A Nightmare on Pine Mountain
“That’s her, over there,” Mike Levie said excitedly. He handed the battered field glasses over to the man beside him and pointed. “The one in pigtails an’ overalls. That’s her.”
Frank Munro, unshaven and grubby, put the glasses to his eyes and looked for himself. “You sure?” he asked, frowning as he studied the group of children. “She looks kinda Mex to me.”
“Saw her in town yesterday,” Levie told him. “That’s her, alright.”
A small unpleasant smile crossed Munro’s lips. “This is gonna be easier than I thought,” he said cheerfully.
A third man sat in the rocks beside them – a small rat-faced man, with eyes so dark that they were nearly black. “If she’s who you say she is, gettin’ to her won’t be the problem, keepin’ her will.”
“Ah, you always look at things wrong,” Frank chastised him. He handed the field glasses over to the rat faced little man. “Here, look for yourself. Easy, that’s what it is.”
Mike smirked. “Yeah, don’t be so dismal ‘bout it, Rat,” he said happily. “Think o’ the money!”
Screams and squeals of laughter abounded among the little group of children. With school out for the summer, they were determined to enjoy every minute of their days with all the exuberance of youth.
There were five of them playing together today, three girls and two boys. All of them had parents who worked at the ranch, but Miguel, Enrique and Carmelita were brothers and sister. Miguel, the eldest present, thought himself the leader of the group and gave the orders, only to have the eldest girl come up with other, and usually better, plans. It annoyed him sometimes.
They took turns to throw a stick for the dog. It was a huge silver German shepherd that stuck closest to the long-legged girl with the pigtails and the big brown eyes. Her face showed all the signs of a future beauty with high cheek bones, a sweetly curved mouth and eyes that dominated her face when they sparkled. And they sparkled all the time – when she laughed, when she was up to mischief… even when she knew she was in trouble with her father. That happened often enough, these days. Maddie Lancer loved to find adventure, but her father seemed bound and determined to prevent it.
This spot, by the river, was a favorite playground for the children. It was close to the ranch and its outbuildings, but far enough away that they could make as much noise as they liked without annoying anyone.
An old and graceful weeping willow hung low over the bank and the water. As well as being an excellent tree to climb, it gave them shade when they wanted it and places to hide when that was what they preferred. Running through its sweeping tendrils of leaves was considered great fun.
“Miguel,” the girl called out, looking up into the tree. “Let’s go for a swim. I’m hot.”
“We are not allowed to go in the water unless a grown up is with us, Maddie,” the boy called back down to her from his branch. He sat, dangling a leg on either side of the limb and looking out over the water. From here, he could see fish swimming in the river and he thought that he might coax his older brother to come fishing with him tomorrow.
His voice was heavily accented by his Spanish heritage. Miguel Cipriano’s parents were Mexican. His father was the segundo at the ranch and Miguel was proud of his father’s responsibilities. He figured it put him in a position of responsibility as well. Miguel took it upon himself to keep Maddie out of trouble as much as he could. “You know that.”
“But I’m a good swimmer. Tio says so.”
Miguel knew that was true. Her uncle had taken the time to teach them all to swim and she was very good at it, another thing that irked Miguel because she could swim far better than he could. It wasn’t right that she should be better at such things!
The boy shook his head. “Does not matter, Maddie. If your papa found out, we’d all be in for it.”
“Then we’ll just paddle. It’s not the same as swimming,” Maddie suggested stubbornly.
Miguel jumped down from the tree and stood beside her. He was a year older than her, but she was taller than him by an inch.
“You know what would happen if your papa finds out you went into the water?” he demanded.
She ducked her head and nodded. “Yeah, I know,” she answered, then looked up smiling. “But he doesn’t have to find out. You gonna tell him?”
“I wouldn’t have to,” the boy said with a sigh. He pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the skinny little black haired girl behind him. She was giggling with another girl her own age as the dog returned the stick to them and sat down in front of her. “Carmelita can’t keep a secret. You know that.”
Maddie turned around and scowled at the littlest child. She was only five years old and followed them everywhere. She was always underfoot when they had something planned that she was too young to join in.
Miguel shrugged his shoulders. “Little sisters… they’re so annoying.” Then he laughed. “You’ll find that out for yourself soon.”
“Matthew and Becca are too small to worry about,” she corrected him.
Miguel laughed. “Maybe now,” he told her knowledgeably. “But not for long. I bet they’re getting bigger already. They’ll be following you around soon and getting in your way.”
“Nope,” she said firmly. “Not for ages. I’ll be grown up before I have to worry ‘bout that. Besides, it’ll be fun. I can show them how to do things.”
Miguel shook his head. “You will get tired of it, soon enough.”
She was annoyed with what she perceived as Miguel’s criticism of her baby brother and sister. She took great pride in being their big sister and looked forward to being able to play with them properly one day. They were still so small that she couldn’t do much more than hold them and watch them but, already, they laughed at the games she played with them. Becca had the light tinkling laugh that her mother, Celeste, laughed with and Matt laughed loud and heartily, his little blue eyes sparkling.
Yes, Maddie loved being a sister.
“That so?” she answered waspishly. Her eyes glimmered with mischief. “So, does Ramon think you’re a nuisance, following him around?”
Miguel lifted his head and shook it determinedly. “That is different! I’m not a little kid, like Carmelita and Enrique.”
“To him, you are,” she pointed out pettishly. “He’s away at school most of the time and, when he gets to come home, you follow him everywhere. I bet he finds that annoying. He’d want to be with grown ups, not silly little brothers.”
“Ramon likes having me around, Maddie,” he told her argumentatively. “He told me that he misses me when he’s away.”
Maddie decided she’d needled her friend more than enough and made her point.
“Well, I like having the twins around. They’re fun to watch now. They hardly ever cry like they used to. An’ Becca can roll over on her own.”
“What about Matthew? Doesn’t he roll over yet?” Miguel asked.
She shook her head. “No, he’s too fat,” she said and giggled. “He gets halfway and then falls back. Papa calls him ‘Gordito’! When Mama found out what it means, she told him he’s mean, but then she laughed.”
Maddie heard the unmistakable sound of horses approaching. On a ranch the size of Lancer, that was hardly surprising, but she and the children looked up to see who it was.
She counted three riders, but a fourth horse was being led. It was saddled, but riderless, and that was unusual.
“Who are they?” Maddie asked Miguel as they got closer. She squinted into the sun but couldn’t make out any faces that she knew.
Enrique Cipriano ran over to join his older brother, Miguel, and Maddie. “Someone’s coming!” he said quickly as he came to a stop beside them.
Maddie frowned at him. “We can see that!”
“I don’t know any of them, Maddie,” Miguel told her, ignoring his brother.
“Maybe they’re lost?” she suggested, watching them ride closer. “Or they might need help. One of the horses has no rider. Do you think he’s hurt somewhere?”
“Could be,” agreed Miguel. Carmelita and Emily had stopped their giggling behind them and were also watching the riders approach.
Silently, the dog walked away from the small girls and back to Maddie. He stood quietly by her side and she absently put her hand on the scruff of his neck.
The horses were coming at an easy trot and it took them a while to reach the children. By then, they were all curious about the strangers.
When the riders finally slowed and stopped in front of the small group of children, the man on the lead horse lifted his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his shirt sleeve.
“Oo-ee, it’s hot, ain’t it, kids?” he asked casually and smiled. His smile was a pleasant one and he was good looking as well. He was clean shaven, his hair and clothes tidy and well turned out. Maddie wondered if he was a cowhand looking for work.
“Yes, Sir,” Maddie said for all of them. “You lost, Mister?”
“Well, that depends, Missy,” the man replied easily. “Is this the Lancer Ranch?”
“Uh-huh,” she responded.
“Then we’re not lost,” he said with a charming smile. He leaned forward to talk to her with his elbow resting on the pommel of his saddle. “I’m lookin’ for Murdoch Lancer.”
“He’s my grandpa,” she answered proudly. “He’s up at the house.” She lifted her hand and pointed down the road. “It’s just a little ways down the road, that way. You can’t miss it.”
Sitting up straight again and putting his hat back on his head, he turned around to his companions. “Hear that boys. This here is Murdoch Lancer’s granddaughter.” He turned back to the little girl. “What’s your name, Missy?”
Maddie wasn’t impressed by the name he was using. She was not ‘missy’ and it irked her. She straightened her back and told him her name. “My name is Madelena Luisa Antonia Lancer – not Missy.”
“Oo-ee, that’s a mouthful! They call ya Maddie for short?”
“Yes,” she answered but she was distracted by the sound of creaking leather and turned her head to see that one of the men had dismounted. He walked towards her and she eyed him suspiciously.
The dog broke the silence. He began a low, rumbling growl that stopped the man in his tracks.
Maddie was confused. The man on the horse, talking to her, seemed nice enough, but Drifter was obviously not so sure about them and she began to feel uneasy.
She had never before felt threatened in any way, securely cushioned from the world by her father and abuela for her first five years. Her very existence had been carefully hidden from the world and any enemies that her father might have had. She still didn’t really understand properly about that, but Papa had thought it best and that was enough for her.
But then, when Yaya had died, Papa had brought her here to Lancer to live with him and his family. At Lancer, she was surrounded by love from her newly discovered family and friends and, now, she had Celeste and her twin brother and sister. She loved them all and knew that they loved her. She’d never had reason to feel insecure before.
But, suddenly, she felt uncomfortable in the presence of these men. Unconsciously, her fingers tightened on the dog’s fur.
“Your dog ain’t very friendly, Missy,” the man on the horse said quietly.
“He’s friendly to most people,” she replied, keeping her eyes on the man on the ground. “And my name is Maddie.”
Unlike the man doing all the talking, the man in front of her was dirty and unkempt. He had a moustache that hung unevenly on each side of his top lip and he was unshaven, not a person to inspire confidence. She didn’t like him at all.
He took another step towards Maddie and the dog curled back his lips, bared his teeth and snarled.
The dirty man on the ground stopped again, his eyes on the dog.
“You wanta control that dog, Missy,” the man on the horse said coldly. His tone of voice dragged her attention away from ‘the dirty man’ and she saw him slowly pull his pistol from his holster and point it lazily at the dog.
The two little girls behind Maddie squealed frightfully, but Miguel grabbed Maddie’s hand and held it tight. She took comfort from it and stood her ground edgily.
“Señor,” the little boy said, with surprising calmness. “The hacienda is not far away. Señor Murdoch is there.”
But the man ignored him. “Call the dog off, little girl,” he said.
Drifter barked savagely, and then snarled again.
She wrapped her fingers in Drifter’s fur and whispered uneasily. “Shhh Drifter. Be quiet, please…”
‘The dirty man’ had plucked up his courage, aware of the gun aimed at the dog. He started towards her again and she took a nervous step backwards. Suddenly, the dog launched himself through the air and knocked the man to the ground.
Drifter locked his jaws around the man’s forearm, sinking his teeth into the skin ferociously. He growled, snarled and shook his head viciously, while the man beneath him screamed for help.
“No, Drifter!” Maddie shouted hysterically at the dog. She was all too aware of the gun pointed at him. But the dog ignored her pleas, intent on protecting her. “Drifter, please! Down Boy!”
A shot rang out and the dog yelped and quivered for a moment, then dropped to the ground beside his screaming victim.
Maddie screamed too… an ear piercing, heart-rending scream that shook the air around her. She ran to her dog, oblivious to everything else around her. Vaguely, there were sounds of the other children screaming as well and the ‘dirty man’ lying on the ground whimpering not far from her, but she wrapped her arms around Drifter and buried her face in his fur.
“Pick her up an’ put her on the horse,” she finally heard the first man order. She lifted her head and glared at him, watching him slip his gun back into his holster with complete lack of concern. “We gotta get outa here. Someone mighta heard the shot.”
Maddie clutched her dog’s neck. Her eyes shone with tears. “You didn’t have to do that,” she cried, her tears streaming down her cheeks.
Then the ‘dirty man’s’ arms were around her waist and he picked her up clear of the ground. “No!” she shrieked. She kicked her legs wildly and tried to pull the man’s arms off her, but she was nowhere near strong enough. He slipped her under his arm like a sack of flour.
Miguel and Enrique ran at him but he pushed each of them aside like gnats. The boys fell to the ground and he turned around and walked past the third, silent, rider to the saddled horse at the back. Hurling her into the saddle, he took off his bandana and wrapped it roughly around his bleeding arm.
Maddie kicked at his head and tried to urge the horse forward to get away, but he grabbed the reins and held on tight. She squirmed, kicked and hit him with her fists until he was forced to raise his bandaged arm to defend himself.
The shout startled Maddie. She looked up and found her nemesis holding his gun in his hand once more.
“Last time, it was the dog,” he said bluntly. “Do you want me to shoot one of your little friends, this time?”
The girl blanched. She glanced towards the other children. Miguel must have heard him too. He was looking towards his little sister, Carmelita, with a terrified expression on his face.
“Well, Kid?” the man persisted. “It’s up to you. You gonna behave yourself, or do you wanta pick which one I put a bullet into?”
Maddie dragged her eyes away from Miguel and stared hard at the man on the horse. Her eyes narrowed. A glare of tempered steel crept into her eyes as she froze in the saddle. She knew she had lost, and she didn’t like it. But she fully believed his threat and there was nothing that would make her risk the lives of her friends.
Her blood boiled in her veins with frustration, but she did as she was told.
“Good girl, little missy,” the man said with an easy smile. He uncocked the pistol and holstered it. “Now, you just do as you’re told and we’ll all get along fine.”
He pulled a piece of paper from a pocket on the front of his shirt, and then he tossed it to the ground. It floated onto the grass not far from Enrique, but he didn’t move toward it. He sat, scared stiff, hugging his knees and watching Maddie.
“Take that to the girl’s grandpa,” the man told the boy. Then he turned around to the rest of the men. “Let’s get outa here. No use in pushin’ our luck.”
Maddie watched the ‘dirty man’ climb back into his saddle. He still had the reins to Maddie’s horse and gave them a vicious tug. She was jolted forward and forced to hold the pommel to steady herself.
It was one more humiliation to add to the list. Maddie wasn’t used to riding a full sized horse, but she was more than capable of doing it – without being led like a little baby.
Maddie glanced back at her friends as she was led away. She was more scared than she had ever been in her life, but then she remembered just who she was. She remembered who her father was.
She lifted her head and took some comfort in the knowledge that Johnny Lancer… no, Johnny Madrid Lancer… would come looking for her – and then these men would be sorry.
“Señor Murdoch… Señor Murdoch!”
Murdoch Lancer heard the shouts from deep inside the hacienda. He was at his desk, answering mail that he had put off for a couple of days, and looked up when he heard the noise.
He knew there was trouble from the frenetic tone of the shouts, so he got to his feet quickly. The chair slid back behind him and rocked unsteadily for a moment, but he didn’t notice. He strode across the Great Room and up to the front door.
It was already open, so he stepped outside into the bright light of day to see what was going on.
“Señor Murdoch!” It was Cipriano. He called again as he ran towards the portico where Murdoch stood waiting. His son, Miguel was running close behind him. Other men had stopped their chores and were gathering to hear what Cipriano had to say as well. Jelly Hoskins was hurrying out of the barn towards the assemblage with a worried expression on his face.
“What is it? What’s going on?” Murdoch yelled at them. He was really concerned now. He could see the anguished look on Cipriano’s face as he reached him.
“Señor,” Cipriano began, panting heavily. “There is trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?” Murdoch’s first thoughts went to his sons, but they were up in the north pasture and Cipriano was unlikely to know if they were in trouble. Cipriano was not a man inclined to panic, but he looked close to it now.
“Maddie?” Murdoch gasped. He hadn’t even considered her.
“Someone has taken her!” He brought the little boy forward. “Tell him, Miguel. Do not be afraid.”
The boy was shaking and still panting from his run. “Lo siento, Señor,” he started, his voice trembling. He was close to tears, but trying to be brave in front of the men. “Hombres malos… los hombres malos se la llevaron!”
Murdoch’s heart missed a beat. His chest tightened with fear. “What bad men, Miguel? Who took her?”
Miguel blurted it all out at once. “Lo siento… intenté pararlos, pero eran demasiado fuertes… they were too strong for me, Señor.” His eyes filled with tears. “Y le dispararon a Drifter” he gasped. “They shot him, Señor Murdoch!”
The little boy stopped suddenly, horrified that a tear had escaped. He wiped it away quickly.
“It’s alright, Son,” Murdoch told him, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You tried. No one could ask for more than that. Now, tell me everything, from the start… how many men were there?”
“Tres, Señor,” the boy answered. He took a deep breath and stood up straight, encouraged by his patrón’s words and his father’s reassuring presence behind him. “There were three of them and they had another horse with them. It was saddled but had no rider. They rode up to us and asked for you, so we told them where they could find the hacienda. Then, one of them got down and came towards Maddie. Drifter, he was very angry. He knocked the man over and grabbed his arm… so!” He gripped his forearm to show what he meant, then looked up at Murdoch with sad, tear-filled eyes. “Maddie tried to call him off, but the man on the horse shot him, Señor.”
He stopped for a moment to choke back his tears proudly. “Then the man… he was muy feo, Señor… very ugly… he picked up Maddie and put her on the horse. She tried to get away from them, but the man said he would shoot one of us if she did not behave. She was very brave, Señor.”
Cipriano held out a folded piece of paper to Murdoch. “They gave this to the niños, Señor.”
“He said I was to give it to you, Señor Lancer,” Miguel finished.
Murdoch took the paper and opened it. He read it quickly, then folded it again. His fist clenched around the paper and his heart beat wildly. Maddie… she was out there with these outlaws.
“Where did this happen, Miguel?” he asked at last.
“By the river, Señor,” Miguel replied. “We were playing near the tree, the big one.”
Murdoch knew the place. He’d often seen the children playing there.
“Where are the other children, now?”
“I told Enrique to bring the little ones while I ran ahead.”
“Are they alright?”
Miguel nodded. “Si. Enrique was knocked over by the ugly one too. He tried to stop them, like me.”
“He’s not hurt?”
Miguel shook his head.
“That’s good,” Murdoch said, almost distractedly. His mind was working on what had to be done. “Cipriano, you see to the children first. Get them home and then come back here. I’ll need you to help track these men.” He turned to Jelly. “Jelly, get some horses saddled. We’re going after Maddie.”
Jelly waited just a moment, shifting his feet awkwardly. Murdoch knew he had something to say. Jelly always had something to say.
“Boss, what about Johnny?”
“I haven’t forgotten whose daughter she is, Jelly,” Murdoch answered huffily. “Saddle those horses. I want Cipriano and two more men.” He looked around the gathered faces, finding them looking as anxious as he felt. “Hank and Wade, you’re both handy with rifles. Get them and be ready in five minutes to come with Cipriano and me. Jelly, you head on up to the north pasture. Johnny and Scott are up there checking water levels. Tell them to meet us at the big willow by the river.”
He stopped and tried to think what more he could do. It didn’t seem to be enough. “Jake,” he said, remembering. “I want you to ride into Green River. Tell Val Crawford what’s happened. Tell him to meet us at the tree as well, and not to waste any time. Then head over to Spanish Wells and tell Gabe. The more people know about this the better. I want these men caught and I want my granddaughter back, safe!”
“Yessir!” Jake answered and turned for the corral without another word.
“You want me to tell the boys what’s happened?” Jelly asked nervously.
“I don’t care what you tell them, Jelly,” Murdoch snapped back at him. “Just get Johnny.”
Celeste and Teresa had both heard the shouting outside. Teresa was in the Great Room already waiting for him when Murdoch strode in. Celeste was just reaching the bottom of the steps and walked into the room to join them.
“What is it, Murdoch?” Celeste asked anxiously. “What’s wrong?”
Murdoch hurried past her to the gun rack. He took down his own favorite weapon and checked that it was loaded, then he opened a drawer in the sideboard beneath the rack and took out a box of ammunition. Shoving it into his coat pocket, he stood there and considered the rifles before taking down the Winchester .44-.40 rifle that Scott had invested in recently. It had an extra sight for accuracy and Scott had raved about its innovations.
It was an impressive weapon and, in Scott’s hands, a lethal one. There wasn’t a man on the ranch who could out-shoot Scott with a rifle at the best of times, but with that rifle in his hands…
He took the box of cartridges for it and put them into his other pocket. He’d give them to Scott when they met up.
He looked up at the sound of footsteps coming into the room from the kitchen and found that Sarah had joined Celeste and Teresa in the room.
Turning around, he faced the girls and felt his heart sink. How to tell them? Teresa adored Maddie. She’d played mother to her since the little girl had suddenly appeared at the ranch with Johnny. She’d taken her into her heart and tried to ease the child’s trauma of losing her grandmother and then settling into unfamiliar surroundings.
And Celeste might technically be Maddie’s stepmother, but she considered herself the child’s mother in every other sense of the word. She’d taken Maddie to her heart along with Johnny and having babies of her own hadn’t changed that one iota.
Sarah, Scott’s young wife of just a few months, had taken to the child immediately as well. It had come as no surprise to anyone at the ranch. Maddie just had a way of wrapping your heart around her finger.
Now he had to tell them that she was gone. What words could he possibly find that would ease that shock?
At least they would have each other to hold onto. The three girls had become close, which was fortunate when he considered how close his sons were and, right now, they needed to be together… to be strong for one another. He looked around at their anxious faces and took a deep breath.
“There’s been some trouble,” he began, reluctantly. He walked back towards them and Teresa sat down uncertainly on the couch.
“What is it?” Celeste asked. Her voice was little more than a whisper. Murdoch’s haste had told her that it was serious. “Murdoch, is it Johnny? Is he…”
“No,” he hurriedly assured her. “No, it’s not Johnny, Celeste.” He walked over to her and took her hand, leading her to the sofa where he sat her down beside Teresa. For a moment, he held onto her hand irresolutely. Then he let go and stood up to face them.
He looked towards Sarah. “Come over here please, Sarah,” he said quietly and waited for her to join them.
Sarah walked over to join them and stood behind the sofa. She rested her hand on Celeste’s shoulder and waited for what was to come. “You’re scaring me, Murdoch. What’s happened?” she asked nervously.
“Johnny’s fine. So is Scott.” He reassured them and then stopped. He’d give anything to find an easier way to tell them. Teresa was looking at him with a face as pale as Celeste’s and fear sat heavily in her eyes. “But there’s something I have to tell you…”
“Murdoch…?” Teresa asked, well aware that his reticence meant bad news.
He couldn’t hold the words back any longer. “Someone has taken Maddie,” he told them bluntly and lowered his head at the sight of their horrified expressions.
“Taken her?” Celeste asked blankly. “What do you mean, ‘taken her’? How… when?” She leapt to her feet as the full implication of what he’d said struck home. “Murdoch, who’s taken her?”
“Some men came while the children were playing,” he explained briefly.
“What men, Murdoch? Who…? We… we have to find her. Please, Murdoch?”
He wrapped his arm around her and drew her towards him, hugging her. “I know… and we will, Celeste. We’ll find her.”
Teresa was still sitting down, trying to come to terms with it. She caught her breath and whispered, “Johnny…”
“Oh God, Johnny. He’ll be out of his mind with worry!” Celeste said suddenly. She pushed away from Murdoch’s hold and stared at him. “Does he know?”
“I’ve sent for him and Scott. They’re to meet us where the children were playing. We’ll track these men from there. We’ll find them. We’ll get her back.”
“Don’t let him do anything foolish,” she insisted. “Please, Murdoch.”
“There’ll be plenty of us there to keep an eye on him,” he assured her, but his eyes blazed. “But I don’t think he’ll plan on doing anything that I’m not already planning on doing myself.”
“Why would anyone take her, Murdoch?” Teresa asked. Her eyes were brimming with tears. “She’s just a little girl.”
“Money, Sweetheart,” he explained angrily. “They sent me a note with Miguel, demanding five thousand dollars to get her back.”
The girls gasped at the amount. “Five…? Murdoch, can we raise that much?” Sarah exclaimed.
“I’ll find it,” he told her confidently. “One way, or another, we’ll get her back.” He went back and picked up the two rifles, then headed across the room to the door. He stopped beside the girls. “I’ve sent Jelly to get Johnny and Scott and have them meet me. I’m taking some of the men to get started tracking these men. Will you girls be alright here till Jelly gets back?”
“Of course,” Teresa answered for them. She stood up and took Celeste’s hand, seeking and finding support in her being there.
Sarah walked around to the front of the sofa and stood beside them, her back straight and her head held p firmly. “Just get Maddie back here where she belongs.”
“We’ll get her back, girls, safe and sound. No one is getting away with this. Now, look after each other and the babies till we get back.”
He kissed each of them on the cheek and strode out the door, with only one glance back to see them watching him with tears in their eyes.
Jelly rode hard to the north pasture. It was a good hour-long ride and he had plenty of time to think over what he’d tell them when he reached them… particularly Johnny.
“’Go tell Johnny’, he says,” Jelly muttered to the wind. “Sure, easy… no problem.”
How did you tell any man that his daughter had been taken by strangers? How did you tell a man like Johnny?
“Man could get hisself shot all ta hell bringin’ news that I got,” he grumbled. “Sure, send ol’ Jelly to do it. Nobody’ll miss me when Johnny loses that temper o’ his an’ shoots the messenger!”
The man who had to tell Johnny Madrid Lancer that his little girl had been stolen was likely to regret the words before he finished getting them out of his mouth, and Jelly wasn’t keen on being that man.
No, the thought disappeared almost as quickly as it had surfaced. He didn’t seriously think that the boy would do that. Well, he didn’t believe it for more than a moment anyway. More likely, the boy’s heart would break. Jelly felt a whole range of emotions himself. His initial shock at hearing what Miguel had told Murdoch had turned to disbelief and then outright fear for the child, but it soon became an anger that just about blew his head off.
“What kind o’ devil’d take a little kid anyways,” Jelly thought out loud. “’Specially a real nice little ‘un like Maddie.”
Would they hand her back to her family when they got what they wanted? And Jelly wasn’t even sure what they wanted. He’d seen Cipriano hand over a note to Murdoch, but he had no idea what was in it.
He thought about not telling the boys why their father wanted them and letting Murdoch break the news when they got there. Actually, he considered that particular plan for some time.
When he thought about it, he didn’t have much that he could tell the boys – just that Maddie was missing, taken by three bad men who’d been prepared to threaten small children to get Maddie to go with them. And that the brothers should meet their father at the big willow tree to go after her. He wished that he knew more, or that he could reassure Johnny that the child would come to no harm… anything but just the bare, brutal facts.
He could see the brothers in the distance but he didn’t slow down. He hated to be the bearer of this news, but they had to know… Johnny had to know.
Scott heard the horse coming at a gallop and turned in the saddle to see who it was. Even from this distance, he recognized the rider immediately.
He nudged Johnny’s arm with his elbow and nodded in the direction of the horseman. “What do you suppose has Jelly in such a hurry?”
Johnny turned Barranca around to face the oncoming rider. “That’s Jelly, alright. Haven’t seen him move that fast in years. Somethin’s wrong. You can bet on it.”
Scott knew that Johnny was right. Jelly’s age generally kept him closer to the house than this and he wasn’t usually sent out on a wild ride just to deliver any old message. In fact, Jelly seldom hurried about anything. “Keep your britches on – I’m comin’!” was his favored response to calls, but he always took his own sweet time anyway.
Johnny urged Barranca forward, towards Jelly, and Scott went after him a moment later. Whatever news was worth bringing the old man this far away from the house, it was too important to sit back and wait for.
Once they were within hailing distance, they both slowed down and then stopped beside him. “What’s up, Jelly?” Johnny asked anxiously.
“Trouble, Johnny,” Jelly answered, puffing and pulling his horse to a stop beside Johnny’s palomino. “Your pa wants ya to meet him down by the river, near that big ol’ willa tree… soon as ya can.”
Johnny frowned heavily. “Why?”
“What’s happened, Jelly?” Scott demanded. “What sort of trouble?”
Jelly went quiet, unusually so. He was so rarely at a loss for words that the brothers exchanged concerned glances.
“Jelly, spit it out!” Johnny insisted authoritatively. “What’s happened?”
“Maddie?” Johnny pounced on the word. His outburst sounded so startled, so unexpected, that the horses edged around nervously. Scott took his reins firmly in one hand and rested his other on his brother’s arm.
“Take it easy, Johnny,” he said, as calmly as he could when his own heart was thumping anxiously in his chest. “Let’s hear him out.” Turning back to the old man, he continued. “Tell us what’s going on.”
“Is she hurt?” Johnny demanded quickly. “What’s wrong with her?”
Jelly took a deep breath before telling his story. “The kids was out playin’ by that big ol’ willa tree… the one down by the river… when three strangers rode up to ‘em. Seems they talked to ‘em for a bit… then they…”
“Jelly…” Scott urged impatiently.
“Get it said, Jelly… now!” Johnny insisted angrily.
He sighed heavily. “They done took Maddie off with ‘em, Johnny,” he blurted out. His eyes were brimming with tears as he looked straight into Johnny’s eyes. “Little Miguel lit off home an’ told us ‘bout it, quick as he could. Murdoch’s sent for Val an’ Gabe an’ he sent me out to get you two on back.”
Jelly’s words were greeted with silence. He and Scott both looked towards Johnny, but he remained quiet. It was unnerving. Scott had an idea of what must be going on in his brother’s mind. After all, Scott loved his niece dearly. The idea of her being alone and in danger tore at his soul. He hated to think what it must be doing to his brother.
“When?” Scott finally asked, pushed to it by his brother’s silence. Johnny sat staring blankly ahead of him like a statue, stunned.
“Little over an hour ago,” Jelly told him. “Got here fast as I could while the others went after ‘em. Pushed this ol’ nag faster than she’s moved in years I reckon.”
“Jelly,” Scott said edgily. “Tell us everything you know.”
The old man hung his head sadly. “Tell ya the truth? Don’t know all that much. There was three of ‘em. Rode up to the kids an’…”
Johnny finally looked up and Scott scowled heavily at the unfinished sentence. “And what?” Johnny asked coldly. There was a trace of something in his voice that both men recognized and it sent a chill down Scott’s spine. It didn’t augur well for the health of the strangers who had Maddie.
Jelly shifted in his saddle. “They shot Drifter… threatened to shoot the other kids too if she didn’t go along with ‘em. They gave young Miguel a note to give to Murdoch.”
“A note? What was in it?” Scott demanded. He kept his eyes on Johnny, who had gone back to sitting alarmingly silently.
“Dunno, Scott,” Jelly replied. “I didn’t see it an’ he didn’t tell us, but he sure weren’t happy ‘bout it.”
Scott’s hand was still resting on his brother’s arm and he hoped it offered Johnny some reassurance. “We’ll get her back, Johnny,” he said quietly, gripping Johnny’s arm tighter.
But Johnny’s face hardened. Suddenly, he shook loose of Scott’s hold and pressed his horse into action. Without a word, he headed off at a gallop.
Scott and Jelly looked at each other wordlessly… then followed him.
Murdoch paced impatiently near the big willow tree. It had been there when he bought the ranch and for heaven knew how long before that. Its trunk was gnarled and misshapen with age. Its roots stretched out for the water like an old man with an insatiable thirst and its leaves hung low enough to touch and savor that precious water. But all the grace and the age old beauty of the tree was lost on him while he tried to keep unwanted images of what had happened here from intruding into his thoughts.
Hank and Wade waited with their horses, just as anxious to get started, but without their boss’s nervous energy. Hank twisted the reins in his fingers while Wade ran one hand absently through his horse’s mane. Both watched and waited, all too aware that precious time was wasting.
It was Cipriano they were waiting for. He was keeping busy studying the tracks of the horses.
He’d worked out where the men had sat watching while the children played innocently. He followed their tracks back to the willow tree and their path from there, with Maddie in tow. It hadn’t been hard to pick out the trail in the soft earth of the riverbank.
Murdoch watched Cipriano at work and wished that his sons were here. He’d thought about waiting for them, particularly Johnny, but they’d be losing valuable time doing it. As soon as Cipriano gave them the word, they’d head off on the trail of the kidnappers. He knew that Johnny and Scott would easily be able to follow them and would soon catch up.
Through the frantic maze of thoughts in his head, he heard a sound. Stopping his pacing, he looked around and frowned.
Drifter! It was a pained whine that he’d heard. The dog was alive!
Murdoch heard the animal whine again and saw one paw twitch and then move.
He raced over to the dog’s side and checked it over properly. None of them had considered that it might be alive, not after hearing Miguel’s story and finding it lying, as still as death, where it had fallen.
Murdoch knelt down on one knee and stroked the dog’s shoulder. There was a deep graze across the animal’s head. It hadn’t bled a lot, adding to the impression that he was dead.
At Murdoch’s touch, the dog opened its eyes and lifted its head to look at him. Murdoch found himself smiling. Maddie adored that dog. She’d fought them all to keep it after it had wandered into the barn one night, hurt and hungry and half-wild. Now the dog was her constant companion, even to sleeping in her room and going with her to school.
“Easy boy,” Murdoch hushed him. “You did good, Drifter… not your fault they took her. From what I heard, you did your best.”
“Miss Maddie will sure be glad to see him still ‘round, Mr. Lancer,” Wade said from behind him and Murdoch nodded. Wade was right. Maddie would be thrilled to see Drifter alive, but they had to find her first.
The dog whined again, then struggled to get up. He got to his haunches and stayed there, panting heavily. He’d made it that far but, even this close to the ground, the dog’s head nodded unsteadily.
Hank walked down the bank to the river and scooped his hat through the water. He came back up with the dripping hat full of water and put it down in front of the dog.
Drifter glanced up at Hank, eyeing him curiously, then set about lapping the water.
“Damned lucky dog, Boss,” Hank commented, standing up and watching the animal.
Murdoch nodded, but he heard the hoof-beats of a rider coming quickly and looked up to find Cipriano dismounting. He stood up and walked over to join him.
“Well?” he asked hastily.
Cipriano stood beside his horse, looking at the dog for a moment before turning back to Murdoch. He ran the reins through his hands thoughtfully before answering. “They waited in the rocks over there, Señor.” He pointed to the cluster of boulders a few hundred yards away. “There were three of them, just as Miguel told us. They had a fourth horse with them, with no rider. They came down to the children, then they rode off towards the mountains. The fourth horse now has a rider, but not much weight to deepen the tracks. That is Maddie. They go fast, Señor… two men in front, then the niña, and then another man, smaller than the others.”
“How far ahead are they, Cipriano? Can you guess?”
Cipriano nodded. “Si, two hours maybe. Not much more,” he told them. “But they ride fast. They are making no attempt to cover their trail, Señor. I think they feel they will be safe in the mountains.” He stopped for a moment, looking at the dog again. “I think, maybe, they are right.”
“Then let’s get going,” Murdoch said quickly and turned to go for his own horse. “We have to get them before they get into those hills.”
“They will reach them before we can catch up with them, Señor Murdoch. And it will be hard to track them when they get into the rocks.”
Murdoch’s temper rose quickly and he spun around to confront his segundo. “I know how hard it will be,” he shouted angrily. “I know those hills too. That’s why we have to get started. We’re going to get Maddie back! I don’t want to hear anything else. So get mounted… all of you. The sooner we get started, the better.”
Cipriano nodded but waited, apparently unmoved by his boss’s wrath. He stood his ground. “Si, we will find her Señor, but we must wait…”
“Wait for what?” Murdoch bellowed.
“For him, Señor Murdoch,” he answered calmly and indicated the dog.
Murdoch swung around looked at the animal. It still rested on its haunches and gazed back at him with dazed eyes.
“Drifter?” Murdoch asked, curious.
“Si, Drifter,” Cipriano confirmed.
“Why the devil are we waiting for the dog?”
“He can help us, Señor. He can find the niña.”
Quieting down suddenly while he considered what the segundo seemed to be suggesting, Murdoch scowled. There was no better tracker on the ranch, or in the valley for that matter, than Jose Cipriano. No better man, that is.
“It will be a difficult trail, Señor, once they get to the mountains,” Cipriano continued. “Men can get lost in those hills. The paths are rocky and there are many streams. It will be easy to lose their tracks. But him? He could follow when we cannot.”
“He’s never been tried at tracking. Do you think he can do it?” Murdoch asked worriedly.
Cipriano sighed. “I do not know for certain. Some dogs follow the scent as easily as breathe. Others do not. But this dog…? He is smart, and he loves the little señorita. I have seen how he is with her… and los hombres?” The man smiled knowingly. “I think perhaps he has no fondness for them, Señor.”
As if on cue, the dog licked his lips and lifted his head, then pushed himself to his feet. He swayed drunkenly and shifted his paws to gain a better position, but he stayed stubbornly on his feet.
“Bueno, Drifter,” Cipriano said encouragingly. Then he pointed to the dog and added to Murdoch, “You see, Señor Murdoch. He will be ready to go soon. We can travel faster if he can lead us.”
Murdoch chafed at the thought of waiting longer but he had to admit that Cipriano might have a good idea. If the dog could follow the scent, they would be able to travel faster and perhaps catch them before they made it too far into the mountains.
There was nothing to say that the dog could follow a trail. He’d never been tried. What if they waited here and wasted more precious time and then found out that the dog wasn’t up to it? The idea that Maddie was alone with those men – scared, maybe even hurt. It drove a stake clean through his heart.
He closed his eyes and nodded. “Alright… we’ll give it a try.”
He thought back to the first time he’d seen her, hiding behind Johnny’s legs and clutching his pants desperately. He’d been shocked when Johnny had brought her home and stunned him with the astounding news that the little raven-haired girl with the huge brown eyes was his granddaughter. He’d very nearly thrown away his chances of getting to know her when he’d stuck his foot in his mouth and said the wrong thing to his son. But then, with a tilt of her head, she had stepped out from behind Johnny, with just a small nudge of reassurance from him, and announced herself proudly by her full name.
Murdoch had lost his heart to her in that moment.
She could be mischievous, stubborn and she had more than a little of her grandmother’s fiery temper, but she was also a gentle, loving little soul. Her smile could brighten the dullest day and her laughter rang though the house and brought it alive as it hadn’t been for years.
He thought about how frightened she must be, but she was a brave child as well… worthy of the name Lancer. That spirited defiance she’d shown that first night; the same stubborn will that had seen Johnny though his own terrible childhood and had seen Scott through his year in a southern prison camp, would it keep Maddie’s spirits up until they reached her?
Murdoch drew in a deep breath and forced himself to be patient. He looked down at the dog again, still on his feet and apparently determined to stay there. That dog might well be their best hope of catching up to the kidnappers.
So they waited…
Johnny urged the horse forward and let him have his head. The big palomino must have somehow sensed the urgency in him and powered into full stride.
But his rider was oblivious to the wind in his face or the ground they were covering so quickly. Instead, his mind was in turmoil. Since before she was born, Johnny had done whatever it took to protect his daughter – even going so far as to keep her very existence a secret from everybody who knew him, even his family. His greatest fear – one that he had lived with for years - was that one of his enemies would find out about her and use her to get to him.
Now that it had happened, he felt numb with shock. Bringing her home to Lancer was supposed to have been a safe option. He could finally be with her. He could watch her grow up and be a real part of her life. She was surrounded by family and friends and should have been out of harm's way with so many eyes to watch her.
But he had become complaisant and let down his guard.
And it was Madelena who was paying for it.
Vaguely, he heard the call and, just as blankly, he recognized his brother’s voice. On some level, he was aware of hoof-beats behind him, but he paid it all little heed. All he could think about was Maddie.
He lost track of time and, suddenly, there was the river in front of him… the tree. Everyone on the ranch knew that the children loved that spot. It was the main reason why Scott had made a point of teaching them to swim.
And Maddie was a good swimmer. The thought had dropped incongruously into his head out of nowhere and enraged him. They’d worried about her drowning but forgotten where the real danger lurked. He should have known it could happen.
“Damn!” he said out loud and shocked himself with the sound of his voice. ‘I should have been ready. I should have known...’ he thought, keeping his mouth closed this time.
He pulled Barranca to a halt and was out of the saddle and standing on the ground before the dust had even begun to settle around them. With the reins in one hand, Johnny looked around him. Cipriano and Murdoch were standing together and talking, and Hank and Wade were just waiting around. Why? Why weren’t they out looking for Maddie?
Johnny’s heart was pounding in his chest and he was breathing heavily from the break-neck ride, but he glared at Murdoch.
“What the hell are you all waiting around for?” he shouted furiously. “Why aren’t you out looking for her?”
He dropped the reins and strode over to his father, stopping only inches from him. Fury raged within him. “You shouldn’t have waited for me. You could have caught up with them by now… got her back!”
