Word Count 48,568
Warning: This is an AU, alternate homecoming story. Johnny is 17, Scott is 22. Please pass on reading if you don’t like this type of story.
With profound thanks to Sherry D.
by Sarah McLachlan
You’ve been gone so long, all that you know
Has been shuffled aside as you bask in the glow
Of the beautiful strangers that whisper your name
Do they fill up the emptiness?
Larger than life is your fiction
In a universe made up of one
‘Cause you have been drifting for so long
I know you don’t want to come down
But somewhere below you, there’s people who love you
And they’re ready for you to come home,
please come home
Johnny Madrid was tired.
Not time to go upstairs to his rented room tired.
Bone-leaching, mind-numbing, crawl under a rock for days tired.
His last job had been dirty, treacherous, and exhausting. And like most of the jobs he found himself drawn to lately, it hadn’t paid in anything but good meals, warm handshakes, and undying gratitude.
Which was why he was sitting in this saloon, nursing a beer, waiting for a gringo who had left word with the bartender, Joe, that he wanted to hire Johnny Madrid. Johnny needed money. And gringos who sought out gunfighters in border towns tended to have it, in spades.
The problem was the rich gringos were often on the wrong side of range wars and the like, so he didn’t hold out too much hope for this job.
He could hole up in Canton Falls for weeks if need be, as it was one of the many towns with the whole undying-gratitude thing. His room, his meals, his barely-touched beer, were all without charge. But he hated to take advantage of such thankful hospitality for more than a couple of days of recuperation.
The gringo had passed the overprotective prescreening of the townfolk to get so far as to be meeting with him, so the guy couldn’t be all bad. But, hell, it probably meant he was a broke farmer in need of a gunfighter to run off a rich landgrabber.
The idea drew a crooked smile to his face, which grew bigger as a bedraggled, older man limped into the saloon, looking around hopefully. Johnny dropped his head toward his beer, lost the smile, and watched from his peripheral vision as Joe nodded the stranger over toward where Johnny sat.
Hesitantly, the man shuffled up to the table.
“Johnny Madrid? May I speak with you?”
Another gringo using his given name might have gotten a smart-mouthed, dismissive comment in response. But as Johnny surveyed the man’s worn, sad features, he only felt a twinge of compassion. He shoved out a chair with his foot.
“Thank you.” The man was probably in his early 50s, but his careworn face looked years older. He grimaced as he eased his large frame down onto the chair. Johnny had the sense that the man once cut an imposing figure as, had he not been so stooped with whatever burden he carried, he was probably well over six feet tall.
Johnny caught Joe’s eye and nodded a request for a second beer. Usually, the potential employer bought the drinks, but the emotion rolling off the man in front of him again tweaked Johnny’s softer side.
The man looked at the beer as it was set down, then up to Johnny’s eyes. Johnny felt a funny little jolt. Few men were brave enough to hold Madrid‘s stare.
But hold it this man did. For so long, Johnny almost looked away.
Instead, he said, “I understand you want to hire me.”
Another long moment passed with that searching gaze unbroken.
When nothing more came, Johnny cocked an eyebrow. “For…”
The man swallowed.
“To rescue my son, who was kidnapped.”
Johnny grimaced inwardly. Kidnappings were a nightmare along the border. Gangs of marauders snatched up young girls for Mexican bordellos or estancia owners, young men for the mines. The gangs were notoriously ruthless but terribly effective. Few victims were ever seen by their families again. Johnny hated to further break this man by explaining that tracing specific victims was nearly impossible, but neither did he want to give him false hope.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can help you.”
Panic flooded the watery eyes.
“I can pay you! $1,000 now, and another $1,000 when the job is done.”
Johnny hid his shock at the proffered fee. His reputation afforded him some hefty fees –when employers could pay- but what the man was offering was at least double that.
“It’s not about the money,” Johnny said gently. “How long ago did the kidnapping happen?”
Johnny shook his head sadly.
“There’s no way to be able to track them after such a long time. These gangs are quick movers and have a network of drop-points. If you give me a description of your son, I have friends across the border who I can ask to be on the lookout for him.”
“I know where he’s being held. On the estancia del Esteban Ruiz in Nogales, Mexico. He demanded a $2,500 ransom.” The man’s eyes grew more fervored as he went on. “I paid it, but all I got was a bullet in my hip. Now they want $5,000.”
Johnny leaned back, letting his air out slowly. He knew Esteban Ruiz by reputation, and it was an evil one. It was unlikely the man’s son was still alive.
“I know he’s alive!” The man seemed to read Johnny‘s mind, “At least as of last week. Two of my hands tracked them back to the estancia and have been keeping watch. The deadline for the next payment is Thursday. I’m willing to pay, but I need help making sure I’m not double-crossed again. Please, you have to help me!”
The man grabbed Johnny‘s arm in desperation, an act that ordinarily would have found a gun pointed at his gut. Instead, Johnny carefully extricated himself, aware that Joe and several others were poised to intervene, if allowing this man access to Madrid had been a mistake.
“We can’t talk about this here.” Even though he knew most of the men in the saloon, and all three of the girls, it was never wise to have so many ears listening to details. “Where are you staying?”
“Aris hotel, room 204.”
“I’m not promising anything, but finish your beer and I’ll meet you there at seven o’clock tonight.” Johnny took two swallows of his beer as he stood. He leaned over to speak quietly near the man’s ear. “Watch yourself. You just announced to a saloon full of strangers that you have access to $7,000. Somebody might be feeling greedy.”
With that, Johnny tossed a coin onto the table in payment he knew Joe wouldn’t want, and lightly climbed the stairs to his room. He sank down onto the bed, pulling off his boots. He needed to get some sleep if he was going to be clearheaded for his meeting with…
Huh. Johnny thought, surprised at himself, I never asked the guy’s name.
Johnny had not slept well. There was something about this job that unsettled him. It surely didn’t help that he didn’t even know what name to ask for at the hotel. He shook his head at himself, knowing it was a sign he was far too tired to be taking on a job like this. He hoped he could slip up to room 204 without being seen, or if he was seen, that he’d be recognized as Johnny Madrid and not be stopped.
Luckily, it was the former.
He’d done a little homework before arriving. Checking with Ty at the livery that the man had come into town alone and that his horse had been well-cared for on the road. Johnny could tell a lot about a man by how he treated animals, women, and his gun.
His knock was answered immediately.
“Thank you for coming.”
Johnny carefully surveyed the room, and the man, as he was ushered in. The room was small, sparsely furnished, with no closet or changing screen where an ambusher could hide. The man seemed more in control of himself. He’d shaven and changed clothes. While he still looked drawn, and in some pain, he no longer looked like a broken-down goldrush leftover.
“Would you care for a drink? I took the liberty of having some food sent up, as I wasn’t sure if you had eaten. You look thin.”
Johnny frowned at the odd observation from a stranger. “I’ll take a drink.” Johnny was surprised to see the man pour from a bottle of tequila. In his experience, most gringos drank whiskey.
“Have a seat. Do you mind if I call you Johnny?”
For some reason, he did mind. Johnny‘s senses, already on alert, began to jangle.
“The polite thing would be for you to introduce yourself first, old man.”
Steel-blue eyes held his as the glass of tequila was passed over.
“I wondered if you would recognize me.” The gravelly voice said softly.
Johnny froze, his skin tingling with warning. His eyes narrowed, and his words were icy, as he said, “I don’t like games, old man.”
“No games, Johnny. My name is Murdoch Lancer.”
The intense eyes did not even blink as Murdoch found himself facing the muzzle of Johnny Madrid’s gun.
“You’re just as fast as they say.” Murdoch set Johnny’s untouched glass down on the table and eased himself down into one of the two upholstered chairs. “This hip is not happy with all the traveling it’s done.”
“I should kill you for what you did to me and Mama, you bastard!” Johnny‘s gun twitched just the slightest bit with the extreme effort it took not to pull the trigger.
“I wish I could’ve made her happy.” Murdoch’s gaze drifted to the far wall, as if there wasn’t a gun pointed at him. “Or at least, that I could have kept her from taking you with her when she left. And I should have found you before this.”
“You threw us out! You resented marrying a lowborn woman and were ashamed of your mestizo son!” Johnny shouted.
“Never.” Murdoch’s eyes flashed fire. “I loved you. Loved you both. I searched for you for years.”
“Don’t lie to me!” The pistol became deadly steady again.
“It’s not a lie,” Murdoch argued calmly. “I don’t blame you for hating me. But don’t take it out on your brother.”
The word slammed into Johnny‘s head like a bullet.
“You think I care about some brat you had to take my place after you got rid of me?”
“Scott is your older brother, from my first wife. She died when he was born, and he lived with his grandfather in Boston until a year ago.” Murdoch appeared completely unfazed by Johnny’s furor. “Some high-riders tried to take over Lancer. We fought them off, but they grabbed Scott on his way to town for rebuilding supplies. I should have sent trusted people with him…”
“Good luck getting him back in one piece.” Johnny sneered, moving to leave without lowering his gun. “I’m not interested in your problem or your money. You’re lucky I don’t shoot you on the spot. Be gone by dawn or your luck will run out.”
Murdoch got to his feet, the pain in his hip forgotten.
“You have to help your brother! He’s not to blame for any of this!”
“I don’t have to do a damn thing, old man, except leave before temptation gets too strong.”
“Please, John, think about it. You can hate me all you want. I know your mother is gone. You need your brother, and they are going to kill him if you don’t help. Please, he is innocent in this and you know what a monster Ruiz is. I’ll do anything!”
“Then go to hell!” Johnny hissed as he slammed out of the room, leaving Murdoch leaning on the table, one hand out beseechingly, his features crumpled in despair.
Johnny paced the tiny rental room above the saloon.
I should kill the lying, gutless bastard!
Who cares about his rich-boy son?
How can the old man lie to my face, saying he never threw us out? Mama would never have lied about that!
He paused in his pacing to ease back the curtain, looking out at the night sky. The streets below were deserted, save for a single horse tethered to the saloon hitching rail, forgotten in full tack by some drunk, likely holed up in one of the rooms with female company. Disgusted, Johnny grabbed his jacket and lightly descended the back stairs into the alley. He came around to the front of the saloon, spoke soothingly to the horse as he untied him, then walked him across to the livery. The livery was dark, but his horse, Diablo, caught his scent and nickered.
“Shush. Don’t wake up Ty.” Johnny lit the lantern that was kept just outside the door, and led the buckskin horse into an empty stall. He removed all the tack and quietly offered the gelding a handful of oats. Any more than that would cause the other horses, especially Diablo, to riot. He got fresh water and began to brush the newcomer. It was obvious it wasn’t the first time the gelding had been left saddled too long, as he had a combination of sores and scars across his sides and back. Johnny cursed under his breath, then searched out some salve to work into the tortured coat. With Ty’s help, the horse’s owner wouldn’t get the buckskin back, unless he committed to taking better care of it. Ty would keep an eye on the owner, Johnny knew, as the liveryman couldn’t abide animal neglect any more than Johnny could.
His anger at the horse’s owner only heightened his fury over Lancer.
How dare the old man ignore me all these years, only coming to me when his precious firstborn was in trouble!
Johnny wondered if Scott was as self-centered and arrogant as their father. The boy was probably whining about missing his home-cooked meals and private bathroom, driving Ruiz crazy.
The image made Johnny grin, until he realized “the boy” was several years older than him. Which meant his mama must’ve known about him. Why hadn’t she ever mentioned Scott? Maybe she didn’t know about him. Didn’t Lancer say Scott grew up with his grandfather in Boston?
So, I guess I wasn’t the only son the old man tossed away. Johnny thought with a snort. Something we have in common, brother.
The word squeezed the breath from Johnny‘s lungs. He’d always wanted a brother. Especially a big brother, one who could protect him from…
Hell, Madrid doesn’t need anybody’s protection anymore! Besides, it’s big brother Scott, who is in need of protection now…
The irony did not make Johnny smile. In fact, it made him ache with concern.
“Your brother needs you.” Murdoch’s voice echoed in Johnny‘s head.
He stepped over into Diablo’s stall to give his horse a consoling ear rub and to feel the warmth and comfort of his friend’s soft coat. The chalk-faced bay beside Diablo nickered; Diablo gave one in return. Looking up, Johnny realized the bay was probably Lancer’s. It appeared the two horses had become friends.
“Traitor.” Johnny admonished Diablo lightly, even as he reached over to scrub the top of the bay’s withers with his fingers. The massive horse gave an appreciative snort and leaned into the scratch. Johnny sighed.
“I guess I better look into this new brother.”
Murdoch Lancer also spent the night apace. He knew he was lucky Johnny hadn’t shot him, and he hadn’t been at all surprised at the boy’s anger. The reason for it, though, infuriated him. Damn Maria, for filling their boy’s head with lies about why she had left! If only she had been honest with Johnny, he might have come home after her death and never have needed to become Johnny Madrid.
Ah, but it was Madrid Murdoch needed right now. His stomach churned with worry for Scott and uncertainty over what he could do now to free him. Everyone had warned him against paying the ransom. He hadn’t disagreed about the risk; he just hadn’t seen an alternative. When all the exchange had gotten him was a few moment’s look at his bruised, filthy son and a bullet graze to his right hip, Murdoch had known he needed a new plan.
And that plan had become Johnny Madrid.
Only Scott and Cipriano even knew Johnny was alive. And Scott had no idea that Murdoch knew where Johnny was. Desperate, Murdoch had confided in Cipriano and Pedro about his plan to hire Johnny, and sent them head to Nogales, Mexico. To everyone else, he simply said he was enlisting the help of someone he hadn’t seen in many years, and he’d be home when, and only when, he could bring Scott home with him. He left the ranch in Paul O’Brien‘s capable hands, after making some quick and secretive changes to his will, if neither he nor Scott survived.
Now, that was looking like a distinct possibility. He wasn’t going home without his son.
He despondently headed to the outhouse, struggling with what his next move should be. Certainly, to head to Nogales to see if Cipriano and Pedro had been able to rally any help there. It was unlikely. People were either scared of or indebted to Ruiz, often both. It was whistling into the wind to think they’d risk their lives and livelihoods to help an unknown gringo and his rich, blond son.
It was just barely dawn, but Murdoch wanted to be on his way early. He was tempted to try to talk to Johnny one more time, but knew he shouldn’t tempt the boy’s Colt.
He went back into his room, glad he had paid the hotel and livery bills in advance so he didn’t need to wake the owners to leave.
He froze at the sound of a hammer-click in the darkened room.
“Close the door.”
He obeyed, moving slowly, able to make out a dark silhouette standing beside the table, where $1,500 was spread. $1,000 had been in his saddlebags, $500 in a hidden pocket of his coat.
“I imagine you have another thousand or so in your boots.” The shadow snarked.
Murdoch gave a resigned sigh. “I’ll have to sit down to get them off.”
“I don’t want your damn money!” Johnny spat. “I’m just reminding you what an idiot you are for flashing money around in a town like this.”
Murdoch sank into a chair anyway. “You’re right. I’m just so desperate to get Scott back.”
Even in the dim lighting, Murdoch could see Johnny‘s jaw clench.
Great thing to say to your long-abandoned younger son, Lancer! Murdoch berated himself. What must it feel like for the boy to know his father was willing to shell out upwards of $9,500 to get his older son back, when he’d given absolutely nothing to his younger son for 15 years?
“All this money will get you is dead.” Johnny sneered. “Where’s the ransom money?”
“On its way to the bank in Green Valley.”
“Is that where the exchange is supposed to take place?”
“No, a ranchero outside Nogales, Arizona. “
“Well, at least you weren’t stupid enough to send it to the bank in Nogales. I am quite sure Ruiz expects you to, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the bank was robbed on Wednesday.“
“Does this mean you’re going to help me?” Murdoch pleaded.
Murdoch’s heart sank.
“It means I’m going to help my brother.” Johnny snapped, sounding angry with his decision.
“Thank you.“ Murdoch breathed, his body sagging into the worn chair with relief.
“I don’t want your thanks anymore than I want your money.“ Johnny growled, shoving most of the bills onto the floor. “Tell me about these ranchhands you have down there. How well do you know them? How can you be sure they aren’t on Ruiz‘s payroll?“
“Pedro has been with me for three years. He stuck it out throughout Pardee’s attack on Lancer.“
“Day Pardee?“ Johnny raised an eyebrow. “And you fought him off?”
“You know him?”
“Did you ride with him?” Murdoch’s question sounded like an accusation. Johnny‘s expression darkened.
“That’s none of your business, old man.”
“Well, your friend is dead. Scott shot him.” Murdoch challenged. “It’s why Ruiz grabbed Scott. Ruiz bank-rolled Pardee’s attempted land grab.”
Johnny was surprised, and somewhat impressed, to hear Scott had bested Day Pardee in a gunfight. Pardee was a damn good shot. Not as good as Johnny by a long stretch, but good enough to take out a greenhorn Easterner, by far.
Ol’ Boston boy must have gotten lucky. He wasn’t so lucky now, though, being in Ruiz’s filthy hands.
“Pardee was not a friend.” Johnny didn’t know why he was bothering to explain. “But Ruiz and Pardee were close. I’m surprised Scott is still alive.”
“Apparently Ruiz is greedier than he is sentimental.” Murdoch snarled. “He didn’t get my ranch, so he’s bleeding me dry with ransom.”
Johnny took in a deep mental breath. The likelihood of getting Scott out alive was slowly creeping to zero.
“Just because this Pedro stayed with you during the siege doesn’t mean he can be trusted. Ruiz is a planner. He could have sent Pedro over three years ago to get into your good graces. Ruiz loves to have inside help and can be a very patient man.“
“He did have inside help.“ Murdoch said with disgust. “Two hands that had been with us almost a year. It’s how they got the drop on Scott.”
Johnny nodded. “Doesn’t mean he ain’t got more. What about the other hand you said you have down there?”
“Pedro’s abuelo, Cipriano. He’s been with me since before Pedro was born.”
“Great, a kid and a grandpa. Nice odds.”
“Once you meet them, you’ll understand they are very nice odds.” Murdoch leaned forward, catching Johnny‘s azure eyes with his steely blue ones. “And another reason for you to trust them; they’re your uncle and cousin.”
Johnny had a rare lapse in his Madrid mask.
What the hell? More family? From none to four in less than a day?
“I ain’t any more likely to trust your brother and nephew than I am to trust you, which is not at all.” The mask and glare were back.
“Not my brother. Your mother’s uncle, your tio abuelo. (great uncle) He’s been helping me look for you for years.”
“Apparently, neither of you were very good at it,” Johnny growled.
Murdoch sat back, a sad and distant look on his face. “No, we weren’t. I hired Pinkertons whenever I could afford it in the early years, which wasn’t often, as it was a struggling ranch then. Sometimes, we went ourselves. But it seemed every time we got close, you and your mother would just disappear. After she died,” Murdoch heard the boy’s teeth grind, even at a distance. “I lost you for five years. Even the Pinkertons could find no trace.”
Ice cold eyes held his.
“Until…” Johnny prompted.
Murdoch took in a heavy breath.
“Until one of the Pinkertons realized Johnny Lancer and Johnny Madrid were one and the same.”
Johnny snorted. “So you stopped looking, until the day you needed my gun to rescue your precious well-bred son.”
Murdoch’s eyes drifted sightlessly to the window on the far wall. “No, I didn’t stop looking,” he said softly, “The Pinkerton agent said you’d been taken prisoner after a failed revolt and then… you’d been executed.”
Murdoch could still feel the sick clenching of his stomach, thinking back on that news. His desolation and grief had been acute. But it had strengthened his resolve to at least bring Scott home, which he’d done 3 months later.
“Yet, you knew exactly where to find me now.” Johnny was unmoved by the emotion in Murdoch’s words and manner.
Slowly, Murdoch nodded. “Cipriano actually heard you’d been hired on to a range war in Harrington.” That had been a year ago, just after Scott had arrived at Lancer. “He kept tabs on you and knew you just finished a job in Burroughs Creek.”
“But you had the son you wanted, no sense bringing a gunfighter into your home.” Johnny accused bitterly.
Johnny would have been appalled if he realized Murdoch could read the hurt behind his cold words and glare.
“It wasn’t that at all, son. Pardee had started his raids. We had our hands full, trying to fend him off. Then Ruiz grabbed Scott…”
Johnny had heard that Pardee and his high riders we’re doing a big land grab in California. It had never occurred to him that it might be Lancer. If he hadn’t hated Pardee and his immoral tactics so much, Johnny could easily have hired on there. That would’ve been quite the surprise… for all of them! Johnny tried to imagine how Scott had gotten the drop on Pardee.
“What does Scott know about me? “ Johnny‘s words came out too tentatively. He cleared his throat irritably, moving over to look out the window, for some reason unable to face Murdoch to hear the answer.
“He knows who you are. He only recently found out you were still alive. I hadn’t…” Murdoch crossed over to stand across the window from Johnny. “He read about your gunfight in El Paso in the newspaper. He was quite livid with me that I knew you were alive and didn’t tell him.”
“I’m sure the idea that his gunfighter brother was still alive made him want to hightail it back to Boston.”
“The opposite.” Murdoch countered. “He wanted to find you, to bring you home.”
“Don’t play that game with me, old man!” Johnny flared; the nearly forgotten gun now leveled at Murdoch’s gut again. “I already said I’d help Scott. I’m not under the illusion he’d want me for more than my gun any more than you do you! You don’t need to pretend otherwise. It just pisses me off even more.”
“I’m not pretending, and it’s not a game. If Pardee hadn’t been knocking at our door, Scott would have ridden out to look for you. He talked to Cipriano about it, knowing he wouldn’t survive looking near the border on his own. I promised him we’d all go together after…”
Murdoch found Johnny’s gun at his throat. “One more of your lies and I swear I’ll shoot you right here and let that boy of yours rot in Ruiz’s brig!”
The idea that his brother might care for him, sight unseen, knowing his history, shook Johnny to the core. It couldn’t be that his father, uncle, and cousin cared, as well.
Mama wouldn’t have lied like that. She knew how much I longed for a family, a home, a reason not to hate my life. She wouldn’t have been that cruel, that self-centered…
Yet, it was Mama. Mama who bought bottles of whiskey instead of food; who brought home men by the dozens who had no use for a mestizo kid other than as a punching bag; who told him he was the reason she lost everything and lived in shacks. She was protecting him from the big bad gringo Lancer, who sent Pinkerton agents to hunt him down and kill him to wipe out the evidence of Murdoch Lancer’s shameful indiscretion with a Mexican beauty, who should’ve known better than to get pregnant.
With a low curse, Johnny grabbed $300 off the table. “Money for bribes and expenses is on top of my fee.” He shoved the money into his jacket. “Wire Cipriano and Pedro to be at the Santa Anna cantina when it opens on Monday. Don’t use my name or make any reference to me. Wait here for two days and then go to Green Valley. Don’t talk to anyone, don’t go anywhere else. Do nothing until you hear from me.”
“I want to go with you…”
“No fucking way. You are nothing but a slow moving target. Stay out of my way, old man, or it will be your son’s life. And yours, because I’ll shoot you on sight.”
With that, Johnny stormed out of the room.
“I have to give Lancer credit,” Ruiz smirked, as he handed Johnny a glass of tequila. “He smartened up enough to hire the best for protection.”
Johnny laughed darkly. “Yeah, just not smart enough to know that me and Day worked together a bunch of times, and I might want a shot myself at taking out the pendejo who killed him.”
Johnny let his features be drawn into a frown. “How the hell did some back-east dandy take Day out?”
Ruiz leaned back in his chair, swirling his drinking in irritation. “Turns out the gringo was some kind of marksman with a rifle in the American war. The bastard isn’t the crybaby we expected. He almost got away on us once. We’re keeping him under extra tight guard now. Plus, he’s hurting good from his punishment for trying to escape. I don’t think he’ll try again.” Ruiz’s chuckle made Johnny’s insides crawl.
Johnny carefully schooled his features, even as he worried anew about getting an injured Scott out of the well guarded and high-walled estancia.
“Who woulda thunk…” he grunted. “So, how about letting me have a go at the Lancer kid once I get you the next round of ransom?”
Ruiz leveled a suspicious glare in his direction.
“You want me to believe you’d give up five grand to take a shot at Pardee’s killer? Yeah, you worked together, but it wasn’t like you were brothers or anything.”
The “brothers” comment hit home, but Johnny didn’t let it show.
“Hell no, Señor Ruiz. I told Lancer you’d upped the ransom to ten grand. Half for me and half for you. Being able to get my hands on the Lancer boy for a few days of fun and games is just icing on the cake.”
“I don’t know if I want to give him up. He’s proven to be quite valuable.”
“Maybe so, but Lancer is tapped out. I went to the bank with him to provide ’protection’ for the ransom money.” Johnny gave an evil smile. “The damn gringo is mortgaged up to the hilt. They wouldn’t even give him all the money he needed. He had to strongarm some of the other ranchers to get the last $500. Ya can’t get blood from a stone.”
“Perhaps not, but I understand the boy has a rich abuelo on his mama’s side.”
“Yeah, I looked into that myself,” Johnny sighed. “The Boston abuelo disinherited Scotty-boy when he came west. They’ve had no contact in the last year.”
“It seems you put an awful lot of research into my hostage, Madrid.” Ruiz’s eyes shot fire.
“Would you expect anything less of me?” Johnny flashed an arrogant smile. “If I wanted to edge you out, Señor Ruiz, I would have killed old man Lancer as soon as he picked up the ransom money, and you wouldn’t have even known I was involved. I’m not looking to cut your take. Day Pardee wasn’t the nicest guy I ever rode with, but he saved my ass once. That makes me beholden to him. Spending a few days torturing the pendejo who killed him before dumping the body for the buzzards, is about as much repayment to Day as I can do.”
Ruiz raised his eyebrows and then his glass of tequila.
“Remind me never to get on your bad side, Madrid.” He said with a grin.
Too fucking late. Johnny thought, as he returned the toast with a smile.
“Hold on!” Johnny shouted over the sound of the wind, wishing he had been able to pull Scott up in front of him on Diablo instead of behind. His brother was weak, sliding dangerously from side to side against Johnny’s back as they tear-assed toward the border. He couldn’t help Scott hold on and a fall at this pace would likely be fatal.
“Not like a girl, Boston!” He taunted, hoping to raise his brother’s hackles, and perhaps with them, some energy. “We’ve got another 5 miles to the border and I lose my back shield if you fall off.”
Johnny heard something that sounded like a curse against his back, but felt a strengthening hold and a steadier seat. He smiled.
Scott drifted his way back to consciousness reluctantly. He was tired, cold, and ached like hell, especially his right leg where he’d taken a vicious rifle butt hit a few days earlier. But something obnoxious kept drawing him upward. Something even colder and wet on his face. He batted at it with his hand.
“You can do better than that, Boston,” came a voice of derision. “Open your eyes and try again.” The cold, wet returned.
He opened his eyes to a sparkling sapphire gaze and a white-toothed grin.
“Now that’s better. Let’s get you to drink.”
Scott allowed his upper body to be lifted and drank greedily from the canteen at his lips, even though it worsened the chills.
“Who?” His exhausted and pain-blurred brain took a moment to focus. Then, blinking recognition. “Johnny.”
Scott watched as a dark curtain fell across the previously animated features. “You almost gave me away back there, Boston. You ain’t exactly supposed to be relieved when someone tells you Johnny Madrid’s come for you.”
“S… sorry. I was shocked.” He looked blearily around the outdoor camp. “Where are we?”
“The good ol’ US of A. Here, sit up a little more and I’ll shove the saddle behind you. We ought to get going soon, but you have a bit of a fever, so I want you to drink first. How’s that leg of yours?”
“Okay.” Light blue eyes slid to the azure ones. “Why are you helping me?”
“Your old man put up the ransom and a pretty generous hire-on bonus.”
“Our old man,” Scott corrected. Johnny glared at him.
“He ain’t never been my old man and ain’t never going to be. I didn’t do this for him. I did it for y… the money. I’m a gunfighter. I go where the money is.”
Scott didn’t miss the near slip.
Johnny gave a curt nod. “Thank me by drinking up and taking care of business so we can get going. Just because we’re on this side of the border, it don’t mean we’re safe from what’s left of Ruiz’s guns.”
“What’s left…” Scott stopped, recalling the shocking sight of Johnny single-handedly taking out Ruiz and three of his top guns. “How did you get us out of there by yourself?”
“Wasn’t by myself. I had some friends, and a couple of your father’s men, waiting to move in. The locals have suffered under Ruiz’s thumb for far too long and are more than happy to take over running the estancia. But we have to assume some men loyal to Ruiz got away and are following us. We need to move. Here, biscuits and jerky for breakfast. Get some into your stomach, but not so much as to make you puke. We’re riding double again, until we get to a place, we can get you a horse, and if you puke on me, I’ll have to shoot you.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” Scott said with a smile. He watched Johnny pack up their meager camp while he cautiously ate the stale biscuit, his stomach not ready for jerky.
Scott would never have believed that the hardened gunfighter with the bright pink shirt peeking out from his jacket and flashy concho-trimmed black pants was only 17.
Or that he was his brother.
When he found out that Johnny wasn’t dead after all, he’d been elated. He’d always wanted a younger brother. Yes, he was concerned that having a kid brother who was also a notorious gunfighter might not be all he’d hoped for -and likely pretty damn dangerous. But it didn’t deter him from wanting to set right out to find him.
