#2 in the Ghosts series
Word count: 22,140
Whistling to himself, Scott walked down the steps, through the short hallway, and into the drawing room. There he paused and quickly scanned the room. “Where’s Johnny?” he asked.
Teresa looked up from her mending. “He hasn’t come back yet,” she answered, then bit off the end of the piece of thread. Holding the finished hem up for inspection, she added, “As far as I know, he’s still clearing out that wash area.”
Scott sighed loudly. “I would have thought he’d be done by now.”
“Done with what?” Murdoch asked as he walked in from the back room, a ledger open in his hands.
“Johnny. I thought he’d be finished clearing out that wash,” Scott answered as he turned to watch his father cross the room to his desk.
Murdoch absently nodded as he sat the ledger down and began to rummage in a drawer.
Scott glanced at Teresa, who shrugged and turned back to her sewing.
“Didn’t you tell him it should only take a couple hours?” Scott persisted.
“Who?” Murdoch looked up. “What was that?”
Scott sighed. “Johnny. Didn’t you tell him that cleaning out that wash should only take a couple of hours?”
“Oh, yes.” Murdoch nodded, then sat down in his chair. “He’ll probably be back any time.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Scott noticed Teresa smiling.
“I think the boys had planned to go into town tonight, Murdoch,” Teresa added.
Murdoch grimaced at being interrupted from his work again. “Scott,” he said, looking at his eldest son, “if you’re so worried about Johnny getting back here in time to go to town, why don’t you go help him and let me finish my work here.”
“But, I’m all cleaned up and ready to go.”
“And you think I’m going out to look for him?” Murdoch asked while he gave Scott ‘the look’. This was the look he had used for many years, but only perfected in the last two since his sons had come to live with him. The look that told Scott that Murdoch wasn’t always convinced that having his two sons with him was such a good idea.
Scott turned to Teresa for support, who threw out her hands in protest. “Don’t look at me! I’m certainly not running out searching for him. Besides,” she added quickly as she gathered up her sewing and stood up, “I need to see to supper.”
Scott watched Teresa leave the room, then glanced back at Murdoch who was bent once more over his ledger. If there was any chance that they were going to have their rare night on the town, Scott was going to have to go out and haul his brother in.
Scott turned and headed toward the door, mumbling choice words about younger brothers and their total lack of appreciation for other people’s schedules. Murdoch couldn’t help but smile as the door closed.
Thirty minutes from the house, Scott saw Barranca before he saw Johnny. Barranca stood, quietly nibbling grass beside an embankment. As Scott dismounted, he noticed a rope tied from Barranca’s saddle horn, snaking through the grass and down the slope. Johnny’s shirt and holster were also thrown over the saddle. As Scott reached the ridge, he could hear sounds of grunting followed by what Scott had come to recognize were Mexican swear words. Standing at the crest of the slope, Scott grinned as he looked down on Johnny, boots off and pants rolled up, fighting a losing battle with a large tree stump. The wash was a huge mud hole, and Johnny was in it almost to his knees. His arms and chest were likewise covered with mud from where he had tried to get the rope he held in his hands tied as far under the stump as possible. He looked up when he heard Scott laugh.
“And what do you find so funny?” Johnny straightened up and rested his hands on his hips.
“You.” Scott grinned. “You are a mess!”
“Yeah, well,” Johnny cautiously attempted to wipe the mud from his face with the back of his arm, but as even the back of his arm was covered, the result was not all he hoped for. “You would be too, Brother.”
Scott dropped to a squat, careful to avoid getting into any of the clods of mud lying around and rested his elbows on his knees. “I’d say you’re fightin’ a losing battle with that stump.”
“You don’t say,” Johnny replied as he bent down to reach into the mud and tie the rope down around the base of the stump.
“Murdoch thought this wasn’t supposed to take too long,” Scott observed.
“Well, Murdoch was obviously wrong.” Johnny grunted as he pulled the rope tighter. “Everything cleaned up fast except this stump, which from up there first looked like just another log. Unfortunately,” he grunted again, “it’s developed a life of its own and has no intention of being pulled from this mud.” He paused again and stretched out his back. “I think it’s developed a fondness for the scenery down here.”
“Do you think you’ll be done soon? I’m all ready to go to town. Remember, you’re buying!”
Johnny studied his brother. “Well, if you’re in such a hurry, why don’t you help?”
“Me?” Scott asked, astonished. “I’m all cleaned up!”
“Well, then,” Johnny turned back to check the placement of the rope around the stump, “I guess you’ll just have to wait until I’m finished.”
“Oh, come on, Johnny,” Scott pleaded. “Leave the ol’ stump and let’s get going. I’ll come back and help you with it tomorrow morning. We haven’t been to town in three weeks.”
“Yeah, right.” Johnny started to climb out of the mud. “With my luck, we’ll get a late rainstorm tonight and this stump will block up the whole wash and I’ll hear about it later.”
Scott stood, backing up slightly as Johnny reached the top of the embankment. “I’d be glad to help, if I hadn’t gotten all cleaned up.”
“And you sure do look pretty.” Johnny grinned at his brother, his eyes twinkling. “But, you know, you still could help and you won’t get any mud on your fine looking clothes at all.”
“How?” Scott asked dubiously.
Johnny turned to Barranca and tightened the rope around the saddle horn. “I’m going to go back down and help guide the stump out so it doesn’t get caught on that outcropping of rocks. If you’ll guide the rope from up here as Barranca pulls on it, that would be a big help.”
“And I won’t get dirty?” Scott persisted.
“Won’t even muss one hair on your pretty little Eastern head,” Johnny assured. “Nobody’ll even know you had been helping your brother get a stump out of an old mud hole.”
“Okay,” Scott cautiously agreed as he glanced down the embankment. “Let’s get this done. I’m anxious to get going.” Scott rubbed his hands together.
Johnny grinned. “Won’t take but a minute.” Carefully he climbed back down the slope and into the thick, damp ooze.
While Johnny positioned himself behind the stump, Scott led Barranca until the cord was taut, then went back to the crest of the embankment and grabbed a hold of the rope with both hands.
“Are you ready now?” Johnny asked as he adjusted his hold on the back of the stump.
“Let’s get it out,” Scott called down.
“Okay,” Johnny replied, then whistled a command to Barranca.
Barranca immediately strained forwards slowly pulling the reluctant tree stump out the thick mud. Carefully, Johnny guided the stump away from the outcropping while Scott directed the rope from above.
What happened next is uncertain. Was it a rabbit darting suddenly from its hiding place, the sting of an irritated bee, or simply an equine’s sense of humor? One thing was certain, the next Scott and Johnny knew, they were solely responsible for the entire weight of the tree stump.
The shock of the sudden weight hit Scott first. Before he had a chance to let go of the rope, he found himself being propelled head first into the bed of mud, an expletive or two escaping as he tried desperately to let go of the rope and avoid the inevitable.
Johnny, too, was caught unprepared, the weight of the tree stump forcing him backwards. In trying to escape having the stump crush his foot, he attempted to move quickly; however the mud made such action awkward, and he instead he began a frantic backstroke in the air, a futile attempt to save himself from landing flat on his back.
Barranca calmly turned and walked to the crest of the embankment where he reached down to nibble on a few blades of grass. With vague interest, he watched as two mounds of mud slowly rose from below.
Johnny, who had been fairly covered with mud to begin with, was now totally plastered on his back half. He sat up slowly, the mud reluctantly releasing its hold on him, and looked over to see Scott awkwardly trying to rise to his hands and knees. When he turned to look at Johnny, his brother saw two white orbs glaring at him from out of a thick dark brown mask.
Johnny started to laugh.
Scott spit the mud from out of his mouth. “I don’t think this is funny.”
“Oh, Scott, I hate to disagree, but this is really funny!” Johnny held his sides as he continued to laugh so hard tears came to his eyes. “You look utterly ridiculous!”
“I could say the same about you!” Scott retorted.
Suddenly the brothers heard a noise. Turning to look up at the top of the crest, they noticed Barranca gazing down at them. With a shake of his head, Barranca snorted and whinnied.
“Oh, great!” Scott glared once more at Johnny. “Even your horse is laughing!”
Murdoch gave a satisfied nod and set down his pen. He had just finished balancing the monthly accounts, and now knew for sure that they were going to be able to buy the extra 1000 acres to the far south that had recently become available. It would be a nice acquisition, especially now that he had two sons who would some day inherit the land.
Murdoch sighed and turned in his seat to glance out the large picture window, the great expanse that was Lancer spread out before. He was contemplating how much he enjoyed the feeling of continuity—of a preservation of the Lancer Empire he had created as it was handed down through successive generations, when the sound of the front door being opened interrupted his reverie.
“Good. You’re back,” he said as he turned around.
Murdoch’s mouth dropped open as his face registered complete and total surprise. There, standing in the doorway, were two apparitions of mud. “What the—?” he exclaimed as he rose to his feet.
The two figures answered by pointing at each other. “It’s his fault!” they intoned in unison, then both turned to glare at the other.
At that moment, Teresa walked in from the kitchen. “Murdoch, I was wondering if…” She stopped in mid-sentence, her jaw also following the direction earlier chartered by Murdoch’s. The desire to repeat Murdoch’s earlier exclamation was bit back, and she looked with dismay at Murdoch. “Is that…?”
“I think it is,” Murdoch replied.
Teresa suddenly burst out laughing as the two mud-encrusted figures wryly hung their heads.
“Oh, I don’t know, Murdoch. They are about Scott and Johnny’s height and build, but otherwise…I’m not sure.”
“Teresa!” one of the figures pleaded. “This isn’t funny!”
Thoroughly enjoying herself, Teresa crossed her arms and studied the boys. “Well, they do have Scott and Johnny’s voices.” Then she grinned mischievously at Murdoch. “Oh, my! You don’t think they could have been eaten by these two mud monsters, do you?”
The two figures looked at each other and visibly sighed.
“Don’t be silly, Teresa,” the taller figure’s voice intoned pleadingly. “We need help here.”
“I’d say that’s an understatement,” Murdoch added as he walked around his desk to glare at the clods of mud, which were dropping to the floor with every movement.
“Well, boys, if you wanted to play in the mud so badly, you should have told me. I just threw the wash water out behind the kitchen and it made a very nice muddy puddle back there.” Teresa winked at Murdoch. “Next time I’ll be sure to let you know ahead so you can plan your day’s activities around playing in the mud.”
“Murdoch,” the shorter figure groaned.
Just then, the door opened and Jelly walked in. “Murdoch, I was just passin’ by outside and you have mud all over the porch….Oh, my!” Jelly did a quick double take, then calmly smoothed his beard, perfectly masking his initial surprise. “Don’t you think buildin’ them a sandbox woul’a been a bit cleaner in the long run, Murdoch?”
“Jelly!” both figures exclaimed in unison.
Jelly nodded knowingly to Murdoch then quietly turned to leave. As he was about to close the door, he called out, “Just wait for ‘em to harden a bit more, and they’ll make wonderful scarecrows for Teresa’s garden.”
Scott and Johnny both reluctantly turned back toward their father and Teresa, a pleading look in their eyes visible even through all the mud.
Murdoch walked past them towards the front door. “Come along, boys. I think the only thing left to do is strip you down and throw you in the horse trough.” He could barely keep his amusement out of his voice.
“We could always just dump buckets of water on their heads,” Teresa offered helpfully.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Johnny retorted as he followed Scott and Murdoch out the door.
Teresa laughed. “Oh, more than you can imagine!”
“I think,” Scott whispered conspiratorially after the door closed behind them, “that Teresa has enjoyed this way too much.”
Johnny nodded back. “There must be a way to repay her for her kindness, don’t you think, Brother?”
“Oh, yes, indeed, Brother,” Scott said as he put an arm around Johnny.
“Hey! Watch it!” Johnny stepped quickly to the side. “You’re all muddy!”
Scott shoved Johnny playfully, as Murdoch wondered at the second childhood his boys seemed to regress to at times.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve never quite gotten it.” Scott’s voice came from the hallway causing Murdoch to look up from the book he was reading.
“There’s nothing to get,” Johnny replied as he and Scott entered the living room.
“Then why have a dead worm at the bottom of the bottle?”
Johnny stopped and turned to his brother, a look of exasperation on his face. “It’s to show how good it is.”
Scott raised his eyebrows, looking doubtful. “If it was so good, I would think it shouldn’t have a dead worm in it.”
“Better than a live worm,” Johnny replied as he grabbed his hat off the table and continued towards the front door.
“Generally having insects in one’s food is not considered desirable.” Scott continued to frown as he followed Johnny. “Now, a really smooth brandy, that’s a drink for a man,” he paused and glanced at Murdoch. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Murdoch raised a hand. “I think this is an argument I best stay out of.”
Johnny had paused at the door, his arms crossed, clearly anxious to get underway.
“This mescal tequila, though,” Scott continued as he studied his father, “you’d rather have a nice brandy, right?”
Murdoch glanced at Johnny, then back at Scott. A faint smile crossed his lips. “Oh, I’ve had my share of tequila in my day.”
“Ah ha!” Johnny exclaimed. “See!” He opened the door. “Now, come on!”
“Hey, boys!” Murdoch called. “Don’t end up with a bad hangover. We’ve got a lot of work to get done.”
“Of course not.” Johnny grinned. “We plan to have a good hangover.” He grabbed Scott by the arm and herded him out the door.
“I still don’t get this worm thing, however,” Scott insisted.
“Don’t worry. It’s not like I’m going to make you eat it.” Johnny gave Scott a playful shove out the door. “At least until the bottle’s empty.”
The door slammed shut.
Murdoch grinned to himself. He enjoyed seeing the camaraderie between his two sons. Even at the risk of a messy floor. He shook his head and chuckled to himself as he thought back to the previous day’s activities and the pile of mud they had left on the floor after their scene stealing entrance. An entrance he found himself wishing had been repeated many times…years earlier.
