wearily, Scott Lancer stretched out his long legs, and tried to settle
back more comfortably in his father’s armchair.
Although his body found it easy to relax, his mind wasn’t quite
as lucky, and glancing across the room at Teresa, he could tell that she
was suffering from a similar problem.
He smiled slightly.
looked up at him with a small start.
“Um, yes. Very good thank you.”
smile widened even further.
good in fact, that you’ve been on the same page ever since you first opened
flushed guiltily, and snapped it closed with a sigh.
that obvious ?”
smile faded as he regarded her anxious little face, the shadows that seemed
to be deepening round her fawn-like eyes.
we haven’t had any word by tomorrow lunchtime, I promise I’ll take either
Cip or Ruis and set out to find them.
You never know, the fact that they’re overdue could be a good
sign. It may mean they’ve decided to sort things out between them a little
bit, that they’ve taken some time to talk things over.”
of her anxiety, she couldn’t help making a slight face at him.
that or they’ve killed each other !”
as well, but in truth, her words were an uncomfortable echo of his own
worries regarding the unexpected and disquieting trip that Murdoch had
been forced to undertake, not a fortnight since.
Scott winced as he recalled the look of towering rage on Murdoch’s
face the day that Val Crawford had ridden over from the Green River Sheriff’s
office with the telegraph in his hand.
With the automatic sixth sense he seemed to have developed when
it came to his younger brother, Scott had known immediately it contained
bad news about Johnny, and unfortunately, he was right.
Johnny had been on his way back to Lancer from Barstow.
The trip in itself had been a kind of punishment, as things around
the hacienda had been decidedly bad for awhile now, and Scott had sensed
that Murdoch needed some time and space to cool down a little after one
particularly flaming row.
But it was just like Johnny to have sensed it too, and along with
his outraged feeling of injustice, Scott knew that deep down, he felt hurt
and slightly troubled by the fact that Murdoch had sent him away.
way back home, Johnny had stopped overnight in a small town called Jubilee,
and as usual, he’d stepped headlong into a commotion.
had been some sort of gunfight, the details were sketchy, but the up-shot
of it all, was that Johnny had been arrested and thrown in jail by a man
Val Crawford described as;
real zealot of a Sheriff.”
the man had found out that it was Johnny Madrid who graced his town, and
accused him of using Lancer as an alias for his own nefarious purposes.
Hence Murdoch’s enforced journey down-state to vouch for the validity
of his youngest son, a journey he’d begun with an expression of such rage,
that Scott had worried about it ever since.
And he knew Teresa had too.
He hadn’t missed the look of intense preoccupation on her face as she
moved about the hacienda, getting on quietly with her life, but with an air
of unease hovering around her like a miasma, as she fretted over the breakdown
in the relationship between two of the three men she loved most in the world.
knew what frightened her.
It was the same thing that caused him sleepless nights.
The unspoken worry that one-day, things would get so bad that
Johnny would get on his horse and ride away again.
Only this time, he would never come back.
He sighed, and looked up with slight surprise at her touch on
Whilst he’d been sat there, sunk in despondency, she’d risen from
her chair and poured them both a large brandy.
A supplication to the concern that filled each one of them, a
temporary panacea for the fear of losing Johnny.
Lancer kept his eyes firmly on the horizon, glancing neither left nor right
as he rode ahead, his face like granite.
They’d left Jubilee the day before yesterday, and after some particularly
difficult wrangling, and a certain amount of money changing hands, he’d
managed to persuade the over-ardent Sheriff that Johnny was indeed his son.
From the sound of it, the gunfight had been fair and square, but it was
the same old weary tale, and Murdoch was sick of it.
Someone in the saloon had recognised Johnny, and the stories had
spread like wildfire.
And then of course, there had to be just one idiot who fancied
his chances with a gun.
One fool, who fired up with whisky, had forced a fight with his
son, and lived to regret it.
If only Murdoch had been prepared to listen to the whole story, he might
have discovered just how hard Johnny had tried to avoid that fight, and
how he’d had to swallow and ignore some insults that would have tried the
patience of a saint, let alone a certain hot-headed young man…….
Murdoch wasn’t in the mood to hear it right now, and instead, the whole
incident seemed to confirm yet again, his darker fears concerning Johnny.
was, the man had lived.
Johnny had eventually been forced to fight for his life, taking him down
in a blur of speed, his bullet piercing his opponent’s shoulder with deadly
accuracy and severing the tendons to his gun-arm, but preserving his foolish
It was always a risky shot to take.
If you didn’t make sure of your opponent with the first bullet,
there was always the chance that he’d come back at you again.
But senseless killing had soured Johnny, and it was a risk he
was prepared to accept.
And that’s when his troubles had begun.
He’d signed into Jubilee’s only Hotel as Johnny Lancer, and the Sheriff
knew it because he kept an eye on all the strangers passing through his town.
But then he’d been outed as Johnny Madrid, notorious gunfighter
and shooter for hire, and the ball game had suddenly changed.
Even though the man he’d shot was a braggart and an idiot, he
was local, and known in the area.
But Johnny was a gunfighter, and as far as anyone could see, he’d
lied about his name, and that was all the proof the Sheriff seemed to need.
So therefore, instead of spending the night in the comfortable
Hotel bedroom that he’d booked, he’d ended up in jail, no amount of talk
or explanation good enough for Sheriff Micah Carrick, until Murdoch had arrived
in person to bail him out.
a sigh, Johnny leaned back in the saddle and observed Murdoch clandestinely
through narrowed eyes.
The Old Man was clearly still mad as hell.
He’d barely said two words to him since they’d ridden out of that
God-forsaken town two days ago, speaking only when necessary, his expression
as grim and unyielding as his rigid back.
Johnny wasn’t sure what he could do about it.
Anything he said just seemed to make things worse, and Murdoch
had already told him he didn’t want to listen to excuses.
If Murdoch only knew !
It had taken an awful lot for him to ignore that punk’s insults, to try
and turn the other cheek…
The other Johnny, the old Johnny Madrid, wouldn’t have bothered wasting
his time, wouldn’t have allowed it to spoil his evening.
