An Alternative Homecoming Story
Part 01 of 05: Chapter 1 – 10
This story has slumbered in the LW files section since 2017. Many thanks to Anna (Starry Diadem) for being my top-notch beta back then and for encouraging me now to make it accessible to all Lancer fans.
I also much appreciate the work and dedication of Anna, Sandy and her team who did all the formatting and editing.
Word count: 101,459
Scott Garrett Lancer looked at the man in disgust. A pale face, tired eyes, mouth set in a thin line, a frown marring his forehead—nothing attractive at all about this man although Scott knew the ladies of Boston considered him very handsome.
He irritably dabbed at his chin with the towel and turned away from the mirror. Well, at least he was clean-shaven, about the only positive thing to be said about him at the moment. With a deep sigh he left the warmth and comfort of the luxurious bathroom and returned to his bedroom. Sinking down on the soft mattress of his bed he stared at his soft and perfectly manicured hands. It was still early in the evening and he would have to make up his mind how to spend the evening after an infinitely boring and exhausting day at his grandfather’s office.
Why couldn’t he come up with the enthusiasm his 75-year-old grandfather still showed about his business? As Harlan’s only grandson and heir, Scott felt all the weight of the old man’s expectations. But he knew his grandfather was pleased with him. He was an impressively competent businessman, but Scott’s heart was just not in it. He had the impression of being just a walking shadow of a man and at the same time he was ashamed of feeling that way. His ennui was a form of luxury that few people could afford—he was more than wealthy, had a grandfather who doted upon him even if he never showed his affection openly, and he was one of the darlings of the high society of Boston. At 25, he had perfected the art of small talk, making all the right noises in the right places and offering witty comments even when his mind was engaged elsewhere or just drifting off into the void.
So he should be happy or at least content with his life, and yet he wasn’t. Scott ambled over to the window and stared outside, hands clasped behind his back. The only people on the street who didn’t seem to mind the rain were a family of four. The parents were engaged in a lively conversation, their two sons following close behind. Smiling, Scott watched the boys jostling and bantering good-naturedly. The blond brother was a few years older than his brunette sibling, their mutual affection obvious.
Not for the first time did Scott wonder what his life would be like if he still had family besides his grandfather. But this was a futile line of thought. His mother had died giving birth to him in the wilderness of California and his father, whom he had never got to know either, had died when Scott was five—no loss at all according to his grandfather who didn’t have a single positive thing to say about him.
Scott had no siblings, and so the brother he sometimes dreamed of would forever remain a product of his imagination. At least he could imagine a brother to his liking, one that understood him and cared about him… He didn’t exactly know why, but whenever he conjured up his imaginary brother it was a younger one: blond, blue-eyed, with dimples and a mischievous look, a brother whose laughter and mirth would warm up a house where such sounds seemed out of place somehow. The boy would look up to his big brother who protected him or bossed him around a little, depending on the situation…
Scott pulled himself together. It was no use getting sentimental and whining about things that couldn’t be changed anyway. He had to focus on the decision what to do tonight.
When Scott returned to his desk, he inhaled the sensuous scent emanating from a finely embroidered handkerchief lying there. Barbara… He smiled involuntarily at the sight of the trophy that he had conquered in a mock battle with its owner during their last passionate night together – and Barbara had been more than willing to let him conquer her, too. So what about seeing Barbara tonight? Usually the mere fragrance of her perfume was enough to … well, not tonight.
The alternative to spending the night with Barbara would be the Somerset Club. Harlan had expressly asked him to go there either that day or the next. His grandfather himself had not felt well all day and intended to stay in, but only reluctantly so. There would be a number of influential men from the top ranks of Boston’s business world at the Club—an invaluable chance to get insider knowledge and to pull a few strings. His grandfather had even left a list on his desk with a number of people he would like Scott to speak to.
Unable to make up his mind Scott stared at the list. Not even the option of staying at home with a good book appealed to him, as the books he had ordered had not arrived yet. So it was the Somerset Club or Barbara. And Scott realized that the idea of spending the night in the arms of a beautiful and sensual woman like Barbara was not much more alluring than an evening at the Gentlemen’s Club. What on earth was wrong with him? Was he just an idle cynic?
When he picked up the handkerchief a coin entangled in it fell to the floor. He retrieved the coin, staring at it for a moment. Why not let the coin decide—he didn’t care about the outcome anyway.
Well, then. Heads, Barbara; tails: the Club.
Tails it was. Scott sighed and got ready for the Club.
Impeccably groomed and with just a hint of his expensive cologne surrounding him Scott went downstairs and decided to check on his grandfather before leaving. He found him sitting in his favorite armchair close to the fireplace. To Scott the air seemed stifling and unbearably hot, but his grandfather even had a blanket draped over his knees.
“Are you all right, sir?” Scott asked gently with a worried look at his grandfather’s pallid face. “Shouldn’t I rather stay here with you? You look somewhat exhausted, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Don’t fuss, Scotty. I’m just a bit tired and I have eaten a bit too much for dinner, that’s all.”
“Can I get you something then before I go? You know, Roberts has his evening off, and if you need help—”
“Scotty, I’m not the frail invalid you seem to see in me, so stop mothering me. The only favor you can do me is to go to the Club and socialize. I know perfectly well that this is not your idea of spending a pleasant evening, but you know what I think about the Club.”
Scott sighed inwardly. Oh yes, he knew his grandfather’s work ethic. He wondered if Harlan had ever spent a single day on which his thoughts had not revolved around his business interests. There was no doubt that Harlan Garrett was one of the most powerful and successful businessmen in Boston.
As far as Scott was concerned his grandfather had certainly never fussed about him the way a mother or grandmother might have done. Even when Scott was a little boy Harlan had treated him like an adult, and any overt display of emotion, positive or negative, was decidedly unwelcome. And when judging Scott’s friends at school or university Harlan had been most interested in their family background and whether they would be useful connections in later life. In his own way, Harlan might love Scott; he was proud of him and respected him now as a partner. But his grandfather left no doubt that he called the tune.
“Don’t worry, sir, I am planning to go to the Club.” Scott picked up his gloves and made to leave.
“Are you indeed?”
Scott froze at the sharp tone of his grandfather’s voice and turned round. Now what was that supposed to mean? He met the piercing gaze from Harlan’s blue eyes with one of his own.
“Sir? I can’t remember having given you cause to doubt my words!”
“So I take it you are not meeting that chancy widow? Rumor has it that you have seen quite a lot lately of the … lady in question and I cannot honestly say that I am pleased at what I’ve been told about Mrs. Ellington, Scotty. You do not intend to marry her, do you?”
There it was. Trust the old fox to find out about Barbara! He had his spies everywhere. God, how Scott hated all those prying eyes and the gossip! It cost him quite an effort not to betray his annoyance. After all he was a grown man with a right to a private life.
“No, grandfather, you needn’t concern yourself. She’s just been freed from a marriage to a man twenty years her senior whose only attraction was his wealth. She’s rich and independent now and in no hurry to give that up. We just enjoy each other’s … company.” He added, pointedly: “And now I should be on my way to the Club, as the list of gentlemen you want me to talk to is quite extensive.”
Scott just couldn’t resist the temptation of riling his grandfather a little. And besides, he had to get away before his grandfather could yet again praise the assets of sweet, innocent Lucy Winterbottom. Scott was willing to travel to the end of the world to escape that plain, boring girl and especially her scheming mother.
Outside the wind was howling as a heavy downpour flooded the streets of Boston. But none of the men at the Somerset Club noticed any of this; thick curtains effectively shut out the nasty weather along with all the other unsavory aspects of life. Here there was no room for poverty, illness and the mere struggle for survival which less fortunate Bostonians had to cope with.
The men had settled down in deep comfortable armchairs, puffing on expensive cigars. The meal had been delicious and the wine excellent—not that anybody had expected anything else, nor had any of the gentlemen bothered to compliment the kitchen staff on their good work. The men were quietly conversing and enjoying that pleasant drowsiness that followed a good meal and a choice wine.
Scott looked round. He was by far the youngest (and leanest) man in the room and felt out of place. He silently wished his grandfather were here instead. Hating cigars, he cradled his snifter of an expensive brandy just to have something to do. As he was swirling the liquid round and round in his glass, he imagined being far away, somewhere he could be free of all this constraint. Maybe a place he had never been before, somewhere warm and dry, where he did not get soaked to the bones once he set just one foot outside. How good it would feel to ride a good horse, with a companion whose idea of joy in life included more than good food and drink and those damned cigars! He smiled, lost in the distraction, only to be brought back with a start by a servant offering him the brandy decanter.
