Johnny and the Peer
by 
Ros

 

 

CHAPTER ONE              

“Johnny, I’m not sure how many more times I can darn this shirt,” Teresa complained. She knew it was his favorite, but it was wearing so thin that it tore more and more easily. At least this time the tear was from barbed wire instead of something more violent. He hadn’t even cut himself on the wire, so she really didn’t mind taking care of this particular damage, but she wasn’t sure how long it would be before the shirt was irreparable.               

“It’s got years o’ wear left in it, Teresa,” Johnny answered confidently, without looking up from the checkerboard.

"Not with you wearing it,” Scott told him, moving one of the pieces on the board and looking up at his brother triumphantly. “King me, brother.”

Without a word, Johnny crowned the piece with another, and then made his own move, jumping two of his brother’s checkers and leaning back to smirk at him.

“Your move, Boston,” he said cheerfully, looking at the irritated expression on his brother’s face.

Murdoch Lancer looked up from his book to watch them and grinned happily. It was spring and things had been quiet at Lancer for the last few months. In fact, life had been pretty mundane lately. The calving was the most excitement they’d had and that had been going well for them.

He looked at his sons and then at Teresa and felt a deep sense of contentment that was still new to him. But he no sooner felt that pleasant feeling than a shiver went down his spine. He wasn’t sure he should think that way. It had been too good to be true, in the past.

As if on cue, there was a knock on the door.

Murdoch laid the book aside on the small table beside him and got to his feet. “I’ll get it,” he said, as he squeezed past his sons. It occurred to him that neither of them had looked up from their game anyway. They apparently had no intention of going to the door.

Opening the sturdy oak door, Murdoch found Walt Haynes there, one of his top hands.

“Walt? What can I do for you?”

“Well, Mr. Lancer…” he started, fidgeting with his hat in his hands and looking distinctly uncomfortable. “I…er…I just got back from Morro Coyo and thought I oughta let you know somethin’.”

“What is it?”

“It’s about Johnny,” Walt told him quietly.

“Then maybe you’d better tell Johnny,” a cool voice said from behind Murdoch.

Murdoch turned around to find his younger son standing a few feet behind him and eyeing the two of them coolly.

“I’d like to hear it,” Johnny said calmly. “What’s about Johnny?”

“Come on in, Walt,” Murdoch said with a sigh. He stepped back and held the door open for Walt to pass, closing it after the man came in and then following him and his son into the Great Room.

He walked past his son and Walt and poured the man a whiskey. Passing it to him, he asked, “All right, what is this about?”

Walt accepted the whiskey, but he didn’t drink any of it right away. He looked from Murdoch Lancer to Johnny Lancer, not sure who he was supposed to be addressing.

“I went into Morro Coyo to pick up that last roll of wire we needed. There’s a fella there, in the saloon. Been stayin’ there since yesterday an’ he’s been asking about Johnny.”

“Did you see him?” Johnny asked casually.

 “Yeah, I saw him. He spends his time in the saloon, just sittin’ there watchin’ everyone that comes in the door. An’ accordin’ to Jake, the barkeep, he ain’t askin’ for Johnny Lancer.”

 Johnny sighed heavily and paced over to the fireplace, head down and obviously deep in thought. He leaned one arm against the wall and looked into the fire, a distant look on his face. The orange glow from the fire flickered and played on his features, giving him a haunted look.

“What did he look like?”

Walt turned around to face Johnny. “Real fancy dude, Johnny. He was in a black suit with the fanciest vest I ever saw – all fancy an’ stitched with gold. Even had a string tie an’ a frilly shirt.”

“Did he say anything to you?”

“Yeah, he asked me if I knew you. Had a real funny way o’ talkin’.”

Johnny turned around and leaned back against the wall. He smiled enigmatically. “Funny like Scott?”

Walt laughed. “No… well, maybe just a little, but he did sound like he was from back east.”

“Johnny, do you know this man?” Scott asked from his seat, still beside the now forgotten checkerboard.

“Yeah, I know him,” Johnny answered, almost in dismay. “Big guy, tall and dark and kinda good lookin’, right Walt?”

“Yeah, ‘cept it was hard to say how tall he was ‘cause he was sittin’ the whole time.”

Johnny nodded and went quiet for a minute. Finally he looked up and asked, “Was he alone?”

“I think so, Johnny. No one’s seen anyone else with him.”

Johnny pushed off the wall and walked over to the hat rack by the door. He took down his gun belt and strapped it on with the casual ease of long practice.

“He’s a gunfighter, isn’t he, Johnny,” Scott said, more of a statement than a question.

“Yeah, he is,” Johnny confirmed. “He’s pretty good, too.”

“Johnny, you’re not thinking of going to face this man tonight, surely?” Scott asked anxiously.                

“There’s plenty o’ moonlight,” Johnny answered, pulling firmly on the belt and buckling it deftly.

“No, Johnny. That’s not an option,” Murdoch told him firmly. “If we ignore this man…”

“He won’t go away, Murdoch,” Johnny answered, just as firmly. “An’ ‘we’ don’t have any say in it. You might call the tune here, ol’ man, but not when it comes to something like this.” His blue eyes held his father’s in a steady icy gaze. “This is my game,” Johnny continued. “An’ I make the rules.”

Murdoch seemed to remember that Walt was still in the room. He knew there was an argument coming with his son, and didn’t want it to be in front of Haynes.

“Walt, thanks for letting us know about this,” he said quickly. “We’ll take care of things from here.”

The man took the hint. He’d come to work at Lancer not long after the boss’s two sons had returned and that was long enough to know what was brewing under the surface in that room. He nodded and finished the drink in his hand and took his leave.

With Walt gone, the air became tense. 

“Johnny, at least leave it until morning,” Scott implored him. “There’s nothing you can do at this time of night anyway.”

“I want to know what he’s up to,” Johnny answered determinedly. “Don’t worry, he won’t call me out in the dark.” 

“Then I’m coming with you,” Scott told him, firmly defying him to turn him down.

Johnny grabbed his hat from the rack and pulled it over his head to hang behind him by the stampede strings, more out of habit than need for it in the dark.

“Suit yourself, Scott,” he said unexpectedly and turned to go out of the door. “Just don’t get in the way.”

*

Johnny had been right about the moonlight. There was more than enough light for a quiet ride into town. And that was just what it was - quiet. Hardly a word passed between the brothers as they rode on what should have been a pleasant evening out in the spring air.

But Johnny’s mood didn’t encourage conversation. He was obviously considering what waited for him in town – or who.

Scott left him to his thoughts, content with the fact that he wasn’t fighting his accompanying him. Usually, Johnny would have fought tooth and nail to go alone, and since he didn’t this time, Scott wondered why.

When they reached Morro Coyo, a little over an hour later, Johnny slowed Barranca to a cautious walk. Scott slowed his mount too and kept pace with him letting Johnny set the gait and not saying anything, in case he distracted him.

He’d seen Johnny like this before. He had easily slipped back into his Madrid persona and Scott sighed and hoped he wouldn’t need anything else from Madrid tonight.

Scott watched Johnny scan the street warily. He seemed to be able to look all around and take in everything going on, without even giving away the fact that he was interested. His head didn’t even turn. Scott thought that it would have been fascinating to watch if he could only have been a little more dispassionate about it.

He couldn’t do that with his brother involved.

The town was quiet. It was quiet most days, nowadays. There’d been a time, not so long ago, when Morro Coyo had been a den of thieves and not safe for anyone from Lancer. It was here that Murdoch had been shot in the back and his friend Paul O’Brien, Teresa’s father, had been killed. Scott had run foul of Pardee’s men here himself, to a lesser degree.

But once they’d been taken care of, Morro Coyo had returned to a basically unimpressive little Spanish style town where not much happened. Most of the excitement was left to the bigger towns, Spanish Wells and Green River. Morro Coyo drowsed sleepily and happily.

No one was on the street and only a few lights shining through windows showed that there were people still awake. There wasn’t much to do here at night anyway – except the saloon.

The saloon was different. It was brightly lit, but almost as silent as the rest of the town.

Johnny reined in Barranca and dropped lithely to the ground. He looped the reins over the hitching rail and stepped up onto the boardwalk, walked over to the batwing doors and stopped. “Wait a minute, Scott,” he said quietly, the first words he had uttered in a long time. “Let me go first.”

“Be careful,” Scott whispered and waited while his brother peered over the top of the doors.

Johnny pushed them open and strolled in. To the casual observer, he looked perfectly relaxed. But Scott could see that he was coiled like a spring – ready for whatever was to come.

When he’d stepped inside and found his quarry, Johnny gave his brother the okay to come in.

“Come on in, Scott,” he said coolly. “And stay back outa the way till I find out what he wants.”

Scott walked over to the bar and leaned back against it. The man they’d heard about was not hard to miss.

He sat alone at a table in the far corner of the room. From where he sat, he would have had a view of both the front doorway and the back entrance. He could see everything in the room, while hardly having to turn his head.

It reminded him of Johnny’s habit. He always sat with his back to the wall, and with a view of as much of a room as he could get.

His back was also to the wall, just like Johnny’s would have been. There was no mistaking what he was. He was purely professional.

Walt had described him to a tee. He was dressed too fancy for Morro Coyo, or for any other town nearby. Scott’s practiced eye noted that the black suit that he was wearing had been tailored to fit him. It was well made too, not the sort of thing a gunfighter would normally wear.

The suit was complemented with a clean white shirt, ruffled at the cuffs and down the front, and a neatly done string tie, while an embroidered vest and a silver fob chain finished off the look. He wore a black felt hat with a band decorated with small silver conchos. It was the cleanest hat Scott had seen outside Baldemero’s store, and he had boots that looked like they had been regularly cleaned and polished.

His attitude mirrored Johnny’s. He sat stretched out in the chair like a long, lanky cat. His legs were crossed at the ankles and one arm rested lazily on the table, with a glass of whiskey in his hand. The other hand hung loosely, and ominously, beside the gun that was tied low on his thigh.

The gun belt was surprisingly plain, as was the gun. It appeared that his penchant for the elaborate did not extend to the tools of his trade. Practicality was more important than decoration.

And yet, for all the painstaking attention to his clothing, the man did not give the appearance of a dandy. His clothes fit his lean, strong build to perfection and his handsome face contributed to the aura he exhibited.

But, there was an element of danger about him, just the same. He exuded it through every pore.

He leaned back in the chair when he saw Johnny walk in and watched him as a cat would a mouse.

“So, you finally made it,” he said in a deep, heavily accented voice.

“Heard you were lookin’ for me,” Johnny said, his voice calm almost to the point of cold.

The man picked up the glass and held it in front of him. He studied the light shimmering off the amber liquid it held and let Johnny wait for a minute.

Finally, he spoke again. “I heard you were living around here. I wasn’t sure exactly where – or what name you were using.”

“Looks like you found me,” Johnny replied. “You got a good reason for lookin’ me up, I guess?”

He put the glass back down on the table in front of him and looked up at Johnny. “Oh, perfectly reasonable, Johnny,” the man answered with a smile.

A curious expression crossed his face, followed quickly by understanding. He cautiously lifted his free hand up away from his gun so that Johnny could see both of his hands.

“Come now, Johnny. I’m here on a personal matter, not business.”

Johnny stood in the middle of the room, about three feet from the table where the man sat. His own hand hung loosely by his side, and Scott held his breath. Johnny’s eyes bored into the cool gray eyes of his antagonist, but all he got was the same charming smile.

“Not business?” Johnny asked icily.

“Cross my heart, dear boy,” the stranger replied, grinning.

“Then stand up so I can see you,” Johnny told him firmly and waited as the man pushed back his chair. It grated noisily across the wooden floor, and the man got to his feet nonchalantly and ambled over to stand intimidatingly close to Johnny.

Once on his feet, the man stood a couple of inches taller than Johnny. His stance was lazy and yet, unaccountably rigid. It reminded Scott of Johnny’s own way of standing when he was waiting for something to happen.

“So,” the man said, coolly. “What happens now, Johnny?”

Scott held his breath. For the life of him, he couldn’t work out what was going through his brother’s mind. If Johnny felt at all threatened, all hell could break loose. But if he decided on the passive approach and just tried to walk away, the man was close enough to kill him in a heartbeat.

He couldn’t understand Johnny letting him get into a position like that. He had given away his edge, and that was NOT like him.

Out of the blue, Johnny’s eyes sparkled and a huge grin broke across his face. He extended his arms and grabbed the man by his shoulders and pulled him into an unlikely embrace.

“Hawk! How the hell are you?” he exclaimed and laughed loudly.

*

By the time the two men had stopped laughing and clapping each other on the back, Scott had started to breathe again, and his heart had relaxed back into its normal position in his chest, instead of in his mouth.

He watched the two obvious friends and his concern began to change into anger. His brother must have known from the start that the stranger wasn’t likely to cause him trouble, yet he had staged this show for himself and the rest of the saloon.

Scott watched the two men pull apart and waited for Johnny to acknowledge his presence. When, at last, he finally seemed to remember that he hadn’t arrived alone, Johnny turned to him and called him over to the table.

“Come on over here, Scott,” he called, still grinning. “I want you to meet a friend o’ mine.”

Scott pulled his hat off his head as he strolled across the room. When he reached his brother, he swatted him over the top of his head with said hat.

Johnny ducked, but not quickly enough to dodge his brother’s shot. His own hat flew from his head and he stood up and brushed his ruffled hair back into place. He hadn’t stopped smiling, though he did look a little shame-faced when he caught his brother’s eye.

The man Johnny had called ‘Hawk’ gaped at Scott’s audacity. Apparently, he’d never met anyone who felt assured enough to physically chastise Johnny before.

“You’ll pay for that, Johnny,” Scott growled at him, ignoring the look he was getting from Hawk. “You had me worried half to death.”

Johnny dropped his head to his chest, but it didn’t hide the smile on his face, all of which surprised Hawk even more. He stooped over and picked up his fallen hat, spinning it in his hands carelessly.

“You mustn’t blame Johnny for being cautious,” Hawk seemed to feel obliged to explain. “In our line of work, even a friend can be dangerous.”

“Hawk’s a good man to have on your side, but…” Johnny started. He didn’t finish the thought but the stranger caught his meaning and smiled.

“Fortunately, we haven’t ever been in that situation,” the man assured Scott. “We’re both far too discerning in choosing an employer - similar taste and that sort of thing. Now, won’t you join us?”

Johnny suddenly remembered his manners. “Scott, this is Tony Hawk,” he said indicating his friend. “Tony, say ‘howdy’ to my brother, Scott Lancer.”

Hawk stared at Johnny for a moment and then turned his attention back to Scott. The man scrutinized him from head to foot, leaving Scott with an uncomfortable feeling.

“Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” Hawk eventually said and extended his hand to Scott. “How do you do?” he added.

Scott accepted his hand politely and shook it and the three of them pulled back their chairs. Johnny sat down casually, threw his hat on the table and leaned back to stretch out his legs.

Scott joined him and Hawk called out to the barkeep to bring two more glasses.

“You’ll both join me for a drink I hope,” he said with a charming smile and sat down with the brothers in the chair he had recently vacated.

“Yeah, it was a surprise to us too,” Johnny told him, intently focussing on pressing the fingertips of both hands together and leaning his chin on them.

“You didn’t know that you had a brother?” Hawk asked him, stunned.

“Nope, neither of us did.”

“It’s a long story,” Scott said cryptically.

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed. “I’ll tell you about it some time.”

Hawk looked from one brother to the other and back. His confusion was obvious on his face and Scott wasn’t surprised. He’d seen it before. His blond hair, slate blue eyes and fair complexion was the opposite of his brother’s dark hair and complexion, and his vivid dark blue eyes.

“I have to say, gentlemen,” the gunfighter began, shaking his head. “Two less likely looking brothers I have yet to see.”

Johnny laughed. “Yeah, ain’t we?” he agreed. “Of course, I got the looks in the family. Poor Scott here, he takes after the ol’ man.”

“Very funny, little brother,” Scott replied with a strong emphasis on the ‘little’. “It happens that we both take after our mothers, fortunately.”

“Mothers? Plural?”

“Murdoch, that’s the ol’ man, married twice,” Johnny explained. “We only met about eighteen months ago.”

“Fascinating!” Hawk said. He looked up and thanked the barkeep as he put two clean glasses on the table. Picking up the bottle of whiskey in front of him, he filled each of the glasses and handed one to Scott and then to Johnny. “Your health, gentlemen,” he said and tossed back his own drink without taking a breath.

Scott sipped his own drink and watched Johnny lazily do the same.

“You said ‘Lancer’, Johnny,” Hawk said. “Are you using the name too, then?”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah.”

“I’d heard something along those lines,” Hawk admitted. “I heard you’d hung up your gun and taken to ranching, but I didn’t hear anything about a family.”

Johnny frowned. “If you knew, why didn’t you just come to the ranch?”

“No, one doesn’t simply drop by uninvited, Johnny - not at all the done thing. And I knew you’d come looking for me, once you heard I was here.”

Hawk poured himself another drink, and Johnny watched him roll the glass idly between the palms of his hands before finishing it off like the last.

Scott watched him too, but for a different reason. He’d quickly recognized the man’s accent. Walt had said that he had a ‘fancy’ way of talking and that he sounded like he was from back east. Scott knew that he was from further east than Walt thought. That was definitely an English accent the man spoke with.

He hadn’t heard of any English born gunfighters. It seemed more than a little bit incongruous, particularly since this man was not only an Englishman, but, apparently, a well bred and educated one. Scott couldn’t help but wonder what turned such a man into a gun hawk.

And he wondered just how good he was. If Johnny really hadn’t been playing games when he arrived, and he tended to accept now that he hadn’t, then the caution he displayed gave Hawk some standing in the profession. 

That he and Johnny were friends seemed extraordinary. Johnny had teased him relentlessly when they had first met - particularly over ‘those’ plaid trousers. Hawk was older than Johnny, too. Scott guessed that he was older than he was too, probably nearing thirty years old.

Hawk seemed to notice Scott’s inspection, but he didn’t appear to take offense. Instead, he studied Scott a little more and finally said, “And you, sir, that’s no Californian accent you have. I gather you are from back east?”

Scott nodded. “Boston,” he confirmed. “I grew up there. But that’s no Californian accent you have yourself. English?”

“Ah, yes,” Hawk said with a sigh. “Guilty, I’m afraid.” He poured another glass, but didn’t pick it up. Instead, he looked at it for a while.

“Tell him your real name, Hawk,” Johnny said with a smile.

Hawk looked at him before finally laughing lightly. “Why not? Anthony James Peregrine Hawkesbury,” he announced, stressing his English accent until he sounded positively pompous. With mock pride, he bowed his head a little. “At your service.”

He made his decision and picked up the third glass of whiskey and swallowed it just as quickly as the others.

Scott watched him pick up the bottle to refill the glass but, suddenly, Johnny leaned forward and put his hand over the mouth of the glass to block him.

“That’s enough, Hawk,” he said quietly, but firmly.

“Hawk,” the man said, ironically. “It was a good name, don’t you think? Rather ironic too, since it’s what I am – a gun hawk. It’s who I am and what I am.” He looked at the glass and Johnny’s hand for a moment, and then looked up to face his friend. “Well, I thought it was good.”

“What is it, compadre? What’s wrong?”

Hawk snorted disgustedly. “You know the rest of my name, don’t you, Johnny?” he said sadly. “You know who I am.”

“I know.”

He pushed his hat way back on his head and ran his hand over his face, sighing. “I thought I could get away from them, Johnny,” he said, enigmatically. “I thought I’d escaped them, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.” He looked intently into Johnny’s face. “I have to go back, my father is dead.”

Johnny took a deep breath. “You told me that wouldn’t matter. You said your brother was next in line.”

“I know. He was. He’s dead too. So is his little son,” Hawk said, displaying very little emotion. “I’m the last male heir.”

He looked away and stared at the glass again. He laughed ironically. “The Honorable Tony Hawk,” he scoffed. “You always thought that was funny, didn’t you? Well, laugh it up, Johnny. You see before you the new Lord Hawkesbury, fourth Earl of Egan.”

He pushed Johnny’s hand aside angrily, refilled the glass and tossed it back without another glance at his friend.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Johnny took hold of the near empty bottle of whiskey and moved it out of his friend’s reach.

“You’ve had enough o’ that stuff,” he told him firmly, a touch of anger intruding into his tone. “Now, tell me what’s happened.”

The Englishman leaned forward with his elbows on the table. He ran his hands over his face silently and then dropped them to lie flat on the table.

“My sister wrote me. She’s been keeping in touch with me behind Father’s back.” He smiled, unexpectedly. “Julia’s never been afraid of him.”

Scott and Johnny both remained quiet and let him take his time. “The boy, my brother’s son, he died from scarlet fever eighteen months ago. I knew about that,” he explained, with a wave of his hand. “But, apparently, my father had the yacht out for a day cruise. He had my brother Charles and his wife with him. My brother-in-law, Julia’s husband, Andrew, and their little daughter were there too. Julia never did like sailing, so she stayed ashore.”

“Something went wrong. There was an explosion. The yacht foundered and went down. The only survivor was the little girl and that was only because Charles got her to shore before he died.”

He shook his head, disbelieving. “My brother, Charles, the pretentious buffoon who never did anything worthwhile in his life - until the day he died. Whoever would have thought it?”

Suddenly, he laughed. “Maybe I never really knew him like I thought I did. I never did give him much credit. Under that stuffed shirt, there might have been a man I could have liked, after all.” He covered his face with his hands and then slid them back through his hair. He stopped when he felt his hat and grabbed hold of it, pulled it off his head and slammed it to the floor.

“What a waste!” he said viciously. “What a bloody waste!”

Johnny looked over at his brother and found Scott already staring at him. It wasn’t hard to empathize with Hawk. Both of them knew that, but for a moment’s decision to accept their father’s invitation, they might never have had the chance to get to know each other. Scott’s war service and Johnny’s profession hadn’t exactly been conducive to long and healthy lives. Either could have died before they had ever met.

But they had gotten to know each other, or, at least, they still were. The easy companionship that came with it made the ‘what if’s’ even more oppressive.

“It was nearly a year ago, Johnny,” the man continued, when he’d regained some control. “All that time, they were dead and I didn’t know. I was laid up with a leg wound for a few months and didn’t catch up with the mail.”

“All right, Hawk,” Johnny finally said with a sigh. What did you say to a man who lost most of his family in one tragic accident?

Nothing Johnny could say right now was going to make any difference. He knew Hawk well enough to know that he wasn’t looking for sympathy. He looked his friend over and realized how much the worse for drinking he was. “You got a room upstairs?”

“Why?”

“’Cause you’re gonna pack your gear an’ come home with us.”

Johnny looked at his brother, almost defying him to protest his decision. But Scott had no intention of arguing the point and only nodded.

*

Once they got outside, it became obvious that Hawk had been drinking his way steadily through more than that one bottle of whiskey before they had arrived. The brothers got him to Lancer and put him to bed before facing their father with the news that he had another gunfighter sleeping under his roof, albeit a slightly unusual one.

Johnny walked into the Great Room to find his father standing by the fireplace, leaning one hand against the wall and looking into the ashes. Murdoch looked up when he heard his son come in and watched him saunter past him and stop with his back to him.

There was an awkward silence for a minute before Murdoch asked him bluntly, “Do you want to tell me what you think you’re doing?”

“I invited a friend to stay,” Johnny told him quietly. He still hadn’t turned around.

“Your friend is a gunfighter, isn’t he?”

Scott came in and went to his father. “Leave it be, Murdoch. I was part of this too, you know.”

“I don’t want that man under my roof.” Murdoch snapped.

Johnny finally turned around enough to stare angrily at his father. He didn’t say anything at first, just glowered at him with cool dark blue eyes.

“That man – or that kind of man?” he finally asked coldly. “You don’t know him, so the only reason you have is that he’s a pistolero – just like me!” He strode out of the room and headed upstairs to his bedroom.

Scott and Murdoch stood in the Great Room and watched him go. Once he was out of hearing, Scott turned on his father furiously.

“You really are something, Murdoch!”

“That wasn’t what I said.”

“No, it wasn’t, but it’s what you meant.” Scott paced across the room, shaking his head. “Why can’t you see what you do? You want Johnny. I don’t doubt that. I don’t doubt that you love him. But you don’t want his past. You don’t want anything to remind you of who he was and what he was.”

“I don’t want a gunfighter sleeping in the same house with my family.”

“Johnny IS a gunfighter! Remember?”

“No, he used to be…”

“Madrid is as much a part of him as having been my mother’s husband is a part of you. As having been Maria’s husband is part of you. His past makes him what he is, just like the rest of us. Whether you like it or not, you have to accept it and learn to live with it, without taking it out on Johnny.”

Scott turned to leave but stopped and turned back for one parting shot at his father. “And, just as a matter of interest, our guest is not all he seems to be either. Stop judging people, Murdoch. Stop making them prove themselves to you all the time – especially Johnny.”

He went upstairs and knocked on Johnny’s door. When he didn’t get an answer, he opened it and stepped inside. Johnny was lying on the bed with his hands behind his head, brooding. 

“You okay?” Scott asked.

"Sure,” he answered quietly.

“Johnny, you have every right to be angry with him.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said despondently. He sighed heavily. “You ever noticed that he never asks about those days? He asks about when I was a kid, but never about when I was Madrid.”

Scott sighed heavily and sat down in the chair by the window. “I hadn’t really noticed, no.”

“It’s like he only wants to know about what happened before I was old enough to make my own decisions. Being a pistolero wasn’t somethin’ that was done to me, Scott. It was a decision I made o’ my own free will an’ he doesn’t approve of it. I c’n live with it, but he can’t.”

“Tell me how you met Hawk.”

Johnny smiled. “We turned up for the same range war. Picked the same side to fight on. Simple as that.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Oh, ‘bout five years now.”

Scott studied his brother’s face and tried to figure out what was hidden behind the austere mask he had put on.

“There’s more to it than that, isn’t there,” Scott said confidently. “I mean, you knew who he is. He must have told you. Why?”

Johnny laughed lightly. “Yeah, I guess we hit it off. I was just a kid an’ I think he thought he could ‘save’ me from myself. Hawk ain’t as cold as he lets on.”

Scott grinned. “Sounds like someone else I know.”

“Yeah, well, don’t let him fool you. He’s fast an’ he’s made his way with a gun for years.” Johnny stopped and looked over at his brother. “Hawk can be one cold son of a bitch, but he’s my friend.”

*

Johnny escorted his friend down to the breakfast table next morning, hoping that Murdoch would at least be civil to him. If he wasn’t, Johnny was going to have something to say about it.

Fortunately, Hawk had no such concerns. He entered the room confidently, dressed in his trademark suit and string tie, but unarmed, in deference to his friend and his family.

Johnny stopped at the table in the kitchen and introduced Hawk.

“Murdoch, this is Tony Hawk,” he said, a silent challenge in his eyes. But it went unanswered as Murdoch got to his feet. “Hawk, this is my father, Murdoch Lancer.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Sir,” Hawk said formally, and shook hands with Murdoch. “Scott I’ve met, of course. My apologies for last night, Scott. I’m afraid I wasn’t myself.”

Scott grinned. “Not at all, Hawk. How’s the head?”

Hawk returned the smile. “I’m one of those fortunate few who doesn’t suffer the after effects of a rough night. I’m fine, thank you.”

He caught sight of Teresa and glanced towards Johnny.

“This is Teresa O’Brien,” Johnny said, ushering her forward to meet him. “She’s Murdoch’s ward – practically my little sister.”

Hawk bowed slightly and smiled charmingly. “It’s always an honor to meet a beautiful young woman,” he said, with Teresa blushing hotly as a result. She didn’t reply but smiled back at him and ducked her head in embarrassment.

Next, Johnny put his arm around Maria’s shoulders and guided her over to meet his friend. “And this is Maria,” he said proudly. “If you wanta eat well ‘round here, this is the lady you need on your side.”

She stood in front of the man with her head held high, determined not to fall victim to his charms.

“¡Tan encantando! ¡Una qué mujer hermosa!” Hawk said, bowing his head slightly. “Mucho gusto, Senora.”

<<"So enchanting! What a beautiful woman!"...."Pleased to meet you.">>

“Ay, Senor! ¿Usted piensa qué usted puede adularmé?” she said haughtily and shook her head. “No, no, no. ¡Sentarse! ¡Coma!”

<<...Do you think you can flatter me?"..."No no no. Sit! Eat!">>

Maria turned away, smiling, and went back to her work, muttering “Inglés!” as she did.

<<...Englishmen!"…>>

Johnny slapped his friend on the back and laughed. “I knew you’d win her over. Come on over an’ have some breakfast. Then I’ll show you ‘round.”

Still eyeing his father warily, Johnny pulled out a chair for Hawk and they both sat down.

Murdoch was quiet for a minute, obviously thinking the situation over. “When you’ve shown Mr. Hawk around, Johnny, I think we need to talk.”

Johnny looked ready to argue, but Hawk smiled. “Perfectly understandable, Mr. Lancer,” he agreed. “I also need to talk to Johnny, and I need to explain some things.”

*

“So, what do you think?” Johnny asked, a smile of absolute pleasure brightening his face.

“I think you’re a lucky man, Johnny. I envy you.”

The two men sat, still mounted, on top of the hill, overlooking Lancer. From that spot, Johnny’s favorite, they could see most of the ranch and the hacienda. Tony Hawk rode a black that was just as flashy as he was, but with the same blasé style.

Johnny looked out over the winding river with the sun glistening like diamonds on its water and its willows dancing gracefully in the gentle spring breeze. He surveyed the fields - green from recent rain, with cattle grazing lazily. And then the rolling hills that formed a backdrop to the whole scene, and he sighed with satisfaction.

He dismounted lazily and dropped the reins over Barranca’s head, then watched Hawk do the same and amble over to join him. Together they walked over to sit under a small oak. There was only just enough shade for the two of them, but it was a good spot. The view was well worth it.

“You’ve certainly landed on your feet here, Johnny,” Hawk said confidently. “It’s beautiful.”

“Yeah, but there’s more to Lancer than what you can see there,” he answered. “I wouldn’t have stayed just for the land.”

“No, I guessed that last night. You and your brother have an easy way with each other,” he sighed. “I had that once with my brother.”

Johnny turned his head and smiled. “What – the pompous buffoon?”

Hawk laughed lightly. “No, not Charles. I mean my brother Bertram. He was two years older than me, but he died when he was sixteen. He was the best of us.”

Johnny frowned. “Why are you here, Hawk?”

Hawk sighed heavily. “That’s more like the Johnny I knew – straight to the point.” He stared ahead for a moment, before answering. “I heard you’d hung up your gun and settled down here. I wanted to see if it was true – maybe get some advice on how to do it.”

He was met with a laugh. “I think you wasted your time, Hawk. I keep tryin’ to hang up my gun, but there’s always someone lookin’ for trouble. An’ I’d love to see Murdoch’s face if you told him I’ve ‘settled down’!”

“Maybe, but tell me one thing – are you happy here?”

The surprise on Johnny’s face was evident. “Sure!” he replied, unequivocally.

“That’s what I thought. That’s why I came here. I need to know how you do it.”

Johnny looked away, across to the hills on the other side of the valley. “I don’t think I ‘do’ anything. I guess it’s somethin’ I always wanted an’ never knew it. There’s no special secret to it, Tony. It just happened.”

Hawk sighed again. “I was afraid you’d say that.”

“Look, I won’t lie to ya. It ain’t been easy,” he admitted frankly. “I left a couple o’ times and felt like leavin’ a helluva lot more.” He sighed and considered his answer. “I guess I feel kinda closed in sometimes. I miss the freedom o’ decidin’ for myself what I’m goin’ to do and where I’m goin’.”

He smiled and confessed. “An’ I don’t always see eye to eye with the ol’ man either.”

“But you stayed.”

“Yeah, I guess Scott’s the main reason. He plays peacemaker a lot, an’ we kinda hit it off pretty good.”

“I noticed.”

Johnny dropped his head for a minute, before continuing with a wry grin. “Yeah, I can’t count how many times he’s talked me into staying. Mostly after I butted heads with Murdoch.”

“And does that happen often?”

“Well, not so often now,” Johnny admitted. “But at the start…”He shrugged carelessly. “Do you have to go back?”

“Yes, I do,” Hawk answered, without thinking about it. “I just don’t know how I can make it work.” He leaned back against the trunk of the tree, crossed his arms across his chest and tipped his hat down over his eyes. “I’ve been here for eight years, Johnny. I’ve slept under the stars, done as I pleased. And that’s not to mention earning my living with a gun. Look at me, how can I go back?”

“Do you want to go?”

“No.”

“Then don’t!”

“It doesn’t work like that, Johnny – not where I come from.” He laughed. “Duty is very important to my family. I’m the only one left to keep the title going, so I don’t really have much choice.”

“You’ve always got a choice. You could pretend they never found you an’ stay.”

“No,” Hawk said, categorically. “I owe it to my heritage to go back.” He laughed harshly. “Good Lord, if my father or my brother heard me say that, they’d have died of shock!”

Johnny wished he had answers for his friend, but he was well out of his depth. He’d found something at Lancer that had been missing from his life, all of his life. He knew that now, though he hadn’t known it until he found it.

But Hawk not only didn’t miss it - he’d run from it for years.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Hawk,” he said at last. “All I know is, if anyone can do it, you can. They don’t even need to know anythin’ ‘bout what you’ve been doin’ while you were over here. Hell, you won’t have gun hawks callin’ you out!”

*

An hour later, the two friends walked their horses slowly into the Lancer courtyard and dismounted.

They tied their mounts to the hitching rail and wandered into the house, still talking and laughing amicably as they hung their hats on the rack at the door.

“Come on in, Johnny,” Murdoch called from the Great Room. He was at his desk and stood up as his son came in with his friend. He gave away nothing of his feelings towards the stranger, one way or the other, and Johnny wasn’t at all sure whether this interview would go well.

Scott was already in the room. He was sitting on the edge of the desk where he had obviously been in discussion with their father while they’d been waiting for Johnny to come in. He flashed a welcoming smile at both Johnny and Hawk, relaxing Johnny considerably.

Murdoch poured brandy for all of them and handed them around, one by one, starting with their guest – another good sign, Johnny thought.

Tony Hawk thanked his host amiably and took a sip, a gentle sigh escaping his lips as he let it slide down his throat.

“An excellent brandy, Mr. Lancer,” he said approvingly. “I can’t say I’ve had better since I came to the United States.”

Murdoch smiled appreciatively. “Thanks, I have a friend in San Francisco who has a good nose for a brandy – almost as good as his eye for scotch whiskey. He always has what I want.”

“I have to admit, this is one of the few things I have missed about home,” Hawk admitted ruefully. “My father had few talents, but choosing a fine brandy was one of them.” He smiled surreptitiously. “I confess I began raiding it at a very tender age.”

Murdoch eyed each of his two sons and wondered whether he would have had the same problem had they been at home when they were teenagers. He suspected that he would have and smiled secretly at the thought.

As if to confirm his thoughts, Scott snickered. “I’m afraid my grandfather’s brandy suffered the same fate.”

Teresa came in and took a seat on the sofa. “You sent for me, Murdoch?” she asked sweetly, as if to defy him to deny it and send her from the room.

“I’m glad you’re here, sweetheart,” he answered with a tolerant smile.

Hawk took another sip and savored its warmth going down. “So am I, Miss O’Brien,” he said. “Mr. Lancer, I’m very obliged to you for allowing me to stay. I realize that I was somewhat foisted on you, last night. I think I owe you an explanation.”

Murdoch glanced cautiously over at Johnny, but said nothing to him. Instead, he merely said, “My sons’ friends are welcome any time.” He looked harder at Johnny and added, “I sometimes forget that.”

Johnny ducked his head and fidgeted awkwardly.

“Nevertheless, I came here to seek advice from Johnny and to take my leave of him. I have to return to my home and claim an inheritance.”

Murdoch smiled and cleared his throat. “A title, I suppose.”

Hawk and Johnny both looked at Scott for an explanation, but he hurried to protest his innocence. “Hey, I didn’t say a word.”

Murdoch laughed. “He didn’t need to tell me. I’m a Scotsman,” he told them. “I know an educated Englishman when I hear one.”

Hawk sighed. “A Scot? Then I have yet another black mark against me, I fear.”

“Why?” Teresa asked.

“History, my dear,” Hawk replied enigmatically. “Scotland and England have not always been friends and neighbors.”

“So, are you Sir something?” she asked him forthrightly.

Johnny grinned. “Tell her, Hawk,” he said quietly.

Without the artificial support of the drinks he’d had last night, he seemed more reticent about telling them. Johnny saw it and nudged him with his elbow. “Go on, tell ‘em. You have to learn to say it out loud sometime.”

Hawk swallowed, took a breath and let it out slowly. “Anthony, Lord Hawkesbury, Earl of Egan,” he said in a rush.

“Fifth Earl of Egan,” Johnny added.

“Fourth,” Hawk amended.

Johnny grinned. “Never was good at numbers. But it wasn’t so hard, was it? Do we bow?”

His friend glowered at him. “Only you,” he answered, and ended up laughing with him.

“I’d be interested to know how the heir to an earldom became a …” Murdoch began and then stopped.

“Gun hawk,” Hawk finished for him. “It’s quite all right. That I CAN say.” He took another sip of his drink.

“I wasn’t the heir to anything, Mr. Lancer,” he explained. “I was born the third son. In my family, that meant that I was somewhat superfluous and destined for the church.”

Johnny choked on his drink and spluttered brandy, coughing uncontrollably. Hawk grinned as Johnny caught his breath and wiped his mouth and chin with the back of his hand.

Johnny’s eyes were watering, but they twinkled with delight. “You mean, a padre?”

“Control yourself, Johnny,” Hawk said, frowning. “Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. I was saved from that fate when my brother Bertram died. That meant I got to go into the army instead. It was probably just as well.”

“I’d say so,” Johnny said quietly.

“But the rest is a long and foolish story,” he told them. “I won’t bore you with it.”

“Oh please,” Teresa implored him. “Murdoch’s right. I’m sure it’s a fascinating story.”

“No, quite the opposite. It’s very ordinary,” he replied. “I’m afraid I was the black sheep of the family. I left a trail of frustrated tutors and staff behind me, in my formative years. My father despaired of me, so he bought me a commission in the army. That was after I was sent down from Oxford in my second year. I was very young, but Father was eager to cover up the scandal and get me out of the house.”

His eyes sparkled with mischief. “I wasn’t good at taking orders. I’m afraid I was asked to leave the army as well – very politely, of course.”

Murdoch looked at Johnny and began to see what these two had in common.

“Of course,” Johnny echoed, smiling.

Hawk ignored him. “By that time, my brother, Charles, had married and produced another generation. With Charles as heir, and a son to follow him, my presence became redundant and Father packed me off to stay with a distant cousin in New York. I could create all the scandal I liked there, he said.”

He swirled the brandy around in the glass and stared into it before continuing.

“I found New York society just as boring as London.”

Scott smiled. “Actually, it’s a lot livelier than Boston.”

“Is it really?” Hawk laughed. “What a good thing that I missed Boston then.”

“So you left?” Scott asked him.

Hawk grinned. “Oh yes, cut off without the proverbial penny!” he explained. “Yes, I could handle a pistol after my army days and I made a nice living entering competition shoots around the country. I got something of a reputation doing it and was approached by a rancher to help him out with a neighboring rancher. Rather naively, I went along.”

He took a long swallow of brandy. “And that, as they say, is history.”

Teresa frowned. “If you weren’t supposed to inherit, how is it that you are now?”

Johnny glanced anxiously at his friend. Teresa’s naïve question required an emotional answer – something that Johnny knew Hawk avoided. He took delight in mocking himself and his life, but Johnny knew that there were a lot of feelings about his father’s rejection of him that had never been dealt with.

Both Johnny and Scott knew those emotions well. But they had had a chance to confront their own rejection and come to realize that they had been wrong.

Tony Hawk would never have that chance.

“A series of family tragedies, I’m afraid, Miss O’Brien,” he answered, barely missing a beat. “So, now I have to go back to England and take the reins of the family estate - rather a daunting prospect.”

Finishing off the glass of brandy, he looked at Murdoch Lancer with piercing slate gray eyes. “Which brings me to the problem at hand,” he said candidly. “I came here to get some advice from Johnny about how to hang up my gun and settle down to a quiet life, but I realize now that there are no rules.”

“So, I’d like Johnny to come with me – at least for a couple of months.”


 

CHAPTER THREE

“What?” Johnny exclaimed, turning to his friend in shock. “Are you crazy?”

He turned to his father and brother. “He’s crazy!”

Scott lowered his head and tried to hide his amusement. Murdoch, on the other hand, looked nearly as surprised as his son.

“It’s not crazy, Johnny,” Hawk told him. “It’ll be something new. You always liked that.”

“No, it’s a fool idea.”

“Oh, come on, Johnny,” Hawk said with a laugh. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“I grew out of it!” Johnny shook his head emphatically. “No…no chance. It’d never work.”

“It would only be while I settle in – a few weeks, maybe a month.”

Johnny finished the glass of brandy and walked over to set it down heavily beside the decanter. “Me? With all them fancy folks? It wouldn’t work.”

“Don’t underestimate yourself, Johnny. You’re as good as they are – better, in fact. Besides, it’s going to be me they’ll be judging.”

Looking at Hawk, Johnny thought his friend was worrying over nothing. The man had always emanated class. “Since when did you care what anyone thought of you? You’ve got nothin’ to worry ‘bout.”

“So, you’re abandoning me to them?”

Johnny shook his head knowingly. “Oh, no you don’t! Don’t try to make me feel bad. They’re your people. You’ll settle right in without havin’ me ‘round to remind you of what you were.”

“Johnny…”

“No, an’ there’s too much to do here, anyway. The calvin’ an’ brandin’…”

“Now, just wait up a minute, son,” Murdoch interrupted. He sat back against the desk beside Scott and pressed his hands down hard on it. “I don’t think you should discount this so quickly.”

His son spun around in surprise. “What?” Johnny yelled at him.

Scott looked as stunned as Johnny did, but he held off saying anything for now.

“I just think you should give this idea some thought, Johnny,” Murdoch told him calmly. He looked over at Hawk. “When do you leave?”

“I’m traveling by train from Sacramento in about a week, and then sailing from New York,” Hawk explained. “I just have to telegraph my cousin to buy the tickets, but I haven’t arranged a date yet.”

Murdoch nodded. “All right,” he said quietly. “I think we need to discuss this among ourselves. Will you excuse us while we talk about it?”

“There’s nothing to talk about, Murdoch. The idea’s crazy,” Johnny insisted.

“Just wait until we can think this through, Johnny,” Murdoch told him firmly, and ignored the peeved look on his son’s face.

Hawk gave Murdoch a grateful look before glancing at Johnny, who looked confused and angry. “Certainly,” he said and placed his empty glass on the table next to Johnny’s. He carefully avoided the glare he was getting from his friend. “I’ll leave you to it.”

With that, he walked across the room and headed up the stairs to his room. Those he left behind stared at Murdoch Lancer in shock. He could feel their eyes on him and sighed before lifting his head to face them.

Johnny didn’t give him a chance to say anything before he started.

“Talk what through? I can’t go traipsing off to some foreign country,” he told his father angrily. “And, you’re the one who’s always telling us how much work there is!” 

“I just think you should think about this before you turn him down, Johnny. It’s not the sort of chance that comes along every day.” He turned to Scott, still sitting beside him at the desk. “What do you think, Scott?”

“I think it’s up to Johnny to decide,” he said firmly and then shrugged. “But I do agree. It’s a great opportunity.”

“Johnny, you have to go,” Teresa told him excitedly. “It’s a chance to travel and see new countries. Think of the places you’ll see and the people you’ll meet. It’ll be wonderful.”

“Teresa, I’ve done a lot o’ travelin’ an’ I’ve met a lot o’ people. It ain’t that great!” Johnny informed her testily. “Scott, you can’t seriously think I’d fit in over there?”

Scott smiled. “I think you could ‘fit in’ wherever you go, brother,” he said.

He meant it. Johnny had a natural charm that crossed all boundaries. “But I don’t think you should let ‘fitting in’ be an issue. You’d be a stranger in a foreign country, so no one will expect you to be just like them.”

Johnny looked unconvinced, so Scott tried another direction.

“Besides, it’s a chance to help a friend and see something of the world.”

“He’s right, Johnny,” Murdoch agreed. “In fact, I think you should both go.”

“Me?” Scott asked, frowning. “Murdoch, you can’t afford to have us both away for that long.”

Murdoch laughed. “You two seem to think you’ve become indispensable around here,” he said lightly. “I admit; I’ll probably have to put on a couple of hands while you’re away, but I think it’s worth it.” He looked at Scott again. “Have you ever been to England?”

“No,” Scott told him. “Grandfather’s plan was to send me when I finished at Harvard, but, what with the war…well, I just never went.”

“Then both of you go. We’ll be fine for a few months without you.”

“Do I get a say in this?” Johnny asked sarcastically.

“Of course,” his father answered. “But, like Scott said, this is a chance to help out a friend and see some of the greatest cities in the world, Johnny.”

“Then you go!” his son threw back at him and stormed from the room.

Scott stood up and finished the glass of brandy in his hand. He walked over to the table and placed the glass carefully with the others, deep in thought.

“Why do you really want me to go, Murdoch?” he asked, turning around slowly. “Is it because you think Johnny might not fit in, like he says?”

“No,” Murdoch answered, just as thoughtfully. “He probably will have some issues, same as Hawk is bound to as well.” He stood up and walked across the room to the fireplace and looked thoughtfully down into it.

“Are you worried that he’ll get into trouble?”

“No,” his father assured him immediately. “No, of course not.” He grinned suddenly. “Though, that’s something to consider. It has been known to happen.”

“Then why?”

His father sighed heavily, but didn’t turn around to face him. “Son, when Johnny came back, I felt that I had something to give him that he’d never had – home, family, security. With you, it was different. You were giving up all the family and security you’d ever known.”

“Murdoch, I don’t feel that I gave up everything to come here. I’ve got a family and friends and, I think, respect for my abilities. I wouldn’t change any of it.”

His father didn’t turn around for a moment, so the room went quiet. When he did turn back to his son, he cleared his throat before speaking.

“I’m glad you feel that way, son,” he said at last. “But I still want you to go with him. It’s a great opportunity for both of you.  It’s Johnny’s decision, of course, but I don’t want him to turn it down because of that damned miserable way he thinks of himself. This is a chance for him to come to realize that he’s just as good as anyone else.”

“That’s all I needed to hear, Murdoch,” Scott told him with a grateful smile. “Leave him to me. I’ll go talk to him.”

*

After knocking lightly on Johnny’s bedroom door, Scott opened it and poked his head in. Johnny was lying on his bed with his hands tucked behind his head, staring at the ceiling.

Scott walked in and pushed the door closed behind him.

“Are you at least thinking about it?” he asked when his brother ignored his entry.

“Yeah, but I don’t know why. The whole thing’s ridiculous.”

“Why?”

“Come on, Scott. Can you see me with them society folks?” he answered irritably.

Scott walked over and sat down in an armchair by the window, facing his brother. “A couple of years ago, I couldn’t see myself roping and branding cattle. I wasn’t sure what I was doing here.” He shrugged lightly. “But, some things are worth taking a chance for.”

Johnny pulled himself up onto his elbows and stared at Scott. “I guess I never thought of it that way.”

“You have to admit, I was out of place here at first.”

“Well, those plaid pants sure were, Boston. But…I mean…it didn’t bother you, did it?”

“Of course, it bothered me!” Scott answered with a laugh. “Everything and everyone was so different from what I knew that I was a little scared – just like Hawk is.”

“Hawk’s a lot o’ things, but I ain’t never seen him scared.”

“Johnny, he’s lived here for eight years. He’s been selling his gun arm for a lot of that time. He’s not the same man who left England and, from what he said, he didn’t fit in terribly well when he was living at home anyway. He’s got more to be worried about than you or I have.”

Johnny considered his brother’s perspective for a minute and then nodded. “Yeah, I guess maybe you’re right.” He sat up and turned around to face Scott.

“I know I am. I think he sees you as having made this change in your life and maybe you can help him.”

“Yeah, he asked me for some advice on it this mornin’.” Johnny laughed lightly. “I told him I haven’t exactly ‘succeeded’ as much as he thought.”

Scott grinned. “You still have that penchant for finding trouble, that’s for sure.”

“That why Murdoch wants you to go with me?” Johnny asked suspiciously.

“I asked him that,” Scott admitted candidly. “I wish you’d been there to hear the answer. He wants you to go and he wants me to go. He honestly believes it’s a great opportunity for both of us and wants us to take it. I believe him.”

Johnny threw his legs over the side of the bed and grinned. “’Sides, when did Murdoch last give us some time off?”

Scott grinned back at him. “Then, you’ll go?”

Drawing in a deep breath, Johnny breathed out slowly. “Yeah, why not?”

*

The new Lord Hawkesbury stayed at Lancer for another week while the brothers prepared to make the journey home with him.

He had appeared genuinely pleased that Scott was going as well as Johnny, but there had followed a well-mannered ‘discussion’ with Murdoch Lancer. Hawk insisted that, as his guests, he would pay for their fares, while Murdoch firmly stated that he would pay his sons’ way.

Johnny and Scott had watched the battle of wills with amusement. They had both expected to see Murdoch bellow Hawk into submission, but the Englishman’s cool persistence, never even raising his voice, seemed to keep Murdoch from losing his own temper.

But, while Tony Hawk could out gun most men, was a good man to have on your side in a fight, and could cause a man to quake in his boots from his cold, calculated tongue-lashings; he didn’t stand a chance of out-stubborning a Lancer – least of all, Murdoch Lancer.

All his dauntless perseverance didn’t make a dent on Murdoch’s stance.

So, with that decided and out of the way, the three men went about making plans for the trip.

Hawk wired his cousin, asking him to book passage for three and told him when to expect them. He received word two days later that it was all arranged.

He waited until after dinner to tell his friends about the arrangements.

“Edwin has arranged for three staterooms on board the steamship SS Atlantic for us. We sail from New York to Liverpool. She sails two days after we get to New York,” Hawk told them as they gathered in the Great Room for a quiet drink.

“That’s good,” Scott said. “We’ll have time to buy some suitable clothes.”

Johnny scowled at him. Scott saw the look and laughed.

“You’ll have to have clothes that are appropriate, Johnny,” he insisted. “I seem to remember you and Teresa telling me the same thing when I arrived here.”

“He’s right, Johnny,” Teresa added. “Conchos and spurs aren’t going to be suitable for the big city.”

Johnny looked towards his father. “I suppose you’ve got somethin’ to say, too.”

Murdoch smiled. “No, I think you’re outnumbered enough.”

The scowl on Johnny’s face didn’t go away, but Johnny seemed to acknowledge his brother’s point. “Yeah, all right,” he relented. “But, no plaid.”

“No plaid,” Scott agreed, laughing. “So, we’ll travel light until we get to New York and get fitted out there.”

“All right. Now, let’s see,” Hawk said, considering. “About a week by train from Sacramento, a couple of days in New York and then another two weeks on board ship should see us in England in about a month, give or take a few days,” he told Johnny and Scott. “At least the family will be out of full mourning by then. I don’t think I could abide the hypocrisy of mourning a father who disliked me even more than I disliked him."

Johnny was still trying to get his head around the amount of time they’d be traveling. A week on a train was bad enough, but…

“Two weeks on a boat is a mighty long time,” he said distractedly.

“The ‘Atlantic’ is hardly what you’d call ‘a boat’, Johnny,” Hawk told him. “She’s a steamer, and the newest of the White Star Line. I think you will find yourself extremely comfortable.”

“A lot more comfortable than I was when I came over,” Murdoch added. “I came steerage with hundreds of others like me, herded in like cattle.” He grinned. “I have to admit, it makes me proud to think I’m sending my sons back first class.”

“It’s certainly a measure of your success, Murdoch,” Hawk agreed and smiled. “Though, I should think this ranch would be more than enough proof of that already.”

“Thank you,” Murdoch replied and then continued. “The trip took a lot longer than two weeks too.”

“I guess so, but two weeks is still a long time on a boat!” Johnny insisted. “That’s a lot o’ sea to be driftin’ in if the engine breaks down.”

The laughter in the room did nothing to settle his doubts. He pouted and continued to consider whether it was too late to back out of this thing right now. It was getting awful complicated. Fancy clothes, big cities and all that way by train… and the boat.

“I believe she’s also rigged for sail, Johnny. Most steamers are,” Hawk explained.

“You won’t be left drifting, brother,” Scott assured him with a grin. “Are there any stops along the way, Hawk?”

“Edwin says there is a short stop at Queenstown, but that’s almost at Liverpool anyway, so it makes very little difference.”

Murdoch frowned. “Queenstown?”

“In Ireland,” Hawk explained.

“I don’t remember any Queenstown.”

“You probably remember it as Cobh. They changed the name after a visit from Her Majesty,” Hawk told him and smiled when he heard Murdoch’s answer, recalling his Scottish heritage.

“Huh,” Murdoch grunted disgustedly. “I don’t imagine that was the idea of any Irishman!”

“Probably not,” Hawk conceded, grinning. “I’ve come to another decision, too. I’m taking Cuervo back with me.”

“Cuervo?” Scott asked, mystified.

“His horse,” Johnny explained, briefly. “The name means ‘crow’.”

“It means ‘Raven’,” his friend corrected.

“Raven – crow – same thing,” Johnny told him with a grin. “You named your horse ‘crow’.”

“His name is ‘Cuervo’,” Hawk told him firmly. “And he’s going back with me.”

“It’s a long way, Hawk.”

“I can’t leave him behind, Johnny,” Hawk said calmly. He looked at Johnny, and added, “He’s been my constant companion for the last four years.”

He seemed to be appealing to Johnny to understand his point of view. Johnny did understand. The life they had lived had been a solitary life, trusting no one and with no one to rely on. For some men, a good horse was the closest thing they had to a friend, and the only living being they could put their faith in.

A bond grew from that relationship. Johnny knew it well.

“He’ll be fine,” Johnny assured his friend. “I reckon I couldn’t leave Barranca behind if it was me.”

“Yes, I believe he will be,” Hawk agreed confidently. “So, it’s agreed? We leave in two days.”

Scott agreed readily, but Johnny only nodded. His misgivings were rising and creating an uncomfortable, and very unfamiliar, fluttering feeling in the pit of his stomach.

*

Johnny sat under the familiar oak. He leaned back against the trunk, pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. He sat quietly and listened to the silence, broken only when Barranca moved or pulled up another tuft of grass, or when an insect flew past.

It was not only a beautiful view of the ranch; it was also about the most peaceful spot on it. It was soothing to his frayed nerves.

He soaked up the sun, looked out over the scene and sighed. Tomorrow, he and Scott would be leaving this behind and starting out on a journey that Johnny felt himself totally unprepared for.

Oh, he was packed. Teresa had been buzzing around for days making sure that he had plenty of clean clothes. She’d argued with him over his favorite shirt, insisting that it would be out of place and he should leave it at home. But he was taking it and would listen to no argument on the subject. The embroidered rose shirt was going.

No, being packed and having their tickets didn’t mean that he was ready. He wished he could be like Scott and throw himself into the planning. His brother was thriving on it, while he sat back and watched.

Scott was working on it like it was a military campaign. He had just about every detail planned to within an inch of its life and knew exactly how much time they had between trains, what hotel they’d stay in overnight in Sacramento and how to get there.

He’d even tried to come in and check what his brother was planning to take with him, making suggestions and offering advice, until Johnny had good-naturedly told him to plan his own luggage and leave his alone.

Johnny sighed heavily. It wasn’t like he had never taken a risk before. The view in front of him had been one of the great risks of his life – Lancer. His decision to stay – to change his lifestyle and accept a father who he’d hated from his earliest memory – represented the biggest chance he’d ever taken.

Barranca took a couple of steps towards a greener patch of grass, and the movement distracted him. He looked over to watch him and sighed. He’d miss him, too. He’d turn him out to pasture in the morning before he left. Murdoch had suggested it, and he had to admit that the horse would benefit from it.

But that didn’t make it easier. He’d miss his family and his friends here – Teresa, Jelly, Maria and the hands he called his friends. Hell, he’d miss Murdoch too. He smiled. Well, maybe he wouldn’t miss bumping heads with the old man so much.

The horse lifted and tossed his head, shaking his silver mane and snorting his annoyance at being disturbed. Johnny had heard the same sound that had caught Barranca’s attention. A horse was coming slowly up the hill towards them.

Johnny tensed and unfolded his body. He slid his gun quickly and easily from the holster and then looked around to see who it was.

He recognized the black horse and his rider immediately, and then relaxed and slid the weapon back into the holster. He leaned back against the trunk of the tree, once more looking out over the ranch and relaxing.

The horse was brought to a halt not far from Barranca and Hawk dismounted. He dragged the reins over his horse’s head and dropped them to the ground, then walked slowly over to where Johnny was sitting.

“I thought I’d find you here,” he said to Johnny. He came to a stop beside him and asked, “Do you mind some company?”

“Nope, sit down an’ make yourself comfortable,” Johnny told him.

“Thank you,” Hawk answered and lowered his long frame down to the ground beside his friend. Johnny had drawn his legs back up and was leaning his folded arms on them, apparently relaxed.

Hawk leaned back against the trunk beside him and crossed his ankles.

“I wanted a chance to talk to you alone, Johnny,” Hawk continued, pulling a blade of grass and playing with it absently.

“What about?”

Hawk inhaled slowly and breathed out consciously. “I want to thank you for doing this. I know it’s difficult for you. I suppose I didn’t realize exactly how hard it was going to be when I suggested it.” He smiled. “I didn’t really think it through, and I should have asked you first. You got rather bull-dogged into it, didn’t you?”

“Nope, I wouldn’t be goin’ if I’d really made my mind up against it.”

“Are you sure? You don’t seem to have become more comfortable with it over the last couple of days.”

“I guess it’s just kinda new to me,” Johnny told him quietly. “I usually just pick up an’ go. I ain’t used to all this plannin’.”

“Oh, of course, that’s it,” Hawk said sarcastically. “Don’t try to kid a kidder, my friend. You and I are two of a kind, and we both know it.” He looked away from his friend and scanned the valley below them. “I don’t mean that we’re both gunfighters, either. I mean that neither of us has ever been able to quite come to grips with who or what we are.”

Johnny said nothing and Hawk was well aware that he was raising issues that they had both been avoiding facing for most of their lives.

“But you’ve found something here, Johnny. You’ve found your piece of the world. Now, here I am asking you to leave it for a place where you don’t think you’ll fit in again.”

Johnny dropped his head slightly, but still didn’t answer him.

“You know, Johnny? When I first got word about the accident, and I realized what it meant to my life, I picked up a bottle of whiskey and tried to drown myself in it for a week. Then I sobered up and made up my mind that I would let them all think I was dead. I just wouldn’t go back.”

He stopped and looked ahead without speaking for some time. “I thought that way for about another week before I decided that I couldn’t do it. I thought about Julia trying to hold what’s left of my family together while the title and the estate passed to a cousin.” He sighed heavily. “I knew I’d have to go home.”

He laughed ironically. “So I got extremely angry with the fates, bought myself another bottle of whiskey and tried to drown myself again.”

“Is that what you were doin’ the other night when we found you? Still tryin’ to wash it all away?”

“No, I got past being angry some time ago. By the time I got here, it was just plain fear that had a hold of me.”

Johnny stared at him.

Tony Hawk smiled a little. “Don’t try to tell me that you hadn’t guessed that already.”

Johnny smiled back and shook his head. “No, I didn’t really guess, but my big brother, Scott, is the perceptive one. He figured it out.”

“I might have known,” Hawk admitted. “I do like that brother of yours, Johnny. I’m glad he’s coming.”

“I think Murdoch’s sendin’ him so he can keep an eye on me,” Johnny told him with a grin. “But, I’m glad he’s comin’ too.”

“I’ll never be able to thank you enough for this.” Hawk lowered his own head and sighed heavily. “I’m scared, Johnny. I was never meant to inherit the title and it’s a daunting responsibility. I’ve spent my whole life avoiding just that – responsibility, duty. I don’t know how to do it.”

When Johnny finally lifted his head and leaned back heavily against the tree, he was grinning. “Hawk, you know somethin’? Maybe we’ll both surprise ourselves!”


 

CHAPTER FOUR

Johnny leaned into the corner of the seat and rested his head against the window. He looked out at the passing scenery without really seeing it.

The morning had gone by with all the fuss and bother that he had expected and dreaded. Teresa, Jelly and Murdoch had all accompanied them to Cross Creek to see them off and, by the time he’d finally gotten onto the train and found a seat with Scott and Hawk, exhaustion had set in.

Jelly had prattled on about behaving themselves and staying out of trouble while, at the same time, assuring them not to worry about the horses. He’d see that they were fine. He’d promised to watch out for Teresa and Murdoch. They had nothing to worry about with him ‘in charge’.

Teresa had fussed and tormented them with a barrage of questions like ‘Did you remember to pack this?” and “Did you pack that?” At least three times, she asked them if they had the food that she and Maria had packed for them for their trip.

Just when Johnny had thought he could take no more and was ready to snap at her, she had broken down in tears and fallen into his arms, telling him how much she was going to miss them.

And Murdoch, all calm and stoic, had driven them crazy overseeing the loading of Hawk’s horse, the luggage, everything – right down to where they should sit on the train.

Johnny and Scott had passed an endless series of sympathetic looks between each other, and were both heard sighing with exasperation on more than one occasion.

When the time to board had arrived, Hawk had shaken hands with Murdoch and Jelly, and brushed a small kiss against Teresa’s cheek and then left them alone to their farewells. Johnny and Scott both assured Teresa that the time would fly and she wouldn’t have a chance to miss them before they were back again, but her tears flowed just the same.

Jelly had shaken their hands and surreptitiously brushed aside an embarrassed tear, while Murdoch had taken each of his sons in huge bear-like hug and slapped their backs before giving one last admonition to look after themselves and to stay out of trouble.

This last had been aimed specifically at Johnny, and he hadn’t missed it.

He’d smiled mischievously and assured them he had no intention of looking for trouble. What could happen in a place like England with all those fancy dudes and society folk? Then he turned and joined his brother in climbing up the steps to the carriage.

Five minutes later, the whistle wailed and steam hissed loudly. Then, with a jolt that threw them forward, the train drew away from the station.

Johnny was surprised to find that he actually felt a wave of relief rather than panic. He settled comfortably into his corner and let his mind go blank for a while.

He was determined not to think about what lay ahead of him.

‘One step at a time, Johnny boy,’ he told himself. ‘Just one step at a time.’

*

“Thank heavens that’s over,” Scott said with a heavy sigh. “I thought that conductor would hit Murdoch before he was finished.”

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed, dragging his mind back into the present and grinning. “Ol’ Murdoch sure took over, didn’t he?”

Scott sat facing his brother, with Hawk sitting beside him.

“I think there’s a couple of things we should work out between ourselves, now that we’re on our way,” he suggested.

“Such as?” Johnny asked suspiciously.

“Well, firstly, you both have to get rid of those gun belts before we get into Sacramento,” he said with a mischievous grin. He was well aware that Johnny would hate that particular idea, and that Hawk was likely to feel the same way.

Johnny nodded reluctantly. His only other trip to a big city, San Francisco that time, had proved to him that Scott was right about that. Folks in the city just didn’t take kindly to guns.

Hawk glanced at Johnny and saw him nodding. “All right,” Hawk agreed. “I agree. So what else do you have in mind?”

“Well, I take it that you don’t want your reputation to follow you to New York or to England?” Scott asked him.

A smile crept over Hawk’s face. “I should say that’s a fair statement.”

“I thought as much,” Scott answered. “Then I think we have to avoid calling you ‘Hawk’ and use your real name from now on.”

“He’s right,” Johnny conceded. “Tony Hawk is too recognizable. We don’t know who’s gonna know the name.”

Hawk sighed heavily. “And so, it begins,” he said wearily. “Very well, Tony Hawkesbury, it is.”

“And, Johnny, you’ll have to get out of the habit of calling him ‘Hawk’,” Scott pointed out. “It’s too easy to put two and two together…Hawk…Tony…”

“Yeah, I see what you mean,” he turned to his friend and smiled, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “So, do I call you Tony or Lord Anthony?”

Tony smiled back, but there was no mischief in his eyes. “I refuse to answer to Lord anything! Not before it’s absolutely necessary.”

Johnny laughed and then looked away out of the window. He leaned back and tried to stretch his legs out, only to have his feet crammed under the seat opposite and Scott’s legs in the way. He shifted and tried to resettle but couldn’t get comfortable.

Scott watched him and sighed in exasperation. “Can’t you sit still? You’re making me nervous.”

“Yeah, well if these seats weren’t so cramped, maybe a man could get comfortable,” Johnny complained. “How long did you say we’d be on that train back east?”

“A week,” Scott told him. “So you’d better get used to it or you’ll drive us all crazy.”

“We’ll all be more comfortable when we leave Sacramento,” Hawk assured Johnny. “Scott arranged for sleeping compartments for the trip.”

“They’re supposed to be quite luxurious,” Scott explained, a little doubtfully. “At least, I hope they’re better than what I had on the way out here.”

Johnny didn’t voice his own misgivings about the likelihood of being comfortable on ANY train. This was going to be one very long trip.

The three of them settled down to pass the time. Tony Hawk opened a book he’d borrowed from the Lancer library, Scott was busy writing, and Johnny stared silently out at the passing countryside.

*

It was nearly dark when the train finally pulled into the station in Sacramento. The three men stood up, stretched arms, legs and backs, and made their way out of the carriage.

“Would you two mind collecting the luggage while I see to Cuervo?” Tony asked as they stepped onto the platform.

“Sure, but it’s mostly your stuff anyway. Scott an’ me are traveling light compared to you,” Johnny told him caustically. “Didn’t seem like you had that much stuff when you arrived at Lancer.”

Tony Hawkesbury laughed. “I’ll meet you at the hotel,” he told them and left them to go and take care of his horse.

Johnny looked around at the crowded platform. There was noise everywhere – the hiss of the steam being exhaled by the engine, people talking loudly to be heard over it, porters’ trolleys noisily rolling baggage down the platform.

He felt less than comfortable in the crowd and the noise, and he felt less than dressed without his gun. He and Hawk had packed their guns and spurs after the train had left Stockton, following a gentle reminder from Scott.

“Come on, brother,” Scott said, tapping Johnny’s shoulder. “Let’s get out of here. I need to wash some of this dust off and get something to eat.”

“It might be our last chance to get a decent night’s sleep, too.”

“We’ll have a few hours in the morning before the train leaves,” Scott told him. “It might be an idea to invest in a couple of books to read on the trip. You’ll need something to keep yourself occupied.”

Johnny smiled mischievously and asked, “You hinting at somethin’, brother?”

“Only that, if I have to spend another whole week like today, with you bored and fidgeting, I’m going to end up tying you down and gagging you.”

*

By the time the train pulled out of the station at Sacramento the next afternoon, precisely on time at ten minutes after two, Tony Hawk had found a young man willing to travel with and take care of Cuervo all the way to New York.

“He seems like a good kid,” he told Scott and Johnny. “The owner of the livery stable gave him good references.”

“Long as you’re satisfied, an’ Cuervo gets along with him,” Johnny replied.

“Cuervo doesn’t take kindly to many people, but he took to the boy, so that’s good enough for me,” Tony explained.

And so they settled down to watch the changing scenery. The train began climbing into the Sierras almost immediately after leaving Sacramento. Hour after hour, the rails wound round the great range, rising to dizzying heights and looking down over crystal blue lakes and pine clad mountains.

“Brother, that’s some real pretty country out there,” Johnny said as they got higher.

“Definitely,” Scott agreed. “I missed those views when I came from Boston. It was dark when we crossed this side of the mountains. I didn’t know I had missed so much.”

Hawk sighed heavily. “Yes,” he said sadly. “Tell me again why I’m leaving it.”

He stared out the window and watched the passing vistas silently.

Neither Johnny nor Scott could find an answer for him right now, but they both hoped that he would find one of his own at some stage.

Johnny was openly fascinated by the constantly changing views. There seemed to be something new around every bend in the tracks. They crossed the highest trestle bridge that Johnny had ever seen and he had to admit that a glance over the side at the sheer drop below was enough to test any man’s stomach.

When they went through the claustrophobic Bloomer’s Cut, Johnny was sure that he could reach out and touch the rock walls; and the tunnels got longer and darker as they climbed further into the mountains.

Before they reached the peaks, the sun faded and darkness threw a cloak over the vista.

By then, a porter had appeared to pull down the bunks and draw the curtains so they could get some sleep. They had stopped for dinner and Johnny found himself exhausted enough to relish the idea of going to bed. He wasn’t sure why. He’d done nothing but sit around all day. This traveling might be more tiring than he’d thought.

“I’m goin’ to bed, Scott,” he told his brother. “So, do you want the top or the bottom?”

Johnny looked dubiously at the top berth and thought maybe he’d rather have that one. He wasn’t entirely sure how secure it was up there. There didn’t seem like much to hold it in place but if it came down...

“On second thought, I don’t think you can get your old bones up there, Scott. I’ll take the top one.”

His eyes twinkled with mischief as he continued. “’Sides, if that thing breaks, I’d rather be on the top comin’ down, than on the bottom gettin’ squashed.”

Scott laughed and lay down on the bottom bunk as his brother climbed up to the higher one. Once there, Johnny took his boots off and realized that there was nowhere to leave them. It was either the end of the bed or on the floor, so he checked that Scott wasn’t under him and dropped them.

Scott watched the boots plummet past him, one after the other. He stuck his head out and called to Johnny, “Anything else you want me to look after for you?”

“Nope,” was all the answer he got, so he picked up the boots and tucked them under the berth with his own.

Scott sighed and lay down. The bed was a little short, but reasonably comfortable. They were certainly better off than many of their fellow travelers. He looked around at the polished timber paneling and the lamps hanging elegantly from the ceiling. Everything in the carriage emanated elegance, but little privacy.

He pulled the curtains closed. The train was riding surprisingly smoothly and quietly and he closed his eyes.

Johnny obviously rolled over in the berth above him and the hinge on the bed creaked ever so gently. The light went out and Scott realized that his brother had dowsed the lamp on the wall above him.

Scott felt the gentle movement of the train lulling him to sleep, only to be disturbed as his brother rolled again, and then again.

“Johnny, will you settle down?” he called out in exasperation. “I thought you were tired.”

“Boston, you’ve been out here too long,” Johnny answered.

“Why do you say that?”

“’Cause your idea of luxury has kinda changed,” Johnny grumbled.

Scott laughed, remembering his promise of luxury for the trip across the country. “I admit, I thought it would be better than this. But don’t worry. We’ve wired ahead for a couple of compartments once we change at Ogden. I’m sure they’ll be more comfortable.”

“Hmmph,” Johnny grunted as an answer.

He listened to his brother moving around and finally spoke up. “I thought you were tired? Go to sleep!”