No, that Johnny would have taken him down.
But he wasn’t that Johnny any more, or at least he was trying
his hardest not to be.
For better or for worse, he was trying to change his ways, to
change his life…
But it sure as hell wasn’t easy sometimes!
at Murdoch again, and a sudden wave of loneliness swept over him.
Was it futile trying to build a relationship with this man who
was his father ?
A lost cause ?
He sometimes felt like raging at him and telling him all the bitter
truths he knew the Old Man wanted to hear.
No more secrets.
No more dirty hidden past.
But in his heart he was terrified.
So afraid that if he did, the Old Man would be horrified, that
he’d reject him out of hand.
And Johnny wouldn’t blame him if he did, either.
A man who’d stained his soul the way he had, maybe didn’t deserve a decent
shot at life. A second chance.
He’d borne many cruel and terrifying things in his life, but he
knew he couldn’t bear to see the disgust and condemnation in his father’s
The past would stay the past.
Dead and buried like layers of leaves.
Ashes on his tongue.
towards the horizon, his heart sank as he saw the sun beginning to drop
down behind the mountains.
It meant that they’d soon be stopping to pitch camp for the night.
The previous couple of nights had been a disaster, and Murdoch
had barely spoken more than two words to him, talking only when necessary
about practical things such as settling the horses, and preparing the meal.
Any other attempts at initiating conversation had been met with
peremptory answers followed by a cold and stony silence that seemed to
stretch on and on forever.
In the end, Murdoch had rolled himself up in his blanket and gone
to sleep, facing away from Johnny as though he’d turned his back on him
had watched him for along while, and sleep for him had been elusive and out
Instead, he’d lain facing upwards just mapping the stars, a hard
knot of misery forming tightly in his chest.
He’d been at Lancer for six months now, and it was hardly proving
to be easy.
Whereas his bond with Scott just kept leaping from strength to
strength, his relationship with Murdoch seemed a perfect example of the old
adage, one step forwards – two steps back !
Any progress they made seemed to be transient, almost ephemeral
sometimes, and just when Johnny dared to believe that things might actually
be improving, some kind of setback would occur to dash it all aside again.
And Johnny was the first one to acknowledge that a lot of it was
probably his fault.
He’d been on his own for so long now.
He was so used to being his own master, to having things his own
way, to never doing anything for anyone if he didn’t like them or agree with
It was hard having to work for the Old Man.
Hard to obey him unquestioningly, to put up with his barked out
orders and terse instructions, his high-handed belief that he was always
Johnny often found himself envious of Scott who seemed to cope with it
better then he did, treating some of Murdoch’s dictates with an amused
sense of philosophy, and a gentle sense of humour.
Maybe it was because he’d been an Army Officer, maybe he’d become
used to being told what to do, or perhaps he was just a damn sight more
patient than Johnny was, with a better understanding of what made the Old
whatever it was, it seemed to be working far more successfully for Scott
than anything that Johnny tried, and at least he managed to get along with
Murdoch on a friendly and civil basis most of the time.
had told him once, a couple of weeks after he’d recovered from the bullet
Day Pardee had put into his back, that Murdoch had refused to leave his bed-side
the whole time he’d been really sick.
But his memories of that week were scattered and vague.
Tainted by pain and fever and curiously fragmented dreams.
He could remember the girl.
The faint, sweet smell of roses on her hair, the gentle touch
of her tiny hands on his hurt-filled body, and under his head as she helped
him to drink.
He could remember Scott.
His firm, kindly voice cajoling him to stay still and do as he
was told, to refrain from pushing at the bulky dressings that had swathed
Even the doctor, Sam Jenkins.
Poking and prodding him, taking out the stitches, rebuking him
lightly for some of the choicer language he’d used in front of Teresa before
he’d realised she spoke fluent Spanish…..
But he found it hard to remember his father.
on of course, once he was well on the road to recovery, the Old Man had
popped in every evening after suppertime to spend at least an hour with
But either Scott or Teresa had always been there too, and a three-way
conversation was far easier to maintain then the awkward silences that punctuated
things when it was just him and Murdoch alone.
There was the odd flashback or two that seemed to give credence to Teresa’s
A jumbled memory of waking in the night, confused and panic-stricken,
so hot it felt as though he’d been plunged into a furnace….
A hand on his forehead, pushing back his hair, sponging him with cool,
lavender scented towels and exhorting him to lie still. A hand that
was huge and gnarled and definitely did not belong to Teresa, or even Scott….
Another time, in a moment of near lucidity, seeing the silhouette of
a tall man standing in the window as the dawn came up, pensive and motionless
as he watched the red sun rising in a ball of golden flame.
But it was getting harder and harder to equate those emotions with the
man who rode beside him now.
The man whose face was as grim as the rock it appeared to be hewn
The man who was his father.
After another hour of silent riding, the light had begun to soften and
change from blinding yellow to rose-tinted and shadowy, and the sun began
to sink into the west. Squinting up at the sky, Murdoch turned perfunctorily
to Johnny and nodded briefly.
a water-hole a half a mile or so from here, we’ll pull up and make camp there.”
at further conversation was effectively halted as Murdoch spurred on the
enormous Caledonia, and horse and rider stretched ahead. Johnny watched
him with a mixture of anger and sadness, and patted Barranca ruefully on the
neck, the gesture made as much for his own comfort, as a mark of affection
to the glossy palomino.
bien, no importa….” he murmured sarcastically, pushing Barranca into a canter
to keep up.
whinnied and flicked his ears in sympathy, and Johnny drew a small measure
of comfort from the show of equine solidarity, as he watched the Old Man
dismount next to a large, bowl-shaped waterhole set below the overhang of
an impressive rock-formation. There was some scrubby Rabbitbrush, and
a few Mesquite, but the vegetation on the whole, was pretty sparse, and Johnny
whispered sympathetically to Barranca as he swung down from the saddle.
much for supper, I’m afraid compadre, but I promise I’ll make it up to you
when we get back to Lancer.”
head-butted him affectionately and appeared resigned to the lack of victuals,
and looking up, Johnny was suddenly aware that Murdoch had been watching
the two of them closely.
is it ?”
