This is my first attempt at a Lancer story. I apologise in advance for my attempts at ‘cowboy-speak’ as I’m from Ireland and the type of ‘cowboys’ we have over here speak an entirely different language.
Rating: overall PG as it involves violent acts but little or no swearing.
ACTIONS PAST AND PRESENT
Teresa O’Brien hummed contentedly to herself as she took down the laundry from the line. Life had thrown her a few curves in her young life, not least the brutal murder of her beloved father Paul and prior to that her abandonment by her flighty mother Angel, but of late she could safely say that she was happy. Following her father’s tragic loss his boss and ranch owner Murdoch Lancer had taken her in as his ward and the man couldn’t have shown her any more love if she had been his own flesh and blood.
‘Own flesh and blood.’
Teresa smiled to herself as she thought over those words. Everyone in the San Joaquin valley knew Murdoch’s history, of having loved and lost two wives and two sons through very different circumstances. Scott had been born to Catherine in Boston, but after his mother had died in childbirth, her father had refused to give up his grandson to his grieving son-in-law and Murdoch’s heart had been broken. Several years later, perhaps unwisely and certainly hastily, he’d married a feisty Mexican beauty, Maria, whom he’d met in Matamoras. At first they had been happy but very soon she’d grown tired of the struggling ranch life and had run off with a gambler, once again breaking Murdoch’s heart not only by leaving him, but by taking their infant son with her. Teresa’s parents had been on the ranch and had tried to fill the man’s emptiness, but Murdoch couldn’t settle until he’d at least tried to trace Maria and talk to her. He’d spent almost a year over the Mexican border to no avail. Maria and the child, Johnny, had seemingly disappeared, or at least the Mexican people had closed ranks against the gringo.
Teresa had never fully understood why Murdoch hadn’t more vigorously challenged Harlan Garrett for the return of his son, but she knew that Garrett was a wealthy, influential Bostonian who’d threatened Murdoch with long and expensive court hearings. In those early days the Lancer ranch was still a struggling affair, not least because Murdoch, as a Scot, wasn’t a native and had seemed to have to work all the harder to be accepted. He simply couldn’t afford to be away from his ranch or challenge his father-in-law for what was an uncertain outcome. He’d tried to keep in touch with his son Scott, but his letters were never answered and he suspected that Garrett had simply refused to pass them on after his one trip to Boston on the occasion of Scott’s fifth birthday.
The years since Maria and Johnny’s disappearance, Murdoch had withdrawn into himself, becoming angry with life in general. He’d hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to attempt to trace his younger child and had been appalled by the stories that filtered back over time. Johnny’s mother had led a desultory life of flitting from town to town, often with one man after the other, dragging her innocent child with her, and eventually dying tragically young, leaving Johnny alone and unwanted, a half-breed unwelcome by either side in the border towns. He’d been taken to an orphanage but had run away after only a few months and since that time, had seemingly survived on his own as a street urchin. Somehow, against all the odds he’d reached maturity but not without a difficult childhood, and in order to survive had taken up the gun, with considerable skill, eventually morphing into a hired gun with an awesome reputation. The name of Johnny Madrid instilled fear into many a bandito and he found that there was work aplenty if you knew where to look for it.
Teresa shivered as she recalled the circumstances that some time ago had brought Murdoch’s family back together again. Land pirates had tried to take over the San Joaquin valley, and after Paul O’Brien’s murder, Murdoch had written to Scot in Boston and hired a Pinkerton agent to find Johnny with a promise of monetary reward for an hour of their time.
Scott, surprisingly, hadn’t hesitated to come, explaining to Teresa some time later that his life in Boston was far too organised, with little or no real purpose. He was expected to work for his grandfather, but it wasn’t fulfilling work and since he had left the cavalry, his life had been one endless round of socialising and little else.
Johnny had been found literally just in time as he’d been facing execution by firing squad for his part in helping small villages in an uprising against the Mexican authorities.
The following skirmish had seen off the land pirates but not before Johnny had taken a bullet in his back and fought for his life for several weeks.
As she folded up each of the garments, Teresa’s thoughts went to the wearer. Murdoch was a tall man with long arms and a broad back. His taste in work shirts ran to extremely conservative, favouring greys, blues or browns, and sometimes a simple check. He wore each garment until it was almost threadbare, his frugal Scots background showing through.
His son from Boston was similarly conservative in choice of work shirts although he wasn’t averse to importing the finest materials for dress shirts.
Teresa recalled fetching the two men from the stage that first day, and how her face had reflected surprise when she’d asked for Mr Lancer. She hadn’t expected them to have travelled into town on the same stage, and as neither knew of the other’s existence, it had initially led to some confusion and a little hostility. They couldn’t have been more different than chalk and cheese. Scott had travelled the long, dusty journey from Boston looking as if he’d just stepped from a society magazine, his fancy ‘duds’ very out of place in the west. Teresa couldn’t recall seeing anything quite as fancy as Scott’s frilled shirt. He was only delicately tanned as befitted a gentleman. Everyone of any worth knew that only those who worked the land would be wearing a tan.
Beside him Johnny had seemed dark and dangerous, even without knowing his reputation. His face was deeply tanned giving away his mixed heritage and his expression was closed and watchful, but Teresa squirmed with delight as she remembered the shiver she’d felt as she’d gazed into his deep sapphire blue eyes, eyes which regarded her with amused speculation, hinting at an impudent sense of humour. He’d been wearing clothing associated with the borders, black pants with silver conchos down each leg, a bolero jacket and vivid salmon-pink coloured shirt with black embroidery. His gun belt graced slim hips and the pistol was worn low on his right hip, a sure sign of his skill with the gun, a skill he’d since had to demonstrate a few times since his arrival.
The girl’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a horse’s hoofs on the hard-packed earth. As she twisted to regard the new arrival his cheery hail let her know the rider’s identity immediately.
“Teresa, querida. ¿Cómo está?”
She grinned happily as he dismounted gracefully beside her, his own grin lighting up his handsome face. He threw his arm around her shoulder and drew her into a warm hug.
“Muy bien, gracias,” she responded in her best Spanish.
Johnny spoke often in his mother’s tongue which had been prolific around the border towns where he’d grown up although he was equally conversant in English. She knew he loved to take every opportunity to speak Spanish; it anchored him to the better parts of his past life, and whilst her own knowledge wasn’t as comprehensive as Johnny’s, she replied when she was able. She stepped reluctantly out of his embrace to regard him, and noted he seemed relaxed in spite of having put in a long day’s dusty work.
“You look happy. Have you had a good day?”
“Well, if by good you mean wranglin’ with those dumb critters they call steers around these parts, yeah, I guess you could say it was good. Nobody yelled at me, those beasts ain’t started packin’ side arms yet, I took my break when I wanted an’ I’m home in one piece, so…yeah, I’d say it was good.” His voice always surprised her, with its softly lilting cadence most unlike what a gunfighter should have. Often, as now, it was quietly laced with laughter.
She thrilled at how he’d started recently to refer to the estancia as ‘home’. It wasn’t always that way. Scott and he had actually only returned to the Lancer ranch about 6 months ago and since then, there had been many a time when they’d all thought that Johnny would just throw in the towel. He had left once, only a few months after he’d come back, when his friend Wes had sown the seeds of discontent and they’d ridden off after a life of freedom. That had nearly ended in tragedy when a family intent on vengeance had staked out the estancia looking for Johnny and had shot Scott instead. Johnny had returned in time to resolve the manner, Madrid-style, and the family had agreed to start again. No-one was under any illusions that getting to know each other was going to happen overnight, but at least they were working at it.
“Where’s Scott an’ Murdoch?” he asked as he led his weary mount to the trough for a well-earned drink.
“Your father’s upstairs changing and Scott’s not back yet. Wasn’t he going up to Black mesa to check the fencing?”
“Yeah, an’ I know it’s a long ride…just wondered if he was back.”
Johnny led his beautiful golden palomino stallion towards the corral for a walk around and cooling off before putting him into the stable. The horse and master shared a special bond that many marvelled over, and often when things were too much for the quiet young man to deal with, he could be found chatting to his faithful friend in the barn or taking a wild ride with the wind ruffling through his hair and his horse’s golden mane. Barranca kept his own counsel but could usually be found giving his volatile young master a friendly nudge or even a playful nip and Johnny entrusted him with a great many secrets and longings.
Teresa continued to fold up the laundry, half an eye on the departing figure of her ‘adopted brother’ but the peace of the late afternoon was shattered by the high pitched report of a rifle, followed almost instantaneously by the sound of the bullet striking the solid earth closer to her than Johnny. Johnny’s hand went instinctively to the pistol at his hip as he dropped the reins and hurled himself in Teresa’s direction, throwing the girl to the ground and covering her with his own body. Several of the vaqueros came running towards them, one of them catching the horse’s loose reins and soothing the agitated animal as he led it away.
“Anybody see anything?” Johnny yelled from his prone position. Teresa was squirming to get out from under him. “Hold still, miel, we don’t know where they are yet.”
“What in tarnation is going on?” Murdoch’s booming voice covered the distance from the main entrance of the house and across to where they were sprawled in the dirt.
Johnny rolled off Teresa and cautiously helped her to her feet. After the one shot, there had been nothing more, and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as he realised that whoever had fired at them must have a powerful weapon and could pick any one of them off with little difficulty. He ushered the girl towards the estancia, keeping his own body between hers and the direction the shot had come from. Murdoch gathered the shaken girl into his arms as the two younger people arrived beside him.
“Well Johnny? I’m still waiting for an explanation. Who shot at you, and why? Do you realise how close you came to getting Teresa hurt…or worse?”
Johnny’s head hung in the way it did when he wanted to avoid a confrontation. It was natural for his father to think that the shot was aimed at his ex-gunfighter son. No-one in their sanity would have assumed that the bullet was intended for anyone else. All too often his former life still cast a long shadow and it seemed that now, yet another snake had come out from under the woodpile looking for a killing.
“I don’t know anything. Whoever it is has a pretty good rifle in their hands. Nobody even saw a flash and from the sound of the report, I’d say they were quite a distance away. An’ I know ya think they’re after me, but I can’t tell ya what I don’t know, can I?”
He tried hard to keep his tone from getting belligerent, but the truth was that he was as angry as his father. He had long ago taken for granted that his life would always be spent looking into darkened alleys and saloons, expecting to meet a challenger around every corner. Such a life went hand in glove with the notoriety of being Johnny Madrid, where every young gun who could strap on a pistol thought they could be the one to take Madrid down. Many had come close and the young gun hawk had more scars on his body than was healthy, but to date, no-one had succeeded. But that didn’t mean that he happily accepted the risks to his newly acquired family.
“Let’s get inside before any more shots are fired. Teresa, are you alright?” Murdoch gently raised the girl’s tear-stained chin upwards.
“I’m okay, Murdoch, just a little shaken. And it wasn’t Johnny’s fault. Whoever is out there, they’re the ones we should be angry with, not each other.”
Johnny’s head still refused to come up, his eyes seeming to find something on the ground thoroughly fascinating. They were about to enter the house when a rider’s approach could be heard. Johnny was out onto the portico and behind a solid pillar before reasonable thought had even permeated Murdoch’s mind. He watched, slightly detached, as the pistol in his younger son’s hand took careful aim then relaxed back towards its holster as the rider was identified as Scott.
Scott had heard the report of the weapon as he’d ridden back towards the ranch and it had been enough to spur his homeward journey. He too had recognised that the rifle was a sophisticated weapon and knew that their assailant could be virtually anywhere. His paramount concern was to get back to his family and offer whatever back-up he could. As he dismounted, a second shot kicked up the dried earth at his feet. His horse reared in fright and bumped against him, knocking him off his feet and Johnny darted from his relatively safe spot to grab his brother’s arm and haul him to his feet.
“No time for sight-seein’, Boston. Somebody out there’s aimin’ to make a name for themselves,” he drawled breathlessly. They stumbled back behind one of the sturdy pillars. Johnny regarded his blond brother quizzically. “You okay, Boston?”
“Not even a scratch. Do we know who we’re up against?”
“Nope…just sittin’ here like fish in a barrel bein’ shot at.”
“Yes, well, we all know how you like to fish. Maybe the fish hired some revenge.” Scott grinned as he tried to ease the tension he could feel growing. He knew his estranged father quite well by now and it took no act of genius to know that Murdoch was probably already blaming his younger son for this latest situation. “They’re most likely up on that ridge, too far for us to get to them before they just take off. Why don’t we move this inside? I know I could use a drink. Black mesa’s a heck of a ride away in this weather.”
They moved cautiously from behind the thick white pillars that lined the veranda and made it safely inside. Teresa gathered her scattered wits and fetched a tray with glasses and a pitcher of lemonade. Scott poured a glass for his pensive brother and offered one to his scowling father who shook his head. Raising his own glass he polished it off with relish.
“Oh boy, that hit the spot. Thank you Teresa. You brew a mean lemonade.”
The girl threw him a grateful smile as she acknowledged his attempts at mediation. Murdoch wasn’t to be so easily dissuaded, however.
“I’d still like to know why we have people out there shooting at us, pinning us down like insects. When are we going to be free from your past, boy?”
Johnny’s head whipped up at the offensive term. Somehow, when Scott called him ‘boy’, it sounded fine, but when his father used the term, it made him feel as if he’d been sent to his room. It didn’t help that his father’s tone was so often antagonistic. Johnny retaliated by hurting right back again.
“Why does it have to be my past, old man? Am I the only one in this room who’s ever made somebody angry? Huh? But it suits you to hang it all on the black sheep, doesn’t it? Comes in real handy having somebody to blame. Well, maybe I’ll just go out there and settle this right now. That way, you can get on with your precious ranching and I’ll be outta yer hair.”
His voice had risen to a shout by the end of the sentence. He slammed the glass resoundingly onto the dresser, almost hoping that it would shatter and felt slightly cheated when it didn’t. He had almost made it to the front door when his arm was caught in a firm grip. Expecting it to be Scott’s hand, he turned with a barely concealed look of hurt in his azure eyes, and found himself staring into his father’s troubled eyes instead.
“John…son…I’m sorry. I spoke out of turn. You’re right, we don’t know who they’re shooting at, and going out there to confront them, even if you could find them…well, I don’t think that’s the wisest move right now. They could pick you off before you got near to them. Let’s just talk through a few plans to keep everyone safe until we know what’s going on.” He turned to address them all. “Until we can get to the bottom of this, Teresa, you stay in the house or just in your herb garden. Boys, I want you riding and working in pairs from now on. You watch out for each other, and I don’t want any heroics.” He deliberately turned back to regard his volatile younger son. “Did you hear me, Johnny?”
The youngest Lancer looked up through thick dark lashes at his father’s worried expression and his anger slowly dissipated.
“Ya sure you don’t want a hero, old man? Goin’ rate’s cheap at the minute. Come tomorrow, the price might be higher.” Johnny’s lips turned up at the corners as he spoke, his natural humour gradually resurfacing and everyone breathed a collective sigh or relief. Another storm had been weathered and survived although it had, as always, been touch and go for a moment. Now if they could just all survive the sniper.
The following day was frustrating in its lack of activity. Teresa ducked in and out of the house, on edge and expecting to hear a rifle shot at any time, even when the boys weren’t about. Rational thought made her realise that it was highly unlikely that she was the intended target, but it was sometimes difficult to get the brain to accept rational thought and banish fears.
Scott and Johnny had agreed to work together, distributing their workload amongst some of the more permanent ranch hands who could be relied on to work without supervision, and Murdoch had at first thought to keep them around the ranch rather than allowing them to ride any distance. One look at his younger son’s frustrated face had changed his mind. It would probably be safer for everyone if he let him run free rather than try to tether him. Sometimes Johnny was like a powder keg, all primed and ready to explode if someone was careless enough to apply a match. Keeping him from leaving the house would have been just that match.
Murdoch had taken Scott aside after breakfast.
“Try to keep him from doing anything daft, Scott. You know what he can be like, and I don’t want him provoking the situation.”
Scott gave his father a wry look. “I’ll do my best, sir, but if Johnny takes it into his mind to do something, I don’t think I could stop him. Let’s just hope there’s no shooting today.”
Shortly after, the brothers rode out side by side on the bench of the wagon, towards the north line shack where another full day of work awaited them. Sometimes they reckoned they’d just about repaired the fencing of the entire valley, and then they had to start all over again. Today promised to be another scorchingly hot day and Teresa had handed them extra canteens before they left.
“So…the old man givin’ ya some last minute instructions?” Johnny’s voice was quietly amused. He knew their father worried for them, but it was still a relatively novel concept for Johnny Madrid Lancer to have someone who cared enough about him like that, and he hadn’t got used to it yet.
//His mother had died when he was too young, but in her last few years she’d taken to drinking and bringing home a variety of men, all of whom had lusted after her but who wanted nothing to do with her <mestizo>. As a result he’d taken quite a few beatings from these men before being thrown out of their one-bedroom home each night. His mother hadn’t seemed to care enough to either prevent the beatings or enquire as to where he spent the nights. Her own needs were paramount and as long as they were sated, she appeared to care little for the small blue-eyed boy at her heels, a taunting reminder of the gringo she’d married and deserted.
//Sometimes, when she was at a very low ebb, she’d wonder if she could go back to Lancer, but she never quite got enough courage for that. She felt certain that Murdoch would have laughed in her face and refused to have anything to do with her. She knew he’d have grabbed the boy with open arms, and it was for this reason, she told herself, that she kept the boy with her and filled his head with hatred of his father. Although on rational days she told herself that her husband hadn’t treated her unkindly, time and distance had clouded her memories and she felt only animosity towards Murdoch Lancer and everything his name touched. Keeping his beloved son from him was spiteful, but to her it was a small victory.//
Johnny’s wandering mind was jolted back to the present as his brother spoke.
“Just reminding me what a hothead you can be and to keep you out of trouble. You know, brother, I don’t know how you managed to stay alive this long without me to watch your back.”
Scott’s voice was heavily laced with irony. He didn’t know of anyone more able to look out for themselves than this enigmatic man sitting beside him. Johnny was such a blend of contradictions. At any given time his mercurial Mexican temperament could flash, only to be instantly replaced by such charm that he could have talked Old Nick himself into giving over the keys to Hades. And when he unleashed that ‘killer’ smile on an unsuspecting public, Scott felt that Johnny should have a public health warning around his neck, such was its ability to melt solid objects, like the knees of women, old and young! He laughed silently and gave himself a metaphorical shake. No good would come if he was wool-gathering when he’d been expressly told to keep an eye on the boy.
They parked the wagon beneath a large oak and set about repairing the hated barbed wire fencing. It was a necessary evil to keep man and beast where they belonged, but it so often needed repaired and was such a pain to work with that neither man relished their day’s task.
“Rather have faced off against our sniper than tangle with this darned stuff, Boston. At least with a man you know where ya stand. That sneaky wire just creeps up and bites ya.”
Scott laughed at his fanciful brother. “Come on, I’ll protect you from the big bad wire. Use your gloves like anyone with half a grain of sense. It’s not soft to protect yourself, I’d have thought you’d know that.”
“There’s all kinds of ways to protect yourself, brother. Can’t get a quick draw if I’m totin’ thick gloves. An’ anyway, I forgot them.”
Scott suspected that his astute brother had deliberately forgotten his protective handwear. “Do you think they’ll try anything out here?” He looked around, appraising the lie of the land with a military eye, realising with some dismay that if indeed their sniper was of a mind, they were in sorely open countryside.
Johnny’s reply was a softly derisive snort. “Why not? Out here, back there…it doesn’t matter where, just the result. I’d place good money on them tryin’ somethin’. Keep your eyes peeled.”
He stripped off his shirt, exposing a lean, tanned and muscled torso, toned from many months of the hardest physical work he’d ever known. He’d always kept himself in good shape, but ranch work was different to anything he’d ever known before, and if his brother found it difficult to avoid looking at the many scars on the young man’s chest and back, Johnny didn’t appear to notice.
Scott, being much fairer in colouring, kept his body wisely covered. It wasn’t that he was now averse to acquiring a healthy tan, in spite of what his grandfather would have said, but he’d got badly sunburned not long after coming to California and the local doctor, Sam Jenkins, had warned him to be more careful.
They worked quietly and efficiently, enjoying each other’s company with easy banter, covering quite a good stretch of land before stopping at noon for a rest and some lunch. Teresa had outshone even herself that day, with thick ham sandwiches and lashings of mustard, slices of apple pie and even an apple for each of them. The pie had taken a bit of a battering but was still edible and they ate with relish, washing it down with water from their canteens. In spite of having left them in the shade, the water from the canteens was lukewarm and brackish and both men grimaced at the unwelcome taste of it.
“There’s a creek just the other side of those trees, Johnny. Why don’t I go and fill these with fresh water?”
“Ain’t actin’ too responsible, there, Boston. What would the old man say if he knew you’d high-tailed it off and left me to my own devices? What if our bogey man turns up an’ I take off after him? You stay here and *I’ll* get the water. An’ Scott…stay outta trouble, ya hear?”
With a cheeky grin the younger brother gathered up several canteens and mussed his brother’s fair hair as he stepped over Scott’s outstretched legs. He threw on his shirt, not taking time to button it closed. Scott watched him climbing the slight incline and disappear from view and suddenly realised that no matter who went for the water, he was still letting Johnny out of his sight. Johnny could sometimes bamboozle his Harvard-educated sibling with mere words and that disarming smile.
Scott scrambled to his feet, his brother’s name on his lips just as a rifle shot spat the earth close to his feet. He was so unprepared for the attack to be directed at himself that he stumbled backwards, getting entangled in the roll of barbed wire they’d left beside the wagon. His bellow of pain, along with the rifle crack brought Johnny flying back to his brother, the canteens having been discarded and the gun firmly in his right hand. Crouching beside Scott, Johnny looked for any sign of their attacker, but once again, only one shot had been fired and the air was as still as the grave, apart from the nervous whinny of the wagon’s horses.
The sounds of approaching riders had Johnny on his feet again and facing them. He relaxed slightly as he recognised two of the ranch hands approaching. Turning back to help Scott to his feet, he noted that his brother had blood on his shirt. On closer inspection it was torn in a few places.
“You’re bleeding, Scott. Did they hit you?”
Scott stood up, carefully extracting himself from the fence. “No, it’s just this blasted wire. I feel as if I’ve been plucked and jabbed *everywhere*. Did you see anything?”
Johnny shook his head, relieved that Scott wasn’t any more seriously hurt. He turned to the ranch hands.
“Ike, Harry…you guys see anything?”
Both men shook their heads, having only heard the report of the rifle but not being able to tell where it had come from. Johnny shook his head in disgust, slowly working himself up to boiling point.
“This is getting’ me riled. I’m not just gonna sit around and let this guy take shots at us when he feels like it. It’s time we took the dance to him!”
Scott reached out for his impetuous brother’s arm. “You heard what Murdoch said…no heroics, Johnny. Let’s just get home and rethink our strategy.”