There was quiet for all of five minutes before Johnny rolled over again, this time yelping an outraged, “Ouch!”

“Now what?” Scott asked, getting annoyed.

“Burned my arm on that damned lamp,” Johnny told him angrily.

“Bad?”

“No.”

“Then lie down and go to sleep.”

*

They woke the next day to find themselves traveling through the mountaintops. Fields of snow, still not melted by the spring sun, glistened in that very same sun’s light.

As the day wore on, the travelers looked for ways to stave off the boredom of another day on the train. Checkers came out of Scott’s bag for a while and the three took turns at playing against each other. Tony suggested a game of poker and they played for a while, though Johnny took Scott aside and surreptitiously warned him that Tony Hawk was more than a fair hand at the game.

Johnny even took up one of Scott’s books and began reading it quietly while his brother and Tony played checkers some more.

The day wore on slowly into another night. This time, to Scott’s relief, Johnny seemed to settle quickly and with fewer complaints than the night before.

When they woke the next morning, they were at Ogden, and the start of the Union Pacific.

Changing trains was a noisy, crowded and hectic business, but they eventually found themselves settled into their compartments on the Pullman Palace car in comparative comfort. Scott and Johnny would share one, while Tony had his own next door.

Scott stretched out his legs as he sat in one of the armchairs, while Johnny sat on the sofa opposite him, and they looked around them. Stained timber paneled walls and brass fittings that gleamed from polishing were all throughout the car. Frosted crystal lamps adorned the walls and the windows were dressed with red velvet curtains, fringed with gold and tied back with gold tasseled sashes.

The chairs were so well padded and comfortable that they sank into them and relaxed.

Scott sighed.

“This is more like it,” he told him.

“Yep, sure is,” Johnny agreed, stretching his own legs out.

Scott laughed. “I think you’ve gotten spoiled. What happened to the man who liked to sleep out under the stars on the ground?”

Johnny grinned mischievously. “The ground don’t cramp you up like those bunks on that other train. I’ve had more space to myself in a jail cell.”

A gentle tap on the door interrupted them. Tony Hawk put his head in and grinned.

“Come on in, Tony,” Scott said cheerfully.

“More to your taste, Johnny?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“Well, that’s good news,” Hawk laughed. “Maybe we’ll all get some sleep tonight.”

“How’s Cuervo travelin’?” Johnny asked, ignoring the jibe.

“Great. He seems to have taken a liking to young Tom.”

“You were lucky to find that boy,” Scott said.

“I certainly was. Considering how hard it was to find someone to travel with the horse was difficult enough, but finding someone that Cuervo accepted was sheer good fortune,” Tony agreed. “He doesn’t take to many people.”

Johnny laughed. “Tony, that horse is plain nasty to most people.”

“Really?” Scott asked his brother. “And Barranca isn’t?”

“Barranca just knows people. He’s got taste.” He went quiet for a moment, before adding, “Sure gonna miss him.”

*

The day passed in much the same way as the days before, though now they had room to stretch out and privacy to talk about whatever they wanted.

They passed spectacular scenery and then found the train was heading downhill – out of the mountains. Soon the chill of the high altitudes was behind them and the sun began to go down.

There was a light tap on the door and Scott got up to admit a porter, dressed immaculately in a gray uniform with bold and brightly polished brass buttons. The man took only minutes to effectively convert the sofa into one bed and the two armchairs into another. He pulled down mattresses, blankets and pillows from inside the roof of the car and made up the beds, and then he pulled curtains across the passageway windows and turned back to them.

“I hope you have a pleasant night’s sleep, gentlemen,” he said crisply and, with a quick glance in Johnny’s direction, he added, “And please, sirs, the Union Pacific does not allow boots on the beds.”

With that, the man took his leave and closed the door behind him.

Scott and Tony looked towards Johnny, who sat scowling, and they couldn’t contain themselves. They burst out laughing.

“You heard him, Johnny,” Tony said, still trying to get control of his mirth.

“Ain’t like I got spurs on,” Johnny grumbled, but he found himself laughing with them.

*

Sleep came easily that night, and there followed days of watching the changing scenery outside and trying to find something to pass the time.

They settled into the routine of eating stops, where they gulped down food in the short time the train waited. They began to recognize the other passengers at those stops. There was Mrs. Dowling, an elderly lady traveling back east to retire in Philadelphia where her son lived. More often than not, the boys found themselves helping her on and off the train and she always had a beaming smile for them. Mr. and Mrs. Huston, with their two rowdy sons, were going to Cheyenne to visit her mother; and old Charlie Granger who had struck it rich years ago in the gold fields - he was ‘seein’ the world!

The days were filled with talking over their plans, playing cards, reading and checkers. Every evening, their military style porter would arrive to transform the chairs and sofa into beds and each morning he would reappear to change it all back and supply fresh linen.

Soon, the mountains and canyons of the west gave way to dry plains as they passed Salt Lake City, and then to the broad, endless grasslands of the prairies as they passed through Laramie and on to Julesburg and Kearney. They passed a vast city of Prairie dog mounds – the little animals disappearing into their holes with their tails high in the air.

Johnny had never seen so many of the curious little creatures in one place. There had to be thousands of them. “Wouldn’t like to take a horse through there,” he announced, shaking his head. A horse’s leg stepping into one of those holes would snap in a moment.

So, with five days of travel in the luxury of their Pullman compartment behind them, they pulled into Omaha.

Once again, they found themselves in the hubbub of changing trains. Tony disappeared to see to the moving of his horse and Scott and Johnny made sure their luggage went with them instead of turning around with the train and going back the way it had come.

A few hours later, they were on yet another train, still heading east. Once again, they had the comfort of a Pullman sleeping car and the privacy they all found themselves craving after just a couple of hours at the railroad station.

A porter arrived shortly after they left and began the now familiar routine of changing the chairs into beds and, turning to leave and bidding them a good evening, he reminded them once again of the Railroad’s rule – no boots on the beds.

Johnny sighed, but took some solace from the fact that the porter hadn’t aimed his words at him alone. Scott and Tony had received equal shares of the man’s glower.

*

As the next two days passed, Scott found himself watching Johnny’s reactions to his surroundings. He didn’t seem fazed; rather he was a little disdainful of the great cities he was seeing for the first time. First Chicago, then Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore, passed in a blur of night and day.

Scott was a little disappointed that his brother seemed to be unimpressed with traveling through them, until he realized that Johnny was seeing nothing of these places but the rail yards and cluttered noisy platforms. He sighed and thought it a shame.

Well, at least he would get to see New York City. They’d spend some time buying clothes for the rest of the trip and then show Johnny some of the sights.

When they finally reached New York though, they hardly had time to get up and get packed before the train pulled to a halt at the station. Walking together down the platform, the noise and the press of the crowd was suffocating.

“Where to now?” Johnny asked Tony.

“My cousin’s house,” Tony replied with a sigh. “I suppose we’ll have to hail a cab.”

“I don’t think that’s going to be necessary, Tony,” Scott said and nodded in the direction of a teenage boy walking through the crowd and calling out Tony’s name.

At least, it was Tony’s name now.

“Lord Hawkesbury,” the boy shouted over the melee. “Lord Hawkesbury.”

“Over here, kid,” Johnny called to the boy as he walked by.

The boy looked him up and down curiously. Johnny had dusted off his bolero jacket and had even added a string tie to his ensemble, but he still didn’t look at ease in the city.

“You Lord Hawkesbury?” the boy asked with a frown.

Scott bit his lip to keep from laughing. Tony grinned and Johnny shook his head.

“Nope,” Johnny told him patiently and nodded towards Tony. “He is.”

The boy turned and gave Tony the same once over that he had given Johnny. Dressed in the same clothes that had seemed too fancy for Morro Coyo, Tony didn’t seem to impress the boy much more than Johnny had.

“There’s a Mr. Edwin Hawkesbury waiting for you, Sir,” he said politely, however. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you the way.”

He led them quickly through the crowd. He seemed oblivious to all the other people and danced around them so easily that his entourage had difficulty keeping him in sight.

When he finally stopped, it was in a private room that sat like an island in the center of the hectic station.

Tony followed the boy into the room first, with Scott and Johnny close behind and the three stopped when confronted with the well dressed citizen waiting for them. There was certainly nothing about Edwin Hawkesbury to lead anyone to think that he and Tony were related.

The man was short, rotund, and graying. His clothes were immaculately tailored and his hair was trimmed neatly and fashionably. Even his shoes were polished to such a gloss that no speck of dust would dare to impose on them.

A smile lit his face when he caught sight of Tony and he extended two carefully manicured hands to grip his much taller cousin about the arms.

“Good heavens,” he exclaimed happily. “It really is you, Anthony! My boy, I thought you dead years ago. Where have you been? You look wonderful, Anthony, just wonderful!”

Tony did nothing more than accept his cousin’s prattling with a patient smile and when the man stopped to take a breath, Tony introduced his friends.

“Edwin, I’d like you to meet my friends Johnny and Scott Lancer. They’re traveling to England with me.”

Edwin Hawkesbury shook hands enthusiastically with each of them. “Pleased to meet you both,” he told them.

He looked back to Tony again. “I have a carriage waiting outside, Anthony. We’ll have you home and settled in no time.”

“I have to see to my horse first.”

“No, no, not at all. I’ve sent one of my stable boys to take care of all that,” he answered, waving the comment aside with a very literal sweep of his hand. “All taken care of, dear boy. He’ll show your lad where to take the animal.”

Tony looked a little flustered. Johnny lowered his head to hide a smile at seeing Tony Hawk looking so overwhelmed.

“Come, come, gentlemen,” the man insisted, leading the way to the door and ushering them out. “Everything is taken care of. I’ve arranged for your baggage to be collected and taken to the house already. Nothing for you to worry about at all.”

*

Before they knew it, they were sitting in an elegant open carriage, making their way through the streets of New York. Johnny looked around him at the maze of streets and brick buildings. There were carriages and horse-drawn omnibuses and people walking by without paying any attention to the strangers in their midst.

He hardly took in anything of the buildings and the noise and the bustle of a morning in the city. There was just too much of it and he hardly had time to think about it before they drew up in front of a large brownstone house and stopped.

Edwin led the way up the stairs, stopping to usher his guests along their way. When he got to the front door, it magically opened before he got a chance to touch the doorknob and a perfectly dressed butler held it open while they walked past and into the hallway.

“Come in, come in,” Edwin encouraged them with a wave of his chubby hand. He had a grin on his face that seemed utterly genuine. He opened the door to a drawing room and they walked through and stopped.

Johnny broke stride and halted. He couldn’t believe his eyes, though why he hadn’t considered the possibility was beyond him.

Harlan Garrett stood by the fireplace.

FOOTNOTE: I did a lot of research on the Transcontinental Railroad in 1872. There is a wonderful website if you care to visit it any time which has links to travel guides, timetables, fares and information on the trains and carriages. It is http://www.cprr.org/Museum/Calif_Journey_1873/


CHAPTER FIVE

“Scotty, my boy,” Harlan came forward to the doorway and exclaimed, clapping his hands on his grandson’s shoulders happily and pulling him into an ecstatic embrace. “Are you surprised?”

Scott hadn’t recovered his composure. He blinked and said, “Yes, I am,” without giving it much thought.

When his grandfather finally released him, he shook himself back to reality and glanced around the room. Tony Hawkesbury looked curious, while his cousin was smiling with pleasure.

Johnny was not.

Scott sighed. If anything could spoil this visit to New York City, it was a confrontation between his brother and Harlan Garrett. He was well aware that Johnny had never forgiven Harlan for trying to force him to return to Boston.

“What are you doing here?” Scott asked his grandfather with surprise. When he’d written him to tell him of their plans, he had hardly expected Grandfather to be here waiting for him.

Garrett grinned with satisfaction. “Well, I knew that you wouldn’t have time to come and visit me in Boston,” he explained. “So I imposed upon Edwin to let me see you here.” He stood back and studied Scott from head to toe. “You look well,” he continued. “A little too tanned perhaps, but I suppose that’s to be expected from that hot western sun. I suppose your father has you working like any other cowhand?”

“I do my fair share, Grandfather,” Scott assured him firmly. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Harlan nodded and said, patronizingly, “Yes, I’m sure you wouldn’t.”

When he looked up, Garrett glanced past him to where Tony was standing and Scott realized that he should introduce them.

“Grandfather, this is Tony Hawkesbury,” he said smoothly.

Garrett moved forward and shook hands with Tony. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lord Hawkesbury,” he said, and Scott almost smiled at how quickly Tony covered up the grimace he wore at the mention of his title.

“And you know Johnny, of course,” Scott added cheerfully.

“Of course,” Garrett said, apparently dismissing him. Then he caught a glimpse of the annoyed expression on his grandson’s face and continued, “How are you, Johnny?”

Johnny was obviously far from surprised by Harlan’s treatment of him. “Just dandy, Mr. Garrett,” he said with a lopsided smile and a twinkle in his eyes.

Edwin stepped forward. “Why don’t we all come into the drawing room and have a seat,” he suggested and led the way in.

Johnny looked around the room. It was elegant. He’d heard the words used for all kinds of things, but this room seemed like the epitome of ‘elegance’.

The furnishings were carved and polished to within an inch of their lives, with red velvet seats and gold burnishing. The curtains were heavy and were also red, and even the ceiling was ornately decorated.

There were paintings on the walls, painted porcelain vases with fresh flowers on the table and framed miniatures and photographs on the mantle.

He was glad he’d dusted himself off outside. If he did it in here, whoever was responsible for keeping this room clean would likely come after his hide.

A woman came into the room, dressed fashionably in emerald green silk, with her hair styled elaborately. She looked about the same age as Edwin Hawkesbury, about fifty-ish, but she moved with the grace of a teenager.

“Gentlemen,” Edwin interrupted. “This is my wife, Eleanor. Anthony, you remember my dear Eleanor, don’t you?”

“Of course,” Tony agreed, bowing his head to her politely. “How could I forget the most beautiful woman in New York?”

“Anthony,” she replied, smiling and taking his hand. “You’re an outrageous flatterer. Do keep it up though, I love it so.”

He kissed her hand and then introduced Scott and Johnny. “These are my friends, Scott Lancer and Johnny Lancer.”

Eleanor Hawkesbury smiled and nodded graciously to them. “It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” she told them amiably. “But you must all be famished. That train arrived at such an unreasonable hour. I have arranged breakfast for us all in the dining room. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and see if everything is ready.”

With a graceful rustle of her skirts, Eleanor swept from the room.

“So, Scotty,” Harlan said when she left. “Sit down and tell me how your trip has been.”

Scott looked at his brother and nodded towards an armchair next to him, but Johnny refused to take the hint. He preferred to sit on the sofa by the window. Close proximity to Harlan Garrett was not something that Johnny openly sought.

Tony walked over to stand beside his cousin, watching them with interest.

“Actually, the trip went well, Grandfather,” Scott told him, sitting in the chair the man had indicated. Harlan Garrett had remained standing, back at his position by the fireplace. He had his hands clasped behind his back and smiled. Scott continued. “We had no problems at all.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Harlan answered. “Wretched, uncomfortable things those trains, though. The steamer will be more comfortable. I’m very pleased that you are finally going to Europe. Of course, if you hadn’t gone off to fight in the war…”

“Yes, I know, Grandfather,” Scott interrupted quickly. He knew his grandfather’s feelings about his part in the war and had no intention of letting him express them here. “But I am going now.”

Garrett smiled his approval. “So you are, my boy, and in illustrious company, too.” He turned to Tony and bowed his head slightly to acknowledge him. As he turned back to his grandson, his eyes caught Johnny’s and he added, “Though, I must say, I don’t see why you had to drag poor Johnny along with you. I can’t believe he’ll enjoy it. He must feel like a fish out of water.”

Scott blanched and looked over at his brother. The ‘fish’ merely looked up and glared at Garrett. Battle had been joined, just as Scott had feared, and sooner than he had expected.

But anger flickered in Johnny’s eyes only for a moment and changed to a glimmer of humor. Garrett’s opening salvo had gone wide of the mark.

Johnny seemed about to reply when his eyes met Scott’s, and he stopped.

“Grandfather, I think you’ve misunderstood,” Scott hurried to explain. “Tony is Johnny’s friend. If anyone is tagging along, it’s me.”

“Nonsense,” Tony said authoritatively. “No one is ‘tagging along’. Johnny is doing me a great service by agreeing to join me. I am vastly indebted to him and I welcome Scott, firstly as his brother, but I am honored to call him my friend as well.”

He cast a look at Garrett with open challenge in his eyes. “I hope that concludes the matter.”

Scott was taken aback by the commanding presence that Tony had slipped into, but Johnny’s eyes gleamed and he ducked his head to hide the smile on his face.

They were saved from further discomfort by Mrs. Hawkesbury’s timely arrival to announce breakfast was ready.

They stood up and followed her from the room, but Scott hung back a little and waited for Johnny.

Johnny was still smiling and saw the unasked question on his brother’s face.

“Wealth an’ power, Scott,” Johnny said quietly as they walked out of the room together. “It’s in his blood. He’s an Earl’s son, even if he was never meant to be the one to inherit. He might not know it yet, but he was born to it.”

*

Having eaten and been shown to their rooms to settle in - rooms that Johnny thought looked far too good to sleep in - Scott and Tony led him out into the street to make good on their threat – suitable clothes.

Edwin pointed them towards his own tailor, who he assured them would have just what they needed, and the means to get the suits altered in time for them to make the ship.

Johnny found himself with little or no say in it all. The whole process was orchestrated by a weedy little man with wire-rimmed spectacles, and a tape measure draped around his neck. He looked down his long nose at the three of them and snapped his fingers, resulting in pandemonium as his employees ran about producing shirts and suits and ties and cravats.

Johnny baulked at the formal dinner suit he forced him to try on, but Tony and Scott cornered him and forced him to see the need for it.

Several hours later, dressed in city street clothes that itched horribly and a starched collar that he kept tugging at, Scott and Tony let him escape. Each of them carried a parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Inside were the clothes they’d arrived in. Johnny had had to rescue his from the tailor who had insisted that the only place they should be was the garbage.

Scott saw the glare in his brother’s eyes and ushered him out of the shop.

From there, they found a telegraph office and wired back to Lancer that they had arrived safely and would be leaving on the steamer on Wednesday. Then they went for some lunch.

After the elaborate breakfast, they chose a diner far less refined to have lunch. There they were able to talk more freely and enjoy the freedom to be more themselves.

“I wish Edwin hadn’t planned this dinner tonight,” Tony told them with a sigh. “I was hoping to escape New York before there were any ostentatious gatherings like that.”

“He’s just bein’ neighborly, Tony,” Johnny replied, though he sure wasn’t looking forward to it himself.

“What he wants is to show me off,” Tony said disgustedly.

“Like a prize bull, huh?” Johnny laughed.

“Exactly, and it’s only the beginning. Once I get back to England…”

“Slow down, Hawk,” Johnny said firmly. “Take it one step at a time. This thing tonight mightn’t be as bad as you expect.” He sighed, thinking of having dinner with strangers – and Harlan Garrett – and no happier about it than Tony was.

Tony smiled. “You’re right. Maybe it will just be an evening of pleasant conversation.”

Johnny doubted it, but didn’t let on. If Scott had any doubts, he wasn’t saying either.

“Just one thing,” Johnny said doubtfully.

“What’s that?”

“We gotta wear those monkey suits?” he asked.

Tony laughed and Scott clapped his brother on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll pick them up on our way back this afternoon,” Scott assured him with a laugh. “Mr. Ambrose assured me he’d have the alterations done by then. You’ll be able to wear it tonight.”

*

Johnny stuck his finger between his stiff color and his throat and tried to pry a little space. He caught a glimpse of a smile on Scott’s face though and stopped, clasping his hands awkwardly behind his back.

They had walked the streets of New York all afternoon. Johnny hadn’t thought much of the buildings. Rows and rows of brick boxes with more boxes stacked on top of them. Some of them had layer upon layer of floors.

They’d wandered down Broadway past huge buildings that Scott had called ‘Department stores’. On entering one immense building, ornately decorated on the outside with ornate cast iron grills, Johnny discovered that it was six floors of merchandise of every description. He thought it was kind of like Baldemero’s general store – on a grand scale. But the building took up a whole city block, so there was nothing like the clutter of Baldemero’s.

While they were there, Scott and Tony had stocked up on books for the trip and Johnny had even invested in a couple himself. It was going to be a long trip.

The streets were noisy with the rattle of carriages and horse-drawn omnibuses. There didn’t seem to be many people riding on horseback. They either walked or rode in carriages – private or public.

They had shown him cathedrals, the opera house and the museum – all very impressive. Then they had come upon Central Park. It was a vast piece of countryside in the middle of the city, and Johnny was quite unprepared for it.

He had to admit that it was beautiful. Paths wound through trees and shrubs, past lakes and streams. There were people everywhere. It certainly seemed like a popular place.

They wandered past nannies in their gray dresses and starched white aprons pushing baby carriages along leaf-strewn paths.

“Seems kinda strange to build a piece o’ the country here,” Johnny had told them.

“Oh, I don’t know, Johnny,” Scott had replied. “There are people in this city who are born here, live their whole lives here and then die without ever going beyond this small island. This is all the ‘country’ they know.”

Thinking about it, Johnny realized that Scott was probably right. He found it hard to imagine such a life himself, but he didn’t doubt there were people who lived that way. He’d seen the barrios of the border towns and knew the kind of poverty some people were forced to live in.

A few trees and streams might lighten their lives just a little.

When they got back to the house, Johnny was disappointed to see the arrival of the black suit and fancy shirt and tie. Scott had supervised his changing into it and helped him with the tie, and then they had gone down to join the guests.

How did these folks manage to enjoy these things?

Mrs. Hawkesbury had told them it was going to be ‘an intimate little dinner with a few friends’. Well, there wasn’t any way he’d call a dinner party that included Harlan Garrett as ‘intimate’, and the few friends turned out to be half a dozen couples done up in their Sunday best clothes and eager to make the acquaintance of Edwin’s cousin – the English Earl.

Tony seemed to be taking it in stride so far. They’d all been introduced and had talked for a while before being led in to dinner.

Johnny had felt Garrett’s eyes on him from the start. He was waiting for Johnny to make some sort of mistake – a faux pas was what Scott and Tony had called it.

Well, he had no intention of giving him the satisfaction.

When he took his place at the table, Johnny was amazed by the fine china, crystal and silver with which it was set. There were huge bowls of flowers on the table that he had to look around to see the people sitting opposite him.

And then there were the knives and forks! He’d never seen so many of them. Scott had warned him and told him to start from the outside and use a new set for each dinner course, but he just couldn’t see why so many of the damned things were necessary.

As the first course was brought in, Johnny sat quietly for a moment and watched those around him. He’d been placed a few seats away from Scott, and Tony had been sat to Edwin’s right at the top of the table, so he didn’t have either of them to give him hints along the way.

But Johnny Madrid Lancer was nothing, if not observant. He watched and emulated what the others around him did, determined not to give Garrett any reason to gloat.

He found himself with an elderly matron on one side of him, and a pretty young red head on the other. Both made small talk with him between courses and he began to relax. The older lady seemed genuinely interested in ranch life and he got a definite impression that the pretty red head was flirting with him.

Just as Johnny was beginning to feel more at ease, a voice from down the end of the table ruptured his peace and turned the conversation at the table in a direction he hadn’t wanted it to go.

“And how did you come to meet Johnny, Lord Hawksbury?” Harlan asked curiously. Everyone looked towards Tony, and Johnny wondered how he was going to handle it.

Tony smiled. “Actually, he saved my life, Mr. Garrett,” he replied very coolly.

“Really, Anthony?” Edwin Hawksbury exclaimed. “How did he come to do that?”

“He killed a rattle snake that was about to take a bite out of a rather fleshy part of my anatomy,” Tony laughed. “He shot the head clean off it.”

“Yes, I’ve heard Johnny is good with a gun,” Garrett said coldly.

 “Well, thank goodness for it,” Eleanor Hawksbury told him. “I understand those snakes are quite deadly!”

“Indeed, Cousin Eleanor,” Tony agreed, smiling cheerfully. “Vile, nasty creatures.”

 “Yeah, well, Tony learned a valuable lesson that day,” Johnny said with a smile.

“And what lesson would that have been, Johnny?” Tony asked with interest.

With a covert glance in Garrett’s direction, Johnny replied, “Not to turn your back on a snake in the grass.”

While Scott spluttered slightly and eyed his brother in exasperation, Garrett glared at his nemesis openly, but didn’t say anything.

Everyone else was laughing, unaware of the duel being conducted at the table, and Edwin said, “Oh, how droll, Johnny.”

“But very true,” Tony added.

“How long ago was this, Anthony?” Edwin asked.

“About five years ago.”

Garrett’s eyes gleamed suspiciously. “Then you knew Johnny before he returned to Lancer.”

Tony’s eyes hardened, surprising the old man. “Yes, Mr. Garrett, I knew Johnny long before he went back home. I knew him very well.”

Garrett did not appear to know quite how to take Hawk’s response so he decided to let it lie. Besides, the frown on Scott’s face was enough to tell him that this was not the place to raise the specter of Johnny Madrid.

He let the opportunity pass, and simmered with annoyance as he watched Johnny making himself comfortable in the presence of these decent people. Johnny could see it written on his face.

“Anthony has been traveling around the country for nearly eight years,” Eleanor told her guests. “We thought he must be dead, but here he is, safe and sound.”

“You must have seen some interesting things in that time,” the lady beside Johnny said.

“Yes, interesting things, places and people, Mrs. Roscommon,” he answered smoothly. “I rather regret leaving to go home.”

 

*

“That man doesn’t like you very much, does he?” Tony said with a grin. They were sitting in the drawing room talking quietly, leaving Scott to talk with his grandfather privately on the other side of the room.

“Who? Harlan? Nope, guess not.”

“Why is that?” Tony asked candidly.

“He don’t like ‘my kind’ for a start,” Johnny answered quietly, picking up the brandy glass from the table beside him and swirling the liquid around lazily.

“Your ‘kind’? You can’t mean he’s bigoted against you because your mother happened to be Mexican?”

“Mexican an’ married to Murdoch Lancer. He don’t like the ol’ man much either.”

“I see.”

“He also thinks that I’m the one who’s keeping Scott from goin’ back to Boston. He’d do anythin’ to get him back,” Johnny explained.

“Anything?”

Johnny’s eyes hardened and he stared across the room at Garrett, unnoticed by Scott or his grandfather.

“Yeah, just about. Let’s just say that we don’t see eye to eye, but he’s Scott’s grandfather. What can I do?”

“Yes, I see the dilemma,” Tony smiled. “Scott wouldn’t appreciate your solving it with a bullet.” He laughed and then he leaned back in the chair and stretched his legs out. “I really don’t think I can do this, Johnny.”

“Sure you can,” Johnny reassured him. “You handled tonight real good.” He grinned happily. “Even ol’ Harlan.”

Tony laughed. “I took rather a lot of pleasure in that.”

“Thanks.”

“De nada, amigo,” Tony answered with a smile. He took a sip of the brandy in his hand and let it flow smoothly down his throat. “Besides, bringing out your past would have revealed my own.”

“You thinkin’ this wasn’t such a good idea?”

“No, quite the opposite. Having you and your brother along has helped settle my nerves considerably. I’m not sure I would have made it this far otherwise.”

Johnny grinned. “You underestimate yourself, compadre.”

“Maybe…” he said quietly. He looked into the brandy glass. “You did very well tonight, yourself. I think you’ve been underestimating yourself as well.”

“Quiza… maybe…” Johnny answered, just as doubtfully.

“Well, tomorrow afternoon we’ll set sail to a world that will make this little household appear positively uncouth. My parents believed in all the pomp and circumstance of the title, I’m afraid.”

“You mean, I’m gonna have to wear this monkey suit again?”

Tony laughed with delight. “I’m afraid so, Johnny. I rather think you will.”

*

The whole household slept in the next morning. Johnny woke, shamefully late in his opinion, around eight. Regrettably, he pulled on the fancy street clothes laid out for him on a chair by the bed. He left the shirt unbuttoned for now, and padded softly across the hall to the room his brother was sleeping in.

Pushing the door open, he found his brother still fast asleep. He grinned mischievously. He always found it amusing that Scott slept just as tidily as everything else he did. How, Johnny had no idea, but the bedclothes were rarely out of place on his brother’s bed.

He sat down in the armchair and waited to see if Scott roused without his help. It took a few minutes, but Scott opened his eyes and seemed to know someone was in the room.

“Buenos dias, Scott,” Johnny said with a cheeky grin. “Time to get your bony butt outa that bed, Brother. The day’s half gone already.”

“What time is it?” Scott asked sleepily.

“Nearly nine,” Johnny answered, frowning. “Didn’t take you long to settle back into your old lazy ways.”

Scott sat up in the bed and scowled at his brother. “And what time did you wake up, pray tell?”

“I was up with the birds,” he lied. Then he grinned and ducked his head a little. “All right, maybe not. Little over a half hour ago, I guess.”

“I thought so,” Scott said with a grin. “We’d better get started or we’ll miss the boat.”

“Yeah, I’ll go finish dressin’ an’ meet you downstairs.”

He got up and left the room, buttoning his shirt as he walked across to his own room. He quickly finished dressing and pulled out his bag to make sure he had everything he’d brought with him. He shoved in the brown paper parcel he’d brought back from the tailor and looked around the room to make sure he hadn’t left anything.

He hadn’t had much with him to start with, and everything they had bought yesterday was to arrive this morning, ready to go to the dock.

When he got downstairs, he found Scott ready and waiting and Tony arrived shortly after. They heard voices from the dining room and the butler arrived to show them in.

While they ate, the packages arrived from the tailor, just as Mr. Ambrose had promised. Johnny was stunned that so much had been achieved so quickly, but Edwin assured him that it was no more than he would expect when the Earl of Egan’s name was mentioned.

So, with Harlan Garrett along, and Edwin and Eleanor in tow, they drove to the docks to meet the steamer.

Johnny felt Garrett’s eyes on him the whole way. The old man wasn’t pleased with the way dinner had turned out last night - that was obvious. The tension made for a long drive.

The noise and bustle of the Port of New York was overwhelming. Tony disappeared to make sure that Cuervo had been loaded safely and was settled in, leaving them to find their way through the crowded dock. Edwin held his wife’s arm tightly, as though afraid of losing his prized possession. Harlan Garrett claimed all of Scott’s attention as they walked behind the Hawkesburys.

Johnny couldn’t hear what they were talking about over the sounds of the dock, but it didn’t bother him. He’d as soon not know anyway. So, he was left to walk behind them all, taking in the sights and sounds and smells of a world that was entirely alien to him.

He grinned at the curses of the men loading what seemed like tons of luggage onto the ship. Some of the swearing was in languages he didn’t know, but he could recognize profanity when he heard it, however they dressed it.

Trolleys laden with smaller baggage wheeled noisily along the dock and rattled up the gangway. Men and women lifted their voices to be heard over the din, creating a din of their own.

Suddenly, Tony was at his side and slung his arm genially around Johnny’s shoulder, grinning.

“I’ve had rather a stroke of luck,” he told him excitedly. “Tom has decided to take me up on my offer and is going to travel to England with Cuervo.”

“How did you manage that?” Johnny asked.

“I didn’t have to do much more than offer,” Tony explained. “He’s young and he has no ties. He rather jumped at the chance.”

They stopped near the gangway and a long, droning sound reverberated around them. It was so different from the shrill whistle of the train that it took Johnny by surprise.

 “You had better go aboard, Anthony,” Edwin suggested and grinned widely. “Otherwise your horse and the boy will be going without you.”

“Yes indeed, Scotty,” Garrett agreed and clasped Scott by the shoulders. “I’m so pleased you’re seeing the world at last. This is the sort of thing you were born to, Son.”

Scott smiled and took leave of his grandfather and the Hawkesburys, then joined Johnny and Tony on their way up the gangway.

Johnny took one last chance to glare at the old man. He’d called Scott ‘Son’ and that was what it was all about. He saw Scott as HIS son, not Murdoch Lancer’s. Harlan would never give up that particular battle, but he wouldn’t win it this time.

With a wicked twinkle in his eye, Johnny tipped his hat to Harlan Garrett and then followed his brother aboard.

*

The ship was far bigger than anything Johnny had expected. There was one enormous buff colored funnel tipped with black and four masts rigged for sail, just as Scott had told him there would be.

When they got on the deck, they found it moving ever so slightly, certainly not enough to bother them. The SS Atlantic was a fine ship.

At the top of the gangway, after showing their tickets to the man waiting there, another man in a dark blue fancy uniform with bold brass buttons and a white hat stood waiting to greet them. He stood tall and straight with his hands clasped authoritatively behind his back. His face wore a graying moustache and beard, and his skin was weathered from years at sea.

Tony was about to walk past him, but the man walked straight up to him and caught his attention.

“Welcome aboard, my lord,” the man said haughtily. “I’m Captain Williams.”

Tony shook hands with the captain and introduced Johnny and Scott. He hadn’t wanted this sort of attention.

“Anything you need, gentlemen,” the captain said, after shaking hands with each of them. “Just ask. I hope you enjoy the crossing.”

“There is one thing you can do for me, Captain,” Tony suggested. “I would prefer to travel without anyone knowing about my title.”

The Captain looked a little nonplussed. “Well, certainly, my lord. I’ll do what I can, but there is already a number of the crew who know.”

“I see,” Tony said with a sigh. “Well, if you would do what you can to stop the word from spreading, I’d appreciate it.”

“Yes, of course.”

Tony thanked him and allowed him to get a crewman to show them to their staterooms.

As they left the captain to his duties and followed the crewman, Tony sighed and said to Johnny, “So much for traveling incognito.”


 

CHAPTER SIX

Johnny walked into the room that the crewman had unlocked for him. He took the key and thanked the man and then looked around him.

 It was bigger than he thought it would be. The furniture was luxurious, to say the least. In the room there was a sofa as well as a couple of armchairs, all upholstered in crimson velvet, and a small, elegantly crafted table. There was carpet on the floor and the walls were paneled with wood. Curtains hung open around a small round window on the far wall, while gaslights decorated with gold hung on each wall. 

There was a closed door to his right and he opened it to find a bed hung with green velvet trimmings and a dresser. There was another little round window on the wall in there and he found his luggage there waiting for him in the middle of the room. He walked over and sat on the bed, bouncing a couple of times to try it out.

‘Yep, real comfortable,’ he thought. ‘Sure didn’t figure on all this.’

He stood up and crossed the room to look out of the windows. He could see the deck outside and lots of people standing around the railings, but not much else right now.

A knock on the door of the outer room interrupted his thoughts. He walked out to answer it and found his brother standing there waiting for him.

Scott strolled in uninvited and looked around. “Not bad, is it? Mine’s right next door. It’s pretty much the same as this one.”

“Awful lot o’ space for one man,” Johnny said lightheartedly. ‘Kinda fancy, ain’t it?”

Scott laughed. “After the train, I think I can live with it,” Scott replied cheerfully. “We should be sailing soon. Do you want to go outside and take a good look at the harbor?”

Johnny shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

He followed Scott out and locked the door, only to find Tony across the hall doing the same.

“Heading out on deck?” Tony asked them.

“Yes, we should be setting sail soon,” Scott answered. “Are you coming?”

“Yes.”

Together they made their way outside to the deck. Once there, they found it crowded with people milling around talking near the rails. Scott found a break in the throng and ushered his brother and Tony in beside him.

“Once we get out of the river and into the harbor, it’s quite beautiful to see,” Tony told them. “And we won’t see much more land for some time.”

Behind them a crewman was shouting.  “Last call for visitors ashore. Sailing in ten minutes,” he called repeatedly as he walked down the line of people.

Johnny watched in fascination as the gangway was pulled aboard and stowed. The gap in the railing where it had been was closed over and secured and the steady throb of the engine vibrating through the decking grew heavier and faster.

There were calls from sailors further up the deck and enormous ropes were released and pulled on deck.

The ship lurched slightly and started to move, slowly at first and barely noticeably, and then faster but carefully away from the dock.

There were throngs of people on the dock waving and calling out to their friends and loved ones on board – throwing kisses with their hands and running where possible to get one last sight of the ship as it pulled away.

As the ship moved further up the river towards the open sea, the city became less significant and the buildings grew smaller until they were just a part of the scenery.

Johnny looked over the side at the churning water as the ship gained speed and sliced through the ocean. He held his breath for a moment.

They were really on their way.

*

They strolled around the deck for a while, getting their bearings and a feel for the ship at the same time. The deck moved very slightly beneath their feet, but not enough to bother them. They soon got used to it.

Finally, the three men made their way back to the cabins to unpack and relax before meeting for dinner.

Johnny ignored the trunk in the middle of the bedroom and threw himself down across the bed. What the hell was a border town pistolero doing here? He’d seen this sort of extravagance when he’d stayed in San Francisco at a fancy hotel, and again at Tony’s cousin’s home in New York. But he sure hadn’t expected it on a ship.

Rigged out in clothes that looked and felt uncomfortable, imitating other people’s fancy manners – it just wasn’t him. He wished he’d never said yes to Hawk in the first place.

With his hands behind his head, he stared sightlessly at the canopy above him and wished he was tired enough to sleep.

He didn’t want to think about dinner. He’d seen that dining room when they were walking around the ship. It was decked out with marble columns and paneled walls, ornate crystal chandeliers and silver vases filled with fresh flowers.

It reminded him of the dinner last night with Harlan Garrett watching his every move and waiting for a chance to embarrass him.

Well, that was one good thing to remember. Harlan wasn’t going to be there tonight.

*

Johnny relaxed in the chair. It had gone better than he’d expected. They’d arrived at the dining room to find that they had been invited to dine at the Captain’s table. Tony had sighed with exasperation. It was more attention than he had looked for.

But, at least, the Captain had introduced him simply as Anthony Hawkesbury, respecting Tony’s request to keep his title quiet.

The Captain seemed to know how to make everyone feel at ease. He led the conversation along general lines, about the ship itself mostly. The others at the table soon opened up a little as they felt more and more comfortable.

Johnny had done much as he had the night before, watching and copying but finding that he already had a pretty good idea of what was expected of him at the table.

Scott had slipped into easy familiarity with the Captain and the other guests, though Tony had taken longer. Trust was nearly as hard for him to come by as it was for Johnny.

Johnny had sat quietly taking stock of them. The couple next to him were from Oklahoma and were going to England to visit a married daughter living there.

Oliver and Evie Connors were storekeepers and well to do, but they’d started out small and thought of themselves as lucky to have made good.

They were ‘good folks’ and Johnny liked them. Mrs. Connors seemed to have taken a shine to him too and chatted easily with him.

They had dined through three courses of meals, on fine china with White Star Line insignia on it – a red flag inside a white star. He’d gotten used to seeing that now. It was all over the ship. 

When dinner was finished, the Captain had stayed only a short time to enjoy a cup of coffee with them before leaving to go back to the bridge.

The Connors had stayed for a while to be sociable, but excused themselves on account of being tired from their first day at sea. That left Johnny, Scott and Tony to talk among themselves. They sat back and relaxed with a brandy each to talk.

Scott looked furtively over Johnny’s shoulder several times and finally said quietly, “Johnny, don’t look around, but there’s someone who seems to be watching you.”

Johnny nodded slowly. “Big fella with gray hair?”

Scott whispered “Yes.”

“Yeah, I know. He’s been lookin’ my way most o’ the night.”

“Do you know him?” Scott asked.

“Never seen him before.”

“You don’t think he’s recognized you, do you?” Tony asked with concern.

Johnny shrugged and finished off the glass of brandy. Most of the room had cleared of people by then.

“What’s he doin’ now?” Johnny whispered, determined not to look around.

“Same as us,” Scott told him. “Except that he’s drinking on his own.”

Johnny placed the glass on the table in front of him and pushed his chair back to stand up.

“You’re not going over there, are you?” Scott asked.

“Yep,” he said with a grin. “There’s no better way to find out, is there?”

He wove his way around a couple of tables until he was face to face with the man, then he stopped in front of him.

The man was big, nearly as big as Murdoch. He was about his age too. He was dressed in dinner clothes but had pulled his tie loose and his collar was open untidily.

Johnny knew he’d seen him approaching, but the man took another sip of his drink and ignored him.

Finally, without looking up at Johnny, he spoke. “Something I can do for you, son?”

“B’n wonderin’ the same thing,” Johnny answered coolly. “You sure seem real interested in me an’ my friends.”

The man grinned. “No, mostly in you, boy,” he said candidly. He finally looked up at Johnny and smiled at him. “Why don’t you pull up a chair and have a drink with me?”

Johnny was confused, but decided to accept his invitation. The man put his hand up and called a waiter to bring another glass as Johnny pulled out a chair and sat down.

“Name’s Will Donavan,” the man said offering his hand to Johnny.

“Johnny Lancer,” Johnny replied, accepting his hand and shaking it. “What’s so interesting about me, Mr. Donavan?”

The man knocked back the rest of the whiskey in his glass and smiled again. “You look damn near as uncomfortable in that fancy collar as I feel.”

Johnny grinned and tugged his own tie loose and undid the button on his collar. The waiter came back with the second glass and Donavan filled it with whiskey from the bottle on the table. “Drink up, son.”

Taking a sip, Johnny put the glass down lightly on the table, keeping his hand on it.

“Mr. Donavan,” he said lightly, slowly raising his eyes to meet his host’s.  “I don’t know you, an’ I don’t know what your interest in me is, but I do know that I ain’t your son.”

Donavan shook with laughter. “I sure as hell hope not,” he said. “You’ve got a smart mouth, haven’t you?” When Johnny merely smiled, he added. “I like it.”

Johnny merely acknowledged the compliment with a nod and took another sip of the whiskey.

Faced with his silence, Donavan continued. “So you saw me lookin’ at you, did you? Or did your friends tell you?”

“My brother mentioned it, but I’d already noticed.”

“Eyes in the back of your head, hey?” Donavan suggested. “Observant without givin’ anything away - impressive.”

“You still haven’t told me why you’re so interested in me.”

Donavan stared pensively into his glass before answering. “You remind me of someone.”

Johnny didn’t much like the answer. Was he saying that he reminded him of Madrid?

“How ‘bout bein’ straight with me, Donavan?” he said coldly. “Just come right out an’ say what you’re thinkin’.”

Donavan looked hard at him. “Don’t go gettin’ all lathered up, boy. Like I said, you look like someone I know – my son-in-law.” He took another drink and sighed. “’An uncanny resemblance’ is what my wife called it.”

Johnny laughed. “Well, I ain’t your son-in-law either.”

“No, you’re not,” the man agreed indifferently, staring into the glass in his hand.

“Don’t think much of him, huh?” Johnny asked.

“Don’t really know him. He’s kinda brash an’ ambitious,” Donavan answered with a shrug. “My Emma loves him though. That’s what matters, I guess.”

“I guess,” Johnny agreed and steered away from what was none of his business. “So, what’re you doin’ here, if you’re so uncomfortable?”

“Oh, I’ve got a spread near Dodge. Spent most o’ my life building it an’ it’s turnin’ a pretty good profit now. Henrietta, my wife, she was plannin’ to take Emma to Europe,” he explained. He sighed heavily. “But Emma went an’ fell in love an’ ran off an’ got married. So here I am.”

“So, you’re goin’ instead?”

“Henrietta had her heart set on seein’ ‘the thrones of kings’ and the ‘follies of princes’. We’d sorta grown apart over the years.” He swirled the whiskey in his glass, thinking. “I owed it to her.”

Johnny said nothing, guessing that there was probably more to it than the man was admitting to a stranger.

“Where are you from, Johnny?” Donavan asked plainly.

“California. I’ve got one third of a ranch in the San Joachin valley, with my father an’ brother as partners.”

“Nice place?”

“Yeah, we like it.”

“So what’s a rancher from California doin’ here?”

Johnny laughed. “Scott, that’s my brother, an’ me are goin’ to England with a friend. His ol’ man died an’ he’s takin’ over the family… business.”

“Is your brother one of those two fellas over there givin’ me the once over?”

“The blond,” Johnny answered with a grin.

“The blond, huh? Wouldn’t have picked him for your brother.”

“Long story, but the short one is ‘different mothers’.”

“I’d have picked you for havin’ Mexican blood,” Donavan said blithely.

Johnny stopped and eyed him suspiciously and Donavan noticed.

“Picked it, did I?” the man continued with a friendly smile. “Well, don’t get back on that high horse o’ yours. It sure don’t bother me. I’ve got some good Mexican friends.”

“I’d better get back to Scott,” Johnny replied, ignoring the issue. He looked over at his brother and Tony and caught them both looking his way. “They look like they’re gonna come check on me any minute.”

Donavan laughed and extended his hand across the table. “Been a pleasure talkin’ to you, son.”

Johnny shook his hand and stood up.

“Likewise, Mr. Donavan.”

“Will,” Donavan corrected him. “This is gonna be a long ride, Johnny. You any good at poker?”

Johnny grinned mischievously. “I’ve played a hand or two.”

“Good. We might see if we can get a game up one evenin’.”

“Sounds good, Mr…Will. Sounds real good. Thanks for the drink.”

“Any time.”

He turned and walked back to his own table but didn’t sit down. “You two gonna sit here all night, or are we gonna head back to our rooms?”

Scott and Tony downed what was left of their drinks and rose to follow him out onto the deck.

“So?” Scott asked him as they got outside.

Johnny shrugged. “I look like someone he knows is all.”

Walking out into the moonlit night, Johnny strolled over to the railing. He drew a deep breath and savored it. The wind was blowing the smoke from the funnel away from them, so the air was the freshest he could remember since leaving home. It was tinged with salt and Johnny found he liked it.

He hadn’t expected the sea to look quite so beautiful either. It was rising and falling in dark waves crested with silver from the moonlight, and it stretched as far as the eye could see.

Tony and Scott stopped beside him and looked out as well.

“It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?” Tony said quietly.

“It certainly is,” Scott agreed.

Johnny sighed heavily and grinned. “An’ I guess we’re gonna see a lot of it.”

Scott laughed and put his arm around his brother’s shoulders. “That we will, brother. That we will.”

*

The days took on a pattern right from the outset. Scott, Johnny and Tony spent most of their time in each other’s company, playing chess or checkers and sometimes poker. Johnny advised Scott to play for pennies against ‘his lordship’, and Scott soon learned that it was sound advice.

“I did make a fair living at gambling on occasion,” Hawk admitted eventually, with a mischievous gleam in his eyes.

The three of them joined Will Donavan in the game of poker that he had proposed. Soon, Oliver Connors joined them as well, and they made a full night of it, much to the chagrin of those gentlemen’s wives.

For the sake of marital harmony, they gave up playing all night poker games and engaged in chess and checkers instead, mostly through the afternoons. Connors and Donavan, both feeling out of place on the ship, found the companionship of the Lancer brothers and Tony Hawkesbury a kind of relief.

In return, Johnny was able to relax and be himself in their company.  When he was alone, Johnny took to reading both the few books he had brought with him, and a couple that he had borrowed from his brother.

Tony checked on Cuervo every day, but was satisfied that the boy he’d hired was doing a good job. The horse seemed comfortable and relaxed and that left Tony free to enjoy life on board the steamer with his friends.

The weather continued to be fine and the ship steamed eastward smoothly and fast. Johnny was relieved to find that seasickness was one thing he didn’t have to worry about. Scott didn’t appear to have any problems with it either. Of course, they hadn’t been tested by rough weather yet, but they were both confident that it wouldn’t bother them now.

Johnny learned not to be overwhelmed by the luxury around him as well. Instead, he tended to ignore it and saw the furnishings as just that, furniture.  The bed was comfortable to sleep in, the chairs were serviceable to sit in, and the gaslights on the walls lit the room well. That was about all that mattered in the end.

Within a day or two of coming on board, he no longer watched how others behaved at meals, confident that he knew what to do. His confidence didn’t yet extend to making idle conversation with the others at the table though. Every night, they were placed with new passengers. It seemed to be customary on the ship, unless otherwise requested.

Will Donavan invited them to join him and his wife one night and the evening went well. Of course, Mrs. Henrietta Donavan cast an icy glare in Johnny’s direction more than once. She seemed to include Scott and Tony in her attitude, guilty by association apparently. She was civil to them, but there was no warmth in her manners with them.

He wasn’t sure whether that was because of his resemblance to their son-in-law or because he had kept her husband out late with their poker game. But, whatever the reason, Johnny chose to ignore it and feel sorry for the man who had married her daughter.

The ship allowed them freedom of movement, which the trains had not. It provided far more comfort and more to do in the way of entertainment. But day after day, after leaving sight of the eastern coast of the United States, there was nothing to see but ocean.

At least the trains had afforded something new to see every day. The constant, unchanging scene wore on him after a few days, though something drew him to the railing often, staring out to sea.

For his part, Scott watched his brother with interest. He didn’t know what he had expected – Johnny pacing the decks in frustration or sitting alone, preferring his own company to that of the socialites on board perhaps.

He was entranced by the way that Johnny was able to learn and adapt to life on the ship. He seemed to take everything in his stride. His personal charm forced people to accept his occasional faux pas. In fact, he was soon popular with all but the most condescending of the passengers.

Johnny wore the clothes – the same ones that he had fought against and complained about so bitterly – with his own style. Even though he looked the same as most of the other men on board, Scott caught the glances that were cast Johnny’s way by the ladies on board. That cat-like way that he had of moving hadn’t changed, even if the clothes had.

He hadn’t missed the fact that Johnny was drawn to the sea either. Personally, he had loved to watch the ships in Boston Harbor in his childhood. There had been a sort of calm to be found in watching the ships rigged for sail, as they mostly still had been then, gently making their way out to sea. Sails were becoming rarer now and he thought that was a shame, though there was something to be said for the speed with which the crossing could be made under steam.

One morning, Scott came out onto the deck and spotted Johnny standing at the railing staring at the ocean. It was a still day with the waves rolling very gently in the morning sun, so he joined him.

“Good morning, brother,” he said to Johnny as he reached his side. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yep,” Johnny answered negligently, not turning to look at Scott. “There’s a whole lot o’ water out there.”

Scott smiled. “There is.”

“You ever wonder how deep it is?”

“No, I can’t say that I have, but I imagine it’s very deep.”

“Yeah,” Johnny said casually. He frowned. “Hey, Scott, what do you reckon that is?” he asked, pointing out into the sea, just off to the right.

Scott looked and saw a plume of water drifting away like a fine mist about three hundred yards away. Under it was a dark gray shape, big enough to make out even at that distance.

“It’s a whale!”

“A whale?” Johnny asked, peering harder at the shape. “Like in that book you gave me to read?”

“That’s right,” Scott told him excitedly. “Not white of course,” he added with a grin. “I’ve never seen one before.”

“That’s a long way off,” Johnny said. “Got to be a few hundred yards.”

“At least. It must be huge.”

“I reckon so,” Johnny agreed, watching in fascination as the animal’s back rose further out of the water and then began to slide under. Suddenly, the tail appeared and lifted clear of the water in a huge arc before following the rest of the body back into the ocean and disappearing into the depths.

Johnny drew a deep breath. “Brother, that has to be the biggest fish I ever saw,” Johnny told him, awestruck.

“Not a fish, Johnny. That plume of water was him exhaling and taking another breath of air,” Scott explained, slowly letting out his own breath. “But you’re right, it’s the biggest animal I’ve ever seen, too.”

It was gone and, though they watched the sea for some time, it didn’t show itself again.

Johnny sighed heavily. “Yep, I guess that ocean’s awful deep if he’s got room to move.”

Scott laughed and grabbed his brother’s shoulder to lead him away to breakfast.

*

As the two weeks they were expected to be at sea began to come to a close, the boys began to notice a change in Tony. He became sullen and moody, preferring his own company a lot of the time. Johnny and Scott knew he was getting nervous and did their best to keep his mind off it.

“He needs to talk about it,” Scott told Johnny after their particularly gloomy companion left them to go back to his stateroom. “Do you think you can get him to open up to you?”

They were walking down the hall towards their rooms and stopped just short of Tony’s room.

“I’ll give it a try,” he answered and knocked on his friend’s door. “I’m not puttin’ up with this for the rest of the trip.”

There was no answer, so he knocked louder and then called Tony’s name.

This time he got a reply – a growled “Go away, Johnny.”

Instead, Johnny opened the door. He gave his brother a grin and went in, leaving Scott to make his way back to his own room and hope that Johnny escaped with his hide in one piece.

Johnny pulled the door closed behind him and ambled over to where Tony was sitting, stretched out lazily with a glass of brandy in his hand.

“You got another one o’ those?” Johnny asked him.

Tony didn’t answer at first, but eventually he sighed and pointed to the decanter on the table and three clean glasses.

Johnny helped himself and walked over to sit opposite Tony.

“You gettin’ the jitters?” he asked.

“I can’t do this, Johnny.”

“Yes, you can,” Johnny told him firmly. “What you really mean is you don’t wanta do it.”

Tony looked at him and smiled. “You don’t pull your punches, do you?”

“Nope, not when you ain’t wearin’ your rig,” Johnny answered with a grin.

Tony laughed, and stared into the glass. He hadn’t actually drunk any of it. “You’re right, though. I don’t want to do it.”

“Tony,” Johnny began and then shook his head. “Hawk,” he corrected, knowing that he was talking to the gunfighter and not the English Earl. “You can’t tell me that you were happy sellin’ your gun.”

“No, I don’t think I was. But it was my choice. I don’t have that any more.”

“Bull!” Johnny growled. “If you give this a try an’ you really don’t like it, there’s no one in the world who can stop you from walkin’ away… except you.”

“You don’t understand, Johnny.”

“Sure I understand,” Johnny argued. “I might not have no title like you, but I’ve had ‘responsibility’ drummed into me since the day I signed the papers at Lancer. Murdoch can be an overbearin’ son of a bitch, you know. You think I haven’t wanted to up an’ leave? Hell, I have left – couple o’ times, actually.”

“You’re still there, though,” Tony replied, still looking into the glass.

Johnny nodded. “It’s gettin’ easier. Some days it’s harder than others, but I just try harder on those days.”

Tony grinned and leaned his head on the back of the chair.

“I knew there was a reason why I asked you to come with me, John,” he said quietly.

 

From: Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia

Atlantic

Steamship (1f/4m). L/B: 435 × 40.9 (128m × 12.5m). Tons: 3,707 grt. Hull: iron. Comp.: 140 crew; 1st 166, 3rd 1,000 pass. Mach.: compound engines, 600 hp, single screw; 14 kts. Built: Harland & Wolff, Ltd., Belfast, Ireland; 1871.

The second ship built for Thomas Ismay's White Star Line—formally known as the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company Ltd.—the luxuriously appointed Atlantic sailed between Liverpool, Queenstown, and New York. Although it was intended that she enter service to Chile in January 1873, the company's plans to develop that route were abandoned and she continued in transatlantic service. On March 20, 1873, Atlantic left Liverpool on her 19th voyage. Four days out she encountered the first of a succession of severe storms and on April 1 Captain John A. Williams decided to make for Halifax to replenish her coal, as required by company regulations. At 0312 the next morning, Atlantic drove hard onto the reefs of Marr's Island, east of Halifax Harbor (44°26N, 63°44W). Beaten by the waves, within 10 minutes the ship was heeled over about 50 degrees and passengers took to the rigging to avoid being swept into the sea. In the ensuing chaos, the bosun managed to swim ashore with a line along which an estimated 250 crew and passengers crawled to land. A handful of others got away in one of the ship's lifeboats, and the remainder of the survivors were rescued the following morning by fishermen. Accounts differ as to the number of lives lost, with estimates running from 454 of 981 passengers and crew, to 560 of only 931. Incredibly, not one of the survivors was a woman and only one was a child. A court of inquiry found Captain Williams negligent for running the ship towards the land at speed and for failing to sound the bottom as he neared shore. However, in recognition of his outstanding conduct during the rescue operations and following the accident, his license was suspended for only two years.


CHAPTER SEVEN

Wetherley.

Scott and Johnny both remembered, and always would remember, their first view of Lancer – the hacienda, the valley and the river. It was forever etched into their memory.

And so would be their first sight of Wetherley, if not with the affection with which they held their own home, then certainly with mutual appreciation for great beauty.

Johnny had never seen so much green. Even after good rain in the spring, there was nothing back home like this. They had followed lush leafy-green laneways, lined with hedges and shadowy woods, and then they turned into a long, straight gravel drive. On either side of the drive grew carefully trimmed, bright green lawns, and flowering rose gardens edged the imposing stairs to the front entrance of the house.

The house was an enormous two-storey building of red brick with white bordered windows. It spread out on either side of an extensive portico with a row of four white columns that rose from the ground to the eaves. In front of the portico was a set of six wide marble steps, as wide as the portico, and a statue of what might have been a lion guarded each side of the bottom step.

Behind it rose a small hill covered in trees. Johnny would never have believed there could be so many shades of green, all in once small landscape. Trees will yellow-green, lime and bright verdant leaves vied with big broad ones with foliage so dark as to be almost black from this distance. Here and there patches of other colors broke through where drifts of flowers grew wild. It was breathtaking.

Johnny didn’t know whether to feel relieved to finally have arrived, or to fear what he was going to find inside that daunting edifice.

The last days of the voyage had been uneventful, despite the fact that Tony’s title had become common knowledge. It happened when a waiter let slip a ‘my lord’ when addressing him and it had to have happened right there in front of both the Connors and the Donavans.

Henrietta Donavan’s face would have been comical had it not been for the irritation on Tony’s part. She was shocked to learn that the man she had been dismissing so contemptuously was an Earl.

To her credit, however, Mrs. Donavan was no hypocrite. She treated Tony with the same cool disdain after the revelation as she had before.

Sighting land had been a moment of great excitement on board, and, in Johnny’s case, great relief. They’d stopped briefly in Ireland, but not long enough to warrant leaving the ship, and then made their way to Liverpool, England where they got their first taste of England.

The docks at Liverpool had been staggering in size, and there was a veritable forest of masts. The buildings were old and care-worn, but even the meanest of them was made of sturdy brick.

From there, they had made their way by train through farmland and small towns to arrive, finally, at Wetherley station.

They’d been met at the railway station by a man from the estate with a stylish open carriage to take them to Wetherley. Scott and Johnny had been surprised that no one from the family was there to meet Tony, but he’d shown nothing to suggest that he was surprised himself.

The man very politely informed them that their luggage was to follow them in a dog cart, with Tom riding with it and in charge of Cuervo, who would be tied behind.

As the carriage rolled to a stop at the bottom of the wide marble stairs, crunching gravel noisily underneath them, two women, both dressed in elegant black gowns, came down the steps to meet them. Tony looked more nervous than excited. He took a deep breath before opening the door and stepping down onto the ground, turning to look at the ladies with a deep frown on his face.

Halfway down the steps, the younger of the two women broke into a run and threw herself at Tony, crying “Anthony!” as she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.

Johnny dropped to the ground and stood back to allow Scott to do the same. He watched Tony embrace the young woman, but he also noticed that the older woman hadn’t changed her pace at all. She slowly and deliberately made her way down to stop and stand aloofly at the base of the stairs in front of them.

Tony laughed and disentangled himself from the young lady, turning her around to show her off to his friends.

“Johnny, Scott, this is my sister Julia, Mrs. Balfour,” he told them with a laugh.

Once told, they could see the resemblance between them. They had the same hair and eye color, and she stood tall and slim beside him. Her black silk dress was fashionable but somber, but her eyes were alight with pleasure.

“Julia,” he continued. “These are my friends, Johnny and Scott Lancer.”

Her smile lit her whole face and accentuated her beauty. She put her hand out and lightly took first Scott’s and then Johnny’s hand.

“I’m so pleased to meet you,” she told them animatedly. “Are you from America? How wonderful of you to come all this way with Anthony.”

She seemed to suddenly remember the other woman’s presence. “Oh, gentlemen, this is my mother, Lady Augusta Hawkesbury. Mother, do come and meet Anthony’s friends.”

The woman seemed to be taking stock of them before moving forward. She extended her hand and lightly touched their fingers with hers and nodded. “How do you do, gentlemen,” she said haughtily, and then turned to her son. “Anthony,” she said with some finality, looking him up and down. “So, it really is you. I’m pleased you’ve come home, where you belong, at last.”

A less maternal welcome, Scott and Johnny could hardly imagine.

“Thank you, Mother,” Tony replied coolly, his pleasure gone. “It’s nice to see you, too.”

She stood up straight and looked at him. “We will go into the house. This is hardly the place for this sort of display.”

“By all means, Mother,” Tony said amiably. “Lead on.”

*

The interior of the house was as impressive as the outside. Johnny shook his head at the gilt and polish, the velvet and the heavy brocade, that was everywhere they went.

Lady Hawkesbury’s black silk rustled noisily as she walked across the drawing room floor and stood by the fireplace with her hands clasped authoritatively in front of her. At her neck, a huge cameo brooch was the only ornament she wore and her hair was pulled back in an austere style. She was slim and handsome for a woman her age, but there was something cold about her that detracted from her beauty.

Johnny and Scott stood to one side while Julia took a seat and Tony stood opposite his mother. It was a confrontation, not a welcome. Both brothers were shocked that the woman hadn’t made any gesture of affection towards Tony whatsoever.

“We will have guests for dinner this evening, Anthony,” she told him. “I hope that you and your friends have suitable attire?”

She looked at Scott and Johnny condescendingly for just a moment, before continuing. “It will be only neighbors on this occasion, but I have arranged for a ball at the town house in a few weeks…”

“Mother,” Tony interrupted her, his patience at an end.

She glared at him. “Anthony, I don’t know what sort of manners you have become accustomed to using in that foreign country, but in this house you will allow me to finish without interruption. It is essential that you show yourself in public as soon as possible. There have been too many disturbing rumors running around about your reappearance after so long.”

He smiled, and Johnny recognized that smile from way back. It was a smile that had daunted the most determined gunslinger – totally emotionless.

“As long as the lawyers believe I am who I say I am, I don’t care what people are saying, madam.”

She sighed dramatically. “Yes, that doesn’t surprise me, but there is the family’s reputation to be considered here and I will not have rumors or scandal linked with it,” she insisted firmly. “Now, I don’t care what you have been doing all these years. I hesitate to even think about what sort of scandal you left behind you. However, I have decided that we will tell everyone that you have been living with Cousin Edwin the whole time.”

She looked him up and down and added, “And the sooner we find a suitable wife for you, the sooner we can put your unfortunate past behind you. I take it you haven’t any surprises for me on that score!”

Johnny clasped his hands behind him and leaned lazily back against the wall. He dropped his head to hide a smile. This lady was a ring-tailed wonder, but he figured she was in for a shock. He had no idea what Tony had been like when he left here, eight years ago, but he knew him now and Tony sure wasn’t going to let her ride him.

Lifting his head slightly, Johnny’s eyes met Tony’s for just a moment. He was surprised to see a shadow of doubt cross his face. Perhaps his mother held more sway over Tony than he had thought.

Johnny had enough memories of his own mother to know a little about that.

Whatever doubts Tony Hawkesbury had had though, they were gone almost as soon as Johnny saw it.

“Have you finished?” he asked his mother with exaggerated politeness.

Her eyes widened slightly at his tone, but she said nothing.

“Good. Then I’ll say what has to be said and that will be an end to it.” He straightened his back and narrowed his eyes. “Firstly, I will not lie to anyone. What I did with my life in the United States is my own business and will stay that way,” he told her firmly. “I have no intention of going to town, and certainly not attending balls until I am quite ready to do so.”

He strode over to an armchair and sat down. He crossed his legs and looked over to where his mother was still standing and glaring at him.

“Mother, whether we all like it or not, I have ended up as the head of this family. It may have escaped your notice, but I am not the twenty-year-old stripling who was drummed out of the house and out of the country. I am perfectly capable of making decisions about my life. I’ve been doing it for years, for good or bad, and will continue to do so.”

Lady Hawkesbury drew in her breath, her face reddened angrily and she stormed out of the room.

“You can sit down and relax now, Johnny,” Tony said with a grin. “You too, Scott. I have braved the dragon and lived to tell the tale.”

“I know she’s impossible, Anthony,” Julia admitted from her place in an armchair against the wall. “But it’s been a very difficult year since the accident. We found ourselves without Papa and my dear George, and Charles and Elspeth were both gone, leaving no heir. It was devastating, Anthony.”

Tony nodded slowly. “Yes, it must have been. I’m sorry it took so long for word to reach me. I was…” he cast a glance in Johnny’s direction before continuing. “I was recovering from an injured leg at the time.”

“So you wrote in your letter,” she said, and sighed heavily. “I hope it has left no serious impediment. We were so relieved to get that letter. Aunt Beatrice was pushing for us to leave Wetherley so that Algie could move in. I came here with Charlotte when George’s brother inherited his title. He said I was welcome to stay, but Mother was alone and quite distraught. She and Aunt Beatrice have been at daggers drawn ever since the accident.”

 Johnny and Scott both walked over to the sofa and sat down, stretching their legs out comfortably.

“I see,” Tony said, but Johnny thought he seemed a little doubtful. He couldn’t imagine the woman he’d just seen being ‘distraught’. 

“Well, I look forward to meeting little Charlotte,” Tony told her, smiling and changing the subject. “I still find it hard to believe you’re a mother, Julia.”

She laughed with delight. “Good heavens, she’s five years old, Anthony. I’m not even new to it.” She stopped laughing and a sad look crossed her face. “I know you didn’t think much of Charles, but I will be forever grateful to him for saving my baby.”

“I don’t suppose I ever gave Charles much of a chance,” Tony admitted sadly. “I’m sorry he went to his grave thinking me dead.”

“Oh, he didn’t!” Julia told him, suddenly animated. “He lingered for a whole day before passing. He was dreadfully distressed that a fool like Algie would inherit, so I told him that you were alive and that I could contact you. It eased his mind, Anthony. He sent his love.”

The room went quiet for a few minutes as Tony took some time to consider this message.

“Mother’s right about those rumors,” she eventually continued. “Everyone believed you dead, and I didn’t tell anyone otherwise. I promised to keep silent and I did, until the accident. Then I had to convince them all. There have been wild rumors that we have been looking for your lookalike to keep the title and the estate from Algernon.”

“Who’s Algernon?” Scott asked.

“My cousin,” Tony explained briefly. “His father was my father’s brother. He would have inherited had I not come back from the dead.”

“So, he started the rumors?” Johnny asked.

Julia giggled. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she said. “Algie isn’t capable of thinking of it. More likely it was his mother, my Aunt Beatrice.”

The subject dwindled away into an awkward hush, so Johnny asked about something he’d been worrying over. “So, is this dinner tonight gonna be fancy, ma’am?”

Julia smiled. “Oh no, just some neighbors. The Billingslys live nearby, and Mr. Robert Storey will be coming. He was Charles’ best friend. I think he has his mind set on courting Arabella,” she explained, though the names meant nothing to Scott and Johnny.

They apparently did mean something to Tony. “Arabella? Henry’s sister?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m sure I wrote that her husband died. It was hardly surprising. Ambrose Coombs must have been thirty years older than Arabella.”

“No, I don’t believe you ever mentioned it,” Tony said absently, and Johnny grinned.

“Woulda remembered that, right?” he remarked, smirking.

Before he got an answer, a knock on the door interrupted them. Julia rose and walked across and opened it.

“Oh, here she is,” she cried cheerily and swept her little daughter into her arms. “Thank you, Emma,” she whispered carelessly to the nursery maid who bobbed a quick curtsey and then turned and left.

Julia stood up and took the little girl’s hand, and then led her over to where Tony was sitting.

“Charlotte, this is your Uncle Anthony,” Julia said happily. The child was small and pretty with long curling blond hair and bright brown eyes. She reminded Tony of Julia when she was small.

“How do you do, Uncle Anthony,” Charlotte said sweetly. She put out her hand to allow him to take it politely and dropped a little curtsey.

Tony uncrossed his legs and leaned forward to talk to her at her own level. He took the small hand and smiled at her. “This is a pleasure, Charlotte. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

She cocked her head to one side and frowned. “You were dead, weren’t you?”

Julia blushed scarlet. “Charlotte!”

Tony laughed. “No, I wasn’t dead. I was just somewhere else.”

She seemed to think about his answer for a while and then accept it. “I’m glad you’re back. Now we don’t have to leave.”

“Oh dear,” Julia added, even more embarrassed.

Tony turned the little girl towards Scott and Johnny. “Now these gentlemen have come all the way from across the sea to meet you. This is Mr. Scott Lancer, and the funny looking one is Mr. Johnny Lancer.”

“How do you do, Sirs,” she said politely.

“Delighted to meet you, Miss Charlotte,” Scott told her.

“Oh! You sound funny!” the child blurted out, leaving her mother to blush yet again.

Everyone else laughed. “You haven’t heard my brother yet,” Scott told her with a laugh.

Johnny grinned. “Nothin’ wrong with the way I talk,” he answered peevishly. He nodded to the little girl and added, “Mucho gusto, chica.”

Tony tapped his niece on the shoulder and she turned back to him.

“That means ‘pleased to meet you’,” he explained.

Her eyes lit up. “I’m very glad you came home, Uncle Anthony.”

*

 

The dinner was formal and quiet, with little talk between the guests to lighten it. The table was set with so much china, silver and crystal that Edwin Hawkesbury’s table paled by comparison.

It was a somber affair and Johnny couldn’t wait to get away. The times he caught sight of Scott and Tony, he knew he wasn’t alone in feeling that way. It didn’t augur well for after dinner conversation in the very drawing room that had been the scene of this afternoon’s drama.

With more than a little trepidation, Scott walked beside his brother as they made their way into the room to join the ladies. They had left the men to themselves immediately after dinner but, even so, conversation at the table had been stilted. General Billingsly, the elderly parent of Henry Billingsly and his sisters, Abigail and the widowed Arabella, had – as the eldest present – taken it upon himself to guide the conversation.

The result was a mind-numbing discourse on his army career that had left all of them exhausted, unenlightened and eager to leave the table.

Tony went ahead of them and was soon cornered by his mother and rejoined by the General.

Scott and Johnny stayed together at the back of the room, awkwardly watching Tony nodding and making light conversation. Every now and then, he would look their way with an unmistakable plea for help in his eyes that brought a smile to their faces.

“Do you think we should rescue him?” Henry Billingsly asked as he walked over to join them.

Johnny grinned. “You got any idea how?”

“Oh yes, I could certainly do it,” the man replied with a beaming smile. “But I think he should suffer a little longer. He’s let me think he was dead for a long time. I believe he owes me.”

Scott and Johnny both laughed with him.

“We didn’t really get a chance to meet properly,” he added. “I’m Henry Billingsly. Tony and I were at school together.”

“Pleased to meet you, Henry,” Scott told him. “I’m Scott Lancer. This is my brother, Johnny.”

“You knew Tony in America, I understand,” the man said, taking a sip of the brandy in his hand. “I’d love to hear what he’s really been up to all those years. I know he’ll have some perfectly reasonable story, but I know Tony too well to think there isn’t some scandal lurking there.”