“Johnny, I know this is hard,” Murdoch said with infuriating patience. “Just take it easy and listen…”
“Take it easy?” Johnny raged at him. “Madre de dios! How can I take it easy? They’ve got my kid, Murdoch. And while you’ve been sitting here doing nothing, they’re getting away with her.”
“No one is sitting around doing nothing, Johnny,” Murdoch told him, his patience wearing down considerably in the face of his son’s anger.
“Well, you sure don’t look like you’ve got far!” Johnny stormed back at him.
“I can explain if you give me a minute…”
“Explain? What is there to explain? You’ve wasted enough time.” He turned and walked back towards his horse. “I’ll find her myself. You just sit here an’ make your plans. I’m going after Maddie.”
The shout came from behind him and Johnny swung around to find Scott had dismounted and was coming towards him. Scott stopped beside him and put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Just calm down a little,” he said quietly. “We’ll find her.”
But Johnny just shrugged Scott’s hand off his shoulder. “You calm down,” he answered furiously. “I’m not takin’ anything easy while those scum have my daughter.” He turned back on Murdoch. “What are you doing still here? Why aren’t you out after them?”
He looked around him at the men watching him. Their very presence aggravated his anger still further. Cipriano was standing with Hank and Wade and was next to come under fire. “And why aren’t you out there tracking them? The trail’s gettin’ cold while you wait around for me. You know that.”
Cipriano pushed his sombrero back a little and eyed him coolly. He stepped forward boldly and put himself in front of Johnny. “¡Pare!” he said, loudly and firmly and right in Johnny’s face.
Johnny did stop. He glared back at Cipriano, stunned that the man had dared to shout at him.
Johnny tightened his jaw and his eyes turned to ice.
“¡Escuche, Johnny!” Cipriano continued, undaunted by Johnny’s cold, hard stare. Scott caught his breath and hoped that Johnny didn’t do anything stupid. Johnny was angrier than Scott had ever seen him and there was a chance that he might forget these people were friends and family and turn Madrid loose on them.
But Cipriano stood his ground. In irate Spanish that Scott found was so fast that he could barely follow it, the segundo berated Johnny.
“¡Mire a esos hombres! Su hermano… su padre… sus amigos… todos estos hombres quiere ayudar en la búsqueda de su hija. Usted se preocupa y no le culpamos, pero su ira no está ayudando. ¿Comprende?”
Johnny stood rigidly straight and let Cipriano finish. He continued his icy glare without blinking. Cipriano’s question remained unanswered and he obviously wasn’t satisfied.
“¿Comprende?” Cipriano repeated grimly.
Suddenly, Johnny relaxed and lowered his head. He nodded, letting the words sink in. Cipriano was right and Scott watched Johnny’s head lower with shame. These men were his family and his friends. He must know that they would want to get his daughter back safely. And he must realize that his anger wasn’t going to help anyone, especially Maddie.
“Si,” he answered slowly. “Si, yo comprende… lo siento, amigo…” He looked up and glanced towards Hank and Wade. “I’m sorry… I… I know you all want to help. It’s just…”
“’S alright, Johnny,” Hank said awkwardly. “Hell, can’t blame ya for bein’ angry.”
Scott breathed out slowly, and a little loudly. Only then did he even realize that he had been holding his breath. Johnny looked at him and saw the sympathy in his eyes.
“Scott, I…” he began and appeared to realize how close he was to falling apart. Scott knew enough about his brother to know that Johnny wouldn’t allow it to happen. There was a job to get done. He watched as Johnny pulled his head up and straightened his back, pushing unwanted emotions away. There’d be time for that later. Now, they had to face things squarely.
“It’s okay, Johnny,” Scott told him quietly. “We understand.”
“Johnny, we are going to get her back,” Murdoch said calmly and reassuringly. “I swear to you, we’ll get her back, safe and sound.”
“Then why are you still here?” Johnny asked again, in a more reasonable tone this time. “Why wait for me and waste valuable time?”
“I’m afraid we weren’t waiting for you, Son,” Murdoch replied, a trace of apology in his voice. “We were waiting for him.” He nodded towards the dog, now on his feet and watching the scene unfolding around him.
For the first time, Scott realized the dog was there… and alive. It seemed to take Johnny by surprise too.
“For him?” Johnny asked, shocked.
“Jelly told us he was dead,” Scott told them.
“We thought he was,” Murdoch answered. “The children did too. But he was only stunned. The bullet grazed his head and knocked him out for quite a while.”
“Why the hell are you waiting for the dog?” Johnny asked, frowning. His voice was more restrained, but his confusion was evident and threatening to loose his anger on them again.
“It was Cipriano’s idea,” Murdoch explained. “He thinks that maybe Drifter can track them for us.”
Johnny scowled and stared at the dog, obviously thinking about it, while Scott considered the idea as well. Drifter was Maddie’s dog. There was no ‘two ways’ about it. He tolerated everyone else, but he was tirelessly loyal to the little girl. One was seldom to be seen without the other. He was smart too. He’d proven that countless times.
But no one had ever tried him at following a scent. That was a whole different talent.
“Can he do it?” Johnny asked, apparently as unconvinced as Scott felt.
“It is worth a try, Johnny,” Cipriano told him with a small shrug of his shoulders.
But Johnny continued to look dubious. “Cipriano, you could track ‘em without the dog. I know how good you are, an’ those mountains are like your own back yard. No one knows ‘em as well as you do.”
The segundo nodded, accepting the praise easily and with some humility. It was well known that Johnny was good at tracking, but Cipriano not only followed the trail. He knew the mountains better than anyone. He could out-think his prey and foresee what trail they might take.
“Si,” he said quietly. “But you know those mountains too, Johnny. You know the rocks and the maze of paths and small trails. These hombres ride fast towards them. They know that they can soon lose anyone who follows them up there. I am good, Señor, but my eyes do not see tracks on rocks. It will be slow and time consuming searching for the trail. If the dog…”
“If!” Johnny reminded him coldly. “That’s a mighty big ‘if’!”
“Si, so it is. But if he can do it, he will be faster than either of us and rocks will not stop him. Johnny, the dog could be our best chance of finding the niña.”
Johnny looked at the dog, scowling again. Drifter padded slowly over to him and looked up at Johnny with what Scott could only think of as pitiful eyes. The graze across the top of his head had been washed by someone, but was raw and had to be painful, yet the animal seemed unconcerned by it.
Lowering himself to one knee, Johnny cupped the dog’s jaw in one hand and lifted its head to look into those sad eyes.
“What about it, Drifter?” he asked quietly. There was a nervous resonance in his voice that Scott was not used to hearing. “Think you can find her? Can you find Maddie?”
At the mention of her name, Drifter whined – short and sharp.
“Find Maddie, Drifter,” Johnny ordered and waited to see what the dog would do.
They all waited… all watched, but the dog only gave a quick bark. Scott’s stomach tightened anxiously. If they had wasted all this time and this didn’t work…
Johnny stood up and looked around for tracks. He found them, heading east towards the mountains and he stopped.
“Drifter, here!” he called and the dog loped over to him, stopping in front of him. Johnny knelt beside him on one knee again and laid one arm lightly over the dog’s shoulders. “Find Maddie,” he whispered. He pointed to the tracks and said again, “Find Maddie.”
There was a hint of desperation creeping into Johnny’s voice. The dog did not seem to be understanding. He barked again and Scott’s heart pounded. It wasn’t going to work.
Scott wondered what state his brother must be in. If Scott was feeling the tension this much, then Johnny had to be masking terrible fears. He was doing it well, so far. There was only a slightly discernable edge to Johnny’s voice, now that his initial outburst was over. If Scott hadn’t known him so well, Johnny would have appeared almost calm.
Johnny maintained his composure. He stood up and took a step back from the dog.
“Find her, boy… find Maddie.”
The dog’s ears flicked back and then forward again. He stood watching Johnny for a long, heart-breaking moment, then whined again. He looked around at the other men standing by, watching him. Murdoch, then Hank and Wade, Cipriano and Jelly, then Scott himself found the dog’s eyes locked with his own.
‘It’s not working,’ Scott thought dismally. ‘He just doesn’t understand.’
But, suddenly, Drifter broke eye contact with Scott and lowered his nose to the ground. Scott gasped aloud. His heart jolted and he felt himself tense with renewed hope.
“It’s working, Johnny!” Murdoch whispered.
“Shhh… let’s see what he can do,” Johnny hissed back at him, his voice barely audible.
The group collectively held their breath in anticipation as the dog sniffed the ground at his feet. He took a small step forward, his nose still intent on the tracks that Johnny had brought him to. He lifted his head and tentatively sniffed the air, then dropped his nose to the ground again and took another, more decisive step forward.
Suddenly, he whipped around and barked at Johnny, once, then again. He seemed excited now and barked one more time, then turned and bolted in the direction of the mountains.
“He’s got it!” Johnny shouted, his voice resounding with elation. “He’s got the scent!” He ran back to Barranca and was mounted before anyone else even had time to take in what had happened.
“Jelly, you stay here and wait for Val and Gabe,” Murdoch ordered as he grabbed the reins of his own horse and pulled himself into the saddle. Scott mounted just as quickly and joined the group, but Jelly was unhappy not to be going with them.
“Show them which way we’ve headed and tell them to catch up with us. Then you go back to the ranch. I want you to stay there with the girls in case they need you,” Murdoch continued.
“Aw Boss,” Jelly began, but Murdoch cut him off impatiently.
“I mean it, Jelly,” Murdoch told him firmly. “I don’t want those girls left on their own… and there are two more children to consider as well.
Scott stared at Murdoch. He hadn’t even thought that the girls or the babies might also be targets. If this was some well-staged attack on the ranch, then they were certainly in danger.
“Do it, Jelly,” Scott added quickly and authoritatively. “Look after them for us, and keep a couple of the men posted around the hacienda until we find out what’s going on.”
Jelly nodded quickly. This time he understood what was going through their heads. “I gotcha. Now go find that kid.”
The group needed no urging. All five of them turned heir horses as one and raced off at full gallop towards the mountains. Johnny was well ahead of them, following the dog. Their hopes soared now that they were actually doing something.
“We’re coming, Maddie,” Scott thought, and then realized that he had said it aloud. With grim determination, he added… “We’re going to get you back.”
It had to be said that Sheriff Val Crawford was a worried man. He had received word from one of the Lancer hands that someone had taken Maddie Lancer with a mixture of shock, anger and fear. But it wasn’t only fear for the little girl. Of course, he liked the kid. He’d have liked her even if she’d been anyone else’s kid. Hell, Val Crawford had a soft spot for kids that his gruff exterior hid very successfully from the rest of the world.
But she wasn’t someone else’s kid. She was Johnny’s little girl.
No, he was also worried about Johnny Lancer. Johnny had been his friend for years and, at one time, it had seemed like Johnny might be his only friend.
Val figured he knew how he’d feel himself, if someone up and took a kid of his. He knew what he’d want to do to them when he caught up with them. He had a pretty good idea what Johnny would do when he did get hold of them. And, better than most, Val knew that Johnny was just the man to make good on those thoughts. Any threat made by Johnny Lancer – Johnny Madrid Lancer – had to be taken seriously.
The last thing Val wanted was to end up having to take Johnny in for murder, so he hoped that Scott or Murdoch could rein in Johnny’s temper if they caught up with the kidnappers before Val got there.
Val covered ground at a fast pace, slowing at intervals to give his horse a breather before pressing him for more speed. He was just about at the river when he met up with Gabe, his colleague - the sheriff from Spanish Wells.
Gabe hailed him and Val slowed again, just enough to join the man and then continue on together to the spot where he’d been told it had all happened this morning.
“Howdy, Gabe,” he called as they got close enough to hear each other.
“Howdy, Val,” the other sheriff replied and drew up beside him. “You know where this tree is?”
Val had ridden out to Lancer, on business and pleasure, often enough to know the place the hand meant when he’d described it. He’d even seen the children playing under that big old tree when he passed it by once or twice. He wondered briefly if they would ever go back to play there again… whether they’d ever be able to laugh and play there in the same way that they had before the shock of today’s events.
“Yeah, I know it,” he answered quickly.
He shook his head and cleared his mind of the thoughts. They’d get him nowhere right now. Still, he always thought it was a shame when little kids were shoved into the adult world of violence.
Johnny had gone to great lengths to protect his daughter over the years and Val’s first thought had been that this was a way to get to Johnny Madrid. It was certainly something that had to be considered. Johnny had a past and he’d made a lot of enemies.
“Called you in, too, hey Val?” Gabe asked as they met. “You made good time gettin’ here.”
Val nodded. “Reckon they’d call in the army if there was a fort handy,” he answered. “Bad business, this takin’ a little kid.”
Gabe took off his hat and wiped his brow with his sleeve. It wasn’t high summer yet, but it was hot and dusty enough to bring out a sweat. “Wouldn’t wanta be in their boots when the Lancers catch up with ‘em.”
“No more’n they deserve, I reckon,” Val answered gruffly.
“Gotta go along with ya on that, Val. Still, we gotta do this thing legal. I’m worried about what Johnny’ll do,” Gabe agreed, giving voice to Val’s fears
Val only nodded.
“Wouldn’t blame him,” Gabe continued.
There was no answer to that, so the two sheriffs pushed their horses for more speed and headed for the willow tree. They soon found it, hanging just as gracefully over the river as it ever had. There was nothing there to show for the drama of this morning, except for one old man standing beside his horse and stomping around, impatiently waiting for them.
“Well, you two sure took your own sweet time ‘bout gettin’ here!” he chastised them as they pulled their horses to a stop.
“Ain’t like we got wings, Jelly,” Val answered argumentatively, to which Jelly merely harrumphed noisily. “Where is everyone?”
“Well they wasn’t about to sit ‘round an’ wait for you to get here,” Jelly told him testily. “They’re headin’ for the mountains over yonder. Cipriano found their tracks an’ now they’ve got the dog followin’ a scent too.”
“Dog? What dog?” Val asked, his eyebrows lifting in surprise.
“I was told he was shot,” Val said, curious.
“Me too,” added Gabe.
Jelly shook his head. “The kids saw him get shot an’ didn’t know no better,” he explained. “Creased, he was. Stunned real bad, but he’s on his feet now an’ Johnny coaxed him till he picked up a scent. That’s one real smart dog, I gotta tell ya.”
Val almost grinned. Jelly Hoskins had a well known, and well understood, aversion to dogs – especially when they looked like Drifter. The dog’s resemblance to the half wolf, half dog that had tried damned hard to kill Jelly once had made it hard for the old man to accept having him around. He had a healthy distrust of Drifter most of the time.
On the other hand, Drifter’s single-minded loyalty to the little girl had just about won Jelly over. He kept out of the dog’s way, but apparently he no longer wanted to put a bullet in it. Val had heard plenty of stories about the dog’s intelligence, but he’d never heard anyone say that it could follow a scent. He wondered at that.
“Well,” he said after considering it, “he’ll come in handy if he can follow a scent in those mountains, that’s for sure. It’s just too easy to lose a trail up there.”
“Yep, that’s what Cipriano said,” Jelly told them.
Val took his hat off for a moment to scratch his head thoughtfully. He put it back on and frowned. “How’s Johnny takin’ it?”
Jelly rubbed his beard. “’Bout how you’d think,” he answered. “He’s got his head set on one thing right now – findin’ Maddie.” Suddenly, and unexpectedly, Jelly grinned. “Johnny was god almighty mad when he got here an’ found that they waited ‘round. Figured they’d waited for him an’ he tore strips off’n everyone. Oo-ee, you shoulda heard Cipriano light into him, though. Wish I’d been able to follow more of what he was sayin’. It was all in Spanish.”
Gabe’s mouth dropped open. “And Johnny? What did he have to say to that?”
“Well now, Gabe,” Jelly said, scratching his beard as he thought about his reply. “Johnny weren’t real happy ‘bout it, but he took it… an’ I reckon he saw the sense of it too.”
Gabe looked at Crawford in obvious surprise. Val only smiled.
“So ol’ Cipriano ain’t a casualty?” Val asked, grinning. He knew Johnny well enough to know that standing your ground with him was kind of dangerous, but also the only way to handle him. Have your say and make your point and make it good and strong with that boy.
Jelly shook his head. “No, Sir,” he said, almost grinning himself. “He’s off with ‘em.”
“How long ago’d they leave?” Gabe asked.
“’Bout an hour. Murdoch wants me ta go back an’ watch out for the ladies an’ the little ones, he added sourly.
Val frowned. “He got some reason to think they’re in danger, too, Jelly?” he asked anxiously.
“Dunno for sure. He got a note from them outlaws. Dunno what it said.”
“A note? For Murdoch… not for Johnny?” Val asked quickly.
“Nope, it was for Murdoch alright. One o’ those fellas gave it to little Miguel an’ told him to make sure Murdoch got it.”
“Sounds like a funny way to get to Johnny,” Gabe mused, obviously having considered the kidnapping in the same light that Val had.
“Yeah,” Val agreed. “I was thinkin’ the same thing – someone from Johnny’s past gettin’ square. Maybe this isn’t about Johnny at all.”
Gabe came to a decision and put it forward. “Val you go catch up with the men. I’m going back with Jelly to the house. Maybe I can find out something there. I want to talk to the hands too. Might get a line on who these fellas are. Might be they’ve been ‘round town askin’ questions an’, if they have, then maybe someone noticed ‘em.”
“Sounds like a good idea, Gabe,” Val replied. “Jelly, which way’d they head out?”
“That way,” Jelly told him, pointing the way. “They was movin’ real fast, but they’ll have to slow down sometime.”
“Okay, I’ll go after them.” He turned his horse towards the east and only just heard Jelly’s call to him to “get the skunks an’ bring Maddie home,” so he raised his hand to acknowledge the call and dug his heels into his horse.
Sarah stood at the French doors to the Great Room, peering out towards the road. The Lancer arch stood proudly over the drive but it looked abandoned. She prayed that someone would bring word about Maddie, but there had been nothing at all in the hours since Murdoch and the men had ridden out.
She knew that Scott and Johnny would go straight to meet Murdoch once they got word. There would be little point in coming back here first and only time wasted, but she longed for Scott’s comforting arms and reassuring words right now. She glanced back towards Celeste and knew that she wished she had the same from Johnny. Celeste would want Johnny to hold her and tell that everything would be fine. Maddie would be home safe and sound before dark.
Johnny – what must he be going through? Celeste was nearly as worried about him as she was about Maddie.
Sarah sighed quietly. The three girls had done what they could to support each other. There had been no tears, no hysterics; but they were walking an emotional knife edge. Sarah could see it all in Celeste’s eyes and she was determined to stay strong for the others.
They had to be strong… all of them. They had to believe that the men would find little Maddie and bring her home. Oh God, this was a nightmare. One that she fervently wished she could wake up from.
The room was heavy with an oppressive silence. Everyone was caught up in their own thoughts and fears and there didn’t seem to be anything left to say after the initial reassurances.
From the very first time she had met Maddie, Sarah had been taken with her. She’d been enchanted with the little girl’s habit of calling Scott ‘Tio’ and, after the wedding, she had found herself being ‘officially’ designated as Tia Sarah. Oh, how she longed to hear the words now.
Back in her governess days, before her uncle had bequeathed his ranch to her, Sarah had longed for a child like Maddie to teach. She was bright and smart, curious about the world and all it held. Already well on the way to speaking three languages, with her own Spanish heritage and Celeste teaching her smatterings of French, she was always eager to learn. But Maddie’s real glory was in her smile. She could light up a room with it and it never seemed to fade.
A tear came into Sarah’s eye and she brushed it away angrily.
Glancing back towards the Lancer arch on the drive, she saw two horses coming at an easy lope and her spirits rose. Finally, some word… or at least, so she hoped.
“Someone’s coming,” she called excitedly to Teresa and Celeste. She turned back to see them both running over to join her, just as eager for news as she was.
“It’s Jelly,” Teresa said confidently. “And that’s Gabe, the sheriff from Spanish Wells, with him.”
“Let’s hope they have some news,” Celeste said, voicing the hopes of all three. “I can’t stand this waiting around and not knowing anything.”
They turned and went to the front door to meet the men. Teresa stepped out first, then moved aside to let Celeste and then Sarah join her. Sarah noticed that Teresa forced a welcoming smile onto her face and walked forward as the horses came to a halt and the two men dismounted.
“Is there any news?” she asked eagerly.
“Nope,” Jelly answered quietly. “’Fraid not, yet. They’re headed for the mountains an’ Murdoch an’ the boys have gone after ‘em. The dog’s followin’ their scent.”
“Drifter?” Teresa asked, surprised.
“Yeah. Turned out he weren’t dead, just stunned, but he’s good now. Took off after them with Johnny right behind him.”
“Oh, Maddie will be so happy to find that out,” Teresa cried, her voice almost breaking.
“If she don’t know already…” Jelly began but was quickly cut off by Celeste.
“Jelly,” she said, quickly and a little more firmly than she apparently intended, as she stopped awkwardly. The old man stopped whatever he’d been about to say with a guilty glance towards Gabe. “Have you seen Johnny?” she asked him.
“Oh yeah,” Jelly told her and his silence seemed ominous.
“How is he, Jelly?” Celeste asked anxiously.
“Well, he’s holdin’ up okay. He was kinda stunned at first, turned real quiet when I first told him, then took off ‘fore I’d even finished tellin’ him about it.”
“Quiet?” Celeste asked. She began to nervously finger the folds of her skirt.
“Yeah, he was real quiet, till he got to the river an’ met up with Murdoch. He was real mad that they were still there, waiting. Then he really let off some steam.”
Sarah noticed that Celeste’s fidgeting got more pronounced. She took Celeste’s hand in hers and squeezed it reassuringly. “Scott’s with him,” she said quietly. “He’ll keep an eye on him.”
“I just hope he doesn’t do anything he’ll regret,” Celeste whispered. “I can’t bear to think how he must be feeling right now.”
“Cipriano cooled him off,” Jelly told her. “Gave him a fine ol’ trimmin’. Least, I guess that’s what it was. He was talkin’ in Spanish an’ it got hard to foller… But whatever he said, Johnny apologized and started list’nin stead o’ shoutin’. I reckon Maria woulda been real proud o’ Cipriano’s lecture.”
“Then… he’s alright?”
“Yeah, as alright as he can be, I reckon,” Jelly assured her. “You gals holdin’ up okay?”
“Yes, of course,” Teresa said, though she sounded unconvinced. “Gabe, Jelly, why don’t you both come inside? You’ve both had long hard rides so I’m sure that a drink would go down well about now.”
“Thanks, Teresa, but… well, I got some chores I gotta do,” Jelly replied, a little evasively to Sarah’s thinking. He looked a bit sheepish and continued with, “Murdoch wanted me to get a coupla things done an’ I oughta see to ‘em right away.”
“Alright, Jelly,” Teresa answered. If she or Celeste had noticed Jelly’s awkwardness, neither of them gave any hint of it. “Come on in, Gabe,” Teresa continued. “We can get you a drink, or some lemonade, fresh made this morning, if you prefer.”
“That sounds real good, Miss Teresa,” he replied and waited while they all filed back into the house.
Gabe took off his hat and followed them in, holding it in his hand in apparent discomfort. He looked around the room and watched Teresa hurry out of the room, then he stood in painful silence, just inside the Great Room. It seemed to Sarah that Celeste didn’t know the sheriff of Spanish Wells much better than she did. Celeste took a seat in one of the armchairs and Sarah sat on the edge of the sofa cushion, nervously hoping for more information from him.
“Why don’t you take a seat, Sheriff?” she said at last, smiling warmly at him.
He looked around from her to Celeste and then saw an empty armchair and sat down. “Thanks, Ma’am,” he said, still holding the brim of his hat and falling back into silence.
There was a general sigh of relief when Teresa returned with a tray of glasses, filled with lemonade. She put it down on Murdoch’s desk and passed the glasses around, only then noticing the uneasiness in the room around her.
“I’m sorry, Gabe, but have you met Sarah? I’m sure you’ve met Celeste,” she said, as brightly as she could.
“Once or twice, Miss Teresa,” he confirmed. He looked at Celeste. “It’s nice to see ya, Miz Lancer. Wish it was under better circumstances.”
“Yes, of course, Sheriff,” Celeste answered, nervously. “I’m sorry… I’m a… a little distracted.”
“Sure, o’ course. I don’t blame you.”
“And this is Scott’s wife, Sarah,” Teresa said. “They haven’t been married long so I don’t think we’ve gotten into Spanish Wells very often yet.”
“How do, Miz Lancer,” he answered awkwardly.
Sarah smiled. She still found it strange to hear herself called, ‘Mrs. Lancer’, though it had been a few months now.
“You’ll confuse yourself with ‘Mrs. Lancers’, Sheriff,” she told him good naturedly. “Please call me Sarah.”
“Exactly, Sheriff,” Celeste added. “You should call me Celeste, too. Sarah’s quite right.” She folded her hands in her lap and stared into them for a moment, before continuing. “I thought you’d be out searching with the men.”
“Val’s catching up to ‘em,” he explained. “I figured I’d come talk to you ladies and see what I can find out here. Jelly said something about a note?”
“That’s right,” Celeste replied. “They told the children to give it to Murdoch. He still has it with him.”
Gabe nodded. “You happen to know what was in it?”
“Yes,” Celeste said curtly. “A demand for five thousand dollars.”
“Five thousand…?” Gabe gasped, then he whistled in surprise. “That’s a lot o’ money.”
“Murdoch thinks we can raise it,” Celeste said quietly. “But they hope to catch them before we have to. It… it will take some time to get that sort of money together.”
“We don’t want Maddie left with those… those men…” Teresa’s voice caught and she stopped to take a long swallow of the lemonade. It seemed to bring her back in control of herself and she finished firmly, “The sooner we get her back, the better.”
Gabe was silent for a moment. He stared down at the hat that was still in his hands, then finally looked up and asked, “Any of you ladies been in town recently – Spanish Wells or Green River… even Morro Coyo? With Maddie maybe?”
Celeste nodded. “Yes, Sarah and I were in Green River just the other day. Maddie came with us.”
“Anything out of the ordinary happen? You notice any strangers watchin’ you? Anyone approach you or Maddie?”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.” She turned her head towards Sarah. “Did you notice anyone?”
“No, I can’t say that anyone paid us any unusual attention,” Sarah told him.
“You didn’t hear of anyone asking questions about Maddie, or the ranch in general?”
“No,” Celeste answered, and Sarah shook her head in answer.
“What about Johnny? Anyone been asking around about him, that you heard of?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Celeste said thoughtfully. “I’m not sure that he’d tell me, but I think I would have noticed if he thought there was trouble coming. I… I can usually tell when something’s bothering him.”
Gabe quietly accepted that and thought for a moment before continuing. “Has anyone been fired lately?”
Teresa shook her head. “No, not for months. No one has even quit lately.”
Gabe frowned and sighed. “I’ll ask around then, if it’s okay with you ladies. Maybe one of the hands has seen or heard something.”
He stood up and the girls stood up after him.
“Please, do whatever you have to… anything that might help get her back,” Teresa told him enthusiastically.
“If any of you remember anything, even the littlest thing, you let me know.”
He finished the glass of lemonade and strolled over to the tray on the desk to put it down. Turning, he added, “I’m obliged to you ladies. I’ll come back in before I leave. Might be someone saw or heard something in town. I’ll check ‘round Morro Coyo, too. They have to have found about her from somewhere.”
“Thank you, Sheriff,” Celeste said with a polite attempt at a smile. “We appreciate everything you’re doing. We… we just want her home safe.”
“So do we all, ma’am,” Gabe assured her. “It’s downright offensive to go takin’ a child like this.”
The dog slowed down after his initial burst of speed. He stopped now and then, sniffed the ground and then the air, then he’d bark excitedly and take off again at a steady lope.
Johnny was right with him, in front of the rest of the group. He could see tracks of three or four horses when the dog stopped. One was definitely carrying a lighter load than the others, so he was sure that the dog was on the right trail.
The ground was still good for tracking. Johnny knew that he could have done it himself at this stage. Recent rain had softened the ground here and the men who had Maddie seemed to be making no real effort to hide their trail. But he knew Cipriano was right about what it would get like once they hit the mountains. He was confident that he could follow tracks up there, but the dog would be faster… and speed counted right now.
He wondered why they hadn’t tried to hide their trail. Most likely they were confident of losing any pursuers in the mountains and were intent on making it to them as fast as they could.
Drifter slowed again and Johnny eased Barranca to a fast walk to keep pace behind the dog, making sure he stayed downwind. He’d never used a dog for tracking before, so he let the animal have plenty of room.
They were still well out in the open, with the foothills still several miles ahead. It was mostly open country, with only a few gently rolling hills and sparsely set trees but, even so, he couldn’t see anyone off in the distance. They had a good head start and they didn’t seem to be making any allowance for Maddie’s age or inexperience. He thought about her on horseback all that way. She rode well, but she wasn’t in the saddle all day like he was. It would tell on her eventually.
He still wondered whether Murdoch had made the right decision in waiting. It was likely that the men had made it into the mountains already. If they’d gone ahead right off, would they have caught up with them before they made it that far? The pace the kidnappers were making did seem to make that unlikely, but the ‘if’ kept insinuating itself into Johnny’s mind.
Well, they’d had a good head start to begin with and Johnny had to accept that Murdoch and Cipriano were probably right in thinking that they couldn’t catch them before they made it to that sanctuary. He was suddenly grateful for Cipriano’s idea. Johnny was sure he would never have thought of it himself. The dog could make a difference if he was able to continue following the scent.
It had been a gamble, particularly with an untrained and untried dog, but it was paying off.
Johnny heard the horses coming up behind him and turned to meet them, determined to make sure that none of them overran him or got in the way of the dog. He knew who was coming before he turned and he’d expected them to catch him up sooner or later, but he preferred to be alone with his own thoughts right now.
“How’s Drifter doing?” Scott asked as he pulled his horse to a halt beside Johnny. The others pulled up just behind him.
“Just fine, long as we stay back outa his way,” Johnny told him, pointedly looking at the group. “They’ve got a good lead on us. Probably already in the hills.”
“Well, the dog’s making good time so far, Johnny,” Murdoch replied. “At this rate, we’ll overtake them before they get too deep into the mountains.”
Johnny nodded. “That’s what I’m hopin’.” He noticed Scott eyeing him closely. “It’s alright. I’m okay, Scott,” he assured him. Then froze on his next thought. “Till I find them, anyway.”
There was a cold note in his voice that even he heard, but Johnny didn’t care. Those men had taken something more precious to him than his own life – and they would pay for it in the end. What surprised him was that he got no argument or rebuff from Scott or from Murdoch.
“Which reminds me…” Murdoch said suddenly. He reached down to the side of his saddle and untied the second rifle scabbard that he’d hitched to it. Lifting it up over his horse, he passed the rifle and scabbard to Scott. “I thought this just might come in useful.”
Scott smiled as he recognized the new rifle. “Yes, Murdoch,” he said with a chilling pleasure in his voice. “It just might.”
He tied it securely to his own saddle and turned back to his brother. “Murdoch sent Jelly back to look after the girls and the twins. He’s setting guards at the ranch too, so we don’t have to worry about them.”
Johnny heard the words and felt as though his insides were being clawed by some wild animal. He hadn’t considered that Celeste or the babies might also be at risk. If someone was determined to get even with him, what better way than through his family… all of them?
Damn, he’d gotten himself into a nice easy way of living and had put everyone’s lives at risk. How could he have been so stupid? Whatever had possessed him to marry and settle down? Hadn’t he always known that it wasn’t an option for him? Now, the lives of his family were at the mercy of ruthless men, and there was only him to blame.
“Johnny, they’re alright,” Scott reassured him, and Johnny realized just how easily Scott was able to read him. It wouldn’t have happened back in his Madrid days. “Celeste and the babies are safe and we’re going to get Maddie back.”
Scott said it with so much confidence that Johnny calmed down for a moment, but the gnawing fear coalesced inside and ran away with him. It was all-consuming and Johnny wasn’t able to answer his brother. His voice wouldn’t come. Instead, he swung Barranca around and pressed him into a canter to follow Drifter… all his hopes pinned to the dog.
Madelena Lancer sat on the horse and quietly seethed. Two men rode in front of her and one behind, affording her no way out. She had hoped to be able to turn her horse and make a run for it, but the men were watching her too closely and the horse was frustratingly old and stubborn.
The man who had done all the talking back at the river, Mike, led the way. She’d worked out very quickly that he was in charge. Despite his good looks and his amiable way of talking, the others did exactly what he told them and without question. He frightened her more than the other two men. His callous shooting of Drifter and the way he had threatened to shoot the other kids told her that he wasn’t to be trusted. There was something vicious about him.
The second man was the awful, dirty looking man who had snatched her off the ground and thrown her onto the horse. Every now and then, he’d look back and tell her to ‘keep up’ in a gruff tone. He was unshaven and smelled bad and Maddie didn’t like him at all.
The third man, the small rat-faced man, rode behind her in utter silence. When she looked over her shoulder, he was there – staring at her. He was such a strange little man, with those close-set beady eyes, that she felt uncomfortable with him behind her. She didn’t know what to make of him. He wasn’t much bigger than she was and his features gave him an untrustworthy appearance. But he said nothing and did nothing.
At first, she had been terribly afraid of all of them. She had no experience of men like these, or of anyone wanting to hurt her for that matter. Vaguely, she remembered snatches of conversations she had overhead between Papa and Yaya, her mother’s beloved grandmother, and later with Tio. There had been times when she’d heard Papa telling them that he had kept her a secret from the world so that no one would hurt her to get to him.
It had made no sense to her back then and didn’t mean a lot even now. She’d been too small to understand and she didn’t fully understand why anyone would want to ‘get to him’ anyway.
But now she thought that maybe these men were the sort of people he had been protecting her from.
Maddie was well aware of who her father was. Papa made no secret of his past, though he didn’t announce it to the world either. If anything, Maddie was proud of her father’s reputation. How many of the other children she knew could say that their father was faster than the wind with a gun? But when she’d bragged about him to a school bully and told the brute of a boy that ‘Johnny Madrid would get him’, Papa had taken her aside angrily and told her never to threaten anyone with his name again. That, and the week she had had to spend in her room after school as punishment, had been a lesson that she had learned all too well – even if she hadn’t completely understood why he was angry about it.
She wanted to use his name now. It was so frustrating to know that her father was the fastest, deadliest pistolero there was and not be able to say anything about it to these horrible men. Well, when Papa caught up with them, they sure would find out then.
But, in the meantime, she was getting tired. She wasn’t used to riding long distances or being on a big horse. Her own pony didn’t take this much handling and it didn’t jiggle her around anywhere near as much as this nag did. They hadn’t slowed down for a rest even once and her legs ached, her back was sore and her butt felt as though it must be black and blue from the bouncing around on that horse.
And, as if it hadn’t been bad enough on flat ground, then they had started riding into the hills. While the trees now sheltered her from the hot, draining sun, they also made it impossible to look behind to see if anyone was following them.
Papa was bound to be there – somewhere. She knew he’d come after her, and Grandpa and Tio as well. They wouldn’t let these men take her without a fight and she’d been looking over her shoulder, hopefully, for the last hour or so.
But there had been no one in sight. How would they find her? They had ridden so far from the ranch and now the trail was getting rockier. Did they even have any idea where to look for her?
Her fears began to grow as she got more tired. The trees seemed to be closing in and the shadows became more and more sinister. She didn’t want to be with these men at night. Would Papa find her before then?
Maddie had never been allowed to ride this far from home and she’d never ridden these steep paths before. It was a little scary when the path grew narrow, and she had to hope that the horse wouldn’t stumble and let her fall over the edge. She tried to remember all the things that Papa had taught her about riding and hung on gamely, trying not to show how frightened she was.
She wouldn’t let it get her down though. Sooner or later, Papa would come for her. And these men didn’t stand a chance when he got here.
Of course, Maddie was not about to let THEM know how frightened she was! No Sir! So, the more tired she got, the angrier she became. She wanted to go home where she knew that Celeste and Papa would fuss over her; Grandpa would take her up onto that great big lap of his and wrap his huge arms around her; and Auntie Teresa would hold her tight.
She missed them already.
Just who did these men think they were – taking her away from her family?
Didn’t they know who she was?
And then there was Drifter. Her heart cried out for her friend. He’d been trying to protect her and they’d killed him. Oh, how she wished he was here with her now. With him by her side, she wouldn’t be anywhere near as lonely or scared.
The slower pace being set by the dog irked Johnny. It gave him time to think, and he didn’t want to think. He didn’t want to imagine his daughter in the hands of outlaws, or what she might be going through or thinking. He knew she must be frightened – no - terrified. She was just a kid… his kid.
She had to be bone tired by now. What would they do if she started to slow them up? Or had they hurt her already? He prayed that she was okay but, Madre de Dios, if they had… He didn’t care if they did hang him for it – he’d kill them slow and hard if they laid one finger on her.
Dios, was she blaming him? If she was, it wasn’t half as much as he was blaming himself, surely? Maybe she was regretting his past, or wishing that she wasn’t his daughter?
He’d spent all those early years of her life hiding her away from the world to protect her from just this sort of thing and now, when he finally thought he had the security of Lancer behind him… all those eyes to watch over her… now it had happened.
Johnny gritted his teeth and looked ahead at the trail and the dog.
They had slowed to a fast walk as the dog stopped now and then to sniff around. The ground had gotten harder and the tracks were already less visible, but the group mostly traveled in silence. Cipriano and Johnny both kept their eyes fixed on the ground, trying to make sure that Drifter was still on the right track. From what they could see, the dog was doing well so far.
By now, Johnny or Cipriano would have had to be on foot to look for tracks. Even the pace they were keeping now was faster than they would have been able to make, so Drifter was earning his keep. They were making much better time than they could have made without him, but it was still too slow for Johnny’s temper. He led the way, but didn’t spare even a glance behind him for the men following with him. He knew they were there, but he was totally focused on the trail ahead of him.
They were getting close to the foothills, already too late to catch up with Maddie’s kidnappers before they reached the sanctuary of the mountains.
Val had no trouble catching up with the search party. They’d left an easy trail to follow and had not been traveling all that fast so, within an hour or so of leaving Jelly and Gabe, he had them in sight.
When he reached them, he understood what had slowed them down. “Howdy, Scott,” he called out as he drew up with Johnny’s brother. “Don’t tell me you lost ‘em?”
Scott turned his horse at the sound of Val’s voice. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and sighed audibly. “Sure hope not. Glad to see you made it.”
“Yeah, but I was sure hopin’ ya didn’t need me,” he said unhappily. “Kinda hoped you’d already have her back before I got here.”
Scott lowered his head miserably. “Yes, I wish we had too. But they had a good start on us and tracking them is slowing us down.”
Val looked past him to the tumble of rocks that had stopped them. It had been a good sized landslip at some time and was a mass of gravel and small stones. Johnny sat on Barranca at the edge of the slide, with Cipriano waiting patiently on his horse right beside him. They were deep in conversation and pointing up the hill. At this point, the kidnappers could have gone in either of two directions and a wrong choice might be the end of the chase.
Maddie’s dog was there, his nose practically glued to the ground and walking anxiously in one direction and then another, hunting for a scent.
“Jelly told me you were usin’ the dog to foller ‘em,” Val said with a frown. “How’s he doin’?”
“Fine until now,” Scott told him. “Cipriano figures they might have backtracked here an’ it’s got Drifter confused. And there are no tracks in that gravel…”
“Not good,” Val commented with his frown deepening. “If the dog’s gonna be of any use, now’s the time.”
“They haven’t made any attempt to hide their tracks until now,” Scott told him. “It took us by surprise.”
“Yeah, they’d know someone is behind ‘em. Makes sense to make plenty o’ ground an’ then start tryin’ to slow you down.” Val scratched his black-stubbled chin for a moment, watching the scene between Cipriano and Johnny play out. They sure didn’t seem to have a handle on which path to take, and Johnny looked like he was arguing with Cipriano. “How’s Johnny holdin’ up?” he finally asked.
Scott’s reaction was to stop for a moment, look towards his brother and then back again. Finally, he answered. “Val,” he said with a sigh. “You know that tense sort of quiet you get in the air when a big storm is coming?”
Val nodded. “Quiet, huh?”
“Too quiet,” Scott asserted. “Oh, he let off some steam on Murdoch earlier, but since then it’s just been building up, Val. He’s keeping it all inside for now, but sooner or later…”
“Yeah, it’ll be like one o’ them volcanoes they talk about.”
“Let’s hope we can avoid that,” Murdoch said as he pulled his horse alongside them. “Glad you made it, Val. Where’s Gabe?”
