered on top of the horse before stabilising his seat.

With misgivings, Johnny gave a little hop and then mounted one of the bandit’s horses, onto which he had placed his own saddle. Both men kneed their horses into a gentle trot. Johnny could only imagine the jarring Scott was going through. Frequent glances at his companion reinforced Johnny’s opinion that he was suffering excruciating agony. What surprised him, though, was that Scott hung on tenaciously, a fierce look of determination on his face.

‘Guts, sheer guts’, thought Johnny.

Johnny tried to get Scott to take his mind off his pain.

“So, you got a girl back home, Scott, someone special waiting for you?” Johnny enquired.

“No. I used to.”

“What happened?”

”We were engaged.”

“And?”

“And I just realized that she seemed more intent on increasing her family’s wealth, than in building a life together with me.”

“So you were a good catch financially?”

“Yes, I suppose you could say that. I don’t think that deep down she loved me for who I was. It was more what I was. I had the right pedigree, I suppose.”

“What was her name?”

“Julie.”

Scott moaned and panted. He wiped his glistening forehead on his forearm. “What about you?”

“Nope.”

“There’s never been anyone special?”

“There have been.”

“And?”

“I’ve always been on the move. Women like to put down roots.”

“No one was willing to go with you, to follow you, wherever you went?”

“That wouldn’t have been fair, Scott, and, well … I guess you could say that I didn’t fit the bill as a prospective husband and son-in-law. I told you before, a mestizo just doesn’t fit anywhere. The opposite to you, I guess. My pedigree wasn’t acceptable in white or Mexican society.”

Despite his physical pain, Scott felt overcome by another pain. A pain of empathy and compassion for the slights inflicted on this man. How could life be so unfair to some people?

“Maybe you didn’t meet the right girl who was willing to fight for you,” Scott observed.

Johnny glanced sideways at him. “Maybe not.”

“You deserve someone special. You’ll meet her one day when you least expect it.”

Johnny chuckled. “You think so, eh, Scott? Well, maybe you’re right, but I ain’t holding my breath waiting!”

Scott offered a suggestion. “We could work our way through the valley. Compare notes. Help each other out. Keep on the lookout!”

They both laughed, but it was Scott’s undoing. He faltered alarmingly, groaned in agony and swayed dangerously. Johnny quickly reined in and dismounted. Hoisting himself on the back of the other horse, he sat behind Scott and reached around him to collect the reins. Clutching the now barely conscious easterner firmly, Johnny headed off again, leading the other horse in his wake.

“Just a little way to go, Boston. Hold on,” Johnny urged as encouragingly as he could.

Scott’s voice rasped, “Boston?”

“Yeah, well that’s where you said you were from and it kinda suits you in that fancy outfit and all,” Johnny assessed.

“Pot … calling the kettle …”

Scott’s riposte was lost in a fit of coughing that left him gasping.

Johnny grasped him tighter. “Well, I guess if you ignore your coat and frilly shirt at least your britches could be considered plain.”

“Anything would look plain next to your pants.” Scott’s reply cost him as he moaned in pain.

Johnny halted the mount. Unwinding the canteen strap from the pommel, Johnny uncorked it and offered him some to slake his thirst. Removing his bandana from his neck, Johnny poured some water over it and wiped Scott’s face before tying it around Scott’s neck. He hoped it would help cool him down and reduce the escalating fever.

“Let’s get you to a doctor, huh?” suggested Johnny, urging his horse on.

Scott leant heavily against Johnny, the effort to stay upright requiring too much strength.

It suddenly occurred to Johnny that he still didn’t know the location of Scott’s father’s ranch. “Where exactly is your father’s ranch? I still don’t know who your father is. I need to know who to contact,” he asked.

Scott’s breathing was ragged and pain-filled. At first, Johnny did not think that he would answer. Finally, and with difficulty, he panted, “Near Morro Coy …”

The sentence was left unfinished and Scott sagged, unconscious, like a loose bundle of bones against Johnny’s chest. Frustratingly, Johnny still knew no more than he had before.

Johnny was so engrossed in concentrating on managing his saddle mate, that he was unnaturally slow to react to the foreign sound. Hoof-beats could be heard. He cursed his carelessness. He steered the horses to some cover, but he knew that it was too late and that they had been spotted. And his options were few.

A confident voice called out. “Show yourself, Mister! And don’t try anything!”

The unmistakable cocking of a gun left him in no doubt as to their reception.

 

Chapter Five

Johnny hesitated, but then noted the sheriff’s badge glinting in the sunlight. He called out, “Don’t shoot! I’ve got a wounded man with me! He was shot in a stage hold-up.”

Johnny edged his horse forward until he faced the eight men comprising the posse.

“He needs a doctor real bad,” Johnny urged them.

“I bet he does. Drop your gun and then we’ll see to him,” answered the sheriff.

“You don’t need my gun. You need to help me get him to a doctor!”

“I said, drop it!” hollered the sheriff.

Johnny sighed, then reached for the gun he had retrieved from Nate. With two fingers, he delicately lifted it up and threw it onto the ground beside him.

“Now, get down!”

Johnny was becoming increasingly frustrated in his urgency. “If I get down, he’s gonna fall. We’re wasting time. We need to get to town to the doctor!”

“You deaf, Mister?”

Johnny sighed yet again. A furiously deep sigh. Then he did as he was told, all the while keeping hold of Scott so he didn’t slip and slide right out of the saddle onto the earth.

Four of the men approached him. Two checked Johnny for further weapons, finding his knife in the process. The other two lowered Scott to the ground.

After a cursory examination, they confirmed what Johnny had said. “Yep, he’s been shot, all right!”

The sheriff organized the men efficiently. “Right! You two hoist him up behind Zeke,” he commanded in reference to Scott. “Get that Mex back on his horse and tie his hands to the pommel. Tight. Real tight. We don’t want scum like that getting away.”

“Hey!” protested Johnny. “I saved him and got that bullet out. I didn’t shoot him!”

“Yeah, likely story. You’re wearing that rig mighty low and danged if you don’t fit the description of one of them bandits! Tie him up, boys!”

Johnny began struggling as he was held roughly. “I ain’t one of them!” he shouted.

He jerked his arm free of one of the deputized men, but this was open invitation to them to retaliate. He was slugged mightily for his efforts, the blow connecting with a resounding crack on his temple. He stood for a second. Bright lights flashed before being almost immediately extinguished as a blanket of dark oppressiveness descended on him.

******************************

Johnny became aware of sounds penetrating his consciousness. Vague sounds, but it was all too hard to focus. A weight was pressing on his skull, as though it had been caught under a landslide. It was impossible to move as even the slightest altering of position sent jarring thrusts which seemed to split his brain into fragments.

He moaned softly, but even that was simply too difficult to do. He slid back under the pain free shield of unconsciousness.

How long he was out for again, he did not know. The next time, unfortunately, his head did not feel substantially better. Voices could be heard with more clarity this time, but Johnny was disoriented and could not place them. Nor could he place just where he might be.

He forced his eyes open. The yellow bolt of agony pierced his whole being. Hastily closing them, he could not prevent the groan that tore from him.

Panting, he lay still. But not for long. He heard a metallic clanging sound and then the creaking of hinges. He risked opening his eyes again.

He discovered that he was lying on a hard cot, but what drew his attention were the bars. The unmistakable, iconic representation of jails the world over. A man stood in the open doorway of the basic cell. One arm was grasping a vertical bar, the other hand was resting on the man’s hip. It was the sheriff from the posse.

“So, about time! Been waiting for you to wake up!” the sheriff announced grimly.

Johnny breathed deeply, then drew his legs up so he could apply some leverage to push his back up the wall. It took all his willpower not to groan again. Resting his head against the wall behind him and leaning his arms on his knees, he regarded the sheriff.

The sheriff, having got his attention, continued. “OK, so how about you tell me your version of events. We found the bodies of the other two bandits. So you wanted all the spoils for yourself? Made sure you got rid of the other share holders in your little venture?”

Johnny sighed deeply. Closing his eyes for a moment, he then concentrated on breathing evenly and settling his churning stomach.

Taking one last fortifying breath, he felt that he could converse. He didn’t answer the question, though.

“No. Ask Scott what happened. He’ll tell you.” Johnny then snapped his head up straight as he remembered Scott’s injuries. “How is Scott?” he wanted to know.

The sheriff snorted in disgust. “So you want to know whether you are facing three or only two charges of murder?”

“No, I want to know how Scott is. Is he OK? He was developing a fever.”

Sarcasm dripped from the sheriff’s tongue. “Yeah, well that’s what usually happens when a man gets shot.”

“I asked if he was all right!” Johnny demanded angrily.

“No, he ain’t all right, thanks to you! He’s sick. Mighty sick! That fever has taken a solid hold on him. He didn’t have a doctor out there and infection set in! He’s still unconscious.” Disgust and fury were evident in the sheriff’s voice.

Johnny’s mouth set in a straight line and his shoulders slumped. He hoped that Scott would recover. In the short time that they had spent together, Scott had earned Johnny’s respect.

“Is he going to be all right?” Johnny queried hopefully.

“I guess that’s between him and his Maker … and maybe the doc. Now I asked you to give me the rundown on the events after the robbery.”

“I didn’t hurt Scott. I set out to rescue him. Ask the other passengers,” suggested Johnny.

“You don’t fool me, boy. The third member of the bandit’s gang, the only one still alive, was a Mexican wearing a red shirt and concho pants. Now if I ain’t mistaken, that shirt of yours is red and them britches have studs down the sides. So, don’t waste my time!”

Johnny shook his head, immediately regretting it.

“I was in the stage coach. We were held up. Scott was kidnapped because his father is rich. I set off after them. I found them. In the struggle to free Scott, I killed the bandits and wounded the Mexican who took off. Scott was wounded in the fracas. I got the bullet out and we were headed to Morro Coyo when you found us. Now, is that simple enough for you to understand?”

“Yeah, I bet you were pissing yourself that your prize hostage was shot. I’m willing to wager that you didn’t want him dying until you got your hands on his pa’s money!”

Johnny leaned forward abruptly and was rewarded with renewed agony gouging through his forehead.

“For crying out loud! Ask the other passengers. Ask the stage coach driver! They’ll recognize me!”

“Well, it just so happens that the driver went on with the coach when the replacement team arrived and so did the passengers. They were going further afield, so they wrote out their depositions and continued on with the stage.” The sheriff did not try to hide any smugness.

“Well, what about the stage guard who was shot?” Johnny persisted.

“The doc fixed him up. He’s from Modesto and decided to head on home on today’s coach despite his injuries. The doc gave him some laudanum to help him cope.”

“Did you get any description of the passenger who went to rescue Scott?”

“Nope. Didn’t need to. It weren’t him we wanted to arrest.”

Johnny expelled a lungful of air slowly and deliberately. “Have you got the passengers’ addresses?” Johnny asked.

“Yep. Of course.”

“Well, I suggest you send them a telegram. Don’t forget the stage coach driver and the guard. Ask them about the passenger who went to rescue Scott. His clothes and looks, and then ask them about his eye colour compared to the Mexican bandit’s.”

The sheriff looked at him, perplexed.

“What’s eyes got to do with it?”

Johnny’s fragile state did nothing but encourage directness from him. “What sort of moron are you? How many Mexicans do you know with blue eyes?”

“Not many, but that don’t mean nothin’. What I want to know is who you are.”

Johnny leaned his throbbing head back. “And what I want is a drink.”

“You’ll get nothing from me until you tell me a few details.”

Just then, the front door of the sheriff’s office could be heard being thrown open with a crash. Cries for the sheriff accompanied the din.

A man in his thirties burst through the rear door. “Sheriff, you’re needed real quick at the Johnston farm. Old Henry got stuck into the liquor again and he’s gone and shot up Roy’s place. He’s got Roy held at gunpoint. Won’t let him go. Reckons he ran off with his missus ‘cause he can’t find her anywhere.”

“But she died ten years ago!”

“Yeah, well you know that and I know that, but he doesn’t seem to remember that fact. I’m real concerned that he’s going to harm someone this time. You gotta come, sheriff!”

The sheriff nodded. “Be right along with you.” He turned to Johnny. “I’ll send someone in with some water and food for you, seeing I could be gone a while.”

Johnny smiled. “Yeah, take your time. I ain’t going anywhere by the looks of it. Just how about you send them telegrams before you go?”

“I’ll send ‘em later. Old Henry’s more important at the moment. You can wait.”

With that parting shot, the sheriff was gone and Johnny was left to contemplate spending some time in the cell. He hoped it would not be long, but the sheriff did not seem keen to sort out the mess he had landed himself in. It did not seem like he could rely on Scott by the sound of the extent of his fever and infection. Johnny was allergic to jail and he sure didn’t feel like spending time there when he hadn’t done anything wrong. He had itchy feet to get going. After all, he had an appointment that he had decided that he just might keep after all.

It was several hours before anyone came to see him. A meal appeared just when he had given up hope that he would be fed in any way whatsoever. The bearer of this most welcome sustenance was a well-endowed Mexican woman in her forties. She arrived humming cheerfully and accompanied by a man who kept an eagle eye on Johnny.

She pushed the tray in through a hatch located at floor level, all the time talking volubly to him. Introducing herself and her son as Juanita and Alfredo Lopez, she told him that they ran a small restaurant and she was the cook for the jail. Johnny bestowed his most charmingly dazzling smile on her and thanked her graciously.

“This meal is as enticing as the cook who prepared it. I am indebted to you, Ma’am.”

Reaching for her hand through the bars, and attracting a reaction from her son who reached for his gun, Johnny brought her hand to his lips.

Juanita brought her left hand to her ample bosom and blushed a vibrant bright red.

As she studied him, she found that she felt quite was nonplussed and needed to compose herself. This attractive and mannerly man could not possibly be accused of holding up the stage and shooting the young gringo. She withdrew her hand suddenly, not sure if she should trust her instincts with him.

“This looks delicious,” commented Johnny, gesturing to the stew. “Muchos gracias.”

She nodded. As she turned to leave, she appeared to come to a decision and halted. “Would you like something a little spicier tomorrow? Tomales and beans? Chilli and tortillas?”

“I would indeed, Juanita. Gracias again.”

“De nada.”

She ushered her son out of the cell area and headed back to her restaurant. Johnny heard the front door close. His brain was still banging against his skull, but he thought that he needed to make some effort to eat while the food was hot and available. The meal was appetising and it made inroads into re-establishing his general equilibrium. The coffee topped it off. A good, strong brew, just the way he liked it.

Johnny settled back. He was confident that he would be released, but there were vagaries to be considered. He was part Mexican and in California. He hadn’t spent enough time with the sheriff to work out what sort of man he was. He had been treated brusquely, which was understandable given the crimes the sheriff thought he had committed, but not cruelly. If Scott’s condition deteriorated, they could come gunning for him before the sheriff received replies from the telegrams. If he sent the telegrams, that is.

Johnny sighed and leaned his head back against the wall.

He thought about the man he had been forced to camp out with the previous night. Quite a remarkable man. It was not often that Johnny could not size people up accurately and quickly. He felt that he had misread Scott. He was not at all what he had expected. That constricting, prim suit and tie and his dandified appearance did not belong to the brave and perceptive man lurking beneath. An intuitive and trustworthy man. A man who had experienced some of the worst that life had to offer from man’s depravities. A man who had emerged from that brush with inhumanity with his self respect intact. A puzzle. A man Johnny wished he could get to know better. Which deepened the puzzle. He couldn’t ever remember meeting a man who struck such a chord with him.  A man he hoped to meet again under less difficult circumstances. He just hoped fervently that Scott beat the infection and recovered.

The sheriff did not reappear until after dark. He brought with him the still intoxicated Henry. Henry was thrust into the next cell and told to sleep it off. The sheriff glanced at Johnny and started to leave.

“Wait sheriff! Did you send those telegrams?” Johnny enquired anxiously.

He received a glare in response, before the sheriff gave further information. “It’s dark out. I only just got back with Henry here. What do you think? I ain’t had no time to send no telegrams! I’m hungry and tired and I’m gonna do something about it!”

“Tomorrow! Can you send them tomorrow?” Johnny pleaded.

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“Tomorrow’s Sunday. Telegraph office ain’t open. It’ll have to wait until Monday.”

“Well, can you at least call in on Scott and see how he’s doing? Please? I really want to hear that he’s doing OK.”

“Why would you want that? He’ll be putting you away for quite a few years when he comes to.”

“That’s just it. He can tell you that I didn’t do anything. I rescued him and was bringing him back to town. I really want him to make it. He don’t deserve to die because of them worthless bandits.”

Johnny stared at the sheriff. He detected some uncertainty on the man’s face, as if the sheriff wasn’t so sure that the scenario he had built up in his mind actually matched this new possibility. Johnny hoped and prayed that the sheriff would reconsider his version of the truth.

The sheriff eyed him, estimating just how desperate and how plausible his prisoner was. He nodded curtly. “I was goin’ out there after church, anyway.”

“Thank you,” uttered a hopeful Johnny.

Johnny heard no more after the sheriff left for the night. No more apart from Henry’s snoring that is. A locomotive was virtually noiseless when compared to the snorts and grunts coming from Henry’s mouth. Johnny tossed and turned. His head still hurt, he was concerned about his situation and most of all he contemplated the Bostonian and the effect this man was strangely having on him. He finally fell into an uneasy slumber. It could not be called restful as it was littered with the ghosts and lowlife elements of his past. Littered with the people he wanted to leave in the past for good. The people he hoped that he could one day finally turn his back on so that he could start afresh.

He had set out several weeks ago considering if he should take that chance. He was still considering it. He was so heartily tired of the killing and the loneliness, the risk and the chances, the death and the bravado. But he didn’t know if he could make the change. Maybe it was too late. Maybe he was damned to burn in a living hell. An infinite living torture, which could never erase his sins. How could he expect to live a normal life and take the step to live honestly and peacefully with normal people holding down normal jobs? This was an intangible goal for the likes of Johnny Madrid. One credo that had kept Johnny going over the years was plain and simply not to expect anything. He had realized as a young child that if you didn’t expect anything, you didn’t get disappointed when you got nothing.

Johnny was left to his tumultuous thoughts that long night. It was only at dawn that he felt some peace which wrapped a cocoon around him, cushioning his mind and body from the jagged pain of his past, allowing him to get some fitful sleep.

He was woken from his slumber all too soon. A slamming door and boots resounding on the wooden floor announced the arrival of the sheriff. Chair legs scraped before the rustling of papers indicated that the sheriff was attending to paperwork. A hacking cough, followed by a sneeze, interrupted several quiet minutes. Johnny wondered if the sheriff was even going to visit him and allow him to use the outhouse, let alone if he was going to be fed any breakfast at all. Finally, Johnny heard the sheriff get to his feet and walk to the adjoining door. Johnny looked up, but discovered that it was not the sheriff after all, but a man who was obviously his deputy.

“OK, I’m gonna open up and let you visit the outhouse. Before I do, get away from the door.”

Johnny found his options limited. Held at gunpoint, he was led outside under guard. The taciturn deputy was not going to fall for any conversational gambits and briskly hustled Johnny back to his cell. The cell locked, Johnny was left to his own devices for a short time before a breakfast of sorts was thrust into the cell.

Johnny attempted to engage the deputy in conversation again. “Hey, can you tell me how Scott is doing?”

“Nope.”

“But you must have heard something!” Johnny protested.

"Nope. All I know is that he is one sick pup.”

“What does the doc say?” persisted Johnny.

The deputy looked at him with scorn. “All of a sudden you got an interest in him surviving? Hoping to beat a murder rap against him, huh?”

“I’ve already told your sheriff! I was a passenger on the stage and I followed after him after he was kidnapped! I was bringing him back here!”

“Yeah, well, tell that to the judge!” countered the deputy. “He’ll be here next week.”

The deputy strode out, leaving Johnny contemplating the closed door through the bars he was resting his head against in despair.

He thumped the bars in annoyance. All this succeeded in doing was to cause a sharp bolt of pain to shoot through his hand and wrist. Nursing his injured hand, he moved back to the bed and sat, desultory and sullen.

He stayed there several hours, Henry’s snoring and muttering his only company. Through the small window he heard the church bells and the murmur of voices as people made their way from the morning service.

Johnny contemplated what could be a grim future. He understood that if the sheriff lacked integrity, he would be just another Mex on the wrong side of the law. If no attempt was made to seek out the witnesses, he was in dire straits. He well knew that both a different and indifferent justice system applied to Mexicans.

As he sank into his morose ponderings, he questioned his decision to come this far north. Maybe it was a mistake from the outset. He shouldn’t have been tempted. He knew that he couldn’t change the past and there was no point of dwelling there, so why had he chosen to ignore a stance that had sustained him all these years? His moment of weakness was one he just might live to regret. That is, if he wasn’t lynched first.

He also pondered the fate of the gutsy Bostonian. Damn, if he didn’t like the man!

His musings were interrupted by the opening of the outer door. Heavy footsteps sounded before a deep voice erupted into the silence. “Sheriff, you out back?”

There was a brief silence before the footsteps approached the back of the jail where the cells were located. They seemed hesitant at first, then picked up in confidence. The connecting door was pushed open.

In the doorframe stood a mountain of a man. At about six feet five inches, he was at least seven inches taller than Johnny. His face was chiselled planes, angling to a strong, square jaw. Greying hair framed his tanned face and piercing eyes projected sheer venom in Johnny’s direction. A venom that almost physically shrank Johnny further back against the wall. It was with difficulty that Johnny maintained a steadfast return gaze.

The two men appraised each other. Neither moved. Johnny’s mind was screaming something to himself, but whatever it was, he couldn’t decipher it. Just why was this imposing man staring so fixedly at him?

 

Chapter Six

The stranger finally spoke, his words filling Johnny with dread.

“Why does a man take pleasure in taking someone’s life?”

Johnny’s neck snapped rigidly. He slowly moved his boots off the bed and stood up. With a heavy heart, he took several paces towards his visitor.

“Scott? Are you talking about Scott? Didn’t he make it?” his voice almost betrayed him by cracking.

The man glared at him, before replying. “He’s fighting.”

Johnny heaved a deep sigh. He dropped his head and studied his boots, before abruptly lifting his gaze and locking eyes with his visitor.

“What are his chances?”

“What do you care?”

“I care. He’s a brave man. He don’t deserve what happened to him.”

“No, he doesn’t! So why did you do it?”

Johnny was exasperated. He couldn’t seem to get through to anybody around this town.

“I didn’t do nothing! I tried to rescue him!” he shouted.

“Well, that’s not what I heard. So what pleasure does a man like you take from killing and maiming innocent people?” Johnny was challenged.

“For starters, I don’t kill or maim innocent people.” Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “And secondly, what do you mean ‘a man like you’? A Mexican? A half breed? A non Gringo?”

The man before him looked a little surprised. “No, that’s not what I meant. I meant a man who just takes what he wants and doesn’t care who he hurts in the process.”

“And what makes you think that I just take what I want?”

“The circumstances speak for themselves.”

Johnny shook his head dejectedly. “Listen, I am sick of telling people around here. Nobody wants to hear the facts. I was bringing Scott back to get medical help. I was a passenger on the coach. I wasn’t one of the bandits.”

“No, these are the facts! There were three bandits, two white and one Mexican. The two white ones are dead, no doubt at the hand of their accomplice. The Mexican was not with them. A Mexican is found with Scott. A Mexican matching the description of the third bandit, wearing a red embroidered shirt and studded pants! Now, how many men do you know who get around in an outfit like that? Face those facts like a man! Then again, a real man wouldn’t have done what you did”.

The last words were spat at Johnny in a chilling fury.  The man had slowly approached the bars and gripped them with both hands. Knuckles showed white and rage radiated from his eyes.

“My son was coming to see me for the very first time in his life. Thanks to you, I may never even get to speak to him. If he doesn’t recover, you will pay!”

Johnny stiffened in surprise. “You’re Scott’s father?”

“Yes.”

There was silence as the two men regarded each other. Johnny could not see much resemblance. Scott was certainly tall, taller than Johnny, but nowhere near the height of this man.

He thought of his own father. An unknown quantity. Then he thought about Scott and hoped that he pulled through to get to know this man. He would prove a formidable enemy, of that Johnny had no doubt, but he admired the gumption of the man to face the person he thought had wounded his son. And he liked that fact that this man took care of his own. Scott was in good hands. Johnny just hoped that Scott would make it and would get to establish a relationship with this father who had been so elusive in the past.

Johnny finally broke his scrutiny of his man. “Then you should be with him. Take care of him. I hope he makes it.”

Scott’s father stood straighter, and a brief, perplexed look flitted across his face, before the mask of disdain settled back down again.

“Yes, I should, but I needed to see the man who did this to my son.”

“That’s just it. I didn’t do this to your son. The sheriff was going to go out to your ranch about now to ask Scott about me. Ask him yourself. He’ll put you straight.”

“No, you got that wrong. He’ll put YOU straight … where you belong, permanently behind bars. I’ll see you in court when the circuit judge comes.”

One final look of disgust and he left, slamming the door none too quietly after him.

Johnny sat, staring into space, willing Scott to survive. He then spent quite some time wondering if his own father would care about him if he got shot the way this man already cared about Scott. And would Johnny care for him? Johnny supposed he would never know, and maybe that was for the best. He shouldn’t have left the border towns and come up on this wild goose chase. It was a pipedream and he shouldn’t have acted on it. He kicked out in annoyance at the metal bars with his foot. Not just annoyance. Disappointment, if he would only recognize it as such.

Hopping up, he began pacing and prowling, considering his options which did not seem all that great at the moment. If the sheriff acted, he should be cleared. If not and if Scott died, he would be hanged. There was no doubt. He snorted mirthlessly. Out of the frying pan into the fire. He had been wanting to leave his way of life behind and thought that maybe he could suss out his father and make contact. He had wanted to turn his back on his career. And ironically here he was in even more trouble, facing murder and wounding charges.  He shook his head. Why was his life just one big bad joke?

It was not until late afternoon that the sheriff returned. Johnny had been fed a midday meal, but no one else had entered the sheriff’s office. The sheriff did not make an appearance at the cells, but Johnny could hear him pottering around. It was about thirty minutes later that the sheriff ambled in to check on Johnny and Henry. He entered the back area and leaned casually against the doorframe.

“You been behavin’ yourself?” the sheriff enquired abruptly.

Johnny’s mouth lifted at the corners as he gave into the humour of the situation.

“Yeah, I’m being a model prisoner.”

“See that you stay that way.” He turned to leave.

“Wait!” called Johnny. “Did you see Scott?”

“Just why would you care?”

“I just want to know how he’s doing.”

“Still worried that you’ll be charged with his murder, huh?”

Johnny slammed the bars with the palm of his hand. “No, dammit! I want him to make it! I took that slug outta him and I don’t want to have to think that he went through that for nothing!”

The sheriff straightened. He shook his head, again puzzled by this prisoner. He just couldn’t fathom him. He nevertheless offered what information he could. “He was unconscious when I was there. Still fighting that fever. The doc ain’t sure.”

Johnny sucked in some air and hung his head. He clenched his jaw, then gave his thanks to the sheriff.

The sheriff nodded in return and was about to leave when he once again turned to Johnny. “For what it’s worth, if it was you who removed that bullet, the doc said you did a good job.”

The sheriff left before Johnny could compose a reply. Once again he was left to his thoughts for the evening. Thoughts that were turning blacker by the hour.

********************************

Scott lay in a sea of torment. The smell of gunpowder assailed his nostrils before the screams of the injured assailed his ears. Blood was everywhere. Bodies were not whole. Body parts were strewn on the once luxuriant green grass. Mud and blood intermingled, forming a copper smelling substance which clung to boots and clothes. Shouts of encouragement were smothered under screams of fright, which in turn gave way to moans of excruciating agony. The moans increased to a crescendo and coalesced into a shriek of terror.

Scott jerked upright, eyes wide in horror. Panting heavily, he grasped the bedcovers tightly in his fists, while looking wildly around him.

“Hush!” a voice coaxed and soothed him.

Scott felt himself pushed back gently onto the bed. Cool bliss invaded his mind as the damp compress placed on his forehead seeped into his tortured soul.

His breathing calmed as he opened his eyes. He searched wildly for the evidence of his nightmare, but instead of the turmoil and gore of the battlefield, he found himself in a neat and ordered bedroom. He surveyed the room, disoriented. As he turned his head, his view settled on a man. A massive man seated next to the bed he was lying on. A man who was leaning forward, anxiety etched on his face. A man who was quite bizarrely holding his hand. A man who was smiling, hesitancy  and expectation jostling for supremacy on his face.

As he became more aware, he took in the man’s features. A craggy face lined with years of worry and determination. A strong face. A good face. Grey hair and blue/grey eyes. A man used to hard physical labour. A man silently urging some sort of recognition. It was the man who broke the silence.

“Hello, son.” He was proud to have said it. It was marked on his face.

Scott examined him further and liked what he saw. He licked his dry lips. “You’re Murdoch Lancer?” he whispered in a croaky voice.

“Yes, son. Welcome home. I’ve waited a long time for this day.”

Scott groaned as he moved and arrows of pain lanced his shoulder. Both physical and emotional pain washed over him.

“Easy does it. The doctor has checked out your shoulder. He’s cleaned it up and stitched it. It needs to be kept immobile to help the healing, so just lie easy.”

Scott sighed and nodded in acceptance. “So we made it?”

His father looked at him quizzically.

“The sheriff found you. He had formed a posse when the stage was overdue and he found out the whole story. He found that Mexican holding you hostage and rescued you.”

Scott scrunched his face in concentration.

“What Mexican?”

“The bandit”

Scott shook his head, wooziness threatening to claim him. “Did he come back?”

“Come back from where?”

“He fled. He was wounded.”

Murdoch looked at him, perplexed. Scott was obviously delirious. “He wasn’t wounded, Son. You’ve had a rough time of it. You’ve had a bad fever. Here, take some water and rest up. You are no doubt confused and mighty sore.”

Scott accepted the water eagerly. It slid smoothly down his dry throat. A touch of paradise.

“Where’s Johnny?”

“Who’s Johnny?”

“He was a passenger on the stage.”

“I don’t know, son. I believe that all the passengers have left town. All I know is that the third bandit held you captive. He had you on his horse so you couldn’t escape.”

Scott’s forehead wrinkled as his sluggish brain worked through the mire of information. What this man said did not make sense. He tried to work it out, but it was so very hard and he was so very tired. His eyelids drooped and he gave in to the beckoning fingers of sleep.

*********************************

Johnny had the fidgets. He was not used to being idle. He had always found something to fill in his time and all this waiting was getting on his nerves.

Inwardly, he laughed at his situation. All those years that Johnny Madrid had skirted the law and here he was in prison for something he didn’t do. Maybe he was fated not to meet up with his father and just maybe those very fates were trying to send him a message that if he ever got out of this fix, he should just saddle up and head back south again.

His increasing despair was interrupted by the sheriff who had come with a meal.

“Get by the back wall,” the sheriff ordered him brusquely.

Johnny obliged.

“I sent those telegrams. There probably won’t be any reply until tomorrow.”

Johnny sighed with relief. “Thank you.”

The sheriff merely grunted before adding, “I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”

He was gone before Johnny was really aware of it. Alone again to face a solitary meal.  Henry had been released to the care of his brother under oath not to drink before his court appearance. So Johnny thought about the many meals had he eaten over the years and in far less salubrious circumstances. Better to be alone than to be with someone who could betray you. A lot safer.

Maybe he’d just give up on the idea of contacting his father. Hell, he probably had a new family now. Just how they would react? And where would his father’s allegiances lie? To a family he’d seen grow up under the same roof or to a vagabond gunslinger who was nothing to him other than his half breed mistake that was best forgotten? His father had probably not even told anyone of his existence. No matter how much Johnny looked at it, the idea of meeting his father must rank with one of his lesser brainstorms. It had been borne out of the intense misery of his dead end life and a realization that Johnny had to make a change before ‘dead’ became the operative word.

His thoughts kept him company for the rest of the day and continued to circle around his brain like two boxers manoeuvring for their jabs, but not quite committing themselves to the fight. The evening offered no firm solution. In the end he allowed sleep to claim him and remove him from his inner conflict.

**********************************

The flickering firelight danced in front of Scott’s eyes before the spurts of flame hurtled towards him in a burst of sharp reports. The red glow melted into the fire in his shoulder and he gasped in pain. His vision was blanketed by a haze which materialized into a red shirt leaning over him, supporting him, comforting him. Blue eyes framed by black hair above the shirt mesmerized him and kept him clinging to hope. A soft voice crooned, “Easy, Scott. I’ll look out for you.”

Scot groaned and gasped. He felt slick with perspiration from that damned fire. The smooth, gentle voice continued to coax and lull, but it gravitated into deeper and more gravely tones as black hair gave way to grey.

Panting, breaths heaving in painful rushes, Scott bolted upright. He screamed as the sudden movement tore at his stitches and wound. He felt arms around him, bolstering him, before gently lying him back down again.

His father’s eyes stared at him, concern etched into their depths. “You’re safe, boy. Just relax. You had a bit of a nightmare.”

Scott’s breathing slowed. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, attempting to settle down and gather his thoughts.

“Here, son, take a drink.”

Scott sipped from the glass of water held to his lips.

“Thank you,” he murmured.

His focus became sharper and his mind uncluttered magically as if he had been spring-cleaned. He leaned back on the pillows and regarded his father.

“Welcome back, son. We were worried about you.”

Scott gave a weak smile. “It’s a pleasure to be back, sir. How long have I been out to it?”

“Today is Tuesday. You were found on Saturday. You’ve been floating in and out of consciousness and that fever really took a hold.”

“What about my wound?”

“It was infected, but already seems to be improving. The doc wanted to know who took the bullet out. Whoever it was did a neat job without damaging anything further.”

Scott answered with a touch of panic. “Johnny! What happened to him?”

“Who’s this Johnny? You mentioned him before.”

“He was a passenger on the stage. He was picked up about half an hour before we were held up. He came after me.”

“Oh, Scott, I don’t know about any passenger, son. But it sounds like the Mexican must have bushwhacked you both. I don’t know where this Johnny is, but I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t sound good.”

“The Mexican came back?”

Murdoch was confused with the thread of the conversation. “I don’t know. Did the Mexican go away?” This conversation was almost a repeat of the previous one, and still Murdoch felt none the more aware of the details.

“Johnny ambushed the camp site. He killed two of them during the gunplay. The Mexican was injured and got away. I don’t remember him coming back.”

”Maybe you passed out and he jumped Johnny when he was bringing you back?”

Scott squeezed his eyes closed. His heart raced. It constricted in his chest as though a vice was crushing his ribs and lungs.

“No! Please, no!”

Scott’s evident distress touched Murdoch’s soul. He was strangely proud of this son he did not know for caring so deeply about the stranger he insisted had saved his life.

He touched Scott’s arm in an attempt at useless reassurance. “I’ll get the sheriff onto it. He’ll arrange a search of the area to look for a b… for him. OK?”

Scott leaned his head back on the pillows. His bleak eyes registered comprehension of what Murdoch did not say.

Resigned and raging internally at the unfairness of it all, Scott nodded his thanks.

 

Chapter Seven

There was silence for a while as Scott remembered the man who had risked his life to save him.

Scott spoke suddenly. “Why can’t the Mexican show the sheriff where he left Johnny? Or is he too badly injured for that?”

“Injured? He’s not injured.”

“There was blood. He was wounded. Johnny thinks he got him in the thigh.”

“He was all right when I saw him,” contradicted Murdoch.

Scott lifted his head. He frowned, perplexed. “When did you see him?”

“On Sunday afternoon. I wanted to see the sheriff, but as it turned our paths crossed and I never did see him.”

“But the Mexican was shot. He couldn’t disguise that!”

“Well, unless there are more Mexicans running around with red shirts, then he must have,” joked Murdoch, in an attempt to ease the tension.

The look Scott bestowed on his father made Murdoch decidedly uneasy. He began wondering if this Eastern  raised son had no sense of humour, when Scott broke into his thoughts.

“A red shirt with studded pants?”

Murdoch confirmed this with a nod of his head.

“And what did the prisoner say to you when you spoke to him?”

“He said that he was a passenger, and that he followed to save you. He said that he wasn’t one of the bandits. He said that he was bringing you in to Morro Coyo to get some help. So I suppose he guessed what your Johnny had done and took on the story as his own alibi.”

Murdoch stopped there. He frowned, turned his head to one side, thinking deeply. He scratched his nose and breathed in deeply.

“It doesn’t make sense, Scott.  All passengers were accounted for.”

”Including the one who hitched a lift?”

Here Murdoch squirmed, a little uncomfortable. “The one who hitched a lift? Johnny? Well, you did mention him before, but I thought you were a little delirious still. I must admit, I didn’t know anything about any passengers getting on the stage between stops.”

Murdoch was strangely aware that facts seemed to have been overlooked and misconstrued. As far as Murdoch knew, the stage driver had not mentioned any passenger who had got on between regular stops. The local doc had been relaying information from the local sheriff, and was usually a reliable source of information.

Scott pursued the topic, eager to solve the riddle. “And this Mexican you spoke to, what was his name?”

“He didn’t give it.”

“And what coloured eyes did he have?” Scott persisted.

Murdoch looked at him. He was silent for a moment. His forehead was mobile, registering a series of conflicting thoughts.

“Blue,” he informed Scott. “A vivid, intense blue.”

This reply left Murdoch feeling even more pensive. There was something he could not quite put his finger on. Something that niggled at the deepest recesses of his mind.

Murdoch glanced at his son. He was surprised to see a smile gracing his son’s mouth. He was suddenly cognisant of how handsome his son was. He had a long, strong face, with expressive eyes radiating intelligence. It was a compassionate and sensitive face, too. A face he hoped to see for many more years to come.

“Son?”

Scott’s smile broadened. “You should have listened to him. That’s Johnny you’ve got in prison! He saved my life.”

Murdoch started in surprise.

Scott breathed a sigh of happiness. The pain in his shoulder receded as the good news sunk in.

“He and the Mexican were wearing the same style of clothes, but Johnny’s shirt was more faded,” he explained.

He looked imploringly at his father.

“Get him out of jail, please. Bring him back here. I’d like to see him.”

“The prisoner is Johnny?” Murdoch rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. “I see how the confusion could have occurred, then, if both men were wearing the same sort of clothes. And your Johnny does look Mexican, or partly, anyway.”

Scott nodded his affirmation. “His mother was Mexican.”

“I see. I’ll speak to the sheriff, then, and arrange things. He’ll want to interview you, as well. The doc said he has been champing at the bit to speak to you and find out the details.”

Murdoch sat in his son’s room, emotion seething just below the surface. Scott might just be out of the woods. His colour was better and he seemed so much more at peace when he had discovered that his rescuer was safe, albeit in jail.

“Murdoch, can you arrange it now? I don’t want him in there a minute longer!” Scott was suddenly tense and distraught, the previous calm evaporating under his anxiety for his new friend.

Murdoch rose. “Right now. I promise.”

Patting Scott’s shoulder, he smiled and left to put matters to rights.

***********************************

Johnny was moping on the cot in the cell. He had been considering his options ad nauseam, but no matter how much he considered taking that one final decision, he just couldn’t commit to it. No matter how much he wanted it. No matter how many times he played imaginary scenes over in his mind. No matter how much he tried to convince himself that there would be a happy ending taking that path.

But then again, maybe all this thinking was just a moot point. Maybe there was no decision to make. Maybe this time it was long term prison or the hangman’s noose for him.

He was alone and had been so for several hours. Just more hours in his short life spent in his own company.

He heard the door of the sheriff’s office open abruptly. Two sets of boots thumping on the wooden floor piqued his curiosity. The sheriff was speaking to a familiar voice, but it took Johnny several seconds to distinguish the owner. The connecting door was pushed open to reveal the local law officer and the stage driver from the ill-fated journey.

The latter looked through the bars, chewing thoughtfully on chewing tobacco. “Yep, that’s him all right.”

Johnny stood up, anxiety twisting his insides, but only bland nonchalance was evident on the outside.

“That’s the Mexican fella,” the driver confirmed again unnecessarily.

The sheriff urged him on. “You sure about that? Don’t want to make any mistakes.”

Johnny desperately wanted to know what the driver was confirming, but he dreaded finding out and for once he could not speak. He had the dismal feeling in his gut that he was going to be stitched up well and proper.

“Yep, sure is him.”

The sheriff nodded grimly.

“After we was held up and they took the fancy fella, this man tended to Walt’s leg and took off after them. He weren’t the Mexican bandit. That Mexican had the blackest eyes you ever saw. Same sort of gaudy clothes, but the eyes are real different. They were dead eyes, you know.” The driver continued to contemplate Johnny before offering his greatest revelation with a jerk of his head. “And his are blue, if you ain’t noticed.”

“Yeah, I noticed all right!”

The stage driver, having done his duty, was anxious to be off. “Can I go now, Sheriff? I got me a stage waiting.”

“First, I want to know why you didn’t tell us about this passenger heading out to rescue Scott?”

The coach driver had the grace to look uncomfortable. “Well, he weren’t on the official passenger list and I didn’t want to get into trouble with the boss or lose my job. I sometimes pick up strays for a short way and they pay me a little extra, you know? It helps me get by.”

“But nobody else mentioned him either!”

“Well, people like to mind their own business and they figured the quickest way to be on their way was not saying anything about it. They was afeard they’d be kept here for a few weeks. Plus he wasn’t supposed to be on the stage. We took his gun when he boarded, so he was unarmed. We all presumed he’d be killed by the bandits when he caught up with them, anyways. There weren’t no point in mentioning him.”

The sheriff was incredulous at their callousness. “Do you realize that we could have imprisoned the wrong man?”

“Yeah, I suppose, but he’s only a Mex and they’re a dime a dozen.”

The sheriff stared at the man, his loathing for him not disguised in the slightest.

“Git out of my sight before I throw up on you!”

The driver did not need a further invitation. He disappeared as though a pack of coyotes was on his tail.

The sheriff had one arm out, leaning it on the horizontal bar at waist height. His head was down and it stayed down a good while. A deep sigh made his frame shudder. It was only then that he raised his eyes to Johnny.

“Sorry, boy. Sorry you had to hear that and sorry we locked up the wrong man.”

Johnny offered a smile, a sad smile which did not reach his eyes. “Don’t fret none. I’ve heard it all before.”

Grim-faced, the sheriff unlocked the door. Still holding it, he spoke again. “You might have heard it all before, but you should never have heard it in the first place.”

He sighed again.

“Come on. Let’s get you out of here.”

Johnny obliged happily. The sheriff passed him his rig and watched intently as Johnny checked it carefully. He spun the cylinder and checked all the chambers, before sliding it into the holster. Lastly, Johnny took both ends of the leather belt, jiggled the points to meet and efficiently buckled it with ease borne of much practice.

“It was a very brave thing you did going after them.”

Johnny looked up and met his gaze. “I couldn’t let them get away with it without trying something. And they were thugs. The sort to kill their own mamas if they thought they could profit by it. They would have murdered him, ransom or not. He seemed like a real decent man.”

“I’m sure he is.”

“How’s he doing, do you know?”

“I heard tell that he might just be out of the woods.”

The sheriff was dazzled by one of Johnny’s smiles. Such a spontaneous grin fairly brightened up the sheriff’s day. He pondered the surprising source and then smiled back warmly.

“Here.”

Johnny eyed the money held out to him. “What’s that for?”

“You was robbed, weren’t you? Thought you might need your money back. This is what was left over after I deducted everyone else’s loss.”

Johnny was surprisingly touched at this gesture. He’d known plenty a law man to keep the proceeds as a perk of the job. It was the correct amount, too. Only five dollars, but a much valued five dollars. His respect for the lawman grew further.

“Thanks. It’s much appreciated.”

“No need,” the sheriff told him, offering him his hat. “Well, you’re a free man, so off you go. You gonna call in on Scott?”

“Maybe. Bye, Sheriff, and thanks.” Johnny donned the hat he had been given by tilting his head back to capture any stray strands of hair and then jamming it on comfortably. Just as he turned to go, he swivelled around again. “You wouldn’t know what happened to my saddle, would you?”

“Your saddle?”

“Yeah. It was on top of the stage coach and the bandits took it. When I caught up with them, I put it on the horse I rode back with.”

The sheriff didn’t answer. He headed to a door in the middle of the side wall of the room.  Opening it, he disappeared for a moment and returned lugging a mound of moulded leather. “This it?”

Pleasure lit up Johnny’s face when he spied his saddle. “Sure is. Thanks, Sheriff.”  

“It weren’t no trouble. I just left it in the storeroom. I thought it belonged to the high riders.”

Hoisting the treasured saddle to his shoulder, Johnny waved casually and walked out into the sunshine he had so craved for the past few days.

*********************************

Johnny basked in the sun like a cat which had been cooped up too long inside. He threw the saddle over the hitching rail, then leaned on it, head thrown back to let the sun massage his face with soothing fingers delicately invigorating him.

The first order of the day was food. He stomach growled for something hot and spicy. The cantina beckoned, aromatic tendrils invading his olfactory senses and lassoing him in vines of seduction from which he was too hungry to escape.

Entering the cantina, he could see that it was clean and popular, with many tables full of patrons tucking in vigorously. Johnny placed an order for enchiladas, then asked for a beer. He gulped down half of it without even being conscious of it. Setting the mug down, he glanced around before selecting a table against the far wall.

His mind was contradicting his heart. He was unaccustomed to dithering, yet here he was doing precisely that. He wanted to check on Scott, but he was nothing if not realistic. Circumstances may have given Scott and him a shared experience, but he knew it was nothing more than that, no matter how much a curious mutual respect and liking had developed between them. Those circumstances had changed. The likes of Johnny Madrid did not go paying social calls on the likes of the well bred Scott Garrett.

And what of his own father? What action should he take? Should he kill him or try to inveigle Murdoch Lancer to give him a chance on the ranch? The urge to make the man suffer was still strong, but Johnny was tiring of bloodlust and death surrounding his very existence. Just what would Murdoch’s death prove and just how much better would Johnny feel as a result? But he owed his Mama, his conscience prodded him.

And yet if he tried to settle in California his common sense told him that he would no more fit in here than he did where he came from. Maybe less so, if that were possible. The reactions of the stage driver and of the passengers to him confirmed that. He was expendable. A nobody who didn’t deserve any consideration. Just another a dime a dozen Mex.

Besides, what did he know about ranching? Sure, he’d worked on ranches, but would his father even want him? Especially with his history, his godawful past. Looking for his father was just looking for more hurt. He didn’t need that. Not any more.

Decision made, Johnny scoffed his meal, eager to be on his way, and put this episode behind him along with all the other trash in his past.

He left the cantina and contemplated available transport. He didn’t have enough to buy a horse and waiting for the stage did not appeal, so he headed for the livery to examine the possibilities. Entering the building, he was pleased to see that it was clean. There was plenty of fresh hay and the animals were well cared for.

A man was saddling his mount with great difficulty, coughing intermittently but explosively, as he went through the ritual. Johnny cringed. That was one shuddering cough.

Another, older, man was mucking out one of the stalls. The pungent smell of manure assailed his nostrils, and while strong, overpowering even, he found some comfort in this earthy odour.

“Hey, Old Timer, how’re you going?”

“Fine, thanks, sonny. What can I do for you?”

“I’m after some transport, but I don’t have much on me. You got any jobs for a short while? Or maybe any horses I could hire?”

The old man stopped shovelling and rested his elbow on the shovel handle. He was a portly gent with wispy white hair flying in all directions. Johnny noticed that even his ear and nose hairs protruded uncontrollably from their respective orifices. His eyes were faded, but held a warmth and kindness that Johnny did not often see directed his way.

Johnny stepped back a little as the man with the cough led his horse and two other mounts out of the barn, throwing and a farewell and wave over his shoulder.

“What direction are you heading when you get enough money?”

“South.”

The old timer continued to peruse Johnny, then shook his head sadly.

“Sorry, boy, but I ain’t got nothing to offer you. No job and no spare horses. Perhaps if you ask around town you might find something.”

Disappointed, Johnny re-fixed his hat on his head and thanked the man.

Johnny exited the livery and stopped outside in the street, debating the best place to find some work. There was always swamping at the saloon, but he fancied outdoors work if he could get it. In the end he thought that he would try the saloon, anyway, hoping that someone from one of the local ranches might be inside sneaking a quick drink on the sly on the boss’s time while fetching ranch supplies.

Walking down the dusty street, he noticed that the man he had seen in the livery hadn’t got too far. He was seated on his mount, leaning over in some distress, seemingly coughing his lungs up.

“Hey, you all right?” Johnny enquired.

The man took a while to get his coughing under control, but then nodded.

“Have to be,” he answered breathlessly. “Need to get these two horses delivered to Modesto.”

“Why?”

“Because I need the money for the ranch and I signed a contract. If I don’t deliver by the deadline, my ranch is in danger of going under.”

The man barely uttered the sentence before he was once again consumed by wracking coughs.

“I don’t like to be negative, but you ain’t got a hope of making it there in one piece. Can’t someone else do it for you?”

”No, my son broke his leg and my wife is nursing him.”

The man’s face went red, then slightly blue around the lips as he again battled the congestion in his lungs. Johnny did not like the colour of him.

“Look, my name’s Johnny. I’m heading that way. I’ll take them for you.”

The man shook his head.

“I can’t pay you for your time. I’m broke. I’ve only got a couple of dollars on me.”

“Look. I need the ride.  I’ll deliver them for you.”

The man was looking fiercely dubious, but his mind was made up suddenly when he began swaying in the saddle.

“I guess I don’t have much choice in the matter. I’ll just have to trust that you are a man of honour.”

Johnny smiled a slow smile that confirmed to the rancher that he had made the right decision.

“Yeah, you can trust me, I swear it. I reckon that we might have what could be called a mutually beneficial arrangement,” he replied.

Johnny walked over to the animals, crooning softly in both Spanish and English. The rancher was witness to the miracle that was the reaction of horses to Johnny. Both nudged him happily, snorting soft bursts of warm air onto his face. It was as though they were greeting an old friend.

The man chuckled. “Well, it looks like they might enjoy a few days on the trail with you.”

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed happily, arm around the neck of the bay. “Nothing like a good horse for company. Much better than many a man I’ve had to share the trail with.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” agreed the man. “Come here and I’ll give you the address and all the details.”

Thirty minutes later, Johnny was finally on his way, turning his back on the past few days as well as on the new path his life could have taken.

 

Chapter Eight

Murdoch relaxed when he saw the township ahead.  Even riding to town caused twinges in his back these days. He longed for the time when he could spend hours each day and days each week riding the range and wrestling the cattle. He hated to admit it to himself, and there was no way he would do so to anyone else, but he was getting past the truly physical work which he had thrived on.

He wondered at his future. How much would change? Would Scott stay? It was hard to tell. He hadn’t had a chance to get to know him yet. Scott had been largely unconscious since he had been brought to the ranch, although he now seemed to be picking up and regaining his strength. He wanted to get to know this son so badly that it ached. ‘I had Johnny for such a short time. Please, God, leave me this one’.

He had had a quiet trip into town, not coming across any other travellers. He had welcomed the solitude to consider just how Scott’s arrival might impact upon him and Lancer. His thoughts had been sucked into a maelstrom of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’, and the very hardest of all possibilities: ‘if only’. He had traversed the land cocooned in his vacuum of ponderings, only his niggling back drawing him back from the recesses of his mind to the realities of the landscape around him.

As he commenced the final leg of the trip to town, the only other form of human life visible was the dust of one other horseman leading a bay, disappearing over the crest of a hill towards the south. He kneed his horse to a faster trot and ate up the remaining distance quickly. Slowing at the outskirts of the town, he allowed his horse to amble over to the sheriff’s office. He dismounted stiff legged and with far less grace than in his previous years.

Bashing his hat against his thighs to rid it of trail dust, he mounted the steps to the jail and entered the sheriff’s office. He called out a greeting as he entered. He was met with a rear view of the sheriff as he bent over stuffing paper and wood into the pot belly fire, in readiness to ward off the later evening chill.

“Hi, Gabe. How goes it?” he enquired.

Gabe sat back on his haunches, leaning his arms on his legs and wiping the dirt off his hands.

“Hi back atcha, Murdoch. How’s your son doing?”

“Much better. That’s why I’m here. That prisoner you’ve got is the wrong man. Scott can vouch for him. Scott said that he was a passenger on the coach and he saved his life. He wasn’t one of the bandits at all, although he was wearing similar clothes to the Mexican. You’ve got to let him go. He’s innocent.” Murdoch’s voice wavered a little, before strengthening and adding. “He saved my son. He didn’t shoot him at all.”

“Yeah, I know. The stage driver came back on his return trip and told me. If he’d fessed up about taking on extra passengers in the first place, that man wouldn’t have been imprisoned and we could have been after the Mexican bandit before the trail got cold. It’s gonna be mighty hard to find him now. He could be in Mexico.”

“He could be anywhere. Let’s face it, the odds are that he won’t be found by now at all. So, can I go out back and get Johnny? Scott’s anxious for me to bring him home.”

“No. Sorry, Murdoch. I let him go an hour or so ago.”

“Well, where is he then?”

“Don’t know, rightly. I saw him head for the cantina. I don’t know after that. He could still be in town. If not, check the hotel and the livery. He’s got a couple of dollars on him, but I know that he didn’t have enough money on him for a horse.”

“Thanks, sheriff. I appreciate it. If you run into him, tell him we’d like to see him at Lancer as our guest. Scott wants to see him again.”

“Sure thing, Murdoch. Good luck!”

“Thank you.”

Murdoch headed out, boots thumping heavily on the wooden flooring. He was disappointed for Scott, but would see if he could locate the man. A fruitless hour later he had to concede defeat. He had discovered only that the prisoner had had lunch at the cantina and had asked for horse hire and a job at the livery. No one else had seen him.

The livery stable owner had been all too happy to talk. Old and alone, he relished cornering the odd customer for a lengthy chat about pretty well anything. Murdoch’s patience finally gave and he steered him towards the purpose of his visit.

“The boy headed off straight away. He was going to see about getting himself a job. I didn’t see which way he went,” he informed Murdoch.

Murdoch thanked the man, then continued to ask around. It was a futile quest. The siesta hour was traditionally quiet and it had allowed the young man to leave town unnoticed. He ran his fingers through his increasingly sparser hair, before deciding that he had no option but to return to Lancer and tell Scott that Johnny had left town that afternoon.

*****************************

Johnny made good time with both horses. The horses ate the miles at a decent clip and as dusk gathered he realized that he was some distance away from Morro Coyo. His mind had been loitering on the unthinkable and the unattainable. So much so, that he had not been concentrating on the countryside surrounding him. That in itself was a worry to Johnny Madrid.

He was kicking himself for even contemplating starting afresh and broaching a future away from his gunfighting past. He was pleased that Scott was going to learn about his father and wished him well. But getting to know his own father was not an option open to him. No matter where he went, the worst was thought of him, and he couldn’t expect a father he didn’t remember to behave any differently, especially one that threw him out of the house in the first place.

Wherever he went, trouble just dogged him. The fact that once again he had ended up with the odds stacked against him, thrown in jail through no fault of his own, made him realize more than ever that he couldn’t hope for a normal life. That was for the likes of people such as Scott.

He made camp after checking over the horses, watering them and tying them to some nearby branches where there was plenty of grass to graze on. Collecting some wood, he made a fire and contented himself with a plate of beans and a cup of coffee. He contemplated his options. He could make plenty of money hiring out as a gun, but what was the point when each and every business contract had him weighted down even further by the relentless souls of those he had killed? He may never have been a back shooter and right had been on his side far more often than not, but he couldn’t help feeling that his very essence was being soured by this trade. A trade he was both ironically proud of and also disdainful of. A trade which mocked him. The better he got, the harder to leave it all behind, and not just through his own choice but by those who sought out Madrid to make a name for themselves. A quick name. A quick reputation until someone better came along. But there was always someone quicker and Johnny realized that the longer he stayed in the game, the closer he was to meeting up with that somebody.

Johnny felt a need to finish his days having done something worthwhile. He shuddered at the thought that his only legacy was in the transient brilliance of speed in the art of killing a fellow human being. He was being poisoned by all the killing. How many men had he shot who were simply taking on a job to feed a family? How many had been too young and stupid to see nothing but the glamour? Just sucked in by the excitement before a brain grew between their ears? And how many had not lasted a few more months or years to be able to have the luxury of looking back and seeing it for the existence it was. An existence as a fringe dweller. Well, Johnny had had a double dose of it. He’d been on the outer as a mestizo kid growing up along the border towns, and he had compounded this excommunication by committing to the folly of becoming a gunfighter.

Maybe he could find some honest work. It might pay a lot less, but his needs were simple and he began to crave for a future. Something he would never have if he continued his pistolero trade. He was good with animals and he wasn’t afraid of hard work. He mulled this over as he drank the last of his coffee. Just maybe the time was right. And maybe one day he’d finish the plans he’d been following when he went to Morro Coyo. Maybe, when he was more respectable and less likely to be rejected.

*****************************

Murdoch found his son on the settle on the verandah. His head was resting on a vividly coloured cushion, shouting vibrant life to the world as it lay trapped beneath Scott’s blond head.  Murdoch studied him for a moment. He seemed to be a tall lad, but not nearly as tall as Murdoch himself. A good four inches smaller or even more. It was hard to tell as Scott had been lying in bed since his arrival. He had fine features with high cheekbones, framed in a long face descending to a strong chin. His soulful eyes sparkled with life the few times Murdoch had witnessed them lit with humour or pleasure. He was slim to the point of having no excess meat at all. But it was a lithe, slim physique, not the fineness which comes from fragility or too much coddling.

Murdoch felt that this son might just hold some surprises for him – if he stayed, that is.

Scott stirred, then twisted his head around to find his father’s eyes investigating him.

“Examination complete? Have I passed muster?” Scott asked tersely, more tersely than he intended.

Murdoch started. He licked his lips and was about to reply when a quiet ‘I’m sorry’ was offered.

"No need,” he consoled Scott.

“Yes, there is. I was short with you for no reason.”

“Perhaps being captive is getting on your nerves?”

‘Captive’. That brought to mind some memories he’d rather stay buried.

Murdoch noticed the frown on Scott’s smooth forehead, but Scott spoke before Murdoch could decide whether it was pain or anxiety causing his son discomfort.

“Johnny? Did you get him out of jail?” Scott asked economically.

“Johnny’s gone, Scott. I’m sorry. The sheriff released him before I got to town and he doesn’t know where he went.”

Scott looked sharply at his father. Murdoch witnessed the flicker in his eyes. Those expressive eyes which registered sorrow, for some reason. More sorrow than would have been warranted in the situation, Murdoch would have thought. The man was, after all, merely a stranger who shared a coach with Scott, albeit a brave stranger who saved his son’s life.

Murdoch continued sharing the news he had garnered in town. “The sheriff said he gave him the money left over from the robbery, after everyone else’s loss was accounted for. Johnny had a meal in town, but then left. The stage had already gone, so I checked at the livery. He didn’t have enough money to buy a horse and there were none to be hired.”

Scott’s mouth tightened into a straight line and he turned his head slightly away from his father.

Murdoch sat in the wicker chair nearby, studying his new found son. “I’m sorry, son. I tried everywhere I could think of.”

Scott did not answer. He stared unseeingly into the distance.

“Scott. What’s on your mind?” Murdoch entreated.

“I don’t know. That’s just it. I just feel like I needed to thank him.” Scott faltered, shaking his head slightly. “But how do you ever repay a man for saving your life? He didn’t even know me, yet he risked his life to save me.”

Scott looked at his father, sad eyes seeking agreement. “I was thinking that maybe we could offer him a job here. I had an inkling that he was looking for something, but needed more time. Maybe we could have offered him that time. I know that doesn’t make sense. I …”  Scott stopped there and sighed a deep sigh, shaking his head. “Thanks for trying, anyway.”

Murdoch nodded in recognition. “Sure, son.”

Sensing that Scott needed some time alone, Murdoch stood and left him to his thoughts. He had wanted this reunion with Scott to be a happy one. Murdoch found himself frustrated that it had not only been clouded by his son’s injury and recovery, but also by Scott’s anxiety to meet up again with the stranger who had so fortuitously intervened to save his son’s life. Murdoch silently remonstrated with himself for feeling twinges of jealousy about this unknown man. Scott seemed more focused on him than on his new found father. Murdoch recognized what was happening and argued silently with himself that he understood his son’s need to meet this man and thank him.

He was as disappointed as Scott, and guilt played apart of it. He would have liked to have thanked the man himself, especially after his brusque conversation with him in the jail when Murdoch thought that the man was responsible for Scott’s gunshot wound. But now that it was not to be and he would not be able to apologize for his behaviour in the jail that day. Instead, he needed to move forward and concentrate on building a relationship with his son. He just hoped that Scott reciprocated his feelings.

 

Chapter Nine

Johnny arrived late afternoon in Modesto. He located the livery without any trouble and entered the building grateful to have the journey behind him. The owner of the premises was a man in his sixties. A spare frame belied his wiry physique. This very frame was engaged in mucking out the stalls. His fluid movements were economical and indicative of years of practice. He kept clean premises. Johnny noted the fresh hay in the stalls and the condition of the animals.

“Howdy,” he greeted Johnny succinctly.

“Hi, there.” responded Johnny as he removed his hat and wiped his forehead with the shirt fabric covering his forearm. “Are you Clyde Dawkins?”

“Yep. What can I do for you?” asked the livery worker.

“I’m delivering these horses for Josiah Adams from Morro Coyo. Name’s Johnny,” Johnny responded.

“You made good time. He wired me when you left. Let me get a good look at those critters and see what sort of condition they’re in.”

Clyde leaned the shovel against a stall wall and ambled over to inspect the animals. Practised hands felt their bodies and legs.

“They’re in good nick. I’ve seen some pretty flea bitten horses arrive in my time. I’ll let him know what a good job you did.”

Johnny smiled his easy smile. “Thanks,” he replied softly. “I don’t suppose you know of anyone who is hiring on, do you?”

“Not at the moment.” Clyde looked at him closely, weighing him up and trying to come to a decision. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just thought I’d find me a job to tide me over for a while.”

The man nodded to himself. “I tell you what, why don’t you come back here tomorrow and I’ll see if I can help you out.”

“I’m much obliged to you Clyde.”

“I’ll wire the money to Josiah in the morning then.”

“You do that. He needs it at the moment. Things ain’t going to well for him.”

“Sorry to hear that. I guess he was lucky that you were available to deliver the horses for him, eh?”

“Guess so, but it worked out well for us both.”

He retrieved his saddle and hoisted it to his shoulder before heading out the door.

“See you tomorrow, then.”

“Sure, Johnny,” Clyde replied as picked up some tack to clean. “If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, the ‘Premier’ is good value. It ain’t fancy, but old Clara keeps it spic and span and she puts on a mighty fine supper in her dining room.”

“That sounds promising, Clyde. How do I find it?”

“Just around the corner, then follow your nose for about 200 yards. Tell her I sent you,” suggested Clyde with a wave.

“Will do.”

Johnny hefted his saddle to his shoulder and trudged out the double doors and into the sunshine.

Walking to the corner, he paused and surveyed the town. Not too bad compared to many he had grown up in. Rough around the edges in places, he had noticed, but otherwise on the whole it was growing and a thriving service centre for the farms and ranches surrounding it. He spied the Premier’s sign and made for it. Suddenly, he had quite an urge for a good soak and a clean, soft bed for the night in a room not hemmed in by bars.

Mounting the steps with renewed vigour, he entered the foyer, deposited his saddle on the floor and slapped his saddlebags on the counter. He tapped the bell once and almost immediately a woman appeared. Small, almost wizened, she shuffled over to him. Her eyes, however, alert and humour-filled, were arresting. He found himself smiling at her.

“Hello, Mister. What can I do for you?”

“Afternoon, Ma’am. I’d like a room please.”

She looked at him. “You’re lookin’ mighty scrawny. You need feedin’ up.”

Johnny smiled disarmingly. “And I believe that you’re the one to do it. Clyde said that you set a fine table.”