He stopped when he saw the suspicious expression on Johnny’s face. “Oh, don’t worry, I shan’t try to pry it out of you. Tony will tell me if and when he’s ready.”

Tony chose that moment to cast another pleading look in their direction.

“Good heavens!” Henry said, shaking his head. “I can’t stand it another minute.”

He walked over to where his father stood droning on with one of his longwinded military stories and excused himself. “I say, Father, you mustn’t monopolize poor Tony.” He grabbed Tony’s sleeve and dragged him away bodily. “Come, Tony, I want to hear all about your adventures.”

The relief on Tony’s face was so ridiculous that Johnny and Scott could barely contain themselves as he reached them with Henry Billingsly by his side.

“Laugh it up, Johnny,” Tony said irritably. “This is just what I was afraid of.”

“It’s a dead bore, isn’t it, Tony?” Henry remarked, flashing a brilliant smile.

“Yes, and any one of you could have rescued me sooner. You just stood there and watched,” he growled. “So, you’ve met Johnny and Scott?”

“Yes, we’ve met,” Scott agreed.

“He says you were at school together,” Johnny said, a wicked gleam in his eyes. “Thought you didn’t go for long?”

Henry laughed. “We were sent down together,” he admitted. “My father allowed me to stew for a while and then got them to take me back. I’d almost lived that down, Tony.”

“So what did you do that got you kicked out?” Johnny asked.

“Oh we hired a pair of ‘ladies of ill repute’ and left them in the quarters of one of our professors,” Henry told him. “He was unimpressed.”

Johnny threw a stunned look at Tony. “It was you!”

Tony was shocked. “What?”

“The saloon girl in Sexton Joe’s room in Tuscon! You did that?”

An innocent smile appeared on Tony’s lips, but his eyes gleamed.

“Sexton Joe?” Scott asked. “You mean the man…?”

“Yeah,” Johnny confirmed before Scott said something he shouldn’t. He laughed. “The way I heard it, the girl ran out of the room with Sexton calling down hellfire an’ damnation on her an’ whoever paid her. I heard about it all the way down in Nogales.”

Johnny leaned in close to Tony and whispered, “You’re lucky Sexton never knew.”

“And now, he never will, will he?” Tony whispered back and grinned.

Henry laughed. “Yes, that sounds like Tony’s work. I wish I’d seen it. It sounds like he got a much better reaction that time.”

“You gentlemen seem to be having more fun than we are,” Julia remarked, joining them and bringing Henry’s sisters with her. They were both strikingly lovely women, with blue eyes and blond hair shimmering in the lights.

“Arabella,” Tony said quietly. “How are you?”

“Much better for seeing you, alive and well,” she answered, smiling and giving him her hand. “And you must remember my sister, Abigail.”

“Oh course, I do. Cute little girl with freckles,” Tony told her charmingly.

“That was a long time ago,” Abigail Billingsly laughed. “Mother says that I’m positively ‘on the shelf’ now. She’s given me up as a lost cause.”

Johnny couldn’t think why that could be. She was one fine lady. “That’d be a shame,” he told her with a smile that charmed her right down to her toes.

She smiled back at him. “I do like American flattery,” she said candidly. “Thank you.”

“Anthony, are you going to tell us what you’ve been doing all these years? We thought you must be dead,” Arabella asked curiously.

“I did a lot of things,” he answered evasively. “All of them of no interest, I’m sure.”

“Really? Did you work for the Lancers then?” she persevered.

“Good heavens, no. I met Johnny on my travels.”

“Where is your ranch, Johnny?” Abigail asked.

“California, Miss, in the San Joachin Valley,” he replied, picturing it in his mind. “One hundred thousand o’ the prettiest acres you ever saw.”

“That’s a lot of land,” Henry said, impressed. “What do you raise?”

“Cattle,” Scott told him. “Though Johnny is branching out into horse breeding.”

“Really? Charles and the late Lord Hawkesbury built up quite a stable of horses here,” Henry told them.  He turned to Tony. “And I heard that you brought a horse back with you. Are you planning to breed him? I hear he’s a beauty.”

“No, I just couldn’t leave Cuervo behind,” Tony confessed with a smile.

“Cuervo? What an odd name!” Abigail inquired curiously.

“It’s Spanish for crow,” Johnny explained, his eyes twinkling with mischief as he glanced towards Tony. “He’s black.”

Tony sighed dramatically. “It’s actually Spanish for Raven.”

Johnny shrugged. “Crow, raven, same thing. I told you before Tony – you named your horse Crow!”

“You’ll have to show him to us, Anthony,” Arabella suggested, smiling delightedly at their banter. “Perhaps we could come over tomorrow?”

“I’d like to see such an important animal myself,” Robert Storey said snidely as he took Arabella lightly by the elbow. “My dear Arabella, I haven’t had a chance to tell you how charming you look tonight. Would you care to join me for a moment?”

She looked uncertain for an instant, but smiled and agreed, then turned to leave.

Storey looked back over his shoulder and grinned at them. “Terribly nice to see you again, Anthony,” he said and led his prize away.

“Come over tomorrow, Arabella,” Tony said as she strolled away, her head turned back towards him. “I’ll show you Cuervo.”

She smiled again. “Thank you, Anthony. I’ll look forward to it.”

“Looks like you got cut out, Tony,” Johnny said with a grin.

“He’s been trying to court Arabella for ages,” Henry told them. “He started to make himself known to her so soon after Ambrose died that it was almost indecent.”

“I don’t remember much about him,” Tony confessed. “I always found Charles and his friends… boring.”

“Well, he did have one good idea. I should like to see this horse of yours, too,” Henry told him.

“I was already planning to take him riding in the morning,” Tony said. “He hasn’t had a run in nearly a month, so I won’t stretch him out.” He turned to Johnny and Scott. “I take it you’d both like to join us. I’m sure we can find you suitable mounts in the stables.”

“Sounds good to me,” Scott agreed. He looked at Johnny and found his eyes gleaming. He put his hand on his shoulder and laughed. “And I’m sure Johnny will be delighted to join us.”


 

CHAPTER EIGHT 

“You call that a saddle?” Johnny demanded when he saw the lightweight English saddle on his horse.

Scott and Tony both laughed.

“You’re not going to be roping cattle, Johnny,” Scott said, still grinning. “You won’t need any of the paraphernalia you usually carry, just something to sit on.”

“Maybe not, but a man needs somethin’ to put his butt in.”

“Quit complaining and mount up,” Scott advised him. “I’d have thought you’d be happy just to be in a saddle again.”

Scott watched his brother pull himself into the saddle, muttering as he did so, and then mounted himself. Johnny had flatly refused to wear English riding clothes. Instead he had taken his favorite pink shirt and concho pants out of the parcel they’d been wrapped in since New York and pulled them on. At least he had forsaken his spurs.

Scott had tried to convince him to wear the tweeds that they had bought in New York, but his brother’s argument had been naively compelling.

“They know I’m not from ‘round here, Scott. So they can take me as I am, or not.”

Upon consideration, Tony and Scott had decided to do likewise. The neighbors would just have to accept them as they were on this occasion.

Scott had to admit that the animal he was to ride was a fine piece of horseflesh. He was a big bay hunter with spirit in his eyes and a lively look about him. Johnny’s mount was of an equally high caliber. It seemed that Henry Billingsly was right in saying that they had a good stable here.

Johnny’s horse had held his ground firmly as Johnny swung up but, now, the horse threw up his head a couple of times, in obvious anticipation of a run.

Tony was already mounted on Cuervo. To Johnny’s chagrin, the horse was wearing the western saddle that Tony had shipped all the way home. The horse edged around anxiously and Tony had to concentrate to keep him under control at first. The animal knew he was finally getting out into the open and was eager to set out.

Henry Billingsly arrived just as they turned to ride out. Johnny watched his style with amusement. The English custom of riding with an exaggerated rise and fall of the body in rhythm with the horse’s movement might be pretty to see, but he preferred his own way of blending in with the animal. He liked the feeling of being ‘one’ with his horse.

Dressed in riding clothes, Henry appeared strangely out of place with the threesome. He looked them over and grinned good-naturedly. Tony was in the black frock coat, ruffled shirt and string tie that he had been in the habit of wearing. Scott was in the clothes he had left home in – brown pants and plain blue shirt and his favorite brown jacket. Johnny was in his own clothes and looked more comfortable than he had in weeks.

“Well, we should attract more than our fair share of attention,” he said, with a laugh. “I feel a little out of place. You three look … different.”

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed. He nodded towards Tony and added, “Ol’ Tony always did like to dress real fancy.”

They set off at a fast walk, Johnny and Scott getting a feel for their horses, and all of them, except for Henry, not sure of their surroundings or the ground.

Johnny felt frustrated with the pace. Something deep inside him was clawing to get out and let the horse have his head. He was riding a good horse and he wanted to feel the wind on his face and the power of the mighty muscles of the animal beneath him striding out in full flight.

It took a physical effort to control the urge to just press the animal forward and thrown caution to the wind. But his head overruled his heart for a change.

Riding in pairs, Johnny found himself paired off with Tony at the back. They made their way down the drive and onto the lane, turning off when they reached a small gap in the hedges. It was little more than a path, but the ground was beaten flat and hard by the tracks of horses that had passed this way over the years.

It was narrow and the trees on each side reached their branches out overhead, meeting and embracing to block out the light. Under the trees, flowers were growing in small clumps at the base of the trunks, drifts of blue and yellow and white. He didn’t know that they were called bluebells or daffodils, or that those were white anemones that were scattered among them. But he knew what he liked and it was prettier than anything Johnny had seen in a long time.

After a few hundred yards, the path opened out to a vast field of lush green grass. There were fences and hedges set up in a row down the middle, and an oval track ran around the outer fence line.

“This is the gallop that Charles set up a few years ago,” Henry Billingsly explained. “He used it to train his hunters.”

“Impressive,” Scott said, nodding approvingly.

“I’m surprised my father allowed him to use this much of the land for something like that,” Tony replied.

“Charles had a lot of faults, Tony,” Henry remarked. “But he loved his horses and he knew how to look after them. They were about the only things he stood up to your father about.”

Tony nodded quietly. Johnny was aware of his own brother’s presence. At least he didn’t have to hear what Scott was like when it was too late to do anything about it.

“Charles let us use it whenever we wanted,” Henry continued. “I thought you might want to try it out.”

Johnny looked at the course with unbridled excitement in his eyes. He caught Scott watching him and grinning. Scott knew him well enough to know what he was feeling.

*

After being trapped in trains, ships and carriages for a month, the freedom of galloping a good horse in an open field brought out the boy in all of them. High spirits prevailed as they raced each other around the circuit and took turns at the jumps down the center.

Johnny was impressed with Henry Billingsly’s faultless style at the jumps, and he watched with fraternal pride as Scott took them with absolute ease. He was pleased with his own showing, on a horse he didn’t know, although he wished he had Barranca under him instead. 

Tony preferred not to try Cuervo at the jumps after he’d been traveling for so long. He cantered him gently around the track until the horse found his stride and Tony turned him loose.

They sped around the gallop like a black streak, the horse’s mane and tail flying in his wake. Soon Johnny joined him and then Scott and Henry raced with them.

Over an hour later, the foursome made their way back to Wetherley, still in good humor as they turned into the drive. Halfway to the house, Johnny stopped. There was a noise behind them and it was coming closer. He twisted in his saddle to see what the racket was+.

“Hey Scott, take a look at this!” he called out, half turning in his saddle and looking at the strangest machine he’d ever seen. It was noisy and it smelled, even from that distance, and there was an odd-looking man steering it. He wore goggles and a large coat. A long scarf was tied over his bowler hat and caught under his chin in a large and unwieldy knot, and he sat up very straight and proud with a foolish grin on his face.

In front of the contraption, a second man walked briskly, waving a red flag from side to side. There was another man sitting on the back of it, facing behind them.

Johnny thought he had never seen anything so silly.

“I think that’s one of those horseless carriages I’ve heard about,” Scott told him.

“Yeah, I figured that, but what’s that idiot doin’ walkin’ in front of it?”

Tony and Henry stopped and turned around to watch the parade as well. Henry shook his head.

“It’s the law here, Johnny,” Henry explained with a sigh. “Instead of just outlawing the terrible things as they should have, they made a law that someone has to walk in front of them with a red flag to warn others on the road.”

He glared angrily at the approaching vehicle. “That’s your cousin Algie driving it, Tony. I’ve told him not to bring that damned machine near me more times than I can count. He’s an infernal nuisance.”

As if to confirm it, the driver waved happily to them as he drew level with them and then tooted a horn loudly as he went past.

The result was utter chaos. Johnny’s horse, closest to the noise at the time, reared and whinnied in fright, setting off a chain reaction as Scott, Tony and Henry soon found themselves trying to control their terrified mounts.

“Mierda!” Johnny cursed angrily.

He felt his body lift off the saddle so he leaned forward, gripped hard with his knees and forced the animal down. It skittered and bucked for a few minutes, but he managed to calm it. When he had his own horse under control, he looked around to see what was happening to the others.

Scott was just getting his mount under control. Like Johnny’s, it was still nervously circling and fretting, but he had the situation firmly in his grip. Henry hadn’t fared as well. He was sitting on the ground with a black look on his face, watching his horse head down the drive towards his own stable.

Tony was trying to get the better of Cuervo. The big black had his back arched and his head down bucking viciously. His flying hooves cut through the turf and churned up the soft earth.

Tony was holding on for all he was worth, but he was doing it in style. Johnny grinned and watched the show, calling encouragement to his friend as he fought the horse into submission.

Finally, Cuervo settled. Exhausted and still quivering with fright, he stood and looked around him nervously. Tony dropped to the ground and ran his hand gently over the horse’s neck and shoulder, whispering reassurances until he calmed completely.

“Good heavens, Tony,” Henry exclaimed, getting to his feet and dusting himself off. “Where did you learn to ride like that?”

“I learned a lot of things while I was away,” he told him, dismounting and running his hands over the horse to check for injuries. “Are you all right?”

“There’s nothing wounded but my pride,” he said sourly. “I’m going to kill that cousin of yours.”

Tony frowned angrily. “He’s my cousin,” he answered. “I reserve the right to kill him myself.”

“Get in line,” Johnny told them, shaking his head and dismounting. “Of all the lame-brained, dim-witted idiots!”

Scott got down from his own horse and led him over to join the others. “We might as well walk them back - calm them down.”

“Just as long as we don’t find that damned machine along the way,” Johnny said coldly.

*

In the yard, outside the stables, a small but stylish assembly awaited the riders. Julia stood waiting with Abigail and Arabella, and Robert Storey was standing possessively beside Arabella.

They strolled over to join the men as they walked their horses in.

“We saw what happened, Henry,” Arabella said quickly. “Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m perfectly all right,” he assured her.

“I’m glad to hear it. I should have thought Algie would know better,” she told him fondly, and then smiled. “We came to see Anthony’s horse.”

Robert walked around the horse and scrutinized him carefully. When he came back to Arabella’s side, he confessed. “I must say, it’s a fine looking animal, Anthony.”

“Oh yes, he’s wonderful” Arabella agreed, but frowned. “But surely you don’t need a saddle like that.”

“It’s what he’s used to,” Tony pointed out. “And it’s what I’m used to as well.”

He caught the look on Johnny’s face and laughed.

“It’s so big, Anthony,” Julia remarked.

“Well, it’s meant to carry a lot of equipment. Ropes, a rifle…”

“A rifle!” Abigail exclaimed.

Julia laughed. “Of course, he would have needed a weapon, Abigail. There must be all kinds of dangers out there.”

Johnny grinned. “It comes in handy for huntin’ up a meal, too,” he said, to change the subject.

“Oh no, surely you don’t have to kill your own food?” Abigail answered, shocked.

“Cook it, too,” Johnny told her, enjoying himself. “Rabbit, venison…snake.”

“No!” the girl cried.

“Oh yeah, snake tastes a little like chicken if you cook it right,” Johnny told her, a wicked twinkle in his eye.

Scott couldn’t stand it any longer. He burst out laughing.

“When was the last time you ate snake, little brother?” he asked, still grinning. “Maria spoils you rotten with tamales and chilli. And, if I remember correctly, your favorite dessert these days is Teresa’s apple pie.”

Johnny smiled mischievously. “Well, I didn’t say I ate snake recently,” he confessed. “But I have a couple of times. So has Haw… Tony.”

He dropped his head for a moment, realizing that he had nearly forgotten himself and let slip Tony’s former name. Chastising himself silently, he looked up and found that no one but Tony and Scott seemed to have noticed.

“I can’t imagine why anyone would choose to live like that,” Arabella declared. She didn’t notice the quick glance that Scott threw towards his brother. In Johnny’s case, at least, there had probably been very little ‘choice’ in it.

“I’m just glad that you came home, Anthony,” she continued, taking his arm in hers and smiling happily. “I missed you terribly.”

Right about then, a teenage boy came out of the stable and walked over to politely stand back a little from the group.

He waited for a couple of minutes and then came forward, took the reins for both Johnny’s horse and Scott’s horse and led them to their stalls. Tony was met by young Tom who offered to take Cuervo from him, but Tony insisted he go with him.

“He’s still nervous after the fright he had, so I think I’ll look after him myself, Tom,” Tony explained, leading the horse through the stable doors.

Johnny followed him in while Scott and Henry waited outside talking with the ladies and Robert Storey, although they were mostly complaining at the sight of the hated machine stopped in front of the house.

Walking through the stable, Johnny looked over one or two of the horses as they caught his attention. The standard of horseflesh was certainly high here, and the stable was light and airy. By comparison to some of the barns he’d seen in his past, this was horse heaven.

While Tony unsaddled his horse and proceeded to brush him down, Johnny wandered down to the last stall. The horse in that stall was a beauty. He was black with white socks on his front legs and a narrow white strip down his nose. But he looked sadly neglected. His coat didn’t have the luster that was so typical of the rest of the animals in the stable.

Johnny went closer to get a good look at him.

“I wouldn’t go too close, sir,” one of the stable boys warned him. “He’ll take a bite out of you, quick as look at you.”

Johnny looked curiously at the animal. “Is that right?” he asked casually. “He looks kinda miserable to me. When was the last time someone took a curry comb to him?”

“Not a man here as will go near Brimstone, sir,” the boy told him, shaking his head insistently. “He come near to killing one of the boys one time.”

Johnny took a step closer. The horse’s head lifted. His ears went back and flattened and his eyes stayed on the man who dared to come close to him.

“Calma, mi amigo,” Johnny said softly. “Lo siento, did I frighten you?”

The horse’s ears pricked forward and he watched Johnny warily. When the man took another step closer, his ears flattened again and he threw up his head and stepped back.

“Johnny!” Henry called out, coming into the stable with Scott. He could see what Johnny was planning to do. “Don’t go near him. He’s vicious.”

At the sound of Henry’s voice, the horse reared and neighed shrilly. He dropped his feet back to the ground, kicked at the wall and then pawed at the floor feverishly.

Johnny glanced quickly back over his shoulder and scowled at Henry, and then paid him no more attention.

“It’s okay, Henry,” Scott said quietly, putting his hand out to grab the man’s arm before he could go any closer to them. “He knows what he’s doing.”

“Scott, no one can get near that horse. Lord Hawkesbury was forever telling Charles he should shoot it.”

Scott just nodded and answered, with more confidence than he actually felt, “Johnny knows horses better than anyone I know.”

Nevertheless, he anxiously watched his brother take another patient step towards the stall, and said quietly, “Be careful, Johnny.”

But his brother ignored him and concentrated only on the horse.

“Shh… tõmelo con calma, amigo,” Johnny crooned gently as he edged close enough to be within reach of the horse. <Take it easy, friend>

He murmured “Calma,” a few times and stopped in front of the stall. His eyes and the animal’s were locked on each other in a silent but intense battle of wills.

The horse’s confusion was obvious in the flicking of its ears and the nervous shake of his head. Suddenly, he shied back and threw his head up, whinnying in fright.

“No esté miedo,” Johnny whispered, holding his ground. “No es lastimaré.”          <Don’t be afraid…I won’t hurt you>

The horse lowered its head and snorted, then pawed the floor nervously.

Quite suddenly, as if something had unexpectedly made up its mind, the animal lifted its head high and tossed its mane. Its ears flicked forward and slowly he took one careful step forward.

Scott smiled.

“¡Que bueno!” Johnny said quietly, smiling as the horse moved a little towards him. But he was careful not to move any closer. “Ven aquí.”           <That’s good…come here>

One more cautious step and the horse was close enough to thrust his head over the door of the stall.

Johnny smiled. “You see, amigo, no one’s gonna hurt you,” he whispered soothingly. Very carefully, not wanting to startle the horse again, he lifted his hand and allowed him to sniff it. Then he ran his hand down the horse’s face a couple of times.

Scott sighed. He’d seen his brother do this sort of thing before, but it never failed to delight him.

He glanced at the man by his side and grinned at the amazement on his face. Then he realized that Storey and the ladies had come in and were standing behind him, watching in astonished silence.

He looked over to where Tony stood and saw that he too had been watching the scene unfold with fascination.

Johnny moved his hand to run it caressingly down the horse’s neck and laughed lightly. “Te gusta? Brimstone, huh! Tu es un gatito!”  <Like that?...You’re a pussy cat!>

He turned his head enough to spot the young stable boy who had warned him earlier. “Get me a brush, pronto,” he said quietly, still stroking the horse’s neck. Then he turned back to the horse and smiled. He began whispering so quietly to the animal that they could no longer hear him.

Lifting his hand and dusting it against his free hand, he added, “Time you got cleaned up, amigo.”

Suddenly noticing his audience, Johnny shrugged self-consciously. “He just needs some attention. He ain’t so bad.”

Tony laughed and shook his head. “Johnny, you can give him all the attention you like,” he said. “Just don’t go asking me to change THAT horse’s name to pussy cat.”

*

Henry and Scott waited around while Tony and Johnny finished grooming the horses, but Robert escorted the ladies back to the house.

As the four of them strolled back to the house, they passed the automobile that was stopped in the drive. There was no sign of the driver or the man walking with him. Behind it was a carriage that Henry recognized immediately as belonging to his family, and another small carriage that Henry didn’t know.

“Looks like we’re havin’ a party,” Johnny scoffed.

At the door, the butler met them and held the door open. He stood straight and aloof as usual, but this time he had something to say.

“Welcome back, Sir,” he said haughtily. “Her ladyship asks that you join her in the Earl’s library. There is a visitor waiting with her, Sir.”

“Who is it, Johnson?” Tony asked.

“I couldn’t say, Sir,” the man answered.

“All right, thank you, Johnson,” Tony said, distractedly. He turned to his companions. “I’ll catch up with you shortly,” he said, and turned towards the library door.

“Uh, Tony,” Johnny called.

Tony looked over at him questioningly.

“Might be a good idea to get changed first,” Johnny told him with a mischievous grin.

Tony stopped and sighed. Then he smiled and turned back to the butler. “Johnson, will you tell my mother that I will join her in ten minutes?”

“Yes, Sir,” the man agreed officiously, and Tony and friends headed upstairs to clean up and change.

Fifteen minutes later, all but Henry had changed. He had cleaned up though and went with them to the drawing room to join the other guests waiting there.

“I’ll meet you here when I get finished in the library,” Tony said, leaving them to the company of Algernon Hawkesbury and the ladies while he turned away.

He opened the door and stepped inside to find his mother sitting in a large comfortable armchair, chatting with a small wiry man. He was dressed impeccably in a dark city suit and sat in a chair opposite Lady Hawkesbury, both of them facing the great immaculately polished desk that Tony remembered with unease.

Behind that desk, his father had stood – time after time issuing orders that were to affect his life without giving him any say in the matter.

He suppressed a shiver and walked over to stand in front of it. Something about that desk brought his father’s presence into the room and he wasn’t going behind it to sit in that chair.

“Good morning, Mother,” he said casually. He looked towards the gentleman in the chair, expecting his mother to introduce him, but she ignored the man for the time being.

“Anthony!” Lady Hawkesbury said harshly. “I understood you to have been back from riding some time ago.”

“We did, Mother,” he replied civilly. “The horses had to be settled down and groomed.”

“You have servants for that, Anthony,” she said scornfully. “You’ve kept us waiting.”

“My apologies, madam,” Tony said formally, matching her disdain. He leaned back against the edge of the desk, crossed his legs at the ankles and folded his arms across his chest.

He looked over at the man in the chair and decided on a more direct course.

“And you are, Sir?” he asked the man.

The stranger stood up and walked over to extend his hand. Up close, Tony saw that he was older than he had thought – probably in his fifties. “Alfred Bramley, my lord,” he said. “Of Bramley, Bishop and Bramley.”

Tony unfolded his arms and shook hands with him. “A solicitor, Mr. Bramley?”

“Yes, my lord. My firm has had the honor of representing the Earls of Hawkesbury for the last forty-two years.”

“Have they indeed?” Tony said, smiling. He leaned back again and resumed his previous stance with his arms folded. “Well, I suppose there was bound to be matters to be discussed and paperwork to be signed.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” Bramley agreed awkwardly.

Tony looked at him suspiciously. The man looked uncomfortable. Tony looked from him to his mother and then back again. There was something going on here and his patience was running thin.

“A matter has been brought up that needs your immediate attention, my lord,” Bramley finally said.

Tony unfolded his arms and gripped the edge of the desk on either side of him. He scowled irritably at their hesitation.

“Then out with it, man,” he said, barely concealing his displeasure.

Bramley cleared his throat and held his head up to look Tony in the eye. “There has been a challenge to your right to inherit the title and the estate, my lord.”


 

CHAPTER NINE  

Tony blinked, stunned speechless.

Vaguely, he heard his mother’s words across the room, saying, “The whole thing is ridiculous.”

The words got through to him and brought him back to reality. He stood up straight and faced Bramley imposingly. The only thing to indicate his mood was his hands curled into fists at his side.

“Based on what, may I ask? I am the third and only surviving son of the Third Earl of Egan. What possible grounds could there be to challenge my right to inherit?”

“That’s it exactly, sir,” Bramley answered cryptically and then continued to explain. “It’s your identity that has been challenged. The question has been raised as to whether you are, in fact, Anthony James Peregrine Hawkesbury.”

“My mother is sitting right there,” Tony said angrily. “Why don’t you ask her?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but it has been suggested that her ladyship and Mrs. Balfour have a vested interest in identifying you as Anthony Hawkesbury. They live here by your grace. Without you, they would be homeless.”

“And penniless,” Lady Hawkesbury sniffed with undisguised hostility.

Tony strode across the room and then swung around furiously. “This challenge, who made it?”

“Mrs. Beatrice Hawkesbury, my lord. On behalf of her son.”

“Algie,” Tony snorted in disgust. “When I get hold of him, I’ll…”

“His demise wouldn’t help matters, my lord,” the man said, gravely.

Tony stopped his pacing and turned to face the man. Bramley stood stoically facing him, but there was an unmistakable glimmer of humor in his eyes that seemed totally out of place, but relieved the tension immensely.

He smiled. “Yes, you’re probably right, Bramley,” he said. “So tell me what I can do instead.”

“You’ve been away for more than eight years, Lord Hawkesbury,” Bramley began. “And you were only a youth when you left. You will have changed over the years.”

“I’m older, though probably no wiser. But I don’t think that I have changed so much that I’m unrecognizable.”

“Well, that’s a good start. Is there a portrait of you before you left?”

“None that I recall,” Tony told him, and looked to his mother for confirmation.

“No,” she said coldly.

Bramley looked at the collection of miniatures on the mantle over the fireplace. “Are you sure, Lady Hawkesbury. All those miniatures, surely there’s one of his lordship?”

“No,” she repeated, not even looking towards them.

Tony walked over to the mantle and looked at the miniatures. He recognized his father and mother, his brother Charles and his wife Elspeth. There was one of a small child, his nephew he assumed. There were other members of his family – uncles and aunts, his grandparents, Julia with her husband and Charlotte. There was another one that caught his attention above all the others and he picked it up.

There was a vague resemblance to himself, but not enough to warrant more than a second look. It was a young man, only about fifteen years old with a pale thin face and eyes that glowed with his love of life.

It was Bertram, his brother – the best of them. It must have been done only a year or so before his death and Tony felt the tug of grief remembered.

But there was certainly no portrait of him. It was blatant and agonizingly painful to realize that his was the only face that his parents hadn’t wanted placed there.

“No, there’s no portrait of me before I left,” he confirmed.

If Alfred Bramley thought anything odd about that, he said nothing. He thought some more.

“It’s all so outrageous!” Lady Hawkesbury said angrily. “You only have to look at the portrait of the first Earl. The resemblance is striking.”

“Possibly, my lady,” the solicitor agreed. “But a striking likeness is not proof.”

He turned back to Tony. “There must be people in America who can confirm your identity?”

“No,” Tony said, shaking his head. “I didn’t use my own name for several years.”

“I see,” Bramley said quietly, though his tone indicated that he didn’t. “Did no one know who you really were then?”

“Only Johnny,” Tony said negligently. Suddenly, he looked up. “Johnny…he knew.”

He strode across the room and opened the door making his way hurriedly to the drawing room. He stopped at the sight of all the people there and tried to ignore them.

“Johnny, would you come with me for a minute?” he asked quickly.

Johnny and Scott stared at him, but his agitation was obvious and Johnny didn’t ask any questions. He got up and went with him without a word.

“What’s up?” Johnny finally asked, as they crossed the hall and walked into the library.

“Trouble,” Tony told him succinctly but didn’t explain any further as Tony closed the door behind them.

“Mr. Bramley, this is Johnny Lancer. He’s a friend from America,” Tony explained. “He and his brother are here as my guests. Johnny, this is Alfred Bramley. He’s a solicitor.”

Johnny frowned. “A lawyer? What’s goin’ on?”

“Mr. Lancer, how long have you known his lordship?” Bramley asked.

“’Bout five years.”

“By what name did you know him?”

Johnny eyed the man suspiciously and glanced at Tony. Tony looked horrified at the question.

“’Less you’ve got a good reason to ask, it’s none o’ your business,” Johnny said icily.

Bramley was taken aback by his answer, but even more surprised that Lord Hawkesbury didn’t reassure his friend and tell him to answer.

He quickly rethought his question. “Very well, I’ll try it another way,” he said quietly. “Did Lord Hawkesbury ever tell you his real name?”

“Sure he did. He swore me to secrecy,” he answered with a grin. “Told me he was the son of an Earl. The black sheep is what he called himself.”

Bramley cleared his throat to cover up his amusement. “Would you be willing to attest to it?”

“Sure, why?”

“Someone thinks I am not who I say I am, Johnny,” Tony told him.

“Well, this certainly helps, my lord. I’m not sure that it’s enough though. Mr. Lancer is still only repeating what you told him, however long ago that was.”

Tony turned around and paced across the room. “Mother’s right,” he said furiously. “This is outrageous. How does one prove that he is who he says he is?”

“My lord, your family thought you were dead,” Bramley explained sympathetically. “It’s been over a year since your father died and we had no word from you until recently. It can hardly be surprising that there are doubters.”

“Not everyone thought I was dead. Julia and I kept in touch through correspondence,” Tony told him.

Bramley looked up at him. “Really? Did either of you keep the letters?”

“I have one or two, I think. I’m not sure about Julia.”

“When was the last time you corresponded? Before the accident, I mean.”

Tony thought about it for a moment. “I think about twelve months or so. We weren’t able to maintain a close relationship. I moved around quite a lot.”

The solicitor sighed. “Helpful, but, again, not conclusive.” He put his hand to his chin and thought for a minute.

“Do you have any distinguishing marks, perhaps – a mole or a birthmark?”

“No, nothing like that,” Tony answered despondently. The fight was going out of him as he began to see the enormity of the situation.

“Really, Mr. Bramley,” Lady Hawkesbury declared awfully. “You are discussing a Hawkesbury. There are no taints in our bloodline.”

Johnny stared at her. Even in the face of such a desperate problem, she was holding, arrogantly, onto her pride.

Tony ignored her. He was thinking hard.

He scowled. “Mother, is Dr. McGrath still the village doctor?”

“Yes, of course he is. What has that to do with anything?”

“I wonder if he remembers the scar on my leg from that dog bite when I was ten,” he thought out loud.

She finally looked up to him hopefully. “Yes, he probably would. It was a dreadful time. Your poor father was terribly upset about it all. He was forced to have his favorite dog put down because of it. A terrible thing.”

Johnny listened and shook his head. The woman constantly amazed him at her complete lack of compassion for her son. What was even worse – it was sounding like this was not something new. It sounded, to him, like she had been cold towards Tony for a long time.

“By heavens, that might do it!” the little solicitor exclaimed. “If this doctor remembers the incident and the scar, that would be a definitive answer to the challenge. I should go into the village and talk to him right away.”

“Are you sure?” Tony asked anxiously.

“Oh, yes, my lord. A scar is as good as a birthmark when it can be proven. If the doctor will attest to it, and with the letters and your friend’s statement, I don’t think anyone can doubt your identity, Sir.”

Tony heaved a sigh of relief and sat back on the edge of the desk.

 

“Thank you, Mr. Bramley,” he said quietly. “You’ve been very good about this.”

 

“Not at all, Lord Hawkesbury. I’m glad the matter has been concluded so satisfactorily.” He leaned over and collected his case and turned to leave. “I’ll be on my way then, my lord. The sooner I see this doctor the better. If we’re really lucky, he may even have records that will add to the proof.”

 

He turned around and walked over to Lady Hawkesbury. “Madam, it’s been a pleasure, as always,” he said courteously. He turned back to Johnny and Tony. “Mr. Lancer, I’m glad to have met you. I hope you enjoy your stay. And Lord Hawkesbury, you were quite correct in the first place, there are papers to sign and matters to be discussed, but I think we should attend to this first. I look forward to our continued association, Sir.”

“Thank you, again, Mr. Bramley. You can be assured of my continued business with your firm.”

With that, he turned and left the room. He closed the door behind him, leaving them alone with Lady Hawkesbury.

Tony’s expression changed the moment he was out of the room. Johnny had seen it before, lots of times. The guy was simmering, on the edge of a boiling rage.

“Mother,” Tony said, his tone very steady and firm. There wasn’t a trace of the fury that Johnny knew was about to break out. “Fetch Algernon.”

Clearly, the woman didn’t know her son. It was hardly surprising after so many years, but she also had no perception at all. She stood up and turned to her son with a determined expression on her face.

“I think it would be better to leave this now, Anthony. I won’t have any family disagreements while there are guests under my roof. It’s an open invitation for scandal and there’s been more than enough of that.”

Tony merely glared at her. “I said, fetch Algernon, Mother. If you don’t, I will… and then you will have a scandal like you’ve never seen before.”

She tried to out stare him, but never stood a chance. It was, perhaps, the first time that the woman had ever backed down, but that was what she did.

“Very well, but I don’t want a scene, Anthony.”

Tony said nothing more, but his eyes spoke volumes. They were hard and gleamed with the fire that must have been burning inside him.

She spun around so determinedly that her skirts swished noisily in her wake and she marched out of the room, closing the door behind her.

Johnny looked over at him and watched him. “You armed, Hawk?” he asked quietly.

Tony glared back at him. “No!” he snapped.

“Well, that’s good news.”

“You don’t need to stay, Johnny,” Tony answered angrily. “This is my own private business now.”

“Oh, I know it,” Johnny said calmly. He walked over to the armchair that Lady Hawkesbury had vacated and dropped into it. He grinned and ducked his head. “But I think I’ll stick around an’ watch the action. This could be interesting.”

Tony was about ready to break. Johnny could see a vein in his forehead starting to throb as his anger escalated.

He was real glad that Tony Hawk had no gun on him.

“Cool off, Tony,” he continued. “You’ll lose it before you even see him at this rate.”

Tony paced across the room and back while Johnny stretched his legs out and lounged back in the chair, waiting.

They didn’t have to wait long. The soft knock on the door came only a few minutes after his mother left and the door opened tentatively.

Algernon stuck his head around the door and looked in. Seeing his cousin, he stepped into the room wearing a silly grin.

“Anthony!” Algernon Hawkesbury exclaimed. “Good heavens, cousin, it really is you. I confess, I wasn’t certain when I saw you before. Very unfashionable clothes, those were, Anthony. You must come up to London with me and I’ll see that you get something more suitable. Know all the very best tailors, you know.”

“I’m sure you do, Algie,” Tony answered smoothly, reining in his temper.

Algernon Hawkesbury was nearly as tall as his cousin. He was slim and good looking, and he was dressed immaculately. But when he had spoken, his excitement gave him an almost child-like quality.

“My solicitor has just left, Algie,” he continued. “He came to me to ask if I can prove my identity.”

Algie frowned curiously. “Prove your identity? Why on earth would he want you to do that?”

“Don’t hedge around, Algie. He told me it was your mother’s challenge – and in your name.”

Tony’s cousin certainly appeared shocked. If he’d known about the challenge, he was putting on a good performance to the contrary.

“Good heavens, Anthony! I swear, I didn’t know. Mother never mentioned it to me.”

“Does your mother often take such actions in your name, cousin?” Tony asked him coldly.

“No! Well, maybe she gets carried away sometimes. She loves me…” he stopped, obviously embarrassed. “She was only looking out for my best interests, I suppose. Dreadfully sorry, cuz. I wouldn’t have permitted it had I known what she was doing.”

“Is that right?” Tony said, his rage beginning to wane in the face of his ineffectual cousin.

“Oh, definitely. This is just too embarrassing, Anthony. Why, one only has to look at you to know you are who you claim to be! I tell you, it’s like looking into that picture of the first Earl when I look at you now. You must be about the same age as the old rogue was when he sat for that portrait.”

“That ‘old rogue’ was my great-grandfather, Algernon.”

“I know. He was mine, too. That’s not to say that he didn’t lead a positively scandalous life, Cuz.” He grinned foolishly.

“You can take a message home to your mother, Algie. I am Anthony Hawkesbury. I can prove it, should I have to. You happen to be my heir,” Tony said coldly and then continued pointedly, “for now. As such, I will not forbid you to enter this house – this time.”

“Yes, of course, Anthony. I’ll see that she doesn’t interfere again.”

Tony shook his head. “I rather doubt you can do that, Algie, but I suggest you try. Now go back to the rest of our guests. Johnny and I will join you shortly.”

Algernon accepted the dismissal meekly and left, gently closing the door behind him.

Johnny looked over at Tony and smiled. “Feel better?”

“It’s not him; it’s that mother of his.”

“Well, there’s one thing you can do to stop her.”

“What’s that?”

Johnny grinned. “Get yourself a new heir!”

*

Johnny looked around the room quickly, as was his habit. The ladies were all seated on the two sofas in the room, while Storey and Tony’s cousin stood side by side in front of the fireplace.

He found that the armchair that he’d left earlier was still vacant and reclaimed it, right beside Scott. Henry was sitting in one closer to his sisters. Tony chose a seat near Johnny and sat gracefully and crossed his legs casually.

“Well, Tony, you’ve decided to join us,” Henry said cheerily.

“My apologies, Henry,” Tony said with a smile. “There was some business to attend to.”

Henry glanced at him and looked for some sign of trouble. He didn’t seem to be able to make up his mind. “Nothing serious, I hope?”

“No, nothing serious at all,” Tony told him and turned his attention to the rest of the room.

“Mother wanted to come down with me,” Algie was telling the group. “But, unfortunately, she’s not well again. And she really cannot abide traveling in the automobile. I don’t know why.”

Tony smiled coolly. “I think I do. It’s loud and smelly, Algie. I won’t have it here, frightening the horses.”

Algie was surprised. “Oh, but Anthony, it’s the way of the future. You can’t fight progress, you know,” he said confidently.

Tony smiled again, rather like a cat with a mouse. “Algie, I can fight progress and anything else you want to put my way,” he said calmly. “I don’t want that machine in my future or my present, and if you ever bring it here again – I’ll shoot you.”

Algie’s jaw dropped. “You wouldn’t, Cousin!”

Johnny grinned mischievously and murmured. “Yes, he would.”

Henry added, more heatedly, “And if he didn’t – I would. You could have gotten someone killed this morning.”

“Really, Anthony, all this talk of shooting,” Storey said pointedly. “It sounds positively uncivilized. Is this something you learned in the wilds?”

“Actually, it’s something I picked up in the army, Robert,” Tony replied coolly.

Storey grinned maliciously. “Oh yes, of course, another of your failed flirtations with respectability. There were so many that I don’t remember them all.”

Scott saw Johnny glance in Tony’s directions and then lower his head and he realized that it was to hide a knowing smile. He followed Johnny’s eyes to see what he found so amusing and found himself staring at Tony.

It was doubtful that Storey even noticed Johnny’s reaction. The man certainly didn’t see Tony’s expression.

Tony’s eyes had turned to cold steel. His face hardened as he looked at Storey.

Scott was reminded of Madrid and a chill ran down his spine, but there was something different about the look on Tony’s face. There was a certain amount of haughtiness or disdain. Nevertheless, Storey seemed to be oblivious to that icy glare.

Or, if he had seen it, he was choosing to ignore it.

It appeared, however, that there were others in the room who had noticed the dark look on the face of the new Earl. There was an uncomfortable silence for a minute.

“Well, I beg to differ about their riding clothes, Algie,” Abigail said, shattering the silence like glass. “I thought all three of them looked very dashing.”

“I agree,” Arabella said with a smile that seemed to be aimed directly at Tony.

His face softened and he returned her smile. This time, Storey noticed. There was definitely tension in the room.

A soft rap on the door distracted everyone. A housemaid stood at the open door with a huge silver tray laden with teacups, plates and a large silver teapot.

“Tea, ma’am,” the girl said briefly.

“Thank you, Emma,” Lady Hawkesbury said crisply.  “Bring it in, please.”

The maid placed the tray on a table in front of Lady Hawkesbury, bobbed a quick curtsey and left.

Scott was a little surprised that it was the woman herself who poured tea and passed it to her daughter to pass around. He thought she would have considered herself above such a menial task, but none of the women seemed surprised by it. Apparently, it was customary.

Julia passed Johnny a cup of tea, complete with saucer and a cucumber sandwich. Scott watched him and grinned. The expression on his brother’s face was priceless as he thanked her and then turned over the tiny triangle of bread, surveying it critically.

Barely concealing his grin, Scott asked quietly, “Something wrong, Johnny?”

Johnny glanced up at him. “Kind o’ puny, ain’t it?” he whispered. “An’ it’s got no meat on it, an’ no crust neither.”

“It’s not supposed to be a meal, Johnny,” Scott explained, smothering a chuckle. “Just a snack.”

“Yeah,” Johnny answered with another look at it. He held it between his fingers carefully and was picturing the slabs of bread with thick slices of beef between them that he got at home. “Just as well. It’s sure a little bitty snack.”

“Do you mind if I join you, Mr. Lancer?”

Johnny looked up and found himself looking at Abigail Billingsly. She took his ‘yes’ for granted since she took a seat next to him, carefully balancing the teacup and saucer while settling her dress neatly.

“I know I’m being rather forward,” she told him, smiling charmingly. “My poor mother despairs of me. But I had to tell you how fascinated I was watching you with Charles’ horse.”

Johnny ducked his head for a moment, and then lifted it to look into her shining green eyes. “I can get along with most horses. You’ve just gotta get a feel for ‘em.”

“Well, you certainly did that,” she declared. “Everyone is afraid of that horse, yet you didn’t seem to be.”

“You can’t show fear to any animal,” he told her. “They sense it an’ react to it.” He took a sip of the tea and finished off the sandwich in two bites.

“Has he ever been ridden?” Johnny asked.

“Oh yes, but only by Charles,” she answered.

“I’ll grant you, Charles was a good horseman,” Tony admitted, joining the conversation quietly.

“Yes, he was, but even he couldn’t always handle that horse. He was thrown a couple of times as I recall. The late Earl forbade him to ride him eventually,” the young woman told them.

“And he didn’t?” Johnny asked, astonished.

“Charles always did as Father told him, Johnny,” Tony explained.

Johnny shook his head. He tried to imagine Murdoch trying to stop him from riding Barranca.

“That horse is too good to be in that stall bein’ ignored,” Johnny told them angrily. “With a little trainin’ an’ the right handlin’ he could be a fine mount.”

“And you’re just itching to do it, aren’t you, brother?” Scott suggested. “I could see it this morning.”

“You’re welcome to try then, Johnny,” Tony said, grinning.

Abigail smiled happily. “I should like to see that, Mr. Lancer,” she said eagerly. “It would be wonderful to see Brimstone being ridden again.”

“Brimstone?” Lady Hawkesbury asked, overhearing her. “Charles’ horse?”

“That’s right, Mother,” Julia told her. “Johnny was not only able to get near him, but groom him as well.”

The older woman scowled. “The animal is dangerous. It should have been shot the first time it threw Charles. He could have been killed…”

The room went quiet, but the woman took a deep breath and held her head up. “It would be better if you didn’t go near the animal, Mr. Lancer. I don’t want any accidents marring your visit.”

“Thanks, ma’am,” Johnny said quietly, his eyes glittering. “But I know about horses. There won’t be no problem.”

Scott sighed and shook his head. “Famous last words,” he muttered.

 

CHAPTER TEN

“That guy really doesn’t like Tony much, does he?” Johnny said to Henry as the walked out of the house. He and Scott had hung back a little while Tony and his sister escorted the ladies to their carriage. 

“Robert?” Henry asked. “It’s hardly surprising.”

They reached the great hall and the front door, then followed the others outside to where the carriage was waiting to take them all home. Robert Storey had brought them over, and would ride back with them to collect his horse and make his own way home.

Tony led the way with the ladies, with Algie and Robert Storey right behind them. Scott, Johnny and Henry brought up the rear.

“Why’s that?” Johnny asked curiously.

Henry stopped at the top of the steps and waited for them to stop as well. They let the others get a little further ahead of them before he answered.

“It’s been nearly two years since Ambrose died,” he began quietly, knowing that the walls had ears in a big house like this. He had no desire to have his sister made the subject of servants’ gossip.

“Your sister’s husband?” Scott asked.

“That’s right. Robert allowed a respectable amount of time before showing his interest in her, but since then he’s been paying determined court to her,” he explained. “Now that two years of mourning is nearly over, up pops Anthony Hawkesbury – now the Earl of Egan - and with all the wealth and status that goes with his title.”

“And he sees him as a rival,” Scott suggested, understanding now.

“When they were young, it was generally assumed that Tony and Arabella would make a match of it. I knew they were close. I’d have sworn that he loved her just as much as I knew she loved him. Then there was the scandal at Oxford and the Earl sent him off to join the army.”

Henry sighed and continued. “I never did understand that. He could easily have waited a while and then bought Tony’s way back into Oxford, like my father did. It was hardly a major sin. Young men got sent down all the time. It was expected that we would come to realize the error of our ways and then go back to school.” He shrugged. “But the Earl never did have much patience with Tony. I often wonder…”

He didn’t finish the thought and both Johnny and Scott were left to be curious about what he was going to say. Instead, he continued with his story.

“If there is anyone in this world less appropriate for the military than Tony, I haven’t yet met him. It was never likely to succeed. Tony doesn’t take orders well, and he has an independent nature. It was a disaster from the beginning. He showed promise when it came to skill and bravery, but he soon had his senior officers ready to murder him. The Earl bought him out of the army and then sent him off to America.”

He shook his head. “When I heard about it, I was afraid that Arabella would run off with him,” he continued. “But she didn’t. Tony left and she was utterly miserable. Mother arranged the marriage with Ambrose Coombes and she went along with it without argument. I was astonished that she accepted.”

“So, now, she’s a pretty young widow, Tony’s back an’ she’s lookin’ his way,” Johnny said, understanding a lot more than either of them knew.

“Exactly,” Henry confirmed.

Johnny watched Tony walking down the wide marble steps with Arabella at his side. They weren’t alone. Julia was at his other side, and Abigail walked beside her sister. But, to all intents and purposes, they appeared to in a world of their own.

Robert Storey had every right to be worried. He’d never seen Tony Hawk interested in a girl as anything more than a momentary diversion. He’d always thought it was just the cold gunfighter’s heart that beat in that Englishman’s breast, but now he thought that, perhaps, he’d been wrong about that. If what Henry had said was true, it was more likely that Tony had been carrying a torch for Arabella all those years.

Tony and the women reached the bottom of the steps and stopped to chat while everyone caught up with them.

Without saying more, Johnny moved forward to walk down the steps and join them. But, as he reached the edge of the great verandah, with Scott and Henry on either side of him, Johnny saw a flurry of activity on the steps and heard a cry.

Algie seemed to reach out to grab Storey as he fell, but wasn’t quick enough to stop him sliding down a couple of the steps on his back. When Robert came to a halt, he sat up and grabbed his leg. He started rocking in pain.

As one, they all ran forward towards the fallen man. Tony had turned at the cry and left the ladies to go to his aid as well, and he reached Algie and Storey just before the rest.

“What happened?” he asked quickly. “Are you hurt?”

“My ankle…” Storey replied, clutching his leg and grimacing in agony.

Tony knelt beside him and reached out to carefully move Storey’s hands away so he could see what damage had been done.

“Let me take a look at it,” he said quietly and tonelessly.

“No, no, just leave it,” Storey told him with grim determination. “I jolted it, that’s all. I’ll be fine.”

“We should take him inside, Anthony,” Algie suggested.

“Oh yes, Anthony,” Arabella agreed from behind him. She was looking over Tony’s shoulder with concern. “You really ought to take him into the house. We should send for the doctor in the village.”

“No, that won’t be necessary,” Storey insisted, straightening his leg and wincing. “It’s just my bad ankle. I injured it years ago in a riding accident. It will be sore for a while, but there’s nothing more than that wrong with it.”

“We’ll take you into the house and make you more comfortable, anyway,” Tony told him firmly. He looked up to Johnny. “Can you give me a hand, Johnny?”

“Can you stand, Robert?” he continued, extending his hand and gripping Storey’s outstretched hand to pull him to his feet.

Tony turned him around and pulled one of his arms around his neck. “Don’t try to put any weight on it, Robert.  Now, put your other arm around Johnny’s neck,” he told him, and Johnny moved into position to give the man little choice.

Storey bent his leg at the knee to keep his foot and ankle clear of the ground and accepted their help to make his way up the steps. Progress was slow and awkward. The rest of the company looked on helplessly and followed them up and, finally, back into the house.

Julia hurried past them as they got close to the door and led the way into the drawing room. She chose a comfortable armchair for him and pulled an ottoman over in front of it for him to rest his ankle on.

Johnny and Tony lowered the man into the chair and stepped back.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Robert said, panting a little from the exertion. He carefully lifted his leg and lowered his injured foot onto the ottoman. “I’ll be quite all right in a little while.”

“I think it might be prudent to call the doctor, Robert,” Tony persisted.

“Nonsense, this has happened many times over the years. I just need to rest it for a short time.” He leaned his head back onto the back of the chair and closed his eyes for a minute.

“Then you must certainly stay the night, Robert,” Algie put in.

Storey opened his eyes and looked up at him in surprise. “No, no, that’s quite unnecessary,” he said, glancing to Tony beside him.

“Won’t hear any argument, dear boy,” Algie continued determinedly, shaking his head to press his point.

Robert looked at Tony again, obviously in some embarrassment, but Tony only smiled.

Tony turned his attention to his cousin. “I think, Algie, that Robert feels it to be up to me to invite him to stay in my home.”

Algernon Hawkesbury looked horrified by his faux pas. “Oh yes, of course, Cuz. Meant nothing by it. Forgot myself, dear boy. Up to you, of course.”

Johnny had to work hard not to laugh at the man and, looking at Tony’s expression, he thought that Tony was having the same problem. The idea that this strange man was so closely related to Tony Hawk – gunfighter – was difficult to grasp.

“Don’t panic, Algie,” Tony told him, folding his arms across his chest. “I happen to agree with you.”

He turned back to Robert Storey. “Of course, you must stay the night, Robert. It’s unthinkable that you should have to travel home in that condition.”

Storey nodded his head in polite agreement. “Very well, thank you, Anthony. I’m very much obliged to you.”

“I’ll go and see that a room is prepared for you, Robert. And I’ll see if we can’t find one of my father’s walking sticks. I’m sure it would be helpful,” Julia said, and hurried from the room.

Arabella sat down next to Robert and asked solicitously, “Are you quite sure you don’t want us to send for the doctor, Robert. It might be better to check that it really is your old injury and not something worse.”

He looked into her eyes and smiled. “No, my dear. I’ve done this before and I’m quite sure it will be fine if I just stay off it.”

“I’ll send word to your house that you’re staying the night, Robert,” Tony told him. “Now, if you’re feeling rested, we’ll help you up to your room so we can get that boot off and check the damage to your ankle.”

He turned to Henry and the ladies. “Henry, why don’t you see the ladies home as planned?”

“Yes, come along Arabella,” Henry suggested. “We’ll let Anthony get Robert settled.”

Arabella got up and whispered farewell to Robert Storey, then walked past her brother to where Tony was standing.

Johnny didn’t hear what was said, but she quietly took Tony’s hand, smiled, and then walked away. He glanced over towards Robert Storey and was sure that he had watched her as well. There was a scowl on his face that worried Johnny considerably.

Apparently, Robert Storey had his mind made up on making Arabella Coombes his wife, but it was beginning to look as though she had someone else in mind.

*

“Mind if I join you?” Tony asked, opening Johnny’s bedroom door and poking his head in.

“Sure, come on in,” Johnny told him cheerfully. Scott was sitting in an armchair already. Their checker game sat on the small table between them, unfinished.

Tony entered the room and strolled over languidly to sit on the big four poster bed. He looked worn.

Johnny exchanged concerned looks with his brother and then stood up and walked over to sit down on the bed beside Tony. He clasped his hands tightly between his legs and looked down at them for a moment.

“Spit it out, Hawk,” Johnny said, intentionally using his nickname to put him as ease.

Tony sighed so heavily that his shoulders rose and fell with his breath. “I knew this would be hard, but this… this is worse than I ever thought it would be.”

“You’ve only just got here, Tony,” Scott said, still sitting in the armchair next to the checkerboard. “You have to give it some time.”

“Come on, Scott,” Tony insisted. “My mother hates the sight of me, my cousin has come to think of the house as his, and now I’m obliged to invite a man who loathes me to stay. I’m not used to living like this anymore. I liked living on my wits - not having my every need taken care of by servants. I had no responsibilities. Hell, I’m barely comfortable in what I’m wearing, let alone in this house!”

Johnny thought about that. The house had, what seemed like, an army of servants and he could understand Tony’s point about that. He was still getting used to it himself, but he was only here for a short stay.

He thought about Scott and how he had grown up. He’d seen it for himself now, both in New York and here. But Scott had given that life up and stayed at Lancer. For the most part, they looked after their own needs there.

Sure, Maria and Teresa cooked their meals – and thank heavens for that – and the household chores were mostly taken care of, but they worked a long day out on the range and accepted that everyone had a job to do at Lancer. It wasn’t like this sort of lifestyle.

“What about your sister an’ her little girl?” Johnny asked him. “An’ Henry, you can’t tell me that he hasn’t accepted you back.”

“Yes, you’re right. Henry was always a good friend,” he conceded reluctantly. “But, I wonder what he’d think if he finds out the truth.”

“Don’t sell him short, Hawk,” Johnny said firmly. “I’m willin’ to bet he’d accept it.”

“Maybe, but I daren’t risk it.” He sighed again. “I’m so tired of playing a part, like an actor on a stage, day and night. I just want to be myself.”

Johnny stood up angrily and turned on him.

“Bullshit, Tony!” he exclaimed. “You’ve been doing just that for years an’ you know it.” He paced across the room and then turned back to face Tony. “You put on a performance every time some stranger walked into the same room as you. You watched their eyes and had to outthink them all. Don’t you dare sit there an’ try to tell me you were bein’ yourself when you faced some kid in the street.”

“Tony, I think that what you’re really having trouble doing is ‘being yourself’ and not acting the part,” Scott explained to him. “Johnny’s been the same. You’ve both been masking your feelings for so long that you don’t know how to relax and be yourself.”

Scott stopped and let his words filter through to him. He looked over at Johnny, standing by the fireplace and saw that he was just as surprised by Scott’s analysis as Tony was.

“It was the same when I came back from the war,” he continued. “It takes time. And it takes a surprising amount of effort. It’s not as easy as it sounds to let your guard down and be yourself.”

“But, they don’t know me, Scott. I’m not the man I was all those years ago.”

“Of course, you’re not. They have to get to know you all over again. It still makes you better off than we were. You have a history with these people. You have memories to share with them - even the bad ones. We had nothing. We didn't even know about each other. We had to get to know each other, trust each other, from scratch.”

“But you two and your family have done it. How?” Tony asked. “What made you drop your guard, Johnny?”

“Madre de dios, Tony! What makes you think I did? You think it’s that easy? You think we just met an’ sat down an’ worked it all out?”

Scott laughed lightly. “You saw the Lancer family on their best behavior, Tony. Things get pretty tense there sometimes. I’m afraid we’re still learning that process. You really don’t want to be in the room when Johnny and Murdoch butt heads.”

Johnny grinned. “Hey, we ain’t killed each other, yet,” he confessed. “That oughta count for somethin’.”

“Oh, it does!” Scott answered with a laugh. “Look, Tony,” he continued, more seriously. “You need to give yourself and them some time to adjust.”

“What you need to do is take the reins,” Johnny added. “Ain’t you the boss ‘round here?”

“Yes, of course I am,” he answered impatiently. “But I’m virtually a stranger to them all. How can I just walk in and take over?”

“Tony, at the moment you’re a guest in your own home. Maybe you need to do like Johnny says and start changing that,” Scott suggested. “The butler called the library ‘the Earl’s library’ today, as though he meant your father. They have to accept that you ARE the Earl now.”

“My father had a very strong presence, Scott,” Tony said with a heavy sigh. “It’s not going to be easy replacing him.”

“So have you, Tony,” Johnny told him firmly. “When you left here, you were just a kid. You were easy meat for a man like him. But that was a lot o’ years ago. A lot’s happened in those years an’ you’re a better man for it.”

“Johnny’s right,” said Scott. “You don’t have to replace your father. You have to take over and make this work for YOU.”

Tony stood and walked across to the window. He looked out into the darkness, thinking.

“Did Johnny tell you what happened today?” he asked, without turning around.

“No, we decided that it was up to you to tell me if you wanted me to know.”

Tony dropped his head and then turned around to face them. “My identity was challenged, Scott. My aunt made me prove that I am who I claim to be.”

“Surely…”

He held his hand up and stopped him. “It’s all right. We took care of it,” he assured Scott. “The solicitor thinks we can satisfy the challenge with what we have. But that library was my father’s territory. I could feel his presence in there so strongly that I wanted to turn and run.”

“Sounds like you’ve got some ghosts to lie to rest, compadre,” Johnny said sympathetically. “We’ve all got ‘em. The measure of a man is how you face ‘em an’ what you do ‘bout it.”

“Yes, it’s time I faced my ghosts, Johnny.” He nodded and seemed to finally come to a decision. He smiled at last. “Of course, you’re right. I have to face my ghosts, and I have to face my responsibilities. This is a big estate. There must be a lot of work involved in running it.”

“Just like runnin’ a ranch, Tony. There must be a foreman or somethin’ here somewhere who’s been takin’ care o’ things since your ol’ man died. ‘Less your mother’s been doin’ it.”

Tony was revitalized and almost eager. “Yes, there used to be an estate manager in my father’s day. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before now.”

Johnny grinned and looked over at him mischievously. “Too busy feelin’ sorry for yourself,” he told him.

Tony laughed. “I’ll get started in the morning. I need to find out about this estate and what it takes to run it. I need to see the solicitors, too, and find out what has to be finalized so that I can take over properly. And the accountants – there are bound to be things to be done there, as well. I should find out what my duties are to the village, and the rectory…”

Scott laughed delightedly and turned to his brother. “And he thought he had nothing to do with his time.”

“There are some household changes that I need to take care of too,” Tony added, a slight frown on his brow. “I think it’s time I moved into the Earl’s bedchamber.”

“Sounds like a good way to lay claim to the title,” Johnny said with a grin.

“Can you two entertain yourselves tomorrow while I look into some of these things?” Tony asked. His eyes were alight for the first time since Johnny had met him in Morro Coyo nearly six weeks ago.

“Sure,” Johnny assured him. “I’ll work on ol’ Brimstone – ‘less you got some objection to that.”

“None at all,” Tony replied. “I’ll tell the head groom that you have carte blanche with the horse. Whatever you need, just ask for it.”

Johnny frowned. “’Carte blanche’, huh? Well, I’m guessin’ that means I can work on him.”

Tony laughed again. “You can do whatever you see fit with him, Johnny.”

He walked over towards the door and stopped to turn around as he took the knob to open it. “Thank you – both of you.”

“Glad to be of help, Tony,” Scott answered with a smile.

Johnny walked over to sit in the armchair opposite his brother, with the still unfinished checker game between them.

“Ah, just go to bed an’ let us finish our game, so we can get some shuteye, too,” he said roughly, but with a gleam of delight in his eyes.

Tony grinned, opened the door and left them alone.

The boys watched him leave the room and pull the door closed behind him

“You know, he’s right, Johnny. It’s not going to be easy for him to settle in here,” Scott said when he thought Tony was out of earshot.

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny agreed quietly. He leaned back in the chair and looked down at his hands, lightly entwined in his lap. “That mother of his isn’t makin’ it any easier, either. Kind of a cold fish, ain’t she?”

“Yes, she is,” Scott answered distractedly. “I wonder why she treats him like that.”

“Well, I’m figurin’ that from here on in, Tony’s gonna be callin’ the tune, so she’ll just have to get used to it. Could be they’ll bump heads now an’ then, but I know who’ll win.”

Scott groaned, picturing the arguments at Lancer between father and sons. He’d ‘bumped heads’ more than once with his father himself in the past couple of years. Perhaps not as often as Johnny had, but usually just as loudly.

He sighed. “Oh well, it can’t be any worse than at home,” he said. “I doubt she’s anywhere near as loud as Murdoch.”

“She don’t need to be,” Johnny told him, shivering intentionally. “That look she gets could freeze a rattler!”

With a laugh, Scott turned his attention back to the game. “Whose turn was it?”

*

“Well, I’m ready to call it a night, little brother,” Scott said, stretching his arms over his head and yawning.

The house had gone very quiet. He looked at the clock on the mantle over the fireplace – an ornately decorated French ormolu clock that chimed with a delicate set of notes on every quarter hour. Johnny had grown tired of the sound and threatened to put a bullet through it after his first night, but he hadn’t mentioned it tonight. Scott figured he had become oblivious to it.

The clock said ten minutes before midnight and he shook his head.

“Can’t leave it now, Scott. Not at three games a piece!”

Scott lowered his hands and rubbed his face a couple of times. He looked at his brother and shook his head. “Johnny, we started out with ‘best of three games’, then you insisted on making it ‘best three out of five’ – only because you lost, I might add.”

“Yeah, well, you’re the one who wanted to go on to make it ‘best of seven’ when I was ahead at the end of five,” Johnny answered with a grin. “You gonna concede defeat now?”

“No, I am not,” Scott declared. “But if we keep going this way, we’ll end up at ‘best of ninety-nine’ – or worse. We can finish this tomorrow night. We could go on like this all night, and I want to get some sleep.”

“All right,” Johnny agreed at length. “I guess you old men need all the sleep you can get.”

Scott pushed his chair back and got to his feet. “It’s not going to work, Johnny. I’m tired and I think I’m going to be chasing checkers through my dreams already. I’m going to my room and to bed.”

Johnny laughed lightly. “Yeah, I guess you’ll keep till tomorrow night. I’ll whip you then.”

He stood up and arched his back to stretch the kinks out. Scott started walking towards the door, but Johnny stopped and listened hard. He was sure he’d heard something, outside in the hall.

“I’ll see you in the morning…” Scott started to say, but Johnny held his hand up and shooshed him.

Scott scowled, but the silence in the room meant that, this time, he heard something too. It sounded very like someone was calling Johnny’s name.

Johnny finally heard it clearly. It was definitely his name that was being called. He strode across to the door and opened it quickly.

“Johnny…” he heard, louder and distinctly, but it was more like a moan than a call. He looked out of the door and down the hallway.

It was Tony. He was laying face down on the floor with his arms flung out in front of him. His cousin, Algernon, was down on one knee beside him and looked up when he heard them.

“Oh, help, please…”Algie pleaded. “Help!”

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Johnny and Scott both raced down the hallway to Tony’s side. They knelt on either side of him and looked him over for injuries.

There was no blood that either of them could see. He was dressed in his nightshirt and had probably been in bed, an idea confirmed once they looked into his darkened room. He didn’t seem to be physically injured but he was trembling all over.

Frustrated by the lack of something he could see to do to help his friend, Johnny turned on Algie. The man was sitting back on his heels now, also in his nightclothes but he’d pulled on a dressing gown before running into the hall. He was as white as a ghost.

“What happened?” Johnny snapped at him.

Algie looked at him and blinked. He was shocked. “I…I…”

“I said, what happened?” Johnny repeated angrily, oblivious to the man’s state.

“Johnny, settle down,” Scott said quickly.

“Settle down?” Johnny asked furiously. “I want some answers, and I want them now.”

“I…I heard him calling for you,” Algie finally said, pulling away from Johnny. “From my bedroom. It’s over there, next to Anthony’s. I ran out and found him here, just like this. He was still calling for you. I… I really don’t know what happened to him.”

Johnny eyed him carefully. If Algie had done this, surely he wouldn’t have stayed around to wait for them. He sighed and acknowledged that he believed him.

“Johnny…”

Tony was still conscious. He hadn’t reacted to anything being said, so he probably hadn’t even heard. His mind seemed locked on getting help from his friend.

“It’s all right, Tony,” Johnny whispered. “I’m here. What’s wrong with you? Where are you hurt?”

“Not hurt… can’t stop sh… shaking… ”

Johnny looked over top of him and caught Scott’s eyes. They mirrored the fear that he was sure his own showed. Something was terribly wrong.

“Take it easy, Tony,” he said gently, trying to reassure him. “Scott, let’s get him to bed.”

They rolled him over onto his back and then carefully lifted him between them.

Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny caught a glimpse of Robert Storey coming towards them. Subconsciously, Johnny recognized that there was something odd about his appearance, but his conscious was too busy with Tony to register anything right away.

“Grab his legs, Algie,” Scott ordered Tony’s cousin and the man hurried to join them in carrying Tony to his bed. He supported Tony’s legs while Johnny and Scott supported his head and his back.

“I’ll get the lamp,” Storey said and hurried past them to light the oil lamp beside the bed. He lit a second one on a small table across the room. It was far enough away that it wouldn’t annoy Tony but it lit the room enough to see that he was sweating and trembling uncontrollably.

Once there, they made him comfortable and covered him with blankets. Johnny sat down on the side of the bed while Scott stepped back behind him.

“What’s going on?” Julia asked from the doorway. “Anthony? What’s wrong?”

No one had seen her arrive in the confusion and she sounded distraught.

Scott turned around and walked over to her.

“Tony’s ill,” he explained quietly. “Can you send someone to town for the doctor?”

“Yes, of course,” she answered, a little distracted. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I don’t know. He’s shakin’ all over.”

“Shaking?” She looked over towards the bed. Tony was tossing and pulling the blankets to him tightly. “What could have happened? He was fine at dinner.”

“I know,” Scott agreed. “I think you’d better send for that doctor, right away. The sooner he gets here the better.”

“Yes…yes, I’ll send one of the servants right away.” She glanced at her brother. Johnny blocked most of her view of him, but she could see enough to know that he was desperately sick. “Look after him, please.” She begged him softly and then turned and hurried away.

Johnny sat on the bed and felt Tony’s forehead. There was no sign of fever, but Tony seemed to be breathing hard and his face was gleaming with beads of sweat. He was shivering terribly and suddenly clutched his stomach and drew his legs up in pain.

“Tony, what happened?” he asked gently. “Tell me what’s wrong?”

“My stomach…” he gasped and clamped his teeth together to fight off the urge to groan aloud.

Behind Johnny, Algie interrupted nervously. He held a glass of water and offered it to Johnny. “Here, this might help, Johnny,” he said, handing over the glass.

“Thanks,” Johnny said, taking it and holding it for Tony.

To his surprise, Tony turned his head away quickly and shouted, “No!” It seemed to take a lot out of him, and he closed his eyes to concentrate. When he opened them again, it was to look directly at Johnny.

“No water,” he managed to whisper, breathing hard. “It’s bad…”

Johnny frowned and looked at the water in the glass. He smelled it, but there was no odor that he could distinguish.

“Bitter…” Tony told him, watching his face intently. “Tasted bitter.”

“How much did you drink?” Johnny asked anxiously.

“…mouthful…” he said. “Tasted bad…”

“How long ago, Tony? When did you drink it?”

“… came to bed… after I talked to Mother… I drank a little and then left it.”

“How long ago?”

“I left you to see Mother… only a few minutes with her. T… told her what we talked about and then I went to bed.”

Johnny put the glass on the bedside table and reassured Tony. “It’s okay, compadre. I won’t make you drink it. Your sister’s sendin’ for the doctor in town. He’ll be here soon.”

An hour – that’s about all it had been since he must have drunk the water – maybe less. That wasn’t much time for all this to have happened.

“Johnny… what’s wrong with m… me…” Tony struggled to ask him. He looked and sounded terrified, and Johnny was just as afraid for him. A few hours ago, Tony had been perfectly fine.

“I don’t know, Tony. Take it easy. I’m stayin’ right here with you.”

Tony relaxed somewhat, but his eyes kept following the others in the room. Johnny knew what the problem was. He’d felt it before himself, too often to count – vulnerability.

Trust came hard in their world – the world of gunfighters. They were loners by nature, with an exaggerated instinct for survival. While such an instinct wasn’t confined to pistoleros, it was so ingrained in some that it became almost second nature. You just didn’t turn your back on anyone.

Scott was suddenly at his side with a damp cloth in his hands. Johnny took it from him with a quick word of thanks and wiped the sweat from Tony’s face and neck.

“Scott,” Johnny called quietly. “Get ‘em all out o’ here, will you? He can’t relax with all these people around.”

“Sure, Johnny,” Scott replied, then noticed that the top of the bedside table was clear. “Didn’t you put the glass of water right there?”

Johnny looked over at the table and frowned. “Yeah, I did.”

Scott turned to face the other two men in the room. “What happened to the glass of water that was there?” he asked curtly. Only one of them could have moved it.

“I threw it out,” Storey told him. “I heard Anthony say there was something wrong with it. I didn’t want anyone else to drink from it or offer it to him.”

“It could also have helped to identify what he drank!” Scott answered angrily.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t think of that. I only did what I thought was best,” Storey said.

His face was less than repentant and Scott barely contained his temper.

“We’re going downstairs to wait for the doctor – the three of us,” he informed the two men. “Johnny will look after Tony. He needs some quiet.”