“You an’ Murdoch do the thinkin’, Scott. Me…I’m just gonna see if I can find some tracks. No heroics, I promise ya. If I find anything, I’ll come back an’ tell ya. Ike, lemme have your horse. You and Harry ride back with Scott to the house.”
“Johnny, don’t do this. Or at least take one of the guys with you. Or let me come along. Murdoch’s going to have a blue fit if I come back without you.” Scott tried once again to caution his brother.
Johnny grinned at the sudden vision of his father blue from head to toe. “Just duck, Scott. His bark’s worse than his bite. I’ve worked that out by now. An’ no offence, but you’d only slow me down. Trackin’s a one-man job. Besides, I ain’t ready to face Murdoch if anything happens to you. He thinks this is about me, so I’m just gonna take a look.”
Leaving no further room for argument, he swung up athletically onto Ike’s horse and waved cheerily as he rode off in the general direction the shot had come from. He hadn’t any real idea where to start looking, but at least he was doing something rather than sitting out there like a target. If there was one thing he hated more than being shot, it was being taken for a patsy.
The thin, smartly dressed man holding the powerful rifle addressed the slightly older, heavier-set rancher sitting across the camp fire from him.
“Mr Cochrane, you’re paying me an excellent retainer for my services, but just exactly when do I get to actually shoot someone, rather than just *at* them?”
“The timing has to be right, Barnes. It’s enough for now to simply intimidate them with these ‘misses’. After a few days they’ll be so uptight, they’ll start making mistakes. For now, they’ve the house well guarded and the men are going around in pairs. I want one of them on his own and I don’t care which one. Ultimately, I’ll make sure *he* knows why I’m doing this, and I’ll make him suffer.”
Jim Barnes regarded his employer with some exasperation. He wasn’t alien to the concept of intimidating your opponent, but his talents weren’t being fully utilised. He was a skilled marksman and the weapon in his hands, with the telescopic sights, had brought the end to many a lowlife, and he itched to just get on with it. He looked around their camp at the other men dotted about. They were hired muscle, back-up for when they eventually confronted their target, not worthy of his notice except for their sheer bulk. Several were on lookout whilst the others lounged about, scratching and picking in their disgusting way. He was fastidious enough to distance himself from them, the job in hand being the only reason he was associating with them at all.
His thoughts were interrupted as one of the lookouts stumbled back through the bushes.
“One of them’s comin’ this way, Mr Cochrane. The dark-haired one. Ya want we should go get him?”
Emmet Cochrane sprang surprisingly quickly to his feet for someone of his bulk. “No, that’s why Mr Barnes is here. You go trying to run him down and he might get away and reveal our camp. Mr Barnes, I’d like him alive, if you please.”
Johnny was an excellent tracker…it came in handy in his former line of work…but he knew that if he actually found anything it would be by chance rather than skill. But he wasn’t prepared to sit about like a prize at a country fair, waiting to be shot. The ground was hard-packed and dry, excellent conditions for tracking, but as he didn’t know where to start, he simply allowed the spirit to move him, knowing that trouble always sought him out. He’d meant it when he’d told Scott that he didn’t intend any heroics, but nor was he prepared to run from a fight. Those shots had been expertly fired, just close enough to deliver the message that they were being toyed with, and that any one of them could have been a killing shot at any time. Well, he’d had enough of that game, so it was time for a new one.
The horse under him was tired, having been ridden over a fair bit of Lancer before Ike and Harry had caught up with the brothers, and Johnny felt guilty about asking it for more, but at least he took the pace slowly, searching the ground as he rode. It had been several hours since he’d left Scott and he could picture the scene at the estancia about now.
His father would be well into his blue fit, as Scott had suggested. He grinned again at the idea, his mind wandering to the family he’d acquired. It had been a welcome interference when the Pinkerton agent had stopped the firing squad to tell him his estranged father wanted to see him, and he’d arrived at the estancia with very mixed feelings, primarily wary hatred of the man he’d been told had thrown him and his mother out. He’d been more than startled to discover he had a half-brother and a ‘sister’ in his father’s ward. The two young people had helped him through the initial awkwardness of getting to know everyone, and the friendship he and Scott had forged had surprised everyone with its strength.
The report of the rifle and the sudden lurching of the horse seemed to come as one, and Johnny had no warning before his mount pitched forward and down, bringing him spiralling back to reality from his reverie. Fire exploded in his right leg as the dead weight of the horse trapped him beneath it. He smacked his head against the hard earth as he went down and for a few dizzy seconds the world spun but he didn’t lose consciousness. The horse was in the death throes and the humanitarian in him wanted to put the animal out of its agony, but his gun was trapped beneath him, pressing painfully into his thigh.
//‘Well Johnny boy…you’ve got yourself into a right ol’ pickle this time. Somebody’s shootin’ at ya, an’ you’re trapped like a bug under a glass.’//
He squinted round when he heard the approach of several horses. Something told him the riders had everything to do with his predicament and weren’t about to offer him any help. The Madrid mask slid over his boyish features as he regarded the three men silently.
“Looky here boys. Looks like we got us a Mex what with the fancy shirt and pants…must be one of the hands. Got yourself some trouble there, boy?”
Two of the three riders kept their pistols trained on Johnny as the third man dismounted and stood over him.
“That Barnes is a mean shot, wouldn’t ya say? Took that horse right from under ya and not a scratch on ya. Come on, boy, get up. There’s a man waiting to talk ta ya.”
“In case your brains have been baked, let me explain something…large, dead horse…lying on top of my leg…can’t move. ¿Comprende?”
The words were heavily sarcastic, but the voice was deadly in its quietness. Anyone who knew Johnny Madrid would have recognised that tone as a promise of things to come. Johnny’s blood was boiling by now. No-one had addressed him as either Lancer or Madrid and he was beginning to wonder had he really been the target all along. If he had, would it not have been simpler for their obviously skilled sharp shooter to kill him when he’d been in their sights? Or even any one of these three bright sparks?
The three hired men scratched their heads as they mulled over how best to get the horse off their prisoner. Had the situation involved anyone other than him, Johnny might have found their confusion amusing. As it was, his right leg was getting numb with the solidness of the dead horse pressing him into the ground. In the end, they tied ropes to the horse’s hoofs and hauled it off unceremoniously, ignoring the grimace of pain the action brought to the man pinned beneath it. Johnny felt as if his knee was going to explode as the weight of the horse was dragged over the injured limb. Finally, he was free but the men had anticipated him reaching for his gun and he found himself facing the spokesman of the group, his gun inches from Johnny’s nose.
“I wouldn’t try it, greaser. The boss wants you alive but he didn’t say anything against a hole or two.”
The other two men dismounted and dragged him to his feet but he was alarmed to find that his leg wouldn’t support his weight. Without them holding him up, he’d have crashed to the ground.
//‘Not good, Madrid…definitely not good!’//
“Get your hands crossed in front of you, chilli bean. We haven’t all day to hang around here.”
Johnny’s arms were grabbed roughly and his hands tied quite effectively, then he found himself flung over the back of one of the horses and tied to the saddle, two of the riders doubling up. He’d been made to ride like this once before, a most uncomfortable and highly undignified mode of transit, and he notched up another injustice to be put right when the time came. He managed to stifle both a protest and a moan of discomfort as his damaged knee made contact with the hard leather of the saddle. He knew these men would take that as a sign of weakness and play on it, and he wasn’t about to give them any more entertainment than he already had.
“What the blazes did he think he was doing, and why did you let him go, Scott? I thought you were going to keep an eye on him!”
Scott winced under the volume of Murdoch’s tirade and wondered if Johnny could hear his father’s anticipated explosion wherever he was. He sincerely hoped he could, as it didn’t seem fair that it was only Scott’s ears that were being made to suffer.
“Since when have *any* of us been able to prevent him from doing just what he wants?” Scott tried to reason. “I’d have stood as much chance of stopping him as turning back the clock. You know that, sir, but I do understand your frustration. Cipriano and I will head out in the general direction we came from and see if we can pick up his trail. I just need to change my shirt.”
Scott stood wearily and made to move towards the stairs when Murdoch seemed to notice for the first time that his elder son’s shirt was torn and blood-stained. He grabbed at Scott’s arm as he passed.
Scott blushed gently as he recalled his clumsy stumble into the barbed wire. Murdoch shook his head as he listened to the report of the shooting.
“And Johnny wasn’t anywhere near you at the time?”
“No sir, he’d already cleared the top of the rise. I was the only one within their sights.” The implication of the words wasn’t lost on either man. Their father had been so sure that whoever was targeting them was someone from Johnny’s ‘Madrid’ past. This latest development required some adjustment to their thinking.
“What the devil’s going on, Scott? I-I just assumed, wrongly it would seem, that your brother’s past was to blame. So if it isn’t him, who then? You? Teresa? Or maybe it’s my past? Who knows?”
Scott gave his father a wry smile.
“I think we could both say quite categorically that Teresa would seem an unlikely candidate. It could well be me, but there’s little point in speculating. Johnny’s out there just *looking* for trouble and we’re wasting time debating. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
Murdoch sighed as he walked slowly to the great window and looked out onto the land. He’d told his sons not so long ago that he loved the land more than anything else God had created, but his heart had been cold then. Over the last few months two young men had warmed it. The Estancia rang with laughter and boisterous horse play from his sons and it had done his heart good to see Teresa joining in with the banter. She had had to grow up overnight after her father’s death and he was astute enough to know that he hadn’t been much fun to be around. It was safe to say that when he’d sent for his sons in an attempt to save the ranch, he had been in a dark place, emotionally. Their coming home had not only saved the ranch, it had saved him, too.
It had also greatly surprised him as to just how well his sons, total strangers linked only by their father’s blood, actually got on. Their relationship was probably closer even than that which Murdoch had enjoyed with his own siblings.
His thoughts were interrupted by the door from the kitchen opening.
“Murdoch…are Scott and Johnny back early? Is everything alright?”
He looked with great love on his young ward. Following Paul O’Brien’s death she’d put her mourning on hold as she’d helped to nurse him through his own injury and back to health. And then when Johnny had been shot in almost the same manner, she’d been a tower of strength again. He loved this girl as much as if she was his own flesh. He opened his arms and she slotted into his embrace.
“There was another shooting.” He held his hand up to forestall her immediate exclamation. “No-one was hurt, but Johnny got mad and took off to see what he could find. You know how he can be. Scott and Cipriano are going to see if they can pick up his trail. Teresa…is there anyone that you can think of that would…wish any harm to you?”
“*Me*? Why are you asking me that, Murdoch? Do you think they were shooting at me yesterday, and not Johnny?” Alarm caused her voice to rise to a nervous squeak.
“No, darling, I just had to ask. I’m sure they weren’t aiming at you, but I still want you staying within the rear courtyard, just in case of a stray bullet. We’ll find Johnny, I’ll give him a piece of my mind for worrying us and we’ll get to the bottom of this, once and for all.” He gave her a reassuring hug, but he felt anything but reassured himself.
Johnny’s uncomfortable ride had lasted for about 10 minutes, ten minutes too long as far as he was concerned, but when the leading horse pulled up and he was untied, he could see that their camp had been well chosen. Quite a few large caves dotted the landscape around the rolling hills of Lancer and this one was effectively hidden by a clump of trees.
He tried out his injured knee as he glanced around at the other people now inspecting him with unconcealed interest. Their openly aggressive attitude gave him some cause for concern but even more so was that his leg still refused to co-operate with him. He hitched his left hip and took his full weight onto it. His wrists hadn’t been untied and he longed to sit, but waited with as much patience as he could muster for someone to step forward and identify themselves as the leader of this motley crew. His patience was rewarded as a portly man in his late forties and quite handsomely dressed, stepped up to him. The look the man gave him made Johnny uncomfortable…like something the man’s impeccably polished shoes had stepped in.
“Who is this?”
The words confirmed Johnny’s suspicions that no-one knew his identity, and that suited him just fine. If they weren’t shooting at *him*, they’d targeted someone else in the family, and if they didn’t know he was connected, he might inadvertently learn something from loose talk.
“One of the hands, probably. Looks like a Mex but speaks English, okay.”
The well dressed man circled around behind Johnny, examining his captive with only mild interest.
“And what am I supposed to do with him?”
“I saw him in the courtyard yesterday with his arm around the girl. He’s obviously close to them. Perhaps you can get him to tell you how your campaign of terror’s going.”
Johnny looked with interest at the new speaker, a man who stepped into his range clutching what had to be the weapon they’d been targeted by.
“Alright, boy…so how are Murdoch Lancer and his family enjoying the entertainment I’ve arranged for them?”
“Entertainment! Since when did shootin’ at girls get called entertainment?”
Johnny had been determined that he wasn’t going to allow them to rile him. In fact, he’d decided he wasn’t even going to talk to them, but their sheer nerve had stolen his resolve and the words of sarcasm escaped his lips.
One of the three men who’d captured him stepped forward with a closed fist and smacked him hard against his left cheek. The force behind the blow was enough to send him reeling backwards, and had his hands been free he might have kept his feet. As it was, he landed painfully against the wall, his breath leaving in a whoosh, and his already weakened leg buckled under him, crashing him to the floor of the cave.
“Mr Cochrane don’t take kindly to cheek, ‘specially from greasers,” the man sneered, as Johnny struggled up to lean dizzily against the wall, sucking in a couple of lung-fulls of air and shaking his head to clear it.
“Thank you, *Mr* Nesbitt.” Cochrane’s voice was heavy with sarcasm and Nesbitt realised belatedly that his employer had perhaps not wanted his name revealed. “Well, now that you know *my* name, why don’t you tell us yours?” Cochrane crouched down in front of the fallen man.
Johnny’s left eye was beginning to swell from the blow he’d received, but he still managed to don his Madrid mask and stare coldly at Cochrane, his lips firmly sealed.
“Come, come boy. I asked a polite question, it’s only mannerly to reply.”
Johnny speculated how much he could safely tell them. He felt certain that he was in for more physical abuse at the hands of these men, and saw little reason to provoke them unnecessarily. However, he’d told his father once that he didn’t respond well to orders, and this sounded very much like an order to him. He thought a few carefully selected answers might be enough to allay their suspicions.
“Juanito,” he told them, guilelessly.
“Now that didn’t hurt, did it? Juanito, eh? Got a last name, Juanito?” Cochrane was unctuousness personified.
“Garcia, Juanito Garcia.” //‘No sense in being completely honest, Madrid.’// “What do you want of me, Señor?”
He dropped the Madrid mask and decided to play <peon> to the man before him. If they thought him of little consequence, they might ignore him long enough for him to learn something and make good his escape. Although he already knew he wouldn’t be *walking* out of there.
“You work for the Lancers. I want you to tell me what they’re up to.”
“Just ranching, Señor. Someone has been shooting at us, but except for that, the work goes as always.” Johnny shrugged his shoulders to indicate that Cochrane’s question seemed daft.
“Is Murdoch Lancer worried?”
“By what, Señor? El patron isn’t easily worried.”
“By the shooting, ya little chilli bean!” Nesbitt stepped up again. He had little time for the games Cochrane was playing, and even less time for Mexicans. The fact that this particular Mexican had vibrant blue eyes didn’t seem to register with him.
Johnny turned his gaze towards the man he’d already marked for death and he couldn’t keep the icy coldness from creeping into his voice as he replied.
“Shots are common here. Why should he care about a few more?”
Cochrane watched the subtle shifting of attitudes his prisoner was displaying. He realised that the boy probably thought he was keeping his emotions well under wraps, but Cochrane was an excellent study of human behaviour and this boy intrigued him.
“I feel sure there’s more to you, Juanito, than you’re letting on. Tell me the story of your life. We’ve some time before the next development.”
Johnny gave himself a mental slap as he realised that the man in front of him was becoming *more* interested in him, not less. He hadn’t meant to draw attention to himself, and wondered what had betrayed him. He would have to be more careful. He also wondered whether it would wipe the smug expression off Nesbitt’s face if he was to actually tell them his life story. Nesbitt came across as a typical bully, all bluster when his opponent was bound and injured, but ready to run for cover at the first hint of trouble.
“What’s to tell, Señor? I live and work on el rancho Lancer. The patron is a hard man, but fair.”
“What about his family? I understand he has a young ward and two sons who live there with him. Tell me about them.”
This bald statement genuinely surprised Johnny. For someone waging a war against an enemy, Cochrane seemed to know precious little about his adversary.
“Señor, you do not seem to know Señor Lancer and yet you have targeted him and his rancho. ¿Por qúe?”
Cochrane stood back suddenly, as if this young Mexican upstart had slapped his face.
“Mr Nesbitt had the right idea about you. I think you need to learn how to speak to your betters. It’s time we taught you a few manners.”
Scott and Cipriano made good time back to where he and Johnny had been working, and the Segundo was able to pick up the youngest Lancer’s trail quite easily. They followed for some time before Scott caught Cipriano’s arm and pointed uneasily to the circling buzzards a short distance ahead.
Neither man spoke as they urged their mounts forwards with more speed, the reading of the trail no longer necessary. Something up ahead was dead or dying, and Scott’s mouth had gone bone dry at the thought that it was his brother.
As they cleared the next rise, Scott’s heart pounded at the sight of the downed horse. Would he find his brother pinned beneath it? Wasting no time, the two men leapt from their horses and approached the dead animal. Scott’s knees felt decidedly rubbery as he realised that Johnny was nowhere to be seen.
“El caballo has been shot, Señor Scott. This is a Lancer horse; su hermano must have been riding it when it went down.”
Cipriano sounded as worried as Scott felt. The old hand had developed a special fondness for the younger Lancer son, perhaps because of the boy’s Mexican heritage and it had surprised him when he had sneaked a way into his heart. He had been certain that the young gun hawk would have been as cold and hard as stone, and had been so startled by the shy young man who had seemed to be crying out for love and acceptance.
“That’s what I’m afraid of, Cipriano. He would have taken a heavy fall, maybe even been shot as well. See if you can find any sign of blood.”
The old Segundo placed a comforting hand on his employer’s older son.
“Su hermano es muy bien jinete, Señor Scott, a very good rider. If it was possible to get off el caballo, Juanito will have done it.”
Scott was grateful to the elderly Mexican. “Thanks, Cipriano. So let’s see if we can find some signs of…what did you call him…a muy bien jinete? Whether or not he walked away from the fall, the fact still remains that he’s not here. And something tells me that wherever he is, trouble’s close by.”
They searched around and soon came up with the ominous signs of three other horses and the very obvious sign that the dead horse had been dragged some distance.
“It went down here, I think, Señor. The ground is disturbed. There is some blood, too.”
Scott knelt and examined the area, picturing the scene of the dying horse. The only rational reason he could come up with for moving a dead animal was to retrieve something or someone from beneath it. His blood ran cold at the implications.
“Johnny must have been trapped under it, that’s why they moved it. He’s probably hurt. Cipriano, can you follow these new tracks?”
“Si, Señor Scott, but we should only follow so far and then turn back. If these mal hombres have Juanito, they will be alert to us looking for him and we would be easy targets, no?”
Scott wanted to instantly rebel against the idea of not following through once they’d found their quarry, but he knew the odds would be stacked too high against them. He nodded shortly, mounted up and prepared to follow the Segundo, and then face the unpleasant task of reporting back to his father without Johnny.
The object of Scott’s concern lay on his side, his hands now tied behind him. Moving anything more than his right eye was proving to be very painful. His knee had locked some time after he’d been dropped to the ground and the new assortment of aches was entirely down to the generous nature of Wilf Nesbitt and his pal, Cal Segar. At Cochrane’s suggestion that Johnny needed a lesson in manners, the two men hadn’t bothered to untie their prisoner and had set about teaching him. If the fact that it was two against one pricked their consciences, it certainly didn’t show. And the fact that their adversary was already injured didn’t slow them up any, either. The ensuing ‘lesson’ had been short, sharp and mostly one-sided, and Johnny had passed out from the blows rained upon him. He’d regained consciousness a short time ago but no-one had come forward to see to his comforts.
//‘Yeah, right, Madrid, like they’re gonna worry if you’re hurtin’ or not. Got yourself to blame for this…pokin’ your nose in instead of doin’ what the old man suggested. He’s gonna have another of those blue fits when he gets a load of this.’//
Voices from outside carried through to where he lay and he mulled over what, if anything he’d learned. Cochrane didn’t know who he was, so it definitely hadn’t anything to do with his past. The man had hired a sharp-shooter to take pot-shots at them, but hadn’t actually hit anyone, yet. And he seemed to want to cause panic at Lancer and needed to know how Murdoch was faring. Although his mental faculties were slightly befuddled after his beating, Johnny reckoned this man Cochrane had to be from Murdoch’s past, no-one else’s. The trick, now that he knew this, was for Johnny to get away and let his family know.
He began to work at the ropes around his wrists, feeling the hemp biting into his tender flesh and becoming slick with blood, but he continued on. Lives were at risk, and not just his own.
Cochrane had just finished giving Barnes his latest instructions, this time involving the shooting of a few steer close enough to the estancia to draw them out. Barnes and a few men rode off to their task and Cochrane turned back to his prisoner. He’d been impressed with the young man’s attempts to defend himself during the fight with the two heavier-set hired thugs even though he’d still had his wrists bound, and thought he’d seen a dangerous side to the boy. This was one he’d be wary of turning his back on. But he wasn’t through with his questions, and still hungered for information.
“Are you awake, boy?” He squatted down beside the beaten man.
Johnny squinted open his one good eye and regarded the man cautiously. He remained silent, allowing his opponent to take the lead in whatever dance he had planned.
“Tell me about the ranch. Have the shootings been disrupting life? What are the names of Murdoch Lancer’s sons? Does he have a lawman in his pocket? Are any of the hands good with a gun?”
When the downed man refused to answer, Cochrane grabbed a fistful of inky black hair and glared at the boy at his feet. “Answer me…you will talk to me, if not now, then after your next session with Nesbitt. Is that what you want?”
When Johnny’s mouth clenched shut, Cochrane released him with a violent shove. He rose to his feet, fastidiously wiping his hands on a white kerchief and looked down.
“I hope you get paid well by Murdoch Lancer. He doesn’t deserve this kind of loyalty. I met him quite a few years ago when he was just starting out. He wasn’t surrounded then by people like you. He had to do his own work and sometimes he stepped on others. That’s what I remember most about him…how he stepped on my father…and broke him. So now, I’m going to return the favour. I’ll wear him down, kill off those he cares about, and then when he’s had enough, I’ll put an end to it by killing him.”
“You’ve got it wrong, Mister …Murdoch Lancer doesn’t work like that. Sure, he’s a hard-headed rancher, out here you have to be but he plays fair.” Johnny’s words of defence for his father were wrenched from his lips before he could contain them. This smartly turned out man was sick, and Johnny couldn’t lie there and let the man run Murdoch down without at least a word of objection.
Cochrane regarded his captive with undisguised pleasure at having produced a crack in the boy’s veneer.
“Ah…touched a raw nerve with you, Juanito? Where’d the *peon* go to? Couldn’t maintain the façade of being a simple peasant any longer? Suddenly you’re a wholly different character. Murdoch Lancer means something to you, doesn’t he? What is it, mmm?”
