I never was satisfied by the episode 'Legacy' so I've taken the liberty of fiddling with it, in terms of both timeline and content. What happens here comes early on in the journey to become a family, and this tale is set prior to the events of Chase A Wild Horse.
“The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.”
The rain came down in sheets, pelting the ground, pooling on the tarpaulin of the chuck wagon and soaking his skin through a gap in his slicker. The thunder was so loud he imagined the sky fell with it. He heard a rifle shot, maybe several, and he cursed their timing and nerve in choosing this night with such a storm for cover. The cattle were already skittish, wild panic visible in their eyes when the lightning flared. At the next thunderclap, the herd hit the trail.
His horse reared in the rain and almost slipped, but he brought it under control, barking orders to the wind, aware that the night was too dark for this, that he could do no more than follow the vibrations of a stampede, on foot in places if that’s what it took. The rain whipped in from the west, stinging his eyes, but he pushed forward, into the ominous blackness, still shouting instructions to sodden cowboys, his Colt drawn and gripped in his hand. The ground shook from the pounding cattle that cried out from an increasing distance, and as the lightning came again, he spotted a lone horse, its rider face down in the wet mud, body bent at a disturbing angle. It was the kid. He knew it from a second’s glimpse of the embroidered shirt that had earned the boy an endless ribbing from the others, not least because he was so green and the shirt so red.
“Shit.” He dismounted from his horse, and battling the elements, groping for the body slicked with blood, still warm. “Shit.” He bowed his head, and then, despite knowing it was pointless, that his priorities were all wrong here, heaved the dead boy over the saddle of his horse, ordering the first man he could see to, “Take ‘im back to camp.” With the kid gone, Jake Cortes set his mind back to the task; to protect the cattle shooting like bullets through a vast and barren land.
“Five damn days.”
“Shut the hell up, Smithy, it’s over now ain’t it?”
Jake Cortes glared at his long time friend over his beer mug, savouring the sweet, if warm taste on his tongue after weeks of cloudy river water and bad black coffee. Seated across the table, Jed Smith fell silent, and in spite of his sharp retort, Jake understood. They should have arrived in bustling Abilene five days ago and would’ve done were it not for the stampede which left the kid dead, and cattle scattered far and wide, lost from sight in grass that came up to their heels on horseback.
“Ya ever consider this a piss poor way’a makin’ money?” Smithy was back on his gambit again, and Jake took another gulp of beer, resolving to be patient even though he knew where this conversation headed. “Hell, range wars are over quicker than them damn drives.”
“No one forced ya to take the job.”
“We could’a made ten times more with Santini.”
“Santini can afford all the help he needs. Jamison couldn’t.”
“Ya know what your problem is, Jake? You’re gettin’ old. Old an’ soft.”
“If I thought you meant that, I’d have to teach you some manners.” Jake threw a coin from his pocket down on the table. “Have another beer on me. I’m gonna grab some sleep.”
Smithy looked incredulous. “Sleep? We ain’t whiffed a woman in weeks an’ the first thing ya think of is sleepin’?” He was shaking his head in disgust as Jake left the saloon.
The latest herd arrived in town and the air churned with dust and curses. Pulling his bandana up over his mouth, Jake lowered his head and edged along the boardwalk, slipping down one of the side streets, away from the chaos. Maybe Smithy had a point. Not so long ago, his life had been different from this. He was good with a gun. Real good.
Once in the livery, his sombre mood lifted amongst the tickle of hay and smell of leather tack, easing the tension of the job and drive from his shoulders. He groomed his horse until the motion aggravated an old wound to his arm and fresh blood leaked through the grimy bandage. “Damn.” Shrugging off his black coat, he tugged the bandana from his neck and wrapped it around his injured arm. Then he drew his gun, smooth and quick, and waited.
The untied bandana fell to the hay. “Who wants to know?” Jake glared at a round faced stranger in a stuffy suit and string tie, aware that while his gun arm was good, warm blood trickled down his left.
“The name’s Parker. I’m a Pinkerton agent.”
Jake tensed, but kept a nonchalant look about him, and made no move to holster his weapon. “What d’ya want?”
“I have some news about Johnny Madrid. Is there somewhere we can talk?”
Jake’s expression hardened. It didn’t matter how long it had been, the wave of grief triggered by that name was still raw. He hated it and hoped it had passed. Someone told him once that time was a great healer. Bullshit. All time did was allow old wounds to fester.
“Do your talkin’ then get lost.”
“Very well.” Nervous, Parker tugged on his tie. “I don’t know if you’re aware, but Johnny Madrid was in a Mexican prison awaiting execution—”
Parker shook his head. “No, the agency found him in time and negotiated with the rurales for his release. Madrid is living with his father in California.”
Jake swore and spat at the ground. “Why the hell you tellin’ me this?”
“Because I have a proposal for you, Mr. Cortes. A proposal I hope you’ll find interesting.”
“So this is what passes for a Saturday night around here.” Scott looked around the crowded Green River saloon and turned to Johnny with a grin on his face. “You ready for your first proper taste of freedom, boy?” There was a flicker in Johnny’s eyes, he caught it, and regretted his choice of words. There was so much unknown about this new brother of his, but he knew about the prison in Mexico. He knew about the firing squad.
“So long as you’re buying, Boston.” Johnny laid a light punch on his shoulder and sauntered past with no hint of the injury that had brought him near death two months ago. Scott watched him weave his way through the crowd, pausing when a saloon girl danced into his path. Johnny’s arms circled her waist; he murmured into her ear. The girl listened, playing with her blonde hair. Scott bowed his head to hide his smile.
At the bar, he hesitated, struck by the realisation he didn’t even know what Johnny’s drink was. He'd seen him drinking before Pardee shot him, and more recently after they’d signed the partnership agreement, but Scott had no idea what Johnny preferred. What was his favourite, did he even have one? Scott glanced back at his brother, who’d found a table and was seated with his back to the wall, his attention occupied by the saloon girl who lounged on his lap. Scott ordered whisky and, gathering the bottle and glasses, made his way to the table.
“I’ll see ya later, Annie,” Johnny promised the blonde, sending her away with a light slap to her backside. He met Scott’s gaze. “It’s been a long time,” he said with a sheepish grin. Scott laughed, masking his surprise that Johnny had not sought female company before. This was the first time they’d come into town together socially, but Scott had assumed Johnny had been in alone. If not here then Morro Coyo. He could tell Johnny that Annie was a good choice, but decided to keep the knowledge to himself.
“Whisky, huh?” Johnny poured both of them a hefty shot and downed his without ceremony.
Scott stared at him in amusement. “Is there something you’d prefer?”
Johnny opened his mouth to reply, but closed it as his gaze darted over Scott’s shoulder. When Scott turned around, he guessed who had caught Johnny’s eye. A man, coated with days’ worth of trail dust, had entered the saloon and was glancing around assessing the place. He looked their way, almost picking them out, and gave a nod of his head. Scott turned to his brother. “You know him?”
Johnny hesitated, slouched in the chair, his hands clasped together over his stomach. “No,” he said.
“He seems to know you.”
Uncomfortable, Johnny shifted position and reached for the whisky. “He knows what I am, Scott. There’s a difference.”
Is there? Scott stared at his brother, trying to make sense of him. He didn’t know much about Johnny’s past as a gunfighter. Since Pardee, Scott’s days had been long, physical, and mentally wearing. There was no such thing as a breaking in period at Lancer. He’d never worked so hard in his life. As a result, he and Johnny had little opportunity to talk and certainly, it wasn’t dinner table conversation. Murdoch knew, he must, but he hadn’t breathed a word. Bad or good, right or wrong, it's past and gone. Teresa told Scott about Mexico, the rest was straight from the pages of a dime novel and whispered ranch gossip, so the girl insisted.
Scott glanced to the stranger again. He was at the bar now, ordering a drink. “He doesn’t worry you?”
Scott shrugged. “Isn’t that how it works, one reputation wants another…”
Johnny snorted. “Now that depends.”
“Well, ain’t you full’a questions tonight, Boston.” Johnny straightened in the chair, drinking his second shot of whisky as quick as the first.
A smile tugged at the corners of Johnny’s mouth and he shook his head, pausing long enough for Scott to feel a sting of rejection that surprised and unnerved him. It was soothed when Johnny spoke. “Sometimes they call you out, if they want an audience. They’re the ones with somethin’ to prove.” Johnny played with the glass on the table. “But most don’t care ‘bout that. If they want ya dead then they’re gonna do it the easy way.”
You gotta do it to them before they do it to you, Scott remembered his brother’s words that day in the corral. “Which way did you do it?”
Johnny stilled the glass, squeezing his fingers around it. For a moment, the question hung in the air, suspended by the thread of tension that Scott had inadvertently created. Finally, Johnny met his eyes. “Both ways.”
Scott held his brother’s gaze, refusing to yield to the challenge he saw there. Aware that their first Saturday night out together was taking a dark twist, Scott downed his whisky and slid the glass across the table. “You’d better pour me another, I’m falling behind.”
“So you never said what drink you prefer…”
“I’ll tell ya, but first I…ah…” Johnny hesitated, his expression serious, and Scott found himself breathless, aware that this man had the power to snatch away this fledgling relationship. He wondered if Johnny felt the same. Somehow, he doubted it.
“Say what’s on your mind, Johnny.”
Johnny concentrated on his glass before dragging his gaze up to meet Scott’s. “I never thanked you for saving my life.”
Surprised and warmed by the statement, Scott realised that perhaps he'd misjudged Johnny. Maybe the concept of a brother was getting to him, too. “That’s true. I could have left you out there with ants crawling across your eyeballs.”
Johnny’s stare was blank before his face cracked a grin. “Yeah, you sure could.” His grin grew. “Wait there.”
Scott watched his brother go to the bar, his own warm response to Johnny’s words a vote of confidence in his decision to stay in California, and as of four weeks ago, become a partner in his father’s ranch. My father. It was strange that he could think those words and conjure an image of the man, when for so long he’d been the faceless scoundrel who’d fed his mother romanticised notions and then abandoned his infant son. That could have been the way of it. Murdoch had failed to elaborate any further since his so-called clearing of the air. But then Scott hadn’t asked. Even though he wanted to.
The bottle hit the table with a thud, and Scott met the wicked gleam in his brother’s eye. “Tequila?”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, you wanted to know.”
Scott held his glass up and Johnny poured a measure of spirit into it. He’d had tequila before, but as the fiery drink scorched his throat, he remembered why he’d never had it again.
“Not refined ‘nough for ya?”
Scott put the glass down and studied his brother. “I prefer something smoother, if that’s what you mean.”
Johnny grinned. “This ain’t real tequila.” He sat straighter in his chair, his face lighting up. “Oh boy, when I was a kid—” He stopped as if talk of the past was forbidden, even amongst brothers, and Scott was reminded how little they knew of each other. Past or present.
“When you were a kid, what?”
“Oh, I’ve just had stronger. That’s all.”
Scott eyed the two bottles on the table. “Whisky and tequila. Is that a good combination?”
“I don’t suppose Murdoch will be happy if we don’t make breakfast in the morning.”
A sly smile played on Johnny’s lips as he raised his glass in toast. “Don’t s’pose he will.”
The French doors stood open and the red curtains shivered in the cool breeze, the air, spring fresh, tickled his senses with the scent of freedom. Still buttoning his shirt, Johnny stepped into the great room. He’d slept late and taken his time getting out of bed, for no other reason than he could. For the first time in years, he didn’t have to snatch his sleep behind locked doors or enemies’ backs. He was beginning to feel safe in this house, in his bed, and the hasty return of this long forgotten feeling should alarm him, yet it snuck past his defences in its luxury. Not that the late start mattered today for it was Sunday, a day of rest, the Lord’s Day if you weren’t a heathen. He wasn’t, but avoided church. The pews were uncomfortable, he said, churches too warm in summer, draughty in winter, he couldn’t sing in tune to the hymns…he could give any number of reasons if asked, except the real one.
They were at church now, Murdoch, Scott and Teresa, and the hacienda missed their presence, this large room waited vast and empty, even with its multitude of mismatched furniture. He wandered to the books which lined one wall, trailing his finger along the many spines in their varying widths and colours, not for the first time speculating who inspired such a collection. If Murdoch was an avid reader then Johnny didn’t know it, and Mama certainly wasn’t. Maybe these books belonged to Murdoch’s first wife, Scott’s mother. As if to confirm this, the first volume he removed from the shelf was inscribed, the ink almost faded to the paper, but still a declaration of love from a husband to a wife. From his father to Catherine.
“We missed you at church, Johnny. Breakfast, too.”
He looked up and saw Murdoch watching him from between the open French doors. He couldn't read his father's expression, and Murdoch’s formidable presence filled the doorway like a barrier. He closed the book with a dusty snap that made him sneeze.
“What have you found there?” Murdoch crossed the room in rapid steps that allowed no time to retreat before his father was right beside him, taking the book from his outstretched hand. Conscious that Murdoch’s shoulder was almost at his eye level, he stopped slouching and took a casual step back, consoled by the fact that church seemed forgotten. For a long moment, Murdoch stared at the handwritten words. “I bought this for Catherine. It was her birthday…” Johnny turned to leave, feeling like he’d inadvertently trespassed on private land. Murdoch’s tone was reminiscent, the words not directed at him.
“Scott’s mother,” Murdoch said, those two words Johnny’s invitation to stay. “I’d forgotten I had this. I suppose there must be more…” Murdoch removed a folded handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped the cover clean of dust.
“You kept a lot of her stuff?”
Murdoch looked up, a trace of surprise on his face.
“Thought Scott might be interested is all,” he offered, knowing that was as good as a lie. He didn’t know what Scott would think about it, but he knew how he felt, and that was enough.
Murdoch surveyed the room as if compiling a mental inventory. “I suppose he might, I never thought of it.” He hesitated a moment before pointing to the painting, the one with ships in harbour on a cold eastern day. “That was Catherine’s…and the vases, too…” He swept his arm toward the coffee table. “She brought those with us from Boston. We didn’t have much else in those days. This room was nothing more than a sketch on the plans.”
Johnny listened, on the one hand amazed that the Old Man was talking about the past, on the other frustrated that it was further back than he wanted to go. “So what ‘bout my mother, what belonged to her?” He didn’t dare look at his father as he trailed his finger along the books again.
There was a pause. A hitch in Murdoch’s breathing. “Nothing,” his father answered, the openness of moments ago dissolving into the hard lines of his face. “Maria left nothing behind. Put this back where you found it.” He handed Catherine’s book to Johnny on his way out of the room.
Johnny listened to Murdoch’s heavy footsteps fade and he couldn’t stop his scowl. He was trying to keep in mind what Teresa had said to him by the lake. Don't hate him for your mother. Maybe Murdoch had wanted Maria, wanted him...but it was so damn hard sometimes. Murdoch made it hard.
After Pardee, Johnny had spent the best part of three weeks stuck in bed, recovering from the bullet and harsh fever, with Teresa and occasionally Scott for company. He’d seen his father a handful of times from his sickbed. Teresa had seemed anxious to assure him that Murdoch hadn't left his side while he was unconscious, spending the first few days on the chair in his room, now draped with last night’s clothes. If Teresa thought it would matter, it didn’t. He was uneasy with the thought that he’d been alone with the old man when he was so vulnerable. He was uneasy with the old man, period.
“Good morning, Johnny. How’s the head?”
Scott leaned in the archway with an easy smile that reminded Johnny of last night and the good time he’d had with this man, who by some bizarre twist of fate was his brother. He returned the smile. “Just fine.” Headed for the kitchen, he passed Scott and whacked the book into his brother’s midsection. “This might interest ya, Boston.”
Scott glanced at the front cover. “You’ve read it already?”
“Read the first page. Told me all I need to know.”
Beneath a punishing sun, Scott grappled with the thorns that trapped a struggling, bawling calf, his muscles sore with a fatigue that made him question, not for the first time, the reasons that had compelled him to accept his father’s offer of partnership, a working partnership at that. He hadn’t been this desperate to escape his privileged but dictated path, had he? Distracted, his concentration slipped and the stricken calf bucked free of its prickly prison, a hoof scuffing his arm and forcing him back to avoid a kick in the face. He hit the grass hard.
Breathless and annoyed, he swiped his hat from the ground and pushed himself up, making for the shade of the stout old oak, which marked the highest point of this pasture. There he unhooked his canteen from the horse’s saddle and took several long swallows, before washing away the frustration leaking from his pores with a shower of tepid water. He felt better then, refreshed. The calf had dashed back to rejoin the herd and the hovering flies had followed it, leaving just the tickly scent of long grass. A light breeze dried the sweat on his skin, and he was tempted by the warm day and smells of rich earth and sweet green leaves to press his back against the bark and slide to the ground, position his hat over his eyes and rest. It was late afternoon and he was hungry from missing lunch, but he’d soon discovered that ranchers didn’t have time to sit under a tree. Not only that, invisible scars from the last few weeks ran deep—the jibes and refusals to take him seriously, smirks and sniggers muffled by dirty, calloused palms. Not coming from the eighteen men who’d stood up to Pardee and stayed, he’d proved himself to them it seemed, but from the hands hired to get the ranch back up and running—men who were plain unwilling to see past his accent and inexperience. Johnny’s initiation into ranch work, although recent, was already progressing at a faster and smoother pace. The men accepted him. Either that or they were scared of Johnny Madrid’s reputation; a dime novel or two probably littered the bunkroom floor.
After examining the graze on his forearm, he unrolled his shirtsleeve to meet his glove. Beyond him, the pasture sloped away and somewhere below, amongst the cluster of trees and shrubbery that surrounded an old waterhole, Johnny would be working. Getting to his feet, he set his hat on his head, led his horse from the shade and mounted up to join his brother.
With the oak tree left in the distance, the ground levelled again, softened by spring rains. A curse of frustration sullied the air; unmistakably Johnny’s which thanks to some casual late night tutelage in Spanish, he had no problem translating. Dismounting from his horse, he picked his way along the bank of the bog, his boots sinking with his weight until he found Johnny leaning forward and catching his breath, hands rested on his knees. A few feet in front of Johnny was another stray, this one a hefty cow stuck deep in gloppy mud.
“’Bout time you showed up, Boston.” Johnny straightened and dragged his arm across the sweat on his forehead. Dirt clung to his clothes and smeared his cheeks, and he looked as harassed as Scott felt. “She’s stuck good, but I reckon she’s got some try left.”
Scott looked at the stricken cow whose head drooped, nose almost in the mud, and he wondered if Johnny was being optimistic. Still, he found himself nodding and crossing the short distance to his horse. They worked in silence at first, both men putting a recently learned skill into practice, landing the lassoed rope around the weak animal’s neck, and snubbing the other end of their ropes to the horns of their saddles. Mounting up, they turned the horses and looked up the embankment. "Ready?” Johnny asked, and at his confirmation, they urged their horses forward.
His horse had done this before and Barranca made a good start, digging in at Johnny’s command, hooves gouging and squelching, spraying them all with flecks of cold mud. The cow bellowed a protest as the ropes tightened around her neck, stretching taut as the horses strained. Several times the horses lost purchase and slid back. Barranca was growing nervous, snorting and tossing his head as he scrambled repeatedly for surer footing. As the mud loosened its hold, the cow lunged for freedom and the ropes went slack just as he and Johnny urged both horses again, yelling encouragement above the cow’s desperate bawling. In his periphery, he saw Barranca surge forward, stepping over the tautening rope. As the rope rose, it slapped the inside of Barranca’s upper leg, the foreign sensation causing the horse to squeal with panic, rear and turn in one swift, blurred motion. The wet and sloppy sound of the cow coming loose and Johnny’s unceremonious plunge into the mud came in loud, messy unison.
Barranca scrambled up the embankment, dragging the exhausted cow a few feet along before stopping. The cow collapsed on her side, eyes bulging and panting for strangled breath. Johnny had landed in shallow mud and Scott dismounted as his brother winced and put a hand to his back before spitting out a mouthful of what must be foul-tasting slime. He held up his hand to signal he was okay. Satisfied that his brother was safe enough, and his initial concern mellowing to wry amusement, Scott left Johnny searching for a portion of clothing that was clean enough to wipe the ooze that clung to his face. He intended to wrestle the ropes from around the cow’s neck, but when he realised it would be wasted effort, he returned to Johnny who was scanning his capricious horse, calling its name and following it with a shrill whistle. Surprisingly, the palomino turned and watched them almost sheepishly from further up the slope.
“You’re teaching your horse to respond to a whistle?” He reached out and offered his hand.
“Sure, why not?” Johnny‘s expression had mellowed with relief even through the mud streaks. Accepting his help, Johnny was heaved from the muck with considerable effort, bringing much of it with him. The stagnant smell was almost overpowering.
“It appears you took a mud bath for nothing, Brother.”
“What?” Johnny followed his gaze to the cow now dead still, literally, in the grass. “Aw…pfft.” Johnny blew out a noisy breath and slapped his dripping hat against his filthy pant leg. With murmured words and careful movements, Johnny approached Barranca, who took a few steps closer allowing him to grasp the reins. As his brother checked the horse for injury, Scott turned to retrieve the ropes from the dead cow, and by the time he led his own horse up to join Johnny’s on firmer ground, his brother was sitting in the grass with legs outstretched, inspecting his gun with an intense look on his face.
Johnny Madrid: Gunfighter.
The name and title sprang into Scott’s head, almost irreconcilable with this mud-caked brother, who he’d observed only yesterday sliding down the banister of the hacienda’s main staircase when he thought no one was watching, and who’d allowed him to explain the finer points of chess one evening in easy, unspoken exchange for the Spanish translations. Just as he considered whether to join his brother on the grass, Johnny raised his head and stared out across the fields.
“Is something wrong?”
“No, but you can bet somethin’ will be.” Johnny sighed as he returned his gun to its holster, nodding his head toward a wagon in the distance, a lone man that could only be Murdoch sitting up front with the reins in his grasp.
“How’d ya figure him?” Johnny startled Scott with his question, so softly spoken that it was almost lost amongst the buzz of flies already gathering over the dead cow below.
How did he figure Murdoch? He wasn’t sure. He removed his gloves, lowering himself to the ground a few feet from his brother. As a businessman, a boss, caller of the tune, Murdoch Lancer was stern, but fair. But as a father…he folded the gloves in a pair, in half, and placed his arms out behind him to lean back in the grass…Murdoch was still somewhat absent from his life. “He’s a hard man to figure.” Sure that Johnny would call him on the evasive answer, he was surprised when his brother nodded.
“You ever think ‘bout him when you were a kid?”
A fly landed on his nose, tickling his skin, as uncomfortable as the question Johnny posed. He was conscious that this was the most personal conversation they’d had, and it wasn’t really personal at that. The question was an obvious one, so why had it taken either of them so long to ask it? He considered the book Johnny had thrust at him a couple of weeks ago, a book that even now remained in his room like sacred treasure. Every so often, he’d flip the cover and read the inscription; only a few words on a page, yet the first tangible evidence of his parents’ love that he had ever seen. Even his existence wasn’t proof of it. He brushed the fly away.
They could hear the wagon now, the wheels jarring against the dry, rocky road, and when both men looked up, Murdoch’s outline was becoming as large as life, possibly larger. Such a big man hunched in the front seat, his knees almost at his earlobes.
Rather than be pleased to see their father, or even indifferent, Johnny seemed tense. To Scott's knowledge, the two men hadn’t argued recently. Scott felt frustrated that neither Murdoch nor Johnny tried to get on. Maybe it was because they were alike: stubborn, cut from the same mould, neither willing to give an inch. Johnny had told him that he didn’t give anyone too much credit, and certainly that appeared true where Murdoch was concerned. Sometimes Johnny conveyed the impression that he didn’t want this late attempt at family to work out, or simply didn’t care, but Scott was beginning to suspect that deep down, beneath the façade that his brother controlled so well, Johnny wanted things to work the most.
His question apparently forgotten, Johnny got to his feet. “I’m gonna head back, get cleaned up.”
Scott nodded and as Murdoch pulled up the wagon with a familiar squeak of the brake lever, they watched Johnny and the palomino streak for home on a rutted road that wove like a rattlesnake through the fields.
“It’s not like Johnny to be late.”
At the head of the table, Murdoch picked up his spoon. “It seems exactly like Johnny, Teresa. Although I’d hazard a guess that just like last night, he’s not late, just not coming. Would that be a fair comment, Scott?”
Scott looked up from his soup, struck by the calmness with which his father spoke, but reasoning that as this was the third evening meal this week alone that Johnny had missed, Murdoch was starting to accept that his younger son’s presence at the dinner table was not to be counted on. “We didn’t discuss it, Sir,” he answered, for it was true enough. By the time he’d got back to the ranch, Johnny was bathed and changed, and after a rather crass remark from Murdoch about Johnny’s irresponsibility in choosing Barranca rather than one of the more experienced horses for today’s work, Johnny had disappeared. Teresa acknowledged Scott’s evasive answer with a smile.
“Well, I’ll be discussing it with him.” Murdoch took a sip of water and Scott noticed that his fingers gripped the glass even after he’d set it down. “That’s if he ever stops avoiding me.” Scott made no reply to that; he had none even if one was expected. His father and brother’s battles were not his business. He did ponder the cause of them, a part of him wanting to know that he was not alone, that the source of their mutual aggravation lay in the pestilent past.
Teresa spoke then, and her warm and cheery tone would have dispelled the tension, were it not for what she said. “Did you hear from your grandfather, Scott?”
At the end of the table, the edge of Murdoch’s spoon hit the porcelain, and soup speckled the white tablecloth. He hid the pursing of his lips behind a napkin when Scott glanced his way.
“No, not yet.” Scott kept his tone neutral to ensure his disappointment remained private. The letter to his grandfather had not been an easy one to write. On the very day that Pardee was defeated, in the dwindling yellow of evening, Scott had stared at a blank sheet of paper, searching for the words to explain his decision. How could he explain to his grandfather what he struggled to explain to himself—that he had to stay—that he’d known it for sure as he’d hurried to the roof of the hacienda, rifle in hand and certainty in his fast-pumping blood, his stranger of a father leaning on a cane behind him, needing him in a way Harlan never would.
Grandfather considered this a harsh and uncivilised land, and as Scott’s weary eyes had strained against impending darkness, he was struck by barely living proof of it—Johnny—still unconscious, in bed, and scorched with fever. Scott had realised then that if Harlan understood nothing else, he wouldn’t dismiss the revelation of a brother. For Harlan had a younger brother once, dead now, but they’d been close. Grandfather would understand once he knew about Johnny, Scott had been sure.
“I expect the post has been delayed,” Teresa optimised, making Scott realise that his disappointment must be apparent in his face. “It can take up to six weeks I hear. Is that right, Murdoch?”
“Why don’t you write to him again? There must be lots more for you to tell him. I bet he’s missing you.”
“Teresa.” There was just enough warning detectable in Murdoch’s voice to let Scott know that this conversation was clearly not one his father wished to have. Why not? Scott wanted to ask, demand even, in intemperate tones unleashed from the very pit of his clenched stomach. What reason do you have to dislike the man?
“I shall write to him again. In fact, I thought I’d ask him to visit.” Scott levelled his stare at Murdoch, surprised and disturbed by the brief flash of pain in his father’s eyes. Caught off guard, the challenge in Scott’s tone dissolved on his tongue, its last taste washed down with another spoonful of soup.
“This it?” Jake didn’t miss the disappointment in Smithy’s tone, as distorted as it was by the thick tobacco plug wedged in his friend’s bristly cheek. Dismounting, Smithy folded his arms across his broad chest and surveyed the town from beneath the brim of his hat. “Thought ya said it was big?”
“I said the Lancer spread was big.” Jake swung down from his black horse and looped the reins over the hitching rail before joining his friend in contemplation. Built with Mexican influence, the town of Morro Coyo was like many towns Jake had ridden through or lived in over the years, only this was California, the San Joaquin Valley – territory he’d never ventured into, promised he never would. Right now the sun was setting beyond a bell tower, casting a long shadow on the sandy ground, ground that had begun to tremor beneath the drum of hooves as the team pulling the late afternoon stage, running late, careered into view and came to a jolty stop several feet away.
As the passengers began to disembark, Jake and Smithy got their gear together and weaved their way through the small gathering of people by the stage, dodging a couple of cases untied and tossed down from the roof. “What we doin’ stoppin’ then? Figured you’d be itchin’ to see Madrid.” Smithy’s question was almost lost beneath random chatter, and for a second, Jake considered pretending it was, before realising that Smithy, who never had the good sense to know when to quit, would just go right ahead and ask again.
“If I go out there, I’ll kill the sonofabitch,” Jake responded as they left the chatter behind. On this street there was a carpenter’s, a general store whose proprietor swept outside and a woman with jiggling skirts washed the windows. A saloon was opposite, its entrance shaded by a rickety first floor balcony draped with just washed laundry. Water dripped from the garments to a puddle on the stone step below.
“So? Reckon you’ve talked ‘bout it enough over the years. ’Sides there’s money in it now. If that Pink agent said—”
“It ain’t always ‘bout the damn money, Smithy.” Jake watched the old storekeeper glance his way with a nervous nod of greeting, before herding his whispering wife inside and closing the door to their shop. Bemused by their reaction, Jake turned to Smithy and jerked his thumb toward the dimly lit saloon. “We’ll wait. Mean time, you’re buyin’.”
He’d missed Johnny at dinner. In fact Murdoch had missed him at every meal this week; even on those occasions when Johnny had been physically there, he wasn’t—his manner casual, polite enough, but his limited conversation restricted to Scott and Teresa, to anyone other than Murdoch.
His heart as heavy as his weary bones, Murdoch sat on the edge of his creaking mattress. Outside the day was almost over; the sun was a fiery strip that sparkled in the dust he blew from the carved wooden box on his lap. He’d known what Johnny wanted when he’d asked what belonged to his mother. He wanted confirmation, Murdoch supposed, some reassurance to counter what he’d heard. What had he heard? Murdoch could guess; Johnny’s hostility had been tangible at times. He’d sort of told Johnny the truth—Maria had left almost nothing behind—nothing but emptiness and unanswered questions, a marriage trampled beneath her fleeing feet. Over the years, Murdoch had learned to live with the betrayal. Hardened his heart and kept his distance, stopped questioning his efforts as a husband, channelled his longing for fatherhood and his boys, both lost to him in different ways, into building up his ranch, cherishing it, nurturing it and watching it grow. Now his boys were back, both as different as could be, although with the same questions burning in their eyes from time to time. They’d acknowledged his decree that the past was done with, but Murdoch suspected neither accepted it.
He opened the lid of the box and pulled out a scarf, intricately detailed with brown and gold flowers on a background of silk aged to ivory. In his mind, the silk was still white, a stark contrast against the glowing skin of her naked shoulders as she twirled around to model for him, her red wine lips parted with laughter, her bare feet spinning a circle in the dust. Murdoch brought the scarf to his face and breathed through the fabric, it smelt musty now, the scent of her gone but not forgotten. Even after almost twenty years.
With a self-loathing frown, Murdoch rose from the bed. Despite the fair weather, he was tempted to light a fire and watch the silk shrivel in the flames. One cold night when his abandonment felt real and shatteringly permanent, that’s what he’d done with the rest of her possessions. He’d stood downstairs in the newly built great room, and watched every trace of Maria Lancer blacken to ash in the fireplace. Except this scarf. Murdoch discarded it as if it was cursed. It might be. He’d bought it for Maria as a wedding gift.
Irritated by the persistent pull of banished memories, he stalked to the open window and stared out. The sun was beyond the hills now. The faint smell of cooking drifted from the bunkhouse hidden behind scattered trees, their branches bowed with chattering birds. As the last of the hired hands rode in from the east range, soft tones of laughter reached up from below. Conscious that he’d shut himself away with the very memories he professed not to think about, he turned from the window and in several long strides had the door handle in his grasp. He glanced back at the scarf he’d crumpled underfoot.
Downstairs the sound of laughter and chatter was even more persuasive, tempting him into this foreign scene of family frivolity. In the dwindling light of the veranda, Scott and Teresa sat on opposite sides of a chessboard. While Teresa hunched forward, her hand gripping the edge of the table in obvious concentration, Scott relaxed back, the satisfied smile on his face indicative of his victory.
“I don’t believe it. We’ve only been playing ten minutes!” Teresa was happier than Murdoch had seen her in a long while—she was blooming in the company of his sons.
“I make it five.” Scott’s smile turned into a grin as he caught the chess piece Teresa threw at him. “If you feel like a rematch then I’ll happily oblige…”
“No, not me.” Teresa glanced over her shoulder. “But Johnny’ll play, won’t you, Johnny?”
Johnny’s casual reply came from beyond Murdoch’s periphery, and the revelation of his clandestine return propelled Murdoch out from the hacienda. Noticing him, Johnny paused, midway out of his chair, his muscles visibly tense as they supported his weight.
“Murdoch!” Teresa greeted, coming to his side. “You’re just in time, Johnny’s about to beat Scott at chess.”
“Is that so?” He forced lightness into his tone that he didn’t feel, all too aware that his intrusion was a trespass. Only Teresa seemed oblivious. Scott looked reserved, and Johnny stared with silent accusation, just as Maria used to do.
“Is it, Brother?” Scott asked, and Johnny regarded his brother with a crooked grin, then stood at last and sauntered over to take up the challenge in Teresa’s relinquished chair.
“Before you begin, I’d like a word with you, Johnny.” Murdoch cursed the order in his tone, aware that he was desecrating the atmosphere further; chasing away what he’d craved for so long.
“Right now, Murdoch?” Johnny’s eyes did not look up from the chessboard as he settled further into the chair, his long fingers righting the fallen pieces.
With an insolent sigh, Johnny leaned back from the reassembled chess pieces and gave the king a casual flick, sending it skidding from the board.
“You missed dinner.”
Johnny followed Murdoch inside and dropped down onto the sofa, looking vaguely amused as he patted his stomach through his red shirt. “No, I didn’t.”
Murdoch bit the inside of his cheek. Was his son baiting him? He couldn’t tell. He’d met his fair share of arrogant young men over the years, and he’d never been fazed by them. But this young man, Maria’s son, their son, was different. In a way, Murdoch wished Johnny to be downright belligerent, he’d know where he stood then. Taking a breath for patience, Murdoch nodded. “Good. You’ve been working hard, you need to eat.” Johnny’s eyes flickered with surprise, and Murdoch knew it had been the right thing to say.
“But I would like to talk about why you’ve been avoiding me, because you have been, John.”
“‘Cause I choose not to eat with you?” Johnny shook his head. “I signed a partnership agreement. I don’t remember signing over my life.”
“Of course not…”
“I do my day’s work. The way I see it, what I do once that’s over is my business.”
Surprise, amusement, all traces of emotion had vanished from Johnny’s face like chalk wiped from a slate. God, he’s so much like her! Murdoch’s emotions warred at the discovery, before frustration won out and made him grind his back teeth to keep his cool. In the times when she was not aflame with temper, Maria had that way about her; a mask that settled over her features and rendered her thoughts impenetrable. When he’d not found it so damn alluring, it had made him furious! Towards the end, the end of their marriage he knew now, Maria had stopped her passionate outbursts and become cold and distant, impenetrable in every sense. But there were moments in those last days when he’d caught a stark vulnerability in her eyes, a deep hurt and longing that almost begged to be noticed… Murdoch forced disturbing memories of his late wife from his mind.
“This isn’t about missed meals, Johnny, and you know it. This is about what happened the other day.”
Johnny stared, and he had to hand it to him; his son bested his mother when it came to befuddling him. He had no clue what Johnny was thinking now—if he was angry, confused, or just plain indifferent to this whole conversation. Murdoch coughed reluctance from his throat, determined to see this through. “You asked me a simple question about your mother and…well…I handled it badly.”
For the second time in the space of a minute, Murdoch registered a flicker of surprise in his son’s eyes and he almost sighed with relief.
“You were pretty clear.”
“I was too…blunt.” Murdoch walked around the couch to stand in front of the fireplace. “There is almost nothing of your mother’s here now. I…” He coughed again but this time reluctance stuck and the sentence went unfinished.
“Almost nothin’?” Johnny had got up and made his way to the desk. He sat perched on the edge of it with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“This scarf.” Murdoch fumbled in his trouser pocket, his thick fingers hot and clumsy as they grasped the delicate material, unravelling it from its crumpled ball. “It was Maria’s. A wedding gift I bought for her in Matamoros. We hadn’t known…I didn’t know if she’d like it.” He thrust the scarf at his son. “Have it if you want; find a use for it or give it to Teresa for the mission.”
For an age, Johnny didn’t move, just stared at the scarf in Murdoch’s outstretched hand. Then, just as Murdoch was cursing himself a fool for bothering, Johnny reached out and accepted it, threading the silk through his fingers. Slim fingers, so unlike Murdoch’s own.
“Did she like it?”
“For a while, yes.” Murdoch’s tone became brusque, he couldn’t help it, even though it caused Johnny to look up, those unspoken questions in his eyes again. Avoiding them, Murdoch walked around the desk, plucked some papers and shuffled them, aligning their edges on the polished surface. He was aware that Johnny had shifted position and was now in profile, still playing with the scarf. He cleared his throat. “You don’t have to be the one to go into town tomorrow. Send one of the men; Rick or Tom…”
“I told Teresa I’d go.”
Murdoch nodded. “Just don’t forget that it’s the first official Cattle Growers meeting since the business with Pardee. I don’t want you to be late.”
“I’ll be back in time.”
“See that you are.” As he reached to put the papers in the bottom desk drawer, he heard Johnny stand, felt his gaze upon his scalp. Uneasy with the inkling that his son wanted the unknown, Murdoch was steeling himself to meet those piercing eyes when Johnny slid the scarf into his line of vision.
“Figure you held onto it this long…”
Murdoch froze, contradictory emotions assailing him. He managed what he hoped was a casual nod before he waved towards the French doors in dismissal. “Scott’ll be waiting for you.”
He didn’t dare look up until Johnny was gone.
“You’ll never guess what.” Smithy threw the door open and stepped inside Jake’s room without waiting for an invitation, his bedraggled appearance evidence of a heavy night spent downstairs in the saloon playing poker and smoking someone else’s cigars. “Nope, you ain’t gonna believe it.”
Jake, seated on the bed, returned his attention to cleaning the gun on his lap. “If you’re gonna tell me you lost all your money last night, ‘reckon I’ll believe it.”
Smithy’s hand disappeared into his jacket, reappearing a second later with a tight fist of crumpled bills which he shoved under Jake’s nose for inspection before returning them to his pocket with a satisfied air. “As I were sayin’…they had some trouble ‘round these parts couple a months back.”
“Yeah?” Jake’s voice didn’t veil his disinterest and he concentrated on reassembling the now gleaming Colt then inserting bullets into the chamber.
“The Pardee sort.”
Jake set the loaded Colt aside. While Smithy had been in the mood to be sociable last night, Jake had not. He had too much on his mind for drink and women. He reached over to the nightstand and poured tepid water from a jug into a dirty glass. He shot Smithy an irritated look. “Get to the point.”
Smithy sighed. “I’m talkin’ ‘bout Pardee, as in Day Pardee? Remember El Paso, Jack McGinty…”
“I remember.” Jake’s expression darkened with the recollection. “Pardee’s a sneaky shit. Never did trust ‘im.”
“Well, now he’s a dead shit, thanks to Johnny Madrid and his brother—d’ya know he's got a brother?”
Jake’s shrug was noncommittal. “You tellin’ me Johnny killed Day?”
“Heard he led Day right into a trap.” Smithy kicked the only chair in the room around and sat down. “Madrid knew Pardee didn’t he? I thought they were pals?”
Jake raked a hand through his dust-coated hair, feeling a heavy scowl twist on his lips.
“Some pal,” Smithy muttered. He stroked his chin, and for a second, looked like he was going to say more before he shrugged in the face of Jake’s dark look and heaved himself out of the chair. “Where the hell’s that old feller got to?” he grumbled to himself, wandering to the narrow window and peering down into the street. “I want water for my tub.”
“You’ve gone a year without a wash, Smithy, you can wait a few minutes more.” Jake rose from the bed and picked up his gun belt, buckling it around his hips, satisfied by its reassuring weight.
“Funny.” Smithy turned back to the window. “Speakin’ of waitin’, looks like you’re done. Ain’t that Madrid?” He pointed down toward the street and then stepped aside so that Jake could take his place.
From the window, Jake had a clear view of Baldemeros store. Smithy was right. It was him and he hadn’t changed at all. Johnny Madrid still moved with a confidence that made most men think twice about taking him on. Jake shook his head. Fortunately, he was immune. Reaching over to the bed, he picked up his gun and slid it into his holster. Snagging his hat from the hook on the door, he headed downstairs for a long awaited reunion.
Beeswax. That’s what he could smell, and it didn’t smell good, not like when he was a kid and found a hive of bees in the alley next to crazy Jose’s saloon. That wax smelt good, like honey, glistening and golden, sticking to the branch he poked inside.
Turning from the shop window, Johnny watched Señora Baldemero vigorously cleaning, buffing the wax in tight, angry circles, as if a polished counter could wipe the stench of a gunfighter from her store. Wandering over, Johnny purposefully rested his elbows on the surface she’d already covered. She looked up, startled, her black eyes wide and apprehensive.
“You missed a bit, Ma’am.”
Her gaze flitted to the spot he’d pointed out then returned to him sharper than before.
“Lo siento, Mr. Madrid, lo siento.” At Señor Baldemero’s breathless apology, Johnny looked up. It had been obvious from the moment he stepped through the door that while the Señora held him in contempt, the elderly shop owner was trying his best to disguise his nervousness and be as polite as could be to “the second son of Mr. Lancer!” Señor Baldemero pressed a magazine into Johnny’s hand. “Miss Teresa, she ordered this some months ago. I couldn’t let you go without it.” He returned to the counter and folded brown paper over an assortment of colourful threads and spools of wool. Johnny glanced down at the Gazette of Fashion and wanted to smile. Didn’t these people wonder why, if he was the black hearted pistolero they thought it was, he was standing in a clothing store playing errand boy for Teresa?
“Tell the senorita we hope to see her soon.” Baldemero presented Johnny with Teresa’s parcel. “And your brother, give our regards to your brother!” Johnny tucked the package under his arm and nodded. He tipped his hat to the Señora on his way out the door.
Outside, Barranca waited, tail flicking in the crisp morning air. It was early, the clouds of a grey dawn had yet to shift, but already Johnny felt the passing of time like a boot to his butt. Murdoch’s “Don’t be late,” warning repeated again at breakfast, as if Johnny could forget overnight about the Cattle Growers meeting.
Securing Teresa’s parcel in his saddlebag, Johnny toyed with the idea of not showing his face. Yep, ‘can see his expression now…the wilt of displeasure on Murdoch’s lips, an annoyed furrow deepening into his broad forehead. Don’t forget the disappointment. Johnny frowned. Up until yesterday, that and anger were the only emotions Murdoch Lancer gave freely. Not many people surprised him...
Yesterday when Murdoch produced his mother’s scarf, Johnny was lost for words. He’d thought he had the old man figured. Resigned to his stubborn, callous ways, already building defences to combat them and ensure that anything Murdoch Lancer said or did wouldn’t hurt him. He’d figured the way to make this partnership work was to stay clear. Then, in the same night, Murdoch surprised him again; joining them on the veranda and sitting, silent, watching the game and sipping his scotch. Johnny had even found himself relaxing, exchanging banter with Scott and Teresa, as if being in the presence of these people, this family, was the most natural thing in the world. Later, reflecting in bed, twisted up in restless sheets, he’d regretted it. He shouldn’t relax, not so soon, not yet.
Johnny sighed, and glanced across the street to the saloon where he’d found Day. It was silent and shut. A black cat roamed the porch, winding its scrawny body around the legs of a wicker chair. If the saloon were open, a drink would tempt Johnny, for there was a rare flutter in his stomach at the prospect of meeting Murdoch’s friends and business associates. Oh, he’d handle the meeting. Of course he would. If there was one thing Johnny was sure of it was his ability to conceal his doubts and fears. Sometimes he concealed them so well he didn’t even know they existed, until they slapped him in the face.
“Bit early, ain’t it?”
The words echoed his thoughts, and the familiar drawl made Johnny look up, his eyes searching to refute what he’d heard.
Jake Cortes emerged fully from the shady stairwell that led to the rooms above the saloon. He wore the black, patched up jacket he’d sworn to be buried in, and he leaned against the wall, his eyes hidden by the low brim of his hat, a lazy smile on his suntanned face. “Good to see ya, Johnny.”
“Jake, what you doin’ here?” Johnny broke into a broad grin as he crossed the street, greeting the older man with a firm handshake that lasted a mere second before Jake threw an arm around his shoulders and embraced him.
“Heard ‘bout Mexico. Heard I nearly lost ya.”
Johnny sobered. “Yeah, almost.”
Jake stepped back but kept a hand clamped on Johnny’s shoulder. “How close?”
Under Jake’s the intense stare, Johnny’s gaze dropped to the ground, where the dead body of the man he’d kneeled with in the sun leaked blood and piss over dry Mexican grass. No one had asked Johnny how close he’d come to death that day. No one else would get the truth. Johnny raised his head. “Too close,” he said softly. One glance at Jake’s solemn expression relieved the need to say more. Jake had survived two years in a Mexican prison. Jake knew.
“Well, you look good, Boy. Real good.”
“So do you.” Jake hadn’t changed much in the last couple years or so. His light brown hair was jaw length and these days sparsely threaded with silver. “A little older, maybe…” Johnny grinned.
“Yeah, feel it, too.” Jake clapped Johnny on the back. “Join me for breakfast. I ain’t eaten since yesterday, and that was Smithy’s grub. Reckon you don’t need remindin’ how that tastes…”
“Smithy’s here?” Johnny frowned and glanced back at the stairwell.
“Like a bad smell.” Jake jerked his thumb toward the rooms above the saloon. “He ain’t gonna bother us. You and me, we need to talk.”
The cantina in Morro Coyo had a welcoming feel. Although no one was eating right now, the taste of good cooking lingered in the air, the spicy smell of busier times engrained in the furniture. There was a couple seated, and they were debating animatedly over a newspaper article. As Johnny and Jake stepped further inside, the woman rose to greet them with a wide sunny smile that almost made her eyes disappear behind the plump balls of her cheeks. “Siéntese por favor abajo. Le serviré en un minuto!” She waved at the vacant tables and turned back to her companion, an elderly man with withered skin and a head of shocking white hair. She jabbed her finger on the newspaper, resuming the discussion with dizzying gusto.
Jake sat first, dropping into the chair and rummaging in the pockets of his coat, depositing the contents on the table. He began to pick out coins from an assortment of bullets, old poker chips and matches. “You gonna sit?” His gaze didn’t shift from his task.
The proprietress came over, smiling apologies for the delay, and as Jake ordered, Johnny tossed his hat on the table and slid into the vacant seat. He stared out the window, unintentionally making eye contact with Baldermero’s wife, and just as before, the Señora stared back, reminding Johnny of the bee incident again, her gaze as sharp as their sting. He’d been fascinated by the bees swarming from their interrupted hive, straight inside the open doors of the saloon. He’d watched with pleasure as men shrieked and cursed, spilling into the street like skittles, some even trying to shoot the bees. He’d still been watching and laughing when Jake grabbed his collar and hauled him home.
“¿Qué puedo cocinar para usted?”
“Nada para mí, gracias, Señora.” Johnny watched the woman disappear into her kitchen, delaying the moment when he’d have to meet Jake’s measuring gaze. The inevitable conversation beckoned like death, dissolving the pleasure of their reunion until there was nothing between them but the past.
Johnny took a deep breath, vowing to get it over with. “How’d you know where to find me?”
“I heard Murdoch Lancer snapped his fingers and you went runnin’.”
Jake’s tone was heavy with disapproval, but Johnny kept his voice neutral. “That’s not how it was, Jake.”
“No?” Leaving the coins, Jake swept the other items from the table and returned them to his pocket. “Last I knew you didn’t have a reason in hell to care ‘bout Murdoch Lancer. Now you’re playing happy families?”
“Murdoch was havin’ some trouble. He offered a partnership. One third of his ranch if we helped him hang onto it.”
“If you cut down Pardee.” Jake frowned. “Yep, folk in town are still talkin’ ‘bout you and your new brother savin’ Daddy’s ranch. I hear ya double-crossed Day to kill ‘im.”
