The Tinder and the Match

‘La Yesca y la Cerilla’

By Ros 

 

Chapter One 

The stagecoach rumbled along the rough, pitted track that passed for a road, through country that was as much desert as any ‘sand-duned’ wilderness he’d seen in books. The landscape was flat and open and hard on the eyes though, off in the distance, mountains rose stark and rugged.

Cactus was king here. In all its forms, from the short and stubby barrel cactus to the tall and abstract Saguaro, cactus ruled the desert.  Clumps of agaves thrived too, while untidy, weedy plants struggled to live at the feet of the Saguaros, and creosote bush and bursage broke the monotony of spines and thorns with their bleak little leaves. It was a world of unremitting browns and golds and reds, harsh and unforgiving.

But Johnny knew that, come springtime, that same desert would burst into a wash of color that could stop a man in his tracks and make him catch his breath. Those same straggly plants would shower themselves in a glory of wildflowers and even the mighty Saguaro would soften into flower.

Johnny was tired of stage travel – tired to the bone of it. Four long, boring days of dust, heat and being bounced around on his backside – five if you counted today – had just about worn his patience to a dangling thread. And then, when they hit Tucson, they’d have an overnight stop and then start over again, heading south.

South, into territory that he hadn’t dared to travel through for a long time… He and Murdoch had argued over his making this trip for that very reason.

He glanced at Scott, sitting on the bench seat beside him. Poor Scott, this trip had been even harder on him, unused as he was to lengthy stage travel. He was still trying to read his book, though the coach jolted and bumped over ruts and listed frighteningly as it sped around bends.

The third passenger, a gritty looking man of uncertain age, had joined them at Arizona City and seemed more at ease with his ride than either of the Lancer brothers. His hat was pulled down over his face and his arms were crossed casually across his chest. He appeared to be sleeping peacefully.

Johnny stared out the window at the familiar landscape – all too familiar… all too full of memories.

*

 “Johnny, you’ll be in charge while Scott and I are away. We’ll be gone for a couple of weeks – maybe more, so I’m relying on you to keep the ranch running smoothly.”

 Johnny wandered over to an armchair and dropped into it. A noticeable puff of dust rose, not from the chair but from his clothes, but he paid it no heed. Instead, he crossed his ankles, leaned back and shuffled a little to get even more comfortable.

 “Sure. Just where are you two headed?” he asked.

 “Sonora…”

 “Sonora!” Johnny bolted forward in the chair, all ease gone in the blink of an eye. “Murdoch, that’s a week on a stage – after you get to San Diego! Your back won’t stand it.”

 “Well, it’s too far to send Scott alone.” The tone of his father’s voice warned Johnny that the decision was final, but he wasn’t taking the hint – not this time.

 “Oh, I agree with you. It’s a trip for two of us, and I know the territory.”

 Murdoch raised his eyebrows and glared at his son. “And that’s why you’re staying here. You know it too well – and they know you.”

 “I’m not wanted in Arizona, Murdoch. And I’ll be Johnny Lancer in Sonora - just a respectable rancher on a buying trip.”

 “No.” Murdoch was firm. “You might be recognized.”

 “What if I am?” Johnny answered, just as determined. “Mostly, Johnny Madrid won’t get me into trouble there. I have friends…”

 “And powerful enemies.”

 Johnny dropped his head to acknowledge the truth of it. There was no denying that he had enemies among the Rurales. Hadn’t they tried to execute him a while back?

 But things changed quickly in Mexico.

 No longer comfortable, he found himself idly picking at the trim on the arm of the chair. “Who is this rancher anyway, Murdoch? Why’s it so important to go all that way?”

 “He’s got a stud bull for sale that we can get at a very good price. Bloodlines like this would do wonders for our herd.”

 “A bargain, huh? And who’s the rancher?”

 “A fellow named Montoya.”

 Johnny’s head came up quickly. “Montoya? Not Don Sebastian?”

 “That’s him. Do you know of him?”

 A knowing smile crept over Johnny’s lips. “Yeah, you could say that. If you think you’ll get anything at a good price from that old scoundrel, you’re real wrong.”

 “Why? I heard he was from an old Spanish hidalgo family.”

 “Oh, he is. His blood is as blue as they come. They call him the ‘Lion of Sonora’, but fox is more like it. With his airs and graces, and those real polite manners that he’ll have on show for you and Scott, he’ll bamboozle the pair of you.”

 “Is that so? You don’t have much faith in me, do you?”

 “Not against Don Sebastian.” Johnny grinned. “He’d cheat his grandmother if he thought he could make some money out of it.”

 “And not you?”

 “No, not me. At least, I don’t think so. I’d be on the lookout for his tricks anyway. I’ve seen some of them.”

 “That makes your going even more risky,” Murdoch pointed out glumly. “A man like that would turn you over to the authorities in a minute.”

 “No, Murdoch,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “You have to understand a man like him. He’ll cheat me if he can. He’ll take me for my boots and saddle if he gets the chance. That’s just good business to his way o’ thinking. That’s how he plays it. But betray me? No, that would touch his honor and, believe me, honor is everything to Don Sebastian de Montoya.”

 “Sounds like you know him, Brother,” Scott said, tossing his hat onto the table as he walked into the room. He looked less than impressed with what he had obviously overheard. “Do I get a say in any of this?”

 “Everyone who’s ever been down that way knows ‘the Lion of Sonora’, Scott. His reputation is bigger’n mine, and he’s proud of it.”

 “And you don’t think I could handle a simple business transaction on my own? Why does either one of you have to go? I’m a big boy now, you know.”

 “Business has nothing to do with it, Son,” Murdoch assured him. “Montoya or no, I don’t want either of my sons traveling alone in Apache territory.”

 “Well, Johnny and I agree on one thing anyway. He’s right about you not going. Your back wouldn’t stand the strain of a stagecoach for days on end.”

 Murdoch leaned back in the big leather chair and clasped his hands in front of him, glaring in frustration from one to the other. “The way you two talk, I’m some sort of invalid! I’ll have you know, I’m not quite ready to be put out to pasture yet.”

 Johnny laughed at the thought of the imposing figure of a man in front of him handing over the reins of the ranch to them and sitting back to take it easy. “And I wouldn’t want to be the man to try it! But you know that bullet Pardee put in your back is still there, Murdoch. Bouncin’ around in a stagecoach through the Sonora Desert ain’t gonna do it much good.”

 His father sighed, reluctantly. “Yes, I guess you’re right.”

 “He is,” Scott agreed. “But Johnny can’t go, not into Mexico.”

 “Cipriano,” Murdoch suggested. “He’d be a good man to have with you on this trip.”

 But Johnny shook his head. “His wife is due to have her baby in the next week or so. Wouldn’t be right to send him.”

 Murdoch nodded. His whole body seemed to admit his defeat. “You’re right. It wouldn’t be fair to ask him.” He turned the chair around to face the big French windows that opened out a view of the ranch before him. He seemed deep in thought for a moment and then, without turning back to his sons, he sighed heavily. “Alright, Johnny. Go with your brother. But I don’t like it – not one bit.”

 Finally, he turned back and faced them. “I want you both to be careful on this trip – and watch each others’ backs.”

 *

 The stage lurched violently and Johnny was thrown forward, shaking him back from his thoughts. He wasn’t alone in being tossed around. Scott grabbed the window frame just in time to save himself from falling and the stranger opposite him was jolted enough to have his hat fall ludicrously into his lap. It landed upside down and revealed a face that was weathered by hard work in a hard climate rather than by age. And there was just a hint of lines at his eyes, telltale signs of a man who enjoyed a laugh.

 Untidy and in need of a shave, he was dressed all in black with an unusually long black leather vest and an ammo band around his left arm that intrigued Johnny.

 The man picked up his hat then smoothed back a thick thatch of wavy brown hair and replaced it.

 “Nothin’ like a nice, smooth ride, hey Boys?” the man asked with a wide grin that creased those lines at his eyes.

 Johnny only smiled, but Scott answered. “Yes. Another one like that and we’ll lose a wheel.”

 “Yep, likely we will,” the man replied and settled back into the same position with his arms crossed and his hat nudged forward.

 Silence fell for a while longer. Johnny looked out to see that the landscape had subtly changed. There were more bushes and a few paloverdes, hints of the thornscrub that he remembered around Tucson.

 Scott looked out the window beside him.  “How do men make a living out here, Johnny?” he asked, shaking his head.

 “Same as back home, Scott. Blood, sweat and prayer – maybe a little more of one or all of ‘em than we do.”

 “You said it, Son,” the stranger said, his eyes still closed.

 “Do you have a ranch around here?” Scott asked him.

 “My brother does.” He opened his eyes then and pushed the hat back. “Name’s Buck Cannon.”

 “Scott Lancer… and this is my brother, Johnny.” Scott leaned forward to shake the hand offered to him and Johnny did likewise.

 “You boys are ranchers are you?” He was eyeing Johnny a little dubiously, particularly the low slung gun belt on Johnny’s hips.

 But Johnny met him eye to eye. “Yeah. Got a place in the San Joaquin.”

 The man seemed to relax. “Nice country there… all green, plenty of water.”

 Scott nodded. “Most of the time. Not like this.”

 “Nope, that there’s desert, Son. Country’s a little better up higher.”

 “Not much,” Johnny quipped and Cannon laughed.

 Scott frowned. “Yet you try to raise cattle?”

 “Not try – do.”

 “Fewer head to the acre, Scott,” Johnny informed him.

 Cannon nodded. “That’s right. An’ that grass you see growin’ here an’ there? That’s Buffalo grass. Damned good feed. There’s more of it closer to Tucson.”

 “I see. And water?”

 “It’s there if you know where to look. Cattle just seem to nose it out.” He looked again at Johnny and then at Scott. “You know, I don’t favor my brother a whole lot, but you two just don’t look like kin. An’ you sure don’t sound like you’re from California.”

 Scott smiled. “I was raised in Boston.”

 He cast another doubtful look at Johnny. “You ain’t gonna tell me you was too.”

 “Nope,” Johnny answered warily. “Actually, we’re getting close to my neck of the woods.”

 “Mexico?”

 “Some… ‘round the border.”

 “And you’re brothers?”

 “Yeah.” Johnny didn’t feel inclined to go into details.

 “It’s a long story, Mr. Cannon,” Scott told him. “We only met a year or so ago.”

 Buck Cannon seemed to have figured out that Johnny wasn’t going to tell him more. He nodded and grinned. “Be an interestin’ one, I reckon, but one thing I’m not knowed for is havin’ a long beak.”

 The coach hit another rut and slewed to one side, shaking them again. Then he turned back to them. “An’ it’s Buck. How far you two goin’?”

 “Tucson,” Scott told him. “And then south.”

 “Mexico?”

 “Yes, down past Nogales.”

 Buck nodded. “Long way from home.”

 “Business,” Johnny answered. He was still unsure of the man.

 But Buck just leaned back and pulled that hat down again. “Yep, usually is.”

 *

 Scott Lancer had done more than his share of traveling in his time and by all manner of means - by ship, by train clear across the country - and he’d spent days on end in the saddle more times than he could count. And stagecoaches were by no means new to him either.

 But this journey seemed interminable. After three days traveling to San Diego, he and Johnny had caught the stage for Tucson. Five days across country that Scott was certain was about the most inhospitable land he had ever seen, on tracks that barely rated the title of ‘road’. 

 It was lifeless. Weedy bushes and straggling plants, so wilted that they looked more dead than alive, somehow managed to survive the relentless sun. But it was the cactus that fascinated him.

 He’d seen cacti before, but never anything like the giant Saguaros. They stood as tall as a tree, straight and with branches that reached upwards rather than hanging down towards the ground. Instead of turning away from the sun, it was as if they reached up to it in adoration. Through sheer size and numbers, they dominated the rugged landscape.

 Last night, at the way station where they had spent the night, Scott had wandered outside to stretch his legs and for a breath of air before dinner. He’d been just in time to watch the awesome light display in the western sky. The setting sun had set the sky ablaze with fiery reds and brilliant golds and Saguaros were darkly silhouetted against the horizon. Scott thought he had never seen anything so starkly beautiful in his life.

 “”Kinda catches the eye, doesn’t it?” Johnny asked as he stepped up beside him.

 They faced the sunset together and Scott nodded. “Yes, it’s beautiful. But it’s more than that. It’s so wild. You know what I mean?”

 “Yeah, the ol’ lady’s showin’ off just how much power she has out here.”

 Scott turned his head to look at his brother. Every so often, Johnny said something that surprised him. “Yes, she is,” he agreed. “It’s strange, Johnny. The place seems so dead and empty – just rocks and cactus.”

 “Nope, just seems that way in daylight,” Johnny explained, folding his arms casually as he watched the last of the sun’s rays dip slide away. “Most desert animals have more sense than us. They hide out during the day and come out when it’s cool – in the night. You’d be surprised how alive that desert is come dark.”

 “Yes, of course, being nocturnal would make sense in this environment,” Scott thought aloud.

 “You know that silence during the day? Nothin’ movin’ around… Well you listen at night and you’ll hear all kinds o’ skitterin’. Mostly they’re small animals, but you’ll find coyotes and javelinas… even a cougar once in a while.”

 As if to confirm Johnny’s words, a coyote yipped in the distance. It seemed as though it was the first sound that Scott had heard in the desert.

 “But what about water?”

 “Few weeks a year, there’s rain in the desert. Real heavy rain, storms… Those washes fill up fast. Most of the plants have one way or another to store that water while it lasts.”

 “I can’t imagine rain out there.”

 Johnny laughed. “Well, it does, just not very often.”

 “It sounds like you have a soft spot for the place, Brother. Is that why you wanted to come?”

 Johnny looked around him. “No, Scott. I don’t think I miss it. But the memories aren’t all bad like you an’ Murdoch seem to think. I have friends down this way. Might be able to catch up with one or two of ‘em.”

 “As long as it’s only ‘friends’ who catch up with you. I still have my doubts about you heading into Mexico.”

 “Don’t be a mother hen, Scott. And it’s time we went in,” Johnny finished, unfolding his arms and slapping Scott on the back. “That food might not be as good as Teresa’s but, right now, I don’t care. I’m hungry.”

 “Sounds good to me.”

 *

Something caught Scott’s attention and he realized that he had almost dozed off in the coach. What was it? A noise…

Then he heard it again. A whining sound and then a thud, but this time he heard Johnny grunt beside him.

“Get down!” Cannon shouted. At the same time, there was the lash and crack of the whip and the horses picked up speed. The coach rocked dangerously as it raced off. The guard up top with the driver began firing and Buck sidled closer to the window just in time to avoid being hit by an arrow that embedded in the wall of the coach where he’d been sitting. 

Scott turned to Johnny and stopped for a stunned moment when he saw the shaft of an arrow protruding from Johnny’s left shoulder with a scarlet stain quickly spreading across his shirt. But it was for a moment only. He grabbed his brother’s shirt collar and dragged him down off the seat, onto the floor and out of the line of fire, then ducked down over top of him.

Johnny was conscious and breathing hard but he lay still where he had fallen.

“Stay down, Johnny,” Scott told him firmly, pulling his own pistol from its holster. “No heroics…”

He pushed himself off his brother and got to his knees, careful to stay under cover, then looked over to see what Buck Cannon was doing.

Cannon was down on the floor as well, with his gun drawn. Crouched on one knee, he aimed and fired off a couple of shots out the window, then ducked again as another arrow whizzed past.

Scott took Johnny’s place at the window opposite and did the same. Even knowing that they had little chance of hitting anything with the coach lurching from side to side and at the speed it was going, Scott fired and then dropped for cover.

“Can you see them?” he called to Buck.

“Yeah, two of ‘em on this side. You?”

Scott chanced a look and spotted them, riding hard and still behind the coach but catching up fast. “Two here as well.”

A scream rang out from above them and the guard’s body hurtled past Scott’s window. It was left behind as the horses kept up the breakneck pace.

Scott risked all and leaned out far enough to take better aim and fire, then quickly pulled back. Two arrows whined past and he felt his heart beating wildly in his chest as he realized how close they had been to hitting him.

“Keep your fool head down, Scott!” Johnny growled angrily. He managed to get up on one elbow, but Scott shoved him down.

“Stay put! I can’t watch you and the Indians.”

“Then don’t stick your neck out like that!” Johnny argued.

Scott chuckled and it rang a little wildly in his ears. “Turnabout, Brother. I’m watching your back this time. Keep down and let me take care of this.”

There was no cocky answer from Johnny. Scott looked at him more carefully and saw that he hadn’t lost consciousness, but was fighting against the pain that the rocking of the coach must have been making hard to bear.

Buck pulled back to reload and Scott turned again to his window to continue shooting. When he drew back to reload as well, Buck took over. He fired a couple of rounds and then ducked quickly.

“Got one of ‘em,” he said quickly. There was no elation in his voice, just a plain statement of fact. “How are you for bullets?”

“Not enough to keep this up all the way to Tucson,” Scott told him. “What about you?”

“Tucson’s beginning to feel like a long ways off.” He leaned out and fired one shot, then pulled back.

Scott did the same but thought he might have wounded one of the attackers on his side. “Will they give up if we make it hard for them?”

A wide grin broke across Buck Cannon’s face. “Don’t know… but let’s give it a try.”

The words had barely passed his lips when the coach jarred violently, rose on one side as the wheel almost made it over a rock… and then tilted.

There was no way to stop it once it started. The coach listed so far to the right that it became top-heavy and there was nowhere to go but over.

Scott heard a scream of “Hold on!” from Buck Cannon and grabbed the frame of the window with his gun hand, only partly able to maintain hold with the gun still in his hand as well… while he tried to keep Johnny from being tossed around with the other.

The outcome was a foregone conclusion. Scott never had a chance of being able to do both. As the coach heeled over and hit the ground, it bounced and then crashed down again. Scott lost his grip of the window and his head hit the doorframe heavily.

After that, nothing mattered. The blackness reached out and pulled him down.

 

Chapter Two

Buck Cannon opened his eyes to the glare of the sun, almost directly overhead. He closed them again quickly but the light still annoyed him. He squinted and turned his head away from it. Damn! He hurt all over, but his left arm was the worst. It throbbed incessantly.

Something was wrong – very wrong. He opened his eyes again and lay still, trying to remember what had happened. And then it came back to him with all the suddenness of an explosion.

He remembered the stagecoach… the Indians - Apaches… and the two other passengers – what were their names? Lancer… Yeah, that was it.

He remembered, in awful detail, the stagecoach jolting, lifting and heeling over to one side.

Well, he was alive and that was more than he’d expected when that coach had rolled.

Though he was disinclined to move, he knew that he had to get up and go see what had happened to the others. He recalled seeing one of them, that dark-haired one with the low-slung gun, getting hit by an arrow when the whole thing had started.

He started up, but stopped. Pain streaked through his left shoulder and arm and froze him before he had gotten even an inch off the ground. Something was busted…

He turned his head and took a look at the arm and then the shoulder. He couldn’t move the arm much and the shoulder was obscenely distorted. No, not broken, dislocated. Well, there was nothing much he could do about it now. He gritted his teeth and eased himself up slowly, then reached across to pull the arm in close and cradle it with the other.

Looking around, he realized that he’d been thrown clear of the stagecoach. Vaguely, he remembered seeing the door fly open as they rolled. Well, a man could be lucky sometimes.

But where were the others?

Then he spotted someone lying a few feet away from him, closer to the coach.

His clothes and that dark hair of his identified him easily enough. Buck got to his feet, teetering dizzily for a moment, and then walked over to check on him. The boy was not only alive, but fully conscious and staring up at him with vivid blue eyes that were filled with pain, the arrow embedded in his shoulder a stark reminder of what had caused all of this.

Around the wound, the shirt was soaked with blood, but it was stiff and dry. It looked as though the bleeding had stopped some time ago. But his face was pale and his expression strained.

“You hurt anywhere else, Boy?” he asked, kneeling beside him and holding his own arm cautiously.

“No, don’t think so.”

“Lay still and let me check you over,” Buck told him, gently poking, prodding and moving limbs. He found no evidence of other injuries. That was something to be grateful for. All in all, the boy was lucky not to have been killed in that spill. “That wound looks like it’s stopped bleeding an’ I can’t find anything busted.”

“Can’t say the same for you.”

Buck glanced at his shoulder. “Yeah, shoulder’s out. Won’t die from it though,” Buck said, understating the hurt.

“My brother – is he okay?”

Buck looked around. “Can’t see him.”

Johnny struggled, attempting to sit up. It took hardly any effort for Buck to push him back to the ground. He managed easily with only one hand. “Whoa there,” Buck chastised him. “You’ll start the wound bleedin’ again that way.”

There was a wild look of desperation in Johnny’s eyes… and anger, aimed directly at Buck. “I have to find Scott.”

Buck kept his good hand on the boy’s shoulder and held him down. “Sure you do, but take it easy. I’ll take a look ‘round. You stay put.”

He relaxed a little, no longer fighting Buck, but closed his eyes. “Find him… help him.”

“Sure,” Buck reassured him. It suddenly struck him that he’d feel the same way if it was his brother missing… or Mano or Blue. “He probably ain’t far away. You wait here while I go see. Right?”

Johnny nodded, still breathing heavily from his attempt to get up.

Buck stood and scanned the area around them. There was no sign of the brother. The coach lay on its side, smashed and broken underneath. The horses were gone. He walked around to the front and found just what he had expected. The traces had been sliced through - the horses had been cut free.

Half a dozen arrows stuck out of the body of the coach like porcupine quills and there, on the ground on the other side of the coach, was the driver. Bracing his arm, Buck walked over to where the man lay, unmoving. He was sure the driver was dead, but bent down to check for a pulse just the same. He was cold and colorless and there was nothing that could be done for him – except perhaps a decent burial and a few words from the Good Book read over him.

Still, Scott Lancer was nowhere to be seen. That left one option open and, as if to confirm it, Buck heard a low moan coming from inside the coach. Hampered by his injured arm, and feeling every bump along the way, he clambered up onto the top side and peered through the window.

Scott Lancer was lying in an awkward heap at the bottom, against the wreckage of the other side of the coach, apparently semi-conscious. Blood streamed from a cut on his head, dyeing his blond hair crimson and running down the side of his face, but he seemed to be coming round. Another groan escaped him as he moved his head to one side.

“Scott?” Buck called down to him. “Can you hear me?”

Scott frowned and opened his eyes, looking up towards the sound. He wasn’t sure what it had been… just a noise, and he found himself blearily looking up into clear blue sky… through a window. But that didn’t seem right. His head was pounding…

Then he looked back down and saw just how awkwardly he was lying. Something was wrong. He looked around and realized that he was in the stagecoach, but it wasn’t right. If he was lying down, why was he looking up at the window? And someone was calling him.

“Up here,” he heard again.

Scott looked up again and blinked hard against the light, trying to focus on the face peering down at him. “Johnny?”

“No… Buck Cannon.”

“Oh…” The name meant nothing to him, but he was certain that Johnny should be with him. Clumsily, he pushed himself up and leaned against the coach seat. “Where… where’s Johnny?”

“He’s out here. Got throwed clear, like me.”

Thrown clear? Suddenly, memories flooded back into his clouded mind. There had been Indians; Johnny had been hit and then… Oh God! The coach had rolled.

“Johnny, is he alright?” Scott asked, more urgently.

“No worse’n he was before. How ‘bout you?”

Scott gingerly moved one leg and then the other, and then tried moving his arms. Everything seemed to be working though. “A bit stiff and sore, but nothing appears to be broken. I guess I’ll live.”

Buck grinned. “Think you can get yourself outa there? You’ll have to pull yourself up here an’ I don’t know how much help I’ll be with only one hand to lend ya.”

Scott looked at him more closely and, this time, noticed that Buck’s left arm was cradled in his right. His shoulder looked to be damaged.

Scott eased himself up onto his feet, staggered a pace or two and kicked something. Looking down, he found himself looking at two hand guns. One he recognized as his own and the other he suspected belonged to Buck Cannon. He picked them both up and put his own into his holster, then leaned heavily against the wall of the coach for a minute.

“No rush, Son,” Buck assured him. “Just take your time.”

“I can make it. What about the Indians? Are they gone?”

“Yeah. Don’t know how long I was out, but they ain’t around now.”

He opened the door and lifted it, swinging it out with a creak and the snap of splintering wood. Scott looked up at him and straightened. He was able to reach up and grasp the doorframe quite easily.

“Here,” Scott said, holding up the gun. “I think this is yours.”

Buck took the gun and put it down beside him, then grabbed Scott’s forearm and supported him as he scrambled and levered himself through the open door, then sat back – breathing heavily. He slipped the pistol back into the holster on his hip and then pulled the injured arm close again and braced it against his side, grimacing against the throbbing pain. 

Scott sat beside him on what was now the topside of the coach and wiped his sleeve across his brow. When he pulled it away, there was blood on his sleeve – a lot of it. His head ached and the sunlight hurt his eyes, but he’d had no idea that he was bleeding. He frowned at the shirtsleeve for a moment, confused.

“Yeah, you don’t look real pretty, Son,” Buck told him, grinning. Then, suddenly, Buck caught his breath and sat quietly while his face contorted with pain.

Scott made a closer examination of the man’s shoulder and arm, then sighed heavily.

“You’re not so good yourself. That shoulder is dislocated.”

“Yeah, I know,” Buck answered ironically, the pain obviously more bearable now.

“We’re a sorry lot, aren’t we?”

“Reckon we are, but we’re alive,” Buck answered optimistically.

Scott frowned. “Yes, we are. But how come? The Indians…”

“I figure they got what they wanted. Didn’t see no need to finish us off, I guess.”

“What they wanted?”

“The horses…”

Scott looked around and spotted the empty harness. “Oh… All this for a few horses?”

“An’ to make a point of it.”

Then Scott caught sight of the driver. He wasn’t moving and Scott suspected that he never would again. “The driver?”

Buck shook his head. “He’s dead. Broke his neck when we went over.”

“I saw the guard fall some way back,” Scott added. They were alone out here now.

“Yeah.”

Shaking his head, Scott pushed himself off the edge of the coach and landed on the ground below with a graceless stumbling step. His head felt the jerk and he thought it might fall right off his shoulders, it hurt so much. But at least he was on his feet. He let the dizziness subside and then reached up to offer Buck a hand to climb down.

“We’re a long way from anywhere, aren’t we?” Scott asked as Buck reached the ground and to stand beside him.

Buck nodded. “Yeah. I reckon ‘bout halfway between the last stop an’ Tucson. That’s ten miles or so each way.”

“The Indians didn’t do us any favors by leaving us alive, did they?”

“Nope…”

Scott straightened himself. Well, he’d been in fixes before. They were alive and that was all that mattered for now. Then his thoughts turned back to his brother. “You said Johnny’s no worse?”

“Checked him over. No bones busted or nothin’.”

“Just an arrow in his shoulder, you mean?”

Buck glanced down at his boots. “Yeah, there is that.”

“Where is he?”

“’Round the other side.”

*

 Scott found Johnny about ten feet from the overturned stagecoach. He ran to his side and knelt down, surprised to see that Johnny was both awake and aware of him.

 "Scott! You okay?”

 “Sure.”

 “You don’t look it,” Johnny answered, frowning.

 Scott remembered the blood that he’d found on his sleeve when he’d wiped his face. His head ached, but not all that badly now. Just how much blood was there?

 He smiled reassuringly. “So, I got bloodied up a little. It’s not as bad as it looks.”

 “Hope not,” Johnny breathed, with just a hint of a smile in his eyes. “You look damned awful.”

 “Oh, thank you, Brother. That’s one thing I like about you – always ready with a compliment.” Scott grinned, then looked at the arrow and the wound more closely. “How are you holding up?”

 “Not so bad.” But his voice told a different story. The fact that Johnny was still lying flat on his back suggested that he was in considerable pain.

 “You’ll be more comfortable once we get that arrow out.”

 “No!” Buck said quickly, dropping to his knees beside him and laden with saddle bags from the coach. “Better to leave it there while he ain’t bleedin’.”

 Scott stared at him. “We can’t just leave it like that!”

 “No, he’s right, Scott,” Johnny told him, gathering some strength to lift his hand and rest it on his brother’s wrist. “If you pull it out, you could do more damage.”

 “Breakin’ it off is about the only thing you can do for now, ‘til we get him to a doctor,” Buck suggested, then glanced down woefully at his left arm. “But you’re gonna have to do it.” 

Scott had already realized that it would be up to him and he hated the idea of inflicting more pain on his brother, but it had to be done. “I know,” he said with a sigh and then turned back to Johnny. “Listen, I’m going to do this as carefully as I can, but it’s bound to hurt. You want something to hang onto?”

“No, just get on with it.”

“Alright. Buck, can you hold his other shoulder?” With that, once Buck had gotten himself into position, Scott wrapped one hand around the base of the arrow to keep it steady. Then he gripped the upper part of the shaft with the other and took a look at his brother and a warning glance towards Buck.

“Get it done, Scott,” Johnny told him, a hint of impatience in his voice.

Scott nodded and took a deep breath. He needed to get this right the first time. The last thing he wanted to do was to prolong this.

With Buck holding Johnny’s other shoulder down, Scott put his weight behind the arrow and snapped it.

Johnny gasped and drew his knees up. His fingers clawed at the ground and he jerked violently, but Buck and Scott kept him from writhing.

“Easy, Son,” Buck said, surprisingly gently. “It’s done.”

Breathing hard, Johnny squeezed his eyes shut and quieted, nodding a little in answer. Scott watched him struggling with the pain and felt utterly helpless. Fresh blood oozed from around what was left of the arrow – about three inches of shaft still sticking up appallingly from Johnny’s shoulder. Tossing away the shaft that had broken off in his hand, he took Johnny’s wrist and held it.

“I’m sorry, Brother,” he whispered.

“H… had to be done,” Johnny whispered to him, his breathing under control now but his eyes still closed.

“Here, tear this up and use it for bandages,” Buck said quickly, handing over a shirt from one of the saddle bags.

Within minutes, and with what help Buck was able to offer, Scott had Johnny bandaged and more comfortable. Then he turned to Buck. “I suppose it’s your turn,” he said unhappily.

“Yeah, don’t see myself goin’ through life lookin’ like a hunchback,” Buck quipped. “You know how?”

“I did it once, a long time ago,” Scott told him and then added to Johnny, “You stay put. I’ll be right back.”

“Ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

Scott walked around to where Buck was sitting and knelt beside him.

“You said you’ve done this before, right?” Buck asked, a little nervously.

“Sure, back during the war,” Scott explained to him. He looked at the shoulder and sighed. “You’re going to have to lie down for this.”

Scott noted the tense look on Buck’s weathered face and smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Buck; the patient survived. Are you ready?”

“Nope,” Buck admitted candidly. “But there ain’t a whole lot o’ choices here.” He lay down, wincing as his shoulder touched the ground.

Scott took Buck’s arm in both hands, careful not to jolt it. That would come soon enough. He stretched out his leg, lifted the arm and pushed his foot firmly against Buck’s armpit. 

“Ready?”

“Yeah, do it.”

Without further warning, Scott put his back into it. He leaned back and yanked hard on Buck’s arm. The man groaned as Scott pulled and then lifted the arm, but the bone clicked suddenly back into place and Scott eased up on the tension.

He let go and scurried back on his hands and knees to Buck’s side. Buck’s eyes were closed while he caught his breath.

“Damn!” Buck swore. He grabbed the arm and pulled it back against his side, cradling it as he rode out the pain.

“Let me take a look at the shoulder,” Scott said gently. He ran his fingers lightly over the joint, making sure that it was as it should be. “Seems to be okay now. How does it feel?”

Buck opened his eyes and glared narrowly back at him. “Damned sore!”

“Sorry. I meant does it feel right? Can you move your arm?”

Gingerly, Buck tried it – stretched it, bent it and clenched and unclenched his fist. “Feels good. Thanks.”

“Wait here for a minute,” Scott told him firmly and went back to where Johnny lay. When he returned, it was with the remnants of the shirt that he had torn up for bandages. With a little creativity, Scott fixed a rough but practical sling for the arm.

“You’ll need that for a while. There’s probably some muscle damage.”

Buck sat up slowly, supporting the injured arm in spite of the sling. “Thanks again.”

Scott sat down beside him and folded his arms across his chest. He looked out across the vast expanse of desert. It surrounded them in every direction, though there were some high craggy hills not far off.

“So what now?” he asked casually.

“We start walkin’.”

Scott grinned. “I was afraid you’d say that. I don’t suppose there’s much point in sitting here and waiting for help.”

“Nah. Stage from San Diego only comes twice a week. It’ll be days ‘fore another one comes along. Might be an occasional rider comin’ through, but not many. Don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

“And we have no food or water,” Scott agreed, sighing.

“Well, there might be a canteen or two that the driver an’ guard had, but that’s about all. Nope, can’t wait here.”

“Which way then? You said we’re about halfway between the way station and Tucson.”

Buck nodded. “Yeah. Near as I can figure, we’re ‘bout ten or twelve miles from Tucson.”

“Is there a doctor there?” Scott asked, glancing worriedly over towards his brother.

“Yeah, but that ain’t gonna do Johnny much good if he’s dead ‘fore we get there. There’s some rough country that way, lot of it uphill. I’m not sure he could make it.”

“It looks to me as though there’s ‘rough country’ in every direction. Surely it would be better to try that than going back the way we came?”

Buck scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Yeah, it’d be a waste o’ time walkin’ all that way back to the way station just to borrow a horse an’ go for help in Tucson.”

Scott looked sideways at him. “Then you have something else in mind?”

Buck thought about it for a while. “Yeah, High Chaparral’s a mite closer.” He pointed to the hills in front of them. There was a gap between them that offered an easy route. “My brother’s ranch,” he explained. “It’s that way.”

“Is it closer?” Scott asked hopefully.

“Not much difference in miles, I reckon, but there’s a chance we might come across one of the boys an’ get help.”

Scott looked again at Johnny. He’d managed to get himself into a sitting position now, despite Scott’s orders to stay put. He was pale from loss of blood and shock. “We’re going to need it,” Scott said, almost to himself.

“Yeah, your brother ain’t gonna be able to keep up much pace.”

“I know, but he’ll go as far as he’s able, and then further. He’ll walk himself to death if we let him…”

“Yeah, I figured he was a tough one.”

Scott stopped and turned back to face Buck. “You have no idea, but I’m not going to let him,” he continued firmly. “Maybe it would be better if I stayed here with him while you go for help.”

But Buck shook his head. “Wouldn’t be my first choice.”

“The Indians?”

“Yeah. They could come back. An’ like I said - no food. If anythin’ happened to me, it’d be a hell of a long wait for that help.”

“Yes, you’re right. Well, you know the territory. Can you find your way to the ranch from here?”

“Yeah. That’s the easy part.” Buck grinned. “It’s the gettin’ there that’s gonna be hard.”

“Then we should get started.”

Buck nodded. “Might be a good idea if I return the favor an’ take a look at that head o’ yours. Don’t want that wound gettin’ dirt in it an’ gettin’ infected or we’ll have you to worry ‘bout as well.”

Scott grinned. “Yes, you have a point. Then we’ll see how Johnny goes once he’s on his feet.”

“Well, that wound o’ his is kinda deep, but the bleedin’ stopped ‘fore he’d lost more blood’n he could spare. This is gonna be hard on him, but I reckon he’ll be able to walk.”

Buck didn’t add ‘for a while’, but Scott sensed that it was what he meant. If only there was something they could use to make a stretcher or a travois, it would make it easier on Johnny.

*

By the time they went back to Johnny, Scott had joined the motley little club with a make-shift bandage of his own.

“How’s the head?” Johnny asked as his brother knelt beside him.

“A lump the size of a goose egg and a bit of a gash. Nothing to worry about.”

“Good,” Johnny said, though not entirely convinced. Wincing a little, he straightened his back and moved his legs to make sure they worked alright. “So, you two figured out which way we’re headin’?”

“Buck says that his brother’s ranch isn’t far from here. We’ll head there.”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense.” Then he looked at Scott suspiciously. “An’ it’s not far, huh?”

“That’s what he said,” Scott assured him. “We can make it.”

“Yeah, don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” Johnny replied with equal confidence, then he laughed suddenly. “But I might need a hand gettin’ up.”

Buck arrived and knelt beside them. He held up two canteens and shook them triumphantly. “We got us some water, Boys.”

“Things are lookin’ up,” Johnny said with a grin, then nodded towards the sling. “How’s the arm?”

Buck pulled it from the sling and clenched his fist. “Good as new. Your brother did a good job.”

“Yeah, he’s a regular Mr. Fixit.”

“Put it back in that sling and give it time to get some strength back into it, Buck,” Scott told him firmly.

Buck scowled at him, but did exactly that and then asked. “So, you two ready to do this or we gonna sit here in the sun all day?”

“Help me up an’ let’s get going,” Johnny replied. “I’m sick of lying ‘round anyway.”

With a hand from both Scott and Buck, Johnny got to his feet. Once there, he wavered dizzily and grabbed his brother’s arm for support, noting a panicked expression on Scott’s face. “It’s alright,” Johnny said quickly, panting from the effort of standing. “Just give me a minute.”

Sure enough, his breathing evened out and some of his color, such as it was, returned to his face. He looked out into the open vista of cactus and brush and grimaced. “Well, time to go, I guess,” he said and shook off Scott’s hand. “Let’s get outa here.”

 

Chapter Three

Buck handed each of them their hats. He’d located them, scattered around the coach, when he’d searched for the canteens. He shoved his own easily onto his head and drew up the toggle on the stampede strings.

“Here’s what I reckon,” Buck began. “We head for that bajada over there…”

“The what?” Scott asked.

“Hillside,” Johnny told him patiently.

“Yeah, that slope over yonder,” Buck continued. “We’ll head there an’ rest up till dark, then travel by night for as long as we can.”

“In the dark?”

“Yeah. The moonlight gets pretty bright out here an’ it’s a whole lot cooler than daylight. Should get further than we would walkin’ in the sun.” 

Scott nodded. “That makes sense. How far off do you think that hill is?” 

“Oh, I’d make it a mile or so. There’ll be shade up there – rocks an’ paloverde trees an’ such. Might even be lucky an’ find us some water too.”

“Then we go that way.” Scott turned back to his brother. “Johnny?”

“Standin’ here in the sun’s not doin’ us any good,” Johnny told them, settling his hat comfortably atop his head. “Let’s get outa here.”

Scott offered his arm to help him, but Johnny pushed it aside. “I’m okay… for now, anyhow.”

Unconvinced, but acquiescing, Scott watched Johnny start walking. His steps seemed strong and determined so Scott set off and caught up with him, matching his strides. Buck joined them and handed over one of the canteens to Scott.

“Thanks,” Scott said quietly, his eyes still on his brother.

“Don’t worry,” Buck reassured him. “That bajada ain’t so far. He’ll make it alright.”

“Yeah, he’ll make it,” Scott agreed bluntly.

With that, conversation came to a halt as, putting one foot after the other, the three men walked into the wilderness.

*

 Johnny was able to walk unaided for some time and kept up a good pace. However, Scott found himself alternating between watching where he was going himself and watching how Johnny was doing. Every now and then, he caught Buck Cannon doing the same thing, but neither of them said anything.  As the heat and the dry desert air took its toll on them, their steps became shorter and they kept conversation to only what was necessary.

 But it was never going to last. When Scott slipped his arm around Johnny’s waist and took some of his weight, Johnny offered no resistance or argument. It was enough to tell Scott that his brother was feeling it more than he would ever admit.

 Actually, it wasn’t long before Scott also started to feel less than at his best. His head was pounding. The sun seemed to be getting stronger and hotter with every step they took. After a while, the sun began to feel like a heavy hand, physically pushing down on him.

 Glancing over at Buck, he saw him stop and swipe his good arm across his brow to wipe away the sweat. Then he licked his lips and squinted. ‘So,’ Scott thought. ‘He’s not immune to the desert either.’ It shouldn’t have surprised him. This wilderness wasn’t made for man or beast.

 At the foot of the bajada, the three stopped. Johnny pulled himself away from Scott’s shoulder, swayed a little and then straightened.

 “Reckon we could all do with a mouthful o’ water,” Buck suggested, opening his canteen. “How’re ya doin’, Johnny?”

 Buck handed him the canteen and he nodded. “Hot an’ thirsty,” he answered.

 “Well, just a mouthful for now. That’s gonna have to last us for a while.”

 Johnny took a swallow and wiped his sleeve across his mouth as he looked up the hillside.

 Taking back the canteen, Buck asked, “Think you can make it up there, Son?”

 “Yeah. I’ll make it.”

 There was a finality in Johnny’s voice that Scott had heard often enough before. He knew that, whether he really did make it or not, Johnny would do his damnedest. Suddenly, Johnny swayed again. Scott caught his arm and held it, willing his own strength into his brother.

 “Think maybe I oughta sit down for a bit,” Johnny admitted.

 “I think maybe you’re right,” Scott agreed and helped him down to the ground.

 “We’ll rest here a minute or two ‘fore headin’ up there,” Buck told them both, pointing up the hill. “Those paloverdes oughta give us some shade till the sun goes down. Then, when the moon comes up, we’ll head out for the ranch.”

 *

 While the hillside didn’t prove to be steep, it was difficult nonetheless. Loose dirt and gravel, dried bushes and small hidden cacti, all combined to make it what would have been rough going for a man even in peak condition. By the time they reached the small trees up near the rocks, Buck and Scott were both panting from the effort, but Johnny was beyond exhaustion.

 Somehow, he’d climbed and stumbled and, with help from Scott, had managed to make the last few yards – all but falling into the shade of the trees. Or what passed for shade. The paloverdes were spindly and their leaves sparse.

 Scott made him as comfortable as he could and gave him a little more water, then sat down beside him. Johnny was sweating heavily, but a quick check assured Scott that it was from the sun. There was no fever so far.

 “How’s he doin’?” Buck asked, dropping to the ground beside him.

 “No fever,” Scott told him, relief ringing in his voice. “That’s something to be grateful for.” Then his optimism waned and his face fell. “But he’s exhausted. I don’t think he could have gone any further.”

 A glance back at Johnny showed him that his brother had already fallen asleep. There was also fresh blood around the wound in his shoulder where it had seeped through the rough bandage.

 “Give him time to rest. He’ll be fine.”

 Buck’s words sounded confident, but Scott sensed some hesitation. “How far do you think it is to the ranch?” he asked.

 “Oh, seven or eight miles maybe.”

 Scott sighed heavily. “If he’s like this after only one mile…”

 Buck nodded. “Well, no good thinkin’ on it. Get some rest.”

 Scott had to admit that the shade did feel good. The relief from the blazing sun was welcome, but his head throbbed abysmally. What was more, his feet ached. Their boots were made for riding and were fine for short distances, but they weren’t what they needed for trudging for miles. He doubted that sleep would come as readily to him as it had his brother. 

“What about you, Buck? How’s your shoulder?”

 “Kinda sore,” Buck admitted. “Won’t kill me though.”

 Scott smiled at his casual dismissal of what had to be a painful injury. He leaned back against the trunk of the tree and found that Buck had done the same, side on to him and facing another direction. Scott watched him pull his hat down over his eyes and reach across to hold his injured arm. He crossed his legs at the ankles and looked almost as comfortable as he had back in the coach.

 Closing his own eyes didn’t help Scott to get any closer to sleep. The horrible little man with the hammer inside his head just wouldn’t let up.

 “So, you fought in the war, huh?”

 The words took Scott so much by surprise that he caught his breath. After a moment of hesitation, he answered with a short, “Yes.”

 “Union?”

 “Yes.”

 There was silence for no more than a moment before Buck continued. “I was with the South.”

 Scott didn’t want to talk about it. “You and a lot of others,” he answered quietly.

 Buck tipped his hat up with one finger and glanced thoughtfully at Scott. “It’s been over a long time, Son.”

 “I’m aware of it, but some things stay with you.”

 Buck frowned. “You couldn’t have been more’n a kid. You see much action?”

 Scott nodded. “For a while.”

 “Injured?”

 “No, captured.” There, he’d said it out loud. The word evoked memories so vivid that he felt his chest tighten. A cold shiver ran down his spine.

 “Oh.” Buck leaned back and looked straight ahead. “Heard me some real bad things ‘bout them places.”

 “There isn’t much good that can be said about them,” Scott agreed ironically.

 “How long?”

 “About a year.”

 Buck sighed heavily. “Helluva long time to sit in one o’ them prisons.” He stopped for a moment, thinking. “Not surprised ya don’t like talkin’ ‘bout it.”

 “Not many people understand…” He drew a breath and felt better for it. “What about you? How long were you in the war?”

 “From the start.”

 “That’s a long time, Buck.”

 “Yeah, can’t say I talk about it much neither. It’s like you said – not many folks out here understand. Them that didn’t fight seem to think it was all heroic an’ such. Don’t remember it that way, myself.”

 “No… a lot of good men died… on both sides.”

 “Too many good men,” Buck agreed, and fell silent.

 “It can’t be easy living out here either, Buck.”

 The man grinned broadly. “Has its moments. Good life though. Got kin… an’ friends.” He laughed. “I ain’t exactly lived the settled life ‘til now.”

 “What took you to Arizona City?”

 “Heard an old pal had taken up a place there. Opened up a saloon.” He laughed again, with a twinkle in his eye. “Couldn’t let an occasion like that go by without attendin’ the party.” 

Scott laughed. “I hope he appreciated the visit.”

Buck leaned back and smiled. “Oh, she appreciated it fine.”

The two of them laughed heartily until Buck suddenly got to his feet. “Don’t reckon I can sleep, so I might take me a look up in them rocks. Might be some water there.”

“We’ll have to keep an eye out for something to eat, too. Surely there’s game here somewhere.”

Buck grinned. “Could always find a rattler an’ roast him. Good eatin’.”

“So Johnny tells me. I’m not sure I believe him.”

“Kinda like chicken. There’s worse things.”

He turned and headed into the rocks and was gone, leaving Scott to watch his brother and think about the sleep he should be getting himself. It was likely to be a long night.

*

 The moon rose into a sky glittering with a myriad of sparkling stars that might have lit the desert floor even had it been a moonless night. But the moon was close to full and it shed more light on them than Scott would have thought possible. Even a night-sky at Lancer didn’t seem to have the brilliance of this night’s moon.

 They set out again just as soon as it was light enough. The air was cooler; the walk down the bajada was easier than it had been going up and they were well rested.

 Scott had still been awake when Buck had come back from his search of the rocks, jubilantly telling him that he’d found some water and then going back to fill both canteens. Then, when Buck came back and the air began to cool in the late afternoon, both men had drifted off to doze into the early evening.

 With Scott’s help, Johnny made it down the slope easily enough. At the bottom, Buck led the way and Scott helped Johnny to walk. Johnny managed well for a while, but Scott could feel him leaning more and more heavily against him as they walked further.

 Mostly, the three of them trudged on in silence. Talking took up too much energy and the air, despite being cooler, was just as dry as it had been during the day. The water was still held to be a precious commodity, even though Buck had replenished their supplies. It wouldn’t last long unless they were careful with it.

 A coyote yipped in the distance, the only sound in the night but for the crunch of their boots on the dirt. It was an eerie evening. The Saguaros, silhouetted against the horizon, were suddenly dark and ominous. With those tall arms outstretched to the sky, they were a strange presence.

 Evening wore into night and Johnny’s steps grew shorter. Scott found himself putting his arm around his brother’s back and taking more of his weight, almost willing his own strength into his brother’s weakening body.

 They stopped for a mouthful of water each and Scott looked back to see how far they had come. It was depressing to see what little distance they seemed to have walked.

 Johnny turned his head in the same direction and then shook it angrily. “I’m slowing you two down too much,” Johnny said, breathing heavily. “This isn’t going to work.”

 “Well, we’re not leaving you here,” Scott told him in a tone that would brook no argument.

 “He’s right, Son,” Buck agreed. “Not leavin’ ya for the coyotes an’ the Apaches. You catch your breath an’ we’ll get goin’ again. We got all night.”

 Scott nodded his gratitude and stopped up the canteen, throwing the strap back over his shoulder. “You ready, Little Brother?”

 Johnny nodded, but it was Buck who quietly slipped an arm around Johnny’s waist and pulled Johnny’s arm over his good shoulder. “I’ll take him for a bit,” he said quietly to Scott, ignoring Johnny’s scowl. To Johnny, he grinned and added, “Give Scott there a breather. Ain’t gonna hurt ya none to let someone else help ya.”

 Before Johnny could argue, Buck started out and Scott could only grin. The man had no idea whose hand he was forcing… and Scott had the idea that it really wouldn’t have made much difference if he had known.

 Night wore into the early hours of the morning and Johnny’s steps were dragging as he somehow continued to put one foot in front of the other. Scott walked close beside him, though it was Buck who was supporting him.

 Suddenly, Johnny seemed to stumble. Scott reached out and caught him just in time to stop them all falling to the ground. Johnny was panting with exhaustion, his face covered in sweat and dirt and his fist was wrapped desperately around Scott’s sleeve. He was barely able to stay on his feet and his eyes were closed as he dragged in breath after breath. 

Scott pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and carefully wiped the sweat from Johnny’s face, surreptitiously laying his palm on Johnny’s forehead as he finished. He glanced over Johnny’s shoulder at Buck and the man’s expression told Scott that he had already guessed what Scott had found.

Even allowing for the exertion of their trek, Johnny’s brow was warmer than it should be. It was what Scott had feared from the start. A fever was starting.

But Scott said nothing about it. He tucked the handkerchief back in his pocket and brushed his brother’s unruly mop of hair away from his eyes. “You’re doing fine, Johnny,” he reassured him. “We’ve got to be getting close now. Then you can rest.”

Johnny opened his eyes and lifted his head to meet Scott’s eyes. His eyelids looked as though they were so heavy they would fall closed of their own accord at any moment. “Who’re you kiddin’?” he asked, his voice hoarse and his chest heaving from the effort to speak.

“Not you, apparently.”

Johnny shook his head, then dragged in a breath and let go of both his supports. He forced himself up straight. “Don’t worry. I ain’t done yet.”

“Well, a mouthful o’ water sure won’t hurt,” Buck suggested. “Reckon I could do with one myself.”

He offered the canteen to Johnny, helping him to hold it before taking a drink himself. Then he stopped it up and swung it around his shoulder.

“How… far?” Johnny croaked in a voice Scott could barely recognize.

Buck looked out into the distance. “You see that hill over yonder?” he said, pointing the way. “From the top o’ that, you can see Brother John’s house. That’s how close we are, Son.” 

Johnny squinted and frowned as he looked in that direction. Scott looked as well and, while it wouldn’t have been far under normal circumstances, he worried that it was too far now. It had to still be a couple of miles away.

But Johnny only nodded and leaned a little against Scott. “Better get goin’ then, hadn’t we?”

*

 This time, Johnny had fallen. Scott had grappled and tried to stop the fall, but Johnny’s whole weight had taken him down when his knees finally buckled beneath him.

 Kneeling beside him and breathing heavily himself, Scott watched as Johnny heaved in every breath. He put his hand to Johnny’s brow and shook his head.

 He glanced up as Buck knelt beside him. Words weren’t needed. It was obvious that Johnny had to rest now. The hill that Buck had pointed out still seemed a long way off, but it was amazing that Johnny had gone this far.

 “We’ll get him over there under that paloverde,” Buck suggested. “Won’t be much come sunup, but it’s gonna be better than nothin’.”

 Scott nodded and the two of them eased Johnny up and carried him to the protection of the tree.

 “We’ll rest up here some,” Buck told Scott. “Be daylight in an hour or so. Might as well make the most o’ what’s left o’ the night an’ get some shuteye.”

 “Are any of the ranch hands likely to come this far?” Scott asked him hopefully.

 “Well, we be on Chaparral land now. Could be one o’ the boys will come this way.”

 Scott sighed. “Or maybe not.”

 Buck shrugged. “Or maybe not,” he agreed. He sat down and rested his back against the tree. “Ain’t much point in worryin’ right now. Get some rest an’ worry in the mornin’.”

 Scott looked his brother over. Johnny was unconscious - and probably better off that way. He put his fingers to the ever-spreading dark stain around the arrow and found it wet to the touch. The back of his hand found Johnny’s brow warmer than before and Scott sighed. This was getting worse by the minute.

 He pulled out the handkerchief again, dribbling a little of the precious water onto it and wiping Johnny’s face. It felt as though it was too little to offer his brother. There should be something more he could do.

 *

It was the heat that woke Scott, not the glare of the sunlight. But opening his eyes to it, Scott winced and ducked his head away from the bright light. Squinting sleepily, he looked over to where he had left Johnny and found him awake and staring straight at him.

Buck yawned and stretched beside him, grimaced a little as he sat up and shoved his hat onto his head. He took a swig of water from his canteen, shook it and frowned at the sound of less than half a canteen of water sloshing around.

“We’d best go real careful with water today,” he told them.

Scott slid over to Johnny’s side. He couldn’t believe he had actually fallen asleep while his brother lay so sick. “Johnny? How are you doing this morning?”

Johnny’s breath faltered while he tried to answer. His face was flushed and his eyes a little glazed. Scott quickly put his hand to Johnny’s forehead and pulled it away. The fever had taken hold.

Grabbing the canteen, Scott held it to his brother’s mouth and dribbled it between Johnny’s parted lips.

“You… you’ve gotta go on without me,” Johnny said at last. “Come back with help when you find it.”

Scott shook his head violently. “No.”

“Look at me, Scott,” Johnny told him. There was more strength in his words now. “I’m not gonna be able to walk anywhere.”

“I’ll carry you if I have to. I’m not leaving you.” He turned to Buck. “I could stay with him while you go for help. If it’s as close as you say…”

“No, Scott. You’re not stayin’,” Johnny said firmly.

“It’s not for long, Johnny. We’ll be fine until Buck brings help.”

But Johnny shook his head determinedly. Scott scowled and wondered what was going through Johnny’s head. There was something that Johnny wasn’t saying.

“What aren’t you telling me, Brother?”

“Buck, get him outa here, will ya? Even if I had the strength, I’m slowin’ you down.”

Buck got to his feet and frowned suspiciously at Johnny. Then he looked around him… looked at the row of craggy hills they’d been following for the last hour of their travels last night. He caught a wisp of movement and his nerves tingled.

The boy knew. Johnny had probably seen them while he and his brother had still been sleeping.

He looked back at the young man and sighed. He had to admit he’d taken a liking to the boy. He wasn’t much older than Blue Boy, way too young to be as tough as he was.

“I’m inclined to think like your brother, Son. Maybe we oughta just stay here a while an’ see if some o’ the boys come this way.”

The glaze in Johnny’s eyes disappeared and a cold glare replaced it. Buck was taken by surprise by the change, but faced him down.

“Don’t go lookin’ daggers at me, Boy. Won’t do ya no good.”

“What is it, Buck? What is he not saying?” Scott demanded.

“We’re bein’ watched,” Buck told him succinctly. “Up there in them rocks.”

“Indians?” Scott asked anxiously.

“Yep.”

“Buck!” Johnny shouted hoarsely. He lifted himself onto one elbow and glowered at him

“Oh no, you don’t, John Lancer!” Scott said furiously. “You want me to leave you to the Apaches while I walk off and save my own skin? How do you think I could live with that?”

“’Live’ is the word, Scott,” Johnny replied, laying back down, exhausted. “I’m not going to let you die on my account.” Then quietly, he added… “There’s enough did that already.”

“Damn you! Don’t do that to me now.”

Johnny fought for his breath for a minute and then turned his head to face his brother, eye to eye. “You listen to me, Brother. The devil’s ridin’ me hard. He wants his due an’ he’s got it comin’. I’m not afraid of him. But he’s got no argument with you. Leave me here.”

Johnny’s words struck a chord deep within Buck and shocked him. He had no notion of what the boy meant by it, but he had to admire his intentions. He glanced again out towards the rocks and stopped dead.

“Boys,” he hissed quietly at the brothers. “Seems like the argument’s kind of a waste o’ breath. We got us some company.”

 

Chapter Four

Scott stood and turned quickly to face the same direction as Buck. A small group of Indians, four or five of them, could be seen in the distance. But this time it was different. The Indians in this band weren’t shouting or firing arrows; just patiently riding towards them. They certainly weren’t offering any threat, yet.

His hand slid to his side, hovering guardedly next to his gun.

“Leave it, Scott,” Buck warned him, whispering the words out of the corner of his mouth.

“But they’re…”

“Apaches? Yeah, I know, but they ain’t attackin’ us yet. Wait a bit an’ lets see what they want.”

Scott watched as the small party approached. Slowly, he edged over to stand in front of Johnny, but he didn’t take his eyes off the Indians. They were all mounted and very slowly closing the distance between them, apparently just as wary as Scott and Buck were.

“Do you mean to say they’re friendly?” he asked.

“’Friendly’ is maybe a little hopeful. But could be.”

“But yesterday…?”

“There’s lots o’ bands… family groups. Might not be the same one as attacked us,” Buck was watching them closely, frowning. “Still, be ready to jump an’ grab that gun if I yell.”

Scott could feel his heart pounding. He kept his eyes on their approach, watching for any move that might be construed as a threat. He’d met friendly Indians before, back home, but he’d never heard of ‘friendly’ Apaches. The stories he’d been told of them were quite the opposite.

“Keep your hands where they can see ‘em. Don’t do nothin’ they might take unkindly,” Buck told him quietly. His voice was firm, without a trace of fear, but the quickest glance sideways at him showed Scott beads of sweat on his forehead.

Scott moved his hand away from his gun, just as Buck had told him, but he kept it close enough to be able to reach for it and defend himself and his brother if the need arose. The waiting felt interminable, yet it could only have been minutes, as the little group rode towards them.

Then, as the Apaches drew close, Scott counted four riders, all on horseback but none of them in war paint. They showed no weapons, but there was something else… It seemed to Scott that one of them was paler than the others… almost white, in fact.

“Buck, is that a white man with them?”

Buck let out a long breath – relief. One that Scott realized he must have been holding for some time. “Yeah, it is. Take it easy. This is goin’ to be just fine.”

At that, Buck took a step out towards them and raised a hand in greeting. All but the white man stopped and waited while they let him ride forward to meet Buck.

The man was dressed in Indian clothes, from his breechcloth and leggings to the moccasins on his feet. He wore his hair long and with a band around his head, Indian-style. But there the similarity ended. His hair was light brown and he wore a moustache and a small goatee beard. His shirt was collared and buttoned, open at the neck. And his skin might be deeply tanned, but it was definitely white.

“Howdy, White Horse,” Buck said, holding up one hand in greeting. “Good to see ya.”

“Hello, Buck,” the other replied coolly. “Looks like you’ve got yourself some trouble.” He nodded towards Scott and Johnny. “Friends of yours?”

“Yeah, guess ya could say that. We was on the stage together. War party hit it yesterday an’ rode off with the horses.”

