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"Lillian Louise Bryden, you come back here right this instant. We're not done with your French lesson. You are the most obstinate child. I swear I don't know what to do with you. You will drive me to drink. When your papa finds out....."
But Lilly just kept right on running, Mirabelle's words becoming fainter as she got farther and farther ahead of the old biddy. The woman was suffocating her. She had to hurry, or she would miss him. It was nearly 6:00. In another hour, Daddy would be home. She had to make the most of this time. At the edge of the hill that sloped down to the meadow, she climbed the towering, old oak tree. At first this particular tree had nearly paralyzed her with exquisite fear; it was all gnarled limbs and mysterious turns and bends, and part of the trunk, down near the ground, in her fanciful eyes, even looked like it had a person imbedded in the bark, a woman with flowing hair, trapped there, struggling to get out. Before, she had felt as though that person was trying to reach out and snatch at her, to drag her in and make her share its tree-prison. Now though, the tree had become a good friend, not imprisoning her, but holding her carefully, cradling her, so she could have a daily forbidden glimpse of him.
There was a certain spot, high up, where a branch, bigger around than her thigh, jutted out of the side, and if she sat up there, she could see the men as they returned from their day of work. She had to take off her shoes and stockings to keep from slipping on her way up. And she had to hike her skirt up and tuck it into her waistband to be able to climb the ancient tree. If her daddy caught her like this, oh lordy, he would lock her up and throw away the key. But since Lilly had started this ritual, she had decided that the payoff was more than worth the risk. This man was different. She could tell immediately that he was nothing like the others, nothing like any man she had ever met, in fact. For one thing, he was the most handsome man she had ever seen, even under the circumstances, but beyond his physical beauty, there was something more, something intangible, something that made her feel deliciously ensnared.
Mirabelle was too fat to come very far across the hot yard. She was loud and would make a fuss later about the aborted French lesson, but Lilly knew that she would give up the chase for now, would stop about half way to the tree, as she always did, and then huff and puff her way back to the house. It happened the same way every time. And then, of course, the infuriating woman would tattle on Lilly, and Daddy would scold her at supper. Her father needed to realize that she was 18 years old, far too old to be treated so much like a child, too old to be reprimanded for climbing trees, too old to always need an escort if she wanted to go somewhere. There were times when it felt like he was her jailer instead of her father. If he ever, God forbid, somehow learned of the thoughts and yearnings that had been filling Lilly's head these last few weeks, he would do much more than scold her. In her vivid, violent imaginings, she could almost picture a lashing bullwhip streaking through the air and shook her head to help banish the image.
So Lilly climbed. And when she settled on the branch with her legs dangling on either side of it and her back against the rough trunk, she found that she had made it in time-not a glimpse of the men yet. It had been an unreasonably hot day, the first of many to come most likely, and Lilly thought that it felt absolutely delicious to sit in this tree-it was shady and a breeze stirred these upper branches. If she had to sit still and wait, this was the perfect place to do so. To see him, she would have gone to much greater lengths. Down below her, in the valley, particularly around the stone buildings, she could see that there was no breeze at all. The dust lay still and dead on the ground. It must be like hell down there. Everything was hard and hot and dry. The sun had baked it all well-done, and aside from a few trees, she didn't expect she'd see much green again for months.
If she turned her head to the right a little, through the tatted lace of the oak leaves, she could see back across the expanse of yard to her house. It was lonely out here, that was for sure. She missed so many things these days, living so far from a town, but mostly, she sorely missed the company of other young women, the company of anyone really. Oh there were lots of people here, lots of men, men to do the work, men to tend the fields, men to take care of the stock, but Lilly wasn't allowed to talk to any of them, except old Rafael. But, on the bright side, the house they had been living in here these last eight months was beautiful. She'd never had anything like it before, and the best part was, it came as part of the job. The Ones in Charge must have known that it wasn't a lot of fun to live out so far from other people, so they threw in this wonderful house as part of Daddy's salary. Two stories high, it had tall white pillars marching across the front to support a roof over the wide porch. It was a little big for just her and Daddy, Miss Avery the housekeeper, and Mirabelle, but her room was a wonder. It was enormous. The walls were covered in pretty blue-flowered wallpaper, and a soft, buckskin-colored carpet stretched out nearly to the very edges of the hardwood floor. It was furnished with matching white-painted, delicate wooden furniture, with a canopy over the bed and a window seat with blue velvet on the cushions. She would sit in that window with the lacy curtains pulled aside and read for hours, listening to the family of birds that had built a nest in the tree nearby. Until he had come along, it was the highlight of her day-to sit and read there in the big window, listening to the birds, enjoying the breeze, especially enjoying the time away from nattering old Mirabelle. Now, she made sure that she saw him at least once each and every day, and, now, that activity had definitely become the new highlight of her day.
The first time she saw him had been an accident, of course, over six weeks ago now. She had been out riding. Rafael was with her. Daddy wouldn't let her ride without an escort, as usual. The man was hard at work as they rode by that late afternoon. Rafael had tried his best to hurry her past him as he dug a trench at the side of the dirt road, with the other one standing and watching him dig, but she was nothing if not head-strong, and so she had walked her horse even slower, out of pure cussedness. It had been nearly as hot as today, and his shirt was hanging, completely unbuttoned, out of his pants; she could see that he had dark hair scattered on the planes of his chest, and she wondered if a lot of men had hair on their chests like that. As she studied him shamelessly, she could even follow a thin line of that hair as it spilled down the center of his taut stomach and disappeared into the waistband of his rough work pants. In fact, it was absolutely impossible for her eyes not to follow that line.
She knew that she should be ashamed for looking at him so closely, for noticing the things she noticed, but he was far too beautiful for her to feel shame. It was almost like looking at a carefully fashioned piece of art. Sweat had turned his light blue shirt dark, and that soft, wet material clung to the muscles where it touched on parts of his chest and on his arms. Oh how she longed to touch the places that shirt was touching. Her fingers ached to do so, and she clutched them tighter around the horse's reins to still them. The sweat also made his black hair heavy, long dark hair which hung down over his collar, nearly to his shoulders in wet, wavy strands. She saw that he had tucked the wildness of it behind his ears to keep it out of his eyes as he worked. His face was thin, all interesting angles; he needed a shave, the light beard marring the perfection of him a bit, and under his cheekbones it was too hollow, but hauntingly lovely none the less.
As they rode past, she had turned for one last look, hoping to see what the muscles of his back looked like as he worked, if they slid as smoothly under the skin as the ones in his arms did, if the shirt touched him there as intimately, and she particularly hoped to see how well his pants clung to the back side of him. But instead, he had turned his head, and she caught the man brazenly looking right at her, deep into her eyes, into her soul. The look was so intense, she was nearly unseated. By the time she was past him and well on her way, she was sweating nearly as much as he was; her limbs felt weak, liquid, and she had the oddest brand new feeling which started in the pit of her stomach and spiraled from there to even more interesting places. She wondered with everything in her what that intense look had been meant to convey. She began to daydream about him from that very moment. Sometimes she would even night dream about him, and weren't those dreams something then? Now, he had become her obsession.
Lilly wished intensely to talk to him, her beautiful, mysterious man, and to hear him talk to her. She imagined that his voice would sound like sun-warmed caramel, that he would say her name, and it would sound so incredibly soft and lovely in her ears, rolling over her like slow water. She imagined him with all of her senses, in fact. There was the imagined feel of his work-roughened hands gliding on her skin, and, my, how the thought of that could curl her toes. She imagined the smell of him-he would smell like spring rain and her daddy's good whiskey, she decided. She sat in the window seat sometimes now, her book forgotten in her lap and envisioned herself dancing in his arms, and when she pictured that, she would feel those feelings again, the feelings she'd had that day he had looked into her soul, those feelings she knew that little girls didn't feel. Women felt them, women fully grown. His strong, tanned hands would be holding her against the broad, muscled wall of his chest, his perfect lips softly kissing her hair as they whirled together around a marble dance floor, the envy of all who saw them. In her dancing daydream, she wore her rose-colored ball gown, the one Daddy had bought her to wear to Mrs. Conrady's 70th birthday ball last year, and he was dressed in a black coat with tails and a snowy white shirt that complemented his complexion perfectly. Tight black pants would hug his thighs, and his boots would be tall and highly polished. She even gave him a name. He looked dark, like most of the others, Mexican, but, at the same time, not at all like the others. In her dreams, she named him Alejandro.
The sound of the dogs barking and fussing snapped her attention instantly, but reluctantly, away from her beautiful, rain and whiskey scented daydream and back to the present. She knew now that the men were on their way back from their labors. It was always the sound of the dogs which initially announced their arrival. She leaned forward a bit on her perch, grasping the rough branch with both hands to steady herself, and she could see the first of them rounding the bend in the road. Even from here, she could hear Leroy shouting; he was always so loud. Some of the men carried guns, but Old Leroy always relied just on his bullwhip and his foul mouth. He had been here longer than anyone, and when they had first come here to live and work, Daddy had made him the boss right off-because of his experience, Daddy said. Leroy had been to supper at the house that one time, right after they had come here to live. Lord he had been nervous to have a meal with the big boss. Lilly had been fairly repulsed by him, found him to be far too loud and boorish. He had over a dozen men working under him, although some worked at night, weren't with this bunch. He said that eight or ten well-armed men working was plenty during the day, all he needed to keep things running smoothly.
She could also see Martin now as he rounded the bend, limping slightly, as usual. When Leroy wasn't working, Martin was in charge. She knew from seeing him close-up that he had an ugly scar that ran the length of his face, from temple to jaw line. This man scared her. He looked so angry all of the time. Daddy told her one night at supper that Martin got that scar, and the limp as well, during a prison riot in Rusk. Next Lilly saw Jimmy. He was young, maybe a year or two older than she was, at the most. He had freckles and red hair, and ears that stuck out. She had started sneaking around to see him when he worked at night to ask him about the man she daydreamed about. She had found out that if she flirted with him and tossed her hair, just like the boys when they had lived in town, he would do her bidding, tell her exactly what she wanted to know. But at first he couldn't tell her the man's name. He didn't know it, said that they just called him 'Breed.'
One of the men stumbled, not her man, and Leroy ran forward with his whip. It only took a couple of lashes for the man to be back on his feet, shuffling forward again, and the group wound its way slowly along the road as before. Her patience was finally rewarded. There he was, walking towards the back of the group. Unlike some of the others, he held his head up, looked ahead. In her mind, she imagined that he was looking for her, needing the sight of her after a long day of hard work. She watched him until the group entered the big gate in the valley below. Daddy would be home soon. As soon as the men were settled, Leroy would come in to give his daily report and to await instructions for the next day's work. Then, Daddy would be closing his ledger books and walking across the little valley towards home, anxious to get out of the stuffy confines of his office. Daddy had taken to calling that office his "cell." He would be hungry for his supper; she was sure she had smelled ham cooking before she had escaped from Mirabelle. So Lilly climbed down from her perch, and, after putting on her shoes and stockings again, making her way across the yard, Lilly ran.
# # #
He had seen that pretty little gal again---up in that big, gnarled oak tree---as they walked down the road after working all day, working since before dawn. She was there nearly every day now. The days here were very regulated; it seemed like no matter where they were working, or what they were doing, they always trudged around that bend in the road very close to the same time each evening, and there she would be, high up amongst the leaves, almost hidden, but not quite, and he would see her face, in and out of shadows as the breeze tossed the leaves around. The sweetness of her bare feet hanging down on either side of the branch nearly broke his heart; it seemed so normal and clean. Sometimes too he saw her riding her horse as he worked. Other times she stared at him long and hard from the hillside, where she could see over the fence, and he could see her, during those rare times when they were allowed in the yard. She was a such a little thing, but definitely fully grown, physically at least. She had assets. She also had long golden hair, hanging mostly loose down to her waist. Or sometimes, like when she went riding, he saw that she would put it up in some sort of intricate braid, curled around her head like a crown. The color of it reminded him so much of his horse that it brought a lump to his throat every time he saw her. She was a tiny thing, couldn't be much more than about 5'2", and he figured his two hands could span her waist. When she rode by on that chestnut filly, with the dark-haired man by her side, she rode sidesaddle, a real lady. The first time she had ridden by, he could feel the smoldering, lustful look she gave him. It was so intense that it damn near scorched him; how could he not feel it? And it surprised him a little. She knew what he was. How could she look at him like that? And besides that, she wasn't much more than a child, a child-woman. He was willing to bet that even though she seemed to have the strong desires, she probably didn't quite know what they meant, or what to do with them.
They entered the heavy gate and crossed the dirt "yard" without further incident. They passed the wooden post which was placed prominently in the center of the courtyard, so everyone would have a good view of it. No one else fell; no one lagged behind; no one was struck. He figured the guards were probably almost as hot and tired as they were, anxious to tuck the prisoners away for the night. After the shackles had been removed by the quick, mean one with the scar running down the side of his face, the big barrel chested man called Leroy pushed at him, pushed him with heavy hands into the cramped, dirty cell, and slammed the door closed behind him. The handling was particularly rough, but he had gotten used to it by now. "You got anything to say, Breed?-----Well?----Yeah, I didn't think so. You decide you can talk again, I'll bring you more than bread and water. You got that?" The man spat expertly through the open grillwork of the door near his feet, but as usual, he didn't say a word, just watched Leroy with narrowed eyes, staring hard at him through the metal lattice work of the door as he turned and walked away, watched him as they unshackled Arturo and then Pablo. His breath came hot and harsh as he took control of his anger and pushed it down inside of himself. He had been pushing down so much anger and frustration and fear lately, he felt like he was likely to choke on it all very, very soon.
When they had first brought him to this God forsaken place, Johnny had talked. He had talked a lot. He had been polite, at first. He asked them to contact his family, please, "that's Lancer, L.a.n.c.e.r., in Morro Coyo. That's in California"---Asked them to get him a lawyer; "it's my right you know"---Asked them to let him "see the warden, or else they might be in trouble with Texas law"---"Could they at least send a telegram, damn it?"---"Get me the hell out of this hell hole." Things had deteriorated rapidly. Every time he opened his mouth, it seemed as though one of the guards was there to shut it, sometimes with their fists, or a club-they all carried them. They were particularly wicked little devices which the guards called 'bats.' Sometimes, some awful times, they chose to shut his mouth by applying a whip to his back. It was a technique that proved to be very effective. Leroy was particularly proficient with a whip-in fact, the way Johnny figured after his first session, the man could probably be deadly with it.
He took two steps back and sat down on the filthy, straw-stuffed mattress in the corner of the tiny cell. Slowly, he lay back and closed his eyes, one arm flung across them to block the late afternoon light. The smell of his own stale sweat on the mattress nearly overwhelmed him.
Over the weeks, he had discovered that the guards had a particular "dislike" for him. Most of the other prisoners were Mexican; a few were white men. He appeared to be the only one who was half of each, and that seemed to be the excuse for the treatment he received. He soon discovered too that the only way for him to escape the beatings, and more importantly, the whippings, was to keep his mouth firmly shut and to work twice as hard each day as anybody else on the chain gang. So, he worked as hard as he possibly could each day, and he hadn't spoken in some time. Unfortunately, just the fact that he had stopped talking altogether now seemed to infuriate the men guarding him; however, it gave them no overt excuse to hurt him. He had been completely silent for at least a couple of weeks, and even that was becoming a cause for punishment. In fact, it really infuriated Old Leroy, apparently taking away one of the man's main sources of entertainment. Instead of knocking him around for his silence though, they had decided to starve him, a daily ration of bread and water. His new diet had been going on now for over two weeks. It wasn't like he had been eatin' like a king before---didn't miss the damned spoiled hog meat and rotten carrots and onions anyway.
He lay there with his arm over his eyes listening to poor Pablo, who made up for Johnny's silence. Two cells down. He knew that soon they would shove his meager meal through the door, whether he was there to take it or not. If he got up in time, he could get it before the rats did. But, he was so tired, just so worn down. With a feeling of complete despair, he turned his back to the door. Let the rats have it.
As he lay in his own private hell, Johnny scratched absent-mindedly at one of the many flea bites that were threatening to drive him completely crazy and allowed himself, at long last, to think about home for the first time on this particular day. These thoughts were something he had to protect, these precious memories, had to push them to a far, dark corner of his mind for most of his day, or he felt he might go completely, irrecoverably insane, like poor Pablo, two cells down. Johnny could nearly weep every time he thought of Pablo, and it was nearly impossible not to think of him. Not only did Pablo alternate between babbling and raving all day as they worked, crying out for his dead wife, as he swung a hammer or used a shovel, although rumors circulated that her death was by his hand, he also wept loudly for many hours every night before he finally slept. Two cells down. Always there, always crying and raving and babbling. "Lo siento---Lo siento," a hundred, no, a thousand times every day. Day in and day out. Right now.
With all that was in him, Johnny did not want to end up like Pablo, couldn't stand the thought of losing control like that, and so he only pulled out Lancer for a while each evening, like a precious treasure to be unwrapped slowly, savored, just in a short space of time, and then carefully tucked away again. He would call up a different memory each evening-Teresa pegging out the laundry on a sun-washed Monday afternoon, the breeze dragging pieces of her hair out of the tight bun she always wore on laundry day-Maria scolding him at breakfast and then piling extra biscuits on his plate-Murdoch clapping one of his big hands on Johnny's shoulder with a gruff "nice job, Son" after a particularly good ride on a new, unbroken, horse-Scott, dear God, Scott, and his breath would hitch when he thought of his brother, laughing with him over some antic of Jelly's, or good-naturedly arguing with him about the pretty new girl at the milliners in Green River. Sometimes he would have to put the Scott memory away almost before it was begun---it was just too hard. The longing for home was so intense, he had to visit for short moments only. Even that made him truly fearful for his own sanity, and slow, silent tears would slip out, every single time.
It had been two full months now. Did his family think he was dead? Were they looking for him still? At all? To believe that Scott and Murdoch would find him, here in this place where he never should have even been anywhere near in the first place, was the one hope he had to cling to as the days stretched on into weeks, into months. But he had to banish this type of thinking too. Concentrate on now, on the work. Don't think about before. Although he was losing the desire to, he kept track of the weeks with bath day. One day a week, instead of working, Sunday, Johnny assumed, they were led, four at a time, into a shed in the prison yard. Each man was given a bucket of water, a sliver of soap and relatively clean clothes. The clothes came in three sizes. At first the middle size had fit Johnny tolerably well. Now, it was getting hard for him to keep the pants from sliding obscenely low on his hips because he worked so hard for so many hours each day, and he ate only bread and water each night. There just wasn't any extra fat left to hold them up. They had tried to give him the smaller size this last bath day, but he was too broad-shouldered, to heavily muscled, too tall. The guards finally, without him asking, he couldn't ask without speaking of course, gave in and gave him a short length of hemp to tie around his waist. With guards holding guns on them, one guard and gun for each man, the ones who wanted to shave were handed a small mirror and a straight razor. After this luxury, they were led back to their cells to languish for the rest of the day. This was both the best and the worst day of the week for Johnny. The bath and shave and clean clothes were a fine thing; the day sitting in the grimy, suffocating cell without hard labor to take his mind off of the whole situation was hell.
His stomach growled loudly. You'd think it would be used to being nearly empty by now. The rats had indeed feasted on his bread, dragging it to a dark corner, out of his sight, but he could hear them; he could always hear them, scrabbling in the shadows. The sound of his empty stomach, the feel of it, suddenly thrust him back to that day when he had taken a wrong turn, the most wrong turn of his entire life.
Things had really all started to go completely sour even before he found himself winding his way down an old dirt-choked road, make that a wagon track, in the middle of WherethehellamI, Texas, even though he hadn't been aware of it at the time, of course. Now, for the last two hours, as he urged his horse along and the sun began to sink slowly below the horizon, all Johnny had been able to think about, besides trying to figure out where he could be, was how hungry he was. He had started seeing food everywhere he looked; even the clouds reminded him of Maria's perfect mashed potatoes, and how he would love some right now, just dripping with fresh-churned butter. A man could die happy after a plate of those potatoes.
If it hadn't been for that washed out bridge over Eagle Gorge, he would be on the train right now, in the dining car, eating a fine supper; he imagined a plate of roasted chicken with lots of fixins, oh, and some fine sippin' brandy after supper too. And, most importantly, he would be on his way home. He thought about how he had started out that fine Friday morning to catch the train, only to be stopped by the desk clerk at the Texas Star Hotel, where he had been staying for the last three days. "I'm afraid there's not going to be a train today, Mr. Lancer. Shall I put you down for another night?"
What's the problem, James?" Johnny liked the older man who worked the desk, acted as bellboy, and did most anything else that was needed in the small hotel. They had spent some time talking over the days Johnny had been here and had even shared a drink one evening after James got off of work.
"Bridge is out. No trains running at all. I'm afraid you're stuck with us for a while longer yet, Sir."
Johnny was instantly and completely depressed. He couldn't believe how much he missed being home. He had gone so long for so much of his life without a real home. Sure he and his mama and Julio had lived in a few different places. Some better than others, but those days ended when he was barely twelve years old. Lancer was different, a living thing. It had definitely gotten into his very blood. And it had been nearly two weeks since he had been there. Two weeks since he had ridden a horse that acted like a horse. Two weeks since he had seen Scott and Murdoch, Teresa and Maria, Jelly and Dewdrop. Two weeks since he had eaten a home cooked meal and slept in his own bed. "James, where can I buy me a horse?"