He’d been horrified and infuriated to find out Murdoch knew for almost a year that Johnny was alive and hadn’t told him. Murdoch tried to argue that they couldn’t leave the ranch with Pardee hovering nearby, nor afterward with all the rebuilding needed, but Scott knew his father’s reasoning went deeper than that. Murdoch was a man of high morals and excellent reputation. He didn’t want either of those compromised by bringing a gunfighter into his home and community, even if –or perhaps especially if – that gunfighter was his son. Scott had been so livid, he’d nearly set out on his own to look for Johnny. Cipriano talked some sense into him. Plus, he hadn’t been willing to give up his birthright, Lancer, to high riders.
“Is Murdoch all right? I saw him shot,” Scott asked worriedly.
“All right enough to hire me. He’s got a bum hip.”
“Is he back at Lancer?” Scott caught the chill that slid over Johnny’s features.
“No such luck.” Johnny bent to shake out and roll up the bedroll Scott had just vacated. Scott realized there was only one, which meant Johnny had slept on the bare ground. He then corrected himself. Johnny would have kept watch all night and probably hadn’t slept at all. “He’s in Green Valley about a day and a half ride from here.”
“I wish we could get word to him that I’m okay.”
“Cipriano and Pedro will have taken care of that,” Johnny reassured him.
“How far to the nearest town?”
“3 to 4 hours. We have to go easy on Diablo with us riding double, especially after the mad dash to the border yesterday.” Johnny pushed himself up, grimacing slightly, and dusted off his hands. “I hope there’s a decent horse to get cheap. I didn’t take the advance on my pay and bribes ain’t cheap in Mexico.”
“What’s that about?” Scott asked.
Johnny looked at him in shock “Are ya naive enough not to know about bribes, Boston?”
“Not that. What’s going on with your side? I saw you grimace and you’re guarding your ribs.”
“Just stiff from you hanging onto me yesterday. I’ll get Diablo saddled up while you take care of business, and we’ll be on our way. Do you need help over to the bushes with that leg?”
“No, I’m good.” Scott eyed Johnny closely, but seeing nothing in the boy’s expression or movements, he hobbled painfully behind some trees. Unable to shake the feeling something was wrong, he crept back to the edge of the campsite. He watched as Johnny smoothed the saddle blanket over the Diablo’s back, softly thanking him for carrying the extra weight and promising him extra oats or maybe a carrot or apple once they hit town. It was odd to see a hardened gunfighter spoiling his horse. Scott started to turn away, when he saw it again -Johnny’s grimace as he swung the 20 pound saddle onto Diablo’s back. An arm braced his side as he drew several careful breaths, his head down against the saddle. Then it was gone. Johnny smoothly cinched the saddle as Scott moved back into the camp.
“You up to holding on today?” the boy asked with a grin, “or you wanna ride up front?”
“I’m fine.“ Scott moved closer. “Hmm, what’s that?” He made a beeline for Johnny‘s jacket. The boy put his hand up, but not before Scott pulled open the jacket, displaying Johnny’s bloody, torn shirt. Strips of white bandage were inelegantly wrapped around the boy’s too thin chest.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt? Sit down and let me take a look.”
“It’s nothing. Leave me alone. How did you even see it?” Johnny looked for blood on the outside of his jacket. It wouldn’t do for people to know he’d been hurt. He hadn’t had his jacket on during the battle at the estancia when he caught a bullet that furrowed along his ribs on the right side. Another inch in, and he would’ve been in trouble with the bullet to the lung. As it was, he was pretty sure it had cracked at least one rib. It sure had bled like hell. Scott hadn’t been the only one who had struggled to stay in the saddle as they raced to the border.
Once on the other side of the Rio Grande, Johnny had paused long enough to stuff a clean pair of socks against the wound and to don his jacket so Scott could hold onto it instead of pressing on his tortured side. Scott had been too muddled with exhaustion, pain, and dehydration to pay attention. He’d been asleep when Johnny had rewrapped the wound with a proper bandage after setting up camp the night before.
“Never mind that,” Scott took Johnny by the arm and forced him to sit on a deadfall. “Did you take a bullet?”
“No, it’s just a graze. It’s all bandaged and I don’t want you messing with it.” Johnny tried to shove Scott’s hands away, but Scott was quicker. He didn’t undo the bandage, but he looked at the dark circle of dried blood that was now rimmed with fresh blood.
“Good move re-opening it,” Scott grunted. “Would it have killed you to ask for help with the saddle?”
“I said leave it!” Johnny pulled away and bounded up into the saddle in a smooth move. He took his left foot out of the stirrup, offering Scott the foothold. “You coming or are you walking?”
Shaking his head, Scott climbed up behind his brother, careful to hold onto the cantle instead of onto Johnny, as he’d blearily done the day before.
“Anybody ever tell you you’re a stubborn idiot?” Scott snorted as Johnny guided Diablo back toward the road.
“I might have heard that a time or two.” Johnny answered, a slight smile touching his lips.
By the time they reached the tiny town of Westhill, all three of them were done in. The town consisted of five buildings; a mercantile, a saloon with rooms for rent, a post office/livery, and a feedstore were lined up along a single boardwalk. On the opposite side of the street, a millinery stood off a side path. A few houses dotted the road to and from town, but there was little activity. A storekeeper stood in his doorway and an older man smoked a cheroot as he sat on a barrel a few doors away.
Both followed with their eyes as the brothers approached but made no greetings.
“I guess we don’t have to ask for directions,” Johnny quipped.
“I’m just praying for a bath.”
“I can second that, Boston. You are pretty ripe.”
“You don’t smell much better, little brother. And the name is Scott.”
From behind, Scott couldn’t see the pleased look that crossed Johnny’s face at the “little brother” appellation.
“My ripe is at least two weeks sweeter than yours.”
“Regardless, let’s take care of Diablo and see if there’s a doctor around.”
Johnny twisted around sharply, causing him to gasp from the pain. “Are you okay back there? Is your leg worse?” he asked worriedly. He felt a gentle pat on his shoulder.
“The doctor is for you.”
“Nah, I don’t need no doctor. Just a beer, some food, and a soft bed… or even a hard bed.”
“And bath,” Scott joked, as he climbed down, resisting the urge to help Johnny down, not wanting to lose his hand.
Thirty minutes later, Scott was lounging in a tepid tub in their two-bed hotel room, while Johnny slept, fully-clothed minus his jacket, on top of his bed. Supper wouldn’t be ready for another hour, so they’d brought beers up to the room. Johnny had downed his in four gulps. Scott struggled to reconcile his 17-year-old brother chugging a beer while the inn proprietor and his young son shlepped buckets of hot water up for the bath, which cost as much as the room, beers, and promised meals combined.
Scott had fallen asleep in the tub, almost as quickly as Johnny had crashed on the bed. Now, he washed carefully, grimacing over myriad bruises and scrapes, but secretly thanking God he’d escaped his nearly 3 week-long imprisonment with relatively minor injuries and a little malnutrition. The monster bruise on his right thigh was the worst of it, and he could still walk -sort of- and ride, so it was nothing.
He glanced over at his sleeping brother while he soaped his too-long hair. He was worried about the bullet wound he’d not been able to see yet, knowing it was highly unlikely that it was ‘nothing’ as Johnny had said. There was no doctor in Westhill, but Milo, the barkeep/innkeeper/bath toter, said his sister concocted some tonics that the townspeople, all 38 of them, swore by.
There also was no horse to buy or rent at the livery. They were directed to a farm a couple of miles from town, where “Sally Ellis might/could fix ya up with a nag fer cheap.” Scott didn’t wanna nag, but right now they certainly needed the “fer cheap”. It was funny, Scott was filthy rich, between his inheritance from his maternal grandmother, his holdings at Garrett Enterprises, and 1/3 ownership of Lancer, yet not one of those things was going to help them until they could get to a town with a bank. He was lucky Johnny had a few dollars and a winning smile and was willing to share the benefits of both with his newfound brother.
Scott smiled at the thought of having his brother within arm’s reach. A dream come true. He only hoped that Johnny wouldn’t run the second Scott and Murdoch were reunited.
Would Johnny care about a 1/3 partnership at Lancer? Probably not. Scott couldn’t imagine Johnny wanting to be tied down, punching cows for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, despite his considerable skill, odds were, if Johnny kept doing what he was doing, the rest of his life would likely be very short indeed.
The thought of putting his grimy clothes on again was so unpalatable, Scott dragged them into the tub with him and began to scrub. To his mind, wearing wet clothes was far preferable to wearing filthy ones. In fact, after living in the same clothes for 3 weeks, he’d happily burn them had he a replacement set.
Seeing the grime collecting in the tub, Scott got out, wrapping a small towel around his waist before bending over to scrub his clothes again.
“Now, that’s the strangest thing I ever did wake up to,” Johnny drawled, pulling himself up to the side of his bed with a barely perceptible wince.
“I sincerely doubt it.” Scott raised his head to assess his brother. “How is your side?… Fine, yes I know.” The word “fine “came out of both men’s mouths at the same time.
Johnny laughed. “Are you planning to slog down to the saloon for dinner and drinks like that?”
“No, little brother. I asked them to send our food up.”
“I hope you ain’t planning on hanging out in that tiny towel all night. You might catch cold.”
Scott laughed. “My long-johns should dry pretty quickly by the fire. I’ll be done here in a minute. You can get a fresh bath and let me look at your side.” Scott wrung out his clothes and turned to hang them over two ladderback chairs by the fire. “Do you have any salve?” As Scott turned back, he saw Johnny quickly duck his head. The boy’s face was pale.
With a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach, Scott realized Johnny had seen the whip mark scars on his back from his time in the prison camp at Libby. Because of his fair skin and eastern modesty, Scott never went without a shirt in Boston or at Lancer, so no one but his doctors and nurses at the hospital and a few one night dalliances had ever seen them.
Even knowing it wasn’t Johnny’s fault that he’d seen the scars, Scott felt an unbidden anger rise. He glared at the top of the boy’s head until the blue eyes rose to his. Scott’s stare dared Johnny to comment. Johnny’s eyes dropped back to his hands.
Then, the boy stood up and turned away, the action breaking Scott’s heart. Johnny’s shame and embarrassment only heightened his own. Scott wanted to crawl under a rock.
He started toward the door to snap out an order for Milo to come empty the tub, when he realized Johnny had unbuttoned his own shirt and hesitantly dropped it off his back.
Scott sucked in a shocked breath.
Johnny’s back was crisscrossed with scars above the bandage. Scars virtually identical to Scott’s. Scott pressed his lips together to keep from being sick.
Then in three strides, he crossed to his brother and pulled the boy into a fierce embrace, one that drew a soft gasp of pain from Johnny.
“I’m sorry,” Scott whispered into the boy’s dark hair.
Sorry for causing Johnny’s ribs pain.
Sorry for what his brother had been through with no one to protect him.
Sorry they’d been pulled apart before they even had a chance to know each other.
At first, the boy was stiff in his embrace. But slowly, as if melting under the warmth of the affectionate act, Johnny settled against him.
Just for a moment.
Then Johnny pulled away.
“Don’t wanna be getting you all smelly again. I’ll have Milo come up and get the tub out. I’ll grab my clothes and get washed out back in the creek to save some money.”
Before Scott could object, Johnny grabbed his saddlebags and was out the door.
Johnny arrived back in the room scant minutes after supper was delivered, leading Scott to believe he’d been watching for that to happen before he returned. He was dressed in a faded blue shirt and a worn pair of soft black pants. His hair was still wet and dripping. Scott realized Johnny hadn’t taken a towel, and wasn’t carrying his dirty clothes.
“Where are your clothes?” Scott asked, watching Johnny drop into a chair and immediately shovel a spoonful of piping hot stew into his mouth.
“Martha’s washing them for me,” Johnny answered, as he sucked in some air to cool the bite and then took a big sip of beer.
“And who might Martha be?”
“Milo’s sister. She’s the one who cooks. Nice lady. She’s making us a pie for dessert.”
“Really, just for us?” Scott smiled as he carefully blew on his spoonful of stew.
“Yep, she usually only makes pies on Mondays and Fridays. Tonight is rice pudding.” Johnny’s expression made apparent his feelings about that as a dessert option. “Since we won’t be here on Friday, she’s going to switch up for us.”
“What if I prefer rice pudding?”
“Aw, Boston, nobody prefers rice pudding to pie. If you give Martha your clothes, she’ll wash ‘em proper in clean water, and she says they dry real quick from the heat in the kitchen. Comes with the room. She’ll even iron your shirt. I told her not to bother to iron mine, seeing as it’s just going back into my saddlebags, but she’s going to see if she can mend it. I told her I got it caught on a branch. Didn’t want her fussing, but she tried anyway. She gave me some cream to put on the scratch.” Johnny frowned into his stew. “That’s my favorite shirt.”
Scott smiled at the rapid-fire report. “I’ll buy you a replacement shirt, seeing as it was ruined while you were helping me out. I’m not sure where we’ll find a pink shirt in these parts, though.”
“Ain’t pink.” Johnny scoffed. “Red, just a little faded. I’ve had it a while.”
“I see. We might have slightly better luck with red, but the embroidery might be a problem. Maybe Teresa can embroider a shirt for you.”
“She’s the daughter of the foreman at Lancer. A nice girl, although she can talk about nothing for an hour.” Scott saw Johnny swallow heavily. “What?”
“I ain’t going to Lancer, Scott. Once we meet up with the old man and I get my money, I’m getting as far away from him as I can.”
Scott set down his spoon.
“And from me?” he asked quietly.
Johnny glanced at him, then away, concentrating on running his fingers through the condensation on the outside of his beer glass. “Nothing against you, Boston. I… ain’t cut out for this family stuff. Been on my own a long time.”
Scott reined in his pounding heartbeat as he stirred his stew. “When I was a kid, I alternated between hating our father, and dreaming he would show up someday and whisk me off to live with him. The older I got, the more I leaned toward hate. What kind of a father let someone else raise his son? Why did he never try to contact me, send me a card, a Christmas or birthday present? When I finally got his invitation to join him in California, I busied myself thinking of all the ways I could show up at Lancer and shove his invitation in his face, in the most humiliating way possible. Often with a fist accompanying it.”
Scott saw the edge of a smile touch Johnny’s lips. “So what happened? Why did ya end up staying?”
In the silence that followed, a loud conversation filtered into the room from the street below.
“First, I found out my grandfather lied to me.”
Johnny raised his head at Scott’s pained words.
“He had told me Murdoch never tried to contact me and never responded to Grandfather’s annual letters on how I was doing.” Scott took in a deep breath. “It turns out Murdoch had sent letters every few months which Grandfather never gave to me. There were birthday cards and presents, too, all spirited away so I’d grow up thinking my father didn’t care about me.”
Johnny stared hard at the water ring on the table, his brain screaming, maybe Mama lied, too.
“Murdoch even came to get me on my fifth birthday. I only vaguely remember a very tall man stopping in at my party. A friend of Grandfather’s, I thought.”
“Why didn’t he bring you home?”
“My grandfather threatened to fight him in the courts. The wild, wild west was too dangerous a place to raise a boy whose mother had died there without her husband at her side.” Scott intoned.
“Is that what Lancer told you?”
“Yes, but I heard echoes of it from people who knew my mother out here: Sam Jenkins, the doctor; Maria, the housekeeper; Paul O’Brien, the foreman; Cipriano…”
“Still, they could all be lying, sticking up for Lancer. He’s pretty powerful. They probably want to stay on his good side.”
“I had similar thoughts. So I wrote to my grandfather, thoroughly expecting him to deny everything I was told out here. He didn’t. Instead, he tried to justify what he had done, saying it was in my best interest… better schooling, social graces, safe and comfortable home, etc.”
“Your abuelo… grandfather sounds pretty controlling.”
“Controlling is a very mild word. Grandfather drives his world, and everyone else is just along for the ride.”
Johnny cautiously lifted his eyes.
“Is your grandfather who did that to your back?” he asked softly.
“God, no, Johnny. Grandfather never once lifted a hand to me. His glare was by far enough to keep me in line.” Scott pushed his chair back to stand up. “I was in the war and spent some time in a prison camp. That’s what the scars are from.”
Johnny ducked his head.
“Sorry for asking. None of my business.”
“No, it’s all right, Johnny.” Scott sank back into the chair. He picked up his spoon again but made no move to eat. “At any rate, I found out things with Murdoch weren’t at all what I have been told they were. And then there’s Lancer itself. I’ve been across the country and over to Europe and I’ve never seen land as beautiful as Lancer. Green pastures, clear blue lakes, purple mountains, orange cliffs. It’s like a rainbow of beauty no matter where you look.”
“With lots of dumb cows.” Johnny put in, drawing an honest laugh from Scott.
“You can say that again. A lot of dumb cows.”
The brothers ate in comfortable silence for a while. Martha had sent up thick slices of hearty bread with the stew. Johnny pulled out the soft center, rolling it into little balls he then popped into his mouth. It reminded Scott of something he’d watched a friend’s four-year-old do with mashed potatoes.
“Something else that’s kept me out here these last few months,” Scott continued softly, “was finding out my little brother was still alive.”
He watched Johnny’s movements freeze.
“Even a little brother who’s a gunfighter?”
“Even a little brother who is a gunfighter. One who certainly pulled me out of a boatload of trouble, putting his life on the line when he didn’t even know me.”
“It was just a job.” Johnny murmured, but he didn’t raise his head.
“I know it wasn’t just a job.” Scott argued. He let the silence linger for a bit before saying, “If you’re done making snowballs out of your bread, I want to take a look at your side.”
“Snowballs? It snows in balls in Boston?”
Scott laughed heartily.
“No, just in flakes, like it does here in the mountains. You have to make your own snowballs. They make great ammunition.” Scott mimed packing together a snowball, then launching it at his brother’s face.
In turn, Johnny lobbed a bread-ball at Scott.
Tempted to retaliate with the pillow from his bed, Scott refrained, remembering Johnny’s injury.
“To be continued this winter at the north line shack that can get 3 feet of snow in eight hours. Unbutton your shirt and let me see what’s under that bandage.”
“I already changed it when I got washed and I don’t have another.”
“If it’s clean, I’ll wrap you back up again. I’m not taking no for an answer. I don’t want Martha after my hide for not getting her special salve on it.”
With a heavy sigh, Johnny undid his shirt buttons. Scott winced, seeing a faint line of fresh blood on the bandage below. “You’re bleeding.”
“Not much. The other bandage stuck. I tried to soak it off, but damn the creek was cold. I gave up and just pulled it off.”
“That must’ve felt good.” Scott said sardonically.
“Hey, better than walking around with a dirty, wet bandage.” Johnny sucked his air in as Scott carefully unwound the bandage and the strip that was against the furrow in his side stuck, yet again.
The wound below was nasty looking. While it wasn’t terribly deep, it was the width of a rib and ran a good 7 inches around Johnny’s side. The edges were puffed and a sickly looking red-yellow. The gouge was vibrant red. At its furthest end, the gash abruptly ticked up where the bullet had nicked the rib and changed trajectory.
“This needs a doctor, Johnny,” Scott said, through clenched teeth.
“To do what? It’s too wide to stitch and I cleaned it out good. We’ve got Martha’s cream to hopefully keep the infection at bay. What else is a doctor gonna do?”
“Give you something for the pain. Check if your ribs are broken.”
“I don’t need nothin’ for the pain. I’ve had far worse than this little graze. I do think the two ribs mighta cracked.” Johnny pointed, moving gingerly. “But all the doc would do is bind it up, which you can help me do.”
“Johnny, you shouldn’t be riding with cracked ribs. They could shift and puncture your lung.”
“Not like we had a choice. It was ride or die. I’ll be fine riding tomorrow, especially once we get you a horse. It ain’t even a full day’s ride to Green Valley. Besides, even if I needed a doc, they ain’t got one here.” Johnny picked up the jar of salve from the table and handed it to Scott. “Instead we’ve got Mizz Martha’s Magical Medicine. Hurry up. It’s almost time for pie.”
Scott wanted to argue, but Johnny made good points. Even if they had the money to hold up and wait for a doctor, the ribs wouldn’t heal for a month. They certainly couldn’t wait that long with no money and Murdoch anxiously waiting in Green Valley.
He started applying the cream, which stung, making Johnny hiss and curse, the swears becoming more intense with intermingled English and Spanish as he progressed along the wound. Scott prayed the salve was as effective as it was painful. By the time he was done, Johnny was gray, with sweat beading on his upper lip. He gave Johnny’s arm a supportive squeeze.
“Do you want me to wait to wrap you up, so the cool air can calm the stinging?”
Johnny nodded woodenly. Scott grabbed the empty food tray and fanned it back and forth a few inches from the wound. Slowly, the stinging eased and Johnny’s color began to return.
“If you’re able to ride tomorrow, we are moving at a walk, even if it takes us two days to get to Green Valley.”
“Your father is waiting for you. He’ll be worried.”
“Our father is waiting for both of us and he’ll just have to worry. Why don’t you move over to the bed and see if you can sleep a bit more. It occurred to me you probably didn’t get much, if any, last night.”
Johnny let himself be led over to the bed, Scott bending down to open the covers, then helping Johnny get his boots off.
“Martha will be bringing pie.” Johnny reminded.
“I promise I’ll wake you for your pie,” Scott assured with a smile.
“You can’t greet her in your towel. I need to take your clothes to wash.”
“My clothes are clean enough for traveling. They’ll be covered in dust ten minutes down the road anyway.” Scott stood Johnny back up long enough to help him out of his pants, then settled him into bed and covered him over. “I’ll leave our dinner bowls in the hallway and ask Martha to leave the pie there, too.”
“Don’t leave it there too long,” Johnny mumbled, already moving towards sleep. “I don’t like the looks of the guy across the hall. He might steal them.”
“No worries. I’ll safeguard your pie.”
“You better. I ain’t eating no rice pudding.” Johnny’s murmured protest fell off to silence as he drifted off.
Scott smiled and tucked the covers carefully around Johnny’s unbandaged chest. “Sleep well, little brother. I’ll watch out for you.”
And sleep well, and heavily, Johnny did.
Scott had tried to wake him, as promised, when the apple pie arrived, still warm from the oven, but all he could get were some mumbled protests in unintelligible Spanish, so he gave up. He’d eaten his own slice of delicious pie, while watching his brother sleep, desperately trying to figure out how to get Johnny to come home with him and Murdoch. Scott had waited almost 23 years to have a little brother, he wasn’t about to lose him now.
Johnny woke up as cranky as a toddler whose nap had been rudely interrupted. He didn’t believe that Scott had tried to wake him for his pie and insisted on eating it for breakfast. The glare he fixed on Scott the entire time could have melted stone.
Scott tolerated the grumpiness, able to tell Johnny didn’t feel good, and was running a bit of a fever. He tried again to convince Johnny to stay another day, but the boy would hear none of it. All he got Johnny to agree to was for Scott to be the one to ride Diablo out to Sally Ellis’ farm to get a second horse. Johnny wasn’t sure if Diablo would let Scott ride him, but apparently the ornery black remembered Scott from the previous day, and, while not happy to see him, at least didn’t buck him off.
Sally was a lovely woman, who gave Scott a hell of a deal on a well-muscled red. Her husband had passed away the year before and the red, named Rusty, had been his. Sentimentally, she hated to give Rusty up. But he was a spirited horse who needed a lot of attention and exercise and was really too much for her to handle. She was especially pleased to find out that Scott had served in the Calvary, as her father had as well. She sent Scott off with Rusty in full tack for less than half the cost he expected to pay. It left him money to stop at the mercantile for a second canteen and a fever tonic he felt sure Johnny would need before the day was out.
Johnny was in a better mood when he got back, but was very quiet as they made their goodbyes. Martha sent them off with food enough for an army.
Scott had bound Johnny’s ribs tightly, but could still see that every other step Diablo took sent a shiver of pain through the boy. As promised, he held them to a walk, although both Diablo and Rusty champed at their bits to run. Finally, at late morning, Scott called for a break. The fact that Johnny didn’t argue told him a lot about how his younger brother was feeling.
“Are you okay here by yourself for a bit? I thought I’d take each of the horses for a little run to get them settled down.”
“I’m fine.” Johnny answered listlessly, tipping his hat down over his already closing eyes, as he stretched out under a broad oak. “Don’t let Diablo toss ya. He likes to do a twisting crowhop if he doesn’t want to end a run.”
“Thanks for the tip. I won’t be long.”
Scott thoroughly enjoyed the runs. Each horse had a unique gallop and responded well to a soft hand and knee commands. After spending three weeks in a 6’ x 6’ cell, the open range and wind in his face felt like heaven.
He was able to get Johnny to eat a little and he himself finished off two overstuffed beef sandwiches. They remounted after watering the horses, then resumed their slow progress to Green River.
Knowing he had very little time to convince Johnny to give Murdoch and life at Lancer a chance, Scott dared to broach the topic of their father.
“How did Murdoch convince you to come after me?”
Johnny didn’t look over at him, his gaze on the road ahead. “I told you. He offered me a lot of money.”
“You could’ve gotten a lot more, given the ransom money.”
“I’m gunfighter, not a thief.” Johnny snapped.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it came out. You knew what Murdoch was willing to pay to get me back. You could have negotiated a higher fee.”
“The fee was high enough. I could see he was desperate to get you back. I don’t take advantage of desperate people.”
“In fact, you do the opposite. Cipriano and Pedro couldn’t tell me enough stories about how Johnny Madrid saved different communities from land grabbers and marauders. You’re their hero.”
Johnny snorted. “I’m no one’s hero. They exaggerate. Everyone loves to tell a good story.”
“It’s not an exaggeration that you freed the people of Nogales from Ruiz’s tyranny and gave them a fancy estancia to boot. You could have kept it for yourself and retired as a gunfighter. I didn’t get to see too much of the estancia, but what I did see was stunning. I heard he has grapefruit and orange orchards, a vineyard, along with the cattle and horses.”
“Maybe I don’t want to retire. I surely don’t wanna punch stupid dang cows. Now a horse ranch, that could hold my interest someday, maybe.”
“Do you like being a gunfighter? It’s certainly a dangerous business and it seems kind of lonely.”
“I’m good at it.” Johnny answered blandly, “Very good, as a matter of fact. I’ve been on my own a long time. I’m used to it.”
“Being used to it isn’t the same as enjoying it.”
“If you’re asking if I enjoy killing, the answer is no,” Johnny said tightly. “As a matter fact, I hate it. It makes me sick. But like I said, I’m good at it.”
“I understand that you had no choice but to become a gunfighter when you were younger in order to survive. But you have other choices now, things you could be happy, and far safer, doing. A family that wants you. It doesn’t make sense to throw it away.”
“I ain’t throwing nothing away. I’m the one who was thrown away! Lancer didn’t want Mama and me. Now she’s dead. I’ll be damned if I live with the gringo who threw us out and cost us everything.” Johnny’s voice was harsh and angry. “Lancer doesn’t want me, Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter. He just wanted to get the gun part. He got it, you’re free, I get paid well, and we’re all happy.”
“But you’re not happy, Johnny. And I won’t be either, if I don’t get the chance to know my brother. We were kept apart nearly all our lives. But now we have each other. I don’t want to lose you, brother.”
“You never had me, Boston. I’m just an expensive gun for hire.”
With that, Johnny nudged Diablo into a gallop.
Cursing vehemently, Scott followed.
They arrived in Green Valley in late afternoon. It was a busy copper-mining town, considerably larger than Westhill. The land office was prominently advertised, and a lumbermill thumped and ground nearby as background music to all the activity. Scott had worried if Johnny would make it there. For the last two hours of travel, the boy had huddled shivering into his jacket, despite the hot afternoon sun. He resisted Scott’s efforts to take a break or to initiate conversation. Johnny hadn’t run Diablo for long and Scott was pleased to see that Rusty had a little trouble keeping up. The message was clear, though, Scott had pushed too hard, too fast, so he had to content himself with riding silently beside Johnny, fighting the sensation that these could be his last hours with his newfound brother. He couldn’t see Johnny’s face beneath his hat; he suspected Johnny had angled it that way on purpose. He could see the boy’s hands though, one fisted tightly around the reins –although careful not to pull on Diablo’s mouth- the other tapping out an erratic rhythm on his thigh. Scott knew Johnny was in considerable pain. His own body, especially his thigh, throbbed and spiked from traveling; he could only imagine how much worse Johnny’s cracked ribs felt. He anxiously tried to monitor Johnny’s breathing, but it was impossible to discern through the heavy leather jacket. When the shivering started, Scott pulled close enough to hand over the bottle he’d bought that morning.
“For the fever,” he said when Johnny just stared at him. After a moment, the boy took it, swallowed a mouthful with a grimace, and handed it back. “You need to drink.” Scott nodded at the canteen that was strapped to the saddle. “The whole thing. I’ve got mine, and there’s plenty of opportunities to stop for more.” The road they followed met up with the river intermittently. Scott immediately moved back to riding distance, not wanting to give Johnny the option of arguing.
As they rode into town now, Scott was amazed at the change that came over Johnny. He assumed an almost lounging confidence in the saddle, head erect, and eyes ahead as he scanned every window, doorway, boardwalk, and alley with his peripheral vision—Madrid in control and on calm alert.
