by Margaret Schmitz Compton
A Halloween story
I own no rights to the Lancer Family, Murdoch, Scott or Johnny. This little story is just for fun and not for profit.
I would like to Thank my Beta Suzanne who helped me a great deal. She's the best as a matter of fact I would go on to say she co-authored anyway with out her help this story would not have been as interesting. Thank You Suzanne
Late one afternoon, Murdoch and Johnny were riding home from Morro Coyo. They hadn’t travelled far from town, when Johnny heard the strangest sound coming from a stand of oak trees not far from the road.
“Murdoch did you hear that noise coming from the trees over there?”
Murdoch looked around. “It sounded like the wind howling through the leaves. I haven't noticed anything else.”
Johnny held out his hand. “Murdoch, there’s hardly any wind blowing at all. I thought it sounded like someone scowling at us - like they didn't want us to go by.”
Murdoch started to smile. “Johnny, I think Teresa has you spooked by her Halloween tales of witches and warlocks.”
“Murdoch, I am not hearing spooks. I’m hearing sounds that are human.” Johnny pulled on his reins. “I’m going to check it out,” he called over his shoulder as he rode off.
Murdoch sighed and spoke to the air. “All right Johnny, I guess I’m coming with you.”
To their surprise, they found an old lady, who didn’t seem to be hurt, sitting on a fallen log. A black and white pinto, attached to a small cart, grazed nearby.
Johnny lifted his hat to her. “Ma’am, do you need some help?”
She scowled at Johnny as if he’d done something wrong, then pointed a bony finger at him. “My son, you finally found your way here after all my calling, although I didn't expect you to bring your father with you. I’ve been wandering around for at least four days, trying to find you.”
Johnny looked at Murdoch. His father looked as confused as Johnny felt. “You’ve been searching for me for four days?”
“It had been my intention to welcome you to my place but now that you’ve brought company, I guess it will have to wait for another time.” She stood up and whistled – and the pinto trotted up to her.
“Hey, lady, what do you mean you've been waiting for me? Why can't Murdoch and I both help you if you have a problem?”
She climbed into the cart and took hold of the reins. “Because my child, it is you I need and not your father. I will say no more now, but I will find you again another time.”
Johnny rubbed the back of his neck as they watched her drive away. “What do you think of that, Murdoch? You think she’s after a hired gun?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I don't know what to think about her, son. Whoever she is, she’s not from around here.”
“I don’t feel right leaving her to drive off alone like that, even if she’s not far from town. She looks kind of wobbly.”
“I agree, but she seems to be the determined type.”
Johnny grinned. “Tough as nails, I bet. Maybe Teresa knows something about her? If not, I might ride back to town later and see if she’s there.”
They both watched until the pinto disappeared from sight, then turned their horses homeward again.
After they’d ridden all the way to the Lancer arch without a word, Johnny finally turned to Murdoch. “Well, what is it? You’ve got that look on your face.”
Murdoch half-smiled, then frowned. “Son, I don’t think it’s wise to go near that old woman. There’s something strange about her – and I smell trouble.”
Johnny laughed. “Don’t you mean the ‘old hag’ or ‘witch’? That’s what Teresa called them in all those Halloween stories of hers - you know, all that stuff about witches and goblins and spells.”
“Yes, son - I know about witches and goblins and that kind of stuff,” Murdoch said quietly
Something in his voice made Johnny look at him closely, but Murdoch had already spurred his horse into a gallop.
“Let's go inside and get ready for dinner, then we'll ask Theresa if she’s seen this old lady about,” Murdoch said as they left the barn after unsaddling their horses.
Teresa was setting the table for supper when they walked inside. “Oh good, I’ve been waiting to see you both. Something strange happened to Jelly and me today.”
Murdoch patted her shoulder. “Can it wait? Supper smells good and Johnny and I have to freshen up before we can eat.”
“Sure. I can tell you and Johnny about it then.”
Johnny was curious – Teresa was looking at him as if whatever happened involved him somehow. “We won’t be long, Teresa.” He kissed her on the forehead then followed Murdoch up the stairs.
Maybe she’d met a strange old lady as well?
Teresa was just removing a tray of biscuits from the oven when Jelly peered around the kitchen door before coming inside.
“Teresa, did you tell Johnny about them strange people and that ugly old lady with the pinto?”
“No, Jelly. I figured I'd tell them at dinner, so that you’d be there to verify what I say.”
Jelly closed the door behind him and shivered. “Good idea. And I hope Johnny finds her and runs her right out of town.”
Before Teresa had a chance to reply, Murdoch called to her from the dining room.
“Coming, Murdoch.” Teresa put a platter of beef and potatoes in Jelly’s hands. “And you’d better let me do the talking when I’m telling Johnny about who we met today,” she whispered as she pushed him out of the kitchen.
Murdoch, Johnny and Jelly were seated by the time she walked in with the plate of biscuits.
Johnny took a deep breath. “Mmm, something sure smells good in here.”
“Johnny, I could make you cow patties and you'd think they smelled good.”
“Why don’t you two stop jabbering so as us hungry ones can eat,” Jelly said, tucking his napkin under his chin. “And don’t forget you’ve got something to tell …”
She frowned hard at him. “Have some biscuits, Jelly.”
Jelly took one, then another. “I don’t mind if I do.”
Teresa waited until everyone was served, then she said as casually as she could, “Johnny, an old woman spoke to Jelly and me today. She asked us if we knew where you were.”
Johnny stopped chewing and looked at Murdoch.
A thrill of excitement fluttered in Teresa’s stomach. She just knew there had to be some mystery to all this. “She said she has to find you.”
“That’s right,” added Jelly. “She says whether you like it or not, she’s gonna talk to ya anyway.”
“Jelly you know she wasn't that rude.” Teresa looked across at Johnny. “All she said was that she needs to talk to you. Just you.” She waited for some reaction, but Johnny had gone back to eating his supper. “She looks wicked, Johnny.”
Jelly snorted. “An’ if I didn't know better, I'd say the old hag’s a witch.”
Johnny finally looked up at the both of them. “Guess who Murdoch and I ran into riding back from town?”
“Well, we didn’t actually run into her,” added Murdoch. “It was very strange. Johnny heard her calling him. We found her sitting on a log in a stand of oak trees.”
“I wonder why she was there?” Teresa asked.
Johnny shrugged. “She said she was waiting for me but when she saw Murdoch she...”
“Wasn’t impressed,” Murdoch said.
Johnny grinned for a second, remembering her reaction to his old man.
Teresa’s eyes opened wider. “What happened then?”
“Nothing. She never told me what she wanted, except that I had to see her alone. She rode off in that cart of hers.”
Jelly squirmed on his seat and looked at Teresa. “If that don’t beat all - she told us she had to catch him alone, too.”
Murdoch put his fork down. “I’ve got to say, the whole thing seems strange, even to me.”
“Strange don’t say the half of it.”
“Aw, come on Jelly,” Johnny said. “She’s just a harmless old lady who probably wants…”
At the sound of footsteps Jelly jumped in his seat, but the others turned their heads towards the front door.
“Well, brother, you certainly have some strange admirers.” Scott put his hat on the stand, then pulled his gloves off as he walked towards them.
Johnny sat back in his chair and winced. “This admirer wouldn’t be an old lady with a pinto would it?”
Scott stopped in his tracks for a second, looking a little disappointed. “And a rather attractive young girl on a white stallion. They were both asking about you.”
Teresa clasped her hands together. “This is becoming even more mysterious.”
“We weren’t expecting you back from Stockton so soon,” said Murdoch. “Have you eaten?”
“Yes, I’ve eaten thanks – and I think I can shed some light on this mystery of yours, Johnny.”
Teresa pulled out a chair for him. “Ooh yes, Scott, tell us what you know.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed but he nodded at Scott to go ahead.
“Apparently these people are like gypsies - they seek out different people for their needs with a special beckoning call. Or so I was told,” he added with a small cough.
“And they’ve called Johnny,” whispered Jelly.
“The old woman told me they’d traveled from the border to find you. That a friend of yours…” Scott’s brows went up, “Carleta Rosa Santos, told them which direction you were headed in when you left Mexico.”
Johnny straightened in his chair. “You sure that was the right name?”
“She told me herself; after the old lady and the others left, she came up to my hotel room.”
“Well that sure sounds like something they’d teach her to do.”
Scott shook his head. “Carleta only came to tell me she’d heard me talking to the old woman. She said she didn’t know you had a brother until then. She was surprised – and happy for you I think.”
“Did she mention Lancer?”
Scott looked Johnny in the eye. “Just that she knew your real name was Lancer – but nothing about the ranch.”
Murdoch cleared his throat. “You don’t have to tell us about any of this if you don’t want to Johnny. It’s your business.”
Scott waited for Johnny to think about Murdoch’s words, then said, “I don’t know what this is all about, but Carleta really wants to meet with you and talk.”
“Yeah? Well I tell can tell you, Scott, Carleta is no one I want to talk to. I wish I’d never met her.”
“Like Murdoch says – this is your business, brother.”
Johnny stared at the tablecloth for a long time. Finally, he spoke. “This is going to sound kind of weird, but I guess Carleta is…well, I guess you’d call her a witch.”