*

Scott waited in the drawing room with the rest of the household. Lady Hawkesbury had woken and created a furor by trying to enter her son’s room and take over. But Tony had gotten so agitated that Johnny had stood up to her and ordered her out.

She took umbrage at Johnny’s attitude and things looked like getting louder, but Julia had arrived and had finally coerced her into leaving with more diplomatic persuasion.

Tony’s condition had worsened while they waited for the doctor. He complained of cold hands and feet, and the pains in his stomach had gotten severe enough to have him writhing in agony.

He complained of being thirsty, but his mind was so focused on the water being bad that it was difficult to get him to drink any.

When the doctor had arrived, Johnny had been ordered out as well and he had reluctantly agreed to it, but, again, Tony had become agitated and the doctor had changed his mind.

So, now, Johnny was upstairs with the doctor and Tony while they waited in the drawing room. They were a quiet group, all of them shocked by the sudden and frightening turn of events.

Lady Hawkesbury sat quietly and stoically in one of the armchairs, with Julia sitting beside her and holding her hand comfortingly. Algie sat on one of the sofas, his hands clasped nervously in front of him and Robert sat on the other sofa, obviously feeling awkward to be involved in this situation.

Scott studied Storey. It suddenly occurred to him that the man wasn’t limping. He’d been hurt badly enough yesterday to have needed help to a bedroom to rest yet, here he was, walking around with barely any limp at all.

“Your ankle must be much better, Robert,” he remarked casually.

The man looked him in the eye and nodded. “Yes, it is, thank you, Scott. As I said, it’s happened before and it only needed to be rested.”

Scott must have showed his doubts, because Storey continued, very quietly. “Look, I know you won’t believe this, but I wouldn’t want anything to happen to Anthony. I can’t say that I am entirely glad he’s come home, but I don’t wish him ill.”

His chance to respond to that was interrupted by the entrance of the doctor.

As one, they all got to their feet and watched him come in. Anxiety was painted on everyone’s face but no one seemed able to ask the relevant question.

“Well, Dr. McGrath?” Lady Hawkesbury finally asked brusquely.

The man stood straight and tall as he faced her. “His lordship has been poisoned, my lady,” he told her candidly.

Julia gasped aloud and dropped back into her chair, trembling with shock. “Is he…?”

“He’s alive, madam,” the man answered, sympathetically.

“For how long?” Lady Hawkesbury asked coolly and, apparently, calmly.

“That’s hard to say, my lady,” he replied. “It’s likely that the poison was in the water by his bed. Being diluted makes it less potent, of course. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how strong the concoction was as the water was thrown away.”

Scott cast an angry glance towards Robert Storey, but he ignored it completely.

“He said that he only drank a mouthful, Doctor,” Scott said. “Will that make a difference?”

“It certainly can. However, if I’m correct in my assumption of what was in that water is correct, it might well be enough to be lethal.”

“Do you have any idea what it was?”

“Oh yes, the poison was reasonably easy to identify by his symptoms. The trembling and the cold in his hands and feet indicated hemlock. I’ve given him charcoal to try to break down the poison. We were eventually able to get him to accept as much water as he could swallow, but he has complained of a lack of feeling in his legs and that is not a good sign.”

“What does it mean, Doctor?” Julia asked nervously.

He sighed. “Hemlock affects the nervous system. As it progresses, paralysis sets in. It usually begins with the lower extremities and finally the respiratory system. If it gets that serious, he won’t be able to breathe and will suffocate.”

“Oh dear,” Algie whispered in a very distressed tone. “How terribly tragic this all is. To finally have him home and then lose him like this.”

“Be quiet, Algernon,” Lady Hawkesbury demanded. “He’s not dead.”

The doctor threw Algie a look of disdain and then continued. “Mr. Lancer has given me a rough idea of the time lapse since ingestion of the poison, based on what Lord Hawkesbury was able to tell him. He’s staying with the Earl for now. I’m afraid his lordship suffered a seizure and lost consciousness a short time ago. To be candid, his condition is extremely grave. There is not much more that can be done, but his lordship appears to have been in very good health before this. If he survives the night, I venture to say that he will recover completely.”

Scott looked on as the faces of the two women dropped, but his own spirits rose. The news wasn’t good, but he had a chance. He didn’t know Tony all that well, but he’d lay good odds that the man was a fighter. When he had left Johnny’s bedroom earlier in the evening, he had been in better spirits and he had something to fight for. He had finally realized that there was plenty to do to keep him busy here. 

Scott hoped he was right. Tony had a battle to win, but Scott felt sure that a chance was all he needed. A chance – had they found him soon enough to have given him one?

Only time would tell.

*

The doctor stayed the night. He and Johnny watched over the Earl, helping him in the small ways they could. It was frustrating to have to stand by and be able to do so little for him.

Tony had stopped writhing in pain after the seizure, but his breathing grew more and more labored as the hours ticked by. He’d been unconscious since that seizure but the shivering had continued and he sweated profusely with still no sign of fever. Johnny wiped him down regularly and watched for signs that he might be waking.

At the same time, the doctor kept a close eye on Tony’s heartbeat and breathing. His heart had slowed disturbingly for a while but was starting to rally over the past half an hour. 

There had been very little said between the doctor and Johnny. They only seemed to speak when practicalities demanded it.

Johnny preferred it that way. He’d had plenty of time to think – and thinking needed to be done. The doctor had confirmed his suspicion that there was probably something in the water that Tony had drunk – hemlock. It was deadly.

He sat on the edge of the bed now, while Dr. McGrath checked his patient again. When he pulled the stethoscope away from his ears, Johnny asked, “Any difference, Doc?”

“He’s breathing easier and his heart rate is much nearer normal,” the man answered, folding the stethoscope and putting it aside.

“He’s not shakin’ any more,” Johnny added. “So, what do you think? Will he make it?”

The doctor nodded. “Yes.  It was close, but I think he’s turned the corner, John.” He looked across the bed to where the young man sat quietly. “He has a good friend in you, young man. I have a feeling he’s going to need some friends he can trust.”

“Sure looks like it,” Johnny conceded.

McGrath looked the young man over. He knew nothing about him, but he admired Johnny’s dedication to the new Earl. Dr. McGrath had worked in the village of Wetherley, named for the manor house of the Earls of Egan, for a lot of years. He’d been witness to all of the tragedies that had dogged the family.

He’d always liked the spirited Anthony Hawkesbury and he had been saddened to hear that the boy had been banished to America. But he’d come back strong and healthy, and with good friends.

“It should be remembered that hemlock doesn’t get into a man’s glass of water by accident,” he said pointedly.

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny agreed. “This isn’t why my brother an’ me came with him, but I’m real glad we did come. I think I wanta find the fella who did this.”

“Me too,” said a soft wavering voice.

“Tony! Good to see those eyes o’ yours,” Johnny answered, grinning happily.

The doctor leaned closer to Tony and peered into his eyes. “I’m pleased you’re awake, my lord. I need to ask you some questions. Do you think you can answer them for me?”

Tony closed his eyes for a moment and then nodded. He opened them again wearily.

“Very good. Now, I know you’re tired, so I won’t take long,” the doctor assured him. He walked to the other end of the bed, pulled the covers from Tony’s legs and touched his foot. “Can you feel that?”

“Yes,” Tony whispered. “But it feels sort of numb.”

The doctor pulled the covers back over him and went back to the head of the bed. “Do you have any pain in the stomach?”

“No.”

“You look kinda green, Tony,” Johnny told him, frowning.

Tony groaned a little. “Thank you. I needed to hear that.”

“You will start to feel better soon, my lord. What you need over the next couple of days is plenty of rest and a lot of liquids to replace what you sweated out.” He poured a glass of water and held it for him to drink. “And there is no time like the present to start.”

Tony pulled away from it and Johnny quickly put his hand on Tony’s shoulder to reassure him. “It’s okay, Tony. The water’s good, we made sure of it. An’ you can relax about what comes in here till you’re back on your feet too. Scott and I will watch your back.”

Tony took the glass of water in a hand that shook a little. He drank some and then handed it back to the doctor. He looked Johnny in the eyes as he started to fade off to sleep.

“Thanks, Johnny…” he said and relaxed into a peaceful rest.

*

“His lordship is out of danger,” the doctor announced to the room full of people. He noticed that the Earl’s sister broke down into tears of relief, but his mother merely sighed heavily. The expression on her face told him nothing of what her feelings might be.

“Well, thank heavens for that,” Algernon Hawkesbury said eagerly.

“He’s going to be very weak and quite ill for the next twenty-four hours, but he should make a full recovery within two or three days. Until then, I recommend that someone be with him at all times, my lady,” the doctor instructed her.

Lady Hawkesbury rose to her feet, releasing her daughter’s hand and clasping her own in front of her. She looked formidable and Scott looked for something in her face that would say that she was relieved to hear that her son was going to live.

He’d looked over at her several times while they had waited for news. He really hadn’t been able to guess what had been going through her mind. She had been sitting in her chair, staring straight ahead, with her daughter beside her. Julia had become more and more drawn as the night had worn on, but the older woman had shown no emotions whatsoever.

He was used to his father’s dour expressions, but he had learned to see the emotions play over his face. Yet, he couldn’t pick out any display of feelings in that woman.

For the past few hours, he’d had to listen to the inane prattling of Algernon Hawkesbury. It had become annoying after a while and Robert Storey had obviously felt the same. Robert had taken to just ignoring Algie completely, leaving Scott – courtesy too ingrained in him to do the same – to suffer the brunt of his attention.

Now, he watched Tony’s mother stand up and turn to face the doctor.

“Thank you, Dr. McGrath,” she said loftily. “I’m grateful. I trust we may rely upon your discretion in this matter. I’m sure the Earl doesn’t want this incident to become a subject of gossip.”

“Naturally, madam,” the doctor agreed. “I’ve left instructions for the Earl’s care with Mr. Lancer.”

He turned to Scott. “You must be Mr. Scott Lancer,” he said. Since Scott was the only person in the room whom he’d never met before, it seemed an obvious conclusion. “I’ve also suggested your brother get some sleep. He’s exhausted. He’d like to see you before he retires.”

“We’ll see that my son is cared for, Doctor,” Lady Hawkesbury said firmly.

“Yes,” he answered with a sigh. “Well, if there are any problems, be sure to send for me immediately, madam. I foresee no complications, but if you are worried about anything, I will be available.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” she reiterated. “Julia will see you out.”

Scott looked at Julia and didn’t think she would be up to it. He stood up quickly.

“No, I’ll see the doctor out, Lady Hawkesbury. I’m sure Julia would rather stay with you for now.”

Julia’s glance thanked him and he headed for the door to meet the doctor. They walked out into the hallway together and the doctor stopped and turned to him.

“Mr. Lancer, I don’t know you or your brother,” he began. “But his lordship obviously knows and trusts John.”

He looked down at his feet and considered what he had to say carefully. “Mr. Lancer, there is someone in this house whom his lordship cannot trust. Do you have any idea who it could be?”

“No, we haven’t been here long enough to take any guesses like that,” Scott told him. “But don’t worry, Johnny and I will see that no one gets near him.”

“I take it that Lady Hawkesbury will not report the incident?”

Scott nodded. “That would be my guess, too.”

“Then it will be up to his friends and family to look out for him until he can do it for himself,” the doctor explained. “Your brother should get some sleep though. I would recommend you work out who you can trust as soon as you can and share the load.”

Scott walked him to the door and thanked him. He turned and noticed Robert Storey making his way up the staircase to his bedroom. He was leaning more heavily on the walking stick that he had borrowed – much more than he had been earlier.

He went back into the drawing room with the intention of taking his leave and going upstairs to relieve Johnny.

Lady Hawkesbury was standing in front of the fireplace now. Scott was surprised to see that she was in the middle of a tirade.

“He hasn’t been back five minutes and already there is trouble,” she told her them angrily. “I knew it would happen. Scandal just follows him wherever he goes.”

“Mother…” Julia began, but her objection fell flat before she got a chance to finish.

“Don’t try to defend him, Julia! Heaven only knows what he’s been doing to bring about this sort of incident. There’ll be nothing but trouble now that he’s back.”

“I say, Aunt Augusta, he can hardly have planned on being poisoned,” Algie protested. “Surely you can’t blame him for it.”

“I won’t have that scandalous word uttered in my presence, Algernon,” she declared in a tone that defied him to argue with her. “This ‘illness’ is best forgotten. Thank heavens he didn’t die from it.” She shook her head angrily. “Dear heaven, think what a scandal that would have been. Nothing could have been done to protect him from it.”

“If he’d died, I don’t think he would have cared much about your scandal, Lady Hawkesbury,” Scott told her coldly. He could not believe the woman was actually blaming her son for being poisoned.

“No, the rest of us would be left to suffer the result! That’s just what he’s always done.”

“Doesn’t the fact that he could have died mean anything to you?”

She turned her eyes on him and Scott actually felt the room temperature drop around him.

“Mr. Lancer, what I care about right now is my family’s reputation. This incident is closed.”

“Well, you do whatever you like to protect your good name, madam,” Scott told her coldly. “My brother and I are more interested in protecting your son’s life.”

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

Julia looked around at the sound of a rap on the bedroom door. She had offered to take over watching her brother from Scott and Johnny while they got some sleep.

Tony hadn’t woken since she had been with him. He was pale, but he had been sleeping soundly and without any new symptoms. He looked so peaceful that it was hard to make herself believe that he had been fighting for his life only a few hours ago.

And, try as she might, she couldn’t convince herself that this had been some terrible accident. Poison in a glass of water was certainly no accident.

She stood up, walked over to the door and opened it. Henry Billingsly was standing in the hall in his riding clothes. He looked anxious.

“Julia, I came over to see Tony and heard he’s ill,” he explained quietly. “Now, Algernon tells me that he was poisoned last night and nearly died. He said Tony’s all right now, but I wanted to be sure…”

She smiled at him kindly as she stood in the hallway and held the door ajar behind her. But she didn’t let him in right away. “He’s sleeping peacefully now, Henry. I’d rather not disturb him.”

“No, no, of course not. I just wanted to make certain that he’s all right.”

“The doctor said that he’s going to make a full recovery,” she told him reassuringly. “He needs plenty of rest.”

“Julia?” Tony called, though his voice only just carried far enough for them to hear him. “Bring him in.”

Julia turned back to see him pulling himself up in the bed. “You’re supposed to rest, Anthony.”

“I can rest and talk to Henry at the same time, Julia. Let him in.”

She turned back to Henry and opened the door for him. She whispered to Henry as he passed her, “If he starts to tire, get him to lie down again. He’s been terribly ill.”

“Where are Johnny and Scott, Julia?” Tony asked as he got comfortable.

She walked over to him, just ahead of Henry. “They’re catching up on some sleep. They’ve arranged it so that one of them, or myself, will be with you at all times until you’re up and around.”

“I bet Mother didn’t like that,” Tony said with a smile.

“No, but they are both very determined gentlemen,” she replied, smiling back at him. “Now that you’re awake, you should drink some water. The doctor gave orders that you drink plenty of it.”

She filled the glass on the bedside table and passed it to him. He looked at it doubtfully, then drank it down and gave the empty glass back to her.

Turning to leave, she whispered to Henry, “Send for me when you’re ready to leave. He’s not to be left alone.”

He nodded and watched her leave, closing the door behind her. Then he sat down in the chair that she had left by the bed.

“Don’t look so miserable, Henry,” Tony said with a beaming smile. “I’m still around.”

Henry shook his head. “I can’t believe this could even happen, here, in your own home.”

“This hasn’t been my home for a lot of years, Henry. I’m not sure that it was even before I left it.”

“Nonsense, this is your home, your family. Whatever might have happened between you and your father, he always did what he thought was best for you.”

“Don’t be naïve, Henry. He did what was best for him. I hold no illusions about that. But this IS my home now, or it will be once I have things set in order.”

“Your two friends seem to have taken over,” Henry said, emotionlessly.

Tony eyed him suspiciously. “No, not taken over, but I couldn’t ask for better bodyguards than them. They have only my best interests at heart.”

Henry looked uncomfortable, but he knew what he had to say. The question had to be asked.

“Anthony, you haven’t been home long enough to have made any enemies,” he told him seriously. He clasped his hands together tightly and he leaned them on the bed beside his friend. “Are you quite sure you didn’t bring them back with you?”

“You mean Johnny and Scott?” Tony asked. “No, Johnny’s not the type to use poison.” He laughed lightly at the idea. “If Johnny had a problem with me, he’d just call me out.”

“Call you out?” Henry repeated, frowning. “Do you mean challenge you?”

“Yes, that’s just what I mean. And I suspect he could take me quite easily. But, no, Johnny is my friend. He was there for me last night, Henry.”

“All right,” his friend conceded. “What about his brother?”

“Johnny doesn’t trust any more easily than I do,” Tony told him. “But he trusts Scott implicitly. That would be good enough for me, even if I didn’t know him. But I’ve gotten to know Scott over the last month or so. He’s a good man – an honorable man.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Henry said, nodding. “I confess that I like them both, but I had to ask.”

“Understood,” Tony replied.

“Then we’ll have to look elsewhere,” Henry told him. He looked closely at his friend and realized how pale he was. Tony had leaned back against the pillow for a moment. “But it can wait. Why don’t you lie down and get some sleep. I can sit here for awhile.”

“No,” Tony assured him quietly. He closed his eyes and added, “I’ll be fine in a minute,” and drifted off to sleep.

*

Henry was still there two hours later when there was another knock on the door. He was about to get up and answer it when the door creaked open and Johnny stuck his head through. He frowned when he saw Henry there, figuring that he would find Julia.

“Come on in, Johnny,” Henry said quietly. “He’s been sleeping, but he’s awake now.”

“Julia wasn’t supposed to leave him till one of us got back,” Johnny answered, scowling.

Henry stood up and walked over to join him.

“She told me your plan. I’m glad to hear you’re taking precautions,” Henry told him. He kept his voice low. “Just how bad was it?”

Johnny pushed the door the rest of the way open and went on in. He looked behind him for Scott, but he had stopped to talk to the butler and another woman he didn’t know, so he left him to come in when he was finished.

“Real bad,” Johnny replied succinctly. “What did you hear?”

“I came over to see him this morning and was told he was ill. Algie told me that someone had tried to poison him last night with hemlock or something.”

“Not tried, did!” Johnny answered, just as quietly. “It was a pretty close thing. Don’t think I’ve seen anyone that sick in a long time.”

“If you boys have finished with your little secrets, how about you come in here and let me in on the conversation,” Tony said from his bed.

“Sure, compadre,” Johnny said, strolling over to the side of the bed. “You look a whole lot better than last night.”

“I feel a whole lot better, thanks,” Tony replied, smiling.

“Still shaky?” Johnny asked.

“Not really,” Tony answered. “My legs still feel a little numb, but not as bad as last night.”

He was leaning heavily against the pillows behind him, still looking very tired, but he smiled. “I hear you’ve been making plans to ensure my continued existence.”

“If you mean to keep you alive, then yeah, we made some plans.”

*

“Mr. Lancer, sir,” the butler said formally. “Might I have a quiet word with you?”

“Yes, of course,” Scott answered. “Johnson, isn’t it?”

“That’s right, sir. And this is Mrs. Morcombe, the head cook and housekeeper.”

“How do you do, Mrs. Morcombe? Now what can I do for you both?”

“Well, sir, this is a large house. Secrets are hard to keep with so many staff. Last night’s events are common knowledge below stairs.”

Scott was well aware that there were no secrets kept from the staff in a large house. “I see.”

“Mrs. Morcombe and myself have been with the household for many years. We’ve known his lordship all of his life.”

The woman nodded. “Such a delightful child he was,” she said, smiling. “He and his brother, Mr. Bertram were such a mischievous pair, always up to something… and in my kitchen, more often than not. I was only a kitchen maid back then, but the boys charmed all of us.”

“We couldn’t do anything to save Mr. Bertram,” Johnson continued for her, a sad note in his voice. “That was God’s will. And we had to stand by and watch Mr. Anthony being sent away, but we do see a way to help him now.”

“And how is that?” Scott asked them, curious.

“We can help prevent a repeat of what happened last night,” Mrs. Morcombe explained. “I will cook all of his lordship’s meals personally, and pass them directly to Mr. Johnson. He will then deliver them straight into the hands of whoever is sitting with the Earl. In that way, no one will have the opportunity to interfere with his food.”

Scott was taken aback by their offer. Tony was so sure that he had no place in this household. He wished that Tony had heard them himself.

“It’s a wonderful idea,” he said at last. “It’s very kind of both of you to do this.”

“As long as it helps, Mr. Lancer,” Johnson told him. “There are some of us who have been here long enough to remember Mr. Anthony… sorry, his lordship, very fondly. We are very grateful to you and your brother for what you’re doing for him.”

Scott smiled and shook his head. “No, he’s a friend. It’s what you do for a friend.”

*

“You got any ideas ‘bout who put that stuff in your glass, Tony?” Johnny asked.

“No,” he answered quietly.

“Well, I can think of one or two possibilities,” Henry told him, curtly, from the chair beside the bed. “Algie would just love to step into your shoes. Why don’t you send him home?”

“Algie is a guest, Henry. He’s been coming and going all his life. I can’t just send him away. Besides, he wouldn’t do it,” Tony assured him. “I know he wants the title, but he’d be too afraid of being caught. If he thinks it might be bad for him, he won’t do it.”

“You’re saying he wouldn’t have the guts,” Johnny said with a grin.

“I’m saying he’s afraid of his own shadow, Johnny,” Tony answered with a laugh.

“All right, what about Robert?” Scott asked. He’d come in after finishing discussing plans with Mrs. Morcombe and Johnson. He hadn’t mentioned those plans yet. He’d do that later with Johnny and Julia.

“Yes,” Henry agreed. “What about Robert? He definitely sees you as a rival for Arabella’s affections.”

“And yesterday, he couldn’t get back into the house without help and last night I saw him walking with barely a limp!” Scott added.

“I’m not a rival for Arabella,” Tony said firmly. “He has nothing to worry about from me.”

“I’m not sure that he knows that, Tony,” Henry answered. Then he smiled. “I’m not so sure that I know it.”

“I don’t think that he’d use poison,” Johnny pointed out. “More like he’d run a knife through you. Where is he anyway?”

“His mother sent a carriage from their house to collect him,” Henry told them. “He was leaving just as I got here.”

“Well, that’s good news,” Johnny said, smiling.

Tony laughed. “Henry asked if either you or Scott might have done it. I told him you weren’t the poison type either.”

Johnny leaned back against the wall beside the window. He crossed his arms across his chest, smiled and dropped his head. “Nope, not poison.” When he looked up, his eyes were sparkling with mischief. Scott stood next to the fireplace, watching him. He didn’t miss that gleam and grinned, leaving Henry feeling that he was missing something.

“Actually, poison is traditionally thought of as a woman’s weapon,” Henry suggested. “Now, I know we can discount Julia…”

“If you’re thinking Mother might have done it, then no,” Tony said despondently. “She hates me, but she needs me. If I were dead, she wouldn’t be here at Wetherley, with all that power she wants so much. No, she needs me alive and here. That’s what’s tearing her apart.”

Everyone was surprised to hear him put it into words. They’d seen the manifestation of her apparent dislike, but none of them truly believed that it was hatred.

“I’m sure she doesn’t really hate you, Tony,” Henry tried to assure him.

“Oh, she hates the very air I breathe, Henry. She has good reason.”

“What possible reason could she have?” Scott asked angrily.

“Because I killed her favorite son,” Tony said bluntly. “I killed my brother.”

The three men stared at him in shock.  

“Charles?” Henry asked, dumbstruck. “That was an accident, and you weren’t even in the same country. She can’t hold you to blame for that.”

“Not Charles, Bertram,” he explained. “And she’s right. I did kill him.”

Henry frowned at him angrily. “Bertram’s heart gave out when he was sixteen, as I recall. No one killed him.”

Tony leaned back and his head seemed to sink deeper into the pillows. He closed his eyes for a minute and then opened them and explained some more.

“Bertram was born with a bad heart. He wasn’t supposed to do anything strenuous. We both knew it, but there were so many things he wanted to do. He wanted to be like all the other boys. I was always up to something and he wanted to be with me. I should have stopped him. I should have known better. The day he died, he wanted to jump the hedgerows. I tried to say no to him, but he’d seen me doing it and was bound and determined to try it.”

“Bertram could ride better than anyone else I knew.” He looked over at Henry. “Do you remember, Henry?”

“Yes, I remember.”

“Well, he did it. He sailed over those hedgerows with so much grace. It was really something to see.” Tony’s eyes gleamed at the memory. “We went back to the house and he collapsed an hour later. He was dead before he hit the floor. We always knew it could happen. I should have stopped him.”

“Not could, Tony,” Henry corrected him. “Would. And Bertram knew it better than anyone else. It was his decision. Besides, you were younger than Bertram. You were a fourteen year old boy.”

“Sounds more like a couple o’ kids bein’ kids to me,” Johnny informed him. “Not killin’ him.”

Tony sighed heavily. “Maybe not to you, Johnny. But I know what I could have done and should have done. He was just the first of many, anyway. So, what does it matter?”

“What do you mean by that?” Henry asked frowning.

Tony glanced over at Johnny, who simply dropped his head and nodded wordlessly.

Scott didn’t miss it and knew it for what it was – tacit permission to tell him. He took a step forward urgently.

“Now, wait a minute, Tony!” he called out.

“Scott…” Johnny began, but there was no stopping Scott.

“No, this isn’t the time. He’s not thinking straight.”

“Not the time for what?” Henry asked. “Tony, what did you mean? The first of many what?”

“Deaths, Henry…” Tony said firmly. Then he closed his eyes and repeated very quietly, “deaths…”

“Deaths?” Henry repeated disbelieving. “What do you mean?”

Scott sighed in frustration. He looked at Johnny, but his brother wouldn’t meet his eyes. So, he turned to Henry Billingsly.

“Henry, anything that’s said here has to be confidential –totally and completely. That means you can’t tell your sisters, your father – no one. Can you agree to that?”

Johnny grinned and looked over at Scott. “Madre de dios, Scott. Put like that, I’d just have to know everything!”

“And I do! What the devil is all this about?” Henry demanded impatiently.

Scott strode over to Tony’s side, facing Henry. This was not a decision to be taken lightly, and it certainly shouldn’t be taken when Tony was both sick and despondent. What was more, it was Johnny’s secret as well.

“Tony, keep quiet for a minute,” he insisted. “Henry, do you agree to it?”

“Yes, of course I do! Tony and I have been confidantes for years.”

“But not for the last eight years,” Scott reminded him.

Henry stared at Tony. “Tony, what’s all this about?”

Tony seemed to be reconsidering. He glanced again towards Johnny. “Johnny…?”

“Your call, Hawk,” was all he said and shrugged.

Henry leaned forward and put his hand on Tony’s arm. “Tell me, Tony.”

“It’s all right, Scott,” Tony said, at last. “I trust him.” He turned to Henry. “It’s about what I’ve done with my life since I left here, Henry. I’m not asking you to accept it, but I’m trusting you to keep it to yourself.”

“It can’t be that bad.”

“When I left here, I was angry with the world. I had been ever since Bertram’s death. I couldn’t settle down to life with my uncle. New York society bored me. So I left and went west. I’d learnt to handle a gun in the army. I was pretty good as a marksman and I entered some competitions for the prize money.”

“Tony, there’s nothing wrong with earning a living,” Henry assured him.

Tony half smiled and shook his head. “I’m not saying there is. But I went on from that. I got good at it. I got quicker. I started to get a reputation and it was a short step from that to hiring out my gun.” He looked Henry in the eye and said, bluntly, “For the last five years I’ve been a gunfighter, Henry. Tony Hawk was the name I went by. You say that name in some parts of the United States and people will turn and run.”

Henry stared at him. His mouth hung open.

“No,” he finally managed to say. “I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it, Henry,” Tony said with a sigh. He closed his eyes wearily and his breathing seemed strained.

Johnny watched Henry’s face carefully, but all he could read so far was surprise.

“Are you saying you killed people? For money?” he asked, astounded. “Were you an assassin?”

“Not an assassin,” Johnny said, coolly. “But, he killed when he had to.”

Henry leaned back in the chair, pulling his hand away and laying them on his lap. “I can’t believe it,” he said quietly. “You killed people.”

“When someone shoots at you, you shoot back,” Johnny said, his voice growing harsher. “Tony happened to be better than them.”

Scott turned and walked back across the room angrily. He stopped at the fireplace and turned around to glare, first at Tony and then at his brother.

“I can’t believe you two,” he said furiously. “You’re telling him the worst of it and giving him nothing to help him deal with it.”

Johnny dropped his head again and said nothing. He prodded the carpet with one foot restlessly.

Tony, on the other hand, seemed to be weakening quickly. The interview had to end soon so that he could get some rest, but Scott knew that more had to be said or Henry would never understand.

“Why don’t you tell him what it’s really like?” Scott berated him. “Tell him about the way you had to live! Always on the watch for strangers sneaking up behind you. Always wondering if the next man –or kid – to call you out was going to be faster than you. Never trusting anyone, never letting your guard down – even when you sleep. No real friends and no home, not to mention the wounds. Tell him why you didn’t get Julia’s letter earlier, Hawk. Give him some sort of an idea of what your life has been like.”

“It was my choice, Scott,” Tony told him quietly.

Henry stared at Scott for a minute and then turned back to Tony. “Why was it so long before you got that letter?”

“I was laid up with a leg wound. It wasn’t serious, but I couldn’t get around, so I holed up for a couple of months,” Tony explained.

“Holed up?”

“It means he was in hiding,” Scott told him brutally.

“Hiding?”

“That’s right. He couldn’t let anyone know he was wounded because there are some men who would have taken advantage of it and called him out – hurt or not. It’s a dangerous game they were playing.”

“You mentioned ‘called him out’,” Henry said to Scott. “Tony said something like that earlier. He said that Johnny wouldn’t use poison, he’d call him out.”

Johnny didn’t look up, but he lifted an eyebrow with interest.

“And you, Scott, you seem to know an awful lot about it. Are you all gunfighters?”

Johnny’s reaction this time was to laugh lightly. He looked up at last, first looking at Scott and apologizing.

“Sorry, Boston,” he said with an amused smile. “But the idea of you as a gunfighter…”

“I can outshoot you with a rifle any day of the week, little brother.”

“Yeah, I’ll give you that,” he conceded, and then he turned to face Henry. “Yeah, I was a pistolero. I WAS a pistolero. Seems like a lifetime ago, but it was less than two years. I got a chance to get out an’ I took it. Tony’s tryin’ to do the same.”

“Look, Henry, this is a lot to take in at once,” Scott told him sympathetically. “I know because I’ve been in your position.” He sighed heavily. “The difference between us is that I’ve seen what this has been like for Johnny in the last two years. I’ve seen men try to push him into drawing on them for no other reason than wanting to be the man who took down Johnny Madrid.”

“Johnny Madrid?” Henry asked.

“That was the name I went by,” Johnny answered.

Scott took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m not saying that there aren’t gunmen who are pure evil. There are. I’ve seen them too. But I don’t believe these two were like that.”

Henry stood up and walked silently across the room to the window. Johnny was right beside him and watched his face, but he seemed oblivious to everyone else in the room. He stood there, staring out across the grounds of Wetherley.

He reached up and leaned his hands against the casements on either side of the window, still staring out. Dropping his head eventually and sighing deeply, he finally lowered his arms to his side and turned around to face them.

“I can’t take all this in,” he confessed. “I know you were always a little wild, but I never imagined anything like this. I need some time to grasp it all.” He shook his head. “But, I know you… or I did. I know it’s been eight years and you can’t possibly be the same man who left here, but it feels the same, Tony. It’s hard to explain, but when I met you again the other night, it was as if you had never gone away. We’re friends, Tony.”

Tony lay back with his eyes closed. He frowned and rolled his head slightly to the side.

“Thank you, Henry,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

*

Scott crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed. “I think we’ve all lost sight of the original problem,” he said. “Someone put Hemlock in that glass of water last night.”

Johnny stood up straight at last. He ambled over to stand by the bed beside his brother. “You were thinking it might be a woman. Well, there’s one we haven’t talked about.”

“Who’s that?” Henry asked from his place in front of the window.

“Beatrice Hawkesbury.”

“Aunt Beatrice? But, she wasn’t here last night. She didn’t have the opportunity,” Tony said wearily. He was clearly becoming exhausted. The sooner they left him to rest, the better.

“No, but we’ve all been talkin’ ‘bout the answer to that,” Johnny explained. “She could’ve hired someone to do her dirty work.”

“Oh hell!” Tony gasped.

“Would she go that far?” Henry asked, stunned by the idea and fearful of its consequences.

“She challenged my identity as Anthony Hawkesbury, Henry. That was the trouble in the library yesterday. She’s been trying to force Mother and Julia to get out of the house for the past year. She’s the power in that family – not Algie.”

“It’s certainly a possibility,” Scott admitted. “And, if it’s true, it could be just about anybody in this household who put the poison in the glass.”

“Anyone at all, Scott,” Johnny conceded quietly.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Physically and emotionally exhausted, Tony fell into a deep sleep. Johnny stayed with him, having made arrangements for Henry to take over in a few hours.

Henry pulled the door to behind him and stopped outside the room.

Scott watched his face change from the sympathetic, if confused, expression he had worn in the room with Tony, to one of undisguised anger.

Henry turned around and strode down the hall to the top of the staircase. He moved so fast that he took Scott by surprise and he had to hurry to catch up with him.

He was grim faced, the line of his lips pressed hard together. He looked like a man with a mission.

“Henry, where are you going?” Scott called to him, though he was pretty sure he knew where he was headed.

“Tony might think she’s got nothing to do with the poison, but I’m not convinced. I’m going to find out for myself.”

“His mother?”

“I wouldn’t put anything past that woman.”

Scott walked down the stairs with him. “I don’t know. I think Tony’s right. She needs him alive. Killing him would only put her out of the house.”

“If he’s right about how she feels about him, she just might have let her feelings get the better of her,” Henry said angrily. “If what he said is right, it must be driving her mad to have him back here and starting to stretch his wings and take control of his estate.”

They reached the bottom of the steps and turned towards the drawing room. Julia was there, arranging fresh flowers in the vases. There were flowers strewn across the table, all colors and lengths sorted accordingly. Their scent permeated the room.

“Hello, gentlemen,” she said happily, gently pushing a bright blue lupin into place in the vase. “You’ve been an age with Tony. I hope you didn’t tire him too much.”

“I’m afraid we probably did, but he’s sleeping now and Johnny stayed with him,” Scott told her.

“That’s good. I’m glad he has you both here to protect him.”

“Where is your mother, Julia?” Henry asked, a little abruptly.

Julia looked up and across at them. Her face showed surprise, but nothing more. “She’s in the library, doing some paperwork,” she told them.

“Paperwork?” Scott asked.

“Yes, Mother likes to keep an eye on things.” She noticed the angry expression on Henry’s face and put down the flower she had been in the process of picking up. “What is it? What’s wrong?” Her eyes widened in fear. “Is it Anthony? What’s happened?”

“No, no, Tony’s just fine. He’s only tired,” Henry hurried to reassure her. “But I have some questions for your mother.”

He spun around and left them then. Once again, Scott found himself hurrying after him, but, this time, Julia wasn’t far behind him.

The door to the library was open. It was just as well. In his present mood, Henry would probably have simply crashed through it anyway.

Lady Hawkesbury sat at the big desk at the far end of the room. She was wearing a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles on tip of her nose and sat scrutinizing some papers in front of her.

She obviously heard his entry because she looked up and scowled at him.

“Mr. Billingsly,” she said sternly. “I don’t recall hearing a knock on that door.”

Scott and Julia came to a stop just behind him.

Henry was not deterred by her reprimand. He walked, more slowly, into the room until he stood within a couple of feet of the desk.

“You haven’t asked after your son’s health, madam,” Henry said calmly.

She looked over the top of her spectacles and continued to scowl. “Julia, close the door. I have no desire to give the servants more to gossip about. There’s been more than enough already.” She turned her attention to Henry while her daughter obediently closed the door. “That’s hardly your affair, Sir,” she answered testily. “But, if you must know, the doctor assured me of his recovery.”

“Your concern is overwhelming,” Henry told her coldly.

“Henry!” Julia gasped.

“You haven’t even been to see how he is this morning,” Henry continued, ignoring Julia’s outburst.

Lady Hawkesbury put the pen in her hand down on the desk and looked past Henry to where Scott stood slightly behind him. “I was under the impression that Mr. Lancer and his brother had decided my presence wasn’t good for Anthony.”

Scott stepped forward angrily and stood beside Henry. He was about to answer her, but Henry spoke up first. “Are they right, Lady Hawkesbury?” he asked calmly. “Are you a threat to Anthony?”

“Oh no, Henry, that’s going too far,” Julia exclaimed, appalled.

“Indeed, it is,” her mother snapped, removing the spectacles and dropping them onto the desk before rising to her feet. Her black mourning clothes rustled as she moved and enhanced the grim look about the woman. The light through the paned picture window behind her did nothing to alleviate the dark image she purveyed. “You can find your own way out of my house, Mr. Billingsly.”

“It’s your son’s house, Lady Hawkesbury. Everyone seems to keep forgetting that. If he weren’t the Earl; if he hadn’t come back to claim the title; you wouldn’t be here. Feeling as you do about Tony, doesn’t that rankle?”

“What do you mean, feeling as she does?” Julia demanded.

“Tony thinks that his mother hates him,” Scott told her. He turned away from her towards her mother. “I can’t say that I’ve seen anything that leads me to think he’s wrong.”

“But that’s ridiculous! Why would she hate her own son?”

Henry sighed, wishing that Julia wasn’t here. “Tony feels responsible for Bertram’s death,” he explained. “He thinks your mother feels the same way.”

Julia shook her head, dismissing his words. “No,” she said firmly. “Mother, tell them how wrong they are.”

Lady Hawkesbury walked around the desk and picked up one of the miniatures from the shelf over the fireplace. She stared at it for some time. Then she finally turned back to them.

“He killed my boy,” she said emotionlessly. She put the portrait back when she had found it, moving it slightly so that it was just in the right position. “He knows it, and so do I. I shall never forgive him for it.”

“Mother!” Julia shouted in disbelief. “Bertram’s heart gave out. Anthony had nothing to do with it.”

Her mother swung around and turned her hate filled eyes on Julia. “He was forever leading Bertie into his wild escapades. He knew what could happen when he challenged Bertie to jump the hedges that day. He didn’t care.”

“How can you say that?” Julia screamed at her. “Anthony idolized Bertram. He was always trying to talk him out of doing things that might endanger him, but Bertram wouldn’t listen.”

“Bertie thought he had to keep up with Anthony,” the woman continued, her eyes narrowed and her pupils dark with hatred. “And Anthony let him, knowing what it could lead to.”

Julia walked over to stand beside Lady Hawkesbury but she didn’t touch her. “Mother,” she said quietly, her tone pleading. “Please, tell me you’ve never said that to Anthony.”

Lady Hawkesbury’s face hardened. “Of course, we did. Your father felt that the boy should face up to his faults,” she told Julia stonily. “But Anthony couldn’t be taught. He grew wilder and wilder, no matter how often his father reminded him of it. He tried to teach Anthony that such behavior would always lead to repercussions, but he was too willful to understand.”

“Are you telling me,” Henry asked, shocked to hear his fears confirmed. “That you and the Earl not only blamed him for Bertram’s death, but reminded him of it?”

“He should have stopped Bertie from making those jumps,” was all she replied.

Julia stopped and stared at her mother. “How could you have been so cruel? How can you have loved Bertram so much, and not remember him the way he was, Mother?” she said quietly, but forcefully. “The Bertram I remember wasn’t led into anything by anyone. He led the way himself, Mother. He knew what it could cost him, but he wanted to do everything he could in the time he had.”

She reached up to the mantle and took down the same picture. Julia held it lovingly and studied it. Her eyes glistened with tears.

“Bertram knew he wouldn’t grow old. But he couldn’t stand being treated as an invalid, Mother. It only served to remind him of how little time he had. That’s why he was always pushing himself. There was so much he wanted out of life and so little time to experience it all.”

She pushed the miniature into her mother’s hands. “Look at it, Mother. Look at his eyes. That’s ‘life’ in his eyes. That gleam you see there is his love of life.”

Lady Hawkesbury stared again at the picture in her hands. “Yes, he loved life,” she said. “And if Anthony hadn’t let him push himself, he’d still be alive.”

“You don’t know that,” Julia said quietly. “And, if it were true, he wouldn’t be alive, Mother, he’d be ‘existing’. I don’t think you would have wanted that for him.”

The woman glared at her daughter. “I don’t care. I would still have my son. That’s what matters.”

“Your surviving son is upstairs, Lady Hawkesbury. Doesn’t that mean anything?” Scott demanded angrily. “Or does his presence make you so angry that you’d forget about the wealth and the power of your position and try to get rid of him?”

She turned around and faced him malevolently. “I don’t need to kill Anthony,” she told him in a voice so cold that it sent a chill down Scott’s spine. “He’s been dead to me for years.”

“Then you’re wrong, Mother,” Julia persisted. “And may God forgive you, because Bertram never would.”

*

They left her then.

As soon as they were out of the room, Julia began to sob. They took her to the drawing room where Henry led her to a sofa and sat her down. Then he sat down beside her and offered her his handkerchief.

Scott pulled a chair over to face them.

“I can’t believe she’s felt that way all these years,” she cried. “Why didn’t I ever see it?”

“Actually, it sounded to me like your father felt the same way,” Scott told her.

“But why? Everyone knew that he adored Bertram. They were inseparable,” Julia said, her sobbing easing to sniffles. She wiped her eyes, and then her nose, with the handkerchief and took a deep breath. “You remember, don’t you, Henry?”

“Yes, I remember.”

She smiled at an unshared memory. “I idolized him, too,” she confessed. “He was six years older than me. I was just ten when he died, but I remember him so well. I thought he was perfect. He was tall and handsome, and he was terribly clever. He would come up with the best ideas for an adventure.”

She looked at Scott and felt the need to tell him all about her brother. She wanted to talk about him. The memories had lain buried with him for years because she couldn’t speak to her mother and father about it.

“I was told that he had the face of an angel when he was born. Mother adored him. When she found out that his heart was weak and that he was unlikely to live a full life, she was heartbroken. She would have turned him into an invalid if she could have. But he was no invalid. You see, Scott, even though he had a bad heart, he wasn’t sickly, like you’d think. He was athletic and terribly clever. Why, he saved my life when I was six.”

“I don’t recall that,” Henry said, frowning.

“We went down to the river – Anthony, Bertram and myself.” She smiled, embarrassed. “Actually, I followed them and they let me join in. The boys found one of Mr. Peabody’s boats lying, unused, on the bank. Bertram came up with the idea of going to sea – just like Admiral Nelson.”

“And he was Nelson, of course?” Scott asked, grinning. He wished he had memories like that of growing up with Johnny. Johnny’s free-wheeling spirit, and his own love of a challenge, would have created endless opportunities for boyish adventure. 

“Oh, of course,” she laughed. “Anthony was the first mate and I was the cabin boy. Bertram wanted to row the boat, but Anthony insisted on doing it. I think he was afraid it would be too much for him. So, he said that admirals don’t row boats.” She smiled at the memory of her brother’s ploy. “Well, we had only just got out in the water and we knew why the boat wasn’t being used. It leaked so badly that it sank and left us all in the middle of the river.”

Her laughter subsided. “My skirts got heavy and I couldn’t swim very well in the first place, but Bertram grabbed me and got me to shore.”

“We got home wet and filthy and Mother was furious. She sent me upstairs to get cleaned up and dry, and she fussed over Bertram. She saw to it personally that he was cleaned up and put to bed. I remember she was terribly worried he’d get sick.”

“What about Anthony? Where was he in all this?” Henry asked.

“Poor Anthony. Mother was awfully angry and sent him to the library to face Father.” She sighed. “Father took to him with the belt. I was sent to bed with no dinner, and Bertram caught cold.”

The fun had gone out of the story for Scott, but he tried not to show it. “I take it that your brothers didn’t learn from that experience,” he suggested, understanding.

“No, not at all. Those two were always in mischief.”

Henry grinned. “I can vouch for that. I don’t think anyone in the village has ever forgotten the day Bertram climbed the rector’s apple tree.”

Julia giggled. “No, it was one of their more memorable escapades.”

“You should have seen it, Scott,” Henry told him, still grinning. “There was Bertram up in the apple tree in the Rector’s yard, tossing down apples to Anthony and me. We cleared the tree, except for one, and Bertram was determined to get it. Anthony was standing under the tree, trying to get him to come down. He kept telling him that the branch wouldn’t hold him, but his brother wanted that last apple.”

He laughed lightly. “Before we knew it, there was the rector coming out of the church and calling down the wrath of God on us for stealing his apples. People came out of their homes to see what was going on. We ended up with half the village there. We were caught ‘red-handed’ with Bertram still up in the tree.”

“Anthony was right, though,” Julie told them. “That branch gave way and Bertram fell and broke his arm.”

A tear rolled down her left cheek. “Anthony got a belting for that, too.”

Henry was shocked. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. He did everything he could to convince Bertram to get out of the tree before that branch broke.”

“Anthony told me not to say anything, to anyone. We talked about it.” She wiped the tear away. “I knew it hadn’t been his idea. I was very angry with my parents. But, Anthony said that Bertram was miserable enough with his arm broken and he didn’t want to make him feel worse.”

She coughed and choked back a flood of tears that wanted to spew forth. “Oh, dear Heaven. They always blamed Anthony,” she cried. “Why didn’t I ever see it?”

Scott sighed heavily. “My guess would be that Tony hid it as often as he could,” he told her, sympathetically. “And you were just a child. You couldn’t be expected to see what was going on.”

“I’m sure that Bertram didn’t know either,” Henry added.

“Oh no, I’m sure he didn’t,” she answered firmly. “He wouldn’t have allowed it. He feared nothing and he would have stood up to Mother and Father.”

She wiped her eyes again then stared down at the crumpled, damp handkerchief. “You see, he envied Anthony his health,” she told them. “But he never resented him for it. He loved Anthony just as much as Anthony loved him. But, more than anything else, he loved life. He enjoyed every minute he had.”

*

She hadn’t intended to eavesdrop. It was a trait that might be expected of servants, but not from a woman of good breeding.

Lady Hawkesbury had lingered in the library for some time after they’d left. Her eyes kept going back to the miniature portrait of her beloved son, Bertram. She picked it up and held it carefully, staring into the depths of his eyes.

How many times had she stood here and done this? And, every time, she had missed seeing what Julia had pointed out. She had always thought that the artist had caught his likeness well, but she had never really understood exactly how. Now, she did. Julia was right. He had caught that lust for life in his eyes.

Eventually, she had put the picture back on the mantle and walked out of the room. Her first inclination had been to go to the drawing room, but she stopped when she heard Julia crying

She had turned to walk away when she heard the sobbing stop, replaced by a light laugh. It sounded so out of place that she had scowled and turned back to listen.

She remembered the incidents that they talked about. But she recalled them differently. Their laughter irritated her when she recalled how each of those escapades had put Bertram’s life in danger. Then she heard Julia’s version of Anthony’s attempts to stop his brother.

She and her husband had always discounted Bertram’s protests that he had led the way and not Anthony, putting it down to his desire to keep his brother from the punishment he deserved. It had been impossible to think that Bertie would take such unreasonable risks with his life.

But, if what both Julia and Henry Billingsly were saying was true, then she and her husband had misjudged their youngest son.

Years of ‘knowing’ what Anthony was like suddenly trembled, tottered and threatened to fall apart. She told herself that it wasn’t possible, that everything Anthony had done since his brother’s death only served to prove that she had been right about him. There was something in him that had always led him into trouble, and it was his own making.

She turned away from the drawing room and made her way up the staircase to Anthony’s room. It was time to talk to her son.

*

Johnny heard the authoritative knock on the door and walked over to open it. He wasn’t sure who he expected to find there, but it sure wasn’t Lady Hawkesbury.

He stopped dead in his tracks and stood facing her, holding the door open.

“I would like to see my son, Mr. Lancer,” she said firmly. “If he’s awake, of course.”

“Sure,” Johnny answered quickly, and then rethought her request. The only time she had stepped into the room, she had upset Tony so much that Johnny had taken it upon himself to order her out. “I mean, yeah, he’s awake,” he added.

“Then I’d like to see him,” she repeated.

Johnny obviously didn’t answer or move quickly enough to satisfy her. She drew in her breath and lifted her head ominously.

“Mr. Lancer, my intention is neither to murder my son, nor upset him,” she told him awfully. “I’ve already buried two of my sons. I have no desire to lose the last as well. You may leave us alone without fear.”

Johnny looked at her for a moment, then sighed and stepped aside to allow her to pass, but he had no desire to leave her alone with Tony. He stood in the doorway, still holding the door, and glanced over at his friend.

As the morning had worn on, Tony had gotten stronger. But he was still too weak to defend himself against an attack of any kind. And that included the sort of onslaughts that Johnny knew this woman could throw at him.

An assault on his emotions might not kill him, but it could cause a serious setback to his recovery.

Lady Hawkesbury walked over to the side of the bed and turned her head back towards Johnny. Her face gave him no indication of what her feelings might be towards him.

It was Tony, himself, who apparently saw Johnny’s doubts and made it easy for him.

“It’s okay, Johnny,” he said quietly, but firmly. “I’d like to talk to her myself.”

Johnny nodded. It was against his better judgment, but it was what his friend wanted. “All right,” he agreed. “Just holler if you need me. I’ll be just outside.”

“Thanks,” Johnny heard him say, as he walked through the door and pulled it closed behind him. 

Once outside, Johnny’s doubts returned. He’d seen what that woman was capable of more than once since his arrival. He didn’t believe that she was going to murder Tony. If that had been her intention, then she would hardly openly walk up to him and demand entry. She would have been more discreet.

But that didn’t mean that she wasn’t going to stir things up for Tony. He was physically and emotionally vulnerable at the moment. He’d already admitted that he believed she was right and that he was responsible for his brother’s death.

No wonder Tony had been so reticent to come back here. This house must be full of memories for him – and many of them were ugly.

Johnny walked across the hall and turned back to face the door to Tony’s room. He had no desire to eavesdrop. Whatever they had to discuss, it was their business and not his. But he wanted to be handy, just in case Tony did call for him.

He leaned back negligently against the wall and folded his arms across his chest. Lowering his head in thought, he caught sight of his clothes and it occurred to him that he hadn’t felt uncomfortable in them for some time.

Strange, how you could get used to something totally alien to you, in such a short time. He didn’t find himself uneasy in these strange surroundings much any more. The English accent didn’t strike him as different like it first had.

Sure, he still found himself faced with customs and situations that were unfamiliar to him, but he’d learned how to watch others unobtrusively until he figured out what was what. It didn’t bother him all that much now.

He unfolded his arms and pulled the cuff of his left shirtsleeve until it slid down to its full length, then he leaned his head back against the wall again. Closing his eyes, he sighed and wondered what they were talking about in there.

Lady Hawkesbury had not shown much in the way of maternal instincts up to this time, and Johnny didn’t think that they had suddenly crept up on her. 

Folding his arms across his chest again and crossing his legs at his ankles, Johnny glanced at the door in front of him. He didn’t like being out here while Tony was in there with his mother.

After ten minutes of waiting, Johnny was becoming impatient. His arms were no longer crossed in front of him. Instead, they were behind his back. His fingers drummed on the wall, getting faster as his doubts escalated into concern and then to worry.

He had to admit, though, that there had been no shouting from the room. There was no real reason to think that they were having anything more than a quiet conversation. But he was sure that something far heavier was being discussed in there.

He was about ready to knock on the door and interrupt the meeting when the doctor came down the hall.

“Well, how is the Earl this afternoon, Johnny?” he asked amiably.

“Seems pretty good,” Johnny answered. “He’s with his mother.” He nodded his head towards the closed door to Tony’s room.

“I see,” Dr. McGrath said with a sigh. “I suppose we’d better interrupt them then.”

Johnny didn’t have to be asked twice. He walked over to the door, knocked quickly and opened it.

To his surprise, the woman was sitting calmly on the edge of Tony’s bed. She turned around to see Johnny entering the room.

“Sorry, but the doc’s here, ma’am,” Johnny told her.

“Very well,” she said, turning back to her son. She stood up. “I’ll arrange for the estate manager to make himself available to you tomorrow, provided that Dr. McGrath gives you permission to be out of bed.”

“Thank you, Mother,” Tony answered and, unexpectedly, smiled at her.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Johnny waited, less impatiently this time, outside the door to Tony’s room while the doctor checked him over.

Lady Hawkesbury had left the room already and she had gone downstairs to the library, just as haughtily as she had arrived and ignoring him completely. Whatever had happened between her and Anthony, she hadn’t visibly changed her demeanor, nor had she evidently forgotten that Johnny had ordered her out of her son’s room earlier.

Though the time seemed to tick by interminably, it was actually only about ten minutes before the door finally opened and the doctor called him back in.

“How’s he doin’, Doctor?” he asked as he ambled into the room. Tony looked tired and a little pale, but then, he’d had that visit from his mother and Johnny had no idea how that had gone.

“The Earl obviously has a strong constitution,” the doctor answered with a smile. “Most of the symptoms of hemlock poisoning have dissipated, but I’d like him to take it easy for a couple of days, just the same. His body has undergone a severe shock and one should never discount the lasting effects that can have.”

Johnny returned the smile. “Oh, we can see that he rests up,” he assured the man. “Thanks, Doctor,” he added and put his hand out to shake with him.

Taking it and shaking hands, the tall Scotsman grinned. “It’s a pleasure. I’m glad I could help,” he said. “But, I hope I’m not going to have to repeat the exercise.”

“Nope, you can count on that. We’ll keep an eye on him – see that nothin’ happens to him,” Johnny replied as Dr. McGrath packed the last of his instruments into his case and snapped it closed. He left the room, bidding them both goodbye and cautioning Tony once again to take things easy for a while.

Johnny looked over at Tony. “You okay?”

“Sure, you heard him. I can get up tomorrow as long as it’s not for too long.”

Johnny walked over to the chair beside the bed and sat down. He relaxed with his elbows on the armrests and his fingers interlocked in front of him. “Yeah, I heard what the doc had to say, but I’m talking about before that.”

Tony sighed heavily. “You mean Mother’s visit?”

Johnny nodded.

Tony frowned. “Rather a surprising turn of events, that,” he said quietly. “We seem to have made peace with each other.”

“What? Called a truce?” Johnny asked warily.

“No, she was quite awkward about it, but I think she was actually concerned about me. I gathered that it was something Julia had said, although she didn’t tell me exactly what that was. Whatever happened, she wasn’t her usual self. She didn’t exactly come out and say it, but I think she wants to start over. We’ve come to an understanding, anyway.”

Johnny smiled outwardly, but, inwardly, he was cautious of the sudden change in the woman. She didn’t look like the type to throw off all that hate so quickly and he wasn’t sure that he trusted her. Hate – that was what it had looked like to him, anyway. But maybe he’d been wrong about that.

*

When Henry left, Scott, Johnny and Julia took turns to stay quietly in the room with Tony. They let him sleep most of the time. He was exhausted from the ordeal, despite what he thought and told himself. But the next morning found him eager to get out of the bed and ‘do something besides sleep my life away.’

Julia quickly vetoed his plan to have breakfast downstairs. “Mother has arranged for Mr. Cameron to be available to talk to you at nine o’clock. If you want to be fit to spend some time with him, you should stay right where you are until then.”

“Cameron? Is that the estate manager?” he asked.

“Yes, he’s been here for the last five years. He and Charles wanted to modernize a lot of things, but Father always turned them down,” she explained. “Father didn’t like change.”

“I remember,” Tony told her. “I’ll see what the man has to say. I’m afraid I never did know much about the estate and how it was run. I’m going to have a lot to learn.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” she agreed. “And that is all the more reason to stay right where you are until it’s time to meet with him.”

With that, he resolved to stay in bed.

Johnny was there when Tony did finally get up and dressed for his appointment with the estate manager, just in case he was needed. He hadn’t forgotten the way that Tony’s body had shaken when the hemlock had taken effect, and he wanted to make sure that Tony was all right on his feet.

Satisfied that he could manage, Johnny left him in the library with Cameron and made his way out to the stable to work with the horse that everyone feared.

An hour or so later, Scott found his brother in a small fenced off yard at the back of the stable. He was washing the horse down, and he had quite an audience. All of the stable hands, right up to the head groom, were standing around outside of the fence watching him.

Henry Billingsly was there as well, leaning against the fence, his arms resting on the top rail. Scott walked over to join him.

“I didn’t know you were here, Henry,” he said quietly.

“I came to see how Tony was doing,” he answered briefly. He’d barely taken his eyes off Johnny and the horse. “But he’s busy with his estate manager, so I thought I’d come down here and see what all the excitement is.”

The animal was edgy. It repeatedly tried to pull away nervously while Johnny talked quietly to calm it and gently soaped the horse’s coat. As Johnny’s tranquil tone lulled the horse, Henry and the others looked on, intrigued.

“Scott, I’ve seen a lot of men who are good with horses,” Henry said, still watching. “But your brother is fascinating to watch.”

Scott leaned one hand on the fence rail beside Henry and studied Johnny’s handling of Brimstone. “I never get tired of seeing him work a horse like that,” he answered. “Back home, they call him a mustañero. They say it’s a gift – not something you can learn.”

Johnny had reached the stage of rinsing the lather off the horse. The animal skittered sideways once, and then settled as Johnny continued to talk to it while he worked.

Henry dropped his chin onto his arms as they rested on the fence. He looked distracted, even as he watched Johnny.

“You look like a man with something on his mind,” Scott said, considering the faraway look on Henry’s face.

Henry lifted his head and turned to face him. He sighed and stood up straight, turning around to lean back against the fence.

“Yes, I suppose I have,” he admitted.

“Anything I can help with?” Scott asked.

Henry folded his arms across his chest defensively, almost as though he wanted to keep his problem all to himself. But he dropped his head a little and closed his eyes.

“Maybe you can,” he conceded. He was silent for a moment, before continuing. “You know, Scott, I love Tony like a brother. I can’t tell you how much I missed him while he was away. But…”

His hint was no more than Scott had suspected. “But you’re finding it hard to come to terms with what he was doing while he was away?”

Henry nodded.

Scott looked around and considered the people standing around watching Johnny with Brimstone. This was not the place to discuss this subject.

“Let’s go for a walk across the park,” he suggested.

Henry hesitated for only a moment before joining Scott in walking away from the stable yard. They headed across the lawn towards an ornamental lake that lay at the far left of the grounds.

Out in the open, they became confident that they would not be overheard.

“Tony was always wild,” Henry began. “He got worse as he got older. I always thought it was just his nature, though, now, I suspect that it had a lot to do with Bertram’s death. But I could never have suspected that he’d do something like this.”

“Do you understand what ‘this’ is?” Scott asked him.

“He killed people – for money.”

“Yes, he did. But there’s more to it than that. It’s not like he hid in the bushes and murdered anyone. If he was like Johnny, and I gather they worked the same way, he faced his rivals - man to man - and put his own life on the line. Not all gunfighters are assassins,” Scott began, and then stopped.

He didn’t want to defend a way of life that he neither completely understood, nor approved of. He sighed heavily. “I know how hard it is to accept it. I can’t tell you it will get easier either. All I can say is that I came to terms with it eventually.”

“How? How did you do that?” Henry asked desperately.

“I don’t really know the answer to that, but I do know my brother,” Scott told him. “I know him now, anyway. Occasionally, I get glimpses of Madrid, but for the most part, he’s not that man anymore. I accept Johnny for who he is now, and I have to recognize that part of that man is Johnny Madrid.”

“I don’t understand why he did it,” Henry said, shaking his head.

“I can’t answer for Tony,” Scott told him. “Though, from the way he explained it to us at Lancer, I suspect he was looking for excitement, and a little bit naïve.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m not sure that he knew what he was getting into,” Scott explained. “But, believe me, once he was in it, there’s no easy way out. I’ve watched Johnny struggling to do it. A man with a reputation like they had has to watch his back constantly.”

“How did you stand it? Knowing what your brother was doing?” Henry asked. “Was he looking for excitement, too?”

Scott considered what he’d said. “I didn’t know him then,” he answered sadly. “You’ve never asked about Johnny and me. You can’t have missed that we’re not very alike.”

Henry nodded. “No, I had noticed,” he admitted.

Scott appreciated the good manners that had kept the man from expressing his curiosity. “Let me put it briefly, then. Our father married twice. My mother died when I was born and I grew up in Boston. I was raised by my grandfather and didn’t want for anything. I had the benefit of a Harvard education. Johnny didn’t.”

They had reached the edge of the lake and stopped. Scott looked across it, lost in his memories. “Johnny was born at Lancer. Murdoch had married Maria a couple of years after my mother died. But it didn’t work out well. She left Murdoch when Johnny wasn’t much more than a baby and she took him with her. Johnny grew up in some of the roughest towns in the country. She died when he was still a boy, and he was on his own from then on.”

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I don’t know exactly how Johnny became a gunfighter, but I can tell you it wasn’t excitement he was looking for. As for knowing what he was doing? Hell, I didn’t even know he existed. I learned that he was a gunfighter around the same time that I learned I had a brother.”

Henry stood beside him and stared at him. “How long ago was that?”

“Not quite two years ago, when Murdoch traced us both and sent for us.”

There was silence between them for some time. When it was broken, it was by Henry.

“I would never have guessed. You seem so close.”

Scott smiled. “I can’t explain that either.”

“I’m not sure I know what to do,” Henry told him dejectedly.

“What do you want to do? Run away from him? Get out of his life?” Scott asked him.

“No, of course not.”

“Then don’t push it. Don’t try to accept it. Just try to put it out of your head and get to know the man, not his past.” Scott shifted uncomfortably. “But you have an advantage. Tony trusts you. He’s already opened up to you and that’s a big thing.”

Henry looked at him curiously but didn’t say anything, so Scott continued.

“These men don’t trust easily. They couldn’t afford to in their line of work and suspicion becomes second nature to them. Let him talk to you, when he’s ready.”

“And what about you? Have you accepted what your brother used to do?” Henry asked quietly.

Scott thought about it. Had he accepted it? Did he even have to?

He sighed, unable to answer his own questions.

“I don’t have to accept it,” he answered, at last. “I love my brother. He’s one of the finest men I know and I trust him completely. I don’t care what he was – what matters is who he is.”

*

“Take him, Tom,” Johnny insisted, handing the lead rein to him. “He’s just fine if you treat him right.”

Tom took the rein reluctantly. He looked at Brimstone dubiously and then looked back towards Johnny.

“Don’t let him think you’re afraid of him,” Johnny continued firmly, and stepped away to watch.

Tom gave a tentative jerk on the lead. The horse pulled his head back away from it, but went forward to follow him. The young man immediately seemed to lose all of his nervousness and took control of the animal, leaving Johnny smiling with satisfaction.

He walked over to the fence where Tony stood watching, leaning on the top rail of the fence with one foot resting on the bottom rail.

“You look pleased with yourself, Johnny,” Tony said with a grin.

“Yeah,” he answered and glanced back over his shoulder to check on Tom and the horse one more time. “Looks good, don’t he?”

“Yes, I have to agree with you there,” Tony replied. “He was one sorry looking animal when I last saw him.”

Johnny reached the fence and leaned his arms on it. “You can see he’s black, now,” Johnny said with a grin. “’Stead o’ that brown color from dirt.”

“He’s a fine looking horse, all right,” Tony admitted. “I can see what my brother saw in him. He might go well at stud.”

“I reckon you could turn him into a good ridin’ horse, too. He’s got spirit, but that’s not bad in a good mount.”

Johnny looked his friend over and thought he looked tired. He was a little pale.

“How did your meeting go?” he asked Tony, and Tony shook his head.

“I have a lot to learn, Johnny,” he answered, a little despairingly. “I had no idea there was so much involved in running an estate this size. It’s going to take more than one lesson to learn it all, and I’m not sure I can do it even then.”

Johnny nodded and grinned. “If it’s anything like runnin’ Lancer, you’ve got my sympathy. But you’ll get the hang of it.”

He climbed over the fence and dropped neatly to the ground beside his friend. “Let’s go inside,” he suggested. “I need to get cleaned up, an’ you need to get back to bed.”

“No, I’m fine,” Tony replied, shaking his head firmly. Then he grinned. “But, I agree you need to wash up. I’d say you’ve got about half the dirt off of that horse on yourself.”

“Funny,” Johnny said ironically, and then caught sight of Scott coming back to join them, with Henry beside him.

“Hello,” Tony called to them, spotting them at the same time. “I didn’t know you were here, Henry.”

“You were busy when I got here, so I came down to see what was going on here,” Henry told him with a smile.

Johnny shook his head in disgust. “Seems like a whole lot o’ people got real excited ‘bout me washin’ a horse,” he said sarcastically.

“Not any horse, Johnny,” Henry told him. “THAT horse!”

Scott laughed at his brother’s discomfort. He knew that Johnny didn’t see what others did when he worked with a horse like that. As far as he was concerned, he was doing something that was perfectly natural to him.

“Yeah, laugh it up, Boston,” Johnny said good-naturedly. He put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. He didn’t much like the pallor of his friend’s face. “But I think we oughta get Tony, here, back to bed. He looks kinda peeked to me.”

Scott agreed. “You’re only supposed to up for a short while at first, Tony,” he said. “I agree with Johnny. It’s time we got you inside, or the doctor will have our hides.”

“Then we’ll have to sneak him in the back way,” Henry pointed out.

“Why?” Johnny asked quickly.

“Because my sisters have arrived,” Henry answered with a sigh. “Scott and I saw the carriage drive up. I’m sure they’ll be wanting to see how fares the invalid.”

“Well, we mustn’t keep the ladies waiting,” Tony said, grinning. He took a moment to scrutinize Johnny and added, cheerfully, “Although, I do think one of us should.”

Scott nodded and smiled. “Yes, good point,” he agreed, looking his brother up and down. Johnny was wet nearly all over, with smudges of mud where the horse had knocked against him. On his right cheek, one small streak of dirt stood out comically.

“Oh boy, what good friends I have,” Johnny said, laughing.

*

Johnny walked into the drawing room, now cleaned up and in fresh clothes. He found Scott sitting at ease in one of the armchairs, next to Tony. He stopped at the doorway and took in the scene. The Billingsly sisters sat together on a sofa facing them, with their brother, Henry, standing by the fireplace.

Lady Hawkesbury was in another of the armchairs and Algernon sat alone on a sofa beside her.

“Ah, here’s Johnny, now,” Algernon exclaimed heartily. “Do come in and join us. We want to know what your secret is with horses.”

Johnny strolled into the room and took a seat in a chair on the other side of his brother. He passed Tony as he made his way into the room and was surprised how comfortable he looked. He had his legs crossed casually and was leaning his elbow negligently on the arm of the chair, and his chin on his hand. He looked completely at ease – much different from when he first returned to the house.

After acknowledging the polite civilities of the others in the room, Johnny sat back to watch rather than to participate, but Algie seemed determined to draw him into the conversation.

“Come on, Johnny,” Algernon continued. “Do tell us your secret. I’ve heard that you’ve worked wonders with that horse.”

Johnny dropped his head and shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “There’s no secret, Algie,” he finally told him. “Just treat ‘em right an’ you can’t go wrong.”

“Well, you certainly wouldn’t catch me getting close to that horse,” Algie told him firmly.

“Oh, Algie,” Abigail said with a smile. “You don’t go near any horse.”

“Very true,” he admitted happily.

“I seem to remember you being rather a good rider in our younger days, Algie,” Tony pointed out. “Surely that hasn’t changed?”

“The one has nothing to do with the other, my dear Anthony,” Algie protested. “Being able to ride well does not make one like the beasts any better.”

Johnny, who couldn’t conceive of any reason for not liking horses, nevertheless found Algie amusing. He had to admit that the man was right. He’d seen some great riders who mistreated their horses because they just didn’t care for the animals. They saw them simply as a necessity of life.

“I think we should make a point of getting Algie to join us out riding,” Abigail suggested mischievously. “Don’t you think so, Arabella?”

Her sister took up the challenge. “Oh yes, definitely. Perhaps we should all go riding tomorrow. You would join us wouldn’t you, Algie?”

“I’d like to see that myself,” Tony admitted. “Will you join us, Algie?”

Lady Hawkesbury looked appalled. “I hardly think that would be wise. Dr. McGrath advised you to rest for a couple of days, Anthony. I don’t imagine he would approve of you riding. It’s far too strenuous.”

Tony glared at her but she continued, undaunted. “You may look at me as you choose, Anthony,” she persisted. “I’m merely repeating what the doctor told you.”

Arabella looked horrified. “Oh, are we keeping you from your bed, Anthony?” she asked anxiously. “You really should be doing as the doctor ordered.”

“Not at all, Arabella,” Tony assured her. “I’m fine.”

“Well, I have to admit, we really didn’t expect to find you up so soon, Anthony,” Abigail told him. “We only came by because we had been over visiting Mrs. Storey. I don’t know if you remember, but Robert’s mother is an invalid and she took a bad turn when she heard about his fall.”

Lady Hawkesbury snorted. “Elvira Storey took to her bed thirty years ago and hates leaving it,” she said coldly. “She has used it to keep that poor boy of hers tied to her side all this time. If she was really as sick as she lets him, and everyone else, believe, she would have departed this world years ago.”

There followed an awkward silence as the young ladies considered what she had said.

“Perhaps, Mother,” Tony said, calmly relieving the silence. “But not everyone has your excellent health.”

“Well, if you wish to maintain your own health, you should be doing as the doctor told you,” she told him firmly and pointedly.

Johnny grinned. “Your mama’s right, Tony. You oughta be takin’ it easy,” he told his friend, and Scott noisily swallowed a laugh.

Johnny looked at his brother and frowned. “What’s wrong with you?”

“You are, Johnny,” he answered quietly, with a smile. “I wish Sam had heard that remark.”

“I suppose I’m just not used to anyone telling me what to do,” Tony admitted, leaning back in his chair. “I’ve been on my own for a long time.”

“Surely you weren’t alone all those years?” Abigail asked, surprised.

“I did a lot of traveling,” he replied cryptically.

“Just what did you do over there, Anthony?” Algie asked him.

“I traveled, Algie, just as I told you,” Tony answered curtly, but his cousin either didn’t notice the terseness of his reply or was too curious to worry about it.

“Really, Cuz, why so secretive?” Algie persisted. He grinned foolishly. “You didn’t rob banks or something illegal, did you?”

Johnny frowned as he and Scott both watched Tony’s face turn stony hard. He could blow the whole story right now, if he lost his temper.

But, on the other hand, this was a question that was going to keep coming up. Sooner or later, Tony would have to find an answer for them or become an object of mystery, and that was certainly not something he wanted to be.

“No, Algie,” Tony replied impatiently. “I can assure you that I am not wanted by the law in any state.”