Johnny swallowed, his fingers curling as he gripped resolve in his palm. He wasn’t going to react, although it riled—the accusation in Jake’s words—especially since Johnny knew for a fact that Jake had never liked Day or his methods. “If you know, why ask?”
“’Cause I want to hear it from you.” Jake snapped, contemplating Johnny. “I want to hear why you sold out ya mama for a fancy home an' a thousand dollars?”
The words stung, more than Johnny anticipated, bringing unwonted heat to his cheeks. “It's not like that,” he insisted, but his words lacked conviction. Still, he stared at Jake, keeping eye contact, not willing to concede that just by being here, let alone staying, he’d gone against everything he’d grown up believing.
“You never could lie to me for shit.”
“I don’t hafta do this.” Johnny kept his tone soft, but when he stood, his chair rocked back. Swiping his hat from the table, he went to leave, only for Jake to throw an arm across his path.
Jake’s gaze was steady. “You can go think on it, but you’re coming back. We ain’t done.”
Johnny hesitated, aware that every doubt he possessed was singing, tired of being ignored. Biting his bottom lip, he forced a nod, and then stepped around Jake’s outstretched arm. He left the cantina without looking back.
The morning hadn’t warmed, yet it took Barranca some speed for Johnny to feel the balmy breeze on his face. Only when Morro Coyo was lost in kicked up dust, did he wonder how Jake knew about the thousand dollars.
“You have a fine young man in there, Murdoch. An asset to Lancer.”
The words reached through the open French doors, bringing Scott to a halt like a hand to his chest. The meeting of the Cattle Growers Association had ended two hours ago and its president, Doug Porter, seemed reluctant to leave. Murdoch had managed to get him out of the house and the two men stood on the veranda, waiting for one of the hands to bring around Doug’s horse. The great room was empty and peaceful, following an afternoon of debate and talk of contracts, none of which Scott had paid as much attention to as he should. Apparently, he’d said enough to impress Porter. Scott could see a portion of the man’s navy blue jacket, but he couldn’t see or hear his father’s response.
“Shame we didn’t get to meet Johnny. Put a face to the name.”
“There’ll be other times, Doug.” Murdoch’s response was brisk, and Scott stepped outside just as Murdoch frowned in much the same way he’d done earlier; when twice he’d removed his pocket watch to stare at the timepiece, looking for the reassurance it was broken.
Rick appeared with Doug’s horse, and spared further speculation of Johnny’s whereabouts, Murdoch looked relieved. Scott suspected Murdoch was doing enough speculation of his own. Truthfully, his own thoughts had wandered to his brother only briefly, stuck for the most part on the telegram in his pocket, the knowledge of which burned, guiltily, all the way through his clothes. He knew he had to tell Murdoch about it, Grandfather certainly had given him no choice there. Scott wondered how his father was going to react to the news that Harlan Garrett was already in California, and that he intended to stay here, in the very place he’d once described as barbaric.
With Porter finally and reluctantly gone, Murdoch turned to Scott. “Is everything alright, you seem distracted?”
Scott swallowed. “I apologise. I don’t mean to be.”
“Something on your mind?”
Scott retrieved the telegram from his pocket. “I received a telegram this morning from grandfather.”
Murdoch’s expression closed. “I trust he’s well?”
Scott nodded. “He’s coming to visit. In fact, he’s already on his way.”
There it was again—a brief flash of something in Murdoch’s eyes, annoyance probably, as his features pulled into a scowl. “I know you said you were thinking of inviting your grandfather, Scott, but I expected you to ask me properly first. It’s only right that I’m consulted about who stays in my home.”
“Well, I didn’t invite him, Murdoch,” Scott pointed out. “But I intended to. It didn’t occur to me that you would have reason to object. He did, after all, take care of me all these years.”
Murdoch coloured, a flush rising from his white shirt collar. A long moment stretched between them, squeezing like quicksand, before Murdoch cleared his throat. “I didn’t say anything about—”
“No, you didn’t,” Scott cut in, and then softened his interruption with a gentle sigh. He excused himself from his father’s company and went back inside, feeling as adrift as he’d been back in Boston.
He held it in his palm until it was warm, and then released the stone with a powerful serve, struggling to see how many times it skimmed the lake before sinking beneath the blackening water. The day had gone, leaving the sky bruised purple, and he’d missed Murdoch’s meeting. A few hours ago, Johnny watched several smart men on horseback depart beneath the adobe Lancer arch.
Splaying his hands out on the cool grass, Johnny got to his feet and dusted down. Just feet away, Barranca grazed beside that tree—the spot where Teresa had stopped him leaving, grabbing Barranca’s bridle in a bold move that raised Johnny’s opinion of the young woman, telling him that it wasn’t like he’d heard it—his father had loved his mother, wanted her, wanted him? Hell! Johnny picked up another stone and didn’t bother to skim it, just hurled it as far as he could. He barely heard the splash.
When he entered the hacienda, it was in darkness, although the pink embers in the fireplace told him it hadn’t been that way for long. A faint moon sliced through the thick red drapes of the great room, drawing haunting shadows on the walls. He’d just eased the door closed when the grandfather clock struck the hour and startled him.
“I’d have thought you’d be used to that by now.”
Scott’s voice came from above, and as Johnny squinted at the shadowy staircase, he made out his brother’s silhouette.
“You waitin’ up for me, Boston?”
Scott descended, cradling a book, his hair mussed as if he’d tried sleep and failed. Shaking his head, he smiled. “You know, given the fact that we know so little about our father, you sure figured out how to rile him quickly enough.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a talent, I guess.”
Scott made no comment as he walked by into the great room. Johnny watched his brother pause in front of the bookshelves, and after a few seconds contemplating the book in his hands, slide it silently into a vacant slot. Not sure why, only that it was preferable to the company of his thoughts, Johnny followed his brother through into the kitchen.
“You want one?”
Scott was pouring himself a glass of water from a jug left covered on the side. Johnny nodded and when Scott sat down, seemingly with no immediate plans to return to bed, Johnny joined him, dropping into a chair at the large table.
“So what happened to you today?”
Johnny’s head shot up at the question, but he relaxed somewhat when he realised that Scott wasn’t about to grill him. “I got held up,” he hedged.
“You might want to come up with something a little more substantial for when our father asks.”
Johnny knew Scott was right. The truth was he still had no idea what he was going to say to Murdoch, about today, about any of it.
“I wouldn’t worry too much. Between your no show and my telling him that my grandfather is coming to stay, I think he’s about sick of the both of us.”
Johnny was curious, and the question was out before he got a rein on it. “Murdoch and your grandfather don’t get on?”
“I gather not.”
Johnny swirled the tepid water in his glass, studying his brother from beneath his eyelashes. “What ‘bout you? D’you get on with your grandfather?”
“Yes, of course. We have different views about some things…but for the most part, we do get along. I respect him. He’s,” Scott paused, and in the dim silver light, Johnny could see him searching for the words. “He’s a good man.”
Johnny nodded, thinking of Jake. He was a good man, too. They’d shared many of the same views over the years, especially when it came to Murdoch Lancer.
They heard footsteps, bare feet on the tiles, too light for Murdoch, and as Teresa appeared in the kitchen doorway, the wavering flame of her handheld candle flickered light across her face. “What are you two doing sitting here in the dark?” Stepping closer, she used the flame to light a lamp. The kitchen transformed with a steady orange glow. Setting the candle down, she tightened the knot of her robe. “Is everything okay?” Her gaze fixed on Johnny.
“Fine.” The lie rolled easily from Johnny’s lips, far better than the alternative. “Just keepin’ Boston company is all.”
“Oh, I couldn’t sleep either,” Teresa admitted before Scott could respond. “It must be something in the air.” She picked up the water jug and recovered it. “Even Murdoch didn’t want to go to bed tonight. He was worried about you.” Oblivious to Johnny’s sceptical expression, Teresa produced a cloth and began to mop up some droplets from the table. “Finally he agreed to go to bed, said he’d deal with you in the morning.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow, aware that Scott was biting his bottom lip to keep from smiling.
“Deal with me?”
“Oh, Murdoch’s bark is much worse than his bite!”
Johnny swivelled in the chair and with a resigned sigh, tugged listlessly at his boots. “Tell me, Miz. Teresa. The old man ever bit you?”
Teresa laughed. “No, but then I know how to handle him.”
“Yeah?” Johnny got one boot off and went to work on the other. “You gonna share that information? Figure I’ll be needin' it."
It had come with age—appreciation of the wee hours, when the world lived in soft focus and was tinted hazy blue. It was an hour before sunrise and he could hear scratching in the barn, imagine the dewy grass quivering as field mice ran a gauntlet around the outside of the corral. He could see the owl approaching; practically hear the soft beat of its wings as it swooped upon its prey.
God, he loved this land. In the times when his life had been black and hollow, these acres, this ground, had been his heart and soul.
Murdoch rubbed briskly at his reddening cheeks. His breath felt warm in the crisp air that was making his wretched leg play up again; the injury a reminder of all he’d gained and lost. He could do with his cane but it made him feel so damn assailable that it propped the wall of his bedroom instead. Doc. Jenkins would deem him a stubborn fool, but Murdoch didn’t care. With or without a cane he felt off-balance, if not as broken as before.
A door to the hacienda yawned open, and Murdoch watched Johnny emerge into the bite of fresh air, rubbing at his arms to ward off the chill. Murdoch hadn’t known his son was back until he’d found himself in the barn, prying for a glimpse of Johnny’s horse—not realising how big the bubble of breath in his chest, until his sigh of relief burst it. He kept expecting him to leave. So alike his mother, Murdoch feared Johnny was too free a spirit, too wild to be broken. But this time he had come back. Knowing this, Murdoch’s relief had given way to despair. Johnny’s behaviour perplexed and frustrated him. Presenting Johnny with Maria’s scarf had been his olive branch. Did his son not know how costly the gesture?
Johnny hadn’t seen him yet, that much was clear from the way he lazily stretched, his arms reaching high above his head, before he squatted down on bare feet to pet the usually feral barn cat—the one Murdoch couldn’t get within five feet of. Tentatively, Murdoch searched his bones for yesterday’s anger. He’d been ready to take the hide off his son. Johnny’s unexplained absence at the Cattlemen’s meeting had been humiliating and inexcusable. The ranch was a business, Murdoch’s life’s blood. It required dedication and maturity, a sense of responsibility. Well, then that's the, ah, ranch you're worried about, huh? Johnny’s words at their first meeting in almost twenty years had spent the night taunting Murdoch, dragging him from bed as early as this. They were no longer true, but he suppressed his joy. It might yet prove easier if they were.
Further along the adobe wall of the hacienda, the wooden door to the kitchen opened, startling the cat and sending it scrabbling over the low fence into Teresa’s garden. Johnny, whose hand had gone straight to where his gun should be, straightened and relaxed as Maria emerged into the budding light of morning. The short housekeeper took one look at Johnny and clamped a hand to her bosom. “¿Señor Johnny, por qué es usted afuera en el frío?” As she loudly chided his son for being out in the cold, unkempt and barefoot, Murdoch watched as Johnny hooked his thumbs under his belt and shrugged, winning the woman over with a cautious yet disarming smile. Unprepared for the sting of the observation, Murdoch followed them inside.
Mercifully, Maria had been up a while, for the stove was going. Its mounting warmth enwrapped Murdoch like a second, thicker skin, enabling him to pretend he didn’t see the easy smile on Johnny’s face turn guarded, or Scott’s relaxed expression retreat behind a polite nod.
“I didn’t know you were up,” Johnny ventured.
“I didn’t know I was the only one who couldn’t sleep.” Murdoch closed the door behind him and took a seat at the table, accepting a cup from Maria with murmured thanks. He didn’t miss the bittersweet eye contact that passed between brothers, before Johnny met his gaze.
“I missed your meeting.”
“Our meeting, Johnny. It was our meeting.”
“I know.” Johnny leaned against the work surface and even when Maria shooed him out of the way to prepare breakfast, he didn’t come sit down. He took up residence against the brick pillar in the centre of the kitchen. “I meant to be here, but I went for a ride and lost track of time. Figured it wouldn’t look too good, me showing up so late…”
Murdoch floundered. He’d intended to have this conversation with Johnny in private, and this soft admission tossed him into unfamiliar waters. He was aware that Scott surveyed him from across the table, no doubt waiting for him to say the wrong thing just like he had yesterday when Scott told him about Harlan. Inside Murdoch groaned. For years he’d called it as he saw it, a spade was a spade, a ruthless bastard a ruthless bastard. Guardianship of Teresa and the return of his sons meant he had to consider others' feelings ahead of his own, and to his isolated heart, it was a foreign concept. Inwardly Murdoch bowed with the weight of this responsibility. Outwardly, he gazed at Scott until his son looked away, before returning a level stare to an inscrutable Johnny.
“Better late than not at all, John.”
“Yeah.” Johnny’s hand tapped a gentle rhythm in the air beside his thigh. “It won’t happen again, Murdoch.” There was a trace of challenge in his tone, a glimmer of resilience in his gaze that Murdoch was coming to know and understand. Detection of it settled him, beached him safe on dry land.
Shades of yesterday entered his head. Shame we didn’t get to meet Johnny. Put a face to the name, Doug Porter had said. And he hadn’t been the only one. Not a single cattleman at his table had wanted to meet his son. But they’d all wanted to meet Madrid. Murdoch tasted his words before he spoke.
“Good, because this partnership needs you, Johnny. It needs both of you.” He held Johnny’s gaze and then, satisfied he'd made his point, swung it to Scott, who nodded imperceptibly. As Murdoch poured his coffee, he was aware that his sons exchanged another look, but this time he let the knowledge soothe him. As unlikely as it had seemed, his sons were forming a friendship. Murdoch had no clue as to its tenacity, but he hoped that even with Maria’s lurking ghost and Harlan’s impending arrival, it would be enough to make them stay, and keep them here in his home. Where they’d always belonged.
The dead calf had been there a while, its body almost concealed with dirt and leaves that had begun to mould, and turn dry and crinkly in this afternoon’s warm sun. Getting as close as the smell allowed, Johnny squatted down and used a long stick to dislodge some of the leaves, wrinkling his nose in disgust when writhing maggots spilled from the carcass.
“Yeah.” Johnny stood and nodded at Scott, discarding the stick into the brush. They were almost on the perimeter of Lancer land, and a few feet away the ground began to elevate toward the crest of the hills they’d seen in the distance on that first day. Looking up, Johnny scanned the trees that ascended the hill. “Reckon it’s moved on though.”
Scott had matched Johnny’s gaze. “How can you be sure?”
“Can’t.” Johnny shrugged. “But there’s a fair bit of that calf left, yet it ain’t been moved or touched for days.” He retrieved his rifle from Barranca and walked past Scott towards the hill.
“We’re going to look for it now?”
“No, *we* ain’t. I’ll check it out. Won’t be long.” He started up the rocky incline towards the trees. “If it jumps out at ya, Boston, don’t make any sudden moves.” He glanced back over his shoulder to where Scott anxiously scanned the trees. “Oh, and try not to yell.”
Scott stared at him and Johnny couldn’t suppress his grin as he made his way up the hill. For the first time in ages, Murdoch had assigned them to work together, and while he didn’t mind Scott’s company, he had no appetite for conversation, not that Boston was exactly talkative. Johnny hesitated when he reached the copse of trees. He didn’t expect the cat to make an appearance. Mountain lions tended to keep coming back to their kill until there was nothing left, dragging the body somewhere new each time, and that calf hadn’t been anywhere lately. Still, it paid to be careful. He kept to the edge of the trees, aware of the cooler air and the softer, shaded ground that probably hadn’t felt real heat since deep last summer. As he made his way around the copse, he lost Scott from view. He listened to something scamper in the undergrowth, a bird or rabbit most likely.
Further along Johnny found what he was looking for, paw prints embedded in the soft earth.
He reached the top of the hill where it was rockier. Picking his way over to where the ground dropped sharply away, Johnny studied the tufts of bloody fur that adorned the weeds like thistles. Leaning over the edge, he scanned the rocks below until he spotted it—the twisted body of the dead cat a few feet down. Johnny turned and made his way back.
He found Scott already hard at work in the streambed, clearing debris, sweat patches spreading on his beige shirt. The water level was low this side, barely a foot deep, but it was cold and refreshing as Johnny splashed it on his face.
“Find anything?” Scott asked as he worked, ripping up waterweeds by the root and tossing them towards the bank, along with branches and leaves that must have been soaking since autumn.
“Found the cat dead at the bottom of the canyon.”
Scott stopped working and brushed sweat from his forehead. “Well, it probably heard Johnny Madrid was after him and jumped.”
Johnny grinned. “That’s good, Boston. You been thinkin’ on that the whole time I’ve been gone?”
“Actually it just came to me. Here, make yourself useful.” Before Johnny had a chance to respond, Scott tossed an algae covered bird’s nest at his brother, dipping his head to hide his smirk as Johnny half caught the foul missile, but still got splattered.
“What?” Scott straightened up. The water level was rising with melodic trickles now that the damn was beginning to disperse and was almost to his knees. As Johnny’s glare travelled from his splattered shirt to his filthy hands and up to meet Scott’s amused gaze, Scott couldn’t resist holding out his own safely gloved hands and brushing them together. “It’s just a bird’s nest, Brother, no need to yell.”
His glare held for a moment before melting away. His smile was rueful. “Okay, I get it.”
Scott smiled back. “Good. Now are you going to help me with this? Because my feet are turning numb.”
He removed his boots and socks and waded into help. They worked together in silence, removing the last debris until the stream was running freely.
“You know there might be another one.”
“Cat. There was some fur and blood by the ledge where it fell. Either it took on a mad old steer and lost, or another cat moved in on its territory.”
“So what are you going to do?” Scott asked the question as he walked barefoot through the grass to his horse for his canteen, taking a sip before sitting on the ground.
“Tell Murdoch. See what he wants done.”
Johnny accepted the canteen from Scott and drank. Spring would soon run out and summer would set in. He tried to imagine what it’d be like to be out working when the heat got unbearable. One of the few advantages of being a damn good gunfighter was that for the most part you got to choose your hours. Occasionally you even picked your day to die. Leaning back in the grass, Johnny placed his hat over his eyes and listened to the insects, a grasshopper sang not far from his ear. He wondered if the Old Man would cotton to the idea of a siesta. Somehow he didn’t imagine so, but then the Old Man was full of surprises lately.
Take this morning—he’d been mad, Johnny had seen it in his eyes. Not today, but yesterday he was probably ready to tear strips off him, just as the cat had done to the calf. He’d obviously cooled off some, not that Johnny was complaining. He’d apologised for being late, and a part of him was sorry that he’d let Murdoch down. He’d said he’d be back and Johnny didn’t like breaking his word, but a part of him was relieved that he’d been saved the parade of men all fancied up ready to judge him. Johnny Madrid didn’t care what people thought, but Johnny Madrid had no place here…not now that Pardee was dead.
I hear you double-crossed Day to kill ‘im. Jake’s words still haunted Johnny, and, as yesterday, he bristled at the accusing tone. Johnny had liked Day once, and yeah, he had considered joining up with him when he first arrived. It would be sweet payback for Murdoch Lancer…but the dream of revenge had been over the minute Johnny arrived at that homestead with Scott, and saw an innocent, no doubt hardworking man swinging from the roof of his own barn, his wife dead in a pool of cold blood inside, now they’d had their fun. Johnny shook his head. He had no regrets about Pardee except that his wasn't the killing shot.
He knew he’d have to go and see Jake. Explain. A big part of him wished he didn’t, for Jake wanted answers that Johnny couldn’t give. It hadn’t been an easy choice to stay—he’d gone against a lifetime of believing on the strength of one blunt statement from Murdoch and a passed down story from Teresa. But the decision had been a whole lot easier to live with when there was no one around to call him on it.
The sensible thing to do would be to ask Murdoch how it was. What made his mama leave with another man, if that were the truth of it? What went so wrong? But Johnny hadn’t asked, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Either his mother or his father was a liar. And the longer Johnny stayed here, the more he knew Scott and Teresa, this new life and its comparative luxuries, the less he wanted to find out which one it was.
Beside him, he heard Scott putting on his boots, a sigh escaping that Johnny figured he wasn’t supposed to hear.
“When’s your grandfather gettin’ here?”
“The telegram said two days.”
“So he left Boston long before he sent it.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t surprise me. It wouldn’t occur to my grandfather that it might be inconvenient, that the timing might not be right…”
Johnny removed the hat from his eyes and sat up. Drawing his legs up, he settled his elbows on his knees. “Why's the timing not right, Scott?"
Scott sighed, louder this time, and he glanced at him as if deciding how much to say. Johnny waited. He’d already figured Boston kept things as close to his chest as he did, maybe even closer. He knew his own reasons for doing so, and to his surprise, found himself as curious as hell about Scott’s.
“He never wanted me to come out here. He probably thinks this is just an adventure for me that I’ll tire of. Another streak of rebellion like…” Scott hesitated.
“Like the war?”
Scott glanced at him, then nodded. “He’ll try to persuade me to go back with him, and he’s going to be disappointed.” Scott was quiet for a moment before he got to his feet and dusted himself down. “We’d better tell Murdoch about that cat.” Picking up his canteen, Scott headed towards the waiting horses. It didn’t escape Johnny that Scott’s issue with his grandfather shared something in common with Jake. Only an elderly man who missed his grandson was hardly dangerous. He skimmed his hat across the grass. He had to think of some way of explaining things to his stepfather, and he was going to have to get it said soon.
“You gonna tell me what Madrid said?”
“He didn’t say a lot.”
“Not much he could say?”
“Well, you ain’t givin’ up? I mean, you’ve hardly tried!”
Annoyed, Jake threw Smithy a cautioning stare. For all he liked this man, over the years he’d perfected the art of getting under his skin. Irritating Jake to the point where he wondered what made them friends, other than their brutal, shared childhood in the backrooms of a Mexican bordello. Accepting the glass that Smithy slid across the table, Jake poured a tall measure of tequila. “Johnny knows we ain’t done. He’ll come back.”
“And if he don’t?”
The tequila went down fast. “Well, then, I’ll go to 'im.”
Smithy nodded, considering the implication of Jake’s statement. The early afternoon sun was the warmest it had been for days, beating through the dirty glass window of this saloon and drawing beads of sweat from Smithy’s grimy brow. He gulped his own drink then smeared sweat with his sleeve. “You want me to try talkin’ to im’?”
“Sure.” Jake frowned. “If you wanna get yourself shot again.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to say he could take me, Jake,” Smithy huffed. “Reckon he’s probably lost that edge’a his.” He twitched in the face of Jake’s dark expression. “I’m gonna play cards. You comin’?” He indicated a game in play across the room, a dirty halo of cigar smoke above the table.
Jake shook his head and waved the man away. Already he regretted his taunt, the last thing he needed was Smithy and Johnny going at it. No fuel needed for that fire; they’d clashed enough over the years. Sighing, Jake tipped another shot of tequila down his throat as Smithy joined the card game. One of the other players had arrived in town earlier that day, and he was trouble. Too edgy, too eager—a bad combination. Hoping Smithy could handle it, Jake slouched in his chair and contemplated the bottle left behind on the table.
In spite of what he’d said, Jake wasn’t sure Johnny was coming back. Jake knew him, well enough to know that his words about Maria had sliced to the bone. Well, tough shit. He’d thought they’d raised Johnny better than this. For all the hell he’d suffered and seen Johnny had grown up right—principled, honest, loyal—least ‘til lately. Maria would be turning in her grave to know where he’d ended up. But Johnny would be changing his mind. Jake was damn sure about that. Jake owed this to Maria, and he wouldn’t let her down again. This one damn thing he could do. Even if it took the truth to do it.
The afternoon stage was running late. Seated up front in the stationary buggy, Murdoch stared at the road into Morro Coyo, listening over the sounds of the town for the beat of hooves or an observer’s shout that would herald its arrival. After another impatient minute, Murdoch glanced down at his watch with a frown. “I told Johnny I’d be back to oversee that surveying job.”
“Well, Murdoch, you didn’t have to come.”
Murdoch glared at Scott, who sat beside him, twirling his hat in his hands. When Scott met his gaze, Murdoch snapped shut the watch and returned it to his pocket, replying in the most even tone he could muster.
“And let you come on your own? No, Scott. I couldn’t do that.”
Subtly wiping the sheen of sweat from his palms onto his dark brown shirt, Murdoch waited for Scott to say more. He was sure his son suspected how he felt about Harlan. And Murdoch wanted to admit it; the truth sat inside him like lava, burning to tell. But Scott didn’t say a thing and silence wedged between them, an unwanted third passenger, interrupted only by the gravel turn of wheels as Murdoch flicked the reins and moved the buggy further along the busy street.
“I’ll ask in the stage office. See if they know of a reason for the delay.”
Murdoch pulled the buggy up for a second time and Scott jumped down, weaving his way through the throng of milling people. Left alone, Murdoch indulged in the rebellion that nagged at him. These days he didn’t have to defer to Harlan Garrett, and that’s what he was doing by waiting for him to arrive. Climbing down from the buggy, Murdoch set on a walk to clear his head.
“Ah, good day to you, Señor Lancer!”
Lost in the past, Murdoch was slow to recognise the enthusiastic voice that called out to him. He turned around just as Juan Baldemero was about to call again.
“Juan. Rosa. How are you both?” Murdoch tipped his hat to the couple, who at any other time he’d be happy to join in pleasant conversation. Today though, he just wasn’t in the mood. Nor was Rosa, who clung to her husband’s arm, as if she’d been about to pull him away. She stared at Murdoch through narrowed eyes before excusing herself from their company.
“We’re well, very well…” Juan cast a furtive glance after his wife and shook his head.
“Is there something wrong with Rosa, Juan?”
The storekeeper sighed. “Lo siento, Señor, she is frightened,” he admitted at last. “She fears that the trouble in this valley, it is not over.”
Murdoch frowned. “What makes her think that?”
“More gunfighters in town…” Juan inclined his head in the direction of his store and the saloon opposite. “Yesterday there’s a gunfight right outside my door. Two men die in the street and Rosa, she sees it all…”
“There will always be gunfighters, Juan,” Murdoch said. “It’s the world we live in.”
“Si, si, that’s what I tell her. I even say that your son, he knows them, so they cannot be bad men.”
Not sure his father hadn’t changed his mind and returned home, Scott was alone when the stage rounded the bend into Morro Coyo, some two hours later than scheduled. Despite his initial reservation about Harlan’s hopes for the visit, Scott was looking forward to seeing his grandfather again. He missed him. He missed his conversation, their debates and discussions, dropping by Harlan’s study on cold, dark winter evenings to lure the older man from his work with a roaring fire and glass of fine brandy. It had taken this distance to realise that the things he missed had been gone far longer than he. Restlessness plagued Scott for months prior to his leaving Boston. Nothing, not even his grandfather, parties, drink, or a few risky dalliances, could reach into him and touch it.
Opening the door to the cramped vehicle, Scott waited for the other passengers to disembark before he could assist his grandfather. Harlan’s eyes lit up as he shook his grandson’s hand, and he managed a weak smile that became a grimace as he climbed out of the coach, almost bent double, his fingers curling tight around Scott’s arm.
“Scotty, my dear Boy, that was the worst journey of my life!”
Remembering very well every jar and jolt of the unforgiving road, Scott suppressed a grin as his grandfather began smoothing and dusting down his clothes. “Well when you return, Sir, we can cut south across country to meet the train. It’ll make the journey easier.”
“When I return?” Harlan shook his head. “I’ve only just arrived and already you’re trying to get rid of me.”
“Not at all,” Scott assured him with a smile, collecting Harlan’s luggage from the ground. “Follow me.”
As they walked toward the buggy, Harlan’s critical gaze swept the town, and Scott knew what he was thinking—the same thing he would’ve thought on his first day were it not for the life-changing revelation of a brother. Finding out about Johnny had been as much a comfort as a shock. All this time, all those years; he’d never been as alone as he thought.
At the buggy, there was still no sign of Murdoch, and Scott swallowed the swell of disappointment. What was the point of Murdoch accompanying him if he’d never intended to see it through? Helping his grandfather aboard, Scott let Harlan settle into the rear seat.
“You’re on your own today, Scotty? I thought at least your half-brother would be here, or that orphan girl you wrote to me about.”
“Well, Johnny’s working out on the east range today on a surveying job, you’ll meet him tonight, and Teresa is visiting friends...”
“Perhaps if we’d had more notice of your arrival?” Murdoch’s tone was flat as he surprised Scott with a gentle squeeze to his shoulder.
Harlan’s eyes narrowed for a second.
“Hello, Murdoch. You look well.”
Murdoch’s expression was staid, but he looked tired, Scott noticed, dusted with a fatigue that hadn’t been present before. Lines of tension were prominent across his forehead and mouth. “I thought you might’ve gone back to the ranch?”
Murdoch stared at him. “Why would I do that, Scott?” He took Harlan’s last bag from Scott’s hand and dumped it in the buggy, before climbing up and taking the reins.
If riding in a stagecoach was uncomfortable, then a long ride in the company of two men whose civilities failed to disguise a mutual dislike for one another was worse. Scott sat up front with his father, although he felt very much in the middle, and tried to keep a conversation going—a difficult task when Murdoch sat in brooding silence. Harlan, for his part, talked easily, regaling Scott with updated tales of Boston society, the world he’d grown up in now seeming very far away. Only mention of Julie stirred a longing, and Scott buried that one deep. She was yet to answer his letter.
They were almost home when Scott broke Murdoch’s awkward silence with a touch to his arm. “Stop a moment, would you, Sir?” When he obliged, Scott turned to his grandfather, unable to contain his smile of pride as he sat back and let the older man take in the view.
“Lancer?” Harlan asked, holding his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun as his gaze swept the surrounding countryside.
“From here all the way to the mountains.” Scott caught his father’s eye, grounded by a sudden rush of surety when Murdoch smiled back.
“It looks different.” Harlan continued to scan the horizon. “Of course I’ve never seen it, but I feel like I know it. To this wilderness a naive young girl came to search for her sugar dreams…Your dear mother, she had a wonderful talent for description, and her letters made it sound so very depressing.”
Out the corner of his eye, Scott saw Murdoch’s smile fade with a clench of his jaw.
“Of course I expect a lot of that was less to do with the land and more to do with her general unhappiness…”
The buggy lurched as Murdoch snapped the reins. Harlan, caught by surprise, fell forward with an “oof”.
By the time they arrived at the hacienda, the sun was lower in the sky and Murdoch’s patience was waning with the day. He’d kept his mouth shut while Harlan disparaged all he’d worked for. He wasn’t surprised, but sensed Scott was. After unloading the buggy, he'd asked Scott to take his grandfather’s bags to his room. Scott looked hesitant, but complied, and as soon as his footsteps faded, Murdoch stalked into the hacienda, holding the door open for Harlan to go in.
Once in the great room, Harlan stood with his back to him in front of the picture window. Tossing his hat onto the stand and unbuckling his gun belt, he found himself thinking back to his first meeting with Harlan. Back then, he’d been convinced he would like the man. Murdoch shook his head, still baffled by the memory. Catherine spoke so fondly of her father, painting him as the man Murdoch aspired to be; a man whose business reputation preceded him, yet one whose devotion to his family was without failing or question. It had taken a mere few minutes in Harlan’s frigid company for a conjured ideal to crumble. This time Murdoch knew better. Striding towards his desk, his voice came out strong and clear.
“Let's not waste any more of each other's time, Harlan. What are you doing here?”
Harlan turned around. “I’d hoped that age would have smoothed your rough edges, Murdoch. I can see I was wrong about that.” He withdrew his pocket watch and played with it, weighing it in his hand. “I was hoping we could have a friendly conversation?”
"Why? Our last conversation wasn't on that basis."
"Well, perhaps you're right, but that was years ago. Any differences between us are finished...done with."
“You kept my son away from me for twenty-four years!"
“And what could you have done for Scotty? A down-on-his-heels dreamer with nothing.”
“Not anymore, Harlan. As you can see.”
Harlan nodded. “Yes, I can see, Murdoch. You have your two sons at your side, a splendid ranch, wealth, everything you want."
“That takes care of me, now what about you, what do you want?”
Harlan circled the table, picking up his model ship and frowning with distaste. “Scotty has a legacy waiting for him in Boston, an estate of considerable worth.”
“He has an estate right here.”
“To be shared with his half-breed brother!”
Murdoch stepped forward. “Careful, Harlan. If you refer to Johnny that way again then your time here will be short indeed.” He stalked around the table and sat down behind his desk. “This is Scott’s home. He’s happy here.”
“Pah!” Harlan snorted. “Scotty’s home is in Boston. It always will be. There's no comparison between what each of us can give Scotty. He belongs in the world he grew up in, with the right people...where he can make something worthwhile of his life.”
“You want to take him back to Boston.” Sitting back in his chair, Murdoch glared at his former father-in-law. “You're forgetting one thing, Harlan, Scott's not a child. He's a grown man with a will of his own.”
Harlan waved the statement away. “I know Scotty, Murdoch. Better than you. This new life—it’s just a whim. Since he came home from war he’s been lost…” His voice cracked and he paused, as if waiting for it to strengthen. “Of course I’ve no doubt you could sway him with your sullied version of the truth. Unless of course you've already done so?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I never thought I had to."
They heard Scott’s footsteps on the tiles at the same time and their angry words dissolved in the air.
“All your bags safely in your room, Sir.” Scott stepped down into the great room, and Harlan pounced with a smile.
“Ah, thank you, Scotty. Perhaps you’d be so kind as to escort me there. It was a long and tiring trip and I need to lie down.”
As soon as Scott led his grandfather from the room, Murdoch expelled some frustration with a fist brought down hard on the desk. Turning his chair, he stared out of the window, the hard won view reminding him how worthless it would be if they left. He rubbed his cheek, just about resisting the urge to lower his head and bury it in folded arms on the desk. Today’s events had battered him, the possibility of losing both his sons hurt like a physical blow. He wondered how it had come to this, if his own damn stubborn refusal to discuss the past was to blame. No. It’s not my fault just as it isn’t theirs. Who could blame Scott for wanting to return to Boston, with the wealth of opportunity awaiting him there? And if Johnny was already gone by then… Murdoch sighed, his discovery today still a bleeding wound. Although he clung to hope, it was time to face the fear he’d thought buried—he’d found his boy too late. Johnny’s hate sealed long ago, his signature on the partnership agreement, apparently a means to an end.
Last night he’d dreamt of his mother, something he hadn’t done for years, back to a time when he’d sat with her in silent shadow, both so cold but only he that could shiver. The dream gripped him tight, left him breathless, shivering for real without a sheet. For hours after, he’d lain awake, listening to the night through his open window, sure he could feel her presence, her cool disapproval mingling with the draft.
It was chilly now in the barn, although nothing to do with Maria’s ghost. Johnny had put in a long day, working from sun up to get the surveying done and a line shack repaired. He’d worked hard and was paying for his lack of sleep, but the price of distraction was worth it—he’d put off Jake for another day. Johnny was kidding himself; he knew it, believing he could avoid Jake much longer. Waning Jake’s patience on this issue was risky, and it wasn’t a risk Johnny should take.
Vowing to go see him tomorrow, Johnny left the barn. He was curious to meet Scott’s grandfather, clap eyes on the man responsible for his brother’s fancy talk and manners, and Johnny figured he had just enough time to wash up before dinner. Murdoch was outside by the corral talking to a few of the hands as Johnny walked over.
Dismissing the men, Murdoch turned to him, and Johnny noticed the shift in his expression. “Another dead calf was found today. It seems you were right about there being another cat in that area.”
“You want me to go after it?”
“I want you to go inside. I need to talk to you.”
“Is something wrong, Murdoch?”
Murdoch stared at him for a moment, a measuring stare that did nothing for Johnny’s sense of unease. “Just do as I tell you, Johnny.” There was hardness to his voice, but it sounded forced. Johnny heard something vulnerable in his tone that Murdoch obviously didn’t wish detected.
“Okay.” He’d done all his chores, so at a loss to explain it, Johnny headed for the hacienda. There was no sign of Scott or his grandfather in the great room but the dinner table was already laid. Maria had even put flowers in a vase on its centre, and Johnny was about to seek sanctuary in her kitchen when Murdoch entered through a set of French doors.
“Why did you lie to me?”
The instant accusation made Johnny wary. “About what?” he asked.
“How many lies have there been?” Murdoch strode to his desk, not looking in Johnny’s direction, his anger unmistakable now, emanating in waves.
“Murdoch, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ ‘bout.”
“I don’t know why I’m surprised. You’re just like your mother.”
Something inside Johnny fluttered in anticipation “In what way?”
Murdoch hesitated. He looked uncomfortable, and Johnny guessed he hadn’t meant to say the words aloud.
“Maria never had any sense of responsibility either. Every time I needed her to make an effort… She never understood that we both had to make sacrifices. She always wanted things the easy way.”
“The easy way?” Johnny took a step towards his father. He clenched his hands, and took a slow breath to calm himself. “You think that’s what Mama had after she left here?”
“It was her choice, Johnny,” Murdoch said, and Johnny could almost see the shutters coming down. “It was always her choice.”
“But she must have had reasons?” Johnny pressed, determined now in the midst of this forbidden topic, to get the answers to the questions that wouldn’t leave him, that had started haunting his dreams and his room at night.
“Well, I gave up trying to fathom them a long, long time ago.” Murdoch folded his arms across his chest and eyed Johnny severely. “I want the truth. What were you doing with Jake Cortes?”
The question stunned Johnny, and Murdoch gave a disgusted shake of his head. “I asked around, Johnny, I know. You were seen, meeting him, eating with him, looking downright friendly. And don’t you dare stand there and deny it.”
“If you wanted to know who he was, Murdoch, you coulda just asked me.”
“And you’d have told me would you?” Murdoch demanded. “Like you told me you missed the meeting because you lost track of time. I thought it was because you were unsure, maybe even nervous about fitting in. I didn’t think for one minute that you were blatantly lying to my face!”
Johnny perched on the sofa back and hung his head, heart pounding, not sure yet how much Murdoch knew, or how bad this was about to get.
“I know what Cortes is—he’s a gunfighter, just like Pardee and the others. Not two days ago he killed two men outside the Morro Coyo saloon.” Murdoch stared at Johnny, searching his face. “Do you hate me that much, son?”
“What? No, Murdoch, I don’t hate you…” Johnny trailed off, news of gunplay lost as the realisation of what his father was getting at hit home. Knowing that Murdoch had no idea of the real relationship between him and Jake gave no relief in the face of this cold revelation.
“You think I’m plannin’ something,” Johnny whispered. “What, Old Man, to murder you all in your beds?”
Murdoch turned his back to stare out of the picture window. “What were you doing with Cortes, Johnny?
“I know him, Murdoch—”
“Like you knew Pardee?”
“Is this honestly what you think?” Dios, but Johnny hated the helplessness in his tone. It shocked the hell out of him— this want of the old man’s approval. He brought his arms across his chest, wondering how the hell they’d gotten here and wishing that he could claw his way back and start the conversation over. Maybe telling Murdoch about Jake wouldn’t be so bad, maybe he wouldn’t want to know too much. Maybe he should have just asked outright about his mother in the first place instead of being such a coward, or…Johnny studied the floor and the trail of dusty footprints he’d walked in from outside…or maybe Jake was right and he should never have come here at all.
“I told you before, I don’t know what to think. Just when I think I do…” He shook his head, the sentence going unfinished. “Maybe I expected too much, but I just wanted you to have a chance, John, the opportunity to put that life behind you.”
“I have, least I’m tryin’ to.”
“Maybe not hard enough.”
“It sure comes easy to ya, don’t it?” Johnny pushed away from the sofa, and glared at his father. “Believing the worst of me.” Recognising his own frustration, Johnny schooled himself calm before he spoke again. “Alright, I shouldn’t have lied about why I was late that day, I know it, but I had my reasons, Murdoch. Question is, are you gonna listen to any of ‘em?”
Murdoch opened his mouth to respond, then pursed his lips, frowning displeasure. Guess he don’t wanna yell at me in front of a guest. Johnny turned to get a look at the old man in the doorway who wore a bemused expression.
“Harlan.” There was strain in Murdoch’s voice as he rose from his desk to address the older man.
“This must be Scotty’s half-brother, Johnny Madrid.” Harlan ignored Murdoch, his gaze fixed on Johnny who returned it steadily.
“I go by Lancer now.” Johnny looked at Murdoch.
“Well, it’s good to meet you, Johnny.” Harlan stepped down into the room and approached Johnny. “Scott has written to me about you, I gather he’s quite fond of you already.” Harlan smiled. “Now let’s see, your mother was a foreigner wasn’t she?”
Even caught off-guard by the admission that Scott was fond of him, Johnny couldn’t miss the insinuation behind Harlan’s words. Murdoch hadn’t missed it either, for he came striding across the room to stand beside Johnny, searing the air with his glare.
Johnny looked Harlan in the eye. “Mexican.”
“Yes, I understand she was a very lovely woman.”
Johnny smirked and ducked his head. It suited the day that Scott’s grandfather was a bigot. So much for seeing where Scott got his manners. Turning to his father, Johnny said, “I’m not hungry so I won’t be stayin’ for dinner.” He went to walk out only for Murdoch to ease into his path.
“We’re not finished talking.”
“I am. Gonna take care of that cat.” Avoiding eye contact, Johnny stepped around Murdoch and left the house, pretending he didn’t hear Murdoch’s restrained request to return.
It would be a still night were it not for a light breeze that ruffled the leaves of the cottonwoods and made their shadows tremble on the ground. The moon was out early, round, full and bright, settling in the nooks and crannies that would be otherwise lost to darkness. It provided enough light for Johnny to see exactly where he should aim, and he was about to squeeze off his shot when he heard something, quieter than the alarm bells resounding in his head.
Leaving the rabbit to see another day, Johnny walked back to the line shack, listening hard with every step. Barranca whinnied from his stall, and rifle in hand, Johnny scanned the trees at the base of the mountain. Once dark, he’d postponed his hunt for the cat until tomorrow. He’d figured first light would be the best time to head back to the ridge where the other cat had plummeted. But maybe the feline had other ideas. Something stirred in the distant shadows, and Johnny thought he saw a glint of moonlight in a cat’s reflective eyes.
The leaves on the trees still quivered in the breeze as Johnny headed towards them, each step muffled by the grass yet too loud to his ears. He moved closer, picking his way up rockier ground, and even before he stumbled on some hidden obstacle in the grass, Johnny knew he was being reckless. A fact acknowledged by the large cat that emerged from the trees.
Shit. There was no other reaction to have, unless he laughed at his own stupidity. He knew better than this. What the hell is wrong with me? On his hands and knees, Johnny glanced at the fallen rifle that wasn’t quite within reach, considered his Colt still in its holster. He chewed his lip as the cat warbled. When, Johnny made his move, the cat hissed. Then it pounced.
The rifle shot was deafening, coming moments after the cat landed on top of Johnny with a force that stole his breath. The cat, startled by the warning shot, fled into the sanctuary of the trees.
Flat on his back and dazed, Johnny stared into a floating sky, before his vision stilled on the anxious face of his brother.
“You know I heard this rumour that line shacks are actually habitable. Apparently someone somewhere got this crazy notion that folk might like a warm and dry place to spend the night.” Leaving the door to the shack ajar, Scott headed out to where his brother sat on an upturned crate beside their wilting campfire, his rifle rested between his knees. The front of Johnny’s shirt was torn and bloody, but considering how close his encounter had been, Johnny insisted he was fine. The scratches weren’t deep, and as if to prove this point, he ran his finger along the one that marked his face from cheek to jaw.
“I ain’t plannin’ to sleep out here, Boston.”
“But you are planning to go after the cat again?”
Johnny nodded. “As soon as it’s light.”
“Hmmm.” Taking another crate, Scott turned it upside down and sat across from his brother. Picking up a stick, he poked life back into the fire. “I don’t suppose you’ll mind if I come along?”
Johnny cracked a smile and he shook his head.
“Why’d you come out here, Scott?”
“Murdoch sent me.”
Johnny looked surprised. “The old man asked you to come after me?”
“Not in so many words, but that’s what he was getting at. He was worried you’d go off and do something reckless.” Scott paused, losing the battle to suppress his grin. “I’m glad he was wrong.”
“That all he told you?”
Scott met his brother’s eyes and sighed. He didn’t want to get into the middle of this, but he also didn’t want to stand by while their inability to communicate drove his father and brother further apart. Keeping his eyes locked on Johnny’s, Scott shook his head. “No, he told me what happened.”
Johnny got to his feet, kicking the ground with his boot. Scott didn’t miss Johnny’s wince as he stood or the subtle touch of his hand to his back.
“Why didn’t you just tell him the truth? If those men are friends of yours then he might have understood, and even if he didn’t…” Undeterred by Johnny’s scowl, Scott pressed his point. “Even if he didn’t then at least he couldn’t censure you for it. He couldn’t say that you lied to him. He’d have no reason not to trust you.”
“How come I have to prove he can trust me? When did he prove himself to us, eh, Scott?”
“He offered us the partnership. He kept his word on that.”
“And we accepted. We’re partners, ain’t we? Don’t mean he trusts us though. Don’t mean he trusts me.”
“I think he’s trying, Johnny.”
It would have gone silent were it not for the crackling fire that simmered like his brother’s anger. Without answering, Johnny snatched up his rifle and headed into the line shack, Scott sighed into the night air and pulled his jacket tighter around his body. You’re a hypocrite, urging Johnny to tell the truth when for the past few weeks, the past few days especially, he’d been far from honest with any of them. Tonight, when Harlan retired, it was Scott's chance, his opportunity to find out the reason for the mutual tension between his father and grandfather that clung like dusty cobwebs in the dark. He’d opened his mouth to ask of the past, it should be easy, the questions had years in the making. The words hadn’t come.
Scott kicked dirt over the fire until it was extinguished, and then followed Johnny into the shack.
The smell of burning oil and dust from the old lamp permeated the room with the orangey glow. Johnny was by the bunks, trying to examine the most recent scar on his back, the one from Pardee, when Scott closed the door, jamming it with his shoulder to get it shut. Johnny dropped his shirttail and stretched out on the bunk.
“Is your back hurting?”
“Well, I’m not surprised, brother. You went down like…” Scott sought a comparison that would do justice to the terrifying image of his brother disappearing beneath the cat.
“Like I had a one hundred’n sixty pound cat on top of me?”
“Yes, just like that,” Scott conceded with a grin as he sat down on the only other bunk in the line shack, and began removing his boots. With his feet free of confinement, Scott put out the lamp, and he’d just got as comfortable as was going to be possible on the narrow and too short mattress, when his brother’s voice filtered through the darkness.
“I know it might seem like I don’t do too good on my own...given what happened with Pardee, and then tonight…” Johnny hesitated, and Scott didn’t prompt him. “But you should know that I can take care of myself…have done for a lot'a years.”
“I believe it,” Scott replied, and he did. Johnny must have known, for he didn’t respond, and minutes later Scott heard his brother’s breathing settle into a rhythmic pattern. He lay awake for an hour or more, just listening to it, until he convinced himself that it was enough.
“See how the edges are kinda smudged? That’s ‘cause when a cat’s walkin’ slow, their back legs can tread in their own tracks.” Squatting down, Johnny pointed to the prints in the earth. Scott joined him, pulling his jacket tight around his body, regarding the ground and then his brother with the same quiet interest.
“You’ve done this a lot?”
Johnny shrugged. “A few times. It wasn’t my usual line of work.”
“Because it didn’t pay well?”
“Well, no, it ain’t that,” Johnny drawled. He traced a finger over the broken skin of his cheek, and added, “This is just too damn dangerous.” The brothers stared at each other, and then they grinned, Scott shaking his head as they got to their feet.
They moved on, rifles on their shoulders, and Scott trailed Johnny, neither man speaking but comfortable with the silence. It said a lot, Johnny mused, that he felt at ease in Scott’s company, because they were strangers still, blood or not. Always wanted a brother. The thought drifted into Johnny’s head, and with it a recollection, of sunburnt kids without shoes playing kick the can on a dry, dusty street. He forgot what town it was now, but them kids ran back and forth together as he sat with Jake outside a rundown cantina and watched them, enviously to begin with, curiously, when he realised that Jake watched them, too. How come you and mama never had a kid of your own, he’d asked, trying his best to sound casual. And just for a moment, Jake’s shroud of darkness lifted, and he’d produced a rare smile. Putting his beer down, he’d reached over and ruffled Johnny’s hair. What d’ya mean? We had you. Johnny had shifted in his chair and returned his gaze to those kids, anxious to smooth his mussed hair but not wanting Jake to think the gesture or the words were unappreciated.