“He’s gone to the hacienda to talk to the ladies and the hands. Thought he might get a line on who’s got Maddie that way.”
“Good idea. I’m glad he’s there. I told Jelly to keep an eye on the girls.”
“He told us,” Val said. “You got any reason to think they’re in any danger?”
“No, I’m just being cautious. Things are bad enough as it is.”
Val nodded and took the bandana from his neck to wipe his face. It was well past noon and the sun was hot enough to cook eggs on those rocks over there. “What do you know so far, Murdoch?” he asked as he re-tied the bandana around his neck.
“Not much,” Murdoch answered reluctantly. “There’s three of them. They seemed to know which child was Maddie, according to the other children anyway. They sat up in the rocks watching them for a while before they came down and grabbed her.”
“The kids didn’t recognize any of them?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No, none of them.”
“What about the note that Jelly told me about? What’s in it?”
Scott frowned. “That’s right. Jelly did say there was a note. You want to tell us what’s in it?”
“I’d like to hear that, too,” a cool voice said from behind them.
All three turned to find Johnny walking towards them, leading Barranca beside him. “Care to share, Murdoch?”
Murdoch pulled the paper from his coat pocket and unfolded it. He looked at it again, briefly, and then handed it over to Val.
Val took a moment to read it and then whistled. He passed it down to Johnny to read and watched as his friend’s face paled at the words on the piece of paper.
Johnny looked up at his father, the cool dispassionate façade he’d assumed until now cracking a little. “Murdoch, can we raise that much?”
He nodded. “If we have to, yes, I’m sure we can.”
“What does it say, Johnny?” Scott asked anxiously.
Johnny’s eyes turned to ice once more. “It says they want five thousand dollars before they give Maddie back.”
“Five…!” Scott exclaimed.
“Says they’ll be in touch to give directions where to leave the money,” Murdoch added. He sighed heavily. “If we haven’t caught up with them by tonight, then I’ll head back into town in the morning to arrange it.”
“Let’s hope we find them before then,” Val said, quietly voicing everyone’s thoughts.
“They don’t seem to have been worried about anyone following them.” Murdoch pointed out.
“If they’re heading into the mountains, they’ve probably got somewhere to hole up for a while,” Val suggested. “Most likely figure on losing you along the way.”
“Well, they’re not going to,” Johnny said obstinately. “I’ll follow clear to the end of the earth to get her back.” He stopped for a minute and some of the fight went out of him. “Think we can get to ‘em before dark?”
“We will if we can, John,” Murdoch assured him. “And you won’t be alone in that either. No one is taking that child away from you… from us.”
Silence fell on the group and they all looked back over to where Cipriano and the dog were still hunting for sign of the trail.
“Did you find any tracks, son?” Murdoch asked quietly.
“No,” Johnny answered curtly. “Maybe Cipriano’s having better luck.”
But a short sharp bark interrupted them and they realized that it was the dog that had found a trace of the outlaws.
Without a word, Johnny spun around and swung himself lithely into the saddle. He was gone before the dog barked a second time and then ran off into the foothills.
“Looks like Drifter’s got the scent again,” Scott said as he resettled his hat on his head and gathered his reins firmly. “Let’s get after them.”
“The rate Johnny and that dog are goin’, they’ll be outa sight before long,” Val replied and joined the others in following Johnny.
Lunchtime had come and gone without much notice for Maddie and her captors. They had made no stops since taking her from her friends. Her tummy grumbled now and then, but it was the least of her troubles. She’d been riding this lumpy great nag of a horse for hours and she was tired and sore.
“You thirsty, kid?” The words took her by surprise. There had been very little talk amongst the men except to hurry her along.
She turned to find the rat-faced man, who had been riding behind her ever since the river, beside her and holding his canteen out to her. With his small dark eyes and a nose that seemed to be too long and sharp to be human, Maddie shrank back from him.
He pushed the canteen out further so she could still reach it. “I won’t bite ya, kid,” he said quietly. He attempted a smile, but two over-sized front teeth only accentuated the image that had collected him the nick name of Rat.
The sun had been hot and, even though they were shaded by pine trees now, she craved something to drink. As the horse beneath her plodded on, she considered the offer. Pride made her want to turn him down. She didn’t want to take anything from any of these men. She didn’t want to owe them anything. All she wanted was to just go home and pretend that none of this had ever happened.
But she was thirsty. She couldn’t deny it. She tentatively reached for the canteen and finally accepted it from him. As she took it in her hand, their fingers touched for an instant and she recoiled. He paid no attention to it and passed the canteen, then he waited for her to open it and take a drink.
The water was tepid and tasteless, but Maddie was glad to have it. She took a couple of swallows and let it slide down her parched throat before she put the lid on and handed if back to the strange little man, whispering a hesitant “Thank you.”
He smiled again and nodded as he hung it back on his saddle. “You gettin’ tired, kid?” he asked her.
She shook her head in denial, emphatically clinging to what pride she had left.
“Yeah, you’re a tough one, ain’t ya?” he said with another toothy grin. “Well, I reckon you’re probably sore an’ tired. I sure am.”
Maddie didn’t answer him again. She glared at him with no intention of getting friendly with a man who was keeping her against her will.
“Well, we’ve got a ways to go yet an’ it’s mostly uphill. Don’t go fallin’ off.”
“What’s goin’ on back there?” the man riding up front called back at them testily.
Maddie straightened up as though she’d been struck and looked forward. He had turned his horse back to check on the hold up and all four horses came to a halt on the narrow trail he had blocked.
“Somethin’ wrong back there, Rat?” the man asked. Maddie didn’t like the man’s eyes. They were cold and they frightened her.
“No, Mike,” Rat answered quickly. “Just givin’ the kid some water.”
“That right? Well you’re holding us up doin’ it. Let her wait till we stop,” Mike called back cruelly.
Rat eyed him determinedly. “We gotta look after our investment, ain’t we, Mike? Keep her in good shape, right?”
Mike smiled, but there was no warmth in it. In fact, it chilled Maddie to the bone. “Yeah, but we also wanta hold onto our ‘investment’, Rat. You want ‘em to catch us up?”
“No, Mike, I sure don’t,” Rat hurried to assure him. “But she’s worth a lot o’ money. We won’t hold ya up no more.”
Mike’s eyes narrowed but he didn’t say anything more. Instead, he turned his horse back to head up the trail and they all started off again. Rat glanced at her and smiled reassuringly, then took his place behind her once again.
Maddie shivered, despite the heat of the day. “Worth a lot of money” Rat had said. Was that what this was all about? Did they plan to sell her? Who to? Why? She was just a little girl, like any other. What did anyone want with her?
She felt the horse beneath her lurch forward, following after the others with no urging from her, and she silently prayed for her father to find her and take her home.
The path started winding uphill, slowly at first. They passed through stands of pines, sparsely at first, then more and more of them until they found themselves under a canopy of branches. The trail narrowed and fell away to one side so that they were forced to ride single file over moss covered rocks and fallen logs.
They’d left the open valley behind them and were heading up into country that Johnny knew was heavily timbered. The horses’ hooves clattered as they struck more and more rock on the trail and Johnny was glad of the dog. Without him, they would have been walking their horses by now. Signs were harder to find by the naked eye, but Drifter was keeping up a good pace.
But he did slow and even stopped at times. When he did, Johnny became impatient but maintained his stony silence. He didn’t feel like talking and it made little difference anyway. The whole group had lapsed into a similar quiet. As the day wore on, they seemed to be getting no closer to their quarry. Reality had forced them all to acknowledge that they weren’t going to just run the kidnappers to ground and take Maddie back.
Maddie appeared to be no nearer to being safely back in her family’s arms than when they had started out – hours ago.
Johnny was unaware of the scrutiny he was under. His mind was totally fixed on his task and he kept away from thought of anything else.
The silence around him irked him. He could imagine himself alone and could be comfortable with that. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the help of his family and friends, only that he saw this as being ultimately his responsibility – his daughter… his precious gift… his promise to Luisa.
He knew they would understand if he explained it to them. Maybe they had already figured it out for themselves. But he had no inclination to go into it now.
Never one for sharing his feelings at the best of times, this was just too hard… too painful.
Maddie watched the trail carefully. The path was narrow and uneven. Tree roots poked their tenuous fists up to grasp and trip an unwary horse and there was constant risk of slipping on the moss covered rocks that lay embedded in the damp leaf littered ground.
They had crossed lots of creeks - small and rock strewn watercourses that fell from ledges and trickled delicately through the ferns. At one of them, a deeper creek with boulders of all sizes on the banks and a cascading waterfall at its head and another falling off behind them, Mike had stopped his little troop and wandered ahead for a while. He returned and led them upstream till they came to a rocky outcrop where he took them through the forest and back onto a different trail.
They were deep in the pine woods now and moving slowly up the side of the mountain. The trail twisted and turned and broke off into other paths so many times that she was hopelessly lost. All she knew was that they kept going upwards. At times the path got so steep that the horses had to be forced into continuing. At others, the trail was blocked by rock falls and decaying logs.
They had had to stop once, encountering a crippled giant of a tree that lay in their path. What circumstance had led to the great pine’s demise was a mystery they couldn’t hope to solve, but it lay there like a stricken colossus – prostrate, with its branches already shedding their leaves and its roots sticking up in the air with ludicrous humiliation.
The men had dismounted and walked their horses around the languishing titan while Maddie’s horse had been led by Rat. She’d been forced to lean forward and duck her head to avoid the pine needles and low branches that would have taken her eye out if she wasn’t careful.
Back on the trail, the huge pines reached up, pushing and shoving each other out of the way to reach the sun’s life-giving warmth. The branches formed a shadowy canopy – sheltering them from the heat. On one side of her there was a small cliff face – sheer solid rock that somehow managed to support tiny green ferns growing in cracks and crevices. On the other side of the trail was a dark sinister-looking world - thick with rotting tree trunks, fallen logs and bracken ferns. Even the smells were different here. The smell of damp and decay was everywhere.
There was no noise but the monotonous sound of the horses’ hooves striking the ground beneath them. The men remounted and continued their silent ride. It was unnerving and more than a little frightening.
As time wore on, she caught herself starting to doze off. The constant sway of the horse and the cool silence around her had lulled her tired mind and body. Shaking her head and blinking her eyes open, she willed herself to concentrate on the path again.
A noise! Something small and anonymous skittered through the undergrowth. She looked up and stared into the bracken, but nothing moved… nothing made a sound. It was gone and she’d probably never know what it had been. A shiver ran down her spine. Heaven only knew what lurked in that shadowy world.
Ahead of her, Mike Levie pulled off the trail and stopped his horse. Frank came to a stop as well and her horse halted behind his, with Rat edging up beside her. Frank and Mike dismounted and walked over to the edge of what appeared to be a small, even plateau that overlooked the trail they had taken.
“Get the glasses, Frank,” she heard Mike order his companion. Mike was lying flat on the ground, peering over the edge while Frank returned to his horse and rummaged in his saddle bags. He pulled out a pair of battered field glasses. She knew what they were. Tio had some and he’d shown her how to use them once, when she was little.
Frank walked back to where Mike lay, handed him the glasses and stretched out beside him. Rat had remained on his horse, waiting with Maddie.
“See ‘em?” Frank asked quietly.
“Yeah, they’re still followin’ us,” Mike answered in a disgruntled tone. “I’d counted on losin’ ‘em by now.”
Rat dropped from the saddle to the ground and walked over to Maddie’s side. He pulled her down and sat her in the dirt, leaning her against a tree trunk. The ground beneath her felt moist and cold against her skin and she looked nervously around her for any sign of those anonymous critters that she knew lived in the bracken. Somewhere, she could hear the melody of falling water. Not a trickle, but the tumbling rushing sounds of water falling heavily on water.
No, it was more than that. She could hear splashing and then faintly heard voices. It was a long way off and she couldn’t make out the words, but they were voices alright.
“You stay right there, kid,” he said, wagging his finger at her. “I don’t want to have to chase ya an’ tie ya up, but I will if I have ta.”
Maddie scowled at him, but did as she was told. She watched him stalk over to join the other two and stand behind them to look over the ledge as well.
Mike turned his head and scowled at Rat. “Where’s the kid?”
“Over by the tree,” Rat told him, not offended by his snapping question. “She’ll stay put.”
“She’d better,” Mike told him curtly and turned back.
Rat squatted down beside them and looked over the edge. Frank had the field glasses. “I see ‘em,” he said. “They’re still a long ways behind us when you take the trail into consideration, but they ain’t givin’ up.”
“How many?” Mike asked.
“Six – I count six an’…”
“The dog,” Frank told him. “No wonder we haven’t shaken ‘em loose. The dog’s trailin’ us.”
None of them saw Maddie’s face. It lit up with the unexpectedness of his words. Not only were her rescuers close by, but her heart leapt at the news that her beloved Drifter was alive. She closed her eyes and cleared her mind of the jumble of thoughts and emotions that had clogged her head all day. Emotions not her own began to come to her… fear… terrible, rapacious fear… and a cold frustrated anger.
The anger was so strong that she flinched. “Papa,” she whispered, knowing immediately whose feelings she had tapped into.
The three men were all so busy peering over the edge that she thought about making a run for it. She could get to that horse and try to mount it and ride out, but the trail they’d been riding didn’t allow for riding fast. They’d soon catch up with her.
Run… she thought quickly; run for it. Just get to your feet and make a dash into the dark world of trees and bracken. There’d be somewhere to hide… plenty of places to hide…
Her heart started to race and she looked around her. Edging her feet up closer to her, she began to ease herself off the ground. She glanced surreptitiously back towards the men. They mustn’t see her too soon.
Papa was nearby. She only had to reach him… to find him…
“Thought you took care o’ that mongrel dog, Mike?” she heard Frank tease his friend. “Musta missed him, huh?”
She pushed back against the tree trunk and quietly got to her feet.
“Won’t miss it a second time,” Mike said coldly. Maddie threw a look over at them and froze for a moment. Drifter… the man was going to try again! Her heart pounded as she stood beside the tree and watched them.
“They look kinda lost, Mike,” Frank laughed. “Looks like it worked.”
“With any luck they’ll waste the rest o’ the day lookin’ round that crick for where we got out,” Rat added cheerfully.
“Yeah,” Mike replied, smiling. “Even the dog ain’t gonna find no scent in water.”
“We oughta get goin’ again,” Rat suggested. “Make the most o’ the time they’re usin’ up. The horses are near played out an’ the kid is gettin’ tired. We wanta make it to the shack by nightfall, we better get a rush on.”
Mike pushed himself off the ground with one hand and nodded. “Yeah, they’ll be at that for a while yet. Let’s get goin’.”
“Wait a minute!” Frank whispered. There was a hint of panic in his voice that attracted Maddie’s attention.
“What? What is it?” Rat asked nervously.
Frank lowered the glasses and frowned heavily. “The lead horse… the guy ridin’ it. That’s Johnny Madrid.”
“What?” Rat gasped and ripped the field glasses out of Frank’s hands. He studied the group of riders below and then exclaimed, “Shit, you’re right. That’s Madrid, for sure! What the hell is he doin’ here?”
Frank got to his knees and glared at Levie. “You ain’t sayin’ much, Mike. Don’t seem to me like you’re real surprised.”
Maddie was glued to the spot. Johnny Madrid… that’s what they were calling him and he was close enough for them to see and recognize him. He was getting close. Soon she’d see Barranca riding up on them, bringing her father to her rescue. Her hopes shot up and her heart pounded with joy. She knew it; she knew he’d come for her.
She’d heard the fear in Rat’s voice and a small smile crept over her lips. Now they’d find out how stupid it was to steal her away from her papa. He’d shoot them all dead for this… well, maybe she didn’t want to see Rat get shot dead. He’d shown her a little kindness, in his strange way. But he still shouldn’t have been in on this.
Maybe Sheriff Val could just lock him up for lots and lots of years.
The idea appealed to her. Maybe Papa would see to it that all these men were locked up in a jail. He didn’t really like to kill people, she knew that. They’d talked about it sometimes. Mostly after that time when she’d used him as her weapon against Billy Powell, the school bully.
But these men deserved it.
Mike hadn’t answered Frank’s accusation. “No one said nothin’ ‘bout Madrid bein’ here,” Frank said angrily.
Mike finally shrugged. “So what?”
“So what?” Rat exclaimed. “You didn’t tell us we’d be takin’ on Johnny Madrid in this. You didn’t say he worked for Lancer. This was gonna be easy. That’s what you said.”
“You want this sort o’ money, Rat, you have to take a few risks.”
“Risks I’ll take. But Madrid…”
Maddie stood by the tree, still anchored there by the mention of her father’s name… or, at least, the name these men knew him by. Her heart shouted and, before she knew it, she’d said it out loud – “Papa!”
She bit her lip as they all turned towards her. Her escape plan had been blown away now, but she stood defiantly facing them.
Frank stared furiously at her. “Papa?” he yelled at her, appalled. “Johnny Madrid is your pa?”
Her defiance seeped away under his cruel gaze. She nodded slowly, scared by his explosive shout. Then she plucked up her courage again and glared back at him. Yes, her father was Johnny Madrid, or he had been once. She wasn’t ashamed of it. She’d shout it to the trees if she thought it would do any good.
“Yes, he’s my father. And he’ll shoot you all dead for taking me away from him,” she told the disheveled, slovenly man they called Frank.
Rat was on his feet, the field glasses abandoned at his feet. “Madrid’s daughter?” he shouted at Levie. “You said she was Murdoch Lancer’s granddaughter.” he accused Levie furiously.
“She is,” he answered calmly, still on the ground. He seemed unconcerned with their fears and continued with what he was doing as though they didn’t matter. He picked up the field glasses and looked at the riders. “You heard her say so, back at the river. Madrid is Murdoch Lancer’s son.”
“Lancer’s son? An’ you knew?” Frank demanded, horrified. “You knew all along?”
“You didn’t think we might like to know that little bit o’ information?” Rat added sarcastically.
“She’s still worth all that money. Think about it,” Levie said, still casually unmoved by their anger and peering through the field glasses.
“If we live to get it,” Rat persisted. “You didn’t think to mention this to us before we started?”
Mike pushed up onto his knees. “Frank,” he began, completely ignoring Rat’s protests. “Get me my rifle, will ya?”
Frank stared at him for a moment, and then did as he was bid. He walked over to Levie’s horse and slid the Winchester free of the scabbard. When he got back, he stood beside Mike and handed it down to him.
Mike checked the sight, spat on his thumb and rubbed it against the sight and then levered a bullet into the chamber.
“What’ve you got in mind, Mike?” Frank asked nervously while Maddie watched the scene playing out in front of her. That rifle scared her beyond measure. She caught her breath and her heart pounded so hard she was sure they’d hear it.
“Gotta slow ‘em down some,” Mike answered cryptically.
“Takin’ out the dog... again?” Frank sneered and Maddie felt her panic rising. She’d just gotten Drifter back from the dead. She couldn’t bear to lose him again.
Levie shook his head and raised the rifle to sight it. He spat on his thumb and rubbed the sight then carefully lined up his target. “Nope. They’ll keep right on comin’ without the dog. Sure, they might come slower, but they ain’t gonna care one way or the other ‘bout a dog. Now… if we take out Madrid…”
Maddie’s eyes widened in horror. They were talking about shooting Papa. She was trembling. She could feel it. Fear seized her soul and her hand flew to her heart as though she could physically stop it from pounding it by holding it.
He smiled malevolently and added, “Like shootin’ fish in a barrel.”
Frank reached out quickly and grabbed the gun, forcing it down. He got an evil glare from Mike Levie in response.
“No! Now wait just a minute, Mike,” Frank hissed angrily. “I didn’t figure on murder here!”
Murder! The word shrieked into Maddie’s mind and the panic she’d been fighting down so hard rose and wrapped its bestial arms around her and squeezed so tight that she screamed – “No! Papa!”
The creek was knee deep in places. There was a six foot high waterfall at one end that fell in a thin veil of icy cold water and burst and bubbled merrily onto the rocks below. Here and there, ferns grew among the rocks, clutching what minute patches of soil they’d found and hoarding them tenaciously.
Johnny urged Barranca into the creek and stopped in midstream. The bottom was slippery with small smooth rocks and the banks were lined with boulders and trees. The creek was only a few feet across, and the far side rose steeply into a rock face that their quarry couldn’t have climbed. But, even so, there were plenty of places where the men could have left the creek, all of them leading to paths and deer trails that wove into the timber and disappeared into the darkness of the forest.
And all of them were strewn with stones. There were no tracks here to follow.
It was actually a pretty spot, if you were of a mind for a picnic. But, right now – to the men following a small stolen child – it was the worst thing that could have happened.
Johnny was certain they’d been making up time and catching up on the kidnappers. Every now and again, he caught sight of hoof prints in the moist earth that confirmed that Drifter was still following the right trail. The ground was holding less and less sign as they got further up the mountain. Rocks and tree roots, leaf litter and logs all fell across the path and kept the tracks from showing.
There were other signs though – low hanging branches with twigs recently broken off, moss that had been scraped off a rock embedded in the ground… even the leaf litter told a tale if you took the time to look hard enough.
But time was something they couldn’t afford to squander. They would be running out of light soon and every minute counted as the day wore on. Up here, in the half light of the high timber, the day would end quicker than out in the open. And the trees that were sheltering them from the harsh rays of the sun at the moment would prevent the moon from lighting their way later.
They’d crossed other creeks without too much trouble. The first had stopped Drifter in his tracks when the water washed away their scent, but they had found tracks on the other side fairly easily and pointed the dog in their direction. Once across the creek, he’d picked up the scent and loped off with another excited bark.
The men they were following seldom took much time to hide their tracks. What they were doing was to take that trouble at unexpected moments. Just when Johnny and the others thought things were going well, they’d lose the trail again. It was maddening.
He watched the dog sniffing along the banks. It was slow and painstaking, but Drifter hadn’t given up. Once more, Johnny silently thanked Cipriano for coming up with the idea to bring the dog along. They’d made up time and he was sure they had to be getting close. They had to be. It was only an hour or so till dark would fall on them. They didn’t have much time left to catch up and get Maddie back.
Johnny sat astride the big palomino and held the reins in one hand while he watched the dog. The other hand tapped his leg distractedly. No one had come near him, except for Cipriano, and he had stayed only long enough to tell him that he would go downstream a little and search the banks there too.
But Johnny had only nodded his agreement. He was grateful for their silence. He was in no mood for talking. But it annoyed him at the same time, knowing that they were watching him constantly.
He breathed out heavily and looked over to the group of men standing around and watching him. They weren’t even talking much amongst themselves… just keeping their eyes on him. He could feel their eyes boring into him and it aggravated him still more. He knew what they were looking for - signs of his anger, his frustration… tell tale hints that his temper was sorely frayed and about to shatter.
It was. He was holding onto it by a thread and that irritated him as well. He knew that he had to keep it in check. If ever he’d needed cool, clear thinking, it was now. But there was a knot in his chest that just wouldn’t go away. He breathed out again and, unknown to himself, the tapping of his leg got a little faster.
Over on the bank, the small group of men watched and waited. Johnny was right about one thing. They were keeping a close eye on him. They were looking for signs that he was about to release all that anger and anxiety that they knew was building up inside him.
“That there leg’s gonna be so bruised he won’t be able to walk tomorrow,” Val whispered to Scott.
Scott nodded in assent. He’d noticed it too. Johnny usually fidgeted or let off steam in some small physical way. It was a trait Scott had noticed from the first time he’d met him. It even irritated him sometimes. Johnny would rather work off his emotions than bring them out and talk about them.
“Anything, Johnny?” Murdoch called from the bank. He too was feeling the tension rise. They all were. There was only so much daylight left to them and none of them wanted Maddie in the hands of those men when night fell.
“No,” Johnny returned curtly from his place in the creek. “They could’ve got out anywhere.”
Murdoch turned his attention downstream and cupped his hands around his mouth to amplify his voice. “Cipriano?”
“Nada, Señor,” they heard the segundo call back.
“Looks like it’s up to Drifter,” Scott said slowly with a heavy sigh. Then his brittle nerves broke for an instant. “This is taking too long! It’s going to be dark soon.”
“Drifter will find it,” Murdoch told him, surprisingly calm.
“Oh, I’m sure he will,” Scott answered assuredly. “But the longer it takes, the further up the mountain they get.” He shook his head angrily.
“Scott, we all know the situation,” Murdoch said tersely. His cool demeanor snapped for a moment and Scott saw the worry and frustration that was hidden behind it.
Damn, Scott thought. He’s just as bad as Johnny – hiding behind masks and not letting me in.
He turned his eyes back to Johnny and, as he watched, that hand finally stopped and Johnny slapped the reins against Barranca’s flank and walked him upstream towards the waterfall.
He stopped there and studied the ground around the edges of the creek. Then he broke his own rule and dropped into the ankle deep water to squat down and look closer, still staying clear of the bank so as not to disturb any scent that might be there.
A deer path led from this spot into a deep and dark grove of woods, so it could well have been animals that had been here… or it could have been horses, and not long ago.
“Johnny?” Murdoch called to him hopefully. “You find something?”
Johnny stood up and turned back to face him. “The rocks are wet here.”
“The waterfall?” Scott asked.
But Johnny shook his head. “No, the trail of wet rocks goes too far up the bank. The water doesn’t splash that far.” He turned and whistled shrilly. Drifter stopped and looked up, his ears pricked attentively. “Drifter… here, boy.”
The dog looked up and then sprang into the water and bounded to his side. Johnny patted his head and whispered “Bueno, Drifter, bueno. ¡Mire! Look… over there…” He leaned over and pointed to the creek bank where the wet stones laid and waited to see what the dog would do.
Drifter walked forward tentatively until he was at the edge of the water. He put his nose to the stones along the waterline and then got out of the water, first one paw… then another. All the while, his nose glued to the earth.
He’d gone about three steps up the slope when he turned and barked at Johnny, his tail wagging with excitement, but then he stopped suddenly and looked up the hill.
Johnny heard it and his heart exploded at the sound. Murdoch heard it and looked up in horror, just as Scott, Val, Hank and Wade did.
From somewhere high above them, loud and resounding around them even with distance to dilute it, came the unmistakable scream of a child.
“Shut that kid up!” Mike snarled at Rat. It was the first time he’d seriously lost his temper and the fire in his eyes was enough to send Rat scrambling over to the girl.
She started to scream again to her father, desperate to warn him but Rat reached her before she got it out and grabbed her around the waist, then he clamped a strong hand over her mouth, muffling the sound. She twisted in his grip, kicked at his shins and tried to pry his hand from her mouth, still trying to scream a warning to her father. But it was no use.
She was totally ineffectual against the strength of a grown man, even one as small as Rat. She was frustrated to the point of fury and wriggled and kicked out, but nothing worked. Tears of rage stung her eyes and began to fall down her cheeks, but she couldn’t – and wouldn’t – do anything about them. She could only watch now… and pray.
Mike had the gun raised again and was getting set to fire. “Ain’t plannin’ on killin’ anyone,” he told Frank Munro coolly. “But puttin’ a hole in him will slow them down some… might even force ‘em to turn back an’ take him home. Damn, they musta heard her!”
The man cussed angrily and Maddie’s heart leapt. If they had heard her, maybe they would get away before he fired.
“Johnny! Get out of there!” Scott yelled urgently at his brother. Johnny was still standing in the creek with the dog and his horse, staring up into the mountain to try to place where the scream had come from.
God! That scream! It had torn through the fabric of the mountain silence and left them all breathless and horrified. Scott’s own imagination was running away with him and he dared not even think what Johnny must be going through. He shook his head and called again to his brother. “Johnny! Get to cover!”
God! That scream! He could still hear it…
Scott’s eyes left his brother and turned upwards to see where the scream had come from. That side of the creek rose steeply into a cliff face that they didn’t have time to try to climb. But he was sure it came from up there. He squinted into a patch of sunlight that had threaded its way down between the pines and caught a glint of sunlight on metal.
“Johnny!” he shouted quickly. “Johnny, get down!”
Scott couldn’t wait any longer. He grabbed his reins and threw himself quickly up onto his horse then spurred the animal into the water to get to his brother.
But Johnny had already moved. He too was on horseback, but not running for cover. Barranca was pressed out of the water and onto the path that Johnny had found.
The dog led the way into the dark grove. Scott could hear the thundering hoof-beats ahead of him and the swish of branches and ferns being swept aside as man and horse ploughed through the undergrowth. The path was narrow and Scott recognized the danger of charging down a slippery, treacherous trail that led to who knew where, but he ignored it and bent all his concentration on the ride.
The path was flat; at least they had that in their favor. Scott could see Johnny ahead. He couldn’t see the dog but knew he was there and probably running just as recklessly as Johnny was riding.
Scott watched in amazement as Johnny and Barranca left the ground and cleared a fallen pine, landing gracelessly on the other side of it. Then he was on top of the same obstacle himself and pushed his own horse into doing the same.
His heart was in his mouth as the horse’s muscles went taut and he rose into the air. He bent low over the animal’s neck to avoid a low branch that meant to take the head off of any man fool enough to try such a jump. Then he felt the jar on his bones as the horse landed lightly on the other side of the log.
The word ‘madness’ flashed in his mind for an instant but was quickly disregarded.
The sound of the horse puffing like a locomotive beneath him mingled with the rhythmic thuds of hooves on sodden ground and they were the only sounds he heard. Johnny was still in front of him, maybe only a couple of yards, and Scott was determined to stay with him.
Leaves and twigs reached out from both sides of the track to snatch at his face, scratching and biting into his skin, but Scott kept going. His hat was knocked off his head by a branch that was lower than he had judged, but he rode on.
Suddenly, light spread out ahead of them. The pine woods parted and the sun shone down into an open thicket of bracken only a few yards across. Johnny rode on regardless of cover and then the air was split with the thunderous roar of a gunshot. It echoed around the side of the mountain for a heart-wrenching couple of seconds, only to die and let the world lapse into silence again.
Levie let out a triumphant yelp and turned to Frank. “Got him!” he crowed excitedly. “Did ya see that, Frank? Now, that was a shot!”
Frank appeared less enthusiastic. “Yeah, I saw it,” he answered quietly.
Mike scowled at him. “They’ll slow down now. An’ it’s gonna be dark soon. They won’t get near us today… an’ by tomorrow, we’ll be home free. Money in the bank, Frank!”
“Sure, Mike,” Frank agreed with him reluctantly. This wasn’t going the way they’d planned, but it didn’t seem to be worrying Mike at all. “But now we have to get outa here. Them Lancers are gonna be even more rattled than before.”
“So what? They ain’t gonna push on tonight with a wounded man to tend to,” Mike assured him.
Frank got to his feet and walked to his horse, glancing over at the little girl. She was writhing and twisting in Rat’s arms and Rat looked like he was having quite a time with her.
He shook his head. Madrid’s kid… how did they get into this fix? Why the hell hadn’t Mike told them that tiny detail.
Because they wouldn’t have joined him.
Frank knew that was the answer. Mike had purposely kept it to himself, knowing neither he nor Rat would have even considered going after the gunfighter’s kid.
There was no amount of money on earth worth taking on Madrid. Frank was well aware that he, himself, was just a ‘two bit crook’. He’d been involved in bank holdups, even a stage once. He made a decent living from it, even if it meant riding back trails and looking over your shoulder for the next posse.
But he’d never had the smarts to do the planning for himself. Frank was a natural ‘side kick’ for men with more imagination and gall than he had.
He wasn’t fast on the draw. That took time and effort and years of practice. He left that for men like Hardin and Madrid. And he sure wasn’t the type to go chasing the reputation of a man like Johnny Madrid. No, it was far better to cut and run if you ran into that sort of trouble.
But Mike Levie had shown him what looked like a good plan… easy money. Sure, Murdoch Lancer was a powerful man, but Mike had found vulnerability in the shape of a granddaughter. He’d pay big money to get the kid back and Frank had no qualms about snatching the girl and holding her for ransom. Hell, it had sounded easy.
But Madrid’s kid? That changed things. Damn, that man was likely to chase them from here to hell and back for this.
He heard Mike get to his feet and turned to make sure he was heading for his horse. They needed to get out of here, right now.
But Mike was heading over to where Rat stood with the little girl. He stopped in front of them. The kid had stopped fighting Rat and was shaking now. There were tear tracks down her dust covered cheeks and her eyes were wide with fear.
“Get her back on that horse, Rat,” Mike ordered coldly. There was a tone in his voice that bordered on brutal. Mike could be like that. He was one callous son of a bitch sometimes. “An’ next time I tell you to watch her, you do it.”
Rat let the kid go and seemed to almost cower in front of Levie. But the kid wasn’t through yet. Frank had to admit, she was a plucky little thing. She elbowed Rat in the gut and forced a grunt from him as he doubled over. Then she threw a well aimed kick into Mike’s shin.
Mike was taken by surprise and his face reddened with rage. He drew back his hand with every intention of taking his fury out on the girl, but Rat straightened up and grabbed her out of his way.
“You ain’t touchin’ the kid!” Rat burst out, dropping a bombshell on Frank with his sudden show of courage. Frank couldn’t remember ever seeing Rat stand up to anyone before.
Apparently, it startled Mike as well.
“She damned near ruined my shot,” Mike said coldly. “If you can’t control her, then she’s gonna have to learn how things are ‘round here.”
“She’s money in the bank, Mike,” Rat persisted. “Said so yourself. Lancer ain’t gonna pay so high for damaged goods.”
“Lancer will pay whatever he has to ta get her back,” Mike sneered. “A few bruises might make her a little less uppity. But he’ll still pay up.” He looked malevolently at the girl. “No one likes an uppity kid. You remember that, Missy, or I’ll have to teach it to ya.”
“My Papa will teach you!” she spat back at him and shrank away as he lifted his hand again.
This time, Rat grabbed Mike’s arm as he brought it down towards Maddie. Mike was enraged. Frank figured he was even angrier at Rat than he was at the kid now and watched the far bigger Mike Levie swat Rat away like a fly.
Rat’s feet left the ground and he landed a few feet away. But Mike wasn’t finished. He went for his gun, drew it and fired.
Rat’s face expressed the horror he felt, rather than the pain. He grabbed at his chest and blood seeped quickly through his fingers and down his shirt. But it was already over, Rat just didn’t seem to know it yet and he fell back onto the ground, dead.
The girl watched in terror. She couldn’t take her eyes off Rat.
Mike grabbed her shoulder and then picked her up and tossed her roughly onto her horse. “Remember that, kid. I ain’t playin’ no games here. You do as you’re told, an’ things’ll go just fine for ya. But you make me mad an’ your grandpa might just get back a bag o’ bones. You got me?”
The kid nodded, shaking. She took up the reins of the horse and tried to make a show of being okay, but Frank could see how pale she was. He wasn’t a sentimental man. He didn’t much like kids, but he sure felt sorry for that one.
Scott looked on in shock as Johnny was knocked from his saddle and fell to the ground with an awkward bounce. Barranca galloped on until he reached the other side of the little copse and then turned and waited, swishing his tail nervously as he looked at Johnny laying on the ground.
Scott got to his brother in a matter of moments and Johnny was already trying to sit up. With unbelievable relief, Scott slowed his horse and came to a halt beside him. There was blood already flowing copiously down the side of Johnny’s face and Johnny touched his fingers tenderly to the graze on the side of his temple.
“Johnny!” Scott shouted as he drew up beside him.
“I’m fine, Scott,” Johnny answered shortly. “Don’t wait for me. Get after Drifter before we lose him.”
“You’re not fine. I’m not blind.”
Johnny looked up at Scott with a mixture of impatience and annoyance. “I’m just nicked – it’s nothing. Damned well should’ve stayed in my saddle,” he muttered angrily, and Scott got the feeling his brother was furious with himself.
Johnny put his hand on the ground and started to push himself up to his feet, but he obviously wasn’t ready for that yet. He lost his balance and fell back on his butt, swaying a little. Scott moved to dismount and help him, but Johnny would have none of it.
“I told ya, Scott. I’m fine. Murdoch’ll be here in a minute. He can give me a hand if I need it,” he told him irritably. “Get after Drifter. Get my kid back.”
Scott could see the logic in his words. Johnny didn’t seem to be badly hurt and he was right, Murdoch and the others wouldn’t be far behind them. He looked off to the other side of the grove and saw the path the dog had taken, but Drifter hadn’t stopped as Barranca had. His mind was on finding Maddie and he was still running.
Johnny was right. They could lose the dog at this point and then they’d be in trouble.
“Okay, but you stay right there until help comes,” he relented. “I’ll get Maddie.”
Johnny looked up at him and nodded. He added a quiet, and somewhat relieved, “Thanks, Brother.”
With that, Scott urged his horse forward and took off into the trees. Once there, the darkness settled in again. After being in the sun, the forest seemed all the more dark and gloomy.
Worse still, he couldn’t see Drifter. He slowed his horse to a walk and listened. The sound of something crashing though the undergrowth was just ahead. He whistled shrilly and the sounds stopped and a short, sharp bark greeted him.
Once again, Scott spurred his horse onwards at a pace that he would normally have considered reckless. He caught up with Drifter within minutes.
“Alright, Drifter. Lead the way,” he said quietly and firmly. “Take me to Maddie.”
The dog barked again and turned back down the trail. He was traveling at an easy lope with Scott close on his heels when the second shot rang out.
Both Scott and Drifter skidded to a halt. Even with the echo in the mountains and the distance from him, Scott knew the difference between a rifle shot and a pistol. That second shot was a pistol being fired and he was sure it had come from about the same place as the rifle had been fired from.
Johnny… He’d left him in the open and unprotected.
Scott prayed that the second shot hadn’t been aimed at his brother. For a moment, he wavered between going back and going on up the hill with the dog.
But Johnny’s logic came back to him. The others wouldn’t be far away and they would see to him. They could probably reach him before he could anyway. But Maddie was up there alone with those men.
He wheeled the horse and pressed on up the trail behind the dog.
Murdoch and the others were with Johnny a few minutes later. By then, he’d managed to get to his feet and Barranca had trotted back to him. He was standing in the middle of the thicket, leaning unsteadily against the horse’s flank, when his father arrived.
With agility that belied his huge frame and his age, Murdoch dismounted quickly and ran to his son.
“Johnny? You okay? We heard shots.”
Johnny wasn’t okay, but he wasn’t telling them that. His head felt like someone had hit it with a twelve pound sledge hammer and the warm, steady flow of blood down the side of his face smelled sickly sweet and turned his stomach. He’d fought his way onto his feet, defying the dizziness that had tried to keep him down, but he felt sick. Now, he had to stay on his feet.
He tried to look at them, but his eyes were blurred. At first, he thought it was blood in his eyes and he wiped at them with the back of his hand, but it wasn’t that. A thought occurred to him. Head wounds were nasty things. A man never knew what to expect from them.
“I’m fine,” he told his father anyway. “I’m fine, Murdoch.”
But Murdoch’s strong arm was around his shoulder just the same. Johnny tried to shrug it off defiantly, but the movement only sent his brain rocking against his skull again and he gasped before he could stop himself.
“Get him back in the trees, Murdoch,” Val suggested, looking up the cliff face dubiously. “Under cover.”
Johnny found himself being led back the way he’d come, supported by Murdoch. He heard Barranca faithfully walking behind him.
For all his protestations, Johnny found that he did need Murdoch’s help to get those few paces back into the cover of the trees. The world seemed strangely detached from him and he felt himself being lowered to the ground and then the rough texture of bark behind his back.
“Sit down, Son,” he heard Murdoch say softly. Then Murdoch was beside him again. “Just take it easy.”
“It’s just a nick,” Johnny told him irritably. “It can wait. Go after Maddie… I’m fine.”
“Is that so? Well, you’re bleeding pretty badly for someone who’s ‘fine’,” Murdoch pointed out and then called over his shoulder, “Wade, bring me the bandages and salve from my saddle bag.”
The call sounded unnecessarily loud to Johnny. “Dios, Murdoch… not so loud. Ya don’t need to yell!”
“Sorry, Johnny,” Murdoch answered and Johnny caught a glimmer of a smile on his father’s face. “Where is Scott?”
“Followin’ Drifter,” Johnny answered quietly. “You’d better get on after him before you lose ‘em both.”
“We will not lose them, Johnny,” Cipriano assured him. “They will not go far before we follow.”
“They won’t go nowhere before you follow! Get on after ‘em, now!”
“Easy, Johnny,” Val said firmly. “Don’t go losin’ it now. You ain’t in no condition to ride just yet.” He was on the ground and passed his canteen over to Murdoch, along with the bandana from around his neck. “Here, Murdoch, use this to clean him up.”
Murdoch poured water onto the bandana and pressed it to the wound but Johnny tried to push it away. “Will ya leave me be an’ get after Maddie?”