“Then why so shy about telling us, Anthony?” Algie continued.

Tony sighed. “If you must know,” he began and Johnny looked sharply at him. He appeared to ignore the looks from his friends though. “I paid my way as a competition shooter.”

Henry looked stunned, while Johnny and Scott breathed out for the first time since the subject had been raised.

“I beg your pardon, Anthony?” Arabella asked. “What do you mean?”

“Marksmanship competitions, my dear,” Tony explained, falling back on what he really had been doing before his life had turned that corner. “I traveled the country competing in shooting competitions. It paid my way, and I saw a lot of the country.”

“Did you win any of them?” Abigail asked, obviously intrigued.

Tony laughed lightly. “If I hadn’t, I could hardly have lived off it, Abigail.”

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Algernon appeared excited about this new turn of events. “How exciting, Tony!” he exclaimed. “Do you mean to say that you made your living that way? How very unusual!”

Tony sighed, but he really had earned a good living in competitions at one time. It wasn’t hard to answer their questions without lying.

“I won enough money often enough to live off of it,” he told them. “And, it’s not so unusual there. There are shooting contests at nearly every fair. Some of them offer very good prize money.”

“Then you must have trophies, Anthony,” Algie said excitedly. “I insist you show them to us.”

“No, I don’t have trophies, Algie,” Tony told him with a smile. “I could hardly have dragged them all around the country on horseback. I competed for cash prizes, or sold the trophies for whatever I could get for them.”

“Oh, what a shame!” cried Arabella. “Do you mean you have nothing to show for all those years?”

Tony reached into a pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a gold coin. He looked at it briefly and then flipped it across to Algernon who caught it, surprisingly deftly. “Only that,” he said, quietly.

Algie turned it over in his fingers and read the engraving. “First prize, Hand gun shoot, July 4th 1866, Springfield, Missouri,” he said aloud.

“It was the first competition I won,” Tony explained. “That medal, and ten dollars, was first prize. I kept it as a good luck piece.”

Algie passed it to Arabella who studied it and passed it on to her sister. “How pretty!” Arabella said happily. “But, what a shame this is all you have to show for it.”

“Well,” Tony agreed. “That and my rifle. The rifle was useful, so I kept that too.”

“I think you should show us how good you are, Anthony,” Algie told him eagerly. “We could set up a target in the back garden and you can give us a display of your marksmanship.”

“No,” Tony told him flatly.

“Oh, come Anthony. It would be fun,” Algie insisted childishly. “Your friends could join you, too. And I’m reckoned to be quite a good shot myself, so I could join in, too. Do say yes.”

“No, Algie,” Tony repeated, his voice heavy with determination. “I’ve left that life behind me and I have no desire to prove myself to you.”

“Oh, won’t you, please Anthony,” Abigail entreated him. “I think it would be exciting.

“No,” he said finally. He stood up from the chair and straightened his coat. “Now, I think I will go back to my room, if you will all excuse me. I’m beginning to feel rather tired.”

*

“I didn’t handle that very well, did I?” Tony asked, sitting on the side of his bed when Johnny, Scott and Henry came into the room.

“I don’t know,” Johnny replied thoughtfully. “You were tired an’ you didn’t have time to think about it. I think you came up with the right story for you.”

“It’s not as if it’s a lie, Tony,” Scott added. “You just didn’t tell them all of it.”

Tony sighed heavily. “I couldn’t tell the whole story to Algie.”

“Lord, no,” Henry exclaimed. “Algie is the worst gossip in the world. And the first person he’d tell is his mother.”

“Who would take great delight in destroying me,” Tony finished for him.

“Yes, she would,” Henry agreed.

“You had to come up with something, Tony,” Scott told him. “Sooner or later, people were always going to want to hear about those eight lost years.”

“I gather you really did enter competitions, Tony?” Henry asked.

“For the first couple of years, yes,” Tony explained. “It really is possible to live on the proceeds – if you’re good enough.”

“And you, Johnny?”

Johnny smiled and his eyes gleamed. “No, I’ve never gone in for that sort of thing.”

“There’s no point in hashing this out now, anyway,” Scott pointed out. “I think we should let Tony get some rest and see what comes of it from here.”

*

"Johnny, get up, quickly. You have to see this,” Tony said quickly, bursting into Johnny’s room.

Johnny lay on the bed, stirring at the noise his friend was making. He opened his eyes drowsily and turned towards the door.

“Dios, Hawk,” he muttered, irritably. “What time is it?”

“I know it’s early, but I couldn’t sleep any longer. I got up and looked out the window…” he stopped and shook his head. “You have to see this.”

“See what?” Johnny demanded crossly. He sat up, threw the covers off and then swung his legs over the side of the bed. His nightshirt had ridden up past his knees, but he ignored it and got to his feet, letting it fall into place of its own accord.

“What’s going on?” Scott asked, hurrying into the room and almost crashing into Tony. He’d stopped only to pull a robe over his nightshirt.

“That’s what I want to know,” Johnny growled.

“Just come over to my room and look out the window. You’ll see what I’m talking about,” Tony replied agitatedly.

Johnny grabbed his robe and pulled it on while he followed Tony and his brother back to Tony’s room. One look out of the window in his room was enough to explain his disturbance.

Out in the grounds, in a field behind the house, someone had set up a practice shooting range. There was a set of five cans lined up on a fence, and a pile of more cans set up beside them.

“Algie?” Scott suggested.

“You can bet on it,” Tony snapped furiously. “And if he thinks I’m going to let him force me into this, after I specifically told him ‘no’ yesterday, he has another think coming.”

“Good morning, Cuz,” Algie greeted him happily, coming in through the open door without knocking. “I thought I heard you moving around and talking in here.”

“Are you responsible for that?” Tony demanded angrily.

“Of course,” Algie admitted, beaming with foolish pride. “Do you like it?”

“Algie, I told you yesterday – I will not…”

“Oh, I know, Anthony,” Algie said, cutting him off before he could finish. “But you don’t need to be embarrassed, you know. And the ladies are so looking forward to it.”

Tony’s face hardened. “You’ve invited Arabella and Abigail?”

“Yes, they are quite excited by the idea. Do be a sport, Cuz,” Algie pleaded, beaming.

Tony sighed heavily and frowned, considering his cousin. “If I were to do this, Algie, you’d have to pay a price. I think riding might suffice. I want to see you on horseback.”

Algie looked aghast. “No, there must be something else, Anthony.”

“Horseback, Anthony,” Tony persisted with a gleam in his eyes that showed he felt he had found a solution to his problem. “Otherwise, you can just go down there right now and have your little playground disassembled and tell everyone to go home.”

Tony was sure that his cousin’s dislike of riding would be enough to make him back down, but Algie had his mind fixed on his plan.

“Oh, very well. I’ll ride with you,” he acquiesced reluctantly.

“Algie, you are the most infuriating man I’ve ever met,” Tony growled at him. “You’ve put me in a terrible position.”

“Nonsense, Anthony,” Algie answered happily. “Now, you and your friends dress and join us for breakfast and then we’ll have some target practice.”

With that, the man turned and left the room, leaving Johnny and Scott with a very upset Earl.

“Did you get the impression that I was just invited to dine in my own home?” he snarled angrily.

Johnny grinned. “Yeah, he does keep forgettin’, don’t he?”

“Guess you’re stuck with this now, Tony,” Scott told him. “Johnny, are you going to join in?”

Johnny just shrugged.

“If I’m stuck with this, Johnny,” Tony said, cooling down just a notch. “Then I think the least you can do is join me.”

*

Scott and Johnny had both reverted, once again, to their normal clothes, as had Tony. Johnny and Tony had both decided that they would not be comfortable shooting in anything else.

Strapping on his gun belt had felt good to Johnny. It was the first time in weeks that he had felt truly at ease. He’d carefully checked his pistol and slid it slowly and deliberately back into the holster. Then he pulled the loop at the bottom of the holster over the closest silver concho on his pants.

He rubbed the worn leather holster and took comfort from the feel of it against his thigh.

But, walking through the enormous manor house, with all of its treasures and elegance, that comfort had evaporated to become a feeling of being distinctly displaced. He felt the servants’ curious eyes on him as he strolled through the hall and out of the door.

Scott had pulled out his own gun belt and strapped it on, but he had made it quite clear that he had no intention of joining in if they got into a competition of speed. At marksmanship, he knew he could stand toe to toe with them, but he was well aware that he wasn’t in the same class where speed was concerned.

Now, standing in the field behind the house, the three of them hovered together, avoiding the attention of the Billingsly sisters and of Julia. Henry had joined his sisters and had freely admitted that he was just as intrigued as they were.

Lady Hawkesbury had declined to join them, much to Tony’s relief. Things were strained enough in that quarter without this display to thrust them back to where they had been at the beginning.

“You see, Anthony,” Algie said excitedly. “I talked to that groom of yours and he described how we should set it up. He said that a target wasn’t appropriate for this sort of a display.”

Tony nodded. “Yes, so I see, Algie,” he said patiently. He had noticed that Tom was standing over near the pile of tin cans and had wondered why he was there.

“Oh good. Shall we get started then? I brought my own pistol, too. I thought it would be fun to join you.” He lifted the case he had at his side and opened it to reveal an elegantly made handgun. It was handsomely engraved and it was expensive, but it looked as though it had been rarely used.

“Very nice,” Johnny said, admiring it.

“Thank you,” Algie replied politely, lifting the gun from its felt lining and weighing it in his hand. He loaded it, a little awkwardly, while the others watched and tried not to smile.

When he was finished, he walked over to the line that had been drawn on the ground, about one hundred yards from the line of cans on the fence. He raised it slowly in his right hand, with his arm out straight in front of him, and took careful aim. He lined up the sights precisely, and then squeezed off a shot.

To his credit, the first can in the line was catapulted into the air with a dull thudding sound and fell to the ground a few feet away, clattering noisily and bouncing twice before rolling to a stop.

There was a gasp from the ladies watching from behind them.

“Oh, it’s so loud!” Arabella said quickly, putting her hands to her ears.

“Yes, but he hit it, Arabella,” Julia added, excitedly.

“Very good, Algie,” Tony remarked, ignoring the ladies comments.

”Thank you, Anthony,” Algie replied, grinning happily and obviously pleased with himself.  “I did warn you.”

“Indeed, you did,” Tony answered, smiling.

“Now, let’s see what you can do,” Algie suggested and indicated the line at his feet. He stepped back to allow his cousin to come forward.

Tony did step up to the line, albeit reluctantly. He had a feeling of being trapped that he didn’t like at all.

He was just about to start when he heard a noise behind him and turned around to see Robert Storey arriving to join the group. He walked over to Arabella and stood with her, doffing his hat courteously and bidding her and her sister a good morning.

Tony frowned. “Hello, Robert,” he said with a sigh. One more to tell the tale.

“Hello, Anthony. I thought I would come see how you fared after that dreadful experience the other night.” He looked Tony over and smiled. “It seems you’ve recovered very well.”

“Very nicely, thank you, Robert,” Tony replied.

“Well, don’t let me interrupt you,” Robert continued. “Go right back to what you were doing. It should be very entertaining.”

Tony turned back to the targets and took a slow, cleansing breath. He slipped the gun from the holster, having decided not to show off his speed at this point. He held it straight out in front of him, in much the same style as his cousin had, lined up the sights and pulled the trigger four times in rapid succession, taking out all of the remaining cans.

They clanged and bounced noisily onto the ground and rolled to a stop. The air was thick with the smell of gunpowder and smoke hung in a cloud around Tony.

There was silence for a minute when the cans had stopped rolling and the gun had stopped its booming. Then the ladies exclaimed as one.

“Well done, Anthony. That was wonderful!” Julia said for them all. “No wonder you were able to win competitions so often.”

“Thank you,” Tony answered quietly. He turned to Johnny. “Your turn.”

Johnny walked over to Tony’s side and stood beside him. “Will you set ‘em up again, Tom?” he called to the boy and waited while he ran out and set five more cans on the fence. He took his kidskin glove from his belt and put it on while he waited.

When the boy was safely back beside his pile of cans, on the sideline, Johnny followed Tony’s lead and pulled his gun from his holster. He checked it over one last time and raised it to waist level. He’d never been one for lining up sights.

Fanning the hammer and pulling the trigger in one fluid action, over and over, all five cans flew into the air, almost at once. They hung there for an instant and then fell to the ground and rolled to a stop.

“Goodness,” Abigail said quietly, and watched him reload and slide the gun back into the holster at his side.

“Scott?” Johnny asked, turning around to his brother.

Scott grinned. “Thank you, brother. But what can I do to compare with that?”

Johnny shrugged. “Come on, have a turn,” he entreated him.

Scott stepped up to join him. “Tom?” he called out to the boy, who didn’t need to be told what to do this time. He ran out and set them up again, then turned and ran back out of the way.

Scott drew and lined up the cans in his sights. He fired five times, not as quickly as his brother or Tony, but with steady precision that took all five cans out as his brother had done before him.

“Good shooting, Boston,” Johnny said, smiling. “Real nice.”

“Thanks,” Scott answered, reloading and putting the gun back into his holster.

“So, who is the fastest of you?” Arabella asked innocently. “Why don’t we have a contest?”

“No, Arabella,” Tony said firmly. “I think this is more than enough.”

“Oh, please, Tony,” Abigail pleaded. “It would be fun to find out.”

“Yes, Cuz,” Algie added. “I think it’s a wonderful idea.”

Only Henry and Robert said nothing. Scott knew that Henry was well aware of Tony’s reasons for not pursuing the idea of a competition, though he looked at though he would like to see it. Robert appeared to be simply stunned by the marksmanship of the three.

“You can count me out,” Scott said firmly and laughed. He stepped back from the line and left Johnny and Tony staring at each other.

“Well?” Johnny asked. He didn’t have as much to lose as Tony did and the decision was up to him.

“All right, we’ve gotten away with this much without them suspecting,” Tony relented.

“I don’t reckon most of ‘em know much about gunfightin’ anyway,” Johnny replied, very quietly.

“I wouldn’t count on it, but I don’t think they suspect anything,” Tony answered and pulled his gun to check it. “Tom!” he shouted and the boy ran out once more.

The two of them lined up, side by side, and settled into their respective positions. Tony flicked the tail of his longer coat over the back of his gun and let his hand fall beside the holster. Johnny dropped his hand likewise.

To the audience around them, the two men looked totally relaxed, but Scott knew better.

“You take the two on your end, and I’ll take the two at my end,” Tony suggested and Johnny merely nodded.

“Scott, you give the word,” Johnny told him calmly, without turning to face him.

“All right, on three,” Scott agreed. He studied them and decided they were both ready. “One, two…three.”

There was a blur of movement that was too fast for any of the spectators to see properly. Each man took out the two cans they were aiming for and then stopped. The air hung heavily with smoke and surprise and the cans clamored to a halt on the ground.

Even to the naked eye, Johnny had been fractionally faster, but the accuracy of both men was astonishing considering that neither had appeared to take aim.

Johnny slipped his gun back into the holster, while Tony spun his twice around his finger before flipping it into his own. It brought a laugh from Johnny.

“Showoff!” he said whimsically.

“Just as well I never went up against you,” Tony answered with a grin. “Although, I have been sick, you know.”

Johnny laughed. “Yeah, an’ I’m outa practice.”

Adrenaline poured through them both and heightened the banter between them.

Johnny turned back to the one remaining can and took a quick shot at it. It flew into the air, and he looked at Tony quickly.

Tony took the hint and drew and fired, hitting it before it reached the ground. Johnny followed with another shot that sent the can higher and to the left, while Tony’s next shot flicked it to the right.

They let it fall to the ground after that and laughed like boys. Johnny walked over to where Tony had left his rifle and picked it up.

“Mind?” he asked quickly.

“Not at all. Go right ahead,” Tony answered lightly.

“Not me,” Johnny said with a laugh. He tossed it to his brother. “Come on, big brother, show him what you can do with that.”

Scott caught the weapon in both hands and looked it over. It was a Winchester ’66, common enough and the same model that he and Johnny both used. But the brass on this one was ornately engraved and etched with swirls, spirals and a cartouche with an elk in the center of it.

“It’s a beautiful weapon,” he remarked appreciatively and weighed it up in his hands.

“I won it in Denver in ’67,” Tony told him. “It pulls a little to the left. I always meant to have that fixed, but I got used to it so I haven’t ever had it done.”

“Tom?” Johnny called to the boy. “Toss a can, high as you can.”

“Sure, Johnny,” the boy called back to him and hurled one of the cans high in the air.

Scott took aim and hit it with his first shot. He’d done it with apparent ease and hadn’t taken his time about aiming.

Johnny laughed and shouted quickly. “Keep it going, Scott!”

He did just that. Four shots, fired off in quick succession, and all of them hit the can, sending it first in one direction and then another until Scott stopped firing and let it drop.

He was smiling. “You’re right, it does pull a little to the left,” he said to Tony and handed it back to him.

“I’m impressed, Scott,” Tony told him. “Where did you learn to use a rifle like that?”

“Cavalry,” Scott answered briefly. He added nothing to it and Tony took it to mean that he didn’t intend to pursue the subject any further.

With the quiet around them, the three men suddenly remembered that they were not alone.

"Well, I think we’ve shown them more than enough,” Scott suggested. “Since we’re dressed for it already, what say we take a short ride?”

“Sounds good to me,” Johnny agreed and turned to Tony. “A nice quiet ride, anyway.”

Tony laughed. “All right, I get it.”

They walked back to where the ladies were standing with Robert and Henry. Tony’s face showed how wary he was of their reaction, but, apparently, he had nothing to worry about.

“Anthony, that was just amazing,” Arabella told him. “I’m not surprised that you made a good living in competitions.”

“Though I thought Johnny was just a little bit faster,” Abigail added with a smile. “Did you win many contests, Johnny?”

Johnny looked down while he considered his answer. He had his hands clasped behind his back and Scott watched him, waiting for his reaction to the question.

When he looked up again, he was grinning and a mischievous sparkle twinkled in his eyes. Scott knew there was nothing to worry about now.

“You might say that, Miss,” he answered evasively. “But Tony an’ me never went up against each other before.”

“Just as well,” Robert remarked, amused.

“Yes, just as well, Anthony,” Algie agreed. “You might not have won then.”

“No,” Tony conceded with an answering gleam in his eyes. “There wouldn’t have been much of a living to be made against Johnny.”

*

Algie disappeared from the group, saying that he had to arrange for the mess to be cleaned up. Tony tended to think that he simply didn’t want to ride with them.

They waited while their horses were saddled. Henry and Robert both had their own horses with them and had decided to join them, but the ladies had adjourned to the house, giggling and whispering about the exhibition they had witnessed.

Henry seemed very quiet, while Robert appeared to have gotten over the shock of their prowess with guns. Tony made up his mind to take Henry aside and talk to him when they had a chance to do it alone.

Meanwhile, the adrenaline rush over, Johnny, Scott and Tony had settled down somewhat. Tony knew that Johnny was right. If he was going to ride, it would have to be short and quiet. He knew that he wasn’t one hundred percent well yet. In fact, he felt a little tired already.

But he wasn’t ready to admit to it.

Cuervo was led out, wearing the American saddle once again, ahead of the two bays that Johnny and Scott had ridden previously.

Johnny mounted gracefully, and without complaining about the saddle this time, while Henry and Robert did the same. Scott waited a moment to readjust his stirrups, but Tony found Cuervo edgy and more difficult to manage than usual.

“Easy, boy,” he crooned to the animal and Cuervo halted and looked at his master. His ears flicked back and then forward again as he nuzzled Tony gently.

“That’s it, Cuervo,” he murmured quietly. “I haven’t been to see you for a couple of days, have I, my friend? Well, I’m back and we’re going out for some well earned exercise.” He patted the horse’s neck and brushed his hand through his mane.

Convinced that his horse had calmed down and was just looking for a good run, Tony lifted his foot into the stirrup and heaved himself into the saddle.

The leather had barely had time to finish creaking in protest to his weight before Tony felt the enormous power of the black under him launch himself into the air.

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Caught unaware, Tony grabbed the pommel and held on for his life.

Cuervo arched his back and lifted himself into the air, twisting viciously to get the weight off his back.

Johnny looked up immediately at the commotion and watched, with horror, Tony hanging onto his saddle and trying desperately to remain in his seat. He was well aware that his friend wasn’t strong enough yet for that kind of effort and hitting the ground could be fatal.

The hard-packed ground at home was enough to kill a man if he hit his head from that sort of fall, but this yard was cobbled with stone and there was virtually no chance of survival if a man fell headfirst onto it.

Scott had turned around, too, and he left off adjusting his stirrups. His first inclination was obviously to try to stop the horse before Tony fell. He took one step towards the big black and stopped as the huge black changed strategy. The horse planted his back legs firmly on the ground and reared high above Scott, pawing at the air and squealing shrilly.

Cuervo’s flailing hooves cut through the air with lethal speed. Contact with even one of them could be deadly.

“Scott, stay back!” Johnny shouted. His own horse was beginning to edge skittishly. The wildly thrashing horse next to it was distressing it to the point where Johnny was finding himself having to concentrate on keeping it under control.

Somehow, Tony found the strength to lean forward and force his horse back to the ground, but the animal reverted to his previous tactics, bucking savagely and twisting in midair to try to force Tony from his back.

Johnny took a firm grip on his reins and, within a minute or so, he had forced the animal to settle down, and then turned his attention back to Tony.

Tony was still holding on, but his face was pale and his body becoming flaccid. He was barely holding onto consciousness, let alone to the horse.

Johnny cautiously eased his own horse closer to the frantically bucking black. Cuervo gave no sign of tiring or surrendering. His eyes were black with rage, his legs stiff and his hooves pointed dangerously. He snorted and screamed with fury and Johnny had to force his horse to get anywhere near him.

He wished that he knew his mount better than he did. In a situation like this, trust was a vital factor. He couldn’t be sure what the horse would do as it got closer to the bucking, screaming animal beside him.

Somewhere, outside of his field of perception, Johnny heard Scott calling out to him to be careful, but he couldn’t listen to it. He had to keep his mind on what he was doing.

At home, he knew just how far he could push Barranca – how far the horse would go for him.

But he didn’t know the horse he was riding. He had no idea how it would react to Cuervo, but he hoped that he would be able to keep a firm hold on him, while, at the same time, trying to get hold of Tony.

But, with a great deal of concentration and a little good luck, he did manage to get him close enough.

With his knees holding him tightly on his own horse, he reached over with his right arm and wrapped it firmly around Tony’s waist. With a mighty heave, he dragged him from Cuervo’s back and slung him across his own horse, laying him in front of him.

Tony was panting hard and barely able to help himself by that stage, and Johnny quickly backed his horse away from Cuervo, one hand holding his friend in position. Falling from there could do almost as much damage as falling from his own horse on those lethal cobble stones.

Without the infuriating weight on his back, Cuervo’s bucking began to ease off. Eventually, he was only kicking his back legs out viciously and throwing his head around, whinnying shrilly.

Scott was able to grab the horse’s reins and he held on grimly until the animal began to calm. He was dragged forward by the sheer force of the black, but held on regardless, pulling down on the reins whenever the horse tried to rear again.

When Cuervo finally submitted, the proud animal was a mere shadow of his former self. He stood, lathered in sweat and with his head down dejectedly, quivering with exhaustion. He was a sad sight to see, but Scott was more concerned about Tony at that point.

“Get Tony inside, Johnny,” Scott called out to him. “I’ll take care of things here.”

Henry was at Johnny’s side by then. He looked Tony over as much as he could from his ungainly position across Johnny’s horse, and didn’t much like what he saw.

“Scott’s right, Johnny,” he agreed. “Let’s get him inside and up to his room.”

He turned to the head groom, who was standing back near the door to the stable where he had been well away from Cuervo’s flying hooves.

“You there,” Henry shouted to the man. “Go to the village and bring Dr. McGrath as quickly as you can.”

“Take my horse,” Scott called out to him.

The groom hesitated for just a moment, but then looked at the new Earl lying across his young friend’s horse and he ran over to Scott’s horse, mounted and rode off towards the village.

Johnny concentrated on holding his mount still while Henry and Robert pulled Tony down and lowered him to the ground as gently as they could. They laid him flat on his back and knelt beside him to check him over. They found him still barely conscious, but he was badly shaken, pale and sweating. He was panting heavily and his pulse was racing.

Henry loosened Tony’s tie and unbuttoned his shirt, while Johnny dropped lithely down from his horse and joined them.

“How is he?” Johnny asked anxiously as he leaned over them.

“Not well, but I don’t think he’s hurt,” Henry answered with a shake of his head. “Robert, can you help me get him to his feet? We’ll help him inside and get him up to his bed. Johnny, can you go ahead and tell them what’s happened? Meet us in his room.”

“Sure,” he answered quickly and stood up to leave, but he stopped when he heard his name called weakly by Tony.

“Johnny,” Tony called, though so frail that it was more like a murmur.

“Take it easy, Tony,” Johnny said soothingly, kneeling down beside him and putting his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We’ll get you inside an’ you can rest up.”

“Cuervo?” Tony whispered. He wasn’t strong enough to ask the question, but the concern on his face was obvious.

“He’s okay,” Johnny assured him. “Scott’s lookin’ after him. Don’t worry about him.”

Tony took a moment to catch his breath. “Something…there must be something wrong with him.”

“Yeah, I know, Tony. But don’t try to talk any more,” Johnny told him firmly. “We’ll find out what’s wrong with Cuervo an’ we’ll fix it. Just relax and rest.”

He looked across as Henry. “Get him into the house. I’ll catch up in a minute.”

Henry nodded. He and Robert helped Tony to his feet, but he was too weak to walk. They got on either side and supported him to assist him out of the stable yard and into the house.

Johnny watched them go, knowing that he would soon catch up to them, they were moving so slowly. Then he turned back and walked over to where Scott stood, gently calming the black horse. Cuervo was as exhausted as his master and looked miserable.

It wasn’t like him. Tony was right. There had to be something wrong for him to behave that way. There had to be a legitimate reason for his reaction to Tony.

“Scott…” he began, but his brother cut him off.

“You go on into the house. I’ll look after Cuervo,” Scott told him firmly.

“There has to be a reason for this,” Johnny answered angrily. “Tony could have been killed.”

“I know,” Scott agreed. “And I don’t like it one little bit.”

“Check that horse over an’ see if you can find anything. I’ve got a bad feeling about it.”

Scott gently ran his hand down Cuervo’s nose, determined to keep the animal calm. “Neither do I,” he answered without looking at his brother. “I intend to find out what happened – and why.”

*

Scott watched them take Tony into the house. He was satisfied that his brother would see that he was taken good care of and he had stayed with the horse for good reason.

He’d seen horses behave like that before, and there was always some way to explain it.

By nature, Cuervo was a horse with spirit. He was powerfully built and capable of speed and agility. But, for all that, he was not an unmanageable animal. Something had happened to push him to that sort of violence.

And Scott suspected that he had already guessed what that reason was.

Grooms appeared to take control of the horses in the stable yard, but none of them came near Cuervo. The big black had earned himself a reputation that would rival that of Brimstone.

Scott wasn’t worried about that. He wanted to unsaddle him himself and check him over properly.

Suddenly, Scott heard the sound of running footsteps. He looked over his shoulder to see who was coming and spied Tom, Tony’s young groom, arriving in the stable yard at full speed.

The boy pulled himself to a sudden stop when he laid eyes on Cuervo. “Damn, what happened?” he called out breathlessly. There was anger in his voice as he took stock of the horse’s condition. “Scott, what’s goin’ on? I heard the ruckus all the way out in that field.”

“Cuervo tried to throw Tony,” Scott explained briefly.

The young man frowned in consternation. “That don’t sound right. He wouldn’t do that.”

“Well, he did. They’ve taken Tony inside.”

“Is Mr. Hawkesbury…I mean, His Lordship…is he okay?”

“He’s badly shaken,” Scott told him, seriously. “They’ve taken him into the house and we’ve sent for the doctor, but he wasn’t thrown so he should be all right after he rests up.”

Tom caught his breath and forced himself to relax, then he quietly walked over to the horse and reached out to run his hand gently down the animal’s neck. Cuervo flinched at his touch but didn’t pull away. The state of the horse was heart breaking, and the boy’s face showed how much he cared.

“Let’s take Cuervo inside to his stall and unsaddle him. There must be something wrong to make him behave like that,” Scott suggested.

Tom only nodded sadly and walked beside him as he led the horse into the stable.

The other grooms were mostly busy with unsaddling the other horses, but they still looked up and watched the unhappy trio as they passed.

Tom unbuckled the cinch strap and lifted the saddle from the horse’s back. Cuervo recoiled badly and shifted away from the movement with a whinny that echoed around the stable.

Scott saw and heard it and he knew something was definitely wrong. He’d seen a horse in pain before and he was sure that that was the problem. He was worried about what they’d find once the saddle was off.

“Give me the saddle, Tom,” he said and accepted it from the boy. He slung it over the side of the stall and began to run his hand slowly underneath it while Tom continued to remove the bridle and then the saddle blanket.

Tom swore angrily and Scott quickly turned around to see why. At that very moment, he felt a sharp prick on his thumb and jerked his hand away. He realized immediately that he had found what he had expected to find under the saddle.

He put his hand back and pulled the offending item free, very cautiously. Then he turned to Tom, who was painstakingly inspecting a thin trickle of blood running from a tiny wound in Cuervo’s back.

“Look at this, Scott,” Tom demanded, indicating a tiny wound where the blood originated. “Something sure hurt him.”

“Yes,” Scott agreed and held his hand out to show him what he had found. “I’d say this was what did the damage.”

In the palm of Scott’s hand was a small piece of twig, about an inch long. There were tiny, vicious-looking thorns protruding from all sides. It was so sharp that Scott found it hard to get a hold of it without getting pierced by the thorns.

“Ain’t they rose thorns?” Tom exclaimed and Scott nodded. “Who the hell would do that to an animal? Damned lousy joke, if you ask me!”

“That’s something I fully intend to find out,” Scott answered coldly. “Did you saddle Cuervo yourself?”

Tom was horrified that Scott thought he could do such a thing to any animal, let alone one that he had come to love as his own.

“No!” he insisted. “I mean, I usually would, but today I was out in that field with you fellas. That Mr. Algernon Hawkesbury fella wanted me to ‘help’ him clean up. More like he wanted to watch me doin’ it all by myself while he just stood an’ pointed out the cans.”

“So, who would have saddled him instead?”

Tom frowned. “Not real sure. Most o’ the fellas don’t know much about the saddle, but it don’t take a genius to figure it out. All of ‘em reckon it’s too heavy.” He considered the question for a moment. “Coulda been Harry Morphett. He’s the head groom. He can handle it pretty good. Not sure the others would know how to even cinch it.” He finished with a snort of disgust, apparently at their attitude towards a saddle that he considered perfectly normal.

“He’s the man we sent for the doctor, so I’ll have to ask him when he gets back,” Scott decided. He looked around the stable and realized just how many men were there. “Do all these men have access to this saddle?”

Tom had a clean rag and some water and was wiping the blood away from the wound very carefully. He looked up and seemed surprised. “Well, yeah, I guess so. It ain’t locked up special or anythin’. It’s in the tack room with all the other stuff. Reckon anyone here, or anyone who comes in here, could get at it.”

He scowled heavily at the ideas that were occurring to him. “Scott, what’s goin’ on? Do you reckon this wasn’t no joke?”

Scott sighed. “No, I don’t think it was a joke, Tom,” he told him solemnly.

“His Lordship’s been sick,” Tom continued, cautiously. “I heard that much. Was there somethin’ more to that, too?”

“Let’s just say that I’d like you to keep a close eye on both Cuervo and his tack. I don’t want anyone but you near either of them,” Scott told him firmly. “Is there somewhere you can keep it locked away?”

“Not real sure,” Tom replied. “I can ask Harry when he gets back.”

“Good, do that, and make sure that no one can get near it.”

“Sure thing, Scott,” Tom answered eagerly.

“Tom, what do you think of the head groom?”

The young man looked uncomfortable for a moment and then replied, candidly.

“Harry? Oh, he’s a mite full of himself – if you know what I mean,” he told Scott impishly. “Knows he’s the boss in here and likes to let people know it. But, if you’re thinkin’ that maybe he put them thorns under the saddle, I don’t reckon so. He has a real love o’ horses. Sees to it that all these horses in here are tucked in right an’ tight, well fed an’ groomed an’ all. He don’t let no one slacken off with ‘em an’ he checks the stable every night. No, I don’t think he’d do it.”

Scott nodded. He trusted Tom’s judgment of the man. “Well, let him know that I’d like to talk to him when he comes back.”

“And don’t tell him what we found,” Scott added quickly. “I want to see his face when I show this to him.”

“Sure, Scott,” Tom agreed easily.

Scott watched Tom grooming the horse lovingly. He seemed to be taking special care of the animal and admired the devotion the boy had towards him.

“What about the rest of the men working in here? Has any one of them shown a lot of interest in that saddle lately?”

Tom snorted. “They all have,” he said dismayed. “None of ‘em have ever seen one like it before.” He brushed Cuervo tenderly. “You’ve seen them little English saddles. That’s what they’re used to here. His Lordship’s saddle is a bit of a curiosity to them.”

For the first time since the incident out in the stable yard, Scott smiled at the boy’s disgust.

“Do you trust them?” he asked.

“No, Sir,” Tom answered, without hesitation. “There’s one or two here that I reckon would rob me blind if I gave ‘em half a chance.”

“What about Cuervo, then? Has anyone shown a lot of attention to him?”

“Yeah, there’s one fella. His name’s Frank. He told me he thinks Cuervo’s the finest animal he ever laid eyes on an’ I caught him givin’ him a piece of apple one time.” He stopped and thought it over. “I don’t think Frank’d hurt Cuervo.”

Scott sighed heavily. This didn’t seem to be getting them anywhere.

“Tom, have you seen anyone in here today who shouldn’t be here?” he asked in desperation.

Tom stopped what he was doing and turned around to face Scott. His face was thoughtful and he moved the hand holding the brush just enough to indicate that he was considering the question carefully.

“Well,” he said, at last. “There coulda been, Scott, but I ain’t been in here all the time. I been out yonder with that Mr. Algernon Hawkesbury. Then again, there’s plenty o’ grooms workin’ here an’ I don’t know all of ‘em yet. I reckon someone could come in an’ I might not even know that he shouldn’t be here.”

“Was Algie out there with you all the time?” Scott asked, trying to sound unconcerned.

“Him an’ me set up that target range real early this mornin’,” Tom told him. “Then he went inside, an’ I came back here for a while. He came back later with you fellas an’ we all went out to the field. When you boys came in here to get the horses, he stayed back there with me to ‘clean up’.”

Scott tucked the tiny piece of rose branch into the pocket of his coat and decided there was nothing more he was going to find out here. And he wanted to see how Tony was doing.

“All right, Tom,” he said quietly. “You take care of Cuervo and keep a close eye on that saddle from now on. I’m going inside to see how Tony is.”

“You can count on me,” Tom assured him. “An’ Scott…” He stopped and shifted awkwardly. “I ain’t as good at shootin’ as you an’ Johnny an’ Mr…Lord Hawkesbury. You fellas sure can shoot! But, if you find the fella that did this to Cuervo an’ His Lordship, you just let me at him. I’ll kill him with my bare hands.”

*

Johnny went ahead of Robert and Henry, while Tony was supported between them. Tony was beyond exhausted. He could barely put one foot in front of the other and it was up to his friends to get him inside.

They got into the house and furor erupted. From the drawing room, Arabella caught sight of the men going past the open door. She gasped Tony’s name aloud and jumped to her feet.

As she hurried to the doorway, Abigail tried to stop her, calling out to her and running to catch her.

By the time the two young women reached the hallway, Henry and Robert were at the bottom of the staircase. Tony dragged one foot up to the step and let his friends help him the rest of the way. His head hung down with his chin on his neck and he was pale and sweating.

Johnny had stopped at the bottom of the staircase. He heard the noise behind them and looked back. The ladies were all spilling out of the drawing room with anxious expressions on their faces. They would want an explanation.

“Get him upstairs to bed,” he whispered to Henry. “I’ll take care of the ladies.”

“Okay, Johnny,” Henry answered, pulling Tony’s arm over his shoulder to add a little more support. They continued to help him up the stairs, leaving Johnny in their wake to face the turmoil below.

Arabella tried to hurry past Johnny, but he put out his arm, caught her and stopped her. She turned her face to his, anguish written all over it, and his heart went out to her.

"What’s happened, Johnny? What’s wrong with Anthony?” she demanded emotionally.

“Why don’t you come with me an’ I’ll tell you everything?” Johnny suggested sympathetically. He put his arm around the distraught woman’s shoulders and turned her back towards the drawing room. “He’s not hurt. Least, I don’t think he is.”

Arabella let herself be escorted back to the drawing room and Johnny handed her over to her sister who led her to a chair and sat her down.

Lady Hawkesbury was standing in the doorway to the drawing room and watched the Billingsly sisters, and Julia, go past her. As Johnny followed them, she put her hand on his arm lightly and stopped him.

Surprised, Johnny turned to see concern written on her face. He’d been prepared for it from the other women, but not from her.

“Is he all right?” she asked, very quietly. “Should I go up to him?”

“No, ma’am, let them get him to bed,” Johnny answered, not unkindly, and led her into the room.

He found Arabella looking anxiously at him, with Abigail and Julia on either side of her, talking to her and trying to reassure her. Her face was ashen and there were tears in her eyes.

He waited for Lady Hawkesbury to take a seat and then walked over to face the small circle of women.

Johnny could feel their eyes boring into him, their questions hanging in the air, still unasked. He dropped his head and stared at his toes. He locked his hands behind him nervously.

“Stand up, boy, and tell us what has happened,” Lady Hawkesbury said firmly.

He looked up and caught her eyes – and he smiled a little at her. There weren’t many people who would talk to him like that and get away with it.

“Tony’s horse tried to throw him,” he began. “I don’t know why yet. It sure isn’t like him. But we got him off the horse before he got tossed, so I don’t think he’s hurt. But, he wasn’t real well before this an’ he was hangin’ on for all he was worth. By the time we got him down, he was just plain exhausted.”

He shifted his feet and looked at Tony’s mother. “We’ve sent someone to town for the doctor, just to be sure, but don’t go worryin’ till after we hear what he has to say.”

“Then, he is all right?” Arabella asked nervously. “He didn’t look…”

“The doctor should be here soon, ma’am. He’s the best one to tell us that,” Johnny told her gently.

Lady Hawkesbury drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Quite right, Johnny,” she said stiffly. “We should wait to hear what he has to say, girls.”

“I’d like to see him,” Arabella told him. “I might be able to help.”

Johnny shook his head. “No, ma’am. He doesn’t need a lot o’ folks crowding him right now,” Johnny answered.

The young woman nodded unhappily and Lady Hawkesbury agreed. “We’ll wait here for word from the doctor,” she said. Then her eyes met Johnny’s and she added, very quietly, “Thank you, Johnny.”

He nodded, surprised. “De nada, ma’am,” he said quietly, and then realized she had no idea what he had said. “It’s nothing,” he added, then left to see how Tony was faring.

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Scott walked to the door of the drawing room. He had the guilty piece of rose bush tucked into his shirt pocket and felt that he had to speak to Tony’s mother about it.

He’d already been upstairs and checked with Johnny and Henry about Tony’s condition. He’d talk to them later about what he had found. There was no point in trying to talk to Tony at this point. He was conscious, but not really aware of what was going on around him. He was in no state to make decisions.

Scott knocked at the door to catch Her Ladyship’s attention and, when she turned towards him, he asked politely, “Could I have a word with you in private, Lady Hawkesbury?”

She got to her feet and walked steadfastly over to join him. “Certainly, come to the library, Scott,” she said as she swept past him.

He turned around and followed her to the other room.

“What is it, Scott?” she asked, a little more anxiously than he had expected. “Is my son worse?”

“No, ma’am,” he answered, without hesitation. “This is about what happened out there.”

“I thought his horse tried to throw him?”

Scott nodded. “Yes, but I’m concerned with why the horse did it. I believe it was another attempt on his life.”

She scowled heavily. “Why?”

He pulled the thorny twig from his pocket and showed it to her. “This was under Cuervo’s saddle. Any horse will buck with something like that sticking into him.”

She took it gingerly from his upturned hand, turned it around and looked at it.

“You found this yourself?” she asked.

“Yes, it was under the saddle when we took it off him.”

“It’s cruel to the animal,” she said angrily. “As well as dangerous to the rider.”

“More than just dangerous, in Tony’s weakened condition,” he told her. “If Johnny hadn’t pulled him off that horse, a fall on those cobblestones would probably havebeen fatal.”

She sat down in the big leather chair behind the desk. “I take it you have some suggestion, Scott?”

“Ma’am, we have to find out who’s behind it,” he told her grimly. “I’d like your permission to talk to some of the men in the stables. Perhaps one of them saw someone interfering with the saddle.”

“Have you talked to the man who saddled the horse?” 

“No, ma’am,” Scott replied. “He’s the same man who has gone for the doctor. Besides which, I thought it best to talk to you first. I want your okay to ask around.”

“Suspicion would be raised,” she said haughtily. “I have no desire to become a subject of idle gossip, and I suspect that my son will feel the same way.”

Scott shook his head angrily. He strode over to the desk and leaned over it, facing her harshly.

“What’s more important, Lady Hawkesbury? That people might find out that someone is trying to kill your son – or that someone actually does kill him? We can’t protect him every minute of the day. We have no idea where the next threat will come from.”

She said nothing, so he continued. “Whoever is behind this is being clever,” he told her. “Both attacks have been totally unexpected. If they keep it up, one of these times, we won’t be able to prevent Tony being killed.”

She sighed heavily and handed back the piece of rose to him. “Yes, I take your point,” she said at last. She looked down at her hands and began twisting a huge square cut emerald ring that dominated her right hand.

Suddenly, she stood up and walked over to the fireplace, her eyes straying to the collection of miniatures on the mantle.

Scott stood up straight and watched her cross the room. She had her back to him, so he couldn’t see her face, but her voice was less stringent when she finally spoke again.

“From what I gather, I have been a very foolish woman for more than half of my life,” she told him, without turning around. “I blamed Anthony when I should have thanked him instead. It ruined his life and mine.”

She turned around slowly and faced Scott. “But I have never wanted Anthony dead.”

Scott stared at her silently. Johnny had told him that Tony and his mother had apparently come to some sort of understanding, but he hadn’t trusted it any more than Johnny had. He had a lot he would have liked to ask her, like why she had been content to accept his disappearance for eight years, but he decided that this wasn’t the time. He needed her agreement to his questioning the men.

“Very well, I will ask you to try to be discreet, Scott,” she continued. “But you have my permission to talk to the staff, at least until Anthony vetoes it, which he might do once he is aware of the situation.”

“Thank you, Lady Hawkesbury,” Scott said quietly. “I’ll do my best to be circumspect.”

Unexpectedly, she smiled at him. “I’m still not a complete fool, Scott,” she told him, eyeing him knowingly. “From what I have already seen of you and your brother, I suspect you’re only asking my permission as a matter of courtesy. You would have gone ahead, anyway. Am I right?”

“Very likely, Lady Hawkesbury,” Scott answered with a grin. “We Lancers are a stubborn bunch.”

*

The doctor found nothing to cause serious alarm, but he ordered that Tony stay in bed for the rest of the day and for the next. He wasn’t injured but he’d had a severe shock and his body needed some time to recover. 

Robert Storey had left straight after the news. His face was stolid and Scott was sure that something was biting at him when he had stormed past. Henry had stayed on with Johnny, both of them sitting quietly in the room with Tony, who was sleeping peacefully.

They had set their earlier routine back in motion to make sure that Tony wasn’t left alone at any time. They had no way of knowing what form the next attempt would take, but Scott, for one, was totally convinced that there would be another one.

But Scott had something else to do. Now that the head groom had come back, it was time to have a word with him and find out if he could shed any light on the incident. He’d have to tread carefully with the man. For all Scott knew, it could well have been Morphett himself who had set the vicious attack in motion.

He slipped out of the house and made his way back to the stables where he found the man grooming the horse he had ridden into the village earlier.

Harry Morphett was a small man, only an inch or so over five feet tall and thin of build. He was small enough and wiry enough to have made a good jockey, and Scott suspected that he had been just that at some stage. Now, with his hair graying and a slight limp in his left leg, he was past the flush of youth that such a profession required.

Scott stopped beside him and interrupted his work to speak to him.

“Harry Morphett?” he asked, sure that he had the right man.

“That’s right, sir,” the man replied, turning around to answer him. The curry comb was still in his hand and he looked surprised at the interruption.

“My name is Scott Lancer,” Scott told him. “I’m a friend of the Earl.”

“Aye sir, I know that. All the way from America, I heard,” the man answered, nodding.

“That’s right. I wonder if I could ask you a question or two about this morning?”

The little man looked and sounded surprised. “Surely, sir. What is it you wanted to know?”

“I’m trying to find out who saddled Cuervo today.”

“That’d be me, Mr. Lancer,” Morphett admitted unhesitatingly, but with a look of concern in his eyes.

“Did you notice anything unusual?”

“Unusual?” he asked, his curiosity piqued. “No, can’t say as I did. The horse was a little edgy, I reckon, but he’s not used to me saddling ‘im. It’s usually young Tom as does that.”

“Did you check the saddle before you put it on him?”

“I checked all the leather, same as I always do,” the man replied, defensively. “I wouldn’t put a worn saddle on His Lordship’s horse, no matter how much he likes it.”

Scott smiled reassuringly. He was amused by the man’s accent. Morphett spoke with an exaggerated mimicry of his employers’ manners and way of speaking, but, every now and then, the accent slipped and his own natural cadences flowed out instead.

It wasn’t a new thing to Scott. He’d seen some of his grandfather’s servants do the same thing and he had been just as amused then.

“No, I’m sure you wouldn’t,” Scott told him. “I didn’t mean to imply any such thing, Mr. Morphett. But what about under the saddle, did you check there?””

Morphett put the curry comb on a barrel that stood near the doorway and stood up straight, getting every inch of his height that he could.

“If ye’ve something to say, Sir, I’d appreciate your saying it and not beating around the bush,” he demanded proudly.

Scott took the thorns from his pocket and showed the twig to the man. He held it out in the open palm of his hand. “This was under the saddle.”

Harry Morphett picked up the little twig between his fingers. Even doing it carefully, he still winced as he pricked one of his fingers. When he got a safe grip on it, he turned it around to inspect it carefully.

“Bloody hell!” the man exclaimed. “That’s criminal, that is!”

He looked up at Scott. “I can’t say as I take it kindly that you’d think I could do such a thing,” he added, his accent forgotten in his disgust. “But I can understand why you’re testy. ‘Tis purely evil, it is.”

His reaction substantiated what Tom had told Scott about him. Apparently, the man really cared about the horses in his charge and he wasn’t likely to be the one responsible.

Just the same, Scott wouldn’t discount him completely. He’d had plenty of opportunity to do it, but he didn’t seem to have a reason to have done it and plenty of reason not to have.

“All right,” Scott said hesitantly. “In that case it must have been under the saddle when you put it on Cuervo. It would explain why the horse was edgy when you were saddling him. Can you think of any way it could have gotten there by accident?”

Again, Morphett looked offended. He puffed out his chest and looked Scott in the eye. “Mr. Lancer, sir, I can assure you that something like that could not get into my stable by accident.” He looked at the twig again. “’Sides, look at it. That piece of branch has been cut, not broken off by someone’s coat or trousers catching it. Nothing like that has ever happened in my stable. I wouldn’t tolerate it”

He looked around him. “What about the rest of the men who work here? Can you vouch for all of them?”

“Gawd, no,” he growled. “Good help is hard to find, but I try to pick only men I can trust to do their job, sir. An’ I run a tight ship, Mr. Lancer. Anyone caught stealing or slacking off, he’s out.”

He stopped talking for a minute and then continued. “But I don’t know of any man here what would be so cruel to a horse, or would risk His Lordship’s life like that. We don’t know him much, yet, but he seems a decent sort. Treats us all real good, he does.”

“What about strangers then? Has there been anyone around the stable who shouldn’t have been here?”

Morphett thought hard about the question. “Can’t say there has, but we get people through here all the time. The Billingsly ladies came in yesterday to have a look at Brimstone. Didn’t think much of the idea, myself. I still reckon as that horse is dangerous.”

He sighed heavily. “We ain’t never ‘ad no reason to worry about security, Mr. Lancer. Nothin’ like this ‘as ever happened before.”

“I understand,” Scott assured him. “Who else has been in here who wouldn’t usually be here?”

“Well,” Morphett said, considering carefully. “There was that friend of His Lordship’s – that Storey fellow. He come in this mornin’ an’ asked me to look after his horse while he was here. But that’s not so very strange. He’s been doin’ that for years, him bein’ a friend of Mr. Charles an’ all.”

Once again, Scott found himself frustrated that no one had noticed anything out of the ordinary.

“All right,” he answered, conceding defeat for the time being. “I’ve told Tom that I want him to look after Cuervo and his tack exclusively. Is there somewhere that saddle can be locked away?”

Morphett nodded. “There’s a locker in the tack room,” he replied. “It’s not used much, but it has a lock. I’ll find the key and give it over to the boy.”

“Thank you,” Scott said grateful for the man’s cooperation.

Morphett handed the rose thorns back to Scott, then walked over to where he had left the curry comb and he picked it up. As he walked back to Scott, he asked tentatively, “Is His Lordship all right, sir?”

“Yes,” Scott answered calmly. “He wasn’t hurt, just exhausted.”

“I’m right pleased to hear it,” he replied, nodding. “I have to tell you, sir, I didn’t give him much chance. I’ve never seen such horsemanship as your brother had, getting that mount of his close enough to pull His Lordship off Cuervo. I wouldn’t have believed it was possible, if me eyes hadn’t seen it for themselves.”

“Thank you, Harry,” Scott answered, pleased to hear his appreciation for Johnny’s efforts. “I doubt that Johnny thinks much of it, but I have to agree with you. My brother does things that surprise us all sometimes.”

The groom seemed uncomfortable, and Scott sensed that he had more to say. He gave him a minute to get it out.

“Mr. Lancer, there’s been some whispers come from the house, you know?” he said, at last. “I know His Lordship hasn’t been … well … for a couple of days.”

Scott had the impression that Morphett had heard about the poison attempt. It wouldn’t surprise him. The word had probably spread through the staff in the house long before Lady Hawkesbury had insisted that nothing be said.

He recalled that the kitchen staff had always been a reliable source of information in his grandfather’s house. There are no secrets in a house that size.

“None of us knows His Lordship very well, yet,” he continued. “But, well, he seems a good sort. He’s got a good eye for horseflesh, too. I always say that a man who treats his animal right can’t be bad.”

He stood up straight and looked up at Scott. “I’ll keep an eye out for anything unusual,” he said stolidly. “And I’ll keep that young fellow, Tom, up to scratch. Between us, no one will get near that horse again.”

*

Scott rapped softly on the bedroom door. When Johnny opened it he stepped quietly into Tony’s room. Julia was with him and followed close behind.

“How is he?” Scott whispered to Johnny.

“Sleeping, nice an’ easy,” Johnny replied, just as quietly. “The doctor gave him a sleeping powder, so he’ll probably sleep right through the night.”

“Good, because I was hoping to talk to you and Henry,” Scott told him. “Julia will you watch him for a while?”

Julia smiled, nodded and walked over to where Henry sat in an armchair. He stood up and let her take the seat and then walked over to join Scott and Johnny.

Scott led the way out of the room and the three of them made their way to Scott’s room.

Once inside, Johnny eased himself onto the side of the bed, while Scott and Henry each took a chair. “Well, did you find anything out?”

Scott took the thorny twig from his pocket and put it on the small table beside him. “I found that under Cuervo’s saddle,” he told them without emotion.

Johnny stood up and walked over to have a closer look, but Henry had already cursed angrily.

“Madre de dios!” Johnny swore when he saw what it was up close. The thorns were needle sharp and on every side of the small piece of wood. He picked it up gingerly and turned it around. “Whoever put that there meant business.”

“Well, I think we can rule out an accident,” Henry said angrily. “Anyone who would put that under a saddle meant the horse to kill his rider.”

Scott nodded. “That would be my guess. It means that there have now been TWO attempts on Tony’s life, and we have to do something about it,” he explained. “I talked to his mother. She wants us to be discreet, but even she admits that we have to find out who’s behind this.”

“Who saddled the horse?” Henry asked, beginning with the obvious.

“That was my first thought, too,” Scott conceded. “It’s usually Tom’s job to saddle Cuervo, but Tom was out in the field with us and he was still there with Algie, cleaning up, when Cuervo was saddled. It wasn’t him this time. Besides, I was with him when we found this and I really don’t think Tom would have had anything to do with it. He’s genuinely attached to that horse and he’d cheerfully murder the person who did it.”

Johnny put the evil looking twig back on the table and Scott stared at it before continuing. “I found out that the head groom, Harry Morphett, saddled Cuervo, this morning. I’ve talked to him, too. He denies putting it there and he looked horrified when he saw it. He says that he checked the leather and the buckles for wear, but he didn’t check under the saddle. It was probably there before he ever got the saddle from the tack room.”

“Who has access to the tack room?” Johnny asked him.

“It’s never locked,” Scott told him flatly. “Any one of the grooms can go in there. Not to mention that anyone could have gotten in there during the night or even in broad daylight.”

“Which leaves us with nothing,” Henry added, frustration evident in his voice. “Anyone can walk into those stables. I’ve even done it, on occasion.”

“You won’t be able to do it without good reason from now on,” Scott pointed out. “Harry is going to keep Cuervo’s saddle and tack in a locker, with Tom keeping the key. Tom has sole charge of the horse, and Harry will keep an eye out for strangers in the stable.”

Johnny walked back to the bed and sat down again. “What about the hands workin’ in the stable? Can they be trusted?”

Scott shook his head. “I just don’t know. Tom says there are a couple he doesn’t trust, and Harry seemed to think the same thing. But a groom couldn’t have gotten into the house to poison Tony the other night.”

“That’s true,” Henry conceded.

“Neither Harry nor Tom could remember any strangers in the stables lately. Your sisters were there yesterday, Henry, and Robert was there this morning to leave his horse with them.”

“Oh yeah, Robert Storey, the fella who hurt his leg so bad he had to stay the night and then walked out the next day without help,” Johnny said mockingly.

Henry smiled. “I know it sounds suspicious, Johnny. But the whole neighborhood knows about Robert’s ankle.”

“What about it?” Scott asked, curious.

“He dislocated it a few years ago, taking his horse over a fence while he was hunting,” Henry explained. “It goes out on him now and then, but it’s fine once it goes back into place.”

While Johnny accepted the explanation, he still thought it was too coincidental that he had been there on the night that Tony was poisoned.

Johnny sighed. “What about Algie?”

“He appears to have been either with Tom or us all morning. No one remembered seeing him anywhere near the stables,” Scott answered. “I tend to discount Lady Hawkesbury, too, but that’s just my own opinion.”

Johnny looked down at his hands thoughtfully. “Me, too,” he finally said, looking up to see what their reaction was.

Scott didn’t answer, but Henry did. “Do you both have a reason for that? I’d have said that she was quite capable of it,” he said angrily.

“She an’ Tony talked yesterday,” Johnny told them. “An’ I got the feeling that things were better between them.”

“And I talked to her today,” said Scott. “I’d say Johnny’s right. She seemed more concerned about him than the last time I talked to her.”

“Well, I must say that I find it hard to believe,” Henry said candidly. “I don’t think we should rule her out. I don’t think she should be alone with him.”

Johnny shrugged slightly. “She was yesterday, while I waited outside the door. But you could be right. Hate is not an easy thing to let go of.”

Scott looked up at his words and caught his eyes. He didn’t say anything, but he guessed what he was feeling. Johnny knew hate better than most people. Scott knew it pretty well himself, but Johnny had held onto his for a lot longer than he had.

“We have to be ready for anything from now on, anyway,” Scott told them. “If the same person made both attempts, and I can’t see two separate people wanting him dead, then they must be getting frustrated that both of those attempts have failed.”

“What we need is a reason for it,” Johnny remarked. “Who has a reason for wanting him dead?”

“He hasn’t been here long enough to have made many enemies,” Henry commented.

“What about before he left? Was anyone after his hide then?”

“Not that I know of,” Henry answered, frowning. “That’s probably something we’ll have to ask Tony. I know he was wild but I don’t think anyone hated him badly enough to hold onto that hate for eight years.”

“This is getting us nowhere. What about bringing the law into it?” Scott suggested. “Maybe they could find something out.”

Johnny shook his head adamantly. “I don’t think Haw… Tony would agree to that.” He grinned wickedly. “An’ I’m real sure his mother wouldn’t.”

Henry smiled. “We’ll ask him tomorrow, but I think you’re right. There’s a constable in the village, but I think this would be beyond him.”

“Then, all we can do is stick to Tony… keep an eye on him at all times,” Scott told them despondently.

“He won’t like that either,” Johnny answered with a grin. “But you’re right. We’ve got no way of knowing when or where or how they’ll try again.”

Henry nodded. “But, I think we can be sure that they will.”

Johnny stood up and walked over to the window and stared out across the park. “I think I’ll have a little talk with Robert tomorrow.”

Scott watched his brother. It seemed that Johnny considered Robert Storey to be their most likely suspect. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” he said at last.

But Henry disagreed. “No, I think he has a point. If we can discount him, then that’s one less person to worry about. It might be good to confront him.”

Scott scowled. “Do you think he might be responsible?”

Henry only shrugged. “He certainly has reason to hate Tony,” he admitted. “Jealousy gives him good reason to want him dead, though I don’t think it is him.”

“You got someone else in mind?” Johnny asked, turning back from the window and coming back to sit on the bed again.

“I think we have to consider Tony’s Aunt,” Henry suggested. “She wants to see her son living here as the Earl of Egan. That was perfectly obvious before Tony came home. It’s possible that she has someone here in the house who’s working for her.”

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Henry and Johnny rode the country lanes towards the Storey house. Johnny had left his brother to sit with Tony and keep him occupied while he met Henry and headed off to talk to Robert Storey.

There had been a lively ‘discussion’ between the brothers before Scott had finally agreed to stay behind with Tony. While Scott had been prepared to acknowledge that someone needed to stay with him, he had been worried that Johnny was not the right person to confront Robert.

Scott was sure that Johnny had already made up his mind that Robert was the culprit and he was afraid of what Johnny might do without him there to hold him back.

It had taken Johnny’s solemn oath not to ‘do anything stupid’ and the knowledge that Johnny was unarmed and that he would be with Henry, before Scott had ultimately agreed to stay behind.

When he had left, Johnny had been angry about what he considered to be Scott’s lack of trust in him, but he’d soon cooled off. He had to admit that Scott was right about his temper. But then, that was something that all of the Lancer men had in common.

Johnny smiled. Like Scott could talk about HIS temper. It might take a little more to get the Easterner started, but once ignited, Scott’s temper was as volatile as Murdoch’s or his own.

The ride itself did a lot to soothe Johnny’s frayed edges. Like Henry, he was dressed in clothes that were appropriate for visiting a country house. Yet, surprisingly, he didn’t feel uncomfortable.

Instead, he felt strangely at ease. His reason for riding over to visit Robert Storey’s home was pushed into the background for the time being.

The sun came and went as they rode under trees that grew down one side of the lane and hung overhead. On the other side, the lane was overgrown with low bushes and wildflowers that grew in moist brown earth. They had pushed their way up under the post and rail fence that bordered lush green fields.

It was like another world in comparison with the dry open spaces in California. Except during the early months of spring, this sort of greenery was almost totally foreign to his homeland and he found himself relaxing in a way that he wasn’t usually able to do when surrounded by so much cover.

In an earlier life, he’d have hurried through a place like this, his eyes alert for trouble and every nerve in his body taut with tension. A place like this held too many hiding places for men with ambitions of adding his name as a notch on their guns.

Henry seemed to notice the preoccupation on Johnny’s face. “Is it so different from your home?” he asked, shaking Johnny from his reverie.

“Yes,” Johnny said without hesitation. “Never knew there were so many different greens.”

Henry frowned. “Really?” he said. “I haven’t ever thought about it before, but I think I should like to see this world of yours, Johnny.”

Johnny laughed lightly. “Yeah, I never woulda thought I’d be here, so why not?” He looked ahead, and couldn’t see more than about one hundred yards ahead of him. The lane got darker under trees that grew thickly on both sides of the lane and met overhead. It was like looking into a tunnel. “So, how far is it to Robert’s house, anyway?” he asked Henry.

“It’s the other side of the village,” Henry answered. “Not very far.”

As they emerged from the narrow tunnel of branches, the lane opened out into the main street of the village of Wetherley. They rode down the cobbled street, past houses of weathered stone with ivy covered walls and neatly trimmed hedges separating one property from another. The roofs were darkened by mold and by decades, or more, of smoke from the chimneys. There were tidy little gardens and trees flowering in the tiny yards.

Henry pointed out the local pub as they passed it and suggested it might be worth stopping there on their way back.

“You can’t leave us without having tried the local brew at the ‘White Bull’,” he said with a laugh.

Johnny grinned back at him. “You won’t have to twist my arm,” he admitted. He stared at the pub as they passed by. From the outside, it looked like a house with its neat windows and heavy oak door. But over the door hung a sign with a white bull painted vividly on it and the year 1796 written below it.

But the village of Wetherley was tiny and they had ridden through it in ten minutes. As they emerged from the main street with its houses, its quaint little shops and the public house, they came to a small river that passed by it.

Over the river was a low stone bridge, only about two feet above the gently flowing water. Three small arches allowed the river to pass underneath, its tiny ripples crowned with glimmers of sunlight. Four ducks paddled contentedly, dipping their heads to feed now and then, and a huge old willow tree hung over the water on the far side of the bridge, its lowest leaves falling so low that they caressed the water as it flowed past.

The bank rose slightly and then leveled out into a grassy square where four young children ran around playing amid squeals of delight.

The scene took Johnny by surprise. It brought to mind a word that Scott had once used for the quiet little grove that Johnny had found near the north boundary of Lancer and made his own private place. Idyllic – that was the word he had said. Johnny hadn’t known the meaning of the word, but Scott had explained it to him as pleasant, almost to the point of perfection.

It sure fit the scene in front of him.

The clatter of their horses’ shoes on the bridge when they crossed it only added to the tranquillity of the scene, but it brought Johnny’s thoughts back to the problem at hand as he realized that Storey’s house wasn’t far away.

*

Johnny stood beside Henry in the salon of the Storey house. It wasn’t as large or as grand as that of Wetherley, but it had a distinct charm about it and it was obviously the home of a moderately wealthy family.

Stretched out on the settee in front of them was Robert’s mother, Mrs. Elvira Storey. She was a handsome woman, with a near flawless complexion and very little gray showing through the halo of golden hair piled neatly on her head. They couldn’t tell how tall she was, as she lay curled on the settee with a rug covering her legs, but she was the most delicately built woman Johnny had ever seen.

Tucked in beside her was a small black and white terrier that seemed to watch every move they made. Its head rested on its paws and its eyebrows were raised with interest as it stared at them.

“So, you’ve come to visit Robert, have you?” she asked, in a voice that rang as lightly on their ears as her face did on their eyes. “I’m so pleased. Dawson has gone to fetch him here. I’m quite sure he won’t be long. He has so few visitors since poor dear Charles passed away, he’ll be delighted to see you.”

Henry looked awkwardly at Johnny, obviously feeling as uncomfortable as he did. “Then I’ve been remiss in the past, Mrs. Storey. I’ll be sure to rectify the matter.”

“I hope you will, Mr. Billingsly,” she replied with a smile.

Johnny thought that there was something insincere about that smile. There was a glimmer in her eyes that made him think of ice rather than warmth. He decided to stay right out of the conversation, if he could.

“You always were such a good boy. Like Charles was – a son a mother can be proud of.”  She tugged at the paisley shawl around her shoulders before continuing.  “Not at all like Anthony Hawkesbury.”

She sighed and reached over to pat the dog’s head. She seemed to have a habit of talking to people without looking directly at them. While she talked to Henry, her attention was on the dog, and she seemed to have disregarded Johnny completely.

“Poor dear Charles,” she continued, with a heavy sigh. “Such a shame that he died like that – and to have left Anthony to inherit! I’m sure Robert’s plans are all for nothing now. He had his heart set on your sweet sister, Mr. Billingsly. But it will never happen now. Anthony Hawkesbury will only have to wave his title and wealth at her and she’s bound to say yes. I recall that all the young ladies always thought he was rather dashing.”

Henry stiffened and bristled in anger. “I’m sure that Arabella will follow her heart,” he told the woman smoothly, but Johnny could see the fury on his face.

“Perhaps,” she conceded coolly. “I certainly hope so. It would be bound to be my Robert if she had the choice, but so many young women don’t, you know. One can hardly blame her for taking security into consideration. It’s a fact of life that a young woman has to think of her future.”

She didn’t look up to see Henry’s reaction. She didn’t even seem to care. The dog panted happily as she rubbed its ears and she talked on remorselessly. “Of course, it wouldn’t have been an issue if Algernon had inherited. He’s a pleasant enough boy, but there’s no substance to him, at all. I doubt that Arabella would have been tempted by him, even with the money and the title.”

Elvira Storey shook her head sadly.

“Yes, everything would have been just fine if Anthony hadn’t come home. What a shame that he was the one left to inherit. It must have been a terrible blow to Augusta.”

Johnny looked towards Henry and recognized the same shock on his face that he felt himself.

“I’m sure Lady Hawkesbury is happy to have Anthony back home,” Henry told her, gritting his teeth.

“I rather doubt it,” the lady replied blithely. “He was a wild and frivolous boy. He certainly led his mother a merry dance over the years.”

It was Johnny’s turn to feel his blood start to boil in his veins. He could only begin to imagine Henry’s anger. He knew how he would feel if it had been Teresa she was talking about.

“That was years ago, Mrs. Storey,” Henry told her, curtly. “He’s matured considerably since then.”

“Has he, indeed?” she said, disbelieving. “Well, one can only hope so, for his poor mother’s sake. Why, I hear he’s already making made enemies here. Hardly surprising…”

“I don’t think you could call him frivolous, now, ma’am,” Johnny told her coolly, unable to keep his silence any longer in the face of her aspersions on his friends. “An’ I don’t think you can accuse him of looking for trouble since he got back either.”

The dog yapped and, surprisingly, the woman looked up at Johnny. She sucked in her lips and scowled at him. “What an odd way of talking you have,” she said, at last. “I gather you must be one of those foreign people Anthony Hawkesbury brought home with him.”

She looked back to the dog and continued petting it. The scowl left her face and Johnny assumed he had been dismissed from her mind.

He looked at Henry, who looked just as uncomfortable as he felt.

“I don’t approve of foreigners,” she said with perfect disdain. “They always talk oddly and trying to understand what they are saying is just too fatiguing.”

The two men were speechless. Henry was totally unused to such rudeness, and, while Johnny knew how to handle hatred and violence, he wasn’t sure how to react in the face of such total indifference. It occurred to him that the woman was disturbed.

“Of course, nothing Anthony would do could surprise me,” she went on. “Not after maneuvering himself into the title so neatly. Everyone knows that he got rid of his poor weakling brother, Bertram…”

“Mother!”

She suddenly looked up at the sound of her son’s voice. “Robert, dear…” she said with obvious pleasure.

He ignored her for a moment and walked over to Henry and Johnny. “It’s nice to see you both,” he said, extending his hand and shaking their hands – one after the other. He turned his attention to his mother. “I’ll take the gentlemen into the library, Mother,” he told her. “I think you should rest now.”

“Yes, dear,” she agreed, stifling a yawn with her hand. “Visitors can be so exhausting, Robert.”

*

“Take a seat, gentlemen,” Storey told them when they entered the library. He walked over to a sideboard and took out a bottle of malt whiskey and three glasses. He poured one for each of them and passed them around.

“I know it’s early,” he said with a sigh. “But it usually helps after an interview with my mother when you’re not used to her.”

Henry and Johnny exchanged meaningful glances but didn’t answer him. What could they say to that anyway?

“My apologies,” Storey said, and took a small sip. “Now what brings you here? I have to admit that I’m surprised to see you.”

They had agreed already that they would be candid when they met him.

“We wanted to talk to you about Anthony,” Henry told him.

Robert grinned and sat down in the padded leather armchair opposite them. “What about Anthony?”

“Apparently someone is making a concerted effort to kill him,” Henry continued.

“And we’d like to find out who,” Johnny added.

“Well, I hardly thought that the poison was an accident,” Storey said with a smirk. “I take it you think I might be able to help? Or do you think it might be me who put the poison in the glass?”

“We have to consider everyone who was there,” Henry informed him candidly.

“An’ you were there,” Johnny said pointedly.

“Hardly by choice,” Robert answered, taking another sip of the whiskey. “Surely you don’t think I planned to hurt my ankle intentionally?”

Johnny looked into the glass in his hand and swirled the amber liquid lazily. “Wouldn’t be hard,” he said quietly, without looking up.

Storey slammed the half-empty glass onto a small table beside his chair. The whiskey slopped to the very rim of the glass, but didn’t spill over.

“I resent that implication, Johnny,” Robert told him furiously. “Believe me, if I could have made it home that night, I would have. Spending the night as a guest of Anthony Hawkesbury was no plan of mine.” He got to his feet and strode over to his desk before turning back to face them.

Johnny looked up and watched him intently, looking for evidence of the man’s guilt or innocence in the way he was reacting. Unless the man was foolish enough to say something that would give himself away, it was going to have to be a judgment call on their parts.

“I fell,” he said firmly. “My ankle went out, just as it has several times over the last five years. It was sheer coincidence that I was there that night – nothing more.”

“How did you happen to fall?” Henry asked, calmly.

“Clumsiness on my part, I suppose,” Robert admitted, reluctantly. “I bumped into Algie on the step and lost my balance.”

“Your ankle looked a whole lot better by the time we found Tony in the hall,” Johnny pointed out harshly.

“I’m sure it did,” Robert Storey sneered at him. “What you didn’t see was the hour I spent manipulating it back in. I preferred not to share that with anyone, so I have no witness.”

Henry heard the aggravation in the man’s voice and sympathized with his anger, if he was indeed innocent.

“I’m sorry if this offends you, Robert,” he said. “But we have to check on everyone who was there that night. You must see that.”

“Everyone? Does that include your friend, there?” Robert said snidely.

Johnny looked across at him and half-smiled. “Matter o’ fact, it does. Henry already checked out me an’ my brother.”

“I’m pleased to hear it,” Storey replied. “I’d hate to think that I was the only suspect you have.”

“You’re the only one who was there both times,” Johnny told him. “At least, as far as we know.”

Storey stared at him and frowned. “Both times? What do you mean?”

“Someone tried to kill him again, yesterday,” Henry explained.

“Do you mean the incident with the horse?” Storey asked. “You can’t assume attempted murder just because he can’t control his horse.”