Because of his close scrutiny, Scott caught the slightest stiffening of Johnny’s back and quickly scanned around them for whatever danger Johnny had spotted. At first, even the seasoned Army officer in him couldn’t detect it. But then, up ahead to the left… Murdoch had risen from the rocking chair where he’d been watchfully waiting on the boardwalk.
Scott was surprised at the surge of emotion he felt at seeing his father. Murdoch stepped down off the boardwalk as Scott nudged Rusty to a faster pace. Although neither was normally a demonstrative man, especially in public, Scott found himself off his horse and enveloped in Murdoch’s crushing embrace. Johnny silently looked away as he continued to survey the area for threats.
“Thank God, Scott.” Even upon breaking the embrace, Murdoch gripped Scott by the upper arms. “I’ve been so worried. Cipriano’s wire made it sound like you’d be here yesterday.”
Scott glanced up at Johnny, who was just now dismounting, easily and steadily.
“It took us a bit longer than expected to procure a second horse. We had to be careful of Diablo here riding double, so kept to a slower pace.”
Murdoch followed Scott’s eyes to Johnny and several emotions passed over his face.
“Johnny…” he breathed. His arms started to shift in the boy’s direction. Johnny took a half step back. Catching himself, Murdoch dropped his left arm and extended his right in an offer of a handshake. “Thank you, son.”
A tremor of chill or emotion at the appellation ran through Johnny for an instant before it was hidden away. He accepted Murdoch’s handshake briefly, then said, “I’ll take care of the horses.”
“No, Johnny, you’re…” Scott was caught up in Johnny’s glare. He realized that Johnny couldn’t afford for anyone to know about his injury, not even -or maybe especially- Murdoch. “I’ll go with you. Rusty deserves a personal rubdown and an extra measure of oats. Murdoch, did you set up an account with the livery? I’m afraid I’m a bit short on cash.” He gave a depreciative laugh.
“I’ll walk you over. I rented three stalls for three days, not exactly sure what our timeline would be, and have money on account for Cipriano and Pedro if they want to stay a few days on their way home. “Scott, you’re limping. Are you hurt?”
“Just a bruise. I’d have to say the same for you, sir. I feared Gonzalez had killed you with that shot. I am relieved to see my fear was unfounded but shocked to see you up and about and having traveled so far. Sam would have a fit.”
“It was just a graze. It’s sore if I sit too long, which I’ve been doing a lot these last few days.”
“Even a graze can be serious,” Scott cast a meaningful but surreptitious look at Johnny, who just scowled back.
“I’ve been checking in with Dr. Barnes here, so no need to worry. He’s a good man. I want you to let him check you over. You’re skinny enough to blow away in the wind.”
Scott was prepared to object but decided it would be the best way to get Johnny seen by a doctor.
Johnny led Diablo to the farthest end stall, so he’d only have one horse beside him. The black tended to be high-strung and irritable around strange horses. And damn, if it wasn’t Murdoch’s bay, Diablo’s recently-made friend, in the next stall.
In turn, Scott directed Rusty into the closest open stall, hoping to talk to Murdoch out of Johnny’s hearing. Murdoch seemed to understand the plan, maneuvering his large frame into the stall with them.
“Are you sure you’re okay? I can see even more cuts and bruises up close.” When Scott nodded, Murdoch continued, “I want to hear every detail once we get to our room, but how has Johnny been with you?”
Scott chose his response carefully.
“Skittish. He’s not planning to go back to Lancer with us.”
Murdoch’s shoulders dropped. “I’m not surprised.”
“I’m not giving up. But we are going to have to be very careful, or he’ll bolt.”
“We can talk more tonight. I was only able to get two rooms, a double for us, a single for Johnny. They struck a new vein of copper and people are flooding into town. I reserved them for a whole week, just to be safe.”
Scott swung the saddle up onto the nearest saddle beam, thinking. “Change it around so Johnny and I are together and you’re in the single. As much as I look forward to spending time with you, sir, the bigger need right now is for me to strengthen ties between me and Johnny.”
Murdoch nodded in agreement as he draped the saddle blanket over the stall wall. Anything to increase the chance of Johnny coming home.
“Did you tell him about the partnership?”
Scott’s gaze flicked up to his father’s face, then back down to the curry brush he was using on Rusty’s coat. He was surprised Murdoch had decided to make that offer to Johnny, having previously expressed his horror and disappointment in Johnny’s chosen profession. Maybe having to hire a gunfighter personally had softened his view.
“It wasn’t my place and, frankly, I think it might scare him away even more. The idea of being tied down is not the least bit appealing to him.” Scott weighed his next words carefully, choosing to share them in an even lower voice. “Johnny would kill me for telling you this, but he’s hurt. He took a bullet in the side that gouged a chunk of flesh out of him and cracked at least one rib. There wasn’t a doctor where we stayed last night, but he needs one. I want you to keep making a big deal out of me seeing the doctor, although honestly, I don’t need one and send him to our room after supper tonight so I can get him to take a look at Johnny.”
Scott watched Murdoch’s eyes go to Johnny and then return to his with a brief nod. Only increasing his volume to normal, Scott said, “First on our list is baths, beers, and a good meal. And I need clothes. Would you mind picking me up a couple of sets and having one sent over to the bathhouse?”
Murdoch got the message that he needed to get going to arrange the rooms and speak secretly to Dr. Barnes.
“Will do. Johnny, do you need anything at the mercantile?”
Johnny seemed a bit startled by the offer. “No, thanks.”
“I’ll order the baths and have a couple of beers sent over, along with your new clothes, Scott. Then we can meet at the inn for supper. Last night they had a wonderful steak pie. Both of you boys could use some meat on your bones.”
Scott grinned at the father-like comment. He couldn’t see Johnny’s face behind him but sincerely doubted it carried a smile.
“Ya sure do like your baths, Boston,” Johnny teased as they reclined in tubs separated by a too-holey-to-truly-be-private privacy curtain.
“Even more since I started working the ranch. And the name, I seem to recall telling you one or eight times before, is Scott.” Truthfully, Scott was beginning to enjoy the nickname, as it signaled the growing camaraderie between them.
“So do ya actually get some dirt under your nails there or just ink from doing the books?”
“Oh, plenty of dirt under my nails, little brother, and into my boots, down my neck, and even, somehow, into the crack of my ass.”
Johnny’s laugh was music to Scott’s ears, although it was cut off by a gasp, courtesy of Johnny’s unamused ribs.
“Do ya have one of them fancy porcelain tubs that don’t add splinters to the dirt in your ass crack?”
“We do now. It was just finished before I… before Ruiz’s goons grabbed me. I think I maybe only had five or six baths in it. Before that, it was a shared bathhouse with two very splintery tubs.”
“Any pretty ladies there to help you get your splinters out?”
“On a working ranch? Not likely, brother.”
“What about that foreman’s daughter… Teresa?”
“Strictly off-limits and way too young. Although, she’s nearly caught me in my all-together a few times, as she has a nasty habit of not knocking, or knocking but not waiting. She said the first time ‘oh, just think of me as your sister.’ And both Murdoch and Paul made it very clear I better think exactly that or I’ll be walking around without a head.”
“What about in town?”
“There are some lovely ladies in town.”
“The dating kind or the whorin’ kind?”
“What, don’t you know the difference?”
“I most certainly know the difference. I’m a little appalled that you do. And it’s not polite conversation.”
“But talking about your ass crack is? You have some strange rules there, Boston. I’d much rather talk about pretty ladies than…” A sucked-in breath of air, “than any of your body parts.”
“Are you all right over there?”
“Yep, just got some soap in my side.”
“It probably does need a good cleaning. Do you need some help?”
“Only if it’s from one of them pretty ladies.”
Scott chuckled, then concentrated on getting himself washed. He couldn’t help but wince, listening to the sounds of Johnny washing out the wound. He was surprised Johnny was willing to put himself through the extra pain, beyond just soaking the wound. Most grown men would lean to the side of comfort over infection. Scott had seen the terrible result of that in the war. Johnny had taken care of himself for a long time and, given his profession, sadly had likely cleaned out more than one bullet wound on his own.
“I’ll put some more of Mizz Martha’s Magical Medicine on after you get out.”
“Great,” Johnny snorted. “Something to look forward to.”
As Scott climbed out of the tub, he heard the distinctive sound of Johnny submerging himself – for an unnervingly long time- and then resurfacing with a pained grunt. It couldn’t have been ten seconds of hair-washing before Johnny re-submerged.
“There are two piles of clothes over here,” Scott announced as he dressed. “It looks like Murdoch bought you some too.”
“I told him I don’t need nothing.”
“Apparently, he didn’t listen. And I think you’ll like the shirts he got. They’re not pink, but they are embroidered.”
“My shirt is not pink!” Johnny grouched. “I don’t want nothing from him, except the pay he owes me.”
“Suit yourself, but here,” Scott reached around the curtain to set the clothes on the chair on Johnny’s side. “I figure at least the shirt would be a good idea. Otherwise, you’d have to put your dirty one back on or the pink one with the bullet furrow in it.”
Scott waited for the complaint about “pink”. Martha had sadly informed Johnny that while she’d washed his shirt, she was unhappy with her mending job. Closing the long, wide rent had left an uneven line of stitches along the side.
“Everything all right over there?” Scott asked the silence worriedly.
“Yeah, you can come put the nasty goop on whenever you’re ready.”
Scott finished buttoning his pants before opening the curtain. Johnny sat on the chair, wearing only cut-off longjohns, a combination of new and old clothes in his lap. The pink/red shirt was on top.
“Here, let me put these aside until you’re ready to get dressed so they don’t get anything on them.” Scott winced as he saw the raw-looking wound in his brother’s side. Glancing at the pile of dirty laundry, he spotted the bloody and gunk-covered linen bandage spiraled on top. “I bet that hurts even worse than it looks –which is pretty bad. We could sneak over to the Doc’s while Murdoch is busy at the hotel and get you fixed up and get some laudanum.”
“I don’t take laudanum,” Johnny said, his tone dull. “I’m fine. I just wish I had more bandages,” he sighed as his eyes drifted to his mended shirt. “I guess we’ll have to use this.”
Scott could see that the shirt had meaning for Johnny beyond it being his favorite. It clearly upset the boy to think about destroying it.
“Wait, I have an idea,” Scott went to Johnny’s pile of clean clothes and pulled out one of the two pairs of longjohns Murdoch had bought. “Do you have a knife in your saddlebags?”
“In my boot, but…” Johnny realized what Scott intended. “Those are brand new!”
“Aren’t you going to cut them off anyway to wear them?” Scott found the neatly hidden sheath in Johnny’s boot and promptly sawed off the first of the two legs.
“The old man will have a fit!”
“How is he going to know, Johnny? It’s not like you’re going to be running around in your underwear in front of him.” Scott cut off the other leg. “I think we can save that one for tomorrow. This one should be enough.” He expertly sliced down the seam and again down the other side, making two long strips which he knitted together. “There, What do you think?”
“Pretty good, Boston,” Johnny laughed.
“I do think you’ll find it can be pretty handy guy to have around,” Scott murmured with double meaning.
“You’d be a hell of a lot handier if you could make a non-stinging cream.”
“I’ll work on it.” Scott chuckled. “Hold your breath, here it comes.”
It was a painful process, but Johnny allowed little more reaction than hisses and muttered curses. When Scott was done, Johnny was pale and trembling. Scott handed him the rest of his beer with a look of sympathy.
“Rather have tequila…”
“Sorry. It won’t do to have you drunk on tequila at dinner with Murdoch. I think he was struggling with bringing us beers. He’s kind of a stickler with the whole alcohol for minors thing.”
“He was quick to offer me tequila the night he told me who he was.” Johnny gave a dark laugh. “Maybe he thought my aim wouldn’t be so good if he got me drunk.”
Scott got up to fetch his shirt. He shrugged into it and began to do the buttons. “That must’ve been a shock. You didn’t have any idea?”
“Certainly not in the saloon. My mama only said how big and how loud he was. The man who came into the saloon that night was hunched and unsteady. He looked torn up, broken down, and sad. Hell, Scott, I actually felt sorry for him.”
It touched Scott to know how worried Murdoch had been for him. As out of character as it was for Murdoch to show his emotions, it probably was what saved him with Johnny. If he tried to hire Johnny with his usual high handed, gruff manner, Madrid probably would’ve shot him.
“When I met him in his hotel room, he had cleaned up and seemed stronger. I thought he was relieved, believing I was going to help him. Whenever he told me…” Johnny stared off unseeingly across the room, shaking his head. “It took all my will not to shoot him.”
Scott looked down at Johnny, pausing in the act of tucking in his shirt. “Why didn’t you?” he asked softly.
“First, I don’t kill people in cold blood. Not even lying, arrogant, self-centered bastards.”
Johnny seemed lost in the memory of that night. Scott caught the myriad emotions flashing across the boy’s face – anger, suspicion, and hatred were predominant. But confusion and… yearning was also present.
“And second?” Scott prompted gently.
Johnny startled a bit, as if surprised not to find himself back in the hotel room. He breathed out tightly, not wanting to answer. But after a bit, he did.
“In the same breath that he told me who he was, he reminded me that the son who had been kidnapped would be my brother.” Johnny blinked slowly. “I … didn’t know I had a brother.”
Scott leaned a hip against the tub to take the weight off of his injured leg, careful to avoid a sizable wet spot. “I didn’t either until after I got out here. But at that point, Murdoch still believed you’d been killed.”
Or did he? Scott’s mind rebuked.
“I gained a brother and lost him in the same second. It was pretty devastating. I’d always wanted a little brother.”
“Mmm-hmm, I even asked Grandfather to buy me one for my birthday once.” Scott’s features twisted wryly. “The request was followed by a discreet discussion of the birds and the bees courtesy of my manservant, Niles.”
Johnny smiled. He picked at a loose thread from the frayed bottom of his cut-off‘s. “One place we lived, there was an older boy named Marcos. He was a street kid like me, only he had no parents, where I still had Mama. We had so much fun playing together and he even stood up for me against a bunch of snot-nosed gringo bullies. Although, he was an even worse fighter than I was. I took him to the place we lived for Mama to patch up and asked her if we could adopt him. She whacked my head so hard I saw stars. I vaguely remember her screaming that we didn’t have enough food as it was and something about another kid being the last thing she needed…” he shrugged, “but I never stopped wanting a big brother. Especially one who fought better than Marcos.”
Scott knelt down to start bandaging Johnny’s side. “I’ve held my own in a few brawls in my time.”
“Really? Ya don’t seem like the brawling type. I thought you easterners slapped each other with riding gloves and dueled at dawn at 20 paces.”
Scott chuckled. “I’ve never seen a duel nor slapped anyone with my riding gloves. I’ve been slapped a time or two but never by a man wanting to call me out.”
“Whadya do to get slapped? Did you get fresh with the maid?” Johnny asked, with a sparkle in his eyes.
Scott had to take a minute to answer. He’d lost his virginity with the upstairs maid when he was 17. Luckily, she’d been happy with the interlude and had not been the one to slap him. That was Julie, who caught him making out with someone else when she’d surprised him by coming home two weeks early from her European trip. He still regretted his abhorrent behavior and how much he’d hurt her. He didn’t really want to talk about it, yet somehow felt compelled to be honest with Johnny. “I was an idiot and hurt somebody I cared about. I deserved everything I got.” Clearing his throat, he changed subjects. “How’s that? Tight enough?”
“Oh yeah.” Johnny sounded like he was holding his breath against the pain. Scott gave his arm a sympathetic squeeze.
“Sit there and take it easy while I get our dirty clothes together and into the basket for pick up. Then we can get you dressed and make our way over to get supper.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Look, no one tells me when and what I can drink. If it’s going to be a problem with the old man, I’ll go to the cantina. I’d probably rather eat there anyway. I just need to get my pay first.”
“There won’t be a problem,” Scott promised, silently praying he could convince Murdoch of that.
Dinner was a quiet and decidedly uneasy affair. Although Murdoch was dying to know about Scott’s time with Ruiz and learn anything about Johnny, the focus was on the last two days, specifically on Scott’s acquisition of Rusty. Scott then steered the discussion toward Lancer, Murdoch following along gamely. They attempted to draw Johnny in, giving a verbal tour of the land, the reconstruction after Pardee’s assault, Maria and Teresa‘s cooking -anything they thought could pique Johnny‘s interest. Scott pulled out his ace in the hole.
“And you should see the wild horses in South Mesa, Johnny, dozens upon dozens of them; reds, buckskins, bays, grullos, and blacks, like a dusky sunset. There’s one palomino stallion that would take your breath away.”
Johnny raised his head. “A palomino?”
“We’ve tried to catch him a few times,” Murdoch added carefully, “He’s got quite a temper on him. Definitely doesn’t plan on becoming a cow pony,” he chuckled.
“Is that what you do with him, if you caught him, geld him into a cow pony?” It was only the second time Johnny had spoken -the other time, to jibe Scott about adding a bathtub to a line shack that needed to be rebuilt- and the tone was derisive.
“We don’t have much use for horses that can’t be trained to work,” Murdoch espoused, but seeing the warning look in Scott’s eyes, added, “He’d make beautiful breeding stock. The army is always looking for horses, but again, the horses have to be trainable to work. It’s rare a stallion can be controlled enough to work.”
“Diablo is a stallion. He can work most cow ponies into the ground.”
Scott heard the challenge in Johnny‘s words and jumped right in. “He’s a magnificent animal. Where’d you get him?”
“Won him in a bet,” Johnny answered around a mouthful of chicken.
“This I have to hear. What kind of bet?”
“Trader came to a place I worked with a string of horses, most of them nags, a couple rideable, then there was Diablo, who was plum wild. The trader bought all the unsold auction horses as a lot, then tried to pawn them off to the smaller ranches that couldn’t get to the auction and were desperate for any kind of animal. At the auction, a few people had tried to ride Diablo. I guess it was quite the show. The trader thought he could sell him to the Apaches, who like spirited horses. By the time he came to us, he was ready just to shoot Diablo, he’d been so much trouble. The rancher there, Dan Mattson, was a real nice guy. It was just him, his wife, Beth, and their two nephews, Will and Randy, and one hand, Mark. The trader heard that both Mark and the Mattson’s only horse had broken legs, so he came out to try to sell Dan a replacement horse. Problem was, it had been a rough year, and Dan couldn’t afford even one of the nags. So, I bet the trader I could ride Diablo by the end of the day. If I could, he’d sell a buckskin that was otherwise the best of the lot to Dan for five bucks and I’d keep Diablo. If not, I’d go with him to handle Diablo until he could be sold to the Apaches.” Johnny swallowed and shrugged. “I won.”
Scott leaned back in his chair with a low whistle. “I would have loved to see that! How many times did you end up in the dirt?”
“Twice. Funny thing, though, second time it knocked my wind out. I kinda dragged myself over to the fence, but couldn’t get up more than to one elbow. Diablo comes over, stands about 6 feet away, and just snorts at me, as if to say, ‘Is that all you got? Get your ass up and try again!’” Johnny chuckled. “He could’ve stomped me to buzzard meat. Instead, he just stood there, waiting for me to get back up again. Been the best horse and best friend I ever had since.”
“Where do you learn to break horses?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny cast a half glance at him. “I was laid up for a while at a place that brought in a mustañero, a horse whisperer,” he added for Scott‘s benefit. “He was something to watch. Even though I couldn’t even get on a horse while he was there, he told me I had the spirit of a mustañero. He was mad when I laughed. He said ‘Mira y siente el espiritu.’ Watch and feel the spirit. I listened and I learned.”
He pushed his plate away and took a few sips of the milk he surprised them by asking for instead of beer, or as Scott had feared, tequila. Scott realized Johnny had moved his food around more than eaten it. He could see the fever that the bath and tonic had cooled was now back, glazing Johnny‘s eyes.
“We could certainly use a horse whisperer at Lancer couldn’t we, Murdoch? After Kirk left, we don’t really have anyone who can break those horses for us.”
“We’ve got plenty of good working horses now and Frank is a passable bronco-buster. We have to focus on rebuilding the herd and getting those fences fixed so we can move them to fall grazing…” Murdoch totally missed the hint Scott had laid out, trying to entice Johnny to come to Lancer. He did see the look-to-kill glare from his older son, and added, “but, uh, you could try your luck at the palomino… if you can catch him.”
Johnny didn’t answer, slowly turning his glass in a circle on the table, his expression unreadable. With either perfect or terrible timing, Dr. Barnes approached their table and was introduced to the two younger men.
“Scott, your father asked me to take a look at you. I understand you’ve had a rough few weeks.”
“I’m really fine, sir. Thank you for the concern.” Scott needed to display some reluctance to be believable.
“It’s not negotiable, Scott,” Murdoch intoned, without a bit of feigned intensity. “You have that leg injury and clearly were not treated well. You need to let Dr. Barnes check you over upstairs. Don’t you agree, Johnny?”
Johnny put both hands up. “Don’t get me in the middle.”
“The cut on your forehead is festering,” Barnes observed. “I’ll need to clean it with carbolic.”
Scott grimaced. This whole ploy was getting out of hand. He began to wonder if Johnny wasn’t the only one Murdoch was wrangling in.
Dr. Barnes turned to Johnny. “Would you be so kind as to help Scott get up the stairs? I don’t want him putting weight on that leg until I can check it out.”
Johnny was a little surprised but quickly agreed. Scott imagined that Johnny was wondering how to get himself up the stairs, never mind help him.
They pretty much helped each other.
“Thanks for backing me up down there,“ Scott groused. “You know I don’t need a doctor.”
“I don’t get in the middle of family stuff.” Johnny poured some water into a basin and brought it and towels over by Scott‘s bed, obviously familiar with what the doctor would want. “Besides, I seen that chunk taken out of your ankle, and it ain’t any prettier than the gash on your head.”
Touched by the concern, Scott watched Johnny let Dr. Barnes in.
“I’ll leave you two be.” Johnny made to leave.
“Actually, Johnny, I’d appreciate a hand, holding Scott’s head still. Carbolic acid burns, so it’s natural to want to pull away, but I have to be very careful near his eyes. Carbolic, even a little, can blind.”
Both Johnny‘s and Scott’s eyes widened.
“I’ll check that leg first. Drop your pants and drawers.”
Johnny laughed at Scott’s embarrassed reaction to the order.
“Don’t worry, Boston, I’ll turn my back. If you wore cut-off‘s like me, you could at least keep your drawers on.”
Barnes was thorough but quick. Only the leg, ankle, and head injuries merited concern, and of course, Scott’s weight loss. He cleaned the ankle injury first, so Scott could re-dress to allow Johnny to come over to help with the head injury. Scott was not looking forward to it, given the way his ankle still burned with fire. He hoped he’d be able to keep his wits about him enough to figure out how to get Johnny checked over, short of tying him to a bed, which Scott doubted he could manage, shaking as he now was from the sting of the carbolic acid.
“Hold his head like this.” Barnes repositioned Johnny‘s hands a little, frowned, and paused. “How old is this injury?”
“I’m not sure, four or five days. Time got a little blurry there.“
“I’m sure it did,” Barnes said with compassion as he proceeded to clean the cut with plain water. “Hmm, it’s not as bad as it looked in the lighting downstairs. I’d rather not use carbolic here if I don’t have to.” Scott practically sagged with relief.
“What about Mizz Martha’s Magical Medicine?”
Scott groaned, realizing he was in for some retribution. He swore Johnny was grinning as he pulled the jar of cream out of Scott’s saddlebags, passing it over for Dr. Barnes‘ inspection. Barnes sniffed it.
“Comfrey, camphor, mustard… Yes, I think this would be a fine alternative.”
There was no doubting Johnny’s grin as Barnes applied the stinging salve to the gash. He did, however, fan Scott with his hat to ease the burn.
Barnes washed his hands. “You need to stay off that leg, Scott. No walking or riding for at least three days. It’s a bad bone bruise and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a hairline crack. With you being malnourished, a fall or wrong step could snap the bone. You’d be looking at months of recovery if that happens.”
“I’ve been walking and riding with it and it’s been fine.”
“Only because you’ve been lucky. Bedrest except for a once a day trip to the privy for… the important visit. Otherwise, chamber pot.”
Scott opened mouth shock made Johnny snicker. Scott’s eyebrows drew together. “Your turn, brother.”
Now Johnny recoiled. “My turn? I don’t need a turn…”
“Why don’t you tell Dr. Barnes why we have Mizz Martha’s Magical Medicine in the first place?“ Johnny shot Scott a glare that Scott felt down to his toes.
Dr. Barnes deftly deposited Johnny on the side of the other bed. “I could feel your fever when I touched your hands earlier, Johnny. Don’t be mad at your brother. I was planning to check you over before he even said anything.“ Even as Johnny protested, Barnes was feeling his forehead and checking the lymph nodes in his neck. “How long have you had the fever? Does your throat hurt? Open up.”
Johnny glared at Scott for a full ten seconds before grunting, “Ain’t my throat.“
“Undo your shirt, please, so I can listen to your heart and lungs. Why don’t you save me some time and tell me what the fever is from?”
Barnes waited expectantly, stethoscope warming in his hands.
“He has a bullet wound in his right side. It looks to have cracked a couple of ribs.” Scott supplied when Johnny just sat there.
“I don’t need a doctor.”
“I’m the best judge of that,” Barnes said with a gentle smile. “Let me help.” He started undoing Johnny‘s buttons while the boy was busy envisioning strangling his brother. “Interesting bandage. When was it last changed?”
A faint line of discharge grew wider, longer, and darker with each layer Barnes unraveled.
“Not even two hours ago and I already had the cream on there, so I don’t need any more,” Johnny announced.
“Understood.” The doctor said agreeably. “How old is this injury?”
“Let me listen to your chest for a minute. Deep breath.” Which Johnny couldn’t do without a gasp of pain. “Try again. If you breathe in slowly, it may not hurt as much.” Barnes listened through a couple more breaths. “Breathe normally now while I listen to your heart. Good, good. I’m going to feel around your ribs. I’m sorry, but it will hurt a bit.”
He did and it did.
“It looks like the “magic medicine” is doing a good job of drawing out the infection. Most of it’s on the bandage instead of festering in the wound, so that’s good news. The fever is worrisome, especially in the face of two cracked ribs. It’s impossible to tell if the fever is from your side or a developing pneumonia. Have you been coughing at all?”
“Your breath sounds are a little decreased at the bottom, meaning that you aren’t filling your lungs fully with each breath. It could be normal, a reaction to how much it hurts to breathe deeply, or the sign of coming trouble. I’m going to wrap your ribs back up tighter than you’re probably going to like. I need to stabilize them to keep them from puncturing a lung and to help you take deeper breaths and cough.”
“You want me to cough? I thought coughing was bad.”
“Coughing caused by fluid filling your lungs signals a problem. But taking deep breaths and coughing every hour or so helps to keep your lungs clear. Can you promise to do that for me, Johnny?”
“Good. Now, absolutely no riding for at least a week…”
“A week! No can-do Doc, I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Scott’s heart sank at Johnny‘s declaration. He swallowed his dismay and quipped. “Hey, little brother, if I have to stay in bed for a few days, you need to keep me company.”
“Johnny doesn’t need to stay in bed,” Barnes clarified, bringing a smirk to Johnny‘s face and a scowl to Scott’s. “In fact, being up moving around carefully is good for expanding your lungs, so you can be the one to get food and drinks for Scott…”
“… and empty my chamber pot,” Scott teased.
“No way, Boston, not me.”
“You could indeed keep each other company. And I expect each of you to keep your brother in line. Johnny, I have a fever tonic to leave for you.”
“We have one of those too.” Johnny fished the tonic out of Scott’s bag. Barnes sniffed it and frowned. “I’m not sure about this one, because I can’t tell what’s in it. When did you take it last?”
“About two hours ago.”
“Hmm, let’s try alternating them every two hours to see if one works better than the other. I’ll be back in the morning. Scott, if Johnny’s fever gets too high overnight, or the wound looks worse or starts bleeding again, send somebody for me.
“Johnny, if Scott’s leg swells or the pain worsens, you do the same.” When Johnny gave a brief nod, Barnes continued, “I’m serious about these restrictions, boys. I get the impression that neither of you, left to your own devices, would follow them. Yet, the consequences of not doing so could be dire. As brothers, I expect you to truly look out for each other.” The doctor stood. “I’ll let your father know as well so he can help.”
“You ain’t telling Lancer nothing about me,” Johnny interjected. “It’s none of his business.“
While Barnes knew that there was some trickery involved to ensure both boys were checked out, he didn’t know Murdoch and Johnny’s situation. “You’re a minor, Johnny, your father has…”
“He’s not my father!” Johnny was up off the bed, glaring at Barnes. “He’s my employer and only that until I get my money.”
“Johnny, wait…” Scott was out of bed like a shot as Johnny tried to brush past Barnes. The sudden movement, along with accidentally putting weight on his injured leg, made Scott groan and stumble. In an instant, both Johnny and Barnes were at his side.
“Get back in bed!” Nearly identical commands came out of both men’s mouths simultaneously.
Sweating and pale, Scott allowed himself to be settled back in bed. But he didn’t release his hold on Johnny‘s arm. “Don’t leave, please.”
Johnny‘s expression was tormented. “Scott, I can’t…”
Scott turned to Barnes. “Johnny is right that Murdoch doesn’t need to know about his injury. They’re estranged. I’ll take responsibility for making sure Johnny follows the restrictions.”