At ten o’clock Scott secretly glanced at the grandfather clock, mentally ticking off his list of chores. Just one more gentleman, then he would be free at last to leave. But that particular man, Mr. Newton, was deep in an animated conversation with a man Scott had never seen at the club before. The stranger didn’t seem to notice that this was a place where a booming voice like his was decidedly unwelcome – or he just ignored the frowns and disapproving glances sent in his direction. There was no evidence that Newton would be available any time soon, so Scott decided to call it a day and leave talking to Newton for another evening. As inconspicuously as possible he made his way to the door, chatting here and there about trifles. He already had his hand on the doorknob when his plan was ruined by Newton.
“Wait a minute, Sir! Don’t leave yet—it ’s still early and I very much want to introduce you to MacLoughlin. You know, it’s his last day in Boston, so there won’t be another chance for months!”
Inwardly wincing, Scott put on his most charming smile. What was so important about knowing this man anyway? “Well, then I’ll definitely have to profit from this last chance of enjoying your conversation.”
“The name is Robert MacLoughlin. Mr. Garrett, I’m so pleased to meet Harlan Garrett’s grandson at last!”
That was all anyone ever saw him as: Harlan’s grandson. Scott sighed, but kept the smile pleasant. “The pleasure is all mine, Mr. MacLoughlin. I am indeed Harlan Garrett’s grandson, but actually my name is Scott Garrett Lancer.”
At that MacLoughlin broke out into laughter.
Scott raised an eyebrow, reining in his annoyance. Nobody had ever thought his name particularly funny.
“I beg your pardon, Sir?”
“Excuse me, Mr. Lancer. That was unpardonable of me! You cannot honestly know why I’m laughing. It’s just that I can’t seem to escape the Lancers. No matter where I go, in all four corners of the world they seem to pop out of the woodwork!”
“I’m sure this is just as true for McDonalds, Fergusons and even for MacLoughlins, isn’t it?”
“Aye, but there’s more to it in this case,” MacLoughlin persisted. “You see, there was a Lancer family in our neighboring village in Scotland, just a few miles away, and one of the Lancer sons went to America. I never heard much more of him—never, that is, until a few weeks ago when I ran into good old Murdoch on the other side of this continent in San Francisco. My, my, that was a surprise, I can tell you!”
Scott felt his heart skip a beat. Surely it could not—? How common was that name? Were there really dozens of Lancers and several Murdoch Lancers around? Keeping his tumultuous feelings carefully mastered, Scott smiled. “That must indeed have been an unexpected encounter for him as well—I hope, a pleasant one for both of you. Am I right in assuming that Murdoch Lancer is in the same line of business as you over there in San Francisco?”
“No, he was just there for some ranching business. He’s got a big ranch somewhere in California. I’ve forgotten where exactly. He seems to be doing quite well.”
Scott was burning to extract some more information about the man who had the same name as his father, but he never got the chance. A servant approached MacLoughlin with a deferential smile and a telegram. Having scanned the telegram MacLoughlin frowned. He excused himself and left in haste.
Scott remained standing there, frozen to the spot, staring after him.
Murdoch Lancer – his father?
“He is a fine gentleman, Mr. Lancer, don’t you agree?” Newton, who had suddenly appeared behind him, looked at Scott expectantly.
“What? MacLoughlin? Oh, yes. Yes, of course, it was a pleasure to meet him.”
What was he doing here in Boston if he had a father over in California?
“You will meet him again next spring, Mr. Lancer.”
“Sorry? Oh. Well, I’m glad to hear it.”
“Mr. Lancer, you seem a little bit … ah, distracted. You are not feeling unwell, I hope?”
“No, I … I’m just a bit tired, I really have to go.” Scott ignored Newton’s smirk and his remark about more shapely companions who might cure his fatigue. He hurried out of the room as fast as he dared without attracting unwanted attention. Once in the hall he grabbed his coat and hat from the servant, oblivious to the man’s curious stare and stepped into the street to hail a cab.
Exasperated at the slow progress he made in the uncomfortable vehicle he put his head out to tell the driver to go faster. He felt it impossible to force his whirling emotions into some semblance of order while he was bouncing about in the cab. He just knew one thing: Harlan was the key to everything; he would know what all this meant. Wouldn’t he?
Finally back home, he groped for his key, cursing to himself when his hand shook so much that it took him ages to fit it into the lock. He fervently hoped that his grandfather had not yet gone to bed because he knew he wouldn’t get any sleep or at least any peace of mind until he had answers to the many questions that began forming in his mind.
There was still light shining through the door of Harlan’s study upstairs. Scott’s hopes went up and he rushed upstairs, taking two steps at a time.
He knocked. “Grandfather?”
Nothing. Scott cautiously opened the door only to find that his grandfather had obviously just forgotten to put out the light. He sighed. So he would have to talk to Harlan about his father over breakfast. There was no way he could confront his ailing grandfather now that he had already retired to bed. Disappointed, Scott went to his own bedroom through the oppressive silence and darkness of the big mansion and braced himself for a sleepless night.
In the morning he woke up, feeling a hand gently touching his shoulder. Still confused and bleary-eyed Scott looked into the pale, haunted face of Roberts. The man was a shining example of discretion and had never before taken the liberty of intruding upon Scott’s privacy like that.
“Roberts? For heaven’s sake, has anything happened?”
“Your grandfather, Sir… when I entered his room this morning as usual I … I found that he had passed away during the night…”
In the weeks that followed his grandfather’s sudden death Scott strictly banished any thoughts about his father from his mind. Scott grieved for the unexpected loss of his grandfather and deeply regretted that he had not had the chance to take leave of him, although he was aware that for the old man himself, the way he had died—without pain or a longer illness—was a blessing.
He managed to push his grief aside and to make all the necessary arrangements with his usual efficiency. Scott was sole heir to Garrett’s business empire, which turned out to be even larger than Scott had guessed, and he was now almost twice as rich as he had suspected. The seemingly endless number of decisions to be made and people to talk to took its toll, and Scott was often exhausted at the end of the day.
Finally he had the first quiet evening in a long time all to himself. He settled down in his favorite armchair, took a sip of an excellent red wine and leisurely turned the page of his novel, enjoying the blissful solitude.
When there was a knock at the door Scott put his book down with a sigh.
“Mrs. Ellington, sir,” Roberts announced and discreetly disappeared after the lady in question had swept past him into the room.
“Barbara! What are you doing here?” The question slipped out before Scott could repress it. He walked over to her and gallantly kissed her hand.
Barbara looked at him with a sardonic smile. “Now isn’t this the most passionate and romantic welcome a lady can dream of?”
“I apologize, darling; you just took me by surprise. In the past you always refused to come here!”
“Well, I had no other option, Scott, since you haven’t darkened my doorstep for weeks – nor shared my bed, you naughty boy. How do you expect me to survive on such a diet, may I ask?” She playfully tapped against his shirtfront with her fan and then stepped closer, expectantly raising her face. The invitation to kiss her sensual lips was unmistakable.
“Is that all the passion you can come up with, Scott Garrett Lancer?” Barbara asked a few moments later.
“Now why do I get the impression that I have to pass some kind of … of test, Barbara?” Scott asked, frowning.
“Maybe because I have got the impression that you have been avoiding me!”
“I certainly haven’t! I was just terribly busy after my grandfather’s passing, I’m sure you can understand that.”
“Busy, are you?” Barbara glanced past Scott, taking in the cozy fire, the bottle of wine and the book. “You know, it depresses me somewhat to lose you to a dull novel and cheap liquor. If my rival had been a blushing, pretty debutante with her innocent charm I would have understood, but this is an affront, mon cher!”
“This is the end, isn’t it?” Her eyes took on a cold look he had never before seen on her.
Scott looked thoughtfully at her. He had never given his relationship with Barbara much thought—Carpe Diem had been his motto. Now it seemed the time was ripe for a decision, and he didn’t hesitate.
“Well, maybe we should go our separate ways and just enjoy the good memories we shared, Barbara.”
“And we did have a wonderful time together. But then Charles Longbourne whom I met a couple of times at the opera—faute de mieux, of course—is quite a witty conversationalist, too. He has a pleasant laugh and knows very much indeed about the latest operas and ballets…”
Scott smiled at her threadbare tactics. “I’m sure he has a lot of other assets as well.”