Henry glanced towards Johnny, who reached into his pocket and pulled out the rose twig. He put it down on the table beside the still half-empty glass of whiskey that Robert Storey had left behind.

Storey’s interest was piqued enough for him to go back across the room to the table and pick it up, very carefully.

“That was found under the saddle on Tony’s horse,” Johnny explained, once again watching Storey’s face intently.

Robert turned it over and touched the tip of his finger to one of the thorns.

Eventually, he looked across at Johnny. “By God, that’s a rotten thing to do to an animal!” he exclaimed hotly. “And yes, Henry, I am offended. I’m offended that you would even consider that I would do something like this to a horse.”

He tossed it back onto the table and picked up the glass, taking a quick swallow. Suddenly, he laughed. “Though, I might put it under Anthony’s rear.”

“There isn’t much love lost between the two of you, is there?” Henry pointed out.

Robert shook his head, disbelieving. “Good heavens, Henry. You, of all people, should know why.” He took another swallow and then sat down in the chair. He held the glass in front of him, both of his hands clutching it tightly. It was nearly empty.

“Things were just fine until Anthony came back,” he said quietly. “Arabella would have accepted me sooner or later. She won’t now.”

“You don’t know that, Robert,” Henry told him. “Even I don’t know that. I do know that Tony hasn’t made any approaches to her.”

Storey’s head sagged and he shook it sadly. “He doesn’t have to. You saw her yesterday. She was near panic that something had happened to her precious Anthony. I knew then.”

Both Henry and Johnny had seen the same thing and knew that he was right.

“There’s no doubt about Anthony Hawkesbury,” Storey continued, dejectedly. “He always did land on his feet. Well, he’s got it all now.”

Johnny leaped to his feet and turned away from them both. He paced angrily across the room and then turned back to face them.

“Yeah, he’s the lucky one, isn’t he?”

Neither of the men answered him. They were both surprised speechless by his outburst.

“Let’s see, one of his brothers died an’ he’s been blamed for it for years,” he continued. “His other brother died without his ever having a chance to make his peace with him. Same with his ol’ man, an’ let’s not forget that his father tossed him out o’ the family years ago an’ didn’t want him back.”

Johnny’s hands were on his hips and he glared at them. “Half of his family died, without knowing, or even caring, that he was still alive. He hasn’t been back for a week an’ someone is tryin’ to kill him.”

“Well, it isn’t me,” Storey told him with blunt candor. “All right, I can see your point. I suppose it sounds like self-pity on my part, but I can’t like him.”

“No one is asking you to, Robert,” Henry said. “We’re asking you if you tried to kill him.”

Storey looked him in the eyes, shocked that Henry had actually come right out and said it. His expression changed from anger to calm consideration of Henry’s question, and finally to a smile that took both Johnny and Henry by surprise.

Finally, he burst out laughing. Johnny’s arms dropped to his sides and he looked towards Henry to see what his reaction was.

Henry’s face showed nothing. He was still staring at Robert.

Getting a grip on himself, Robert Storey stopped laughing and looked from one to the other.

“No, I am not trying to kill him,” he said firmly. Then he smiled and added, “But, whoever it is, I wish him good luck.”

*

They rode home without saying much to each other. It had certainly been a revealing encounter, first with the mother, and then with the son. Johnny wasn’t sure that he was entirely convinced by Storey’s protestations, but he felt that they were no closer to getting to the bottom of things.

When they reached Wetherley, the house seemed bigger than ever after the smaller, though charming, home of the Storey family.

Johnny handed his horse over to one of the grooms and Henry did the same before the two of them strolled into the house. Lady Hawkesbury met them as she came out of the library.

“Gentlemen, you missed luncheon,” she admonished them. “I’ll see that Mrs. Morcombe provides you with something.”

Johnny stopped, and Henry pulled up beside him and looked towards him, awkwardly.

Johnny dropped his eyes and shifted his feet. “That’s real kind of you, ma’am,” he said at last. “But you don’t need to go to all that trouble. We stayed longer than we figured with Robert an’ ended up havin’ something to eat in the village.”

A small smile played at Lady Hawkesbury’s lips but didn’t quite win out. “At the public house, I imagine,” she supposed. “I hear their steak and kidney pie is quite palatable.”

“Well… yes, ma’am,” Johnny admitted with a smile that had gotten him out of trouble with Teresa and Maria more than once.

“I gather you made the acquaintance of Elvira Storey,” she said. “I’m sure that was more than enough reason to make that stop on your way back.” This time the smile did break through, or at least Johnny thought he saw it. But, it might have been just a gleam in her eyes. “Would you gentlemen mind joining me in the library for just a moment?”

Johnny looked to Henry for agreement and then shrugged his shoulders easily. “Sure,” he answered and the two of them followed her into the room.

Henry closed the door behind them and they joined her as she took a seat in a big leather chair.

“Do sit down, gentlemen,” she told them and waited for them to do so. “I take it that you have been to see Robert about this dreadful business of the poison.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Johnny agreed honestly.

“I cannot believe that Robert would do such a thing, but I would like to know if you found out anything to suggest otherwise.”

“No, Lady Hawkesbury,” Henry told her forthrightly. “I’m afraid we’re no closer to the answer yet.”

“I see,” she answered calmly. “Well, I should certainly like to get to the bottom of it.” She folded her hands neatly in her lap. “And what of Elvira? How did you find her?”

“She seemed well,” Henry said noncommittally.

To their astonishment, Lady Hawkesbury grinned. “Oh, I’m sure she was. There’s very little wrong with her that a walk in the sunshine wouldn’t cure. She took to her bed when her husband died twenty-five years ago and she’s rarely left it since.”

She apparently saw their shocked expressions before she continued. “Oh, don’t blush, gentlemen. Elvira is a delicate flower. She always was. But she is also the most venomous little wasp you are ever likely to encounter. I shudder to think what she must have said about Anthony.”

Their silence must have confirmed her suspicions. “Yes, I’m sure she had a lot to say on all manner of subjects,” she said quietly. “I won’t ask you to repeat them. I have no desire to hear her nasty gossip. I’m just glad that she has no reason to personally hate my son.”

She looked at them and shook her head sadly. “You’re looking for someone who is capable of murder. You met one today. I wouldn’t put anything past that woman.”

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

With the interview with Tony’s mother over, Henry and Johnny started to leave the library, but Lady Hawkesbury called Johnny back. She stood beside the fireplace, one hand resting on the mantle, facing him proudly across the room.

“I wanted to thank you and your brother for helping my son,” she told him. “I know that you risked your own life to pull him to safety yesterday. I realize that you have no reason to believe me, but I am grateful. I don’t want to lose him as well.”

Johnny looked into her eyes. “You keep calling him, ‘my son’. It sounds to me like you’re trying to convince yourself. His name is Anthony, or even Tony. Why don’t you use it?”

Suddenly, she seemed flustered. “Well, of course…” she began, looking away from him.

He nodded and shifted his feet. “I know you made some sort of peace with him, but Hate is a hard thing to let go of, Lady Hawkesbury. It holds on when you think you’ve thrown it off, an’ shows up in all kinds of ways when you least expect it.”

“I don’t hate my son.”

“Then, try saying, ‘I don’t hate Anthony’.”

She walked across to the desk, not looking at him. “I told you – I don’t hate…” She stopped and turned to face him defiantly. “I don’t hate Anthony.”

Johnny smiled. “Funny how a name makes it more personal, isn’t it? Hate’s a hard thing to give up, ma’am. ‘Specially if it’s been part of you for a long time.”

Lady Hawkesbury sat back, ever so slightly, against the desk. She folded her hands neatly in front of her.

“And how does a man, as young as you are, know so much about Hate?” she asked gently.

His smile faltered a little. “Hate an’ me are old traveling compadres, ma’am,” he told her honestly.

"Why?”

“Oh boy,” he answered, grinning. “That’s one real long story, ma’am.”

“And you’re not going to tell it, are you?” she said, suddenly smiling.

“Nope,” he told her, with a shake of his head.

“Who did you hate for so long, John?”

He didn’t think before answering. “My ol’…my father.” His eyes hardened and the old pain returned when he put it into words. “I spent most o’ my life hoping for a chance to put a bullet in Murdoch Lancer’s heart.”

She flinched at the change in the young man. His voice echoed the cold distant look in his eyes and shocked her. She could have sworn that she was looking into another man’s face.

“But you didn’t do it, did you?”

The heavy feeling lifted from Johnny. He relaxed. “No,” he said, sighing. “Like you, I learned a few truths. He wasn’t who I thought he was.”

“And what now, John? I gather you don’t hate him any longer.”

“No, I don’t hate him,” he assured her. “I got a chance to meet him, an’ got to know him, an’ my brother. You know, ma’am, letting go of that ol’ Hate is a real good feeling.”

“So, things are good between you and your father? Do you have a good relationship now?”

He grinned. “We argue a lot. He’s a stubborn ol’ man.”

She smiled; thinking it was obviously a family trait.

He saw the smile. “Yeah, well, maybe it ain’t all his fault. The thing is, I don’t hate Murdoch anymore. He’s a good man an’ I respect an’ admire him.”

“But, he’s your father. Do you love him?”

Johnny shrugged lightly, but he looked down uncomfortably. “I guess so.”

She looked uncertain, so Johnny continued. “It doesn’t just go away, you know. Every little argument you have will bring it back, but less an’ less each time. You’ve gotta work at it.”

Lady Hawkesbury nodded. “You’re an unusual young man, Johnny Lancer. Thank you for the advice. I’ll do my best to follow it.”

*

She could hear voices coming from the bedroom, and laughter, too. It was enticing to hear the sound. It had been a long time without laughter in this house, so she tiptoed down the hall to listen. And the door was open.

Charlotte stopped just outside the room, peeped around the door and looked inside, hoping not to be noticed.

If she was seen, they’d send her back to Emma, and she didn’t want that.

Of course, it hadn’t been hard to escape her nursery maid’s attention. She always took a walk with her beau when she put her little charge down for an afternoon nap. Charlotte delighted in pretending that she was asleep so that she could investigate Wetherley on her own.

By nature, Charlotte was not a mischievous child. She usually found herself in the kitchen or the dairy. Sometimes she even made her way to the stables. She liked the horses and she knew of a hidden corner in one of the unused stalls where a tabby cat had four little kittens. Sometimes she slipped in unseen and sat playing with them.

Because she was never any trouble, no one bothered to point out her wanderings to the nursery maid, or to her mother, and certainly not to her grandmother. Charlotte didn’t know it, but her visits were welcomed by most of the staff. She stayed out of their way and she didn’t annoy them with a lot of questions.

It was nice to hear men’s voices again. Charlotte missed her father. And visits to Wetherley before that fateful day had meant Grandpapa’s booming voice echoing around the house, while Papa and Uncle Charles discussed horses and politics. The whole house had reverberated with the heavy tones of men’s voices back then.

She didn’t understand what they talked about, but she missed them. There had been no men at Wetherley since that day. Well, not unless you counted Cousin Algie, but his voice didn’t have the same deep resonance that she remembered in her father’s voice.

No, she didn’t count Cousin Algie. It was not until Uncle Anthony had come home, bringing his friends with him, that there had been men in the house again. It was reassuring just to hear them talking, even if it wasn’t the same things Papa and Uncle Charles had talked about.

They were on the other side of the room, near the window, playing some sort of game. The room was in shadow, now that the sun had moved to the other side of the house, but it wasn’t quite dark. She could see a table between them and a board with pieces that they moved around. Uncle Anthony laughed and his friend shook his head and complained bitterly.

Without warning, the friend turned his head just enough to see her, and she quickly pulled back behind the wall.

“Hello,” he said, and she knew she had been seen. He had a nice, deep voice – a friendly voice, but she stayed where she was and didn’t answer. She didn’t even dare breathe for fear that they might hear her. She didn’t want to be sent back to her room yet.

“Who’s there, Scott?” she heard her uncle ask.

“I think it’s your little niece,” his friend answered.

She heard the sound of a chair scraping across the floor and flattened herself against the wall, closing her eyes tight. Maybe, if she was really quiet, he wouldn’t notice her.

It didn’t do any good. She heard him walking across the room and she knew when he stopped beside her. She could smell the same spicy odor about him that she remembered her father having when he had finished shaving in the mornings and its familiarity gave her an odd warm feeling.

“Hello, Charlotte,” he said. He had a nice voice too, but not so deep as the other man’s was.

She opened her eyes and looked up at him. He was so tall! Men seemed to be so much taller than ladies.

“Hello,” she whispered apprehensively.

“Now, what are you doing out here?” he asked, and then smiled. “On the run from the nursery, perhaps?”

She nodded shyly and he laughed.

“Well, you’ll soon get caught standing out here in the open,” he said. “Why don’t you come in and talk to us.”

He put out his hand and she looked at it for a moment. It was a big hand, just like Papa’s. She thought about it for a moment and then put her hand in his and went with him.

He pulled a chair over and sat it by the table where the game was laid out. “You sit there and watch us while we play,” he suggested.

So she climbed into the chair and made herself comfortable.

“Do you remember Mr. Lancer?” he asked.

“Yes, Uncle Anthony,” she told him stiffly.

Mr. Lancer was setting up the board again. He had a nice smile.

“What are you playing?” she asked.

“It’s called checkers,” her uncle told her. “You see the little round discs? Well, Scott’s are the black ones and mine are the white. When the game is over, all the black ones will be gone.”

Scott looked up from his task and laughed. “Not this time, my friend.”

“Does that mean you win?” she asked her uncle.

“That’s right. It means I win – again.”

“Your uncle’s a little overconfident, Charlotte,” Mr. Lancer told her.

She watched and listened as they played their game, fascinated at the way they moved the pieces around, trying to outwit each other. They argued, but she got the impression that they weren’t angry with each other. It was friendly arguing.

She found herself laughing along with them and giggled when Scott Lancer took the last of the black pieces off the board and grinned triumphantly at her uncle.

“I’m glad you came home, Uncle Anthony,” she told him delightedly. “Everything will be better now.”

“I certainly hope so,” he answered with a smile.

“But I wish Papa could come home, too.”

“I wish he could, too, Charlotte,” he said kindly. “But, some things just can’t happen.”

“Yes, I know. That’s what Mama said, too.” She sighed. “Mama gets very sad.”

*

Scott found the little girl enchanting. She was shy, but she soon opened up and talked to them more as she relaxed, watching their game.

He moved one piece and Charlotte eagerly looked to see what her uncle would do to counter it.

“Which one should I move?” Tony asked her.

Delighted to be part of the game, she pointed to one of the white discs and looked nervously at Tony. He smiled and moved it, and she clapped excitedly.

“How did you escape the nursery, Charlotte?” Tony asked, but she withdrew into herself and said nothing. He smiled reassuringly and whispered, “It’s all right. I promise not to tell anyone.”

Scott took one of the white pieces and sat back to watch the two interact.

“I pretended to be asleep,” she whispered back, still not entirely convinced how much she should tell her newfound uncle.

“Ah, I see,” Tony replied, moving another piece. “And then you sneaked out past the nursery maid when she wasn’t looking?”

She shook her head and looked at him, studying him carefully.

“It’s all right,” Tony assured her and then leaned over conspiratorially. “My brother and I used to do the same thing when we were children.”

She frowned. “Uncle Charles?”

“No, my other brother, Bertram,” he explained. His voice dropped a little and a sadder note crept into it. “But, you don’t know him. He died a long time ago.”

“Mama told me about him,” she said, nodding.

“I’m afraid I’m guilty of the same thing,” Scott confessed with a smile. “I drove my grandfather to distraction, disappearing whenever I could.”

“Did you run off to play with your brother, too?” she asked innocently.

“No,” Scott told her, a somber look on his face. “Johnny didn’t have a nursery maid.”

Charlotte looked intrigued at the concept of no nursery maid, but then she cocked her head to one side and frowned. “Then who looked after him?”

“His mother looked after him,” he told her, hoping she’d be satisfied.

Apparently, she was. She seemed to make up her mind to trust them both and went on with her story.

“No, Emma goes for a walk every afternoon,” she told him. “But, it’s a secret.”

“Really? Well, we won’t tell anyone,” Tony assured her.

“Emma walks with Humphrey while I’m supposed to be sleeping. But I go visiting instead. I like the kitchen best. Mrs. Morcombe lets me watch her getting dinner ready. Sometimes she even lets me help.”

“Does she? I hope you don’t get in the way.”

“No. Sometimes they forget I’m even there,” she told him. She leaned forward, putting her hands on the edge of the table, and told them, confidentially, “Mrs. Morcombe doesn’t like Humphrey.”

“Why do you think that, Charlotte?” Scott asked, his attention drawn away from the board while Tony considered his next move.

“Emma found me in the kitchen yesterday,” she began. “Mrs. Morcombe told her that she wasn’t allowed to bring Humphrey into the house. She said it wasn’t right.”

Scott and Tony exchanged meaningful looks but said nothing, so the child continued innocently.

“Emma got very angry. She said that Mrs. Morcombe didn’t know how important Humphrey is. Aunt Beatrice says he has to go everywhere that Cousin Algie goes and look after him. Emma says that makes him very important, but Mrs. Morcombe says he’s still not allowed in the house. She said that no one is allowed in the kitchen who doesn’t belong there.”

Scott looked up at her words. “So Humphrey has been going into the kitchen, has he?”

The little girl nodded and continued. “But not any more. Mrs. Morcombe won’t let him. And she says that Emma isn’t allowed to show him up to Cousin Algie’s room either.”

“Just who is Humphrey, Charlotte?” Scott asked, intrigued. ‘Cousin Algie’s room’ was right next to Tony’s room.

“He’s the man who goes everywhere with Cousin Algie,” she told him, sitting back in her chair and patiently repeating her story. “He sits on the back of Cousin Algie’s automobobble.”

Tony laughed aloud and Scott found himself laughing with him, but he stored the information away for further consideration.

“Papa used to play a game like this with Uncle Charles, but it wasn’t this game,” she informed them when their laughter quieted.

“That would be chess, Charlotte,” Tony told her. “We play that sometimes, too.”

“Uncle Charles saved me,” she said brightly, but then her smile faded. “But then he died, like everyone else. Everyone died, Uncle Anthony, even the little baby.”

Tony frowned and looked at Scott. Scott was just as confused. No one had ever said anything about a baby.

“What little baby, Charlotte?” Tony asked her.

“Oh, it wasn’t borned yet,” she explained. “Aunt Elspeth was going to have a cute little baby. Mama said it would be my cousin, just like Cousin Algie is her cousin. I was going to play with it, but it died too.”

There was a tense silence in the room when she finished speaking. How did a child come to terms with that day?

The silence dragged on relentlessly.

Finally, Scott put an end to it. “You know what, Tony? I think Charlotte’s old enough to learn how to play checkers, don’t you?”

“Oh yes, please, Uncle Anthony,” the little girl pleaded. Her eyes had lit up with excitement.

Tony smiled. “Set up the board, Scott. I’m bound to beat you with Charlotte to help me,” he said and pointed a finger at the little girl. “And you have to call me ‘Uncle Tony’ from now on.”

She nodded happily and leaned forward on the table again.

*

“So, this is where you are, Charlotte,” Julia exclaimed from the doorway. She’d heard the little girl giggling all the way down the hall.

“Uncle Tony and Mr. Lancer are teaching me how to play checkers,” she cried out happily.

“She’s very good, too,” Tony told Julia. “We’ve won the last two games together.”

“And I still say two against one is unfair,” Scott protested good-naturedly.

“That’s because we beat you, Mr. Lancer,” Charlotte said, giggling again.

“Well, the lesson is over for today, Charlotte,” Julia told her firmly. “It’s time to go back with Emma.”

The little girl’s face fell and she dropped her feet to the floor. “Yes, Mama,” she said, downcast.

Tony leaned over and whispered to her. “We’ll do this again some time.”

Her smile and the gleam in her eyes warmed his heart.

“Thank you, Uncle Tony,” she said. “Bye, Mr. Lancer,” she added and skipped off to join the young nursery maid, standing behind her mother.

Julia scowled at her brother. “Really, Anthony,” she said, dauntingly. “You shouldn’t encourage her.”

Tony laughed. “Don’t take it all so seriously, Julia. I seem to recall you delighting in escaping the nursery when you were her age.”

“You’re incorrigible.”

“I always was,” he reminded her with a bright smile. “I haven’t changed that much.”

Julia stepped inside to join them. “You certainly sound a lot better,” she said as she took her place in the seat her daughter had just vacated. It was still warm from her body and Julia felt a motherly bond with her daughter.

“Yes, I’m fine now,” he told her. He laughed at her. “Do you want to learn how to play as well?”

Julia scowled. “No, thank you very much,” she answered tersely. “Besides, I learned years ago. I was very good at the game, as I recall. I certainly beat you more than once.”

Tony laughed again, while Scott grinned. It was good to see the banter between brother and sister. It meant that Tony was feeling more at ease with them.

But Tony turned serious then. “Julia, I’m curious about something. Charlotte mentioned that, when she died, Elspeth was expecting a baby. Is it true?”

“Yes, it made it so much sadder. They’d tried for so many years, and losing little Edward had made it so much worse for them, but Elspeth always miscarried. It was terrible for them, Anthony. They’d just about given up hope when she fell pregnant again. This time, everything looked all right. She was nearly six months along. She’d been so ill, though. The doctor thought that the sea air might do her some good.”

The two men were silent, taking in the extent of the tragedy, but Julia frowned. “I’m surprised that Charlotte said anything. She’s so little and she never mentions that day. I had hoped that by not talking about it, she would forget about it.”

“No,” Scott said, firmly and unexpectedly. “Don’t try to bury it. It doesn’t work.”

Tony glanced at him, wondering what was behind Scott’s words.

“But she’s young enough to forget it happened,” Julia persisted. “It was such a terrible day and she was the only one who survived. I don’t want her to remember it.”

“But she will, Julia,” Scott told her. “She’s going to remember some of it, even though she’s young. Take it from me, it’s better that you let her talk about it and come to terms with it, than to let her hide all the emotions it brings.”

“Maybe you’re right,” she replied, nodding. “I don’t really know what she remembers or what she feels about it. I really did think she had blanked it out of her mind. She never talks about what happened, except to say that she wishes her father could come back.”

“I think you should talk to her, then, Julia,” Tony suggested. “It must be an awful burden for her. She sounded so sad.”

“All right, I will talk to her. I just want her to be able to live with it and be happy,” Julia said, a tear in her eye. “I suppose I’ve been prepared to let it go because I didn’t want to think about it either.”

“Does anyone know how it happened?” Scott asked quietly.

“Oh, something about the engine. It built up too much steam, or something like that. It exploded and the yacht sank almost immediately. I believe they were all killed in the explosion, but Charles and Charlotte were somehow thrown clear. It was a miracle he found her, let alone that he was able to get her back to the shore. He was so terribly injured, and yet, Charlotte was unscathed. Yes, it was a miracle.”

She stopped for a moment, gathering her thoughts and pushing back the panic that grew in her every time she thought about how close she had come to losing her baby daughter as well as her husband. She took a deep breath and continued.

“I didn’t go, of course. I hate the water. I have done ever since that day when Bertram had to save me in the river,” she explained. Tony nodded, understanding. “Mama didn’t go because she gets seasick just sitting on the beach looking at the water. Everyone else went. It was Papa’s birthday and it was such a nice day. He and Charles had planned it for weeks and the weather was just perfect. They were all so happy when they left. Charles loved that yacht.”

“Algie wasn’t there,” Tony pointed out.

Julia laughed. “Oh, good heavens, of course not,” she said, at last. “Papa couldn’t abide Algie. He wouldn’t have even had him in the house if he could help it. Aunt Beatrice was forever pointing out that he was being unfair to poor Algie.”

She stopped and carefully considered her next words, and then sighed.

“You might have noticed that Algie is… well, he’s not the most…” she blushed and found that she couldn’t find the right words to explain what she meant.

Tony nodded and glanced at Scott. “He’s not the brightest iron in the fire, is he?” Scott suggested.

“No,” she answered quietly, still blushing.

“I think we understand what you mean,” Scott told her.

“He’s not stupid, though,” she insisted. “And he always means well. There are some things he’s very good at, you know. He likes to tinker… that’s what he says. Mechanical things interest him, that’s why he likes that wretched automobile and it’s why he was so clever with photographs. But most other things just bore him.”

A knock on the door behind them stopped the conversation. All three of them turned to find Henry and Johnny coming into the room.

“So, you’re back,” Tony said, with a grin. “Did you learn anything?”

Johnny strolled over and sat on the end of the bed, while Henry walked over to the window and turned back to face them.

“We learned that you’re not the most popular boy in that house,” Johnny told him, grinning from ear to ear.

“Is that so?” Tony asked, grinning back at him. “Why is that?”

“Oh, really, Anthony!” Julia exclaimed. “How can you ask that? It’s Arabella, of course.”

“There’s nothing between Arabella and me,” he said bluntly.

“Perhaps not on your side, Anthony,” she replied. “But I’d say that Arabella thinks differently.”

Henry cleared his throat. “I don’t think it matters who feels what,” he told them all. “The point is that that’s what Robert and his mother believe.”

“Then you think he might be responsible, Henry?” Scott asked.

“No, I don’t believe Robert is behind the attempts on Tony’s life,” he answered.

“Johnny?” Scott asked. “What about you?”

“I agree with Henry. I don’t think it’s Robert.”

Scott frowned. When Johnny had left this morning, he’d seemed convinced that Robert Storey was behind the murder attempts. Suddenly, Johnny had done an about face.

“What changed your mind?” Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged. “He said so,” he told his brother.

“And you believe him?”

“Yeah, I believe him,” Johnny assured him. “See, he also says he don’t like you, Tony.”

Henry laughed. “He was quite persuasive on that point.”

“I don’t think I’d take him right off the list,” Johnny told them. “But he’s way down at the bottom, I reckon.”

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

Tony ran his right hand searchingly over Cuervo’s back and then slowly felt his way over each of the horse’s legs.

“He wasn’t hurt, Lord Hawkesbury,” Tom assured him. “’Cept for the little cuts where the thorns stuck him, an’ the salve is workin’ real good on that. They’re healing okay. He’s just fine.”

Tony remained silent, while Johnny stood back and watched him. Johnny knew him well enough to know what that silence meant. He was at boiling point.

He didn’t blame him, either. He knew how he would have felt had someone done the same thing to Barranca.

Finally, Tony stood up straight and checked the tiny cuts on Cuervo’s back one more time. Tom was right. There was no lasting damage. It was virtually healed already, but, somehow, that knowledge didn’t matter. He moved forward and stroked the horse’s neck gently.

“When I find the man who did this, I’ll string him up!” Tony told them, his voice hard as iron.

“Reckon I’ll help you,” Tom answered. “Usin’ a man’s horse to try to kill him is just plain mean.”

Tony sighed. “Well, you’re right. Those cuts are nearly healed, but I’m not aggravating that wound by putting a saddle on him so soon. I’ll ride one of the other horses.”

“I’ll find a good one for ya, sir,” Tom said eagerly.

“Why don’t you saddle Nero for His Lordship?” Johnny suggested. Nero was the horse he had ridden himself. “I’ll ride Brimstone.”

“Brimstone?” Tony exclaimed. “You can’t be serious? He’s not ready.”

Johnny grinned. “Sure, he is,” he replied. “He needs a good run.”

“Johnny, that horse isn’t ready to be ridden,” Tony insisted. “There are plenty of other horses you can ride.”

“I don’t need another horse to ride, Tony,” Johnny insisted. “He’s not green, just high spirited an’ bad tempered. He needs the run.”

Tony sighed. “All right, if you’re sure.”

He didn’t get an answer, just another grin. Johnny wandered off to the tack room to get a saddle, with Tom following close behind him. The stables were buzzing with grooms saddling horses and leading them out into the yard.

Johnny took the saddle back and talked softly to Brimstone while he put it on and cinched it. He took his time, while Tony watched him quietly, and, by the time he was finished, Tony’s horse had been led out into the yard with the others.

He led Brimstone out into the sunlight where Scott was waiting with Julia and Algernon.

“Any sign of Henry, yet?” he asked Scott.

Scott turned around to answer him and saw the horse his brother was leading. Scott frowned. “Are you sure he’s ready to be ridden?” he asked.

“Yes, Boston,” Johnny answered patiently. “It’s not like he’s never been ridden before.”

“Maybe not, but he hasn’t been ridden for over a year, Johnny,” Julia pointed out anxiously.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be just fine,” Johnny told her confidently.

“Here comes Henry, now,” Algie announced, pointing to the lone rider coming up the drive towards them.

Algie hoisted Julia into the sidesaddle and she settled herself and pulled her riding habit neatly into place. She took the reins and waited for the men to mount.

Tony mounted adroitly, with both Scott and Johnny watching to make sure there was no repetition of the events of two days ago. But, there was none. His horse stood by quietly and allowed Tony to make himself comfortable in the saddle without incident.

Algie and Scott did the same, just as Henry joined them. After everyone had greeted him, he turned his attention to Algie.

“I’m surprised to see you joining us, Algie,” he said, smiling. “I thought you disapproved of four-legged transportation.”

“Definitely,” Algie agreed good-humoredly. “But a Hawkesbury’s word is his bond, dear fellow. I promised Anthony that I would ride with him, and so I shall.”

“And you, Julia! You’re joining us too?” Henry asked, surprised to see her.

She smiled broadly. “Oh, I couldn’t stay home when Algie is riding with you,” she said, with a teasing glance at her cousin.

Henry took note of her elegantly cut emerald green riding habit and her tall hat with a long scarf tied around it to match the color of her habit. She sat straight in the saddle with an easy grace. His eyes sparkled with approval.

“You should come more often, my dear,” he said admiringly. “You look quite charming.”

“Charming?” Algie exclaimed. “Why, she looks positively ravishing!”

Julia laughed lightly. “Indeed, I should definitely do this more often. Such wonderful compliments are not easy to come by.”

“Then, we’ve all been terribly remiss, my dear,” Henry replied, smiling. He turned his attention to Algie. “And you, Algie, you look good on horseback. Your tailor would be proud of you.”

Algernon preened his immaculately cut tweed coat and shifted in his saddle. His face lit up with pleasure.

“So glad you think so, Henry,” he said and then leaned forward, closer to Henry, to add, “though I do hope none of my friends see me. I don’t know how I could explain my cousin and his friends. Their choice of clothes is so… odd.” He sighed heavily. “And they simply refuse all my offers to help them choose something more appropriate.”

Henry laughed. “I’m afraid there’s just no accounting for taste, Algie.”

“Eccentric!” Algie proclaimed. “Positively, eccentric!”

“Yes, indeed, Algie,” Henry agreed amiably. “Eccentric is probably the only way to explain it.”

Algie sat back and shook his head. “Well, if any of my friends see me, I shall never live it down.”

Henry smiled. “I shouldn’t worry about it, Algie. It’s most unlikely that any of them will be here to see you,” he assured him. “Relax and enjoy yourself.”

Algie’s expression changed to disbelief. “Relax and enjoy myself? On horseback? My dear fellow, I am counting the minutes until it’s over. Why, the beast smells!”

Scott smiled at Algie’s martyrdom, as did the rest of the party, but he had to admit that Algie looked good on the horse. His back was straight and yet he looked perfectly at ease. Scott remembered hearing that he traveled by motor vehicle, not because he couldn’t ride, but simply because he preferred it. He wasn’t fond of horses – or of any other animal apparently.

But Scott wasn’t about to sit and admire Algie. His attention was on his brother. He stood beside his horse, watching Johnny settling Brimstone. The animal edged away as Johnny tried to mount him. Brimstone walked a couple of steps forward, then sideways.

“Do you need a hand there, little brother?” Scott asked, grinning.

Johnny threw a look of pure ice at him and pulled back on the bridle. “¡No más, Brimstone!” he snapped quietly. “Enough!”

Henry looked on in consternation. “Johnny, maybe that’s not such a good idea. That horse is just about the most bad tempered animal I know.”

“Johnny knows what he’s doing,” Scott told him confidently, and, as if to prove him right, the horse allowed Johnny to mount.

Brimstone moved forward and back nervously, but Johnny took a firm hold of the animal and soon had him under control.

“By heavens, Johnny,” Algie exclaimed. “I didn’t think you’d be able to do it. Well done.”

Scott mounted, with much less drama than his brother, and turned his horse to join them. He gave Johnny and Brimstone a little room to move. He knew better than to crowd a horse like Brimstone.

“Yes, well done, Johnny,” Henry agreed.

“So, where are we off to?” Julia asked them. She looked perfectly comfortable on horseback.

“I think we’ll go down to the Gallop,” Tony suggested. “I’d like to feel the wind in my face.”

“Sounds good to me,” Johnny told him. “But you’re not feeling the wind in your face, amigo. You’re supposed to take it easy today. That means a nice easy ride. That’s the only reason you’re bein’ allowed out with us at all.”

“Allowed, Johnny?” Tony replied, scowling.

It didn’t faze Johnny. “Allowed, Tony,” he answered, grinning.

*

They rode out in pairs. Johnny and Tony led the way, with Scott and Algie behind them and Henry bringing up the rear with Julia. 

Johnny kept his horse under tight rein at first, but he found he was able to relax and ease his hold as they went further.

Brimstone seemed to be enjoying his newfound freedom. He settled into the easy pace set by the horse beside him, but, now and then, tossed his head to let Johnny know that he was ready for more.

Johnny and Tony saw the riders ahead first, and they slowed their horses so that they could talk to them. It was easy to recognize their friends and Henry rode forward to greet his sisters and Robert Storey.

“I had no idea you were planning to ride this morning,” Henry told them. “We could have all gone together.”

“We didn’t plan to, Henry,” Abigail replied brightly. She and her sister were dressed in the same style as Julia, but both wore blue – Arabella in dark blue and her sister in pale blue.

“But Robert came by and invited us to join him,” Arabella continued. “It’s such a lovely morning that we said yes.”

Johnny’s horse fidgeted, impatient to be moving again, so he tightened his reins and pulled him into line again.

“I must say, Johnny,” Abigail said, smiling. “I’m surprised to see you riding Brimstone. Is he behaving himself?”

“Yes, just fine, Miss Abigail,” Johnny answered.

“Why don’t the three of you join us?” Tony suggested. “We’re headed for Charles’ Gallop.”

Abigail sounded delighted at the idea. “Oh, that sounds lovely,” she said, and then turned to Robert. “Don’t you think so, Robert?”

“Yes, it does,” he answered doubtfully, watching the sisters fall into line with the earl’s party. He dropped his head for a moment and then added, “But I just remembered that I have a previous engagement. I don’t know how I could have forgotten it.”

Abigail looked disappointed. “Are you sure, Robert? Do you really have to go?”

“Yes, I do,” he insisted. “Why don’t you ladies go ahead and join them. I should go. I really mustn’t be late.”

“I wish you’d reconsider, Robert,” Tony told him.

“Thank you, Anthony,” Robert said, quietly. “I’m sure the ladies would much prefer to join you. I really have something that I must attend to.”

He bowed his head politely to Arabella and Abigail. “It’s been a pleasure, ladies,” he told them and then turned his horse away.

*

Julia and the Billingsly sisters rode at the back of the group as they made their way down the narrow lane that led to the Gallop.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into Robert,” Arabella said sadly. “I don’t believe his story. He just didn’t want to join us.”

“You can hardly blame him, Arabella,” Abigail said testily.

Arabella looked shocked. “Why?”

“Because you don’t give him a second look now that Anthony is back,” her sister told her bluntly.

“He knows how I feel,” Arabella insisted. “He’s always known. I told him long before Anthony came back.” She looked at Julia with embarrassment. “I…I’ve always loved Anthony. Poor Ambrose understood that. He never asked for more than affection. Robert knows that.”

“Have you talked to Anthony?” Julia asked.

“No, I’m not sure that he feels the same way any more,” she answered sadly. “He did once, but that was a long time ago.” She sighed heavily. “But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change how I feel.”

The girls were silent for some time after that. They rode down the quiet shaded lane that opened out into the Gallop.

Julia loved it, but it had been a long time since she had been here. She’d already been married when Charles had designed it and had it built, but she and George had accompanied him once or twice. She remembered Charles’ pride in the end result and she understood why. It was an impressive sight.

The outer track was an oval shape of hard packed earth. It was flat even ground and designed to emulate racing conditions. Through the middle, Charles had had fences and hedges set up so that he could train his hunters. The first jump was a wooden fence and only about two feet high. It had been meant for novices.

The second was another wooden fence but a foot higher and the third was two fences set close together. They were followed by a high, neatly trimmed hedge of box, and finally by a three foot wide ditch filled with water.

It had never been built for fun, but rather for the training of the stable of horses that Charles kept. He had dreamed for many years of breeding fine hunters and this had been an integral part of his plan.

It was all laid out on a flat piece of ground with woods at either end, and open fields on either side.

Although Charles had never planned the Gallop for pleasure alone, he had taken great delight in it just the same. She remembered that he and Robert had spent a lot of time here, racing for fun as well as training young horses.

“It seems like years since I was last here,” Abigail said as they reached the top end of the field.

“I can almost feel Charles’ presence here,” Julia replied.

“Oh, he did love it so,” Arabella confirmed. “I’m glad it’s been kept up properly. It would be a terrible shame if it was neglected.”

They stopped their horses beside the men and dismounted.

“So, who’s going first?” Arabella asked.

“Well, I was hoping that Algie…” Tony began teasingly, but his cousin’s expression was ludicrous.

“Oh, no, Cuz,” Algernon protested quickly. “I told you that I would join you riding, not that I would do anything exhausting. No, I shall be a spectator.”

“I’d like to see what Brimstone can do,” Henry suggested.

“Good idea, Henry,” Tony agreed. “I’ll race you round the circuit, Johnny.”

“Oh no, I don’t think so,” Johnny told him with a determined shake of his head. “I’ll go, but you’re a spectator today, too. You’re supposed to be takin’ things easy.”

Before Tony could protest, Henry and Scott joined in with their support.

“You’re a nice lot of friends, aren’t you?” Tony complained. “For your information, I feel perfectly well.”

Johnny smiled wickedly. “You still ain’t racin’ me.”

“I’ll race him,” Scott said, grinning. “Perhaps I’ll have more chance against him on that horse than at home against Barranca.”

Johnny’s eyes gleamed. “I wouldn’t count on it, brother.”

“I’d like to join you, if you have no objections,” Henry added.

“None whatsoever,” Scott told him.

The three of them lined up and Tony gave the signal for their start. It was soon apparent that Brimstone was a force to be reckoned with, but he hadn’t been out enough to keep pace with the other two horses for long.

Johnny didn’t actually seem to be pushing Brimstone for speed either. Julia could see that from her vantage point. He seemed to be satisfied just to let the horse have his head and get the feel of a little freedom.

On the other hand, it looked to Julia like Scott and Henry were definitely competing for first place. She laughed watching them. They rode on either side of Johnny, who kept pace with them for more than half the distance before beginning to lag behind.

Even so, he was only a couple of yards behind them when they finished. He patted Brimstone’s shoulder affectionately and the horse lifted its head proudly.

The finish was such a near thing that both Henry and Scott claimed the prize and finally called on Tony to settle the argument.

Tony laughed loudly. “I could lose a friend doing that!” he cried. “No matter which way I call it.”

“Nonsense!” Henry protested with an answering laugh. “Show some backbone, Tony. Who won?”

“I hope you remember that, Henry,” Tony told him, grinning. “Because I thought Scott was a nose in front.” He shrugged lightly. “Sorry.”

Henry looked shocked and frowned.

“You did insist, Henry,” Scott said with a playful smile. He dismounted and walked his horse over to Tony’s side.

“Yes, when I thought he could actually see!” Henry replied huffily.

“Don’t be a poor sportsman,” Arabella told him, smiling. “Scott clearly won, my dear.”

Henry dismounted and clapped Scott on the shoulder. “Very well, I’ll concede defeat,” he laughed. “But under protest.”

“I think we should insist on Algie taking a run at the course, now,” Tony suggested impishly.

“No, I insist on being a spectator,” Algie told him.

“Oh, please, Algie,” Arabella said. “I’ve always loved to watch you riding.”

“Come along, Algie,” Julia joined in, laughing gaily.

Algernon sighed heavily. His air of martyrdom returned. “Oh, very well,” he acquiesced reluctantly. “But, if I fall, I shall hold you all to blame.”

“Really, Algie,” Julia huffed. “I can’t even remember the last time you fell. And don’t tell me that you don’t ride to hounds. I happen to know that you do, and with the Melton hunt, at that!”

“Well, of course I do, but that’s a completely different thing,” he insisted. “One has to maintain appearances in society, my dear.”

Algernon guided his horse forward and then urged him towards the jumps. He and his horse took the fences with sublime ease, surprising Scott and Johnny, though not those who knew him. It was definitely by choice that he avoided riding.

He rode with precision and style – faultlessly. But, when he returned to join them, there was no joy in his face. He brought his horse back at a casual pace and accepted their accolades graciously. The three ladies were suitably impressed, while the men all congratulated him with genuine admiration.

“It’s all your fault, you know, Anthony,” Algie said, smiling.

“How so, Algie?” Tony asked him.

“Well, yours’ and your brothers’. Mother always insisted that I should be able to do whatever you and your brothers could do, and since you were all master horsemen, it was required of me to equal you.”

Tony smiled. “I think you underestimate yourself, Algie,” he pointed out. “You’re more than my equal on a horse. You should ride more often.”

But Algie only laughed. “Good lord, no. My tailor would be appalled.”

They laughed with him and Abigail nudged her horse forward.

“Abigail, what are you planning?” Arabella demanded crisply.

“Oh, don’t be foolish, Arabella,” Henry told his sister, good-naturedly. He turned to Abigail and grinned. “Take a run at it, Abigail. Show up Algie for us.”

Abigail laughed happily. “Just try to stop me!” she cried out and kicked her horse into action.

Henry turned back to Scott, Tony and Johnny. “Don’t worry about her. Abigail can outride just about any man in the county,” he told them proudly.

He was certainly right. Even riding sidesaddle, Abigail urged her mount over one jump after another without missing a beat. The folds of her habit spread over the horse’s back and her pale blue scarf trailed behind her in the breeze that stirred as she took the jumps at a surprising speed.

Julia watched her appreciatively. Abigail didn’t have the same precise technique to her jumping that Algie had, but the sheer joy she experienced in her riding was evident in the way she threw herself and her horse at each fence.

When she trotted her horse back to join them, Abigail’s face was flushed prettily with excitement. Scott smiled in amazement when he saw that her hat still remained in position and that there was not a hair out of place on her elegant head.

“That was wonderful, Abigail,” Tony told her. “You’re certainly not the little girl I remember.”

Abigail laughed with delight. “Good heavens, I hope not.”

“Very pretty riding, my dear,” Algie told her admiringly.

“I’m impressed,” Johnny added, smiling.

“Thank you,” she told them all. “And you, Scott, are you going to take a turn.”

“It would be hard to look as good as you did,” Scott answered mischievously.

Meanwhile, beside him, Johnny swung back into the saddle on Brimstone’s back. The horse moved around edgily and Johnny pulled him under control.

“You’re not thinking of taking him over those jumps, are you, Johnny?” Tony asked.

“Sure, why not?” Johnny answered lightly.

“Is that a good idea?” Scott asked anxiously.

“I’d like to see what he can do,” Johnny replied and grinned. “It’s no worse than takin’ a half-broke palomino over a corral fence.”

Scott grinned back at him. “All right, I take your point,” Scott said with a laugh. “Just be careful, little brother.”

“Always,” Johnny answered with another laugh and he moved the horse forward to take his place at the top of the course.

Scott shook his head in dismay and Julia smiled. “Brimstone has jumped before, Scott,” she told him. “Charles took him over this course a couple of times, though I never saw him. I’m sure Johnny will be all right.”

“I know. Johnny knows how to handle him,” he assured her. “Though I might as well talk to myself as tell him to be careful.”

She laughed with him. She might not know Johnny well, but she had seen the spark of excitement in his eyes as he turned his horse towards the jumps.

Johnny took a moment to settle the horse and then kicked him into action. Brimstone shot forward without any hesitation. They met the first fence without even breaking stride. It was low and provided them with hardly a challenge and they took it with ease. The big black horse landed gracefully and set himself for the second, higher, jump.

As the horse’s front legs left the ground, Julia thought that she had never seen an animal with more natural grace, or a man fit so easily with his horse. Rider and horse became one and the animal leapt and landed in one fluid motion.

But it was the third fence where they showed their best.

Brimstone leapt so high off the ground that Julia thought he would spread wings and rise to the clouds like Pegasus. His mane and tail streamed in the wind, his front legs tucked gracefully under him and his back legs thrown back high enough to miss the top of the fence.

It was a joy to behold, for the horse was born to jump. He didn’t falter, didn’t hesitate and never looked like stumbling.

His action was pure majesty and she held her breath as he landed faultlessly and set himself for the hedge.

Johnny’s hat had fallen behind him and hung by the stampede string, but he leaned his body forward and melted into one form with the horse.

As the two lifted off the ground to take the hedge, Julia felt as though she was riding with them. They were airborne, straddling the hedge, when she heard a branch break in the distance. The sound jolted her and the horse beneath her stepped back before she knew what was happening.

She took her eyes away from Johnny and his horse for only a moment, but when she looked back she realized that the sound had broken the bond between Johnny and his horse as well. The image of Pegasus rising broke and shattered in an instant.

Johnny threw one arm out to his left and the rest of his body followed through the air while Brimstone landed and ran on without him. The horse continued, rider-less, taking the water jump in an easy stride and slowing to a stop – confused and alone. Then he turned, threw up his head and whinnied.

“Oh no, he fell!” Julia cried out in dismay, disappointed and anxious.

She glanced sideways and saw that Scott was already on his horse beside her, fear etched into his face. Behind her, she could hear Henry and Anthony mounting their own horses with just as much haste.

“Like hell, he did!” Scott cursed, forgetting his manners in his panic. “That was a gunshot!”

He pressed his horse forward before anyone had time to say anything more and surged off to his brother.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Scott had a good head start on everyone else and he didn’t slow down even to dismount. He leaped from his horse as soon as he was within reach of the hedge.

“Johnny!” he called out, not able to see his brother at first. “Johnny, are you all right?”

There was an ominous silence and Scott began to fear the worst.

He found Johnny sprawled in the hedge, his left arm thrown out in what Scott could only conclude had been an attempt to break his fall. The hedge had done it for him. He laid on the ground, propped up by the bushes themselves, in a tangle of leaves and branches - a sad end to the brilliance of his ride.

Johnny was unconscious and his face was scratched and bleeding from the snarl of branches, but that wasn’t what immediately caught his eye.

Scott hesitated for a bare instant, taking in the confirmation of his worst fears. He didn’t need to go any closer to see the crimson stain spreading across Johnny’s shirt from under his open jacket.

He gathered his wits and quickly knelt beside his brother, and then he pulled aside the left side of the coat. His eyes closed in despair for a moment, then he drew a quick breath and set to work. He undid the buttons on Johnny’s shirt, pulled his handkerchief from inside his own coat and pressed it to the open wound in his brother’s chest.

That wound hadn’t been made by any branch of the hedge. It was a bullet wound, and it was oozing blood too fast for his handkerchief to stop. It was close to his heart – too close.

Panic seized him. He looked around to the horse and cursed. There were no saddlebags – none of the basic supplies that Teresa made sure they all carried with them, no canteen. His mind searched for something to use while he pressed his hand to the bleeding wound.

“Damn you, Johnny,” he said quietly. “How do you always manage to find trouble like this?”

Suddenly, there was a rush of noise behind him as Tony and Henry rode past. Neither stopped and Scott assumed that they were heading for the woods to try to catch whoever had fired the shot. Then more horses arrived as the women arrived with Algernon.

“Good heavens!” Algie exclaimed loudly and Scott turned around. He hadn’t dismounted yet, but Julia was already on the ground and running towards them.

“Scott, is he hurt?” she called out as she ran.

“He’s been shot. We need help, quickly, or he’ll bleed to death.”

Julia reached his side and knelt down opposite Scott. “Algie, ride home quickly and send Morphett with the cart. And tell him to send some bandages back with him. Make sure that he comes back quickly,” she ordered, and when he didn’t do as she said instantly, she looked up and shouted, “NOW!”

“Yes, yes, of course,” he answered. The man looked shaken to the core. He turned his horse and rode off as fast as his horse could carry him.

“Ladies, do any of you have a handkerchief with you?” Scott asked urgently. “Mine is not enough to stop the bleeding.”

Julia pulled the hat from her head and untied the chiffon scarf. She folded it tightly and handed it to Scott. “Perhaps this will help,” she suggested.

He took it quickly and pressed it on top of his handkerchief. He looked across at Julia. She was pale, but she seemed to have her wits about her. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

Scott shook his head. He had to check for an exit wound. Johnny could be bleeding from his back as well, for all he knew. And he could have other injuries from the fall. But he couldn’t afford to take the pressure off the wound.

“Julia,” he whispered, turning to look at her. “I hate to ask you this, but can you hold this pad in place while I check him over?”

She paled even more, but she nodded and reached across to take over from Scott.

“Thanks,” he told her appreciatively. “Press down hard. You won’t hurt him.”

He looked at his hands and realized they were covered with blood, his brother’s lifeblood. Then he wiped them on his trousers and reached behind Johnny to feel for signs of an exit wound. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or not when he found no trace of more blood on his back. He wasn’t bleeding from another wound, but it meant that the bullet was still lodged in his chest.

He quickly ran his hands over his arms and his legs, then checked his head and satisfied himself that the bullet wound was the only injury. The hedge had broken his fall relatively safely.

Abigail appeared beside him with her scarf rolled up into a pad in the same way that Julia had done, and her sister’s as well.

“You can use Arabella’s scarf to tie the pads in place,” she suggested and then stepped back out of the way.

He looked up and smiled wanly. “Thank you, ladies,” he said warmly. “I appreciate it.”

Julia kept her hand in place while he applied the second scarf and then tied Arabella’s tightly around his brother’s chest. Only then did he lift her hand away from the wound. She took her own small handkerchief from a pocket and gently wiped the trickles of blood from the cuts on Johnny’s face.

The cuts were very minor and had already stopped bleeding, so it wasn’t hard to clean those up, so she then set about wiping the blood from her hand.

Scott heard horses behind him again and turned to find both Tony and Henry coming up. Henry had Brimstone in tow, so it was Tony who was the first to reach him. He jumped down quickly and ran over to the small group around Johnny. Then he kneeled on the opposite side of Johnny, beside his sister.

“Damn!” he swore loudly, as Henry ran up behind him and leaned over him to see for himself.

Johnny had already lost a lot of blood and his face had paled terribly under the scratches. He showed no sign of coming to.

“I sent Algie for the cart,” Julia told her brother.

“We’ll need the doctor,” Scott said, urgently. He looked up at Henry. “Can you ride into the village and get him, Henry?”

“Yes, of course,” Henry replied and turned away, but Abigail stopped him.

“I’ll go,” she told him. “You might be needed here and I can go just as quickly.”

“I’ll go with you,” Arabella added and the two girls mounted with Henry’s help. “We’ll have him at Wetherley by the time you get there with Johnny,” she continued and they set off at a fast pace.

Henry went back to join his friends. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Not right now,” Scott answered, the words grating on him. There was so little he could do. He made himself more comfortable beside Johnny and moved his brother’s outstretched arm closer to his body. He pulled away any twigs and leaves that were in the way and tried to ensure that nothing was likely to do any more damage.

He didn’t dare move Johnny other than that. The bleeding had slowed considerably and he had no desire to change that. Besides which, the thick hedge was actually supporting Johnny in a half-sitting position that was needed to try to slow the bleeding.

He checked the pad on the wound and satisfied himself that it was maintaining enough pressure and then pulled a tiny twig from his brother’s hair.

“Scott,” Tony said quietly. “The bullet…?”

Scott shook his head. “There’s no exit wound. It’s still in his chest.” He checked Johnny’s pulse and found it faint and far too fast. His breathing was still even, but it was much too slow and labored, and there was a gurgling sound with every breath that Johnny took which Scott didn’t like.

A feeling of powerlessness swamped him.

Henry walked over to the lane to see if there was any sign yet of the cart, though both Tony and Scott knew that it was still far too soon.

“You didn’t find anything in the woods?” Scott asked Tony. More than anything, he needed to hear another voice, to know that he wasn’t alone in this.

“No, he was gone, but we found where someone had been standing for some time. I think he’d been waiting.”

“Then this was no accident,” Scott surmised.

“I don’t think so.”

“But why? Johnny has no enemies here,” Scott protested, angrily. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Could he have found out something and not told us?” Tony asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Scott told him. He put his palm to Johnny’s cheek and found it cool and clammy. He needed to do something – anything!

Decisively, he pulled off his coat and spread it over Johnny, tucking it around him carefully. Johnny hadn’t moved or made a sound. It was eerie and so unlike his brother that Scott found it difficult to accept.

Scott took his brother’s hand in his. “Come on, Johnny, hang in there,” he pleaded, hoping that something in Johnny’s mind would register the sound of his voice and the words he spoke and cling to them.

Tony reached across and put his hand on Scott’s shoulder in mute support, and looked at his friend’s torn and bloodstained face. Johnny had worked tirelessly to find out who had been trying to kill him, and he would do no less for Johnny. Someone was going to pay for this.

The thought opened up a possibility that appalled him.

*

The cart wasn’t the most comfortable mode of travel but it was enough to get Johnny back to the house. Scott sat in the back with Johnny leaning against his chest. He had his arms wrapped around his brother’s chest in a vain attempt to protect him from all the bumps and jolts of the lane and, later, the drive. But he knew that it was impossible to completely cushion the ride. Not surprisingly, but much to Scott’s dismay, the bleeding had started again.

Scott kept pressure on the wound and hoped to slow it. He checked his brother’s pulse regularly and whispered encouragement to him, still hopeful that his words were somehow crossing that dark crevice between them.

Johnny hadn’t woken or made a sound when they had carefully lifted him to put him in the cart. It was a blessing in one respect. He wasn’t feeling any pain throughout the whole drama. But, Scott wanted nothing more than to see his brother’s eyes open and hear him say his name.

Henry and Tony rode behind the cart, keeping a close eye on Johnny. Each of them had a horse in tow, Scott’s bay and Johnny’s black. Julia rode beside the cart, looking straight ahead mostly, but occasionally turning a tear stained face towards the back of the cart.

Tony had ordered that Morphett go as quickly as possible, while watching the road to avoid any unnecessary jarring. Even so, the cart swayed sickeningly as it carried their priceless cargo over rough ground and rutted lanes.

By the time the cart crunched over the last of the gravel drive and came to a stop at the bottom of the steps to Wetherley, Johnny’s face was deathly white and his breaths came in rasping gasps, his pulse racing.

Tony and Henry dismounted and handed the horses over to two waiting grooms. They hurried to the back of the cart.

“How’s he doing?” Tony asked urgently.

“Not good,” Scott answered quickly. “Is the doctor here yet?”

Tony looked around him and spotted the tall, gray haired Scotsman coming towards them. “Yes, he’s here. Stay where you are till he has a look at Johnny.”

Scott nodded, and looked down into his brother’s emotionless face. “Stay with me, brother,” he whispered. “Hang in there.”

The cart dipped and Scott looked up angrily, only to find Dr. McGrath climbing in carefully and easing himself over to their side.

Scott’s coat was still wrapped around Johnny’s chest and shoulders to keep him warm and stave off shock for a little longer. The doctor moved it aside and gently lifted the blood soaked pad to have a look at the wound.

His face gave nothing away, but he lowered the pad carefully back into place and got down from the cart.

“Get him upstairs quickly,” the doctor told them. “And do it carefully, very carefully.”

His words unnerved Scott, but Tony and Henry reached in and cautiously pulled Johnny out of his hands.

*

Scott hurried behind them as they carried Johnny up the stairs and into the house. When he got to the door, Lady Hawkesbury took his arm and pulled him to a halt.

“No, I have to go with him,” he demanded furiously as Henry and Anthony got ahead of him and started to carry him up the staircase to his room.

“Scott, let them take him upstairs,” she said gently. “Let the doctor do his work now.”

He put out a hand that was covered in blood and thrust away her hand. “I have to be with him. He needs me,” he growled at her.

She released his arm, but took hold of his hand and covered it with the other. His brother’s blood had stained the hand crimson, along with his clothes and his other hand. His face was streaked with blood, but he was pale with worry.

“I know he needs you, Scott,” she told him quietly. “But he needs the doctor far more at the moment. Mrs. Morcombe will help him as she always does.”

Scott shook his head and tried to pull away, but she held on grimly, with strength that startled him.

She watched him struggle with himself and he turned away from her to look towards the staircase. Henry and Anthony disappeared around the corner and down the hall, giving him a last glimpse of his brother’s limp form.

“No,” he cried out, painfully. “No… I…”

“Come with me, Scott,” she whispered considerately. “We’ll get you cleaned up and wait for news from the doctor.”

Having lost sight of his brother, he closed his eyes in silent despair. She saw his face change as emotion rushed in on him.

“Johnson,” she called out, and the man appeared beside her from nowhere. “Johnson, will you take Mr. Scott and help him clean up? Bring him back to the drawing room when you’re done, please.”

The butler stepped forward and put his hand on Scott’s arm.

“You come along with me, Sir,” he said kindly. “Your brother is in good hands and you don’t want to get in his way.”

As if their words finally got through to him, Scott visibly relaxed and nodded.

“Thank you, Johnson,” he said in a voice totally devoid of inflection. “You’re both right, of course. It’s just that… I should be with him.”

“I know, Sir,” he told him “I’d feel the same way about my own brother, but you can’t help him now, and the doctor can.”

Scott nodded. “Yes, I know.”

*

Scott pulled his arm through the sleeve of the clean shirt and then started to button it. His fingers shook and he stopped for a moment to get hold of himself. He had to admit that he did feel better now that he had cleaned up, but worry ate at him nevertheless.

He wished Sam was here. It wasn’t exactly that he didn’t trust Dr. McGrath. After all, he didn’t know him. But Sam Jenkins had pulled Johnny through some tough spots before. He needed that kind of reliability now. This time it was bad.

He didn’t need any doctor to tell him that.

A knock on the door dragged his mind back to the present. With his shirt hanging out and still mostly still undone, Scott walked over to the door and opened it.

Tony and Henry were both waiting in the hallway. They had both freshened up as well, and Tony had also changed into clean clothes.

Their faces looked so downcast that Scott’s heart missed a beat.

“Johnny…?” he asked frantically.

Tony hurried to reassure him. “No, there’s no news yet,” he told him. “It’s too soon.”

“We got kicked out, too,” Henry added, putting his hand on Scott’s shoulder soothingly. He walked past Scott into his room and Tony followed. “Don’t worry, Scott. McGrath is a good man. He’ll do everything he can.”

“I’m sure he is,” Scott said gratefully, but doubts gnawed at him and tinged the tone of his answer.

He went back to buttoning his shirt until he had it finished and then tucked it into his pants. He picked up his coat and turned to face them both.

“Let’s go downstairs,” he said quietly. “I want to be there when the doctor comes down.”

Tony looked uncomfortable and didn’t move. Henry spoke for him.

“I don’t think the doctor will be finished for while, Scott,” he said. “It’s only been twenty minutes, and we need to talk to you before you go downstairs.”

“What about?”

"About why this happened,” Tony answered, looking at him with eyes that were drowning in pain. “I think I’ve worked it out, and Henry agrees with me.”

Scott frowned. “What do you mean?”

Tony’s voice caught as he spoke. “I can’t tell you how badly I feel about this, Scott,” he began. “But I think I was the target again.”

Scott’s frown deepened and he shook his head, disbelieving. “Why do you think so? Johnny couldn’t be mistaken for you.”

“No, not up close,” Henry agreed. “But the shot came from quite a distance. They couldn’t have seen his face.”

Tony sighed and walked over to the bed. He sat down on the edge. “I usually ride Cuervo, Scott. I always ride the black. They knew to put the thorn under his saddle because I didn’t ride any other horse,” he said dejectedly. “But I was on Nero today, remember? A bay… Cuervo is still touchy after that thorn business.”

“I know,” Scott answered.

Tony looked up at him. “Scott, Cuervo is black. Think about it.”

Scott’s legs nearly went out from under him. He lowered himself into the nearest chair.

“Oh, my God, Brimstone…” he whispered, understanding.

“From that distance,” Henry added morosely. “And, if he didn’t realize that Johnny was riding a black and Tony wasn’t…”

“And both Johnny and I have dark hair, even if we don’t look alike,” Tony finished sadly.

Scott sighed despondently and lowered his head. “Yes,” he conceded. “I see what you mean.”

“Scott, I’m so sorry,” Tony told him. His head was down and the tone of his voice spoke volumes for how he felt.

“No, Tony,” Scott replied. His voice resounded with a different emotion. “No, if it’s true, it still isn’t your fault.” His expression turned thunderous. “But someone is responsible. And, if Johnny was shot by mistake, that doesn’t make any difference. They were still trying to kill you.”

He stood up and walked over to the window. He stared out, not seeing anything beyond his own reflection in the glass. “God help them when I find them.”

*

Scott could feel their eyes on him as he paced relentlessly across the drawing room and back. An hour – it had been an hour now. And still there had been no word from upstairs.

Lady Hawkesbury sat with her daughter, head high and watching him closely. In fact, they were all there. Both of the Billingsly sisters had stayed, and Algie stood by as well. Naturally, Henry and Tony were there, too. The room seemed as though it was full of people, but Scott felt strangely alone there.

He hadn’t really understood how much the support of his family could mean to him - until now. These were good people, and he knew they cared about Johnny, but it wasn’t the same.

Here, in a strange land and far away from Murdoch and Teresa, Jelly and their friends, he felt more alone than he had ever felt before.

His pacing picked up speed as the thoughts going through his head swirled and curdled. He couldn’t seem to keep one thought in his head for more than a minute without it being pushed aside by another. Surely it was good news that the doctor hadn’t come down yet? It meant that Johnny was alive. He should be grateful.

But, did it mean that there was a problem? Or, maybe it meant that the surgery was going well?

A mistake! A stupid mistake! It shouldn’t have even been Johnny who was shot. With all the men in the world who wanted Johnny Madrid dead, it was a case of mistaken identity that had caused this.

But, that didn’t mean he would have wanted Tony shot instead. No, he didn’t wish any harm on Tony. But, Johnny…

He’d kill them! He’d find them and take them by the throat and squeeze the life out of them if Johnny died!

He stopped. No, Johnny was not going to die. He had to keep telling himself that he’d make it. He could hear Johnny saying those very words. “I can make it.” How many times had he shaken his head in irritation at those words? And now? Now, he’d give anything to hear them.

He leaned his hand on the wall and hung his head. The silence was crushing him. All those people in the room, and not a word from any of them. Instead, their eyes bored into him. Boring little holes in his back as they all watched him.

‘You’re losing it, Scott,’ he heard his own voice saying. He didn’t know whether he had said it aloud or not, but he realized that he had to pull himself together. He had to be ready when news came of his brother.

A hand lightly touched his shoulder and he flinched. He looked over his shoulder and found Julia standing behind him. Her hand was barely touching him, but his emotions threatened to overwhelm him.

“Come and sit down, Scott,” she whispered kindly. She took his arm and his anger fell away, replaced by the simpler emotion of worry, and he turned and followed her back to an armchair.

He sat down and put his head in his hands. He ran his hands through his hair and fought for self-control.

Henry handed him a glass of brandy. He didn’t remember seeing or hearing him move, but he was suddenly there.

“Drink it, Scott,” he ordered him. “It might help.”

Scott looked up at him. He thought about turning it down.

“Go ahead, Scott,” Julia urged him.

He didn’t feel like drinking. But he took it anyway and sipped it. It went down smoothly and warmed his throat and chest, evoking a calm that he wouldn’t have thought possible.

Julia sat down beside him. She said nothing more, but kept her hand lightly on his shoulder. It helped. He didn’t understand how such a simple act could lighten his burden, but somehow it did.

*

Two hours! Scott had relapsed into the same silence that surrounded him. He still sat in the armchair that Julia had led him to, and she still sat beside him. Her hand rested on his arm now, very lightly and with a promise of nothing more than support while he needed it.

But it helped.

Tony had stood up and walked across to the window looking out over the long drive and the lush green lawns. His hands were clasped tightly behind his back and he said nothing to anyone either. He’d been there now for fifteen minutes or more, lost in his own world.

When the door finally opened, everyone sat up. Tony turned back from the window, and Scott got slowly to his feet.

The doctor stood before him but his face gave no indication of what news he had for them. The dour Scotsman simply walked into the room and approached Scott.

“Doctor?” Scott asked nervously. “How is he?”

The doctor shook his head. “Your brother is a very tough young man,” he told him calmly. “He’s very much alive, Sir, but we need to talk privately.”

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

“Yes, of course,” Scott answered warily. If he wanted to see him privately, then the chances were that there was a problem. He clung desperately to the doctor’s first words – Johnny was alive. He’d made a point of saying it. But, beyond that – what could be wrong?

“Lord Hawkesbury,” McGrath continued gravely. “Perhaps you and your mother would kindly join us as well?”

“Yes, certainly Doctor,” Tony replied. His face showed his surprise, but he hastily got to his feet and strode across the room. As he walked, his face took on a grim expression. “In the library, I think,” he said authoritatively and led the way to the room.

Lady Hawkesbury stood up and looked at the Doctor, but he was giving nothing away. She obviously disliked his air of secrecy, but the man must have had his reasons, so she followed, stoically, in her son’s footsteps.

Tony held the door to the library open for his mother and for the doctor, and then he caught Scott’s eye as he passed by him and into the room. Scott saw the look of concern in those eyes and he waited for Tony to follow him in and pull the door closed behind him.

Neither of them expressed the common thought between them, but their eyes met and showed their fears.

Lady Hawkesbury sat down in one of the armchairs, but Scott and Tony both remained standing, side by side, in front of the fireplace. Scott’s heart raced as he waited to hear what the doctor had to say.

But, the doctor seemed to be reticent in telling them why they had been asked in there. Scott gave him what he thought was long enough to get started, but finally broke the silence himself.

“What is it, Doctor?” he asked anxiously, unable to contain himself any longer. “What’s wrong?”

McGrath stood in the center of the room with his hands held tightly behind his back. All eyes were on him and he stared at the ground self-consciously.

He cleared his throat and looked up before beginning. “First, let me reiterate, Mr. Lancer, that your brother is doing as well as can be expected. He’s quite comfortable and not in any pain.”

Scott knew there had to be more coming. “You didn’t call us in here to tell me that, Doctor. What’s wrong? Why did you want to see us privately?”

The doctor dipped his head and shifted his weight uncomfortably for a moment before looking back at him, clearing his throat again and continuing.

“I’ve cleaned the wound and I’ve been able to stop the bleeding, although he did lose a considerable amount of blood first.”

“What about the bullet?” Scott asked, frustration inching into his voice.

“Yes,” he answered with a sigh. “Very well. The bullet hit one of his ribs and broke it. I’ve been able to remove a few fragments of the bone. It didn’t hit his lung, which is very good luck, but the bullet is lodged very close to his heart. It’s going to take some very delicate surgery to remove it without damaging his heart and killing him.”

He looked Scott in the eye and continued. “Frankly, Mr. Lancer, I’m not sure that I’m good enough to do it.”

So, there it was! Scott could feel his legs threatening to give way beneath him, so he turned and walked over to one of the armchairs and sat down, very purposefully.

He didn’t know what he had expected to hear. He’d known it wouldn’t be good news, but he really hadn’t been prepared to hear the words.

“Surely, you’ve done this sort of thing before, Doctor?” Lady Hawkesbury enquired sternly.

“Well, yes, of course, my Lady,” he replied quickly. “There have been occasional hunting accidents, but those have always been relatively simple extractions. This is something entirely different, madam, and I’m just a simple country doctor.”

“I take it you have a suggestion for an alternative, Doctor?” Tony pressed him.

“Yes, I recommend calling in a surgeon from London,” the doctor answered. “Randolph Carmody is a very good man. I’m confident he could do it.”

“Would he come all this way?” Tony asked.

“At the request of the Earl of Egan, my Lord? Yes, beyond question.”

Scott tried to get his mind around the dilemma. “How long would it take him to get here?” he asked, forcing himself to start thinking in terms of practicalities.

“If he can leave right away, he could be here within twenty-four hours,” the doctor replied.

“And, in the meantime?” Scott asked, frowning. “How stable is Johnny’s condition?”

“That’s difficult to answer, Mr. Lancer,” the doctor replied reluctantly. “He’s very weak, of course, and we would have to keep him from moving. The bullet is sitting in such a way that if it moves, it could do as much damage as I could by trying to remove it.”

“You mean it could kill him?” Tony asked. His voice seemed calm, but his face gave away his fear.

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“Then, you’re saying that he could die waiting for this man to get here?” Scott asked, appalled.

The doctor looked uncomfortable. “Yes, there is that chance,” he answered after some hesitation. “I can’t guarantee anything.”

Tony stepped forward angrily. “Let me get this straight. You don’t feel confident of getting the bullet out without killing him, so we have to wait for a surgeon from London. But, he could die in the meantime, before the surgeon even gets here?”

“Yes, my Lord,” the man admitted. “Of course, he seems to be a very healthy young man and if we keep him from moving around, I’m confident he will survive until Mr. Carmody gets here.”

“That’s IF Carmody can drop everything and hurry down here!” Scott added, getting to his feet impatiently.

“Naturally, there is some possibility that he would not be able to leave right away. But I’m sure he would recommend someone who could.”

“Naturally,” Scott replied huffily.

Lady Hawkesbury turned her attention to the doctor. “Dr. McGrath,” she said firmly. “Are you saying that you cannot remove the bullet? Or that you don’t believe that you could?”

“My Lady, I’ve never attempted anything as delicate as this.”

“That is NOT what I asked you,” she persisted haughtily.

The doctor lowered his head and answered, reluctantly. “No, I’m not saying that I cannot do it,” he admitted. “But I do think that Mr. Lancer should understand the situation properly so that he can make a decision.”

“Then you would attempt it, if I decide not to wait?” Scott asked him anxiously.

“Yes, I will abide by your decision.”

Scott walked across the room and, once again, found himself staring out of the huge window behind the desk. It overlooked a beautiful vista – gardens, lawns, the lake with a pair of elegant white swans gliding across it. But he didn’t really see any of it. At least, he saw it, but the peace and serenity of it didn’t register on his consciousness.

“Doctor, how is he really?” he asked at length, turning back to face them.

“I wasn’t lying to you earlier,” the doctor replied. “He is doing as well as can be expected. He lost a great deal of blood and he’s very weak.”

“Does he have a fever?”

“His temperature is slightly elevated,” the doctor told him, and then frowned. “Is he prone to fever?”

Scott shook his head. “No more than most men, but we’ve had some experience with bullet wounds back home. It’s my experience that fever is a common result.”