Had Jake known of Scott’s existence back then? Johnny increased his stride, drawing a deep breath from the morning, the scent of fresh air laced with pines. The question gnawed, but he ignored it. What did it matter? Except it would have been a comfort—to know that he wasn’t the only son Murdoch Lancer hadn’t wanted.
The sky had lightened into a pinkish hue and it wouldn’t be long before the sun came up. When that happened, the chances of spotting the cat would be slimmer. And Johnny wanted to find it. This mattered. If nothing else, he couldn’t stand the thought of facing Murdoch knowing he’d screwed this up as well.
It took another half hour before he caught sight of the cat prowling along the rocks below. Johnny watched as it fell into a crouch, the mule deer feet away not yet aware of its presence. Moving slow, almost mirroring the cat, Johnny lowered himself into position. Scott joined him in a crouch and he, too, was now motionless. Johnny raised his rifle and took aim, aware for the first time of the cool breeze penetrating his torn shirt, and the loud silence of the morning gushing in his ears. The cat padded into sight of the rifle and Johnny squeezed the trigger. The echo of the shot was a drum roll in the air. The deer fled. The cat dropped like stone.
Outside the bunkhouse, Murdoch stood and stared at the anvil in his hands, wondering if he could grind his frustration into dust. It was midmorning, but the awkwardness of a breakfast with Harlan infected his mood. He could still see the appalled expression on Harlan’s face when he’d explained why Scott was absent. He could hear the older man’s insistence that Scott was wasting his Harvard education here. Murdoch knew he had a point, but the ranch was busier since Pardee, so much taken and destroyed.
At the sound of horses, Murdoch looked up. His sons were riding in together, and Johnny said something that made Scott laugh. Murdoch was prepared for the sting of the observation this time. It was the pain of a denied past, and he was realising that it was a pain he could become addicted to; he found himself walking from the bunkhouse to keep them in view. While Scott handed over his horse to one of the hands, Johnny refused to relinquish Barranca, jumping down and looping the reins over the rail in front of the stone wall.
They reached the hacienda, and, before ducking in the door, Scott made a comment to Johnny that had him grinning this time. Murdoch chose this moment to make his presence known. As Murdoch’s quick footsteps crunched in the gravel, Johnny turned. His grin had vanished.
“You’re back. How’d it go out there?” Murdoch wanted to sound normal and his voice obliged, much to his relief.
“We got lucky, found the cat with no problems.”
“Uh-huh.” Murdoch brushed his dusty palms against his pants. His gaze travelled Johnny’s torn shirt, the shredded edges stained with his blood. “Looks like it found you.”
Johnny nodded. “Turns out Scott’s pretty handy to have around,” he drawled, finishing the sentence with a lingering glance inside.
“And you’re okay?”
Johnny turned back to face him with a hardened expression. “I’m fine. I don’t hurt that easy.”
I wonder if that’s true, son. Murdoch searched Johnny’s gaze and found his answer. He knew he had a choice to make; he’d fully comprehended this fact late last night as he toasted his failings with scotch. He either accepted his son for what he appeared to be, risked trusting Johnny’s word that he was here to stay, or he kept pushing until Johnny walked anyway. Murdoch wanted Johnny here. It ached when he acknowledged how much.
“Johnny, there’s a job I want you to do,” Murdoch said before he lost his nerve.
Johnny folded his arms across his chest. “Now?”
“You have other plans?”
“That would be my business, Murdoch.” Johnny’s tone was firm with familiar challenge, and the hard expression remained. This time though, knowing the signs and recognising them did little for Murdoch’s peace of mind.
“I’ve asked for the wagon to be brought ‘round front. Get changed, and have something to eat. We’ll leave in twenty minutes.”
“That’s what I said. It’s a two-man job.”
It was a fifteen minute journey, long enough for him to wonder if he was making a mistake. Johnny sat beside him on the wagon, his boots propped up on the footrest, elbows resting on his jean-clad knees. His hat hid his eyes, and he dangled his hands between his thighs, casual, despite the fact that his body rocked from side to side with every jolt. And the whole way he hadn’t said a word. Murdoch couldn’t tell if his son was sulking. Did Johnny sulk? Or if it was as he feared—that their mutual adeptness at avoiding certain conversations had left them with nothing to say.
Disheartened, he concentrated on the road. It had been similar circumstances when he and Scott had gone to meet Harlan. They’d made the journey from the ranch to Morro Coyo, skilfully avoiding discussing anything of substance. The difference was that Scott, schooled in the art of polite conversation, was good at it. Johnny, well, Johnny probably didn’t give a damn about polite conversation or the fact that Murdoch felt uncomfortable. But after yesterday, who could blame him?
They rounded the final corner, and he pulled the wagon up, shamed when Johnny stared at the log cabin with dawning realisation. “You’ve got to be kiddin’ me?” He didn’t raise his voice, but his tone left no doubt as to his feelings on their destination. He faced Murdoch, his gaze burning with resentment, before he jumped down and walked a few angry paces, tension thick in the distance between them.
“It’s a job that needs doing, Johnny. Like any other.”
Johnny turned around and there was more than resentment in his eyes this time. “You expect me to believe that’s why we’re here? Why don’t you come right out and say it, Murdoch, you think I need a little reminder ‘bout what Pardee did, how he left that man swinging upside down right there,” Johnny thrust his arm in the direction of the barn, “and his wife slit open inside?”
Murdoch looked at the barn and the empty cabin. It felt cold here, despite the spring sun, as if the deaths were recent and not almost two months ago. Climbing down, he began unloading supplies from the back of the wagon. “You know that Walt and his wife are expecting a child. They need a proper place to live. If we fix the place up it’ll make a fine home.” He fought for all he was worth to keep his voice calm and level, because, yes, if he were honest, there was some truth in Johnny’s accusation. He’d needed to glimpse it again, the abhorrence he’d witnessed in his son’s eyes when they’d come across José and Maria’s bodies. He’d known then, and his heart had soared with it, that he hadn’t found his boy too late. Johnny was not like Pardee, not in any of the ways that would make him irredeemable and beyond saving. Murdoch had seen it then and he saw it now. How could he have forgotten? Shame hardened his resolve to put things right. “Are you going to help, or not?”
“You mean I get a say in it now?”
“You get a say.”
Johnny was finding it difficult to hang onto his anger, he was working so hard that it melted and oozed with sweat from his pores. It was mid-afternoon, he reckoned, going on the position of the sun, and he and Murdoch must have been going at this for three or four hours. They’d not said much to each other, and neither of them had taken a break, although Johnny was about to. He’d just finished digging new postholes for a yard fence purposefully destroyed, and Murdoch had just carried a ladder from the barn and was fixing the roof.
“Johnny, I need more nails up here.”
Johnny had just sat down on the porch, and his whole body groaned at the thought of getting up. He’d told Murdoch he didn’t hurt easy, but right now he was willing to concede in one respect that was a load of crap. He’d gone down hard beneath that cat, the scratches stung, and in certain places, he felt damn near bruised to the bone. He dipped his head and smiled to the ground, laughing at himself for being so stupid.
“Yeah, I heard you.” He pushed himself to his feet. He found a tin of nails in Murdoch’s toolbox and offered them up to his father.
“How’s that paint job coming along?”
“And the fence?”
“That’s done, too.” Johnny scuffed the boards with the tip of his boot as Murdoch descended the ladder and stretched, his face creasing with discomfort.
“Maybe you fixin’ the roof wasn’t the smartest idea?” Johnny observed, leaning against the wall of the house.
Murdoch gave him a level stare. “Maybe not, but it feels good. A man can be driven to distraction stuck behind a desk all day.” He looked upward. “I never was one for the indoors, always preferred the range to bookwork. You go on up and help me finish this.”
Johnny did as Murdoch asked, and soon they were taking it in turns to position new panels and hammer nails into the dilapidated roof. Watching his father work, Johnny had to admit begrudging respect. His father’s large hands kept hammering, even nicked with blood and splintered. Sweat soaked his shirt, and grime stained his forehead, but Murdoch showed no sign of slacking on his pace. Not bad for a man of, what, almost fifty? He’d lived with this man for two months and he didn’t know the most basic things about him. They didn’t know the basic things about each other. He figured that was some comfort, although Murdoch assumed a hell of a lot.
Johnny tried to imagine Murdoch as a younger man, the kind of man who spent his time out on the range from sunup ‘til sundown, who considered bookwork a chore, the kind of man who could attract his mother. He pondered it a while before concluding that, nope, he couldn’t. Because Murdoch didn’t fit, not where Maria was concerned. He wondered what his mother had ever seen in Murdoch, what he in turn had seen in her.
“I did most of the labouring on the ranch in the early days, even after you came along. Money was tight and I didn’t have much help.”
“And my mama didn’t make an effort.” When Murdoch looked at him, Johnny held his gaze. “That’s what you said.”
“I owe you an apology for that, Johnny.” Murdoch’s expression softened. “I shouldn’t have said it. I know I haven’t made things easy for us…” He positioned another panel in place and Johnny passed the hammer. Murdoch cleared his throat. “What I should’ve said, but didn’t get the chance thanks to Harlan, was that I am prepared to listen to your reasons. I’m listening now.”
And he is, too, Johnny realised with alarm. Shifting position, he sat with his legs dangling over the edge of the roof. He would explain, although it felt very much like he was about to pitch forward into the weightless air. Johnny’s words came faster than he intended, “Jake Cortes lived with mama and me when I was a kid, that’s how come I know him. He came ‘cause he heard I almost got myself killed down in Mexico.”
“I see.” There was a flicker in Murdoch’s eyes, almost as if something clicked into place. Johnny watched his father pick up a panel and measure it for size, before discarding it and selecting another.
“Do you?” Johnny asked, not hiding his doubt. “’Cause I tell ya, I ain’t ‘bout to take over where Pardee left off, but I ain’t gonna turn my back on everyone I’ve ever known, just so you believe it.”
Murdoch’s glance was expectedly sharp, but he gave a nod of acknowledgement. “Did Jake live with you for a long time?”
“Yeah.” Johnny didn’t add that Maria and Jake had married, for he wondered now if their marriage was legal. It mattered none. Jake and Maria loved, as Johnny believed a husband and a wife should. Jake had been the only man to make his mother laugh, really laugh, so that it shone in her eyes and put fine lines around her mouth, and he was the only man to make her cry through going away. She’d lain inconsolable amongst Jake’s clothes in her bed those first nights, because the scent of him eased the loss, she said.
Murdoch resumed working, the pounding of the hammer breaking up the tension that wanted to settle in the air. “I had the Pinkertons look for you and your mother when I could afford it, sometimes when I couldn’t.”
Muted with surprise at this volunteered information, all Johnny could do was listen. He’d wondered if Murdoch had searched for him, hoped that it wasn’t just his reputation warranting an approach to the Pinkerton agency. Wanting his gun wasn’t the same as wanting a son. Now Murdoch was confirming it, and Johnny couldn’t see a reason for him to lie.
“Over the years, they provided reports. But the information was always scant. Long out of date by the time I saw it.” Murdoch gestured to a strip of wood far to Johnny’s left. “Pass me that one.”
Johnny reached for it, but this weight of knowledge, no matter how sparse, had tipped the scales so far in Murdoch’s favour that it made him unsteady. He held on tight to the roof so as not to fall off. All this time he’d been guarding his past like gold, and Murdoch knew.
“This man was good to you?”
This man—Johnny didn’t miss the emphasis placed on the first word. Did Murdoch know that there had been others before Jake? Mean, meat-fisted bastards who’d left his mother black and blue. Him, too, if he wasn’t invisible. Jake hadn’t raised a hand to Maria, not him either in cold-hearted anger. Oh, he’d whomped him good when the need arose. Johnny had learned quick how far he could push.
“Yeah, Jake was good to us. Mama met him when I was about six or seven. He kept us fed, kept me safe, taught me how to take care of myself.” Johnny realised he must have given away more in his tone than he intended, because for a painful moment, there was a look of hurt in his father’s eyes. Murdoch blinked it away like dust.
“I should be thankful to him then. Are you going to pass me that piece of wood?”
“Here.” Johnny shifted along the roof to retrieve it.
“Thanks. Need more nails, too.” Murdoch gestured to the open tin.
Johnny put his palms down flat and leaned back. The tension that had been desperate to smother them had faded of its own accord. He let it be. Tilting his head, Johnny looked asquint at his father. “How old are ya, Murdoch?”
The hammer paused in mid air, and Murdoch looked surprised by the question, maybe even amused. “Twenty eight years older than you, John,” he said. “That’s old enough for you to feel guilty about sitting back and letting me finish this.”
With a soft smile, Johnny stood on the roof and moved to help, taking one moment to survey the land from this elevated position. He could just make out the highest point of the hacienda nestled in the view. He considered the excuse Murdoch had given, about this being the place for Walt and his wife to raise a child. It was true, he supposed. Maybe a family, together, could in time chase lingering ghosts away.
For once it wasn’t tension with his father that made him wish he’d skipped supper. Present for the first time in days, Johnny ate with his head down, wondering if he was the only one aware of the atmosphere that remained as long as Scott’s grandfather and Murdoch were in the same room. A few times, he cast glances at his father, surprised at first by a vague feeling of sympathy, until his attention strayed to Harlan and he recalled his own first impression of the elderly man. Murdoch ate his meal, conversing when required, but there was something stilted in his tone, and his posture was rigid. Johnny watched Scott, too, even tried to catch his eye. But either Boston didn’t notice, or didn’t want to acknowledge there was anything wrong.
After dinner, Johnny left for Morro Coyo. Murdoch didn’t ask where he was going, he probably knew. And strangely, Johnny felt settled by this. He and the old man had stumbled upon a tentative truce. Granted, Murdoch wasn’t jumping for joy that Jake was in town, but he hadn’t received the news as Johnny had feared. There had been no recriminations this time, no prickly questions about his past, no prying into what he didn’t need to know. Maybe he had it all in them reports he’d spoke of, or maybe he was still following his own decree that the past was over and done with.
Johnny’s settled mood lasted until he reached Morro Coyo, and prepared to face his stepfather. Then it dipped like the moon into ominous black cloud. Jake was a patient man, but it had been three whole days. Already Johnny regretted his dithering.
The saloon wasn’t busy, but the air felt crowded with cigar smoke and the scent of cheap perfume. There was a poker game in progress, and a few more men lined the bar, eager to spend their pay with working girls eager to take it. Smithy was sitting with one of the girls, who even from where Johnny stood wore a smile as fake as her jewellery.
“Where’s Jake?” Johnny asked. The girl looked up first, greeting him with an altogether different smile, forcing Smithy to raise his chin from her cleavage. He turned to Johnny and sneered. “What, no, how are ya, it’s good ta see ya, Smithy?”
Johnny stared at him. He’d known Jed Smith almost as long as he’d known Jake, and he’d disliked the man for the same amount of time. “I could say that, but I’d be lyin’.” Johnny dropped his hat on the table, and coyly returned the girl’s smile. “Evenin’, Ma’am.”
Smithy pulled the girl closer so that she could nibble on his neck. “Jake ain’t here, smart ass. Maybe he said somethin’ ‘bout paying Murdoch Lancer a visit?”
“When?” Johnny asked, but Smithy shrugged. “I won’t ask you again.” Johnny’s voice was soft but carried enough warning to secure the older man’s glare.
“You don’t wanna be startin’ somethin’ with me, Madrid. You got enough to worry ‘bout.”
Johnny ignored the smug note of Smithy’s tone. “Well, I’ll bear that in mind.” He turned to leave, willing away the flutter of nervousness in his stomach, only for Smithy to grab hard at his sleeve.
“You’d better sort this out,” he warned. “I don’t wanna see Jake go back to how he was.”
Johnny eyed Smithy, and he was about to reply when he caught sight of Jake approaching the table, his gaze severe, and fixed right on him. Managing a flicker of a smile, Johnny greeted Jake with a hesitant, “Hi.” His gaze travelled down to Jake’s left arm, cradled in a self-fashioned sling. “What happened?”
Ignoring the question, Jake set a bottle of liquor on the table with a heavy thud, and slid an empty glass across the table. “You took your damn time.” It could be an observation, but Jake’s tight expression said otherwise, a look Johnny knew well.
“I know. I’ve been…busy.”
Jake raised an eyebrow. He sat down and pointed to the third chair. “Busy what? Countin’ all the money you’re makin’ these days? Countin’ cows?”
“Working,” Johnny said as he, too, sat. Retrieving his hat from the table, he played idly with its brim.
“You mean the great Murdoch Lancer makes his son work?”
“It’s like I told you. I’m a partner now.”
“Funny enough, I remember you sayin’ so.” Jake turned to the girl who was dutifully enduring Smithy’s attentions. “Ya know Maggie, Jed here had his annual bath a couple days ago. You oughta take full advantage while he’s still all sweet smellin’.”
Smithy smirked, and took the hint, tugging the girl to her feet.
“Why’s he even here?” Johnny asked as he watched Smithy leave.
“Smithy’s whereabouts don’t need explaining,” Jake snapped. “Yours do.”
Johnny met his glare. “Well, Jake, you asked me to come.”
Jake leaned forward. “Are you kiddin’ me? You leave me waitin’ for three days, then show up with a smart mouth?” He narrowed his eyes. “Let me tell you somethin’. The only reason I didn’t find and drag ya here by the scruff of your damn neck is ‘cause I got myself busted up dealing with Smithy’s mess.”
Johnny lowered his gaze, gripping the empty glass. Jake reached across and poured them both a drink. “Let’s cut the bullshit. Lancer must’ve come up with one helluva story for you to stick around. Either that or they beat ya ‘round the head once too often in that Mexican hellhole. Which is it?”
“I found out some things, that’s all.”
“Like maybe it ain’t how I heard it.” He paused to study Jake’s reaction. He hadn’t exploded…yet. “Teresa told me that mama ran off with a gambler, that no one made her leave.”
“Who the hell’s Teresa?”
“So you believe some girl over your mama now?” Jake snorted. “What ‘bout the man himself? What was Lancer’s story?”
“Murdoch don’t talk ‘bout it.” He studied his hat, and then, risking honesty, he confessed, “I ain’t really pushed for answers.” He glanced at Jake, who’d raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “All he said was that he woke one morning to find us gone and that it was my mama’s choice to leave.”
“So based on that, Maria’s a liar? Jesus!” Jake breathed out hard, hitting the table with the closed fist of his good hand, and making the glasses jump. Those seated nearest to them glanced their way, but Jake apparently didn’t care.
“Look, I don’t know, alright?” Johnny kept his voice low. “Murdoch said he looked for me. ‘Said he hired the Pinkertons on and off over the years. That ain’t the actions of a man who didn’t want his kid.”
“If it’s true.”
Johnny sighed. “I believe him.” Braced for an explosion, it came as a surprise when Jake downed his drink as if the saloon was about to close and then swiftly poured another. By the bar, someone took up a fiddle, its vigorous and buoyant tune at odds with their mood.
Johnny leaned forward. Something wasn’t right. “What ain’t you tellin’ me? How’d you know Murdoch offered me a thousand dollars to meet him?”
Jake looked surprised, but his hard expression returned. “Not here. I ain’t tellin’ you in here.”
Uneasiness washed over Johnny. “Where then?”
“Come on.” Jake got to his feet and walked out of the saloon.
Sparsely furnished, the room Jake was staying in had a bed, a table, two chairs, and a washbasin. Jake’s rifle lay on the table. An oily rag and an unopened box of cartridges were beside it and the smell of gunpowder lingered in the air. Once the door closed behind Johnny, Jake removed his saddlebags from the back of a chair and tossed them on the patchwork quilt covering the bed. Crossing the room, he picked up the rifle and propped it against the wall. Then he kicked one of the chairs from under the table, and sat.
“It was a Pinkerton agent who told me ‘bout the rurales, the death sentence, the whole sad story. I hadn’t heard, Johnny. If I had, I’d have done anything to get you outta there.”
Sitting down in the other chair, Johnny said, “I know that.”
“This Pink made me an offer—five hundred dollars to get you away from Lancer. Get you to leave for good.”
Johnny stared at Jake in shock. “So this has all been about money to you?” His soft tone vanished with indignation, and he shot to his feet.
“Sit down, Johnny.”
“Go to hell!”
“I said sit down.” The volume of Jake’s voice hadn’t changed, but his tone had. Johnny fought for a grip on his temper, wanting to walk out, but unnerved to find he wasn’t as immune to that tone as he thought. Jake pressed his advantage. “You got a problem with your hearin’ now?”
He returned to his seat and folded his arms across his chest, not bothering to mask his fury as he glared at Jake.
“You think I took the damn money? All I care about, all I’ve ever cared ‘bout my whole life is doing right by you and your mama. And I tell you, Boy, if she weren't dead, finding out that you’re livin’ with Lancer now would kill her!”
Johnny flushed. “That's not fair.”
“Ain't it? Maria didn’t want you to know Murdoch Lancer. An' you oughta trust she had her reasons!”
He ducked his head and drew in a ragged breath. He hated that the conviction he needed to defend himself was sorely lacking. He had no reason really to let go of what his mother had told him growing up. Least none that Jake was likely to understand.
“Look, there’s a range war brewing down near Tucson,” Jake said, and Johnny could tell he was making an effort to calm down. “That’s where Smithy and me are headed. I’m sure they could use ya.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want that life no more. It nearly killed me.”
“Then do somethin’ else. You always did have a lot more going for ya than just your gun.”
“I’ve got somethin’ else at Lancer, there’s Scott, and—”
“Scott? That your new brother?”
He nodded. “Did you know ‘bout him?”
Jake shrugged. “Your mama said somethin’ ‘bout Lancer having a kid back east …does it matter?”
He let his anger drain away with a long sigh. “Noo, I don’t suppose it does,” he admitted in his soft drawl. He reached for the box of cartridges on the table and turned them in a lazy circle. He could feel Jake’s waiting gaze upon him. “Look, whatever happened between my mama and Murdoch, I reckon it’s in the past.” He took a deep breath before looking Jake in the eye. “I ain’t sayin’ it’s easy, or even that it’s right. But I’m getting to know Murdoch, and I’ll make up my own mind.”
“And that’s where you stand, huh?”
“That’s where I stand.”
“Shit.” Jake sat back, stroked his chin, and for a long moment, said nothing. Johnny couldn’t read his expression, Jake was either about to give it up or reach out to smack him. It had to be one or the other. “Your mama never wanted you to know this. Hell, I didn’t want you to know, but you ain’t giving me much choice.” Jake fell into silence again, drumming the fingers of his right hand on the table.
“Just get it said,” Johnny ground out, although inside he twitched, not sure he wanted to hear whatever was coming. Usually if Jake had something to say, then he said it. Johnny had never known him to hold back.
“Murdoch Lancer was obsessed with building up his ranch. He wanted the biggest spread in the San Joaquin, claimed he wanted it for your mama,” Jake began, pausing to rub at his face. “He had to impress a lot of people. Hell, I’m sure it weren’t easy, getting those with enough money and influence to invest. He had to work hard for it, entertainin’ and stuff. Lucky thing that he had your mama by his side, she was a looker, you remember, and the best thing was she was Mex. Handy thing, havin’ a Mex for a wife. See most men don’t see it the same. Not like they do if you’re married to some fancy white woman. Someone like your brother’s mama, I 'spect.” Jake snorted. “There was one man, Henshaw or Hensham, somethin’ like that. He offered Murdoch the investment he needed to keep the ranch afloat. All your daddy had to do was turn a blind eye, and let Henshaw and his pals have your mama.”
Stunned, Johnny swallowed, but he managed to voice a denial. “Murdoch wouldn’t do that.”
“Your daddy agreed, knowin’ what they were gonna do.” Jake narrowed his eyes and curled his hand into a fist. “She had nightmares, used to cry out in her sleep. Took me a year to get the truth out of her and then she could hardly speak for sobbin’.” Jake got up and moved to the window. There was a moment of insufferable silence before he continued. “I had to listen to her describe how Henshaw and others used her repeatedly ‘til she bled. Held her tight by the neck, took turns, pressed her into the mattress to muffle her screams. If she was lucky, she’d pass out. If not…” Jake paused and glared over his shoulder at Johnny. “They treated her like an animal! Her wrists, she still had the damn scars where they tied her so tight. She needed to make an effort, it was her duty, that’s how your daddy excused it, night after night.”
Jake turned on Johnny. “That’s the kind of man Murdoch Lancer is, Johnny. That’s why your mama ran.”
Every time I needed her to make an effort. She never understood that we both had to make sacrifices. She always wanted things the easy way. Johnny remembered Murdoch’s words of yesterday, words he suspected Murdoch hadn’t really intended to voice aloud. Bile lodged in his throat, his stomach roiling at the graphic images forced into his head. A surge of fury and nausea launched Johnny to his feet. He stumbled to the door.
“Where you going?” Jake stepped into his path, holding it shut much to Johnny’s desperate aggravation.
“Where d’ya think?” Johnny growled as he shoved Jake aside, not caring that Jake cursed in pain, in his rush to get down the stairwell.
It didn’t take long for Johnny’s footsteps to fade, although his fury lingered. Feeling like the biggest asshole this side of Mexico, Jake leaned against the door and closed his eyes. No son should have to know that about his mother, no son should have to know those things about his father. Father! Jake scowled at the word. Murdoch Lancer was that in blood only. And even that was more than he deserved.
Maria had made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Murdoch Lancer. And he’d stuck to that promise while she was alive because she’d expected him to, had faith in him that he would. Then, when she was dead, he’d considered doing it, travelling to California and putting a bullet in the bastard. What stopped him was guilt. His own. How could he seek revenge against Lancer when he’d let Maria down in the worst possible way? He’d killed her, as sure as throttling her with his own bare hands. It was his fault she was dead. It was his fault that Johnny went through two years of hell on his own.
Now Johnny was going to take the burden from him. Judging from the look in his eyes, Jake believed Johnny could kill Murdoch Lancer tonight. And what made him sick to his stomach was the lurking temptation to let him do it.
I shoulda found another way. Shit! was all Jake could think as he clattered down the stairs. Having got a hold of the temptation to let Johnny take revenge, he had to stop him, but it might now be out of his hands. Johnny was striding across the street when Jake called out to him, and only a brief hesitation indicated that he'd heard. Jake called again, hardening his tone to hide his desperation. This time his voice was lost beneath the boisterous talk of two men emerging from the saloon. When one staggered into Johnny’s path, he was shoved to the ground. When another made the mistake of snagging his arm, Johnny shoved him, too. He stopped then, glaring down at the sprawled men, clearly incensed that they’d gone down so easy.
Jake reached Johnny’s side. The men scarpered.
“Who wants me away from Lancer? Apart from you.”
Jake hesitated, and Johnny turned to face him, his expression angry and impatient.
“The Pink offered you money to get me to leave Lancer for good. Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re tellin’ me you didn’t ask?” Johnny’s voice was thick with scorn. “Come on!”
“I asked,” Jake replied. “But I didn’t get an answer. To be honest, right then I didn’t give a damn why.”
“Come back upstairs,” Jake suggested.
He’d mastered his anger, Jake noticed, least that’s what he wanted him to think. Jake frowned, recalling telling Johnny that he never could lie to him for shit. Well, it was true, but the boy forgot it every time.
“You ought’a tell that Pink you’ll accept the money. Seems to me you’ve earned it.” Johnny threw the words over his shoulder as he walked toward Barranca. Jake followed, catching up just as Johnny reached his horse. He made a grab for Barranca’s bridle, holding the horse firm as it pranced and snorted. Johnny whirled to face him, his expression furious. “Let go,” he warned, and Jake knew that in his volatile state, even to him, Johnny was a dangerous man to cross.
“So you can put a bullet in Murdoch Lancer? Nope. I ain’t lettin’ go for that.”
Johnny glared and went to mount up. Jake released the horse and made a grab for Johnny’s arm. “It won’t help—” he started, but reeled back as Johnny’s fist rammed his jaw. On the ground, Jake spluttered and blinked, running his tongue over his teeth to check they were still there.
“Well, shit. That won’t help either.”
Johnny was breathing hard, his expression working between rage and…remorse? Jake pressed his fingers along his jaw and examined his injured arm, wincing for good measure, determined to use any pang of guilt Johnny be feeling. When Johnny dropped his gaze to study his scuffed knuckles, Jake said, “What you standin’ there for? You put me down, so you can damn well get me up.”
Johnny grasped his good arm, hauling him to his feet.
“Your mama didn’t want this,” Jake said, and Johnny bristled, folding his arms across his chest. “Now I made her a promise, and I’m gonna keep it. You are, too.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “Damn it, yes.” He was bluffing. Right or wrong, Johnny had the truth now, and what he did with it was his decision. He knew his influence over Johnny’s actions only extended so far. And these days that wasn’t far at all.
Johnny gave him a measured stare. “If you think I’ll just walk away, then you don’t know me.”
“Oh, I know you.” He used his hat to brush dirt from his jacket. “And I know it stays with ya, killin’ your own blood, messes ya up. You ain’t got what it takes to live with it, Johnny. That’s no bad thing.”
Jake searched his face until Johnny turned away. He shook his head. “You’re hoping he’s gonna tell you it’s all lies! Even after what I told ya, you’re still lookin’ for a reason to stay.” He couldn’t keep the disbelief from his voice. He couldn’t pretend to understand.
“Nope. I think you’ve seen to that.”
“I told you how it was.”
“Maybe you should’a told me years ago.”
“Maybe we thought we’d never have to.”
Johnny drew an audible breath, opened his mouth and then closed it. His indecision was clear as he drummed his fingers on his thigh. Johnny ran a soothing hand down Barranca’s neck, and Jake waited for his decision, wondering how the hell he would watch him ride away.
“Tell me that you lied. That what you’ve told me, it’s just to get me to leave.” When Johnny finally spoke, his voice surprised Jake with its mildness. The veil of anger had lifted to reveal his confusion and distress. Aggrieved, Jake wanted the anger back. Anger didn’t make him feel so bad.
“Can’t do that, Johnny.” Uncomfortable, he swallowed hard, and risked a light touch to Johnny’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
He missed Teresa. Alarmed at first as to the origin of the thought, Scott looked up from a book he hadn’t started, and noted that his father was engrossed in a book that he wasn’t reading either, while Harlan sat polishing his glasses—a task that had kept him occupied for the past ten minutes. If Teresa was here then there would be conversation, she’d insist upon it, instigating chatter using the guise of a bubbly, irrepressible girl, when really she was being quite the shrewd young woman. She was due back tomorrow, and Scott was glad. How many more evenings could he stomach like this? He’d thought things bad enough at dinner, with Murdoch and Johnny’s apparent truce, the strain between his father and grandfather was obvious. The most frustrating part was that neither Murdoch nor Harlan made any effort. If anything they viewed it as a fight to the death, not to be lost. Was he the prize?
“We all set to move the herd?” Murdoch asked, his question tossing Scott from one dilemma to the next. Closing his book, Scott smoothed the aging cover, wondering if his mother’s hand had ever touched it, if this was another of her collection. Looking up, he met his father’s gaze. He thought Murdoch knew the answer already, but allowed himself the illusion that, perhaps, his father genuinely wanted his opinion.
“We’re ready. The men Cipriano hired are experienced. They know what they’re doing.” Which is more than can be said for me. And the men knew it, too. Scott deliberated whether he could confess to his father that at times he found it hard to be in charge, the boss to some, but laughed at by others. He was beginning to wonder if they all didn’t laugh, out of sight and in the bunkhouse. He’d hoped it would be easier by now, Murdoch certainly expected him to be all settled. How could he admit that some days it was a struggle? Scott glanced at Harlan, who rose, yawning, to his feet. It was simple. He couldn’t.
Harlan excused himself from the room, but Murdoch barely acknowledged it. “Cipriano told me that a few of the men have been testing you?”
Scott grimaced, his conjured illusion crumbling with his confidence. “It’s nothing I can’t handle,” he heard himself saying.
Murdoch looked relieved, and he rose from his armchair and went to the liquor table. “Good, because you’re in charge out there, Scott. We need this finishing as quickly as possible.” Murdoch paused. “I want you and Johnny to make sure there’s no slacking.”
Scott nodded. “We’ll do that, but I wanted to ask…about my grandfather…”
“Has Harlan gone to bed?”
Scott shrugged. “He might have. We get up earlier around here than he’s used to.”
Murdoch smiled at that. “I remember you wore dark circles beneath your eyes those first few weeks.”
Scott flushed. “I’d not been up before the sun in a while. It took some getting used to.”
“Yes, it does,” Murdoch said. “Drink?”
Scott nodded, and once he had his glass, he twirled it in his hands. “About my grandfather,” he tried again. “I know we’re busy, but he’s come a long way, and I’d like to spend some time with him. I was thinking that tomorrow, just for a few hours—”
His father tensed. “This is a working ranch, Scott, and Harlan needs to understand that. We’re already behind schedule because of Pardee.”
“I understand that, but he’s come a long way to see me,” Scott said as Murdoch reopened the book on his lap and stared at the first page with feigned interest. “It’s obvious you’d rather he hadn’t.”
Murdoch’s expression softened when he met Scott’s expectant gaze. “Take some time tomorrow,” he conceded, before returning his attention to his book. Realising that this was an end to the conversation, Scott bit down on his irritation. He left Murdoch pretending to read, and went in search of Harlan.
He found him on the veranda, watching the dark sky charged with lightning beyond the distant hills. The evening air was chilly, and Scott folded his arms across his chest. “Why don’t you come back inside, Grandfather?”
“In a moment, Scotty. I was just taking some air. That’s one thing I will concede about life out here, the air is fresher than in Boston.”
Scott drew a breath of it deep into his lungs. “Yes, it is. Mind if I keep you company?”
“There’s really no need,” Harlan assured him with a strained smile. “I don’t mind my own company these days, I’ve had to get used to it.”
Scott took a deep breath. “I was thinking we could spend some time together tomorrow. Do something, anything, talk…”
Harlan’s expression relaxed and he patted Scott’s arm. “I’d like that, Scotty. I’d like that very much.”
Scott smiled. “Well, that’s settled then.”
“On the condition I don’t have to get up before sunrise.”
The twinkle of his grandfather’s eyes brought a grin to his face. “Absolutely, Sir.”
Harlan sighed with content. “Did I mention that Julie asked after you?”
Scott’s breath caught, and he brought the glass to his lips, letting the brandy dull the ache resurrected every time her name was mentioned. “You did.”
“Such a pity,” Harlan murmured. He pursed his lips, as further veins of lightning lit the sky. “She would have made you a wonderful wife.”
His glass empty, Scott couldn’t wash away the ache this time. He and Julie hadn’t parted on the best of terms, his fault he knew. Once he’d thought of her as his rescue, believed that out of anyone, she could cure his restlessness. It hadn’t taken him long to realise that his avenue of escape was a dead end. He wasn’t ready for marriage, no matter that he loved her. He’d told her and broken her heart, she’d informed him so curtly, for she wasn’t one to cry. The scandal of a broken engagement would horrify most girls, but she'd thanked him for being honest and walked out of his life with her head held high. He’d seen her a few times after that at social functions, and she’d always been more pleasant than he deserved. But she was yet to answer his letter.
“You’ll struggle to find another like her out here. I imagine the women lack her grace if not her beauty.”
Scott thought about the women he’d encountered so far, and had to fend off his smile. “I’m not searching for a wife yet, Grandfather.”
“And what is it you are searching for?” Harlan asked outright. He took a step forward, and although Scott couldn’t see his face, he could feel the older man’s agitation. “What is it you hope to find in this wilderness?”
“Why do I have to be searching for something? What makes you think I haven’t already found it?”
Harlan turned to him and raised a white eyebrow. “A half-brother with a dubious past?”
“His name is Johnny,” Scott corrected. “And his past isn’t relevant.”
“A father who walked away all those years ago and never made an effort to contact you, or is that irrelevant, too? Can you honestly dismiss it as easily as he dismissed you?”
“Forgive me, Scotty. I shouldn’t have said that. It is truly admirable that you’ve pushed pride aside to be in your father’s life. I’ll see you in the morning.” He touched Scott’s shoulder on his way into the house.
The front door closed, and Scott weighed the empty glass in his hand, barely resisting the temptation to throw it as far as he could. Instead, he sat down on the wooden bench to watch the distant storm, all too aware that it rumbled closer.
Sometimes, growing up, he’d dreamed about putting a bullet in his absent father. Especially after his mother’s death, when he was left alone learning to hate. It had been easy to picture, he’d thought it would be easy to do. And when Jake had told him the truth tonight, he’d believed it again. But back then Murdoch’s face hadn’t had features. He hadn’t laughed or smiled. And he wasn’t someone else’s father, too.
Glancing at his hands, Johnny realised they trembled. The mouthful of whisky hadn’t worked; he could still taste the vile rotgut stuff that Jake told him would kill shock. Instead, it killed the temptation to drown his sorrows in the bottle, drink until the sun came up and he could no longer tell who he was. After all, he no longer knew anyone else. Johnny rarely misjudged character, and never to this extent. But, Dios, he had the impossible image of Murdoch downstairs in the hacienda, counting another dollar for every one of his mother’s muffled screams. Glad he’d told Jake to leave him, he sank down on Jake’s bed, and squeezed his eyes closed. This was what he’d done as a small child when he didn’t want to deal with what was happening. A prickly sensation behind his eyelids taunted him with a forgotten fear that he could cry, and he wasn’t about to allow that. Hell, he didn’t even know what he would be crying for.
He couldn’t get his head around any of this. He didn’t want it to be true. Johnny lay back on the mattress, studying a crack in the ceiling, the hanging wisp of a broken web, as he waited for his world to right itself again.
Close to the fire, Murdoch let the warmth of the flames comfort him through equivocal words that would never sit easy, no matter how many times he read and digested them. He sat in his armchair, supporting his head with his hand, the heat making his skin sweat so his thumbs slipped from his temples. Changing position, he shifted through the few sheets of loose leaf paper that made up the Pinkerton reports. All he knew of his sons’ pasts were contained in these sparse pages. Facts and circumstance, when it should be knowledge and experience, and treasured memories, nurtured first hand. He knew that Scott had joined the Union cavalry, but he didn’t know his motivations, or how he’d suffered and what he'd seen. He knew that Maria had died when Johnny was young, that the only reason the Pinkertons caught up with her was because she could no longer run.
Murdoch reached for his glass of scotch, and with sudden, unexplainable unease, glanced toward the French doors. It was dark outside, a black night, and without a visible moon, he could see nothing but his own reflection in the glass. He looked tired. Like the best part of life had passed him by. The grandfather clock chimed two, and, wondering where time had gone, Murdoch rose from his chair, his knees creaking with the effort.
Crossing the room, he locked each set of doors before he drew the drapes and turned the lamp down low. Remembering the reports, he took them and his glass of scotch to the desk. He fumbled in his pocket for the key to the bottom drawer, and as he went to lock his reports away, he knocked the glass over and it shattered on the floor. Murdoch cursed his clumsiness, and with his customary quick strides, went in search of a cloth, hoping he hadn’t woke anyone.
Finding his way around the dark kitchen was no problem, finding where Maria put things was another matter. After some rummaging, Murdoch settled on a dishrag, and headed back to the great room to mop up the spill. The house remained silent apart from the fire crackling in the grate, and something else, the crunch of broken glass underfoot.
To Murdoch’s relief, it was Johnny. He stood by the desk, browsing through the typed paper of the Pinkerton reports, the glow from a crackling fire in the gloss of his hair. As Murdoch stepped into the room, Johnny raised his head.
“You’ve just come in?” Murdoch had known Johnny was late, but he had another chance with this son after yesterday’s blunder. They’d made progress that he was determined not to ruin. Murdoch glanced at the clock again, he wasn’t one to talk. Walking over, he nudged Johnny aside so he could pick up the glass.
“You know a man named Henshaw, Murdoch?” Johnny asked as he sat in Murdoch’s chair. His boots scuffed the floor. Back and forth, back and forth. His spurs jingled. He should’ve taken them off, Murdoch thought with mild annoyance, his gun belt, too. Johnny had his hands clasped over his stomach, and was watching him with an unreadable expression. That in itself was nothing new. Murdoch put some glass fragments on the table.
“Henshaw? No, I don’t think so. Should I?”
“What ‘bout Hensham?”
Murdoch considered the name, and then shook his head. No one sprung to mind.
“Think, Murdoch. Think real hard.”
Murdoch put the last of the glass on the table and stood, weighing the wet dishrag in his hands. “There was a Malcolm Hensham, but you can’t mean him. I knew him when you were a baby.”
“Oh, I think that might be the one,” Johnny drawled. “Invested in this place, didn’t he?”
Bemused by this conversation, Murdoch dropped the cloth and folded his arms across his chest. “Well, yes he did, but he’s been dead close to fifteen years now. Wherever this is leading, can we talk about it tomorrow? It’s late.”
“Thing is, Murdoch,” Johnny said. “One of us might not be here tomorrow.”
Something in Johnny’s tone alarmed Murdoch, and made him look closer at his son. “Are you drunk?” His gaze narrowed when he saw no glaze to his son’s eyes. Johnny didn’t blink. He had no problem focusing his cold stare. Realisation dawned and Murdoch swallowed. “Was that some sort of threat? Are you threatening me?” He found no relief even when brief uncertainty crossed Johnny’s features.
“Jake told me the truth ‘bout why my mama left you!”
So there it was. Murdoch felt relief now, almost sighed at the predictability. As soon as Johnny told him who Jake was, he’d expected something like this. It didn’t take a genius to work out that a man who’d shared his estranged wife’s life must have been instrumental in keeping Johnny away. Murdoch supposed he should have recognised the name. It had caused him enough agony when he’d read that his lost boy was riding with this outlaw, gunfighter, or whatever Cortes called himself. But he hadn’t known then that Johnny considered the man a father figure. That was why he’d dug the reports out again tonight, to check he hadn’t missed something so vital, so painful. Of course he hadn’t. The reports made no mention that Cortes had come into Johnny’s life so early. The first mention of his name in the reports was when Johnny was about fourteen.
“The truth or his version of it?”
Johnny got to his feet. “He told me what my mama said. Jake wouldn’t lie ‘bout it, Murdoch. He wasn’t lyin’.”
“So what did he say? What is this truth that apparently damns me to hell?”
Johnny relayed the story as Jake had told it, bitterness laced through every word, and throughout, Murdoch stood, frozen. Even once Johnny finished, and glared at him expectantly, Murdoch couldn’t find the words to respond. Finally he choked out, “And you believe this?”
“Are you saying it’s a lie?”
“Of course it’s a lie. You know I’m not that kind of a man!”
“And just how would I know that? You said it, Murdoch. You stood right here in this room, and told me that my mama needed to make an effort. A sacrifice.” He spat the word.
“But not like that!” Murdoch placed a steadying hand on the desk. Johnny said nothing further, and he didn’t let up his cold stare. “I can’t believe this.” He gathered the Pinkerton file from the desk. “I can’t believe you’re standing here, questioning my honesty, my integrity, my humanity for God’s sake, all on the word of this man.” Murdoch’s voice was thick with the sour taste of irony, but he ignored it, and slammed the file against Johnny’s chest so hard that the younger Lancer took a step back. “Read it!” Murdoch folded his arms across his chest as he stared severely at his son.
Johnny glared, but opened the folder. His glare turned to a frown as he stared at the papers, obviously unsure what he was supposed to be looking at. “Give it here.” Patience lost, Murdoch ripped the file from Johnny’s hands and removed a single sheet of paper, which he shoved back to his son. The page tore with the rough handling.
In the dim light, Johnny squinted at the brief report on Jake Manuel Cortes.
“Is there any of that you wish to contest?” Murdoch demanded.
“This has nothin’ to do with it,” Johnny said, and Murdoch had the sudden urge to shake him. “Jake looked out for me—”
“He looked out for you?” Murdoch snatched the report back, scarcely reading from the faded print, so vivid was it in his mind. “Johnny Madrid, while riding with Jake Cortes’ gang, joined the McGinty range war at El Paso. Johnny Madrid shot, feared dead.” Murdoch looked up from the paper. “You were sixteen years old!” When Johnny said nothing, Murdoch read from another report. “This one’s even better! You and Jake Cortes arrested for horse theft. Both escaped custody by shooting dead the sheriff. You were fifteen, then, John!” Murdoch replaced the papers in the file and flung the whole thing across the room. It hit just above the fireplace, and the pages scattered; a few dropped into the fire and began to burn.
The clock counted every second of the ensuing silence. Murdoch did, too.
“For God’s sake, Maria was my wife!” He slammed his fist onto the desk, and vibrations shot along the wood. A framed photograph jumped from the table, and more glass cracked against the floor.
Johnny flinched, but he didn’t back down. Firelight flickered across his face, glittered in his eyes as sharp as the glass. “So? You love this ground more than anything, remember? Figure you’d do anythin’ to keep it. After all, you wanted Scott and me to give arms, legs, and guts for it. It ain’t that much of a stretch to believe you wanted my mother to give her arms, legs, and—”
“Don’t! Don’t you dare say it!” To his relief, Johnny didn’t complete the sentence, but he stood with arms folded, so angry still.
“Yes, that’s what I told you and Scott when you first came home, I said a lot of things that day that I regret,” Murdoch said, the volume of his voice rising. “But while it was true at the time, it wasn’t back then, and it isn’t now!” He stared hard at his son, so much her son since the day she left, and Johnny returned his gaze with those darned searching eyes. What was his son looking for if he’d already made up his mind? “Johnny.” Murdoch risked his hands on Johnny’s shoulders, and Johnny tensed. Murdoch hoped that this one time he’d get it right. “I never knew your mother wanted to leave me. Maybe that was the problem. But I never wanted her to go, and just the thought of another man touching her…” He swallowed, tightening his hold. “I loved her! More than she damn well deserved it turns out. More than she ever loved me!”
Johnny shrugged out of Murdoch’s hold, denial raw in his eyes. He jumped back, bumping against the desk.
Murdoch groped for a seat, no longer confident that his legs would support the weight of betrayal—whose, he didn’t know—surely to God, Maria couldn’t have contrived such lies. What had he ever done to deserve them? He planted his elbows on the desk and lowered his head to his hands, breathing the scent of scotch and sweat from his palms.
The clock counted the silence again. But there was a moment, a heartbeat, when Murdoch heard Johnny’s hesitation. It was as loud as their angry words had been, before Johnny’s boots crunched in glass again, and he walked out of the room.
He knew this house. Knew which stairs to skip to avoid the creaks, that the Mexican rug spread the length of the upstairs hall had a habit of curling up at one end so that if you weren’t careful, you’d end up flat on your face. Not that it had ever happened to him, but he’d come close a couple of times. He knew that on Tuesdays the polishing was done, so on Wednesdays the banisters were always smooth and prime for sliding. Johnny considered all this on the way to his room, everything else he knew shredded by confusion.
Murdoch’s reaction had shaken him. But what had he expected: the old man to confess? Maybe if Murdoch hadn’t spent the evening reminding himself what a dangerous killer he had for a son, then he might well have admitted it, maybe even taunted Johnny with the fact that he’d made his mother a whore. The viciousness of his own thoughts disturbed Johnny, as did the thought that he was being unfair. He’d watched Murdoch go through every emotion tonight. All except the one he'd been watching for, wanting and not wanting to see: guilt.
The sanctuary of his room was close, he had the door handle in his clammy grasp, when another door opened further down the hall. Johnny held his breath, steeling himself to glance at Scott in his doorway, still half asleep, raking a hand through his mussed hair. “That was you and Murdoch shouting?”
“Yeah, just the usual, Boston. Go back to bed.”
Scott yawned and rubbed at his cheek with his hand. “Your truce didn’t last then?”
“Nope,” Johnny said. Not much does. “G’night, Scott.”
He escaped then, closing his door on any reply Scott might make. He leaned against the solid wood. Only then did he breathe again. It hadn’t escaped Johnny’s notice that he’d just shut the door on an opportunity to tell Scott just what sort of man they had for a father. Earlier he wouldn’t have hesitated. Earlier, it had all been black and white. Johnny rose from the bed and snatched a couple of shirts from their hangers in the wardrobe, picked up a couple of crumpled items from the floor.
He didn’t need this. He felt torn. Confronted with an impossible choice, the only thing to do was get the hell out. Go back to a life that was simple and uncomplicated. If there was one thing Jake said that Johnny could be sure of, it was that he should never have come back here at all. He really didn’t need this. Johnny stuffed his belongings in a bag and left the room.