“What are you laughing about?”
Murdoch looked over to see Teresa studying him, her pretty head tilted sidewise, a large cup of something steaming in her hands.
“Oh, Scott and Johnny.” Murdoch smiled. “They just left for town.” He glanced at the door, then back at his ward, who was walking towards him. “It makes me—,” he paused, suppressing a smile.
“Happy?” Teresa sat the cup on the table.
“Oh, I guess so.” Murdoch smiled again. “It’s good to see them content.” He paused again.
“Especially Johnny?” Teresa again finished his thoughts.
Murdoch nodded, then looked inquiringly at the cup.
“Tea,” Teresa informed him.
“You complained about overeating at supper, and Jelly said this is excellent for calming the stomach.”
“Oh, he did?” Murdoch picked up the cup and took a tentative sip. “Not bad.” He nodded.
A smile spread across Teresa’s face, then she assumed a grown-up air. “Now, I suggest you drink this and get to bed early for once.”
“Oh, I can’t, Miss Teresa.”
“Murdoch, that’s what you always say.” She put her fists on her hips and tried to look indignant.
“I always say it only because it’s true.” Murdoch hid his smile when he saw Teresa frown at him. “How about if I promise to finish this,” he indicated the paperwork in front of him, “as soon as I can, and immediately head to bed?”
Teresa sighed and nodded, as she knew it was no use arguing. “I’m going to go finish helping Rosa get some things ready for tomorrow’s breakfast, then head to bed.” She stopped in mid-turn. “And you promise to get to bed as soon as possible?”
“Promise.” Murdoch smiled, obediently raised the cup and took a sip.
Teresa gave him a knowing look then walked out of the room.
Giving a contented sigh, Murdoch took another sip. Setting his cup down he leaned back in his chair. He truly was happy. The thought brought him pause. It was quite a step for him to admit that. Just a few short years ago he wouldn’t have been able to say that. Oh, he would have said he was in control of his life, didn’t need or want anyone or anything, that things were just fine as they were. But, happy? No, he wouldn’t have been able to say he was happy. But with a real family to take care of, the extra responsibilities that entailed, now, ironically, he could say he was happy.
He paused as a sudden thought occurred to him. Unconsciously he reached for the cup of tea, then abstractly set it down again.
Maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t so different from Johnny. Maybe there was some of him in his younger son. Maybe Johnny had inherited that stubborn, independent streak from him.
Murdoch reached for the cup again, took a preoccupied sip, and mulled over the uncomfortable realization. He’d found it easy to get along with Scott right from the start. He was proud of his first born son: his war record, his education, his personality. Scott was easy to get along with, a very personable young man.
Murdoch looked down at the cup in his hands and gave a amused snort. Nobody would ever have said that about him. Not even Scott’s mother, bless her soul. And he had loved her so. And she, him. Things would have been so different if she had lived.
Murdoch sighed. But then he wouldn’t have met Maria. Fiery Maria.
Murdoch closed his eyes, remembering the fireworks and intense passion that had possessed them from the start. Though anyone could have seen it wouldn’t last, that it was doomed from the very beginning They were too much alike. Murdoch chuckled as an amusing thought came to him. Poor Johnny had gotten it from both sides. A double dose of stubbornness and fiery temper.
“Now what are you smiling about?”
Murdoch opened his eyes to see Teresa paused at the doorway, a kettle in her hand.
“I had just finished up in the kitchen, and was going to head to bed, but I thought I’d check and see if you’d like some more tea before I take the kettle off the fire.”
Murdoch glanced at his cup. It was nearly empty. That’s funny. He couldn’t remember drinking that much of it. He looked back at Teresa and smiled sheepishly. “Thanks, Teresa. I think I would like another cup.”
Teresa walked across the room and filled the cup with fresh, steaming tea. “Now remember, you promised.”
“I promise,” Murdoch assured. “Early to bed.”
Teresa rolled her eyes and grimaced. It was obvious Murdoch was playing with her and had no intention of heading to bed early. He was such a stubborn man. Just like that youngest son of his. Neither of them knew what was good for them sometimes. It’s a good thing she was around to keep some semblance of order. Teresa sighed. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Good night,” Murdoch said.
Bending over, Teresa planted a quick kiss on the top of Murdoch’s head and was out of the room without another word. Murdoch reluctantly watched her leave. She was all he could wish for in a daughter, or a daughter-in-law. He hoped one of his sons would be smart enough to recognize this. Truthfully, he wished Scott would. He really didn’t think Johnny and Teresa would make a good match in the long run. Johnny had too many dark secrets and Teresa was too innocent. He’d hurt her eventually.
Murdoch picked up his cup of tea and took a sip. He didn’t like feeling that way about his youngest son, but it was an uncomfortable truth. The old adage about burying the past and forgetting about it didn’t really apply in this case. Murdoch had been around long enough to know that the seeds of a buried past still had the ability to grow to destructive importance. Not all things were best buried.
He took another thoughtful sip, and sighed wearily. And he’d been as guilty as anyone in this regard. That damned Pinkerton report. God, how he wished it didn’t exist. That he never had read it. That he had never laid eyes on it. That Maria’s folly hadn’t forced their son to make some of the decisions he’d had to in his life in order to survive. Regardless of the situations and the circumstances, decisions had been made that would always haunt their son. Murdoch was well aware of this fact; thanks to that Pinkerton report.
Murdoch tightened his grip on the cup and glared into the tea as if it held the answers to how to deal with his youngest son’s past. Abruptly he drained the last of the tea from the cup, then pushed ir to the side. It was obvious he had tried to keep the past buried too long. He knew he and Johnny were going to have to deal with it. They were all going to have to deal with it. And the time was coming soon.
Scott and Johnny walked across the street to the saloon after having a large supper of tamales, rice and beans. Johnny had assured Scott it was the only way to properly prepare the palate for tequila. Scott didn’t doubt it. He was quite certain his mouth wasn’t going to be able to taste anything for at least twenty-four hours. Even after two years of knowing his brother, Scott couldn’t understand why Johnny thought it was enjoyable to sweat while he ate. Obviously some strange circumstances in his upbringing…
As they reached the saloon door, Scott paused to let Johnny enter first. It was a quiet, unspoken habit they had developed over the past year. Scott had come to appreciate Johnny’s sixth sense for trouble, plus he recognized the need Johnny felt for having a clear view as he entered anyplace that could be even remotely perceived as hiding a threat. It wasn’t anything that had been discussed, or even hinted at. But, over time, Scott had come to notice Johnny’s reluctance to enter anyplace behind his brother. An edginess, an extra pause before he continued through the doorway, a slight brush with his hand across his holster. It was all so quick, so subconscious, Scott hadn’t even noticed it until he had known Johnny a full year. He didn’t know if his brother was even aware of his behavior. But, as Scott made the slight adjustment in his routine, he came to notice it gave Johnny that extra moment of relief. And so, it was worth the small change in Scott’s pattern.
As he entered behind his brother, Scott noticed how Johnny did a quick, full scan of the entire room, barely pausing in his conversation. “Honestly, Scott,” Johnny continued towards the bar, “an appreciation for good tequila grows on you.”
“Like mold?” Scott grinned at Johnny’s pained expression.
“Barkeep!” Johnny called. “Two glasses and a bottle of your best tequila!”
The bartender raised an eyebrow, then reached behind the counter and produced two glasses and a large, amber-colored bottle. “Tequila is tequila. This is what we carry.”
“And I’m sure it’s a good brand,” Johnny replied and threw a couple coins on the counter.
“Brand?” The bartender snorted and shook his head. “You must be joking.”
As Johnny passed the bottle and glasses to Scott, he turned back to the bartender. “Salt and lime?”
The bartender pointed to the end of the bar.
“Thanks.” Johnny nodded and walked to the end of the bar where he grabbed a couple lime wedges and a small bowl with salt in it, then with a jerk of his head he indicated a table in a quiet corner.
Scott followed his brother where they both put down their objects.
Johnny sighed deeply as he sat down on his chair. Leaning back, he closed his eyes a second, breathed deeply again, then leaned forwards to take a hold of the tequila bottle. “Doesn’t this feel good?” he asked as he began to pour a shot of tequila into the two glasses.
“Exactly to what are you referring?” Scott asked, as he watched his brother pour, a dubious expression crossing his face. “The heartburn from supper, my destroyed taste buds, the stinging in my eyes from the smoke, the wonderful aroma of sweat and stale beer, or the fact that my posterior is permanently stuck to this chair?”
Johnny paused and looked at his brother. “Your what?”
“My butt,” Scott paused as he slowly stood up, “is stuck to the chair.”
Johnny resumed pouring. “No, it’s not.”
“It was,” Scott replied, then quickly glanced around the room and swapped his chair with one from a neighboring table. “That’s better,” he said as he sat down.
Johnny pushed one of the glasses towards his brother. As Scott reached for it, he found his shirtsleeve sticking to the table. With a frown, he pulled back his arms and studied the sticky surface.
“Isn’t this place great?”
Scott looked up to see his brother grinning, a contented expression on his face.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Scott replied dubiously.
“Oh, come now, Scott!” Johnny leaned over and gave his brother a pat on the shoulder. “You need to loosen up! And this,” he rose his glass in toast, “is the perfect atmosphere in which to loosen up.”
Scott reluctantly raised his glass. “I just wonder if the atmosphere is breathable,” he muttered as Johnny took a sip.
“Oh, nothing.” Scott scrutinized the liquid in his glass one last time, then brought it to his lips.
It was about midnight in the small town of Spanish Wells. The streets were dark and deserted except for the occasional saloon patron hopping from one establishment to the next. Spanish Wells now boasted a total of three saloons, and the weekend patrons took it as their sacred duty to ensure they gave each tavern equal time.
“So, this is the worm.” Scott slowly raised the almost empty bottle and peered blearily at the small object swirling slowly to the bottom. He gave the bottle another shake and watched as the worm spiraled around until it finally came to rest. He shook his head and put the bottle down. “I still don’t get it.”
Johnny leaned forward and grasped the bottle. “The worm is very important, Scott.”
“You’ve told me that before.”
“Well, I’ve told you that, because it’s true.”
“Why?” Scott cocked his head to the side.
“Why’s the worm important?”
Johnny held the bottle up in the air, “Why? ‘Cuz this little fella here is an agave worm.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. Or tried to. He wasn’t sure if it rose or not, as his face had long since gone numb.
“A grave worm?” He scowled, then nodded. “Yea, I guess I’d be rather grave, too, if I were dead and pickled, and swirling around the bottom of a liquor bottle.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, no, Scott. ‘Agave’,” he enunciated. “They’re found on the agave plant.”
Scott leaned forwards and rested his chin on his hands. “So, some poor guy’s job is to go around and pick these little fellas off this plant and drown them in a bottle of tequila.” He shook his head. “I don’t know, Johnny, but it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to me. ‘Specially for the worm.”
“No, no, no.” Johnny sat the bottle down in the middle of the table. “You’re missin’ the point.”
Scott glanced from the bottle to his brother, his chin still resting heavily in his hand. “There’s a point?”
“Of course there is. That there tequila is made from the agave plant, it’s a special type of tequila…mescal. And the worm is put in it to remind whoever is drinking it, what it’s made from.”
Scott looked back at the worm. “Don’t you think a nice little label on the bottle saying, ‘This tequila is made from the agave plant’ would be a little more appetizing?” he paused thoughtfully. “You could even add a little drawing of the worm on the label. Hey, it could show the little worm leaning back like, drinking a shot of tequila, and smiling.” Scott sat up straighter. “Hey, Johnny, I think I have something here. A whole new revolutionary idea to bring tequila to the general public. We could probably make a mint off this stuff!” Grinning broadly, he held the bottle up to closer scrutiny and nodded as he watched the worm swirl around. “Yup, it’s just the thing it needs.”
“Hold it!” Johnny held up his hands in protest. “Hold it! You’re doin’ no such thing!”
Scott looked crestfallen. “Why not?”
Johnny leaned forwards conspiratorially. “’Cuz, there’s also a legend associated with the worm.”
Scott leaned closer. “There is?”
Johnny nodded. “Legend says that anyone who is brave enough to drink the worm down will gain strength and,” he lowered his voice, “it’s supposed to make you a better lover.”
Scott grimaced. “I may be from Boston, but I ain’t that gullible.”
Johnny shrugged. “Suit yourself. I’m just telling you what the legend says.”
“Well, in that case, brother, drink up, ‘cuz I can kick your butt from here to Sacramento, easy, and I haven’t exactly seen you gett’n lucky with any members of the fairer sex lately.”
With a grin, Johnny poured what remained of the bottle into the two glasses, then picked the worm out. Taking his knife, he cut it in two, and dropped half into each of the glasses. Raising his in toast, he nodded. “Scott, dear brother, I ain’t exactly seen any fillies eyein’ you none recent.”
Scott took a deep breath, then nodded gamely. Raising the glass to his lips, he gave a nod. “To us.”
Johnny grinned back. “And a coupl’a fillies.”
With a quick swig, they both downed their glasses. Scott gave a little shudder as the liquid slid down his throat. “That really is awful.”
“Well, you’re not supposed to chew it,” Johnny kidded.
Scott gave a snort. “I didn’t. It’s just the idea,” he paused. “By the way, how come you’re such an expert on tequila?”