“I’m glad you think of him that way. Well then. Enjoy your busy evening, Scott. No need to see me out.” She swept gracefully out of the room, leaving behind the strong scent of her perfume, which had suddenly lost its appeal. For a moment he toyed with the idea of trying to stop her from leaving, but in the end he just returned to his armchair, listening to Barbara’s angry footsteps in the hall and the banging of the front door.
And when Scott poured himself another glass of wine he felt a contented smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
On the following afternoon he sat in his grandfather’s office. Here, the smell of Harlan’s favorite tobacco still lingered, making him feel like an intruder even several weeks after Harlan’s death.
It was the first time that he had bothered to take a closer look at the ledgers and papers in the locked bottom drawer. He had not expected anything of importance there, but what he had just found shocked him deeply. He immediately sent for Hofmann, his grandfather’s secretary. Hofmann had worked for Harlan Garrett for fifteen years and was considered by both Harlan and Scott as one of the few people who had earned their absolute trust.
“I don’t know anything about the business deals documented in here,” Scott said, tapping at one of the ledgers. “Grandfather kept them secret, it seems. Now that I’ve taken a closer look at them I can see why—I would never have approved of these deals! They are unfair and ruthless. Look here, Hofmann, I can’t believe it! My grandfather pressed Mr. Jones to pay his debts on the very day of his wife’s and baby son’s funeral—and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to pay…” Scott shook his head. “It’s shocking to see how greedy and unfeeling my grandfather could be! I’ll speak with Mr. Jones first thing tomorrow morning. He must be desperate. And if he is almost bankrupt it is not his fault; he’s a respectable, kind man— ” Scott interrupted himself, staring at the broad smile that had spread on the man’s face. “You think I’m a fool, I suppose, and that feelings must not get in the way of business, right?”
“No, sir, on the contrary, I’m glad that you think this way. I knew you were different! If truth be told, I never felt at ease with some of your late grandfather’s transactions, but who was I to criticize him? He was always very good and generous to me. But if you should decide to change your grandfather’s policy you would take a great load off my conscience.”
“I shall definitely give up any deals which would exploit other people’s misery,” Scott stated. When he shuffled some of the offensive papers around on the desk an old letter fluttered to the floor. Scott picked it up and was about to just stuff it away when he spotted his own name on it. His curiosity piqued, Scott read the relevant passage:
“…concerning Scott, I perfectly understand and respect your reasons for your strategy. After all you have told me about the character and behavior of Murdoch Lancer and his struggling to make a bare living in the ruthless wilderness of California among uncivilized ruffians I cannot bear to imagine your boy in such appalling surroundings. But still I think that you should not make Scott believe that his father died. He will be grown one day and in my humble opinion a man has got the right to know the truth about his father – disagreeable as it might be – and to make up his own mind about how much contact he would like with his sire…”
Scott stared at the letter in disbelief. So his worst assumption proved true: his grandfather had deliberately lied to him. At least, when Scott had been six years old and the letter had been written, Murdoch Lancer was still alive. And what about now? Scott felt his heart pounding in his chest when he realized that the Murdoch Lancer MacLoughlin had met in California was in all probability his father.
“Are you all right, sir? Can I help?” Hofmann asked, throwing Scott a worried look.
“Yes, I’m fine…No, I … I just discovered something… “Scott began, but then he decided to confide in Hofmann and told him about his encounter with MacLoughlin and its consequences.
Hofmann was stunned. “Why all those lies? And why did your father not keep in touch with you? Well, now that your grandfather is dead it seems to me that any answers can only be found in California, right?”
In the following days Scott found it almost impossible to concentrate on business matters. His mind was completely absorbed by varying fantasies of his father and possible reasons why Murdoch Lancer had never tried to contact his son. Or maybe he had? His wish to find out more about his father grew stronger every day, and soon he toyed with the idea of going to California himself in order to confront the man in person.
Hofmann, who noticed the growing restlessness of his employer and the telltale dark circles under his eyes, began to worry about Scott’s health. “Why don’t you write to Murdoch Lancer?”
Scott shook his head. “The man could tell me anything. How could I trust him?”
“If you don’t trust him you could always hire Pinkerton agents to find out more about your father, sir, and then decide what to do with the information. They are very discreet, and if your father turns out to be someone you have no desire to contact, it would be no problem.”
Scott nodded, frowning. “I could, but somehow I would like to see for myself.”
“If that is how you feel you should do it. Get away for a while from Boston and business matters. It would do you good, and you have worked hard—too hard, if you ask me. You could look at things and your father from a fresh angle. You might even go to California and meet Murdoch Lancer without him suspecting anything and get to know him before you reveal your identity!”
Scott needed no further encouragement. When he sat at his desk that night he toyed again with that coin lying there. Heads: the Pinkertons; tails: a trip to California.
Heads it was—the Pinkertons. Scott stared at the coin. No. This time he would not let a coin decide what to do. Scott Garrett Lancer was a man who was perfectly able to make his own decisions. The very next day he started to make arrangements to leave the business matters in Hofmann’s capable hands and began to plan his journey west.
Note: faute de mieux (French) – for lack of a better alternative.
Scott sank down on the sagging mattress of his bed, untied his bandanna and wiped his sweaty face with it. He had booked a room in this hotel because it was allegedly the only decent accommodation to be got in this godforsaken imitation of a town somewhere in California. Not that he had planned to stay here, but the coach had some kind of trouble and no stage would take any passengers further south for at least two days. Scott had briefly thought about hiring a horse, but had decided against it. It would have meant leaving his luggage behind and he would still have taken several days to get to Morro Coyo. ‘Morro Coyo’—how exotic that sounded to the ears of an Easterner.
Scott had stayed in San Francisco for a week after his long train journey which in retrospect seemed luxury itself compared to those crammed, bouncing, bone- rattling coaches where a man—and his nose—got into closer contact with his fellow passengers than anybody could ever wish for.
Now, the closer he got to his destination the more doubts crept in. There were moments when he was close to backing out, telling himself it would be enough to get a glimpse of Murdoch Lancer from a distance and then resume his old life in Boston. After all, he had spent his whole life without his father and didn’t need him now. Once he revealed his identity there would be no turning back. Besides, who knew what shocking facts about his sire he might unearth?
Fiddling with his new bandana he stared at it. ‘Bandana’. Odd word. His grandfather would have abhorred not only the bandanna, but his whole new outfit. Scott had worn his elegant wardrobe—distinguished suits, hats, frilly shirts, polished shoes—during his trip across the continent to California and in San Francisco itself. All that time he had felt perfectly at ease, moving confidently among people who shared and appreciated his taste and approved of his impeccable appearance.
But now that he was in an area of California where he had to rely on stagecoaches; things had changed almost imperceptibly. The stages took him further and further away from civilized places as he knew them, and with every mile he traveled he felt more like the proverbial sore thumb, and his distinguished outfit was no longer admired but more or less openly sneered at.
As he was condemned to staying in this town for two days anyway he had decided to buy some clothes that would allow him to blend in more easily—when in Rome, do as the Romans do, he reminded himself. To his relief he had even found a tolerable store with at least a modest variety of clothes to choose from. Holding out for inspection a pair of pants with ridiculous silver buttons decorating the outside of the legs, he wondered who in God’s name would voluntarily wear those. In the end he felt most comfortable with beige and brown pants and shirts, adding a dark blue shirt to the mix.
So Scott was willing to adapt his style in clothes for the time being, but there was one concession to local habits he refused to make. Most men here wore side arms, which Scott found somehow ridiculous and pathetic. Such things seemed to have their rightful place in dime novels about the Wild West – Scott had read some on the train when there was nothing else to be got – and he wondered how many of the men wearing guns could really handle their weapon efficiently.
Thinking of the money spent on new clothes and boots reminded Scott of the fact that he had nearly run out of ready money, so a trip to the local bank would be advisable. Half an hour later Scott had refilled his billfold with a substantial sum. His throat was parched and he felt an irresistible urge to get a cold beer at the saloon further down the street. He hesitated for a moment, wondering whether he should not rather leave most of his money safely back at the hotel, but his thirst got the better of him, and so he strode purposefully towards the saloon.
At the batwing doors he stopped for a moment, scanning the room. He had seen worse in his first few days in California, and now in the late afternoon the stench was not yet as unbearable as it would be later when the saloon would be packed with the sweating, dirty bodies of men and the cheap perfume of the working girls.
Not many tables were taken yet, and so Scott opted for a place at a table instead of standing at the bar where the barkeep seemed to be waiting for a victim he could chat with. Obviously it was possible to be left in peace and quiet if the man at the back corner of the saloon was any indication, as he was sitting there on his own, back to the wall, quietly nursing his beer. Scott chose the table between him and a group of three men who were definitely not dealing with their first beer of the day.