And now, here he sat on a strange horse, in a strange part of Texas, and he was well and truly sick and tired of trail food and so very hungry. The thought of one more ounce of jerky left him cringing.
The man at the livery said that the little gray mare's name was Cielo. And she was a pretty horse, no disputing that, but she had very little stamina. Johnny could tell that right away before he bought her, of course, that she was more of a looker than a doer, but he had been frustrated and really just ready to be on his way. In the back of his mind, he had fleeting thoughts of giving the pretty little horse to Teresa after he got home. He just wasn't thinking quite straight that's all there was too it; the horse would first have to be able to actually get him home. And even though she didn't look at all like one, Cielo had the disposition of a mule. No wonder the man had been so anxious to unload her. She was all he had, the old man said; Cielo or nothing, he said. Sure. After two days he had begun to think he should have gone with the nothing. Johnny would like to have a few well chosen words with that livery huckster. He had never run across a horse accustomed to more frequent breaks. And she was skittish too. Every rabbit or flutter of flushed birds had her trying to dump his sorry butt. He had left Fort Davis three days ago, but, between his own frustrations and Cielo, it seemed like twice that. Thinking about the hundreds of miles in front of him had Johnny groaning aloud. He guessed he had finally found that one horse out there that he couldn't charm. It also frustrated him immensely that he wasn't familiar with the area he was riding through, had never been anywhere near here before, actually.
He was nearly at the end of his very much shortened rope on that third day when he saw a signpost at a crossroads in the desolate part of the world he was blindly stumbling through, and he impulsively took the direction indicated by the sign marked "Meyering." He didn't know what Meyering was, but he hoped it was a town with a hotel. Because he had detoured to avoid
the washed out bridge, as embarrassing as it was to admit, he was a bit turned around. Okay, Johnny Lancer was completely lost---some great tracker. If anyone ever found out, especially Val, his reputation was well and truly ruined. So, in addition to food, a bath and a soft bed, but especially good food, he needed directions. As he and Cielo moved down the dusty, lonely road, although the horse was reluctant, characteristically reluctant concerning anything Johnny wanted her to do, he thought with some conviction that he might also see if he could find a more trail-worthy, less flashy horse, see if he could dupe, er, convince someone into taking Cielo.
And Meyering was a town. Barely. There was no hotel, but there was a small cantina, a barber with a bathhouse and laundry out back, and a shabby little, rough plank general store where he figured he could buy more trail provisions, although the thought of that really depressed him. It was on the very edge of dark as he rode in. Maybe, if he was lucky, the cantina would have rooms to let. In spite of the fact that it had seen much, much better days, it appeared to be the place to be in the tiny town. There were nearly a dozen horses out in front of it. He went there first. In spite of the place being small, dark and dirty, it really was lively, and it was barely nightfall. Most places of this sort didn't get going good until much later in the evening, in Johnny's experience, perhaps so the patrons wouldn't notice the filth. All around the little place, men played cards, drank, eyed several "had seen better days" saloon girls, and generally raised a ruckus. After ordering a beer over the roar of the crowd, Johnny also asked the bartender if he had a room for the night.
"You a Mex?"
"And if I am?"
"Then I don't reckon I got a beer, and I sure as hell don't got a room for no Mex." Every man in the small cantina stopped talking and drinking quite abruptly to watch and listen to the unfolding drama. It almost seemed like they were responding to some signal he couldn't hear. The sudden quiet was actually more unsettling to Johnny than the man's words. Right now, every eye and ear was on him, waiting for his reaction.
Johnny was tired and hungry and completely lost. He had been fightin' with a cantankerous horse for three days; he really didn't need this on top of all that. He was normally very good at ignoring racial slurs, had a lot of practice at it. He had learned many years ago that it was much easier to ignore the ignorance than to react to it, and his years as Madrid had given him some respite from the comments, as had the Lancer name and reputation. On this day, at this time, something inside of him had been stretched to the breaking point. He wanted a room so badly he could taste it. He gritted his teeth to try to ward off the feelings waiting to erupt from him. He suddenly, no matter how irrational it might be, had the strongest urge to draw his gun on this small-minded man, but he forced his hand away from his thigh with some effort. "Ever seen a Mexican with blue eyes?" The question he asked into the quiet of the cantina was casual, softly spoken, the tone almost joking; the man who spoke it was anything but casual, anything but joking. In fact, he was more akin to a tightly coiled strand of barbed wire-strong, full of tension, and real damn prickly.
"A breed?" Derision dripped from the slimy man, was evident in his voice, in the look on his face.
Johnny's arm shot out like a striking snake, and he grabbed a fistful of the bartender's shirt, pulling him halfway across the wooden plank that served as a bar in this rat's nest, scattering mugs of beer and shots of whiskey in all directions. The man's eyes had grown large and round and the tips of his handlebar mustache quivered noticeably. "That's right," Johnny hissed. "Now give me a beer and one of those keys I see hangin' back there or you're gonna be real sorry. Understand?----Do---you---understand? I need a room for the night, and I aim to have it." Unfortunately for Johnny, and really he had no way of knowing it, every man in the cantina was either related to or very good friends with the bartender, and the bartender had other more interesting, more distant, friends as well. Before Johnny even knew what was happening, a sudden pain in the back of his head, accompanied by a quick, sharp scent of alcohol and the uncomfortable feel of it running down his neck were the last things he was aware of for quite some time.
And then, by the time he finally woke up, he was here, in this hellhole of a backwater prison, in this tiny, far too tiny, cell. The first bit of awareness he had was that it wasn't pitch black around him, more like dark gray, so he figured it must be early morning, or possibly late afternoon. He had no recollection of how he had gotten here, didn't know where 'here' even was. When he finally could figure, he figured he had probably been unconscious from an evening to a morning, that at least 8 or 10 hours had passed him by unnoticed. A man slung on the back of a horse, or even in the back of a wagon, could be transported a good long distance in that amount of time. Too bad he didn't even really know quite from where his journey had started. It truly had been the strangest sensation to wake up here. At first, not only did he not know where he was, he didn't even know exactly who he was. His head, well there were just no words to describe the ache in his head, and he was only able to open his eyes a tiny slit without the pain crushing him. It was close and hot, and the stench of the place, dirt and sweat and urine, made his stomach churn unpleasantly. He had apparently laid on his right hand and arm for quite some time after being dumped here, and that arm was so soundly asleep, that when he first came around, he couldn't move it when he tried to free it from underneath himself. It was like a dead thing. The feeling of that trapped arm, although ultimately minor in the scheme of things, only added to his disorientation. Of course, his first thought was that it was his right arm, and he never liked to have anything interfere with his gun hand. Didn't matter much though when there was no gun.
No one bothered him for a very long time, he could hear no sounds of humanity in the vicinity of his cell at all, and with nothing to do and no one to ask about his situation, he spent the time watching the shadows on the floor as they moved across his cell and suffering with his massive headache. As he slowly came to his full senses and figured out exactly who he was, the feelings that washed over him reminded him of being in trouble as a young boy with Julio, his 'stepfather', never knowing quite why Julio was so angry with him, just knowing that he was in trouble for some reason. The question was the same now as it was then. What had he done? Hazy bits and pieces filtered back-Fort Davis and the great deal he had brokered with the Colonel there for the horses-how proud he wanted Murdoch to be of him, of the negotiations he had made-the washed out railroad bridge-his desire to be home-something about Maria's mashed potatoes-that damn Cielo-getting lost, at this memory, he shook his head slightly in exasperation, setting off twinkly lights and fast drums in his skull-and finally there were those feelings of intense anger, the small-minded bartender with a cantina full of friends, his last memory before waking up here.
As he became more and more aware of his surroundings and circumstances that first day, although irrational when weighted against the scope of the situation, one of the things that had pained Johnny the most was to realize that his clothes were completely and embarrassingly gone, replaced by roughly-made, dark denim pants and a light blue work shirt. He didn't have a belt at all. Afraid he'd hang himself, he guessed. In hindsight, he figured that if his situation didn't get better soon, they might be right. Hell, they didn't even leave him his drawers. The only thing left of him was his boots, which were sitting next to the iron bed. As soon as he thought to, through the haze that had taken the place of his rational thoughts, he reached into the boots to check for his extra money and his bone-handled knife, and both were gone, of course. Instead of his favorite hat, gone forever too he supposed, a wide-brimmed straw one sat on the floor at the end of the bed, tossed there carelessly. The missing hat made him profoundly sad, and for some reason, made him think of Cielo. Hell, he even missed her.
His cell was about six feet by eight feet, not nearly big enough for someone as fearful of tight places as Johnny. Looking around at the stone walls made breathing difficult when he forgot to consciously control it. He tried to keep looking out of the openings in the door, or to keep his eyes closed. This fear shamed him, and he mostly suffered in silence, didn't want anyone to know of it. He had never even confessed this particular bogey man to Scott. But, ever since he was a small boy, he'd had a real problem with gettin' shut in. Julio made it a habit to close Johnny up in the root cellar when he and his mama wanted a little 'private time.' To this day, he couldn't abide earth cellars. He had been in the one at Lancer only once, very, very briefly---left with a quickly mumbled 'sorry' to Teresa. Since then, he had always found an excuse not to go near it, not to help with any chore that might take him there. The smell of mold and overripe fruits and vegetables, the wild profusion of roots and stems and vines as they tumbled and drooped around the small, damp, dark space in crates and across the dirt floor was just too much for him. The plants seemed to be reaching for him, for his legs, to entangle him. And, it almost felt to him as if the very walls were alive and breathing, pulsing obscenely.
Sometimes his mother and Julio would fall asleep, after, and he could find himself locked in the cellar for hours at a time, huddled on the floor, eyes clamped firmly shut; it didn't matter how much he cried or pleaded; no one was there to hear him. One time, one awful time, which he really wished he could forget about, they had been quite drunk when he had been locked in the cellar, and Johnny had spent nearly a day and a half in there before his mama had remembered his existence. She'd had to carry him out-he had been nearly paralyzed with fear. He wouldn't even come inside their little house for two days after that. As he got older and a bit bigger and faster, he could get away from Julio, but up until he was seven or eight, Johnny had spent many a lonely hour in the inky, suffocating, cramped space of that cellar, alone, frightened, closed in with the dried peppers and dirt covered onions. Thinking about it even now made his breath come in short gasps. When he was on his own then, he had spent some time in jails and prisons here and there, always with a keen sense of panic hovering just out of sight, just under the surface, like the dark shapes of fish writhing under the surface of a pond, and he had to fight to keep it away. He knew that until this mess could be cleared up, he would need to draw from his dwindling reserves of strength to get by, to keep the panic at bay. And alone, in a very tiny cell in the lonely middle of nowhere, as his memory returned to him completely, he took the time to thoroughly curse washed out bridges, stubborn gray horses, Texas, towns named Meyering, and small-minded, ignorant bartenders.
Having purged some of his frustration using both English and Spanish profanity, a slightly calmer Johnny had then turned to surveying his extremely small space and found that there was the straw-stuffed mattress he was lying on, which rested on a crude iron bed frame, and a dented metal chamber pot in the corner, and that was it as far as furnishings went with these luxurious accommodations. The walls were stone, thick and strong, and the door, the lock seemed formidable, was an open-work metal grill-the spaces big enough to pass food and such through without having to open the door. By looking out through that grill, he couldn't see very much, but he could see that there were cells on at least two sides, probably three sides, of a central courtyard, ten on each side, and that he was on the first level, but that the building had two levels, a walkway all around the upper one, with cells running around all of the walls. He could also see that there were guard towers and steps to the second level in each of the four corners and on one end, a heavy wooden gate leading out of the courtyard. Finally, he could see that he was quite alone here in this place. He had a small barred window on the outside wall of his cell, but it gave him little comfort. He couldn't see out of it without standing on the bed and stretching to his full height, and it was too small to catch any sort of breeze, if there was one; he had no way of knowing. When his head would finally allow him to stand up that first day, he had cautiously climbed up on the bed to look out of that window. It was not a heartening sight. All he could see was a fence constructed of upright poles, at least eight feet tall, which swept as far as he could see in both directions, which admittedly wasn't all that far. However, if there was anything out there to see, he wouldn't be seeing it.
Then, that evening, close to sunset, after he had been left completely alone all day, he watched as nearly 40 men, by his estimate, mostly Mexican, were led through that gate and escorted to various cells around the courtyard. Each man wore leg shackles, and they were unlocked and removed as the men were pushed into their cells. That was the first time he had heard poor Pablo, as he was led past Johnny and pushed through a door, two cells down, and not knowing the situation, he had called out to him, tried to offer him a sympathetic ear, but as far as he could tell, the man was too far gone to even know that Johnny had spoken kindly to him. A little later, as one of the guards walked by, Johnny had called out to him. "Hello---I need to contact my family, please. Is there some way for me to send a telegram? I'm not sure what I've been accused of, but I guess I'm going to need a lawyer. Do you know when my trial will be?" The guard was young and freckle-faced, and he had just stared curiously at him through the metal grill, as though Johnny were some sort of strange new animal.
"Hello," Johnny tried again as the next guard walked by. This one was tall and lean and had a scar on his face. As soon as Johnny spoke to him, he had walked up to the cell and unlocked it. Johnny had innocently thought he was going to be taken to someone by this man with whom he could talk about getting in touch with Murdoch. He walked out of the cell, and looked up at the man who had unlocked it. "Can I speak to the warden, please?" Instead, of being taken to see the warden, as Johnny came out of the cell and into the courtyard, scar face had produced a club, which had been shoved into the waistband of his pants, and before he could even think about defending himself, the scar-faced guard had used it to drive Johnny to his knees with a vicious swat to the side of his face, spewing intolerance at him the entire time. A sharp uppercut, with what Johnny came to know was called the bat, had him flat out on the ground, and he was then unceremoniously picked up by the back of his shirt and pants and tossed back into the filthy cell. He could hear the lock engage as he lay on the floor wondering what he had said or done to deserve being beaten.
Johnny could hear the guard, over the crying of the distraught prisoner farther down the way, still talking to him as he moved on down the line of cells. "Hope you enjoyed our little chat, Breed. I expect there will be many more."
The next day, they had come to his cell with breakfast, some sort of thin, cornmeal cereal mess, long before sun-up. As prisoners and guards started stirring, with his eye nearly swollen shut from his introduction to the bat the evening before, Johnny had asked the new guard, who had come to collect the tin dishes, when he would be tried, how he could get in touch with a lawyer. Granted, after the last few days he's had, he had been a bit loud-somewhat angry-okay, belligerent maybe, but it really didn't justify the reaction he had gotten. The guard had called the big one over, Leroy, as Johnny was to learn as the days wore on. "Whatcha bellyachin' about Breed? You done had your trial, a Texas trial." And the man had literally guffawed as the other guards laughed loudly in the background. "You're gonna be our guest for a good long time, boy."
When Johnny had replied to these remarks rather enthusiastically, at times in very colorful Spanish, he had been dragged from his cell, an iron grip around his upper arm, and the first guard to whom he had called that morning had stripped him of the blue work shirt. Later he was to discover that they always removed the prisoners' shirts for this little exercise-saved them having to get them new shirts so often. He had been tied to a ring on the central post, the one he had noticed in the courtyard as he had visually explored his surroundings the day before. The guards made sure that all of the other prisoners were watching, walked around and demanded that they all stand close to the metal grills of their doors, pounding their bats on the doors as they walked by them. Leroy had lashed him five times. Each time the lash fell, the man had made it very clear that "Half-breeds don't get no lawyers." "Breeds don't make no demands." "Nobody but me talks to the warden, Boy." "Prisoners need to learn to keep their dirty mouths shut." The fiery stripes on his back left him weak and breathless. And then Johnny had been untied, roughly handed his shirt and had the leg shackles secured to his ankles so he could begin his first day of work, digging endless irrigation ditches, on the chain gang. And still, he was no wiser concerning why he was here in this prison, what he had done, where he was, or how long they intended to keep him here.
This type of treatment had gone on now for several weeks; however, the post seemed to be saved for major infractions, in general. Johnny soon learned not to ask about trials or telegrams, not to ask to see the warden, not to mention that he didn't even know why he was here. He didn't ask where here was. They had even whipped him, his second visit to the pole, for asking what the hell day it was, apparently a major infraction. That's when he stopped talking. The other men were not inclined to chat or make friends. Really, what was the point? Mostly they were all beaten into total submission, lacking hope, moving and working without thought, without life. Pablo barely gave anyone else a chance to talk anyway. And there was definitely no reason to talk to the guards; many of them had a strong tendency to hit him or whip him if he spoke, so he decided that he wouldn't. And now he hadn't eaten anything but bread for close to two weeks, according to the number of bath days which had passed. He was worn down and becoming weaker by the day. This lack of food could not go on. And he was so damned depressed. Early on this morning, two months into Johnny's nightmare, Leroy had tired completely of his silence. With the ominous sound of the lock clicking open when it was far too early for the work to begin, the guard had cursed him thoroughly and threatened him, grabbed him by the arm and dragged him from his cell. "You say somethin', you say somethin' right now you lousy, filthy half-breed dog, or damned if you won't feel my whip." But, like his father and his brother, Johnny was stubborn.
It was over two weeks after they got his telegram before they began to really worry about him; he was nearly 1200 miles away, but by two weeks, they figured they had given him more than enough time to travel home by horse, and he had said he was starting right away. Now it was just too long, too much time had passed, too many days with no word from him at all. They spent one very long day making plans, preparing to travel and to be gone, giving instructions to Jelly, to Cipriano, to Teresa, and she gave instructions right back at them-"take these medical supplies; make sure that you make him drink plenty of this tea if he has a fever." Of course, they were all thinking he was holed up sick or hurt somewhere. Even only a year ago, they might have suspected that he was just being irresponsible, or that he had decided to return to his old ways, but Johnny had settled into Lancer, was a part of all their lives and futures. They didn't expect him to just up and leave anymore. That whole day as they frantically tried to think of everything, they also kept one eye to the Lancer arch, hoping to see him ride in, smiling and safe. But, really they knew-knew that this time they weren't being mother hens, that something really was wrong. They also spent precious time getting their train tickets, and then one more too-long day getting things coordinated with Val, sending telegrams to dozens of towns between Texas and California, prearranging stops with Val and Jelly where they could pick up messages. And then there was the time spent getting to the train station by stage. From that point, it was nearly a week later before they could get to Texas. The time it was all taking had Scott ready to chew nails.
Finally, at long, long last, they reached Fort Davis, the last place anyone had seen Johnny, the place from where his telegram had originated. The Colonel at the Fort for which the town was named wasn't much help. All he could tell them was exactly the same thing Johnny's telegram had told them-the bridge had been washed out. He did say that if Johnny had only waited, workers for the railroad had the bridge repaired and trains running again in two days.
The man at the hotel remembered Johnny fondly. He told them that he had tried to convince Mr. Lancer to stay, but that the young man had been anxious to get home, and that he had said "he was going to buy a horse and head on home."
Father and Son had then visited both liveries in town, and the old man at one remembered Johnny from his description, told them he had "sold the boy a dang good piece a' horseflesh." And so they had bought horses themselves, from the first livery they had visited; Murdoch just didn't have a good feeling about the old man, and they had gathered trail provisions, and had started following the trail Johnny should have taken to get home. They also took the time to meticulously follow all of the major roads that veered from the main trail as they slowly made their way west.
It had been a very, very long few weeks. Having ridden the length of Texas, now they were nearly to the border between New Mexico and Arizona. There was just so much wide-open country out here; both men were beginning to reluctantly believe that it could take next to forever to find one man traveling alone. The terrain was rough, and they were so weary of it all.
They had been gone from home now for nearly six weeks.
They stopped for the night on this night like so many others, and the coordinated movements of the two men, while they lacked enthusiasm, showed habits ingrained over several weeks of repetition. Scott cared for the horses; Murdoch made the fire and started their meager meal. Neither man spoke. Neither man looked at the other.
As he sat on the hard ground eating beans and drinking coffee, Scott finally did look over at his father. He looked sad, confused. His features were haggard. He figured he must look much the same. Scott was sure that Murdoch had been suffering from his bad back the last few days, hadn't been sitting his horse comfortably at all. The light of the campfire picked out the planes and hollows of his father's strong face, showing Scott that Murdoch was exhausted, had lost quite a bit of weight, badly needed a shave. It also showed him something he definitely did not want to see, had dreaded seeing for the last few days. His father looked defeated. "Sir, you need to get some sleep."
"I know that. But every time, every damn time I close my eyes. . . ."
"Yes Sir, me too. Mostly I see him laughing-teasing somebody. Or riding Barranca." Scott's voice caught a bit. The two of them didn't allow themselves to actually speak of Johnny often, not like this. Instead, they spoke of him in abstracts. "He might have gone this way. He could be in the next town, a stopover." Scott thought of how his brother's horse had looked as Barranca watched from the corral when the two men left the estancia that day so many weeks back. It was as though half of the animal's soul was gone. No one but Scott could even get near him when Johnny wasn't around for any length of time, and he wondered for a moment if Jelly had tried to exercise him while they had been away.
"We need to go home." Murdoch's voice was barely more than a whisper breaking into Scott's thoughts.
"Sure. That's a good idea. We'll go home. Check in to make sure things are running smoothly-check with Val."
No, Son, we need . . ."
"I'm sure that he's gotten answers to more of those telegrams by now. And maybe we'll have more information to go on. I just can't believe no one's seen him"
"Scott, that's not what I . . ."
"The last telegram we got from him said . . ."
"Scott----Scott----Damn it, Son. We have to go home. Get back to. . ."