“I heard.” He said it casually – almost without feeling – and looked past Buck to where Scott still stood in front of Johnny. “Walked far?”

“Some. Got one fella hurt real bad.”

“Yeah, heard that too,” said the man Buck had called White Horse. He turned and called to the rest of the group in what Scott assumed must be Apache.

They rode forward and Scott realized that they had three spare horses with them. It went against everything that Scott had ever heard about the Apache, but it certainly looked as though they were about to be rescued by them. He glanced quickly back at his brother, still conscious but silent. He wasn’t going to make it any further on foot.

At this point, Scott was prepared to take help in whatever form it came.

One of the braves dismounted and walked one of the spare horses forward. It was pulling a travois and Scott heaved a sigh of relief.

“My brother, Red Eagle, sends his regards,” White Horse said extravagantly. “Our camp is not far from here.”

“How close, White Horse?” Buck asked him.

“Other side of that hill,” the man answered, nodding to the high mound of rocks only about half a mile away. “You can rest up a while there an’ tend to your friend, then we’ll take you back to the ranch when you’re ready.”

Scott looked at how close the hill was and then turned the other way towards the distant hill that they had been heading for. It was a whole lot closer, but he decided to leave it to Buck to make the decision. He was the one who knew the territory and, what was more, he seemed to know who he was dealing with.

Buck pulled his hat off and ran his fingers through his shaggy mop of hair. Then he turned to Scott. “Reckon it might be best if we get your brother some help. We’re still a ways from Chaparral an’ we’ll be travellin’ slow with him, even with horses an’ the travois.”

“Alright. It’s up to you.”

Scott accepted help from the brave to carry Johnny to the travois and secure him there.

“Are you okay with this, Johnny?” Scott whispered, once they were alone. “Buck seems to know them.”

“Yeah, but watch yourself,” Johnny answered weakly. “Anything goes wrong, forget about me an’ get out.”

Scott shook his head. “No, Johnny.”

“You promise me, Scott. Swear it.” He leaned forward, agitated but weak.

“Take it easy, Johnny,” Scott told him, putting his hands on his shoulders and pushing him back gently. He held him there. “It won’t come to that.”

“Promise, just the same.”

Scott sighed. “Alright, I promise. Now lay back and rest.”

He knew that it would be a hard oath to keep. Perhaps he’d even end up breaking it, because Scott had no intention of leaving his brother to die. He’d have to trust to fate and hope that that decision would never have to be made.

He stood up and mounted one of the Indian ponies. Buck was already astride another and waiting beside White Horse.

“Let’s go,” White Horse said and turned to lead them on a slow march to the Apache camp.

*

 Scott and Buck rode, side by side, behind the Indians, with the travois just in front of them. Scott watched Johnny intently. He could see the pain etched into his face and hear each sharp intake of breath as he gritted his teeth every time the travois bumped over a rock or a hole.

 It was a short journey to the camp, less than an hour, but Johnny had grown visibly weaker by the time they reached it. There were half a dozen dome-shaped dwellings, thatched with grass, and women stood outside some of them, holding their children tightly to them as the small group of riders passed through the village. Most of the women were dressed in long cotton skirts and simple blouses.

 When they stopped, it was in front of a tall Indian, about the same age as White Horse. He stood steadfast, his legs apart and his arms folded across his brightly colored shirt and open vest, with a red headband holding back his long black hair. Like White Horse, he wore buckskin breaches and a loin cloth over top but there was no other similarity.

 Behind him were two young braves, each with their arms at their sides and their fists clenched, warily watching the strangers arrive.

 It appeared obvious to Scott that this man was the chief.

 White Horse dismounted and stood before him. They exchanged words in Apache and the chief took a step towards Buck and Scott.

 “Ya ta say, Nan’do’di sha’i,” the Indian said stiffly.

 “Ya ta say, Red Eagle,” Buck answered, surprising Scott. “Good to see ya again. This here is Scott Lancer an’ the one who don’t look so good is his brother, Johnny.”

 The chief nodded. “Ha'andah – Come. You and the light hair are welcome to share what we have. The other will be tended to.”

 Buck dismounted and nodded to Scott to do the same. As he did, one of the women came forward and knelt beside Johnny. She looked at the wound and felt his forehead, then spoke in rapid apache to Red Eagle and White Horse.

 Before Scott knew what was happening, Johnny had been moved into one of the wickiups with the woman following and issuing instructions all the way.

 “Don’t worry, Scott,” Buck reassured him quietly. “Tanea’s White Horse’s woman. She’ll look after him.”

 “You know these people?”

 Buck nodded. “Spent a few days with ‘em one time.”

 “Then you trust them?”

 “Yeah, reckon so. They ain’t given me no reason not to,” he answered quietly.

 “Ha'andah, Nan’do’di sha’i,” Red Eagle repeated.

 “What did he say?” Scott asked Buck.

 “Says to come in,” Buck explained. “An’ Nan’do’di sha’I is the name they give me when I was here.”

 “Which means?”

 Scott thought that Buck blushed under that deep tan of his. “Buffalo Bear, they tell me.”

 He walked forward and joined them, but Scott stood uneasily beside the horse, staring at the wickiup that they had taken Johnny into. He felt he should go in there and see what was going on. If Johnny needed him, he should be there.

 Red Eagle stopped and turned around to face Scott. He frowned. “The light hair does not trust our women with his friend?”

 “His brother,” Buck corrected him. “The other one’s his brother.”

 “Brothers,” Red Eagle said, nodding. “Then it is good that he worries. A brother should look to his brother. But the women will care for him.”

 “He’s right, Scott.” He walked back to Scott and put his hand on his shoulder. “The boy’ll be fine with her.” Then he whispered, close to Scott’s ear, “An’ ya don’t wanna be insultin’ our hosts, Son.”

 Buck all but shoved Scott forward. “Come on, ‘Light Hair’,” he said, grinning broadly and, this time, Scott followed him.

 Inside, Scott joined Buck, White Horse and Red Eagle in sitting around a cold campfire in the center of the floor. When lit, smoke would curl upwards towards a hole in the roof, leaving the room clean and airy. He was offered water and the relief at being able to drink deeply gave it a sweet taste.

 “Thanks for the help, Red Eagle,” Buck said, once he too had finished drinking. “Gotta tell ya, things was lookin’ a mite grim out there.”

 “Our hunters returned with news of the raid,” Red Eagle told him.

 “They weren’t ours, Buck,” White Horse continued, though not defensively. “Running Deer was watching you this morning and recognized you.”

 “Figured it was somethin’ like that. Thanks.”

 One of the women appeared, carrying bowls of food. It was steaming and smelled good, but Scott wondered what it was. Still, he only now realized how long it had been since they had eaten. Suddenly the idea of food was just too good to turn down.

 He took the bowl and the spoon gratefully and took a long breath of the enticing aroma. The meat was white and there were some vegetables that he didn’t recognize. He looked towards Buck who only grinned and started in on it.

 “Go on, eat up. Won’t kill ya,” Buck told him.

 Well, it didn’t really matter what it was. Scott joined him and started with a bite of the meat. It was good.

 “Tastes like chicken,” he said to Buck, then stopped and looked down at the bowl. He remembered what Buck had said yesterday… and what Johnny had told him before that. “Kinda like chicken,” was how they had both described rattle snake.

 When he looked up again, Buck was chewing and watching him, a mischievous glint in his eyes. Then, suddenly, the man burst out laughing. “It’s chicken. We gave ‘em some last month with the cows.”

 Scott laughed with him. “Sorry.”

 Buck hurriedly explained to White Horse and Red Eagle. “He’s heard that rattler tastes like chicken. Thought that was what he was eating.”

 White Horse grinned and translated to Red Eagle who seemed to have missed some of the exchange. He answered in Apache and White Horse nodded. “It is,” he told Buck.

 “Is what?”

 “Rattle snake.”

 Buck choked. Scott slapped his back hard while White Horse and Red Eagle both laughed, fit to burst. When he looked up at them, Buck’s face was white.

 Barely able to contain his laughter, White Horse shook his head. “Sorry, Buck. Couldn’t resist it. No, it’s chicken. Wasn’t much of a layer, anyhow. That’s agave heart with it.”

 “Damn Apaches!” Buck growled. “Don’t ya know ya ain’t supposed to have a sense o’ humor?”

 “Don’t know who told you that, Buck,” White Horse said, finally getting control of himself. “But you were misled.”

 Scott went back to his meal and thoroughly enjoyed it, though he still wondered what the vegetables were. His life back in Boston had never seemed so far away.

 He looked around him and out through the doorway. A young boy ran past, then another after him. It seemed life, for them anyway, had returned to normal. Then he heard a cow lowing somewhere.

 “Buck, you said something about cattle?”

 “We pay Red Eagle here in cattle so’s we can take horses from his lands. Ten every month.”

 Scott was surprised at the sense of it. “Sounds like a reasonable agreement, for both of you.”

 “Yeah, Red Eagle’s a reasonable man.” He glanced towards the Indian, who nodded his appreciation of the compliment.

 “You’ve been very kind, sharing your meal with us,” Scott told them. “White Horse, how do I say ‘thank you’?”

 “Ashoge,” the man answered.

 “Then ashoge, Red Eagle.”

 “A he ya eh,” the chief replied. “You are welcome.”

 The woman Buck had described as ‘White Horse’s woman’ – Tanea – came to the doorway and caught her husband’s attention.

 “He calls for his brother, the light hair,” she told him quietly.

 Scott looked first to Buck and then to Red Eagle and White Horse. Courtesy be damned. His brother wanted him and he was going.

 But neither of them tried to stop him as he got to his feet.

 Red Eagle was the one who spoke for them all. “Go to your brother,” he said and Scott didn’t wait for more. He was outside in only a couple of strides and followed the young woman into the other wickiup.

 Johnny had been stripped of his shirt and the bandages removed, leaving him naked to the waist but for the beads on his wrist and what remained of the arrow, still sticking up grotesquely out of his shoulder. He lay on a soft bed of animal skins with a blanket pulled over him to the waist. His skin was flushed with fever but, around the wound, the skin was bright red and angry-looking from the onset of infection.

 In the center of the floor was a fire, just as there had been in the wickiup that Scott had just left, only this one was lit in spite of the heat. A second woman, younger that Tanea, was wiping Johnny down with a cool damp cloth. She looked up at Scott as he came in, but paid him no more heed and went back to her work without a word.

 Johnny’s eyes were closed and it might have been easy to think that he was asleep, but for the frown creasing his brow.

 Tanea beckoned Scott forward and led the way to Johnny’s side.

 “Johnny,” he said softly as he knelt beside him. The frown deepened just a little and then Johnny turned his face towards him and opened his eyes.

 “Hey, Boston.”

 “Looks like these ladies are taking good care of you.”

 Johnny nodded.

 Scott noticed a salve that had been applied around the arrow. “It will draw the evil from the wound,” Tanea told him, seeing his interest.

 Thanking her, Scott looked back into his brother’s eyes. The pain that he saw there was haunting.

 A shadow fell over them and Scott glanced up to see Buck standing in the doorway.

  “Red Eagle says we’re welcome ta stay the night.”

 “That’s kind of him, but I think we should get Johnny to the ranch. As much as these ladies are doing for him, he needs a doctor.”

 “Mind if I come in?” he asked.

 “No,” Scott answered distractedly.

 “So, how’s he doin’?” Buck asked.

 “Doing fine, Buck,” Johnny answered for himself, his voice not much more than a hoarse whisper.

 Tanea stood behind Scott. “His skin burns,” she said bluntly. “The arrow should be taken out to release the evil spirits in his body.”

 Scott was sure that she meant the mounting infection and he knew she was right. The arrow had to come out, but surely - not here.

 “She’s right, Scott,” Johnny said. “Time’s come.”

 “I know, but you need a doctor,” Scott told him, sighing. “Buck says there’s one in Tucson. We’ll get you to the ranch and send for him.”

 “Too late for that…” Johnny’s voice died away as he grimaced against another wave of pain.

 “The ranch isn’t far, Johnny. We’ll get you there in plenty of time.”

 Johnny turned his head slowly to face Buck. “Tell him, Buck. It’s not gonna work that way.”

 “Sure,” he said and beckoned to Scott. “Come outside for a minute.”

 Scott didn’t want this argument but he wanted it in front of Johnny even less. He followed Buck out of the wickiup.

 Buck turned around to face him and put his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “You know he ain’t fit to travel. He wouldn’t make it to the ranch like he is.”

 “You don’t know that. How far is it, anyway?”

 “Pullin’ the travois an’ travelin’ slow on account o’ the shape he’s in? Maybe five hours.”

 Scott sighed. It was too long. He’d already seen the toll that the short journey to the camp had taken on Johnny. With the sun beating down on him and the painful trip to consider, it was likely that Buck was right. Even if Johnny made it to the ranch alive, he would be in poor condition for the surgery.

 Buck gave him time to think about it before continuing. “If we wait an’ rest up, he might have a better chance, but it’d be tomorrow night, soonest, ‘fore we got a doc to him. I reckon that infection is likely to be too far along by then.”

 “I know all of this, Buck,” Scott growled at him, then apologized. He hadn’t meant to take it out on the man. He’d become a friend to them already.  “I know it has to be done. I just wish it wasn’t here.”

 “These folks’ve been doin’ it for a long time,” Buck told him, not unkindly. “Their ways might be different, but that don’t make ‘em wrong. An’ ‘sides, you don’t have a whole lotta choice here.”

 Scott ran his hand over his face, desperate for an alternative, but admitting to himself already that there wasn’t one.

 There was no choice. Buck knew it and so did he… and, undoubtedly, Johnny knew it too.

 *

 “Fortune is with him,” Tanea told them both, holding up what was left of the arrow to show them. It had come out quickly and cleanly. “This is a hunting arrow.”

 “No flint head on it,” Buck explained to Scott, taking it from her and studying it closely.

 Scott still had his hands on Johnny’s shoulders, not inclined to look closely at the arrow that had done so much damage. He sat back on his heels and pulled his hands away. Johnny was breathing laboriously and sweating heavily, but he was still aware of what was going on around him.

 “It’s over, Johnny,” Scott whispered. “You okay?”

 Johnny nodded slowly.

 “We need to stop the bleeding,” Scott told them, reaching for a cloth to put on the wound.

 But Tanea put out her hand to stop him. “No, not yet. Let the bad blood flow first. It will take the evil spirits with it from the wound.”

 Scott looked doubtfully to Buck for help but he only shrugged his shoulders instead. “Reckon she knows what she’s doing.”

 “I hope so.”

 Dubious or not, Scott watched thick dark blood ooze from the hole in his brother’s shoulder. He’d been surprised that it had been Tanea who had planned to pull out the arrow, yet she had firmly established that it was for her to do and then set about issuing instructions for them to hold Johnny still.

 And she had done it, in one quick action. Johnny had gasped, jerked and gritted his teeth, but it had been done so fast that it was over before he knew it.

 Now, he was still. His chest was heaving as he breathed but he seemed to trust Tanea. That, in itself, Scott found extraordinary. Johnny did not trust easily.

 She wiped the blood away from Johnny’s naked chest as it flowed steadily. Slowly, the blood thinned and flowed more quickly, a brighter red than it had been. Apparently, that was what she had been waiting for. Taking a folded cloth pad, Tanea pressed it hard to the wound and held it there.

 But the pad was soon soaked red with blood. Replacing it with another, she held it hard against Johnny’s shoulder. But the blood wasn’t stopping, not even slowing.

 Tanea looked into Johnny’s eyes. “The blood must be stopped. You know what must be done, my friend?”

 Johnny finally had control of his breathing. “Yeah, I know. Just do it.”

 “Do what?” Scott asked, worried.

 No one answered him. Tanea turned around to the fire and pulled out a knife, the blade so hot that it glowed.

 Scott moved to protect Johnny. “Now, wait just a minute…”

 But it was Buck who grabbed his shoulder. “She’s right, Scott. Cauterizin’ it will stop the bleedin’. Might even stop the infection too.”

 Tanea, meanwhile, had stopped, the red-hot knife in her hand while she watched them argue.

 “Scott,” Buck continued, “It’s gotta be done.”

 Johnny was weakening visibly before Scott’s eyes. They were right and he knew it. Putting it off was only risking Johnny’s life.

 Scott closed his eyes and nodded.

 

 ** White Horse, Red Eagle and Tanea are all characters from an episode of High Chaparral called ‘A Man to Match the Land’.

 I did as much research into the Apache language as I could and apologize for any errors. It’s a very complicated language, made more difficult with so many variations among the various Apache tribes. Still, I did find myself a new tag… k’e’ichii biyati – writes words
 

Chapter Five

“Ho-disho,” Tanea whispered, apparently to herself rather than to anyone else in the room. Then she looked at Scott. “It is done. He sleeps now.” She laid down the knife.

‘Not asleep…’ Scott thought. Johnny had lost consciousness soon after the searing heat of the blade had touched his skin – a blessing actually.

“I will care for him,” Tanea continued. “You go with Hi-tsa-tlul. She will see to your own wound.”

“What?” Scott asked distractedly, looking up from Johnny’s face and bewildered for a moment. Then he realized what she meant. Touching his finger to the bandage around his head, he answered her.  “Oh, you mean this? No, it’s fine. I’d rather stay here with Johnny.”

But Tanea shook her head adamantly. “You go with Hi-tsa-tlul. I will care for him.”

The second young woman, sitting quietly by the fire, got to her feet. She walked over to him and took his arm, tugging gently until Scott stood up beside her. “Come,” she said, confident that he would follow.

Scott was of no mind to leave his brother. Johnny might be unconscious, but Scott’s instinct was to stay in case he needed him. He stayed put.

“Come,” the girl insisted, pulling on his arm a little harder. “Come.”

He looked at her and saw the tenacity in her face. Tanea nodded and he surrendered and followed the girl outside. Stopping at the doorway, he blinked against the bright sunlight, surprised that it was still daytime. The last hour had seemed endless.

She sat him down and then disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a bowl in one hand and some cloths in the other.

Silently, she knelt in front of him and untied the bandage around his head, gently easing it away from the gash. He found himself gazing into her eyes of deep, dark brown and she turned away shyly, taking her time about dunking a cloth into the bowl of water and wringing it out.

When she turned back, she hesitated self-consciously before putting the cloth to the cut. That first touch, cool water on a soft cloth against the already hardened scab on the gash, gentle and expected as it was, stung enough to have him pull back a fraction from it. He blinked and gave her an embarrassed smile and she set about carefully wiping away the dried, congealed blood.

“Do you speak English?” Scott asked her.

“I know some of your words,” she answered, dabbing at the head wound and keeping her eyes meticulously on what she was doing. “White Horse has taught them to us.”

“I’d like to be able to pronounce your name, but I don’t think I can. What does it mean?”

“Rainbow.”

“Pretty,” Scott told her, smiling. He watched her as she put the cloth into the bowl and rinsed it. Her fingers were strong and nimble, already toughened by rough work harvesting what the desert had to offer. He thought she couldn’t be older than seventeen or eighteen years old.

“I could do this myself, you know,” he continued.

“No.”

“’No’, you don’t think I could or ‘no’ I shouldn’t?”

“No,” she repeated, leaving him none the wiser. She rinsed the cloth again and wiped away the blood tracks from his face. Then she dribbled water onto his head and began to wash away the encrusted blood and dirt from his hair. It was cool, refreshing… and he closed his eyes and let the water slide down the side of his face.

Suddenly, Scott heard a childish giggle and it startled him out of the spell the water had cast on him. Both he and Rainbow looked up to find a little girl standing behind her, laughing lightly.

The child was only about five years old and dressed in a beaded and fringed buckskin dress.

“Tsi’rá goti,” she said to Rainbow, pointing at him shyly.

“Hello,” Scott said, smiling at the child.

She smiled back. “Ya ta say,” she answered. Then pointed to his hair. “Tsi’rá goti.”

“What did she say?” he asked Rainbow.

“’Light hair’. She has never seen hair like yours. It is paler even than White Horse.” She sounded almost as curious as the little girl. “The sun shines in it now that it is cleaner. It glows.”

Scott laughed.

“And yet, the other one. You call him brother but his hair is not like yours. His skin is not like yours.”

“And we don’t look much like each other,” Scott added. “But we are brothers. We have the same father.”

“Not mother?”

“No.”

She nodded, understanding. “You worry for him.”

Scott sighed. “Yes, I do.”

“The fever burns but he is brave, that one. He will fight hard to live.”

“Yes, he will,” he told her confidently.

She wrapped a cloth bandage around his head and tied it. The little girl laughed and spoke to Rainbow.

“What is it?” he asked.

“She says that now you look almost like one of us,” Rainbow told him.

He touched the bandage and smiled. “Ashoge,” he said and laughed.

*

Cleaned up, fed and apparently gifted with a new name, Scott returned to the wickiup to stay with Johnny. When Tanea tried to argue with him, he simply took his place by his brother’s side and stubbornly refused to leave.

Buck had already left but Tanea had made Johnny comfortable, just as she’d told Scott she would. He’d also been cleaned up and bandaged, the blanket pulled up higher over his chest. He looked at peace, but his face was flushed. The fever that had been steadily building had taken a firm hold.

“Has he woken?” Scott asked.

“No.” She replaced the wet folded cloth on Johnny’s forehead with another and said nothing more.

Shadows grew longer and darkness fell. Inside the wickiup, the only light was that thrown by the flickering flames of the fire and Scott was still watching over his brother.

A light sheen of sweat covering Johnny’s body seemed to glow in the firelight, but he hadn’t stirred, not even when Tanea had checked the bandage and applied more of her salve. He lay in a deathly, frightening silence. Even his breathing was barely audible.

Tanea had left them at sunset, leaving Rainbow to tend to Johnny until she returned an hour or so later. She brought with her a bowl of what turned out to be a sort of beef stew with acorns that he found delicious. He ate there, beside his brother, while Tanea frowned her disapproval at him.

She pulled back the blanket to look at the bandage and, unexpectedly, Johnny moved at last. As she touched the wound, his hand suddenly reached across and took a harsh hold of her wrist.

Scott reacted quickly and gently pulled Johnny’s hand away. Thinking – hoping – that Johnny had finally come round, Scott called his brother’s name. But there was no response. Whatever instinct had moved Johnny, he had done it unconsciously.

Tanea finished with the bandage and lightly took Johnny’s hand from Scott’s. As she tucked it back under the blanket, she fingered the beads that he wore on his wrist.

“Where did he get these?” she asked thoughtfully.

“I don’t know,” Scott told her candid. “He’s never said. Why? Do you recognize them?”

She shook her head and pulled the blanket further up over him. “No, I do not know the… the shapes…”

“The pattern?” he suggested, seeing her floundering for the right word.

She nodded.

“He rarely takes it off.”

“Perhaps it is a prize.” There was a suspicion of fear in her voice.

“No, I don’t think so. I’ve always had the impression that it means a lot to him. I think it was probably a gift.”

“Not taken?”

“I don’t think so. But I’ve never asked.”

“Do you fear what he would tell you?” she asked, looking at him curiously.

Scott shook his head firmly. “No. I fear bringing back a memory that might be painful to him. When he’s ready, he’ll tell me about it himself.”

She nodded and went silent again.

And soon there was no time for idle questions. Johnny’s condition worsened rapidly as the fever climbed to frightening heights. As it soared, delirium set in and Scott had his hands full with just keeping Johnny from thrashing while Tanea and Rainbow plied him with cool compresses, wiped him down and tried to lower the fever.

Then, just as Scott began to fear that they were fighting a losing battle, Johnny quieted and broke into a sweat. His temperature started to fall and a general sigh of relief echoed around the room.

“He sleeps now, Light Hair,” Rainbow told him, putting one hand lightly on his shoulder. “You should sleep also. We will watch over him.”

“No…” Scott began, but Tanea interrupted him.

“She is right. If you are to travel tomorrow, you should rest now.” She pulled the blanket up to Johnny’s neck and felt his forehead. “The fever is lower. She will take you to a wickiup where your friend, Nan’do’di sha’I, already sleeps.”

“I think I should stay, in case he wakes,” Scott protested.

“No one here will harm him,” Rainbow assured him.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that you would. I just think he should see someone familiar…”

Tanea smiled. “He will sleep for a long time. His spirit is brave, but it is weary. As is yours. Go… rest. We will care for your brother.”

Scott frowned but, unwilling as he was to admit it, he suspected that they were right. He’d had little sleep in the last two days and that exhausting walk through the desert as well. He nodded and followed Rainbow outside.

The night was just as bright as the last had been, but it held less concern than it had then. He found it surprising that he was less concerned tonight, in an Apache village - considering that it had been Apaches they had been running from. He’d learned something in a very short time. Like every other nation of people, the Apache did not all think the same way.

Rainbow left him at the doorway that she’d led him to and then returned to care for Johnny. He peered inside and found it empty except for Buck.

He stepped inside as quietly as he could, aware that Buck was sleeping. He guessed that it must be around two in the morning. There was a pallet on the other side of the wickiup and he moved lightly towards it but, before he reached it, Buck’s voice broke the silence.

“How is he?”

“Sleeping,” Scott told him. “I thought you were asleep.”

“Yeah, was for a while. Talked some with Red Eagle an’ White Horse, then turned in. They toss ya out?”

“Yes,” Scott said, smiling. Then he sobered. “It was bad for awhile, Buck.”

Buck rolled over and sat up. “Fever?”

“Yes, it broke a little while ago.”

“Get some sleep then. We’ll see if he’s ready to travel tomorrow.”

*

“Are you sure you’re going to be up to this, Johnny?” Scott asked. His brother was already secured in the travois, but he looked pale and weary.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

“We still have a lot of traveling ahead of us and that fever’s not gone yet.”

“I know. But I’ll make it. Just get goin’.”

Scott straightened and stood by as Buck took his farewell of Red Eagle. White Horse and a couple of the braves would travel with them and bring back the horses.

The roughly made sling that Scott had made from the remnants of a shirt had been replaced by a black sling to support Buck’s arm, more in keeping with the man’s dress sense. 

Tanea and Rainbow stood discretely in the background, but Scott had already made sure that they both knew how much he appreciated what they had done for Johnny. Johnny, too, had thanked them. He’d been awake when Scott had returned to the wickiup at daybreak, being spoon-fed broth by Tanea.

“Well, you certainly look better this morning,” Scott had told him, pleased beyond telling to see him doing so well.

“Yeah, sure glad to get rid o’ that arrow. Don’t feel so much like a porcupine now,” Johnny had answered, surprisingly brightly. “Reckon I fell into good hands,” he added, smiling wanly for Tanea.

She said nothing but continued to feed him.

“None better, I’d say,” Scott assured him and nodded to the two women. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to both of you ladies.”

 “Natch-in-ilk-kisn is strong of spirit. He fought well,” Tanea answered distractedly while she offered Johnny another spoonful.

“Natch…?”

“Yeah, Tanea says it means Colored Beads,” Johnny explained with a grin. “Hear you got a name too, Light Hair.” He grinned. His eyes lit with delight and Scott had felt sure that he was on the mend.

Now, looking at him on the travois and aware that there were hours of traveling ahead of them, he felt far less certain.

He walked over to join Buck and Red Eagle.

“I want to thank you again, Red Eagle,” he said seriously. “I won’t forget what you’ve done for us. Especially for Johnny.”

Red Eagle nodded. “Tanea and Hi-tsa-tlul tell me of his brave spirit. It is good that he lives.”

“He might not have, but for them. Ashoge, Red Eagle.”

“You should go now, before the sun is high. But you are always welcome in my camp, Light Hair.” He put out his hand and gripped Scott’s forearm tightly. Scott did the same and wondered if any of their friends would believe him when he told this story back home. They certainly wouldn’t if he told it in Boston. “Ka Dish Day,” Red Eagle finished and turned to Buck, offered him his arm and repeated his farewell.

With a last look at Johnny, Scott joined the others in mounting and heading out. He watched Johnny closely to see how he was handling the ride. He saw Johnny’s grimace as the travois jerked into motion but then he closed his eyes and seemed to relax.

They traveled slowly because of the travois. If Buck was right, it would be another five hours before they reached the ranch, well into the afternoon. The sun was already rising high above them, getting stronger as it did.

But at least they had water this time, and they weren’t on foot. It would be an easier journey than the first half had been.

After an hour of traveling, Scott called for a halt to check on his brother and offer him some water. Johnny’s eyes were closed and he hadn’t reacted when the travois had stopped moving.

“Johnny?” Scott called anxiously but, to his relief, Johnny turned his head towards him and opened his eyes.

“Hi, Scott. How you doin’?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing.”

“Me? I’m just fine. I got the easy ride, Boston.” He grinned, but the spark that should have been in his eyes was missing.

“Well, have a mouthful of water. That’ll make the trip more bearable.” Scott lifted Johnny’s head enough to sip from the canteen. “Better?”

Swallowing, Johnny nodded and laid his head back. Scott took Johnny’s hat from the side of the travois and placed it on Johnny’s head, laying it partly over his eyes to keep the sun off him. He checked Johnny’s forehead and hoped that he hadn’t frowned. The fever was still there and it was rising again.

He left Johnny then and walked forward to Buck.

“How’s he doin’, Scott?” Buck asked.

“Not too bad, so far. He’s a little feverish,” Scott told him.

“We’ll move on an’ stop every hour or so to check him an’ keep the water up to him. No point gettin’ him home real quick if’n he’s dead.”

*

The desert gave way to scrub with more and more grass as they traveled around the hill they’d been heading for yesterday and closer to Buck’s brother’s ranch. It was better ranch land than he’d seen for some time, though hardly what Scott was used to. It was still a whole lot drier and hotter than Lancer.

“Not far now, Scott,” Buck called back over his shoulder, smiling happily. “Be there ‘fore ya know it.”

Scott nodded and looked anxiously at the travois in front of him. Johnny had held out for most of the way, wincing whenever the travois found another rock, but mostly being worn down by the constant fever and the heat of the sun. He’d lapsed into unconsciousness about half an hour ago and Scott had been almost grateful for it.

Finally, White Horse called them all to a halt. Scott rode up beside him and Buck and looked ahead. Sure enough, there was the ranch. It was a long, low adobe hacienda, surrounded by corrals and outbuildings. It certainly wasn’t the green valley and the bright sparkling river that had been his first view of Lancer, but it was one of the most welcome sights that Scott had ever seen.

“There she be, Scott - High Chaparral,” Buck told him proudly. “Come on.”

He led the way from there. When the shout of ‘Riders coming’ rang out to the ranch in warning, Buck waved his good hand high in the air and grinned happily.

Pushing his horse into a trot, Buck went just ahead of them. By the time he reached the fence, he’d been recognized. A shout rang out, “It’s Buck!” and people turned out of the house and barn to meet him.

Scott was not far behind him, riding with White Horse and the others. As they rode into the yard, White Horse and his men sat even straighter on their horses. They held their heads high and became more stoic, wary of their surroundings.

They came to a stop outside the hacienda. On the porch stood a beautiful young woman, obviously Mexican and dressed in a blue skirt and a plain white blouse with a gathered neckline. Her long black hair was worn down, with only a blue ribbon holding it back from her face. But she wore it all with an air of elegance that took Scott’s breath away.

At her realization that it was Buck coming into the yard, she stepped off the porch and walked quickly towards them. Then she saw White Horse.

“White Horse, it is good to see you again,” she said, ignoring the others to welcome him.

“Miz Cannon,” was all White Horse answered.

“What has happened, Buck?” she asked and then noticed the sling on his arm. “You are hurt.”

“No, Victoria,” Buck told her. He pulled his arm from the sling. “See, ain’t hardly nothin’. The stage was hit in an Apache raid. Took the horses an’ left us on foot. White Horse found us walkin’ in the desert an’ took us to Red Eagle’s village for the night.”

She suddenly seemed to remember the rest of them then. She turned to look at Scott and he felt his breath catch when he looked into her eyes.

“Victoria, this here is Scott Lancer. He were on the stage with me. Scott, this here is my brother John’s wife, Victoria.”

“How do you do, Mrs. Cannon?” Scott said politely. He stepped down from the horse and found himself facing her.

“You are hurt too, Señor,” she answered anxiously.

“It’s nothing, really,” he assured her. “But my brother is hurt.”

“His brother’s in the travois, Victoria,” Buck told her. He’d dismounted and walked over to her side. “Tanea pulled out the arrow an’ did a real fine job o’ tendin’ to him, but the trip here’s been hard on him. Needs some doctorin’.”

“Tanea? Your wife, White Horse?” she asked. 

“Yes, Ma’am,” the man answered. 

“Then we certainly owe you and Red Eagle a great debt,” she told him diplomatically. “Won’t you come inside?”

“Better if we get back to the village, Miz Cannon.”

“Very well, if you prefer it that way, but you must thank Red Eagle for us.”

White Horse nodded.

“Thank you, White Horse.” She smiled warmly at him and then turned back to Scott. “And now, Mr. Lancer, let us see to your brother.”

She stepped around him and stopped beside the travois. “Oh, poor man,” she said with feeling and pulled the hat from his eyes. Abruptly, she gasped and dropped to her knees in the dirt beside him. “Madre de Dios! Johnny!”

Her hand flew to her throat in surprise and she crossed herself. “Quickly, we must get him into the house.”

“You know him, Victoria?” Buck asked, frowning.

“Yes, I know him,” she snapped, though not unkindly, putting her hand to Johnny’s forehead and scowling. She drew back the blanket and looked carefully at the bandaging, then pulled it away enough to see the wound. “He is burning up. We must get him to bed. Get Pedro and Joe to help, Buck.”

Scott watched the pretty little whirlwind take over, issuing orders and organizing putting Johnny to bed. He was as stunned as Buck had been, but there was no doubt that she cared about Johnny. Intrigued, he followed in her wake as she ushered them inside.

*

“Hey, Mano!”

Manolito was hazing strays from the thornscrub. He’d been doing it for hours – and he had tired of it hours ago. At the sound of his name, he swung his horse around.

“Joe, Compadre! Have you come to release me from my hell?” he asked, untying his neckerchief and wiping it across his face.

“Buck’s home, Mano,” Joe told him as he slowed and then stopped beside him.

“Yes?” Mano asked suspiciously. He knew they wouldn’t have sent someone to tell him that without reason.

“Stage got hit by Apaches the other day…”

“He is hurt?” Now Mano was worried.

“Put his shoulder out, but he’s okay. Miz Cannon sent me to tell you ‘bout one o’ the other fellas.”

“Others? Who, my friend?”

“Buck brought back two fellas with him… brothers by the name o’ Lancer. Scott an’ Johnny Lancer, I heard. One of ‘em’s hurt pretty bad.”

“Lancer? I do not know the name,” he said, scowling. “This is what Victoria sent you to tell me?”

“Yeah. Said you should come home right away. Said you might not recognize the name though and to tell you somethin’ else… ‘cept it don’t make no sense.”

“Ay, when did a woman ever make sense?” Mano demanded in frustration. “What is this message?”

“She said to tell you ‘La yesca y la cerilla,”* Joe told him, shrugging his shoulders.

“La yesca…?”  Mano frowned. “… y… Madre de Dios, Johnny!”

He turned his horse and kicked him hard, straight for the hacienda.

 

*La yesca y la cerilla – the tinder and the match


 

Chapter Six

“¡Madre de Dios! It is true!”

The man burst into the room like a tornado and came to a stop at the foot of the bed. Scott watched his face brighten and his eyes light up with obvious pleasure, then drop as he realized Johnny’s condition.

“Victoria, he is alive?” the man asked. “But how?”

Scott was startled by what he saw. The man wore a cut-off chaqueta, braided in the same style as Johnny’s. His pants were trimmed with a bright silver braid in the same way that Johnny’s were trimmed with conchos. He, too, was undoubtedly Mexican.

“I do not know, Manolito,” she answered, smiling happily. “But this is his brother, Scott. Perhaps he can tell us.”

“Tell you what?” Scott asked them both.

“Brother?” Manolito asked in return, confusion written in the frown on his brow. “I do not know of any brother.”

“My name is Scott Lancer. This is my brother, Johnny Lancer. We were on the stage…”

“I do not know of any brother,” Manolito repeated edgily. “And I do not know this name Lancer. This man is Johnny…”

“I know who he is,” Scott interrupted, a warning glare directed at the newcomer.

He took the hint and stopped, but his confusion was patently obvious.

“Perhaps we should start with some simple questions and answers,” Scott suggested impatiently. He glanced back at Johnny, still unconscious and flushed with fever. Victoria had seen him put to bed and had hurried in with a bowl of water and a cloth to wash him down.

But Scott had still not yet had a chance to talk to her about how she knew Johnny. And it seemed that the stranger knew him just as well as Victoria.

“I reckon that’s a real good idea,” Buck said from behind them, forgotten in the heat of the moment. “Might be an introduction’d be a good start. Scott, this here’s Manolito Montoya. He’s Victoria’s brother. Mano, this be Scott Lancer. Now, Victoria? Mano? You know Johnny already, I’m guessin’?”

“For many years,” Victoria told him, still smiling. “But we heard that he was dead.”

“Years?” Scott asked them. “Then… you know him… well?”

“Well enough to know that he has no brother,” Manolito told him, glaring suspiciously.

Scott glared right back at him. He knew that they must be disconcerted, but he felt at a spectacular disadvantage himself.

Buck walked over between them and held up his hands to keep them apart. “Let’s get a few things straight. Mano, Johnny told me hisself that Scott’s his brother. An’ them two been actin’ like kin since I met ‘em on the stage. So I’m bettin’ they are just that.” He turned to Scott. “Right?”

“Yes,” Scott answered shortly.  He turned to Manolito. “And if you thought Johnny was dead, then you haven’t seen him in the last couple of years,” he suggested. “Am I right?”

Victoria answered sadly. “Si, we heard the Rurales had executed him.”

Scott nodded. “And you have no idea how close he came to it. But he got away, with a little help from my father’s Pinkerton agent.”

“Your father?”

“Yes, Murdoch Lancer - my father and Johnny’s.”

Manolito shook his head in disbelief. “No, this cannot be. There was a father, I remember. But Johnny hated him. He would have killed him…”

That this man even knew that Johnny had a father from whom he was estranged was enough to suggest that he really had once been close to Johnny. Even with what little Johnny had ever said about his past, he’d made it plain that he had considered Murdoch Lancer dead.

He tried to explain. “Johnny had been given a lot of misinformation when he was growing up. Lies, basically…” Scott sighed heavily. “But Murdoch sent Pinkerton men for both Johnny and me. He wanted us to help him fight off land pirates who were trying to steal the ranch.”

“He sent for you as well?” Victoria asked. “Then you were not living with your father either?”

“That’s right. I was living in Boston with my grandfather. Look, all this is too long a story to go into and it’s kind of ancient history. The point is that Johnny and I both found out that we not only had some wrong ideas about our father, but that we had a brother we hadn’t known about.”

“So now you’re both ranchers, like you told me?” Buck asked.

“Johnny? A rancher?” Manolito exclaimed, shaking his head. “Oh no, this I will not believe.”

“And why not, Manolito?” Victoria demanded.

“Please, Victoria. You know that Johnny would never give up…”

“He’s trying,” Scott quickly finished for him. “Things are different for him now. Murdoch signed over one third of the ranch to each of us if we stayed. For once, Johnny had a choice.”

“Well, I think it is wonderful news,” Victoria said, sitting back down beside the bed and changing the compress on Johnny’s forehead. “Not only is Johnny alive, but he has family and a home.”

“Okay, so do we have that all straightened out?” Buck asked with a satisfied note in his voice.

Manolito stared at Scott for a moment, while Scott stubbornly returned the gaze. Then Manolito sighed and nodded. “Si.”

“Yes,” Scott agreed. But so many questions were running through his head.

How did these two know Johnny? How much did they know about him… about his past? And if they had known him for years, did they know about his childhood?

But the questions would have to wait. He moved closer to the bed and pulled a chair over beside it, sat down and made himself comfortable. His actions seemed to meet with Victoria Cannon’s approval since she smiled at him as she dunked the cloth in cool water once again.

Manolito’s stare softened when he looked at Johnny. “How badly hurt is he?” he asked at last.

“Not good,” Buck told him. “We was on the stage when it got hit by Apaches. Johnny here, he took a arrow in the shoulder ‘fore we knew what was happenin’.”

“Then the stage rolled over,” Scott added. “We were lucky to get out alive really, though the driver and the guard were less so.”

“Dead?” Manolito asked bluntly.

“Yes, both of them.”

Buck took up the story again. “We walked some, all night an’ into next day. Johnny was ‘bout done in when White Horse found us an’ took us back to Red Eagle’s village. Turned out it was a hunting arrow – no head, so weren’t too much damage done yankin’ it out - but he was bleedin’ too much…”

“The wound has been cauterized,” Victoria pointed out.

“Yeah,” Buck confirmed. “An’ he’s been fightin’ a fever. Broke last night but travelin’ today’s brung it back on.”

“How long has he been unconscious?” Victoria asked.

Scott answered. “He passed out about half an hour before we got here.”

She nodded and turned to her brother again. “I have sent for the doctor in Tucson, Manolito. He should be here in an hour or so.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Cannon,” Scott said while Manolito nodded and paced the floor at the end of the bed.

“De nada, Señor Lancer. And when he has finished with Johnny, he can look at you and Buck as well,” Victoria informed him.

“Now, Victoria, that ain’t necessary,” Buck protested. “Scott here fixed my shoulder up real good.”

“I am pleased to hear it,” she said ironically. “But you will indulge me on this.”

Buck rolled his eyes and gave in. “Yes, Ma’am.”

She turned her eyes on Scott and almost dared him to argue with her. He was beginning to get an idea of the strength behind this lady’s pretty face. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said quietly. 

“Where’s Big John anyhow?” Buck asked.

“He and Sam are checking the south section,” Manolito answered. “He will be back soon, I think.”

*

John Cannon’s return happened to coincide with the arrival of the doctor, with the result that he strode into the house demanding to know what was going on.

Victoria hurried out into the living room, scowling. “John Cannon, what is all this shouting?”

“Victoria,” he growled back at her. “Why’s the doctor here?”

“He is here?” she asked. “And you left him outside? Oh!” She flounced pettishly to the door and ushered the doctor inside, her scowl abruptly changing to a smile. “Please, Doctor, come this way.”

Then she disappeared down the hall and left her husband none the wiser.

So he followed.

At the door to one of the guestrooms, John stopped and realized that, not only did he have unexpected guests – one of them obviously pretty badly hurt - but that his brother was home and hurt as well.

“What’s happened?” he asked, concerned rather than angry now.

“I’ll tell ya all about it, Brother John,” Buck said and took him by the shoulder, leading him back to the living room.

Victoria ordered Manolito out of the room as well, and tried to do the same with Scott, but there she found herself up against a brick wall. Scott insisted on staying with his brother and nothing was going to move him.

Outside, Buck told John and Manolito just what had happened over the last couple of days. When he was finished, John poured a drink for each of them and for himself.

“So, you’re okay, Buck?” he asked while his brother took a seat. From habit, he glanced out into the yard as he turned.

“Oh sure. Put my shoulder out when the stage rolled, but Scott put it back in an’ fixed up a sling for it. Just a little sore, is all.”

“Good… good,” he said almost distractedly, watching the men out in the yard. “I’ll be right back.”

He strode out of the house and went to see what had the boys gathering outside the bunkhouse. All eyes seemed to be on the house and he knew something was up.

“Sam?” he called from the porch and waited for his foreman to come to him. “What’s going on?”

“Just bunkhouse talk, Boss,” he answered evasively as he joined his boss. “You know, mostly rumor.”

“What kind of rumor?”

“Well…” He looked away, towards the small group of men standing near the corral, still talking amongst themselves. “Well, it’s about that fella Buck brought back with him.”

“Which one?”

“The one in the travois. Pedro got a good look at him when he helped carry the guy in an’ he says he recognized him.”

“Recognized him? As who?”

Sam shifted his feet uneasily, looking back towards the men again.

“Spit it out, Sam. Who does Pedro think that man is?”

Sam sighed. “Johnny Madrid.”

“The gunfighter? That’s quite a charge.”

“Pedro says he’s sure,” Sam assured him. “Says he saw him a few times, mostly in Nogales an’ Sonora.”

John nodded. “Alright. I’ll deal with it.”

“Sure, Boss,” Sam agreed and returned to the men to tell them, while John turned and strode back into the house.

*

“Here is your patient, Doctor,” Victoria said as she led him into the bedroom.

“I understand he was shot with an Apache arrow,” the doctor said. “In a raid on the stage?”

“Yes.”

“The stage was found this morning. We didn’t think there’d been any survivors.” He walked over to the bed. “The arrow?”

“The arrow has been removed,” she told him.

“Who by? It would have been better to have waited for me.”

“We weren’t in a position to wait,” Scott explained. He was still by the bed, but on his feet watching over his brother.

“This is Scott Lancer, Dr. Lawrence,” Victoria told him. “Your patient is his brother, Johnny.”

His response was little more than a nod, so Scott continued. “An Apache woman pulled it out and nursed him last night.”

The doctor frowned. “An Indian?”

“Yes, but Tanea took good care of him.”

“Tanea? White Horse’s woman?”

Scott was amazed that the doctor knew of them. As a townsman, the doctor didn’t seem the type to have much knowledge of Apaches or their women. “Yes,” Scott answered quietly.

“I’ve been to that village. I’m sure they did what they could for him.”

Still a little surprised, Scott nodded. “They did. He’d have died out there without their help.”

“Alright, let’s take a look at him, then.”

*

“Buck!” John Cannon called loudly.

“Hey, keep ya hair on, Brother John! What’s up?” Buck answered, still in his chair.

“I thought you said those two are ranchers.”

“Yeah, from California. Why?”

“Because one of them is most definitely not. I don’t know about the other one, but your friend with the arrow wound is a gunfighter.”

“What? Nah, that there’s crazy thinkin’, John. Where’d ya get a idea like that?”

“Pedro knows him. Does the name ‘Johnny Madrid’ mean anything to you?” John asked sarcastically.

Buck let out a long slow breath. “Yeah, I’ve heard it. Wouldn’t ‘ve guessed it. Pedro’s sure o’ this?”

“Apparently.”

Buck turned to Manolito, who was sitting on the edge of the desk, his head down and idly riffling the pages of a ledger. To look at him, you would think that he hadn’t even heard the exchange. “Mano?” Buck called to him. “Why do I get the feeling that there’s somethin’ you ain’t told me?”

“Me, Compadre?” Manolito asked innocently.

“Yeah you, Amigo. You know him. Said you’d knowed him for years.”

“Mano, what do you know about this?” John demanded loudly.

*

Victoria heard her husband’s shout all the way into the bedroom and glanced towards the doorway. She quietly walked over and pushed it closed, hoping that John’s voice would not carry through it. She had an uncomfortable feeling that John had already learned the one thing that she wanted to be able to tell him herself, when the time was right.

Buck’s answer was slightly muffled by the closed door, but John’s voice carried through to them and she looked uneasily at Scott.

It was obvious that he could hear it all, and the doctor as well, leaving Victoria embarrassed and not a little bit upset.

The doctor seemed to be ignoring it and concentrating on his work. He cut and pulled away the bandages, studying the wound closely. He laid his hand on Johnny’s forehead and frowned, then took out a stethoscope from his bag and continued his examination.

Johnny didn’t move, even when the doctor cleaned Tanea’s salve from the wound. Not even his breathing changed.

“Well, the wound is pretty clean,” the doctor told them, glancing at the doorway as John’s voice again made it’s way through the door from the living room. To her relief, he chose to ignore it, while Victoria caught Scott’s eye and felt a hot blush rise on her cheeks. “I’m not sure what’s in that salve, but it seems to have reduced the infection…”

Another shout from the other room… Victoria tapped her foot angrily.

“I’m sorry, Doctor,” she whispered. “Please, go on.”

“Yes, of course. The wound has obviously been cauterized and that’s stopped the bleeding, but I take it that he lost a good deal of blood prior to that?”

“Yes,” Scott confirmed. “Not right away, but when the arrow was removed, it took a while to stop it.”

“And what was his condition before the arrow was pulled out?”

“We’d walked for most of the night, through the desert. He was exhausted.”

The doctor nodded. “Were you able to get him to take much water?”

Scott sighed. “Yes, he was conscious right up until Tanea put the hot blade to the wound. He passed out then and stayed that way until the fever broke. But this morning she got him to take some broth and he was conscious for most of the trip here from the village.”

Once again, noise from the other room drifted through the door. This time, it was in rapid, angry Spanish. Victoria threw up her hands in fury.

“I am sorry, Gentlemen,” she told them from behind gritted teeth. “It would appear that good manners have been thrown out of the window in this house today. You will excuse me, please?”

She didn’t wait for an answer from either of them. She grabbed the doorknob and wrenched it open.

*

            “The man’s dangerous, Mano. And you said nothing about who he is,” John shouted. “Of course, I’m angry. Don’t you think I have a right to be?”

            Manolito didn’t have to answer. Victoria stormed into the room, her eyes flashing with fire.

            “What is all this noise? We have a sick man in there and you, John Cannon, are trying to bring the roof down with your shouting.”

“It’s that ‘sick man’ I’m talking about, Victoria,” he answered angrily.

“Oh? Do you think he is pretending to be hurt?” she asked furiously.

“No, but he’s pretending he’s something he’s not. The man is not a rancher. He’s a gunfighter.”

Her hands flew to her hips and her eyes to her brother. But Manolito met her eyes and shrugged his shoulders. “I have said nothing, Victoria. It was Pedro who recognized him and told the others.”

“You knew what he is?” John asked, stunned.

“Si, I knew,” Manolito admitted happily.

“And you, Victoria. Did you know too?”

“Of course! So?” she demanded.

“So?” John echoed, incredulous. “So? Victoria, I’m not having a man like that in my house.”

“’A man like that’? So, my husband, you know him?”

“No, I don’t know him. I don’t have to. He’s a killer and everyone knows it.”

Manolito chuckled lightly and attracted furious glances from both his sister and her husband.

“Keep your voice down, John Cannon,” Victoria growled at him. “I will not have you say such things of him. You do not know him. I DO. He is my friend, my brother’s friend… even my father’s friend.”

Manolito held up his hand and frowned. “That might be going a little too far, Victoria. I am not sure that Papa thinks of him…”

“Manolito, hush!” she raged at him, then demanded of her husband, “He is my friend and when was a friend of mine not welcome in this house?”

“Victoria…” John began, but she ignored him.

“And you, Manolito, are you going to sit there and say nothing but foolishness?” she asked furiously. “He is your compadre, your friend. Will you not defend him?”

Manolito’s eyes blazed. “I do not need to. You are doing so well without me, my dear sister.”

“Huh!” she huffed and turned on her husband once again. “You, my husband, are wrong.” Stamping her foot, she swung and around and headed back towards the bedroom.

“Alright, alright. He can stay,” John finally conceded, calling after her. “Until he’s well enough to leave, anyway.”

“Huh!” she answered him, without bothering to turn around.

Manolito got to his feet, slowly and deliberately. He walked towards John and stopped in front of him, the grin gone from his face. “She is right, John. This man is my friend… my very good friend. If he is not welcome here, then when he leaves,” he said coolly. “I will leave with him.” Then he followed his sister to the bedroom, leaving John to watch them both in astonishment.

Buck stood up and walked over to stand in front of his brother. “You know what, John?” he said, looking at his feet. He looked up suddenly and pointed a finger at John. “You got this all wrong. You got it real wrong.”

“Buck, I won’t have a man like that in my house.”

“A man like what, huh? John, you ain’t even spoke to the fella. All you know is his name an’ his reputation, an’ I’m bettin’ you don’t even know much ‘bout that.”

“Oh, and you do, after two days?”

“Yeah, I reckon I do. I seen him lyin’ half dead on the ground with a arrow stickin’ outa his shoulder an’ his only thought was for that brother o’ his. Seen him walk hisself to a stop an’ then tell us to go on without him ‘cos he was slowin’ us down. You can get to know a whole lot about a man in that kinda situation. An’ I’m tellin’ you, John… You got it wrong.”

With that, he shoved his hat on his head and walked out of the house.

*

“Well, it’s a rough job, but it’s working,” the doctor told them, packing his gear into his bag. “Even with the jolting around he’s had, the bleeding hasn’t started again. The infection is clearing up so the fever should start to drop soon. I’ve put in some stitches and I’ll leave some salve to apply twice a day when you change those bandages and I want you to get him to drink lots of liquids from the moment he wakes.”

“Then he will be alright?” Victoria asked.

“Well, a persistent fever is not to be taken lightly, Mrs. Cannon, but if we can bring it down, he’s going to be fine.”

“We will bring it down,” she told him confidently.

“If there’s no change by tomorrow morning, send for me.” He turned around to leave and came face to face with Scott. “Don’t worry, Mr. Lancer. Some rest will work wonders for him.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

“And keep that head wound clean,” the doctor added.

“I will see you out, Doctor,” Victoria said and led him out of the room.

Manolito sat on the end of the bed and looked down at his hands. “Señor Lancer, sound travels well in this hacienda.”

“Yes, it does.”

Manolito sighed heavily. “John Cannon is a good man, Señor.”

“I’m sure he is,” Scott answered, without conviction.

“But, sometimes,” Manolito continued, clenching one fist and gritting his teeth. “Sometimes, I think he should be hit over the head with a very large piece of wood.”

Scott grinned and relaxed. He’d had the same thought about Murdoch, on occasion. He sat down in the chair by the bed. “Just how well did you know Johnny Madrid?”

Manolito laughed. “As well as anyone can say they knew him; perhaps a little more. My father always complained that we were like ‘la yesca y la cerilla – tinder and match. Put us together, he said, and someone would always get their fingers burned.” He shook his head with mock sadness. “Papa has little faith in me, I fear.”

“Tinder and match? Who was who?”

There was that grin again. “We took turns.”

It was Scott’s turn to laugh. “That sounds like Johnny.” Then he sobered and frowned. “Wait, your name is Montoya?”

“Manolito Montoya, but you may call me Mano. That is what my friends call me.”

“And I’d rather you call me Scott. We were heading for Sonora to meet Don Sebastian Montoya. Johnny said that he knew him.”

Manolito grinned. Scott thought he had never seen a smile so wide, or so completely take over a man’s face. “Ah yes, my illustrious papa. Yes, Johnny knows him. But tell me, you say that my compadre is a cattle rancher now. And a brother! Ay!”

“A brother who doesn’t know him as well as you probably do,” Scott said disgustedly.

“Oh, I would not say that, my friend. I know Johnny Madrid – the great pistolero. But you, you know this man he is now… Johnny Lancer. This man I cannot even imagine.”

“He’s essentially the same man, but there are times…” Scott let the thought go. “I just wish that he hadn’t been recognized. Dammit, I knew this wasn’t a good idea.”

“Coming here?”

“Going into Mexico. It’s not a good idea.”

“Because of his reputation?”

“Because he may still be wanted. They wanted to execute him, remember?”

“Ah yes, I begin to see.”

“We were hoping to slip in, see Don Sebastian and then get out before anyone knew Johnny Madrid was even there. But if the word gets out before he’s even back on his feet…”

“The only people who know that Johnny Madrid has returned are here, at this ranch. This, my friend, this I can fix. Trust me. Your secret will be safe.”

 

Chapter Seven

Sam and the other hands were still lingering around the corral fence. The group had grown and it looked like the whole crew was there. Sam Butler – foreman, and a man whose loyalty to the ranch and John Cannon was second only to his loyalty to his brother, Joe, standing beside him. And Joe, a man of few words until he had something worth saying; Pedro, whose sense of fun and tall stringy physique concealed a man who could out-ride, out-shoot and out-rope any other man on the ranch; and Reno… and the others. They were all there now, watching Manolito as he walked towards them.

“Holà, Muchachos,” Manolito called.

“Howdy, Mano,” Sam answered, amidst the nods and acknowledgements of the others.

Mano stopped when he reached them. He put his hands on his hips and smiled amiably. “An exciting day, yes?”

Sam looked at his brother uneasily, then to Pedro, who kicked dust with the toe of his boot and didn’t meet Manolito’s eyes.  No one answered.

“Oh, come now, Compadres. It is not every day that a notorious pistolero appears on our doorstep!” he prodded gently.

“No, guess not, Mano,” Joe agreed. “Guess you know him, hey Mano?”

“Yes,” Manolito told them. “Yes, I know him. And yes, Pedro is right, he is Johnny Madrid.”

Pedro excitedly smacked the back of his hand into Joe’s stomach. “You see? I told you it was him. I saw him draw against two men in Nogales, one time. Who could forget it? Ay, that hombre was fast.”

“And if I had been there, it would have been two against two, my friend,” Manolito told him.

“You’re no gunfighter, Mano!” Sam exclaimed.

Manolito shrugged. “A man stands with his friend.”

“He’s that good a friend?” Joe asked and Manolito nodded seriously.

“Didn’t look so good,” Sam said. “Is he gonna make it?”

Manolito smiled. “Yes, the doctor thinks he will be recover, gracias a Dios.” Then he sighed. “And now, my friends, I have a favor to ask of you.”

“’Bout Madrid?” Sam asked cautiously.

“Yes…well, no… it is about Johnny Lancer, the man he has become,” Manolito began to explain. “I want you to tell no one that he is here. His life may depend on it.”

“How?”

“He has enemies among the Rurales. If they find out he is so close to the border… Well, let us say that it would not be a good thing.”

“Mano, we’re talking ‘bout a gunman here. A professional,” Sam pointed out. “I’m sorry, Mano. He might be a friend o’ yours, but he’s also a hired killer.”

Pedro shook his head. “I don’t know, Sam. I have heard stories about him for years. I have heard as much good as bad about him. I heard that he was helping villagers when he was caught by the Rurales.”

“So he’s some sort of hero? That’s not what I’ve heard.”

“No, not a hero, Sam,” Manolito told him. “But not as bad as his legend would have you believe either. And he is trying to leave that life behind.”

“You sayin’ he doesn’t hire out now?”

“No more.”

“Hard to believe a man with his reputation just turned around an’ left it,” Sam said doubtfully.

Manolito returned Sam’s gaze and then glanced towards Joe. “If he is given the chance, who knows what a man would do?”

There were a few moments of silence while the men looked at each other and considered Manolito’s request. Then Pedro shrugged his shoulders and the decision appeared to have been made.

“Well, I guess it can’t hurt to keep his bein’ here quiet, Mano,” Sam said at last.

*

Alone with Johnny, Scott sat and patiently wiped his brother’s face and neck to cool him. Late afternoon shadows were creeping into the room, cooling it with a wisp of breeze through the open windows. It was a pleasant room, rich with the feel of Mexico – thick adobe walls, brightly colored rugs on the floor and similarly colored blankets on the bed and heavy, carved furniture throughout.