With a small contented sigh Scott enjoyed a first big swallow of his beer and took out a piece of paper to take notes about things he wanted to ask Hofmann. Once when he looked up distractedly he had to fight an amused smile: the solitary man at the neighboring table wore a pair of those ridiculous pants with silver buttons like those he had seen in the shop. So there were men with a flashy, fancy taste after all, he mused. But then Scott had to admit that these pants somehow just looked right on the man.
Half an hour and one beer later Scott decided to stretch his long legs a bit and go for a walk, although a circuit of this small town wouldn’t take but a few minutes, and there wasn’t anything interesting to see on the way. Afterwards he would return to his hotel, hoping to get a bath drawn and a decent dinner.
The streets had become rather crowded, and so Scott preferred to explore the side alleys. After having turned round the third corner he found himself face to face with a big man whose way of looking at him meant potential trouble. All his senses on high alert, Scott continued on his way until he found his path blocked.
“I guess a scrawny fella like you needs some help to carry his possessions, huh? I sure could offer you a hand with that billfold of yours…” At that the man suddenly drew his gun. Most people froze, intimidated, when someone drew a gun on them, but Scott moved fast. The man looked astonished when Scott deftly moved aside just enough to avoid the muzzle of the gun and chopped the gun from his grip with the side of his hand. Kicking the gun out of reach, Scott dealt the man a well-aimed blow to his stomach. It did not fell the massive giant but was efficient enough to make him stagger backwards.
Just when Scott began to hope that he might get the better of his attacker he had to realize, however, that he was fighting a losing battle, as it turned out the man was not alone. And it was no longer a question of just handing over his money. The three plainly had a sadistic streak, intending to give vent to their aggressions. Scott stubbornly fought back with all he had, managing to make life hard and painful for all three of them as long as he could. But then he felt a boot slamming into his ribs and when he tried to protect himself curling into a fetal position, one of the men grabbed his collar. He dragged him upright, pushed him backwards and smashed his fist into Scott’s face. Scott’s head crashed against the wall behind him so violently that his skull seemed to explode. It was only a question of time until he would lose consciousness.
“Let him go.”
Four heads jerked round in surprise. Neither Scott nor his three attackers had noticed the catlike approach of the man who stood there at the corner of the house. Gun drawn and cocked, he leaned casually against the wall. He had spoken in a soft drawl, but something in his voice made it unmistakably clear that he expected to be obeyed. The look that he gave the man who still had Scott in his grip was icy enough to freeze hell over.
A flicker of uncertainty showed in the attacker’s face, and he pushed Scott roughly to the ground. But when he had taken a closer look at the stranger, he sneered.
“Now look at that filthy half-breed pup, boys! Too damn stupid to figure out that it’s one against three!”
The young man in question raised an eyebrow. “Can’t say that I see more than half a man considering how many of you it takes to get the better of one unarmed man.”
“You goddamn stinkin’ rat –“
“Now we can blow each others’ heads off,“ the stranger interrupted coldly. “I don’t mind, but let me tell you, I’m damn fast, and before I go I’ll take every single one of you with me. So if you’ve got any plans for the future, take the chance I’m offering you to get out of this alive.”
“The hell I—“
“The billfold. Give the billfold back to the gentleman.”
Fuming, Scott’s adversary hesitated for a moment, but a furtive look into the face of the young stranger made him hasten to throw the billfold at Scott’s feet.
“Now your guns.” The young Mexican motioned to a horse trough a few yards away.
“What?!” Scott’s attacker yelped.
“Into the trough. And mind you, I don’t like having to repeat myself.”
All three guns ended up in the trough, and when the young stranger commanded them to throw in their gunbelts with the extra ammunition as well, the three men had already resigned themselves to their fate and did as they were told, albeit cursing under their breath.
“Now you’re going to take your sorry hides out of this town as fast as lightning, and if I see as much as one hair of you again in these parts I’ll set Johnny Madrid on your tail. He’s said to be around here somewhere and he’s definitely not known for his great patience with scum like you.”
The cowards didn’t have to be told twice and scurried away. The stranger stood immobile and watched with narrowed eyes until he could be sure that the three had really made off.
All the while Scott had just been watching, his back propped against the wall. He was stunned at what he saw. He had been in no condition to be of any help; he barely held on to consciousness. His skull felt as if it had been blown to smithereens and he was aware that there had to be a gash in his head too, as blood was seeping into his eyes, blurring his vision even more. He blinked and tried to take a closer look at the stranger. Had he come to his rescue or was he just after Scott’s money himself? The
Mexican seemed vaguely familiar to Scott, but in his muddled state of mind it took him a few moments to figure out that it was the solitary man he had seen in the saloon.
Once Scott’s rescuer had made sure that there was no more danger he knelt down in front of Scott, took a bandanna out of his pocket and gently wiped the blood from Scott’s face.
“Sorry I’m late,” he mumbled while concentrating on his ministrations.
“Did we have an appointment?” Scott gasped, attempting a smile, but he found out the hard way, how much speaking hurt his ribs.
The man nodded. “Yeah. When I saw those three in the saloon look at your billfold, I knew what they were up to. I followed you, but an old lady bumped into me and I had to pick up all the goddamn parcels she had dropped.”
“Thank you for–“
“Save your breath, will you? We have to get you to a doctor; you’ll need a few stitches. Look at me: How many of me can you see?”
“Checking for double vision, are you? Well, I can’t focus properly,” Scott admitted. When looking at the man’s face as requested he found himself looking at a blurred version of startlingly deep blue eyes. And while this young stranger, who could be no older than twenty, had seemed cold, unyielding and authoritative just a few minutes ago, he seemed to be a completely different person now – his voice was soft, and in his eyes Scott read nothing but kindness and concern.
“You’re not a doctor, are you?”
“Nope. Just been there myself more than once. What about your ribs?”
“Hurting like hell…”
“Thought so. Now take a few moments to get your wits together if you can, then we’ll try to get you to the doc. It’s not too far.” The Mexican picked up Scott’s billfold and put it in the inside pocket of Scott’s jacket.
Scott struggled to stand upright.
“Take your time,” the other man said soothingly and offered assistance.
“I can make it,“ Scott said between clenched teeth, embarrassed to have so little control over his wrecked body. But he had to learn that willpower alone did not keep a man on his own two feet. When he passed out, the stranger, who had been hovering at his side, was ready to catch him and carry him to the doctor’s.
Dr. Edwards had not expected to miss his wife of thirty years, but he did. She had left two weeks ago to take care of her frail mother, who had taken a bad fall. The initial thrill of being on his own for a while had quickly worn off. His housekeeper, Mrs. Myers, who assisted him in the practice until his wife was back, made sure of that.
‘Three more days,’ Dr. Edwards told himself, three more days until his wife would be back, and he sincerely hoped that he wouldn’t have strangled Mrs. Myers by then. She did more damage than the proverbial bull in the china shop. Just a few minutes ago she had managed to ruin his efforts at convincing old Mrs. Clooney that she was NOT suffering from a fatal illness. For once in her life Mrs. Clooney had left the doctor relieved and confident and had told Mrs. Myers that she was so glad that she was not too seriously ill.
“Now don’t be too sure of that, Mrs. Clooney,” Mrs. Myers had answered, “I had me an aunt once with the same symptoms who was also told that she needn’t worry and who died just a week later. And what a horrible and painful death it was!”
Fuming with rage, Dr. Edwards had just opened his mouth to give Mrs. Myers a piece of his mind when the door was unceremoniously pushed open and a stranger strode in, carrying over his shoulder the limp body of an unconscious man.
Mrs. Myers’ eyes grew wide with shock. “Oh my God! Dr. Edwards, look at what that horrible Mex has done to the poor young gentleman!”
“Mrs. Myers!” roared Dr. Edwards, “Think before you speak, will you? Do you honestly believe that he would have taken the trouble to carry his victim here if he had been the one to injure him?”
“Well, I guess not,” Mrs. Myers admitted faintly.
“Get me hot water and bandages,” Dr. Edwards said gruffly and added in a much more civil tone to the young man: “The examination table is there in the room to your right.”
While the two of them were gingerly lowering the injured man onto the table, the doctor gave his visitor an embarrassed look. “I apologize for Mrs. Myers,” he said and added in a low voice so that the lady in question could not hear him: “And I pray that my wife will be back soon!”