“Nothing. “ The Old Man looked away. “You’re good with that horse.
With most horses as far as I’ve seen.
around for something we can burn, and I’ll set up a fire.”
paused, surprised by the reluctant compliment and wanting to say more, but
Murdoch was gone, and the moment had passed leaving him feeling curiously
bereft, as he began to scout about for dead brushwood to build a fire.
He’d soon collected enough to keep them going for awhile, and by the time
he got back to the camp-site, Murdoch had already set-up a ring of stones
in preparation, and unrolled their beds for the night.
be enough here.”
placed it down, determined not to let the situation fester any longer.
spend another night in silence, or you actually gonna listen to my side of
the story about what happened back there ?”
now Johnny. “
voice was curt and dismissive, as he turned his back and looked around for
something in his pack.
when then?” said Johnny, angry, in spite of his resolution not to be.
“When you decide I suppose. Just like every thing else has to be, always
on your terms !”
isn’t on my terms, “ said Murdoch sharply. “I’ve got a lot better things
to do with my time, then ride across the state to bail you out of jail every
time you get into another damn mess!”
not fair. What happened back there wasn’t exactly my fault…”
is, is it?”
“No sabes nada!” muttered Johnny under his breath, as his fist’s clenched
“ agreed Murdoch frowning. “No, I don’t know anything. You’re so damned
secretive all the time.”
said Johnny sarcastically, “because I don’t chose to tell you everything
about my past? Didn’t you get your snoopy little Pinkerton boys to
find out all the juicy details, all the nasty little twists, every single,
bloody thing you need to know so you can confirm your bad opinion of me?”
ignored his outburst and continued to rummage in his pack for some matches.
“Oh grow up Johnny. “
up!” Johnny laughed bitterly, in spite of the hollow pain in his heart.
“I grew up years ago Old Man, I haven’t been a child since I was ten years
old. Maybe even before then! “
of being an adult means taking responsibility for your own actions. You could
always look to your……”
paused and took a deep breath, aware that he might have been about to go
too far. But Johnny wasn’t stupid, and he smiled sardonically, his lips
You were about to say I ought to look to my brother.”
it’s good to know there’s one son who’s not a disappointment to you. And
you’re right of course. He’s everything I’m never gonna be. Polite,
nice society manners, wealthy in his own right…
hero, a damn fine man…” his voice faltered.
Murdoch looked up at him now, unable to miss the hurt hostility in his
youngest son’s face, or the flicker of pain present in the furious blue-eyes.
He banked up the pile of boulders to light the fire.
moved in the corner of his vision, darting out of the rocks he’d dislodged
with a fast and lethal intent.
barely registered the ominous hiss and rattle, or noted the dark and familiar
diamond-shaped blotches, before the spade-shaped head struck at him with
solid cannoned into him, barrelling him backwards into the dust and away
from the snake.
who spun and fired two rapid shots before the silence surged swiftly backwards,
and Murdoch sat up shakily, his eyes drawn irresistibly to the creature’s
himself down and got to his feet, knees shaking slightly in-spite of himself.
round at his younger son.
was neat shooting !”
voice was a pale imitation of its usual drawl, and Murdoch crouched beside
him in sudden realisation and alarm.
it get you boy ?”
Johnny smiled slightly.
Guess it wasn’t such a bad shot either. “
back on the ground and closed his eyes briefly, seeing the small scene play
over in his head once more.
rearing and ready to strike, tail shaking, tongue flickering.
bared forearm, there within it’s reach…
only had a portion of a second in which to act, an infinitesimal fragment
of time in which to lurch across and shove the Old Man sprawling backwards…
the strike of the diamond-back against the calf of his own left leg as he
did so, the needle-sharp fangs sinking deep into his flesh before he’d whirled
and fired his gun, blasting it into perdition!
The bite was already incredibly painful, and forcing himself to
sit-up, he watched as Murdoch got out his big hunting knife, and slit up
the side of his pants.
“ he murmured, with vague chagrin. “Those were my favourite!”
round puncture holes marked the swell of calf muscle above his anklebone,
and even now, the fleshy area around them was becoming puffy and discoloured.
Murdoch caught his breath in dismay as he sat back on his haunches
for a second, and surveyed the wound.
The small hope that the snakes fangs might have only grazed Johnny’s
leg was sinking fast now, as he examined it closely, and tried not to let
his disquiet show.
There was no doubt that the fangs had gone in deep, and he knew
from experience that he was going to have to act both swiftly and brutally.
He looked up at Johnny with concern, and was astounded to see the
ghost of a smile upon his face.
Maybe the poison had already begun to act and was making the boy
delirious, but as if guessing his thoughts, Johnny shook his head quickly.
is what it takes to get you to talk to me !”
the words and the flush of shame they brought him, Murdoch regarded him grimly.
is going to hurt like hell, but it has……”
done !” finished Johnny through gritted teeth.
Murdoch took a deep breath and sliced into his son’s flesh, fast and deep
in a criss-cross pattern, making the fang marks the apex of the wound.
gush of blood over Johnny’s foot was hot and scarlet, and he closed his eyes
whilst the world spun round as his stomach began to rock and heave.
voice was loud and sharp, jolting him uncomfortably back to reality.
And opening his eyes again, he nodded with another faint grin.
were right again as always, it hurts like hell .”
this is one time when I wish I wasn’t !” Muttered Murdoch under his breath.
tried to struggle upwards as Murdoch got to his feet.
He was determined not to create any more problems as he watched
Murdoch trying to calculate the setting sun’s position in the sky, his spirits
sinking as he saw the deepening frown upon his father’s face.
stay here…..” said Johnny, shaking his head, “we’re not that far from Green
River now, you could leave me, ride for some help……”
of the question, “ replied Murdoch curtly, turning his back and moving over
to he horses.
where you are and lie still. I’m going to irrigate the wound with some water.