Outside, the sounds and smells of a working ranch filtered through to Scott, enough like home to ease the tension he’d felt since overhearing the argument from the other room. The welcome he’d received when they had arrived and the friendliness of Buck, Victoria and Manolito could not erase the raised voices and anger he’d heard when John Cannon had come home. He was feeling distinctly uncomfortable here.

The flush of fever was less bright on Johnny’s face now, leaving him pale and pasty instead. Cleaned up and re-bandaged, Johnny seemed to be resting more peacefully. His breathing was less labored and the frown that had been appearing intermittently earlier was gone from his brow.

After seeing the doctor out, Victoria came back to take her place again by Johnny’s side, sitting in a chair at the opposite side of the bed to Scott and taking over for him in wiping the cool cloth over Johnny’s face.

But Scott stayed with Johnny, watching him closely - noting the steady rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, the signs of movement under his eyelids, the way his fingers occasionally clenched the edge of the blanket that covered him.

“I think his breathing is easier,” he suggested.

She glanced up and nodded, then put her hand on his forehead. “The fever is down a little, too.”

But Johnny had so far shown no sign of coming around. Victoria left the compress on his forehead and sat back in the chair, keeping her eyes on him all the while.

She intrigued Scott. She knew Johnny from a time when Scott hadn’t even been aware of his existence. Perhaps she held a key to unlocking some of Johnny’s past.

Finally, unable to resist the urge any longer, Scott broached the subject. “Mrs. Cannon, you said you’ve known Johnny for years.”

“Please, you are Johnny’s brother. Mrs. Cannon is much too formal.” She smiled warmly at him. “You must call me Victoria. And yes, Manolito and I have known Johnny for many years.”

“How did you meet him?”

She clasped her hands in her lap and answered somewhat diffidently. “His stepfather worked at my father’s rancho. He and his family lived in one of the houses on the estancia. ”

“His step…?” Scott stared at her, stunned. When he’d thought of her knowing Johnny in the past, he had never considered that it might be as far back as that. “Just how long ago was this?”

“Oh, we were only children then. Johnny was perhaps eight or nine years old. He and Manolito were soon friends, drawn to each other like magnets. They were two of a kind and always in trouble. Manolito used to sneak away from his lessons to go out to play with him. Papa was not happy.”

She laughed at the memory and then sobered and sighed heavily. “But it was not for long. Johnny’s stepfather was a lazy man. Always late or not following orders. He drank too. Papa turned him off and they were gone.”

“If you knew Johnny that long ago, then… then you must have known his mother?”

But Victoria shook her head. She leaned forward and straightened the covers around Johnny. “No,” she said distractedly. “She was a very private person. I remember seeing her, but I never spoke with her. She kept to her house.”

Then she stopped and sighed again, considering her next words. “There were whispers,” she looked at Scott at last. “It was said that her husband beat her.”

Her husband… Scott caught himself before the protest on the tip of his tongue could be formed into words. No, not her husband. That would be Murdoch, not the lazy drunk who beat his wife.

“But Johnny came back many years later,” she continued. “He was perhaps fifteen years old and alone then – very tough and very independent. Papa hired him to help break some horses and Johnny and Manolito were soon up to their tricks again. Then Johnny took a bad fall and broke three ribs and I insisted that Papa let him stay in the hacienda until he was well. That was a mistake.”

“Why?”

“Johnny thought of it as charity. He was too proud and stubborn to accept it as the hospitality that it was intended to be. As soon as he could stand up, he left. Of course, he did not get far. He was still too sick and Manolito found him easily enough and brought him back. But he refused to stay in the hacienda. He stayed in the bunkhouse until he was well enough to leave.”

She tilted her head to the side thoughtfully. “I think my papa actually respected him for that, though he did not approve of the hours Johnny spent practicing with his gun when he got better. Even then, Johnny could draw faster than anyone I had ever seen. But always, he wanted to be faster.”

“He still practices,” Scott told her. “He hasn’t hired out since he came to Lancer but, with his reputation, he has to be careful. So he keeps in practice.”

“Yes, his reputation. After he left, we started to hear stories of his gunfights. His reputation grew and he became feared. But when he was nearby, he and Manolo would meet and get into trouble again.” She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Always it was something – drinking, fighting, women… ay! That was when Papa started calling them ‘La yesca y la cerilla.’”

She stopped suddenly. “I worried sometimes, about Mano being with him. As you say, he had such a reputation and Manolito was not a pistolero. But he never got Mano into such things - never gunfights. Then, as his fame grew, we began to see less of him. As we heard more and more of Johnny Madrid, I feared that one day we would hear…”

Victoria looked back at Johnny. “And then, one day, we did hear… about his arrest and his execution.” She reached over and put her hand over Johnny’s hand. “I cried when I heard. And Manolo… he got very drunk.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes while Scott thought about how much this woman and her brother had shared their lives with Johnny.

“What was he like?” Scott found himself asking. “As a child, what was he like?”

“What was he like?” she repeated thoughtfully. “Well, he was small… and so thin. He was very quiet - not a word until he trusted you and he did not trust easily. I think he feared that bruto who was his stepfather.” There was anger in her voice and her eyes flashed. Then she seemed to think of other things and softened. “But once he was sure of you, he was full of fun and mischief. Such tricks he and Manolo got into.” She laughed suddenly. “And many times, the tricks were on me. Ay, those two!”

“I didn’t even know he existed then,” Scott told her sadly.

“It is a shame,” she told him. “But now, you do know each other. And he is a rancher? He is happy?”

“Yes. He’s worked hard to live down his reputation and settle into life at the ranch. I think he’s happy there.”

“This is so good to hear,” Victoria said, smiling happily. She let go of Johnny’s hand and leaned back in her chair.

They lapsed into silence again. Scott envied her those memories of his brother. He thought of all he and Johnny had missed. How different their lives would have been, if only… 

The door suddenly opened and cut off the train of thought. Buck Cannon walked in and closed it quietly behind him.

“Thought I’d come see how Johnny be doin’,” Buck said. He walked over to the window and parked his butt on the sill, looking at Johnny. “The doc gave him a good report, I hear.” 

“Yes. And the fever’s down a little,” Scott told him. “But he hasn’t woken.”

Scott stopped. Something had caught his attention. He couldn’t be sure whether he had actually heard anything or not, but then Johnny’s head moved and he knew that he was right. 

Johnny caught his breath and opened his eyes. “Scott?” The word was barely audible, but Scott had been waiting for it, hoping for it.

Leaning close to him, Scott reassured him. “Right here, Johnny. Take it easy, you’re safe.”

Johnny blinked and frowned, his eyes searching as much of the room as he could. “Not home… where are we?”

“We’re at the High Chaparral ranch,” Scott told him. “The doctor from Tucson says you’re going to be fine.”

“Get him to drink this water,” Victoria whispered and passed Scott a glass. Then she turned quickly to Buck. “Buck, would you please get Manolito?”

Buck didn’t have to be asked a second time. He left quickly while Scott concentrated on his brother.

Scott nodded his thanks to Victoria. “Here, Little Brother, drink some water for me.” He cupped one hand behind Johnny’s head and lifted him just enough to allow him to drink, then he held the glass to his lips. “And then there’s someone here who’d like to say hello.”

Johnny sipped the water and savored it for a moment, then swallowed some more before Scott lowered his head back to the pillow. “Thanks,” he said, his voice a little stronger. He turned his head and froze, his eyes suddenly on Victoria Cannon.

“Victoria?” His surprise was in his voice. “No, can’t be.”

She smiled at him and leaned forward. “Yes, it is. Hello, Johnny. Ha sido un largo tiempo, Mi Amigo.”*

“Yes, it’s been a very long time,” he answered wearily. “What are you doing here?”

“But I live here, Johnny. John Cannon is my husband.”

“Your husband?”

“Si,” She laughed lightly and then went on, teasing. “Did you think I would wait for you? No, no, no… I would have grown into a very old maid waiting.”

“Never! You look as beautiful as ever,” Johnny said, still stunned. “¡Dios! I can’t believe it’s you! Scott, you know who this is?”

“Yes. And she’s Don Sebastian Montoya’s daughter too, from what I hear,” Scott replied, laughing. “I thought you’d be surprised to see her.”

“And my sister, Compadre,” Manolito said from the doorway. He walked slowly into the room, his grin spreading across his face, and stopped behind his sister’s chair.

“Mano?” Johnny almost jerked forward, but Scott put his hand on his shoulder to hold him back.

“Take it easy, Johnny,” he said firmly.

“Si, my friend. It is good to see you,” Manolito told him. “¿Cómo está?”*

“A lot better for seeing you,” Johnny answered, grinning. “Scott… you met Scott already?”

“Oh yes, your brother.” He glanced at Scott and then back to Johnny. “So many surprises.” Shaking his head, he sat on the end of the bed. “Johnny, we heard that you were dead - that you had been executed by the Rurales.”

“I came close but no, not that time… not this time either, thanks to Buck an’ his friends.”

“Ah, but I grieved for you, Amigo,” Manolito told him with a wicked gleam in his eyes.

“Is that right? For how long?” Johnny asked ironically.

“Oh, for at least a week, I think.”

Johnny smiled. “A whole week huh?”

“Ah yes, but I grieved most sincerely. It was terrible to see,” Manolito told him seriously. “And all wasted, for here you are – risen from the dead like Lazarus.” He frowned. “I think you owe me for that week, Johnny.”

“I owe you much more than that,” Johnny answered, seriously this time. He glanced at Victoria and then at Buck who was still standing in the doorway where Manolito had left him. 

“You owe us nothing, Johnny,” Victoria told him firmly. “Mi casa, su casa, remember?”*

“I remember. Gracias, Victoria.”

“De nada, Johnny,” Victoria said quietly. “And now, I think we are tiring you too much, too soon. I will bring you some broth, but then you should rest. You still have a fever.” She got to her feet and turned to her brother and her brother-in-law. “There will be plenty of time to talk with Johnny when he is feeling stronger. Now, we should leave him. Will you join us for dinner, Scott?”

“No, but thank you. I think I’ll stay with my brother.”

“Then I will bring you something to eat.” She put her hand on Johnny’s and squeezed it ever so lightly. “Rest, Johnny. You and your brother are welcome here for as long as you like.”

She ushered Manolito and Buck out of the room ahead of her and closed the door gently behind her, once again leaving Scott alone with Johnny.

“When you said you knew the Montoyas, you didn’t say how well,” he said, smiling.

Shaking his head, Johnny sighed. “It’s been a long time since I was down this way. Things change.”

“Well, it doesn’t seem to have made much difference to them.”

He lay quietly, thinking, then asked, “Have you met her husband?”

“John Cannon? No, not yet.” Scott hoped the anger he felt towards Cannon wasn’t revealing itself in his tone. “I’ve been in here with you. Thirsty?”

“No.”

Scott picked up the glass and refilled it anyway, then offered it to Johnny. “Here, drink this anyway. Thirsty or not, you need to get some fluids in you.”

“Are you okay?” Johnny asked, looking at the bandage around Scott’s head.

“Yes, I’m fine. Even the headache is gone. Victoria insisted that the doctor check it and he said I’m not likely to die from it.” Once again he helped Johnny to manage the glass and swallow a couple of mouthfuls of water. “He checked Buck’s shoulder too. He’ll be able to use it properly in a few days if he rests is for a while.”

Lowering him back onto the pillow, Scott put the glass aside and picked up the wet cloth. He wiped Johnny’s face and then pulled the covers over him.

“How long do you plan to keep up this fussin’?” Johnny asked, grinning wanly. His face had paled substantially and his breathing was getting heavier.

“Until that fever’s gone and you’re back on your feet.” Scott put the cloth aside and settled back into the chair, making himself comfortable. “Now get some rest.”

*

 Victoria was soon back. “You should take a break before dinner, Scott. You have been here all day,” she suggested, though the tone of her voice made it less of a suggestion than an order. “I will give him this broth and then stay with him while you stretch your legs.”

 Scott was reluctant. He stayed put.

 “Go on, Boston,” Johnny told him. “Get outa here for a while.”

 “I don’t know. Can I trust you to behave yourself?” Scott asked him with a smile.

 “Oh, he knows better than to do anything else.” Victoria laughed and set the tray on the nightstand. “Is that not so, Johnny?”

 “Oh yeah.”

 Scott stretched out his cramped legs and then got to his feet and arched his back to straighten the kinks from sitting there for so long. “Alright, but I won’t be long.”

 “Manolito and Buck are just outside. Why do you not join them for some air?” she ‘suggested’ again.

 Scott smiled, but he took the hint. With one last look over his shoulder at Johnny, he left the room.

 Victoria went to the trunk at the end of the bed, pulled out a spare pillow and then lifted Johnny’s head and shoulders enough to slip it behind him. Then she sat down and edged the chair in closer to the bed.

 “This brother of yours, Johnny,” she said as she picked up the bowl and spoon. “I like him.”

 “Yeah, me too,” Johnny told her with a grin. “Fusses like a mother hen sometimes, though.”

 “And you do not like that?” Victoria smiled. “I think perhaps you do.”

 Johnny laughed. “Maybe,” he admitted. “But don’t go tellin’ him. I’d never get him to cut it out. So, what about you? All grown up an’ married now.”

 “Yes. You will like him.”

 “An’ he’s Buck’s brother, huh?”

 “Si.” She scooped up a spoonful of broth and offered it to him. As he swallowed, their eyes met and she saw unasked questions there. “And yes, he is older than me, but it is no matter. He is strong and kind, and he cares for me as I care for him.”

 “Long as you’re happy, Victoria,” he said firmly. “You an’ Mano were as close to family as I had back then.”

 She could see he was tiring. “I know. And I am happy, my friend. Now, eat! Then you should rest.”

 *

Buck sat on the porch, his injured arm once again pulled free of the sling that hung loose around his neck. His legs were stretched out, crossed at the ankles, and his hat was over his face. Scott was reminded of the stranger on the stage – but no longer a stranger.

Manolito was stretched out lazily on a hammock made of rope and wooden slats that hung between two of the support pillars on the porch. Scott walked over to stand beside one of those pillars, at Manolito’s feet.

The sun was expending the last of its energy in one final brilliant show of red lights across the horizon and the air was already cooler.

“Qué pasa?”* Manolito asked from the hammock. Scott hadn’t even realized that he was awake.

“Victoria brought some broth for him. She thought I’d like to take a break.”

Buck chuckled. “Tossed ya out, did she, Son?” he asked from under the hat. He leaned forward and let it drop into his lap. “Don’t worry. All of us know it ain’t worth arguin’ with Victoria.”

“You would only get a headache,” Manolito quipped from the hammock. “Nag, nag, nag…”

“Johnny’s doin’ better, then?” Buck asked, ignoring Manolito.

Scott nodded. “I should send a wire home to let Murdoch know what’s happened and that we’ll be longer than planned.”

“I will take you to Tucson tomorrow myself,” Manolito told him. “This Murdoch, he is your father?”

“And Johnny’s. He’ll be worried, not hearing from us.”

“I seem to remember that Johnny’s papa did not worry about him for a very long time,” Manolito said pointedly.

Scott bit back a retort, recalling that Manolito and Victoria had known Johnny through those lost years. “That was what Johnny was told, but he was misled,” he said simply.

“She lied?” Mano asked, scowling as he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the hammock to stare at him.

Scott only nodded. “Murdoch looked for him for years. The Pinkertons finally found him.”

“Madre de Dios! All that time… and you?”

“I was raised in Boston, by my grandfather. Murdoch knew where I was. He’s never really explained his reasons for leaving me there.” Scott didn’t want to go into that any deeper. It was too raw, even now. “The point is that he did send for us and he offered both of us equal shares in the ranch. That was a little over two years ago.”

“This ranch, it is in California?”

“That’s right. In the San Joaquin Valley, near Morro Coyo. About one hundred thousand acres.”

Buck whistled his surprise, while Manolito grinned. “Impressive.”

“And hard work,” Scott told him, laughing.

“And my friend now owns one third of this rancho?” Mano asked, a wicked twinkle in his eyes.

“Murdoch still holds the reins, but yes, we all have one third,” Scott agreed.

“Things have indeed changed for him then.” Manolito stood up and threw one arm companionably around Scott’s shoulders, grinning widely. “I will have to congratulate him.”

Scott knew that sparkle in the man’s eyes. He’d seen the same light in Johnny’s eyes too many times not to suspect that Manolito was planning more than just congratulations. But the sound of heavy footfalls behind them distracted him. He turned to find a stranger joining them – a big man with a look of authority about him that could only mean he was John Cannon.

 

*“¿Cómo está?” – How are you?

* Ha sido un largo tiempo, Mi Amigo. – It’s been a long time, my friend.

*Mi casa, su casa – My house is your house.

* ¿Qué pasa? – What’s happening?


 

Chapter Eight

Manolito still had his arm draped companionably around Scott’s shoulders as his brother-in-law walked out onto the porch to join them. He felt Scott tense beneath him.

He watched John walk casually over to stand beside Buck and look him over. “Buck, is there a reason for that sling around your neck?” John asked dourly.

“Sure, John,” Buck answered defensively. “You know I busted the shoulder up some.”

“Well, that sling looks damn foolish flapping around like that. I thought Victoria told me that the doctor ordered you to rest that arm?”

“Yeah.”

“Then rest it.”

Buck scowled at his brother, but went ahead and slid his arm back into the sling, while Manolito smiled.

“Happy?” a somewhat disgruntled Buck asked John.

“Very,” John answered, then turned away from him and walked over to join Manolito and Scott.

“John, this is Scott Lancer,” Manolito said cheerfully, by way of introduction and with his arm still over Scott’s shoulder. “Scott, this is John Cannon, the husband of my dear sister and the owner of this grand rancho.”

“How do you do, Mr. Cannon?” The words sounded stiffly polite to Manolito, unlike Scott’s usual friendly tone. It took him by surprise until he remembered that Scott had heard most of the argument earlier.

John, however, didn’t appear to have noticed. “And how’s your head?” he asked.

“It’s fine, thank you. It’s only a minor inconvenience.”

“Good, good… glad to hear it. I hear your brother woke up. How’s he doing?”

Scott tensed again and, this time, Manolito dropped his arm and waited.

“Yes, he woke up a little while ago,” Scott replied. “He’s much better. Once his fever is gone and he gets some of his strength back, I’ll be able to move him out of here and into Tucson.”

“Oh, I don’t think you need to rush anything,” John assured him.

“On the contrary; I think I do.” Scott was looking John straight in the eyes as he said it and Manolito bit down on his lip. It amused him that this man was prepared to stand up to Big John. A lot of men were daunted by the sheer stature of John Cannon, even without the stern expression that was just as much a part of him.

But a smile right now might only serve to worsen what was obviously proving to be an uncomfortable situation.

Instead, it was Buck who took the initiative. He moved forward and stood beside John. “You see, Brother John, your voice gets real LOUD sometimes. Carries right through the house.”

John was obviously confused for a moment, then his eyes widened and understanding seemed to dawn on him. “Oh,” was all he said.

Manolito ducked his head to hide a spreading grin. The crestfallen expression on his brother-in-law’s face was something to behold.

A frown soon darkened John’s face as he answered Scott. “Well, you have to understand that I have people here to think about. Having a man like Johnny Madrid around could be dangerous. I can’t risk that.”

“Just who is a ‘man like Johnny Madrid’, Mr. Cannon?” Scott asked.

“Oh, I think I’ve heard enough about him…”

“Yes, I’m sure you have,” Scott coldly interrupted him. If Scott was embarrassed, he certainly wasn’t showing it and he held his ground as he faced John. “Everybody’s heard all about him. All kinds of stories... But did any of those stories mention that he’d given up gunfighting? That he’s a rancher, these days?”

“Well… no,” John admitted.

“He doesn’t hire out and he’s not wanted. He gave up that way of life.”

“Perhaps, but it takes a certain kind of man to succeed at something like that. A man with a reputation like his can’t just ‘give up’ gunfighting,” John told him.

“So you’ve already decided he’s not going to succeed… that he’s not that ‘kind of man’.” Scott’s anger was rising and Manolito could see him fighting to control it. “Well, I’ll tell you something, Mr. Cannon. You’re right about one thing. His reputation didn’t allow him to just give it up easily. It’s been a long, hard road for him. Sometimes, he takes two steps forward and one back…”

He eyed John with contempt. “And sometimes, for every two steps forward he takes, someone SHOVES him back! And you know what? He’s making it anyway.”

Scott fell silent for a moment, his fists clenched by his sides, but apparently still in full control of himself. Manolito watched the exchange with interest. He was liking Johnny’s brother more and more.

John, however, appeared stunned. The frown deepened across his brow, but he hadn’t said anything.

Scott took a breath before continuing.

“This is your home and we’re guests here, Mr. Cannon. I appreciate all that your family has done for us, and their kindness. Without it, my brother would most likely be dead. But I’ll have Johnny out of here just as soon as he can make the journey without further endangering his health.”

With that, Scott left and headed back to the room where his brother lay.

“John, you ain’t even spoke to the boy,” Buck pointed out angrily, while Manolito waited, holding back a flood of his own angry words. “Ain’t like you to not give a man a chance.”

John shook his head. “There are other people to be considered, Buck. The men know who he is…”

“And they are prepared to say nothing about it,” Manolito told him coolly. “They are okay with it. They are not afraid of him and, please, do not tell me that you are worried for Victoria’s sake.”

John thought about it and then sighed heavily. The frown disintegrated and he shook his head. “Well, I don’t know… perhaps I may have been a little hasty.”

Behind him, Buck pressed on. “Ain’t like he’s here lookin’ for trouble. Wouldn’t even be here but I brung him.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll reserve judgment and talk to him when he’s up to it,” John conceded at last. It didn’t seem like anywhere near enough to Manolito, but it was the best John Cannon was likely to give them at the moment.

*

When Johnny woke next morning, he was surprised to see that it was daylight. He closed his eyes against the light and blinked a couple of times until they adjusted to it. Strange, it seemed to him that it had been light when he’d gone to sleep yesterday… or was it even yesterday? Days seemed to have been rolling together lately.

He looked around the room, or what he could see of it from flat on his back. It took a moment to remember where he was, but it came to him. As did the memory of whose home this was.

It was also something of a surprise to him that he felt a whole lot better. He didn’t feel feverish or nauseous, and his shoulder wasn’t throbbing like it had been – at least, not while he stayed still. His first attempt at changing position in bed brought on a shot of pain through the shoulder that changed his mind, real fast.

A hand reached out to touch his arm. “Lay still, Johnny. I’ll help you get more comfortable.”

Johnny looked in the direction of the familiar voice. He was NOT surprised to find his ‘mother hen’ of a brother sitting in the chair beside the bed.

“Don’t you ever sleep?” Johnny asked him irritably.

“Sure. I slept last night,” Scott told him, grinning. “Once your fever was gone. I just wanted to check on you this morning before I head into Tucson.”

Scott stood and slipped one arm behind Johnny’s shoulders, easing him up and then throwing an extra pillow behind him.

“Thanks,” Johnny sighed. It felt good to be something other than completely horizontal. But… “Tucson?”

“I’m going to wire Murdoch. We told him we’d let him know when we’d arrived in Tucson, remember? And that wire is overdue. He’s likely to be pacing the Great Room by now.”

“Yeah, well, just don’t go tellin’ him too much. He’ll hop the next stage an’ wreck his back coming all this way for nothing.”

“And that would defeat the whole purpose of your coming,” Scott agreed. “No, I’ll tell him that you’re fine and that I’ll write with all the details.”

“Good.”

“You do look a lot better this morning.” Scott told him. “Are you hungry? Victoria said she’d wait until you were awake and then bring something in for you.”

“Broth again, I guess,” Johnny said, distastefully. “Maybe you could suggest something with a little more bite to it?”

Scott laughed. “Yes, you are a lot better this morning. I’ll go tell her that you’re awake and then head off for town.”

“You’re not goin’ alone, are you?”

“Worried that I’ll get lost?” He grinned cheerfully. “No, Manolito has offered to come with me.”

“Oh boy, that’s reassuring.” Johnny leaned back into the pillow behind his head and sighed heavily. “Don’t let him get you into any trouble.”

“I’m only going to send a wire,” his brother protested.

Johnny grinned. “Mano can find trouble just about anywhere. Doesn’t take much doin’ on his part.” He shook his head and closed his eyes comfortably. “Never knew anyone like him for that.”

His eyes opened in surprise at the unexpected outburst of laughter that followed, but Scott had already opened the door and left.

Johnny smiled to himself and closed his eyes again. His thoughts had begun to drift when he heard a knock at the now open door. He opened them, expecting to see Victoria. But, instead, it was a tall, broad stranger standing there.

“Mind if I come in?” the man asked.

“Sure, your house,” Johnny told him. “I’m guessin’ you’d be Victoria’s husband.”

The man came in. He wasn’t quite as tall or as broad as Murdoch, but he wasn’t far from it. His hair was grey and tidy, his voice strong and heavy, and he was dressed for a day’s work.

“That’s right,” he said. “John Cannon. I heard that you were awake so I thought we might talk while Victoria fixes you something to eat.”

Cannon pulled back the chair from the side of the bed and sat down. He crossed his legs and folded his arms across his chest, leaning back in the chair. “You look a whole lot better than when I saw you yesterday,” he said.

“Guess so,” Johnny answered watching him through slightly narrowed eyes. Johnny’s instincts were on high alert and he wasn’t sure why. Feeling more than a little wary, he added, “I’m feelin’ a whole lot better.”

“Good. Glad to hear it.”

He fell silent and Johnny suspected he was actually looking for the right words to approach something. Johnny’s feeling of unease deepened.

“You got something on your mind?” he asked, tired of waiting.

John Cannon straightened up a little and shifted in the chair, though his arms and legs remained crossed. Johnny thought that the illusion of comfort was exactly that – an illusion.

“Well, yes. Actually there is… Mr. Madrid.”

A slow smile crept across Johnny’s lips. So, there it was, out in the open. A light came into his eyes that those who knew him might have recognized.

“Name’s Lancer now,” he said slowly and firmly.

“Now, perhaps,” Cannon agreed. “But you don’t deny that you’re Madrid?”

“It’s no secret,” Johnny told him. “Wouldn’t do me much good to deny it anyway, now would it?”

“No, one of the men recognized you and Manolito and Victoria confirmed it.”

“Yeah, it happens. I was kind of hoping to keep it quiet this trip though,” Johnny told him candidly.

“Why? If it’s no secret.”

Johnny grinned. “There’re some Rurales, or one anyway, who’d like nothin’ better than to see an end to me. I’d hoped to slip in an’ out of Mexico without being noticed.”

“You’re wanted? In Mexico?” Cannon asked, scowling. “What for? Murder?”

Johnny snorted in disgust. “Nope, nothin’ as colorful as that. Let’s just say that it doesn’t pay to get mixed up in a revolution – even a little bitty one.”

Cannon nodded and seemed to relax. “I see. Well, Manolito has already spoken to the men and it seems that they’re willing to keep your presence here quiet.”

That surprised Johnny. He wondered what Mano had said to them to get their silence. But there was no denying that he was grateful. If it had only been himself that he had to think about, that would be different, but Scott was with him on this trip. He didn’t want any trouble with the Rurales, particularly with Scott by his side.

It had now been nearly three years since he’d been in Mexico, even longer since he’d been in this part of the territory. While he knew that his reputation remained, he had hoped that the memory of what he looked like might have dimmed over that time. Apparently, it had not. He’d have to do some rethinking about how they would handle the rest of this trip. 

That Mano had spoken for him wasn’t such a surprise. If there was one man who Johnny had always known he could trust to back him, it was Mano Montoya.

And that had been the main reason why Johnny had stopped his visits to the Montoyas. As his own notoriety had grown, so had the chance that his friend might have been swept up in the wash. Manolito might be no slouch with a pistol, but he wasn’t in the same league that Johnny Madrid played in. There was no way that Johnny had been ready to let Mano be killed for his sake.

“Just what brings you so far from home, then? Why risk it?” Cannon asked.

“Business,” Johnny told him briefly and then qualified it with a codicil. “Ranch business.”

“If Mexico is so dangerous for you, couldn’t someone else have made the trip? Your brother seems like a capable man. Couldn’t he manage it by himself?”

“Usually he could do it on his own,” Johnny agreed readily. “He can handle himself better than most, but he’s never been in Indian Territory. Murdoch, our father, was going to come with him, but it’s too long and too uncomfortable a trip for him with his bad back. Neither of us wanted Scott out here alone, so, here I am.”

Cannon smirked. “Seems like he came out of his first run in with Apaches better than you did, I’d say.”

Johnny laughed lightly, feeling a twinge in his shoulder as he did and ignoring it as best he could. “Yeah, like I said - he can handle himself pretty good. Me, I have to learn to duck.”

Cannon shifted in the chair again. He was back to hedging around something. “You… er… you know Manolito and Victoria pretty well, do you?”

“Known ‘em for years, on an’ off,” Johnny told him casually. Then he smiled, a playful smile, as a notion of what Cannon was hinting at began to form. “She’s a beautiful woman.”

“Yes… yes, she is.”

Johnny’s eyes lit with mischief. “More than just beautiful… She’s one very fine lady.”

Cannon frowned and eyed him closely. “Sounds like you think a lot of my wife,” he said, suspicion clear in his voice.

Johnny laughed, satisfied. “Sure, I do. I’ve always admired her. Every man in Sonora did. But that was as far as it went. A man like Johnny Madrid wasn’t fit for a lady like Victoria Montoya.”

Cannon’s frown deepened. “And what about Johnny Lancer?”

“Doesn’t change things,” Johnny told him firmly. “Besides, she’s married to you. She wouldn’t look twice at another man.” He stopped and eyed the man coldly. “But, if you know Victoria at all, you should know that.”

Cannon sighed. “Yes, I do,” he said quietly. “Of course, I trust Victoria. It’s you I’m not sure about.”

“I wouldn’t dishonor her by trying. Besides, I wouldn’t even be here if things had gone to plan. I probably wouldn’t have known she was here.”

“True.”

“What about you? You think you’re good enough for her?”

Cannon’s smile returned but he shook his head. “Probably not, but I try.”

Johnny nodded. “Fair enough.” Then he laughed again. “Anyway, if I know Victoria, she’ll soon let you know if you’re not.”

Cannon laughed with him, a deep rumbling laugh. “She’s got one hell of a temper, that’s for sure. When she starts throwing that Spanish around, I can’t tell what she’s saying. But I sure know what she means.”

Johnny felt the tension ebb out of his shoulders and he eased back into the pillows. Cannon seemed to loosen up as well. For all his casual position, Johnny had been well aware that the man was far from relaxed.

“So, what sort of ranch business brings you all the way from the San Joaquin to these parts?” Cannon asked amiably. He uncrossed his legs and stretched them out comfortably.

“We’ve been through a long, hard summer without rain. We lost a lot of cattle and those we have left aren’t gonna be fit for sale for a while,” Johnny explained. “Murdoch’s been talking with someone out here about building up bloodlines that can tolerate dry conditions when they come. Turned out I happened to know him.”

“Montoya?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, your father’s probably right about the bloodlines. Don Sebastian’s got a fine herd and I can vouch that they hold up against the dry. I’ve got some of that bloodline in my own herd now,” John agreed. “I have to tell you though, Don Sebastian’s a slippery devil when it comes to business deals.”

“Oh, I know. Honorable in everything, ‘cept money,” Johnny answered, laughing.

Cannon laughed with him for a moment before asking, “The drought hurt you, huh?”

Johnny sobered. “Yes. Lancer’s hurting. But there were a lot of other, smaller ranches that are in worse shape. Makes you grateful for what you got.”

John nodded solemnly. “Yes, I know.”

“How many head do you run to an acre here?”

“Less than ten to the square mile, actually.”

Johnny shook his head. “Knew it was low, but not that low,” he said. “We can run a couple to an acre in good times. But we were way overstocked for the drought.”

Victoria walked in then, carrying a tray that she put down on the nightstand. She frowned at her husband. “John, I did not know you were here. I hope you are not tiring him.”

“No,” John said. “Johnny and I were just getting to know each other.”

He stood and gave the chair over to his wife. “I’ll leave you to your breakfast, Johnny. Get some rest then and maybe we can talk some more later.”

“Sure.”

She watched her husband leave the room, while Johnny studied her. “Well,” she said, frowning and then laughing lightly. “He looked like my husband.”

Johnny grinned. “Real nice fella, Victoria. Seemed real friendly to me. Aren’t you used to him being friendly?” he teased.

“I did not mean that.”

“Kind of a grouch, is he?”

“Johnny,” she said, a warning in her tone.

He chose to ignore it and played on. “No, you don’t need to say it. I know how old men can be grouches. Ol’ Murdoch’s like a grizzly bear sometimes. Best to just keep outa their way when they’re like that.”

She put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “John is NOT an old man!”

“No?” he answered in all innocence. “Well, no, I suppose not, but young men get grumpy too, I guess.”

“Johnny Madrid!” she snapped at him.

“Lancer,” he corrected her, smiling.

“Oh!” she growled, stamping her foot as she glowered at him. ¿Has cambiado, no? Has estado aquí cinco minutos. ¡Cinco minutos y ya estás con tus trucos viejos. Me estás volviendo loca. ¡Loca! ¡No… no lo permitiré! Mientras que estás en mi casa, te comportarás. ¿Me explico?”*

He waited for her to stop for breath and then turned a wry smile on her. “Y me allegro de verte otra vez, también, Victoria.”*

His smile seemed to have taken her unawares. She sighed heavily, shook her head and dropped her hands to her sides. Finally, a warm smile appeared on her lips. “Igualmente, Johnny,” she said, and laughed. “It is good to see you, too.”

 

*“¿Has cambiado, no? Has estado aquí cinco minutos. ¡Cinco minutos y ya estás con tus trucos viejos. Me estás volviendo loca. ¡Loca! ¡No… no lo permitiré! Mientras que estás en mi casa, te comportarás. ¿Me explico?”

- “You haven’t changed, have you? You’ve been here five minutes. Five minutes and already you’re at your old tricks. You’re driving me crazy. Crazy! No, I won’t allow it! While you are in my house, you will behave yourself. Is that clear?”

*Y me allegro de verte otra vez, también, Victoria.” – “And it’s good to see you again, Victoria.”

*Igualmente - likewise


 

Chapter Nine

Scott stepped out of the telegraph office and onto the planked boardwalk of Tucson. He looked around at the dusty street, the stores and the people passing by – going about their everyday business without paying him any heed at all. He thought that Tucson was not all that much different from Green River – just hotter.

You are done?” Manolito asked him. He was leaning lazily against a post with his arms folded. Scott was reminded, for a moment, of his brother.

“Yes, and hopefully Murdoch won’t get on the next stage to come look for us now.”

Manolito straightened and clapped one hand heavily on Scott’s shoulder. “You were a long time in there, Scott.”

“They realized that I’d been on the stage and wanted a statement for the stage line. The doctor was right. They had been out there. It seems that they’ve brought back our bags, and Buck’s saddlebags, and they were able to bring back the driver and the guard to give them a decent burial. I’m glad to hear that. I felt bad about just leaving them, but none of us was in any condition to do it then and there.”

Manolito nodded seriously, his hand still on Scott’s shoulder. “You do not need to say so. It is the way, sometimes, that one must leave dead compadres when you have the living to worry about.” Suddenly, Mano took a deep breath and looked up the street. “You know, my friend, standing out here, waiting for you, has been thirsty work. Come, I know of a cantina where we will be made welcome.”

“It’s a little early for a drink, Mano,” Scott told him, though he smiled at the idea.

Manolito only laughed. “Ah, Amigo, there is more to a cantina than tequila!”

With that, Scott found himself being swept along in Manolito’s wake as he made his way up the street to finally stop at the batwing doors of an adobe cantina.

Scott took a look inside and was surprised to find a neat, bright interior with a polished bar and a gleaming mirror behind it. So, for want of a better plan to use his time, Scott went in after him.

“¡Holà, Miguel!” Manolito greeted the barkeep. “¿Cómo está, Amigo?”

“Bueno, Señor Manolito. Bueno.”

“¿Dónde están las chicas, Miguel?”* Manolito asked, grinning widely.

A shrill cry of “Manolito!” from behind them answered his question. Scott and Manolito both turned around to see two girls running down the staircase at the end of the room. Both were dressed in brilliantly colored skirts and embroidered white blouses, gathered at the neckline and around the short sleeves. Their long black hair curled and bounced with their steps and their laughing eyes were only for Manolito.

“Ah Scott,” Manolito sighed loudly, his grin broadening still wider and his eyes alight as both girls threw themselves at him and then clung to his sides. “Did I not tell you? This is Carmelita,” he said, nodding to the shorter, vibrant girl on his right. “And this is Maria Luisa,” he added, indicating a coquettish but beautiful miss on his left.

With an arm around each, he led them to a table and took a seat, nudging Carmelita towards Scott. “Señoritas, my friend Scott has had a poor welcome to Tucson. His stage was attacked by Apaches! He is in need of comfort, do you not think?”

Carmelita took the hint. She leaned against Scott and cried, “Ay, you could have been killed, Señor!”

Scott smiled appropriately, never one to disregard female attention, and allowed the girl to edge in closer, while Manolito glowed with pleasure and called out merrily, “Cervezas para todos nosotros, por favor, Miguel…” *

Miguel appeared, with little delay and as if he had been expecting the call, with beers for all of them and then returned to his bar, out of their way.

Manolito raised the glass in front of him and smiled happily. “Salud,” he said and drank deeply. “And so, Scott Lancer,” he began blithely as he placed his mug of beer back onto the table in front of him. “Tell me of this brother of yours… this Johnny Lancer.”

“I’d have thought that I should be the one asking you that question,” Scott answered, toying with the glass in front of him. He lifted it and caught the aroma of the beer in the glass. How was it that beer always seemed to smell the same, no matter what part of the world he was in? He took a sip and savored it before swallowing, approving it and then taking a longer sip. “You appear to have known him for longer than I have.”

“No, the man I knew was… alone in the world,” Manolito told him and Scott was aware that he had glanced sideways at the ladies and avoided using the name ‘Madrid’. “Oh, he knew that his father was alive… somewhere. He knew that the man was a hacendado, but he loathed him. When he spoke of his papa, it was with the intention of killing him one day, perhaps. But I am sure that he did not know of a brother.”

“No, he didn’t know about me,” Scott agreed. “Nor I about him. It came as something of a shock to both of us.”

Manolito laughed. “I can imagine it did!”

Scott grinned and then sobered, swirling the remaining beer around in his glass before taking another mouthful. “I grew up in Boston. My grandfather raised me and, like Johnny but for different reasons, I was led to believe that Murdoch didn’t want me. There were a lot of lies… too many lies…”

Manolito went quiet for a while, apparently mulling over what Scott had said.

Finally, Manolito spoke up. “But now, he finds himself with you, his brother, with his long lost father, and with a ranch to call home as well. This is a big change for someone like Johnny… for you, too, I think.”

“Yes, and you can add Teresa, Murdoch’s ward, to that list. We’ve come to think of her as a sister.”

“Ay! Quite a change! It is hard to think of my friend living this way. He was always so salvaje… so wild and reckless.”

“He’s settled down, slowly. But I think you’ll find that Johnny is intrinsically the same as he ever was – light-hearted and easygoing one minute and the next…” He glanced at the women and stopped, but Manolito’s nod indicated that he had understood.

“And this father Johnny despised so much?” Manolito asked.

“They bump heads a little,” Scott told him with a wry grin. “But they’ve learned to trust each other more. Murdoch is a tough man… had to be I suppose, to build Lancer to what it is. But he’s fair. It’s taken us all a while to get to know each other, but we’re getting there.”

“And Johnny has forgiven his papa for the past?”

“Murdoch never threw Maria or Johnny out. It seems that he searched for them for years.”

Manolito sighed. “Finding them in the border towns would be difficult, perhaps impossible,” he explained to Scott, shaking his head and finishing the dregs of his beer. “In those towns, it is easy for a man, or a woman, to lose themselves. Questions are not welcome… people do not want to know…”

“So I gather,” Scott agreed. He picked up the glass and finished off his own beer, then looked sideways at the pretty girl beside him. Carmelita seemed to have attached herself to his side. She smiled at him provocatively and ran her fingers tantalizingly over his shoulder.

Putting down his empty glass with a light thump, Manolito grinned widely. “I would like to hear more of this brother of yours, mi Amigo!” Then he turned to the bar and called, “Más cervezas, Miguelito!”*

*

 

“Ay, ay, ay, ay,
Canta y no llores,
Porque cantando se alegran,
Cielito lindo, los corazones…”

 Victoria heard the singing even before she heard the sound of horses stopping outside the house. She stalked across the room to the window and looked out, knowing full well what she was likely to see. Sure enough, Manolito jumped inelegantly down from his horse and tied off the reins at the hitch rail near the porch. Scott stayed put for a moment longer and then did the same, only to find Manolito’s arm wrapped amiably around his shoulder.

The pair of them laughed while Mano continued loudly…

“Pájaro que abandona,
Cielito lindo, su primer nido,
Si lo encuentra ocupado,
Cielito lindo, bien merecido.”
 

Victoria rolled her eyes and shook her head. It was not even late in the afternoon yet. She folded her arms, then turned and waited for the two to come inside. The front door opened to both of them noisily chanting another roll of “Ay, ay, ay, ay…”

At the sight of her, both stopped. She scowled at the ridiculous glee on their faces as Manolito swung his arm off Scott’s shoulder and around hers instead, squeezing her tightly.

“Ah, my Sister!” Manolito called out raucously. “You see, Scott, is she not muy linda?”*

Victoria pulled away from him, put her hands on her hips and the scowl deepened on her brow. “Manolito Montoya, you are drunk!”

“Si, Victoria,” he agreed with a silly grin. “You are right! I am afraid I am.”

“And you have managed to get Johnny’s brother drunk with you!” she continued crossly. “Can you not be trusted at all? Have you no shame?”

Scott wiped the smile from his face and sighed heavily. “My apologies for my condition, Señora Cannon,” he said formally. “I don’t know what could have gotten into me.”

But Manolito only laughed and ‘whispered’ into his ear. “I think it was mescal that got into you, Amigo.”

“Mezcal?” Victoria cried. “Manolito, you did not get him drinking mezcal?”

“Si, I did,” Manolito replied proudly, grinning again.

“Si, he did,” Scott echoed, smiling.

Victoria threw her hands in the air and stormed out of the room, leaving behind her a flurry of Spanish ringing in their ears. Scott frowned and looked sideways at his new friend. “I didn’t understand any of that, Mano.”

But Manolito only looked skywards and sighed. “It is better that you did not, Amigo.”

An idea suddenly occurred to Scott and his face brightened. “We should go see Johnny.”

“Si, we will sing for him!” Manolito’s grin returned. He put his arm around Scott’s neck and almost dragged him forward as they headed for the bedroom, singing merrily.

Close to the door to Johnny’s room, Scott stopped abruptly, pulling Manolito to a halt and cutting short his chorus of  ‘Ay ay ay ay’ with a “Shhhh…”

“¿Qué pasa?”

“He might be asleep.”

“Ah… you are right,” Manolito readily agreed. He put his finger to his lips and lowered his voice only a little to add, “We must not wake him. We should be as quiet as lee…tle ratones.”

“Rats?” Scott asked, frowning.

“Rats?” Manolito asked Scott, looking behind him. “What rats?”

“I don’t like rats.”

“What rats?” Manolito demanded.

“Disgusting animals… long tails and those whiskers, twitching all the time while those beady little eyes stare at you…”

Manolito put his hands on his hips and frowned at Scott. “What rats, Amigo?”

“You said we should be rats,” Scott told him. With a shake of his head, he added. “Heard you. Don’t want to be a rat… don’t like ‘em…”

“No… no, no, no, no… not rats… ratones,” Manolito insisted. “Mouses!”

“Mouses?... Mice!” Triumph rang in Scott’s voice.

“Si, mice. We should be quiet like mice!”

“Too late,” came a voice from inside the room. “Get in here!”

Scott opened the door and peeked in. Johnny was awake and sitting up, supported by two pillows behind him and with his shoulder covered by a new clean bandage.

“Hey, Johnny! You’re awake!”

“Oh yeah, I’m awake. Get in here,” Johnny said tersely. “And bring him with you.”

Scott stepped in, with Manolito close behind him, both smiling merrily.

“Johnny, mi Amigo,” Manolito called to him. “You look much better.”

Scott ambled over to the chair by the bed and lowered himself lazily into it, stretched out his legs and rested his arms on the arms of the chair. He smiled cheerfully at his brother as Manolito walked across the room and sat at the foot of the bed.

“I told you not to let him get you into trouble,” Johnny said, frowning at his brother.

“Didn’t get into any trouble,” Scott told him, obviously hurt by the insinuation. “Just pleasant company, quiet conversation and a drink… or two.”

“Or a few,” Johnny corrected him. He turned to where Manolito sat on the bed. “Mano? What did you do to my brother?”

“Do to him?” Manolito asked, an equally pained expression on his face. “We had only a couple of beers.”

“And?” Johnny demanded. “Scott didn’t get this way, in the middle of the day, on ‘a couple of beers’.”

“Ah well, Carmelita did bring us a bottle of mezcal…”

Scott suddenly came to life again. “Carmelita,” he said with a smile. “Ay… qué belleza!* Right Mano?”

“Oh yes…” Manolito answered, grinning broadly while Johnny filed that part of the story away for later. Right now…

“Mezcal? You got Scott drinking mezcal?” Johnny said.

“Si, he did!” Scott said proudly and burst into a wide, silly grin.

“I did.” Manolito sounded just as pleased as Scott.

Scott leaned towards the bed, closer to Johnny. “And I liked it,” he whispered then sat back in his chair again, smiling happily.

“Yeah, figured that,” Johnny answered him, forcing back a smile.

“Didn’t like the first glass,” Scott continued seriously. “Not the second either… but the third wasn’t bad at all. Got to like it after that.”

Johnny turned to Manolito again. “Thought you had better sense than to get him drinking when he’s got a head wound.”

“No, no, no,” Scott answered in defense of his new friend. “Head’s not botherin’ me. Can’t feel a thing.”

Johnny chuckled. “Oh, you will, Boston. Come morning, you will.”

“You know, there was something I was going to tell you, Johnny.” He frowned. “Can’t think what it was.”

“The clothes?” Manolito suggested helpfully. “They are on the horses.”

Scott giggled and Johnny stared at him, stunned.

“Not ON the horses…” Scott finally said, still chortling gaily. “We got our bags back from the stage, Johnny. Buck’s saddlebags too. Got ‘em from the sheriff. Got our own clothes to wear again.”

“Glad to hear it,” Johnny told him. He’d seen his brother drunk before, but never quite this far gone and it amused him no end. “Did you send the wire?”

Scott sat bolt upright in the chair. “That’s it! That’s what I had to tell you! I sent the wire to Murdoch.”

“Before you started drinking, I hope,” Johnny said with a grin.

“Yeah… before…” He slouched down into the chair, making himself comfortable again. Leaning his head back, he began to hum quietly to himself.

Manolito lay back, stretching across the bed at Johnny’s feet. He leaned one elbow on the mattress and rested his head on his hand. A broad smile lit his face. “You know, my friend, I begin to like this gringo brother of yours.”

“Yeah, he’s not so bad,” Johnny replied lightly. He looked back at the chair where his now silent brother sat. That silly grin was back on Scott’s face, but his eyes were closed and his head lolled to one side. Then he turned back to Manolito. “But mezcal, Mano? You were only supposed to go to town to send the wire. It’s not even dark yet!”

“What has the dark to do with it, Amigo? It was harmless entertainment – no more. Ah, but he has told me all about Johnny Lancer,” Mano said, the grin spreading even wider. Then he sobered and added seriously, “And all those years you teased and tortured me for being the son of a rich hacendado… and here you are – the same!”

Victoria appeared at the doorway, an expression of condemnation on her face and her hands back on her hips. “So, this is where you went to, Manolito. You should go and soak your head in a bucket of water! What are you doing here, disturbing Johnny when he should be resting?”

“Ay, Victoria,” her brother complained. “Go away!”

“¡Borracho!” she threw at him angrily. “¡Levántate! Get up!”*

“Ah mi… Ojalá pudiera, Victoria… If only I could.” He dropped his head onto the bed as he lay back, adding wearily, “Ve tú, yo me quedo aquí.”*

“No! You cannot stay here!” she protested. But his eyes closed and a look of blissful innocence rested on his face. “Manolito!” She shook his shoulder, but it was no good. He was out cold.

From the chair came a placid snore.

Victoria stamped one foot and turned to Johnny.

He couldn’t help himself. He burst out laughing. When he regained enough control to speak again, he spluttered, “So, how do we get ‘em outa here? Or am I sharing the room now?” 

Scott opened the door to Johnny’s room to find him standing by the window, looking out at the ranch. It was later in the morning than Scott was used to rising, but he’d found it particularly difficult to get out of bed this morning.

Johnny turned his head at the sound and Scott was surprised to see that he was dressed, his arm supported by a sling and that, though he was pale, he certainly looked a lot better than he had since they’d arrived.

Buck sat on the wide windowsill close by him, his arm also supported by a sling, and both he and Johnny smiled as Scott walked in with Manolito close behind. Manolito looked somewhat the worse for wear. The man was holding one hand to the side of his head, his eyelids drooping over reddened eyes, and there was less than the usual briskness in his step.

Scott wondered what he looked like himself. If he didn’t look as bad as Manolito, he knew that he should. He certainly felt as bad as his new friend appeared to. His head was pounding and it had taken him a good hour to beat the agonizing nausea that had assailed him when he woke this morning.

“Well, look what the cat drug in,” Buck said cheerfully – too cheerfully, and Scott threw him a scowling look of ingratitude. “Don’t you two look a sight?”

“Ay,” Manolito groaned. “Do not yell, Buck.”

Johnny grinned widely. “And how’s your head, Scott?”

Scott squinted against the bright daylight that was streaming through the window behind his brother. “Just fine…” he answered, though he didn’t sound convincing, even to himself. His voice was hoarse and not much more than a whisper. “Should you be out of bed?”

“Doc said I could get up if I felt up to it,” Johnny explained and then added mischievously. “He came by yesterday afternoon, but you missed that.”

“Also said you was to take it easy,” Buck added pointedly to Johnny.

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, well, I’m not going anywhere yet.” He glanced down at his bare feet, as if to prove his point.

“I don’t seem to remember much of yesterday at all,” Scott told them, wincing as he rubbed his fingers in circles over his temples. “I remember sending the wire to Murdoch.”

“What’d you put in it?” Johnny asked.

“What? Oh, just that there had been an accident and you were hurt but recovering. And that we’d be back on our way soon,” Scott assured him. “I told him I’d write with details. That should keep him from coming here.”

Johnny nodded again, then reached across and gripped the arm in the sling as though to give it more support.

“You ought to sit down, Johnny. You shouldn’t be on your feet for too long yet.”

“Maybe, but I look better than you do at the moment,” Johnny scoffed.

Since his view of the world from behind his sore eyes was blurred and oversensitive, and his head still protested at every little sound, Scott was inclined to believe that his brother was not exaggerating.

“You can blame Mano for that,” Scott told him, glancing back at Manolito. He’d sat down on the end of the bed and reminded Scott of a wilting plant.

But, at the sound of his name, he looked up at Scott.  “Me? No, no, no…”

“Yes, you and your mezcal!” Scott continued, suddenly feeling aggrieved.

“Not me,” Manolito protested. “That was Carmelita’s idea.”

“Oh yeah.” Johnny laughed. “Carmelita… belleza Carmelita. Right, Brother? I’d like to hear more about her.”

“I don’t think I remember more about her…”

“Well, that sure seems a shame,” Buck said, chuckling.

“After the first bottle of mezcal, everything gets sort of blurred…” Scott told them, sighing. His memory was little more than a jumble of images, out of sequence and making no sense at all.

“First bottle?” Johnny asked. “How many did you two have?”

Scott sat down on the bed, beside Manolito. He didn’t think his legs would hold him up for much longer. They felt like rubber. “I don’t know. I didn’t like it at first but… well…”

“Yeah… well…” Buck commented, laughing.

“If it wasn’t for Buck, you’d have been sleeping in that chair last night,” Johnny told his brother. “Victoria was ready to leave you where you passed out.”

“Oh…” Scott groaned.

“And you, Mano!” Johnny continued relentlessly, all too obviously enjoying having the advantage of them. “It was all we could do to keep you from being tossed outside to sleep on the porch.”

“Oh…” Manolito groaned, even louder.

“She was real mad, Mano,” Buck warned him, laughing.

“Perhaps we should apologize to her, then,” Scott suggested.

“Heard you already done that,” Buck said seriously. Then he laughed again. “Real eloquent, too. Might help you, but ain’t gonna do Mano no good.”

Manolito shook his head in dismay. “Ay, my head is not ready for the reprimente so soon this morning, Scott,” he complained. “I will pass for now.”

But Scott was looking more closely at his brother. Johnny was staring out the window again. He seemed ‘miles away’. “Johnny? Something on your mind?” he asked.

“Just thinking about when we leave here, Scott.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m thinking it’d be best if we get ourselves a couple of horses and ride the rest of the way, instead of taking the stage,” Johnny explained, still looking intently out the window.

Scott got quickly to his feet. “Why? You’re not up to that.”

Johnny turned back to him, smiling. “Don’t worry, Brother. I didn’t mean right off. But I’ll be ready in a day or two.”

“I doubt it,” Scott argued.

“Ain’t no need to hurry things,” Buck assured them.

“I know, Buck. Thanks,” Johnny said.

“And you didn’t answer the ‘why’,” Scott persisted.

“Look, Scott, arriving by stage, we’ll be right there in town for everyone to see,” Johnny told him, a hint of irritation creeping into his voice. “I hadn’t realized I was still so easily recognized here, so I’d rather just ride through, nice an’ easy. Not attract attention.” He stopped and sighed heavily. “And, if we do attract any attention, it’d be handy to have a way outa town in a hurry.”

“You’re expecting trouble, aren’t you?”

“No, Scott. Not expecting it… just wanta be ready for it.”

 

*“¿Dónde están las chicas, Miguel?” – Where are the girls, Miguel?

*“Cervezas para todos nosotros, por favor, Miguel…” – Beer for all of us, please, Miguel.

*Más cervezas, Miguelito!” – More beer, Miguel.

* muy linda - very lovely

* qué belleza – what a beauty

*“¡Borracho!” - Drunk

* “¡Levántate! - Get up!”

* Ojalá pudiera. - If only I could.

*Ve tú, yo me quedo aquí.” – You go, I’’ll stay here.

 

Note – I took some liberties with timelines to use the Mexican folk song ‘Cielito Lindo’ which was not actually written until a few years after this story is set.
 

Chapter Ten

“Are you sure you are ready for this, Johnny,” Victoria asked.

“Yes, I’m sure.” He had allowed them to talk him into staying one day longer than he’d wanted already. It was time to go. He was dressed and ready, wearing his spurs and with his gun belt tied low on his thigh. He felt comfortable again, at last.

“Perhaps you should rest a little longer. You are welcome to stay for as long as you need.”

Concern rang in her voice and he smiled. “I know, Victoria, but I’ve rested long enough. We’ll take it slow and easy.” His shoulder wasn’t sore unless he used it but, though it wasn’t troubling him, he kept the sling on to keep his ‘mother hens’ happy.

Johnny was determined that they should be on their way. The longer they were in this territory, the more likely it was that trouble would find him and, by association, find Scott and the High Chaparral.

He’d known that there was the possibility that he would be recognized on this trip, even when he had left Lancer. Only a fool would think otherwise when he had the reputation he had worked so hard to come by. But he’d thought that the years he had been away would have dimmed the memories of those who might know him by sight. He knew, now, that he’d been mistaken.

“Besides, I’ve already got Scott nagging at me in English and Mano in Spanish,” he continued, laughing. “I don’t need you, too.”

“I think that I resent that, Amigo,” Manolito said, coming into the room from the hallway. He ambled over to join them. Like Johnny, his hat hung behind him by the stampede string and he wore the same cut of jacket, the Spanish chaqueta, and braided pants as Johnny.

“I am not the member of my family with such a reputation.”

Before Victoria could strike back with an argument, Johnny laughed. “Then tell me that you won’t.”

Manolito grinned back at him. “Ah… no, no, my friend.”

“Then you will see that Johnny does not make himself ill on this journey? That he rests when he should?” Victoria asked him. She took hold of her brother’s jacket and straightened it, brushing off a mark – real or imagined.

“Yes, my sister,” Mano answered with a sigh.

“And you will give my love to Papa?”

“Yes, yes,” he told her impatiently. “And I will also see that Papa is on his best behavior in his business dealings with our friends.”

Victoria’s hands flew to her hips. “Manolito, what a thing to say!”

“Victoria, you and I both know that he is not to be trusted.”

“Papa is an honorable man!” she insisted.

But Manolito only smiled at her wrath. “Yes, he is the most honorable man in all of Sonora… maybe the whole world,” he extolled extravagantly, then shook his head. “But, alas, not with money.”

Johnny bit back a laugh and decided to step in, before blood was spilled. “We’d better be going, Mano.”

Victoria, not mollified, maintained her stance and returned to the earlier argument. “I do not like it, Johnny. You should still be resting.”

“If I rest any longer, Victoria, I’ll be old an’ gray before I get going.”

“We could still use the buckboard,” Scott pointed out, walking back in through the front door. “Are you sure...?”

Johnny’s eyes rolled. “You see what I mean, Victoria?”

*

Scott did, indeed, watch his brother as they rode. He was well aware that Johnny probably knew it and was apparently ignoring the attention. Scott caught Manolito glancing Johnny’s way more than a few times as well so he, too, was keeping an eye on him.

As for Johnny himself, he seemed to be handling the ride well enough. He was keeping up and his pallor hadn’t altered much. Apart from the quickly hidden grimace when he had first mounted and the sling that he was still wearing, Johnny was showing no sign of feeling his injury.

The horses that John Cannon had loaned them were good mounts – well broken and sturdy. Scott was riding a neatly marked chestnut that, at first, had had a tendency to nip if he didn’t keep his eyes on him, but which had settled down into a comfortable ride as the hours went by. And Johnny seemed to be in full control of the unremarkable bay he was on, even one handed. They had been loaned saddles and saddle bags, complete with bedrolls, while Victoria had provided them with enough supplies to last them a week instead of the two days that they planned to take to reach Rancho Montoya, much longer than usual to lessen the chance of Johnny becoming ill.

They had left early and had decided to bypass Tucson and head straight for Nogales and then into Mexico. There was no real need to go through Tucson and the fewer people who caught sight of Johnny; the better they all liked it.

The morning passed by with idle conversation between the three of them. The sun got hotter as it rose higher above them and, by noon, the glare on the stones and rocks in their path was as hard on the eyes as the heat of the sun was on their backs.