“You have already shown you can’t follow them yourself!”
“I’ll watch him. He’ll watch me. Please. This is a difficult time for our family and we need a little leeway.”
Barnes looked back-and-forth between the brothers. “Very well. But on the condition that Johnny’s condition doesn’t worsen and that you both follow the restrictions.”
“We will,” Scott promised for both of them. After Barnes left, Johnny wordlessly helped prop Scott up in bed with the pillows from his own bed. He gave Scott a glass of water.
“Take that new fever tonic.” Scott could feel the heat radiating off of Johnny’s hand.
Instead, Johnny crossed the room to look out the window. “I ain’t staying, Boston.”
“Johnny, please, you heard what the doctor said about the risk of riding with cracked ribs.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“Where are you in a hurry to go? Stay here, rest, get some decent food. Cipriano and Pedro will be here in a couple of days. You can talk to them about your mother and what happened.”
Johnny turned to glare at Scott. “I don’t need to hear the old man’s hired hands making excuses for him.”
“They are your mother’s family. Don’t you want to get to know them? I’ve only known them for a year, but they’re both good men. Cipriano helped Murdoch look for you before Murdoch hired the Pinkertons. He’s who I went to when I found out you were still alive, to help me know where to start looking.”
Scott could see a physical ache pass through Johnny. That Scott, who didn’t even know him, had thought about trying to find him. Johnny crossed to sit on the side of his bed, his shoulders slumped in exhaustion.
“What did Cipriano say?”
“If I waited until after the fall drive, he’d go with me to find you. For some strange reason, he didn’t think I’d do too well in the border towns as a non-Spanish-speaking gringo with blond hair.” That got the faintest smile from his brother. “Please stay, Johnny. I need you.”
“The old man can move in here and empty your chamber pot,” Johnny jibed, but to Scott, he just sounded sad.
“That’s not why I need you, brother,” Scott responded softly.
Johnny’s eyes drifted back to the window. He didn’t say anything for a long time. Then he pushed himself to his feet. “I have to go get my money from your father.”
“Johnny, I’m begging you, don’t leave. I don’t blame you for being angry at Murdoch. I’m furious at him and I don’t have a fraction of the reasons you do. But you have family now who care about you, a place to live, and a chance to stop running.”
“I ain’t running.”
“Aren’t you?” Scott’s fear made his anger rise. “Do you love gunfighting so much that it’s pulling you? I don’t think so. I think it’s been your lifeline for so long you don’t know how to let go. I don’t blame you for being afraid.” That got Scott a glare right from hell. “I was afraid of what I’d find coming out here. And I won’t pretend it’s been easy, or that Murdoch and I don’t have a long way to go still to build a trusting relationship. Several times I almost gave up and left. But underneath everything, Murdoch is a decent man. I’ve come to respect him and despite his stubbornness, single-minded focus on the ranch, and the mistakes he’s made with both of us, I’ve started to care about him. When I found out you were alive, Johnny, all I could think about was how to find you and bring you home. Little did I know that you would have to be the one to find me, but it’s still my job to bring you home.”
Johnny just shook his head, staring at his hands.
“Look,” Scott turned a bit to face Johnny straight on. “We don’t have to plan that far ahead. Just promise me you’ll stay here for a few days. Keep me company, wait for Cipriano and Pedro to get here. What can it cost you?”
Johnny blinked slowly as he got to his feet.
“More than you could know, Boston,” he said softly as he left.
Murdoch and Dr. Barnes were sharing a drink in the inn as Johnny passed through on his way to the livery. He didn’t acknowledge them, ignoring Murdoch as he called out an offer for him to join them.
Part of him wanted to just jump on Diablo and ride away from here, away from him. It would be crazy to do with no money and feeling as lousy as he did. Besides, he didn’t want to leave Scott.
And that scared the hell out of him. Over the years, there had been a handful of people he’d cared for, who had been hard to say goodbye to when his time to leave came. But none of them had been his brother.
Johnny’s side did not want him to brush Diablo, but the turmoil in his mind needed it. He frowned as he felt some heat in Diablo’s right foreleg. “Is this hurting you, compadre?” Diablo reacted with a little tremor of assent. “I’m sorry. We really pushed you too hard riding double. Let me get a wrap on it.” He got salve from the livery owner, George, and made up a dry wrap. He treated Diablo to an apple and returned to brushing him. “I guess I’m not the only one who’s not up to riding out just yet.”
A little part of him was relieved to have an excuse to spend more time with Scott. But then what? he mused.
Can’t have it both ways, Madrid. Can’t have Scott without the old man.
And can’t be Madrid with either of them.
What would he do if he stopped being a gunfighter? Punch cows? He hated that work. Go back to Mexico to work the horses on Ruiz’s/now the community’s estancia? That was slightly more appealing but wouldn’t allow him to get to know Scott at all unless Scott came, too. But Scott was already part owner of a ranch, and besides, he might never want to set foot again on the land where he had been held prisoner for almost 3 weeks.
Was there really a possibility that he could just stop being a gunfighter? It wasn’t like he could just put out a notice that he was retired -at the ripe old age of 17. His reputation was a very valuable commodity, one coveted by virtually every gunfighter out there. It was crazy to think he could just walk away.
A soft noise at the livery door had him dropping his right hand to his holster in a smooth but lightning fast move. He always brushed Diablo left-handed to keep his gun-hand free. His stance didn’t shift, even as he recognized the entrant.
Murdoch Lancer bore almost no resemblance to the man Johnny had met in the saloon in Canton Falls. He now held himself to his full 6‘5“ height with an erect and strong bearing. Even though his stride was marred by a right-sided limp, his demeanor and presence made him an imposing figure. His gaze held Johnny’s as solidly as it had that first night.
“Did Scott send you to make sure I ain’t riding out on him?” Johnny grunted, appearing to return his focus to brushing Diablo.
“I think he mentioned it a time or ten when I checked on him,” Murdoch replied casually as he picked up a curry brush and tended to Toby, who was in the next stall, the two men facing each other with the two horses in between.
Johnny hated the way Lancer’s steely eyes assessed him. He sensed the man could see beyond the Madrid mask to the confusion and pain that lay beneath. It surely didn’t help that Johnny’s legs were shaking from the strain of holding his feverish and pain-wracked body upright. He shifted subtly to lean against the stall wall.
“Was he following the Doc’s orders to stay in bed?”
“Barely. He was halfway out when I got upstairs. I could only settle him back by promising him I’d come to check on you.”
“You’ve done what you promised. Better go back and sit on him.”
“Dr. Barnes told me he assigned you that job, for which I am grateful. Scott isn’t inclined to listen to me, and in his condition, me sitting on him would probably do more harm than good. He actually asked me to make up an excuse to delay paying you so you’d stay. I told him that wouldn’t be the safest choice.” Was that humor glinting in the old man’s eyes? “I have your money, although following your advice, it’s mostly in the bank, which is closed for the day.”
“I told you I didn’t do it for the money.”
“I remember. I’m eternally grateful you chose to do this for your brother. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to pay you. If you want to pass it on to the other people who were harmed by Ruiz, it’s certainly up to you. Just let me know how and when you want it.” Murdoch smoothed an area of Toby’s coat that he had just brushed. “I do, however, have another piece of business I’d like to discuss with you.”
Johnny raised a cynical brow. “Got another kid who needs rescuing?”
Murdoch took so long to respond, Johnny thought he might say ‘yes.’
“No,” Murdoch answered in a low voice. “I’ve got both my boys together for the first time ever. I’d like to talk about how we could bring you both back to Lancer.”
“Ain’t happening, old man,” Johnny set the brush back on the shelf and headed for the door, relieved that the sudden burst of anger gave strength to his buckling knees.
“Even for a third ownership of Lancer? It’s the same offer I made to Scott, which he accepted. It’s beautiful land and your birthright.”
The offer stopped Johnny, where he stood.
A third ownership of Lancer?
He turned slowly to look at Murdoch, keeping his casual Madrid mask in place. “What’s the catch?”
Murdoch turned, too, setting his brush back on the shelf. “You live there and work the ranch with your brother. We’d all be equal owners but I call the tune and have final decision-making.”
Johnny leaned against the wall; his arms folded. A casually cynical gesture, but one Johnny needed to keep him upright. Damn, his side was hurting, and the chills…
“I can’t imagine a Patron that I’d be less interested in taking orders from than the man who threw me and Mama to the wolves 15 years ago.”
“I didn’t throw you out. It doesn’t mean I’m blameless in why your mother left. But I would have done anything to stop her. Or failing that, to have kept her from taking you.”
Even as Johnny‘s mind rejected the words, there was something in Murdoch’s eyes and in the tone of his voice that resurfaced the nagging doubt about whether his mother had lied. As quickly as he felt it, he shoved it away. “Easy to say now, when she’s dead and can’t defend herself. Don’t matter anyway. You made your opinion of your gunfighter son quite clear when you made no effort to contact me when you found out I was still alive, and you didn’t even bother to tell Scott that I was.”
“I explained. Pardee was after Lancer…”
“Which would’ve been the perfect reason to reach out, to give me a chance to help fight for my birthright, as you call it. But I guess the idea of bringing home a gunfighter was so despicable to you, you couldn’t bear it. Were you afraid it would send the one son you finally did have home running for the hills?”
Murdoch looked down at the ground and then back up again. He exhaled loudly and set his broad shoulders. “Honestly, yes. I did think it might be more than he could handle, more than any of us could handle. For all I knew you could’ve been riding with Pardee. I didn’t know anything about you, except the stories from Cipriano.”
“So even you didn’t believe this trusted ranch hand who you’ve known for more than 25 years, yet you think I’m going to believe him just because we‘re supposedly related?” Johnny snorted.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t believe Cipriano. It’s that there were holes in the timeline. And you and Pardee both were involved in the range wars in Abilene.”
“On opposite sides…”
“I didn’t know that. There were stories of what the pistoleros did to the farmers, and their wives and children…” Murdoch’s features were sunwashed stone.
Johnny’s became as stormy as the ocean. “Pardee and Tate, and only them. Even the pistoleros on the other side didn’t tolerate it and sent them packing. I would never hurt a woman or a child!”
“I know that now, son. I am…”
“Don’t call me that!” Johnny raged, the little remaining color draining from his face. “I’m not your son! You gave me up 15 years ago!”
“I didn’t, Johnny, I swear! I never stop looking for you, praying for you, hoping to find a way to bring you home.”
“Well, you can stop doing all that now, old man. You got the son you wanted, don’t need the one you didn’t.”
Scott was devastated to hear that the conversation between Murdoch and Johnny hadn’t gone well. It wasn’t surprising, yet he’d held out hope that his descriptions of Lancer, and the opportunity to get to know his brother might be enough of a lure to at least convince Johnny to see it. The only bit of good news -although Scott felt horribly guilty for feeling that- was that Diablo had a swollen fetlock that would preclude riding for a few days at least. Scott knew Johnny wouldn’t risk harm to Diablo and certainly wouldn’t leave without him.
Scott shooed Murdoch out of the room, knowing Johnny wouldn’t come back if Murdoch was there. Still, it was well after dark before Johnny returned.
“Good, you’re still awake. I brought you a present.” Johnny held out one-each of the two bottles and two glasses he carried.
“Thanks.” Scott set down the book Murdoch had bought for him on the side table, scanning Johnny as he accepted the gifts. The boy’s eyes were bright and glassy, possibly from the fever Scott could feel as their fingers briefly touched, possibly related to the 1/3 empty tequila bottle Johnny still held. Scott checked out the label of the whiskey and raised an appreciative brow. “Nice choice, thanks.”
“Don’t thank me.” Johnny eased himself down onto his bed with a wince. “The old man is running a tab. I asked them for their best whiskey and best tequila.” Johnny poured himself a liberal glass and carefully moved back until he could lean his back against the wall.
Scott laughed. “Thanks for thinking of me, at least. How’s Diablo? I heard he’s got a sore leg?”
Johnny frowned into his drink. “It doesn’t look too bad. I got it wrapped good and I’ll do another poultice in the morning. It bothers me that I didn’t notice it earlier. It could have done permanent damage.”
“I doubt Diablo would’ve let it get that far.”
“Another horse, maybe not.” Johnny took a drink. “But Diablo is too good to me. He’d do anything I asked him to even if it killed him.”
“As his owner would do for him.” Scott acknowledged. “Did you take a peek at Rusty?”
“He’s good. A real nice horse you got there. I can’t believe you got him so cheap. You must’ve made a good impression on the Widow Ellis.”
“I always do,” Scott smirked.
That got an appreciative chuckle from Johnny. They drank in companionable silence for a while.
“Did the old man tell you he offered me a third of Lancer?”
Scott tried to read his brother’s face in the dim lighting, but it was inscrutable. “He did. I hope you will change your mind and at least come see the ranch. We could spend some time at one of the line shacks, recuperating, hunting, fishing.”
When Johnny didn’t immediately say no, Scott launched into a soliloquy about this envisioned brother time which would, of course, include a trip to South Mesa to see, and maybe round up, the wild horses there.
Johnny didn’t respond. Scott noticed he’d finished his drink and steadily poured another before settling back. It was a lot of alcohol for a man, even of Murdoch’s size. Scott didn’t want to alienate Johnny by commenting on it and realized he had no idea how much Johnny was used to drinking. “How is your side feeling?”
“Fine, how’s the leg?”
“Fine.” Scott grinned at his brother over the identical responses. “You must be wiped out. I can see you still have a fever. You never took Doc’s fever tonic.”
“I run fevers easy,” Johnny shrugged. “Don’t mean nothing.” He tipped his glass back-and-forth, catching the lamp light in the liquid inside. “I heard you were the one who took out Pardee, that you were some kind of marksman with your rifle in the army.”
“I did. I was.” Scott acknowledged without elaborating.
“One thing we have in common, different weapons, but we’re both good shots.”
Johnny laughed. “Good to find one thing.”
“I’m sure there are others. Let’s see. We both ride damn well.”
“Yep, there’s that. We’re both willing to fight for what we believe in.”
“Definitely.” Scott tapped his lip thoughtfully. “We both think our brother is pretty great.”
Johnny scowled. “I don’t remember saying anything about that. I mean, you really weren’t at your best when we first met, and you’re in kind of rough shape now too.”
“Hey, you’re in worse shape than I am!”
“I’m not the one sentenced to bedrest and the chamber pot.”
“I still think you got to Doc first and bribed him. You’re the one who got shot and who has the fever. How am I the one on bedrest?”
“Just lucky, I guess.” Johnny winced as his side hitched, then leaned over to grab a pillow to stick behind his back.
“Let’s see, what else?” Scott dared to prompt, “We both grew up without our father.…”
“At least he tried to get you back,” Johnny muttered.
“You don’t believe that he sent the Pinkertons to look for you? They keep records. You could make him prove it.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Johnny downed a good bit of his drink.
“I think it does,” Scott countered gently. “I know it made a huge difference to me that he tried.”
Johnny rested his glass on his stomach. “It was before he found out I was a gunfighter. Once he got that bit of news… The only reason he reached out now was because he needed my gun.”
“If that were true, he wouldn’t have offered you a third of Lancer. He knows he’s made some big mistakes, Johnny, but he wants to do better. He wants us to become a family. I want us to become a family. Please give us a chance.” Scott knew he was begging, but he didn’t care. He didn’t want to lose his brother.
“Scott, it ain’t easy like that. I can’t just hang up my rig and say ‘I ain’t gonna be Johnny Madrid no more.’ There are always going to be other gunfighters looking to take me down, to get my reputation. Innocent people can get killed that way. How would you feel if it was Murdoch or that girl Theresa? I know I don’t want it to be you.”
“But don’t a lot of people still think you’re dead? If you lay low at Lancer…”
Johnny sighed and rubbed his eyes with his free hand. “Ruiz was a big name, not just in Mexico but all across the southern states. You don’t think the people we let have his place are telling everyone they can about how Johnny Madrid took the monster down? Those people down there, Boston, they have nothing, no land, no food, no hope. The smallest thing you do for them, it’s like a miracle. And they proclaim it to the mountains, promising to lay down their lives in gratitude. You said Cipriano told you stories about me being some kind of hero. Yet nothing I did before came close to giving those people back their freedom, their livelihoods, their pride. I have no hope of hiding from that.”
“Because you risked your life to save me,” Scott acknowledged morosely. The future he wanted for his brother, his family, was now impossible because of him.
“Don’t go blaming yourself, Boston. You didn’t ask to get caught up in the middle of Ruiz’s evil. In my line of work you make a lot of enemies.”
Scott gulped the rest of his drink. “Lancer is a big place and pretty far west. The towns around are small. Green River is the biggest and they’ve got a good sheriff. He doesn’t abide strangers coming around to cause trouble.”
“Is that supposed to convince me to come, or to warn me he won’t let me in town?”
“No, no. Val is a good guy. Tough. He doesn’t take bullshit, but he’s not judgmental. He tells strangers at the outset what it’s about. If they don’t cause trouble, he lets them be. When he needs to, he’s good with a gun.”
“Val? What’s his last name?”
“Crawford. Why, do you know him? Have you had trouble with him before he came to Green River?”
Johnny grinned, even as he choked on the sip of tequila he’d taken. “I think the sheriff would say… he’s had trouble with me.”
Scott’s heart sank. Now Johnny would surely not come. Val seemed like such a reasonable and fair man. If he and Johnny were at odds…
The coughing fit wiped the smile off of Johnny’s face and replaced it with one of pain. Scott got out of bed.
“I’m okay,” Johnny gasped, making a shooing motion with his hand. “Get back in bed.”
“Doc said I could be up once a day. This is my once.” He took the glass of tequila from Johnny‘s grasp. “Good God, boy, you are burning up!”
“Doc said you could get up to take a shit!” Johnny argued but seemed to find that funny. The chuckle that slid out about ripped his side open and he groaned.
“I think taking care of a little shit brother who can’t take care of himself counts,” Scott snorted, bending to pull off Johnny‘s boots.
“I’ll ask him tomorrow.” Johnny allowed himself to fall over slightly so he was almost lying down. The combination of fever, tequila, and exhaustion was hitting him hard. Scott pulled out the pillow that was jammed in behind him and gingerly put it under Johnny‘s head.
“Undo your gun belt.”
Johnny obeyed with a grunt of effort.
“Right here.” Johnny patted the bedpost. “Need to have it close.”
“With how much you’ve had to drink, I’m likely to end up with a bullet in me by morning.”
“Nope. I’d shoot the old man first.”
Scott pressed his lips together as he lifted Johnny’s legs onto the bed. “Don’t be shooting anyone, all right? You need to get some sleep.” He unbuttoned Johnny’s shirt to take a look at the bandage, grimacing as he saw that recent drainage had left an uneven pink-yellow circle. He opened up the fever tonic the doctor had left. “Take a drink, Johnny. I sure hope this is okay to have with alcohol.”
Johnny pulled a face. “Tastes bad. I need a tequila chaser.”
“You’ve had quite enough tequila tonight, little brother. You better hope it doesn’t make you sick with those ribs.”
Johnny curled onto his side. “I don’t feel so good.”
“Great, I should’ve kept my big mouth shut.” Scott pulled the chamber pot out from under the bed. “The pot is here if you need it. I’m going to try to cool your fever down. It might help your stomach, too.”
Johnny rocked slowly, humming in pain. Scott proceeded to wipe Johnny down with a cool cloth. He wondered if he should have Murdoch go for the doctor, between the fever and the drainage. Honestly, he didn’t want to leave Johnny, nor deal with the boy’s anger if Murdoch was told about his injury. Scott chose an arbitrary spot on the bandage, deciding he would get the doctor if the drainage reached it.
“Are you still with me, Johnny?”
“Is your stomach any better?”
“My stomach is fine. It’s every other part of me that hurts.”
“Oh, I thought you meant your stomach was upset.” Scott was relieved about that part, yet knew Johnny had to be pretty miserable to complain, given how stoic he’d been so far.
“Nope. Can I get another blanket?”
Johnny didn’t have one to start with, as he was lying on it. Scott pulled his off his bed and tucked it close around the shivering youth. “How’s that?”
“Good, thanks.” Johnny was quiet for a bit, then frowned. “Did you say Val was here?”
“Not here. Back in Green River near Lancer.” With a dose of guilt, Scott reluctantly decided to use Johnny‘s uncharacteristic unguardedness to learn a little more about what the problem was between the two. If he could somehow fix things with Val, it might encourage Johnny to give Lancer a try. “What will happen when Val sees you?”
“… he’ll probably… wanna whoop my ass…”
Scott leaned back a little at the unusually worded response. “In a gunfight?” He couldn’t imagine Val calling anybody out, never mind a 17-year-old kid. Scott knew Val had hired out his gun before becoming sheriff, but that just didn’t fit with what Scott knew about the man.
“Nah, but he’s going to be pissed when he finds out I’m still doing this.”
A ray of hope started to filter through Scott’s despondency. “You and Val used to ride together?”
Johnny huddled deeper under the blanket, his eyes still closed. “He was a good Papi…”
Scott’s eyes sprung wide. “Val was your Papi? How old were you?”
“Five. He and Mama… they was good together. She shouldn’ta left him.”
“So, you didn’t ride together…” It seemed Johnny’s delirium was deepening. Scott wrung out the cloth again.
“Yeah, we did. After I found him again. For two years.” Johnny made a weak attempt to bat Scott’s hand away. “But he didn’t wanna do it no more. Said he was getting slow. He was so mad I wouldn’t go with him.”
“He wanted you to be safe?” Scott proposed gently.
“I still had to find Diego. Val thought Carmona should’ve been enough. But he wasn’t there. He didn’t see what they both did to Mama before Carmona killed her. I couldn’t tell him. Val loved Mama.”
Scott’s stomach twisted as he came to understand the horror his little brother had witnessed. The pain was heavy in Johnny‘s voice, which suddenly sounded incredibly young.
“I didn’t protect her, but I damn sure was going to avenge her.”
“You were only a child, Johnny. It wasn’t your job to protect your mother. How old were you?”
“Ten. But I was all she had. I always took care of her, except that night. She was trying to protect me when Diego was holding me down and trying… Carmona grabbed her and threw her against the stove and she hit her head. I got his gun and shot him, but Diego ran.”
Scott switched to rubbing Johnny‘s back in comfort.
“Did you find Diego?”
“Last year… wasn’t even worth becoming a gunfighter for… all broke down… didn’t last a week in prison…”
Scott was stunned and relieved that Johnny had Diego arrested instead of killing him. He wasn’t sure that he could have kept his own rage in check when faced with his mother’s rapist.
“I think Val will be very proud of the decision you made with Diego.” It appeared that Val could be a powerful ally in getting Johnny to Lancer.
“He don’t want me to… kill the old man…”
Scott smiled. “Good, because I don’t either.”
Johnny shifted and grimaced.
“… you believe him… that he didn’t throw us out?”
Scott continued his soothing back rub.
Johnny sighed heavily. “Mama left Val, too.”
Scott’s movement stilled. “Maybe she was scared to be loved,” he offered. “Some people are because they’ve been hurt before.”
Like I suspect you are, little brother.
Johnny didn’t answer, he perhaps had not even heard, as he seemed to have fallen deeply into the fever and pain. His breathing was harsh, punctuated by catches and soft moans.
It was late into the night before Johnny’s fever broke and his restlessness eased. Scott crawled into his own bed with a heavy weight lifted off his shoulders. If he could get Val on his side to convince Johnny to come to Lancer, it might just work.
Having no idea how rough the night had been, Murdoch roused them early by bringing up two steaming plates of flapjacks, ham, and eggs. Johnny groaned as he drew himself up to sit on the side of his bed, head in hands. It took him a moment to think to check that his injury was hidden from Murdoch. Luckily his unbuttoned shirt hung in a way that blocked Murdoch’s view of the bandages. He quickly buttoned it, grabbed his saddlebags, and muttering something about it being too early to eat, left the room.
Murdoch readied a tray for Scott. As he set it across Scott’s lap, he eyed the two bottles of liquor on the side table.
“Did Johnny drink all that tequila by himself?”
“I don’t know,” Scott answered honestly. “It was partway gone when he brought it up. He didn’t act drunk, though.”
Murdoch pulled over a chair after pouring himself a coffee. “How late did he come back?”
“It was almost ten.” Scott dove into his food, startled to realize how hungry he was. “He had a rough night with a fever. He told me you offered him the one third partnership in Lancer.”
Murdoch gave a grunt of assent. “Did he also tell you he threw it right back in my face?”
Scott stopped chewing to look at his father for a moment, then resumed, and swallowed. “Do you blame him, Murdoch? Not only did he grow up with his mother telling him you threw them out, he knows you chose not to bring him home after you found out he was still alive.”
“There were so many things going on then with Pardee and with you finally coming home. I couldn’t risk that he was another Pardee. I had you and Teresa to think about.”
“You didn’t think about me,” Scott accused. “If you had, you would have told me Johnny was alive the day you found out, and let me become part of bringing him home.”
Murdoch’s face darkened. “You didn’t know anything about gunfighters and the way things work out here. You couldn’t have made an informed decision.”
“I learned pretty damn quickly with Pardee, didn’t I?” Scott flung back.
“There was no choice in that.”
“And there shouldn’t have been a choice about bringing Johnny home!”
Murdoch took in a breath to argue back, then let it out heavily. His gaze drifted out the window at the patchy blue sky. “You’re right. There shouldn’t have been. I was… scared.” A moment later, his eyes met Scott’s. “I still am.”
“Imagine how much more terrified Johnny must be. He’s been on his own since he was ten.”
“Ten?” Murdoch’s features took on a haunted look. “I knew he was young when Maria died but the reports didn’t say…ten?”
Scott nodded, taking a steadying breath before he went on. “Did the report say he was there when she was murdered? That he killed one of the two men who attacked her?” Scott kept the rest of the story to himself for now.
Murdoch bowed his head.
“There were conflicting reports, one said he had killed the man, another said the man had gotten away.” Murdoch shook his head, licking his lips. “So he talked to you…”
“Not intentionally,” Scott admitted. “I told you his fever spiked last night.”
“And I’m sure the tequila loosened his tongue as well.”
Scott frowned, fearful that Murdoch was finding the tequila as one more negative thing to focus on with Johnny. “It turns out Johnny and Val know each other.”
“Really? How? Val never said anything.”
“I don’t really know.” Scott felt it would be up to Johnny or Val to tell the story, if they ever decided to. “But it sounds like they were close. Does Val know he’s alive?”
“I have no idea. I don’t think we’ve said two dozen words to each other. I’ve always had the sense that he didn’t like me. If Johnny told him the lies Maria spread…”
Or Maria told him herself.
Scott moved some food around on his plate. “I’d like to ask you to wire Val to see if he’ll come out to try to convince Johnny to come back to Lancer.”
“Are you crazy? It’s a four day ride here. If you can’t convince Johnny to come home, what makes you think Val can? I just told you, the man doesn’t like me. Why would he even take our side?”
“Because it sounds like Val tried a couple of years ago to get Johnny to give up gunfighting.”
“Johnny would’ve been 15,” Murdoch groaned, then his eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute. I remember that Crawford was a hired gun. What if he was the one who got Johnny started in it?”
“He wasn’t.” Scott was quick to argue. But he realized he didn’t know for sure. Maybe Val had been the one to help Johnny develop his gunfighting skills. Perhaps it was guilt that made Val want to get out and take Johnny with him. “Please send a wire this morning. Don’t use the Madrid name just to be safe, tell him you found your son JML and you need some help to bring him home.”
“You’re sure Crawford knows Johnny Lancer and Johnny Madrid are one and the same?”
“Yes.” Scott didn’t expound that it was because killing Murdoch had been one of Johnny’s goals for becoming a gunfighter.
“Okay.” Murdoch didn’t sound convinced. “How’s your leg feeling?”
“Like it’s ridiculous to be bedridden for. If I didn’t think that helping me out was one of the things keeping Johnny here, there’s no way I’d be hanging out in this bed.”
“I’m sure you didn’t cool Johnny’s fever from your bed all last night,” Murdoch observed wryly. “How’s his bullet wound?”
“Messy, inflamed, but no smell of infection. I’m embarrassed to say I’m grateful that Diablo has a sore leg, as that’s the other thing that is keeping Johnny here.”
“Cipriano and Pedro should be here tomorrow. I hope Johnny will listen to them and believe that I never sent him and Maria away. It’s going to be hard enough to convince him to come home after the mistakes I did make without also having to overcome the ones I didn’t.”
Johnny didn’t return until almost noon and he looked like hell. “Did the old man bring you lunch?”
“I just finished eating.”
“That’s good. Do you need help with anything?” Johnny eyed the chamber pot peeking out from under the bed.
“Murdoch took care of things, seeing as he was here.”
Johnny sat on the side of his bed and toed off his boots. “Siesta time.”
“Take that fever tonic first.” Scott watched as Johnny achingly obeyed. “Have you eaten anything?”
“Ain’t hungry. Wake me if you need me.” Johnny was down and out before Scott could reply.
Scott slept as well, surprised at how drained he felt. Now that his mind wasn’t consumed with the dread that Ruiz was going to have him tortured and/or executed any minute, he’d become much more aware of the pain in his thigh. As crazy as it was, it seemed his leg had swelled and hurt more since he’d been on bedrest.