Scott stood abruptly. "No. You're giving up. I won't give up." His sudden shout into the quiet of the night had the horses reacting nervously, twitching their ears towards the men, stamping their feet.
"We can't keep looking forever. We may have to face a hard reality. It's been almost two months. . ." Murdoch had such a strong sense of déjà vu he almost reeled with it, reached a hand out to the ground where he sat to steady himself. The last time he had said these words, similar words, they had been spoken to Cipriano in some nameless border town in a desperate search for a fleeing wife and an innocent young son. And now, once more he was searching desperately for his youngest son. Once more he was about to give up in defeat. He was suddenly firmly trapped in his despair, for a while oblivious to anything but that. Then, slowly as he pulled himself back from the black abyss he had stumbled into, he noticed that the camp was suddenly filled with dead silence. He had expected loud and angry words from this son, blame. He looked across the campfire and saw that Scott had sat back down. He was slumped over, his arms hugged to his chest, his head down, unmoving, his hair falling in his eyes. His posture so mimicked the way Johnny so often closed into himself that Murdoch was momentarily stunned by the similarity. After a space of time to collect his senses, he moved across the camp to offer his son support.
Scott looked up as his father sat down next to him. "We can't give up. He can't have just disappeared into thin air." His voice was quiet, ragged.
Murdoch had to take several deep breaths before he could speak what neither man wanted to acknowledge. "Son, I've been thinking. It just doesn't seem likely that we wouldn't have heard something by now, that he wouldn't have found some way to get in touch with us. We've worried for two years now that Madrid would catch up with Johnny. As much as I don't want to admit it, I think maybe that's exactly what may have happened."
"You think he's dead." This time Scott's voice was flat.
Murdoch pushed the heels of his hands against his forehead; the ache there was threatening to make him moan aloud. "I think we have to consider it." He reached out to comfort his son, laid a hand on his arm.
"No. I won't consider it. And I won't give up." Scott jerked away from his father, stood up and paced to the other side of the small camp.
"I'll hire the Pinkertons again." Again. It was like a "jerk you from a sound sleep" recurring nightmare, and Murdoch's despair got blacker and deeper.
"Oh, and that worked so well the first time didn't it?" There it was. The anger. All of the anger and frustration that had been building up in Scott over the last weeks had nowhere else to go but straight at his father. As Murdoch sat and took it passively, Scott spat venom at him, and still he didn't move, didn't talk. "You're real good at giving up on people, Murdoch. Why don't you just get right on back to Lancer, you know that place you love more than anything else on God's earth. I'm not giving up. I'll never give up."
Murdoch stood and hurried to Scott as his legs started to buckle beneath him. He grabbed his son in a tight hug, partly to support him, partly to comfort him. And Scott sagged against him, and for the first time since this whole ordeal began, he felt doubt that Johnny was still alive.
Thomas Bryden sent a stern warning glance toward his only child. As much as he loved her, sometimes she really taxed him. He knew it was difficult for her growing up without a mother, and now, he had brought her here to this isolated spot. But, it couldn't be helped. He needed to be strict with her, to protect her. They were basically alone out here, grossly outnumbered by the dregs of humanity, down there out of sight, just down the slope. He was extremely grateful to Leroy that he never had to deal with or even see any of the prisoners. The money, however, had been impossible to turn down. For the most part, didn't he always see that she got whatever she wanted. He just couldn't understand why she was so defiant sometimes.
"Daddy, I'm 18 years old. I am not a child. Why do I need to learn French anyway? Mirabelle is mean to me." She pouted at him prettily.
"Lilly, I cannot tolerate coming home every night, and instead of sitting down to a pleasant supper, I am greeted with complaints about you-and complaints from you. Mirabelle is here to teach you. You cannot continue to run away from her. If you can't behave yourself like a proper young lady, I'm afraid I am going to have to confine you to your room. And climbing trees, Lillian? Ladies do not climb trees. There will be no more climbing of trees."
Lilly sat and fumed silently through the rest of the meal. No attempts by her father could get her to talk, and finally he gave up. She excused herself as quickly as she could. He would not confine her to her room. She was not a child to be scolded and sent away. She was 18 years old, a woman, with a woman's thoughts and desires. She would not allow him to dictate her life. So, she plotted her next move. She felt that it was nearly time to introduce herself to her beautiful, mysterious man. She had been studying the prison set-up for weeks now. She had found that climbing out of her window and down the big tree near it was no trouble at all, had done so over a dozen times in the last month just to practice, and no one had ever caught her. She was very good at it. She considered the fact that the most important things she had learned since coming here to the middle of nowhere were how to climb a tree and how to run away from fat tutors.
Before she could arrange to meet her man, though, she had to decide on just the right dress. The yellow one was pretty, but too bright to wear to be sneaking around in the dark, too easily seen in the shadows. She would like for him to see her in it, but it might attract too much attention, this time. The pink-flowered one was nice, but maybe too "young." She didn't want to look like a child. After much consideration, she decided that the navy blue one was perfect. Daddy had said once that it made her look older. "Can this be my baby girl," he had said, "all grown up; and the vision of her mother." And it was nice and dark, perfect for disappearing into the night, evading probing eyes. She decided she'd put her hair up; it was more sophisticated that way. And besides, putting it up would keep it out of her way while she did her climbing. And she mustn't forget to splash on a little fragrance before she climbed down
Each time she sneaked out, she learned more and more about how the prison worked at night and figured that was a pretty important thing to learn here too, considering her plans. Each time she wandered out, she got closer and closer to bringing everything to the conclusion she sought, found out more and more. Making friends with Jimmy had been her most inspired step. Jimmy was close to her age and really new at the job, not nearly as mean and angry as the other guards from what she could see. There was only ever one guard posted at night, and because of Jimmy's lowly status, he often drew this shift. The prisoners were locked down, and Leroy figured that one man was all that was needed to sound an alarm if anything happened. There was a large fire bell at the gate that was to be rung only in the rare event that one of the prisoners somehow got out. In all of the time Leroy had been here, that had only happened one time-one time in eight years. The man on duty walked the interior of the prison courtyard all night long, around and around incessantly; the dogs protected the narrow yard that encircled the outside of the building. The guards all lived in another part of the complex, but their bunkhouse was close by, and within minutes they could have 14 or 15 armed guards up and ready. He also trusted that the dogs would alert them to and could track down darn near anything, if someone did manage to get away. In fact, he trusted the dogs more than the human guards. So, Leroy was a confident man when he went to sleep at night.
Lilly had smiled sweetly, twirled and tossed her hair and flirted with Jimmy on several occasions now to get the information she needed, and thanks to the infatuated young guard and his efforts to please her, she now knew the location of her man's cell. She also knew which nights Jimmy would be pulling the night shift and what time the prisoners were roused in the mornings. Most importantly, she had learned that the man's name wasn't really Alejandro, and it wasn't Breed. It was Johnny. She thought it a lovely name. Maybe not as lovely as Alejandro, but lovely none the less. She had also carefully and patiently made friends with the guard dogs over the past few weeks, another bit of inspired thinking. Jimmy had been more than anxious to show her how well they minded him, to show off for her. It had taken quite a bit of gathering of food in a napkin in her lap at many dinners to get enough treats to make friends with them, but Lilly was determined, and the evil-looking dogs were surprisingly docile when confronted with roast beef.
Tomorrow night Jimmy was on duty. Tomorrow night, at long last, she would introduce herself to Johnny.
# # #
Lilly is standing on the hill, waiting. Jimmy had told her that the prisoners were moved out to their work assignments about 5:00 each morning. She needed to see him. Her household is still sound asleep; no one will ever know. Her father won't be up for at least an hour. She can hear shouting which carries across the fence and up the slope on the hot wind that has begun since she made her way here. And then she can hear the unmistakable crack of Leroy's whip, and it causes her to jerk her head towards the pole. "No, no." The words slip out unbidden; it's him, shirtless, suffering, five bloody stripes dripping across his back. Lilly has to stuff both of her fists to her mouth to keep from screaming. And then that mean old Martin just hands him his shirt and puts on the shackles like nothing at all, nothing important, has just happened. Lilly can see that he is standing funny, hitched to the side a bit. And he stumbles as he attempts to get into the line of prisoners. Surprisingly, it is the one who cries and shouts all of the time who grabs his arm gently to steady him. As they walk past up the road, she can see the five stripes of blood across his back, catching at the blue material and holding it.
Things cannot continue like this. They cannot keep hurting him. Jimmy had told her as she had flirted with him two nights ago that 'the breed' is being punished, only being fed bread and water, and she can see that he is thinner than he was just six weeks ago. Had it only been six weeks since she had first seen him, fallen in love with him? She can't wait any longer. She has to speak to him. Help him. Her decision made, all she has to do is wait for darkness to fall.
# # #
When the house had been silent and asleep for over an hour, Lilly, in her navy blue dress and with her hair up and braided, made her way down the familiar tree by her window, her shoes and socks in a bag slung across her shoulders, which also held other necessary items. When she got to the ground, she sat in the grass and put her shoes and socks back on, and then Lilly ran across the big lawn, sticking to the shadows cast by the light of the moon. This time, instead of approaching the gate, instead of looking for Jimmy, she made her way, with a knotted rope anchored to one of the posts, over the fence at the back of the prison buildings. She balanced at the top briefly and pulled the rope over to dangle down the other side. She had spent many nights plotting this little visit. Her father would be appalled to see the proficiency with which she scaled the tall wooden fence. She patted Duke and Rusty and gave them each a bone from the slop bucket Miss Avery kept for the pigs. Then she counted windows from the far corner. His was the fourth. She stood on her tip toes and called to him. "Johnny? Johnny, can you hear me?" She kept her voice pitched low in fear that one of the other prisoners would hear her and "rat on them." After a few moments of silence, she called to him again. "Johnny?" And this time she was rewarded.
"Who's out there? What's going on?" He spoke quietly too, for fear of gaining the attention of the freckle-faced boy who called himself a guard, although his lack of a mean spirit had Johnny thinking he'd be seekin' out a new profession someday soon. Jimmy was the one guard who had never struck him. He even seemed to send him sympathetic glances when one of the other guards attacked Johnny. Yeah, the boy was too soft-hearted for this line of work. And then the voice from beyond his window came again.
"Johnny, it's me, Lilly. I'm the one who waits for you in the tree each day."
"Ya really need to get outta here," Johnny said quietly. "Someone'll catch ya out. You're gonna get us both in trouble. The guards will hear." He couldn't quite figure out how this young woman had managed to be standing under his window.
"I brought you something Johnny. I'm going to throw it through the window."
Johnny stepped aside as something fairly small and round came flying through the window and landed with a soft plop on the filthy floor of his cell. He looked at the blushing small blob without comprehension for a few seconds, and then he was so amazed he nearly sobbed. Magically, on the floor of his cell, there sat a beautiful, perfect, round peach. He was so incredibly hungry, and the peach looked to the starving man like a feast. Very quietly, "Lilly. Thank-you."
"It's okay, Johnny. I'd do anything for you. Anything."
He bit into the peach immediately; his fingers were coated with the sticky juice, and fat drops slid over his chin. The cloying sweetness of it nearly overwhelmed him; the taste was so different from anything he had eaten in so long, two months to be exact, he nearly gagged for a moment. Then, suddenly, it was so good, so damned good, that it was gone far too quickly, and he licked his fingers to prolong the experience.
Briefly, in answer to her words, the fact that she had said she would do anything for him, Johnny's thoughts whirled towards such things as "then bring me a gun," and "why didn't you throw a knife in here instead of a peach?" but in reality, he knew that he would never be able to threaten or shoot his way out of this place. Not now. Not anymore. Maybe if he had been in better condition, but even then, it was doubtful. Between the set-up of the prison, with its heavy gate and tall surrounding fence, the sheer numbers of the guards and the nasty guard dogs, his chances of forced escape were negligible. The guards. He realized he was afraid of them; they had managed to break him. He was more likely to end up dead than free. The idea that he probably couldn't escape this place, even if the opportunity arose, had him feeling more defeated than he could remember feeling in a good long while, if ever. Instead of suggesting that she bring him a weapon, he called out to the young girl in the yard, "Lilly. Could you please send a telegram for me? My name is Lancer. Could you send a telegram to my father, Murdoch Lancer, in Morro Coyo, California?"
"Oh gosh Johnny, I'm sorry, really; I can't. I never get to go to town, not ever; my daddy is kind of overprotective. He's kind of mean like that. It really makes me mad that he can't treat me like an adult. I mean, how would you like it? Well, we do go to town to church on Sundays, but Daddy never lets me out of his sight. And then twice a year, we make a trip to Fort Davis so I can shop. We just got back from there a few months ago. So, I just can't imagine how I could send a telegram."
"Maybe someone else then. That man who rides with you?"
"Rafael? Don't be silly." And she laughed lightly. "Hardly. He's known my Daddy since before I was born. He would never do anything without Daddy's permission. Oh, and he's mean to me too. He won't let me ride where I want to. And I think I should be able to ride astride, don't you Johnny?"
Johnny could hear the guard coming on his rounds, and he wrapped his arms around himself and dropped his eyes to the floor. "Lilly, please," he whispered. "Please try to find a way. Morro Coyo. Can you remember that?"
"I can remember. I'll try Johnny, but I really---"
"Quiet, here he comes."
As soon as Jimmy had come and gone, she called out again. "I have to go now, Johnny. I'll come back again. I'll bring more food. Good-bye Johnny." And she was off without waiting for him to reply. She scaled the wall again, and Lilly ran back to her yard, to her tree, to her bedroom window.
For the first time in a long time, Johnny felt a tiny spark of hope. Lilly. His hope had a name.
And over the next two weeks, his hope came to his window every night when Jimmy pulled the late shift. She always brought him food, blessed food, just about anything she could chuck through the bars of his window, but which left no evidence behind-hunks of cheese, whole roasted potatoes, slices of ham. She had become something of a food thief expert, and she was keeping him alive, literally. Johnny didn't even care for a second that what she threw to him landed in the dirt on the cell floor. He would have dug the life-saving morsels from within a mud hole if that was the only way to get them. And he was regaining strength with each thing that came flying through that window.
But unfortunately, aside from the food, he was losing hope in Lilly's ability to help him in any other way. They were able to talk in jumps and starts when she came to him, in between the guard's rounds. The more he spoke with her, in Johnny's eyes, the more she seemed like a child who was trying very hard to be a woman. Her chatter was inane, shallow---and the most wonderful thing he heard in his long, hard days. The chatter not only meant food, but it also was something different, something clean. Sometimes, though, he wondered if she was really 18. She seemed so much younger to him, although, at the same time, he remembered vividly the searing look she had given him that day on the road. Maybe she was just too protected, too isolated. Or, maybe she wasn't very bright. To Johnny it seemed that for every idea he came up with for getting her to town, or for getting a message to someone, she had a counter. Or she would instead spend the time complaining to him about someone named Mirabelle.
"What about visitors Lilly? Do you ever have visitors? Or peddlers? A peddler passing through might take a message. If you could write a note and slip it to someone. . . Surely there must be people around here who know that there is something wrong with this set-up."
"What do you mean there's something wrong? My daddy wouldn't do anything wrong."
"Lilly, neither did I. Maybe your daddy has no idea what's going on here. I've never seen him. Has he ever seen us, the prisoners, I mean? Does he know what goes on here outside of his office?"
"I. . . I don't know. Before we came here, he was a shopkeeper, leather goods, when we lived in Clement. A man came, and they talked for a good long while. When Daddy told me about this job, he just said we would have a pretty house, and he would make lots of money, so he could give me lovely new clothes and things."
"Shhhh. Here comes the guard."
"I have to leave now. I just can't see how I'll ever be able to send that telegram for you, Johnny. You be ready, okay."
"Ready for what? What, Lilly? What are you talking about? Damn it, Lilly."
Then, two nights later, Jimmy was on night duty again, and Johnny had come to expect Lilly, and especially her food, on those nights. As he waited for her this night, he heard a commotion in the courtyard and moved to his door to see what was going on out there. Pablo had been quiet for nearly an hour now, so the entire complex had finally settled down to sleep. It was so dark, no moon at all, that whatever was happening out there was well hidden from him. He jumped when he heard his name whispered from out of the darkness, from the courtyard this time, not from the outside of his window, but, in fact, from just outside of his door. "Johnny. I'm here to get you out."
"Lilly? What are you doing? What have you done?" She was there now, right at the door of his cell, and she had the keys. It was the first time he had ever seen her this close without standing on his bed. "Lilly, no. You can't do this. What will they do to you, to me? I need my father and brother to find me, not a bunch of guards with guns and dogs." He didn't move forward.
She pulled the cell door open wide and stood aside. "I'm never going to be able to send a telegram, Johnny. I saw Leroy whip you this morning. They can't keep hurting you like that. You've got to leave now. I've given the dogs some of Mirabelle's sleeping powder, and Jimmy's going to be out for quite some time. I hope he's okay. Anyway, you should have quite a bit of time to get well away before anybody's the wiser."
Johnny stood nearly paralyzed just inside of his cell. He had adapted so thoroughly to being a prisoner, was so submissive by now, that he didn't seem to be able to act independently. It was almost as though he needed someone to come and put leg shackles on him before he could move through the door.
"Johnny. Come on. You can get to a town. Send a telegram. Get in touch with your father and brother." And that's all it took. He shook his head a little, cleared the veil from his eyes, the fog from his brain. It felt like he was waking up after a very long, very dark night, a very dark night. And then, Johnny was moving. He needed to talk to Scott-to Murdoch. And he took off as fast as he could manage, through the gate and cross country, heading west.
Johnny came awake instantly, couldn't believe he had been sleeping so soundly under the circumstances. He had run for hours through the night, roughly keeping to the west the entire time. The area he had moved through in the moonless night was desolate, uninhabited. With every labored step he took, he imagined he could hear the baying of the hounds and the shouts of the guards behind him, but apparently Lilly had taken care of things pretty well. Although he thought he had heard something a few times, and he had the distinct impression of being watched at a few points during the night, he hadn't been shot or bitten or overtaken by anyone. At least not yet.
In spite of the hard work he had been doing at the prison, digging ditch after endless ditch, his stamina was really low-not enough food and too much physical abuse were catching up with him rapidly. He imagined that he had run, well walked quickly, stumbled some, for at least five or six hours before he'd had to finally drop from exhaustion, here under this willow tree. He had really needed to keep moving, but he was weak, needed to rest. The branches of the tree swept the ground around him, and he felt fairly well hidden from the outside world within them. He pulled some leaves and branches around him to further the illusion. As long as there were no dogs out looking for him yet, he figured he was reasonably safe. It didn't matter anyway. He couldn't go on without resting.
And now, as he awoke to the thin daylight, immediately, inconceivably, he knew that someone or, possibly, some creature was next to him on the ground, breathing softly; he could feel the body heat, hear the breath sounds. From the regularity of the breathing, he figured that whoever, whatever, it was, it was asleep. No, it was definitely a someone. Someone asleep, he thought incredulously. Someone is sleeping here on the ground next to me, under this tree, among the leaves and twigs. I've broken out of prison, and someone is asleep under this tree next to me. Surely I wasn't so exhausted that I wouldn't notice someone curling up next to me; I haven't become that used to being a prisoner that I've lost all of my survival instincts. I must be slipping. Or, maybe I've gone completely crazy, like poor Pablo. He had a brief flash of fear that he was really still in his cell, had not really left the prison at all, had finally and completely lost his mind. He was at a loss as to what to do, but decided that if he was crazy, he would just go with it. Maybe he was only imagining the warm, breathing body next to him.
He opened his eyes at last. It was definitely early, barely light. He had slept at least a couple of hours and felt better for it. And still could neither see nor hear any signs of pursuit, if he discounted the sleeping person. It made him wonder what exactly Lilly might have done to the red-headed guard. Maybe the other guards were just now coming to wake the other prisoners, maybe they were just now discovering that he was gone. He needed to get a move on, desperately needed to. He had avoided the soft, breathy sounds next to him as long as he possibly could and turned towards them. He would try to slip away from whomever had decided to fall asleep next to him. Sometimes he couldn't believe the strangeness that was his life.
He started to sit up and felt a tug at his wrist. What the hell? As his eyes took in who was sleeping soundly on the ground next to him, he sucked in a startled breath. "Lilly." His voice was barely a whisper, but he wanted to roar at her. What the hell was she doing here? Somehow, while he had slept, dead tired, this slip of a girl had sneaked up on him, caught up with him, and laid down to sleep next to him----He could not believe what he was seeing. He surely had lost his mind. Madre de Dios. Unless he was back in his cell crazy as a bed bug and raving, then she had handcuffed herself to him. His right hand and her left one were firmly locked into metal handcuffs. "Lilly," he said again, louder this time. To hell with being quiet. "What have you done?"
"Johnny." In a groggy voice she looked up at him through golden lashes and smiled a sweet, sleepy smile. "Did you sleep well?"
At first all he could do was stare at her. For one heartbeat, then for two. Then, he visibly shook himself. "Did I sleep well? Did I sleep well?! Are you crazy or stupid?" He was so mad, his words came out as a hiss, and sitting up now, Lilly hunched her shoulders as though he had struck her. "Get these handcuffs off of us right now and run on back home to your daddy. Do you have any idea what kind of danger you have put yourself in? Then, turning from her slightly, "the danger you have put me in" he muttered more quietly.
"I don't have the key."