If you lie as still as you can, the poison won’t travel so quickly around
his canteen and came back over to Johnny, kneeling at his side, and undoing
the kerchief from around his neck as he did so.
over and tied it tightly just below Johnny’s knee, pulling the knots as hard
as he could, and trying to ignore the trembling flesh beneath his hands as
he forced himself to remain as detached as possible under the circumstances.
Then he began to irrigate the deep wound, watching as the pink stained
water ran back copiously into the thirsty ground, the blood of his son returning
to the earth.
Glancing up briefly at Johnny’s face, he noted the pallor beneath
the tan, the tight, white lines around his mouth, and his own heart began
He’d lived out in this country long enough to know that these bites
could be fatal for a lot of men.
or not you lived or died depended on so many things.
How much poison the snake struck you with, how deep the fangs had
punctured your flesh, your age and general state of health, and how fast
you acted afterwards.
Murdoch knew that Johnny was young and healthy, and he had acted as fast
as he possibly could, but the snake had bitten in deep and hard, and it
had been a decent-sized reptile.
It was a certain fact that the bigger the snake, the more venom
Using the last of the water, he bared the wound and lowered his
head to it, but Johnny’s hand shot out and gripped him by the shoulder, and
his hold was surprisingly firm.
gonna suck it out ?”
Johnny shook his head decisively. “You don’t have to do that.”
grip may have been strong, but Murdoch’s was even stronger, as he gently
removed his son’s preventative hand.
I do Johnny.” He sighed.
“Will you please, just for once, stop arguing with everything I
say or do !”
Their eyes met for a second, and to Murdoch’s relieved surprise, Johnny
lay back as meek as a lamb, and let him get on with it.
probably a forlorn effort.
He knew it as he sucked and spat, sucked and spat, but he had to
try, even though experience told him that the venom was already circulating
viciously around Johnny’s body and beginning on it’s path of deadly damage.
After a few minutes he gave up, and loosened the tourniquet.
The sun had disappeared below the mesa, and the rocks were casting
their long shadows over the ground, as Murdoch sat back on his haunches and
considered the options.
They were pitifully few.
could stay here and ride it out, or he could leave Johnny as comfortable
as possible and head on for Green River alone, but something inside him
baulked at leaving the boy, and he knew he could not do it.
There was one other alternative.
About five or six miles onward down the trail, Murdoch knew there
was a deserted miners shack.
It was pretty tumbledown and basic, but there was water there and
it was trailside.
could make it there before the sun went down completely, then at least Johnny
would have some proper shelter, and they might get lucky if someone else
happened to pass by.
He glanced down at his son, and met his steadfast blue gaze.
do you feel ?”
thirsty, dizzy-some. It’s not too bad.”
watched him closely, admiring his careful nonchalance.
“There’s an old shack a few miles on. Can you make it ?”
“No problema. Just point Barranca in the right direction and he’ll
do the hard part. “
got to his feet to untie the horses, Murdoch put a quick hand on Johnny’s
head as he passed by.
It was the briefest of gestures, but Johnny felt his eyes fill
with sudden, unexpected tears.
It must be the pain he told himself, as he dashed them hurriedly
away with the back of his hand, and hoped his father hadn’t seen them. But
Murdoch had turned away from him now, and Johnny was able to recompose himself
else aside, he felt uneasy at the frightening onslaught of weakness that
assaulted him. The pain really was beginning to get worse.
was a persistent, burning throb in his leg from the wound itself, and a curious
tingling sensation in the rest of his body that felt as though someone was
piercing him with thousands of tiny needles.
He shook his head angrily at his own feebleness.
This was the very last thing he needed right now, the final nail
in the coffin.
If he got sick and became even more of a burden to the Old Man,
it might finish things off between them forever.
With that in mind, he began to struggle doggedly to his feet, but
Murdoch was beside him in a second.
on there boy, wait for me to help you. “
led him over to Barranca, grim-faced and silent.
He sighed in his heart for the stubborn streak in Johnny that refused
to let him help anymore than absolutely necessary, and watched as the boy
shook off his arm, and insisted on mounting the palomino by himself.
there swaying slightly for a moment, beads of sweat breaking out on his
top lip as he clutched on to the reins, and gripped the saddle tightly with
Barranca stirred uneasily and snickered softly at him, the horse
quickly sensing that something was wrong, as Johnny put a gentle hand on
the golden neck.
Barranca, se bueno. “
took a minute for Murdoch to re-pack their gear, and then he was up on Caledonia,
and nudging the big bay alongside Barranca.
walk the horses Johnny, it’ll be dark by the time we reach the shack, but
it won’t jolt you about quite as much.
Keep close to me, and for God’s sake, let me know if you start
to feel worse.
If you fall off, you could hurt yourself even more, and that’s
the last thing I want just now !”
Murdoch saw the quick flash of rebellion in Johnny’s eyes, the unbidden
look of desperate determination even as he chafed against the order, in-spite
of being aware that it made the only sense.
But he quickly forestalled any further argument by urging Caledonia
forwards into a gentle walk, knowing full well that Barranca would follow
It took everything he had not to keep turning round to see if Johnny
was all right, but he knew that it would only slow them, and he didn’t want
to see the hurt that the boy tried so desperately to suppress.
He tipped his hat and set his jaw, silently praying with all his
heart, that they’d make it safely home.
was agony for Johnny.
By the time the sun had vanished in a spectacular show of rose and
amber, plunging to it’s rest behind the distant hills and leaving the moon
behind in it’s wake like a silver penny, he was hurting more than he thought
it was possible to hurt.
becoming so hard to remain in the saddle, and he was just about able to roll
with Barranca’s gait, gripping on tightly with his knee as he gave up, just
trusting the palomino to follow Murdoch’s huge bay, because he was no longer
capable of guiding him on his own.
seemed to have taken on nightmare proportions, and everything had assumed
an eerie yellow glow. He vaguely remembered hearing somewhere, that a particular
sign of rattlesnake bite was so-called yellow-vision.
As a child,
he’d heard the old Mexican women talking about it one day at the well.
A child in the village had been bitten and had subsequently died.