“We’ll get to Maddie, Johnny,” Murdoch assured him patiently. “Just sit still while I clean you up first.”
Johnny’s head swam, but a sense of urgency pressed in on him. He shook his head and pushed his father away. “No… have to get to Maddie.”
“John,” his father said, in ‘that’ voice. “Listen to me for once. I’ll send the others on, but I am not leaving you here for the wolves.” He turned to Cipriano. “You and Val go on ahead with the others. How much longer do you think we can track without the dog to follow?”
Cipriano looked upwards and shook his head. “In the sun, it would be some time yet, but in the trees? Maybe one hour, Señor.”
Murdoch sighed. It wasn’t much. “We should use every bit we have.”
“Si, Señor Murdoch,” Cipriano agreed and mounted quickly. “You will be alright with Johnny?”
“Yes, I can manage him. We’ll catch up with you.”
“Murdoch, I can ride. It’s not that bad,” Johnny persisted angrily.
“Your brother is still on their trail and Cipriano’s going after him. We’ll catch up with them when we have you taken care of. Now, shut up and let me get on with it.”
“No!” he shouted angrily. He pushed himself away from the tree and forced himself to his feet again. “This is what they want. Don’t you understand? They want us to slow down or turn back. Well, you’re not gonna do it on account of me!”
He took a step towards Barranca, surprised that none of them had tried to stop him. Then he stopped and blinked. The trees around him blurred again. Wind whistled in his ears and the world went off kilter, sliding first one way and then the other. He put his hand to the side of his head and took another tentative step forward but the ground didn’t seem to be there.
It was like stepping into a yawning chasm and he just kept falling, only to find himself grateful for the arms that caught him before he blacked out.
Scott found the small ledge about an hour later. Evidence of the second shot was patently obvious in the form of the body of a man lying on the ground. He was a strange looking little man. Scott wondered what had happened to make them turn on one of their own.
He was sure that he was one of the kidnappers. It seemed unlikely that a stranger would have stumbled onto them up here. No, it was obviously a ‘falling out among thieves’, but he wondered what it had been over.
Scott dismounted and checked that the man was dead, though the bullet hole in his chest made it unlikely that he was alive and well. Drifter circled the area looking for scents. The dog seemed confused and Scott guessed that there were so many scent trails here that he couldn’t find where they ended and started again.
Certain that the man couldn’t be helped, Scott walked to the edge of the plateau and found himself looking down on the creek where they had lost and then regained the trail - the start of everything going to pieces.
By his estimation, Scott was about forty feet above it. He checked behind him to see what Drifter was doing and satisfied himself that the dog wasn’t going anywhere without him.
He only had to turn his head to get a clear view of the thicket where Johnny had been shot. Johnny wasn’t there now and Scott hoped his brother had waited for help as he’d told him to rather than try to go on alone. It would be just like Johnny to try something like that.
Nevertheless, Murdoch and the others would have found him and looked after him. There was no sign of anyone down there now.
Scott looked up and tried to judge how much longer he’d have enough light to travel by. Unlike Cipriano, he had the dog to follow and didn’t need as much light as they’d need to look for signs. He’d be able to go on longer. He might still get Maddie back before dark.
Behind him, Drifter barked in that now familiar way. Scott swung around and, sure enough, the dog’s tail was wagging excitedly. He’d found the trail again.
Maddie’s stomach churned. She’d never seen a man shot before. It had happened so quickly. Rat had been alive… and then he wasn’t!
Once the first shock wave wore off, she found herself quietly crying. She wasn’t sure who the tears were for… herself, or Rat… or her father, but they fell regardless.
She knew Papa was hurt. Some part of her, deep inside, always ‘knew’ when he was hurt. Of course, she could feel it when he was happy too and that made up for the other times.
She closed her eyes and let that part of her listen and feel, and she knew that Papa was alive. That ‘gift’ of hers brought a soft blanket of comfort this time. Papa could so easily have been killed back there. She’d watched Mike line up the rifle. She’d heard the shot and she knew who they were firing at. If not for her insight, she would probably have thought he had been killed… or just worried herself over it.
But the gift assured her that he was hurt, but alive. It made it better in a small way.
The horse trudged on regardless of her tears. Shadows came and went. The horse slipped once and she almost fell, but she just grabbed the pommel and held on. It didn’t shake her out of the oblivion she’d made her way into. It was dark there, with no feelings and no thoughts.
Mike led the way again but now Frank followed behind her. They’d just left poor Rat back there - left him for the animals and the vultures. It didn’t seem right. Hadn’t he been their friend?
He’d almost been her friend. In little ways, he’d tried to make things a bit easier for her. More than the others had anyway. And then, at the end, Rat had tried to protect her and he’d died because of it.
She sniffed back another wave of tears and let the horse walk on. She didn’t care much about her own comfort right now. The horse was so old and stupid that it wouldn’t do what she told it to anyway. It would just plod on in any case. Why even bother trying to control it?
They rode in complete silence now. No one had made any attempt to comfort her or wipe away her tears. She longed for Celeste’s gentle touch and murmurings in French. Celeste would know just what to say. She’d wrap her arms around her and stroke her hair. Oh, how she missed them all.
Maddie hadn’t known there were people in the world like these men.
The world was a different place for Maddie Lancer now.
Scott followed Drifter back into the timber. The dog still had their scent and was moving at a good pace despite the poor light.
The path rose upwards again, steeply in places and dropping off treacherously on one side. It was little more that a deer trail and he found himself picking through tree roots and logs constantly. Once, his horse slipped on moss and almost skidded over the edge but Scott managed to hold on and the horse was able to regain its footing. But both stopped for a moment to recollect their composure.
“Easy, boy,” he whispered soothingly to the horse and stroked its neck reassuringly. “That one was a little too close, Pal.”
He looked over the side again and shivered. The drop wasn’t sheer, but it was steep and heavily timbered with pines. All around him was an unnerving silence – no birds, no animals except for the occasional skittering lizard that crossed their path.
Drifter appeared to have heard the commotion and had stopped a few feet in front of them to wait. He cocked his head to one side and whined.
“Yeah, you nearly lost me, Drifter,” Scott said with a grin. Then, with one more deep breath to settle himself, Scott pushed on.
If Maddie had traveled this path, and it seemed that she had, then she must have been scared to death. Where the hell were they taking her? Surely they weren’t just heading up the mountain without some sort of plan in mind?
The trail rose and fell laboriously; twisting around obstacles and winding up the mountainside, but Scott managed to keep Drifter in sight all the time. The dog hadn’t slowed since they’d left the plateau so Scott was sure that the scent was fresh and strong. He was also sure that he must be getting close now.
There was still hope that he could reach them before sundown.
“Is he still comin’?” Frank asked nervously. They had realized some time back that, while the others had stopped or slowed up, one persistent rider was still on their trail – and he was getting too close for comfort.
This part of the mountain was tough going and the girl was slowing them down still more. They weren’t making the pace they’d planned on.
“Yeah, he’s still there,” Mike replied testily. “The dog’s with him.”
“Told you to shoot the damned dog,” Frank said cuttingly.
Still mounted, they were hidden by trees in a spot only twenty feet above the lone rider and could see him coming through the trees.
“We’re never gonna make it to the shack today – not now,” Frank grumbled. “An’ if we make camp, that bastard’s likely to sneak up on us.”
Mike Levie sighed heavily. “Yeah, I know.”
He’d counted on being at the shack by now. A small run down cabin that he’d stumbled on a few years ago. It was defensible. They could hide out there with the kid and wait for Murdoch Lancer to give in and get the money for them.
He was sore at himself. He hadn’t planned on shooting Rat like that. He’d gotten angry and he’d let his temper override his thinking. The plan had been simple – grab the girl and leave a note for the ransom, then high tail it up to the cabin while the Lancers stewed. Then, send Rat down with the instructions for when and where to leave the money.
Now, there was just the two of them. It meant they each got a better share of the take, but things had to be thought out again. And the Lancers hadn’t been so easy to shake. It might have been alright if that damned dog hadn’t been on their trail. He’d known about Madrid, but with the kind of money he had in mind, Mike Levie had figured it was worth the risk. But who would have thought their plans could go so wrong on account of one flea bitten mongrel?
Well, they had, and Mike wasn’t going to give up the prospect of five thousand dollars now. He hadn’t figured on killing anyone but, if that was what it would take…
He lifted his leg over the saddle and slid to the ground, then quietly slipped the rifle out of the scabbard.
“Mike?” Frank looked askance at him and he shook his head. Mike told himself that he’d have to line up better help next time he had a good plan. Frank just didn’t have much nerve. He’d known him for years – on and off. The man was usually good back up, but he didn’t have the stomach for killing and that was a dangerous flaw.
Mike liked to have hard men around him – men he could trust to do just what he asked of them, no matter what. Frank was too soft - no, too yellow - to face the tough stuff. Rat might have killed for him if he’d pressed him hard enough, but Rat had been a mistake, too. He’d been so easy to handle that it had seemed like a good idea at the time. Who knew he’d have a soft spot for the kid?
Who would have thought that the ugly little runt would find some backbone and stand up to him like that… and over a scrawny no account kid, at that? It had shaken Mike into killing him and he wished he hadn’t. He didn’t miss the man and he probably would have killed him when this was over anyway, but Rat had taken care of the kid and he didn’t want to have to do that himself.
“Watch her,” Mike said curtly. Then he looked back. “An’ do a better job than Rat did. If she screams this time, I’ll nail your hide to a tree.”
Frank’s face showed he believed him and Mike turned back to continue walking over to the edge of the trail. A cruel smile played at his lips once he knew that Frank couldn’t see it. Both Frank and the kid had been real easy to manage since he’d taken down Rat. Amazing what a decent dose of fear could do.
It was almost dark by the time Murdoch reached the small plateau. The light had been fading fast for some time while he struggled up the trail and tried to keep Johnny from falling off Barranca. There had been no place to stop even had he been inclined to separate from the rest of the group for the night, so he’d been forced on the grueling walk.
His back was protesting at the labors of the day and he arched to try to ease it. It didn’t work.
“It don’t look like he’s goin’ much further today,” Val commented to Cipriano when he saw Murdoch walk out of the woods leading his own horse as well as Barranca. Johnny was draped across his palomino’s back, still unconscious. “Not either of ‘em.”
Val and Cipriano joined Murdoch and took Barranca’s reins from him. Hank took Murdoch’s horse and led him over to the picket line they had set up for their own horses.
“Got so’s there weren’t enough light to see any sign,” Val explained briefly. “Figured we might as well wait here for ya.”
Murdoch sighed heavily and nodded. Val was right. None of them were going any further tonight. He looked around him at the faces of the men who had come to help. They were all covered with scratches, dirt and insect bites, and they were bone tired from the mountain track.
“I guess it’s as good a place as any to make camp and fix Johnny up.”
He consoled himself with the knowledge that Scott was further up the trail and closer to Maddie and her captors. He just hoped that they didn’t lose track of both Scott and the dog.
“Help me get him down and we’ll make him comfortable over there by those trees,” Murdoch suggested.
Val took Johnny’s arm and carefully pulled him off the horse. Cipriano was beside him to take some of the weight as he fell the short distance into their arms.
“Lay him down nice and easy, boys,” he said anxiously. “Over there where the bracken ferns are thickest.”
Once there, Val and Cipriano laid him gently on the bed of soft ferns. Murdoch pulled the bandage aside and checked the wound. Johnny was right in saying that the graze wasn’t serious. The bullet had torn an open gash through the side of his forehead but the bleeding had stopped.
Just the same, he was pale and breathing hard. Murdoch took his wrist and checked his pulse. It was too fast, but it was strong and he sighed with relief.
How close that bullet had come to taking his younger son away from him forever was something Murdoch didn’t want to think about. Johnny was alive and would be complaining soon enough, and Murdoch would be glad of it.
“Hank’s got a fire goin’,” Val said briefly, squatting beside his friend. He looked Johnny over and then asked, “How’s he doin’?”
Murdoch didn’t look up from what he was doing. He’d cleaned the wound as much as he could back at the thicket, but now he had to clean it properly. He began to unwind the bandage very carefully. “He’ll probably be awake and chewing us out for not leaving him before long.”
“He was right, ya know,” Val continued. “They did this to slow us down.”
“We were getting close,” Murdoch commented sadly.
Val nodded. “Yeah, I think so. Scott won’t be far behind them now.”
The thought of Scott out there alone and getting close to them worried Murdoch. He knew it was the right thing to do, but he hoped Scott would have the sense not to try to take them on by himself.
Murdoch shifted position and sat beside Johnny. He dragged Johnny over onto his side and laid his head in his lap. The bleeding had stopped. That was something to be grateful for.
“I’ll need hot water to clean this properly,” he said distractedly.
“Be ready soon,” Val told him and made himself comfortable beside Johnny and his father. “Somethin’ I gotta tell ya, Murdoch,” Val said quietly and Murdoch looked at him nervously. “When we got here, we found one o’ the kidnappers, dead.”
“Dead? The second shot we heard?”
Val nodded. “I reckon.”
Val only shrugged.
“Maddie must have seen everything,” Murdoch whispered wretchedly. He shook his head. “When I get hold of them…”
“I don’t think there’s anyone here will try to stop ya, Murdoch,” Val assured him. “Wade’s seein’ to the buryin’. We didn’t much like the idea o’ sharin’ camp with the fella.”
Murdoch nodded and went back to tending to his son.
“You bring much in the way of provisions?” Val asked him.
“No, we didn’t plan on being out overnight,” Murdoch explained. “We thought…”
He’d thought it would just be a matter of catching up with them and taking Maddie back. It sounded easy enough.
“Yeah, guess so,” Val added laconically.
“The men carry coffee in their saddle bags out of habit,” Murdoch told him. “And jerky…”
“We won’t starve,” Val answered, smiling. “I reckon we got more to worry ‘bout when he comes to an’ starts up.”
“Something to look forward to,” Murdoch said with a hesitant smile.
Val chuckled. “Yeah, that boy can sure rattle it out when he’s of a mind to.” He looked at his stricken friend and his smile faded. “Reckon we can’t blame him this time though.”
“No,” Murdoch agreed. “No, he’s in hell right now. Worried sick over her.”
Val looked up and watched Murdoch as he gently brushed aside a bloodied lock of hair. “Seems like you’ve been there yourself, Murdoch.”
Murdoch sighed and nodded. “Yes, I’ve been there.”
Mike Levie stood at the edge of the path, his foot up on a rock. Leaning forward and resting his elbow on his knee, he peered down through the trees. The rifle in his hand felt cold and comfortable – like a friend as well as a tool. He wasn’t averse to using it to get himself out of trouble, and the man following so close on his heels was trouble.
He had hoped to keep this job clean, to avoid having to kill anyone. But Rat had pushed him one time too many. Now, the man down there was doing the same thing. He’d thought that taking out Madrid would stop them long enough to put some distance between them. But this one just kept on coming.
Levie didn’t like being pushed. His plan was already in disarray because of those damned Lancers, but taking this one out would give them some time to reorganize – as well as giving him a certain amount of pleasure.
The man was alone, except for the dog. And Levie didn’t care about the dog finding him. It couldn’t tell anyone and, this time, he’d put a bullet in its brain and finally end the trouble it was causing him.
He could see the horse and rider below. The trail had fish-hooked as they rode uphill and they were now directly above him. He was making good time, considering the state of the path. But the horse had slowed almost to a stop at the rock-fall.
Levie had cursed that spot himself. The kid had been slow getting over it, scared most likely. He’d ended up taking the reins and dragging her horse himself.
Unexpectedly, the rock beneath his foot moved a little under his weight. His foot slipped and he grabbed at the tree beside him to stop himself from falling over the edge.
“Damn!” he cursed quietly to himself. He looked at the heavily timbered forest, the steep slope, and sweat broke out on his forehead. A man could get killed in a fall down there…
He grinned malignantly, pleased with his own cunning. Why waste a bullet? Why take the risk of warning the others down below of his position?
The rock rolled over the edge with his second kick.
Drifter bounded ahead of Scott with little consideration for the precarious trail they were following or the ever darkening gloom around them. Scott saw him lose his footing and slip a few times but he kept on regardless.
Instinct, and a strong sense of self-preservation, told Scott that he needed to be more careful as the horse once again slipped on moss, but he was running out of light and he was sure they weren’t far from Maddie and her captors.
Knowing them capable of cold blooded murder made the situation even more urgent.
He heard a scrambling sound and looked up from the trail just in time to see Drifter slip on a small landfall on the trail a couple of yards ahead of him. It partially blocked the path but it wasn’t new. The soil had hardened around the rocks and ferns had grown here and there on top of it.
He sighed. “Slow up a little, Drifter,” he warned the dog. “I want to get to her just as much as you do, but you’ll kill yourself that way.”
When he reached the blockage himself, he looked it over cautiously before going on. The rocks were moist and slippery. He thought about walking the horse over it but decided to chance it, but slowly.
His horse put one hesitant foot onto the landfall, then another. Scott had to press him to keep going. The animal stood uncertainly for a moment and then went on.
With a suddenness that gave him no time to act, he heard something crashing through the ferns above him. He had a moment to look up and wonder what it was, but it was already on them. A rock, bigger than a cannon ball, clattered and smashed its way down the hillside and burst out of the undergrowth only inches in front of his horse.
His first thought, relief that it had missed them, barely had time to form in his mind before the horse shied and spun around, rearing in fright and taking him off guard. He felt himself leave the saddle and hit the horse’s flank as he fell to the ground with a jolt, then he rolled.
He hit a log but it was old and decayed and it splintered beneath him. It didn’t even slow him as he tumbled down the slope.
Through bracken ferns and bushes, over small rocks and large, Scott plunged downwards. The world became a blur of alternating light and dark till he no longer knew up from down. Then he stopped… or was stopped.
With so many mighty pines in the forest, he had to find one eventually. His back slammed into the trunk and knocked the wind out of him long before his consciousness registered the agony of the collision. A wave of pain radiated through his body, intensifying as he rolled face down into the leaves and dirt.
He laid there for a couple of minutes. Silence settled around him again. Well, he wasn’t going to get anywhere just lying there. He rolled onto his side and pain shot through him again.
He blinked hard, trying to focus his thoughts, but all he felt was a sense of failure.
Maddie… her whispered name broke the silence of the trees around him and he blacked out.
Maddie caught her breath. Something came to her in a rush that shook her physically. ‘Papa!’ was her first thought, but she shook her head. No… not Papa…
Tio… it was Tio who Mike had gone after. But he hadn’t fired. She knew that because she’d watched him, waiting for the shot, but it hadn’t come. Instead, he had kicked at a rock in what she had thought was frustration. With profound relief, she had thought that whoever was following them had found cover… escaped him.
But Tio was hurt and he was hurt badly. She didn’t know what had happened to him, but she felt his pain deep inside.
Fear turned to anger. Mike was a dangerous man and she’d grown to fear him desperately. But now, he’d shot her father, then killed Rat… and now she was sure that Tio was hurt from something he’d done. Somehow, he was responsible for more pain.
She’d had enough, but she’d have to bide her time. Sooner or later, a chance would come to escape, and she’d take it.
Mike came back towards her, a satisfied smirk on his face.
“Well?” Frank asked.
“Let’s make some ground an’ find a campsite for the night.”
“What happened?” Frank persisted.
Mike slipped the rifle smoothly into the scabbard and mounted. With a flick of the reins, he started forward. “Funny thing,” he said with a chuckle. “He fell.”
Johnny stirred to the muted sounds of voices around him. He tried to make sense of the words, but the pounding in his head only jumbled it.
Even the low moan that escaped his own lips left his head feeling as though it was splitting at the seams. A wave of nausea hit him hard. His stomach roiled and lurched and, to his dismay, he found himself moaning again.
“Easy, Johnny,” he heard and was surprised that he understood the words this time. “Take it easy, Son.”
Murdoch… he recognized the voice. His head was working again, slowly. He tried to remember what had happened to make him feel so bad, but he couldn’t quite get a handle on it.
“Murdoch?” he murmured and his head exploded again, though this time the pain was noticeably less.
“It’s okay, Johnny,” Murdoch answered reassuringly. “You’re going to be fine. Just lie still for a while.”
“What…?” He lifted his hand shakily to his head. Considering the way he felt, he wasn’t surprised to find that his head was bandaged.
“It’s a pretty deep graze, Son,” Murdoch told him. “Take it easy. Don’t rush things.”
Johnny opened his eyes. It was dark… night. But the stars weren’t there… just trees… branches. What was it that he should be remembering?
Then, like a flash flood down a dry creek bed, it all came back to him. His heart sank. He dropped his hand back to the ground and tried to push himself up. “Oh God! Maddie!” he cried out.
Murdoch wrapped his arms around him and held him tightly. “I know, John, I know. But you can’t do anything right now. It’s too dark to try to follow them and you need to rest up.”
Johnny struggled to free himself of his father’s hold. “Damn you! You stopped, didn’t you? You left her!”
"No one’s ‘left her’. Scott’s gone on ahead and Val and the others went as far as they could before it got too dark to see the trail. We can’t stumble around in the dark and risk destroying what tracks are there.”
“She’s alone with them,” Johnny persisted. Tension, fear and pain gelled and erupted in mindless anger. “You should have gone after them, Murdoch. But no, you did just what they wanted – you let ‘em get away ‘cause I was hurt.”
Murdoch dropped his arms from around Johnny and sat down to face him. “Have you finished?” he asked with infuriating calm.
“No!” Johnny snapped back. “That’s my daughter out there, Murdoch!”
Murdoch’s eyes fired up this time. “Do you think I don’t know that? I know this is hard on you…”
“Hard on me? Hell, what about her? Maddie’s the one you should be worried about. You did just what they wanted.”
“Scott’s gone after her,” Murdoch growled at him. “Don’t tell me that I should be worried about Maddie. Of course, I want to find her. If you weren’t so damned pig-headed…”
“Me? I told you to leave me an’ go after her. If you had, maybe she’d be safe.”
“For all we know, Scott has her safe already,” Murdoch bit back.
“’For all we know’,” Johnny mimicked sarcastically. “But you don’t know, do you?”
“You two gonna keep this up all night?” a new voice asked.
It was Val who spoke. Johnny noted the irritating scowl on his face and turned on him. “Stay out of this, Val,” Johnny warned him furiously. “You’re as bad as he is. You should’ve known better and gone on without me.”
Val put up his hand to fend off the verbal attack. “Hey, don’t bring me into your little family feud. You’re doin’ just fine without me. ‘Course, you ain’t makin’ much sense or hearin’ what he’s sayin’…”
“Val, so help me…”
Johnny gasped at the thunderclap in his head. His hand flew to his forehead to try to stop the crashing roar. Dizziness washed over him and the world blinked, then came back into focus again.
“Johnny?” Concern echoed in Murdoch’s voice this time. Johnny felt his father’s strong hands on his shoulders, gently pushing him back to the ground.
“Well, I guess that’ll teach ya, Johnny boy,’ Val said gruffly. “If you two don’t beat all.” He shook his head ironically and squatted down beside them. “Fact is, Johnny, we went as far as we could till the light played out while your pa brought you on up after us.”
He handed a canteen to Murdoch and lifted Johnny’s head gently so that Murdoch could help him to drink.
Johnny lay quietly on the ground for a while. It was as though the water had quenched his fiery temper as well as his thirst. “I’m sorry. Guess I lost my temper a little,” he finally said, very quietly.
Val smiled sardonically. “Just a little.”
“What about Scott?” he finally asked. “Did you catch up with him?”
“We’ll catch him up in the morning, Johnny,” Murdoch assured him. “He’ll probably have Maddie with him. Right now, you need to rest.”
Drifter stopped when he heard the fall behind him. He stood watching the man roll down the hill and then slam against a tree. After standing indecisively on the path, looking first up at the trail and then down at the stricken man, he ran down the slope to check on Scott.
But the man didn’t move. He nudged him with his nose and got no response, so he pawed gently at his arm… and still there was no reaction.
Drifter whined softly. He was alone now… free to choose what he would do. He looked up the side of the mountain and barked sharply.
Then he turned and ran back up the mountain to the trail. The scent was still there and waiting for him. With one final look down at the man, he turned and went on alone.
The biscuit was stale. Maddie could feel how hard it was when she took it from Mike and she looked at it with distaste.
“Don’t go turnin’ your nose up at it, Missy,” he told her with a grin that soured her appetite still more. “It’s all you’ll be gettin’ till we get where we’re goin’.” He put a canteen of water beside her and turned away.
Maddie sat on the cold, damp ground and longed for her home. Tears stung her eyes but she blinked them away determinedly. Closing her eyes, she bit into the biscuit and tore away a piece of it, chewing it morosely.
They had built a small campfire that was close enough to warm her, but it meant that Frank and Mike were close by as well. Right now, she would rather be on her own than anywhere near them. She was miserable. She missed her father and Celeste and the babies and everyone at Lancer. Worse, she knew that Papa and Tio were both hurt somewhere.
“I want to go home,” she said quietly to herself.
But Mike heard it and glared at her. “An’ if you’re a good little girl, you will,” he told her. “Just as soon as that Grandpa o’ yours comes up with some money.”
She stared at him angrily, but she was too tired to answer. Her legs and her butt hurt from riding all day; her face was scratched from pine needles and her new shirt was torn along the sleeve from a close encounter with a low tree branch. Auntie Teresa would mend it, but she was sure that she would be annoyed that Maddie hadn’t been more careful.
Maddie sighed and finished the biscuit without complaint. She was too hungry to care much. Then she opened the canteen and swallowed some of the water. It was cool and wet and that was all that mattered.
The two men talked quietly, making plans that she didn’t listen to. Frank laughed and she looked up, but she’d missed whatever he had found funny and went back to minding her own business.
The fire crackled and spat as a piece of wood snapped and fell into the ashes. It lit up a small area around her, but she wondered what might be out in the forest… watching them. As if in answer, an owl hooted. She jumped nervously and peered into the dark woods, but she couldn’t see anything.
Frightened, she edged hard up against the trunk of the tree behind her and wrapped her arms around her knees.
Her movement attracted Mike’s attention.
“Goin’ somewhere, Missy?” he asked coldly.
“No,” she whispered.
“There’s all kind o’ things out there,” he teased her cruelly. “Things that eat little girls.”
He stood up and walked over to where Frank had tied the horses. Their saddles sat on the ground nearby and he took a coil of rope from one of them. “Better make sure you don’t run off into them woods an’ get yourself eaten,” he said with a wicked smile. “’Sides, I wanta get some sleep. I don’t wanta have to worry ‘bout you runnin’ off.”
He pulled her hands around the tree and tied them, then stood up and went back to his place by the fire.
Maddie watched the two men yawn, stretch and eventually doze off. Within minutes, there was only the sound of crickets in the night and the crackle of the fire, interrupted now and then by one or both men snoring.
Tired as she was, she couldn’t sleep. She tried leaning back against the tree and closing her eyes, but sleep just wouldn’t come.
Then she heard something… behind her.
Her eyes flashed wide open. Something was moving. She could hear the quiet rustling of leaves only a few feet behind her and coming closer. In fright, she pulled her feet up close to her and pulled against the ropes. But they wouldn’t give.
The rustling got closer, almost on top of her. Terrified, she strained at the ropes again. She twisted her hands and felt them loosen a little, but not enough. Whatever was there, it was right on top of her.
Something cold and wet touched her hand. She tried to pull back, but she had nowhere to go.
Then she heard a low whine… and she closed her eyes and let the tears fall silently.
Murdoch walked quietly across to where Johnny was leaning against a tree, obviously deep in thought. Johnny’s knees were drawn up with his forearms resting on them. His head was against the tree and he was staring silently into the fire.
“Can’t sleep, Son?” he asked softly. The others had been asleep for some time. The gentle night noises of the woods were fractured, now and then, by men snoring or rolling over in their sleep. Val seemed to have been having a conversation with himself in his sleep at one stage but Murdoch had managed not to laugh.
“Nope…” Johnny answered, just as quietly.
Murdoch sat down beside him. “How’s the head?”
A small smile broke through. “Take more’n that to take me out of this game, Murdoch,” he answered, still not looking at him.
“Yes, well, I’ve been told we Lancers are hard-headed,” Murdoch said lightly.
“I’ve heard ‘pig-headed’.”
Murdoch smiled. “Yes, that too.”
Johnny looked into the fire again. “Kinda cold, isn’t it?” he said absently.
“Yes, it gets cool up here in the mountains.”
“She doesn’t have a jacket.” It seemed like the last thing he should have been worried about, yet it was such a natural concern that it took Murdoch’s breath away.
Murdoch sighed heavily. “I know this is hard, John, but we will get her back.”
“I know… I know. I’ve heard it every time you’ve said it, Murdoch. It’s just…” He lowered his head to rest against his arms. Murdoch couldn’t see his face, but he understood the agony his son was suffering. “It’s just so hard, knowin’ she’s out there like that.”
“Yeah,” he said gently. “I know.”
Without looking up, Johnny whispered, “How did you stand it? All those years… and both of us…”
Murdoch drew his knees up in the same position as his son. “I don’t really know,” he answered miserably. “It’s hard to explain what it was like. Scott was with his grandfather. I knew he’d be well looked after.” He stopped for a moment, then added, “Don’t mistake me, Son. I wanted my boy back. I’d never even held him in my arms…”
“But you knew he was safe,” Johnny said, finally bringing his head up. Murdoch could finally see the haunted look in his eyes; the sad sweep of his mouth. He wished there was something he could offer his son to take that pained expression away. But what was there?
“Yes, I knew he was safe,” Murdoch affirmed. “Harlan would look after him. Then, when your mother took you, I thought I’d die without you.” He stopped again. The memories of those first moments - first days - after his son had disappeared were still hard to deal with.
“But, even though there was all that hurt and anger, I thought you’d be safe. You were with your mother and, whatever else Maria was, she loved you.”
Johnny’s head dropped again, so Murdoch couldn’t see what his reaction was to that. Only the words he spoke gave him some indication. They were tinged with terrible sorrow. “Yeah, she loved me. She tried… she did her best.”
“I searched for you and your mother for weeks, then I had to admit that the trail had gone cold. I went home and went back to work. I worked till I was so tired every day that I just fell asleep at night, without having to sit and wonder…”
“I guess I got hard over the years,” he went on. “I threw myself into building Lancer until the land became everything to me. Though, there were times… I got leads on you and your mother a couple of times and tried again, but they never came to anything. I was always too late.”
How did you tell your son that not knowing where he was… what he was like… if he was alive or dead… gradually ate at your soul until you turned away from thinking about him at all? He’d gone on living but there hadn’t been joy in his life. Oh, there’d been snatches of happiness – watching Paul with Teresa… seeing Scott that one time in Boston… But it hadn’t been enough. He had his land and his cattle and the great Lancer hacienda. But it hadn’t been enough.
The day his sons came back into his life had been the start of his journey back into real ‘living’. Day by day, watching them and getting to know them; laughing with them and, yes, even fighting with them; he’d come to know the joy of living again.
“Maddie’s not safe,” Johnny whispered.
Murdoch put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “No, I know that. It’s not the same. And I know I’ve said it, but I mean it, John… we WILL find her. I’m not giving up. I know you’re not.”
“I’ve failed her, Murdoch,” Johnny murmured. “I’ve failed Maddie and…”
His voice cut off, thick with emotion. “And Luisa?” Murdoch finished for him, sensing where his son’s thoughts had gone.
“She asked me to look after Maddie. She knew she was dying, Murdoch,” he said sadly. “Everything had seemed to go well, but then she started to bleed and the doc couldn’t stop it. At the end, I sat beside her on the bed and she leaned against my shoulder. The baby was in her arms, all pink and so tiny, and she asked me to tell her that… that she wished she could be there to watch her grow up. She put the baby in my arms and said it was up to me to look after her. Then she just went to sleep…”
He stopped then, staring out into the darkness. Murdoch had never known Johnny’s first wife and his son seldom even said her name, but he sensed terrible pain in her loss. It had been Scott who had told him most of what he knew. He’d gotten it from Johnny’s friend and from Luisa’s grandmother. It was a patchwork story of Johnny’s attempt to change his life for the sake of a young woman he must have loved immeasurably and the baby they were to have. Apparently, he’d tried hard and it had made her death that much more bitter.
“I didn’t do it, Murdoch. I let Maddie down right at the start. I was so caught up in my own grief and anger that I rode away and left her.”
“You went back, Son. And you did your best to protect her.”
“Just being my daughter has put her in danger.”
“You’re wrong. None of this is your fault. You’ve always done your best for Maddie.”
He put both hands on Johnny shoulders and gripped him hard as if to reinforce his words. “This isn’t about you, Johnny. This is about money. You’ve gone out of your way to protect her, all her life. You went to extremes most men wouldn’t have done. But, you can’t be with her every minute of her life. This is not your fault.”
“Maybe, but I have to get her back. She’s just a little kid. She should be at home tucked up in bed.”
“I know, and we will find her. No one here intends giving up.”
Johnny’s head dropped to rest on his forearm. “If anything was to happen to her…”
Murdoch almost wished that Johnny would fight or argue with him. He wasn’t used to seeing his son so defeated. He pulled him close and wrapped his arm around his shoulders. “Lancer lost her last child when you disappeared, Johnny. It’s not going to happen again.”
Scott woke to darkness, the uncomfortable knowledge that something was very wrong, and the feeling that he was being watched.
He opened his eyes and blinked; then he frowned into the darkness.
He was being watched.
It was preposterous, but he found himself smiling. A squirrel sat on its haunches only a couple of feet away from him, twitching nervously and inspecting him. It inched closer, stopped and inched closer still. It looked him over then came right up to sniff at him.
Scott was amazed by the creature’s audacity. He watched as it stood up high on its tiny paws and looked him over. He didn’t move a muscle, but it wasn’t actually because of his furry companion.
Somehow, he knew that that first move he took was going to be painful. He looked around him, past the squirrel and into the darkness of the forest. The myriad shades of bright greens and browns of the daylight were just dark shadowy blacks in the night. There were only the sounds of crickets and the infinitesimal crunch of leaves as the squirrel lowered itself onto all fours and backed away a little.
Scott found that he was facing uphill, laying on his right side with his right arm caught underneath him. His left arm lay awkwardly with his hand resting on the ground. He could feel the hard rough bark of a tree behind him. The tree had stopped that terrible tumble down the hillside. Oh yes, he remembered it… every bounce and gut wrenching jolt of it. He even remembered the impact of the tree that had ended it.
“I don’t think you’re going to be much help getting me up,” he murmured to the squirrel. It sat up on its haunches and cocked its head sideways at him. Its nose twitched curiously but it was poised ready to bolt at any moment.
“Not much point staying here like this,” he continued. He almost wished the little creature would answer him… anything to lighten the awful aloneness.
Warily, he tried lifting his left arm, but it wouldn’t move. He scowled and concentrated harder. He could barely feel the arm at all, but it did move eventually, just an inch off the ground.
A wave of nauseating agony shot through his back, radiating though his entire body and forcing a cry from him that echoed through the dark recesses of the forest. Tears welled in his eyes and his breath hitched. He closed his eyes and stopped breathing while he rode out the pain, then he opened them to find that his tiny companion in the darkness had taken fright and disappeared.
He was alone again.
Slowly, he took a deep clearing breath, but it only brought another shockwave of pain to his back. Instead, he started to take short quick breaths and fought against the dizzying spin of the trees and bracken around him. Then he passed out again.
Celeste stood at the bedroom window, staring out into the darkness. There was a sliver of a moon and a clear sky full of bright stars, but she didn’t really see them any more than she heard the soft lowing of cattle in the distance.
The room was almost in darkness around her. Only one lamp was lit, tapered low and not adding much more than a glimmer of light in the room. The somber atmosphere suited her mood.
She rocked slowly from side to side, the bundle in her arms getting heavier by the minute. He had finally fallen asleep a while ago, but there was a certain amount of comfort in holding him. Matthew – it was a strong name for their son.
Becca had gone to sleep with only a little protest, but Matthew was more demanding that his sister. Things were out of sync and he had let them all know about it.
Her arms ached under his weight, but she hadn’t really paid it any attention. Her thoughts were out there with Johnny and Maddie. Had they found her? Was she safe with Johnny? Was Johnny alright?
She knew what this would be doing to him. He’d blame himself, even though the note made it patently obvious that Johnny Madrid had nothing to do with it.
She looked down at the sleeping baby in her arms. He was a chubby baby, but she was sure it was only baby fat that would fall off him the minute he got mobile. He had fine black hair, dark blue eyes and his father’s smile. Johnny had taken to calling him ‘Gordito’ and she remembered asking him what it meant. Johnny had only smiled that wicked, disarming smile that got him away with everything, kissed her cheek and walked off.
It had been Maddie who had told her what it meant – ‘fat little boy’. Livid, Celeste had squared off with Johnny, only to have him laugh at her indignation until she’d ended up laughing with him.
Johnny was reveling in playing with the twins. He was determined to spend as much time with them in these early months as he could. She knew that he’d missed that time with Maddie and sorely regretted it.
Johnny knew now how much he had missed – her first smile, her first tooth and the joy of watching her grow with each day. Yet, despite that, he had a daughter who adored him as much as he adored her.
When she’d married Johnny, Celeste had known that Maddie was part of the package and she had taken her gladly. From the minute of their first meeting, Maddie had stolen Celeste’s heart and that Johnny looked at his daughter and saw his first wife in her didn’t matter to Celeste. Johnny had enough love in him to go around.
“I thought I heard you in here,” Teresa whispered as she came into the room.
Celeste half-turned to watch her approach. “He wouldn’t settle,” she explained quietly. “Maddie and Johnny usually play with them after dinner. I think he’s missing them.”
“Probably… I sure am,” Teresa answered with a sigh. “Is he asleep now?”
“Yes, I suppose I should put him down, but I’ve just been standing here, thinking. I lost track of time.”
“I wish we knew what was happening,” Teresa murmured.
“So do I. I hate to think of her out there with those men.”
“Johnny must be going out of his mind with worry.”
Celeste gently rocked Matthew and they stood silently staring out into the night.
“Maybe they’ve already found her and just couldn’t get home before dark,” Celeste suggested hopefully.
“Oh, I hope so,” Teresa whispered. She looked at Celeste and saw tears glistening on her cheeks in the thin strands of moonlight. She reached out and took the baby in her arms, giving Celeste time to release the hold she had on him. “Let me put him down for you,” she said, taking care not to wake him. Then she turned and walked quietly out of the room with him and left Celeste with her heartache.
Maddie forced herself to stay quiet, even though her heart throbbed with joy. He really was alive. She’d heard the men say so, but seeing him was so much better. Everything would be alright now, surely?
Drifter licked her hands first, then edged in closer to her and licked her face until she wanted to laugh out loud.
She didn’t. The last thing she wanted to do was to wake her sleeping captors. Twisting her hands again, she felt the bonds loosen just a little more. But it wasn’t enough. At the rate she was going, it would be daylight before she got loose, if at all.
Drifter watched her attempts to get free of the ropes and whined softly.
“Shhh, Drifter,” she whispered urgently. “Don’t wake them up.”
She tugged at the ropes some more and, this time, Drifter licked her hands. It made them slippery and she was sure that there was a little more give in the knot. Then she felt his teeth pulling on the ropes and, between them, she felt one piece of the knot fall away. After that, the rest began to loosen until she was able to finally shrug them off.
She dragged her hands around in front of her and rubbed at her wrists. They felt ‘funny’ after being tied but, slowly, the feeling came back into them.
Cautiously, she looked across the fire to the sleeping men. When she heard Frank snore, she was satisfied and stood up as quietly as she could.
With Drifter by her side, she tiptoed away from the camp and into the woods. She hid behind a tree and peeped back to see if they’d moved, but neither of them had stirred at all.
So, with a jubilant feeling of freedom, she knelt beside her dog and wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Oh, Drifter,” she cried softly. “I’m so glad to see you. I missed you so much. I thought you were dead.”
Drifter nuzzled her cheek with his cold wet nose. It felt wonderful but she glanced back towards the camp and knew that they couldn’t prolong their reunion. She had to get as far away from them as she could.
Maddie stood up decisively and put her hand on her dog’s neck, then ran out into the forest.
She ran through bracken and bushes, dodged rocks and logs and finally came to a stop ten minutes later. Looking around, she realized that it all looked the same. One tree looked just like another. She had no idea which way she should be going, except down.
In the dark, everything looked scary, but her dog’s presence built her confidence. With him by her side, the loneliness was gone. Maddie finally had someone to cling to. She looked around her, trying to decide which way she should go. Her father was out there somewhere, looking for her. How was she going to find him in this?