Scott watched as Johnny looked down at his glass and bit his bottom lip, his earlier playfulness suddenly replaced by despondency. Immediately Scott was sorry he had said anything. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I didn’t mean to…”
Johnny looked up and waved off his apology. “No, no, Scott. Really. It’s nothing. I just hadn’t thought about it in a long time.” He took a deep breath. “We,.. my mother and I,…we lived with a guy for a few years, back when I was really young.” He smiled suddenly. “He was really a nice man. The only father I ever knew. I—I liked him a lot. He—he was kind to me. He used to teach me things, things a little boy should know.” Johnny’s eyes momentarily sought out Scott’s before he quickly looked down. “I called him father,” he murmured quietly, then picked up a lime wedge and began to suck on it absently. “He had a small farm, but he mostly made tequila. And he was good, too.” Scott noticed an inflection of pride in Johnny’s voice. “Many people came to him for their tequila.” There was a long pause as Johnny picked up the empty bottle and tried in vain to get a few last drops to come out.
“What happened? Why did you leave?” Scott finally asked.
“He was killed,” Johnny replied in suddenly clipped tones.
“How?” The question tumbled out before Scott could rein in his mouth.
“I don’t really know. I was pretty young, Scott.” Johnny’s voice was strained, though he continued, “Just seven. I was in bed and I got woken up by loud voices and banging at the door to our small hacienda. Mother came running into my room and locked the door. I could hear Papa Jose talking; telling someone to let us be. Mother told me to be quiet. She opened my window, then she opened the trap door that was under my cot.” Johnny looked up and explained. “It was used to hide tequila so Papa Jose didn’t have to give it all to the rich land owners when they came calling for their payments. It was not deep. There was just enough room for us to lay down among the bottles that were hidden there.”
Johnny looked back down at the empty glass he held in his hands. “We could hear shouting, then the door to my room being broken down. Papa Jose kept pleading with them to go. I could hear they were very mad, thinking we had escaped through the open window. Then there was a shot fired. I—I remember the sound of the body falling onto the floor above us. Then, slowly, a trickle of blood started dripping through the cracks of the floor…. I panicked. I was going to scream, but my mother put her hand over my mouth. She wouldn’t allow me to scream.” He paused, his eyes vaguely unfocused, seeing a scene Scott could only imagine. “We had to stay there, listening to them argue about what to do. Even after they left, my mother kept us in hiding until evening. When we finally came out, I saw Papa Jose dead on the floor. That’s when I made my promise.”
Though Johnny seemed to be looking at him, Scott had the uncomfortable feeling of being invisible.
“I promised that someday I’d find who shot Papa Jose, and kill him.”
Scott hesitated at asking the obvious next question.
However Johnny suddenly sighed and gave a shake of his head as he forcefully brought himself back to the present.
“Madrid,” he continued, his eyes focusing on Scott. “Ever wonder where I got the name?”
Scott shifted uncomfortably under the penetrating scrutiny of his brother’s dark gaze. “Yeah, I did. I guess I just figured,” he shrugged noncommittally.
“It was Papa Jose’s name,” Johnny stated quietly. “Nobody else ever wanted to give me their name. But he did.” He breathed deeply, then added, “later, when I needed one, I used his.”
Johnny sat the glass down on the table and pushed it away, his expression changing to one of detachment. “I never really understood what exactly happened. Whenever I asked about it, she would only tell me that it was a man from her past who never wanted her to be happy. At one time, I thought it might have been Murdoch. But I now know that’s not true. But at the time, I only knew what little my mother told me about Murdoch.”
Johnny paused again while a sad, crooked smile played across his face. “You would have liked him, Scott. He was a good man, Papa Jose. He never treated me like a,…like a white man’s bastard. My mother’s other,” he paused again, his fingers absently tracing a water spot on the table. “…like other people did.”
Scott quietly studied his brother a moment. How could there be so much sadness locked away in one life? He glanced at the empty tequila bottle, and couldn’t help but smile. The most amazing things sometimes provided the impetus to unlock another corner of Johnny’s life. Tequila was obviously good for something, other than a hangover. He reached across the table and gave his brother’s arm a squeeze. “You okay?”
Johnny looked up. He gave his brother a reassuring smile and nodded. “Yeah, Scott. I just hadn’t thought about it in a long while. Things could have been so different for me if he hadn’t died. The paths my life took…”, he shrugged. “Johnny Madrid might never have lived.”
“Hey, I kind’a like Johnny Madrid!” Scott rebuked. “He’s gotten me out of a number of scrapes! Yeah, don’t think you would’a been quite the same, but somehow, Johnny, I can’t quite picture you as a tequila farmer.”
Johnny grinned back. “That’s what I like about you, Scott. Always trying to make me feel better.”
“That’s my job.”
Johnny took a deep breath, shaking off the last vestiges of the earlier conversation. “What’s the time, Scott?”
“Time?” Scott gave Johnny an exaggerated expression. “You, concerned about the time?” Scott paused as Johnny gave him a pained look. “Where’s your timepiece?”
“If I had mine, would I be asking you the time?”
Scott cocked his head thoughtfully. “No, I guess not.” Reaching into his breast pocket, he pulled out the rather ornately carved pocket watch he kept, a reminder of his former Boston life. Peering blearily at the numbers, he proclaimed, “It’s 6:15.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “I think you’ve got it upside down.”
“I do?” Scott, repressing a grin, turned the watch around. “Oh, it’s 12:45.” He nodded in agreement. “That does make a bit more sense.”
Johnny slowly pushed himself up. “I think, Brother, we’d better start back. We’ve got a bit of a ride before we reach the ranch.”
Scott nodded and unsteadily joined Johnny. Throwing an arm around his brother, Scott agreed, “And in our slightly inub-uneb-eneb-uh drunk state, it may take us a little longer than usual.”
Johnny put his arm around Scott and the two snaked their way through the other patrons and out the door. Once out on the boardwalk, they proceeded to cross the darkened street to where they had left their horses in front of the small, local restaurant where they had eaten earlier in the evening. They had only just stepped off from the boardwalk when Johnny suddenly broke out with the first strains of a Mexican drinking song.
“No. No!” Scott stopped him. “We always have to sing your songs. Tonight we’re gonna to sing one of my songs!”
“I didn’t know you had any songs.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Brother. I have a whole wagon load of songs you haven’t heard yet.”
“Then, by all means, lead on,” Johnny encouraged.
Scott needed no more prompting. “Oh, we’ll rally ’round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again! Shouting the battle cry of freedom! We will rally from the hillside, we’ll gather from the plain. Shouting the battle cry of freedom! The Union forever! Hurrah! Boys, hurrah! Down with the traitor, Up with the Star!…”
Gamely Johnny tried to catch on, not too concerned about either tune or words. The only really important point was being good and loud. They succeeded admirably.
Charlemagne and Barranca both turned their heads to watch the brothers’ unsteady, rather noisy ramble. Charlemagne looked at Barranca and snorted what some might have construed to be a warning that it was sure to be a long and exasperating ride back to the ranch.
“No, no, Johnny. You’ve got the refrain wrong,” Scott said as he drew Charlemagne’s reins off the hitching post.
“I think I have the whole thing wrong,” Johnny agreed ruefully.
“Yea, well, the refrain’s important. It goes like this…”
Johnny never heard Scott finish his sentence, as suddenly from behind, he felt a blow to the back of his head. In the next second he heard Scott cry out a warning, but the ground was rushing up to meet him and it took all the strength Johnny had to clutch frantically at the hitching post. He wanted to reach for his gun, but with the combined effects of the tequila and the blow to his head, he needed both hands on the railing to keep from falling flat on his face. He tried, blearily, to turn and face their assailants, however his eyes seemed to have lost their ability to focus. Behind him he could hear scuffling and suppressed cries….his brother was trying to fight back.
Determined, Johnny reached for his gun, but collapsed dizzily as he lost what balance he had gained while holding onto the hitching post. A sickening thud reached his ears. Blindly and unsteadily, he tried once more to reach his gun. As his hand finally grasped the cool metal, he heard one of the assailants snort, “Geez, Charlie, I thought you’d knocked him out. He’s still fight’n it.”
“Must’ve a harder head’n I thought. You want I should take care of him permanent?”
Stars were passing even faster across Johnny’s vision, and the voices were getting thick and distorted. He could feel the tequila rising in his throat. In sheer determination he drew his gun out of its holster. Fighting back the blackness, he weakly tried to aim toward the voices.
“No,” he heard a third voice reply in irritation. “I told you, not Johnny. I don’t want him hurt. It’s just Scott we want. Get him up on your horse, now. I want to get out of town before anyone sees anything. Come on!”
“Well, if we don’t take that gun away from the other one, he’s liable to shoot ‘imself,” the first voice laughed.
Gritting his teeth, Johnny tried to raise his eyes. He wanted to see who was talking, who had jumped them. But the pain in his head was too overwhelming. He heard a moan, and knew it was his own. He clenched his eyes closed and willed the pain to go away as he tried to raise his gun to fire. As he pulled the trigger, he felt the world slip into total blackness. Even the stars were gone.
Johnny awoke to blackness and a buzzing in his ears. Agonizingly, he attempted to pull his thoughts together, but they refused to cooperate. His mind felt numb and heavy, weighted down under the evening’s alcohol consumption and the aching pain from the blow to the head. Except for the ringing in his ears, all was quiet. He carefully tried to rise, but the only body parts that obeyed his first attempt were his legs. Wryly he realized he’d only managed to get his knees under him, but his arms, shoulder and head were still lying flat on the ground. For just a second he hoped that no one was watching. Then, with a piteous groan, he managed to connect to his arms, and slowly forced himself to all fours. He never had a chance to revel in this achievement, as nausea overtook him and he emptied the contents of his stomach onto the dirt.
Gingerly, Johnny leaned back onto his heels and wiped his face with his sleeve. He hated to get sick, but knew it was better to get the liquor out of his system. He glanced both up and down the dark alley. Of course, there was nothing to be seen. He hadn’t really expected there would be. Mildly surprised, he found his gun lying within arm’s reach. With a slight groan, he picked it up and reholstered it. Using the wall for support, he pushed himself up, then slowly staggered out from the ally.
Barranca and Charlemagne both looked up at the sound of Johnny’s boots on the wooden boardwalk. But otherwise the streets were quiet.
“What time is it?” Johnny mumbled to himself as he took the three steps to the hitching post. Once there, he had to lean over and steady himself. A cold sweat flashed through his body, and he closed his eyes until it passed. Remembering the horse trough he had seen earlier, he cautiously stepped down onto the street and walked towards it. Shakily he knelt and dunked his head.
The cool water felt good. He gave his face a cursory wipe with his hand, and using the side of the trough, he pushed himself back up. He could finally feel his thoughts solidifying, losing that horrid fuzziness of disorientation. Johnny was a man who liked to be in control, who needed to be in control, and at times like these he wondered why he allowed himself to get drunk. Sadly he knew it was to forget.
He turned and walked more firmly to Barranca, then grabbed up his and Charlemagne’s reins. It was time to find out what happened to Scott. He quickly mounted and headed back to Lancer.
The ride back to the ranch seemed to take forever to Johnny. Despite the unrelenting thumping in his head, and the queasiness in his stomach, he managed to keep up a brisk pace, yet the first vestiges of sunlight could be seen lightening the sky to the east as he rode under the Lancer gate.
Pulling to a quick halt near the front entrance, Johnny jumped off Barranca, dropped Charlemange’s reins, and ran into the large hacienda.
“Murdoch! Murdoch!” he called as he entered the large sitting room and headed to the back hall that led to the stairs. “Murdoch!”
He stopped short as Murdoch met him in the doorway, barefoot, his shirt half buttoned, and his hair uncombed.
“What is it, Johnny?” he asked. “I was just getting dressed.” He glanced past Johnny into the large, empty room. His eyes narrowed as he looked back at his youngest son. “Where’s Scott?”
“That’s what I need to tell you, Murdoch.” Johnny took a step back and allowed his father to enter the room. “We were jumped comin’ out of the saloon last night. They took Scott.”
“They what?!” Murdoch scowled as he stalked to the center of the room. “Who? Why?”
Johnny shook his head. “I’m not sure. It happened so fast. We were attacked from behind.” He gingerly rubbed the back of his head. “They thought they’d knocked me out…but I could still hear them.”
Murdoch paused in his pacing. “Who was it? What was going on? Did you get a look at them?”
Johnny reluctantly shook his head. “I really wasn’t much help, Murdoch. I was beginning to black out, but I heard part of their conversation.”
“What’d they say?”
Johnny looked down and rubbed his forehead. “Something about only wanting Scott.”
Murdoch stepped forward and scowled. “Is that all? Is there anything else? Think, Johnny.”
Johnny leaned back against the table and closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he tried to recall all he had heard. “At first I heard only two voices. Then they—they noticed I was still conscious. One asked if he should shoot me.” He paused as he tried to recall all the details. “Then another voice replied that they weren’t to hurt me. That it was only Scott they wanted – for now.” He opened his eyes to see his father studying him.
“And is that all?”
Johnny nodded slowly. “Pretty much so.”
“Are you sure you can’t remember anything more?” Murdoch insisted.
Confused, Johnny rubbed his temples. “No, Murdoch. I told you. They’d hit me pretty hard from behind. I did try to fire, but I was blacking out.”
Murdoch turned his back on his son as he gathered his own thoughts. “Johnny?” He turned slowly and studied his son.
“Are you positive there isn’t anything else you want to add?”
Puzzled, Johnny shook his head. “No, why?”
Murdoch took two steps, coming to stand directly in front of his son. “You didn’t recognize any of the voices?”
Johnny stood up. “No, I didn’t.” His eyes narrowed. “Should I have?”
Murdoch crossed his arms. “Well, it seems like they knew you.”
Johnny put his hands on his hips, the unvoiced accusation stinging him. “It seems you’ve already decided it’s my fault.”
The front door suddenly opened, both father and son turning to glare at the interruption. Jelly, aware that he had walked in at an inopportune moment, paused with his hand on the doorknob, his mouth open.
“What is it, Jelly?!” Murdoch snapped.