Johnny’s head dropped in disgust with himself at letting this twisted human get inside his defences. He had to keep his relationship with the ranch a secret. There was no way he was going to become a pawn to force his father into a confrontation that would lead to his death.
“Rider coming, Mr Cochrane.” The lookout knew better than to not keep a sharp watch for this man. He’d long since thought that there was something not quite right with Cochrane’s mind, but he wasn’t about to step out of line and draw attention to himself.
Cochrane turned away from tormenting his captive and stepped towards the mouth of the cave. Their hideout was well enough concealed to prevent anyone stumbling across it by accident, so the rider must be someone who knew their whereabouts. That limited the possible identity to a few men.
Ted Clancy dismounted and moved towards the entrance of the cave. He was an occasional ranch hand from outside Spanish Wells. He’d even worked once or twice at Lancer. Sometimes he worked, and sometimes he got fired for *not* working, and had overheard Cochrane making enquiries about Lancer at the town’s hotel. He’d confronted the man later at the bar and told him he could identify the family members if Cochrane was to make it worth his while. Clancy had filled him in with a few other details such as the ranch routines, but for his own reasons he’d failed to describe in any great detail Murdoch or his sons. The way he figured, if he told them everything they needed to know up front, there would be no need to keep him on the payroll.
“Clancy, I wasn’t expecting you to join us. What brings you here?”
“Word’s goin’ around that you’ve got one of the hands here. Figured I’d come join the fun now that you’ve moved the campaign up a bit. No sense in hangin’ around that two bit town when I can be here with the action.”
Cochrane nodded. “Yes, I have indeed captured one of the enemy, but it’s proving rather difficult to loosen his tongue. Murdoch Lancer seems to inspire loyalty. Perhaps you’d like to talk some sense into him?”
Cochrane indicated the interior of the cave and Clancy nodded. He wasn’t a man of violence when it came to mono a mono, preferring the safety of pack rule, but he shrugged as he spoke.
“I’ll take a look at him. Sometimes knowin’ a man’s name gives ya an edge.”
The two men moved back inside and Clancy strolled nonchalantly towards the bound man. The light was dim and he grabbed a lantern and held it over the captive before whistling and stepping back. The man at his feet was battered and bruised but there was no mistaking the pants with the silver conchos or that bright, embroidered shirt. He turned with a grin towards Cochrane.
“You any idea who you’ve got here?”
“I presume one of the vaqueros. He told me his name was Juanito Garcia. Do you know more about him? I’m afraid we haven’t loosened his tongue enough yet.”
Clancy ran his hand through greasy hair. “Sure, I know him, an’ ya won’t loosen *his* tongue none. Ya ever hear of a gunslinger called Johnny Madrid?”
Cochrane looked with renewed interest at the young man bound before them. “I’ve heard of him. Surely this boy isn’t him?” When Clancy merely grinned some more, Cochrane continued. “Does this mean that Lancer is hiring guns? I must have him more rattled than I’d realised.”
Clancy’s grin widened at being the harbinger of the next snippet of news. “Johnny Madrid don’t hire out no more, not since he got respectable. You wanted a lever to use against Murdoch Lancer, you just hit pay dirt. Some folks know him still as Johnny Madrid, but most folks around here call him by his real name…Johnny Lancer. You done captured old man Lancer’s son!”
As the information settled into Cochrane’s brain about his prisoner, he lost reason for a few blinding moments. A red haze seemed to descend in front of his eyes, cloaking all reasonable actions and he turned into an entirely different kind of animal, the type that bayed for blood. He kicked out furiously at the boy at his feet. Johnny curled into a protective ball as far as his bindings would allow, but wasn’t able to stop the blows from landing on his already abused body. He tried to ride out the storm, rolling onto his stomach as much as possible to protect his ribs and most of the blows landed on his upper arms and legs. It was perhaps fortunate that Cochrane’s rage meant that he wasn’t directing the kicks. Had he been actually targeting specific areas, Johnny was sure he wouldn’t have been able to avoid more serious injury.
Clancy stepped back, startled at Cochrane’s savage response. He watched as Johnny tried to protect himself and he felt a pang of remorse. During the three months he’s worked at the Lancer ranch he’d got to know and like the former gunslinger and wondered if he should try to stop the assault now taking place. He fought with his inner turmoil for a few moments before deciding. He raised his voice to attract Cochrane’s attention.
“Unless you’re plannin’ on killin’ that boy, ya’d better stop, Mr Cochrane!”
As quickly as it had started, Cochrane’s fury abated, leaving both men panting heavily. Johnny was bleeding steadily from a gash above his right eye, the blood streaming down his face and onto the collar of his shirt. Cochrane looked with distaste at the results of his temper and stepped back.
“Thank you Mr Clancy. As you say, I had better stop. Now that I have such an effective hostage, I need to keep him alive. For the time being, at least. I apologise for that, I rarely lose my temper like that. But you, *Johnny Lancer*,” he looked at the battered boy curled up at his feet, “have brought this upon yourself. I don’t like being lied to or made to look a fool.”
Johnny grimaced as his body throbbed in new agony but he donned his Madrid mask as he addressed his assailant. “Seems to me ya don’t need any help in that department. Ya look like all sorts of fool to me.”
Cochrane visibly steeled himself to ignore the jibe. He rubbed his chin, deep in thought as he strode about the interior of the cave. Clancy watched with interest as the man thought out his new strategy in the light of this information.
Cochrane suddenly stepped outside and spoke to a couple of his hired men who returned with him and approached Johnny. One of them trained his pistol on the downed man as the other untied his hands. Johnny watched cautiously, expecting a bullet at any time, but found that most of his attention was caught up in not groaning in agony as his arms were wrenched round to the front and his shirt was stripped from his back. He felt certain that they intended more injury to him and silently breathed a sigh of relief when they simply re-tied his hands behind him, leaving him alone once again. The man who’d removed his shirt handed it over to Cochrane who set it aside and retrieved a piece of paper from his wallet.
“You’ve given me the edge in my quarrel with your father, but in case he doesn’t believe I hold you, I’ll send him your shirt. You’d better hope that your father is as honourable a man as you claim. If he doesn’t come here, personally, you won’t be of any further use to me.”
“Señor Lancer, Señor Lancer…there has been more shooting.” Rodriguez, one of the older hands, wasn’t built for speed but he made a fair attempt at moving quickly towards the estancia.
Murdoch and Scott moved outside to face the news. Scott had returned about 20 minutes ago having followed the tracks into the hills where the ground had been too churned up to clearly reveal enough to follow. Cipriano had pointed out that the hills were dotted with caves large enough to hide a small army and the tactician in Scott had accepted that to ride in blindly would be asking for trouble. He had returned to report to his father and gather more men, more than a little worried and frustrated. Cipriano had agreed to stay hidden at their current position in order to see any comings and goings. Should their quarry make any sudden moves, Cipriano would be able to report back, or follow discretely.
“What happened?” Murdoch faced the elderly Mexican. “Was anyone hurt?”
“No Señor, but three of your cattle have been slaughtered. It was like before, from a great distance. Several of the men followed a trail, but they found nothing. I am sorry, Señor…we still have no news of Señor Juanito.”
Murdoch hung his head in what Scott instantly recognised as a familiar trait of his brother’s.
“We’re running around chasing our tails. Whoever is doing this holds all the cards right now. We don’t even know for sure that Johnny’s with them. Double the guard on the house and have the men travel in threes. I don’t want anyone outside on their own.”
Rodriguez nodded and gave a small bow as he left to deliver the orders. Scott and Murdoch crossed the veranda and moved back inside, Scott making straight for the bottle of brandy and pouring several healthy measures. He nudged his father’s hand as he handed a glass to him.
“As you say, sir, we don’t know for certain that these people have Johnny. There could be any number of reasons why he hasn’t made it back. His horse was shot so he’s on foot, maybe lame and there’s a lot of ground to cover. Let’s try not to worry before we’ve something concrete to worry over.” Even to his own ears, the words sounded hollow.
Murdoch smiled gratefully at his son. “Okay, I’ll start to believe that just as soon as you do, son. We both know that Johnny can get into trouble with his own shadow. So, until he’s right here and I can boil his ears off for scaring us, I’ll just go right on worrying.”
The report of a rifle startled both men into rushing outside. Jelly Hoskins, the weathered and bewhiskered handyman was coming from his room, a worried look on his face. He held the younger Lancer in great fondness ever since their first encounter and wouldn’t settle until the boy was home safely.
“Rider coming,” the lookout yelled.
“What now?” Jelly muttered into his whiskers.
The three men waited with undisguised impatience for the unidentified rider to come under the white archway and eventually stop before them. He was a young man whom none of the others had ever seen before. Murdoch cleared his throat and addressed the stranger.
“Something we can help you with, mister?”
The youth sneered at the tall rancher. “You Lancer?”
“I’m Murdoch Lancer, yes.”
“Got a message fer ya.” The youth produced a crumpled piece of paper from inside his vest and held it out. Murdoch stepped forward and took it in suddenly trembling fingers. Scott wanted to read over his father’s shoulder but his manners prevented it. Jelly tried to see by standing on tiptoe but couldn’t reach, so he had to watch impatiently as Murdoch scanned the few words on the paper, and they stepped towards the man as they saw the colour drain from the rancher’s face.
“What’s it say?” Scott and Jelly spoke at the same time. Murdoch seemed not to hear them as he looked up with anger at the messenger.
“Where are they holding him?”
“Yea, right…like I’m just gonna tell ya. Yer to come with me…alone. Iffen I don’t bring ya back, or iffen I don’t make it back, they’ll kill him. Oh, and just so’s ya know we’ve got him…ya might recognise this.” He reached into the saddle bag and produced some crumpled material which he flung into Murdoch’s startled hands.
“That’s Johnny’s shirt,” Scott gasped. He fingered the familiar brightly coloured material and they could all clearly see that the cloth had dried marks on it, most likely blood. “Murdoch, what’s in the note?”
Seeming tired beyond his years all of a sudden, Murdoch handed the scrap of paper to his son. Jelly crowded Scott to read it as well.
“I have your son Johnny. My quarrel is with you, not him. You might not know me, but you should remember my father. Come alone and the boy will be released. Fail to return with my messenger and you’ll never see him again. If you are followed, your son will die. And be sure that you are unarmed.
Scott looked up from the missive to see his father striding purposefully towards the barn. He scurried after him.
“Do you know this Cochrane?”
“I knew someone called Charles Cochrane a long time ago. His father and I were…well, I don’t suppose you’d say friends, more acquaintances. He was a ruthless man, prone to violence against both man and beast. I reported his less than tasteful methods to the Cattleman’s Association and he was barred from renewing his membership. It effectively bankrupted him. No-one would buy his stock and he didn’t handle it very well. His wife couldn’t stand the shame and left him. He eventually took his own life. There was a son, probably in his early twenties by then. I don’t recall anything about him other than he was very angry. I haven’t thought about him or his father in…oh it must be about twenty years or so. It was just after Johnny’s mother took off. I had more pressing things on my mind than worrying about young Cochrane. “ As he spoke, recalling the past, Murdoch set about saddling his mare.
“Well, it seems he’s been letting this fester all this time.”
“Yes, and one of the first things I have to do is to apologise to your brother. All this time I was blaming *his* past, and instead it’s my own that has threatened you all. I only pray that I get the chance to.”
“Sir, I understand why you feel you have to go with this man, but you can’t seriously expect me to sit around and do nothing. Once you’ve ridden into this trap, they’ll have you *and* Johnny.”
“Scott, you read the note. If they see I’ve been followed, they’ll kill him.” Murdoch didn’t express it out loud, but he knew that Cochrane would probably kill them both.
Scott gave a lopsided grin. “Then we’ll just have to be sure that they don’t see me. How good are you at leaving a trail?”
“What have you in mind?”
“Johnny’s been working at notching the Lancer horse shoes, making them easier to identify in situations such as this. If we give you enough of a head start to not be immediately noticeable, we can easily pick up your trail. All you have to do is give an indication of what direction you’ve taken when you come to, say, a fork in the road. It will save us the time of having to search for your mark. And I already have a fair idea of what direction you’re heading.”
Murdoch had finished saddling up and clapped his elder son on the shoulder. “Okay, I’ll do what I can, but I don’t want you taking any unnecessary risks, Scott. He’s already got one son; I don’t want him to have two.”
“No sir and I don’t intend to let him have either my brother *or* father if I can do anything about it. Watch your back.”
The two men grasped forearms in a strong grip, beyond the need for any further words. Murdoch released his hold and led his mount out of the barn. Jelly was standing clutching the now crumpled scrap of paper, his face as contorted as the missive.
“I don’t like this, boss. Yer playin’ right inta their hands, ridin’ off with this feller. Seems ta me it’s as plain as the nose on yer face it’s a trap. My elbows is grumblin’ somethin’ fierce.”
“Of course it’s a trap, Jelly, but would you do any different if it was you they wanted?” Murdoch looked kindly at the old handyman. He knew that there was a special fondness in the curmudgeonly old man’s heart for his missing boy and this was eating Jelly up with worry. “This is the only way I can see how Johnny is and help him. I have to go, don’t you understand?”
Jelly nodded, his eyes filling as he turned away to disguise his worry. Murdoch patted his shoulder as he turned to mount up, but he didn’t feel the reassurance he’d tried to instil in the other man’s heart. His face was grim as he turned back to the sneering youth on horseback.
“Okay lad, we’ll play it your way. You take me to my son and you’d better hope that he’s alright. Scott, Jelly, I’ll see you later.”
The beating Johnny had taken at the hands of first Nesbitt and his buddy, and then the kicking from Cochrane had left him dizzy and very uncomfortable. He didn’t think his ribs were broken, but it certainly didn’t feel too good to try to breathe too deeply. He lay where he’d been dumped, shivering violently in the damp air inside the cave. Outside, the Californian sun was gradually cooling and setting as early evening approached and the dark cave was far from comfortable. The men who weren’t on watch sat around a small fire at the other end to where Johnny lay and he would sooner have cut his tongue out than ask them for anything. And so he lay in misery, wondering what was happening with his father.
Murdoch and he had eventually settled into a fairly amicable relationship over the last few months. At first, Johnny had seemed to always do and say the wrong thing, sparking many rows with the old man. It didn’t help that physically Johnny reminded Murdoch so much of Maria. He’d told his estranged son that he had his mother’s temper when they’d first been re-united, but there were many other characteristics they shared: the ready smile that lit up his sapphire blue eyes; the way he was with children and animals; his readiness to see the good in most situations. These weren’t part of Murdoch’s make-up, but he’d recognised his second wife’s nature in their son, in spite of the life he’d led. It had been those very characteristics along with her captivating beauty that had stolen his heart in the first place.
All of which had gradually sorted out how Murdoch actually felt about Johnny. His son had threatened to walk away more than once, and had actually left once with his friend Wes, but hadn’t gone far. In fact he’d come back to the ranch in time to save the volatile situation which had been brewing over his shooting of another man’s son, and which had seen his own brother wounded in the subsequent confrontation.
Johnny shifted slightly in an attempt to get more comfortable, but even the slight movement set his abused muscles to groaning, so he settled again and ignored his body’s complaints. He pictured his father’s face when he got the shirt and whatever message Cochrane had scribbled on the piece of paper. He didn’t know the full details of the shared history between the two men but he knew for certain that Cochrane wasn’t about to let either his father or him walk away from this. Once Murdoch turned up, he would effectively have signed both their death warrants, unless a miracle happened.
Johnny snorted silently at the idea of a miracle being sent his way. His mother had raised him to attend mass, but gradually over the years as her lifestyle deteriorated, the church attendances had whittled away. By the time she’d died and he had been placed in an orphanage, young Johnny Lancer had little or no time for the Church. He’d led too callous a life to imagine that God would have any time for him. Any miraculous escape from Cochrane’s clutches was going to have to be initiated right here.
Scott gave Murdoch and his guide a clear twenty minute head start before he set out to follow.
“I’m acomin’ with ya, Scott. Johnny’s probably hurtin’ an ya’ll need help getting’ him back.”
Jelly’s chin jutted out at an angle that Scott recognised from previous confrontations. He sighed as he set about talking the man out of his proposed actions.
“I know you want to be there, Jelly, but if he *is* hurt, and it seems quite likely, we’re going to need the wagon, and we can’t exactly trail Murdoch discretely with a wagon in tow, can we? I’ll take Ike and Joe along and as soon as we find them, someone can come straight back to tell you. With luck they’re headed in the same direction Cipriano’s watching and we’ll all meet up. In the meantime, I need you to stay with Teresa. We don’t know if this man Cochrane intends to target anyone else and I’d hate it if anything happened to her or Maria whilst we’re away from the ranch. I know I can rely on you to look after them, right?”
It was a low blow, invoking the man’s dependability to watch over the women, but Scott had little time to coddle the man. Time was of the essence if he was to pick up Murdoch’s trail and get there before anything further happened.
Jelly’s head dropped, Johnny-style as he sighed. He knew Scott’s reasoning was sound, but until he saw Johnny safely returned he wasn’t going to be content.
“You be sure to send somebody straight back. D’ya want me to get the doc here to wait fer ya?”
“We won’t know how long it’s going to take, and if either of them needs him urgently, it might be better to be able to send someone into town first. I promise you Jelly, if they need help to get home, you’ll know as soon as I can get you word.”
Scott mounted up as Joe and Ike reined in beside him. Jelly waved them sadly off and straightened his shoulders as he walked to the estancia. Teresa hadn’t yet been informed as to what was happening. She watched over her adopted family like a she-lion and worried nearly as much as he did when they were hurt and away from home. This was one conversation he most definitely wasn’t looking forward to.
Murdoch and his guide made steady progress over the rolling hills of his beloved land. Sometimes they came to an area where it was obvious he was going to need to indicate their chosen path and for this purpose he’d hidden extra bullets in his pockets, a clutch of which he kept in his closed hand. He had so far got away with dropping an unused bullet onto the hard earth as they’d chosen their route, hoping that the sharp eyes of the men following would spot it. It was a risk he had to take as he couldn’t think of any other way of telling Scott where he’d gone.
He’d refused to enter into conversation with the sullen youth who rode beside him, but the same couldn’t be said for the other.
“I’ve heard of yer son. Famous he is around the border towns. Heard he’d been killed, too. Funny, innit, the way he’s gonna end up dead ‘cause of his old man. Not how people’d have thought Johnny Madrid would buy it!”
Murdoch’s heart ached as he listened to the hard words. He knew all too well that their future was bleak to say the least, but to know that Johnny’s captors knew his full identity filled him with foreboding. There was many a man who would take great delight in acquiring a name for having taken down the former gunfighter, and few of those men would worry about it being a fair fight. The grim thoughts made him break his self-imposed silence.
“How long until we get there?”
“Keep yer hair on, old man. Just over the next rise there’s a nice cluster of caves. Mighty obligin’ of ya to have such accommodatin’ land hereabouts. Mr Cochrane’s made camp there an’ ya’ll get to see yer brat soon enough.”
Murdoch fumed quietly as he listened to the boy’s cold delivery. This boy would never amount to anything near the value of his younger son. Johnny was worth ten, twenty times this ugly piece of humanity and Murdoch promised his absent son that he would tell him, just as soon as he got that chance. //‘Providing I get that chance!’// he told himself grimly.
He took in the words about being close to their destination and discretely counted the number of bullets he still held. He’d been eking them out slowly in fear of running out but if they were almost there, he decided to drop the three remaining bullets in his hand in an attempt to warn Scott. His smart Harvard-educated son would stop to wonder at the sudden increase in number and would hopefully come up with the right answer. He had approved of Cipriano’s idea of staying put to watch the land, and hoped with all his heart that they were headed in that direction. Murdoch had wondered if he might run into his old friend, but Cipriano was a wily old coyote and would know that under the circumstances, if he saw his boss it would be wiser to hold back and observe than make his presence known. The man knew the whereabouts of many of the groups of caves dotted about the Lancer land and Murdoch had to hope that they would approach cautiously.
As promised, having cleared the next rise Murdoch’s escort made towards the caves. A thick copse of trees hid the cluster from prying eyes and Murdoch wondered whether Cipriano would know which caves to approach, but there were people suddenly emerging from one of the caves and even had he still had some bullets, he’d have been unable to drop them without being spotted.
A smartly dressed man followed some of the others from the cave and regarded the new arrival. A look of smug satisfaction crossed his face.
“So you do place value on family after all. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to wager a bet on that after the way you treated my father. Get down, Lancer, you and I have some talking to do.”
Murdoch regarded the speaker coldly. He barely remembered the youth of twenty years ago and would have easily discounted him if they’d met face to face. However, he had absolutely no intention of talking with this man until he saw Johnny. He dismounted as quickly as his stiff back would permit and approached.
“Cochrane, I presume? You’ll get your chat *after* I see my son, and no sooner. Where is he?”
“You seem to be under the illusion that you have some say in the order of things. I have your son, and now I also have you. We’ll do things *my* way.” Cochrane tried to keep the anger from surfacing, wanting to maintain a semblance of control before his nemesis, but it was a struggle.
Murdoch summoned up his best authoritarian expression and the extra years of experience he had over the other man. “On the contrary, you want me to talk to you and I refuse until I see Johnny. Now we can stand around here all day as far as I’m concerned, it’s entirely up to you.”
Cochrane scowled furiously but eventually gave in to Lancer’s demands. He reasoned silently with himself that there wasn’t anything the two Lancers could do anyway. He held all the aces. He turned to Nesbitt.
“Show him the boy.”
Murdoch’s heart lurched as he was ushered none too gently inside the cave, fearful of what condition he would find his son in. A small fire was lit against one wall and several men sat clustered around it for the meagre amount of heat it threw off. There was no other form of lighting apart from the faint glow and Murdoch struggled to locate his son, but Nesbitt pushed him on and he gradually could make out an impression of a figure lying on the ground, as far from the fire as possible.
Murdoch scuttled towards the person and caught his breath at how dank and miserable the interior of this cave was. This was no place for an injured man. He dropped stiffly to both knees and called his son’s name gently. At first there was no indication that he’d been heard by anyone other than the men around the fire, but on persistent calling he finally got a response.
Johnny had lost the battle against his various aches and pains, and had relinquished to the call of sleep. It wasn’t exactly a restful nap, what with the coldness settling into his bones, making him shiver and reawaken his assorted injuries, and he’d been glad to close his eyes. But now a familiar voice was quietly encouraging him back from the darkness and he wasn’t altogether sure he wanted to return. The pain was so much more tolerable where he was. The voice persisted and he gradually recognised the worried tones of his father. //Murdoch, what was he doing here? And where exactly *was* here, anyway?// His scattered wits suddenly honed sharply as he remembered his present circumstances and how he’d hoped with all his heart that his father wouldn’t just walk into Cochrane’s trap.
Murdoch watched his younger son struggling to open his one good eye, the other by now being swollen shut. “That’s it, son, waken up.”