Johnny didn’t look much better when he awoke, but he brought them both up lemonade, and they played checkers. The conversation between them was easy. As Johnny boxed in Scott’s final checker, he announced, “My game. I’m going to get Doc Barnes to come up.”
“Why, are you feeling worse?” Scott’s face reflected concern as he ran his eyes over Johnny.
“No, but you are. Come on, Scott, I can see how your face tightens every time you even twitch. Something‘s going on with that leg of yours.”
“I’m just stiff from being in this bed.”
“Nope. That’s not it.” Johnny was up, settling his rig over his slim hips. “I know stiff and I know hurting pretty damn bad. You get to tell them things in my line of work.” Not allowing an argument, Johnny headed for the door. He pointed an emphatic finger at Scott. “Don’t you dare move out of that bed or I’ll have the old man come sit on you.”
Johnny took the stairs down to the restaurant at a quick clip, forgetting his own injuries. There was something about the way Scott looked, his features waxen and sallow, along with the added pain, that made Johnny very unsettled. Madrid had learned long ago to trust his instincts.
Emerging onto the boardwalk, Johnny was startled to find Murdoch sitting in the same rocker he’d occupied when they arrived in town. He started to walk by, not wanting to deal with the man, then stopped and turned.
“I’m gonna see if Doc Barnes is around. There’s something that ain’t settin’ right about the way Scott’s looking. You might want to go up and check on him.”
At the immediate concern that flashed across Murdoch’s face, Johnny felt a twinge of something. Not jealousy, but maybe a bit of wistfulness. He was glad Scott would have Murdoch to look after him after he left… Johnny brushed the thought away and continued to the doctor’s office.
Dr. Barnes didn’t seem worried as he finished examining Scott. While a bit listless and vague, Scott didn’t have any overtly worrisome symptoms. He was a little stiff, his thigh a bit swollen, but his wounds were all clean, his lungs clear, and he didn’t have a fever. Barnes prescribed broth and a good night’s sleep and said he’d check back in the morning.
Even though Scott fell right off to sleep after the doctor left, Murdoch stayed in the chair at his son’s side. Johnny was uncomfortable hanging around with the big man there, but he was more uncomfortable leaving Scott, when his gut told him that something serious was going on.
Johnny brought up supper. They ate on opposite sides of the room without conversation.
As evening fell, Johnny sat on his bed and drew in the small notebook he carried in his saddlebags. In the dim lamp light, he sketched out a rendering of Rusty’s profile, then one of Martha carefully mending his shirt, and another of the new Colt and rig Murdoch had bought for Scott as it lay on the wooden corner table, half-hidden by Murdoch’s hat.
“Your mother loved to paint.” Murdoch’s words drifted out from the lengthening shadows. Johnny’s breath caught at the mention of his mother, but he forced himself to breathe normally and did not raise his head. “It was the only time she would sit still. Any other time, she was rocking, dancing, bouncing her leg.” The gravelly voice was soft, mesmerizing. “But when she painted, all that moved was her hand. Fast, like a bird flitting across the paper. As if she had to get the images down before they blew away.”
Johnny felt a strange flutter in his stomach as a memory came to him of his mother crouched in the dirt in Mexico, painting bright watercolor flowers onto the adobe wall of a small place they stayed in for a few months.
“She even made her own paints from some flowers she grew in her garden,” Murdoch added. “I don’t remember the name.”
“Dahlias,” Johnny whispered unwillingly.
Murdoch’s face turned toward him, the hard angles made softer by the flickering lamplight. “Yes, that’s right. I remember now. She grew them for El Dia de Los Muertos. Her paintings were as bright and beautiful as she was.”
Johnny swallowed heavily.
Why would the old man say something like that about the woman he threw out of her home? How would he even remember something as silly as her making paint from flower petals?
“We should probably wake Scott up to get him to drink.” Johnny’s voice sounded raspy, so he cleared his throat as he snapped the cover of his notebook closed and moved to Scott’s side.
Murdoch set his book down without comment, then placed a massive hand on Scott’s arm. “Scott? Son, it’s time to wake up for a bit.”
It took quite a bit of coaxing to get Scott to open his eyes, and more for him to drink. Johnny helped him sit up, frowning at the heavy way Scott moved his legs and the glassy look in his eyes.
“You’re sleeping the day away, Boston,” Johnny teased, hoping to perk Scott up. “You let the yummy broth the lovely Miss Violet made you get cold.” Scott’s eyes tracked groggily to the cup Johnny held up, but then fell away without interest. “I’ll go get you some that’s warm.” Johnny gave Scott’s arm a brisk rub. “You feel a little cool. Do you need another blanket?”
“Blanket,” Scott said weakly. Johnny thought it was more an echo of his word than a conscious request. He passed the blanket from his bed to Murdoch then headed downstairs. By the time he returned with some warm broth, Scott was out again.
“I tried to keep him awake, but he just mumbled ‘tired’ and fell right back to sleep again.” Murdoch said.
Johnny narrowed his eyes as he surveyed his brother. “Do you think I should get the Doc back?”
Murdoch pursed his lips. “He doesn’t seem any worse to me. I think everything is just catching up with him. He’s got to be exhausted. He’s certainly malnourished. I’m certain what little food and water Ruiz’s goons gave him wasn’t the cleanest. Maybe he’s caught a bug.”
“Maybe.” Johnny was well aware of the effects of Mexican prison food – or lack thereof– on a body. He couldn’t deny it could be part of what he was seeing. It had taken him over a week after being released from prison to be able to stand for more than a couple of minutes without dizziness.
“Why don’t you get some sleep, Johnny? You can use my room if you want, so the light won’t bother you.”
“It wouldn’t bother me, besides, I’m a long way from needing sleep. You can have the bed here. I’ll sit up with him.”
Murdoch shook his head with a faint smile. “I never had the chance to sit up at night with Scott when he was sick as a child. As odd as it may seem, it’s a privilege to be able to do it tonight.”
Johnny wasn’t sure what to make of that comment. “If neither of us are going to sleep, how about I bring us some coffee. Unless, of course, you prefer a nice warm broth…” He lifted the cup he still held toward Murdoch.
Murdoch gave a wry smile. “Definitely coffee.”
As the night hours dragged by, it became apparent that something far more serious than exhaustion was wrong with Scott. Barnes returned and gave Scott a thorough exam.
“I just don’t know what I’m missing,” Barnes hedged, as he glanced back toward Scott from where he, Murdoch, and Johnny stood on the far side of the room. Scott was significantly more ashen and flaccid than he had been the day before. “There’s no fever or signs of infection in any of his wounds. His lungs are clear, his pupils even. His leg is slightly more swollen, but nothing alarming. Certainly not enough to make him this unresponsive.”
“Is it possible his leg was actually broken or that him being up on it the other night cracked the bone all the way through?”
At Murdoch’s question, Johnny felt ill. Please don’t let Scott have been hurt taking care of me!
Barnes shook his head slowly. “Unlikely. If that was the case, the pain would have been sudden and be more severe. This doesn’t look like a broken bone. It’s possible his head injury was more serious than I realized. You said he’s been eating, drinking, and passing his water all right?”
“Yes, right up through lunch yesterday, but we couldn’t get anything more than a little water into him since,” Murdoch confirmed.
“And he hasn’t complained of headaches, blurred vision, dizziness, or pain anywhere?”
“Boston ain’t much of a complainer,” Johnny replied. “He said he was just stiff. But I could see in his eyes that he was hurting, and even in bed he was moving like a lame horse.” At the looks both Barnes and Murdoch gave him, Johnny lowered his eyes. “Sorry. I know more about horse legs than people legs. Don’t mean nothing by it.”
Murdoch looked none too pleased, but Barnes’ forehead wrinkled in thought as he tapped his lips with his forefinger. “No, no, don’t pass it off. People-medicine and veterinary medicine have quite a lot of overlap. Let me think for a minute. Many a good mount has been put down for lameness that was totally treatable.”
“My son is not a horse!” Murdoch roared. “And if you don’t know the difference, Dr.…”
Johnny took a step back. He was not cowed by many men’s anger, but something about Murdoch’s size, the timbre of his voice, and the glare of the slate blue eyes made him uneasy as hell.
“I’m not suggesting that at all,” Barnes, on the other hand, was very calm, apparently quite used to anxious and irate family members. “Only that sometimes in our search for big answers to serious illnesses, we sometimes overlook small things.“ He sat down on the edge of Scott‘s bed and began examining his legs again in earnest, starting with the wound on his left ankle, going down to the bottom of his foot, between his toes and up to his groin. Finding nothing unusual, he moved to Scott’s right leg, working his way down. “Hmm.”
“What?” Murdoch asked, anxiously.
“Some swollen lymph nodes here in his groin.” Barnes carefully felt around Scott’s thigh, getting no more than a weak moan from the man. “Oh, here’s a hotspot.” Barnes tried to look at the back of Scott’s leg. “Help me turn him onto his stomach.”
Murdoch rolled Scott over, not even eliciting a moan, and Johnny moved the pillow away from Scott’s face.
“What is that?” Murdoch asked as Barnes peered closely at a small yellow ulcer in the middle of Scott’s thigh which was surrounded by a wide, hard circle of vibrant red.
“My guess is an abscess.” Barnes reached into his bag and, after a bit of searching, came out with a scalpel and a wad of bandages. He removed the protective cover of the scalpel and made an incision across the ulcer. Immediately, a flow of foul, yellow pus flooded from the new opening.
Instinctively, Murdoch and Johnny put their hands to their noses to ward off the putrid odor. Barnes was a master of breathing through his mouth and quickly sopped up the vile exudate.
“How does he not have a fever with that kind of infection?” Murdoch asked, trying to avoid inhaling.
“We were lucky, we caught it before the infection got into his blood or his lungs. I’ll have Violet make up a poultice to dry it out even more.” He looked up at Johnny. “Good observations, young man. Another few hours and it might have gone too far.”
Johnny felt a heavy hand settle on his shoulder.
“Thank you, son,” Murdoch said huskily. “Sorry I yelled. I guess it’s good you know horses as well as you do.”
Johnny slid out from under the touch. “Speaking of horses, I’ll go check on them.” He fled the room, wondering why his heart was racing so, and why his initial impulse had been to lean into the unexpected touch.
Scott steadily improved throughout the day. Johnny knew he was doing better when he complained about lying on his stomach and over the smell of the poultice.
“Hey, it sure beats the disgusting crap that Doc squeezed out of your leg. Besides, I’ll have you know that it healed Diablo’s leg in two days when most poultices take a week.”
Scott started to push himself up. “This is a horse poultice?”
Both Johnny and Murdoch chuckled.
“Just kidding you.” Johnny gently settled him with a hand to his back. “A new and improved version of Mizz Martha’s Magical Medicine.”
“The smell isn’t improved,” Scott groaned. “How did I hurt the back of my leg while I was just lying in bed?”
Murdoch explained about the abscess, giving Johnny credit for setting Doc Barnes onto the right track.
A knock came on the door. Johnny answered it, expecting Barnes. It was Cipriano and Pedro. After greetings were exchanged, Johnny excused himself, prepared to leave the Lancer men to their discussion.
“Johnny…!” He heard the panic in Scott’s voice as he grabbed his saddlebags.
“I’ll be back, Boston,” he reassured lightly. “Don’t go running off now.”
He practically bolted from the room with the realization that he was related to all four men in that small space. Johnny Madrid, who had no family for seven years and only had his mama before that. It made the air feel unbreathable.
Johnny walked quickly to the livery and checked Diablos leg, pleased to find it was no longer warm, swollen, or tender. He put the black on a lead then, while watching carefully, he guided Diablo outside. After a gentle turn around the corral showed Diablo walking easily with no sign of lameness, Johnny led him down the well-worn path to the creek.
“I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.” Johnny scratched Diablo under his mane as they walked. “Scott is too. I guess that means we can leave in a day or two.”
“Not you, too,” Johnny sighed. “Look, as soon as Lancer can ease up his worry about Scott, he’s going to realize that having a gunfighter around his big fancy ranch isn’t the best idea. He got what he needed me for and will put us out on the street again, Diablo.”
Trees and brush bordered the path, then in one small patch a riot of yellow, red, and purple flowers. Unbidden, the image that Murdoch had created of his mother painting came to him again. But this time, it wasn’t in Mexico. It was in a garden of brilliant flowers like these. His mother was laughing as he stuck both toddler-sized hands into her bowl of paint and bent to make two orange-red handprints on a steppingstone.
“Eres un pequeño diablo!” (You are a little devil!)
He shrieked and giggled as she lifted him by the waist, tiny hands pointed outward, and hurried over to plunge him up to his wrists in the water trough.
Where the hell did that come from?
Johnny shook his head to rid it of the imagery. He knew he had a fever again. That was certainly the cause of the odd little daydream. Surely, it wasn’t a real memory.
He took his time by the stream, even indulging in a brief siesta with Diablo happily grazing nearby. Unfortunately, he woke up feeling worse than before he had fallen asleep. Despite teeth-jarring chills, he knew he had to cool his fever, so he reluctantly scooped some of the frigid creek water to douse his face. His trembling fingers struggled to undo the toggles of his shirt, feeling a warm stickiness on the bandage below, signaling it needed to be changed.
Suddenly, he froze, hearing a rider approach. In an instant, he was behind a tree, his Colt firmly in his hand.
“It is me, Cipriano,” Cipriano called out as soon as he spotted Diablo, recognizing him from Mexico. He knew it was not wise to sneak up on Johnny Madrid.
“Is Scott all right?” Johnny didn’t show himself, unwilling to allow his open shirt to display the drainage-soaked bandage below, but his gun was re-holstered.
“Si, Señor Scott is doing well.”
“What do you want?” Johnny had his Madrid voice in play now.
There was a brief silence, only broken by the sound of Cipriano’s horse sidestepping, anxious to get to the bubbling water a few feet away.
“Only to speak with you, sobrino.” Johnny’s eyes closed at the reminder of their relationship. He didn’t have the energy or emotional stamina for this.
“Boy, the old man works fast. Did he order you down here?”
“No, Juanito,” the older man answered in a quiet, level voice. “I came on my own.”
Johnny leaned his forehead against the rough bark of the tree, exhaling tightly. He needed to have his wits sharp, his concentration keen, in order to detect Murdoch’s influence in Cipriano’s words. As it was, he could barely stand and his teeth were chattering as his body shook with chills.
Leather squeaked as Cipriano dismounted. With a sigh, Johnny rolled further around the tree so he could keep it between him and Cipriano while he struggled with numb fingers to redo his shirt toggles.
“Do not hide from me, sobrino.” There was a surprising hardness to Cipriano‘s words. “We are familia. Show your tio abuelo respect.”
A flash of anger tore through Johnny, but just as quickly was gone.
He stepped out from his hiding place. Cipriano glanced at him only briefly before leading his horse over to the stream. Silence stretched between them.
“Thank you for your and Pedro’s help at the estancia,” Johnny said quietly, leaning against the tree for support. “Is all well there?”
“Si,” Cipriano rubbed his horse’s neck as he drank, then took a few steps back into the clearing. “It was a kind and just thing you did for those people, Juanito.”
Johnny grimaced at the nickname. “Please don’t call me that.”
Cipriano’s brows furrowed. “You prefer Señor Madrid?”
Johnny gave a half shake of his head, unbothered by the sarcasm. “Johnny.”
Cipriano cocked his head. “She called you Juanito, your Mama. We all did.”
“Juanito died the day my Mama did,” Johnny’s response was bitter.
“And Johnny Madrid was born?” Cipriano studied the youth’s pale features for a moment before his eyes moved to the damp stain on the side of Johnny’s shirt. “You are injured. I thought I saw you hit during the firefight. Come sit down and let me look at it.”
“The Doc has seen it. It’s fine.”
Cipriano’s eyes narrowed.
“Did su madre teach you nothing of respect for your elders?” The edge was back in the deep voice.
Johnny‘s eyes met his uncle’s for a moment, then fell away. His mother’s lectures on respect had always been focused toward whichever man was in her life. Typically, it meant, ’shut up and disappear’. Other than Val and Jose Madrid, not one of those animals had deserved respect.
But whatever else Cipriano was to Murdoch Lancer, he was Johnny‘s great uncle. Wordlessly, Johnny moved over to the rock Cipriano had indicated and sat down.
“Let me.” Cipriano moved Johnny’s shaking hands away as he tried to undo his shirt. “El doctoro knows you have a fiebre?”
Cipriano t’sked as he viewed the newly-revealed bandage with it’s slowly widening yellow-red stain.
“This is not good, sobrino. Come back to the hotel so I may clean it correctamente.”
That was the last thing Johnny wanted to do. Their attention needed to be on Scott, not on him. Cipriano’s stare was almost as good as Madrid’s. Johnny hung his head. “There’s stuff in my saddlebags. That’s what I came down here to do.”
Cipriano set about gathering the supplies, unwinding the bandage, and diligently cleaning the bullet wound. Aside from Cipriano’s occasional mutter or Johnny‘s hisses of pain, silence reigned between them.
Cipriano uncorked a small brown bottle that he found with the bandages inside Johnny’s saddlebags. A whiff made his eyes water. “For fiebre?”
Johnny nodded and didn’t bother to wait to be ordered to take it. The taste made him groan louder than the bandage change had. Cipriano gave him a pat on his shoulder before drawing a flask out of an inner pocket of his jacket. “This will kill the taste.”
Johnny gratefully accepted the flask, appreciating the bite of tequila as it passed over his tongue. “You couldn’t have brought this out before the bandage change?”
Cipriano chuckled. “It’s not all for you, sobrino.” He took the flask back and downed a healthy swallow. With a quick check on the happily grazing horses, he sighted a flat rock at an angle to Johnny, and dusting off the accumulated detritus with his hat, lowered himself onto the surface.
“You have some questions for me.” It was a statement.
Johnny felt the heat of anger rising again.
Cipriano cleaned some dirt off the toe of one boot with the sole of the other. He didn’t speak.
Johnny could play this game, too. But damn, he didn’t want to. He just wanted a bed. And maybe a bit more of that tequila. Tight-lipped and hurting, he watched a small beetle make its arduous way over a tuft of grass. Just because Cipriano was a relative, didn’t mean Johnny could trust him. Hell, Lancer with his old man -can’t be a much closer relative than that- and look what he had done. Threw them out. A woman on her own with a baby – a mestizo one at that – and no money. What the hell did the old man think would happen to them?
“Why didn’t you help her?” Johnny‘s words were sharp, intended to hurt.
“If you were some wonderful uncle, why didn’t you leave when Lancer threw Mama out? Why didn’t you help her…us?”
Johnny hated that his question sounded like a plea. If Mama had some help, surely they could’ve found someplace safe, someplace with food, someplace where ravenous men didn’t have to feed on her night after night.
Cipriano traced a finger along the edge of his jacket trim. “I did not know she was leaving, or even that she was unhappy,” he said softly.
“So you bought his story, too? That she left him, not that he sent us packing with nothing more than the clothes we wore?” Johnny jumped up, done with the conversation before it started.
Cipriano stood too, but made no move to intervene as Johnny gathered up the used supplies, intending to leave.
“Señor Lancer did not tell me what happened. Rosita from the cantina saw Maria leave with the gambler she’d been seeing. Rosita tried to convince Maria to leave you be…” Cipriano’s sentence was cut off as Johnny grabbed the front of his jacket.
“¡Cállate! If you were 20 years younger, you’d feel my fists!” Johnny spat into Cipriano’s face. “How dare you protect him by blaming her!” He gave the older man a shove, not hard enough to fell him, but enough to make him stumble backward.
Cipriano came right back. He was not a young man but decades of ranch work made him a strong one. “I do not protect him! There were many in town who saw Maria and the gambler together.”
“So you’re saying Mama cheated on her marriage and lied to me?”
“No, sobrino,” Cipriano replied in a low voice. “I do not know why she left with the gambler. He may have forced her. I saw nothing that said she was not happy at Lancer.”
Johnny paced, his thoughts arcing from side to side. Did someone force his mother to leave Lancer? If so, why didn’t they come back after the threat was over? He didn’t remember any of Mama’s men being gamblers. Oh, they all gambled when they drank, but none of them were good enough at it to claim it as a profession.
Johnny felt a wave of dizziness hit and reached for the tree that was no longer there. Instead, Cipriano caught his arm.
“Siéntate.” The older man led him back to the rock and gently pressed down on his shoulders to get him to sit. Johnny bowed his head into his hands, hating his weakness, hating more the confusion that avalanched through his mind, making his fever-driven headache pound.
Cipriano crouched at Johnny’s side, close, but not touching. “I still do not understand what happened. But I searched along with su padre for both of you. Many times, we’d go. To Mexico, El Paso, Nogales, anywhere we heard you might be.”
Johnny shook his head. “He sent us away.” But his voice sounded unsure. “Maybe he was only trying to save face, pretending he wanted to find us.”
“A man cannot pretend that kind of suffering into his eyes,” Cipriano said quietly, his gaze on a distant memory. “Or into his nightmares that would wake us both on the trail. Sobrino, you know how to read men, yes? Johnny Madrid did not become a pistolero famoso without learning to see the truth in a man’s eyes. Can you not see it in mine?”
Johnny raised his sapphire eyes to the deep brown ones of his uncle. Before he could speak, Cipriano continued. “I know you take the measure of a man in just a few seconds when you face them in a gunfight. You have been with Señor Lancer for two days now. Do you not sense the kind of man he is? Or are you too blinded with prideful anger to see clearly?”
Johnny rubbed his throbbing forehead. He had certainly been shocked to see the gentle way Murdoch had cared for Scott. It didn’t seem that the gruff giant could have that kind of tenderness inside him. Johnny still remembered the feel of Murdoch’s hand on his shoulder and the ache it had kindled inside of him. Could his father possibly care about him the way he claimed? What man in his right mind would feel that way about a gunfighter? In fact, Lancer had admitted himself that he didn’t.
“He knew where I was for over a year, Tio, and he chose not to come for me, or even to let Scott know I was alive. That tells me all I need to know.” He wanted the words to cut as deeply as the reality had sliced into him. But they came out in almost a whisper.
“He was scared.” Cipriano said only slightly louder. “And wrong. I have never said that or felt that about El Patron, but in this, he was wrong and I have told him so.”
Johnny raised his head at that.
“He was afraid that Johnny Madrid would have no place in his heart for familia. That you would hate him because he couldn’t find you.”
“And he thought I had thrown in with the Pardee,” Johnny said bitterly. “That, and he was afraid Scott would go running back to Boston if he discovered his brother was the notorious Johnny Madrid.”
“Si, but that is not at all how Señor Scott reacted, sobrino. He was very angry with su padre and came to ask me to go find you.”
A tiny smile quirked at Johnny’s lips. “Yeah, that’s what Boston said.”
Cipriano tilted his head at the nickname, then smiled. “Señor Scott did not look like he would be happy in the west. But tu hermano is very strong, not in his muscles so much yet, but in here,” Cipriano pointed to his head, “and in here,” then to his chest. “He is a good man… and one who deserves to know his hermano.”
Johnny grimaced. He wanted nothing more than to get to know Scott. He felt Cipriano’s hand wrap around his wrist.
“And this tio abuelo would very much like to spend time with his sobrino.”
Johnny rubbed the back of his neck, his eyes tightly closed. “It’s too much, Tio,” he said softly. “I can’t… To believe him means Mama lied to me, all those years, all those times when we had nothing, no place to stay, no money, no food…” He pushed himself back to his feet, unsteady, but away from Cipriano’s hand. “He may not have thrown us out but he made it very clear a year ago that he wanted nothing to do with me. Maybe he’s willing to bring me to Lancer now to make Scott happy, but how long before he decides it’s a mistake? I spent years living where I wasn’t wanted, with men who hated the sight of me. I promised myself I’d never do that again.”
“He does not hate you, sobrino. I see it in his eyes again, that ache, that need to have you home. He knows he was wrong to turn away from you. If you cannot do it for him, do it for tu hermano, for tu tio abuelo, for tu primo, Pedro. And if not for any of us, do it for yourself. You need tu familia, whether you think so or not.”
Johnny had slept in many horse stalls throughout his childhood and usually slept relatively well amid the comforting smells and sounds. But tonight, he tossed and turned, dozing only briefly before startling awake to some imagined sound or threat.
He was sick.
His skin burned with fever and the hay made it itch. Every muscle ached, making even the smallest movement torture. He had planned to spend the night in the livery with Diablo, knowing there were no extra rooms at the hotel. Murdoch had given his room to Cipriano and Pedro, despite their protests, offering the excuse that he wasn’t comfortable leaving Scott yet, even though his older son was clearly on the mend.
Johnny didn’t think he could stand spending another night so close to his father, especially while trying to hide his injury and illness. He imagined he looked as bad as he felt, and there was certainly no hiding the chills that rattled his bones. He wanted, no, needed, to be alone. Coupled with fever-driven confusion, his heightened emotions left him feeling raw and vulnerable.
Definitely not a time to be near the man he had spent years hating…
And, on rare occasions, yearning for.
Pushing that ridiculous thought away, he forced himself to try again to fall asleep. But, he literally could not lay still in the hay. At the least, he needed to get his bed roll back from Violet, who had insisted on washing it for him, and maybe he could camp out on the hotel’s back porch.
He wanted to check on Scott, too. Abscesses were tricky things; he’d known more than one horse to be taken down just when it seemed to be on the mend. He smiled as he thought of Scott’s reaction to being compared to a horse. The grin quickly dissolved into a groan as he pushed himself to his knees and then painfully up to his feet. Diablo gave an unhappy snort, which he countered with a quick neck rub, before using the livery wall to help him stumble outside. He was glad the livery was on the same side of the street as the hotel, as he didn’t hold out much hope of getting across the road with nothing to hold onto. Even the step up to the boardwalk looked challenging. Though not at all gracefully, he managed it then felt his way along the walls of the land office toward the hotel.
He had lost track of time. It was dark, he got that much. But there was no moon in sight to tell how late it was. Only a handful of people were out, most in front of the saloon across the way. The place was active, though not Saturday night rowdy. Even trying to recall what day of the week it was made his head spin, so he gave up. He figured it didn’t matter anyway.
He found himself at the entrance to the hotel. Peering through the glass door, he saw that only a few tables were taken, and of those only one still had a meal, the others were on to coffee and drinks. But damn, if it wasn’t Murdoch and Cipriano finishing dinner at the table closest to the stairs.
Great. How the hell was he going to get past them without falling on his face? And if he did manage to do that, could he really get up the stairs? With the groan, Johnny turned around, deciding he’d have to sleep in the livery after all.
Then he spotted the rocking chair.
The same one Murdoch had waited for them in, the same one he sent Murdoch upstairs from when Scott was first sick.
Johnny reached for the back of it, then held himself up along one arm until he was in position to slump into its wooden depths. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing in the world, but it would do until his audience left the restaurant. Shivering, Johnny huddled more deeply into the chair, wishing he had that bedroll or at least his jacket to warm him while he waited.
“Here you are.”
The quiet voice startled Johnny awake and had his Colt in his hand.
Damn! This fever was making him careless!
“You don’t need that, young man,” Dr. Barnes’ voice was casual, as if he faced a gun pointed at his chest every day. “Your brother has been asking for you. I thought we might have to tie him in bed to keep him from trying to look for you.”
“Is he doing okay?” Johnny smoothly replaced the gun into its holster and then used his hand to wipe the bleariness from his eyes.
“I’d say he’s doing far better than you are this evening and that’s with hardly any light to see you with. I take it the fever is back?” Barnes leaned against the hitching rail, his arms crossed in front of him.
“I’m fine, Doc, just enjoying the nice evening.”
“By shivering so hard you’re shaking the boardwalk? Come on, it’s up to bed with you.” Barnes bent to lend a hand. Johnny drew away.
“Not yet. My… employer and his friend are finishing dinner. I’ll go up after they’re done.”
“Still don’t want your father to know you’re hurt?” Barnes frowned. ”All right then, come on over to my office. I’ve got an extra bed in the back room.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. But I’d be obliged if you’d let Scott know I’m fine and will see him in the morning.”
“Look, I don’t pretend to know what’s going on between you and your father, but I won’t lie to Scott and I’m not about to let you spend the night in that rocking chair, which is what I suspect will happen if I walk away. You have a choice, come upstairs with me now or over to my office for the night.”
“This rocker is mighty comfortable…”
Barnes pushed himself off the hitching rail. “I’ll let your father know that as I pass by…”
“I told you that he ain’t my father!” Johnny‘s words were harsh. “He’s my employer, or was. Now, he’s nothing to me.”
“All right then, I guess I’ll have to tell Scott.” Barnes sighed. “Of course, I know he’ll insist on coming down to talk to you himself, which could cause a major setback…”
“All right, all right, you win. I’ll go to your place.”
“Great.” Barnes shrugged out of his coat and laid it over Johnny‘s chest. “Hang onto this for me. I’ll be back in a few.”
“I want to see him,” Scott insisted when Barnes told him where Johnny was and the plan for the night. Barnes managed to convince Murdoch to finish his supper while he checked in on Scott and he sent Pedro down to join them for dessert.
Scott was looking miles better than he had just twelve hours earlier, but he still had the gray cast of recently dispatched infection, his eyes and cheeks sunken from want of proper food.
“I honestly don’t think he could manage the stairs, Scott. And he’s determined to avoid seeing your father. Give me the night with him at my place and let’s see what things look like in the morning. You all could use a good night’s sleep. This is the best way to get it.