 Manolito slowed his horse and pulled off his hat, swiped his sleeve across his brow and looked skywards. He squinted into the sunlight and watched a hawk circling overhead. “Do you think he is as hot up there as we are down here?” Mano asked nonchalantly.

“Probably,” Johnny answered him, looking up as well.

They all ended up watching as the bird stopped circling, hovered for a moment and dove like a dart for the ground. In a flash, the hawk lifted off again with its prey hanging limply from its talons.

“Well, least he’s not going hungry,” Johnny quipped as he pressed the bay forward with Scott and Manolito doing likewise. “I’ve been thinking it must be getting close to time for a bite to eat ourselves.”

Scott laughed and Johnny threw him a disgruntled scowl. “What?” Johnny demanded. “You’re not hungry?”

“Sorry, Brother,” Scott told him, still grinning. “Sure I am. I was just thinking how reassuring it is to know that you’re thinking of your stomach.”

Johnny shook his head. “I keep telling you I’m fine. You’d think the two o’ you would have figured that out by now with all the watchin’ me you’ve been doing.”

“Well, there is a place, in those rocks ahead,” Manolito began, pointing to the pile of jagged rocks about an hour’s ride in front of them. “There is usually water there. I think Mackadoo and his friends would appreciate the water and some rest.” He patted the handsome sorrel affectionately. “Eh, Amigo?”

The horse tossed his head as if in answer and Manolito laughed. “And I would not mind a little rest in the shade also.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Johnny and the three of them pressed on towards the rocks.

Conversation died off for the next hour as they rode on in the midday sun. Only the monotonous sound of hooves striking dirt and stones, interjected with an occasional snort from one of the horses, broke the silence around them.

Finally, reaching the rocks and riding up into them to find the small pool of crystal clear water, Scott, Johnny and Manolito dismounted and stretched the kinks out of their bodies.

“This is a nice spot, Mano,” Scott said, looking around him at the patches of green grass that grew in scattered potholes in the rocks. “I wouldn’t have thought there’d be something like this in this wasteland.”

Manolito pulled off his hat and led his horse to the water. “You have only to know where to look. Mackadoo and I have stopped here many times.”

But Scott was paying him little attention. His eyes were on Johnny trying to hide the all too obvious pain in his shoulder.

“Sit down and take it easy for awhile, Johnny,” he said firmly. “I’ll see to your horse.”

His brother looked at him, considering the offer and, for a moment, Scott thought that Johnny was going to argue with him. It wouldn’t have surprised him, but Johnny merely thanked him and walked over to the shade being cast by a straggling paloverde. He sank gratefully to the ground and leaned back, closing his eyes and obviously more worn than he looked or otherwise acted.

Scott led both horses over to the water’s edge. It was little more than a small pool, only about six feet in diameter and sitting in a deep crevice in the rocks, but it was more than enough for them to water the horses and refill their canteens.

“How do you think he is?” Manolito asked Scott quietly.

“Tired. More than he’s letting on.”

Manolito nodded agreement. “Still, even traveling slowly, we can reach Nogales by tonight. He can rest properly then.”

“He won’t show it until he’s dead on his feet, you know,” Scott continued, a hint of his frustration creeping into his voice despite his attempts to conceal it.

“I know. He was always so, even as a boy.”

“If you two have finished chattin’ over there,” Johnny called to them from his spot under the tree, “I thought we came here to eat.”

Manolito grinned. “Yes, my Friend.” He took a package from his saddle bag and Scott followed him back to where Johnny was sitting. Opening the package, Manolito tossed one wrapped sandwich to Scott and one to Johnny, with one left for himself.

They devoured the beef sandwiches in comparative silence, all three sitting in the shade of the paloverde but facing different directions as they each sought a comfortable, shaded spot around the thin trunk of the tree.

When he had finished, Scott began to feel a sort of lazy ambiance drift over him as he looked out over the vast tract of desert. Nothing moved out there. There was not so much as a breath of breeze to shift the leaves of the tree above him. Only the occasional movement of one of the horses disturbed the silence.

Manolito laid his hat over his eyes and slouched down with a sigh. “Ah, this is how man was meant to live,” he said quietly, crossing his arms comfortably across his chest.

“Well, it’s how you’ve always wanted to live,” Johnny teased him. “Like a fat, lazy son of a hacendado.”

“Huh! Your insult no longer works on me, Johnny. You, too, are a son of a hacendado. Remember?”

Johnny laughed lightly.

“And I am not fat,” Manolito protested from under his hat and Scott chuckled. It would appear that Manolito did not object to the rest of the image.

“Only because you spend so much of your time and energy chasing women,” Johnny said with a laugh.

“Ah yes, but a man must get some exercise, Amigo.” Manolito’s voice was muffled. He still had not moved that hat. “And it is not wrong to have an interest.”

With a shared laugh, they lapsed into silence again. Scott thought it was quite possible that Manolito was asleep but couldn’t be sure with the hat covering his face. Johnny had his eyes closed and looked more relaxed than Scott thought he had ever seen him. Was it that this was the closest thing he had to a ‘homeland’? It seemed that he had spent a good deal of his time around here when he was growing up.

Scott looked again at the wild landscape that stretched out in front of him and mused over the feeling of peace he felt when, by rights, such desolation should have been almost frightening.

A sudden skittering sound by his side broke the silence and broke into his thoughts. He almost jumped at the unexpectedness of it but stopped himself in time to save himself some embarrassment. It was only a lizard, and a small one at that. It shimmied off into the patch of grass at his feet and disappeared, leaving the silence to fall around him again.

It didn’t last long though. Manolito lifted the hat from his face at last and drew himself up to a sitting position. “Siesta is an appealing thought, my friends, but perhaps we should be on our way again if we are to reach Nogales by dark.”

Johnny stretched his good arm and pulled his knees up to his chest, then got to his feet while Scott did the same. “I’m not so sure about Nogales, Mano,” Johnny said. “Maybe we should just sleep out tonight an’ bypass it altogether.”

“¿Por qué?”* Manolito asked, standing up. He brushed the dirt from the back of his pants with his hat and then settled it neatly on his head. Then he grinned and turned to Johnny. "You, my friend, might like to sleep on the hard, cold earth... but me? I prefer a soft bed and a warm breast to lay my head on. Me? I am going to Nogales."

The brothers both laughed as they collected their horses and mounted.

*

“Don’t suppose things have changed much at your pa’s place since I was last there, Mano,” Johnny suggested.

“Things do not change at my papa’s hacienda, Johnny,” Manolito agreed. “Not without a fight, anyway. But there will be faces there that you will remember. Do you recall Fernando?”

“Fernando? With the whip?”

“Si, the whip that you stole?”

“Stole?” Scott asked abruptly.

“Only ‘cause Mano wanted to try it out.” Johnny laughed and then turned back to Manolito. “You weren’t bad at it either, for a kid.”

“I am much better with the whip now, Amigo,” Manolito told him, grinning happily. “Only it is my own that I use, not the stolen property of Fernando Jimenez.”

“Yeah. I thought your pa was gonna whip the pair of us for swiping it.”

They laughed together while Scott listened and felt a pang of envy at their shared memories.

“You should have seen ol’ Don Sebastian, Scott,” Johnny continued. “He was outraged that his son would steal from one of his workers.”

“But I did not steal it! That was you!”

“We had to help Fernando in the tack room for a month,” Johnny went on, oblivious to Manolito’s plea of innocence.

“It was Fernando who made my whip for me,” Manolito added proudly.

“No doubt to protect his own,” Scott said, laughing.

“Possibly. He is at the rancho still. He is a good man, but he never lets me forget.”

Scott thought that the mischief these two had gotten up to as children and then again as teenagers had probably been as much as Victoria had suggested. “So, if you two always got up to no good together, how can we be sure that Johnny will even be welcome at your father’s house?” he asked.

“Papa is a hacendado; a hidalgo schooled and respectful of the old ways… of tradition,” Manolito explained emphatically. “If there is one thing that he believes in, it is his honor. And he is bound by honor to welcome Johnny.”

“Why? Because of Johnny’s friendship with you and Victoria?”

Johnny’s head dropped a little and he shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, but Manolito answered. “That of course… and his debt to Johnny.”

This was news. “Debt?”

“Johnny saved Victoria’s life the last time he was at the rancho.”

“He what? Why hasn’t anyone mentioned this before?”

“Because it was nothing,” Johnny replied edgily. “No one owes me anything an’ no one is ‘honor bound’ to me either. You’re my friends.”

“No, it was not ‘nothing’,” Manolito corrected him with feeling. “And we are most definitely in your debt Johnny, even if you choose not to accept it.” He looked towards Scott, riding on the other side of Johnny. “Johnny does not care to speak of it and so we do not. But, that does not mean that we do not remember it.”

“What happened?” Scott asked, intrigued now.

“Una culebra de cascabel,” Manolito said concisely and then considered for a moment. “A rattle snake. It was so close to Victoria when Johnny shot it that its blood was splashed over her skirt. You may be sure, Johnny Madrid, or Lancer, is welcome at Rancho Montoya.”

Scott nodded. “And what about Nogales?”

“What about Nogales?” Johnny asked curtly.

“Is there anything you haven’t told me about Nogales?” Scott asked anyway. “Any particular reason why you’d like to avoid the place?”

“I’m not wanted there, Scott… or anywhere else.”

“I know that, but is it safe for you to go there?”

 “I spent a lot of time around there, that’s all. Years ago,” he said impatiently, then stopped and sighed. “And there was a gunfight or two there.”

Scott looked sideways at his brother and found that Manolito was checking him out as well. He wondered if Manolito was seeing what he was. Irritability could be taken as a sign that Johnny was tiring and he had certainly paled considerably in the short time since they had left the waterhole. He didn’t seem to be in trouble though… at least – not yet.

Scott cast a knowing look past his brother to Manolito and received a nod in reply. There was a long journey still in front of them.

So, they rode on quietly, slowing to a walk now and then to rest their horses – and Johnny – and talking idly as they rode. As the afternoon wore on, though, Johnny participated less and less in the conversation. Scott and Manolito watched, and worried, as he gradually began to sag in the saddle like a flower wilting in the sun.

Despite the miles they had traveled, the landscape hadn’t changed much. The saguaros and the choyas that had so intrigued Scott only a week ago were familiar friends now. The dry burning heat had become more bearable and there had been no signs of Indians along the way.

But Johnny wasn’t doing as good a job of hiding the pain that he was obviously feeling in his shoulder. At times, his eyes closed and a frown creased his brow, but he wasn’t talking about it and he was keeping up with the pace just the same.

As dusk fell, Scott dropped back and rode up beside Manolito. If Johnny had noticed, he hadn’t commented on it.

“How much further to Nogales, Mano?” Scott asked quietly.

“Not far, perhaps an hour at this rate. We need not stop again and…” He surreptitiously glanced towards Johnny. “… and the sooner we reach town, the better.”

“Do you happen to know somewhere with those soft beds you mentioned earlier?”

“Yes, and we will have privacy as well. The whole town need not know that Johnny Madrid is in town.”

*

The town of Nogales, seen by night when they arrived, was smaller than Tucson, but still a lively place. The tinkle of piano keys mixed with the animated melodies of guitars strummed loudly amid laughter and shouts from the cantinas.

It was early in the evening and lamps were lit in the homes of the less rowdy populace, though the streets were empty of any but those entering and leaving the cantinas. Most of the buildings here, so close to the border, were of adobe, with only a few built of timber. There were no boardwalks, only the much trampled earth.

Scott rode close to his brother now, with Manolito doing the same on the other side of Johnny’s horse. They had been watching him closely for some time. Johnny’s shoulders sagged and his head drooped wearily, all pretence gone now.

“Where to, Mano?” Scott asked. “Is there a hotel or a boarding house where we can have some privacy?”

“I have a better idea, Scott,” Manolito assured him. “This way.”

Manolito led them off the main street and down a side street where small adobe houses nestled quietly side by side. They left the noise of the cantinas behind them and rode unobtrusively towards one unexceptional little house.

There he stopped and dismounted. “Wait here,” he told them and, with a furtive look around him, walked over to the door and gently rapped on the door.

For a moment, there was no reply and Manolito raised his hand to knock again, but the door opened, just a little.

At first, Scott could not see who had answered the door, but a squeal of delight burst from behind the door and it swung open. A pretty young woman, dressed in a nightgown and wrapped in a shawl, flung her arms around Manolito’s neck.

“¡Manolo! Es tan bueno te ver. ¿Por qué estás aquí?” *

“It is good to see you also, mi Corazon,” Manolito said quietly. “But hush, we must be quiet. We do not want to attract attention.”

“We?” she asked, pulling back. She looked behind him and noticed Scott and Johnny, pulling the wrap closer around her. “Oh, you are not alone, Manolito?”

Scott bit back on a smile. She had sounded so disappointed.

“No, not this time. I have come to ask a very big favor of you, Estellita.”

“A favor? ¿Qué es?” she asked, eyeing him suspiciously.

“My friend needs a place… a quiet place, to rest for the night. He is recovering from a wound and he is weary.”

The girl scowled at him. “And you want no attention, yes?” she demanded, a hint of annoyance in her voice now. “So, you bring strangers… gringo strangers… to mi casa. Strangers running from the law perhaps, Manolito?”

Manolito held up his hands defensively. “No, no, mi Corazon. We are not running from the law! Shame on you for thinking such a thing. And strangers? No, no…”

They were only a few feet from her door, but Scott could see her peering at them with only the light from inside her house to see by.

“You do not know Scott,” Manolito conceded. “But his brother you know. Go… see.”

She stepped closer to them, cautiously at first. Scott smiled what he hoped was a reassuring smile, while she went closer to Johnny’s horse. Right then, Johnny lifted his head and she must have seen his face.

She gasped. “Johnny!”

He answered with a wisp of a smile but no sound. His face was white with exhaustion.

“Quickly, get him inside,” she hissed at them. “¡Ándale, Manolito! ¡Arriba!”

 

* “¿Por qué?” - Why

Es tan bueno te ver. ¿Por qué estás aquí? – It’s good to see you. Why are you here?


 

Chapter Eleven

Scott did not need to be asked a second time. He dismounted quickly and hurried around to Johnny’s side to help him down, only to find that he’d managed it by himself and now had the girl steadying him as he stood wavering dizzily on his feet.

Once Scott reached his side, however, he took over and the girl hurried inside, holding the door open for them. Scott wrapped his arm around Johnny’s waist and supported him as he walked towards the house. But, within a few short steps, Johnny had apparently regained his equilibrium enough to shrug off his brother’s help.

“It’s alright, Scott,” he said wearily. “I’m okay now.”

“Are you sure?”

Johnny nodded. “Just tired… and a little sore.” He put his good hand on the door jamb and leaned heavily as he walked in for a moment, while Scott stayed close behind him – ready, should he be needed.

Scott watched him straighten up as he passed Manolito, who was standing guard at the front door and looking out into the street, and the girl holding the door for him. But, while the façade might be designed to keep help at bay, the thin veil of strength was never going to mask the pallor of his skin. He was pale, sweating, and his breathing was slow and heavy, despite the rigid control he was keeping on it.

As they emerged into the lamp lit room, the girl left her post at the door and ushered them inside, while Manolito took one last look around in the dark street before following them in and closing the door behind him.

Johnny faltered then, just a step. He stopped and put his hand under the sling to add more support. Scott reached for him, but the girl, closer to him, put her arm around him and offered quietly, “Déjeme te ayudar… let me help you.”

He shook his head. “No, me siento bien.” *

“Si, puedo ver eso,”* she answered sarcastically. “You are not alright. Come with me.”

She led him to a curtained-off bedroom on the other side of the room and sat him on the edge of the double bed, and then she turned back to Scott and Manolito. “I will see to him. He needs rest.”

Scott noted that Johnny’s resistance had fallen away rather more easily than usual with the girl to help him. His refusal of her help had been almost token resistance.

“Manolito,” he said, standing back and looking at the girl helping Johnny. “It looks like you'll have to look elsewhere for that soft bed and warm breast for the night.”

Also focused on Johnny and the girl, Manolito sighed and nodded. “Si, it appears so.”

Looking around him, Scott became aware of how small the house was. The walls inside were of the same adobe as outside, whitewashed and clean. Except for the curtained-off bedroom, it was all one room.

There was a small round table and ladder-back chairs, a work bench and a pantry in what passed for the kitchen. A brightly colored Mexican rug that lay on the floor and a rocking chair and small coffee table turned the other side of the room into a living area. A little sideboard, ornately carved and well polished and obviously the pride and joy of its owner, sat against the far wall. Atop it was a terracotta bowl, filled with fruit, resting on a long lace runner.

The windows were unglazed, but had shutters that were open to let air into the house. Lace curtains hung daintily over each window and finished the image of a meager, but well-kept household.

The girl had not drawn the curtain, so Scott watched while she sat his brother on the edge of the bed, pulled off his boots and, surprisingly without any argument from Johnny, removed his gun belt. Then she eased him back onto the bed and laid him down.

As Johnny lay back, Scott walked over to join them. He still had no idea who this young woman was or what connection she had to his brother, but Johnny seemed to trust her enough to accept her help without question – or was it that he was feeling that wound much more than he was willing to admit?

“You’d better take that sling off, Johnny,” he said as he reached the bedside. “I want to take a look at that wound.”

Exhausted, Johnny only nodded and it was Estellita who slipped the sling from around his neck and laid his arm gently at his side. She stepped away then to make room for Scott and he sat down on the bed beside his brother.

Unbuttoning Johnny’s shirt, Scott pulled it open to reveal the bandaged shoulder and then lifted the bandage enough to see the wound reasonably well. “You’re not bleeding,” he said with relief. “But it’s a little raw around the edges.”

Johnny closed his eyes and his head sank into the pillow. “Yeah, but it’s not that sore. I’m just tired.”

Scott didn’t believe him, but he wasn’t about to argue with him right now. As a matter of course, he put his palm on his brother’s forehead and checked for fever, but there was none. Johnny hardly seemed to notice. He was already drifting towards sleep.

“I will fix something for you to eat, Johnny,” Estellita told him, smiling and coming closer. She stood so close to Scott that he could smell the lavender she was wearing. “Then you can sleep. Food will do you good too.” She stood beside the bed and ran her fingers lightly through his hair. “Yo pensé que te estabas muerto.” *

Scott was surprised to see that her eyes were sparkling with teardrops in the lamplight. “It seems to be a common misconception around here,” he said, giving her a comforting smile.

“Maybe not such a bad thing either,” Johnny added quietly, his eyes closed.

“That your friends think you are dead?” she asked coolly.

“No, ‘course not. But there’s a few people that I’d be happy to have think I am.”

She nodded, mollified. “Si, this I understand.”

Johnny’s eyes opened again. “Sorry, Scott, forgot my manners. This is Señora Estellita Rivera. Estellita, mi hermano, Scott Lancer.”

“¿Hermano?”

“It is a very long story, Estellita,” Manolito told her, coming over to join them. “But Johnny is no longer ‘Madrid’. He is a hacendado now… a caballero.”

She frowned, perhaps not quite sure whether Manolito was serious or not, but let it go. “Well, this caballero needs to rest. Go.”

*

“He is sleeping,” she said when she returned. She had drawn the curtain closed behind her and she carried back a plate of half eaten food with her. She placed it on the bench, picked up the meal she had set aside for herself, then went back to the table and sat down to join Scott and Manolito, both finishing off their dinners.

“May I ask how he was wounded?” she asked, picking up the fork.

Scott thought that the quesadilla was bound to be cold by now but she didn’t seem to care. “An Apache arrow,” Scott told her succinctly. “They attacked the stage we were on, outside of Tucson.”

“They have been staying at the High Chaparral while he recovered,” Manolito added.

“He is not recovered,” she corrected him flatly. “He should not be traveling.”

Manolito shook his head. “We kept him still for longer than we thought possible, but… you know Johnny.”

“Si, I know Johnny; always he will do things his way.”

She was right. She did know Johnny and Scott wondered how. Had Johnny ‘loved and left’ this woman at some time? If that were the case, she certainly didn’t seem to hold it against him.

And there was something else. He swallowed a bite of the quesadilla and asked, “Johnny said ‘Señora’ when he introduced you. Will your husband object to our being here?”

“No, Señor. I am una viuda… widow. Mi esposo has been dead for many years.”

Scott was surprised. The woman couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old. Besides, there was not a trace of sorrow in her voice, only a matter of fact tone as she said the words.

And she was a very beautiful woman, provocative even. Her hair was loose, though that might have been because of the hour, and her eyes were wide and brown, trimmed with long, intriguing lashes. She had changed from the nightgown and wrap that she had been wearing into an embroidered blouse and a skirt that was pulled tightly around her tiny waistline and hung to just below her knees.

The skirt swung invitingly when she walked and revealed a neat turn of ankle and bare feet, while the blouse was worn low to reveal the graceful line of her throat and the seductive curves of her shoulders. Yet she wore it all with no overt sense of her own sexuality.

Scott wondered why she had not been ‘snapped up’ by another husband already. 

“I’m sorry,” he said politely. “I didn’t mean to…”

But Estellita merely shook her head. “De nada, Señor. It is long ago and…” She stopped and glanced uneasily at Manolito who sat eating but eyeing her intently. “It was long ago,” she finished lamely and went back to her meal.

Scott looked from one to the other. There was an uncomfortable silence between them now where, earlier, there had been welcome and gaiety.

“Please, call me Scott. The meal is delicious, thank you. And I also want to thank you for taking Johnny into your home.”

“¡Qué tonterías! Nonsense! Johnny is always welcome in my home, such as it is.” She frowned. “But, if you are not running from the law, why do you sneak into town like a thief in the night?”

“He’s just trying to avoid being seen in Nogales. He doesn’t want any trouble.”

She laughed suddenly – a high, light laugh. “Stay out of trouble? Johnny Madrid?” She turned her attention then to Manolito, the tension of a few moments ago already dispelled. “And you, Manolito Montoya, are you also trying to avoid ‘trouble’?”

“For my friends, I will try anything,” he answered munificently and grinned as he pushed away the now empty plate.

She giggled. “Then I will tell no one that I have seen you.”

“Thank you, Señora. And we’ll leave early tomorrow – before light, provided that Johnny is well enough to travel.”

“Estellita… me llamo Estellita, Scott,”*she corrected him. “He is tired and his wound aches, but there is no fever. He will feel much better after some sleep, but he is welcome to stay here for as long as he needs. As are you both. Mi casa, su casa… si?”

“Gracias, Estellita. We appreciate your offer, but we’ll be on our way tomorrow. ”

“Very well.” She blushed and looked flustered. “But… I have no beds to offer to you and to Manolito…”

Scott smiled. “That’s alright. We have our bedrolls. If it’s alright with you, we could just bed down right here.”

Manolito groaned and Scott laughed lightly. “We could find rooms at the Hotel Nogales, Scott,” he suggested hopefully.

“I’d rather be close to Johnny, Mano. But I don’t mind if you want…”

But Manolito shook his head quickly. “No, no… you are right. It is better that we stay together.”

Scott had finished his own meal now and sat idly stirring the cup of coffee in front of him. Without having tasted it yet, he already knew that it would be strong. The aroma wafted enticingly around him. “Estellita, you’ve done this for Johnny before, haven’t you? Taken him in, I mean?”

She finished the last morsel of her meal, put down the knife and fork and answered. “Si. Five years ago. He was hurt and needed somewhere to ‘lay low’ as he called it.” She stopped, quietly considering and fidgeting, one finger tracing the diamond pattern on the tablecloth. “He had nowhere else to go… no one to help him.”

The words stung. Scott had known that his brother had lived a loner’s life before Lancer. But hearing it from someone who had been there and had seen it was like having a dagger driven into his heart.

Yet, he needed to know more. “Was he badly hurt?”

“Si, two bullets - one in his leg and the other in his side… y una fiebre muy fuerte...* He stayed here until he was able to travel and then Manolito took him to his papa’s rancho.”

“When was this?”

“Five years,” she told him. “It was the last time I saw him.”

Scott’s mind conjured an image of Johnny – fevered, sick and hiding - right here in this house. Five years ago, he hadn’t even known Johnny existed.

“It was the last time he came to the Rancho Montoya as well,” Manolito added. He stayed long enough to get back on his feet and then rode away as he always did. I did not see him again until the other day.”

“There are many who think he is dead,” Estellita told Scott. “There is a story told of him being executed by the Rurales.” She crossed herself at the thought. “Gracias a Dios that it is not true.”

“It was very nearly true. Our father needed help to save his ranch and sent the Pinkertons for Johnny and for me. The agent caught up with Johnny just as he was to be executed. He bribed the guards and got Johnny away.”

Manolito frowned. “It was that close, Scott? I had no idea.”

“He told me one day,” Scott said, nodding. “He doesn’t talk about his life before Lancer very much, but he lets things slip now and then.”

“And now he has given up the life of the pistolero?” she asked and smiled. “Bueno.”

“Muy bueno,” Scott agreed, smiling. “And now, I’m going out to get my bedroll. You Mano?”

He sighed reluctantly. “It is not what I had planned for this evening, Amigo, but yes. I will come with you.”

“The horses you can put behind the house. You can tie them there,” Estellita told them. “They will be out of sight.”

Together, Scott and Manolito left the table and went outside. They saw to the horses, removing saddles and tack and then brushing them down. There was no feed but there was a ready supply of water and a bucket to put it in.

By the time the two men returned to the front door, it was well into the evening. The cantina music could still be vaguely heard from the next street, but the lights had been put out in most of the houses. All was quiet around them.

They found Estellita waiting at the door, staring at a house just down the street. It looked much the same as her own – adobe and probably about the same size, and a light still shone in the front window. When Scott turned to take a look, the light dimmed as a curtain fell across the window.

He frowned. “Something wrong, Estellita?”

She seemed startled by his question and shook her head quickly. “No… no nada, Scott,” she answered distractedly and went back inside.

*

She watched them ride away in the shadows of pre-dawn. Johnny had woken refreshed and determined that he would be fine to travel. His color had returned and he ate breakfast with Scott and Manolito at the table, but she had reservations about his riding again.

Still, they would reach Manolito’s home by midday, even traveling slowly and stopping for rest along the way, so she had relented.

They had thanked her profusely and said their goodbyes with feeling, Manolito hugging her tightly and promising to visit again soon. His whispered “Next time, mi Corazon… next time eh?” had told her what he had missed on this visit and she had smiled happily.

“Si, Manolito,” she had whispered suggestively into his ear.

Scott had quietly and politely expressed his gratitude for her hospitality and Johnny… Johnny had given her a small and casual kiss on the cheek, filled only with appreciation and friendship. It might have meant little to him, but it had left her tingling.

It had been good to see him again, to know that he was alive and, at last, had family who cared about him. And she had liked that brother of his – tall and handsome and genteel in his manners in a way that she did not see in the men who lived in or visited Nogales.

Estellita wasn’t sure why she even stayed here. The rough men and their drunken nights at the cantinas were not for her. She had learned that, years ago. Of course, Manolito was the exception. He liked the cantinas and the women, but he had a way about him that pleased her.

But she had watched him ride away too many times. Estellita Rivera knew that she was not going to capture his heart… perhaps no woman would. Manolito Montoya had a roving eye – something else that she knew too much about.

This morning, though, having seen them ride safely out of sight, Estellita had something else on her mind.

She looked down the street to the house of Lucia Gutierrez, her dead husband’s cousin and the bane of her life. For five years, Lucia had watched her like a hawk and spread rumors and lies about her. All of Nogales had listened avidly, at first, and Estellita’s name had been dragged through mud more times than she could count.

But, slowly, the people of Nogales had come to see the spite in Lucia’s stories and had begun to pay them no heed. Perhaps they had watched Estellita and had seen that, while she liked the company of Manolito and a few others, she was not the puta that Lucia described. She attended Mass and she made her confession just as every other good Catholic in town. She chose to cook and clean long hours at the Hotel Nogales rather than take work in the cantinas she so disliked.

She was una viuda, not a virgin girl, and a few passing interests could be overlooked by most, if done discreetly.

Estellita had seen the curtain moving at Lucia’s casa last night, and again this morning. She was sure that her nemesis had been watching… but she wasn’t sure what she had seen. Manolito’s arrival would not have marked more than a passing opportunity to libel Estellita once again, and she could not have known who Scott was.

No, it was Johnny’s presence that would have interested Lucia, if she had seen him.

The woman was ten years older than Estellita, and looked much older than that. Years of marriage to a lazy, inconsiderate man who had no inclination to work and without children to love and look to, she had become an embittered woman.

When he had money, her husband drank it and left nothing for his wife but the beating when he ran out of mezcal. When he had no money, and there was no mezcal, he took out his frustration with beating her anyway.

Estellita still remembered the Lucia of their childhood. Lucia had been the most beautiful, the most sought after girl in Nogales. She had been lively and happy but, sadly, she had chosen the wrong man for a husband. From the start, Duardo Gutierrez had been a bully and a thief.

A more compassionate soul would say that she was to be pitied… but Estellita had about run out of pity for Lucia Gutierrez. Her bitterness had turned her into a spiteful woman.

And that was why Estellita had to know what she had seen. She closed her door and walked quickly to the house down the street, knocked on the door and waited.

When it opened, it was little more than a crack, but enough to see Lucia’s narrowed eyes glaring at her.

“I want to speak to you, Lucia,” Estellita said in Spanish, barely able to conceal the aggression in her voice.

“I have nothing to say to you, Puta,” Lucia answered viciously. She tried to shut the door in Estellita’s face but she wasn’t quick enough. Estellita pushed the door back and shouldered her way into the room.

It had been a long time since she had been inside this house. When Cesaro had been alive, they had visited often but Lucia’s stories had soured the friendship between them long ago. Back then, Lucia had kept a neat and clean home, despite Duardo. Estellita had understood that Lucia’s home was all she had and knew that she toiled everyday to keep up appearances.

But now, the furniture was chipped and dusty. An empty mezcal bottle lay on its side on the table beside a dirty breakfast plate.

“Duardo has left, I see,” Estellita commented dryly, turning back to Lucia. She was dressed and her hair, peppered lightly with grey, was pulled back severely and tidily, but the permanent downturn of her lips added to her age. “You were watching when Manolito came last night.”

“Yes, I saw him,” Lucia replied defiantly. “I saw your lover and his friends arrive. Did you come here to gloat over your orgy?”

“You have a filthy mind, Lucia!”

“I know you too well, Estellita,” Lucia hissed at her. “And you must think I am a fool. Do you think I did not see him?”

“I don’t know what you think you saw.”

“Madrid… I saw Madrid. And you took him into your house again.” Her eyes were lit with a fire that frightened Estellita.

“It was dark last night.”

“The light through your door was more than enough to see that bastardo’s face. I saw him.”

Estellita caught her breath. She was getting a very bad feeling about this.

“Yes, I saw you take him into your house, just like the last time,” Lucia ranted on. “You bring dishonor upon the name Rivera!”

“¡Bruja! I am not the one who dishonored the name!”

“Madrid should be dead. You should have put a dagger in his heart when you had the chance, years ago. But he will pay. This time, he will pay.”

Estellita stared at her. Fear jabbed at her chest. “What have you done, Lucia?” she demanded. She was afraid to hear the answer, but she had to know. “What have you done?”

Lucia’s chin lifted with defiant pride. “I did what you should have done. I have told Ernesto. He will take care of Madrid. Ernesto will make him pay.”

 

* me siento bien – I feel fine.

* Si, puedo ver eso,” – Yes, I can see that.

* Yo pensé que te estabas muerto – I thought you were dead.

* me llamo Estellita – My name is Estellita

* y una fiebre muy fuerte – a very strong fever

 

Chapter Twelve

Johnny had woken confused and alarmed in the morning. It had taken him a few minutes to wake enough to remember where he was.

Of course, the fact that Estellita Rivera was lying asleep beside him helped his memory along considerably. He had lain there watching her face as she slept in the shadowed light of early dawn. She was as beautiful as he remembered her. Looking around, he realized that she had slept on top of the blankets, apparently satisfying her own peculiar sense of propriety, and he smiled.

A wisp of her hair lay across her nose, lifting and falling infinitesimally with each breath she took, and he gently pushed it aside. He winced a little as the movement pulled on his shoulder, but the mind-numbing ache of yesterday was gone. As he moved the hair aside, he brushed her cheek and she moved her head in her sleep. The soft warm feel of her skin under his fingertip was alluring, to say the least. There was just something about Estellita…

Her lashes fluttered then, and her eyelids lifted slowly, revealing deep brown eyes that mirrored his own confusion for a moment. Her forehead creased as she looked into his eyes and then she smiled at him. That her head was resting on a pillow beside his did not seem to faze her in the slightest.

“Holà, Estellita,” he whispered, his eyes laughing along with the mischievous smile on his face.

“Buenos días, Johnny. ¿Qué tal?”* she answered sleepily.

“Bueno.”

“A little sleep and you are all better, si?” she asked doubtfully and then smiled that smile that had gladdened the hearts of half the male population of Nogales.

Oh yes, there was definitely something about Estellita.

He had enjoyed seeing her again - talking and laughing with her over breakfast. She had flirted with each of them in her casual way, and she had protested that he should stay longer and rest before continuing their journey. Manolito and Scott had not exactly disagreed with her, but Johnny had finally persuaded them that he was fine to travel.

And he was. The horse that John Cannon had provided for him was an easy ride – comfortable and surefooted. It responded easily to his commands and there was little that he had to do to control it. No, Johnny was in no doubt that the rest of the trip would be no trouble for him.

The morning wore on and the sun rose higher. It got hotter, but Johnny felt surprisingly at ease. What Scott saw as wilderness around them, he saw as familiar surroundings. He’d traveled this part of the world for years before going back to Lancer. While he didn’t exactly consider it ‘home’ like he did Lancer, he did think of it as part of him.

There was that saguaro with one branch turned incongruously down to the earth instead of skywards. It looked ridiculously like an old man with a bad arm. He smiled when he noticed it. He had seen it so many times on his travels that it was like an old friend. It also marked another few hours to the Rancho Montoya, though he suspected that, at the pace his brother and Manolito were keeping him to, it would be much longer this time.

They rode through a rock formation that Johnny knew like the back of his hand. He knew that Manolito did as well. They were high, rounded boulders with a track that wound through them and was big enough for a wagon to pass through easily. There was a crevice in back of those rocks that was big enough to hide a man as well as his horse, in time of need.

Johnny smiled secretly. He wasn’t going to mention that to Scott. He’d only want to know when and why Johnny had used that hidey-hole and that was more than he wanted to tell right now.

He caught Scott sneaking sideways looks at him more than once. Manolito was at it, too. He chose to ignore them, just as he had yesterday. It frustrated him that they kept such a close eye on him, but there was also a feeling of companionship that he was learning to appreciate more and more as he spent less of his time alone.

And he also realized that, had the boot been on the other foot and it was Manolito or Scott who was carrying a wound, he would have been just as watchful over them.

By nine o’clock, Manolito reined in his horse and stopped to take a drink from his canteen. “There is water and shade at the top of that bajada ahead of us. We can give the horses a rest there. If we are lucky, there will be grass still there. Mackadoo did not eat last night and I cannot starve my amigo.” He grinned and patted the sorrel’s neck and the horse shook its flaxen mane in answer.

Johnny knew of the place that Manolito had suggested. It was only about half an hour away and it was a good place to stop for a while. He’d stopped there many times.

And, to be honest, he wouldn’t mind taking a rest. For the truth was that his shoulder was beginning to ache again. Not as it had yesterday when the gnawing pain had drained all the energy from him, nor was he tiring yet, but the wound was beginning to make itself known to him with a dull ache. He had no desire to leave himself open to the exhaustion that had assailed him yesterday and was more than happy to rest up.

*

Ernesto Rivera was another who had watched the three men ride out of Nogales in the early hours of the morning – only he had watched secretly. He was a small man, wiry but stronger than men gave him credit for – at least until they found out otherwise. His clothes were soiled and patched and he proudly wore an untrimmed moustache that drooped on either side of his mouth.

Like the bandito that he was, he wore two bandolero belts over his chest and one very large Remington .44 on his hip – courtesy of a man he had robbed at knife point many years ago.

From behind a window, Ernesto noted Manolito Montoya and the gringo stranger without interest but, with them, was Johnny Madrid – just as Lucia had told him. There was no mistaking him, even in the poor light. Lucia had been right. It was him!

Within an hour, he was on the same trail as them, heading south across the border and into the desert. He would not have to follow them closely or to track them. He was certain that he knew where they were going. From the outset, it had been obvious that they were headed for the Montoya ranchero and Ernesto knew exactly where it was. He had ridden these paths through the desert all his life and knew them well and the Rancho Montoya was known to everyone in these parts.

He also knew that misshapen saguaro cactus and he, too, used it for a landmark. He knew that outcrop of rocks with the crevice in the back that lay hidden from sight. But he grew frustrated at the slow pace his quarry was keeping. More than once, he found himself almost in their sight and had to drop back to avoid being seen.

No, that would be a disaster. He stopped at the rocks and watched them ride across the desert towards the bajada. There was a good waterhole at the top of that hill and he guessed that they planned to stop there for a while.

Riding that way would leave him open to being seen, though perhaps not recognized at a distance. Still, he did not want to take the chance. He sat back on his heels and considered another trail that he could take – longer perhaps, but he figured that he had plenty of time with the slow speed they were making.

He would probably still get there before them and that would give him time to decide what his next move should be. If they stayed at the rancho for any length of time, he would have to plan carefully what he had to do.

*

The bajada proved to be steep and a mass of loose gravel, but with a path that wound its way up. The horses managed it without mishap, for which Johnny was particularly grateful.

“How far to the ranch, Mano?” Scott asked as they made their way up the hillside.

“Technically, Amigo, you are on Montoya land now, but the hacienda is about two hours from here.”

Scott stared at him. “This is Montoya land?” He looked so horrified that both Johnny and Manolito burst into laughter.

“Why yes, Scott,” Manolito agreed, his laughter toning down to an unreserved grin. Then he looked around him at the parched landscape and shrugged. “Though perhaps not the best part.”

They reached the waterhole and, again, Johnny watched Scott’s surprise. This waterhole was something of an anomaly in the desert. The crevice was deep enough and wide enough to bathe in. The water was shaded by overhanging rocks and was high enough off the desert floor to last from one downpour to the next. It was surrounded by tufts of grass, shrubs and straggling shade trees that leant it an almost serene atmosphere.

It wasn’t much really, but in comparison with the wilderness below them, this was an oasis.

“Nice, hey Brother?” Johnny said, sighing. “I think I could set up camp and stay here.”

Manolito nodded seriously. “Ah yes, except for the snakes… and the escorpiones… the coyotes and the pumas!”

“I love the way you always see the best in life, Mano.”

“It is only that I prefer to be comfortable, Johnny. There is nothing wrong with comfort, my friend… and this,” he waved his hand expansively to take in the whole scene, “this is not comfort.”

“That depends on your outlook, Mano,’ Scott said. “To a man dying of thirst, water is as good as wine.”

Manolito sighed. “Scott, my friend, I have been thirsty many times, very thirsty in fact… and I tell you this - water is water. A treasure to a dying man, perhaps, but still water.”

“And you’ll never convince him otherwise, Scott,” Johnny told him, chuckling.

Scott laughed with him and then dismounted, breathing in the sweet smell of the water. “I’ll take care of the horses,” he suggested. “Johnny, you go and sit in the shade. No arguments.”

“No arguments, Brother,” Johnny agreed, easing himself out of the saddle.

“And I will get the food,” said Manolito as Johnny left them to find a tree with a tolerable trunk to lean against.

Johnny had no sooner sat down than Manolito joined him. With a grunt and then a sigh of pleasure, he sat down on the grass with Johnny, stretched out his legs and passed him a wrapped package of biscuits.

“Qué tal, Johnny? Really,” Manolito asked casually, but firmly.

“Nothing I can’t handle,” Johnny answered candidly.

“That is no answer, Amigo. Your shoulder, it pains you?”

Johnny shook his head. “Not too bad… an’ not like yesterday.”

Manolito apparently accepted that. He nodded.

“Now, you tell me,” Johnny said, just as firmly. “You see a lot of Estellita?”

Taking a bite of his biscuit, Manolito nodded as he chewed it and then swallowed. “Yes, when I can.”

“You treat her right, Mano,” Johnny told him, with a hint of warning in his voice. “She’s a good woman.”

“Always, my friend. She is a gem of great value.”

“Yeah, she’s special alright.”

He bit into his biscuit and caught Manolito watching him curiously.

“Estellita and I… we have fun together, entiendes?” Manolito said at last. “But she could be yours, Johnny. You know that she would go to you…” He clicked his fingers. “Like that!” 

Johnny had long suspected it, but he sighed, long and heavily. “Maybe, but it wouldn’t be right, Mano. I owe her too much.”

“The past is over and dead, Johnny. She does not care.”

“The past isn’t all that’s dead, is it?” Johnny answered bitterly. “No, it wouldn’t work.”

“What wouldn’t work?” Scott asked as he joined them and sat down under the tree. He picked up one of the biscuits.

Johnny had no inclination to talk about it further. “Manolito setting up camp here.”

Scott gazed at him long enough for Johnny to know that Scott was aware of his equivocation but, being Scott, he let it go for now. “No, it probably wouldn’t,” Scott said idly.

They finished eating with some companionable conversation and then remounted and left their little haven. Back on the desert floor, they rode in virtual silence for some time as the sun grew hotter and the morning passed.

And then, at last, the desert began to give way to grasslands of tufted buffalo grass as they closed the miles towards the hacienda. They began to see grazing cattle, sturdy and healthy though smaller than the cattle they ran on Lancer, and, occasionally, they caught sight of the vaqueros working with them.

As they rode on, they met more vaqueros and there were waves and shouts of “Holà, Señor Manolito.” Johnny was well aware that Manolito had always been popular with his father’s men. It was his father he had problems with.

Johnny’s first sight of the compound was more gut-wrenching than he had expected. There were few places that held both good and bad memories of his childhood, but this one did. While he had hated his ‘stepfather’ and had suffered, with his mother, at that man’s hands, it had been here that Johnny had met and made some good memories with Manolito and his sister.

Johnny’s first stay at the ranch had lasted only for a month or so but the friendship he and Manolito had established had survived the years and the long separations between them. 

He found that the hacienda had not changed noticeably with the years – The ‘Lion of Sonora’s personal kingdom in the desert. It was grand but with the pleasing and restrained style and taste of the Mexican hidalgos. It had to be said of Don Sebastian de Montoya - he knew about class.

From miles out, it looked more like a small town than a ranch house and, to be fair, Johnny knew that just beyond the Montoya compound there was a small village that had grown out of the needs of the ranch and its workers.

Rancho Montoya, with its outbuildings and the village, was very nearly self-sufficient, which was just as well. There wasn’t another town for miles in any direction.

But Johnny had known what to expect of the hacienda. He glanced sidelong at his brother and wondered what Scott thought of his first view of it. Then he smiled.

They had been able to see the hacienda and its compound for several miles, looming in the distance. Unlike Lancer, nestled in its valley with rolling hills that were lush green in the springtime and with its mountains as a backdrop, the Montoya hacienda stood like a castle on a flat, dry plain with only a few small barren hills behind it. Scott watched in awe as they drew nearer, making out more of its features and exquisite Spanish architecture.

As they drew closer, Scott realized that the castle was actually a fortress. It was enclosed by a fortified wall of thick adobe – whitewashed and gleaming in the sun, and braced by heavy square columns topped with decorative red ceramic tiles. The entrance was sealed shut with huge wrought iron gates that were patrolled by armed guards.

There was another guard in a watchtower that looked over the approach to the hacienda, with a guard who was already shouting news of their arrival.

“Behold,” Manolito said ironically as they neared the gates. “My papa’s little empire.”

Scott couldn’t help but be curious over Manolito’s choice of words. Surely, this was his home, too? He was, Scott understood, the only son and the heir to Rancho Montoya. And yet he lived with his sister and brother-in-law rather than here.

“Holà, Muchachos,” Manolito called to the guards. “Soy yo, Manolito!”*

The two guards on the ground stopped and looked. “Si, Señor,” the older of the two answered, then turned and ordered his companion. “¡Es Señor Manolito! ¡Abres las puertas, rapido!”*

They hurried to open the gates in time for Manolito to enter without having to stop. Whatever, if anything, there might be between Manolito and his father, these men seemed to treat him with all the deference due to the son of the house.

“Bienvenido, Señor Manolito,” the older guard greeted him as they rode into the courtyard. “Welcome home.”

“Gracias, Manuel.”

Scott found himself looking around as, from out of nowhere, men appeared and ran to take charge of their horses. The gates closed behind them with a daunting clang. Manolito had already stepped down from his horse and handed the animal’s reins over to one of the men with a smile and a nod of condescending appreciation, as if to the manor born. 

Of course, Scott thought, the fact was that Manolito had been born to all of this. And, unlike Scott and Johnny, he had been raised with it as well.

Scott waited for Johnny to dismount before doing the same himself. There was someone to take the reins from his hand the moment his feet touched the ground and Scott was reminded of the life he had left behind in Boston. Servants had been ready and willing to do his bidding like this, though perhaps not so eagerly.

The tinkling sound of running water led Scott’s attention to the center of the courtyard where there stood a fountain - two tiers of stone bowls standing in the middle of a pool of crystal water. Around the walls of the courtyard were pepper trees, gnarled with age and with branches that hung down lazily, spreading mottled but valuable shade from the fierce sun across the ground. The base of each tree was boxed in with a small garden of low shrubs.

The hacienda itself was an L-shaped building, mostly only of one level but with a second floor over the main doors of heavy arched carved timber. A tiled portico ran the entire length of the hacienda, with massive arches and a roof of red tiles.

The hacienda was more than impressive. It had grace and elegance to it.

“Is my father at home, Manuel?” Manolito asked nonchalantly as he brushed trail dust from his clothes.

“Si, he is, Señor,” the man replied. “But I do not think he expects you.”

“No, I doubt that he does. But he will be expecting my compadres. I will see them into the house.”

“Si, Señor,” the man answered with a small and deferential nod of his head.

Their horses were led away, Manolito giving a last instruction to the servant holding Mackadoo’s reins. “Brush him down well, my friend, and give him an extra helping of oats,” and the man nodded his understanding vigorously. “He went without last night.”

Manolito turned back to Scott and Johnny. “Well, come inside, mi Amigos. There is no point in standing out here in the hot sun when there is a cool drink to be had inside. Yes?” 

 “Si,” Johnny agreed readily and walked after him, with a glance back at Scott.

Scott took the hint and hurried after them, through the massive front doors and into the hacienda where the entrance hall, with its solid adobe walls and tiled floor, was at least ten degrees cooler than it was outside.

Manolito took off his hat and held it in both hands, almost uneasily. Johnny pushed his own hat behind him and Scott removed his and held it at his side. It almost seemed that Manolito was hesitant about going further and Scott waited and watched as his friend took a deep breath and seemed to come to a decision.

“Papa?” Manolito called loudly and strode into the living room.

“There is no need to shout, Manolito,” a deep cultured voice replied from that room. “I am not deaf. What are you doing here?”

Manolito cocked one eye at Johnny and then grinned cheerfully, motioning to both to follow him but, while Scott caught up with and walked with Manolito, he noticed that Johnny lagged just a little way behind.

“I have brought guests whom I think you are expecting,” Manolito replied and held his hand out to show them off as they reached the living room. “The sons of Murdoch Lancer, Scott and Johnny Lancer, who have come all the way from California to do business with you, Papa.”

Don Sebastian Montoya stood before them, his hands clasped behind his back and his head held proudly. “Welcome to my home, Gentlemen,” he said, rather haughtily. “You are late.”

“Papa!”

“Señor Lancer told me to expect his sons days ago, Manolito,” Don Sebastian told him.

“And can you not see that one of my compadres is injured?” Manolito appealed to him. “They have been staying at High Chaparral while he recovered enough to travel.”

Johnny stepped further out into the open so that the sling on his arm was more obvious and he looked into the older man’s face. A mischievous smile crept over Johnny’s lips and there was a sparkle of fun in his eyes – a look that told Scott that he was suddenly enjoying himself.

“Buenos días, Don Sebastián,” he said in his most amiable voice.

 The older man stared at him. His lofty head dropped. His shoulders sank and he closed his eyes, shaking that lowered head.

“Madrid…”

 

 * ¿Qué tal?” – How are you?

* Soy yo, Manolito – It’s me, Manolito.

* ¡Abres las puertas, rapido! – Open the gates, quickly.

 

Chapter Thirteen

From a small hill at a distance from the hacienda, under cover of an undersized paloverde and lying on the scorching hot earth, one Ernesto Rivera watched the young Montoya and his friends ride through the massive gates of Rancho Montoya. He had looked closely to see how many guards patrolled the courtyard and the gates, and where they were stationed.

He scowled angrily. It would not be easy to get past them.

So, he would just have to keep watching for as long as it took, waiting for whatever chance presented itself. He didn’t have a plan yet anyway and he knew that he would have to be careful. He could not afford to be caught. This was a matter of honor, or vengeance, and he would have it - or die trying.

*

“You see, Papa? It is Johnny!” Manolito, hat in hand, pointed out cheerfully while Johnny looked on with a slightly mischievous expression.

His father lifted his head and scowled dauntingly at him. “Yes, I can see that, My Son. I am no more blind than I am deaf! What is he doing here?”

“You invited him, Papa.” There was an impish look in Manolito’s eyes now too. He was enjoying this.

“I think that I would remember inviting him to my house!” Montoya insisted in irritation. “You seem to think that I am getting old and feeble-minded. I am not deaf. I am not blind and I am most certainly not forgetful!”

Scott thought that the man looked anything but feeble. He struck a commanding figure – as tall as Manolito and broad-chested, with only a suggestion of a few extra pounds around the middle. His hair and his carefully trimmed beard were heavily salted with gray and he was dressed in a red velvet smoking jacket with a ruffled white shirt and a string bow tie. Around his waist was a black sash and his pants were braided down each side in the familiar Mexican style, but more elaborately than Scott had seen before.

Scott wasn’t sure what he had expected to find in the Montoya home. He had, of course, realized that the family was one of substance, but Don Sebastian stood in the center of a living room that could only be described as opulent, though far from ostentatious.

The furniture was heavy, square and ornately carved in the style the Spanish seemed to favor, with red velvet cushions on the chairs and gold-colored rugs on the tiled floors. The whitewashed adobe walls were hung with a treasure trove of paintings; porcelain vases, figurines and urns adorned the sideboards and tables and the room was peppered with silver candelabra.

But still, it was the man in the center of the room who drew and held Scott’s attention. Not just a reflection of his clothes or his surroundings, Don Sebastian Montoya was a man of authority, obviously not used to being trifled with.

“That’s enough, Mano,” Johnny said in a clipped tone that suddenly drew Scott’s attention. “Señor Montoya, things have changed. The invitation was extended to the sons of Murdoch Lancer. And that is who we are – my brother Scott and me.”

Don Sebastian frowned heavily. “You are the son of Murdoch Lancer?”

“Papa, you always knew that he was not really Manuel’s son. We all knew that Johnny’s papa was American.”

Scott stepped forward to stand with his brother. “If it helps, Señor, we have a letter of introduction from our father.”

Don Sebastian nodded but held up his hand. “That will not be necessary,” he said, looking straight into Johnny’s eyes. Johnny matched the gaze and the older man sighed heavily and then continued. “I have known Johnny for many years and he has done many things of which I do not approve, but I do not believe he has ever lied to me.”

Johnny nodded, apparently accepting the backhanded compliment.

“So! Yesca y cerilla – together again,” Montoya added dourly. He turned towards his own son, looked him up and down and then back again to Johnny. “And already you are hurt.”

“Ah, not fair, Papa!” Manolito interrupted him. “That was the Apaches. I did not even know that Johnny was alive, much less in Arizona at that time.”

“That’s true, Señor,” Scott agreed, biting back a smile. “You can hardly blame either of them for it.”

“Hmmm. Perhaps.” He turned and walked across the room to stand by the window, before turning back to face Johnny again. “I, too, had heard of Johnny Madrid’s death. I was not surprised.”

Scott found himself unable to answer that. The silence echoing in the room suggested that Johnny and Manolito felt the same way.

“Well, these two are together now,” he continued and then added confidently to Scott. “I am certain that if we give them some time, they will find trouble.” He seemed to have come to a decision and walked to a polished cabinet, opened one of the diamond-paned glass doors and pulled out a decanter. “Perhaps a drink before you rest from your long journey? Your luggage will have been taken to your rooms by now.”

“Gracias, Señor,” said Johnny. “We are honored to be under your roof.”

Montoya poured the drinks himself, handing one to Johnny and then one to Scott. “Of course you are, Johnny. And, mi casa, su casa… and your brother’s, of course.”

Scott thanked the man as he accepted the glass, intrigued by the stunned expression on Johnny’s face.

“Es un gran honor,” Johnny told Montoya as the man took a seat and made himself comfortable with his own glass in his hand.

“Indeed, it is,” Don Sebastian answered gravely and held up the glass. “Salud.”

“Papa?”

Don Sebastian sipped from his drink, savored it for a moment and then waved a hand at Manolito. “Help yourself, my Son.”

Sighing, Manolito did help himself.

“Sit, sit,” Don Sebastian commanded Johnny and Scott with another wave of his hand. “We will drink… to business. Yes?”

Scott caught Johnny’s eye as they each took a seat opposite Don Sebastian. Manolito apparently preferred to remain standing, leaning against a wall with his glass in his hand.

“Yes, Señor… to business,” Johnny agreed. “Salud.”

Don Sebastian drank a little, then looked Johnny over and smiled. “So, now you are working for your father and he has sent you to buy my bull, yes?”

“No, now we are my father’s partners and we have come to look at your bull,” Johnny answered with a grin and a shameless sparkle in his eyes.

“Partners?”

“He signed over one third of the ranch to each of us. We’re equal partners.”

“But you are his sons!”

Johnny grinned wickedly. “And we can out-vote him.”

Scott heard the words and fought back a choking cough, grateful for the small mercy that Murdoch would never know what Johnny had just said.

*

Estellita’s anger had been mounting hour by hour throughout the day. At first, she had thought it would only be a matter of getting herself a horse and going after Manolito and the Lancers to warn them. But getting a horse had proven to be the easiest part. By the time she had been to the livery, hired a mount, returned to her home and picked up the meager supplies of water and food that she would need for the journey, she had realized that Manolito and the Lancer brothers must be far ahead of her.

She had never traveled the desert alone and she had no idea of following trails or the tracks of horses.  Nor did she know exactly where the Montoya hacienda was located.

Suddenly, the reality of what she intended to do hit home and she knew that she could not do it without help, without a guide.

And that had been the start of her frustration. Estellita had little money to offer anyone to be a guide to the Montoya ranch. Hours had been wasted combing the cantinas for such a man. Even with her promise of a rich reward from the Montoyas when they reached the hacienda, most were too lazy to help her, or too drunk or they simply did not believe her. 

When, finally, she had found someone who would be prepared to help her, the afternoon was late and he had refused to start out until the morning. So, after extorting the promise of riding out at first light, she had returned to her little house and realized that she had already lost a full day. She went to bed, praying that the wasted time would not make her too late.

*

Scott sat on the bed and looked around him at the lavish guest room he had been assigned. He and Johnny had been given separate rooms, both very much alike. The bed was a four-poster and the room’s luxurious furnishings matched what he had seen in the rest of the hacienda.

He lay back across the bed, still trying to take in his surroundings and the man they had traveled so far to meet. No stranger to wealth and power himself, Scott was impressed. He had not expected to find anything like this house in the middle of the Sonora Desert. And Don Sebastian Montoya himself radiated autocratic power with singular ease. 

A knock on the door drew his thoughts back. The door opened and Johnny came in.

“You’re going to muss up those fancy clothes, Brother.” Johnny grinned.

Scott laughed as he sat up. “Don’t talk to me about ‘fancy’, Little Brother. I’m afraid I pale into insignificance in your presence.”

It was true. While Johnny was still wearing the Mexican style clothes that he preferred, these were new and obviously tailor-made for they fit him flawlessly. The calzoneras and the short chaqueta were cut to perfection. They were black, trimmed with elaborate gold piped braid on the lapels and pockets, and down the outside seams of his pants’ legs.

The white shirt was richly embroidered with black stitching and finished off with a black string tie. To complete the outfit, there was a black silk sash around Johnny’s waist instead of the heavy belt he usually wore. Even his hair had been brushed neatly!

It suited him and, all in all, Johnny looked more Mexican than Scott had ever noticed before.

Scott got to his feet, reached out and touched the cuff of the shirt. Rubbing it softly between his fingers, he smiled. It was made of a fine soft cotton and was certainly of far better quality than he was used to seeing his brother wear.

“Where did all this come from?” he asked curiously.

“Oh, there’s a Mexican tailor in Morro Coyo that I heard about. His wife does real nice stitching too.”

“So I see. Well, I have to say, you look the part.”

“Gracias.” He produced a mock bow and was grinning broadly. “I told you they dress for dinner in this house.”

“And since when did you care about that?”

Johnny strolled over to lean one elbow on the dresser. “Scott, if we’re going to have ol’ Don Sebastian take us seriously, we have to play his game. He doesn’t know you at all, and I have to show him that he’s not dealin’ with Johnny Madrid, but with Johnny Lancer.”

Scott considered him and saw how serious he was about this. “Yes, you have a point.”

Suddenly, Johnny grinned mischievously. “You know, Boston, if there was ever a time to bring out those pretty back east manners of yours and polish ‘em up an’ practice ‘em, this is it.”

Scott grinned back in kind. “Aim to impress?”

“Yep.”

Johnny turned and peered into the mirror over the dresser. He adjusted his tie and Scott laughed.

“I think you’re enjoying this, Johnny.”

“Yep.” Johnny picked up the tie lying on top of the dresser and tossed it at Scott, who managed to catch it deftly. “Now, fluff up those ruffles, Big Brother, and let’s get moving. The Don is very big on being on time.”

Scott laughed and tucked his shirt into his pants. With ruffles at either side of the row of mother-of-pearl buttons and again at the cuffs, it was still less extravagant than the one he’d seen Don Sebastian wearing that afternoon, but equally elegant and of fine quality. Unlike Johnny, Scott always enjoyed formal clothes. He was also accustomed to dressing for dinner. He’d done it most of his life, after all.

“You’re not wearing the sling,” Scott pointed out, noticing suddenly.

“No, didn’t go with the outfit.” He grinned cheerfully. “Don’t worry. The shoulder’s okay and I can survive dinner without it. You bring those cufflinks with you?”

“Yes, they’re still in my bag,” he answered distractedly while he finished with his own tie. The string tie instead of a bow tie or cravat was the one adaptation that he had made to the west when he dressed formally.