“Uh, I…,” Jelly’s eyes flicked to Johnny. “I noticed yours and Scott’s horses were outside. They, uh, looked pretty tired and I wondered if you wanted me to unsaddle ’em for you?”
“Yes, yes, that’d be fine,” Murdoch curtly replied before Johnny could do more than nod.
After Jelly gave Johnny a reassuring glance, he backed out of the door.
As the door clicked shut, Murdoch turned back toward Johnny, who immediately turned and stomped off to the hallway.
“Where are you going?” Murdoch demanded.
Johnny turned at the doorway, his eyes dark and unflinching. “I’m gonna get changed, then I’m gonna to grab a cup’a coffee and a coupl’a biscuits, then I plan to saddle a horse, and go out looking for Scott.” His words matched the intensity of his eyes. “Is that quite all right with you?”
“Johnny!” Murdoch’s voice rose. “There’s no call—”
He broke off at the sound of the front door opening again and turned, the irritation at being interrupted once again apparent on his face. “What is it, now?!”
“Sorry, uh, Murdoch….” Jelly hesitated, his expression contrite and apologetic as he held up a piece of paper. “But this, uh, was tied to Charlemagne’s saddlebag. It’s got your name on it. I thought –” he stopped as Murdoch strode quickly across the room and grabbed the note.
Johnny quietly followed behind, then watched as Murdoch opened the folded paper.
“Oh, God.” Murdoch took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling. His arm fell to his side, the note still clutched in his fist.
“What is it?” Johnny came forwards.
Murdoch looked down at the note, then without a glance at his son, he held it out for him to take.
After Johnny had silently accepted the note, Murdoch turned and walked to the large windows that looked out over the valley.
Johnny unfolded the note and silently read: ‘Murdoch. I have your son. If you ever hope to see him alive, meet me today at 10:00. I’m sure you know where. Come alone and unarmed. Otherwise, when you get Scott back, it’ll be in pieces. Jason Preston’
Puzzled, Johnny looked at his father, then at Jelly. He glanced at the note once more, then handed it to Jelly. “I don’t understand,” he said while Jelly quickly read through the letter. “Who’s Jason Preston?”
Murdoch rested his hands against the window and sighed. “I’m sorry, Johnny. It appears I owe you an apology.” He slowly lowered his hands and turned to face his son. “I’m afraid it’s my ghost this time who has come back to haunt us.”
“What do you mean?” Johnny studied his father, concerned by the open pain he saw in Murdoch’s eyes.
Murdoch shook his head, then crossed to his desk and slumped down into the chair. With a deep sigh, he tiredly rubbed his eyes.
“Murdoch?” Johnny walked over to stand in front of the desk. He waited a second, then leaned forwards to rest both palms on the desk. “Are you going to explain what’s going on?”
Murdoch sighed again and dropped his hands onto the desktop. “Yes, Johnny,” he replied quietly, then slowly raised his eyes to study his son. “You remember when you first came here, when Day Pardee…,” he left the sentence unfinished, then abruptly clasped his hands, his demeanor suddenly becoming more controlled. “You were angry with me … about your mother … what you had been told had happened between us.” He waited for Johnny’s acknowledgement. It came, tentatively. “You remember how I said it was in the past? That it wasn’t important? That ‘now’ was what mattered?”
Johnny nodded solemnly again, and waited. Murdoch glanced down at his hands.
“Well, I guess I was wrong, Johnny.” He looked up. “I’m sorry. I never imagined this would happen.”
“Just exactly what has happened?” Johnny’s voice was firm.
“The gambler your mother … the man Maria ran off with …” His eyes sought out the letter in Jelly’s hands. “It’s him.”
Johnny glanced at Jelly, then turned back to Murdoch. “Jason Preston?”
“That’s who…?” Johnny visibly shook off the question. “But why? Why take Scott?”
Murdoch shrugged heavily. “I…I don’t know. Why after all this time?” He shook his head, then tiredly rubbed his hand across his brow.
Johnny slowly stood up and waited for Murdoch to continue. He watched his father’s gaze wander around the room before it finally come to rest on him.
“I never told you how it almost killed me the day your mother left and took you. I…I knew she wasn’t happy, but I never suspected she’d leave.” His eyes darkened and he looked down at his desktop. “We ran into Preston in Sacramento. She…she was attracted to him immediately. I could tell. He was handsome, flashy, exciting…,” his voice trailed off. “He gave her the sort of compliments she craved…the sort of compliments I couldn’t seem to give…” He paused as his finger found a scratch in the desktop and began to absently trace it. “I was surprised to see him suddenly in town … here in Moro Coyo. He seemed to be hanging around. And then, one day, I was out checking one of the line shacks one of the vaqueros told me looked like someone had been in. But instead of a squatter, I found … them.” Murdoch looked up, his eyes dark with memories. “I…I would have shot him right then, but she had taken you along, and….and you started crying.” Johnny heard his father’s voice catch. “All the yelling had frightened you. I couldn’t shoot him with you watching. I told him to leave and never show his face anywhere around, or I’d shoot him on sight. Then I took you and your mother back to the ranch.”
Murdoch paused as the painful memory took hold. Abruptly he stood and walked to the large window. “I was devastated. I couldn’t believe she had betrayed me, but …but I still loved her. I wanted it to work.” Then he added quietly, “And I didn’t want to lose you, like I had already lost Scott.” He took a deep breath and continued, “ I knew the ranch life wasn’t what she had expected. There was no social life, no amusements. It was all work. And she, she needed excitement and friends. I tried to talk to her, but it did no good. Two days later, I awoke to find she had left. I tried to find her – to find you…”
He turned, his eyes sought out his son’s, wanting him to understand just how frantic he had been, but unable to put into words the devastation that had been wrought on his soul. Sadly he turned back to the window. “I knew he had originally been from the San Diego area, so I went there. I left O’Brien in charge and I took off after. I tracked them to San Diego, then to El Centro. There the trail ran cold. But I was obsessed. I had already lost one family. I didn’t want to lose another. I wanted you back. I wanted her back. And,…and I wanted him dead. I realized I was going to have to return to the ranch. I had been gone over six months already. I had heard that they may have gone on to Mexico, but I needed to get back. I was in a saloon that last night, quietly getting drunk. That’s when I saw him.”
Bowing his head, Murdoch’s voice became quiet and strained in the silent room. “Jasper Black. I knew him from my years as a deputy. I had arrested him once.” He sighed tightly. “I called him over, bought him a drink….and hired him.” Murdoch paused with an embarrassed snort. “I—I hired a gunfighter. A gunfighter. I gave money to a man to track down another man and kill him. I was drunk, but that was no excuse. I gave him the two hundred dollars I had left. It was all I had from the money I had brought along. It was supposed to be the money I had been saving for four years to hire a lawyer to fight Harlan for Scott. And then I promised him another twelve hundred if he killed Preston and brought you both back alive. I was going to have to sell a part of Lancer to raise it, but I didn’t care. At the time, all I cared about was Preston’s death.” Murdoch shook his head in disbelief. “Thank God, I never heard from Jasper. He obviously wasn’t able to find….” Murdoch paused and shook his head. “I always regretted what I had done. Not that it might cost me Lancer, but that I, a man who had always tried to uphold the law, hired a gunfighter.” Murdoch shook his head again as he turned away from the window. “I actually paid a man to kill –”
Murdoch stopped abruptly, the wounded look on his son’s face caused the words he had just spoken to come crashing back at him. Mortified, he noticed Jelly, eyes wide in alarm at what he had just heard, standing behind Johnny, his hand outstretched, yet not quite touching, as if to offer Johnny support. But it was the look he had seen in his son’s face that clutched at Murdoch’s heart and wouldn’t let go.
“No, it’s okay, Murdoch,” Johnny dropped his gaze and replied softly, his arms crossed tightly in front of him. “I understand.” He unconsciously took a small step backwards and was startled as he bumped into Jelly.
“No,” Murdoch stepped towards his son, his hand outstretched. “I didn’t mean…”
“Please.” Self-consciously, Johnny looked up. The pain in his eyes stopped his father. “Don’t make it worse, okay?”
“Johnny, I was distraught, frantic…” he faltered again at his attempt to explain, and his arm dropped to his side.
Johnny turned around, his arms still clutched possessively to his chest. He walked a few steps past Jelly and stopped. “I told you, I understand.” His voice dropped as he added, “Better than you know.” Then he continued more tersely, “I often ran into desperate men wanting to get someone conveniently out of their way. It happened all the time. It was my business, remember?” He sucked in a deep breath and steeled himself. He then dropped his arms and came around to confront his father, his face masking the heaviness he felt inside. “Now where does Scott fit into this?”
Momentarily stunned, Murdoch gaped at Johnny’s sudden change. His gaze flicked again to Jelly and back. “I’m….I’m not sure, Johnny. I’m not quite sure why he wants revenge after all these years. But I’m going to have to go meet him to find out.”
Johnny nodded curtly. “That’s fine, but I’m gonna to be taggin’ along.”
“No, you’re not!” Murdoch retorted vehemently.
Johnny eye’s narrowed and his voice dripped with sarcasm. “Oh, please,” he stepped forwards. “You can’t seriously be thinking of meeting him alone. That’d be suicide.”
“We don’t know that,” Murdoch argued.
“Don’t delude yourself, Murdoch. A man doesn’t wait this many years, with something obviously eatin’ at him, to come and kidnap one of your sons in hopes that you’ll meet him for a friendly game of poker.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as he, too, took a step closer. “You are not coming along, Johnny, and that’s final.”
“Final by whose opinion?”
“I want your brother back alive,” Murdoch continued, ignoring Johnny’s jibe.
“So do I.”
“You are not going,” Murdoch reiterated.
Johnny took another step forwards. “This affects me, too, Murdoch.” He unconsciously clenched his fists. “If he hadn’t –”
Murdoch’s voice lowered and he leveled his gaze to securely meet his son’s. “That’s exactly why you can not go.”
Johnny’s eyes flashed dangerously and he turned curtly away from his father. “You’re afraid I’ll finish what you started, what your hired gun failed to do, aren’t you?” When no reply came from his father, he turned back and searched Murdoch’s eyes. “Aren’t you?” he demanded.
A coldness slipped down Murdoch’s entire being. He tried to pull his eyes from Johnny’s, but found he couldn’t. He knew Johnny saw the answer to his question reflected in them. Finally he found the strength to shut them. Coarsely he whispered, “I’m asking you not to follow, Johnny.” When he opened his eyes again, the look he received from his son was one he couldn’t place, a look he was unfamiliar with. Instead of an answer, Johnny turned abruptly towards the hallway. Johnny had only taken a couple steps when he noticed Teresa standing in the shadow of the doorway. He shook his head curtly when she stepped out to him, then quickly brushed past.
“Murdoch?” Teresa’s voice was a plea for action as she heard Johnny storm up the steps to his room.
Murdoch pressed his fingers to his forehead and sighed, then he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Teresa.” He leaned against his desk, suddenly feeling old and tired. “What I said, I didn’t mean.” He looked down. “But he’s not about to listen to me.”
Teresa looked at Jelly, who shook his head sadly. The exchange he heard had both embarrassed and hurt him. He felt deeply for both father and son.
“Give him a chance to cool off, Murdoch. Then you’ll be able to talk.” Jelly tried to sound optimistic.
Murdoch pushed himself to his feet. “No, Jelly. I don’t have the luxury of giving Johnny a cooling-off period.” He looked sadly at the older man. “I’m going to have to get ready to leave soon, and I need you to go get my horse ready.” Jelly nodded, and turned to leave. “And, Jelly?” Murdoch added, “I’m putting you in charge of making sure Johnny stays here.”
Jelly pursed his lips. “And how do you expect me to do that? The only thing’s gonna hold Johnny down if’n he’s a mind to take off, is a fryin’ pan to the back of the head, and a lot of thick rope. An’ I don’t see Johnny lettin’ me get close enough to use either one.”
Murdoch rolled his eyes, then started for the hall. “Try to talk to him.”
“Like you done?”
Murdoch glared back. “Jelly.”
The older man turned towards the front door. “I’m goin’,” he mumbled.
Scott’s mind vaguely sensed that there was an urgency in needing to awaken, but his body preferred immobilized bliss. It took quite a while, but his mind finally forced his eyes to co-operate. They opened. Slowly and reluctantly, they opened.
Scott was not impressed by what he saw. Two ants diligently climbing up the bark of a tree. He watched a few seconds until he saw a third ant going down. He noticed they didn’t pay much attention to each other as they passed, and wondered why. Then he wondered why he was wondering about ants. In this vague ‘confusion’ about ants, he realized he could only feel one arm. This was a very odd thing, too, as he was quite certain he remembered having two.
He blinked a couple times…hard. Then he tried to lick his lips, but his mouth felt stuffed with cotton. Slowly, bits of the evening came back to him. The tequila. Johnny. Singing. The ambush. He closed his eyes as the scene of Johnny being hit from behind flashed at him out of his thoughts. He remembered trying to cry out a warning, trying to fight off attackers, and seeing his brother frantically clutching at a hitching post to keep from going down.
Johnny. What had happened to him?
Scott opened his eyes back up. Where was he? Obviously outside, beside a tree, as evidenced by the busy ants. Okay. What tree? And why? And when? And why couldn’t he feel his arm? Had he been shot? Deciding it was time for some answers, Scott tried to rise, and found that his arms were tied behind him. Through a throbbing headache, Scott managed to lift his head slightly. He turned away from the tree, and rolled gingerly to his other side.
Two men lay near the last remnants of a fire, while a third sat with his back against a tree, a revolver in his lap, and a morbid grin on his face.
“So, you’re finally awake.” The man’s grin was half sneer, half derision, the eyes cold and unfriendly. Though his clothing seemed neat, and his appearance groomed, he appeared somehow more unclean than the two rather filthy cutthroats lying snoring by the fire.