“Humph,” she snorted. “Clyde just told you that so that he could curry favour with me. He’s been sweet on me for years. Seems to think that if he sends enough customers my way, I’ll fall into his arms.”

“Well, Ma’am, I’ve only just met him, but I’d say that there are a lot worse arms you could fall into.”

“Mebbe,” was her brief reply as she gestured for him to sign in. “But it keeps life interesting if I can keep him guessing.” 

Johnny smiled to himself as he signed the register. He secretly thought that she didn’t have all that much time left with which to play hard to get, but he wasn’t about to interfere in her little game with Clyde.

“Here, Mister…” she trailed off as she checked his name, “Madrid. Your room is on the next floor. You want a bath?”

Johnny regarded her intently. “Is that a suggestion, Ma’am?” 

Her quick eyes glimmered. “Suit yourself, but a fine lookin’ man like you is wastin’ his opportunities if he sits around after being on the trail without botherin’ to respect personal hygiene. And it’s Clara, not Ma’am.”

Johnny’s broad smile dazzled her. “Well, I don’t suppose I want to hinder them opportunities. Speaking of which, are there many decent ones around here?”

Clara took in his twinkling eyes and for a moment experienced a pang of desire for the cocksure virility of a younger man. “Oh, there’s plenty of opportunities, but not decent ones, I do confess. A fine feller like you shouldn’t waste his time with the local tramps. You can do better.”

Johnny was stilled by her talk. He was unused to being told that he deserved better. In fact, her words threatened to discompose him.

“Thank you, Clara. Maybe I could give Clyde a run for his money?”

Clara positively blushed. The coy smile she cast Johnny’s way allowed him to glimpse the younger woman she had once been.

“Oh, get away with you! What would a young whippersnapper like you want with an old girl like me?”

“Well, sometimes a more mature woman has a different perspective from the younger ones, Clara.”

Her blush of pleasure, and possibly vain hope, deepened further.

“I tell you what. If you want to take a long soak, there’s a tub here on the ground floor behind the stairs. There’s always plenty of hot water warmin’ in the drum. I just keep a fire goin’ underneath. Turn the spigot on the pipe and the water will siphon down into the tub. Old Bert rigged it up. I still miss him somethin’ powerful. While you’re in there, I’ll whip something up for you in the kitchen. It’s a bit early for supper, but I can find something to beat that trail food you’ve been eating.”

Johnny took in all this information. He swept off his hat and bowed. “Clara, you are not only a beautiful sight, but an angel,” he informed her.

She simpered in return, as she almost seductively tucked several stray strands of limp grey hair behind her ears.

“Oh, my, ain’t you got a charming way about you?” she giggled.

Johnny did as she suggested, sauntering up the stairs to the haven of a clean room and soft bed. He did no more than drop his gear and fossick in his saddle bags for a clean shirt, drawers and some basic shaving gear. Picking up the clean towel and face washer laid out on the washstand, he headed back down stairs for that enticing date with some warm water.

Entering the bath room, he tossed his clean clothes onto a chair.  He inspected the bath system and was immensely impressed, especially when hot water did indeed flow down into the tub. Johnny pulled out his shirt from his pants. One by one, he unfastened the toggles on his shirt, before reaching for the hem, grasping the bottom edges and drawing it up over his head. As his arms flexed, his shoulder muscles rippled. Of compact build, his broad shoulders emphasized his slim waist. His dark chest hair, narrowing to a thin line trailing down below his belt, made his tan seem even deeper.

Johnny was suddenly hit by a smothering tiredness which propelled him to a second chair. Johnny sat head bowed with his elbows on his knees for some time, before recouping enough energy to pull off his boots. They landed on the wooden floor with dull thuds echoing his weariness. His belts were next to receive his attention. Unlike his careless treatment of his clothes, his holster was placed carefully on the chair back. Standing, he slid the chair over to the tub. It was only then that he unbuckled his trouser belt and slipped his pants down, shucking them off when they reached his ankles.

Stepping over to the tub he dipped in a toe to check the temperature. He couldn’t help smiling then. ‘Johnny Madrid afraid of being scalded in his bath!’ He slid into the enveloping welcome of the water. He gratefully leaned his head back against the back of the tub and closed his eyes. The warmth invaded his skin and seeped into his bones, providing a comfort he so rarely experienced. As he relaxed, he allowed himself to drift into that intangible realm of semi wakefulness, into that limbo which suspended a person before they were committed to the safe embrace of sleep proper or projected back into the harsh realities of life itself.

That drifting took him to less restful destinations and he found himself frowning as he considered possibilities and regrets, decisions made and actions taken, opportunities offered and hopes crushed. His thoughts roused him and angrily he sat up and ducked his head into the water. Could he never get any peace? The peace of the bath destroyed, he grabbed at the soap waiting patiently on the soap dish and thrust it into the water. Lathering it up, he lustily swabbed his body in round rubbing motions, as if those very motions could scrub away his unsettling thoughts.

His hair was next as he massaged mounds of suds into his scalp before dipping it into the water to rinse it. His cathartic long breath held under water helped him regain some perspective, enough that he felt like he could muster his reserves and replace his armour well enough to continue the pathway he had chosen … or the pathway that had chosen him.

He stepped out of the cooling water and grabbed at the towel. It quickly soaked up the moisture as he mopped the hard contours of his torso, arms and legs. His relaxation having been spoilt, he just wanted to get dressed and get fed as quickly as possible.

But first of all he threw his dirty shirt and underclothes into the bath. He swished them around in the water and left them to soak as he shaved. Tired eyes reflected his weariness and lack of direction. He stared at his image in the mirror and pondered what he had achieved in his 22 years. And more importantly, where he was going. The mirror failed to communicate what he hoped, so he set about giving himself a much needed shave. Surprisingly, he felt better for the smoother skin and lingering perfume of the soap.

He finished his laundry by squeezing, pummelling and rubbing his clothes along the sides of the tub. He turned the spigot, rinsing his clothes in the fresh water and wringing them until his biceps bulged. He paused then. He was taking his uncertainty out on his clothes and he had scant few that he could afford to abuse in the process. He smiled wryly and hung his head as he sighed deeply.

He felt that he was at a crossroads. He had wanted to make a change, but then had lost heart and had backed out at the last minute.  His lack of courage to face this greatest of unknowns in his life disgusted him. To put it mildly, Johnny Madrid was afraid.

Hissing with annoyance, he pulled the plug, dressed, swiftly gathered his gear and headed back to his room. A cursory look around offered him the bed head and a chair back as acceptable clothes lines. Draping his laundry over them, he walked over to the window. He studied the street below, pondering all the comings and goings of the men and women down below. Shrugging himself out of his reverie, he reached to open the window. It was stuck and resisted his will. He put more effort into it and was gifted with some token movement from the stubborn wooden frame. Not enough for his liking, though. Giving it a miss, he locked the door and bounded downstairs for his meal.

He followed his nose to the kitchen. Here he was assailed by wholesome odours. Tantalizing smells wafted over him, fairly massaging his nostrils and promising him an edible heaven.

“There you are! How was the water?”

“Just bliss, Clara. So good that I just might head back there and become the cleanest guest you ever had staying here!”

“You sure smell a sight better. Look better, too, in them clean clothes. Sit yourself down … or would you rather eat in the dining room?”

“Here’s fine, Clara.”

He sat and watched as she fetched a clean willow patterned plate from the dresser. The blue was erased as Clara ladelled a hefty helping of stew on the plate. Not only a large helping, but an appetising one. The stew was thick with large lumps of meat and chunks of vegetables. She set the plate in front of him, then proceeded to cut some chunky slices of crusty bread for him.

“Here, dip that in the stew. Tastes mighty good. It’ll help bind your ribs together until supper time. You’re lookin’ mighty scrawny. I know what it’s like with you young fellas. Bottomless pits and hollow legs to boot. How long’s it been since you last had a good feed?”

Too long.

“Been on the trail bringing them horses here. Trail food ain’t the most tasty.”

She scrutinized him, before snorting in derision. “It’s been longer than that, boy.”

Johnny shrugged. “I’ve been on the move.”

“Even on the move, you can eat proper, young man!” she reproved him.

“Yes, Ma’am!”

Clara looked at him sharply.

Johnny scrunched up his forehead, puzzled, before enlightenment dawned. “Clara,” he amended.

Her nod of approval was all she gave.

The copious meal was downed before Johnny even realized that he had started. Sipping the strong coffee that Clara had given to him, he offered his thanks. “Clara, that must be the best meal I have had in years,” he complimented her.

“Don’t say much for whoever did your cooking, then!” she snorted, true to fashion. “You ain’t got no special woman?”

“No,” was all he offered.

“What about your family?”

What about his family? He had never known one. And he never would.

“Ain’t got none.”

“That’s a shame, a fine fella like you. A person would be proud to have you for a son or a brother.”

“But you only just met me, Clara. How could you possibly know what sort of man I am?” The dark shadows of his past lurked over his shoulders breathing their foul stench of decay all over him.

“Oh, I know, all right. Never been wrong yet. You’re a good man. But that sadness sittin’ on your shoulders is gonna bury you one day if you let it weigh you down the way it is. It’s gonna sink you in one of them sinkholes that suck you down like quicksand  if you don’t get out of it before it gets a real tight grip on you.”

Johnny balked at her blunt synopsis of his character. He sat straighter, face impassive, hiding how close she had got to the bulls eye. He opened his mouth to give her a retort, to set her straight, but she was too quick for him.

“Don’t get all shirty with me, young man. I told you, I’m never wrong. Do yourself a favour and make some hard decisions.”

This enigmatic statement concluded the topic, apparently. His plate was whisked away and she refilled his coffee almost simultaneously.

“So, what are you going to do here in town?”

Darn, that coffee was good! Johnny let another mouthful slide down into his stomach before he answered. “Look for a job.”

Clara looked at him over her spectacles. “Well, there’s jobs and jobs,” she prompted.

“I dunno. Ranching, cattle droving, wrangling. I’m good at breaking break horses.”

“You any good at choppin’ wood?”

“Yeah, I wield a mean axe.”

“Well, you can earn a few dollars to help you along choppin’ that woodpile out back.”

Clara was graced with one of Johnny’s brilliant smiles. “Clara, after a meal like that, the wood chopping’s on the house.”

“Oh, a woman could get a swelled head with those compliments! A man like you needs some filling with some decent food. And it’s a pleasure to see a man enjoy the good food prepared for him.”

“Well, I just wanted you to know that I appreciate it, Ma’am. Now, where do you want me to put all this wood I’m gonna be chopping?”

“If you could fill up the woodbox next to the hearth in the parlour and put some next to the oven, I’d be much obliged.”

“Sure, Clara.” Johnny passed her his cup, then stood and made his way out the back. Opening the door, his arms jarred as he caught the heavy panelled wood as it swung wildly on only one hinge and lunged at him. He grunted with the effort to get it back to perpendicular. Finally feeling it was safe to leave it propped back in it recess, he made for the woodpile where he located the axe embedded in the chopping block.

Removing his holster, he hung it over a branch from the tree standing crookedly by the mass of wood stumps and boughs. Levering the axe free, he swung the axe over his head and began his onslaught onto the woodpile. Swinging rhythmically, he split logs and chopped some finer kindling. He enjoyed the manual labour and seeing his strength transfer to shattered wood.

So he continued long past what was required of him. But as he swung and chopped his mood altered. The logs warped and wavered, before taking on a more definite shape again. Unwelcome shapes. Evil and threatening. Taunting. Hovering. Faces from his past. Faces from the wrong end of his gun. Faces owning fists hurtling towards his jaw. Faces that consumed his soul. He smashed these images of his past. He bludgeoned them with the swift axe blade. Pelted them with the steel wedge until the faces splintered, chips flying off in all directions, and fell disfigured with a dull thud to the ground.

Johnny lifted and swung that axe until he could physically continue no more. Until he was left with heaving sides, reminiscent of a horse after a hard gallop. Sweat poured down his face, drenched his back, glistened on his chest and made his armpits sticky as the perspiration clung to his shirt in a cloying mass of soggy shirt material.

Would he never be free? Would those faces ever leave his mind alone and desert his dreams?

He flicked the axe down on the chopping block. It stuck firm. Much the same as those memories stuck in his sub-conscious. Those scummy memories teaming with contagion. They spoilt every aspect of his waking life. Even in sleep he could not escape them as they invaded his search for peace.  He could just never get rid of them and create the room for new and untainted experiences.

Johnny placed both hands on the now still axe embedded diagonally in the chopping block. His head dipped and he waited patiently for his ragged breathing to quieten. He sighed. Why didn’t he go through with his plan? He was so close. What did he have to lose?

Another heartfelt sigh escaped his lips. Not one to brood over the unchangeable, he mentally shook his head and bent to collect an armload of the wood. Arms laden, he entered the building. For another thirty minutes, he replenished stocks in the kitchen and parlour and stacked split logs into a sizeable heap under the shelter of the purpose built lean-to in order to keep them dry.

Wiping his feet carefully on the mat, Johnny entered the kitchen once more. Clara had been busy. More tempting aromas tantalized his nostrils. Roasting beef jockeyed for attention from the sweeter scent of apple and cinnamon. Apple and cinnamon pie, if Johnny did not miss his guess.

“Hi, Johnny. Worked up an appetite?” Clara queried.

Johnny pushed his hat back off his head so it fell against his back, dangling from the hat straps. “Oh, I’ve always got an appetite!”

“Well, it will be about an hour before it’s ready for serving.”

“OK, Clara. I’ll just have a look around and then clean up some again.”

“That’s fine.”

He headed out the door to reconnoitre the town. Obviously a prospering place, the nearby streets were busy with people going about their business. Johnny had noted the new homes on the town’s outskirts as he had ridden in and reckoned that it was growing at a faster rate than that two bit town called Morro Coyo where he had rotted in that jail.

The livery stable was his first stop. Calling out for Clyde, he received a muffled holler in return. Following the sound, he found Clyde in the far stall hidden by a horse he was busy currying.

Johnny leaned his arms on the top rail and rested his head on his hands. He could see that the old man took pride in his horses.

“You back already?”

”Yeah, Clyde, just wondering if I could borrow me some tools to fix Clara’s door for her?”

“Sure, Johnny. In the back room. There’s a bench and I keep most of my tools in a box underneath. Borrow whatever you need.”

“Much obliged, Clyde. Shouldn’t be long.”

Johnny located the tool box without difficulty. Lifting the lid, he delved into the mass of assorted tools. Taking out various items, he put them on the bench and checked around for something to put them in. An empty hessian bag in the corner did the trick and in no time he had placed the hammer, chisel, drill, screwdriver and a small plane inside. He rummaged further before locating some screws and nails in some tin cans on the bench. Shouldering the sack, he headed back to Clara’s.

Johnny was a fast worker. Good with his hands and a quick learner, he had learnt the rudiments of woodwork merely by watching the people around him as a boy. The door was soon off its one hinge and in short order, after drilling some fresh holes, he had the other hinge plate reattached. Lugging the door with difficulty, he managed to reposition and rehang it.

Next stop was his bedroom window. He was determined to teach it some manners. No one and nothing got away with arguing with Johnny Madrid. He worked on it, planing away parts which had swollen over time with rain and weather. Downing his tools, he tried it. The self satisfaction of a job well done was his reward. He smiled. A dazzling grin was bestowed upon an empty room.

The banister drew his attention next. He hammered nails in parts which had become a little rickety, testing the whole length of the handrail and supports before being satisfied that Clara would not have an accident due to any insecure sections alongside the stairs. Then temptation beckoned as he decided on one final evaluation of its stability. Mounting the top stair, he positioned his behind on the banister rail and kicked off. The ride was all too short, but fun, and somehow the childishness of it wiped away some of the unpleasantness of the past week.

Once back on firm ground, he packed up his tools and quickly returned them to Clyde, before heading back for more ablutions.

The bath house was again put to use. Johnny heaved off his shirt and once more availed himself of the modern amenities.

‘At this rate, I’ll be the cleanest gunslinger in the state,’ he mused.

The evening meal was served in the dining room. Several other diners had come in while Johnny cleaned up. Two businessmen sat at one table in the corner and eyed him suspiciously before continuing with their meal. A couple in the corner were oblivious to anyone else in the room. The intensity of their absorption in each other had Johnny wondering whether they were a courting couple or in the full throes of an affair.

None seemed to pose a threat, so he gave his attention to the delicious meal set before him. Clara made sure that he had seconds of the main meal, but he had to turn her down at the offer of a repeat of the apple pie slab he had waded through. Waded through it not because it was a chore, but because the helping had been so monstrous.

He let the meal settle and sat back contentedly sipping his coffee. He could not remember when he had eaten so well.

Finally hoisting himself to his feet, he entered the kitchen. “Clara, that was a mighty fine meal! Thank you.”

Clara turned and gave him a hug. “Why, it’s me who needs to thank you for everything that you did for me. That was sure a fine thing to do for an old lady.”

“Clara, it was a pleasure. And you ain’t old!”

Johnny planted his hat on his head and headed for the door. Before leaving, he leaned one hand on the door jamb and looked over his shoulder. “Plus, I figure I can give Clyde some competition!” He waggled his eyebrows theatrically as she squealed in delight.

“Oh my, Johnny! You are a caution! Now off you go before I go all watery at the knees!”

He bestowed another radiant smile at her and headed outside.

 

Chapter Ten

Following the boardwalk, he turned a corner to the right and discovered the welcome sight and sounds of a saloon. A drink just might help chase some of those demons away. He paused at the doorway, his contained gaze sweeping the room. Sweeping and assessing. Considering any potential threat as was his habit for the past too many years.

Nothing but cowhands and errant husbands, he surmised, drinking and playing poker. Deeming the room to be safe, Johnny entered. Several occupants glanced up at the solitary figure entering, but soon paid him no mind and returned to their various occupations.

Wandering up to the bar, Johnny ordered a tequila and downed it quickly. The second, he took his time over. A familiar figure appeared at his side.

“What’ll it be?” he asked Clyde.

“A beer, thanks, sonny.”

The two men sipped contentedly after their drinks arrived.

“So did you get fed all right at Clara’s?”

“Sure did. I’m fit to bursting.”

“She’s the best cook this side of the Rio Grande.” Clyde boasted on Clara’s behalf. “It was sure good of you to chop that wood for her.”

“Uh huh.” Johnny grunted companionably and sipped further. “That Clara is one fine woman.”

“The best,” confirmed Clyde.

“Sure is a shame that she ain’t got a good man to look after her and to do all those pesky little maintenance jobs that keep rearing their ugly heads,” Johnny mused.

A slight pause ensued before Johnny heard Clyde agree.

“I suppose so,” was all that was offered on that subject.

The two men talked for a further hour before Johnny decided to call it quits. He returned to his lodging, content that he had eaten well and passed a pleasant evening. But as his head hit the pillow, it was tomorrow the loomed over him and smothered him. He needed to find a job and he needed to take stock of the direction his life had been heading.

****************************

The next morning saw him out of bed by six thirty, deliciously alluring smells reminding him that Clara was a darned fine cook. His stomach urged him on and after eating a healthy serving of bacon, eggs and pancakes, he thanked Clara and headed to the livery.

Clyde was there already, bending over the hoof of one of the horses.

“Morning, Clyde!” Johnny called.

Clyde straightened, releasing the hoof as he did so and patting the animal on the rump.

“Morning, Johnny. Sleep well?”

It suddenly struck Johnny that he had. “Yeah, I did. And Clara sure fussed over breakfast. A man could get real used to that. A pretty woman around the house, good cooking smells in the air, a nice clean bed.”

As Johnny had expected, Clyde stood up a little straighter at the last statement.

“That a fact, Johnny?” he asked.

“Sure is. Modern women don’t take care of a man the way a more mature woman does. I might just stay around a while if I can’t find a job.”

Clyde had grown another few inches as Johnny had spoken. “Well, while you’re on that subject, I got to speaking to the foreman over at the M bar E last night after you left. He said that he might have a job for you if you called in there this morning.”

“Hey, thanks for thinking of me, Clyde.”

“No problem, Johnny. He was in the saloon sussing you out anyway, seeing you’re new to the area. He don’t like drunks, so the fact that you left after a few drinks was in your favour.”

“And you didn’t put in a good word for me, did you?”

“Well, I might have said a few things.”

“I bet you did and I thank you for it.”

“A good man deserves a break. The rancher’s name is Watson. Elbert Watson. He’s known as a fair boss. He expects his men to work hard for their pay, but there ain’t no crime in that.”

Johnny dipped hid head in acknowledgement. Bringing his head up, he asked, “So, where do I find this spread?”

“Take the south road and turn left at the creek. The turnoff is about five miles outta town. Once you’ve turned left it’s another 30 minutes down the road. Can’t miss it.”

“Thank you, Clyde.”

“No problem. And borrow Arrow over there. He’ll get you there safely.”

“How much, Clyde?”

“Don’t need no payment. He needs some exercise. If you don’t get the job, come back to town and drop him off. If you do get the job, they’ll supply a horse and you can drop him off next time you’re in town.”

Johnny was at a loss to explain Clyde’s kindness. Clapping him on the shoulder, he thanked him again.

“I guess I’d better go, Clyde, and see if they’ll have me.”

“You do that, Johnny. Take care.”

“Thanks. You, too.”

Johnny made short work of saddling his new mount. He headed out to the ranch, wondering just what he would find there.

************************************

The horse responded well and Johnny enjoyed the trip out to the M bar E. It was a beautiful day and it struck him forcefully that he was so lucky to still be alive to witness it. Just how did he last long enough to witness a glorious day such as this? Who was it who pulled the strings of his life? Who put him through hell, but who had never let him escape when he could bear it no more?

He basked in the sun warming his back and shoulders. His deep breath fortified him as he made an oath to himself to try this new venture … if only he would be allowed to do so unchallenged.

The entrance to the property proclaimed a solid business was being run. Fences were sturdy and the final entry way was lined with shady trees, lending an air of grandeur to the estate. On entering the yard, he found himself in front of an adobe structure. Quite massive, its upper floors would have offered an uninterrupted view of the lands surrounding the home.

Johnny made for the barn and corral. Here, he could see various hands at work. One stood out as being in charge. He was a man in his forties, average height and build, with a thin moustache on his upper lip. Johnny had seen him playing poker in the saloon the previous night.

Johnny’s casual posture in the saddle belied the tension he was feeling. The tension he always felt when meeting someone new and deciding whether they could be trusted or not.

“Howdy,” was all he offered by greeting.

“Howdy.” The man studied him for a long moment. “Can I help you?”

“Yeah, maybe. Old Clyde from the livery stable said you might have some work for me to do. Name’s Johnny.”

“Yes, Clyde mentioned you to me. Seemed to like you.”

“No accounting for taste, huh?”

The foreman snorted. “Clyde don’t trust that many people, so I figured you must be all right. So, what can you do? He seemed to think that you’d be good with the animals.”

“Yeah, I’ve done some ranch work and been on a few trail drives. If you need any bronco busting done, I’m your man.”

“Well, why don’t you hop on down and we’ll get to business?”

Johnny nodded. Levering himself out of the saddle, he landed smoothly on the ground in front of the foreman who extended his hand.

“Name’s Buck Williams.”

Johnny swallowed, returned the handshake, and with the slightest of hesitations introduced himself properly. “Johnny Madrid.”

The handshake ceased, stilled in mid air, then finished half heartedly. Buck’s head skewed as his eyes raked Johnny, a knowing glint making it obvious that Johnny’s reputation had preceded him.

“Uh huh. He didn’t quite fill me in on all the details, then.”

“He filled you in on enough. You either want me to work for you or you don’t.”

“Why would a man with your … um … background want to work on a ranch? It don’t seem normal.”

“Well, a man can decide to branch out, you know. Try something different. Learn a new trade working at something new.”

“It’s one thing to give a man some work, but it’s another when a man has a whole heap of baggage called Trouble with a capital T shadowing him. Trouble that can break out at any instant.”

“And what makes you think I’m Trouble, with a capital T?”

“Oh, your reputation for one. If we put you on, we’re either gonna have you drawin’ on our men or others are gonna follow you here and start drawin’ on you and everyone else. It could turn out to be a right free for all.”

“Well, I guess that’s your call. I can find work elsewhere. I ain’t got no mind to work where I’m not wanted.”

“I didn’t say you’re not wanted, but I don’t want to attract any unsavoury types here. I got the welfare of a lot of people to consider on this property.”

Johnny hooked both thumbs in his belt and rocked gently backwards and forwards on his heels. Turning his head, he surveyed his surroundings. It was indeed a busy and prosperous ranch and no doubt many families were dependant on it for their survival.

“Well, I won’t keep you, then.”

A dip of his head and he was ready to remount.

“No need to get so touchy. We’re shorthanded at the moment. Our chief horse breaker  went and busted some ribs yesterday and we need the help. And we’ve had a few other injuries to our ranch hands as well. I guess you can stay as long as there ain’t no trouble.”

“With or without the capital T?”

Buck poised his head at that for a moment, before splitting his face with a grin. “Well, ain’t you got a smart mouth?” He shook his head. “Aw, hell, I like a man with a sense of humour. Drop your saddle bags in the bunkhouse and I’ll set you up with some chores.”

“Thanks, Buck. It’s appreciated.”

Johnny nodded his head and reached up to remove his saddlebags. Slinging them over his shoulder, he made for the building indicated by Buck.

He didn’t quite make it to the bunkhouse. Raucous and exuberant cheering from the corral drew his attention. His paces slowed until he stopped and then finally swivelled on his heels. Horse breaking was the object of the cowhands’ attention. Vigorous horse breaking. Johnny could see the stallion bucking and snorting for all its might. Its head was down, pulled down hard by the reins. Dust swirled beneath stomping hooves. Its nostrils flared with anger and anxiety and quite some fear. The horse was frantic and becoming more so with the din from the crowd and the yanking on the bit in its mouth.

Johnny made his way back to the corral and watched. Mouth clamped shut in a hard, straight line he absorbed the action. Bile rose up in his throat. Disgust hit him like a wave. As he slung his saddlebags over the top railing and started to climb over, there was a deafening shout. Arms and legs waved wildly in the air as the rider was bucked skywards and propelled towards the onlookers.

Johnny landed on the other side of the fence, reached for the man and dragged him swiftly to safety away from the flailing hooves of the stallion. Willing hands pulled the man under the bottom rail and out of harm’s way.

Johnny stood and waited for the horse to settle. He spoke softly to it, letting the cadence of his voice wash over the animal. English and Spanish in no particular mix or order continued to roll from Johnny’s tongue. Gradually it stopped rearing, but resorted to trotting around in desperate circles, looking for a way out. It snorted and rolled its eyes, simultaneously stamping its frustration on the dry earth.

And still Johnny remained looking at the beast. And still he talked.

Only when the horse’s heaving flanks slowed did Johnny approach it. It backed off and crossed to the other side of the corral. Johnny waited again. He just stood there patiently, studying the horse, which was studying him in turn. Johnny narrowed the gap a little, but after six paces, the horse again moved away. This was repeated, and repeated again, until finally he was able to reach for the trailing reins. The horse jerked in fright, then began to rear.

Johnny stood his ground, talking, soothing, coaxing. Once back on all four legs, the horse stared fixedly at Johnny. Slowly, Johnny reached up a hand and patted its neck. Long strokes, firm strokes, all the while speaking in his gentle, lulling manner.

Before the horse knew it, Johnny had slipped off its bridle. The horse received another pat and a rub on its nose before Johnny dropped his eyes to look at the leather and metal headgear in his hands. The bit was as he suspected.

He snapped his head up and glared at Buck. Marching over, he waved it under his nose and let fly. “You let your men use a bit like this? There are better ways than this sort of cruelty. If this is the way you treat your horse on this ranch, then I’m out of here!”

Thrusting the bridle at Buck, he made to move off, but was arrested by Buck’s firm grip on his arm.

Johnny wheeled around to face him again.

“No, this ain’t the way I like things done around here. And it won’t be happening again while I’m in charge.”

Seeing the hesitation in Johnny’s eyes, he continued. “So, what is it to you, that you care so much, anyway? It’s not like they are your livestock.”

“I don’t like animals to be mistreated. I don’t like them to have their spirits broken through cruelty and mistreatment or any other way. I don’t tolerate unnecessary viciousness to anyone or anything, especially when it can’t fight back. You can break a horse without doing it this way.”

“I know, and we’re still looking for a leading horse breaker. We got plenty that can do it, but none of ‘em are a patch on Herb. We’re lookin’ for someone who’s got that special touch.” Buck considered him, head on his side, before continuing. “You might be that man. You’ve got a way with them critters.”

Johnny looked him in the eye then. “Maybe, maybe not, but I don’t put up with fools and rough handling where horses are concerned.”

“Understood. Alf was just trying to show off and get some notice taken of himself. He’s hoping for Herb’s job.”

“Well, he’s sure got a strange way of applying for it.”

Buck laughed. “Ain’t that the truth. Get settled in, Johnny. I got a feelin’ we could use your skills. Come on, I’ll show you your bunk and introduce you around to a few of the boys.”

“Sure.” Johnny headed for the corral fence, picked up his saddle bags and once again headed to the bunkhouse, this time with Buck for company.

***************************

Johnny settled in quickly to the ranch work. Just as quickly it became apparent that he was the man in command of the corral when it came to horse breaking. While friendly enough, he kept to himself to some extent. The other hands were in awe of his bond with the horses, and this provided him with some privacy to start with as they tended to give him some space.

While he also strung fences and herded cattle, it was the horse work he liked. He was treated more as one of the boys when doing general ranch work, but put him in the corral and conditions changed. The men knew he had a special knack with the horses and consequently treated him with greater respect in this particular arena.

The weeks flew and Johnny began to feel comfortable. That very fact is what made him uneasy. Whenever he had felt comfortable in the past, things had gone wrong.

*****************************

There was a tentative knock on the French window of the Great Room.

Scott and his father looked at each other. Scott had only just come in from another hard day’s work and was about to discuss some issues with Murdoch before heading for a well earned bath. He was hot, dusty, dirty and thirsty and did not want any interruptions prolonging his day. With uncharacteristic bad temper, he flung the map he had been studying down on the desk and strode to the doorway. He opened the door abruptly, but his manner softened when he saw who was there.

One of the hands stood shuffling from foot to foot, twisting his hat awkwardly in his hands. Short and wiry, Ricky’s compact body belied his strength. He had befriended Scott and had been helping him out with the ranch chores, pointing out how to accomplish tasks to get the greatest benefit from the least effort. In the process he had saved Scott several times from suffering embarrassment due to his ignorance of ranching practices.

“Hi, Ricky. Is everything all right?”

“Sure, Scott. There’s no problem. It’s just that me and some of the hands are going to go to town to have a drink at the saloon and maybe play some poker. We were wondering if maybe you’d like to join us?”

Scott was surprised. He knew that the men were only just thawing towards him. A good part of that he owed to Ricky, but if he were frank with himself one incident had helped to start the ice melting.

Only the day after being given the all clear by the doctor to become involved in minor ranch duties, circumstances forced him to discard the doctor’s advice to take it easy. He had been talking to Murdoch and Cipriano near the barn, when whinnying from terrified horses interrupted their conversation. Shrieks of fear split the air. Looking up, the men could just make out the buggy Teresa had just driven out of the yard. It was being pulled at far too dangerous a speed over the hill crest by the spooked beasts. It was Scott who sprang into action before anyone else seemed to process what was happening.

He leapt onto Cipriano’s horse, and headed in a straight line towards Teresa. Jumping over two corral fences, Scott sailed effortlessly through the air. Each time the horse landed in a fluid motion, not even breaking stride. Scott had swiftly crested the hill, and ranch hands lagging several seconds behind had later recounted to Murdoch how Scott had drawn level with her buggy and had reached over to slow down the frightened animals and bring the wagon to a halt. By the time some of the ranch hands had reached Scott and Teresa, he had calmed her down with a reassuring hug and had managed to settle the horses.

His unhesitating action had impressed the ranch hands. Talk spread fast and was shared with those working further afield that day. From then on, Scott had perceived a different attitude from the workers. Their surliness was mollified and their smugness was less evident. And things were gradually getting better. He knew he wasn’t one of them, but he felt less of an outsider as each day passed.

And Ricky’s invitation was another step in the right direction.

Scott did not really want to go anywhere. Truthfully, he was beyond exhausted, but he recognized the hand of friendship offered to him. As the boss’s son, and a greenhorn at that, he needed to grasp every opportunity to get to know the men better.

And so he found himself answering in the affirmative. Ricky’s smile of pleasure greeted Scott’s response. Promising to be ready in thirty minutes to ride in with the men, Scott headed to his bath tub to clean up. His lethargy left him and he smiled in anticipation of a night which could promise much in relaxation and possibly some pleasures to boot.

********************************

The sun beat down mercilessly. It was early afternoon and heat stung the very air. Johnny had elected to leave the horses be until the weather cooled off some in a day or two and so was working at one of the fence lines.  He and Travis made a competent team digging poles and stringing the wire as they went.

Travis was a lean, laconic ranch hand who related well to all the other workers. About thirty years of age, he had worked on the ranch for the past five years. Sandy hair curled around his ears and over his collar, forming damp ringlets where perspiration soaked his skin. Freckles dotted his skin courtesy of his years working outdoors.

Johnny ambled over to the wagon to fetch more wire. His shirt was undone exposing his glistening chest and firm abdomen. Darkly sodden patches of perspiration were evident under the armpits and down his back. Reaching up to the hand brake, he unhooked his canteen. Pulling out the bung,  he took a long swig of the too warm liquid. It barely quenched his thirst as he was immediately craving more. He elected to pour a little over his hair instead. This had the cooling effect he wanted. Not bothering to wipe the water off, he let it dribble down his body.

“You want your canteen, Travis?” he called.

“Yeah. Sure could do with a drink, Johnny.” Picking up Travis’s canteen, Johnny whistled as he hurled it at him. Travis caught it deftly, then lifted it in salute to Johnny before taking a decent swig.

“Man, that feels good, but not half as good as a cold beer at the saloon tonight. You comin’ too, Johnny?”

Johnny looked over at him, then cracked a leisurely smile. “Are you asking me hoping I’m really gonna stay at the ranch so you can win at poker tonight?”

“Now, why would you think that?”

“Maybe because you still owe money after last time and if I hadn’t beat you, you’d have won that last hand.”

Travis looked down at the canteen. He studied it a while, then glanced at Johnny. “Well, seein’ as how you really want to know, yeah, I might have more of a chance without you there!”

Johnny laughed. “Well, I’m not letting you off the hook that easily. I’m gonna whip your hide!”

“Not until you finish this fence line, you won’t! Come on. Let’s keep workin’ so we can get into town sooner.”

The two men worked solidly. As the insufferable heat eased, they got a new lease on life and increased the pace. The thought of a beer also had something to do with their burst of speed, images of a cool, golden brew beckoning them on.

The sun slid lazily under the covers of the horizon as the two men headed back to the ranch for a clean-up and a quick meal. The bunkhouse was alive with activity as ranch hands jostled for space to spruce themselves up before their big night out. Available tubs were at a premium and after a fifteen minute wait, Johnny scored a newly vacated one. The water was an opaque grey. Almost sludge-like soap scum adhered to the edges. Johnny had a choice. Top it up and have a deep bath or empty it and make do with a shallow affair of clean water. Vacillation ceased and the latter option won out after he witnessed the actions of two of the ranch hands. Ray Whittaker cleared his throat noisily and spat a great globule of phlegm into his bath almost simultaneously to Ken McGonnell laughing uproariously at his ability to create bubbles from underwater. Johnny grimaced. He may not have always had the luxury of appropriate bath facilities, but he nevertheless had his own standards of cleanliness, ones he preferred not to share with others.

He removed the plug, emptied the tub, rinsed it and carted over buckets of hot water from the boiler. His clothes were peeled off and flung over the pegs on the wall with deadly accuracy. No ranch hand was afforded the luxury of privacy, the bath house being a shared facility. There was consequently no point in shyness. A naked Johnny stepped boldly into his tub. He sank into the water and allowed himself several minutes of blissful peace as he leaned back, head against the tub rim. The water lapped at his navel and warmed his tense muscles which had worked strenuously all day. Above the water line his chest enjoyed the luxuriant heat from the rising steam. His eyes closed, he breathed steadily, boldly defined muscles expanding with each breath.  Deciding that time was wasting, he reached for the soap and brush and got stuck into removing the dirt and stench of ranching. Soap foaming from his fingers was lathered into his torso, only to run in meandering trails down his chest and back, hugging the contours of his muscled frame.

His hair was next to receive some attention. He dunked his head under the water and then rubbed it vigorously with the soap. Further dunkings were required to wash off the soap residue. His hair stood out at all angles by the time he had immersed it and shaken his head, but he ran his fingers through the errant strands in a taming motion which left them remarkably well groomed.

Standing abruptly, Johnny let the water cascade briefly down his lean frame before towelling it off brusquely. He spent the minimum of time leaning into a mirror scraping his stubbly facial growth with a none too sharp razor, then donned fresh clothes. Bundling up his soiled garments, he exited the bathroom, brushing past those jockeying for the best position to claim his tub.

“Ready, Johnny boy?” Travis enquired as he thumped him good-naturedly on the shoulder.

Johnny turned, smiling in anticipation.

“Let her buck, Travis!”

“Whatever you say, Johnny!”

A cheerful farewell to the group and they were gone, knowing full well that the loitering group would catch up to them in town.

Twenty minutes later, they stopped at the saloon door. Johnny edged it open, scanned the activity and then entered. The saloon was the liveliest Johnny had seen it. Tinny music was being thumped out by a pianist to the left of the bar, several games of poker were in session and the saloon girls were in ultra friendly mode, hoping to find a bed partner with a full wage in his pocket.

Johnny and Travis made their way to the bar, wasting no time in placing their orders. Their first drink slid down their throats, barely touching the sides. Their second they held onto for longer. Their third they nursed as they talked and swapped stories.

“Hey, Travis!”

Travis turned to the call. A beckoning hand urged him over.

“Why don’t you and Johnny join us?”

“Sure thing, Will,” responded Travis, who ambled over and slid down into the seat as Johnny stood hesitating.

“Aw, Johnny! The night’s awasting,” grumbled Travis as he pulled over a chair for Johnny as well.

Johnny was not keen on joining Alf who was sitting with the group at the table. He was smugly leaning back on his chair offering a silent challenge Johnny’s way, daring him to take part in the game. Johnny just didn’t feel like dealing with Alf this particular night, but he was fed up walking on eggshells around the man. He hooked the chair with his foot, lowered himself down onto it and pushed his hat back off his head where it dangled down his back by the hat strap.

“OK, boys, let’s deal!” he invited.

The men played several hands with mixed fortunes, cool beer washing down the dust of a day’s work and lubricating their vocal chords. The game got rowdier and some decisions became more reckless, but it was three hours before things got out of hand.

One by one the men had thrown in the towel until Johnny, Alf and Travis were left. Johnny was next to fold. He studied Alf’s self-satisfied demeanour and pondered the thought that had been wafting around in his mind all evening. An elusive thought that was gradually taking concrete shape. Travis was keen to be the winner and as much as he tried to hide it, Johnny could detect the excitement mounting behind his eyes.  

Alf was fiddling with his coins, lifting them up and letting them fall down into a little stack. Alf’s other hand held his cards protectively close to his chest. His breathing was heavy, roughened by the alcohol he has steadily been consuming. Travis was sitting quietly, but was betrayed by a trickle of perspiration that beaded on his forehead and began its slow descent downwards, detouring around the mound of his eyebrow, before languidly continuing its path.

The table had quietened as those who had folded waited to witness the winner claim the pot.

Alf nodded slowly as he threw a couple more coins into the centre of the table. “OK, Travis, I’ll see you. Show us what you got.”

Travis laid his cards down face up, satisfaction evident in manner. The full house was there for everyone to appreciate.

“Whooee! Travis, don’t that beat all! Three queens and two eights!” claimed Jack, clapping him on the shoulder.

Will reached over and shook his hand.  “Dang it, boy! I knew you had something special!”

Travis shook his hand jubilantly. Leaning forward he embraced the money and hugged it to himself.

“Not so fast!” commanded Alf, cocksure and authoritative.

Alf laid his cards out slowly, fanning them out for all to see. A collective indrawn breath was all that could be heard around the table as the poker players stared at the straight flush.

Utter silence followed. Everyone was stock still and mesmerized by the series of hearts printed on the cards. Alf smirked.

“I believe you have my money, Travis!”

Travis’s face fell in disbelief, as he leaned back in his chair, relinquishing his sovereignty over the much desired prize.

Alf scooped an arm around and swept the coins into his hat.

“So, do you always have a spare pack of cards on you?”

The question fell into the void and hung there.

Alf narrowed his eyes and turned his head to face Johnny full on.

“What was that? I don’t know if my ears heard right.”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with your ears. Your idea of the rules might be at fault, though.”

Johnny’s voice had been quiet and conversational, but no one missed the deadly nature of those drawled words.

“You callin’ me a cheat?”

“Yep.”

Alf leaned forward into Johnny’s space, a sneer projecting venom in his direction. “You get this straight, you scum. I don’t take kindly to be called a cheat, especially by a half breed reject like yourself!”

Alf lingered several more seconds merely inches from Johnny’s face, before leaning back and making a move to rise.

He didn’t get far.

Johnny’s hand reached out and grasped Alf’s wrist in a band of steel. Abruptly, Johnny twisted his arm and leapt up. Reaching with his other hand, he pulled up Alf’s jacket sleeve and groped under the shirt cuff. He withdrew three cards. All eyes were rivetted on the two aces and a king.

“You put it there!” Alf screamed in desperation.

“Liar!” Travis was on his feet.

Alf’s eyes darted around the group of angry men. He looked at them but slid his eyes away abruptly from each one. Panic gripped his features.

“It’s that Mex stirring things up. We ain’t never had a problem before he came along!”

“Maybe he’s just a mite more observant than us, Alf. Maybe you’ve been doing this all along,” suggested Will.

“Well, why haven’t I won more often then?”

“Because you’re stupid, but you ain’t that stupid!” spat back Travis.

Johnny saw the move before anyone else did. His revolver was in his hand pointing at Alf before Alf’s thought had even crystallised into action.

Alf stopped dead, the fear on his face just dominating over the loathing. He waited.

Johnny was quietly decisive. “Now, I suggest that you get back to the ranch while you’re still in one piece.”

Alf looked around him. Finding no friends there, common sense told him to go. And so he did, but not before allowing himself a last remnant of bluster. He defiantly picked up his beer and slowly drained the contents.

Slamming the glass on the table top with a resounding thud, he meticulously placed his hat on his head before exiting through the batwing doors.

The silence didn’t last long. Johnny was clapped on the back and had a fresh glass of beer pressed into his hand as everyone spoke at once. He returned the smiles half heartedly. He knew that he may just have made an enemy he could do without.

Johnny stayed a while longer, but his run-in with Alf had left a bad taste in his mouth. He made to leave, despite the encouragements of the other increasingly inebriated ranch hands.

“I’ll see you back at the ranch, boys,” he informed them as he reached for his jacket slung over the back of his chair. Travis caught up with him at the door.

“I’ll keep you company on the way back,” Travis offered.

“No need. I’m fine.”

“Yeah, you’re always fine! Look, I don’t trust Alf. He was in a foul mood and you just might need someone to watch your back. So, let’s get going!”

It was Travis who opened the batwing doors and stepped out first. Johnny followed with a sigh. They ambled over to their horses, both resting comfortably at the hitching rail. A slight hop and Johnny mounted his horse, Travis following suit.

The two men began their trip back to the ranch. The moon’s face peeked out intermittently as clouds scudded by, shrouding it in wispy veils of grey gauze. The change from silver moonlight to obscure shadows and back unsettled Johnny. His instincts had served him well in the past and saved his skin on many an occasion. Something was going to happen in this eerie undulating semi light. But what this something was he couldn’t quite pinpoint.

Then it came.

 

Chapter Eleven

A scream pierced the quiet evening, shattering the brittle atmosphere into shards of danger.

It came again as Johnny simultaneously oriented himself and sprang into action. He wheeled his horse around and headed for the alley by the side of the bank. Dismounting in a flash, he lunged for the boardwalk and hugged the side of the building. Travis, meanwhile, did likewise on the other side of the alleyway. Johnny inched his way along the wall, well aware that if he rushed in, he could be caught in a trap. Peering around, his eyes scanned the murky depths of the laneway, made more gloomy by the shadows cast by the walls and crates scattered down its length.

Grunts, gasps and desperate cries could be heard all too plainly. Johnny crouched and darted into the cavernous depths. Rounding a tall pile of crates stacked haphazardly about half way down, he stopped short.

“Stop right there!” he barked.

The movement in front of him ceased. Whimpering was the only sound audible until the scraping of boots in the dirt and panting drowned it out.

The man on top of the woman heaved himself clumsily to his feet before slowly turning around to face Johnny and Travis. He drew himself up, but his attempt to radiate composure was overshadowed as he stumbled on unsteady feet. The alcohol he had consumed permeated the air even over the distance between them. Hand hovering over his gun, he appeared to be considering his options. The thought process was laboured, however, sluggish blinking marking his decision making.

“Don’t even think about it, Alf! Now move aside real easy.”

Rather than moving as requested, Alf compounded his night’s folly with one more foolish act. He reached for his gun which was shot from his fumbling fingers before he even grasped it properly. He swore, his profanity ringing in the air as an echo to Johnny’s gun shot. His gun tumbled to the ground as he shook his hand violently and sucked on the blood oozing from the wound.

“You got him covered, Travis?” Johnny asked his friend.

“Sure have. One move and you are dead meat, Alf. Unlike Johnny, I won’t shoot to graze you.”

Johnny moved over to the girl to help her up. The bodice of her dress was torn, so she hugged the material shreds to her breast to protect her from prying eyes.

"Are you all right?” Johnny enquired gently.

The girl sniffed and wiped away tears from her cheeks with her forearm. “Yes,” she hiccuped. “You came just in time.”

Johnny recognized her as one of the saloon girls. “It’s Maybelline, isn’t it?” Johnny enquired.

She nodded and hiccuped again as she tried to regain her composure.

“What damage did he do to you?”

“He hit me and slapped me and twisted my arms behind me. He tore my clothes and was trying to … well, you can guess the rest, but he didn’t get far. Thank you for coming when you did.”

Johnny untied his kerchief and dabbed at the corner of her mouth. She flinched back.

“Sorry,” he murmured.

She smiled wanly back. “That’s all right. I’m just being a cry baby.”

“Would you like me to fetch one of the girls to see you home?”

“No, I’ll be all right.”

“No, you won’t. We’ll see you home.”

From the mouth of the alley, a voice barked out at them. “Just all of you stand still and don’t make no sudden moves! Drop your weapons!”

Johnny sighed. The law, he guessed.

Alf’s voice broke the silence.

“He shot me!” he squawked. “I wasn’t doin’ nothin’ and he shot me! Shoot him before he draws on you, Sheriff. That’s Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny wasted no time. The sheriff wouldn’t remain idle with that news. He dived and rolled, landing behind some crates. Wood splintered and dust jumped around him.

“Stop!” screamed Travis and Maybelline simultaneously.

“Johnny stopped Alf from attacking me! He only shot Alf after Alf drew on him. Don’t shoot!” Maybelline yelled.

The sheriff hesitated, swivelling backwards and forwards between the crates and Alf who was sidling away towards the far end of the alley.

“I ain’t gonna shoot, Sheriff, but I don’t feel inclined to throw out my weapon. What they said is the truth. I was just helping the lady. I don’t want no trouble.”

Alf had nearly made it to the back of the building before the sheriff weighed up the information and took action.

“You, stop!”

Alf froze as he reached the corner.

“Just come on back here and stop being so unsocial!” the sheriff roared.

Alf turned, eyes darting furtively from one to the other before he finally advanced.

“So, Miss, would you care to tell me what happened here tonight?”

“Well, I finished my shift and was walking home. When I passed this alley, he … uh, Alf …reached out a hand and grabbed me. He put his hand over my mouth and yanked me into the shadows. He’s been drinking and he was pawing at me. When I struggled, he hit me and ripped my dress. If it weren’t for Johnny and Travis, he’d have forced himself on me good and proper. And, just so you know, Sheriff, Johnny only shot him after Alf drew on Johnny. Johnny didn’t start the gunplay.”

The sheriff looked hard at Johnny who had reappeared from his shelter. “You got yourself a reputation, boy!”

Johnny stared back implacably. “Yeah, that’s right. But it ain’t for back shooting and bush whacking. If I have to face a man I face him. I don’t go hiding in dark alley ways and I don’t hide behind a woman’s skirts.”

There was silence in the narrow alley as the sheriff digested Johnny’s remark.

Decision made, the sheriff nodded. “Yep, I must say I ain’t heard that you ever played underhanded.”

“Here!” The sheriff tossed his handcuffs to Travis. “Handcuff him behind his back.”

“You all right, Miss? Do you need the doc?” the sheriff finally thought to enquire.

“Yes, thanks to these two. I’m fine.”

“Ok, then, I’ll be on my way with the prisoner. I suggest you all make your way on home.”

The sheriff walked up to Alf and grabbed him by the arm and forced him back to the alley opening. As Alf passed Johnny, his malevolent glare bored into Johnny before he was ushered away. It was a glare which brooked no argument as to whom Alf blamed for his present predicament.

Johnny contemplated the venom in Alf’s look. Another enemy compounded manyfold. So many reasons for Alf to harbour ill feeling towards Johnny. And if Johnny surmised correctly that ill feeling would fester into a throbbing, putrid sore which would explode most likely when he least expected it. A chilling frisson shook his spine before he collected himself and replaced his gun safely in its holster with a wry smile.

“Well, the boss ain’t gonna be too happy. He was supposed to set off to deliver that stallion tomorrow. I can’t see the sheriff letting him out after what he tried to do to Maybelline here, can you?”

“Nope, I can’t and he shouldn’t release him, anyways.” Johnny turned to Maybelline. “Come on, if you’re sure you don’t need the doc, we’ll see you home.”  Johnny gently took her arm and set off, Travis by her other side.

******************************

A tangle of bedclothes, some of which draped over the recumbent figure and some of which drooped onto the floor, tried ineffectually to cover the prone body on the bed. One leg protruded from underneath them and hung slackly over the side. A naked torso totally missed the warming protection of the blankets. Well defined, tanned muscles contoured a broad shouldered back and contrasted with the white sheets beneath. The back of a head, covered in raven black hair, lay buried in a scrunched up pillow hugged tightly by the sleeping man.

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted through the air and greeted Johnny with a warm embrace. He rolled onto his back, twisting the blankets into even more tortuous patterns. His nose twitched and he licked his lips in anticipation. Swallowing the coffee rich air, he stirred and groaned in disappointment that no hot liquid brew actually appeased his taste buds and lubricated his dry throat.

He tossed his head seeking the soothing drink, before removing the arm flung over his eyes and lying it on the side of the bed to align with his body. Leaning on his elbow, he raised his shoulders and peered over to the pot bellied stove. It was an invitation too good to refuse. Sighing at the morning come too early, he sat upright and swung his feet to the ground. A yawn escaped and he rubbed his face in a vain attempt to erase the morning’s tiredness, clinging unusually snugly to his being. He stretched his body languidly before hoisting himself to his feet.

Looking around, he surveyed the room. It was past dawn, but being a Sunday, the crew were all taking advantage of the Sabbath for a lie in. More importantly, this was a necessity to give them the time needed to purge the alcohol from their systems and allow their bodies to recover normal function. It had been a big night out. A night away from the ranch celebrated in true style and dedication.

Travis was already awake. Sitting on his bed, he was reading a week old newspaper and sipping from his coffee cup. He saluted Johnny and jerked his head to the coffee pot. Johnny nodded his thanks.

Lazy steps brought Johnny within reach of his goal. Taking the towel from the rail, he wrapped it around the handle of the pot and poured a generous amount into a clean cup he found hanging from a hook.

The steam from the hot liquid massaged his nasal cavities in a peculiarly satisfying way. Unlike his ranch hand colleagues, he and Travis were not hung over, but nothing beat both the paradoxically seductive and invigorating smell of decent coffee. Nothing except maybe the first sip. Or maybe a bottle of tequila.

Several mouthfuls encouraged his sociability. Johnny hooked a chair with his foot and whisked it around to screech on the rough floor boards so he could face Travis. Plonking himself on it, he bent over, resting his elbows on his thighs and nursing the coffee cup in two hands. A few more swigs lubricated his tongue. “I swear you make just about the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. What’s your secret?” he addressed Travis.

“I dunno know really. Just one of my many talents. It always comes out of the pot like manna from heaven.”

Johnny snorted. “Yeah, well modesty sure ain’t one of your talents!” 

The other man joined Johnny in laughing. Laughter that was rudely interrupted as the door was flung open without ceremony.

Two men had entered their domain. Elbert Watson, the owner of the ranch and their boss, stood just in front of Buck.

“Gardiner! Madrid!” Watson barked.

This was not a tone to ignore. Travis and Johnny both stood to face the angry man.

“Yes, sir?” Travis queried.

“I want your version of last night’s events”

“What particular events, sir?”

“You know what I am talking about. The card game. Alf. The girl.”

Travis looked over at Johnny who cocked an eyebrow and shrugged. Licking his lips, Travis began nervously.

“Well, sir, me and Johnny was in the saloon playin’ poker with a bunch of the guys. Alf was cheatin’. Johnny here noticed it and called him on it … but not with his gun,” Travis hastily amended. “He just wanted Alf to own up to it. Alf drew on Johnny, but Johnny beat him to it. He told him to git back to the ranch.”

Watson had crossed his arms over his chest and was listening intently. He turned to Johnny.

“Why didn’t you shoot him if you drew on him?” he demanded.

“There weren’t no need. I had him covered before his gun cleared his holster. He just needed to cool down some … and get the hell out of our poker game and out of that saloon.”

“So what happened next?”

Travis again picked up the story.

“While we were headin’ outta town, we heard screamin’ coming from the alleyway. When we got there, Alf was forcing’ his attentions on Maybelline. Things got nasty and Alf drew on Johnny again. Johnny had no choice but to shoot and Alf should count himself lucky that Johnny didn’t shoot to kill. The sheriff arrested him and locked him up, but we don’t rightly know what charges he’s gonna press.”

The rancher was looking shrewdly at Johnny the whole time that Travis had continued his recount of the events.

“You got a name for yourself with that gun, son!”

“That’s right! I do. Because I’m mighty fussy how and when I use it.”

Watson’s deep and prolonged sigh was the only response he made.

“Damn it! Damn it all to hell!” he suddenly exploded, slamming his fist into the upright post of one of the bunk beds.

He paced the room and ran his fingers through his sparse hair. He was a portly man, his ruddy face attesting to his liking of the odd snort of whiskey. This did not prevent him from taking an active role in the running of his ranch, however. He did get his hands dirty when needed and he ran a tight ship.

He turned to address Johnny.

“Yes, by all accounts you are and from reports I’ve already received, you could have gunned him down twice last night and no one would have held you accountable. I’m sorry. I’m not too pleased with Alf. I’ve had enough of his shenanigans and I wash my hands of him. I was going to send Alf to deliver that stallion. That plan is now shot to pieces with Alf in the jail. So, I’m stuck.”

Here, he broke for a second and added. “You’re doing a good job with those horses. I don’t want to take you away from them, but Herb has recovered pretty well over the past seven weeks so we might just see how he handles them. He wired me from his sister’s and he should be back tomorrow. So, with him back I’ve decided to send you instead.”

He met Johnny’s gaze steadily. “Buck here tells me you can be trusted with that stallion. From what I’ve seen, I believe him.”

Johnny took a last mouthful of his coffee before placing the cup down carefully on the rough hewn table.

“I believe that horse is being sent north up the San Joaquin. I ain’t really looking to go back up there again.”

“Maybe you aren’t, but I need you to. That stallion has to be delivered before the end of the week.”

Johnny’s mind was whirling. « Dios! Not up there. It’s just too raw! »

His own contrary nature had been gnawing at him lately. Two months ago he had set out to meet his nemesis, but had withdrawn after getting cold feet. He had never backed down from a fight in his life, but this was just too powerful for him. It aroused too many tangled emotions which seared his very soul. It had taken him a lifetime to gather the guts to open up that door, but he had closed and locked it firmly just as he was about to ease it open. He just couldn’t go there again. It wasn’t worth it. He knew that if he headed north, momentum would carry him forward. And did he really want to carry out his original plan? Did he really even care any more to meet the man?

“So I’ll need you to go tomorrow.”

Watson’s words abruptly broke into his train of thought.

Johnny’s gut clenched and twisted, yanking at his heart and his thoughts. He considered his reply, made up his mind and opened his mouth to say ‘no’.

“What’s the name of the ranch that it’s been sold to?”

“It’s the Conway place, near Morro Coyo.”

“Fine,” his contrary mouth betrayed him. “I’ll head out at first light tomorrow. I’d like to finish off with a few of the mares today, if that’s OK?”

“Yes, good idea, Madrid. I’ll get the papers all organized so that you have the bill of sale ready in case you are challenged by any over zealous sheriff. And I’ll make sure that you have enough funds for your expenses.”

“I’d be much obliged,” Johnny’s traitorous tongue replied, further leading him in a direction his brain told him he should be avoiding like the plague. If he had any common sense, that is. But his common sense seemed to have deserted him too much lately. What the hell was he doing working on a ranch anyway? Six months ago he could not have imagined anything more ludicrous. He was no rancher as much as he had been trying to make himself and everyone else think so. Subterfuge was something that Madrid was good at and it had saved his butt more than once in his life. But how long was he going to kid himself that he could turn his life around? Long enough, it seemed to accept this new chore handed his way.

Watson nodded a curt goodbye, sealing the arrangements.

Johnny nodded back absently, wondering why he was suddenly no longer in charge of his life. He had made his own decisions since the age of eleven and here he was accepting decisions made for him, which he knew were going to lead him to dangerous ground. Rocky, uncharted territory with a high probability of landslide was Johnny’s guess.

In his mind, he decided to travel up, do the deal and head back immediately. Maybe if he avoided staying at a hotel and if he camped out after delivering the stallion, he could put a few miles between him and there. That way all temptation could be removed. Curiosity could be ignored. And he wouldn’t be drawn into the mistake of his life. The man was nothing to him. And never would be.

Johnny’s interest in a good breakfast waned. He readied himself and immersed his body and soul into a solid day’s horse breaking. His day consisted of bouncing saddles, thumping hooves, indignant snorting, aggressive stamping and bone jarring bucking. The noises swirled around along with the dust which eddied up from the ground and wrapped him in a blanket of familiar and comforting din.

Travis brought him some lunch, but the stew tasted like damp undergrowth mixed with soggy lumps of wood. Normally ravenous, he couldn’t stomach it. He mechanically chewed it for some minutes before he simply gave up and put the plate on a nearby plank.

He headed back to the horses. To the kinship they offered. They understood each other and he could lose the day with them without having to think of other issues.

By nightfall he was done in. He soaked the day’s grime from his wiry frame, he did his supper justice and then some, and to his surprise he fell into a dreamless sleep. The morning with its impending departure was soon upon him. Too soon for him to think about it and prevaricate. There was no time to reconsider. He was committed.

 

Chapter Twelve

Scott entered the town of Modesto tired and decidedly grubby from his two days spent on the trail. He pushed his hat up so as not to obscure his vision and to take in the amenities of the city. There was not a lot to be said for it apart from one heck of a lot of sand. The newly finished train depot was visible in all its glory and was possibly the one thing which could really put this town on the map at some stage, he mused.

At the moment, there were just the basic amenities: saloons, hotels, livery, some stores and a jail. The main thoroughfare was typical of most towns he had visited since coming out west.   Dusty main streets which would turn to quagmires at the first heavy downpour. Boardwalks offered some safety from incautiously driven carriages and ornery horses, not to mention some protection for the floor length dresses worn by the local ladies. Horses were tethered here and there at hitching rails or drinking from horse troughs interspersed along the street.  While neither a large and nor a salubrious town, at the moment it beat another night on the trail alone.

The contract was safely in his pocket, but it was too late in the day to do anything about that. Accommodation for the night, a bath, a meal and a cool beer to wash away all the dust he had swallowed along the way were priorities, but not necessarily in that order.

Scott sighed, partly pleased to have reached his destination and partly dismayed at the thought of having to repeat the return journey so soon. This was his first trip away from the ranch and he had been a little unprepared for the difficulties of the terrain. But he was determined to handle the business end of his assignment and complete the mission Murdoch had given him with some finesse. The simple delivery of a contract was easy enough to do and should not pose any problems. It would allow him to meet some of his father’s business contacts and get a feel for ranching matters.

Scanning the street, he passed through the centre of the township before he came across the livery. Scott rode Scout up to the entrance, then dismounted stiffly. Two months in the West were leaving an impression on his rump. He had got out of condition since his cavalry days, he decided.

The livery seemed well cared for. The straw was fresh and the stalls clean. He had seen some dismal excuses for stables in his time, but this was definitely one of the better.

“Anyone there?” he called.

“I’m out the back!” replied a disembodied voice. “Be right with yer!”

Scott patted Scout along his neck with long sweeps of his gloved hand. Scout responded with a nudge and snort when Scott’s hand momentarily stilled.

“Hey, boy! I can’t be coddling you all day!” Scott informed his horse as Scout blew softly in Scott’s face before again butting him gently on the chest. In his short time at Lancer, he had become deeply fond of his mount.

The two friends were suddenly interrupted.

“What can I do fer you, mister?”

The man who approached was somewhere in his sixties. He was wiping his hands on an already dirty rag which he poked back into his rear pants pocket.

“I’d like a stall for my horse for the night, please.”

“Sure, mister.”

“And could he have an extra ration of oats? I’ll pay. He’s been on the road for a few days.”

“No problem. I like to see a man who cares for his livestock. Are you staying just the one night?”

“Probably, yes.”

“Fine, then. I’ll put your horse over here. I’ve just cleaned out this stall.”

“Thank you very much, Mr …?” Scott wafted off to an uncertain ending.

“Clyde. Everybody just calls me Clyde, including the young pups like you,” responded the livery man.

Scott smiled inwardly at being called a young pup, but didn’t argue the point. “I don’t suppose you could recommend a decent place for the night, could you?” Scott queried.

“Well there are two hotels and some rooms over the saloons, but you are best to stay at the Premier,” Clyde answered.

“The Premier?”

“It’s a boarding house, but you won’t get finer meals in town. The rooms are clean and besides, it’s quieter than taking a room at the hotel or above the saloons. The hotels are right by the saloons and they can get mighty rowdy at night.”

Scott took no time to consider what the man had told him. The locals usually knew best and who was he to argue?

“The Premier it is, then. Thanks, Clyde.”

“You’re welcome, sonny.”

“See you in the morning,” Scott bade the man.

One final pat for Scout and he set out for the Premier and to see to his other needs.

The wooden steps resounded with the thump of his boots as he left the road and mounted the boardwalk. The Premier was set a little apart from the saloons, so Clyde had definitely made the right call, Scott decided. He dearly needed some sleep that night.

Knocking lightly, he opened the door and peeked in. The entry foyer was neat as a pin. Fresh beeswax had been applied to the furniture which gleamed dust free. The floor was covered in a well worn, but clean, blue floral rug fringed with golden braid. A vase of flowers stood on the hall table. Reflected in the mirror behind, it compounded the welcoming atmosphere.

“Hello?” called Scott.

“Hang on! Be right there!” The voice answering him grew in volume as the five words were uttered. The slight woman who appeared was wiping her flour covered hands on a towel.

“Why, hello there!” she greeted him as she brushed away stray wisps of grey hair from her eyes. “What can I do for you?”

“Hello, Ma’am. I’d like a room for the night, please.”

“Certainly, but only if you call me Clara. I have a perfect room upstairs for you, Mr …?”

“Lancer. Scott Lancer.”

“Excellent! You’ll find everything you need in your room including clean towels. The bathroom is behind the stairs over there. There’s plenty of hot water. We have all the modern conveniences, thanks to a dear friend of mine. God rest Bert’s soul. Nothing like a bath for washing away the ingrained weariness of the trail.”