Downstairs, the fire was dead. There was no sign of Murdoch, although one of the French doors was open a crack, the draft wafting the curtain against the wall, beckoning out the last of the heat. The moon still hid in cloud, and Johnny went out into darkness, closing the door behind him with a soft click.
He sensed rather than saw Murdoch, sitting in the corner of the veranda, where he’d backed a chair against the wall.
It was a statement so he didn’t need to answer, but the sadness in Murdoch’s voice caused Johnny to hesitate. This was where he told Murdoch to go to hell, that if he ever crossed his path again then he’d kill him for what he’d done to his mother. He ought to say something like that, because it might be true. Johnny wished he could see his father’s expression in the darkness.
Murdoch cleared his throat, but his voice still cracked. “I’m sorry, Johnny. For how things have been. For what you believe.”
Swallowing, Johnny turned his back in case his expression wasn’t as concealed as he thought. Staring out across the dark landscape, at the black outlines of familiar outbuildings that always looked so different in the light, Johnny wished his mother alive with a burst of longing that almost drove him to his knees. He’d give anything to ask her outright, watch for the truth this time in her dark oval eyes. He’d spent most of his life wishing that the story she’d told him wasn’t true. Now, the best he could do was wish that it was. “I don’t know what to believe,” Johnny said with frustration, before he squared his shoulders. “I just know I can’t stay here tryin’ to figure it out.” He toed the ground with his boot. “Reckon I got another chance at livin’, and I’m gonna take it.” He stepped off the veranda, and, hoisting the bag of his belongings over his shoulder, went to get Barranca.
“Johnny…” Murdoch murmured, but his voice was faint, lost to the shadows like his son.
“I bet ya five dollars, Madrid turns up.” Smithy made his first appearance of the morning, joining Jake in the entrance to the livery, and staring out to the street.
“I ain’t betting on it,” Jake snapped. “This ain’t some dumb game.”
Smithy eyed his friend. “No, but it ain’t the end of the whole God damn world if he stays here. He’s all grown, Jake.”
Jake grunted as he removed his arm from its sling and flexed it. Smithy was right on the second point. Johnny hadn’t been a kid for years. Jake frowned, forcing his arm straight through the pain. It had taken a long time to find Johnny after Maria’s death, and the reason he’d managed to track the wily kid down was because he’d put the word out, asked people to keep an eye, even threatened people where appropriate. A young girl from a bordello told him where he could find a straggly blue-eyed nino with a penchant for trouble. Jake had made his way along the dark street towards the black alleys between the saloons and cantinas. Johnny was there, a handsome kid who still looked like his mother, but skinny these days, too much so. Jake had watched him tempt a man drunk on booze and lust into the dark alleyway between two buildings with hushed enticing Spanish. Jake’s stomach turned over bile, but Johnny had pulled a knife. He’d robbed the man of his money and gun before fleeing into the night.
Jake had caught up with Johnny in the backstreets the next morning, away from the saloons where it was deserted and quiet. He was sitting in the dirt with his back against a wall, weighing the gun in his hands. “You keep the hell away from me, mister,” he warned as Jake slipped around the corner. He pulled back the hammer and held the gun steady. “You won’t be the first man I killed.”
“Johnny, it’s me.” Jake walked out into the open, and Johnny stared, brushing the long dark bangs from his eyes.
“Jake?” He lowered the gun just a fraction.
“Yeah it’s me.”
“How long you been out?"
"A while. I've been lookin’ for ya.”
“Guess you found me.”
“Took long enough.” Jake squatted down, raking his eyes over Johnny. His face streaked with dirt. He had a black eye that was recent, a scab on his bottom lip. Apart from that, he looked okay. On the outside at least. He had to ask. “Johnny, what I saw last night. You’ve never—”
“Never what?” Even in the early light, Jake could see the boy’s eyes widen with realisation, his cheeks flush. “No, I ain’t never!”
Relief rocked Jake back on his heels.
Johnny was silent for a moment before he said, “Mama’s dead ya know.” Drawing his knees up to his chest, he hugged himself, his blue eyes hard and haunted.
“I know.” Jake’s chest tightened. He couldn’t swallow the lump in his throat. “I’m so sorry, kid.”
This time the pause was longer. “Yeah, me, too.”
It had taken three days before he mentioned his mother again. Another month before he didn’t bother to wipe the telltale dampness from his eyes when Jake walked in the room unexpectedly. “They killed her and I couldn’t stop it,” he whispered, clearly embarrassed that the tears he swiped at continued to fall. “I tried, Jake, I really tried, but there were two of ‘em. They’d come lookin’ for you…”
Jake shut the memory off. He didn’t need to go there again.
Turning his back on Smithy, he headed into the livery and the stall that housed his horse, the black gelding anxious for a run. “So what d’ya tell him?” Smithy said, trailing him inside. The town was quiet this early and his voice echoed in the high-raftered building.
“The truth,” Jake replied, the only answer Smithy was getting. Until yesterday, he’d never told a soul. It was private, and Smithy didn’t need details. He knew Jake had reason to hate Murdoch Lancer, and that was enough.
“Well, maybe he’ll kill Lancer then,” Smithy said with a shrug. “Either way he won’t be stickin’ round, eh? We can get outta here. Head south where you’ll collect the money from that Pink…”
“How many times? I ain’t interested in the damn money.” Jake eyed his impatient horse, and then his injured arm. “Saddle him for me will ya?”
Smithy did, but he didn’t shut-up, instead he looked incredulous as he saw to the horse. “Can’t believe you’re passin’ up five hundred easy dollars. We spent weeks drivin’ them damn cows for less than that. In case you ain’t noticed, we ain’t gettin’ younger, but everyone else sure is! I wanna make some money while we still can, get myself a place, maybe a nice woman who’ll stick around…”
“That’ll take more than five hundred dollars,” Johnny said, causing both men to look up. Letting go of Barranca, Johnny repositioned his hat on his head. Jake studied him and their gazes locked. Johnny looked tired, those blue eyes duller than usual. But he was here.
“You comin’ with us?” Jake asked.
Johnny shrugged. “I’m thinkin’ ‘bout it.”
From the picture window behind Murdoch’s desk, Scott watched Cipriano address the men, impressing upon them what Murdoch had impressed upon Scott the night before: move the herd efficiently, and anyone not prepared to pull their weight was to leave. Scott knew that final comment made reference to a couple of the men in his line of sight, recent additions to the crew, who eyed Scott sullenly whenever he saw them. Both named Jamison, they were brothers apparently—they certainly shared laziness if not blood.
The air was soon cloudy with rising dust as Cipriano and the men rode out. Ordinarily, Murdoch would be out there calling the tune. But Murdoch wasn’t around this morning. Scott was beginning to think it was something in the air or the water. By the time breakfast was done with, he’d still been the only member of his family who was up. Scott turned from the window, glancing down as he trod on broken glass. After the argument the night before, Johnny’s failure to show for breakfast was no surprise. Scott could fully believe his stubborn brother asleep in his bed, but Murdoch, not once since Scott arrived had he been late to the table.
His father’s bedroom was at the end of the upstairs hall, and Scott hesitated before knocking, straining to hear his father’s deep snore. When there was no sound, Scott inched open the door and it glided over a woven rug. He put a foot inside and stopped, uncomfortable in what was exclusively his father’s domain. The room was large and airy, scented with a faint yet familiar smell of Murdoch’s aftershave. Murdoch wasn’t in his bed; the blue bedspread was neat and undisturbed. A hardback novel lay open on the pillow, a woven silk marker keeping place. Light poured onto the polished floorboards from windows that must provide the best view from the upper floor because Scott could see all the way to the sun tipped mountains. Murdoch himself was slumped in the armchair, one of his arms dangling over the side, the other languid in his lap. His head rested at an awkward angle. A half empty bottle of scotch stood beside the chair leg, an empty glass had rolled across the floor.
“Murdoch?” Scott’s heart thudded as he crossed the room, fearful, until he saw the rise and fall of his father’s chest, and heard a light, breathy snore. “Murdoch.” Scott clamped a hand on his father’s shoulder and shook him, wanting Murdoch to feel a similar jolt of fear.
“Um?” Murdoch came to, bringing his hand up to shield his eyes from the brightness, massaging his temples with his finger and thumb. “What time is it?”
“It’s after eight,” Scott said. It wasn’t that his father had been drinking, but rather he’d been unhappily drinking. Scott knew the difference. When Murdoch didn’t react to the time check, Scott’s annoyance turned to worry. He bent to retrieve the bottle and held it aloft. “Murdoch, how much of this have you had?”
Murdoch blinked, before comprehension pulled his features tight in a frown. “Not enough. I’m not drunk, Scott.” He struggled out of the armchair and reached behind to massage his back.
“Not enough for what? Is this about your argument with Johnny?”
Murdoch staggered to the washstand. “It wasn’t an argument.” He poured water from the pitcher.
Bewildered, Scott stared at Murdoch’s back. “Your shouting woke me up, Sir, and when I opened my bedroom door, Johnny was upstairs. He said you’d been fighting as usual.”
Murdoch didn’t answer as he splashed his face. When he straightened and turned around, he wore a pained expression that Scott sensed had nothing to do with a night spent in a chair. “He’s gone, Scott. Johnny left a few hours ago.”
“I saw him go to bed.”
“You saw him go to his room to collect his belongings.”
“Well, where’s he gone?”
“I don’t know.”
Scott watched as his father made his way back to the same chair and sank into it again almost gratefully. Dragging another chair closer, Scott sat forward, leaning his elbows on his knees. “But you know why.” Murdoch didn’t reply, and Scott studied the older man. There were black smudges beneath Murdoch’s pale eyes that, if Scott could bring himself to believe it, looked red-rimmed and swollen. He’d never seen Murdoch like this, and disturbed by this glimpse of frailty, Scott averted his gaze to the floor. Murdoch had stretched his long legs out. He'd discarded his boots, and he had a large hole in his sock that his toe poked through.
“Yes, I do,” Murdoch said at last, his voice shaky. Drawing his legs back in, he rubbed some reluctant colour into his cheeks. “You’d better shut the door.”
South of Morro Coyo, White River was a prosperous new town. The sun had yet to weather the timber storefronts of the main street, and there was still construction work ongoing. The sounds of hammering and sawing wood greeted Scott when he arrived in early afternoon. Pulling the buggy up outside one of several saloons, Scott jumped down. Teresa’s friends, the Sanderson’s, had relocated here months back, when land pirates first returned to the valley and drove them from their small homestead. They’d settled a couple of miles away and were doing well according to Murdoch. Teresa was the reason for Scott’s trip. The Sanderson’s were bringing her into town at three, per the arrangement Murdoch made at the start of her visit. Murdoch had intended to be the one here now. However, Murdoch was in no fit state to do anything.
Removing his gloves, Scott balled them in his fist. He was having trouble comprehending all that Murdoch had told him this morning. But he didn’t believe what Jake Cortes claimed. Even if Murdoch hadn’t been his father, Scott was sure he’d feel the same. He’d met the type of man who’d do anything to get ahead. They were everywhere—in Boston, the cavalry, even in Libby although most in there would claim just cause. Murdoch may be gruff, stubborn, and damn hard to get to know, but he was honest, straight and fair. Scott couldn’t imagine Murdoch acting underhand. As for prostituting his wife…out of the question. Johnny should see that, even being a man who never gave anybody too much credit. But obviously he didn’t. Scott clenched his fist so tight that his skin paled across his knuckles. He uncurled his hand and put his gloves away.
He hadn't planned his day like this, but grandfather understood. As surprised as the rest of the household to hear of Johnny’s departure, Harlan had even voiced sympathy for Murdoch, although not to his face. Of course, Harlan didn’t know the real reason Johnny had left.
Scott checked his pocket watch. It would fall to him to tell Teresa, and Scott had no idea how she was going to take the news. Without tears, he hoped. He did not intend to impart Jake’s lies. Judging by the way Teresa had leapt to Murdoch’s defence in the past, she’d never believe it anyway.
Yes Sir, Scott figured a beer was in order. Entering the nearest saloon, it was hard not to gag on thick sweat and sawdust as many of the workers took a beer and a breather. Old mismatched furniture and unfinished wood gave the place a temporary look, and it probably was Scott realised, as he watched one of the workers from outside lean over the bar to help himself while the fat barkeep shuffled a pack of dog-eared playing cards. It was hard to believe that only a few weeks ago he’d sat in Green River’s saloon getting to know his brother. And for what? Nothing. At least that must be how Johnny saw it. Scott abandoned the idea of a beer in this place anyway, his thoughts as nauseating as the smell. Outside in the street, he cast his eye over the other saloons, realising that he’d probably picked the best of a bad bunch when a brawl erupted and a couple of men rolled into the street. One of them came to a stop in front of Scott, who looked up, expecting to see the responsible party pushing through the saloon doors. Instead, his gaze fell on his brother, who’d been walking from the opposite direction, assailed as Scott had been by the tumbling men.
Johnny smothered his surprise, noting that Scott was quick to do the same. With nowhere to go, he sauntered over, his casual walk not fooling anyone he was willing to bet. He’d almost reached Scott when he hesitated. If his brother was pissed, which he might just be, then Johnny did not intend to get too close. He’d been on the receiving end of Scott’s temper once, and he wasn’t about to let it happen again. His pride and jaw couldn’t stand it. He waited, awkward, concerned that the longer Scott let him stew in his own silence, the louder his conscience protested that he’d done damage to something real good. Doing what he did best—shutting down, moving on—had irrecoverably broken this tentative relationship before it even had a chance to set. Scott studied him with a damn cool gaze.
“You rode a long way for nothin’,” Johnny remarked.
Scott smiled then, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I rode a long way for Teresa,” he corrected, snapping his leather gloves against Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny winced at the resulting sting. He realised then what he should have earlier. That today was the day Teresa was due back at Lancer. Johnny was annoyed with himself for forgetting, he’d have never stopped in this town.
Scott had walked over to the Lancer buggy and was rummaging the shady place beneath the seats. After a long pause, he looked over his shoulder. Johnny perched against the hitching rail and clasped his hands in front of him.
“Well, go on,” he said, tilting his head as he looked at Scott. “May as well say what you’re thinkin’, Boston ‘cause it’s written all over your face.”
Scott raised his eyebrows. “I’d say I was wondering more than thinking.” He pulled a packed lunch from under the seat and turned to face Johnny head on. “Wondering if we’ve lived with the same man these past two months?”
“Hell, I’ve wondered that plenty…” Johnny regretted the barb at Scott’s puzzled frown. Why’d you have to go say somethin’ like that?
Scott folded his arms across his chest. “Murdoch’s a wreck.”
“I ain’t exactly sittin’ on top’a the world.”
“No,” Scott conceded and his expression softened. He came closer and stood in front of Johnny, leaning against the buggy’s side. “But you can’t tell me, honestly, that you believe our father capable of doing something like what Jake Cortes claims? Not to anyone, let alone his wife, the mother of his son.”
Scott’s defensiveness of their father was expected, but still it made Johnny tense, his blood race so fast he felt sick. He wanted to ask how much Scott knew. Had the old man told Scott all of it, each word laced with the anger of the falsely accused, or were there parts he held back, the dirty parts he might be too wise to confess? He raised his head and met Scott’s calm gaze, angry with what he found there. For the first time he saw Scott as older than him—the wiser, older brother who thought he’d made a hasty decision, and was waiting patiently for him to rescind it. Well, Scott was in for a hell of a wait.
Aware that he was glaring at Scott now, Johnny switched his gaze to a wagonload of lumber trundling past. It was the distraction needed to get a hold on his anger, calm down with breaths of freshly sawn timber. The wagon passed to reveal Jake on the other side of the street, beer mug in hand, watching the construction work at the end of town.
“Is that him, is that Jake Cortes?”
Realising Scott had followed his line of sight, Johnny nodded.
“He’s a gunfighter?” The curiosity in Scott’s tone calmed Johnny further, his brother’s naivety bringing him down a level.
“Don’t reckon Jake ever made up his mind what he is.”
Johnny glanced at Scott, who seemed to be deep in thought. Or not, he realised, as his brother set off towards Jake, clear dumb-assed purpose in every lengthy stride. Johnny bowed his head and muttering, “Shit,” he followed.
Jake had noticed Scott and was monitoring his approach, although no one else could know it. When Scott got close enough, Jake peered around him to look at Johnny, who’d stopped several feet away to do some monitoring of his own.
Scott didn’t care for introductions. Folding his arms across his chest, he looked Jake in the eye. “What you’ve told my brother, I don’t believe it for a minute.”
Jake raised his eyebrows. “Guess there’s no reason why you should.”
“You’re either mistaken or you’re lying through your teeth.”
Johnny kept a careful eye on the pair, ready to intervene if Jake took exception, or if Boston lost his cool along with the rest of his good sense.
He sure looked annoyed, but Jake was calm, his expression didn’t change and he didn’t even blink. “I ain’t,” he said in a dark tone that suggested this short conversation was definitely over. To Scott’s credit, he didn’t back down. He glared at Jake until he returned to the saloon, the door swinging shut with a bang. Only then did Scott turn to Johnny. He looked angry, angrier when he saw the ghost of a smile Johnny couldn’t keep from his face.
“You keep on surprising me.”
“And you, me, Brother,” Scott said, but his tone was mirthless. “It seems you’ve decided who to believe.”
Johnny shook his head. “You make it sound real easy, but I tell ya, it ain’t. I lived with Murdoch for a couple months, but I’ve known Jake for years. You might be convinced ‘bout Murdoch, but he ain’t had a good word to say ‘bout my mama ‘til last night, and you know as well as I do how much he loves that ranch.” Johnny kicked ground in frustration, dust flew, but it did little to calm his blood which was racing again so fast, his whole body felt charged. “And this is my mother we’re talkin’ ‘bout. Can you understand that at all?”
Scott shook his head. “Not really.”
“Okay, well, let me ask you somethin’,” Johnny said, not sure why, now, it was so important that Scott understand him. It hadn’t seemed important last night with his need to get away, or as he’d sat, numb on Barranca, looking for a future under a sky which had no moon. “If Murdoch told you that granddaddy of yours was a liar. Who’d ya believe?”
“It would depend on what was he was supposed to have lied about.”
Johnny shrugged. “Somethin’ big. Somethin’ that makes ya sick to your stomach. Who’d you believe?”
Scott grappled with an answer, and Johnny sighed. “That right there,” he said, pointing into the air as if Scott’s uncertainty was visible to the both of them. “That’s how I feel.”
Scott stayed silent.
“I should never have gone to Lancer in the first place. I knew it. I just…”
“You wanted it to work. We all want that.”
The street was alive and bustling, the sky a bright blue that made his tired eyes ache. He had wanted what Lancer offered. He’d wanted it so much he’d given Murdoch Lancer the benefit of doubt once already.
“You’re leaving with Cortes then?”
Johnny shrugged. “For now. But I do better on my own.”
“Better at what? Gunfighting?” Scott asked. “You’re going to shoot a few more lawmen?”
Johnny wanted to laugh. “You talkin’ ‘bout what’s in them reports? That was half a story. Anyone could’a found out more ‘bout me than that.” Reckon someone did, and he was determined to find out whom. Johnny liked to know his enemies. Especially the silent ones.
Johnny looked at his brother’s pained expression and gave him a weak smile. “Don’t break out the violins for me, Boston. All this soul searchin’, trying to figure the truth…it ain’t me, and I don’t need it.” He glanced down the street, to what could only be the Sanderson’s buggy trundling towards them. He could see Teresa looking real pretty, her rich brown hair bouncing beneath her bonnet.
“You look out for her. She’s a good kid.”
“Of course I’ll look out for her.” Scott paused, his lips pursed tight. “For God sakes, Johnny. You think Murdoch would let anyone harm Teresa? Are you forgetting what he said to us when we first came home? He left no doubt that he’d skin us alive if our behaviour was even remotely inappropriate.”
“I’m just sayin’ is all.” Johnny fiddled with the beads around his right wrist, and when Scott shot him a questioning look, he shrugged. “I don’t do goodbyes too well.”
Johnny’s smile was weak. “Be seeing ya, Boston.” He walked away without looking back, wondering why he’d just said that. Why people so often said what they didn’t mean.
Sometimes it was better if nothing was said at all.
Johnny woke with the rising sun warm on his face, the chill of the ground seeping up through his bones. Flinging back the blanket, he propped up on one elbow and slid his gun out from his makeshift pillow. He figured it about six, he’d slept later than he would’ve done at Lancer and the knowing of it bothered him. As did the fact that when he’d fallen asleep he’d been sharing this camp, and now he was alone. He hadn’t heard Jake stir. Beyond the remnants of their charred campfire, Jake’s bedroll was still spread flat, the black’s saddle next to it on the mossy ground. They’d lost Smithy to an all night poker game in White River, and Jake said he’d catch up in his own sweet time. That suited Johnny. By then he’d have gone his own way.
He shifted position and a spider dropped from his brow. He watched it scurry off, then sat upright and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. The air smelled fresh, and it was quiet, probably no one around for miles. Barranca and the black grazed nearby. On his feet, Johnny stretched, and then grabbed what he needed and made his way towards them. He slipped halters on both horses and led them to drink. Settling into a crouch beside the noisy stream, Johnny scooped a handful and splashed his face, and then filled his canteen, trying to avoid the tiny minnows that swam with the current.
When the first gunshot rang out, the horses flinched, and Johnny stood, tense, relaxing only when another five shots rang out in quick succession. He soothed each horse and then left them, following the reverberations downstream, beyond a copse of cottonwoods where the stream curved off and the ground was rocky. As expected, Jake was there, resetting targets out of whatever he could find.
“You’re awake then,” Jake said over his shoulder when he knew Johnny was there. “Coulda set these up right next to ya and you’d still be sleepin’.”
Johnny made no reply to that. Sitting at the base of a tree, his back against the dry bark, he removed an apple from his jacket pocket. Jake might have been exaggerating, but he made a good point. Sleep well and sleep light, had he really forgotten how after only two short months? With his legs drawn up, elbows resting on his knees, Johnny skimmed his knife across the fruit and popped a slice in his mouth. It hadn’t helped that it had taken him ages to drift off. Too much on his mind. Murdoch, Scott, his mother, Murdoch…he’d felt his father’s fingertips moulded to his shoulders, gripping him tight with insistence. He could picture his mother, how she looked when she was frightened, how she’d cling to him in the dark.
Jake fired off another round, and Johnny watched as he hit each target with near perfect technique.
“You got somethin’ to say?” Jake was done, and he turned to face Johnny as he holstered his gun.
Johnny gazed at him. Neither of them had acknowledged the day he’d surpassed Jake in ability, but they’d both been aware of it. Johnny returned his attention to the apple, wiping juice from his lips.
“You should ditch the jacket. Gets in your way.”
Jake stared down at his shabby black jacket, at the jagged stitching repaired time and again. “I like this jacket. Ain’t ‘bout to quit wearing it now. I’ll be—”
“You’ll be buried in it. Yeah, I remember.”
Jake’s lips twitched. “I’m gonna brew up some coffee. You want some?”
Back at their camp, they sat on opposite sides of the rejuvenated fire. Usually Johnny hated sharing camp. Too often, the other person would try to draw him into mindless chatter, all for their benefit because they couldn’t stand the silence. Johnny liked silence, and if there was one thing to be grateful for it was that Jake liked it, too. It had been late last night by the time they’d stopped, and they’d made camp, eaten and turned in, with barely a word spoken.
It was just his luck that this morning Jake was all talkative.
“You still takin’ off today?” he asked, handing Johnny some coffee in a dented tin mug.
“Yep. I told you, I’m gonna find that pink.”
“How? You’re lookin’ for one man.”
Johnny stared into the hot, black liquid. “He found you. Figure I’ll find him.”
“Let me come with you,” Jake suggested. “I know what he looks like.”
“No.” Johnny watched Jake’s scowl through the fire’s rippling heat.
“Why the hell not?”
“Seems to me, we’ve had a conversation like this before.”
Jake stared hard at him before releasing a grunt of acknowledgement. “So you find 'im, then what?”
“I find out who put up the five hundred. How they knew to approach you. You tell anyone ‘bout my mama and Murdoch?”
“I ain’t told a soul, ‘til you.” Jake reached down and put his mug on the uneven ground. It tipped and spilt, and he swore beneath his breath. “You stopped to consider that Murdoch Lancer might be behind that offer? Seems convenient that he only found you when his ranch was in trouble. Now it ain’t, well, maybe he figured it was time to get rid?”
Johnny swallowed a mouthful of coffee. “I don’t think so.”
“You sure? It ain’t like what you know of the man has proved worth a damn.”
Johnny breathed through gritted teeth. “If Murdoch wanted me gone, he’d’ve kicked me out. He wouldn’t have tried to…”
“What?” Jake asked, leaning forward. “Convince you to stay?” He scowled again, angry now. “So did he tell you that I made it up? Maria made it all up, maybe?”
“No. He said he loved her.” Tossing his coffee into the fire, Johnny stood, and went to saddle Barranca.
It proved easier than anticipated for Johnny to slip back into lone ways. He and Jake had parted company, and Johnny figured it for the best. Jake was still headed to Tuscon, and Johnny had no doubt he’d see him again. He wanted to. He just couldn’t ride with his stepfather right now. He told himself it was because Jake couldn’t help but keep a rein on him, no matter how loose, that it had nothing to do with his mother or Murdoch, or the fact that Jake reminded him where his loyalties should lie at every damn opportunity.
He’d slipped across the border last night, and it had taken another day of hard riding to get here. He avoided the town itself, staying clear of the saloons and cantinas and the memories. He didn’t need the trouble they could offer. Not yet. He hoped to come and go like a ghost.
To Johnny’s frustration, the sun was slow to set tonight; it lazed upon the rooftops as if it had all the time in the world. Never mind that he shouldn’t be in Mexico, that he needed, now more than ever, the invisibility darkness could bring. Here, he was a wanted man in every respect. Those he could help wanted help, those he had crossed wanted him dead.
He didn’t know what he could achieve here, but he’d felt the urge to come. He needed for the first time in years to be close to his mother, and this was about as close as he was ever likely to get. Even when he, too, was dead.
Maria’s grave was in the small cemetery next to the rundown church. That she'd died active in the faith was not forgotten. Her marker was faded, weathered by the sun until the wood cracked, but someone had tended to her, tearing the stubborn weeds out by the roots and discarding them an arms throw away. The marker leaned, kept in the ground by a cluster of sandy rocks at its base. Johnny lowered himself on one knee and ran his fingers over her crudely carved name. They came away coated with dust and regret.
Johnny straightened the marker, repositioning the rocks to make it stay. He no longer needed to know if or why she’d lied to him about leaving Lancer. He understood her reasons. And Jake was right, he should feel ashamed that he’d doubted her. He did. Johnny closed his eyes and bowed his head, hearing then the sounds in the silence, the whistle of a hot wind through the wooden belfry, the repetitive clank of the gate against the fence.
He couldn’t stop thinking about her, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Murdoch.
So much for this life being simple and uncomplicated.
Damn it, the thoughts wouldn’t quit.
Abandoned, the wagon sat in the south pasture, and the horse stood on the dirt track in front of Scott. After dismounting from his horse, Scott grasped the animal by the halter and led it back to the grass. The wagon still had its load of fence posts; only a couple lay beside the spades and a shallow hole. What had been freshly dug earth had dried in the sun. When he remembered that he'd assigned the Jamison’s this job, he frowned. Considering that they couldn’t be far away without horses, Scott mounted up and set his horse across the green field, down to where the river ran and the cottonwoods provided shade from a sun that had well and truly warmed for summer.
The Jamison brothers were sitting together in the shade, with their legs crossed, and hats pulled over their faces. Scott listened as they bantered back and forth, and watched as the younger of the two reached over to swat the elder, obviously in jest. It was a simple act, and one that should have got to Scott for a different reason than it did. He found himself swallowing a feeling of desertion. Annoyed, Scott made his presence known, guiding his horse through the trees. He had a moment of satisfaction while they scrambled to their feet, but that vanished when they recognised him and pinned him with challenging stares.
“Might I ask what you two think you’re doing?”
Hal Jamison scratched beneath his hat. “Just takin’ a break,” he offered with a smirking glance at his brother.
“A break from what? As far as I can see you’ve barely started.”
Hal puffed out his chest. “Don’t hold with no one questionin’ my work, Boy, ‘specially no eastern greenhorn.”
Scott fixed the man with a cool stare. “If you want to hold your job, you’ll find a way. That fenceline was scheduled to be up today. That means you’ve got...” He removed his pocket watch and made a show of checking it, “...about three hours before sundown. You’d best get busy.” He turned his horse and had just started off when Hal muttered something about mail-order cowboys. Scott glanced over his shoulder in time to see the two men folding with laughter. Angry, he whipped his horse around. “On second thought forget the fence. You can both get back to the ranch, pick up whatever pay you’re due to yesterday and go. You’re fired.”
Both men sobered. “You can’t fire us,” the younger one spluttered.
“I just have.” He left them, and started for home.
Riding back towards the hacienda, he wondered what his father would say when he told him he’d fired two men. Will he think I overreacted? Did I? In all honesty, Murdoch probably wouldn’t care. Scott shifted in the saddle as he scanned the horizon, waiting for it to reveal a glimpse of the hacienda, of home. All he wanted was a bath, a long soak in a big tub, and it was the bath in his grandfather’s house that he pictured, porcelain, shockingly cold when your skin first touched it, but in the long run more comfortable than the wooden tub here at Lancer. Dinner was a couple of hours away so he had time, and it was tempting to wash away the discontent that clung to his skin.
After speaking to Walt about the Jamison’s and sending someone to fetch the wagon and fenceposts, Scott went in search of his father. He found Murdoch in the great room, working on the accounts, the first interest he’d shown in the ranch since Johnny had gone. Harlan wasn’t around. Scott learned that his grandfather had gone into town. Business, he’d told Murdoch. A business didn’t run itself. Scott wondered if that assertion had prompted Murdoch to tackle the accounts.
Half an hour later, Scott sat motionless in the bath water with his eyes closed, considering the events of the day and everything he’d done that he could have done better. Maybe he was being too hard on himself, or maybe this really wasn’t for him. Harlan certainly thought so. He hadn’t voiced it aloud but the older man was worried, Scott had lived with the man long enough to know the look. He forced his thoughts to something else, his brother’s face coming straight to mind. Johnny had gone, and life around the hacienda had been quick to adjust, in fact not many people were surprised. He was Johnny Madrid after all, a revered pistolero—the life of a rancher not for him. Scott knew they thought it wasn’t the life for him either, but as he’d shown no desire to go anywhere, they kept that thought. It had been daunting, arriving home in the buggy with Teresa, comprehending fully that from now on it was just him and the old man, as Johnny would say. It would take some getting used to.
Scott got out of the tub when he could hear movement in the kitchen below, a sure sign that the dinner preparations were underway. Not eager to face Teresa’s questioning looks, or his father’s silent brooding, Scott took his time getting dressed. These past few days, Murdoch was a different man, quieter, even his footfall. Scott strained to hear his father making his way to bed in the early hours of each morning, as if he knew there was little chance of sleep so why even try. It seemed he’d even withdrawn from his private battle with Harlan, let go of the prize, as if it was of little consolation. Left with the son he never wanted. Scott stared at himself in the mirror, the thought as random and deadly as a shot gone astray. Alarmed by it, Scott splashed cold water on his face, staring hard at his reflection, before busying his fingers in his damp hair.
He lay on the bed with his book, his socked feet almost touching the brass footboard, his elbow enveloped by fat pillows. Comfortable, the knock on his door was an intrusion.
“It’s not locked, Grandfather,” Scott said, closing his book with a snap and swinging his legs off the bed.
Harlan eased the door open, smiling when he saw Scott. “I didn’t think you’d be back so early. Tough day?”
Yes! Scott wanted to say, but he settled on a quick nod and a smile.
Harlan stepped inside the room and to Scott’s surprise, pointed to the chair. “Do you mind…?”
“Of course not, let me.” Scott rose and pulled the chair closer, both pleased and disturbed that his grandfather wanted to sit with him. Back in Boston, Scott could count on one hand the number of times Harlan had entered his rooms, even as a child. They’d always talked in the study or at the dinner table when he was older. But then they weren’t in Boston now. This was not his grandfather’s house. Scott watched his grandfather sit, his wrinkled hands smoothing the expensive grey material of his tailor-made suit. It made Scott want to laugh now, seeing someone else so unsuitably dressed for these parts.
“Something has been troubling me, and I must speak my mind,” Harlan began, his hands repeating the smoothing motion on his trousers before settling clasped in his lap. “I’ve put you in an awkward position, I realise that now.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Sir.”
Harlan sighed. “My dear Boy, I came here upset with you, resentful that you wanted a relationship with the man who’d given you nothing, when I’d tried so hard to ensure you had everything.” When Scott went to speak, Harlan held up a stalling hand. “Let me finish, please.” He waited for Scott’s nod of acquiesce before he continued. “Since I arrived here, I’ve made comments, voiced observations when I should have kept quiet. You’re an adult with your own path to follow, and I ask you to forgive an old man for struggling to accept it.”
Scott listened to this with growing surprise. In his lifetime, he couldn’t remember Harlan apologising. There hadn’t been many occurrences warranting an apology. Even during this visit, while there had been comments that got to him, in all fairness, had there been no element of truth then they would not have hit the mark.
“You’re not happy here.”
“I’m happy enough.”
Harlan looked grave. “Even your brother, accustomed to the west’s brutal ways, couldn’t find a reason to stay. Not even in you.”
Scott ducked his head to hide his wry smile. He had to hand it to his grandfather. In the boardroom and out, he never bothered to sugar coat it.
“You miss him.”
Scott sighed, the smile wiped away. Since speaking with Johnny, he had a better understanding of why his brother needed to get away, but he hated the fact it had happened.
“You forget how well I know you, Scotty. How I can read you just like that book.” Harlan eased himself out of the chair. Silent, he walked over to the window, and Scott watched as he stared out across land he’d made little effort to appreciate. “I should have been honest from the start about my reasons for this visit.”
“To ask you to come home.”
“This is my home, Grandfather.”
Harlan sighed loudly, and Scott saw his shoulders slump.
“And to tell you the truth.”
“That your father came to see you when you were a child.”
On the bed, Scott froze, his gaze glued to Harlan’s back.
“On your fifth birthday, Murdoch came to Boston. His second marriage had just failed. His wife took their boy. He seemed to think of you as a replacement.” Harlan turned around, his hands clasped in front of him, his face solemn. “I threatened to fight him for custody of you. Maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do, but he’d abandoned you, never written, never visited, I was angry with him for that. But he wasn’t interested in fighting for you, Scott. He shook your hand at my request, but then he walked away without a backward glance.”
Scott swallowed and turned over his hands, trying to remember his father’s touch, trying to remember being five years old. He thought it was there, maybe, a wisp of a memory, but he couldn’t quite grasp it. He tried too hard and it was gone.
“I asked him to write to you, visit again, to give you something of himself, if not for you then for Catherine. He did not.”
Harlan had moved closer and placed a tentative hand on Scott’s shoulder. Scott glanced down at the long fingers, the trimmed and clean nails. “He never cared for you, Scotty,” Harlan said. “Not enough. Come back to Boston where you truly belong.”
The evening meal was imminent, but Murdoch had no appetite. Leaving the desk and the bookwork, the ink long dried on his pathetic four entries in four hours, he burst from the room into air that was cool, softening the ache of a frown he’d worn for days. The numbing effect of scotch and sleeplessness faded, making his strides from the hacienda lengthier and purposeful. He reached the corral and leaned against the fence, allowing himself a calming breath. His senses basked in the steady beat of horses’ hooves, the pungency of manure and cattle. Already he felt better.
Attached to these lands by something rooted deeper than his soul, these surroundings gave him comfort. It was almost like he was young again, when sitting at a desk was always the chore, the down side of a life he’d spent his wee years dreaming about, yearning for the time when he could slog his guts out for something worthwhile, something that was his. Every drop of sweat meant satisfaction, and he’d come home soaked in it, night after night, dog tired, but so damn proud. He was building an empire, and he was running it.
Murdoch sighed at that. He’d achieved his dreams but at cost. Two wives and two sons had been a high price to pay.
Someone was watching him, and he turned, noting Scott hasten his approach. Dressed in casual clothes, blue shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows, Scott looked at home here finally. Almost gone was the preened Boston gentleman whose manner had reminded Murdoch so painfully of Harlan on their first meeting that his eyes were the only thing he could bring himself to comment on. His hair had grown, looked softer; he had colour to his skin.
“Your grandfather’s returned from town,” Murdoch said as Scott reached his side.
“I know, I’ve seen him.”
Scott grasped the fence rail with both hands. “Murdoch, I think you and I are overdue for a little talk.” He may have spoken with his usual assertion, Murdoch realised, but Scott’s expression wasn’t backing it up. For the first time he looked uncertain, maybe even nervous, and it hit Murdoch then—the silent threat in Harlan’s visit was no longer a threat, but as real as the thud of the bruised heart in his chest.
“Dinner will be ready.” Dear God, he was stalling! As if he could somehow stretch the moment before he lost this son, too.
Scott glanced toward the hacienda. “This won’t wait.”
Murdoch almost balked, but he was anchored to the ground as if his life depended on what answers he gave. He found himself wondering if this was how Johnny felt facing the firing squad, knowing what was coming and helpless to prevent it. He’d never even asked. He took a deep breath.
“Well, go on, son.”
“Grandfather told me that you came to Boston when I was a child, that we met face to face?” Scott said it all on one pent up breath, but didn’t look relieved for the asking. He let go of the rail and turned around, his arms folding loosely across his chest.
“That’s true. I wanted to see you. I imagined bringing you back here to live with me.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No. I didn’t.” It was tempting to unleash the tirade against Harlan he’d kept bottled for almost twenty years, but Murdoch could ill afford such an action. He sensed that anything further said at this point would seem like excuses. And Scott wasn’t asking for those.
“Grandfather said he’d fight you, and you backed down. You walked away. Is that what happened?”
“I couldn’t fight him—”
“But you’re my father!”
“I know!” Murdoch softened his tone. “I know that, Scott. I did what I thought was best…”
“I see.” Murdoch found Scott’s expression closed, his emotions concealed beneath that damned Boston cloak.
“No, Scott, you don’t...” Walt was making his way towards them alongside the corral, wiping dirt from his brow. “Everything okay?” Murdoch called, switching gratefully from father to boss—one role he’d rarely failed in.
“It’s that wagon you told me ‘bout, Mister Lancer.” Walt addressed Scott, Murdoch noticed with pride. “Found it down the bottom of the south gully. Someone’s cut all the fencing long there, too.”
“What wagon?” Murdoch looked to Scott who was frowning and turning, ignoring his father as he headed back to the house.
“Any sign of the Jamisons?” Scott asked.
Walt shook his head, his heavy set frame struggling to match Scott’s lithe stride. “Ain’t seen ‘em since this mornin’.”
Murdoch stayed, needing a moment for his emotions to settle. It was obvious now that Harlan had tainted his version of the truth, and Murdoch cursed himself for not speaking up sooner. He should have sat Scott down and explained the past. He’d planned to…, as always it was too little, too late. Murdoch raked a hand through his hair. When he followed, Scott was almost at the house. The distance between them wasn’t actually that far, but it felt greater than ever.
Scott disappeared inside, reappearing with his hat and gun belt.
“Son, is this something I ought to know about?”
“No. I’ll sort it out.” He buckled his gun belt and asked Walt to saddle his horse.
Anxious for a connection, Murdoch reached out a hand to Scott’s shoulder. “When you return, we’ll sit down and talk.”
There was something indecipherable in Scott’s placid gaze. “Did you write?” he asked. “Did you write to me even once?”
Murdoch was silent, his rehearsed answer to that question gone in a sudden drought of words.
“I’ll take that as a no, then.” Scott jammed on his hat, and strode towards the barn, leaving Murdoch’s hand to drop limp to his side. Defeated, he watched his son ride out with Walt into the haze of approaching dusk. When he turned back to the house, Harlan stood in the open doorway, satisfied. Murdoch had no choice but to head back to the corral and its comfort, lest he haul off and break Garrett’s upturned nose.
Scott had wondered, growing up, why his father hadn’t wanted him. It wasn’t something he could avoid. His friends all had fathers, no matter how emotionally distant, and if they didn’t then there was always a good excuse. Like they were dead. Nobody in Boston society had a father like his—a penniless immigrant who’d disowned his son at birth, never cared, and never written.
It had hurt less to think Murdoch had never seen him at all.
Dusk settled quicker than Scott anticipated and it was with difficulty that he stood by the gully and squinted down at the broken wagon, jarred apart on its rocky descent, its full load of fence posts sliding from the back to litter the ground like matchsticks. The horse was gone. The strings of new wire were untouched, but across the pasture, where the shadows had yet to stretch, the crudely hacked wire from the fenceline lay discarded, the posts splintered and askew. The obvious conclusion was that the Jamisons were responsible, but even though he was more than capable of adding up the man hours it would cost to put the damage right, Scott struggled to care. He hadn’t needed to come out here, but it was a chance for escape and he’d taken it. There were not many conversations Scott didn't want to finish, but this exchange with his father was one of them.
He’d hated Murdoch once. He didn’t want to go there again.
“Ya want this cleared tonight?” Walt asked, his helpful tone not disguising his want for a particular answer.
“No sense in doing anything now, Walt. We’ll get a couple of men out here tomorrow morning to clear this up.”
“Fence’ll wait ‘til mornin’,” Walt agreed. “Good thing the boss had the herd moved, huh?”
Distracted, Scott shook his head. “You go on back. I’ll have a look around for the horse then I’ll come in.”
Walt eyed him with doubt. “You sure, Mister Lancer?”
Walt had turned for his horse when the shot came. Scott barely had time to register him falling before there was a second shot, louder, almost in Scott’s ear. He staggered, and lost his footing, a veil of warm blood descending over his eyes. The last thing he saw was the gully floor rushing to greet him as he tipped headfirst over the edge.
Harlan Garrett in his nightshirt was a sight Murdoch could have done without, but that’s what greeted him a minute after he’d rapped his knuckles against the older man’s door. Harlan had looked annoyed at the disturbance, Murdoch hadn’t cared. Worry had sprouted wings in his stomach and he needed to be with his son.
Now he stood in the doorway of Scott’s room, alternating his tired gaze between the bed and the stairwell, aware that it had been a couple of hours or more since they’d gone for the doctor. Where was he? Why wasn’t he here?
Walt, despite being shot in the shoulder, had made it back to the ranch to raise the alarm, his shouts for help reaching into the hacienda and jolting Murdoch from the fitful sleep he’d succumbed to whilst waiting for Scott to come home. Illuminated by moonlight, an unconscious Scott was half way down the gully, saved from a plummet to the bottom by the snare of his belt. They’d heaved him up and brought him home on a buckboard, and at first glance, his injuries could have been worse. He had cuts and bruises conducive with the fall, and the graze from a rifle bullet was a dark streak of congealed blood. But Scott was unconscious and showed no signs of coming around.
“How long does it take to get a doctor?” Harlan asked. Again. “He’s still unconscious. That can’t be right, can it?”
Murdoch didn’t answer, but he glanced anxiously at the dark stairwell.
“I can’t lose him…” Harlan murmured, and the moment struck Murdoch with empathy for the man. With his hands clasped behind his back, Harlan paced at the foot of the bed, his stockinged feet against the floor louder than the sound of Scott’s shallow breaths. He’d dressed fast, and Harlan’s white hair was unkempt. He kept stopping to stare at Scott, his gaze narrowing, his Adams apple bobbing, before his pacing resumed. “If I lose him, it’s on your head, Murdoch.”
Empathy destroyed, Murdoch glared. Frustration swelled to the point where he could no longer contain it. He wanted Harlan out of his house. Footsteps on the stairs were the only thing that stopped Murdoch from removing the older man.
Dr. Sam Jenkins greeted Murdoch with a grim smile and the midnight chill staining both his cheeks. He examined Scott, pleased with Murdoch’s ministrations. As to the head wound though, he could make no clear diagnosis. Scott was yet to regain consciousness; he remained unresponsive in a deep sleep. Harlan paced again, and annoyed by the man’s very presence, Murdoch pursed his lips until they hurt.
Sam stepped away from his patient and put his stethoscope away. “It’s best if he has someone with him at all times. If he wakes then get him to take some water. I’ll need to examine him again then, and assess him for permanent damage.”
Harlan glared at the doctor. “Permanent damage? You said the bullet grazed him!”
“It’s a risk,” Sam said calmly. “In addition to the graze, Scott hit his head hard when he fell. If and when he regains consciousness there could be…”
“If?” Harlan pounced on the word. “Are you telling me that Scotty might not wake up?”
“Like I said, it’s a risk.”
Harlan snorted. “Do you see?” he seethed, turning to Murdoch with a shrivelling gaze. “Do you see now why Scotty doesn’t belong here? He could die, Murdoch. My only grandson could die because he has no one to help him but a cheap quack.”
“Will you listen to yourself, man? Scott fought in the war for God’s sake!”
Harlan gasped as if Murdoch had struck him. “I don’t need you to tell me that. It wasn’t you who spent almost two years worried sick, dreading every telegram, feeling completely helpless...” He shook his head as if to snap himself out of it, and brushed Scott’s fingers with his own.
“I may not have the equipment available to me that I would have if I was practising in Boston, Mr. Garrett, but I assure you that my knowledge is up to date.”
“Pah.” Harlan dismissed Sam with a wave of his hand, and with a sniff, made a seat of the only chair in the room.
“Thank you, Sam,” Murdoch said, escorting the annoyed and frustrated doctor from the room. “Walt’s in the downstairs guest room. I’d like you to look at his shoulder. Teresa’s done her best…”
When Murdoch returned to Scott’s room, Harlan had not moved.
“I presume someone has notified the authorities?”
“The authorities? Harlan, there is no law around here. Not yet anyway.”
“So the perpetrators, the men who attempted to murder Scotty, just ride away into the sunset. Is that how it works?”
Murdoch leaned across Harlan to adjust the blanket across Scott’s chest. “Cipriano will lead a posse out at daybreak. There should be tracks.”
Silence. Murdoch welcomed it like a friend. He watched his son sleep, something he’d never done before, aware of the feelings that flowed as one with the blood through his veins.
“I confess I don’t understand you, Murdoch. You’ve already lost one son to a gunfighting profession, I’ve no doubt he’ll be dead before the year is out, and now you could lose another because some common criminals decide to use him for target practice. How you can be so blasé about this astounds me. If you cared for Scotty at all, you’d want him to be safe. In Boston, he will be.”
Murdoch thought his assurances to Harlan were right, that Scott would pull through this, but he’d already lost him, hadn’t he? Wasn’t that what he’d seen in Scott’s eyes yesterday? He’d lost Johnny to Maria twice, and now he was set to lose Scott to Harlan for the second time, too. With Harlan sitting so close, Murdoch could smell the manipulation. The man reeked of it. For his son’s sake, he kept his temper in check and his voice low. “As I’ve told you before, Harlan, that is Scott’s decision. I only wish you’d had the grace to let him make it.”
“What’s my decision?” Scott stirred into consciousness, and Murdoch smiled, reacting quickly when his son tugged at the dressing on his head. Catching Scott’s wrist gently, he lowered it to the bed. “Take it easy, son, take it easy.”
“Murdoch?” Scott blinked several times as his eyes adjusted to the light. “What happened?”
“You don’t remember?”
Scott’s brow creased. His eyes closed and he took a sip of the water Murdoch offered him.
“I remember…yesterday. The Jamisons, I fired them…”
“But nothing after that, Scotty?” Harlan was leaning forward in the chair.
Scott shook his head and winced. “No, but I’m guessing I hit my head.”
“Go downstairs and fetch Sam, Harlan. Tell him Scott’s awake,” Murdoch ordered, satisfied when the older man did as he asked. Cheap quack or not, even Harlan would be anxious to know that Scott was going to be all right.
“Grandfather’s here?” Scott sounded surprised.
“You don’t remember that either?” Murdoch asked. “Don’t try to sit up, Scott. Just stay still ‘til Sam’s taken a look at you.”
Scott frowned. “I do,” he said. “He’s staying with us. The two of you, you’re not getting along.” He sounded drowsy now, like he wanted to go back to sleep, and Murdoch guessed that the reason for such an unguarded comment. Scott wasn’t one to make unguarded statements.