“Which way should I go, Drifter?” she asked in desperation. “I don’t know where Papa is.”
To her right, the slope dropped off dangerously. A wrong step in the dark and she could break her leg, or worse. It was less steep in front of her, but the trees were so thick there that she couldn’t see what lay more than a few feet ahead that way.
She sure couldn’t go back the way she came, so she chose the left. It was a gentler slope and more open so she could see a little.
Drifter walked close by her side as she picked her way carefully through the undergrowth. The silence around her was unnerving but it was better than the strange noises she heard now and then. She recognized the hoot of an owl, though it sounded eerie in the dark lonely forest. There were other sounds that she didn’t know and that made them all the creepier – wings fluttering unexpectedly… a branch falling from a tree for no particular reason other than its succumbing to Mother Nature’s bidding.
It all combined to give her a growing sense of her own vulnerability. As much as she hated to admit it, she was just a little girl and she was hopelessly lost.
One hour later, Maddie’s legs ached and her spirits were down. Footsore and weary, covered in dirt and scratches, she just wanted to sit down and have a good cry. She’d come to a path, but didn’t recognize it at all. She’d thought about following it, but remembered all the paths that had crisscrossed the mountain on their way up and wasn’t sure where it would lead. It might take her away from Papa instead of to him.
She trudged on, unknowingly letting Drifter lead the way. He was still at her side, but he was guiding her with gentle nudges that she was barely aware of.
They came to a rock fall that she was sure she recalled from that awful ride during the day. It blocked yet another path and she had to climb over it very carefully. The rocks were slimy with moss and a missed step would have her tumbling down the mountain.
It was there that Drifter came to a stop. She had no idea why, but he pricked up his ears and looked down into the trees.
“What is it, boy?” she whispered. “Is there something down there?”
The dog whined softly and she clutched the fur on his neck. “Drifter, let’s go. Let’s get away from here. I don’t like it,” she said nervously. But he wouldn’t go. Something had his attention down there and it frightened her.
Instead of going ahead on the path, Drifter pulled her down the hillside. She didn’t want to go. “No, Drifter, not that way,” she insisted quietly, still afraid that the men might hear her. She tried to pull him back, but he seemed determined to investigate what was down there.
But the slope was terribly steep and it was littered with fallen branches, logs and rocks. One slip down there and she might kill herself.
“What’s so important down there?” she asked the dog, almost expecting an answer. When none was forthcoming though, she sighed in irritation and stepped off the track to go with him.
The silence closed in on her and fed her fears. The only sound now was her foot hitting the ground with every tentative step. The bracken ferns were tall and thick here – up to her thighs. She had to sweep them aside to keep going.
They could be hiding all kinds of creatures. She thought of snakes, but found it was a spider web that she walked into first. With her eyes glued to the ground, she didn’t see the spider’s sticky lacework in her way.
It took her by surprise. She gasped and she tried to pull it away from her face and hair in panic. It clung to her like glue and she had to peel it away, bit by bit. Where was the spider? Was it in her hair? Was it on her clothes and she couldn’t see it in the dark? She brushed her hands over everything she could reach but still had the disturbing sensation of something crawling on her.
Drifter had stopped to watch her and wait. Then he whined again and she looked over at him. “This is your fault, Drifter,” she told him curtly. “I hate spiders!”
The dog tilted his head to one side and she was sure he was laughing at her discomfort. With a hesitant step and a deep breath, she went on, only to step into the crushed remains of a decayed log. It felt spongy and weird in the dark and, to her horror, her foot slipped and she dropped onto her backside and started sliding down the hill. Her elbow caught against the bark of a tree as she plummeted passed it. It hurt, but she ignored it and tried to grab the tree to stop her slide.
She missed but her fall lasted only a moment and she went only a few feet. Just the same, it took her breath away again.
Maddie sat in the ferns and waited for a minute to take stock of herself. She lifted her hands and wiped them together to clean off the moist sticky dirt and the bits of moldy leaves that clung to them. Then she checked her elbow. It was nothing really, just a graze that was hardly bleeding at all. The damp ground was cold on her butt and seeping though her clothes and into her bones.
She bit back tears and sighed heavily. She’d been lucky and she knew it. Next time, she might not be. She wished there was someone to help her. In the daylight, everything had been scary but now, in the dark… and there was just her and Drifter… alone…? This strange world was full of things to frighten her half to death.
As if to emphasize the dangers that lurked in the night around her, a huge black thing swept down from the tree in front of her. There was a swoosh of air and a flutter of wings that broke the silence so suddenly that her heart skipped a beat and seemed to jump into her mouth. The thing flew past her, so close that she felt the air beside her move. She ducked down and hid in the ferns, terrified beyond imagination.
She stayed there, frozen to the spot… shivering.
Drifter came to her side and sat down on the cold ground beside her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in the warmth of his fur. His presence was her only comfort, but she wasn’t sure it was enough. She couldn’t bear to think what was out there.
“There’s all kind o’ things out there…Things that eat little girls.” Mike’s taunting words echoed in her mind. She knew he had been trying to scare her, but he was right. She knew that there were cougars and bears in the mountain forests. She knew there were snakes and she certainly knew that there were spiders.
Even the trees seemed to be moving, closing in on her… stalking her.
“Things that eat little girls…” The darkness hid everything from her. There was so little moonlight struggling down through the trees that she could barely see where she was going.
The crickets had started their song again. A frog croaked somewhere and the owl that had frightened her hooted. Maddie cowered in her ferns and thought she couldn’t go any further.
Scott woke again. No, something had woken him. He looked up the slope, but he couldn’t see anything that way. His next thought was to look in other directions but he remembered the horrific pain from the last time he’d tried to move. He was not inclined to try it again.
But he’d have to, sooner or later. He couldn’t just lay there. A sense of his helplessness washed over him. He wasn’t sure what damage he had done to his back, but he knew he couldn’t defend himself in this condition.
Another sound broke into his thoughts. It wasn’t the night sounds he was used to. It was the rustling of bushes, the snap of a breaking twig. Something was moving out there and it was coming in his direction.
Scott steeled himself for the onslaught of pain. He gritted his teeth in preparation and tentatively moved his right arm a little beneath him.
‘Not so bad,’ he thought. He wormed his arm out a little more and cautiously raised himself onto his elbow.
This time, it was bad. He wanted to scream out loud at the searing pain in his back, but instinct kept him from it. Whatever was out there, he couldn’t let it know he was here.
Or did it already know? He didn’t think he was bleeding, but it was possible that he was. He hadn’t even been able to check out his injuries and the smell of blood traveled a long way on the still night air. Anything could have picked it up and come after him.
His gun was strapped to his right side - the side he was lying on. He might eventually be able to reach it, if he could get himself into a sitting position, but that shrieking pain in his back made any sudden movement out of the question.
He straightened his right arm and pressed it hard against the ground to push himself up. The pain in his back was excruciating. Biting down hard on his lip, he closed his eyes against it and kept going. Slowly, he eased himself further upright.
It took what seemed like an age to get there, but with willpower born of absolute necessity, he finally had himself sitting up and leaning his tortured back against the tree. He couldn’t do any more. Sweat poured off his face in the cold night air. His shirt was damp with perspiration and clinging to him like another layer of skin. He wished he had more on than the light coat he always kept with him. This mountain air was far colder than the air down in the valley.
He sat there, panting heavily but trying to keep from breathing too deeply. That was another lesson he’d learned the hard way. The last time he’d taken a deep breath, he’d thought that the pain would surely kill him.
The rustling further up the hillside started again. Whatever was up there was moving slowly in his direction. Scott knew that he couldn’t make a run for it. In fact…
He looked down at his legs. He hadn’t made any attempt to move them yet. What if he couldn’t? He had no idea what he’d done to his back…
His left arm was certainly useless. It was almost completely numb. All he could feel in that arm was a strange tingling sensation in his fingers. He grabbed the arm with his right hand and pulled it close to his side, hoping to relieve some of the throbbing pain in his back. But the movement sucked the air out of his lungs. He gasped aloud and hung his head in frustration.
Well, it had to be now or never… He stared down at his legs and willed them to move. Straightening his right leg first, and then the left, his relief was palpable. They worked and, what was more, it hadn’t hurt anywhere near as badly as he had thought it would.
But there was no way that he was going to be able to get to his feet before whatever was out there reached him. So, with his left arm hugged in tight against his chest, he pulled his pistol from the holster and sat there, waiting.
Maddie didn’t want to go any further. She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them; then she rested her chin on them. She sat there in the ferns and told herself that she should just wait for the sun to come up so that she could see where she was going and what might be in the woods to frighten her.
Drifter had lain down beside her. His head lay on his paws and he looked thoughtful. He seemed to have sensed her panic and was comforting her in the only way he knew how – by being there. She had one hand clutching his fur, desperate to keep him with her… desperate for the reassurance of something familiar.
Then she thought of the men who had taken her. Had they woken up and found her missing? If they had, would they come after her?
Yes, she had no doubt that Mike would be furious to find her gone and would come looking for her. The thought of his catching her again terrified her.
So, how far had she come from the camp? She lifted her head and looked up the mountain. She couldn’t see the light of the fire from here, but she’d taken so many twists and turns that she had no idea where it should be.
No, she had to keep going further. Whatever the risks, she had to take them. She had to try to put more distance between herself and them because there was no telling what Mike might do if he caught her again.
A shiver went down her spine at the thought. There was a cruel streak in him that she feared more than she had ever feared anything in her life.
Suddenly, Maddie gasped and frowned. That ‘knowing’ feeling was back again. She was sure it was Tio who was hurt, though she had never had that sensation about him before. It had always been Papa she sensed… and Celeste once or twice.
She couldn’t ignore it though. It was strong. Tio was in a bad way and… and he was close. She somehow knew that he wasn’t far away. She sensed that he was alone and needed help - her help. She wasn’t sure what she could do, but she could try.
That was what made up her mind. She had to go on.
Putting her hands on the ground, she shakily got to her feet. Drifter looked up at her and got up beside her. Maddie rubbed his head lovingly. “We have to keep going, Drifter,” she whispered. “I hope you know where we are, ‘cause I don’t.”
Once on her feet, she looked down the hill. Drifter wanted her to go that way. He’d made that plain back up on the track. She had no idea why, but she trusted her dog implicitly. That must be the way to go.
She had to force herself to take the first step but, once taken, the next was a lot easier. Brushing aside ferns and bushes so that she could see where she was going without risking another fall, Maddie started down the hill again.
Then she stopped. Something had moved down there. It moved again as she watched. In the dark, it was nothing more than a shadow. She couldn’t make out what it was, but her imagination began to run away with her. She tensed, afraid of what it could be.
But Drifter went on ahead. He was only a pace or two in front of her, but he didn’t seem to be scared of what was down there. He stopped and looked back at her, whined softly and then looked towards the bottom of the slope again.
Maddie caught up with him; then she stopped and peered through the gloom. It was moving again, terribly slowly.
Then, though the silence, she heard a gasp. It wasn’t loud, but the sound traveled on the still air.
It sounded human!
It wasn’t an animal. It was a man down there… a man who was hurt!
“Tio…” she cried out and forgot about the lurking dangers of the forest and the slippery slope of the distance between them. She forgot it all and ran to him.
Scott heard the word and thought his imagination must be playing tricks on him. How was it possible?
But then she cried out “Tio!” a second time and he knew that he wasn’t mistaken. He lowered the gun and slipped it back into his holster, then sat watching her head-long descent through the trees with his heart in his mouth. One wrong step in the dark and she could end up like him!
Drifter reached him before she did. The dog bounded over and greeted him with a face licking that he had never appreciated so much.
“So you found her?” he asked Drifter, half expecting an answer. But the dog’s reply came in the form of excited tail wagging and a few more sloppy licks to the face.
Then she was with him. She practically fell into his lap. She looked up at him and burst into a welter of tears.
“Maddie,” he whispered to her. His voice caught with emotion. He put his right hand on her head and brushed his fingers through her tangled hair. “Oh, God, Maddie… thank God…”
Scott let her cry it out for a few minutes and took the time to look her over. Her clothes were torn and dirty and her hair had escaped the pig tails and was snarled untidily, but she looked like she wasn’t hurt and that was the important thing. She was safe and he’d keep her that way.
“Maddie…?” he began tentatively as her sobbing subsided. “Are you alright? Did they hurt you?”
She sniffed back a few persistent tears and lifted her head. “No, I’m okay. Mike was going to hit me one time but Rat…” She stopped at his name and hiccoughed back another set of tears. “Rat stopped him. That was when he… Mike… he shot him, Tio. I think he killed Rat.”
Scott thought back to the strange little man he’d found lying dead on the small plateau. The man’s face certainly fit the name. “The little man back down the trail?” She nodded and he sighed. “Yes, honey,” he told her sadly. “He’s dead.”
“He wasn’t as bad as the others,” she whispered and lowered her head. “And he was trying to protect me from Mike.”
“He’s mean, Tio. He’s a really bad man.”
Scott thought that he would like to meet up with Mike, bad back or not. It would be a real pleasure to show the man what it was like to take on someone his own size.
“He shot Drifter, too… and Papa.” She looked desperately at Scott. “He did shoot Papa, didn’t he?”
“Yes, but he’s fine,” Scott hurried to reassure her. “Last time I saw him, he was sitting on the ground, angry with himself for even coming off his horse. The bullet just grazed his head, and you know how hard his head is.” He smiled at her and was greeted with a small smile back.
“I was worried about him, Tio,” she admitted. “And about you. You’re hurt, too, aren’t you? I don’t know what Mike did, but he hurt you didn’t he?”
Scott sighed. “Now, why would you be worried about me?”
“Because I knew you were hurt…” She sat up and looked at him. “I knew…”
He frowned, surprised. “You knew? That I was hurt?”
She nodded shyly and he was moved. He thought back to the night her great grandmother, the Señora, had died. Scott had always been grateful for the turn of fate that had allowed him to meet the lady. She’d tried to explain so many things in the short time he’d been with her but, mostly, she had tried to tell him about Maddie’s ‘gift’.
“In my family, there have been many who are sensitive to the hurts of those we care about,” she had told him that night. “When someone close to me is hurt or in trouble, I have always known it…”
And Maddie had inherited it. But she had never ‘known’ when he was in trouble before. It had always been Johnny.
“Someone close to me... those we care about…” The words kept coming back to him. Scott was touched, beyond measure, that Maddie felt strongly enough about him to sense his pain.
“I knew Papa was hurt, but then later… well…” She shrugged casually. “I just knew it wasn’t Papa this time. It was you. And I was right, wasn’t I? Are you hurt, Tio?”
He sighed again. “Well, I have to say that I have been better, Maddie.” But he wasn’t about to frighten her by letting her know just how bad he felt. “How did you get away from them?”
“They tied me up - my hands anyway. Mike tied my hands behind a tree, then he and Frank went to sleep. Then Drifter found me.”
“He’s been tracking you all day,” Scott told her. Drifter was sitting by his side, close to both him and Maddie. Scott rubbed his good hand on the dog’s head affectionately.
“I thought he was dead.”
“I know,” Scott said sadly. “We did, too. Good thing for us that he wasn’t.”
“He pulled on the ropes with his teeth and they came loose,” she explained further. “Then I sneaked out of the camp while they were sleeping.”
“Then they don’t know you’re gone?”
“I don’t know,” she told him. “They were asleep when I left, but I don’t know if they still are. I just ran into the woods and kept running. I fell down one time.” She pointed up the hillside. “Just up there. I hurt my elbow, but it’s alright now.”
She sniffed back another wave of tears. “I was lost. I just kept running but I didn’t know where to go.” She shivered. “I was scared, Tio. It was so dark and I didn’t know where I was... and I was all alone – except for Drifter… and I walked into a spider web!”
“Oh, no! Not spiders too?” he asked with a suitably horrified expression.
“It was awful!” she insisted, shivering. “I don’t like spiders.”
“No, I don’t much like spiders either,” he confessed, biting back a smile. “I’m sure glad you found me, Honey.”
She shook her head. “No, it was Drifter who found you. He brought me down here to you.”
“I think I’ll have to find the biggest, juiciest bone on the ranch for Drifter when we get home.”
She smiled at last and threw her arm around the dog’s neck proudly. “He’s smart, isn’t he?”
“Maddie, if that dog got up and danced a jig – right now – I don’t think it would surprise me.” She laughed and he grinned merrily at her. “Yes, he’s the smartest dog I know.”
But she went quiet then. When she spoke again, her words shocked him.
“Rat’s dead because of me.”
Scott put the fingers of his good hand under her chin and tilted her head up till he was looking straight into her eyes. “No, it’s not your fault, Maddie. None of this is your fault. Your ‘friend’ Rat was just as involved in taking you away from us as the others, even if he didn’t seem to be as bad as them. They’re the ones to blame for his death – not you.”
Tears welled in her eyes again. She nodded.
He looked into her dirt smeared face and smiled at her. “You know, you have so much dirt on your face that you could make a mud pie with those tears,” he teased her. “I wasn’t even sure it was really you under there.”
Maddie tried to smile back at him, but didn’t have much to give it. She wiped her sleeve across her face to try to clean the dirt off. “Auntie Teresa’s gonna be real mad at me for spoiling my new shirt.”
“No, I don’t think anyone’s going to be mad at you this time, Maddie,” he assured her. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see anyone.”
“Me too,” she agreed, smiling a little this time.
She took some time to survey him properly. “Your arm is bleeding,” she said, reaching up to touch his left arm gently. “Does it hurt?”
He looked down at the arm and saw that she was right. There was a gash in his forearm that was slowly oozing blood, but he couldn’t feel anything. The whole arm was numb. “No, Maddie, it doesn’t hurt.”
She scowled at him. “Well, it needs a bandage. You can’t leave it like that.” Maddie pulled her shirt out of her overalls and tore away the bottom couple of inches, then she reached over and lifted his arm to wrap it.
The movement sent a scream of pain through Scott’s back and he gasped loudly. “No… no, just leave it, Maddie,” he managed to say as he tried in vain to control the pain. This time, he was able to tell where it had started.
“You said it didn’t hurt,” she accused him, still holding his arm, but very gently.
“The arm doesn’t hurt… it’s my back.”
Maddie’s eyes widened, and then softened. “I’m sorry, Tio,” she said quietly, but added firmly, “but you can’t leave your arm like this. I’ll be very careful.”
Slowly the pain eased. If he stayed still, he could control it.
Amused at her determination, but still nervous, he let her have her way. Maddie cautiously wrapped the makeshift bandage around his arm. “Now, put your finger right there, Tio,” she said, pointing to the loose ends.
He smiled and did as she told him. “Tear it down the middle…”
Maddie frowned severely at him. “I can do it,” she insisted petulantly. “I’ve seen Auntie Teresa do it lots of times.”
With that, she ripped the piece of cloth and tied it off securely, and then gently lowered his arm back by his side. “There!”
“Thank you, Maddie,” Scott said with exaggerated politeness that had her giving him a quizzical look. “No, really,” he continued seriously. “I couldn’t have done it myself.”
Maddie looked back up the hill and then back at Scott. “Tio, do you think those men are looking for me?”
The thought had already occurred to Scott. It was very possible that they were aware that she had escaped by now. He was certain that they would look for her. They’d gone to a lot of trouble to take her and they had a lot of money riding on her.
“They might be,” he admitted. “We shouldn’t stay out here in the open. We’d better look for somewhere to hide for the night.”
Scott knew what he would have to do. He would have to get up and walk. If the kidnappers came looking for Maddie, he wasn’t sure how much protection he would be able to give her. But the thought of moving sent shivers down his spine. He was pretty sure that he had pin-pointed the source of his agony. While he sat still he could manage the throbbing pain in his shoulder but, if he moved at all, the pain radiated from the left side of his back.
He was almost certain that slamming into that massive pine tree had broken his shoulder blade.
“Do you think you can get up, Tio?” Maddie asked anxiously. She knew that the gash on his arm wasn’t responsible for the feeling that had reached her earlier. She was sure there was something more serious wrong. If his back was badly hurt, he wouldn’t be able to go very far.
And she didn’t know how to help.
“Sure, I can,” he assured her. “Just give me a minute, Honey.”
Maddie watched him closely while he gritted his teeth and leaned back against the trunk of the tree. She moved away enough to give him some room to stand up, but she realized that he would be in a lot of pain when he started to move.
She felt totally inadequate.
He put his good hand on the ground, bent one leg and pushed himself slowly to his feet. He groaned, though Maddie was certain he had tried his best not to. It was a sure indication of how bad the pain must be. She had not been fooled by his cheery conversation. She knew that Tio had been trying to reassure her.
He need not have worried. His very presence was enough to make her feel better. With him beside her, she wasn’t alone any more and that counted for more that she could tell him.
With all her heart, she wished that they could stay where they were and just wait for Papa to find them in the morning. It would spare him the torture of moving. But she knew that he was right. They wouldn’t be safe, here in the open - not if Mike and Frank were to find them.
Scott was on his feet, panting heavily and grimacing against the pain in his back. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead, shining brightly in the weak strand of moonlight that had threaded its way down between the branches overhead.
Maddie stood up and walked over to his side.
“It’s okay, Maddie,” he said, still breathing hard. She could see that he was trying to fight off pain. “I’ll be fine in a minute.”
She wasn’t so confident. He looked awful, now that she could see his face better. Her stomach knotted as she watched him struggle to get control of his breathing. Drifter was suddenly at her side and she ran her fingers idly through the fur of his neck, her eyes still glued on Scott.
She gave him his minute… and then a couple more. By then he had his breathing under control and he peeled himself away from the support of the tree.
“Okay, time to go, Maddie,” he said at last. She thought he looked a little better now, but she knew it wouldn’t last. They had to find somewhere close by to hide. He wouldn’t be able to travel far.
“You can lean on me, Tio,” Maddie told him. She wasn’t silly enough to think that she could support him properly, but she would do what she could.
“Thank you, honey,” he answered quietly. “But I can manage.”
He looked around him. “Which way, Tio?” she asked anxiously.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” he admitted with a wry smile.
“You lost too?”
“Yeah, a little. Why don’t you decide which way?”
Maddie looked in one direction and then another, remembering her plan to head downhill. The trouble was, heading downhill with her uncle badly hurt might be a lot more difficult. Besides, what they needed, for now, was shelter and she had no idea where to find it.
The trees all looked the same. They seemed to be closing in on her… mocking her.
She frowned and turned her face up to Scott’s. “You got a penny, Tio?” she asked.
Scott chuckled. “Heads or tails, huh?”
She smiled and shrugged. “Guess so.”
“Well, I have a penny, but I think we’d lose it in the dark. How about you pick a direction and we’ll see where it goes. Okay?”
“Okay, then we go that way.” She pointed to her left on impulse. She figured it was as good a way as any at this point.
“That way it is,” he agreed with a light-hearted smile. “Lead on, Maddie.”
He took a step and stopped. Maddie heard him suck in a breath quickly and he pulled his left arm close to his side. He stood there for a moment; then he started forward again.
Maddie went with him this time. “Watch your step,” she warned him quickly. The ground was steep and uneven. One missed step would be painful for him, but if he were to fall…
Walking closely beside him, she watched the ground ahead of them for anything that might trip him up – logs, rocks, even patches of moss. Drifter walked ahead, but kept stopping and turning back to check their progress.
They walked through the forest that way for half an hour without a word between them – Maddie not wanting to distract him and Scott concentrating on staying on his feet.
As the moon rose higher over the mountain, what little there was of it, it struggled through the trees and salted the ground with patches of light. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing and Maddie soon found that her eyes had adjusted to the darkness so that she could see small obstacles in front of them.
She heard a grunt beside her and turned to see Scott leaning heavily against a tree. She stopped and hurried to his side. “Are you alright, Tio?”
“Sure,” he said quickly - too quickly for Maddie’s liking. His panting was heavy with pain. She wasn’t fooled.
“Sure, Maddie,” he repeated and pushed himself away from the tree. “Come on, let’s get going.”
“Maybe we should rest a while,” she suggested uneasily.
“No, I’m alright. Let’s go.” But his first step was onto a rock, embedded in the ground and covered with moss that was damp from the night air. He slipped and started to fall.
Maddie grabbed for him just in time to help him to recover his balance, but the slip tore a gasp from him that wrenched her heart.
“Do you want to sit for a minute, Tio?” she asked anxiously.
“No,” he answered painfully. His good arm was wrapped around his chest and holding his left arm until his knuckles were white. He stood up cautiously and wavered unsteadily. “I don’t think I could get up again if I sat down now.”
He was on one knee, breathing heavily.
“But you’re hurting. You should rest.”
He forced the smallest of smiles. “I’ll rest when we find somewhere to hide out for the night, Maddie. Don’t worry about me. I can manage.”
Maddie was far from convinced, but she didn’t argue with him. She knew enough about the Lancer men now to know that they were all as stubborn as each other.
Instead, she waited for him to move again, sticking close to his side.
They set off again, slowly and carefully. She watched the ground in front of them, thrusting aside the tall ferns that grew so thick on this part of the mountain, all the while taking a surreptitious peek at Scott when she thought he wouldn’t notice. It wasn’t long before she felt the light touch of his hand on her shoulder.
He was beginning to need her support and was finding it harder to keep his balance. Maddie could tell by the way his steps were becoming more and more unsteady. Once again, she wished that she were bigger and more capable of helping him.
If he should fall, she knew that she wouldn’t be able to get him back up again. As much as she hated it, she knew she had to keep him going until they found themselves a refuge.
She glanced up at him and saw grim determination etched into his face. His teeth were gritted tightly together and he frowned as he put one foot slowly in front of the other.
His hand got heavier on her shoulder as they trudged on through the woods. Then, with no warning, his hand slid off her shoulder and he sank to his knees.
“Tio,” she cried out and dropped down beside him. Sitting so close, she could see that his face was covered in sweat. His hair was wet and plastered to his face and his skin was ashen. It was all she could do to keep tears from washing down her cheeks.
“Maddie,” he whispered, his chest heaving with every breath. “I… I think you’re going to… to have to go on without me.”
But she shook her head defiantly. “No, I’m not leaving you.” She draped her arm lightly around his shoulders, aware of his injury and very careful not to aggravate it any more than it had been already. He was trembling under her touch. “We’re in this together, Tio. Let me help you.”
Scott turned to look at her and tried to smile. He didn’t quite succeed. “You’re a good girl, Maddie. Just give me a minute to get my breath.”
His shivering subsided while she held him. Then he raised himself onto one knee, but no further. Maddie stood up. She took his good arm in one hand and put her arm around his waist. She put everything she had into helping him to get to his feet and, between them, they managed it.
“Thanks, honey,” he murmured, wobbling a little on his feet. “We’d better get going.”
“Are you sure you’re ready?”
He nodded. “Ready as I’ll ever be,” he answered slowly.
Maddie looked around them. They were walking towards a cliff face. It loomed ahead of them through the trees. With any luck, they might find a cave there, though she had her doubts. If not, they would have to use whatever they could find. Scott was not going to be able to go much further.
She put his hand back on her shoulder and her arm around his waist. Even though she was tall for her age, Maddie only reached a little above his belt. It was a stretch to get her arm around him.
He took a faltering step and groaned, then straightened up and took another step. Slowly… laboriously… he made his way beside her.
Then, through a gap in the trees, she saw it. It wasn’t exactly a cave – only an overhang – a ledge of rock that jutted out from the hillside and hid a nook that would be just big enough for them. It wasn’t much, but it was close and it would provide cover and a hiding place.
“Look, Tio!” she exclaimed. “That will do us, won’t it?”
He squinted and peered ahead of him and she began to be afraid that he hadn’t understood her.
But he had. He was still aware of what was going on around him. “Yes…”
She tightened her hold on him. “It’s not far, Tio,” she whispered encouragingly. “You can make it.”
He didn’t answer, just nodded and kept walking forward.
Frank woke to a familiar and urgent stirring in his loins. ‘Damn this cold mountain air!’ he thought.
He unwrapped the blanket that he had wound around him and threw it back in annoyance. He shivered and rubbed his hands up and down his arms, and then he stood up and walked off into the bushes to relieve himself.
Coming back into the camp, he stirred the dying embers of the fire and threw on another log from the small pile of firewood he’d collected when they set up camp. It took a while to catch, but it finally started to give off some warmth.
He held his palms close to the flame, and then rubbed them together. Maybe he could bring his bedroll a little closer. There were a few hours left till sun up and the worst of the cold was still to come. The air got cold up here at night but, just before dawn, the temperature would plummet.
A loud snore broke the quiet of the night and Frank looked over to where Mike was sleeping. He looked awful harmless – sound asleep like that, but Frank knew better. He’d known it long before Mike had killed Rat.
Mike was good looking enough to have his pick of the ladies. He had a smile that could charm the hardest of them. Outwardly, he could pass for a real nice guy.
But Frank had seen the man kill in cold blood, with that same charming smile still on his face. It sent a shiver down his spine to think about it. Frank was no babe in the woods when it came to killing, but he didn’t enjoy it – not like Mike did.
Well, when this was over, they’d have enough money to last them a lifetime. Frank would go his own way then. He had plans and they didn’t include his partner. Maybe he’d get himself a nice little ranch some place, or maybe a saloon. With that kind of money, the whole world was an option. He’d be happy if he never laid eyes on Mike Levie again.
He looked over towards their meal ticket and jumped to his feet.
Frank ran over to where Mike was sleeping and kicked him awake. Mike rolled over and groaned as he started to wake.
“What the hell…?” he growled. He scowled as he blinked and adjusted his eyes to the light. “You lookin’ for a bullet between your eyes, Frank?”
“Who?” But then it dawned on him.
Mike sat up. He looked over to where he’d tied her to the tree. It wasn’t possible… but it was true… She was gone.
Frank Munro stood by, quietly watching his companion throw what could only be called a temper tantrum. Mike stormed across the camp to where he had left the girl tied to the tree. He bent down and picked up the discarded piece of rope and then threw it down in the dirt in disgust.
“How the hell did she get loose?” Levie raged. He swung a booted foot at the tree in his fury. “I tied her myself – good an’ tight.”
‘Sure you did,’ Frank thought, but he wasn’t stupid enough to say it out loud. He valued his life far too much to do that.
Frank had seen Mike in this mood before and he was like a loaded shotgun with a hair trigger when this sort of rage overtook him. Anything could set him off and you just didn’t want to be in his line of fire when it did.
“She’s just a little kid. No way she got outa this by herself. She had to have had help!” Mike growled viciously. He looked around at the ground, then he stopped and crouched low on his heels to look closely.
“Find something?” Frank asked cautiously.
“Yeah,” Mike answered tersely. “A paw print – right here in the dirt. It’s that damned dog again.” He stood up and stormed off into the woods leaving Frank with a smirk on his face that he was confident that Mike wouldn’t see.
‘Yeah, the dog untied her!’ Frank thought sarcastically.
“Shoulda put a bullet in that damned dog’s brain when I had the chance,” Levie ranted. He strode out of the forest and past Frank.
‘Not like you didn’t try… an’ missed…’ Frank’s mind ticked over.
Mike stopped and turned around to glare savagely at Frank. Frank froze. He hadn’t said it out loud… he was sure of it. Mike couldn’t have heard him thinking!
“You got somethin’ to say? Mike sneered at him.
“No… no nothin’!” Frank told him quickly.
“Well, she can’t have gone very far.”
“I’ll get the horses saddled, Mike,” Frank offered meekly.
“No, we’ll walk. Might as well in those trees. The horses won’t be no good in there… just slow us up,” Mike said sourly. “She won’t be far away. Probably huddled under a tree some place – scared of the dark.”
Frank seriously doubted that – not this kid. He hadn’t seen her shed a tear all day, and she had had every right to be scared out of her wits.
Johnny Madrid’s kid! Well, he’d heard that Madrid had ice water in his veins instead of blood. It looked like his kid was made of the same stuff.
Damn! How the hell had he gotten himself into this mess? Of all the kids in the world to choose from, why did Mike have to pick Madrid’s kid? He’d told them that it would be the easiest money they’d ever made. Now, here they were - cold, the kid gone and Rat dead…
And Madrid and his men still on their trail. Yeah… easy money…
Maddie did all she could to help her uncle lower himself gingerly to the ground but, at the last moment, he just fell to his knees. He gasped, grabbed his left arm and moaned lightly as Maddie helped him to lie down.
She looked around her. Drifter was painstakingly sniffing the ground just outside the little grotto. The trees grew high and thick, but there was a gap in front of the cavern that opened into a small thicket where the moonlight gleamed silver off the rocks. There were bracken ferns that grew nearly as tall as the dog, so they’d be hidden from view if they stayed low.
There wasn’t much doubt that Scott would stay down. He had only made it this far on sheer willpower; Maddie was certain of it. His last stumbling steps had been frightening. She’d been terrified that they had gotten so close to a hidey hole and now he might falter and fall. There would have been little she could have done to get him back up. But he had made it.
‘Cavern’ was probably an exaggeration in describing the little nook they’d found. A narrow rocky ledge jutted out a few feet over their heads and, on either side, the cliff curved around them to hide them from view. It was shelter, but not much more.
In a corner, down at the end where Scott’s feet lay, there was a tiny trickle of water tinkling down the rock face and running in a rivulet out past the wall and down the side of the mountain. It was the only sound around them… except for Scott’s agonized breathing.
Maddie sat down beside him and looked him over. The bandage on his arm was stained with blood, dirt and grass stains, but it was holding. His eyes were closed but droplets of sweat were streaming down his face and onto the dirt floor of their refuge. His breaths came in ragged gasps, his hair was wet and his shirt clung to him as though he’d been caught in heavy rain.
Her heart went out to him, but she wasn’t sure what she could do to help him.
The water! She stood up and stepped over his legs, then cupped her hands under the little dribble of water running down the wall. It was icy cold on her fingers. She pulled her hands out and rubbed them together, then slipped them back under the water and washed away some of the encrusted grime on her hands.
Satisfied, she put one handful of the water to her mouth and sipped it. It was cold and sweet, not like the rank tepid water from Rat’s canteen. This was pure mountain water and it was good.
She cupped her hand under the water again, keeping her fingers as tightly closed as she could. Even with all her care and precautions, much of it dribbled out of her hand as she stepped back over Scott and hurried back to him.
Kneeling on the ground beside him, she tapped his shoulder very gently with her free hand. He opened his eyes on her… gray blue eyes that were haunted by pain.
“I’ve got some water,” she whispered to him. “Can you lift your head?”
“Water?” he asked, confused. “Where?”
“There’s a little trickle over on the wall,” she explained briefly. “I couldn’t get much in my hand… it’s all I could get…”
He lifted his head off the ground and she slipped her free hand behind his neck to help, then she dribbled the water into his mouth. It seemed so little, but he swallowed it and licked his lips eagerly.
“I’ll get some more,” she said excitedly. She finally felt as though she was doing something to help him. She lowered his head carefully and made another trip to the miniscule waterfall, then hurried back before she lost too much of it.
Helping him to drink it again, she was ready to make another trip but he shook his head. “No, that’s fine, Maddie. Thanks…”
“I can get more, Tio,” she said enthusiastically.
“No, but thanks,” he murmured. “Stay here.” He sighed heavily and moved his head to look around them. Drifter was down on the ground now, watching the forest glade carefully. He seemed to have taken up guard duty without being asked.
Scott looked at her and sighed heavily again. He was barely hanging onto consciousness – battling a devastating combination of dizziness, nausea and pain. The realization that he wouldn’t be able to protect Maddie if the need arose rubbed against his integrity. He was the adult. His was the duty of care for this child. And not just any child – this little girl was his niece… his brother’s adored daughter.
But, try as he might to stay awake for her, he knew he had to face reality. He knew he would lose consciousness soon.
He made a decision.
Closing his eyes and concentrating, Scott rolled onto his right side and raised himself on his good elbow, his left arm held uselessly against his left. “Maddie,” he said quietly. “Help me with my gunbelt, will you? Can you unbuckle it and pull it off?”
She carefully did as he asked and slipped the belt from around his waist, then put it down beside him.
“Good girl,” he told her. “Now, I want you to listen to me carefully. Do you know how to use a gun?”
Maddie’s eyes widened in alarm and she shook her head vehemently. “No! I’m not allowed…”
Scott took her hand in his and squeezed it to reassure her. “It’s alright, honey. I know you’re not allowed to handle a gun. But I… I don’t know how long I can stay… stay awake to protect you.”
Her eyes dropped away from his and he knew that she had already come to the same conclusion. Once again, he felt a terrible sense of guilt, but he had to face the situation squarely.
Maddie nodded sadly and he pressed her hand gently. “Your father will kill me for teaching you this, but I can’t leave you unprotected, Maddie.” He stopped to catch his breath. Even thinking clearly was becoming difficult. “If… if you can’t wake me, I want you to be able to use this gun yourself. Do you understand?”
She nodded again, reluctantly he thought.
“Good girl,” he told her proudly. “Now, take the gun from the holster. Do you know how to aim and fire it?”
Maddie frowned. “Not really. I’ve watched Papa practice sometimes, but he draws and fires so quickly that it’s kind of a blur,” she told him naively.
Scott smiled. “Yeah, I guess it is. Fortunately, we don’t all need to be that fast.” He watched her wrap her small hand around the grip and slide the gun from the holster. Unused to the weight, she balanced the barrel with her other hand. “Alright, first thing, sweetheart… point it away from me…” he told her with a mischievous grin.
He’d hoped it would lighten the mood for her and her smile hinted that it had. She turned away from him and pointed the weapon out into the darkness.
“To aim it, you line the front sight with the one just above the hammer.” With both hands now on the grip, she hefted the gun up in front of her face and tried aiming it.
“Do you see what I mean?” he asked.
“Yessir,” she answered hesitantly.
“Now, to fire it, you pull back the hammer with your thumb – all the way… till it locks in place…” He watched her do as he told her. “That’s good. Don’t do it now, but all you have to do then is to gently squeeze the trigger.”
She nodded, her hands shaking under the weight and a healthy respect for the weapon in her hands.
“Alright, to make it safe again, just pull back on the hammer a little to unlock it and let it slowly go back into place.” He held his breath as he watched her uncock the pistol. “Think you can do it?”
“It’s easy really I guess, Tio,” she told him, still holding it out in front of her.
“Yeah, too easy,” he answered sadly. “Now, put it back in the holster.” With immense relief, he watched her as she lowered the gun and pushed it back into the holster. “Good girl, now listen to me, Maddie,” he demanded of her. “I want you to use this as a last resort. Only… only if there’s no other way.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“You hide if you can, Maddie,” he persisted. “Don’t stay here for me.”
He was breathing hard and closed his eyes to force back the waves of pain that accompanied every breath he took.
Maddie shook her head defiantly. “No… I won’t leave you, Tio.”
Opening his eyes again, he looked into hers – big, brown eyes that were heavy with concern for him. “I want you to promise me, Maddie,” he said slowly and carefully. “If you see them coming, I want you to hide if you can. Only use that gun if there’s no other way.”
“I won’t let them hurt you,” she cried. “No…”
“Yes, Maddie, please. I don’t want you getting caught again. Leave me if you have to,” he insisted. “Promise me.”
Tears welled in her eyes… tears that he didn’t even have the strength to wipe away for her. “Maddie… chica… please, promise me. If those men come, you’ll hide if you can.”
Maddie sniffed back the tears and nodded halfheartedly. “Si, Tio,” she whispered, then wiped her wet cheeks with the back of her hand.
Relief drifted over him like a cooling breeze. “Good girl,” he murmured, feeling his strength ebbing away rapidly. His head felt too heavy to hold up any longer and his chin dropped onto his chest. His breaths came in slow, heavy pants and his eyelids fell under their leaden weight.
Scott slid his right elbow up and lowered his head onto it. It was not exactly a soft pillow on a warm bed but, at least, he was more comfortable that way. He could breathe more easily and he was tired… so tired.
Forcing his eyelids up again took more out of him than he thought he had to give, but his need to be strong for Maddie drove him on. He opened his eyes slowly, taking some time to allow the mist shrouding and distorting her to clear and his eyes to focus.
Maddie hadn’t moved. She was right where she had been, still holding the gunbelt. She was fingering the buckle nervously, but her eyes were on him. She was shivering.
He hoped it was the night air. Suddenly, he was aware of how cold it was. He hadn’t noticed it during that desperate hike through the forest. His only thought then had been how to stay on his feet. But now, with the damp earth beneath him, he could feel the cold seeping into his bones.
“Cold?” he asked, his voice hoarse. She didn’t even have a jacket. ‘She must be freezing!’ he thought.
Well, if he couldn’t protect her from danger, he could sure do something about the cold. He tried to push himself up, but he couldn’t get more than an inch or so off the ground before his elbow went out from under him.