“Thank you, Clara. Can you recommend a good place to eat?”

“Well, there are several places. The hotels have quite good restaurants and the saloons serve food, but it’s only mush. Lord knows what they put into their stews. It’s a mystery to me. I serve dinner and breakfast. Dinner is in an hour.”

“It’s a done deal, Clara! I think an hour to bathe and rest would suit me fine.”

“I’ll make sure you get an extra big helping. You need feeding up. You young men never have enough meat on you!”

“Is that a fact, Clara?”

“Yes, it is, so I’d better get back to that pie for your supper!”

They parted company, Scott bounding up the stairs as Clara made her way much more slowly back to her domain.

*************************

Forty minutes later, Scott wandered down to the parlour. It was a small, but homely room. Lace curtains provided some privacy in the daylight and deep velvet curtains, tied back to the sides by golden ropes with dangling tassels, would offer the same privacy come nightfall. There were blue and gold table lamps as well as wall brackets. He passed a casual eye over the magazines and newspapers thoughtfully provided in a basket near a corner table between two plush, deeply studded armchairs.

Scott riffled through the magazines. There were a variety of magazines to suit various guests’ tastes. ‘The American Agriculturalist’ and ‘Gleason’s Monthly’ he cast aside. Scott considered the fiction and current affairs of ‘Appleton’s Journal’, but opted for a browse of ‘Harper’s Bazaar’. The edition was two years old, being dated 1868. The article on social calls and etiquette for gentlemen had him smiling. This may have been a part of his life in Boston, but here the art of calling on people was decidedly uncouth by eastern standards. Uncouth, but the casualness of it made it warmer and more meaningful, Scott thought.

Aromas from the kitchen invaded the parlour and made Scott realize just how hungry he was. He glanced around again and his eye fell on the empty fire place. It was odd how the days could be so hot, yet the evenings quite cool. The wood basket was empty and no fire had been set for the coming evening.  A frown creasing his forehead, he made for the back of the establishment and knocked on the door.

“Why, Mr Lancer, supper will be another fifteen minutes, I’m sorry,” Clara explained.

“No, it’s not that. I was wondering if you would like some wood brought in for the parlour fire tonight?”

Clara ceased her stirring and stared at him, spoon hovering over the saucepan. “Oh, I’m so sorry! I don’t have any chopped, I’m afraid.”

Being the gallant man he was, Scott couldn’t help himself, despite the thought of undoing all the good his bath had done him.

“Would you like me to chop some then?”

Clara did not move at first, but then put the stirring spoon down on the counter and walked up to him.

“You know, people complain about young folks these days, but now twice in two months I can prove the old timers wrong. You’re the second young man to take pity on an old woman like me and to be kind enough to chop my wood. Both you boys must have been set a fine example by your fathers, is all I can say. They must be fine men.”

Clara stopped, expecting a reply. Scott licked his lips. Yes, his father, while not having the polish of Boston society, did exhibit good manners, courtesy and even chivalry when it came to dealing with the few females who had crossed his path since Scott’s arrival at Lancer.

But was Murdoch a ‘fine man’? From the little time he had spent in Murdoch’s company, he supposed he was.

“Yes, Clara, my father is,” he furnished by way of response.

His reply being granted approval, he was led outside and shown the wood heap.

Like Johnny before him, he regretted taking a bath before discovering the wood pile. Nevertheless, he chopped what he considered to be a reasonable amount in fifteen minutes. His stomach urged him to leave the job, but chivalry pricked his conscience enough for him to decide to chop a stockpile for her before he left in the morning.

Creating two piles inside the boarding house in the parlour and kitchen, he left it at that before a quick wash over the hand basin in his room. A substantial supper followed. Clara provided some lively conversation as she served him, a travelling salesman and a young family with two small children.

While pleasant dinner conversation had flowed, Scott was not in the mood to stay in and get an early night. This was his first outing away from Lancer, and he felt a need to get out of the confines of his lodgings. The saloon might help.

He still felt a stranger when it came to drinking in a western saloon. He found them so different from the gentlemen’s clubs he had frequented in Boston. There, padded leather armchairs, deep pile carpets, restrained behaviour, hushed voices and silent waiters were the norm. Business deals were conducted with murmured intensity and joviality was constrained.

Here it was the opposite. The noise and ribaldry of a saloon still jarred with the correct and proper Scott. The din was deafening at times as raucous laughter from the saloon girls scratched a groove through the strident and uncouth discussions amongst the drinkers and poker players. Furniture was serviceable and basic. No plush amenities were expected or provided. There was an earthiness to it, though, that was so much more real than what he had experienced in Boston.

Pushing on the batwing doors, he entered the saloon. Casting a glance around, he immediately considered that this was a mistake and not one of his better ideas. Still, he was here and he might bas well have that drink he had promised himself. Passing several poker games in progress, ranging from the boisterous to the quietly contemplative, he arrived at the bar.

“A scotch, thanks,” he ordered.

The barkeep leaned under the bar to fetch a clean glass. Not passing inspection, he breathed on it and then polished it with a rag lying on the counter. Scott cringed and considered changing his order, but it was already too late as the barkeep plonked the glass in front of him.

Almost nauseous, Scott stared at the smudged glass and its golden contents.

« Get a grip », he admonished himself, before depositing some coins next to his drink.

Nearly gagging, he took a sip, then another.

« Heck, » he pondered, « Alcohol can clean wounds, so it sure as hell should be able to clean a measly glass! »

A bare arm intruding onto his counter space interrupted his ruminations. This arm was bare right to the shoulder, where only thin straps held up a daringly low bodice revealing almost all of a delightfully feminine décolletage.

It was some moments before Scott’s eyes recovered enough from the pleasure of seeing her cleavage to remember their manners and to travel up to the owner’s eyes. One beautifully dark and alluring, the other scarcely visible beneath puffed up, discoloured flesh.

“Hey there, handsome! You look mighty lonely. You’re new to town, ain’t ya? I’m real good at makin’ people feel welcome in this here town.”

“Yes, I am, and I’m sure you could, Miss.”

“Maybelline.”

“Miss Maybelline.”

“And you are?”

“Scott.”

“Howdy, Scott. Ain’t nothin’ worse than bein’ alone in a new town. I could keep you company tonight, if ya want.”

“That’s very kind, Maybelline, but I’m not looking for company tonight.”

“Maybe you ain’t yet, but perhaps I could change your mind.”

Maybelline reached for Scott’s forehead and lightly brushed some stray strands of hair to one side. Her cheap perfume assailed his nostrils and, sadly for her, did not have the desired effect. Flashes of deep blue whisked past his eyes as she withdrew her arm. Quickly, but gently, he seized her wrist and pulled it to straighten her arm. The bruising was livid and undoubtedly caused by being held in a tight grip. Her split lip and black eye were the result of far more than a tight embrace, he realized.

“What happened to you?” he enquired softly.

Lowered eyes hid some of her discomfort from his view, but her blushing cheeks and fidgety hands told him what her eyes did not.

“Nothin’,” was her unhelpful reply.

“It looks like that nothing packs a powerful wallop.”

An uncomfortable swallow was her only comment.

“Is he still around here?” Scott pursued.

“I don’t know. The sheriff let him go.”

“What!”

“Yeah, well, he was stopped before he could … well, you know, so the sheriff decided that he couldn’t hold him.”

“But this is assault!”

“One of the perks of the job, as they say.”

“But your …er, job … doesn’t mean that you can be a punching bag for every bully who comes your way.”

Her sigh was heartfelt. “Well, it just comes with the trade. I gotta expect it, I guess. It could have been so much worse, so for that I’m grateful at least.”

“So the sheriff stopped this brute from attacking you?”

“Nah! He sticks mighty close to his desk and his coffee pot. He don’t go lookin’ for trouble and if he stays behind his desk often enough, he hopes it won’t see him.”

“So what happened?” Scott prodded, infuriated by a tale of yet another lazy sheriff not doing his job and compounding the lawlessness of this country. If the sheriffs had some backbone, then just maybe the state could be made safer for all its citizens.

“One of the customers wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He followed me and dragged me into an alleyway. If it weren’t for a couple of local ranch hands, he’d have … well, you’re a man of the world, so you know what would have happened.”

Scott knew all too well, but didn’t wish to dwell on the subject. It had happened too many times during the war. Happening upon one such act of bestiality, he had been seized by a rage he did not know he could possess. He had no time for men who could not respect women and he had even less time for those who inflicted their carnal needs on the weaker sex.

“I’m sorry for what happened to you. Really sorry.”

His honest and heartfelt words soothed her wounds. Maybelline was not used to such innate kindness and consideration. His concern pierced the outer shell of nonchalance she had tried to cultivate. She swallowed convulsively and surreptitiously wiped a tear from her eye as she turned her head briefly before resting it on her hand as she propped her arm on the bar counter.

Scott wished he could make things better for this girl, but he knew he couldn’t change the world’s problems.

“Barkeep!” he called. “A drink for the lady!”

A whiskey soon appeared and she took it gratefully.

“You know, I swear I don’t know what the world is coming to. You and Johnny are a right pair! You might not look alike on the outside, but on the inside you are two of a kind,” she mused.

Scott jumped involuntarily at the mention of the name ‘Johnny’. A frisson of expectation shot through him and then was immediately extinguished. The Johnny she mentioned was hardly the same man he had met two months ago.

“Just how am I like this Johnny?” he asked, intrigued by her response.

“You’re both kind. You care. Not many people do. Thank you,” she answered simply.

Scott blessed her with one of his slow, shy smiles. “You’re welcome. Here’s to this Johnny.”

He chinked glasses with her, his smile broadening as she grinned back.

“To Johnny,” she copied him, tilting her glass to take a good swallow.

Scott finished his drink and made to stand. “Well, I’m going to hit the sack now. I’ve been on the trail for a couple of days.”

Maybelline looked stricken by his words. She reached for his sleeve. “The trail can be awful lonesome and a strange town even lonesomer. Let me keep you company,” she suggested hopefully. “No charge,” she added as an extra incentive.

Scott studied her earnest face.

“Thank you, Maybelline. I do appreciate your offer, but I just want to go on back to my room alone. You’re a very pretty, and a very fine, lady. Perhaps another time?” he let her down gently.

“Sure, and thanks for the drink, Scott.”

“It was my pleasure. Goodnight,” he bade her.

“Goodnight, Scott.”

Her wistful voice followed him as he retreated through the swirling smoke and oppressive ruckus of the saloon. His bones ached for the promise of his soft bed, and just for a fraction he felt twinges of regret that he had not taken her up on her offer. He was tired, bone weary tired, though, and it was just too much effort to turn himself around.

He reached the Premier and headed for the solace of his room and the beckoning sleep he craved.

 

Chapter Thirteen

The bustle of the town centre gave way to the domesticity of homes and cottages. Housewives were hanging out washing and some were struggling with the unwinnable fight of beating all the stray sand and dust out of their household rugs. Three women were seated on a porch, shelling peas and nattering, the volume of their conversation reaching a crescendo as he passed. The giggling of two children playing with their dog drew a smile from Johnny as he delighted in their innocence. That ability to find pleasure in the moment.

Wrapped in the warm rays of the sun, the outskirts of the township faded behind him. He headed north on his assigned task. His skin basked in the heat and brought forth unbidden images of his life in Mexico and the border towns. He had thrived on that particular type of heat found further down south, but not on all of those memories. He gave an involuntary shudder as the warmth was suddenly evaporated, replaced by icy chills which froze his innermost core. Even his breathing was suspended as for a short time a myriad of horrific images whirled towards him and sucked him into its vortex.

One particular image rose unbidden, but perhaps prompted by the children he had seen earlier. He remembered back to a time when he was about ten years old. He had been playing in the village square with a dog of some indeterminate mixed breed. Not a brown dog like the one he had seen a short while ago, but a pure black one with two white front paws. It had turned up one day a few weeks beforehand, thin, hungry and looking for a friend. The two had adopted each other and for a short time he had experienced a special bond with a being he could trust implicitly, much as he expected it would be like with the brother he had always wanted but never had. He discovered to his cost, however, that happiness was fleeting. His companion was lost to him early on a Saturday evening as the sun lowered in a bright orange haze. Three men who had ridden into town that day had emerged from the cantina, drunk and mean. They then had set out to create some misery for someone else. Anyone else. And that someone had been Johnny. The men’s impromptu target practice had left the dog dead in seconds. In comparison, Johnny’s grief had never truly ended.

The whinny of his mount broke through his trapped mind enough to jolt him out of his sickening reverie. Throwing the cloying cape of memories back into the trash can of his past, Johnny looked around with a shudder of guilt. He couldn’t understand what was happening to him. Madrid had never before let the past suffocate him to the extent that he did not keep tabs on the present.

He was well and truly on his own, he realized with relief. The township was long gone and he was traversing the gentle rolling hills typical of the terrain heading north. Tall grasses were interspersed with sagebrush, oaks and cottonwood trees. He discerned a line of thicker, greener vegetation which he well knew would be sheltering water. He often marvelled that horses could sense water from so far and a smile broke his grim features when he realized that his compadre was telling him in no uncertain terms that Johnny had better not be riding past that cool watering hole without stopping for a break.

Johnny let both horses drink their fill in the stream, while he, too, took a breather under the willows lining the creek. He emptied his tepid canteen and refilled it with fresh water before dunking his head in the gurgling stream. He felt refreshed and revitalized as the coolness seeped into his flesh and bones. Shaking his head, he let the excess water dribble down his chest and back, further serving to lower his body temperature. Like his four legged friends, he also drank deeply. Then he sat and considered his options.

What he was doing was madness. He had nearly succumbed to it two months ago. Maybe that stagecoach hold up had done him a favour by intercepting him on his journey. It may not have done Scott Garrett any favours, but it sure stopped him from following that reckless path to doom which he had been following.

His tumbling thoughts came to a gentle halt for a moment. Scott Garrett. He was one plucky man for an eastern gent. There sure had been more to him than met the eye. And Johnny was still uncomfortable that he at first had misread this man so badly. He smiled, picturing the man in his dandified clothes, ruffles and all. He hoped he had recovered and was doing all right. And he hoped that Scott was succeeding in building a relationship with his father. It was never going to be all right for Johnny with his old man, but Scott and his father had a foundation to build on. Johnny silently wished him success.

His musings only temporarily diverted him from his predicament. Heading north was a mistake. There was no future for him there. He knew that, but he also doubted his willpower to conduct his business and then leave. Temptation would be too much, too overwhelming. Yet as much as he wanted to get even with his father for the contempt shown to his mother and himself, dealing with his father was only going to re-open wounds leaving a festering sore. Better not to expose himself to that lump of pus in the first place.

He glanced south, at the way he had come. The safer route. It was what he understood. It was a life he recognized. He might not have liked his life, and it may have been cruel to him, but determination to survive had ensured his survival. And control had grown from survival. Control in a precarious way, he amended with a snort.

Here he was at the crossroads, yet there wasn’t a trail in sight.  He was knocking at a door that he had closed firmly many years ago. Or which his father had closed for him. He was indecisive. This was not Johnny Madrid’s way. He had established a reputation for being astute and on the ball, capable of making abrupt choices if need be. Skillful at considering the options and selecting an appropriate path of action. At the moment, he felt incapable of mounting his horse. Once he did, he really wasn’t sure in which direction he would point it.

He had succumbed to nearly twenty years of pent up rage two months ago, but the incident with the stagecoach had hampered him in his intentions. The time he had spent in the cell had been enough for him to lasso his emotions and corral them safely out of harm’s way where they couldn’t escape again.  He had decided that he would not give in to that urge. He wouldn’t waste another minute of his life in that morbid contemplation and litany of “what ifs?”. Burying himself in the ranch work had not only helped him regain his control, but also to make inroads into changing his lifestyle. He was the first to admit, though, that it was unlikely that his past would leave him alone long enough to accomplish a transformation. But now the ranch had conspired against him by sending him up there again. To that very same neighbourhood. And would he withstand the urge to demand some retribution?

His deep sigh interrupted the horses, which stopped grazing to look quizzically at him, flickering their ears in interest. He nodded at the animals. It was time to move on.

********************************* 

Sun beaming onto Scott’s closed eyes woke him. He had pulled the blind down at the window the night before, but evidently not far enough. The horizontal gap allowed the bright sun’s rays to pierce his sleep weary eyelids, forcing them open to welcome the new day. Scott groaned, yawned and looked around the room. Shaking his head, he smiled wryly at himself. The only thing in the whole room that that shaft of light had fallen on had been his face. He reckoned that he could have stayed blissfully asleep if his blind drawing skills had been more accurate – or if he had slept the other way around in the bed. He determined to put it down to experience, before he swung his long limbs out over the side of the bed.

Scott had slept in his drawers, leaving his chest bare to the warm night air. His torso was lean and wiry. He was still thin, even five years after the war had ended. While always slim, he had never regained the bulk he had lost during the year that he had been imprisoned in that hell-hole that was Libby. Half starved and weakened from illness and lack of proper nourishment, he had emerged emaciated, but alive, from his ordeal. He did not emerge whole. The scars within and on the surface had taken their toll on him.

He walked over to the small mirror over the washstand and surveyed his unshaven face, unkempt hair and skinny frame topped by broad shoulders. Some muscles were making their presence felt, though, he decided. The ranch work he had started doing had toned him and he could swear that the odd bulge of muscle was beginning to make its appearance. His newest scar was noticeably visible on his pale flesh. Still quite livid, the purple, puckered skin branded his arrival in California. He was forever grateful to the man, a stranger, who had stood by him instead of fleeing and saving his own hide.  He was also behoven to his doctoring skills. Murdoch’s doctor, Sam, said that he could not have done better. Maybe not, Scott agreed, but at least Sam might have provided some sort of painkiller.

Scott winced at the memory and brought himself back sharply to the present. He did not bother washing or cleaning himself up. There was no point. Instead, he donned yesterday’s travel stained clothes and descended the stairs.

Once outside, he retrieved the axe he had left under the porch awning and proceeded to the wood pile where he attacked the pile of wood with a vengeance, permitting each swing and fall of the axe to assuage his pain and help obliterate the tortured memories which continued to haunt his being.

Both the parlour and kitchen stocks were replenished and an outside pile stacked neatly under cover before he returned upstairs for a wash, shave and a change of clothes.

Clara called to him from the kitchen when he returned downstairs. Her bright smile was contagious as she greeted him.

“You know, it’s the strangest thing! I went to take Clyde his breakfast like I usually do and when I got back all this wood had magically gone and chopped itself up into little bitty pieces! Now, don’t that beat all?”

“Sure does, ma’am,” Scott grinned in return.

She stopped, her wrinkled face canted to one side. “You have a good heart. It strengthens my faith in the future of this land to meet young people the likes of you and Johnny.”

There it was again. That name. Another Johnny. Just how many were there in this region?

“Johnny?”

“Yes. He was delivering some horses to Clyde and he spent a night here. A charming young man, much like you. He’s the man I mentioned last night.”

“Oh, so he was like me? Fair skinned and blonde?”

“Oh, my Lord no! He was dark, swarthy even, if it weren’t for his blue eyes. Not the same blue as yours, though. His were a deep blue, not like your grey blue.”

“So, he only spent the one night here?”

“Yes, just the one, but he fixed up a few things for me and he comes over every now and again when he can to say hello. And being the sort of young man he is, he usually chops some wood while I warm the coffee pot.”

“He’s been over since?”

“Yes, but he’s been working mighty hard at that ranch lately. Elbert expects his men to pull their weight.”

”Elbert? You mean Elbert Watson?”

“Why, yes! Do you know him?”

”No, but I have a contract I have to deliver to him today.”

“Well, maybe you’ll get to meet Johnny himself. He’s doing a fine job with those horses of Elbert’s. Getting quite a reputation, and not just around these parts. And if you do see him, say hello to him for me and tell him I’ve got some apple pie set aside for him.”

“Clara, you can rely on me. I’ll make sure that I deliver the message in person.”

Scott ate what he presumed was a hearty breakfast, but in truth, his mind was elsewhere. On Johnny. Was this the same Johnny? He couldn’t understand his feelings. Why was he actually excited like a little boy waiting for Christmas to be upon him?  He didn’t know, but he knew that he wanted to see this man again and thank him for what he had done for him. He did not give friendship easily, but if circumstances had been different, he felt that Johnny and he could have been firm friends despite their difference in upbringing and culture.

Clyde hailed him as he entered the livery.

“Hey, Mr Lancer, your horse is happy and rested, but he’s ready to get out for a run. He’s been prancing from one leg to the other wondering what’s been keepin’ you.”

Scott smiled warmly at the apt description of his mount’s habits. He had noticed the same thing. This horse was grateful to head to the barn every nightfall, but come morning he was anxious to be out and about investigating the new day.

“I hope he hasn’t been giving you any trouble?”

“No, he’s a good natured beast, but he’s getting antsy. So, you’re off for the day or off for good?”

“For good, Clyde. I should be able to wrap up Lancer business by lunchtime, so I may as well head on back to the ranch.”

“Well, I hope I see you again next time you got business back here.”

“Sure thing, Clyde. You keep clean premises and I can see that you like the animals. That’s good enough to keep Lancer business.”

“Thanks, Mr Lancer. Did Clara look after you?”

”She sure did. She’s one nice lady and she can cook up a storm.” And Scott couldn’t resist teasing, “And I believe that she brings you breakfast every morning?”

His remark hit the bulls eye. Clyde went bright crimson. A deep red which began at his neck and suffused his face. The man scuffed at the dirt, then intensely studied the mark his boot had made. He was like a little boy who had been caught out in a lie.

“We both get up really early, so she fixes me something to eat,” was all that he offered.

“Sounds like a good arrangement,” Scott volunteered.

“Yes, that it is.”  Clyde stopped, suddenly shy again.

Taking pity on him, Scott returned to the safety of business. He paid for Scout’s feed and quarters, then set about saddling him.

“Well, I’ll see you next time then,” he called to Clyde as he mounted.

With Clyde’s firm goodbye ringing in his ears, Scott turned his mount and headed towards the Watson ranch.

******************************** 

Below Johnny stood as graceful a home as Johnny had ever seen. Not the usual adobe structure he was used to, this home was stately and quaint at the same time. The land nearby was rich agricultural land. Undulating hills provided plentiful pasture for both cattle and horses. This ranch was prosperous and well run. It oozed established wealth.

He observed a man, an extremely large man, bend forward and kiss a woman on the cheek before mounting his equally huge bay and setting off in the opposite direction. The woman waved to him and turned to speak to a worker, who in turn hurried off to the barn.

Johnny swallowed his nervousness. These were not the surroundings he was used to and he would be out of his comfort zone. He guessed that he needed to stop delaying the completion his business, so he, too, could be on his way like the diminishing figure in the distance. Urging his horse on, he slowly descended the slope and made for the buildings.

There was activity around the corral, so he aimed his horse’s head in that direction.

As he neared the barn and corral, he took in the bustling business. Several hands were leading off some horses to a paddock, while three more were examining a bull in one of the corrals. Reverberating, clanging sounds told him that somewhere nearby a blacksmith was at work.

The woman he had seen earlier was talking to another ranch hand, who stood in front of her, rubbing his chin. Just who was in charge, he wasn’t at first sure, but something about the woman’s demeanour convinced him that this was likely to be Mrs Conway.

Heads turned his way as he approached. Appraising eyes took in his attire and the way he sat the saddle, then lingered on the horse he was leading.

The woman called out a greeting. “Hello! May I help you?”

Johnny doffed his hat out of courtesy. “If you’re Mrs Conway, yes. I’ve been sent by Elbert Watson to deliver your new stallion.”

“We were expecting Alf.”

Johnny’s face hardened at the mention of the man’s name. Mrs Conway’s eyes spotted his reaction, but waited.

“Yes, Ma’am, but plans were changed at the last minutes. Alf couldn’t come, so Mr Watson sent me instead. The name’s Johnny.”

“Johnny who?”

“Johnny Madrid.”

A slight pause, but only a slight one, preceded her reply. “Your reputation precedes you, young man.”

Johnny stiffened and his hand sought the comfort of his right thigh, lingering next to his holster.

“In what way, Ma’am?” His tentative question was accompanied by several darting looks around him as he tried to ascertain whether he was in enemy territory or not.

“Your horse breaking skills are becoming well known, even up here. You are making quite a name for yourself. Am I taking it that Elbert has come to his senses and hired you to assist Herb? He’s getting on some, you know.”

“I’ve never met him, Ma’am. Herb was injured, and I replaced him.”

“And just why didn’t he send Alf? Surely he can’t afford to waste your skills in the corral?”

”Well, Alf was unable to come. He was tied up, so to speak.”

“Oh, I was hoping to hear that Elbert had given him the sack. I’ve never taken to the man myself.”

Johnny smiled broadly in agreement. The lady bore the full onslaught of his restrained mirth. She was captivated immediately.

“I take it that you agree with me?”

“Well, far be it for me to put down another co worker, Ma’am. It wouldn’t be ethical on a business level.”

She nodded as she studied him. “But on a personal level?” she prompted.

“Well, on a personal level, I can’t stand the man. He’s got a lot of nasty traits that I just can’t abide.”

Johnny grinned again. This time she laughed outright.

“Ain’t that the truth! Hop on down and give your behind a rest. I’m mighty keen to check out that stallion and to see how well he travelled.”

Aggie was a consummate businesswoman who knew her animals. She checked him over, examining him from flanks to fetlocks, then stepped back to cast an appraising eye over the stallion as a whole.

“He’s a fine specimen and I see that you have looked after him well.”

Johnny had been standing next to the stallion’s head, gently rubbing his forehead and neck. “Yes, Ma’am. You got yourself a good deal here. He should do you proud.” Johnny’s eyes twinkled with amusement, before adding, “And those mares over there as well!”

She smiled smugly. “On looking at him again, I think he is even a better bargain than I had originally thought. I just wish Murdoch had stayed to see him.”

Johnny’s vision clouded. Movement froze around him as his heart seemed to stop. His breathing stilled but his ears still distinguished a blurred cacophony of noise: voices calling, horses nickering, cattle lowing, metal being struck, boots scuffing the dirt. The sounds zeroed in on him until his ear drums were bursting with the buzz and thrum of the surrounding activities. They paralyzed him as nearly twenty years of his past coalesced and swamped him.

Johnny swallowed and licked his lips. “Murdoch?”

 

Chapter Fourteen

“Yes, Murdoch Lancer, my neighbour. He just left just fifteen minutes ago. What I wouldn’t give to see the look on his face! I beat him to this stallion and he is rather put out!”

“He wanted the stallion?”

“Yes, but I moved quicker than him. He was going to send his son down to check it out, but he was too late.”

His ears continued to buzz and vibrate as a strange noise composed of nothing but shock grew to a crescendo.

Johnny could do nothing but continue his staccato questions.

“His son?”

“Yes. One of our neighbouring ranchers had seen you working the stallion and told us about it. I trusted his judgment enough to decide to buy it, but I didn’t realize Murdoch and his son had discussed going down to Modesto to check it out. Murdoch only told me just the other day and I kind of feel bad that I got there first… but only kind of. My, it felt good to have one up on Murdoch!”

She looked over at Johnny. He stayed silent, digesting the news. Aggie, however, misconstrued the silence.

“Murdoch and I, we’ve got a bit of rivalry going. Murdoch tries to outdo me and doesn’t take it too kindly when I outdo him.”

Johnny was still staring, oddly expressionless.

“So you don’t like him much?”

Oh, I do! He is a dear friend. On of my oldest friends and one that I know I can trust implicitly. A person would never find a more reliable and kind neighbour, but the businessman in him likes to get a good deal. I just love getting the better of him. And my goodness, wouldn’t I like to see his face! This stallion is a beauty!”

All Johnny could focus on was “Murdoch’s son”. Murdoch Lancer had a son. So after he had ditched his mama and him, his father had taken a new wife and had sired another son.

His stomach churned and wrenched his gut.

He should have listened to his own common sense. He had known that he would be drowned in the depths of the past if he carried out this mission for Watson. Rather than acquiescing, he should have quit the job and gone on his way. He was in dangerous waters, carried along by a mighty current, which was eddying, gathering in power and threatening to develop into a whirlpool which would cling to him and suck him under.

It made perfect sense that the man would not remain celibate all these years. He would want a woman for conjugal comfort and to produce heirs to the birthright he had established twenty five years ago. He would want a family that fitted naturally into the fabric of white society, not one tarnished by Hispanic blood. He would want descendants he could be proud of. Ones which bore his mark, not children of evident foreign lineage.

All the while he and his mother had struggled to eke out an existence, Murdoch Lancer’s second family resided on a large ranch, surrounded by all the trappings such a spread would no doubt provide.

Johnny felt sick. His stomach was rejecting this new and unexpected information as much as his mind accepted the logic of this now obvious scenario.

A protective veil slid over Johnny’s features as he digested and attempted to cope with this new situation. He gave a mental shake as he hid behind the façade of business and the tool of aggravation. He’d found in the past that at times he needed to change the course of a conversation onto safer topics so he could push aside nagging issues that he couldn’t bring himself to deal with just yet. So he let his father drop for the moment and concentrated on the job at hand.

“Yes, you are right, this stallion is a beauty! He’ll serve the right owner well.”

Aggie Conway appraised him searchingly, the young man’s overly direct comment challenging her to beg to differ.

“And if I were the wrong owner?” she volleyed back at him.

“Then it would be a shame for such a proud horse, Ma’am. A horse like this deserves respect and not just the sort of respect that comes from fear.”

Johnny’s answer was again direct and again it held a hint of admonishment that this animal should be treated well. And it lacked the amount of respect that he knew he should be showing.

“You don’t mince words, do you boy? Do you know who I am?”

“You’re Mrs Conway. You own this spread. You had the readies that bought the stallion.”

“Damn right, so why do I get the feeling that you are lecturing me about the care and future treatment of MY horse and why do you think that you’ve got the right to concern yourself about it?”

“Because that’s precisely what I AM doing, Ma’am! I like to know what sort of person buys these animals, what will be expected of them and how they’ll be treated. I guess it just relieves my mind somewhat. And I guess that I am concerned because it’s me that broke this stallion and we got a connection of sorts.”

“Let me tell you something. A lot of ranchers don’t take kindly to arrogant hired help telling them what to do with livestock they’ve purchased with their own money!”

“Well, that about explains the reaction I get sometimes, then.” Johnny lazily smiled at her, pushing his hat up off his forehead with his thumb. “Thanks for pointing it out,” he teased, the gauntlet firmly flung on the ground between them.

Her hearty laughter caught him unawares. Throwing back her head, she laughed fully in enjoyment. There were no half measures about her amusement.

“I meant what I said about your reputation preceding you. Word is that you are brilliant with horses, but tetchy if things are not to your liking where your equine friends are concerned. Meticulous doesn’t come close, I believe.”

Johnny dipped his head in acknowledgement of her comments. His smile disarmed and charmed her. “I guess I can’t argue too much about that. I guess I am fussy about my livestock.”

Intrigue urged Aggie to do the unusual. “Lunch is nearly ready. Why don’t you see to the stallion, come on over to the house and join me for luncheon?”

Johnny stared, uncomfortable about the invitation. He wasn’t used to sitting with rich folks with their fine manners.

Apparently an answer was not expected. She turned back to the house, leaving her invitation in her wake. An invitation which had suddenly taken on the form of a decree.

After discussing the stallion with the Segundo and seeing to his horse’s needs, Johnny made for the main house. He hesitated, unsure which entrance to use.

“Just up the porch, Johnny!” the Segundo hailed him. “Then along to the side.”

Johnny followed the instructions and came to a wash stand sitting expectantly on the side porch. He washed his hands and face, dried them on the towel hanging on the hook on the wall and turned to knock at the door.

It was opened by the rancherwoman, who bade him enter. The room exuded comfort and good taste. Upholstery on the seating was thick and padded, lamp shades were subtle and the long drapes at the windows complemented the décor.

“Would you care for a drink?” she offered.

Johnny was nonplussed. He expected to be treated as one of the workers and being invited inside didn’t sit well with him. Nevertheless, a shot of tequila was mighty appealing at the moment.

“Tequila, if you have it, please, Mrs Conway.”

“I do.”

He watched her pour out the drink, cut up a lime and collect a salt bowl to offer to him.

“Take a seat there.” She vaguely waved him to a padded armchair with the salt bowl and proceeded to place the salt and lime on the table next to him.

Thanking her, he dipped the side of his thumb in the salt, licked it, drank a sip and gnawed at some lime. The liquor warmed his insides and settled his discomfort.

To his surprise, he quickly relaxed as she discussed horses and livestock with him. He was further surprised to realize just how far word of his horse breaking talents had indeed spread. He found lunch enjoyable, but wondered if there was an ulterior motive behind it all. His intuition served him well as she got down to tin tacks at the conclusion of the meal.

Aggie took a sip of her coffee, ready to assess his reaction. “I told you that your reputation had preceded you.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. He shifted in his chair, but she continued before he could respond.

“I probably should amend that to reputations, plural. I know that Johnny Madrid is a gunfighter, but I’m puzzled to see him turn to horse breaker.”

“You got a problem with a man being versatile?” he challenged her.

“No, not at all, but that is a huge career change.”

“It’s just the way that things have panned out recently. If you’ve got a problem with my trade, why did you invite me in and why are you eating lunch alone with me?”

“I don’t have a problem with your profession per se. I am being up front and letting you know that I have heard of you in a non horse-related sense.”

“And?”

“And I have heard a mixture of good and bad. I am not sure what is fact, what is fiction and what is legend.”

Johnny snorted. “Mrs Conway, join the rest of the country! Only difference is, most people don’t bother trying to find out the truth. They believe the most exaggerated and the most gruesome. And they judge me on that.”

“I bet they do. But I was speaking to Elbert and his foreman Buck last month at the auction. They had nothing but good to say about you. Other people have heard about your ability with the horses.”

Johnny fidgeted, becoming annoyed at this pointless conversation. 

“And?” he enquired again, with growing brusqueness.

“I’d like to offer you a job here if you’re interested. Good pay and clean quarters come with it.”

Johnny tilted his head at her, then grinned. “Mrs Conway, you gotta be plumb loco. You don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what trouble you’re inviting in the door.”

“I’ve heard that you have a good work ethic and that you have an uncanny knack with horses.”

“And I’m trouble.”

“Not from what Elbert and Buck said.”

“Not yet. For some reason, I’ve been lucky. No one has shown up to take me down … yet! But it’s gonna happen. I can’t stay at the Watson’s too much longer or I’ll just put everyone in danger. And much as I’d like to, I can’t accept your offer. I know I’m gonna have to move on and I know it’s gonna have to be soon.”

“You’d be safer here. It’s further north than the Watson’s. Further away from where you used to do your ‘work’.”

Johnny looked at her in amazement. Then he grinned his lively grin, warming his eyes and radiating humour.  “Don’t that beat all, Ma’am. You’re just trying to wrangle me away from Elbert. All this talk about me being further away from trouble. You should be ashamed of yourself trying to bribe another man’s workers! Don’t you know that poaching is illegal?”

Aggie laughed good naturedly. He liked the sound of her honest amusement.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, boy. It’s called tactics. All’s fair in love and war ... and ranching! It’s just another friendly rivalry, like between Murdoch Lancer and me.”

Johnny’s breath was suspended. There was that name again. That name he could have and should have avoided by not delivering the stallion.

But that name was like a cattle prod, poking, pulling and pushing him in a direction he did not want to take. He felt corralled in a pen, with his back against the fence and the only way out was to charge.

So, he took a breath and asked the question he had been avoiding all through the meal.

“So, have you and Murdoch Lancer been butting heads for long?

“Oh, over twenty years. But we don’t butt heads, as you put it. We just like to outdo each other on occasion.  We are actually dear friends and he has been like a rock to me since my husband died.”

Johnny couldn’t resist continuing to fish for information. “I heard that he was one difficult person to deal with?”

“Heck, no! His gruffness is just a façade. He is just pernickety about the way that things are done. There’s the Murdoch way and there’s the non-Murdoch way. And it doesn’t take a genius to work out which way he thinks is right! He is a stubborn man, but a fair man. His life has just been so darned empty without his offspring at his side, so I suppose life’s challenges have hardened him.”

“But you said that he has a son, so how could he be missing his offspring?”

“He might have the comfort of the one son with him, but he has ached for his little boy who was taken from him nearly twenty years ago. He never got over losing that little lad.”

Johnny could not prevent some snide derision dripping off his words. “He lost his boy? How does a man lose his child?”

“His wife left him, taking the boy with her.”

A vice squeezed his lungs. That strange buzzing was back in his ears as the room took to spinning around his head.

“Is that the story he told? The excuse he gave?”

Aggie looked at him shrewdly. “Excuse? Why would he need an excuse? Those are the facts.”

“The facts as you know them. I bet his wife would have a different viewpoint!”

Aggie appeared surprised by his obvious agitation and concern over her idle comment.

“She no doubt would have a different viewpoint and her account would indeed clash with Murdoch’s. That gambler turned her head and she turned her back on her wedding vows.”

Johnny’s head swam. He wanted to strike the mouth off her face for daring to speak ill of his mother. His stomach felt heavy and cumbersome as a brick. Bile rose in his throat, threatening to choke him with her lies. Or Murdoch Lancer’s lies.

Johnny could not quite hide the venom from his words. “Is that what he told everyone?”

A frown clouded Aggie’s attractive face. “It was common knowledge. Everyone could see her flaunting herself at that no good, smooth talking devil. He would swagger around town, thinking he was God’s gift to womankind. And she couldn’t see through him and his empty promises. Murdoch was the last to know. There’s not a one of us that doesn’t feel guilty for not telling him what we suspected. If we had, his little boy would never have been abducted. He would have grown up at Lancer with his father.”

Dizziness threatened to overcome him. What Aggie had told him was at odds with everything Johnny had been told by his mother. It just simply couldn’t be true, because that would make his mama a liar. 

Johnny took a mouthful of coffee to give him some thinking time. The swig was too hot, but he welcomed the burning sensation in his mouth.

“Maybe you shouldn’t feel guilty, Ma’am. There ain’t no way a happy woman would have run off with another man and left a ranch as prosperous as Lancer. Now, a woman who felt unsafe or threatened is another matter. So, rather than waste precious minutes and hours of your life worrying that you should have warned Lancer, maybe you should be thankful that you didn’t tell him anything. Maybe she was so dang scared, she left with the first man who offered her something better?”

“Why, that is out of the question, young man! This county had never seen a more doting husband and father than Murdoch Lancer. His wife enchanted him. Everyone knew that he only had eyes for her and he worshipped the ground she walked on. It was amusing to us all to see this big, gruff, dour Scot so gentle and devoted to his diminutive Maria. And he adored his son. His eyes shone with pride when he talked about him or when he would come to town with his little boy perched all the way up there on his father’s horse, safely wrapped in his father’s arms. I was there at the time, and whatever you are thinking, you are way out of line.”

“Well, as I said, no happy woman is going to leave her husband. People don’t know what goes on behind closed doors and in the marital bed. Just maybe she didn’t have any choice in the matter! And perhaps he spread that story to hide the truth of the situation!”

Johnny’s voice had risen with fervour as Madrid’s comforting and capable mask deserted him. This topic should not have been opened up. He should not have broached this subject. He should not have probed for information so long denied him. He should not have accepted the lunch invitation. And most of all he plainly and simply should not have come back to this area, dammit!

Aggie was a perceptive woman. She considered this young ranch hand cum gunslinger in front of her and wondered just how their conversation had reached this point. They were not talking merely about Murdoch Lancer, she realized that now. Someone had hurt this boy or his mother and her guess was that the circumstances may have just paralleled Murdoch’s painful past with his wife.

Hiding behind the solace of the coffee gave Johnny several more precious seconds. Not enough time, but he pulled himself together and shelved some of her words to be taken out later. Then he could dissect and examine them, and work out just how putrid his father’s lies to his mother had been.

Aggie decided to fish for more information to find out just where this man was coming from.  ”Just what is your interest in Murdoch Lancer?”

Madrid’s ice curtain descended over his eyes, creating an impenetrable shield. He cut off the topic of conversation, coldly and expertly.

“I have no interest in Murdoch Lancer at all. He’s your neighbour, not mine, and I don’t recall ever meeting him. He’s nothing to me whatsoever.”

Aggie noticed the change in his demeanour. The way he receded. The way he became aloof from the subject of their conversation. And she felt for this man who was suffering in some way. Aware that something in Murdoch’s history reminded the boy of some inner pain of his own, she tactfully changed the subject, reverting to her original offer.

“Well, that’s a relief, because I wouldn’t want someone as talented as you going to my opposition. So will you consider my offer at least? The pay’s good. The bunkhouse is clean. The food is excellent. We run a top team here.” She couldn’t resist adding, “Whatever you’re earning with Watson, I’ll increase it.”

Johnny’s ice masquerade thawed under the gaze of this attractive, in a mature sort of way, and charming woman. She was shrewd and she knew a good deal when she saw one.

He gifted her with one of his crooked, idiosyncratic smiles. The sort of smile which could burst a woman’s corset strings and warm her body in the most private and surprising places. The smile that defused and enticed. The smile that poured balm on troubled waters. The smile that engaged those who tried to deny the compassion of the man beneath the armour.

“I’ll think on it, Ma’am, but I had been thinking that it might just be time to head further south.”

“Why would you want to do that? It’s lawless down along the border. Life here is becoming more civilized and settled. A man can have a future here. An increasingly safer future. He could settle down and bring up his family here with the assurance that he would be creating a birthright for his children.”

Birthright. The word mocked Johnny. The birthright he was kicked out of. The birthright he should have grown up to love and manage. The birthright which should have afforded him a modicum of respect, unlike the reality which marred his real past.

Johnny swallowed. He swallowed her unfortunate choice of words and shut his mind to the repercussions of letting his thoughts roam over dangerous ground. Just a few simple sentences and he could be out of there.

“Yes, there’s no denying what you say, but it’s the south I know better.” His charismatic smile lit his features again, acting as a diversion from his true inner turmoil. “And, besides. Ma’am, I can’t see myself settling down with children any time in the near future.”

“Well, if ever that blessed state falls to you and you want a steady job, you know where you can come,” Aggie promised.

Johnny took this as his signal to depart.

“Ma’am …”

“Aggie,” she admonished him.

“Aggie, thanks for the lunch and you make sure that you look after that stallion, OK?”

“Thank you, Johnny. It’s been a pleasure to get to know the man behind the name.”

Johnny quirked his eyebrow, seeking clarification.

“Both the horse breaker extraordinaire and the gunfighter,” she amended.

“It’s been a pleasure, Aggie. I’ll see you around maybe. Thanks for lunch.”

“The pleasure’s all mine. Bye!”

Johnny nodded, then tilted his head back so his hat could capture his wayward locks and contain them away from his eyes. Planting his hat firmly on his head, he set off for his horse and an escape from persistent niggling questions which this lunch had evoked.

A final check of the stallion and a few words to the Segundo were the only delays before Johnny gratefully mounted his horse and fled this place which aroused in him such disconcerting imaginings.

The hour it took for him to reach Morro Coyo constituted nothing but a blur for him. A miasma of feelings swirled through his heart and mind, but the sixty minutes or so sitting in the saddle did not provide any enlightenment from the morose thoughts suffocating him.

His arrival in the town surprised him and was like a slap in the face. It was a wake-up call to him that he needed to get his mind out of the past and into the present. He needed to focus on his surroundings for his own safety and just maybe dredge up his Madrid persona if he was going to make it back in one piece.

The cantina appeared, step by equine jerky step closer, beckoning him in. A shot of tequila to calm him down and he would be on his way. Wearily pointing his steed to the left, he was soon at the hitching rail and mounting the steps.

The cantina was surprisingly animated for this time of the day. Some clients appeared to be lingering over a lunch of tortillas or tamales. Others were having a quiet drink, while a poker game amongst some elderly citizens was taking place in a corner table, their gamesmanship well lubricated by alcohol from the bar.

Johnny received only cursory interest from the occupants. Relieved, he slapped a coin on the bar and ordered a tequila. He downed it fast, then stood with one foot on the brass footrail, two hands on the counter and his head down. The liquor provided a warm and soothing lining for his over wrought gut. He debated a second drink, but a calmness descended as common sense took command. He could not ever afford to have his senses dulled, especially in unknown territory. So he headed back outside to reclaim his patient horse and hit the trail for the Watson ranch.

The reins were quickly untied and he was reaching for the pommel with his left hand when his whole world exploded to the sound of his name being called. Two gunshots vaguely registered in his mind as he was slammed into the horse’s flank, his face momentarily buried in the animal’s sweaty fur. Knees buckling, he slid down amongst the horse’s hooves into the dirt of the street. He lay in the filth, agony gripping his whole being as his body convulsed into a foetal position. Shouts, the scuffing of boots on the boardwalk, feet pounding the road, horses whickering nervously and the drone of a lone blow fly zeroing in on him all coalesced and assaulted his ears in a crescendo, before fading. He took the muted sounds with him as he was insistently pulled into a black and silent unconsciousness.

 

Chapter Fifteen

The warm day had accompanied Scott everywhere he went. The sun’s rays had followed him as soon as he mounted up that day, swiftly entering through the fibres of his coat and shirt. Shimmering sage bush and oak trees had lined the paddocks and hills on each side of the track he had taken. He had been assaulted from above as well by that fireball in the sky, and had it not been for his hat, his scalp would have been fried long ago. This was the same sun under which he had grown up in Boston, but it didn’t seem possible. He never remembered the sun attaining that firepower in Boston. A firepower capable of singeing the hairs off a man’s head and boiling the brains beneath. 

So it was with an immense relief, coupled with a deep frustration, that Scott rode into town late that afternoon. He had fulfilled his father’s mission by delivering the contract, but had left in unseemly haste. Common business sense instilled in him by his grandfather urged him to linger, to chew the fat and to look for any opportunities he could take advantage of. But on verifying that the name of the Watson’s horse breaker was indeed Johnny Madrid, Scott had just wanted out. He remembered back to his conversation with Johnny: “Yeah, Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, gun hawk, pistolero. Take your pick.” Johnny Madrid, now turned horse breaker, had worked there at the Watson’s and he had missed him by a day.

His own desire to see Johnny again, and to not let this lead run cold, had pushed him out the door with a speed which was only a vaguely polite. He knew the Conway’s ranch and he had hoped that he could find Johnny before he headed back south to the Watson spread.

The sun’s power was abating when he arrived back in town and he could taste the beer he was about to consume. But while relieved to be back, he also felt an extraordinary dissatisfaction in having missed out on seeing Johnny after all. After two months, he had finally got so close, but it had been a let down. Mrs Conway had told him that Johnny had already left. He had missed Johnny by only thirty minutes. He had missed his chance forever. Mrs Conway informed him that Johnny had gone and was heading south, possibly not even back to the Watson ranch. A very vague south and a very vast destination. Once again, Johnny was moving away out of Scott’s life. A long way away. And the fruitlessness of any pursuit weighed heavily on Scott.

He had still never got the chance to thank this man for coming after him and saving his life. And he felt strangely bereft at this omission.

Scott glanced around the township. Several wagons were trundling down the main street. The sight of ranchers loading supplies onto the backs of buckboards and the laughter of women walking down the boardwalk greeted him with friendly familiarity.

His eyes fell on the saloon, so he gave a gentle tug of the reins to direct his horse towards the welcoming bar. As he did so his glance strayed to the cantina further down the street. What he saw froze his whole frame.

Johnny! He was positive that it was him. Johnny was approaching his horse and untying the reins. Scott couldn’t believe his good luck. If he had arrived in town a minute later, he would have missed catching up with him.

Scott lifted a hand to wave and took a breath to call out, but at the same instant he saw a movement to the left, from behind a barrel placed at the entrance to an alleyway. The glint of a gun and the emergence of a man’s head and shoulders were visible to Scott from his vantage point on his horse. As Scott’s mind processed this, he was instantaneously aware of the man’s intended victim.

Scott shouted and drew on the man simultaneously. He was no stranger to guns, his stint in the war assuring that fact, and he was fast, but he was not quick enough to prevent the man from firing. Scott’s bullet hit the mark, but fractionally behind the bullet which caught Johnny unawares to plough into his back.

The horrific image of Johnny slumping down into a boneless heap onto the street and half under his horse bored into his eyes and seized his lungs in a vice.  That this sight was virtually duplicated by the assailant at the mouth of the alleyway was little comfort to him. It did, however, galvanize him into action. He dismounted and raced up the street, firstly to check that the gunman posed no more threat, then more slowly on to Johnny. He dreaded what he might find.

He reached him before any other onlookers braved the scene. Johnny’s back was a mass of bright red blood, which was blossoming all over his clothes and already pooling underneath him.  He gently rolled him over to check for an exit wound. None was visible. Johnny was already unconscious, but not, as Scott had first feared, dead. His heart still beat in his chest, but it wouldn’t do so for long if Johnny continued to lose blood at the rate it was streaming out of his back.

Tearing off his shirt, Scott bunched it up to make a wad to pack the wound, all the time screaming for the onlookers to stop gawking and fetch Sam.

Staunching the wound as best he could, Scott sat in the dirt and held him, watching out for him much as Johnny had done two months previously. And he prayed. He prayed that Sam could perform a miracle, so that Scott could deliver his overdue thanks in person.

The excited murmuring of the locals eddied around the two men, but Scott was in too much of a daze to take in individual comments. It was only Sam’s arrival which broke him from his reverie.

The injured man was brought inside and laid on Sam’s examining table as Scott briefed him on what had transpired. Sam was terse with concentration as he ordered everyone out except Mrs O’Malley, his part time assistant who also cooked at the hotel and cleaned the jail.

As Scott left the examining room, he grasped Sam’s arm.

“Please, Sam. Do your best. Johnny’s the one who saved me when the stage was held up. I owe him and I sure would like to thank him.”

Sam looked into Scott’s eyes, and he saw more than a debt requiring repayment.

“I’ll do my best. You can be sure of that, son.”

Scott closed the door behind him, the click of the handle a decisive sound as the door left him in quiet solitude. A sterile peace abandoning him to the mercy of remembrances. Flashes of Johnny on that day of the hold-up flitted through his consciousness. Johnny smirking when he dusted off Scott’s clothes, menacing the passenger who accused him of killing his horse, smiling with derision at the lady’s entrancement with Boston life, the total focus when they were under threat, his chivalry when the lady was pistol whipped, frowning with concentration as he dug out the bullet and grinning that easy grin which slid out unexpectedly to lighten up his whole face and to make his eyes dance with teasing mischief.

Sam had to fix him up. He just had to.

************************************  

Johnny knew he was in trouble, but he couldn’t summon the energy to get going and to take off. His back was on fire and he could not stay alert long enough to work out the details of what had really happened. He figured out that he was at the doctor’s, but disorientation dogged him when he tried to get himself under some form of control. Too often he felt some clarity tempt him, only to have it wash away as a strange warmth flowed through his veins, sweeping his alertness away along with the tide.

A voice would at times lure him, but the bait was evidently not enticing enough to shake off the cocoon which buffered him from the all too intense pain whenever he thought he just might try to investigate the situation further.

The voice was foreign to his ears, yet at the same time familiar in an odd way. But he was too weary and too sore to even try to work that one out. So that, too, just got filed away for later when the wildfire scorching a path through his back burnt itself out.

This worried him in his sometimes semi conscious state. He really felt that he ought to make more effort. He was sure that he normally would. He couldn’t put a finger on why he was not fighting harder to rouse himself. But, oddly, he didn’t seem to think that it mattered as much as it normally would.

But why? That niggled at his dull brain as well. Just why didn’t it matter so much at the moment? Why did he feel that he could let his guard down just a little? Or a lot really, if he thought about it. He didn’t know. It was simply all too hard and confusing. For once in his life, however, he just thought it was all right to succumb to the pain and the all encompassing tiredness.

So he slept a sleep of sorts. A sleep full of contrasting and jarring images. A sleep that lulled, then threatened, then soothed. A sleep filled with images of smoking guns, bodies falling dead before they hit the ground, fists thrusting into his face and body, the gnawing hunger pangs and the embrace of fiery tequila scorching his innards. All in all the hell clinging to his being, only tempered by his Mama’s gentle lullabies or the comfort of soft flesh yielding in the lamplight, which offered a short respite of solace from the vicious outer world. And finally there was that intermittent deep voice with which he had shared a fleeting companionship.

***************************  

Scott lay sprawled in a hard chair, the uncompromising back of which was scarcely softened by the cushion he had wedged between the wooden frame and his backbone. His long legs were casually flung forward under the side of the bed and his head was propped on one hand, which in turn was supported by his elbow. An elbow that protested the discomfort forced on it as the bone was rammed into a decisively resistant surface. The skin on his face was scrunched up and pushed askew by his fist, so his features appeared marred. One side of his face was dashingly handsome, with smooth skin taut over high cheekbones and a strong chin, the other side was reminiscent of a chimpanzee face, chimpanzee lips protruding and puckered into an O shape.

He watched the increasingly rapid movements of the patient’s eyelids. Johnny’s chest was heaving, less with the exertion of a sick man breathing, but more the desperate sounds of someone under duress.

Then came the words. Much of it in Spanish, peppered with sections in English. Whatever was happening in Johnny’s dreams, it wasn’t good and they offered no safe haven.

And Scott’s gut churned with the familiarity of it all. Of the men drowning in nightly nightmares in Libby and of his own sweat drenched torture each night. The gruesome memories which didn’t let go, but continued to fester, infecting even his waking thoughts and contaminating the pleasure of being alive to enjoy another day.

Johnny twitched and then started to toss around. Enough, Scott decided. His stitches would be ripped out in no time if he started that behaviour. So, he leaned forward and gently spoke to him, coerced him and dragged him back to the relative safety of Sam’s sick room where he could maybe chase those demons away from Johnny for a time.

“Johnny! Come on! Open up those eyes. It’s all right. Whatever you are thinking about, it’s all right. I’m here and no one’s going to hurt you while I’m on guard duty. Wake up! I’ve been wanting to talk to you for months. You don’t want to disappoint me, do you?

The abruptness with which Johnny opened his eyes startled Scott. He jumped a little, then smiled at his own nervousness. But simultaneously he tensed as he recognized Johnny’s fumbling for what it was. Of course, he should have expected a defensive move.

“Your gun is there, hanging on the bedstead.”

Scott smiled wider as he saw that Johnny was looking at him. Not vacantly now, but with some awareness.

“Scott!” Johnny breathed in surprise.

“Hey, Johnny! Good to see you again. You’re an elusive man.”

Johnny smiled wanly in acknowledgement.

“You really won’t need your gun,” Scott added. “I’m on watch, and I’ll make sure no one gets near you. Except Sam, of course.”

“Sam?”

“The doctor.”

“Uh huh.”

Johnny studied Scott for a minute. He tried to move to a more comfortable position, but was frozen by the sheer agony of it all. Unable to disguise the pain, he groaned.

“Keep still,” Scott admonished him, “Or you’ll tear out the stitches Sam put in. Here, take a sip of water.”

Scott held Johnny’s head so he could drink some of the cool water.

Johnny sniffed it suspiciously.

“There’s nothing in it. Sam said that when you woke up, I was to see if you could manage without anything for a while. It’s plain, unadulterated water. I don’t know whether it’s from a spring or a well, but it’s pretty good stuff.”

“Thanks, Johnny murmured. “That feels good.” He swallowed some more. “It’s good to see you again, Scott. You look recovered,” he added as an afterthought.

“I am, thanks to you. You’ll be pleased to know that you’re heading in the same general direction.”

“So, did you dig the slug out of me or did the doc?”

“The doc.”

Johnny nodded then grimaced at the pain caused by his movement.

“Is he a good doctor?” Johnny asked, before hastily adding, “Not that I’m all that fussy!”

“Yes, he’s got a good reputation and he’s a decent man.”

Johnny nodded again, then moaned as the fire in his back continued to rage. He took a steadying breath before studying his visitor, who was more tanned and casual in appearance than when they had first met.

“Do you know who shot me?” he asked.

Scott was flabbergasted. It had not dawned on him that Johnny may not have known who had come gunning for him. And he realized guiltily that Johnny had been mostly unconscious when they had discussed the issue in front of him.

“It was a man named Alf. Does that mean anything to you?”

Johnny took a deep breath and nodded, before adding a quiet “Yeah.”

“Who was he?”

“Was?”

“Yes, he’s dead.”

Johnny nodded grimly.

“We worked on the same ranch and he didn’t like me much. He wanted the chief horse breaking job, but they gave it to me. And then just before I left, he attacked a saloon worker in an alley. A friend and I intervened and he was locked up. That’s why I’m here. He was supposed to deliver the stallion I brought up with me. How’d you know who he was?”

“He had been in the saloon playing poker earlier on, apparently. He gave his name.”

“Who shot him? The sheriff?” Johnny asked.

Scott looked bashful and dipped his head for a moment before raising his eyes to meet Johnny’s.

”Well, I was in front of the saloon and saw you. I was just about to go over to you when I saw him pull his gun to shoot you. Unfortunately, he fired before I did. I’m sorry I wasn’t faster.”

Johnny gazed at him, his eyes appraising him.

“Are you telling me that it was you who killed him?”

“Yes.”

“Boy, you sure are full of surprises. So how many shots did you take? I only heard the two before I passed out.”

“One.”

Johnny gave a silent whistle, then a rakish smile blazed across his facing, lighting his eyes.

“As I said, full of surprises. A man would need to be real careful around you. I thought that the gun I see on your hip was merely decoration!”

“Well, my father has been drumming it into me that a man is naked hereabouts without one attached to one’s pelvis.”

“Ain’t that the truth. You must be a quick learner!”

“I have my moments.”

Johnny closed his eyes a moment as a wave of pain took his breath away. When it receded he looked back at Scott.

“Hey, Scott, I’m really happy for you that you got that chance to be with your pa.”

Scott considered his answer, wiping his hand over his chin.

“I wouldn’t have had it if you hadn’t risked your neck for me. I didn’t get the chance to say this earlier, so thank you, Johnny. Our relationship is still in its early stages, but I am finding that I like the man. He’s a hard man in some ways and he’s a hard worker who expects hard work from his employees … and his son, but I think that there is more to him, and each day I am beginning to see that his bark is worse than his bite. He’s a man I can respect, and that’s important for me.”

“I’m mighty pleased for you, Scott. I just wish I’d known about his bark. It seemed pretty vicious to me.”

“When did you meet?”

“Just before they found out they were holding the wrong Mexican, he came to see me in jail. He thought I’d shot you and he wanted a look at the scum who had done it.”

”Oh, I see,” Scott mused. “So he wasn’t at his gentle best then?”

That brilliant smile was aimed directly at Scott.

“Nope, gentle is not what I have in mind to describe him! Now, big, that’s more accurate. He is one big man. He just about had to duck to get under the doorway. How did he manage to have a shrimp like you?”

Scott’s deep baritone laugh rang out. “I do feel like short shanks next to him, I can tell you. And he uses that height as a tool. He’s very good at dominating a room by using his height to give him an advantage.”

“So, he likes being in control, huh?”

“Yes, he does. That’s what is so annoying at times. He knows what he wants and how he wants it done. And it turns out that he’s usually right. It would be nice to think he is fallible somewhere along the line.”

“Never met a man yet that was infallible. I guess you’ll just have to stick around and find that crack in his armour. If you look hard enough, you’ll find something. It will have been there all along and you’ll wonder why you never saw it. Nothing and no one is perfect.”

“I didn’t say he is perfect. Far from it. He’s a tough old bird, though. Guess he’s had to be out here.”

“Yeah, it’s tough here, but the West seems to agree with you, Scott. You’ve got some colour in you.”

“Yes, it does. I’m bone tired all the time, but I feel good after a day’s work, you know?”

“So you’re staying?” 

“For the moment, yes. I still have a few questions I want answers to. He’s not what I expected and there’s still a lot to find out about him.” Scott rubbed the back of his neck before sheepishly adding another reason. “I confess that I actually quite like it here, too. So, yes, I think I’ll stay on for a bit.”

Johnny nodded in understanding, but winced as the movement seemed to cause some discomfort.

Scott studied Johnny, wiggled into a more comfortable position on the chair and then folded his arms over his chest.

“Well, that’s me taken care of, so let’s get down to you! How do you feel?”

“Fine.”

“Oh, yes, I can see that! You’re paler than I am, and I don’t recall that being the case two months ago. Here’s a rundown of your condition, for your edification. You’ve had a bullet removed from your back, in which you have stitches. You bled like the Mississippi in full flood, and you’ve pretty well been unconscious for two days. Yep, I’d say you’re ready for a showdown on Main Street or celebrating a night on the town, whatever takes your fancy the most!”

“I’ve been worse.”

Scott leant forward and peered into his eyes. “By the scars on your body, I can see that that is the all too sad truth.”

Johnny’s face closed over, like a shutter pulled down to protect dwellers from the probing sun’s rays.

Scott twisted around sideways and poured another glass of water.

“Here, have some more of this.”

Lifting Johnny’s head carefully with one hand, he tilted the glass so that Johnny could have little sips. Finally, his thirst slaked, Johnny shook his head.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’ve had some laudanum, haven’t I?” Johnny asked.

“Yes, and some morphine.”

“I don’t want any more, understand?”

Johnny’s agitation surprised Scott.

“Well, I guess that’s up to Sam to decide.”

Johnny’s harsh tone interrupted, “No! I said no more!”

Scott was taken aback at Johnny’s vehemence, but thought he could mollify him with a compromise.

“I’m just going to heat up some willow bark tea, then. Sam DID say that I was to get some of that into you. You are still a little hot and it will help protect you from fever.”

Johnny’s groan stopped him as he turned away.

Scott leant over him anxiously.

“Is it bad?”

“Yeah, willow bark tea is real bad! You ever tasted it?”

Scott laughed, a full bellied laugh. Johnny turned his head back and regarded the Easterner. He liked his ability to guffaw unrestrained.

“Oh, yes! I had the pleasure of tasting that particular concoction as I recuperated from the hole caused by that slug you removed from me. Indescribable muck. Similar, to a mixture of cow pats blended with hog’s breath. With a touch of cowboy armpit added for knockout purposes, I warrant.”

And Johnny found himself liking his wit as well.

“Sorry, Johnny, but there’ll be no escaping your fate or Sam will have my hide.”

“I could shoot ya! You could tell him you were too incapacitated to give me the tea so you wouldn’t get into trouble.”

Scott tilted his head and considered this option.

“Nope! Then I’d end up having to drink that foul brew while I recovered from the wound. You’re out of luck, partner!”

Scott exited, effectively stopping the clowning around. Johnny was flagging, despite his brave front.

Johnny lay still, drowsiness and pain overcoming him. Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply and attempted to control the spasms of pain shooting up his back.

All too soon Scott was back. Back before he could fully compose himself.

Scott was carrying a large cup of the liquid. He took in Johnny’s pallor and the beads of sweat on his forehead and realized that Johnny still had a long way to go, despite his valiant efforts of a few moments ago.

Scott placed the cup on the bedside table and took up a cloth soaking in a basin of cool water. Wringing it, he wiped over Johnny’s face and neck.

The coolness refreshed Johnny, who opened his eyes to once again study the man nursing him.

“Feels good,” he commented.

“The calm before the storm. Now for the tea.”

Johnny grimaced as the revolting drink was bit by bit poured down his throat by an insistent Scott. It was all he could do not to gag and regurgitate the lot in his lap.

Breathing hard, his eyes clenched shut, it was several minutes before he spoke again.

“How come you got the job of looking after me? Doesn’t this doctor have a nurse?”

“Well, he uses the services of Mrs O’Malley, but there is a spate of births at the moment and he needs her to act as midwife, so you, my friend, lucked out on her charms.”

“Charms? Is she pretty?”

“Pretty? She is a beauty. All two hundred and twenty pounds of her!”

Johnny found himself chuckling again.

“Well, I’m sure all those new mamas need her more than me.”

Johnny gasped as a bolt of pain lanced through his back. Breathing heavily, he closed his eyes for a minute and lay still. After a deep swallow, he began speaking again.