The young man’s mouth twitched. “I’m not usually a religious man, doc, but I think in this case I might join you in your prayers. Now about this man here: He got cold-cocked with a pistol, Doc, and those cobardes booted him in the ribs.”
Edwards nodded and tended his patient, stripping him of his jacket and shirt. “Could be a concussion then. He’s not breathing well, so it could be he has some broken ribs. Do you two belong together?”
“No, I don’t know the man. Are you saying he’s not from around here?”
“Well, he seems to be a stranger like you. Maybe he’s staying at the hotel. Might even be that he’s not traveling alone. I’ll send Mrs. Myers over to find out once I’ve finished my job. What kind of brute did that?” Edwards shook his head in disgust when he took stock of the young stranger’s injuries.
“There were three of them“, the Mexican said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there earlier. I was just in time to stop them from killing him.”
“You alone against three of them? Armed?”
The young man shrugged. “I can be a pain in the ass if I have to.”
Edwards gave a pointed look at the low-slung gun at the man’s hip. “I bet you can. But it was still quite a risk you took.”
The man chose to ignore this remark. “Is there any law in this town to deal with this?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
At that moment Mrs. Myers came rushing in with everything the doctor needed to tend to his patient’s wounds. After giving the ‘Mex’ a suspicious look she pointedly ignored him as if she still held him responsible for what had happened to the handsome young blond. As soon as Edwards could do without her he sent her off on her errand.
“So what is your name then, mister?” Dr. Edwards resumed their conversation while choosing an assortment of bandages.
Dr. Edwards raised an eyebrow. “John, huh? As in John Smith, I suppose?”
“That’s right, Doc,” the young man drawled, a defiant look in his eyes.
Edwards shrugged. “Your choice.”
Ten minutes later Mrs. Myers returned, beaming with self-importance. “He does stay at the hotel and it seems that he’s traveling on his own, doctor.”
Edwards scratched his head, trying to work out what to do with his patient. There was no spare room in the practice and he had his hands full as it was.
The young stranger looked at him thoughtfully. “He can’t be left alone in the hotel in his state, right?”
Edwards shook his head. “No, he needs someone to sit with him, at least for the next two days.”
The man hesitated for a moment. “Well, I could stay with him. That is, if you trust someone like me,” he added with a mocking smile in Mrs. Myers’ direction.
“Of course I trust you,” Edwards answered promptly, relieved to have the problem taken out of his hands, “I know a decent man when I see one.”
“Yeah, especially when you need one,” the man added in a dry tone. Then, to Edwards’s surprise, he reached into the pocket of the injured man’s jacket and took out a billfold. “Here, would you take care o’ that for the man here? There should still be all his money in it. I don’t think those bastards had the chance yet to get their hands on the money.”
For a moment Edwards was puzzled. “Oh. I see. You needn’t be afraid that people might believe you help yourself to his money, nobody would think ill of you“, Edwards hastened to say, but the man insisted, and so he finally took the money.
When Mrs. Myers returned with more bandages the doctor informed her of their decision to transport the injured man over to the hotel and told her that the young Mexican had volunteered to stay with him.
Mrs. Myers shook her head in disgust. “Dr. Edwards, you can’t possibly allow that!” And in a confidential tone—just loud enough to make sure that the Mex could hear her—she added: “Aren’t you afraid that he might rob or even murder the poor young gentleman in his sleep?”
The two men exchanged a telltale glance.
“Mrs. Myers! There is no reason at all for you to think like that. I won’t hear any more of it!”
Flashes of red. Gentle hands holding his and wiping his sweating, feverish body with cold water. A soothing male voice that dissipated the gory images of nightmares about battlefields and prison cells and comforted him.
The disconnected fragments of memories gradually dissolved, and Scott found himself looking into the expectant face of a middle-aged woman.
“There, now! How lovely to see you finally awake, Mr. Lancer! You look so much better today. By the way, I’m Mrs. Myers.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Myers, for everything you must have done for me,” Scott managed to say gallantly, while his ribs insisted that he should not stir too much in his bed. Fortunately his head felt much better.
“You are very welcome. It was a pleasure to nurse you, sir.”
She looked down at her hands, smiling. It was a secretive little smile, smug. Scott pulled up the blanket; uneasy at the sideways glance she gave him. He was grateful that the blanket covered him decently.
When Mrs. Myers was busy drawing back the curtains, causing Scott to flinch at the sunlight suddenly flooding the room, a man entered.
“Welcome back among the living, Mr. Lancer! I’m Dr. Edwards. Now let’s see what progress you’ve made today.” After a lot of scrutinizing with a practiced eye and some prodding he finally nodded, obviously satisfied with his findings. “I think we can take that bandage off your head, but the one around your ribcage should stay in place a little longer. How’s your head?”
“Not bad, considering. How long have I been out?”
“Well, two and a half days.”
Scott was shocked. The idea of having possibly been in the clutches of Mrs. Myers for such a length of time disturbed him considerably, especially as he dimly remembered that at one point somebody had made him use the chamber pot.
“So you must have been very patient with me, Mrs. Myers, when taking care of me… Thanks again and sorry for being so much trouble.”
“I did what I could,” Mrs. Myers said with a bashful smile.
Dr. Edwards snorted. “Yes, she made a good job of bringing fresh bandages every day,” he said pointedly. “Apart from that it was the young Mexican who sat with you.”
“You mean the young man who saved my life?”
Dr. Edwards nodded.
“He stayed with me all the time?”
“He did,” Mrs. Myers threw in, “but honestly, I wouldn’t have risked it seeing he’s only a Mex, and you never know what they’re up to, but the doctor just wouldn’t listen.”
“‘Only a ‘Mex’?” Scott said sharply. “You are not telling me that you are prejudiced against Mexicans, are you?”
“Of course not,” the lady hastened to say, “and I’m sure God loves all creatures no matter what.”
“I couldn’t have wished for a better nurse than him,” Dr. Edwards intervened. Scott gave him a grateful look; he didn’t feel up to butting heads with the godawful Mrs. Myers.
“Where is he now? I would like to talk to him and thank him.”
“He’s gone. It was clear you were almost conscious and wouldn’t need him any longer.”
“What a pity. Well, could you please write down his name and address for me?”
At that the doctor and his nurse exchanged an embarrassed look. “Uh… I can’t, I’m afraid.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“I honestly can’t. You see, the man was only passing through, a drifter. Whenever I came here to check on you the man and I just talked about you. All the information I got from him was that his name was John.”
Scott found himself getting as angry with the doctor as with his assistant. “So you are telling me that this man sat with me for almost three days?”
“Yes, that’s right…”
“And that nobody thought about relieving him?”
“And that I don’t have any chance to thank him and pay him because he is gone?”
“You should be grateful for that,” Mrs. Myers offered, piqued. “It saves you the expense, doesn’t it?”
“This isn’t about money, Mrs. Myers!” It pained Scott to think that he had no way of repaying the stranger’s kindness, but there was nothing he could do about it. So he would now have to focus on getting well enough to face his father.
A few days later Scott felt strong enough to continue his journey. He was still reminded now and then that his ribs had only begun to heal, but he resented the stifling atmosphere of the town. When Dr Edwards handed him his billfold and explained why it had been in his possession for a while, Scott thought once again that the ‘half breed’ who had been sneered at had proved the most compassionate of them all.
Fifty miles still separated Scott from Morro Coyo, the town closest to Murdoch Lancer’s ranch. He shouldn’t rush things, Scott thought, when he got off the stage in Boulder City, feeling stiff and sore. After all he was still recovering. Or was it just cowardice? Anyway, it was almost noon and Scott’s stomach had been rumbling for quite a while. It was high time to get something to eat. Boulder City might have the highflying name of ‘city’, but actually it was just another one of those dusty, small settlements whose inhabitants hoped for a better future. Therefore Scott didn’t expect too many options when it came to getting a decent meal. At least there was a saloon further down the road, so Scott headed in that direction.
But suddenly he smelled other enticing aromas. Mexican food probably. It reminded him of the young stranger who had saved his life and who he had never gotten to know.So, changing his mind, he stopped dead in his tracks, turned round – and bumped into a man. He opened his mouth to apologize when he realized just who stood there in front of him.
“Hey, it’s you!” Scott exclaimed with a broad smile.
“Well, you should know better than to bump into people with your sore ribs and all,” the young man drawled with a matching grin on his face. He looked at Scott appreciatively. “It’s good to see you so well again. The wound on your head seems to be healing nicely; might not even leave a scar. And I’m pleased that you’re stickin’ to the main road this time instead of explorin’ dark alleys,” he teased.