Jelly thumped the table with his fist. “I knew it – I just knew all along there was something awful spooky about that old hag.”
“Carleta’s aunt tried to get her hooks into me and if it wasn't for another aunt of Carleta’s, I'd still be under her spell. Nope, I don’t want a thing to do with her.”
Scott’s mouth twisted. “Well, Johnny, that might be kind of difficult because right this minute, Carleta’s in Morro Coyo, hiding from the group of people she sent looking for you.”
Morro Coyo looked deserted in the wan moonlight, but a group of four people talked in the shadows.
“My dear Anna Lee,” the old woman said to a young girl of about sixteen, “once we find Johnny by himself, then we’ll decide what me must do.”
Two men stood by, ever watchful for movement in the street. “He’s cunning and smart,” the taller one said. “He might not come.”
The old woman stared up at the pale moon. “I don't want another person affected like the last one.”
Anna Lee shivered, in spite of the thick woollen shawl that covered her bodice and tiered skirt. “I’m scared for him.”
“All will be well once Johnny talks to us. What is it you see?” she asked, turning to the second man. His gaze was fixed on a hotel window across the street.
“I thought I saw something for a moment…but it is nothing.”
The woman’s black, beady eyes stared in the same direction. “I know Carleta is around here somewhere. I can feel both her, and the trouble she brings.” She took Anna Lee’s hand in hers. “I might have to summon someone else to bring him here.”
Anna Lee gripped her hand tightly. “This is the witching hour and Carleta has the strength to get Johnny to do her bidding.”
“I must send someone to look for Carleta. I don't want her getting to Johnny before we do.”
“Let me go,” said the taller man.
“No, Juanito. I have a job for you and Julio.”
“Oh grandmamma, I hope we can find this ‘Johnny,’” said Anna Lee.
“I hope so, too. If he's everything that Carleta says he is, then he is the one we are looking for.”
Carleta moved away from the flimsy lace curtain that covered her hotel window. She made no move to light the lamp, but sat in darkness on the bed.
No doubt her aunt would send someone to look for her; for that reason she’d signed the hotel register as a married woman travelling with her husband and a small child.
“Well, old woman, you think you are ahead of me but I am one step ahead of you.” She smiled, smoothed down the folds of her dress, then laid her hands in her lap. “You might have plans for Johnny, Aunt – but they are as useless as dust scattered by the wind. No, Johnny Lancer is mine.”
Murdoch was just starting on his breakfast when Johnny came in and sat down at the table.
“Morning, Murdoch. Scott.”
“Morning, Johnny,” Scott said, pouring him a coffee.
When Johnny made no move to take it, Scott raised an eyebrow for Murdoch’s benefit.
Murdoch had to admit Johnny looked a bit out of sorts. “Good morning, son. Did you sleep well?” He pushed the mug until it was in front of Johnny.
A look of irritation, unusual in itself, crossed Johnny’s face. “Is that all you ever ask in the morning, Murdoch? Did I sleep well? How about: ‘Hey, son, did your bed bite you last night?”
A sudden coughing fit made Murdoch and Johnny look at Scott. Johnny scowled at Scott before saying to both of them, “’Cause it had something in it that did.” Johnny held his hand out for them to see. “I killed this thing after it bit me this morning.”
Scott half rose and Murdoch felt something in him go cold but Johnny waved a hand at them.
“No, don’t fret. It wasn’t poisonous. Have either of you noticed anyone poking around inside who had no business being there?”
Scott peered at the dead scorpion. It was a nasty looking thing; black, and about three and half inches in length. “Johnny, what makes you think this wasn’t an accident? It’s not unusual for scorpions to come inside.”
“That’s true, Scott, but usually because of rain or cold weather, and that’s not the case last night,” Murdoch said.
Scott didn’t look convinced. “We brought supplies back from town yesterday. It could have been caught up in something on the wagon?”
Johnny jiggled the scorpion in his hand. “I’ve seen this type around Manzanillo and further south; that’s not exactly around here, brother. Not that I’m any scorpion expert, but I’ve seen more than a few in my time.”
“Scott’s right, Johnny – without proof we have no way of knowing if someone planted this in your bed.”
“And if it isn’t poisonous, why would anyone bother to do it anyway?” asked Scott, poking the scorpion with his knife.
Johnny stared at it with disgust, then suddenly flipped the scorpion into his coffee. “I don’t know. I don’t know about any of this,” he muttered, rubbing his hand along his thigh like he was trying to rid his palm of something that had congealed there. He put his head down. “I remember the gypsies had a scorpion spell.”
Murdoch looked uneasy. “Johnny, you’re letting your imagination run away with you.”
“Murdoch, all I ever go by is what my gut tells me – and right now it’s telling me to look for any strangers around the ranch.”
Murdoch held up his hand. “All right, Johnny,” he said in a soothing voice but he didn’t really want to tell Johnny his next piece of news. “We hired two new hands while we were in town yesterday. As I recall, they said they’d never been this far north before.”
Johnny jumped up. “Good, ‘cause they sound exactly like who I’m looking for.”
Once Johnny had gone, Scott stood and picked up the mug that held the scorpion. “I’d better throw this out before Teresa sees it.”
Murdoch pushed his half-eaten plate of eggs away – his appetite had shrivelled.
Murdoch blew out a breath, but didn’t say anything.
“Murdoch, you’re not taking any of this seriously are you? I know superstition was rife where Johnny grew up but…”
Murdoch shook his head. “To be honest, Scott, I don’t know how to take any of this. All I know is the older I get, the less willing I am to assume anything.”
“Cipriano, are these the two new hands Murdoch hired yesterday?” Johnny nodded in the direction of two vaqueros saddling their horses by the corral.
“Si, Senor Johnny. The taller one is Juanito. The other one, Julio, says he comes from Texas.”
Johnny squinted at Cipriano. “But you don’t believe him?”
Cipriano shrugged. “New amigos seldom talk like old compadres.”
Johnny could feel the hairs on the back of his neck bristle but his face remained impassive. “Bring them over here, por favor. I think it’s time I met them.”
Johnny leaned against the pillar by the front door while he waited. He saw Juanito and Julio throw a few glances in his direction as Cipriano spoke to them, then the two vaqueros started walking towards the hacienda where Johnny stood.
Johnny tipped a hand to his hat to thank Cipriano – and to let him know he’d handle this alone.
The vaqueros didn’t look any different from the other hands Lancer hired; they both had dusty, worn clothes and skin starting to wrinkle like old leather in spite of their sombreros. They were probably only ten years older than Johnny.
“Senor, Johnny, you wished to talk to us?”
Johnny ripped a leafy branch from one of Teresa’s bushes growing nearby, then looked up from under his brim. “What do you two call yourselves?”
“I am Juanito. This is Julio.”
“He got a tongue?” Johnny poked the branch in Julio’s direction.
The shorter one cleared his throat. “My name is Julio Gonzales. It is a great honour to be working on such a magnificent ranch.”
Johnny flicked a glance from one to the other. “When did you two arrive in Morro Coyo?”
“We arrived one week ago; looking for work.”
“I s’pose you two hooked up on the trail?”
They both nodded – after a sideways glance at each other.
Juanito took his hat off. “A man in the saloon said Lancer was hiring. We were going to ride out here but we found Murdoch Lancer and his son getting supplies at the store.”
“We decided to introduce ourselves - and he hired us.”
Johnny clicked his fingers. “Just like that, huh?”
The hat in Juanito’s hands was taking a beating but he didn’t have any trouble looking Johnny straight in the eyes. “May I ask you why you question us? We are not in trouble with the law.”
“Nor are we looking for a gunfight. We respect you.”
“Julio speaks the truth. We didn't even know that Johnny Madrid worked on this ranch.”
Johnny ripped a few leaves from the branch, then fixed them with a stare. “You two know an awful lot for a couple of drifters.”
“No senor, we know very little. It was the Lancer hand called Thomas – he told us who you were.”
“Si. He told us yesterday when we arrived here.”
Johnny’s hand stilled. “Thomas have anything else to say?”
Juanito looked at Julio before he spoke. “He said you were ‘Johnny Madrid,’ the pistolero, but that you wouldn’t be for much longer.”
“We asked him if you were returning to the border but he told us it was none of our business.”
“Well, he’s right about one thing, isn’t he?” Johnny looked them in the eye, then held his hand out; the loose leaves in his palm fell to the ground.
Julio swallowed and the rim of Juanito’s hat lost some more shape.
“So where were you two last night?” Johnny asked.
“We were nowhere,” Julio said. “We ate dinner then slept in the bunkhouse.”
“The food was good, Senor Madrid.” Juanito patted his belly. “We slept soundly with full stomachs.”
Johnny threw the branch away then put his hands on his hips and stared at the ground.
“May we go, Senor? There is much work to do.”
Johnny didn’t look up – just nodded. But as they walked away, he called after them, “Just one thing: it’s not Madrid anymore. The name’s Lancer. I’m Murdoch’s kid.”
Johnny rubbed a hand over his face. He remembered the feeling of falling…falling…
He almost jumped when he felt a hand resting on his shoulder. It was Murdoch.
“So what do you think?” Murdoch said, watching the two hands mount their horses and ride off.
“You hear all of that?”