“I see you’ve bought a new outfit.”

Scott laughed.

“Yes, I was informed by my father’s ward that my clothes wouldn’t do, so the first thing she did when I got up and about was to drag me into town to Baldemero’s.”

“Baldemero’s?”

“Yes, a local general store that sells everything from buckets to undergarments. They must buy all the previous decade’s leftover stock from the east coast. Some of their gear could do a museum proud. But that said if you want something, you’ll find it lurking on the shelves of their emporium. It contains a veritable gold mine of treasures.”

“Like that outfit you got on now?”

“The very same.”

“At least it beats what you were wearing on the stage.”

They both smiled in remembrance.

“Johnny, you had better get some rest for a bit. The sooner you feel a little stronger we’ll get you to the ranch.”

“Ranch?”

“Yes, our ranch. The doc and Mrs O’Malley are too busy to look after you, so the doc said to give you a day or so and then to move you to the ranch where Teresa and Maria can look after you.”

“I don’t need no nursemaids. And just who are Teresa and Maria when they are at home?”

“My father’s ward and the cook. Two tiny slips of the female sex and I tell you what, you do not cross either of them. They’ll leave a man to starve if he doesn’t wipe his feet before coming in to the house, but do the right thing and they will eat out of your hand.”

Scott stopped to assist Johnny with another sip of water.

“So when the doc gets back, he’s going to check you out to see if you are fit enough to be brought home in the wagon. And once you get there you can help me find all of my father’s foibles.”

“Furr balls?”

“Foibles. Funny ways. Strange behaviours. Quirks. Shortcomings. Imperfections. Any or all of these. I need some ammunition to fire at him when he is all too smug and omnipotent.”

“Do they speak another language back east? You sure know some strange words.”

“Well, sometimes I do think that there are two separate English languages spoken in this great country. I’ve learnt more than my fair share of new words since coming here.”

Johnny fingered the edge of the blanket, a frown marring his smooth forehead.

“Look, Scott, I can’t be staying in your home.”

“Why not?”

“Because I can’t, is all.”

“Well, you are not out of the woods yet, the doc can’t look after you and so you really don’t have much choice.”

Scott stopped to examine the gathering mutiny on his face.

“I never got to thank you for what you did. I’d be grateful if you would stay. Please?”

Johnny looked at him, absorbing his earnestness.

“All right, and thanks, but I don’t think that your pa is going to be any too happy about it.”

“My father feels as badly as I do that he never got to thank you for saving my life, so we’ll both be happy.”

Johnny shook his head slowly, a wry smile twisting his mouth. A shrug of his shoulders and he agreed.

“Somehow, I can’t see that, but it might prove interesting to see if this man is as omni whatever as you say he is!”

“Good! That’s settled, then.”

Scott noticed his flagging alertness. He kicked himself for talking so much to him instead of heating him up some food while he was conscious. He decided that he had better make up for his omission before Johnny once again succumbed to a healing sleep. Scott continued, “In the mean time, you need some broth to give you some energy.”

“Broth? No, I don’t think that I could stomach any. I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not and you could fall back into a deep sleep. You need some nourishment to keep you going. You lost one heck of a lot of blood.”

Scott had stood up and was moving away as he spoke. He ducked into the kitchen before Johnny could voice any more concerns. The soup had been keeping warm on the stove, so Scott grabbed a ladle and poured some out into a mug as fast as he could. He had some sort of feeling that if he didn’t move quickly, Johnny would either be asleep or would think of some sort of semi plausible reason not to eat the soup.

Scott caught Johnny beginning to doze. Noisily setting the cup on the bedside table, he shook him gently and informed him that he would need to sit up a little. Wrapping an arm around his shoulder, he helped lift him to a more comfortable position. Johnny stiffened as pain shot through him and was unable to prevent a moan escaping. After stuffing some pillows behind him, Scott held the cup to his lips.

“Here. I thought it would be easier than eating it out of a bowl with a spoon.”

Johnny took some sips, but his heart was not in it.

“Come on! That wouldn’t keep a flea alive. Drink up!”

Wryly grunting, Johnny managed a little more before he clammed his mouth shut.

“It’s actually not bad, but no more. I feel mighty tired.”

Checking the half empty cup, Scot conceded that it hasn’t a bad effort. He set the cup on the table and watched Johnny’s eyes begin to droop.

Their peace was shattered by the opening of an outer door and noisy footsteps approaching the sick room.

The knocking at the sick room door was more restrained. Scott looked up as a head poked its way hesitantly around the corner.

“Come on in, sir!”

“Hello, son. How’s he doing today?”

“He WAS getting some shut eye until you decided to make enough noise to raise the dead!”

Johnny opened one eye, sighed and then opened the other. He had been hoping to put off meeting up with this man again. Scott might have felt that there would be no problem, but Johnny had felt the ire radiating from this man when he was in the jail cell. He really didn’t feel like having to work at being polite. This man’s attitude was the same as most bigots that he had come across throughout his life. And he had had his fill of them many years since.

“Johnny, I’d like you to meet my father.”

Johnny thought about baiting the man as payback for the resentment aimed at him the last time they had met in the jail, but he was unaccountably too tired to make the effort. Plus, he was Scott’s father, and if Scott was enjoying his time with the man, then he didn’t want to create any problem for him.

So Johnny looked the tall man in the eye, held out his hand and greeted him in as mannerly a fashion as he could muster.

“Hello, Mr Garrett. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

A raised eyebrow delineated the question, as the man turned to his son.

“Garrett?”

Scott was nonplussed for a second, his brow scrunched into wavering lines of concentration. Then abruptly, his expression cleared, and a smile graced his lips.

“I gave the name of Garrett, Sir, to the robbers. I didn’t want them to know my correct surname as you are well known around here. I thought that they might use that knowledge to coerce money from you. But they were going to do precisely that anyway once they discovered the letter I was carrying.”

”Hold you to ransom, you mean?”

“Yes, but my little subterfuge did not work. They latched on to your name like vultures around a dead body.”

The huge man grimaced. “I don’t know if I like your analogy, but that is unimportant.”

He turned to Johnny and shook his hand warmly. “What is important is thanking you for what you did for my son. He told me that you had come after him, even though you put yourself in danger. He also told me how you took out the bullet and cared for him. I’m just sorry for thinking that you were responsible for what happened to him. I hope you will accept my most sincere apology for that.”

The man’s earnest stare unsettled Johnny, but he didn’t understand why.

“Of course, no need to get your britches in a tangle. It was no big deal, Mr …?”

Johnny tapered off, not sure what to call this man, who was obviously not Mr Garrett.

“Oh, Johnny, how remiss of me. I forgot that I never got to tell you my real surname. It’s Lancer. And this is my father Murdoch Lancer.”

Johnny found himself gasping as the name tore through him like a tornado.

Concerned, Scott reached for the water and held it to Johnny’s mouth. Johnny turned his head and sipped gratefully, but not before the chill in his eyes turned Murdoch’s insides to a glacial mass of fear.

 

Chapter Sixteen

Johnny took the respite offered by the water. He was dazed and wondered if he had heard right. THIS was the man who had haunted his dreams? The man who had both cast a shadow over his life as well as shadowed his whole life. The man who had given him his life and then mercilessly condemned him to a living hell within that life.

Johnny could not process this unexpected news. He was not prepared for the confrontation. Two months before when he had decided in a fit of rage to head to this part of the San Joachin, he thought he had been ready. The uselessness of his life had eaten into his soul and he had vowed a confrontation before it was too late. Fate had intervened in the form of the stagecoach robbers and afterwards he had just wanted to get away from the area. To get away from any temptation he felt to make contact with his father. And now Fate had stepped in again when he least expected it.

He tried to get comfortable and closed his eyes to the truth standing in front of him. A low groan escaped his lips and he was surprised to find Scott immediately leaning over him. His back was agony, but his thoughts were causing him a far more excruciating pain. So he hid behind the shelter of his eyelids as he racked his brain to solve the problem he had found himself embroiled in. 

And then the pain stopped unexpectedly as a realization struck him.

A realization with extraordinary implications.

It wasn’t just a case of being confronted by his father. There was the question of Scott. Scott was Murdoch Lancer’s son. Johnny was Murdoch Lancer’s son. Didn’t that make them brothers? Half brothers, brothers of sorts, but nevertheless brothers?

Vertigo hit him even though he was horizontal. The room eddied around him and his stomach in turn was whirling around with it. Thoughts and denials swirled through his head as well until he felt like he had fallen into a raging torrent which was relentlessly tearing him apart.

Scott’s voice was calling him from the rampaging currents of his mind. He wasn’t too sure if he even wanted to respond. He did not know what was worse, the suppressed internal panic or facing the presence of the immense rancher standing near his bed.

The insistence of Scott’s voice won out and he opened his eyes.

“Johnny? Perhaps I should give you something for the pain? It looks like you need something to help you manage,” Scott suggested.

“No! I’m fine. Just a bit weak is all,” Johnny protested.

Breathing heavily, Johnny hoisted his body up a little against the backboard, vainly trying to give himself some height so he was not so disadvantaged next to this mountain of a man. Lifting his head, he met his father’s gaze full on.

His father seemed ill at ease and was shuffling a little, like a little boy being inspected by a school principal. Only there was nothing small about this man, Johnny knew. He had seen him that time in the jail, but this time the man’s details stood out as being more noteworthy than before. Johnny was awestruck by the man’s height as well as his breadth. Those shoulders would be more at home on a grizzly bear, he couldn’t help but think. And his hands were like enormous paws. And one was extended to him at that very moment.

Johnny stared at it in fascination. It both repulsed and beckoned him.

And he found perverse delight in shaking it. In seeing the man shake the hand of the boy he had disowned. The Mexican filth he couldn’t cope living with. That spawn which so revolted him that he had cast him out like some sort of leper. That seed of his loins which reminded him of his misplaced lust and impetuosity.

And as he shook this man’s hand, he let the Madrid mask descend, both to shield himself from the unwelcome thoughts assailing him and to prevent his emotions from being all too visible.

Murdoch was speaking before Johnny was aware of it. It was a formal voice and Johnny detected a note of strain.

“I need to thank you for what you did for my son.”

“It was nothing.”

“But it was. It was everything to me. I had waited over twenty years to see him and if it hadn’t been for you I would never have realized my dream. And from what Scott has told me, you put yourself at risk for a man you didn’t know.”

A moment’s pause filled the air before Johnny replied.

“Over twenty years, huh? That’s a lot of waiting.”

“Yes, it is.”

“So, why didn’t you do something about it earlier?”

Murdoch was clearly nonplussed. Scott was clearly intrigued.

“It wasn’t feasible,” he offered with obvious discomposure.

“It wasn’t feasible? For twenty odd years it wasn’t feasible? Don’t that beat all! Well, I suppose having children around sure ain’t much fun with them getting in the way and all. Plus they can’t do much in the way of useful chores.”

Murdoch drew himself straighter. “That’s not the case at all!” he protested vehemently.

Johnny had hit the mark. He could spy Scott in his peripheral vision. A contemplative Scott considering Johnny’s confrontational statements.

His satisfaction at having unnerved the big man was suddenly swept away by a dizziness which washed over him. Biliousness made a surprise attack and as he curled up to ease the nausea, his back protested sharply at the unexpected movement. Pain lanced up through his muscles and spine, leaving him gasping.

He was aware of Scott leaning over him, his father in the dimmer background. Then a door banged and a strange face was peering over him. He was being suffocated in faces. Being hemmed in was something he could not abide, but his strength ebbed as the pain swamped him.

The new face was grave and lined. Gentle hands held him back as he tried to escape the oppressive faces hovering above.

Dimly, he heard the new voice murmuring and Scott replying. He felt himself being rolled onto his side and gentle hands probed his wound. Accompanying this examination, that same voice spoke to Scott and his father.

“I need to head out again. I’ve got babies coming out of my ears, three farm accidents and I don’t like Jacob Jensen’s fever. I’ve just come back for supplies. I think that you are right, Scott. Take him to Lancer where he can be cared for. You won’t get better nurses than Teresa and Maria. I’ll call in tomorrow to check on him.”

He had news for them. He wasn’t going anywhere!

But it was all too hard. The agony of his searing wound was fearsome. Johnny was merely surprised that it had stayed in abeyance for so long. The unusually calm respite was over and the wound was now wreaking vengeance on his body.

The continuing conversation distressed him further. He began tossing to escape the pain and the plans being blithely laid out for him.

“Have you got that buckboard all ready, Murdoch?”

“Yes, Sam. I’ve put a mattress in the back so he can ride relatively comfortably back to the ranch.”

“Well, this young man is not going to be comfortable anywhere in a hurry without a shot of morphine. He’ll need the sedation to see him through the trip.”

Rustlings and movements culminated in firm hands grasping his arm. Johnny tried to yank it back, but found it held tightly in a vice before a jab stung him and that familiar warmth seeped into him, lulling him as it succeeded in dousing the agony. His body withdrew from the concrete certainty of the world around him and took refuge in a floating peace.

*************************************

Freshness. That’s what woke him. The smell of the sun. Fresh smelling material, not lingering medical odours. And lavender. He was sure it was lavender because his mama used to use it when even the cheap colognes were out of their reach financially. He couldn’t remember smelling this combination for far too many years. He was puzzled. So why now?

That very question forced his eyes open and had him desperately trying to focus and to make sense of his surroundings.

A young face leaned over him. A pretty and innocent young face surrounded by long brown hair which was pulled back from her forehead becomingly, before falling in cascades over her shoulders. And in the middle of all that dark hair was a smile so huge you could lose yourself in it.

“Good afternoon!” the young woman greeted him cheerily. “Scott is going to be so pleased that you are awake. He’s been fussing all night and this morning.”

He stared. Who was she?

“Here, you must be thirsty. Sam said I had to get both water and willow bark tea into you. Then if you can keep those down, you can have some broth.”

“Miss, I’ve yet to meet anyone who can keep willow bark tea down. If those are the conditions, I’ll never get to eat again. Why don’t we forget the tea part and just get on to the broth? Or maybe some coffee?”

The girl looked askance at him. “Oh no! If Sam gives instructions, he expects to have them followed!”

“And nobody bucks the system?”

“Well, those that try wish they hadn’t. And he knows what he is doing.”

“And you are?”

She smiled again. He didn’t know what she was so darned happy about.

“Teresa.”

“Ah, you are my … um, Murdoch Lancer’s ward? Scott told me about you.”

“He did? When?”

“It must have been when he was at the doctor’s sick room. So how long have you been his ward?”

Her face clouded over and he detected sorrow behind her eyes. Recent sorrow at that.

“My father was killed eight months ago. He was Murdoch’s Segundo and best friend. My mother’s dead, so Murdoch took me in like a daughter. I owe him so much. I’d be destitute without his kindness. He might be severe on the outside, but he’s a real softie underneath.”

“So, he took you in? Just like that?”

Johnny knew he was being unfair and he couldn’t imagine Murdoch doing any less, but this hurt. Oh, how it hurt. He could take in someone who did not share a blood tie, but could have the lack of compassion and humanity to throw him and his mother out of their home and into the streets. Or gutter, he mentally altered his thoughts.

“Well, I was born here and don’t know any other life, so I guess he just didn’t know what to do. Whatever the case, he is like a second father to me. I am the luckiest girl in the world.”

Johnny felt the bitter bile rise in his gullet. He was like a father to her? He put himself out for this girl, yet couldn’t even fulfill his role as a father to Johnny. His left hand under the covers clenched in fury and railed at the unfairness of it all. What a strange man his father must be to show such kindness to her, yet resent his own, albeit mestizo, son.

And she was born here, on Lancer? She was born here to grow up here and to know no other world. He had been born here, too, yet never got to know this world at all. He only knew the world of deprivation, hunger, racism and brutality. The total unfairness of this sliced through his heart and caused him to gasp out loud.

“Oh, dear! You are in pain. I’ll give you some laudanum and get Scott.”

“No! I’ll be fine.” He licked his lips and she recognized the signals. Turning to the bedside table, she busied herself with the water pitcher and a glass.

“Here take a sip,” she instructed as she gently lifted his head.

He sniffed suspiciously at the drink. A raised eyebrow directed at her, had her blushing.

“I said no laudanum!”

She was surprised at the vehemence of his tone and replied defensively, “It’s only a little bit. Just to take the edge off. It’s hardly any at all.”

“Well that’s all the more reason not to have any. If it’s that small a dose, there’s no point.” He softened his tone then. “I’m sorry. I just don’t like the stuff. I really just want some water. I’ve had far worse injuries than this.”

She looked at his apologetic eyes and accepted his apology. “All right.” Taking a second glass, she poured the water for him and repeated the gesture of helping him lift his head.

The fresh liquid cleansed and refreshed him.

After several mouthfuls, he shook his head. “Thank you,” he murmured as she removed the glass from his lips and set it on a coaster so as not to mark the wooden table.

“Shall I get Scott for you?”

He looked at her earnest face. It was a good face, he decided, and his conscience pricked him for being jealous that his father should offer her a home.

“You said that Scott was fussing all night and this morning. Did he get any sleep?”

Surprise flicked across her face. “No, he didn’t, and he’s having a nap now, but I’m sure he’d not mind getting up.”

“Well, leave him be. I bet he doesn’t get too much of a chance to take a siesta during the day. I can’t see his father as being the sort of man who got this ranch established and got so powerful sleeping part of the day away or allowing his hands to do the same.”

Johnny was unashamedly fishing for more information, but he was keen to glean facts from someone who had known Murdoch Lancer for all of her life. Just as he should have done.

“No, you’re right. He has high expectations of himself and the men. But he doesn’t expect anything of them that he wouldn’t expect of himself. He can be hard, but he’s had to be to survive. Yet not a man on this ranch would say that he was unfair. They are all grateful to be working here. My father always said that the pay is good, the conditions are better, the quarters are clean and the food plentiful. He respected Murdoch as a friend and a boss. And Murdoch looks after the families who depend on the ranch, especially when there is illness.”

Johnny was fascinated. So his father was a saint? A paragon of virtue? A man who looked after everyone. Everyone but his son. Sons, he corrected himself. Scott had only just arrived. What was it with this man that he could relate better to others, apparently, than to his own flesh and blood? And just what were the circumstances of Scott’s return to the fold?

“That must have been something, having Scott turn up here after more than twenty  years,” Johnny commented.

“Yes, it was the most amazing thing. Mind you, with Scott getting wounded, it didn’t turn out the way we expected, but it was still such a special day.” She paused then, to study him. A solitary tear slid from one eye and trailed a slow, inexorable path down to her chin. “And if it weren’t for you, Scott would have died and we would never have got to know him!”

Her voiced hitched, then. And further tears sprang from her eyes. Unable to restrain himself, Johnny reached up and smoothed them away with gentle fingers.

“Hey, there’s a lot of ‘what ifs’ in the world. It don’t pay to take a lot of heed to what might have been, because you only end up hitting your head against a huge boulder that won’t budge and won’t change the circumstances. Scott did come back. He might have been a bit damaged, but he’s fixed up now and he’s fine, so just count your blessings such as they are and don’t dwell on twists of fate that you can’t do nothing about!”

Teresa gave him a tremulous smile and a purposeful sniff.

“You’re right, but I just can’t help wondering sometimes.”

Johnny could relate to that. He hung his head and was submerged in thousands of the same type of ‘what ifs’ and plain ‘whys?’. Giving himself a mental shake, he attempted to put those negative thoughts out of his mind and sit up a little higher. Pain was the result and he immediately regretted his rashness. His groan of distress was not smothered in time, resulting in Teresa leaning forward and urging him to try some laudanum.

“No! Could you just help me to sit up a little?”

This she did surprisingly easily. He was propped up with some pillows in no time.

“Hey, thanks. You’re mighty good at this nursing stuff!”

A pretty blush coloured her cheeks.

“Too much practice,” she replied with levity, but Johnny detected the sadness tingeing the comment. “I’ve helped the sick hands and I nursed Murdoch after he was shot. And then it was Scott just recently.”

“Murdoch was shot?

Yes, when my father was killed. They were together. There were rustlers that stole some Lancer stock and my father and Murdoch went after them.”

“I am so sorry. That must have been so hard for you.”

“It was, but it’s easier now. I’ll never get over it, but I’ve learnt to live with my father’s passing. I still miss him dreadfully. At least there is a lot to do round here. It takes my mind off sad thoughts.”

“So, was Scott a good patient?”

“Yes, he was. Unlike Murdoch who got grouchier by the day! But then again, you removed Scott’s bullet and Murdoch has to live with his still stuck in there. He has intermittent, but sometimes constant, pain in his back and leg, but he bluffs everyone and puts on a show that he is fine.”

“How is Scott fitting in here? I mean, it sure is a change from Boston!”

“He’s actually doing quite well. He’s a hard worker. Some things are proving difficult for him, like lassoing the steers, but he’s got a lot more grit than we thought judging by first appearances.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. That suit with the ruffled shirt was really some piece of work, wasn’t it? I’m surprised he could breathe with that starched collar choking his neck. No wonder he sat so ramrod straight, all gussied and hog tied by them vest buttons and that fancy tie.”

Giggles escaped as they shared a common remembrance. Giggles that stopped abruptly at a knock on the door, which opened simultaneously.

Murdoch Lancer stood in the doorway, surveying the two of them. His dour face froze them both for a moment.

“Good day,” he greeted Johnny. “May I come in?”

“It’s your house, so I guess the answer’s yes,” Johnny responded.

“Feeling any better?”

“Some.”

Murdoch stood towering over the two of them, but apparently indecisive if his shuffling was anything to go by.

He cleared his throat. “Er, Teresa, I thought we had agreed that it was not appropriate for you to be alone in a room with a male patient with the door closed?”

“Well, he was sound asleep until a few minutes ago. And I’m perfectly safe in here with him!”

“Teresa, there are the proprieties to consider!”

A rebellious scowl plastered itself freely over Teresa’s features. “I was just about to fetch him something to eat, anyway!”

She stood up then, this little slip of a thing, and fairly flounced out of the room closing the door with what Johnny judged could be considered a slam. Being a good foot smaller than her guardian did not seem to make her in any way deferential to his commands.

An amused smile lingered on his face as Johnny turned his head from the door to Scott’s father. His father.

“So do those orders stand for all patients? Did they apply when both you and Scott were shot, or do they apply just to me?”

Johnny’s directness did not seem to surprise Murdoch. “That is quite different. I have known her since she was born and Scott is my son.”

“Maybe so, but he was still an unknown quantity when he arrived here. He might be your son, but you can’t have really known what sort of man you were inviting to share your home with her.”

“How dare you presume that my son would do her harm or not have her best interests at heart!”

“How dare you presume that I could not be equally trusted!”

Both men were angry and breathing heavily, so at first missed the door opening.

Scott glanced at both, before striding into the room. “What’s going on here?”

The silence was remarkable.

“I asked what was going on!” Scott further demanded, his head turning from one to the other, but resting his gaze mostly on his father.

“We were just discussing proprieties regarding Teresa, Scott. That’s all.” Johnny told him. “There’s nothing wrong.”

Scott was clearly skeptical and once again his searching glance fell on his father.

Murdoch finally volunteered some information, albeit by resorting to subterfuge to do so. “Teresa sometimes forgets that it is unseemly to be in a man’s bedroom. You know yourself how many times she has barged in on you!”

Johnny was surprised to see a small smile play at the edges of Murdoch’s mouth. Scott’s smile was much broader and accompanied by a vigorous scratch of his scalp as he ran his hands through his hair.

“That I do, sir! There have been some near disasters all right.” Scott then turned to Johnny. “So I’m giving you fair warning, Johnny. Don’t linger in a state of undress or you could be caught in an embarrassing situation showing all your shortcomings to her very observant eye! When I arrived she told me to treat her like a sister. However, it seems to have escaped her notice that we are not three years old. You have been warned, my friend!

Johnny couldn’t help but chuckle and he was surprised that Murdoch joined in.

Despite the shift in atmosphere, Johnny was no fool and knew that Murdoch had a problem with his presence at the ranch. While he just wanted to flee and leave his past well enough alone, contrariness kicked in. A part of him really wanted to rankle Murdoch and see what made him tick. Just for a while at least.

“So,” Scott asked Johnny, “How goes it today?”

“Fine.”

“Yes, you look fine. You are as white as that pillow. Only your black hair tells me your face must be there somewhere as well! Perhaps a more truthful account might let us know how things really stand with you?”

Scott’s acerbic response had Johnny smiling again.

“I’m sore, especially when I move. I’m hungry for some real food. Is that good enough?”

”How about some medication for the pain?” Scott proposed.

“I’ve been through that already with Teresa. I don’t need no painkillers. And that brings me to another point. That doctor had better not be so free and easy with that syringe of his next time I see him. He sneaked in a jab of morphine, didn’t he?”

“Well, how else could we get you here in comfort? It’s an extremely bumpy ride and you would have been in hell.”

Johnny’s quiet response drew sombre looks from both men. “I’ve been in hell before without anyone to help me and I’ve always come back.”

Scott swallowed, an expression of dismay on his face. “But this time you don’t need to be alone and you don’t need to suffer in hell if the morphine could give you just a little sample of heaven to help you through.”

His face bland, but purposeful, Johnny addressed Scott quietly. “I really mean it about the drugs. I can’t abide them. I would rather manage without, so please just humour me. I’m on the mend, anyway.”

“Yes, you are on the mend, but infection is still a danger.”

A rustling skirt and light footsteps heralded Teresa. “Here you go! Maria has made some beef broth for you. She’s the best cook in northern California, so even her broth is special.”

Scott assisted Johnny to sit up higher and stood back for Teresa to place the tray carefully on his lap.

“Can you manage or would you prefer me to feed you?”

Johnny looked at her askance, but immediately realized that she was only trying to be helpful, so he bit back the gruff retort he had been about to utter.

“Thanks, Teresa. This looks mighty fine. I’ll manage all right and you don’t have to stay if you’ve got chores to do. I’ve taken too much of your time as it is.”

“It’s a pleasure, Johnny. You saved Scott and you brought him back to us. Nothing is too much trouble.”

Johnny shared one of his most brilliant smiles with her. His teeth glowed even and white as the smile spread outwards and radiated up to his eyes. Deep laughter lines diffused the grin further, captivating the young woman.

If the truth be told, Johnny was starting to feel a little ill, but he couldn’t bear to show any weakness in front of Murdoch Lancer.

“If you’re sure then,” she replied slowly, lingering doubts as to his fitness to feed himself obviously nagging her. She made her exit, however, with a promise to return soon.

“Well, if you are sure that you can manage alone, we will leave you to it. Come on, Scott!”

Murdoch’s evident command took Scott by surprise. He looked up, puzzled, and was about to argue back when Johnny interceded.

“I’m fine. Honest. From what I hear you’ve given me too much of your time, anyway. You get going and I’ll see you later.”

With a barely suppressed sigh of annoyance, Scott made to follow Murdoch out the door. He couldn’t resist a parting shot, though. “Hey, eat up all that broth and we might be able to get Maria to give you something with a bit more backbone next time … and maybe a bit more spice!”

Johnny could not hide his gratitude. “You read me like a book, Boston!” Johnny produced another dazzling grin to hide his discomfort that this Easterner really did seem to read him better than most people.

 

Chapter Seventeen

Murdoch headed for the Great Room, Scott trailing inquisitively, and with some aggravation, after him. Once in the room, he did not hold back.

“What was that about? I was looking forward to talking with him. He was mostly unconscious at Sam’s and he was ‘non compos mentis’ this morning and last night!”

”I thought he might like a little privacy. That’s all.”

Scott thought that there was more to it than that, but humming from Teresa drifted in from the hallway as she rubbed some beeswax into the furniture. Hearing her, Murdoch summoned her in.

“Teresa, could you come here a moment?”

Rag in hand, she walked in, greeting them both with a smile.

“He looks so much better than he did yesterday, don’t you think?”

Scott answered her, a smile of his own playing around his lips. “Seeing he was in a drug induced slumber and totally unaware of his surroundings and therefore unable to communicate or react in any way, I would have to agree with you. Then again, anyone but a corpse would have to look better by comparison!”

An affronted Teresa swatted him with the dirty rag. “Scott Lancer, how can you be so cavalier when we are talking about the health of the man who saved your life?”

Abashed, he pulled a face. “I’m sorry, you are right, but it is just my way of expressing relief that he is not as badly injured as I first thought. When I saw him go down, I thought that my reactions had been too slow.”

“Be that as it may, we really need to look at things with a clear head,” Murdoch broke in, his authoritarian voice ringing out and breaking into their conversation. “We have a situation where a stranger is sleeping in this house. And that stranger is a gunslinger, and a well known one at that. I know that he saved your life, Scott, but I don’t think it is acceptable to have someone of his ilk here in the house where Teresa is often, to all intents and purposes, alone.”

Scott exploded. “So, it is all right for someone of his ilk to risk his own life for me, a man he doesn’t know from a bar of soap, but it is not all right for him to stay here?” He glared at Murdoch, then added, “And just what had you said to him before I arrived in the room?”

Murdoch looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Nothing, Scott.”

“I bet!” chimed in an indignant Teresa. “You gave us a look that could sour honey. I was tending to him as I have done for you and Scott.”

”Yes, but he is not related to you, and it wasn’t really suitable for you to be in his room with the door closed.”

“Oh, heavens, Murdoch. I closed the door because Scott had gone to bed and I didn’t want any noise to wake him. Any man with the ethics and bravery to save Scott is not going to harm me in my own home. AND if I may point out an obvious fact to you, neither of you are related to me either, and I didn’t see you worried when I nursed you both!”

“Nevertheless, he has a past, a dangerous past, and it behoves me to see to your security! I think that perhaps we could find room for him in the bunkhouse. That way he can still see Scott when he is better, but the proprieties can be observed.”

Scott was livid. His normally upright posture was rigid with anger. “Just you listen to me, Murdoch. This man is my friend. He saved my life. If I cannot invite people here of my own free choice then I can’t see this working out.”

Murdoch was brought up short. “What working out?”

“My being here on the ranch.”

“Nonsense, Scott! And he is not really your friend, anyway. You were brought together briefly by unexpected events.”

“Isn’t that how people make friends? Through circumstances which put them together? If you think that you can tell me how to run my life and who to make friends with, you have another thing coming! I say that Johnny is my friend. There is something about him that I trust implicitly. I don’t know why, but his saving my life is one darn good reason. I intend to offer him shelter and to see him get better, and hopefully get to know him better.”

“Look, Scott, I don’t deny that he must be a courageous man to come after you and save you, but I don’t know if we want his type staying here. We really know nothing about him or his morals. We don’t know if he is trustworthy to have in the house. We have Teresa and our valuables to think of.”

“His type? His morals?” Scott’s voice rose an octave and his voice shook with anger. He stepped forward until he stood right in front of his father, his nose just inches away and his index finger jabbing him in the chest. “I’ll tell you what his type is. He tried to get the robbers’ attention away from one of the women passengers. He went after me when he no one else would. He could have stayed with the others in safety, but he put his life at risk. And how did he get repaid? He was locked up in the jail until he was finally exonerated. I’d say that these attributes point to a man who respects women and puts other people before himself. Murdoch, I have let you run the show since I arrived here, but I am my own man, and on this I will fight you. I want him to stay and I expect him to be treated with respect and courtesy, the same as you would treat one of YOUR friends. I will NOT have him denigrated. And I am hoping to get the time to get to know him better, so don’t think you can work behind my back to frighten him off!”

Murdoch was dumbfounded. He stood slack jawed and in quite some shock. In the two months that Scott had been home, he had been the epitome of gentlemanly reserve, deferring to Murdoch’s better judgment and experience. He had been mild mannered and calm, formal even, in soldierly way. This was a Scott that Murdoch had not seen before and one that he did not understand.

His son was breathing heavily and was agitated. His furious scowl marred his smooth skin as he marched over to the fireplace and thumped the mantelpiece with his hand. Murdoch winced in sympathy. That blow must have hurt, but Scott did not react.

Murdoch swallowed. He couldn’t work his son out, but the arrival of Johnny had certainly upset Scott’s equanimity. Murdoch figured that they were stuck with the gun hawk for a while anyway, so he offered an olive branch to defuse the situation.

“All right, son. I guess I was speaking out of turn. I can see that you have very strong views on Johnny. He can stay, but I am only asking that we exhibit some common sense, especially with regard to Teresa’s wellbeing.”

Scott turned to Murdoch, quieter now, and nodded his thanks. “I appreciate it, Murdoch. I know that it’s late in the day, but I’ll get a few chores done while there’s some daylight left and then head back in, OK?” He turned towards Teresa.

“Teresa, will you keep an eye on him? Make sure he’s comfortable?” Turning away, he suddenly stopped and glanced towards his father, “And leave the door open, to put Murdoch’s mind at ease a little.”

“Of course, Scott,” Teresa agreed, “But, really there’s no need and I think it’s insulting to Johnny.”

“We’re only thinking of your well being, Teresa,” Murdoch consoled her.

“Fine, but Johnny’s not going to cause any trouble. I’ve lived here amongst men my whole life and I know when one is suspect,” she announced confidently as she headed out of the room.

“Thank you, Scott, for backing me up on this, even though you don’t really agree with it,” Murdoch spoke softly.

Scott did not answer, but stared moodily at her departing back.

“Scott?” queried Murdoch. “You are looking glum. What is it?”

“Just something she said.”

“What?”

“That she had lived here all her life. Unlike me. I guess I was thinking that she has been here and experienced life on this ranch for eighteen years while I was safely interred in Boston society. And I was also thinking that Johnny mentioned at Sam’s that twenty odd years was a lot of waiting.”

Scott stopped and looked searchingly into Murdoch’s eyes.

“Yes, it is. Too long.”

“I broached this with you several times, Sir, after I recovered from my wound, but to be quite frank you merely fobbed me off.”

Murdoch swallowed. Scott thought he detected some panic surface cross his face. 

“We are overdue for that talk and we WILL be having it soon, so get used to the idea. I’m really a bit too old and a bit too tired of being kept in the dark now, Murdoch.”

Murdoch’s face was impassive, but then he inclined his head. “Yes, you are right. Perhaps when Johnny is out of the woods we could find a private moment?”

“Thank you.”

“It’s difficult. And you are right, I’ve been putting it off. I’m sorry, Son.”

That word still surprised Scott, but in the most pleasant of ways. It was a word he had yearned to hear his entire life. ‘Son’. He suddenly felt more light hearted and at peace. He grinned at Murdoch and threw a careless goodbye wave in his direction before heading outside through the kitchen.

******************************

Johnny had drifted off after his lunch, such that it was. His back was paining him and he was feeling heavy. He fell into a listless doze where he was chased and haunted by images from his past. What was new? Death, violence, blood, anger all whirled around him in a maelstrom which buffeted and sucked him along with agonizing force.

It was only when he reached a cool patch in that jumble of raw memories that he felt some peace. The freshness gave him some respite and a sense of tranquillity. Past experience told him it would be fleeting, so he relaxed and gave into it in acceptance of the brief haven it offered.

Voices and warmth roused him. Voices of people talking over him and around him. The coolness had fled and an uncomfortable heat had replaced it. A heat that he couldn’t escape no matter how he shifted and wiggled. It was a heat that emanated from his back, but radiated upwards to surround and engulf him in a too cloying blanket. He was suffocating and he began to struggle.

One voice drew his wayward attention, calming him and easing his panic.

His eyes flew open and met Scott’s, eyeball to eyeball. Sucking in air, his sea blue eyes remained glued to a paler grey blue set. Scott’s hand was on his shoulder, offering a comforting pressure.

Johnny was too befuddled to bring his thoughts to speech, but Scott interceded before he even attempted to do so.

“Hey, there! Try to relax, Johnny. You were just fighting us and it was getting you nowhere. Just a lot of frustration and one messed up bed.”

At Johnny’s continued puzzled look, Scott continued. “You’ve got a fever. Teresa said you were all right earlier, but then it came out of nowhere. She’s been trying her best with cold compresses, but it hasn’t done much good. The doctor should be here any time soon. He said he’d call in on his way home.”

Johnny closed his eyes and nodded. His body recognized the familiar reaction to infection. Damn! He thought that this was one time he’d come out on top with good medical attention from the start.

“Here!”

His eyes jerked open to find Scott offering him some water. He drank in small sips, but greedily. He was dry. Desert dry.

Scott placed the glass back on the nightstand and washed out a cloth to place on his head. A sigh of relief thanked him before the eyes opened again. Murdoch had entered the room with Sam. Sam fine, but Murdoch he did not need. He was not aware that he had groaned aloud until all three men leaned in to him, worried brows hooded over eyes perusing his flushed cheeks and sweat matted hair.

He licked his lips before he spoke. “Hey, Scott, you tell Teresa that the cold compresses did help. I was too far out of it to thank her, but I sure felt them and they helped. They helped a lot.”

Scott smiled warmly. “I’ll tell her, but you can do it yourself next time you see her. Meanwhile, here’s Sam to see to you. Behave, mind, or you’ll have Teresa to answer to and I can assure you that she is the West’s tyrant of the sick room.”  

A weak smile sent Scott and Murdoch on their way, leaving Johnny at the mercy of the local doctor.

Sam was not a man to mince words, so he did not spend time on pleasantries. “So, young man, let’s see why you look worse tonight than you did before I released you to Teresa’s care. She may be young, but she is all too sadly experienced in nursing bullet wounds and injuries.”

Sam took a long look at his face, then suggested that he help him roll over on his side. Johnny groaned and did as he was bid as much as he could, but he was aware that it was more a case of Sam pushing him than Johnny controlling any movement. Sam’s gentle hands unwrapped the wound and tongue clicking alerted Johnny to the fact that Sam was displeased.

“It’s infected, Johnny. No wonder you’re flushed. I’ll give you some laudanum before I clean it.”

“No! I don’t need it. Just get it done!”

“Johnny, this is going to hurt. Let me ease the pain.”

“Honest, doc. I’ve had worse. I can’t abide medications that make me dopey. Give it a miss, huh?”

A deep sigh marked his disapproval and heralded Sam’s ministrations. Johnny closed his eyes, knowing the routine, and grateful for once to have someone competent performing it for a change.

Competent or not, it still took some time and it didn’t seem to hurt that much less, Johnny decided.

Finally Sam bound him up, settled him back as comfortably as he could and washed his hands.

Johnny opened one eye as he sensed Sam hovering over him, and waited.

“That wound has unfortunately become infected. I’ve cleaned it out and the carbolic will have helped.”

Johnny grimaced in remembrance of the pain.

“Not pleasant, is it? But it works wonders. We have to keep the infection from spreading and your temperature must be lowered. How are you feeling?”

“Cold.”

Johnny’s flushed face was at odds with his shivering frame and suddenly chattering teeth.

“You’ll be looked after well here, Johnny. I still have some babies to deliver. I will call in again tomorrow and I hope I see you on the improve then.”

“Sure,doc. I’ll be fine. You just make sure that all those babies make it safely into this world and that their mamas make it OK, too.”

Sam had been heading for the door, but he stopped and turned to gaze at the injured young man. His lined face creased into further folds as he smiled at this most unusual patient.

“I’ll do my best, I promise.”

***************************

Sam delivered his care instructions to the Lancers and Teresa from the dining table where he ate an early supper before heading out again.

“So, what’s the verdict, Sam?” Scott asked with concern.

“The wound had become infected. I’ve cleaned it out, but it may re-establish itself. He has a temperature, but feels chilled with the loss of body heat. The temperature must be brought down, so it’s the usual routine of cold compresses and washing his whole body down if it gets really bad. You’ll need to sit with him in relays tonight as he shouldn’t really be left alone.”

“I’ll stay up, Sam. Teresa needs some sleep as she will bear the brunt of the nursing tomorrow.”

“But you need your sleep, Son.” Murdoch interrupted.

“I’ll manage, Murdoch. I intend to sit with him and that’s that.”

Murdoch’s mouth was set in a thin line, but he did not protest further.

“You know, he is an unusual man,” Sam observed.

Murdoch frowned, not sure of the context that Sam was referring to.

“In what way?”

“He refused medication to dull the pain of my handiwork, and I can tell you that is something given the power of that carbolic to inflict a lot of agony as it cleans. And then as I left his room, he asked me to deliver the babies safely and to make sure that the mothers survived. Given his own worsened condition, those thoughts are quite surprisingly selfless. There is more than meets the eye to this Johnny Madrid legend. I hope he stays long enough to let us unravel some of the mystique surrounding his mythical deeds.”

Sam noted that Scott was smiling secretly and nodding his head. Scott looked up at Sam.

“Ditto,” he quietly agreed.

Sam dipped his head in recognition of Scott’s words, before standing and setting off again on his rounds.

“Lynda Gordon will need me looking in on her, so I’ll head that way before I go home. Goodnight everyone and thanks for the supper. Maria did herself proud.”

Scott saw Sam off and climbed the stairs two at a time to start yet another overnight vigil with Johnny.

He sent Teresa off to her bed and insisted that he would stay. If the truth be told, he did not really like the look of the fever moist cheeks on the patient. He looked very ill. Coupled with blood loss, this setback could be dangerous for his friend. So he set about doing what he could. He remembered having fevers several times when in Libby. More that anything, he could remember being aware of much that went on, Aware, but too apathetic, too ill, too weak to respond. He could recall the comfort when someone spoke reassuringly to him, even when the other soldiers thought he was unconscious.

Consequently, Scott spoke in a low voice, talking inconsequential rubbish, relating amusing anecdotes and describing his new life on Lancer. As he talked, he kept a liberal supply of cold compresses on Johnny’s face and chest, wiping them gently over the burning flesh.

It was about two o’clock in the morning that Johnny began to rouse from his deeply unconscious state. He began with small mutterings in both Spanish and English. Disjointed phrases and single words which seemed to flit into his mind and flee before really forming any logical thought or connection. This increasingly conscious state saw an equally increasingly agitated Johnny begin to writhe and toss on the bed. His mutterings became louder, more forceful, more anguished.

As Scott was trying to break through an obviously tough stage for Johnny, he heard the door open. Glancing up, Scott saw Murdoch standing hesitantly in the doorway witnessing the struggle taking place within the sick man’s mind and body.

“What’s happening, Scott?”

“He’s becoming distressed and delirious. I’m worried Murdoch. His fever has spiked and he just can’t shake it.”

Murdoch moved closer, pulling the tie of his dressing gown tighter around his girth and tying the cord off with a firm bow.

Reaching forward, he felt for Johnny’s forehead, frowning at the heat which attacked his hand.

“Yes, Scott, you’re right. But I don’t know that we can do much more than is already being done.”

“No!”

The anguish of the scream cut through both men, making them jump and leaving them shaking.

“No!” he repeated. “¡Déjala sola!  ¡No la toques! ¡No la hagas daño!  ¡Por favor!”

Johnny’s face swung wildly from side to side on the pillow. Sweat beaded on his skin, forming rivulets as they coalesced and flowed downwards. His panting was raw and agonizing.

¡Mamá! ¡Abre los ojos!  ¡Mamá, no me dejes solo!

Murdoch and Scott stared at him, drawn into his inner torment and mesmerized by the intensity of his distress.

Lo siento, lo siento mucho. Era demasiado grande para mí.  Por favor, perdóname.  Traté de hacerlo. Lo traté mucho. ¡Mamá!”

This last word was drawn out in a cry of misery which left both Scott and Murdoch rooted to the spot in compassion for the man’s suffering. Their hearts beat faster as they stood by uselessly. They were unable to fully understand what scene was playing out in Johnny’s nightmare, but Scott had a fair idea. What ate at him was that they were unable to do anything particularly constructive about it.

Scott swallowed hard and looked at Murdoch in the eyes. Both men were anxious for Johnny’s well being. Whatever memories this fever had unleashed, they were not doing him any good. He was locked in a private torture chamber and they had no key.

Feeling totally inadequate, Scott galvanized into action. Increasing the cool cloth treatment gave him something to do and hopefully it was going to have the desired positive outcome he sought. He swabbed Johnny’s chest, arms and face, speaking softly but firmly the whole time to provide some sort of anchor for him. 

Unable to convince Scott to let someone else have the night shift, Murdoch brought him up a coffee, then left him to it. Three long hours dragged past before Johnny quieted. His breathing eased and became deeper and more measured. In the dim light of the table lamp, Scott even dared hope that Johnny’s colour was better. He was sure that his forehead was less clammy, but for how long? And was this merely a respite before his temperature climbed and spiked dangerously high again?

Getting up and stretching to ease the muscle cramps which had set in, he strolled over to the open window and leaned out. A clear night, it permitted a multitude of stars to shine brightly down on the land spread out before him. His land. His and his father’s. He was rich in his own right with his inheritance from his mother and grandmother, but it was this land which, much to his surprise, drew him. It was unrelenting in its demands, but it was wielding a power over him that he was unable to explain, even to himself.

It was ironic, he mused. He was already independently rich, yet he had travelled out west to be offered even more wealth in the form of half a share in this ranch. Yet the man on the bed in this room appeared to have never had anything materially. From what little Scott knew, nothing had gone right for him. No one had bequeathed anything to Johnny to make life just a little easier. Then again, he seemed to have had no one in his life to do so. If he remembered rightly, Johnny’s mother had been dirt poor.

He breathed in deeply, thankful that he had not known the daily privations that Johnny had endured. Libby had been horrific, but it had merely been one year of his life. He had always had a stable home. While he was angry with his grandfather for depriving him of contact with his father and regretful for all the missed years with Murdoch, he had been well looked after. His grandfather had had his best interests at heart. It was just a pity that Scott and he did not agree what those best interests were.

He turned and was immediately snared by two blues eyes from the opposite side of the room.

Several quick strides and he was at Johnny’s side.

“Hey!” Johnny croaked.

“Hey, yourself. Here, have some water. Just sips.”

Scott helped him drink some of the water and then laid his head back on the pillow.

“Thanks,” Johnny mumbled. “You playing nursemaid again?”

“Yes. The others need their beauty sleep. I’m good looking enough to do without, so I volunteered.”

A weak grin greeted that pronouncement. “Boy, I don’t know when you last looked in the mirror, but you ain’t a patch on the lovely Teresa. She’s mighty pretty and easy on the eye.”

Scott grinned back at the spark of humour in Johnny’s voice. “I’m not arguing with that, but seeing you are so perky, you can just eat some of that broth Sam said I had to get down you when you woke.”

Johnny’s eyes slid shut, but Scott made no allowance. “You can pretend all you want, but I am coming back with that broth and you WILL eat it!”

Smiling, Scott headed rapidly out the door with victuals on his mind. His haste did not prevent him from missing the rude gesture offered by Johnny. His grin merely grew bigger.

******************************** 

Johnny had drifted off to sleep with aromas of a surprisingly good beef broth steeped in the air. Different scents now wafted around him. Cleaner and fresher. Floral seemed to sum it up. Lavender in particular, his semi conscious state pinpointed. His life had been dominated by his senses. Even half awake, his mind was busy classifying the odour and categorizing its danger level. Nil, he determined. That had to be Teresa, unless Scott had a preference for mighty flowery colognes.

Blinking to bring the room into focus, he was met by Teresa’s concerned face and gentle eyes.

“Good! You’re awake! Scott said you woke during the night for long enough to eat. How do you feel now?”

He licked his parched and cracked lips, trying to moisturize the skin on them. How did he feel?

“A little better. I don’t feel hot any more. And I don’t feel cold, so I guess that’s good if I feel kinda average.”

“It sure is!” she commented as she offered him some water. “And if you are going to stay that way, you need to have lots of fluids. Sam is going to check on you later today and if I can’t tell him you’ve had the amount of liquids that he has specified, I’ll be in trouble. Real trouble!” Her serious face broke into a mischievous smile which had a healing element all of its own. “And you wouldn’t want that, would you?”

“No, I wouldn’t you in Sam’s bad books. So, what sort of liquids are you talking about? After all, there’s liquids and liquids.”

“Broth.”

Johnny pulled a face. “How about a tequila?”

“Not likely! Now, before I go downstairs, do you want anything for the pain.”

Johnny scrunched his face up again and thought. “Yeah, that shot of tequila would help. It has anaesthetic properties, you know.”

“Yes, I know. I’ve seen the hands when they come rolling in anaesthetized from the saloon.”

She went to the door and opened it. “Good try, Johnny, but still no go.”

The door closed firmly, the lingering humour providing a comfort all by itself.

*******************************

The day continued to be a disjointed one for Johnny. Bouts of clear headed consciousness were interspersed with naps. He was surprised each time he woke up to find that he had slept deeply. He had relaxed to the extent that he had not heard a thing as he slumbered. This worried him, as he could never remember a time when he wasn’t on guard even when in a sound sleep. He wondered if his food had been tampered with, but he reconsidered this after realizing how clearly his mind was functioning. Each time he woke, it was to find Teresa or the cook Maria by his bed. They had ministered to him calmly and efficiently, and with a kindness he had not often found offered his way.

Scott came in to see him as dusk settled its cloak around the acres of Lancer. He had cleaned up after this day toiling on the ranch and had brought up a dinner tray for Johnny.

Assisting Johnny to sit up a little, Scott plonked the tray on Johnny’s lap and talked idly over a number of topics as Johnny ate. Real food this time. A thick soup and a hearty beef stew. Johnny was not normally one for unnecessary words, but he found himself enjoying Scott’s company and chit chat. He answered the odd question and interrupted Scott’s virtual monologue with one or two of his own.

Johnny felt idly content and it was only when Scott had bade him goodnight, dispensing with a nursemaid for the first night since Johnny’s arrival, that Johnny realized just how at ease he was with this man and how right it felt to be conversing in such a relaxed fashion in his room.

The next few days were pretty much a repeat of the previous one, so it wasn’t until Johnny decided he wanted to be mobile that the atmosphere changed.

 

With thanks to Nancy Ewankov, who kindly translated for me:

Leave her be. Don’t touch her. Don’t hurt her. Please!

Oh, mama!  Open your eyes. Mama! Don’t leave me

  

Chapter Eighteen

After several days idle in bed, Johnny had had enough. Setting out to stretch his legs and get a feel for the place, Johnny turned up in the kitchen mid morning. Teresa was busy at the workbench and Johnny could not resist the temptation of that tiny waist. He pounced and grabbed her firmly, but gently around her middle. “Boo!” he simultaneously whispered in her ear. She shrieked, then turned around to find him standing right behind her, grinning hugely at his success in giving her a fright.

“What are you doing here!” she exclaimed.

Johnny started to reply, but was interrupted by heavy footsteps approaching at a run.

“What’s going on here?”

Both of them turned to the angry voice and were startled to find themselves looking down the barrel of Murdoch’s gun. The big man stood in the doorway, breathing hard in anxiety.

“I asked what is going on here?” commanded Murdoch.

Johnny glared at him, understanding all too well what Murdoch had been thinking.

“Well, the little lady is peeling apples and I confess that I was about to try to see if I could charm one of them from her on my way out to the porch.”

Johnny’s statement of fact did not disguise the challenge in the tone. He was fuming at Murdoch’s unasked question. And Murdoch felt himself once again receiving the ice treatment from those arctic eyes.

The eyes in question changed, though, when they turned to Teresa. “I am sorry, though, for frightening you. I suppose I have lucked out, then, as far as the apples go?”

His little boy wistful tone, coupled with a radiantly beaming smile was the perfect strategy for success.

She reached over to the counter and picked up a rosy red apple. Examining it, she frowned and replaced it before selecting another that passed inspection. 

“Here!” She offered it to him, returning his smile, “Although I don’t think you should be up and I don’t know if Sam will want you eating it.” Her voice became more doubtful as she teased. “He’d probably still rather you had something like some more broth or some bread soaked in milk.”

“I’m sure he would,” agreed Johnny, before cheekily adding, “But I wouldn’t!”

Johnny then turned to Murdoch, all evidence of his good humour erased.

“So, are you going to stand there all day waving that gun around or are you going to holster it where it belongs? I really don’t want another hole in my back.”

Johnny did not wait for a reply, but left the room with as much dignity as his back wound allowed.

The apple was clenched hard in his hand as he fought for control. He knew what the man had been thinking. Old man Lancer hadn’t needed to say a thing. It was there in the speed with which he raced to the room. Speed which Johnny would not have credited him with. And it was there in the eyes. The old man did not trust him.

Johnny chuckled wryly. Well that was just fine with him, because he sure didn’t trust him either.

Once outside, the fresh air had a restorative effect. A light wind was blowing hot air and some dust around, but this did not bother him. Being outdoors had always soothed him. He never knew why, but sometimes he wondered whether it was to escape the small confines of the dirty hovels that they had lived in. All he knew is that he felt good outside. More peaceful than inside. And right now he needed that peace or he just might go inside and punch his father in the gut. Or worse.

He examined the apple. It seemed to be sporting a few bruises now. A bit like himself maybe. It wasn’t very often that Johnny Madrid was not bruised in some way by life’s challenges and unjustness.

Nevertheless, he bit into it and relished the sweet tangy taste. He moved to lean on a verandah post and gazed around as he ate.  The place was busy. He could hear banging from a forge somewhere near the barn. The barn was in good nick and he’d bet his next pay that the horses were mighty comfortable inside. Fences were sturdy, cows were grazing on the hillsides and men were occupied. Intent on their jobs, but not overly under the thumb, he decided. Comfortable seemed to be the word that sprang to his mind. At ease with their surroundings, comfortable with their work mates and happy to do a fair day’s work, he surmised.

It wasn’t long before the corral drew him. Johnny ambled over gingerly as his back wound pulled a little. There were some fine horses there. And he was itching to try a few of them, but even Johnny was not reckless enough to attempt doing so in his condition. He wondered just what part the horses played in the economy of the ranch. Scant little, he decided. Cattle were king and horse business took a back seat. Why, he didn’t know. Horses were smart. Cattle weren’t. You could develop a relationship with a horse. You couldn’t do that with a dumb cow.

Johnny stood there and slowly turned a full circle. His gut clenched with bitterness. Yep, his old man sure had himself a fine spread. And an imposing home. Nothing but the best. And Murdoch had denied his son all of this.

All those years he had wanted to kill Murdoch Lancer and that feeling was never so strong as now. He wanted to make him pay for what he had done to his mama and to him. He wanted him to pay for the life he had barely existed through. He wanted him to pay for seeing him as inferior.

Dizziness blanketed him as his emotions caught him off guard. Leaning his arms on the top rail of the corral he bowed his head and rested his forehead on his forearms.

He breathed deeply in an attempt to rid himself of the poison of his past. He was not terribly successful, but his giddiness passed enough for him to make tracks for the hacienda. He seriously needed to be alone, and horizontal at that.

On entering the hacienda, he had the misfortune to go no more than five footsteps before he came face to face with Murdoch. Both men halted. Johnny was cursing under his breath. He couldn’t face him now. He just couldn’t do it. But he couldn’t back off after the way he had been treated earlier.

So they stayed an interminable length of time just staring at each other.

It was Murdoch who broke the silence.

“About earlier on.”

“When you thought I was about to rape Teresa?”

Murdoch stiffened at Johnny’s deliberately provocative choice of words. He straightened and towered even more over Johnny. His face was suffused in red and he looked ready to explode. Johnny could not work out whether it was through embarrassment of having thought that exact thing or whether he was appalled by Johnny’s audacity in not beating around the bush.

“I heard her scream,” he managed to state in strangled tones.

“Yes, and you immediately presumed that I was going to have my way with her!” Johnny hissed. His venom found its mark. Murdoch’s face retreated several inches.

“Let me tell you something!” Johnny leaned in. “I have never disrespected a woman in my life, which is quite different from some other people I have met. I have self control. I don’t need to chase every pretty skirt I see, but if the mood does strike me, I don’t force myself on unwilling or under age womenfolk.”

Johnny’s face had progressed further as he spoke and his stature increased as he stood tall and leaned closer to that unreachable face.  

“You see, I don’t need to force myself on anyone. I got more than enough women running after me and I can take my pick.”

His purposeful cockiness had the desired effect of aggravating his father, but he proceeded anyway, and took it to the next level.

“So, I’m not about to make advances to that innocent in there. I don’t take advantage of women and then discard them like a piece of rubbish once they have served their purpose. Not like a lot of men do. Maybe you included.”

He punctuated the ‘you’ with a firm jab to Murdoch’s chest, then abruptly left before he punched his lights out.

Feeling sick and light headed, Johnny went on up to his room. Cautiously, he lay himself down on his bed, arms wrapped tightly around himself as past miserable recollections flooded his brain. Images flitted through his mind, assailing him with a totality of dreadful memories best left buried. It was some time before complete exhaustion and weakness claimed him.

***************************** 

Scott returned later that afternoon. He was hot and dusty and aching to be clean again. In Boston he had always managed to stay clean. Certainly, he had needed a bath each day like the next man, but not desperately as he did out west. It wasn’t just the odour of good, honest perspiration which needed to be erased, it was the cloying smell of animals and manure. There was horse sweat, cow dung, horse manure and damp animal fur to mingle in with the stale smell of men engaged in arduous manual labour. These earthy odours permeated his clothes and hair. He could have sworn that they even seeped into his skin. To put it frankly, he stank. He stank every day, no matter how much he paid heed to the adage that ‘cleanliness was next to godliness.’ He would be quite happy to forsake the godliness if the cleanliness he did manage to achieve each evening could get him closer to staying pristinely decontaminated for more than a few short hours.

He had two priorities that night, and both jockeyed for prominence. He wanted a bath, badly, but he also wanted to check on Johnny. He dashed upstairs, poked his head into Johnny’s room and then quietly withdrew when he noticed him sleeping peacefully. Grabbing some clean clothes, he headed for the luxury of his bath tub. His reeking clothes were stripped off rapidly and abandoned on the floor beside the tub. He sank into the water Maria had prepared for him and a state of bliss invaded every sinew of his body. The water seemed to massage the aches and pains he had developed due to the afternoon’s toil, easing them gently away. He soaped, scrubbed and lathered his skin, defying any of the day’s stench to remain. Then he just lay there, a wet cloth over his face, absorbing the tranquil privacy his ablutions offered.

His thoughts went to Johnny. He seemed comfortable, which was a positive sign. Then his thoughts passed to Murdoch, the complex man who was his father. He had found that he liked him more than he had expected to, but Murdoch’s reticence about the past still rankled with him. Maybe it was time for that talk. If he didn’t push the issue, it just wasn’t going to happen.

It was the cooling water which finally prompted him to get up out of his temporary haven. He stood a moment in the tub, allowing water to cascade down of his body, following the curves and hollows created by his taut muscles.

Stepping out of the tub, he toweled himself briskly. His biceps bunched as he worked the towel over his flat stomach and well honed thighs. Clean clothes were a touch of heaven. His piece of godliness, he mused.

His bath taken care of, he headed to see Johnny. 

************************************** 

It was night and his room was lit with the wick turned down low when he next opened his eyes. He would have relished the anonymity of darkness, but Scott had made sure that this was not an option.

Scott. He was lounging comfortably in a chair pulled up next to the bed, reading a newspaper tilted near to the lamp so he could decipher the words.

Johnny studied him while Scott was engrossed in his reading. Scott had a calmness about him and not just because he was quietly reading. He just seemed to be a calm and thoughtful individual. But that calmness should not be confused with weakness, Johnny decided. Scott had a strength about him. It was in his bearing, his soldierly bearing. Johnny had the feeling that he would have been a decisive, but compassionate and caring officer. And compassionate sure summed up his attitude to Johnny. The man had just put in a hard day working on the ranch, and here he was taking his duty of care seriously and watching over him again.

He had a good face. High cheekbones framed with blond locks which Johnny could have sworn were blonder after his two months in the Californian sun. It was often a serious face, but that smile sure did reach out to others. And Scott’s eyes danced when he smiled. Johnny had caught glimpses of that during their short acquaintance. They invited those he was talking with to join in that dance of merriment.

Johnny reasoned that the fact that he approved of Scott was a good thing. Or was it? His reactions to and feelings about his earlier brief acquaintance with Scott had now taken a new turn. A more significant turn. And he really did need to address a pressing issue which he had allowed both pain and anger to block for him over the past few days.

If Murdoch was Scott’s father and if Murdoch was Johnny’s father, then that made the two of them brothers. Half brothers, but still brothers. Hell, he didn’t even know who was the older! Had Scott’s mother died in childbirth and then Murdoch had remarried, or had Johnny been born first? Had Murdoch remarried after he kicked his mama and him out of their home? This home. Had Murdoch even married Scott’s mother? Johnny thought that his mother would never give Murdoch a divorce, no matter what he had done to them. Marriage was for life. And, if Johnny was the older of the two, had Murdoch remarried without getting a divorce? Had he committed bigamy? Was Scott illegitimate?

Then Johnny remembered that Murdoch had said that he had spent over twenty years waiting to be with Scott. How much over twenty years? If Johnny had been two when they were thrown off the property, he must have left twenty years ago. So that must mean that Scott was older, as Johnny was twenty two. How loose was this reference to ‘over twenty years’? Were they born about the same time? Was one of them born out of wedlock, the result of an affair during marriage?

The questions kept tumbling around in his mind. When was Scott born? Johnny was a December baby. He knew that because one year his mama had given him a pair of shoes two days before Christmas. When he had asked why he was getting the gift before Christmas, she has answered that they were for his birthday which was that day, the twenty third of December.

It was just as well that he got the shoes then, because it had been surprisingly cold and wet. He had reveled in the feeling of having warm, dry feet for a change. And he never did get any Christmas presents that year anyway. His mama had spent the day with a man friend who did not want Johnny around. So he had made himself scarce and wandered around, peering in windows to see how other people spent their Christmases.

He didn’t always receive anything, but his mama usually made an effort to get him a new shirt or a toy. Even as a child, he knew that the gifts were never brand new. His mother would somehow manage to purloin someone else’s castoffs. He didn’t care. The things were new to him.

So, Johnny had a dilemma. When were they born and just what were the circumstances of their births? And did he care enough to find out or should he just get out as soon as he was well enough?

He didn’t think that he wanted to rock Scott’s boat. As his strength returned he knew he would not be able to rein in his bitterness towards Murdoch. But now with Scott in the picture, he didn’t know whether it was worth confronting Murdoch.

So, to stay or to leave?

Should he tell Scott that they were brothers? How would that be received? And would that bind him to this place? Living in close proximity to Murdoch was not an option favoured by Johnny.

But by God, the temptation was there to march on downstairs and to confront Murdoch then and there. Johnny would love making him squirm. Perhaps Murdoch could enlighten them both about their separate arrivals in this world.

And Johnny’s departure from Lancer.

But here was the brother he always wanted, sitting right next to him. Doing the brotherly thing in watching out for him, not that he realized it. And if he was going to have a brother, he thought that Boston sure seemed an interesting choice. There were few men that he took readily to, but Scott was one of them. But in his daydreaming as a child he had never in his wildest imaginings conjured up the image of a blond, cultured and educated brother. He couldn’t imagine a brother more different from himself.

Perhaps he should merely go. Wash his hands of Murdoch. Good riddance. But then he would never get a chance to repay him for the hell he put his mama and himself through.

Johnny watched Scott lightly scratch his cheek then smile faintly at something he was reading. He had a dignified air about him. He belonged in that chair and at this hacienda. Unlike Johnny, he fitted in well here on the ranch. And Johnny did not think that he could ruin things for him. Best to leave. And to make it soon.

Then Johnny’s eyes were met by two paler blue ones. They had glanced up at him as Johnny was lost in thought contemplating his new found, secret brother. Rarely was he caught off guard and he wondered what he had divulged in that unprotected moment.

“Hey! You’re awake!”

“Yep. Seem to be spending a lot of time flat out on my back, so I guess it’s about time I made my presence felt.”

Scott frowned. “Oh, I think you have just been caught out in two fibs, Johnny. You have NOT been flat out on your back all day. Teresa and Murdoch have both said that you got up against doctor’s orders. And you have been making your presence felt by going outside to the corral.”

Here Scott grinned openly at him. “I hear, too, that you had Murdoch running through the house brandishing his gun! I would have liked to see that. I didn’t think he was capable of going anywhere at a run!”

“I think he’s probably capable of a lot more than you know.”