The man stood slowly, the revolver in his left hand, and walked towards Scott. Scott tried to raise his head off the ground, but the pain behind his eyes was so great that he laid it back down with a slight groan.
Suddenly, he was startled to find that he did have a second arm, and it was rapidly making itself known. It had gone numb from the awkward position it had been tied in, and after Scott changed position, the feeling had suddenly started to come back. The tingling sensation running all the way to his shoulder made it difficult to concentrate with a straight face.
This is way too embarrassing for words, he thought as the man stopped a yard from his head and knelt down.
“I was afraid you’d sleep through everything.”
“And what ‘everything’ was I in danger of missing out on?” Scott asked dryly.
“Why, the death of your father, Murdoch Lancer,” the man answered with the same grin Scott had noticed earlier. “I plan to kill him.”
Scott glared at the man. The tingling in his arm had stopped, but the throbbing in his head hadn’t. “You’re mad.”
The man nodded. “Quite probably. But it won’t really matter, though, will it, once he’s dead? I can kill him if I’m sane or insane. The important thing is that when I’m done here, he’s dead.” He stretched back his neck and shrugged his shoulders.
“But, why?” Scott asked, then flicked his gaze around the camp again. “And where’s my brother? Where’s Johnny? What’d you do to him?”
The man laughed softly. “Johnny? Why, I wouldn’t hurt a hair on Johnny’s head. Why, he was like a son to me.”
Scott regarded the man with contempt. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, yes, I do.” He leaned forwards. “He was a cute little tyke. Dark, curly hair like his mama’s. He even called me dada.for awhile, until,” he paused and momentarily looked away. When he turned back, his eyes were dark and intense. “When Maria left, she took him, too. She should never have left. I could have still made things work out. I just needed a little time.” He shook his head. “It was all Murdoch’s fault, anyway. He should have left us alone. She loved me, not him. She had always loved me. I would have been a better father. I should have been his father.” He stood up abruptly.
Scott watched the man stalk back towards the dying fire and kick it out. “Get up!” he barked at the two men. “You’ve had your beauty sleep. Time to get this show movin’!” He turned back once more to Scott as the two ruffians slowly roused themselves. “Your dad ever mention me?”
“Can’t say as he has. Think I’d remember if he described someone as deranged as you obviously are.”
The man laughed, then suddenly lashed out with a sharp kick to Scott’s ribs.
The pain exploded through his brain as his vision blacked out. Scott held his breath, biting back an urge to throw up, as the searing intensity gradually subsided. Then as the roaring in his ears abated, and he was finally able to draw in a breath, he slowly opened his eyes. The man still stood over him, obviously enjoying the pain he had inflicted. “It’s Preston,” he hissed. “And I promise you a front row seat.”
Scott watched in bewilderment as the men finished securing their camp, then began to saddle their horses. The man is crazy, Scott thought to himself. But what is his relationship to Johnny, and more importantly, what does he have against Murdoch?
Murdoch glanced quickly at the reflection in the mirror, then paused. The man looking back at him appeared older than he remembered. He frowned. When had he suddenly gotten old?
He sighed. It had occurred when he least expected it …while his back was turned and his mind otherwise involved with building his empire. Before his sons came back, one year ran into the next, with no discernible difference. The only thing that mattered was the monthly bottom line, the next shipment of beef, the current stock prices and weather conditions.
But then, suddenly, everything had changed when his sons returned to Lancer. Inexplicably, time seemed to suddenly have caught up with him. Or was it the realization of the passage of time that he’d finally been made aware of? Before he had gotten his sons back, he had tried hard not to think about them, their birthdays, what they were doing, what they must look like. He tried to ignore time. Oh, every few years he attempted again to hire someone to look for Maria and Johnny. And for a number of years he tried to build up his savings to fight Harlan Garrett for Scott’s guardianship, but then he heard how much Scott really did enjoy himself there, all the opportunities he was able to take advantage of, that eventually Murdoch quit pursuing that dream.
But Johnny…. That was a particularly sore area. To lose a child at such a young age and not know whether he was alive or dead, happy or unhappy… that ate at him. So, for his own survival, he blocked it out as much as he could.
Maybe that was part of the reason he had such a rough start with Johnny. He had already buried him in his heart. It was, in some ways, like he’d come back from the dead. And it was rather hard to form a bond with a ghost. Especially a ghost you really didn’t know, and quite truthfully could never fully understand. And it was a sad fact that when Murdoch looked at Johnny, he was often reminded of his own failure. His failure to keep a wife happy, a failure to provide his child with the sort of life he should have had, his failure in tracking them down until it was too late.
Murdoch rubbed his eyes tiredly. “If only.…” He paused and looked at himself in the mirror, and his eyes narrowed. In a voice just loud enough for the man in the mirror to hear, he whispered, “Why the hell didn’t you kill Preston when you had the chance?”
There was a knock at the door. Murdoch turned sharply. “Come in.”
The door opened, and Murdoch was relieved to see it was Teresa. He knew he didn’t have the strength to have another go-round with Johnny.
“Murdoch?” Her voice was tentative.
“Yes,” he answered as he turned and picked up his hat from his dresser.
“Are you going to talk to Johnny before you leave?”
Murdoch avoided looking at Teresa. Instead he grabbed his gun belt from the bedpost and buckled it on. “I don’t think that would be wise right now, Teresa.”
He heard no reply for a few seconds as he checked his revolver. Then, “I really think you should, Murdoch.”
Murdoch reluctantly turned to his ward. Her hands were clasped tightly in front of her, a look of worry on her face. She continued, “You don’t really think he’d shoot Preston, do you? Just for revenge?”
Murdoch stepped forwards and put his hands on Teresa’s arms. He gave her a tight smile and shook his head. “Honestly, Teresa, I don’t know. The man was responsible for taking Johnny and his mother away from here. I really don’t know how strong his feelings are about that. I just don’t know,” he added again.
“How about you?” Teresa raised her eyes, searching intently. “Would you shoot him?”
Murdoch tried to hide his discomfort. “Do I wish he’d never taken my wife and son? Yes. Could I shoot him now for revenge? No.” Then he quietly added, “Will I shoot him if he threatens Scott? God help me, yes.” He released his grip on
Teresa’s arm, and smiled reassuringly. “After I’ve left, tell Johnny that for me, will you?”
Teresa nodded in reply then watched as Murdoch left the room.
Johnny, hands gripping the rough mantle of the fireplace, stared into the flickering flames, but didn’t really see them. Instead, echoes and pieces of scenes rolled uncomfortably through his thoughts.
Why do you keep lookin’ at me like that?
Maybe you’ll never understand.
You know, it’s easy to kill a man, but it’s impossible to bring him back again.
I guess you are Johnny Madrid. I guess a part of you always will be.
I’d do fine! I’d do fine! If you didn’t push so hard.
You’ll be dead before you’re 30.
If you’ve got something to say, Old Man, say it!
Forced to shoot a man before he was 16.
Suddenly, the sound of someone coming down the steps brought Johnny to the present. He stiffened as he recognized Murdoch’s authoritative stride. He fought back the temptation to turn around and argue with him, as he knew it would do no good. Murdoch could be unreasonably stubborn. Instead, Johnny held his position as the footsteps entered the room and paused. His heart thumped uncomfortably in the silence. Then he heard Murdoch turn and stride loudly out the door.
Johnny slowly released his breath. It didn’t matter. Johnny planned to win this argument his own way.
Murdoch was lost in thought as he strode into the barn. Jelly had just finished tightening the girth of Murdoch’s horse and turned to look questioningly as his boss entered.
“Still reckon to ride out there with no protection?”
“No,” Murdoch replied.
Jelly raised an eyebrow, waiting for Murdoch to explain.
“Despite what Johnny may think,” Murdoch snapped more forcefully than he intended, “I am not stupid. However, I also don’t plan to put both my and Scott’s lives in any further danger than necessary.” He absently ran his hand down his horse’s neck. He didn’t look at Jelly as he continued. “I’m going to tell you where I’m going with the understanding that you won’t tell Johnny until ten o’clock. Either everything’s been taken care of by then, and there’s no trouble, or the trouble has happened, and we may need the help.”
“Wouldn’t it –”
“However,” Murdoch interrupted before Jelly could continue. “I want you to tell Frank and a couple of the other hands, too. Under no circumstances,” he turned and fixed Jelly with a penetrating stare, “do I want Johnny coming after us alone. Do you understand?”
Jelly nodded uncomfortably.
“There is no way he’ll be able to follow me out without my seeing him, and he hasn’t any idea where I’m going, so I’m trusting you not to tell him.”
“I won’t, boss,” Jelly assured with a shake of his head. “You can count on me.”
Johnny was standing in front of the large window, his hands on his hips, his stance relaxed, as Teresa walked into the room. She stopped a few paces behind Johnny and watched as the lone figure of Murdoch galloped across the yard and out the gate. She heard a barely audible sigh escape Johnny and glanced at him out of the corner of her eye.
“So, you let him go alone.” It was more of a statement than a question.
Johnny rocked back on his heels. “He didn’t give me much of a choice, did he?” He dropped his hands to his sides and drummed his fingers absently along his holster. “He thinks I’ll shoot Preston.”
Teresa looked at Johnny from under hooded lashes. “Would you?”
Johnny turned and regarded Teresa, a serious expression darkening his blue eyes. “What do you think?”
“I don’t think you would,” Teresa answered without hesitation.
Johnny looked down and sighed. “Then perhaps you don’t know me very well.”
“I know you better than you realize, Johnny Lancer.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow at Teresa’s reply. Wordlessly he fixed her with a penetrating stare, but she didn’t flinch. The sound of the door opening broke the silence. They both turned to see Jelly enter. He paused as he surveyed the room, took a deep breath, and closed the door. Then he wiped his hands down the front of his shirt and glanced questioningly at Teresa. When all he received was a quiet shrug and a half smile, he glanced at Johnny. Johnny’s face was totally impassive.
Jelly walked towards the center of the room and announced, “Murdoch’s left.”
Johnny nodded toward the window. “We saw.”
Jelly paused a few feet away. He cleared his throat and tried to sound more optimistic than he felt. “Your father’s doing what he thinks best, Johnny.”
Johnny’s eyes hardened to a cold stare. “His best is gonna get him and Scott killed.” He turned abruptly back to the window and crossed his arms.
Jelly glanced at Teresa for support. She looked unhappily back at Jelly, her eyes filled with tears. Quickly she blinked them back and took a step towards Johnny, her hand outstretched. Before she could touch him however, Johnny suddenly turned and started for the door. Jelly quickly planted himself firmly in his way. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Jelly, I don’t have time for this.”
Jelly pulled himself up straighter and stuck out his chin. “I’m gonna repeat myself, and I expect a complete answer. Where are ya goin’?”
Johnny stared back. “I’m gonna go save Scott and Murdoch.”
“How?” Jelly put his hands on his hips. “You don’t know where they’re meetin’.”
“Yes, I do,” Johnny replied. “Murdoch told me.”
Jelly’s mouth opened and closed, then he sputtered, “That’s impossible! I just found out myself. He told me under no circumstances was I to tell you where he went until ten o’clock, and only then to let you go if some of the other men went with ya. He couldn’t ‘a told ya!”
Johnny half-smiled and proceeded to step around Jelly. “Oh, he did. He just didn’t realize it.”
Jelly quickly replanted himself between Johnny and the door. “Well, that still doesn’t change anything. You’re still not supposed to follow.” He paused with a quick look at Teresa, then continued, forcing a conviction into his voice that he didn’t really feel. “I promised Murdoch I wouldn’t let ya go. And I ain’t gonna.”
Johnny fixed Jelly with a dark, penetrating stare, his voice low and serious. “Jelly, move out of my way. Otherwise I’m gonna be forced to give you bruises that will probably heal before our friendship does.”
In the echoing beat of silence that followed, Jelly saw in Johnny’s eyes that he was not bluffing. With an embarrassed sigh, Jelly took a step back and let Johnny pass.
At the door Johnny turned back and quietly added, “Jelly, I promise to tell Murdoch that you did everything in your power to stop me.”
Jelly nodded silently.
Johnny.” Teresa came forwards. “What happens if you’re wrong about where they are?”
Johnny glanced at Jelly, then back at Teresa. “I don’t think I am, but I’ll know soon enough. In the meantime, at ten o’clock send out some of the other men as Murdoch instructed…just in case.”
“Johnny.” Jelly walked slowly forwards. “I’ll tell you so you know for sure.”
Johnny regarded his friend then shook his head. “No, Jelly. You made a promise to Murdoch. Keep it.” He smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry. I’m not wrong.”
After the door closed, Teresa came and stood next to Jelly.
“Murdoch said under no circumstances to let Johnny go alone,” Jelly quietly repeated.
“Do you think we should tell Frank and the others?” Teresa asked.
Jelly nodded. “Yea,” he paused, “at ten o’clock.”
Teresa put her hand on Jelly’s arm and gave it a squeeze. “Thanks, Jelly.”
About an hour after leaving the yard, Murdoch reined his horse to a halt. The path he had been following continued on its way along the side of the valley wall, the crest of which marked the western boundary of the Lancer ranch. Murdoch turned in his saddle to survey the valley floor behind him. He was relieved to see no rider following. He then turned back and solemnly studied the brush and thin forest that spread for miles both north and south along the San Benito Mountains. Suddenly, he jerked his horse off the worn path and started up the side of the gradual incline, following a long dead path only Murdoch could see in his mind.
He had ridden for a couple minutes when he came across the run-off gully. He noticed it was dark with moisture at the very bottom. Even the forest floor was still damp from the rains of the past season. But it was nearing the end of May, and there would be no more rains coming for at least five or six months. Soon the valley floor he had just ridden across would be a golden brown, turning hard and dry until the fall, when the rains would begin again. He followed along the dry gully, slowly continuing the climb towards his destination.