"You don't have the key? You don't have the key?!" Johnny suddenly realized that this woman, this child, was making him say everything twice, and was making him clench his teeth so hard it hurt. He took several deep breaths with his eyes closed before he felt he could look at her and still be able to control the overwhelming urge he had to spank her soundly like the errant child she was. He reached into his deepest reserves and somehow found a moderately patient voice. "Where is the key, Lilly?"
"Why it's in my daddy's desk drawer, Johnny."
Johnny raised his hands to rub his temples, but the move was thwarted when Lilly's hand came up along with his, and with a metallic clank, he let them fall back down. "Why?"
"Why what, Johnny?"
"Why do think, Lilly? Why are you here? Why did you handcuff yourself to me? Why don't you have the key? Why the hell did I come to Texas in the first damn place? Take. Your. Pick." Johnny's voice had gotten louder with each word out of his mouth. By the time he got to the word 'Texas,' Lilly was cringing away from him as far as their bound hands would allow. Johnny himself was so incredibly angry, he was nearly sputtering. "Lilly. Dios. This is not a game of make-believe. This is not fantasy, Lilly. This is my life we're talking about here." He looked down at the ground between his legs for quite some time. Then, having made a decision, he turned and looked at his 'savior.'
Meanwhile, tears had formed in her eyes; they sparkled on her lashes, and one rolled dramatically down her cheek, but Johnny was beyond being moved by the sight. "Listen to me good, Lilly. I won't go back there. I can't go back there. Do you understand that? It's a death sentence for me. If I go back there, one of the guards will likely beat me to death, or, even worse, I will become Pablo. When we get to a town, when we can get these cuffs off, we'll get your daddy to come and get you. But right now, you're stuck with me, and I'm stuck with you. Come on. You want to play? Let's play. Keep up with me princess, or I might just have to drag you."
"Johnny, why are you mad at me? I got you out, didn't I? I knew it was the only way you would take me along, the handcuffs, I mean. I had to run from my daddy, Johnny. Think of how mad he's gonna be when he finds out what I did. He won't let me out of my room for ages after this, Johnny. I had to run. Hey---" And she was nearly jerked off of her feet as Johnny pulled her behind him, so Lilly ran.
The two of them moved cross-country as fast as he could pull her along. And it was a very long day for both of them, a very, very long day, but especially for Johnny. Lilly was not the best traveling companion. For all of her smart planning to sneak out of her house, to get into the prison, to get him out of it, to take out the dogs and Jimmy, she certainly hadn't planned this part of their "adventure" very well. She could have worn sensible shoes; she could have brought some food; she could have damn well not handcuffed herself to him. And he found out quickly what he had suspected all along, that she was spoiled rotten. From the moment he had dragged her to her feet under that willow tree, all she did was complain.
Yes, it was a very, very long day. He was worried, constantly, consumed with worry, and he was scared, for her, for himself. And he was so weak from eating so little for the last couple of weeks. On top of everything else, Leroy had whipped him yesterday, finally, for not speaking. The stripes on his back were flaming, and as the day wore on, so was he, a blaze of fever working it's way through his body. And Lilly even complained about that, that he was so hot; he was making her even more sweaty than following him through this "desolate countryside" was. Yes, Johnny was beginning to think that this might actually be the longest day of his entire life.
The two incredibly tired and bedraggled men made their way gradually down a dirt-clogged road, more of a wagon track really, in the middle of West Texas. Their travel-worn appearance made them fit right in with the grimness of their surroundings. They were exhausted and dusty, and both needed a shave. Their horses seemed as unenthusiastic about the trip as they did, and they plodded on listlessly. Ahead of the men was another nearly-unknown town, one among the dozens they had visited in the last weeks. Another nameless saloon. Another livery that looked like all of the other liveries stretching back for many weeks. Another dead end. Each town blended into the others, nondescript, always lacking the information they were seeking. The two men were running on dwindling reserves of strength, but when one would flag, the other would pick him up.
They had made their way back to within three days of Fort Davis, Texas once again. It felt as though they had been traveling around, wandering into these tiny towns their entire lives, just the two of them, some sort of divine punishment which reminded Scott vaguely of Sisyphus and his damned boulder. Sleep on the ground, follow horse trails, ride into fleabag towns. And then, do it all over again the next day, without results, never any positive results. Watch the boulder roll back down the hill. Over two months. It had been just over two months since they had gotten a telegram from Johnny saying he was coming home cross-country. That the bridge was washed out. Two weeks ago, they had nearly given up, but Scott couldn't, wouldn't give up on his brother, wouldn't even begin to hear of it. Until he knew without a doubt that there was absolutely no hope, he would ride these trails and ask each and every person he met if he or she had any news for him. "As long as it took," he vowed it to himself each morning as he rolled out of wherever he was bedded down for the night.
And Murdoch found that he just couldn't quit either. He had thought that he could, that it was inevitable, that Johnny was dead, a victim of his past, or possibly just a victim. But, he had given up on this boy once before; he just couldn't stop looking for his son this time. Not this time. And Scott's anguish, mirroring his own, had been the only catalyst he really needed to continue the search. They had both eventually fallen into an exhausted, miserable sleep that night, that awful night when they had tried to face some hard truths. Then, the two of them had gotten up that next morning after what he now thought of as "the night," the night they, no, the night he had almost given up, and they had packed up their gear silently.
Without even discussing it with one another, they had turned back towards Texas. Words weren't necessary. They just both knew they weren't giving up on Johnny. No, not this time. Not ever again. Someone, somewhere knew where he was, had to know where he was, or at the very least, and while it was painful to think it, someone surely knew where he might be buried. This last thought was not something Murdoch shared with Scott. Most of the time, it wasn't even something he allowed himself to think about.
At the first town they came to that day, that first day of their new search, they sent another of their endless, "nothing yet" telegrams home and alerted Val of the next larger town where they could next be reached. It was going to take deeper digging; they knew that now, and so this time, they took every single trail that looked even remotely like a trail on their way back to where they had started this search. They stopped at every two-bit town and every single isolated farmhouse along the way, and even those far, far from the way. They asked every sheriff, every ranch hand, every farmer's wife, every saloon girl they saw if they knew of, had seen, a young man with startling blue eyes and a mop of black hair. And that persistence to turn over every rock between California and Texas is what had led them here on this evening, when it was right at the edge of darkness, to a town called Meyering, Texas.
"There's a saloon. Maybe we can get a room. And a beer." Murdoch would dearly love to sleep in a real bed tonight. He didn't think his back had ever barked louder, at least not since it had healed.
"Oh, Lord, Murdoch. And a bath. Please let this little bump in the trail have a bathhouse." Scott could only think of a few times in his life when he had felt more tired and was more in need of a hot bath.
The saloon seemed to be a lively place, even though it wasn't even really dark yet. They made their way through a small crowd to the bar, and asked the bartender for two beers and a room for the night.
"Sure thing, mister."
"And a livery?"
Yep, Moses Miller's, just a ways down."
"And can a man get a hot bath somewhere around here?"
"Just across the street, but Clem don't open up 'til bout seven in the morning." Scott and Murdoch took the key he handed them, and their beers, to a table in the corner. They were just plain weary with traveling. It felt good to be doing something so normal as to be sitting in a saloon drinking a beer. Hell, simply sitting in a chair felt like heaven. Very soon they would take care of their horses and start their questioning of the locals, but right now, just for a minute, it was fine just to sit here.
There were close to a dozen men in the small bar, and two saloon girls roamed the room. At the next table over, four rough-looking men played cards. And their discussions were both loud and enthusiastic. First they spent time discussing the attributes of someone named Jane Ann, who was new in town. About half were impressed, and half were not. Then the new topic was that "Old Eb Haven fell right offen his horse last night and died right off-broke his durn neck, I hear tell." "Well sure he'd been drinkin'. What d'ya think? This here was Eb we're talkin' about ya know." Finally, "Hey, I got some real fresh news boys. I hear tell there was a breakout last night. One of the stable boys from over thet way come ta town late this mornin' and told me all about it. It were that boy what threatened Hiram in here that night, remember? And they're mostly sure he took that purty little gal with 'im too."
"No. Ya don't say. Well that's what they get for goin' all the way to Clement to get that outsider t' be in charge. Ain't never had no breakouts when old Simon was there. You don't suspect that breed'll come back after Hiram do ya?"
At the work 'breed,' Scott, who had been staring into his glass of beer where it sat on the scarred wooden table and nearly dozing in his chair, jerked his eyes up to look at the speaker. "Did you say breed?" he called to the next table.
The man turned and stared hard at Scott. "What's it to ya? Ain't got no call stickin' your nose in our business stranger."
Murdoch spoke up at this, a big goofy smile on his face that Scott had definitely never seen before. "Well boys, sorry about eavesdropping that way, but we couldn't really help but hear, now could we? We're just interested in making sure all them damn breeds get what's coming to them. Aren't we Son?"
Scott turned his back on the men at the card table and looked at his father with his mouth hanging open. All he could say was "uh."
"Well, what happened? Did you get him good?" Murdoch pushed his hat to the back of his head and stood to saunter over to their table with his thumbs tucked in the waistband of his pants, looking every bit the rube.
"Hell yeah, we got him. He got mad when Ol' Hiram over there wouldn't serve him, like he thought he was good enough to drink in here or somethin', with his fancy Mex clothes and all, and he grabbed the poor man, tried to drag him right across the bar. Woulda kilt him too, I reckon, if'n we hadn't knocked him out good and sound with a sturdy bottle of rye whiskey, Harry over there had the pleasure. That breed, he wore that rig of his real low. You know what I'm talkin' about. He was a gunhawk or my name ain't Calvin Barnhart. He'd a kilt Hiram if we'd a given 'im the chance. I swear it."
"Only got what he deserved, I'm sure. All those half-breeds ought to be knocked in the head a few times, especially the ones who are gunhawks. Imagine him thinking he could drink in here with decent people like us. By the way, I was just wondering, what happened to him after Harry hit him with the bottle?" Scott had caught on quickly enough after his initial surprise.
"Then Hiram over there, that's the bartender," and Calvin pointed needlessly at the man behind the bar, the one wearing an apron and cleaning a glass with a dirty towel, "he got his brother in law to take the breed, out as cold as granny's cellar too, to Wentworth, 'cause that's where his brother in law works, handy thing, huh?"
"We're kind of new around these parts, Mister. Where's Wentworth? Why would they take him there?" Scott had moved to stand beside his father.
"Wentworth's not a where, stranger. It's a what. It's the meanest, nastiest damn prison farm in Texas." The man's voice reflected the pride which, for some reason, he seemed to take in the prison. "Just what that filthy breed deserved too. And now, to think he escaped-well, let me tell ya , I hope they put a bullet right between his eyes when they catch up to 'im."
Scott must have made some sort of involuntary move towards the man with the small mind and big mouth because he suddenly felt Murdoch's hand clap down on his shoulder and pull at him imperceptibly. His father shot him a warning glance, and then turned back to address the man he was suddenly sure was going to lead him to his younger son. "Sounds to me like he
got exactly what he deserves. We can just all hope they catch him soon I guess. So, just out of curiosity, where exactly is this Wentworth Prison?"
After the first two or three hours of trudging around that first day, Lilly started complaining even more often than she had when they had first begun their day under that willow tree, and ever more loudly, no matter how many times Johnny had tried to shush her at first. But, he assumed that it didn't really matter all that much how loud she was, the dogs wouldn't be tracking them by sound anyway. Johnny didn't feel at all like taking a hike in the woods, not at all, and Lilly's voice was wearing on him even more because of the sickness that was trying to take hold of his body. It was like an irritating, buzzing fly in his ears, one that wouldn't go away, mainly because he was handcuffed to it. "I want to go home. . . . . I'm tired. . . . . Why are you being so mean to me?. . . .Slow down, I'm caught on a briar bush. . . . Now see, my dress is ripped . . . .You stop right now . . . I have to rest. . . . My feet hurt. . . . I have to. . . um. . . Johnny, I need to. . . um. . . .visit the bushes."
Traveling west, the two conjoined escapees found themselves in the foothills of the Davis Mountains, near the area of Guadalupe Peak, which, from this vantage point, could be seen rising above other lesser hills in the distance. The terrain had changed from desert-like, arid conditions to forested hills so quickly, it was startling. But Johnny was very glad that it had. The peak in the distance gave him a point of reference. Not only did the change orient him a bit, but it also gave the two of them better cover, even for things like visits to the bushes. There were hills and valleys, streams and bluff lines. Johnny even had hope that they might find a cave along one of those bluffs. He could hide their trail so much more easily here too, confuse their pursuers, and he knew there were pursuers, even though they had seen no signs of any. And just as importantly, they could scavenge for food and water much more easily. They found a mulberry tree heavy with berries at one point, pecans in abundance at another spot, and even a couple of quickly flowing streams as they made their way ever westward.
Johnny was employing every trick he had ever learned to cover their trail, although doing it with Lilly as his constant, close companion and, as the day wore on, while he felt more and more drained from fever wasn't easy. Each time he pulled her into a stream and forced her to walk in the water for a mile or so, she soundly chastised him and bemoaned the fate of her shoes. At one point, she was so mad, it made him wonder where she had learned such language. Johnny, on the other hand, had mostly reverted to his earlier tactic of silence, unless he was absolutely forced to speak to the irritating child, and even when forced, he tended towards one-word communication. He was quite sure that Miss Lilly would not have heard some of the language he wanted to hurl her way, so he decided that near silence would serve him better. Although, it seemed to make her nearly as angry as it made Leroy when he kept his peace. She seemed to pick and pry at him just to try to get him even more angry, if that was possible.
They had traveled for quite a few miles now and hadn't seen any sign of human habitation. Johnny couldn't believe that they weren't being pursued, hadn't been overtaken. Even if Old Leroy had decided one prisoner wasn't worth their trouble and resources, which Johnny didn't believe for a minute, he knew beyond a doubt that Lilly's daddy wouldn't rest, surely, until his daughter was found. And how could they not connect the two disappearances? Madre de Dios, they probably thought he had kidnapped her. At one point as the icy water swirled around his ankles in the middle of a shallow stream, he suddenly remembered Lilly mentioning the red-headed guard, how she hoped he was okay. What would they do to him if she had killed that boy? Surely she hadn't. Surely. He had a real strong feeling that he was never going to get out of this nightmare with his life.
On top of everything else, Lilly was now determined, it seemed, to thwart the very escape she had so carefully orchestrated. She had, literally, tried to dig in her heels several times, and more than once she had produced some lovely, big, wet tears, but nothing she could do would alter Johnny's course; he would not be swayed by tears or complaints or whining at this point. Circumstances had hardened his heart. Nothing she could say or do would convince him that he should turn around and take her home. No matter how ill he felt, no matter how much he wanted to be rid of this burden to which he was now chained, to do so would be suicide. To the best of his ability, he would see that no harm came to her, if he could avoid killing her himself that is, but he could not go back there. So, ever onward they walked, in spite of his rapidly draining energy and Lilly's loud protests. There were no towns, no people, no roads, and thankfully, no guards or guard dogs. Yet. The prison was indeed in a very isolated part of the world. And he was so hot; his eyes were gritty with fever. His diminished strength was being taxed to its very limit.
By noon, he figured maybe they really were far enough away now to stop thinking that someone was going to appear at any second to take them back, that he had covered their tracks effectively to feel moderately safe from capture for a while. The land around them was woodsy and hid them pretty well. Now, as soon as he had renewed his strength, he needed to think about getting to a town, finding a telegraph office. The reality of his situation staggered him though. What exactly was he going to do with a young girl handcuffed to him? He was dressed in prison work clothes; he was dirty, tired, hungry, had blood staining the back of his shirt, and most damning of all, he was handcuffed to a girl in a fancy, but torn and dirty, yellow dress, not something that would be easy to hide or to explain. It looked suspiciously like he was the cause of her disheveled appearance, may have taken advantage of her. And, he wasn't exactly in a position to blend into the background, or to make a case for his innocence. And at this point, he wasn't entirely sure that Lilly wouldn't accuse him of kidnapping. Or worse.
By late afternoon, it was past time to stop. Johnny didn't think he could go another step. Lilly had been insisting she couldn't go another step for over three hours now. So, they found a fairly hidden spot along a stream, and as Lilly stopped her complaining long enough to drink with a cupped hand, he began looking around for a couple of larger stones. Maybe with enough perseverance these cuffs could be bashed apart. The way he was feeling about being shackled to Lilly right about now, he would slam stones against these handcuffs all night long if he had to; somehow he would find the strength, with his last dying breath if need be, and if that didn't work, he could always use the stones to render himself unconscious-then he wouldn't have to listen to Lilly complain and scold anymore. It would be a blessed relief. In fact, if this all went on much longer, he may have to consider chewing off his own arm. Why hadn't she handcuffed herself to his left hand instead of his right? He could live much easier without the left one, if he chose to start chewing. He was even considering how long it would take him to become proficient drawing and firing his gun with his left hand, sacrificing the right one for a good cause---freedom from Lilly.
As Johnny attempted to break the bonds that held them together, Lilly continued tossing insults at him as she had been doing steadily for most of the afternoon. She sat beside him, her face smudged with dirt and one sleeve of her dress torn at the shoulder and hanging loosely down her arm, pooling at the metal cuff. The look she was giving him could have frozen fire. Somehow, earlier, as they had been walking in a stream, she had slipped full in with a spectacular splash, nearly jerking Johnny's arm from the socket as she fell. And from that point on, she had changed. Even though she now looked like one more than ever, with her disheveled hair and dirty face, no longer was she a whining, complaining child. She had turned completely into a shrieking, insulting fully grown harpy. Apparently the romance was over. Johnny figured that even though they were in a land far, far away, Lilly's fairy tale was not ending with happily ever after.
Now, at this pretty spot by this stream, as she tried to get his attention with barbed words, he soundly ignored her, dizzy with fever, endlessly smashing rock against metal. Her words barely penetrated his misery. "I insist that you take me home right now. You really are an obnoxious man. I can't imagine what I ever saw in you. Why did I ever think you were handsome? Your hair is far too long. And you're dirty. And, you know what? You stink. That's right Mr. Johnny Lancer, you're all sweaty, and you stink; you smell like a wet dog, actually.
And, finally, as he sat there and repeatedly bashed stone against metal, his fever making him weak, after a long stretch of silence, hours worth of holding his tongue, he answered her in his lazy drawl. "Lilly honey, you don't exactly smell like spring rain yourself."
She didn't smell like spring rain? She didn't......Oh that was just it. He was dancing on her last nerve. She had so had enough of all this, this....."escape." In a whispering hiss, she spit the word out as though it had left a bad taste in her mouth. How dare he talk to her that way? Lilly had never been so mad in her entire 18 years of existence. "Ahhhhh!!" At first she couldn't even form words she was so angry. "I'm sorry I ever saw you that day, you with your hair on your chest and your muscles, with the sweat and the open shirt and all. I am so sorry I got you out. Do you hear me? You should be rotting in that prison right now. Ahhhhh!!"
She was screeching at him, very, very loudly, practically foaming at the mouth. In fact, she was so loud and so high-pitched, it was difficult for Johnny to make out exactly what some of the words were that she was tossing angrily at him. He knew he understood "hair" and "chest" and "prison." In spite of his aching body and heavy head, Johnny answered her more calmly than he had previously this whole, long day and with many, many more words. As this ungodly day had worn on, he had made his anger into a strength. The more annoying she got and the more angry he got, the more stubborn he got too. But his patience with this infuriating growth on his right arm had worn as thin as Jelly's hair. It was time for him to have his say. As she stopped for a moment to suck in a quick breath in preparation for spewing more poison at him, he spoke to her in a calm and quiet voice, "Didn't think this through very well then did ya, little girl?" He looked her straight in the eye, made sure he had her attention. "I didn't do anything to get thrown into that prison, Lilly, and no judge put me there, but think about it; what if I had done something? You didn't know that did you? Did you think about it, or care? Did you ever even ask me what I had done to be in prison? You still don't know for sure that I'm not some desperate criminal, do you?" He grabbed her chin to make her look him in the eye. "Do you? What if I was a murderer or a rapist? Some of those men in there woulda snapped your neck in a heartbeat if you had given 'em the chance, or done worse." He paused here, looking at her closely to make sure that what he had said penetrated her anger. He could tell she was going beyond her boiling point, could feel her tension under his hand, but he was far beyond caring whether he was making her more angry or not. Now, he held both of her forearms with his hands in order to make her keep focused on what he was saying. "You got a lotta growin' up to do, Missy. Just 'cause you got some lustful feelings, don't make you a woman grown."
As Johnny spoke, Lilly had worked hard to get her breathing under control. In a much quieter voice than she had used after he had told her she didn't smell like spring rain, she answered him. In fact she was so much more in control, it was disquieting. Johnny figured it was a calm before a raging storm. "You have no right to speak to me that way. What do you know? I am a fully grown woman, and I can do what I want to."
"Oh, you can do what you want to, can you? Can you get away from me? Huh? Can you go on home to your daddy? Little girl, you got a whole long ways to go before you can call yourself grown up. Havin' some years behind ya don't make ya an adult. When was the last time ya did anything for somebody without it helpin' you too?" Johnny had dropped her arms, turned from her slightly, and punctuated his words with the sound of pounding once again, stone to metal. "When was the last time you thought through to the end what you started at the beginnin'?" And there was more pounding. "Lilly don't think I ain't grateful that you got me outta that place, cause I am, at least I hope I'm gonna be grateful about it, but you didn't think. You should have used your energy and your plannin' to get to town so you coulda sent that damn telegram I kept tellin' you about. That woulda been helpful. This," and he shook his hand, and hers, and rattled the handcuffs at her, "this is not helpful. All you've managed to do is get us both into more trouble than I think we are gonna be able to handle." By this point, Johnny was slumping with fatigue. You brought this all on yourself because you are not a grown woman; you are a child, and a spoiled one at that."