The harsh tone of Johnny’s voice drew a puzzled look from Scott.

“Just what do you mean by that?” he challenged.

Johnny’s sigh was deep and heartfelt, tinged with an indefinable sadness. “Nothing, Scott. Just that you’ve only just met him. You don’t really know a lot about him. He’s probably full of surprises and secrets.”

“Secrets?”

“Yeah, secrets. Everyone has a skeleton or two rattling around in their closet, Scott.”

Johnny eyed Scott to see if any of his words were having any effect. He could see that Scott was indeed pondering some thoughts.

“I guess so. He’s not alone, you know.”

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed. “And I’ve got more than most.”

Scott’s serious face was in evidence. Little horizontal lines marred the smooth skin of his forehead and he was biting his lip.

“You and me both. We all have our private lives and our private mistakes caused by decisions we wish we could overturn,” Scott mused before continuing on. “And I know I don’t know much about my father or how he spent his time after my mother died. Apart from building up this ranch, that is.”

“How long ago did your mother pass away?”

“Twenty five years ago, when I was born.”

Twenty five. So now Johnny knew. Scott continued as Johnny thought about their age difference.

“It’s a quarter of a century since my mother died, you know. I wonder why he stayed single? He’s quite a catch. I was wondering just the other day if he had had any other … liaisons?”

He was about to continue when he noted the look of amazement on Johnny’s face.

“What’s that look for?”

“Murdoch …your father … quite a catch? You must be joking!”

Scott was surprised by the derision of Johnny’s comment.

“No, I’m not! He is a fine looking man. He is mannerly and well off. He has property and would be able to provide for a new wife and family. There seem to be plenty of available women around. I’m surprised, that’s all. After all, he was young enough to start again after my mother’s passing. He still is young enough.”

“Well, maybe he’s not the marrying kind. Maybe he never loved anyone as much as your mother. Maybe he never got over her and no one was ever good enough. Maybe no one ever matched up to her.”

Scott’s look of respect made Johnny squirm. “And maybe you are right. You are a very perceptive man, you know. I have been thinking about all of this the last two months. I’ve been wondering lots of things about my father. He is still such an enigma to me.”

“Well, if that means that you don’t know much about him or that you don’t know what makes him tick, why don’t you just come out with it and ask him a few questions? Get the information straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak?”

Scott’s easy grin slid across his face.

“Well that horse has been known to bite, kick and spit, so easier said than done!”

 “Yeah, I noticed a bit of wild bronco in him. He’s used to having his own way, I’d guess. And I don’t think he’d suffer fools gladly. And he’d not be the sort to open up, huh?”

“Spot on.”

“I guess you’ll just have to wait for the right moment, which could take forever, or take the bull by the horns.”

Johnny liked the sound of Scott’s deep laugh which burst forth.

“Can’t you make up your mind whether my father is a bull or a horse?”

“Well, maybe an old goat might be more descriptive,” Johnny deadpanned, setting off Scott’s mirth again.

Despite Scott’s merriment, Johnny was suddenly contrite. He had no right to denigrate Scott’s father. That he happened to be Johnny’s father as well was beside the point. He had his own issues with the man and had no right to condemn Scott’s relationship with him by using mockery.

“Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that,” he apologized to Scott.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve thought the same thing myself a few times since I got here. I thought that your statement, like your previous ones, was quite apt.”

It was at that moment that Murdoch chose to enter the room.

“What is apt, Scott?” Murdoch queried.

There was silence in the room. Scott’s face was a study of bland innocence, but Johnny knew that behind the façade his mind was working overtime to find a plausible thing to say.

A rescue attempt seemed appropriate. Johnny made a stab in the dark at a sensible topic.

“We were talking about the livestock here”, he informed Murdoch.

“The livestock?”

“Yeah, we were talking cattle and horses … and goats.”

Scott very nearly tittered, but smothered his lack of composure with a strategic cough.

“Goats?” Murdoch asked, clearly bemused.

“Amongst other things. Goat’s milk makes a fine cheese. A little strong and smelly, but with a definite taste of its own. We were also discussing the numbers of cattle you run here. And I mentioned that this is good horse country. A man could use a horse breaking business as good insurance when the cattle market was down.”

Scott’s look of surprise struck Johnny as comical. He faced Scott, silently daring him to comment on his business acumen.

Johnny turned his gaze back to Murdoch. “And …”

“And I commented that he had made astute observations about the ranch and that his suggestions were very apt,” Scott finished for him.

Murdoch looked at Scott for some seconds before turning to Johnny.

”This is a cattle ranch. It is what we do. Cattle made it what it is. They have seen us through the good and the bad years. I see no need to change.”

While his original statement had been totally impromptu, Johnny couldn’t resist wiping the smugness of Murdoch’s face.

“Well, if you had a back up system, maybe there wouldn’t be any bad years. Did you ever think of that? If Man thought the way you did, he’d still be squatting in the dirt eating raw meat. He sure wouldn’t have developed modern farming techniques. He wouldn’t have got as far as fencing in livestock and deliberately mating them with chosen studs. It’s called progress, but maybe you’ve never heard of it?”

The insolence dripped off Johnny’s tongue.

Once again, Scott’s face registered surprise. This time there was less respect for Johnny’s acerbic words. Frankly, he was rather shocked at Johnny’s disrespect to his father. Maybe it was the bullet wound which was making him act out of sorts. He was about to speak to chastise him, but his father answered Johnny.

“My progressive methods have seen this ranch become the profitable business it has. You are in no position to judge or to tell me what to do. Your expertise may lie in other fields, but I don’t appreciate your interference in something you know nothing about. You were not born of this land and you have not lived here. You are not a rancher. It is not in your blood.”

« If only you knew », Johnny protested silently.

Scott sat up, rigidly still, the defiant challenges of both men surprising him. He was yet again about to intervene, to settle them both down with some conciliatory words, when Johnny spoke once more.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I didn’t grow up here on this land. My background was just a bit different. My mama sure wasn’t challenged by making any progressive business decisions concerning our property,” Johnny hung his head for a moment to rein in his emotions, then snapped it up and impaled Murdoch with his compelling eyes, “Seeing as we didn’t own any property in the first place.”

Johnny took some deep breaths, before adding a further comment to soften the impact of his previous words.

“But I suppose that a man like you could not be the success you are without making some hard decisions and sticking with them.”

Only slightly mollified by what he thought was a softening of the confrontation in Johnny’s tone, Murdoch responded a little less gruffly.

“Ranching involves tough decisions. It’s a constant fight for survival and if a man makes the wrong decision he can go under. It’s not something you could understand.”

Johnny’s deceptively soft voice responded.

“Well, you might just be surprised at how much I understand the concept of making decisions to ensure survival.”  

Once again that smooth voice continued, but this time laced with a challenge.

“And have you ever made a wrong decision, Mr Lancer? Are there any decisions you wish you could undo? Any regrets?”

Murdoch was perplexed by this young man and his seemingly erratic shifts of topic and mood. He frowned and hoped that his obvious displeasure would put an end to the conversation.

“Everyone has regrets. You just have to learn to live with them. The past is the past. You can’t change anything no matter how much you might want to at times.”

Johnny nodded. Murdoch was right in that respect. No matter how much he wanted, he could not change the misery of his past.

Johnny had been aware of Scott’s growing discomfort at the verbal battle between himself and Murdoch. He let it go for the moment. He did not want to distress Scott. He had a lot to think about and he needed the mental space.

Closing his eyes, he deliberately cut them from his thoughts for an instant. Scott’s deep tones called to him, dragging him back.

“Hey, are you all right?”

“My back’s paining me some.” Not entirely a lie, but he needed time to think.

“How about just a little laudanum?” Scott suggested.

“Nope.”

“What have you got against it? Why be in pain when you could get some proper rest and recover quicker?”

Scott just didn’t understand. Apart from Scott’s time in the army, survival had not been paramount to him.

“Just like to keep my wits about me is all.”

Scott surprised him, though, with his insight. “Look, you are safe here. Nothing is going to happen to you here. You can afford just for once to let your guard down and recuperate in comfort and peace. I’ll make your safety my personal responsibility if you’ll just take a sip of the stuff,” Scott entreated.

The warmth in Johnny’s eyes was evident. “Hey, I know you will, and thanks, but I can manage fine without. I could do with some food, though!” He smiled ingratiatingly at Scott. “It must be supper time!” he added after a beat.

“Yeah, well maybe I might only get you that food if you take the laudanum!”

“Is that a threat?” Johnny asked in an easy going manner, a smirk hanging off his lips.

Scott eyed Johnny’s gun dangling from the bedpost.

“I would like to say yes, but I am not so stupid as to threaten you when your gun is within easy reach. I’d like to live to see another day.”

With a semi salute, Scott turned to leave, nearly bumping into his father who still stood there.

Murdoch had been watching the interplay between both men. He was deeply puzzled by the scene he had witnessed. Scott was astute and intelligent, but was he naïve when it came to human nature? He seemed to not only get on well with their guest, but relish his company. There was a comfortable camaraderie between the two of them. And it surprised him. Scott could even make light of Johnny’s gun slinging past and joke about avoiding getting shot buy him. And Johnny was quite happy to go along with Scott’s reference to the subject. Good-natured about it, in fact.

Yet when Murdoch had spoken to Johnny, there was a definite threatening menace radiating from him. Just how two faced was Johnny? Was he a swindler? A con artist who could turn on the charm when need be, but show his true colours at other times? He did not like the influence this drifter could wield over his son. Murdoch was perturbed and made up his mind that the sooner Johnny was gone the better.

 

Chapter Nineteen

In the meantime, while waiting for the day when Johnny could leave, Murdoch needed to tread very carefully and disguise his true misgivings about Johnny’s presence at the hacienda. He even needed to go along with Scott’s friendship with the young man in order to better work out what made him tick. And maybe to better work out a way to hasten his departure.

“I’ll fetch his dinner, Scott,” Murdoch offered.

Scott smiled his relaxed smile. The smile that Murdoch had come to cherish. The smile he never thought he would see.

“Thanks, Murdoch. I’ll get Johnny settled for the night.”

“Hey, I ain’t no baby! I can get myself settled for the night!” Johnny protested.

“Yes, you and I both know that. I was just meaning that I would make sure that you were comfortable and didn’t need anything else,” Scott placated him.

Johnny needed a lot more all right, but he had lived his life without it and didn’t see that it would do any good at this late stage. Instead of voicing these thoughts, he replied on a more concrete level.

“Hell, Scott. How could a man not be comfortable in a bed like this? You know, a man could get real cosy living here.”

“Can’t argue about that, my friend!”

“So, this reunion you’ve had with your Old Man. Tell me some more about it,” Johnny requested after Murdoch’s footsteps had safely receded.

Scott was looking at the quilt on Johnny’s bed. It was a beautiful quilt, with patches blues, whites and reds. All various shades and all in different patterns. His finger traced the stitching slowly and thoughtfully.

“I guess you could say that my life is a bit like this quilt. Each patch is attractive in its own right, but it doesn’t mean much or serve any purpose until it is all joined up and stitched together.  I was happy enough in Boston, I guess, in a superficial way. I had a role in life. It was mapped out for me and I suppose that I could have gone along with what was destined for me as long as I stayed firmly in my little patch. But I joined the army and fought in the war. And I belonged to a different patch then. The battlefields were as different a piece of land as you could get from Boston.”

Scott was lost in memories for some moments. His face clouded over and the pain emitted from his eyes was not lost on Johnny.

“And when I returned, it was like the stitching had broken and the boundaries had shifted. I really couldn’t see my life as a whole entity. It was a mish mash of little bits and pieces, and my grandfather didn’t want me moving on away from my designated patch.”

Scott grimaced wryly.

“Then things escalated. I had come back a changed man. I began to buck being pigeon holed into my little patch. I arrived home unexpectedly from work at one of grandfather’s offices and found the mail was on the hall table, but not yet sorted. My father had written to me. For the first time in my life my father had written to me.” Scott lifted his head to look at Johnny. “That was the letter I was carrying when the stage was held up.”

“I remember. It was the one that almost cost you your life,” Johnny commented.

“Yes,” Scott acknowledged. “Ironic, isn’t it? It would have done if you hadn’t come after me.”

Johnny nodded and Scott grinned his thanks.  “Anyway, despite some misgivings, certainly some bitterness and I guess because of a huge curiosity, I suddenly had an urge to see my father. I took up his invitation and at last it is as though all of the patches of my life are now stitched together to create something useful and purposeful.”

Scott contemplated Johnny, searching for the words to explain. “I work hard here. Harder than I have ever had to, the war excepted. I work all day long and there isn’t much let up. I’m learning. I’m still not that good at some things like lassoing, but I’ll get there. This is honest hard work, managing this land to produce a profit, to make our livelihood and to support the families working for us. Like this quilt, I feel useful and complete here. It’s a good feeling.”

Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat. He was pleased for Scott, but a part of him wished that one day he could say the same thing. Only that didn’t seem likely.

“I’m glad it’s working out for you. So, what you didn’t mention is how you are getting on with your father.”

Smoothing the quilt over with his finger, Scott contemplated the last two months. “To be honest, we actually get on fine. Finding out about him is a bit difficult as he tends to clam up. And he hasn’t said a lot about why he left me in Boston all that time. We need to discuss that. We need to get it out in the open. Why didn’t he communicate with me all those years? But, you know …” he drifted off and looked at Johnny dead in the eyes before continuing, “I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to be here with him.  He’s gruff at times and he can be hard, but he is a good man. He works hard and he is demanding of others, but he respects the workers. I’m proud of him and what he has built up here. I suppose that most of all I like him.”

Johnny nodded in understanding while deep inside his gut clenched at the unfairness of his fate. His fate, which was contrary to Scott’s. Scott had a right to like his father. Johnny had every reason to hate him. Scott belonged here, but he didn’t. Scott had been welcomed home, while he had been kicked out. His own feelings were tugging him in opposite directions. He was happy for Scott, but internally he raged at his own miserable past and empty future.

“I’m glad, Scott,” he managed to croak out in a voice dry as a desert creek bed.

Footsteps growing increasingly louder and the aroma of wholesome food announced Murdoch’s imminent arrival. A boot eased the door open to allow Murdoch to enter with a laden tray.

“Here you go. Maria seems to have got carried away with herself, but I suppose at least you have plenty to choose from.”

Murdoch placed the tray on Johnny’s lap and witnessed the unbridled pleasure on their visitor’s face when he spied the contents of the plates.

“Tamales and beans!” he exclaimed.

A wince marred Murdoch’s face before he spoke. “I don’t think that Sam is going to be happy with the chilli content, but Maria decided you needed something spicier than broth so she made them for you especially. She made a beef stew and apple pie as well, in case you weren’t up to the spicier Mexican food.”

Johnny looked at his father. Murdoch held his gaze, becoming a little discomfited. He glanced at Scott, then back at Johnny.

Johnny spoke softly. “Thank you. And I’ll make sure that I thank her tomorrow. This sure is a feast and I’m as hungry as a horse. I’m mighty beholden to her.”

Murdoch seemed surprised at his good manners and appreciation for the meal.

“Well, eat up then.”

“Thanks for bringing it up.”

Murdoch shifted from one foot to the other. “You’re welcome,” he finally replied. “Supper’s ready, Scott.”

“I’ll be right down.”

Murdoch nodded and left. As Johnny contemplated the big man’s retreating back, he wasn’t sure if his appetite hadn’t left along with him.

*******************************  

Scott returned to Johnny’s room after supper to check on him and talk some more, so it was late when he finally left his guest for the night. He noticed that his father’s door was open, but no light burned. Deciding that Murdoch must still be up working, Scott sucked in a deep breath and decided that he would take Johnny’s advice and talk to his father about a lifetime of questions he had been bottling up.

Murdoch was, as accustomed, at his desk, head down pouring over the ranch ledgers. Scott greeted him and headed to the drinks cabinet. He chose two cut crystal tumblers which caught the light from the various lamps in the room, refracting beams at all angles. Two large shots of whiskey soon coloured the facets of the glasses. Scott brought one over to his father and proffered it silently.

Murdoch glanced up at him. “Thank you, Son. A bit late for drinking, isn’t it? Shouldn’t you be hitting the sack about now?”

“Yes, to both, but I guess I need a little fortification.”

Murdoch’s brow furrowed, creating new angles on his face for light and shadow to dance with. “Why do you need fortification, Scott?”

Murdoch had asked the question, but Scott knew that his father had already guessed the answer.

“Because I thought that it was about time that we had that little chat.” Scott couldn’t help smiling a little as he reiterated Johnny’s words. “I’ve decided to take the bull by the horns and get the answers straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.”

Murdoch’s face remained guarded. “I see.”

Scott detected a glimpse of hastily concealed panic surface on Murdoch’s face. He waited, wondering if he would be fobbed off again and what excuse would be given this time.

Murdoch swallowed and nodded. Scott was pleasantly surprised when he suggested that they move to the fire and get comfortable.

Scott sat on the large brocade sofa while Murdoch chose the deeply buttoned burgundy leather armchair to the left of the fireplace. He couldn’t help but feel that Murdoch was putting some distance between them, but then he reconsidered. This was Murdoch’s favourite spot near the fire.

“Where do you want to begin, Son?”

Where? That was a good question. Maybe with the one question which had continued to smoulder his whole life. Even at his age, it still hurt.

“How about why you never came for me?”

Murdoch closed his eyes and clenched his jaw.

“I waited. I waited my whole life,” Scott persisted.

“What did Harlan tell you?”

Scott grimaced in pain. He stood up and approached the mantelpiece. Leaning his hands on the wooden ledge he bent forward, speaking into his chest.

“He said that you had decided it was best that I stay in Boston. The West had killed my mother and that you didn’t want it to kill me, too. You had a ranch to run and you couldn’t get away.”

“He was partly right. If I hadn’t taken your mother out here, she may have still been alive. If I had stayed in Boston, she may have had an easy delivery with proper medical care. I have never forgiven myself for that.”

“Well I don’t think that my mother would have forgiven you if you HAD left her in Boston,” Scott responded surprisingly.

Murdoch’s head shot up. “Pardon?”

Scott stood tall, crossing his arms over his chest. “Ah, I … I found some letters once. I came across some letters one day in Grandfather’s study. I was looking for something else and I saw them in a drawer. They were written by my mother to Grandfather before I was born. She was happy here. She loved the ranch even though it was early days. And … and it was obvious that she loved you.”

Murdoch’s face almost crumpled, but he bit back hard with his jaw clenched tightly, making the bone protrude below his ear.

“Did she say that?” he whispered hopefully.

“Yes, she did.”

Murdoch stared at his Scott a good while, then squeezed his eyes shut.

Scott waited, giving his father time. When Murdoch opened his eyes again, they were glassy, bright with unshed tears.

“And I loved her, too, Scott.”

“Scott swallowed, and nodded. “I believe that now, Sir.”

“Now?”

Scott shrugged. “Until I read her letters and met you, I always wondered just how much you did love her, sending her away when she was so heavily pregnant.”

“There were land pirates back then, Son. It wasn’t safe.”

“And it wasn’t safe for her to leave, either.”

Murdoch looked into Scott’ expressive eyes. “No, it was not, as it turned out. I thought … I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I was ensuring both her survival and yours. And I was wrong.”

Murdoch swallowed convulsively. “I am so sorry, Scott.”

Scott hung his head a moment. “I know. I know you couldn’t have foreseen what would happen.”

“Thank you. It means a lot to me that you know that.”

Scott was determined to find out all the details, however, so he continued with the questions which had puzzled him.

“Why didn’t you go with her?”

“I was defending the ranch. It was all we had and we had worked so hard to get it going.”

Murdoch shook his head in dismay.

“How many times have I sat in this room regretting still being here without your mother. It took losing her to realize that it didn’t matter where I lived as long as she was by my side. I should have gone with her. It was a mistake I have regretted daily ever since.”

“I don’t doubt it, but after it was all over, why didn’t you come? Why didn’t you come and get me?” Raw emotion surfaced on Scott’s face, as anguish caused his voice to waver.

“I wanted to. I wanted to desperately, but how was I going to raise a son out here, especially then, all by myself?”

“Well, Murdoch, let me see. You could have had one of the help look after me during the day. Later there would have been school which could have saved some child minding hours. I am sure that a man who could build an empire such as this,” Scott paused to turn in a semi circle and sweep his arm in an arc, “Could manage to come up with a passable solution.” Sarcasm dripped from his tongue as he fixed his eyes on his father.

Murdoch stood to better contradict Scott’s assertions.

“You don’t understand what it was like then. It was a frontier. There were none of the amenities you see now, neither here at the ranch, nor in town such as it was then. It was not feasible. I just couldn’t do it.”

“Couldn’t or wouldn’t?”

“Couldn’t. In those days crossing America was a case of sailing right around the Horn or of going across the country with precious few tracks to follow. It was too long and arduous for a baby.”

“And what about later, when I was no longer a baby? And after I had outgrown being an annoying, useless little toddler? And when I was of school age and able to do some chores around the ranch? What about then? Or when I was a teenager, with a man’s body to provide labour?”

The silence in the room was remarkable. Scott watched a myriad of expressions cross his father’s face, but the fact that he could not answer him spoke volumes.

Scott’s face hardened, a deep wrath twisting his face with the pain of it all.

“You blame me for Mother’s death don’t you?”

Murdoch gasped. “NO!” he bellowed. “NEVER! I have never blamed you for her death. Please believe me, Son.”

Scott stood stonily in front of his father, fighting an insane desire to punch the lies from his father’s mouth.

Murdoch reached out a hand and placed it firmly on Scott’s shoulder. “No, Son. It wasn’t you. It was me. I blamed myself for what I had done. My actions had killed the light of my life. The love of my life. It wasn’t you.”

Scott’s mouth worked, struggling to make a meaning of the senselessness of his life without a father.

“It was as I said. It was too hard to start with, Scott. It took too long to go to Boston and come back. I couldn’t have looked after you.” Murdoch stopped and fumbled with the words in his mind. “But there was also my own guilt. My actions deprived you of a mother. I had irrevocably tarnished your life. At least I could offer you safety. Boston was that safety.”

“Safety? Well, the war made sure of that!” Scott’s irony spat at Murdoch.

“How could I know that there would be a war and that you would be drawn into it?”

“And how could you think that safety was all a growing boy needed? Safety matters nothing compared to a father’s affection and support.”

“Scott, you don’t understand.”

“Damn right I don’t, Murdoch! So you tell me. You tell me good and proper. I’ve waited twenty five years to hear this. Tell me like it was.”

Murdoch ran his hand frantically through his hair and half turned away. The next thing Scott knew, his father drew back his other arm and threw the tumbler against the stonework of the fireplace.

“I DID come for you.”

The five agonized words struck Scott dumb. He stood there, his ears ringing as the words seemed to vibrate and echo in and out of his ears.

“Pardon?”

“I came for you.”

“When?”

“On your fifth birthday.”

Scott frowned with the effort of remembering back that far. “I remember I had a party on my fifth birthday. It was the first party with friends that I was ever allowed to have.”

“And you looked fine in your party clothes, too. Quite the little man.” Murdoch smiled fondly as he reminisced.

“My party clothes? You actually saw me?” Scott’s voice rose from its customary baritone into a high pitched shriek of uncomprehending shock. “You really were there? Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you identify yourself?”

“I did speak to you. Your Grandfather introduced you. I think he was caught off guard. Or maybe it was largesse on his part. He introduced me, but as a friend, and … ”

“We shook hands,” Scott interrupted, wonderment coating his words. “I remember.”

Scott stared at his father as he simultaneously stared back into his past.

“I remember thinking that you were the tallest person I had ever met. You were a long way up.” Scott gave a tight smile of nostalgia to accompany his words.

Murdoch smiled at the viewpoint of Scott the child.

“But why didn’t you tell me who you were?”

A seriously grim expression clothed Murdoch’s face. He swallowed.

“I don’t know if it serves any purpose to rake over long dead coals. It can sully the memories we hold dear and cause further anguish, Scott. Sometimes it is best to let some things go.”

“No, you promised me this conversation. I am a grown man and can handle whatever it is you want to say. Just don’t sugarcoat it. Let me know the truth and let me decide what is relevant or not.”

Murdoch nodded in acceptance. He straightened his shoulders.

“It isn’t pretty, Scott, and I don’t like to taint the fond memories that you hold of your Grandfather.”

 

Chapter 20

“Go on.”

Murdoch hesitated and then plunged on.

“I had been in Boston for several days. I had been trying to get you back, but Harlan had you confined in the home. I hadn’t seen you at all until that day. I tried to hire lawyers to help me, but no one would go up against the name of Harlan Garrett. They would be finished in Boston if they did.”

Scott’s gut clenched into a tight ball. Nausea rose in his gullet, but he swallowed it down.

“Go on.”

“I gate crashed the party. I just came in with another couple, and Harlan was too aware of keeping up appearances to kick me out in front of any members of the Boston society set. So, he took me to his study and we discussed the issue. He threatened to block me at every level if I tried to get you back. He cited my perceived abandonment of you as the reason any court would back him up over me, not to mention his wealth and prestige. He would make sure that no court would believe that you should be deprived of your place in Boston society because of the whims of an absentee father from the Wild West. He said that he had the money to prolong any fight for years. And he claimed that he would do so until I was wiped out.” Murdoch shook his head miserably. “And most of all he said that he would drag you before the courts again and again if need be.”

Murdoch’s tormented eyes sought Scott’s. “I couldn’t do that to you. I wanted you so badly, but I wasn’t prepared to do that to you.”

Scott’s throat constricted and threatened to choke any reply. He felt as tortured as his father. And he felt betrayed that his grandfather had decided his fate without any concern for the heartache which Scott had suffered as a result over the years. Or for that suffered by his father. It seemed that as long as his grandfather’s wishes were met, no consideration had been given to the father and son at the centre of the conflict.

Scott felt sick. Sick that his grandfather had stitched things up to suit his own desires and plans without any thought as to the true welfare of Scott and Murdoch. For Scott believed Murdoch. As much as he loved his grandfather, he was aware of the ruthless side to his nature. His egocentricity dominated all his actions.  Harlan Garrett revelled in benefiting Harlan Garrett, and the rest of the world could rot in hell. While Scott loved his grandfather and was grateful for the home he had been given, Harlan’s selfishness was no secret.

Scott’s lips contorted in anger. His father made an unreasonable target as he transferred his fury.

“So, you withdrew to lick your wounds on the other side of the country?”

Murdoch stared at him forlornly. ‘So help me, Son, I did. He had the connections, the wealth and the power to keep you from me. But I still should have stayed and fought for you. And for that I will never forgive myself as long as I live.”

Murdoch’s voice had cracked as he finished speaking. Scott felt sympathy for him, but most of all he felt cheated.

“But how would any court decide against a father? A father has to have first claim to a child over a grandparent!”

“Normally, yes, but possession is nine tenths of the law. And you only knew your life in Boston and the people of Boston. The fact that those in the Boston court system regarded the West as a less than favourable environment to raise a child didn’t help matters, either. Boston was the centre of the cultured world and removing you from there would be seen as doing you a disservice.”

“So I was a possession to be bartered over?”

Scott’s voice was icy with disgust. There was an audible tremor, emphasizing his disappointment in the two men who had created his fate.

“No, Scott, that’s just the point. I didn’t want to reduce you to a prize deal to be bargained over at a market. A child is not a possession, but a being of amazing influence. I longed to have you with me, to nurture you, to guide you, to love you. Some of that ambition was no doubt satisfaction in seeing a part of me, a person of my own blood, grow and mature. So maybe a part of my desire to bring you back here to Lancer was selfish, but to haggle over you in a long, drawn out court battle where you would have had to take sides was out of the question. Making a child choose is cruel. If you had been put on the stand, let’s face it, you wouldn’t have chosen me anyway because I was a stranger to you. But you would have been asked to consider the possibility. A very confusing situation for any child. … And it would have gotten dirty, Scott.”

“How dirty?”

Murdoch looked simply miserable. He looked away and swallowed painfully before turning his eyes back to his son’s.

“Harlan said that he would claim that I had abandoned you.”

Scott’s face became a sneer. “And isn’t that just exactly what happened? Your wife died and it was all too hard to care for your only son?”

Scott’s words sent a visible frisson of shock down Murdoch’s spine as he recognized some truth in Scott’s recrimination.

Murdoch wiped his face with his hand and licked his lips. “I sent your mother away, Scott, to protect her. She was close to her time, but you came early. She was supposed to have been met by your grandfather along the way, and he was going to bring her back to Boston or look after her if her condition prevented her from travelling, but …” Murdoch’s voice stopped. He swallowed, and his hooded eyes could not hide their pain. “But you were born a little early, just as Harlan arrived. I found out nearly two weeks later only because the local midwife sent a message with a family moving out here. I set out, but got there too late. Your mother, God rest her soul had passed away, and Harlan had left, taking you with him. When I sent your mother away and wrote to Harlan to meet her on the way, it was presumed that your mother would be there to care for you after your birth. I never intended for you to be taken by him without a parent by your side, but the decision was taken by Harlan and I was unable to do anything about it at that time.”

“Why didn’t you go after him?”

“He had a head start. Nearly two weeks’ head start.”

“Surely he would not have left immediately with a newborn baby? Plus, he would have had to arrange for my mother’s … funeral. He can’t have left much earlier than you arrived.”

“But he did.”

Scott looked at his father. Murdoch was hiding something. “I have already asked you not to be selective in what you tell me, but to tell me the whole story. How about you do so?”

Murdoch closed his eyes. Scott glimpsed a tear which escaped its confines and teetered on the edge of his eyelids. Murdoch’s composure was slipping.

“Harlan did not wait for the burial. He left immediately. He paid for a plot, headstone and service, but he didn’t wait to attend.”

The silence was profound. Scott’s throat constricted with outrage. It hurt. It hurt him physically and emotionally.

“No,” he whispered, Murdoch’s words demanding denial. He shook his head. “No, he couldn’t have left. He wouldn’t have let my mother be buried all alone without any family by her graveside to grieve for her. No. He wouldn’t.”

Scott looked at his father. And he read the truth in his face. Harlan had done precisely that. Scott felt sick.

“He didn’t even see her buried?” Scott could not get past this betrayal of his mother.

“No, Son. I … I spoke to the locals. He left pretty well straight after you were born. He left money for … her … to be seen to properly.”

“Properly? PROPERLY? Do you call leaving your only daughter to be buried in a virtual wilderness all by herself, a proper burial?” Scott shouted, veins bulging out of the skin of his normally smooth neck.

“No, Son, I don’t.” Murdoch’s sadly calm voice tempered some of Scott’s bitter fury. “I went through the same feelings when I arrived. I felt like she had been betrayed, as though her whole life didn’t matter enough to the very person who created her and claimed to adore her. Her own father.” Murdoch rubbed his forehead as though to ease the raging pain of resurfaced sorrow.

“But what was the rush? Once my mother had … passed away, what was so urgent about my grandfather’s departure? I just don’t understand. Surely he would have stayed longer than intended. It would have been too dangerous to travel with a newborn infant without the mother to care for it. He would have needed to wait, to delay, to allow the baby … me … to gain strength. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Scott looked down at the floor, head moving gently as his body rocked slightly. He had wrapped his arms about his torso and clutched his upper arms until his knuckles showed white on his fingers. His normally smooth skinned face was etched with deep lines of rage. His mother’s abandonment clearly devastated him.

“Why?” Scott asked again. “All Grandfather talked about was his little girl. How beautiful she was. How she was his legacy to the world. How she made his world whole. How could he leave her? Why?” The last word dragged out to a plaintive sigh of despair.

Murdoch did not answer. Scott was slow to remove himself from his own misery and properly observe the details of his father’s face. He stiffened.

“Why?” he barked out with authority, shades of Lieutenant Lancer evident in his sudden command.

Murdoch’s face contorted soundlessly.

“I asked why?” Scott demanded, brooking no refusal.

A deep breath was inhaled before Murdoch breathed out his answer. “Because he had you.”

“Pardon? I fail to see the connection.”

“He had you. He wanted to make sure that he kept you.”

Scott’s face creased in puzzlement.

“I’m not with you.”

“His Catherine may have died, but he had you. Catherine was alive in you. And I am afraid that the most important thing right there and then was to put as much distance between you and me as possible. He wanted to make sure that I didn’t arrive in time in order to claim you. He didn’t even send for me, the midwife did. He left with you to prevent me from taking you. He wanted you and he wanted to make sure that I didn’t have you.”

Scott’s bleak eyes examined his father.

“And what did you do to make him hate you so much?” Scott asked pointedly.

A weak smile graced Murdoch’s lips, making him look surprisingly younger and more vulnerable.

“I loved his daughter, Scott, and she loved me. Harlan took our marriage as an act of betrayal by Catherine. An act of desertion. He … he felt that if Catherine loved me, then she couldn’t love him. Therefore, when she left with me, his interpretation was that she had turned her back on him. He didn’t think that she would have any love left for him.”

And Scott realized the truth in Murdoch’s simple statements. It was the way his grandfather operated. He didn’t like to share. He had certainly offered Scott all the love he was capable of, but Harlan seemed to regard Scott as his exclusive property. Scott had been allowed friends, of course, but all in a carefully controlled and monitored environment in the right dosage to suit what Harlan regarded as adequate. Even though his grandfather was not there to offer a rebuttal, everything that Murdoch said made sense. He recognized the truth when he heard it.

“But why didn’t you come after me?  Try to catch up to us?”

“The ranch was in jeopardy. How was I going to get you back to the ranch? Transportation was better heading east where it was more populated, rather than in a westerly direction. Plus …”

“Plus what?”

Murdoch’s face was bleak with remembered misery. “Plus, I was grieving, Son. This was supposed to be the happiest time of our lives, bringing a child of our own flesh and blood into the world. And then all of a sudden she … she wasn’t there any more. I just didn’t expect not to have her in my life. It was supposed to be the three of us. And I arrived too late to be with her at your birth or at the end. I … I … I couldn’t think beyond my own sorrow. I know it was wrong of me, but I guess that Harlan had a point in that I did abandon you in a way.”

“But you knew where he was going to end up sooner or later, so why didn’t you confront him after our arrival in Boston, when everything was more settled and after you had had time to mourn?”

“It wasn’t that easy, son. I don’t think that things ever really settled down for me. I certainly never ceased mourning her. I returned to the ranch, too consumed in my own despair to pay enough thought to you. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but her death was truly overwhelming for me. I knew that Harlan would protect you and raise you, but at first it simply hurt too much to go and get you.”

Unshed tears formed in Murdoch’s eyes, his utter devastation mirrored in them. “And I was a coward, Scott. God help me, I couldn’t face looking after Catherine’s and my child without her by my side. I just couldn’t do it. Back then I couldn’t even look after myself, let alone an infant.” Murdoch squeezed his eyes shut. “So I buried myself in the ranch.”

Scott nodded in compassion. He had never even considered the impact of his mother’s death on his father. Selfishly, he had always looked at it only in the way it affected him, and to a lesser extent, his grandfather. The look of intense sadness on his father’s face was nearly his undoing.

“I see,” he offered inadequately.

Murdoch began again. “It was months, getting close to a year, before I seriously entertained bringing you out here. Communications with your grandfather became … inadequate. I wanted you back, but he kept putting me off, knowing I didn’t have the money to come and fetch you.”

“Until I was five,” Scott interjected.

”Yes, until you were five. And even though I had travelled all that distance, he frightened me off. I am ashamed to say that I let myself be bullied by him. And as I told you, he was determined to make any court case last years.”

“But I still say that any court would put a father’s wishes first, especially a father of good standing.”

Scott watched his father hang his head. Murdoch’s shoulders sagged. His body language was delivering a message to Scott, but it was far from loud and clear.

“So, what aren’t you telling me, Murdoch?”

Murdoch’s seemed to age another decade as the wrinkles in his skin multiplied and invaded the plains and crevices of his already craggy face.

“Your grandfather felt that he had several weapons up his sleeve which could damage my case.”

Scott folded his arms over his chest as his gut squeezed into a nauseous ball. He waited for whatever revelations Murdoch was about to give him.

“And what were they?”

Murdoch sighed heavily. “He was going to claim that I was after his money.”

Scott’s eyes narrowed. “How could you possibly get your hands on his money?”

Murdoch studied his hands and rubbed them together, but whatever he was hoping to achieve, it did not make his countenance any happier. “He had bandied a story around over the years saying that I only married Catherine for her money.” Murdoch snorted. “I’d have paid for the privilege of marrying her if need be. I certainly never expected any monetary gains.”

Palpable pain radiated from Murdoch’s eyes as he sought Scott’s.

“Ironically, Catherine had very little money. She was as poor as me.  Harlan had it all tied up until she was twenty five.”

“But she never reached twenty five,” Scott whispered in anguish.

“No, she didn’t” Murdoch confirmed.

Scott frowned. “But surely she took money with her to help establish your home and buy furniture?”

Murdoch shook his head. “No, very little.”

Scott’s frown became a glare. “You mean that she had virtually NOTHING? That Grandfather didn’t even see that she had sufficient funds to be comfortable in her marriage and in a far away country at that?”

“Sadly, that’s exactly what I mean.”

“So he deliberately deprived her of money she could have had to make her life more comfortable?”

Murdoch’s grim face told him the answer to his question.

“Why? What was the purpose?”

“To encourage her to leave our marriage and to return home to Boston. He hoped that she would become disillusioned with life as a rancher’s wife if she were deprived of the comforts she was used to.”

“The bastard!” Scott paced up and down the room, stopping at the desk. The loud thump of his fist on the desk made Murdoch jump visibly. “The bastard!” he repeated in a whisper to himself.

Scott then remained silent, digesting this new information.

“But if my mother had passed away, why would he start claiming that you were still after her money?”

“Because it was now your money. Or it would be your money when you reached your majority. He was going to spread the rumour that I had come to get you only because I wanted to get my hands on your inheritance. He bragged that he would say that I was going to try to access your money and fritter it away on my dreams of building a ranch out of the desert dust.”

Scott nodded in understanding of his grandfather’s underhanded activities. His eyes stared sightlessly as he re-examined the Murdoch’s words and compared them with the character of the man who had raised him. His head suddenly snapped around to fix on Murdoch.

“Previously, you said ‘weapons’ in the plural. What else did he threaten to use against you?”

Murdoch was tight lipped as he clenched his jaw together. His hands were balled into solid fists as he tried to overcome his emotion. Gathering his composure, he straightened his hunched shoulders and continued to meet Scott’s eyes head on.

“My marriage.”

“Everyone knew he was against your marriage from the start, so how else could he use it to damage your reputation?”

“I wasn’t referring to my marriage to your mother, Scott.”

Scott was shocked. This was totally unexpected. “Pardon?” he gasped.

“I married after your mother’s passing.”

Scott was jolted by this. His hands fell to his sides.

“What? You married again?”

“Yes.”

“How … how long after …?”

“A couple of years after. About two and a half years.”

“I see.”

Scott studied his father closely.

“But surely that would have meant that at that time you would have had a stable home to bring me to, with a mother … a step-mother … to help raise me!”

“Yes, well it would have, but she wasn’t here.”

”What do you mean that she wasn’t here?”

Murdoch scratched his head vigorously in frustration and renewed anger at her treachery.

“She had gone. She left me. She left me for another man.”

“Oh.” Scott felt winded.

“I didn’t know where she had gone. It was as though she had vanished in a puff of smoke south of the border.”

Scott squirmed. What could he say to this surprising news? “I’m sorry, Sir.”

Murdoch nodded in acceptance of this conventional, yet inadequate, utterance.

“But how did my grandfather feel that this would help his case?”

“Because he was going to claim that she fled me because she was in fear for her life. He was going to claim the same thing about your mother.”

“What?” Alarm surged through his body. His anger towards his grandfather welled again. “But you said that you sent her away because you loved her and feared for her safety! He just wouldn’t do that!”

“He would have. To keep you, he would have. You are all that was left of his daughter.”

Catherine’s eyes looked at Murdoch from Scott’s face. Scott swallowed, distressed by the revelations.

“But how could he even think of doing that and how could he prove it”’

“Just laying the seeds of doubt, along with an even partly plausible fabrication, can do wonders for swaying peoples’ opinions. All he had to do was ask why a woman, a heavily pregnant woman at that, would leave her husband? And why would a second wife prefer the poverty of Mexico to the comfort of Lancer? No reason, unless life was so untenable in the marital home that neither could see themselves staying. He could just infer that both preferred to risk everything to escape. No decent man likes to see a woman mistreated or helpless. Mud sticks, Scott.”

Murdoch’s matter of fact pronouncement had a sad ring of truth which Scott wanted to deny, but which he deep down accepted was very well likely the way of it. His face was ashen as the ramifications of his father’s assessment set in. His grandfather’s machinations had deprived him of meeting his father at an earlier age … and of growing up at Lancer. Or at least of making a decision of some sort regarding where he wanted to be raised.

Scott felt bereft. If what his father said was true, his grandfather, for whatever reasons, had caused him a lifetime of emptiness and longing. There had been happy times, certainly, but he always felt that he was lacking something. And as each year went past, he had become bitter that his father continued to ignore him. He had received no birthday gifts or acknowledgement whatsoever at any time from his father. He had carefully hidden his hurt, but it was there nonetheless.

“I had no idea,” Scott uttered.

“I think that was the point. You weren’t supposed to have had any idea, any inkling at all, about your grandfather’s actions or my trip to claim you.”

“But why didn’t you write to me? All those years and I only received one letter this year, when I was twenty five. That’s a lot of years of silence.”

Murdoch’s eyes were pools of melancholy. “I did.”

Scott’s face was shock personified.

“What do you mean?”

Murdoch sighed deeply, running his hands over his eyes.

“I did write to you. I wrote every Christmas and birthday, as well as in between. Not as often as I should have, but more than several times a year.” Murdoch looked earnestly at his son. “I gather you never received my letters?” he added dryly.

Harlan’s treachery muted Scott’s voice. He shook his head silently.

“I was never sure,” Murdoch commented. “I never knew whether you had not received my letters or whether you wanted nothing to do with me.”

Scott’s voice cracked as he spoke. “I didn’t think that you wanted me. I spent my whole life being ignored by you. Or I thought that was the case.”

Suddenly legless, Scott sat down with a thump on the sofa, head in his hands.

“Oh, I always wanted you, Scott. And I wasn’t ignoring you.”

Scott looked up balefully at Murdoch, searching for an answer he could cope with. “Well, why didn’t you come later, when I was older and would have had more say in the matter?”

Murdoch looked even more miserable, his mouth twisting grimly.

“I received a letter.”

“A letter from whom?”

“From you.”

The room fell silent. Even the grandfather clock seemed to pause for an instant.

“From me?” Scott whispered.

“Yes, from you.”

Scott’s head returned to his hands. “And just what did I say?” he asked, words muffled by despair and the physical barrier of his palms.

Scott received no answer. He lifted his head.

“Murdoch?” he prompted.

Murdoch fidgeted. He picked up a photo frame containing a daguerreotype of Catherine, taken just after their marriage. His finger traced the intricate silver pattern around the border.

“That you blamed me for your mother’s death because I had sent her away. That you could never forgive me for that. And …” Murdoch’s voice gave out.

“And …?”

Murdoch continued, his voice husky. “And that you had disowned me as your father. That you wanted nothing to do with me. Ever.”

The Great Room was still, the ticking of the grandfather clock and the anguish of their breathing the only sounds to break the stark silence after Murdoch’s revelation.

Scott was appalled at the lengths his grandfather had gone to. He was livid at the loss of all of those years when he could have had contact with his father. Just to know that Murdoch had cared would have eased the pain of being, to all intents and purposes, an orphan. How could his grandfather have done that to him?

Belatedly, he realized that he needed to clarify one point. He gazed at Murdoch wretchedly.

“I never wrote to you.”

“I had wondered about that since your arrival, Son. You never mentioned it and I did begin to have my doubts about its authenticity.”

Scott continued to stare sombrely at Murdoch.

“It’s all right, Scott. There’s nothing either of us could have done about it.”

Scott’s chin gave the hint of a tremble. “But that’s just it, Sir, I never did write to you. Never at all. I wrote neither that letter, nor any others. None until that reply I wrote to your invitation to come out here. I tried many times, but I just couldn’t. I believed every word my grandfather said and I never finished even one solitary letter to you. I should have done. I wish I had. And now I can never undo the hurt I have caused you by not writing to you or contacting you before this.” He shook his head, then continued with raw emotion, “I’m sorry.”

Murdoch sat next to him, an arm immediately around his shoulders. “So am I, Son, so am I. We both have a corral full of regrets, but we can’t change what is done no matter how much we would like to wind the clock back and do it all differently.”

Scott felt comforted by his father’s touch. The warmth of his body and the firm grasp on his shoulder helped ease the pain just a little.

They both stayed there for some time, absorbing not just their recent revelations, but also the physical contact so long deprived to both.

“What a waste. All those years,” Scott murmured.

“A lifetime,” Murdoch added.

“I guess we have a lot of time to make up for then, don’t we, Murdoch?”

“Aye. That we do, Son.” Murdoch’s faded smile did not quite succeed, coming out as more of a wince.

Scott looked with mournful eyes at the image of the father he was just getting to know. If it hadn’t been for his grandfather, he would know Murdoch as well as the yellow leather work gloves he had taken to wearing for ranch duties. They had become moulded to his hands, just as his father’s personality and shared memories should have been moulded to his soul. Scott’s mind was overloaded with all this unexpected and appalling information. He needed some space.

“In the meantime, I might just hit the sack. I have a few things to think about.”

“You do that, Son. Good night.”

Scott stood. “Good night, Sir.” He headed for the entry foyer and the stairs, but turned around as he neared them. “Thank you. Whether I liked it or not, I needed some of those answers.”

Murdoch produced a twisted smile. “I hope it helps in some way, Scott.”

Scott pulled a face which would have been comical in other circumstances. “It doesn’t really help to find out that the man who raised me could stoop so low, but … as I said, I needed to know the true state of affairs.” Scott closed his eyes and sighed wretchedly. “Thank you again and good night, Murdoch.”

He turned to leave, but Murdoch called him back again.

“Scott, I have a question for you.”

Scott was apprehensive as he nodded for Murdoch to continue.

“If …if you grew up believing that I didn’t care about you and if you never received any of my letters at all until that invitation, why did you accept my offer to visit Lancer?”

One of Scott’s disarming smiles wiped away some of the hurt and tension of the difficult evening.

“How honest do you want me to be? Should I pack first?”

Murdoch chuckled. “I think I can handle whatever you have to say.”

“OK, then. Do you have the time?” Scott grimaced wryly and shrugged. “Many and varied reasons. Curiosity, mainly. I couldn’t help myself. I needed to know what sort of man you were. I needed to know if you were really as cold as I believed you had to be for neglecting me all those years. I had to know why I seemed to be banished from Lancer. Grandfather’s story never seemed to ring true, especially after I discovered those letters from my mother to him. They showed the picture of a woman in love and happy.  They also showed a husband who was warm and loving. So, I needed to know why, if you loved my mother, and if she loved you, …then why you didn’t want or love me? And the picture she painted of your marriage and her life at Lancer was different to what I had been led to believe. And I couldn’t discover these things in Boston. After the war I just couldn’t settle. Putting it simply, there was this big hole in my life. It needed patching.”

Murdoch had been studying Scott intensely as he spoke. “I see. Fair enough, Son. I guess that I am not surprised by any of that. But, please be clear about one thing. I DO love you. And I always wanted you.” Scott’s heart beat a little faster at the admission, but Murdoch ploughed on without giving him the time to answer. “Are there any other reasons you are holding out on?”

“Yes,” Scott dragged out, “There was one other main reason.”

“Which was?”

“I was angry and bitter. I was considering shoving my fist into your face. Many times, in fact.”

Scott studied his father to decipher the effect of his frankness.

“Why didn’t you?” Murdoch enquired with interest.

“I’d have needed a ladder. You’re too tall,” Scott deadpanned before semi saluting and once again heading for the stairs.

 

Chapter Twenty One

Scott returned the next day after a grueling day branding some of the cattle. He had immersed himself in the tasks at hand, trying to work through some of the information he had gleaned from his father. No matter which way he turned it around in his mind or how he tried to come up with some sort of lame justification, his grandfather stood out as an extraordinary manipulator. Scott had never wanted for material possessions, but it hurt and rankled that owing to his grandfather’s actions, his life had taken an unexpected path and deprived him of the emotional support he would have received growing up at Lancer. Scott did not believe that he had been kept in Boston solely for his own good. His growing up in Boston had benefited his grandfather, who had his daughter’s son, as well as his company’s future director, by his side

He was stiff, sore and not a little cranky. A bath might just put his mind and body to rights, so he bounded up the stairs, to fetch some clean clothes. Reaching his room, he grabbed fresh underwear, a dark blue shirt and some brown pants before heading to a welcoming bath. He passed Johnny’s door before he decided to backtrack a bit to see how he was coming along. Peering around behind the door, he was surprised to see the bed empty.

The Great Room was also empty, Murdoch having gone to town to fetch the payroll for the men’s pay day on Friday. The verandahs offered no sign of life and Scott had not noticed Johnny around the corrals. The clanging of saucepans announced activity taking place in the kitchen, so he proceeded forwards.

What he found in the kitchen totally surprised him.

Three people were working companionably. Maria was stirring a pot, her face partly hidden in a veil of steam rising and swirling around her. Teresa was icing a chocolate cake with great concentration. Whether the concentration was due to the intricacies of cake decorating or to attention being paid to the Spanish she was reciting, Scott was not sure.

A cutting board on the table was laden with various vegetables, and to the side stood a pile of peelings growing by the second as Johnny expertly ran a knife around a potato and just under its skin.

As Scott took in the scene, he was joined by a newly arrived Murdoch whose strides ground to a halt as he, too, viewed the activities in the kitchen.

The three in the kitchen looked up as they greeted the father and son. Scott and Murdoch merely nodded and mumbled greetings in return which were cut off by Teresa.

“Maria and Johnny have been helping me practise my Spanish, Murdoch! Johnny said that if I speak a couple of hours a day with Maria in Spanish only, I should improve my fluency in no time. But I suppose that I have to use some self discipline. It’s just too easy to speak in English.”

“Well, that’s exactly what I’ve been telling you for years.” Murdoch commented, bemused.

“I know, but Johnny really brought it home to me,” Teresa responded, giving Johnny a broad smile of appreciation.

“I can see that Johnny is a man of many talents, then!” Scott interjected, glancing meaningfully at the vegetables lying on the table. “But I didn’t think that cooking was one of them!” His sarcasm was not lost on Johnny who responded good-naturedly.

He leaned back in the chair, one hand dangling the vegetable knife lazily as he eyed the two men at the door. He smiled lopsidedly at Scott.

“It’s a multi talented world, my friend. It can also be a dog eat dog world, so it pays to scout around, to see the lie of the land and work things out satisfactorily. At the moment, I am more housebound than I like and one thing I learned early on, is to get on with the cooks. They can make life worse than miserable if you get on their wrong side. So, in a way, I am at their mercy and they know it.”

Johnny grinned wickedly at Teresa and Maria. They in turn grinned back. Scott was surprised to see that Maria fairly simpered at his new friend.

“So we have developed a little system here. A mutual help society. Teresa asked for some Spanish lessons and offered to make me a chocolate cake in return. I wanted Maria to know just how much I appreciated last night’s dinner and apparently, if I want some more Spanish food, it seemed like a good idea for me to help out with the vegetables. And the three of us are perfectly happy with the arrangement.”

“Uh huh,” Scott grunted in feigned understanding.

“So, if you two gentlemen will excuse us, we have dinner to finish! And I suggest YOU…” Johnny waggled the knife in Scott’s direction, “Clean up if you expect to sit at the dinner table tonight!”

With that, Johnny picked up another potato and attacked it skillfully, accompanied by Teresa’s unsuppressed giggles.

Scott nodded in agreement. He was quite stunned at how quickly Johnny had wound Maria around his little finger. It had taken him weeks to get anywhere with her, and Johnny appeared to have done it in one afternoon. Teresa was different. She was eager to please and would have readily volunteered to make the cake, a fact that Scott thought that Johnny was well aware of. 

Maria was a loyal employee, but did not give her affections easily. Johnny must have some secret weapon and Scott made a promise to himself that he would find out the key to his success at the first opportunity.

Scott turned to leave, but Murdoch stayed there a few moments longer, contemplating the scene of harmony in the kitchen.

Johnny spoke suddenly. “If you’re going to just stand there, why don’t you come in properly and put yourself to good use?”

And Murdoch was caught by two deep blue eyes which mocked him with their challenge. Clearing his throat noisily, Murdoch began to retreat, walking in reverse.

“Ah, I have some accounts to see to.”

He turned and disappeared to the safety of the Great Room, leaving the ladies chuckling gently at the look of horror on his face.

********************************** 

As had become his habit, Scott spent some down time with Johnny before going to bed. For virtual strangers, it was surprising how easily they found something to converse about, be it the west, life, the ranch, horses, women. After nearly an hour, Scott took the hint from Johnny’s increasingly obvious fatigue and made to leave. He reached the door, but stopped, holding onto the door handle with one hand and running a finger along the vertical edge with his other.

“Scott?” Johnny prompted, sensing that Scott had something on his mind.

He shook his head. “Nothing,” Scott mumbled, suddenly wanting to seek a hasty exit.

“It don’t look like nothing to me. It looks like you’ve got something you want to say. If you spit it out real fast, it gets over and done with a lot quicker.”

Scott snorted, then looked over at him and smiled ruefully.

“Last night I did as you suggested. I grasped the bull by the horns and got some of that information straight from the horse’s mouth.”

“Uh huh.” Johnny grunted in encouragement. “And did you find out what you wanted?”

Scott was silent, head down examining his boots. A nod of the head answered Johnny.

“Well, I got some answers. They mightn’t have been the ones that I wanted to hear, but I did get some answers.”

Johnny watched his brother, giving Scott some time to process back through his conversation with his father.

“And did they help?”

A deep breath puffed out from Scott’s lips as he rubbed his hand over his hair. There was agitation and frustration evident. Scott sighed loudly, then seemed to get himself more settled.

“In some ways, a whole new can of worms has been opened up. It’s more complicated and more … distressing than I had expected.”

“In what way?”

A thump on the door erupted unexpectedly, causing Johnny to flinch slightly.

Scott groaned, and nursed his right hand, as pain coursed through it and up his arm.

“And does having a sore hand now help you take your mind off those complications?” Johnny drawled sardonically.

Scott snorted yet again. “No. It hurts like hell now. In fact I think that I have just added to the complications of my life!”

He returned to the bed, rubbing his hand and wincing. Plopping himself down, he sat quietly for a moment, lost in quiet contemplation.

“My father had tried to get me back after all. He hadn’t abandoned me.”

“That’s good news, but what do you mean that he tried to get you back? He knew where you were, so what was so hard about finding you and hauling your sorry ass out here?”

Scott found genuine amusement in Johnny’s plain speaking.

“My grandfather.”

“Your grandfather? The one who raised you?”

“The very same.”

“How could an old man stop a mountain like your father from getting what he wants? He could tread on him like squashing an ant.”

“He used his wealth and power to threaten my father and he warned my father that he would use me as a pawn if he had to. I was a prize to be squabbled over and just a piece on the chess board to be manoeuvred at will. And maybe Murdoch was, too.”

“How could any father give in if his son was at stake?”

“My father didn’t want me put through what could be years of litigation. He didn’t want me pulled in two directions at once.”

Johnny studies the pain on Scott’s face, “And how do you feel about that?”

“Like my grandfather betrayed me out of pure selfishness and spite. And I wish that Murdoch had fought harder for me and not given up so easily. And I just wonder what it would have been like to grow up here … and I’ll never know because of what my grandfather did.”

“You can’t change things, Scott.”

“I know that! But my grandfather was all I had, and he cheated me. He cheated me of the life I should have had!”

Johnny looked at the misery on his brother’s face.

“But he must have loved you, Scott, whatever his motives.”

“His motives seemed to be solely to prevent my father from having me. To have one up on him. To make him unhappy. To play with him. To show he was superior.”

“Boy, your grandfather didn’t like your father much, did he? Why?”

Scott snorted, reminding Johnny of a horse blowing warm air through his nostrils. “Because she loved my father. It was a crime in his book. He didn’t seem to understand that her falling in love with someone else didn’t mean that she loved him any less.”

“He must be one demanding old cuss.”

Scott smiled wryly. “Yes, he is.”

“Maybe he had his reasons. Maybe your father did something to rouse his distrust?”

Scott remained silent, fiddling with the hem of his trousers as he sat one leg propped on the knee of the other.

“You know, I have been here about two months, and I can’t see what it is that my grandfather can have detested with such a lifelong rage.”

Johnny sucked in a lung full of air. “There must have been something. Remember that conversation we had about skeletons in closets? Maybe there’s something you don’t know about?”

“No, I really don’t think so. I thought that there had to be. Grandfather was always so close mouthed about Murdoch. While I have been here I have asked about things around town and here at the ranch, you know, surreptitiously, trying to get a feel for the man that other people know. He is liked and respected. I can’t find that skeleton.”

“Aw, come on, Scott, there must be something!”

Scott shook his head emphatically. “No, nothing. Nothing I can see now that I have met him.”

“But there’s twenty five years you know nothing about. And you don’t really know how it was between him and your mother before you were born.”

Scott looked steadfastly at Johnny. “But I do.”

Johnny was confused. “I don’t want to bring up unhappy memories, but I thought your mother passed away as you were born.”

Scott grimaced at the truth of it. “Yes, but I found some letters. My mother was deeply in love with my father. She wrote to my grandfather in glowing terms about her marriage. She was happy with my father. There was nothing in her letters to instigate my grandfather’s vendetta against my father.”

“Then maybe you gotta just let it go a bit, Scott. Maybe you’ll never work out all the whys.” Johnny paused to shrug expressively. “Maybe you grew up with some lies, so maybe you just gotta start afresh and let it go before you are driven mad by all the wondering, all the ‘what ifs’. Keep the good things in your memory, but the past is past. You can’t change it no matter how much you want to.”

Scott rocked gently as his head nodded.

“Wise advice, my friend, but hard to follow.”

Scott rose. “I have a lot to consider. I think that I’ll hit the sack.”

“You do that, Scott. Get a good night’s sleep, but when you wake up, just remember that you can’t change things, so there ain’t no point in torturing yourself and wishing for what can’t be or what could have been.”

“That’s easier said than done. Goodnight, Johnny.”

“Goodnight.”

Scott departed, closing the door softly after him.

Sleep eluded Johnny. He could not follow his own advice. He thought about the past that he wished to change and he pondered Scott’s assessment of their father. All those ‘what ifs’ and ‘could have beens’ chased themselves around his head for hours until he finally drifted off to sleep not long before dawn.

*****************************

The next day Johnny’s back was still hurting. The kitchen chair had not done him any favours, apparently. He had been as surprised as Murdoch and Scott to find himself spending a good couple of hours in the kitchen the day before, but if the truth be told he had enjoyed the women’s company for the short time he had been with them.

Slowly descending the back stairs, he had followed his nose. Mindful of just how territorial cooks were, particularly Mexican cooks, he had knocked timidly and poked his head around the corner.

He had taken out his best smile and dusted it off.

And it had worked magic. A profitable afternoon had ensued.

His time in the kitchen had helped pass the long day, but more importantly he had been able to get the feel of the place.

So once again he ventured out of bed and came downstairs, greeting the women warmly. He decided to spend the morning in the fresh air, eager as he was to escape the confines of the four walls. He walked a little further this time despite feeling stiff and sore, admiring the stunning beauty of the property. The livestock, particularly the horses, again drew him to the corral where he was lost in the simple pleasure of watching the majestic creatures. Several approached him, curiosity overcoming fear, to poke a head over the top rail and blow hot air over his face. Generous pats and scratches ensured that he had a rapt audience keen to investigate his presence.

Johnny did not like being horizontal for long when ill, but after several hours it began to register with him that he was being a bit ambitious in the vertical stakes. A protesting back ushered him inside. Again that chair in the kitchen seemed a sensible compromise where he could rest, chat and find out some information about his father.

“Hola, Teresa! Maria!” he greeted the occupants cheerfully.

“Hola!” Maria exclaimed. “What were you doing outside again? You should be lying down before you collapse and pull out those stitches!”

Instead, she pulled out a chair, took his shoulders and pushed him into it.

“You must look after yourself. You are still recovering from that bullet wound. What were you thinking?”

“I ain’t used to lying useless in a bed all day and it’s kinda boring up there. Besides, I enjoyed your company yesterday.”

An ingratiating smile followed and his little boy sad face brought immediate cluckings of sympathy from the cook.

“Just thought I’d stretch my legs. I hope you two ladies don’t mind my coming in here again.”

He put some effort into looking beseeching and was rewarded with her response.

“Of course not! Can I get you anything? A drink or a snack, maybe?”

“Well, a glass of milk would go down real smooth at the moment if you’ve got any to spare.”

“There is plenty to spare.”

Patting him on the shoulder, she bustled off to a jug covered in a muslin cloth. Taking a clean glass, she poured until the milk stopped just short of the brim. A plate found its way into her hand, and soon this was covered in some warm tortillas. Before he knew it, he was presented with the cool milk and tortillas along with some salsa in a little bowl.

He expressed his thanks in his soft voice, then chose a fresh tortilla which he dipped lavishly into the salsa.

“Yum! These are really good!” he mumbled through a mouthful of the offering. He nodded enthusiastically, grinned at her, swallowed and took a sip of the milk. “You are one fine cook! And I sure enjoyed those tamales yesterday. It was just what I needed to pick me up. I’m sure that’s what made me start to feel better.”

Maria blushed at the praise.

“I suppose that your talents are a bit wasted here. I bet that Murdoch doesn’t go for Mexican food much and I doubt that Scott has ever tasted it before he came here.”

“Si, they prefer Gringo food. It is wholesome, but it is very bland. I sometimes spice it up a little, but then Senor Lancer prefers the way he had his food in his old country.”

“So, he doesn’t appreciate the effort you put into your cooking?”

“Si, he does. He is a good patron. He does not grumble about the food when I cook something a little different. I cannot complain. He is good to me and to all the workers here and they are loyal to him.”

“He strikes me as an ornery kinda cuss.”

“Oh, he likes things done his way and he likes them done right, but he is not a mean man. He is a gentle and kind man underneath all of his loud talk and temper.”

“So he’s got a temper, huh?”

“Oh, he gets annoyed when people don’t have his work values. You know, when they don’t finish a job for any good reason. Like a fence line or clearing out a wash. Or if they drink too much and then can’t work properly the next day. It is only to be expected. He pays their wages. If the work doesn’t get done, there is no profit to pay their wages. They need to realize that. So he can get angry, but I have never known him to be vicious. Not like some of the employers some of my friends work for.”

Johnny ruminated over her information. It sure didn’t gel with what his mother had told him. Maybe he put up a front in front of others, but was different behind closed doors … particularly the bedroom door. It didn’t sit right that he could be so cruel towards his mother and him, but apparently, according to Scott, so kind to Scott’s mother. And he had certainly been kind to Teresa.  She wasn’t flesh and blood, after all. There was one way to find out, and that was to ask.

“So, do you go along with that, Teresa? Is he a gentle lamb or a mean wolf when angry?” Johnny probed.

“Oh, he gets his shirt tails in a twist sometimes. You just have to know how to handle him. He comes around after a while. I just choose my battles! It’s easier that way. He is strict, but I know that he is only looking after my welfare. He’s never been unfair. The trouble is, when we have argued I can usually see his point and he is usually right in many ways. He’s so frustrating at times!”

She laughed a happy laugh, then stopped to crack another egg into her bowl. More seriously, she continued. “But he is like a father to me. I’ll never be able to repay him for the way he has cared for me. And I know it’s not just out of duty. He may have given his word to my father long ago that he would care for me if anything happened, but I know he loves me like the daughter that he doesn’t have.”

Johnny nodded. He truly could see. And he approved of his father’s actions. He even liked that in him, but it didn’t stop the hurt. And it didn’t stop the hate that he felt for this man who accepted others but renounced his own son. His half breed son. His flesh and blood. And in doing so condemned him to a life of abject neglect, misery and abuse.