He could still recall the Old Senoras discussing the signs and symptoms,
and they came back to him now with peculiar clarity.
vision, spasms, paralysis…
hard against the cold knot of fear that was forming inside him, and tried
to rationalise it in his mind.
The child had been a toddler, a nino.
He hadn’t stood a chance, but he, Johnny, was strong and healthy,
and Murdoch had opened the bite almost immediately.
He would be fine.
He just needed to rest awhile.
To lie down.
He got his wish an awful lot sooner than he’d planned, aware suddenly of
Barranca’s missed, uneven step, and the burn of the reins sliding through
his weakened grasp, as the ground surged up to meet him and his body slammed
into it hard!
For awhile he just lay there, too numb and dazed to move, the unyielding
stones beneath him merely adding to his discomfort, the pain and misery
all at one with the night.
Murdoch was beside him, his hands gentle on his body.
hurt Johnny, can you move ?”
hadn’t been in so much agony, he would have laughed at the irony of the
There wasn’t a part of him that wasn’t exquisite with torment or
unpleasantness, and he lay there for a moment just trying to gather his strength.
Murdoch was gone for a while, leaving him to lie there alone staring up
at the yellow moon, as his body ached and twisted with tremors.
had time to wonder where his father had gone, before he was back again,
not wasting any time on words as he gathered Johnny into his arms like a
baby and bundled him up onto Caledonia, mounting behind him, and leading
Barranca in their wake.
Johnny tried to find the strength to protest, but it felt strangely
comfortable cradled here against his father’s massive chest.
He forced his eyes open and studied Murdoch’s face.
As usual, it seemed carved from the very land itself.
in aspect and expression, hammered and hewn from years of sweat and toil,
a love of and connection to the country that he’d worked so hard to become
a part of, the country that he’d made his own.
Johnny wondered how much further they had to go.
The fact that Murdoch himself suffered continuously with a chronically
bad back, began to obsess him and add to his feelings of guilt, as he realised
how difficult it must be for the Old Man to hold him here like this.
He hoped that Murdoch was okay, hoped that Barranca hadn’t damaged
his foreleg, hoped that they’d reach the promised shack before he passed
out all together and became even more of a burden, as a morass of nightmarish
thoughts jostled round inside his head.
their way steadily onwards, and although he didn’t actually lose consciousness,
the whole of reality became suspended as he sank into a disjointed haze.
At last, at long, long last, he was vaguely aware of Murdoch speaking
firmly to Caledonia, and pulling backwards on the reins.
“Whoa there fellow, steady…”
opened his eyes again.
voice sounded surprisingly gentle, as he leant Johnny forwards over Caledonia’s
neck and dismounted himself. Johnny slumped where he was, too dazed and
weak to move, before Murdoch came back and reached up to pull him down carefully
into his arms.
The shack was crude, but because of its situation alongside the
trail, countless travellers used it regularly as a stopover point, and Murdoch
could see that it would afford them with a reasonably decent standard of
There was an old cot in the corner of the room, and he helped Johnny
across to it, settling him down on his bedroll, before examining the rest
of the cabin.
The fireplace was still viable, and in-fact, someone had obviously
lit a fire in the hearth only days before, as the pile of silvery ashes
were still quite fresh.
to let the fine powder run through his fingers, Murdoch was aware of a small
spark of hope.
With any luck, someone would pass by tomorrow.
Someone who could go on into Green River and summons help, get hold
of a doctor, maybe even send a message forwards to Lancer so that Scott
could ride out to meet them.
heavily, he got to his feet and turned back to Johnny who lay on the cot
and watched him through slitted blue eyes.
and recently too. That’s a good sign.
I’m going to settle the horses and get a fire started.
You rest for a while. “
eyes had already closed, and he lay so motionless that Murdoch felt a quick
beat of anxiety, moving across the room to check he was still breathing,
and only reassured when he saw the uneven rise and fall of the boy’s chest.
called to him up the stairs, as he finished patting his freshly shaven chin
dry. He always liked to shave before supper, after he’d washed all the dirt
from the range off his body, and made himself feel half human again.
Val Crawford !”
up his shirt, he drew it on hurriedly as he left his room, doing up the
buttons as he took the stairs two at a time.
had taken Val through into the library and already invited him to supper by
the time he got there, and Scott guessed that he’d come bearing news of Murdoch
Striding across the room to shake Val’s hand, Scott was suddenly
immeasurably relieved by the slight twinkle in the other man’s eyes.
news, I take it ?”
I’d ride on out and tell you, put your minds at rest. “
“ said Scott looking over at Teresa, “we sure appreciate it. “
Micah Carrick at Jubilee.
Murdoch sorted it all out, and he and Johnny left a couple of days
ago. Should be back this evening, all being well.
In fact, I thought they might just beat me to it !”
gave a huge sigh, unaware up until now that she’d even been holding her breath.
the lord…” and glancing a little mischievously at Scott, she laughed. “Now
all we’ve got to worry about is whether or not they’ve survived the journey
back at her, and shook his head in admonishment.
survive alright, they’re both as tough as old buffalo hide.
It’s whether or not we will, that frightens me!”
aware that Val was looking at them both with slight bewilderment, he took
him by the arm and led him through to the dining room, where a cheery Maria
was busy setting plates. Teresa left them to it, and vanished into
the kitchen to check that there would be enough food ready for Johnny and
Murdoch when they did eventually arrive home, whilst the two men poured themselves
on, when Val had gone to bed a happy man, his belly full of Teresa’s excellent
cooking and Murdoch’s expensive brandy, Scott took a cigar out onto the
veranda and sat beneath the trailing jasmine, thinking hard.
They’d exhorted Val to stay the night and not bother with the journey
home until morning, and Scott had been glad that he’d agreed to it so readily.
He may have joked about things with Teresa, but in reality, he was
filled with concerns both recognised, and unacknowledged, about his father
and his brother.
both at fault.
Both of them so stubborn and pig-headed, both of them so damnably
He smiled a little ruefully at the night.
the other officers in his regiment, he’d been so famous for his own particular
brand of intractability that they’d pulled his leg and teased him for being
Well, so much for that, they should have met his family!