Johnny rifled through Scott’s bag and pulled out the small case containing the cufflinks. He opened the case and looked at them before handing them over to Scott.

Scott, too, took a look at them before taking them out. They had been Murdoch’s gift to him on his twenty-fifth birthday, mere months after his arrival at Lancer. Flat and gold, with the Lancer brand picked out in black onyx, Scott treasured them as the first personal gift he had received from his father, in the same way that Johnny so obviously loved that battered old pocket watch that Murdoch had off-handedly given him one day. Scott knew that Murdoch had offered to buy him a new and better one, but Johnny had shaken his head to that, preferring the old one that Murdoch had carried around for years.

Scott frowned while he concentrated on fastening them. “I’m glad Murdoch wasn’t there to hear you say that we could out-vote him.”

“Yeah, he’d have taken the hide off me,” Johnny replied, laughing.

“Or had a stroke,” Scott agreed, grinning with him.

“But if Don Sebastian thought we were just here to buy that bull on Murdoch’s orders, he’d double the price. Like I said, we have to play his game.”

With the cufflinks in place, Scott ran a comb through his hair until he was satisfied, then pulled on his silk vest and buttoned it, adjusting it neatly before topping it with his tailored coat.  “Well?” he asked his brother at last. “Will I pass inspection?”

Johnny laughed again. “Not quite the style ‘round here, but you’ll do.”

*

Dinner was even more than Scott had anticipated. The meal was sumptuous and Don Sebastian could not be faulted as a host. He had spared nothing and course after course of food was placed before them.

They could hardly complain about their surroundings either. The room was as elegant as Scott had expected after seeing some of the rest of the house. The table was built for a banquet, able to seat twenty people. The brocaded chairs that were not being used had been pulled away and lined the walls around them to leave the table more room for intimacy.

Candelabras glittered around the room and on the table. They ate off fine china with silver cutlery and drank from crystal goblets and, stationed around the room, three servants stood waiting for orders. Other servants came and went to bring meals and take away the used dishes.

At the other end of the room was a curtained alcove. The red velvet drapes had been drawn back and tied to reveal a sideboard, standing beneath a magnificent painting of a Spanish woman. The marked resemblance to Victoria Cannon led Scott to believe that Don Sebastian’s late wife still joined him for dinner.

Don Sebastian himself outshone them all. Manolito had arrived wearing a suit similar to that which Johnny was wearing, though in an eye-catching red trimmed with black braid and sash, but Don Sebastian’s regal blue ensemble was decorated with the finest embroidery on the lapels, cuffs, pockets and down the seams of his pants. It was set off with a deep red sash and ribbon tie that Scott would have cringed at wearing himself, but which looked perfectly suited to the Don.

As the servants finished removing the last of the dishes, Scott sat back in his high backed chair. “A superb meal, Señor,” he said, swirling the brandy in the balloon glass in his hand. “Your chef is to be congratulated.”

Don Sebastian accepted the compliment gracefully.

“And an excellent choice of wine,” Scott continued. “Spanish?”

“You know your wines, Scott,” Montoya said, smiling.

Scott shook his head. “No, I’m no connoisseur, but I do know what I like.” He sipped the brandy and savored it for a moment as it went down. “This is quite a palatable brandy, too.”

“Palatable?”

“Yes. One of the best I’ve tasted since leaving Boston.”

“Murdoch keeps some fine brandy,” Johnny explained. “Prides himself on it.”

Montoya nodded approvingly. “A taste for fine brandy is the mark of a true gentleman.” He glanced quickly at his son – a habit that Scott had noticed already. With a tone of disapproval, he added, “My son seems to prefer mezcal and tequila.”

Manolito smiled and caught Scott’s eye, but said nothing.

Don Sebastian continued in the same tone. “A man gets drunk on tequila, but he ‘drinks’ brandy.”

“As you say, Papa,” Manolito replied this time, grinning and lifting his glass to him. “And I have no objection to either.”

“Bah!” Montoya exclaimed disgustedly. “Johnny, now you live with your father and brother. You no longer live your life like a nomad?”

“No, no more. Lancer’s a big place. Takes a lot of work.”

“There you see, Manolito! Even Johnny has learned to accept responsibility!”

Manolito smiled again, disarmingly. “Ah yes, and it suits him. I can see him sitting on a veranda with a beautiful wife at his side, raising fat cattle and even fatter children.”

 Scott laughed while Johnny merely chuckled good-naturedly.

But Don Sebastian scowled at his son. “At least he has learned to live the life of a gentleman.”

Johnny smiled again. “My brother is the gentleman, Don Sebastian,” he corrected him. “College educated one, too.”

“College?” Montoya asked, intrigued.

“I was fortunate enough to have attended Harvard,” Scott told him.

“A fine institution, I understand. You have traveled as well?”

Scott looked deeply into the glass of brandy before answering. “I was to have gone to Europe, but the war intervened. I signed up instead.”

“My son has told me that you are from Boston.”

“That’s right. I was raised by my grandfather.”

“Neither of us knew the other existed until Murdoch sent for us,” Johnny explained.

Don Sebastian shook his head. “It would seem that your father was somewhat cavalier with his offspring. To misplace one son could be called unfortunate.” He cast a sidelong glance at Manolito and added, “Or perhaps a blessing in some cases. But to misplace both seems, to me, careless.”

“Papa!”

“No, I can see what he means, Mano,” Scott agreed. “To someone who doesn’t know how it happened, Murdoch would probably seem that way. Unfortunately, Fate played a large part in our father’s life… and ours.”

“A man makes his own Fate,” Don Sebastian said firmly.

“No, a man makes what he can of what Fate deals him,” Johnny corrected him, just as firmly. “Murdoch made Lancer his ‘baby’ for years. He put everything he had into his land.”

While Johnny might have sounded alright to someone less attuned to his ways, something in Johnny’s voice caught Scott’s attention. He looked closely at his brother and Scott could see the fine traces of tiredness about his eyes and that he was paler than he should be.

It had been after eight o’clock when they had sat down to dinner, though Manolito had pointed out that the hour was earlier than that at which his father usually dined – an allowance for his guests apparently. But after several courses and conversation, the hours had slipped by. Scott decided to take the initiative. He knew that Johnny would not.

“Don Sebastian, with your permission, it has been a long day with many hours in the saddle. Perhaps my brother and I should excuse ourselves for the evening.”

“Of course,” Don Sebastian agreed readily. “I had forgotten Johnny’s wound. And tomorrow I will show you my bull and Rancho Montoya.”

Scott smiled. “I look forward to it. Just as long as you don’t expect us to tell you that it’s better than Lancer, Señor.”

“No, a man who should be proud of his land,” the older man told him, actually smiling. “And you, Johnny, do you feel the same way?”

“There’s no prettier place than Lancer, Señor.”

Don Sebastian nodded sagely. “Then your father has succeeded in his life. If he has built a fine ranch and he has sons who are prepared to love it as he does, then he is a man to be envied.”

*

Manolito joined Scott in walking with Johnny back to his room. He, too, had begun to notice that Johnny looked worn and that he was favoring that injured shoulder just a little.

“You are alright, Amigo?” he asked as they went into the bedroom.

“Sure. And I don’t need either of you two fussin’,” Johnny had answered with a grin. “I’m just a little tired and I’m not gonna die from it. Be fine in the morning.”

“Do you need a hand getting out of that coat?” Scott asked.

But Johnny just shook his head. “Nope, like I said, just tired. And I’m guessin’ you are too. Been a long day, Boston.”

Manolito smiled and nodded. “And I also. Long and hot. I will see you in the morning, Compadres.” And with that, he took his leave of them.

Scott sat on the thick soft mattress and watched Johnny pull the jacket off and undo the tie. “How’s the shoulder, Johnny? Really.”

“Not botherin’ me as much as you’re thinking, Brother. Go get some sleep yourself and quit worryin’.”

*

Ernesto Rivera watched from his hill as the lights in the great hacienda dimmed, one by one.  It was late when the place eventually went quiet. The vaqueros and servants would already be sleeping.

A few torches still glowed and flared in the courtyard and he could make out the shadows of the guards still patrolling the gates. He had studied them for hours now and he finally had a plan.

 

Chapter Fourteen

A shadowy apparition slowly emerged from the darkness of the desert night and into the hazy glow of the torches that still burned near the gates of the Rancho Montoya. The hour was late, early morning in fact, and both sentries stopped their pacing to watch its approach.

Slowly, the visage took the shape of a man, limping and bedraggled. It was an uncommon occurrence - to have someone come in from the desert, on foot, in the middle of the night. Their job mainly consisted of being on the alert for lawless bands of bandits, commancheros or Indians.

“¡Parada!” the younger of the guards called to him as he got to within a few feet of the gates. “What is it you want here at this hour?”*

“Señores, I beg your help,” the man gasped. “My horse has broken a leg. I had to put him out of his misery and I have been walking for many miles, many hours. I can go not further. I ask only for a place to rest and some water. Please, Señores.”

The guard tightened his grip on his rifle. “Step closer, very slowly, so we can see you, hombre.”

The man limped nearer until he was within arm’s reach of the gates. He was dirty and he looked exhausted, his head was lowered and he held his sombrero humbly in his hands in front of him. “I ask only your hospitality, Señores. Please… just a little water for my parched throat and a place to sleep for a few hours.”

The guards looked at each other and talked together for a moment before finally turning back to the stranger.

“Very well,” said the younger of the two, unlocking the gate and opening it.

“Oh, thank you… thank you… bless you both” the man said, bowing to them repeatedly as he walked through. The young guard closed the gate behind him and started to lock it when, from nowhere, a blade flashed in the glow of the torches. With barely a moment for the guard to realize what was happening, the knife slashed through the air and tore a gash across his throat.

Even as the blood gushed from the wound and the guard’s body folded and fell to the ground, Rivera whipped around to face the second guard as he raised his rifle to his shoulder. But the guard didn’t have time to fire.

In an instant, Rivera wielded the knife high over his head and plunged it deep into the chest of the second guard. It burst through the man’s heart and he sank to the ground and fell on top of his companion, his eyes still open in horrified surprise.

Then there was no sound, nothing but the last shocked and faltering breaths of the guards as they died, and then the eerie quiet of the night returned. There was no alarm… only silence and a delusory air of calm. The night seemed no different from any other.

But it was not the same as any other night. This was HIS night and Rivera’s pulse raced with the thrill of it.

Like a nervous animal, Rivera furtively looked around him to make sure that no one had heard or seen anything until, satisfied, he dragged the corpses into the bushes and made sure that they were out of obvious sight. The guards had been changed only an hour ago, so Rivera was confident that it would be hours before anyone would notice them missing.

Next, he casually wiped the bloodied blade clean on the shirt of one of the dead guards and slipped the weapon back into the sheath at his side. Then he walked over and pulled the gates together to look as though they were closed and bolted as usual, but actually leaving them ajar to allow a ready exit when his plan was completed.

So far, it had all been easier than he had expected. The guards had been unsuspecting fools and easy prey. Now he had to find his way into the hacienda.

After cautiously walking around the house, Rivera found what he had been hoping for. It should have been more difficult than it turned out to be. Confident in the great iron gates and the walls that surrounded and protected them, satisfied that the guards would raise the alarm if danger presented, the servants had left the back door to the hacienda locked but not barred. It was no match for Rivera.

He stepped inside and pulled the door almost closed, just as he had the gates, and then stopped to listen. Somewhere, a clock ticked its mundane way through the night, but there were no other sounds – no servants whispering as they roamed the hallways, no favored pet dog to snarl and growl out an alarm.

Rivera let his eyes adjust to the darkness. He had come in through the kitchen door and would have to be particularly careful not to crash into anything here. But this was far from the first time that he had invaded a house in the dark. He could move like a cat in the soft moccasin boots he was wearing.

Slipping into the main hallway, Rivera began his search of the hacienda. Here and there, a candle burned in a sconce, burnishing the wall around it but not throwing enough light into the hall to trouble him. He hugged the walls as he headed towards the part of the house where he thought the bedrooms would be, stopping whenever he came to a light and checking surreptitiously around him before hurrying across the candle’s reach and back into the dark.

It took him no time at all to find the master bedroom. The double doors told him that this was the main suite, so he passed on. At the next door, he slipped the knife from its sheath and held it ready as he tried the doorknob. The latch gave easily and the door opened without a sound to reveal the sleeping figure of Manolito Montoya.

Rivera smiled, closing the door gently as he moved on to the next room. The lace and the décor suggested that this was a woman’s room, but it was empty. No one slept in the bed so, again, he closed the door and moved on.

This time, the hinge groaned just enough to spook him as he opened it. Rivera froze, waiting and watching, his heart thumping. But the man in the bed only rolled over and tugged the covers higher. Even in the dim light, Rivera could see that this man was gringo and probably the man who had ridden out of Nogales with Montoya and Madrid.

But he didn’t wake and Rivera, with a sigh of relief, closed the door more carefully.

It had to be the next one. The man he so wanted to kill had to be there. Rivera could feel it. He could taste it. Years of hating and now, here it was… his chance at last. His fingers played lovingly around the hilt of the knife before he tightened his grip on it. He reached out and put his hand on the doorknob, his stomach churning with anticipation.

Taking a breath and getting control of himself, he eased the door open.

Rivera took one stealthy step into the room, pulled the door lightly closed behind him and then took another. One step at a time, he closed the gap between himself and the bed. 

He had been right. He felt like shouting his pleasure to the whole house and leaping on the sleeping form of his enemy for, even in the darkness, there was no mistaking Madrid. The satisfaction he felt in putting the tip of his knife to Madrid’s throat was utterly overwhelming.

Madrid’s eyes flashed open immediately and those blue ‘gringo’ eyes glared up at him.

“Madrid.” He said it quietly, but with all the anger that years of waiting had built.

“¿Quién va? What do you want?” *

He sounded groggy, still only half awake and in darkness.

“You have gotten old and slow, Madrid. Do you not recognize me?”

Rivera saw the slightest of movements. Madrid’s hand… moving under the sheet towards the pillow. Did Madrid think he was a fool? He had a good idea what would be under that pillow. Rivera kept his knife under his own pillow when he slept.

“Do not do it, Madrid!” He pushed the knife in closer until he could feel the skin tighten beneath it. Madrid froze and Rivera sneered. He checked under the pillow and his fingers found the cold metal of the gun and pulled it out. “I am not a fool.”

He tucked the gun into his belt, still holding the tip of the deadly knife on Madrid’s throat.

While he wore a gun himself and handled it well, it was the knife that was Rivera’s weapon of choice. He took pleasure in honing it to a razor edge with a tip that could draw blood at a touch. He relished the feel of the hilt when he folded his hand around it – power in the palm of his hand.

Men fought wars with guns and could kill from a distance without ever seeing… ever tasting, that fear that a knife could raise. Rivera held such men in contempt. To his way of thinking, it took a real man to take the risks a knife demanded, and the reward was a feeling of supremacy that surpassed everything else.

“You do not recognize me, do you? Then perhaps my name will convince you that I am serious. I am Ernesto Rivera.”

Rivera watched as recognition crossed his face. Madrid’s eyes narrowed, turned bitter and cold. But Rivera was pleased to see the reaction. “Now,” he said. “Get out of that bed… very slowly. If you make any noise at all, I will slit your throat.”

Madrid had nothing to say to that. He pushed back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed, revealing his bandaged shoulder.

“So, I was right. You are wounded,” Rivera said, smirking and keeping the blade close to Madrid’s throat.

Madrid ignored the knife and looked him in the eyes. Rivera had heard that men quailed beneath the steel in those eyes, but he only grinned superciliously. It was he who was in control here.

There was dominion in his blade – in the getting close enough to a kill to feel the warmth of his victim’s body, to whisper threats in their ear and to see the fear in their eyes. He’d seen men wet themselves when faced with his knife.

Madrid had not… pity…

 “Get up.”

For a moment, Madrid did nothing but, finally, he touched his stocking-ed feet to the floor and stood up.

“You won’t make it out of this house alive,” Madrid told him carelessly.

Rivera’s face flushed with anger. He pulled his gun from its holster, reluctantly sheathing his knife, and leaned close to hold it against Madrid’s forehead. “Perhaps so, but there are six bullets in this gun, Madrid. If you try anything or make a sound that brings them running, I will kill the first five people who come through that door and you will be the sixth. Is that what you want? To sit here and watch them die for you?”

Again, Madrid remained silent. Rivera could feel the man’s frustration and the sense of superiority it gave sent a thrill though him.

He pulled away, still holding the gun steady. He sidled over to a chair and picked up a pair of pants that were draped over it, tossing them to Madrid.

“Put those on.”

Madrid caught them but stubbornly made no attempt to put them on.

“Unless you want to die in your underwear.”

“Your consideration astounds me,” Madrid said ironically, pulling on the calzoneras.

Rivera let him finish with his pants and then, watching him carefully, picked up Madrid’s boots and tossed them to Madrid, who caught them deftly. “Now those… and do not try anything foolish, Madrid.”

Madrid reached down and pulled on the first boot without incident but, with the second, Rivera caught a small movement… a hint of something wrong. Not one to take chances, he moved in and grabbed Madrid’s wrist with his left hand, still holding the gun in the other.

A knife… Madrid had a small knife sheathed in the back of his boot. It clattered to the floor under the pressure of Rivera’s hand.

He’d known that taking Madrid would never be easy, but he realized his mistake too late. Madrid’s free hand knocked the gun from his.  It went only a few feet, landing with a dull thud on the thickly carpeted floor, coming to rest by the side of the bed just out of both of their reach.

Madrid shoved him and he fell back against the bedpost. They were both unarmed now, unless Rivera could get to his own knife. But Madrid was quickly on top of him, the small knife back in his hand and coming for him.

Rivera grabbed Madrid’s wrist again, holding him off. It was brute strength against brute strength in a grim and muted struggle for life. Madrid would have no qualms in killing him and Rivera? Well, he had other plans for Madrid, but if it came down to it, he would toss them aside and kill Madrid here and now.

With Madrid carrying a wound, Rivera was the stronger of the two, despite his size, but he could feel the doggedness in Madrid’s body as he pressed in closer. Even wounded, Madrid was a hard man to contend with. Then Rivera realized what Madrid was really after. He was trying to get hold of the gun in Rivera’s belt.

Wounded! Rivera suddenly saw his way out. Holding Madrid’s knife hand at bay, he reached in and punched the bandaged shoulder.

Madrid gasped. He fell back and the knife clattered again to the floor. Rivera didn’t wait to catch his breath. He scrambled over to the gun and seized it, spinning around to aim it at Madrid, already recovering and just about to pounce on him.

“No, Madrid… this is over,” Rivera sneered at him. “Get back and stand up.”

Getting to his feet warily, Rivera watched as Madrid did as he was bid, breathing heavily and looking daggers at him. He waited a minute, edgily alternating his attention between Madrid and the door in case anyone had heard the struggle.

Finally, satisfied that the scuffle had gone unnoticed, he picked up the second boot, now lying askew on the floor, and placed it into Madrid’s hands.

The man took it, his eyes still glaring with fury.

“Now, put it on. You have lost this time, Madrid.”

Defiantly, Madrid stood his ground for a moment, but Rivera did the same, aiming the gun steadily at his heart. Madrid appeared to surrender, and pulled on the boot.

He stepped aside to allow him access to the door. “After you, Madrid, and remember what I said about raising an alarm.”

As he passed by, Madrid cast him a look of pure ice. Rivera knew he was going to be trouble, injured or not. Even though he was not at his best and unarmed, Johnny Madrid was a man to be wary of. He had already shown that he would take advantage of even the smallest opportunity.

Madrid put his hand on the door and turned the handle and Rivera came to a decision. He was not taking any more chances with the man.

Raising the gun high, he brought the butt down on the back of Madrid’s head with a sickening thud. Madrid’s legs gave way and he went down towards the floor like a sack of potatoes. But Rivera wrapped one arm around him before he landed and held him. Slipping the gun back into the holster, Rivera picked up Madrid’s limp body and heaved it over his shoulder, then opened the door and stepped out into the hallway.

*

Scott usually found it difficult to sleep well for the first night in a strange bed but, this time, he’d woken after a sound sleep. It was a credit to the comfort of the guest room and that huge bed. Of course, his own weariness from the trip through the desert might have had something to do with it too.

He hoped that Johnny had slept just as well. Johnny had looked pale and drawn last night, even admitting to being tired. It was to be expected, but a good night’s sleep should fix that. At least there had been no sign of illness and the wound was healing.

Dressing quickly, Scott headed for his brother’s room. The door was still closed so he opened it quietly, hoping that perhaps Johnny was still asleep. It would do him good. But the bed was rumpled and empty. Johnny was already up.

So he made his way to the dining room instead and found Manolito and his father there.

“Buenos días, Scott,” Manolito greeted him cheerfully. “You slept well, my friend?”

“Very well, thank you.” He turned to Don Sebastian who was busy with a boiled egg in what Scott thought must have been the most elegant silver egg cup he had ever seen. His lips twitched with threatening mirth, but he held back. “Good morning, Señor. My compliments on your guest room. It’s very comfortable.”

Don Sebastian did not even look up. “Of course.”

He finished with the egg and called one of the servants over to take the dish away. In moments, another servant arrived with a plate piled with huevos rancheros and chorizos. The table, though less formal than dinner had been, was still laden with silver bowls of guavas, oranges, grapefruit and even mangoes. How he got them, or where from, was a mystery to Scott, but if anyone could manage it – it was apparently Don Sebastian Montoya.

“Sit down, eat,” Montoya continued, almost dismissively. “Later, we will go look at my bull.”

“Johnny is still sleeping?” Manolito asked between bites. “He needs the rest.”

“No, he’s already up,” Scott told him. “Actually, I thought I’d find him here.”

“I haven’t seen him,” Manolito said. “Perhaps he has gone for a walk outside.”

Scott nodded and took a seat, telling one of the servants his preference for breakfast. Then he turned back to Manolito. “If we were at home, I’d be checking the barn for him. He spends as much time with his horse as he does with us.” He laughed. “I sometimes wonder whose company he prefers.”

Manolito laughed and Scott began on the plate of huevos rancheros that was placed in front of him. “There are people here who he remembers. He is probably with one of them.”

“Like Fernando, the whip-maker?” Scott suggested, smiling.

“Well, we will not wait the meal for him while he socializes,” Don Sebastian said firmly. “If he wants to eat he will have to…”

The door suddenly opened and Don Sebastian looked up angrily. One of the vaqueros stood there, his hat in both hands and looking nervous.

“Well, what is it, Manuel? What is so important that you must interrupt our meal?”

The man shifted uncomfortably, glanced in Manolito’s direction and then answered Don Sebastián. “Señor, los centinelas son muertos,” he replied. “Ambos ellos.”*

Don Sebastian dropped his knife and fork and leapt to his feet, Manolito with him. “What? Both of the guards?”

“Si, Ambos ellos, Señor,” the man repeated. “Both of them. And the door to the kitchen was open.”*

“Someone got into the hacienda?” Montoya growled. “Thieves!” He turned on the servant standing beside the vaquero. “What was taken?”

“Es extraño, Señor,” the servant answered warily. “We can find nothing missing.”*

“Nothing!”

“Nada, Señor,” the vaquero confirmed.

“What nonsense are you telling me? An intruder kills two men, breaks into my house and takes nothing? Do you think I am a fool? Check again!”

Scott was already on his feet. Manolito turned quickly and their eyes met… the same thought occurring to each of them.

“Johnny!” Scott exclaimed urgently, and they both pushed past the men at the door and ran down the hallway.

*

Scott looked at the room with different eyes this time. His heart thumped with fear. The servants were wrong. Something was missing – or rather, ‘someone’.

Manolito entered the bedroom right behind him. Manolito walked around the room, looking about carefully. “There is no sign of blood, or even a struggle. Nothing is out of place.”

But Scott did see something… just poking out from under the bed. He reached down and picked it up, clenching his hand around the hilt. He recognized it immediately as Johnny’s hideaway knife. Only one thing would bring this out of the sheath in the back of his boot.

“What is it?” Manolito asked.

“Johnny’s knife. He keeps it in a hideaway sheath in his boot.”

Manolito didn’t answer. They both knew what it meant. There had to have been a struggle – and it appeared that Johnny had lost.

“He was exhausted again last night, Mano,” Scott continued. “It’s not like him but… maybe they got the drop on him.”

Manolito sighed heavily. “True.”

“But why take him? If they’re cold-blooded enough to have killed those guards to get into the compound, why didn’t they kill Johnny right here?”

“We do not know that anyone has him yet, my friend,” Manolito reassured him. “We should first make sure that he is not here.”

Scott nodded. “I know you’re right, Mano, but I don’t think…”

“No,” Manolito stopped him firmly. “First, we search.”

He strode to the doorway and yelled, “Manuel! Come here! Ven aquí.”

Heavy footsteps ran down the hall and the vaquero arrived with one of the servants in tow. “Manuel, I want the whole compound searched… all of it. Señor Johnny Lancer is missing.”

The man’s eyes widened. “Si, Señor Manolito.”

“And the guards, they were found at the gates?”

“No, Señor. They had been dragged away and hidden from sight.”

“Then, when you have organized the search, you will come back and show me where they were found.”

“Si, Señor,” the man answered, but hesitated, as though expecting more orders.

Manolito’s scowled. “Then go! ¡Vamos! Rapido!”

The vaquero didn’t need to be told again. He bolted back down the hallway, leaving the servant with Manolito.

“Hernando, show us where this intruder got in.”

 

*¡Parada! – Stop!

*¿Quién va? – Who are you?

*“Señor, los centinelas son muertos,” he replied. “Ambos ellos.” – Sir, the guards are dead… both of them.


 

Chapter Fifteen

 

They had left just before daybreak. Estellita had been dressed and ready, but surprised, when her guide had arrived at the arranged time. She soon found herself riding out into the desert, alone, with a scruffy and, she suspected, untrustworthy American.

 

He was unshaven and dirty and, while she had avoided getting close enough to be sure, she suspected that he smelled. But beggars could not afford to choose. No one else had agreed to help her and, now that she was out of town and on her way, she knew that she could not have made it alone. Within ten minutes of town, the entire landscape around her looked so much the same wherever she looked that she knew that she would have been lost already.

 

She had dug through some of Cesar’s old clothes and found a pair of trousers that came close to fitting her. She took a belt and pulled the trousers in to fit better – not flattering with the bunched up waist, but serviceable.

 

She put on one of Cesar’s shirts that was too also big and too long in the sleeves, but which would keep the sun off her. Into her belt she had shoved an annoyingly heavy and cumbersome revolver that she had made a point of informing her guide that she would not hesitate to use.

 

“I need to get to the Rancho Montoya as quickly as possible. I do not need you for anything else, so you may keep your distance,” she told him with a meaningful scowl. “Do you understand me?”

 

The man had grinned and nodded. “Sure thing, pretty lady. But it ain’t a real good idea to hurry ‘cross the desert. Need to take it easy an’ not wear out the horses. Ain’t a good place to end up afoot.”

 

“Señor,” she addressed him resolutely. “It is a matter of life and death.”

 

“Always is with a woman.”

 

She flushed with anger. “Señor Jackson! This is not a joke. I may already be too late to save my friend. His life is in great danger.”

 

“All right, Ma’am, if you say so. And quit the Señor Jackson stuff, will ya? Name’s Zeke.”

 

“Señor Zeke then. But truly, it is muy importante that we get to the rancho quickly.”

 

“Well, we got a good early start. We oughta be there ‘fore noon.”

 

“Before noon! But that is too long! Can we not go faster?”

 

“Maybe. But we still ain’t gonna go runnin’ the horses. It’s faster to go slower… if you get my meanin’.”

 

As the sun came up and got stronger, she knew that he was right. It grated on her that the pace wasn’t as fast as she needed it to be, but she had to accept it.

 

After a couple of hours of traveling, she was hopelessly lost and the glare of the sun on the desert floor had her head pounding.

 

“You done much ridin’, Señorita?”

 

The question took her by surprise. Her companion had been quiet for most of the journey and her own thoughts had kept her preoccupied. “Señora,” she corrected him, the sound of her voice doing nothing for her headache.

 

He seemed taken aback. “That so? Your husband know you’re off gallivantin’ round the desert with a strange man?”

 

“My husband is dead,” she replied curtly. “And I am not ‘gallivanting’. I must get to Rancho Montoya.”

 

“Yeah, life ‘n’ death. I remember.”

 

“Si, it is so.”

 

“Well, it’s a long ride for someone who ain’t used to the saddle. You let me know if’n you wanta take a break.”

 

“I will be fine, thank you,” she told him stubbornly.

 

“Ma’am… Señora, that saddle’s like to get real uncomfortable if you ain’t been in one much. Seen many a man feelin’ his rump…” He stopped and harrumphed. “Sorry… I mean his… his butt… his…”

 

This time she laughed. She was sure that, under that three-day beard, he was blushing. “I understand, Señor Zeke. You do not need to explain.”

 

“My apologies, Señora. I just ain’t used to bein’ alone with a pretty young gal, ‘less she’s a …” He stopped again, choked a little and tried to continue. “Well, you know… well… umm…”

 

“I think so, Señor Zeke,” she replied, biting her bottom lip to stop another laugh.

 

“This is sure a crazy ride you’re makin’,” he said, changing the subject. “Thought you must be loco yesterday, askin’ around for someone to take you ‘cross the desert.”

 

“No, not loco.”

 

“You know them Montoyas? That Don Sebastian sure is some gentleman. I seen him once.”

 

“I know his son.”

 

“The son, hey? Heard tell he’s a bit of a wild one. Not like his pa. He the one who’s in trouble?”

 

“No, not Manolito,” she answered, disinclined to mention Johnny’s name.

 

“Heard there’s a daughter too. Real pretty they say. Married to that John Cannon, up ‘round Tucson.”

 

“Si, that is so. I have never met her. Only Mano.” She glanced sideways at him, realizing again that she was traveling with a man she knew nothing about. “You seem to have heard much of the Montoyas.”

 

“You travel ‘round here long enough an’ you’re bound to hear of ‘em,” Zeke Jackson explained. “Stopped once or twice at the village there. Nice little place an’ that hacienda is sure something.”

 

“I have never been there.”

 

“Well, it’s one o’ them real fine places. Seen a few of ‘em in California too.”

 

“You have done much traveling?”

 

He smiled and scratched his chin. “Yeah. I was just knee high to a grasshopper when Pa dragged me off to California in ’49. He was gonna find himself a goldmine and we’d live like kings.”

 

“And he did not?”

 

“Nope. Found out minin’ is just plain hard work an’ not much to show for it. He started himself a store instead. Storekeepin’ weren’t for me. Didn’t much like it an’ I headed off to get myself some real work. Been workin’ cows wherever the wind blows me ever since.”

 

He stopped talking and reined in his horse, unstopped his canteen and took a swallow. Estellita did the same and never had tepid water tasted so good.

 

“How far is it from here?” she asked.

 

“Couple hours yet, I reckon,” he replied calmly, looping the strap of the canteen back on his saddle.

 

‘A couple of hours’, she thought, somberly. That meant that they could be there by mid-morning. Quietly, she closed her eyes and crossed herself. “Madre de Dios,” she whispered. “Por favor, let me be in time.”

 

*

 

The back door had been easily forced. It was obvious to them as soon as they saw the lock. Don Sebastian growled and fumed at the irresponsibility of his servants in not barring the door as well as locking it, while the servants cringed and murmured apologies. But Scott and Manolito ignored Don Sebastian as they concentrated on looking for any tracks that could be found outside the door.

 

It was useless. Too many people had already passed through that door this morning and anything that might have been there had been trodden over before the guards had even been found or the alarm raised.

They left Don Sebastian to his ranting and headed to the gates where the tell-tale traces of last night’s violence were still clear in the dirt. The blood had seeped into the ground and dried, leaving dark stains that marked the last minutes in the lives of two men.

Scott and Manolito followed drag marks to the bushes where the two guards had been found, tossed aside and hidden from sight. Their bodies had already been taken to their loved ones and there were fewer bloodstains to show where they had lain for most of the night. The men had been dead well before being dumped and hidden.

“There is no sign of the young señor yet, Señor Manolito,” Manuel told him as he hurriedly joined them. “But I have men still looking.”

Manolito cast a quick glance in Scott’s direction and saw his jaw firm, despite the worry that haunted his eyes. There was little doubt now that Johnny had been the target of this raid. If he was still within the grounds, it would probably only be his body that would be found.

Still, they had not found him so far. That meant that he had been taken instead. But why?

Squatting on his heels and studying the ground closely, Manolito sighed and shook his head. Scott was beside him, also looking closely for signs. But there was nothing to be found in the way of tracks here either. Again, well-intentioned friends had destroyed any chance there might once have been of finding anything useful.

Manolito stood up. “Manuel, you are the best tracker on this rancho. Can you see anything here that I cannot?”

But Manuel shook his head. “I looked earlier, Señor. Even then, the tracks had been walked over. There was nothing.”

“It is hard to believe that a man could get in and out of this compound, kill two guards and take another man as his prisoner, and all without leaving something of himself behind.”

“It would take some skill,” Manuel readily agreed.

“We don’t even know if it was only one man,” Scott said with a sigh.

“That is true, Señor,” Manuel said. “But more than one would have aroused more suspicion from the guards. There is no sign that the gates were forced, so they must have let him in.”

“Is that usual? To let someone in late at night?” Manolito asked, surprised.

Manuel shook his head sadly. “No, Señor.”

Manolito turned around and faced the gates. “Manuel, I want you to go outside the gates and look around. This man did not walk across the desert. There must be something… horse tracks, perhaps even a wagon if he has taken Johnny. Find some sign of him.”

“Si, Señor. And, if I may, I will close the gates behind me so that no one follows and disturbs what tracks there might be.”

“Excellent. A good idea. Good luck, Manuel.”

“Let’s hope he finds something.”

Manolito turned his head. It was Scott who had spoken, standing beside him. Manolito saw, again, the concern in the man’s eyes. It was hard now to remember that it had been only a week ago that Manolito had doubted Scott’s story of being Johnny’s brother. If any doubts had still lingered, the expression on Scott’s face would soon have convinced him.

But those doubts were long since gone. Manolito’s own relationship with Johnny was strong and of long-standing. He had years of memories of a friendship that he held close to his heart. But he had come to understand that something deeper lay behind the good-natured bantering between these two brothers – something that had nothing to do with time, perhaps not even to do with blood.

“Yes, let us hope so,” was all he could find to say.

“You don’t believe they’re going to find him here any more than I do, do you?” Scott asked him.

“No, I do not think they will. Or, perhaps, I am hoping they will not.”

“Because he’d be dead if he’s still here, wouldn’t he?”

Manolito nodded. “Yes.”

“Then we’re wasting time here.”

 “No, that desert out there is a big place, Scott. Without some idea of where they are headed, we could look for him forever and not find him.”

They both looked up at the sound of running feet. One of the servants hurried to join them, but any hopes that either might have had that the man had good news for them were dashed in an instant.

“Señores, we have searched everywhere. ¡Nada! We cannot find the caballero.”

Scott’s exasperation exploded. “Damn!”

Manolito nodded, accepting what, like Scott, he had already been certain of. “Gracias, Hernando. Now go, saddle our horses and choose some men to be ready to ride with us the moment I give the order.”

As Hernando nodded quickly and left them, Manolito sighed. “It was but a small hope. But, we should look on this as good news, my friend. True, they did not find him alive, but neither did they find his body.”

Scott’s shoulders slumped. “I know. At least we can still hope.”

“We will find him,” Manolito reassured him. “We will send every man on this ranch to search if we need to.”

“Thanks, Mano, but I just don’t get it,” Scott said, shaking his head. “Why would a man take all those chances in breaking into this place and then add to the risk of being caught by taking Johnny with him?”

Manolito had wondered the same thing but he only nodded. “I agree. It is strange. I do not know why they have taken him but, at the moment, it is something to be grateful for. Now, we will wait for Manuel to find something.”

And so they waited. They were frustrated beyond measure and on edge, hoping and praying that Manuel would find tracks… anything that might lead them to Johnny. As minutes ticked by, Manolito watched Scott begin to pace, stop for a while and cross his arms while he stared out the gates to where Manuel searched the ground, and then begin to pace again. Manolito leaned lazily against the wall, his own blood throbbing to be on his way and doing something, but he was forcing himself to hold back and be sensible.

After thirty minutes, Scott finally stopped in front of Manolito and glared at him. “How can you just stand there? We should be doing something by now.”

Manolito’s own emotions were running high but he held them in check, biting back the argument that he knew would only worsen things. “Certainly, and what would you have us do? Ride around in circles, searching at random and wasting time? I know this is hard, Scott, but it will save time in the end.”

Scott’s truculence waned under the sense of the words. He trudged over to lean against the wall beside Manolito, his head pushed back hard against the adobe and defeat on his face. “I’m sorry.”

“De nada, Amigo. I do not blame you.”

“How do you stand the waiting, Mano? I don’t know where you get the patience.”

“Patience?” Manolito shook his head angrily. “No, I wait here and plan what I will do to this man when I find him.” His face hardened and he ground out the next words bitterly. “Then you will see patience, my friend.”

They went back to waiting, joined soon by Don Sebastian whose ranting had been replaced by quiet concern. After Manolito updated him on what was going on, he too joined them in their discouraging wait.

And then they heard the call. It was Manuel, shouting from a low hill in the distance.

“Señores, aquí! Here!” the man called, waving his hands to beckon them.

None of them needed to hear more. Manolito and Scott raced for the gates and out to where Manuel stood waiting for them on top of the rise. When they reached him and looked over the top, they realized that it was just high enough to hide a man and horse.

Manuel walked over to point at the ground. “Here, Señor,” he began as they joined him. “This is where the man waited. You can see that he lay here watching the hacienda for some time. And over there, a horse was there for many hours.” He pointed to a trampled piece of ground where the tufts of grass had been cropped and the ground was littered with horse manure.

“He was waiting here?” Scott asked, astonished. “But how could he have known that Johnny would be here?”

Manuel shrugged his shoulders. “This I do not know, Señor. But he was here for many hours. Some of that dung is at least that old.”

Manolito looked around him, checking for tracks. He squatted on his heels and studied what he found. “These tracks are hours old.”

“Si, perhaps eight or nine hours.”

“And there was only one horse.”

“Si, Señor. And when this man left, that horse carried two men.”

“Two? Then he had Johnny riding with him.” Scott scowled as he and Manolito looked at each other. “That will slow him down.”

“It appears that he wants him alive, at least for now,” Manolito said, nodding. “For this mercy, we should be grateful.”

“I will be more grateful when we find this murdering devil and give him his due,” Don Sebastian growled, aggravation plain on his face. “It is unacceptable that this can happen in my house, to my men.” 

“These tracks, Manuel, can you follow them?” Manolito asked.

“Si, I can.”

“Then we’ll go and get the men and start after them.” Manolito stood up. “There has been enough time wasted.”

But Manuel looked straight past him. “Wait, Señor, there are riders coming,” he said warily. “Two men.”

They all turned as one and watched as the strangers drew nearer. But as the riders closed the distance, Manolito was stunned to realize that he knew one of them – not a man, though dressed as one.

The newcomers stopped a few yards from where the group waited.

“Estellita?” Manolito exclaimed as she threw her leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground. She stumbled a little, straightened and adjusted the ill-fitting trousers and then looked directly at Manolito.

“What are you doing here, Chica?” he asked.

“Manolito! Scott!” She ran to Manolito and stood in front of him. “Where is Johnny? Por favor, I must speak to him, rapido.”

Manolito and Scott looked at each other uneasily. “He’s not here, Estellita.”

She looked as though she would collapse at the news. “Oh no… Madre de Dios, no… please do not let me be too late.”

“Estellita, what are you doing here?” Manolito asked again, firmer now. She was no rider and, in his experience, had never ventured far from town. He knew that she would not have come all this way on a whim.

“I came to warn him,” she answered, tears glistening in her eyes. “But I am too late, yes? Something has already happened to him. Por favor, tell me, Manolito. Tell me that he is not dead.”

Scott explained. “He’s missing, Estellita. Last night, someone killed the guards at the gates and broke into the house. It looks like they’ve taken him with them.”

She looked up suddenly, a light back in her eyes. “Ay… but he’s not dead, then? You said he is missing?”

“Yes, we don’t know who or why…”

“It is Ernesto… Ernesto Rivera.”

Manolito grabbed her arm, delicacy forgotten in his anger. “Rivera? How do you know?”

“Lucia Gutierrez saw you leaving my house. She recognized Johnny and she told me that she had told Ernesto. I am so sorry, Manolito.”

“I thought your husband was dead?” Scott asked.

“He is. Ernesto is his brother. He wants Johnny dead. Vengeance is what he and Lucia call it, but it is not just revenge. It is pure hatred for Johnny…”

“Why?” Scott demanded, his fears revitalized.

She stopped then. She looked him in the eyes and answered him sadly. “Because Johnny killed my husband.”

Scott was stunned. “What?”

“It was five years ago,” she told him, nervously fidgeting with the seam of her outlandish pants. “A… a rancher near Nogales was having much trouble with rustlers.”

“Tom Richards,” Manolito agreed solemnly. “I remember.”

“Si. He was very desperate and he hired Johnny and a couple of other pistoleros to help him. They guarded the herd day and night so that it became impossible for the rustlers to attack. The rustlers became just as desperate. I know this because mi marido, Cesar, was one of those rustlers.”

Scott frowned, but didn’t interrupt. He needed to hear the story.

“He was a bandito… all of his family were. They had made much money from Señor Richards’ cattle and now they had nothing. They talked often of ridding themselves of the pistoleros, but how to do it? None of them was good enough to face Johnny Madrid and they knew it.”

“Go on,” Manolito encouraged her. It was for Scott that he wanted her to explain. She knew that he didn’t need to hear the story himself. He knew a lot of it already.

“One day, Johnny was in town. He was in the cantina, bothering no one. Two of Cesar’s compadres taunted him, pushed him into a fight and then walked out into the street to wait for him. Even against two of them, Johnny walked out to face them with confidence. He… he met them, Gonzales and Sanchez, and proved to be faster than both of them. He killed them… and without being hit himself.”

She stopped and looked anxiously at Manolito, licked her lips and continued. “Cesar and Ernesto were hidden on the roof above the cantina. They both opened fire and shot Johnny in the back. As he fell, he fired and killed Cesar. Ernesto was the only one left and he ran like a rabbit.”

“And you took Johnny in and cared for him,” Manolito finished for her.

She nodded disconsolately. “I had been shamed by Cesar. He was dead by Johnny’s hands, but his had been the act of a coward… to try to kill from hiding like an assassin. So, yes, I took Johnny into my house and I nursed him back to health. He had nowhere else to go. He was badly hurt with a bullet in his back and another in his leg and the town shunned him for what he was – a pistolero. I did not know him at that time, but it had been my husband’s shameful act that had hurt him. I felt that I could do nothing less.”

Manolito had always marveled that she had done it, but it had brought her respect from many in Nogales – and the enmity of her husband’s family.

“Cesar’s family said that I should have killed him and they disowned me, but I did not care. I have never regretted it.”

Estellita looked from one to the other and sighed. “Cesar’s cousin, Lucia, lives near me and she saw all of you leaving yesterday morning. I was sure that I had seen her watching through her window and I went to her and challenged her. Of course, she had recognized Johnny and told Ernesto. I knew what that bastardo would do…”

“So you came all this way?” Manolito asked, almost incredulously.

Tears sparkled in her eyes as she nodded. “I could think of no way to get a message to you to warn him, so I hired Señor Zeke here to bring me. But… lo siento, Scott. I did not get here soon enough.”

Scott moved forward and put his arm around her shoulders. “You did more than most people would have done, Estellita. You tried… thank you. And you, too,” he added, looking over to the stranger she had called Zeke. “Thank you for bringing her.”

“Zeke Jackson,” he said, introducing himself and stretching his hand forward to shake Scott’s. “Don’t know much ‘bout what’s goin’ on, but it sounds like we got here too late.”

 “I’m Scott Lancer,” he replied. “And this is Don Sebastian Montoya and Manolito Montoya. What’s happening is that someone has broken into the hacienda and killed two guards, then taken my brother.”

“Sorry to hear it. Guess your brother’s the fella that the Señora was so all fired worried ‘bout.”

The tears spilled over and wound their way silently through the dust on Estellita’s face. “Si, did I not say it was life or death?”

“But, if your brother-in-law hates Johnny so much, why has he taken him prisoner instead of killing him when he had the chance?” Scott asked.

She hung her head and shook it in distress. “I do not know, Scott, but I do not like to think what he has planned. Ernesto Rivera is an evil man.”

Scott’s heart clenched at her words, fears for his brother redoubling.

Hernando re-appeared and stopped in front of the don. “The men are ready, Don Sebastian, and your horses are saddled.”

“Then we go now,” Don Sebastian answered decisively.

“And you, Estellita, will remain here as a guest of the Rancho Montoya. Both of you,” Manolito told her, eyeing his father defiantly. “Is that not right, Papa?”

His father looked the girl over a little disparagingly and Manolito felt his anger rising.

“Oh no, Mano,” she argued quickly. “That is not necessary. Señor Zeke and I can find lodgings in the village until you return.”

“Nonsense,” Don Sebastian said dismissively, apparently having made up his mind. “I will not here of it. We are in your debt, Señora. You will be guests in my house.”

“Muchas gracias, Señor Montoya.” She wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. “I am honored.”

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

Rivera had a good start on them. Even with his horse carrying two, he had been traveling in the cool of night and for many hours before anyone was even aware of what he had done.

Rivera… they had a name now. Scott let the name roll around in his mind and his anger grew just with the very thought of it. The kidnaper was a person now… a man of flesh and blood who he could hate instead of some shadowy unknown entity.

But Estellita’s story had also reinforced the fears that Scott held for Johnny. His brother was in the hands of a man who had hated him passionately for years, who wanted revenge. That Johnny was still alive might be a miracle, but what did the man have planned for him?

A chill ran down Scott’s spine at the thought and shook him back to the present. He was riding with Manolito and Don Sebastian, with six more men following behind them. Manuel was several yards out in front of them, reading the tracks and beckoning them on as he found more to show the way.

There was an urgency burning in all of them, and Scott felt constrained by the need to follow the tracks. Even though common sense told him that he had no choice, a part of him wanted to sink spur and race to his brother’s rescue. It was getting harder to hold that back with every passing mile.

A glance to his left and he could see Manolito, his jaw set firm and a look of grim determination in his eyes that was alien to the insouciant, pleasure-seeking young man he had come to know over the past week. Was it only a week? It seemed so much longer and, already, he considered Manolito a good friend.

Manolito rode in silence, sometimes riding forward to join Manuel in looking for tracks and then coming back to Scott’s side.

And beside Manolito rode his father, his riding clothes as elaborate and well-tailored as those he had worn to dinner last night. The man appeared for all the world like a general leading his troops to battle and obviously took it as his right.

It had been somewhat to Scott’s surprise that he had come with them in the first place, but that he was just as solemn as his son and Scott was even more unexpected. Whether it was from concern for Johnny or because of the loss of his much vaunted sense of honor, Scott was not sure and didn’t particularly care.

“We’re moving kind of slowly, Mano,” Scott said, suddenly unable to stand the silence. “Do you think we’re making up any time?”

“Some,” Manolito answered. “But I expect that we are still a long way behind them.”

Scott looked up at the sun, burning hot but still not high overhead. It wasn’t noon yet but the heat was already overwhelming. “Carrying two men, that horse is going to need a rest or he’ll drop.”

“Yes, and that will allow us to get closer to them.” Manolito wiped his sleeve across his forehead and shook his head. “It makes no sense to take a man prisoner and then slow himself down by having to ride double. Why did he not have a second horse ready?”

“I don’t think this man is much of a planner, Mano. It looks to me like he’s making this up as he goes.”

“Then you think that he planned to kill Johnny and changed his mind?”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense to me,” Scott told him, though he was not entirely convinced himself. “But if that’s what he’s doing, then he’ll make more mistakes.”

“It is to be hoped,” Manolito agreed and silence fell between them again.

They rode on as before, slowing as Manuel checked the hard ground and then moving on again to make up time. But soon, Manuel called back to them to stop. He dismounted and looked around while everyone else waited.

“He can’t have lost them,” Scott said anxiously as they looked on.

Manolito didn’t answer but rode up to Manuel and dismounted beside him. Scott glanced at Don Sebastian’s stony face and worried while Manolito and Manuel talked together and studied the ground around them.

Finally, Manolito waved them forward. Scott pulled his horse up beside Manolito’s Mackadoo, Don Sebastian with him.

“What is it?” Scott demanded nervously. “Have you lost the tracks?”

“No, Scott,” Manolito answered, walking over to stand beside Scott’s horse. “But it appears that the situation has changed.”

Scott scowled, worried now. “Changed how?”

“The horse is no longer carrying two,” Manuel told him. “One of the men is now on foot.”

*

The first inkling he had that something was wrong was the hammer pounding against his skull. He was sure that it would break it open like an eggshell at any moment. At least, that was what it felt like. Then he realized that he was lying awkwardly… and he was moving, though not of his own accord.

Where...? What…? His world seemed full of questions and there were no answers… just that horrendous throbbing in his head.

He tried to reach up to touch his forehead and ease the pain, and in part to make sure that his head was still in one piece. And that was when he understood that he was in trouble… serious trouble.

His hands were tied. Frowning, he tried to move them, but they were too well secured. He had to take a look, see what he’d gotten himself into this time.

He gritted his teeth and waited for the shock of light that would assault him when he opened his eyes. With his head this sore, he knew that it was going to hurt - and he was right. The light hit him with a sharp jolt.

But, as his eyes adjusted to it, he got another shock. All he could see was a dizzying view of the ground moving past – small stones and sharp flint, large and smaller cacti and clumps of buffalo grass, slowly and nauseatingly going by.

His arms were bare and he realized that he wasn’t wearing a shirt, just the bandage that wrapped around his chest and covered the wound in his shoulder.

He eased his head a little to the right and caught sight of one moccasined boot in a stirrup. It was certain now - he was on a horse or, more correctly, he was draped over one.

Next, he tried to move his feet but he found that they too were tied.

‘Think, Johnny… think. How did you get into this mess?’ For a mess it was. He knew that now. He was trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey and slung over a horse. He didn’t need to be able to see his hip to know that he didn’t have his gun either. No one would be stupid enough to do this to him and leave him armed.

‘Who? Think, Johnny!’ There had to be something at the back of his brain… some memory – something of what had happened.

It came to him suddenly. The memories rushed in… images… waking in the dark to the sharp prick of a knife tip at his throat, a dark figure hovering over him and the flash of teeth as the shadow sneered confidently at him. He recalled the threats made to Scott and Manolito and anyone else who tried to help him. He had had to take them seriously and do as he was told and he’d hoped for a chance to take Rivera…

Then there was nothing.... nothing until now.

Rivera – that was the name. It came to him out of the blue… Ernesto Rivera! Cesar Rivera had been Estellita’s husband – the man he had killed in Nogales all those years ago and the main reason why he had never seen any future for himself with her. Ernesto was his brother and Johnny knew that he, too, had been lying in wait for him that day in Nogales.

How often had Estellita warned him to watch out for her brother-in-law? But Johnny had been more concerned about the Rurales on this trip. He hadn’t expected to be unlucky enough to run into this old nemesis.

But, if this was Rivera, why was he still alive? Estellita had told him that Ernesto and the rest of the Rivera family had sworn vengeance on him, yet Rivera had not killed him when he had the chance. He frowned. Whatever the man had in mind, Johnny had the feeling that it wasn’t going to be much fun.

“So, Madrid, you are awake at last?” Johnny heard from behind him. The words were spoken in Rivera’s native Spanish and, foggy though his head was, Johnny’s mind did the quick adjustment to the language and answered in kind.

“Rivera, right?”

“Yes, Ernesto Rivera. Does that make you afraid, Madrid?” The man laughed wickedly. “You should be.”

“Only while I have my back to you,” Johnny answered blithely.

“¡Bastardo!”

Johnny felt a heavy hand on his belt, a shove and then found himself plummeting off the horse and hitting the ground with a thud that forced all the air out of him. He had managed to tuck his head in as he fell, so he landed on his shoulders and rolled onto his back, struggling for breath. He closed his eyes against the pain in his head, and now in his shoulders as well. His wound screamed in protest at his treatment.

The laughter above him got louder and more raucous. Slowly, he opened his eyes and got his first good look at his captor – a small and repulsive creature who needed a shave, a haircut and a bath. His laughter revealed teeth that were stained yellow from cigarillos and were broken as well. He looked almost as ugly as one of those gargoyles the churches were so fond of.

Rivera stopped his horse and jumped to the ground to stand over Johnny. “I have waited for five years for a chance to kill you. Now that I have it, I want to savor it. Your end will not come easy, Johnny Madrid.”

“Long as you don’t bore me to death with talkin’, Rivera.”

The words were barely out when Rivera swung his boot into Johnny’s side. Curling up and pulling his hands into position to fend off the boot, Johnny tried to escape the brunt of the blow. Rivera’s anger only escalated and he swung the boot again.

This time, Johnny was ready. Even with his wrists tied, he managed to grab the boot, twist it and overbalance him. Rivera crashed to the ground and Johnny scrambled awkwardly on hand s and knees towards the man while Rivera tried to get back to his feet. Johnny reached for the gun at Rivera’s hip… and he almost made it.

Johnny’s hand touched the butt of the pistol and his fingers wrapped around it, but Rivera pulled away quickly and got to his feet.

Clawing for the gun and finally aiming it steadily at Johnny’s head while he caught his breath., Rivera snarled “I should kill you for that, right here and now.”

On his knees, head bowed and panting, Johnny asked coldly. “Why don’t you?”

Finally, Johnny looked up to see the man’s lips curl into that evil smile. “No, not yet. That would be too easy… too quick. You have too much to pay for.”

“What? Putting a bullet in that worthless brother of yours? They called that self-defense. Remember?”

“What the gringos called it means nothing to me. You killed my brother and then you took that puta he married to your bed. You will pay for the shame you brought on the name of Rivera.”

“Oh, and what a proud name it is too,” Johnny said with a wry grin. “But you give me too much credit. Estellita has more taste than to bed a gunfighter.”

Rivera moved close enough to put the barrel of the gun to Johnny’s head. “Lay down on you stomach, you mongrel dog. And put your hands out in front of you where I can see them.”

For a moment, Johnny hesitated. If this was going to end here, he might as well be facing his killer.

“I said lay down,” Rivera growled, cocking the pistol with a click that echoed in Johnny’s ear.

With a sigh, Johnny did as he was told, rolling onto his stomach with his hands outstretched. The ground was hot against his bare chest and he wondered how much of him would be left for Scott to find. If he ever did. The desert wasn’t kind to the dead. Between the cruel sun and the animals, a carcass could be obliterated in days.

At least there were only the saguaros to witness the final humiliation of Johnny Madrid. Well, perhaps Madrid deserved no better… but he hoped that Johnny Lancer did.

He waited for the bullet; wondered if he’d hear the shot but, instead, Rivera began loosening the rope around his feet and legs. Johnny felt the rope being pulled away and heard footsteps coming closer.

“If you move, I will put a bullet in you,” Rivera warned him. There was that chilling laugh again.  “But no, not in your head, that would be too soon. Perhaps in your leg, eh? Or I might take an ear off.”

Johnny turned his head sideways and watched from the ground as Rivera walked past him to his hands. The gun was pointed at him until he was just out of reach. Then Rivera looped one end of the rope that had bound his legs over the bindings on his wrists and tied it off.

The man stood up, once again aiming that gun unwaveringly. “Now get to your feet, Madrid. Slowly… I would not want you to think you can try again to take me.”

Johnny did as he was told, surprised that he was still alive. A sliver of hope remained that he might yet get out of this. Scott and Manolito would be looking for him by now. If they could track them across the desert, Johnny knew that Rivera must have been traveling slowly with Johnny’s weight on the horse as well so they might catch up with them.

Rivera slipped the gun back into his holster. He went to his horse, took his canteen and drank a little, then replaced it and mounted. He held the other end of the rope firmly in his hand and looked back to Johnny.

“Now, Madrid, you walk.” He kicked the horse on and it was a moment before the slack on the rope drew tight and jerked Johnny’s hands, wrenching him forward.

*

“There are signs here of a struggle,” Manolito told his father and Scott. “Not more than a scuffle, really.”

Scott looked around him and found some relief. “But no blood.”

“No,” Manolito answered, the same relief in his voice. “But from here, the hoof prints are not cut so deeply into the ground, and there are footprints over top of some of them. Johnny is on foot now. We are sure of it.”

“Mano, he’s in no condition for this,” Scott pointed out. “He’s…”

“Si, I know, Scott.”

“The horse will be less burdened,” Don Sebastian commented, “but he will still be slowed. We can catch up to them, still.”

“Si, Papa.”

“The tracks will be harder to see, won’t they?” Scott asked anxiously.

Manolito nodded. “But Manuel will see them.”

They all remounted and Scott looked out ahead of them at the vast, unforgiving landscape. Then he looked down at the ground more closely, noting the sun-baked surface, the stones and the cacti with their spines and the bushes with their thorns. All of them designed to give pain. He closed his eyes for a moment and thought of Johnny’s struggle and his bare skin.

“Let’s go, Scott,” Manolito said urgently. “Let us find this bastardo,”

They rode on, each with his own silent thoughts. Scott’s fears for his brother were escalating with every mile they covered. It was obvious now that this Rivera wanted Johnny alive and was prepared to be slowed down by him. Why? Scott thought that it was becoming more obvious.

If this Rivera hated Johnny as much as Estellita had said, then he was going to make the most of his revenge. He would draw it out and wring out every bit of pain he could from Johnny before finishing him off.

Their only hope was to make up the distance between them and end Johnny’s ordeal before it was too late. He remembered how exhausted Johnny had been over the last couple of days.

He looked sideways at Manolito and was sure that he was thinking the same way. His jaw was set hard, his expression grim and his eyes were full of worry. It occurred to Scott that Manolito probably thought of Johnny almost as a brother too. More and more often, Manolito rode forward to join Manuel in studying the tracks.

Don Sebastian’s stern face was as difficult to read as it ever was. The man gave nothing away. He rode with them, his back straight and his eyes looking ahead and seldom with anything to say.

The sun had passed overhead now. It was afternoon. They had been at this for hours and had nothing to show for it but more worry. The ground was growing harder and rockier while the sun just kept getting hotter. Scott remembered that Johnny had no hat or shirt either and worried some more.

Manuel called a halt again. Scott looked on as Manolito rode up to him and the two dismounted, studying the ground intently. Both men crouched close to the ground and talked. Neither looked happy.

“Mano?” Scott called to him. “What is it?”

Manolito stood up and walked back to them while Manuel mounted and walked his horse on, scanning the ground as he rode. They had reached a plateau of granite with only scattered boulders and occasional bushes to break the monotony.