Johnny took a deep breath. “I think I need to talk to Thomas.”
“Okay, son. If you think it will help. I’ll send Jelly up to the east line shack to get him. I sent Thomas up there this morning for repairs.”
Carleta walked back and forth, he skirts swishing as she paced in her hotel room. “I’m telling you, the Lancers have no idea what the old woman wants, or why she’s even here.”
Her ‘husband’ smiled. “That’s excellent. I think, my dear, it would be a good idea if you made the Lancers think she has come to do some evil to Johnny.”
Carleta slipped her blouse down at the shoulder – revealing silky, smooth skin the colour of creamy coffee. “Scott Lancer won’t be hard to convince.”
Her ‘husband’ chucked her under the chin. “That’s my girl.”
Carleta wasted no time. She left the hotel by the back door then hurried down to the livery to hire a buggy. The suggestion to warn the Lancers about her aunts was the perfect excuse for visiting them – and perhaps this time she’d see Johnny. She had to take a deep breath to slow her heart at the mere thought of him. What would happen when she actually saw him? What would happen once he was finally hers? She’d waited so long for this moment; nothing must come in the way of…
“My dear Carleta. What a pleasant surprise to find this boy from all those years ago.”
Carleta stopped short at the entrance to the livery, pressing her lips tight to repress a gasp. She could see the old woman by one of the stalls, fondly stroking the nose of her pinto.
“Aunt Lena. I didn’t know you were in town. I was going to send a message to you but I didn’t know where you were.” She went to her aunt and kissed her cheek.
Aunt Lena grabbed her hand before Carleta had a chance to pull away, then peered at Carleta’s face. “This boy – are you sure he’s the one?”
Carleta stood straight and withstood her scrutiny, in spite of her racing pulse. “Your sister will not get in my way this time, Aunt Lena. Johnny was betrothed to me as a child. If you remember, a covenant was made.”
“I remember, child.” Aunt Lena poked a bony finger at her. “And don’t forget that I’ve helped you find him again.”
Carleta pulled her other hand from Lena’s grasp. “That was your duty.” She softened her voice. “But I thank you for it.”
Lena cackled. “You never did like to be crossed, did you dearie? Everything had to be Leta’s way, didn’t it. Your mother, God rest her soul, spoiled you from the day you were born.”
Carleta tossed her head. Dark, glossy hair, released from its ribbon, fell in waves to her waist. Lifting her chin, she said, “I have kept myself for him. I have honoured our covenant. Is it not right that it should now be ratified? You swore an oath to my mother before she died that you’d do everything in your power for me.”
Lena turned back to her pinto. “I have learned that Johnny has a father and a brother now. The love of family is a strong force.”
Carleta smiled. “As are jealousy, rage and mistrust.”
Lena came close – so close that Carleta could smell the garlic on her breath and see the hairs that grew on the tip of her nose. “You must not break that bond. All will be lost if you break that bond!”
Carleta stepped back, her breath coming uncomfortably fast. “Don’t rant at me, old woman. Let me remind you that it was Aunt Mia, your sister, who told me to pursue Johnny – that he was rightfully mine.”
Lena dropped her head. “You don’t have to remind me, child. Not a day goes by without the deeds of that day coursing through my mind.”
“Aunt Lena, you must now help me make things right. Johnny Madrid is mine.”
Lena pursed her lips, a shrewd expression on her face. “Johnny Madrid might be yours – but what of Johnny Lancer?”
Carleta laughed. “He will be even easier to command.”
Johnny took his hat and gunbelt from the stand near the door.
“Johnny, where do you think you’re going?”
Johnny didn’t look up but continued to buckle his belt. “Murdoch, you know I’ve never been one for waiting. If Carleta’s in Morro Coyo then I want to see her and find out what she’s up to.”
Just then the door opened and Scott walked in.
“Is Jelly back with Thomas yet?” Johnny asked.
Scott shook his head, then pointed at Johnny’s rig. “Are you going out? It must be almost time to eat.”
“Jelly should be back soon, son. Why don’t you at least wait and see what Thomas has to say?”
Johnny slowly unbuckled his gunbelt again. “Don’t think I don’t know when the two of you are ganging up on me.”
Murdoch grinned. “Call it ‘watching out for your welfare.’”
Johnny ate his way through the midday meal without tasting a single bite. Scott and Murdoch tried to watch him unobtrusively while they talked. They’d just started discussing the upcoming Cattlemen’s meeting when Johnny said, “I want you and Scott to be careful while these gypsies are around.”
Scott looked across at Johnny. “Why don’t you tell us what this is all about,” he said in a quiet voice, “otherwise we’re riding blind.”
Johnny’s glance flicked to Murdoch then back to the fork in his hand. “Okay, but I’m warning you, it might not make much sense to either of you. It sure as hell doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“Go ahead, Johnny. I promise Scott and I won’t jump to any conclusions.”
Johnny looked up at Murdoch and shrugged. “Okay. It all happened when I was about eleven. I’d been kicking around border towns for some time by myself. Then I met this woman called Mia. She suggested that I work for her and these other gypsy women, and they’d look after me and give me a bed and food. Only it turned out they had another idea in mind – they wanted me to marry their niece when we were older.”
Murdoch’s hand tightened on his knife but he said quite calmly, “Carleta?”
“That’s the one. I don’t know what they slipped me but the whole time I was with them I hardly knew if I was coming or going. It was like swimming under water or something.”
Scott frowned. “They drugged you?”
“I don’t know, Scott. To this day I still can’t remember everything that happened while I was with them. It’s all like some bad dream.”
Murdoch rested his chin on his clasped hands but he remained silent, so Johnny took a deep breath and continued. “After a couple of weeks, I knew I had to get out of there.” Johnny swallowed. It was hard thinking back to that time. He’d tried to forget about it for so long.
“Go on, son,” Murdoch said.
“I waited until I thought everyone was asleep – but it turns out they weren’t. I remember a knife…blood…the feeling of falling… Next thing I knew I was in a gypsy wagon again, only this time I was with Carleta’s Aunt Lenore, not Mia. Lenore found me half dead and took me home. As soon as I well enough, I got the hell out of there.”
Johnny looked at Murdoch and Scott – neither one said a word.
“Murdoch, I know none of that makes a whole lot of sense but I learned one thing about Carleta’s family – they might seem normal but there’s something dark inside them.”
“But the other aunt – Lenore – she helped you?”
“Yeah. The two aunts were as different as night and day. Looking back on it all, I kind of feel sorry for Carleta having to grow up in the midst of all that.”
“The question is, what brings them here?” Scott murmured.
“I don’t know, brother. I never thought they’d come looking for me after so many years.” Johnny frowned – somewhere in his memory a scrap of conversation he’d had with Lenore drifted into his mind. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Maybe there’s one reason I can think of.”
“Let’s hear it,” Murdoch said. “Anything that sheds light on their reappearance will be a help.”
“Lenore told me some hocus pocus story that Mia planned for me to be Carleta's possession when she grew into womanhood. That I wouldn’t have had a life of my own if I’d stayed with her.” His face darkened. “I would have liked to see her try. Anyway, once I heard that story I’d had enough of the lot of them. As soon as I had my chance, I slipped away.”
“I can see why you’re not impressed with these people turning up in Morro Coyo,” Scott said. “It all sounds like something out of a nightmare.”
“Well, thank God you’re not an eleven year old child anymore. You’re a man - and a man who has family behind him now,” Murdoch added softly.
A flicker of a smile crossed Johnny’s face as his eyes met Murdoch’s. “I know that, Murdoch. I guess it’s thrown me a little, having these people turn up like this after years of trying to forget them.”
Murdoch’s face became grim. “Well, if these gypsies are here to start any trouble, they’ll find out the hard way that Lancer protects its own.”
Someone banged on the front door. Johnny stood up and called for whoever it was to come in. It was Thomas who stood on the threshold.
Thomas took off his hat and came forward. “Mr. Lancer, Jelly told me you wanted to talk to me straight away. He said it was important.”
Scott and Murdoch stood as soon as they saw who it was and moved away from the table.
Johnny crossed his arms and stared at the man. Thomas had been working at Lancer for about four weeks.
Murdoch cleared his throat. “Yes, Thomas. We were wondering if you talked to our two new hands yesterday.
“Or if you knew anything about a scorpion in my bed,” added Johnny.
“A scorpion?” Thomas scrunched his face up. “I hate them things. And if you’ve got them sleeping in your beds around here, then I’m moving on.”
Scott put a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “No, we don’t have them sleeping in our beds here, Thomas. We think someone deliberately put one in Johnny’s bed.”
“Well, I sure don’t like them things, Scott. I heard tell the poison’s so strong in those nasty critters that a man can die before he even has a chance to blink.”
“I think that might be a slight exaggeration, Thomas.”
“Is there any more of them things around here, Mr. Lancer? If I’d known it was like this, I wouldn’t have signed on here.” His eyes started searching every nook and cranny in the room. “I heard tell that scorpions…”
“Thomas!” Thomas started, but he shut up and looked at Murdoch. “We want you to tell us what you know about Juanito and Julio.”