Lilly glared at Johnny, but for the first time all day, she was speechless. Then, she turned her back to him as much as possible and laid down on the hard ground with one arm stretched behind her, towards him, of course. The only sound for a good long while was the smashing of the stone Johnny wielded like a hammer against the chain that linked the two cuffs, linked the two of them, pounding out his frustrations.
Lilly was so tired that her head was swimming. It was swimming with the words he had used on her too. She lay with her body turned away from her jailer as far as she could manage. Slow tears, genuine this time, formed and slid down her face. She had been lying here in the grass beside this stream listening to the incessant pound, pound, pound of rock on metal for the longest time now. Each clank of the rock seemed to pound some truths home to her too, pounding Johnny's point to crystal clarity. The sound got slower and slower, and finally he had stopped, and all was quiet. Thank you God. She could tell that he had laid back on the grass. She knew that he would be lying on his side; his back still pained him. She was damp from her plunge into the stream, and the sun slipping below the horizon was dropping the temperature quite a bit. She was cold. Suddenly, she very badly wanted her daddy. She even kind of missed old, fat Mirabelle. And she definitely missed Miss Avery's cooking; last night's supper seemed a very long time ago. Mulberries and pecans had done little to stave off the gnawing hunger she felt right now. And, oh lord, her feet hurt so much. She was wet and hungry and dirty; her favorite dress was ruined, and she was handcuffed to a prisoner-a prisoner who was feverish, occasionally sweaty and often mean to her. He had dragged her around this barren, uninhabited land for the entire day, making her walk through streams and across rocks until she thought she might go crazy. How had she ever gotten into this mess?
More hot tears were forming in the corners of her eyes. As she lay here in the grass, she had been doing an awful lot of thinking, over the last hour or so, since Johnny had started talking to her again---well, lecturing her might be a better word for it. She had wished at the time that he had continued to keep his mouth firmly closed, that he would just shut up, had likened him to Mirabelle, scolding her as if she were a child. She really didn't remember ever being so mad at anyone about anything. But it had been cleansing somehow. Now, as much as she hated to admit it, she was beginning to see that he was right; she decided that she sort of hadn't really thought this whole thing through quite completely maybe. And then after just a bit more thinking she was beginning to think-Oh, Lord, he was right. She really hadn't thought about how far they would have to walk to get to a telegraph office, that was for sure, and how much that would make her poor feet ache. Or, she hadn't even considered what it might look like to the people who ran that telegraph office when they walked in handcuffed together. She hadn't thought about how they would eat while they were oh so romantically shackled together out here in the wilderness. And if she was totally honest with herself, she hadn't really thought about the fact that she was releasing someone from prison who just might belong there.
Of course, she was absolutely positive now that Johnny was not a criminal, but, really, she hadn't known it before she released him, not really, hadn't even thought about it; he was just so darn lovely, with his muscles and all. When she had plotted and practiced the escape, she could only think about how handsome he was, how he made her feel, those delicious feelings, how much she had wanted to touch him, like that sweat-soaked shirt had caressed him on that first day she had seen him digging that ditch. Just as he said, she had not thought beyond that desire. And, she was only really sure now that he was not truly a criminal because he had not hurt her. But she definitely believed him, believed in his innocence. And even though she knew that she wasn't in love with him anymore, when he looked at her with those amazing blue eyes, he looked straight into her heart, whether he was yelling at her or not, no matter how he smelled. Even though she felt like she could hate him just a little right now, she knew he wasn't lying to her. He had the most honest eyes she had ever seen.
And the more she thought about it, the more she knew that he was so very right; many of those men would have hurt her, some were completely crazy; she also knew, just from the time she had spent observing them and from talking to Jimmy about them, that some were dead inside. The thought of how things could have been made a shiver run straight down her spine. She was only safe now because it was Johnny Lancer who had caught her attention. And if she was actually going to be really honest, since catching up to him as he slept under that willow tree, she knew that she had been totally and completely annoying to this man-had given him every reason to hurt her, actually. And, aside from getting really irritated with her, not talking to her, dragging her around the countryside, and telling her she smelled bad, he really hadn't hurt her. She surely had messed up everything. He was right-she had acted like a child, a spoiled child. Why hadn't she sneaked out and made her way to a town like he had asked her to? Or, maybe even tried to talk to her daddy about him. Surely it would have been better than this cross country marathon. Because Lilly, she chastised herself, that made too much sense. That would have been the mature thing to do.
She turned to look at the object of her musings, lying in the grass, firmly attached to her still. His pounding had been spectacularly unsuccessful. "Johnny. I'm sorry," she said quietly. "You'renright. I didn't think." But he did not answer her. She looked over at him; he was lying so very still-too still. "Johnny?" louder this time, but still he didn't answer her; he didn't wake up. "Johnny?" She was getting desperate to awaken him, was shaking him as she called his name.
After her time spent soul-searching in the early twilight, on the hard, cold ground, listening at first to Johnny's pounding, pounding, until it perfectly matched her heartbeat, and then her very scary discovery of the desperately ill man by her side, Lilly had spent the rest of the night trying first to wake him up and then to keep him warm. She had carefully curled up next to him as she had under the romantic willow the night before, but this night was worlds different. Rather than the cozy comfort he had been to her then, he was so hot with fever this time, scary hot, making her fear for him an icy fist clenching at her heart. Now she wanted desperately instead to be a comfort to him. At times, he moaned and tossed his head some, and she wrapped her free arm around him and whispered assurances into his ear, trying to still him, to make him feel better somehow, but she felt so ineffectual.
At first she had wondered how his condition had gotten to this point without her noticing. But really, with very little thought, she knew, of course, that that was it-she just hadn't noticed. She had only thought of Lilly. She reflected back over the day they had spent, looked past the discomfort and anger she had carried like a shield at the time, and could see him fairly clearly in her memory-could see his faltering steps, could see his face showing barely controlled pain. Could see that he was tired and weak and hurting. She could see all of those things clearly now. She could also see herself, in all of these moments in her memory-whining, moaning about her stupid shoes. Dear God, she was such a baby. And over the whole long night, as she regretted the things she had done, he had burned beside her, and then, towards morning, he had started shivering endlessly, and she had been at a loss, frantic to help him, but not knowing how to do so. How could someone be so hot and so cold at the same time?
He had finally spoken to her last evening as she had tried to rouse him, when she had first discovered how ill he was, the woods falling to darkness around them. And while it had been a great relief to hear his voice when she had thought that he wouldn't wake, it had been too little to ease her mind when he did speak. She was so very scared for him, had pestered him for a very long time in the stillness of twilight. "Please, Johnny. Please be all right. Please talk to me. I'm sorry. I'm just so sorry."
And finally, he had opened his eyes. At first, he had stared at her uncomprehendingly through a glaze of sickness, and, after a while as she stroked his forehead, somehow he had recognized her, although he clearly didn't quite recognize their situation any longer. "Lilly. Can ya get my father for me? I don't think I c'n find 'im; I'm too tired." And then, a little later, "it's so hot'n here. Open a window, will ya, Lilly?" Lilly so wished she could go get Johnny's father for him, or even her own father, that she could open a damn window. She wished that she could do something, anything to make him feel better. It was so hard to think. She was so scared and alone. In fact, she had never been so very alone before in her whole life. And, although she was incredibly frightened and confused, after a while, she did manage to decide that he needed water desperately, that she needed to get to the water. It was so close and so far away at the same time. Suddenly it occurred to her that the idea of that seemed as though it defined her life lately-so close and so far away. She turned him from his side, even though she knew that his back was hurting, and pulled his arm out as far as it would be pulled. Then, as they both lay flat on their backs, she stretched their two arms out as far as she could with the cuffs stretched between them and reached out towards the edge of the stream, pulling at him a bit and causing him to moan as his back raked a few inches across the ground-and still she couldn't quite reach the fast-flowing, life-giving water they had stopped beside, hours ago, a lifetime ago.
Giving it more thought, she decided she needed to grab hold of him around his middle somehow and drag him that way, holding on to more of his bulk. He probably outweighed her by at least sixty pounds, and right now he was nothing but deadweight, but she thought it would work, and she didn't want to hurt him further by dragging his back across the ground. So then she had lifted him a bit and wrapped her free arm around Johnny's chest, his shoulder leaning into her, and she managed to turn him and drag him a few feet closer to the edge, so that she could cup her hand and give him small drinks when she could get him to wake up a tiny bit. When he did awaken, she would wedge herself beside him to hold him partially upright. In fact, she sat nearly in the stream so that she could reach the water while he lay beside her. She also used her hand to get water to cool him as much as possible, handful after handful. Through it all, he was boneless, his head drooping low, and except for a few moans, he was silent. She longed for him to wake up and yell at her again, to look intensely into her eyes as he had last evening, anything but this.
Then, as the night wore on, as if things weren't bad enough, she saw that the clouds were building, effectively blocking the tiny sliver of a moon which had risen. Although she knew that there was very little rain in this area at this time of year, she had lived in Texas long enough to know that they were in for it, that when this let loose, it would be Katie bar the door, and here she sat in the middle of the woods handcuffed to a man who didn't even look like he was going to wake up for more than a few minutes at a time, let alone be able to walk anywhere so that she could get him to shelter. Lilly's folly just kept on going more and more wrong with every second that passed.
She sat awake into the night, too afraid to sleep, too afraid that if she did, and she knew she was being irrational, but could not stop herself, afraid that Johnny would die if she didn't watch to make sure that he continued to breathe. When she could drag her eyes away from his softly rising and falling chest, she looked up to the clouds skittering through the scant moonlight and the tops of the trees that were beginning to whip with the building weather. She brushed Johnny's hair back after a cool breeze had tossed it into his face and was appalled at the heat that rose from him.
The sound of the creatures of the night had her jumping at every chatter and croak. Even though she had never in her life, before last night, spent a night outside on the ground, it hadn't been so very bad that first time. She was tired and had fallen asleep quickly. Plus, she had felt protected by the surrounding tree, with its low sweeping branches, and she had the innocent assumption that Johnny would take care of her if anything happened. That assumption had helped sleep come easily to her. But tonight, Johnny wouldn't be taking care of anyone.
She had never known that the world of darkness was so full of inhuman sound and motion. In town, when she had slipped out to visit with Lem, her breath hitched just a little to think of Lem, but when she had slipped out of the window in town, the night had been full of people talking, as they moved past the alleyway, and music from the saloon down the street. And it surely wasn't this way at the prison, in her yard at home. When she slipped out of her bedroom window there at night, it had been quiet and still. There were no strange squeaks in the underbrush, no scurrying by the banks of a stream, no loud splashes in the water making her jump. Here there were hoots and flutters at every turn. Red eyes flashed at her from the among the ferns growing along the banks of the stream. And there was the skittering of tiny clawed feet in the undergrowth. At one point, she heard a loud undulating scream in the distance which sounded to her like what she imagined a woman being murdered might sound like, and, for a good long while after that, she had hunched down right next to Johnny, making herself as small as possible, with her eyes squeezed tightly shut. And unfortunately, she knew from her daddy's lectures that this part of Texas was wild with creatures-bear, gray foxes, wood rats, the thought of which had raised tiny goose bumps of repulsion on her arms, and he had warned her of rattlesnakes especially, black tailed and rock rattlers both. And, as horrible as it was to contemplate, she was very sure that the darker than night shapes flying above her back and forth across the stream, in and out of the branches of the trees were bats, and it made her heart beat faster to imagine them screeching in her face, tangling in her hair. Long into the night, she sat beside Johnny with her free arm wrapped around her bent knees, rocking slightly. She still had no idea what she was going to do to help this man beside her once daylight came, if daylight ever came. It was turning out to be the longest night of Lilly's life. She had a strong suspicion that she was just beginning to find out exactly what it did mean to be grown up.
Tom Bryden heard a loud, staccato knock and glanced out of the big arched window of his study towards the front door. He acknowledged the ominous clouds boiling on the horizon and the threat of unseasonable rain, which was becoming more real with every passing second, but he pointedly ignored the interruption from the porch as he continued to rummage through his desk drawer looking for the tiny derringer. He couldn't remember exactly for sure, but he was fairly certain he had left it in there. It had to be around here some place. He knew he had seen it when he had been rifling around looking for something last week. He was also busy vowing to himself that if, no, when they found Lilly, he was going to quit this relentlessly awful job. What had he been thinking? He didn't care how good the pay was, how nice the house which came with the job, how many pretty things he could now buy for his daughter, or how badly he wanted to get out of Clement. He had to get her away from these low elements here; that's all there was to it.
This whole warden thing was a bad idea from the very beginning, but he had thought that isolating Lilly out here would give him more control over the wildness she had been prone to in the last couple of years. And he was absolutely positive that it was a good idea to get her away from that Lem Hassenfeld. The boy's mother was nothing but a common whore. The whole town knew it too. That girl just had no sense at all sometimes. But, what had made him think that he could be a warden anyway? He had no experience at it. Why had the town council of Meyering come to him in the first place? How had they found him? He had never done a job before that was even similar. The only reputation he had, really, was the one that said he would work at almost anything to support his daughter. Basically, Tom Bryden knew he was a n'er do well. He had pretty much failed at every occupation he had ever had. He couldn't ride; he couldn't shoot; he had no useful skills worth mentioning at all. Most recently, he had found out, in Clement, that he wasn't even a very good shopkeeper. And he wasn't sure that those ledger books he poured over in his office at the prison every day, and barely understood, were at all accurate, or even necessary.
It was far too early for someone to be visiting, and it irritated him to be so rudely interrupted from his frantic misery. Why wasn't Miss Avery answering the door? "Miss Avery, get the door," he called out suddenly, but she didn't answer. Through that study window, he saw that there were actually two men on his front porch, and one was doing the knocking, somewhat viciously, on his door. The knocking man was very tall and looked like he hadn't bathed in a while; his clothes were covered with trail dust, and he had the beginnings of a gray beard---obviously a common saddle tramp. And a second shorter and thinner version of that man stood next to him, also dust covered and only slightly less scruffy-looking. Even from his position by the desk, looking through the window, Tom could tell that both men had an air of desperation and violence about them. What on earth could they want? A job? And really, Tom did not have time for any distractions. He had to find his precious Lilly. That was all that mattered right now. She was all that mattered.
Leroy had recently come riding back in, had told him the bad news. They'd had no luck at all. "Damn dogs," was his explanation. He was here to get fresh horses, to rest the dogs a bit, to get supplies, and then the men were heading right back out again, starting the second day of the manhunt-better equipped this time. Tom had told him that he would be joining them, a concept that was met with protests, but he had been stubborn and insistent and had eventually gotten his way. But he didn't have much time to get ready to ride along. He would not stay back again. He had waited a very long, very frightening day and a sleepless night for the return of his daughter. He was amazed when they had returned empty-handed. Leroy was livid. Tom didn't think he had ever seen the burly, old guard that angry before. It was Leroy who had come to his door yesterday morning before it was even fully light, his wicked looking whip held tightly in his hands. He had informed Tom that one of the prisoners had escaped, that they were going after "that filthy breed" as soon as they could "get the damn dogs to wake up." A statement that would have been oddly puzzling, if he'd had time to ponder puzzling statements.
But, he didn't have time because at that very moment in the early light of dawn, as Leroy stood in his front foyer, faithful Mirabelle had come bellowing down the stairs that Lilly's bed had not been slept in, that the naughty girl was gone. It hadn't taken them long to search the house and grounds for Lilly and then to put a hasty two and two together to get a four-a four that clearly meant the prisoner must have taken her as a hostage. And as often as he had felt nervous or frightened in the past, Tom had never known true terror until that very moment. It was terror so complete that it weakened his knees and placed a rock firmly in the pit of his stomach.
They had left in disorganized haste that morning, Leroy, three of the other guards, and two very sleepy, uncooperative dogs, and really, they had been poorly prepared, mainly because they were overconfident. Even though they really had no idea how far behind the fleeing man and his poor, dear hostage they were, they had thought that the chase would be easy, the breed quickly apprehended. The man is sick and weak, Leroy said. The dogs will track them down, he assured Tom. Lilly will be home in no time at all, he said.
So Tom had not ridden with the men yesterday morning. Truthfully, he was a very poor horseman and was grateful to stay back. He had actually rationalized that he would slow them down, that he was staying back for Lilly's sake. He could barely admit to himself that part of the reason he hadn't pushed his involvement in the hunt had been his fear of looking foolish in front of the guards. But, he had been assured that his daughter would be home in time for lunch. She wasn't home in time for lunch. God. She wasn't home. They hadn't found them for the whole long, torturous day. Where could they be? And now it was working its way on to day two, and on top of everything else the weather appeared to be deteriorating rapidly, and there were two strangers pounding on his door.
Dear God in heaven to think of the things that low-life prisoner may have done to his baby. He couldn't bear to think of the horrible ordeal she must be enduring-couldn't let himself think about it. How had the nasty heathen gotten out anyway? And how had he managed to get his filthy hands on Lilly?---------------In the back of his mind though, in spite of his fear for Lilly's safety, in a small dark corner, a tiny worm of doubt was wiggling its way to the surface of his thoughts, an ugly, nasty worm. How exactly did that prisoner get his hands on Lilly anyway? How could he possibly have gotten into their house with no one noticing? Mirabelle noticed everything. Did Lilly have anything......no, he wouldn't allow himself to think about it. Not now. Maybe later he would take out that worm and examine it. Maybe later.
That young guard, Tom thought his name was Jimmy, the poor boy had been no help at all; with a huge lump and a slowly bleeding cut on the back of his head, the boy couldn't remember a thing that had happened since before lunch time that day. In spite of Leroy's protests, Tom had sent one of the stable hands to fetch the doctor. The doc from Meyering had come running and insisted that the boy stay in bed for a few days, even though when Leroy left, he had told Tom he wanted to string "the stupid fool" to the post for "letting that bastard get away."
Ineffectual though he might be, Tom vowed that he would make darn sure that Leroy did not whip Jimmy. It was the most inhumane thing he had ever heard of. What a mess this all was. He just could not wrap his mind around how any of this nightmare could have happened, from the breakout to the kidnapping, but he was certain he could wrap his hands around that prisoner's throat if he harmed one hair on his daughter's head, if they could just find them. Where were they? Dear God please let Lilly be all right. He didn't have time for this distraction, these itinerants at the door; he had to get someone to saddle a horse for him so he could join the hunt, no matter his horsemanship.
Finally laying his hand on the small gun, he tucked it into his coat pocket and walked hastily to the door. Immediately, he yanked it fully open, and he spoke to the two men standing there without preamble. "What do you want? I'm busy. I don't have any job openings." He made a move to close the door. "Now, I'm in a hurry, so if you'll excuse me...."
"No, we will not excuse you. I'm here for my son."
The man was impossibly tall, and his voice boomed
across Tom in angry waves.
"I don't have any idea what you're talking about. Now, go away."
The younger of the two men pushed past and grabbed Tom with two fists by the front of his coat, pulling him up slightly so that he had to stand on his toes. The man now stood with his nose only inches from Tom's. He looked him straight in the eyes, and then he gave Tom a shake and full out growled at him. "The man who escaped from here yesterday-what was his name?"
Abject fear caused Tom's already pale face to blanch almost completely, except for two spots of high color staining his cheeks. But concern for Lilly, and a burning desire for getting out of here and finding her gave him the courage to speak, so he sputtered at this person manhandling him, "Kindly take your hands off of me, Sir. How on earth would I know the man's name? He's a prisoner. He has my daughter. That's all I need to know." And before he took the time to consider the wisdom of it, he added, "if he's hurt my Lilly, he's a dead man."
The man shook Tom again with barely controlled violence. "I'm pretty sure that prisoner is my brother. His name is Lancer-Johnny Lancer-and you had damn well better find out more about him-like what was he charged with, why was he in this prison, when was his trial. And, if anyone hurts him, anyone at all, I'll have that person's head on a platter. And that's all you need to know." The young man released his grip on Tom's shirt and pushed him backwards as he did so, causing him to stumble for a moment before he caught his balance against the door frame. The violent man stood with his fists clenched within an easy arm's length of Tom's jaw.
Then the taller man, the father, stepped closer, into Tom's space too, and he spoke. Although this man was somewhat calmer than the younger man, Tom could tell that he was controlling, with difficulty, an undercurrent of something very dark. "My name is Murdoch Lancer. If that prisoner's name is Johnny Lancer, and I have every reason to believe that it is, then you are in a world of trouble, Mr. Bryden. I did some discreet asking around in Meyering. Do you know a man named Moses Miller? He runs the livery there, and he's a frequent visitor at the saloon in town."
Bryden was shaking his head and attempting to step back into the house in order to shut the door. "No. I don't know what you're talking about. Leave me alone."