“The ground here is almost all rock, my friend. There are no tracks. Manuel is going to circle around the rocks and see if he can find anything.”

“We’ve lost them.” Scott felt defeat wash over him. No, surely this couldn’t happen, not even out here in this God-forsaken part of the world.

“For now, yes, but Manuel will pick up their trail again. You will see.”

“We don’t have time to stand around any more, Mano. We both know that.”

Manolito looked away, his fingers fidgeting with the reins in his hand. “Yes, I know.”

Don Sebastian leaned forward. He rested his hands on the pommel of his saddle and sighed heavily. “Perhaps it is time to make an educated guess, my son.”

“A guess, Papa?” Manolito fired back at him. “You want me to gamble the life of my friend on a guess?”

“Juanito’s life is not worth one centavo unless we can get to him soon, and you know it,” his father snapped back at him.

Scott was taken off guard by Don Sebastian’s calling Johnny, ‘Juanito’. It was far more familiar than the man’s usually formal manner. But he might be right. How long should they wait or wander around searching while Johnny was in Rivera’s hands and his life could be forfeit at any time?

Manolito glared at his father, then dropped his eyes and turned to watch Manuel. “Si, Papa, lo sé. I know it.”

Don Sebastian pointed off to his right. “That way lays a waterhole and shade for the horse and rider to rest. I think he would go that way.”

“Seems logical,” Scott agreed.

“Oh yes, logical,” Manolito repeated ironically. “Common sense, yes? But when has this hombre shown ‘common sense’? He rides double, then he walks Johnny and slows down even more. He is not one for ‘logic’ this one.”

“And so what do you think he will do?” Don Sebastian asked with a sarcastic tone in his voice.

“There is an old abandoned farm over that rise,” Manolito suggested.

“The Garcia place. I know it.”

“It’s possible that he will head there and hide out.”

“Nonsense!” Don Sebastian exclaimed. “Why would he do that?”

Manolito looked uneasily at Scott, who lowered his head in understanding of his unspoken words.

Scott sighed and lifted his head again to face Manolito, putting the awful truth into words. “Probably to torture and kill my brother.”

Both looked surprised. “That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it Mano?” Scott added.

“You are a realist, I see.” Manolito answered kindly. “But yes, it is what I think.”

Don Sebastian straightened in the saddle and called to Manuel, still riding in circles and looking for anything that might point the way. “Manuel, aquí!” Then he waited silently for the man to return. “Manuel,” he began when the vaquero reached him. “Have you found anything?”

“Nada, Señor. The ground is all rock.”

“Then which way do you think they have gone?”

The man looked uncomfortable. “Señor, it would be only a guess.”

“We know that Manuel, but we value your opinion,” Manolito told him patiently. “If we are to catch this man, we may have to take the chance on an educated guess.”

Manuel nodded. “Si, this one is a fool, but clever. Es raro.” *

“Then which way?” Don Sebastian asked again.

The vaquero frowned. “I believe that ‘Las Aguas de la Luna is most likely, Señor. Whatever he has planned, he and his horse both will need water and the waterhole is not far ahead.”

“I agree,” the don announced, giving his son a look of victory. “We go that way.”

But Manolito still looked doubtful. Scott had his own doubts as well. Manolito was right about this man. So far, he had done nothing that had been expected. He didn’t seem to care that he was traveling slowly and risking their catching up with him and Scott suspected that, at the moment, he cared very little about anything except making Johnny pay.

Scott’s thoughts disappeared as he realized that Manolito was looking straight at him. “Papa, I think I will follow my own ‘hunch’ and head in the other direction.”

Scott nodded. “I’ll go with you.”

“You are wasting your time,” Don Sebastian told them bluntly. “But go your own way. If we catch them, I will send word.”

“Gracias, Papa. If we find nothing, we will rejoin you.”

*

Scott was having doubts and he couldn’t help but wonder if Manolito was having them as well. They had left Don Sebastian and the rest of the search party to follow what was little more than a gut feeling. Had they been wrong? Was it foolish to ignore common sense?

“You are having doubts, Amigo,” Manolito said quietly. “I can see it in your face.”

“Aren’t you?”

Manolito sighed heavily enough for Scott to hear. “Yes, a little. But I still think it is best to check this out. If we are wrong, then Papa will have caught up with them and we will have lost only the chance to be there.”

The hard granite surface gave way to the more familiar desert terrain again. The ground became dusty and littered with gravel and cactus. They stopped and looked around carefully for tracks. Manolito dismounted and bent close to the ground.

“Anything?”

“Not yet.” He walked away, searching carefully for tracks, then turned back and went in the other direction.

“Nada, Scott. I think perhaps I have brought you on a fool’s errand.”

“I came of my own free will, Mano. Perhaps we should look a bit further before we turn back.”

Manolito nodded and went back to his search while Scott remained mounted. He picked up his canteen and unstopped it, swallowed a mouthful and then put the stopper back.

Scott took off his hat and wiped his sleeve across his sweaty brow, then gazed out into the wilderness.

“Where are you, Brother? Where the hell are you?”

Then he saw it… something out of place. A glimmer of color where there should be none. Just a quick glint of sunlight on something and then it was gone.

Scott dismounted and walked towards it, more curious than anything. Then he stopped, his heart beating fast and hard. He bent over and picked it up, closing his fist around it as though it would bring him closer to Johnny.

“Mano!”

“What is it?” Manolito asked, running to his side.

Scott opened his fist. “Johnny’s beads. They came this way.”

 

*Es raro – It’s strange.

* Las Aguas de la Luna – The Waters of the Moon


 

Chapter Seventeen

Johnny stumbled again but managed to stay on his feet. His feet… damn but they hurt. Riding boots were definitely not designed for walking. The pain in his legs was from the exertion of walking and trying to keep up the pace that Rivera was setting. His arms were aching from the tightly bound ropes around his wrists and from being pulled out in front of him. The wound had reopened too. The strain on the stitches had taken its toll and he’d felt at least one of them break. Blood had already soaked through the bandage.

The headache that he had woken up to had become a constant and nagging companion, aggravated by the sun beating down on his bare head; and the skin on his chest and back was burning under its searing heat.

He was sure there was at least one broken thorn in the back of his hand as well. He’d brushed against more than one cactus but at least his thick trousers had protected his legs. It was the small, broken pieces of cactus and thornbush that lay on the ground which had been the bane of his existence since being set afoot. Every one pierced his skin when he fell.

 Johnny trudged on, his hopes of being rescued fading as the hours went by. When they reached the rock plateau, he’d quickly realized that the few tracks they had been leaving would end. There was no shade and the sun had heated the rock like hotplates on a stove, reflecting off the rock and onto his face and chest until it burned.

He slowed automatically, desperate for some relief. But it didn’t come. There was no getting away from it. Rivera yanked again on the rope and he was jerked forward.

But exhaustion and the heat were taking their toll. Though Rivera had often stopped for a drink of water from his canteen, he had made it clear that Johnny would get none of it. In fact, he’d taken a sadistic delight in watching Johnny’s reaction every time he’d drunk.

Johnny stumbled again. This time, he went down and his head felt as though his brain was banged against his skull, yet he had not hit his head.  It was his chest that hit the ground with a thump and he skimmed the ground as he was dragged, until the horse stopped and he felt the rope slacken just a little.

“Get up, Madrid!”

Johnny lay on the ground, dragging air back into his lungs and relishing every precious moment of not walking that he could grab.

The rope jerked again, wrenching his arms hard. His moment was over. Slowly, he got to his knees.

Not fast enough for Rivera though. The rope jerked hard and he fell forward again. “No games, Madrid. Get to your feet, now, or I will drag you across the desert.”

Hatred burned in Johnny. It burned in every bruise and strained muscle in his body. It burned in his chest till he thought his heart would burst.

One chance… that was all he asked. He’d make the most of it.

*

 “It’s the bracelet he always wears. The thong is broken and it must have come off.”

 Manolito looked at bracelet and recognized it as well. Then he looked down at the ground and spotted something that he figured Scott had missed in his excitement. He squatted on his heels and studied it carefully.

 “Scott, I do not want to diminish your excitement,” he said cautiously, “but this is blood.”

 Scott started. His heart missed a beat and he knelt beside Manolito and put his finger warily to the small stain. It was only the size of a coin and it was sticky but not quite dry. “Not much of it at least,” he said, somewhat relieved.

 “And not very old. We are getting closer.”

 “Then let’s get going. We can still catch up with them.” Scott’s confidence had grown, despite the blood. Johnny was in trouble, but this showed that he was still alive. “Do you still think they’re heading for that abandoned farmhouse?”

 “Yes.”

 “How far is it from here?”

 “Perhaps an hour. We might get to them before they reach it now. Come on.”

 Manolito and Scott rode on, each with renewed hopes and fears both vying with each other. They had chosen the right way after all, but Johnny was likely to be in bad shape. Still, it appeared he was alive and that was what counted.

 *

He stumbled again… fell again… and then he dragged himself back to his feet. They’d been heading uphill for a while now and Johnny had reached the point where there was nothing in his world but the putting of one foot in front of the other. He had blacked out everything else. The heat and the glare, the thirst and the pain – they was all there but he had made himself oblivious to them.

‘Just put one foot in front of the other,’ he told himself with mind-numbing constancy. ‘Take another step… stay on your feet…’

By the time they reached the top of the bajada, Johnny didn’t think he could take another step. His legs ached beyond anything he had ever known. They were surrounded by huge granite boulders but he had lost all track of where they were and the outcrop could be any one of many that he knew of.

It didn’t really matter. What was important to him was that they stopped. The rope slackened and Johnny stood wavering on his feet while Rivera dismounted. He had his back to Johnny and, for a moment, Johnny tried to calculate his chances of jumping the man and getting the gun away from him.

But he knew that he was kidding himself. He was beyond exhaustion, weakened to the point of existing instead of living. The shoulder wound had bled some more, trickling down his naked chest without his being able to do anything about it. The bandage was stretched, dirty and useless.

Rivera pulled his rifle from the scabbard and walked towards him.

“Sit, Madrid,” he said coldly. “Enjoy the rest while you can.”

Rivera walked past him to the cover of a boulder and looked out over the bajada.

Johnny watched him, panting heavily and swaying. Sit? It seemed to be too good to be true. It was certainly not as easy to do as it sounded. His legs seemed to have seized up and he found it hard to bend his knees to get to the ground.

But he managed. He sat on the ground, still in the sun but past caring. There was no shade and his throat was parched but, at this stage, he was prepared to relish the opportunity.

Taking the weight off his feet was breath-taking in its relief. He waited, catching his breath. He could feel the blood racing though his body and pounding in his head. Closing his eyes did no good, it was his constant companion now.

Fuzzily, he wondered why he was suddenly being given the chance to rest. It wasn’t like Rivera to ease up, not even to keep him alive for a little longer. The man’s hatred poured from him with every word and action. So why? What was he doing?

Johnny looked towards the boulder where his captor sat staring back the way they had come. It struck Johnny then. Rivera was hiding behind that rock – hiding from someone!

The man was up to something and it was painfully obvious to him that it couldn’t be good. Johnny tried to think. And then it came to him in a horrifying flash of understanding. They had been traveling slowly and there had to be men searching for them. At the pace they had made, the searchers must have made ground.

Scott! Manolito! They had to be with them. Had they caught up?

That had to be it. He had to warn them, but he knew that he would never be able to move quickly enough to strike out at Rivera. Just trying to run the ten yards between them would take him too long. No, there had to be another way.

Johnny licked his lips and prayed that something would come out when he tried.

Heart racing, he shouted.

“SCOTT!”

*

Scott heard the shout. It was short and indistinct but he was sure that, not only was it his name that was called but that it had been Johnny’s voice. Instinctively he looked up into the rocks, just in time to catch a glint of sunlight shining off metal.

“Mano!” he called and quickly looked towards his friend. But Manolito was also looking upwards.

Neither of them had time to do more. The first shot rang out before the echo of Johnny’s call had even died away. In horror, Scott saw Manolito’s head jerk and he started to fall. 

He reached over and grabbed Manolito’s arm, stopping the fall while Manolito pulled himself back into position. Manolito’s hand went to his neck and he leaned forward limply as another shot rang out and hit the ground beside them.

“Hang on, Mano,” Scott told him. He took hold of Mackadoo’s reins, touched his spurs to his own mount and raced both horses to the bottom of the bajada and the meager cover that the rocks there offered. He leapt from his horse and ran to Manolito’s side to find him barely conscious and blood streaming from a wound to his neck.

“Come on, Amigo.” He dragged Manolito from the saddle and took his weight in his arms to lower him to the ground.

There was so much blood that Scott couldn’t even see the damage that the bullet had caused. He grabbed his handkerchief from a back pocket and held it hard against the wound, while Manolito struggled to breathe.

“Come on, Mano. Don’t do this,” Scott pleaded with him. “Come on, you Mexican peacock, breathe.”

Manolito turned his head very slightly to look at him. His expression was one of surprise rather than pain. But Scott knew that that would come soon enough. Manolito swallowed hard, jerked a little and then panted heavily as he tried again to catch his breath. It was then that Scott realized that he was trying to speak.

“Don’t try to talk, Mano. Save your strength and just keep breathing for me.” He looked around him. They were still too far out in the open. They needed protection from the gunman above as well as from the sun.

“I’m going to move you closer to those rocks,” he told Manolito. “Think you can handle it?”

Manolito’s eyes blinked and Scott took it to mean yes. He felt a warm dampness as the blood began seeping through his handkerchief into his fingers and he pressed harder, Manolito’s eyes closing and his breath catching as he did. Then he tucked his hands under Manolito’s armpits and dragged him slowly over to the shade.

He stopped and stooped over him. Suddenly, Manolito’s hand was on his wrist. Gripping like iron. “Johnny?” he managed to gasp.

“Yes, I know. I think it was Johnny who shouted. He must be up there with Rivera… alive.”

He struggled to form a word. “G… go…”

“Mano, I told you to keep quiet. Just worry about yourself for a minute and let me do the thinking.”

Scott waited a minute, his hand pushing hard against the wound. Finally, he was sure that the bleeding had slowed. Taking a chance, he eased the handkerchief away from the wound to take a better look. It was an ugly gash and it was deep, but the bullet had not pierced Manolito’s neck and it had not hit the jugular vein. He sighed with relief.

Next, he untied Manolito’s neckerchief and then retied it to hold his handkerchief in place good and tight, though he had to be careful not to choke Manolito at the same time.

“Will you be okay while I go take a look up the hill?” he asked.

Manolito found his voice this time. “Yes.”

Scott sidled over to a narrow split in the rocks. There was still cover, but he could see out. He chanced a look up the hillside and then ducked as another shot rang out, ricocheting off the rock he was hiding behind.

The shots had come from the boulders at the top of the hill – three shots. One had hit Manolito, while another had followed it quickly. The other was the one that had just missed Scott himself. So, whatever retribution Rivera had taken out on Johnny up there, he had not shot him. Scott was certain they would have heard it.

Scott had to get to him. To be this close was so frustrating.

But Rivera had good cover and, between them, there was an open uphill run of at least two hundred yards. To try running straight up it would be suicide. And it was too far for a handgun to be effective, so the gun at his side was a waste of time. He might as well throw rocks.

But a rifle was a different matter. Scott knew that he was marksman enough to hit something at that distance, if he could get a clear shot. Yes, with a rifle, he might have a chance of making a shot count.

He looked back over his shoulder to where the horses were standing. Manolito’s Mackadoo had stayed to stand within a few feet of his master but his own horse was a few yards beyond him. Then he turned back to check out that hillside and considered his options.

Crouching low, he went back to check that Manolito had stayed put and then made a run for the horses. Reaching Mackadoo, he reefed Manolito’s rifle from the scabbard as a shot rang out and a bullet kicked up dust at his feet. It took him only seconds to take firm hold of the rifle and, as an afterthought, to grab the canteen from the pommel, then he turned and dashed back to where he had left Manolito.

He slid into the shelter of the rocks as another shot ricocheted off the rock behind him. That one had been close.

Sitting, his back against the rock, he caught his breath. Then he turned back and looked up the hill. The rocks up there were huge boulders, larger than the ones that were hiding him and Manolito. There was no sign of Rivera, but Scott only had to get one clear shot. He knew that he was good enough to take him given even a small chance.

He tried to pick the exact spot where he had seen that brief flash of the sun on metal. The angle was different, but he was sure he knew it. There was a tiny gap between two enormous boulders, just enough room for a man to stand and have a clear view of everything below.

The gap was hidden from him from here. He pictured Rivera standing there, watching the rocks below… ready to kill anything, or anyone, that moved.

Scott decided to take a chance. Perhaps if he gave Rivera something to take a shot at, he’d reveal himself to do it. He stood up, just enough to allow himself to be seen and, sure enough, a shot rang out and he ducked quickly. Another near thing – Rivera could shoot alright.

But Scott had gotten a quick glimpse of where he was hiding. He slipped around the rocks a little, so that he was firing from a different place and less of a target himself, and stood up quickly – aiming for that spot where he had seen Rivera.

He fired off two rounds but another had come back at him. The cover of those boulders was just too good. Scott couldn’t get a good target.

Sitting down, he laid the rifle across his lap and considered his options. There weren’t any really. He had to get closer.

“Scott…”

Scott looked up at the sound of Manolito’s voice. It was weak, his name barely able to be heard. He edged over to Manolito’s side and knelt beside him.

“Right here, Mano. Take it easy.”

Manolito cleared his throat to speak, winced badly and then looked at Scott.

“Any luck?”

Scott shook his head. “I can’t get a clear shot.”

“You are going up the hill?”

“Yes, Johnny’s up there. I have to get to him.”

“You will need cover,” he said, stopping to swallow and catch his breath. “Help me up and give me a rifle. I will…”

“You will stay right where you are,” Scott told him firmly. “You try moving around and that bleeding will start again.”

Manolito glared at him. “No, Scott… you cannot do it alone.”

“You’re staying right here and I don’t want you to even move a hair, Montoya. You understand?”

“No, Scott, I cannot let you try it alone.”

“Lancer takes care of her own, Mano. He’s my brother and I’m not leaving him up there with that bastard. But I’m not letting you throw your life away either. Johnny would never forgive me.” He smiled reassuringly. “Neither would Estellita.”

He opened the canteen. “Now, drink this and I want no more arguments.” He lifted Manolito’s head just enough to allow him to swallow some water and then gently lowered him to the ground. “You stay here and, if I’m not back in two hours, I want you to get yourself on that horse of yours whatever way you can and head home.”

“You won’t get five yards.”

“Don’t you believe it. Look, I’m not charging up that hill. I’ll sneak up on him. I’m not quite the greenhorn that everyone tells you I am.” Then he laughed lightly and looked down at his clothes – beige shirt and light brown trousers. “This is one time when my clothes will work for me. I’ll blend right into the ground while I climb up there.”

*

Scott did make that five yards, and then some more. He stayed close to the ground, crawling on his belly at times and, so far, no shots had rung out. It had taken him twenty minutes to get half way up the hillside and he stopped to look around him carefully, staying low to the ground. He could no longer see Manolito down below and prayed that he had had the good sense to do as he’d been told.

The ground was hot beneath him and the cacti and bushes plucked at his shirt as he made his way further up the hill, but the higher he went, the more bushes he had for cover and he made ground more quickly.

All the while, those boulders at the top were clear in his view. He watched them for any sign of Rivera and a clear shot at the man. But no chance had yet presented itself. Rivera was either very clever or very lucky.

Scott slipped closer and stopped again. His confidence mounted with every yard he covered. Soon he was within reach of those boulders and looking for the best way to get around behind them without being seen. He had to take Rivera completely off guard.

Johnny might or might not be able to help, but Scott couldn’t count on it. Surprise would be his ally this time.

On the other hand, he had no idea what the situation was behind those rocks. He hoped that Johnny would be out of the line of fire. He wasn’t sure that he would have time to assess the situation before bursting in. The truth was - it was unlikely.

Yet he felt that he had a good chance of succeeding. There had still been no shots from the boulders so Rivera couldn’t have seen him coming. He reached the shadow of one of the boulders and got to his feet. It towered over him, ten feet at least and finally gave him a feeling of security.

He checked the rifle. He was only going to get one chance and he had to make it count.

Edging around the base of the boulder, Scott bent low and suddenly found himself on the crest of the hill and stopped, still hidden. He’d made it.

Scott kept to the cover for a minute longer, making sure that he had caught his breath and that his hands were steady. ‘One chance’ he told himself. ‘You’re only going to get one chance at this, Scott. Get it right, first time.’

He drew in a long breath and let it out slowly, then stepped out into the open. His rifle was lined up with his finger on the trigger ready to aim with split second timing.

He stepped out into the open and stopped.

Nothing… no one.

From here, he could see the whole of the hilltop. These were the boulders that Rivera had been hiding behind. He was sure of it. And there, below, were the rocks where Manolito lay.

And there was no Rivera… no Johnny. There was no one to be seen and not a sound to be heard.

He swung around and looked down the other side of the hill. Far off in the distance he could see a horse, burdened with a rider and what looked like another man – Johnny - slung across it, galloping away. The trail of dust had settled on the downhill slope already. They were long gone.

Enraged, Scott aimed the rifle anyway. There had to be half a mile between him and Rivera but he had to try. The rifle kicked against his shoulder as he fired. But it was a waste of a bullet, just as he’d known it would be and he watched as his hopes faded with the disappearing horse and rider.

He dropped to his knees in despair, the rifle still in his hands but resting uselessly across his lap. His head dropped and he closed his eyes in frustration. He had been so close. How many minutes had he missed them by? If only he’d hurried up that hill just that little bit more – would it have been enough? Would he ever know?

Johnny had been within shouting distance and he hadn’t been able to reach him in time. His brother was still in Rivera’s hands.

Even if he ran all the way back down to his horse and pressed the animal into galloping hard, Scott knew that Rivera would still have a good lead on him. He and Manolito would be right back where they had started, tracking them across the desert… slowly and painfully trying to gain ground all over again.

Then Scott realized the awful reality of the situation. Manolito was in no condition to follow now. He needed a doctor, and soon.

But Johnny… his own brother. He’d sworn to find him and bring him back to safety. How could he turn his back on him?

Maybe he could leave Manolito in the shelter of the rocks and go after Johnny and Rivera alone. The lead they had could be eaten up in a couple of hours and he could be back with Johnny before nightfall, then they could get Manolito to the hacienda and help…

Even as he formed the plan, Scott knew he could never do it. Manolito couldn’t be left like that and Johnny would tear him apart if he left him to die. He sighed heavily. Neither would he ever be able to forgive himself. Thinking clearly for the first time, he knew that he could never have seriously considered it as an option.

Scott looked down the hill to where he had last seen the horse. They were out of sight now. The dust had settled and, in the eerie silence, Scott knew that there was no decision to be made. He had to get Manolito to help before he could return and go after Rivera and Johnny.

His fists clenched around the rifle and his chest tightened. “Oh God!” he cried out to the fates. He closed his eyes again, stricken by their unfamiliar moistening and his blurring vision. Then he angrily wiped them with the back of his hand, got to his feet and took a deep breath.

Sitting here was getting him nowhere. Time was wasting and Rivera was getting further away while he sat here despairing. He turned and looked one last time at the horizon, for there was nothing else to see – only the desert stretched out before him and the memory of that image of the horse carrying his brother and his captor out of his reach.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Scott walked to the horses and picked up the reins, leading them over to where Manolito lay. The climb down the bajada had been less troublesome than the nerve-racking trip up, but it had been devoid of hope. His choice had been made and he would have to live with it – and with its consequences.

Manolito’s head came up off the ground to watch him.

“Johnny?” he asked, his voice hoarse and weak.

“Gone. They were gone when I got there,” Scott told him, trying to keep his own voice from breaking when he put the awful fact into words.

“Go after them. They cannot have gone far.”

Scott reached his friend’s side and knelt beside him. Manolito was pale and drawn, his skin clammy. Scott put his hand on Manolito’s forehead but there was no sign of fever yet. Rather, his skin was almost cold to the touch.

The bandana was still holding Scott’s handkerchief in place but blood had long ago soaked through and pooled beneath him.

“No, I’m getting you home. I’ll come back with help and we’ll catch up with them.”

Manolito reached out and gripped Scott’s sleeve. His eyes were pleading with him. “Leave me, Scott. I will wait here while you get him back.”

“It’s out of the question, Mano. You need a doctor and I’m going to get you to one.” Scott opened the canteen. “Now drink some of this and take it easy. Save your strength instead of arguing with me.” He lifted Manolito’s head gently to help him drink.

“No. You cannot…”

Scott snapped. “Damn you, Manolito! Don’t make this harder than it is.”

Manolito closed his eyes sadly. “Lo siento, Scott,” he whispered sadly. “Lo siento muchisimo.”*

“You have nothing to be sorry for, my friend,” Scott answered, lowering him to the ground again. “Now, let’s get you onto a horse.”

Getting Manolito onto a horse proved to be only the first of Scott’s concerns. It was patently obvious that he wouldn’t last long on his own mount. He was already close to losing consciousness, so Scott decided that riding double was the better option. It wouldn’t slow them much anyway. They wouldn’t be able to travel fast with Manolito in that state.

Mounted, ready to go, it occurred to Scott that he was not sure where the hacienda was from here. They had had the sun at their backs all the way this morning, meaning that they had been traveling in a westerly direction, but Scott had been intent on where they were going, not how to get back. He’d had no thought of being alone on his return.

“Mano? How are you doing?” he asked. He had his arms slipped under Manolito’s armpits to hold the reins and, so far anyway, Manolito was sitting without support, though his head drooped with fatigue. The bleeding that had almost stopped earlier had started again once he started moving. With nothing left to use as a fresh bandage, and not able to tighten what he had too much more without choking the patient, it had taken Scott some time to get the bleeding back under control.

Manolito lifted his head slightly and answered. “Bueno.”

“Sure you are. But you’re going to have to tell me the way back to the hacienda. Can you?”

“Go north-east… until you reach the rocks we saw this morning.” He stopped then and then swallowed, with obvious difficulty, before continuing.

“The rocks where we separated from the others?”

“Si, then go straight east. You will see it.””

Scott recalled his first sight of the great hacienda on his arrival. It stood on a flat plain and dominated its surroundings, so he had no doubt that he would be able to see it for miles… once he got in the general area.

“Alright. Sounds easy enough,” Scott reassured him. “Now, take it easy and I’ll get you home.”

“Do not worry about me, I will be okay.”

Scott grunted. “Sure,” he said lightly, then yanked on the lead rein for Mackadoo and pressed his own horse forward.

He found the rocks some time later and the clatter of the horses’ hooves striking the rocks reminded him of the feeling of loss that had struck him earlier when he had realized that they had lost Rivera’s tracks with little expectation of finding them again.

Then had come the renewed hope when he had found the beads. He still had them in his pocket but that optimism had gone now.

There had been a vague anticipation in the back of his mind that he might run into Don Sebastian and his men somewhere here, probably on their way back to join Manolito and himself after finding they had been on the wrong trail.

But he had been living in a fool’s paradise. There was no sign at all of Don Sebastian or of his men. While it was gratifying to Scott to know that they were still looking for Johnny, it was frustrating to know that they had gone the wrong way… that if they had turned back by now, he might still have a chance of getting Johnny back before nightfall.

His chest tightened and his heart demanded that he shout it to the four winds, but he held another man’s life in his arms, literally, and there was no point. No one would hear him but the coyotes.

Manolito had been silent throughout the journey. Blood still oozed sickeningly from the neck wound. Scott could feel the warm stickiness of it as it seeped into his shirt and down his chest and sleeve. More and more, Scott found himself lending his friend his support. Manolito’s head and shoulders sagged lower as they rode further and Scott had pulled him back to lean against his chest, fearing that Manolito would soon fall forward completely and even right off the horse.

Now, Manolito’s head rested against his shoulder… eyes closed and his steady but shallow breaths the only way that Scott had of knowing he was still alive.

Scott pressed the horses on, turning east at the rocks just as Manolito had told him to do. They had traveled so slowly this morning, looking for tracks, that it was bound to be faster getting back to the hacienda. But, even so, the afternoon was wearing on. He couldn’t reach his watch, but he was sure it must be getting close to three o’clock.

Finding the hacienda and getting Manolito to help, finding himself a fresh horse… all of that would take up precious time and Scott desperately wanted to be back on Johnny’s trail before dark. But the days were considerably shorter here and it was beginning to look less than possible.

*

Two hours later, Scott stopped at the closed gates where two new guards replaced the men who had been so cruelly murdered the night before. They stood imposingly behind them, their rifles clearly ready for intruders. The lesson had been well-learnt.

Scott stopped a few yards back and hailed them. “Holà, soy yo, Scott Lancer,” he called to them. “Es Manolito, ha sido dańo.”*

“Ven màs cerca, Señor,”* one guard told him warily. “Come closer.” But he soon saw that Scott was speaking the truth. He threw the gates open and ushered him in quickly.

“Help me to get him down,” Scott said urgently. “He’s badly hurt.”

Manolito had lost consciousness soon after they had started back but the bleeding had continued. Scott had begun to fear that he had been forced to choose Manolito over Johnny only to lose them both.

The guards took Manolito into their arms and lowered him to the ground as Scott dismounted.

“Is there a doctor here?” he demanded as he knelt beside Manolito. “In the village?”

“Si, Señor,” the second guard said. “I will go for him.”

“Gracias. Do it quickly. And I think you should send someone to bring Don Sebastian back as well,” Scott suggested. “He and his men were headed for a place called Los Aguas de la Luna when I last saw them.” To the other man, he ordered, “What’s your name?”

“Juan, Señor. Juan Rodriguez.”

Scott nodded distractedly. “Juan, help me get Manolito into the house.”

The word spread like a wildfire. As Scott and the guard carried Manolito inside, servants ran around them, offering help but mostly leaving Scott with an impression of pandemonium.

When, finally, they reached the bedroom and lowered him onto the bed, Scott turned around and drew himself up straight. “Who is in charge here?” he asked, his voice ringing with authority.

“I am Señor. Hernando Garcia.” The man stepped forward into the room while the rest fell silent and watched.

“Then clear this room and the hallway of everyone but myself and Juan,” Scott answered, indicating the guard who had helped him. “And while we get Señor Manolito to bed, I want you to…”

He stopped as yet another interruption forced its way into the room. But this one was welcome.

“Scott?” Estellita exclaimed, pushing her way through the crowd. “Johnny, you have found him?”

Then her glance fell to the bed and she gasped audibly. “Ay, no… Manolito!” She ran to the side of the bed and quickly looked him over – the blood all over his neck and shirt, the pallor of his skin and his rapid shallow breaths.

She touched his cheek lightly with the tips of her fingers, pausing just a moment to swallow hard before turning around and glaring at the men in the doorway. “Estupidos!” she threw at them angrily, standing over Manolito like a mother bear with a cub in trouble. “Why are you all standing there? Hernando, we will need hot water, bandages, towels. ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba!” *

The man looked stunned and didn’t stop to wonder what right she had to give orders in the house, but turned, scattered the hovering crowd.

Scott grabbed him quickly before he could leave the room. “I want you to have someone get me a fresh horse. Have it saddled. I’ll be leaving once Manolito is seen to.”

The man nodded. “I will see to it, Señor,” he said and disappeared after the others to do as she bid. Scott watched as the crowd suddenly cleared and was surprised to see the man who had come with Estellita leaning against the wall opposite the door, casually looking on.

But he had no time to wonder why. When he looked back, Estellita had already taken her place sitting on the bed beside Manolito and was checking his pulse.

“This is not good, Scott,” she said anxiously. “He has lost so much blood.”

“I know. One of the men has gone for the doctor so he should be here soon. We’d better get him to bed.”

“Si.” She began unbuttoning his shirt.

“Estellita, leave it to us…”

She scowled at him. “I am no silly niña. Do not treat me like one or waste time arguing. Both of you can make yourself useful and help me instead.”

*

 Scott watched the doctor go about his task of stitching the wound while Estellita stood by to help him. He had arrived more quickly than Scott had dared hope but, to Scott, every minute counted. Torn between wanting to leave immediately and the responsibility he felt towards Manolito with Don Sebastian away, Scott watched and waited impatiently.

 The doctor, a self-assured man with distinguished sideburns peppered with gray and an austere expression, worked with deft and gentle hands. Mercifully, Manolito had not regained consciousness.

 Contrarily, that was also worrying. He’d lost a great deal of blood and his rich olive complexion had paled to ashen.

 Finishing off and bandaging the wound, the doctor washed his hands in the basin and turned back to Scott.

 “Señor Lancer, I do not need to tell you, I think, that his condition is very grave.”

 “Will he be alright?”

 “It is difficult to say. He is in God’s hands, I am afraid. He is young and healthy but, already, there is the beginning of a fever. I fear we will have to wait to see what happens tonight. If the fever takes hold, it might take more strength than he has left at the moment to fight it. You have sent for Don Sebastian?”

 “Yes.”

 “Good, he should be here. But, there is no need to send for the priest yet. We will have to wait and see.” He dried off his hands and rolled his sleeved back down into place, pulled on his coat and placed his gear back into his bag. He took a small brown tinted bottle and put it on the night table before closing the bag.

 “You’re leaving?” Scott asked, surprised.

 “One of my patients is about to give birth. The baby is early and the risk is high to both mother and child. Sadly, it was brought on by her husband’s death, Señor. He was one of the guards who were killed last night.”

 Scott sighed heavily. “I’m sorry to hear that. I hope they both come through.”

 The doctor picked up the bag and shook Scott’s hand. “The little one’s heart is still strong and the mother is doing well, so far. Only God will decide and guide my hands and thoughts to help them.”

 He walked to the door. “I will return in a few hours to see how he is. If he wakes before then, give him some of the laudanum I have left for the pain. It may be considerable.” With that, he was gone.

 As Scott turned back to Estellita, she looked up from tending to Manolito.

 “You got close to Johnny, didn’t you?” she asked.

 “Yes. I didn’t see him, but he was there… within reach.”

 “And that is when Mano was shot?”

 He nodded.

 She sighed heavily. “Why were you the only one who could bring him back?  Where were the others?”

 “We’d separated. Mano and I went on our own, on a hunch. Turned out Mano was right, but look what it got him.”

 “And you lost your chance to follow them. Lo siento, Scott. It must have been hard for you.”

 “It’s done.”

 She looked at him with sad, tear filled eyes. “You should wash and change that shirt, Scott. I can look after him,” she said kindly. “And get some rest. You look exhausted.”

 Scott knew that sleep wasn’t an option, but he did need to clean up. His shirt was still covered in dried blood. Yes, he should change.

 He went to his room, his head full of imagined images of his brother walking across that desert… of the real images of a horse riding off into the distance with Johnny thrown over it… of the despair of leaving him.

 No, sleep had never been a part of his plan.

 Washing up quickly, finding himself a clean shirt and grabbing his gun belt and rifle, Scott headed for the barn. He walked in and grabbed the first man he saw.

 “I ordered a fresh horse,” he said. “It is ready?”

 “Si, Señor,” the man replied without question. “The gray at the end is ready and waiting for you.”

 Scott thanked him then hurried along to the end of the barn. He stopped and looked the gray over, taking a moment to gain the animal’s trust. He ran his hand gently over it and satisfied himself that the horse was up to the journey that he had in mind.

 “Thought I’d find you here,” said an unfamiliar voice from outside the stall.

 Scott looked up and found Estellita’s guide standing there, leaning casually against a post and coolly regarding him. He turned back to take the reins to lead the animal outside, paying as little attention to the man as he could. “And why would you be looking for me?” he finally asked irritably.

 “Oh, figured you’d try something like this. O’ course, I can’t blame you none, but it ain’t smart thinkin’.”

 “I’m going after my brother.”

 “So you’re just gonna leave the Montoya kid like he is?”

 “I can’t help Mano now,” Scott said, as much to convince himself as the other man. “I might be able to help Johnny.”

 “You’ve only got about one hour of light left. Won’t get far with that.”

 “It will take me one hour closer to him,” Scott said with absolute determination.

 Zeke shook his head. “Campin’ out in the desert ain’t no picnic, Mister.”

 “I’ve been in worse places,” Scott told him bluntly and ignored the scrutiny that followed.

 “Yeah,” the man suddenly agreed. “I wouldn’t be surprised. You ain’t the fancy dan you look, are you?”

 “No.”

 “Heard tell that Murdoch Lancer had brung his sons home.”

 “So, you’ve heard of my father?”

 Zeke laughed. “I spent enough time in California to have heard of him, yeah. Story I heard was one son was half Mex and the other was some greenhorn from back east. Guess you’re the one was supposed to be the greenhorn, huh?”

 Scott snorted in aggravation. He’d heard that same description too often and had tired of proving himself long ago. “I guess.”

 “An’ Miz Rivera tells me the other one, your brother, is Johnny Madrid.”

 Rivera – the name sent a surge of fury through Scott. He’d forgotten that it was Estellita’s name as well. He stopped what he was doing and turned a cold expression on the man.

 “And do you have something to say about that?” he asked brusquely.

 Zeke shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t say as I do. Heard of him, o’ course, but never even seen him. Got no reason to have anythin’ against him.”

 Satisfied, Scott yanked on the reins and led the animal out of the stall.

 “You got any idea which way to head?” the man asked ingenuously as Scott passed.

 “I can get to where we were yesterday and track him from there.”

 “Good tracker are you? You can follow a tough trail?”

 “I’ll manage,” Scott told him belligerently and not stopping. He walked the animal through the barn, keeping his doubts to himself.

 “’Manage’ huh? Mister, you get lost out there an’ you ain’t gonna do that brother o’ yours no good at all. Ol’ Lady Desert can be a real bitch sometimes. Ain’t just hot out there. You got all kinds o’ things like to kill ya.”

 “I know.”

 “Might be better to wait till sunup. Head out fresh.”

Scott stopped abruptly and regretted it immediately as the horse protested. Laying a reassuring hand on the animal’s neck he turned to face the man, scowling. “Zeke,isn’t it?” he asked.

 “Zeke Jackson.”

 “Well Zeke, that bastard, Rivera, is walking my brother across that desert you’re talking about,” he said vehemently. “God only knows what else he’s done to him. Johnny’s already carrying a recent wound and either it’s opened up or he’s hurt again because we found blood on the trail. So just how long do you think I’m going to wait around?”

 Jackson’s casual demeanor changed. He straightened his back and lowered his head, stuck his thumbs into his belt and drilled his fingers uneasily. “I ain’t sayin’ you’re wrong in goin’, Mister. Only in the way you’re doin’ it. You’ve had one hell of a day an’ you oughta rest up now, leave at first light when you’re fresh. An’ you can’t go alone. Likely Ol’ Man Montoya will be back an’ you can take some of his men. You’ll need a good tracker. Findin’ tracks on that desert ain’t like findin’ ‘em on that soft green grass in California.”

 “I don’t know about that ‘soft green grass’ you’re talking about,” Scott snapped. “But we had a good tracker with us today and we still lost them. This man is clever.”

 “Then I’d say you didn’t have a good enough tracker. Ain’t no one that clever, an’ even an Apache can be tracked if you know what to look for.”

 “And you do?”

 Zeke grinned broadly. “Been told I could track a fish through water, but I reckon that fella exaggerated some.”

 “You’d come?” Scott asked hopefully. Hard as it was to admit it, he knew his limitations and he’d learnt enough about tracking from Cipriano and Johnny to be better than ‘fair’ but whether he could find a trail to follow through the sun-baked earth of the desert was something else again.

 “Well, loafin’ round here is kinda borin’ anyhow.”

 Further discussion was curtailed with the sudden pounding of horses’ hooves in the courtyard outside – many horses. To Scott, it could mean only one thing – Don Sebastian had returned.

 They went outside to join the mayhem, Scott still leading the gray. Clouds of dust were just beginning to settle as men dismounted and horses neighed, snuffled and snorted. Yet no one spoke. All eyes were turned towards Scott as he emerged from the barn and stopped a few feet in front of Don Sebastian.

 “Don Sebastian,” he said, respectfully.

 “My son?” The voice held no tremor of fear or worry, but was asked with cool authority.

 Scott answered in kind, holding his head up and keeping his voice free of emotion. “He’s badly hurt, Señor, but holding his own. The doctor has said that he will be alright if we can contain the fever.”

 “How did this happen?”

 “We were ambushed. We didn’t realize how close we had gotten to Rivera until the shot came. Manolito was hit with the first shot.”

 “And Rivera? Your brother?”

 “Johnny was alive when I last saw him. Rivera got away… and still has him.”

 Don Sebastian asked no more and Scott, his tightly reined emotions fighting to burst free, had no inclination to go into the whole story here in front of the men. But Don Sebastian only nodded and said quietly, “Si.” His usual bluster had gone out of the man but he still held himself tall and proud as he turned away toward the hacienda. “I will go to my son.”

  

* lo siento muchisimo – I’m so very sorry

*“Holà, soy yo, Scott Lancer,” he called to them. “Manolito, ha sido dańo.” – “Hello, it’s me, Scott Lancer,”… “Manolito, he’s been hurt.”

* Ven màs cerca, Señor – Come closer, Sir.

* ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! – Come on! Hurry up!


 

Chapter Nineteen

 Scott was forced to put all thought of leaving immediately to go after Johnny out of his mind as he walked out into the washed-out light of late afternoon. Even the most obstinate determination had to give way in the face of reality. Zeke’s common sense arguments about the light, and the suspicion that he owed Don Sebastian more than the cursory explanation he had given him, ended with Scott having to go with the don into the house.

 Dolefully… and with more than a hint of anger running through him, he handed the reins over to Zeke and then walked with the don down the hallway to Manolito’s room. There they both stopped, Don Sebastian in the doorway and Scott just behind him.

 Estellita was still sitting by the bed, but now she sat in a chair that had been pulled close. It hardly seemed possible in such a short time, but Manolito seemed to have paled even more. Or perhaps it was the murky light of the fast fading afternoon. Estellita had lit the lamp on the night table, but it did little to brighten the room yet.

 She looked up as they entered, then got to her feet and stepped back from the bed, almost like a startled kitten. Her eyes were steadily focused on Don Sebastian as though she thought she should not be there.

 But he paid her little attention. He had eyes only for his son. Manolito’s breathing had steadied since Scott had last seen him and he seemed to be resting peacefully, but the bandage around his neck was stark evidence of the severity of his injury.

 Scott watched as Don Sebastian walked over to stand by the bed. The old man stopped, his gaze firmly on his son and his face giving away nothing of what he was feeling. But the perfunctory attitude that had been his way when dealing with his son was gone as he put his hand gently on Manolito’s cheek.

 For a minute, he said nothing. Then, without looking up… without lifting his hand from his son’s face, he noted phlegmatically, “His skin is warm. There is the start of a fever here, I think.”

 Estellita caught Scott’s attention. She obviously wanted to say something but was afraid to. It didn’t surprise him. Manolito’s easy manner and free ways belied who he really was. Don Sebastian, on the other hand, was the personification of the proud hidalgo family that was Montoya. Scott couldn’t blame her for feeling daunted by the man.

 Scott nodded to her in encouragement. She didn’t move, staying back in the shadows of the curtains, but she plucked up enough courage to speak.

 “Si, Señor,” she said, a slight tremor in her voice. “We… we must keep it at bay. He is very weak already.”

 “He lost a lot of blood before I got him here,” Scott added.

 “The doctor… why is he not here?” Don Sebastian asked, almost distractedly.

 “The widow of one of the guards who died last night is giving birth, too soon apparently,” Scott explained. “He’s with her, but he said he’d be back in a couple of hours to check on Manolito.”

 “Good. He is an excellent man. I have known him for many years.” He turned to Estellita, as if only then realizing that she was there. “Señora, you have been tending my son?”

 “Si.”

 “You are a guest in this house. There is no need.”

 She glanced at Manolito. “Por favor, Señor. I would like to help. He is my friend.”

 He considered her for a moment before agreeing. “Very well. I am obliged to you.”

 “No, Señor, it is I who am obliged. Gracias.”

 “De nada,” he said quietly and then lifted his hand from Manolito’s face. He brushed aside a straying lock of his son’s hair and then turned away to face Scott. The caring parent was gone and the authoritarian was back. “Tell me how this happened.”

 Scott nodded. “It was as I said, Don Sebastian. We soon realized that we were on the right trail, but we didn’t realize how close we had gotten to them. There was a high hill, with boulders at the top… plenty of cover for a man to shoot from ambush.”

 He took a heavy breath, not enjoying having to tell the story, hating the memories. “Manolito was shot and we took cover in some rocks at the bottom of the hill. Rivera kept us pinned down for a while, but I eventually got to the top of the hill, only to find that they had gone. I saw Rivera riding off in the distance. It looked like he had Johnny slung over the horse in front of him.”

 “You did not try to follow them?”

 Scott pushed aside the haunting images and shook his head. “No.”

 “You could probably have ridden them down.”

 Scott looked him in the eyes, his heart pounding. “You’re probably right, Señor.”

 * 

Scott stood by the big carved oak door at the side of the hacienda, leaning against the adobe wall. In the cool evening air, beneath a myriad of bright twinkling stars, men went about their tasks in and around the courtyard. 

But there was a pall hanging over it all that dimmed the brilliance of the night. Word of Manolito’s injury had spread and it was obvious how well liked he was. When he had first stepped outside, one or two of the men had timidly approached him to ask after the patron’s son. He had answered, but they soon realized that he wanted to be alone and left him.

He watched them now in a detached sort of way. His own head was in so much turmoil that Scott couldn’t keep one train of thought straight for long. He desperately wanted Manolito to make it, but he couldn’t help but question his motives. Was it only because he liked Mano and already considered him a friend? Or was it also that he couldn’t bear the prospect of having sacrificed Johnny futilely?

Sacrificed! The word implied a finality that Scott could not – would not – accept. His mind wandered, again, to thoughts and fears of where Johnny was now… what condition he was in.

But what if it was true? What if saving Manolito had cost him his brother? What if Rivera had finally tired of his game and killed Johnny already? How could he live with that, let alone tell everyone at Lancer? They would never forgive him.

He closed his hand hard around Johnny’s beaded wristband. To Scott, it was a solid link to his brother - something tangible to hold on to, figuratively as well as literally. He thought back, trying to remember the name that Tanea had given Johnny.

Natch-in-ilk-kisn, that was it - Colored Beads. The words rolled melodically around his head in Tanea’s soft and gentle tones, though he could barely pronounce them himself.

The thong that secured the beads could be fixed and Scott would return them to his brother. No matter what, Johnny would have them back.

Scott didn’t know what they meant to Johnny or why, but he was never without them. It was one of those ‘secrets’ that Johnny kept to himself. Something from his past that, perhaps, he would suddenly tell Scott about when he least expected it. Johnny tended to do that. When questioned about his childhood and his life before Lancer, he would shrug and change the subject or just go quiet. But, now and then, he’d just up and tell them something, usually very nonchalantly and out of the blue.

That was how they had learned what little they did know about him and Scott had come to cherish those moments of openness. They were the times when he felt most like a brother.

Those times, and these… when he was worried out of his mind about Johnny.

Scott heard the door open behind him. He heard the crunch of boots on the dirt beside him and felt the presence of someone standing next to him, but he didn’t look to see who it was. He didn’t care. The only thing he cared about was out there in that dark expanse of desert – somewhere.

“And so another fire burns.” It was Don Sebastian, His words were followed by a heavy sigh and Scott could no longer ignore him.

Without turning, Scott answered. “If you’re referring to your ‘tinder and match’ theory, Don Sebastian,” he said curtly. “This mess has nothing to do with it. Johnny and Manolito are both victims this time.”

“I did refer to it, my young friend, but I have never meant either of them is to blame for it. The truth of the matter is that those two just seem to gather flames about them and, most of the time, without doing anything to bring it on.”

There was a moment of silence between them and Scott contemplated what he’d said. It was true, to some extent. Johnny would usually go out of his way to avoid trouble, but it would find him anyway. Once found, Johnny would never back down from the fight, no matter what odds, and it landed him in trouble, more often than not.

He didn’t know Manolito well enough or long enough to know about his propensity for trouble, but it seemed he was the same.

“How is Manolito doing?” he asked at last.

“He has not woken, but the fever has not taken hold. The girl is still with him. She seems determined to tend to him.”

“Yes, she’ll look after him.”

Silence again… an awkward, uneasy silence while both men were lost in their own thoughts and fears. Scott wished he was still alone. He was in no mood for making polite conversation.

“You care a great deal about this brother of yours, do you not?” Don Sebastian asked suddenly.

Scott turned to him, taken off guard by the question. His chest filled with the thumping of his heart and he wanted to scream back at him – ‘of course I do…’

Don Sebastian surveyed his face and nodded before Scott answered. “Yes, I can see that you do. And Johnny?”

“I make a point of not speaking for my brother, Señor, but I’m sure he feels as I do.”

“He did not know that he had a brother – I am sure of that.”

Scott’s emotions settled into something a little more controllable. “Neither of us did.”

“And you have known each other for only a short time.”

“Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, it must seem short,” Scott conceded. “But it’s been more than long enough to know how we feel about each other.”

“You and your father do not disapprove of Johnny, then? You do not fear what he was?”

“No,” Scott answered unequivocally. “He’s worked hard to earn the respect he has, not just from us but from the men and our neighbors. He does the same work as everyone else and he joins the fun in town.” Then he smiled a little at an image of his brother. “Though he does try to weasel out of doing the books whenever he can.”

“Then he has indeed left the pistolero behind.”

Scott sighed. “Not entirely. He keeps in practice, but he’d be a fool not to. There’s no knowing who’s around the next corner. And sometimes… well, there’s always a little of Johnny Madrid there. It’s part of him. But I trust him with my life. I think he trusts me…”

The image faded and the fears returned. The smile on Scott’s lips dropped away as quickly as it had risen. Johnny trusted him to watch his back.

“I think perhaps you feel that you have betrayed that trust, yes?”

To Scott’s surprise, Don Sebastian put his hand on Scott’s shoulder and squeezed it gently and reassuringly.

“You brought my son to me, gave him a chance to live, and I am grateful to you. I do not think that Johnny would blame you for that.”

“I know two things for certain, Señor. One is that Johnny would never have forgiven me had I left Manolito to die… the other is that I could never have forgiven myself.”

Don Sebastian’s face softened just for a moment as he nodded his understanding.

“And you, Señor,” Scott continued. “You are a fraud. You pretend not to, but you do care about Manolito.”

“Scott, I disapprove of Manolito, and of his choices, but that does not mean that I do not love him as a father does his son.”

Silence fell again. Scott’s thoughts returned to his plans for the morning. This time, nothing would stop him from finding and rescuing Johnny.

“I’ll be leaving at first light, Don Sebastian. Zeke Jackson claims to be good at following a trail and we know which way they went so we know where to start from. That should gain us some time,” Scott told him. “I’d be obliged if I could have a few of your men to go with us.”

“Of course. You will have everything you need.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, come inside,” Don Sebastian said, his autocratic manner back. “You do Johnny no good by standing here brooding. And I think you could do with a drink. I know I could.”

*

Johnny leaned back against the wall. He winced as his sunburned skin came into contact with the rough adobe but he didn’t pull away. Resting was more important to him right now. He couldn’t remember ever having been so exhausted. His legs were heavy and seized up, cramping painfully if he moved them. He wanted to take the boots off, but feared that he might not get them back on again. Barefoot in the desert would be so much worse.

The rough wooden floor was smeared with blood where he had fallen when he’d staggered in. Dizzy, nauseous and his head pounding, he’d lost his balance in the dimness of the room.

Walking had become mechanical. He didn’t think about the pain unless he stumbled and fell. And that had happened more times than he cared to remember as he had grown weaker. Rivera’s reaction was to pull the rope angrily, then stop and give him time to get up again. If he hadn’t gotten to his feet quickly enough, another vicious yank on the rope would hurry him up.

He had no idea where he was… some long abandoned farmhouse he guessed. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he was off his feet and able to rest. It was a far cry from the comfort of the hacienda, but he was off his feet. His hands were bound behind him now, his wrists bruised and cut from the tight ropes and the constant pull on them.

His stomach growled, demanding food that Johnny knew would not be forthcoming, but Rivera had stooped to offering him water from a disgustingly old and filthy tin mug when they got settled in this hovel. He’d taken it gladly – the first water he’d had all day – though he knew that Rivera did it only to make sure that he would stay alive long enough for him to finish whatever it was that he had planned.

It had been hard to swallow the first mouthful. Johnny’s tongue had swollen so badly that he couldn’t even lick his lips. But the second swallow had gone down much more easily. The water was gone too soon and he doubted there would be many more such ‘favors’.

He closed his eyes and listened to the silence, broken only now and then by Rivera’s intermittent snoring. Once, Johnny had heard something skitter across the dusty floor a few feet away, but he didn’t know what it had been. Nor did he care. Perhaps a rat, or possibly even something more lethal, but it was free to go about its life unfettered, even if it had been disturbed. Johnny envied it its freedom.

Trying to put his thoughts together in some sort of rational order was difficult. The afternoon was pretty much a blur of what might or might not be real memories. For all he knew, some of it might be hallucination. He hoped so, but one ‘memory’ particularly worried him.

He did remember stopping at the top of a hill. He certainly did remember hearing a shot and his trying to get to Rivera in time to stop him from firing again. Rivera had seen or heard him, or both, then laughed and had said something about slowing them down. Then there had been a blinding burst of light and pain as the man had hit him across the temple with the butt of the rifle.

Stunned, Johnny wasn’t sure about anything for who knew how long after that. He remembered waking, once again, to find himself dangling over the front of Rivera’s horse. His humiliation had seemed complete.

And, again, he had been unceremoniously dumped onto the ground and forced to walk. And that was the image that he hoped he had gotten wrong – Rivera’s abrupt laughter and the words that went with it.

“You can walk again now, Madrid. We have plenty of time. They won’t follow us now that they have Montoya’s cub to worry about.”

Mano! The shot that Rivera had fired from the hilltop! And what about Scott? Johnny was as sure of anything in his life as he was that Scott had been with Manolito, searching for him. Rivera still had no idea that Scott was his brother, but had he shot them both? Was either of them alive?

As evening had fallen, they had come upon this house – or what was left of it after years of abandonment. Johnny had the feeling that Rivera had known it was here. Perhaps it had been his plan to come here all along.

His plan… just what did Rivera have in mind? Arriving here, Johnny had been heavily bound, hand and foot, but then he had been left to himself. Rivera had ignored him as though he was just a piece of baggage, tossed in a corner to be picked up again in the morning. He’d given him the cup of water, made himself a fire and cooked some beans that Johnny had not shared in, and gone to sleep.

So just what was Rivera’s plan? Why was he still alive? Well, whatever the reason, Johnny knew that it wasn’t going to be good.

He opened his eyes. The fire was dying out now and the air was turning cool. There was still enough light for Johnny to see the state he was in. His pants were torn and dirty, covered in thorns and spines that he’d collected when he’d swiped past cacti and bushes.

His chest was covered in scratches, scrapes and bruises… and in blood that had seeped from the re-opened wound in his shoulder and smeared over him whenever he fell. The bleeding hadn’t been bad, but it was dry and sticky now… uncomfortable.

The bandage that had been so carefully applied by his ‘mother hens’ was stretched and dirty, sagging uselessly like a bizarre mockery of some noble sash of office. And no regal badge adorned this sash, only a filthy bloodstain. He wished he could pull it off. It annoyed and frustrated him, draped around him as it was.

His ‘mother hens’… If Scott were to bust in that door and try to mother him right now, he wouldn’t fight it. More likely he’d fall, weeping, into his arms.

And then his thoughts turned back to that nagging question, where was Scott? What had happened at that damned hill?

Johnny tried, one more frustrating time, to get his fingers to the ropes around his wrists. He’d tried over and over since Rivera had left him here, but each time it had been the same. The rope was a sturdy riata, designed to pull down a full-grown steer, and it was securely tied around his wrists – too far from his fingertips to be able to work them loose.

Finally, exhaustion overcame the pain and the worry and, if he cared to admit it, the fear. His eyelids were too heavy to keep open and his mind was as tired as his body. Sleep was a welcome relief – a place to hide out from the reality of tomorrow.

His head slipped sideways and rested awkwardly against the wall and he sighed heavily as sleep overtook him.

A light kick to his thigh sent a shockwave through him and brought him awake with a sudden sense of urgency. For a moment, he wondered where he was, but Rivera standing over him with a leering grin soon brought it all back.

“Ah, he wakes,” Rivera sneered. “Are you ready for another walk, Señor pistolero?” The man laughed. “Look at you - the great Johnny Madrid. Ha!”

Johnny didn’t need to look at himself to know. He’d flinched from the kick and his leg had cramped agonizingly. If Rivera had more walking in mind, he had no idea how he was going to do it.

“You’re quiet, Madrid,” Rivera continued, enjoying himself. “None of your clever answers, this time? Perhaps you are still hoping that Montoya and the gringo are close enough to come to your rescue?” He burst out into a loud fit of laughter. “Do not count on it, Madrid. Montoya’s whelp is dead by now and the gringo is long gone. They will not help you – no one will.”

Mano – dead? His hazy memories coalesced into one image – Rivera aiming and firing his rifle at someone from the top of that hill. That must have been Mano and he would have had no chance out there in the open.

And, surely, the ‘gringo’ must be Scott. What had happened to him?


 

Chapter Twenty

Scott woke to the chilling sound of a tortured soul calling out into the darkness. His heart was beating wildly and he could feel sweat running irritatingly down his cheek from his forehead. The sheets were wrapped tightly around him from tossing in his sleep.

 

Waiting for a moment, gathering his thoughts, it stunned and horrified him to realize that the voice had been his own.

 

It was still dark but, somewhere in the house, a clock was chiming… two, three…four. Too close to morning to waste his time and effort in what he was certain would be a futile attempt to get back to sleep.

 

Sleep had been hard to come by this night, and even harder to maintain. His mind was too full of images of his brother in trouble… of that horse disappearing into the distance with Johnny slung across it, and of his letting them go.

 

Sighing, wiping away the sweat, he unraveled himself from the cocoon of bed linen, got up and dressed in the shadowy half-light between darkness and morning, not bothering to light a lamp. Then he walked out into the silent hallway, still lit by sconces on the walls. He made his way down to Manolito’s room, determined to check on him quickly before heading out to find Johnny.

 

Opening the door, he found Estellita still sitting in the chair by the bed, a lamp burning low on the night stand beside her. Hearing him, she looked up wearily.

 

“I thought I’d look in to see how he is before I leave,” Scott explained quietly. “How is he?”

 

“He is doing much better, gracias,” came a weak, rasping voice from the bed.

 

Scott was taken by surprise.   “Mano! So, you’re awake.”