As he neared the crest, Murdoch found what he had been looking for. At first glance, it appeared to be only a small clearing with what appeared to be the last vestiges of what might have once been a small shack. All that remained, however, was a few rotten logs, and a small pile of stones to mark where a fireplace had once stood.
Murdoch reined in his horse and breathed in deeply. Then, tilting his head back towards the treetops, he closed his eyes. He sat motionless like this, listening to the faint rustling of the leaves in the trees, wondering if he should have done something differently twenty years earlier.
He opened his eyes and gazed around at the quiet clearing whose peacefulness hid the pain and destruction it had witnessed long ago.
This was where it had happened. Where he had caught Maria with Preston.
He had just been checking the line shacks that day, not expecting to come upon his wife with her lover. It had been a total shock when he had entered the clearing and found Maria’s pinto and Preston’s black stallion grazing outside the shack. Immediately he had known. He’d had his suspicions when he’d noticed Preston hanging around Moro Coyo, but he didn’t want to believe. In a blinding rage, he had cleared his horse and reached the shack’s door in a heartbeat. As he threw open the door, he suddenly realized he held his gun in his hand.
In the darkened cabin, he heard Maria’s shocked scream. His eyes quickly sought her out. Half-naked, she clutched her chemise to herself and stood up. With eyes filled with fear, she looked at Preston, who grabbed the blanket to cover himself.
“Murdoch!” Maria screamed in panic. “Murdoch, don’t!”
Murdoch watched, detached, as his hand raised to fire at his wife’s lover. His heart had hit bottom and his brain registered nothing save the end of the man who had destroyed his attempt at a family and happiness.
His finger was just tightening on the trigger, a look of resigned dread on Preston’s face, when he heard a small cry. Though the cry was not loud, it had the intensity and distraction of an earthquake. Startled, Murdoch physically flinched and turned to look to where the cry had come from. Sitting on the floor on a blanket, obviously startled awake by the slamming of the door against the wall and the raised voices, Johnny sobbed tiredly and rubbed his eyes.
“Johnny,” the word out of his mouth sounded like a whispered prayer.
The dark-haired, two-year-old hic-coughed a sob and looked up. “Dada.” His small face broke into a grin, the interrupted nap immediately forgotten. “Go ride?” He put his arms out.
Murdoch stood rooted to his spot, unable to breathe. He stared into his son’s large, blue eyes.
Johnny’s smile started to fade as his father continued to stare at him in stunned bewilderment. Then his eyes followed his father’s out-stretched arm, where it came to rest on the revolver in his dad’s hands…the revolver, which was still pointed in the direction of Preston.
“Gun.” Johnny grinned again and pushed himself to his feet. He looked around the room then, and saw his mother standing in the opposite corner. “Dada gun!” he announced proudly.
Shocked and mortified, Murdoch turned to look at his wife. She opened her mouth to speak, but Murdoch quickly cut her off.
“Johnny.” Murdoch held out his hand. “Come here.” He glared at Preston, lowering his gun partially, then continued, “I’ll take you for a ride, if you like.”
Johnny smiled and happily put his hand around his father’s index finger.
“You.” Murdoch indicated Preston with a slight flick of his revolver. “Leave now!”
Preston glanced quickly at Maria, a look that didn’t go unnoticed by Murdoch. He then turned and started for the door.
“Leave the blanket—and the clothes,” Murdoch added.
Preston turned incredulously. “How am I supposed to ride back to town?”
Murdoch couldn’t help but enjoy the sneer he felt creep onto his face. “That’s not my problem, now is it? And if you push me,” Murdoch paused as he narrowed his eyes, “you may find yourself without a horse, too.”
Preston glared back, but didn’t reply. He dropped the blanket and clothes in a pile and continued to the door. As he passed Murdoch, he hissed, “I’m not about to forget this.”
“Neither am I.” Murdoch’s voice was low and deadly.
Murdoch watched wordlessly as Preston, with as much dignity as possible under the circumstances, went out the door and grabbed up the reins to his horse. After mounting he cast one last menacing look toward Murdoch before he jerked his horse’s head around and headed down the path.
Murdoch then turned back from the doorway to glare coldly at Maria. “Get your clothes on,” he ordered tightly.
“— will ride with me,” he interrupted, his tone offering no argument.
Holstering his revolver, he bent and picked up his son and took him out of the shack. As he passed through the doorway, he heard Maria call to him softly, but he didn’t acknowledge her. Instead he went to his horse and sat Johnny on it, then swung up behind.
Johnny laughed happily at being on the horse, and leaned down to pat the animal’s mane. Murdoch carefully settled his son against his chest, keeping one hand across his son’s waist while holding the reins in the other. As he did so, he could feel the beat of his heart against his Johnny’s back…a torturous drumming that threatened to explode outward…an eruption that he knew he had to control. For once it started, there would be no controlling what would be said, or the hurt he would inflict…and right now, all he really wanted to do was hurt her…hurt her like she had hurt him.
A moment later, Maria walked slowly out of the shack. Her long, black hair still loose, her brown eyes dark with tears. “Murdoch?”
“How could you, Maria?” he demanded, then clenched his teeth. “How could you?” he repeated.
Fighting back fresh tears, she defiantly stuck out her chin. “I can never be who you want me to be, Murdoch. You knew that when we got married.” She looked up at him, her dark brown eyes penetrating into his soul. “I can’t change…I’m never going to be what you want,” she continued softly. “I’ll always disappoint you.”
“We’ll discuss this later!” Murdoch retorted gruffly. “Right now, I find it difficult to even look at you.” He turned purposely away. “Get back to the house.”
Maria started to reply, then thought better of it. Instead, she resolutely mounted her horse and started slowly back towards the house, Murdoch following far enough behind so that he could avoid any further discussion, his heart continuing to thump painfully against his small son’s back.
Murdoch shook his head at the memory. They never really did discuss it much further. They both retreated into an icy formality and cool indifference. Then, two days later, Murdoch had awoken to find Maria had gone, taking Johnny with her. The only explanation she left was a short note.
I’m sorry, Murdoch. But you and I both know I’ll never be the wife you want me to be. And I can’t change.
The words had haunted him for years. If he had only discussed their problems earlier, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened. If only he had acted upon Maria’s obvious unhappiness from the first instead of just hoping it would go away by itself…
….If only he had shot Preston that afternoon.
He sighed tiredly. The decisions we make in life. He sighed deeply again. How was he to know that the decision not to expose his two-year-old son to a shooting would instead lead his child into the life of a gunfighter? He had done what he thought best to protect his son, only to lose him to something worse. Somehow it wasn’t fair.
A sudden noise at the other end of the clearing brought Murdoch’s attention back to the present.
Johnny was confident he knew where to go. When Murdoch had mentioned how he’d accidentally discovered Johnny’s mother and Preston together at a line shack, a small piece of information clicked in.
It had been perhaps a year ago when Scott and he had come across the remains of a line shack along the northwest boundary. It had long ago been burned and allowed to disintegrate under the elements. Both he and Scott had wondered why it had not been rebuilt. Johnny himself had even brought it up that night at supper.
Even now, Johnny remembered clearly the flash of horror that had crossed Murdoch’s face when he had mentioned the idea of rebuilding the line shack. Murdoch had quickly masked it and turned away, gruffly announcing that there was already a line shack in the vicinity. Scott, having missed the earlier look that Johnny had witnessed, pressed the subject and said he thought it was an ideal location and couldn’t understand why it had never been rebuilt.
Johnny had watched, perplexed, as Murdoch’s next reaction startled even Scott. Their father had turned vehemently on his eldest, every muscle in his body held in check by sheer will as he clearly and ominously stated, “There will be no line shack built there, ever. Do you understand?” It was not a question, however. It was a demand. Scott had mutely nodded. Later he asked Johnny what he had thought of the way their father had acted.
“Obviously somethin’ he’d rather forget happened there, and it doesn’t look like it’s somethin’ he plans to share with us, so I’d suggest leavin’ it alone,” Johnny had replied at the time.
But now, Johnny knew what it was, and why Murdoch had been so adamant against rebuilding the line shack, yet so reluctant to give a reason. It was where Murdoch had come upon Johnny’s mother and Preston.
Johnny had to first find the dry gully that ran out of the San Benito Mountains that he vaguely recalled seeing when he’d been there with Scott. He couldn’t remember precisely where the line shack was, but he did remember the dry gully that ran down out of the mountains which had been located near it. He planned to use the gully as a marker so that he didn’t just blunder into the middle of Murdoch’s confrontation.
After finding the gully, Johnny left his horse hobbled near a thicket of trees, then proceeded on foot up the opposite side of the gully from where the line shack would be located once he reached it, hoping to avoid detection that way. He knew there had to be at least three men, as he distinctly remembered hearing three voices during the attack, and he knew that at least one of them would be doing duty as a lookout.
Johnny was about halfway to the top when he saw one of the kidnappers on the other side of the gully, leaning against a tree, casually looking down through the forest. Johnny, who had silently and cautiously remained hidden during his climb, had gone unnoticed. The man didn’t seem all that concerned about watching for any trailers, as Johnny noticed that he seemed very nonchalant in his job.
Johnny paused momentarily and assessed. He could either continue on his way, keeping far enough away from the lookout to remain hidden, or he could sneak up behind the man and take him out.
Johnny preferred the latter, but knew getting close enough to take care of the man soundlessly was near impossible with the gully to cross and the rather thin scrub brush and trees he had for cover. Better to leave him be, but be aware of the fact that he was there.
Johnny sighed quietly to himself, then glanced once more at the man. Well, at least he knew he was in the right place, and he had one of the kidnappers accounted for.
Veering slightly further away from the gully, Johnny continued on up the hill. As he progressed, the trees grew thicker, providing more possibilities for cover.
Safely out of eyesight of the lookout, Johnny turned and headed cautiously back towards the area where he remembered the old, line shack being located. Before he even saw the gully, he noticed his father astride his horse. Johnny paused where he was and dropped flat to the ground behind a thick bush. Carefully, he surveyed the scene.
Just on the other side of the gully, his father sat motionless, head down, seemingly lost in thought. Perplexed, Johnny gazed about the rest of the clearing. He could just barely make out the pile of rubble that marked where the old, line shack had been. There was no one else in sight
Johnny looked back towards his father. He hadn’t moved.
Johnny closed his eyes briefly and rubbed the back of his free hand across his forehead. He didn’t like Murdoch’s position and lack of attention. He was sitting like a prairie dog at sun-up, easily picked off if someone had a mind to. And since Johnny had seen the lookout, he knew the kidnappers were in the vicinity. It was a good thing he had trailed along, though he had to be careful not to even let Murdoch sense he was there. Unless he was sure he was needed, Johnny knew he didn’t dare risk being discovered. If it didn’t jeopardize Scott, it would certainly put him in more hot water with Murdoch.
Johnny was just ready to try to move slightly closer, when he noticed Murdoch stiffen, then look suddenly up to focus on the opposite side of the clearing, farther to Johnny’s left. There was movement, and Johnny could just make out the figure of a man stepping out of the trees.
Scott had had plenty of time to mull over Preston and his followers. It had become quickly apparent that the other two kidnappers had very little real interest in revenge, but had been hired by Preston to help him carry out his plans.
Scott also observed something that had escaped his earlier notice. Preston’s right arm seemed useless. Scott hadn’t seen it at first as Preston hid the fact well, or gave orders for one of the other men to do what would have been awkward for him. But slowly it had dawned on Scott that Preston never used his right arm for anything.
When it came time to leave camp, Preston held a gun on Scott while the two other men helped Scott up and onto a horse, his hands still tied behind him. Scott was frustrated to find that he was very light-headed and weak, the effects of too much tequila, a kick to the ribs, and being on the losing end of an ambush. He knew he was sporting a bruised jaw and his ribs were sore. Standing straight was painful, and he couldn’t help but bend over slightly in order to make breathing easier.
Scott had hoped for an opportunity to make an escape, but with a trained gun on him at all times, and his weakened condition, he knew now was not the moment.
As the one man, whom Scott found out was called Charlie, swung up on the saddle behind him and settled the barrel of his gun in his back, the other mumbled as he gathered his reins, “I still don’t know why you couldn’t have let us cut off one of his thumbs and send it to his dad.” He turned to grin crudely at Charlie sitting behind Scott. “Now, that would have shown him we mean business, right?”
Preston turned a disgusted look at both of the men. “You are such an idiot, Farrel. I want a chance to face Murdoch and confront him with what he did before I kill him. If we did as you suggested, do you think he’d show up without a small army? I’d be forced to shoot him before I ever got a chance to face him.” He turned back and swung up onto his horse.
“But we do get to have a bit ‘a fun with ‘im after you’ve finished with his pa, right?” Charlie pressed.
Preston nodded irritably. “I told you so, didn’t I? My sole interest is in Murdoch. What you decide to do with him,” he nodded in Scott’s direction, “is up to you.”
Farrel leered at Scott, sending a shiver down his spine, which stopped at the spot where Charlie’s gun stuck into his back. The whole business was looking bleaker all the time.
They rode in silence eastward towards the Lancer boundary. The silence gave Scott the opportunity to reflect on his captors.
Scott couldn’t figure Preston out. The hired men were two-bit hoodlums out for some blood sport, but Preston himself was difficult to figure. Who was he? Why did he want to kill Murdoch? What was his relationship to Johnny? And why did he say Johnny was like a son? Scott’s thoughts halted.
What was it he had said? Johnny had been a cute tyke with dark curly hair like his mother’s… Then…could he be…?
Scott’s eyes studied the back of the man riding in front of him. Was he the gambler he had heard about who Johnny’s mother took off with?