He scrunched up his face again. “Well, I don’t know a whole lot, Mr. Lancer. Me and a couple of the boys saw them ride into town with a band of gypsies and their wagons on Saturday night.” His eyes went wide. “Are they the ones with that nasty critter? Mr. Lancer, they ain't after me are they? I sure don't want no curse put on me just ‘cause I talked to ‘em.”
“What did you talk to them about?” asked Johnny.
“You, Johnny. They was asking questions ‘bout you and I minded what Jelly told me – that you used to be a gunfighter but now you’ve given all that up even though you can still shoot the diamonds off a rattlesnake at a hundred paces.”
Johnny grinned of a sudden. “As long as the wind’s in the right direction.”
“Thomas, is that all you talked about?”
Just his nose crinkled this time. “I think so, Mr. Lancer.”
Murdoch looked at Johnny, who shrugged his shoulders.
“Okay, you can go back to Jelly now, Thomas. And I’d like you to keep this conversation to yourself.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Lancer, and I’ll be staying away from them two. I don't want no scorpions in my bed.”
There was silence in the room after Thomas left, until Johnny said, “You know Murdoch, I believe Thomas. It seems my two problems are Juanito and Julio.”
“What do you think we should do about them?”
“We could fire them,” said Scott in a blunt tone.
“Yeah?” Johnny didn’t sound convinced. “Murdoch, what do you think? I think I’d rather have them here where we can keep an eye on them.”
“I agree. I’ll get Cipriano and Jelly to watch them – and make sure they don’t come near the house.”
“I’m still going to town.” There was the hint of a challenge in Johnny’s voice. “But you two can come with me if you like,” he added with a small smile.
When Murdoch, Scott and Johnny neared Morro Coyo, they found a group of brightly covered wagons camped in a field just outside town. They didn’t need to talk about it; as one, they changed direction, and rode across to the encampment.
Johnny’s hands tightened on his reins as he saw three women sitting on chairs around a fire. Up close, each wagon was a mere memory of a vibrant past - the gaudy paint was chipped and faded and the once-fancy curtains were stained and torn.
“Murdoch, you see those three old ladies? One of them’s Mia, the hag that stuck a knife in me. The other one is her sister, Lenore.”
Murdoch’s face was grim. “And the other one is the old woman we meet in the woods.”
“So if she’s with Mia, then that old lady’s big trouble.”
Scott leaned forward. “I thought you said Lenore helped you and wasn’t part of what happened? It looks like they’ve joined forces again.”
The old women were watching them approach now, and suddenly men began appearing from some of the wagons.
Johnny looked at Murdoch and Scott. “I think it’s time we got some straight answers.”
“Like why they tried to kill an eleven year old boy,” Murdoch said as he dismounted.
Johnny swung down then grabbed Murdoch’s arm. “Murdoch, I don’t remember a whole lot of what happened that night. I remember seeing Mia with a knife in her hand but not much more. I was only a kid – maybe I’m not remembering right?”
“That’s right, Johnny – you were only a kid.”
Johnny let his hand drop – Murdoch’s tone was implacable.
“Johnny!” It was Mia who called to him from the fire. “Come over here. We’ve been hoping to meet you.”
“It looks like we’ve interrupted a gypsy convention,” Scott murmured under his breath as they walked across to where the women sat. He kept an eye on the men who’d come from the wagons. They were all dressed gypsy-style: coloured bandanas on their heads, bright vests and silk sashes tied about their waists. Only the sashes couldn’t hide the huge knives tucked into their belts. “I assume they use those knives to cut their food?”
Johnny didn’t grin at Scott’s comment. He didn’t want the old women to think he was happy to see them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Besides, now he had to work out how to hold back his furious old man as well as get the truth from Carleta’s kinfolk.
Johnny’s eyes glittered as they stopped in front of the fire. “Yeah? You been sending out one of those special calls for me, Mia? Only I’m not a kid anymore – and the only person’s bidding I do now is my old man’s.”
The gypsy men folded their arms and stood behind the women, muscles bulging beneath their shirts, but Murdoch didn’t even spare them a glance. “I think you women have some explaining to do.”
At Murdoch’s words, the men all stepped forward – and it wasn’t because they wanted to shake hands. Johnny’s hand drifted closer to his gun, as did Scott’s.
“Enough!” Lenore clapped her hands. “Leave us,” she said to her menfolk. “You are not needed here. These are good men. We have nothing to fear from them.”
The men looked sullen but they walked away, some going inside their wagons; another couple moved across to stand beneath some trees and watched the women from there.
“Just what is it you want from Johnny?” Murdoch asked.
“We want nothing from him, Mr. Lancer. My sisters, Mia, Lena and myself, have come to warn him.”
Murdoch’s brows went up. “You knife him as a child but now we’re supposed to believe you’re here to help Johnny? If I had my way, I’d have the lot of you in jail so that you could explain why you almost killed my eleven year old son, to a judge.”
Mia stood up. “You have every right to be upset.”
“Upset doesn’t half cover what I’m feeling right now.”
“We’ve come to make reparation. You are right. We did a dreadful thing to your son – an evil thing. But now evil threatens to strike him again and we have come to warn him and to help him, if may be.”
Looking at the women, Johnny felt a familiar feeling creeping up on his senses. He stared at the fire – the flames were twisting and writhing and turning from yellow to blue to red. Red. There’d been a fire that night as well – and the knife glowed red, then his blood flowed red and then he was falling…falling…falling…
“Johnny? Johnny, are you all right, son?”
He felt Murdoch’s hand on his arm and took a deep breath. At least he was still on his feet.
Mia came up to him. “You remember that night, don’t you?”
He wanted to say no. He felt sick to his stomach. But he nodded.
“You were such a small boy, but so strong. You writhed and kicked and squirmed and we couldn’t hold you.” She looked at Murdoch. “It was to be a blood covenant, nothing more, sealing Johnny to Carleta for life. Just a small cut, here.” She pointed to her own wrist. “But the knife slipped.” She reached out and took Johnny’s left hand then twisted it, palm upwards. There on his wrist, was a faint, but jagged, long scar. “Lenore took him from us and saved him. Yes, Mr. Lancer, we almost killed your son but you have Lenore to thank that he stands beside you now.”
Murdoch shook his head, as if in disbelief. Eventually he looked at Johnny. “I think I have a higher hand than your sister’s to thank for Johnny coming back to me after all those years in border towns,” he said softly.
Johnny stared at the fire. It was just a fire now. And the warmth he felt was inside him, not from any flames.
“Come, you must sit,” called Lena, the one they’d met in the woods.
Murdoch, Scott and Johnny joined them around the fire but declined any offers of food and drink. They’d exchanged looks as they sat down and all three of them seemed to be thinking kind of the same thing - the explanation of what happened sounded reasonable but Murdoch and Scott clearly weren’t about to forgive or trust these gypsy women. Johnny sure didn’t trust them but he’d never forgotten Lenore for saving his life.
Lena was first to speak once they were settled. “I’m sorry I didn’t speak more freely to you when we first met but you had your father with you and I wasn’t sure how much he knew or that he would even understand our ways.”
“We’re a family,” said Johnny.
“Just what are ‘your ways’?” asked Scott. “Would they have anything to do with what happened to Johnny this morning?”
“Oh dear, please tell me what happened this morning.”
Johnny shrugged. “Sure, it's simple; someone put a scorpion in my bed. It stung me good and hard. Woke me up from a sound sleep.”
The three women exchanged worried looks.
Johnny leaned back. “We came to see if you sent Juanito and Julio to work with us, so they could plant the thing in my bed.”
“Oh, Johnny.” Lenore shook her head. “We know Juanito and Julio. They were looking for a job and we asked them to ride with us. It is true that we asked them to get a job at Lancer, but only so they could watch and be sure that no harm could come to you.”
“They are both good men,” Lena said firmly.
Johnny thought over her words. “I think I believe them,” he said to Murdoch and Scott. Neither one looked especially happy but they didn’t disagree with him. “We still don't know who's out to get me, though.”
“We cannot say for sure who put a scorpion in your bed but this circumstance could be one of the reasons why Mia and Lena have come with me.”
Scott frowned. “Could be?”
“You’re not making yourselves very clear,” said Murdoch.
Johnny took his hat off and ran a hand through his hair. “Ladies, will you tell me what kind of trouble is coming my way now? You all three seem damned sure something is headed this way.”
Lenore looked at her sisters. “Let me explain it.” They nodded and she continued. “Johnny, Carleta has not given up on the covenant that was made between the two of you that night. We came to warn you of that and to find out if you know anything about an older man that Carleta has picked up with.”
“I haven’t even seen Carleta so how would I know this man? Did you see her with anyone?” he asked Scott.
“No, she was alone when she came to my room.”
“Don’t trust her, Scott,” Lenore said. “Carleta would do anything to fool you into believing we mean your brother harm. The problem is we don't know who this man is - we just know he's out for revenge and we believe he has promised Carleta something about you, Johnny.”
“I sense he does not plan on keeping his word to Carleta. I believe this man is like the devil himself.” Mia crossed herself.
“Please, Johnny, do not be alone and do not respond if you hear someone calling you.”
Johnny felt a shiver down his back, in spite of the warmth of the day.
“Don’t you think that’s a bit far-fetched?” asked Scott.
Lenore looked into Johnny’s eyes. “You must not answer this man’s or Carleta’s voice. We do not wish to see any harm come to you.”