“Murdoch…get outta here…you shouldn’t have come. Cochrane’s mad…means to kill you…kill us both.” Johnny gasped at the figure looming over him in concern. He’d longed to see some sign of affection from his father, a man who was essentially still a stranger to him, and the expression of anguish the man wore was all he could have asked for. But he needed to get his father away from the danger that surrounded and threatened them.
“Take it easy, boy. Tell me where you’re hurt.” The father mentally berated himself for such a foolish question: it was obvious by Johnny’s halting words that his son was suffering.
Murdoch slipped his arm behind Johnny’s shoulders and started to slowly raise him to a half-sitting position, appalled at the coldness of his son’s skin, but Johnny hissed through clenched teeth as his injuries made themselves known.
“Pare, satisfaga,” he managed to grind out. “Lo siento…stop please…I ain’t ready to…sit up.”
Murdoch worked his way around behind his injured son and laid him gently across his lap, anything to avoid lowering him completely onto the damp ground again.
“Lo siento, mi hijo. Rest and catch your breath.” The distressed father suddenly realised his son’s torso was naked and he was shivering violently. He took off his own jacket and draped it over Johnny, unable to put it on him properly because of the boy’s bound wrists. He looked up angrily at Nesbitt hovering within earshot. “Get Cochrane in here!”
Nesbitt turned away with a barely concealed sneer as he regarded the tall rancher’s concern for his ‘breed’ of a son, but he returned moments later with Cochrane in tow.
Murdoch looked from his son’s battered, shivering form to the cool figure standing before him. “Johnny’s badly hurt, he needs medical help. Can’t you at least untie his arms so that he can put my jacket on? You’ve got me here, and I won’t be going anywhere whilst you have my son.”
“And why exactly do you think that I should give a second’s thought to your son’s wellbeing? Just how much did you concern yourself over my father? I told you that I intended to talk with you and the time is past for observing the social niceties.” Cochrane turned back to Nesbitt. “Bring *Mr* Lancer outside, and if he refuses, encourage him.”
Murdoch didn’t fear physical abuse against himself but he suspected that Johnny would continue to be the pawn in this malicious game, so he eased out from beneath his son’s shoulders as gently as he could, settling his thick jacket around the boy’s bare shoulders in a meagre attempt to stave off the damp from the ground.
“Take it easy, Johnny. I’ll be right back.”
“No…get away if…get…chance. Please!”
Murdoch was deeply affected by the heartfelt plea from this young man he still found hard to understand most of the time. He had fully expected his son to have a heart filled with hate when they’d first met, and that *had* been the case, but they were working better together with each passing day and the proud father had come to realise that his younger son had a heart the size of California and a gentle nature that belied his past.
“Save your breath, son, I’m not going anywhere without you. When we leave here, we’ll be going together.”
Johnny sighed quietly at his father’s stubbornness but didn’t argue. If he acknowledged to himself, his father’s presence was a great comfort, even if he knew in his heart that they *were* quite likely to be leaving together…just not the way his father meant.
He settled into the warmth of the older man’s jacket, relishing the small amount of heat he could feel and the familiar smell of pipe tobacco. His eyes suddenly filled at the realisation that this could be the end for them both. He had faced death countless times in his young life, and often with a cavalier attitude, daring his opponent to try and snatch his empty life from him. And now, when his life was no longer empty, he wanted to hold on with all his being. He’d found his estranged father, a cute little step-sister and a brother he had never known about but whom he felt he’d known for eternity, the missing side to his incomplete half. It had been like emerging into the sunshine from a very long winter and he wasn’t ready to give any of that up.
Looking round the dimly lit cave, Johnny realized that he was alone for the first time. None of the men were gathered around the fire and his father and Cochrane were outside. With considerable difficulty he reached his numb, bound hands to his feet and felt inside one of his boots. The small knife he kept in the specially designed sheath in his right boot was there, to his amazement and gratitude.
‘¡Gracias a Dios!’ With trembling fingers he eased it into his right palm and straightened again. He cast another quick glance around the cave to satisfy himself that his actions hadn’t been noticed and set to work on the tight rope binding him.
Scott and the other two men made good time over the hard packed earth, easily following the notched hoof prints left behind by Murdoch’s mare. Occasionally they would stop and examine their options when the direction was ambiguous, shortly to find one of Murdoch’s bullets pointing the way like a beacon. They would once again pick up the trail, but to Scott it was all taking too long.
“Señor Scott!” Cipriano rode towards them from his place of concealment.
“Cipriano…did you see my father come this way?”
The Segundo nodded vigorously. “Sí, Señor. I almost called out to him as he rode by, but something told me not to. Su padre looked muy severo. ¿Qué ha sucedido?”
Scott briefly filled Cipriano in on the latest developments. “Apart from Murdoch, did you see anything else?”
“Nothing, Señor. Should I have followed su padre?”
“No, you did the right thing. The boy with him had strict instructions to take only Murdoch. He’s on his way to where they’re holding Johnny, and if they thought Murdoch was being followed, it might force their hand. How long ago was this?”
The blond Lancer head bowed in deep thought as Cipriano told them they were still just about fifteen minutes behind Murdoch and the youth but his mind tortured him with images of his father and brother lying dead or dying, with him just arriving too late to tell them how much they meant to him. He’d developed an amazing relationship with the enigmatic Johnny Madrid Lancer, a man for whom he’d have had no time if he’d met him in Boston, but a man for whom, now, he’d gladly give his own life. He often laughed when he recalled their first meeting in that packed stage coach ride to Morro Coyo. The dusty, sweaty cowboy who’d ruffled his shirt as he’d crowded him had then been replaced by the cynical gunslinger refuting the girl’s words about them being brothers. How they’d come a long way since then!
He couldn’t confess to having the same warm feelings for their father; that relationship was harder work, but it definitely was improving, but today he realized that his feelings of protectiveness also included the gruff patriarch. He wasn’t about to let someone from *any* of their respective pasts to interfere or endanger their future together. Not whilst he had a breath in his body.
“Señor Scott, look there. What do you suppose it means?”
Cipriano’s voice brought Scott back from his ruminations and he followed the Segundo’s pointing finger to the small clump of bullets lying on the ground. Whilst they’d landed somewhat scattered, Scott imagined that their number meant something more significant than merely a direction indicator. He quickly dismounted and gathered up the missiles.
“Murdoch’s trying to tell us something. He’s been marking the trail now and then with a bullet, but he must have known he wasn’t going to need many more if he was happy to drop so many, so I think we need to take more cover and approach cautiously. Do you know this area, Cipriano?”
“Sí, Señor, there are many well hidden caves around these hills. Su hermano could be in any one of them.”
Scott nodded and led them towards the tree line where they tethered their mounts and started a cautious approach on foot. As they scaled the next rise they soon realized that had they still been on horseback there would have been little or no cover. As it was, the going was difficult enough through the trees and they made slow progress. Scott fretted over how far behind his father they now were, and once again the image of two pairs of blue eyes staring unseeingly at him, came back to torment him.
“My son needs a doctor. You said your argument wasn’t with him and that you’d release him. I’m asking you to honour your statement as the mark of a gentleman.”
Cochrane regarded the angry man confronting him. “Really, Murdoch…you don’t mind if I call you Murdoch, do you? I’ve waited so long to meet you again I feel almost like family. As I was saying, you have absolutely no grounds for criticising my standards. If you hadn’t hounded my father he’d still be alive and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I admit I lied, but given your son’s…ah…talent with a gun, I’d be a foolish man to release him, would I not?”
Murdoch hadn’t really expected Cochrane to honour his words, and he knew with all his heart that even if Johnny had been able to ride out of there unaided, he’d have refused to go alone.
“Ok, so what do you want, Cochrane? Your father was a bully and a poor business man. I didn’t wish him any physical harm, but if he wasn’t man enough to take his punishment, that’s not something you can blame others for. Not every man who’s reprimanded by the Cattleman’s Association turns round and blows his brains out.”
The words were intentionally harsh as Murdoch had reached the end of his tolerance with this jackass. He was beginning to see how easily using your gun could become a way of life and it gave him a sharp insight into Johnny’s past. If he’d had his six-shooter in his grip right about then, Cochrane would have developed a third eye.
The result of his verbal outburst was sudden and painful. Cochrane back-handed him sharply across the mouth and Murdoch, taller and heavier set than the younger man, nevertheless reeled backwards from the blow.
“You’ll regret those words, Lancer,” Cochrane seethed through clenched teeth. “I was thinking of spinning this out a while longer, but I’m tired of your attitude and that half-breed brat of yours. My intentions were to get you here and then take everything away from you, piece by piece, just as you took everything from me. I was going to keep you alive to watch your precious empire crumble, but now I just can’t be bothered. Why don’t you go back and get ready to die with your son? And don’t think that it ends here. I’ll probably lie low for a while after your death has been discovered and when your other son has just started to pick up the pieces again, I’ll step in and have Barnes pick his moment. He really is a most excellent shot. The boy won’t stand a chance. It’s ironic, isn’t it, how things have come around?”
The revelation of Cochrane’s sick ravings took Murdoch’s breath away; that and a new fer for Scott’s life. “You’re quite mad. Scott won’t just give up, even if Johnny and I are dead. He’s much stronger than you give him credit for. And I have very loyal people working for me, not to mention steadfast friends and neighbours. They’ll help Scott to fight you; it won’t be the first time land pirates will have tried to steel our land. But I’m curious about one thing. What took you so long to come after me? I haven’t exactly been hiding.”
Cochrane got up and began pacing back and forward, casting vicious glances now and then towards his antagonist.
“I was left with nothing, not even a roof over my head. My mother and I had to move on, try to scratch a living elsewhere. I ended up in Sacramento and made a decent enough living, enough to keep me until the time was right. I kept an eye on how you were prospering, and when I learned that your family had come home, I knew my time had come. I couldn’t wait to get out here and make your life Hell, just as you did to mine. I get to ruin you *and* your family get left with nothing, just like I was. And ultimately I’m the outright winner as I get your ranch. Quite the success you’ve made of that ranch, Murdoch. I really must thank you.”
Cochrane didn’t even try to keep the note of triumph from his voice. Murdoch seethed with suppressed fury, longing to wrap his hands around the other man’s throat and squeeze the life from him. He retaliated the only way he could.
“Your father deserved everything he got, and if he ended up in Hell, it was by his own hand. And so what if you had to make a living without anything? Do you imagine that I stepped off the Inverness boat with my pockets bulging with money? Every man here makes his own way in life, with whatever he can pull together. As far as I can see, you’ve turned out just like your father, in every respect. You really are a credit to him, and when you get to Hell, be sure to tell him I said ‘Hi’.”
Murdoch’s voice had risen in volume and he regretted letting this little jumped-up pipsqueak rattle him, but unless Scott and Cipriano appeared anytime soon, this was going to be the last Murdoch Lancer was to see of his beloved land.
“You can tell him yourself. By my reckoning, you’ll be seeing him sooner than me.” Cochrane’s voice had taken on the high pitch of the madman and Murdoch was weary of being in the man’s company. If these were his last moments he wanted to spend them in the company of his son.
He took a long look around at the valley below, too far from the ranch to see it, and thought sadly of Teresa and Scott. He knew his older son would look after the girl but he wasn’t certain if the boy would have the heart to stay on at the ranch after losing both his father and brother. As for Teresa, Lancer was all she’d ever known, but with everyone she’d ever considered family gone, she too would most likely feel heartbroken and unable to stay.
With a heavy heart Murdoch turned away and moved back into the cave, preparing himself to offer as much comfort and encouragement to Johnny as he could drum up. Cochrane’s men had started evacuating the cave of anything belonging to the camp and his son was lying where he’d left him. Murdoch crossed to kneel beside him and Johnny squinted up at him as he arrived.
“Y’ on your own, Murdoch?”
The older man nodded grimly. “That madman has lost all sense of reason, Johnny. All those years of anticipating revenge on me has finally pushed him over the edge. I don’t know what his plans are, but I can guarantee that they don’t include a future for either of us. Johnny…I’m sorry about this. All the time we were being targeted, I just assumed it was your past coming to call again, and all this time it was my fault. I’m so sorry. Es mi culpa, mi hijo.”
Johnny squirmed, uncomfortable at the words of apology wrenched from his father’s lips. At the start they’d had many an angry word and neither man had found it easy to say sorry, but Scott had proved to have quite a talent for mediation and they were all gradually getting along much better. After one memorable argument, he and his father had actually ridden after some wild horses, something he’d never thought would happen.
“’s ok, Murdoch. Lo sé. ¿Qué pasa?”
“They seem to be getting ready to move. Cochrane’s men are saddling their horses but he didn’t let me into his plans, other than to hint that we’re near the end. Can you move, son? If we can just get outside, we’ll stand a better chance of making a break for it. Scott and Cipriano were trailing me, so with any luck they might not be too far behind. That was a good idea of yours to notch the horseshoes.”
“Gracias.” Johnny’s quiet smile belied the warm feeling his father’s words had evoked. “I’ve been cuttin’ at these ropes but I’m not through yet. Can ya see how they’re comin’?”
Murdoch scuttled behind his semi-recumbent son and eased his jacket off Johnny’s shoulders. In the dim light he could just about make out the partially severed rope strands, heavily blood-stained. He took the small knife from his son’s blood-slick hands and continued the assault on the rope.
“You’ve made a bit of a mess of your wrists, son. Teresa’s going to have her work cut out with you this time.” He grimaced as soon as he’d spoken. They’d all give a fortune just for the opportunity of Teresa actually getting to look after Johnny this time.
“M’ wrists are the least of our worries, Murdoch. We need to get outta here or Scott’ll be ridin’ into trouble. There’s too many for him to take on. Help me up.”
Father and son struggled to an upright position, Johnny leaning more heavily against his father than he liked as the world tilted dizzily and his knee continued its stubborn refusal to co-operate. His head hung as he struggled to recover his equilibrium, and then slowly came up as he gave his father a cocky grin. The ropes had finally parted, releasing his tingling hands.
“I ain’t exactly ready for sprintin’, Murdoch, but what say we get outta here? Boston says I’m a cactus, all prickly an’ more used to the heat, an’ I definitely have had enough of this cave.”
Murdoch felt his spirits soar just being in the presence of this high-spirited boy. The odds against them hadn’t changed one iota but suddenly he felt he could take on an army with his son by his side. They hobbled cautiously towards the opening, Murdoch supporting Johnny with an arm around his waist. At the entrance they stopped to listen to the sounds of activity just outside their view.
“Set the fuse for 10 seconds. I don’t want any loopholes here. You’ll have just enough room to get away, but they won’t make it out in time.”
The words registered with both men as they heard Cochrane’s order to seal their fate. Johnny looked around quickly at the signs of explosives having been set at the mouth of the cave.
“Murdoch, it’s now or never. If they get that fuse lit, we’ll be gonners. I’m only gonna slow ya down, so you run for it an’ I’ll be right behind ya.” As he spoke, Johnny eased himself away from his father’s support, tentatively taking more weight on his injured knee. He managed to stifle the groan and was glad his father hadn’t noticed his grimace of pain. He wasn’t fooling himself with his words. There was no way he was going to be ‘right behind’ his father with that knee the way it was, but there was no way on this earth he was going to slow his father’s escape.
Murdoch looked from the explosives back to his son’s emotive eyes, eyes which at times he couldn’t read but which now were shining with love and concern for him.
“You can forget that for an idea. I’ve already told you we’re getting out of here together. And I won’t discuss this, John,” he added as he sensed rather than heard any argument. As he spoke, Murdoch once again laced his arm around his son, gathering him like a child, ready to make a dash for the outside world.
Johnny gritted his teeth as they steeled themselves to run into what would probably be a barrage of bullets, but he’d rather take his chances with that than be blown to Kingdom come. Their hopes were dashed as a shadow moved across them and they looked into the sneering faces of Emmet Cochrane and Barnes, the latter pointing a side-arm at them.
“Now you didn’t really think I was going to make it that easy, did you? Move back inside. My men are just putting the finishing touches to your last resting place. If you step far enough back, the blast probably won’t kill you.” He grinned snidely. “Oh, but then you’ll either starve to death or suffocate. What a dilemma. Do you rush me or take your chance at digging your way out? I’ve decided that instant death is much too easy. I’ve had years of relishing the idea of you dying, and I’m going to take immense pleasure in knowing that you’re trapped here, slowly fading. Isn’t that the most wonderful revenge? And to add extra spice to it, you will die knowing that you’re the reason this son’s dying along side you, and the other won’t have long to mourn you. I call that poetic justice.”
Murdoch looked down at the top of his son’s dark head, a head held high even against such odds, and his heart overflowed with sorrow.
“You’ve got what you want, Cochrane. For pity’s sake, let Johnny go. He’s got his whole life ahead of him.”
Johnny’s head came up further to meet his father’s gaze. “Don’t give him the satisfaction of seein’ ya grovel, Murdoch. He’s got no intention of lettin’ either of us go, an’ you know it.” He turned from his father to regard the men standing before him. “Let’s just get on with the dance, Cochrane, an’ I’ll be waitin’ for ya in hell.” He gave the sneering man his best Madrid glare and their antagonist had the grace to look decidedly uncomfortable as he turned away.
“Keep an eye on them, Barnes. If you need to, you can shoot them; just make certain they’re alive when the dynamite goes off!”
Murdoch did his best to stare down the sharpshooter who shrugged with colossal indifference to their fate as he coldly eyed the two captives.
“Come on, Johnny; let’s get back out of the way. As long as we’re alive, there’s always a chance of getting out.”
Murdoch helped his limping son towards the wall the fire was still smouldering against. Once they were sealed, they’d have to extinguish that small flame as it would steal their precious air, but until that time, it offered itself like a beacon of life. They settled onto the damp floor, grimly refusing to even meet each other’s eyes for fear of seeing any sign of weakness. Murdoch knew he wouldn’t see that in his son’s eyes. Johnny Madrid might well know fear like all other mortals, but it wasn’t in his nature to show it, and Murdoch didn’t want his son’s last sight of his father to be one of regret.
A shout from outside let them know that their time had just run out.
“Scott, see up ahead. There’s a group of riders coming this way. We should take cover.” Ike pointed to the riders still some distance away but Scott had already seen them.
“I think that’s a good idea. Something tells me these men aren’t out for a pleasant afternoon’s gallop.”
They settled even further into the tree line and crouched down for extra cover as Cochrane and his men rode by some fifty yards from their hiding place.
“Did any of you recognise anyone?”
“Sure, Scott, that was definitely Clancy from Spanish Wells. I didn’t recognise anyone else.” Joe spoke. “Did anyone else know them?”
They both looked at Ike and Cipriano but they shook their heads. “What about you, Scott?”
“I saw the boy who rode in for Murdoch and I saw one of the men with what might have been a distance weapon in his rifle sheath. My guess is he’s our sniper, so those men must be who we’re after. The only problem is, there’s no sign of Johnny or my father.”
“Do we follow los hombres, Señor Scott, or do we continue?” Cipriano’s face was screwed up with worry. He greatly respected the Lancers and feared for his missing patron and el niño.
“There’s not much point in trying to follow them. We’d have to be out in the open and they’d spot us a mile off, not to mention that our horses are back there.” Scott indicated the direction they’d travelled, the same direction the riders had taken. “I suggest we go on and see if we can find any sign of Murdoch and Johnny. Cipriano, you said you know these caves. Are there any likely candidates for your first choice?”
“Sí, just a few yards from the end of the tree line there are some concealed caves. If I was wanting to set up camp, I would choose there.”
“Then that’s where we’ll start looking.”
The words had barely left Scott’s lips when the ground shook violently beneath them, immediately followed by two riders scurrying past on slightly spooked horses. Loose rocks began to make new paths as they crashed down and the four men cautiously moved forward to where they could see a great plume of dust settling. What had obviously once been a reasonably large cave was now quite effectively blocked by fallen rocks.
“Why d’ya suppose them fellers were blastin’ rocks, Scott?” Ike scratched his head in bemusement.
“Somehow I don’t think they were interested in mining, Ike. They were most likely sealing something…or someone, in.” Scott ran to the untidy pile of rocks at the original cave mouth and leant as close as he could get.
“MURDOCH…JOHNNY…ARE YOU IN THERE?” He listened to his own voice reverberating off the walls of the other caves, but there was no answering human voice to comfort him. Like a man possessed, he began to grab at the rocks, tossing them aside as if they were made of air.
“Señor Scott, it is muy arriesgado to move los rocas without care. You will injure yourself if they fall further. ¡Tenga cuidado, por favour!” Cipriano caught him by the arm.
Scott shook him off. “Be careful? Cipriano, my father and brother are most likely trapped in there, perhaps crushed or bleeding. I don’t exactly have time to be careful.”
The Segundo bowed his head in remorse. “Lo siento, Señor, I was not thinking. But we need more hands to help.”
“You’re right…Ike, ride back to the ranch and gather as many men as you can find, but leave a guard at the house, just in case. Get Jelly to bring the wagon with ropes, iron levers, blankets…and get someone to bring Sam out here. I don’t know what we’ll find in there, but I don’t imagine they’ve got off unscathed.”
Neither of the two men facing Scott needed to ask who he was referring to. Ike ran back in the direction of their horses as Cipriano and Joe joined Scott in moving the boulders.
Murdoch became slowly aware of his changed surroundings, and with awareness came discomfort. He wouldn’t have categorised it as full out pain. He’d known that ‘friend’ for a while now, what with Pardee’s bullet still in his back, but he was most definitely not comfortable. It appeared he’d taken to lying on cold, wet, very lumpy ground with something solid across his chest. The something solid was making for difficulty in breathing which he supposed was what had awakened him from his sleep.
Reaching down in the darkness, he tried to remove whatever was draped across him and a startled exclamation was forced from his dry lips when he discovered that the item on top of him was warm and alive. He felt carefully with both hands and soon discovered that it wasn’t some wild animal he’d been trapped with in some weird scenario, but a man.
Recollection filtered through his foggy mind as it came back to him, piece by fragmented piece. He and Johnny had been held in a cave and the entrance to said cave had been dynamited.
The name came back to him along with his memory. He and Johnny had tried to get out of the cave when they’d realised Cochrane’s intention to blow it, but two men had been left to finish the task: one held them at gunpoint inside the cave whilst the other lit a very short fuse. Cochrane had told them to make it a 10 second fuse, but they had miscalculated and the explosion had come almost instantly. Murdoch didn’t know, and certainly didn’t care if the two men on the outside had got away unscathed. He’d started to drag his son away from the point of ignition but just as the fuse had reached its destination, Johnny had hurled his father to the floor and flung himself on top of the older man.
Murdoch remembered that the floor of the cave seemed to heave in protest and in a blink of an eye the daylight was snatched and snuffed out as firstly dust, then falling rubble and rocks filled up the space where they had so recently stood. More rocks were disturbed from inside the cave and some of those found the two men, crashing onto their huddled forms. Murdoch recalled hearing Johnny grunt in pain as at least one landed on his exposed back and side and then Murdoch knew no more as he took a glancing blow to the head.