“Give me a hand, Maddie,” he asked her, annoyed and frustrated by his weakness. “Help me up.”
“No, you should lay still, Tio,” she told him firmly. “Rest a while.”
“My jacket,” he whispered urgently. “You’re cold.”
Maddie put her hand gently on his shoulder. “No, Tio,” she insisted. “You’re hurt. You need to stay warm. I’m not cold.”
He ground his teeth in aggravation. Useless… he felt utterly useless, but there was nothing he could do about it – and he knew it. “Of course you are,” he told her angrily. Then he stopped. He hadn’t meant to vent his frustration on her.
He sighed. “I’m sorry, Maddie,” he told her quietly. “But I know you must be cold. I am too. Here, put that gunbelt over there and curl up next to me. We can keep each other warm.”
“If I had matches, I could make a fire. Then we could both be warm,” she told him. “But I don’t know how to light one without matches.”
“I’ll teach you when we get home,” he promised her with an attempt at a smile. “But it’s probably better that we don’t have one tonight.”
She nodded. “I guess Mike and Frank might see it.”
He curled his arm under his head again. “Come on, snuggle in and get warm.”
Maddie put the gun and belt where she figured she could reach it if she needed to and then laid down next to her uncle. She was trembling with cold. Her hand brushed against Scott’s arm as she tried to get comfortable. It was like ice.
“You poor kid,” he said sadly. “You’ve had a rough time of it, haven’t you?”
“I’m okay,” she assured him, scooching in close to him.
“Get in close and put your hands under your armpits. They’ll be warmer that way.”
She edged in closer and did as he suggested.
“And don’t go shooting at anything that moves, Maddie. If you have to use that gun, you make sure you can see what you’re firing at.”
“Si… yes, Tio,” she whispered between chattering teeth. “But I sure hope I don’t have to use it.”
“Me, too, Maddie,” he sighed. “Me too.”
They were silent for a moment, both lost in their own thoughts and fears. The night sounds that had been so ominously missing returned. Cicada and cricket songs trilled around them. An owl hooted nearby and somewhere, far off, a coyote howled.
“Tio?” she whispered.
“Papa won’t kill you for teaching me to use the gun.”
Scott managed a smile that she couldn’t see. “No, I know he won’t.”
“But he sure won’t like it…”
Mike Levie’s patience was wearing mighty thin… no – it was gone. He’d been scouring those damned woods for nearly an hour for that rotten brat of a kid and still there was no sign of her. He’d had enough. When he caught up with her, he’d give her a real hiding this time. He’d molly-coddled her for way too long.
“She can’t have gone far,” he growled at Frank for the umpteenth time. There was no answer. Frank’s silence was also getting on his nerves.
He had no doubt that Frank blamed him for the kid getting loose, but the man hadn’t said one word about it. No, Mike just wished the guy would go ahead and complain so he’d have an excuse to go for him.
Right now, Mike didn’t much care who he laid into… just as long as he could take out some of his frustration on someone.
His foot slipped, again. Moss… he cursed without restraint and regained his footing, then turned to see if Frank was grinning. He almost hoped that he was. That would be a good enough reason to take a swing at him and release some of the rage that was simmering inside him.
They should have found the kid by now. The stupid brat was probably running in circles. He, on the other hand, knew exactly where he was. He knew this mountain well. That shack that they had been heading for had made a good hide-out for them on a number of occasions over the years. And they had been annoyingly close to the shack. They hadn’t had more than an hour’s ride left when they had been forced to stop for the night – not far but the trail was too treacherous to risk in the dark.
He heard Frank curse behind him and turned to see him flat on his back. Damn! It was dangerous even walking this slimy slope in the dark. He watched as Frank tried to get to his feet, slipped and stumbled again. Mike actually grinned. Hell, he nearly laughed at the stupid look on his partner’s face.
“You gonna sit on your butt all night?” he asked cruelly.
“Yeah, well, this ain’t gettin’ us nowhere, Mike,” Frank answered as he successfully got to his feet this time. He slipped a little again before he grabbed the trunk of the nearest pine to get his balance. “Maybe we oughta just cut our losses an’ get outa here before sunup.”
The grin on Levie’s face cracked and fell away. “You wanta just give up on five thousand dollars?”
“Hell, Mike, for all we know she’s gone over a cliff or somethin’. Maybe busted a leg or been bit by a snake. We ain’t gonna find her stumblin’ ‘round in the dark like this.”
“After all the trouble she’s put us to, I reckon we’ve earned that money! Nope, I ain’t quittin’… not me,” Mike told him furiously. “An’ not you neither. We’re gonna get that kid back an’ get ourselves a payday like we ain’t never seen before.”
“Won’t be much of a payday if we don’t get outa here before Madrid shows up.”
“Just get movin’. She’ll head downhill an’ she’ll be tired an’ scared. My bet is we’ll find her cowerin’ behind some tree somewhere real soon. I reckon she’ll be glad we found her, instead o’ leavin’ her out in the dark.” He shook his head again. “Nope, we ain’t givin’ up on this.”
Levie stormed off, leaving Frank to catch up as best he could. He’d gone too far to turn his back on that money now.
He tightened his grip on the rifle in his hand. No one was getting in the way of his plans… no one.
Maddie stirred slowly. Her first thought was how warm she was… blissfully warm… with a soft fluffy blanket over her. Then she felt the hard earth beneath her and opened her eyes. Something had disturbed her, but she wasn’t sure what.
It took her a moment to remember where she was. The soft, warm blanket turned out to be Drifter, lying by her side; and then she realized that Tio was asleep at her other side.
She lay there drowsily, not quite comfortable, but wonderfully warm. Then she remembered what had woken her. A low rumbling growl vibrated through her dog’s body and pulsed against her own.
Maddie started up quickly and leaned on her elbow. Once her eyes focused properly, she could see surprisingly well.
Drifter was staring out into the ferns, his muscles tensed and his hackles raised ominously. She peered into the darkness to see if she could see what was bothering him, but there was nothing there. Everything was so still. The only sounds in the night were Drifter’s growl and her own heart thudding against her chest.
Then she understood.
No sounds… no owls hooting… no cicadas or crickets… nothing…
They were out there somewhere – Mike and Frank. They’d found her.
No - they’d found them! Tio! Mike would kill him without hesitation. Maddie was sure of it. “Tio!” she whispered urgently. “Tio! Wake up!”
She nudged him delicately, careful of his injured shoulder, but it was to no avail. She took her eyes off the glade to glance down at him. He was so still. She touched his forehead and found it warm. No wonder she had been so warm sleeping by his side.
“Tio, I think they’ve found us…”
Then she heard a noise and froze. It shattered the silence around her like glass. It was little more than a gentle rustling of fronds in the thicket, but it was close… very close…
She held her breath. Her fingers sought and found Scott’s shirt and clenched around it, savoring the security she felt from his presence.
Slowly, Maddie turned her head and scanned the ferns for movement – something to give form to her fears and take away the preternatural mood that hung on the air.
But she couldn’t see anything – nothing but the fronds of the tall bracken and the shadows thrown by the huge trees. If it was Mike or Frank, surely she’d see them?
She pulled on the piece of shirt in her hand. Without looking away from the glade, she whispered again, frantically. “Tio, please,” she pleaded. “Something is out there.”
A quick glance back at Scott showed her that he still hadn’t woken. Drifter’s growl had become more persistent. He was crouched low and snarled angrily, his teeth bared while he stared off into the bushes.
Then the ferns rustled again. It couldn’t be Frank or Mike. The ferns weren’t tall enough to hide them.
Suddenly, she caught a glimpse of fur, only a few feet away from them.
The fronds parted.
Maddie gasped. She was face to face with a pair of dark feline eyes.
Maddie had never seen a cougar, but she knew that that was exactly what she was looking at. It stood perfectly still, with only its face showing through the bracken – the slightest of frowns creasing its massive brow as it saw her.
Terrified, she froze while her brain tried to take in what she was seeing.
It was only a few feet away… so close that she could look right into its eyes, almost black in the darkness. Its muzzle was white and its jaw hung slightly open, giving her a glimpse of a pink tongue and a flash of terrible white teeth.
She couldn’t think straight. Those eyes held her, mesmerizing her. She held her breath as the cat lifted one massive paw and stepped forward slowly. Its head and shoulders emerged from the bracken with only the very slightest of rustling of leaves.
Maddie could feet its eyes boring into her. She felt a shiver go through her body, but she slowly let her breath out and tried to get her brain working. What should she do?
The cougar was close enough to see quite clearly in the shafted moonlight. Its fur was a golden color, with darker shading on its ears and white on its powerful chest. While it wasn’t as tall as Drifter, she could see immense strength in its muscular body. Its paws were huge, and the strong stout legs made Drifter’s legs look like matchsticks.
It looked like a huge cat, but this was no kitty to play around with. She’d heard enough stories about them to know how dangerous it was. She knew that they could bring down horses and cattle easily, even a man if they had a mind to.
Drifter growled. He was still crouched on the ground, but he made to move. “No, Drifter,” she whispered firmly and quickly. “Stay, Boy, stay…” Some instinct told her not to make any sudden moves and she had to make sure that Drifter did the same.
Slowly… ever so carefully… she released her grip on Scott’s shirt and sat up straight. He hadn’t stirred and she hoped that, if he did wake now, he wouldn’t make any sound or sudden moves to frighten the cat.
But Maddie didn’t think that he would wake up yet, not when she hadn’t been able to rouse him already. She thought that it was much more likely that his injuries had taken their toll of him and he was unconscious. It put everything in her hands. It was up to her to protect them both.
It was a frightening thought - not only did she have to defend herself, but she had to look out for him as well. Even if she had been able to, Maddie didn’t want to leave him. Despite his insistence, she knew that she couldn’t leave him defenseless.
No, it was up to her now. But what was she to do? At the moment, the cougar wasn’t crouched ready to pounce. It seemed to be almost as startled as she was, but that could change in an instant.
The gun! It was beside her – somewhere. She had been careful to put it down where she could reach it, but that had been before she’d fallen asleep. She desperately needed to find that gun.
Keeping her eyes fixed on the cougar, she groped blindly and cautiously around the ground for it. Her heart pounded as she realized that it wasn’t within reach – she couldn’t find it. Terror seized her as she began to understand how defenseless she was against an animal with the power of the creature in front of her.
Then, her hand brushed against something cold and hard… a rock?
Well, it was better than nothing.
Maddie wrapped her hand around the rock. It was just the right size for her hand, but it was partially embedded in the earth. She burrowed her fingers through the debris on the ground and dug down around it, careful not to appear to be moving lest the cat decide to make its move. But it wouldn’t give.
Having emerged from the bracken, the animal stood staring at her. She could easily believe that it was assessing its chances of a meal. It sniffed the air, curled its top lip and snarled quietly. Its bared teeth were terrifying.
Desperately, she edged her fingers further into the ground around the rock and was finally rewarded with a slight shift in its position.
Those dark, feline eyes were entrancing. Maddie found it hard to break their hold, but she saw the animal’s muscles tense. It lifted one front paw and Maddie figured that it had made up its mind.
The earth finally gave up its hold on her rock. It came free and fitted snugly into her hand. She felt a surge of relief. It was all or nothing now.
She stood up quickly and hurled it at the animal. In a frantic, frenzied whirl of near panic, Maddie threw up her hands and yelled, as loudly as she could, “Go away, go away!”
It was her good luck, rather than the accuracy of her aim, that the rock found its mark. It clouted the cat squarely on the nose. Shocked, the cat leapt straight up and twisted in midair with a chilling scream of fright that pierced the night.
The cat landed lithely on all four paws, side on to her so that she could see just how big it was. Its long thick tail extended the full length of their hidey-hole – further than Scott stretched out on the ground.
It cringed away from her and glared, hissing and curling its lips with its ears laid back flat against its head. One paw was lifted off the ground, but Maddie wasn’t sure whether it was to defend itself or to try to strike at her.
Suddenly, Drifter was on his feet, barking wildly but holding his ground at her side.
“Get out of here!” she shouted at the cougar, waving her hands in the air.
The cat shrieked at her, and to her utter astonishment, it lowered that massive paw to the ground and backed up a step. Its ears were still laid flat and it kept its eyes on her, but Maddie held herself totally still this time… and she prayed.
Then it turned and slunk away back into the bracken.
Maddie stayed put. She lowered her hands and watched as the last trace of the cat’s tail disappeared into the ferns and she shuddered. She let out a long slow breath, only now aware that she had even been holding it. Her legs began to feel strangely wobbly and she realized that she was trembling all over.
Drifter had stopped barking. He was looking out into the thicket and finally seemed satisfied that the danger had passed. Then he was at her side, nuzzling her. He licked her face and she lifted one hand to put it on his head and pat him.
Then he nudged her gently and she felt tears sting her eyes. She wrapped her arms around him and fell to her knees holding him, sobbing quietly into his fur. Her dog lay down on the ground and put his head in her lap, his eyes looking into hers sympathetically.
How long they sat like that, she wasn’t sure. But she thought it was probably only a couple of minutes. Her body finally stopped trembling and she wiped away her tears with the palm of her hand. Drifter got to his feet. He nuzzled her one more time, then turned and bounded off into the darkness.
Maddie was horrified. “No, Drifter… no! Come back here,” she called out as she jumped up onto her feet, but he kept going and disappeared in the wake of the cat.
She slid back to the ground, appalled. With Drifter gone and the excitement of her terrifying encounter over, the cold night air began to leech into her bones again. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms to try to warm herself and stared out into the bracken.
And she felt alone… more alone than she had felt all day.
Johnny lunged forward in his bedroll.
His hands flew to his bandaged head as his brain rocked back into its correct position. Dios! It felt as though it had slipped forward and crashed with a sickening thud against the front of his skull… and his head screamed in protest.
He closed his eyes and waited a minute while the throbbing pain subsided, then he made a mental note to make sure he avoided such sudden movements for a while.
Johnny finally opened his eyes and looked around him. Val was sitting up as well and Wade was on his feet and already had his rifle in his hands, alert for anything.
“You hear it, too?” Johnny asked them quickly.
“Cat,” Wade answered succinctly, looking up into the forest on the hillside above them. “Sounds like a big one.”
Johnny threw off his blanket and got to his feet. He peered up the side of the mountain, though he knew that he wouldn’t see the beast. But he’d heard it clearly – two shrieks from a cougar somewhere up there in the dark.
Somewhere up there… Maddie was up there. So was Scott.
“Did it sound close to you?” he asked them.
“Hard to say for sure,” Val replied, tossing off his own blanket. He stood up and walked over to stand beside Johnny. “The way sounds echo ‘round here, it coulda come from anywhere.”
Johnny turned his head to face him. “It sounded close to me, Val. It was loud enough to wake the three of us.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Val conceded.
Murdoch, Cipriano and Hank wakened at the sounds of the voices.
“What is it?” Murdoch asked sleepily as he rolled onto his side and propped himself on his elbow. “What’s happened?”
“We heard a cat,” Johnny explained briefly. “It sounded close.”
“How close? I didn’t hear it.”
“Well we did, Murdoch,” Johnny tossed back at him in irritation.
Murdoch sat up and grabbed his rifle. He untangled himself from his bedroll and got to his feet.
Johnny looked over to where they had tied the horses for the night. They looked nervous – edgy, but they weren’t in a panic. He breathed a little easier. If the cat was close by, the horses would be far more upset than they were.
“They’re okay,” Johnny told him curtly.
“Well, best we get that fire going again and set up a watch,” Murdoch suggested authoritatively. “It’s not long till dawn anyway.”
Johnny rubbed one arm. It was getting colder. He looked up the mountainside again, wishing he could see the cat, or that he could at least pinpoint where it was.
It was somewhere in the woods above them, he was sure of that much… up where Maddie and Scott were. Well, he wasn’t going to wait around and talk any more. Without another word, he knelt down and deftly packed up his bedroll, then he stood up and strode across to where Barranca stood with the rest of the horses.
“Johnny, what are you doing?” he heard Murdoch call out from behind him. Johnny glanced around quickly, but kept walking.
“What do you think I’m doing?” he asked them, his irritation ballooning into annoyance. But he kept a firm hold of his temper. He had too much on his mind to have to worry about an argument with Murdoch right now. “I’m going up there.”
“Johnny, wait!” Murdoch clamped his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny stopped and spun around to face him, shaking his shoulder free of his father’s grip. Forget annoyance, he was seriously angry this time.
“Murdoch, Maddie’s up there… with a cat loose,” he snapped at him. “What the hell do you think I’m gonna do?”
“Sunup is only an hour or so away,” Murdoch answered, with exasperating calm. “We’ll be able to follow the trail…”
“You wait then. I’m sick of waiting.” Johnny turned his back on Murdoch and strode the last few paces to where Barranca waited. Then he dropped the bedroll and reached down to pick up his saddle blanket. He knew his father was right behind him, but he studiously ignored his presence and set about his task.
“Johnny, I know it’s hard, but you have to be patient…”
“You be patient!” Johnny threw back at him coldly. He tossed the saddle blanket over Barranca’s back and very deliberately smoothed it into place. “I’m going after my kid.”
He leaned over and picked up his saddle, hefted it onto the palomino’s back and settled it. ‘Patient?’ he thought furiously. He’d run out of patience…
“Don’t think that I’m not afraid for her too, Johnny,” Murdoch said, his temper flaring at the perceived slight. “I’m just trying to think this out reasonably.”
“Yeah, good for you, Murdoch,” Johnny sniped back at him. He kept his back to his father while he saddled Barranca. He’d made up his mind to get going and wasn’t going to be talked out of it.
“Johnny, listen to me,” Murdoch persisted. “When we get some light, we’ll be able to move a lot faster.”
“And in the meantime, Maddie’s up there with a cat prowling ‘round.”
“They’re not going to let a cougar get anywhere near Maddie. She’s worth too much to them.”
Johnny finished with the saddle, adjusting and buckling the cinch. “Sure, they’re gonna protect her with their lives,” he said sarcastically, still not turning to face him. “We don’t know what’s goin’ on up there.”
“For all we know, Scott might have caught up with them by now,” Murdoch pointed out.
“Yeah, an’ he just walked in on ‘em an’ took her back.” Johnny’s frayed temper was on a short fuse now. “Without firing a shot? You heard any more shots, ol’ man?”
“No,” Murdoch acknowledged with a long slow sigh. “But that doesn’t mean…”
Johnny swung around angrily, all good intentions of keeping his temper thrown to the wind. “I’m goin’ after her, Murdoch. You hear me? I’m not sittin’ ‘round hopin’ everything is alright… not with my daughter’s life at stake. And what about Scott anyway? He’s alone up there, too, you know.”
Johnny was smugly satisfied to see Murdoch drop his head for a moment. But Murdoch wasn’t so easily convinced. He looked back up at Johnny and answered. “I know, but Scott can look after himself…”
Johnny could contain it no longer. His temper exploded. “Don’t give me that, Murdoch. You and I both know what a cat can do,” he snarled back at his father. “I’m goin’ after Maddie… right now. You can come with me, or you can sit here an’ wait… your decision.”
With that, Johnny turned back to his horse and secured his bedroll to the saddle. He untied Barranca and prepared to mount.
“Hold up a minute, Johnny,” Val called from behind him and Johnny whirled round on him savagely.
“Val, so help me…” But Val was walking towards him, leading his own horse, saddled and ready to go.
Johnny cut off the end of the sentence in surprise.
“Don’t bite my head off, John,” Val told him calmly. “I’m comin’ with you.”
Maddie sat on the floor of her cavern, her knees tucked up to her chest and her arms wrapped around them rocking numbly back and forth. She was cold. She was so tired and she was afraid.
Mostly, she was afraid. After all, she was just a little girl...
Thoughts and scenes from yesterday played through her mind. It was all too much for her. Because of her, first her dog had been shot, then her father and then Rat. And now Tio was hurt as well. It was all so unfair.
She’d tried to be brave, but her courage was running out with the long dark hours. She hadn’t even tried to go back to sleep. She was too frightened of what might happen if she closed her eyes… the cougar… the men…
“Things that eat little girls…” Mike’s words came back hauntingly. Well, the cougar had certainly proved his words to be prophetic. What else was waiting out there… waiting for her to drop off to sleep before coming after her?
She kept her eyes glued to that thicket. The crickets were singing again, but that meant nothing any more. Behind her, the melodic tinkle of the little trickle of water as it washed down the rock wall and bounced lightly on the rocks below it brought an almost peaceful mood to their hidey-hole.
Almost… it was all an illusion. There was no peace here. The darkness was more ominous now than it had been before. She was well aware of the dangers that lurked out there in the dark.
Drifter hadn’t come back either. She’d called him so often that she thought she’d go hoarse with trying. But he was gone. Her heart cried for him… Would she ever see him again? Would they even find him? She just hoped he hadn’t caught up with that cougar.
The cougar – Maddie didn’t remember ever having been that scared in her whole life. Even the threat of Frank and Mike paled into inconsequence by comparison. If it came back, she was sure it wouldn’t frighten off so easily again.
On that thought, she unwrapped her arms from her knees and crawled in closer to Scott, feeling around the ground until she laid her hands on the gunbelt. She ran her fingers over the leather, appreciating the simplicity of the plain leather belt. Tio wasn’t much for showy things. Not like Papa… he liked color and decoration. But even so, Papa still wore a plain gunbelt too. She knew why. To him, it was a tool.
Her mind was eased a little by the feel of the leather and the cold metal under her fingers. She put the gun down beside her and sat down again. It was close enough this time that she could feel the leather against her leg. She was going to make sure that it was easy to reach at any time. She’d be ready.
And she’d use it. A surge of anger rippled through her body at the thought of facing Mike with the gun in her hands. He’d hurt her father. She’d watched Mike pull the trigger and she’d felt the jolt to her stomach when she knew that Papa had been hit. Papa’s name had dropped into her mind at the same time, some instinct warning her… letting her know of his danger.
No, she hadn’t needed to see or hear the shot. She closed her eyes and tried to get some sort of feeling for Papa now, but nothing came. The aggravating fact was that her ‘gift’ wasn’t something she could use at will. Feelings came unbidden, and wouldn’t come when she needed them. She wished she could find out if he was alright. But it was no use.
And then there was Tio as well. She was sure that Mike was responsible for Tio being so badly hurt too.
No, she wouldn’t hide from Mike if he came for her. She’d protect her Tio and she’d kill Mike if he showed up and tried to hurt him again.
After all, she was a Lancer, wasn’t she? More than that - wasn’t she Johnny Madrid Lancer’s daughter?
She’d make Mike pay for what he’d done.
A sound… there was the very faintest crackle of leaves out there and she froze. She had her back to the thicket and spun around to see if she could see anything, terror in her eyes. But nothing was there. Then she heard the tiniest scurrying sounds of something running away, probably just as frightened of her as she was of it.
Maddie’s heart beat wildly and she sank to the ground beside her uncle in dismay -so much for being brave.
She turned her attention back to her uncle. Tio was still asleep. He hadn’t woken through any of the drama that had played out around him and she was worried about that.
Maddie reached across and put her hand on his forehead. She frowned at the heat she found there. She didn’t know much about injuries but didn’t think he should have a fever from a broken shoulder. Then she remembered the gash on his arm.
In the darkness, she hadn’t been able to see it very well, and she had had nothing to clean it with at the time. Maybe that was the problem. She did know enough to know that infection could make him sick.
With some consternation, she sat up again, trying to figure out how to help him. She remembered the handkerchief she always carried in the back pocket of her overalls. If it hadn’t fallen out in her travels, she could at least wet it and try to bring down Tio’s temperature.
She reached behind her and found the small piece of linen was still there. She pulled it out and looked at it, but it looked so much smaller than she needed.
Well, it was better than nothing. It would have to do.
She stood up and stepped over Scott’s legs, stopping nervously to look behind her into the ferns. She hadn’t heard anything, but she wasn’t ready to turn her back on that glade for too long.
Taking a deep breath, she made herself turn back to her task and took the two short steps to the little cascade on the wall. She suddenly realized how dry her mouth was. Rinsing her hands under the water again, she then cupped them and took a long drink. The water tasted so good; and it awakened a growl in her stomach that reminded her how long it had been since she last ate anything filling.
Maddie shivered. She’d been so cold already, but the icy water on her hands chilled her to the bone. She tried to ignore it and went back to her task. With a quick, furtive glance out over the bracken, she soaked her handkerchief thoroughly and then squeezed out the excess water.
She turned back and, once again, stepped over Scott’s legs on her way back to his side. Kneeling beside him, Maddie scrunched up the little piece of cloth and wiped Scott’s forehead.
He sighed quietly and she pulled back – surprised. Had she done something wrong? Was it too cold and she’d hurt him?
He didn’t make another sound and she angrily told herself not to be silly. She put her fingers on his cheek and found him still too warm, despite the cold night air around them. So she put the handkerchief back to his forehead.
As she softly stroked the wet cloth across his brow, Scott moaned ever so slightly. Maddie didn’t pull back this time. Instead, she quietly tried to reassure him.
“It’s okay, Tio,” she said soothingly. She kept the handkerchief working across his face to cool him.
For several minutes, Scott made no other sound, but lay silently on his side. His arm was still crooked under his head for a cushion and he was lying on his side. He hadn’t moved at all since he’d fallen asleep and that had been hours ago.
But now, he sighed again – more loudly this time. Then, unexpectedly, his eyelids fluttered a few times and Maddie finally saw him open his eyes.
Her heart leapt. “Tio?” she whispered, trying to keep her excitement out of her voice for now. His eyes looked distant and confused. She received no answer from him, but he frowned and stared at her, adding to her conviction that he didn’t remember where he was or what had happened.
“Tio? It’s me, Maddie…”
“Maddie?” he answered groggily, barely getting the word out.
Before she could stop him, he started to roll onto his back and he gasped shockingly the instant he moved. Maddie quickly put a hand on his arm, as lightly as she could. “No, Tio, you should lie still.”
He’d stopped already but he was breathing hard. His body was trembling under her hand and his eyes had closed again. Pain was etched into his face.
Maddie sat quietly watching him battle the pain, uncomfortably aware of how little she could do to help. Little by little, the terrible shudders racking his body began to subside, first to shivering and then to nothing but the slow rise and fall of his chest as he struggled to get his breathing under control.
He slowly opened his eyes on her again.
“Maddie,” he finally said, this time without the confusion. He looked around him. “It’s still dark.”
She nodded. “Yes, but you slept for a couple of hours. I think it must be close to morning, now. You should lie still.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I think you’re right about that. I’ve learned that lesson. Did you get some sleep?”
“Yes, thank you,” she assured him. Actually, she hadn’t had much sleep and her body ached for more, but there was no way she would close her eyes on that thicket again.
There were only two ways off the ledge where they had camped for the night – the way they had come and the way that Johnny chose to leave by. With Val riding right behind him, he allowed Barranca to pick his own way along the path, trusting the horse to find the best footing in the dark.
Val hadn’t said anything since they’d left. In fact, he’d been abnormally quiet while they rode and Johnny was grateful for the silence. He suspected that Val knew him well enough to understand that he didn’t want to make small talk. Arguing with Murdoch always left Johnny with a sour taste.
And, certainly, Johnny was still angry after his argument with his father, but it was more than that. The track they were following was uneven and there was a steep drop beside them. A missed step and a fall could be fatal. The trail demanded all of his attention.
He was already having a problem with that. Concentrating wasn’t an easy thing to do when half of his mind was on his daughter and the other half was battling a dull thudding headache – courtesy of the bullet graze on his temple from yesterday. Riding wasn’t improving it and Johnny had an awful foreboding that it was only going to get worse.
Nevertheless, he wasn’t going to let it stop him… not with Maddie out there needing him.
They hadn’t gotten far before Johnny heard the sound of horses behind them. He glanced back over his shoulder to confirm what he had already guessed. It appeared that Murdoch and the others had decided to join them after all.
He nodded his head at them to acknowledge their presence, but said nothing. His mood wasn’t improved by his father’s arrival, so he tried to ignore him and it appeared that Murdoch had taken the hint this time. He made no attempt to get past Val to ride with Johnny.
With Johnny’s concentration broken, Barranca chose that moment to take a wrong step and slipped. Surprised, it was all Johnny could do to stay in the saddle. He caught himself just in time to prevent himself from falling and muttered a curse. Two falls in two days would have been a little hard on his ego.
Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and dismounted. Everyone behind him stopped and watched as he ran his hand over the palomino’s fetlock until he was satisfied that no damage had been done. It was a wake up call though. If Murdoch had said ‘I told you so,’ he wouldn’t have been surprised, though he might have taken his head off.
No, Murdoch had been right. It was still too dark to ride on these mountain trails. The thin strands of moonlight that made it through the trees just weren’t enough to ride on a narrow winding path like this one. He glanced over the side and down the steep slope that fell away. The risk of falling was too great. He’d have to walk the horse instead.
“You reckon we oughta walk ‘em?” Val asked, as if he had read Johnny’s mind.
Johnny heaved a dejected sigh, but agreed. “Yeah. We’re gonna have to until we get more light. Too much broken ground.”
With that, Val dismounted and walked over to join him. Together, they looked ahead at the steep rise in the path. It was the only trail the men could have taken with Maddie, and Scott must have followed it as well, so they had no need of light to follow tracks. But the trail looked treacherous.
“How long do you reckon before sunup, Val?” Johnny asked him.
“Less’n an hour, I guess,” Val replied. “That trail ain’t gonna be easy goin’ in this light, so we’ll walk ‘em till then. ‘Less we come to a fork in the trail. Then I guess we’ll just have to wait for light enough to see the tracks.”
“You think I was wrong?” Johnny asked candidly.
Val just shrugged. “Don’t see as it matters who was right or who was wrong, Johnny. The important thing is to find her.”
“I know. I just couldn’t sit around any longer,” he admitted. “But it feels better doin’ somethin’ anyway.”
“Yeah, you ain’t long on patience, Johnny,” Val told him ironically with a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “But we’re gonna find her. They can’t be too far ahead of us now.”
“You know?” Johnny remarked. “I never thought I’d say it, but I sure do wish that dog was here.”
Frank Munro was growing tired of walking through the woods… real fast.
Yesterday had been a long, hard day in the saddle over treacherous terrain and with only a few hours of sleep afterwards to recover from it. Now here he was, traipsing around the mountainside on foot and in boots that weren’t designed for walking, even on even ground. And why? To look for a little kid… a kid who was supposed to be the source of his big payoff.
Well, that payoff was looking less and less likely to Frank with every step.
And wandering around in the dark was proving to be dangerous. He’d slipped, more than once, on moss covered logs and wet ground as well as tripping over a rock that had been hidden by undergrowth. Since that second fall, Frank’s left ankle had swollen. He knew he’d twisted it.
Oh, it wasn’t serious. He could walk on it alright, but it was painful and annoying and it reminded him constantly that he didn’t want to be here.
He’d also managed to knock the bite on his arm from that damned dog and had re-awakened a dull ache in that. Then there were the mosquitoes and gnats that buzzed and whined around him and seemed to have found his blood particularly tasty. He was harassed constantly.
And, of course, there were the stinging nettles he’s brushed against. They had made his evening so much better.
In short, after over an hour of chasing around the mountain after their runaway money ticket, Frank Munro was tired, itching and limping… and he’d had enough.
And just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, they’d heard the cat!
Even Mike had pulled up short this time. It had sounded close by. The cat’s shriek was loud and it had startled Frank to the point where he had actually jumped. Both of them raised their rifles in alarm, scanning the area around them for any sign of movement… any hint that the cat was close enough to be a real danger.
There was none. But then, that didn’t mean all that much when it came to a cougar. It could be sitting in the ferns watching them from just a few feet away and they wouldn’t know it until too late. The screech had been an unsettling reminder of the dangers that lurked behind those trees.
And Frank was nervously aware that there was worse to come. As daylight crept ever closer, their pursuers would start on their trail again. Johnny Madrid could very well be close behind them.
He knew that Mike had shot at, and had probably hit, Madrid; but he hadn’t fired to kill him. Maybe he should have let him do that after all. Still, with luck, Madrid might be out of the game, too badly hurt to continue following them. Mike had taken care of the lone rider who had kept on, but what had happened to the others? Were they still coming?
Frank tended to think that they were. Lady luck had abandoned them a long way back on this trip. He was beginning to believe that this whole endeavor had been doomed to failure. It probably had been right from the start.
“We should cut our losses an’ get outa here, Mike,” he said petulantly as they moved forward again.
Mike propped suddenly and spun around to face him. His rifle was held ready in his hands, but at least Mike wasn’t aiming it at him. “We’re gonna find that little bitch an’ get a whole lot of money outa that Lancer family. You got that, Frank?”
“Mike, face it. We ain’t gonna find her. We could wander ‘round here for days and still not find her.”
“It’s gonna be light soon. You wait an’ see. We’ll find her,” Levie replied with a confident sneer.
“Yeah, sure, an’ Madrid an’ his men will be able to find us, too,” Frank pointed out angrily. “I don’t wanta tangle with him.”
Levie’s face hardened. The gray shadows around him in the rising dawn accentuated it and gave him a look so evil that even Frank was taken aback.
“Then we’ll handle them.”
Frank stared at the man. He thought Levie must be finally going over the edge if he thought he could just go on ‘handling’ them.
Frank’s blood pressure rose. Levie would be a dangerous man to cross and it left him feeling trapped in a no win situation. If he tried to walk away from this now, he was sure that Mike would shoot him in the back without a second thought.
He slapped yet another mosquito on the back of his neck and wished he could swat away his troubles as easily.
Scott hadn’t been able to go back to sleep. The pain in his back was controllable, if he didn’t move at all. The slightest change in his position sent screaming shafts of fire throughout his body, so he stayed where he was.
The temperature of the air around them dropped suddenly as dawn approached. The night seemed to grab at its last chance to keep the sun from taking over its hold on the world. Scott shivered and pain surged through him again, but there was nothing he could do except to try to keep from moaning.
But the night’s grip was slackening. Around them, an eerie gloom fell. The little bit off moonlight that had given them some respite from the darkness were gone. The world darkened into shades of black until the sun rose over the mountain.
Then their world changed. The tall pines loomed above them like mighty kings of a ghostly underworld, imposingly topped by a crown of shimmering yellow that sent rays struggling down through the branches, too feeble yet to reach the ground and lift the darkness…the bushes and bracken at their feet their insignificant minions.
A fiery orange aura slowly spread over the landscape, leaving a disconcerting world of orange with stark black images standing bleak and still. In that world, anything could be hiding.
Scott waited anxiously for the daylight to bring the world back to life, but he was also aware that it would bring some serious decisions. He was well aware that he wasn’t going anywhere. There was no chance that he would be able to stand up, let alone walk out of there.
He could also feel a low fever starting in his body and briefly wondered why. Then he remembered the gash on his arm and figured it must be originating from that. It didn’t hurt but it could very well be infected without his knowing it. That whole arm had no feeling in it now.
“Here, Tio,” Maddie said, quietly appearing beside him again. She held her cupped hand to his lips. “I thought you must be thirsty. It’s not much, but it might help.”
It wasn’t much. Most of it had dribbled through her fingers before she reached him. But it did help and the water tasted all the sweeter for the trouble she had gone to bringing it for him. When he’d finished, she laid a wet piece of cloth on his forehead. It was ice cold against his skin, but it felt good.
“Thank you, Sweetheart,” he whispered. Then, slowly, he pulled his arm out from under his head and took hold of her hand. Shocked at how cold it was, he exclaimed, “Good heavens, Maddie, you’re freezing!”
She shook her head. “No, I’m okay, really.”
“You can’t be. You don’t even have a coat,” he persisted. “Come in closer and we’ll warm each other.”
Then he looked around him and began to get the unsettling feeling that something was missing. Suddenly he knew that he was right.
“Where’s Drifter?” he asked. The dog was gone. It was strange that Drifter should be gone after being so intent on finding her yesterday.
“He went after the cougar.”
He let go of her hand and sprang up on his elbow. “The WHAT?” he gasped before the shockwave from his sudden movement hit him.
Maddie hurried to help him. “You mustn’t do things like that, Tio,” she scolded him as she slipped her arm under his shoulder and eased him back to the ground. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
But Scott had already worked that out for himself. His body was making a crushing point of letting him know that the move had been a mistake. He was paying a high price for it, but he caught her cold little hand and demanded worriedly, “What cougar?”
“The one that came last night. Well, only a little while ago really.”
She was far too casual about it for his liking. “Are you alright?” he asked her, quickly trying to look her over for injuries. “It didn’t hurt you?”
“No, I’m alright,” she replied blithely. “It came while you were sleeping, but it ran away when I threw a rock at it.”
He turned his head and stared at her in horror. “You did what?”
“Well, I had to do something! I picked up a big rock and threw it at him and I told him to go away… really loud.” Suddenly, she smiled. “I hit him right on the nose.”
“Just how close was it?”
“She pointed to the edge of the ferns, only a few feet away. “Just over there. Boy, it was big!”
“You should have woken me.”
Maddie looked down, averting her eyes from his. She was fidgeting with a tear in one leg of her overalls, picking at the frayed threads. She didn’t answer him and an uncomfortable suspicion began to occur to him.
“Maddie, did you try to wake me?” he asked her uneasily.
She continued to fidget while she answered. “Si… yes…”
“And you couldn’t wake me?”
She shook her head, still not looking at him.
He sighed heavily. A terrible burden of guilt fell over him. “I’m sorry, Maddie. I’m…”
She looked up and into his eyes. “No!” she answered resolutely. “No, it wasn’t your fault and you mustn’t think so. You’re hurt. You can’t blame yourself.”
Scott took her hand again, gratefully. His sense of guilt remained unresolved, and it probably always would, but her words meant a lot to him.
“You didn’t use the gun?” he asked her. He was relieved that she had remained safe without resorting to it but that had been the whole point of showing her how to use it.
“No, I couldn’t find it in the dark and I was… I was too scared to look for it. I thought I should stay still.”
He nodded, understanding. “Of course you were scared, Maddie,” he told her. “But you faced it and did something about it. That makes you a brave little girl in my book.” He squeezed her hand fondly. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”
The light was changing around them. The orange glow faded and true daylight began to raise the dark pall of night. Sunbeams began to reach the ground and warm it.
He was finally able to see her clearly as the light played around her face… and it broke his heart. Her clothes were torn and filthy, her hair tangled and matted and her face was covered in dirt.
His thoughts turned back to the first time he’d seen her – an adorable little five year old with the biggest brown eyes that he had ever seen. The shock of realizing who she was still shook him now and then. Johnny had kept that secret better than any other.
Scott remembered how he had felt on that night when she had clung to him, desperately seeking solace as she realized that her abuela had died. She had been so little, so defenseless… and it had suddenly hit him that she was his brother’s daughter. He’d felt the tug of family.
He’d wanted to protect her then; and he wanted to protect her now.
But it was all being turned the other way around. It seemed that his little niece was fated to defend him this time. Everything about him rebelled against the idea, but he also knew that there was little he was able to do about it.
As the sun rose higher and finally filled the forest with filtered light, Scott knew that he had to make a decision. If Maddie stayed here with him and the kidnappers found them, he didn’t believe that she wouldn’t leave him. He wasn’t certain that he’d be able to do much to stop them and they’d take her for sure. She might stand a better chance on her own, hiding if they came after her and without him to worry about.
On the other hand, letting her wander around the forest alone brought a whole other set of dangers into consideration. She’d soon be totally lost… actually, they were already. She could easily fall and be hurt. And the knowledge that a cougar was around reminded him that there were other wild animals out there that might harm her.
No, the more he weighed the options, the more he thought that she should stay with him. Johnny, Murdoch and the others were still looking for them and it would be better if they were to stay together and in one place.
At least, he hoped that Johnny was up to looking for them. He hadn’t seemed badly hurt when Scott had left him yesterday, but the situation had been such that he had had to take Johnny’s word for it… and it wouldn’t be the first time that his brother had made light of his injuries.
Nevertheless, he had to believe that Johnny was alright. And, even if he wasn’t with them, the others would have continued on.
Scott made his decision. Until they came, he was going to do his best to take care of Maddie. He eased his elbow under his body and took a deep breath.
“Oh, no… please, Tio, you must stay still,” Maddie exclaimed when she realized what he was trying to do.
But Scott had made up his mind and he wasn’t going to stop now. His body was already protesting and he knew that it would hurt a lot more before he was through, but he couldn’t see himself lying defenseless on the ground while Maddie tried to protect him.
“It’s alright, Sweetheart,” he assured her, gritting his teeth. He pushed himself up onto his elbow and stopped to catch his breath. Closing his eyes on the pain, he waited for it to subside a little, only to open his eyes on Maddie’s concerned face.