“Yes, I noticed that there was some scarring from earlier injuries,” the doctor told him diplomatically. “You are quite right, though. Infection or fever would be a serious development at this point, and it’s something we have to be aware of.”

“And, if he did develop a fever,” Tony said quietly. “What would you recommend then?”

“Under those conditions, it would not be wise to wait, my Lord,” the doctor answered without hesitation. “But there is no reason to think a fever is imminent.”

“Has he been conscious?” Scott asked, hopefully.

“No, Mr. Lancer,” the doctor assured him. “I sedated him to operate, and he’s unlikely to waken for some time. It’s my intention to keep him sedated until either the surgeon arrives, or you decide otherwise.”

Scott returned to his seat and sat down heavily. “Then, it’s my decision, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid it is.”

“Can I see him?”

“Certainly, you can,” the doctor agreed readily. “I’ll go back to him now. You should think about this, perhaps talk it over with Lord Hawkesbury and with her ladyship. Just come up when you’re ready.”

With that he left the room then and closed the door quietly behind him. He left behind a room gripped by tension.

Scott rubbed the palms of his hands over his face wearily. He felt as though the weight of the world rested on his shoulders, and it was crushing him.

Tony and his mother remained silent, waiting for him to open up of his own accord, but his silence dragged on interminably.

Finally, he looked up at them.

“I’m not sure I can do this, Tony,” he confessed with a heavy sigh. “Johnny’s life depends on what I decide. If I make the wrong choice…”

“Unfortunately, it’s your call, Scott. You can only weigh up the options and make the best choice you can. After that, it’s out of your hands.”

“I know,” Scott answered, despondently. “This man in London, Carmody, how do we know he’ll even come here?”

“Randolph Carmody was a friend of my husband,” Lady Hawkesbury explained. “I have no doubt that he will come as quickly as he can, if we ask it of him. He came when Charles was injured.”

“How long did it take him to get here, Mother?” Tony asked.

“He was here the day after we sent for him,” she replied and a shadow passed over her face. “Unfortunately, that was too late in Charles’ case.”

Tony nodded and looked at his friend. He didn’t envy him the decision. “That doesn’t mean he would be too late for Johnny, Scott. From what I’ve heard, Charles was beyond help when he was brought home. Johnny is not.”

“And in the meantime, if that bullet moves, he could die anyway,” Scott answered, anger beginning to filter into his voice. “Or he could develop a fever. There’s every chance of that and Dr. McGrath admits he’d be forced to try to get the bullet then.”

“Yes, that is a worry,” Tony admitted, nodding. “But, we’re talking about Johnny. If anyone can come through this, it’s Johnny.”

For the first time, Scott half smiled. “Yes. Well, I’m going up to see him for myself. I can’t leave this for too long. I have to decide one way or the other.”

*

Scott went quietly into his brother’s room. He stopped at the doorway, feeling a pall of gloom in the room. Despite all of the luxurious furniture and the gilt, velvet and polished wood everywhere, this wasn’t a bedroom any more. It was sick room.

He waited only a moment and then gently pulled the door closed behind him. Walking across the room, closer to the bed, he got a better look at Johnny and his heart sank.

Dr. McGrath pulled a chair over beside the bed and indicated for him to sit down.

The room was unnaturally quiet for any room that his brother occupied. The doctor was there and so was Mrs. Morcombe, the housekeeper. She was straightening the covers on Johnny’s bed, tucking them in securely around him, and she looked up and smiled reassuringly at Scott.

“Stay as long as you like,” McGrath told Scott. “I don’t think he’ll waken, but if he does, please call me. I’m keeping him sedated so that he doesn’t move around.”

“Thank you,” Scott said distractedly. He sat down and took stock of his brother while the doctor placed his stethoscope back into his bag at a table over by the window. Mrs. Morcombe left the room without a word.

Johnny was paler still than the last time he had seen him and shadows were already showing under his eyes. Against his pale skin, the tiny crinkles of laugh lines at the sides of his eyes were accentuated.

Scott wondered how, in his young, hard life, Johnny had found enough to laugh about to earn those lines. Looking at him now, it was difficult to imagine, but then his mind pictured his free spirited brother and understood.

Johnny could find fun in the sheer joy of being alive. A lot of people could learn from his resilience. He loved life and he had a penchant for practical jokes that had been difficult to reconcile with Johnny Madrid’s reputation, until they got to know him. But they had all been one of his victims at some stage - Scott more than anyone else.

Jelly was another favorite prey, and Scott and Johnny had taken to teaming up to get at their friend. Those games, and getting even with Johnny for the stunts that his mischievous younger brother had pulled on him, had given Scott moments of delight himself. Growing up in his grandfather’s sedate Boston household had provided very limited opportunities for pulling pranks, but he’d found that he had a real talent for it since meeting Johnny.

Scott had once asked Johnny about the opportunities he’d had during his own childhood and, for once, Johnny had told him. In fact, Johnny had reveled in telling him how he had played practical jokes on some of those who had victimized him. He’d set them up and then hid and watched the fun.

Apparently, nine times out of ten, he had gotten away with it. No one suspected that the skinny, blue-eyed mestizo brat would have the smarts, or the nerve, to pull it off.

“I’ll leave you with him, now,” McGrath said gently. “Call me if you need me.”

Scott nodded and searched his brother’s face for something of the prankster, but there was no visible sign of that fun-loving kid. He was propped up, just a little, by a couple of pillows in the big four-poster bed. His hands were laid, palms down, on either side of him and the covers were pulled over his bandaged chest.

Johnny looked peaceful, but that, in itself, was disconcerting. Johnny threw himself into sleeping with the same gusto that he gave to life. Under normal circumstances, his bed would be a shambles by now, but there wasn’t a wrinkle in the sheets and covers of that bed.

Scott reached forward and took his brother’s hand. It felt warm and Scott frowned. Leaning over, he put his hand to his brother’s forehead. There wasn’t enough heat to say that he had a fever, but Scott was sure that one was developing.

The doctor noticed Scott’s agitation as he went to open the door and stopped to reassure him.

“As I told you earlier, Mr. Lancer,” he said in little more than a whisper. “His temperature is up a little, but not enough to be concerned about yet.”

Clutching Johnny’s hand, Scott sat in the chair and tried to consider the options that the doctor had laid out for him. Never before had he held his brother’s fate so entirely in his hands.

He wished, fervently, that Murdoch were here to talk to – to help him make the decision. It was too much to decide alone.

He felt cut off from his family more than ever. They were not only thousands of miles away, but they had no idea how close they were to losing Johnny. How could he face them, if he made the wrong choice? How would he tell them what had happened?

What would Murdoch do, in this situation?

No, if they were at home they would have Dr. Sam Jenkins to advise them. Scott didn’t know Dr. McGrath well enough to know to what extent he should rely on his advice. He had to take him at face value and accept the recommendations of Lady Hawkesbury and the Billingsly family.

“Johnny, I wish you could help me with this one,” he said sadly. “I don’t want to have to make this decision alone.”

But his brother’s eyes didn’t flicker. There was no sign of life about him, except for the slow, regular rise and fall of his chest.

“I don’t expect you to hear me, little brother,” he whispered. “But, I promise you, whatever I decide, I’ll have your best interests at heart. I’m not going to risk losing you.”

Scott sat quietly, watching his brother and hoping that something would happen that would help him to make up his mind. He sat next to the bed, one hand still holding tightly to his brother’s hand, and the other supporting his head as he leaned his elbow on the arm of the chair.

He wanted to make a decision. He HAD to make a decision. He knew it had to be done and there was no one he could turn to for help. It was his choice to make, and he had to do it soon.

*

Scott sat by the bed for ten minutes or more without finding any way to make up his mind. But, as time went by, he realized that he was trying to find the answer with his heart when he should be using his head. He had to look at all the options with an open mind.

He stood up and walked over to the door and opened it. The doctor was standing in the hallway talking with Mrs. Morcombe.

“Dr. McGrath,” he said. “I wonder if I could have a word with you.”

“Has something happened?” the doctor asked quickly.

“No, I just need to talk to you,” Scott told him and turned to go back to the chair.

The doctor followed him in and closed the door behind him. “What would you like to know?”

Scott lifted his head and turned around to face the doctor. “You said that this man in London could get that bullet out without damaging Johnny’s heart, right?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?” he asked anxiously. “I mean, can you guarantee it?”

“No, of course not,” the doctor answered quickly. “There are no guarantees in a situation like this.”

Scott nodded. It was what he had suspected would be the answer. 

“But I’m sure he has a better chance of succeeding than I do,” the doctor added.

“Because you don’t have the experience?” Scott asked, and the doctor nodded.

“He’s an excellent surgeon. His reputation is beyond question.”

Scott turned away to look at his brother again. He drew a deep, cleansing breath, and tried to put some sort of logic into his thinking. So far, all he had been able to think about was his fears - fear of being alone in making this decision, fear of a future without Johnny. He knew that he had to get past that.

Wasn’t he supposed to be the clear thinking member of the family? He didn’t feel like it at the moment.

“The bullet – can it move of its own accord?” he asked the doctor. “I mean, even with all the precautions you’re taking.”

“It’s not likely, but it is a possibility,” McGrath replied.

Scott turned around, frowning. “How much of a possibility?”

“I can’t say, Mr. Lancer,” the doctor told him quietly. “The body is always moving - breathing, the heart beating, muscle spasms. I’m afraid I can’t offer you any guarantees, either way.”

‘No guarantees’, he thought. Waiting wouldn’t ensure that Johnny would survive, any more than risking the surgery now would mean that he would die. Both options had risks – too many risks.

With his heart pounding in his own chest and his palms sweating, Scott closed his eyes and made his decision.

“Then take the bullet out,” he said quietly, and he felt like the world was going to fade out on him. “I’m going to trust you to do the best you can.”

The doctor nodded. “I will, Mr. Lancer.”

*

Scott didn’t remember going back downstairs. He knew that he had told Tony of his decision – Tony had been at the bottom of the staircase waiting for him. He had a vague recollection of Tony’s hand on his shoulder and somehow he had made it into the drawing room and to a seat before his legs went from under him.

He knew that Tony and his mother had explained the situation to the others while he was upstairs. Now that the decision had been made, Tony took it upon himself to tell the others again. Scott was aware enough to know that it was probably easy to see that he was not able to tell them.

Once they knew what was happening, there was silence in the room. Except for the occasional whispers, there was nothing being said. Scott heard the whispers only as sounds, not as words. He had no idea what they were saying and he had no inclination to think about it anyway.

His mind was with his brother upstairs, praying that McGrath would be good enough, that his brother was strong enough. It was all he could do now.

Out in the hallway, a grandfather clock chimed the hour. There were three clear gongs – three o’clock. He realized that it was still the same day. Only this morning, they had had no idea of just how bad this day was going to be. It seemed as though it had been longer than just a few hours since his world had been turned upside down. But he was numb to it all.

More than his body, though, his mind was dead to all feeling, too. The time passed in nebulous images and occasional moments of awareness. Later, he would have no clear memory of those hours. They would be lost in a haze of anxiety.

The clock’s chimes broke into his thoughts, or his lack of them. Four of them – four o’clock!

“Scott, drink this,” a voice said, somewhere close. He focused on the voice and lifted his head to see who it was.

“Drink it, Scott,” Tony said, holding a glass in front of him. “It’ll do you good.”

Scott reached out and took the glass in his hand and looked at the amber liquid shimmering in it. It rippled as he watched it, and it took a moment for him to understand that it was because his hand was shaking.

He sipped it and let the warm brandy slide down his throat. It awakened nerves that had been dead for over an hour.

“Thanks,” he said quietly, and looked into the glass again… anything to take his mind off what was happening upstairs.

“What if I was wrong, Tony?” he whispered. He could feel panic creeping into his mind and body.

“There is no right or wrong decision here, Scott,” Tony told him firmly. “You looked at the options and you made a decision. Whatever happens, you can’t think that way.”

“But, maybe if I’d waited…”

“No ‘ifs’!” Tony insisted. “You did what you thought was best under the circumstances. Don’t back out of it now. You cannot second guess yourself with hindsight.”

Scott shook his head in anguish. He ran his free hand through his hair.

“I know this is hard, Scott,” Tony said, squatting in front of his friend so that he could talk quietly to him. “But, surely, the longer it takes, the better it is. I mean, we’d have heard if…”

He stopped, unable to say the words.

“… if Johnny was already dead?” Scott finished for him. “I know. I guess it’s like they say – no news is good news.”

“Scott,” Tony whispered, too low for anyone else to hear. “Johnny Madrid is one of the toughest men I ever met.” He half smiled. “He is also one of the luckiest. If anyone can beat this, it’s Johnny.”

“I know that too,” Scott answered, just as quietly. He sighed heavily. “I keep telling myself the same thing. Let’s just hope that his luck holds.”

*

Scott was waiting for the clock to strike five when the door opened. He leapt to his feet and turned to face the doctor. He didn’t say a word. It wasn’t necessary – his face said it all. He needed news!

Those seconds ticked by so slowly that Scott thought he would go mad.

McGrath stopped at the doorway and took a deep breath before speaking.

“The bullet is out, Mr. Lancer,” he said, clearly and succinctly. “Your brother made it through the operation.”

He walked into the room then, and he sat down in the armchair next to Scott’s. With his elbow on the arm of the chair and his head resting on it wearily, he looked at the half full glass in Scott’s hand.

“I wonder if I could trouble you for one of those, my Lord?” he asked Tony and sighed heavily. “I think I could use a drink.”

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Scott tentatively entered his brother’s room and pulled the door closed behind him as quietly as he could. He stopped just inside and took in his surroundings. Mrs. Morcombe, the housekeeper who had been helping the doctor, was still in the room. She straightened the covers and scrupulously ran her hands over them to tidy them. Then, looking up, she smiled at Scott.

“There’s no need for you to tiptoe in, Mr. Lancer,” she told him. “He’s fast asleep and I’m afraid the poor boy will be for hours yet.” She glanced at Johnny and sighed, ever so slightly. “It’s probably just as well.”

She beckoned him over to the far side of the bed and moved an armchair close to it.

“Thank you,” he said, sitting down and shifting around until he was comfortable. “Mrs. Morcombe, isn’t it?”

“That’s right, Sir,” she answered courteously.

“I want to thank you for helping Dr. McGrath,” he said quietly.

“Oh, it’s nothing, Mr. Lancer,” she told him, brushing aside his gratitude with a dismissive wave of her hand. “It’s little enough to do for the poor boy. Bad enough that he’s hurt like that, but him a stranger in our country. Criminal, it is, criminal.”

“Well, I’m grateful, just the same,” Scott assured her. “My brother is very important to me.”

She nodded, and seemed hesitant about saying something. She stood at the end of the bed, looking at Johnny and wringing her hands nervously. Finally, she spoke up.

“I hope you’ll forgive my saying it, Mr. Lancer, but it seems to me that he’s been through this before.”

Scott sighed. He looked at Johnny lying in the bed, his chest bare except for the neat white bandages around his chest and over his left shoulder. An old scar was visible, covered partially by the bandage over that shoulder. It was obviously a bullet wound, but Scott had no idea when or where it had happened.

It was one more reminder of that part of their lives that they hadn’t shared.

Both of them kept parts of those ‘other’ lives secret only to themselves. There were things they could share, and things they couldn’t.

For the most part, they were both satisfied just sharing the lives they had now and respecting each other’s privacy about the past.

“Yes, more than once,” Scott conceded. “But, you’ll have noticed that, too.”

“Yes, sir,” she admitted. “So many scars on such a young body. It’s a crying shame.”

“Well, there’s never a dull moment when my brother is around,” he explained evasively.

“It’s no business of mine, Mr. Lancer,” she assured him. “He’s a nice, polite young man and a good friend for His lordship. He deserves better than this. That’s all I can say.”

“And he’s a fighter, Ma’am,” Scott assured her. “He has a very strong will. Given a chance, Johnny will grab hold and hang on.”

She smiled and nodded again. “I’m glad,” she said firmly.

Mrs. Morcombe carried over a basin of water and placed it on the cabinet by the bed. She wrung the water out of a soft cloth and folded it, putting it gently on Johnny’s forehead. “I’ll leave you with him, Sir. Just change that now and then to keep it cool.”

She walked around the bed and started to open the door. As she stepped out of the room, she said to him, “You just call me if you need anything.” Then she pulled the door closed behind her and was gone.

*

The house was quiet now that darkness had fallen. Scott sat in an armchair next to Johnny’s bed in a room shrouded in shadows. The lamps were lit, but they had been trimmed low so as not to disturb Johnny. Scott had enough light from one of the lamps to read a book, and he had taken one from the extensive library downstairs. But he found himself reading the same page over and over, losing his place repeatedly. His mind was just not on the words.

He checked his brother constantly – his pulse, his breathing, his temperature. When Dr. McGrath had told him that he had been able to remove the bullet successfully, Scott felt elated. His brother was fine. But now, watching him, he felt far from elated. He realized that, while Johnny was past the most immediate danger, he wasn’t out of danger yet.

McGrath had explained that it might be hours before Johnny woke. He’d used more chloroform to sedate him for the surgery and it would keep him unconscious for some time. The doctor was still in the house. He had left Scott sitting with his brother and had gone to join the family for dinner, telling them that he would stay until Johnny woke or in case he was needed.

It hardly seemed possible, but Johnny looked sicker than he had before the surgery. He’d obviously lost more blood and his face was so white that it was almost indistinguishable from the pillow his head laid against. His face was marred by thin, black lines – scratches from his fall into the hedge. They had dried and already started to heal, but they stood out glaringly against the pallor of his skin.

Still, he was breathing easily, and he appeared to be merely sleeping rather than unconscious, and that was a relief.

The one thing that raised Scott’s concern, more than anything else, was Johnny’s temperature. It didn’t seem to have risen any higher, but neither had it lowered, despite the constant application of cool compresses to his forehead. It was something that the doctor was keeping a wary eye on as well. He’d asked Scott to call him if he thought it went up.

It was past suppertime now, and so far, his temperature had remained stable throughout the whole time that Scott had been with his brother. Scott had sat by the bed since the doctor had given him the news about the successful surgery. He’d stayed while the doctor came and went, Mrs. Morcombe had come and gone, and Tony had come by twice to try to pry him away from the room to have something to eat. He’d refused all of their attempts to budge him.

Being so far from Lancer, Scott felt an intense sense of responsibility for his brother. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Tony to watch Johnny, or Julia for that matter. It was simply that he was the only member of the family there, and he felt it was important that Johnny find him there when he woke. He wanted Johnny to feel the security of family with him.

Satisfied that Johnny was still sleeping peacefully, Scott turned his attention back to the book.

‘If tears dropped into a trunk were charms to preserve its owner from sorrow and misfortune, Nicholas Nickleby would have commenced his expedition under most happy auspices,’ he read and then shook his head irritably. No, he’d read that already – he’d read it twice, in fact. He just couldn’t concentrate. The clock on the mantle ticked the minutes away with frustrating monotony and the sound grated on his nerves. If it had chimed the hours as well, Scott was sure he would have thrown it through the window.

A soft rap on the door dragged his eyes from the book again, and he waited for the door to open.

Tony stuck his head in through the partially open door and asked, in little more than a whisper, “Okay if I come in?”

“Sure,” Scott answered. The distraction was more than welcome.

Tony entered the room and carefully pulled the door closed behind him. He walked over to the side of the bed where Scott sat and he leaned against the wall, looking first at Johnny’s pale, sleeping form, and then at Scott.

“Has he woken yet?”

“No,” Scott replied, sighing slightly.

“Any fever?”

“A little, his temperature is still up, but not high.”

Tony glanced back towards Johnny and studied his friend’s face. He was certainly pale, but he did seem to be resting easily. Tony frowned, noticing how young and vulnerable Johnny looked.

With so many years of experience behind him, as well as his intimidating reputation as Johnny Madrid, it was too easy to forget just how young Johnny actually was.

“Is Henry still here?” Scott asked. He knew that Henry Billingsly had stayed at Wetherley, even after his sisters had left. Tony had said, earlier, that Algie had offered to escort the ladies home for him.

“No, he left after dinner,” Tony told him. “He said he’ll be back early in the morning to see how Johnny’s doing.”

He turned back to look at Scott, but his eye caught sight of a small metal object on top of the dresser. He frowned again and walked over to it. Tentatively, he picked up the ominous-looking chunk of metal. He’d known what it was long before he reached the dresser, but he turned it over curiously in his fingers. The metal was cold to the touch, frigidly cold. It was badly distorted with one end flattened cruelly. The flat edge extended from the side of the bullet and he touched his finger to it. It was razor sharp.

“Nasty,” he said quietly to Scott, looking over towards him.

“Yes,” was all Scott replied.

Tony put it back where he’d found it and returned to his place behind Scott.

“Dr. McGrath left it there in case Johnny wanted to see just how lucky he was,” Scott told him scornfully.

“Lucky,” Tony answered hollowly. “I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘lucky’ that he was shot in the first place.”

“I know,” Scott said quietly. “That’s Johnny for you – lucky.”

“On the other hand, if you look at that bullet…”

“I have,” Scott answered tensely.

“I think you have to admit that it could have been a lot worse, Scott. If that edge had come into contact with his heart or lung, well…he was lucky, that’s all.”

“I suppose so,” Scott replied unenthusiastically. 

“You don’t sound convinced.”

Scott shook his head and sighed. “I suppose he is really. It just doesn’t seem that way sometimes. If you knew more about his past you’d never use the word ‘lucky’ when you talk about him. Did he tell you where he was when the Pinkertons’ agent found him?”

“No.”

“He was in front of a Mexican firing squad. He’d been involved in some minor rebellion down there.”

Tony looked over at Johnny. “I see,” he said quietly. He turned to Scott and put his hand on his shoulder. “I think you should take a break, Scott. You’ve been sitting there for hours and I don’t think you’ve eaten since breakfast.”

“No, I’m all right here. I’d rather stay with Johnny.”

“I know you would, and I don’t blame you at all. But you have to eat or you’ll be no good to him or yourself,” Tony told him.

“I’m perfectly all right,” Scott declared, insistently.

“You have to get some rest, Scott,” Tony persisted. “Or, at least, get yourself something to eat. You’ve been through a lot today.”

Scott shook his head firmly. “No, I don’t want him waking up in a strange room without me here.”

“Just go, Scott,” came a weary voice from the bed. Johnny sounded desperately weak, but his voice was clear and audible.

Both Scott and Tony looked at him, Scott quickly getting to his feet and leaning over him. “Johnny? Just how long have you been lying there listening to us, Brother?” he asked. The smile on his face belied the exasperation in his voice.

“Long enough,” he answered quietly. His eyes were still closed. “Go eat.”

“How do you feel, Johnny?” Tony asked, and Johnny finally opened his eyes.

They were a little too bright for Scott’s liking and he worried still more about the possibility of the fever taking hold.

Johnny’s eyes wandered languidly from Scott to Tony. “Hawk?” he asked, sounding confused.

“That’s right, Johnny,” Tony answered smiling.

Johnny frowned and closed his eyes in concentration. “Can’t think straight,” he complained tiredly. “Head feels like it’s stuffed full o’ wool.” He opened his eyes and scowled at Scott. “What happened? What’d they give me?”

“I’m afraid you got shot, Johnny,” Tony explained. “You’re probably still a little woozy from the chloroform.”

Johnny’s right hand moved a little as he tried to lift it. He frowned again and concentrated. He finally managed to bring it up to his head. He rubbed his temple a couple of times, then let his hand fall back to his side, exhausted. It was clear he was bewildered.

“I’ll stay with him, Tony,” Scott said, sitting down in the chair but not taking his eyes off his brother for an instant. “Can you go and bring Dr. McGrath?”

“Sure,” Tony agreed quickly. He grinned at Johnny and added, “Stay right there, Johnny,” and then left.

“Funny, ain’t he?” Johnny whispered, tiring.

“He’s happy to see those pretty blue eyes of yours,” Scott teased him, grinning as well. “You’ve had us worried.”

“That right?” Johnny asked with a sigh. His eyes closed again, just for a moment, then he opened them and turned his head towards Scott. “How long?” he asked, finally making firm eye contact with his brother.

“It happened this morning, so not long,” Scott told him. “Just seems that way.”

Johnny’s shoulders tensed and Scott quickly put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Don’t go trying to move around, Johnny. You’ll start the bleeding again.”

Once he was sure that he understood, Scott released him and poured water into a glass to offer him.

“Now, don’t try to lift yourself,” Scott warned him, then slipped his arm behind Johnny’s shoulders and lifted him, very slightly. He put the glass to Johnny’s lips and watched closely as he sipped and swallowed the water. “Slowly,” he said firmly, lowering the glass when he thought his brother would take too much and choke.

It took a couple of minutes, but Johnny managed to drink half of the water before shaking his head and turning away. “No more,” he said tiredly.

Scott put the glass back on the cabinet beside the bed, and then gently lowered Johnny back onto the pillows.

“Thanks,” Johnny whispered.

“You did well, for now,” Scott told him. “But you need to drink plenty more over the next few days.”

Johnny’s eyes locked on Scott’s. “Bad?” he asked.

“Bad enough,” Scott told him honestly. “It was a near thing, but the bullet’s out now. You’ll be fine, if you can manage to stay still for a while.”

He watched Johnny close his eyes. His head seemed to sink deeper into the pillow behind his head and he sighed softly. “My head’s all fuzzy,” he complained.

“Are you in pain?” Scott asked him anxiously.

“No.”

“Then the chloroform is probably still in your system,” Scott explained to him. He leaned over and felt his brother’s forehead, again. There still didn’t seem to be any change, either way.

“Yeah, guess so,” Johnny answered, vaguely. He was drifting off to sleep already.

“Johnny, try to stay awake until the doctor gets here,” Scott said gently. “He’s just downstairs, so it won’t be long.”

“Sure,” Johnny replied, his voice fading.

Scott stood up and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Are you sure you’re not in any pain? I know you. You’d hide it rather than take something for it.”

Johnny smiled – just a little. “I swear,” he said wanly, opening his eyes on his brother. “Can’t feel a thing.”

“Well, that’s good, anyway,” Scott told him, putting his hand gently on his brother’s arm.

“No,” Johnny continued, the smile on his lips broadening. His breathing was coming harder now, though he didn’t seem to be laboring. “I mean, I can’t feel anything. I feel like a big hunk o’ lead. Kinda dizzy, too.”

“I imagine that’s the after effects of the chloroform, as well,” Scott suggested. “The doctor’s been keeping you doped up for most of the day.”

“Why?”

“Oh, let me see,” Scott said sarcastically. “Maybe because you were shot!”

Johnny grinned, but he closed his eyes, as if concentrating. “You don’t miss a thing, do you?” he said, eventually. His grin died away. “Seriously, how bad is it?”

“The doctor’s the best person to tell you that,” Scott told him, just as he heard the doorknob turn.

He looked over to see the door open and admit the doctor and then Tony.

McGrath walked over to the small table near the window. He had left his medical bag there and he opened it, while Tony stayed at the opposite side of the bed.

The doctor turned around and went to stand behind Scott. Scott stood up and stepped back out of the way, then walked around to stand at the other side of the bed so he could see his brother better. 

Johnny’s eyes followed his brother’s movements, but were drawn away when the doctor spoke.

“Well, young man,” the doctor began. “It’s about time you woke up. You gave us all quite a scare.” He pulled the blankets back and checked the bandages for signs of bleeding. Finding none, he put his stethoscope to Johnny’s chest and listened while everyone else waited.

Scott found himself unconsciously holding his breath while the doctor listened. He watched as McGrath pulled it from his ears and then put his hand to Johnny’s forehead. His face might as well have been carved from stone. He certainly gave nothing away.

“Has he had anything to drink?” the doctor asked Scott.

“Yes, about half a glass of water,” Scott told him.

“Good,” McGrath said, sounding very pleased. “Get him to take all the fluids he can manage.”

Scott nodded and watched while the doctor turned his attention back to Johnny.

“How do you feel, Mr. Lancer?” the doctor asked at last.

“A little dizzy, I guess,” Johnny answered. “Can’t think straight. Mostly just tired.”

“Well, that’s not surprising,” the doctor told him. “Sleep is the best thing for you, now. You lost a great deal of blood this morning.” The doctor pulled the chair that Scott had been sitting in closer to the bed and sat down.

“How bad is it?” Johnny asked calmly.

“The bullet hit one of your ribs and has broken it,” the doctor explained. “The good news is that it then missed any vital organs – your lungs and your heart.” He stopped for a moment and caught Scott’s eye across the bed.

Scott was relieved. He didn’t want Johnny to know about the decision he had had to make, not just yet. There would be time when he was stronger.

“I don’t foresee any complications at this stage. You have a very mild fever, but that doesn’t necessarily mean infection. Have you had chloroform before, Mr. Lancer?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Johnny replied wearily. “A couple of times.”

“Did you have any reaction to it?”

Johnny frowned and seemed confused. “Don’t think so – just kinda dizzy and out of it.” He scowled. “What sorta reaction?”

“Well, a small percentage of people react with a light fever, similar to what you’re experiencing now. Has it ever happened before?”

“Don’t know,” Johnny told him and closed his eyes. He looked like he was too tired to answer, so Scott answered for him.

“The two times I’ve seen him given chloroform, he ended up with a high fever, but that was from an infection,” he told McGrath.

The doctor contemplated the information before answering. He spoke directly to Johnny, even though it had been Scott who had given him the particulars. “It’s possible that the fever from infection masked the reaction to the chloroform. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. Perhaps this fever will disappear as the drug works its way out of your system.”

Johnny merely nodded very slightly. Whether he heard the doctor and understood him, Scott was not sure.

Dr. McGrath got to his feet. “We’ll let you sleep. You need plenty of rest.” He turned to Scott. “I’ll leave now and come back in the morning. In case he wakes in pain through the night, I’ll leave some laudanum for him. I want him to get a good night’s sleep and get some of his strength back.”

Johnny’s eyes fluttered open and Scott smiled. He didn’t allow his brother time to start arguing.

“I’ll see that he takes it,” Scott told the doctor firmly. He cast a determined look at his brother that stopped Johnny in his haggard tracks – too tired to argue.

Johnny simply closed his eyes and let the argument go – for now – and Scott heaved a sigh of relief.

McGrath replaced his equipment in his bag, closed it and picked it up. He walked around the bed and indicated to both Scott and Tony to join him outside for a moment.

Scott moved forward and touched his brother’s arm lightly. “I’m just going outside for a minute to talk to the doctor. I won’t be long – okay?”

Johnny nodded, and Scott left him to join Tony and the doctor. He pulled the door closed so that they could speak openly, without Johnny hearing them.

*

“He’s doing very well,” McGrath told them. “There’s no obvious infection that I can see, though that’s not to say that there isn’t any internal problem. However, I’m hopeful that his elevated temperature is simply a reaction to the chloroform. I’m going home for now, but I want you to send for me if there is any change whatsoever, but most particularly if that temperature goes up.”

Both men nodded agreement.

“Keep giving him fluids and the cool compresses to get his temperature down. And try to keep him quiet. He needs rest more than anything. I’ll come back in the morning and change the bandages.”

“Thank you for everything, Doctor,” Scott said, sincerely.

“Well, he’s not out of the woods yet,” the doctor reminded him with gentle candor. “But I’m optimistic.” 

“I’ll see you out,” Tony suggested, and then smiled at Scott. “Then I’ll come back and relieve you, Scott.”

McGrath nodded. “Yes,” he said and poked his finger firmly in Scott’s chest. “If you want to be of much use to your brother, you need to eat and sleep.”

“Yes, Sir,” Scott answered, smiling.

He turned to go back into the room, only to hear Tony remind him, just as determinedly, “I’ll be back in five minutes, Scott. I’ll have Mrs. Morcombe arrange something for you for supper.”

*

Scott found Johnny just as he had left him. He looked as though he had drifted off to sleep and Scott sat down quietly in the chair he had used earlier.

“Scott?” Johnny whispered, without opening his eyes.

“Yes, it’s me,” Scott assured him. He leaned forward so that Johnny wouldn’t have to try to speak too loudly. “The doctor says you’re doing just fine, now get some sleep.”

He watched Johnny struggle to lift his eyelids and focus on him. He turned his head just enough to be able to see Scott and seemed to fight to speak. Scott watched the effort his brother was putting into it, and wished there were something he could do to make things easier for him.

Sighing heavily, Johnny finally managed to collect himself and said quietly, but firmly, “My gun – get me my gun, please.”

“You don’t need that here,” Scott reassured him. “This isn’t about someone out after your reputation.”

“Don’t care,” Johnny insisted irritably. “Get it for me, please?”

“Johnny, I don’t think…”

He tossed his head and started to get agitated, despite his exhaustion. “Scott, please…”

“All right,” Scott told him and got to his feet. If it would ease his mind and let him get some rest, Scott was okay with it. He went to the dresser and opened the top drawer. The gun was holstered and wrapped in soft cloth. It was right where he could reach it easily. Just what he expected of his brother.

He lifted it and unwrapped it from the cloth, took it from the holster and walked across the room.

“Loaded?” Johnny asked.

Scott opened it and checked. “Yes, it’s loaded,” he assured him with a certain degree of frustration in his voice, and he tucked it under the pillows behind his brother’s head. “Better?”

“Thanks,” Johnny answered, breathing easily and closing his eyes in exhaustion. He was asleep before Tony came back in and pushed Scott resolutely out of the room.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

“Mr. Storey is here to see you, my lord,” Johnson announced as Tony came down the staircase.

It took him by surprise. Robert was standing beside the butler, hat in hand and looking up towards him.

“Good morning, Robert,” he answered, attempting to sound cheerful, although he had spent much of the night with Johnny so that Scott would finally get the rest that he needed. “What brings you here so early?”

“I heard that Johnny has been hurt, so I came right over to see how he is,” Storey explained as Tony stepped off the last stair and joined him.

Tony glanced towards the butler and smiled. “Thank you, Johnson. I’ll see Mr. Storey to the library.”

“Yes, sir,” the man replied and left them.

“It’s good of you to come,” Tony said, and offered his hand, shaking Robert’s hand politely when he did the same. “Won’t you come into the library?”

“He is hurt then?” Robert asked, following Tony into the library and waiting for him to close the door behind them. “I heard he was shot.”

“Yes,” Tony answered briefly, and then added, “It was a damned near thing, too.”

“Outrageous thing to happen, Anthony. Is he all right?”

Tony indicated one of the armchairs. “Why don’t you sit down, please?” he told him and waited for him to do so before sitting in the chair opposite him. “He’s a little improved this morning. I’ve just been in to see him. Scott’s with him, of course. He hardly leaves Johnny’s side. I had to threaten him to get him to get some sleep last night.”

“One can hardly fault him for that,” Robert answered.

“Oh no, of course not. Particularly since we nearly lost Johnny yesterday and they’re very close.”

“It was serious then?”

“Very,” Tony told him tersely. A chill ran down his spine as the memory of yesterday’s events replayed in his mind. His eyes hardened and burned with anger. “When I get my hands on the fellow that fired the shot, I’ll see that he pays for it.”

Storey stood up and strode across the room. Tony wasn’t sure what the cause was of his tension – nerves or anger – but he allowed the man time to regain some semblance of control and say what he obviously had on his mind.

Finally, Robert turned to face him stonily. “I take it you don’t believe it was a poacher who shot him by accident.”

“No,” Tony said firmly. “I hardly think it’s likely, considering what’s been going on lately.”

“Johnny and Billingsly came to see me,” Storey told him, with no evident show of emotion. “They seemed to believe that I’m responsible for these incidents.”

Tony looked at him for a moment, watching him carefully before answering. “Yes,” he said at last. “I’m aware of their suspicions, Robert.”

Storey frowned. “I know how it must appear. I left you all somewhat…abruptly, yesterday. I wouldn’t blame you in the least if you were thinking that I did fire that shot, but I assure you, I didn’t.”

Tony leveled his eyes at him and waited to see what he would do. The thought had crossed his mind as well. He couldn’t deny it.

Finally, Tony answered him. “No, I don’t believe you did, Robert,” he said calmly. “I think you convinced Henry and Johnny of your innocence as well.”

“I’m pleased to hear it,” Robert replied, relief obvious on his face and the slow release of tension in the man’s shoulders. Robert glanced over to where Tony was sitting. “Does that mean that you have an idea of who it was, then?”

Tony crossed his legs and leaned back in the chair, yet he looked anything but relaxed. In fact, he looked like a man with the weight of the world crushing him. “I have my suspicions, Robert, but no proof.”

“What do you plan to do then? This sort of thing can hardly be allowed to go on.”

“I’ve let it go too far already,” Tony told him coldly. “But I certainly never suspected that Johnny, or anyone else for that matter, would be at risk.”

He shook his head furiously and got to his feet. He walked over to the window and stared out at the view. Two elegant white swans swam side by side, ripples of water circling out from them to frame them in silver. It looked so calm out there, so peaceful.

“If I were still in America, I’d know just what I should do,” he said coldly. He might get hung for it, but he would take care of it. “But here? I confess to being unsure how to handle this.”

Storey looked at him curiously and frowned. Finally, he sighed. “I know that we’re not exactly friends, Anthony,” he said stoically. “I’m not sure that we ever can be, given certain…circumstances. But Charles was a very good friend of mine. I both liked and respected him. I feel it behooves me to offer to help, if I can.”

Tony turned around to face him and clasped his hands authoritatively behind his back. For the first time this morning, Tony felt as though he could see daylight. “I appreciate the offer, Robert,” he said, a light smile breaking the iron expression on his face. “I appreciate it very much,” he said heavily. “However, I feel obliged to sort this mess out for myself.”

*

He sat in the leather chair in the library, staring out of the window. Robert Storey had left already and he was alone with his thoughts for the time being.

The swans on the lake caught his eye. Just the two of them with their family, the cob would never allow another male into his territory and he was a one woman male - mated for life. Pure white and gracefully gliding over the water, they were followed by four cygnets that would stay with them until the next clutch hatched.

They stopped only to push their heads under the water to feed or to preen themselves or their mate, or to wait for the cygnets to catch up to them.

Their mate – and mated for life. Were there secrets between them?

There had always been swans at Wetherley. There was even one on the family crest. A hawk for their name and a swan for Wetherley – dux pax et bellum – lead in peace and war – that was their crest.

He leaned back in the chair. He identified the chair so much with his father and the family motto played in his mind again. There hadn’t been much peace with his father, but there had been plenty of war. His father had given him life, but never acceptance. He had demanded of him, but never encouraged him; and he had raised him, but he had never loved him.

He had no doubts about that.

Unlike his mother, the battle with his father had never been about Bertram. It had been between themselves and Tony had never figured it out. He never would now.

He ran his fingers over the top of the desk. The highly polished surface was flawlessly smooth but cold to the touch, just like his father.

The chair he was sitting in had been his father’s chair, but it had been his grandfather’s too. He had a vague memory of his profligate grandfather, the second Earl, sitting in this same chair at this very desk.

Reality struck him then. All of this was his – the estate, the house and the title – but it was only his for safekeeping for his successors. He felt the heavy weight settle on his shoulders. One day, his grandson would sit here at the desk, in this chair.

Should he tell his sons about Hawk? Sons, grandsons – a line tainted by his past.

*

“Johnson, do you know where my mother is?” Tony asked, sticking his head through the open door of the library and finding the man in the hallway outside.

“Yes, my lord ,” the butler answered, stopping to address him. “She’s in the drawing room, Sir.”

“Does she have any guests with her?”

“Not to my knowledge, my lord.”

“Good. Would you be so kind as to ask her to join me in the library, please Johnson?”

“Certainly, my lord,” the man told him and turned away to do as he was bid. Tony closed the door again and went back to sit at the desk.

He’d done plenty of thinking and had come to some conclusions, and his mother wasn’t going to like them.

Barely had he had time to sit down, before there was a soft rap on the door and his mother entered.

“Good morning, Mother,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad you could join me. Would you mind closing the door behind you?”

She pulled it closed and walked to the center of the room, curiosity showing clearly on her face.

“I gather you have something important to discuss, Anthony, since you sent a servant to get me?” she asked, a little waspishly, sitting in an armchair with her hands folded neatly in her lap.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, but yes, Mother, I do have something important to tell you,” he answered, sitting back in the chair. “It’s time we put a stop to these ‘accidents’, once and for all. It was bad enough when I was the target, but I will not tolerate my friends being hurt on my account.”

“Then you think this was another attack against you, rather than a poacher’s poor aim?” Tony thought she hardly sounded surprised and he knew she must have already considered the possibility herself.

“Not in light of the other ‘accidents’. Johnny was riding a black horse, such as I would normally have been riding,” he told her firmly. “No, I don’t believe for a minute that this was a poacher’s work. And I’m convinced that my Aunt Beatrice is behind it. Her ambitions for Algie have always outweighed her good sense.”

His mother glanced down at her hands and fidgeted uncharacteristically. “I certainly see why you might think that way, but I’m not so sure that she would go to these lengths.”

“Did you know that she has a man in this house? Someone who does her bidding?” he asked angrily.

She frowned. “Not in this house, surely?”

“He came with Algie.”

Understanding crossed her face. “Oh, you must mean Humphrey. He keeps an eye on Algie. He’s supposed to keep him out of trouble. I felt sure that you would remember him. He’s been with Algie since you were all boys. Algie is prone to doing foolish things without thinking. You must remember the silly things he said and did when you were boys.”

“Of course I do,” he answered curtly. “And I do remember him slightly, now that you mention it. Then this fellow doesn’t concern you? Even knowing that he has had access to the upstairs rooms?”

She finally looked surprised. “I certainly didn’t know that! That will be stopped immediately,” she assured him.

“No need,” he said, waving a hand in calm dismissal. “Mrs. Morcombe found out about it and has put a stop to it. But I don’t trust him.”

“I understand that, but he’s never been any trouble,” she told him. “However, I’ll see that he’s watched. I think Morphett would be able to have someone discreetly keep an eye on him for the duration of their stay.”

“Is there anyone else on the staff you’re not sure of? Anyone reasonably new?”

She shook her head. “None that I can think of, but I shall have a word with Morcombe. She keeps a tight rein on the staff.”

“Thank you, mother, I appreciate it,” Tony answered her, but his mind had wandered elsewhere. “The point is moot, anyway,” he said distractedly.

“What do you mean?” she asked curiously.

“Algie will inherit eventually, whatever happens now. I have no intention of marrying.”

She leapt to her feet. “You can’t be serious!”

“I assure you, Mother, I’m very serious,” he replied placidly.

“I cannot believe you would even consider such a thing. Anthony, to hand over your heritage to that…that…popinjay! Why?”

“I’ve considered it very carefully,” he assured her, unmoved by her attitude. “And, at some length. I’ve made up my mind and I have my own reasons for it.”

She threw her hands up in the air in horror. “What possible reason could you have?”

Tony remained unfazed, but sighed. “I don’t want to go into it, Mother. Suffice it to say that there are things I’ve done with my life that make me an ineligible catch for a decent woman.”

She glared at him ferociously. “Done things?” she scoffed. “Are you a wanted felon?”

“No,” he replied tersely, verging on losing his temper.

“Then there can be no impediment,” she told him haughtily.

Tony leaned back in the chair and answered her firmly.

“I have no intention of risking subjecting any wife of mine to scandal.”

“Scandal! Phfft!” she huffed angrily. “You are a Hawkesbury, Anthony. Your name is enough to get you through any scandal.”

“Besides,” she continued when he didn’t answer. “This family is not unfamiliar with scandal. The first Earl thrived on it. He took part in more duels than any other man of his time. Why, he had to flee the country when he nearly killed the son of a duke and he still managed to win himself an earldom.”

“And the second earl?” she added, her face expressing the disdain she must have held for her father-in-law. “Good heavens, Anthony, the man was a lecher! Your father had half-brothers and sisters scattered all over the country. Why do you think your father was so straight-laced? He never knew when another sibling would show up.”

“That’s not the attitude you’ve taken throughout my experience,” he told her coldly.

She glared angrily at him, but then her eyes softened a little, and she turned towards the mantle – away from the condemnation she could see in his eyes.

“I know,” she admitted with a sigh. “I’m afraid that was more about your brother than anything else. Oh, I cared about the scandals, but they would have been unimportant if it hadn’t been for what I thought you had done to Bertram.” She turned back to him with a plea in her eyes. “Anthony, Arabella Coombes would marry you no matter what you’ve done, in an instant. You have only to say the words and she would say ‘yes’.”

He shook his head determinedly. “Perhaps. I don’t know,” he told her sadly. “But I don’t intend to ask her.”

“Then, you’re a fool, Anthony!” she spat at him. She drew herself up straight and glowered at him. “I take it that this is because of Tony Hawk.”

For the first time in years, Tony was floored. How could she possibly know? And, if she did know, who else was aware of his past? He looked at her, blinking wordlessly, his mind not quite coming to terms with her remark.

“How…?” he finally managed to get out, but couldn’t quite get the rest of the question said.

“Oh, honestly Anthony,” she answered impatiently. “When your sister announced that you were alive and that she could contact you, don’t you think I wanted to know what to expect? Your Uncle Edwin, in New York, put me in touch with a reputable detective agency…”

“You put the Pinkertons onto me?” he gasped.

“I believe that was the name of the agency,” she informed him, perfectly unruffled.

He got to his feet and paced across the room, clasping his hands stiffly behind his back, lest he reach across and take her by the throat.

Finally, he got his anger under control enough to speak. “Do you realize what damage you could have done?”

“I was discreet.”

“Discreet? With Pinkertons asking after me all over the country? I would hardly call that discreet.”

“I informed them that they were to check into your past with the utmost discretion. I have no reason to think they did anything else.”

“And just what did you intend to do with the information?” he asked suspiciously.

She shrugged her shoulders and smiled sweetly. Her eyes glimmered. “At that time? I planned to use it to keep you under control.”

“Blackmail, Mother?”

“That’s an ugly word for it,” she answered, a scowl on her brow. “But, if that was what it took, then yes.”

“Who else knows?” he demanded furiously.

“Absolutely no one,” she assured him, apparently unperturbed by his anger. “I read it and destroyed it.”

“Julia?”

“She has no idea, at least none that I am aware of,” she told him. “Unless you’ve said something yourself.”

“No, I’ve told no one but Henry, though Johnny and Scott know, of course.”

“Of course,” she agreed. “I take it they were in the same line of work?” she asked, with only mild curiosity in her voice.

“No,” he told her. “Oh, Johnny was once, but he got out of it some time ago. He and Scott are ranchers, just as I told you.”

Slowly and purposefully, he returned to his seat. “So, this doesn’t bother you? I can’t believe that.”

“Well, I wasn’t thrilled about it, Anthony,” she told him, her lips pinched haughtily. “But, my reading of the situation was that you were virtually hiring yourself as a mercenary. I doubt that there is an aristocratic family in the country who doesn’t have a mercenary among their ancestors.”

He frowned. “I hadn’t ever thought of it that way,” he admitted and then sighed heavily. “But, I disagree. It doesn’t change my position on marriage.”

She drew herself up and glared at him. Folding her arms in front of her, she answered him. “I knew you to be many things, but I didn’t think you were a coward.”

Tony glared at her, sparks flying to his eyes as the words sank into his consciousness. Then, suddenly, a smile appeared on his lips. “Well, now you know, Mother.”

*

Tony sat down in the chair beside the bed. He reached over and checked Johnny’s forehead again. It was still hot. In fact, it seemed hotter than before. He dipped the cloth in the basin of cool water and wrung the water out of it, then placed it gently on his friend’s head.

This time, there was a reaction from Johnny. He stirred.

*

Johnny sighed and turned his head slightly. Someone was in the room with him. He could feel their presence, even though his other five senses were still dulled with opiates.

“Scott?” he whispered, his eyes fluttering open, but clouded with too much sleep.

“No,” a voice answered quietly. “We finally got him to rest again. It’s me - Hawk.”

“Hawk?” Johnny asked. That didn’t seem right. Why was Hawk with him?

The fog in his head began to annoy him. It was so frustrating! He figured he’d been shot, but everything else was blurred.

He closed his eyes again and tried to concentrate.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” Hawk said quietly.

Johnny couldn’t find the words to answer.

“Johnny,” he heard Hawk saying. “I need you to drink some of this water for me.” He opened his eyes again as he felt Hawk’s hand slide under his shoulders and lift him.

He frowned and Hawk added quietly. “It’s plain old water, Johnny. Scott told me you might be a little suspicious of it.”

Hawk was smiling. Johnny could make out his face now, and the rest came back to him in a rush that threw his thoughts off'-balance for a moment.

“Why shouldn’t I be?” Johnny asked, and was stunned by how hard it was to hear himself saying the words. His voice shocked him.

He felt the glass press against his lips and the cool, refreshing water slip into his mouth. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until then and he swallowed it eagerly.

“Slowly, Johnny,” Hawk told him quickly, pulling the glass back away from him. “A little at a time.”

Johnny felt the glass being put back to his mouth and drank again, slower this time though. He managed to drink the whole glassful. His head and shoulders were lowered back onto the pillows and he found himself grateful for the help. He felt weak and oddly detached from the rest of his body.

“What did they give me?” he asked, and he thought his voice sounded stronger this time.

“The doctor insisted on giving you some laudanum this morning, while he changed the bandages,” Tony explained. “Scott was against it. He knew you wouldn’t like it, but he couldn’t sway the doctor on that one.” Tony looked him straight in the eyes. “And I think he was right, Johnny.”

“Just how bad is it, then?”

“Once the bullet was out, Dr. McGrath was confident you’d be just fine,” Tony told him. “You’ll be okay.”

Johnny thought he heard something in Tony’s words, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He frowned and concentrated and finally felt sure he had the right thread. “And before that?” he asked at last.

Tony looked as though he was anxious to avoid answering the question. So much so, that Johnny watched his face carefully to make sure he was telling the truth.

Tony finally did answer. “Well, there was a problem with the way the bullet was sitting,” he conceded. “McGrath wasn’t sure he could take it out, but he did it without any complications in the end.”

“What sort of problem?” he asked and saw Tony shift in his seat. The fog in his mind had cleared a little and it seemed to him that Tony was suddenly very uncomfortable. “Don’t hedge, Hawk. Tell me what’s been going on.”

“That brother of yours will very likely murder me,” Tony said with a light, nervous laugh.

“Him or me, then,” Johnny told him stonily. “Your choice.”

There was a long silence while Tony apparently considered his options. “All right,” Tony finally answered. “The bullet was badly placed. It was too close to your heart and McGrath thought it might be too dangerous to take it out himself. He considered it would be prudent to send for someone from London.”

“What changed his mind?”

“He left the decision in Scott’s hands. Scott weighed the options and told McGrath to go ahead and do his best.”

The thought of Scott being put in that position was devastating for Johnny to consider.

“What about Scott?” Johnny answered dejectedly. “How is he?”

“He’s fine,” Tony assured him. “Oh, he was anxious about making the decision, but he handled it well. His biggest problem at the moment is exhaustion. He’s wearing himself out sitting here with you.”

“Sounds like him,” Johnny whispered. The reassurance didn’t settle the worms Johnny could feel crawling around his gut. He knew his brother better than Hawk did. He knew what that decision would have done to Scott.

Johnny tried to shift in the bed, fussing as he began to understand the dilemma Scott must have been in. “I need to talk to Scott,” he informed Tony, with all the determination he could muster.

“And so you shall,” Tony told him, calmly placing his hand on his friend’s arm to settle him. “When he wakes up. He’s getting some well earned sleep at the moment, and I don’t think you want to disturb him any more than I do.”

Johnny closed his eyes and his head seemed to sink deeper into the pillows. “No,” he answered with a heavy sigh. “No, I don’t want that. I know what he’s like. He’s probably been insisting on sitting here with me every minute of the day.”

Tony grinned. “You two really do know each other well, don’t you?” he answered.

Johnny didn’t answer, but smiled enigmatically.  

“Look,” Tony continued. “Scott is just fine. Don’t worry about him. Just rest and get yourself well.”

Johnny shook his head slightly. “He must have gone through hell,” he muttered. He opened his eyes again and looked at Tony. “Because of me…”

“Don’t be an idiot!” Tony tossed at him. “How could it be your fault? You didn’t ask to be shot. If anything, it’s because of me…”

“Oh, this is great!” Scott broke in belligerently from the door. Neither of them had heard the door open. “So, is there enough guilt for everyone?”

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

“Just what have you been telling him?” Scott demanded of Tony.

“Nothing he didn’t ask about,” Tony told him defensively.

Scott walked into the room and over to the bed. He moved the cloth from his brother’s head and felt his forehead, frowning. There was little room left to doubt that they were going to be fighting a serious fever. Johnny’s face was a little flushed and his eyes were brighter than they should be. That alone was enough to tell him that his temperature had gone up since he had last been with him.

“Before we go any further,” Scott said rigidly. “You, Johnny, are in no way responsible for any anxiety I might have had over your health. If I choose to worry about you, that’s my concern. You didn’t get yourself shot on purpose. Did you?”

Johnny’s eyes had lit up watching his brother’s performance. He tried his best to keep from grinning.

“No, sir,” he answered contritely, dropping his eyes.

Scott looked away from Johnny towards Tony. “And you, Tony, you are not responsible for Johnny getting hurt any more than he is. You didn’t send him out to get shot, in your place or otherwise. None of us knew that someone would be trying to kill you when we got here, and you sure didn’t plan on it. I didn’t think anything of Johnny riding a black horse, any more than you did. Is that right?”

Tony looked towards Johnny. Johnny caught the wicked glint in his eyes and saw the man struggling to keep the grin off his face. He, too, fought the urge to burst out laughing and finally replied, also contritely, “Yes, sir.”

Scott put his hands on his hips and looked from one to the other. They weren’t laughing, or even grinning, but he could see the fun in their eyes. His anger disappeared and a grin broke on his face, leaving both Johnny and Tony with no option but to laugh at him.

“All right, I know when I’m being had,” Scott told them. “But I mean it.”

The fun dissolved as the laughter set off a cough from Johnny that soon got out of control, stopping all of them in their tracks. Scott sat on the side of the bed and pulled Johnny forward, rubbing his back in gentle circles until the coughing eased.

Johnny’s face had reddened with the exertion and his breathing came in harsh gasps. He took a moment to catch his breath before letting Scott lower him back to the pillows.

Tony had been wetting the cloth again and he used it to wipe the beads of sweat that had formed on Johnny’s forehead, then he wet it again and laid it back on his friend’s brow. He glanced worriedly across the bed to catch Scott’s eye, but Johnny caught the look.

“It’s all right. I’m not about to die from laughin’,” he told them with a weak grin.

He closed his eyes and tried to relax, letting his breathing ease into a regular rhythm, but he felt the glass pressed to his lips again. Opening his eyes once more, he found that Tony was holding it.

“Drink some more of this,” Tony suggested. “It should help, and the doctor said you need plenty of fluids anyway.”

He swallowed some, and he found that it did help, so he swallowed some more before pushing the glass away, half-empty.

“No more,” he said wearily, and then added, “Thanks.”

“You should try to eat something, Johnny,” Tony told him. “You need something more than water in your stomach. Mrs. Morcombe has some broth waiting for when you’re ready to try it.”

The thought of food caused his stomach to curdle and then tighten. “No,” he whispered. “Don’t think I can.”

“All right, but it’s there when you think you can handle it.”

He nodded and then turned to Scott. “Seriously, Scott, are you okay?”

“Me? Sure, I’m just fine,” Scott assured him.

“I hear you had to make a tough decision,” Johnny said morosely. “I’m sorry it was left to you.”

“There’s no reason why you should be. It wasn’t your fault. Sure, you had me worried, but that’s a brother’s prerogative. You should know that by now.”

Johnny sighed. He had indeed learned that himself over the last couple of years at Lancer. “Thanks, anyway,” he told him.

“De nada,” Scott replied, and smiled.

“And just what were you about to say when Scott came in, Hawk?” Johnny asked.

Tony looked steadily at Scott for a moment before he answered, so Johnny pressed him. “Forget about Boston. I want to know what’s been going on.”

“He was about to say that it was all his fault,” Scott told him sarcastically. “What he means is that we think that the bullet was meant for Tony,”

Johnny let it sink in. Well, it made sense. He sure didn’t know of any enemies he’d made here in England for himself.

“What makes you so sure?”

Tony answered this time. “You were riding Brimstone,” he explained. “I’m usually the one riding a black horse.”

Johnny nodded. Yep, it certainly sounded likely. His eyes were beginning to feel heavy, and he felt hot. And he couldn’t see what his brother and Tony could, that his face had paled significantly.

He rested for a minute, then continued. “Looks like this guy is kinda determined, Hawk.”

“Yes, and he’s going to be stopped,” Tony told them with surprising conviction.

“You sound as though you know who it is,” Scott said curiously.

“I have no proof, but I think I know.”

“Care to enlighten us?” Scott asked.

Tony looked closely at him. Johnny knew what he would be thinking. He had a good idea of what Johnny would do if the brothers’ positions were reversed. Nothing would stop Madrid from seeking revenge. But, he didn’t know Scott well enough to be sure what he was likely to do.

He suspected that Scott felt strongly enough about his brother to do exactly the same thing, but Scott had been raised differently and might consider the law the better option.

“I’ve taken care of it. He’s being watched, and I intend to have a ‘quiet’ word with him myself to make sure it stops,” he told them.

“You think that will work?” Johnny asked, his tiredness creeping into his voice and apparently becoming hard to deal with.

“I’m taking other measures that will mean it’s not worth their time to kill me,” he explained.

“Just what does that mean?” Scott asked. “And you said ‘they’. Does that mean that you think there is more than one person involved?”

Tony sighed heavily. “This is a family matter, Scott. I’ll take care of it.”

“Your ‘family matter’ nearly got both you and my brother killed. I think we have a right to be told who it is,” Scott insisted.

“His aunt is who he thinks it is,” Johnny told them both. “Right, Hawk?”

Tony turned to him in surprise.

“Not so hard to figure, Tony,” Johnny said quietly. “Not with that fella workin’ for her.” He found it harder to concentrate now, but he continued. “That fella the little girl told us ‘bout.”

“All right, yes, I think she’s behind it. She’s always wanted the title for Algernon, even when there was no chance whatsoever,” he told them ironically. “Bertram used to say that she was waiting for him to die so that Algie would be one step closer.”

Johnny was shocked by the matter of fact way in which he quoted his brother’s words. He glanced at his own brother and found that he looked surprised as well.

Tony noticed it too. He smiled. “Bertram took his mortality much less seriously than the rest of us. He always believed that he was living on borrowed time. It was why he took such risks. He felt he had nothing to lose.”

“So she would have thought that she had it made when your father and your brother Charles died,” Scott suggested.

“Oh yes,” Tony agreed. “I can just see her rubbing her hands together in glee. She and my father disliked each other intensely.” He stopped and his eyes gleamed with a wicked sense of fun. “And then I showed up. She’s already tried to get rid of me the legal way. And she’s tried the rumor mill. I suspect that this is her last throw of the dice.”

“So you intend talking to this fellow Humphrey?” Scott asked.

“Yes. He’s being watched already. I’m going to talk to him soon.”

Scott’s face grew harder. “I want to be there when you talk to him.”

“Take it easy, Scott,” Johnny told him. “We’re fish outa water here. You let Hawk handle it.”

“I’m not so sure that I’m not a ‘fish outa water’ here myself, amigo,” Tony answered with a shake of his head. “But thank you for the vote of confidence.”

“And what about this other ‘measure’ you’re taking? What do you have in mind?” Scott asked.

“Oh, now that is a much more private matter,” Tony explained. “That’s not something I plan to go into with you.”

“Sounds to me like you have something really dumb in mind, then,” Johnny suggested caustically.

Tony shook his head determinedly. “No, it’ll work. But I don’t intend to discuss it with either of you right now.”

“Okay, have it your way,” Johnny told him with resignation. “Scott, you let him do this thing his way, right?”

“Sure, Johnny,” Scott replied, but a little too quickly for his brother’s liking.

Johnny turned his head towards his brother. His eyelids were so heavy that he could scarcely hold them open now, but he caught his brother’s expression.

“I mean it, Boston,” he whispered.

“All right, Johnny,” Scott answered and laid his hand on his brother’s arm. “You get some rest. You’re just about done in.”

“Si,” Johnny mumbled and let his eyelids slide closed. The effort was too much now. Almost as soon as he gave up the fight to keep his eyes open, the blessed gift of sleep overcame him and he slipped into its gentle hold.

*

“He’s asleep,” Scott said quietly.

“His temperature is higher,” Tony whispered back anxiously “I think we should send for the doctor.”

“I think you’re right,” Scott agreed. He could feel the heat in Johnny’s body radiating through the arm that he held. The fever was taking hold quicker by the minute.

“I got some water into him,” Tony said. “That’s something anyway.”

He stood up and walked over to the door. “I’ll get Johnson to send someone for McGrath. You wait here with him.”

Scott nodded, stood up and went around the bed to sit in the chair that Tony had left. He took the cloth from Johnny’s forehead and wet it again, this time sponging Johnny’s face and neck before wetting it again and replacing it on his forehead.

He’d seen his brother through fevers before, but it didn’t make it easier.

*

It was as if the fever had a life of its own. Having made up its mind to take hold, it did so with grim determination and rose steadily.

Scott remained with his brother and watched anxiously as Johnny struggled against it. The feeling of helplessness that came with just sitting and watching was maddening. He did what little he could, wiping him down constantly, but the fight was really Johnny’s from here on.

By the time McGrath arrived, Johnny was shivering with chills and awake again. He hadn’t complained, but he had wrapped his arms around himself and tried to keep his teeth from chattering.

McGrath checked Johnny thoroughly, first his heart and temperature, then his breathing and, finally, the wound itself.

Scott and Tony stood back and waited impatiently while the doctor continued his examination and said nothing. They watched him and shifted anxiously and often.

“Well, Mr. Lancer,” McGrath said to Johnny. “I don’t need to tell you that you have a fever, I’m sure.”

Johnny tried valiantly to smile, and succeeded better than he thought he had. “No,” he whispered wanly, still shivering. “Don’t reckon you do.”

“Now, I’m going to take your brother and his lordship outside to talk to them for a minute,” he explained. “Nothing for you to worry about. I just want to give them some instructions on your care. Will you be all right on your own?”

Johnny gritted his teeth and nodded.

“Good man,” the doctor told him heartily and turned back to where Scott and Tony were waiting for him. “Shall we step outside for a minute?” he asked.

Tony went straight to the door, while Scott walked to the bedside first. “I won’t be long, Johnny,” he assured his brother.

“I’ll still be here,” Johnny answered with another weak smile.

Scott pulled the covers higher and watched as Johnny clutched them to him quickly. Then he left with the doctor and Tony.

The doctor pulled the door closed behind them and began right away.

“The wound is showing some signs of infection,” he explained. “It’s not serious and at this stage, I don’t see the need for anything more than a salve to try to reduce it. We’ll watch what happens with the fever.”

“But surely, chills and fever can be dangerous,” Tony demanded.

McGrath shook his head. “Not as much as you’d think. The fever is a way for the body to fight the infection by itself. If we help by treating the wound, it should level off and break of its own accord and fairly quickly.”

It was obvious that both Scott and Tony were dubious about his theory, but he continued regardless.

“I want someone with him at all times and he has to have plenty of fluids. Dehydration is our main concern,” he told them. “In fact, Mrs. Morcombe brews an excellent concoction that will help, particularly if he becomes unsettled or uncomfortable. It’s good for calming the patient as well as for bringing out the sweats.

Keep him cool, of course. I don’t want the fever getting too high – that could become dangerous. I’m going to change the bandages and begin application of the salve, and that will have to be done twice daily, so I’ll be here regularly to keep an eye on his condition. Do you understand what has to be done?”

Tony looked to Scott and agreed, but Scott didn’t answer.

“Scott?”

Scott thought hard about what the doctor had said, and finally nodded. “Yes, I understand.”

“Good,” McGrath said. “Let’s get started. I’ll change the bandages first. I’ll need your help with that.”

*

Tony left Scott with his brother, saw the doctor out of the house, and then went in search of Johnson.

“Johnson, do you have any idea where Mr. Algernon’s man, Humphrey, might be?” he asked when he located the butler.

“Sir, I believe Mr. Algernon is out behind the stables with his automobile,” Johnson replied. “I imagine that Humphrey is with him.”

“Thank you, Johnson,” Tony answered. “If anyone is looking for me, I’ll be with my cousin.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Tony headed out of the house and walked to the stables. The ‘contraption’ was being kept at the back of the stables, as per Tony’s own request. He had no desire to see it on a daily basis.

He found Humphey with Algernon, working on the vehicle with another man.

“Cuz!” Algie called out when he saw him approaching. “Good to see you out in the fresh air, dear boy. How is Johnny this morning?”

Tony walked over to the abominable vehicle and stopped to answer. He ran his eyes curiously over the machine while he spoke.

“He’s feverish,” he told him. “It looks like the wound is infected.”

“Oh dear, that’s not good,” Algie replied with an expression of concern. “I do hope it’s not serious.”

Tony’s head went up and he locked eyes with his cousin. “Serious? Algie, he’s been shot!”

“Well, of course,” Algie hurried to answer. “I meant that I thought he was improving. Is the fever a serious set back?”

“It could be,” Tony answered. He relaxed a little, accepting that he had misunderstood Algie’s remark.

“Well, I hope it’s not,” Algie replied. “I rather like him.”

Tony ran his hand over the metal and inspected the paintwork. It was certainly an impressive machine, polished to a high gloss. The lid was up over the motor and Humphrey had his head under it, working on the engine.

“Would you like to take a turn around the park, Anthony?” Algie asked hopefully.

Tony grinned. “No, I don’t think so, Algie. I still prefer a horse.”

“Oh, but you shouldn’t judge it without trying it, Anthony,” Algie said seriously. “It really is a very commodious method of transport. Quite the way of the future, you know.”

“I’m sure it is,” Tony answered with a tolerant smile. “But I’ll be putting it off as long as possible. Actually, I came to ask if you mind my having a word with Humphrey.”

“Humphrey? Whatever for?”

“I just have a few questions for him,” Tony explained, evasively. “Do you have a problem with it?”

“No, no, of course not,” Algie assured him quickly. “But, I must say, it seems a little odd.”

Algie turned to the small, gray haired man who was busy with his head under the hood of the machine. He had looked up when he had heard his name mentioned. He was frowning but didn’t seem to be worried.

“Would you go with his lordship, please Humphrey? You can answer whatever he has to ask. I’m sure it’s nothing,” Algie told him. He turned back to Tony. “You won’t keep him long, I hope. We have some work to do on the engine.”

Tony grinned again. “No, I won’t keep him long, Cuz. You’ll get him back to fix your machine,” he answered, and then quipped. “At least I only have to feed Cuervo.”

“Oh, there’s more to keeping a horse than that, Cuz,” Algie replied seriously. “I know better.” He wagged a finger ludicrously at Tony, who simply shook his head and laughed.

“Oswald, you take over for me,” Humphrey said to the younger man at the other end of the machine. He wiped his hands on a greasy cloth and then added to the man. “An’ don’t you touch nothin’. I don’t wanta have to fix your mistakes.”

Humphrey walked over to join Tony. “You got some questions for me, my lord?”

“Let’s go inside, Humphrey,” Tony suggested. He turned away and headed back to the house so that he could talk to the man in the privacy of the library.

Humphrey didn’t follow immediately. He stayed put for just a moment, before hurrying to catch him up and then falling in with Tony and walking into the house.

Tony held the door to the library open and ushered the man in. “Take a seat, Humphrey.”

Humphrey passed by and stood in the middle of the room. “My clothes aren’t just what you’d call clean, m’ lord. I’d better stand, if that’s all right with you, sir.”

“Certainly,” Tony told him. “Whatever you’re comfortable with.” He walked over to the desk and leaned against it, sitting on the edge. He rested his hands beside him on the edge of the desk and lowered his head while he considered how he should go about this.

Finally, he looked across at Humphrey.

“You’ve been with Mr. Algernon for a long time, haven’t you?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, fifteen years, come January,” the man answered proudly.

“Who pays your wages, Humphrey?”

The man took no offence. He shrugged his shoulders. “No secret t’ that, m’ lord,” Humphrey replied, smiling. “Mrs. ‘Awkesbury pays me.”

“To watch out for Mr. Algernon?”

He didn’t answer immediately, but, eventually, he told him. “Yes, m’ lord.”

“And does he need much ‘looking after’?” Tony asked bluntly.

“Not so much as you’d think, m’ lord. Not with me around.”

Tony smiled. “You sound very sure of yourself, Humphrey.”

Humphrey merely smiled. He was sure of himself all right. And how much was he capable of to achieve his ends?

“I remember my cousin as a boy, of course,” Tony told him, keeping an eye on Humphrey to study his reactions. “He would often do things without thinking them through. It got him into trouble often enough.”

“Never nothin’ serious though, m’ lord,” Humphrey answered defensively. “The lad never means no harm.”

“No, I don’t believe he does,” Tony conceded. “I don’t remember ever seeing any malice in him. So what sort of trouble could he possibly get into? Women?”

Humphrey shook his head. “Not so many as you’d think for a handsome lad like he is, m’ lord,” he replied, lulled into talking about his master. “Oh, there was that floozy in Bath last year, but I soon got him out of her clutches.”

“Really, how did you do that?”

Humphrey smiled. “Just told him there was a balloon launch in London and suggested we go take a look. Mr. Algernon likes things like that. Very forward thinking he is.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed,” Tony agreed. “He’s very proud of that machine of his.”

“Indeed he is, m’ lord. Loves it like a pet.”

“How far would you go to look out for him?” Tony asked, unexpectedly turning the conversation to a more definite line.

Humphrey caught Tony’s eyes and didn’t waver. “Whatever needs doin’, I reckon I’d do it.”

“Would you kill for him?”

“Yes sir, I would sir,” he replied without flinching.

Tony grinned, but there wasn’t a hint of pleasure in it. His eyes shone with sheer malice. “Honesty is always such a good thing,” he said. “You’re aware that a friend of mine was hurt yesterday?”

“Yes, m’ lord.”

“Where were you yesterday morning, Humphrey?” he asked candidly. There was no necessity for dancing with this man. That much was now patently obvious.

“I was working on the automobile, m’ lord,” he replied. Then his eyes gleamed. “But I was alone, sir. I doubt as anyone will be able to swear to seein’ me.”

“Not much of a proof, is it?” Tony asked.

“Didn’t know as I’d need one at the time,” the man replied quickly. “I didn’t shoot nobody, m’ lord. No reason to.”

“Not even on orders from your mistress?” Tony demanded outrageously. He was well aware that he was overstepping the line of good manners, but he was tired of games and niceties. It was time to put an end to this scheming.

“No, sir,” Humphrey told him calmly. “I don’t have no orders from Mrs. ‘Awkesbury ‘cept to keep an eye on Mr. Algernon. An’ I have to say, m’ lord, I don’t much like what you’re hintin’ at.”

Tony sighed heavily. This was getting him nowhere. He slowly stood up and looked steadfastly at Humphrey.