“Without you I wouldn’t be exploring much of anything now,” Scott countered.
The man shrugged. “Don’t know about that. But anyway, good luck!” He gave Scott a nod and started moving past him.
It took Scott a second or two to recover from the shock that the young man was just about to walk away and out of his life again.
“No! John! Wait a minute!”
The young man slowed down and turned round. “You’re not talkin’ to me, are you?”
“Of course I am! Sorry, I apologize, I must seem very rude to you calling after you like that, but you see, I never got to know your surname, all the doctor was able to tell me was that your name is John. I was devastated when nobody could tell me anything else or where to find you.”
“Devastated, huh?” There was just a hint of a mocking tone in the man’s voice.
“Yes! I never had the chance to thank you for what you did or to repay you for your kindness.”
John shrugged. “No thanks needed. I just did what anybody would have done.”
“Oh no, you did so much more. You put your own life in danger and then sat with me all the time. So let me at least pay you for all your trouble!”
This time the young man looked offended. “I sure won’t take any money for somethin’ like that. Just stop fussin’, mister!”
“I don’t mean to offend you, but it’s no small thing for me to owe someone my life and not be able to repay them. By the way, I’m Scott Lancer,” he said, offering his hand. “Please call me Scott. And you are John…?”
The other man hesitated for a moment before accepting Scott’s proffered hand. “Just John is fine.”
Scott realized that at least for now he would get no further information. “John, could I at least treat you to a meal at the cantina?”
“Look, Mr. Lancer—Scott—you really don’t have to feel obliged to be all nice and social with me. You seem to be an educated man, and I’m no good at making conversation with someone like you, I’ve hardly ever seen the inside of a school.” John sounded matter-of-fact rather than apologetic. “You’d be bored to death within five minutes. So just leave it at that, will ya?”
But Scott wasn’t discouraged so easily. “I would really like to have lunch with you. Think of me as a charity case—yet again! I’ve never eaten Mexican food, don’t know what is what and if it is perhaps too spicy for a beginner. You could help and advise me. Please! I won’t take no for an answer!”
John’s mouth twitched. “Oh boy, you’re used to always getting your way, huh? I bet you’re an only child and your parents spoilt you rotten!”
“True, I am an only child, but my grandfather certainly did not spoil me. He was very much in favor of strict discipline. But what about you, maybe you are the one who speaks from experience as a spoilt only child?”
John’s eyes narrowed. “I’m an only child all right.”
Scott sensed there was a ‘but’ to it, but John was not one to talk about himself, that much he guessed already. The man seemed to mull Scott’s offer over and just when Scott was about to give up hope, he finally gave in.
“Well, I was gonna get somethin’ to eat anyway, so maybe I should take you up on your offer. But let me tell you: if you get bored stiff, don’t complain. You’ve been warned!”
“We might set up a competition of who bores whom most,” Scott said with a grin while both men were heading for the cantina.
A few minutes later the two of them were settled at a table near the kitchen where John chose his seat with his back to the wall. Scott shot a longing look at the sunny table near the window that offered a nice view of the main street, but he let John take the lead. He listened to the plump waitress who explained to John what the cantina had to offer that day. Scott tried to make sense of the rapid exchange between the two of them, but he found out that his knowledge of Latin and French was of no great help here.
“They’ve got stew – white American style, if you like that,” John said.
“No. Thank you. What’s the use of traveling if you avoid new experiences? No, I want to broaden my horizons.”
John flashed him a dazzling smile. “Good thinking. I know a lot of gringos who would never try these dishes just because they’re Mexican food.”
“Gringos? I assume that refers to white Americans?”
“Well, their loss,” Scott commented. “Talking about gringos—maybe I should not ask this, but the three men called you half-breed: is that what you normally call someone of mixed race?”
“If you want to insult them, yeah. Half-breed or mestizo.”
“Sorry, I didn’t want to –“
“I know. It’s OK, Scott. I’m used to it.” John ordered their meals. “You’ll get pork tamalitos; they are mild enough for you. We don’t want your first Mexican dish to put you off trying Mexican food altogether!”
While they were waiting for their food Scott tried to learn to pronounce the Spanish words properly, but no matter how hard he tried, his pronunciation still sounded heavily accented. “I would have to be bilingual like you to get it right,” he sighed, “you seem to be at home in English and Spanish alike. Now who’s the educated one here?”
“Well, I sure am not,” John insisted, deaf to Scott’s protest.
When their meals arrived the two men discussed them at length. Scott enjoyed the pork tamalitos John had chosen for him and eyed John’s dish and the bright red sauce that went with it with great interest.
“What you‘ve got there looks quite appetizing, too. I’ve never seen that in a Boston restaurant. I guess it’s very hot, but would you mind if I tried just a bite or two?”
“Sure, why not. But wait a moment,” John said and, to Scott’s surprise, ordered a glass of milk.
“I didn’t expect a man like you to favor milk of all drinks,” Scott smirked.
“Well, just goes to show that you don’t know me at all, Boston.”
Boston? Scott wasn’t sure whether to feel annoyed at the address, but a look at John’s teasing grin convinced him that it wasn’t meant as an insult. So Scott picked up his fork and took a generous mouthful of John’s meal.
Wordlessly John pushed the glass of milk over to Scott’s side of the table. And in a split second Scott knew why John had ordered the milk. He grabbed the glass like a lifeline, his mouth and throat on fire, his eyes watering.
“Oh my god! Sorry, John, and thanks for saving my life again, “Scott gasped.
“You’re welcome. You know, water doesn’t really help. You OK?” John asked sympathetically and with just a hint of an amused smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “But I sure as hell ain’t plannin’ on making a habit of savin’ your sorry hide!”
“No risk there, I don’t intend to get into any more scrapes,” Scott assured him, still fighting the burning sensation in his mouth. “And anyway, it would be my turn next to save you,” he added with a grin.
John snorted. “Don’t bother, I can take care of myself.”
Remembering his first encounter with John, Scott had no doubt about that. Even now John might be slouching in his chair, seeming relaxed, but somehow he still emanated the aura of someone who wasn’t to be messed with. He was an intriguing man.
After Scott had recovered from his first encounter with fiery Mexican food John encouraged him to tell him about the kind of food Scott was acquainted with back home in Boston. “So you eat lots of things from the sea back home? Boston is near the sea then, I figure?”
“Yes, it is. It’s on the Atlantic coast. Actually we eat quite a big variety of seafood: fish, of course, but also lobsters and clams, for example.”
“Well, don’t know about lobsters or them clams. But I’m not too keen on fish. When I was a kid someone made me eat fish that had gone bad. Dios, I puked my guts out and was sick for days. Now, when I just think about fish I get a queasy feeling in my stomach.”
“So would I in that case! But who can be so irresponsible to give a child food like that? Food poisoning can be really dangerous!”
John toyed with his fork. “Things like that just happen, I guess,” he commented softly. “But now tell me again about that cream pie you have in Boston. It’s got a chocolate glaze, you say? I would polish off a whole one all by myself and get sick afterwards. Where do you put all the wonderful things you get to eat, Scott? They sure don’t seem to settle on your body!”
“When you have the chance to have as much as you like of everything you fancy, you are quite happy with moderate portions, I suspect.” It was a question to which Scott had never given much thought. He was suddenly painfully aware that John might have grown up in less favorable circumstances, but he felt he didn’t have the right to pry. He would have loved to introduce John to his favorite food and wondered whether he might have the chance one day to invite him. Scott had not enjoyed a meal or the company so much for ages and told John so.
“Not since you left Boston, you mean,” John corrected.
“No, for much longer than that!”
“Now this is mighty offensive to a number of ladies in Boston, I guess!” John countered with a grin.
“Not really. You know, lots of ladies or girls in Boston were rather silly geese who were just intent on hunting me down for marriage, and Barbara… well, she was good company, but not one for exchanging ideas.”
John nodded understandingly. “No wonder you hightailed it out of Boston, huh?”
“Well, the actual reason why I came to California is a different one,” Scott admitted. He was surprised about himself; normally a very reticent man, he was about to share some very private details with a virtual stranger. But somehow he was sure that John could be trusted. “I’ve come here to meet my father for the first time.”
John digested this information for a moment, then he gave Scott a sympathetic look.
“It must be hard to try not to expect too much,” he said softly.
Scott was impressed. Instead of asking the obvious questions John had made a very sensitive comment. And so Scott found himself telling John about the circumstances of his trip to California.
John listened attentively. “With two grown men and your past history you might need a lot of time and patience to be a real family, I figure.”