Johnny put his hat on and stood. The old women were beginning to give him the creeps again. “Do you three have any idea where Carleta is?”
“I know she’s in town somewhere, but she’s hiding,” Mia said.
Scott went across and untied their horses while Murdoch stood and spoke to the women. “I think it would be good for you all if you left Morro Coyo.”
Lenore considered him. “You are a true force in these parts, Mr. Lancer, but there are some forces not even you can control. We shall leave here when we have finished our work.”
Murdoch shrugged. “As you wish.”
Johnny didn’t really know what to say. On the one hand their warnings sounded like something Jelly would dream up but on the other hand, there was no denying that something very weird had happened all those years ago between him and Carleta. “Well, thank you, ladies. I appreciate the help but I think we’ll deal with this our own way.”
Lenore stood. “Stay safe, Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny turned around. “It’s ‘Lancer’, now.”
Carleta had returned to her hotel room after speaking with Lena at the livery stable. She hadn’t admitted the fact to Lena, but she was unnerved to find the old woman there. Her aunts had always supported her in everything she’d wanted – until now. She’d sensed a change in them when she turned eighteen and declared her intention to find Johnny Madrid. They didn’t support Carleta – and it was only at Carleta’s insistence that they allowed her to look for Johnny. Now it would appear that agreement had all been a ruse. She should have realized they’d changed their beliefs from when she was a child – instead of garlands of wild flowers and herbs they now wore rosary beads and crosses. Gone were the potions – instead they used Holy Water blessed by the padre.
But Carleta had stayed true to her mother’s teaching – and now she had a new mentor; one with nerves of steel, an all-seeing eye and a benevolent smile. He was her father and teacher and the one that would lead her to what she desired most – Johnny Madrid. She’d dreamed of Johnny since childhood; the memory of his blue eyes stirred the first feelings in her of womanhood. Some mornings her pillow was wet with tears of longing. Could anyone burn as strongly for a man as she did? Could tears ever be more bitter than hers when Aunt Lenore let Johnny escape?
She stared out the window now. Her mentor was behind her, polishing his guns. She didn’t have to look to know he’d be smiling as he slid the oily cloth over the mechanism. He always smiled.
The street below was almost deserted save for three riders heading into town. Some inkling made Carleta look more closely at the riders and then her hand went to her throat. It was Johnny. It had to be. Surely it could only be him as she recognized Scott Lancer on the horse beside him?
And wasn’t Johnny just as she’d imagined – riding into town on a magnificent, cream horse? For a moment she could barely take a breath - something inside her was about to burst. Johnny Madrid – her Johnny Madrid. She could see him clearly now from her first floor window. Just that moment, he let his hat fall down his back, held in place by the stampede strings, and looked up – at her. She put her hand to her mouth and smothered the sound that tried to come. She didn’t want her mentor to hear. For some reason she wanted this moment all to herself. Finally her mind unscrambled enough for her to realize Johnny couldn’t see her - not behind a lace curtain – but for a second it felt like their souls had met, nonetheless.
A sound, almost a growl, made her turn to the side.
Her mentor had come to the window. He watched Johnny dismount, then the three Lancers stood talking on the sidewalk across from the hotel.
“Johnny Madrid. We shall finally meet again.”
All the heat that had been coursing through Carleta’s body was suddenly doused by an icy wind that seemed to blow right through the room. “You sound angry with Johnny?”
“Angry with him? Why should I be angry? I’m very much looking forward to meeting him again. Just as you have dreamed of meeting him these many nights – so have I, my dear. It is destiny that we should meet again.” And even though her mentor smiled, his eyes sparked with some new fire she’d never seen in him before. She had the uncanny sense of all her plans and desires for Johnny melting with the heat of that spark and draining away to a pile of molten nothingness.
The room began to tilt uneasily, but she closed her eyes until her senses calmed. When she opened her eyes, her mentor was smiling at her, as usual. The deep crevices in his cheeks had always made her trust him like you would a magnanimous uncle, but now all she felt was that icy chill wind. Worse than that, she now recognized that sound in his voice. “You told me you were going to help me get Johnny, so that our covenant could finally be made complete. But now I hear the sound of revenge in your voice and see it in your eyes.”
Her mentor kept his eyes on Johnny, who was still talking to his father and brother across the way. “Yes, my dear, I want revenge.” He turned and took her chin in his hand. “But when I am done with him, you can have what's left.”
She knew the blood was draining from her face – she could feel her grip on consciousness becoming ever fainter. This was not what she wanted for Johnny. This was never what she wanted. She sat down in the chair by the window and willed herself not to faint. It would never do to show a weakness in front of her mentor – he’d taught her that much at least. She managed to smile. “Johnny ran away from me once – he must get what he deserves. Together we will show him who the master is now.”
Her mentor peered down at her – that spark still twinkled in his eyes, only now it seemed positively genial. “That’s the girl. I don’t want to kill Johnny. I just aim to show him I don’t like to be crossed.”
Carleta broadened her smile. “Once you have him, the three of us will be together and his shock will be revenge enough for me. Just make sure he remains well enough for my marriage bed.”
Her mentor looked pleased. “Carleta, when I get through with Johnny Madrid, he’s all yours, my dear. Pack your things. I think it’s time we disappeared from Morro Coyo.” He picked up his guns and went through to the adjoining room, leaving Carleta to still the despair that rushed through her.
For the first time in her life, her eyes gazed upwards. All her life she’d toyed with the things of her culture and dreamed of making Johnny hers. But now, perhaps finally seeing Johnny, realizing he was truly flesh and blood with thoughts and feelings and dreams of his own, something inside her was screaming at her to stop. “My Lord, I don’t want Johnny hurt.”
She clasped her hands together – and it was as if the truth crashed down about her, shattering every silly, selfish thought she’d ever had. “How could I have been so foolish to think I could possess someone against their will?”
Some of the things Aunt Mia had tried to teach Carleta over the years began to make sense. How strange that she couldn’t see the blackness in her own soul until it had been revealed in another’s.
Tears prickled the corner of her eyes but she blinked them back. It was no time for tears – she had to make a plan.
In the adjoining room, Carleta’s mentor watched Johnny cross the street.
“Johnny, Johnny, Johnny. You’ll soon belong to me and your old man will wonder what's become of you.”
Once Johnny had disappeared from view, the mentor picked up one of his guns and spun the chamber, then pointed it at the street. He sighted the gun slowly, until it landed on Murdoch Lancer. The single ‘click’ was loud in the quiet room.
“Yes, you and I, Johnny Madrid are about to travel a path that I am sure you will not like.”
Carleta could hear the sound of drawers opening and closing in the other room. It would only be a matter of minutes before her mentor came in and demanded they leave, yet her own bags were barely filled. She was moving in a fog and her hands shook. She had to think of a way to make her mentor leave the hotel before she did, but not one single idea had come to mind.
“Carleta, are you ready?” He stood at the doorway, carpet bag in hand and derby firmly planted on his head.
“Not ready? I can see that.” He took his pocket watch out and read the time. “I’m well used to the ways of women, my dear. I’ll wait for you at the livery stable. I don’t have to tell you to make sure the Lancers don’t see you if they’re still in town.”
“I’ll be as fast as I can.”
He turned towards the door. “You sound distracted. Perhaps you’re a mite overawed at the thought of how close you are to achieving your aim, Carleta?”
She put a shaky hand to her forehead. “I think that must be it. Either that or I’m coming down with something.”
“Perhaps a little rest after all this will do you good?”
And who wouldn’t trust a man who smiled as warmly as that? Small children would rush to sit on his knee. “Thank you. You’re very good to me. I promise I won’t be long.”
He beamed at her. “I’ll keep watch for you.”
Once he’d gone she shoved her things into a bag then sat down at the desk in her room. To her relief, she found paper, pen and ink in the drawer - and started writing.
The clerk was at his desk in the hotel foyer when Carleta came down. She breathed a sigh of relief when there was no sign of her mentor and approached the clerk. “Do you know anyone who’ll deliver this letter for me?”
“Sure, Joe will do it for a short bit.”
She’d been prepared to offer him all the money she had. Two bits seemed a small price to pay to save someone’s life. She took the money from her reticule and gave the clerk directions to the gypsy camp. “Are you sure this Joe is reliable? This letter is very important.”
“Don’t you worry about a thing, ma’am. Joe’ll make sure they get it.”
She thanked him, left the room key, and went outside to the street. For one wild moment she contemplated running - somewhere, anywhere. Maybe she could hide in some dark place until the stage arrived? Maybe she could hide forever?
Instead, her feet started walking towards the livery, where her mentor would be waiting.
Murdoch, Scott and Johnny had no luck in town. They tried both hotels but found no sign of Carleta and the man who was encouraging her. They seemed to have vanished into thin air.
Murdoch looked at Scott and Johnny. “We can hardly barge into every hotel room in town.”
Scott held up his hand. “I vote we go home. We’re not achieving anything riding around in circles. Johnny?”
Johnny blew out a breath. “I guess not.” He looked up at the sky. “Besides, it looks like there’s a storm coming and I don’t fancy getting rained on.”
They managed to stay dry by making it home before there was any sign the storm was about to break.