“I’m fine, Maddie,” he told her soothingly, forcing himself not to groan as he moved. “Now, do you think you can give me a hand to sit up?”
“You really shouldn’t, Tio,” she insisted, frowning. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
He managed a smile. “Very likely I will,” he quipped, and then reluctantly admitted, “but I need to sit up… and I don’t think I can do it without a little help.”
Her frown grew deeper as she considered him. “I don’t know…” she said indecisively.
Scott, however, was less hesitant. He’d made up his mind. He took another breath and silently started to count… one… two…
On three, he pushed his forearm hard against the ground and levered himself up to lean on his hand. He was almost there, but he could feel his arm shaking under the weight of his body, threatening to give way.
And then Maddie’s arms were around him, gently supporting his shuddering body while he gathered his strength. She wasn’t strong enough to lift him on her own. That would be up to him. With a surge of grim determination, he used what strength he had left and let her lend her own to help him.
It worked. He was finally sitting up. Scott dragged his legs around in front of him and he leaned back against the rock wall. He could scarcely breathe. His body shook from the exertion and the salty taste of blood in his mouth suggested that he had bitten his lip without realizing it.
Maddie released her hold of him and started to wipe his face with the wet cloth. He was panting heavily, each breath agony on his back but he’d done it. With the satisfaction of a challenge matched, he sighed. He was up.
“Does it hurt a lot?” Maddie asked him anxiously.
Scott would have laughed if he could have found the energy. “Yeah… it hurts, Sweetheart,” he told her honestly, barely succeeding in a hint of a smile to reassure her. “But I’ll be fine in a minute. Don’t worry.”
“Can I get you some more water?”
It sounded tempting. His mouth was dry and he was finding it hard to swallow. But he shook his head instead. “No, thank you, Maddie. But bring the gun belt over here and sit with me.”
He looked around him, finally able to see their hiding place properly. Maddie had chosen well. It provided shelter, enough water to survive on and should even keep them from being seen from above. From here, he could see right across the little thicket and some of the way up the hillside as well.
Then he took stock of his own state. His left arm hung at his side, completely useless now. The makeshift bandage that Maddie had wrapped around the gash on it was bloodstained and grubby, but he couldn’t feel any pain emanating from his arm. In fact, there was no feeling in the arm at all. He wrapped his free hand around his left wrist and pulled it across his body to reduce the weight on his shoulder.
His shoulder did hurt. It hurt beyond anything he could describe, but it was further down his back. He figured it was the shoulder blade that was broken. That couldn’t be a good thing.
Releasing his wrist, Scott wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. He could feel a slight fever there and was sure it must be from the gash. He let his hand fall back to his side dejectedly.
Breathing deeply was painful and he’d certainly been more comfortable lying on his side, but he needed to sit up. For his own sense of self-respect, he needed to try to defend Maddie.
Maddie placed the gun belt beside his right hand, then sat down at his side, snuggling close but careful not to knock him. He could easily reach the gun from where she’d put it, so he pulled it free of the holster in case he needed it in a hurry.
She was quiet now, sitting with him and staring out into the ferns. She was obviously trying hard not to show him how frightened she really was, but her eyes and her manner betrayed her. She wrapped her arms around her knees and scanned the glade constantly… nervously.
Scott lifted his good arm and placed it around her shoulder, squeezing her reassuringly and pulling her gently back to lean against him.
She responded with a hesitant smile.
“Now that it’s daytime, the bad men will come to look for us again,” she whispered nervously.
“Maybe,” Scott answered honestly. “But so will your papa.”
“Papa will come for us, won’t he, Tio?” she asked, looking up at him eagerly.
“Sure he will,” Scott replied confidently and smiled back at her, hoping against hope that Johnny and Murdoch would find them… before the kidnappers showed up.
It was Cipriano who now led the small party of pursuers with Johnny riding right behind him. Val was next in line, a place that afforded him a good chance to keep an eye on Johnny.
They were all mounted now. There was enough light to ride instead of walking the horses on the trail. It still took concentration and attention to negotiate what was little more than a deer path up and around the mountain, but the horses could be relied on to pick their way now.
Since daylight, they’d been making better time. And that was despite having to stop at every fork in the trail to make sure they were still following the right path. It was slowing them down, but they were still making a faster pace than they had made in the pre-dawn hour or so.
Cipriano and Johnny shared the tracking responsibilities. They’d stop and dismount, pointing out signs and consulting with each other before agreeing on the right trail and going on.
Val found himself watching Johnny closely. More than once, he’d noticed his friend’s shoulders sag and his head hang forward. Val didn’t find it surprising. With his hat on, it was easy to forget that bandage around Johnny’s head, but it had been only yesterday afternoon that he’d been shot.
Val knew that head wounds could be meddlesome things. Johnny might have no reaction at all, or it might sneak up on him real unexpected-like. The graze had been deep enough to cause considerable bleeding and Johnny had been unconscious for quite a while. Val figured that, at best, Johnny must have a thundering headache; at worst… well, concussion wasn’t out of the question.
So Val was watching him, ready to pick up the pieces if his friend should fall apart. He hadn’t said anything to Johnny of course. With Johnny in his present mood, that would be tantamount to just asking to have your head bitten off.
With that thought still in his mind, the horses came to a stop again. Cipriano dismounted and walked ahead while Johnny slowly got down as well. But, this time, Johnny’s movements were lethargic. He looked exhausted.
Val dismounted casually and walked over to join him. Johnny was standing beside Barranca, leaning his head on the saddle as though for support and Val judged it might be time to speak up.
“You okay, John?” he asked, quietly enough to be heard only by Johnny.
Johnny looked up and nodded. “Yeah,” he answered, then added, “Just a headache. It’ll pass.”
Val was a little surprised that Johnny had admitted it and that led him to suspect that there was more bothering him. Johnny’s face was ashen. His eyes looked glazed and his breathing was harsher than it should be.
He subtly tipped Johnny’s hat back a little so that he could see the bandage and found what he’d expected. “You’re bleedin’ again, Amigo,” he said as Johnny angrily grabbed the hat and pulled it back into place. The blood had soaked through the bandage, but it wasn’t serious. However, it was worrying just the same.
“I know, Val,” Johnny snapped back, turning a furious glare on him. Then he closed his eyes and sighed, obviously fighting to remain in control of his emotions as well as his body. “I’m fine, okay?” he whispered between his teeth.
“If you say so,” Val replied, nonchalantly ignoring his friend’s displeasure, then he walked back to his horse while Johnny stalked off to join Cipriano.
“Is he alright?” Murdoch asked Val while they waited. Murdoch’s face betrayed his concern. He was talking to Val, but his eyes were on his son, watching his every move.
Val shrugged his shoulders. “I reckon he is… for now, anyhow. Says he’s got a headache.”
“That’s not surprising,” Murdoch agreed, still watching Johnny.
“Nope, but that head wound’s b’n bleeding some,” Val told him quietly.
Murdoch frowned anxiously and finally turned to look at Val.
“Wouldn’t worry too much, Murdoch,” Val reassured him before he got a chance to say anything. “Johnny ain’t gonna let anythin’ or anyone stop him now. Ain’t much any of us can do but keep an eye on him.”
Those men had a lot to answer for, and Val meant to see that they did. But he had to keep Johnny from taking the law into his own hands when they found them. Val had no desire to see his friend hang for something that he wanted to do himself.
The headache had become more than irritating. The constant change of light and shadow caused by the sunlight filtering though the branches overhead was aggravating it and the dull thudding that had been so hard to deal with earlier was now a full scale cannonade.
It hadn’t yet reached the point of being debilitating, but it was causing him dizziness and even nausea as well. That was harder to handle and that Val had noticed anything at all told Johnny that he was no longer able to hide it from them. Johnny was annoyed. He knew he had been wrong to snap at Val when he’d only been concerned, but the last thing he wanted was Murdoch or Val trying to get him to stop or ease up now.
He knew they were getting close… closer by the minute. He could feel it or, at least, he believed it. He desperately wanted it to be true. Both he and Cipriano agreed that they weren’t far away from their quarry. Maybe around the next corner… And Johnny fully intended to be there when they caught up with them.
Johnny hadn’t realized that the wound had been bleeding again. Trust Val to pick up on that. The man was just about as good at seeing through him as Scott was.
He trudged back to Barranca and climbed into the saddle, sitting up straight to show the others that he was still capable of going on.
Cipriano led the way again, this time up a particularly steep and broken path that wound up a few feet and then turned back to run parallel with the trail they’d been on a minute ago. The going was hard and he thought of Maddie riding that treacherous path. She wasn’t used to this kind of riding and it would be rough on her.
His blood pressure rose at the image of his little girl fighting to stay in the saddle on these mountain paths. He’d make them pay for doing this to her.
The trail leveled off at last, but Cipriano pulled his horse to a stop.
“¿Qué pasa, Amigo?” Johnny asked, surprised.
But Cipriano didn’t need to answer. He had already dismounted and Johnny could see for himself. There was a horse standing on the trail a few yards ahead of them. He knew that bay almost as well as he knew Barranca.
Johnny stepped down and trailed his reins on the ground, then joined Cipriano.
“That’s Scott’s horse,” he said, very quietly.
“Si, and he favors one leg, Señor,” Cipriano agreed. The horse was saddled and held one foreleg a little off the ground. It had its back to them, but it turned its head to watch them, quivering nervously.
“Wait here,” Johnny told him. “An’ don’t let anyone follow till I’ve got him. I don’t want to spook him.”
With that, Johnny left him and walked cautiously and deliberately towards the horse. The headache that had been tormenting him for so long faded from his mind. He concentrated on getting the animal’s confidence with hushed soothing words and quiet steps.
For just one moment, Johnny thought he’d lost the battle of wills. The horse lifted its head and shook it, quivering all over, and took a step forward. But it stopped when it tried to put its weight on that foreleg and Johnny quickly reached out and grabbed the trailing reins.
He looked the animal over carefully, still whispering gentle reassurances. The saddle was intact; both of Scott’s rifles were still in place and so was the canteen. A bad feeling crept over Johnny. He held the reins tightly in his hand and turned around to scan the forest around them.
There was a nasty drop down off the far side of the trail. Had Scott gone over? If he had, he was almost certainly hurt. And why had he fallen?
Johnny looked into the forest off the path. Lush, green bracken grew thick and tall; so tall that it could be hiding his brother from sight. If Scott was down there, it would take a lot of looking to find him.
Cipriano and the others joined him then. While Cipriano began checking the ground around them, Johnny ran his hand over the horse’s foreleg and found it swollen and hot to the touch. It was obviously painful – probably strained but not broken.
“Any sign of Scott?” Murdoch asked anxiously from further down the trail.
“No,” Johnny answered briefly and without looking at him. The argument was long forgotten, but Johnny couldn’t get his mind off the fact that his brother might be seriously hurt… or worse. Then he realized that Murdoch was probably thinking along the same lines and he added, “His horse is lame, but I don’t see why.”
Murdoch had dismounted and walked forward to join him. “The horse might have just taken a wrong step. Maybe Scott left him and went ahead on foot,” he suggested. There was a hopeful tone in his voice that Johnny didn’t miss.
But Johnny knew better. Dios! How he wished he could believe in the possibility, but he knew it couldn’t be.
“Without a rifle or his canteen?” he asked, shaking his head dejectedly. “No.”
Murdoch looked the animal over, just as Johnny had done before him. “There’s no blood on the saddle, or on the horse. That’s something.”
“Yeah,” Johnny answered impassively.
“Well, we didn’t hear any more shots last night,” Val interjected. “An’ the way sound travels up here, I figure we would’ve heard somethin’. I reckon that means no one shot him.”
Johnny paled and turned his head to look at him. They had heard something in the night.
Val apparently guessed what he was thinking. “The cat?”
“It’s possible,” Johnny agreed reluctantly. “There’s no blood an’ the horse isn’t scratched up, but Scott could’ve been knocked from the saddle.” He could feel his heart pounding heavily in his chest as his imagination ran over the way it could have happened.
First Maddie… and now Scott – Johnny’s fears were plain to see for a change and he no longer cared about it.
“Let’s not leap to any conclusions,” Murdoch told them firmly. “Cipriano? Did you find anything?”
The segundo came back down the path to join them. “Si. Whatever happened, Señors, it did not happen here,” he told them confidently. “The tracks go that way,” he continued, pointing down the trail away from them. “Señor Scott was riding him and the dog was with him. The tracks lead up and around that trail, but then they come back. The horse was running and slipped, just up the path there, but I do not think Señor Scott was riding him then.”
“Did you see anywhere that Scott might have come off?” Murdoch asked him with what Johnny considered to be annoying calm.
Cipriano ducked his head and shook it. “No, Señor, nothing.”
Johnny lowered his head in dismay. “So now we have Scott AND Maddie to find.”
“Maybe we should split up,” Val suggested and Johnny’s head shot up.
“We might have to, but not yet,” Murdoch replied with determination. “Cipriano? The horse came from up the path, right?”
“The same way that those men took Maddie?”
“Si, and the dog was still with him when he first rode the path.”
“Then we keep going that way,” Murdoch decided for all of them. “We should come across the place where Scott came off. Then we’ll think about splitting up if we have to.”
Johnny ducked his head, his hands on his hips as he thought about it. What Murdoch was saying made sense. There was no point in splitting up until or unless it became necessary.
He looked up and nodded. “Yeah, you’re right.” With that, he dropped his arms and turned to walk back to Barranca. “Let’s get goin’.”
“There!” Frank called out excitedly. “Look… somethin’ went over the edge there.”
He pointed to a trail of crushed ferns and debris that led from the edge of the trail all the way down the hillside. From here, he couldn’t even see where it ended.
Mike stopped and looked around him. He looked up the mountainside and then checked out the rockfall that lay across the path in front of them. One large rock sitting on top looked familiar.
“Nope, that’s where that fella fell,” he suggested crossly. He pointed up the hill. “Up there’s where we were when I pushed the rock over.”
Frank looked down the steep embankment. There was a wide path of destruction that went on and on out of sight - a smashed log, bracken flattened to the ground.
He sighed despondently. Mike was right. The damage was most likely done by the body of a full grown man, not the little bitty thing they were hunting.
Limping over to the edge of the track, Frank looked around some more. He spotted something else and frowned.
“Yeah, maybe you’re right, Mike,” he said knowingly. “But what do you reckon made that second trail?”
Mike was next to him in a flash, gazing down the hillside.
He made his way down and found the crushed remains of what had once been a log. Already aged and rotten, it had fallen in on itself under the weight of something. There followed a skid mark where a small boot had slipped and some flattened bracken that suggested a fall. He looked closely at the soft ground and grinned triumphantly – a couple of small booted footprints and one paw print… the dog.
Mike looked up. “Come on, Frank,” he called cheerfully. “We got us a trail.”
Johnny had walked only one step back towards his horse when he heard it. His head lifted expectantly and he looked over the edge of the track, certain that that was the direction that the bark had come from.
Sure enough, Drifter was down there, bounding over a log as Johnny watched. The fronds parted or flattened in the dog’s wake as he barked excitedly once more and made his way up the hillside.
Drifter came to a dead stop when he reached the path. He stood in front of Johnny and barked loudly… once… then again. Then he turned and barked in the direction from which he had come and turned back to Johnny.
Johnny knew what he wanted. He’d seen the dog behave that way time and again yesterday – every time he’d picked up Maddie’s scent. But was it Maddie he wanted to take them to now, or was it Scott? The dog’s excitement suggested it was Maddie, but he had probably been with Scott when whatever had separated him from his horse had happened.
“He wants us to follow him, Johnny,” Murdoch said eagerly.
“Yeah, I know… but to Maddie or to Scott?”
The dog barked again. His tail wagged excitedly but he couldn’t tell them what he knew.
“Johnny,” Murdoch said in quiet answer to Johnny’s silence. “They might be together.”
Was it too much to hope for – that somehow Scott and Maddie were together? Perhaps Scott had been injured in getting Maddie away from her kidnappers. No, that still didn’t answer why the rifles and water were still with the horse.
“I guess splitting up is the only way to do this now, Murdoch,” Johnny suggested. “You take Cipriano an’ Wade an’ go with the dog. Val, Hank an’ me will keep following the trail. If they’re together, we’ll meet up again anyway.”
Nods of assent greeted his plan. He hoped to God that Scott wasn’t hurt but, if he was, Murdoch would look after him while Johnny continued on the chase for his daughter. He was confident that they were close and sidetracking now might lose him his chance of catching up with them.
“Signal if you find them together, Murdoch,” Johnny added. “Two quick shots, then two more.”
“Right,” Murdoch agreed.
Johnny walked deliberately back to Scott’s horse and pulled his brother’s new rifle from the second scabbard tied to the saddle. His own was still in its scabbard and perfectly reliable, but Johnny felt the need to have this one handy. He hoped it was as good as his brother had told him. If it was, it might be an edge… and everything counted at this point.
Then he returned to where the dog stood, wagging his tail and watching him expectantly.
But it was Murdoch who knelt beside the dog and patted him. “Johnny’s not going with us this time, Drifter. But you lead the way and I’ll follow.”
Drifter looked towards Johnny, who stood perfectly still, schooling his features not to show the turmoil of emotion that was tearing him apart inside. Leaving others to find Scott when he might be hurt ran against Johnny’s most ingrained instincts, but he had his child to find.
Then the dog looked back to the man in front of him, Murdoch. Drifter whined a low distressed whine and then barked with renewed excitement.
“Alright, Drifter,” Murdoch said calmly. “Show us the way, boy.”
He did and they were all surprised when the dog ran up the trail ahead of them instead of going back the way that he’d come from below. But he stopped where the trail turned and climbed uphill again. He spun around and barked, then bounded off the trail and into the forest to stop again and wait for them.
“Looks like we’re on foot from here, Johnny,” Murdoch told him. He rested his huge hand on Johnny’s shoulder and added, “Good luck, Son. Find her and bring her back safe.”
Johnny nodded silently, part of him still wanting to go with them. “You find Scott,” was all he said.
Murdoch answered with a confident nod. Then he turned and strode back to his horse and grabbed his rifle and canteen. “Wade, you and Cipriano are with me. Hank, you and Val go with Johnny on up the trail after Maddie.” He tied his horse to a bush by the path and did the same for Cipriano’s mount.
With a quick and quiet glance in Val’s direction, he whispered, “Keep an eye on him, Val. I’m still worried about him.”
Val made sure that Johnny wasn’t watching, then nodded.
Pulling the segundo’s rifle free, Murdoch turned and tossed it lightly to the man waiting with Johnny. Then he took Cipriano’s canteen and walked over to join them.
Wade dismounted and tied his horse to a nearby tree, grabbed his rifle and canteen and hurried to join his boss and segundo. As he passed Johnny, he called a quick, “Good luck.”
Johnny watched them go. They followed Drifter off the track and into the woods, stepping over a log and then disappearing into the shadows. He heard the crash of undergrowth for a moment more, then nothing… just the birds and the breeze in the branches above them.
He forced himself to move and, once he did, his emotions came back under control. Anticipation began to override everything else. The headache was less troubling and his adrenaline levels rose.
He tied off Scott’s horse and rejoined Val and Hank. He mounted with more energy than he’d felt for some time and Barranca sensed it. Johnny could feel the horse moving restlessly beneath him.
“Let’s get goin’,” he said determinedly. “They can’t be far ahead of us now.”
Maddie huddled close to Scott, more for reassurance than for warmth. The air around them had lost the chill of the darkness.
She looked up into his face and saw that his eyes were squeezed tightly shut against the pain in his back. She didn’t need the tightening in her stomach and the feeling that accompanied it to ‘know’ that he was in a bad way. She could see it for herself.
She had had that same feeling about her father a little while ago. It had lasted for some time and Maddie had sensed that he too was in pain. Last night, Tio had assured her that Papa was fine, but her senses told her otherwise.
Then the feeling had gone away. For a moment, Maddie had panicked. The feeling had stopped so abruptly that she feared what it might have meant. But then, a comforting calm had settled over her and she’d known that he was alright. Whatever had happened, her papa was alright.
Now she hoped that he was close by. As the daylight grew brighter and the sky that she could glimpse through the trees grew bluer, Maddie knew that the men who had taken her must know she was missing. They would certainly be looking for her by now.
She had no idea of how far she had gone from their camp or how hard it would be for them to find her, but she knew they wouldn’t easily give her up. They had gone to so much trouble already and she knew that they considered her worth the trouble. They saw her as money in their pockets and Mike wouldn’t let that slip away without a fight.
Tearing her eyes away from Scott, she scanned the forest glade in front of her. Then she looked up the side of the mountain as far as she could see. There was no sign of anyone and no sounds except the strange little scurryings and the whisper of the breeze in the branches above them.
Satisfied, she turned back to Scott. He wouldn’t be able to handle them on his own. Maddie knew what they were like, particularly Mike. Mike would kill Scott in a minute to get her back. She shivered at the thought and Scott’s arm tightened around her shoulders.
“Cold, Maddie?” he asked vaguely.
“No, I’m fine,” she answered quickly. He licked his lips and leaned his head back against the rock wall again. His face was a little flushed in places, over the ashen pallor of his skin. His hand, when she took it, was clammy to the touch.
The handkerchief, still in her hand, had dried out. She thought it might help him in his fight against that rising fever.
“I’m going to get you some more water,” she told him and moved to get up.
“No, stay here,” he insisted, tightening his grip around her. He opened his eyes and tried to smile at her. “I don’t want you wandering off alone.” Then he stopped and sighed before continuing, “Unless those men turn up. Then I want you to hide.”
“Oh no, Tio, I can’t leave you,” she gasped. “They’ll kill you.”
“Maddie, I can look after myself,” he persisted tiredly. “But it will help to know that you’re safe.”
“You can’t fight them. You’re hurt.” She knew he was lying… and she knew he was doing it to ease her mind in leaving him. She wouldn’t let him do it.
“Maddie, listen to me…”
She shook her head angrily. “No. I’m not going to let you do it.”
Suddenly, he took his arm from around her shoulders. He reached down beside her and laid his hand on the gun, whispering… “shhhhh….”
She went quiet and heard the unmistakable sounds of ferns being brushed aside and trodden on. Then she heard the jangling of spurs and her heart leapt at the familiar sound. She looked out into the ferns and froze.
Her heart fell. They weren’t her father’s spurs that she had heard. The battle of wills between herself and her uncle was over. There was no point in going on with it now.
It was already too late.
The riders slowed as they rounded yet another turn to find that the trail stretched out flat in front of them for about a hundred yards. They now had enough sunlight to easily see that the path had been cut up by several horses recently.
But, ahead, the path was blocked by a rock fall.
Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and looked closely at the ground around him from horseback.
“Somethin’ up, Johnny?” Val asked, reining in behind him.
Johnny was frowning. “Could be. There’s a whole lot o’ footprints here,” he answered, a curious tone in his voice. “Just wondered why.”
Val watched Johnny as he stepped down from the horse and looked around carefully, ensuring that he stayed in one place as much as possible so as not to disturb the prints. There was a story there, if he could just figure it out.
“Footprints? Why would anyone be on foot here?” Val asked, dismounting and standing beside his horse, checking that he wasn’t disturbing any prints on the path. Better to leave Johnny to check the tracks. Val could read ‘sign’ as well as the next man, and better than some. But Johnny was real good. Val was happy to just stand back and let him work.
“Dunno,” Johnny answered distractedly. Then he glanced up at Val. “Wait here, Val. You too, Hank. I’m gonna take a look around. See what I can find.”
Val watched him tread cautiously around the tracks and crouch on his heels to study one set more closely than the rest. Then a movement behind him caught Val’s attention. Hank strolled to his side, his reins held loosely in one huge paw of a hand. Val felt dwarfed by the big, blond cowboy. But Hank was an amiable man and a fiercely loyal friend to the Lancer brothers.
“Watch where you’re steppin’, Hank” Val suggested good-naturedly.
Hank reacted by looking down at his feet to make sure he wasn’t destroying any tracks. “Reckon Johnny’d have my hide if I messed up the tracks.”
Val grinned. That was an understatement if ever he’d heard one. “Yeah, I reckon he would,” he agreed.
Hank leaned in a little closer to Val’s ear. “Johnny don’t seem so poorly now, Sheriff,” he said, too quietly to be heard by Johnny.
Val shrugged. “I guess he’s got somethin’ to take his mind off his headache now.”
“Yeah, reckon so. Looks like he’s found somethin’ in those tracks. Sure do hope we find that little girl of his this time.”
Val nodded his agreement and turned back to see Johnny walking further down the path. He walked all the way to the land fall that blocked the trail, looking it over carefully. He walked off it and stopped to look down the hillside below it, then he stepped off the path and walked a few steps into the woods.
From where he stood, Val couldn’t see what Johnny was so interested in, but there was a renewed vigor about Johnny. Something had his attention and it was driving him.
Hank and Val stood together, waiting quietly and patiently on the path. But it was only moments before Johnny reappeared out of the forest and started back towards them. Then, he stopped abruptly. He knelt on one knee and peered at the ground, touching his fingers to whatever it was that he had found.
“Hey, Johnny!” Val called out. “You find somethin’?”
Johnny looked up and back towards Val and Hank. “Yeah. You can come on down here now, but step real careful when you get close to me.”
With a glance over his shoulder at Hank, to see if he was following, Val made his way over to where Johnny was waiting for them.
“Well?” he asked Johnny anxiously.
Johnny was still kneeling and looked up at him. “The way I figure it, Scott an’ Drifter came along here… sometime late yesterday I think.”
“On foot?” Val interrupted him, thinking of the footprints Johnny had been studying.
“No, those aren’t Scott’s boot prints,” Johnny explained quickly. “He was still riding. There’s a few paw prints along here too, so Drifter was still with him at that stage. He was still on the right track too. There were other horses through here only an hour or so ahead of him.”
Val guessed that he had more to tell, so he let Johnny talk without further questions. Johnny stood up and pointed down the track to the landslide that blocked it. Most of the fall was hard packed; small ferns were already beginning to sprout from around the rocks embedded in it. Even from here, Val could see that it wasn’t recent – at least, not most of it. There was a large rock sitting awkwardly on top of some loose dirt and rocks from a newer fall on top of it.
He looked up the mountain and found a trail of crushed ferns and broken ground. It started only a small distance above and Val was sure it had happened within the last few days.
“That’s where Scott came off his horse,” Johnny told them. “He rolled over the edge of the path an’ down the hill there an’ his horse ran back the way he’d come.”
Val frowned. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“No,” Johnny agreed dejectedly. “It looks like he took a hard fall an’ he rolled a long ways down the hillside. I went most of the way down, but there’s no sign of him.”
Val frowned. “That rock looks to me like it came down at just the right place, Johnny. Either he was real unlucky…”
Johnny sighed and ducked his head for a moment. “Yeah, nice timin’, wouldn’t you say?”
Val didn’t say. He didn’t see any need – he and Johnny were obviously thinking along the same lines. Someone had found a way to rid himself of Scott’s annoying perseverance and had made it look like an accident into the bargain.
Johnny looked back up then and continued with his ‘reckonings’. “It looks like Drifter went down there after Scott, then came back up and headed on up the trail.”
“Not back to where we found him?”
“Nope, he went on after Maddie.”
Val’s frown grew darker. If the dog had continued on his chase after Maddie, why had he come bolting out of the woods down below?
“What about those boot prints?” Hank asked, frowning.
“They’re fresh this mornin’,” Johnny replied. “See how they go over top of all the other tracks? Our ‘friends’ were here less than an hour ago, I’m guessin’.”
Val pushed his hat to the back of his head and scratched his hairline. “Wonder why,” he pondered aloud. “Don’t make sense that they’d come back to check that Scott was done for. They must known we weren’t gonna be far behind. Why chance it?”
“No, it doesn’t make sense,” Johnny agreed. He put his hands on his hips and looked around some more. Then, suddenly, he stopped dead.
Val thought that Johnny looked as though he’d been hit over the head, and hard. Johnny knelt on the ground again and frowned, while Val stooped over to see what had stopped him.
He’d found a print, half concealed by the mark of another, larger boot that had stomped over part of it. Val was a fair hand at tracking, but he didn’t need to be to see the difference between that little print and the larger one. It was small; at least half the size of the man’s boot. Even a novice could tell that that was a child’s print.
“Maddie,” Johnny whispered to no one in particular. He reached over and touched the mark with trembling fingers.
Val put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder to steady him. He could see the raw emotions playing on his friend’s face and took a deep breath to clear his own excitement from his head.
“That print’s older than the others, Johnny,” he said quietly.
“Yeah, I know. Probably only an hour or so though. It’s still pretty fresh,” Johnny agreed, barely breathing. His fingers were still on the print. He seemed loathe to take them away from what was the first physical link he had had to his daughter since this nightmare had begun.
But then a flicker passed through Johnny’s eyes and he got to his feet. He dusted away the dirt and knocked away damp leaves that stuck to the leg of his pants. Then he looked back at Val.
“She’s gotten away from them, Val,” Johnny surmised, with amazing calm. There was a hopeful light in his eyes, but fear resounded in his voice. “I don’t know how, but she’s gotten away from them.” He took a deep ragged breath before going on. “An’ they’re after her.”
Johnny could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He could hear it too and he wondered if Val and Hank were able to hear it as well. Maddie was out there alone now. She could be hurt. Oh, God… had she been alone all night… wandering lost on the mountain? She could fall, or trip or…
All of a sudden, the scream he’d heard earlier - the cat - seemed all the more ominous.
He took another deep breath to try to steel himself, fighting back a raging tide of panic. He had to get back to doing what had to be done. Standing there, staring into the trees and letting his imagination run riot, wasn’t helping anyone… least of all Maddie.
She was out there, somewhere, and there were two dangerous men following her. Somehow, she had apparently escaped her captors. Perhaps Scott had made it to her after all… or maybe she’d managed to do it on her own.
He didn’t know and it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he had to find her before the kidnappers did.
Still in a kind of daze, Johnny walked to the side of the path and looked down the side of the mountain. He stood there for a moment, seeing – but not seeing, before something down there caught his attention. All at once the trance was broken. His imaginings scattered to the wind and Johnny all but leapt off the path and into the ferns, half running and half sliding on the slippery slope and stopping a few yards down.
“Johnny?” Val shouted from above him. He sounded concerned, but Johnny had his mind on what he’d seen from the path and ignored him for now.
He looked at the ground and knew he’d been right. “Here, Val!” he called back urgently. “She was down here!”
Johnny looked around some more. Maddie had passed through here with the dog. She’d slipped and fallen right here, but had then gotten back up and gone on. It had been a nasty slide, but she couldn’t have been hurt if she’d gone on.
He looked for any sign of other prints and found some booted marks that made his heart clench again. He wasn’t the first to find this trail.
There was no sign of Scott here, but the indications Johnny had seen earlier of Scott’s fall was just a little further along the path. Maddie seemed to be headed in the same direction.
He raced up the hillside again and down the path, past Val and Hank, to where Barranca stood patiently waiting for him. Johnny grabbed his brother’s rifle from the saddle and turned back to face the others. “Well? You two gonna stand here gapin’ or are you comin’ with me?” he demanded irritably.
But Hank already had his own rifle in his hands and was coming down the path to join him. Johnny secured Barranca’s reins and then ran back down the hillside with Hank following close behind him, and Val slipped his rifle out and charged off after them.
Maddie watched the two men make their way across the thicket and shuddered. She knew that they had already seen her. They were looking straight at her as they approached. Terror gripped her. Her instincts told her to get out of there, to run and hide, but she was frozen where she sat and couldn’t have moved if she had wanted to.
Scott tensed beside her. She felt his hand brush against her when he picked up the pistol and readied himself to face them.
“Maddie,” he whispered. “Get down and crawl into the ferns so they can’t see you.”
“No, Tio,” she answered quickly and quietly. “It’s too late. They’ve already seen me. I’m staying here with you.”
She hadn’t looked at him to reply. Instead, she found herself mesmerized… transfixed by the two men walking towards them. The sight of them appalled her, frightened her almost past thinking. She felt a tremor pass through her body and wondered if her uncle had felt her shiver. She hoped not.
He had enough to cope with.
“Tio, there’s nowhere to go. They’ve seen me. They know I’m here.”
She heard him sigh heavily. “Alright, but stay down, out of the way,” he instructed her firmly.
Maddie nodded but she wasn’t sure he had seen it. She still hadn’t dragged her eyes away from the thicket. The sound of heavy boots trudging through the ferns, accompanied by the jangle of the spurs they wore and getting nearer and nearer all the time, held her captivated.
As the two men closed the gap between them, Maddie could make out their faces. Levie had a look of triumph in his eyes, lightening an otherwise grim expression. Frank looked less pleased. In fact, he looked downright unhappy. He was limping heavily and the sun gleamed off the rifle he clutched across his chest.
They were more than half way across the glade before she was able to clear her head enough to think straight and, finally, she tore her eyes away from them to take a look at her uncle.
He didn’t look good. His face was pale but fixed with determination. Droplets of sweat glistened on his forehead and he was breathing heavily and slowly. Maddie wasn’t sure how long he could hold that gun on them.
Scott must have been thinking the same thing. He grimaced as he drew one leg up towards his chest and rested the hand holding the gun on his knee. It would support the weight of the weapon in his shaking hand. That done, the pistol didn’t waver. He held it ready and was watching the progress of her nemeses across the glade.
“Well, well… what do we have here?” Mick Levie asked, sneeringly.
The sound of his voice, so close to her now, made her jump in fright. She looked back quickly, just in time to see the two men stop at the edge of the ferns – only a few feet away. Ironically, they emerged and stopped at the exact place where the cougar had stood, only a matter of a few hours ago.
And, right now, Maddie thought that she would rather be facing the cat than these two.
“Told you we’d find her, Frank,” Mike continued victoriously.
Maddie edged back and pressed herself hard against the rock wall behind her, her nerves screaming at her to run, but her mind telling her that there was nowhere to go and no point in trying.
“Leave her alone,” Scott told him coldly. “She’s not a defenseless child now.”
Mike held his rifle loosely in one hand. He seemed supremely confident and hadn’t even bothered to raise it yet, though Frank still had his across his chest. “Looks to me like she might as well be,” Mike answered, laughing. “You’re lookin’ kinda peeked, Mister.”
Maddie chanced a glance at Scott. Mike was right. Perspiration was now running down the side of her uncle’s face and his eyes looked glazed. He was frowning heavily and she thought that he was having trouble focusing them.
But, it appeared he wasn’t ready to concede defeat yet. “I think you should turn and walk away, right now,” Scott said determinedly.
Mike Levie grinned. “Is that so? Now, why would we want to do that?
“If you leave her alone now, you might just get away with all this and live to see tomorrow,” Scott answered, meaning it.
This time, Levie laughed outright. “Those are some mighty tough words for a man who looks as bad as you do, Mister.”
“Try me and see,” Scott snapped at him. “I can still pull this trigger.”
An evil gleam lit Mike’s eyes and Maddie cringed in fear. Of the three men who had taken her away from her family, it was Mike she feared the most. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to get the money he wanted for her.
“Oh, I reckon I just have to wait it out,” Mike answered malevolently. “You won’t last more’n a coupla minutes.”
“Maybe,” Scott assented and shifted his position just a little. “But you haven’t got just me or her father to worry about,” he persisted coldly. “You’ve taken on all of Lancer. If you touch this child, we’ll never stop hunting you down. We’ll follow you to the ends of the earth if we have to – and you’ll pay.”
“Oo-ee! Listen to that, Frank,” Mike said sarcastically. “We’re in big trouble here.”
Frank laughed nervously, but he didn’t answer. His eyes swept from Scott to Maddie and then scanned the forest around him anxiously.
Maddie felt a shiver go through Scott’s body. She glanced at him and saw that he was laboring to breathe. Levie saw it too and grinned.
“Havin’ trouble there, Mister?” he goaded Scott. “Guess I won’t have to wait long, will I? Looks to me like you’re hurtin’ too much to pull that trigger.”
“I can handle it,” Scott told him through gritted teeth, but Maddie thought that the strain in his voice belied his words. “And, if I can’t… well, there are others to take my place.”
Scott’s hand was shaking now. Maddie watched as he tried desperately to maintain his aim but, even with his knee to support his wrist, the gun was wavering. His hold on the pistol was faltering.
The sheer audacity of what she did next surprised even her. Without thinking about it, she reached over and took the pistol out of her uncle’s hand and wrapped her own hands around it.
Scott had relinquished his grip on it, first with stunned surprise, and then with an expression of heart-wrenching apology. She looked away then. Anger took hold of her. He’d tried so hard. He was in so much pain and now he was going to blame himself if anything went wrong.
But it wasn’t his fault. The man in front of her was to blame for all of it.
She turned back and aimed the gun straight at Levie, steadying it in her two hands and keeping her fingers firmly wrapped around the butt.
Maddie didn’t see Scott’s eyes close but she felt his head fall lightly onto her shoulder and she knew that he’d finally succumbed to the pain and passed out.
But she kept her eyes on the two men in front of her, wary of any move they might make.
Levie’s first reaction was the same as Scott’s had been – shock. But it lasted for only for a moment. It was quickly replaced with a smirking grin that infuriated Maddie even more.
“That’s a big gun for a little girl, Missy,” he taunted her, grinning. “Think you can handle it?”
Maddie got angrier. She glared at him, not realizing that there was an ice cold gleam in her eyes. “My name’s not ‘missy’ – it’s Maddie Lancer and you’d better stay back or I’ll shoot you dead.”
The gun was heavier than she remembered and it too both her hands to keep it firmly in her grasp, but it didn’t waver at all.
Mike laughed wickedly. “Will you, Missy? Now, here I thought we were friends!”
“You’re not my friends!” she answered grimly.
He laughed again. “Hey, Frank, you hear that?” he asked Munro. “After all the trouble we’ve taken over her, she says she doesn’t like us. Ain’t that just purely a shame?”
Frank nodded uncertainly. “Yeah, sure, Mike,” he answered, his eyes nervously watching Maddie’s hands. He hadn’t moved since she’d taken hold of the gun.
Mike, on the other hand, seemed to take the whole situation very lightly. He took half a step towards Maddie, still grinning.
But he froze in his tracks as she leveled the gun directly at his chest.
“You stay right there,” she demanded, consciously trying to sound scary. In fact, she felt anything but scary. She had to concentrate with all her might just to keep the gun from shaking and giving away her fear.
But Mike did stop. He glanced at the gun, then appeared to dismiss it and her. He scowled at her. “I bet you don’t even know how to fire that, Missy,” he said with a return of evil and irritating smirk.
As answer, Maddie thumbed back the hammer. Her big brown eyes narrowed and Levie hesitated.
“I know how to use it,” she told him quietly. “And I will.”
Levie slowly brought his rifle up and aimed it, not at Maddie, but at Scott. “No, little girl. You ain’t gonna shoot me or anyone else.” He kept his rifle aimed at Scott with intimidating precision and eyed his pint-sized aggressor coldly.
“In fact, you’re gonna put that gun down and come with us, little missy,” he continued malevolently. “Otherwise, I’ll put a bullet in your friend there.”
Maddie felt a cold hand squeeze her heart. Terrified, she tried her best not to let him see just how afraid she was.
“No,” she snapped back at him. “You stay away from him or I’ll shoot you.”
“Put the gun down, kid,” he persisted. “An’ move away from him.”
Maddie’s finger edged closer to the trigger. She wasn’t sure if he saw it, but Frank certainly did. He blanched. “Mike, watch her,” he stammered edgily.
“Shut up, Frank!” Mike growled. “Kid, put it down, now… or I’ll put your friend there out of his misery.”
“No, you’re a bad man! You hurt Papa and Tio… and you killed Rat. I will shoot you if I have to.”
“I’m gonna count three, kid,” Levie persevered angrily. “If you ain’t moved away from him by then…”
Maddie’s heart raced. What should she do?
She heard the word. It echoed around her and stopped her from thinking for a moment.
She blinked and tried to make herself think. She had to decide, right this instant, if she really could squeeze that trigger and shoot him. Shoot a man… it was a horrifying thought. Her mind flicked back to the sight of Rat’s face as he died… the blood… the thud as he hit the ground.
The man in front of her was her worst nightmare. She hated him with all her heart. But could she take his life?
Or should she do as he said and go with him? Would Mike really leave Tio alive if she did what he wanted?
No, she was suddenly sure that Mike would kill him anyway. He couldn’t be trusted. He was a killer. Hadn’t she seen what he was capable of? With her own eyes? It left her with only one choice. She frowned and started to close her eyes… putting the lightest pressure on the trigger and steeling herself to pull back on it.
Thunderstruck, Maddie opened her eyes and relaxed the pressure on the trigger.