“I’m prepared to be patient. And for the time being I’ve just come for a visit. If we don’t get along at all I can still return to Boston.”
“Does that mean you could imagine leaving Boston for good? You would miss a whole lot of things here – all the luxury and the things for educated people – theater, opera, balls and whatever. Would you really give that up?”
“I don’t know yet, it’s all hypothetical, I guess I’ll just have to find out. But what about your family, John?”
“Ain’t got one.” The tone of his voice made it unmistakably clear that this topic was closed as far as he was concerned.
Respecting John’s need for privacy Scott decided to steer the conversation back to safer grounds.
“I was quite impressed, by the way, how you dealt with those three thugs.”
“Nothing impressive about that,” John answered dismissively.
Scott chuckled. “Oh, it definitely was impressive! I still remember the dumbstruck look on their faces when you threatened to get Johnny Madrid!”
John stared at his cup and shrugged. “Well, it helps to know what name to throw around,” he answered, picking at some crumbs on the table.
“For a moment I thought they even seemed to wonder whether you yourself might not be Madrid after all.”
“They were scum and cowards to boot. No use talking about them.”
But Scott just wouldn’t let go. “Johnny Madrid, that would be the gunfighter, right?”
John sighed. “Yeah.”
“But then how could they get the idea that you might be Madrid? As far as I know he has been famous for a number of years and you are far too young.”
“What would you know about someone like Madrid? I understood that this is your first trip to California.”
“During my journey west I heard people talk about him. And it was quite contradictory. Some people described him as a ruthless killer; others spoke about him with great respect and saw him more like a kind of modern Robin Hood.”
“A what?” John threw him a suspicious look.
“Robin Hood was an outlaw who lived in England hundreds of years ago. He fought against the corrupt rich and mighty and for the poor people, often risking his life in the process.”
“I bet he was a fool and got himself killed in the end,” John smirked.
“That depends on which version of his life you read. Well, I don’t know whether Madrid would like to be compared to Robin Hood. But I must admit, when I was traveling and could get my hands on nothing else to read, I bought a dime novel about Johnny Madrid.”
John just snorted without making any further comment.
“I know, I know, but do you think there could be any biographical truth in it?”
“I mean, is the novel based on real facts from his life and is his character really like that?”
John shrugged. “No idea. I’ve never read a book about Madrid. Looked at one of them once, but the few sentences I read here and there made me just want to puke all over the book.”
Scott nodded. “Understandable, considering the way he was described there.” He shuddered at the memory of the gory details about Madrid, man slaughterer and rapist.
John looked thoughtful. “I guess the only person who could write such a biographical book would be the man himself, right?”
“Indeed, you could say that,” Scott agreed, “in that case it would be an autobiography.”
“Is that what they call it? But what if somebody writes his autobiography and doesn’t get it right either? I mean, he might forget things or he might try to bend things just a mite in his favor or just leave unpleasant stuff out. Or he might even tell downright lies to show off! Somehow I think a real biography is an impossible book to write.” He stopped abruptly, ducking his head. “I’m talkin’ crap, I should keep my mouth shut about things I know nothin’ about.”
“No, that is a perfectly sensible line of thought. You would be surprised how many professors and lecturers at universities discuss these very same problems!” Scott was fascinated. Here was this young man who considered himself dumb, but who had just in his own terms expounded the notions of subjectivity and objectivity in literature.
“I guess the only thing you can do is to try to form your own opinion about a man and to trust your instincts.“
John nodded. “Might not be easy though.” He glanced at his empty coffee cup. “Well, anyway, I guess I should be going now. No use sproutin’ roots, huh?”
Scott ducked his head to hide a satisfied smile. In spite of his words John did not seem to be in a great hurry to get going, as he did not move a single inch. Could it be that he was just as loath to part ways as Scott was?
“No need to go yet,” Scott assured him. “And anyway, what about our competition of who bores whom most?”
John seemed to be giving this earnest consideration. “Weeell… We might call it a draw,” he finally offered with a dazzling smile.
“Just what I think. So this calls for a repeat performance, doesn’t it?”
The smile on John’s face faded. “No, Scott.” His voice was soft. “There won’t be a next time. You and I live in different worlds that don’t mix.”
“Why not?” Scott objected. “Our worlds have already mixed twice, and I’m very glad about it. Besides, I don’t believe in pigeonholing people into different worlds or classes or whatever you might call it. I’ve seen more than my fair share of that in Boston and am fed up with it, I can tell you. I had hoped things would be different here out west. What about the idea of everybody having a fair chance of a good life and the pursuit of happiness no matter where he comes from?”
“Let’s say it might be possible for some people,” John conceded. “I guess it depends on where you stand.”
“And just where do you stand?” Scott couldn’t help asking, knowing full well that he probably wouldn’t get an answer to that question. And he was right.
John got up and pushed back his chair, throwing a cold look at Scott. “What makes you think I owe you an answer to that question?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.” Was it only John who was so tight lipped about personal matters or was it a general taboo here in the west?
John accepted Scott’s apology with a nod. He adjusted the holster of his gun in a fluid motion that seemed to speak of long standing practice and turned to go.
Scott glanced at John’s gun. “Now just wait a minute! Could I ask you one more question? Nothing personal, I promise,” he added with a grin.
“Well, get it said,” John drawled, his eyes showing now more amusement than anger.
“Actually I’d like your expert opinion.”
“Expert, huh? You must be loco, I’m not much of an expert about anything. You should have figured that out by now.”
“It’s about the gun I bought yesterday.” Scott looked expectantly at John, hoping his diversionary tactic to keep him from leaving would work.
John raised an eyebrow. “Why would I be an expert on guns?”
“Just a feeling,” Scott admitted “You were so… so convincing with that gun of yours.”
John grinned broadly. “It didn’t take too much ‘convincing’ those three cobardes! Now what about your question?” John settled down on the chair again.
“Well, I spent two hours at the gunsmith’s. For a small town like Boulder City the man had a surprisingly large stock of weapons. I ended up with a model that is a much improved version of the Remington we had in the Army. I think it was an excellent piece and quite a bargain, but then you might not agree.”
John took the bait. “There’s only one way to find out, right? So let me have a look.”
Suppressing a triumphant smile, Scott handed him the gun.
John expertly checked the gun, his face unreadable. “Did you try it out before you bought it?”
“Of course I did. It’s been some time since I handled a gun and I admit I feel more at ease with a rifle, but I still know a good gun when I see one.”
John nodded. “I suppose you do. In that case a little chat with the gunsmith is in order. So the gun you tried was perfectly okay?”
Scott frowned. “It definitely was. Why do you ask?”
“Because this gun here is trash, that’s why. See here? It doesn’t work. It sets you off your aim and just might get you killed. There seems to be something fishy about the man. I need some ammunition anyway, so what do you think about paying that gunsmith a social call?”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Scott answered, still shocked at John’s blunt judgment of his new gun. But he was determined to find out why he had ended up with a gun that was a liability rather than a weapon. He paid for their meals, then they turned south down Main Street.
Albert Lewis, gunsmith, had his store near the end of Main Street, a five-minute walk from the cantina where Scott and John had eaten their lunch. When Scott and John entered the store Lewis was busy filling up a shelf behind the counter. He turned round to greet them, but one look and his welcoming smile faded.
“Oh. It’s you.” His tone was wary.
“You do not seem very pleased at seeing me in your store again, Mr. Lewis,” Scott commented.
“Of course I’m pleased,” the man hastened to say, “I’m just surprised. You said you were just passing through, right?” Lewis produced a rather filthy looking bandana from under the counter and began to wipe his forehead where beads of perspiration kept forming.
Scott watched him with an amused smile and shot a telltale glance in John’s direction. “I did tell you that, and it suited you just fine, as it seems. Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Well, since you are still here, I’m sure I’ve got more to keep your interest,” Lewis offered, a ghost of a smile on his strained face.
“I’ve got no doubt about that,” Scott agreed. He noticed that even though Lewis was addressing him, he was increasingly distracted by John. This did not surprise Scott. For a man who had not said a single word so far, John had an effective and irritating way of making his presence felt. He sauntered along the shelves, inspecting the guns on display and picking up at random a few side arms here and there. The gunsmith looked more nervous by the minute.
“You plannin’ on retiring soon, Mr. Lewis?” John asked softly and gave Lewis a piercing look that made him positively shake in his boots.
The question took Scott by surprise, and not only him as it turned out.
“N-No. Why would you think so?” the gunsmith stammered.
Scott considered that a legitimate question as the man couldn’t be much older than forty. What was all this about?