 

Even in the subdued light of the room, Manolito’s wan smile was visible. “Si, as you see.” He stopped and swallowed with some effort before continuing. “You are going after Johnny?”

 

Scott moved closer and leaned in so that Manolito did not have to strain to speak to him. “Yes,” he said, softly.

 

“Bring him back, safe.”

 

“I won’t come back without him, Mano.”

 

The smile fell from Manolito’s lips. “I owe you a great debt, my friend,” he whispered somberly. “I owe you my life, but I fear the price was too high.”

 

“No,” said Scott emphatically. “Johnny’s alive and he’s going to stay that way. I don’t know what Rivera has planned, but he seems to be going to a lot of trouble in keeping Johnny alive. I WILL bring him back.”

 

Manolito nodded slowly. “Bueno,” he murmured and his eyelids dropped.

 

Scott looked at him more closely and frowned. He put his hand to Manolito’s forehead and found an unwelcome warmth beneath his palm. He looked over at Estellita and she sighed.

 

“Si, the fever has grown stronger.” She whispered the words but Manolito couldn’t hear her anyway. He was already asleep. “The doctor has promised that he will be back in the morning, first thing.”

 

“Alright,” Scott agreed. “I’m leaving to go after Johnny. You look after Mano.”

 

Estellita stood up and walked around the bed to his side. She laid her hand lightly on his forearm. “I will take care of Manolito. He will be fine,” she assured him. “You just bring Johnny back.”

 

With that, she kissed his cheek and stood back. “Vaya con Dios, mi amigo.”

 

Scott thanked her and left, walking quietly down a hallway that was still dark enough to need the lamps in the wall sconces to light his way and into the murky light of the emerging day. The torches still flared on the walls in the courtyard and the air was still cool.

 

Stopping at the doorway, he pressed his hat onto his head and looked around him. To his surprise, he found half a dozen vaqueros already there, their horses saddled and ready. At least he wouldn’t be held up waiting for them. The gray that had been assigned to him last night was standing ready, saddled and waiting, fresh and pawing the ground with anticipation.

 

There was little noise – only the sound of the horses snorting or moving and the jangle of spurs and bridles. The men mostly only nodded to acknowledge him, though one or two greeted him with a quiet “Buenos dias, Señor.”

 

He recognized a few of the faces from yesterday but didn’t know any of their names. In the chaos of the day, he had not taken time to get acquainted. Only Manuel he knew and he walked over to join him.

 

“Buenos dias, Manuel. I didn’t know that you were coming today.”

 

“I know the land and her secrets well, Señor. This time, we will bring your hermano back.”

 

He held the reins to a strong bay but, in his other hand, he held the reins of a splendid black that Scott recognized immediately – as much by the showy silver saddle and bridle as by the magnificence of the animal itself. Diablo was Don Sebastian’s horse and his presence could mean only one thing.

 

The horse’s readiness suggested that Don Sebastian meant to come along. Scott was surprised that he would, with his son injured, and hoped that he did not keep them waiting. It was certain that none of them would leave until he appeared.

 

Scott walked impatiently over to the gray and checked it over. The horse nickered and shook its head eagerly while Scott found that the saddle bags were packed with food and two canteens hung from the pommel.

 

“Looks like we’re all set, Son,” said a voice from behind him. “An’ got us some company.”

 

Scott turned around to find Zeke Jackson standing there. “Yes, Don Sebastian agreed to send some of the men with us.”

 

“Well, a few more guns won’t do us no harm if we come up on this Rivera fella,” Zeke admitted, rubbing his chin sagely.

 

“I’m hoping to avoid a shootout, Zeke,” Scott told him warily. “Johnny would be in the line of fire.”

 

“Yeah, that’s true. Kinda make the whole point o’ goin’ after him a waste o’ time if we got him killed that way.”

 

He smiled ironically and Scott found himself liking the man. But he was anxious to get going.

 

The big doors opened and all attention turned to them. Don Sebastian, in the same style of braided and adorned charro style riding clothes as yesterday, but in regal blue this time, knocked his riding crop against his leg and stepped outside to join them. Manuel walked over to him, but got only a nod to acknowledge him as Don Sebastian made his way over to Scott’s side instead.

 

“Buenos dias, Scott. You are ready?”

 

“Yes, but I’m surprised to see that you are. I thought you would want to stay here, with Manolito.”

 

He nodded. “If I thought my presence at his side would make a difference, then yes, perhaps I would stay. But he is in good hands. The doctor is with him now, and the girl seems… determined.”

 

“Yes, but surely…”

 

“I go with you. I am honor-bound to assist in bringing your brother back,” he said, straightening his back proudly.

 

Scott sighed. “Señor, I don’t see it that way. And I know that Johnny would not expect it of you.”

 

“I see it that way! That is what matters.” He turned away to beckon Manuel over to join them, waited for him and then turned back to Scott. “Now, tell us exactly where this happened yesterday. Where did you last see this hombre and your brother?”

 

“We followed what little trail Manolito could find until we came to a hillside where Rivera suddenly started shooting from the boulders at the top. It must have been about an hour after we separated from the rest of you.”

 

Manuel frowned and looked questioningly at Montoya. “’Boulder’, Patrón?”

 

“Canto rodado, Manuel,” Don Sebastian translated for him and the man nodded his understanding. But he continued to frown.

 

“These boulders,” Don Sebastian continued, this time to Scott. “Was there anything you noticed about them?”

 

Scott thought about it. The afternoon had been so fraught with danger and high emotion that the last thing he had worried been about was what the rocks looked like. He concentrated on what images he could remember. “Mostly they were just huge round boulders. Though one was more of an oval shape, taller than the others.”

 

Manuel bent down and drew some circles in the dirt with his index finger – three round, then an oval and then two more round. “Señor,” he addressed Scott, “La cumbre de la bajada… the… the…”

 

“The top of the hill,” Don Sebastian said quickly.

 

“Si, Patrón, la cumbre… the top… did it look like this?”

 

It did, just like it, now that Scott saw it. “Yes. You know it?”

 

“Si, I know it. Patrón?”

 

“I know it well,” Don Sebastian agreed. “It is not far from the old Garcia farmhouse.”

 

“Then let’s get going,” Scott said impatiently.

 

“Yes, we will start tracking them from there.”

 

*

 

The distance that had taken Scott more than three hours to cover yesterday, riding double with Manolito in his arms and not confident of knowing the way, took them less than two hours this time. Today there was no need to look for tracks or to slow down for any reason. The men he was with knew where they were going and the fastest way there. The horses were fresh and the sun was still not at its hottest when they reached the hill where Rivera had ambushed them.

 

Scott pointed out the direction that he had seen Rivera and Johnny take and it took only minutes before Manuel and Zeke found tracks leading away.

 

An hour later, they slowed down as they came within sight of a run down adobe farmhouse. The thatched roof had fallen away in so many places that it was barely worthy of the name and the walls were crumbling in too many places to count. The door had fallen off one hinge and hung drunkenly, but closed.

 

The party stopped well out of range, studying the scene carefully. No shots came from the window. No sound… nothing.

 

There was no sign of life… no men, no horse. Scott, like Manolito, had been sure that this was where Rivera had intended to hole up – to do whatever he had planned to do with Johnny.

 

But there was no one to be seen here – at least, no one alive. What, or who, lay inside might be a different story.

 

His stomach clenching at the thought, Scott dismounted, followed by Zeke and Manuel. Don Sebastian and his vaqueros remained in their saddles. It could still be a trap. Rivera could be in there waiting for them to get close enough to be an easy kill.

 

There was no cover to use to get closer. Scott knew that he would have to take a chance in getting to that door in full view but there was no choice.

 

“Cover me,” he called to Zeke. He drew his gun and then doubled over to make himself a smaller target as he ran for the building. By the time he reached the front wall and flattened himself against it, the vaqueros had dismounted and had drawn their guns as well and were crouched in a rough circle around the old farmhouse.

 

He could feel their eyes watching him. Glancing back at them and then mentally readying himself, he edged close to a window and held the gun up, cocked and ready. Still no sound came from inside the building and he was sure it was empty, but he wasn’t foolish enough to just bust in the door. Rivera had proven himself to be a really tricky bastard. There was just no way of knowing that he wasn’t doing the unexpected – again.

 

Scott carefully looked into as much of the house as he could see while keeping his head back out of the line of any fire. It was dark in there, and dingy… but still there was no sign of life. Taking a chance, his finger wrapped around the trigger of the gun clamped in one hand, Scott looked deeper through the window, then grabbed the door handle and wrenched it open.

 

The single remaining hinge protested loudly and then snapped. The door fell back against the wall and Scott eased his head around the corner.

 

It was a one-room house and it was empty – completely empty. There was no battered or tortured corpse on the floor – something that, despite his own optimistic words to Manolito, he had secretly feared.

 

Relaxing, Scott nodded to his audience and men began to filter over towards him. He walked into the house, slipping the gun back into its holster, and looked around. Surprisingly, the floor was wooden, though it was filthy and spongy beneath his feet, decaying in the same way that the walls and the roof were. The remains of a fire scarred the boards in the middle of the room and Scott knelt to touch the ashes.

 

They were cold, but they looked fresh.

 

His eyes had adjusted to the dim light by now. He saw that the dirt on the floor was disturbed everywhere. Even to Scott’s untrained eyes, the tracks were easy to see. One large patch of floor showed where Rivera had slept through the night.

 

But it was the bloodstains, smudged and dry, that caught Scott’s attention. From the doorway, they led to another patch of disturbed dust, but Johnny had not lain there. The traces showed clearly that he had been sitting up the whole time he’d been there.

 

Zeke Jackson walked in, unnoticed, and that was how he found Scott – standing in the centre of the room, his fists clenched at his sides - clenched so hard that the knuckles were white and the bones showed through. He didn’t know this man very well yet, and he sure didn’t know the missing fellow at all, but this one really did care about that brother of his.

 

He’d wondered about that as he’d ridden along with him. Zeke had picked up enough from talk he’d overheard, and from Estellita, to know that, firstly, the brother was none other than the gunfighter he’d heard so many stories about in the border towns, Johnny Madrid. And, secondly, he’d figured out that Madrid was now living as a rancher. That was something of a shock.

 

Zeke was a curious man by nature, and he ached to know the how and the why of that story. But he wasn’t nosy. And asking now wasn’t right – not with the brother in so much trouble.

 

And Zeke didn’t have to look far to know that the man was in real bad trouble. Bloodstains on the floor and, when he looked closer, rope fibers around the base of one of the posts holding up the roof, told him enough.

 

Scott still stood in the center of the room, alone with his thoughts even if he wasn’t actually alone. Zeke decided to leave him to his anger, for anger Zeke was sure it was, and went outside to see what tracks he could find out there. Hopefully, that Manuel fellow had had enough sense to keep those vaqueros away from anything that might be there.

 

He blinked against the harsh sunlight and then noticed that Don Sebastian had dismounted and was now standing with the vaqueros and the horses, back a ways from the house. Well, at least they had the sense to stay out of the way.

 

Zeke looked at the ground, scanning around him assiduously before taking each step. If there was anything here, he didn’t want to destroy it either.

 

Manuel was crouched, staring intently at a piece of ground. As Zeke approached and leaned over with him, he saw what the man was so intrigued by. A series of hoof prints, barely discernable unless your eyes were good, tracked away to the west. On top of them, much easier to see, were smudges of footprints.

 

“Find something?”

 

Zeke looked up. It was Scott Lancer and he looked to be back in command of his emotions – cool and controlled again. But he had stopped well back from them, obviously intent on leaving him and Manuel to their work.

 

“Yeah, come on over,” Zeke answered and waited for Manuel to stand up as well. “West, you reckon, Manuel?”

 

“Si and some hours ago.”

 

“He's still got your brother walkin’, Scott,” Zeke explained. “Reckon he won’t be able to keep up much pace that way.”

 

“We thought that yesterday, Zeke,” Scott told him, apparently unmoved by the news.

 

Don Sebastian joined them. “No, what he says is so, Scott. Your brother will slow him down more now. We all know what condition he must be in.”

 

“Then why is he alive?” Scott asked explosively. “What the hell does this man have in mind? He could have killed him at any time, but he’s still walking him.”

 

“I wish I knew,” Don Sebastian answered, sadly shaking his head. “It makes no sense.”

 

“Well, looks like he’s got somewhere in mind to head for, anyways,” Zeke told them. “Seems like he’s been goin’ this way all along – west.”

 

“Well, if it wasn’t this house he was he looking for, what lies further west of here?” Scott demanded.

 

“The misión, Santa María Magdalena de Buquivaba,” Manuel suggested.

 

“A mission?” Scott asked, disbelieving. "Why?"

 

“There is a good sized town there as well,” Don Sebastian explained.

 

Zeke frowned, wondering. “Maybe he’s meetin’ up with someone there.”

 

“Still, he takes a risk going there,” Manuel said, dusting the dirt off his hands. “Santa María Magdalena town is not an easy place in which to hide. Many people live in and around the village and the mission. Even the Rurales have an outpost there. I cannot think that Rivera would want to be anywhere near them.”

 

Zeke’s curiosity was piqued again, watching Scott blanch.

 

“Rurales?” Scott asked.

 

“Yes,” Don Sebastian confirmed, putting his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “There are Rurales stationed in the town.”

 

“Oh my God,” Scott murmured, leaving Zeke to wonder some more.

 

*

 

Johnny’s knees buckled under him. The world spun nauseatingly until he couldn’t tell up from down and he sank to the ground. The horse ahead of him pulled up so that, this time, the wrench on his hands was little more than a pull and he wasn’t dragged.

 

Honestly, Johnny was beyond caring whether he was dragged or not. This couldn’t go on… he couldn’t go on.

 

“Get up, Madrid,” Rivera said with cruel nonchalance, still sitting on the horse.

 

No… Johnny didn’t say it, but sitting there on the ground ignoring him was just as good. His head drooped wearily and every part of him hurt, some places more than others. It had been a few hours since they had started out from the old farmhouse and he’d fallen several times already. The pain in his head had become a thunderous beat and his heart was thumping way too fast. He sat there, breathing hard and still not sweating.

 

Dimly, Johnny knew what was happening to him. He knew that he was in serious trouble now and that Rivera’s threats to kill him were a waste of breath. The heat stroke would kill him soon anyway.

 

“I said, GET UP!”

 

Johnny lifted his head to look at his tormentor. The man was astride the horse and scowling darkly back at him. A sudden streak of defiance rushed through Johnny’s veins and he tried licking his lips so he could speak.

 

“No,” he managed to croak. “… no more.”

 

Rivera slipped down from his horse and pulled the rifle from the scabbard, then turned and walked slowly and purposefully towards Johnny.

 

'Maybe this is finally it,' Johnny thought and wasn't sure that he really cared all that much.

 

The man stopped just in front of him. Johnny found himself having to look up at him and it rubbed against the ragged remains of his pride. He yearned to fight back, to knock that sneering grin right off Rivera's face and then pound on him... again and again. Shooting him wouldn't be enough. There wouldn’t be enough satisfaction in that.

 

But his hands were bound tightly with ropes. He wondered if his legs would even hold him if he managed to find enough physical strength in him to get up.

 

“So, the legend begs for mercy?”

 

Johnny laughed, and it struck him as sounding a little hysterical. "You might just as well kill me now, Rivera," he told him.

 

"Kill you?" Rivera replied, a wicked smirk on his lips. "But I am not going to kill you, Madrid. I have something else in mind for you."

 

A chill ran down Johnny's spine but he stoically kept his reaction from his face. “Kinda bad luck then, ‘cause I’m not goin’ any further.”

“Oh, you will go,” Rivera said viciously. “I will not be cheated out of my revenge now.” And then it was as though a plug had been pulled and all the spite and hatred flowed out of the man. “You killed César, but that was not enough was it? You brought shame to his name… you and that puta of a wife of his! You humiliated him in front of the whole town… lying in his house… his bed, before he was even cold in the ground.”

Rivera was all but salivating as he spat the words out. “Well, humiliation is what I want for you too, Madrid. I could kill you with a bullet or a knife, but that is not enough. I want to see the great Johnny Madrid cut down like the dog that he is.”

He held the rifle up and touched the barrel to Johnny’s temple. “Get on your feet, Madrid.”

Johnny sighed resignedly and shook his head. “You can’t make a dead man walk, Rivera,” he said, panting heavily. “Whatever you had in mind, it’s not goin’ to happen.”

Suddenly, the rifle lowered and Rivera savagely took hold of Johnny’s jaw. “I will have that revenge, Madrid. I will hand you over to those who can do what I cannot. The Rurales can legally walk you down the street to the firing wall and shoot you down in front of the whole town. That is what your fate will be. You escaped them once, but not again. They will want you executed publicly this time and I will be the one to deliver you into their hands. I will be there to see it.”

Johnny grinned antagonistically. “Sorry, Rivera. Big plans, but they’ve come to nothing. Kinda typical of you Riveras, isn’t it? The Rivera name… what name? Petty bandits… backshooters. I didn’t bring disgrace on César’s name, because he’d done it himself years before.”

Rivera’s nostrils flared with fury. Rage burned in his eyes, but Johnny continued to grin. He was beyond caring now. How he died didn’t seem important any more… just that this ended.

Rivera yanked on the length of rope that was leading Johnny. It loosened from the pommel and fell limply to the ground. Then he took Johnny’s bound hands and dragged him over to a paloverde tree and sat him up against it.

Within minutes, Rivera was gone. Johnny was lashed to the tree and alone, waiting for death to take pity on him.


 

Chapter Twenty-one

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been there. He wasn’t even sure he’d been conscious for the whole time. Actually, Johnny wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t any more. All he really knew was the damned pounding in his head, his heart beating fast and the sun overhead.

Always the sun. The tree offered no real shelter, just delaying what was now the inevitable. He felt as though he was burning from the inside out. He had stopped sweating a long time ago, though his skin was hot, but he could almost feel his blood bubbling to the boil as it raced though his veins.

He tried the ropes again, but Rivera had done the job too well. Even if he hadn’t, Johnny knew that he hadn’t the strength or the fight left in him to break out of them anyway. He leaned his head back against the trunk of the tree in defeat, closing his eyes and trying to make sense of it all.

His hope that Scott would find him had faded long ago. For all he knew, Scott was dead. Rivera had said that Mano was and he had no reason to doubt it. They would have caught up by now if they had still been following. Something had happened back at that bajada, something that had stopped Scott and Manolito in their tracks. Johnny didn’t trust Rivera and knew that it could all be lies, but the fact was that Rivera had not been worried about being followed from that time on. That said it all.

Eyes still closed, Johnny turned his head slightly and he thought he felt the world shift around him, just enough off-kilter to bring on a wave of nausea. He sighed lightly, then grinned and uttered a short, hoarse laugh. He’d worked so hard on that reputation of his, all those years – oft times practicing his draw until his blisters had blisters and his arm had been so sore that he’d thought he would never be able to use it again.

All those years he had schooled himself to mask all emotions, particularly fear. He had taught himself the art of talking his opponent into doing something foolish or saying nothing at all when he figured that would work better – and to know when to use which one. How many men had he stepped into the street with, unafraid that death might only be seconds away? He’d known that he would go down facing a worthy opponent and with no fear in his heart.

Turned out, he wasn’t going to be facing any enemy after all. The sun and its relentless heat, determined to wring the last drop of moisture from his body, was intangible – all powerful. He couldn’t shoot this enemy, nor put a knife into it… couldn’t put his hands on it and fight it. No, he couldn’t fight it at all.

*

 Unconsciously slipping sideways, Johnny felt the pull of the ropes and winced, straightened up and tried to get comfortable. He kept his eyes closed against the sun’s glare, but there was nothing he could do about the heat or his thirst.

 Drowsily, a smile came to his lips. He was next in line… ha! Who would believe it? Johnny Madrid – pistolero and hardened gunfighter – dying in the cause of a piddling little peon revolution. He’d spent all those years practicing and taking just about any work as long as it would build his reputation, and here he was – kneeling on a grassy little hillside waiting for the moment when he would be facing a firing squad. And who would be there to go down with him? Just a few peones who didn’t know one end of a gun from the other.

 So much for being remembered by history! There would be no witnesses but the Rurales assigned to execute them – and perhaps a few birds and lizards. No one to put on a brave show for… no one to tell the world of how Johnny Madrid had died. Yet he wasn’t inclined to feel sorry for himself. Angry with himself, perhaps, annoyed that he had let himself be drawn into a lost cause… again.

 “Viva la revolución!” those foolish peones were each shouting as the bullets ploughed into them. ‘Damn the revolution!’ was what Johnny thought. He wished he had never laid eyes on that grubby little village or heard of Don Carlos and his terrible hold over his peones.

 It was the sound of horses coming that roused him, at least enough to open his eyes and squint against the bright sunlight. Two horses were coming, one of them riderless. He frowned into the shimmering heat and looked harder. The big man on the sturdy bay looked familiar.

 “Murdoch?”

 The man stopped right in front of him and jumped to the ground. “I have brought you a horse. You ride from here.”

 “Thanks,” Johnny answered hoarsely. “Don’t like it here.” He closed his eyes again and shook his head. His mind skipped in another direction. “Scott… you seen him? Is he okay?” 

No answer… “Murdoch?”

Still no answer, but the ropes binding him to the tree fell away. Johnny moved his shoulders and arched his back to stretch out the kinks.

“¡Levántete! Get up!” the man finally answered and pulled at Johnny’s tied hands.

“Sure,” Johnny answered lethargically, getting to his feet. He smiled. “Be good to get home…”

He swayed dizzily. Too long in that damned Mexican prison and he’d gone soft. Well, once he was back at Lancer…

*

Scott remained mounted while Zeke and Manuel studied the tracks on the ground. He watched their faces and could see that they were confused, but he waited.

With every passing moment, his frustration grew until, finally, Manuel and Zeke walked back towards them.

“Well?” demanded Don Sebastian, beating Scott to the question.

“Seems like things’ve changed, Señor,” Zeke said, scratching his chin. He turned to Scott. “Looks like your brother was tied to that tree over yonder for a while. We reckon Rivera rode off an’ left him here, then came back with a second horse.”

Scott frowned. “Another horse? Where would he get one?”

“Dunno,” Zeke readily confessed. “But that’s what he done. There’s two different sets o’ hoofprints leadin’ outa here.”

“Then Johnny is riding? He’s not on foot any more?” It was an unexpected relief from at least one worry.

“Looks like,” Zeke confirmed and Manuel nodded, adding his own “Si, Señor.”

“Why now?” Scott asked no one in particular.

Zeke took a deep breath and let it out slowly before answering. “My guess’d be your brother…”

“Johnny,” Scott reminded him, irritated. There was something about using his name that personalized it all. That meant everything to Scott right now. It was important that this be ‘personal’ to Zeke, to all of them. “His name is Johnny.”

Zeke nodded sympathetically. “So it is, Son. Johnny, then. Well, we found plenty o’ places along the way here where we reckon he musta stumbled an’ fell. Probably been dragged some as well. Guess he was slowin’ the bastard up too much.”

“Or could go no further,” Manuel suggested.

Scott sighed. None of this boded well for Johnny’s condition. “Yet he didn’t kill him. He wants him alive alright.”

“Si,” Manuel told him. “And, Señor, these tracks are but an hour or so old. The problem is that they will travel faster now with his prisoner on a horse.”

“We’re that close?” Scott exclaimed.

“We WERE that close,” Zeke amended. “Like Manuel said, they’ll be movin’ faster now with both of ‘em on horseback an’ we’re still lookin’ for tracks. They’ll likely pick up a little time.”

“Time that we’re wasting now,” Scott said, with a hint of aggravation. “Do you have tracks to follow?”

“Yeah, headin’ that way,” said Zeke, pointing the way. He left Scott then, walking over to where one of the vaqueros held his horse, mounting and then riding forward to rejoin Scott. Manuel had done the same and the two of them took the lead.

As they rode on, Scott’s mind was full of images of Johnny. He must be exhausted and God only knew what else. The unrelenting heat of a day and a half of walking, unprotected by hat or shirt, had to have taken a heavy toll. And then there was the shoulder wound. They had seen ample evidence that it had opened again.

Scott felt certain that he now knew why the man was keeping Johnny alive and his stomach churned at the thought. The one thing that he and Murdoch had most feared for Johnny was about to come to pass. Rivera, it seemed, was going to hand Johnny over to the Rurales.

They had to get to Rivera before that happened. If Johnny ended up back in the hands of what passed for the law here in Mexico, Scott wasn’t sure what he could do to get him out.

Summary executions weren’t unheard of here, and Johnny already had a death sentence hanging over his head. Scott wasn’t sure that Johnny would ever make it to a prison or how much time they would have to fight for him.

If he did get the chance to fight for Johnny, then perhaps Don Sebastian might be of help. Scott hoped that he would try. He might have enough friends or contacts to at least delay a firing squad.

But even if they could stave off his execution while they tried to get him out, his present condition wasn’t likely to improve in a Mexican prison. He might not survive that either.

They rode on in virtual silence. Don Sebastian had said very little all morning, riding stoically with his back straight and speaking only to give orders or to ask questions when called for.

Scott suspected that his thoughts were back at the hacienda with Manolito. It set Scott to wondering how Manolito was faring. Hopefully that fever had ebbed by now. The tinder and the match, though through no fault of either, had certainly ignited an inferno this time. Who knew whose fingers would be burnt before this was over.

*

Victoria Cannon arrived at her father’s hacienda not long after lunch. She had received word from Don Sebastian’s messenger last night, after he had ridden hard to bring word of Manolito’s injury.  Within the hour, she had been ready to go and impatient for first light. Sleep had been near impossible.

Before the sun had even been fully up, the buggy had been packed and her escort, her husband and her brother-in-law, were already taking her to her brother.

For all their arguments and harsh words, Victoria and Manolito were tied closely by the bonds of brother and sister. Her blood boiled that someone had hurt him. And it worried her far more than she cared to admit that her father had sent for her immediately.

She actually knew very little about what had happened to Manolito. The messenger had told her that Don Sebastian had sent him to bring her before he had even seen his son himself. The only information that he had had was that Manolito was badly wounded and at his father’s house.

They had traveled fast, John driving and Buck riding beside the buggy, taking shortcuts and stopping only to rest and water the horses at frustrating intervals. Victoria made the journey to the rancho often, but this trip seemed to be taking far longer than usual.

It was also an unusually silent journey. Victoria was in no mood to make light conversation and John kept his thoughts to himself, concentrating on driving. She knew that he was fond of Manolito, in his own way. Though Manolito had never been part of the marriage agreement, he had stayed at High Chaparral and worked there rather than at the rancho that he was destined to inherit one day. It irked their father and it occasionally irked John as well.

Buck, on the other hand, made no secret of the fact that he considered Manolito his best friend. John’s attempt to convince him to stay and keep the ranch running while he escorted Victoria to her father’s rancho had been met with an explosion of anger that quickly had John surrendering and leaving High Chaparral in the perfectly capable hands of Sam Butler instead.

Reaching Rancho Montoya, the gates had been opened immediately to allow them in, but she noticed a somber atmosphere around them. However, without waiting for formalities and leaving the luggage for her husband to look after, Victoria hurried inside and called for her father. She was stunned to find that he was not there.

“Not here? And where is he then?” she demanded crossly.

“Don Sebastian has joined the search for the caballero, Señor Lancer, Señora,” Hernando explained. “Since early this morning.”

“Señor Lancer? Which one and what has happened?”

“The younger, Señor Johnny Lancer.”

“He’s missing?”

“Si, Señora, taken from his bed in the middle of the night. Two guards were killed and then Señor Manolito was hurt. Such terrible things happening… ay!”

“And how is my brother?”

“He lives, Señora,” he answered soberly. “We pray for him.”

Victoria took it all in quickly and decided to get the full story after she had seen her brother. If Don Sebastian was not here, then someone should be with Manolito.

“Tell my husband everything that has happened,” she ordered, taking off her gloves and bonnet. She tossed them aside to land on a coffee table in the middle of the room. “I will be with Manolito. The doctor, has he been this morning?”

“The doctor is still with him, Señora,” the man said eagerly. “And the Señora Rivera has not left his side.”

Victoria’s eyebrows went up quizzically. “Señora Rivera?” She had never heard the name – had no idea who the woman caring for her brother was, but she was determined to find out quickly. “She is with him?”

“Si, and has been since he was brought home.”

She made her way to Manolito’s room and knocked softly. It opened almost immediately, revealing Manolito lying still in his bed and a pretty young woman in her mid-twenties sitting in a chair beside him. The woman glanced up for a moment and seemed startled, but went straight back to cooling Manolito’s face with a cloth.

The doctor, a man she knew well, stood holding the door open for her to enter.

“Dr. Alvarez, how is he?” she asked quietly.

“Señora Victoria, I am glad you are here. I am afraid that your brother is very ill,” the doctor replied. “Fortunately, the bullet missed the major blood vessels in his neck, but he still lost a lot of blood before reaching us.”

He stopped while she took in his words and then continued. “The wound itself is not longer life-threatening, but a fever has set in.”

She nodded, her back straightening at the news. “Gracias, Doctor,” she said as she walked over to the bed, anxiously noting Manolito’s flushed skin, his damp hair and the bandage around his neck. She placed her hand on his forehead and sighed when she realized how warm he was.

The woman laid the cloth across his brow and then glanced up nervously at Victoria.  She sat back in the chair and Victoria sensed her discomfort.

“And gracias to you, too, for helping him,” she said reassuringly.

“De nada, Señora Cannon,” she whispered.

“Ah, you know who I am, but I do not know you,” Victoria said. “Should I perhaps?”

“No, no… my name is Estellita Rivera. I am a friend of Manolito… from Nogales.”

“Señora Rivera has been very diligent in nursing him,” the doctor explained. “And most determined. She has been with him all through the night and today as well.”

“Then you must be exhausted, my dear,” Victoria said kindly. “I will sit with him while you get some rest.”

“Oh no… I’m fine, really,” Estellita protested.

Her eyes had widened and Victoria was put in mind of a skittish kitten, desperate to hold her ground. Victoria knew her brother well enough to guess what there was between them, but the girl’s very presence here and her obvious care for Manolito put her in a different class from most of his women.

Victoria smiled. “Then we will do this together, yes? Between us, we will break this fever and get him well.”

Estellita nodded and seemed to relax a little. She turned her attention back to Manolito while Victoria unbuttoned the travel coat she wore over her dress, pulled it off and laid it aside. There were plenty of questions running through her head – what had happened to Johnny and why was her father not at his son’s side? Who was Estellita Rivera and why was she here, in the hacienda? She knew that, under normal circumstances, Don Sebastian Montoya would not have one of Manolito’s girls in the house, so there was more to this.

But Manolito was her first concern. The rest would wait.

“Now, Doctor, tell me what needs to be done,” she said firmly.

The words were no sooner said than a low moan from the bed caught their attention. Manolito sighed heavily and turned his head to one side.

“We must keep him from moving around, Señora,” the doctor told her quickly. “The stitches must not be broken or the bleeding will start again. And the fever must be brought down.”

Estellita took Manolito’s hand and softly whispered reassurances while Victoria gently ran her hand over his brow. His eyes stayed closed but Victoria could feel the tension slip away under her fingers and he quieted.

She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at him – her fine, strong and willful brother. Even ill as he was, his charm was there. Even without that roguish grin of his, he was a handsome man. She could not blame the young woman on the other side of the bed for wanting to stay with him. But those eyes that lit with mischief and sparkled with life were closed and fever burned in his face.

“Come, my stubborn and impetuous brother,” she whispered to him. “Show us what you are made of. Fight this!”

*

They came upon the little farm only half an hour after leaving the tree to which Johnny had been tied. Scott looked at the tiny farmhouse and the stalks of corn that struggled up out of the parched earth. The land here was less arid than most of what they had passed through, but it looked like poor land for farming.

A man came out, warily at first and then with more confidence. He was dressed in the long white shirt and white pants that Scott had seen so many of the peones wearing, a battered wide-brimmed sombrero on his head and sandals on his feet.

Don Sebastian rode forward and Scott suddenly realized what an impressive sight he must make to a farmer such as this - the magnificent black horse with it’s saddle and bridle decorated with silver; the man himself in his braided and embroidered costume with his back straight and proud. And when he spoke, the power of his wealth and his own self-confidence resounded in his words.

“Me llamo Don Sebastian Montoya,” he announced haughtily as the man halted just in front of him. “Dos hombres pasaron por aqui recientemente. ¿Los viste?”*

The man quickly pulled the sombrero off his head and crumpled the brim in his hands in front of him. “Si, si, Señor,” he answered eagerly. “Los vi.”*

The conversation continued in rapid Spanish and Scott tried his best to follow. “One of the men came here earlier – a thief! A bandito! He robbed me of my only horse, Señor, and a poor animal at that. When he rode past later, it was with another man riding my horse! But this man, he did not look well, Señor. If they had asked, I would have loaned the horse. I am a Christian man, Señor. But he did not ask. He stole from me.”

“How long ago did they pass?” the don asked impatiently.

“Two hours, perhaps less. But no less than one, Señor.”

Scott’s heart sank. They were further behind Rivera than he had hoped. Time was against them now, more than ever.

“Gracias,” Don Sebastian told the man. “Which way did they go?”

“Towards town, Señor,” the man answered, pointing. He stopped and looked down, rolling the brim of the sombrero nervously, then added. “Señor, por favor, the horse is worth nothing to such as them or yourself. It is old and slow. But it is all I have. Without it, how can I plough my field? If you catch that bandito, Señor… if I could get the horse back…”

“You will have the animal back. I will see to it,” Don Sebastian promised him. Then he turned back to Scott and the others. “Now, we must go. It would appear that they are indeed heading for Santa Maria Magdalena.”

“How far away is this town?” Scott asked Manuel as they started out.

“Perhaps eight miles,” Manuel replied. “Not far.”

Eight miles! With the lead that Rivera had, their chances of catching him before he reached the town, and the Rurales, were getting slimmer by the minute.

They pushed ahead, with Zeke and Manuel still keeping an eye out for tracks, but with less concern about it. It was obvious where Rivera was going now, though Scott wasn’t sure that the others were as convinced as he was of his intention of handing Johnny over to the Rurales. Scott could feel a renewed sense of urgency in the men around him, in the silence in which they rode, in the quickened pace of the horses.

Soon, they could see the mission in the distance – blurred by the miles and heat waves at first, but clearer as they got closer. It was big enough to stand out on the flat expanse but, as they closed the distance, Scott began to dread reaching it. As much as he desperately wanted his brother back safe, he wanted Rivera to not be there. Once in the hands of the Rurales, Johnny Madrid’s fate was sealed.

 

* “Me llamo Don Sebastian Montoya,” …“Dos hombres pasaron aquí recientemente. ¿Los viste?” - My name is Don Sebastián Montoya… Two men passed here recently. You saw them?

* “Si, si, Señor,” ... “Los vi.” - Yes, yes, Señor. I saw them.

 

Chapter Twenty-two

Armando Mariano stared down at the man at his feet and shook his head. ‘So this is Madrid…’ he thought. How often had he heard the name – whispered in awe mixed with fear and, begrudgingly, with respect; remembered with sadness and regret, even spat on as a rebel and pistolero?

 

“You are Madrid?” he asked, though he was sure of the answer.

 

The man’s head rolled back against the wall and he opened surprisingly blue eyes on Armando. They were dull and he frowned heavily as he tried to focus them, but his lips curled at one side in a weary attempt at a smile. He could barely keep his head up but he answered, in a voice roughened by continued thirst, “Sure, if you say so…”

 

With one negligent hand, Mariano scratched his cheek and wondered how someone like Rivera had managed to best Johnny Madrid. How had he been able to inflict this sort of punishment on someone like Madrid?

 

He had heard that the pistolero was not only fast with his gun, but quick with his wits as well. Rivera had not struck Mariano as either smart or fast, though cunning perhaps.

 

He squatted low on his heels next to the man, holding a tin cup full of water to his parched and split lips and nudging him to action. It took a minute to get any response but, finally, Madrid took one tiny sip, swallowed it and then took another longer mouthful. Still, he barely opened his eyes and seemed unaware, or uncaring, of his surroundings.

 

He wasn’t in good shape, but there was little that Armando could do about that except the basics. Getting the doctor was out of the question – neither permitted nor worthwhile. Under the circumstances, his ministrations would be wasted anyway.

 

But Armando did not think that it was right that any man should be treated this way and he felt a surge of disgust rise from his belly for Rivera but, again, he knew there was nothing he could do about him either.

 

He stood up and left Madrid for a minute and returned with a towel, a bowl of water and some clean bandages, then he set about cleaning away the dirt and blood that was smeared on Madrid’s face and chest as much as he could. As he noted the tally of scrapes and bruises, he became convinced that this man had been dragged across the desert floor at least once and he felt another angry surge of revulsion.

 

Despite some of the things he had seen and done in his life, Armando still liked to think of himself as a Christian. It revolted him that a man like Rivera could get away with something like this. Worse still, he realized that there was every chance that Rivera would actually profit from it. Don Carlos Martinez was a rich and powerful man, a hacendado feared in Sonora - whose hatred for Madrid had become legend. He would probably be more than happy to hand over a reward to the man who had brought Madrid to justice.

 

All of Sonora, and beyond, knew that Madrid had chosen to side with the peones when they had rebelled against Martinez. They had come close to overwhelming the hacienda too, if the stories that were told were true. But the Rurales had arrived in time to restore order and Madrid and the other rebels had been captured and sentenced to death.

 

What had happened after that had been the subject of rumors and speculation, most believing the story that the authorities had put out that Madrid had indeed been executed. But Mariano, and men like him, had known otherwise. He sighed as the thought came to him that being involved in all of this would probably be to his advantage. Yet he wasn’t sure he wanted any part of it, not like this.

 

But he was in it now and that was the end of it.

 

He dabbed at the encrusted blood that marked a particularly nasty scratch across Madrid’s shoulder but the man didn’t even react to the touch of the wet towel on his tender skin. If he was in pain, and he should be, he wasn’t showing any sign of it. Armando finished cleaning him up and pulled away what was left of a filthy bandage across Madrid’s chest, tossing it aside in disgust. He began to bathe the open wound, looking at it closely enough to be certain that it was from an arrow and not a bullet.

 

Nor was it a recent wound. He could see the marks of stitches that had been torn away, signs that the wound had begun to heal and then had been rent open again. It explained how someone like Rivera had managed to take Madrid. It appeared that he had been injured already, and Rivera must have taken advantage of it.

 

He considered Madrid. This was not the man who was the stuff of legends. This was not the cocky, strutting young pistolero he had heard so many stories about. This man was sick and injured, barely conscious of where he was or what was happening to him. But it was no matter now. His fate was sealed.

 

Rivera had a lot to answer for.

 

Armando sighed again and went back to doing what little he could do for Madrid before he was led away tomorrow. There were times when he did not like the things he had to do.

 

*

 

The town was dominated by the mission. It was hardly surprising. The Mission Santa María Magdalena de Buquivaba was massive compared with the rest of the buildings in the town, imposing even compared with the missions that Scott had seen in other towns. A huge arched entrance, with a tall pillar on either side of the great doorway, was topped with another smaller, but no less impressive, archway and columns. The steeple to the side of the church rose higher still, topped with a bell and a cross above that. Then there was a domed roof covering a side chapel.

 

The mission church was breathtaking, newer than most of the missions that Scott had come to know in California or in Mexico, but aged enough by sun, wind, sand and rain to have weathered the brick and adobe to a rich texture. Its stonework was carved and chiseled with all the precision and ornate style that he had come to expect in Spanish architecture.

 

In front of the mission spread a spacious plaza, bordered by pepper trees and hedged gardens. A fountain spurted precious water into the air and it fell back down into a pool that shimmered enticingly in the bright sunlight.

 

But, today, they rode past it with little more than a cursory look and they went on to enter the small town beyond it. The town was bigger than most of the villages that tended to grow up around such missions but still it was made up of low adobe buildings – neat homes and others that were almost squalid by comparison, merchants’ stores and livery stable, a cantina or two.

 

It was siesta time and the street was eerily quiet. Men and women slept in hammocks, on the ground under shade trees and anywhere else they could find to get comfortable for a half hour nap in the heat of the day.

 

But the arrival of so many men and horses brought heads up everywhere.

 

Scott was well aware of the attention they were getting. Manuel and Zeke had dropped back behind Don Sebastian who rode, with Scott, at the head of a small double column of men. They were all keeping pace with the don and his magnificent black horse had changed its gait to a high stepping walk that emphasized both his and his rider’s impression.

 

Their haste had been obliterated once they had reached the outskirts of the town. At that point, they had realized that Rivera had already won the race across the desert. He had gotten here first and he had done it with enough time to have made good his plan.

 

Of course, they had still to confirm that plan. It was only a theory for now. They had to find the Rurales office and see whether Johnny had been handed over. If they were wrong, there was still a chance to prevent it or to track down Rivera and Johnny. Somewhere in this town, Rivera would have hidden away his prisoner.

 

But first, they made their way to the Rurales’ office.

 

Finding it wasn’t hard. Three Rurales were sitting on the step outside the office at the end of the main street, talking amongst themselves until one of them noticed Don Sebastian’s entourage approaching.

 

Having heard so much about the Rurales, this was the first time Scott had actually seen any of them. Rough-looking, unshaven men who wore distinctive charro style grey uniforms braided in silver, with a wide sombrero and necktie. Across their chests they sported crossed bandolera and their rifles were close to hand, even here in town. They fitted what he had heard – official representatives of the law but with a hint of ruthlessness about them.

 

Without a word, Don Sebastian rode over to where they sat around and dismounted, followed by Scott, Manuel and Zeke. The rest of the vaqueros remained in their saddles, watching and waiting.

 

The three Rurales stood up, rifles at their sides but making no threats, and stepped aside to allow Don Sebastian and his companions past.

 

To Scott, it looked like a parting of the waters. Whether they knew who he was by name or not, Don Sebastian emanated a real air of authority and these men recognized it. Scott glanced at them for only a moment as he walked through the gauntlet himself, kept his head up and remained beside the don.

 

Inside the door, Don Sebastian stopped, Scott beside him. Zeke and Manuel held back a pace.

 

“Me llamo Don Sebastian Montoya,” he announced importantly. “¿Quien es la persona responsable aquí?” *

 

“Soy yo, Señor,” replied a man looking up from behind the desk at the end of the room. He stood up and walked around to stand in front of the desk. “Me llamo Capitan Armando Mariano. ¿A qué debo este honor?” *

 

“¿Habla Inglés, Capitan?” Don Sebastian asked.

 

“Si… Yes.”

 

“Then we will speak in English, for the benefit of my young Americano friend,” he said in English. He gave the man no option but to agree and the capitan nodded.

 

Scott decided to leave the don to continue in charge for now. He appeared to have the upper hand and Scott wasn’t going to do anything to change that. He would wait and see how this played out before taking a hand.

 

“We are here to find a man who attacked my hacienda. He killed two of my guards and then took a guest from my house hostage,” Don Sebastian told him succinctly. “We have tracked the desperado to this town. I seek your assistance in locating him and bringing him to justice.”

 

Scott glanced quickly at Don Sebastian. He’d left out Manolito’s shooting and Scott wondered why.

 

“I see,” the capitan replied, frowning. He crossed his arms thoughtfully and sat back on the edge of the desk, apparently unimpressed by the don or his words. “And do you have a name for this asesino?”

 

“Rivera, Ernesto Rivera,” Don Sebastian answered. “I want the scoundrel found and arrested.”

 

Scott maintained his silence, keeping a steady gaze on the Rurale. Don Sebastian’s stance reminded him of his grandfather, another who effortlessly bore authority as if it was his natural prerogative. At times it might be deemed overbearing, but the presence was undeniable - and useful at a time such as this.

 

He was pleased that Montoya had not yet mentioned Johnny by name. He liked the man’s thinking. If the Rurale capitan didn’t know about ‘Madrid’ yet, then why let him know? But neither had he mentioned what had happened to Manolito. That intrigued him.

 

“Ah yes, Rivera. I know him.”

 

“Then you will arrest him immediately,” Don Sebastian demanded.

 

“Lo siento. I said that I know him, Señor, but not where he is. He was here about two hours ago, but he could be anywhere now.”

 

“And his captive? Did you see him?”

 

“He left his prisoner with me.”

 

“Prisoner?” Don Sebastian thundered. “The man he kidnapped from my house? The man is a hostage… a guest of my house – not a criminal. Where is he?”

 

The capitan looked towards him, apparently unimpressed with Montoya’s demands, and nodded. “He is in a cell out back.”

 

“For what reason?” Don Sebastian asked bluntly. “Explain to me why you would see fit to lock up a man on the word of a desperado like Rivera!”

 

But the capitan did not flinch as most men would under the baleful gaze of the don. “You did not mention that it is Johnny Madrid whom you are seeking, Señor Montoya. He is wanted by Mexican law - condenó a muerte, sentenced to death.”

 

“Madrid? The man Rivera kidnapped is John Lancer. What makes you think he is this Johnny Madrid?”

 

“Rivera recognized him and brought him in.”

 

“Rivera told you?” Montoya blustered, his face red with anger. “And on this man’s word you locked him up?”

 

But Scott could see that the capitan knew. Bluster alone was not going to convince the man otherwise. Scott said firmly, “Capitan, his name is Lancer, Johnny Lancer. He’s my brother and I want to see him. Moreover, I want him out of that cell.”

 

The capitan looked him up and down dubiously. “Your brother, Señor?” he said disbelievingly.

 

Montoya stepped in again. “My young friend here is Scott Lancer, the elder son of Señor Murdoch Lancer in California. The man you hold is indeed his brother, Johnny Lancer.”

 

Turning back to Don Sebastian, the Rurale shook his head. “The man I hold is Johnny Madrid, Señor. He is a pistolero and a revolucionario.”

 

Scott was about to argue, but Don Sebastian glared at the Rurale and said, instead, “The man you are holding is the son of Murdoch Lancer, a business associate of mine and a powerful hacendado in California. Not a man to be trifled with.” He stopped for a moment, before adding, “Nor am I.”

 

Scott watched the Rurale consider the information carefully.

 

“And the man you should have in custody is Rivera,” Scott snapped angrily, no longer able to hold back. “He killed two men to break into Don Sebastian’s hacienda. Then he kidnapped my brother and walked him for miles across the desert.”

 

“Rivera dishonored my house,” Don Sebastian said bluntly, then added effectively, “And he attempted to kill my son.”

 

This time, the capitan’s attention was caught. “Your son?”

 

“Rivera shot my son, Manolito, while he and Scott were tracking down the desperado. The cobarde shot at them from ambush like the bastardo asesino he is.”

 

“I see,” the man said, musingly. He looked up and scowled. “Señor, perhaps it is hard for you to accept, but it is possible that you took a viper into your hacienda. Perhaps it was Madrid who shot your son.”

 

Scott’s temper boiled over. He took a step towards the Rurale, with murder in his mind, only to find Don Sebastian’s hand on his wrist in an iron grip. He tried to shake it off, wanting nothing less than to have his hands around the Rurale’s throat, but Montoya was deceptively strong.

 

“You know Johnny wouldn’t…” he began, furiously glaring at Montoya.

 

Don Sebastian ignored him and kept his gaze on the Rurale capitan.

 

“You dare to disbelieve me?” he growled. His voice was deep and commanding.

 

“No, no, Señor,” Mariano said placatingly. “I would only suggest that you have been misled.”

 

“I am Don Sebastian de Montoya. I am not ‘misled’ by anyone.” His chest was puffed out like a peacock, his pride ringing in every syllable and a withering gaze held firmly on the capitan. “The man you hold in that cell is a friend of my son and a business associate of mine. Under no circumstances would he do Manolito any harm. I find your suggestion offensive, Capitan.”

 

Scott would be silenced no longer. “You have this all wrong. Surely, you could see by Johnny’s condition that he’d been mistreated. Can you really trust the word of a man who would do that to another?”

 

The capitan’s face said it all and Scott’s anger rose with his fear. “Just how bad is he?”

 

“I have made him as comfortable as I can.”

 

“Comfortable? What about a doctor? Have you sent for one?”

 

Capitan Mariano shook his head. “No, there would be no point.”

 

Scott stopped, his heart in his mouth. “Why?”

 

“Yes, why, Capitan?” Don Sebastian repeated.

 

The man shrugged his broad shoulders. “Because the conviction against Johnny Madrid stands, Señores. Even after the years that have passed since the revolution. The death sentence is to be carried out. He will be shot tomorrow morning.”

 

“No!” Scott heard himself shout but it sounded hollow in a world that was falling in around him. “You can’t! There hasn’t even been a trial.”

 

“Señor Lancer, Johnny Madrid was sentenced to death a long time ago. His escape changed nothing,” the capitan explained coldly.

 

“But you can’t do this without some sort of orders, surely?”

 

“The sentence is of long-standing. There is no reason to put it off.”

 

“You are mistaken, Capitan. There is every reason,” Don Sebastian said firmly. “Johnny Madrid was sentenced to death. The guest in my house was Johnny Lancer, in Mexico only to look at cattle.”

 

Mariano looked at him with curiosity. “Don Sebastian, are you telling me that the man I have is not Johnny Madrid?”

 

“I am telling you that Rivera broke into my hacienda like a thief in the night and kidnapped Johnny Lancer from his bed. Worse, Rivera shot my son. You seem to take that incident rather too lightly for my liking.”

 

“Not at all, Don Sebastian,” Mariano assured him. “Rivera will be found and punished for his crimes.”

 

“His crimes include stealing into my home and taking an honored guest prisoner.”

 

Mariano sighed. “Your ‘Señor John Lancer’…”

 

“Yes and if you think that this will end here, or that I will permit you to execute any guest of my house, then you are seriously mistaken. I will not leave here until Rivera is brought to justice and John Lancer walks out a free man.”

 

“And you, Don Sebastian, are prepared to swear to this? That this man is Lancer and not Madrid?” Mariano asked suspiciously. “Rivera told me that he is Madrid and I have no reason to doubt him.”

 

Don Sebastian’s mouth twitched, his eyes narrowed and his expression darkened. “I am Don Sebastián de Montoya, El León de Sonora. My honor is questioned by NO ONE. Do you dare to take the word of a common little thief and murderer over mine?”

 

“No… no, Señor,” the man answered hastily. A ray of hope appeared to Scott. The capitan was not immune to the autocracy of the don in full gear after all. “But the man I hold has admitted to being Johnny Madrid.”

 

“Under what circumstances?” Scott demanded quickly. “You said that he was injured.”

 

“Well, yes,” Mariano admitted. “Injured and unwell.”

 

“And probably out of his head,” Don Sebastian concluded dismissively.

 

“Perhaps, but what would Rivera have to gain by handing him over to me?” Mariano asked.

 

Don Sebastian scoffed. “A reward perhaps? Men such as he will do anything for money.”

 

The capitan frowned again and considered some more. “Yes, I believe there is a reward.”

 

“No matter what Rivera told you. The man he handed over is John Lancer,” Scott told him adamantly, having come to realize what Don Sebastian was doing and taking advantage of the Rurale’s obvious second thoughts. “I don’t care what you’ve been told by this Rivera person. He’s my brother, and he’s the son of Murdoch Lancer from Morro Coyo in the San Joaquin Valley of California. My father sent us here to look at cattle, nothing else. If you think you can execute Murdoch Lancer’s son without recriminations, you are seriously mistaken. My father is a powerful man, with friends you would rather not have to answer to.”

 

Mariano did not look particularly impressed, but folded his arms over his chest. He looked to Don Sebastian. “This is true, Don Sebastian?”

 

“It is.”

 

“And you would be prepared to swear that this man is John Lancer?”

 

“I would.”

 

Scott kept his face straight, though he was stunned that Don Sebastian was prepared to risk his ‘honor’ for Johnny. To be caught in this deception would devastate the man.

 

Mariano, meanwhile, was scrutinizing them both. Then he looked back to Manuel and Zeke. “And you men, you also would swear that he is this John Lancer?”

 

Manuel nodded without hesitation. “I stand with the patrôn, Señor,” he said evasively but with his head held high.

 

Zeke crossed his arms lazily. “Well, I ain’t never known him by any other name, Capitan.”

 

Scott held his breath and silently thanked God that these men had backed him up. “So, are you going to take me to my brother or do I take this up with your superiors?” he asked as arrogantly as he could.

 

Mariano looked from Scott to Don Sebastian and then back again. Then he uncrossed his arms and stood up, turned and picked up a set of keys from the desk and headed for the back door.

 

“This way,” he said laconically and opened the door.

 

  

 

* ¿Quien es la persona responsable aquí? - Who is in charge here?

* “Me llamo Capitan Armando Mariano. ¿A qué debo este honor?” – My name is Capitan Armando Mariano. To what do I owe this honor?

 

Note – The original mission, built in the early 1700s, was destroyed long ago and was rebuilt in 1830-32. Renovations over the last century have left it an impressive church. The name of the town changed and is now the city of Magdalena de Kino.

 

Below is a site for photos of the mission Santa María Magdalena de Buquivaba.

 

http://parentseyes.arizona.edu/missions/Magdalena.html

 

Chapter Twenty-three

 Scott finally caught sight of his brother. After blinking in the dim light of the back room, his eyes slowly adjusted and he laid eyes on Johnny, sitting on the floor of a small dirty cell and leaning against the wall.

 “Oh God, Johnny!”

 His head hung to one side and his eyes were closed. He was shirtless but the bandage around his wounded shoulder appeared to be clean and new. His skin was scratched and bruised in more places than Scott could count off-hand, and it was burnt red raw by constant exposure to the sun.

 The cell was small and appallingly hot, with only a small barred window high on the wall opposite. There was no hope of a breath of cool air in here, even had a breeze existed outside, and the one cot against the far wall had seen better days.

 “Unlock this door! Now!” Scott demanded, horrified. He stepped back and waited impatiently to allow the Rurale capitan to put the key into the lock and open the cell. But the moment the door creaked open, Scott pushed past him and dropped to his knees beside his brother.

 “Johnny!”

 Johnny opened his eyes and turned his head towards Scott’s voice. He blinked hard, frowning and trying to focus eyes that were glassy and pin-point small even in the dim light.

 “That you, Scott?” he asked hoarsely. “Thought he’d killed you.”

 Scott shook his head and attempted a reassuring smile. “No, you’re still only one third owner of Lancer, not half.”

 Blearily, Johnny looked around him and stopped, staring up at the tiny barred window. “I’m in jail?” he asked, frowning again.

 “Yes, but not for long. We’re getting you out of here.” He put a hand to Johnny’s forehead, then his cheek and then he pulled it away, worrying. Johnny was burning up. His skin was dry and glowed red with the fever wracking his body. Then Scott reached down, intending to check Johnny’s pulse but stopped when he saw his brother’s wrists. They were bruised and chafed raw from rope burns until the skin had broken and bled. Gently, he took Johnny’s hand and lifted it to look more closely at the injuries, evoking a hiss of pain that Johnny tried hard to stop.

 “Easy, Johnny, I just want to take a look at your hands. Okay?”

 

His brother grimaced and nodded slowly and let Scott survey the damage. Rage tightened Scott’s chest until it was hard for him to breathe. The thought of what must have happened to Johnny during that awful journey across the desert was almost too much to bear. This sort of injury was from constant pulling, maybe worse. With the scrapes and bruises on his arms and chest, it seemed to confirm what he had feared all along - Johnny had been dragged.

 

Carefully lowering Johnny’s hand back into his lap, Scott put his fingertips to Johnny’s neck instead to check his pulse. It was strong and Scott was relieved at first, but then realized that it was far too fast.

 Over his shoulder, he ordered urgently to no one in particular, “Get some water and a towel… and some drinking water.”

 “I’ll get it.” It was Zeke and he was already disappearing through the doorway back into the office when Scott looked up. Then Scott turned back to Johnny.

 “Where’s Val?” Johnny asked, suddenly looking up at Scott. “He’s had his fun. Time to let me outa here.”

 Disheartened, Scott realized that Johnny’s confusion went deeper than he had at first thought. “Don’t worry, I’ll see that he does,” he answered. The other people in the room seemed to fade away as he took stock of the awful tally of Johnny’s injuries. There were heavy bruises on his chest, along with a myriad of scrapes and scratches that were immediately visible. One long and especially dark bruise on Johnny’s right side, over his ribs, was of a shape that suggested that a boot had connected with him.

 Scott prodded gently around it and hoped that Johnny’s lack of response meant that there were no broken or cracked ribs. He put his fingers under Johnny’s chin and slowly turned his brother’s face towards him. Again he found scratches and bruises but nothing that looked serious.

 Ridiculously, Johnny grinned. “Kinda glad you’re alive, Scott.”

 “I’m glad of it myself,” Scott answered him with an ironic smile. “I am even more pleased to see that you are too.” He ran his fingers carefully through Johnny’s hair and found two good sized lumps at the back of his head. They could well be the reason for Johnny’s unusually slow responses, but Scott suspected there was more to it than that.

 The grin disappeared from Johnny’s face as quickly as it had appeared. “Mano,” he whispered, distressed. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

 “No, he’s back at Rancho Montoya,” Scott assured him. “He’s not dead, Johnny.”

 But Johnny’s chin dropped to his chest. He shook his head slowly. “No, Rivera killed him. Saw him do it but… couldn’t stop him.”

 “Johnny…” Scott tried to get his attention, but Johnny was somewhere else, deep in his own hazy thoughts and memories.

 “My fault. Always worried I’d get him killed some day. Tried to get to Rivera…”

 “Johnny!” Scott snapped at him more forcefully. “Listen to me. Mano is at the ranch.”

 “Saw him fire,” Johnny persisted stubbornly. “He told me…”

 Scott took a firm hold of Johnny’s chin and lifted his head until their eyes met. “You listen to me. Would I lie to you? Have I ever?”

 A small shake of the head was his brother’s only answer.

 “Well, I’m not starting now. Mano was shot, yes, but he’s back at the ranch with Estellita looking after him. Victoria’s probably there by now too.”

 “It is true, John,” Don Sebastian averred from behind Scott.

 Johnny looked up at him and sighed heavily. “Didn’t mean to get him shot.”

 “Bah! What else could I expect of the two of you?” Montoya said, waving his hand dismissively. “It was not you who hurt him. It was Rivera – and it will be Rivera who will pay for it.” He turned to the capitan, hanging back against the wall behind them but obviously watching and listening intently. “Is there a doctor in this town?”

 “Si, Dr. Morales,” the Rurale replied indolently.

 “Then send for him,” Don Sebastian ordered angrily. “It should have been done long ago.”

 “Very well, I will send one of my men for him, Señor.”

 “Bueno. And I take it that you no longer have any objection to my relieving you of Señor Lancer? The boy should be in a bed, but he is NOT staying here. Where can he be taken that is clean and fit for human habitation in this town?”