“I’m sorry about your pa, but you were lucky to have Murdoch. I’m glad you didn’t have to leave the only home you have known,” he commiserated with her.

And HE shouldn’t have had to leave the only home he had known, either.

“So, did your father know Murdoch’s wife?”

“Which one?”

“Which one what?” he feigned innocence, hoping to find out more information of any sort. The less he appeared to know, the more he was likely to find out. Whether it would be contradictory to his long held beliefs, and more in keeping with Scott’s new found knowledge, remained to be seen.

“His first or his second wife?”

“I didn’t know he had two. Scott’s mother. Was that the first or second marriage?

“That was his first marriage,” Teresa happily supplied the information. “Yes, he came here just after they bought the place.”

“So, your father knew Scott as a baby?”

“No, there were land pirates at the time and Murdoch had sent Catherine away for her own safety, but she went into labour on the way and died giving birth to Scott. His grandfather took him away before Murdoch could get there.”

“And he never went after them and tried to get him back? He mustn’t have cared very much!”

Johnny’s scathing attack brought a fiery response from Teresa.

“He did care! My father said that it killed him inside! He didn’t have the money to get to Boston at that time and how could he look after a baby at the ranch then? It was nothing like it is now. It was a fledgling ranch under attack. It was dangerous. That’s why he had sent Catherine away in the first place,” Teresa reasoned with him.

”Other people, dirt poor people, keep their children with them,” Johnny stated as matter-of-factly as he could.

“Yes, but there was nothing here then and he was devastated. He did try to get Scott back, but Harlan wouldn’t let him.”

”Harlan?” Johnny again feigned ignorance, hoping to extract more information to compare Scott’s assessment with Teresa’s.

“Scott’s grandfather, Harlan Garrett. Murdoch went to Boston when Scott was five, but he couldn’t get him back.”

”Couldn’t? He’s his father!” Johnny hoped that providing the same tack as the previous night might garner him some more facts.

“Yes, but Harlan is very rich and very powerful. He had connections with local judges and he was going to make any custody battle take a long time. What hope would Murdoch have had? He didn’t have the money for a long court battle. He couldn’t be away from the ranch for that long.  Boston people would have considered removing Scott to the West as a bad move.  They would not have regarded it as a proper place to bring up a young boy. He had no chance.”

Johnny considered this and he could see that, indeed, it had been a fruitless quest. And Johnny was gutted all over again at how Scott had been used as a pawn by his grandfather. He should have grown up here with his father. Their relationship should have gone back a quarter of a century, not just two months. They should have had a wealth of recollections to share. What they shouldn’t be doing is finding out about each other now at this late stage.

Johnny turned his thoughts to the question he desperately needed to ask. He was being impolite asking such questions, but while the information was flowing, he wasn’t about to restrict it.

“So if this Catherine died, what happened to the second wife?”

There was a pause. He wasn’t answered straight away. And as he waited his heart pounded a tattoo which seemed to push up into his head. What did they know about her? Were they preparing some lies for him to swallow? Maybe lies Murdoch had fed them over they years? Oh, this should be rich, he decided.

Finally, Teresa drew breath, but Johnny did not miss the glance she had thrown at Maria.

”She left.”

“She left?”

“Yes, Murdoch woke up one day and she was gone.”

“No woman would just leave her husband without a reason. Life is cruel to women without a man to fend for them and to provide for them.”

Silence reigned supreme. While he could see that this was a more delicate topic than that of Catherine’s death, he had to know what lies had been told about his mother. And if he didn’t ask while he had the chance, he may never be able to do so.

But how should he probe further?

“So, if he woke up one morning to find her gone, then she didn’t tell him she was leaving beforehand?”

“That’s right.”

“Boy, he must have been pretty shocked,” Johnny commented blandly, his mind working overtime at the lies Murdoch had told them to cover his mother’s departure.

Teresa looked decidedly uncomfortable and Maria was shooting her warning glances. His well of information was about to dry up. Attack being the best method of achieving a response, he went for the jugular. Nothing like the truth to see how it would be defended.

“Maybe he kicked her out?” His confident assertion was pounced upon by two definite responses. “No!” both women replied in unison.

Teresa looked at Maria a little defiantly. Chin up, she responded forthrightly. “She left with someone else. Another man.”

So they had swallowed the story Murdoch had spread! The poor aggrieved husband. gaining sympathy from all sides.

Johnny could not hide the bitter sarcasm. “Doesn’t have much luck with his wives, does he?”

Teresa rounded on him. She may have been petite but Johnny swore that he could see flames searing out of her eyes as she turned on him with a powerful force.

“No, through no fault of his own he hasn’t had much luck! He has been a lonely man pining for his wives and sons for over twenty years! Putting his energy into this ranch. Working it alone when he should have had his sons by his side!  At least he has Scott here now. Better late than never, I suppose, but it doesn’t take all the years of anguish away!” She threw the last sentence at him, daring him to contradict her.

“It sounds like he’s had it rough. But you mentioned sons. Was there a child before Scott?”

“No, after, to his second wife Maria. She took him with her.”

“She took him with her, huh?  Things must have been pretty bad for her to take her son away from his birthright.”

“If they were bad it was in her own mind. My father said that Murdoch adored her. He would do anything to please her. And he doted on his little son. He would carry him around on his shoulders and if he wasn’t on the range, he would spend every available minute with him.”

The man had some gall! To paint his mother as the cause of a sordid mess which had ruined his childhood was really the last gasp. Johnny gripped the tortilla in his hand and only prevented himself from slamming it into the table by assuming the mantle of Madrid. How dare Murdoch cast the blame onto his mother’s shoulders!

His jaw clenched tight as his mind absorbed the lies. Slanderous lies. His head turned to the women, a sharp retort ready on his lips. But he said nothing. He looked from Teresa to Maria, confused. Maria’s chin was in spasm and her mouth twisted into a grimace as she tried to take control of her trembling lips. Her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. Then he noticed them well up and spill out along her cheeks, trailing crooked lines down her face as they navigated life’s imprint of wrinkles on her skin.

Putting the food down, Johnny stood up and made his way over to the cook, who stood leaning against the counter, shoulders bowed, a hand held hard to her face.

He reached a tentative hand for her shoulder and squeezed gently. Teresa’s eyes widened as she saw the state Maria was in, but she did not interfere. Lifting her head, Maria looked at him, eyes imploring him to understand.

“She took him away! My little Juanito! And no one here ever saw him again!” Her raw emotion turned to sobs. Johnny wrapped both arms about her and she wept into his shoulder for what seemed like an age to him. Gradually, her distress eased and her sobs became erratic hitches. It was then she tried to speak again.

“He was adorable. I was there when he was born. I saw him come into the world and I witnessed his first steps. When he wasn’t with his father or the animals, he used to come into the kitchen and ‘help’ me to cook. He was a blessing to this household and it has never recovered, even with Señor Scott here now. Oh, how could she be so cruel as to take him away from his home and his father!”

Johnny was speechless. Maria had helped bring him into the world? She remembered him as a baby? But surely her memory was playing her false? Her version of events could not be correct.

Johnny blundered in. “Well, he was with his mama who loved him. Nothing can replace a mother’s love.”

“A mother’s love? I don’t think she knew how to love unconditionally. She was a good mother only when it suited her. She turned her love on and off like a lantern depending on her mood. And both little Juanito and Señor Lancer got burned every time they got too close. It was Señor Lancer who was the steady influence on the little niño. I fear for the life he led. Living with his mother and her fickle ways cannot have been good for him, the poor little child.”

And her tears poured forth afresh.

Johnny soothed her with his gentle voice, murmuring inconsequential platitudes to settle her down. He rubbed her back in circles and sustained this faithful servant while she took the time to express her sorrow and recover her equilibrium.

She had just begun to quiet when a voice boomed over them, making both Maria and Teresa jump at the suddenness of the intrusion.

“Just what the devil is going on here? What have you done to upset Maria? Get your hands off her!”

 

Chapter Twenty Two

Murdoch’s heavy footsteps strode quickly into the room, chasing the shouted words he had flung from the doorway. Grabbing Johnny by the arm he pulled him away from Maria and positioned his body in the way to protect the woman.

Johnny’s hand clenched and went for his hip, but found no comforting gun there. Rage gushed out like storm waters of a swollen creek. Rage at being manhandled and rage at Murdoch’s assumption that he had done something to Maria.

“NOBODY handles me like that! Have you got it? You’re damned lucky I ain’t wearing my gun right now!”

“A gun is not the answer to everything, boy!”

“No, but it sure can smooth the way to some of the answers!”

”Why is Maria crying? I asked you before and I expect an answer. What did you do to her?”

Madrid glared back at his father. Shutters and armour firmly in place. He would not glorify the man’s misconception with any words.

It was Teresa who broke the silence.

“He didn’t do anything to Maria except try to make her feel better. Leave him alone!”

Murdoch jumped at her tone and turned his head to glare at her.

“Well she wouldn’t need to feel better if she hadn’t been upset, so I’ll ask for the last time, how did you offend her?”

Through hiccups and sobs she was desperately trying to conceal, Maria answered for him.

“Please, Seňor. He did nothing. I was thinking about the past and it made me sad is all.”

Murdoch’s eyebrow rose quizzically.

“The past?”

“Si, Seňor”

“What about the past?”

Maria straightened her shoulders and stood taller. She looked him dead in the eye.

“Juanito. I was thinking about Juanito as I do every day and I felt so bad that I cried. Seňor Madrid was trying to make me stop. He was being kind, so please to not scold him because I am missing the little boy.”

Murdoch did not move. He stood immobile, his face suddenly blanching and etched in abject misery. If Johnny had not seen it, he would not have believed it. Murdoch’s mouth straightened into a hard line and a muscle worked in the side of his jaw.

He turned to Maria and pulled her gently to him in a loose embrace, much as Johnny had done.

“Yes, I know how you feel Maria. I miss him too. I miss him dreadfully.”

Murdoch’s stricken face found Johnny’s. Bleak eyes met Johnny’s intensely blue ones.

”I’m sorry,” he said simply. “I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions. Maria is part of the family. It upset me to see her this way.”

Johnny was mute, unable to do anything other than nod. Patting Maria lightly on the shoulder, he exited the kitchen and made his way up to his room where he really needed the space to get his head around the unexpected information he had gleaned. And more importantly how he felt about it.

And there was his father’s pain fueled by past memories so plainly readable on his face. Surprisingly, the man had been compassionate and gentle when dealing with Maria. This consideration and empathy coming from Murdoch had truly disquieted Johnny. It did not fit the image he had grown up with, nor the tepid and changeable attitude directed towards himself since his arrival.

****************************** 

Johnny wearily pushed his door open and closed it quietly behind him. Walking over to the window, he placed both palms on the sill and breathed deeply. His eyes roamed over the ranch activity below and then swept the far hills along the horizon.

Paradise. A world far removed from the environs he grew up in, but a world which should have been his.

He sighed deeply. It hurt. The injustice hurt.

He had been shocked to hear Maria talk about him as a baby. He hadn’t been prepared to actually meet anyone apart from his father who remembered him.  Before his innocence was stolen.

But deep inside he had also been thrilled that he had been remembered, and remembered with such fondness at that. Love even.

But it sure left him confused.

Johnny’s head was buzzing with too many thoughts to consider. How could Murdoch be so kind to the paid help, but so cold to his own family? How could a man throw his wife and child out, but by all accounts be a respected, even revered, boss to the workers on this ranch?

Yet just how cold was he? Just what had Johnny witnessed in his eyes? A man who regretted his actions? A man who wished he was still with his family? Or a man who was pained at being reminded that he had a half breed son? A son who didn’t match the cultured, blond Scott? Was that truly sorrow that Johnny had witnessed or discomfort at being reminded of a mistake, conceived on the wrong side of the sheets. Johnny was not stupid. His mother had kept some documents. He had done the math.

Had Murdoch felt tricked into a marriage he didn’t want and then had taken out his frustration and regrets on his wife and son? Probably his second marriage had been an aberration that he had lived to regret.

Or had his lifelong understanding of the situation been wrong? After all, he only had his mother’s words to go by. Until he had heard Aggie, Teresa and Maria, that is. Teresa and Maria were indebted to Murdoch for the roof over their heads, so their testimony was not necessarily accurate or reliable. The again, Johnny had witnessed the heartache of Maria for little Juanito. For HIM! But Aggie had no reason to guild the image of his father. So whose version of events was correct, theirs or his Mama’s?

Whatever the case and whatever Murdoch’s motives at the time, Johnny still felt left in limbo. The desire to kill Murdoch remained strong. Vengeance for the life that Johnny had suffered beckoned him every day.

And Murdoch sure didn’t like him. And he didn’t like him staying in the house, either.

So, why didn’t Murdoch like him? His past as a gunslinger? Jealousy because of his rapport with Scott? Or something more insidious than that? Was he a bigot? Did he dislike Mexicans? Was it all right to employ them, but not have them as guests or equals in the house?

Johnny heaved a deep sigh full of frustration. His back was throbbing to the beat of the thoughts banging around in his head.

Turning, he went over to his bed and lay down carefully. His side seemed the most comfortable position, so he stretched out and tried to ease the nagging pain. And he continued to ponder what the heck he was doing at Lancer and what he intended to do.

Kill Murdoch, or just leave?

Leave Scott? Scott didn’t know who he was and it was probably best to leave it that way. He felt an unusually strong friendship with the man, but would announcing his kinship necessarily be a smart move? What would it accomplish? And did Johnny really want to risk rejection? He had had his fill of that throughout his life. What would any more matter? It shouldn’t, but for some reason this time it would.

The swirling thoughts lulled him into a semi doze, broken by knocking at his door.

*********************************** 

Scott knocked gently on Johnny’s door, unwilling to wake Johnny if he were deeply asleep, but keen to talk to him otherwise.

There was no answer. He knocked again, then grimaced wryly as he recognized that he really wasn’t being considerate after all. It seemed that despite his earlier best intentions, he was determined to wake Johnny and speak with him regardless.

A muffled “Come in!” was all the invitation he needed. As he opened the door and peered at the prone figure of Johnny, his keen ears picked up a mumbled “It’s your house anyway!”  Scott grinned, despite his feelings of disquiet.

Entering the room, he closed the door gently and regarded Johnny. The object of his attention lay sprawled on the bed, half on his stomach, one arm bunching up a pillow under his cheek. The other was reaching for an ornament on the bedside table, index finger smoothing over the curves of the horse which was poised, racing over an unseen prairie.

Noting Johnny’s position on the bed, Scott enquired lightly, “Is your back paining you?”

“Some. It’s not too bad, though.”

Scott nodded, then waited. He studied Johnny’s finger and marvelled that a man from the school of hard knocks such as he, could be so gentle as he handled the porcelain figurine. He was an enigma, all right, this gunfighter with the gentle heart.  Brash and hardnosed one minute, subtle and delicate the next. Scott had seen those fingers caress Johnny’s gun as a man might caress the woman of his dreams. Reverently, lightly, but with an assuredness of conviction that their relationship was right.

He had also seen those hands deal with the unsavoury detritus of life. He had seen Johnny dispatch his captors assuredly and determinedly. They were hands that had both dealt with the refuse of mankind and also done their best to ease Scott’s pain and to heal his wounds. And Scott was grateful it was Johnny who had shared his stagecoach ride that day. Fate had determined that their paths should cross at a most opportune time.

And Scott was reluctant for that link to be broken. He still couldn’t put his finger on what it was that pulled him to this man so different to himself, but he wasn’t about to allow any ineptness from his father to ruin the friendship that he knew would blossom if nurtured. Scott realized that Johnny wasn’t used to giving his friendship, but Scott had inherited a fair dose of Lancer stubbornness and he was bent on defusing his father’s hamfistedness.

“Supper’s just about ready.”

“Ain’t hungry.”

“Well, I am!”

Scott walked over, his gait not as graceful as usual, and sat in the armchair facing Johnny. Wiggling, he fitted his derrière comfortably on the cushions and extended his long legs to rest his feet on the bar running the length of the bed.

“Were you asleep?”

“I was until you woke me up!”

Scott grinned, not the slightest bit guilty.

“I was just talking to Teresa.”

He stopped smiling and regarded Johnny steadily.

“Yeah?” Johnny answered non-committedly.

“I’m sorry if my father was out of line.”

“Out of line about what?”

“About accusing you of upsetting Maria.”

“Don’t fret, Scott. Maria was upset, so it’s understandable that he wondered what had happened.”

“Maybe so, but he should make sure of his facts first at least. What was Maria upset about, anyway? Teresa didn’t say.”

A little white lie jumped out of Johnny’s mouth before he could trap it. “Oh, she was thinking back to life here with your mother and your father’s second wife.”

He suddenly realized that Scott had never said anything about knowing of his father’s second marriage. He could have kicked himself for not thinking before he spoke.

“So you heard about his second wife?” Scott asked.

That question saved Johnny some imaginary bruises.

“Yes, Maria and Teresa told me about her.”

Johnny left it at that and considered his brother’s face. Scott was frowning as he gathered his thoughts.

“You know, I only found out about her during that conversation with my father. Maybe if I need any more information, I should pick up a vegetable knife and join the ladies in the kitchen? I hadn’t wanted to probe for too much information from them. Perhaps they were not the best tactics to employ?” he grimaced, the soldier in him annoyed that he had not employed the most obvious manoeuvre of engaging Teresa and the household staff head on in his occasional fact finding sorties.

“How do you feel about your father having remarried?” Johnny asked casually as he picked up the edge of the quilt and began fiddling with it.

“I was surprised that no one had told me. Maybe they thought I would think it was disloyal to my mother? But I wasn’t surprised that he had taken a second wife. He’s a good looking man. He was building up his property even back then. My mother had passed away and he needed to move on. A man has his needs and one of them is a good woman by his side. I can’t blame him for starting anew. There is certainly no joy in dwelling in the past. It was such a shame that she didn’t stay, though. He must have been a very lonely man.”

Johnny waited. What else had Murdoch told Scott?

“So, I am happy that he remarried, but it doesn’t sound like he chose very well.”

Johnny’s hand clenched the quilt border in his fist. The slight to his mother angered him. But he was even more peeved that certain other details had been kept from Scott. “Maybe she had her reasons for leaving?” he offered in a belated defence.

Scott shrugged. “Well, we’ll never know. And we didn’t know her so there is no point in wasting time and energy over it. But what I do want to do is to apologize for my father’s rash accusation. Teresa said you were comforting Maria when she became overwhelmed with sadness at my father’s losses. Your actions were very kind, Johnny,” Scott complimented him.

Johnny swallowed the bile that threatened to erupt from his stomach from the hurt unintentionally inflicted on him by Scott.

“He apologized. No harm done, Scott, none at all.” he managed smoothly.

Scott looked over at Johnny. His eyes widened.

“He apologized?”

“Yep.”

Scott was silent, ruminating.

“You know, before yesterday, I didn’t think he knew how to apologize,” he finally offered. “Heck, I didn’t think that he thought that he could ever be wrong!”

Scott’s bemused expression suddenly brightened as a face splitting grin beamed over at Johnny. Scott leaned forward and tapped him on the knee.

“You know something?”

“What?”

“I think that you might be good for my father!”

Johnny stared at him in amazement.

“You’ve been out in the sun too long, Scott! It’s addled what few brains you’ve got rattling around in that head of yours!”

Scott chuckled, then responded thoughtfully.

“Well, I was just remarking that my father seems more … mellow, I suppose is the word I am looking for. He seems more willing to talk than he was when I arrived. And this change has coincided with your presence.

“Yeah, I noticed that I’ve charmed the socks off him and put him in a good frame of mind!” Johnny flung back at him sarcastically. “You know, you seriously need to do something about that sun. If you don’t protect your head out here a man can end up going plumb loco. Maybe your hat ain’t big enough and you need a sombrero?”

“I’m doing fine with the hat I’ve got, thank you for the suggestion. But, yes, I have been in the sun today. While you have been lounging around the hacienda and lolling on the bed, I’ve been out chasing cows. Now, I know I should respect them because it looks like they have provided my father with a good income over the years and now I’ll be living off their backs as well, but I can’t help think that they are pretty dumb creatures. If one of them gets stuck in a waterhole, you can guarantee that another will join it out of sympathy or stupidity. And they don’t recognize help when they see it. Offer them a hand and they may not bite it, but they sure struggle and squirm and try to get away. And then they end up deeper in the mire. It’s like a game to them. Then when they do get part way clear, they kick out. And they know just where to hurt a man. Darned frustrating creatures!”

Johnny was grinning, despite himself.

“Sounds like you got had, Boston. Maybe it was a conspiracy by them dumb critters leading the greenhorn a merry dance!”

Laughter followed from Johnny as he took advantage of Scott’s bad day on the range.

And he couldn’t resist adding, “And just where did that hoof connect, Scott?”

Scott’s blush answered for him, the older man’s misfortune cheering Johnny up no end. He whooped with unbridled laughter.

“Oh, boy, hope your family jewels recover or your old man’s going to be mighty put out if there are no grandchildren to leave his empire to!” Johnny chortled again. “Could be a tad embarrassing next time you get up close and personal with the fairer sex. Girls can get really miffed if a man can’t rise to the occasion, if you catch my drift. They take it as a personal affront. As if they are not attractive enough, you know.”

“No, I don’t know, Johnny, never having been in the position of disappointing a lady in the dance of love,” Scott replied waspishly. As an afterthought, he added a barb. “Although it sounds like you have experience in this unfortunate and humiliating situation.”

Johnny’s smirk was enormous.

“Nope. Ain’t never yet let a lady down … or left her wanting for more. Ain’t nothing wrong with my equipment.”

“Well, if you want it to stay that way, stay out of kicking distance of cows!”

Scott’s dry comment was accompanied by what he thought was a surreptitious rub he administered to the very top of his thigh. He should have known that Johnny’s uncanny powers of observation would not fail him now.

“Perhaps the doc could look at it for you?” Johnny suggested.

Scott glared at Johnny, but the latter’s amusement was unabated.

“I’m sure he’s seen a lot more gruesome things in the past. Or you could go visit the local saloon girls. I’m sure one of them would have the right technique to help you recover … if she don’t die laughing first!”

Johnny sniggered remorselessly at the look of disgust on Scott’s face. Johnny couldn’t remember when he had enjoyed himself so much. That it was at Scott’s, his brother’s, expense seemed to make it all the more appealing to him.

And his amusement was contagious. Scott doubled over, joining Johnny in his merriment until he had tears streaming down his face.

Their laughter continued for a further minute or so, then gradually both quieted, a little embarrassed in a way to be sharing this experience so openly and to be so enjoying themselves in each other’s company.

Scott studied his hands. He was loath to change the topic and break the spell after their spontaneous bout of humour and camaraderie, but dinner was ready and his father was a stickler for punctuality.

“Come on, Johnny, let’s eat. You were going to join us at the table tonight. If you don’t get some food in you, you won’t have any energy next time you DO seek some female company and there might just be a first time after all!”

Johnny looked at him a moment.

“Never!” he stated with cocky confidence. “An impossibility,” he added as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and carefully sat up. He stood gingerly and looked down at Scott.

“What are you waiting for?” he prodded. “I’m starving.”

And he headed for the door, leaving a limping Scott to follow him in his wake.

**********************************  

Murdoch was reading a newspaper, swirling a drink idly around in its glass as he concentrated on the article which had taken his attention. Teresa sat bent over a fashion magazine, a look of critical appraisal on her face as she tilted her head and considered the elaborate sketches on each page.

“Too fussy,” Johnny commented as he sat next to her.

“Pardon?”

“That dress. It’s too fussy. Too many bows and fluffy bits. Too overpowering. A man can’t properly appreciate what’s inside a dress like that if he’s too busy being assaulted by all that material.”

“Oh,” Teresa replied, her voice taking on his suggestion as she considered fashion from a man’s viewpoint for the first time.

The rattling of the newspaper drew both of their attentions.

Murdoch was glaring at them, or more pointedly at Johnny.

“What?” Teresa challenged him.

Johnny was surprised at her audaciousness as Murdoch was looking exceedingly formidable.

“Teresa is not choosing a dress so that she can appeal to men, Johnny! A woman isn’t just a nicely wrapped package for man to …”

Murdoch’s voice trailed off as he realized what he was about to say.

He tried to rephrase his words. “When a woman selects a new dress, the driving force behind what she chooses is not how much it will appeal to a man!”

Johnny noticed that Teresa looked stunned. He’d bet that the old man had never commented on her dress selections much before.  Maybe he was getting worried about having two young unmarried men in the same house as his young ward. And so Johnny just had to bait him. It was in his nature.

“Well, I don’t know where you’ve been all your life, but wherever I’ve lived I’d say whatever style dress a woman chooses is totally dependant on the effect she hopes it will have on men.”

At Murdoch’s glare, he decided to embellish his answer a little. He just couldn’t help himself.

“You know, low cut if she’s got assets she wants a man to appreciate. Boat necked if she’s got nice shoulders. Tight waisted if she’s slender. Maybe a little shorter than fashion permits if she has a nicely turned out ankle. Anything to get the right man looking at her.”

As Johnny was speaking, Murdoch had been turning a fascinating shade of puce. Johnny was enjoying himself and he could see that Scott was enjoying it as well, although attempting to hide his humour behind a well placed hand.

“Teresa is not about to sell herself, young man!”

“I didn’t say she was,” he replied coolly, “Or not the way you were implying.”

Murdoch’s mouth set into a thin line at the rebuke. Before Murdoch could formulate a response, Johnny continued less provocatively.

“But I’m sure she wants something attractive and beguiling which allows her to display her best features and the dress she was looking at would have swamped her.”

Johnny looked evenly at Murdoch. And again he couldn’t resist aggravating this man.

“Just talking from experience, that’s all.”

Johnny thought he could hear Murdoch’s teeth grinding, but he left teasing his father to seriously study the fashions in the magazine. He was joined by Scott and the two men discussed the pros and cons of the styles available with the young woman. As the meal was announced by Maria, a decision was reached by the three of them. Teresa hopped up to Murdoch’s desk, took a pencil from the stand and circled the frock which had appealed to the three of them. Placing the magazine on an occasional table, she joined the younger men in heading for the dining table.

Murdoch followed them, stopping to glance down at the magazine on his way. The circled dress was genteel, refined and becoming. While assets might be hinted at, none would be flaunted. A design which would protect Teresa’s modesty. Murdoch silently added his approval to the selection. As he heaved a sigh of relief, his appetite came back with a vengeance and propelled him forward eagerly to join his family and their guest at the dinner table.

 

Chapter Twenty Three

Johnny stood by the table for several seconds. This was his first night dining with the family and he had never seen anything so elaborate. He honestly didn’t know if he could sit and trust himself with the fragile crystal ware.

Scott and Teresa found their customary seats. After pulling out Teresa’s chair, Scott was about to sit down when he noted Johnny’s uncertain hovering.

“Here, sit next to me. The place is set.” Scott gestured to the empty seat, breaking into Johnny’s reverie.

Johnny took the indicated seat and sat, rigidly. A banquet lay before him. Even at Christmas and Los Días de Los Muertos, never had he seen such a spread. He felt humble thinking that they had done this just for him. His mama’s best efforts had never compared to the bounty in front of him.

Murdoch’s arrival heightened his sense of unease, which warred within him on many levels. Maria had gone to too much trouble for a mere gun hawk guest. His hunger pangs, while itching to assuage themselves on the feast in front of him, became stultified at the arrival of Murdoch. Johnny just did not know if he could swallow a bite under the intense gaze of his forbidding father.

And the old feeling of insecurity surfaced as he wondered just how much of a fool he might make of himself in amongst all of this finery on the table. He had his pride and he did not relish being the butt of someone else’s mockery.

Instead of his usual slouching posture, his backbone was straight for a change. And he did what he had done his whole life in order to survive. He watched and he waited his turn. Scott was his mentor, although his older brother didn’t know it.

Johnny followed his example. The size of the helpings as well as the manner in which he served himself were modelled on Scott’s actions. The eating irons were the next puzzle. His big brother helped him out unwittingly. He took the outside set to start with and noted the progression. All he could think of was the waste and unnecessary washing created for the women. But he played the game. He was not going to stand out as not belonging. He was not going to be uncouth. He would not give his father the satisfaction of finding him wanting. Of comparing him with Scott. Of unwittingly comparing the two brothers.

Murdoch carved and passed around the roast beef. Johnny was in heaven. Potatoes, carrots and gravy soon surrounded his serving of meat. And never did it look so good.

Johnny’s appetite came back with a vengeance and before he knew it his plate was clean. Putting his fork down on the side of the plate, he suddenly did not know what to do with his hands. His lap seemed a safe bet, so he lay them there swivelling his thumbs around in circles under the table cloth. 

“It looks like you’ve perked up some, Johnny. It’s good to see you past the broth stage,” Scott commented.

“I never WAS at the broth stage! I told you I didn’t want or need any,” Johnny replied before softening his words with a grin. “But as far as broths go, Teresa and Maria sure do a good job.” He looked around at the food. “You people are mighty spoiled,” he added, smiling the compliment at Teresa.

She blushed her pleasure and Johnny couldn’t help but notice that this annoyed Murdoch. Murdoch-baiting being a new favourite past time, he decided to lay it on a bit thicker.

“Yessiree! You two ladies sure cook up a storm! I hope that these two men appreciate you and all your attributes, because you’ve sure got some mighty fine ones.” 

Johnny smiled benignly. Murdoch stared at him and through him. Johnny could virtually hear his brain picking through the double entendre working out just how innocent, or not, a statement he had just made.

Murdoch cleared his throat while casting Johnny a severe look. Scott was quick on the uptake and also quick to drown his growing smile in his wine glass. After composing himself, he did flick a look suggesting Johnny not wind Murdoch up any further. Johnny obliged out of consideration to Scott, but boy, did he want to pursue his sport for the evening.

Johnny felt in limbo. He found it difficult to separate the two Murdochs: Scott’s father and his own father. He liked Scott immensely and did not want to aggravate him or cause antagonism by creating friction with his father, the man who was also his host. He was glad that Scott had found his father and was getting on with him. He was pleased that Scott was forging a new life here in California. And Johnny recognized that the key to that life was Murdoch, so he didn’t want to jeopardize their relationship.

But he wanted Murdoch to suffer in some way for the hand that Johnny had been dealt in life. At the moment all that Johnny could think of by way of a middle path to follow until he had things sorted out in his head, was to antagonize the man by niggling him in minor ways. Murdoch could be a severe man, and Johnny was enjoying working out how to unsettle him. Johnny had an astute brain which liked solving puzzles. Cracking that man’s austere demeanour had just now become Johnny’s favourite recreational pursuit. But one he needed to temper just a little.

Despite his earlier thoughts about getting the hell out of Lancer once he got better, he was simply becoming intrigued. Intrigued by both these men for vastly different reasons.

He wanted to get to know Scott better. And he sure as hell wanted to get to know what on earth made his father tick. 

“Johnny?”

Johnny jolted out of his reverie. “Uh, sorry?” he asked, realizing that his thoughts had taken his mind from the dinner table conversation.

“I asked if you’d like seconds seeing you like the chef’s efforts so much,” Scott repeated himself.

Johnny looked at Teresa, seeking assurance that it was permitted. “You don’t mind? You don’t want to keep it for tomorrow’s lunch?”

“There’s plenty,” Teresa assured him. “Please eat up. You need the nourishment after your injury. We want to see you well. We owe you so much.”

Murdoch reached for the knife and carved him some more meat without prompting. Johnny held his plate out to Murdoch who piled on a generous portion. Johnny was unprepared for the warmth in Murdoch’s eyes at that moment.

Murdoch picked up on Teresa’s assertion. “Yes. If it weren’t for you, I would never have got to know Scott. That is a debt which can never be repaid. A man’s time with his son is priceless.”

« Oh, yeah? » Johnny thought bitterly. « You sure didn’t seem to think that twenty years ago. »

A lump unexpectedly formed in his throat.

Why hadn’t Murdoch thought that way about him?

Johnny’s stillness was misconstrued by Scott for shyness and humility.

“Yes, well, I haven’t been here long enough to get on his nerves.” Scott paused to dig Johnny gently in the ribs. “But you never know, he might just put a price on my head to get rid of me by the time I finish laying out my plans for changes around here!”

Murdoch looked shocked. The colour actually drained from his face.

“Wh … what changes?” Murdoch’s eyes narrowed to slits weighted down by heavy horizontal lines deepening across his forehead. Johnny began to smirk as he spotted some beads of perspiration appearing, interspersed between the grooves.

“Oh, I’m not sure yet. I haven’t formulated them precisely yet. Maybe orchards. This is the right country. Other stock. Vineyards, perhaps. In short, diversification.”

The words appeared to strike panic in Murdoch who missed the wink from Scott to Johnny.

Johnny took up the cue and joined Scott in the Murdoch baiting.

“Yep, the days of the cattle barons are over. The market’s too variable. Sheep, now, there’s an option, Scott. They’re good for meat and you can always shear them to get the wool. They ain’t as hard to pull out of bushes and mud holes seeing as how they’re smaller and lighter,” Johnny supplied sagely. “And that in turn means that they don’t kick so strong. Come to think of it, their reach isn’t as long, either.” Johnny’s smug look in Scott’s direction was accompanied by an involuntarily twitching of his lips, a fact not lost on a still aching Scott. But it was Murdoch’s reaction which engrossed Johnny the most.

Johnny really wondered for an instant if Murdoch’s head might literally explode, spewing its contents over the immaculate tablecloth.

“There will be sheep on this property over my dead body!” Murdoch bellowed.

« That can be arranged, Old Man. Easier than you think! »

Johnny and Scott exchanged looks and smirks at Murdoch’s temper tantrum.

With a jolt, Johnny realized that this was the second time that the two brothers had conspired together to tease their father. It was a good feeling. Not the teasing so much, which was a petty desire, but the feeling of camaraderie. A measure of comfort descended on him.

Scott had taken pity on his father and had started to let him off the hook.

“I don’t propose to rush changes, sir. I was merely voicing some thoughts that there could be some other options we could consider in the future which would add to the profit margin and the viability of this ranch. We need to be open minded without turning our backs on what has worked in the past.”

Scott’s words mollified an agitated Murdoch once he realized that immediate wholesale change was not what Scott was proposing.

“Fair enough, son, but we will discuss that later when you are more settled here. I’m sure that you have many good ideas in that head of yours, but in the meantime I still call the tune, don’t forget.”

“How could I forget?”

Johnny looked at Scott, surprised by the challenge in those words. The honey tongued, mild mannered Scott was no pushover, it seemed.

Murdoch looked confused, the challenge not lost on him, either.

Murdoch softened his tone. “I just mean to guide you, Scott. I have learnt from bitter experience what mistakes to avoid. If I can help you avoid any heartache, then I will do my best.”

Contrition spread over Scott’s face.

“Yes, sir, I realize that.” After a pause, he smiled an admission. “I was just stirring the pot a little.”

Murdoch regarded him intently, then his features, too, relaxed into a smile in return.

“So we can keep sheep off Lancer property for the moment?” Murdoch asked.

“Yes sir,” Scott grinned. “… for the moment!”

Teresa had brought in dessert as the exchange was taking place. She positioned a huge apple pie on the table and proceeded to cut them all a substantial slice. Johnny’s eyes concentrated on Teresa’s movements, but his mind mulled over the conversation. He felt excluded by their plans for the future and it hurt.

He did not figure in Lancer’s future and he never had. What’s more, he had never wanted to.

So what was gripping his gut with such an intensity that he felt his dinner threatening to regurgitate itself all over the table?

*******************************  

It was three days later that Sam checked on Johnny and gave him the nod to get about more freely and to do light chores. What Sam didn’t know was that Johnny had already been investigating the countryside and getting to know some of the local residents, while everyone at Lancer merely thought he was going on slow and leisurely horse rides over the property.

The young man had been champing at the bit to have restrictions on his mobility officially lifted, so Sam was surprised at Johnny’s reticence at the news.

Sam took his time packing away his medical bag and surreptitiously eyed Johnny buttoning up his shirt. Johnny was lingering as much as Sam was.

It didn’t look like he was going to be forthcoming, so Sam decided that bluntness was the way to proceed.

“What’s on your mind, Johnny?”

“Nothing.”

Johnny grabbed his shirt tails and tucked them in lethargically.

“Are you sure?”

”Yep.”

“If you don’t feel up to it, you could rest some more, you know. There’s no rush for you to go about your normal routine. I was merely rushing things a little because I thought that you wanted your liberty back.”

Johnny’s blue eyes washed over the doctor with an intensity he was unprepared for.

“Yeah, well I am anxious to be on my way,”  Johnny reached for his hat, and fingered the indentation in the crown before tilting his head back and firmly planting his hat on his head. He left the straps dangling, but one hand reached for the knot at the end of the thong and began kneading it as he continued his comment, “But not half as anxious as I bet Scott’s father is to have me gone!”

Turning to leave, he was stayed by Sam calling out to him.

“Johnny! Why do you think that?”

Johnny’s slow, knowing smile given over his shoulder was the only answer he gave Sam.

He made to leave, throwing a “Thanks, doc” to the physician.

Johnny was unable to make his exit. His arm was grabbed surprisingly strongly by the elderly medic and his body was forced part way around.

Johnny’s hiss of anger made the doctor hesitate and then loosen his grip.

“People don’t get to handle me like that, doc, and then live to tell the tale!”

Sam bestowed a smile on him that visibly released the tension in Johnny’s taut frame.

“So, I’m a first to survive, am I?” Sam queried. “That is, presuming, you will let me live to tell the tale?”

Johnny’s glare softened into an amused snort. “Yeah, well, if I go and shoot you, you’re sure gonna leave one heck of a mess here in the house. Maria and Teresa have got enough housekeeping to do without having to do any more cleaning!”

Sam’s laughter brought a genuine smile to Johnny’s face. Johnny stood there and shook his head. He admired the old doc. Not many men dared to bait Johnny Madrid. Sam was one brave man. Or maybe he just didn’t know exactly who he was dealing with? Whatever, Johnny couldn’t help but like him.

His bemused smile faded, however, when Sam persisted with his earlier question.

“Why do you think that Murdoch wants you gone?”

Johnny studied his boots, his shoulders slumped a little. His head seemed to nod fractionally to a slow, inner rhythm.

“Why wouldn’t he? I’m a gunslinger. I’ve killed more men than you want to know. He has Teresa sleeping under the same roof as me. And he has a son he thinks the world of. I’m not all cultured like Scott. And one thing’s sure, Murdoch’s not gonna want my friendship contaminating his son.”

Sam was gawking at him, surprised at Johnny’s honest and self deprecating appraisal of the situation.

“I know he’s grateful and all that I saved Scott’s life. But I’m not stupid. I know that he wants me to get well and get going.”

Sam shook his head. “I don’t think that you should rush things, Johnny. Don’t rush your healing, because while I’ve given you a provisional all clear, you are not completely recovered. And don’t rush making up your mind about Murdoch. He’s a surprising man and your impressions could be wrong.”

The intense gaze Johnny bored into the doctor caused Sam to shift his stance as his brows puckered. The affable smile of a moment ago was gone, to be replaced by cold ice. Bitter words shot at Sam.

“I’m not too often wrong about people. Otherwise I’d have been dead long before this. I found out the hard way to trust my instincts!”

And Johnny was gone, leaving a sorrowful looking doctor who pensively began to make his way back to the Great Room.

*****************************

Sam wandered downstairs to find Murdoch ensconced in his usual seat behind his massive desk. Books were spread out in front of him, and although Murdoch was frowning with a studious air, Sam did not think that Murdoch was actually concentrating on them.

Murdoch looked up eagerly. “Is he about right now, Sam?”

Sam came to a stop in front of his friend. He considered his reply, before answering.

“About right for what?”

“To get going,” Murdoch clarified.

“To leave?”

“Yes. What else would I mean?” Murdoch sounded slightly irritated to Sam’s mind.

“Well, you could have meant about right to go riding, to work with Scott, to help out. All sorts of things, to be honest.”

Murdoch looked sharply at him.

“Why do I get the feeling that I am being rebuked?” he queried.

“It must be your instincts. You’ve had to use them enough over the years. Like someone else.”

Murdoch regarded the doctor quizzically.

“You are not being very forthcoming, Sam.”

Sam sighed deeply, then hitched up his pants at the knees and sat down.

“Murdoch, there is something about that boy. I can’t help but like him. For all his self assuredness, he seems lost somehow. Just why are you so keen for Johnny to get the hell better and go?”

Murdoch’s eyebrows arched.

“Sam, in case you haven’t noticed, we have a young girl living here. A woman, really. A rather sheltered woman, even though she would beg to differ. He is a handsome young man and I don’t want him turning her head. And I might remind you that he has a questionable reputation. I have had the sheriff check up on him. Johnny Madrid has some background. More than I realized, despite his notoriety. His past isn’t a pretty picture. He’s quick with his gun and he’s never far from trouble.”

Sam watched as Murdoch paused to lick his lips before continuing.

“Scott likes him. He seems to look up to him. I guess that I am worried about the influence he could have over him. I’m just getting to know my son and I suppose I just don’t want him being pulled in any other directions,” Murdoch confessed.

Sam opened his mouth to speak, but a different voice sounded in the room.

“You don’t need to worry about me stopping you getting to know your son!”

Both men turned to the voice. The sneer on the word ‘me’ was evident to them. Before either of them could formulate a response, Johnny continued.

“And I told you before that Teresa is safe from me. I wouldn’t harm a sweet little thing like her, or any other woman for that matter. So tell me, just what did you find out about Johnny Madrid?”

Murdoch was a shrewd businessman who was used to calling a spade a spade, but even he was a little tongue tied as to how to best reply. He swallowed, trying to make up his mind just what to share.

“Well?” Johnny prodded relentlessly.

“I found out that you have killed a number of men,” Murdoch supplied.

“Yeah? Don’t that beat all? A gun hawk who has killed a number of men. Pretty surprising, huh? But surely you knew that?”

Murdoch bristled at the sarcasm, but Johnny spoke again before he could comment.

“In case it has escaped your notice, your son out there …” Johnny jerked his head to the French doors, “… has no doubt done the same thing.”

“That’s different! My son was a soldier. There was a war on!”

“You mean it was kill or be killed?” Johnny sought confirmation.

“Yes, exactly!” snapped Murdoch.

“So it was all right for him to kill if it was him or someone else, but it wasn’t all right for Johnny Madrid to shoot back if he was shot at?”

“A gun fight is different!”

“How? Shooting’s shooting. Saving your hide is saving your hide. Preventing someone from bringing you down is the same anywhere in any country and in any circumstance. And Scott’s wasn’t the only war happening five or so years ago.”

“You were in the army, Johnny?” Sam spoke up.

“The Mexican army, but not for long. I don’t take too well to people bossing me around.” Johnny’s steely gaze enmeshed Murdoch. “You know, a war can still be happening, even if it is not officially declared.”

Murdoch continued with his rebuttal. “It’s still not the same thing as what Scott endured. You hire out your gun.”

Johnny’s snort of derision was loud in the Great Room. “And Scott didn’t? He was never paid for all his time serving with the Union Army?”

“Of course he was, but he was fighting for a cause! He was fighting for liberty and the just treatment of fellow human beings.”

“Believe you me, Murdoch Lancer, ain’t no one got more of a cause to fight for their liberty and just treatment by their fellow man than from where I grew up. Except the war ain’t been openly declared, is all. And only one side has fancy uniforms with shiny buttons.”

Murdoch’s face sharpened. All the crags and crevices became more defined as he studied Johnny with more depth than previously.

“Was it bad down there, son?” Sam asked quietly.

“About as bad as it can get.” Johnny sighed. “People with nothing found that even that nothing was being taken from under them. Good people. People who deserved better.”

Murdoch was interested, despite himself.

“Well, didn’t they go to the authorities? It’s not like they were slaves as in the Confederacy,” Murdoch asked genuinely.

Johnny looked at him as if he were mad. He barked with laughter at Murdoch’s naivety.

“Where have you been, old man? The authorities usually WERE the problem!”

Murdoch considered his response. “Yes, I know that there is corruption down there, but there are two sides to every story.”

“You sure got that right!” Johnny fired back, heavy with sarcasm.

Murdoch responded in measured tones. “I know that you fought against the authorities and against the rurales, but so did others, many of whom merely used the situation to garner some misdirected fame for themselves and some profits from the spoils of this revolt.”

Johnny had stepped into the room as the conversation progressed and now stood only several yards away from the two men.

“Well, ‘others’ ain’t me! Do I look like I profited from any spoils?”

Murdoch stiffened his back and his resolve.

“No, but I know you killed your first man at fourteen and it wasn’t in any feud between the peasants and the authorities!”

His triumph was short lived.

Johnny took yet another step closer. His voice was quiet, deadly and sparking with suppressed fury.

“Wrong! I was eleven. You are right, though, in that it wasn’t in any revolution between the authorities and the poor peons. It was just between me and him. And he was gonna kill me if I didn’t think and act fast enough. So I did. I survived. Oh, I wasn’t wearing no uniform and it wasn’t for the greater cause. Just a cause dear to my own heart. And that killing might just follow me around some, but I don’t regret it for one instant. And I’d do the same again if I had to.”

Johnny’s stare chilled Murdoch. The torture in it also moved him.

“Just so’s you know, I don’t kill for fun. I don’t take no delight in it. But I’ll do it whenever it’s necessary.”

Johnny smiled with satisfaction as he noted Murdoch flinching a fraction.

“And you can take that any way you like!” Johnny added.

 

Note:

Los Días de Los Muertos – All Saints and All Souls Days

To see how these are celebrated in Mexico, check out the two sites below:

http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/muertos.html

http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/travel/jking/jkdayofthedead.html

 

Chapter Twenty Four

Johnny swiveled on his heel and started to leave, but stopped after several paces. His head bowed, a deep sigh issued from his lungs. Placing one hand on his hip, he wiped the other across the back of his neck and rubbed it hard.

What the hell was he doing here? It was time to recognize that this was Scott’s home, not his. He could take a hint. He had heard Murdoch’s conversation with Sam. And as much as he despised Murdoch for it, Johnny guessed he could see where he was coming from. He thought back to the many men he had ridden with in the past. Would he trust them with a pretty teenaged ward in the same house? Definitely not. And what about with a new found son he was desperate to get to know? Probably not, either. Johnny found that he could glimpse some of Murdoch’s point of view, but it didn’t mean that he liked it any or that he hated him less at the moment for it.

He was furious with himself for dithering. Prevarication was not usually one of Johnny Madrid’s traits. He had desperately wanted to stay to get to know Scott better. He could kid himself as much as he liked, but he hadn’t just stayed here waiting for a suitable chance to plug Murdoch full of lead. He had to admit that he wanted to solve the riddle of Murdoch as well, but he was coming to realize that he would never be accepted here. Why hang around hoping for something which was never going to happen? Why stay and be disappointed yet again in this life? There was only so much masochism a person could endure.

“I forgot why I came in,” he murmured to the floor as he turned. Another sigh broke the tense air. “Your horse,” he directed at Murdoch. “I noticed him limping in the corral. He seems to have strained a muscle. I know the recipe for a good poultice. I’ll put it on before I pack my bags and leave.”

Johnny nodded and left.

The room reverberated in the silence that followed the closing of the door.

Murdoch’s face was pained.

“I wonder who he was?”

“Who who was?” asked Sam.

“Who he killed when he was eleven. Good Lord, he was just a boy!”

Murdoch ran his hand through his sparse hair. “I can’t imagine what circumstances he was in! And it’s probably just as well we don’t know and that he is leaving now, after all.”

He looked over to Sam, expecting a confirmation, a nod of the head, something. It wasn’t forthcoming.

Puzzlement crept over his face like a growing cracks in a dry clay creek bed.

“What is it, Sam?”

“I’m just surprised, that’s all.”

“Surprised about what?”

“About you and him.” Sam finished his brief sentence with a jerk of his chin to the door Johnny had taken.

“How so?”

“How you can be so insensitive and how that young man, despite his obviously deprived background, could be so very much the opposite! There is more to that so called gun slinger than meets the eye.”

Murdoch suddenly found himself alone in his sanctuary.  It was several minutes before he could stir himself enough to follow Sam.

The sun blinded him on his exit from the hacienda. Blinking rapidly, he took in the activity at the corral. Johnny was seated on a barrel, mixing what Murdoch presumed to be the poultice. Sam was leaning back against the corral fence, arms crossed against his chest, studying Johnny and Jelly. Approaching the men, Murdoch listened in to the conversation taking place. Johnny was holding up well under an onslaught of recommendations from Jelly, nodding and complimenting him on his equine knowledge.

Johnny proceeded purposefully, however, studiously mixing the concoction and checking for consistency.  Sam’s voice broke into the dialogue, requesting a list of the ingredients.

Sam in turn began to nod as Johnny explained about the benefits of the clay based mixture.

Electing to leave the three men to do the talking, Murdoch entered the corral and checked out his mount. Johnny was right. The horse was favouring one hind leg, which seemed a little swollen.

Johnny seemed satisfied at last with the mixture. Rather than walking around to the gate, Johnny placed the bowl on the ground through the bars of the corral and hopped over the fence with an athletic grace which left Murdoch both impressed with his nimbleness and wincing at the thought. Sure hands felt the horse’s leg. Not only sure, but gentle. The whole time Johnny was talking softly to the horse as he smoothed on the poultice and bandaged the leg with some clean strips he had asked Jelly to tear up for him.

Murdoch studied the concentration and devotion on Johnny’s face. Once again, he could not quite make out this young man so full of contradictions. A killer who could be ice cold, but who had the compassion to rescue a stranger, his son. A man who could care so much for a horse he was unfamiliar with. And this immediately after he had taken the hint that he should be on his way. In Murdoch’s experience, most people who were kind to animals had a good heart. Johnny just didn’t add up. And the elusive total continued to frustrate and concern the rancher.

With a grunt of satisfaction, Johnny straightened his back. Passing the pot to Jelly, he advised him to re-apply it in twelve hours. He fastidiously wiped his hands on the rag given to him by Jelly, then suddenly and disconcertingly met Murdoch’s eyes.

“I’ll fetch my saddle bags and get going now. Scott telegraphed the ranch for me earlier in the week, so they’ll be expecting me soon, anyway.”

Murdoch’s mouth was suddenly dry. His tongue licked his lips, but it was like pouring a canteen of water onto the vast desert sand, for all the good it did. He felt badly that Johnny had overheard the conversation he had held with Sam, but relief swept over him that this enigma was about to be on his way. The sooner his unsettling influence was out of the way, the better. Then he and Scott could get back to knowing each other without any interference.

“No!” Sam spoke. “You’re not well enough to go yet. I may have cleared you for some light duties and some horse riding, but I didn’t mean for you to travel further than the ranch boundaries. Take the time to recover properly.”

Johnny’s smile lit up his face and bathed the doctor in a tide of warmth. “I’ve been hurt a lot worse than this without the benefit of proper doctoring. I’ll be fine. I’m much obliged for what you’ve done for me, doc. Thank you.”

Johnny extended his hand which Sam grasped firmly. No such farewell was offered to Murdoch, however.

Johnny stilled before swinging a piercing stare his Murdoch’s way. A flicker broke the coldness of the look, but was gone before Murdoch could rightly decipher it.

“Say goodbye to Scott for me, if you will.”

He didn’t add any more. A tightness around his mouth heralded a final nod from Johnny before he headed off to collect his belongings.

Johnny had only gone about twenty paces when hoof beats and calls broke his stride.

The ground reverberated as the horses approached. Clouds of dust grew into a swirling maelstrom of opaque duskiness. Voices, indistinguishable in the agitated frenzy, clogged the previously serene peace of the day. Another sound rose above the words being exchanged. Moaning. Then a piercing, keening wail of agony.

Johnny’s body shivered as his heart suddenly pounded. He could hear Scott’s voice strained with distress. And Johnny immediately went cold with worry. Just what had happened? More importantly, was Scott all right?

Eyes narrowed, he turned to the unfolding scene. Scott had slid abruptly from his horse and was reaching up to the man on the saddle of the accompanying mount. The man screamed in unmitigated anguish.

Before others could react, Johnny was beside Scott. The two of them worked to carry the man as gently as possible to the bunkhouse, groans unceasing in their intensity. Blood soaked the man’s shirt around the neck and had flooded down his shirt front and to his pants.

Johnny and Scott manipulated the hand onto a nearby bed as Sam fetched his bag from the Great Room. Johnny spoke reassuringly to the man, unbuttoning the injured man’s shirt as he did so.

He drew in a breath. Bone protruded through the skin, leaving flesh lying jagged and raw around the wound.

“His collar bone’s broken,” Johnny informed the medic, as Sam arrived panting at his side. “And he’s sure lost a lot of blood.”

“Thank you for your diagnosis,” Sam informed him. “Sadly, it looks like you are right.”

Johnny moved out to the way to make room for Sam, whose competent hands gently probed the injury.

“Anything I can get you, doc?” Johnny’s offered.

Sam looked up, noting the concern on both young men’s faces as they stood side by side.

“Not at the moment. Teresa will be out shortly as I spoke to her when I fetched my bag. I’ll give a holler if I need anything. Thank you, anyway.”

Johnny nodded, turned on his heel and left with Scott.

He was half way to the house when Scott’s voice halted him.

“Hey, are you all right? You look a bit green around the gills.”

Johnny’s gaze rested on his brother, his agitation lessening only marginally.

He pulled a face and grinned sheepishly before confessing the cause of his anxiety.

“I’ve been there before, Scott. A broken bone sticking out like that is something else. I guess it brought back some memories I’d rather forget.”

Scott searched Johnny’s face. “So that has happened to you before?”

“A couple of times.”

Scott thought about asking the circumstances, but deciding that he was not likely to receive an answer, he merely shook his head.

“I’m sorry to hear that, especially when I see the agony Luke is in.”

A movement of the head was Johnny’s only acknowledgement. A grimace then preceded a smile which tugged at the corners of his mouth. “What about you, Scott. You ever got your body all mangled up like that?”

Scott’s grey-blue eyes glimmered with a not so fond memory.

“Ooh, yeah! I broke my forearm once.”

“How?”

“I fell off a horse. I had been taking riding lessons and was sick of sticking to what the teacher let me do. I took matters into my own hands before I was ready. I decided to jump some fences.”

Johnny laughed softly, the sound rumbling gently in his chest. “And I don’t think I need to strain myself wondering too much about what happened!”

“No, it wouldn’t take much imagination. I fell hard and it hurt. That bone was sticking up greeting the bright sunny day. I remember looking at it and wondering if it could ever be put back in its place and if I would ever stop hurting. It was and I did.”

“How long before you could use your arm again?”

Scott smiled ruefully at the memory. “About eight weeks. Eight very long weeks. Eight of the longest weeks of my life until …”

“Until what?”

Scott’s face clouded over. « Libby. » His mouth worked, about to say something, but he seemed to think better of it. He gave himself a visible shake, his face taking on a sickly ashen hue as he concentrated on the mountains in the distance.

“Never mind.” Scott turned to Johnny, one eyebrow cocked. “Luke and I were going to spend a night or so out at the east line shack. He thinks it seems to need more repair. How about you come with me instead. Re-stock it and repair it.”

Johnny’s ducked his head as he concentrated on the dust at his boots. Little clouds rose up, particles dancing in the sunlight before wafting down in lazy abandon to settle back on the ground until the next disruption came their way.

His chest clamped tightly. Once again, he had made up his mind and he found circumstances tempting him away from what he knew was common sense. He had decided once more that he would leave after hearing Murdoch’s conversation with Sam. But again, he found himself looking for any reason to prolong his stay at Lancer. This fickle predicament was alien to the decisive soul circumstances had dictated that he become.

He studied his boots and the dust mounting on them with a fierce concentration. To hell with Murdoch Lancer! Why not stick around a bit longer just to niggle him a little? He shouldn’t. There was no place here for him here. He knew that and he wasn’t really seeking any, but the pull to discover the intricate being that was his brother overwhelmed him. That, and the desire to get under his father’s skin. Murdoch Lancer would not be happy for Scott to spend a few days alone with Johnny out of sight and out of mind, at an isolated spot where parental influence could not be wielded.

Johnny thought back to when he had rescued Scott. They had opened up to each other. Two strangers then. Johnny had revealed more than he intended, mostly to put the injured man at some sort of indefinable ease. He had felt sorry for this fancy easterner being thrown into a deadly situation not of his making. Scott was not only wounded, but in alien surroundings. But Johnny had also thought that they would never meet again, that they had nothing in common, and so he had been careless with words and sentiments that he normally held locked tightly away. Access was denied even to those he had ridden with regularly. Johnny Madrid stood aloof and essentially alone.

Johnny Madrid, self sufficiency personified. Johnny Madrid, an incomplete man riddled with self doubt and bitterness. Johnny Madrid aching to fill the void of his lonely childhood.

And here he was, Johnny Madrid eagerly clutching any crumb of hope which could plug up the holes of his past, even though he knew it was nonsensical and illogical. How could getting to know Scott better do anything but cause him more anguish?

The fresh Lancer air filled his lungs with a cloud of impulse.

“Sure, why not? I don’t know that I’d be much help with the heavy work, though. And I won’t be able ride hard.”

Scott’s easy grin brightened the already sunny day.

“No problems. We’ll be taking the wagon with supplies and building materials, anyway. It should be easy going. Not too fast.”

“OK,” Johnny found himself agreeing as he secretly wondered just what Murdoch’s reaction would be. The old man would not appreciate Johnny having unrestricted access to Scott for several days. The Boston bred rancher just might come back contaminated with uncouth ways.

The thought fairly bolstered Johnny’s morale.

 

Chapter Twenty Five

Scott and Johnny were gone not long after breakfast the next day. Murdoch had not voiced any concern, but he didn’t need to. Johnny could feel the worry vibrating off the man, but to actually give him some credit, Murdoch kept his counsel.

The hands had loaded wood, nails and tools while Maria and Teresa had packed a bounty of culinary delights to keep their strength up. Both men had heaved their saddle bags onto the wagon and had left after brief farewells.

Just prior to Scott tapping the reins on the horses’ rumps, Murdoch had shaken hands with Scott, slapping him lightly on the shoulder with his left hand in the process.

“Take care, son,” he had uttered.

It was the warmth and the love in those three words which were nearly Johnny’s undoing.

Murdoch had then glanced at Johnny, almost catching him off guard, and had surprisingly nodded at him.

“Look out for each other,” Murdoch had added, directing himself at Johnny.

Johnny interpreted this as “Look out for Scott”, but he didn’t begrudge his father this sentiment. He would look out for his brother all right.

“We will!” Johnny promised.

Reassured, Murdoch had smiled at him. It was a first which strangely disturbed Johnny.

********************************

A magic day ensued. The bright blue of the sky was interrupted intermittently by the soft fluff of white clouds which cast subdued shadows over the undulating countryside. Light and the fragmented dark added a richness to the contrasting countryside which fairly engrossed Johnny. He was in awe of the bounty of the landscape, from the paddocks to the hillsides, from the stands of trees to the serpentine creek beds nourishing the land.

It was beautiful.

The passing grandeur mesmerized him and anaesthetized the niggling pain from his wound. It fairly took his breath away in pleasure. 

Providing a backdrop to this picture perfect idyll were the sounds of nature at play.  Birds called above the tinkling of stream water flowing over rocks. Cows, the financial kings of the ranch, lowed to each other in contentment. Johnny could relate to that feeling as his horse’s measured hoof beats added to Nature’s harmony.

The air was fresh, untainted by the stench of gutter filth, unwashed human bodies and the coppery reek of blood which had so often contaminated his past. The odour of the horses and lingering smell of the cattle was a comfort to Johnny. They were natural scents which belonged here.

Johnny was exhilarated by the openness and innocence of this land in stark contrast to the fetid border towns he had survived.

Conversation had flowed, or not, as smoothly as the wind gently cooling their faces. The silences were as harmonious as their exchanged words. Peace was a rare thing for Johnny to experience and he reckoned he was the closest to heaven that he would ever get.

The line shack finally came in to view, near the base of a gentle incline and sheltered by cottonwoods with a back drop of isolated oaks. Just next to the cabin was another building used to shelter horses from the elements. Not nearly as grand as a proper stable, but slightly more sturdy than a lean to, the building would provide ample protection at night for the animals to benefit from.

The men made short work of unhitching the wagon and removing the harnesses from the horses and rubbing them down. Water and food were then greeted with expectant whinnies of delight from both steeds.

The brothers entered the shack and surveyed their accommodation for the next few nights. Better than some that Johnny had stayed in, but some house keeping was obviously in order.

Johnny grinned at Scott.

“Toss you for the choice of beds!”

Scott surveyed the two cots. Both a little rickety, both dusty, but much of a muchness. Maybe Johnny could see something that he couldn’t.

“Done!”

The words were no sooner spoken than the coin Johnny flipped so adroitly was spinning through the air and heading for his outstretched palm.

“Your call!”

“Heads!”

“Nope!”

Johnny pocketed the coin before Scott saw it. He felt cheated and narrowed his eyes.

“How do I know whether it was heads or tails?”

“You’ll just have to take my word, I guess.”

Scott bit his lower lip considering Johnny’s statement. He trusted Johnny. He had trusted him with his life and Johnny had done right by him. He could trust him over a simple toss of the coin … couldn’t he?

Scott gave a wary nod of confirmation, then watched as Johnny proceeded to investigate both beds thoroughly. He pressed down testing for strength and checked the cleanliness of the thin mattresses. Running his hand down their length, his forehead was crumpled in thought.

“Yep, this is the one,” Johnny confirmed, indicating the bed furthest, by approximately five feet, from the door.

Placing his saddle bags over the back of a chair, he lay down on the bed. He wriggled theatrically, allowing the mattress to massage his back, before he linked his fingers and used them as a pillow behind his head. He closed his eyes.

“Aaahhh!” His breath sighed in ecstasy.

Scott studied him. He looked from bed to bed. Crossing to the empty one, he pressed down on it, considering his sleeping arrangements for the evening. He then slowly stood with arms crossed and leant his shoulder against the wall.

Shaking his head, he couldn’t refrain from commenting.

“I just can’t see what is so good about the bed you are on. For the life of me, I can’t see any difference between the two. Care to enlighten me, mi amigo?”

“There ain’t none.”

“Pardon?”

“There ain’t no difference between the two beds. I just wanted to see your reaction if you thought you were gypped out of a good deal!”

His deadpan face suddenly blazed wickedly with a grin.

Scott was clearly having difficulty absorbing the gall of the man. His face became a stern mask, betrayed by the upward pull on the right side of his mouth.

“Well, you can’t lie there all afternoon. We’ve got things to do!”

“We? Hell, I’m recovering from an injury. I need rest after that arduous ride.”

“Arduous?” enjoined Scott with mock surprise. “Have you been reading the dictionary during your recuperation?”

“Nope, but I did pick up that book you were reading in the Great Room and read a few pages of it. Whoever they were, they were big on arduous journeys.”

“Yes, they were big on arduous journeys and putting in an arduous day’s work,” agreed Scott. “There was no time for lying around like a lump on a log.”

“Well, that was then, this is now,” murmured Johnny, eyes closed in relaxation.

It was the cold liquid dribbling from his forehead and following a path along his cheek and down his neck, which brought him up to a rapid sitting position.

“Hey! Do you mind! A man is trying to rest here!”

Scott was standing above him, recapping his canteen. One eyebrow was raised at an amazingly high angle.

“You’re forgetting I was in the army. No ex-army or ex-cavalryman is going to do all the work while someone else sleeps on the job. It’s all for one and one for all, to use a famous quote. We work together, or not at all.”

“How about the ‘not at all’?” Johnny flung back, wiping his face with a bandana he pulled from his pocket.

Scott’s amusement heightened his grumbling.

“That depends on whether you want to survive the next few days. That’s Lancer water out in that creek down the hill and those boxes are filled with Lancer victuals if you are aiming to get fed.”

“So, if I don’t eat your food, but go shoot me a rabbit, are you going to tell me that it’s a Lancer rabbit?”