Concern for his son made the father ease gently out from below his still form. He found a match and struck it against the wall, allowing a meagre glow to let him gaze upon his injured boy. Johnny was laying face down where he’d flung himself in an attempt to protect his father. His bare back was covered in dust and grime, but there was also some blood seeping slowly from scratches and cuts on the tanned skin. His face was hidden beneath the thatch of inky black hair so Murdoch leant forward and teased the bangs away, a gesture he wouldn’t have dared to employ had Johnny been awake. There was only so much coddling his boy would allow from these people who were his new family.
“Johnny, can you hear me, son?”
The match fizzled out and burned his fingers as Murdoch crouched beside Johnny. He immediately lit another and started a methodical search for anything he could find to use as a lantern. They would need light to determine their situation and a single match wasn’t going to be of much practical use. Luck was on their side when he found the remnants of the camp fire which had been snuffed out in the cave-in. He found some dry kindling and lit a fire as close to his son as he could. It would have to do in the meantime until he could find something better.
Returning to his son’s side, he knelt down and lightly brushed the rubble and dust from Johnny’s back. He tried to keep his touch as light as possible, bearing in mind that the boy had not only been in the cave-in but had previously been beaten, but it was enough to rouse Johnny from the darkness with a barely concealed gasp.
“Easy, son, take it slowly. Where are you hurt?”
“M-Murdoch? You okay?”
“I’m fine, Johnny. You did a brave thing, son, throwing yourself onto me like that, but I’d have rather you didn’t. You could have been killed.”
Johnny was struggling round onto his back as he gathered his scattered wits about him and moaned as the rough ground aggravated the cuts. As he took a deeper breath than he’d intended, he clutched at his chest, fire lancing through it now with even a shallow breath. His father caught the signs and tried to hide his concern.
“Are your ribs hurting?”
“Yeah…some. Don’t worry about it, I wasn’t gonna run anywhere any time soon. Reckon I can breathe without troublin’ them too much.”
Johnny glanced around as far as the glow from the fire allowed. It cast shadows more than lighting the dark but what could be seen made for a depressing sight. The mouth of the cave was as well-stuffed as if it had been filled by hand. The dust swirled around making a mockery of his words of bravado and Johnny knew that his breathing would soon become laboured. He attempted to get to his feet but had forgotten about his knee and got no further than back onto his rump.
“Help me up, Murdoch. We gotta start getting’ those rocks shifted. The air in here’s not bad for now, but it won’t last for ever.”
“You’re in no shape to be hauling rocks about. I’ll do it, you just conserve your energy.”
Johnny threw an exasperated look at his father. He really did appreciate that the older man was trying to look out for him, but if he started to let these people make his decisions, he’d be swamped.
“Conservin’ my energy’s not gonna do me much good when the air’s gone. We’ll get along better by workin’ together. Now help me up…please.” He reached his arm up to Murdoch who reluctantly grasped it and hauled his son unsteadily to his feet.
Johnny leant against his father for a few moments, trying to steal some of the taller man’s strength, and to let the world decide its axis again. Then the two men staggered towards the fallen rocks. They worked slowly in tandem, starting as far up as they could and letting those rocks they could dislodge fall behind them. Occasionally they’d try to move one or two by pushing at them but the pile of rubble was so dense that a dislodged stone didn’t make it even to the outside world.
Progress was going to be painfully slow, and the fire was gradually starting to go out.
Scott , Joe and Cipriano worked like driven men as they pulled at the boulders blocking the cave mouth. None of them spoke, conserving all their energy for the task in hand. The more Scott thought about it, the more he was convinced that his family were on the other side of this rock fall. He had shouted until he was in danger of losing his voice but the silent hills had mocked him. But still he worked on, feverishly, with no thought for his own safety. His soft leather gloves were torn and filthy, and several cuts showed on his forearms where sharp edges had snagged tender skin, but he barely felt them, such was his anguish. All he could picture was Murdoch and Johnny laying crushed or suffocating because he’d taken time to be more careful.
The rumbling of an approaching wagon made him pause briefly in his efforts. He looked up and saw Jelly approaching with quite a number of the hands. What took his breath away completely was Teresa sitting on the wagon bench beside the old handyman. She’d come dressed to help, her frilly skirts discarded for no-nonsense trousers and blouse.
“Scott, have you heard anything from them?” She leapt off the wagon and ran into his arms.
“Teresa, you shouldn’t be here, it’s not safe. Jelly, why’d you let her come?”
“Just one minute, Scott Lancer.” Teresa stepped right up to the tall blond. “What right do you have to keep me from being here? I understand your worries, but you have to remember that I’ve known Murdoch Lancer all my life. He’s like a second father to me, so don’t you go expecting me to sit at home twiddling my thumbs, waiting to hear God knows what. And Johnny may be *your* brother, but he’s like a brother to me, too.” She was fuming with the man before her, highlighting her point by jabbing him in the chest, and Scott wisely said nothing.
Jelly saw his opportunity for speaking without antagonising the lad any further.
“What in tarnation did ya think I could do to stop the little filly from taggin’ along, anyway? I’d a had to lock her in the smoke house to keep her home. ‘Sides, she might be able to help once we get ‘em outta there. You heard from them yet?”
“Nothing! I don’t even know if they’re in there, but my gut instinct tells me they are. Why else would those two men have blasted this shut and then taken off like that?”
Scott set his sister aside as he resumed his labours. She tried to wipe at his cuts but he not unkindly told her ‘no’. The extra men plus the ropes and iron levers Jelly had brought with him all helped to speed up the clearance of the rocks but it was still taking far longer than any of them liked. The daylight was long gone and they’d set up lanterns around their work area and with the evening came the cooler air. If their missing family were injured, the cold wouldn’t do them any favours.
Teresa huddled next to the fire, throwing more wood onto it and keeping a steady flow of coffee and sandwiches for the men. It had been three hours since Ike had come hurtling under the Lancer arch to tell them of their find; two hours since they’d all arrived to find Scott, Joe and Cipriano dishevelled and blood-streaked from their toils, and one hour since Sam Jenkins had arrived. The old doctor had wanted to lend a hand but Scott had assured him that his help would be gratefully received once they got Johnny and Murdoch out of their ‘tomb’. For now, all she and Sam could do was be patient.
Sam sat beside the girl and thought of the missing men. Murdoch Lancer, he’d known for many a year. He regarded the gruff rancher as one of his dearest friends, and had known the man’s despair at the loss of both his wives. He’d even helped to deliver Johnny on that crisp December morning.
He smiled as he recalled the hearty cry that little baby had given on his arrival into the world, more than a week late. There had been concern for mother and child but Maria had rallied once her son was placed in her arms and she had gazed upon his pink, scrunched-up face and thatch of black hair. When he’d eventually opened his eyes to gaze at his new world, she’d been disappointed to discover that unlike her own dark eyes, this child of hers was for ever marked with eyes the colour of sapphires. Sam thought it had been at that point, a time when all emotions should have been happy ones, that Maria had taken a step back and wondered what she’d done in marrying a *gringo*. Now her offspring was marked to be a *mestizo* by inheriting his father’s eyes.
He thought now of the man that little baby had become. Johnny Madrid had had a harder life than any child should ever have to face. His mother had stumbled from one relationship to the next, seldom thinking about her son’s wellbeing and Johnny had been orphaned much too young. To survive as a *mestizo* he’d turned to the gun to defend himself, and had become notoriously proficient with it.
Many people in Green River and Spanish Wells had been up in arms when they’d heard about Murdoch’s two sons coming home. No-one knew anything of Scott’s life but Johnny Madrid’s reputation had reached this side of the border and quite a few upright citizens had had more than the occasional word to say on the subject. Even now, 6 months after the boy’s arrival, there were still some people who would cross the street to avoid him. Of course, anyone whom he actually got to talk to was soon charmed by his smile and nice manners and that soft lilting voice. More than once Sam had thought that the rogue could probably charm the birds from the trees, given half a chance.
//‘If only he’s got the chance to use that charm again. I don’t care how many injuries I have to treat, dear God…just let them both be alive!’//
Scott stepped forward to the fire to take a moment’s breather and a refill of coffee after being scolded more than once by the old doctor. The light had gone now and the darkness had forced them to slow the pace for fear of rock falls. As many lanterns as they could find had been brought with them and cast reasonable light over the scene, but also cast deep shadows where an unwary man could trip. Teresa gave him a half smile as she took in his exhaustion. She saved her breath in trying to get him to slow down, for she knew that it was pointless to even suggest it. Nothing would stop Scott’s efforts until they recovered their family, dead or alive.
“They’ll be fine, Scott, you’ll see. Johnny’s not going to let a little thing like a cave-in hurt him. Why, he and Murdoch are probably digging away from the inside, and you’ll meet up before you know it.” Her words sounded hollow even to her own ears but she felt she had to say them, anyway.
Scott’s soft snort was derisive but he appreciated the attempt to lift the sombre mood which had settled over the rescue party. With each passing hour their hopes of finding Murdoch and Johnny alive had plummeted even further. Even Jelly had stopped talking, giving every ounce of effort he had in his small wiry body to shifting what felt like most of California. And still they couldn’t make contact. Others had taken up the refrain of calling for the men to answer, but they hadn’t heard a thing.
A sudden shout from Mason, one of the newer hands, broke Scott’s reverie.
“I think we’re through. Hey Scott…I think we’re through!”
His coffee mug cast aside, Scott scrambled over the boulders strewn about and raced to where Mason stood. The lantern showed a blackness where the men had been working and Scott’s heart was in his mouth as he once again called his father’s name.
“Murdoch…can you hear me?”
“Scott? Scott, are you there? Johnny…THEY’VE FOUND US!”
The voice belonged to his father and Scott had to fight the tears which threatened to spill down his dusty cheeks. Murdoch was alive, and if he was calling to Johnny, then so must his brother be. With exhaustion forgotten, Scott threw himself afresh at the pile of rocks still imprisoning his family.
Sam had come forward at the sound of Murdoch’s voice and spoke up.
“Murdoch, it’s Sam. How are you both faring?”
“Sam? Boy, am I glad to hear your sorry voice. I’m okay, but Johnny’s in a bad way. Scott, how close are you to getting us out?”
Scott looked around in despair at the still too thick wall between them but he swallowed his immediate response.
“We’re going as fast as we can, Murdoch. You hang in there; we’ll get you out soon. What’s wrong with Johnny?”
“They’d worked him over pretty badly before I got here, and I think he’s got a few broken ribs as well as some other injuries. Sam…his breathing’s quite laboured and he drifts in an out of consciousness. Should I try to keep him awake?”
“Let him rest, Murdoch. He’s bound to be in a lot of pain, and I’m sure the air in there’s not too good right about now. If he’s awake, it’ll only make him strain more for breath. The body knows when to shut down better than anything you or I could decide.”
Inside the cave that for some time now Murdoch had begun to think of as their last resting place, he looked down on the bowed head of his younger son. Johnny had insisted on helping to move the rocks even when it was clearly obvious that he wasn’t up to the task, and before too long he’d had to stop for breath. At first, just taking a breather had been enough, but when the air starting getting stale and the fire had gone out the atmosphere had got colder and damper. What with that and the dust from their toils, Johnny had begun to get into difficulties and Murdoch had used all of his parental authority to make the boy sit down for longer periods.
It had been during the last enforced rest that Johnny had drifted off. At first, Murdoch had tried to waken him but his son’s incoherent mumblings were his only response. There had still been the occasion when his one eye would open and he’d make a futile attempt to get to his feet, but physically he was spent, his head bowed and chin resting on his bare chest.
The concerned father knelt before his injured son and assessed whether he was awake enough to know that their rescuers had found them. Instinct kicked in through Johnny’s semi-conscious state and he became aware of someone close. Raising a head that suddenly seemed to be laden with the very rocks they’d been fighting, he gazed blearily at his father’s lined and grimy face.
“Hey yourself. Scott and the others have got through; they’re just outside. Hang on, son, we’ll have you in your bed before you know it.”
Johnny nodded as a sudden cloud of dust caused his breathing to catch again and he was hit by a paroxysm of coughing. Murdoch steadied him against his broad shoulder, gently rubbing his hand over the boy’s cold back. He’d got his jacket back onto Johnny’s shivering frame as soon as they’d come round and it swamped him, making him look like a child dressing in grown-up’s clothing. But even with that amount of warmth, Johnny was too cold.
As soon as the coughing fit was over, Johnny wiped at his streaming eyes and nodded mutely that he was okay. Murdoch doubted that he was but he knew better than to waste time coddling his boy. Instead, he found new energy for tackling the rocks still blocking their escape.
“Scott, stand clear for a few moments and let me see if I can push through from this side.”
Scott motioned for the rescuers to step well away.
“Okay, you’re clear. Give it a go!”
Murdoch put his shoulder to the task and sweat broke on his forehead with the Herculean effort of pushing the mountain out of his way. He clenched his teeth and heaved with every ounce he could muster and half heard Scott’s encouraging shout from outside as some rocks dislodged. He’d just about reached the limit of his endurance when movement beside him found his injured, limping son adding his shoulder to the task.
“No, Johnny. Let me do it, you’re not in any shape for this.” Murdoch tried to push Johnny gently away, but his son was adamant.
“Need…to get…outta here, Murdoch…lemme help.”
Murdoch’s heart filled to bursting with pride at his son’s dauntlessness in the face of any and every adversity, but it didn’t stop him worrying. Standing taller than the injured man, he strove to take the bulk of the effort.
Watching with his heart beating violently against his ribs, Scott saw the first signs that they were actually going to make it. The small black hole near the top of the pile began to grow until soon it could accommodate a man’s head and shoulders.
“You’re through, Murdoch. Take it easy, let us do the rest. You and Johnny just hang on. We’re nearly there!”
The cascade of rocks ceased as Murdoch gently eased Johnny away from the obstacle. He could hear his older son co-ordinating the men on the outside and was thankful. For now, he needed to watch over his younger boy and Johnny’s last effort had been the final straw. His knees buckled now and Murdoch eased to the damp ground, taking his son in his arms like a small boy. He wouldn’t be allowed this closeness when his son recovered, so he was bound and determined to snatch this opportunity when it afforded itself. All around him he could hear the shouts of the ranch hands as they made inroads into the rock pile and he allowed himself a small smile. They’d beaten Cochrane’s best efforts to kill them, and for now, recovery was all he could think of; but the thought of justice wasn’t far from his mind.
The cave finally gave up its occupants after many hours of struggle. Scott was the first through the man-sized gap in the rocks, a lantern clutched in his slightly shaking left hand as he scrambled over the rough ground. He saw Murdoch sitting on the floor of the cave, cradling Johnny to him and for one heart-stopping moment, Scott thought they were too late. He bit back the anguished exclamation that wanted out and hurried towards the two men who had claimed a place in his heart.
“Sir?” his voice was soft, almost apologetic for disturbing the quiet of the cave. “Murdoch, are you alright?”
His father slowly raised his gaze from the dark head of one son to look into the worried face of another. In the back of his mind he’d heard the ongoing struggle to free them, but weary beyond belief, he’d switched off to all but the fight to keep alive the young man in his arms. Now, acknowledging that they were almost free, he smiled wearily at his blond son.
“Just a bit tired, Scott. Nothing that won’t mend.” He looked over Scott’s shoulder and saw for the first time the other men spilling through the space in the rock fall. Sam was there, naturally, as was Jelly, and he gave them a grateful nod as he once again looked down at his unconscious son. “We need to get Johnny home.”
Sam stepped forward and crouched down before the two men. His professional eye noted the graze and bump on Murdoch’s temple and he winced as he took in the man’s battered and bleeding hands from struggling for too long against the cave-in. but Murdoch, weary as he obviously was, had a grip on his son that wasn’t about to give up. Sam tried to ease the father’s arms from around the son but Murdoch was reluctant to let go.
“Let me see to the boy, Murdoch. We need to get you both out of here.”
Murdoch seemed to shake off his lethargy as his old friend’s words penetrated and he allowed Scott and Sam to ease Johnny forward. Scrambling unsteadily to his feet he bent down and smoothed ebony hair from Johnny’s cold forehead.
“He’s been unconscious for a while, now. I couldn’t get him to answer me. Sam, he’s too cold.”
The kindly old doctor looked into Murdoch’s frantic face and real fear clutched at him. The man had been through so much in trying to firstly save his ranch, and then bring home his sons, almost losing them in the process. And now there was a very real danger that this injured boy might not make it.
“Yes, he’s very cold and that’s the first thing we need to address. Jelly, get some stones heating in the fire. We need to get this boy warmed up before we can head home.”
The old handyman made good speed setting about his task. It had almost broken his heart when he’d scrambled into the cave and seen father and son in such a grim tableau. As he made his way towards the fire he kept reminding himself that Johnny Lancer was a fighter, through and through, and he wasn’t about to cash in his chips in such a way.
In spite of protestations from son and friend, Murdoch insisted on bending to raise his boy into his strong arms. Scott shook his head at his father’s stubbornness but Sam watched with understanding as his old friend clutched his precious burden to his heart. They helped him emerge into the night air and Teresa choked back a sob as she came scurrying towards them.
“Murdoch!” She stopped her flight abruptly as she saw that the boy in his arms was unresponsive. Moving closer she smoothed back the bangs from Johnny’s bruised forehead and her tears flowed unrestrainedly. “Is he…”
“We need to warm him up, Teresa, and Murdoch could do with some of that coffee,” Sam directed her, distracting her from where she stood, statue-like with fear. He took her arm and eased her gently to the fire, speaking softly to her to bring her back from the edge of fear. “Come on, Teresa, Murdoch needs your help. You won’t let him down, will you?”
The words did the trick and the girl gave herself a mental shake as she raised a tear-stained face to meet the concerned face before her.
“I’m sorry, Sam. It’s just been so long, and Johnny looks…but I won’t let it happen again. I’m fine, thank you. Look after them, please.”
Johnny had been laid close to the campfire and blankets placed beneath and around him. Even with the meagre light from the lanterns, everyone could see the heavy bruising on his torso. Scott’s heart contracted in both fear and anger; fear for his brother’s life and anger at the perpetrators of this violent act. He made a silent vow to see this through to the end; legally or otherwise, Cochrane would pay for what he’d done to his family.
The journey back to the ranch had been one of very mixed emotions. After struggling for so long to rescue Murdoch and Johnny, the men were naturally exuberant as they saw them loaded into the wagon bed, but the sight of Johnny’s still-unresponsive body had dampened their enthusiasm somewhat. These men knew the younger Lancer son as both boss and friend, always ready to pitch in for even the dirtiest, smelliest task on the ranch. They knew of his reputation and dangerous past life, but he threw himself with abandon into every aspect of ranch life, for which he’d earned great respect. To see that boy now battered and unconscious had quietened them considerably.
Sam clambered awkwardly up beside the two men he’d feared he might not get the chance to tend. Murdoch’s injuries were minor: broken finger nails and cuts and bruises from his efforts, and a mild concussion which he was well on the way to getting over. Johnny was in much worse condition. He was as cold as a corpse but no longer shivering, a sign of his deeply unconscious state. His lips had taken on a bluish tinge that worried the old doctor and his breathing was laboured. They’d called and cajoled him to try and waken him without success. Even words from his brother had failed to get a response and this alone caused Sam to fret a great deal. Scott had the ability to reach Johnny even when he was lost to everyone else.
Teresa had warmed the stones in the fire and they carefully placed them around Johnny’s body which was swaddled in blankets. The stones wouldn’t stay hot for long but they would provide some temporary heat for his chilled form until they could get him home. Murdoch had again insisted in being beside his son and was seated on the straw-scattered bed of the wagon, his son clutched to him to give as much heat as he could provide. Sam sat awkwardly beside them and Scott rode as close to the wagon as his horse would allow, casting worried glances from time to time. He had dearly wanted to be there beside them, physically, but had to admit that his father had the right to claim that space by his son. So Scott contented himself with almost riding into the wagon, and watching.
Jelly cast a worried glance into the wagon bed and set off as gently as the horse and ground would allow. It wasn’t going to be a comfortable ride for them, and because of that Jelly alone hoped the boy would stay unconscious until they could get him home and into his own bed. Murdoch shifted to get his back more comfortable and once again settled his son against his broad chest.
“He’ll be ok, right, Sam?” the worried father asked what they were all thinking.
The doctor looked into the anxious face of his good friend and tried to give them the news they wanted to hear.
“He’s young, strong and physically in very good condition, but right now, he’s got a few problems to get through. There are a couple of broken ribs, his knee’s badly swollen but I don’t know yet if there’s a fracture, and generally he’s cold and wet. What concerns me most is his breathing and the fever he’s developing. I’m afraid he’s heading for pneumonia. We’ll get him home and start some willow bark tea, and who knows, maybe he’ll agree to the Laudanum this time.”
Scott’s snort of disbelief was loud and clear from where he rode. They’d all witnessed Johnny’s aversion to taking the drug when he’d been recovering from Day Pardee’s bullet. Even at the height of his agony he’d resolutely refused to swallow the opiate, until he’d succumbed to the fever which nearly took his life and Sam had been able to pass a nasal tube and infuse the medicine via it. Once the boy had started to respond to treatment, they’d very wisely removed the tube before it could become an issue.
“He’ll take it, I’m sure of it.” Teresa’s confidence in their patient’s co-operation was optimistic in the extreme but none of the men had the heart to dampen her spirits at the moment.
The girl sat on the wagon seat beside the grizzled old handyman, spending most of the journey precariously balanced and looking backwards at her guardian and foster brother. Murdoch meant more to her than she felt she could adequately express, having been in her life from the very beginning. And these two oh-so-different men who were his sons had filled a void in her life she hadn’t been aware even existed. She couldn’t imagine life at Lancer without them now, and there had been one or two occasions too many when that threat had hovered like a dark cloud over the estancia. This time she wasn’t going to let any clouds anywhere near them. Johnny would make a full recovery if she had to kill him in the process!
Cipriano and several of the hands had ridden into Green River to notify Val Crawford of the attempted murders, and some of the other men had been dispatched back to the ranch to alert Maria to preparing Johnny’s room. Val had promised to arrange a posse and search party for Cochrane come first light.
The going was slow by choice to lessen any likely discomfort but Murdoch was getting more and more fractious the longer it took.
“Jelly, shake that nag up a bit and pick up the pace. I’ll have a full beard by the time we get home at this rate.”
“Now, now boss, there’s no need to git yer britches in a twist. We’ll get the boy home in no time, you jest settle yerself.” Jelly knew how to deal with the senior Lancer, and he fully understood the man’s concern, but harin’ over uneven ground and jostling the wagon’s occupants around like scrambled eggs wasn’t gonna do anybody a heap of good.
Johnny moaned occasionally and Murdoch’s large, work-hardened hand smoothed the errant bangs from the cold brow.
From his horse, Scott witnessed the act of genuine affection from father to son and smiled in spite of the situation. So often this gruff man seemed unable to show real love to either of his boys. Oh, he could grudgingly complement them on a hard day’s work well done, but it still didn’t come naturally to him to even throw an arm around their shoulder.