“All right, Humphrey,” he said coolly, and walked towards him. He stopped only a couple of feet from him and glared at him. “Let me just say this, and remember it well. I am not a man who lets my friends get hurt in my place. You see, I too, will kill to protect my friends.”

“I’ll remember, m’ lord,” the man replied steadily.

“See that you do,” Tony told him, then turned and waked back to his desk. He turned around then, and he looked at Humphrey. “Don’t underestimate me. Others have done that, and they’ve learned their mistake.”

“Yes, m’ lord,” he said stiffly. “Is that all, sir?”

“Yes, you can go,” Tony replied dismissively. He was unhappy with the way it had gone. He wanted to believe that he was right and the man was lying through his teeth. But his words had a ring of truth to them.

He’d have him watched anyway. The sort of loyalty that Humphrey had to his mistress, and to Algie, made him capable of just about anything.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Tony gave Humphrey some time to leave the house before he opened the door and stepped out into the hall. He was intent on going back upstairs to see how Johnny was faring. He’d left Scott with him, having managed to get him to rest for a few hours through the night while he watched over Johnny himself.

But, when he opened the door, he came upon Henry Billingsly waiting for him in the hall.

Henry was leaning against the wall, arms folded across his chest, his legs crossed lazily at the ankles. He was smiling broadly.

“Now, there goes a man who looks like he has a lot on his mind,” Henry quipped as his eyes followed Humphrey on his way out of the house.

“He’s Algernon’s man, Humphrey,” Tony explained briefly. “Well, actually, he’s Aunt Beatrice’s man but he looks after Algie for her. Personally, my money is on his being behind these ‘accidents’ at her behest. But, he denies everything, of course.”

“Oh, of course,” Henry agreed with a serious expression on his face. “So, you think your aunt is behind it? And you confronted him?” he asked as he leisurely uncrossed his legs and dropped his arms and walked over to join Tony.

“He didn’t attempt to deny that he works for my aunt rather than for Algie, but he did deny that he’s had anything to do with the attempts on my life. Yes, and he was surprisingly open about his answers.”

“Was he?”

“More than I thought he would be.”

“Having second thoughts about his involvement?” Henry asked with a sideways glance at his friend.

Tony considered the question carefully. “I really don’t know,” he told him. “After all, it makes perfect sense that he’s involved. He has had access to the house, and he’s admitted that he would kill to protect Algie.”

Henry’s jaw dropped. “He admitted that?”

Tony smiled. “Yes, he did. But, then, I also told him that I would be prepared to kill for my friends.”

Henry laughed delightedly. “Would that have been just before he left the room?” he asked and received a nod in reply. “No wonder he looked unhappy. Frightened, I should say.”

“Well, I hope so. Now that he knows that I suspect him, he might think twice before he tries anything else.”

“That’s if you’re right and it is him.”

“Yes, of course. But I have other measures in mind that will make it unnecessary for my Aunt Beatrice to pursue the course she is on.”

“Always supposing that she is really behind it all What if it’s not her?”

“Oh, I have no reason to doubt that,” Tony told him seriously. “Even if Humphrey isn’t involved.”

“Why? What makes you so sure?”

“She’s been hoping for a chance for Algie to inherit the title for as long as I can remember, Henry. She always considered it grossly unfair that Uncle Robert wasn’t born first, but an hour makes all the difference to the inheritance.”

“Very true, it might as well be a year. And what would this ‘other measure’ be?” Henry asked, curious.

Tony only shrugged his broad shoulders. “It’s a private matter, Henry.”

“I see,” Henry replied, suspiciously. After a moment, he changed the direction of their conversation. “So, how is Johnny today? I thought he might be in need of some agreeable company. He must be tired of seeing you hovering.”

“He’s feverish,” Tony told him. “The doctor has been and says there is some infection in the wound.”

The smile disappeared from Henry’s face. “That’s bad news. How serious is it?”

“It’s been lingering right from the start, but the fever went up suddenly this morning. I was just about to go upstairs and check on him. Scott is with him,” Tony said. “Why don’t you come with me and we’ll both see how he’s doing.”

“Yes, of course,” Henry agreed distractedly.

Together they turned and walked towards the staircase.

“Abigail and Arabella are planning to come over this afternoon, as well,” Henry told him as they mounted the staircase. “I know they were hoping to see him. We thought that, with the bullet out, he might be up to a short visit.”

“I don’t think that would be appropriate. Not at the moment,” Tony answered firmly. “But, perhaps we might have better news for them by then.”

Tony stopped suddenly.

Henry came to a standstill beside him, curious. “What is it?”

“I think I need to tell you something, before we go any further,” Tony told him, dejectedly.

“What? Here?”

Tony shook his head. “No, come back to the library. This is something that needs to be said privately.”

“That sounds ominous.”

Tony said nothing, but led his friend back to the library and closed the door. “I wanted to tell you about a decision I have come to. In a way, it involves Arabella.”

Henry looked uncomfortable. “Tony, whatever you decide in that direction is all right with me, but I’m not the man you need to speak to. My father…”

“No,” Tony said quickly, and awkwardly. He shook his head and walked away to the desk. “No, Henry, you misunderstood me. I… I don’t plan to ask Arabella to marry me.”

Tony finally turned around and saw the stunned expression on Henry’s face. “I mean… I don’t know if she would have me anyway, but I can’t offer for her.”

“Why, in God’s name, not?”

“Henry, don’t play games with me. You know why not. I can’t subject her to the risk of scandal. Look at what would happen if the truth of my past got out.”

Henry’s eyes blazed. “Don’t you think that’s for her to decide?”

Tony shook his head. “No, I don’t. I can’t risk any wife of mine having it hang over her head,” he explained. “So I have made up my mind not to marry at all.”

“Are you crazy? That would leave Algie to inherit!”

“Oh, I’m aware of that.”

“Then, why the devil did you bother even coming home?” Henry shouted.

Tony moved over to one of the armchairs and virtually fell into it. “I don’t think I know any more,” he told Henry. “I had these feelings of responsibility and duty, you know the sort of thing. I thought I could leave it all behind me.”

“But, I had no idea that things would work out as they did,” he continued.

“And Arabella? She’s loved you for years.”

“I didn’t know Arabella was free, Henry. I thought she was married to Ambrose, probably with children and a life of her own.”

A sound from outside in the hall caught his attention. He stood up and strode over to open the door.

Charlotte was there with her nursery maid, Emma. The child was squealing with delight with a small ball of fluff that was rolling around the floor at her feet.

“And what do you have there, Charlotte?” he asked, watching the nursery maid step away from him. She’d been close by the door, he was certain of it. So, what had she heard of their argument, over the childish peals of laughter emanating from his niece? He couldn’t remember saying enough about his past to give the story away, had he? It was hard to remember, in the midst of so many harsh words.

“It’s a puppy!” the little girl told him, in a very serious tone. “Can’t you see? Isn’t he cute?”

“I can see very well, Charlotte,” he answered, trying to appear grim faced. “But I didn’t think puppies were allowed indoors, so I thought I must be wrong.”

The child pouted and lowered her head.

“Never mind,” he replied, his heart melting over her guilty expression. “Everyone knows that puppies will run off to where they’re not supposed to go. Why don’t you and Emma take it back to its mother?”

Charlotte’s head lifted and she smiled at him. “Yes, Uncle Tony,” she called out, then scooped up the canine waif and ran outside with it.

 Tony turned his attention to the nursery maid. “Might I suggest you accompany my niece?” he said firmly.

“Yes, m’ lord,” she squeaked and hurried after her charge, with Tony watching her until she was with Charlotte and well outside the house.

He turned back and closed the door, hoping the scene with Henry was over. He was wrong.

“You’re wrong, Tony,” Henry said firmly, just as soon as Tony had closed the door. “Arabella is not the faint-hearted miss you seem to think she is. You should give her a chance to choose for herself.” He stopped for a moment. “That’s always supposing that you really love her.”

Tony glared at his friend. “Of course, I do.”

“Then don’t be so self-righteous. Give her the choice.”

Tony shook his head. “No, I don’t think I could tell her.”

“Is that what this is really about? Are you too much of a coward to tell her?”

There weren’t many men that Hawk would take that accusation from. He got to his feet and his eyes hardened into twin blocks of ice.

“I’ve made up my mind, Henry. I’m not changing it.”

Henry shook his head. “Very well, it’s your decision. But, I think you’re wrong.”

“It won’t be the first time I have been,” Tony admitted, the coldness fading from his eyes as his anger dissipated.

“That’s certain,” Henry agreed. He walked over to join his friend. “Can I ask you something?”

“Yes, what?”

“That look you just gave me,” he asked. “Is that the look you gave Humphrey?”

Tony laughed. “I suppose it might have been.”

Henry laughed with him. “No wonder he looked like a man with something on his mind. It was sheer, unadulterated fear! I’ve never seen that look in your eyes before.”

Tony grinned. “I learned it from an eighteen year old boy in Yuma, Arizona. He could turn those blue eyes of his into ice water and he scared most of his adversaries into a dead run without firing a shot.” He shook his head, remembering. “It was the first time I met him. His name was Madrid.”

“Johnny?” Henry gasped. “And he was only eighteen?”

Tony smiled knowingly. “He had an enviable reputation even by then. The name of Madrid was known, and feared, all along the Mexican border by the time he was sixteen years old. And it had spread far and wide by the time he hung up his guns and retired at Lancer.” He walked over and hung his arm around Henry’s shoulders. “Make no mistake about Johnny, Henry. I am good, very good. But, Johnny, he’s the best gun of all.”

*

The door to Johnny’s room was closed so Tony knocked softly before opening it and putting his head in. Scott didn’t say anything, but motioned for them to come in.

Henry followed Tony in entering the room and was immediately shocked by Johnny’s appearance.

Gone was the pallor of illness that had been so frightening yesterday. Instead, Johnny’s face was flushed red and his skin gleamed with heat. His breathing seemed labored and heavy. He tossed his head side to side in obvious discomfort, but opened his eyes on them as he heard them come into the room. His eyes were brilliant with the fever and his hair was damp and lifeless, but not from sweating.

Scott looked up as well. His own face was a picture of concern. His right hand was holding the cloth on his brother’s forehead, while his other hand held Johnny’s hand tightly.

Tony walked around the bed to stand behind Scott. He leaned over and took the cloth from Johnny’s brow and wet it again, exchanging a worried look with Scott as he handed it back to him to replace on Johnny’s forehead.

A soft knock on the door behind him caught Henry’s attention and he opened the door, glad of the distraction. Johnny’s condition appeared to be far worse than he had expected to find.

He recognized the housekeeper, Mrs. Morcombe.

“I have some tea that I brewed from herbs here for Mr. Lancer,” she said, holding a tray out for him. “Dr. McGrath suggested it might be helpful. It’s worked wonders before this, Sir.”

“Please, come in, Mrs. Morcombe,” Henry told her, holding the door open for her to pass.

She passed by and put the tray on the top of the dresser. Then she poured some of the tea into a cup and carried it over to hand it to Scott.

A smile appeared on her face when she saw the doubtful expression on his face as he accepted the cup from her.

“Don’t worry, it’s only a mix of herbs that will help him to rest,” she told Scott. “And it should help to break the fever as well.”

“Mrs. Morcombe, you’re a treasure,” Scott replied with a grateful smile. “Thank you.”

She put her hand against Johnny’s face and frowned at the heat emanating from it. “You make sure that you drink it all down, young man. It will help,” she insisted gently, then she turned and went out of the room.

“Did you get that, Brother?” Scott asked with a smile. “You drink all of it.”

Johnny grimaced and closed his eyes.

Tony whispered, “McGrath said he was coming back this afternoon, didn’t he?”

Scott nodded. “That’s right. He wants to check the wound and change the bandages again.”

“Good, then I don’t need to send for him,” he said, with another glance towards Johnny. “Hang in there, John. And drink some of that tea, even if it’s a foul tasting concoction. It will probably turn out to be just what you need.”

Johnny nodded and, surprising them all, he managed a half-hearted smile. “Those things always taste lousy,” he murmured, breathing heavily.

“I know. They have to taste bad. It’s a law,” Tony replied and grinned at him. “Take it easy, amigo.”

“Tony, can you help him up a little so he can drink some of this?” Scott asked, holding the cup.

“Sure,” Tony answered. He slid his arm behind Johnny and lifted him forward, just far enough to be able to drink from the cup easily.

Scott held the cup to Johnny’s lips and tipped it into his mouth slowly enough to allow him to swallow it in small amounts. When it was empty, he signaled Tony to lower Johnny back to the pillows.

“Not so bad…” Johnny said, faintly.

“Is that so?” Scott answered. “Maybe we should get the recipe for Teresa. Anything’s got to be better than Willow Bark Tea.”

Johnny managed a small smile and then closed his eyes in exhaustion.

Tony walked over and stood by the open glass door beside the window in the room.

The rooms on this side of the house opened onto a balcony that extended the full length of the house. In the summer, it was family custom to take tea, and sometimes even breakfast, out on that balcony. It was cool out there, having been designed to catch the breezes that came that way.

Today, Tony had it open to bring more air into the room. He leaned against the doorframe with his arms folded in front of him, staring out at the grounds. The lawn was trimmed and stretched back to the woods on the hill behind the house. A pair of peacocks strutted across the lawn and he wondered idly if there were still deer in those woods, as there had been when he was a child.

He could just make out patches of bluebells here and there. They were just splashes of color really, but the vista eased his troubled mind.

“Good lord, Johnny,” Henry said, putting a serious expression on his face. “You really shouldn’t be worrying your brother like this. Not good form at all, you know.”

Johnny managed a repeat of the smile, but was too tired to answer.

Henry looked towards Scott and smiled encouragingly. “My sisters were hoping to see him this afternoon. It seems he’s planning to disappoint them.”

Scott couldn’t help but smile. “Think they’d be satisfied with seeing me instead?” he asked.

Johnny turned his head towards his brother and frowned. “Dreamin’…” he murmured sleepily.

“He has this notion that he’s the irresistible one,” Scott told Henry, with a certain amount of mock confidentiality.

“I see,” Henry answered with mock sincerity. “Well, I’m not sure that they find him irresistible. I think they just feel sorry for him, being hurt.”

“Funny…” Johnny replied as his voice faded away. He drifted into a much needed sleep.

Scott looked back over his shoulder at Tony. “He’s asleep,” he whispered.

“You should get some rest,” Tony answered. “We’ll stay here with him, and I’ll wake you if he needs you.”

“You have to get some rest, Scott,” Henry concurred. “He’s going to need you later, and you’ll want to be up to it.”

Scott nodded reluctantly, conceding that they were right. “All right,” he said quietly. “But call me if he wakes. Or if the doctor comes.”

“Certainly,” Tony assured him. “Get some rest now, while you can.”

*

They woke Scott when the doctor arrived at the house, but with no good news about Johnny. The fever still hadn’t broken, though he had been sleeping soundly since Scott had left.

Henry and Tony waited at the far end of the room for the doctor to finish his examination but Johnny woke almost as soon as the doctor entered the room so Scott stayed close by the bed in case he was needed.

“So, you’re awake?” McGrath asked Johnny benignly. “I heard that Mrs. Morcombe’s tea worked its usual wonders and you managed to get some sleep.”

“Yeah,” Johnny answered weakly.

“That’s good. Now, I’m going to take those bandages off and have a look at the wound,” the doctor told him gently and got an answering nod from him.

McGrath was silent throughout. He checked his temperature, his pulse and his breathing.

He cut the bandages away and exposed the wound. It looked red and angry, but it didn’t appear to be weeping or swollen.

Johnny said nothing either, but he gritted his teeth resolutely throughout the examination. He’d been holding his breath for most of the time, and he slowly let it back out as the doctor finally finished with his poking and prodding.

“Good lad,” McGrath told him. “You can rest now. I’ll have a word with your brother and then be right back to talk to you. All right?”

Johnny nodded silently, and McGrath turned around. He motioned to Scott to follow him and then walked over to join them. He lowered his voice to talk to them.

“The fever is too high and he’s not sweating it off. I was hoping it would have broken by now. Since it hasn’t, I don’t think that the small amount of infection we can see in the wound is enough to cause this degree of fever. There must be something deeper – a pocket of infection somewhere.”

“And?” Scott asked anxiously.

“And, I’m going to have to reopen the wound to find that infection and clean it out.”

Scott sighed heavily. He’d been afraid that there was something worse coming. He’d seen his brother in a fever before, but this fever was just rising higher and higher. He knew that he wouldn’t be out of trouble until he started sweating it out.

He nodded. “I was afraid of that.”

“I can’t give him chloroform while he has a temperature that high,” the doctor continued. “Laudanum is risky too, but less so and I can’t open that wound without giving him something though.”

Scott nodded his agreement. He wasn’t going to let Johnny argue this time.

“My lord, you might need to get someone to hold him, in case the laudanum is not enough,” the doctor suggested uneasily.

“No,” Tony replied firmly. “He’s my friend. I’ll take that responsibility myself.”

“And me,” Henry added, hesitantly. “If I’m needed.”

“Very well,” McGrath agreed. “Now, I’d best talk to my patient.”

He turned and walked back to the bedside, with Scott following him. Scott knew that Johnny would fight the idea of the laudanum, and he was going to be right there to answer him.

“You two look like you’re ready to bury me,” Johnny quipped and smiled faintly. “What’s the story?”

“Johnny, the wound is only slightly infected,” the doctor told him. “I think there is an internal infection causing the fever. I’m going to have to open the wound and find it.”

His head sank back into the pillow and he closed his eyes for a moment. “Figured it wouldn’t be good news.”

“I can’t give you chloroform in your condition,” McGrath continued.

“Laudanum?” Johnny asked.

“And no arguments about it,” Scott told him firmly.

Johnny smiled again, but there was no spark in his eyes and no pleasure in the smile. “I’m not a complete fool, Scott,” he told him. “If I thought I could handle it, I would. But, Brother, right now I feel about as bad as a man can feel.”

He turned his head to face the doctor. “Give me the damned stuff and do what you have to, Doc,” he said and closed his eyes.

*

Tony and Henry made their way downstairs, leaving Scott and the doctor with Johnny.

Johnny had passed out after a few minutes and they had all breathed a sigh of relief. Fortunately, the infection had not been deep and McGrath had been able to clean it out without any difficult, intrusive surgery.

They’d left him replacing the bandages, having decided to stay until there was some sign that the fever was breaking.

Reaching the bottom step, they turned towards the drawing room where they had been told the ladies were waiting for news.

Arabella and Abigail had arrived, as Henry had suggested they might, and were waiting for them with Algernon, Lady Hawkesbury and Julia.

On entering the room, all eyes turned towards them.

“Anthony, do you have news of Johnny?” Algernon asked. Tony was surprised. He hadn’t expected to find him there.

“Nothing particularly good,” Tony answered with a sigh. “He’s very ill, but he’s resting now. Dr. McGrath is confident that the fever will break soon.”

“Oh, I hope so,” Julia said enthusiastically. “This is such an awful thing to have happened.”

“Yes, it is,” Tony replied. He sat down in one of the armchairs and heaved another sigh.

“How is Scott holding up?” Abigail asked anxiously.

“He’s fine,” Tony told her. “We have to pry him away from the bedside to get him to rest, though.”

“It must be hard for him, so far from home,” Arabella said sympathetically, and Tony’s eyes drifted towards her.

“Well, we shall just have to make him feel at home here,” Lady Hawkesbury assured her. “Anthony,” she said resolutely. “Does Dr. McGrath still think it wise to send to London for a physician?”

“He hasn’t said so,” Tony answered morosely.

He looked up at the knock on the door. “What is it, Johnson?” Lady Hawkesbury asked stiffly when she saw the butler.

Johnson looked more agitated than Tony remembered ever seeing him. His face was white. “I wonder if I could speak to his lordship, madam?” the man asked nervously.

Tony stood up and walked to the door, feeling all eyes following him. “Yes, Johnson?”

“It might be better to speak privately, my lord,” the man answered quietly.

“Very well,” Tony said, and followed him into the hallway. He pulled the door to the drawing room closed behind him. “All right, you have my undivided attention, Johnson. What is so important?”

“It’s Morphett, my lord,” the man told him. He seemed flustered. “He’s just come to tell me… You wanted him to keep an eye on Mr. Algernon’s man, Humphrey.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Tony told him shortly. “What of it?”

“Well, he went to look for him, my lord,” Johnson said quickly. “He found him behind the stables… in the feed shed… dead.”

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

“Dead?” Tony exclaimed. “How?”

“Apparently, he’s been stabbed, my lord,” the butler explained, clearly and concisely, and with an unnerving lack of emotion.

Tony paced across the room and back, furious. “Behind the stables, you said?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well, tell my mother that I’ve been called away. I’ll go out there now. Tell no one, including her, what has happened. Then send for the constable in the village.” He turned to leave, and then turned back abruptly. “Dr. McGrath is with Johnny Lancer. Ask him if he can join me briefly and then tell him where I am.”

“Yes, Sir.”

With that, Tony turned and hurried out. Once he was outside, he ran to the stables. There was already a small group of on-lookers gathered around the shed, whispering and gasping. The news had spread already.

Morphett came to meet him. His face was grim.

“How could this have happened, Morphett?” Tony demanded. “I thought you were watching him.”

The man shifted uncomfortably. “He went to see you, sir,” he told him. “I waited for him to come back, but I must have missed him. I found him about fifteen minutes ago – right where he is now. Dead as you please. I sent for your lordship right away.”

Tony sighed. “All right. Did you see anyone else around here this afternoon?”

“No, sir. No one.”

“You’d better show me where he is then.”

Tony and Morphett pushed their way through the crowd and walked to the door of the shed. It was wide open but all he could see from here was a pair of booted feet on splayed, outstretched legs lying on the floor. He’d have to go inside to find more.

Before going in, Tony turned back to face the group gathered around the building. He recognized a few of them, but mostly they were still strangers to him. He realized they must all work on the estate and the thought squeezed his frayed nerves. There were so many people he had to consider from now on – so much responsibility.

“I’m sure you all have work to do elsewhere,” he told them loudly and with considerable authority. “I suggest you go back to it, immediately.”

There was some muttering, but no one dared to answer back to him. The crowd slowly peeled away and they all headed off about their business.

With that done, he turned back and looked inside the shed. Careful not to disturb anything, he squatted down beside the body. Any thought that the man might still be alive was quickly laid to rest. His skin had a bluish tinge to it and his eyes were open, staring vacantly at the ceiling, and a pool of blood had spread around an ugly hole in his chest. It was right over his heart.

A light touch at his throat proved useless. Humphrey was cold and already stiffening.

The man hadn’t stood a chance. He had probably died before he even hit the ground.

“Cold as ice, he is, sir,” Morphett told him, unnecessarily.

“Yes, indeed, he most assuredly is,” Tony agreed. “Well, I’ve sent for the constable; and Dr. McGrath will be down here soon. He’s at the house already. In the meantime, I want you to stay out here and make sure that no one enters this shed. I don’t want people wandering around and creating a nuisance. Is that understood?”

“Yes, my lord,” the man answered.

“Good,” Tony said firmly, getting to his feet. He walked to the door and sighed heavily. “Now, I have to go and tell Mr. Algernon.”

*

Tony passed Dr. McGrath on the way back to the drawing room. He directed him to the shed and told him what he had found there. With little more than a cursory nod, the doctor had left the hall and headed for the stables, leaving Tony to face the task of telling Algernon that his trusted servant of fifteen years was dead.

He stopped as he was about to open the drawing room door and he took a deep cleansing breath. He hated the prospect of telling Algie about Humphrey.

Finally, he opened it and went into the room. Henry had taken his leave and was escorting his sisters home, but Julia was still there with Lady Hawkesbury, both concentrating on their embroidery while Algie told them his plans to return home by the end of the week.

He approached his cousin and said quietly, “Algie, I need to have a word with you, privately. Would you join me in the library?”

With a winning smile, Algernon agreed immediately and followed his cousin to the library. Tony held the door open for him, waited for him to pass, and then pulled it closed behind him.

“You look pale, Cuz,” Algie remarked with concern. “Are you quite all right?”

“No,” Tony admitted sadly. “To be honest, I’m not. Sit down, Algie,” he suggested. “I have something to tell you.”

Algernon looked slightly confused, but he did as he was told. He sat in one of the armchairs, watching Tony and brushing imaginary creases out of his clothes while waiting for him to continue.

“Algie, I don’t know any way to say this but to get right to the point,” Tony finally said. He sighed heavily. “It’s about Humphrey.”

“Humphrey? Oh dear, are you angry with him about something, Anthony?” Algie asked, and Tony remembered that the last time Algie had seen him was when he demanded to see Humphrey. “I know Humphrey can be very abrupt at times, but he never means any harm. He’s a good man, you know, Cuz. Been with me for years.”

“I know all that, Algie. No, it’s nothing like that,” Tony explained hastily. “I’m not angry with Humphrey. But, I’m afraid I have some bad news. He’s been killed, Algie. He’s dead.”

Tony waited for some reaction from his cousin, but all he got was a blank expression on the man’s face.

“Did you hear me?” he asked.

Algie blinked and his mouth was slightly open. When his expression eventually changed, it was to a scowl. “That’s not very funny,” Algie said angrily.

Tony was stunned. “Algie, I’m not trying to be funny. I’m terribly sorry, but it’s true.”

Algie leaped to his feet. “That’s NOT funny!” he repeated emotionally.

“Algie, sit down,” Tony told him, quietly and calmly. For a moment, it seemed that Algernon was going to storm from the room, but his face took on a confused expression and he finally sat back down into the armchair.

“Good,” Tony continued stoically. “Now, listen to me.”

“No, I’m not listening to you,” Algie protested, shaking his head and closing his eyes against his cousin.

“Algie…”

“No! No, no… no, no, no, no, no!” To press his point, Algie put his hands over his ears and continued to shake his head.

Tony sighed again, and actually wished that Humphrey was there. Maybe he could get Algernon to come to his senses. It dawned on Tony that his cousin was less effete than he was childlike.

“Algernon, you have to listen to me,” Tony persisted. He went to his cousin and squatted down in front of him, taking him firmly by the arms. “Humphrey isn’t coming back. Someone hurt him.”

Algie stopped shaking his head and opened his eyes. He looked at Tony and seemed to be trying to make sense of the news but there was a strange hollow expression in Algie’s eyes.

“No,” Algie suddenly shouted and he clamped his hands down tight on his ears. “Get Humphrey! Get Humphrey!” he recited, rocking back and forth in the chair.

Appalled, Tony realized that he was in over his head. He had no idea how to deal with this behavior. He strode over to the door and called for his mother.

Fortunately, she was still in the drawing room with Julia and both of them hurried to the library to join him. It took only one glance at Algernon for Julia to run to his side and kneel down next to him. She put her hand on his arm and uttered reassurances to him until he finally took away his hands and looked into her face.

His expression was heartbreaking.

“Whatever did you say to him, Anthony?” Julia demanded.

“There’s been an incident at the stables,” Tony explained. “Humphrey is dead.”

Instantly, Algie’s hands flew to his ears again and he chanted “No…no…” again. This time, Tony could see tears sparkling in his cousin’s eyes and he began to understand that Algie was more than ‘childlike’.

“Oh no, that’s terrible,” Julia exclaimed. “No wonder the poor man is so upset.”

She turned her attention back to her cousin. “Shhhh, Algie,” Julia whispered comfortingly. “We’ll look after you.”

“Take him up to his room, Julia,” Lady Hawkesbury said tersely.

“Yes, Mother,” Julia replied and slipped her arm around Algernon’s shoulders. “Come along, Algie. Let’s go upstairs.”

Slowly, Algernon dropped his hands and got to his feet. He let her lead him out of the room, looking back only to give Tony a look of suspicion before he and Julia left Tony alone with his mother.

“You should not have been so blunt with him, Anthony,” she said, obviously displeased.

“He had a right to know, Mother. I had no idea he would react that way.”

“Oh course, he had to know,” she agreed. “But you had to have known he’d be upset.”

“Upset, yes,” Tony admitted. “But not like that.”

She stared at him angrily and then seemed to understand and relented. “I suppose you have had very little to do with Algernon since he was a boy,” she conceded. “He puts on a very good show of being just like everyone else, but the façade falls apart under stress. Humphrey has always been the one to look after him. I believe it’s been Humphrey who has made all his decisions for him, or at least, helped him to make up his mind. Algernon is quite incapable of it.”

Tony sat down in one of the armchairs. “I never realized it,” he said sadly.

“I shudder to think what it will be like for him without Humphrey. He’ll be quite lost,” she added.

“I see,” Tony answered.

“Now, tell me what has happened,” she demanded, sitting down in a chair opposite him and smoothing her dress into place distractedly.

“It’s just as I said,” he began. “Humphrey is dead. He was found in a shed at the back of the stables.”

“An accident?”

“Hardly, Mother,” he said pointedly. “He’d been stabbed.”

She neither paled nor seemed upset by the news. “Unfortunate,” she remarked indifferently.

Tony couldn’t help but smile at his mother’s attitude. “Yes, I’d say it was very ‘unfortunate’ for poor Humphrey.”

“Flippancy is hardly appropriate, Anthony,” she answered with a scowl.

He wiped the smile from his face as best he could. “No, it’s not,” he agreed.

“And just what have you done about this?” she asked haughtily.

“I’ve sent for the constable and left Morphett to make sure no one goes in there, except McGrath. The doctor was here, so I sent him over to the stables.”

“That hardly seems necessary if the man is dead,” she told him frankly.

“Someone had to make sure of it, and he might be able to tell the constable something about what happened,” Tony explained.

“Very well,” Lady Hawkesbury said firmly and rose to her feet. “I shall leave the matter in your hands. I had better get word to Beatrice about Humphrey. She won’t want Algernon wandering around without him.”

*

Tony spent the rest of the day dealing with the local constable and seeing to other matters raised by the man’s death. The constable appeared to be a good man, but very much out of his depth investigating something like this.

With all hope of covering up a family scandal gone, Tony told the man about the attempts on his own life. He had already known about the shooting, but the word had spread that it was a shooting accident and he had not inquired further without being called in by the new lord of Wetherley.

Tony began to get a greater sense of the importance of his position in talking to the constable, if the man was prepared to demur to his decisions.

However, when he finally found himself with a moment to spare, he went to Johnny’s room to find out whether there was any improvement in his condition. He knocked lightly and opened the door.

Scott was right where he had expected to find him – sitting in the chair by the bed watching his brother. Johnny’s face was still shining red with fever and Tony sighed heavily.

“No change?” he asked, and Scott shook his head.

“Not yet,” Scott told him quietly.

Tony lifted the cloth from Johnny’s forehead and put his hand down to check the fever. He frowned and replaced it.

“I was hoping that fever might have broken by now,” Tony said dejectedly.

“I think it’s worse. He’s burning up,” Scott replied, just as despondently. He looked across at Tony. “You’ve been gone awhile.”

“Something happened,” Tony said worriedly. “Algie’s man, Humphrey, is dead.”

Scott turned his head quickly and stared at him. “Dead? How?”

“Stabbed.”

“That’s the man you thought was making these attempts on your life, isn’t it? I guess that puts a hole in that theory.”

“Quite a large one, actually,” Tony conceded. “I’m not sure where it leaves me.”

“Back with Robert Storey?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Tony replied. “But that’s not my main concern at the moment. We can worry about that later. It’s Johnny we have to think about now.”

He walked around to the other side of the bed. “Have you been sitting here for the last four hours?” he asked.

“I’m not leaving him,” Scott insisted.

“Scott, you’ve got to keep your own strength up too. If he gets delirious, you won’t be able to handle him,” Tony told him reasonably. “Get some rest and I’ll watch him for a few hours. I promise you, I’ll call you if there’s any change, or if he needs you.”

*

Tony was beginning to tire. It was getting close to midnight now and he’d been sitting with Johnny continuously for over four hours. He was pleased though. It meant that Scott had finally succumbed and was getting some much needed rest.

There was nothing to be pleased about in Johnny’s condition, however. It had not changed. The fever was terribly high, although Tony didn’t think it had risen higher since he’d been with him. Nevertheless, any and all attempts to bring it down had failed so far and Tony was worried.

He stood up, arching his back to stretch out the kinks and rolling his head to loosen the muscles of his neck. One leg had gone to sleep and he stomped it lightly to get the blood flowing again, then he checked that Johnny was still quiet and walked over to the balcony door.

The moon outside was new and the sliver of light it provided did little to brighten the darkness. He peered into the night but there was nothing much to see, just shadows – indistinct. Like his future… shadows, gloom…

He felt as though he were only existing now, rather than living. He didn’t think he could ever be truly happy living here.

The life he had been living in America and, in fact, for a lot of years before that, had been free and easy. He’d had no responsibilities and no ties. He had called his own shots and lived with the consequences himself. For the most part, he had been able to choose his own battles.

It would be different from now on. He was already feeling the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. They might be broad enough to take the load, but his heart yearned for the old days.

Of course, it hadn’t always been fun. There had been men who wanted to kill him for revenge or for his reputation. He had faced them and shot it out. It was simple really. There was none of this mystery about it – no unknown assailant waiting in the shadows.

On the few occasions when he had been wounded, he had found himself a nice quiet place to lay up and wait until he was able to work again. There hadn’t been anyone else to consider.

It was different now. There were so many people he had to think about. He felt a terrible burden of guilt over the fact that Johnny had been shot in his stead. He’d invited Johnny out of fear of the future. He certainly hadn’t thought that his life would be put in danger.

But here was his friend, fighting for his life.

Tony walked back to the chair and sat down. He set about wiping the tiny droplets of sweat from Johnny’s forehead.

Sweat! The significance of the word dawned on him. The fever had broken!

He dropped the cloth on the nightstand and charged out of the room to tell Scott.

*

The proud mansion of Wetherley felt as though a dark cloud had lifted from it. Johnny hadn’t woken yet, but the fever had broken and that was the best news they’d had for days.

Tony and Scott waited with renewed confidence for the doctor to arrive. They’d sat with Johnny for the rest of the night. He’d sweated a lot of the fever out and he was quiet and calm by dawn.

When Tony left Scott with his brother to go downstairs, he found Julia finishing breakfast.

He sat down across the table from her. “How is Algie, this morning?” he asked warily.

Julia laid her knife and fork on her plate and glared at him. “He hasn’t come out of his room yet,” she told him coldly. “Really, Anthony, couldn’t you have told him less bluntly?”

“Julia, I didn’t know,” he explained in earnest. “I never guessed that he would react that way.”

“He isn’t like you and me, Anthony. I thought you understood that. That was why it was so important that you come home and claim the title. Algie is sweet and thoughtful, and he’s fun to be with. I love him dearly, but he couldn’t be the Earl.”

It made sense, now that he knew the truth. Tony had always thought his cousin was spoiled and silly. He had never considered that he might be ‘feeble minded’.

“Surely, Aunt Beatrice never really thought he could take over the estate?” he asked, puzzled.

Julia sighed and answered quietly. “Aunt Beatrice sees only the wealth and prestige of the title. She planned on being the power behind Algie. She wanted it for herself, Anthony, not for Algie.”

Tony shook his head at the greed of his aunt. He was all the more convinced that she was behind the attempts on his life.

The question was - if she wasn’t using Humphrey – who was she using? And why kill Humphrey?

A knock on the door interrupted his musings. “Come in,” he called distractedly.

Johnson opened the door and entered. “The doctor has returned, my lord,” he said officiously.

Tony got quickly to his feet. “Thank you, Johnson. See him up to Mr. Lancer’s room, please. I’m on my way.”

“Yes, my lord,” he replied and left.

“Oh, Anthony, how is Johnny this morning?” Julia asked, remembering at last. “I heard he is much better.”

“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that yet, Julia,” he answered hesitantly. “But the fever does appear to have broken, and that’s a good sign.”

“That is good news,” she replied, beaming. “This house needs some good news. It’s been rather a bleak place for some time.”

“Well, when Johnny is back on his feet, we’ll change that.”

With that, he left the room and went upstairs to Johnny’s room. The doctor was just being shown into the room, so he followed and stood back to hear what he would have to say.

The scarlet flush that had been so much a part of the fever was gone now, leaving Johnny’s face with an unhealthy pallor. His eyes were shadowed by black and his skin was slack and clammy now that the fever had passed.

Scott had already stood up from the chair beside his brother’s bed and had stepped back to the end of the bed to watch and wait for news.

As was his custom, McGrath said nothing at all while he examined his patient, nor did his face change expression. Tony looked towards Scott and caught his eye. There was hope in Scott’s eyes now - the same hope that he felt.

“Well, Doctor?” Tony asked anxiously. The doctor had finished with checking the chest wound, and had already listened to Johnny’s heart and lungs. Surely, he must be finished.

But the doctor didn’t answer. He sat on the edge of the bed and took Johnny’s arm in his hand, pinching the skin a couple of times.

Just when Tony thought that he and Scott could take no more of the waiting, McGrath stood up and walked over to Scott. Tony hurried over to join them.

“Well?” Scott asked guardedly. His confidence appeared to have waned as they had watched the doctor.

“Obviously the fever has broken,” McGrath began. “He’s still a little warm, but I’m certain that won’t last much longer. It’s definitely a good sign. He’s beaten the infection.”

“And…?” Scott prompted nervously.

“His heart is still beating too fast for my liking, but I believe that to be an effect of the fever that is lingering. His breathing is very shallow too, and probably for the same reason,” the doctor explained. “I’m rather concerned that he’s so dehydrated. It’s not surprising after fighting off a raging fever, but it’s not good at all. When he wakes, you must get as much fluids into him as possible. Offer them constantly – water to start with, and get him to try some of Mrs. Morcombe’s tea again.”

“How long before he wakes, Doctor?” Scott asked.

McGrath shook his head. “I can’t answer that, Scott. I wish I could. But, if he hasn’t woken within the next twenty-four hours, I shall have to use other means to get fluids into him.”

“I see,” Scott answered hesitantly.

“Don’t concern yourself with what ‘might’ happen, Scott,” the doctor insisted. “Talk to him… prompt him to wake up. I have known that to work in situations like this.”

McGrath returned to the bedside. “I’ll change these bandages again while I’m here,” he told them. “If one of you gentlemen will lift him for me, please?”

Tony let Scott go to help, sensing a need in him to be of use to his brother.

When the wound was exposed to the air, Tony was pleased to see that the angry red color had gone. It looked clean and it was healing – more good news. Johnny would beat this yet.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

“Wasn’t that McGrath I passed in the drive?” Henry asked as he stepped down from the Billingsly carriage. He had arrived with one of his sisters for company – Arabella.

“Yes, Johnny’s fever broke early this morning,” Tony told him, sounding pleased but weary.

Henry beamed with delight. “That’s wonderful news! Scott must be terribly relieved.”

“He is, of course,” Tony said, a little doubtfully. “But until Johnny wakes up and we can get some fluids into him, we can’t be sure of anything.”

“He’s still unconscious?”

“Yes, and he hasn’t shown any signs of waking either,” Tony replied anxiously.

Henry helped his sister down from the carriage. She folded down her elegant little parasol and frowned.

“But surely he’ll be all right now that the fever is gone, Anthony,” she said comfortingly.

“Well, things are better than last night,” Anthony assured her. He offered his arm to her and she smiled as she accepted it and walked into the house with him. Henry walked just behind them, so Tony missed the smile on his face.

They stopped at the door to the drawing room. Tony knew his mother and sister to be there, arranging fresh flowers in the huge vases around that room.

“Thank you, Anthony,” Arabella said quietly as she took her little gloved hand from his arm and smiled reassuringly. “I do hope Johnny wakes soon. We all want to see him getting well.”

“Thank you, Arabella,” Tony replied, and watched her go into the room. He turned back to Henry.

“How is Scott? Is he still sitting with him?” Henry asked considerately.

“Yes, and he’s exhausted. I’d appreciate your trying to get him to take a break for a while,” Tony suggested.

“I’ll go up and see him then,” Henry said, but he seemed uneasy suddenly. “I…er…should warn you that Arabella has come over today expressly to talk to you.”

Tony blanched. “Is that right? Why?”

Henry had the good grace to at least look embarrassed. “Perhaps I did suggest to her that you’re not exactly hanging out for a wife.”

“Oh, thank you very much!”

“Tony, I am your loyal friend, but Arabella is my sister. I couldn’t let her sit around waiting for you when I know you have no intention of asking her.”

Tony sighed. “Yes, I can understand that. I suppose I would have done the same if our positions were reversed.”

“Unlikely, Anthony,” Henry answered with a grin. “You see, I will be looking for a bride one of these days. Only son, and all that… I don’t suppose I’ll have much choice.”

Tony laughed. “You make it sound like a death sentence.”

“Anthony! We are talking about marriage, dear boy!” Henry gasped.

Tony merely shook his head and continued to grin. “One of these days, Henry,” he told him seriously. “You’ll meet a woman who will steal your heart away.”

Henry grinned back. “And who says that I haven’t met her already?”

“Well, it certainly doesn’t sound like you have.”

“Perhaps…” Henry answered, his smile taking on a sheepish look. “Will you talk to Arabella?”

Tony sighed and nodded. “I’ll wait for her in the library.”

“Hiding, Anthony?” Henry asked mischievously.

“If I thought it would work, Henry, I would.”

Billingsly laughed. “I’ll bring her into the library in a few minutes and then go up to see Scott and Johnny.”

*

Tony walked into the library and sat down at the desk. The weight of his responsibilities towards the estate and his ‘position in life’ pressed down heavily on his shoulders. Sitting there, surrounded by the ghosts of his ancestors, he already felt a failure.

His grand plan to let Algernon inherit the estate obviously had to be reconsidered. He wasn’t sure who would be next in line after Algie, but there was bound to be some long-forgotten distant cousin lurking somewhere who would inherit in his stead. He’d have to look into it.

He’d have to make arrangements to talk to Alfred Bramley to find out if it was possible to have Algernon cut out of the succession. The estate could not be allowed to be left in the hands of a simpleton, particularly not one with an avaricious mother.

Tony stood up and walked around the desk to the mantle. He picked up the miniature portrait of his brother Bertram. If only… the two words screamed at him. How different could his life have been, if only…?”

Staring at the small painting, Tony saw his brother come alive in his mind. Bertram’s laugh – loud and unrestrained – rang in his ears. Bertram’s eyes would gleam when he laughed and they had always sparkled in anticipation of his next outrageous adventure.

If only… Bertram would be the Fourth Earl now, instead of himself. Tony would have been left free to follow his own stars while Bertram faced the responsibility.

No – that would never have worked. Bertram’s wild spirit would have been strangled and killed under the load. Tony suddenly knew that he could never wish that on his brother.

A sound… a knock… just on the edge of his awareness, slowly penetrated his consciousness and brought him back to the present. Almost reverently, he placed the portrait back in its position on the mantle and walked across the room to open the door.

Arabella stood there. His heart jumped at the sight of her. She was beautiful in the pale green silk dress that fitted her to perfection. The low cut of the neckline accentuated her firm shapely breasts, and the fashionable bustle and tightly drawn in fit showed her tiny waist seductively. Her blond hair was drawn up in an elegant, but uncomplicated, chignon and the natural glow of her cheeks made any form of cosmetics totally unnecessary.

She was all he had ever wanted. Tony Hawkesbury had loved Arabella Billingsly Coombes since he was a boy and she knew it.

“Come in,” he said, as nervous as a schoolboy. He held the door open and his senses caught the wisp of perfume as she passed by. It hung in the air for a moment and he took longer than necessary to close the door and go across the room to join her.

“Would you like to sit down?” he suggested and escorted her to an armchair that faced the fireplace. Then he waited for her to seat herself comfortably, adjust her dress with time consuming care and turn her appealing blue eyes on him.

He avoided them and walked back to stand beside the fireplace. With one hand holding the mantle shelf and one foot resting on the bottom of the grill, he tried to collect his thoughts.

He took too long.

“We need to talk, Anthony,” she said, quietly but succinctly.

“Yes,” he replied slowly. “I understand Henry has talked to you.”

“He mentioned something, yes. Is it true?”

“That I’m not hanging out for a wife? Yes, that’s true. I don’t plan to marry.”

“Not ever?”

He shook his head and confirmed it. “No, not ever.”

She seemed very calm about it. “And just when did you plan to tell me?”

He looked down at his boot and tapped it against the grill distractedly. “I wasn’t sure that it affected you.”

She took a moment to consider his answer. “You know how I feel,” she said at last.

He looked up and across the room at her. “Arabella, I know no such thing. I’ve given you no reason, that I can think of… to think…”

“No,” she answered very calmly. “You haven’t. At least, not since you’ve returned. But it’s true, just the same, and you can’t tell me you didn’t know it. I’ve loved you since we were children, Anthony, and I know very well that you were in love with me. Even Ambrose knew it and accepted it. He was content to marry me on those terms.” She stopped but, with no answer from Tony, she continued. “He’s been gone for two years and I thought that, now you’re back …”

“I didn’t mean to give you any such hope, Arabella - and I didn’t come to this decision lightly.”

“Is that so?” she said with cool disdain. “So, I take it all women are included in this decision, and not just myself.”

Tony stood up and faced her, angered by the implication. “Spite does not become you, Arabella,” he answered curtly.

“Then explain it to me,” she demanded coldly.

“There’s very little to explain,” he told her firmly. “I have very good reasons, but they are entirely my own. I will not discuss them.”

“Very well, but can you stand there and tell me that you don’t love me; that you no longer feel as you did all those years ago? You left me then, too.”

“I was protecting you from yourself, Arabella. You know that,” he answered angrily. The memory of leaving her behind when he left for America was painful still. “I had nothing to offer you. I was practically penniless, embroiled in yet another scandal. I was all but disgraced in the eyes of my family. I couldn’t ask you to give up everything to come with me.”

She sighed. “I would have.”

“I knew it. I couldn’t let you do it.”

Arabella narrowed her eyes coldly. “How very noble of you! Are you being noble this time, too? You’re not penniless now, Anthony, and you certainly have a lot to offer any woman. So, explain it to me.”

“You don’t have the right to ask that, Arabella,” he told her resolutely.

“Don’t I? Tell me that you don’t love me, and I’ll walk out that door right now and leave you to your silly decision,” she replied, just as determinedly. “Tell me, Anthony. Tell me that you don’t care for me.”

Tony felt a vice grip his heart. He opened his mouth to say the words, but found they didn’t come. He watched in awful dread as she stood up and slowly walked across the room towards him. Her perfume drifted his way and taunted his senses… her very nearness was nearly enough to make him throw caution to the wind and take her in his arms.

She stopped when she reached him, looking up into his eyes. She was so close that he could feel the warmth of her body. “Tell me, Anthony,” she whispered.

“Please, Arabella… it would be no good,” he whispered back. The temptation to reach out and touch her was devastating but, suddenly, his senses cleared and he took a step back. He turned away and walked behind the desk. He stared at her for moments before admitting the truth. “All right, I do love you. I always have, but it doesn’t change anything. I have no right to offer you or anyone else marriage and then sit back and hope my past never comes back to haunt me. I won’t do it, Arabella.”

“Your past? Is that what this is about?” she exclaimed. “Good heavens, what kind of a milksop do you think I am? Do you think I care about anything you’ve done?”

“You don’t even know what I’ve been doing for the last eight years,” he told her firmly. “There are things… well, it would be a scandal. I am perfectly willing to face it, but I won’t leave you open to it.”

“And I have no say in this? Do you think it’s fair to ruin my life – again – to satisfy your pride?”

“It’s not a matter of pride, Arabella,” he assured her. “I care what happens to you. It would be selfish of me to offer marriage and then have you face ruin at my side.”

“Ruin! Who’s to even know what your past is? Are you so sure that it will come back to haunt you?”

“No,” he answered uncertainly. “But I will not take the chance.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m not afraid of scandal, Anthony,” she answered with just as much determination. “Together, we could weather whatever may come. Give me credit for some fortitude.”

Arabella walked over to the desk and then walked behind it to stand in front of him. “Do you really want to face a lifetime alone, my dear?” she asked quietly.

He looked into the deep blue depths of her eyes and finally acknowledged what he had tried so hard to deny. He loved this woman – and he wanted her.

“No,” he answered with a heavy sigh. “But, you should know what you’re getting into.”

She smiled and took his hand gently in hers. “All right, then tell me.”

*

“Come on, little brother, open those eyes of yours,” Scott said, again. He had no idea how many times he’d repeated those words since the doctor had left.

The door opened and Tony entered. Scott took one look at him and realized the man was exhausted. He had to admit that he was tired beyond feeling himself, but he had managed to get a few hours sleep last night while Tony had watched Johnny for him. He tried to remember when the last time Tony had slept might be, and knew that it was far too long.

“Any change?” Tony asked, hope resounding in his voice.

Scott shook his head. “No, nothing yet.” He put his hand on Johnny’s arm and tightened his grip.

“I can’t get him to leave,” Henry told Tony, nodding towards Scott. Henry had pulled up an armchair in another corner of the room and was watching Scott try to get his brother to wake.

“No, I’m not leaving him now,” Scott confirmed with grim determination. Nothing was going to budge him, not when he knew that his voice might be the key to bringing Johnny back to consciousness. Once they had him awake, they could help him… keep him alive. It was frustrating beyond belief to sit and not be able to do anything. “But you look like you can hardly stand up, Tony. You should get some rest yourself, instead of worrying about me.”

“I have to agree with him, Tony. You look positively done in,” Henry agreed, looking Tony up and down. “You know, if you get some sleep now, you’ll be able to take over for Scott when he finally falls over.”

Tony grinned. “You make a valid point, Henry,” he admitted. “But don’t you have to escort Arabella home?”

“Nonsense, the coachman drove us over. He can take her home.”

“Then, I think I’ll take your advice and thank you. Can you stay awhile, just in case my friend here changes his mind…?” He nodded towards Scott, and then added a smile. “Or collapses, before I’m ready to relieve him?”

“I won’t,” Scott insisted. “But Henry’s welcome to stay. I’d appreciate the company.”

Henry smiled. “Certainly, I’ll stay. I’d like to help.”

He glanced at Tony and Scott noticed. For all his tiredness, Tony looked surprisingly satisfied about something.

“You look pleased with yourself, Tony,” Scott said curiously. “Would you like to tell us why? Have you found out something about these attempts on your life?”

Suddenly, Scott scowled. “Do you know who shot Johnny?”

“Oh no, no, it’s nothing like that,” Tony told him quickly. He smiled and directed a look at Henry. “But I will be calling on your father, Henry.”

Henry jumped to his feet and strode across the room to Tony. He took him by the shoulders with both hands. “By heavens! You and Arabella?”

Tony grinned and nodded. “You were right. She is a remarkably determined woman.” He looked Henry in the eyes. “Are you sure you have no objections? I mean, you know my past…”

“Oh, be damned with your past! This is wonderful news!” Henry exclaimed.

“He’s right, Tony,” Scott said with a grin. “Congratulations!”

“Thank you, Scott,” Tony answered, still smiling. “Now, we just have to get my best man back on his feet.”

“And keep you alive long enough to have a ceremony,” Henry pointed out worriedly. “Let’s not forget that little problem.”

“Another good point,” Scott told them.

“Yes, he’s just full of them,” Tony agreed, the smile wiped from his face.

“Get some sleep, Tony,” Henry said firmly. “Once Johnny wakes up and is feeling more the thing, we’ll all put our heads together and sort that problem out.”

Tony smiled again and opened the door. He was surprised to see Algie walking down the hall – surprised and relieved. The man had finally left his room, and a little of the guilt Tony felt about yesterday’s interview with him fell away.

“Algie,” he called cheerfully.

Algernon stopped and turned back to his cousin. Algie’s eyes widened when he laid eyes on Tony. It almost looked like fear.  The guilt that Tony felt he had been cleansed of came flooding back.

“Yes, Anthony?” Algie asked nervously.

Tony walked into the hallway. “It’s all right, Algie,” he said soothingly. “I just wondered how you’re feeling today.”

“Oh fine… fine, Cuz,” he replied eagerly. “Now, you will excuse me, won’t you? I have to go and see if Humphrey has finished working on the engine of my automobile. He’s been very busy, you know.”

Tony’s jaw dropped. Hadn’t he accepted Humphrey’s death yet?

“Er… yes, of course… very well,” Tony said doubtfully. He’d make a point of speaking to Julia and his mother about the situation as soon as possible. “But don’t be long, Algie. Luncheon will be served soon.”

Algie beamed. “Most certainly, Cuz. I never forget a meal!”

*

The lamp had been trimmed to darken the bedroom, but there was still enough light to see by – particularly to see Johnny’s face.

“You need to wake up now, Johnny,” Tony said quietly for the umpteenth time.

It was late now, nearly eleven o’clock. Everyone at Wetherley had long since retired to their beds.

McGrath had paid a call again during the afternoon, while Tony had been sleeping. Since everyone concerned had felt his lordship needed the sleep, they had left him to it.

Scott had finally succumbed to his fatigue, not long after McGrath had left, and had been asleep in his room across the hall for several hours. Apparently, he’d been so close to physical collapse by the time he gave in, that Henry had had to help him to his room. He’d been asleep before his head had hit the pillow.

With both Tony and Scott asleep, Henry had stayed with Johnny until Tony had come to relieve him. It had been dark by then and Tony had offered him a room and a bed for the night. He was sleeping in a guest room, only a couple of rooms away down the hall.

So, he had only Henry’s report of what Dr. McGrath had said to go by.

McGrath had apparently been pleased that all traces of the fever were now gone. Johnny’s heartbeat had settled back into a steady, normal rhythm and his breathing was regular, though very shallow. He had even regained a little color in his cheeks, though Tony thought he still looked sadly pale.

The doctor had been less pleased to find that his patient had not yet regained consciousness, stressing the need to get fluids into Johnny. However, he had emphasized that it was unwise to try to force anything on him while he remained unconscious.

With a promise to visit first thing in the morning and make decisions on how best to solve the problem of getting fluids into him if he hadn’t come round by then, the doctor had taken his leave.

Johnny had remained unconscious, despite everyone’s best efforts to wake him. For the most part, he had been unresponsive all day.

‘For the most part’ because Tony thought he had seen Johnny’s eyelids flicker just once in the time he’d been here with him tonight. He’d taken hope from it and urged him harder to wake, but nothing more had happened.

Now, he wasn’t even sure whether he really had seen it, or whether it had just been a case of wishful thinking.

It was exasperating, sitting and watching Johnny – talking to him but getting no answer. Tony constantly searched his mind for more topics to raise. There were some things that he carefully avoided. They’d worked together a few times, and not every memory from those days was something to savor.

But there had been good times. Johnny had a wicked sense of humor and Tony had fallen right in with it. There were plenty of funny anecdotes he could bring up from their past.

He knew that Scott had been doing the same thing all day. “Hey, Johnny… remember that time when…”

But Tony was having no more success than Scott had had.

Scott – he felt for him. If Murdoch or Teresa were here, at least the burden of responsibility could be shared. Instead, so far from home, Scott had taken it all upon his own back. Tony and Henry were doing what they could to help but, in the end, it was a heavy load for Scott to carry.

“You know something, Johnny?” Tony began, once more determined to hold up his end of this one-sided conversation. “This is an intolerably boring way to spend an evening. Simple courtesy demands that you answer me, dear boy.”

Nothing! What was it going to take to get through to him? Could he even hear them? McGrath had only suggested that it might work. What if they had been wasting their breath all day?

No, Tony could not – and would not - consider it a waste of time. He knew that Scott certainly didn’t either. Even if there was only the slightest chance that this would work, it was worth taking. He’d sit here talking until his voice was hoarse.

He picked up the glass of water from the nightstand and swallowed another mouthful. Then set about trying to think up a new topic of conversation.

Then he had an idea. Was it possible that Johnny might react to his second language, the language of his childhood?

It might just be worth a try. He leaned forward and took Johnny’s wrist, shaking it just enough to try to get his attention.

“¡Escuché! Johnny,” he said intensely. “Usted ha dormido un mucho tiempo. Usted debe ahora despertar. Johnny? ¡Despierte! ¡Ahora!”

(Listen! Johnny… You’ve been asleep a long time. You have to wake up now. Johnny? Wake up! Now!)

Tony watched and listened for some response. He thought he heard a soft sigh, but it was so small that he could have been mistaken.

“¡Despierte! Johnny,” he repeated, desperation creeping into his voice. Nothing! There was still no reaction from his friend. He closed his eyes and lowered his head, feeling more defeated than ever.

If only they could get through to him; then they could keep him alive. Tony knew it, and he knew that Scott felt the same.

Tony looked up suddenly. He was sure that he had heard a soft knock on the door. He waited for a moment, expecting to see Scott open the door and walk in. It was so late now that the only person it could be was Scott.  

But Scott didn’t come in. The door remained firmly closed.

He got to his feet and walked quietly over to open it. In the hush of the night, the doorknob protested with a minute squeak and the door seemed to groan at being disturbed as Tony pushed it open.

There was no one there. Yet, he could have sworn that he had heard a knock.

He stepped out into the hallway. It was darkened while everyone slept – all except for two wall sconces that were kept alight all night. There was one at each end of the hall, trimmed low and just enough to see by – and no more. They threw shadows across the floor, but none of them were human. Nothing moved.

Looking first in one direction, and then the other, Tony made sure that there was no one around. The house was completely quiet. He looked across the hall to Scott’s door, but it was closed. And Tony couldn’t think of any reason why Scott would knock and not come in.

Actually, he couldn’t think why anyone would do it. He shook his head angrily. The anxiety must be getting to him. He was imagining things.

It was certainly strange, but Tony merely frowned and turned back to go inside Johnny’s room.

He stopped – aghast!

“Algie, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

“Stop it Algie! Put that down!” Tony yelled desperately.

He couldn’t believe his eyes. His cousin, dressed only in flannel pajamas with a robe pulled over them, was standing over Johnny with a pillow in his hands, pressing it over Johnny’s face.

Tony started to run across the room, intent on stopping him. But Algie looked at him and moved incredibly quickly. He stood up, tossed the pillow onto the bed and lifted his right hand towards Tony.

It held a pistol, and Tony stopped in his tracks.

“Well, well, well,” Algie sneered. “If it isn’t dear cousin Anthony – back too soon.”

“What is this?” Tony shouted at him.

Tony felt a chill go through the room when he caught sight of his cousin’s face. There was a gleam in his eyes that could only be hatred – pure, icy hatred.

“Stop right where you are, Anthony,” Algie instructed him quietly, and amazingly calmly.

Tony didn’t need a second warning. That gun was leveled at him with a steady and deadly aim. There was no trace of poor simple Algie Hawkesbury in this man’s demeanor. This man was dangerous.

“Now, go back and close that door,” Algie ordered coldly. “We don’t want anyone joining us, do we? Lock it and put the key on that table over there.”

“Algie…” Tony began, trying to sound composed. This couldn’t be real. He had to find a way to get through to his cousin.

“Do it, Anthony. Now!” Algie snarled.

Tony did it. There was no talking to Algie while he held that gun.

He turned around and walked to the door, then he pulled it closed. He didn’t slam the door shut, but he made no effort to keep it quiet either. There was a slim hope that someone might just hear the sound over the quiet of the night and come to investigate.

“No tricks, dear cousin,” Algie warned him. “Now, lock it and put the key over there. And this time, do it quietly. I’m not a fool.”

Tony turned the key in the lock and then stood staring at his cousin for a moment. He’d seen Algie in many moods, but never like this. It wouldn’t do to push him at this point. Tony walked over to the table and dropped the key, all the while watching Algie closely. The tap of the key hitting the table seemed to echo in the quiet of the room.

Algie smiled malevolently. “You don’t like taking orders, do you, Anthony?” he asked sarcastically. “No, of course you don’t. You prefer giving them.” The feeble-minded cousin Tony had just gotten used to was gone, as was the idiotic popinjay he’d always thought of Algie as. This Algernon was new. He’d never seen him show so much authority.

He looked past Algie to the bed and relief washed over him when he saw the steady rise and fall of Johnny’s chest. He was alive.

Algie hadn’t had enough time to finish smothering him before he’d been disturbed. On the far side of the bed, one of the long glass doors to the balcony was ajar. That was how Algie had gotten in and was obviously meant to be his means of a speedy escape.

“Algie… you? I never thought…”

“Algie!” the man spat at him. “Algie, Algie, Algie… always Algie! Well, he’s not here. You can’t tell him what to do now.”

Tony frowned – utterly flummoxed by his reaction. “Listen to me, Algie. You can’t…”

“Don’t call me Algie!” his cousin screamed. “My name is Algernon! Do you hear me? Algernon!” For a moment, the gun wavered while he shouted in his excitement, but it came to a deadly stop before Tony had time to take advantage of the moment. “That weakling can’t even decide what he wants for breakfast without help. He disgusts me.”

“But you are Algie,” Tony reminded him, bewildered.

“No! I’m Algernon!”

Tony was more confused than ever. He had the terrifying feeling that he was in the presence of true madness.

“Where is Algie, then?” Tony asked, trying to maintain a calm façade. He had to think. He had to find a way to get himself and Johnny out of this mess.

“Hiding,” Algernon sneered. “Just like he always does. He hides from everyone and everything. He hides from me…”

While his mind raced to find a way to get that gun away from Algie, he spotted a movement from the bed. For a moment, he thought he saw Johnny’s eyelids flicker.

Tony’s heart leaped. If Johnny woke enough to distract Algie, he might get a chance to jump him and wrestle the gun from his cousin. But, there was another side to that thought, a far more worrying one. If Johnny were to startle Algie, he might just turn and fire in panic.

“Does he have reason to hide from you?” Tony asked, desperate to keep Algie’s attention from Johnny.

Algernon laughed cruelly. “Of course, he does! I’m nothing like that imbecile.” He stopped and smiled. The smile was incongruous and even more so when he tilted his head in thought. “Though, I must say, he does have excellent taste in clothes. You and your friends would have done well to listen to him on that score.”

Tony started at the sudden change to his cousin’s demeanor. The man was mad!

He kept his eyes away from Johnny, just glancing secretly at the bed now and then.

“Yes, Algie has some good points,” Tony agreed, trying to keep Algie’s eyes on him rather than on the bed.

“No! He’s weak!” Algernon shouted. “He’s weak, just like Father was. Mother hounded him to an early grave and turned Algie into a whimpering milksop with her incessant whining! But not me… I’m strong. I can stand up to her. She’s afraid of me.”

Tony saw one of Johnny’s eyes open. His head didn’t move at all. He was definitely waking. A part of him was thrilled at the sight, but fear for his friend gripped him. He had to keep Algie distracted.

 “Is that what you want - people afraid of you?”

Algernon’s eyes gleamed. “I want Wetherley,” he said coolly.

“Wetherley isn’t yours to have, Algernon. It never was.”

“But it should have been. If my father had been born first… He could have been, you know. It was only an hour! Mother always said that it was because he was the weakling twin. If he had been stronger, he would have been the elder, and all this would have been ours.”

“That’s just fate, Algie… nothing more.”

“Fate!” Algernon exploded. “A man makes his own fate! All this was mine for the taking. When Bertram died, Mother said I was one step closer to the title. Then Edward died and there was only Charles before me. She’s obsessed with Wetherley.”

An awful suspicion began to creep over Tony.

“I would have inherited from Charles – the title, the money – and Wetherley. Everything was perfect,” Algie told him. “But his bitch got with child again. If it was a son, I would have lost it all!”

Horror dawned on Tony as he realized what Algernon was admitting to. “Algie… please tell me you didn’t arrange that explosion. You couldn’t have killed all of them,” Tony pleaded, petrified by the possibility that his cousin had orchestrated that fatal boating disaster.

Algernon’s eyes narrowed. “I told you - my name is Algernon. You would do well to remember that, Anthony,” he answered, low and intensely. “And what else could I do? I was so close to getting it all. I wasn’t going to let some sniveling cub take it away again.”

“It was an accident…”

Algernon smiled. It was a slow, knowing smile that sent a chill down his cousin’s spine.

“So it was,” Algernon agreed sarcastically. “If you insist…”

“Algie, how could you do it?” Tony asked, devastated. The tragedy of the boating accident was magnified tenfold with the knowledge that it had been murder. All those lives lost - his chance of ever coming to an understanding with his father, or of really knowing Charles, gone forever.

And what of Julia? She had lost her beloved George that day and had come within a hair’s breadth of losing Charlotte as well.

Charles and his wife were gone, along with the promise of the new life she carried – Wetherley’s future. He couldn’t bear to think about the magnitude of Algie’s work.

But Algernon beamed with satisfaction. “Actually, it was surprisingly easy. Algie is very clever with engines and things. He can be useful occasionally.”

“But all those lives lost! Four members of my family – your family – died that day, as well as the captain and crew. Seven people, Algernon! Seven! My father, my brother! Algernon, Charlotte was on that boat! She’s a child! She nearly died!”

“Yes, I suppose that would have been a shame,” he conceded. “Sadly, casualties can’t always be avoided. But, Wethereley was mine… Mother was finally satisfied…”

Algie’s face took on a maniacally blissful expression.

No, not Algie’s face – this was Algernon. What pressures on his vulnerable mind had separated the two? For they were obviously two – Algie – amiable but feeble-minded, and Algernon – calculating and lethal.

Tony caught a glimpse of Johnny’s head moving. Then he found himself looking into those vivid blue eyes of Johnny’s. He wanted to scream out the good news to Scott, but he held it back. He just hoped that Johnny was aware enough to understand what was happening and not do anything to excite Algernon.

“– but then you came back,” Algernon continued agitatedly, hatred gleaming like ice in his eyes. The gun moved in his hand and Tony watched as his finger stayed close to the trigger. “You were supposed to be dead! You ruined everything!”

“So you started planning my death,” Tony remarked coolly.

“Well, naturally,” Algernon answered, as if the remark had been foolish. He smiled wickedly. “But you’re not an easy man to kill, Anthony. You have more lives than a cat. But no, not that many. Tonight, your luck runs out, Cousin.”

*

Scott woke to darkness and looked around the room. Something had woken him.

He sat up and threw back the covers, then swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat listening to the quiet of the night. He didn’t hear anything.

But he was sure that something had woken him. The room was pitch black and the silence was profound, but something felt wrong.

Well, he was awake now and he didn’t think he’d be able to get back to sleep without going to check on Johnny. He’d lost track of who would be with Johnny, but he thought it would probably be Tony at this time of the night.

Scott barely remembered getting to bed. He’d been living on snatches of sleep – a few hours here and there – for so long that exhaustion from the stress and lack of rest had finally taken its toll of him.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he sought out and located the lamp on the nightstand. Lighting it, he retrieved the clothes he’d discarded earlier and pulled them on. He didn’t remember it being dark when he had fallen into bed.

He glanced at the clock on the dresser – half past eleven. That meant that he had gotten several hours of sleep this time. A pang of guilt slipped into his mind when he thought of Johnny being without him for all that time.

Had Johnny woken to find Scott wasn’t there? A part of him prayed that Johnny had woken, even without him. That was the most important thing now – getting Johnny to wake up. But he wanted to be there when he did wake. He wanted Johnny to know that he had at least one member of his family by his side.

Dressed, he poured water from the jug into the basin on his dresser and splashed it into his eyes to wash away the last vestiges of sleep. He grabbed the towel and dried off, then tossed it idly aside and made his way out of the room and across the hall to Johnny’s room.

The hallway was only dimly lit, but it was light enough to see that the door was closed. There was nothing unusual in that, so he took the knob and turned it.

Nothing happened.

Scott frowned. Why would the door be locked?

He tried it again. It was definitely locked, so he knocked quietly.

*

Tony almost jumped when he heard the knock.

Algernon looked up in surprise and the gun jolted slightly. For a moment, Tony thought it would go off, but Algernon recovered quickly – too quickly for Tony to be able to move.

“Quiet,” Algernon whispered. “Not a sound or I’ll kill him first – and then you.”

There was a second knock, slightly louder this time.

“Tony, are you there?” he heard Scott call through the door. “Open this door.”

Algernon brought the gun up a little higher. “Don’t answer, Anthony, or you’re both dead.”

Johnny’s hand was moving now. Tony schooled himself to keep the surprise from his face. Johnny appeared to be more than simply aware of what was happening.

The knowledge that they would both die at Algernon’s hands gave Tony a moment’s thought that it might be worth taking the risk of going for the gun. He disregarded it out of hand. He wasn’t taking chances with Johnny’s life and while they were alive, there was still a chance that he could overpower his cousin.

Another knock on the door… “Tony?” Scott called again.

Tony was so tempted to answer, but the barrel of that pistol faced him.

Dimly, Tony heard Scott’s footsteps going down the hallway. He was gone, but Tony knew he’d be back.

“He won’t give up, Algernon,” he told his cousin firmly. “He’ll break down that door if he has to. You’d be wise to make your escape now, while you can.”

“There’s time yet,” Algernon answered confidently. His boldness amazed Tony. “That door is solid oak. No one is going to break it down. And it will take time to find someone who has a key. I have plenty of time to finish what I started.”

“Your plans haven’t come to much so far, Algernon,” Tony reminded him.

“True,” his cousin conceded. “But I’ve been unlucky, that’s all.”

“Luck? Isn’t that just another word for Fate? I thought you made your own fate.”

Algernon scowled at him. “I’m surrounded by incompetent fools! My plans were all infallible – it was their execution that went awry. Idiots! Algie couldn’t even put enough poison in your glass to kill you. And that rose thorn would have worked, but for him.” He indicated Johnny and laughed. “It’s poetic that he’ll end up dead with you. I’ll take pleasure in that.”

“Who fired the gun, Algernon?” Tony asked angrily. “Was it Humphrey?”

“Humphrey? Don’t be a fool! He’d never do it,” Algernon sneered. “Good old Humphrey – Algie’s guardian angel. Do you know what he was going to do? He was going to the police! He was going to turn me in. Said he couldn’t stand by and watch me hurt anyone else.”

“You killed him?”

“I had to. He was going to tell Mother that he couldn’t cover for me any longer.”

“Did Humphrey know that there are… two of you?”

“Yes, and he hated not being able to control me. He made all Algie’s decisions for him, kept him away from husband hunting misses and such. But he didn’t have any power over me. He couldn’t stand that. Then he told me that he knew it was me who was trying to kill you… said he’d have to tell Mother and the police.”

“Your mother knows… about you?” Tony asked. Despite the desperate situation, he was enthralled at the way Algernon had separated himself totally from Algie.

“She’s been paying Humphrey to stand watch over me for years… telling her what I do… spying on me,” Algernon told him angrily.

“Then who shot Johnny?”

“That was Oswald,” Algernon answered.

“Oswald?”

“My coachman… and a very good man to have around.  He’ll do anything for money.” Algernon shook his head angrily. “I can’t believe he was so stupid as to have shot the wrong man. Halfwits! Idiots! I’m surrounded by them.”

*

“What’s going on, Scott?” a drowsy voice down the hallway called to him.

Scott turned and was taken aback to see Henry standing at the door to one of the rooms. He hurried down to talk to him.

“Johnny’s door is locked. Do you know what’s going on?” Scott asked anxiously. A terrible fear su