“Oh yes, attracting a tax of one dollar per head for each one shot and consumed,” Scott quipped back lightning fast.

“You know that you can be a right smart alec at times?” Johnny groused, his own smile betraying his enjoyment of their banter.

He stretched, then stood tall next to Scott. He surveyed Scott’s grinning features.

“I guess I may as well take the easy way out and eat the food we bought with us, then.”  Johnny was about to turn when he backhanded Scott’s stomach playfully, “Unless that’s taxed, too?”

“No, that food is free to good workers who do what they are asked, when they are asked and how they are asked.”

“Even injured ones suffering lingering pain?”

“Even more so. We treat everyone equally here. There’s no playing favourites.”

Johnny chuckled at Scott’s mock severe face.

“OK, I surrender! Do you want to tell me what to do, when to do it and how to do it or will I use a little initiative here?”

Scott’s answering smile was full of warmth at Johnny’s sense of humour.

“Well, being senior management, I guess I have the authority to cut you a little slack.”

“Boy, you’d better, before I find a way to wipe that smirk off your face,” Johnny grumbled good-naturedly.

He was grinning broadly, however, as he turned his attention to the stove. Squatting down, he opened the door and examined it.

“Humph! Come on, Your Management, give this worker a hand at cleaning this thing so we can actually use it tonight to cook up some of that Lancer food hiding in those crates!”

Over an hour’s dirty work ensued as the afternoon faded. It was filthy work, but work which Scott had never enjoyed so much. Johnny was no slouch, he noticed. And he sure didn’t mind getting his hands grubby. But even more, it was the intermittent conversation, the anecdotes and the wit emanating from his friend which actually made this foul job enjoyable.

Johnny finally sat back on his haunches after squatting to properly clean the joint between the stove and the flue. His teeth stood out starkly white against the soot streaked across his face. He grinned in relief.

“I’d say we can finally light this thing now without setting the cabin on fire. We can expect a cool night by the look of the cloudless sky.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Scott agreed. He looked down fastidiously at his hands. He almost wiped them on his pants, but caught himself in time. He half reached for his bedroll, but again stopped. He moved them once more without purpose, trying to work out what to do with them.

Johnny laughed at his dilemma. “I think that this problem is bigger than you, me and this stove. How about we get down to the creek before it gets too dark and nippy? We could wash up there without spreading any of this soot around.”

“Great idea, but let’s get that brush and dustpan and clean up here first.”

Making short work of the area on and around the stove, they headed out the door leaving all their gear behind. They were just too grimy to contaminate anything by their touch. The creek was further down the slope and flowing quite merrily on its path to flatter ground where it provided water for the lower pastures.

Scott hunkered down to wash his hands and face, Johnny doing likewise. But Johnny did not stop there. Once his face and hands were clean, he stepped back to the grassy bank proper and whipped off his clothes with alacrity. Leaving them unceremoniously in a pile dumped on a boulder, he rushed past Scott and threw himself stark naked into the bubbling stream.

The gun fighter was no match for the shock of the icy water hitting his warm flesh, a cross between a squeal and a shout being torn from his normally stoic lips.

Scott stood and regarded his water play. He shook his head.

“Are you mad? That water is not exactly at bathing temperature!”

Taking a gulp of air, Johnny shook the hair from his eyes. “My mother taught me that cleanliness is next to godliness!”

“I don’t know that a bit of mountain water is enough to do the trick,” Scott replied. “But who am I to argue?”

Scott retreated to the dry patch of ground and after a fraction of a second’s hesitation, followed suit.  He had braced himself for the shock of chilly mountain current on warm flesh, but he, too, could not suppress a cry of agony.

He was still panting and moaning when Johnny pounced on him, knocking him over. Johnny waited for him to stand up spluttering before compounding the dousing by cupping his hands in the water and spraying him liberally. Scott howled as he was hit by the glacial waves of torture. Goosebumps rose, covering his skin and dipping and rising according to the muscles contouring his body.

He lunged for Johnny in payback, but Johnny sidestepped and held his hands out in a sort of surrender.

”Hey! I’m recovering from serious wounds, remember! You don’t want to do me any damage!”

“Oh, don’t I?”

Scott tackled him regardless by quite simply hooking his foot behind Johnny’s knee, which buckled and toppled him over.

Johnny crumpled in an ungainly mess of waving arms and splattering water which also doused Scott.

Coughing and spluttering, Johnny righted himself.

“Hey, you are one mean hombre! What about sticking to the rules? Ain’t you got any sense of guilt for doing that to me?”

“No.” Scott grinned at him. “And there aren’t any rules up here. Be careful who you stand up to my friend. Surprise is the spice of life.”

“Or death. I think I’m about to catch my death of cold,” Johnny grumbled. He then flashed a brilliant smile in return. “Deceptive, ain’t you? You sure ain’t no pushover for an eastern cityslicker gringo!”

“No, and you had better remember that! In the mean time I am about as clean and cold as I aim to get. I’m out of here.” Scott’s chattering teeth and the blue tinge to his lips confirmed the wisdom of this move.  

Johnny wasted no time in joining him. The cold had set in with a vengeance. He scurried after his brother, equally determined to get dry and warm. Snatching up his shirt from its place on the rock, he used the cleaner inside of it as a makeshift towel, scrubbing it hard over his body in a rather vain effort to remove all of the water droplets. Scott did the likewise as Johnny bent over the water’s edge to give his shirt a quick wash to remove the excess dirt and soot.  Satisfied that the shirt was as clean as he could get it, Johnny wrung it and then eyed the shack a little further up the hill.

“Do you reckon there is anyone around here for miles apart from us?” he asked Scott.

Scott stopped wiping himself with his shirt to stare at him quizzically.

“No. Why?”

“’Cause I don’t aim on getting my pants wet trying to get them back on, that’s why!”

And so, clutching his pile of clothes in front of his privates, Johnny skedaddled up the hill like a rabbit, only detouring to weave around large clumps of bushes blocking his path.

Scott grinned at the rear view presented to him before stooping and washing his own shirt. He then swiftly looked around to check that he was unobserved. He also opted for a quick, naked sprint back to the shack.

By the time Scott made the shack, Johnny had already hung his shirt over the back of a chair to dry. He was bending down in front of the stove, lighting a match to the wood and tinder and encouraging it to take by blowing gently on it.  

Both men dried off and warmed up further in front of the soon blazing flames before donning their drawers, trousers and a dry shirt from their saddlebags. From the depths of his saddlebags, Johnny also produced a bottle of tequila.

He waved it around, devilry alight in his eyes.

“Pass your mug over, Scott.”

Scott did so, then grimaced wryly as he sipped the alcohol.

“Don’t tell me I’m wasting good tequila on you,” Johnny teased him as he took in the lack of appreciation for the drink.

“Well, while I’m becoming accustomed to this bizarre form of liquid suicide, Johnny, I must say, that it is an acquired taste.”

Scott paused to swirl the drink in his mug. “However, it is doing the trick. I feel a lot warmer. It’s just a pity that it doesn’t quite have the tang of a good malt whiskey.”

“That’s just the Scottish half of your blood talking … the part that doesn’t have any appreciation for the fine things in life!” Johnny retorted.

Scott barked with laughter. “You’d better not suggest that to my father! To hear him talk, the Scots were the centre of civilization!”

Johnny took a big swig from his mug. Johnny swallowed a gulp and mentally altered the ‘my father’ to ‘our father’. He studied Scott, again amazed there was no similarity to himself whatsoever. Then again, he supposed, Scott didn’t really look like Murdoch, either.

“Is that where you got your name from?”

“Pardon?”

“Scott. Your father being Scottish?”

Scott’s eyes looked sombre for a moment before lightening. A small wistful smile played about his lips. ”Murdoch told me just after I arrived that my mother had already chosen that name for a boy. Maybe that’s why she chose it.”

”It’s a good name.”

Scott’s smile broadened. “I like it!”

“I’ve seen the photo of your mother on Murdoch’s desk. You look like her.”

“Yes, I do. Grandfather had a large portrait of her in the dining room. It was painted the year she met my father. I do favour her.”

“I notice that Murdoch often polishes the glass on that picture frame, and the other one as well,” Johnny volunteered.

Scott looked up, surprised.

”Yes, I noticed that, too. The matching photo frame has his second wife’s photograph in it,” Scott supplied.

Johnny’s heart nearly stopped beating. He took a sip of his tequila as nonchalantly as he could, hoping desperately that Scott could not see through him.

“I thought that was her. I wonder what possessed her to run off?”

“I’ve since found out that she ran off with a gambler, apparently. Maybe he charmed her, promised her the world. Most gamblers are out and out con men.”

Johnny stood under the pretext of rummaging in the food crate. He kept his back to his brother as he threw a nonchalant comment over his shoulder. “Before Teresa set me straight, I wondered if he had kicked her out.”

Scott looked at him in amazement.  ”Where on earth did you get that idea?”

Johnny shrugged. “Oh, somebody mentioned it. Maybe one of the hands.”

“The only hands that were around then were Cipriano and Mick. And Maria, of course. That’s not what they told me.”

“Maybe they didn’t want to badmouth her. Maybe they were trying to protect you?”

Scott became a little irritated and he did not mask his annoyance. “Protect me from what? She wasn’t my mother! She didn’t matter to me personally. Murdoch loved her and I have to respect that, even if she nearly killed him.”

Johnny turned to face Scott, a bag of coffee beans in his hand.

“What do you mean she nearly killed him? Was he wounded?”

“In the heart.” Scott’s eyes reflected commiseration. “He hasn’t talked about it much, but he’s told me a bit more over the past few days. He was deeply hurt and betrayed when she ran off. He spent months looking for her before he returned, broke, to the ranch. Cipriano said that he would work long enough to get some more money and then he would set out again. He did it for years, apparently. How sad to love someone so much, but be rejected so finally. And he never caught up with her to find out exactly why she left in the first place. He had no idea she was so unhappy.”

“So, you’re saying that he loved his second wife as much as he loved your mother?”

“Yes, much good that it did him!” Scott spat bitterly, downing the last of his tequila in one fell swoop.

“I guess you’re not too happy that he found someone else after your mother, huh?” Johnny probed further.

“I’m not too happy at all that he gave his heart to someone who chewed it up and spat it back in his face!”

Johnny bristled. “You don’t know if that’s the case! Maybe you’re getting a sugar coated view of things and if she left, as you say, then maybe she had her reasons. Good ones.”

“Well, what I hear, and no one contradicts it, is that he worked his heart out for her to build up Lancer!” Scott shook his head and sighed deeply. “I’m glad he found someone else to love after my mother. I just wish it had been a permanent state of affairs. I know now that he loved my mother. I grew up doubting that, as you can imagine, living in my grandfather’s home.” Scott grimaced before continuing. “I was wrong about a lot of things. I know that no one could replace her and that if he met someone else, it was just different. Not better, not worse, just different.”

Scott hung his head morosely. Johnny felt no better. What Scott had said raged in his mind. Could his mama have left of her own free will? This is what Maria, Teresa and Aggie had all said, as well. No, he denied it. They were locals who clung to the same story. And Teresa and Maria were going to take Murdoch’s side. They were, after all, dependant on him for a roof over their heads … but Aggie didn’t. He knew that his mama wouldn’t have lied to him all these years … or would she? Scott said that he had grown up under misconceptions. So maybe Johnny hadn’t grown up with the right side of the story, either. Johnny just didn’t feel too sure about much at all at the moment.

It had been that way since he had arrived at Lancer. Everything he discovered seemed to fly in the face of what his mother had told him. He found this new viewpoint hard to accept. He tried desperately to continue to deny it, but each day further weight was added to overturn what had been the essential truth of his life.

And now it was becoming increasingly obvious that his whole life just possibly had been based on a lie.

 

Chapter Twenty Six

Johnny glanced over at Scott.

“You know it takes a special kind of man not to be jealous when his father finds someone else to love other than his own mother.”

Scott looked up at him gratefully, then blessed him with a smile. His eyes reanimated.

“I’m not being totally unselfish. Had they stayed together, then maybe I would have a little brother or a sister to boss around! It’s that power thing. Control, you know?”

But the feeling behind Scott’s jest told otherwise. He would have liked a sibling no matter what. But then Johnny wondered if ‘no matter what’ really would be the case.

Johnny’s eyes slid away as he again turned towards the food crate, rummaging through the jars.

Pursing his lips and making a decision, Johnny turned to Scott.

“Your father’s second wife was Mexican, wasn’t she?”

“Yes.”

“About as different looking from your mother as night and day, huh?”

Scott frowned. He couldn’t see where Johnny was going with this.

“Yes. Why?”

Johnny shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. I was just wondering, maybe.”

“Wondering maybe what?”

Johnny’s courage deserted him. He didn’t want to spoil a good thing. Perhaps part of the truth was the way to go.

“If you’d have had a brother or sister, chances are they’d have looked different to you. Those Mexican traits are pretty strong. Perhaps you would have felt uncomfortable if they had been so different?”

Scott surprised Johnny with his anger.

“Do you take me for a bigot?” he flung at Johnny, slamming his cup down on the table.

Johnny looked at his kin steadily through the eyes of his Scottish ancestors.

“No, I don’t think that, Scott, or you wouldn’t be my friend. It’s just that sometimes the reality is different from what you hope it will be and no amount of wishing can change that.”

Scott’s gaze did not waver, but his face softened.

“I know,” he nodded gravely. Suddenly, his face brightened, transforming his sombre features. “But you know something? Sometimes the reality is better than you dared hope it might be! I didn’t expect to like Murdoch, let alone feel so comfortable with him. Nor to respect him so much. He is a commanding man who has worked with his own hands to get where he has today. And fate has been cruel to him. Twice. I nearly didn’t come out here, you know. Can you imagine that I nearly didn’t leave Boston? Boston was my home all my life except for my stint in the army, but by coming to Lancer I have come home.” Scott smiled broadly. “And it feels good.”

Johnny smiled warmly in return, a momentary pang of jealousy immediately suppressed out of a growing love for his brother.

“Yeah, I know, Scott. It’s written all over your face … and your body.”

Scott looked a little worried, modesty returning a little too late after their swim in the buff.

“My body? Just what about my body?”

Johnny laughed outright at the look of consternation on Scott’s face. He bent over guffawing, prolonging Scott’s concern.

“Nothing I didn’t know before this afternoon!” He continued chuckling for some moments before managing to control himself. “It’s just that you seem less stiff. Your back is still soldier straight, but you’re more relaxed in your manner. And your gringo skin is just a little more tanned now. Your hair’s a bit sun bleached, too. I guess what I am trying to say is that you seem more robust than when I met you on the stage. The ranch work suits you.”

Scott contemplated the sincerity on Johnny’s face.

“Yes, I feel it, too. It’s good, honest work. My grandfather’s business was based more on construction through destruction. He would attack like a circling shark when he found a weak company. He’d de-stabilize it and buy it out when it became a bargain. Sometimes he would build it up and sell it at a profit. At other times, he would break it up and sell its different components separately.”

“He must have made a lot of enemies.”

“I suppose so, but that’s business. It never set well with me, though, when I saw that type of operation. I don’t like the underdog having all the chances and hope stripped from him.”

“I wouldn’t suggest that you visit Mexico, then. It’s full of hopeless situations. People who struggle their whole lives to get ahead, but all they seem to get is more pain coming their way. No matter how much a person tries to help, it never seems to be enough,” Johnny commented morosely.

“I would sincerely like to visit Mexico one day, but I don’t know if I could cope well with seeing people suffering like that. I had enough of it I the war. At least, Lancer makes its money honestly at no-one else’s expense.”

Scott watched as Johnny opened a can of beans and set some bacon frying in the frying pan they had found hanging over the bench.

“What you just said about trying to help?” Scott left the question hanging, wondering how Johnny would react.

Johnny had stilled, waiting to see how Scott would pursue this topic.

“Yeah?”

“While you were recovering, I made some enquiries.” Scott again left it to gauge how the thread of conversation would be taken up.

“About what?”

“About whom,” Scott corrected.

Johnny stiffened. “About WHOM exactly?” he emphasized Scott’s pedantic grammar.

“About you,” Scott added.

Johnny stared at him, dread whacking him between the shoulder blades.

“You checked me out? Why did you do that? If you wanted to know something, why didn’t you just ask?”

“You were injured. I just wanted to rationalize the man I had got to know so briefly with the legend the townspeople were all too willing to fill me in about.”

Johnny spoke, a rage of hurt propelling the words out of his mouth.

“Well, did it occur to you that maybe I could have helped you out? I could have filled you in on all the unsavoury details. All you had to do was to wait a day or two. That way you’d have got a first hand version of events, a complete list of every single sad deed!”

Johnny’s voice was icy with betrayal. Fury made his posture rigid.

Scott’s face registered dismay at Johnny’s reaction, but his eyes never left Johnny’s face.

“We didn’t know if you were going to make it, Johnny. Not at first. And just maybe there were relatives we might have needed to contact, despite your having given me the impression when I first met you that there was no one special in your life. And … and the man who saved my life wasn’t the Johnny Madrid people talked about around here. Their view of the Madrid legend sure as hell wasn’t the man I had met so briefly. And he wasn’t the same man working at the Watson’s, either. Or the one who stayed at Clara’s in Modesto. I just needed to know which one you were most. It seems wrong now, but we really didn’t know if you were going to survive and or how sick you were going to be and for how long. I guess we didn’t know a lot.”

Johnny’s laboured breathing eased a little as Scott spoke, but his flared nostrils and grim set to his mouth emphasized his anger.

“And do you know any more of the truth now?” he spat.

“Not in some ways. You are a quandary.”

“A what?”

“A quandary. An unsolved puzzle.”

“Oh, and how would that be?”

Johnny voice came out harshly. Even from Scott, he recoiled at being investigated and couldn’t seem to get past it.

“You had told me a bit about yourself after you rescued me. I guess, being new to the country … heck, I hadn’t even properly arrived! ... Well, I guess I didn’t realize how famous you were.”

Johnny gritted his teeth.

“Maybe you mean you didn’t know I was that dangerous to be around?”

Scott did not take the bait the way it was intended.

“You sure got that right!” he replied good-naturedly, his eyes lighting with humour before growing serious again.

“I found out that Johnny Madrid is not your ordinary gunslinger. Oh, he is a fast son of a gun. Someone you want to keep on your side. But he seems to take up causes along the way. He appears to have got hurt too many times sticking his nose in where it would be safer for him to turn a blind eye.”

Johnny stirred the beans. His spoon made anti clockwise movements. Measured, methodical circles. The beans absorbed his whole attention. The epicentre of his focus, he appeared not to concentrate on anything else other than his upcoming meal heating in front of him.

Scott watched Johnny’s back. He was not fooled by this feigned disinterest.

“I was thinking that maybe he should start to put a higher value on his own hide and care about himself more than he does about other people.”

Johnny still stirred, his spoon making metallic clunks as it scraped against the bottom of the pan. With his other hand, he flipped over the bacon Teresa had packed for them. He continued to give the appearance of concentrating on their meal, but every fibre of his being was screeching to hear what Scott thought of him.

“I’d say that Johnny Madrid is a bit of a mystery man. He seems to have sprung up out of nowhere into notice in his early teens. And he is a man who has one strong set of ethics. I like that in a man. He’s a man whose friendship I value.”

Johnny found his head nodding in acceptance of Scott’s words. His anger dissipated as quickly as it had built. Turning slowly he looked at Scott, then smiled warmly.

“Thank you for believing in me. It means a lot to me, but …,” his smile faded as he groped for the words to continue with. “… But I ain’t no angel. I done a lot of things I’m ashamed of. And what good I might have tried to do sometimes can never take away from the bad things.”

“We have all done things that we regret, Johnny. I’ve done my own share of bad things. Things I wish I could rectify, but I can’t. So I get on with my life and try as hard as hell to make sure that I am not put in that situation again. The main thing is, the information I received pointed out that a lot of the Madrid legend is not necessarily true. The speed, yes, undoubtedly. But the sheriffs took pains to state that you were no back shooter. They said that you often seemed to be drawn to the more defenceless, the ones most wronged and that … that you aren’t necessarily the man you seem to be or are supposed to be.”

Johnny was unsure how to continue the conversation without giving himself away with the emotion he felt at his brother’s support. He opted instead for his trusty stand-by – his humour. 

“You’re a bit of a mystery man yourself,” he added. “That fancy costume you were wearing on the stage that day was about the best disguise I’ve ever seen!” Johnny teased.

“Say any more about my clothes and you might find yourself wearing those beans. Quit pulverising them with that spoon and serve up!” Scott ordered, relieved that Johnny had recovered from his anger. He was determined to take Johnny’s lead with some levity in order to counterbalance the more serious nature of his confession.  “I’m starved!” he announced, extending his plate to Johnny.

The two sat down to enjoy their feast. They washed their beans down with a little more tequila, and moved on to swapping a few far and further fetched tales. Some bottled peaches and strong coffee completed their meal and saw them leaning back comfortably in their chairs.

“OK, boss, what jobs do you have in mind for tomorrow?” Johnny asked behind his hand as he smothered an enormous yawn.

Scott rolled his eyes at the title.

“Well, I guess that hole up there in the roof might tell you something!”

“The one over your bed?”

Scott stopped. He had not noticed this before.

“It won’t be by the time I shove my bed over a little.”

Johnny sniggered at Scott’s obvious annoyance that if rain eventuated, he would be copping it fair and square as he slept.

“But that’s an easy job. I’m sure I can find something more challenging for you to do tomorrow!” Scott assured him.

Johnny was on the alert. There was decidedly evil glimmer behind Scott’s eyes. He wondered just what Scott might be contemplating.

“Such as?” Johnny prompted.

“I’ll think on it,” Scott replied vaguely. “I’m ready to sack in.”

Scott was out to it in several minutes, his deepening breathing giving evidence of a restful sleep. Johnny lay there for some time before dozing off, thinking about the man who was his brother … and just what Scott had in mind for the next day.

*********************************  

Rain stayed away and the morning dawned brightly wrapped in a brisk chill which was gradually stripped away by the sun’s warming rays.

Johnny woke to the welcoming aroma of coffee invading his unconscious state.

“Are you sleeping in all day?” Scott enquired as Johnny stirred, rubbing his eyes and running his hands through his already wildly out of place hair.

“Was thinking about it, but then I suppose all that hammering would just disturb my slumber!” Johnny answered, then quipped further. “Unless, of course, you could take your hammering elsewhere.”

Scott made a show of looking at the ceiling and gave a pretence of considering the suggestion.

“Nope! Too hard to take the roof off to fix it. Guess I’ll just have to do it up there,” he deadpanned.

“I guess I got no option but to join you, then. As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them.”

He took a welcome sip of the brew.

“Mighty good coffee, Boston!” he acknowledged.

“I have my uses.”

Johnny smiled at that. If only Scott knew.

A filling breakfast of more bacon, beans and biscuits was enjoyed by them both. Johnny then hopped up and did the dishes while Scott checked on the horses.

Johnny turned to find Scott leaning on the door jamb, arms crossed, smirking at him.

Johnny looked around, puzzled.

“What?”

“I didn’t realize you were quite so domesticated,” Scott informed him.

Johnny was silent as he threw the dish towel over the clean dishes to keep the flies off.

“Well, I guess I ain’t used to people doing for me, Scott,” Johnny answered quietly.

Scott was appalled at his gaffe. He had not meant to rub in his past of privilege.

“Look, Johnny, I didn’t mean ...” he began.

“I know you didn’t, Scott. I was just stating the facts.” Johnny’s genuine smile absolved his guilt. “No harm done.”

Scott nodded, relieved that Johnny had not taken the remark personally, but also conscious that for his whole life he had taken so much for granted.

They left it there and tackled the first order of the day. There was not just the hole above Scott’s bed to fix, but several other shingles were loose or needed replacing. Johnny relished the sun’s warmth. Their broad hats protected them from burns to their faces and to the back of their necks, but there was no protection against the profuse sweating caused by their energetic labours and the sun’s heat.

Scott stopped for a drink from his canteen as Johnny worked up to the ribald punch line of his joke, a rather suspect story of a saloon girl and a novice rancher. If Scott merely substituted ‘businessman’ for ‘rancher’, he could just see the joke as working as effectively in the Boston milieu as it did here.

They both ended up with tears of mirth coming out of their eyes. Scott wiped his face on his sleeve and smiled further at the thought of the anguish that this action would cause his grandfather if he had been caught doing so.

“You have an active imagination, my friend.”

“Imagination nothing! That was a true story!

“Yes, Johnny, whatever you say. And my father’s name is Lily!”

Johnny stopped dead, then doubled up in hoots of laughter. “Oh, boy, imagine wearing a moniker like that all your life!” He continued to howl with mirth. Holding his sides, he gathered some self control. “Ain’t never seen a person who looks less like a lily!”

“No, he’s neither a lily livered individual nor a shrinking violet!” Scott agreed.

“He’s something else, Scott. You know that that glare of his could freeze hell over.”

Scott chuckled. “I don’t doubt it, but sometimes I wonder if a lot of it is bluff.”

“Bluff or not, I’d think twice about taking him on,” Johnny grimaced.

“What! Johnny Madrid would think twice about going up against my father?”

Both yes and no, Johnny pondered. He wanted to … had always wanted to confront his father, but now Scott was caught in the middle and he again thought he was best to let sleeping dogs lie.

“Well, I didn’t get to the ripe old age of twenty two by being rash, Scott. I choose my fights, even though some of them might prove to be unwinnable in the long run. And your old man would be a pretty convincing opponent. And big! I still can’t get over how big he is. The biggest man I ever saw. Not just tall, but broad. His shoulders are huge and even his backside is mighty wide.”

Scott cocked his head to one side.

“I haven’t studied his width too keenly, but come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone taller, either. I get a crick in my neck talking to him!”

“Well, you’re pretty tall yourself. I bet the ladies get a crick in their necks looking up at you … or kissing you! How about it Scott? Do you take pity on them and let them kiss you horizontally to prevent any neck aches?”

Scott’s face registered knowing agreement, but his words were non committal.

“That, Johnny, is a matter between me and the lady concerned and no one else!”

“Not even her pa? Or her husband?”

Scott sighed with exaggeration.

“I do not court married women!” he admonished Johnny.

“Won’t any of them give you the time of day?”

“I am not a cad.”

“I didn’t say you were, but a man can look even if he can’t touch in all the best places.”

Johnny’s amiable grin had Scott shaking his head.

“Johnny, you are incorrigible!”

“If that’s a compliment, thank you. So, did you leave anyone special back in Boston?”

“No,” Scott hesitated, “Just Julie, but that was long over. There were plenty of delightful young ladies, but no one who had that special pull. I didn’t fall in love with anyone after Julie. What about you?”

Johnny nodded as he pushed an obstinate shingle into place. He took the nail from between his teeth and hammered heartily.

“Oh, there were plenty of girls, Scott. They couldn’t get enough of the Madrid legend.”

His statement was unable to hide his bitterness.

“I’m sure there were plenty, but I’m talking quality, not quantity.”

Johnny face darkened with pain. Scott realized that he had over stepped the mark. As he opened his mouth to speak, Johnny continued starkly, emotion nevertheless seething just under the surface.

“Gee, Scott, what hope did I have of a quality woman? Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of sweet women who’ve been done wrong by life and who end up on the wrong side of the tracks, but how was I ever going to get a decent woman to look twice at me? And if I did, how would I keep her? No family and no property. A drifter and a gunslinger to boot. No father would intentionally let me near his daughter.”

“But …?” Scott probed gently.

Johnny grabbed another shingle, none too gently. Urging it into place, he picked up a nail from the bag and concentrated once more on the hammering.

Johnny sighed and wiped the perspiration from his brow. He bowed his head before lifting his eyes to Scott’s.

“There WAS a girl. I was nineteen. I worked for her father down near San Diego. Saved their ranch from some pirates. I was there a few months and stayed on until things were really quiet. Would’ve stayed longer, too, but he wouldn’t give her hand to me in marriage. I was all right as a hired gun, a hired hand, but not in the marriage stakes. He was a nice man, too, but my past was a danger to them and to her. He sat me down and he explained things.”

Johnny’s eyes moved to the south, as if seeking his past love.

“I’m sorry, Johnny.”

“Don’t be. He was right. Sooner or later, I’d have been called out and maybe she would have been a target just to get at me. And if we had had children they would have been of mixed blood …”

Scott interrupted in haste. “Why, children of mixed heritage have the best features of both worlds.”

Johnny scoffed at his naivety.

“Just how sheltered were you in your grandfather’s castle, Scott? I explained when we met. Maybe you don’t remember because you were in pain, but that viewpoint ain’t reality. Mixed race children suffer at every turn. Not good or pure enough for either race. I don’t want any of my children to suffer like I did.”

“But you’d be there to help them. You would be a good parent, not …” Scott’s voice trailed off as he realized that he was about to denigrate Johnny’s parents.

“You mean I wouldn’t kick my kids out like my father did? And I wouldn’t let my wife become a …”

Johnny heaved a sigh as he left the unsaid words hanging in the air. Unsaid, but no less powerful for the misery they represented.

“Look, even with the best of intentions, a man can’t protect his half breed kids from the reality of the world, Scott.”

Scott looked at him. He began speaking hesitantly, aware that this was a sensitive issue which he was about to further open up.

“No parent can protect their children the way they would like to from the ills of the world, Johnny. And while your children will still be of mixed race whoever you marry, Anglo or Mexican, at least just knowing they have your love will help them cope with what life throws at them.”

“It don’t work like that!”

Johnny flung a nail away with all his might. He leaned his elbows on his knees and hung his head.

“Love ain’t enough when you’re bruised and bleeding. That’s why I don’t aim to get married and have children.”

Scott was stunned.

“Never?”

“Never.” Johnny confirmed.

 

Chapter Twenty Seven

Scott swallowed. Just what could he say to that?

“I hope that you change your mind, Johnny. You deserve a happy marriage with a good woman. And you would be there to protect your children and support them thought the rough patches.”

“A man can’t shield his child from everything and everyone, Scott.”

“No, but they would know that you were there for them. It wouldn’t be like when you grew up alone without your father.”

“Even if he hadn’t kicked my mama and me out, he still couldn’t have looked after me day and night.”

“No, but a home and a family can make the world a lot less dangerous.”

“Hell, Scott, I attract danger. No matter how hard I try, I can’t avoid it. It just comes tracking me down. That’s another reason why I don’t aim to marry. I never know who is going to come gunning for me and when. I couldn’t stand being responsible for someone else getting hurt because of me. Especially people I loved.”

“So, you intend to be single for the rest of your life IN CASE your past comes up to bite you or your loved ones? Is that a life? Isolating yourself because of a whole list of ‘what ifs’? OK, here’s a ‘what if’. What if you are wrong, your past quietly leaves you alone, you live a solitary life and then fall off a horse at the age of seventy five or trip over your spurs at the age of eighty, hitting your head on the corner of the horse trough? Your obsession with avoiding danger which may never even occur could condemn you to a life that is not a life. A life that is a sham. What a waste. You are too vibrant for that.”

“I know from past experience, Scott. It ain’t healthy to get too close to me.”

“Well, anyone who cared about you wouldn’t consider that reason enough not to be with you. And there is a special woman out there somewhere, someday, who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And when you meet her I hope she’s as good a match in the obstinacy stakes as you. If she’s the right woman, she won’t let you escape.  She’ll make you see that you belong together and she’d rather be with you, regardless of any imminent or far-off danger. Life’s too short and unpredictable, Johnny. When fate hands you something out of the ordinary: a rare woman, an exceptional relationship, a new destiny, don’t knock it back. Grab it with both hands and be thankful.”

Johnny looked at Scott and gave a small smile.

“I’ll try and remember that, Scott, but I ain’t making any promises.”

A conspiratorial grin lit up Scott’s features, effectively lightening the mood.

“You’re just running scared! You saw Gina Richards eyeing you off when she came to visit Teresa the other day.”

“The sun has got to your mind, Scott! It’s addled you brains!”

But Johnny was grinning fondly at the memory of the deliciously curved Gina and her chestnut brown eyes as they had sought him out several times when she thought that he wasn’t watching. When their eyes had met, she had looked away in confusion and embarrassment. This shyness had not prevented her from being a witty and interesting conversationalist, however, when they had spoken at the corral.

“Got you thinking, haven’t I, Johnny?”

“Yeah, thinking’s safe,” replied Johnny noncommittally before abruptly changing the subject. “Come on, we’ve finished here. Let’s get on to the door and that window!”

Deciding to work on him further, taking the matter into his decisive hands if need to, Scott followed him down the ladder.

They set about the wobbly door and damaged window frame next. Scott took over most of the hammering, despite Johnny’s protests that he was fine.

Bangs reverberated in the air as the hammer struck strategically placed nails. Birds called out in panic after each brief respite, annoyed and worried about the unnatural intrusion into their peaceful day.

Johnny watched Scott’s sure fingers as he methodically felt the wood and weighed up the best way to proceed. He was impressed with Scott’s carpentry skills and a little surprised. Johnny had presumed that he would be leading the way with the repairs, and not Scott. He was content to do Scott’s bidding while at the same time observing his brother at work.

“So,” Johnny asked Scott as he held a vertical length of wood in place to form a replacement part of the window frame, “Just how much woodwork did you do in Boston? I can’t see it on your grandfather’s agenda for producing the socially correct young gentleman.”

Scott tilted his head and raised an eyebrow at a crazy angle. His deep voice answered with a hint of humour, not disguising a joke at his grandfather’s expense.

“Certainly not. Correctly brought up young men do not get their hands dirty or their fingernails chipped.”

“So you just have this gift with a hammer which you only discovered when you got to Lancer?”

“A gift? Why thank you, Johnny.” Scott’s mouth stretched into an easy grin. “I don’t think we can call this handiwork a gift, but I did learn a few tricks back east.”

”How? I thought your grooming would have been restricted to polite conversation and which fork to use at supper.”

“I used to sneak off to the stables. The grooms didn’t merely look after the horses. They also did running repairs to the buildings – unless it was a big job, of course. I used to go there whenever I could to be with the horses.”

”Did your grandfather ever find out?”

The smile broadened. “Not that I dirtied my hands with the hired help, no. He just thought I liked the horses. It would annoy him, though. I got sent to my room and was handed extra homework if he found out that I was there when I should have been studying.”

“What sort of punishment is that? You like books. And I bet your room was lined with bookshelves. I’d guess that it was some palace you had there.”

Scott barked with laughter. “Not quite.”

“Describe it to me, Scott.”

Scott stood immobile, the blue eyes before him imploring him to answer the question. A question that made Scott acutely uncomfortable. He did not want to flaunt his privileged upbringing in front of Johnny, but he could see that for some reason, Johnny wanted to know. And he genuinely wanted the details.

Clearing his throat, Scott began.

“It was a large room. Bigger than the one I have at Lancer and more fancy, I suppose. It had long, floor length windows with burgundy red velvet drapes, a four poster bed with a brocade canopy and several bureaux and armoires.”

“Armoires?”

“Wardrobes, closets.”

“Several?”

“Several,” Scott confirmed.

“So just how many outfits did you have? Why did you need more than one? A man can only wear one set of clothes at one time!”

Johnny’s practicality amused Scott, who informed him otherwise.

“Well, I had business suits, formal evening wear, day suits, riding outfits, household clothes, Sunday best, holiday wear, travelling gear, hunting paraphernalia …” Scott’s voice trailed off as Johnny interrupted him.

“OK! OK! I get the idea. Basically you had a new outfit for any time of the day and for any occasion.”

“I guess so,” Scott confirmed.

“Didn’t you forget which clothes you had?”

Scott blushed a little in embarrassment. He looked away for an instant before shrugging away his unease.

“Yes, actually. Sometimes I would forget that I had bought some outfits.”

Scott was silent, contemplating such extravagant waste.

“And were they all beige?”

“Pardon?”

“Well, you seem to wear beige unlimited. I was trying to work out whether you were trying to blend into the scenery here or whether you always liked brownish colours. A couple of days ago, I saw this shadow walking from the barn to the hacienda. I was watching it. I’d never seen a shadow without anything to cast it. Then, lo and behold, you stepped in through the door!”

Scott threw him a pained expression which pleased Johnny no end. Johnny enjoyed getting under his Boston brother’s sometimes constrained exterior. Not for long, however, as Scott was quick to quip.

“At least there is room for a man to have the upper hand that way. The surprise element. Your predilection for pretty pink must often put you in peril. Or perhaps you wear it to petrify your opponents?”

Johnny stared at him, noting the smart mouthed smirk.

“You up to ‘P’ in the dictionary?” he demanded.

Scott chuckled.

“No, but there’s a thought,” he replied as he accepted a nail from Johnny. He set the nail at the right spot, hesitated a fraction over the angle, before raising the hammer and smacking it accurately with several swoops of the tool.

Johnny studied Scott’s concentration on doing the job just right. For some reason it pleased him that Scott was not one to shirk doing a task correctly. It pleased him just about as much as discovering he wasn’t the useless dandy he had first thought when he had stepped into the stage that day.

“So, why do you wear pink?”

”It ain’t pink. It’s red.”

“It’s red?” Scott mimicked. “Who are you kidding?” He was proud of the amazement he managed to seep into his words.

“Red, salmon, coral. It’s all those colours. What does it matter?”

Johnny was defensive. Scott was enjoying making him squirm.

“But only women wear pink.”

“It ain’t pink, I’m telling you!”

“But don’t you make a target of yourself in that colour scheme? Sort of like a red rag to a bull?”

Johnny’s face became pensive. He considered his answer, little furrows marking his forehead. His mind wandered to his confrontation strewn past.

“Well, Scott. It’s kinda funny. Sometimes you want to lie real low and out of sight and at other times you gotta be plain in their face. You gotta bluff just like in poker. The loud clothes help. They sort of make a statement.”

Scott’s easy smile agreed.

“They make a statement all right, but I’m not sure exactly what!”

“You’re just jealous of my fashion flair. The women sure don’t complain about the colours I wear. Come to think of it, they don’t complain about anything. Quite the opposite, in fact!”

Johnny’s self-satisfaction was stamped smugly all over his face.

“Well, I guess when they’ve got nothing to compare it to, they don’t know what they’re missing,” Scott nodded sagely.

“You got delusions, Scott, you know that?”

Another nail was handed over by Johnny.

“Expend your energy on this instead.”

Scott did so efficiently and effectively.

As Scott held out his hand for another nail, Johnny suddenly picked up the thread of their earlier conversation.

“I suppose that back home in Mexico, everything is naturally a bit drab. The desert, the sand, the dry hillsides, the adobe buildings. Us Mexicans like to liven things up a bit with our clothes, I guess.”

“An understatement, my friend.”

Johnny grinned.

“Here, though,” he motioned broadly around him, “Here, the land’s all so colourful. Look at the trees along the stream and the green grass! And some of the pasture might be yellow where it has died off for now, but that makes the mountains and trees stand out even more. I can’t work out what colour those hills really are. Have you noticed that they change colour? I thought at first that they were green, but yesterday morning they seemed brown. And by afternoon they looked blue.”

Johnny’s sigh slid out to mingle into the afternoon’s warmth. “It sure is pretty out here!”

Scott was mesmerized by Johnny’s pleasure in his surroundings. The light played on his features, contrasting with the darker laughter lines around his eyes which deepened with his smile.

“Yes, it sure is pretty. It put me under its spell the first time I got up and about and was able to take a good stock of things.” Scott breathed in a lung full of Lancer air. “I don’t regret coming back here for one second.”

Johnny’s steady blue eyes met Scott’s greyer counterparts.

“Good for you.”

Their spontaneous smiles were interrupted by neighing from one of the horses. The other joined in, whinnying in interest at some distant sound. Then the two men heard it. An answering nicker and the clopping of hooves and dislodged pebbles on the approaching slope.

As the horse and rider came into view from behind the tree-cluttered boulders to the side of the shack, it was Johnny’s gun which did the greeting.

 

Chapter Twenty Eight

Three men groaned inwardly, but kept this feeling of frustration only to themselves.

Despite Scott’s friendly and loyal nature, he had made few true friends in the past. He knew that his money and connections drew many young men to his side as he breezed through adolescence and into adulthood. He was well liked, but so many of the boys and men he had met wanted something more: an opening into business or an entrée into the corporate world of the Bostonian big guns. Scott did not welcome any intrusion onto this private time he was sharing with Johnny. Deep down, he believed that Johnny would move on soon, and he wanted to make the most of his friend’s companionship and humour while he could.

Johnny was feeling much the same way as Scott. He had not made many lasting friends in his childhood through the dual ostracizing nature of his mother’s nocturnal activities and his mixed heritage. He had made even fewer friends once he began living by his gun. This time with Scott was one of the few true moments of peace in his life. A brief respite from fear and danger which had been truncated even more by the new arrival – a man who would hover and worry in case the gunman in Johnny went berserk unexpectedly and wreaked havoc upon the Lancer heir. A man who obviously didn’t trust him if he had to turn up and assure himself that Scott was still in the land of the living.

Murdoch swallowed. The bore of Johnny’s gun was taking on the enormity of a canon. He sat motionless, just not sure what to do. Reaction was suicide. Dismounting could be as well. Johnny’s hand did not waver. The piercing blue depths of Johnny’s eyes lanced through Murdoch and impaled him, immobile on the saddle.

Murdoch smiled, then. It stunned Johnny to see the extent to which that smile could soften the stern creases habitually carved into the big man’s face.

Johnny removed his finger from the trigger and lowered the barrel until it was pointing at the relatively safe target offered by the floorboards on the shack’s entryway.

“I bring gifts. Apple pie, a cooked roast beef and something to wash it down with.”

“Coffee?” ventured Scott.

“Whiskey,” he broke off to look at Johnny, “ … and tequila.”

Johnny holstered his gun to mask his surprise. He had no doubt that the tequila was specifically for him. The fleeting thought that it could be poisoned passed through his mind.

“Well, what are you doing still sitting there, Old Man?” Johnny produced by way of response.

Murdoch saw the smile lurking at the corners of Johnny’s mouth and decided not to take umbrage at the title.

“My bones get a little stiff these days, especially since I was shot. They are just getting themselves together for the descent.”

Murdoch’s rueful admission galvanized Johnny into action, such honesty making him feel guilty for overplaying the gunman role with his pistol. He walked up to Murdoch’s bay, playfully patting and scratching it behind the ears.

“I’ll lead your horse over to that boulder. It’ll make an easy dismount for you.”

So preoccupied in manoeuvring the horse, Johnny did not see the gratitude registered on Murdoch’s countenance.

Scott came forward to assist, guilt assailing him for his bland reaction to his father’s arrival. He should have been glad to see him, and he was, but he had allowed himself a few moments to wallow in resentment at the intrusion. Now he felt embarrassment that it was Johnny who was showing his father consideration.

“Thank you,” murmured Murdoch, mostly directing it at Johnny.

Murdoch had been unprepared for Johnny’s swift change of character from menace to compassion. Uncharacteristically uncertain of himself, he decided on a little levity.

“I thought I was a goner there for a moment. You are fast, all right. Did anyone ever tell you that it is not very pleasant looking down the barrel of your gun?”

“Kinda hard to do that from a coffin.”

Murdoch and Scott both stiffened at the implication, but then both continued to duplicate the other’s actions by nodding in understanding.

Scott shuddered at the thought that at any time Johnny had dispatched an opponent to his Maker, fate could have decided otherwise. He was glad it hadn’t.

Murdoch studied the young man in front of him and perhaps for the first time realized that Johnny’s choices in his short life must have so often been limited. Kill or be killed. Size a person up right in a flash, or don’t live to regret it. It was the sort of life style which could make a man real jumpy. Murdoch was thankful that Johnny appeared to have extraordinary control over that trigger finger.

Once on firm ground, Murdoch placed his hands on his hips and arched his back to relieve his aching muscles.

“That should teach me for making such good time,” Murdoch winced.

Hooking his thumbs in his gun belt, Johnny leant back against one of the large nearby boulders. Johnny considered the huge man before him. As transparent as the immense window in the Great Room. The old man had probably worried about Scott spending too long at the Johnny’s mercy and couldn’t contain himself any more.

“What was the hurry?”

Johnny’s voice frosted the air between them.

”Nothing, other than my desire to get here before nightfall and spend some time with my son.”

« My sons! » amended Johnny silently.

“Scott and I haven’t had a chance to get away from the ranch together yet,” Murdoch further explained. “Several more of the Cattle Growers’ Association have come down with influenza, so the meeting I was to attend was cancelled. I thought that I’d join you. Maybe we could fish and hunt?”

“Excellent idea!” declared Scott, despite suffering a vague feeling of loss that tonight he and Johnny would have to share their hut and their conversation.

His head lowered and chomping on his hat strap, Johnny mulled over the inconvenience of the influenza outbreak. There was nothing much he could do about it, he decided pragmatically.

“I’ll see to your horse.”

Not waiting for an answer, he removed the saddle bags and handed them to Scott before grabbing the reins and leading the horse to where his and Scott’s were silently viewing the proceedings. He did not look their way, but concentrated on unsaddling and grooming the horse.

He sought the brush he had left on a ledge in the shelter. Running it through the bay’s coat and feeling the undulations of muscle beneath his hand had a calming effect on him, as his angry thoughts jostled for prominence in his mind.

Murdoch must feel that Scott was in danger from him. Once a gunslinger, always a gunslinger. And whose fault was it that he became one in the first place? Had he been brought up here on Lancer, he’d never have been exposed to life’s vicious and seedy side from such a young age.

But Johnny also reasoned with himself that it didn’t make sense for Murdoch to think that he would harm Scott. He had, after all, saved his life after their first encounter.

So why did Murdoch come and spoil their time together? Did he merely want to get away from the running of the ranch and spend some quality time with Scott? If so, why not wait until another time when Scott and Murdoch could be alone? Just the two of them.

That’s what hurt. Murdoch wanted to be with Scott. With his son. Murdoch wanted to play father.

Yet Murdoch could have played father for the past twenty years. He could have had his other son by his side all that time if he had not thrown Johnny and his mother out.

Murdoch could have played father to them both. But Murdoch had made his decision about his half breed mistake and Mex wife two decades ago. 

Now Murdoch was here and Johnny was an outsider. An intruder. He didn’t belong. He never had and he had been stupid to allow his friendship for Scott get under his skin. Not only friendship, Johnny remonstrated with himself, but kinship. Brotherhood. A blood tie. It struck Johnny that apart from some far flung Mexican relatives he wasn’t really sure where to find, the only other blood kin he had were inside that shack. He swallowed a lump in his throat and attacked the animal with firmer strokes. The horse did not appreciate the verve and whipped its head around to warn him it would not tolerate rough handling. Contrite, Johnny spoke softly to Murdoch’s mount and immediately ceased work.

A deep sigh escaped his lungs. He was out of sorts. His forehead leant forward of its own accord to rest upon the comforting warmth of the now gleaming coat. As his head dipped and rose in time to the gelding’s breaths, some of his anger dissipated.

The lulling effect was no magic potion, however, for most of all he felt cheated of time alone with Scott.

Secondly, he conceded grimly to himself, he did not know how he would handle being in such close quarters with his father.

He could not work out his feelings for him. Anger, hurt, bitterness, resentment. Maybe jealousy, too, that Scott had been invited and welcomed. Vengeance still simmered in him, but this warred with glimpses of a Murdoch different to the one his mother had described.

He could not make out the man.

Patting the horse in thanks for its patience, Johnny sucked in a deep breath and returned to the shack.

*******************************  

Johnny opened the door to find that both men were facing away from him as Murdoch placed some provisions on the table. He was again struck by the massive breadth of Murdoch’s shoulders. Scott was a tall man with a slim, but lithely athletic build, yet he looked positively diminutive next to their father. Murdoch’s frame was immense, intimidating even. Johnny could only wonder what he and Murdoch looked like side by side.

They both turned as he entered the door.

“Hey, Johnny. What about a spot of fishing? We’ve finished the shack repairs and we can check the fence line tomorrow. The boss has given us the rest of the afternoon off.”

Johnny did not know if he wanted the afternoon off if he had to spend it in close proximity to Murdoch. While he had been recovering at the hacienda, he had still managed to keep his distance. He didn’t know if he could cope with a cosy threesome. He still didn’t know what he was going to do. Murdoch confused him. And his feelings for Scott had confused his original purpose all those months ago when he had taken the stage with a destination in view. Scott’s entry into the picture had disrupted his normally implacable intent. His goal was no longer sure and he was annoyed at his own doubt and procrastination.

He found himself constantly at war internally as to how he should proceed. Declare himself to Murdoch and then despatch him. Or talk to him and hear his side of things, then wreak vengeance. Walk away without saying anything and leave it well alone. Speak up and wait for the reaction before deciding a direction. He even considered asking if he could stay. And that made him angry that he could even contemplate it. He had been kicked out of his home when young and damned if he was going to beg to come back

Johnny shifted uncomfortably on his feet before assuming a mask of nonchalance. He knew that Murdoch did not want him around and he wasn’t going to hang around when Murdoch inevitably dropped hints about three being a crowd.

“You go ahead. I’ll just finish a couple of things I can do to improve the shelter for the horses,” Johnny stated firmly.

“Johnny, when the head honcho gives time off, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Plus, if you don’t come I will feel honour bound to stay and help you and I really would rather see how the fish are biting,” Scott tried to persuade him.

Johnny thought his mind was made up, but his determination was again undermined when Murdoch interrupted.

“You’ve both worked hard here. Take the break. Every worker needs some respite now and again.”

Yep, a worker. That’s all he was. And it made him angrier as he considered his place in the scheme of things. The lowest echelon.

Damn it, he had earned the break!

“All right,” he conceded to Murdoch with deceptive calm.

And he conceded to himself that curiosity was getting the better of him. He hadn’t seen much of Murdoch and Scott together, really, and he had an itch to witness more of the dynamics of their relationship. He considered the adage that curiosity killed the cat and hoped that there was no truth in it.

The three men set out on foot walking for about half a mile before stopping at what they thought might be a suitable location. The upper section of the stream flowed lazily over stones, before bubbling as it picked up pace and gushed over a rock overhang to froth and swirl at the base of the drop. The water course widened out here to form a deeper pool bordered by boulders and shaded by lush green trees. About thirty yards further on a narrower gap siphoned the water as it again picked up speed and forced its way between two huge boulders.

The earth revealed a bounty of worms which, no matter how hard they wiggled, could not escape their fate. Johnny had taken Murdoch to be a clumsy man given his awkward height, but he was surprised at the nimbleness of his father’s fingers as he prepared his hook.

In no time they were spread out along the bank. Two of them concentrated on the activity, the third feigned interest as he took the time to study his companions, unguarded in their zeal.

Scott was intent on his line as he cast it in and waited for a bite. He scanned the waters, all the while keeping his index finger against the line to feel for any tugs signalling a hungry and incautious fish. Lean and trim, his slim physique cast an even slimmer shadow. It was the blond hair which fascinated Johnny the most. He was bemused that any brother of his would have such fair features.

Murdoch’s face lost some of its severity as he immersed himself in his pursuit of a scaled supper. It seemed softer, Johnny thought. Kinder, even. Less slashed by the deep furrows left by life’s wear and tear. Less marked by the burden of decisions.

Johnny considered his sire. He really couldn’t see any resemblance between the three of them. Murdoch’s features were like carved granite, sharply defined, the finishing touch being a famously square jaw. Scott had softer, but no less manly contours over his long face. Maybe Johnny’s face was rounder than theirs. Differing heights, differing body shapes. Murdoch’s torso was thick and he was rather lumbering in movement. Was this the result of age, or had he always been a little graceless? Scott was light and agile on his feet, as Johnny knew himself to be.

One thing in common were their blue eyes, albeit different shades. It beat Johnny. Weren’t relatives supposed to look something alike?

Then Johnny remembered his mother and the photograph he had seen on his father’s desk. Their mamas sure had replicated their images in their sons. Maybe that was a good thing that something of them, and so similar to them, lived on.

Unexpectedly, paler blue eyes met his own deeper blue ones. They held glances for longer than was comfortable. Johnny cursed his inattentiveness and felt as though it was he who was on the end of Murdoch’s hook instead of a big fat trout. He swallowed, then was saved by a hefty pull to Murdoch’s arms which drew his attention from Johnny.

Just what the hell was Johnny doing here fishing with the man he had spent a life time wanting to kill? A man he had actively sought to kill just several months beforehand, before being deviated by a blond Bostonian in an ambushed stagecoach.

Murdoch’s grunt of satisfaction drew his attention. As Murdoch played with the line, Johnny darted forward thrusting his hat underneath the catch should it escape the hook. It was a beauty which Murdoch deftly unhooked and regarded reverently.

“Well done, Sir!” congratulated Scott.

“Thank you, son. I used to go fishing in the burns as often as I could when I was a boy.”

“That is one chubby fish!” Johnny added his praise, excavating a hole in the ground behind him. He busied himself cutting some leafy twigs from nearby vegetation and proceeded to line the hollow with the greenery.

He looked up to notice two sets of eyes following his movements. At Scott’s unasked question signalled by a raised eyebrow, Johnny shrugged.

“If you put the fish in the ground and cover them, it keeps it fresher. It stops the flies getting at them, too. And if you don’t attract the flies, you can have a more peaceful time fishing.” He punctuated his explanation with a knowing grin.

Following Johnny’s encouragement, Murdoch placed the fish in the earthen basket and Johnny covered it with some more leaves.

“So who taught you about fishing?” Murdoch asked. “Your pa?”

The previous grin was an anomaly compared to his immediately closed and drawn face. Johnny nearly didn’t answer, but a little truth was long overdue.

“Nope. He kicked me and my mama out before I was old enough to fish. I taught myself by watching some of the old timers. They’re always good for learning a trick or two.”

His gaze embedded itself into is father’s eyes. He only flinched when he detected a hint of sympathy there.

“I’m sorry,” Murdoch offered.

“Don’t be. He was a worthless piece of scum.”

But was he?

“He’s not worth wasting any breath over,” Johnny added.

An awkward pause lasting several seconds ensued.

“That fish might be a whopper, but he’s not gonna feed us all,” stated Johnny as he abruptly stood up and moved further along the bank of the stream to distance himself from Murdoch.

The men stopped after they had caught enough for their supper. Murdoch and Scott’s angling produced four fish apiece to Johnny’s one. His heart wasn’t in it and if he wasn’t so sure it would be frowned upon, he would really have preferred to blast them to eternity with his Colt. That direct course of action, however, would not have left much intact to eat, he conceded to himself.

Their feast of fried fish and beans was followed by some of Teresa’s preserves, and washed down with a rich brew of coffee. Feeling superfluous and a little uncomfortable, Johnny left father and son in the shack together while he took the frying pan and plates down to the stream to wash them up.

 

Chapter Twenty Nine

He recognized his actions as delaying techniques. He hadn’t bargained on sleeping at such close quarters with Murdoch and wasn’t too keen on the idea.

He meandered back to the shack like a schoolboy heading off to the day’s lessons, hoping that the longer he took, the more he could avoid the inevitable.

Arriving back inside, he discovered that Murdoch and Scott had opened the whiskey.

“Come and take a pew,” Scott suggested. “You’re missing out on valuable drinking time.”

“Tequila or whiskey?” Murdoch asked.

A fraction’s hesitation and then Johnny replied. “Tequila would go down real well.”

Johnny deposited the clean plates on the shelf as Murdoch poured some tequila out for Johnny and topped up his and Scott’s cup with whiskey.

“Thank you,” Johnny murmured before taking a welcome swig.

Scott took a sip of his whiskey, savouring it as he rolled it around his tongue.

“You know, that supper is one of the nicest meals I have ever had. Better than many of Boston’s finest restaurants,” Scott pronounced.

Johnny snorted. “And are they big on beans to go with the fish?”

Scott smiled and acknowledged, “Well, I must admit that they usually come up with some fancier vegetables as an accompaniment!”

“I should hope so! I can’t see fancy folk paying top dollar for beans,” Johnny replied, “Although give me plate of tamales and beans and I’m as happy as a stallion with a herd of mares all to himself!”

Strange noises came from Murdoch’s throat behind his raised mug.

Amusement tugging at his mouth, Scott returned the topic to back to fish. “You’re a dab hand with a fishing rod, Murdoch.”

“Thank you, but you didn’t do so bad yourself, son. As a matter of a fact, I taught your mother to fish. She would come with me when we could get away.”

”Did she enjoy it?”

Murdoch pursed his lips and considered his answer.

“She enjoyed coming along and she’d throw a line in. She had patience when the fish were being coy. It was more that we could relax together, though, I guess.”

“And no doubt you had to assist her in holding the rod at the right angle,” Scott teased.

Murdoch positively blushed.

“Well, … not entirely … not all the time.” His complexion continued its ruddy hue.  “She was quite a strong woman you know, despite her fine features and elegance.”

Murdoch stopped when he realized that both Scott and Johnny were hiding grins in their mugs. He cleared his throat and then continued. “I taught Maria, my second wife, too.”

Johnny stilled, his heart seemingly paused before the next beat.

“And did she enjoy it?” Johnny threw at Murdoch.

“She enjoyed camping under the stars more than fishing,” Murdoch confessed. “She had a Latin temperament and would become annoyed at the fish when they didn’t bite on command. She even tried to snatch my gun once so she could shoot them out of the water!”

Murdoch laughed at the memory, Scott joining him with a few chuckles of his own.

Johnny was thunderstruck. His mama thought like him! And more importantly, Murdoch spoke about her with fondness.

“She was as dark as your mother was fair, Scott. About two inches shorter. Petite. Both were stunning beauties. I …”

Murdoch did not pursue his train of thought. He began fidgeting with his cup, running his finger around the rim in endless circles. He cast a brief glance at Johnny who feigned disinterest. He tried to shrink and reduce his presence in the shack.

“Yes?” prompted Scott.

“They both had tempers, but your mother took a long while to bring herself to the boil. Once she did, the eruption of Vesuvius was nothing compared to her. She chose her fights and saw them through with a steely determination.”

“And Maria?” Scott prompted.

Johnny silently thanked his brother for urging the continuation of the reminiscences.

“She was a walking earthquake. Not outwardly calm like your mother. Like a series of minor earthquakes along a fault line. And you never knew when a more powerful one was coming. There were lots of warnings and there were aftershocks. She had a zest for life that was breathtaking. Your mother was more tranquil, but no less vibrant.”

Murdoch cleared his throat again. Again he cast a glance at Johnny. Johnny had the impression that Murdoch would like him to make himself scarce, but he nonchalantly stayed. He wanted to hear more of this.

“But just because …” Murdoch’s voice petered out as he again slid a glance to Johnny. He licked his lips and seemed to reconsider saying what he had been about to divulge. His cup then held his attention once more as he fiddled with the handle. Suddenly his shoulders squared and he sat a little straighter. His decision made, he took a breath and began speaking. “Just because I remarried, it didn’t mean that I stopped loving your mother. I’ve always loved her. I want you to know that, Scott.”

Johnny’s decision to remain silent evaporated.

“So, you married another woman even though you loved someone else?” Johnny challenged.

Both Murdoch and Scott looked at him, surprised at his vehemence.

Murdoch was shaking his head. Determined to explain, he continued.

“No, it wasn’t like that, either. Scott’s mother had passed away and I never stopped loving her, but with time I was able to open my heart again. It is like having children. You love your first, but just because you have a second, you don’t stop loving the first, or even love him less. There’s room for both in your heart. It’s just different,” Murdoch explained. Although he was answering Johnny, it was plain that it was Scott he wanted to make understand.

“So, if you loved her, then why did she leave?”

“That’s personal.”

Johnny nodded.

“A broken marriage is personal, I gotta agree with you, but maybe Scott deserves to know why? He told me that he didn’t even know you had remarried. He found out well after his arrival. Secrets and half truths don’t help anyone come to terms with life’s problems and pain. They don’t help you or anyone else.”

While surprised at Johnny’s interest in the subject, Scott backed Johnny’s assertions up.

“He’s right, you know. You’ve told me practically nothing. I find things out accidentally. I wish you would be more open more often, like you are tonight.”

“Now is not the time to continue this,” Murdoch muttered, throwing Johnny a meaningful look.

“Now never is the time, Murdoch,” Scott insisted.

Murdoch’s sigh was deep and painful.

“She ran off,” he admitted.

“So I believe, but that’s it? Why?” Scott demanded.

Murdoch made both men jump when he threw his mug slap into the wall and rose in anger and frustration.

“She ran off with a gambler! Does knowing that help? It sure hasn’t helped me work out why! How can I tell you when I don’t know myself!”

Murdoch ran his hands through his hair in anguish, leaving strands awry. “We had our ups and downs, but I loved her!”

The pain was fresh on every line of his expressive face. “She wanted another life, one closer to the city and all its diversions.”

Murdoch stared at a memory only visible to himself. “She was restless and she liked change. It was as if there was just not enough stimulus at the ranch.”

He sighed deeply in world weary exasperation, but still fresh anguish.

“She wanted someone else,” he mused to himself.

Johnny studied Murdoch’s face with surprise. The pain was real. Twenty years later and he was still suffering.

“So she just left everything behind?” Scott asked gently.

Another sigh from Murdoch.

“Yes and no.”

“She left the ranch, me and most of her things here, but she took …”

Murdoch’s last word was whispered, agony ripe with the silence that ensued.

“Took what?” Scott persisted.

Murdoch squeezed his eyes closed and did not answer immediately.

“Who.”

“Pardon?” Scott asked.

“Not what. Who.”

Murdoch took several steps to place himself in front of Scott.

“I never told you this after you arrived. There didn’t seem much point.”

Johnny winced, knowing what was coming and resenting the revelation of his departure. He had listened to his father’s pain, but so far he had only detected references to the loss of his mother. It was as if he didn’t count. He was an adjunct, but was not a prime source of loss.

“Never told me what?”

“Maria took our son with her.”

Scott was openly puzzled.

“Pardon?”

Murdoch stared at Scott a good minute.

“Would you care to explain yourself?” Scott insisted. His voice had become clipped and terse in his agitation.

“Maria and I had a son. He was born three years after you to the month. You were both December boys. She took him with her. He was only two years old,” Murdoch informed him.

Scott went deathly pale and sat as still as a statue.

Johnny stared at his brother, unable and unwilling to join this conversation at this point. There was no need for him to worry. Scott suddenly took up the thread left hanging in the tense air around them. He bolted to his feet and grabbed Murdoch by his shirtfront. The attack startled Murdoch and knocked him a little off balance, but he did no more than right himself as the angry words poured from Scott’s heart.

“I have a brother? A brother!” he screamed, fury sending concrete waves which caused Murdoch to visibly cringe. “And WHEN was I going to find out about this brother?”

“I haven’t had time to tell you. You were injured when you came here,” Murdoch excused himself.

“That was months ago!”

Scott shook him in his rage.

“Where is he?”

Murdoch did not retaliate as he was shaken forcefully again.

“Well? Answer me!”

“In Mexico,” came Murdoch’s soft words.

“My brother is in Mexico? Why the hell haven’t you brought him home? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Scott voice quieted to a whisper as his intonation rose with the stunned query.

“Why didn’t you let me know?” Scott repeated as Murdoch looked at him, mute distress stamped on his face.

Murdoch shook his head. Johnny’s breath caught in his throat as he witnessed Murdoch’s eyes brighten with unshed tears.

“Murdoch?”

Scott wanted an answer.

“He’s dead. He died when he was five from typhoid. Maria sent me a telegraph. It was the only time she ever communicated with me. I went down there, but she was already gone.”

Scott released him in shock and Murdoch sagged back down onto his chair. He had aged twenty years during the course of the conversation. Misery stamped itself all over his features.

Scott remained towering over his father, staring at him in disbelief.

“I checked the cemetery.  My son was buried there with all the other victims of the epidemic.” He grimaced. “Juanito Lancer.”

The air was heavy with silence. The older man’s suffering and the younger men’s horror were palpable.

Scott sat down and spoke desperately to his father.

“But why didn’t you go after them when she left? How many Lancers would there be in Mexico? What was so hard about that?”