Scott had been raised by an undemonstrative grandfather who didn’t approve of such acts, but his housekeeper had more than made up for this and the young blond child had been spoiled with hugs and kisses from as far back as he could remember. Scott still didn’t know too much of his brother’s younger life apart from snippets his father had told him, but from what he could gather, Maria hadn’t been the best of mothers and the boy had had to fend for himself from much too young an age. Johnny still found it hard to accept that people wanted to do things for him simply because they were family. For too long he hadn’t had any family.
//‘Well, Johnny-boy, you’ve got a fully fledged family watching out for you now, whether you’re comfortable with that or not. Even the old man’s starting to care for you. You’ll just have to swallow your foolish pride and let us in.’//
“I’ve strapped his ribs and that knee as tightly as I can. His wrists are a mess but its only superficial skin loss. If we can keep them from getting any further infected, they’ll heal fine. I don’t think there’s any bony injury to the knee but like as not there’s damage to the ligaments. He’ll need to stay in bed for a week or he’s likely to end up with permanent damage, maybe even a limp. After that he can walk with the aid of crutches, but I don’t want him riding for about five or six weeks.”
Scott couldn’t contain the laugh which escaped his lips at the doctor’s words. They all knew quite clearly that once Johnny was recovering, to keep him cooped up around the ranch was going to be difficult enough. To actually stop him from riding Barranca for 6 weeks would prove to be quite a task.
Sam smiled wearily as he acknowledged Scott’s gesture.
“Maria’s left a pot of willow bark tea warming in his room. As soon as he comes round, we’ll need to start getting that into him, as well as broth and plenty of fluids. I’ve also left some tincture of Arnica which will help with reducing the bruising and a salve for his wrists. But his fever’s quite high already and I fear we’re probably going to have to pass that tube he loves so much. Teresa’s up there with him for now but she’ll need to be spelled. I don’t want him left alone until that fever’s down. Now, Murdoch, let’s get those hands looked at.”
Sam settled himself wearily at the kitchen table; a table around which he had shared many a hearty meal with these good people; a table which had doubled as operating table when Johnny had been shot by Pardee. Murdoch’s hands were rinsed and salve rubbed into the cuts, then a light gauze bandage wrapped round the fingers.
“Wear that for a few days and take it easy. Now don’t give me that look. How do you expect your sons to follow doctor’s orders if they don’t get a good example from you? Let Scott and Cipriano run things for a while. You’ve been through a lot, Murdoch, and you’re not getting any younger.”
Murdoch studied his bandaged hands morosely, then smiled up at his old friend in an action so like Johnny’s shy smile that it took Scott’s breath away. There were times when he thought that the only characteristics father and son shared were a quick temper and total stubbornness. It would seem that he still had a lot to learn about his new family.
“Scott didn’t exactly come away unscathed, either, Sam. Have you checked him out?” Murdoch wasn’t averse to using diversionary tactics when it suited him, a trait he all too often recognised in his younger son.
“He’s fine, Murdoch, and that ploy won’t work with me. You’re to rest or I won’t have any sympathy for you the next time either of your boys gives you a hard time as a patient.”
“Like the man says, Murdoch, I’m fine, although I’ll definitely need a new pair of gloves,” Scott’s quiet voice was full of warmth for his father’s concerns. He rose from sitting opposite Murdoch and looked at the weary doctor. “Sam, is it alright if I sit with Johnny?”
“Of course, and talk to him, Scott. They say that even when unconscious, the ear can still hear. Tell him to come back and waken up or we’re going to have to pass that tube. That ought to get him out of bed if nothing does.”
“I thought we were going to have to keep him *in* bed!” Scott fired the comment at the two men as he grinned and walked towards the stairs, the tension starting to ease slightly from his broad shoulders. His family was home again and healing could begin, and he knew his new brother well enough to know that he wouldn’t give up without one heck of a fight. He scaled the stairs two at a time despite his own weariness.
The two older men watched Scott’s retreat. They were both amazed at the bond which had developed between the half-brothers. Their father had often speculated as to whether they would have been just as close had they been raised together instead of only discovering each other at their homecoming.
Murdoch flexed his bandaged fingers tentatively.
“Seriously, Sam, I can’t get much done trussed up like a mummy. I doubt I’ll even be able to dress myself with the way you’ve wrapped me up. Take these off.” He presented his bandaged hands under the doctor’s nose but Sam was already climbing to his feet.
“Murdoch, it’s been a very long day. Why don’t you get some rest? If it’s alright with you I’d like to stay for a day or two, just until Johnny’s fever breaks.”
“Sorry Sam, forgive my manners. Of course you’ll stay. I’ll get Maria to prepare one of the guest rooms. And as you’re going to be here, *you* can help me in and out of my clothes!”
Johnny’s eyes stung with sweat as he burned under the heat of the Mexican sun. He couldn’t remember why he was standing in the middle of the street in Nogales but he was fairly certain it had something to do with the man staring him down. His memory was fazing in and out but something was worrying at it. The last thing he recalled was having lunch under a cool oak, but there were no oaks in Nogales, and no sign of…
“Scott!” Johnny bolted upright in his delirium, startling Teresa who had dozed off in the chair by the window. She dashed towards the tottering figure half-sitting in the middle of the bed.
Passing his brother’s door, Scott heard the gasped name and came running, just in time to catch Johnny as he collapsed towards the pillows, his burst of adrenalin totally spent. Teresa looked at the two brothers, her face twisted in remorse.
“I’m so sorry, Scott. I only closed my eyes for a few moments.”
Scott wrapped a consoling arm across her shoulders briefly before once again turning to Johnny.
“It’s ok, honey. You’re exhausted; falling asleep is only to be expected. Someone should have relieved you an hour ago. I’ll sit with him for a while, you get some proper sleep.”
The girl wanted nothing more than to be able to close her eyes and awaken to find that everything was alright and that Johnny hadn’t been caught in a high fever for the past forty-eight hours. She couldn’t, however, just walk away right now as Johnny again started thrashing about and Scott had to fight to keep him in the bed, in spite of the injuries having depleted his strength.
“Johnny, calm down, you’re alright. We’re watching your back, you just need to rest.” As he saw that his words weren’t getting through to his brother’s fevered mind, Scott cast a worried look at the girl.
“Get Murdoch, and see if Sam’s still here. We need to do more for him.”
Teresa made to leave the room on her quest but had barely made it onto the landing when both of the older men came hurrying towards her. Sam took one look at his patient and turned towards the worried father.
“Have Jelly bring the bath to Johnny’s room, with as much cold water as they can carry. We’re going to have to take drastic measures here. If his fever doesn’t break soon, there may be permanent damage. He’s already developed pneumonia, as I feared, and if we can’t get him awake and taking deep breaths, he’s going to get into more serious trouble. Teresa, get some dry bed clothes for when we’ve got him in the bath. We’ll put him in as he is and keep him in until we kill or cure him.”
“Sam, are you sure this will be ok? It sounds very drastic.” Murdoch was entering the room again towards the end of the doctor’s speech, having fairly sprinted back up the stairs, and those words had struck fear into his heart. He’d longed for his sons to come home, and he knew only too well that Johnny’s past had come too, and that at any time he could lose his sons to a bullet. But how cruel and ironic it would be to lose one of them to pneumonia.
“Drastic measures for drastic situations, Murdoch. The willow tea isn’t working quickly enough, even via the nasal tube. He’s getting plenty of fluids but the fever’s just making a joke of anything we can do. Until it breaks, we might as well do nothing, and I don’t really think that’s an option, now is it?”
Jelly and several of the hands tapped at the door and lugged in the heavy wooden bath, followed by a stream of men toting buckets of cold water. Sam supervised the filling of the bath and when it was to his satisfaction he nodded at Scott and Murdoch. They lifted Johnny’s sagging body between them and gasped as they immersed him into the icy water. Scott crouched down beside his brother and supported him below the chin, watching in concern as Johnny’s pale lips started to take on a bluish tinge.
Sam nodded as he watched the proceedings, well aware of the family’s concerns. Teresa scuttled about with Maria’s help, stripping the bed, flipping the mattress and making it up with fresh linen. A clean nightshirt was laid on the pillow and thickly absorbent towels awaited the patient’s emergence from his cold bath.
After ten minutes, Johnny’s teeth had begun to chatter and his face was as pale as death.
“Sam, for pity’s sake, isn’t that enough?” Murdoch’s voice was anguished.
“Ok, get him out and dried. That will do for now, but if his fever hasn’t broken in a few hours, we’ll have to do it again. I’ll add some catmint and elderflower tea and see if that helps but I don’t know what else to do for him, Murdoch. “
The two Lancer men scooped their prized possession from the icy waters and set about stripping him of his wet clothing. Teresa and Maria had discretely left them some moments ago to gather the herbs from Teresa’s garden and infuse the tea, and Jelly helped Murdoch prop the boy up as Scott vigorously dried his brother. Sam reapplied dry strapping to Johnny’s ribs and knee, and carefully applied salve and re-wrapped the torn wrists.
As quickly as possible they bundled him back into bed, with Sam checking and seeming satisfied with the position of the nasal tube. He infused more willow bark tea and broth down the tube and sat to watch his patient before turning to father and son, leaving instructions for the comfrey to be added as soon as it was ready.
“You two get some rest. Jelly can stay with me for now. I haven’t got the time or the energy to look after you if either of you collapse with exhaustion. And send Teresa up with fresh water for this bowl. We’ll keep the cooling cloths going on his forehead. They may not be helping much, but they can’t hurt.”
Scott and Murdoch were reluctant to leave, but they recognised Sam’s tone as brooking no arguments.
“Come on, Murdoch. Let me buy you a drink and we’ll get out of Sam’s hair.” Scott pulled at his father’s sleeve, dragging the hesitant man from his younger son’s room.
About two hours after the weary father and son had sat around the warming fireside, the sound of a horse approaching brought them to their feet to gaze through the French doors. Murdoch recognised the rider and moved to admit Val Crawford, Green River’s scruffy sheriff, and Johnny’s friend. The man stepped tentatively into the great room, his hat twisted in his large hands.
“Mr Lancer…Scott. How’s he doin’?” Val nodded in the direction of upstairs.
“No change yet, Val. I wish there was something to tell you.” Murdoch invited the man into the great room and towards the sofa. “What about you? Have you any news about Cochrane or the men with him?”
“He was in Spanish Wells a few weeks back.” Val perched uneasily on the edge of the cushion. “They recall him bookin’ in at the hotel, just hisself, but he ain’t bin back since. I don’t rightly know where to start lookin’, but I’ve sent his description to the local towns. If he’s of a mind to come back, we might get lucky. Otherwise, I don’t know…”
“If he *is* of a mind to come back, we’ll be waiting.” Scott’s cool tone reminded the others of the way Johnny Madrid might have spoken those same words.
“Now you don’t go gettin’ all vigilante on me, Scott. Them fellers broke the law, an’ it’s up to me an’ ma posse to catch ‘em, not you.”
“I agree, Val, but if they set foot on Lancer land again, we’ll defend it to the last man standing. We’ve come too close to losing Johnny, and might still do.” Murdoch supported his elder son’s beliefs as they gestured for Val to sit. Scott poured out generous portions of Murdoch’s finest sipping whisky and the three men sat looking into their glasses in silence for some time.
“Johnny’ll make it, you’ll see. Why, he’s too mean an’ stubborn to let a little ol’ fever get him.” Val felt an overriding need to break the uncomfortable silence.
The only response he got was half smiles as the other two men switched from staring into their glasses to gazing unseeingly into the dying embers of the fire.
Murdoch seemed to rouse with great effort and recover his manners.
“Forgive me, Val. Will you take a bite to eat? We haven’t…er, Scott, would you see if Maria has anything in the house to feed a man?”
“Now don’t go fussin’ over me, Mr Lancer. I just come out ta see how Johnny was doin’. You tell him the boys are waitin’ fer him to join them in the saloon come a Saturday night. Ain’t the same without ol’ Johnny. You tell him.”
Val suddenly felt awkward in the comfortable surroundings, so unlike his basic little cabin. He shuffled towards the door as Jelly came downstairs, and nodded silently at the older man as he bade the Lancers goodnight. Jelly cast an enquiring glance at Scott, who shook his head.
“No word of Cochrane? It’s almost like he’s disappeared off the face of the earth. My elbows is painin’ me somethin’ shockin’. You mark my words, we ain’t seen the last of that feller, no siree!”
“You’ve got rheumatics in your elbows, old man,” Murdoch chided him gently.
“Maybe yes, maybe no, but you’d best be listenin’ to ol’ Jellifer. Anyways, I near forgot what I come downstairs to tell ya… Johnny’s broke out in a fierce sweat and the doc thinks the fever’s breakin’. I’m just goin’ fer more water, but ya might wanna go…”
He stopped speaking as father and son almost sent him flying in their scramble for the stairs.
“Well, *excuuuse* me! Like I was tryin’ ta say, ya might wanna go see fer yerselves,” Jelly threw at the by now empty room. “Hmph! Don’t mind me. I’m only good fer fetchin’ an’ frettin’.” He spotted the whisky decanter still sitting prominently on the dresser and crossed to help himself to a small libation. “That’s right generous of ya, boss. Don’t mind if’n I do. Watchin’ after that young ‘un works up a thirst, and no argument.”
He quickly tossed the neat spirits back and wiped at his streaming eyes before softly replacing the stopper and continuing his journey towards the kitchen. It had done his old heart a power of good to see the beads of sweat forming on Johnny’s now flushed forehead, and Sam hadn’t needed to tell the handyman what to do.
//If that boy was to open them sapphire eyes, he wouldn’t want to see two old men lookin’ at him when his brother an’ pa were at home.//
Fetching freshly cooled water from the kitchen, the old handyman retraced his steps with a lightening of his heart. His elbows still warned him of trouble where Cochrane was concerned, but he was sure the addition of the new tea was starting to make a difference to Johnny’s recovery. Over the last hour his thrashing about had been more noticeable, but there had been a definite change in his appearance and both men had watched with delight as the sweat had appeared on the boy’s flushed face.
Scott wanted to hurtle through the door of his brother’s room but manners dictated that he allow his father that right, but it was a close call as they almost got stuck in the doorway. Sam smiled wearily up at them as they crowded the bed.
“He’s nearly there. Scott, why don’t you sit by him and call to him. I’ve sent Jelly for fresh water and I’ve just given him more tea. I’m going to stretch my legs and get a drink if that’s alright by you, Murdoch?”
“Of course, Sam. You don’t need an invitation to drink my liquor. Being here’s invitation enough, you should know that. I can never repay you for everything you do here.” His voice had an uncharacteristic break.
Sam clapped his old friend’s shoulder in compassion as he left the room, stretching almost backwards in an attempt to remove the kinks in his spine.
Scott moved to sit beside the pillows and took his brother’s warm hand in his own. He reached forward and smoothed the damp bangs from Johnny’s forehead and shook his head.
“I hope Sam’s right; this boy’s burning up and I don’t see much change, do you?”
“No, but I’d trust Sam with my life. If he says there’s a change, then there’s a change. Talk to your brother, son. He responds to you better than anyone else. I’m just going to sit here and pray a bit. I may have to remind the Almighty who I am; I haven’t been in touch for a while.”
Murdoch settled his weary bones into the hard-backed chair Johnny kept by the window. There wasn’t anything to see as the daylight was long gone, but he found comfort from looking at the starlit night sky, imagining the Creator looking down and offering His intervention. He suddenly recalled another night sitting in this very spot, silently praying for divine intervention as his toddler son fought against a fever, and the similarities almost choked him.
Scott rinsed the cloth in the bowl of tepid water and replaced it on his brother’s fevered brow, adding a prayer or two to those of his father. He had often longed for a brother, either older or younger, he didn’t really mind, but someone he could relate to and share things with. His grandfather had shown him plenty of his kind of attention as he’d grown up, but the distance between what he’d known then and what he’d come to enjoy over the past six months was vast, and he wasn’t prepared to lose this newly acquired sibling.
“Come on, lazybones. You’ve been lying flat on your back for too long. Time you opened those eyes and gave me a smart answer.” Scott watched hopefully for any sign that he’d been heard, but the response was the same as always and he hung his head in despair.
Jelly’s heart went out to the two men as he entered Johnny’s room. He knew they’d want some time to be with the boy and so he’d taken a few extra minutes to fetch the water. Now, as he watched the two heads bowed with closed eyes, he realised that they needed to be encouraged, so close were they to giving in.
“Here now, we can’t have all them long faces when Johnny opens his eyes. Like as not if’n he sees ya lookin’ like that he’ll jest turn round an’ shut them again.”
Scott’s head whipped up at the sudden sound in the quiet room and gave Jelly a grateful smile.
“Thanks, Jelly, and you’re right. One look at the two of us and Johnny would probably shoot us to put us out of our misery.”
He took the bowl of fresh water from the older man and placed it on the night stand, refreshing the cloth as he did. The water was icy cold, having had some ice added and he winced slightly as the water nipped his still-tender fingers. The extra coolness of the cloth on Johnny’s head seemed to have some effect as the boy turned his head very slightly in an attempt to get away from the cold. Scott almost missed the movement, so slight was it, but he caught it just the same. His whoop of delight brought Murdoch’s head up and eyes wide open.
“He moved! Sir, Johnny moved his head!”
The father lumbered across the room to sit on the other side of his injured son, and the three men began to badger the unconscious man towards wakefulness. The boy at the centre of their attention started to move his head more vigorously as if to escape the noise. Suddenly, catching them all unprepared, his eyes snapped open.
“Gimme…some peace…can’t ya?”
The words were stammered and breathless, but to the three men they were the sweetest words imaginable.
It would have been hard to determine which voice was the loudest and Johnny winced at their enthusiastic greeting. He raised a weary hand and half-waved them to silence, even as his injuries caught up with him. The pain in his right knee was intense and he shifted slightly to ease it, only to have his fractured ribs announce themselves uninvited. Catching his bottom lip between clenched teeth, he grimaced and screwed shut those very eyes the others had been cajoling him to open.
“Scott, get Sam up here. The boy’s in agony!”
Murdoch replaced Scott on the edge of the bed and smoothed his son’s forehead with a roughened hand.
“Take slow, shallow breaths, son. That way, your ribs won’t hurt so much. Sam’s on his way and he’ll give you something for the pain.”
“No! I can…handle it.”
“I don’t think you can, John. It’s not a weakness to take pain relief when you’re badly hurting. It makes sense to let the body recover.”
“No morphine, Murdoch…promise me?”
The father looked into those deep blue eyes that were once again looking at him, and he sighed.
“You are one of the most stubborn men I’ve ever met, do you know that?”
“What’s this I hear about stubborn?” Sam had overheard just the last sentence as he entered the room at a run.
“I was just telling this boy that he’s too stubborn for his own good. He doesn’t want any pain relief.”
“Well now, we’ll see about that. As for stubbornness, it was only a few days ago that I was having an argument with you, Murdoch, about obeying doctor’s orders, was it not?”
Johnny had been listening to the gentle banter going on around him, the relief evident in the voices, and he realised that he’d caused his family a deal of worry, again. But something that the doc was saying registered with him. Something about his old man being as stubborn as the rest of them.
“Seems like…I come by…it honest, huh?”
“You’ll get no argument from me on that score. Now, let’s have a look at you, now that you’ve decided to join us again. How to do feel, and don’t give me that ‘I’m fine’ answer. Remember me? I’m the one with the medical diploma.”
Johnny had the grace to blush slightly as he regarded the concerned faces gazing at him.
“Been better, I guess,” he managed to answer honestly.
“I’ll bet. Now let me tell you what *I* guess, mmhh? Your knee feels as if it’s twice its normal size, and that’s because it is. What happened to it, anyway?”
“Horse shot down…landed…”
“Oh! That would certainly account for the swelling. Well, it’s not broken but you’ve a lot of ligament damage so you’re off your feet until I say otherwise, young man, and that *doesn’t* mean you can ride, either! You’ve a couple of fractured ribs and overall a heck of a lot of bruising. And if that wasn’t enough to keep you in bed, you developed pneumonia from the chilling you got and the ribs. You can thank Teresa’s abundance of medicinal herbs for getting you this far. Now, it’s up to you to follow orders.”
Johnny fingered the detested nasal tube and turned pleading eyes on the old doctor.
“Get this out, huh?”
“It stays for today. You’re only just awake. Prove to me that you’re staying that way and can keep food down, and I’ll remove it tomorrow. Now as for pain relief…”
“Ain’t takin’ it, Sam. I can manage.”
“I believe this is where I came in, John. I know you can manage the pain, most of the time better than anyone I know. But you’re still recovering from pneumonia. I need you sitting up and breathing deeply to clear the congestion from your lungs. Ordinarily I’d prescribe mobilisation and some hearty slaps on the back to help clear the congestion, but for you that’s out of the question. Let’s sit you forward and see how you cope with that. Scott, fetch some extra pillows.”
Sam turned to see that Teresa had arrived at the door of the by now crowded room, her face flushed with joy at the sight of her ‘brother’ awake and talking.
“Teresa, my dear, a cup of your finest elderflower tea if you please. Let’s see how our patient can take his medicine.”
She nodded with a knowing smile and scurried towards the stairs. Scott returned with the extra pillows which he handed to the doctor and then gave his father a helping hand to ease Johnny from his supine position. Sam watched with clinical interest and friendly concern as the boy’s flushed face took on a chalky appearance as he was raised. Johnny clenched his teeth in an attempt to capture the moan that wanted out into the wide open spaces but he refused to black out. Sam hurriedly crammed the pillows behind him, then instructed the others to lower the boy onto them.
Johnny breathed as slowly and deeply as the recent exertion would allow, closing his eyes at the spinning of the room. Murdoch and Scott watched with undisguised alarm at Johnny’s pallor and Jelly scooped up the cooling cloth which had landed on the boy’s legs. He tenderly bathed Johnny’s sweating face as he looked worriedly at Sam.
“Ya think maybe it’s too soon fer him ta be up straight?”
“The straighter and sooner the better, Jelly. His lungs need to expand and he’s going to need to be encouraged to cough and spit. Mother Nature is a wonderful thing, but we need to give her a helping hand from time to time. John, now that the room’s stopped spinning, how do you feel?”
“What makes ya think it’s stopped?” he asked with the first smile they’d seen from him in too long. He opened bleary blue eyes and gave them all a more enthusiastic grin. “Hey, can’t a man get some peace in his own bedroom? Get outta here and lemme sleep. Sam, I’ll see YOU tomorrow. We’ve a date with this darned tube, don’t forget.”
“Alright, John. I made an agreement with you, and if you finish this tea,” he indicated the cup Teresa was carrying into the room, “I’ll take the tube away first thing tomorrow.”
Johnny scowled at the ultimatum but took the proffered cup anyway. He sniffed at it suspiciously and turned his head away in distaste.
“If it tastes even half as bad as it smells, I ain’t sure I can honour our agreement.”