Scott ran the thought through his mind a few times, then gave a slight shake of his head. No. Couldn’t be. Why would he be back after all these years for revenge against Murdoch? If anything, wouldn’t Murdoch be the injured party looking for revenge? No, it just didn’t make sense.
Scott’s thoughts drifted onto another tangent. Maybe he had been lying about Johnny. Maybe he was held captive somewhere else, or worse, maybe Preston had killed him already. Scott shifted in the saddle, the thought settling uncomfortably on him. It was clear he was going to have to make a move to disrupt Preston’s plans as soon as the opportunity presented itself, and the sooner the better.
Preston’s call for a sudden halt jogged Scott from his thoughts. He watched as Preston motioned Farrel over to him, and in a low voice that Scott couldn’t hear, quickly gestured up into the forest. Farrrel nodded that he understood, turned his horse, and proceeded up along the hill ahead of them. Preston then nodded to Charlie, and they, too, continued.
Scott noticed, now, that they had just reached the Lancer Ranch boundaries. As they entered a thick grove of trees, Preston reined up and dismounted. He then drew his gun on Scott while Charlie dismounted from behind him.
“End of the road, here.” Preston smiled grimly then looked over his shoulder. “Murdoch should be waiting for us.”
Scott studied Charlie, then Preston, gauging his chances of making an escape while on horseback. With two guns drawn on him, and his hands still tied behind his back, the prospect didn’t look too promising.
“Let’s not keep your dad waitin’,” drawled Preston. “You either get down carefully now, or I’ll shoot you off that horse. Makes no never mind to me whether you walk to this meetin’ or I have you carried in as a corpse. Might bother your dad, though.”
Scott nodded wryly at Preston. “And deprive ol’ Chuck here of his fun?” he tisked sarcastically, shaking his head. “And after you promised, too.”
His feet had barely hit the ground when a blow from Preston’s revolver sent him reeling against the horse. Surprised, the horse whinnied and sidestepped, sending Scott diving face down onto the ground. With his hands tied, he had no chance to break the fall. Stars burst brightly behind his eyes as he blacked out temporarily. The reprieve of oblivion was short-lived however, as he immediately felt himself roughly pulled to his feet. Dazed, he blinked and tried to force his feet to remain steady. The left side of his face felt numb, and the taste of blood filled his mouth. Focus was slow coming, and his knees threatened to buckle, but he steeled himself and turned to glare at Preston. Scott was determined to outplay him.
Spitting out a mouthful of blood, Scott taunted, “I see your bravery is only surpassed by your taste in friends.”
Preston’s eyes glared in dangerous intensity. “You think you can push me into making a mistake. Well, you’re wrong, cowboy. I’ve waited too long for you to ruin this for me.” He nodded curtly to Charlie who stepped behind Scott, his gun once again shoved uncomfortably against his spine.
Preston turned and walked amongst the trees. Following behind, Scott noticed briefly that the fence had already been pulled down.
They had only gone a few yards when Scott had an eerie sense that he knew the place. That it was somehow familiar. It took him a few moments to place it in his memory. Then it came to him. They were near the old, line shack ruins that he and Johnny had come across about a year ago. The ruins that Murdoch had acted so strangely about.
Scott considered this additional piece of information, trying to find some connection between it and his kidnapper.
Preston put his hand out to signal a stop. He turned and glared menacingly at Scott, who suddenly found the gun had moved from his back to his temple.
“I would suggest you keep your mouth shut and only do as instructed, and just maybe you’ll make it to sunset.” Preston gave a curt nod and walked through a thick wall of trees and brush.
Scott tenderly opened and closed his mouth a couple times, the side of his face beginning to throb and feel stiff.
Then Preston’s voice echoed through the forest, “So, Murdoch, it looks like you kept our appointment.”
Murdoch watched impassively as the figure stepped into the clearing and paused.
Murdoch took his time in answering, his eyes gauging the man in front of him. He was older than he remembered, of course. They both were. But, even from this distance, Murdoch could tell that the flamboyant arrogance Preston had once possessed had been exchanged for a cold, manipulative demeanor.
“Where’s my son?”
Preston raised an eyebrow and let a contemptuous smile curl his lips. “What? Not even a ‘how are you?’ after all these years?”
Murdoch kept his voice cool and even. “I don’t know what it is you want, Preston, but it obviously has nothing to do with Scott. You wanted me here, and here I am. Now, I demand that you release him.”
Murdoch heard Preston laugh, though his eyes remained cold and hard. “I really don’t think you’re in the position to demand anything, Murdoch.”
“Release my son, or else,” Murdoch enunciated each word.
“Or else, what?” Preston smiled slyly then nodded in the feint of a mutual private joke. “Of course. You’re still armed.” He shook his head sadly. “Now, Murdoch, the invitation clearly stated no extra guests, and no firearms.”
“I brought no one along, but even you aren’t so stupid as to think I would actually show up here unarmed.”
Preston laughed heartily. “Quite right! That’s why I have your son!” He turned his head slightly. “Charlie!”
Murdoch watched helpless as Scott, gun to his temple, was pushed into the clearing. Murdoch immediately noticed the fresh, bloody bruise on the side of Scott’s face, and the exhaustion evident in his eyes. Murdoch quickly dismounted. “Enough of this, Preston! Tell me what you want.”
Preston took a couple of steps forward, his stance spread authoritatively. “What I want? Why, not much, Murdoch.” He narrowed his eyes. “Except an apology… and your life.”
Murdoch’s attention was momentarily drawn to Scott, who made a slight movement at the threat. His kidnapper, however, pulled his arm back painfully, and Scott unwillingly released a hiss of pain. Unconsciously Murdoch took a step towards his son, but immediately halted when Preston threatened, “Another step, and I’ll have Charlie shoot him there in front of you.”
Murdoch turned his attention fully on Preston. The anger and frustration at the situation was beginning to show on his face. “I want him released … now.”
“And I want an apology!”
Murdoch shook his head in disbelief. “If I remember correctly, you ran off with my wife—and my son!”
Preston’s face grew hateful. “But I loved her and could have been a real father to Johnny. From what she told me you weren’t much of a father, or a husband. Always too busy with your precious ranch—building your empire which you loved more than your family. But I loved Maria…and we could have been happy. We should have been happy. You stole her from me!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Confused, Murdoch glanced quickly at Scott, then back at Preston. It was not a conversation he wanted to have, though he was glad Johnny wasn’t around to witness it. “I tried to track you down, but you managed to elude me.”
Preston’s expression filled with cool hatred. “We may have eluded you, but not the man you hired to do your dirty work.”
Murdoch stood speechless, shocked by the implication of Preston’s words.
When Murdoch failed to respond, Preston continued, his voice taking on a threatening quality. “You certainly remember the gunfighter you hired to kill me?”
“Yes…yes, I do.” Murdoch nodded sadly. “I admit I hired a gunfighter. It’s not something I’m especially proud of. But I never heard from him again, and I assumed he didn’t find you.”
“You mean, he didn’t finish the job,” Preston replied sarcastically.
Murdoch paused, perplexed and irritated at the turn the conversation was taking. “Since you are here, and my wife and son were not returned to me, I don’t see what you’re talking about,” he snapped.
“This! This is what I’m talking about!” The words were spat out.
Murdoch watched as Preston used his left arm to grab a hold of his right and draw it up in front of him. “What do you think of a gambler with a useless right arm?”
“What?” Murdoch’s confusion shock was apparent.
“This.” He let the hand drop to his side. “This is what your hired gun did. This cost me Maria.”
“How?” Murdoch faltered. “I don’t understand what you’re implying.”
Preston took another couple steps closer, his eyes burning with hatred. “Oh, your murderer found me, all right. Caught me coming out of a saloon after a poker game one night. I had a friend with me that your killer must have mistaken for me in the dark. Shot him dead, then plugged me with two bullets in my shoulder. Tore it up real good. He probably thought he’d gotten the right man until a day or two later, but then it would have been impossible to just walk into my hotel room and finish the job—local sheriff around and all.
“I was in bad shape, though. Maria stayed by me, at first. As I got better, it became apparent that I would never regain the use of my right arm.” He paused to laugh sarcastically. “I was right-handed. I dealt with my right hand. I shuffled with my right hand. I –”
“–cheated with your right hand,” Murdoch supplied scornfully.
Preston slowly closed his eyes, then opened them again. Eerily, he continued with out acknowledging Murdoch’s interruption.
“I was depressed at first. I confided in my fears to Maria. I worried about not being able to provide her with all she wanted, with all she deserved. With what she wanted for Johnny.” Preston’s left hand settled on his gun. “She left me. She left me and took Johnny, too.”
“Then why did you wait this long? Why didn’t you come after me right away? Why wait until now?”
Preston laughed ominously. “I didn’t even know until 6 years ago that you’d hired that gunman. Can you believe? Always thought it was an aborted robbery or disgruntled loser. But about six years ago, I ran into Jasper in a saloon just south of the border. An old used-up drunk of an ex-gunfighter he was. Never was that much of a danger to anyone, but now the only thing he put away was bottles of whiskey. Came up to me and told me the whole story for half a bottle of red-eye. And then, almost four years ago, your Pinkerton agent tracked me down and I found out you were still searching for Maria and the kid. Boy, did I have a laugh about that. After all this time! Even I knew by then she was dead and he had become a hired gun.” Preston laughed again at Murdoch’s obvious discomfort. “Yeah, I took great enjoyment in telling those agents nothing. It felt so good to know something you didn’t.”
Preston suddenly paused, an arrogant smirk flashing across his face. “Boy, she must’a hated you, don’t you think? To never contact you… ever… through all those years. Never letting you know how your son was.”
Murdoch looked sadly at Scott, then shook his head. “I’ll never know why she did what she did. She could have returned at any time. I tried so many times to find her and Johnny.”
“Four years I spent,” Preston suddenly cut in. “Four years I spent trying to locate her.” His voice rose in anger. “Finally found out they were living with a two-bit dirt farmer outside of Pasora. Tracked her and the boy there. But when I got there, they fled into the night. I was furious, demanding where they had gone, but the filthy, peon dirt farmer wouldn’t tell me a thing. Even tried to pull a gun on me!” He laughed derisively. “I quickly put an end to his pathetic little life.”
“No!” the anguished cry resounded through the forest. Both Murdoch and Preston looked at each other in a stunned second of total surprise.
“No! You killed my father!” Johnny cleared the shallow beginnings of the gully in one long stride. His gun drawn, his eyes heated. “You killed him!” he repeated in stunned disbelief.
Though surprised to see his son, Murdoch immediately recognized the cold anger rising to the surface…the anger the gunfighter in Johnny needed in order to go through will a killing, the anger Murdoch knew needed to be arrested before it was allowed to erupt.
“Johnny,” Murdoch called out as calmly as he could in an attempt to draw his son’s attention away from Preston, who still stood with his hand frozen to his gun, a confused look on his face. But there was no response. “Johnny!” Murdoch tried again.
Johnny’s gun and attention remained leveled at Preston. “He killed my father,” he repeated, his voice filled with cold hatred.
The man behind Scott had shifted his angle to stand safely behind Scott’s body, a firm grip under his upper arm, his gun jammed against Scott’s temple.
Murdoch felt Scott’s intense gaze on him. Quickly he flicked his eyes to his oldest son, who seemed, despite his obviously uncomfortable and weakened condition, to be trying desperately to let Murdoch know he understood what Johnny was saying.
Finally Preston voiced Murdoch’s question, “Your father?”
Scott noticed a shadow of embarrassment pass over his brother’s face as he cast one quick glance at Murdoch. Johnny’s voice, however, revealed no emotion as he answered, “The only father I knew.” Then his eyes once again hard, his manner tightly controlled, Johnny continued in chillingly even tones, “You killed him, and now you’ll die for it.”
“No, Johnny!” Murdoch’s voice cut sharply through the air. “You promised not to live by your gun. You promised to not settle–”
“Promised?” Johnny’s voice, though soft, was heavily weighted. “Which promise does a man keep? The one he made to his father, or the promise he made to the man who raised him like a son?”
“The promise you made to yourself,” Murdoch replied just as quietly.
Johnny continued to glare coldly at Preston, the words spoken by Murdoch echoing through his thoughts. The promise you made to yourself….
Myself?….Which self?…Johnny Lancer…or Johnny Madrid?….
Slowly Johnny lowered his revolver.
Murdoch quickly focused his attention on Preston. “I think your life for my son’s is a fair trade,” he stated. “Let Scott go.”
Preston looked at Murdoch, then back at Johnny. “You could have been my son.”
“But I wasn’t,” Johnny replied coldly. “Now, let my brother go!”
“Johnny!” Scott’s shout of alarm sent Johnny hurtling toward the ground as a bullet whizzed past his head. As he was rolling to his side he heard Murdoch fire off a shot and saw his would be assailant screaming in agony as he fell backwards, his hand clutching his chest, Murdoch’s bullet obviously finding its mark. Immediately Johnny continued his roll and rounded back on Preston. Horrified, he saw Preston had his gun drawn on Murdoch and Johnny knew his father wouldn’t have had time to turn back around yet.
There was no thinking involved. Total conditioning and habit took over, Madrid moved in and Preston lay breathing his last breaths before he’d ever had a chance to pull the trigger.
As Murdoch was turning around at the sound of Johnny’s gun being discharged, he noticed his son coming to his knees to aim at the man who held Scott captive.
“Let him go,” Johnny commanded in a low voice. “Now.”
“Don’t shoot!” the man screamed. Then, panicking at the destruction of his comrades and the icy coolness in Johnny’s manner, he involuntarily fired at Johnny.
“No!” Scott and Murdoch screamed a warning at the same time. Throwing his body backwards, Scott tried desperately to knock Charlie off balance, while Murdoch lunged forward in a vain effort to protect his youngest son.