“Oh, Scott. She didn’t go by the name of Lancer down there. Neither of them did. At least not while he was alive. She put his correct surname on the headstone, but she used aliases and covered her tracks. They moved often. I hired Pinkertons, but they could never locate them. There were close calls, but never any success.”

“Oh.” Scott could muster no more to say.

Johnny stared at the deep sadness in his eyes. Both of them had missed out on their brotherhood.

“I always wanted a brother,” Scott confessed in a quiet and quavering voice.

“I’m sorry, son.”

Scott nodded, not trusting his voice. This snippet of genealogical information clearly had dazed him.

“Maybe you should have done more to keep her here in the first place?” Johnny interjected into the silence. “It might have saved all this mess … and your son might still be alive!”

Murdoch’s anger surfaced and bit back.

“You may have been privy to a very private conversation, but this is none of your business!” he spat.

“Just stating the obvious is all,” Johnny drawled.

Murdoch glared at him and spoke in barely controlled tones.

“One day, you may have a wife. You may have to work hard to establish yourself to provide for that wife and any children you may be blessed with. And you might just find that no matter how hard to work for your family’s benefit, it is just not good enough. Whatever you do is simply not enough. And all your hopes and dreams come crumbling down despite your best efforts. And you just can’t fix it. You are left with the ruins. Even if you build yourself up again, you can never recoup your losses. It’s never the same. You can’t replace people you love.”

Murdoch’s breathing ricocheted around the walls of the shack, carrying with it the burden of his sorrow and despair.

And Johnny wondered yet again if there might just be two sides to the story he had always been told. Johnny had not been the only one to suffer over the years.

The emotion was too much for Murdoch. He bolted for the door and crashed into the welcome anonymity of the night.

Scott and Johnny sat in silence, each totally immersed in their thoughts. 

Johnny was at a loss as to what to do. Could he erase Scott’s pain by revealing himself? Did he want Murdoch to know? Did he want to stay? Did he want to risk not being asked to stay? Just what the heck did he want from this situation now and in the future? He still needed time. He had to think about the best course of action. Delaying again seemed the most sensible option. Or was this inaction a cowardly act? Facing a man in the street seemed easier to him at the moment than facing the truth of his family and confronting them with it. He was being chicken, and he wasn’t proud of it.

Johnny finally spoke.

“I’m sorry, Scott.”

Scott nodded.

“I’d better go check on him.”

“Sure,” Johnny replied.

As Scott hoisted himself to his feet, both men were paralysed by a piercing sound ripping through the night air.

They looked at each other in shock.

“Mountain lion!” yelled Johnny, as they both scrambled for their guns.

Silver patches gleamed where the moonbeams struck, consigning the shadows to the mystery of the unseeable unknown. Black voids, interspersed with the near clarity of day, seamlessly joined the night sky.

The brothers stood on the porch, guns raised and ears straining to hear any indication of Murdoch’s whereabouts. Only their harsh breathing scarred the silent night. Their eyes scanned the surreal light and dark landscape which seemed frozen in the windless night.

Johnny indicated the direction of the creek with his gun.

“I think I heard his footsteps go that way,” he whispered.

Scott nodded in agreement. They soundlessly made their way towards the stream where they had fished that afternoon. Both men were tautly aware that any slip up on their part could be fatal for them or Murdoch as they watched each others’ back.

The stream was reached, but initially there was no sign of Murdoch. Then they spotted him. He was seated on a boulder with his sideways to them, his bulk blending with the rocky outcrops around him. Remaining absolutely still, he appeared lost in his own thoughts as he hunched over, elbows on resting on his thighs.

Proceeding with caution, the men approached silently to within several yards of Murdoch. He finally caught sight of them. His eyes widened in surprise and his mouth opened to emit a warning shout.

Immediately, Johnny saw the danger. Launching himself, he threw his body at his father while simultaneously firing repeatedly as a fiercely yowling shape hurtled through the air at them. Murdoch fell heavily to the side onto the ground. His body was squashed under the dual weight of Johnny’s body with the mountain lion on top.

The cacophony of roaring and shouting died with the reverberation of the last bullet from Johnny’s gun. 

Scott raced the last few yards. At his feet lay a gruesome heap of bloodied fur. And underneath lay both his friend and his father. Swearing volubly, he heaved at the lifeless feline. It was a huge animal and a dead weight in more ways than one. Desperation lent him strength as, with a final heave, he pushed the animal off Johnny. More gently, he rolled Johnny off his father. Murdoch was conscious, but winded. Johnny was dazed and in a less responsive state.

“Are you all right?” gasped Murdoch.

“Yes. Are you hurt?”

“No. What about Johnny?”

“He’s groggy and he’s injured in some way.”

Scott let his father right himself as he bent over Johnny’s moaning form.  He recognized dark patches as blood, but the source was unclear. He was also unable to determine the severity of any wounds.

He raised his head as he felt Murdoch’s hand on his shoulder.

“I don’t know how bad he is, Murdoch. Are you able to help me get him inside?”

“Of course, son,” answered Murdoch softly.

With the utmost care and haste, Johnny’s rather limp body was carried into the shack and placed gently on one of the cots.

Pink had been dyed red. Blood red. His shirt had not only deepened in colour, it had been virtually torn off his body. Scott grabbed his spare shirt which he had previously draped over a chair back. Dipping it into a bucket of water left by the stove, he sponged off Johnny’s torso. His back and shoulders had seemed to take the brunt of the assault as he had used his body both to shove Murdoch out of the way and to protect him.

“There’s so much blood! Murdoch, see if Johnny has any spare shirts we can use!”

Murdoch needed no urging. Seizing Johnny’s saddle bags, he was relieved to see a shirt packed there. He tugged it free of its confines. As it unravelled something wrapped in it fell to the floor with a thud. Murdoch passed the shirt to Scott, then bent to retrieve the flat, rectangular object. Puzzled he turned it over.

And his world froze.

 

Chapter Thirty

Murdoch could not believe what he was seeing. He gasped in shock. His index finger ran gently down the image. It was a grey, white and black image with sepia tones, but her beauty and vitality shone through. As did the mischievous smile and the zest for life in the eyes of the little toddler who grabbed at his heart. His finger travelled to the boy cuddled next to the woman and a smile lingered lovingly on his lips.

“Murdoch! Fetch that salve Teresa packed in my saddle bags, please!”

Murdoch was jolted into the present. He looked from the photograph to the man suffering on the bed and swallowed back his confused emotions.

“Murdoch! Get a move on!”

Murdoch was galvanized into action, a more frenzied purpose firing his movements.

Unearthing the salve, he passed it to Scott. He watched in morbid fascination as Scott gently rubbed the salve over the almost parallel claw marks marring Johnny’s tanned skin. Blood had surprisingly already begun to ooze, rather than flow, but there were still copious amounts to contain. No sooner was the salve in place than the red gore bubbled out and then coalesced as the drops grew in size. Scott kept dabbing, but the blood was stubbornly resistant to any form of total containment. The shirt in Scott’s hand soon became counterproductive, a frustration to Scott who was willing the blood loss to cease.

Murdoch pressed his own spare shirt into Scott’s hand.

“Here! Use this as wad and let’s get him strapped up.”

Scott blessed the ever-vigilant Teresa. The bandages she had packed, along with the salve in case of emergencies, were put to use. Murdoch sat on the bed and leaned forward to ease Johnny upright. With the utmost of care he lifted his shoulders until Johnny sat in the bed sagging against Murdoch’s broad chest, staining Murdoch’s clothes with his blood.

And Murdoch supported him with a tenderness he had not felt for twenty years. His eyes watched Scott wrap Johnny’s wounds in the bandage, but his mind was totally focused on the black hair under his chin and the rapid, but shallow, breaths caressing his neck. Involuntarily, his hand stroked the heavy head lolling against his body. Countless images of another time, when he had comforted and soothed, assailed him. The force of the memories so long buried and forgotten was tangible.  A cut knee to be tended. A dead puppy to be farewelled. A splinter to be dug out. How could he have hidden these scenes for so long?

“Murdoch?”

Scott was looking at him strangely.

“You can put him down now.”

“Yes, of course.”

And Murdoch silently railed against the unfairness of holding him so briefly. A lifetime apart and still so little contact.

Johnny was now deeply unconscious and deathly pale.

Scott frowned and checked Johnny’s head. Under the fringe, high on the temple was a lump the size of South Mesa. He did not think that the cat had caused that.

“He must have hit his head when he fell.”

Murdoch lightly touched the area. Any excuse would do.

“Yes, I think that you are right.”

Murdoch lifted an eyelid and peered into Johnny’s unresponsive blue eyes.

“Lift the lamp up, will you, Scott?”

This was better.

“I think he has a concussion,” Murdoch diagnosed.

Scott bit his lower lip, worry cracking his normally controlled façade.

“I don’t like it. That, plus the blood loss and danger of infection, is a worry. And he has only just recovered from his last injury.”

Murdoch nodded in agreement, a stab of panic causing havoc in his chest.

“Murdoch, it’s a moonlit night. I’m going to go for help. Sam needs to see him and see him now, not tomorrow afternoon when his defences are down further.”

Murdoch nodded again. His tongue felt thick and uncooperative in his mouth.

“I’ll take your horse and go back to the ranch to get a hand to fetch Sam, then return to help you with him. By then it will be dawn and we can be back at the ranch by mid morning at the latest.”

But Scott still hovered, unwilling to break away from his friend.

“Go, Scott, but be careful. I don’t want to lose you to some careless accident. I’ll take good care of him, I promise.” Murdoch stared at Johnny, adding almost as an afterthought, “He saved my life. Quid pro quo.”

“Yes, we both owe him now!” Scott replied grimly.

A last deep swallow and a gesture of gratefulness to Murdoch’s shoulder and Scott was gone.

***************************  

Johnny’s dark hair contrasted with the stark white pillow behind it and the bandage swathing his head. He was breathing deeply and quietly.

And Murdoch was watching every rise and fall of his chest and listening to every breath.

Either he or Scott had been sitting there since Sam had left late the previous afternoon. Johnny had been fetched in the buckboard. A bumpy ride had ensued, jolting and jarring all the way back to Lancer, with the wounded man in the back mercifully unconscious the whole way.

Sam had examined him, washing out the vivid claw marks and using a probe to remove some detritus still evident. He had checked his eyes for any sort of reaction, and he had studied his respiration and all manner of things, but he had been non-committal.

Murdoch and Scott had been banished downstairs to wait. And waited they had, for what seemed like hours.

Scott passed time thinking about the brother he had lost without knowing of his existence, and he couldn’t help but compare him to Johnny. All he understood was that there was something about this man which made him seem for some reason about as close as any brother he possibly could have had. He did not want to have to mourn their new friendship so prematurely as he now mourned the stranger who was his brother.

Murdoch was barely able to breathe. He needed this man to survive. They had unfinished business that he was determined to deal with, but just how he would go about it he really just didn’t know.  That is, providing God did grant him the opportunity to broach the subject currently tearing his heart to shreds.

Johnny? Was this his Johnny? Johnny had been dead for seventeen agonizing years. How much was he reading into that photograph? No, not more than what was evident. The Johnny upstairs was the same Johnny who had slept up in the nursery as a child. It was the same Johnny. It had to be. He could see it now in the impish smile, so like his little boy’s, which had just occasionally surfaced. More often he had seen the frown and sullen features which had been stamped on Maria’s face in the latter days of their marriage, but in retrospect Murdoch knew with certainty that he had glimpsed snatches of his little boy’s cheekiness in Johnny’s few unguarded moments. The face upstairs was a male version of Maria’s, blue eyes aside. He was sure of it now. It was so obvious once he knew.

And that photo had been taken in the hacienda. Murdoch remembered the day. He had seen a leaflet in town when collecting supplies. A travelling photographer was willing to come to the local ranches and take photos, and Murdoch had been so proud of his family. He had wanted to capture them forever. Maria had been so excited to pose. She had tried on several different outfits before deciding she couldn’t work out which one flattered her the most. So she changed for each photograph. And the result had taken Murdoch’s breath away. His wife was stunningly alluring, vivacious and enticing, and every ounce of these qualities was stamped on her likeness in the photograph. And their little boy could not suppress his energy and joy for life, even during the sitting. His vitality shone. Murdoch had loved this picture. It had been given pride of place on the mantlepiece. His family. His loved ones. And two months later Maria had gone, taking not only his beloved son, but also this photograph which captured their essence so eloquently.

And he had been left with nothing. Once again, history repeated itself and he had been left bereft.

And Johnny must know. He must have been sure of Murdoch’s identity. Murdoch did not believe in such extraordinary coincidences. Johnny had come seeking them out. Or seeking one of them out. It had to be. But why now after all this time? And why hadn’t he said anything to them? 

Murdoch hoped and prayed that they would solve that riddle, that he would be able to confront Johnny with the facts. But he would have to tread carefully. He did not want to frighten Johnny away, but he also had to consider Scott.  His mind was in turmoil, swirling nauseatingly, and only Sam’s arrival had given him respite from a maelstrom of thoughts involving too many ‘what ifs’.

Sam had been circumspect when asked about Johnny’s injuries.

“I really don’t know, Murdoch. He has a bad concussion and you never know with these things. His wounds are nasty, but generally superficial. The claws did not go all that deep, but they will be very painful, and of course the threat of infection is very real. Claws harbour all manner of filth. I want those wounds bathed regularly in salty water. Once he wakes up properly, I will be happier. Just keep an eye on him. If he’s not too disoriented, get a little broth into him when he wakes. Check his eyes for focus.

And this is what they had done, but Johnny had not stayed awake for long.

Murdoch was brought out of his reverie by a movement from the bed. Johnny’s head moved from side to side. And low groans emanated from the sick man. The originally lethargic movements became slightly more animated, distressed even, as Murdoch watched. And Johnny voiced his torment. The Spanish surprised Murdoch, even though he knew it shouldn’t.

¡Mama! ¡No la hagas daño!  ¡Por favor!  ¡No la toques! Mamá, lo siento. Te amo.”

It was almost a repeat of Johnny’s previous delirious ramblings after his gunshot wound. As if these words did not shock Murdoch enough, Johnny then spoke more volubly, a rush of rapid Spanish spewing out in a tumbled mess. Murdoch could make out enough to give him an immense knot in his gut. Something dreadful had happened to his Maria, of that he was sure. She may have lied to him about Johnny’s fate and caused his years of misery thinking his second son was dead, but his stomach churned at the thought of his beautiful wife meeting what was all too obviously a grisly end.

Murdoch rinsed out the cloth which had been used to sponge Johnny down, then wiped his forehead. Making shushing noises, he was suddenly discomposed by the deep blue eyes which were open and focused on him, the panic still lingering.

“Steady, son. You’re safe at Lancer,” Murdoch soothed.

Johnny’s hand snaked out and latched onto Murdoch’s arm, his fingers biting into his flesh.

“I ain’t your son!” Johnny spat.

Murdoch stared into the icy depths, the vehemence taking his breath away. Was he protesting too much? What was his game?

“Regardless, I just want you to take it easy. You got a nasty knock on the head when that cat landed on you. Sam says that you are concussed, so you need to rest and not make too many sudden moves.”

Johnny continued to glare at the man, but gave a slight nod of confirmation. The movement must have caused him pain, for he clenched his eyes and suppressed a moan.

“Here, you’ll be dry. Take a sip of this.”

Helping Johnny to lift his head, Murdoch assisted him to sip the refreshing water.

Johnny murmured his thanks and Murdoch witnessed the tension begin to ease from him, until he suddenly gave a jolt and tried to sit up.

“Scott! Where’s Scott? Is he all right? Is he hurt?” Johnny demanded, once again clasping at Murdoch’s arm in his desperation.

“He’s fine. He wasn’t hurt at all. He was here until an hour ago, but he’s gone outside to get some chores done. He hasn’t gone far, mind you, just into the yard. He wouldn’t go out with the men. He just wanted to be within calling distance of the hacienda in case you needed help.

Johnny nodded.

“So there was just the one mountain lion?”

“Yes, and you got him and in doing so saved my life. I can never repay you. I’m grateful and I want to show you just how much if you’ll let me.”

“I don’t need your gratitude, Old Man. What I did was just something I did. There weren’t nothing special or meaningful in it.”

“Maybe not to you, but my life is special and meaningful to me, especially since Scott came home. When a man has a son by his side it makes him want to grab onto life and hold on that much more. You’ve given me back that chance to forge a relationship with my son. It’s only been a couple of months since you saved his life in that stagecoach hold-up fracas. We’re still getting to know each other. The more I know, the more I want to find out. What you did out there gave me that time and I want to thank you. You are a brave man.”

Johnny broke eye contact, dropping his eyes to the quilt draped over his body.

“It weren’t nothing, so don’t get all emotional about it.”

“You delivered my son safely to me several months ago and now you have saved my life. I think a man deserves to get a little emotional in the circumstances.”

Johnny didn’t reply. His finger traced the intricate pattern on the quilt. Murdoch scrutinized his actions before continuing.

“You put your own life before mine. I guess that kind of links us from now on.”

Johnny looked up at that.

“I told you. Don’t go reading things into it that aren’t there!”

“Well, I just wanted you to know how grateful I am.”

“You’re welcome. Now will you drop it?” Johnny snipped.

“But I need you to understand. You’ve made me very happy to be able to spend some time making up for all those lost years with Scott. My only regret is that my younger son is not alive to share this experience with us. I would be a man truly blessed if that were the case. Thank you for what you have given me, Johnny. I’m at a loss as to why you would risk your life for me, though.”

Murdoch looked at him quizzically, his voice rising at the end to make a question out of his statement.

“I told you to drop it! It’s done. Accept it and leave it alone!” Johnny snarled.

Murdoch looked at him, assessing how much more he should say, then abruptly nodded.

“For the moment, yes.”

Murdoch suddenly remembered his nursing duties. “Here, take some more water, Johnny.”

Johnny sipped the cool liquid gratefully and was saved from further discomfort by the arrival of Scott, whose face appeared simultaneously around the side of the door as he knocked.

His beam of pleasure in seeing Johnny awake cast a glow of warmth which brightened the whole room.

“Hey! You’re awake!” he commented unnecessarily.

“Looks that way,” agreed Johnny with a slight nod of his head.

“Has my father been playing nursemaid?”

“Yeah,” replied Johnny, casting a look in Murdoch’s direction and succumbing to the temptation for a little leg pulling. “He’s been looking after me just fine. He ain’t as pretty as Maria, though, and he sure can snore up a storm. I thought I was supposed to be sleeping and getting my strength back. It sure is impossible with all the racket he makes.”

“I don’t snore and I certainly didn’t fall asleep while I was on watch!” Murdoch protested lightly.

Johnny suddenly stilled, his snap change of mood creating instant tension. The humour had drained instantaneously from his features, to be replaced by a sullen, dark frown.

“I don’t need no guard!”

Scott and Murdoch exchanged surprised and concerned glances.

It was Murdoch who spoke first, however, with surprising intuitiveness.

“I wasn’t guarding you, at least not the way you think. I was looking after you. Making sure you were all right in case you needed something. I admit to guarding you in one sense, though. Sometimes after a man suffers a nasty injury, he can have nightmares or be disoriented when he starts to come to. I promised Scott that I’d watch your back while you slept and be here if you woke agitated.”

The anger had dissipated from Johnny’s face, which had settled into a bland mask devoid of expression.

Murdoch continued, soothing and placating, making a stab in the dark. “I wasn’t guarding you to protect the family from you, if that’s what you think. I was protecting you. A gunfighter doesn’t often get the chance to rest in total security. I wanted to make sure that you had that chance.”

The silence was prolonged, with Scott glancing worriedly from his father to Johnny. He didn’t know how his father was managing to say what he thought was exactly the right thing, but he was impressed. He just didn’t know if Johnny was.

It was the lips, askew and upturned, which heralded Johnny’s change of demeanour.

“Yeah, well I guess it has been some time since I slept in real peace. Probably when I had a cell to myself down near San Diego. I figured I was pretty safe then. Got me a real good couple of night’s shut-eye.” His grin widened as he perceived their discomfort and interest in the tale behind this little gem of information. “I’m much obliged, then. Thank you.”

Murdoch nodded. “You’re welcome.”

Scott heaved a sigh of relief at the truce between the two men. “Well, then, how about we feed the patient before he succumbs to malnutrition?”

Johnny looked at him in gratitude.

“Some chow would sure go down real well, Scott. I’m starving.”

A mock salute with a promise to fetch the food and Scott was gone.

Silence ensued. Johnny laid his head back and closed his eyes as Murdoch sat vigil next to his bed.

Johnny was irritated. Who did the man think he was? He’d grown up without anyone sitting by his bedside and he didn’t need it now. His Mama had sat with him when need be, albeit sporadically, depending on her work or the men in her life. He sure didn’t need this man playing father now.

“Go get some sleep, Old Man. You’ve been up half the night and a man likes some privacy.”

“I’ll just wait for Scott to get here.”

Johnny was exasperated. He kept his eyes closed as he drawled.

“Look, I ain’t gonna get all scared by myself. I can take care of myself, anyway. I’ll be fine.”

“I guess that’s just the problem. I know that you can take care of yourself, but maybe while the opportunity is here you could just relax enough to let others keep an eye out for you?”

“I appreciate the sentiment, but if you want a job done right you do it yourself. My safety ain’t something I’m in the habit of giving to others to take care of.”

Murdoch nodded in understanding, but inside his gut wrenched at the thought that this boy had not had someone, a father or a brother, to look after him as he grew from a child to a man. And he should have had both. He WOULD have had both if Maria had not left and if he had succeeded in getting Scott from Boston. And just maybe if Johnny had stayed, he would have fought harder for Scott so the two boys could have grown up together. And just maybe, too, the courts would have considered that Murdoch had a stronger stance if he could have put forward a case that Scott had a sibling waiting to share his life with. All of those senseless ‘if onlys’ and ‘maybes’. Murdoch silently added more. If only he could get Johnny to open up. If only he knew what to do about the photograph. If only he could get him to stay.

 

Chapter Thirty One

Scott was back within minutes. Maria and Teresa had food ready to be served in case Johnny woke up, and the tray he carried was replete with a savoury broth and fresh bread. Scott placed it on Johnny’s lap after Murdoch had assisted him to sit up.

Johnny hissed in pain as the movement pulled the healing claw marks. For several minutes he breathed raggedly until the pain subsided.

The welcome and enticing aroma of the food revived him, however. Leaning over, Johnny breathed in the steamy scent of the soup and warm bread.

“That sure smells mighty good,” he praised, feeling like he was in seventh heaven.

“Well, get it into you before it cools,” Murdoch instructed.

Johnny made short work of the meal, then lay back against the pillows with a deep sigh of contentment.

“That sure filled a hole in my belly.”

“How’s the head?” Scott enquired.

“Not bad, considering. Just got a bit of a headache. I’ve had worse.”

“What about the claw wounds?”

“They’re fine. They sting and pull a little is all. Once again, I’ve had worse.”

“Yes, well that just about sums it up. You have had worse too many times.”

Johnny lowered his eyes at that, seemingly considering Scott’s comment.

“The past is past. Can’t change it. No point in getting your long johns in a knot over it. It don’t pay to dwell on the bad things.”

Johnny’s advice spoke volumes for the previous hurts that he had had to cope with and then put aside, making both older Lancers uncomfortably angry with the hand life had dealt this young man. And Murdoch seethed at the impact his wife’s actions had had on Johnny. Once again, the ‘if onlys’ besieged his mind. And just how could he prevent any of that happening again?

It was Teresa who inadvertently opened up a whole can of worms before anyone was ready to deal with it.

She came bustling in to take the tray. A whirlwind of exuberance and innocent vitality, she breezed in smiling broadly.

“Oh, Maria is going to be so pleased that you ate all your dinner up. She said that if you did, she would promise you something with a little more fire in it next time.”

“Thanks, Teresa. And you be sure to pass on my thanks to Maria, too, please. OK?” he asked her softly.

“I promise. And I must get your saddle bags, too, and bring them up.”

“My saddle bags?”

No one in the room missed the note of panic in Johnny’s voice.

“Yes, they were in the back of the wagon when you were brought in. There was some blood on them, so I emptied them out and gave them to Jelly to clean up for you. He did a wonderful job. You should see how …”

Teresa’s voice trailed off as Johnny’s icy voice cut through her monologue.

She looked down in consternation as Johnny grabbed her wrist.  “You emptied them? You went through my things?” he demanded, a deadly chill freezing the previous good humour in the room.

Her face crumpled in dismay at his abrupt change of mood and at his anger.

“Yes, I just wanted to surprise you. I’m sorry. I was just trying to help.”

Her voice pleaded forgiveness, and her eyes shone with the tears rapidly forming.

“I put all your things safely in this drawer. Here, I’ll show you.”

As good as her word, she pulled out a top drawer of the tallboy near the window.

“Perhaps you’d like your photograph next to your bed,” she offered in desperation, trying to appease the obviously agitated man.

As she neared the bed, Johnny reached out and snagged the frame from her, fury blackening his face.

This was enough to break the dam. Teresa’s eyes not only welled, but tears began falling on both cheeks.

“I ... I’m sorry, Johnny. I thought I was doing the right thing,” she sobbed, clutching her hands in supplication.

Johnny grasped the photograph face down on his lap, knuckles clenched and glowing whitely against his tanned skin.

Scott and Murdoch both opened their mouths to speak, but Scott got a word in first.

“Settle down, Johnny. She only did what she thought was best. She was trying to please you.”

Johnny’s clenched jaw gave nothing away.

“Could you all please leave, thank you? I’m tired. I think I’ll get some rest.”

Teresa sobbed anew at this command, then grasped at the first thing she could think of to soothe the man’s brittle rage.

“She’s beautiful, Johnny. A stunning woman. I took good care of the photograph and made sure I didn’t crack the glass.”

Johnny’s lungs expanded as he took in a great gulp of air. He seemed to shake his head, before turning to the anguished girl. Looking into her eyes he was stabbed with guilt as he realized her discomfort.

“I’m sure you did, Querida. No harm done. I know you meant well, and thanks. I’m sorry I over-reacted,” he placated her.

He had assumed that she would take this crumb of apology and go, but he misread her.

“Who are they, Johnny? She reminds me of someone, but I can’t quite think who.”

“Never mind. Just leave it, will you?”

Murdoch snapped. He had been battling for control of his emotions, but his patience was at an end. He was going to confront the issue as much as he feared the consequences and as much as he had not actually formulated a plan as yet.

“I think you’ll remember in due course, Teresa. And you are right, she was a stunning woman, but that picture doesn’t do her nearly enough justice.”

Scott was puzzled. ”How do you know that Teresa will remember and how do you know that she was stunning if you haven’t seen the photograph?” he queried.

“When Johnny was injured and I was looking for something to bandage him with, I found the photograph wrapped up in one of his shirts in his saddle bags.”

Johnny’s head snapped up to snare his father in a deadly glare. Murdoch was not going to be intimidated. He held Johnny’s gaze evenly, praying that he had not just been incredibly stupid.

Scott and Teresa glanced from one to the other. Something was amiss and they seemed excluded from this duel between Murdoch and Johnny.

Johnny seemed to be silently daring Murdoch to say more or to shut up, and Murdoch was agonising over whether to commit what could be a folly of monumental proportions. His gaze never left Johnny’s eyes as he filled him in on the details.

“I remember the day when that photo was taken. It was our second wedding anniversary and I wanted to have a keepsake. She was so excited and kept changing outfits, as she couldn’t decide which one she preferred. In the end she wore a different dress for each sitting. We had four portraits taken. One of the two of us, one of us with our son, one of Maria by herself and one of her with our little boy.”

Scott was frowning, floundering at this scene which was incomprehensible to him.

Then Teresa gasped in shock. Her eyes opened wide and her hand rose to her mouth.

“Why, it’s a photograph of Maria! How did you end up with a picture of her in your saddle bags, Johnny? It doesn’t make sense.”

The room was still, Johnny’s rapid and distressed breathing the only sound dominating the room.

“What’s going on here?” Scott demanded of Johnny and Murdoch. “Will you two stop playing games?”

The silence continued.

”Well?”

Murdoch spoke encouragingly, but firmly.

“Well, are you going to tell him, Johnny? He has a right to know.”

“Tell me what?” Scott voice had risen in annoyance at being excluded from this private game being played between the two of them. “Why do you have a photograph of Maria with you? I don’t get it. What is she to you?”

A silence engulfed them before Johnny murmured the words.

“She was my mama.”

Scott looked at him. He can’t have heard right.

”She was what?”

“My mama.”

And this time Johnny looked steadily at Scott full on. And he waited. He waited for the penny to drop.

Scott’s face contorted with the effort of absorbing and making sense of what he had said. Nobody else spoke. Teresa was busy solving the same puzzle and Murdoch and Johnny merely waited for the light to dawn.

And it did. Slowly at first, but then rushing over his features and animating his face. His head swung from one to the other.

“But Maria was Murdoch’s wife. She can’t be your mother!”

No response came from Murdoch or Johnny.

“Unless you are their deceased son,” Scott voiced the final piece of the puzzle. He looked from one to the other, seeking confirmation.

Johnny gave a brief nod.

Scott stood stock still, staring at Johnny, his face bland, giving nothing away.

“May I see the photograph?”

Johnny passed it over wordlessly.

Scott studied it intently, his face at first impassive. Then a smile tweaked at his lips and his face melted into a blazing grin.

“She was indeed ravishingly beautiful and I guess that you were one cute baby, Johnny, or should that be … brother?”

This last was said tentatively, hope leaping forward to seize the response.

“Yes, she was. And yes I am.”

Before anyone could say anything more, Scott gave a whoop and leapt onto the bed, seemingly disregarding Johnny’s injuries. He pulled him none too gently into an embrace, which Johnny was defenceless in resisting. Truth be told, he enjoyed it. The warmth he felt had been sadly lacking in his life for too long, but it was still foreign to him.

“Settle down, Boston, or you’re going to have me bleeding like a stuck pig.”

“That’s all right, BROTHER, you’re made of tough stuff!”

Scott nevertheless took the hint. With a gentle headlock for good measure, he moved back, settling on the side of the mattress.

There was an awkward silence as three pairs of eyes focused on Johnny, who chose to look down to avoid the scrutiny.

Scott turned his head to his father.

“You knew,” he accused. “You knew that Johnny was my brother.”

“Only after the mountain lion attack.”

Scott folded his arms and nodded. He turned to Johnny.

“And you knew, too. You’ve known for a long time.”

Johnny had the grace to look abashed.

“And were you ever going to tell me?”

Scott’s harsh tone made the three of them jump. This was a Scott they did not often hear.

“Well?” he demanded of Johnny.

No answer came. Johnny did not know the answer to that.

Scott ran his fingers through his hair in frustration.

“How long have you known about me? About us? About our relationship? Is that why you were oh so accidentally waiting by the side of the road for the stage?”

Johnny did meet his brother’s gaze then.

“No. I was heading to Lancer, but I didn’t know you existed. You gave your name as Garrett, remember. I didn’t know who you were until you introduced Murdoch and told me his surname that day after I got shot. Until then, I had no idea.”

“But if you were heading to Lancer to meet your father … OUR father … why did you come so far and then just turn around and leave without making any contact?”

Johnny didn’t answer. He didn’t know if he had the answer.

“That IS why you were coming to Lancer in the first place, isn’t it? To get to know your father?”

Johnny looked away, but did not reply.

“Well, Johnny, is that right or not?” Scott insisted.

A prolonged pause dragged out.

“No, that ain’t why I was coming to Lancer.”

“Well, how about you enlighten us, because right about now I am floundering in the dark and none too happy about it!”

Scott’s continuing annoyance had the effect of clipping each word to emphasize his aggravation.

He wasn’t prepared for Johnny’s response when it came.

Johnny turned his head and locked eyes with his father as he answered Scott’s question.

“Because I came here to kill him.”

Murdoch remained impassive, contrasting with Teresa’s gasp of shock and Scott’s horrified response.

“What?” he cried, desperately looking from his father to his brother.

Johnny waited for Murdoch to say something, but he remained resolutely silent for the moment.

When Murdoch did not respond, Johnny impassively recited a litany of reasons.

“I was going to kill him for kicking me and my mother out and making us suffer all our lives. For denying me my birthright. For not wanting a mestizo son. For being the cause of all our misery. For condemning us to hunger and an empty nothingness of an existence .”

Scott swallowed hard, all the saliva in his mouth having dried, cracking his tongue like a leaf in the fall.

“That’s not true,” he whispered in a broken denial.

Johnny’s body rocked as he nodded his head slightly.

”Yep, it is true, Scott. Nothing I wanted to do more all my life than to kill him. But now I think you are right about Murdoch’s actions or lack of them, as the case may be. I just didn’t know it at the time. The killing was just something that I wanted to do … that I HAD to do all my life. And it’s something I promised my mama as she lay dying.”

Twin grimaces of pain slashed across Johnny’s and Murdoch’s faces.

Murdoch had been content to let his boys do the talking, but finally he spoke.

“And I gather that you changed your mind and have come to the conclusion that what you believed was wrong, Son?”

Johnny was confused. He both balked at being called son, but also reveled in the new warm sensation of the endearment.

“I just got bone weary of death and vengeance, I guess. What did it all solve? The closer I got, the less appeal it had for me. I guess, too, I was scared that if I got close to you, I might just go chicken and not carry through with it. I ain’t never been a cold blooded shooter, but I swore to my mama that I’d kill you for what you did to us. I was finding myself boxed in, I suppose. I didn’t want to back down on my promise to my mama, but I didn’t want to just murder you like I’d always intended. If I went to Lancer, I was going to have to face up to a decision. I was either going to let Mama or myself down. So I took the easy way out and left.”

Surprisingly, it was Murdoch who nodded in understanding.

Johnny snorted. “Heck, just as well, the way it turns out! My mama didn’t tell me the truth by all accounts. I guess I’m sorry for my earlier intentions, even if I didn’t act on them.”

Scott was frowning. “But you still haven’t answered me as to why you didn’t reveal who you were once you found out who we were.” His face was anguished. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he finished in a whisper.

“I thought that you needed time to get to know Murdoch. If he were a bastard …  begging your pardon, Teresa … you’d find out soon enough and you could go back to your fancy life in Boston. You’ve got a home there. You ain’t destitute. You’re your own man who can make your own astute decisions. If Murdoch weren’t the mean streak I thought he was, then maybe you deserved to get to know him and to enjoy some time with him. I guess I didn’t want to ruin things for you.”

“So I posed an added fly in the ointment, then?” Scott asked wryly.

Johnny grinned.

“I guess you did. Once I realized who you were, it just got plain complicated.”

“But why didn’t you tell me about your existence? When you found out about me, when you found out that you had a brother, were you just going to walk out on me? Sam said that the day I invited you to the line shack, you had already told him and Murdoch that you were leaving, that you planned to head off seeing you were well again.”

Johnny scratched his nose, then ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, for one thing, it often ain’t too safe to be around me. Trouble seems to find me and hurt those close to me.” Johnny ruminated before looking up at Scott and continuing softly. “Besides, ever heard the expression ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’? Plus, I just needed the space to work out what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t do that on your doorstep. And if I confronted Murdoch, I couldn’t guarantee I wouldn’t shoot him on you after all. And that would have spoiled your little family reunion.”

He followed his frank admission with a close scrutiny of his father’s reaction. He was surprised to see the humour lines of his face deepen. But then they just as quickly disappeared, to be replaced by a piercing look that demanded an answer to his next grim and probing question.

“And if you had come out to the ranch several months ago, if the urge had hit your trigger finger, would you have announced yourself first? Asked me some questions? Asked me my side of the story?”

“I ain’t no back shooter! I would have knocked on the door and invited myself in before we got down to business.”

“Why?” Murdoch demanded.

“Why what?”

“Why would you give away an advantage before shooting me?”

Johnny’s nostrils flared in remembered hate.

“Because I wanted to see what sort of man you were. I wanted you to hear about what Mama went through. I wanted you to know what you had done to us. I wanted you to know that I didn’t care about you. I wanted you to know that you were nothing to us the same as we were nothing to you! I wanted you to see that truth as you died.”

Teresa clutched the bedpost at the vehemence of Johnny’s confession. Shock and horror at Johnny’s vitriolic diatribe marked Scott’s face, but Murdoch merely nodded in acceptance.

“But you changed your mind. Even when you came back, albeit unintentionally with a bullet wound and found yourself on Lancer property, you could have carried out that plan.”

“Yeah,” Johnny conceded, “but Scott here had grown attached to you.” He flashed a grin. “I couldn’t work it out.  Scott liked you. The workers liked you, especially the Mexicans.” Johnny sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “It just didn’t add up. You weren’t what I thought you were.”

“I see,” commented Murdoch.

“I guess since I was here, I wanted to find out for myself what I thought of you, to see what others saw in you,” Johnny confessed.

“And?”

The interjection had come from Scott, not Murdoch.

Johnny looked at him and shrugged.

“I guess he wasn’t what I had grown up believing him to be.”

“And were you ever going to say anything about who you were, Johnny?” Scott persisted.

Johnny’s sapphire blue eyes locked on Scott’s grey blue with an intensity which melded their souls.

”I really don’t know, Scott. For once in my life I had no clear plan. All I knew was that day by day it was getting harder to leave and it was also harder to let you both know who I was. I suppose I was biding my time.” Johnny stopped, before confessing one last detail. “And I was getting to like it here.”

Scott stood up and sucked in a breath at his brother’s frankness. Johnny’s last utterance had offered him quite some relief, but dismay was his overriding sensation. Dismay that Johnny may have left without telling him of their relationship caused him to react with an uncharacteristic display of viciousness and petulance.

“So, I have gone through my whole life without a much desired brother. No fault of yours there, Johnny, seeing we didn’t know about each other. But now, although you have come into my life I might never have known who you really were. I just could have continued going through the motions of my life without my brother because of your whims. And I can tell you now that I have just been going through the motions. Until I met you, that is. I knew from the start that you were special. You might just be pig headed enough to deny it, but I wouldn’t believe you. You know that we have some sort of link. It was there before we knew who the other was. But you were ready to leave me in ignorance depending on your own choice, your own selfish desires and your own assumptions about what was good for me. That just doesn’t wash, BROTHER! If it hadn’t been for fate, for that cat attack, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now and we probably never would in the future. Just where do you get off choosing to leave me in ignorance about our relationship? It wasn’t your decision to make!”

Scott had worked himself up into a fury. His face was flushed red with rage and anguish. Sweat beaded on his forehead and veins bulged in his neck as he turned on his father.

“And you knew, too! Were you going to see how the cards fell? Were you going to leave it up to Johnny’s mood as to whether he identified himself or not? And would you have gone along with what transpired? Were you going to wait until he was long gone and far away before casually dropping into the conversation one day, ‘Oh, by the way, Scott, remember that Johnny guy? I forgot to tell you that he’s my son and your brother. Your only sibling in the whole world. Just thought you might like to know so you can churn over what you’ve missed out on for the rest of your life. So you can anguish over what might have been’ … Or is he my only sibling? Just what other secrets are you keeping from me? Any more knowledge I need protecting from, the revelations of which might prove a little hard for my poor feeble little mind to handle?”

Scott swung his gaze from his father and back to Johnny.

“How dare you two decide what is good for me! How dare you two take away my choices, take away my relationships before I have even had the chance to make them! How dare you two not let me have any say in my fate! Were you each politely waiting for the other to make the introductions? And you’re a chip off the old block all right, Johnny! Both of you all pride and no give,” he spat.

And Scott turned on his heel, strode to the door and flung it wide enough that the force caused it to bounce against the wall. The three of them listened to his footsteps belting the living daylights out of the staircase as he thumped downstairs. The resounding slam of the front door was clearly audible as he left the house in his hurt fury.

 

Chapter Thirty Two

The silence that descended was profound and lasted until the pounding of the galloping hooves on the dry earth diminished.

Johnny looked up at his father.

“I guess he has a point.”

“Perhaps several,” Murdoch agreed.

Teresa looked from one to the other.

“Let’s get this straight. Are you saying that Johnny is your son? That he is Scott’s brother? And that you knew?”

Both men looked at her, answering in unison.

“Yes.”

“And do you seriously wonder why Scott has gone off in such a huff?”

“No,” they both agreed again after a fraction’s hesitation.

“And all this time you said nothing. Was Scott right, Johnny, that you might have left without ever telling us?”

“Like I said, Teresa, I just don’t know what I was going to do. It was getting harder to leave, I do know that, but I was thinking that I might mess things up for Scott and that I should go before my presence put everyone else at risk. I hope that you can see that, Teresa.”

“Yes, I do, but I also see that Murdoch and Scott and I would rather that you stayed here, risk or not, than you ran out on us like a coward. As Scott said, it wasn’t up to you to make our choices for us.”

So saying, Teresa picked up the tray and marched out of the room, with a dignity far exceeding her tender years.

That left the two Lancer men, father and son, alone for the first time since their relationship had been revealed. A silence stretched for some moments.

“Do you still want to shoot me?” Murdoch finally enquired in a lame effort to introduce some levity.

Johnny glanced at him, piercingly blue eyes appraising the giant man.

“Not any more,” he confessed softly, “Not unless you give me reason to,” he added with a ghost of a smile playing across his lips.

Murdoch nodded.

Johnny coughed and shuffled in the bed, as though trying to get comfortable.

“Will you tell me what happened?” Johnny asked softly. “In your own words, that is. I heard some things. I asked around, but I want to know your version of things.”

“That’s perfectly understandable,” agreed Murdoch.

Murdoch also cleared his throat, desperately seeking time to work out what he should say. Silence fell, and pulling himself together, he opted for the plain and unadulterated truth. Any less and he would lose this boy now and forever. He didn’t want that and he knew that it wouldn’t be fair to Scott.

“I loved your mother, Son. She brought me alive after Catherine’s death. I had been a dead man walking for two years and then I met her one day when I had gone to Matamoras to sell some cattle. She took my breath away with her beauty and she inspired me. I … we … things moved fast and … she … we married not long afterwards. You were born before we had been married a year. I was so proud of you and proud of her, but she had trouble settling on the ranch. She missed Mexico. She preferred the town and found things a little lonely and isolated on the ranch. I didn’t realize just how lonely until she left with that two bit gambler one day. Right out of the blue she left – taking you with her.”

The depth of sadness and longing in Murdoch’s face shook Johnny. This was not how his mother had told it, but it was as he had begun to suspect.

“I was devastated. I searched for you. I left the ranch in Cipriano’s hands and went scouring the hills and towns for months. Then I ran out of money and I ran out of leads. I returned to the ranch to save up a little, and I hired the Pinkertons, who sent me periodic reports but nothing concrete to go on. The blackest day of my life …” Murdoch’s voice cracked. He swallowed. His jaw was clenched and his nostrils flared as he endeavoured to control his emotions. He sucked in a deep breath and continued. “The blackest day of my life was when I heard that you had died. Maria had sent me a telegraph. I went down to Mexico and I checked it out. I prayed at your grave … or at what I thought was your grave, and laid flowers there. And my heart shriveled into nothingness in the process.”

Johnny’s steady glance never left his face. He believed the truth as he saw it stamped there plain to see. But to believe Murdoch meant that he had to disbelieve his mother. Not an easy thing to come to terms with and something he could only grapple with.

“So you never wanted to get rid of her?” he challenged.

Murdoch looked at him in shock.

”Never!” he asserted.

“And me?”

This was asked more hesitantly, more tamely, as though he feared the response might not be what he wanted.

“I idolized you, son. I dreamed of building up this ranch with you by my side. And I continued to dream of it until I was informed of your death. Even then, I hoped that it had been a mistake.”

“And it was,” contradicted Johnny. “A cruel mistake.” He appraised his father before adding, “Or a cruel lie.”

Pain filled eyes met more pain filled eyes, before Murdoch nodded.

“Yes, I now believe that to be right, Johnny. I was obviously deliberately misled so I would stop searching for you.”

Johnny also nodded in agreement, squeezing his eyes closed against the hurt his mother had caused him by not letting him know that he had a father to turn to. By not letting him know that he had been loved. By telling him that he had been unwanted because of his race.

Johnny swallowed the bile which had risen in his throat. Finally he spoke, his voice flat as he recalled a past memory. “I remember once when we left one of those towns in a hurry, which we often did. Mama called into the cemetery even though we were in a rush. There was a new headstone on a grave. I couldn’t read then seeing I was too young. I asked who it was and she said that it was the grave of someone who had shackled her in life, but who would free her in death.”

Johnny raised mournful eyes to Murdoch. “I guess she was referring to me, huh? That’s about all I was, I guess, a liability. I got in the way of her fun. A millstone around her neck. Just a damned nuisance.”

The bitterness of Johnny’s pronouncement weighed heavily in the air.

Murdoch looked with compassion at his long lost son. He grappled for something positive to say.

“Johnny, she may not have meant it in that way. Maybe she was referring to the fact that she hoped that this headstone would deter me once and for all and cut her loose from any tie with me. She knew I would give up after seeing the gravesite. She would be free of me and of the Pinkertons making enquiries forever. I think that that is more likely what she was thinking.”

Johnny stared at Murdoch. The visible hurt softened a little as his mouth twisted in an uneven, rueful smile.

“Nice try, but I think that we both know where she was coming from.” Johnny nodded to himself, his mind churning over his mother’s words and his past in general. He then lifted his blazing blue eyes to Murdoch. This time the deepening warmth of his smile reached his eyes. “Thanks for trying, though. I gotta appreciate that. Not…” Johnny hesitated and looked away for an instant. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Not many people in the past have tried to make me feel better. Thanks.” He gifted his father with a brilliant grin, his even white teeth contrasting with his tanned complexion and creating a dazzling display.

Murdoch smiled back in pleasure, but his grin faded as he considered Johnny’s words.

“What?” asked Johnny, warily.

“Nothing.” Murdoch turned, dragged his hand through his hair and grunting audibly in annoyance.

“What?” Johnny repeated to Murdoch’s back.

There was no reply for some time. Murdoch’s shoulders were slumped and his head was inclined forwards as he contemplated whatever it was which was occupying his mind.

“Your back ain’t particularly talkative, Murdoch.”

This brought Murdoch out of his reverie. He turned. “What? Oh, sorry.”

He walked several paces to the bed. Hitching up his pants at the knees, he sat down wearily on the armchair placed near the head of the bed. Resting his elbows on his knees, he grimly regarded his son.

“What you said earlier about no one making you feel better, about getting in the way of Maria’s fun, about being a liability … was that the way it really was?”

Johnny bit the inside of his cheeks and stared into the past. He began nodding again, his whole body swaying a little to the motion.

“Yeah, I guess it often was.” Johnny paused and then added extra words in a rush. “There were times when she was the best mama in the world, though.” A ghost of a smile lingered around his lips.

Murdoch assessed the words, extracting the essential and oppressive truth. “But mostly she wasn’t, was she Johnny?”

Johnny fidgeted with discomfort. He occupied himself by shifting his body into a more comfortable position. Staring at the curtained window, he seemed to find inspiration to discuss the issue.

“She looked after me and did the best she could to put a roof over our heads and food on the table,” he defended her as he warded off the many more unsavoury memories.

“Yes, son, but that wasn’t all the time, was it?” Murdoch prodded gently.

Johnny’s mouth had disappeared into a barely visible thin line. He shrugged. “No.”

“So tell me about most of the time, then,” Murdoch pleaded.

Johnny did not at first appear willing to talk. He finally began to speak in a soft, hesitating voice.

“We had to shift a lot.”

Johnny stopped. Murdoch provided the prompt.

“Why?”

“Well, she didn’t seem to be able to keep a job for long.”

“Do you know why?”

“Yeah, I guess I do. She liked to drink and sometimes she was too drunk to work. She had a fiery temper and she got sick of things real quick. She …”

Johnny stopped.

“Yes, Son?”

“You don’t want to know, really you don’t.”

“But I do. I missed out on you all your life. I do want to know what it was like for you.”

Johnny stared hard at Murdoch. “I don’t think so. It ain’t pretty and it can’t help you or me.”

“I used to think that the past was the past, dead and buried. I was wrong. Sometimes you have to deal with the past before you can build a solid foundation for the future. Secrets have a way of souring things. Old baggage can get a lot heavier to carry if you don’t offload a bit. It can weigh you down to the extent that you can’t function in the present. It can poison what’s good in the here and now if it’s allowed to fester.”

Johnny considered his father’s words. He took in the sincerity of the man’s face and took a gamble.

“It’s gonna hurt.”

“No more than it has hurt you over the years,” Murdoch shot back.

“You sure got an answer for everything, don’t you, Old Man?”

“If only I did, Son. Things would have been a lot different.” Regret lay heavily on the words.

Johnny assessed his father and again found himself nodding.

“I was gonna say that she got sick of things mighty quick … including her men friends.”

Murdoch kept his eyes on Johnny.

“And there were a lot of men friends?” he asked softly.

“Yeah. Lots. Most of them were only after one thing., though.” Johnny glanced away from his father, his cheeks blushing. “I wish she’d got rid of most of them a heck of a lot sooner. One or two were all right, and treated her and me real good, but she didn’t stay with them long, either. I used to think that if she found a nice man, then she’d get married again and I’d have a proper family, but it never worked out that way. I could never get inside her head. She always kept saying she wanted to find us a decent man, but she never seemed to find one and if she did she wasn’t any happier. Now I think …” Johnny stopped and clenched his jaw while his had grasped a fistful of the coverlet on the bed, scrunching it tightly.

“You think what, Johnny?”

Johnny shook his head, but remained silent.

“Say it, Johnny. Get it off your chest,” Murdoch advised.

Johnny looked at him defiantly, as if daring him to argue or to agree. “Now I think that she wouldn’t have been happy with anyone. She kept looking for that perfect man and that perfect situation, and she almost had it a few times. But it was never enough. I don’t think that anyone could make her truly happy. I guess what I am saying is that I could see that it could have happened the way you said. I’m not saying that I believe everything I’ve heard here, mind, but knowing her the way she was I could see her walking out looking for something better and not knowing that what she had was as close to perfect as she’d ever get anyway.”

Bitterness again stamped Johnny’s face.

“I’m sorry, Johnny. I wish that things had been different and that she had been different. I wish that she had stayed here.”

Johnny snorted. “She’d never have stayed. The grass was always greener on the other side of the fence. She sort of had itchy feet, you know? But no matter how often she scratched that itch it never went away and the sore just got bigger.”

Murdoch’s grief at his son’s fate caused him to swallow awkwardly and to hastily wipe a tear from his rapidly misting eyes. “You said … you said that a few of the men treated you well. What about the majority of them?”

“The rest of them treated me like shit! They didn’t want someone else’s kid around, especially a Gringo’s kid. They wanted Mama, that’s all. And I kinda spoilt their fun seeing’s how we mostly only had one room homes with only one bed. I soon learned that if I knew what was good for me, I needed to make myself scarce.”

“I’m so sorry, Son. So very sorry.”

“Don’t be. I guess I know now that it wasn’t your fault that you weren’t there. I could look after myself, but it was Mama who needed someone to care for her. And I often let her down. I couldn’t stop them when they got rough and had too much to drink. I wasn’t big enough to protect her from them.”

The transformation on Johnny’s face took Murdoch’s breath away. Gone were both the little boy and the young man he had witnessed in the preceding hour. A cold hardness sucked the life out of the man before him. Here was the gunslinger, all compassion tightly locked in an impenetrable jail of steel.

“But you were a child. You couldn’t have been expected to protect her. It should have been the other way around!”

“No matter. I failed. I swore that I would look after her!”

Murdoch’s heart squeezed tightly in misery for his younger son.

“Johnny, you couldn’t have saved her from herself. I’m sorry for asking and for bringing all of this up. It was insensitive of me to put you through those hateful memories.”

Johnny’s brittle eyes turned to his father. The longer he looked, the more his features changed. The hard lines softened and his eyes warmed with new life. A whimsical ghost of a smile played at his lips. “It’s old history for me. I guess it wasn’t easy for you to hear.”

“No, Johnny, it wasn’t. A man doesn’t like to hear about his son being exposed to that side of life. I had such hopes for you here on the ranch, me teaching you things, seeing you change and mature, guiding you. And it hurts that Maria took you from the life you should have had.”

Murdoch suddenly stood and paced off. He thumped the dresser near the window in anguish. “What was she thinking? Why did she go on this useless quest for something better? Why didn’t she leave you here?”

Johnny snorted again. “Hell, how do I know when she didn’t know herself? What made sense to her one day didn’t necessarily make sense the next. She didn’t, is all. And there’s no changing that.”

Murdoch looked at Johnny, weighing up his next words. Johnny noticed and gave him time to work out what it was that he wanted to say. But Murdoch did not speak.

“Get it said, Old Man! Seeing we’re in the business of clearing out a few stalls in the barn, we might as well complete the job!”

Murdoch’s eyes were both weary and wary. He coughed. Pacing some more, he then came to an abrupt stop and then returned to Johnny’s bedside.

“You were going to kill me.” It was a statement, but Johnny answered as if it had been a question.

“Yes.”

“So you hated me that much?”

Johnny pulled no punches. “It’s all I had to keep me going. It gave me something to focus on. The hate kept me alive when I would have just given up.”

“So, if the coach hadn’t been held up, you might have just marched in here and shot me?”

“Maybe. Make no mistake I was burning to kill you. It was like the decision was no longer mine. It had taken over years ago when I was hiding from Mama’s men. You were the sum of all of them. And in killing you I thought that I could kill all of them and all of the awfulness. But I wouldn’t have bushwhacked you. You’d have known what was going to happen.”

Murdoch gulped.

“You are nothing if not frank. I guess I should be grateful.”

“Just telling you how it was. That don’t mean that’s how it is now.”

“I know.”

“Do you? I mean, I really was going to kill you. I spent all the life I can remember wanting to kill you. It can’t all be erased overnight. I guess you could say that I’m still carrying some of that baggage you were talking about.”

Murdoch nodded in acceptance.

“But like I said earlier, I think you’re safe now. That’s in the past.”

There was silence as the two men digested this past.

“But what of the future? What do you want to do now? Will you stay? Will you give me a chance to show you that you can trust me? That I’m not the man you thought I was? Will you give me a chance to try to make at least some of it up to you? Will you give Scott a chance to have a brother?” Murdoch implored.

Johnny winced.

”I don’t think that at the moment Scott is too impressed with the father and brother that he has been stuck with. It might be him who wants to give us the flick!”

Murdoch laughed at that, then sobered abruptly.

“That’s a good point. I just hope that you are wrong.”

“Me too,” answered Johnny. And then he repeated more pensively, “Me too.”

“You still haven’t answered my question, John.”

Johnny appraised the massive man before him. The desire to see how these relationships might turn out was like a fire in his belly. But just like a bottle of tequila which could provide a comforting warmth on the inside, there was also the potential to have his insides burned catastrophically.

“Yeah, I’ll stay …at least for a while, until I see how things are working out.”

Murdoch smiled in relief.

“After all,” Johnny continued, “You just might need help with that overwrought greenhorn.”

Murdoch laughed again.

“That greenhorn is a fast learner. It won’t be long before he is showing me a thing or two!”

Johnny relaxed for the first time in ages and laughed as well.

“I wouldn’t put it past that Easterner at all. He is one smart dude.”

“Yes, he is. If I’m not mistaken, the two of you will be quite a match for each other. Welcome back home, Son.”

For some reason Johnny’s throat constricted with a hard ache, making it difficult to respond.

“Thank you,” he finally murmured his face lowered.

He felt Murdoch’s giant hand press reassuringly on his shoulder before he took his leave. As Murdoch swung open Johnny’s bedroom door, Johnny’s voice arrested his movement.

“Will you send Scott up to me when he gets in? We have unfinished business to attend to.”

“Certainly. I’ll withhold his supper unless he agrees to thrash out what upset him. He has a healthy appetite and I know that Teresa has made him a Boston Cream Pie for dessert. He won’t pass that up for a bout of stubbornness!”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” Johnny contradicted. “He is one strong minded  hombre.”

“Never you mind, anyway. I’ll see to it. Now get some rest.”

Murdoch made to leave once again, but then turned to face Johnny.

“And once again, Johnny. Welcome home, Son. You have no idea how I have missed you.”

Johnny nodded and gave a weak smile pleading for understanding. “I wish I could say the same. Maybe there will come a time when I can say the same thing and mean it.”

Murdoch accepted this frank statement. “Fair enough. Even that is more than I could ever have wished for.”

Murdoch smiled at him before giving a small salute and finally exiting the room.

Johnny settled back into the pillows as Murdoch closed the door. He mulled over Murdoch’s point of view and wondered how he would feel if he had a son who had been taken away from him for all those years. He then pondered what Scott had said. He could agree with him up to a point, but he was more bemused by Scott’s vehemence. Scott’s normally gentle exterior and placid manner hid an inner core of strength which was not to be trifled with.

Johnny grinned to himself. He was going to enjoy getting to know more about this eastern dandy. Scott was more complex than Johnny had ever dreamed when he had first sighted him in the stage.  Johnny had developed some insight into the man, but he had still been surprised at the passion of Scott’s outburst. That generally polite exterior did not preclude him being made of stern stuff with quite some backbone. And he wasn’t afraid to express himself, as he and Murdoch had just found out. Scott had revealed a seething mass of anger which he had directed straight at his father and brother. Johnny smiled, quite proud of his brother for taking umbrage at being kept in the dark. Scott sure wasn’t the shrinking violet he at first appeared to be. He’d let fly at them and let them have it with both barrels. Maybe finding out just what made him tick and what irritated him could prove entertaining. Yep, all in all, things were promising to be mighty interesting.

Johnny waited, his thoughts centred on his brother and father. As one hour blended into the next, he began to worry. Just where was his brother? Maybe he had come off that horse and was lying injured somewhere. It was past supper time. Surely he would have been back on time to eat.

Fear suddenly struck him with such a force that he groaned out loud. He couldn’t lie there doing nothing while Scott might need help. He lifted the blankets off his body and flung them to one side. He managed to shuffle his legs to the side of the bed and over the edge, before he pushed against the mattress to hoist himself upright. It was harder to do than he expected, so he needed to compose himself for some minutes before he could move again. His head felt heavy. It seemed to be the axis about which the whole room spun, tilting crazily as it wobbled around him, creating a nauseating heaving in his stomach.

Johnny clenched his eyes closed and breathed heavily, in through his nose and out through his mouth. He had to go out and look for Scott. He had to square things with him.

Perspiration trickled down from his hairline onto his forehead and down his cheeks. His queasy stomach fought with the fire of his wounds, each struggling for supremacy in creating the most pain and discomfort. Johnny Madrid would not be fazed by this, however. He would overcome, he tried to convince himself.

Putting his weight on his legs, he stood unsteadily, shaky and weak. He WOULD get dressed, he urged himself. Scott needed him.

 

Chapter Thirty Three

His plans came unstuck spectacularly. He took several hesitant steps before the room finally flew off the axis anchoring it. He couldn’t maintain his balance and began to slide to the floor.

He never reached its hard surface, however. Totally unexpectedly, Scott was at his side with a steadying arm around his waist arresting his fall and turning him back to the bed.

Johnny gulped some air, then looked at his brother.

“Thanks. I can make it.”

Scott looked at him skeptically, but let go, hovering by his side. Johnny managed only two steps. His world blurred and went black.

Having placed himself strategically, Scott was able to manoeuvre his shoulder under his brother as he toppled. He effortlessly carried him like a sack of grain to the bedside where he lowered him carefully onto the bed. Easing Johnny up, he adjusted the pillows under his head and shoulders, then lifted his legs and arranged them comfortably on the clean sheets. Tucking up his little brother, he sighed in annoyance at the man’s impetuosity. He decided that he would make sure he stayed put until Johnny woke up and he could give him a piece of his mind.

*******************************  

Johnny wafted in the comforting cosiness of the soft bed. It felt good. What’s more, he felt relaxed, like he could lie there and be safe. The pounding in his head subsided to a dull thump. It was more bearable and was lulling him into a pleasant snooze when his mind awoke properly with a snap. Scott! Damn the man. He had not returned from his hissy fit. Johnny needed to go look for him. The thought that something should befall Scott because of Johnny, made him feel sick to his stomach.

He rolled over and began to raise his shoulders from the bed. He couldn’t do so and pushed all the harder, but to no avail. His eyes opened, searching frantically for whatever impediment was preventing him from getting up, and came to rest on the unsettling intensity of his brother’s blue-grey steel eyes.

Johnny stopped struggling, wondering if he was dreaming.

He knew he wasn’t when his brother started in on him.

“That’s right, just quit the fuss and lie down. What the hell do you think you are doing? And what the hell was that stunt about earlier? What stupid notion was going through your mind that you should get up out of bed? IF, you had made it to the stairs, and I emphasize the word IF, there’s only one way you would have gone down them, and I doubt it would have been too comfortable a ride. What were you doing? Where were you going? Were you going to run out on me like you planned earlier? No goodbye? No nothing? No ‘nice to have met you’? No ‘have a good rest of your life without me’? Well, Johnny? Are you going to fill me in on what was going on in that lame brained skull of yours? Or has the sun and too much tequila pickled your thought processes over the years? Because, honestly, BROTHER, I don’t think too much of your thinking ability at the moment.

Johnny studied the angry face voicing its concerns with scarcely a breath drawn between accusations and attacks on his actions.

He sure could work himself up, Johnny decided. And for some reason, Johnny could not get angry. People didn’t usually take on Madrid unless they truly thought they could handle him or unless they had a death wish. Johnny thought that the former was the case in this scenario, but that was maybe because Scott still did not have any idea just who he was dealing with.

Johnny was quite stunned at just how ornery his brother could be. That eastern upbringing seemed to be cast aside at the moment. There was none of that ramrod straight anally retentive Scott he had first seen in the stage coach evident in the Scott fuming in front of him.

And Johnny liked it. He liked seeing this man all in a pucker. And although it didn’t bear to be analyzed in too great a depth at the moment, he liked his brother attempting to put him in his place, whatever his place was. He liked what he saw beneath the surface of his brother’s wrath. Concern. He had not had too much of this directed his way in his life, so the novelty of it seized his tongue  and prevented him from reacting with his customary icy response.

A grin grew from his mouth. It enlarged and engulfed his whole face. His eyes reflected his amusement and the laughter lines around them formed a multitude of little smiles of their own.

Scott finally drew breath and stopped berating him.

“What?” he asked after a lengthy pause. “What in tarnation is so funny about you being pig headed and damned STUPID enough as to get out of bed on your own in your condition? What … “

“Whoa, cowboy! That’s enough already. There ain’t no way I’d ever have enough time to answer all them questions. Boy, you sure do get yourself all in a tizzy like a stallion snapping away with his teeth at the world on a bad day.  I tell you what, when I get a bit better, I’m going to take you over to the saloon at Green River. I bet that a couple of girls working over there would know all the right techniques to get all those knots out of your drawers and all those questions out of your system. By the time they’re finished with you, you’ll be too worn out to do more than head your horse for home.”

“Thank you, Johnny. I’m sure that their … um ... techniques are very effective, but maybe some straight answers from you might be the best way to solve my problems.”

“Are you telling me I’m causing you problems?”

“Yes! And you damn well know it!”

“You want me to leave?” Johnny asked softly, measuring his brother’s response with his eyes, but grasping the answer with his heart.

“Of course I don’t want you to leave! That’s the whole point! You had already planned on leaving once. When you saved my life I realize that you didn’t know who I was so I understand your leaving the area then, but you sure found out about our relationship when we brought you to Lancer and yet you still planned on leaving without saying a word.”

Scott stopped, distress etched deeply onto the planes of his face.

“Did having a brother mean so little to you?” Scott asked tentatively.

Johnny heart stilled momentarily at his brother’s desolation.

“No, that ain’t it,” Johnny consoled him.

“Then just what was IT?” Scott demanded.

Johnny sighed. Where to start?

“I didn’t want to get in the way, Scott. You were just starting out with your father.”

“That’s not enough, Johnny. How was us being brothers going to get in the way of us being Murdoch’s sons and developing a relationship with him? And you know that we hit it off almost straight away. I might have been injured, but there was something, some link, binding us.”

Johnny’s finger idly played with the