Murdoch tried to encourage Johnny to help him with the books but Johnny shook his head. “Good try, Murdoch, but I’m not falling for that one. Besides, that roan needs to be exercised. I want to see how his leg’s healing. Scott’ll help you, won’t you brother.”
Scott threw his gloves on the table by the front door. “Thanks, Johnny.”
“My pleasure.” Johnny gave Scott a whack on the arm as he walked past, then headed outside, whistling as he went. Jelly was just coming out of the barn.
“Jelly, go get that roan for me. Time to see how his leg’s healed.”
Johnny swung himself up on the corral fence and waited. Here at Lancer, surrounded by people and horses and cattle, the stuff with Carleta seemed a world away.
Jelly came out of the barn leading a roan big enough to take Murdoch’s weight. “Here he is, Johnny. He’s looking good.”
Johnny jumped down. “He sure is, Jelly.” He ran a hand down the roan’s right foreleg. “Swelling’s down.”
“Barely a limp, either. I told you that poultice’d do the trick. Works every time.”
Johnny took the rope and started walking the horse. “Which one, Murdoch’s or that stinky one you wanted to use?”
“Do you mean to say after all that work I did mixing it up… Uh, oh – this is bad.”
“Jelly, the other poultice worked fine. Just look at how he’s walking.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. I see trouble headed this way.”
Johnny ducked under the roan’s head then followed Jelly’s gaze. A bright coloured wagon was rumbling under the Lancer arch.
The three women, plus a young girl they introduced as Anna Lee, sat close to each other on the couch in the great room. The Lancers stood in front of the fireplace and listened as Lenore read the letter aloud.
“My dear, precious Aunts,
I am so sorry for what I have done. I had no idea how evil this man is. I thought he wanted to help me charm Johnny but I was so wrong. Instead, all he talks about is seeking revenge from Johnny.
I sense there is great danger coming from this man and it frightens me. I sense he’ll do everything he can to get to Johnny, even if he has to use Johnny's family.
I don’t know what to do. Could you warn the Lancers? I’ve made a terrible mess of everything.
With sincere apologies and much shame,
Your niece, Carleta.”
Lenore handed the letter to Johnny. He scanned it, shrugged, then passed it on to Murdoch who read the note with a tightened expression.
Scott read it last. “Do you have any idea how many men might be seeking some sort of revenge on you, Johnny?”
Johnny’s lips twisted. “You want me to include fathers with shotguns?”
“This is no laughing matter, Johnny.” Mia’s look was severe.
Johnny grew serious. “Ma’am, in my trade, it’s kind of hard not to make a few enemies - maybe a lot of them - but it don’t keep me up at night and I sure never made a list.”
Murdoch looked at the women. “You’ve seen this man. What does he look like?”
Lenore took the letter Scott held out to her. “Only I have seen him, Mr. Lancer. He isn’t a young man, middle-aged, blue-eyed, with deep dimples on his face.”
Something stirred inside Johnny. “Is he a gunfighter?”
Lenore looked surprised. “I don’t think so. I never saw him wear a gun. He was usually dressed in a black suit, vest and string tie…”
Jelly walked in from the kitchen. “And carried a carpet bag and a cane?” His face had gone white.
Johnny crossed his arms. “Come on, Jelly. You’re not trying to suggest this man is Absalom Weir?”
Lenore frowned as she thought back. “He did carry a cane and I did see him with a carpet bag. To be honest, he looked more like a travelling salesman.”
“Boss, she’s describing Weir right down to his boots.”
The Lancers exchanged glances but only Johnny didn’t look troubled. “Weir’s no ghost, he’s just a greedy old man who preys on others. If this man ‘is’ Weir, it just shows he’s up to his usual tricks again and using Carleta for his own needs.”
“I saw him wear a gun.”
Everyone turned to look at her; Anna Lee went red and bit her lip.
Mia grasped Anna Lee’s hand. “You, child?”
“I’m sorry. It was the night Carleta left. You told me to stay in my wagon but I had to say good-bye to her. I’m sorry grandmamma.”
“Let’s not trouble ourselves with whether you did right or wrong. Just tell us what you saw.”
“He was dressed just as you say, but he wore a gun, kind of high on his waist, not like yours.” She pointed shyly to Johnny’s gun.
Scott’s brows went up. “You’ve got to admit, brother, that sounds like Weir.”
“Scott, I can ride into any town and find at least twenty men who match that description.”
“There’s one other thing.” Anna Lee’s eyes flickered nervously to everyone but Johnny, then finally, as if sensing Johnny’s gaze, she looked up at him.
“I heard him tell Carleta that Johnny Madrid killed his first man before he was sixteen years old.”
The women stirred and murmured slightly, but Jelly’s eyes opened wide. “I told you it was him, Johnny. And now this storm’s brewing, just like before when Weir was around.”
“There was a storm when this man caused trouble before?” Lena asked. “That’s not a good sign.”
“You hear that, Johnny? And my elbow’s been acting up again and that ain’t a good sign either,” Jelly told Lenore. “You mark my words.”
Murdoch put a hand on Jelly’s arm. “Jelly, why don’t go out to the barn and secure the horses in case this wind blows up.”
Johnny put his hands on Jelly’s shoulders and steered him towards the door. “Jelly, get movin’.”
Scott waited until Johnny had got rid of Jelly. “Weir caused us a lot of trouble last time. Is it possible he still wants to get Silas’s farm?”
Murdoch’s eyes rested on Johnny. “Weir was a damned nasty piece of work. If it ‘is’ him with Carleta, you’ll need to be careful Johnny.”
“That’s right. As I recall, Weir didn’t take too kindly to you interfering in his plans.”
Johnny tapped the gun strapped to his thigh. “Weir’s flesh and blood, not some ghost, in spite of what Jelly thinks. I’ll give him the same respect I give any man who wears a gun and knows how to use it. But if he wants trouble, I won’t be backing down.”
Neither Murdoch nor Scott looked surprised by his answer but the women looked troubled.
“Ladies,” Murdoch motioned to the window, “this storm is about to whip up. It would be safer for you to stay the night with us.”
Lenore bowed her head. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer. We’d appreciate that.”
“And in the morning,” added Johnny, “we’ll go look for Carleta. It sounds as if she’d like to be back with you.” He looked up as the front door opened.
Hank nodded at Murdoch and Scott but spoke to Johnny. “Jelly sent me to get you. He said Barranca’s been acting up. He thinks Barranca killed Teresa’s cat.”
“Okay, Hank. I’m coming. Ladies.” He nodded in their direction, then headed for the door.
Scott started to move for the door as well. “You want a hand out there?”
Murdoch sighed. “Johnny, don’t you think, until we know Weir’s plans, you should…”
Johnny turned but kept walking backwards. “Murdoch, I’ve already told you – I’m not afraid of Weir. I’ll see yah.”
When Johnny got to the barn, Jelly was nowhere to be seen and Barranca was calm. There was no sign of Teresa’s black cat – but an old mangy, stray lay stretched out at the back of the stall. Johnny squatted down and put a hand on the fur. The cat was cold. It had probably been dead for hours. Old age or disease was the most likely cause. No doubt Jelly had run scared because it was a black cat.
“Jelly, where are you? I need a shovel,” he called out.
Almost straight away he heard the sound of Jelly’s feet behind him. “Jelly, this isn’t…” And that was as far as he got. Something inside him screamed a warning – it wasn’t Jelly’s feet he heard.
Johnny’s hand flashed to his gun even as he turned, but he knew he was too late, even before the back of his head exploded into a mass of pain with a force that threw him down to the straw covered floor. Johnny’s eyes flickered. He saw a maggot crawl into the cat’s mouth an inch from his nose – and then the darkness took hold of him.
Teresa took Lena, Lenore and Mia to their rooms to rest before supper, so Scott offered to take Anna Lee outside to see the ranch. He took a quick look through the French doors. They’d had a shower since the women arrived. “The wind seems to be easing and the rain’s stopped so I think we’ll stay dry.” Scott led her outside. “Do you like horses?”
“I’m a gypsy, Mr. Lancer – I look for friendship wherever I can find it. Horses rarely…” She waved her hand about. “What is the word I want?”
“Yes.” Her smile was brief and tentative, almost awkward, as if she wasn’t used to showing such an emotion. “But most of the time my people are happy, so I am happy as well. Shall we start with the barn? I think you’d like to check on your brother.”
Scott winced. “Am I that obvious?”
“This is not a time for frivolity. My grandmamma thinks your Johnny might be in danger.”
Something clawed at Scott’s chest but it had been many years since he’d been scared of the dark and he wasn’t about to start again now. “Johnny’s a big boy. He can take care of himself.”
Solemn eyes regarded him. “But you’d like to check on him anyway.”
Scott grinned at her as they walked. “Johnny might be suspicious because I’m out here but he’ll be too polite to say anything in front of you.”
They were almost at the barn when Jelly struggled out the side door, trying to extend his right hand as far from his body as possible.
Scott stopped and put his hands on his hips. “Jelly, what are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” As he spoke, Jelly tried to pull his head back even further from his hand and what it carried.
“It looks like you’re walking around, holding a dead cat by the tail.” Scott could feel Anna Lee shrink back behind him.