When Sam came up, he examined Scott again, peppering him with questions he was mostly too tired to answer. But they served a purpose, Sam explained, Scott was suffering from a concussion, yes, but he could move his limbs, he could remember everything up to firing the Jamisons. Neither Murdoch nor Harlan missed the significance of this. Scott had no recollection of his conversation with his grandfather. Harlan’s poisoned truth remained at the bottom of that gully. There was no way of telling if that was where it would stay.
Yesterday, he’d remembered something. At least he thought he had, but it wasn’t words or pictures, only a feeling of displacement that unsettled him, as invasive as the floral scent that now tickled his nose and threatened to make him sneeze. He’d wondered if the feeling was real, imagined, or spawned from the edginess he detected in Murdoch and grandfather. Three days since he’d been shot, and both men seemed distracted, anxious, and clearly impatient for him to recover. Turning his head, Scott pressed his cheek into a cool patch on the pillow, and squinted through the early morning sunlight at the busy intruder. For a moment, he forgot the unpleasant feeling as he watched Teresa. She stood by his dresser, fussing with a vase he’d never seen, arranging flowers, roses, the foreign scent that possessed his room. She paused, twiddling one stem between her fingers as she stared at the wall. He propped himself up on one elbow and she didn’t notice.
Even though he wore a nightshirt, he pulled the sheets up. “Can a man not get any privacy around here?”
Teresa startled, and the rose fell. “Well, I did knock,” she said as she retrieved it from the floor. “But you were sleeping.”
Scott inclined his head towards the vase, his eyebrows raised. “Flowers?”
She shrugged. “Why not? They brighten the place up and we need some sunshine around here. I’ve put a bunch in every room. Even your grandfather’s.”
Scott forced his gaze into the glaring sunlight. “I imagine he was just as appreciative.”
“Hmmm...” She fed the last stem into the vase, and dusted her hands together. “How do you feel?”
“I feel fine. As I did yesterday, and the day before.”
“You didn’t feel right yesterday. You admitted to your grandfather that you were still getting headaches.”
“Well, as of today, I feel fine.” He was unable to help the trace of irritation in his voice. Not directed at the girl, he knew. “I had a concussion. That’s all.”
Teresa snorted. She moved to the door as if to leave, her hand even got as far as the handle when she hesitated, her eyes wide and serious.
“Was there something, Teresa?”
She smiled then, but he noticed her fingers gripped the handle tight. “You know, I’d have to be stupid not to see things, hear things, choke on the atmosphere that’s downstairs right now. It’s ten times worse than it has been.” Her words came in a rush and sounded forceful, as if somehow Scott was at fault. “Do you really not remember anything after you fired those men?”
“No. I know it’s there, somewhere, but I can’t put my finger on it. It’s as frustrating as…well, let’s just say it’s frustrating.” He managed a smile.
“Well, you have a right to know…” Teresa squared her shoulders, her fingers still grasping the handle like a vice. “Your grandfather told you that Murdoch visited you in Boston when you were a child, and that he decided to leave you there, only I don’t think he put it quite like that.”
“How did he put it?”
“I don’t know but you were angry with Murdoch when you rode out with Walt. He waited all evening for you to come home. He said he thought you were going to leave us. Are you?”
Scott’s gaze dropped to his sheets as he searched for the feelings that were reportedly his. Strangely, he didn’t feel surprised. “I think I need to get dressed.” He heard Teresa open the door, and only at the last moment did he call her back, asking her to return in a few minutes, wondering at once why he had. Certainly, he was not usually one to seek counsel. She smiled, as if he was the one who’d bestowed the favour.
“Oh, and Teresa?”
“Make sure you do knock this time.”
She had the grace to blush.
Alone, Scott swung his legs over the side of the bed. The wooden floor was cool beneath his bare feet but it was steady, and that was an improvement on the past few days. He went to wash, catching sight of himself in the mirror: a little bruised and battered, but better. On the outside at least. His father had visited him as a child, his stomach clenched with such sacred knowledge, but what did it mean? Had they met face to face, spoken even? How old had he been, and why didn’t he remember it? Scott did as he’d said and got dressed, drawing the curtains to let in the full benefit of the day. He had missed breakfast, but his gnawing hunger was for answers. Or was it? Knuckles rapped on his door, and Scott shook his head when Teresa failed to wait.
“I brought coffee.” She angled the tray through the door and set it by the window, fiddling with the rusty latch until she cracked it open and fresh air breezed inside. She poured and he waited, asking himself again why he’d asked her back.
“We don’t want you to go!” Her eyes were round and shining with tears.
“I’m not sure I’m going anywhere,” he pointed out, anxious that she not start weeping. He should have known better than to try this, but he’d started now. “How long have you known?”
“Since the night you were shot.” She handed him a cup, wincing when he delayed in accepting it and the heat burned through the china. “Murdoch was sad, sadder than he’s been since Johnny left. When I asked him what was wrong, he said he's an old fool. He’d left it too late and now Harlan had told you his own version of the past.”
Scott took the coffee, and Teresa dropped into the chair, sucking her scalded fingers.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
What was the right thing to do? Give his father a chance to explain properly, that was it, so why was he reluctant to do so? “Talk to them I suppose, to grandfather first—”
“Give Murdoch a chance to tell you his side!” Having blinked away the tears, Teresa was back to sounding practical. And that’s what Scott wanted, what he needed from this girl along with her fierce and innocent belief in honesty. When he took a gulp of his hot coffee, his swallow felt heavy and awkward. With determination, he forced the words from his throat. “I think,” he said slowly, “…that might be what I’m afraid of.” He risked another glance at her, expecting puzzlement. The reason for his reluctance to hear the truth from Murdoch was new to him, could Teresa understand?
“Oh, Scott, you should have seen him when he sent for you. He was scared you’d reject him, he expected it. He thought if he made it just business, that you might come, if he offered you the partnership then you might stay. He didn’t expect any more from you than that, but he wants it so much.” Teresa stood and went to take the silver tray. “He loves you, Scott, you and Johnny. I don’t suppose he’ll ever tell you, but it’s the truth. I know it is.”
Scott ducked his head to hide his surprise. She understood after all.
Johnny couldn’t deny his relief at leaving Mexico. For so many years it had been home, even if the four walls changed regularly. He’d grown up there, spent years watching and learning, scampering around the edges of its heated violence until one day he’d dived into its core and come up fighting. He’d never looked back until he’d thought it was the end. But he’d never really given up his trade. His time spent at Lancer had been nothing but a vacation, an extended convalescence. Rest up and let the heat die down. Madrid may have given up his name on paper, but set for the fight again, a part of him was eager for it.
He pushed Barranca hard until he saw the specks of his destination visible in the morning light. It had been a year, maybe more, since he’d been here, but a mile or so on, he recognised the ranch house where Ben Jordan lived with his wife. Set against a clear Arizona sky, the Jordan’s home was modest and looked a mite better than it had the last time. A couple of rocking chairs sat on the wide veranda, creaking in a breeze that caught the wind chime, producing an eerie tinkle that made him shudder. He hated them damn things. When nobody answered his knock, it struck Johnny that they might not be here. Neither Ben nor his wife, Meg, was young, but both were tough. He figured the only way they’d leave their land was in a wooden box. Sadly, that might’ve happened. Still with no reply, Johnny walked around back, smiling when he saw Meg retrieving her laundry from the clothes line.
She turned, her weathered hand shielding her eyes for a second before a grin added more wrinkles to her face. “Praise be. Johnny?” She hoisted the wicker basket and held it against her bony hip as she made her way towards him and the house. “This is a wonderful surprise! Come on inside, son, come on in!” Johnny did, following her into a kitchen strewn with even more knickknacks than he remembered. Hand painted plates and other mismatched crockery lined the large oak dresser, along with china figurines of women in fancy frocks and wooden horses carved in various poses. Meg put the empty basket on the floor and pushed it out of sight under the thick knotted table, gesturing for Johnny to sit. “It’ll make Ben’s day to see you again,” she said with a smile, her pale blue eyes twinkling.
Meg chattered on as she made sandwiches out of thick slabs of bread and their very own beef. They had a ‘herd’ of just a dozen or so now, she told him. Financially, they never did recover from those raids. Johnny listened, and when she set a loaded plate in front of him, he ate. Finally, Meg ran out of steam, and placed a hand on the table to steady herself as she slipped into a chair opposite. “There were rumours you were dead,” she said. “We felt real bad ‘bout it. See, we didn’t realise who you were ‘til after. Oh, Ben was kickin’ hisself from here to Texas thinkin’ he should’a known! I tell ‘im he can’t know everythin’, but, Lord, Ben can’t help it. Once a detective... says it’s in his blood.” She wiped her hands on her apron and then reached across and covered Johnny’s hand in her own. “He told ‘em what you said, ‘bout heading back to Mexico. That was okay wasn’t it?”
Her touch was cool and feather-light. “It was okay,” he assured her.
Meg patted his hand and leant back. “It’ll make Ben’s day,” she repeated. “He’ll be back any minute.” And she wasn’t far wrong. Johnny had just finished the last of the sandwiches when they heard the front door and seconds later the drag of Ben’s wooden leg on the floor.
“You in here, Meggy?” Ben pushed the door open and limped inside, his handkerchief pressed to his forehead, daubing the perspiration that gathered there. He was sixty and it showed.
“Sure am, an’ look who else!” Meg got to her feet to greet her husband, clasping his arm as he stared with dawning recognition.
“Well, I’ll be!” A fat grin consumed Ben’s already plump face, and Johnny grinned, too, remembering that Meg wasn’t the only one who could talk up a storm in this household. Still, it was nice. The Jordans had been good to him, two of the few who’d entered his life to remind him that the whole world wasn’t shit, that out there somewhere, amongst the greed and blood, there were some nice people. It was no chore to endure their enthusiasm. He didn’t mind that it wasn’t until after dinner, when Meg left the two men alone, that Johnny got a chance to ask for his favour. Ben poured them both a brandy and then sat down, propping his stumped thigh on a stool.
“Johnny, we owe you. Name it.”
“You don’t owe me,” Johnny said. “But I figure you’re the only one who can help. You still got contacts in the agency?”
Ben nodded. He’d been a Pinkerton agent until the loss of his leg forced his retirement and they’d moved here to help Meg’s kin. “Well go on, spill it.”
“I need to find one of their agents. He calls himself Parker but that’s all I got. He tracked down someone I know in Abilene a couple months ago, offered him money to get me to leave my father’s ranch for good.”
Ben raised a sandy brow. “Any idea why?”
“None, which is where you come in. I need to find this Parker. Figure once I get my hands on him, the truth’ll follow easy.” Johnny allowed no outward indication of his dark thoughts.
“I’ll send a wire to Chicago. See what I can find out.” Ben grinned then. “You know, if you’d only told me you were Madrid when you were here, I might have put two and two together and told ya your pa was looking for you. You were one of the agency’s most stubborn unsolved cases. I’ll find out something for you, Johnny. But it may take a while.”
Johnny nodded, and Ben regarded him over the rim of his glass. “Things didn’t work out with your pa then?” His smile was one of sympathy. “Guess it ain’t easy slotting into a relationship that usually takes a lifetime to build, eh?”
Johnny tossed back the last of the brandy. “No,” he said quietly. He went to rise, but Ben started talking again.
“He sure spent lotta money tryin’ to find you and your mama though. All them years…”
I had the Pinkertons look for you and your mother when I could afford it, sometimes when I couldn’t. Murdoch had said that up on the roof of the cabin where Pardee had done his worst. Johnny wasn’t stupid, that day had been a test. It had made him damn angry that even after two months Murdoch was still seeking reassurance that he wasn’t that type of a man.
Johnny stood. “I’ll be in town.”
“You don’t have to go. Meg’ll make you up a bed right here.” But the shaking of Johnny’s head was adamant.
The hacienda was quiet, or so it seemed on the upper floor. Scott used the stairs into the kitchen, descending into the warm and cosy pull of baking biscuits and the rapid chatter of Maria and Teresa beyond the open back door. His talk with Teresa was fresh in his mind, and while he viewed her mention of love with the knowledge of female fancy, what she’d said had fuelled him with determination to talk candidly with his father.
There were fresh biscuits on the cooling rack and plates beside them. Taking one of each, Scott headed towards the great room. The conversation inside drew him up short.
“There’s no need to gloat. Don’t forget, that while Scotty has no recollection of our conversation, I can soon remedy that.”
“I’m not gloating, Harlan. I’m just surprised you haven’t been up there repeating your twisted version of the truth.” His father sounded weary, and Scott felt his pulse quicken as curiosity sparked a fire trail through his blood.
Unseen, he hesitated in the archway. Murdoch sat at the desk, his face hidden from Scott’s view by Harlan, who stood with his palms flat out on its surface as he leaned forward. “Is it not the truth that you never bothered with the boy for the first five years of his life, or that you never wrote to him?”
“Like you’d have let Scott read my letters!” Murdoch pushed his chair back and the legs screeched across the floor. Scott watched as he strode towards the French doors and stood with his hands in fists, so close to the glass that his nose almost touched. “You told him I walked away, but I don’t imagine you told him that you threatened to drag him through years of court battles, that you were prepared to see him torn apart?”
“Oh, Murdoch, I was prepared for no such thing. It was a bluff to test your mettle so to speak.” Harlan sounded amused. “I always took you for a weak-minded fool and I was right.”
His father sighed loudly and Scott imagined his breath left angry mist on the pane. “Did you really think of Scott once, Harlan, or was it always about me and you?”
Scott chose this moment to make his presence known. “Don’t stop on my account.” He strode into the room and set the plate on the table. “Please, continue.” He was grateful that his voice sounded calm when inside his gut he was anything but. He went to the desk and perched on the edge, folding his arms loosely across his chest.
Unruffled, Harlan surveyed Scott from head to toe. “Ah, Scotty. HHHow are you feeling?”
Enlightened, was what Scott wanted to say, but didn’t. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Murdoch turn from the glass, rubbing one work worn hand over his bristly cheek. Despite his nonchalant pose, Scott felt unsteady and disadvantaged. Again, he wished he could remember recent conversations, but there was no denying what he'd just heard. Scott remembered feeling disappointed with Johnny for misjudging their father so easily after living with the man for a couple of months. It was a painful realisation that you could live with someone for years and never really know him at all.
“I believe you were about to answer my father, sir,” he said quietly.
Stood by the doors, Murdoch watched the scene play out. Outwardly, Scott looked calm, a little pale, but determined. Murdoch figured he had heard most if not all of his and Harlan’s conversation.
Harlan met Scott’s gaze head on. “I did what I thought necessary, and I stand by it. There’s nothing I won’t do to ensure the best for you.”
“And the best means threats and lies, letting me grow up thinking my father wanted nothing to do with me?”
Scott’s voice had risen in anger, and before Murdoch realised it, he was beside his son, his fingers moulding to the rigid tension in Scott’s left shoulder. “Scott, we don’t have to do this now.”
Harlan’s sigh was louder than necessary. “Perhaps, Murdoch, you’d be good enough to give us some privacy. My grandson clearly has things he wishes to get off his chest.”
“I’m staying.” When Scott voiced no objection, Murdoch returned to his spot by the doors. Harlan ignored him, his shrewd gaze still fixed on Scott.
“I raised you Scott, not Murdoch. I took care of you for twenty-four years while he was carving out his little empire."
"With all due respect, sir, I've tried to show my gratitude."
“I don’t want your gratitude!” Harlan said. “You disappoint me. You fail to see what is right in front of your face. You don’t belong out here, and neither did your mother. If I’d have put a stop to her foolishness then she might have lived longer than she did.”
“I’d take a guess that while my mother might not have died if she’d stayed in Boston, she wouldn’t have had much of a life either. It wasn’t what she wanted just as it isn’t what *I* want.”
“You don’t know what you want,” Harlan snapped. “Certain aspects of your behaviour back in Boston made that abundantly clear.”
Scott flushed. “Now wait a minute—”
“No, I won’t wait, Scotty. Not a minute more. It’s high time you ceased this childish rebellion.” Harlan glared at his grandson, and Murdoch bit down on the urge to intercede. Judging by Scott’s wilful expression, the two of them had held similar conversations before. “I’ve already lost Catherine, the only thing of real value in my life—”
“Did you honestly lose her, Grandfather, or did you drive her away?” Scott unfolded his arms and gripped the desk, sitting forward as he addressed Harlan. “If the way you’ve treated me is any indication, I imagine you made her life so miserable she was glad to get away from you!”
For a beat, Harlan looked shocked. Then, without warning, he slapped Scott’s face.
“Harlan!” Murdoch’s gaze flew to Scott who, apart from a flicker of surprise, hadn’t lost his composure and hadn’t moved. Harlan’s cold glare drilled into Scott, but he spoke only to Murdoch.
“I trust you’re happy now, Murdoch. You see what a few months in your boorish company has done to my grandson?” Harlan swallowed, and used the hand he’d struck Scott with to brush infinitesimal dust from his suit. “I’ll pack my things and be ready to leave first thing in the morning. Perhaps if Scotty should rediscover his manners, he’ll partake in escorting me.” Without waiting for a response, he spun on his heel and stalked from the room.
Murdoch let the silence indulge his hesitation.
Scott sighed deeply and walked towards the window. “Well, that was a first.” He was quiet for a moment, and then added, “I shouldn’t have said that about my mother.”
Scott shot him a bemused glance. “You’re defending him.”
Murdoch sighed. “Believe me, I don’t want to, and I certainly don’t approve of his actions. But I suppose I understand what drove him to do the things he did, then and now. He was frightened of losing you. He still is.”
“I’m not his to lose.”
“He’s an old man, Scott, afraid of being alone. And he does care about you. I saw it with my own eyes when you were hurt.”
“I know that. Whatever he may act like, I’ve always known that he cares.” The silent accusation echoed between them. “Everything I overheard…it’s all true isn’t it?” Scott turned to face Murdoch properly for the first time.
“Including the fact that you never once wrote to me and never bothered with me before the time I was five years old?”
Murdoch took a deep, hard breath. “Yes.” He was tempted to leave it there. Already there had been more revelations than he would care to put upon his son, even if by fortuity they had nipped in the bud any further manipulation by Harlan. He fell silent, waiting on a signal from Scott, and when his elder son wandered over to the liquor and poured two glasses, Murdoch figured he had it.
“When your mother died, I was a mess.” He accepted the drink from Scott’s outstretched hand and took a gulp. “Your grandfather wrote to me once, shortly after he got you back to Boston. He assured me you were safe and healthy. I was in no fit state to raise a child alone, let alone a baby, at least that’s what I thought...” Murdoch trailed off. Scott had gone back to the window and was staring out across the land, the glass still in his hand, his drink yet untouched. Murdoch could only assume he was listening. “Later, with Maria, when Johnny was born, I realised I’d been a total fool. In many ways his birth and watching him grow felt bittersweet...I had to live with the knowledge that, by doubting myself as a father, I’d missed out on so much of your life already…I began putting money aside, I planned to make the trip to Boston that fall and bring you home.”
“But then Johnny’s mother left.”
Scott’s voice sounded flat, and Murdoch took another large swallow. “I still wanted you home, son,” he said, disheartened further when Scott remained stoic. “But I knew you were safe. I couldn’t say the same for Johnny. Maria was… She’d run off with a man she’d only just met, she had no way of supporting our son.
I got to Boston as soon as I could. I hadn’t planned it but I arrived in time for your fifth birthday. You were having a party…” Murdoch’s gaze wandered to the liquor. His glass was empty already. “Harlan asked me if I’d come prepared to fight. He talked about years of court battles with you dragged along as key witness. He asked me if I was prepared to see you torn apart. I couldn’t do that to you, son. You had almost everything you needed in Boston, and you didn’t even know I existed. Harlan said if I loved you, I’d walk away. I thought I was doing the right thing.
I thought of you often, but it got harder as the years went by so I immersed myself in this place, tried not to think of you at all. Selfish, I know, but it was the only way I knew…”
Scott drained the contents of his glass. On the other side of the French doors, the barn cat lazed in the sun before arching and stretching on its paws. Murdoch remembered Johnny as the only one who could get near the damn thing. Catching sight of them, the cat gave a hostile hiss and shot across the grass.
“Say something, Scott.”
His son looked at him. “Twenty years with not a word. You could have tried, Murdoch. You should have damn well tried.”
“Yes, I should,” Murdoch admitted. “And I should have told you all this at the start, but I didn’t want the mistakes of the past to ruin our future. What we have, Scott, here and now. That has to be all that counts.”
“I need some air.” Scott reached for the door handle.
“I penned a thousand letters in my head,” Murdoch said softly, urgently. “I never found the guts to send them to you, and not a day goes by where I don’t regret it.”
Scott made no reply at first. He opened the door and the sounds of the day flooded the room. He took a step outside and hesitated. “I believe you’ve been honest with me, sir. Thank you.”
Murdoch watched his son go, knowing he had been honest, too honest perhaps, only time would tell. He watched Scott until he disappeared into the barn, painfully aware that this time, as with Johnny, it felt like he’d sliced his own heart out and offered it for inspection in the palm of his open hand. The only difference this time was that Scott was yet to trample it in his haste to leave him behind.
The sign for the Ramsay ranch had been knocked over and bleached by the sun, but it was legible enough for Johnny to know he’d come to the right place, and Ramsay himself had confirmed it. Moulded comfortably to the saddle in spite of the heat, Johnny rode along the wagon wide path that wove like a dry river bed to the ranch house. Once a modest home, the hacienda was a shell, fire-damaged and crumbling. Three Mexican ranch hands mounted waiting horses and they gave Johnny nervous glances as they trotted past, straw sombreros bouncing on their backs, their shadows cast long in the evening sun.
Johnny reined Barranca to a halt, the smoky scent of scorched wood and dreams still faint in the air. The outbuildings were dilapidated, some destroyed, and the water pump was broken. A lone heifer bellowed not far from Johnny, its ribs clearly visible, the look in its eyes sadder than most. Dropping from Barranca, he landed light on his feet. This was a cattle ranch but it sure was no Lancer. Its patron however…Johnny glanced back at James Ramsay, who remained at the entrance to his property with rifle in hand and defiance in his eyes…he was not unlike Murdoch. He cared enough to sweat it out in the sun all day to protect what was his rather than hide behind closed doors and the guns of other men.
Ramsay was talking with another man now. Pushing his hat back, Johnny watched them, bemused at how the old ways kept finding him, how his shrewd eye detected the honesty in James Ramsay’s character before he’d made the decision to look. But then he knew men, he’d seen the worst of them, hadn’t he? Got real good at gauging the look ‘round their eyes. As the other man started this way, Johnny leaned against Barranca’s flank and waited. How much faith could he place in instinct these days? And he wasn’t here to solve Ramsay’s troubles. He wasn’t looking to hire out. Not now. Not yet. There was only one reason why he was in Tucson.
“Hey, kid. ‘Boss said you’re lookin’ for Jake Cortes?”
The man came close enough for Johnny to see the wisps of wintry hair poking out from his hat, and the way his deeply forged wrinkles flexed as he talked.
“What d’ya want with ‘im?”
“It’s…” Johnny lifted his hat, toying with the idea of telling the old man to mind his own damn business before deciding it was a fair question under the circumstances, even if it was one Johnny had no intention of answering, “…personal,” was what Johnny settled for, dropping the hat back on his head.
“Uh-huh.” The old man began to chew, tobacco juice dribbling down his chin. When he put his hands to his hips, his blue shirt deflated to reveal him as thin as a fencepost. “You got a name, kid?”
Johnny tilted his head and smiled a little. “Well, it sure beats kid.”
The older man’s smile was broader, creasing skin as tough as leather. “Simon Lake.” He thrust out out a work-gloved hand. “Guess ya could say I’m the foreman here.”
Johnny accepted the handshake, feeling the brittle bones of Simon’s fingers even through the thick work gloves. He swept his gaze over the torched property once more. “It sure looks like you’ve got trouble.”
Simon sighed. “Yes sirree. Paul Lowery. Greedy bastard. Determined to make the boss suffer, I reckon. ‘Course James don’t help hisself…Nearly all the men been scared off, or gone to work for Lowery.” Simon paused and then gestured to Johnny’s gun. “If you’re any good with that…”
Johnny’s hand went to his hip, his fingertips brushing the cold steel of the Colt before he moved his hand away. “Thanks, but I ain’t looking.”
Simon nodded. “Reckon that’s fair enough, but if you change your mind…” Simon inclined his head toward the house. “Ya can see for yourself what’s left’a the place. Men’re using the bunkhouse out back, an’ a few pitched tents. Reckon you’ll find Cortes there.”
At the rear of the property, the few assembled tents wavered like white ghosts in a barren landscape, the jingle of Johnny’s spurs lost beneath the rapid snap of tarpaulin flapping in the strong breeze. The door to the charred bunkhouse hung awkwardly from one hinge and grated an arc in the dirt on the floor when Johnny pressed his weight against it.
Inside the air was stale, but Johnny was struck at once by a pungent nostalgia that took him back to endless nights spent inhaling sweat and cow shit in flea pits worse than this. There had been too long a time when it was the only roof over his head he could get. At least this one had a floor even if it was bare planks unlevelled on the ground. It was obvious that many of Ramsay’s hands had cleared out. In Johnny’s experience, you couldn’t usually see the floor for strewn clothes and well-thumbed sheets of newspaper aged to yellow, read to death and waiting for their trip to the outhouse.
Jake wasn’t inside.
Johnny found him beside the corral with his horse, hunched over the black’s upturned hoof, the last rays of sun glinting off the knife he used as a pick. The hem of his black jacket fluttered in the breeze, and he’d heard Johnny approach, the hand with the knife stilled for a second, but he didn’t look up.
Johnny waited for Jake to acknowledge him. When he didn’t, Johnny stepped closer. “I need to talk to you,” he said softly.
The knife flicked over the hoof and dirt sprayed Johnny’s boots.
Johnny ran his hand down the black’s neck and the horse responded, nuzzling forcefully into his shoulder, causing him to side step and Jake to lose the hoof. With a curse, Jake straightened, his hazel eyes skimming Johnny. “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with my ears,” he said. “This is ‘bout that Pink.”
Johnny nodded. “You were right. I do need someone who’ll recognise him.”
“So I need ya to come to Kansas with me.”
Jake swiped both sides of the knife on the arm of his jacket. “Well, now, that’s some favour you’re askin’.”
Jake pointed the blade at Johnny. “And you, Johnny, said no.”
Johnny sighed. “Yeah, I know I did.” With Jake’s gaze fixed on him, Johnny went and perched his butt on the dusty fence rail of the corral, recounting in his head his conversation with Ben Jordan and the disappointment that had come with it. He’d pinned his hopes on Ben giving him something to go on, a place to start looking for the elusive Pinkerton agent, but all Ben’s information confirmed was that Nathan Parker had been fired by the Pinkerton agency eighteen months ago for selling information to rich clients back east. The clients’ names meant nothing to Johnny, and now Parker’s whereabouts were unknown. All Johnny had was Abilene, where Parker had approached Jake.
“So what’s changed?”
As Johnny updated Jake, the drum of horse hooves grew steadily louder until, just as he was finishing, four men on horseback rode into camp. Smithy was among the group, and he spotted Johnny immediately, his gaze narrowing as he looked his way. Well, the anonymity of being ‘Just Johnny’ had been nice while it lasted. Leaning forward, Johnny let his hat fall from his head, catching it in one hand, before meeting Smithy’s gaze with a knowing smile.
Jake pocketed his knife. “Ride out with me. We’ll talk.”
They left the ranch the way Johnny rode in, Ramsay still guarding his gate. As they headed out across the Arizona scrub, Jake told Johnny how Paul Lowery wanted Ramsay’s land for himself. Other, smaller homesteaders had sold up and gone in the face of Lowery’s heavy-handed ways and intimidations. Ramsay wasn’t budging. Opposed to violence, he was using his last cent to defend his land to the last. Problem was, all defence and no offence meant the last would surely come, sooner or later.
They rode for an hour to where the ground elevated towards the mountain ranges and the desert scrub turned to desert grass, pale green and yellow, vibrating in a breeze that dried the sweat cold on their skin. It was on this high ground that Ramsay grazed his cattle and Johnny and Jake weaved their horses along a well used trail until Jake reined the black to a halt at its highest point. Behind them was a towering cliff face, rust red against a darkening sky, and below them the slanting ground strewn with cattle as far as the eye could see. And the eye would see, even as night fell, thanks to the stars that dotted the sky. “From here you can see the boundary of Ramsay’s land and beyond,” Jake said, pointing. “Lowery’s place is just behind that ridge.”
“It always this quiet?”
“Has been. Course we got here after Lowery’s men torched Ramsay’s place.”
“Not so far. Don’t mean they ain’t watchin’.”
Johnny nodded. There was a hell of a lot of beauty out here, but it was hard to appreciate it, knowing the danger it hid. One of the things he’d appreciated most about Lancer was the freedom to ride and explore with the wind in your face and no target on your back.
Jake dismounted, took his rifle and settled, but Johnny remained on Barranca, concealed in the cliff’s expansive shadow. The clouds on the horizon were as flat as tortillas, purple against the pink and orange sky. Beautiful, like his first sunset at Lancer after Pardee had shot him. He’d thought he was in perfect company then, just him, Barranca, and a bottle of tequila, smuggled out contrary to doctor’s orders. It had come as one hell of a shock when the old man came to stand beside him, and for a few minutes it hadn’t even been awkward, until Johnny’s blood had started racing as he frantically fought for something to say, something light, casual, in keeping with the moment. Maybe Murdoch sensed the awkwardness for he’d gone then, but not before laying a solid hand on Johnny’s shoulder and confiscating the bottle.
“So where’d you go?” Jake’s question brought Johnny back to the present, to the gentle lull of cattle and the strong aroma of creosote bushes. “After I saw ya last. Where’d you get to?”
Johnny slid from Barranca, the sound of his boots connecting with the rocky ground muffled by a blanket of spike moss glowing silver in the dusk light. He removed his rifle from its scabbard.
“I heard ya.” Johnny joined Jake, and propped his rifle against a boulder, still warm to the touch from the sun. “I was in Mexico.”
“Mexico. Of all the damn places…”
“You don’t need to say it.”
Jake snorted. “I wouldn’t waste my breath.” He turned away, and checked the sight of his rifle.
Under his breath, Johnny counted to three.
“Ya do know it was only four months ago you were sentenced to death in Mexico? They were ready to kill ya. You think that’s changed? You think them rurales have memories as short as their dicks?”
“Well, I can’t say that’s somethin’ I’ve thought ‘bout.”
Jake stared at him for a long moment, before lowering his chin and shaking his head to rid his face of the trespassing grin. “You don’t change, Boy.”
Johnny turned his back on the cattle, slouching against the rocks, one jagged boulder slotting between his shoulder blades. “Figure everyone changes, Jake,” he said softly, scooping a handful of dirt from the ground and letting the finer grains drain through his fingers. Around him, the night drew closer, pressing down on him with a humid hand. “I went to her grave.”
Jake grunted. “There’ll be a storm tonight.”
“The padre, he’s been taking care of her.”
“Yeah?” Johnny heard Jake shift position. “Look, I know I ain’t been there much…it should be my responsibility…”
“Not just yours.” Johnny removed his hat and shook his head, allowing the air through his damp hair.
“Why’d you go there?”
“Oh I dunno…figured it might help me make sense of things.” The hat now balanced between his knees, Johnny stared into it, knowing he had about as much chance of finding the answers in its upturned brim as he’d had at his mother’s gravesite.
Johnny deposited the hat back on his head in one swift move. “Nope.”
“Some things don’t make no sense, Johnny. You should know that.” Jake glanced at him. “Forget about finding the Pink. Just let it go.”
“How can I?” Johnny snapped, slapping his palms against the ground as he fought the urge to stand up and pace. “Someone knows enough to use you to get to me. And that ain’t the only thing Ben told me. This Pinkerton was one of the ones Murdoch had look for me when I was a kid. Now that might be a coincidence but it sure as hell ain’t one I’m comfortable with.”
Jake was silent, then he said, “Maybe someone has a grudge against your brother or Murdoch Lancer.”
“And if that’s the case then why the hell should I care?”
“Because I do.”
He could practically hear Jake’s back teeth grind together.
“Tell me you’re only talkin’ ‘bout your brother now?” Jake gritted those words out, and they caused Johnny to hesitate, rotating the beads on his wrist as he considered his reply. Was he only talking about Scott? The thought that someone meant harm to his brother sure didn’t sit well, but what about Murdoch? “No, I’m not just talkin’ ‘bout Scott,” Johnny answered, so quiet he wasn’t sure he’d even spoken aloud until he raised his head and saw the dark shift of Jake’s expression. Johnny took a deep breath, and a flash of moonlight on metal caught his eye, the rumble of several galloping horses replacing the uncertainty in his chest. Jake saw the flash too, and they raised their rifles, scooting forward across the shadowy rock.
They watched the riders, indistinct figures, charge the herd, shooting and stampeding, the gunfire sparking like the lit fuses of dynamite. Without thinking about it, Johnny squeezed off a few shots from his rifle and Jake did the same, the resonation of the shots exploding against the cliff like the gunfire of a dozen men. As soon as the men realised they had company, they whooped it up one last time, shooting a few of the panicked cattle and sending their bodies thudding to the dust. Johnny reloaded, got to his feet and ran to Barranca, swinging into the saddle. Then, from the dark shadows of the trail, they burst out into the open, and fired off a couple more shots. Jake alongside him, their horses neck and neck, Johnny set off in pursuit of the night riders. Jake got one, Johnny got two; the men fell from the saddles with their wild shouts on their lips. Just a few more black shapes in the desert.
The remaining three weren’t enjoying themselves anymore. Voluminous clouds of black dust swirled into the night air as they urged their horses faster to escape the bearing presence of Barranca and the black. As they approached the property line, Jake slowed down, eventually reining his horse to a standstill. “This is the end of Ramsay’s land,” he explained to Johnny breathlessly. “This is as far as we go.”
Johnny listened to the sounds of the horses until they faded to nothing. His own heart was pummelling his chest. Dragging his shirtsleeve over the sheen of sweat on his brow, Johnny caught Jake’s eye. “It’s been quiet, huh?”
Jake laughed as he reloaded his rifle. “Yeah, well, you always did attract trouble.”
Johnny led Barranca over to where one of the men lay. Squatting, he flipped the body to discover the man not quite dead, despite the moonlight painting a white, eerie mask on his features. Black blood trickled from the corner of his lip, bubbled from the exit wound on his chest. “Shit.” Johnny stood and looked away, kicking the man’s fallen gun across the ground out of reach. Not that he’d be using it again. His death gasp whispered right into Johnny’s ear. Something about out here; sounds carried further across the flatter ground, bounced off the mountains like bullets.
“They’re dead.” Jake gestured with his thumb to the other two bodies. He paused, rubbing his hand up and down his bristled cheek. He looked at Johnny. “About the Pink…”
“Forget it.” Johnny had mounted Barranca and held the reins tight as the restless horse turned a tight circle.
“I’ll come to Abilene, but first I gotta finish this.”
Johnny stared at Jake, searching his shadowed face for the anger he’d seen earlier. It was no longer there, buried too deep, or lost to the night like the absent wind.
“Storm’s movin’ in the other direction,” Jake observed as he settled in the saddle. “Look Johnny, I know ya don’t want this,” he gestured toward the dead men, food for the vultures come morning. “So go on back to Tucson. If Ramsay ain’t prepared to fight then I figure this pretty much over. I’ll be along just as soon as it is.”
Johnny took one last look at the bodies, and for the first time called into question his obsession with finding the Pinkerton agent. Maybe Jake was right about everything. What did it matter, the whys and wherefores? And yeah, he’d told Jake he was done with this life. But that was when he thought he had something different. Now this was all he had, right?
This is all there ever was.
When they got back, they discovered Lowery’s men had attacked there, too. The tents were destroyed, the bunkhouse alight. Three men were dead: two ranch hands paying for their loyalty with their lives, and one of the men paid to protect the place. Ramsay himself had taken a bullet to the shoulder. Johnny glanced over the bodies before they covered them with saddle blankets and attracted scores of flies. If Ramsay gave in to Lowery now, then these men died in vain. Johnny’s gaze sought Ramsay’s. The ranch owner looked understandably troubled. It was clear to see, even in the flickering light of the torch Simon held aloft, that his eyes clouded with pain of the worst kind. Although he kept his hand pressed keenly to his wound, blood still sluiced through his fingers.
“It’s over,” James Ramsay said in a quiet voice. “Simon’ll pay you what you’re due, then you can leave.”
“Ramsay—” Jake began.
“I thank ya for all you’ve done, but like I said, it’s finished.” With difficulty, Ramsay got to his feet and trudged back to what was left of his home.
“I’ll talk to ‘im.” Simon’s gaze darted around the assembled men. “Please, no one leave yet. Let me talk to ‘im.”
“Hell, I ain’t goin’ anywhere ‘til I get paid,” Smithy huffed and a few of the others nodded their agreement. Johnny shook his head and turned away, watching the skinny outline of Simon as he hurried after his employer and friend.
The Saguaro cacti stood tall, silhouetted against the luminous sky like protectors of the property, while back behind the hacienda sat the men paid to be just that. They lazed around talking, waiting for Simon to return and tell them if there was still a job to be done.
Johnny wasn’t with the others. He’d wandered away until only the occasional bark of rough laughter reached his ears, a contrast with how it had been when they’d first returned and witnessed the results of Lowery’s attack. The air had pulsed with heat and racing hearts while smoke from the smouldering bunkhouse filled their lungs and eyes. Now the Tucson desert was as quiet as a cemetery, apart from the bats that squeaked and swooped in the sky. Cold sweat trickled down Johnny’s neck, his shirt clung to his skin. As a kid, he believed that on Dia de los Muertos, a swarm of bats signalled the impending arrival of the dead from the afterworld. The angelitos would come first, those who had died young, then the adults and the elders. Finally, it would the ‘espiritus malevolentes’, the spirits of those who had died tragic, violent deaths. In spite of the day of the dead being several months away, as the bats gathered on the strong, prickly arms of the Saguaros, Johnny half-expected his mother to appear from the shadows, having risen from a grave sprinkled with marigolds.
Maria never had played by anyone else’s rules.
Footsteps that had gone undetected now shrieked a warning and Johnny whirled around. Ramsay knew his mistake, only lowering his hands when Johnny lowered his gun.
“Mind if I join you?”
Johnny put his Colt away. “It’s your property.” He turned and folded his arms on top of the fence. “For now anyway.” He heard Ramsay moving and a second later he was beside him, mirroring Johnny’s stance against the fence.
Shit. He was getting careless. If that had been someone other than Ramsay… What was it with thoughts of his mother lately? Maria had been dead for years, forgotten almost, except maybe on that ‘last’ night. He’d thought about her then, as he’d thought about many things. A man had a right to be sentimental knowing he’d be dead come morning.
“You think I’m a fool.”
Johnny glanced at Ramsay. The silvery light gave the man a haunted look; his cheeks looked gaunt, the whites of his eyes watery yellow. He had his shoulder bandaged now, his right arm in a sling, but the smell of spilled blood lingered in the air and would for some time to come. Johnny scuffed his boot against the fence. “Lowery don’t mind killin’. He has killed here, tonight. You’re either prepared to fight for what’s yours in a way he’ll understand, or you ain’t. Can’t call a man a fool for doing what feels right.”
“I don’t want to be like him.”
“I understand that,” Johnny said, and he did. But this was rough country and when it came to range wars, you got out what you put in. “But I’m guessin’ you fought hard for this land, Mr. Ramsay, in every other way that counts.”
In the darkness, the older man sighed. “It’s not much of a choice.”
Johnny tugged the brim of his hat. “Nope.”
“I have heard of Johnny Madrid,” Ramsay said after a moment’s silence. “I’m not as naïve as people believe me to be. Why didn’t you tell me who you were at the start?”
Johnny shrugged. “Did it matter? I wasn’t interested in working for you.”
Johnny turned to look across the mostly destroyed property. He thought of the Pinkerton agent, and his quest for the unanswerable. “Well, Ramsay, I guess that depends on you.”
Ramsay nodded. “Paul Lowery is my half-brother. His father, his married father, was mine too. Not many people know it.”
Johnny cocked his head at that. Ramsay was chewing his bottom lip.
“When Paul started doing this, I thought he’d leave me out of it. I guess I thought that the family connection meant something to him. I believed that what he’d done to the other ranchers, he wouldn’t do to me out of respect for our shared blood.” Ramsay looked embarrassed. “I guess when it comes to your kin you want to see the good in them. I see my own flesh and blood, but Paul just sees his father’s bastard.”
He turned to face Johnny. “Okay, Mr. Madrid. Will you do what has to be done?”
There were six other men prepared to stay. They sat around a low fire on hay bales or anything they could find, laughing, cursing and exchanging wild stories. Smithy led the conversation of course—the king of bullshit—and he’d wasted no time luring the others into a card game, gambling the pay he’d only just received.
Jake ignored them. His mouth was dry, and there was coffee, but as he wiped his face with his bandana, he knew his hankering was for a glass of cool beer in a saloon with a good lookin’ woman doing the serving. It was several miles to Tucson’s saloons and dance halls, restaurants and a fresh bed. And if Ramsay’s tail had remained tucked between his legs then they might have been riding out at first light, to all those things, or maybe, instead, to Abilene…
Jake’s gaze drifted to Johnny, who sat apart from the others, knees up, head lowered, chewing on a stem of long grass. He hadn’t said a word, but every so often at a roar of laughter or crude comment, he’d look up in Smithy’s direction and frown.
The men’s conversation turned to the situation at hand, and Smithy outlined his plan for Lowery. Only half-listening, Jake watched Johnny. How much did he have to do with Ramsay’s sudden change of heart? Jake wasn’t a gambler like Smithy, but he’d have bet every one of the dollar bills rolled into his boot that Ramsay didn’t have the balls to take it further. Right from the start Ramsay had played this like a man who knew he’d lost. Now he was talking about burning barns and busting heads? Jake couldn’t figure why Johnny would talk him into something like that, not when he’d rode all this way just to convince Jake into making the trip to Abilene. Jake stared at Johnny, willing the boy to look at him. Sure enough he did, briefly, his gaze disinterested before he looked away.
Jake peeled off his jacket and tossed it aside. Johnny needed to lose the attitude and fast. He’d said he’d go with him, what more did Johnny want from him than that? By rights, Jake should be the one pissed off. Even knowing what Murdoch Lancer had done didn’t stop Johnny caring. The boy needed some sense shaking into him, but Jake had let it go, knowing that Johnny could be too damn soft-hearted at times. It was a trait inherited from Maria. She’d always cared about the wrong people, too.
“Smithy, you’re talkin’ shit.”
Well, it sure didn’t sound like Johnny was feeling soft-hearted now.
Smithy narrowed his eyes. “You got a better plan?”
Johnny looked up. “Yeah maybe.”
“You gonna share it then?”
“Let them come to us. That’s all.”
Smithy snorted. “No wonder you ended up in front of a firin’ squad.” He turned back to the others and began repeating his plan that he, Jake, Ernie and Wilson would ride out tonight to a line shack located a few miles west and make an attack from there while Simon, Ramsay and the rest of the men stayed here in case Lowery came back for more.
Jake watched the others as they listened to Smithy’s plan. A few of the men were nodding in obvious agreement, but a few of the others looked uncertain, like it should be Johnny Madrid they were listening to. However they soon realised Johnny wasn’t about to argue for his plan when he lowered his head to smirk at the dust.
“How much you gettin’ paid for this, Madrid?” Smithy asked.
“Oh a lot more than you. I made sure of it.”
From his seat on the hay, Jake shook his head and rubbed the back of his hand against his bristly cheek. It had always been like this between these two. He’d been a fool to think that several years break from each other would make a difference.
Smithy picked up his cards, his gaze flicking over them. “Madrid here might have this faster than hell reputation, but don’t let it scare ya’ll,” he announced to the group, a sly grin appearing on his bearded face. “You wanna hear a story ‘bout Madrid, fellers?”
Nobody spoke, but they all looked interested. A couple of them were young, their presence as with Johnny’s, a silent reminder to Jake that he was not only older, but slower too, living on borrowed time. When these two had seen Johnny Madrid outside, they’d nudged each other unsubtly. Jake had seen Johnny frown, a sigh much older than his years escaping as a yawn.
“He weren’t always so tough.”
As Smithy regaled the group with a tale of one of Johnny’s many youthful misdemeanours, unfortunately not exaggerated, Jake watched Johnny but the boy’s head lowered, his expression hidden beneath a mop of black hair and shadow.
“He knew he was in for it, an’ he tried to run, but he was too slow. Jake over there caught him and whomped him good. Ain’t that right, Johnny Boy?” A few men laughed nervously, but a smirking Smithy didn’t notice.
Johnny’s sigh was loud and deliberate, and when he raised his head to Smithy, his expression clearly said he was on his last reserve of patience.
“Every time I look at you, I still see a snot-nosed kid, snivelling ‘cause his tail was on fire.”
“Now, Smithy, that kinda mistake’ll get you killed,” Johnny drawled.
Smithy pressed his cards down.
“Any time you’re ready.” Johnny’s quiet self-assurance prompted Jake to his feet.
“Smithy,” Jake called loudly. “You jawin’ or playin’?” He walked over and sat down, aware that Smithy and Johnny remained locked in their stare. “Smithy, you gonna take my money or not? Deal me in.” He reached into his boot and pulled out his roll of dollar bills, tossing it onto the table. Unable to resist, Smithy flicked his gaze down, his eyes widening at the sight of cash. With half his mission accomplished, Jake turned to Johnny. “In or out?” he asked.
Finally, Johnny’s gaze drifted his way. “I’m out,” he said, and Jake didn’t miss the fact that everyone except Smithy tensed as he got to his feet.
As soon as Johnny disappeared, Smithy crumpled his cards in his fist. “Why the hell do you protect ‘im?” he snapped.
Jake stared at his friend, and then shook his head. “Smithy, you’re an idiot. It ain’t him I’m protectin’.”
Half an hour later, the saddled horses were ready to leave for the line shack. If Ramsay or Simon knew of Johnny’s dissatisfaction with the plan, then neither said anything. In fact, Johnny had made himself scarce since the altercation with Smithy, and that made Jake suspicious. You never could tell which way Johnny was going to play it, but Jake had never known him to go along with a plan he thought made no sense.
As Smithy, Ernie and Wilson mounted up, Jake sought Johnny out, finding him fussing over his horse, the moonlight reflected in the palomino’s mane and coat. As Jake drew closer, Johnny stopped his fussing and tightened the cinch instead.
“You’re coming then,” Jake observed.
“You sound surprised.”
“Well maybe I wouldn’t wanna miss being there when Smithy’s plan falls apart.” Johnny shrugged.
Jake gave him a measured stare. “There’s nothin’ to say it will.”
“There’s nothin’ to say it won’t.”
“Why’d ya wind him up?”
“Me?” Johnny’s head shot up, he looked indignant and just for a moment, fifteen years old again.
“Johnny.” Jake grabbed Johnny’s arm as he went to turn. “One of these days Smithy’ll end up shootin’ at ya. I don’t wanna see him dead.”
Johnny shook off Jake’s hold. “Why’d you bother with him? I mean, I know he saved your life years ago, but you’ve saved his ten times over.”
“Just don’t wind him up, that’s all I’m sayin’.”
Johnny frowned. “You sure? Cause it seems like you’re askin’ me to take whatever he dishes out and not do a thing ‘bout it.”
“I’m not askin’ that.”
Johnny held Jake’s gaze for a few seconds before he gave a nod of his head and handed over Barranca’s reins. Puzzled, Jake stared at them. “What ya givin’ me these for?”
“You take Barranca. I need to borrow your horse.”
He kept to the shadows; it wasn’t hard, it felt like he’d been doing that most of his life. He didn’t need additional light, the great Arizona sky was enough. The glass of the window pane reflected the stars, as did the crowbar he carried. He worked quickly, and as silently as possible, jimmying a downstairs window until it scraped open, the sound as loud as a scream across the desert. Well, not everything could go his way.
Johnny eased himself inside the dark ranch house. Silence. Content with that, he made his way through the house, treading lightly on rugs whenever possible. He passed through a large room on his way to the staircase; Lowery’s family crest hung above the fireplace, and a case of rifles were on display near the desk. He was about to move on when another display caught his eye and halted his step. On the table nearest the door sat a collection of model ships like the one Murdoch displayed proudly in the great room. He hurried on, his footsteps heavier, echoing in the dark.