“Come on, Johnny, it can’t be that bad.” Scott chided him gently, just happy to have a brother to still tease.
“You wanna bet? I’d rather face off against that Cochrane fella than drink this. An’ speakin’ of which…what’s the lowdown on that guy?”
Murdoch could feel a situation brewing if his newly recovering son got into a debate about Cochrane so he stepped in to quell the discussion.
“Drink your tea, John. There’ll be plenty of time to catch up about Cochrane.”
Johnny would have continued the conversation if he’d had the strength but the truth was that he didn’t really feel too good, but he wasn’t about to let that be known or they’d have pushed the laudanum at him. He sipped at the vile-tasting liquid and rested back into the comfort of the pillows, allowing the voices around him to drift away.
Five days had elapsed since Johnny had regained consciousness, five days in which he’d tried diligently to be co-operative and uncomplaining. But the truth of the matter was that he hated to be confined in any way, whether by being kept in bed or being told he wasn’t allowed out of the house.
Maria and Teresa had taken the brunt of his moods as Murdoch and Scott were able to escape from the house during the working day. Maria would come in each morning with his breakfast, exhorting him to “coma para arriba, Juanito, usted son mucho demasiado fino.”
He knew he’d lost a few pounds, but he hadn’t EVER thought of himself as too thin.
“Nah, Mamacita, that’s my brother you’re thinkin’ of. Now him you could fatten up a bit.” He said the words kindly, knowing that the gentle woman fussed over him too much. She tended to regard him as much in need of a mother as she was in need of a son.
She cuffed him affectionately on the top of his head as she plumped his pillows and removed the water pitcher to replenish it. He was relieved that Jelly had offered to care for his other needs and take responsibility for the chamber pot. There was no way a woman was going to be doing THAT for him in the near future.
Teresa would make a point of spending time chatting with him once her chores were up to date, and although he loved the girl dearly, she had a tendency to prattle on about what her circle of friends thought of this and that, and little that truly interested him.
He’d tried to find out from Murdoch and Scott what exactly had happened to Cochrane and the sniper but no-one could satisfactorily answer him, leaving him with a feeling of incompleteness. He’d promised himself that both Cochrane and Nesbitt would know the Madrid kind of revenge, and silently he vowed to hunt the men down once he was fully recovered. It alarmed him that these men had seemed to disappear as quickly and easily as they’d first appeared, and although there hadn’t been any more shooting, Johnny wasn’t convinced that it was over. Cochrane didn’t come across as the type to give up after one failure. Life around the estancia was gradually returning to normal, with the restrictions of movement having been lifted when no-one could locate him.
Val had come to call two days ago, whooping with delight to see his good friend back from the brink. Johnny had still been plagued with a troublesome cough and shortness of breath, the pneumonia dragging on longer than he cared for, and he’d been forced to take a passive part in their conversation, much to Val’s discomfort. Not much of a talker at the best of times, he allowed long silences to develop until Johnny had chased him out of the room.
“If you’ve nothin’ to tell me, get your ugly mug out there and *look* for that man. By the time I’m back on my feet, you’d better have tracked Cochrane down, or so help me I’ll not support you for re-election the next time.”
“If you recall, Mister know-it-all Johnny Lancer, I didn’t want re-elected this time.” Val thought his final parting shot was a winner and scuttled out of Johnny’s room before the other could get in a rejoinder.
Scott had come onto the landing as Val was leaving and spotted the smirk.
“Everything alright, Val?”
“Yeah, it’s just that it’s not every day I get one over on that smart-mouthed brother of yours. Guess he’s still a bit under par. Still, a man takes his pleasure where he gets it. See ya, Scott.”
Today, Johnny had been promised a treat and he intended that no-one in the house was going to forget it. For the longest five days of his life he’d swallowed endless cups of the vile teas Teresa and Maria kept a seemingly endless supply of; he’d even agreed to take a small amount of Laudanum to get over the first day or two when his injuries had been at their worse; he’d allowed Sam to poke and prod him and pummel his back to help clear the congestion from his lungs, even though that had been agony on his ribs, and had been forced to ignore the everyday life happening outside his bedroom window. But today was to be different. Today, he was going to be allowed downstairs.
He’d finished his breakfast, such as it was, and now swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Of course, prior to this he’d been helped to stand to answer nature’s call, always supported. Today, he was flying solo and he was going to relish every moment of it.
Or so he thought.
Murdoch and Scott entered his room after a light knock and the briefest of pauses, barely enough time for him to tell them to enter. Their faces matched in outrage when they saw him attempting to stand.
The volume of their combined exclamation caused him to wobble on already unsteady legs and collapse back onto the mattress.
“Now what did ya want to go yellin’ at me for? I was doin’ fine until y’all came thunderin’ in like a stampede. Sam *said* I could come downstairs, an’ yer not talkin’ me outta it.” He rolled on the mattress, clutching at his tender ribs and bandaged knee as he glared at the others.
Father and elder son exchanged resigned looks of exasperation before Murdoch took the lead.
“Son, he said you could come downstairs *with help*. We’re here to carry you down.”
“Nuh-huh, no way, not happenin’. I just need to lean on one of you. Scott, you’ll help me down, won’t ya?” Johnny turned up the voltage in his patented hurt puppy look.
“Sorry brother, but I agree with Murdoch and Sam. If you want to stay in your room that’s entirely your decision, but it’s a beautiful day and Teresa has some freshly made lemonade in a pitcher with your name on it. But the only way you’re going to get to it is with our help. And that means being carried.” Scott too often found himself giving in to the devious tactics of this young man, but today his resolve stood firm. He and Murdoch had discussed just such a scenario before entering Johnny’s room and had every argument covered.
Johnny graced them both with a Madrid glare but they were getting used to it by now and when they refused to cower in front of him, Johnny knew he’d have to capitulate. Not that he intended to do so gracefully.
Ten minutes later, he was ensconced on a couch on the front portico from where he could watch the comings and goings. Teresa had poured him the promised lemonade, after tucking a blanket over both legs and especially around his heavily bandaged right knee.
He’d toyed with the idea of trying to put on the pants with the conchos; at least he could have unfastened the right leg to accommodate the strapping. But five days of lollygagging in bed, as Jelly put it, had drained him of strength and he couldn’t work up the enthusiasm needed to get dressed. So here he sat in his night shirt and a pair of cut-off long johns, somewhat embarrassed to have the girl hovering so close.
“Teresa, leave off! I’m in my drawers here.”
“All the more reason to cover you up, Johnny Lancer. Don’t you take that sassy tone with me; I’ve had just about enough from you. Now I’m off to make your broth for lunch, and if I hear another word, I’ll put some extra salt in it.”
“Broth? I’m *sick* of broth! Johnny, drink this tea…Johnny sup this broth. It’s no wonder I couldn’t put my pants on. You and your teas an’ broths have robbed me of my strength. My teeth have forgotten what they’re for. How’s a body supposed to get well if he CAN’T HAVE STEAK?”
“What on earth is all that shouting about?” Murdoch came back out from his study at the sound of the raised voice.
“Oh it’s nothing, Murdoch, just a certain ill-tempered patient whom we both know demanding his own way…nothing new.” Teresa smiled sweetly at her guardian before sticking her tongue out at Johnny and flouncing away towards the kitchen.
Murdoch regarded his younger son’s profile as the boy watched Teresa’s departing back. It was a sure sign that the lad was on the mend when he was arguing with her but it had been a worrying time. Johnny’s pale face still showed the signs of his assault, all darkly smudged bruises that were starting to change colour and slowly fade. But he still had discomfort from his broken ribs and the knee and it had really only been yesterday that his cough had eased. Stepping back into the hacienda, Murdoch returned a few moments later with another blanket which he draped over his son’s shoulders.
“Quit fussin’, Murdoch. I’m fine.” Johnny’s chin was down, hating this constant hovering.
“Your idea of fine’s different to everyone else’s. You’re just getting over that chill, and it doesn’t pay to chance a relapse. Scott’s right about you being more like a cactus. We have to keep you warm, so just you let us fuss.”
He sat on the low adobe wall opposite his son and looked out over the yard. He’d got used to having the boys around him, and it still sat uncomfortably with him that this latest trouble had been entirely due to his past.
“Son, I can’t apologise enough for what happened. You know I’d rather die than have anything happen to you or your brother, don’t you?”
Johnny’s head still hung in embarrassed discomfort. They’d had this conversation or one very like it when Murdoch had first been brought to the cave, and Johnny had been uncomfortable then with the sentiments expressed. The intervening days hadn’t softened the feeling.
“I know, Murdoch. Ya don’t need to keep sayin’ it. Cochrane ain’t right in the head. I’ve seen it before; a man gets so intent on revenge he loses all sense of reason. It makes him do things that no right-thinkin’ man would do. Believe me; I’ve met a few of those, even as a kid.”
Without meaning to, Johnny had let slip some of his childhood experiences where ugly-minded, vengeful men would have beaten the small boy just because he’d begged for food or money, and because he was a ‘breed’, and for whatever reason, those same men wanted to avenge themselves of some perceived ‘slight’ against them by gringos.
Murdoch sighed in sudden insight to another secret of this boy’s tragic past and crossed to pat his shoulder.
“If you need anything, just call. And keep those blankets on you. It may be a warm day for everyone else, but you’re not exactly dressed for it.”
Johnny breathed a careful sigh of relief as he was *finally* left alone. The lemonade was placed at a convenient height for him to refill his glass without straining his mending ribs, and he sipped occasionally at it as he let the warmth of the morning permeate his bruised body. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been beaten up for something that he’d nothing much to do with, but this time it *was* personal, and there was absolutely no way that he was just going to let it drop. Scott and Murdoch could pretend to have put the incident behind them, if that’s the way they wanted to deal with it, but Johnny had different ideas, and he just needed to recoup his strength. After that, a certain Mr Cochrane would get a return visit from Johnny Madrid Lancer.
Seven days after they had been rescued from their ‘tomb’, Murdoch sat at his desk in the great room, opening the mail that Scott had brought from town that morning. Most of his mail was to do with the Cattleman’s Association and proposed meetings. He had hoped that both of his sons would be able to go with him to the next meeting in one week’s time, but although Johnny was making excellent progress, Sam was still insistent that he kept his leg immobilised. It had been the source of more than one hotly contested debate between patient and physician, but for now, Sam was ahead on points.
Setting aside the letters and agendas, he picked up another envelope and studied the neat copperplate handwriting. It wasn’t anyone’s that he recognised and he slit the envelope neatly with the pearl handled letter opener in front of him. One single sheet of paper nestled innocently inside the white sheath and without any foreboding, Murdoch withdrew the missive.
“You would appear to have the luck of the Devil on your side. Imagine my surprise to learn that you had escaped from the cave. I, however, have the luxury of knowing where you are, whilst you do not know my whereabouts. I could easily have had any of your family snuffed out with little or no compunction, but my quarrel remains with you. I want to see your face when I have your pathetic life brought to an end. Meet me tomorrow morning at eight o’clock on the road to Morro Coyo, and be sure to come alone. My sharpshooter will be watching, and anyone who follows you will be killed outright.
Murdoch sat stunned as he re-read the threat against his family. They had searched for days for any word or sign that Cochrane was still about, and it was as if he’d never existed. Some of the local men who had ridden with him could be located, but even after exhaustive questioning they couldn’t tell Val any more than he already knew. It seemed that everyone except Barnes and Nesbitt had been paid off before Cochrane and his two companions had simply ridden away.
The page was crushed in his mighty paw as Murdoch realised that he couldn’t let this letter fall into the wrong hands. No matter what happened to him, there was no way that he was going to let *anyone* try to follow him. But first, he had to prepare a few things in the likely event that he wouldn’t make it out alive from his encounter with Cochrane. He had no doubt that deranged as the man seemed, he was single-minded in his desire for Murdoch’s downfall.
Pulling a sheet of paper and a pen towards him, it was with a heavy heart that he wrote a letter of explanation to his sons as to why he had to face Cochrane alone; of how much the past 6 months had meant to him, and of the deep regret that he wasn’t going to get to spend any more time with them and see them marry and supply him with grandchildren. He bequeathed them an equal share of his part of the ranch, with a proviso that Teresa would be looked after financially, and he hoped that they might stay on at Lancer and come to love it as much as he did. He told them how proud he was of them both and of the relationship they had forged. He wrote at length of how much he loved them, even though he found it difficult to express that love. And he asked them to forgive him; he was doing the only thing he could think of to keep them all safe.
Sealing the letter in an unmarked envelope, he tucked it into the top drawer of his desk, ready to be addressed before he left to keep his appointment the following morning. For now, he would have to maintain an air of normality and savour this last day with his loved ones.
“I dunno, Scott, the old man’s been acting kinda clingy all day. Teresa, you’ve known him longer than us. Don’t you think he’s a bit off?”
The girl looked up from the large cooking pot she’d been stirring, her own thoughts matching those of her younger ‘brother’. The boys were sitting around the large family table in the kitchen as Teresa and one of the girls prepared the evening meal.
“I know what you mean, Johnny. Every time I turned around this afternoon, he was behind me, giving me a smile that was so sad and I was sure he was about to say something on more than one occasion. I asked him if everything was alright and he just nodded. But I don’t think it is. I think we should all confront him after supper and make him tell us what’s bothering him.”
Scott snorted in amused disbelief. “If there’s one family trait we Lancers share, it’s stubbornness. I can’t see Murdoch unburdening himself just because we’ve ganged up on him.”
“Yeah? So what…we just ignore it? Somethin’ ain’t sittin’ right with him and I for one aim to find out what it is.”
Scott regarded his ‘trouble-magnet’ sibling with raised eyebrows.
“What have you in mind, brother? Bearing in mind that you’re still only mobilising with assistance.” He indicated the wooden crutches propped by Johnny’s chair.
“Then it’s my assistants,” Johnny deliberately misquoted his Harvard-smart brother, “as your fancy speakin’s sayin’, that are gonna find out. After he’s gone to bed, YOU come down an’ rifle the desk. It seems to me he was fine until he read this mornin’s mail, so look for a letter or somethin’ that spells trouble.”
“That would be M.A.D.R.I.D, then,” Scott fired.
“Your education was wasted, brother. All those years at college an’ ya still can’t spell?” Johnny gave his face-splitting cocky grin.
Teresa listened to the good-natured banter and wasn’t fooled by it for one moment. She knew that the brothers were equally as concerned for their father as she was. It would take some guile to discover just what was eating at the senior Lancer.
Johnny had been helped back to bed more than an hour ago, still easily exhausted and more than a little fed up with being incapacitated. He could manage short distances on the flat with his newly acquired crutches even though they tugged at his healing ribs, but he found the stairs a challenge. Teresa had brought him a cup of warm milk and kissed his forehead as she and Scott left him to settle. Murdoch had bid them goodnight shortly after, a sadness wreathing him as he looked on each one of them.
“Did you see that look, Scott? It was almost like he was looking at us for the last time! I’m really worried about him. Do you suppose he’s ill? Maybe we should get Sam.” Teresa kept her voice low as she and Scott climbed the stairs leaving Murdoch sitting alone by the dying embers of the fire.
“Let’s see how he is in the morning. I agree that he’s not himself, but it’s a bit late to try to get Sam out this evening. Perhaps it’ll all prove to be nothing, but in the meantime I’ll see what I can find in his desk. Goodnight.” Scott bent and gave her cheek a soft kiss.
Silently opening Johnny’s door he gazed with fondness at the sprawled figure in the already untidy bed. His brother had assured him on their first morning at the ranch that he always slept well, and Scott had had proof of that in the intervening months when they’d been out on trail. What Johnny hadn’t said was that he definitely didn’t sleep the sleep of the dead. His bedclothes could often be found in a heap on the floor after too many twists and turns, so unlike Scott who slept with military precision, every inch of blanket accounted for and in its appointed place.
Shaking his head and resisting the temptation to go in and straighten the clothing, Scott quietly closed the door behind him and padded across the hall to his own room. He lay in his bed listening to the sounds of the house closing down for the night and awaited his father’s retiring. He had come to learn, sometimes when he was awake, that their father liked to check each room before going to bed himself, and he figured that with the melancholy which seemed to have settled over the man, tonight would be no exception.
It was almost an hour before he heard the quiet tread on the stairs and the soft opening and shutting of doors. He feigned sleep as his own door opened and closed, then listened carefully for the sounds of his father preparing for bed. On an average night it took very little time for Murdoch’s soft snores to be heard. Such were the rigours of ranch life that few of them had difficulty in getting over to sleep. But tonight seemed to be different; whether it was indeed because his father was unwell, or that he had something on his mind, he took longer to settle.
Scott wakened with a jolt as he realised that he’d drifted off. A quick glance at his bedside clock revealed that it was one in the morning, and the full moon was casting ominous shadows around his room. Pushing back the bedclothes and slotting his feet into slippers, he berated his fanciful thoughts and quietly moved out into the hall.
As he approached the stairs he recalled that the second tread from the top gave a squeak if stood on dead centre, so he hugged the wall as he crept downstairs.
In the great room the moonlight cast shadows everywhere but was insufficient light for him to go about his task so he lit a candle and carried it over to the huge desk. He’d thought his task might be impossible, even before venturing down, but the volume of papers on and around the desk flummoxed him. He very often helped with the accounts books, having a good head for figures, but the daily running of the ranch was solely Murdoch’s domain and Scott’s respect rose for his father when he considered just how many decisions the older man had to make each and every day.
Perhaps the ranch was in financial difficulties and their father was wrestling with how to tell them.
As carefully as he could, Scott checked through the piles of letters and invoices for anything out of the ordinary, but after ten minutes he was ready to admit defeat. There may well have been something in that morning’s mail, but it was nowhere to be found now.
Sighing in frustration he blew out the candle and climbed the stairs. He lingered with his hand on Johnny’s door, wondering should he waken his brother to tell him of his lack of success, but remembering how tired Johnny had been, he let him sleep. Tomorrow would be time enough to admit the failure.
He settled beneath the blankets again, but this time sleep eluded him for long hours. More and more he was certain that something was wrong and that it involved some risk to Murdoch. He thought back over the last few weeks and Cochrane’s name sprang foremost into his thoughts. In spite of Val’s best efforts, the man had eluded capture and they’d tried their best to move on, putting him out of their thoughts. But the fact remained that Cochrane and his sharpshooter were still at large. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that *that* was the source of the trouble. The question was: what to do about it. Murdoch hadn’t confided in any of them, so Scott was determined to direct the discussion come breakfast time.
With his mind made up, Scott turned on his side and settled into a restless sleep. He would be startled to find in the morning that his bedclothes resembled those of his brother’s.
Murdoch was used to rising early, but this morning he had added incentive to be up and out before any of the others awakened, and was downstairs and dressed before 6am. He retrieved the letter he’d written the previous evening and addressed it to his sons, leaving it sitting prominently on his desk. He sighed at the clutter, sorrowful that he was leaving so much unfinished for them to clear up, but he hadn’t been given the luxury of time or a warning. Today he was riding away from here to meet his destiny, and it was out of his hands. He simply wasn’t prepared to let any harm befall Teresa or his boys because of his past actions.
He had no appetite and slipped quietly out the kitchen door and across to the barn. The horses regarded him curiously as he moved quietly around and gathered the tack for his chestnut mare. She looked dolefully at him as he threw the blanket over her broad back and settled the saddle into place.
“I’m sorry old girl. I know it’s early but I can’t do a thing about it. You’re going to just have to forgive me.” He stroked her muzzle fondly and offered the apple he’d grabbed as he came through the kitchen. The mare accepted the gift and munched noisily as he finished tightening the cinch.
Leading her out through the yard and under the adobe archway, he walked the mare some distance before climbing into the saddle. He knew he was much too early for the rendezvous, but he couldn’t take the risk of being about when his sons came down for breakfast. He thought back to the previous evening, watching them exchange concerned glances, and knew that if they questioned him today, he’d have been unable to keep the truth from them, and there was no way he was going to let them find out that Cochrane was back.
He could picture each reaction to their reading of that sad letter he’d left behind. Teresa would be in floods of tears over his sacrifice, and he regretted causing her such sorrow, so soon after losing her father. He’d almost told her about her mother’s whereabouts but had decided against it as he didn’t think that Angel was a fit person to be looking after kind, innocent Teresa. She would be much better looked after by his sons. Lancer was the only home she knew, but in a few years she’d be ready to go out into the world and find a nice man who would love her and look after her. In the meantime, he trusted his sons to do that in his place.
Scott would be quietly angry with his father’s decision to face this alone. How often had he heard Scott telling Johnny that they were a family now, and families stood by each other. He was so proud of his elder boy. Scott had shown true grit in accepting the western lifestyle, so different to what he’d been raised to. It couldn’t have been easy to give up the life of comfort and wealth the boy had been used to, to come to a harsh land, back-breaking toil, and danger. And for what? One third of a ranch and a hard life? Scott was heir to his maternal grandfather’s considerable estate. He didn’t need to work and yet he’d thrown himself with enthusiasm into every facet of ranch life. Yes, Scott would be angry, but he would survive. His military training would ensure that, and Scott would see to it that the ranch survived, too. The boy had told him often that he was content with his new life, so Murdoch felt certain that Scott would stay, providing his brother stayed, too.
He sighed deeply as he thought of Johnny. Before that day six months ago when the two young men had stood side by side in the great room, looking at him with undisguised curiosity, he’d carried a mixed image of his younger boy. On one hand he remembered the infant who’d scampered energetically about the ranch, his giggles charming everyone he came into contact with. Even then, so young, Johnny had had a great empathy with horses. As soon as he could walk, he’d grab either Maria’s or Murdoch’s hand in his small one, turn big blue eyes on them and drag them to see the horses.
When he’d lost all contact with his son and wife until many years later, it had almost broken his heart to learn that that sweet boy had become Johnny Madrid. He’d almost decided *not* to send for the notorious gunman for fear of their safety. Not that he’d thought his son would harm them, but that his lifestyle would come with him and bring untold danger. How many times in the last months had he accused Johnny of just that? It was a wonder his volatile son was still there.
But that had been months ago; six months in which he’d come to love this boy fiercely. He loved them both so much it hurt to think of losing it all. Oh Johnny and he still had a spat or two, like alpha male stags, but they were less frequent and he’d come to value the boy’s sense of humour and sheer zest for life.
He shook his head at the very idea that these two boys, so different, were brothers; *his* sons.
He worried about how Johnny would take it. At least for now the boy wasn’t physically up to doing anything about Cochrane, but Murdoch knew it wouldn’t end there. He was coming out here today alone because of the threat to his family, but he knew with absolute certainty that Johnny Madrid would hunt the man down, and kill him.
Unless he could do something about that, himself.
Johnny was rudely roused from his sleep by the bedroom door being flung open violently, crashing against the wall. His right hand came up instinctively with the pistol cocked and ready, his eyes wide open to face the threat, and he sighed dramatically as he regarded the two wild-eyed people standing at the foot of his bed.