“Well someone’s gotta bury the drat thing, don’t they. And seeing as how Barranca’s the one that caused all this fuss, I don’t know why Johnny isn’t taking care of it.” Jelly gave the cat a quick glance, as if he was afraid it was going to attack on eye contact, then shuddered. “I never did like black cats. They’ve got a nasty look about’em.”
Scott had a pretty good idea why Johnny wasn’t taking care of a dead cat - there had to be some benefits to owning a third of a ranch. “I’ll be sure to tell him when I see him. Is he in the barn?”
“You smell that?” Jelly started sniffing the air.
“You might try sniffing the carcass you’re holding in your hand, Jelly.”
“It ain’t the cat. It smells like sulphur, and the only time I smelled that around here was when Absalom Weir showed up.”
Scott patted him on the shoulder. “Maybe it’s the garlic you’re wearing around your neck?”
“Very funny.” Jelly nodded towards the house. “You’d just better keep an eye on that brother of yours and tell him to stay inside. If he’s got any sense he won’t go poking around out here.”
Scott stared at Jelly. Everything seemed quiet of a sudden – too quiet. “Jelly, Johnny isn’t inside. Hank told him about the cat so he went outside to check on Barranca.”
Jelly’s face went white. “I knew I smelled sulphur. You don’t think…?”
Scott started walking towards the barn with long strides.
“I don’t think anything, until I find Johnny. He’s probably checking that roan again.”
“Here, Corky,” Jelly called to a hand passing by, “Take this darned thing and bury it.” Corky took the cat by the tail and held it gingerly with his fingers. “And don’t be such a fancy Dan, hold the darn thing properly,” Jelly called to him before hurrying after Scott and Anna Lee. “I’m telling you, Scott, Johnny ain’t in the barn.”
The barn was quiet when they walked inside and Scott had a sinking feeling that for once in his life, Jelly was right. “Johnny? Johnny, are you in here?” No answer came back, not even a whinny from one of the horses. Barranca looked contented, as did the roan and the other three in the barn.
“Scott, I’m telling you, I never saw Johnny out here.”
“That doesn’t mean he was never here. He was pretty keen to check when Hank told him Barranca killed Teresa’s cat.” He glared at Jelly.
Jelly started to look sheepish. “Well, it turned out to be some ugly old stray.”
“Where was it?”
“The back of Barranca’s stall.”
Barranca watched them as they approached, clearly hoping for a treat. Scott patted Barranca’s nose, then entered the stall. “Jelly, did you pick the cat up or drag it out?”
Jelly stood back, keeping watch on the rest of the barn as if he thought something was about to leap out at them. “Of course I picked it up. I didn’t want to spread maggots all over the straw now, did I.”
Scott squatted at the back of the stall. “Jelly, if you didn’t drag the cat out, then something else was dragged out of this stall.”
Anna Lee and Jelly peered in. A wide furrow could be seen in the straw.
Scott grabbed a handful of straw then stood and walked into the brighter light near the barn door.
“What is it, Scott?” whispered Anna Lee.
Scott held the straw out for Anna Lee and Jelly to see. “Did the cat have any injury, Jelly?”
Jelly’s eyes went wide. “Nope. Not a scratch. You think that might be Johnny’s blood?”
“Jelly, start a search.” Scott’s face was grim. “I’d better tell Murdoch we might have a problem.”
“I found something, Mr. Lancer.” Scott and Murdoch followed Hank to the back of the barn. The single door on the back wall was rarely used but now it stood slightly ajar. Hank pointed at the mud. “There’s two sets of footprints here. One heading into the barn and one set heading away.” Murdoch bent down to peer at them more closely. “The set heading away from the barn…”
“Is more indented,” finished Scott.
“Which means whoever this was might have been carrying something.”
Murdoch straightened, a deep frown on his face. “Or someone, more likely, given the set of circumstances we’re facing.”
Scott was already following the prints away from the barn. They were easy to see for about twenty feet, and then they simply vanished. Scott made a fist and hit the palm of his hand - it didn’t feel nearly as good as hitting Absalom Weir’s face. “The prints stop here.”
Murdoch and the others spread out and between them they covered the area but the mud was frustratingly clear of further tracks.
Murdoch stared out into the distance, as if willing his eyes to catch sight of Johnny. “Scott, saddle our horses.”
Anna Lee put a hand on Scott’s arm as he was about to turn. “You should speak to grandmamma first. She understands the ways of men such as Weir.”
Scott patted his gun. “He’s flesh and blood, and he’s got Johnny – that’s all we need to understand.”
Carleta waited under a grove of oaks, her eyes fixed on the next hill. Somewhere beyond it, lay Lancer. And Johnny. Starting with her pinkie, she yanked at each finger – and when she’d finished with her left hand, she switched to the fingers on her right. She didn’t care if she pulled each one clean from its socket. People like her didn’t deserve fingers.
Aunt Mia tried to tell her. Time and again she tried to tell her. But her Mama had clung to the old ways and so too, had Carleta; hadn’t Carleta spat on a stone and thrown it in the air at the new moon…and tossed frog spawn over her shoulder, all for good luck? And just last week she’d seen a mule shake itself and surely that had been another sign that things would work out? But what did she end up with – everything gone wrong and a dozen snakes writhing in her stomach.
Where was her mentor – Absalom Weir? At least she knew his name now. And to think she’d been so dazzled by that twinkle in his eyes that she swallowed all his lies about why he was travelling incognito. Only now she knew it was because he didn’t wanted anyone to know that Absalom Weir had returned to the valley.
She yanked each finger even harder. What was Weir doing to Johnny right now?
All she wanted – all she’d ever wanted – was Johnny Madrid.
She tried to swallow but her throat was so dry.
Why hadn’t she listened to Aunt Mia when she read from the bible?
Carleta put a hand to her forehead and tried hard to remember…something…anything…that could help her now. She could hear Aunt Mia’s voice, soft and steady as she read each verse, but remembering her own response made her cringe in shame; she’d listened with hands folded meekly in her lap, but in her heart she’d sneered and mocked. What a wretched, wretched child she’d been.
She threw her hands on her head and buried her face in her forearms. “Oh my Lord, I’ve made a terrible mistake. Please forgive me – and please, please help me save Johnny Madrid.”
Startled, Carleta lifted her head. The air was suddenly bursting with sounds; the twitter of birds, cattle bellowing as if gripped by some horrible pain, the wind tearing through the leaves.
And then everything went quiet.
Carleta looked around with wide eyes, her breath slowly returning. This was a new quiet she heard; a quiet that carried a precious sense of peace she’d never known before in her life.
And with that realisation came a certainty – somewhere, somehow, help was at hand.
“You hit him too hard. What use is he to me dead?”
“Nonsense. The Johnny Madrids of this world are used to rough treatment. I’m sure he’s been hit harder than that – haven’t you Johnny. It’s really quite pointless to continue feigning unconsciousness, you know.”
Johnny squinted in the direction of the voices. It was still daylight. He didn’t know why but that surprised him. The back of his head hurt like the devil. And why the hell was he lying face down in the dirt? He must have passed out. He squinted some more but the shapes around him didn’t clear. And his head still hurt like the devil.
“Johnny Madrid. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Something moved near his face. Johnny tried blinking – and this time the blurry edges started to clear. He was staring at a pair of boots. They were worn-in but clean. Shiny even. There was something wrong about that. There was something wrong about everything right now but he had the darndest feeling he should be worried about one thing in particular.
“Here. Try drinking some water.”
He felt a hand under his back. He didn’t want to be any trouble so he let this other voice help him sit up. The water washed down his throat as smoothly as Murdoch’s best scotch but without the kick, which was a pity, because he really needed a kick right now. She tried to force more water down his throat but he pushed the canteen away. She? He looked at her more closely.
He all but moaned as he dropped his head into his hands. Now he knew why the other voice sounded familiar - and he knew what he should be worried about; the familiar weight on his hip was missing. His gun was gone.
“Come now, Johnny. I didn’t hit you that hard.”
Johnny slowly lifted his head. At least this time his vision was clear. “What do you want, Weir?”
Weir smiled. “What does any man want? A good woman to welcome him home each night? A passel of kids hanging off his legs as he tries to walk in the door? A plate of roast beef with all the trimmings on the table for supper?”
Johnny snorted. “You’ll never have any of that, Weir. Men like you suck the good out of everything you touch.”
The twinkle in Weir’s eyes dimmed for a second. “Still jealous I see, Johnny. It tore you up that Silas liked me – wanted to emulate me. He wanted to be just like his Uncle Abe.”
“You fooled him for a few days, all right.” Johnny let his smile grow. “But you lost. You lost Silas and you lost the land.”
Weir took a step closer. Johnny wasn’t sure if it was his sore head or Weir’s answering smile that made his gut twist uneasily. “You’re right, Johnny – but that was when I had you working against me. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking these last months, and it came to me that my life would be a whole lot more successful if Johnny Madrid was working ‘for’ me, instead. And then, I ran into young Carleta here.”
“What’s she got to do with anything?”
“I have a certain ‘charm’, shall we say. You saw how quickly Silas liked me. You, however, were impervious to it. But Carleta boasted that you’d be hers for the asking once she’d finished with you.”