He was a positive pussycat in comparison with either Murdoch or
came to slices of the family pie, he figured that Johnny had gotten far
more than his fair share from Murdoch, whereas he must have inherited a
little of his mother’s grace.
And that was probably what saved him, what enabled him to remain
reasonably sanguine about Murdoch’s high-handedness whilst his more volatile
brother flew into yet another furious rage.
It didn’t help when Johnny’s belief that he’d been abandoned was
still so raw and painful. Still such an obvious and open wound.
Or at least it was obvious to Scott, and clearly to Teresa as well,
who saw far more then people ever gave her credit for.
It was only Murdoch who didn’t seem able to see it!
years of bleak and bitter hatred, to have your whole world tipped upside
down the way that Johnny had, all your carefully held ideas proven wrong.
Scott knew how difficult it was for him, how hard he’d had to struggle
against himself in order to adjust to all the changes that life had slung
in his direction within the last, was it really only the last six months?
Not very long in the scheme of things.
time to come to terms with the fact that one minute you’re a penniless gunfighter,
hiring out to whoever can afford to pay you, living on your wits and taking
all that life can offer you, because the next day that you wake might be
man that you meet might be the one who’s faster…
still found it hard to envisage the kind of life his brother must have led,
and his heart bled for it.
was so watchful, so full of suspicion, still not quite able to believe that
anyone could be kind to him just for the sake of kindness, and not because
they wanted him for anything.
That they wanted to use or exploit his skill with a gun.
Not yet ready to trust that they only needed him to be himself,
and that they didn’t want to take anything from him.
Scott knew that those kind of wounds, the unseen wounds, could take
along hard, time to heal.
it from the bitter experiences that he’d suffered during the war, from his
own share of hard and harrowing times.
Surviving the bloody conflict of the Civil War had been a salutary
lesson in the cruelty and inhumanity that man was capable of perpetrating,
and his nightmares still resounded with the screams and thunder of the battlefields,
the torture of the surgical tents, the living hell of Libby prison.
No, his life had not all been wealth and privilege, Boston society
and glittering parties.
He’d had his share of pain and anguish, he knew what it was like
to hold a dying friend in his arms, to watch as men and horses perished in
gruesome agony, to feel the certainty of death fold it’s cold and shadowy
wings about him.
But he’d never been alone.
when his life had been at it’s lowest ebb, and it had seemed as if there
was no way out.
Companionship had kept him going, had kept them all going.
It had given him the will to fight and stay alive.
Friendship, comrades in arms, the loyalty of the men around him,
something that was a pearl beyond price, precious and invaluable.
Something that Johnny had never known.
In all his time as Johnny Madrid, he’d always been alone. Too wary
to let people get close to him and always on his guard.
Too afraid of becoming vulnerable, of being taken down.
Scott sighed, and stubbed out the cigar as he inhaled the sweetness of
the jasmine instead. Its scent seemed to intensify in the moonlight and
become stronger than it was in the day. It was perfumed, exotic as
the night-sky, and Boston seemed a million miles away right now as he stared
up at the stars. One of the things he loved most about living out
here was the unbelievable diversity of the landscape, the lush foliage and
beauty of the flowers. Teresa’s garden itself was a stunning mass
of herb-beds and fruit trees, flower borders and rose bushes.
garden behind the walls cultivated row after row of fresh produce that Maria,
Juanita, and Teresa used to grace their dinner table every single day. He
loved to eat it all. The fact that it was all grown and tended here
on Lancer made him feel more of a connection to the land, the valley, to California
itself. His father’s land, his brother’s land, and by rights, his own
they should all feel like outsiders. He, himself, alienated by the land
and its Spanish-tongued inhabitants. Murdoch, feeling excluded from
the strengthening relationship that was growing between his two sons. And
Johnny, what of Johnny ?
despite all the bravado, and in his heart, outcast from Murdoch’s love.
caught well, greedily consuming the dry brushwood and licking up the chimney.
In no time at all, Murdoch had a pot of strong coffee brewing, and
the dusty old shack had taken on a much more cheerful air.
It afforded him little comfort though.
By the time he’d done all he had to do, Johnny had woken up again
and by now he was in considerable pain, barely able to lie still despite his
valiant attempts to play it down for the benefit of his father.
beside him on the rickety old cot, Murdoch re-examined the leg, and tried
to hide his dismay.
The whole of Johnny’s left calf was swollen and discoloured now,
the wound from the knife-cut black and congealing.
Murdoch did what he could, bathing it, and using the spare shirt
he always carried in his pack for a compress and bandage.
It wasn’t much, but it made him feel better to be doing something,
anything, and Johnny lay there watching him with grateful, and slightly curious
“ his voice was a blurred whisper.
“What’s the verdict ?”
looked at him sharply and then shrugged.
soon to say. The wound looks swollen, but then I’d expect it to. What about
you, and the truth this time ?”
shifted onto his back, the words of the Old Senoras ringing once more in
like I’ve been looking at the sun too long. Everything’s kinda yellow and
Murdoch put a massive hand upon his forehead.
“Thirst’s a classic symptom. Here, drink some water……”
He leant forward
and helped Johnny to sit up, holding the canteen to his lips as he gulped
thirstily, some of the water missing his mouth and running down his chin.
As he cradled him closely, Murdoch was secretly dismayed at the heat
that was radiating off his son’s body.
“You’ve got a
fever. We’ll need to get you out of your boots and jacket, cool you
down a bit. How’s the pain ?”
“Bearable…..” he tried again. “Murdoch, if you want to ride on into
Green River, I’ll be alright here for the night…..”
“I’m not leaving
you alone,” said Murdoch wearily, a hint of anger back in his tone. “Please
don’t suggest it again. Now, let’s get these boots off. “
“A child in our
village was bitten by a diamondback once, “ said Johnny dreamily, as he acquiesced
to Murdoch’s ministrations. “He died within half a day, I remember it
“You’re not going
to die !” said Murdoch brusquely, undoing the buttons of Johnny’s salmon coloured
“The mighty Murdoch
Lancer has decreed it ! If he says I’m not gonna die, then I won’t dare
go against him.”
his fingers hesitating on one pearl button, as he looked up a little sadly.