“But if he’s sick…”
“Then being cared for by the town Doc is a good thing, yes?”
Scott made a face, then capitulated. “Of course, sir, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful.”
“You don’t. I understand you are worried about your brother. But you need to take care of yourself. I don’t want to frighten you, but we came very close to losing you yesterday. You need rest, food and lots of fluids.” Barnes patted Scott on the arm. “I’ll take good care of Johnny, I promise.”
Johnny wished the train would stop plowing through his head and whoever was sitting on his chest would get the hell off. He tried to use his right hand to assist in that endeavor, only to find it now weighed more than Diablo and refused to move.
This was not good. He couldn’t defend himself if he couldn’t lift his gun, or his hand, or, damn, even his eyelids.
He concentrated hard on the last effort, able to tell he was in a bed. Beyond that, he had no idea where he was or why he felt like hell.
Slowly his eyes opened, met stabbing bright light, and slammed closed again. Twin knives alternately sliced into his temples and his side in an uneven rhythm that made him groan.
“Here, maybe this will help.”
A cool cloth descended onto his forehead, pushing back one of the two daggers. The voice was feminine, not young, but somehow vaguely familiar. He forced his eyes open again, his gaze falling on Laura Barnes’ warm features. It came back to him then. He’d met the doctor’s wife when Barnes had practically had to carry him into the back room of his office the night before.
“Morning ma’am.” He had to say it twice before any sound came out. “Scott?”
“Scott is doing well.” Laura smiled as she brought a cup of water to his lips and held his head to help him drink. “You boys sure got yourselves into a big tussle somewhere. You ought to be more careful.”
Johnny smiled at her scolding. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Don’t you ma’am me. I told you it’s Laura. This fever didn’t fry your brain, did it?”
Johnny laughed, though it brought back the knives in both spots in earnest. “I sure hope not.”
“Good, then, “Laura rewet the cloth, laid it across his forehead, then dried her hands on a towel as she stood. “I’ll let Efram know you’re awake and will make you some broth. He’s seeing patients but should be in shortly to check on you. Call out if you need something before then.”
After she left the room, Johnny lay quietly for a few moments, allowing the cool cloth to soothe his headache, as he struggled to weave together fragments of memory from the previous evening. While most of it was a blur, he remembered needing to avoid Murdoch at all costs. The seething fever repeatedly whispered to him to get away, to hide out until he was better.
Trying not to move his throbbing head, Johnny opened his eyes to survey his surroundings. A white metal and glass cabinet held shelves of medicines in colored bottles. Beside it was a rolling tray table with instruments laying covered with a linen towel so that only the handles were visible. Across the room, his shirt was draped over a ladder back chair, his rig coiled beneath his hat on the seat, and his boots stood neatly below. Blessedly, he still wore his pants. One less hurdle to getting up and dressed.
Sitting up made the room tilt sharply. Pain lanced into his ribs, triggering a struggle for air. He coughed unwillingly, sucked in a sharp gasp, and coughed again. Despite the wicks of flame across his ribs, he threw his legs over the side of the bed and nearly followed them down to the floor.
Quickly clutching the thin mattress in sweaty fists stopped his descent long enough for him to brace his feet. Perched precariously on the edge of the bed, the chair with his things looked a mile away. Determined, Johnny pushed himself up, still leaning heavily on his hands, and began to inch his way toward the foot of the bed.
Nails spiked his brain in time with his hammering heart as he let go to wobble free of the bed’s support. He blinked rapidly to keep the black that rimmed his vision from closing over him completely. Step by unsteady step, he made his way across the cold floor.
Gunbelt first, then sit. Boots on, jeez bending hurts, arms in shirt, hat on head. He silently narrated his way through each task of getting dressed, longingly eying the Doc’s heavy coat which was on a peg beside the door. But he was not a thief.
Allowing himself to close his eyes for a moment, Johnny listened, needing to gauge who was around and the best way out. He determined the waiting room was on the other side of the door to his left, and the door to the boardwalk was just beyond that.
He stumbled to the door, cracked it open, and cautiously peered out. The waiting room was empty, save for a young woman and a boy of six or seven. Just keep going. You have to get away before he finds you.
The woman held the inquisitive boy back as Johnny inched his way along the wall.
“Ma’am,” he acknowledged with a slight tip of his head, removing his hat was too much to manage while remaining upright. He needed the energy to get across the road to the livery.
Using every ounce of willpower, he straightened as soon as he was outside and walked casually, if a bit gingerly, to the livery. As he slid into the soothing, darkened interior, it took all Johnny had not to curl up in the hay and sleep for a week. His thoughts were scattered and odd, rekindling the Madrid instincts that warned he needed to keep going.
He’s coming for you. No time to rest. Run! Hide!
Who was he hiding from again?
Ruiz? Nope, that bugger’s dead. Carmona? Dead, too. Ah, old man Lancer, he remembered as he watched George lead Murdoch’s fully-tacked bay out the back door. Can’t let him find me until I’m strong enough to kill him.
Johnny struggled to hold onto that thought amid contrasting images of Murdoch’s fingers gently stroking Scott’s brow, the sound of the deep voice -no longer harsh- soothing Scott’s feverish rantings, the feel of the massive hand warmly squeezing Johnny’s own shoulder.
The last memory was so strong, Johnny whipped around, sensing Murdoch was nearby. Dizzy and weak, the action drove him into the stall wall, and then to his knees in the churned dirt and hay. He was shocked to find that he felt more sad than relieved that his father was not behind him.
Oh, how he wished he could be in a soft bed with those strong, steady hands soothing the ache that bore into every muscle and bone.
Guess Laura was right, this dang fever has fried my brain! Johnny admonished himself. Stay focused, get away, survive first, then think about the other shit.
He made his way to Diablo’s stall and took precious minutes greeting and soothing his horse. “I’m gonna leave you with George for a few days, amigo. It’s too soon to ride you, especially as I don’t know if I can get you a warm place at night. Don’t worry, George will take good care of you.”
And if I don’t make it back, Scott will treat you right. I figure Rusty was bought with my money, so it ain’t thievin’ to take him. Johnny hefted Rusty’s blanket and saddle onto the red’s back, an effort that wrenched his ribs, leaving him panting and wheezing from the pain. That way, too, Scott will know I ain’t breaking my promise to come back. A trio of coughs shook him. Breathless, he bent to catch and tighten the cinch, then tied on his saddlebags. He gave Diablo one last scratch before backing Rusty out of the stall.
George re-entered through the back door. Johnny spoke to him, ensuring Diablo’s stall fees were covered for a few more days and that George knew he’d be back for his horse. Only Scott was to take Diablo, if he didn’t get back before the money ran out.
“Johnny, ya can bunk in my back room if they’s not got room in the hotel. Yer lookin’ mighty peaked.”
Johnny smiled at the elder man. “I’m fine, George. I got some business to take care of in Prescott. If the Lancers need to leave before I get back, tell them I’ll meet them at their ranch to swap out the horses.” Johnny pointedly gave the name of a town on the way to Lancer, definitely not the direction he was planning to head. “Looks like I missed the old man. I saw you take Toby out. Any idea where he was headed?”
The absolute last thing I need is to run into Lancer.
George looked uncomfortable so Johnny didn’t press. He needed to get moving before his legs gave out. “Diablo’s leg is almost back to normal. I think all he needs is a wrap at night to be good in another day or two.”
“I’ll take care of him, don’t ya worry, Johnny.”
Johnny led Rusty out the back door, wanting to mount out of sight of curious eyes, in case his growing weakness made it an awkward act. He stopped dead as he spotted Murdoch Lancer standing next to Toby by the back fence.
“Mierda!” Johnny cursed his luck before forcing himself upright. “Morning. Is Scott doing all right?”
“Very much so,” Murdoch’s eyes ran over him; he felt as though the man could read every inch of his weakness. “Doc is going to let him up and about inside the room. No riding for a few more days still.”
“He’ll be glad to give that chamberpot the boot.” Johnny gave him a crooked smile.
Murdoch’s gaze went to Rusty, then back to Johnny‘s pale, fever-drawn face. “How about if we get over to the bank before the line gets too long. I hear Thursday is payday around here.”
Johnny would’ve liked nothing more than to get some money so he could hole up in a hotel instead of a cold camp with no bedroll. His closest money stash was two days ride away. But there was no way his legs were going to take him to the bank and back. He smiled his Madrid smile. “I’m in a bit of a hurry to meet someone and, unlike you, don’t like carrying lots of money. You still got the money in your boot? I’ll take that and call us even.”
Murdoch stared at him long and hard before making his way around the corner to a bench by the livery wall. He tugged fruitlessly on his boot, hardly able to bend his sore hip to reach it. “I guess we’ll have to wait until we get there.” He put both feet down on the ground, a hand on each knee.
“Wherever it is that we’re riding these fine horses to this morning.”
Johnny narrowed his eyes, thinking maybe Murdoch had a fever of his own. “We ain’t going anywhere.”
“Oh, so you’ve decided to stay? Great.” Murdoch pushed himself back up. “I’ll take the horses back in for George to take care of. Why don’t you sit here for a bit, then I’ll help you back over to the hotel.”
It was unheard of for Johnny Madrid to be struck speechless by an opponent, yet he stood staring at Murdoch for several seconds. “Sit down, old man, and I’ll pull your damn boot off. I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but I’m in no mood.”
Instead of returning to the bench, Murdoch moved over to stand by Johnny. “Either we go wherever you’re headed together or back to the hotel room together. Those are your choices.” Murdoch’s words were firm but eerily gentle.
Johnny’s Colt was drawn before his mind could formulate a response. “Get the hell out of my way.”
“No. You’re hurt and sick and you can’t be on your own.”
“I can take care of myself!” The shout was belied by a coughing fit that pressed Johnny against Rusty’s flank in order to remain standing.
“Dr. Barnes is afraid you might be getting pneumonia on top of the bullet graze being infected.” Murdoch took hold of Johnny’s upper arm – his right arm, for chrissake! – and steered Johnny to the bench.
Johnny tried to dig his heels in but, damn, the man was strong!
“Sit down and put that gun away,” Murdoch ordered. “You aren’t going to shoot me.”
“How the hell… cough… do you… cough…know?” Johnny could barely breathe and the pain from coughing was acute. It took only one massive hand to hold him down while the other deftly slid the gun out of his hand and returned it to its holster.
“You wouldn’t shoot Scott’s father.”
Well, damn, that’s true. The old man was smart enough not to say “your father.”
The coughing worsened, Johnny was barely able to wheeze in a little air in between each bout. His lips paled to a bluish hue as he struggled to hold back moans from the agony coughing elicited from his cracked ribs.
“Here, lean forward a bit.” Murdoch put one arm across Johnny‘s chest, gripping his far arm and began to rub his back in wide circular strokes.
Johnny was at once comforted and terrified by the gentle action. He braced his hands on his thighs, battling for his next breath. He could feel mucus rattling in his chest, but no amount of coughing could get it to move.
Murdoch heard it, too. “I’m going to try pounding on your back a little. I promise I’m not trying to hurt you, but it will probably hurt. It might help to loosen things up.”
The first hit with the fleshy part of Murdoch’s fist would have knocked Johnny off the bench if not for the elder man’s hold across his chest. The next blow came in rapid succession, slightly less forceful. Murdoch pounded his way across Johnny’s back, staying away from his cracked ribs.
The blows themselves didn’t hurt but the referred impact to his ribs sure did. Johnny’s fevered mind struggled to remember that this was not one more of Mama’s men beating on him.
After nearly two minutes of airlessness, Johnny suddenly felt the burr inside his lungs give way, and he spat it onto the ground between his boots. His body shivered with chills and the aftereffects of the bout, but he could breathe again. He marveled at the feeling of the cool air sliding effortlessly in and out of his lungs.
After a bit, he realized Murdoch was still holding him up. The hand that pummeled the phlegm out of him was back to rubbing gentle circles on his back. He sat back shakily, his eyes averted. “Th… Thanks.”
Murdoch continued his comforting massage for a moment more. “Are you okay here for a minute while I hand off the horses?”
Johnny wanted to argue that, hell no, he wasn’t okay staying anywhere in close proximity to Murdoch. He needed to leave. Not that he could focus enough to remember why…
“I’ll just holler for George…” Murdoch mistook his hesitancy.
“No, I’m okay.” Maybe when the old man left, he could sneak away.
He waited with his eyes closed as Murdoch led the two horses around back. As soon as he rounded the corner, Johnny tried to stand.
Did not succeed.
Almost landed in the dirt.
With a groan of defeat, Johnny leaned his forearms onto his thighs and bowed his head. A minute later, he heard Murdoch approach then felt the bench sag under the big man’s weight.
“I’m thinking we go back to Doc Barnes’ instead of the hotel, because of the stairs.” Murdoch posed.
Johnny shook his head. “He shouldn’t have told you. Told him not to. Can’t trust him.”
Murdoch let his air out slowly. Reminding Johnny that he was a minor was not going to help this conversation go in a good direction. “He was worried about you, Johnny. Just like you were worried about Scott the other day. Did Scott want you to get the Doc…or me for that matter?”
Johnny turned his head away. “Different.”
“No, son, it’s not,” Murdoch said quietly. “I know you had to be on your own for a long time. You learned how to take care of yourself because there wasn’t anyone to do it for you. But you have your family here now.”
“No!” The forceful answer made Johnny cough, but with supreme effort, he reined it back. “Don’t need you.”
“Maybe not, but I need you. And so does Scott.” There was so much more to his argument. So much more Murdoch wanted to say to his youngest. But he let those few words linger in the air between them.
Five minutes passed, then ten. All Johnny could think about was how much he wanted to lie down. Maybe if he waited long enough, the old man would get bored. Or hungry. A man Murdoch’s size had to eat a half a cow a day.
As the silence wore on and Johnny felt his minimal strength waning, he muttered, ”Are ya just waitin’ for me to fall over?”
He was surprised when Murdoch chuckled. “If it comes to that.”
Johnny growled in frustration. It was unlikely he could stand without help, never mind resaddle a horse and ride off to nowhere good. “Fine!” he huffed. “I’ll go back to the hotel. Back stairs, my own room so I don’t keep Scott awake coughing all night, no visitors.”
“I’ll agree to one through three. No to four.”
Johnny waited for the lecture on needing someone to take care of him. But all that came was more silence. And an inferno of pain in his side.
Damn, the old man is tough!
”Okay.” Heavy sigh. “Pedro can check in on me. Deal?”
Another coughing jag did not help Johnny’s argument. It wasn’t as bad as the previous one, but he was so exhausted his bones felt liquified, moments away from puddling beneath the bench.
He didn’t notice Murdoch moving, but suddenly his father’s heavy coat was wrapped around his shoulders, radiating warmth, enveloping him in the scents of pipe tobacco, coffee and lime aftershave. He drew himself into its comfort, curling over to lie on the hard bench, perfectly happy to spend the day there.
Murdoch had other ideas. He moved to Johnny’s other side, so as not to put pressure on his ribs, and gently lifted the boy into his strong arms. He was surprised how light Johnny felt. Given the boy’s toughness and grit, he’d expected the teenager to be much heavier. Murdoch’s hip was grateful that Johnny wasn’t, and also that it was only a few short steps behind the livery and past the land office to the back stairs of the hotel.
The stairs gave him pause, but one glance from the cook, Violet, who also happened to be the proprietor’s wife, had immediate help from her husband, Richard, and eldest son, Paul. Murdoch fully expected to need to move Cipriano and Pedro out of their room. Instead, Richard nodded the procession to the room opposite Scott’s. He explained that earlier he’d booted out a traveling salesman who’d gotten obnoxiously drunk the night before.
Once Johnny’s last ounce of stamina had fled him at the livery, he was out. Not unconscious, but deeply into a fevered and unguarded sleep, where he offered no resistance as he was stripped to his longjohns. A visit from Dr. Barnes, a bandage change and wound cleaning with carbolic acid, and a hot, potent poultice being laid across his chest brought no more than a few murmured words and restless shifting.
After an hour of frantic activity and multiple people passing in and out of the room, Murdoch finally found himself alone with Johnny, the only sounds in the room the boy’s wheezy breathing and the soft creak of the bed frame in response to the chills that shuddered through the lean body.
Murdoch resisted the urge to lay a blanket over the shivering youth. Barnes said his fever was too high. He needed to be sponged and kept cool, the poultice the only acceptable form of warmth until the fever broke.
Murdoch diligently wiped the youth down, tears running down his cheeks as he counted every rib and noted several scarred bullet and knife wounds. The worst had been when they’d sat Johnny up to re-bind his ribs, revealing the whip marks layered across his back. Murdoch had barely grabbed a chamber pot in time before he’d lost his breakfast. The others in the room had shown Murdoch only sympathy; Violet had her own tears dampening her cheeks.
At the sound of the doorknob turning, Murdoch quickly wiped his face on his shirtsleeve. He wasn’t at all surprised to see a blond head peer through the opening. “Scott, this isn’t what Dr. Barnes meant when he said you could be up for a few minutes in your room.”
Scott came fully into the room, limping slightly, his eyes on his fever-drugged brother. “Why didn’t you bring him to our room, Murdoch?”
“He was afraid his coughing would keep you awake.”
Scott raised his eyebrows as he made his way to his brother’s bedside. “He thinks I’m going to sleep when he’s this sick?”
“Considering that his alternate plan was to ride out on Rusty with no money, no jacket, and no bedroll, I’d say that his normally sharp mind was a bit fever-fogged.”
“He was going to leave?”
Murdoch could hear the desolation in his elder son’s voice.
“Only briefly, which was why he was taking Rusty. He told George if we needed to leave before he got back, for you to take Diablo and he’d meet us at Lancer to switch.”
Scott eased himself down onto the bed by Johnny’s legs, able to feel the heat of the boy’s fever against his hip. “Do you think that means he’s willing to give Lancer…and us a chance?”
“Maybe.” Murdoch thought it much more likely Johnny was simply planning to swap horses and be on his way. “Cipriano said Johnny isn’t ready to let go of the lies his mother told him about me.”
Scott watched his father unconsciously carding his fingers through Johnny’s hair. “I do understand the difficulty of accepting that level of betrayal from someone who supposedly loves you,” he said stiffly.
Murdoch met his gaze with a brief nod. “Of course you do, son. And the pain of wondering why a father who knew where you were never came for you. I’m ashamed of the opportunities I squandered.” With a deep sigh, the leathered hands returned to sponging Johnny down. “I fear I burned a bridge that can never be rebuilt when I didn’t send for him last year.”
“I wish you had trusted me enough to discuss it with me.” Scott couldn’t quite release his bitterness over Murdoch’s unilateral and wrong-headed decision. “I had a right to know.”
Murdoch hung his head, absently twisting the fever-cloth he held. “Yes, Scott, you did. I was wrong. Wretchedly, and perhaps unforgivably, wrong.” Shuddering, he raised his slate blue eyes to trace over Johnny’s features, pale and somewhat gray, except for where two splotches of red on his cheeks spoke of his fever. “I lost you both when you were babies, then again, without even knowing it, almost lost you each forever in your separate wars. I finally bring you home but couldn’t protect you from Ruiz. That animal stole you away and I thought, I feared…” Slowly, the graying head shook back and forth. “Now within the last two days, you nearly die and Johnny… I guess I’m not meant to be a father.”
Scott reached over to catch Murdoch’s wrist. “Stop. You didn’t cause Grandfather or Maria to make the choices they did and you’re not to blame for Ruiz’s actions. I’m all right now, and we have to believe that Johnny will be too. Together, we’ll convince him to come home with us.”
“Do you really think we can?”
Scott cocked his head as he looked at his younger brother. “It’s two stubborn Lancers against one. We have him outnumbered.”
He’d been under the water for days now, feeling it ooze in and out of his lungs with every syrupy breath. Johnny couldn’t understand how he hadn’t drowned fully, a fate he’d gladly trade for this merciless purgatory. Was he still in the Mexican prison and this some new form of torture?
Occasionally, he could make out warbled voices and once or twice he’d managed to force open his weighted eyelids to see watery faces peering down at him. The features were too blurred to recognize, but far too pale to be Rurales. And sometimes they even tried to help him, pulling him up out of the icy depths, then pounding on his back to help him retch up the vile liquid that robbed his lungs of air. It hurt his chest, sides and back horribly when they did so. Despite his best efforts, moans and cries came out with the water. Perhaps that’s why they would always lay him right back beneath the surface. He wished he could tell them that he’d far rather have triple the pain than the slow suffocation. But there was never enough air to speak, or strength to move, fight, or even stay awake.
Johnny felt himself drifting with the current, a new sensation, previously an enormous weight on his chest had held him under and still. The water felt warmer now, and lighter, as if small bubbles allowed tiny amounts of air into his lungs. A wave of comfort washed over him; he accepted it gratefully and floated away.
Val Crawford looked down at the pale, still form in the narrow hotel bed, gritting his teeth to keep back a gasp of anguish. His emotions had seesawed from ecstatic upon reading the telegram that confirmed Johnny was alive, to fearful that even immediately deputizing Randy Fellows and hitting the trail wouldn’t get him to Green Valley before Johnny took off to parts unknown, to hopeful that finding a family could finally be the reason Johnny would quit gunfighting. Now he was terrified that the great Johnny Madrid would be taken out by a stray bullet and the fever and pneumonia that had engulfed him for the last four days.
“His fever finally broke last night,” Scott’s reassuring hand came to rest on Val’s shoulder. “And Dr. Barnes says his lungs have begun to clear. Thank God.”
“Boy always did run high fevers,” Val eased himself into the chair at the bedside, placing a calloused hand on Johnny’s forehead. It was only slightly warm. “And pneumonia comes easy to him after some thugs tried to burn him and Maria out of their place and he swallowed a ton of smoke.” He was uneasily aware of Murdoch standing silently watchful by the far window. While the rancher had greeted him with a handshake and “thanks for coming,” the man’s eyes had warned him to tread very carefully.
He lightly stroked a damp lock of hair from Johnny’s brow, smiling as flashes of blue flickered up at him. “Well, you’re a sorry sight, boy. Always finding trouble.”
It took several tries before Johnny could fix on his face. The eyes fell right back closed again, but a tiny smile graced the cracked lips. “Papi.” It was a whisper of sound and one Val hoped didn’t reach Murdoch’s ears. He could tell Scott heard it though, as Val’s peripheral vision caught the son’s glance toward his father.
“Right here, after 4 not so pleasant days in the saddle, I tell ya.” Val’s words were gruff but his touch gentle as he lifted Johnny’s head and helped him drink. The boy’s eyes drifted around the room, his brow furrowed in concentration as they settled briefly on Murdoch then Scott.
“Whatcha doin’ outta bed, Boston?” Johnny asked hoarsely, as he was laid back.
“I’ve been fully cleared by Dr. Barnes to be up rousting your lazy butt out of bed.” Scott smiled down at his brother.
Johnny smiled lazily, his eyes already closed. “Just a quick nap first, okay?”
“Sure, a quick one.” Scott chuckled, knowing Johnny was asleep before the words left his lips.
“Thank you, son.” Murdoch accepted the mug of hot coffee from Scott with a weary smile.
“You should really be getting some rest, Father.” Scott admonished gently as he sipped his own steaming brew. He rarely called Murdoch “Father” but felt Murdoch deserved to hear evidence of their ever-strengthening bond, especially with Val here. “Dr. Barnes says that Johnny is past the worst of it now. You’ve had only catnaps for days now.”
“You’ve had as little sleep as I have.” Murdoch lifted a paternal brow, inwardly rejoicing at the term of endearment.
“Ah, but I wasn’t up with another sick son for 2 nights beforehand.” Scott’s gratitude for his father’s caring showed in his eyes and a warm touch to Murdoch’s wrist.
“And you think that reminding me how sick you were just a few days ago will convince me that I need rest more than you do?” Murdoch responded wryly.
Scott smiled. “No, I can choose my battles more wisely than that, sir. But Val is here and willing to stay up with Johnny tonight.” At the pained look that crossed Murdoch’s face when the elder man glanced to where Val occupied the seat he’d warmed for 4 nights straight, Scott lowered his voice. “I’m sorry if asking Val to come has made this more painful for you.”
Murdoch’s gaze remained distant for a moment before he shook his head. “Nothing that helps to bring your brother home could cause me pain, Scott.” He blinked slowly, then took several more sips of coffee. “You’re right, let’s finish up and both get some sleep. I suspect that after riding hell-bent for leather to get here, Val will hit the wall around 2 am. I’ll take the next watch and you can relieve me at 6.
It wasn’t what Scott was going for when he said his father needed a good night’s sleep, but he knew he was lucky to have gotten what he had.
“What the hell do ya think yer doing?” Val roared, as he awoke from a cat-nap to find Johnny half-way out of bed on the opposite side. The shout startled Johnny, almost sending him off the edge before Val’s long fingers dug into his collarbone to stabilize him.
“Shh, Val, you’re gonna wake the place,” Johnny hushed, squirming to get out from under the nerve-pinching grasp. “Ow, you’re hurting me.”
“This is nothing compared to what I’ll do to yer skinny ass if you don’t lie down this second!” Val maneuvered himself around the bottom of the bed without letting up on his grip. “Where the blazes do ya think yer going?”
“I gotta…” Johnny nodded his head toward the chamber pot that was partially hidden under the bed.
“So ask for some damn help! Whatcha think I’m sittin’ up with ya for, my entertainment?”
“Well, ya wasn’t exactly up, Val,” Johnny smirked as Val helped steady him to accomplish his goal, “In fact, your snoring was what woke me up.”
“I don’t snore,” Val retorted with indignation. “Get back in the bed. Ya been dancin’ at death’s door for days now. Off yer feet afore I kick ‘em out from underneath ya.”
“Jeez, you woke up on the wrong side of the chair.” Johnny groused, allowing Val to guide him to sit on the bed but refusing to lie back. His entire body shook with the strain of the brief exertion. He wrapped his arms around himself. “How long?” His question was soft.
“Four days, according to Scott.” Val’s response was gentler. He wrapped a quilt around Johnny’s bare shoulders. “Everyone was real scared for ya.”
“Is Scott the one who sent for you?” Johnny vaguely remembered having talked to Scott some about Val. But that seemed a lifetime ago.
“Nope, Lancer wired me. Said he needed my help getting ya home.” Seeing his charge was not going to settle back, Val dragged the chair around to sit in front of Johnny, passing the boy a glass of water. He watched as Johnny drank, recognizing the shuttered look that meant the teenager’s emotions were racing. “Ya wanna talk about it?”
“Hell no. I don’t even want to think about it.” Johnny coughed a few times. He rubbed his forehead with an unsteady hand. “Ya like being a sheriff in that Green River place?”
“Sure do. Just enough action to keep me from gettin’ bored, not enough to stink up my jailhouse. Got a nice 4 bunker there. Plus I got my own place on the edge of town. There’s some real nice people around,” Val stopped short of saying, ‘you’ll like it.’, though he was tempted. If he pushed too hard, Johnny would bolt, figuratively at least.
Johnny moved back to sit cross-legged on the bunk, drawing his cold feet under the quilt, his eyes on the star pattern. “Have you been to Lancer?”
“Yep, a few times. The Cattle Growers Association brung me to Green River just after the mess with Pardee. Boy, howdy, ol’ Day sure met his match in yer brother! Then, of course, when Ruiz snatched Scott, we ran a bunch a posses outta there. It takes up somethin’ like 100,000 acres. Pretty hard to miss.”
Johnny was quiet for a long while, his breathing uneven. “Did ya think I was dead, Papi?”
Val swallowed a powder keg of emotion, remembering. “I did, for a long time.” He cleared his throat, but his voice still shook. “It tore my heart out, mijo.”
Johnny kept his head bowed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know where to find you. I tried Tavares, but Mel said you just up and quit one day, disappeared, and no one had heard from you.”
Val nodded slowly, worrying a rip on the seam of his pants with tense fingers. “When I heard you was… I was no good to anybody, leastwise myself for a long time.” A deep and shuddering exhale. “Then I started hearing rumors that the Rurales didn’t execute you after all. And when there was talk of Lancer bringing his son home, I’d hoped it was you, didn’t realize he had another. Anyway, I went there to see what kinda man Lancer was to have given you and Maria the boot, got pressed into service as sheriff, then Scott got snatched and… here I am.”
Johnny watched Val’s fiddling as if the action was captivating. “So, what did you think about the man that gave me and Mama the boot?”
The fingers stilled. Val raised his deep brown eyes to Johnny’s. Johnny felt his stomach clench, awaiting the answer. Val’s mouth twisted into a frown. “Ya know yer Mama left me, right? That it wasn’t the other way around?”
Johnny dropped his eyes. “Yeah.” It was barely a whisper.
“And ya know that I woulda wanted ya with me, even though ya wasn’t my blood hijo. That even if she didn’t want me, I still wanted you.”
Johnny ground his teeth together, fighting back tears at the raw emotion in the elder man’s words. He nodded stiffly.
Val sat back, rubbing the back of his neck in an attempt to stretch out some tension. “Don’t know yer old man too good. But it seems to me that she mighta done the same thing to him. And I suspect…” He waited until Johnny looked at him to finish, “…that your Pa wanted you with him as much as I did.”