 The capital glared back at him for a moment, apparently more accustomed to giving orders than to receiving them, but the don had a persona that was hard to refuse and the Rurale relented.

 “No, Señor, you can take him. There is an inn – La Casa del Caballo Blanco. It is just across the street,” Mariano told him.

 “Good. Send your man for this doctor and tell him to meet us at the inn.”

 Mariano nodded and left, then Don Sebastian turned to his man. “Manuel, go to this inn and arrange rooms.”

 “Not so loud,” Johnny pleaded wearily, his head lolling to the side. “Got a headache.”

 “Alright, Johnny,” Scott said, quietly reassuring him. “I’ll take a quick look at that shoulder and then we’re getting you out of here.”

 “No… too tired, Scott. I’ll stay here. ‘s okay.” He closed his eyes as Scott carefully pulled the bandage aside. The wound that had been so nearly healed was now raw and inflamed. The stitches were long gone and it looked like there had been some bleeding, even since he had been re-bandaged.

 Scott readjusted the bandage. “No, I think a nice comfortable bed is what you need,” he told Johnny. “Not that cot over there.”

 Zeke appeared beside him, dropping to his knees and laden with a jug and a basin, both full of water. An empty cup hung from his fingers and over his arm were towels. Scott took the jug and the cup, thanking him as he poured some water for Johnny.

 “Here, Brother, drink this,” he said, holding the cup to Johnny’s lips. Johnny was again slow to react, but parted his lips and, with a little coaxing, swallowed a couple of sips. “That’s good, Johnny. We’ll get you out of here and into a bed. You can rest then.”

 Johnny’s eyes opened slowly, again not focusing properly. “Bed? Home?” he asked in obvious confusion. He shook his head. “No, can’t go home. The ol’ man’ll be real mad at me for endin’ up in jail. Don’t want him yellin’. Head hurts already.”

 “No, Johnny. Not this time. Murdoch won’t yell at you.” Scott offered him the cup again, making sure he took a couple more mouthfuls.

 “He ain’t gonna be able to walk outa here, Scott,” Zeke pointed out. He looked around, then got to his feet and strode over to the broken down cot on the other side of the cell. He pulled the blanket off and folded it in half, then laid it on the floor. “Reckon this’ ll do. Should take his weight. Lay him out on the blanket an’ we’ll carry him over to the inn.”

 Scott nodded and, between them, they maneuvered Johnny’s limp form onto the makeshift stretcher. All the while, Johnny neither protested nor tried to help himself, accepting their handling without any protest. Scott worried.

 “Sun’s got him, Scott,” Zeke told him dourly. “That heatstroke’ll suck everythin’ out of a man. Drive him plumb outa his head. Seen it happen before.”

 “I know,” was all Scott answered. He’d had his own experience with it and it wasn’t something he was likely to soon forget.

 Zeke dunked a towel into the basin of water, wrung it out and handed it to Scott. “We gotta get some o’ that heat outa him. He’s got it bad.”

 Nodding, Scott began by wiping the cool wet cloth over Johnny’s face, then his neck, shoulders and chest. He knew how right Zeke was about this. Whatever Johnny’s other injuries were and how serious they might be, it was the heat that was doing him the most harm now.

 Zeke wrung out another towel and placed it under Johnny’s armpit, then did the same on Johnny’s other side. “Old trick I seen once,” he explained to Scott as he worked. “It’ll bring down his temperature faster.”

 But Johnny was slipping deeper into lethargy, barely conscious now and not responding to anything they did to him. “We should get him out of here, somewhere cooler than this damned hotbox,” Scott said angrily. “Zeke, can you get a couple of Don Sebastian’s men to help us carry him across to the inn?”

 “Sure. Just keep on wipin’ him down. We’ll beat this yet.”

 *

“How’s he doin’, Victoria?” Buck asked, quietly closing the door behind him. Victoria sat in a chair by her brother’s bedside, hands clasped in her lap and watching Manolito closely.

“Ssh… He is sleeping,” she whispered, turning back towards the doorway. “The fever is down a little and he woke for a while, but only for long enough to get him to take a mouthful of water.” She sighed. “He is very weak. Exhausted, Buck.”

He came nearer and then to an abrupt halt, noticing the young woman sitting in a chair on the far side of the bed. She was pretty – a real looker, but her eyes were closed and her head leaned sideways, her breathing the soft and rhythmic as she slept.

“He’s not the only one, looks like.”

“Hush, Buck. Do not wake her,” Victoria told him. “She has been by Manolito’s side since yesterday and she will not leave him. When she fell asleep, I did not have the heart to have her moved.”

The room was already getting dark, lit by only one lamp and the wick on that had been turned down low. Outside, the sun had dropped low in the sky and dark shadows were beginning to usher in the evening.

Buck frowned and looked at her more closely. “Who is she? Looks kinda familiar.”

“Her name is Estellita Rivera,” Victoria told him quietly. “It seems she is a friend of Manolito, from Nogales.”

“Nogales?” Buck closed the distance between himself and Victoria and crouched at her side. Matching her quiet tone, he added “She’s a ways from home then. Reckon I’ve heard him mention the name, too. What’s she doin’ here?”

“She came to warn Johnny. But she was too late.”

“You know what’s been happenin’ then? How this here happened?”

“Yes, Estellita told me.” She sighed heavily. “Buck, I am so worried about Johnny. This man who has taken him is a very dangerous man.”

“Yeah,” Buck agreed. “But the story I got is that Johnny was still alive when they last seen him. An’ you can count on one thing; Scott ain’t a man to quit. He’ll move heaven an’ earth to get that brother o’ his back safe.”

“Yes, that is so,” she answered, only a little reassured.

“An’ then there’s your papa.” He grinned for her. “Ol’ Don Sebastian, he’s on their tail too. That papa o’ yours ain’t a one to mess with when he’s got the bit ‘tween his teeth.”

She nodded, feeling more confident but just as anxious.

“So what did the doc have to say, ‘bout Mano?”

Victoria leaned forward and dampened the cloth in the basin, wiped Manolito’s face and then dropped it back in the water. With the back of her hand, she checked his cheek and forehead for fever.

Satisfied, she turned her attention back to Buck.

“He thinks the worst might be over, now that the fever is lower. If we can keep it down and get him to drink when he wakes.” She folded her hands back into her lap and straightened her back, her gaze fixed on her brother. She and Estellita had fought for hours to bring that fever down while Manolito had tried to toss in his delirium. It had frightened them both. The doctor too had been worried but had stayed on and tended to Manolito stoically.

Finally, the fever had broken and lowered enough to allow them to take a breath of relief and regain some hope. Estellita had finally succumbed to her exhaustion and had fallen asleep right where she sat. Victoria had considered waking her and having her go to bed, but could not. She knew that the girl would want to be there if Manolito woke.

A deep sigh from the bed distracted them both. Manolito moved his head a little and Victoria quickly put her hand to the side of his face to stop him from moving too much. At her touch, he opened his eyes – still glazed from the after-effects of the laudanum that the doctor had given him when he had last woken.

“Estate quieto, Manolo,” she quietly urged him. “You must not move around or you will start bleeding again. Do you understand? ¿Entiendes, Manolito?”

Barely audibly, he answered. “Si, entiendo.”

“Bueno.” She turned to Buck. “Would you please pour some of the tea in that jug into the glass and pass it to me?”

A moment later, Buck carefully lifted Manolito’s head and shoulders while she held the glass to Manolito’s lips. He protested weakly but she urged him further.

“Drink a little for me, Manolo. Esta bebida es para la fiebre, Manolito, for the fever. Por favor, tomatela. Te ayudará. Por lo menos, toma un poco.” *

“Come on, Compadre. It’s good for you, just like Victoria told ya, even if it don’t taste so good,” Buck added.

He settled then and, bit by bit, Victoria coaxed him into drinking most of the glass of tea. Pleased, she put it aside and wiped the damp cloth over his face.

“Johnny?” Manolito asked hoarsely, his gaze on his sister.

“They ain’t back yet, Mano,” Buck told him. “But that brother o’ his ain’t gonna give up easy. They’ll get him back.”

“Papa is with Scott too, and he has taken more men with him. They will bring Johnny back to us,” Victoria said confidently – more confidently than she actually felt.

“Were it not for me, they would have Johnny already,” Manolito said morosely.

“Now, none o’ this is any fault o’ yours, Mano,” Buck told him angrily. “An’, for all we know, they already got him away from that fella. Ain’t gonna know, one way or ‘nother, till they get back here. So don’t go frettin’. You just rest up an’ get yourself back on your feet an’ don’t give us none o’ that fool talk.”

*

Scott sat by Johnny’s bedside into the early evening, a damp cloth constantly at hand to cool the terrible heat emanating from his brother’s body.

The Casa del Caballo Blanco had turned out to be a small inn with even smaller rooms, but well kept, clean and airy. The thick adobe walls made it cooler than outside, and certainly cooler than that hotbox the rurales called a jail. It might be far below the exacting standards that Don Sebastian expected of his accommodations, but the innkeeper had been happy to answer their every request, quickly and without complaint.

If he had thought it strange that they had carried Johnny across the street from the Rurales’ office, sick and unconscious, then he had not shown it and had quickly found them a room and all they needed. His wife, a rotund middle-aged and maternal woman, had been eager to help in any way that she could and bustled about bringing them a constant supply of towels and water.

Scott found the doctor, Dr. Morales, to be a respectable and conscientious man.  He had checked and then re-stitched the shoulder wound, poked and probed for broken and cracked bones and then painstakingly went over Johnny’s chest, arms and back for cactus thorns, meticulously removing them as he found them.

He took a long time over his work, while Scott stood by and helped when he was needed. Señora Martinez, the innkeeper’s wife, hovered close by as well, tut-tutting over the terrible state the young caballero was in.

“None of his injuries are serious,” the man had finally assured them, but the grave expression on his face had not inspired confidence. “The shoulder wound shows some signs of infection, but I have every hope that it will not become a problem. The salve I have used on it is muy efficaz – er… effective. His ribs are badly bruised but not broken and his wrists are rope-burned and chafed. There are more scrapes and bruises than I could count.” He shook his head. “This was not an accident – yes?”

“No, Doctor,” Scott replied, his anger echoing in his answer. “No, it was not.”

“He has been cruelly mistreated, Señor.  However, it is not his injuries which are my immediate concern.”

“The heatstroke?” Scott asked anxiously.

“Si, Señor, you are right. His condition is not good. All of these injuries together are enough to weaken him terribly, but it is the insolación - the heatstroke - that has done the most damage. El Sol can be unforgiving,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “So fighting the heatstroke, that must be our first priority. His body temperature is far too high and must be brought down at all cost. It is a very serious matter, Señor. His heart is beating far too fast.”

“And if we can bring it down, Doctor? Will there be any permanent effects?”

Dr. Morales considered the question for a moment. “The fever might come on him again unexpectedly, perhaps for a week or more, but he has suffered no convulsions and his heart is still strong. These are the things we must prevent, so the sooner we can bring his temperature down, the less risk there will be of long term problems.”

Scott nodded, still anxious, but with hope this time. Johnny’s wandering mind had been more than a little bit worrying.

After the doctor left, Scott had remained with Johnny constantly. Zeke had joined him now and then, usually with more supplies of water and, incredibly, eventually with some ice. Johnny lay on the bed, stripped to his underwear and surrounded by wet towels. He was covered with a wet sheet and the ice was packed and placed in his armpits and his groin. They plied wet compresses to his face and neck endlessly and waited.

For one brief and frightening quarter of an hour, Johnny had fought all their efforts, fending off the damp cloth on his face and resisting every attempt to quiet him. He’d thrown off the wet sheet and thrashed wildly on the bed, only to finally fall back – exhausted.

Since then, he had laid there – quiet and unresponsive. Scott watched and waited, continuing the wet compresses and feeling sure that their efforts were beginning to pay off. Johnny’s forehead felt cooler and the alarming red glow that he had to his skin had faded, but his pulse was still faster than it should be.

Evening had fallen and the lamps were lit, though Scott had them turned down low in Johnny’s room. It was then that, at last, Johnny began to show signs of regaining consciousness. Scott’s own heart beat wildly as he watched his brother’s face and wondered just who was waking up – Johnny or the disjointed soul they had found in the jail.

Zeke was there with Scott when Johnny’s eyes opened.

“I’ll go send for the doc,” Zeke said quickly.

“Thanks and let Don Sebastian know he’s waking up was well.”

 

* Esta bebida es para la fiebre, Manolito. Por favor, tomatela. Te ayudará. Por lo menos, toma un poco.” – This drink is for the fever, Manolito. Please, drink it. It will help you. At least drink a little.

 

Chapter Twenty-four

Zeke nodded and hurried out to let Don Sebastian know that Johnny was awake and to send for the doctor. Scott took firm hold of his brother’s hand to reassure him and watched as Johnny slowly looked around him, a deep frown beginning to crease his brow.

“Johnny, it’s me - Scott. I’m right here with you.”

Johnny turned his head towards his brother’s voice. “Here? Where’s here?” he asked hoarsely.

“We’re at an inn in a mission town – Maria Magdalena. It’s okay, you’re safe now.”

“Mexico?”

Scott’s heart sank. Did he not recall anything? Perhaps it would be a godsend in some ways, that he didn’t have to remember being in Rivera’s hands and that awful journey across the desert. But it could also mean that Johnny had not recovered his senses as Scott had hoped.

“Yes, that’s right, Mexico. We came here to see Don Sebastian. Do you remember?”

Scott waited for a moment while Johnny obviously struggled with the memories. The silence, short-lived but nerve-wracking, was broken by a heavy sigh from his brother.

“Yeah, looking at cattle.” The frown on Johnny’s face eased away and his eyelids slid closed but, tired as he appeared to be, Scott realized that he was still awake. “¡Madre de Dios! Feels like I hurt all over, Scott.”

“I’m not surprised,” Scott answered, as lightly as he could. So far, Johnny seemed to be aware of his surroundings and more lucid than he had been in the jail. “How much do you remember, Johnny?”

“A whole lot o’ walking,” he answered with a lame attempt at a smile. His voice was dry and rasping, so Scott poured water into a glass and held it to his lips. After one mouthful, Johnny sighed with relief. “Thanks,” he said, less hoarsely. “Things are still kinda fuzzy. Flashes of things – Rivera mostly… and the sun – a lot o’ sun.”

His voice trailed off and Scott let him take his time.

Suddenly his eyes flashed open. “Bars – there were bars,” Johnny said suddenly, disconcerted and alarmed.

Scott kept hold of his brother’s hand and laid his other hand on Johnny’s shoulder, just firmly enough to both reassure him and to keep him from moving around.

“It’s okay, Johnny. It’s over and you’re safe now. I’m here.”

“There were bars, weren’t there?” Johnny persisted, his eyes fixed firmly on Scott’s and filled with confusion.

“Yes, there were. Rivera handed you over to the Rurales, but you don’t have to worry about them now. It’s been taken care of.”

The frown returned and deepened. “How?”

“We convinced the rurale capitan that you’re John Lancer – not Johnny Madrid. He let you go.”

“Convinced them? Scott, no one convinces the Rurales of anything. We gotta get out of…”

“You don’t have to get out of anywhere right now, Brother,” Scott told him determinedly, his hands quickly moving to hold Johnny down by the shoulders. “It’s okay, really. We got the capitan to let you go.”

Scott felt him relax somewhat. If he never remembered all of what Scott was sure had been a tortuous journey across the desert, it would be a blessed gift but he had to understand that he was safe now.

“We?”

“Don Sebastian and I… and some others. We all swore that you’re Johnny Lancer.”

“You sayin’ Don Sebastian swore it, too?”

“Yes, he did. It was his idea, in fact, and it was his word that the capitan was finally forced to accept. I’m not sure it would have worked if he hadn’t been there.”

Johnny’s eyelids sagged once more as exhaustion began to take hold of him. But they flew open again. “¡Dios mio! Mano!” Johnny gasped and this time he did throw himself forward. But Scott pressed him back gently.

“Easy, Johnny, he’s fine.”

Johnny fell back into the pillows and stared at the ceiling. For a long moment he was silent. Scott knew now that the memories were coming back to him. “Rivera shot him, didn’t he?”

“Yes, but it’s okay. I got Mano back to the rancho Montoya. He’s in good hands.”

“He’s not…?”

“No, he’s not dead. When I left him, he was very much alive and in Estellita’s care. She came to warn us, but got there too late. Rivera had struck the night before. She’ll look after him, and Don Sebastian sent for Victoria as well. You don’t have to worry about Manolito.”

Scott hoped it was still the case. In reassuring Johnny, he knew he had understated the fears that they all held for Manolito.

“And Don Sebastian knows he’s hurt?”

“Yes, but he insisted on joining in the hunt for you.”

A sound from the doorway distracted them both.

It was Don Sebastian himself. “So, he is awake?” he asked as he slid, surprisingly quietly, into the room. He closed the door and walked over to stand beside the bed.

“Yes, Sir. He is,” Scott replied cheerfully.

“And is he still loco?”

“No more than usual, Señor,” Johnny answered weakly for himself. “Why, were you worried?”

“Hardly,” the older man said blithely.

Johnny sighed lightly. “Scott, you mind if I have a word alone with Don Sebastian?”

Scott seemed a little uncertain, but he stood up and answered. “Sure, I’ll wait right outside.” He whispered something to the don as he passed and went out into the hall.

“Let me guess,” Johnny said, smiling. “He wants you to call him if I get sick or tired. Right?”

“You have come to know this brother of yours well in such a short time.”

“Yeah, I have. But it seems like I’ve put you an’ him to a lot of trouble.”

“Bah! No more than I should have expected when I saw you walk into my hacienda,” Montoya said in his dismissive way. “Is this what you could not say in his presence?”

Johnny looked up at him, cold steel hardening his words. “Nope, I wanted to ask you what the hell you’re doin’ here when Manolito is at home hurt.”

Montoya narrowed his eyes, anger flashing in them for a moment but fading before he answered. “I could do no more for Manolito than is being done for him already.”

“That’s not the point. He’s your son. You should be with him.”

But Don Sebastian shook his head. “No, Honor demanded I be with your brother. You were uno invitado in my house, an honored guest of the Montoyas – a friend of my son and of my daughter. It was my responsibility to bring you back safely. Manolito would expect no less of me.”

“You still haven’t figured it all out, have you? Is your honor more important to you than your son?” Johnny shook his head, more sad than angry now. “You know, Murdoch was kinda slow at gettin’ it, but Scott and I both know now that he’d crawl over hot coals to get to us if we were hurt.”

Montoya sat down in the chair that Scott had vacated. He crossed his legs and folded his arms across his chest. “And do you think that, if I thought it would make a difference, I would not do the same?”

“No, I know you would, but making a difference is not only about being able to help, Señor. Sometimes, just being there is all it takes.”

“Perhaps, but do you really believe that Manolito would prefer to wake to find me at his side rather than a lovely young woman like Estellita Rivera?”

Johnny laughed. The strange, sometimes strained, relationship between the elder and the younger Montoyas was something that he had never quite fathomed. Johnny’s own hatred of his father, in those years before he had met Murdoch, had been an honest and easy emotion. But what lay between Manolito and Don Sebastian was a whole different thing. Johnny had always been sure that there was love between them but, without respect for each other, it had wilted into the uneasy relationship that they now had.

Truth be told, Don Sebastian was probably right. Mano would prefer to wake to Estellita.

“No, I guess you’re right,” he agreed reluctantly.

Montoya looked silently at Johnny for a minute and Johnny could feel the scrutiny in his eyes. He was being sized up and he felt uncomfortable with it.

Finally, the don spoke again. “I told you that I was not surprised to hear that you had died. It is true – I was not. The path you chose was bound to lead you to an early grave.” Montoya took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “But being right gave me no pleasure. I had always thought that there was more you could have been.”

He uncrossed his arms and got to his feet. “This time, being right does give me pleasure.”

Johnny stared at him, stunned. “I… I’m honored, Señor.” Then he sighed heavily. “But lo siento, Don Sebastian. I did not intend that Manolito or anyone else be hurt. Murdoch was right – I shouldn’t have come.”

“Nonsense!” Don Sebastian exploded. “None of this is your fault. It is the fault of only one person – Rivera. And I will see to it that he pays for it. As for you, huh! I always knew why you stopped coming to the ranchero, why you stopped meeting my son. I am not a fool, Johnny. If Manolito didn’t understand that you were keeping him away from your gunfights, I did. I know that you would never intentionally put Manolito in danger.”

He stopped for a moment and suddenly laughed. “But you forget, Manolito has never needed help from anyone to find trouble. He is more than capable of doing it all by himself. Your presence merely doubles the likelihood.”

Johnny laughed, then suddenly sobered. “I heard you were ready to swear I’m not Madrid.”

“No, I was ready to swear that you are John Lancer. That is true.”

“It’s a technicality and you know it,” Johnny answered. “What would have happened to your precious honor if they’d pressed you?”

“It is not important now,” Don Sebastian told him with a shrug of his shoulders. “I swore to nothing. What I told the capitan was that I was ready to swear it.”

Johnny shook his head. “And if he’d asked you if I was also Johnny Madrid?”

“Ah, it is hypothetical, John.” He looked carefully at Johnny before continuing. “But I would have said no.”

There was a moment of silence in the room as Johnny stared at the man, overwhelmed. “Don Sebastian…”

“No, John. As I said, it is hypothetical. It did not happen, so it is all of no consequence.”

“Maybe to you, Señor,” Johnny said with feeling. “But not to me.”

*

The knock on the door drew Scott’s attention away from the doctor’s words. He looked at the closed door with annoyance. He didn’t want to be interrupted now – not when he was finally getting some good news about his brother.

The doctor had said that, despite his state, Johnny’s injuries would heal. The doctor had assured him that Johnny’s body temperature had lowered enough that he could be considered out of danger and, exhausted though he was, he seemed to be aware of everything going on around him. There was a spark of life in his eyes that had not been there earlier.

Scott excused himself and strode across the room to the door while Don Sebastian talked with the doctor. Scott was unaccountably irritated further that they were speaking in Spanish, too fast for him to follow. If it concerned Johnny, he wanted to know about it.

Opening the door, he found Zeke Jackson about to knock again. He’d taken it upon himself to wait outside after fetching the doctor but something had obviously changed his mind.

“Sorry to disturb you, Scott,” Zeke said. “I know the doc’s with ya, but the capitan is here an’ he wants to talk to you an’ Don Sebastian.”

Looking past Zeke’s shoulder, Scott saw the rurale leaning back lazily against the hallway wall. “Why?” Scott demanded. “Can’t it wait? My brother is not well enough to talk to you and I thought we’d said all there was to say.”

“Would you have me tell you out here, with all the world to hear?” Mariano asked.

“No,” Scott relented. “You’d better come inside.”

He stood aside and let them both in, then closed the door with something of a thud and walked over to stand protectively beside the bed. Johnny was watching the two newcomers enter the room and Scott looked on as a shadow seemed to slide over Johnny’s face. Johnny was suddenly wary.

“Johnny, this is Zeke Jackson,” Scott said, indicating the big brawny man standing awkwardly by the door. “He brought Estellita to warn you, then helped track you across the desert.”

Johnny nodded to Zeke. “Pleased to meet you, Zeke. I owe you.”

Zeke acknowledged the thanks with an answering nod of his head but nothing more.

“And this,” Scott continued, “is Capitan Mariano.”

Though he looked tired and ill, Johnny’s wariness heightened and Scott found himself edging a little closer to the bed to reassure him. Scott waited silently as the two men sized each other up. He could not even begin to know just how much fear was hidden beneath that façade of Johnny’s. Facing a rurale was the one thing that they had not wanted to happen in Mexico.

“Capitan,” Johnny finally said, greeting him calmly to all outward appearances.

“You look much better than when I saw you last. I trust that you have regained some of your strength.”

“Yeah, some, thanks,” Johnny answered curtly.

“And your head? It is clear now?”

“Seems so.”

“Then perhaps you can answer some questions for me, Señor Madrid.”

Johnny lowered his eyelids and narrowed his eyes, delivering a stare that was as hard as new-forged iron and just as cold. Scott had seen that look a few times before and it still took his breath away every time it appeared. It seemed as if Johnny was looking right into a man’s soul and he had seen men go to water when faced with that stare. But the rurale captain held the gaze without flinching.

Then Johnny’s lips turned up at one corner, bringing a disdainful half-smile to his face. “My name is Lancer,” he said with a quiet edge to his voice. With no obvious effort, Johnny had managed to turn a simple statement into an unmitigated threat.

“Yet you told me that your name was Madrid, as did Rivera when he turned you over to me,” he answered. There was no indication in his manner or his voice that he was intimidated.

“Don’t know about that. Things are kinda fuzzy in places. Don’t even recall bein’ in your jail, but Scott tells me I was.” He leaned back into the pillows behind him and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened his eyes again, he added, “Guess I could’ve said or done just about anything at that stage.”

Scott was taken aback to see a hint of a smile cross the rurale’s face.

“We’ve already told you that he’s my brother,” Scott told him firmly.

“Si, so you have.”

“Then the matter is ended,” said Don Sebastian coldly. “Now, what about Rivera? He is the man you are supposed to be searching for. The man has already killed two of my men and almost killed my son.”

Scott caught the expression of surprise on Johnny’s face and realized that he probably hadn’t known about the guards who had been killed. He wished he hadn’t found out yet. Johnny would blame himself for their deaths.

Sure enough, Johnny asked Don Sebastian, “What men?”

Don Sebastian glanced to Scott before answering. It seemed that he now understood that Johnny had not known. With more sympathy in his voice than Scott was used to hearing, the man explained. “Rivera killed two guards to get into the hacienda.”

Johnny’s face dropped and he leaned back wearily. “Lo siento, Señor,” he whispered.

“¡Qué tonterías!” Montoya bellowed back at him. “It is no more your fault than any of this. I have told you this already and it will not be discussed again. ¿Me explico?”

Johnny looked questioningly at him then nodded reluctantly. “Si, te explica, Señor.”

Mariano was watching the exchange closely and Scott wondered what was going through his mind. But he didn’t have much time to think about it as Don Sebastian turned his attention back to the rurale.

“Now, what of Rivera?”

“That is why I am here, Don Sebastian,” he said as he turned to face the older man. “I am sorry to say that my men have searched all over town but can find no trace of him.”

“He’s gotten away?” Scott asked furiously.

“This is not acceptable, Capitan!” Don Sebastian exclaimed.

The rurale sighed. “I fear he is probably many miles from here by now.”

“No.”

It was Johnny. The word was voiced with so much confidence that Scott turned quickly to face him. “Johnny?”

“Rivera wants me dead. He’s still around.”

“Why does he want you dead, Señor Lancer?” Mariano asked. “Why did he go to so much trouble to take you and then hand you over to me? If it was only money, there must have been easier men that he could pass off as Johnny Madrid. It seems to me that this is more personal.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Then why, Señor?”

Johnny sighed. “Because I killed his brother,” he replied, to Scott’s surprise. If he didn’t step carefully he would give too much of his story away, there was still the chance that the rurale might choose to believe that he was Madrid after all.

“Five years ago, the Rivera brothers ambushed me. I shot back an’ Cesar Rivera was killed.” He looked the rurale in the eye. “The law was satisfied that it was self defense, but Ernesto Rivera wasn’t. He wants me dead, real bad.”

“Then why did he not just kill you when he had the chance?” the rurale persisted.

“Told me that he wanted to see me humiliated before I die. I hear Madrid has a death sentence hanging over him.” He stopped and waited for Mariano to say something, but the rurale made no comment – only that hint of a smile. “So I guess he figured that turning me in as Madrid would mean exactly that. Wants to see me paraded down the street an’ shot in public.”

“An’ he don’t have to answer for it,” Zeke commented unexpectedly. He’d been listening quietly in the background. “Reckon he’s around somewheres alright. After all the trouble he went to, he ain’t gonna wanta miss the show.”

Johnny looked him over and Scott smiled. On first appearance, Zeke was unshaven and in serious need of a bath – more so than even Val Crawford. He was wearing a poncho with more holes in it than Scott could count but he’d left his battered hat in his room this time, revealing an unruly shock of dark hair peppered with dust.

It was on being with him for a while that Scott had found more to the man than those ‘first appearances’.

“That’s how I figure it,” Johnny answered at last. “He’s here somewhere.”

The rurale shook his head. “My men have looked all over town. If he is still here, someone is hiding him.”

“Then we have to flush him out,” Johnny said coolly.

Scott quickly looked down at his brother. He dreaded to think what Johnny had meant by that. “Johnny…?” he started cautiously.

“It will not be easy to ‘flush him out’ as you say,” Mariano told him. “If what you say is true, and I suspect you are right, then he will stay in hiding until he realizes that his plan has failed. Then he will try to slip away. It might be possible to catch him then, but it could take days and the chances are low.”

Johnny nodded. “Yes, I know. But there’s one thing that’ll bring him out.” He stopped and stared into the rurale’s eyes as if reaching an understanding with him. “Give him what he wants – and the sooner the better.”

“Are you crazy?” Scott demanded angrily. “You can’t. It’s too risky. He’ll be out there ready to shoot your fool head off the minute you show your face.”

“No, Scott. Not if he thinks the rurales are going to do it for him. It’s what he’s been after all along. He told me… he wants to see them parade me in front of the town and walk me down to the firing wall, then shoot me down publicly and all legal.”

“And you are prepared to do this?” Mariano asked. “To humble yourself in this way?”

Johnny nodded uneasily.

“You realize that this was to be tomorrow morning? You do not look like you could do it.”

“I can do it. A little rest and…”

“Johnny, you can’t,” Scott insisted. “You’re not strong enough for this.”

“I must protest as well,” Dr. Morales interrupted. “It would be a great risk to your health, Señor Lancer. Not only would it tax your strength, but the sun will bring back the fever. There can be no doubt about that. It is too soon to expose yourself to the sun again.”

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly before he answered. “I’m not fool enough to think it’ll be easy, but it’ll bring Rivera out. I’m bettin’ on it. That makes it worth it.”

“Johnny, it’s too great a risk,” Scott told him. “Say you are right and Rivera shows. If we don’t get him before he realizes that there’s not going to be a firing squad, he’ll kill you himself.”

“You got a better idea, Scott?” Johnny quipped.

“Yes, the logical one. The rurales keep looking for him. It’s their job, not yours.”

“He’s a cold blooded murderer. He also tried to kill a friend of mine. I don’t take kindly to that… And I have my own score to settle with him, Scott.”

Scott’s anger lit like a stick of dynamite. “What? You think I don’t know that? Do you think I don’t want to get my hands on him after what he’s done to you? Leave it to us.”

“I’m sorry, Scott. I know you don’t want this, but Rivera has to be caught and this will do it.” Johnny stopped and rested for a minute, then looked at the rurale captain. “You have your men posted around town, lookin’ at roofs an’ windows. Rivera will show.”

 

Chapter Twenty-five

Scott stood in the doorway of the rurales’ office, carefully staying out of sight of the people out in the street but able to see out himself. Zeke had taken up a position further down in an alley while Don Sebastian’s men and the remaining rurales were strategically placed around the town – all of them keeping an eye out for Rivera.

While Scott watched, Johnny stumbled and fell onto one knee, unable to stop himself with his hands tied behind his back. ‘Realistic’, he’d said he wanted this to be. That was what he’d told the rurales when he had let them drag him out into the street – make it realistic. Well, that was definitely what he was getting.

Scott’s fists were clenched at his sides as he squinted out into the morning sun. It was only midmorning, but already it was hot enough to sear through that shirt Johnny was wearing. It had been the only concession he would allow to his condition and, even so, he was wearing it open with the shirttails hanging loose. 

They had moved to the rurales’ office early in the morning, just as the sun was rising. If Rivera, or anyone else, had seen them coming from the inn, suspicion might have been raised. Scott had tried one last time to talk Johnny out of this plan, knowing that he was not strong enough to do it.

But Johnny had obstinately stood his ground, adding his own warning. “This thing has to look real, Scott, or we won’t fool Rivera,” he’d said bluntly. “If you don’t think you can stand to watch, go over to the cantina and get yourself a drink. But stay outa the way.”

But Scott had had no intention of heading for a cantina or of staying out of the way. Like it or not, he was here and had to witness what could so easily have really been his brother’s fate this morning. He wondered if that had gone through Johnny’s mind too – that this morning could well have been his last. Or was he reliving a similar occasion, not so long ago, one that must have been without hope at the time. One that, but for the last minute intervention of Murdoch’s Pinkerton man, would have ended the legend of Johnny Madrid right then and there.

Had it been like this? Scott really had no idea. Johnny had never talked about it and Scott could see why. To wake up one day knowing, not suspecting or wondering, that it would be the last day of your life… how did that feel? What kind of unseen scars did it leave?

If they hadn’t been able to convince Mariano that he was not Johnny Madrid, this would have been Johnny’s fate today. It was a thought that Scott found difficult to grasp – that he might have found Johnny only to have had to watch something like this.

Scott gritted his teeth at the thought. No, it wouldn’t have happened! He would never have let it happen. One way or another, legal or not, Scott would have found a way to get his brother out of that rurale jail.

Scott’s stomach tightened as he watched Johnny struggle to keep some semblance of dignity as he walked down the street.

It was an ugly little procession, just as humiliating for Johnny as Rivera must have hoped when he had handed him over to the rurales. The capitan and his lieutenant led the way, riding slowly down the main street while Johnny walked a couple of yards behind.

His hands were securely bound behind his back. The ropes around his wrists only just hid the thick bandages that covered the rope-burns and grazes that Rivera had inflicted. Behind him walked two more rurales, cradling their rifles in their arms – just in case the prisoner should be foolish enough to try to escape.

The citizens had stopped their chores and their shopping, halted their daily lives to watch the rurales’ prisoner being escorted to the end of town. All of them knew why. They had probably seen this happen before. They knew that his life would be ended with a volley of shots from the firing squad.

A few, mostly women, bowed their heads and crossed themselves as he passed. One good citizen jeered and Scott looked closely to see if he matched the description Johnny had given them but he was not Rivera.

But for the most part, the town looked on in somber silence, apparently used to seeing this sort of thing.

Johnny had walked out of the office with his head held high but, very quickly, it had become obvious that he was in no condition to be there. In his weakened state, pale and drawn with his face and body marred by bruises and scrapes, and the bandage on his shoulder a reminder of his wound; he was already finding it hard to stay on his feet.

Scott found himself drawn to watching his brother’s ordeal, while every fiber in his body told him to look away. Johnny went down on his knees again and Scott watched as one of the rurales following Johnny prodded him with the butt of his rifle and shouted at him to get to his feet. Realistic – oh yes, he was getting that all right. Rivera would be pleased.

Johnny scrambled awkwardly to his feet, wavering for a moment before lifting his head with a brief show of defiance and beginning to walk again. But his steps were no longer firm, his stride becoming more of a shuffle. There was little of his brother left in the man out there.

Realistic – the word gnawed at Scott. It was torture to watch and Scott hated to think what it was taking out of Johnny – both physically and mentally.

But Scott remembered that it was not what he was here for. If Johnny was prepared to put himself through this nightmare, then it was up to Scott to see that it paid off. Finally, forcing his eyes away from the road, Scott scanned the sidewalks again for any sign of the bastard who had put Johnny in this position.

Johnny had been able to give them a good description of the man and Scott was confident that he’d know him if he saw him. He looked through the thin line of spectators but saw no one whom he considered likely to be Rivera.

Sighing, he looked across the road to where he could see Manuel on the boardwalk, leaning casually against a post but surreptitiously looking around him. Scott waited a moment and then caught his attention, but Manuel only shook his head in answer to the unspoken question. Scott looked up to the windows of the buildings that had second stories. 

Nothing… there was not a sign of the man! What if Johnny was wrong and Rivera was already long gone? What if he was out there for no reason? Scott could feel his outrage building at this whole plan and he wanted to put a stop to it. It was all he could do to hold himself back from striding out there and doing it right now.

“Scott.”

The word was spoken quietly from the other side of the wall. It was Zeke, standing out on the boardwalk.

“What is it?” Scott asked, without showing himself. “Have you seen something?”

“Yeah. Down the street a little, to the left on the other side… see that big house?”

Scott had to change positions and put his head out the door to see so far down the street. “Yes.”

“Top window on the left – take a look.”

Scott peered out more carefully. He could see that a curtain was pulled aside, but it was too far away to make out the face in the window. But Zeke would have been able to see him well enough from his own vantage point.

“Are you sure it’s him?” Scott asked, reining in his excitement.

“Yeah, got me a real good look. Just like Johnny described – nasty lookin’ fella.”

“Let’s go then,” Scott said, re-energized at being able to do something at last, and stepped outside.

He had to fight off the impulse to rush for the building, here and now – to go after Rivera on his own. No, they had a plan and he knew that he needed to stick to it. If they spooked Rivera now, he would run and Johnny’s sacrifice would be for nothing. He had to go slowly, carefully.

Crossing the street as calmly as he could with Zeke, Scott nodded to Manuel on the other side and then to the closest of Mariano’s rurales, positioned in another alleyway further down the street. Manuel straightened and nonchalantly adjusted his gun belt, readying himself. The rurale down the street nodded back at Scott, acknowledging the signal, and then he shifted almost imperceptibly to catch the eye of the capitan as he passed by.

Scott watched the capitan and recognized the small nod in return as his own acknowledgement. With Manuel and Zeke, he walked down the street to the house that Zeke had pointed out. Two rurales joined them at the door.

“Now?” Scott asked at the front door, impatient to get to Rivera. If Zeke was right, the man he had come to hate with a passion that he’d rarely felt before was just above them, standing at a window and enjoying the spectacle of Johnny being marched down the street to his death. This was the man who had turned their lives upside down over the last two days – a man who had wantonly killed and attempted to kill to get what he wanted.

Scott raged at the thought. Once again, his fists clenched at his sides as he struggled to hold back the fury surging through his blood.

“Si, Señor, ahora – now!” one of the rurales called back. The rurale raised his rifle to the ready and kicked open the door. He led the way, rushing in and followed by his comrade, with Scott and Zeke hot on their heels.

Once inside, Scott barely noticed the affluent surroundings. He got an impression of furniture that was costly without being rich, glimpses of paintings on the walls, but no more than that.

A scream rang out, cut short by Manuel as he caught the middle aged woman around the waist and clasped his hand over her mouth. Her struggles stopped quickly as she obviously saw that there was no point but she looked terrified, her eyes wide in fear and darting from one intruder to the next. Scott’s first instinct would normally have been to calm her, but there was nothing to be done about that now. They had to get upstairs to Rivera before he made it out of that window or a back door.

One of the rurales remained with Manuel, keeping the woman under control and quiet. The other, together with Zeke, was right behind Scott as he took the staircase two steps at a time.

At the top of the stairs, Scott found himself in a carpeted hallway, confronted with yet another panic-stricken female. This one was a young and very pretty girl, probably little more than eighteen years of age. With her arms outstretched and her hands clinging to the doorjambs, she barred the way to one of the rooms and screamed at them in tear-filled, hysterical Spanish.

“No… no… por favor, no lo lastimes,”* the girl cried out shrilly, her eyes widen in fright.

“Lo siento, Senorita, but you’re going to have to get out of the way,” he told her and unceremoniously put his hands on her waist and pulled her away from the door. She grabbed at him, digging her fingernails into his arms, scratching like a wildcat and kicking at his shins.

Scott ignored her, determined to get into that room and at the man who was hiding there. He handed her back to the rurale behind him and drew his gun, then tried the door. Locked! Well, that shouldn’t be surprising. He stepped back and lifted his foot, then put all his weight into kicking the lock in. There was a crack of splintering wood and the door flew open.

He got a quick impression of a figure in the far corner of the room. Then there was a flash of movement. Suddenly understanding the rashness of his own actions, Scott dived sideways as quickly as he could but a sharp biting pain in his left arm let him know that he hadn’t been fast enough.

Scott jerked back against the wall and gasped for breath, quickly taking control of himself again. He looked down at the knife in his upper arm. Damn, it hurt! What had he been thinking?

Quickly looking at the sneering face on the other side of the room, he leveled the gun again and stared at him. Rivera was half-crouched, ready to pounce if he got even a hint of a chance, but Scott had learned his lesson. Give this man no quarter or he’d kill you as fast as look at you.

The hopeful light in Rivera’s eyes died out and he backed closer towards the corner. Scott took the opportunity to quickly grab the hilt of the knife and pull it out, then threw it to the floor beside him. It clattered in the silence of the room, then stopped, leaving a harsh quiet.

Scott could feel blood flowing from the wound and down his arm. His anger rose to even headier heights against the man across the room.

But Rivera had taken advantage of Scott’s momentary distraction. When Scott looked back, Rivera’s gun was just clearing its holster, but Scott’s was already in his hand. He leveled it and fired.

One shot was enough. The bullet hit Rivera in the wrist and he dropped the gun the floor. The man yelped and grabbed his injured hand, pain and surprise contorting his face when he looked up at Scott.

With no clear idea of what he had expected of Rivera except for the clinical description from Johnny, Scott was taken aback to find himself facing a small rat-faced man. He was unclean, unshaven and his dark eyes swept the room as he backed further into his corner of the room. He stopped when he finally touched the wall with nowhere else to go.

Scott heard Zeke and the rurale run in behind him but they both stopped just inside the doorway. He slowly advanced on Rivera, his gun still steady in his hand and aimed unerringly at the man’s heart. Somewhere in his consciousness, he could hear the girl was screaming, but that too he ignored.

Rivera’s eyes quickly flicked to the door and back to Scott – eyes that were filled with all the fear and panic of a cornered wild animal.

“Scott?” Zeke said behind him, quietly and calmly.

Scott stopped, but he didn’t turn away from Rivera. Rivera was all that he cared about at the moment. Rivera and what he had done to Johnny… to Manolito… to the unsuspecting guards at the rancho.. This was the man who had handed his brother over to the rurales and had stayed to watch and gloat over Johnny’s public humiliation and death.

“Please, Señor…” Rivera whined. He held his hands held out from his sides to show that he was unarmed. Blood dripped from the injured wrist, but Scott felt nothing for him, nothing but hatred – purer and more crystallized than anything he had ever felt before.

“Did Johnny plead with you too?” Scott asked coldly. The words evoked nothing but a shiver of fear from Rivera. The man’s eyes widened, looking from Scott to the men behind him and back.

“No, I don’t suppose he did,” Scott continued, his voice deceptively calm. “But it wouldn’t have made any difference to you if he had, would it?” The dam wall had burst and all of Scott’s fury spewed forth. “I don’t suppose that Don Sebastian’s guards had time to plead before you slaughtered them either. I know that Manolito Montoya didn’t see it coming.”

“You cannot kill me like this, Señor,” Rivera answered. His voice quivered with fear.

“No? Why not? Don’t you deserve it? And after what you’ve put Johnny through, I have every reason to kill you.”

“There are witnesses. You cannot kill me with so many to see you do it.”

A wicked smile lit Scott’s lips. “Do you really think I care…?”

“Scott, no…” Zeke said quietly, staying cautiously behind him.

“No, Señor, por favor,” the girl cried. Her screams had subsided to a torrent of tears but she stayed back out of the way, behind Zeke.

“Scott, you’re in Mexico, remember?” Zeke reminded him gently. “You could end up in front of a firing squad yourself if you kill him.”

“Like Johnny,” Scott said, still watching Rivera. “Yes, he’s right. Killing you would be far too easy on you. I think that handing you over to the rurales would be a nice ironic sort of payback. I wonder how you will enjoy being led down that street to your death… with Johnny there to watch.”

Terror leapt into the man’s eyes and Scott felt an unprecedented thrill run through his veins as he watched Rivera’s fear intensify. “You were enjoying watching the show down there, weren’t you – watching Johnny being led down that street to the firing wall?”

“He killed my brother,” Rivera snarled. “¡Venganza es mi derecho!* ¿My right, entiendes?”

“And Johnny is my brother,” Scott told him, watching his reaction and relishing his surprise. “I have the same right to kill you, Rivera. Justice would certainly be served if I hand you over too.”

Rivera pushed himself as far as he could into the corner, huddling and cringing like a coward while the girl cried loudly, “Oh no, Señor, por favor… no lo mates. Te estoy suplicando, Señor. No lo mates.” *

Her piteous pleading finally caught Scott’s attention and a second’s glance back at her was enough for Rivera. Like a cougar, he launched himself at Scott, knocked the gun from his hand and shoved him to the floor.

The man was stronger than his small stature made him appear, and the wound in Scott’s arm hampered his ability to fight back. But Scott’s temper snapped. With one almighty effort, Scott pushed Rivera off him.

It was not enough.

Pain and all of the fear and tension of the last couple of days finally coalesced in a white-hot rage that drove away all rational thought. He traded punches with Rivera until the man fell and then one balled fist after the other struck Rivera’s jaw in a frenzy of violence.

“Scott! Enough!” Zeke shouted, but the words bounced off him until strong arms took hold of his, pulling him back off Rivera, and finally got through to him.

It was like the clearing of a thunderstorm, gone, but leaving behind an aftermath of exhaustion and disarray. For a moment, Scott’s mind was rattled by confusion, by a desire for violence that he had never experienced before.

While the rurale took control of Rivera, Scott sat back on his haunches, shaken and wondering where it had all come from.

“You okay?” Zeke asked after a moment. He let Scott loose and stood behind him.

Scott nodded. “Yeah. Sorry. I… I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to kill anyone as much as I did just now. I don’t know what got into me.”

“You’re human, Scott. We’ve all got it inside us. We just don’t let the animal outa its cage too often.” He smiled. “Can’t say as I blame ya. Not after what he’s done to your brother an’ that young  Montoya fella.” He pulled Scott to his feet and led him across the room to a bed, then took a look at his arm.

“We’d better get that wound cleaned up,” Zeke told him. “You’re bleedin’ some. Don’t reckon we need another one o’ ya flat out in bed.”

Scott watched the rurale lead Rivera out of the room and down the staircase. The girl cried and tried to follow, but the older woman had arrived to take her in tow and pulled her out of their way.

“It can wait,” Scott said, still shaken by the violence of the last few minutes but nevertheless determined. “Right now, I need to go and get my brother out of that damned street.”

 

*No… no… por favor, no lo lastimes – No… no… please, don’t hurt him.

*“¡Venganza es mi derecho! – Vengeance is my right!

* Oh no, Señor, por favor… no lo mates. Te estoy suplicando, Señor. No lo mates.” – Oh no, Señor, please… don’t kill him. I’m begging you, Señor. Don’t kill him.

 

Chapter Twenty-six

Armando Mariano had made this ride before, more times than he cared to remember. He had led many men to their deaths and he had done it without regret. Some had faced it with pride, with their heads held high and defiantly walking the gauntlet through town. Others had had to be dragged whining and screaming but, always, it had simply been his duty and he knew that they deserved it. It had been black and white. Those men had had to pay for their crimes.

 

This ride, however, was different. This was a sham – pretence, though until yesterday it would not have been. It had been his own decision to accept Don Sebastian’s assurances, though to have ignored him would have been tantamount to career suicide on his part. Don Sebastian Montoya was a hacendado who could wield a great deal of influence.

 

He kept his eyes straight ahead, aware that any variance from his usual demeanor might tip off Rivera, but his thoughts were with the man walking behind him. The young caballero was in no condition for this and yet he was holding up well. He had stumbled once, Mariano knew, but had gotten to his feet and walked on.

 

Mariano could not help but wonder how the man would have carried himself had this walk really been his last. He suspected he would have behaved with the same dignity. He didn’t know Madrid… No, he was Lancer – John Lancer. He had to remember that. Rivera had been lying, had he not?

 

He noted the nod from Scott Lancer, a signal that they had arranged between them before starting out and which was meant to tell him that they had spotted Rivera. He acknowledged it with an answering nod, barely perceptible and, hopefully, unnoticed by Rivera, and kept riding. It was for the others to raid the house. He had some of his men going with them for official back up but he would have to wait for the outcome before slowing or changing his routine.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Scott Lancer and the other Americano, Jackson, walking across the street. He rode on, waiting. He and his men continued on their way without interruption, determined not to let Rivera suspect that anything was wrong.

 

It was the gunshot that finally stopped him. He pulled his horse to a halt and looked up towards the house from which the shot had come. He knew that house, knew it well, and he sighed. This situation only got worse with every new turn of the cards.

 

Madre de Dios, he hoped that Scott Lancer had not killed Rivera. He would hate to have to arrest him and he did not want to have to lead him down this street. Screams and shouting filtered down from the window, and still Mariano waited.

 

He was not alone in that. He glanced back towards his prisoner and found him wavering unsteadily on his feet but with his gaze firmly fixed on the window above them.

 

The screams died away and silence ensued… a silence made even more extraordinary by the pandemonium that had preceded it. Minutes ticked by and Mariano finally sent one of his men into the house to see what was happening. But it was only a moment later that Scott Lancer emerged from the house, stopped for an instant to look around him and locate his brother and then ran into the street to his side.

 

No one had left their place on the sidewalk. In an eerie sort of hush, broken only by whispers, the people of Maria Magdalena looked on, confused and curious.

 

John Lancer was standing in the middle of the street, unsteady on his feet and with his head barely held up. As Scott reached him, Johnny finally seemed to buckle under the strain of it. He slid to his knees, his head dropped to his chest and his eyes closed.

 

Scott knelt beside him. He put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and reassured him. “It’s okay, Johnny. We got him. It’s over.”

 

Zeke Jackson came out of the house then and hurried over to join them as Mariano’s men marched Rivera across the road to the jail. Together, the three Americanos watched them all the way without a word.

 

Mariano was dismounting and studying them when Scott looked up at him. There was a silent appeal for help in his eyes.

 

“¡Doctor! Ven aquí, rápido,” the capitan called to the crowd, waving his hand beckoningly at the doctor. He stood in front of them with the reins still in one hand, fully aware that the younger Lancer needed help quickly.

 

Mariano looked on as the young man opened his eyes and gazed up at his brother. Johnny Lancer frowned, concentrating on Scott’s arm. It was then that Mariano noticed the makeshift bandage that had done little to stem a steady flow of blood. His shirtsleeve was saturated all the way to his hand and the blood ran down his fingers, wiped aside in irritation.

 

He wanted to know what had happened and would find out in good time, but not now. Rivera was alive and in custody, so apparently Scott Lancer had nothing to answer for. For that, Mariano felt oddly grateful.

“You okay?” Johnny asked Scott hoarsely. “Your arm…”

“…is just fine. It looks a lot worse than it is, Brother.” He untied the ropes around Johnny’s wrists and gently pulled them away. Johnny was pathetically lethargic. He was panting heavily, trying to catch his breath. They had not gone far this morning but the sun was already strong above them. He had certainly overestimated his strength.

Dr. Morales reached them quickly. Kneeling in the dirt beside them, he checked his patient over and shook his head. “His temperature is high again. We must get him out of the sun, now,” the doctor said seriously. “This foolishness has gone far enough.”

Scott put his good arm around Johnny and helped him to his feet. “He’s right, Brother. Now let’s get you back inside and into a bed.”

*

“Rivera was here in town all the time. You told us that your men had searched the whole town, so how did they miss him?” Scott accused Mariano savagely. “Johnny shouldn’t have had to do this.”

“Si, the same question has occurred to me,” said Don Sebastian as he joined them outside Johnny’s room at the inn. The doctor was still inside with him, trying again to bring his temperature down.

Mariano sighed heavily and nodded. “Si Señores, they did search the town. They assured me that they had searched every house,” he told them. Then he shrugged his shoulders. “I can only assume that they did not think it necessary to search the bedroom of the alcalde’s daughter.”

“Oh,” Don Sebastian answered, sounding a little shocked, but suddenly convinced.

Scott, too, saw the meaning in the words. “The alcalde?” he asked.

“Si, Señor.” Mariano replied and went on to explain. “He is a man of some importance in this town and his daughter is very young, very pretty and much too headstrong. The alcalde is most unhappy. I do not know how he will be able to protect her from this.”

Scott’s anger subsided a little. He remembered the young girl in the house with Rivera, remembered her pleas and her tears. Now that he thought back on it, he realized that she was hardly the type of girl he would have thought would take up with someone like Rivera.

The alcalde would have his hands full covering it all up. The girl would never be considered marriageable if it all came out, particularly in a small mission town like this. But the girl was not his concern. His anger flashed again.

“How could she have hidden the man there without anyone knowing,” Scott demanded. “Surely someone knew.”

“I am sorry, Señor Lancer. The alcalde is very angry about this as well, rest assured. It seems the señorita has decided to retreat to a convent in Hermosillo for a time, but the alcalde feels that his honor has been blemished. He, too, wants satisfaction from Rivera.”

“Understandably so,” Don Sebastian remarked, nodding his head.  

“Tarnishing the alcalde’s honor is hardly the worst of it,” Scott pointed out angrily. “The man is a murderer. Is honor more important than the lives of those two guards? What about what Johnny’s been through, and Manolito?”

“Si, you are right, of course, Señor Lancer, and he will pay the price for his crimes,” the capitan told him firmly.

Far from satisfied, Scott turned around to the door to go back to Johnny and the doctor. Don Sebastian remained with the rurale, discussing honor no doubt, but Scott wanted no more of it. If the search had been done properly, Johnny would never have had to make that terrible walk through town.

Scott couldn’t get the picture of Johnny, bound and practically staggering in the street, out of his mind. Nor the harsh reality that it could so easily have been his actual fate this morning, instead of the pretence that it had been. If they had not been able to convince Mariano, Johnny would be dead by now.

It was a sobering thought. One that Scott was finding it hard to deal with. He stepped into the room where Johnny was now sleeping while the doctor checked his temperature and his pulse yet again. How would Johnny deal with this?

Scott sighed. He knew just how he would deal with it, outwardly at least. He would shrug it off and say he was ‘fine’… that nothing had actually happened and he was alive to talk about it. Perhaps he would even laugh about it. But then, later, he’d be quiet, introspective. Johnny was not one for sharing his feelings.

Scott knew that he would just have to let him deal with this on his own terms. But he would be there on the off-chance that Johnny did decide to talk.

“How is he, Doctor?” he asked as he closed the door quietly behind him.

“His temperature is going down, Señor Lancer,” the doctor said in a relieved tone. “It was bound to rise being out in the sun, even for a short time, so soon after the heat exhaustion. This is something that you will have to watch over the next week or so. If he is in the sun, the fever might come on him again.”

“But he’ll be alright?”

“Oh yes, with rest, he will be fine, though sore for a while yet I am afraid. Those bruised ribs are going to take time to heal and the shoulder wound as well. There is some infection there, but not serious enough to put his life at risk.”

Scott lowered himself into the chair beside the bed, his right hand adding support to the arm already in a sling as he eased down. The doctor had cleaned and stitched it already but it throbbed mercilessly. He was a little light-headed too, probably from the loss of blood. There had certainly been enough of it. Apart from a small cut above his eye, his fight with Rivera had done him no damage. It had been Rivera who had suffered that time.

He had refused the doctor’s suggestion of laudanum for the pain. It wasn’t so bad that he couldn’t stand it and he wanted to be here for Johnny when he woke again.

“When will he be able to travel?” Scott asked.

“I would allow him a day or so to rest, then you can make a slow journey home,” Dr. Morales suggested. “If you stop often and find shade during the siesta hours, he should be fine.”

Don Sebastian came into the room just in time to hear the doctor’s answer. He nodded approvingly. “Then we will return to Rancho Montoya two days from now,” he said decisively, with no hint of consulting with Scott or anyone else. “We will travel slowly and make it a two day journey.”

“But what about the trial? We’ll have to be here, won’t we?” Scott asked.

The don brushed it aside in his usual arrogant way. “Perhaps, but that will not be for some time. We will see to that later.”

“How long is it likely to be before they hold the trial? Surely they have to wait for a judge to arrive?”

“Yes, unfortunately. Every day that man breathes is an insult to all of us,” Don Sebastian declared angrily. “But no doubt you are right. They will have to wait for the juez. But I will not sit around waiting here. It could be weeks before he arrives. We will return to the hacienda and the capitan can send for us when the time comes.”

With a sudden change of thought, he added to Scott, “Oh, perhaps you should know that I have sent one of my men back to the hacienda to tell my children that we have Johnny back and that he is safe. He is also to send word back to me as to my son’s state of health.”

Scott smiled. He was beginning to understand just how rare a concession the man had just made.

*

There is a kind of quiet that settles on the world after violence, natural or man-made. It is not quite ‘peaceful’ because the tension and the fear linger in the air. But it is as if the world has sighed with relief, settling and preparing to move on.

 

Scott felt that hush as he sat in the chair by Johnny’s bed. The doctor had stayed for most of the day and had finally left once they had gotten Johnny’s temperature back to normal, leaving Scott alone with his brother again. To everyone’s relief, there had been no repetition of the delirium that Johnny had suffered the day before and, when he’d woken, Johnny had been lucid and demanding to know what was happening.

 

Once Johnny had dropped off to sleep again, Scott had retreated in exhaustion to his own bed. But between his still pent up emotions and the constant dull throbbing of his arm, he’d snatched only a couple of hours of broken sleep. Eventually, he had given up entirely and now he found himself back in the chair by the bed.

 

The lamp was turned down as low as possible and gave only a subtle glow that did little to lighten the room. Outside, the guitars and music from the cantinas had long ago died away. The people had retired to their beds and lights were out in every home and building. A heavy blanket of darkness had fallen over the town.

 

The quiet was broken only by Johnny’s rhythmic breathing and the occasional light grunt as Johnny tried to change position in his bed. Scott found the strain slowly seeping away into the darkness. No longer worried about Johnny, he relaxed more and more. His body even seemed to be accepting the ache in his arm as a constant, if unwanted, companion. His eyes closed, his body slipped just a little in the chair and he sighed slowly.

 

It was then, when he was at the very edge of consciousness, that the shot rang out. It sliced through the darkness and jolted him to his feet. The chair rocked and settled, and Scott looked around him in a moment of panic.

 

But Johnny was safe in the bed, his exhaustion further evidenced by the fact that he had not been woken by the gunshot.

 

Scott walked to the window and peered out into the darkened street. Nothing much had changed. There were still no lights. There had been no screams… nothing. That all encompassing blackness had drifted back over the town again and silence had returned with it.

He walked back to the chair, checking quickly that Johnny was still sleeping, then sitting down again. The restfulness that he’d begun to find was gone now. He was alert, and worried, so he sat down and made himself as comfortable as he could.

But he didn’t manage to get back to sleep. Instead, Scott himself staring at the ceiling as the night faded into dawn and then the early morning. Outside, birds began chirping a greeting to the day and the town began to stir. He heard the sounds of early morning – doors opening and a wagon in the street, a horse whinnying and distant, indistinct voices.

He pulled himself up a little, straightening the kinks out of his back and wincing as he aggravated the stitches in his arm.

Footsteps in the hallway caught his attention and he went out to find Ma