Murdoch reached out and grabbed Tom's wrist firmly, almost painfully, before he could move away and jerked him forward again, nearly against his formidable chest. And Tom looked up and up into eyes that held dogged determination. "Mr. Miller was more than happy to give us all of the information we were looking for," he continued. "His brother is a guest of yours. His name is Floyd Miller. Does that sound at all familiar? No, I didn't think it would. He's just another prisoner to you. Just like Johnny." Murdoch did not give Tom even the smallest chance to speak. "Floyd didn't have the benefit of a trial, according to Moses, and after speaking to him about the man knocked unconscious in Meyering, in the saloon there, I'm sure my son is also a guest here, also without a judge passing sentence. Mr. Miller was quite talkative; you see, he's been trying for over a year to get someone to come and investigate this place, and now I am going to have satisfaction, give him satisfaction; I am going to find out exactly how this set-up works." Bryden again tried to pull away, but Murdoch wasn't anywhere near finished. "He told me that you haven't been here all that long, suspects that you may not really be aware of the situation, which could save you, which has saved you from getting my fist in your face right now." By this point, Tom was pulling frantically at the grip this man had on him; he was desperate to get away. "He believes that at least half of the men here have been shanghaied, didn't get even a sham of a trial before they were sent here for forced labor." And the big man then continued in a voice that Tom would bet could make the hardest man quiver in fear, quiet and low, but oh so deadly. "I know people, Mr. Bryden, important people." Early this morning, before I left Meyering, I sent a telegram to Austin, and I was assured that a state Marshall should be on his way to Wentworth, even as we speak. You could end up behind bars yourself, Mr. Bryden. Now do you have time for us?"
Tom really didn't know what the man was talking about. And it was so hard to listen with him squeezing his wrist so hard and with Lilly the only thing he could really think about right now. "What are you talking about? Of course these men have all been tried and convicted. I was told that they only send the very worst of the worst here to Wentworth. This prison has been here for years. Why would they need to do such a thing? Everything is above board. I'm sure of it." And then, looking down at his feet and in a quieter voice, more to himself, "I'm sure of it." He looked back up at the irate man who seemed to have latched onto his wrist permanently. "Now I'm sorry if you have a son who's a prisoner here, but I need to find my daughter. An escaped prisoner took her, and God only knows what he may have done to her by now. I'm sorry, but right now I don't really care if the man is your son or not; whoever he is, he has my Lilly."
"Unless you cooperate with us fully, Mr. Bryden, I will see to it that you go to prison-you may never see your family again. Is that what you want? You will let us be a part of your search party, and you will not allow your guards to hurt my son. Am I making myself clear?" Murdoch still had not relinquished his hold on Tom's wrist-wasn't about to let go. His tone of voice made it very clear that there would be no argument.
Bryden made another last ditch move to exit the house and to go past Scott and Murdoch, to pull himself free from the iron grip on his wrist, but Scott moved to the other side of him and growled at him again. "Are you deaf, Mr. Bryden? Let me make our position perfectly clear. You may as well consider yourself shackled to us from this moment until my brother is safe because you're not going anywhere without us."
# # #
This was taking too long. He sat his horse in the gray rain, waiting with cold impatience for everyone else to mount up. Leroy was not a happy man. In fact, he was downright furious. That little pip-squeak of a fake warden was allowing these two 'outsiders,' and in his mind the word sounded like the filthiest of curses, to join in his manhunt---was insisting on it, in fact. How dare this 'shopkeeper,' there was that tone of voice in his mind again, how dare this shopkeeper tell him what to do concerning his prison? The two men, the outsiders, were grim faced, and the younger of the two was giving him looks that could peel paint from a barn, particularly when Leroy had noticed him staring at the whip coiled around his saddlehorn. Who were these two and why were they being allowed to join in on "official prison" business? Of course, he couldn't put up too much of a fuss. The town council would have his hide if he acted up in front of their hand-picked "warden." Besides, the men both wore guns, and carried rifles on their saddles, and more importantly, they looked as though they knew very well how to use them.
And the rain. This day was going to be absolutely miserable. It was coming down in buckets. The dust around the stone buildings had turned to a thick, soupy swamp within minutes, and the frigid rain spilled over the brim of his hat and snaked its way down the neck of his shirt. They had all donned rain slickers, which provided little protection really, a joke, but aside from the misery of it, rain would only make any kind of tracking even that much more difficult, until they got close and could find fresh tracks-if they weren't washed out. The dogs hadn't had much luck yesterday, and that was another thing-he could not believe those damn dogs. It made him want to kick someone. They had been less than useless yesterday, and now with this much time gone and the rain washing out the scent, he was beginning to feel like the dirty half-breed might actually get away with it-away with that pretty little yellow-haired gal too.
As they finally all mounted up to begin this second day of searching, Leroy silently cursed filthy, close-mouthed half-breeds with every expletive he had ever heard. At last, they were ready to head out again, Leroy, his three best guards, the useless warden and the two outsiders. And this time, there would be no coming back for supplies. It irked him to admit that they might have to, but they were provisioned for sleeping on the trail. Lord, Leroy was itching to whip somebody for making him have to sleep out in weather like this. It was bound to be pretty close to water-drenched hell on earth especially when a man was used to a warm, dry bed every night. When they caught up with him, he would whip that filthy breed within an inch of his life. And that thought kept his mind busy for a while as they headed west away from the prison. He gleefully visualized stripping that human pestilence of his shirt, tying him to the pole and taking out every bit of anger that had been building over the last day or so, anger at the half-breed, anger at Jimmy, anger at the dogs, anger at the warden, and now anger at the weather-a lash for every wicked bit of anger this escape had created. He had to work very hard to keep a satisfied smile from his face as he visualized the result.
The new day brought very little brightness to Lilly's world, which had been reduced to a tiny space next to this man, by this stream, in these foothills of the Davis Mountains. Johnny lay very still next to her, mostly unresponsive, hot and pale. As the sun scraped and clawed its way ineffectually up the side of Guadalupe Peak in the distance, it simply could not fight its way through the thick cloud quilt which had grown steadily to cover them overnight. She was nearly crippled with worry and indecision. In spite of her newly formed and grim determination to do something to help Johnny, sometime late into the night, as she endlessly scooped water from the stream, handfuls of water, lethargy had stolen over her, making her movements dreamy and languid. It had taken over her mind and her limbs, and now, as the world lightened from deepest black to shadowy gray around her, she fought an internal battle to vanquish it.
She had finally admitted sometime during the long night that this whole dangerous mess was of her doing; therefore, it was fitting that the responsibility to fix it was hers as well. But, lack of sleep had left her more than slightly dazed, and she was so alone, so alone. She knew, though, that she had to find the strength from somewhere. Johnny had mumbled some, off and on throughout the night. She was so completely attuned to him now, to every breath he took, every twitch or sigh, she knew the exact moment every time he swam towards the surface of consciousness. He had even woken to the point of semi-coherence a few times, asking her where they were, what time it was, complaining of thirst, giving her some scant hope, but she knew beyond a doubt that his life and hers were now firmly in her hands.
In the early dawn, finally, as the whole world waited with stunning anticipation, holding its breath, completely and utterly still for a long moment, the oppressive tension was broken when a large drop of rain landed on Lilly's cuffed hand and rolled to the dirt. Then another followed it, and another. In an area that rarely saw heavy rain showers, Lilly knew, from the weighted look of the clouds, from the oppressive feel of the air, that they were about to be deluged. Their stupendous good luck seemed to be holding, she thought with a sad little smirk.
She turned her gaze towards Johnny and saw that the rain was landing like soft teardrops on the side of his face, gently now, almost caressing him, but with a promise of aggression. She could see moisture sparkling on his disheveled hair, on his shadowy black beard, and on his impossibly long, dark lashes. Her own thick hair, most of which had escaped the braid she had carefully fashioned early last evening, so very long ago in her lovely, fairy princess bedroom, was starting to get wet and impossibly heavy. It hung in long scraggly strings, sticking to her face. She used her free hand to push it back so she could keep watching him, as the rain began to run in small rivulets down his hollowed cheek, dripped from his chin. She scrambled awkwardly to her knees in the newly forming mud and leaned fully over him as the rain picked up in intensity, to block the worst of it from his face. If she didn't already have the evidence of her ever more soaked hair and clothing, and Johnny's as well, the sound of the rain pummeling the stream would tell her that this gentle shower was turning into a steady downpour, beating a syncopated rhythm with an ever increasing tempo.
The sky had opened up on them spectacularly, a long jagged tear, and it didn't take long for parts of the area around them to become completely mired. Some of the newly fallen water was standing in small puddles, some of it rushed in tiny streams downhill, towards them and also away from them, and Lilly even thought that it was possible that the stream they sat beside was rising; it seemed to be running stronger than before. The rain had gotten more and more intense as she had knelt there, leaning and protecting, paralyzed with indecision, with water streaming into her eyes and dripping from her hair. She shivered deeply from the wet and cold. She looked down at Johnny, under her ineffectually sheltering body, and he was still curled on his side, but he had now thrown his free arm over his face in an unconscious effort to escape the pelting rain. He shivered too. It was fully daylight now, but she couldn't tell it really; the heavy cloud cover and the rain made it seem more like late evening.
Staring at Johnny's curled posture and feeling like someone had shoved a fisted hand to her chest, Lilly came to the abrupt realization that no one, no one, was going to get her out of this mess. No one. It was all completely on her to do something. She had known this before in her head, but now, more importantly, she felt it in her heart as well. All day yesterday, and all night last night, even though she had begun to see the error of what she had done, an air of unreality still clung to her thoughts. Until this moment, she still had that feeling of romance and fantasy swirling around her which had started this whole "adventure." There had been small pieces of time when the situation had seemed all too real, of course-even now her face grew hot and red thinking of her first visit to the bushes while shackled to Johnny. Yes, that had seemed real enough. The scream that had split the deepest dark of the night had seemed very real as well. But, even Johnny's eventual outburst of calm anger and scolding words as they had stopped at the stream last evening had somehow seemed a necessary part of this whole adventure she was on. In the books she read, the hero and heroine often had a lover's spat before they kissed and made up. But now she knew. It was all so incredibly, vividly clear. She knew at last that she couldn't expect someone to come galloping up on a beautiful, white steed to save her. In fact, her knight in shining armor was lying here in the mud-dirty, unkempt, quite ill and mostly unaware of their current situation. Everything depended upon her. This was real.
It was time to be a grown-up. It was past time. Oh how she had thought she was, so grown up that is, secret kisses in the night, in the alley with Lem, then those delicious feelings that made her toes curl when she thought of Johnny and that open shirt, that thin trailing line of hair. But now she knew that Johnny was right; she had been anything but grown up. Lilly looked around at her surroundings as though awakening from a dream. Taking in the area hadn't been a priority before. Yesterday, the things around her, outside of her close personal space, had been kind of a blur. All she had cared about concerning her surroundings was that the rocks hurt her feet through the thin soles of her fancy shoes, that the streams were cold when they walked in them, that the sun was making her sweat like a...well, it was making her sweat. Now, looking around more carefully, through a veil of rain, she tried to take everything in, tried to find something to help them, something she could work with. To her left was a grouping of trees the likes of which she had never seen before-they had red-orange bark, shiny green leaves and huge urn-shaped creamy white flowers--interesting, she decided, but useless. On the far bank, aspen trees shook and shivered in the rising wind. Also, no help for their situation. Pine trees were becoming ever more numerous, as they had been heading uphill steadily, that fact she remembered all too well, had complained about all too much yesterday, and the terrain was sloping but not too steep at this point. Finally, she noticed that there was a bluff line winding its way up the opposite shore of her little stream.
There had to be somewhere more protected than here, where they were spectacularly exposed. There had to be some way to help Johnny, to get him out of this downpour. When he had just flat stopped last night, she had wondered briefly, through her anger, why he had chosen this spot. It had seemed to her vaguely at the time that they were much more out in the open than fleeing escapees ought to be. But, she knew now that he had stopped in this relatively unprotected spot because he hadn't been able to go any further. While before, even while she was being a complaining child, she had hoped that they would not be found, now she hoped that they would be. When she thought of her behavior, her obnoxiously loud screeching and her stubborn lack of cooperation, she couldn't believe that they hadn't been, actually.
Surely someone was looking for them. Her daddy.....Oh God. Her daddy must be so worried about her. She hadn't thought for one moment about how this whole adventure might effect him. Since her mother had died, so long ago she didn't even remember, all the two of them had ever had was each other. She was beginning to realize, a glimmering newly born thought really, that most of what he did that made her angry, like the whole disaster with Lem, was done out of his love for her. In reality, through every move, in every town, he had always been there-taking care of her, loving her. She knew for certain that he must be sick with worry. Just another huge mistake in a long line of mistakes. And that suddenly made her think of poor Jimmy. He really was a nice boy, and she had hit him awfully hard with that heavy rock. She put her hand up to her mouth to stifle a frightened sob.
No. She had to concentrate. She had to find shelter. She could see that there was an outcropping of rock in the bluff across the stream, nearly a cave, not quite, more of a depression in the stone wall. Somehow she needed to get there, under the sheltering overhang, and right now, before the stream got much stronger with angry, rushing water. The task of moving him seemed impossible. Yes, an impossibly huge task. And, she thought of something Miss Avery had said to her when Lilly had stood contemplating a mountain of silver to be polished, as punishment for something or other several months back. The housekeeper had smiled at her, not unkindly, "Lilly honey, do you know how to eat an elephant?"
Lilly remembered she had looked at Miss Avery with a puzzled, petulant frown. "No, of course not. How do you eat an elephant?"
"One bite at a time." And she had winked and turned to sweep out of the room, leaving Lilly to her hated, mountainous chore. Right now, looking around at her latest challenging task, Lilly finally understood exactly what Miss Avery had meant and decided that she had better get started, or she would never get this particular big, wet elephant eaten.
Lilly reached down, and with the back of her hand, she tried to wipe some of the mud that streaked the side of Johnny's face. She succeeded only in smearing it more. She could feel true affection for this man growing within her heart. He was her responsibility. With a strength she didn't know she possessed, she grabbed him and heaved him to a mostly seated position, his chin on his chest, his free arm hanging limply, his hand curled loosely in his lap.
With one arm around him to steady him, Lilly used her shackled hand to tip his chin upwards and attempted to get him to look at her. His eyelids fluttered as the rain hit him more fully in the face, and he shivered terribly. "Johnny, you have to help me out here. We have to get to the other side of the stream. Please, Johnny, open your eyes and look at me." And ever so slowly, he did look at her, a shock of brilliant blue peering at her, up through his lashes. She nearly wept with sudden relief.
"Lilly?" His voice was a soft croak, but ever so welcome and lovely to Lilly, the most lovely sound she had ever heard.
"Yes, Johnny. It's Lilly. We need to get out of the rain before we drown. Do you think you can stand up if I help you?"
"'kay." But even as he agreed, he closed his eyes and dropped his head when she released his chin.
Still, she was encouraged by his response. "Good, that's good. We have to cross the stream. We can do this. We'll be nice and dry. We'll be fine." She kept up a steady dialogue, more for her own benefit than for his really. She wedged herself next to him, the mud grabbing at her legs, tugging at her dress, and pulled his shackled arm across the front of his body towards her. Now she could put her free arm around his waist, giving him as much support as possible. With her left hand, she held tightly to his right forearm, the handcuff chain dangling between them, and then somehow she managed to get both of them to their knees.
Holding him like this made her realize just how thin he was-how much thinner than he had been when she first saw him all those weeks ago. She could practically count his ribs. Johnny still had not raised his head again. He was swaying erratically with the effort to stay upright, but she could tell that he was consciously trying to help. Through a curtain of long, black hair, which hung in his face, she could see him clenching his jaw and his unshackled hand was pulled into a tight fist.
She got both of her feet under herself in the ooze without losing her hold on him or, miraculously, her footing, and then before making another move, she made sure that she had his attention. "Johnny. Look at me again. Are you with me?" He did manage to find her eyes, and he nodded ever so slightly. It was a small movement, but it was there. She started straightening her legs, standing up, taking more and more of his weight as she did so.
"Lilly. Can't. Just le' me sleep."
She leaned her head even more towards him. He was leaning so far over, his head hung so low, that the side of his face was within easy reach of her. Had circumstances been wildly different, she could have visualized herself leaning over and kissing him. Instead, her voice was pitched low, and she spoke into his ear, but with unmistakable authority. "Johnny, we need to cross this steam. We are crossing this stream. Now come on, you can do this; I know you can help me do this. This is our best shot."
Lilly pushed and prodded and finally got Johnny moving, after a fashion. She kept her soggy arm wrapped firmly around his equally soggy waist, and he leaned heavily on her, weighing her small frame down terribly, but he did gather his legs beneath himself, and he was able to hold some small amount of his own weight. Lilly was infinitely grateful for small favors.
And he was shivering so violently now, from the fever, from the cold rain. Between her icy fingers, which made her grip precarious at best, and his tremors, it was becoming increasingly difficult to hold on to him, but they moved slowly forward, shuffling, sliding, stepping, shuffling. Put one foot in front the other, one foot in front of the other. Lilly was chanting in her head, one foot in front of the other, eating her damned huge elephant one bite at a time, and then another bite.
Overhead, the bleakest, grayest clouds she had ever seen burdened her nearly as much as the ailing man at her side; they were oppressive, low in the sky, pushing at her, pushing down on her shoulders. She pulled Johnny slowly, so slowly, towards the stream, and he seemed to come to even more awareness as they stepped down finally into the frigid water at the very edge, as they pushed through the ferns.
"Lilly, what're ya doin'? I don't wanna get'n th'water. S'cold." His voice startled her, the suddenness of it, the strength of it. He sounded like a small, sad child. The rain was coming down so powerfully now that when he spoke and she looked over at him, she could see that water was running freely down his face, dripping from his chin, and his long hair hung in wet strands in his face. She studied him briefly and figured that if he hadn't been three or four days without a shave, he would have looked very much like a small, wet child as well. Then he complained again, "Water's cold, Lilly."
"It really doesn't matter. It's cold out of the water too, Johnny. We have to cross the stream. There's shelter right over there. Look. Can you see the little cave over there? Please, you have to help me." She saw Johnny struggling to get control of himself, of his muscles and limbs, and then lifting his head with some effort from where his chin rested on his chest, he did look, which encouraged her to keep going. And she wanted to encourage him as well. "It will be much better over there. I promise, Johnny. See how dry it is under the overhang? We can be warm there. And it's far enough away from the stream in case it rises more." And he nodded a bit and stepped down with her fully, both feet now, into the fast-flowing stream. The cold water immediately soaked completely through their already wet clothes and bit at their skin, snatched at their precarious balance. His knees buckled a little, pulling her down some, and then she could actually see him draw on some reserve of hidden strength to keep going.
It was a very slow thing, their progress, but time had lost meaning anyway. Lilly's life was being measured in very small increments now, by shuffling, sliding steps, by driving water which was forming tiny whitecaps around them. Lilly would move forward a bit, and then she would pull Johnny forward. Then she would take another small step forward on the slick rocks lining the bottom of the stream and pull him forward again-inches at a time.
The further they went, the more the ever increasingly violent water tore at her dress and swirled viciously around Johnny's trembling legs. She could see it leaping in sparkling sprays over rocks in its path. She watched the madly dancing dimples in the water as the raindrops hit with a force she had not seen before. She kept herself upstream from him so that she could divert some of the strength of the tumbling rapids.
By midstream, she realized that the surging, and now muddy, water had risen much more than she had thought since the rain had started. It was over her knees, mid thigh, and she was beginning to think that this little trek wasn't such a brilliant idea after all. Her pretty yellow dress and voluminous petticoats were soaked through and seemed to weigh almost as much as the man she held tightly next to her. Another realization that had come too late-she surely should have taken off the damn petticoats.
As she struggled to reach the far side, ever so slowly, her mind wandered to a beautiful sunbaked day just after they had come to Wentworth to live. What a perfect day. Oh how she wished it was a sunbaked, perfect day right now. It had been a Sunday afternoon, Lilly remembered, and she and her daddy had returned from church. The day shimmered with golden light, and Miss Avery had packed a picnic lunch for the two of them. Daddy always spent Sunday with her, always had, no matter what job he had or where they were living. They had taken a buggy to the pond and spent a wonderful day, laughing and-----
"Johnny!" Very suddenly, he had slipped from her grip and fallen to his knees in the stream, was continuing to fall, tipping face forward, pulling at her arm, and the water pulling at him, anxious to take him away from her.
But, she got a new grip on him, around his waist again, pulling him up dripping wet from the boiling froth of the stream right before his head had plunged fully under. Stupid, stupid. She cursed herself for losing concentration. Well, it wasn't like they could get any wetter anyway. The rain had already soaked them, even before they had taken one step into the stream. They were already miserably cold before they had set one foot in the water.
Now she had to lean down into the surging stream to get a better grip on him. And she found that she could indeed get wetter as she submerged up to her shoulders to get her arm more securely around him. The rocks under her feet were slippery; it felt to her a bit like walking on a frozen pond, and between her footing and the massive drag on her dress from the water, she struggled to remain upright. She took several deep breaths as he, at last, stood leaning heavily on her, and finally she felt stable enough for the two of them to take another forward step.
And in the blinding space of one heartbeat, he was torn from her grip and falling hard into the water, throwing a sheet of water into her face, making her stagger backwards, and she lost sight of him for a moment as she tried to push the water from her eyes.
The tremendous force of his fall pulled him completely underwater, away from her. He was tumbling away, rushing face first downstream, away from her. She stared dumbly after him, unable to comprehend what was happening for a frozen moment in time, only that the water was rushing him downstream, away from her.
Then, she looked down at her hand, at the dangling end of the handcuff, broken cleanly through at the battered chain, and the sight was so unexpected, so foreign, that her mind could not process what she was seeing.