Once upstairs he made his way along the corridor. He listened at each door before twisting the handle of one and edging it open. The two lumps in the bed were motionless but snored loudly. Stepping inside, he surveyed the room. Lace drapes hung at the windows but enough moonlight penetrated the flimsy fabric.
He wasted no time. Once comfortable in the shadowy armchair facing the bed, he noisily cleared his throat. “Hey, Lowery.”
Sleep cleared quickly for the big man. He lunged for the pistol he kept on his bedside table, only to find it wasn’t there. Johnny held it up with his left hand, his right hand holding steady the Colt that pointed directly at the now stirring second lump on the bed. As Mrs. Lowery sat up, bleary eyed, her hair streaming in tresses down her nightgown, Lowery reached out his arm across her front. Johnny read Lowery’s fears as if the lamp was lit. He noted the protective gesture. Well, that’s how it should be. Johnny gave the frightened woman a charming smile. “Sorry to disturb ya, Ma’am,” he said. “Just need to discuss some things with your husband here.” Her eyes widened in fear.
“Who the hell are you?” Lowery growled through a full, thick beard.
“Madrid. Johnny Madrid.” Johnny paused. “James Ramsay’s payin’ me a whole lotta money to kill you.”
Lowery’s eyes widened in surprise, but he soon recovered. “So what are you waitin’ for?” he challenged, only to flinch at his wife’s muffled sob. She moulded so tight to his side it was like they were one.
“I thought I’d offer you a way out.”
“What sort of out?”
“Oh, I dunno. Say I let you go back to sleep tonight, and you give me your word that you’ll leave Ramsay’s ranch alone.”
“Not quite. You’ll have to pay for the repairs to his home. Seems only fair to me seein’ as how you’re the one who destroyed it.”
Johnny pretended to think about this. “Well, then there’s the cattle he lost. The cattle your men killed.”
Lowery glowered. “Forget it.” His wife sobbed again. Johnny figured her fingernails sunk deep into her husband’s bicep by now.
Sighing loudly, Johnny shook his head. “Now that just ain’t sensible, Lowery. Look at your wife there, she’s plain terrified.” He gestured toward the rancher’s wife with his gun. Lowery swallowed. He was about to agree, Johnny almost had him, when Mrs Lowery’s tear-stained face peeked out from behind her husband, and she glared at Johnny like the devil.
“Don’t you give into him, Paul,” she whispered. “Don’t you let that Ramsay bastard win.”
Well, shit. Johnny ducked his head. Trust it to be a woman callin’ my bluff. He looked up with no trace of his amusement. “Have it your way,” Johnny said with regret as he rose to his feet, the gun still ready. “But the next time we meet, I’ve a feelin’ I’ll be killin’ you.”
Johnny tucked Lowery’s revolver into the waistband of his pants and sauntered to the door. Pausing with one hand on the handle, he pointed his gun in the woman’s direction. “That’s a pretty nightgown, Miz. Lowery. Makes a man real interested in what’s underneath.”
“You sonofabitch,” Lowery growled, barely restraining himself as all traces of his wife’s glare dissolved into tears.
Johnny smiled, slipped out of the room and closed the door, turning the key in the lock behind him as he breathed a sigh of relief. Within seconds, light from a lamp slithered under the door and Lowery started shouting, but by that time, Johnny was at the end of the upper hall. Alerted by the commotion, Johnny heard voices downstairs, so he raised the sash of a window and climbed out, his silhouette dropping gracefully to the lower roof and then the ground. Crouched low, Johnny hastened across the desert to where the black waited. He mounted up and sat still in the saddle, watching various windows of the ranch house infuse with a soft orange glow. Only when, a few minutes later, he saw small beacons of light bob and weave from the house to the outbuildings, did Johnny turn the black around and head at a steady pace in the direction of Ramsay’s line shack.
To be fair to Smithy, this actually was a pretty good spot. Nestled in the skirts of the mountains on the west side of Ramsay’s property, the line shack was hidden by clustered pine trees, the scent of them a nice change from the hot dry dust thrown up every time the black’s hooves hit the steep and narrow trail. Lowery’s men would never have expected an attack from here, and they’d never have found it. You had to know where to look. Thankful that Ramsay’s directions had been good, Johnny urged the black on, faster now than his initial pace. He could feel the sun hot against his back, even though at this early hour it had barely crowned the horizon. He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder.
“It’s Madrid,” he called out once the timber shack was in view, and Ernie lowered his gun. All the saddled horses, Barranca among them, waited by the trees, the only ground that would be shaded by the time that sun was fully up. Dismounting from the black, Johnny left it with the rest, took his rifle, and headed inside.
“Where the hell’ve you been?”
Johnny ignored Smithy, his gaze sweeping the shack. There was no entrance to the rear, only one window frame, glassless. There were two glazed windows at the front and one on the side, as well as the front door. The shack had only been occupied for an hour or so but the stench of old sweat, gun oil and tobacco was enough to confirm it was too small to hold several men for even a short length of time. Johnny grimaced.
“I asked you a question, Madrid,” Smithy snapped.
Johnny checked his rifle. “I’ve been doing what you can’t. Finding a way to end this.” He picked up another rifle propped by the door and checked that one too.
“And just how you plannin—”
Ernie fell into the shack, a call of nature cut short judging by the way he hitched up his pants. Breathing hard, he grappled with his gun belt, and gasped, “Lowery’s just over the hill!”
“By hisself?” Smithy asked.
“Hell no!” Ernie panted. “He’s got a dozen men with ‘im.”
All around Johnny was a flurry of activity as the men picked up their weapons and took position near the windows. Jake was the only one who didn’t react. He sat where he was and eyed Johnny. “This is your plan?” he asked flatly.
Johnny ignored him. Pressed against the wall, he nosed his rifle through a hole in the window pane. The men on horseback could be seen clearly now, Lowery unmistakeable with his hulking frame and fiery red beard. Johnny waited for them to get in range, and then he fired.
The return fire was swift and sure. Bullets pummelled the shack and its windows. Shards of glass sprayed inward, pain flared and wood splintered. Men shouted and went down, the rest scattering amongst the trees. Empty shell casings hit the shack floor regularly and it was just too damn dangerous to be on your feet. Ernie took a bullet and fell face first out the door. “You see how many men he’s got? You’ve damn well killed us, Madrid!” Johnny heard Smithy yell as he threw himself down.
His elbows scraping through the debris, Johnny inched his way to the door. The smell of gunpowder was choking, and the bullets were still coming.
Then it all went quiet. At least Johnny figured it had; the shots still ricocheted inside his head.
“Ramsay, Madrid, I know you sonsofbitches are in there!”
Johnny glanced around the shack, and then crawled forward until he reached the partially open door, using Ernie’s body for cover as he peeked through the gap. Sure enough Lowery and the six or so men still standing were done with their rifles and advanced on the shack with handguns drawn. Rising to his feet, Johnny stepped outside. He heard boots follow him out.
Lowery’s men were quick to start shooting, quick and still that bit too far away. Johnny held his ground, not shooting, calmly waiting until the bullets drove into the dust just inches from his boots. Then he drew. Sixshooters exploded and it was over in a minute, taking longer for the echo and smoke to clear.
When it did, bodies littered the ground, bleeding life into the dirt.
Ramsay’s men stood, dazed, not daring to breathe in case they discovered they couldn’t, subtly checking their clothes for telltale blood. Lowery’s men were all down, and Jake and Johnny, his head still pounding, walked amongst them, peeling spent guns out of dead or dying fingers.
Satisfied there was no further threat, Johnny and Jake turned back to the shack where Smithy waited for them, his intent clear as his right hand hovered over his holster.
“You set us up, you bastard!”
One of these days Smithy’ll end up shootin’ at ya, Jake had said. And it looked like he might’ve finally found the balls. Jesus. Johnny wanted to cross the distance between them and punch the last rotting teeth from Jed Smith’s mouth. This was the last thing he needed.
“Don’t be a damn fool!” Jake yelled, but Smithy kept his gaze and his hand steady.
“You mean you ain’t got nothin’ to say ‘bout this? You ain’t mad he almost got us killed?”
“It all worked out,” Jake insisted. “There ain’t the need for this.”
Johnny didn’t take his eyes off Smithy. Bloody perspiration dripped down the man’s forehead, must be stinging his eyes, and behind him the others watched, captivated. Jake stood to Johnny’s right. Although he hadn’t said another word, he was talkin’ real loud.
“Alright.” Johnny made as if to raise his hands in surrender. Smithy blinked, surprised maybe, and Johnny drew. Smithy’s gun hit the deck seconds before his knees, and he stayed like that, on his knees in shock from having the gun spun from his grasp.
Not bothering to hide his anger now, Johnny stalked forward and snatched the Colt from the ground. While Smithy massaged his gun hand with his other, Johnny leant into his face. “That was a favour to Jake, but I swear it’s the last one. Try it again and I’ll kill you.”
“Are you leaving first thing?”
Teresa’s question to his father brought Scott up short at the base of the stairs. He heard the clink of his father’s crystal decanter as it touched the rim of a glass. “That’s the plan,” Murdoch replied finally, after what Scott guessed was a mouthful of pre-dinner scotch. “I want to stop off at Ted Martin’s place on the way.”
“Did you ask Scott again?”
“I’m sure if he changed his mind he would tell me.”
“Well, I suppose that depends on how you ask him.”
He imagined her sigh in the pause, and he made to move, only to falter with what she said next. “Scott’s unhappy, Murdoch. You could look for Johnny, hire the Pinkerton agency again…”
Combing his fingers through his still damp hair, Scott strode into the great room. “Good evening, Teresa. Murdoch.” His father held out a drink for him and he accepted, murmuring his thanks before taking a sip of brandy and studying the pair over the rim of his glass. Teresa looked worried, Murdoch damned uneasy. “What’s this about Johnny?”
“I was suggesting to Murdoch that he could hire the Pinkerton agency again…”
Scott could feel Murdoch’s pale eyes on him, and it was as if he searched for something...forgiveness? Scott had never been one to hold a grudge, life was too short, and he’d seen enough men die young to know it, but he was finding it hard to forget.
“Murdoch?” Teresa pressed.
“Hmm...?” Murdoch turned to her. “Johnny’s not lost this time, sweetheart.” There was strain to his voice, the hoarseness of bitter pain he was trying to conceal for Teresa’s sake.
“Well, that’s not entirely true! Why, Scott said Johnny’s stepfather wanted him to leave, told Johnny more lies about his mother…is it any wonder if he’s confused about how things really are?”
“Teresa, I know you mean well...”
Scott took a large mouthful of brandy. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, refilling his glass. “I’m actually not that hungry. Please pass on my apologies to Maria.” Scott caught Murdoch’s nod without really having to look at him. He couldn’t, not right now. He left the great room, his fingers curled tight around the glass in his hand, retrieving his gun belt on the way, and was it his imagination or had Teresa lowered her voice?
“Scott liked having him here. It’s just not the same...Scott’s not the same since his grandfather…”
Resting the gun belt over his shoulder, Scott took another large mouthful and slipped out of the door. Teresa might be right, he hadn’t been the same these past weeks, but that had little to do with Johnny. Yes, he missed him, but missed more the comfort gained from his brother’s presence—a tangible reminder that he was not the only one struggling with the enigma of Murdoch Lancer. He knew one thing for certain though—he wouldn’t leave. He’d signed his name to the partnership papers with more than just ink. And he was a man who kept his promises.
Closing the door behind him, Scott rested the glass on the stone wall of the veranda and buckled on his gun belt, a simple act it had taken him ages to adopt without reminder. He’d lost count of the times he’d left the hacienda behind his brother, only for Johnny to whistle, pointing back inside with a shake of his head. He wasn’t likely to forget these days.
The evening air was warm and sweet, and as he sipped the brandy, it struck him how this place, so richly alive with the newness of summer, had worked its spell in just three short months. This season’s changes to the landscape were soft and subtle, as if an artist had added a few brushstrokes here and there with a different palette. For the first time in his life, Scott felt he knew a little of what was in his mother’s heart when she came out here from Boston... He glanced down at his drink and smiled; a glass too much perhaps, but he liked the notion all the same.
“Evenin’ Mister Lancer.”
Scott looked up at the greeting to see Walt pause, the hand of his good arm lifting the brim of his hat, his other arm strapped to his chest to minimise the movement of his wounded shoulder. The wound had got infected soon after the shooting, and Scott knew Walt had spend days fighting a fever. Setting his glass down again, Scott walked over.
“Evening, Walt. How’s the recovery going?”
Walt glanced down at his shoulder. “Takin’ too long to heal,” he said. “There’s only so much polishin’ leather a man can do with one hand.”
“You know, you don’t have to be here,” Scott pointed out. “Take some time at home, recover properly. We’ll pay you of course. It’s the least we can do after you saved my life.”
Walt shook his head. “Can’t be sittin’ ‘round idle no more. ’Sides, Elspeth’s just ‘bout ready ta burst with that baby...she ain’t good company right now.”
Scott smiled. “Just take it easy. I’m sure that’s what my father would say, too.”
Walt nodded. He went to move off, only to teeter on one leg before turning to face Scott full on. “’Hear they never found the Jamisons.”
“No, but it’s not really surprising. I’m sure they thought they had a couple of murders under their belts.”
Walt snorted and he teetered again, still hesitating. “Reckon they had a problem with you from the start.”
“With me specifically?”
“Uh huh. We reckoned...well, we reckoned it was...” The discomfort on the man’s face was plain to see and it was tempting to let him flounder, only Walt had done him great service and it was only right to rescue him back. “You thought they were trying to figure out what a man like me was doing giving the orders, when I didn’t know the first thing about ranching myself?”
Walt looked downright uneasy, but he still met Scott’s enquiring gaze. “Somethin’ like that,” he agreed.
Scott sighed. “Is there anything else I should know?”
“Yessir.” Walt straightened a fraction. “’Reckon the men were wrong. ‘Reckon they know it now, too.”
Scott smiled. “Not so wrong back then.”
“You’re a lot like your Pa, if ya don’t mind me sayin’.”
Scott’s smile faded. “Goodnight, Walt.”
“G’night, Mister Lancer.”
Walt walked off, holding himself stiff, obviously in pain, and Scott’s own fingers found their way to the scar on his forehead. Strange to think that for several days he’d suffered amnesia that had robbed him of the beginnings of the truth. He may as well have lived the last twenty-four years in a state of amnesia for all they meant now. He probed the site of the wound, almost lost behind his longish fringe, and he remembered how Harlan had suggested a haircut just before he left, unable to resist the comment despite knowing any suggestion right then would be unwelcome. Scott suspected Grandfather had hoped he would come to his senses at Cross Creek. Maybe jump aboard the train, tossing his western hat and gun belt to the platform in an overdue and explicit moment of clarity. It would certainly explain why Harlan had remained stoic and unrepentant right up to the moment he boarded the train, even insisting Scott take him to the telegraph office en route. It had all changed when they shook hands at boarding time; Grandfather had leaned out the train car clasping Scott’s hand tight, as if an old man approaching seventy-five could physically haul a man aboard fifty years his junior. Scott sighed. Forgive an old fool, Scotty, his grandfather had mouthed, any emotion in his voice lost beneath the shriek of the train’s whistle as the coupling rods squeaked and the wheels turned. Scott had nodded that he would try, even though it felt insurmountable then and still.
He’d remained on the platform even after the train had pulled out, watching it follow the track until smoke from the stack was the only thing visible, the smell of hot metal and axle grease a faint whiff of progress that reminded him painfully of Boston.
“He should take some time off.”
Murdoch stepped forward so they were standing side by side watching Walt until he disappeared into the bunkhouse.
“I said as much to him but I think he prefers it here. He said something about his wife being...difficult.”
“Ah. I remember a woman can be rather irrational when there’s nothing she can do but wait. Their baby must be due any day.”
There was a smile in Murdoch’s voice, and Scott nodded, glancing sidelong at his father who stared ahead, lost in thoughts of...what? Catherine, ripe and heavy with her own child, begging her husband to leave with her, to choose her and their baby over his precious piece of land? Had she shed tears over her husband’s stubborn refusal? Had Murdoch termed her irrational too, as he bundled her out the door?
“You know it’s not too late for you to change your mind about coming with me tomorrow. You’d do well to learn how we handle the contracts...”
Scott shook his head. “There’s a lot to do here. I’d feel better if I was around to oversee things. Besides, Teresa doesn’t want to be on her own.”
“Teresa would cope.”
When Scott didn’t answer, Murdoch caught his arm in a gentle grip. “Scott, we need to sort this out. It’s been a long time, and I don’t know what more I can do, or say.”
“Maybe there is nothing, Sir. Maybe I just need to digest it all.” He folded his arms across his chest. “You’ve had years...maybe I just need some time.”
Murdoch nodded. “There will be many more contracts to negotiate in the future, Son. I’ll be gone several days. Perhaps when I return...”
“Have a safe trip, Sir.”
Murdoch slapped him on the shoulder and walked away. Scott listened to his tread until the door closed. At any other time he’d have jumped at the chance to learn more about the business side of Lancer, but spending so much one-on-one time with his old man, as Johnny would say, was the last thing Scott needed. Coward. Still, he could find consolation that he was made of tougher stuff than his gunfighter brother, who had skipped out at the first brush of the past’s prickly thorns.
All day Tucson bustled with a horse auction and the preparations for the daughter of the mayor’s wedding, so come sundown finding a saloon that could hold another body wasn’t easy. Smithy chose this one, ‘cause the girls had dark hair and almond skin, and fucked like home, apparently.
Jake had staked a table in the corner and cradling a warm beer in his hands, he watched Smithy, uneasy with the sense of increasing detachment from a man he’d known since childhood. With barely elbowroom at the long bar, Smithy had wedged himself in there, drinkin’ and jawin’, laughing loud as he and some younger pals goaded another tenderfoot to down shots of the bartender’s worst. Not yet near forty, it felt many more years ago than that since Jake had found it fun to nudge the business end of a gun against the underside of some greenhorn’s quivering chin.
If he looked through the window, Jake had a view of the wedding celebrations and of the bride, all young and fresh-faced, innocence glowing in the dusk light. Maria had been twenty-four when they’d married, older than him and still fresh-faced, sure, but hardly innocent. He reckoned the Padre knew but overlooked it, and willingly believed ‘em when Maria claimed her first husband dead. He deserved to be.
Gulping his beer, he signalled for tequila, annoyed that now, as in California, he waited for Johnny to show. He wanted to get moving to Abilene, or to the next job, wherever that maybe. Patient, but restless, Jake’s blood rarely stilled enough for him to settle. Even when he’d had Maria to go home to, the urge to keep moving snapped at his heels, dragging him back into the game, swinging like a hangman’s noose back and forth across the border. He had worked in a gang running contraband then, a job that had landed him two years in a Mexican jail.
Maria died before he served the first month.
He set the empty glass down with a thud and rubbed the back of his hand against his bristly cheek. One of the girls made her way over, a full drinks tray balanced on the generous swell of her hip. As she set the bottle and shot glass down, Jake’s gaze went to the straining fabric across her full, tanned breasts, and the trail of her lock of long, dark hair caught between them. He saw what Smithy meant now, but noted that while she smiled at his interest, the smile failed to light her eyes. They remained large, black, and full of contradiction, just like Maria’s on that first day when she’d fucked him like a seasoned whore in the prickly haybed of the livery, and then clung to him like one of the timid mice cowering in the shadows.
Noting Johnny cut an unchallenged path through the stench of old sweat and hard liquor, Jake killed his memories. Hard to remember a woman how he was remembering Maria, with her son slipping into the seat beside you.
Jake slid the bottle Johnny’s way. “I was beginning to think you got lost.” The range war with Lowery had ended days ago but Johnny had taken his time saying goodbye to Ramsay.
“Well, I had a little trouble finding ya.” Johnny dipped his head until his hat slid into his waiting hand, sandy trail dust falling from its brim. “And the place you said to stay. It sure is busy round here.” He waved away Jake’s offer of a drink.
Jake raised a brow. “Thought you’d be celebratin’? Everyone seems real glad to be rid of Lowery, ‘reckon the whole town’ll line up to buy you a drink.”
“Celebratin’ the fact a dozen men died three days ago?”
That damned soft heart again. Jake fought the urge to roll his eyes. “Well, if Lowery brought nothin’ but violence to these parts, then I reckon they’re celebratin’ an end to it.”
Johnny nodded and inclined his head toward the bottle. “Looks like you’re drinkin’ for the both of us.”
“When’ve you known me drunk? Now tell me what happened out there.”
Johnny’s gaze darkened in Smithy’s direction. “Not this again. I coulda killed ‘im, you know.”
And that was darned truth. Jake followed Johnny’s stare to where Smithy stood, slapping coins on the bar in some kind of wager. Smithy’s way of forgetting what happened a few days back was to get full as a tick, and so Jake resisted the urge to say I told ya so. Jake wouldn’t kick a friend when he was down, even a pain-in-the-ass like Smithy.
“You humiliated 'im. Same thing for likes of us, ain’t it?
Johnny shrugged. The last thing he looked was sorry.
“Anyway, I wasn’t talkin’ ‘bout Smithy. I was meanin’ Ramsay didn’t look happy ‘bout the outcome.”
“He’s got his reasons.”
“Uh-huh. What were yours?”
“Ramsay was related to Lowery. He was havin’ a real hard time believin’ the worst of him. I felt sorry for the man, that’s all.”
“That ain’t all. I reckon you felt somethin’ in common with ‘im.”
Johnny, jiggling the beads around his wrist, looked up. “Yeah, maybe.”
Expecting a denial, or maybe plain hoping for one, Johnny’s admission made Jake uneasy. He owed it to Maria to keep Johnny from Lancer, that's what he had told himself since finding out just where Johnny called home these days. And just who he called father. Johnny’s reluctance to accept the truth and stay away grew with each passing day, as did Jake’s fear he could do nothing in hell about it should the boy turn around and go back. He poured a shot of tequila and gulped it.
“I just can’t stop thinkin’ ‘bout how Murdoch, he’s a lot ‘a things, but—”
“If you’re suggestin’ your mama lied—”
“I’m not. It’s just—”
“Jesus!” Jake slammed the glass against the table. It drew attention. Johnny’s troubled eyes narrowed and his fingers curled into his palm. Jake lowered his voice but kept his tone fierce. “Your daddy was blacksmithin’ your mama like some dance hall whore. When you gonna quit barkin’ at the damn knot and accept it?”
To anyone else, Johnny looked as relaxed as could be, but Jake noted the tightening of his jaw, and Johnny’s words came gritted through almost clenched teeth. “Maybe Murdoch didn’t know what was happening, that’s all I’m sayin’.”
“He was her husband, Johnny. Reckon he’d know.”
“Well, husbands ain’t always where they should be. That happens, Jake, right?”
Jake’s gut turned over as Johnny stared at him as if he actually expected an answer to that question. It’d be a cold day in hell; Jake couldn’t get a word out.
Outside, cheers went up as the newlyweds departed in a stagecoach and some of the wedding crowd pounded into the saloon. Johnny shoved his chair back and stood, his anger unmasked now, thriving on the silence between them. The planked floor vibrated, the batwing doors swung repeatedly into the wall, probably why Johnny leaned low to Jake’s ear. “Oh, and you used to get drunk most nights in Rico’s saloon after you found out how mama died. I used to follow ya. Sometimes you’d be content to beat the hell out of the first man to piss you off. Other times you’d get so drunk, Smithy’d carry you home.”
It was one hell of a parting shot.
The stagecoach had disappeared into sticky darkness by the time Jake pushed his way out the crowded saloon to stand on a boardwalk flecked with spit and shadow. Johnny was long gone but the streets remained busy, revellers staggered in and out of Jake’s eye line, laughing and joshing, without a care in their world. When the night sky exploded with sudden gunfire, Jake’s hand flew to his hip, only to relax, slowly, as rowdy members of the wedding party fired pistols into the air in a drunken shivaree.
“Ain’t hard ta guess who got your dander up. An’ he’s only bin back five minutes.”
At the strong stench of whisky, Jake turned to see Smithy’s cheeks ruddy with it, his expression bitter. He hadn’t liked Johnny before, but now it was personal.
“Reckon a man can say what’s on his mind real fast if he wants to.”
Smithy scowled and they moved along the boardwalk, away from the hustle, Smithy’s shorter legs struggling to keep with Jake’s lengthy stride. They stopped when the boardwalk did, facing the road out of Tucson and the wide open desert, right now more tempting to Jake than a woman’s gaping thighs. Smithy offered him a cigar, and he accepted it, searching his pockets for a match. He found one and lit it, the first puffs drying the saliva on his tongue. He brought the bottle of tequila to his lips and swigged.
“So what’s on Madrid’s mind?”
Jake puffed on the cigar again. “Oh, that Murdoch Lancer ain’t the sick bastard I say he is, that Maria’s murder is on me, ‘mongst other things.” Each word released black smoke that hung as heavy in the air as Johnny’s insinuation.
“That piece of shit!”
Jake stared hard into the darkness on the other side of the street, into the nooks and crannies of deepest shadow, where his past always watched him. It was a surprise to learn Johnny knew about his dark days, although perhaps it shouldn’t be. Pretty much the only way to keep the young Johnny in one place was to sit on him, and old Ana probably had no idea he snuck out those nights. Did Johnny know how black it got back then? How Jake had blown more than one man’s brains into their beer mug because they said what Johnny had implied. That he was to blame for Maria’s death. Dios, he knew it, but no one else better dare say it.
Guess it took ten years for Johnny to find the guts. Strange, Johnny never usually had trouble finding the guts for anything.
Glancing down, the bottle felt a dead weight in his hand. He’d gotten a grip on himself years ago, mostly due to Johnny, who’d always deserved more. Hell, if nothing else the scrapes that boy had gotten into required a sober eye and a sober hand.
“You okay, Jake?”
Handing the bottle to Smithy, Jake nodded. Near as he could figure, if he knew that boy at all, Johnny hadn’t meant what he’d said. Backed into a corner, Johnny lashed out. Problem was, Johnny’s lashing out could be quiet and calculated, as deadly with words as a gun.
“You know what you gotta do, don’t ya?”
“If I knew, I’d be doin’ it.”
Smithy shook his head. “You know alright. Forget that promise y’made Maria. ‘Same tune ain’t playin’ no more. Get it done, an’ boot that boy back in line.”
Jake tossed the cigar to the dirt and ground it underfoot. For a man near roostered, Smithy talked sense.
Leaving him, Jake strode back into the centre of Tucson, other people’s good times nipping at his spurs until he slipped into the backstreets. He had a lot to think on and wanted to get his head down to do it. The air churned his stomach; barbecued meats from the kitchens competing with the sickening stench of the outhouses at the end of hot and busy day. Fishing in his collar, Jake hiked his bandana over his mouth, took shallow breaths through the material and picked up his pace. He sensed rather than heard his follower, and determined no man would shoot him in the back, he turned the next corner and tucked down deep into the shadows, his quick draw smooth and silent. He strained to hear the tread of boots, noting no spurs. A minute passed, broken only by his breathing, scratchy in his dry throat. At last, the follower risked the corner, a dandy in a suit, his trimmed moustache as neat as his string tie, but a gun in his hand and a holster sitting mighty comfy round his middle.
Jake’s interest piqued. Johnny’s search was over.
“Toss it.” Jake pressed the gun hard to the Pinkerton agent’s temple as his left arm squeezed like a snake around his neck.
“Don’t shoot, Cortes, we’ve met before.” Parker threw the gun and it landed with a dull thud somewhere in the shadows.
Jake applied more pressure to the man’s windpipe. “Question is, why we meetin’ again?”
“If you’ll let me...” Parker gasped, indicating his pocket, and Jake nodded, bemused, as the man reached in and pulled a roll of bills from his jacket.
“Five hundred—the agreed sum.”
“I didn’t agree, an’ I don’t like being followed. You need to know that.”
“I understand. If it helps you’re not an easy man to track.”
“It don’t. Now who the hell’s puttin’ up this money an’ why?”
“I can’t disclose—”
Jake jabbed the gun at Parker’s head. “Bullshit.”
“My employer wishes to remain anonymous, but I have another proposal: Murdoch Lancer dead and you can name your price.”
Jake pulled the gun away.
The room Jake had rented him was dark; the lights of the town like trapped fireflies behind the blind, and Johnny wanted to shoot something but settled for swatting his hat hard against the doorframe on the way in. It didn’t do much to calm him down.
He was angry with himself as much as anyone. He’d never blamed Jake for what happened to Maria, not then, not now, but shot down every time he tried to make sense of the past; Johnny was damn tired of it. For the last few years he’d walked his own path, called the shots, only to end up with two fathers maybe more stubborn than he and frustratingly bigger, telling him what to do and what to think. For Jake and Murdoch it was all black and white. Maria told the truth. Maria lied.
More and more Johnny reckoned, as he reached for matches and got the lamp lit, the truth lay somewhere in between. He tossed his hat, unbuckled his gun belt, and stripped off his shirt, flopping down and sinking several inches on the creaking cot. He put his hands behind his head, his hair as grimy as the rest of him, and stared at the roof beams, inhaling the smell of burning dust.
He woke with a jolt that sent his hand thrusting beneath the warm pillow for the reassuring weight of the gun. The lamp had burnt itself out, and when the pounding came again, louder than his heart against his chest, the lamp rattled on the table and toppled.
“Johnny. You in there?”
Johnny relaxed at Jake’s voice, enough to leave the gun beneath the pillow. He had slept a little, not enough, judging from the weight of his body, shirtless and sweaty, as he pushed off the cot. He had just unlocked the door when Jake barged in, knocking him off balance before his bare feet found their equilibrium. Pressing his back against the door until it clicked shut, he felt a trace of childhood fear. Never had he run his mouth off to Jake as he had in the saloon; he’d touched raw nerve, seen it and used it. Surely, he’d hear all about it now.
Jake snagged Johnny’s shirt from the bedpost and flung it at him. “Get dressed.”
Johnny caught the shirt. In the dim light, it was difficult to root out the expression on Jake’s face, and he had his back to him now anyway, peeling the blind back an inch from the window to peer down into the street. Too tired and prickly for orders, Johnny’s, “You gonna tell me what’s so all-fired important?” came out snappier than he intended.
Jake let the blind spring back. “Just do it. Now.”
Johnny stuck his arms through the sleeves and then pulled the shirt over his head, pausing as he smelled in the fabric, the deaths of Lowery and his men. When his head emerged, Jake stood beside him at the door, arms folded, expression grim, and as Johnny put his boots back on, Jake sighed real loud.
“You know, you used to have a lot more patience.” Johnny reached for his gun belt.
“An’ you used to mind your damn mouth when you talked to me.”
Johnny hesitated. May as well get it over with. “’Bout that…” he began, only for Jake to yank the door open and step outside. Unnerved now, Johnny retrieved his pistol from beneath the thin pillow. “Alright, what’s going on?” He followed Jake out. It must be late, mañana maybe, this part of town was in darkness, just the silvery light of the moon and stars.
“We ain’t going to Abilene, that’s what.” Jake slid his gun from its holster and checked the chamber. “The Pink’s here in Tucson, so if you want answers, Johnny, now’s your time to get ‘em.”
The hours into daylight had dragged, but at last the sun was up and climbing, patches of shade shrivelling in its bright heat. Crouched low in the spot where Jake had met Parker, Johnny contemplated the dried specks of blood in the dirt; all that had remained of the Pinkerton agent by the time he’d gotten here last night. He grabbed at some, clutching it in his fist, unable to crush the feeling that there was more to this. Jake said he’d knocked the agent out cold with the butt of his gun and left him tied in the shadows, and sure enough, a length of severed cord lay discarded by the wall. According to Jake, the Pink was in Tucson to give him the five hundred dollars. Would Parker go to all the trouble of following Jake just to give him money that Jake said he didn't want?
It was just too…pat.
“Pfft!” Johnny flung the dirt, and, rising to stand with his hands on his hips, he surveyed the alley that ran between the adobe row houses and led to Tucson’s centre, most likely the way the former agent had fled. Tracking him would be impossible, even last night, for the alley blossomed into the centre of town where close to a hundred men had trod. To meet with Jake, Johnny headed that way, weaving through the womenfolk who swept the boardwalks clean, clutching the broom handles to their chests as he sauntered past. The saloons had their doors propped open to dry the mopped floors and above street level, laundry hung from the ledges of windows, pegged out to bake as the day heated up. Further along, Barranca and the black stood at the hitching rail, flicking at flies with their glossy brushed tails. Behind them, the corral boasted a string of other fine horses, their new owner looking mighty pleased with his purchases from yesterday’s auction as he sat in his buggy, giving orders to his men. With Jake around somewhere, Johnny moved closer to the fence, his gaze lingering on the animals as he thought of Lancer and its tempting wild horses. One, a black stallion, he’d not caught yet. Surely, there was no better feeling than chasing down a wild horse, galloping hard and never running out of ground.
It took five seconds to know someone watched him, and Johnny welcomed the distraction. Longing would take him nowhere good. Two men sat out on the porch of the dingy saloon across the street, staring hard with concealed gazes, slouching in the sun with their hat brims low, legs crossed at the ankles and six-guns on obvious display. Johnny brought one foot up to rest on the bottom rung of the corral fence and leaned forward, the wood chafing his elbows through his shirt. Both men’s hands moved a little closer to their guns and Johnny wanted to smirk because life sure struck him funny sometimes. In situations like this, he felt so sure of himself he could burst with it, yet the simple things, the ordinary, plain life he’d tried at Lancer left him as unsteady as a newborn foal trying to find its feet.
When Jake emerged next through the shabby doors of the saloon and gave him a stern look, Johnny felt a little unsteadiness return. His stepfather appeared acquainted with the idle pair, talking briefly before shaking hands with the both of them and heading this way.
“Friends of yours?” Johnny enquired as they walked together to their waiting horses.
“Friends of Smithy’s. I ain’t been able to find ‘im this mornin’.” Jake’s gaze searched up and down the street. “Reckon he’s asleep in his own piss somewhere.” He reached into his jacket and passed Johnny a single sheet of paper, torn with a jagged edge. It was a page from a hotel register, and Nathan Parker had signed himself out.
“Where’d you get this?”
“Phillips House. He checked out ‘fore dawn. Asked ‘bout hiring a horse.”
“So he’s been right here in Tucson the whole time, huh?”
“Looks that way.”
Johnny crumpled the paper in his fist and looked hard at Jake. “You don’t find it strange?” he asked. “Some Pink follows you all this way just to give you five hundred lousy dollars, and won’t tell ya the whys of it?”
“Didn’t we do this already?” Jake mounted the black, and the sun behind him painted him an outline as dark as his jacket.
“We did, but it just ain’t sittin’ right. You gonna tell me what really went on?”
Jake turned his horse in a tight circle, and moving out of the sun, his expression became clear and furious. “I’ll tell ya this,” he said in a low voice. “You keep pushin’ me, an’ I’ll forget you’re all grown.”
“That’s not an answer, Jake.”
“It’s the only one you’re gettin’.” Jake swung the black around again, this time startling Barranca with the sudden move. As Johnny tried to settle his horse, Jake kicked the black hard and rode off in a flurry of hooves and dust.
At the outskirts of town, the road ahead through the Sonoran desert had appeared smooth and shimmering in the rising heat, but in reality the wide road jarred with rocks and stones, probably once part of the looming red and green mountain ranges that broke up the bright skyline with their craggy peaks and jagged hollows. The stage took this route, charging through the desert and the danger of ambush, its wheels gouging deep furrows criss-crossed with the imprints of a dozen or so other horses. This road had seen heavy traffic with the events of the past few days and even if the Pinkerton agent had come this way, as the man who’d hired him a horse seemed to think, there would be no confirming it.
Johnny wiped the perspiration from his eyes with the back of his hand. For all he knew, Nathan Parker still trailed them, and while he didn’t like that possibility, he didn’t bother looking over his shoulder either. Jake had deliberately fallen back; Johnny could hear the black’s hooves moving at a now steady pace. Not necessarily a sign he had calmed down, the heat of his glare still seared holes in Johnny’s back. Jake’s refusal to answer his questions irritated like an itch he couldn’t reach, but he knew Jake was mad at him, and he got that, after what he’d said in the saloon. Threatening to belt him this morning had been a glimpse of the Jake he knew, but the silence since was hard to bear.
They rode all day until the sky to the south swelled with cloud, stifling the air and moulding their clothes to their bodies. They stopped at the entrance to a canyon just as the sun set and turned to liquid, spilling orange down the precipices until they glowed like bright, hot coals. Unsaddling the horses, they left them to drink, this season’s limited rainfall coveted here in the shade of rock in several shallow pools.
“There’ll be more ‘fore dark,” Jake predicted, the first conversation made all day. Johnny nodded and in the relative coolness beneath a jutting out ledge, he removed his boots, socks, and gun belt, un-tucked his shirt and wedged his pistol in the waistband of his pants. The water level sat just above his ankles, and he drank and splashed his face, dunking his bandana and wringing it out over his skin.
“Can tell you’ve been livin’ in California. Ya gone soft, can’t take real heat.” Jake lay stretched out like a lizard on a wide, flat rock face. Sweat glistened on his skin and beaded in the bristles of his cheeks. “That summer in Mexico City... now that was hot.”
“It gets hot in California.” Johnny sloshed to the water’s edge. “‘Specially when you’re wrestling some dumb steer out the mud.” He wriggled his bare toes in the coolness one last time, remembering with a fondness that surprised and alarmed him, the welcome arrival of Scott on the bank of that stinking bog and their efforts, combined, to save one of their father’s precious stock. “I tell ya, when the dumb critter goes and dies after you’ve just hauled it out, well, it really pisses ya off.”
“Never figured you a cattleman,” Jake said. “Horses, yeah. But not stinkin’ cows.” He tucked his too long hair behind his ears and closed his eyes. “Time was you’d shoot the thing rather than waste breath hauling it.”
“Murdoch might’ve had somethin’ to say ‘bout that.” Johnny stepped from the water, small pebbles stuck to the soles of his feet like leeches and he sat beside Jake on the warm, smooth rock, to flick them from his skin.
“Liked to throw his weight ‘round, did he?”
“Yeah, a little bit.” Johnny glanced at Jake who looked asleep with his eyes still closed. “Not in the way you’re thinkin’,” he added as he worked his feet back inside his socks.
“You must’ve hobbled your lip with ‘im then.”
Johnny sighed. “Look, I’m sorry alright, ‘bout what I said in the saloon…I was outta line.”
Jake opened one eye and studied him. “If that’s really how ya see it, then you got a right to say it. I’m surprised ya waited so long is all.” He wiped sweat from his upper lip with the back of his hand and closed his eye again.
“I didn’t mean it. I was mad at you for not listenin’.”
“Aw, c’mon, you didn’t!” Johnny snatched up a boot and jammed one foot inside before going to work on the other. He took a breath and got a grip on his temper. Jake had taken what he’d dished out so far, chances are it wouldn’t stay that way. “You ain’t heard a word I’ve said when it comes to Murdoch Lancer.”
“I heard ya. But these doubts...you need to forget ‘em.” Jake pulled himself upright, his expression as hard as the rock.
Johnny sighed. “I can’t,” he said. “Can’t you understand that?”
“Nope, so maybe I should make it easy for ya. Mind me on this, Johnny, an’ forget Murdoch Lancer, or I’ll do what I shoulda years ago an’ put a bullet in the sonofabitch.”
Johnny felt his mouth gape, aware that his blood pumped faster. He didn’t respond well to threats. Hell, he could barely handle plain orders and Jake knew it too. “Are you kidding? You think threatenin’ me’ll work?”
Jake slung his saddlebags over his shoulder and got to his feet. He didn’t reply, probably figured he didn’t have to.
“You think after all this time, all you taught me, that I can spend time with a man and not get a sense of his character?” Johnny yelled after Jake, as the older man crunched his way from the water’s edge, closer to the towering cliff face to make camp. The only response was the echo; Johnny’s words thrown back at him repeatedly, until all that remained was the loud rush of despair through his veins.
Jake was right about the weather. It turned dark real quick, not the black dark that made it hard to see your hand in front of your face, but a shady blue that painted features silver and eyes harsh and penetrating. And the rain came fast; hard drops that bounced off the ground like buckshot, stinging your skin at contact. They sheltered with the horses beneath a wide rocky shelf until the rain stopped and the bats nestled in the crevices above squeaked its end on mass. Dry where they sat and now dark enough for smoke to blend seamlessly into the sky, Jake got the fire going. They ate in strained silence and Jake took first watch, ordering Johnny to get some sleep.
Like it was that easy.
Johnny sat in the shadows of the rocks behind him, polishing his gun until the last flicker of the fire reflected in its steel. In the distance, came the call of a coyote and the scream of its prey, and even if he was of a mind to sleep, the desert was the shittiest, noisiest place a man could pick. He’d get more peace under a whore’s bed on pay night. All around things scampered, slithered and scurried, even the air seemed alive; Johnny swatted at a mosquito, squishing it dead when it dived for his jugular.
Jake sat a few feet away with his back to him, cross-legged like an Indian, a rifle in his lap. Johnny’s mood darkened, not wanting to look at the man right now with the threat strung taut between them. Grabbing a stick, he stabbed it into the fire’s centre, struggling to bring up the spark while resentment blazed inside of him, the furious image of Murdoch still and bloody at Jake’s feet, clenching Johnny’s hands into tight, white-knuckle fists.
Finally, the embers of the fire began to brighten and crackle and he glanced down at the gun in his lap, once more alive with reflection. In spite of the fire’s warmth, the atmosphere between him and Jake stayed downright chilly.
“Johnny, I ain’t stayin’ awake for the hell of it. Get some sleep.”
Johnny glanced at Jake; more of a father than anyone he’d known. On learning of Johnny’s desire to be a gunfighter, he was the one who’d wrenched him aside and cautioned him that the life would give him the things he wanted free, leave the rest for the taking, and end up costing him all the same. Jake had taught him the things that kept him alive, like how to plunge the knife in deep and twist it and then rip it free so you didn’t have to steal another blade, and how to modify his gun, strip it and file it, and polish it ‘til it shone. How the one left standing in a gunfight would not always be the one who could hit the target every time in practice, but rather the man who wanted the kill the most. After his first few gunfights, Johnny had wondered about that, feared the blackness of his heart, because he’d shot those men down as natural as breathing.
There had been quieter, carefree times, too, when he and Jake, and sometimes Smithy, would find themselves with nowhere to be and nothing to do. Then there would be horses and swimming and in the later years, tequila and women...Johnny returned to polishing the gun with smooth, measured strokes. He scarcely believed he could say this, but knew the truth of it would eat him from the inside out if he didn’t.
“You need to know...” he began, reassured by the strength of his tone as he continued with his polishing, “that if you ever make good on what you said... if you could do that to me, then we’re all done, Jake. The past...we won’t have one...and if you cross me in the future then I’ll bury you like I would any other bastard gunhawk.” Johnny raised his head and stared at Jake’s straight back, sure he could see the tension streak across his shoulder blades.
After a long silence that saw the shadow of a tarantula skirt their camp, Jake put the rifle on the ground and turned his body to face Johnny. “Seems you ain’t above makin’ threats of your own.”
“I meant what I said.”
“You meant the first part,” Jake told him. “Cos y’know that for all my damned sins, that’s the part I can’t ignore...” He came closer and snatched up the stick, stoking the fire with a lot more vigour. “You must think you’re pretty damn smart, huh, callin’ my bluff?” He held Johnny’s gaze, and tossed the stick down when done. “Question is...what’re you gonna do now?”
“I don’t know.”
Jake picked up the pan of coffee and stuck it back over the fire. Johnny drew his knees up to his chest and plucked the stick from the ground, using the charred end to draw mindless patterns in the dirt while staring into the quivering flames until his vision blurred. What was he going to do? Maybe the longer he stayed away from Lancer, the more his mind played tricks on him, letting him remember Murdoch how he wanted him to be, rather than the man he actually was. But what had Scott asked him that day in town—something like had they lived with the same man those couple months? Scott didn’t believe Murdoch capable of such a thing either, and while Johnny hadn’t gotten to know his brother inside out, he knew Scott wasn’t the naïve fancy Dan he’d first taken him to be.
He lowered his head, resting his forehead on his folded arms. “I’m just...I’m not doing so well with this, Jake,” he said, his voice muffled by his shirtsleeves, quiet even to his own ears and too damn husky for him to raise his head and look Jake in the eye. He heard the clatter of tin mugs as Jake got them ready, and surely, hopefully, his admission had gotten lost beneath the noise. His hope died when Jake sat down nearby.
“I know you ain’t,” Jake said with something like regret in his voice and Johnny heard him swear, softly, beneath his breath. “It’s all on me, I know it. Maybe I shoulda kept my mouth shut ‘bout what your mama told me.” He paused, and Johnny could sense him struggling. “Reckon if I was your age and got the chance to meet my daddy, then maybe I’da taken it. ‘Course, my mama would need a clue who he was first.”
When Jake fell silent, Johnny looked up. “It just don’t ring right is all. When I look back, Murdoch’s just not the type of man to do that to his wife, to any woman. He still has a scarf of hers, a wedding present. I could tell it meant somethin’ to him. And when he saw what Pardee did to a woman… I saw it in his face, he wanted reassurance that I wasn’t like that. That I wasn’t Pardee.”
“Or he wanted to know how far his apple fell from the tree.”
“No, that’s not how it was.”
Jake gave a deep sigh and steepled his fingers together on his lap. “You tell me this then—if you’re so all-fired sure that somehow Maria got it wrong ‘bout Lancer, then why leave with me an’ why the hell ya still here?”
Johnny had no answer for that, least none that made one damn bit of sense when said aloud. Dios, but he wanted to believe them both.
The coffee began to bubble and Jake poured it and took a sip, all the while with the pads of his fingers tap tapping on the sides of the tin mug. “I loved your mama, Boy,” he said finally, causing Johnny to look up even though this was no revelation but one of the few certainties of his childhood. “The rights an’ the wrongs in her, every last thing, and I shoulda been there that day, I know it, always have. Just for a while, I had trouble livin’ with it. But...” he pinned Johnny with a fiercer look, “...it seems that ain’t news to you.”
Johnny ducked his head. “I don’t blame you for what happened to her.” The lump in his throat caught him by surprise. Eleven years—it shouldn’t be this hard. He took a mouthful of hot coffee, wishing for the slow burn of tequila all the way to his stomach.
“Past has a way of creepin’ up on a man faster than the railroad, don’t it?” There was a rare softness in Jake’s voice, as light in the air as the smoke from the fire and for several minutes Johnny watched the smoke coil and drift, fading before it escaped the canyon.
Yanking the pan off the fire when the remnants of coffee begun to char, Jake reached to take Johnny’s mug, and he gave it up willingly. Reheated pan coffee was far from tasty even if it did go a way to cleansing the weariness from your bones. Leaning forward, Jake poured the dregs from his mug into the fire. The flames spluttered and hissed.
With no clue in Jake’s tone or had it been so long he’d missed it? Johnny looked up, only for Jake to clout him hard enough to smart the tip of his ear off. “Mierda!” His hand flew to his head and he glared at Jake, who lifted his eyebrow as if daring Johnny to give him reason to repeat it. “Mierda,” Johnny muttered, milder this time, rubbing the sting, and forcing silent a few other choice phrases. “What d’ya go and do that for?”
“With the sass I’ve taken from you lately? Take your damn pick.” Jake stared him down with ease before getting up and stretching his arms skyward. “I’ll tell ya, the bastard gunhawk comment rates pretty high.” He picked up his rifle and canteen and headed towards the water. He stopped halfway, as tall and prickly as a damn cactus, and Johnny braced himself for whatever was on its way, but Jake didn’t turn around. “All them years ago...” he said finally, his voice surprising Johnny with its rawness. “Never meant ya to see me like that, Johnny. I’m sorry ya did.”
Jake wasn’t one for dreaming, or if he was then he rarely remembered come morning. This dream was different, waking him with a start that had him reaching for his pistol faster than he could catch his heaving breath. He had been back in California on a hot, dry, day, the air dead with no wind to shake the dark green leaves of the rose bushes that surrounded the hacienda, or flutter the petals of their blood red blooms. Sweat trickled down his back and his stomach felt tight, knotted with repulsion, yet still a whistle of appreciation snuck out between his lips as he surveyed the grand rancho. So this was Murdoch Lancer’s home, Maria wasn’t kidding when she said it would be muy magnífico one day. Lancer himself was just as she said, too. Tall and powerful, he was fearsome and cold eyed, so Jake had shot the bastard without hesitation, his bullet blasting a black hole in Lancer’s broad chest, in the place where his heart oughta be. When he turned back toward the hacienda, his breath had caught in his constricting throat. Maria lounged in an arched doorway, her long dark hair wild and her lips all swollen and pouty. Her dress hung from her shoulder in tatters, blood spattered, yet she seemed oblivious as her chest heaved with excitement and her fingers caressed a long scarf draped around her neck. ¿Es él muerto? she asked throatily, so he kicked the body over and gagged until gasping. ‘Cause it was no longer Murdoch Lancer lying dead at his hands. It was Johnny.