Johnny laughed. “You’re not trying to tell me you believe in this gypsy mumbo jumbo stuff, are you Weir?”
Weir pinned Johnny with his glance. “Johnny-my-boy, there are plenty of things in this life that can’t be explained. You saw me find that water with Silas.”
“All I saw was a two-bit rogue trying to trick a kid out of his land.”
Weir waved his hand, as if sweeping Johnny’s words away. “You can have power and wealth like you’ve never known before, Johnny. Join with me. I can teach you.”
Johnny kept his eyes fixed on Weir’s face. “Weir, the only thing I can learn from you is how to run. That ‘is’ what you did that night at Hackett’s farm.”
“Correction, not ‘run’, Johnny, I walked away. And now I’ve come back to claim what’s rightfully mine.”
“You ran, Weir, like the coward you are.” Johnny stood up. “I did some checking up on you after your little visit. Seems plenty of people in San Francisco remember you.”
Weir shrugged. “I’ve been many things during my life.”
“Yeah, and ‘liar’ is the main one.”
Carleta put a hand on his arm. “You shouldn’t speak that way to him, Johnny. He has powers that aren’t from this world.”
Johnny laughed out loud – and then some more. “He’s got you fooled too, has he? Well, let me tell you something about Mr Absalom Weir. I did some checking on him after he tried to steal some land belonging to a young friend of mine. It turns out old Abe here is nothing but a two-bit side-show sharp shooter. He’s probably never even aimed that shiny gun of his at anything that shoots back.”
Johnny was hoping for a reaction but not the one he got – he’d barely had time to blink before he was surrounded by a wall of flames that leapt high into the night. Johnny threw up his arms to protect his face from the intensity of the heat.
“You’re wrong, Johnny Madrid and this time I’m going to triumph. My plans are in place. Silas and the land will be mine.”
“You’re talking bull, Weir,” Johnny shouted back. “The law’s on Silas’s side.”
“I don’t need the law, Johnny, not when I have my chariots of fire. Watch them blaze, Carleta. Watch them blaze.”
The flames rose higher and higher, circling Johnny, leaving no room for escape.
“Another trick of yours?” Johnny yelled – but he had to admit, if this was a trick it felt awfully real. His first thought had been to roll through the fire and take his chances with the flames but the heat was so intense he didn’t dare.
Dios, he recognized that feeling in his gut – fear.
“Johnny…Johnny! Don’t look at the flames. Look at Weir.”
He was starting to wilt – like one of Teresa’s flowers under the June sun.
“Look – at – Weir!”
Johnny heard Carleta but she must have been calling from a long way away. He had to get down…anything to get away from the heat. He was being scorched.
“No, Johnny – stand. You need to fight this. Look at Weir. Take your eyes off the flames and look at Weir.”
His head hurt and his eyes were streaming. He couldn’t see a thing - let alone see Weir.
“Johnny. Do it!”
If there was one thing he hated, it was a nagging woman with a shrill voice. He forced himself to look up but he shielded his face with his arm. “Dammit, Weir, where the hell are you?”
Someone was laughing now – laughing at Johnny – and that stirred an anger somewhere deep inside him. He wiped his eyes and forced himself to look through the flames. And sure enough, there stood Absalom Weir, with his hand hovering over the gun strapped to his thigh. And in a split second, everything cleared for Johnny. It was as if the flames and the heat and the fear that had almost swallowed him, all dried up.
He heard Carleta’s words but didn’t really hear them. Her voice was still a long way away – but he caught a glimpse of a gun butt sailing through the air and he reached out and caught it without having to think. It was…solid…real…and now he grinned at Weir. “Looks like we’re even now, Weir. You want me to count to three?”
Weir’s hand moved – and Johnny rolled and fired, three times, all the while prepared for the slam of a bullet into his own skin or the heat of the flames tearing at his flesh.
But there was no answering gunshot – not a one. Johnny sat up, eyes streaming because of the smoke. There was no sign of Weir. Johnny scrambled to his feet and jumped across the now smouldering ring of fire.
“Weir. Weir.” He yelled into the night until he was hoarse and coughing and his head spun.
Carleta swayed before him and then he felt cool hands either side of his face. “He’s gone, Johnny. It’s over – for both of us.”
Johnny stared at her. He guessed what she was saying made some sort of sense but with her swaying like that he couldn’t be sure of anything. “I think I’ll just take the weight off my legs for second.”
Only it was Carleta who took his weight as he crumpled to the ground.
Carleta cradled Johnny’s head in her lap. He was very still but his breathing was even. She could see the lines of time on his face; lines etched into the corners of his eyes by hunger and fear and desperation and in spite of all that, laughter as well. She knew his life. She knew what he’d become. She ran her hand gently along his cheek. He would never be hers. No matter how much she wanted him, he would never be hers.
She’d been so intent on Johnny’s face she hadn’t heard the horses ride into the clearing. Murdoch Lancer barely waited for his horse to halt before throwing his leg over the saddle and rushing towards his son.
“He’s all right, Mr. Lancer. He passed out, that’s all.”
Murdoch ran his hand over Johnny’s skull. Johnny pulled away from the touch and opened his eyes. “Murdoch?” His gaze switched to Scott, standing behind his father.
Scott held a gun at the ready but he smiled down at Johnny. “Some people will do anything to get out of burying a dead cat.”
Johnny looked puzzled for a moment then his expression cleared and he bolted upright. “Weir?”
“Take it easy, Johnny. Your face is as white as a ghost.”
“Where’d he go?” Johnny looked at Carleta. “What happened?”
The words almost choked her. “He’s gone, like Elijah, but not taken to heaven. He just disappeared into the trees.”
Murdoch looked behind him, towards Lancer. “We came through the trees. We didn’t see anyone.”
Scott hefted the gun in his hand. “This time he’s not getting away. I’ll…”
Johnny shook his head. “Don’t bother. You’d be wasting your time.”
“Look, he can’t have got far. I can find him.”
“And what then? Get him locked up for giving me a lump on my head? No, Scott, let it go.”
Scott looked at Murdoch – but Murdoch was already shaking his head. “Go bring the horses over, Scott. We can talk about this later.”
A mixture of relief and disappointment washed over Carleta. Part of her wanted Weir punished and the other half wanted him to disappear and never be seen again.
Johnny was looking at his arms, like he was surprised they were still there. “I’m not even singed.” He looked at Carleta with something like wonderment. “But I could feel the heat. It was real fire.” He looked closely at her face now. “But you told me to ignore the flames.”
Now that it was all over she was beginning to feel shaky, so she was glad of the chance to talk. “It was something Weir said – and something you said as well. You said Weir was a sharp-shooter in a side show. Then, when he talked about his chariots of fire, I thought of Elijah and I knew it was all ruse – the flames were a distraction while he shot you.”
Johnny shook his head. “Who in blazes is Elijah?”
Murdoch was smiling at her now. “He was the prophet who told Elisha that if he saw Elijah being taken up to heaven, then he’d have a double portion of his power from God.”
“What’s all that got to do with Weir and his chariots of fire?”
“I remembered Aunt Mia reading me the story. Just before Elijah went up to heaven, he was surrounded by chariots of fire but Elisha knew not to look at them – he kept his eyes on Elijah instead, saw him being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and got the double portion he’d asked for.”
Johnny looked at Murdoch. “I hope all this makes sense to you.”
“The chariots were a smokescreen, Johnny, just like Weir’s wall of fire.”
Carleta nodded. “When you said Weir had performed in a side show, I remembered a magician I’d seen once. He tricked us into looking at explosions while he did his tricks. I thought it was all real until Aunt Mia told me the truth.”
Murdoch gave her a thoughtful look. “You’re a clever girl, Carleta.”
“I think Johnny was right in saying that Weir had never been in an actual gunfight before. So I figured he was trying to distract Johnny so that he could shoot him.”
Johnny lifted his arm. “Give me a hand, Murdoch. Let’s go home.”
“He’s not a gunfighter?” asked Scott, coming back with the horses.
Johnny stood to his feet, letting Murdoch’s arm steady him for a moment. “Nope, he’s a trickster who only likes to fight when the odds are tipped in his favour.”
Murdoch then helped Carleta to her feet. “I wonder if we’ve seen the last of him?”
Carleta smiled shyly at him. “I don’t know if Absalom Weir will be back or not, but I can tell you I’ve learned one thing today - praying works better than cursing.”
“Come here my dear.” Carleta kneeled obediently at Aunt Mia’s feet.
The fire in the great hearth had died down to glowing embers and everyone else had gone to bed. Aunt Mia put a hand under Carleta’s chin, forcing her to look in her aunt’s eyes. “What have your learned my dear one?”
“To desire to possess a person is not a good thing – and that evil begets evil.”
Mia smiled. “And good begets good.”
“And love must be felt and given freely.”
“And we must be accepting when our love for another is not returned.”
“I don’t think it was love I felt for Johnny Madrid – all these years I coveted him, but my heart was cold until…”
“Until I saw what my selfishness had done. It’s a horrible thing to see someone suffer because of your own deeds.”
Aunt Mia bent down and kissed Carleta’s forehead. “You’ve learned so much. Will you come home with us now, my dear one?”
“Yes, Aunt Mia. And every night I’ll pray that the Lancer family finds the peace and love this family deserve.”