Johnny sat very still for a long moment. “Not once he knew I was Johnny Madrid…” he said softly, no anger in his voice, only pain.
Val leaned forward to squeeze the thin shoulder, this time in comfort. “Well boy, don’t know a lotta people whose first reaction is to want to bring a gunhawk home. I ain’t saying that he was right to wait so long or to do it this way. But I think 14 years of looking for ya and him now workin’ to get ya home is worth something.” He tucked the edge of the quilt against Johnny’s neck. “And I’ll tell ya somethin’ else. That brother of yers is no powder-puff dandy. He’s a good man. You’d break his heart if ya left him. Not to mention that I’d come haul yer ass back!” Val added the last with a slap to Johnny’s thigh. “Ya been up long enough. Back to sleep with ya.”
Johnny offered no protest. Exhausted and drained, he allowed Val to settle him back and cover him over. As he drifted off, he murmured, “Thanks for coming, Papi.”
“Wild horses couldn’t have kept me away, mijo.” Val sighed, brushing his fingers across Johnny’s temple as he settled into his chair for the remainder of the night.
It was an awkward changing of the guard. Barely past midnight, Murdoch reappeared in Johnny’s room, squint-eyed even in the dim lamplight, clearly having slept little, if at all. Val, on the other hand, was still wide awake after his earlier nap, the remnants of his conversation with Johnny whirling through his head.
“How’s he been?” Murdoch’s shadow poured over Johnny’s bed. Val stood up, his head barely reaching above the man’s shoulder in height. Murdoch claimed to be 6’5”, but to Val’s reckoning, they probably just ran out of measuring tape. Or maybe they last took the Scot’s height as a teenager, because he had to have grown at least three to four inches above the 6’5” mark.
“Sleeping mostly. A few minutes awake where he took some water and groused about drinking Violet’s tea.” Val cleared his throat awkwardly. “The stubborn cuss already tried to git outta bed on me. He’s not the best patient.”
“Well, at least that’s one way he takes after me.” Murdoch muttered under his breath, but could tell by the quirk of Val’s head the sheriff heard him. An uncomfortable silence followed. “You must be tired after all the traveling. Richard, the owner, brought an extra bunk into Cipriano and Pedro’s room. It’s the second to last room on the right before the back stairs.” Murdoch motioned in the general direction. “You should get some sleep. I’ll sit with him.”
Murdoch felt Val’s hesitation and suspected he didn’t want to leave his injured young friend. The thought blossomed that perhaps Val felt he needed to stay as some kind of protection for Johnny waking to find his despised father in the room. Murdoch’s anger flared at the embarrassment of having this half-stranger here who knew his son far better than he did, and who carried the name he himself should hold…Papi.
Val rose and made it almost to the door before he turned. Murdoch braced for a confrontation. But Val’s gaze was gentle as it ran over the too thin, too pale form beneath the layered blankets. “He’s a good boy, Mr. Lancer.” The voice was raspy, like a watermill grinding stone. “He ain’t like whatcha mighta heard. No matter what he’s been put through, it never turned his heart black.
“But trust ain’t something he’s had much experience with, at least much good experience. I ain’t one to speak against the dead, but Maria, if you’ll excuse me saying so, she done him wrong with some things she told him that weren’t right or proper. I’m afraid it’s gonna be real hard for him to let go of them.” Narrow brown eyes now turned to meet Murdoch’s unflinchingly. “I’d do anything for this boy, including dying twice over. I want him out of gunfightin’, and I’ll fight by yer side to git him to Lancer and to try to keep him there.
“Now, while I ain’t trying to interfere in your family, I am gonna tell ya something else,” Val chewed the edge of his mustache as he considered his next words. “Johnny may be hard as granite on the outside, but his heart ain’t protected by all that stone. If’n ya can’t let ride the things that boy has had to do to stay alive, yer gonna lose him, quick as he can clear leather with that there Colt.” The sheriff surveyed the sleeping youth one last time as he prepared to leave. “His spirit is as wild as that black devil horse of his. Ya gotta build trust with him, not try to break him. Watch him with horses and you’ll see.” Val shuffled his feet awkwardly, glancing at Murdoch as his hand reached for the doorknob.
Murdoch met the gaze, but only nodded stiffly, unable to put his tumbling thoughts and emotions into words. The door clicking closed behind Val sounded like a cocking gun in the ensuing silence.
I can tell it’s the old man sitting there. Just what I need, for him to see me weak as an acorn calf and probably looking worse than a three day old carcass.
Course, he saw me looking even worse a few days ago. He musta carried me up here.
Johnny attempted to sort out the bizarre collection of memories, dreams, and emotions that muddled his brain. His tactical mind was normally almost as quick as his draw; it had saved him countless times. It was what made even much older pistoleros bow to his leadership in range wars and the like. But he had no idea how to approach his conflicting feelings toward the man who, still unaware he was awake, was absently tracing massive fingers over the back of his hand.
He had a memory of Murdoch’s gravelly voice recounting stories from his time at Lancer as he’d floated through the hazy days of fever. How Johnny, as a toddler, had clamped his teeth down on the corner of the coffee table in an effort to resist being sent to bed. He wanted to open his eyes and ask to hear the story again so he could know the ending -although he suspected it included a wallop to his butt to get him to let go.
But he was afraid.
Wait, Madrid ain’t afraid of no one. Well, maybe a little afraid of Lancer who could pick me up and toss me across the room. Been on that ride before from big men, ain’t gonna let it happen again. Some part of Johnny knew Murdoch Lancer wasn’t the kind of man who beat his kids. Yet, that didn’t mean he couldn’t hurt Johnny very badly. Remember, it ain’t Madrid he wants to bring home.
Giving up the pretense of sleep, Johnny opened his eyes. It was only barely dawn and a gloomy one at that. Even with help from the oil lamp, the morning light didn’t make it more than a few feet into the room. As soon as he showed he was awake, Murdoch’s hand quickly withdrew from his, stuttered a moment, then reached for a water glass.
“Are you awake enough to drink?” The gruff question belied the gentleness of the touch just moments before.
Johnny nodded, trying to lift himself up so Murdoch wouldn’t need to help, but his arms were too weak and shaky. The water felt cool and fresh despite having spent the night on the side table.
“Thanks.” Johnny sank back. He wanted little more than to get up on his own to tend to his morning needs, but last night it had taken him 4 attempts while Val slept before he was successful in getting to the side of the bed. He didn’t cotton to having the old man be witness to that indignity.
“Do you think you can sleep more? It’s still early.” Murdoch tucked the blankets back around him. There was something very comforting in that simple action.
“Not really sleepy. You look pretty done in, though. Been here all night?”
Murdoch’s smile was wry. “Once I could wrestle Val away from your side. And I’m sure Scott will be showing his face in pretty short order.”
That would be good. Johnny wouldn’t be embarrassed having to use the chamber pot with Scott, after all the times Scott had needed to use it when he was sick. Johnny was determined to be up walking around by nightfall at the latest. A series of coughs reminded him that his body might have other ideas about that.
“Efram left some cough syrup for you.” Murdoch picked up a green bottle and spoon and began measuring out a dose.
“Efram, hmm, you and Doc Barnes on a first name basis, are ya?”
Murdoch snorted, “Considering how much we’ve needed his services this week, he’s practically one of the family.” As soon as the joke passed Murdoch’s lips, Johnny saw him realize the awkwardness of it. A few days earlier, Johnny would have grabbed at the chance to get a dig into the old man about “family”. But the memory of his father wrapping him into the warmth of his giant coat when he felt so miserable and in pain, pushed away his desire to be cocky. Instead, he obediently opened his mouth to the vile medicine and swallowed it down.
“Your hip must be twinging you from spending the night in that hard chair.”
Murdoch chuckled. “I was just trying to decide if I dared to try to stand up now that I have a witness.”
The similarity to Johnny’s own thoughts a moment ago made the youth laugh.
“Oh, you think that’s funny do you?” Murdoch snorted, but his face brightened considerably at the sound of his son’s laughter. “Just remember, if I fall over getting up, it’s going to be right on top of you.”
“Good point,” Johnny acknowledged. Murdoch stretched gingerly, then slowly rose to his full height, albeit with substantial support from both the nightstand and chair back. As he straightened, Johnny had the distinct sense of watching a redwood grow high above the other trees in the forest.
And me a little scrub brush down here on the forest floor. Sure as hell hope I don’t hear someone call, “Timber!”
Murdoch caught the smile Johnny couldn’t quite hold back.
“Just you wait until it’s your turn to get up, son. You won’t be moving too smoothly yourself.”
Johnny knew that to be true. He just hoped Scott showed his face soon to help him up or he was going to be in big trouble.
Johnny was indeed up walking by nightfall.
Six feet to a chair set by the window.
With Val waddling behind, arms outstretched like a wrestler preparing to dive in with his best hold. A coughing fit 4 steps from his destination almost pressed Val into service, but Johnny managed to lurch forward to grab the windowsill to help lower himself into the chair. He was very glad that Murdoch had joined Scott downstairs for dinner and had not been witness to the inelegant display.
“Ya just had to be in such an all-fired hurry to get up when ya got no darn place you gotta go.” Val groused as Johnny bent over with another coughing jag, hugging his battered ribs against the jostling. “Here, let me get ya some water.”
That was a hell of a lot harder than I expected. I’d better get my crap together if I don’t want to travel to Lancer in the bed of a wagon.
Under subtle -and not-so-subtle- pressure from 5 men at once that afternoon, Johnny had reluctantly agreed to give the ranch, and the family that went with it, a try. The excited smile that graced Scott’s face warmed Johnny’s heart. Pedro gave a happy whoop and both Cipriano and Val nodded their pleased approval. Murdoch’s expression was completely inscrutable to Johnny, who prided himself on his ability to read people. Shock, uncertainty, worry? Certainly not joy.
Well, old man, I’ve called your bluff. Let’s see which one of us is sorrier about it.
“Stop fussing, Val,” Johnny admonished as the man brought a procession of drinks, quilts, and medicines his way. “I’m fine.”
“Fine as a burlap sack, I’d say,” Val snorted. “I don’t wanna be leavin’ the Lancers with a hacking swad of skin and bones to haul home across two states.”
The word struck Johnny like a felling blow. Val saw it before Johnny could draw up his Madrid mask. The elder man pulled a chair around and settled into it.
“I could stay on if ya need me to. Rand can handle things for a few more weeks.” Val was leaving in the morning with Cipriano and Pedro as it would be at least another week before Johnny could travel.
“Ya gonna live at Lancer with me, too, to hold my hand?” Johnny teased, although appreciating the offer.
“If that’s what I need to do to make sure you give your father and brother a chance.” Val was well aware that his presence only added to the strain between Murdoch and Johnny, which was a major reason for him heading back to Green River ahead of the family.
The bond between Val and Johnny had been instantaneous when Johnny was 5 and it had rekindled immediately when they met up again 8 years later. Much the same way it had been between Scott and Johnny.
Murdoch would be a whole other story. Val had no idea how to advise Johnny on it. The words he’d spoken to Murdoch were the deepest Val had ever gone into an emotional conversation with anyone but Johnny. He only hoped the elder Lancer could get past the animosity toward him to truly hear what he’d said.
“I said I’d go, didn’t I?” Johnny’s irritation was a sign of his anxiety. Val didn’t let it get a rise out of him. The silence that followed served to settle Johnny. He leaned onto the window sill, peering out into the darkness. “I can’t figure the old man out. Half the time he acts all fatherly, pushing me to eat, making rules about staying in bed or when I can travel. Other times… “ Johnny’s voice became very quiet. “It’s like he can’t even stand to look at me.” Long, slender fingers traced a crack in the window sash. “Madrid killed his boy. That’s what I see in his eyes.”
Val stretched out his gangly legs, rubbing at his stubbled cheeks with the back of his hand. “I don’t think that’s it. It ain’t mad I read in his face. Maybe he just ain’t sure what to make of his little boy all growed up.” He straightened back up, the soles of his boots scuffing in the grit on the floor. “I reckon I was more than a bit taken aback myself seeing ya riding that black monster outta nowhere after 8 years, picking off those murdering yahoos as easy as if you was born with that gun in yer hand. I didn’t know if I should hug ya or take ya over my knee!”
Johnny smiled at the memory of Val’s completely dumbstruck expression and the way the pistolero blistered his ears for a good five minutes afterward for almost getting himself killed before pulling him into a bearhug so fierce, it nearly squeezed the stuffing out of him. “I think a whooping might’ve hurt less than the hug.”
Val colored with remembered emotion. “Yeah, well, don’t you worry, that’s what it’ll be if ya ever try a damn full stunt like that again.”
Johnny laughed. “It did sorta save your ass, ya know.”
“I woulda been just fine without yer interference. I was just playing ‘em until the time was right.”
“Sure,” Johnny snorted, which set off a spell of coughing. It didn’t stop him from getting in his dig, ”so the noose they was… doin up was…your necktie for… their barn dance?”
“Insolent pup!” Val lightly smacked the back of Johnny’s head. “All I’m saying is give yer father the same chance you gave me to get back into your life. Now, let’s get yer skinny butt back to bed before yer in a heap on the floor. I’m heading out early in the morning and need to hit the hay.”
“Val, it’s like 7:00!” Johnny didn’t battle Val about going back to bed. He was wretchedly sore and his legs felt like jelly. Val, in turn, didn’t rib him about the help he needed to get there.
“Which means four am is gonna be here before I know it. I can wait until Scott is back from dinner if ya want.” Val could tell Johnny was reluctant for him to leave. At least this time, unlike the last two, it would only be a few days of separation. Still, Val knew the journey would be brutal for Johnny. He wished he could be there to support him.
“I don’t need a babysitter.”
“The hell you don’t!” Val got Johnny settled after another drink of water. His heart lurched as he looked down at the pale boy, who was very much still that, just a boy. One who’d been forced into adulthood at the obscenely young age of ten. Now, he had his family to help him settle into the life he should have had all those lonely, tormented years.
All Val had to do was figure out how to help Johnny stay around long enough to accept that.
Scott gave a heavy sigh as he watched Johnny stomp off into the copse of trees that surrounded their campsite. Stomp wasn’t the most accurate term, as Johnny barely had the energy to propel himself into the gathering darkness.
“Ordering him around is not helping your cause,” Scott’s quiet words pulled Murdoch’s gaze off the boy’s retreating form and deepened the frown on the older man’s face.
“He needs to take better care of himself. He’s still dealing with the remnants of pneumonia and it’s clearly going to rain tonight. He needs to sleep under the wagon.”
“I don’t disagree, but ordering him to is only going to make him push back. Try giving him a choice.”
“Why, when saying no is not an option?” Murdoch tossed a glare toward the woods. “It’s like he doesn’t care if he makes it to Lancer. Is the idea of coming home so abhorrent to him that he’d just as soon die along the way?”
Scott straightened, moving a few steps closer to his father to be able to keep his response low. “Johnny didn’t have to choose to come home at all. Most kids his age would’ve been whining the whole trip and certainly would have opted to stay another few days in last night’s hotel. He’s been taking care of himself for a long time. I think the problem is, he’s not used to having anyone else do it. All three of us can’t fit under the wagon, yet we’re all recovering from injuries.” He raised a calming hand to forestall Murdoch’s argument. “Johnny won’t tolerate being singled out. Showing weakness is a death sentence for… someone in his trade.” He hoped avoiding the term “gunfighter” would avert Murdoch’s knee-jerk response. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
“He isn’t in that ‘trade’ anymore,” Murdoch growled. “He’s part of our family and needs to respect my guidance. He’s still a boy and I won’t allow him to make choices that put himself or our family at risk!”
“If that’s the way yer thinking, old man, Diablo and I will be on our way,” Johnny’s drawl came from the edge of the darkness. “Just because I agreed to go with you to Lancer, don’t mean I’m giving myself over to you, and it sure as hell don’t mean Madrid ain’t coming along.”
Scott moved to Johnny’s side of the campfire, demonstrating where his loyalties lay in this. “Murdoch only meant that you have family to watch out for you now, so it’s safe to let your guard down.” The firelight emphasized the intensity in Scott’s eyes as he looked back at their father, imploring him to step back from his authoritarian stance.
Johnny waited a beat, reading no such capitulation in Murdoch’s eyes. “It ain’t never safe to let my guard down, Boston, even more so now with family close.” He narrowed his gunfighter stare at the granite-jawed giant across from him. “Do you really think gunhawks out there are gonna just say, ‘ol’ Madrid got himself a family now, so let’s just let him be’? If anything, they’re gonna hope it distracts me or makes me lose my edge. You remember all those reasons why you didn’t bring me home a year ago? They’re still there, old man, and repercussions from what I did in Nogales will only add to them.”
“They’d really come after you from Mexico?” Murdoch asked. “People hated Ruiz, not to mention, you gave them the estancia.”
“But we basically took it from the Rurales. Who do you think he was in league with?”
“But the Rurales can’t cross the border…”
“No, but their pistoleros can… and will. Right now, they’re focused on trying to get the estancia back.” Before he left, Cipriano had been in wire-contact with Enrique Ramos, the unofficially elected leader of the estancia community. They were under siege from the Rurales. It wasn’t unexpected. Not only did the estancia provide beef, produce, horses, and wine to the corrupt political regime, it had previously withheld the same from surrounding residents. No longer starving and finally having a safe and well-paying place to work, estancia neighbors were anxious to help hold off the Rurales. Helping their efforts enormously was the discovery of a massive cache of gold, silver, and ammunition hidden inside wine barrels in the storage house. Whether in victory or defeat, the Rurales would be certain to track down the man who had caused them so much grief. “They’ll be coming for me. That’s what you’re bringing to your doorstep, old man.”
“Not because of you, Johnny,” Scott interjected, “because of me. They may target you, but you wouldn’t have been there if you weren’t rescuing me.”
“Or hired by me.” Murdoch wiped a leathered hand down his face. He stared into the fire, shaking his head slowly.
Scott seized the moment. “So we’re in this as a family. No more talk of any of us going it alone. I’m going to see if I can rig up a tarp between the wagon and that tree so we might all be somewhat protected from the rain. And then I want some coffee or other warming libation, if one of you wouldn’t mind getting it started.”
“I’ll do the coffee,” Johnny offered, “as I have no clue what a ‘libation’ would look like.”
Murdoch chuckled, pulling a bottle of whiskey from it’s carefully cosseted spot among blankets in the wagon bed. “Like this.”
“Now, why wouldn’t he just say ‘whiskey’?”
Scott hid a smile as he set about his task. Family meltdown averted.
Murdoch held his breath as he pulled the wagon to a stop on the overlook of Lancer. This was the spot where he and Catherine first fell in love with the land, although it looked far different in those early years than it did now. The hacienda had been little more than crumbling walls and a leaky roof. There’d been no barns, no bunkhouses, he’d even needed to redig an outhouse before they could stay there. 3 small broken-fenced corrals were empty and only a few head of cattle roamed the open pastures. By the time he’d brought Maria to this spot, the adobe hacienda was solid and welcoming. There were 2 barns and a bunkhouse, along with a smattering of small outbuildings. He’d had 8 ranch hands, a dozen good cow ponies, and upwards of 400 head of prime beef. To say Maria fell in love with Lancer was an exaggeration, but she did appreciate the Spanish-style home and the fact that half of the hired men were vaqueros. Of course, she’d expected far more, including servants to la doña.
Scott, on the other hand, had expected a mud hut hastily fashioned amid a wilderness of cactus, rattlesnakes, and savages, as per the descriptions he’d heard from his grandfather since childhood. A low whistle had accompanied his first glimpse of his birthright. “Impressive, sir.”
Murdoch and Scott had exchanged smiles when they’d crossed onto Lancer nearly an hour earlier, in silent agreement that nothing would be said until they reached this special spot.
“Here we are, Johnny,” Murdoch cleared the anxious tightness from his throat. “Everything you see, all the way to the mountains, is Lancer.”
Both men’s eyes were on Johnny as he slowly stood from the wagon seat, surveying the acres of lush grazing land, dozens of buildings, cattle, horses, and even, barely visible, Maria’s chickens. The supply pond, past the far corral, glinted blue and silver. Hawks soared and sparrows flitted between the trees and the barn lofts. A quarter mile below stood the white Lancer arch, a solitary sentry in the bright afternoon sun.
Scott prepared himself for anger. After all, Johnny had grown up poor, hungry, and alone, while all of this wealth had been held out of his reach. The grim expression on Murdoch’s face showed he expected the same, especially when Johnny sat back down without speaking. The boy’s eyes never stopped their constant scanning of every inch of Lancer’s stunning beauty.
Resolutely, Murdoch reached for the reins as he released the brake. He almost missed it when Johnny whispered, “So this is what home looks like.”
Murdoch shot a glance at Scott who had heard it, too. “That’s right, little brother. Isn’t it beautiful?”
The air was festive around the Lancer table as the family celebrated the highly successful fall cattle drive. Of course, there had been wild celebrations in Stockton and again after the hands had returned to the ranch, but this Sunday afternoon gathering was a quieter -and notably less drunken- affair, for family and close friends, including Paul and Theresa O’Brien; Cipriano, Elena and Pedro; Sam; Maria and her husband Julio, and Aggie Conway. Val had been invited as well, but was helping out the new sheriff in Five Corners after the previous one had high-tailed it out of town when a handful of desperados thought they’d enjoy making the town their own.
It hadn’t been the easiest five months as the family adjusted to being together. Murdoch and Johnny fought frequently. Murdoch played the role of the chief tuner-caller to the hilt; in response, Johnny alternated between the stormy adolescent and the hardened gunfighter. There were a few close calls to him packing up and leaving, but after Scott chased him down in a panic a couple of times, Johnny quietly assured him he wouldn’t leave for good. He might need a day or four to settle his brain and find a way to talk to Murdoch, but he was committed to his family and to the ranch that was his birthright.
Today, though, was a hard one for Johnny. He despised crowds, and virtually every member of this one wanted to hold onto him while talking six inches from his face. He’d had too much to drink in town the night before and his head still felt scraped raw inside. But it wasn’t the crowd or the headache that made him struggle to stay seated with the others while awaiting dessert. It was the reason he’d gotten uncharacteristically drunk last night in a quiet corner of the saloon.
Today was his mother’s birthday.
In the years since her death, his own birthday had passed unnoticed several times, but he’d always marked his mother’s with a day spent alone, remembering all he’d loved about her. This year, the specter of her lies spread a cloud of uncertainty and despair over his reflections. As much as he needed to be alone to handle it, he couldn’t bring himself to ruin the family’s celebration by disappearing. Especially, as no one would know the reason why he’d bailed on them.
His mother’s birthday, as well as the woman herself, had been forgotten at Lancer.
He couldn’t really blame them. She had, after all, stolen him away from his home and the people who had loved him. For fifteen years, they’d likely been afraid to mention her name, for fear of setting off El Patron’s anger, or worse, his heartache.
Nothing of hers remained. The special china and silverware that graced the massive dining room table were wedding presents from Murdoch’s marriage to Scott’s mother. In the great room, the grand piano was Murdoch’s gift to Catherine on their first wedding anniversary; the massive iron replica of the Lancer brand in its place of honor over the fireplace, her gift to him on the same occasion. Catherine made the curtains, embroidered the tablecloth, spent hours poring over catalogs to pick out the right furniture. Story upon story of Catherine’s touches on the Lancer home. Not a single one of his mother’s. Desperate to find even one bit of evidence that he and his mother had ever lived here, he’d even scoured all four corners of the coffee table in the great room, looking for tiny toddler teeth marks.
Wiped away as if Mama never existed. Even her husband doesn’t remember her birthday.
Maria brought out a massive tray filled with delectable pastries to a shower of “oohs” and “aahs”. As she angled the tray for Aggie to make her selection, Johnny spotted the delicate rose pattern engraved into the ornate metal trim.
A shudder passed through Johnny at the realization, making him go pale.
Mama always said that a shiver meant someone was walking across your grave. Is that how this feels, Mama? Like they’re stomping all over your grave?
Suddenly unable to breathe, Johnny pushed himself back from the table. Scott looked up and, seeing his brother’s ashen features, mouthed, “Are you okay?”. He worried Johnny’s hangover was rearing its ugly head and didn’t want to draw Murdoch’s attention to it. Murdoch had already laid heavily into Johnny the previous night.
“Just need some air.” A little louder, “Excuse me.”
And the boy was gone, through the kitchen, and out into the garden.
Scott groaned inwardly when he saw Murdoch note Johnny’s departure, scowl, and excuse himself to follow. Scott caught their father’s eye, silently pleading with him not to ruin the celebration by getting after Johnny, especially within earshot of their guests. And when Murdoch bellowed, everyone was within earshot. Murdoch gave Scott what Johnny nicknamed his “I call the tune face” and disappeared through the kitchen as well.
As Scott sighed and reluctantly turned back to the post-dinner conversation, Sam gave him an empathetic smile. He had been Scott’s primary ally in the ‘how to keep Murdoch from driving Johnny away’ battle over these last months. Sam was one of Murdoch’s closest friends, and one of the few, along with Aggie Conway, who had no qualms about him bringing Johnny Madrid home. To Maria and Cipriano and his family, there had never been another choice. Paul, on the other hand, Murdoch’s staunchest supporter during the early years of searching for Johnny, was now struggling with the idea of his daughter growing up in such close proximity to a notorious gunfighter, even if they were less than two years apart in age. And most of Murdoch’s fellow ranch owners and several of the townsfolk had taken it upon themselves to share concerns of impending doom with him, or more frequently, into the insidious gossip stream.
Sam had warmed to Johnny quickly during his visits to check on his recovery. He adored the boy’s devilish humor, at the same time respecting Johnny’s maturity and intelligence. He saw the compassionate, moral, and needy boy beneath the hardened gunfighter exterior.
But, glory, could that father and son go at it! The first few times Murdoch had stormed into his office, Sam had been certain someone had been seriously injured at the ranch, and had grabbed for his medical bag. He’d soon learned to discern the difference between Murdoch’s “there’s an emergency” stomp and door-slam, and the “I want to tan his skinny hide” ones.
Sam turned his attention to the cherry-filled pastry on his plate with a tiny smile. At least his life hadn’t been boring since Johnny came home.
Murdoch made a conscious effort to control his temper as he followed Johnny out into the garden. He was still angry that Johnny had come home drunk the night before, even though it was the first time in many Saturday night trips into town that he had done so. It embarrassed Murdoch that Johnny drank and visited upstairs with the saloon girls at the age of seventeen. It was like a red flag, drawing the townfolk’s attention to the fact that the boy had been raised wild and without paternal influence. He couldn’t change the past. But Johnny was home now, and a minor for four more years. It was his duty as the boy’s father to take him firmly in hand.
Seeing Johnny pacing, talking angrily to himself, stopped Murdoch in his tracks. He’d expected to find the boy doubled over, emptying his stomach into the bushes. What had set him off? Murdoch tried to recall what the conversation had been when Johnny had abruptly left the table. Nothing came to him.
Johnny whirled around, jabbing a finger in Murdoch’s direction. ”You do not want to be around me right now!”
Murdoch drew back, stunned. He could see his son was shaking and somehow knew it wasn’t from a hangover. Concerned, he watched Johnny’s rigid strides, taking in the way the boy’s arms were tightly wrapped around himself. He recognized the protective stance; he’d seen it often enough when they’d argued.
“Did I say something to upset you?” Murdoch braced for impact. Unlike his big brother, Johnny did not pull punches who softened his anger with a pillow of politeness that sometimes made the blows even more painful.
“I asked you to leave me alone! Go back into your little party with your fancy silverware and tiny pastries. Not even a damned cake!”
Murdoch blinked. ”You’re mad because we don’t have cake for dessert?”
Johnny stopped pacing and stared at him as if he’d asked the stupidest question in the world. Murdoch didn’t think it made sense either. But, Lord, if the boy wasn’t sheet-white and holding his stomach as if afraid his insides would tumble out if he let go.
“Are you sick? I’ll get Sam.”
“I’m not sick!” Johnny hissed. “Except of you and every one of those damn people in there who swore they loved me and Mama when we were here before, but then just wiped her right out like she never existed.” He dusted his hands together. “Gone.” Abruptly, Johnny turned away, his breath heaving as if he’d just wrangled a steer barehanded.
“Johnny,” Murdoch stepped closer, seeing his son’s torment but not understanding it’s cause.
Until the boy turned, tears in his eyes. “I know she left you, hurt you… lied to me. But, God, Murdoch, it’s her birthday. Can’t you at least give her one day?”
Murdoch was dumbstruck. “Her birth… oh God, Johnny, I forgot. I haven’t celebrated…” He remembered the party going on inside and closed his eyes in mute horror at his insensitivity. “I’m so sorry…”
“Of course you forgot, why wouldn’t you? There is absolutely nothing anywhere to remind you of her!” Johnny’s soft words screamed his torment. “Even here, in the garden she loved. Where are her dahlias, Murdoch? The flowers you told me she made paint from. They should be flowering now. Catherine’s rose bushes are here, even though they’re just sticks and thorns this time of year. And Theresa told me about all the flowers that she’s planted. Where are Mama’s flowers?”