“Whassamatter with you two? Ya tryin’ ta get your heads taken off? Scott, Teresa’s bargin’ into rooms startin’ ta rub off on ya?” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and made a half-hearted attempt to calm his unruly thatch of hair as he lowered the pistol.
“Murdoch’s gone, Johnny. He didn’t even wait for breakfast. Scott’s got a letter addressed to you both and so we wakened you…” Teresa’s voice tailed off as she saw reality dawn in Johnny’s sleep-befuddled brain.
He sat fully upright again, wincing slightly at the tug on his mending ribs.
“Okay, let’s hear what the old man’s up to.”
Scott slit open the envelope and withdrew several sheets of paper. He unfolded them and scanned the contents quickly before barking an exclamation.
“What? Come on, Scott, don’t keep us hangin’ here. Tell us what he says.” Johnny almost grabbed for the letter himself but Scott gathered his wits and started to fill them in.
“Yesterday he got a letter from Cochrane.” He acknowledged their indrawn breaths with a nod. “Apparently the man told him that he could have any one of us killed at any time, *unless* Murdoch agreed to ride out alone and meet him. Seemingly, we would then be spared as he says his quarrel is with Murdoch. As Murdoch’s not here and this letter is, I’m assuming that he’s agreed the terms.”
“That blamed fool! Does he really think Cochrane’s gonna keep his end of the bargain? He’ll kill Murdoch and then pick us off one at a time, just for the fun of it. We have to go after him. Did he say anything about where he was going?”
“No, but I might be able to pick up the trail from the mare’s shoes again. I’ll take Cipriano and a few of the hands. We’ll find him, Johnny, and if I get my hands on Cochrane, there’s not going to be much left for the hangman.” Scott’s voice was quiet and controlled, but neither Johnny nor Teresa was under any illusion that he was bluffing.
“Wow there! *We’ll* find him; I’m coming with you.” Johnny was already throwing back the bedclothes and remembered Teresa was still standing there. “Teresa, would ya mind shuttin’ the door behind ya, ON THE WAY OUT?”
“Now wait just a minute, brother. You’re in no state to be going anywhere. I can manage to track something as obvious as notched horse shoes. That’s how we found you the last time.”
“Scott, while we’re jawin’ here, the old man’s maybe already lyin’ somewhere turnin’ into crow bait. Now I’m comin’ with ya, with or without yer help. If ya leave without me I’ll just follow. I ain’t kiddin’.”
Much against his better judgement Scott had helped hoist his brother into the saddle. Johnny’s face was pale but determined and Scott knew that look well enough to forego any further arguments. He’d just have to keep an eye on the boy and make sure he didn’t push himself too far.
They took the Segundo and four of the hands and set off, slowly at first until they spotted the mare’s fresh tracks.
“Looks like he was headin’ for town. D’ya think Cochrane would be hangin’ around Morro Coyo when he’d know we’d be lookin’ for him?” Johnny puzzled.
Scott shook his head. “My guess is that that’s just the general direction he told Murdoch to take. He wouldn’t want to meet him anywhere crowded like a town. I reckon he’ll stop him somewhere before he gets there. The trouble is we’ve no way of knowing what time Murdoch set off. He could have met with Cochrane already.”
“Then quit yer yappin’ an’ keep that nag of yours movin’. Time’s a-wastin’.” Johnny nudged Barranca into a canter and if the horse had to adjust to the signals coming unevenly from his soul-mate’s knees, then adjust he would do.
Scott swore under his breath at Johnny’s show of bravado. He hadn’t failed to notice the beads of sweat on his brother’s brow, or the lines of pain tightening around his eyes. It was only a matter of time before the boy could take no more. He schooled his mount into a matching canter and caught his errant brother up, determined to be beside him when he fell out of the saddle.
Murdoch had set out that morning with heaviness in his heart. He wasn’t fool enough to think that Cochrane and he would simply meet for a chat. He knew all too well that he was riding to his death, and it saddened him beyond measure. These last months had been the happiest that he could recall in a very long time, and he bitterly resented that it was all going to be snatched from him, and he regretted the wasted years when they all should have been together and hadn’t.
He took his time as he rode the dusty road towards town, keenly aware that it was ideal countryside for an ambush. He wondered if he would feel the bullet that was to end his life. He sincerely hoped he would get to face Cochrane one last time; to look the man in the eye and let him know that although he could take his life, the man hadn’t broken his spirit. Of course, he would have to convince himself of that first, as right now, his spirit was as low as he could recall.
He glanced at his pocket watch and saw that it was barely 7am. With any luck the boys would be at breakfast and wouldn’t yet have entered the great room to find his letter. He needed to be assured that they wouldn’t ride after him into certain death; otherwise his sacrifice would have been for nothing.
Gently nudging his faithful mare into a longer stride he rode steadfastly onward, head held proud and determined.
“Hold up a minute, Boston.” Johnny called out.
Scott looked with concern at his brother’s sweat-drenched face.
“Johnny, this is madness. You should be in bed, or at least resting.”
Johnny shook his dark head and held up a hand for a moment until his breathing steadied.
“Nah, I’m good. That’s not why I spoke. Once we clear this next rise and that clump of trees it’s pretty open countryside into town. I reckon up ahead’s likely to be where any ambush is gonna take place. We should split up and you can circle round the back. I’ll draw their fire.”
Scott regarded his sibling with consternation.
“Whilst I agree with the plan, in essence, why exactly do you get to draw their fire and I get to ride round behind? I’m in better condition to be hurling myself from the saddle when they open fire, not you.”
“Yeah, yeah, but you’re also in better condition to go ridin’ some more. I’m a bit tired, Scott. I’ll take the shorter ride. B’sides, you’re better with that long gun. You can sneak up behind them and bushwhack them whilst they’re tryin’ ta shoot at me. Take Cipriano and the boys with ya, and I’ll just go take a gander at what I can find. I’ll give you ten minutes and then start.”
Scott lowered his head and chewed his bottom lip in contemplation.
“I don’t like it, Johnny. If that man still has his rifle with the telescopic sights, he can pick you off before you get the chance to throw yourself out of the way. There’ll be no second chances.”
Two pairs of blue eyes met.
“That’s where you come in, brother. I’m countin’ on you to get him BEFORE he gets me.” Johnny grinned at his brother’s worried face. “Come on, this is your last chance to get a bigger share of the ranch. Heck, if we’re already too late an’ old dead-eye-Dick gets me, you’ll be the richest bachelor in California. Think of all those gals cluckin’ round ya with that kinda money in yer pocket.” Johnny’s grin split his face in an attempt to alleviate the tension in the air.
Scott shook his head in distaste at the attempted humour. “I’d gladly give it all up to get Cochrane and his sharpshooter. I still don’t like it, but as you might say, time’s a-wasting. You take care, brother, and try NOT to throw yourself out of the saddle. I don’t think that knee’s up to any acrobatics, never mind your ribs.”
The brothers exchanged a forearm clasp and held an eye-lock for a few seconds before Scott signalled to Cipriano and the hands to follow him. They left the road and climbed through the tree line towards the agreed likely spot. Johnny kept hidden from possible view for the allotted ten minutes and then shook Barranca into a slow walk. //No sense in meetin’ death too quickly, Johnny-boy.//
“Step down from the saddle, Murdoch, we have some unfinished business to take care of.”
Murdoch swung round in the saddle, attempting to locate the owner of the voice heavily laced with smug satisfaction, but Cochrane was no-where to be seen. He slowed and halted his mare and stiffly dismounted, holding her on a short rein.
“Mr Nesbitt, be so kind as to relieve Mr Lancer of his gun, if you please.” Cochrane stepped out from his hiding place, the look on his face matching his voice. “So nice to see you again, Murdoch. What’s it been? Six, seven days? How are you? And the boy? I have to tell you I was quite surprised to learn that you’d both survived my little display of pyrotechnics. However, I’m really quite glad that you did. You see, what I want from you, apart from your sorry life, is the ranch. So you’re going to sign it over to me, and then I’m going to kill you. Won’t you have a seat?”
Murdoch stood gaping at the clearly deranged man in front of him. For all Cochrane’s polished veneer, it was clear that he’d lost touch with reality some time ago. He gave a harsh bark of a laugh which seemed to irk Cochrane.
“Do you think for one moment that any court in the land would accept that I’d signed my ranch over to a total stranger in favour of my sons? Not to mention that my boys will contest it. Or is it your intention to kill them anyway, in spite of your promise?”
Cochrane smoothed his hand over his immaculately groomed head.
“Oh deary me, you’ve read my mind. Your meddling in my father’s methods meant that I had to scratch for a living whilst you and the other so upright cattlemen got to develop your ranches and live in luxury. Did you know my mother took her own life, too, a few years after my father? She couldn’t get any work to even feed herself and everywhere she went people talked about her, malicious whisperings behind hands. Don’t you think I’m overdue a payback for the heartache I’ve had to put up with? Your ranch will go some way to atoning for your past actions. As for your sons, they’re unfortunate casualties but I can’t have any loose ends. And it’s almost Biblical when you think of it: my parent’s lives; your sons…what does the Good Book say? A life for a life? But I might let the girl live…if she co-operates!”
Murdoch found himself being pushed towards a boulder and into a seated position, and he was dismayed to find that his legs barely carried him. Cochrane was out-and-out insane, loco, fodder for the nearest sanatorium, and Murdoch was truly afraid. He no longer feared his own death, but this madman’s plans for his family chilled him to the core. He became aware that Cochrane’s voice was droning on again.
“Now I don’t plan to stand around here socialising with you. I have come prepared, you will see. Nothing left to chance. You will sign on some of the finest vellum you could wish to write your last Will and Testament on, all legally witnessed by two non-beneficiaries, so just relax and this will be over swiftly. Of course, I can’t promise that for you it will be painless.” Cochrane permitted himself a quiet chuckle.
Murdoch watched dispassionately as the other man set out the tools from his saddle bag: quill, ink pot, dusting powder, and a piece of ornate paper. He wondered idly just how Cochrane thought he was going to force him to actually sign the darned sheet. After all, the man had already told him that once he’d signed it, his life expectancy was nil, and so Murdoch wasn’t in any great hurry to do his bidding. He looked around him at the number of men Cochrane had with him this time. He knew of Nesbitt, the man who’d relieved him of his gun, and he noted with carefully disguised interest that the man had carelessly tucked it into his waistband, rather than stowing it out of sight.
Sitting slightly back from the action was the man with the modified rifle, and Murdoch’s appreciation for a fine long gun drew his attention to it.
“You managed quite a show of expertise with that weapon, Mr…”
“Barnes. Yes, it’s a mighty fine piece of equipment. A specially adapted Winchester Model made in 1866. Too bad you’re not going to get the chance to look at it, but with this extra barrel,” he indicated the brass tube running the length of the rifle’s original barrel, “and with the addition of two cross-hairs, I can target anything or anyone I choose.”
“Over what distance?”
“According to the men who know these things, a Winchester, in the right hands, of course, is effective for a distance of 800-900 feet. Gives me quite an advantage when I can also see a good part of that way, don’t you agree?”
(A/N: information acquired from www.probertencyclopaedia.com/FRR.HTM#WINCHESTER)
Barnes rapidly lost interest in the conversation and turned away, seemingly looking at nothing. He stirred restlessly as he watched his employer setting out the items needed for the signing of the Will. Cochrane wasn’t a bad employer as they went, but Barnes would be glad to move on. He’d been hired as a sharpshooter and had been promised that he could be in at the kill. It didn’t exactly require someone of his talents to kill one man only feet away from you, and he wanted the thrill of a good shoot.
“I’m going to stretch my legs, Mr Cochrane. Just in case anyone followed him.” He nodded in Murdoch’s direction.
“Alright, but don’t go far. I’m not going to be staying here much longer.”
Murdoch held his breath as Barnes stepped out of their circle. He’d already assessed that Cochrane wasn’t wearing a rig, and as far as he could see, that just left Nesbitt with the two guns. He shifted slightly on the boulder but neither man paid him any extra attention. It looked as if now was going to be the only chance he was going to get to do SOMETHING to change the outcome of this showdown.
Johnny dearly wished he could dismount and stay close to the bank. It had been his idea to be the one to draw any attention away from where Scott and the others were, but his skin still prickled at the thought of being in the sights of that rifle. He rode good, faithful Barranca as close to the hill as he could, ducking under low-lying branches and fighting to keep the sweat from his eyes. He really had no business being in the saddle at all, that much he fervently agreed with his brother. But this was their father’s life at risk, and wild horses couldn’t have kept him away from here. He’d just have to bite the bullet when it came to a tongue-lashing from old Doc Jenkins, later. *If* he lived to get that chance!
Of course, he could have misjudged this as the ideal ambush spot, and perhaps they were wasting precious moments pussy-footing around here when Murdoch’s life might be being spilled onto the dry, dusty ground somewhere entirely different. But he’d lived this long by trusting his instincts, and his gut told him not to ignore this place.
And so he rode on, cautiously, his heart threatening to burst through his ribs with every stride bringing him closer to the imagined target area. He hoped Scott was in a good position, as he didn’t really fancy having to leave the saddle any time soon. Once out of it, he was certain he wouldn’t be climbing back up unaided.
Scott was indeed now in an ideal position. He and the others had made good progress after leaving Johnny. Not that he’d been even remotely happy about *that* particular decision. After this was over he and his little brother were going to have a good long chat about putting oneself in unnecessary danger. Johnny still thought of himself as a one-man-army and it was well past time that he started accepting that it didn’t always have to be HIM who drew the fire.
Having said, however, Scott had to acknowledge that Johnny wasn’t physically up to scampering about the rocks as they were now doing. It made sense that his brother was staying on horseback; it just didn’t make sense to set himself up as the lure. So he, Scott, was just going to have to make certain that Johnny didn’t get shot.
The six men fanned out over the rocks, covering the ground as quietly as loose stones would allow, approaching the area where they could see four tethered horses, one of them Murdoch’s chestnut mare. Scott thought he’d heard his father’s deep baritone a short while ago, but for now there was only silence.
They crept on, slithering over the boulders, on their bellies, keeping as low to the ground as possible.
The relative silence of the morning was suddenly shattered by the report of a gun.
Murdoch had gathered his feet below him and launched himself in the general direction of Wilf Nesbitt, catching the man around the waist and landing them both in a bruised heap. He scrambled to get his hand on the gun in the other man’s waistband but Nesbitt was considerably younger and fitter, and easily threw his attacker to the side. Struggling to a standing crouch he drew Murdoch’s own gun and fired. The bullet took Murdoch high in the right shoulder and he dropped to the ground like a stone.
“NOOOO! I need him alive!” Cochrane shouted at the man still holding the smoking gun.
“I-I’m sorry, Mr Cochrane…he jumped me an’ I fired without thinkin’. Reckon he’ll be ok, though. It only hit him in the shoulder.”
Cochrane knelt in front of a pale, bleeding and shaky Murdoch. “Can you write?”
In spite of his pain, Murdoch managed a grin. “You can…thank your man…for hitting my…writing arm. No signing…today!”
Cochrane spat with disgust, snatching at the gun in Nesbitt’s hand. “Then I think I’ll just dispense with your company, after all. I’ll get rid of your brats and take Lancer without the legal papers. At least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re all dead.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that!” The deadly quiet in the voice made Cochrane stop in his tracks. All eyes swivelled towards the speaker, a pale rider on a pale, golden horse.
“JOHNNY!” Murdoch was at once both elated and terrified to see his ill son riding into the fray. Johnny looked as if he was barely staying in the saddle.
“Madrid!” Nesbitt growled as he recognised the figure. He reached for his own pistol and swung it up in reasonably good speed, but Johnny’s gun cleared leather even quicker and Nesbitt’s last mortal thought was that the boy’s reputation was well deserved and that no-one had the right to be *that* fast.
Murdoch watched yet another display of his son’s awesome talent with the gun, but out of the corner of his eye he also watched Cochrane. The man still held a loaded gun and now had two targets.
Johnny was almost spent, and wondering where Scott had got to when he saw Cochrane swing back from looking at him and aim for his father. His eyesight was causing him problems now, and Cochrane was too close to Murdoch for him to make the shot cleanly. If he was to miss Cochrane, Murdoch would be certain to be next in line for any stray bullets. He dropped the pistol and without a second thought, launched himself through the air at the threat hovering over his father. He caught Cochrane around the shoulders and the force made the man drop his weapon as he tried to rid himself of the body gripping him tenaciously and crashing them both to the hard earth. They rolled about the uneven ground, trading punches, both men grunting in pain as rocks made sharp impressions on their bodies, and Murdoch could only look on as his injured son fought for his life. He crept painfully towards the fallen gun and smiled grimly as his fingers closed around the butt. Maybe now he could bring things to order.
“Ok, that’s enough!” He emphasised the words by firing into the air.
Johnny and Cochrane stopped their struggle at the sound of the shot, still clutching each other like some macabre dancers, both men panting and bleeding from cuts over their eyes. Johnny slowly grinned at his father as he saw where the shot had come from, then hoarsely called out just as he dropped to the ground, completely spent.
“Drop the weapon, Mr Lancer. You’re needed alive, but if you don’t drop your gun, I’ll kill your son. NOW!”
Barnes stepped back through the boulders, his rifle aimed squarely at Johnny’s heart. Murdoch felt the bitterness of defeat as he looked at the steadiness of the other man’s aim.
“I don’t think so!” another quiet voice added. “I have this little party surrounded, and if you even so much as twitch your eyebrow, you’ll really wish you hadn’t. Now why don’t YOU drop the rifle and we can all act like civilised men?”
Murdoch looked towards the other speaker. “SCOTT!”
The blond Lancer smiled at his father. “Yes sir, I’m sorry we couldn’t follow your instructions. I suppose hanging around Johnny’s starting to rub off on me. You know how he is about taking orders!”
Cipriano stepped forward and relieved Barnes of the lethal weapon, and proceeded to tie the man’s hands behind his back. Scott gently eased his father forward as he inspected the shoulder wound. He noted the tell-tale sign of the bullet’s exit and eased Murdoch back against the rock. Fishing out his clean kerchief he packed it against the rear wound.
“The bullet’s gone right through, so you’ll be fine once Sam gets a look at it. Keep pressure on the front while I see to Johnny.”
“I have to say I’m *very* glad you boys decided to come after me. But what the devil was Johnny doing? He shouldn’t have been on a horse. Is he ok?”
Murdoch looked with renewed concern to where his younger boy still lay on the dusty earth.
“I’ll let you know in a minute. And as for what he was doing here, the next time he gets up a head of steam, I’ll be happy to see *you* talking him out of his proposed actions.” Scott patted his father’s uninjured shoulder, crossed to crouch down in front of his brother and gently touched his shoulder.
“Hey brother, are you okay?”
Johnny moaned slightly as he rolled onto his back, his pale face dirty and blood-streaked. The tell-tale sign of pain etched around his eyes as he clutched alternately between his knee and his ribs. He was, however, smiling in spite of his injuries.
“Now was that a plan or was that a plan?”
Scott sat back on his heels and regarded his headstrong brother.
“That was one of the most hair-brained plans I’ve ever had the misfortune to take part in. You and I are going to have a discussion about taking unnecessary risks. And now it seems to me like you’re hurting all over again. I recall having a conversation with you only a few hours ago about you not being fit to come with us. Do you happen to remember that conversation, Johnny?”
“Scott, don’t nag. You’re startin’ ta sound like Teresa. Help me up, would ya? This ground’s kinda lumpy.” Johnny’s voice was weary but he held his right arm up to his brother beseechingly.
Scott relented and tugged him to very unsteady feet, waiting for Johnny to signal that his world had stopped spinning again before he helped him to hobble to the nearest boulder. Both men looked at Cochrane being securely restrained and Scott approached him.
“Mr Cochrane, I presume. I’m Scott Lancer. I’m sorry that you feel you have a grudge against us, but it ends here and now. You’ve attempted murder, kidnapping and extortion, and I don’t think any judge in the land is going to let you see the light of day for quite a few years. You really should have let it die with the past instead of your present actions.”
The journey back to the ranch for both of the injured men had been painful and much too long. Pedro had been sent to fetch Sam whilst Cipriano had offered to ride to the ranch for the wagon. Murdoch had wanted to ride back, as had Johnny, and Scott had taken his father aside.
“Sir, do you recall Sam advising you that the best way to get us to follow his orders was by setting a good example? If you travel in the wagon, Johnny will be able to save face and go with you. He’s really not up to more riding, but you know what his pride’s like.”
Scott also knew that his equally stubborn father wasn’t up to a ride back, having lost a fair amount of blood, but the young blond was getting good at reading these two men. Murdoch had grudgingly acquiesced.
By the time Scott had ridden under the adobe archway and into the courtyard, Teresa was waiting. Jelly had driven the wagon and was coming along behind Scott with his precious burdens. The girl stepped up to the wagon and looked at the sorry sight before her.
“Of all the stubborn men in this world, I get to look after you two!” Seeing Scott smirking she turned on him. “And don’t think you’re any better, Scott Lancer. All three of you would try the patience of a saint. I don’t know how Sam puts up with you. Murdoch, *why* did you think you could do this without help?”
Murdoch had the grace to blush under her fierce glare, but as his son shifted painfully beside him, he found his tongue.
“Because I KNEW that you would try to intervene, and someone would get hurt. It was better that it would only be me, honey.”
Scott stepped forward with several men and they set about getting father and son to their beds. Murdoch managed to step gingerly to the ground and accepted the support of Cipriano’s strong shoulder as he slowly made his way indoors, suddenly looking very old. Scott turned his attention back to his brother who still lay on the wagon bed.
“Come on, brother. Those ribs and that knee are going to keep you in bed for another week or two, unless I’ve missed my guess.”
Johnny grimaced at the news. “Well, I ain’t takin’ any more of Teresa’s teas. They all taste like boiled skunk!”
Scott was intrigued by the description and vowed to ask his brother when he’d actually tasted boiled skunk, but on looking over his shoulder he could see a dust cloud approaching, heralding the arrival of their over-worked doctor, and he for one wanted to be well away from the fall-out zone when Sam lit into his two patients, especially the younger one.
He gently pulled Johnny to a seated position, mindful of his ribs, and with Ike’s help got him up to his bed. Johnny’s knee had once again been twisted in the skirmish and he was unable to place his foot to the ground. His head drooped as they made their way towards the house, all thought of arguing put on the back burner…for now! He’d be lucky if he survived the impending interrogation with Sam, anyway.
The doctor rode in on his buggy just as Johnny’s retreating back disappeared through the door. He placed a comforting arm around Teresa’s shoulder but he noted that she didn’t appear too upset. Things couldn’t have turned out as bad as they might, if her reaction was any yardstick.
“So tell me, what am I going to find upstairs, this time?”
Teresa smiled into his kindly face as she filled him in on the injured.
“But, you know, Cochrane’s locked up, Murdoch and Johnny are going to be fine, and everything can get back to normal again,” she grinned as she spoke.
Sam couldn’t fight his own grin. “Yes, and with Johnny laid up in bed, everything’s practically back to normal already!”