In spite of his burgeoning hope that Johnny was nearly within their grasp, the day couldn't possibly be drearier or more depressing. Murdoch believed that the weather was contributing a pallor to it all, which kept his mood from being ecstatic at the possibility of finally finding his son. He was just so cold and wet and miserable. The skies were so heavy and shot through with low gray clouds. Sheets of rain were now coming down so thickly that he could no longer clearly see the big, white, pillared house at the top of the sloping yard-the house where they had first confronted the annoyingly unaware warden of this prison from hell. He really couldn't remember the last time he had been as mad as he was as he pounded on that idiot's door. The ride from Meyering in the early morning hours had been fast and furious, but had done nothing to cool his seething anger.
In fact, he was amazed that he had made it through an entire conversation with Mr. Thomas Bryden without knocking him soundly unconscious, and that he had actually been able to keep Scott, his suddenly volatile son, corralled with a stern look or two. He really didn't think he had ever seen his oldest son react with fists before words before. But then, Murdoch would have liked to have pummeled the idiot who stood trembling in that doorway too. Maybe later. Speaking of Bryden, he noted that the warden was the last to mount up, his woolen coat was soaked through already, not five minutes into what may be a very long, very wet, trip, and apparently he didn't own or didn't want to wear a rain slicker. Murdoch shook his head, amazed to be witness to such overwhelming ignorance. And unfortunately, he knew that the man's stupidity ran deeper than his lack of appropriate rain gear.
The federal Marshall from Austin could not possibly get to Wentworth before sometime tomorrow. It would do no good for them to wait for him here. They had already checked every single cell in the deeply depressing prison to absolutely make sure that Johnny was not still languishing in one of the tiny cells, that he was the one out there, an escapee. Moses Miller had promised to meet the Marshall in Meyering for them and to begin filling him in on some of the details; he was more than happy to do so. He had been gathering his own evidence ever since Floyd had been unfairly incarcerated and was anxious to have someone actually listen to what he had been begging for someone to hear for nearly a year.
So, their horses, father
and son, reluctantly followed the others out of the muck mired prison yard to
begin the search. Murdoch looked over at Scott as he sat his horse with an
uncharacteristically weary posture. Scott's time in the cavalry had given
him a strict military bearing, whether on foot or on horseback, and seeing him
slumped in the saddle was infinitely
troubling to Murdoch. He reflected that the one good thing about this whole
amazingly awful mess was the stronger bond that had been forged between himself
and his oldest child, a bond that allowed him to read his son's body language,
both the subtle and not so subtle, from a twitching finger to his current poor
Something was bothering Scott, something beyond the fact that they still had not really quite found Johnny. At times on their crusade, they had gone for whole days without speaking and were comfortable to do so. At other times, they had talked long into the night, about their hopes, their regrets, their fears, and after that night of nearly lost hope, while they had been reluctant to mention him before, floodgates were opened, and they often talked about Johnny. Murdoch had even shared memories of Johnny as a baby. They had learned to read one another's moods with frightening accuracy. And right now, Murdoch knew that Scott looked hopeless.
Oddly, on this day when they may at long last find Johnny, after over two long months of worry and some very low lows, he felt as though his oldest son now looked utterly defeated as he sat huddled in his slicker, his hat pulled down and obscuring his eyes. In fact, he thought he looked more defeated than he had since this whole impossible mess had started, even as they had argued "that night." He nudged his horse closer and spoke quietly to his son, "We're so close, Scott. Don't you give up on me now."
"Not giving up, Sir. Just tired. Scared. Worried. Wet." His voice was small and exhausted.
"Yes, I'm all of those things too, but we're not going to let anything more happen to that boy now that we've got him in our sights."
"I just can't help thinking that something will go wrong now that it appears we may be close to finding him. I've never been a glass half empty kind of person, Murdoch, you know that, but after all this time, it's hard to imagine ending this hunt. I feel like we've been doing this forever. That we're meant to be doing it forever."
He looked over at his father, and saw an answering nod. Murdoch's quiet and quick understanding of how he felt about the situation gave Scott courage, and he decided to forge ahead with his true concern, such a dark concern. He couldn't look at Murdoch as he spoke about this fear. "And, dear God, did you see that prison-how Johnny has been living, well, existing, for the last couple of months? That evil-looking guard with the whip? The post in the courtyard? The man who babbled and cried the whole time we were there? What, no who, exactly are we going to find when we find him? What have they done to him?"
"No matter what we find, we'll help him. No matter what they've done to him, we'll take him home, and we'll fix him. Sam will fix him. We're his family and we'll take care of him, and everything will be fine, just fine."
Fine, just fine-Johnny's words whenever he was hurt or sick or in trouble-Johnny's words. He looked up now, looked his father straight in the eye. This went so much deeper than Murdoch was willing to, or maybe able to, admit. "You can't know that. You can't. It's not that simple," he snapped. His anger was quick and gone immediately. Murdoch had to strain to hear what Scott said next because his voice was pitched very low, "Death used to follow me, Murdoch, during the war. So many friends, acquaintances, I'm afraid it may be following me again. People I care about die, when death follows me. And then, with his eyes slipping down again to stare at his hand holding the reins, in a voice that was almost pleading, "Can you promise me that he'll be okay? Can you make that promise?"
Murdoch looked up and saw bone-deep fear and despair lining his son's face. He so wanted to put that spark of hope back that Scott had used for months now to keep himself going, sometimes to lift Murdoch up and keep him going too. It was almost as if now that they had seen the prison, now that they knew Johnny had been thrust into a nest of vipers for the last two months, his brother's situation became starkly real for Scott. It was as though up until now, even though he absolutely knew it wasn't so, until they knew what the truth was, he could still imagine that Johnny was just over the next hill dallying with a pretty saloon girl.
Intuitively, Murdoch knew though that Scott had to be reliving scenes from the most horrific part of his own past, and it tore a jagged little hole in his heart, right there next to the ones for leaving Scott in Boston, for not finding Johnny, for thinking at one time that his precious ranch was more important than his precious sons. No father wants his child to suffer the wretchedness Scott must have suffered during the war. His son had never talked about it, about what it had been like for him, not really-snippets, now and then, but nothing with real substance. It must just be too damned hard. He reached across to where Scott was riding next to him and touched his arm, seeking his full attention. "He'll have us to help him through this, Scott. He won't have to deal with it alone. It may not be easy, but everything will be okay." Even to Murdoch these words sounded inadequate.
"Yes Sir." But Scott looked anything but convinced. As they spoke, he had pulled even further into himself, pulling his hat even lower to block out the outside world for a time, as the horses headed slowly west towards the Davis Mountains, the horses slipping and jerking a bit from the muddy footing, the dogs baying and yapping in front of them, the rain soaking them all to the bone. He was remembering an exceedingly dark piece of his own personal history, the fear and isolation, the hunger and loneliness.
He had been so young, quite a bit younger than Johnny was even now, had joined up when he was only eighteen, and hadn't that angered his grandfather to no end. It had been his first stab at independence. Lord, he had felt like such a man, so completely grown up in his bright new uniform with its shiny buttons. And he wasn't at all-not at all grown up. But in Libby he grew up-he learned what it meant to be independent all right. Now, when he allowed himself to remember this nightmare time of his life, mostly he remembered the sounds. He had discovered early on that sounds would trigger the dark memories for him more quickly than any other sense. People always say that smell is the sense that reminds us of the past. Not for him. Not for these particular, dark memories. His nightmares rang with sound.
Scott could be in the barn, grooming Charlie, feeling just fine, minding his own business, and the clank of a chain, maybe Jelly doing something across the way or one of the horses brushing against something, and the sound didn't even have to be made by a chain, it just had to sound like it was, and he would be there, back at Libby, chained to the wall. Sick. Weak. Scared.
Or, that time on the barn roof, when Walt had driven a nail right through his own hand and had let loose with a sudden scream filled with rolling agony-that particular scream, the timbre of it, the volume, had torn through Scott like a razor-sharp knife, and there he was, instantly transported back to Libby, and it was his voice, his scream. He'd had to grab the peak of the roof or he would have fallen-it was that strong and real to him. He shook his head in an attempt to dispel the image, scattering droplets of water from the brim of his hat in all directions. He turned and found his father looking at him with bright intensity, a startling understanding in his eyes. But how could he understand? How could anybody who had not been there understand?
Many men had died in that prison-men he had called comrades, friends. Some had been lucky enough to survive physically, but, dear God, they were never the same again. Lucky. He considered that the ones who had died were probably the lucky ones. He was one of the few, one of the very few, who had come home reasonably intact, and he hadn't survived without ghosts. No, not without ghosts. Now he could only wonder as they moved closer and closer to finding his little brother--What of Johnny? Would he survive? Would he survive without ghosts?
It seemed to Lilly as though she had stood there, thigh deep in the frigid, swirling water, transfixed, for hours, for days, but in reality, only a very brief, terrifying moment had passed. "Johnny. Oh my God. Johnny."
Through the raging rain, she could see him tumbling and rolling in the water like a dead thing, limp and boneless, bouncing from rock to tree branch and back to rock, working his way downstream rapidly, away from her. She unconsciously reached her hand out, as though she could catch him, although he was yards from her in no time at all. His head and shoulders, the blue of his shirt, bobbed above, then below, then above, the boiling surface. She could see that he had thrown one arm out in front of himself as if for protection; at least she hoped he had thrown it there, as that would indicate he at least had some awareness. As she watched he took a particularly painful looking bounce with the side of his head off of a small boulder in his path.
Shaking herself from her stupor, she called to him frantically, her voice high and breathless. "Johnny." And as she shouted after him, although they were heavily saturated with water, she quickly began pulling her dress and petticoats up as high as she could, up around her waist, holding them above the stream, in spite of the weight of them. As she lifted them, she could feel a slight pull at her wrist where the bracelet of the handcuff encircled it, could hear the jangle of the broken chain, and she wondered at the timing of it all.
With grim faced determination, she gathered and gathered and held the yards of material in her arms. Her legs were nearly bare now in the frigid water, only bloomers separated her bare legs from the rumbling stream; only thin cotton bloomers were left to protect her from the frigid temperatures, to impede her progress. She started downstream after him with as much speed as she could manage, too slow, but recklessly fast, under the circumstances.
The water flowed past her, around and between her legs. And, it was so hard to walk. She could barely feel her feet anymore, the snowmelt chill slowly robbing her of any feeling, making her footing just that much more treacherous, and she could tell that the numbness was slowly creeping upward. It was such incredibly slow going, nearly as hard as it had been when she had been supporting Johnny as well as herself, and she wanted so badly to go more quickly. She had time to wonder, as she slipped and slid her way downstream, if she would get to him soon enough-get there in time to pull his face out of the muddy water, to allow him to breathe again. Please God. Let me help him.
As she struggled her way to him, noticeably closer now, she saw him suddenly begin to flail wildly with his arms and legs, as though he had abruptly awakened from a bad dream. Water flew up around him as he struggled, and, miraculously, after the spray settled down around him again, she could see that he had managed to turn himself onto his back. His arms were thrown straight out to either side of him, and he was gulping in huge gasps of air whenever his head broke the surface of the water. Thank you God for small favors.
The stream's force had pushed him more to the opposite bank, and she saw him hang up on a blessed fallen tree which lay nearly halfway across the surging stream. She could see the force of the water pushing at him, pushing him against the tree, his shoulder wedged against it, the obstacle creating a tiny whirlpool where it lay. His feet and legs turned downstream-the water still trying to keep control of him, trying to pull him further along, but he had, at least temporarily, stopped flowing away from her. Without realizing it, she held her breath as she moved towards him, hoping that he would hold to his perch, that he would be aware enough to stay still until she could get there. She thought she saw one of his hands, claw-like snaking out to grasp at the tree. "Johnny. Don't move. I'm coming. Please don't move."
For the first time since she had awakened under a romantic willow tree yesterday morning, so full of longing and fantasy, and then had her fairy tale turn into a nightmare, moments later, Lilly felt as though her luck may be turning. She sloshed on down the stream as quickly as her frozen feet would carry her across the slick rocks. When she was within several yards of his mostly submerged body, she could see that his face was nearly colorless, and his lips seemed to be turning slightly blue, but he was breathing; she could see that he was breathing.
She reached her arms out towards him in anticipation of actually touching him, and without warning, she felt her feet slide out from beneath her completely. She landed with a spectacular splash and a sputter, face down in the icy water. She was stunned for a moment, lay there in the water, her mind a blank, frozen. Everything was so quiet and still there under, compared to the torrent of rain and the rushing stream above. The embrace of the water was almost comforting, and it seduced her, lulled her. This isn't so bad, she thought. Maybe I'll just rest for a minute.
But then, an image of Johnny, hurt, ill, dependent on her, popped into that soft blankness. She knew she had to get to him, that it was the most important thing she had ever had to do, and she had to do it now. And with a tremendous, violent push, with a strength she pulled to herself from somewhere bright and clean, she immediately emerged from the water again, bursting from beneath the surface in a rush, crystal droplets falling from her as she arose fully, dripping, but with renewed purpose.
With a convulsive expansion of her chest, she gulped in wondrous, sweet air. And, she was back on her feet in no time, amazed that she could move so fast, as she continued her journey downstream. She hauled one leg after the other, inches at a time, the water tugging again at her dress, which was again swirling full length around her in the water, but she was so close now, so close that she didn't want to take the time to stop and gather it up again.
There he was, right there, nearly within her grasp, so tantalizingly close. "Johnny." She moved onward-so close to him now, it made her hands ache to touch him. And the ache reminded her of that first day when her hands had so wanted to caress him, when she had wanted to be touching him intimately like his sweat soaked shirt touched him, and she wondered now at the difference. She wanted to touch him because he needed her; she needed to touch him, to help him, to save him. He was her responsibility. She realized with a start that her connection to him went so much deeper now than a pair of shackles and toe curling lust.
When at last she reached him, she got the strongest grip on his arm that she could, first with one hand and then with two. Fear gave her strength. She was amazingly cold now, soaked to the bone with icy water, and it was difficult to get her hands to work like she wanted them too. Tiny whirlpools pulled at her legs, threatening to pull her down once more. She nearly wished to be chained to him again, to be assured that he would not escape her grasp, not this time. There was no way she was going to risk him getting away from her, heading on downstream, no way.
She moved around behind him, sloshing through the shallower water, knee-deep now, and the mud tugging at her shoes, towards the stream's bank and grabbed him now under each arm, pulling him towards the far side of the stream, at last pulling him through the mud and ferns that grew at the stream's very edge. Her hair hung in her eyes, obscuring her vision, but she wouldn't risk letting go of him for one second to push it away. She didn't need to see anyway; she just needed to get him out. They were quite a ways down from the overhang now, but at least they would be on the proper side. It seemed rather unimportant now anyway. She noticed that his skin felt frigid underneath her hands, a far cry from the fire that had been raging through him such a short time before. Now he shivered from the cold rather than from fever.
She walked backwards up the bank of the stream, pulling him behind her, dragging him slowly from the swirling water. The more of his weight she pulled from the buoyancy of the water, the harder it was to haul him. She found that she was suddenly beyond tired-her sleepless night, her struggle with the stream, her fear for Johnny-had all worked together to exhaust her completely. Her arms felt like wet straw, and she was shaking with the effort to lift his weight and the cold, great rolling tremors. In addition to her bone-weariness, the bank was exceedingly muddy here at this spot, and she worried that the mud would make her slip, or that she would be mired in it.
As she moved up the incline towards the bluff, instead of mud defeating her climb, her feet tangled in her sodden dress and she went down hard, flat on her back, with Johnny on top of her-his back to her front, her arms still clutched under his armpits and around his chest, her fingers locked. His head was even with her chest; his legs, from the knees down, still dangled in the mud-filled water at the stream's edge. She struggled for a minute to get the breath back that had been knocked from her.
And after a moment or two, she finally did manage to take a deep breath, and awareness of her surroundings came back to her. Lilly could feel the rain hitting her face and her bare arm where her sleeve had been torn away, but she was so tired. She needed to rest just for a minute, then they could get on with their task, work their way to the overhang.
So, clasping her fingers together even more tightly in front of Johnny's chest, with the thought that they would be safe here for a short time, Lilly, amazingly, with her head pillowed on ferns and Johnny's weight pushing her down into the mud, fell into a cold, exhausted sleep.
From a place of darkness, Johnny's sluggish brain was working very hard, but painstakingly slowly, to figure out where he was and what had happened to him. If he could only get the world to stop shifting and turning for just one tiny minute, he knew he could figure this, this, whatever, all out. One thing he knew for certain though was that he was cold, numb with the cold. For some reason, he briefly visualized a quiet mountain snowfall, a tiny cave, and a small, white wolf, a vision which swirled away like smoke when he tried to focus on it.
Oh, and he knew that it was raining; yes, he could tell it was raining-okay, that made two things he knew for certain. He couldn't count to two, but he could definitely tell that it was raining. Quick drops of water tapped at his face. His teeth chattered terribly, and it was well beyond his control to stop them from doing so. He wondered when it had ever not been raining, when he had not been wet and cold. He wondered when he had last been warm and dry. He couldn't remember.
He was lying prone, his arms thrown wide, straight out, and whatever he was lying on wasn't very comfortable, lumpy and wet, wet like everything else in his world seemed to be. His back ached terribly, thin stripes of agony. His head ached too, whether from injury or illness, he couldn't be certain, but the pain spiraled from just above his left ear and worked its way over the top of his head.
Soon enough, although miserable and wet and working around a world that would not stay still, he was able to remember that he had been in prison somewhere, Texas maybe. Yes, an awful, rat-infested, hell hole of a prison. It was definitely becoming clearer, but he almost wished these particular memories weren't. He was unsure of what he had been charged with, but he cringed to remember his claustrophobic reaction to the dark, tiny cell, which, for some reason, reminded him of dried onions, and his fear of the burly guard with the fire-wielding whip, those thin painful stripes on his sore back a reminder of why he feared and loathed that particular man.
His stomach began to thrash and ache, and he remembered that they hadn't fed him much at all for a long time in that prison; there had been deep hunger, which must still be there, with a feeling that was gnawing unpleasantly at his stomach. Or maybe it wasn't hunger which clutched and rolled with amazing violence in his stomach....
But something was gnawing at him---and with more energy than he thought he possessed, he turned his head to the side very suddenly as he retched and emptied his convulsing stomach of what looked to be muddy water. Now, as he lay there shaky and pale and worked to recover his composure, his thoughts were punctuated by gaspy, rumbling, chest-deep and painful coughs. He laid his head back again and tried to recall how he could possibly have a belly full of muddy stream.
"Lilly." He remembered that Lilly, the wildly annoying child-woman, had engineered his escape, that she had shown up the next morning after that late night escape and had handcuffed herself to him, handcuffed herself to him for God's sake, while he slept soundly through it. He shook his head slightly to remember that, sending waves of pain tumbling across the top of his head. Then, it took a while, but after a moment, he was able to think about his situation again. What he couldn't figure out was where he was now, where Lilly was. He tried to sit up to relieve his breathing some, which rattled with every inhale and exhale, but the effort just exhausted him more.
"Lilly?" He opened his eyes almost completely, but the rain made it hard to keep them open fully, and his left eye felt swollen, like someone had given him a black eye. He could see that it was daylight, to an extent. He longed for sun with all of his heart, but the clouds were thick and iron gray. The dreary sight of them did, however, help him to remember that Lilly had decided they should cross the stream for some reason. She had forced him to look at the bluff line across the way before they did, solicited his agreement to something. He remembered nodding. He also remembered stepping down into the frigid stream-an explanation for the muddy water in his gut. But how much time had passed since then? When had that happened? How long ago?
Had she abandoned him? Run back home to her daddy? His first impulse was to believe that the idea seemed likely. But then, it didn't seem likely at all. There was some reason, hovering just at the edge of his remembering which told him that she would not leave him, something that had nothing at all to do with handcuffs. He tried to raise his arm to see if Lilly was attached to it, but for right now, the effort was just too much trouble. He could hear the sound of the rushing stream they had crossed, tried to cross-he wasn't sure. It sounded very clear, very close, and his legs were numb with the cold.
Where was Lilly? They were handcuffed together. Weren't they?
Sudden, blindingly clear insight told him, beyond any doubt, that the lumpy, wet thing he was lying on must be Lilly, and he attempted to roll away from her. He must be hurting her. He was so weak and so incredibly cold that her hands, which he could now see clutching him around his chest, refused to yield. They were locked there, and he wondered if she might be asleep or possibly unconscious. But, in his present state, it would appear that her clasped hands were all it took to stop him from being able to take his weight from her. "Lilly? Are ya all right? Am I hurtin' ya?" He spoke softly, his exhaustion and the pain in his chest had stolen part of his breath and most of his voice, and then he rolled to the side again, rocking a bit, and was at last rolling to her side as her grip on him loosened; her fingers became lax and then released completely.
He was on his stomach now, and he got his arms underneath himself, his elbows in the mud. He raised himself up some, pulling his numbed legs and feet from the water, and looked down at her. Her hair lay in muddy clumps, long strands pasted to her face and neck. At this point, a stranger wouldn't even be able to tell what color it truly was. Her eyes were obscured by that heavy, mud-coated hair. Her dress was torn, wet and soaked through with the slime of the stream, and one of her fancy shoes was missing. She was flat out filthy and worn, a very long way, miles and long miles away, from the well-groomed princess he had woken up next to yesterday morning.
As he stared down at her, she seemed to be able to feel his scrutiny, and she slowly opened her eyes. "Johnny." She raised her small hand to his forehead and pushed back the wet, bedraggled hair that hung in his face. "Your fever is down," she whispered.