Murdoch’s eyes were stark as they traveled to a barren section of ground. “I tore them out,” he admitted, barely above a whisper. “The last time I came home from looking for you in Mexico. They were blooming and incredibly beautiful. It made me so angry to see them…”
“Because they reminded you of her. So you pulled them out by the roots, ensuring they’d never come back. Is that what you were hoping with us, that we’d never come back either?” Murdoch’s numb head-shake only seemed to fuel Johnny’s anger. “You’d rather have an empty patch of hard ground than a beautiful memory of her… of us. Maybe you didn’t throw us out, but you sure as hell threw out every bit of evidence that we ever existed.There’s nothing left of us here, Murdoch!” Johnny spread his arms wide. “Even the coffee table with my teeth marks, if that was even a true story. Erased. Why did you even bring me home?”
The torment was so intense in the sapphire eyes, Murdoch crossed the space between them in two strides and took hold of Johnny’s upper arms. “Because you’re my son, and this is your home.”
“No, your son is a two year old baby, not a gunfighter or a kid who gets drunk on a Saturday night. It’s not me you want here.”
“That’s not true.” Murdoch gave him a gentle shake. ”Even though we fight and I struggle sometimes to know what you need from me, I want you here. I need you here.”
Johnny dropped his head, his words a stricken whisper. “I remind you of her. After you worked so hard to make her disappear. Is that how she felt when she was living here?” Invisible?” The tear-filled eyes that raised to his, tore into Murdoch’s heart. “Maybe she believed you didn’t want us here and that’s why she left. She couldn’t be the wife you wanted, and I don’t think I can be the son you want either.” Johnny tried to pull away. “I have to go.”
“No!” Desperate, Murdoch pulled Johnny tightly into his embrace. “I can’t lose you again! Please give me a chance to explain. It’s not what it looks like. Please.”
“I can’t…” Johnny was trembling in his hold. Murdoch sensed he was both trying to escape his embrace, yet in desperate need of it. He raised one hand to the back of Johnny’s head, pressing him closer.
“I love you. And I loved her.” He murmured into Johnny’s soft hair. “I hated what she did and sometimes, in the loneliness and desperation of all those years, my anger made me hate her, too. But never, never when she was here. I have some things to show you. Please, let’s go back inside.”
Murdoch felt the movement of Johnny’s headshake. “…I need to be alone…”
“No, son. You need your father. And I’m going to be here for you.” He drew Johnny back to hold his gaze. “If you need to be away from the ranch. I will go with you. But the things I want to show you are here. Can you go up the backstairs and into my room to wait for me? Please?”
Johnny wanted to argue, wanted to run. Murdoch could see it in his eyes, and feel it in the boy’s quivering muscles. He moved both hands to the back of Johnny’s neck, stoking his thumbs through the tears on his son’s face. “Please let me be with you for this. I’ve missed so much with you. All those times you were hurt or scared or alone, and I wasn’t there to help. This I can help you with. Please let me try.”
Oh, but I could fall into those haunted blue eyes. Please, God, let me do this one thing right.
Murdoch’s heart leapt when Johnny hesitantly nodded. He put his arm around his son’s thin shoulders, leading him over to the bottom of the stairs. “It might take me a few minutes to see our guests off and to gather a couple things. Please trust that I’m coming and wait for me.” He was terrified that Johnny would bolt the second he was on his own. But the boy nodded with a weariness that folded his young body over as he trudged up the stairs.
With a second, more fervent, prayer for strength, Murdoch returned inside. The women were all in the kitchen, finishing up the last of the dishes and food storage. They all looked at him with concern.
“Juanito?” Maria asked with dread.
“He’s not feeling very well so went up the backstairs to bed.”
“I’ll make him some tea.” Elena offered.
“He’s going to try to sleep. I’ll make some later if he wakes up.”
Aggie came over to him; Murdoch knew she could read more in his eyes. “We’ll leave some warming on the stove. Unless you need me, I’ll see myself out. Please tell Johnny I hope he feels better soon.”
As much as Murdoch wished he could get advice from Aggie, he simply smiled and kissed her cheek.
The conversation was repeated with the men in the great room, with Sam immediately offering to go check Johnny. Murdoch was grateful that Sam didn’t press when he said that wasn’t necessary. He was even more grateful when everyone made quick courtesies and headed home. Only Scott remained when the door closed brief minutes later.
“Is Johnny really upstairs?” Scott’s fear of Johnny taking off was as keen as his own.
“I certainly pray he is.” Murdoch crossed to the sideboard and poured himself a double.
“No.” Murdoch tossed the drink back, shuddering a bit under its impact.
“Will you tell me what happened?”
Murdoch surveyed the anxiety in his elder son’s features. “Today is Maria’s birthday.”
Scott’s eyes widened. “Yeah. And I completely blanked on it. Here we’re having this big celebration and not one mention of Johnny’s mother.”
Scott’s jaw clenched. “Is Johnny all right?”
“Honestly? No, Scott, he isn’t. But I hope to hell he will be, if I can figure out how to explain the unforgivable to him.”
“Are you all right, sir?”
Murdoch was warmed by his son’s concern. He imagined he didn’t look much better than Johnny had. “Not yet, son, but thank you for asking.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Murdoch looked over at the grand staircase, wondering when the steps had grown so foreboding. “Would you keep watch on the barn and maybe even have Rusty saddled? If I mess this up as badly as I fear I may, he’ll leave, and he might not even take the time to saddle Diablo. I don’t want him to be alone.” He turned his head back to his elder son, who nodded wordlessly, so elegant in his bearing and compassion.
Just like Catherine.
Damn, there I go again.
As he glanced around the room, he saw for the first time what Johnny had. Catherine’s touch was reflected everywhere: the afghan she’d crocheted, the scotch decanter she’d given him, even the grandfather clock that she had despised but had been given to them as a belated wedding present by her maiden great-aunt.
And there was indeed nothing that remained of Maria here. Or anywhere visible around the hacienda. With an internal groan, Murdoch headed upstairs, feeling as weighted down as if he were climbing to the gallows.
Murdoch found Johnny in an emotionally exhausted sleep. Tears were still evident on the boy’s cheeks. Murdoch had to restrain himself from stroking away the strands of hair that had been captured in the dampness. He marveled at how very young Johnny looked, huddled on his side under the heavy quilt in the massive bed.
Lowering his creaking bones into the chair beside the window, he quietly set the box he’d retrieved from the attic on the floor. His gaze went to the armoire and then a trunk in the corner, where other memories were stored. He’d wait until Johnny awoke to gather them. When he looked back, the blue eyes were watching him intently.
“Thank you for staying.” Murdoch cleared his throat of the emotion he hadn’t realized had collected there. “Sleep more if you need to. I can wait.”
Johnny shook his head and sat up, drawing the quilt around him as he shivered in the chill room. He rubbed at his face with the back of one hand, taking Murdoch back in time to a toddler who would do the same. Murdoch felt his son’s silent expectation.
“Again, I want to apologize. It was incredibly unfeeling of me to schedule the celebration today.”
“You said you forgot. Do you forget my birthday, too?” The question was too shaky to be accusatory.
“Never. And honestly, I rarely, if ever, missed your mother’s. Usually, I marked it alone, here in my room. Sometimes with anger, mostly with a plea to her to help you find your way home. For years I didn’t know if she was alive or dead,” a tremor coursed through him, ”or if you were. I didn’t understand why she left. Maybe, like you say, I made her feel invisible or unable to live up to Catherine. I never meant to.” He bent to catch his son’s downcast eyes. “I loved her, Johnny, more than I could ever explain. You’re right that she wasn’t Catherine. But I never wanted her to be. Just like you’re not Scott, and I don’t want you to be.
“Catherine was practical, Maria was wild. Catherine adored creating a home here; she sewed, she knitted, she embroidered, she baked. Maria didn’t care for any of that; she painted, she danced, she sang. That’s why so much of what you see was Catherine’s. But if you’ve noticed the tortilla press Maria uses, I bought that for your mother.”
A small smile played at Johnny’s mouth. “Tortillas, rice, and beans were the only things Mama could cook.”
“Oh, believe me, I remember. I choked down some pretty nasty meals before she started letting Maria or Elena cook for us.” Murdoch chuckled. He bent and pulled out some brightly colored bowls. “She loved these for tortilla soup. This one was supposed to be for salsa, but she used it as your baby bowl.” Johnny took the tiny, bright red bowl with orange and blue rings, and turned it reverently in his hands. “Your spoon is in here, too.” Murdoch rummaged until he pulled out a small, narrow spoon with a “J” engraved into the tarnished metal. “But, you hardly used it. You wanted everything in your hands. Even your so-called soup bowl. You’d bring it up to your lips and drink as neatly as any vaquero.”
One by one, Murdoch revealed treasures from the box, trunk, and armoire. Shawls, baby blankets, pottery, carved toys, hair combs, and perfume bottles of every size, color, and delicate shape. With each one came a story, quietly and carefully told. Murdoch lost himself in the telling, his memories rich, evocative.
Johnny was silently attentive, reaching for each item to study and stroke as Murdoch revealed its history. Last, but far from least, Murdoch pulled paintings from the armoire. He heard Johnny catch his breath as the first one was displayed, a vibrant rendering of the view from the overlook. The arch, hacienda, pastures and corrals, each in their distinct glory, cradled by the distant hills and mountains, under a brilliant blue sky with streaky fair-weather clouds. It was stunning; Murdoch had forgotten how much so.
Other paintings followed: a herd of horses, running wild; a woman holding a small baby; trees in winter and in spring; a vaquero taking a siesta in the shade of a cottonwood tree; and flowers in vivid colors of orange, purple, yellow and red: wild flowers in expansive fields; a solitary bud in a small glass in front of a rain-streaked window; and the dahlias in her garden, blooming riotously.
“You certainly got your drawing talent from her.” Murdoch watched Johnny trace his finger over, but not touching, the images. The boy’s breathing was uneven, his jaw tight.
“Yet you hide them away.” Cobalt eyes stabbed his. “Because you’re ashamed of her?”
“No, God, no, Johnny.” Murdoch sat beside the boy but knew better than to touch him. “For years they hung throughout the house. That one,” he indicated the view from the overlook, “was in here over the fireplace. The one with the bud vase was in the kitchen over the cold box because your mother said that corner needed a window, even a rainy one. And the horses,” Murdoch lifted the painting from the bottom of the bed and settled it between them, “the horses were in your room. You talked ‘horsies’ from the moment you woke up until you fell asleep at night. It was the second word you learned after ‘Papa’, even before you said ‘Mama’. I never let your mother know, though. For a whole week after I heard you say ‘horsie’, I whisked you away in the morning and kept you with me all day, so we could practice saying ‘Mama’. I prayed the whole time she wouldn’t hear horsie before Mama; she was already very put out that you said ‘Papa’ first. When you finally said it, it was ‘Horsie, Mama!’. We only narrowly pulled that one out.” Murdoch chuckled.
His smile dissolved as he lost himself in another memory. “Just before your fifteenth birthday, Cipriano and I made another fruitless trip to Mexico. We didn’t get far, the fighting was intense and even the people who had helped us before refused. They were terrified of the Rurales and dispirited that even their beloved gunfighter champion, Johnny Madrid, had been captured and executed.
“When I got home, there was a Pinkerton report waiting for me. They’d learned that your mother had died some years earlier and for the first time, they linked Johnny Lancer to Johnny Madrid.” Murdoch raised his head, his features stark with remembered grief. “They ‘regretted to inform’ me that according to three different and reliable sources, you had been executed by the Rurales for aiding the resistance in Mexico.”
Johnny regarded him with somber eyes and nodded. It had been a near thing, and for a long time, no one but the man who had freed him knew he’d escaped the firing squad.
Murdoch swallowed drily. “I was devastated. And angry, so very angry… at your mother. She had taken you from me and now I’d never get you back again. It was one of those times that I hated her. I tore out her flowers, smashed her favorite teacup, started pulling her paintings off the walls and throwing them into the fire. I was out of control.
“Paul sent for Sam who happened to be with Aggie Conway; she came over with him. The next thing I knew, I was waking up on the couch with a massive headache from whatever Sam had used to knock me out for a day and a half. I don’t remember much from those next weeks. It probably took me a month to notice that everything that had belonged to your mother was gone from the house. Now, don’t get the wrong idea,” Murdoch took in Johnny’s darkening countenance. “Aggie wasn’t trying to hurt your mother. The opposite in fact. She knew I would regret destroying everything once I came out of the deep pit I was in. She carefully packed things away in the attic to preserve them. In fact, if you go to her house, you’ll find that she replanted some of your mother’s dahlias down by her creek. Your mother and she were friends and Aggie knew Maria loved to take you down there.
“I tried a few different times to rehang the pictures -that’s why they’re in the armoire- but, every time I picked one up, my heart would break all over again. I’m sorry I wasn’t stronger.”
Johnny’s eyes drifted from painting to painting, all so beautifully crafted, and lovingly preserved -not by his father, but by a stranger he’d only met a few months ago. Raising his head, it was Madrid that threw out the challenge. “And when you found out I was alive but now a pistolero? Did you go on another trashing binge? Maybe put a lock on that there armoire so your shame over your boy could stay hidden?”
“I was never ashamed of you, Johnny. Ashamed of myself? Absolutely. What kind of man is afraid to bring his son home? I didn’t want to be, but God help me, I was. You’d been gone so long, alone so long. I’d heard the rumors, read the news stories. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. I understand how wrong I was and how hard it may be, if not impossible, for you to forgive me. But still, I’m going to ask you to, plead with you to. I can’t change the past, but please, son, give me a chance at the future.”
Johnny carefully moved the horse painting out of the way to climb off the bed. Murdoch started to grab for his arm, then thought better of it. The room was cold and moving out from under the warmth of the quilt sent chills through Johnny’s lean body. He crossed to the fireplace, even though there was no fire, leaned on the mantel, and looked back at his father.
“Believe me, I know what it’s like to be so full of hurt and anger that you destroy something you never meant to, or turn away from someone who cares about you.” His eyes reflected a distant weariness as he stared out the window. “I want to be able to live here, to forgive… and to be forgiven. But this is just too big right now.” He blinked slowly and looked back at his father. “I have to go, Murdoch, and I don’t want you or anyone else to come with me.”
The Scot’s heart plummeted. Johnny must have seen it because he added, “I don’t think I’ll be gone long. And I won’t break my promise to Scott not to leave for good.” He rubbed his upper arms for warmth. “I have to figure some things out, and I can only do that alone.”
Murdoch felt an odd combination of relief and despair. Johnny wasn’t leaving for good, but neither was he ready to allow his family to help him. “I don’t want you to go, son, but I understand, and trust you’ll come home when it’s time. You should take this with you,” Murdoch rose from the bed, crossed to his dresser, and lifted what looked like a small scrap of barnwood from the top. “It’s all I could salvage of the coffee table after my tantrum. At least it was the important part.” He traced his finger over a small semicircle of teethmarks in the soft wood. Johnny accepted the wood piece and did the same, a slight smile touching his lips.
Murdoch’s eyes filled as he drew his son into a tight embrace. “I love you, son.” Burying his face into the boy’s silken hair, he whispered, “Take the time you need. But then come back to me.”
Johnny tentatively returned the hug. “I will. I promise.”
Murdoch clutched him a while longer before reluctantly letting go. “You’re going to have to go through your brother. Rusty is already saddled and at the ready.”
Johnny chuckled softly. “Your back-up plan?”
“More like my second line of defense. I’ll go down with you to let him know he’s off duty.”
They found Scott sitting on one of the two straight-back chairs that flanked the hat and gunbelt rack in the front foyer. Arms crossed and already wearing his jacket, hat, and rig, he looked every bit the posted sentry. He stood up as they approached, his eyes shifting anxiously between father and son, concern creasing his features as he noted that Johnny had brought his saddlebags down from his room.
“No worries, Boston, your bodyguard services are not required this evening.”Johnny quipped as he snagged his rig off the rack and deftly tightened it around his slim hips. Scott’s eyes went to Murdoch, who gave a reluctant nod. “But you can come out to the barn with me and unsaddle Rusty while I’m saddling Diablo.”
“I’ll make you some sandwiches and other provisions and meet you out there in a bit.” Murdoch took the saddlebags as Johnny shrugged into his jacket, making it clear he was giving the brothers privacy to talk.
The walk to the barn was in silence. Once inside, Johnny gave a chuckle at the confirmation of Rusty in full tack. “You’re off the hook, too, boy.” He gave the red a quick nose rub before moving into Diablo’s stall.
Scott made no move to unsaddle Rusty, instead leaning over the side of the stall, watching his brother. Johnny’s light-hearted banter couldn’t hide his strained pallor.
“Where are you headed?”
“Not sure.” Johnny brushed and smoothed Diablo’s coat. “Mountains are real pretty this time of year but I don’t like the cold.”
“There’s a line shack at the base of Blue Mountain. The best of both worlds. We could do some hunting and fishing…”
“I’ll have to take a raincheck, brother. We’ll plan something when I get back.”
At least he’s still planning to come back.
“Which would be…”
“Not sure about that either.”Johnny tossed the saddle blanket onto Diablo’s back, smoothing it carefully.
Scott picked at a piece of hay that had become wedged between two stall boards. “I’m sorry about today. I wish I’d known it was your mother’s birthday.”
Johnny’s movements paused at the quiet words. “Thanks.” His fingers played with the edge of the blanket. “I didn’t mean to make a big deal of it. I should have followed my instincts and taken off to spend it alone.”
“But you didn’t want to disappoint Murdoch, who was looking forward to our first family celebration.”
“Yeah. And look how well that turned out,”Johnny grunted.
“We could have, would have, moved the dinner back a week.”
Johnny took a while to answer. Even in the short months they’d been together, Scott had learned the importance of giving his brother that time.
“I was so angry that he didn’t remember. I even tested him a couple of times with the date, in case he didn’t realize that’s what the third Sunday was. I was already so angry with her over the lies and dreading how I was going to feel today.” Diablo felt his owner’s distress, turning to nuzzle Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny rubbed the black’s neck gratefully. “When I first noticed that there was nothing of Mama’s anywhere on the ranch, I thought maybe it was too painful for Murdoch to be reminded of her. But he kept everything of your mother’s, and I know how much it hurt him to lose her. You never lived here, so there was nothing of yours to keep, but the two years of me were gone too.”
Johnny’s gaze conveyed he wasn’t angry at Catherine and needed reassurance that his words didn’t hurt Scott. Scott simply nodded his understanding. Relief softened Johnny’s furrowed brow.
“When I put that together with him not coming for me a year ago and the way he gets after me whenever he thinks Madrid has set foot on Lancer land… it felt pretty clear that I don’t belong here.”
Scott’s anxiety rose again at the boy’s despondent words. He’d tried over and over to show Murdoch how his restrictions and outbursts would appear to Johnny. Despite his young age, Johnny had taken on the oppressive mantle of adulthood years earlier. Scott understood that Murdoch was hoping to remove that weight from his son’s shoulders, but his way of going about it was adding to Johnny’s inherent feelings of worthlessness. That, of course, brought out Madrid, which only spiraled things further.
Scott focused on one word Johnny had said. “Felt? Can I hope that now you do understand you belong here?” He was surprised at how tremulous the question came out.
Johnny hoisted his saddle onto Diablo’s back, settling it carefully before reaching underneath to grab the cinch. As if agreeing with Scott that he didn’t want Johnny to leave, Diablo sidestepped away. Johnny gently but firmly guided him back and tightened the cinch. After a few more moments of agonizing silence and the view of Johnny’s back, Scott moved into the stall. He positioned himself on Diablo’s other side, soothing the horse with long strokes down his neck. Johnny had his head down, his fingers lightly following the leatherwork pattern of the saddle skirt.
“Talk to me, little brother.” Scott pleaded softly.
Johnny took in a deep breath that made his thin body shudder. He raised his head to meet Scott’s worried gaze. “I’ll be back.”
“I’m relieved and happy to hear that. But it’s not what I asked. You do understand that you belong here, that you are wanted and loved.” Scott traced his brother’s strained features with his eyes. “You, Johnny Madrid Lancer, all that you are, have been, and will be. That’s what being part of our family promises. Can you trust that?”
Scott could read the boy’s longing, as well as the uncertainty that held him mute. Reaching over the saddle, Scott’s long fingers curled around the back of Johnny’s neck. “You have to believe that, brother.”
Scott willed the strength of his conviction into his gaze. The air around them stilled as Johnny drank in the powerful emotion.
After a long moment, the younger brother spoke, his eyes downcast. “I don’t know how to.”
“Take me with you. We can figure it out together.”
“No.” It was barely a whisper, as if even Johnny didn’t want to hear it. “I need some time alone.”
Scott sighed, then regrouped. “Fine. One week. I’ll meet you at the Blue Mountain line shack in one week. We’ll have some brother time, just like I promised you, then we’ll come home together.”
Murdoch came in at the last words, stopping briefly, before handing the heavily laden saddlebags to Johnny. There was a brief, awkward silence.
Johnny tested the weight of the saddlebags. “I don’t know, Boston, seems the old man packed me for a month.” The slow drawl was edged with a smile.
Murdoch joined in quickly, “Half of that is for your brother.”
Scott shook his head with mock disgust as he secured the saddlebags while Johnny slid the bridle over Diablo’s head. “And I know just which half he’s going to leave me, beans and hardtack.”
“Hey, if you’re smart, you’ll bring a whole new supply when you come. And if you want to be allowed in, it better include cookies and Maria’s tortillas and salsa.”
Johnny quickly led Diablo outside and vaulted into the saddle. “See you.” And he was off, allowing for no emotional goodbyes.
Father and son watched silently as the boy disappeared into the gathering darkness.
Johnny surveyed the view from the overlook, his heart pounding against his chest. Scott remained close by, offering silent, but much needed support. Johnny’s week of solitude had been agonizing: a mix of reverence and furor toward his mother; confusion, anger and hopefulness toward his father; and growing dread at the harm Madrid could bring to his new-found family, all washed down by a full bottle of tequila.
His only conclusion had been a stomach-turning headache and the promise to himself to never get drunk twice in a handful of days.
He was mostly recuperated when Scott arrived, but not ready to talk. Scott read him well and didn’t push. They did the promised hunting and fishing, raced each other through the valley on horseback, hauled deadfall and chopped wood to restock the lineshack’s supply, and spent hours in front of the fire talking about everything and nothing. Gradually over the week, their conversations grew deeper, eventually centering around Johnny’s place in the family, Murdoch’s mistakes, the lies they’d both been told, and Johnny’s ever-growing worry about the risk Madrid brought to Lancer.
Scott spoke of his own feelings of anger and betrayal at Murdoch’s abandonment throughout his childhood and his grandfather’s lies to perpetuate it. While he’d come to an adult’s understanding of the reasons behind each man’s actions, it didn’t totally erase the childhood emotions he still carried. Johnny was in a similar place with his mother and Murdoch. He’d even begun to recognize signs of Murdoch’s love and concern beneath the gruff, overbearing exterior.
The hardest piece for Johnny to reconcile was Madrid’s place at Lancer, or even within himself. Johnny Madrid Lancer. The name said it perfectly. Madrid was right there, in the middle of it. An integral part of who he was. He was ready to shed the life of a gunfighter, it was never a skin that fit him well. He hated being part of the ridiculous and petty reasons men killed each other. Gunfighters couldn’t settle in one place, couldn’t leave their back unguarded, couldn’t fall in love. Hank Lawson, another gun who’d hired on to the same range war near El Paso as Johnny had, espoused, ”Gunhawks don’t live, boy, we exist…until we don’t.”
That very day, Hank no longer existed.
Johnny had thought about laying down his gun many times, especially after he’d escaped the Rurales and everyone believed he was dead. But he’d had nothing else to turn to, no one else. It was all he knew, and a trade he was damn good at. If only he’d known about his family then.
Ah, Mama, again it comes back to your lies. Why did your hatred of Murdoch have to be stronger than your love for me?
Scott attempted to counter Johnny’s fears of being a threat to the family with reminders that both he and Murdoch had brought their own dangers home in recent months. The family banded together to protect themselves then, and would do so again if Johnny’s reputation brought gunfighters close. While not wholly convinced, Johnny was here now on the hill looking down onto Lancer.
It didn’t feel like that yet, at least not what Johnny thought it was supposed to feel like, but he was more drawn to ride down there than away, so he figured that was something. Without a word, the brothers headed down.
Johnny feared Murdoch would meet him at the door, expecting some kind of commitment or absolution. He did come out as they entered the yard, but only to offer congratulations on the deer they’d dressed and slung over the back of the pack horse Scott had been thoughtful – or hopeful- enough to bring along, and to ask two of the hands to take care of it and the boy’s horses, inviting them in to lunch.
The conversation was surprisingly easy, Murdoch seemed interested in their exploits, laughing at how their wrestling too close to the riverbank ended with them both in the water and Johnny’s boots so full of mud he had to wear triple socks instead of boots for the next two days.
Johnny enjoyed hearing Murdoch’s unrestrained laughter. For once, their father wasn’t rushing off to his desk or telling them there was a lot of daylight still left to get some work done in. In fact, when Murdoch topped off Scott’s coffee with the rest from the pot, he set about making a second one. “Maria left us a dulce de leches cake.” He gave the brothers a conspiratorial wink. Desserts were typically for supper only.
“I’ll get the cake.” Johnny jumped up before Murdoch changed his mind.
“And I’ll get the plates.” Scott raised his eyes at Johnny in silent wonderment over their good luck.
Johnny opened the cold box, smiling as he spotted the luscious cake, one of his top two favorite desserts. Lifting it, he marveled at how heavy it felt compared to his other favorite, chocolate cake. Maria had even made a starburst design in the icing with chocolate. “Woo hoo, it’s a beauty.”
As Johnny started to turn back to the table, carefully balancing the treasure in his hands, a flash of bright colors caught his eye. Turning back, his breath caught in his throat.
There above the cold box was his mother’s painting of the bud vase on the rain-streaked window’s sill. Just below it, slightly to one side to not block it, was a blue-green mason jar, filled with red, purple and yellow dahlias. Johnny could almost feel his mother’s presence amid the vibrant display.
“Aggie brought the flowers over; they’re from your mother’s dahlias.” Murdoch’s quiet voice was suddenly close behind him, rescuing the cake from Johnny’s numb fingers and setting it on the table. “She said that once the plants are done blooming at her place, it would be safe to transplant them back here. I know it’s much overdue, but all of your mother’s paintings are back in place.”
At Murdoch’s nod, Johnny followed his gaze to a trail of portraits leading up the back stairwell. Johnny slowly moved from painting to painting, lingering long enough to identify each person or wait for Murdoch to do so. Scott followed behind as they ascended to the upstairs hallway, which was now bordered by several large landscapes. He gasped aloud as Murdoch’s bedroom door opened, allowing Scott his first sight of the painting of Lancer from the overlook, now hanging in its place over the fireplace.
“My God, that is stunning,” Scott breathed. “Your mother was incredibly talented.”
Johnny flushed with pride. Rarely did he hear compliments of his mother. In his room, he laughed along with his brother as Murdoch retold the ‘horsie’ story. They moved down the front staircase to view more paintings in the hallway before proceeding into the great room.
Between the two floor to ceiling bookcases was a grouping of four canvases, the same scarlet oak tree in each of the four seasons. Johnny was speechless, moved not only by the beauty of his mother’s artistry but also by Murdoch’s message by hanging them with such prominence throughout the hacienda.
“One more.” With a gentle hand to his shoulder, Murdoch led him to the other side of the great room. “The one of your mother’s dahlias in the garden has always hung over the dining room table. I’m sure you don’t remember, but you ‘helped’ her with this one, although your version of ’helping’ was quite different from hers. She said there was more paint on you, her, the bench, the dirt, and even the fence than on her canvas. This was your contribution.”
Leaning against the wall beneath the massive painting was an uneven rectangle of gray slate bearing a set of tiny orange handprints.
It really happened. I remember making that! The images that had come to him near the creek in Green Valley replayed through his mind in sharp detail.
“Mama washed my hands off in the horse trough,” Johnny’s voice was hoarse with emotion as he outlined each little handprint with his finger. Tears brimmed in his eyes.
“You remember that?” Murdoch’s eyes widened, briefly capturing Scott’s as Johnny nodded. “We didn’t want the prints to get washed away, so we brought the stone inside. Boy, were you mad! We had to put it down on the hearth so you could reach it. Every night after dinner, you’d point to your mother’s picture and say, “Mama.” and then you’d run over to this, put your hands down on the prints and yell, ’Mine!’” Scott chuckled with Murdoch.
“You kept it,” Johnny whispered. “Just like you kept the part of the coffee table with my teeth marks.”
“Of course I kept them, son. Those memories were the ballast that kept me upright all those years of searching. And Scott, your aunt sent me this, unbeknownst to your grandfather, of course.” Murdoch reached for a crudely-shaped clay dog painted in bright blue with a red bow-tie collar and brown hat and handed it to Scott. “You made it…”
“…in third grade.” Scott finished, running his hands carefully over the kiln-baked animal. “I gave it to her for Christmas that year.”
“She was kind enough to send it to me. I have a few other things she sent over the years that I thought we might look at together later.”
“I’d like that very much, sir.” Scott tamped back emotion as he carefully set the dog back on the sideboard next to Johnny’s handprints.
For a long while, the three men stood before the small tableaux, each deep in their own memories. Murdoch draped an arm around each of his son’s shoulders. Scott moved in so his shoulder touched Johnny’s.
“Welcome home, boys.”
Home. Johnny’s mind echoed.
This is what home feels like.
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