“Now!” a deep voice shouted from across the glade.
Maddie dared to take her eyes off Levie long enough to glance behind him and confirm the identity of her rescuer. She had already recognized the voice, but she needed to see him with her own eyes to convince herself that it was true.
He was there. Her grandfather was striding through the ferns. Señor Cipriano was with him… and Wade too. And Drifter… Drifter was with them.
Johnny heard a raised voice and knew it immediately for Murdoch’s. It was close by… close enough that he could hear every word, but he couldn’t quite pin point where it was coming from.
He started to run forward and heavy treads behind him assured him that Val and Hank were doing the same. Then he heard his father’s voice again and stopped to listen.
“I said, drop it!” Murdoch growled.
It sounded as though the words were coming from somewhere below them. Johnny thought he knew what direction it was now and he edged behind a tree to peer down the hillside without being seen.
And, sure enough, about twenty yards down the hill, in what should have been an idyllic forest glade - graced with tall verdant bracken ferns and surrounded by pines; and lit by glittering sunshine - stood Murdoch Lancer. In front of him were two men he didn’t recognize… strangers. They were armed and Johnny instantly knew that they were the men who had turned his world upside down.
His heart beat faster and his breaths came quicker. Everything around him was strangely quiet as he focused on those men. They had taken something more precious than life from him.
Johnny’s hand balled into a fist against the giant tree trunk that was hiding him. He fought hard to contain the rage building inside him. Even his head began to hurt again as the pressure of his untamed thoughts grew towards uncontrollable rage.
“Johnny?” Val asked in what was little more than a murmur.
Johnny only vaguely heard him. He found himself straining just to breathe. His anger was encompassing every part of his being.
“Johnny?” Val repeated quietly and with uncommon kindness. “Take it easy, Amigo.”
Johnny frowned and closed his eyes tightly to concentrate. His breathing slowed and he felt his heart starting to slow as well. He shook his head, then opened his eyes and caught sight of his fist, balled so hard that his knuckles were white and shaking.
With one more deep breath to clear his head and take back some control, he looked down at the thicket below.
All of the players in that awful scene were facing a rock wall but, from where he stood now, Johnny could not see what, or who, held their attention. It didn’t really matter. He’d already guessed that it was Maddie and, hopefully, Scott was with her.
He wished he could see them though, just to be sure. It was important to see that they were both alright.
But what did matter was that, from up here, it looked like a stand off. One of the strangers had a rifle aimed at whoever was in that niche in the rock wall and Murdoch had his own rifle leveled at the man’s back. Cipriano and Wade were there too, standing behind Murdoch to back him up.
The second stranger held his rifle ready, but it wasn’t aimed at anything or anyone. Nevertheless, the situation presented Johnny and his companions with a problem. With so many weapons in play, any one of them could set off a tragic chain reaction if it were fired.
Val moved quietly to Johnny’s side and Hank held back a foot or two with his rifle ready. But Val didn’t say anything more. Johnny glanced quickly at him and thought that he, too, was holding his breath as he watched.
“Back off, Mister,” Johnny heard the man with the rifle say. His voice was harsh and firm, enough to tell Johnny that he meant business. “Back off or he dies.”
He! Scott? It had to be.
“Scott’s gotta be down there,” Val whispered.
“Yeah,” Johnny answered, barely audibly. “Haven’t heard him say anything though.”
“Get up, kid,” the man continued and Johnny felt his heart lurch. His fist clenched around the Winchester in his hand. Maddie was definitely down there too.
If she answered the man, Johnny didn’t hear her. She was hidden from his view by the tall ferns and by the side of her hiding place. Scott still hadn’t said anything either and Johnny wondered why not. Only one answer occurred to him. Scott must be hurt.
Remembering the trail of destruction he’d seen down the mountainside, where he’d assumed his brother must have fallen, it was more than likely that Scott was badly injured.
“They’re both down there,” Val whispered to Johnny. “Scott an’ Maddie.”
“Yeah,” Johnny answered quietly. “That’s how I figure it, too. Scott must be hurt. He ain’t said anything.”
Johnny had to clamp down on the primordial instincts that had his heart beating wildly and adrenalin coursing though his veins. Every nerve twitched with the urge to run down there to their rescue, but he braced himself to fight it.
“I told you to put that gun down, Mister,” Murdoch roared at the man.
“You try it and he’s dead,” the man doing the talking answered. “The kid’s comin’ with me, ain’t ya, kid?”
Dios! The bastard was going to take Maddie again!
No, Johnny wasn’t going to let it happen… not now that he was within reach of her. His hand tightened again around the rifle and he started to raise it.
Val touched his shoulder and Johnny turned his head quickly to face him. Val shook his head slowly. “Not yet, John,” he said quietly. “Wait a minute. You don’t wanta start anything down there ‘less you ain’t got a choice.”
Johnny took another deep breath. Once he stilled his emotions, he knew that Val was right. There might be a time when the risk had to be taken, but this wasn’t it. He listened for Maddie’s voice, but he didn’t hear any answer she might have given the man, but neither did he see Maddie stand up to go with him.
“There are three rifles on you,” Murdoch reminded the stranger. “There’s no way that you’re walking out of here alive with her. Give it up!”
Johnny heard the man answer with an almost maniacal laugh. “Don’t matter how many rifles you got, Lancer… not if you want this guy to stay alive. You shoot me an’ I’ll take him with me. Count on it.” There was a moment’s pause before the man continued. “Now, kid, get up an’ come over here to me… nice an’ slow.”
Hank inched closer to them. The faintest crack of a twig under foot resulted in both Johnny and Val whirling around to face him, Johnny with his gun drawn and Val with his hand wrapped around the butt of his own Colt.
“Dios, Hank… keep it quiet,” Johnny snapped at him in hushed tones.
Johnny slipped the Colt back into his holster and quickly turned back to see what was happening below. “From what I can figure, Maddie an’ Scott must be in that rock crevice over there,” he told them, pointing it out. “Can’t see either of ‘em.”
“NOW KID!” the man below snarled and Johnny felt himself jerk suddenly. It was all he could do to keep from shooting the man right then.
“Damn!” Val hissed under his breath.
“Yeah,” Johnny replied curtly. His eyes stayed on the man with the rifle while he tried to think out a plan of action. The situation couldn’t go on. Sooner or later, someone was going to do something that would start things turning ugly.
Seconds ticked by like hours, but he came to a decision. Without a word to Val or to Hank, Johnny sat down and proceeded to remove his spurs. In the silence around him, the occasional steely jingle was met with a scowl from Johnny. The last thing he wanted now was for anyone down there to hear him.
Once done, he picked up Scott’s rifle with one hand and the spurs with the other. Johnny got to his feet and handed the spurs over to a surprised Hank.
“I’m going down there, Val,” Johnny informed his friend, and made sure that his announcement left no room for argument.
Val looked past him, down the hillside. “You’d best be real careful then, John,” Val told him quietly. “One wrong move and things could get real bad.”
Johnny glared at him. As if he needed reminding of the situation in that glade down there. Words drifted up to him. Murdoch’s voice, the stranger’s voice… but nothing from Scott or Maddie. The words were disjointed and meaningless with his mind too busy on what he had planned.
Val sighed heavily. “Alright,” he relented. He turned his face back to Johnny and looked him squarely in the eyes. “Look, Buddy,” he began decisively. “I guess I can’t really say that I know how you feel. That ain’t my little girl down there… an’ Scott ain’t my brother neither. But I know you, John. Hold onto your wits an’ don’t do nothin’ stupid.”
“You finished?” Johnny asked bluntly.
Val nodded, almost sadly. “Yeah, I guess. ’Cept for one thing.”
“Be careful. Don’t do nothin’ stupid, but don’t take no chances neither.”
Johnny nodded this time. “Sure,” he answered. He looked at his brother’s rifle, still in his hand, and suddenly tossed it to Val. Val caught it deftly.
“Cover me,” Johnny said quietly and then turned away and started down through the trees.
Frank Munro watched the girl with escalating anxiety. A gun in the hands of a child? Damn, that wasn’t good.
“There’s no way out of this,” Murdoch Lancer growled at Mike. Frank was well aware that he was old man Lancer. He’d seen him in town and the man was remarkably recognizable – inches taller than most men and as broad as a barn.
Frank’s heart pounded wildly. He desperately tried to think of a way out of this mess, but he just couldn’t see any hope of escape. A lump formed in his chest, sitting painfully in his sternum. It started to rise as his fears coalesced and pulled him closer towards hysteria.
How the hell had he ended up in this fix anyway? Why had he ever let Mike lead him deeper and deeper into this situation?
No way were they going to just let him and Mike walk away with the girl like Mike still seemed to think he could manage. No way would they escape prison, or even the gallows. And that was all thanks to Mike, too. He’d shot at Madrid and tried to kill the other fellow. And he’d killed Rat. He wondered what they’d do if he just put down his rifle and stepped away. Maybe Lancer and his men would let him surrender.
Or maybe he wouldn’t. One thing he was sure of though - Mike would kill him if he tried it.
Frank glanced across at Mike again. The man was entirely focused on the kid. He still thought he could get that wad of money he’d planned on.
Frank’s arm throbbed angrily – another reminder that this had started to go wrong, for him anyway, right from the very beginning.
Mike’s apparent belief that he could walk out of here and return to his original plan only served to concrete Frank’s growing conviction that Levie was mad. And he’d let that crazy son of a bitch bring him to this!
He’d seen it coming though. Levie’s plan had sounded great… even easy. That is, until they’d tried to put it into action. It had been obvious that those Lancers weren’t going to simply go home and raise the money.
And he sure wouldn’t have gone along with this if he’d known about Madrid. He should have just up and quit when he’d first found that out.
Then, behind him, Frank Munro heard something. It was the faintest crunch of crushed leaves. Then it was followed by the low rumbling growl that he’d heard yesterday. Was it only yesterday? Was it such a short time ago that he’d been looking forward to the biggest payoff of his life with such cheer and certainty?
It had been that damned dog that had started the process that had seen the whole fabric of the plan fall to pieces. Suddenly, that dog was the reason for his being here now. Irrationally, he saw the animal as the source of all his problems. It had attacked and bitten him, led the posse up the mountain close on their tails all day yesterday, and then it had somehow been involved in setting the girl free.
The lump in his chest rose higher, till he couldn’t breathe.
Fury surged through him and mixed with his fears and hysteria to become a lethal concoction. He might not be able to get himself out of this, but he sure wasn’t going to get bitten again!
He quickly raised his rifle, spun and leveled it at the dog.
Vaguely, Frank heard a small explosion in the distance. He felt a thud to his chest and a bright light burst before his eyes. His fingers tightened on the rifle in his hands, but he couldn’t find the trigger.
Frantic flashes of thought sprang to mind…
What the hell?
Then realization… Damn!
And finally… ironically… Well, they won’t get to hang me now.
Frank Munro felt his legs give way. He knew and strangely, he didn’t much seem to care that he was falling.
He took a desperate breath… the ground was coming up under him… and then there was nothing.
Murdoch gasped audibly when he heard the shot. He held his breath and kept his finger ready by the trigger of his rifle, waiting to see what would be the reaction of the man still standing in front of him. He prayed that the man wouldn’t panic and fire.
Murdoch saw a shudder of surprise go through him but, by some miracle, he didn’t fire. Murdoch breathed again.
So who had fired the shot? It hadn’t come from behind him, so it hadn’t been either Cipriano or Wade. Johnny then? It seemed most likely. He quickly scanned the forest above them but he couldn’t see anyone.
It had been a terrible risk to take, but a brilliant shot in the circumstances. It might not have been over a great distance, but whoever had fired had had only a split second’s warning when the kidnapper had turned his gun on them. Hitting his target with such a short time to line it up had taken skill.
Murdoch had seen the second man’s face as he had turned on them, and he’d known that he was going to fire.
He wouldn’t now.
Murdoch turned his attention back to the drama still unfolding in front of him. He could see past the stranger to where Scott and Maddie sat in that small space in the rocks, and he didn’t like what he saw. Scott was in a bad way, though Murdoch couldn’t be sure what was wrong with him. Apart from one rough and dirty bandage on his arm, there were no obvious signs of injury - no blood that he could see.
But he was unconscious just the same. His head lay on Maddie’s shoulder, his damp hair clinging to his face. There was a sheen of sweat over his face that made it obvious that he had a fever. But they couldn’t get to him, not yet.
And Maddie? The shock of finding her with Scott’s gun in her tiny hands had taken his breath away. She looked terrified, and yet there was a look in her eyes that he’d seen more times than he could remember… in Johnny’s eyes.
“Call your man off, Lancer,” Maddie’s kidnapper demanded. “I’ve got my finger on the trigger and another move like that is goin’ to get one or both of these two killed. If I go… they go with me.”
Anger rippled through Murdoch in ever increasing violence. “You’re talking about my son and my granddaughter. You harm one hair on either of their heads and there’s no place on earth you’ll be able to hide,” he assured him resolutely.
“Your son, hey?” the man sneered, and laughed lightly. “He don’t look Mex to me, so I guess he ain’t Madrid.”
“No… that would be me,” a chilling voice said from the trees.
All eyes turned towards that voice. Everything seemed to stop and hang expectantly.
Johnny stood beside the enormous trunk of a pine at the edge of the thicket. He was just off to Murdoch’s right and stood beside the fallen kidnapper.
With the huge tree by his side, Johnny should have been dwarfed by the comparison. But, somehow, he overshadowed it instead. It was through sheer force of personality that he managed it. His hands hung loosely at his sides so that he looked completely at ease. Yet, anyone looking at him knew that that wasn’t the case.
His hat sat low on his forehead, casting a shadow over his face. But they could still see his eyes.
Murdoch dragged his attention away from his youngest son and looked to see what Maddie was doing. Where a minute ago, her eyes had been narrowed and frigid; they were now wide and hopeful… and they were glued on her father.
For a moment, Murdoch felt a pang of envy towards his son. How much would he have given, over all those lonely years without his boys, to have even once seen that look of innate trust that Maddie had turned on Johnny directed towards him?
But he brushed the thought aside. What he feared, more than anything, was that, in her excitement at seeing her father, she might jump up and try to run to him. It would be disastrous. The chances were that she would either be shot or grabbed by the man in front of her.
A quelling look from Johnny, however, seemed to have the right effect on her. Maddie turned her eyes back to the man facing her. Her hands trembled a little, but she licked her lips nervously and frowned in concentration. Then the gun steadied and her eyes froze over again, almost a mirror image of Johnny’s.
The kidnapper’s weapon was still aimed at Scott and Maddie, but he flicked his attention from them to Johnny and back again.
But Johnny? He’d glanced at Maddie only long enough to give her that warning and then kept his eyes only on the stranger. He ignored Murdoch’s presence, as well as that of Cipriano and Wade. He hadn’t even looked at them. They might just as well have not existed for all the attention he paid them.
Murdoch had seen Johnny turn on this other persona before, but it never lessened the impact of seeing the reality of his son’s past brought to life - no matter how many times he witnessed it. Johnny’s careless attitude belied the overall impression that he exuded – implicit danger.
Murdoch thought that it was mostly something in his eyes. They were passionless, distant. They offered no hint of what was going on in his mind, but they bored right into your soul and planted a fertile seed of fear.
That aura of menace that permeated the atmosphere around Johnny was frightening – just as he intended. It chilled Murdoch. That his fun loving, wild and charismatic son could call on the lethal poise of Madrid, almost at will, was a damning indictment on the life he had led before coming back to Lancer.
Murdoch felt a shiver ripple down his spine. Images of what that life had been like for Johnny haunted Murdoch’s dreams sometimes.
But, at the moment, with both Scott’s and Maddie’s lives hanging in the balance; Murdoch found he was grateful for the presence of Johnny Madrid rather than frightened by it.
And it was working. Johnny’s continued silence was as unsettling as his words had been. It appeared to be chewing at the stranger’s nerves. The man kept glancing sideways to keep an eye on Johnny, but he hadn’t taken his eyes off Scott and Maddie long enough to offer an opportunity to overpower him safely.
He still stood rigidly in front of their sanctuary, still with the gun aimed directly at them. Murdoch believed the man when he said he’d fire. He had nothing to lose now.
“Stay outa this, Madrid,” the fellow finally said. “I’ll kill ‘em both if you try anything.”
Despite the seemingly slow passing of time, Murdoch realized that it had only been seconds since his son had magically appeared out of nowhere. The words, and the threat they carried, jolted Murdoch back into the present.
Johnny didn’t answer and his silence seemed to be a challenge in itself.
“That what you want, Madrid?” he asked edgily. “You want me to put a bullet into that girl o’ yours?”
Again, Johnny didn’t answer him, but he glanced towards his daughter.
“You okay, Maddie?” he asked. His voice sounded toneless and barely interested, but Murdoch could only guess how hard he had to work on getting it to sound that way.
Maddie nodded hesitantly.
“Good girl,” Johnny told her, still with that same monotone. “Stay real still. Let me handle this.”
For the first time, the kidnapper appeared genuinely uneasy. His confidence was falling to pieces in front of their eyes.
Murdoch looked into Maddie’s eyes and wondered what was going through her mind.
In fact, Maddie was trying to recognize her father in the man standing over there by that tree. He looked like Papa. He was Papa. She knew that, but there was something about him that was different - something intimidating… intriguing. A part of her was frightened by the change in him but, mostly, she was captivated.
This was the man she’d heard stories about. This was Johnny Madrid.
Maddie knew all about the gunfighter in her father’s past. He made no secret of it and he always answered her questions about it, but he had never brought the subject up himself. Most of what she knew was what she had heard whispered in the streets of town, or that had been told to her by the other children at school. Some of them even taunted her with stories they’d heard or made up themselves.
But she had always assumed that it was just his prowess with a hand gun that they talked about and marveled at. She’d always thought that Johnny Madrid was just another name that her father had used.
Now, she knew better. It was her father himself whom they feared.
She could see that fear in Mike Levie’s eyes and she felt a touch of triumph. He was alone now, and he had nowhere to go. Frank was lying dead beside him to remind him of it.
Maddie kept her eyes steadfastly on Mike. She couldn’t afford to let him out of her sight. He was capable of anything if he got half a chance.
Besides, it kept her eyes off Frank’s body. The only time she’d allowed herself to look at him, she’d shivered in horror at the blood on his chest and the stunned eyes, still open and staring vacantly up through the branches.
“You wanta take me on instead of a kid and a wounded man?” she heard Papa say. His voice sounded colorless… emotionless, not at all like he usually did.
Mike’s eyes flicked nervously towards her father as he spoke. “You think I’m crazy?”
Johnny nonchalantly shifted his weight onto one foot and stared at him. “Well, let’s see. You stole my kid; my brother’s over there hurt… an’ you’re holding a rifle on both of ‘em an’ threatening to kill them. Not to mention that I figure you for the guy who took a pot shot at me.” He tipped his hat back off his face, ever so slightly, with the tip of one finger. The sun lit on his face and he smiled. Not the warm, loving and contagious smile that she knew. With that look still in his eyes, the smile became dangerous. “Yeah, I’d say that qualifies you for ‘crazy’,” he finished.
“Not crazy enough to draw on you, Madrid.”
Johnny took a breath and let it out slowly. “Now, who said anything about you gettin’ the chance to draw?” he asked malevolently. “Holdin’ that rifle like that, I’m thinkin’ I could get away with just shooting you.”
There was a moment of silence while Levie digested that. Then he answered, but there was something about his voice that Maddie noticed. The bravado was gone. He didn’t seem anywhere near as terrifying now as he had over the last day and night. Now, his voice held a hesitant uncertainty.
“That’d be murder,” he snarled back.
“Nah,” Johnny said quietly. “Plenty of witnesses here to say it wasn’t.” He paused to let his words have their effect. “The only way you’ve got left to get outa this alive is to put down that rifle an’ back away from Maddie an’ Scott. Nice an’ slow…”
“I’ll see you in hell first, Madrid!”
Johnny smiled, but there was no warmth in it. “Maybe,” he answered blithely. “But you’ll be there before me.”
Maddie saw it then. At least she thought she did. There was a flicker in Levie’s eyes, like he’d made his decision. Then he spun around to face Johnny.
Johnny launched into a breathtaking blur of action. Too fast for them to even see properly, his right hand pulled his pistol clear of the holster while his left fanned back the hammer. He fired only once. It was all he’d needed. The bullet took Levie squarely in the chest.
Levie didn’t get time to line up on Johnny or fire. He gasped and fell to the ground.
It had all happened in a heartbeat and it left a deathly silence that was only broken by the echo of the shot, resounding around the mountain.
The dull thud of Levie’s body hitting the ground was followed by the clatter of his rifle as it bounced once beside him and then rattled to a stop. The sound heralded an anxious silence among the players in that forest glade.
Wisps of gun smoke curled and drifted around Johnny, the pungent odor out of place in the cool, sweet morning air of the mountain.
He stared at the prostrate form of the kidnapper and was lost in a world of hate and rage. Shooting the man hadn’t brought the gratification he wanted. It had happened too fast and it didn’t seem enough to pay for what the man had done to Maddie… to Scott, or for the anguish and the fears of the last two days - not nearly enough.
Johnny hadn’t fired to kill, but the man hadn’t moved; hadn’t made a sound. Johnny took a few steps closer to him and nudged him, less than gently, with the toe of his boot. The body still didn’t move, but a sound behind him had Johnny whirl around, gun aimed and ready to fire.
“Easy, John!” Val said, his hand up defensively in front of him. “It’s just me…”
Johnny took a breath, forcing himself to recognize that the danger had passed. He unwound, let the hammer click safely back into place and then slid the gun, slowly and purposefully, back into the holster.
“You oughta know better’n that, Val,” he growled at his friend, all too aware that, in his present state, he might easily have fired and killed Val. It brought him out of his reverie and, unaware that everyone present could see it happen, he let go of his hold on the past and allowed the mantle of Johnny Madrid to slip away.
Val edged past him to where the two bodies lay on the ground and Johnny felt strangely relieved of them. Picking up the rifles and hurling them out of reach, Val put the weapon he carried himself – Scott’s 44-40 – down on the ground and checked the two men for signs of life.
“That was quite a shot from up there,” Johnny said appreciatively.
“Yeah,” Val replied without humility. “Scott’s right ‘bout that new gun. I just might have ta invest in one myself.”
Johnny grinned. “Val Crawford… spendin’ money?”
Val ignored him. “This one’s still alive,” he told Johnny. It was the man Johnny had shot.
“Yeah,” Johnny answered, not surprised.
Val looked up at his friend, his face asking the question for him, so Johnny added grimly, “I want to see him hang for this.”
“Johnny?” Behind him, Murdoch’s voice sounded unusually restrained. Johnny looked around at him to see him nod his head in the direction of the rocks. Seconds had ticked by, but no one else had moved. Murdoch still stood, rooted to the ground, while Cipriano and Wade were waiting behind him. Both had their eyes on him, expectantly.
He turned back towards the rock-face, fearful of what he’d find. Maddie had been fine a moment ago…
Finally, he was looking straight into his daughter’s eyes. At the sight of her, his heart clenched. She was still holding Scott’s gun tightly in both hands, frozen in the moment of terror that had gone by without her noticing its passing.
No one moved yet. Johnny surreptitiously waved Murdoch to stay quiet while he turned his entire attention on Maddie. She seemed unaware that it was all over. She didn’t even seem to have realized that the kidnapper no longer stood in front of her.
“Maddie,” he said, quietly and gently. “You can put the gun down now, Chiquita.”
There was no reaction. She didn’t even look towards his voice. “Maddie?” he repeated softly and waited for a moment. Finally, she turned her eyes towards him, her hands still locked around the gun. “Put the gun down, Sweetheart,” he told her again.
She blinked, but didn’t move. He could see that he wasn’t getting through to her.
“Madelena,” he whispered and then repeated, this time in Spanish, “Chiquita, tu puedes poner la pistola abajo ya.”
“Si, ha terminado, Chiquita. Ponlo sobre el suelo.”
For another instant, she continued to stare vacantly at him, then a spark of life lit her eyes and she slowly lowered the gun.
It was the signal for Johnny to move forward. His heart screamed at him to run to her, to sweep her into his arms and hold her like he’d never let her go again. But he could see how badly shaken she was so he walked over with as much calm as he could muster.
When he reached her, Johnny knelt in front of her. Her eyes were silently locked on his and he took the gun carefully out of her hands, checked it quickly and placed it on the ground beside him.
He heard footsteps behind him and glanced around. Murdoch had taken his cue from Johnny and was coming to join them.
Johnny turned back to Maddie. She hadn’t moved at all. It would have been difficult for her to do anyway. Scott’s head still rested on her shoulder. How long Scott had been unconscious, Johnny had no idea, but his face was visibly flushed with fever, even under the scratches and dirt.
Johnny took a good look at his daughter. In one heartbreaking instant, he took in her grubby, tattered clothes, her tangled hair and her face, ashen beneath scratches and dirt like that on Scott’s face.
But, mostly, he saw her eyes – big and brown, expressive as always and sparkling with unshed tears.
He was almost afraid to touch her, lest he wake up and found that she had disappeared again.
“Ha terminado, Papa?” she asked him hesitantly.
He smiled. “Si, mi Chiquita, it’s all over. No one’s going to hurt you now.”
Maddie leaned forward towards his arms, but Scott’s head shifted and she froze.
“It’s alright, Honey, I’ve got him,” Murdoch said quickly and lifted Scott’s head gently from her shoulder.
Once free of her self-imposed responsibility for Scott, she launched herself at Johnny. She threw her arms around his neck and clung to him, nuzzling her cheek against his face.
He wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly, savoring her embrace. He laughed, light-headed and giddy with delight at having her back safely.
“I knew you’d come, Papa!” she whispered.
He loosened her grip on his neck and pushed her back so that he could look her over properly. He pulled a pine needle from her tangled hair and wiped a smudge of dirt from her cheek. “My but you’re a mess,” he told her teasingly, and then sobered abruptly. “Are you hurt?” he asked anxiously, carefully taking stock of every bruise and scratch.
She shook her head. “No, Papa… but Tio, he’s hurt.”
“Yeah, I know,” Johnny answered, his eyes turning to where Murdoch was laying Scott down carefully on the ground. “Murdoch, how’s he doing?”
“He’s got a fever,” Murdoch answered. “There’s a gash on his arm. It’s showing some signs of infection, but it’s not serious. I don’t think it explains his being unconscious for so long. There must be something else.”
With Cipriano’s help, Murdoch maneuvered his son onto his back so that he could look him over more closely.
“Not on his back, Grandpa!” Maddie exclaimed as she turned her attention to Scott as well. “It hurts him. Lay him on his side, his right side.”
“Do you know what’s wrong with him, Maddie?” Murdoch asked her.
“He hit a tree when he fell. His shoulder was hurting him… his left one,” she explained. “His arm was bleeding when I found him, but he couldn’t feel it much. I tried to bandage it up for him, but I don’t think I did it real good.”
“You did just fine, Maddie,” Murdoch assured her.
“I saw where he fell, Murdoch,” Johnny told him. “It must have been a bad fall. He rolled down the hill some before he hit that tree. You’d better check him over real good.”
“It was Mike. He did it, Papa,” Maddie said urgently. “He pushed a rock down the hill and… well, I didn’t see what happened exactly but I…” she lowered her voice to a whisper. “I just knew Tio was hurt.”
Surprised, Johnny answered, “You knew? About Scott?”
Maddie nodded. “Yes.” She lifted her hand and laid her finger tenderly on the bloodstained bandage on Johnny’s head. Her face showed her concern for him. “And you. I knew you were hurt. Does it hurt a lot?”
“Nah, not at all.”
She scowled at him. “And that’s a fib, Papa,” she told him firmly. “I know it is, isn’t it?”
He grinned wryly. “Alright, but it’s just a headache is all,” he admitted, then stopped and turned back towards where Scott lay behind them.
Rolling him as carefully as they could, Murdoch and Cipriano had moved Scott onto his right side. Murdoch ran his hands gently over his son to check for injuries and, when he touched Scott’s left shoulder, evoked in a low moan from him.
“Murdoch?” Johnny asked anxiously.
Very carefully, Murdoch lifted Scott’s shirt to have a look at his back. What he found took his breath away. There was bruising over almost every inch of it, but around his shoulder blade, the color was horrifically black.
“What is it, Murdoch?” Johnny demanded, his fears echoing in his voice.
“I think his shoulder blade is broken,” Murdoch explained to him, then turned to Cipriano. “We’re going to need a stretcher of some kind to get him down off this mountain. We can’t put him on horseback like this and a travois would bounce him around far too much in this terrain.”
“Si, Señor, we will see to it,” his segundo answered. “And I have some bandages in my saddle bag. I will bring them.”
“A canteen too,” Murdoch reminded him as Cipriano got to his feet and hurried over to where Wade and Hank stood.
Johnny edged over closer to his brother. He lifted Scott’s head into his lap while Maddie crept over to tuck herself in tightly beside her father.
“Easy, Brother,” he whispered softly.
Scott’s breathing was heavy and labored. Johnny put his hand to his forehead and was dismayed by the heat he felt there. Suddenly, Maddie was on her feet and ran over to the trickle of water running down the rocks. She wet her handkerchief and hurried back to Johnny.
“This will help, Papa.” She held out the small, wet and ice cold handkerchief for him.
Taking it from her, Johnny laid it on Scott’s brow while Maddie scrunched in beside him again. “Thank you, Chiquita,” he said with a small smile for her.
“We need to get his shirt off, Johnny,” Murdoch told him. “We can use it to bind that left arm to his side. I’m going to need you to lift him so I can get it off him.”
Johnny opened the buttons on the shirt and let Murdoch ease it off Scott’s right arm and back, then lifted him off the ground just enough to allow the shirt to be eased the rest of the way off. As he put his brother back down on the ground, he caught sight of the shocking bruising on his back.
“You sure it’s just his shoulder blade, Murdoch?” Johnny asked uneasily.
Murdoch wrapped the shirt around his elder son’s chest, pulling the left arm tight against his body and tying the sleeves together to secure it. “I hope so, Son,” he answered Johnny.
Another low moan drew Johnny’s attention back to his brother. “Murdoch, I think he’s comin’ round,” he suggested quietly.
As if in answer, Scott’s eyelids lifted. He frowned and then tried to raise his head. A sharp gasp stopped him barely an inch clear of Johnny’s lap. “Take it easy, Brother. You ain’t going nowhere like that,” Johnny told him, a reassuring hand on Scott’s good shoulder.
“Don’t try to move, Scott,” Murdoch warned him gently.
“Maddie?” Scott asked, his voice barely audible.
“She’s fine,” Johnny told him. “Thanks to you. I owe you more’n I can ever tell you, Boston.”
Scott tried to laugh it off, but the effort brought on another gasp of pain. He caught his breath. “I think she looked after me… more than the other way around.”
Johnny wiped the wet handkerchief across Scott’s brow again. “Well, she was sure the mama bear when we found her,” he said, lightly covering his growing concern for his brother. Then he added seriously, “But I still owe you, Scott. Gracias, Hermano.”
“Now, lay still, Scott,” Murdoch told him firmly. “Save your strength. We’ll get you home.”
“All taken care of,” Johnny assured him coldly. “You rest now.”
Scott’s breathing evened out a little as he relaxed into the cushion of his brother’s lap. Within moments, he had lost consciousness again.
“Will he be okay?” Maddie asked worriedly.
“Sure, we’ll get him home and Dr. Sam will look after him,” he assured her, pressing himself to believe the words at the same time.
The soft touch of fur on his arm warned Johnny that Drifter had joined them. He looked up then reached out and rubbed the dog’s head gently, careful of the still raw gouge in its head, and said quietly, “You did real good, dog. I owe you too.”
“Drifter!” Maddie exclaimed and threw herself around the dog’s neck. Finally, the unshed tears began to spill over. “I thought you went and got yourself killed chasing after that cat.”
“Cat!” Johnny echoed. “What cat?”
Maddie let go of her dog and sat up in front of her father. “A cougar. It was here last night and I was real scared. Boy, it was big.” She stopped for a moment and then pointed to the patch of ground where Mike Levie now laid. “It was right there. Tio was asleep and I couldn’t get him to wake up. Then I couldn’t find the gun in the dark, so I threw a rock at it… a big rock. I hit it right on the nose and then it ran away.”
Johnny said nothing. He looked over to where she pointed and realized how close the cougar had been. Fear gripped him, even though his head told him that the danger was long past. It was what might have been that terrified him.
“Papa…” Maddie began nervously. “Please don’t be mad about the gun.”
Johnny’s fears dissipated as he drew himself back into the present. “What?”
“You won’t be mad at Tio for showing me how to use the gun, will you?” she asked. “I know I’m not allowed to have one, but…”
He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in so tightly against him that she squirmed a little in discomfort. “Maddie, you’re not allowed to ‘play’ with guns. But protecting yourself and Tio is a whole different thing. That’s what a gun is for.”
“Then you’re not going to be mad with him?”
“No. I’m glad he did it.”
“Phew!” she sighed quickly. “Tio thought you might kill him for teaching me.”
Johnny squeezed her tight again and smiled. “Mi Querida, I missed you something fierce.”
“I missed you too, Papa. I knew you’d come for me, but those men… they were horrible. And I thought Drifter was dead, at first… and then they shot you… and hurt Tio. And then I was so lost and… and there were spiders!”
Tears tumbled unrestrained down her face. Johnny’s heart broke for her but, deep within him, a terrible anger grew hotter and harder to control. He glanced towards Val and the kidnapper that Johnny himself had allowed to live long enough to stand trial and he wondered whether killing the man would have given him more satisfaction.
He leaned his head over and rested his cheek on the crown of Maddie’s head. “They can’t hurt you now, niña. They won’t ever hurt you again.”
Maddie sniffed back her tears and wiped them away determinedly with the back of her hand. She nuzzled into his shoulder and sighed wearily. Then she wrapped her fingers around her father’s shirt and closed her eyes.
Johnny sat on the sofa in the Great Room, his legs stretched out in front of him and his eyes on the two babies playing on the floor at his feet. Becca was sitting up, laughing gaily at the antics of her twin brother as he floundered on his stomach.
“Here,” Murdoch said quietly, offering Johnny a glass of brandy and standing over him like a towering bastion.
Johnny looked up at him and half smiled wryly. “Kinda early in the day for that, don’t you think?”
“Not today,” was all the reply he got.
Johnny thought about it for a moment, and then decided that he agreed. He took the glass and swallowed a generous mouthful before turning to watch Murdoch take a seat in one of the armchairs. Murdoch crossed his legs and tried to look comfortable, but he wasn’t fooling Johnny.
“At least it’s all over, now,” Murdoch commented.
But Johnny only nodded absently. ‘Over’… would it ever really be over? He thought back across the last four weeks and the trail of tears and nightmares they’d had to contend with. And not all of them had been Maddie’s. Johnny had held Celeste in his arms while she cried out her fears and distress, and Johnny himself had woken in a cold sweat more than once.
He knew, too, that the others had suffered the same. Sarah had engrossed herself in nursing Scott but Johnny had found her staring into the darkness one night and she’d admitted her own fears. She and Scott would have children of their own to keep safe and secure one day.
Johnny suspected that Murdoch had been dealing with his own demons as well. He hadn’t admitted to them, but he’d appeared haggard and sleepless at breakfast sometimes.
Getting Scott down off that mountain had been a long and grueling ordeal that had added to their anguish. They had had to manhandle the roughly constructed stretcher on foot most of the way down. Fortunately, Scott had been unconscious for most of the journey, only coming to briefly a couple of times and soon passing out as he suffered through the jolting around.
Murdoch had sent Hank ahead to fetch a wagon and wait at the bottom of the mountain for them, but it had been dark by the time they reached it. They found Sarah waiting anxiously with it, while Jelly paced back and forth impatiently.
Maddie had been asleep in Johnny’s arms by the time they reached the wagon. Willing and sympathetic hands had tried to take her from him so that she could sleep more comfortably in the back with Scott, but she’d woken just enough to understand that they were trying to pry her away from her father and had dug her fingers into his shirt so hard that she had gouged his skin with her nails.
“Leave her,” he’d told them firmly. “She’s okay where she is.” And she had been.
Still, it was all over, at least as far as the law was concerned, with the hanging of Mike Levie this morning. None of the Lancers had gone to watch, preferring not to open the wounds again. The trial had been bad enough, though Johnny had steadfastly refused to allow Maddie or any of the other children to testify. He’d figured, and correctly as it turned out, that there was enough evidence to convict Levie without her.
Murdoch had asked him why he hadn’t killed Levie when he had the chance. No one would have blamed him for it. Johnny had found the answer hard to put into words, but had explained that he wanted everyone to see more than just three bodies being carted back into town and rumors or stories abounding about how Johnny Madrid had gotten his revenge. The trial, and now the hanging, would show people that not only would Lancer look after its own – the law would back them up.
A loud wail of impatience brought Johnny’s attention back to the twins, and to his son in particular. Johnny shook his head in dismay. “You know, Murdoch,” he began. “I think I should start worryin’ about Matt.”
Murdoch was surprised. “Why?”
“Well look at him. He’s lettin’ Becca beat him to everything. She rolled over before him, now she can sit up an’ he’s still trying…”
He stopped at Murdoch’s answering belly-deep laughter and looked at him, frowning.
“Son, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” Murdoch told him when he caught his breath. “Take another look at him.”
Johnny did look at the chubby dark haired infant kicking his legs and waving his arms like some stranded sea creature.
“That boy isn’t interested in ‘sitting’, Johnny,” Murdoch explained to him, grinning widely. “He wants to get moving! I guarantee you that he’s going to learn to run before he can walk.”
Murdoch laughed again. “You did.”
Johnny grinned and Murdoch got to his feet. He put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and added, “Johnny, my boy, you are going to have your hands full.”
Scott sat in the shade of the old willow, his back resting against the trunk and a fishing pole held lightly in his free hand. His left arm was still constrained in a sling though the feeling in it had come back now. He sighed lazily and listened to the giggles and laughter of the children further up the bank.
Four weeks after Maddie’s kidnapping, their laughter was something to savor. It had been a long, slow path back for Maddie… for all of them.
In that first week, Maddie had stayed so close to Johnny that she might have been mistaken for his shadow. Even confined to his bed as he had been, Scott had seen it. When Johnny came into the room, Maddie was trailing right along with him.
Johnny had stayed close to home for those first couple of weeks. At first it had been out of necessity while he had battled debilitating headaches from his head wound, but then he started to find chores close to home. They’d all known he didn’t want to let her out of his sight and they’d gone along with it.
But, after two weeks, Johnny himself seemed to come to realize that things had to change. Bit by bit, he’d found ways to get Maddie to venture out on her own.
Scott knew that he had been out of it for a while, and the shoulder injury was going to keep him tied down for some time yet. The worst of the pain had gone now. Only a dull throbbing remained when he tried to do too much or moved too quickly.
But there had been guilt too. He was still coming to terms with the fact that he hadn’t been able to stay conscious long enough to protect Maddie. Johnny had taken him to task over it more than once and he’d talked it through with Sarah until it had become less of a burden than lingering self-doubt.
But it had been Maddie herself who had done more than anyone to help him through it. When he brought it up, she’d folded her arms across her chest and scowled at him; then told him, in her stern childish way, that he was ‘being silly’.
He’d started coming out here a few days ago, luring Maddie out to join him with the plea that he’d need someone to bait the hook for him. The smile she’d replied with had been worth seeing.
“And to land the fish?” she’d replied.
“Naturally,” he’d assured her. “I can’t do it with one hand, can I?”
So she’d come with him but had sat close by his side with Drifter’s head in her lap. But, on the second day, she’d started watching the other children playing. Finally, after three days of sitting close beside him and watching him catch nothing at all, she had asked him if he’d be alright on his own for a few minutes.
Her tinkling laughter rang in his ears and he smiled.
Looking up into the branches above him, Scott asked, “I thought you said there were fish out there?”
“Si, Señor Scott, there are,” Miguel called down from his perch on one of the branches. “I can see them. Perhaps they are not hungry today.” The boy shrugged his shoulders and grinned broadly.
“Perhaps they are not hungry any day,” Scott groused.
The dog barked loudly and children laughed gaily. Suddenly, a stick splashed into the water next to the fishing line and Maddie ran over to him. “Sorry, Tio,” she said, though the mischievous twinkle in her eyes belied her apology.
‘No wonder I can’t catch anything,’ Scott thought and smiled. He pulled his hat down low over his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree. Even the filtered sunlight, shining down through the leaves, was leaving him drowsy. “Don’t worry about it, Maddie. I don’t believe there really are fish out there anyway.”