Johnny tried to react fast enough, but he hadn’t expected the man to fire at him. A cry escaped his lips as he felt his chest seared with the heat of pain. Slipping on the wet leaves, he found himself propelled backwards, landing awkwardly, his head striking against the hard ground painfully. Darkness enveloped him immediately.
Scott had landed unceremoniously on Charlie, who quickly threw him roughly to the side, scrambling frantically away into the woods. As Scott awkwardly pulled himself to his knees, his eyes sought out his father and brother. Momentarily frozen, his chest constricted in fear, he stared at the sight of Murdoch leaning over the still form of his brother. “Johnny!” The word he whispered was coarse and urgent.
Murdoch replied without turning, “He’s been shot.”
Scott quickly made his way to his father’s side, fighting back the feeling of panic that arose when he noticed the blood soaked shirt along Johnny’s left chest and side. “Murdoch.”
Murdoch glanced at Scott, concern weighing on his face.
“My hands,” Scott instructed and turned his back to enable his father to reach the cords that bound him.
Wordlessly, Murdoch yanked out his boot knife and slashed through Scott’s bindings. Then he turned his attention back towards his youngest son.
“Chest wound?” Scott asked as he knelt beside his father, his voice deep with worry.
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know.” Carefully, he pulled the blood soaked shirt away from Johnny’s body and started to cut it away. He paused, hands frozen, as Johnny suddenly stirred. Scott quickly put a restraining hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“Sorry,” Johnny blearily mumbled.
“Shhh, Johnny,” Murdoch quieted. “Try to keep still.”
Murdoch turned back to the task of cutting away Johnny’s shirt, but stopped again as he felt his son’s eyes suddenly upon him. When he looked back at his son, his breath caught in his throat as he realized he’d seen the same raw look on Maria’s face once, a long time ago.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch,” Johnny whispered painfully. “I’m not the son you wanted me to be. I always seem to be disappointing you.”
Scott watched as Johnny’s eyes struggled to remain open, then finally succumbed to the pull of oblivion. Scott paused, waiting for Murdoch to finish cutting open Johnny’s shirt. But his father’s hands had suddenly gone limp.
“Murdoch?” Scott turned to his father, then stopped. One tear trailed along his father’s cheek.
Abruptly Murdoch stood and turned his back on Scott, his breathing laboriously controlled. “You,” was all Murdoch managed to whisper.
Scott leaned over his brother and finished tearing open the stained fabric. He breathed a sigh of relief as he noticed the trail the bullet had taken. Johnny would be sore for a number of days, but he’d live. The bullet had merely skimmed along the rib cage under his left arm. Once again, Johnny Madrid-Lancer had beaten the odds.
“He’ll be fine, Murdoch,” Scott announced. “He’ll be fine.”
Murdoch turned back slowly, shocking Scott with his tear-filled eyes. “Are you sure?” he asked hoarsely.
Scott nodded. “The bullet left a nasty rib burn. I’m actually more worried that he has a concussion. He’s hit his head pretty hard.” Then he added as he moved back out of the way so that Murdoch could see for himself. “He wasn’t shot in the chest.”
Scott heard a loud sigh of relief from Murdoch. Kneeling down next to Scott, Murdoch murmured, “Thank God.”
“We still need some help, though,” Scott continued.
“Yes, of course.” Murdoch pressed his fingers to his temple, taking in a deep breath. Then he turned and gave Scott’s shoulder a squeeze. “I’m sorry. You don’t look too well yourself.”
“No, I’m fine,” Scott replied. “But we need help getting back to the house.”
“It should be coming.”
Murdoch had barely said the words when the sound of horses approaching reached their ears. Frank and three other men appeared in the clearing, guns drawn. Frank quickly surveyed the situation as he leapt off his horse.
“We heard shots fired just as we were coming up the foothills.”
Murdoch stood and nodded solemnly. “Send one of the men to town for the doctor to meet us at the house and they’d better get the sheriff, too. Also, send one man up that way,” he gave a curt nod with his head. “The man who shot Johnny is trying to escape.”
Frank nodded, then quickly turned away to dispatch a couple of the vaqueros.
Murdoch knelt back down by Johnny. “Johnny,” he whispered. “Johnny. Can you hear me? We’re going to get you back to the ranch.” He put an arm under his son’s shoulders. “Come on, Son. We need to get you home.”
“Teresa,” Johnny mumbled weakly.
Scott stepped away as Frank went to Johnny’s other side and helped Murdoch get Johnny to his feet.
“Yes,” Murdoch replied. “Teresa will be there.”
Johnny awkwardly tried to pull away from Murdoch to stand on his own, but found that neither his father nor Frank were going to let go. “Don’t tell her,” he mumbled as he passed his hand over his eyes.
“Tell her what, Johnny?” Murdoch asked, confused.
“Preston.” Johnny vaguely nodded toward the body of the gambler. “I don’t want her to know. I wish she had been right….” He shook his head, trying to clear away the fuzziness that surrounded his thoughts. He swayed unsteadily, and Murdoch gripped his arm tighter, afraid to let go lest his son collapse. “I’m sorry, Murdoch. I shouldn’t have.” Johnny hung his head. “I’m sorry. You were right. I disappointed you again.”
“No!” Murdoch cut in, his voice suddenly firm. “You never disappoint me, Johnny. Remember that!”
Johnny gazed up at his father’s face, then looked away. How could he tell him that his father was wrong? That if Johnny Lancer had been just a little bit stronger, he could have made Johnny Madrid aim so that he had just wounded Preston and not killed him.
No, Johnny Madrid had just added another notch to his gun.
Johnny opened his eyes at the sound of someone entering his room. The grin plastered on his brother’s face immediately warned him that Scott was up to no good.
“How are you feeling?” Scott quickly closed the door and pulled a chair up next to the bed.
Johnny pulled himself to a sitting position. “Not bad.” He glanced sheepishly at his hands lying idle on his lap. “Actually probably a lot better than you look.”
“Doc said you’ll have some bruised and sore ribs for a few days.”
“And the concussion,” Johnny added helpfully, the corners of his eyes crinkling in amusement.
“And that,” Scott conceded with a nod. “But otherwise you’re right as rain.”
Johnny shifted to a more comfortable position. “So, what do you have in mind?”
Scott grinned widely. “Pay back time.”
At Johnny’s raised eyebrow, he continued, “Teresa. Seems to me I remember we owe her big time.”
Johnny couldn’t help but chuckle, even though the pain from his ribs made him wince. “Oh, Scott, it’s times like these I know you’re my brother.” He paused conspiratorially. “So, do you have a plan?”
Scott nodded emphatically. “The Great Pecan Pie Heist.”
“Pecan pie?” Johnny asked. “Teresa’s been baking, huh? I thought I could smell something.”
Scott nodded. “She’s been baking all day, but it seems the little Mistress of the House doesn’t want to donate one little pie to a very worthy cause. Namely us.”
Johnny feigned shock. “Unbelievable.”
“Quite right, dear brother. So I’ve come up with a fool proof-plan to infiltrate the enemy territory undetected, confiscate ourselves a pie, escape unnoticed and reconnoiter back here to split the goods.”
Johnny crossed his arms and gravely studied his brother. “I’d say beneath that proper Bostonian exterior, there lurks the heart of a master thief.”
A grin broke across Scott’s face as his eyes twinkled. “What say, Johnny?”
“How could I resist such an offer?” He grinned back. “Just tell me what to do.”
“It’s very easy,” Scott replied as he pulled his chair even closer to the bed and lowered his voice.
After Scott had left, Johnny waited the fifteen minutes Scott had asked him to, so that he could leave the house and pretend to be going to the barn to do some chores. After the fifteen minutes had elapsed, Johnny gingerly got out of bed. His side was sore, and he still had a pounding headache, but the thought of a pecan pie provided him with the extra incentive he required.
He walked out of his room, and down the hall, taking his time. Then he quietly descended the steps to the landing. Outside the kitchen door, he paused, took a deep breath, and put on his best sickly expression with just a hint of confused delirium thrown in. Then, with a moan added as a bonus, he entered the kitchen on just the proper wobbly legs to convey the right amount of exhaustion and vulnerability.
At the sound of the kitchen door opening and the accompanying moan, Teresa looked up from the last of the pies she was getting ready for the oven. Alarmed, she saw Johnny, ashen faced, swaying unsteadily on his feet.
“Teresa?” he mumbled.
“Johnny!” Teresa ran up. Then putting an arm around him for support, she admonished. “What are you doing out of bed?
You know the doctor said you need to spend another day in bed to get your strength back. What do you think you’re doing?!”
“Dunno,” Johnny mumbled as he started slumping against the wall.
“Johnny. Johnny!” Teresa quickly turned him toward the door. “We’ve got to get you up to bed.”
“Hmmm?” Johnny let Teresa guide him back out of the kitchen.
“It would figure that now when I need Scott, he’d be gone,” she muttered to herself. “Hanging around the kitchen all day, trying to sneak a pie. But now that I need him.”
“Sneak a pie,” Johnny tisked. “Naughty Scott.” He shook his head, then moaned, clutching the stair railing for support.
“Oh, Johnny.” Teresa’s voice was filled with concern. “Can you make it back to your room?”
“I don’t know,” Johnny faltered and sighed. “I…I feel so light-headed.” At Teresa’s concerned expression, he added, “and weak. Very weak.”
“Poor Johnny.” She adjusted her arm around his waist. “Come on. Let me help you up, then I’ll get you a nice piece of pie.”
“A big piece?”
Teresa smiled. “Of course a big piece.”
In halting, exaggerated pauses, they slowly climbed the steps back to Johnny’s room.
Scott sat out in the barn waiting for the minutes to tick by. He grinned at the thought of the practical joke they were playing on Teresa. He had been relieved when Johnny appeared ready to take a part in it. Very relieved.
It had been a rather strained and awkward last couple days. After arriving back at the ranch, Johnny had been reluctant to talk to anyone. After the doctor had seen to both boys, declaring that they would both be fit after a couple days of rest, Scott had decided to work on a plan to pull Johnny out of his uncommunicative slump. And Teresa’s pies had provided the perfect opportunity.
After fifteen minutes had passed, Scott stole quickly back to the house, entered the back door to the kitchen, surveyed the pie-laden counters, and swiped the first pie that seemed to yell ‘eat me!’ at him. Then he quietly closed the door and slipped around the house until he came to stand below Johnny’s open window. He climbed the steps to the balcony, then with the pie balanced in his hand, he hopped up on the balcony wall. Steadying himself with one hand on a decorative trellis, he leaned over as close to the window as he could and whispered loudly, “Johnny! Johnny! Got the pie. Here, take it so I can climb in.”
He reached out as far as he could to the open window and passed the pie in. Then balancing one foot on the balcony wall, and one on the trellis, he leaned out and grabbed the window ledge. Using the trellis for footholds, he gradually pulled himself up.
“Wait ’til Teresa finds out, she’s gonna—”
“Gonna what?” Teresa stood in front of the window, balancing the pilfered pecan pie in one hand, while the other hand rested on her hips.
“Teresa!” Scott sputtered.
“I, uh, what are…, uh, I didn’t think….”
Teresa sat the pie on the dresser and leaned over to smirk at Scott’s flustered countenance. “Scott, that doesn’t sound too convincing to me.”
Scott looked past Teresa. There stood Johnny, savoring a bite of a large piece of pecan pie he held on a plate in his hands.
“Johnny!” Scott exclaimed.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, Scott Lancer,” Teresa admonished.
“Yeah,” Johnny agreed between mouthfuls.
“You’re supposed to be a positive role model for your younger brother here, and look at you!” Teresa shook her head as she leaned against the window ledge, her face now inches from Scott’s.
“Yea, look at you,” repeated Johnny with a grin. “It’s really quite pathetic, Scott.”
“Ah, come on!” Scott adjusted his grip on the window ledge. “It was just a joke.”
“Forcing your poor, invalid brother to help you steal a pie?” Teresa sighed. “How could you?”
“Yeah, how could you?” echoed Johnny as he sat down the now empty plate and began eyeing the full pie sitting next to it.
“Let me up, Teresa,” Scott panted. “It was just a joke!”
“Say you’re sorry,” sang Teresa, grinning from ear to ear.
Scott scowled. “Sorry.”
“Say I’m the best!” Teresa giggled.
Scott’s scowl deepened. “Ah, come on, Teresa. I’m slippin’. Let me up!”
“Better let him up,” Johnny added helpfully as he carefully slid the pie off the dresser top. “I don’t wanna have to do his chores all next month if he falls and breaks his leg.”
“Got to tell me I’m the best!” Teresa smirked. “Or I won’t let you up!”
“You’re the best,” Scott muttered.
“And I’m smarter than you.”
Scott growled, “Teresa, when I get up, I’m going to get you.”
“Get me what?” Teresa asked innocently.
“Yeah, get her what?” Johnny headed back to his bed, pie plate in hand.
Scott rolled his eyes and grimaced. “Okay, you’re smarter than me. Happy?”
“Now, let me up!” Scott muttered.
Teresa leaned over and grabbed Scott by the arm. Carefully, he managed to haul himself through the window with only a minimum of grunting. Then swinging his legs over, he sat on the ledge and flexed his fingers. “It’s a good thing you finally decided to help. I don’t think I could have held on much longer.”
Teresa grinned as she headed out the door. “I’m just a push-over for cute, blonde cowboys.”
“Hey!” Scott exclaimed to Johnny after the door closed. “Did ya hear that?”
“Hm-hum,” Johnny mumbled, his mouth full of pie.
“She called me cute.”
“And you are.” Johnny grinned at his brother. “You’re pretty and I got the pie. Everything’s just perfect.”
“Hey! Now wait a minute!!”
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