Disturbed, he rubbed at his eyes, the dream lingering, skirting the edges of his consciousness. He struggled into a sitting position, groping for his canteen. Haunted sleep on hard ground took its toll on a body. The water was warm, his mouth parched from spilling too many words the night before. Hell, if he didn’t feel like he’d gone through the wringer and been squeezed bone dry. He might’ve conceded that Johnny had to make his own decision when it came to Lancer, but it stuck fast in his craw, threatening to take the sickness from his dream and make it real. Would Maria spit and curse him, or would she see past her own pain what Jake had seen last night? After all, Johnny carried her soft heart in his chest. Holding the canteen above his face, he let the last of the water flow. Some ran in rivulets down his neck and chest, the rest he gargled and then spat, the action bringing Johnny up short. Jake looked up as Johnny glanced down.
“If you wanted to polish my boots, you coulda just asked me.”
Scowling, he jammed the cork back in the empty canteen. “It’s too darn early for you to be a smart ass.”
“Well, I got news for ya, Jake. It’s not that early.”
He looked up and sure enough, the sun sat high enough to breach the canyon, threatening to bleach the blue from the sky. Not far away, in the retreating shadows, Johnny’s horse stood saddled and waiting, but he didn’t seem in a rush to go nowhere. He’d settled himself down opposite to eat.
“There’s biscuits.” Johnny pointed to a plate on the ground, but Jake shook his head. Near as he could figure, Johnny should be looking as shitty as he felt, but there was no sign of the conflicted kid from last night.
“Tell me ‘bout the Pink, Jake.”
Johnny still ate, but was watching him, chasing the last crumbs around his plate with his fingers. Shit. He knew this conversation would come up again, and he had to tell it all now. Still, knowing someone wanted Murdoch Lancer dead and was willing to pay top dollar would force Johnny’s hand. And while Johnny remained in the dark, he was here, not back at Lancer.
“I asked you a question.” Johnny’s voice was soft, but damn, had the boy even blinked? He was so darn sure of himself, only Jake wouldn’t play the game. Them that did usually lost. Narrowing his eyes, he leaned forward and hardened his tone.
“Think real careful ‘bout where you’re headed with this, Johnny.”
It worked. He had the satisfaction of breaking Johnny’s stare as the boy dipped his head and breathed out heavily. It was brief respite though as Johnny brought them blue eyes level with his again.
“I’m not sayin’ you lied.”
Jake took a breath, only to close his mouth as the sound of horses clattered through the canyon. Hands moving to their guns, Jake and Johnny turned and scooted closer to the rocks, watching the two men on horseback splash their way through what was left of the rainfall. When Jake recognised them as Blake and Freddy Hudson—the two from the Tucson saloon, friends of Smithy’s, he rose to his feet and approached them, the late morning sun hot at his back.
“Jake,” the taller of the two, Blake, drawled. “Small world.”
He grunted, not missing the pair’s gazes sidle over his shoulder. “See, told ya it was ‘im.” Blake looked down at Jake. “Me and Freddy had a bet it was Madrid ya were ridin’ with.”
“I said he wer dead,” Freddy piped up. “Heard the Rurales had ‘im. How’d he escape?”
Jake tucked his thumbs in his belt. Time was Johnny’s notoriety pleased him, and not so long ago, he might’ve taken some credit for it. But that was back when Johnny had wanted it. Now, all he could think was what Johnny had said back in Morro Coyo. ‘Don’t want that life no more, it almost killed me. Jake knew it still could, should the wrong pair of eyes recognise him. He stared at the two men, who couldn’t take Johnny if he was shooting left-handed. “You best be askin’ him.”
“Askin’ me what?” Johnny sauntered over, stopping a couple feet away and adjusting his hat.
“Well, now. Howdy, Madrid.”
Johnny tilted his head and studied the two. “Howdy,” he said at last, his tone almost pleasant.
Blake leaned against the saddlehorn. “We heard ya wer dead by firin’ squad. How’s a man get hisself outta fix like that?”
“Yeah, Madrid. You kill ‘em all?”
There was a flicker in Johnny’s eyes, and he wanted to tell them to go to hell, Jake could see it. Johnny had said little about what went down in Mexico, that day or the preceding ones, yet here were these two yahoos asking for answers they had no right to know. Johnny folded his arms across his chest. “Oh I didn’t just kill ‘em, I made ‘em all kneel in the grass an’ pray first.”
Funny, but Blake and Freddy didn’t seem too curious after that. Jake held it in long enough for the two to head on out the canyon. Only then did he shake his head, unable to resist a grin. “Made ‘em pray? Jesus...”
“Well I ain’t ‘bout to say my old man saved my hide now am I?”
Jake was about to reply when they realised Blake was heading back.
“Reckon I forgot, Jake.” Clearly nervous, Blake glanced at Johnny. “We saw Smithy yesterday, after ya left town.”
“Yeah? You tell that drunken idiot where I’m headed?”
“I told ‘im. Don’t reckon he was too interested. Got hisself a job up in California, he said, real good payin’ one at that. He was leavin’ town with some eastern feller.”
Something clogged in Jake’s throat, and he swallowed it back down. He could feel Johnny’s gaze darken in his direction. Smithy, you stupid bastard! Stepping forward, he patted the neck of Blake’s chestnut horse. “Thanks. I’ll catch up with ‘im sooner or later. See ya around.” Blake nodded and made to leave.
“What’s the job?” Johnny’s tone matched his dark gaze, and Blake must’ve sensed it because he dropped the reins, his hand straying to his gun.
Johnny drew first, and Blake’s skin glittered with a sudden sweat. Johnny looked cool and composed, but madder than hell. Jake stepped forward. “Johnny—”
“I just want some straight answers, Jake, that’s all. And I’m fast runnin’ out of patience.”
Jake chewed on his bottom lip as Blake brought his gun hand up to his face and wiped away sweat. “Now take it easy, Madrid. All I know is that Smithy’s gone to see some rich rancher in the San Joaquin. He said all he’s gotta do is bed ‘im down an’ he’ll be all set.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “This feller. What’s his name?”
“Dunno, but I seen ‘im. He dressed real smart, took a beatin’ recent too, I’d say. Had a bandage wrapped ‘round his head.”
Johnny nodded, and slid his gun back into his holster. “You have a safe trip now,” he drawled, leaving Blake confused for a second before relief won out and he turned his horse and fled back to his friend.
Only when Blake was gone for sure did Johnny let his guard down, his hands forming fists at his sides, his blue eyes bright and searing. “You knew. You God damn knew!”
Jake shook his head. “Not ‘bout, Smithy.” Who knew he really had shit for brains? Jake reached for Johnny, who wrenched away as soon as his fingers made contact, heading for the saddled horse. Jake followed. “Just listen, damn it. Let me explain.”
“Explain?” Johnny whirled round. “Now there’s a different tune! All that crap ‘bout puttin’ a bullet in Murdoch yourself...when you knew all along someone else sure would if the price was right...” Jake followed Johnny and watched mutely as he fastened his saddlebags and checked the cinch. “You did lie to me,” Johnny said quietly. He’d gone still, his back turned, and if he was trying to make Jake feel like shit, it was working. Sighing, Jake rubbed at his bristly cheek.
“I ain’t lied to ya, I just—”
“Didn’t tell the truth?” Johnny spun around. “Oh boy, you sure have a funny way’a lookin’ at things. How’d I know you ain’t lied your ass off right from the start, huh?”
He rubbed harder at his cheek, feeling the edges of his temper fray like bad stitching. “You know, damn it. I ain’t never lied when it comes to your mama.”
Johnny snorted softly. “Well, maybe she lied to you. It sure explains why you got along.”
He belted Johnny then, sending him staggering back against his horse, yet glaring like he’d expected it. Jake lowered his throbbing hand as Johnny smeared bitter blood from his lip. Damn it to hell. Johnny’s sigh was loud and hard. Only he could look furious and wounded all at the same time. “That’s great, Jake. Just great.” He swung up on Barranca, and just as Jake had done in Tucson, left the other grappling with a startled horse as he took off through the canyon in a flurry of hooves and spray.
“Welcome home, Johnny!”
The friendly greeting threw him, his nerves tauter than one of the Old Man’s fence lines, and it took effort, but he smiled at Luis, the kid son of one of Murdoch’s vaqueros. The boy trotted over from the barns, his long, narrow face, and bucked teeth resembling the creatures he looked after.
“I take your horse?”
Johnny cast his eye over Barranca, who stood with head low, eyelids drooping. He’d ridden hell for leather and the wet sheen of the horse’s coat paid testament to it. So why was he hesitating? He handed over the reins. “Si, Luis. Saddle me a fresh horse, will ya?”
“Right away!” Luis led the horse to the trough, but Johnny stayed where he was, although his gaze covered the ground between here and the hacienda. The odd cow and calf roamed free, he could hear the irritating cluck of Teresa’s chickens, and it was a fool thing—although he’d raced the wind getting here, only now were his thoughts catching up. What the hell was he going to say?
The kitchen door was propped open with the three-legged stool Maria and Teresa used to reach the higher shelves in the pantry, at least they used it whenever he, Scott or Murdoch wasn’t around to retrieve their jars or cans. There was nobody inside, and he could taste baking bread in the air. He nudged the stool out of the way, sure glad the door was open, for he had no idea what he’d do if it were closed—knock and wait to be invited in? This wasn’t his home anymore, although by his reckoning he still owned a third of it. He tried a smirk, but today it wouldn’t stick, he had a lump in his throat as dry as a cotton boll and his belly churned something fierce.
On the table, a knife lay discarded amongst shelled pea pods and ribbons of peach skin, and a covered pot bubbled on the stove. The bread alone would’ve set his belly rumbling, had he not felt so sick. He didn’t know what he feared facing more—discovering he’d gotten here too late, or finding Murdoch alive and well.
“Maria? Teresa?” His boots clicked against the tiled stone floor, and he hesitated before walking through to the great room, aware that both the first and last time he’d set foot inside, he was sure he hated his father. Dios, he’d been so angry. Even now, he wasn’t sure that anger had gone completely, there were just more people who deserved to share it.
The great room, like the kitchen, was empty and quiet. The hat stand stood bare and no gun belts hung from the hooks. That was normal; Scott would be out on the range, maybe Murdoch, too. Beyond the picture window, the sun dipped into pale gold pastures, and through them rode several cowboys, too far away to identify, even if he could remember their names. Scott wasn’t with them, he could be sure of that from their postures. His brother rarely slouched.
He scanned the room, noticing the door to the gun cabinet open slightly, the small silver key in the lock. Interesting. He tilted his head, listening hard above the steady tick of the grandfather clock and the soft, padded thump of his heart, before he walked briskly across the room, stepping up and out, Teresa springing on him with a shotgun.
“Hell, Teresa! Don’t ya know that’s a surefire way to get yourself killed?” He holstered his gun, staring hard at the young woman, whose eyes went wide and her jaw slack, before, to her credit, she settled on a look not remotely repentant. Instead, she used the shotgun to jab him in the ribs.
“You scared the life outta me! Sneaking around...”
“It’s good to see ya, too, honey.” He reached out and smoothly disarmed her, noting that while she gave up the gun without a fight, her eyes narrowed and she pressed her pretty lips together, like maybe words were a much better weapon.
He spoke before she had a chance to. “You on your own here?”
“Yes. Murdoch’s away on business and we’re not expecting him back ‘til Tuesday. Scott’s rounding up strays on the east pasture.” She took the gun back and stepped around him, back down into the great room. He turned but lingered in the archway, while she opened the gun cabinet and stood on tiptoes, stretching to reach the rack. “Have you forgotten how things work around here already?”
“No, guess not. Everything been okay?” He stepped down, trailing his fingers along the table that always seemed ridiculously large even when all four of them sat down to eat. He’d said that to Scott once, but his brother had explained that back in Boston, meals were always taken at a formal dining table, and even if it was just the two of them, they would sit at opposite ends, his grandfather’s face hidden by tall, silver candlesticks. Johnny knew exactly what he’d like to do with one of them fancy candlesticks if he came face to face with Scott’s grandfather again. Bigoted bastard. Where was the old goat anyway? Still here or back in Boston?
Teresa’s hands went to her hips. “You mean apart from Murdoch pretending that you haven’t broken his heart, Scott getting shot, losing his memory and being lied to by his meddling, two-faced grandfather?”
“I meant...wait, Scott was shot?” His gut turned over.
“Grazed,” Teresa clarified in a softer tone as she removed her hands from her hips and closed the doors to the cabinet. She slipped the key into Murdoch’s desk drawer. “He fired two hands and they took exception. He’s fine now. At least his memory’s back.”
“And nothing else has happened, no strangers callin’, no one interested in where Murdoch is, or when he’s coming home?”
“It seems there’s an obvious lack of interest in Murdoch round here.”
He sighed. “I know ya probably got things to say to me...”
“But now’s not the time, right?” She bit her lip and stared at him hard, but there was no disguising the worry in her eyes. “Everything is alright, isn’t it, Johnny?”
“I’ll finish supper.” She walked past him to the kitchen and paused. “I’m glad you’re home.”
Home. There was that word again. He’d come back, but had he come home? They were two different things the way he figured it. Probably the way Murdoch would figure it, too. Left alone, he wandered to his father’s desk, awash with sunlight that sparkled in the paperweight and glinted off the silver frame of a photograph. He picked it up, remembering the glass shattering into fragments, crunching underfoot as he fled the room. The glass had been replaced, and it wasn’t the image he remembered, this was new and it stung—Scott and Teresa— Boston looking all serious, and Teresa wearing them jeans she was so fond of. Someone should buy the girl a dress.
He took a deep breath and returned the frame to the desk. “You’re right, Scott, you do photograph well.” He faced his brother with a tentative smile. Last time they’d talked hadn’t gone so well.
“And you could’ve been part of it, if you’d stuck around...” Scott met his gaze, stood in the doorway stripping off his yellow work gloves.
“Don’t pull your punches, Boston.”
“I never do, Brother. Why are you here?”
He glanced toward the kitchen. He could hear Teresa serving up. And, hell, was that her singing? He lowered his voice. “Murdoch – he’s got some trouble.”
Scott’s fingers worked the buckle of his gun belt. “What kind of trouble?”
“The killin’ kind.” He perched on the desk, tapping his fingers on the wood. “Someone wants him dead, and is willin’ to pay.”
“And you know this because...?” Scott came further into the room and stopped, arms folded, and listened to his brief account of Jake and the Pinkerton agent, how at first he thought the Pinkerton agent had something against him, before realising Murdoch was the real target. When he paused, Scott said, “So it wasn’t true after all – about Murdoch and your mother.”
He sucked in a breath. “That’s not what this is about.”
His brother’s expression didn’t change apart from a slight lift of an eyebrow. “So, do you know who’s behind it?”
“Nope. But the way I figure it, you don’t get all this,” he waved his arm, “without stomping on a few toes.”
“And our father does have big feet.”
“Jesus, Scott, is this some joke to you?” He searched his brother’s face but found little to indicate how Scott really felt. Damn, but his brother would make a good gunhawk. Scott bore his scrutiny a few seconds more before frowning and shaking his head.
“No, Johnny. I don’t consider any of this to be a joke. But you haven’t actually seen this Parker, have you?”
“So how do we know he exists?”
He explained about his visit to Ben and Meg, while Scott went to the liquor and poured two, handing one over. “So Parker offered your stepfather money to kill Murdoch. And a man like Jake Cortes would really turn that down?”
“You don’t know ‘im, Scott.”
“However, this Jed Smith doesn’t share Jake’s sound moral fibre and is planning on killing our father for money.”
He chose to ignore the sarcasm. “I reckon so.”
“And you’ve returned because... we’ll need a hero?”
“No, Scott, I’m not back to be a hero.”
“Then just what are you here for? Murdoch is on a scheduled trip. We received a wire from him this morning to say he’ll be on the midday stage the day after tomorrow. It all sounds like he’s in good health and spirits, at least as much as any man can be after what you accused him of.”
Johnny set the untouched drink down on the desk. “You’re still mad at me, I get that, but have you heard anything I’ve just said? You think I’d be here if I didn’t think Murdoch was at risk?”
“That’s just it. It wasn’t so long ago that you were the one threatening Murdoch. Am I expected to believe now that you’ve had a sudden change of heart?”
“Maybe. But it’s between me and Murdoch, so are you gonna listen?”
“Supper’s ready.” Teresa stopped at the edge of the room, wiping her hands with a dishcloth. “I thought we’d eat in the kitchen again, as there’s only us...”
Scott nodded, and with his drink still in hand, he turned on his heel and strode from the room. Teresa watched him go.
“He’s had a tough time,” she said. “But he’s missed you.”
“Yeah? He’s got a funny way of showing it.” He pushed off the desk and went to follow Scott into the kitchen, only for Teresa to snag his sleeve.
“No more than you have, Johnny.”
Later, when the evening had cooled some and pink streaked the sky, he escaped the hacienda. More from the need to do something rather than any legitimate concern now he knew Murdoch was safely out of town, he checked the barns and the outbuildings, strained his eyes in the setting sun searching the road beneath the Lancer arch and beyond. He even unsettled the ranch hands by strolling into the bunkhouse and firing off questions to which he received quick and honest answers. No one had seen anyone or anything suspicious. No questions asked about Murdoch’s whereabouts. It was likely Smithy and Parker hadn’t arrived yet. They had no need to rush.
He emerged from the bunkhouse, pretending not to hear the lively whispers that started up as soon as the door banged shut. Somewhere to his left, a cow moaned low and long, and the horses in the corral flicked their tails, ears pricking before they lowered their heads to the hay. Wandering over, he plucked a strand of pale, dry grass and leant against the white fence to chew on its stem. He couldn’t deny he was relieved that Murdoch wasn’t here, not just because of the death threat. If he were lucky, he’d take Smithy and Parker down and be gone before Murdoch even knew. If he were lucky...the blade of grass snapped and he spat the tip out on the ground. He couldn’t get much luckier than owning one third of all this just for doing what he was best at, and just for being born.
His brother joined him at the fence. “Looking for trouble?” Scott’s gaze fixed ahead as he rolled up the sleeves of his blue shirt to the elbow.
“Noo, Scott. Just lookin’.”
“Tried real hard not to.”
Scott turned so the top rung of the fence slotted into the curve of his spine. “Are you going to sort things out with Murdoch when he gets back?”
“I don’t know, are you?” He glanced at his brother in time to catch his smile.
“Touche. Our father’s esteemed ward, I take it?”
“If you mean Teresa, then yeah, she said a few things. Your grandfather...he’s some piece of work, huh?”
“I want to believe his heart’s in the right place.” Scott gazed back toward the hacienda, his eyes dark, and it was a relief of sorts to know that there was clearly more on his mind this time than simply my brother’s a selfish brat. The tension at dinner had been thicker than the crust on Teresa’s peach pie, but Johnny had understood it when she filled him in. So Scott had gotten into it with the Old Man and decided to stay and stick it out. He didn’t know whether to pity or envy him that.
“Johnny, about Jake...are you sure he isn’t involved in this somehow?”
He dropped his gaze to the ground. He knew where his brother was coming from, but Scott was wrong. Jake might be a lotta things, had been a lotta things in his time, but it weren’t his way to invent some fancy scheme to cover his tracks, or to let Smithy take care of his business for him. Then, lying had never been Jake’s way either ‘til recently, but even as he tore through the desert with the tang of blood in his mouth, he’d known that for what it was. He turned around so that he mirrored Scott’s relaxed stance against the fence.
“Well, Brother, I know his heart’s in the right place, too. I guess you’ll hafta trust me on that.”
Scott considered this, and finally he nodded. “Do you think Jed Smith will show up here?”
“Unless Parker has inside information then they won’t know Murdoch’s outta town. Stands to reason this is the first place they’ll look.”
“And when they find out he’s not here?”
“They’ll find out when he’s due back, then wait.”
“For the stage to arrive in Morro Coyo.”
“How about tomorrow, we take a trip to town? And it might be a good idea for Teresa to go somewhere for a few days. Walt’s wife has just had her baby; perhaps she could go and help out.”
For the second night in a row, Scott hardly slept. He couldn't blame it all on his brother’s return though; truthfully, he’d struggled to get a good night’s sleep since his grandfather’s disastrous visit.
Yesterday, after they’d escorted Teresa to Walt’s house, he and Johnny had headed into Morro Coyo, only to find no trace of Smithy or Parker. They’d covered Green River and Spanish Wells, returning to the hacienda at dusk. There was nothing to indicate Johnny was right with his predictions, yet the possible threat to Murdoch’s life had Scott's head spinning with thoughts and feelings he was reluctant to name. He allowed himself concern for Murdoch, nothing more, batting anything else away with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Morning had taken its sweet time coming, filtering through his window in a purple hue, and by the time the aging rooster proclaimed it, he’d washed and dressed and was heading downstairs. Yesterday, he’d found his brother slumped in the blue armchair of the great room, gun in hand but resting languidly on his lap, but today the chair was empty and Johnny wasn’t around. Maria was away, so he made himself a quick breakfast, and then jogged up the stairs to check his brother’s room, only to find it empty, and tidy—from what he remembered, a sure sign that Johnny hadn’t stepped foot inside.
When he left the hacienda, the morning had brightened, and over at the bunkhouse, Cipriano had the hands gathered to hear the daily chores. He should be there. Wasn’t he the one who’d said to Murdoch there was a lot to do, and that he would feel better if he were around to oversee things? One might argue that a threat to Murdoch’s life was good enough reason to quit worrying about the ranch, but he wasn’t sure his father would agree.
He entered the barn and stopped, strips of light stretching from his boots to the unbolted gate of Barranca’s empty stall. He swore loudly; Johnny could bring out the worst in him.
“Good morning, Senor!” Luis staggered inside the barn with buckets of feed, and he watched as the boy went about his work. Luis was young, too young to frequent the bunkhouse or associate much with the other ranch hands. His father, Raul, had been injured last week and hadn’t been to work since. He followed Luis into the tack room.
“Luis, has anyone called for Murdoch in the past couple of days?”
“Sure. There was a man riding in to see el Patron as I was riding home last night. He asked me if he was here.”
“And what did you say? Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble, Luis,” he added at the boy’s wary look.
“I said he was not home.”
“This man...” Scott looked up in surprise as Johnny appeared in the doorway. “...he more like me, or Scott?”
Luis looked puzzled.
“You know, his voice, his gun...that sorta thing.”
“Oh. You, Johnny. But más Viejo. (older)”
“Uh huh.” Johnny leaned in the doorway. “He say anything else?”
“He asked when I expected him back. I said tomorrow. That’s all.”
“Go on, kid.” Johnny roughed the boy’s hair as he left the tack room.
“Well, it looks like you were right about this,” Scott conceded, not adding that he’d been wrong, convinced Johnny had chosen to go it alone again.
“Yeah, well, I’ll gloat later. Come on...”
In Morro Coyo, he and Johnny tied their horses outside the stage office and went inside, greeted by the sweet scent of pipe tobacco as the old man behind the counter puffed away, his horn-rimmed spectacles slipping further down his nose with each draw on the pipe. Scott went straight up to him, aware that Johnny had thrown himself down on the worn green velvet of the waiting bench, his fingers drumming his thigh, gaze fixed through the window to the street.
The old man, Frank Boyce, had worked for the stageline since it began and knew every route like the back of his hand. Pity he didn’t know much about confidentiality, as he chirpily admitted providing the polite gentleman from back east with a list of passengers from the day Murdoch left town, including those who’d purchased a return ticket.
“Y’know, that old man should be fired,” Johnny grumbled as they left the office.
“Well, we know they’re here, and they know Murdoch’s likely to be on the stage,” he said, scanning the street before realising he had no idea who he was looking for. “So tell me, Brother, what’s your plan?” When Johnny stayed silent, he sighed. "I figured Johnny Madrid always had a plan?”
“Sure. Do it to them...”
“...before they do it to you.” Scott rolled his eyes. “Right.”
“I say we split up. Take a look ‘round,” Johnny said, doing just that, his gaze searching the street and the upper windows of the buildings opposite.
“And I’m supposed to know them when I see them, am I?”
“Well, Scott, one’s a dandy.”
Scott raised his eyebrows.
“He’s from back east, like you.”
“So I’ll recognise him because we share an accent and a vocabulary?”
Johnny shrugged. “If that means a fancy way’a talkin’, then yeah.” His brother looked him in the eye. “Look, as soon as I find Smithy, I’m gonna take him. Now I know you’re more than handy with a rifle, but that ain’t gonna help if you’re facing a man like Jed Smith.”
“I seem to recall a rifle worked just fine against Pardee.” Scott switched his gaze to the road out of town. “Have you thought that maybe they won’t wait for the stage to come in? They’re planning on murdering a man so if there’s any way to make it look like an accident, or a robbery gone wrong...” He trailed off and swallowed, there was no ignoring now that their father’s mortality hung in the balance. “They’ll be looking for an ambush point. About a mile or so out, the ground gets hillier, rockier too. Lots of places for a man with a rifle to wait.”
“How long we got before the stage is due in?”
He glanced through the stage office window, at the large round clock above Frank Boyce’s bobbing head. “A couple of hours?”
“Ok. Let’s have a look ‘round town, an’ if there’s no sign, we’ll go meet that stage.”
“And explain all this to Murdoch?”
A flash of uncertainty crossed Johnny’s face, but he nodded.
They arranged when to meet, and then Johnny headed for the saloon. Scott watched his brother go, Johnny’s casual gait surely belying how he must be feeling. Concerned, and secretly fearful? Sticking to the plan, he headed in the opposite direction, intent on visiting anywhere that offered rooms for rent.
At the agreed time, he was back outside the stage office, still none the wiser, staring at his lone horse tethered to the hitching rail, the only trace of Barranca, scuffed hoofprints in the dirt.
Johnny, you and I are going to have a serious talk. He snatched up the reins of his horse, knowing full well that Johnny had gone to meet that stage alone. About to mount, he caught sight of a man out the corner of his eye, and knew suddenly, he'd been watched for some time. He drew his gun, turning for a better look.
Johnny stopped about a mile outside Morro Coyo, when ahead, the road twisted out of sight like a snake in the grass, dropping down to the river on one side, rising in a steep rocky incline on the other. Boston had suggested an ambush, and his brother was smart, if not a little out of his depth on this. He imagined his brother’s angry face when he failed to show at their meeting place. Scott would realise where he’d gone, but had to understand that this was his responsibility, his mess, his violent, backstabbing world.
He left the road, clouds of dust no longer swirling about the horse’s fetlocks, as the ground beneath turned soft and green. The higher he rode, the cooler it became with the shelter of summer leaves and pine.
Reining Barranca to a halt, he sat in the saddle and listened. There was a distant trickle of water from where the river damned up, and the air was sweet and still, save for the odd critter disturbing the undergrowth. He glanced back, couldn’t see anything unusual, but there was something. Barranca’s ears pricked and he urged the horse along, hooves trampling through wilting yellow wildflowers to leave clear imprints in the earth. Ahead, a flattened path led toward a cluster of trees. He guided Barranca to the trail and the horse’s head jerked a little. Ducking to avoid a couple of stray branches, he discovered Smithy’s chestnut horse.
Mierda. This really was gonna happen then. And where was the Pink? He drew his gun, ears straining for the soft footfall in dry grass or the metallic click of a hammer pulled back. Not for the first time, he regretted not putting a bullet in Smithy that day at Ramsay’s ranch. Shoulda known it’d come back to bite him. Not wanting to risk Smithy seeing him now, he left Barranca, and exited the trees, the same way Smithy had, judging by the squashed petals in the grass. He followed the trail until it descended down towards the rocks, the only colour now sprigs of pale yellow flowers sprouting from the crevices. Listening hard, he thought he heard the distant rumble of the stage and its team, approaching from the right on the road below. Mierda, it was early! He half hurried, half slipped down the trail, tiny pebbles rolling with every step. Another colour—a man’s checked sleeve—it had to be Smithy darting from one position to the other as the rumble grew into the distinctive sound of the coach’s wheels forcing ruts into a dusty road, and the steady clatter of hooves. Any moment the stage would round the bend, visible and vulnerable, and he could see Smithy clearly now, crouched behind rocks, rifle balanced and aimed at the road. He raised his own gun, but lost his footing as the earth slid away. He skidded downward, a few larger stones coming loose and tumbling, alerting Smithy to his presence. Before he could regain his balance and get a shot off, Smithy ducked out of sight. All he could do was watch as the stage rounded the corner, full with passengers, one large man hunched by the window happening to look up. Their eyes met as the rifle shot exploded, and then there were panicked shouts, almost lost beneath the ugly squeals of the horses as the stage veered from the road and dropped to the river. A second of silence, a crash, and then, silence again.
He shoved his fist to his mouth. Murdoch was on that stage.
Another shot blasted out and he dived for cover, scanning the rocks for Smithy. Nothing moved. No sounds came from the stagecoach. He needed to get down there, but there was no way he could without giving Smithy an easy target. He shrank back against the rocky wall. Murdoch was on that stage! His heart raced. He trembled, and it threatened to take his chance of getting out of here and piss it to the wind. Where was Smithy now?
“Madrid! How ‘bout we do this proper. Face ta face. No distractions!”
He breathed out slow. The voice had come from somewhere above, to his right, and he crept along the rock, gripping his Colt in an unsteady hand. Just breathe. “You real sure ‘bout that, Smithy?” he yelled. “I ain’t got Jake talkin’ in my ear this time, savin’ your ass!” He waited for the response, hoping it would give away Smithy’s position, surprised when Smithy stepped out from cover, his gun holstered, his hands loose at his sides.
“Madrid. I’m done waitin’—”
Rock shattered above Johnny’s head, fragments shredding the air. He lost his balance and fell, slamming into the ledge below, the breath driven from his body in one big whoosh. What the—? His body throbbed and stung. He groped for his gun, but couldn’t find it. Where the hell had that shot come from? Groaning, he opened his eyes, resisting the urge to shut them quick when pierced by bright sun.
“Lookin’ for this?”
Smithy jumped down, holding his gun up like a medal before booting him in the side so hard he wanted to retch up his insides. Mierda! He couldn’t do a damned thing when Smithy grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked his head up, leaving him no choice but to gasp for his breath right in Smithy’s leering face.
“Y’know, y’should be thankin’ me.” With a tilt of his head, Smithy indicated the road below and the deathly silence that lingered there. “Jake sure will.”
His heart was fixing to bust outta his ribs, and his eyes watered from the tight grip on his hair. “This is ‘bout money, you spineless bastard,” he choked out. “Don’t make it what it ain’t.”
He tried to dodge the blow, but it smashed against his cheek. His hair felt wrenched out by the roots and warm blood leaked into his mouth. He spat it out, surprised a few of his teeth didn’t go with it. But, hell, there was still time. Lashing out, he felt Smithy’s grip loosen, but couldn’t avoid the fist, and damn, that hurt. Scrabbling to his knees, he drove forward, wrapping his arms around Smithy’s legs and bringing him down hard. Smithy wheezed. Let the bastard retch up his insides. Another shot, so close he could smell it, and figuring they’d keep on coming, he scrambled for a weapon, but his own gun had gone and Smithy’s holster was empty. Mierda! Where were the guns? He saw his at last, spinning in the dirt, and he lunged for it, but Smithy must’ve got his breath back because the click of the hammer was unmistakeable. He turned to see Smithy raise his gun, just as several shots bounced off the rock face loud enough to deafen a man, and sure as hell distract one. A body toppled down from above, landing below them with a thud and snap.
“Johnny?” It was Scott’s voice; close by, clear. Shit, he didn’t know...he didn’t know about Murdoch.
Someone skidded on the ground behind them, they spun round, and Smithy fired a shot bang on target.
Smithy hadn’t looked. Why the hell hadn’t he looked?! For once the worthless bastard had been fast, too damn fast, and now it was all happening real slow; Jake on the ground, clamping one hand tight over his spilling stomach, as he struggled to prop himself up against the rocks behind, Smithy muttering, I didn’t know, over and over again.
“Don’t move, d’ya hear? Just stop. Please.” He reached Jake’s side and collapsed to his knees, stripping back the black jacket to see bright blood seeping between bone white fingers. No, no, no. He heard Jake hiss, saw those trembling hands slip and the blood run free. So much blood. He tried to press down on the wound, ease the flow, but Jake started fighting him, batting his hands away. “I’m...all done...Boy...can’t ya see?”
“No, Jake...” But he could see, smell it too, the stench of death and black coffee on Jake’s breath, every red vein in his blinking eyes, that and a whole lot of something that was sure to make him lose it. He ripped his gaze away.
“Johnny?” Jake sounded real weak now, raspy, and pleading, and that almost did him in, because Jake didn’t plead with anyone for anything. Wet, trembling fingers wrapped around the back of his neck and drew him close with surprising strength, and he had little choice but to look again at those eyes and choke it back ‘til his throat hurt. “You’ll do jus...fine...here...” Jake whispered. Releasing his neck, Jake slapped his cheek, and Johnny caught the slippery palm as it dropped in exhaustion, lowering it down but not letting go.
“Jesus, Jake...if you see mama, tell her, explain why I’m stayin’...”
Jake made a spluttering noise, and for a second, his eyes regained their focus. “If I see... y’mama... where I’m headed...she got some...splainin... to do.” His eyes closed, he pissed himself, and blood rolled down his chin like a teardrop.
The world had faded into the background, and Johnny had let it go. Jake would’ve called that stupid, yelled something like ain’t you learned shit from me? just as he’d done frequently when Johnny was a kid, the yell reducing to a token growl as Johnny had gotten older. But Jake wouldn’t be yelling shit from now on. And the finality of that silence was deafening.
Dragging a breath down deep into his lungs, he let the world back in; heat from the midday sun, the trickle of sweat down his back, his own rapidly formed bruises pulsing with life, while the last trace of Jake’s seeped down into the sandy crevices.
Life was a Goddamn sonofabitch.
He shifted away from the body, inching his fingers across the rock until they closed around Jake’s fallen gun. He wasn’t alone up here and he wished he could test his voice before speaking; such was the ache in his throat. Instead, he raised his head, listening hard for another shuffle of boots on gravelly ground. “Did ya know?” he demanded, pleased that he sounded controlled, and numb. It was working—keeping his anger clenched in the palm of his free hand. “Did ya know he was in town?” He flicked his gaze down to Jake’s jacket splayed open and glistening with blood. I’ll be buried in this jacket, Boy. And it came at him hard then, like an iron fist to the gut. Jake had dodged a hundred deaths to die at the hands of his oldest friend, a man Johnny should’ve killed back in Tucson when he had the chance.
“I knew.” Smithy sounded like he’d smoked fifty cigars. “He...he showed up this mornin’, real pissed off, wantin’ me ta forget all ‘bout killin’ Lancer an’ ride out.”
Johnny clenched his hand tighter, his fingernails biting into his palm. “You shoulda listened to ‘im.” He stood and faced Smithy, almost faltering when he saw in Smithy’s eyes some of what he knew was in his own. The man was pale with grief, and he’d removed his hat, almost crushing its brim against his thigh. The gun hung redundant from his other hand. Johnny cocked Jake’s gun. “For once in your miserable life, you shoulda listened.”
Smithy’s expression registered brief surprise before it shuttered away into grim acceptance. "Mebbe." He jammed his hat back on his head, and subtly adjusted his grip on the gun. “But you killed Jake, sure as me. Know that, Madrid.” His arm flew up, but Johnny was quicker, and Smithy’s shot went wild as he slid to the ground.
Stalking over, Johnny tossed Smithy’s gun and squatted down, waiting for the man to wrestle through the pain and look him in the eye. “Somethin’ tells me...” he said quietly when that moment came, inclining his head down to where Smithy’s hands folded tight across his belly, “...it ain’t gonna be as quick for you.”
Smithy blinked several times, his stained teeth sinking into his lip. He rolled his head until he was looking out over the ledge. “See ya in hell,” he gritted out. “Y’daddy, too.” He brought his gaze back to meet Johnny’s. “Both of ‘em.”
It felt good grabbing hold of Smithy’s jacket and slamming him back against rock. The gush of fresh blood smelled absurdly sweet.
“You’ll put him out of his misery if you’re not careful.”
Scott. His brother had come to a stop beside him, rifle propped on one shoulder, Scott’s grim expression softened by a look of sympathy in his eyes that was just plain wrong when Murdoch was...Johnny released Smithy and straightened up, wiping his hands down the front of his pants. He could see Jake’s body out of the corner of his eye, the blood already turning brown in the hot sun. He wasn’t sure his voice would work.
“Scott, the stage...”
“It’s due any minute.”
“No.” The word came out choked, and he didn’t have to say a darned thing more before Scott was over at the ledge, scanning for a quick way down to the road. He should follow because Murdoch was his father, but only one of them, just like Smithy had said. Walking to where Jake lay, Johnny lowered himself down beside the man, and settled Jake’s gun into one limp, clammy hand. He should stay with him, but this was the next best thing.
It took longer down to the road than the distance implied, but at last Scott jumped the last few feet, dust rising around his boots as he landed hard and sprinted up the road until he could see the tracks where the stage had veered off. How long had it been since the stage had gone over? Murdoch could survive the fall, surely? Bumps and bruises. Just how deep could the river be? The latter answered when he glimpsed the wreck; the splintered stage on its side, half submerged in the olive green water. The only way down was further still and so he trekked his way in that direction and then double backed, hurrying along the toe of the embankment, scattering small pebbles and kicking up spray. The summer air felt wet against his skin, sticky with the grassy scent of reeds, and the river had dammed up here; the stench of stagnating water churned his stomach, while the dragonflies skimming the surface buzzed loudly in his ears. A man, who had probably been the driver, floated face down, his hat close by, turning lazy circles in the frustrated current.
“Dios.” Johnny jogged up behind him, and Scott’s own stomach knotted up tight. He was no stranger to death, he’d lived amongst the walking dead on the battlefield and then in Libby. But this, now... Why had he struggled to forgive Murdoch for a past neither one of them could change? Why had he not spent more time trying to get to know his father? Why had Murdoch been so damn stubborn, secretive, and proud?
The wheels on the stage had ceased to turn, and a kingfisher perched on the frozen spokes, taking flight in a blur of blue as a gunshot rang out. Drawing his own gun, Scott rounded the stage to find three survivors, two of whom huddled up high on the embankment, one with a gash to the side of his head that still dripped blood, the other’s leg splayed at an unnatural angle. The third stood over the team of four horses, a gun slipping from his fingers as he cradled his other arm.
“Is everyone out?”
The man with the injured arm looked up through dazed eyes.
The roof of the stagecoach had fractured, caving in on those trapped within, and the door was misaligned but still hanging to its hinges. Treading on the bottom wheel, Scott hoisted himself up so he could see inside. There were two further passengers, one large and silver-haired. He swallowed hard. Who had he been kidding, thinking he could live the next twenty-four years of life without really knowing and forgiving his father... He reached for the man and turned him over.
“You see ‘im, Scott?” Splaying his hands out on the side of the coach, Johnny hauled himself up, and together they gripped the man’s shoulders and heaved him out. He was dead. The remaining passenger must have been sitting on the far side and if the fall hadn’t killed him, the river surely had. Scott lowered himself down into the coach, and finding foot room in the murky water, he pressed his fingertips to a wet and waxy neck. No pulse. This one, like the large man, dead and unknown.
“Murdoch’s not here. He can’t have been on the stage.”
Johnny peered in. His jaw looked swollen and bruised, it was hard to tell beneath the dark slick of blood that adorned his left cheek and stained his clothes, but his confusion was obvious. “I saw ‘im. Maybe he rolled clear?”
They scanned the river, but there was no sign of another body. Murdoch wasn’t here! Relief coursed through Scott, with an old, familiar guilt hot on its heels; other people, other families, hadn't been as lucky.
“He’s not here, Johnny.”
Johnny stared as if it still wasn’t registering, before jumping down and walking over to the only survivors capable of speech now. “You were on this stage, right?”
They nodded and the man with the broken arm found his voice, “Riding up front. Shot came outta nowhere...”
“There was another two inside. That everyone?”
The man did the simple arithmetic in his head. Slowly.
“It’s a simple ‘nough question!”
The man looked befuddled as he lowered himself down to a sitting position.Clambering down from the stage, Scott hurried over and dropped to a squat beside him.“Mister—?”
“Straw.” The man took a deep breath. “Arnold Straw.”
“Mr Straw, I’m Scott Lancer. Now, we have four passengers accounted for, yourself and the driver. Take your time and think. Was there anyone else on board today?”
The seconds ticked by and Johnny let out an explosive sigh before stalking off a few paces and streaking a hand through his hair.
“Reckon that’s it,” Straw said finally. “There should be a passenger list...” He stumbled to the stage and after a moment’s one-handed rummaging, came up with a list, which he handed to Scott. “Don’t understand it. We ain’t carrying no strongbox...” He looked toward the coach again. “The other one, he dead?”
“I’m afraid so.” Scott glanced at the list and then walked over to his brother, who’d moved to stand at the water’s edge and was staring downriver. “Murdoch didn’t take this stage.” When Johnny didn’t respond, Scott grabbed his arm and shook a little. “Do you hear me, brother?” This time he got a vague nod, but it was the vacant look that disturbed Scott most. His brother was a gunfighter; didn’t they deal death like croupiers dealt cards? Hadn’t Day Pardee once been Johnny’s friend, yet neither man had hesitation in spilling the other’s blood? The image of Jake’s bloody body came to mind. Johnny had not talked much about their relationship, but there was a silent defence of the man behind every word he had said.
When he applied slight pressure to his brother’s shoulder, it didn’t take much to make Johnny sit down.
Straw seemed to be pulling it together, fashioning himself a sling out of a bright woven blanket he must have found on the stage. There were others, and, retrieving one, Scott shook it out and draped it around Johnny’s shoulders. His brother didn’t move.
“I could use a hand getting the other one out, Straw, if you’re up to it.”
“I’ll give it a try.”
Straw waved his good arm and together they heaved and jostled the remaining body out of the stagecoach and laid it on the riverbank before its limbs stiffened up. Then, Scott waded into the cool river to retrieve the driver, the only man he recognised, dragging the body ashore and lining him up with the other two, like putting kindling in the sun to dry. He gave blankets to the injured survivors and used the last one to spare the bodies from the flies, before walking back, his lower half dripping, to where Johnny sat.
“What’s with this blanket, Boston, it ain’t hot enough?” Johnny held the hem of the blanket, his fingers plucking hard at the threads as if they were feathers, as he stared out across the rippling water.
Scott dropped to a crouch beside him. “It’s not every day you watch someone you care about, die,” he said.
“Nope, it don’t happen every day.” Johnny’s eyes held a lot more awareness, but he’d made no move to shrug off the blanket. “You shot the Pinkerton.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. Was it his imagination, or was Johnny’s gaze carrying more weight than a moment ago? “What makes you so sure it was me?”
“Saw ‘im on the road up there. Dead.”
Scott’s forearms rested on his knees and he could feel the water from his pant legs seeping through the sleeves of his shirt. Whatever had riled him before, this was the most annoying thing about Johnny; that his tone and expression didn’t always reflect his meaning. He could be saying an awful lot right now, or saying nothing at all. Fortunately, Johnny wasn’t the only one with practice at hiding his feelings. Explanations were due, but would come later. From them both.
“It couldn’t be helped.”
And that was the truth. He and Jake had arrived to find the Pinkerton trying his damndest to shoot Johnny, and his own well-timed shoulder shot had been precise, but it was almost as if a breeze took him; the Pink had reeled round and staggered back, until all he’d been treading was air.
“We need to get back to town for help. I figure we have our horses, plus another three. We can take Jake back with us, get the undertaker to put him in the ice house until a funeral can be arranged.” Scott watched his brother’s fingers close tight around a portion of blanket.
“Zeb’s come ‘round but he’s hurtin’!” Straw called out, and Scott glanced over to see another man on his feet, the man with the broken leg now conscious and groaning. He hesitated before getting to his feet. “We could take him back to Morro Coyo, or Lancer. Have a marker made...”
Johnny shrugged off the blanket. “Lancer’s the last place he’d want to be.”
“I’m not some delicate flower, you know, Scott. In case you didn’t notice, when Pardee attacked this ranch I was toting a gun out there with the rest of you!”
“And don’t you think that if I knew Murdoch was in trouble, I’d want to stay here and help?”
“Is this one of those conversations where you just agree with everything I say?”
Scott set his coffee cup down and it rattled in the saucer. Ten minutes, Teresa had been home. And she’d managed to make him feel worse with each passing one of them, quite a feat, considering the events of the past twenty-four hours, and the fact that he’d hardly slept last night, waiting, he supposed, for his brother to return home. A pointless act, for it was almost suppertime and there was still no sign of Johnny. Yesterday in Morro Coyo, as the shadow of the bell tower stretched across a growing crowd of town citizens, some eager and others just plain needful to know why the loved ones they'd expected home would not be arriving, ever, Johnny had slipped away without a word about when he was coming back, or indeed if he intended to at all. The violent death of his old friend, or stepfather, or whatever term of endearment Johnny would choose to describe Jake Cortes, had hit him hard, and it was impossible to overlook the fact that Johnny's recent return to Lancer had seemed anything but committed. Would anyone be surprised if he never came home again after this? But then, who did he have now by way of family? Planting his hands on the kitchen table, Scott pushed up. “We were just trying to keep you safe, Teresa. I’m not going to apologise for that.”
He strode out of the back door, ignoring her plea to return. In the quiet coolness of the shady portico, the women had been drying jasmine, and he hesitated, breathing in its calming scent. The sun had already sunk behind the mountains, and even the shadows were dissolving into a blue darkness that swirled like mist around the outbuildings, the fields and beyond. Soft lamplight flickered in the bunkhouse windows and black smoke drifted from the stack with the plucked strings of a badly tuned guitar. He needed to find his brother, but where to start? He made to move towards the barn.
"Scott, I'm sorry." Teresa stepped out of the kitchen, and caught his arm, leaving the door swinging wide behind them. “It’s just, if Murdoch had been on that stage...I mean, I know he wasn’t, but I remember how I felt when Daddy died and...” She swept a lock of hair from her face, and gripped his arm, her eyes pleading for understanding. "It's awful about those other men, but I’m just so glad it wasn’t Murdoch.” He managed to nod, still not prepared to divulge aloud how much he echoed her sentiment. The relief that had come over him when he discovered Murdoch was not on the stage, still lingered, surprising him with its intensity even now. His fingers strayed to his breast pocket, brushing the telegram within, before he reached his arm out and she curled into it, pressing her cheek against his chest. Teresa had already lost one father; it was no surprise she wanted to protect Murdoch.
“I’m worried.” Her voice sounded muffled, and he hoped she wasn't crying. He tried not to be visibly relieved when she pulled away with dry eyes. "About Johnny."
He echoed that sentiment, too, and this time he would answer, although he wouldn't bother to temper his response. Teresa would see right through it. “So am I. He wasn’t in the best shape yesterday. I shouldn’t have left him..." He tried again to pinpoint when his brother had disappeared, but it was hard amongst the chaos and confusion surrounding the stage office. The doctor and Frank Boyce had been pleading for calm, and Johnny may have formed a low opinion of the elderly stageline operator, but Scott had been glad of his experience. This wasn't Frank's first stagecoach that hadn't come home.
“And who would have got those men to the doctor? Who would have explained things to those poor families?” Teresa was shaking her head. “He told you to leave him, Scott, and I’m sure he meant it.”
“Oh, I meant it.”
Johnny’s voice came from inside the kitchen and they stepped back inside in time to see him toss his hat onto the kitchen table and rake a hand through his dusty hair. He wore yesterday's clothes, and yesterday's bruises and blood. Teresa stifled a gasp.
“Are you okay?” She sprang forward, only to halt when Johnny held a hand up, taking a quick step of his own in the opposite direction.