“Is that what you think of me Johnny, that I’m some kind of tin-pot
“Well you have
to admit, you kinda like to have things your own way all the time.”
“And you don’t
“Maybe, “ Johnny
regarded him through narrowed eyes, as he lay back on the bedroll and tried
to stop his teeth from chattering. “Difference always used to be that
if I didn’t like something or someone, then I just used to walk away.”
“Is that what
you’ve been wanting to do these last few months, just walk away ?”
“No…” Johnny closed
his eyes wearily. “It’s not as simple as that anymore. Before, there
was only me to think about.”
“You were on your
own along time Johnny, maybe too long. You’re so independent, so….”
“So what, so stubborn
onto one elbow, his face flushed and hectic, Johnny stared at Murdoch accusingly.
“And just who
do you suppose I take after then ?”
“Lie back down
son, you’ll aggravate the fever, speed the poison….”
“No ! You
listen to me Old Man, one of the first things, the very first things you ever
said to me that first day in your study, was that I had my mother’s temper.
“I remember. “
“Well you know
what ? The more I’ve gotten to know you, the more unjust that seems.
My mother sure as hell may have fought with you, but most of the time
she was with me, she was happy, light-hearted. She always used to sing……”
His voice caught slightly. “She may not have been all that responsible,
but she always looked on the bright side of things, and I guess that’s maybe
why life hurt her so much.…”
He paused again
in distress. “But you…., seems to me that you’re the one with the bad
temper, and if I inherited it from anyone, then it’s you I have to thank!”
He fell back with
a gasp of pain, and shivered as a violent chill ran through him, clenching
his teeth and fighting to control the shudders that racked his body. Filled
with anguish, Murdoch tried to lower him back down onto the cot, but Johnny
resisted him rigidly, his breath coming in short, harsh gasps between his
you said to Scott……., you said he had his mother’s eyes. Well if you
ever wanted to d..draw a line between the way you felt about our mothers,
you sure as hell d…did it then………”
“No Johnny !”
Murdoch shook his head in distress. “I never meant it that way. It
was spur of the moment, thoughtless. The last thing in the world I
meant to convey. “
how it came across t…to me !”
son. So wrong.”
He sat back with
a sigh, still refusing to relinquish his son’s tense body, as he stared broodingly
into the flames, a small frown creasing his brow.
“I met your mother
down in Mata-Morros. She was so beautiful, she took my breath away. I
remember it was a warm night and the stars were shining…. But none of
them shone as brightly as her eyes!”
He smiled reminiscently,
and Johnny watched the tender curve of his lips with a spark of amazement
in his ravaged body.
“She was dancing to an old Spanish song, and no one could take their eyes
off her, least of all me. She was wearing a white dress, and she swayed like
a flower in the moonlight, she was so beautiful, so graceful, and I knew I
had to stay awhile longer. I recall that I gave her a red rose and she
tucked it just behind her ear, like so….” He paused and shook his head;
“I knew then I was the luckiest man alive!”
He moved his hand
across Johnny’s silky hair, and rubbed a strand between his thumb and forefinger,
face a thousand, million miles away.
“She had hair
like a black waterfall. When she moved, it seemed to ripple with a
life all of it’s own. I used to love to touch it, to run my fingers
through it. I’ve never felt anything as soft since then…. until now.
You have her hair son.”
“I remember her
Johnny began to
relax softly, the rigidity seeping from his muscles as he eased back against
his father’s chest.
“She u…used to
let me brush it for her. She said I had a gentle way with my hands,
th…that I reminded her of the only other person that she’d allowed to t…touch
“She’d sit before
me in the firelight, and I’d brush it out for ages, it was like a ritual between
us, “ murmured Murdoch quietly. “Her beautiful, beautiful hair.”
He was silent
for a while, and Johnny’s eyes drifted closed as his head lolled sideways,
and he curled in closer to his father’s body.
“Tell me more….”
“Johnny !” Murdoch’s
voice was loud and almost brutal. “Here, drink some water for me. “
“She was like a wild thing, alive and vibrant. And I’d been dead
inside for so long then…..” he paused heavily. “Cold and dead inside
since Scott’s mother died, but Maria, Maria was like this fire here, a dancing
flame ! I just held out my hands to her to be warm again, to feel something
again, and to be alive too. Can you understand that Johnny ?”
drowsily, the dense black lines of his eyelashes like two crescents on his
“I used to think
of her like sunshine….Her smile would make me happy. Los ninos used
to c…call me names, gringo, half-breed, mule ! But she’d take me on
her lap and smile at me, she’d t..tell me; “No importa juanito, usted
es hermoso mi hijo. Te amo….” His voice wavered and broke-off into a
whisper. “Te amo….”
“Did they call
you names often ?” asked Murdoch soberly, trying to control the catch in his
“Only for a while,”
Johnny’s fists clenched. “They soon learned not to.”
understandingly, a small ache in his heart as he tried to picture the ragged
little boy, same stubborn light in his vivid blue-eyes, fighting his way through
the insults alone. It hurt. It hurt a lot.
Johnny shivered again as another spasm racked through his body, the pain
increasing in severity as the poison began to work its way into every system.
He felt strange and light-headed, as though his spirit was already dancing
free from his corporeal body, as though all he needed to do was to give-in
and let it happen. Just float away.
Even though his thirst raged mercilessly and his lips were parched and dry,
he turned away from the effort of having to drink until Murdoch forced his
head back round again, and held the canteen to his lips.
“Yes Sir!“ he thought sardonically, unsure if he’d actually said it or not,
as the brackish water trickled down his throat. But it did help a little.
It felt wonderfully moist, and he raised his hand for more, glad when his
father understood and brought it patiently back whilst he drank again.
“You don’t have to thank me Johnny.” Murdoch’s voice was still gruff. “It’s
me that should be thanking you. I could be lying here now, if you hadn’t
done that crazy, fool thing back there. I owe you my life Johnny.…”
But Johnny had drifted off against him, his breathing fast and shallow,
and as Murdoch looked down at him a lump in his throat, he was reminded again
of Maria, and the pain was almost more than he could bear. A bittersweet
memory of sunlight and shadows.