He thought about how chilled he was, and then, amazed at the effort it took, he rasped out, "I think I had a cold bath." He looked down at her for a moment more. But his strength was flagging already, nearly played out, so he laid back in the mud next to her. "I'm so tired Lilly."
His wheezing breath and heaving, greedy chest frightened her. She sat up slowly but with determination. "Let's get to that overhang." She struggled to her knees, her teeth chattering to the point where it was hard to talk, and she reached down to help him up, to force him up.
"How 'bout we don't. An overhang ain't gonna do no good."
She studied him carefully. His fever was down for now, but she knew that was temporary, from his "cold bath," and his breathing was getting so very ragged. He needed serious help, more help than an overhang and a young girl could give him. "Come on. Up we go." As she pulled him around to a seated position, she could tell that he was no longer trying to help her as he had been earlier. In fact, he was resisting her.
"Lilly honey, why're ya torturin' me? It ain't gonna matter where we light. I'm done in. Just le' me sleep."
"Nope. We've got to get somewhere dryer than here."
Johnny held up his right hand with an effort and shook the bracelet of the handcuffs softly in Lilly's direction. Then he looked at her with a crooked grin she had never seen on him before. She wondered if it was a smile from his life "before." Then he lost the grin and spoke more seriously to her, with his braceleted hand still slightly in the air in front of her. "Guess what? We don't have ta do everything t'gether anymore. We've been emancipated. I'm stayin' Lilly."
"We may not be shackled together anymore Johnny, but we're still connected. I know I made a mess of things. I've got to fix it. And I've got to help you." With this, Lilly instantly knew that she was going to have to leave him alone for a while, and it was agonizing for her to think it, but there just was no other way.
"Johnny. See that big, pretty cedar tree right over there with the low hanging branches?"
Johnny raised his head, spied the cedar and nodded. "Yeah, I see it. But it's too far."
"Let's go. It's not too far; in fact, it's very close. We can do this."
Johnny was on his feet at last, through no fault of his own. He leaned his weight on Lilly and wheezed his way towards the tree with Lilly mumbling beside him. "Lilly," he finally gasped, "what're ya sayin' about elephants?"
"That you're as heavy as one," she snapped, irritated not with him, but with what she was going to have to do.
They reached the tree, and Lilly helped Johnny to crawl under the sheltering limbs. It was really amazingly dry beneath the tree, and the fallen needles made a soft, springy bed. As he laid down on his side and closed his eyes, she backed away from him. "Johnny. I'm going for help. You need warm, dry clothes and a fire and medicine; most of all, you need a doctor. I'm sorry, but I have to go."
"Don't leave me alone." He spoke very quietly, no more than a breath, and he didn't even open his eyes. Lilly wasn't at all sure he knew to whom he was speaking or what he was saying. Then she thought she heard him whispering, whispering, in Spanish, and then there were some names-Scott? Merdick?
"I'll be back as soon as I can, Johnny. I'll run." And then she did. Lilly ran.
The searchers had ridden to the west all morning through a driving downpour, following the, generally, ineffectual dogs. Leroy had made the decision to go west, had decided that the "filthy half-breed" would be looking for cover, and a westerly direction provided that best. Scott had reacted with a jerk to the man's words, but a look from Murdoch had protected their true purpose for a while longer. Inexplicably, Bryden had not yet informed the guard of their identities either. They were working their way on a gradual upward grade into the foothills. Finally now, close to noon, the incessant rain was slacking off. The company of men was quiet, with few words being exchanged, the low hanging weather working to keep them all disconnected, even father and son.
Warden Bryden spent the early part of the ride working up a respectable worried frown, for whose benefit, Scott wondered, and issuing complaints about the rain and the lack of progress they were making. Scott could not believe that this man was an adult, let alone a father. He sounded like a petulant, whining child. But, even he had been silenced eventually by the wet and the gloom.
The rain had been both a curse and a blessing for Scott. It made the going slower, and any kind of trail nearly impossible to follow, which was frustrating and keeping him from his brother, but, on the other hand, it also helped him to keep himself isolated from the outside world more easily. He had pulled his hat down low across his eyes, an action he had seen Johnny perform numerous times, and huddled deep into his rain slicker, making himself as small and as inconspicuous as possible. Occasionally he would peer outward from his self-imposed isolation to glance at Murdoch, and he nearly always found his father looking at him with concern. But, it was just too much trouble to reassure him right now, would take entirely too much energy. He needed to use every ounce he had left to worry about Johnny.
Through the gradually diminishing rain, they could see Guadalupe Peak in the distance. They had been following a rocky trail along a fast-running, snowmelt stream for the last hour or so, and Scott was concerned that the guards and the stupid, childish warden appeared to be getting ready to stop for a mid-day meal, that they would build a fire and hunker down for a while. He would not.
Picking their way along the rock-strewn trail was tedious, but almost welcome, as it took his complete attention, left him little room for thinking of other things. He and his horse had become closely acquainted over the past few weeks, and he was a good horse, but Scott still did not trust him as he did Charlie. Then, through the gloom, he suddenly thought he could see a figure in the distance, coming down the trail towards them. It was indistinct, and he was terribly afraid that it was wishful thinking on his part. In spite of his misgivings, the idea that he had at last slipped over the edge into insanity, Scott lifted his head and spurred his horse a bit, praying that it really was Johnny. As he got closer, he could see that there truly was a person running, stumbling, towards them; it was not his imagination, but another few yards and he could see that the person was too small to be his brother. Even closer and he could see the long hair and a dress. The girl then. Just ahead of him he could hear Bryden call out to her, "Lilly. Oh my God, it's Lilly."
And the man slid awkwardly from his horse as he got closer and elected to run, instead, to her side. Scott could see him wrap the wet, bedraggled child in his arms and could tell that she was resisting, trying to tell him something, pushing him away. He jumped from his own horse and made his way to their side as Murdoch and a straggling guard caught up with the small group. Bryden just kept repeating "Thank-you God, thank-you," as Lilly plucked at his arm and tried to get him to listen to her, tried to push him away, to look her in the face. And Leroy was there, throwing questions at her, like a droning bee, background noise.
"Where's Johnny?" Scott called to her, frantic, as soon as he got close enough, and he saw her jerk her head towards him. "Where is he?" he insisted.
"Come on," she rasped, pulling away from her father at last. "We've got to get back to him. He's so sick. He's by the stream a ways back, under a cedar tree. I left him over an hour ago." She pointed back in the direction from which she had come.
"Lilly. Did he hurt you? What did he do to you? How did he get you? Oh, Lilly, look at you." Thomas Bryden could not believe her appearance. Her dress was torn, wet and dirty. Her hair was caked with mud. His baby, what had she been through? What would people think?
"Daddy. Not now. I'm okay. It's not important. We have to get to Johnny. Get help for him. He's so sick."
Using ever bit of self control he could summon, Scott took her hand, gently, in his to get her attention. He was momentarily distracted by the handcuff he saw encircling her wrist, the dangling chain, but he had to concentrate. He coldly interrupted Bryden as though the man's insignificance was apparent to all. "Lilly. Show me. Show me where my brother is."
He looked up at the sound of pounding hooves to see Leroy thunder past, upstream in the direction Lilly had indicated. "No," he shouted hoarsely, and he heard an identical echoing shout from his father. He jumped back on his horse and held his hand down to the girl. "Show me."
She grabbed his forearm, and he pulled her up behind him, with Bryden grasping at her, trying to keep her with him. For a moment, he ran beside Scott's horse. "Lilly, what are you doing? Lilly?"
"Not now, daddy," she hissed at him. And then Scott was on the move before Lilly even had time to get completely situated. Murdoch was following closely behind them, silent and grim-faced, and then the other guards followed him. Lilly looked back and could see her father staring after them with his mouth hanging open, and then as he realized that they were leaving him behind, he called out to her again as he began running for his horse, and she turned away from him, as though she hadn't heard. They had to get to Johnny. At this moment, that's all that mattered.
Scott could see Leroy ahead of them, pulling away. "Hold on," he said to Lilly over his shoulder, and he spurred his horse to move faster. They could see the guard riding as though his life depended on him getting to Johnny before the rest of them.
In less than 30 minutes, Lilly was pulling at his shoulder. "We're nearly there. See that row of trees. Leroy will be on him any minute."
Scott could see the mean-looking guard looking carefully under each of the cedars he passed, and then he pulled his mount up sharply and jumped to the ground, grabbing his whip as he dismounted. "He's found him."
Reflexively, Lilly clasped her arms more tightly around Scott's waist when she saw that Leroy had indeed found Johnny. "No, no don't let him whip him again." The picture of Leroy whipping Johnny at the pole that one early morning was still so very vivid and raw in her memory.
"Again?" he whispered, and Scott was frantic to catch up to the guard.
They could see the burly man grabbing at something, at Johnny, under the tree and yanking, pulling, pulling him across the needle strewn ground and then across the rocks. Then Scott heard a pain filled shout as Leroy dragged his brother from beneath the cedar, and the sound of that scream was too much for him, took him back; he was frozen, stuck firmly in his Libby nightmare once again. From a great distance, he heard Lilly, "Help him. Oh God, don't let Leroy hurt him anymore."
And then another voice calling out, a masculine voice, sharp and full of pain, "Johnny, no. Johnny." He knew that voice.
And then Scott was flying from his horse and charging into the guard just as Leroy raised his whip above the man on the ground. He didn't think about, or hear, or feel anything, anyone; he just knew that this man was going to hurt someone. This man was a guard; the guards brought pain, always brought pain. Only this time, Scott wasn't chained to the wall; this time he could do something. He could stop it. He could stop the pain.
He barreled into the man who had dragged a body by one arm from beneath a tree. No, not a body, a dark-haired man who moaned with pain and gasped for breath. A man over whom this guard stood, holding a whip. He was at Libby. He was at Libby, and he was not chained. Scott's armed cocked back sharply, and the blow he served sent the guard sailing backwards onto the muddy bank behind him. Scott could feel someone grab at him, at his arm, but nothing was going to stop him from getting his revenge on this guard. He never thought he would have the chance, but here it was. They must have forgotten to lock the chains. "Scott." His name was being called sharply. "Scott, leave it." Who was calling to him. Leave what?
He stepped over the long-haired man who lay gasping on the ground and jumped on top of the guard just as he was struggling to his feet again. And then he felt himself being rolled over, found himself in the mud with the weight of the man bearing down on him. Not this time. He would not be beaten this time. And he pushed with every ounce of strength within himself, pushed the guard off, with a terrific splash, into the rushing stream beside them. As he stood, he heard another shout, that voice again. "Scott, look out."
He turned his head to look, to find the voice, and was run down by a dripping wet, charging bull, flattened to the ground, blood spurting instantly from his nose as it made contact with the rocky stream bank. He rolled to his back and looked up slowly, double images, two men, big as mountains, two huge fists, both fists rearing back in perfect synchronization, two burly guards smashed, twin jaws popping and breaking.
And then the images resolved themselves, and Scott was no longer at Libby. His father, only one now, stood above him rubbing at his right fist. Leroy, out cold lay behind him. He was in the Davis Mountains-Johnny was hurt-and he was pretty sure his nose was well and truly broken. Murdoch handed him a bandanna for his bleeding nose and helped him to his feet. There, not five feet away, Lilly sat on her heels, brushing the dark hair from his brother's forehead. His brother. After more than two full months, at last they had found him.
Johnny awoke to bright sunlight, eyelet lace and blue-flowered wallpaper. He stretched a little, to the extent that his stiff back would allow it, and looked around himself. He chuckled a bit at his surroundings, which led to a tickle. And then, he couldn't stop it, "damn," and the tickle turned into a cough, a deep, chest rumbling cough, but as ugly as that cough sounded, he knew that it was only the lingering remnants of the pneumonia he had been fighting off for a while now. He pushed himself higher up on the pillows-that always helped. In spite of this little episode, he knew that he coughed less, and he felt worlds better, each and every day that passed. His mouth quirked up in a grin as he studied his room again, his fairy princess bedroom with its white painted bed with a tent over it. He wondered, again, why on earth a bed needed a top on it when it was inside of a house. But the room was very large, and it had big sun-shiney windows all along one long wall. Not tiny and closed in, nope, not at all.
He was alone. It had to be the first time in a week, maybe longer. Really, he wasn't quite sure how long he had been sleeping in Lilly's bedroom. He couldn't remember. But, he sure as heck remembered the doctor who had hovered over him off and on. The man had seemed pretty nice, he guessed, at first, but he sure hadn't liked it at all when Johnny had asked, reasonably of course, that the man get the hell away from him with his damned-awful tasting medicines. And, boy oh boy, did the man ever have a mouth on him. Can a person really do that to himself? And maybe he had accidentally swung his arm out and knocked the horrible stuff to the carpet, but it had been an accident. Really.
Early on, at one point, during one of his fuzzy awakenings, he remembered that both his back and his chest had hurt like the devil. It had been pretty difficult at first. They had made him lie on his back, high up on pillows, to ease his breathing they said, and really it had, some. But, lying on his back had made him want to scream as it set off waves of pain from the whip marks Leroy had left for him. And he had felt so, well, the only word that came to mind was fragile-as though he might break into hundreds of jagged pieces at the slightest thing.
Every time he had woken up, for days he guessed, someone had been sitting in the chair by his bed, mostly Scott or Murdoch, sometimes the foul-mouthed doctor, and one time, it had been Lilly. It had been fully dark when she had been the one sitting in the chair, but a lamp had burned on the bedside table, and Lilly had dozed with her head cocked to one side, resting on her own shoulder. Her hair was hanging loose around her and gleamed golden and soft in the lamplight. She was dressed in a high-necked, lacy, white nightgown. She hadn't stirred as he watched her, and he had drifted back to sleep without disturbing her. Mostly, when he woke up, they all tried to make him drink water. Have a drink of water Johnny. Drink this water, Son. What was it with these people and all of the water drinking? He suspected they were slipping him sleeping concoctions or, possibly, laudanum, especially that cranky doctor.
He thought about Scott. He had been sitting in the chair most often. He had two very black eyes and his nose was bruised and swollen. "Run into a tree, Boston?" Johnny had gasped out, with his hand clutched to his chest, the first time he had been coherent enough to speak to him.
"You could say that, brother."
"Ya look awful. Broken?"
"Yes, it's broken. Doctor said it'll be just fine. But, you know, you're don't exactly look like you're ready for going to a ball yourself."
"How 'bout th' other guy?"
"Broken jaw, among other things, but that was courtesy of Murdoch."
Johnny had wanted badly to know the story behind that statement, but it would be several days before he was able to remember it and stay awake long enough to hear the telling of it.
Those times when it had been Murdoch in the chair, he could see that his father looked so very different than he had the last time he had seen him, when Johnny had last left Lancer for Texas. He didn't have the twin shiners that Scott was sporting, but he looked so tired and worn, older and thinner. How such a profound change had happened in such a short time, Johnny was at a loss to explain. His father's gray hair was badly in need of a haircut, something Johnny was positive he had never ever seen before, and he thought that Murdoch must not be sleeping well, or maybe his back had been bothering him. He just looked done in. That first time he had woken to his father's worried face, he could have sworn that Murdoch had wiped away tears when he had seen Johnny looking up at him through a veil of pain. Tears.
"Hey, you're awake," Scott called out as he entered the frilly bedroom carrying a tray.
"Yep." Johnny looked Scott over. The black eyes and swollen nose looked better, but still painful, and his brother looked nearly as worn as Murdoch. "Where's everybody? I'm used to havin' a nursemaid. Just don't seem natural without one."
"Court." Scott set the tray down and helped Johnny sit up better so that he could eat.
"I don't need to be treated like a damned invalid," he groused without much fire, as Scott fussed over him. His brother was used to him and just ignored the sour temper. But really, Johnny knew that he had to eat and rest and get his strength back. They had all promised him that he could get up soon, if he would just be good. When he was finally settled, ready to
eat, he asked, "Who is it this time?"
"The good Warden."
"Did Lilly go?"
"Yes. Yes, she did."
"What d'ya think they'll do to 'im?"
"I don't know, Johnny, but I hope they give him your old cell."
"Thought you said that's where Leroy was settin' up residence."
"Turns out that, 'broken jaw or no broken jaw,' the judge sent Leroy off to the workhouse in Huntsville. He'll be digging ditches on the chain gang there. Fitting, huh?"
"Actually, I don't care what happens to him." Johnny started to shrug his shoulders, but felt a tight pulling which stopped him short. "What about Lilly's daddy? Think he's lookin' at jail time?" Johnny lifted the cloth away to find that they had finally sent him something besides broth or oatmeal. Scrambled eggs and biscuits, he was in heaven.
"Well, I'm no lawyer, but, yeah, I guess I do expect him to go to jail."
"What will become of Lilly, then?"
"Actually, I was just talking to her about that last night. She's a real level-headed girl, Johnny. Very mature. She thinks her father is going to end up in prison too. Thinks she might too, for helping you to escape, and for whacking poor Jimmy."
"How is Jimmy? When they came and took that statement from me, I told them I thought they should go easy on Jimmy. I never saw the boy do anything overly harsh or out of line."
"Jimmy's fine. He got off. Moses Miller gave him a job at the livery. Turns out the boy loves horses."
"I told that lawyer fella that Lilly didn't do anything wrong either, Scott. She saved my life by bringin' me all manner of food when Leroy was starvin' me. She turned into an adult fully grown out there Scott. I hope nothin' bad happens to her now."
"I'm pretty sure that Lilly doesn't have to worry about going to jail, Johnny. Miss Avery has offered her a job as her assistant. The housekeeper plans to stay on here for the next warden, and she asked Lilly if she wanted to stay too. Said there's an extra little room next to hers where Lilly could set up housekeeping. Wants her to help with the cleaning and laundry."
"And Lilly agreed to that?"
"Yes, she did. She was grateful for it."
If Johnny was surprised at Lilly's practical acceptance of her situation, he didn't show it. "Scott, can you find out about one more person for me, a prisoner? His name is Pablo. He was two cells down."
"I'll see what I can find out for you, brother."
The two brothers spent the day together waiting for Lilly and Murdoch to return. When Johnny was up to it, they played checkers. Much of the time, Johnny napped. Finally, after Miss Avery's fine supper, still alone, Scott helped Johnny hobble to the window. "Come on brother, I've got a surprise for you." They heard horses clatter up outside and figured that their solitude was about to be broken, and they both looked forward to the telling of what had happened to Thomas Bryden.
Scott could tell from the amount of weight Johnny leaned on him, that they would probably be here at least another week before they could ride to the nearest railroad station, but he was better, definitely better. He had worried so much about his brother's mental state, once his physical problems had been dealt with, but Johnny seemed very Johnny-like, cranky about the painkillers, complaining about the food, angry about being stuck in bed, busy teasing Scott about the damage to his "pretty face"-how that "don't photograph too good."
Scott had been witness to a few very violent nightmares during the last week or so, but Johnny had suffered from nightmares ever since Scott had known him. Time would tell if these would fade. All Scott could do was try to get Johnny to talk to him about it. Scott had had a few nightmares of his own since they had gotten Johnny back here. It was damn hard sleeping in this house so close to the prison. Maybe the brothers could help one another.
He suspected that this ordeal had left lasting scars on his brother. How could it not have? But Johnny was doing everything he could not to let any show. He also was aware that Murdoch and Johnny had talked deep into the night several evenings ago, that Murdoch had left the room worn out and red-eyed, but Scott had not been privy to the conversation, and neither man had offered to share. But, whatever had been discussed had left them both in a better mood afterwards.
Now, Scott was more than ready to go home. He missed Lancer so much. It seemed like they had all been gone for years. They had all been gone now for nearly three months. Was the ranch even still standing? Jelly had been very positive in his last telegram, everything was "right as rain," he said. "Take care of that boy; I'll take care of the ranch." But even if the place could run just fine without them, he didn't want it too. He needed to be home. They all did. Another week, just another week.
"What's my surprise?" Johnny asked as they got to the window and Scott reached out to pull the lacy curtain aside. "I've already been promised enough chocolate cake from Miss Avery 'so you can forget about your awful ordeal you poor boy.' Just as soon as the ornery doctor says I can have food that tastes good, anyway. Oh, and Murdoch bought me a real nice book full of pictures and descriptions of different kinds of horses and all-a book I might just be able to stay awake through. So whatcha got ta top that big brother, hmmmmm?"
"Well, it turns out that Moses was holdin' on to something for you. Murdoch and I found it, and we brought it to you. It's something we thought might lift your spirits a bit."
Johnny peered out of the window with no idea what Scott was talking about, but then, down in the yard tied to a hitching rail he saw her-it couldn't be. But it was. Cielo. Johnny slumped a bit in his arms.
Scott could see the
strangest look on his face, like he might cry. Scott didn't know what to think.
"Well, I knew you might have gotten attached to her; she is a pretty little
thing, but I sure didn't think it would make you cry."
"You have no idea, brother. That horse could make any man cry."
As Scott hooked a chair with his foot for his brother to sit in, Johnny looked across the yard. He couldn't quite bring himself to look down into the little valley at the stone walls of the prison just yet, so he let his eyes wander to the big tree that sat at the top of the slope leading down to the road.
And there she was, there was Lilly, high up amongst the leaves, almost hidden, but not quite. He could see her face, in and out of shadows as the breeze tossed the leaves around. The sweetness of her bare feet hanging down on either side of the branch nearly broke his heart; it seemed so normal and clean.