“Sure, honey. I’m just great.” He poured himself a coffee straight from the pot, drinking it fast with no apparent regard for its temperature. Meeting Teresa’s concerned gaze, Scott gave a subtle nod, and without another word, she slipped from the room.
"I brought Jake’s horse back with me." Johnny returned the coffee cup to the table, then changed his mind and took it to the sink. It was clear he was studiously avoiding Scott's gaze. “He's a fine animal. 'Reckon we could make use of ‘im."
"I'm sure we could." He waited, but when Johnny stayed quiet, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the telegram, offering it to his brother between two fingers. "This was waiting for me in the telegraph office. It’s from Murdoch." When Johnny lounged back against the sink, eyed the telegram, but made no move to take it, Scott returned it to his shirt. "It seems something came up and he decided to stay another day." He stared at Johnny, who'd met his gaze at least, but was giving nothing away. "Jake was watching me in town yesterday, looking for you. He told me the Pinkerton had been in the telegraph office and left in a hurry. It would make sense that, if the Pinkerton saw this telegram, he wanted to get to Smithy before the stage arrived.”
“So that’s how you and Jake arrived together?”
Johnny's gaze remained indecipherable as he pushed off the sink. “Well, then, the mystery's solved, ain't it, brother?”
Scott hesitated, not sure they should get into this now, but it seemed Johnny wasn't interested in talking about anything else yet. “Not exactly. There’s still the small matter of why someone wanted Murdoch dead in the first place. I did some asking around town—"
Johnny shook his head. "You're wasting your time, Scott. 'Way I see it, there was one man with the answers, and dead men don't do a whole lot 'a talkin'."
Scott folded his arms across his chest. "If you're referring to the Pinkerton agent, then yes, I shot him, but I didn't intend for him to fall like that. Should I have let him keep on shooting at you?"
Johnny stared at him for a beat, and there was a whole lot going on in those blue eyes that Scott knew Johnny didn't intend to talk about. He felt his anger drain away, beginning to understand now what it was to be the elder brother. No matter how much a sibling got on your nerves, or said things you deemed downright unreasonable, you cared too much that they were hurting to be angry.
"Johnny—-" That's as far as he got, his brother's name, and Scott didn't know if Johnny read the change in tone or not, but a look of almost panic flitted across his features before he swiped up his hat from the table and settled it back on his head.
"Leave it for now, huh?" There was an edge to his voice this time.
"I am sorry about Jake."
"Oh, I doubt that, Boston, but you don't need to be worryin'. I'm fine."
"You can't possibly be fine."
Scott nodded slowly, unconvinced. "We'll talk later then."
Johnny, who was already walking out the door, waved a hand in Scott's direction. He didn't look back.
Scott listened to his brother's footsteps fade through the hacienda, and wondered if Johnny was right. Had their only hope of finding out who was behind the plot to kill Murdoch died with the Pinkerton? It seemed the former agent had travelled light, there had been no personal belongings in his saddlebags, or in the room he'd rented from Clara Henessey, two nights prior. There had been a few effects in Jed Smith's room, but nothing relating to Murdoch, and nothing worth a second look. Clearing the crockery from the table, and pouring away the last of the coffee, Scott left the pot on the side and walked through into the great room. Johnny's hat and gun belt were not on the hook, so he assumed his brother had gone straight out. He picked up his book from the coffee table.
"Scott, there's a fight outside the bunkhouse. It's Johnny!"
Teresa appeared in the doorway, her eyes wide above arms full of laundry. Slapping the book down, Scott followed her out through the kitchen and into the evening air.
It wasn't clear what Johnny had been thinking, but taking on Pedro Martinez, who was almost as tall as Murdoch, ought to have required some rational thought. However, it was clear to see, as Johnny launched himself at Pedro again, this time landing a glancing blow to the bigger man's jaw that barely registered, that there wasn't an ounce of rationality in his younger brother right now. And Pedro was holding back, in fact the man looked baffled beyond measure as he warded off another blow from the Patron's furious son. Scott watched for only a moment, before wading in to break them apart.
Getting a grip on his brother, it took all Scott's might to pull him off Pedro, and he had to knock the wind from Johnny by shoving him hard against one of the hacienda's stone pillars. “Take it easy.”
“Let go!” Johnny had his breath back, and Scott could almost feel the adrenaline bulging in his brother's biceps as he fought to free himself.
"Not until you settle down, I won't."
Scott bumped his brother back against the wall a second time before Johnny deflated, and said in a resigned tone, “Just get off me, Scott.”
Pedro stood several feet away, just watching, and tentatively, Scott loosened his hold, not intending to relinquish the grip on his brother until he was sure Johnny wasn’t about to charge like a bull. However, as soon as Scott's grip loosened, Johnny tore free, and snatching his hat from the ground, he stormed off, his fury trailblazing the dark.
"Senor Lancer, you must believe me, I've no idea what that was about."
The other hands had gathered in the open doorway of the bunkhouse, and Scott gestured them back inside. Only when the door closed on rough hinges, did he answer Pedro.
"Tell me what was said?"
"I only say I'm sorry about his friend, and that he must be relieved that the Patron was not on the stage."
Scott sighed, and stared after his retreating brother. "I apologise on behalf of Johnny. He's not himself right now."
"There is no need for the apology, Senor."
As Pedro moved off, it wasn’t much of a decision to go after Johnny. After all, who knew how long it’d be this time before they saw him again? As expected, he found Johnny in the barn saddling his horse. The lamp had been hastily lit, and swung from its rusty peg, glancing shadows off the barn walls. Placing himself in the entrance to Barranca’s stall, Scott folded his arms and waited. His brother was still charged; hard breaths broke what would otherwise be a heavy silence.
"You're in my way."
"I'm aware of that. Still insisting you’re fine?"
“I would be, if everyone would just leave me alone.”
“Well considering we’ve seen you for about ten minutes out of the last twenty four hours, I’d say alone is all you’ve been.”
Johnny hoisted the saddle onto Barranca’s back, and even in the wavering light, Scott could see him wince at the action.
“Did you stop by the doctor's office like I suggested?”
“No, Scott, I've had other things on my mind."
"And after that little scene with Pedro, I'm wondering just what they are."
"What the hell's that s'posed to mean?"
"I mean, a man asks if you're relieved that your father wasn't killed on that stagecoach, and all you can do is hit him for it." He was pushing a little here, but Johnny needed to hit something or someone, and better him than Pedro, or another one of the hands.
"What d'ya want from me, huh? Jake died yesterday. Yesterday! And for what? Nothin'. Murdoch wasn't even on the damn stage to begin with."
"And you're angry with Murdoch for that?" Scott couldn't keep the trace of incredulity from his voice.
Johnny opened his mouth, and at last, he might be about to admit a little of what he was feeling.... "Just get the hell out of my way," he said instead, and urged Barranca from the stall, so that Scott had no choice but to sidestep quickly.
Once, as a kid, he'd almost drowned. It had been a hot day, hotter than hell, and he'd been working in the fields alongside his mama, picking tomatoes until his nails went black and juices seeped into his torn skin and made him want to cry with the sting. It was hard work, he could barely wrap his hands around the bigger fruit, and the endless rows of tall green vines wove around him like a prison, while above, the sun beat down, redder and rounder than the fattest fruit. All he'd meant to do was to sit in the shade a while, so he'd surrendered to the prison and crept amongst the vines, but he was tired and hungry, and before he knew it, he'd stolen a few tomatoes from his basket, their sweet juice staining his lips and hands like blood. Anxious to wash away the evidence and fearing the Capataz would fire them if he knew, he had slipped quietly through the field to the water hole. The water's surface was still, his reflection as clear as in the jagged shard of looking glass mama kept beside her bed, and his guilt stared back at him through wide blue eyes. He'd reached to wash it away, and slipped...
Tossing a stone far out across the lake at Lancer, Johnny felt sure that if he dared glance down at his reflection right now, he'd see the same guilty expression. Shoulda killed Smithy when I had the chance. Across the lake, a flock of geese took flight in a dark flurry of flapping wings, launching themselves higher than the sun setting in the violet sky, and the water looked almost purple as it lapped gently against the shore. He didn't know why he liked this spot so much, just that he came here a lot to think, brood, or in this case just plain hide. Well, he'd been hiding here for a couple of days now, he'd not been back to the hacienda since the fight with Pedro, and it was time to return. Once again, he'd made a darned fool of himself, pretending to Scott and Teresa that everything had been fine, when fine was the last thing he could possibly be. And then to have taken it out on Pedro, because, with an innocent comment, the man had hit upon one of the dark feelings he'd been denying, the feelings that oozed through his veins like venom from a snake bite. That if Murdoch had been on the damn stage in the first place, then maybe there would be some meaning to Jake's death; he would have been up on those rocks three days ago for a reason. And if I'd shot Smithy when I had the chance... He kept coming back to that.
Dragging his sleeve across his face, Johnny hoped to take the tired feeling along with it. It didn't work; it never did. Because sleep wouldn’t come; like lasting happiness, it lingered out of reach. His eyes and throat burned, but he wasn't going to cry because crying never changed a bean. Returning to his horse, he turned Barranca around, and headed for the hacienda.
It was still warm out, the air throbbed with crickets. Light from a lamp filtered through the windows and cast long shadows that wrapped around the trunks of the poplar trees beyond the house. Concealed in these shadows, he watched Scott come outside, and ease down into the high backed wicker chair on the veranda, set a decanter and two glasses on the low adobe wall, and then flip open a book on his lap. Scott did that a lot, he remembered, buried his nose in some book of an evening and scarcely came up for air until he reached the last page. He’d never been one for books. Too much sitting round, still. But maybe he should give one a go sometime if it took your mind off someplace else for a while.
The barn cat appeared from the shadows, golden-eyed with a mouse in its mouth, growling at Scott from a few feet away before slinking off with its belly to the ground.
He let the soft jingle of his spurs announce his presence.
“Reckoned you’d be in bed, Boston.”
“You were counting on it, I'd say."
“Aw, come on now, Scott. You’re makin’ out like I’ve been avoiding you or somethin’.”
“Haven’t you? It's been two days, Johnny."
He set his fingers into motion, silently drumming the air by his thigh. “Ah, well, maybe I was a little. Wasn’t much in the mood for the lecture I got comin’.”
Scott raised his eyebrows. “Lecture?”
Johnny smiled a little. “Well, sure, y’know, for startin’ that fight with Pedro.”
“Wasn’t much of a fight.”
“And leavin’ you in Morro Coyo that day."
Scott's face fell. "You think I'm mad about that? Jake had just died, Johnny. I didn't expect you to deal with the townsfolk, too."
Johnny stopped drumming, and ran his fingers along the back of the vacant chair. "I was meanin' before that. When I didn't stick 'round to meet ya like I said I would."
"Oh, I see." Scott sat back, and closed his book. "Well, Brother, since you brought it up..."
"Murdoch’s your old man, too. 'Guess I didn’t give that enough thought."
"No, you didn't." Scott sighed. "You need to trust me, Johnny. I'm on your side. And when it comes to Murdoch, or Lancer, it's our problem, not just yours or mine." Scott nudged the chair in his direction, and looked at him expectantly, and for a moment, Johnny thought about getting the hell out of there, before conceding defeat and dropping down heavily into the wicker chair. It creaked beneath his weight.
“Have you given anymore thought to Jake’s funeral...?”
“It’s done.” He snapped the words out, glanced at his brother and tried to soften his tone. “I buried ‘im.”
“You didn’t have to do that by yourself. I would have helped.”
"It was down to me to do it. I'm the only family he had." He stared down at his hands, the earth still trapped beneath his fingernails, and if he wanted it, the stench of death clinging to his clothes. In his mind, he could see the river turn red, as he'd scrubbed clean Jake's black jacket. He had to be buried in that jacket, just as he always said he would be.
“You know what you need?”
Johnny rested his head against the chair back, and closed his eyes, willing a more desirable image to the fore. “Yeah, but I don’t think I’ve got the energy to make it to the saloon, let alone climb them stairs.”
“I wasn’t talking about a woman, Johnny. The state of you right now, you’d have to pay a girl double just to entertain the idea. I was talking about a drink, a strong one, maybe a few.”
“Don’t reckon I’d be able to stop at a few tonight, Boston.”
Johnny sighed. “Too many drinks could get me killed.”
“And being dog-tired and preoccupied couldn’t?”
He blew a breath through his nose.
“You’re not in some flea-bitten saloon in some shabby town now, Brother. You’re home, and in case you haven’t worked it out by now, you’re not on your own.”
Johnny rubbed at his face, too damn tired to argue either point.
“Here.” Picking up the bottle, Scott poured two large measures and passed a tumbler to Johnny. “Murdoch’s finest.”
When Johnny hesitated, Scott thrust the glass closer. It glinted in the lamplight. “Unless of course you really don’t trust me.”
Johnny smiled a little at that, and, almost against his better judgement, snaked a hand out and wrapped his fingers around the cold glass. It wasn't 'his' drink, but the first mouthful went down real smooth, and they drank in silence for a long time, the only sound the repetitive tinkle of bottle meeting glass, as they refilled their tumblers time and again.
"You know, you've never said much about him."
Johnny stared into his empty glass. “Not much to say now is there. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens.”
“Tell me about him.”
Johnny shifted in the chair. “Scott, I don’t think—”
“He told me he wanted to put things right between the two of you.”
That got his attention. Johnny looked up. “He told you that?”
“Yes. I asked him if that meant admitting he lied about Murdoch and he said no, he hadn't lied, but was beginning to wish he had. That’s about all he did say though. He didn’t seem a man to waste words.” Scott leaned in and refilled his glass. “So what had you argued about?”
Johnny sighed. “He knew that Parker was looking for someone to kill Murdoch, and he kept it from me. I was pretty mad when I found out, but lookin’ back...” He trailed off. Looking back, it hardly mattered; he couldn't even say why he'd got so fired up about it now. Settling the glass against his stomach, Johnny was aware of the alcohol washing over him in warm waves and the hazy, helpless feeling that there was not a damned thing he could do to stop it.
“Did you argue a lot?”
Johnny shrugged. "I dunno, Scott. You argue with that grandfather of yours?"
Scott smiled and took a mouthful of his own drink. "Only in the last few years...when I was a child, we never argued. Children should be seen and not heard, is, I believe, the expression."
"Hell, I argued with Jake from the time I was six years old. Never got me anywhere, though, 'cept maybe hauled over his knee a few times."
"Now why doesn't that surprise me?"
Johnny smiled, but it was quick to fade. “Yeah, you know, we argued. Before we went our separate ways, we were always buttin’ heads...” He scratched at the arm of the chair, tugging on a piece of wicker that had escaped the weave. “I was ‘bout sixteen, I reckon, spending more time on my own. People were starting to seek me out and offer me jobs. It was a crazy time, and Jake, he didn’t like it much. Reckon he was used to me followin’ his lead.
“He was jealous?”
“Nah, not jealous. Worried, probably, not that he’d ever have admitted it." Johnny stared out into the shadows. The barn cat had returned, tail tall, and it wound its body around the legs of his chair, its purr almost louder than the crickets. “Took me a while to find the guts to tell him to back off, that I was all grown and didn’t need motherin’. I was never scared of him exactly, but, boy, I was scared to tell him that." He smiled at the memory, these days as warm as the scotch in his belly. "He took it better than I expected, and after that I pretty much went my own way. Saw 'im now and then. We turned up on the same side in a couple range wars, and things were good, ‘til he found out I was here.”
“Because of your mother?”
“You know the truth now though, right? That Murdoch couldn’t have done what Jake said.”
“What she said,” Johnny said quietly. He stretched his legs out in front of him, his eyelids heavier now. “It came from her, Scott. Jake didn’t make it up.”
“Okay. So did your mother make it up?”
“Now why would she do that?” He sighed. “It happened, Scott, all right? It must have. All I know is Murdoch wouldn’t go along with it.”
"Are you going to tell Murdoch that? Because I think he'd appreciate hearing it."
Johnny threw back the drink this time, although the thought of explaining himself to Murdoch seemed far less daunting than it had earlier. In fact, pretty much everything seemed easier all of a sudden, even sleeping, his eyes could just close right now...
"Uh huh, I'll talk to 'im..."
Johnny waited for Scott to say more, but his brother had fallen uncharacteristically silent considering the badgering mood he was in, and it seemed like ages since Scott last said a word. If Johnny could be bothered, he'd turn his head to see if Scott was still even there...
“Come on, brother.”
He had no idea why Scott was shaking him, but he had a tight grip on his arm that didn't seem to want to let go. Johnny waved him away, but it didn't have any effect.
"You can't sleep out here."
“I can make it.” He tried to swat Scott away, but it wasn't working. In fact, he was sure he heard Scott laugh.
They got inside and Scott propelled him toward the stairs. “In there,” Johnny said, jerking an arm toward the great room. “Can’t make it up the stairs right now.”
Scott looked sceptical. “You have your own room and your own bed up there, Johnny. When do you intend to start using it?”
Johnny shrugged. They staggered into the great room and Scott offloaded him to the couch. “There you go, brother. Get some sleep.”
Johnny stretched out. "Can't sleep, Boston. Every time I close my eyes, I see him dyin', all that blood...”
“That’ll fade in time. You don’t need me to tell you that.”
Johnny nodded into the cushion. Scott was right, that would fade, but the feeling behind it wouldn't. He'd loved Jake, had let him down, and would surely miss him for the rest of his life. He glanced at his brother, who was looking at him strange now, and he got the fleeting notion that maybe he'd spoken aloud, but it was too hard to think when his eyes were closing and the world was spinning into darkness.
If he’d harboured a foolish notion that he was anything but old, then the long ride home on a borrowed horse had surely put pay to it. Lord, he ached. He had muscles protesting that he'd forgotten about, and reacquaintance was a devil. Still, he was probably in no worse shape than if he'd taken the stage again, and he was certain to have a lot less bruises. He’d go into town in a few days and find out exactly what had happened to cause the stageline to suspend operations to Morro Coyo, and get the refund on his unused ticket. For now, it was just good to be home.
The great room was deserted, and the windows were open; the dark red drapes swayed gently to a midmorning breeze. Hanging his hat on the stand, Murdoch unbuckled his gun belt, hung that up too, and attempted to stretch out the kink in his back. No matter the pain it caused him, it would take more than Pardee's bullet to keep him off a horse, and the trip had been a profitable one, even if it had taken longer than anticipated. Slipping the contract underneath the paperweight on his desk, Murdoch crossed to the liquor. He should wait for Scott, drink to the contract together, but a small measure of scotch now wouldn't hurt, and who knew if his son would be in the mood for celebrating. He could barely remember the last time Scott smiled. He rechecked the bottles a second time, but found no trace of his favoured drink. Even the crystal decanter was missing, a present from Catherine on his birthday. Resigned to brandy, Murdoch poured a single measure into a glass and brought it to his lips. The hacienda was unusually quiet for this time of day. Where was Teresa? He wanted an early lunch.
Across the room, he pulled up, spying the woven blue edge of his Indian blanket and the filthy socked foot poking off the end of the sofa. What in God’s name...? He walked around the sofa, the blanket covering all of the body except for one foot and a few tufts of dark hair, and jerked the blanket back. Johnny! His glass landed with a dull thud on his left foot, and rolled across the rug. It might be too much sun on the long ride home, so he risked a touch, his fingers skimming his son's bruised and stubbly cheek. It was his son sure enough, and Johnny stirred to swat the touch away, before burying his head further into the cushion. He’s only sleeping. Murdoch stooped to retrieve his glass, and caught a whiff. And still drunk.
Standing, Murdoch settled the blanket over his son's shoulders. The last thing Johnny had said was that he was going to take another chance at living. What had that involved, and how had it brought him back here, passed out on the sofa looking like he'd come off worst in a barroom brawl? He'll be trouble, this one. That's what he'd thought the first time he'd laid eyes on his grown son, so like his mother before him. And to a degree, he'd been right, but all that be damned, Murdoch allowed his smile to blossom. Johnny was back!
He looked up to see Scott in the doorway, his son's expression one of surprise before it turned into a smile, the like of which Murdoch had never seen on Scott before, and certainly not directed his way.
“It’s good to have you home, Sir.” There was such warmth in Scott’s voice that Murdoch didn't feel embarrassed at being caught grinning over the sleeping form of his younger son, and even Scott's formal title of address didn’t jar, plus he still wore a smile that stretched up into his eyes. Maybe some time apart was just what they needed after all. Ironic really, seeing as how it was too much time apart that had led to all this.
“It’s good to see you,” Murdoch said, pleased to reciprocate the warmth of greeting. He gestured to Johnny, still not quite believing his presence. “It’s good to see both of you. I trust there's a reason why your brother's sleeping off a hangover on the sofa?" He'd tried hard to keep his tone light, so was disheartened to see Scott's smile slip, as he glanced at his brother.
“There is, Murdoch, but it’s a long one.”
“Well, Scott, I have the time.”
Scott nodded, as if physically steeling himself for the telling, and Murdoch felt a flutter of trepidation deep in his belly. Whatever the explanation turned out to be, he had to keep Johnny here, and the weight of responsibility pressed down on his shoulders even more so than it had done that first day, the day he'd acted like a hardheaded fool instead of welcoming his sons with open arms.
Murdoch cast one further glance over his sleeping son, before following the other into the kitchen. Before either could get a word out, a shriek of "Murdoch!" filled the room, and Teresa hurried down the back stairs into his waiting arms.
Amused, he allowed her to hug him for a minute, before gently extracting himself from her embrace. Scott was smiling at the display, and dipped his head so that Teresa wouldn't see, as finally she stepped back, her own face beaming.
"If that's the welcome home I get, then I should go away more often."
"No. I prefer it when you're here."
She looked worried now, and Murdoch raised his eyebrows in question, allowing his gaze to travel over her head towards Scott. His son and ward both seemed very pleased to see him, and even Johnny had returned. Just what had gone on in the short time he was away?
Scott stepped closer, and put a guiding arm around Teresa. "I need to talk to Murdoch about Johnny..."
Murdoch turned to the counter. His crystal decanter stood on the side, sparkling clean, but empty. It wasn't hard to figure where the contents had gone.
A short while later, he had his explanation. Scott sat at the table, cradling a glass of water in his hands, but Murdoch found it impossible to sit still, and so he paced the kitchen, from door to door, his thoughts as unsettled as the rest of him.
“He doesn’t believe his mother lied, Murdoch. It's more that he’s come round to the idea that you didn’t know it was occurring."
Murdoch's hands closed into fists. Since the moment Johnny had first come to him with such an outlandish allegation, all he'd done was search his memory. Maria hadn’t been sharing his bed then, Johnny was in a phase of waking several times a night, and it had been easier for her to see to him, and not disturb Murdoch from much needed sleep. Morning came early on the ranch, sometimes before the birds tweeted their dawn chorus, and it was a whole lot harder to spend sixteen hours out in those fields with a disturbed night’s sleep under his belt. But she’d been distant towards him in those final days, he remembered that, but it had looked like she was enjoying giving him the cold shoulder. Had he really only imagined that later, once he’d discovered she’d left with another man, stolen his child, sneaked off behind his back...? As for her purported attacker, he remembered Malcolm Hensham's visit to the ranch, but not whether he'd afforded the man and his associates, opportunity to rape his wife. Dear God. He paused by the table, and took a mouthful of tea, aware that Scott was waiting for a response. He wiped the bad taste from his mouth with the back of his hand. He may well have been a blind fool when it came to every other aspect of their relationship, but there was no way on God's earth he'd be blind to such a plight. No way in hell. It was lies. All of it. But whose lies, he would never know now Jake Cortes was dead. He wished he'd confronted the man, followed Johnny when he'd left that night, demanded to know what game Cortes was playing and why. But he hadn't. He had a sneaking suspicion it was something to do with the expression that crossed Johnny's face the day they'd fixed Walt's roof.
He hadn't wanted to face the man who'd possessed everything he'd lost.
“I didn't know, because it never happened. Someone lied, Scott, and I'll be damned if I know why."
"Are you going to tell Johnny that, because I don't think..."
"I'll deal with Johnny. Set him straight."
Scott looked sceptical, but nodded. "And are you going to talk to him about this plot to kill you, because I'm not sure he knows who's behind it anymore than I do."
"I'm sure we'll address it at some point."
"I must say you're taking that particular piece of news, well. I'm not sure I could be so calm."
Murdoch pursed his lips. It was a funny thing, a threat on your life, and maybe, once, he'd have seen it through Scott's eyes. But out here, men shed blood for land. Twenty-five years holding on to his, taught him not to panic. And they only had Jake Cortes' word for any of this."You don't get to my age without making enemies, Scott."
"It doesn't concern you that someone would go to such lengths?"
"Wasn't the first and won't be the last." Scott looked shocked by that, and Murdoch sighed, sitting down opposite his son. "It concerns me, but what concerns me more is that whoever is behind this, used Johnny to get to me. I'll make some enquiries, and in the mean time I'll be vigilant, and take the necessary precautions."
He opened his eyes to brightness, the sun streaming through the French doors to cast rectangles of light on the stark white ceiling, and it was too warm, he felt sticky and hot, fully clothed beneath this blanket. He went to move, and Madre de Dios, so much for Boston watching his back—someone must’ve taken an axe to his head while he slept. Defeated, he sank back against the sofa, eyes closing, and neck aching from sleeping crooked. He tried to remember the night before, but damn if it wasn't all regret and shadow. What had possessed him to let his guard down and forget a lesson so hard learned that he still had the scars to prove it? He lay still, listening to the rhythmic tick of the clock, and faintly, Teresa and Maria talking in the kitchen. He wiggled his toes, free of the confinement of boots, and a quick check beneath the blanket revealed him free of his gun belt, too. Well, shit, this just got better and better. He rose up a little, and flipped the blanket off. Okay, so he just had to move real slow, he could do that. It was just a damn shame the nausea was quicker. He lay back, squeezed his eyes shut and took a couple of deep breaths. He could hear Teresa saying something about waking him up. He needed to piss real bad.
He found his gun belt on the floor beside the sofa, and settled for wedging the Colt in the waistband of his pants. Once his most pressing need was taken care of, he staggered out toward the old pump and squatted down, dousing his head beneath the torrent of cold water while trying real hard to keep the contents of his belly. He failed. After a minute’s retching, he heard booted footsteps coming from the house, and he groped for the pump handle again, only for someone else to come to his assistance.
“Boston, I swear, last night was the dumbest idea you’ve ever had.”
“I think you’ll find Scott was trying to help you.”
Shit, no. Not now. Through the blur of water, he glimpsed Murdoch's boots. Shit. He just couldn't do this now. Damn Scott and his ideas. He might not have been thinking real clear before, but at least he was thinking. Now he couldn't think worth a dime past the pounding in his skull. He let the cold water gush through his hair.
"You know, when you were born, I spent hours imagining what life would be like as you grew."
He went dead still. The water reduced to a trickle.
"I was sure it was only a matter of time before I brought Scott back here to live, and raised you two boys together. I imagined everything, your first horses, your first race on those horses, even your first fight..."
Tentatively, he straightened. Murdoch stood beside the pump, offering a towel. He didn't know how he did it, but he managed to look his father in the eye—for all of a second, before taking the towel and burying his face in it. “Thanks," he managed, muffled.
"I pictured the day that Scott took you into town and got you drunk, and I was determined to be a lot more relaxed about it than my father was when my brother introduced me to the delights of drink."
When he slowly lowered the towel, Murdoch stood there, kind of awkward, with his hands thrust deep in his pockets.
"Well, ya missed our first fight." Johnny leant forward and roughed the towel through his hair, only for his belly to lurch again. He eased back up. "But the drinkin' was a real bad idea, so feel free to lay into Scott for leadin' me astray."
"I might under any other circumstance. Scott told me about Jake, Johnny. I'm sorry."
He dipped his head, biting the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood. “Y'know," he said quietly. "You and Scott, ya say that, but it ain't true. Reckon the only one who's sorry is me." He heard his father’s sharp intake of breath over the steady drip, drip of the pump. There was a pretty good chance he was going to puke again.
"Murdoch, I know I need to explain, but I'm not feelin' so good right now..."
His father removed his hands from his pockets and folded his arms across his chest. His expression was serious, but there might have been a hint of amusement in his eyes. Damn if he could ever tell what his Old Man was thinking."You're not looking so good, either. I asked Maria and Teresa to prepare a bath in your room. Use it."
He blew out his breath, instinctively wanting to buck at the tone, but one look down at the ruined shirt he'd been living in for the past four days made him think twice. Instead, he lingered by the pump, watching Murdoch stride back inside the hacienda. To think that for a long moment up in those rocks, he'd felt sure he'd never see his father alive again, and would have to live with the knowledge that the last words spoken between them were bitter, angry ones. Damn it, now he had a chance to put things right, but it wasn't going to be easy. It wouldn't be easy at all.
By the time he'd dragged himself upstairs, the pounding in his head had gotten worse, and he almost tripped over the stupid Mexican rug in the upstairs hall. The door to his room was open, and steam swirled from the tub. Hesitating against the jamb, he gazed around the room he'd just begun to think of as home when Jake had shown up and ruined it. He noted the bed neatly made, and someone had brought his saddlebags up and draped them over the bedpost. There were towels and his clean clothes on the bed, when he couldn't even remember giving any to Teresa to wash. He stepped inside and closed the door, peeling the shirt from his skin, the material stiff with Jake's dry blood. He screwed it tight into a ball, fighting hard against the memories. The water was hot as he lowered himself down, one side of his torso colourfully bruised, his jaw aching, and the steel drums in his head reaching their damn chorus. Using a folded towel as a pillow, he rested his head back. Could this room be home again? He closed his eyes. He'd done it before, convinced himself the past didn't matter in order to have a future that had been unimaginable when blindfolded and bound, forced to his knees in the Mexican grass. He'd never know what happened to his mother when she lived here, and he couldn't do a thing to change it. Question was, could he live here knowing that? He let the water soothe him.
He must have dozed off, because when he came to, his head had cleared and the water was cold. Hastily he ran the soap over his hair and body, rinsing off with water from the pitcher. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he stepped out of the tub. He was just pulling on his pants when knuckles rapped the door.
"Come on in, Scott."
His brother did, stepping inside and closing the door swiftly behind him. "Well, you look better. How's the head?"
Johnny studied his brother. "I'm gettin' there." He stuck an arm through his clean shirt. "Funny thing is you seem fine."
Scott smiled. "I might have let you think I was keeping up with you last night."
"Ya don't say."
"So I talked to Murdoch."
"He took the news about someone wanting to kill him, remarkably well."
"Well ain't you the one who said somethin' 'bout the man having big feet?"
Scott folded his arms and leant back against the door. "He's pleased you're back."
Johnny snorted softly.
"You said last night you'd talk to him."
"I'm sure I said a lotta things."
He didn't like the way Scott was looking at him right now, and it didn't help that last night was still hazy.
"Jake's death wasn't your fault, you know."
"I know that, Scott. He snuck up on a man with a gun and shit for brains, that's a pretty stupid thing to do."
A look of frustration crossed Scott's face before he sighed and shook his head. "Talk to Murdoch," he said, on his way out the door.
Sinking back on the bed, Johnny stuck his arms behind his head and stared at the ceiling. Scott was wrong, it was his fault. He hadn't killed Smithy when he'd had the chance. Why? Because he was Jake's best friend. Now, he'd rather deal with Jake's grief ten times over than his own. He rolled over onto his side, and for the first time, didn't try to fight it.
Later that afternoon, he went in search of Murdoch, and found him and Cipriano studying some plans by the corral. Cipriano appeared to be doing much of the talking, in rapid Spanish by the look of it, and Murdoch was nodding, stroking his chin as if deep in thought. A couple of times Cipriano jabbed a finger against the paper, as if referencing a point, and Johnny watched them, not sure now whether he ought to leave this until later. At the opposite end of the corral, close to the barns, a bay mare suckled her foal. Johnny wandered closer and watched them instead, standing in the shade of a tree, the canopy of green leaves concealing him from the sun's brutal glare. When he looked Murdoch's way again, the plans were gone, and they'd noticed he was there; Murdoch was striding over.
"I was about to come and find you. You're feeling better?"
"Pretty much." Johnny nodded his head in Cipriano's direction. "Does he know?"
Murdoch followed Johnny's gaze. "I've made him aware. He'll take the necessary precautions. Keep the men on guard, just until we know what's what."
"Scott thinks you're being too calm about it."
"Scott hasn't lived long in the world I..." Murdoch glanced his way, "...we come from. Day Pardee wasn't the first to try to kill me, and that Pinkerton won't be the last."
"I'm not sure it's all down to the Pinkerton."
"No." Murdoch sighed. "There's more to it, I just don't know what. I'll make some enquiries, and get to the bottom of it, one way or another."
They lapsed into silence, and Johnny ran his hand along the top of the corral fence. He figured he was the one supposed to start this dance, but found himself wishing Murdoch would all the same. "Well, go on, Murdoch, ask it."
His father folded his arms, and stared down at him. "Which particular question, Johnny? I have quite a few."
"'Bout why I came back. I know—"
"I know why you came back," Murdoch cut in. "And I'm grateful, if not a little surprised, given what you think of me."
There was bitterness in those words, and Murdoch wasn't trying to hide it. In the corral, the mare approached the fence, and her foal followed, sticking close to her side. Johnny reached out to touch the horse, aware of Murdoch's scrutiny, and the heavy, expectant pause. He could count on one hand the number of times he'd offered an apology to a man; his gun and a name meant he rarely had to, but he sure was notching up a few apologies lately. It had been different with Scott and Jake, he'd known where he stood with them, had felt pretty sure they weren't about to throw it back in his face, but Murdoch...things hadn't been good between them to begin with. He took a breath. "I'm sorry for the things I said."
Murdoch's arms unfolded, his hands dropping down to his sides. The mare turned around to nuzzle at her foal.
"That's the way it should be," Johnny said softly. "The mama taking care of her kid, but it wasn't always that way with me and her." He shrugged, aware that Murdoch's gaze remained fixed on him, and that the expectant pause just got a whole lot bigger. "I'd gotten so used to defending her. Guess some habits are hard to break." He waited for his father to say something, but Murdoch wasn't saying a darn thing, and the silence stretched between them until Murdoch reached out, and, with paling knuckles, gripped the fence with strong hands.
"I never realised what was happening to your mother, Johnny. If I had, I'd have done everything in my power to prevent it; I'd have choked the life out of Malcolm Hensham."
"I know that now..."
"Do you? Because if there's any doubt..." Murdoch raised his head and stared across the corral, unfocused, almost lost. "I loved your mother back then, maybe still. I won't be accused of that again, John. Not ever, do you understand me?"
Murdoch had turned to face him, his gaze as sharp as his tone, and he may have missed Murdoch's hurt the first time around, but he sure wasn't missing it now. Looking his father in the eye, all he could utter was, "Yes."
"So my next question is..." Murdoch's hands clenched the rail again. "My next question is, now you know, will you stay?"
You’ll do just fine here. Jake's words drifted with the afternoon breeze, stirring the leaves in the canopy above. And he'd told Jake he was staying, before he'd even told himself. "I want to," he said quietly, hoping to convey just how much in those few words, especially given what he was about to add. He felt Murdoch's hand on his shoulder, fingers massaging gently against the bone, and it was such a surprising gesture that he almost couldn't say it. "But it wasn't exactly working out before, was it?" He booted the bottom rung of the fence a couple times; aware that Murdoch's fingers had gone still. "You give orders, Murdoch, and I told ya, I don’t take ‘em too well.”
“Did you take orders from Jake?”
One day, maybe he'd hear the name and not feel the lump in his throat. Glancing at Murdoch, he realised the Old Man probably felt the same, just for different reasons.
“When I was a kid, mostly I did, yeah. But that was... different.”
“Because he was like a father to you?”
Murdoch's hand had slipped from his shoulder.
“Yeah, ‘cause of that." He booted the fence again, and heard Murdoch suck in a breath.
"You're my son, damn it."
He didn't want to hurt Murdoch anymore than he already had, but there was no use pretending that things were fine before Jake showed up. "Look, I know you never thought much of Jake, and I reckon if I was you, I'd feel the same, but the fact is Jake was there, and you weren't. Now you might not like that much, but it's the way it is, and I don't need a father now."
"But you need a home."
And that was the truth of it, now more than ever.
"And I need my business partners here, pulling their weight." Murdoch drew himself up to his full height.
"Yeah, partners, Murdoch. I've had enough schoolin' to know what that means."
"We agreed I'd call the tune."
"Yeah." His head was pulsing again, and it was too darn bright out here, even in the shade of this tree. "I know, and I was tryin', Murdoch."
"I'll try, Johnny." Murdoch's voice was quiet. "And I'll make a pact with you. If things don't work out and you want to leave, then I won't stand in your way, I won't try to change your mind." His voice had softened even more, until it was barely detectable above the horses moving in the corral, and the deep moan of cattle in the pasture behind. "What do you say, son?"
Murdoch was standing there, real patient, and that was sure something. Maybe this could work. Hell, he wanted it to. If nothing else, it was tempting to see just how long Murdoch's patience lasted. Would his mother understand why he wanted this? Johnny ducked his head and drew in his breath. When he looked up, his father was watching him with something that looked like hope in his eyes.
The breeze caught the tree again, and the leaves rustled overhead.
"Well, Old Man, I say you got yourself a deal."
He could see them through the gap in the tiered blue curtains, his sons together loading the wagon. Johnny passed the full sacks to Scott, who threw them into the wagon bed as effortlessly as goose down pillows. It was warm inside the store, but it must be baking out there, and he felt mild guilt before the old Patron's prerogative kicked in and he took a sip of the whisky Juan had offered him from his private flask, stashed beneath the counter away from the prying eyes of Rosa.
"It's good, si?" Juan asked him, accepting the return of the flask and tightening its silver lid.
"It's good but I've had better," Murdoch said with a smile that made Juan roll his eyes. Outside, Johnny and Scott were talking as they worked, and Scott said something he thought funny judging from the smile that tugged at his lips. It prompted Johnny to throw a few smaller packages at Scott in rapid-fire succession, his brother struggling to catch them all before giving up altogether and lobbing back the ones he had caught, harder and faster, causing Johnny to drop from sight.
"It is good to have your sons back."
He smiled. "It surely is." He waited for Johnny to reappear. Would he tire of watching them? Granted, the ache of all he'd missed was still there, a lingering pain like the bullet in his back, but it was easing now with every day. As Johnny deposited an armful of packages in the wagon, Scott leaned against the rear wheel, wiping the sheen of sweat from his forehead. They talked some more, and he'd have to be blind not to notice their lingering glances in the saloon's direction. Apparently, it was thirsty work.
He walked outside to join them. Scott went back to work, checking the list he held in his gloved hands as he walked back inside the store, but Johnny lingered by the wagon, toeing the dirt with his boot. "You gotten answers to your telegrams, yet, Murdoch?"
Johnny's tone may have been casual, but Murdoch knew the subject was anything but. It had been three weeks since he'd returned home from his trip to find Johnny back, and the lack of answers was frustrating. Reaching into his pocket, Murdoch withdrew the telegrams he'd collected that morning, and handed them to his son. "Here. I got the same answers you did from the Pinkerton agency. Obviously they're trying to disassociate themselves from Parker as much as possible."
Johnny glanced over them briefly before returning them to Murdoch's open hand. "So you're just lettin' this go, huh?" he asked quietly, bringing his gaze level with Murdoch's for the first time since this conversation started.
Murdoch met the gaze head on. "What would you have me do; hide in my home? Because that's not going to happen, Johnny." His son looked away then, staring down the street. "I could send someone down to Tucson, to Abilene, to all the places we know Parker was, but I'm not sure what good it would do. Scott said there was nothing amongst his possessions to indicate for whom he was working. He was obviously very careful in that respect. The agency provided me with a list of Parker's past associates, probably the same one your friend gave to you. I don't recognise the names."
Johnny turned around and began arranging the smaller parcels in the back of the wagon. He made it seem an interesting task. "What 'bout the fact that he was one of the agents you had lookin' for me when I was a kid, you lettin' that go, too?"
"There were a number of agents involved in the search for you, Johnny."
"Parker's name on any of your reports?"
"One or two."
"You think it was Parker's idea, using me to get to you?"
"It seems a logical explanation."
"I don't know 'bout logical, Murdoch, but it's no coincidence."
Scott came out with what had to be the last of the packages, and set them down in the wagon bed. "Any word back from the Marshall?"
Murdoch ran his hand atop the wagon as Scott secured it. "Not yet."
Johnny stepped back, and shook his head. "He has his murderers rotting six feet under. That's all he'll care 'bout."
Scott dusted off his gloves, and reset his hat, glancing Murdoch's way. "So where do we go from here?"
"We go home. There's nothing more to do than that."
Johnny went to fetch his palomino, and Juan came to the door of his store. As Scott bid the storekeeper goodbye, Murdoch's gaze caught that of a young man emerging from the saloon on the opposite side of the street. About Johnny's age, he watched them from across the way, taking up a casual stance against the adobe wall of the saloon with a beer mug in hand, an appraising gaze fixed on Johnny's departing back. He wore his gunbelt low. Murdoch's mouth turned dry. Not another gunfighter, damn it. When would the past leave them clear alone? Even on the ride into town today, Johnny's past had been a silent passenger. The last time he'd ridden alongside Johnny, his son had been the epitome of casual, moulded to the saddle with the reins loose in his hands, his hat pulled so low, his expression wasn't visible. Today though, during the long ride to Morro Coyo, while Johnny still looked comfortable in the saddle, he'd held the reins in just one hand, his other hand rested on his thigh, and every now and then Murdoch would catch glimpses of those blue eyes scanning Lancer's trees and rising foothills that ran either side of the road. Be it the brief return to his old way of living, or Jake's death three weeks ago that had reminded Johnny of the fragility of life, it saddened Murdoch to see it. And it made him grind his back teeth how, if Jake Cortes had been the father Johnny claimed, he had not done everything possible to ensure Johnny never lived like this.
Johnny had noticed the stranger now, and with one finger he pushed the brim of his hat right back, his eyes narrow for perhaps a second until a smile widened on the stranger's face. Murdoch saw the smile, and noted with a modicum of relief, that his son reciprocated it. But then Johnny had probably smiled back at Jake Cortes, and look how that'd turned out.
"You know that boy, John?"
Johnny glanced at him. "Boy? Nope, but I know that man over there."
His son still smiled, and it was such a rare sight that Murdoch forced himself to relax. He'd told Johnny he would try harder, and a maybe this was one of those times. He slapped the side of the wagon. "You know, boys, I've got this."
Johnny raised an eyebrow. "Thought you had somewhere to be?"
"I do, but I can spare you. I'll take the wagon. If you want to be spared that is," he added.
Johnny stared at him for a beat, and then shrugged. "Sure thing, Murdoch." He sauntered off in the direction of the saloon, snagging his brother's shirt on the way past. "C'mon, Scott, I want ya to meet a real old friend of mine..."
"Scott, before you go." Murdoch reached into his jacket and removed the mail, flipping through the envelopes until he found the one he was looking for. "This came in the mail, son. It's from--"
"Grandfather," Scott finished for him, making no move to take the envelope.
"Are you going to open it? This is the first letter he's written to you..."
"I know." Scott hesitated.
"Take it," Murdoch said softly, thrusting the envelope once more in Scott's direction. Whatever his personal feelings about the man, he knew as well as Scott did that Harlan was sorry for how things had turned out. Harlan had come to get his grandson back, only to end up pushing him further away. With a resigned nod, Scott took the envelope, folding it neatly in half and sliding it into his pocket. Murdoch watched him head over to Johnny, who was already in conversation with the young stranger, and whatever story was being recounted, it was making Johnny grin hard, and as a few more words were exchanged, Johnny removed his hat and slapped the younger man with it, smiling all the while. Scott joined them and Johnny introduced them, and it wasn't long before he, too, was grinning, and shaking his head at the ground. Murdoch watched them a moment more, and then climbed aboard the wagon and trundled up the street.
Seb Martin had buried more dead men than Murdoch had eaten beefsteaks, at least that's what he claimed as he swept sawdust from the floor of the shack he called an office, in Morro Coyo's back streets. There wasn't a lot of money in it, least not when he got to burying the likes of Jed Smith, who at the time of his death didn't have so much as a dime in his boot.
With one last glance at his loaded wagon, Murdoch moved further inside the office, coming to a stop beside a large upright coffin, which disturbingly was just his size. He took a step in the opposite direction, and returned his attention to Seb.
"Good thing the other one had cash, close to five hundred dollars. Paid for my time in buryin' 'em both, even if all I wanted ta do was see 'em rot."
"I'm sure that'll happen where they've gone."
"You're right, Murdoch. You're right."
"Seb, is there a particular reason why you stopped me just now?"
"Sure is." Seb stopped sweeping and leaned the broom against the wall before crouching low behind his counter and popping up with an envelope in hand. "I meant this for Scott, but seein' as how you're the first Lancer I seen, not countin' your younger boy, I figure you'll know if it's important."
Murdoch took the envelope from Seb, and glanced down. "To Maude." He must have looked puzzled because Seb's eyebrows shot skyward and he gave an apologetic smile. "Inside, Murdoch," he insisted. "The envelope's just what I stashed it in."
Inside the envelope was a fragment of paper, the edges torn and heavily bloodstained. "He had a pocket sewn into the inside of his waistcoat," Seb explained. "Looks like it were the draft of a telegram, but the blood's damn near ruined it. Ya can still make out a few words."
Murdoch glanced at the paper. Scott had been to the telegraph office, but they'd no record of the Pinkerton ever sending a telegram from there. Was this one he'd intended to send? The writing was almost ineligible. Seb was right, it wouldn't mean much to anyone else, but...
"Course, I s'pose you're gonna be askin' me what I was doing in the man's waistcoat? Well, I tell ya Murdoch, someone had to pay for those unlucky souls on that stagecoach to be buried right, and he had a mighty fine pocket watch, too..."
"Seb?" Murdoch looked up, slipping the piece of paper back inside the envelope. "How long have you had this?"
Seb looked guilty. "I damn near forgot 'bout it," he admitted. "It's the Cookson family, you know, buried all seven of 'em this past fortnight. Food poisoning, Doc reckons it was. 'Reckon I ought to've burnt 'em instead, just in case it was some kinda fev--"
"Have you told anyone else about it?"
"Not a soul, Murdoch. Livin' or dead."
"Do me a favour then, will you, and keep this to yourself?"
"Will do, Murdoch. Ya have my word."
Seb nodded, and then pointed to the upright coffin. "You ever consider pre-orderin'?"
Later that day, as the sunset rolled shadow across the ground, he sat at his desk and stared through the picture window, across the land he'd shed blood for, and still would if it came to it. On his desk sat the bloody draft of a telegram, and it wasn't proof, not even circumstantial, but it made a hell of a lot of sense from a certain point of view.
"Who's that with Johnny?"
He pocketed the telegram, stood up, and joined his ward by the French doors, staring out to where his son stood with the young man from the saloon. "His name's Wes, he's a friend of Johnny's."
"Is he staying for a while?"
"Longer than a while. I've offered him a job here."
He felt Teresa's arm slip around his waist, and behind them footsteps, as Scott entered the room. "You hope having a friend here will help him to settle," Teresa said, and he heard the smile in her voice.
"Am I that transparent?"
Scott peeled off his gloves. "As nice as Wes appears, I'm not sure he's the settling type."
"Anymore than your brother is?" Murdoch watched Johnny laughing. How many times had he done that lately? He gave Teresa a squeeze before she let him go, and his gaze came to rest on Scott.
"Have you read your grandfather's letter?"
Scott looked uncomfortable as he nodded. "It's his apology, for everything, and I know that he means it. He wants my forgiveness."
"And do you forgive him?" In the quiet of the room, the grandfather clock counted the seconds.
"I want to," his son said quietly.
Murdoch nodded, and reaching into his pocket, his fingers brushed the scrap of paper. Undoubtedly, Harlan's loss was his gain, but Scott had suffered the cost of victory. He was suffering still. And Scott might not be ready to write back to Harlan, but Murdoch could. The old man should know how close to danger Scott had gotten recently. How, if things had gone the other way during the shootout with the Pinkerton agent, Scott could have been the one dead on the roadside. It was only right that, as Scott's grandfather, Harlan knew.
Decision made, Murdoch's fingers scrunched the paper into a tiny ball inside his pocket, his gaze returning beyond the panes of glass to where Johnny had just slapped Wes on the shoulder, and was walking back to join them, a grin still on his face.
Confident was a rare thing to feel when it came to his family, but he felt it now.
"It'll work out, Scott. You'll see."