Johnny dreamed he was drowning. Falling down and down into clear blue
water that forced and crushed the air out of his lungs. He kicked his
legs and tried to break the surface, but the water pulled him under again
and weighed on his chest like a stone. Couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t
breathe. The water felt like hot sand in his mouth. It was blinding
him, choking him….
He fought and thrashed to break free, tearing at his throat with panic-stricken
hands and trying to call-out….
A gentle touch on his shoulders, other hands pulling him upright.
A cool towel on his head. Someone speaking to him calmly, reassuringly,
as the terrifying tightness eased a little, and he fell back in exhaustion
onto something soft and warm. The nightmare faded as the darkness reclaimed
But it did not fade for Murdoch. When Johnny had fallen into an uneasy
sleep, he’d laid him gently down onto the cot, and poured himself a mug of
coffee. The hot, bitter liquid tasted incredibly good, and he welcomed
the burst of astringent stimulation that it sent charging round his veins.
He felt restless and alive with memories. It had not been easy uncovering
all those buried emotions, and he felt wrung-out and raw, immensely worried
about Johnny, and sore at heart about Maria. He’d been so hurt and
angry when she left him. The pain and rejection turning into bitterness
and recrimination after a while, so much so, that he’d half forgotten that
magical night in Mata-Morros, the passion of their first couple of years
together, the way she’d felt against his skin.
He thought back to the day when Johnny had first slouched into his study.
The frisson of shock that had doused through his body, as he looked
into the face of his son and saw her looking back at him. He hadn’t
been prepared to feel that way again, and it had hurt him. Maybe it
had hurt so much, that subconsciously, he had held it against her son.
His words had already re-bounded back at him once tonight, and now it looked
as though they might do so again, for in truth, he’d been alone for far too
long as well!
He’d had the O’Brien’s, and Paul’s friendship had been a sustaining light
for many years. Both men had been on their own with no women-folk around
to cosset them or complicate their lives, as they’d gotten on with the business
of carving out a home. Of bending the land to their will, and creating
the corner of God’s earth that was Lancer. And the only thing in all
that time, that had managed to get even close to his heart, was O’Brien’s
tiny daughter who became the apple of both their eyes. Their practical
little Teresa who was daughter to both men, and who came to run the Estancia
and their lives. When Paul had been murdered, he and Teresa had supported
each other over that ordeal.
He’d been so badly wounded himself that the entire burden had fallen onto
her slim shoulders, and anyone with less heart might have been sucked under
and destroyed. But not she, not his indomitable Teresa. Putting
aside her own grief for awhile, she’d braced herself and nursed him back
to health, before insisting that he call for both his sons, the Pinkerton
report on Johnny arriving in the midst of that grim and terrible time.
had been enormous, his hope had been immense. But he’d done it and
summonsed them home, not least of all for Lancer, for the sake of the land
he’d given-up so much for, so much blood, sweat and toil. But Teresa’s
faith had been infectious, and he had to admit that she’d been right. It
felt good to have them home where they belonged.
Scott so much like his dear Catherine, and Johnny like Maria.
and passionate Maria.
in unguarded moments like this was the only real chance he ever had to study
him, to compare him to his mother. The similarity between them was
remarkable and other than the blueness of his eyes, there didn’t seem to
be any part of Johnny that was his. That truly belonged to him. The
black silky hair, warm golden skin, the shape of his lips, the set of his
jaw, they were all Maria.
Of Maria, from
And every time
he looked at him, he saw her in his face. Vivid and wilful, independent
and a little wild. Strong, but with that hint of vulnerability in his eyes.
Murdoch sighed, and looked again at the restless figure on the cot.
And suddenly, he saw only Johnny.
His youngest son.
A part of them
both, some good some bad, but mostly his own man. A man and a son to
be proud of, a man who’d defied the hand of fate, and all the odds that had
been stacked against him to hold on to his self-respect and come up fighting.
A man who, despite the fact he tried to hide it, was softhearted enough
to tame the wildest bronco, patient enough to calm the timidest mare !
He sighed again. He’d been a stubborn fool, stubborn and proud for
far too long. What point pride when it came to those you loved, to
those you’d be prepared to die for, when it all came down ? Just like
Johnny had been prepared to die for him this evening when he’d taken the
snakebite in his stead. If he looked at himself as other men saw him,
he saw a man who was blessed.
He had Lancer.
He had Paul O’Brien’s
brave and beautiful daughter.
He was the father
of two fine sons to carry on his legacy, two sons as different as the day
was long, as the women that had born them, yet so strong in their diversity,
so true in the bond of brotherhood that united them.
Both of them big
of heart and noble of spirit, and as he gazed into the fire and sipped his
coffee, Murdoch was filled with pride for both his sons.
And then Johnny
started to choke. Twisting and thrashing on the cot as his chest muscles
tightened and his trachea constricted, fighting and wheezing for every stricken
breath as his face clenched in panic, and his lips began to turn blue. Knocking
the tin mug over in his haste, Murdoch gathered him into his arms and dragged
him into a semi-upright position, whispering to him softly and pouring more
water from the canteen onto the rest of his torn up shirt. The sound
of Johnny’s laboured breathing tore at Murdoch’s heart, and for the first
time since the damned snake had bitten him, Murdoch felt like weeping for
He didn’t though.
He stayed there merely holding him, bathing his greying skin, and talking
to him gently for all the times when Johnny had needed him in the past, the
times he hadn’t been there.
The thought that he might lose him now was strong.
Not some vague terror to be thrust aside by practicalities, but a
real and sentient fear.
Murdoch knew that when the poison began to affect the respiratory
system, the outlook was never very good, and the majority of those bitten
He whispered, filled with dread, “not my son !”
he held the fever-racked body in his arms, he found himself muttering half-forgotten
prayers and threats.
He who was not, and never had been a praying man, beseeched and entreated
God as he sat there in the dim glow of the dying fire, just rocking Johnny
in his arms.