“Well, I’m just wonderin’. You sure don’t care much about your good reputation.” John threw Scott’s newly purchased gun on the counter with a look of utter disgust. “Why else would you sell such a piece of shit and at such a price? You pulled a switch on the gentleman here after he tried out a real gun, huh? You don’t expect me to believe you don’t even know what a sorry excuse for a weapon this is! And just in case you think this is none of my business: Mr. Lancer here is a good friend of mine and the gun was supposed to be his birthday present to me. Now what kind of present is that, mister?”
Scott struggled hard to keep a straight face at the look of righteous indignation on John’s face.
The gunsmith seemed to shrink further with every passing second and looked like he would have gladly disappeared in a hole in the ground. He hastily put the offensive gun under the counter, barely touching it as if he was dealing with a rattlesnake. “I … I’m sorry Mr. Madrid, I must have got confused and distracted, giving the gentleman the wrong gun. This is the one I should have given him.” With trembling hands he produced another weapon from the backroom, stammering apologies and excuses while John checked it over. But Scott hardly listened to Lewis. He stared at John in utter shock. Madrid? He was speechless while John graciously accepted the new weapon in exchange for the gun Scott had bought.
Out in the street John looked pleased. “Now that is a good gun—it would normally cost twice as much. But he had it coming, huh?” He had a mischievous gleam in his eyes and looked every inch the naughty schoolboy and not a dangerous gunfighter. “That was fun, wasn’t it? Scott? Is something wrong? You look pale all the sudden!” He gave Scott a concerned look. Then the sparkle in his eyes died and turned into a look full of resignation. “I see…”
Scott ran a hand through his hair and exhaled deeply; he felt embarrassed and angry. “I guess I’ve made quite a fool of myself talking with you about Johnny Madrid, right, John? Or Johnny? Or am I supposed to call you Mr. Madrid now?”
“Only if you want me to shoot you. And no, you haven’t made a fool of yourself. You said you would make up your own mind about me, and that was more than I can hope for with most people. But then I suppose that’s not how it works.” His tone was bitter. ”When you meet the man in the flesh, it’s suddenly all different.”
He abruptly turned round and walked away. After two steps he was stopped by an iron grasp on his arm. John froze and gave Scott a deadly stare. “Don’t you ever do that to a gunfighter!” he hissed.
Scott stared back, unimpressed. “And don’t you dare jump to conclusions and tell me what I do or don’t think!”
For a long moment they locked eyes until the tension finally lessened.
“After this stunt of yours I deserve a drink,” Scott announced, “and you are paying.” Scott knew he was playing dirty; counting on John’s bad conscience if he left just after Scott had treated him to a full meal. He casually turned round and walked in the direction of the saloon without once looking back. His heart was pounding in his chest because there was a high risk that his tactic wouldn’t work, and so he was infinitely relieved when he heard the soft jingle of John’s—or should that be Johnny’s?—spurs catching up with him.
“You’ve got a mean streak, Scott.”
Scott was unrepentant. “Have I?” he said with a smug grin. Of course John – Johnny had seen through him.
“And I thought you were a Boston gentleman!”
“Well, I can be if I have to, but I also know when gentlemanly ways aren’t called for. And now you are going to buy me a glass of Tiquita or whatever that drink is called.”
In the saloon Johnny took the bottle and their glasses and sauntered over to the table in a dark corner at the far end of the room. He plopped down on the chair where he sat with his back to the wall, just like the first time Scott had seen him. Now that he knew who Johnny was it made perfect sense to him. A gunfighter couldn’t be too careful, and as human beings had no eyes in the back of their heads this was second best for somebody whose life was at risk anywhere and at any time.
Scott hadn’t quite recovered yet from the shock that Johnny was the famous—or rather, infamous—Madrid, but he was determined not to let it show. “So shall we drink to your birthday then?” he asked, keeping his tone playful.
Johnny, who was just filling their glasses, stopped the bottle in midair and grinned. “That bit about my birthday was shit, huh?”
“No, actually it was fun!”
“Must have been your bad influence. You seem to bring out the bad guy in me!” Johnny seemed more pleased about it than repentant.
“Talking about birthdays: when is your real birthday?”
Johnny’s smile faded. He shrugged. “Who cares?”
Noticing Johnny’s reaction Scott regretted his question. Yet another taboo. Johnny had said he had no family; but still he would know the date of his birth, wouldn’t he?
“Let’s drink to us bad guys then,” Scott offered instead.
“Yeah, I can go along with that. So here’s to the bad guys – the real one and the wannabe!”
“The only question being which of us is which,” Scott smirked.
“Now I thought that was pretty much clear.”
“Who knows? It just might be another draw!”
Grinning, they raised their glasses.
Moments later Scott no longer cared about the good or bad in human nature, he fought for mere survival.“Oh my god!” he gasped, his eyes filling with water. He resisted an urge to spit out the fiery liquid and bravely swallowed it, all the time feeling as if his throat and stomach were about to be torn to shreds.
Johnny watched him with that dazzling smile of his and a wicked gleam in his eyes and did not show the slightest bit of pity. “You were hell bent on trying tequila, so that’s what you got!”
“Whoever decided that you can drink this liquid version of dynamite should be hung!”
“Well, maybe it takes some time to get used to tequila,” Johnny admitted with a smirk.
“More than a lifetime! I think I’ll rather have a beer if you don’t mind.”
When Scott had somewhat recovered and washed down the taste of tequila with a cold beer Johnny cleared his throat, shifting uneasily in his chair. “I guess I owe you an apology for earlier on. I shouldn’t have meddled with your affairs but should have kept my big mouth shut. I’m truly sorry, Scott, it’s just that I can’t stand people being cheated. You see, you might not care about the money you would have wasted, but lots of decent men have to work hard and save a long time to buy a good gun. I don’t want them to be cheated out of their money.”
Scott smiled at Johnny, who looked honestly embarrassed, and liked the man more than ever. “Robin Hood, “he said softly.
“You definitely have a streak of Robin Hood in you, Johnny Madrid!”
Johnny shook his head in exasperation. “The hell I do! And as for Madrid: I didn’t mean to play Johnny Madrid with the gunsmith, believe me. I’ve never been in these parts before and hadn’t expected anyone to recognize me.”
“But why didn’t you tell me who you were?”
“Well, there are times when I’m just dead tired of being the infamous gunfighter. Nobody treats you like a normal human being—well, as a mestizo I ain’t one anyway, I guess—so sometimes I just want to be some no-name drifter.” Johnny stared into his glass, swirling the tequila round and round.
Scott nodded. “I can understand that. But the thrill of your reputation must still mean a lot to you. You are so young, you can’t have been famous for much more than a year!”
“Says who? The one who wrote that dime novel, huh? Well, he sure got that wrong. I told you, you can read dozens o’ them and still know nothing about me. Nothing at all.”
“Why don’t you tell me then?”
“Why would I? I’m just somebody you happened to meet somewhere.” He drained his glass and pushed his chair back, a determined look on his face. “Time to move on.”
Scott reached for his hat. “You’re right. Thank you for the beer and even for the tequila. It was quite a… an experience!” he grinned.
When Scott and Johnny left the saloon together it was still hot and both men simultaneously pulled their hats lower to avoid the glaring sun. At least they had left the stench of unwashed men and stale beer behind.
“So when does your stage leave?” Johnny asked when they had almost reached the stage depot.
“My stage? Shouldn’t that be ‘our’ stage? I thought we were heading in the same direction.”
“Yeah, but I’m not goin’ on the stage. As long as I can climb onto a horse and stay in the saddle I’m not goin’ on no bumpin’ stage.”
“You have a point there. I’m not exactly looking forward to being tossed around in a stage for hours. But then I’ve put so many miles behind me since Boston that the worst should be over. Besides I have got my luggage to think of. So let’s see…” Scott pulled out a pocket watch. “The stage leaves at 4, that is in about half an hour.”
At that an old toothless man, who sat on a bench in front of the stage depot, whisky bottle in hand, broke out into a cackling laughter. “Half an hour, huh?” he repeated, staring at Scott from bloodshot eyes.
“Now what is so funny about that?” Scott asked, irritated.
“ ‘Cause it’s four days, mister, maybe five, not half an hour. You ain’t heard nuthin’ at all?”
Scott decided to get more reliable information and was about to push the door of the stage depot open when the manager came out himself to meet him. “He might just be a barrel of booze, sir, but still he’s right. There won’t be a stage for at least four or five days, I’m sorry.”
Scott stared at the man in disbelief. “But—“
“The bridge has been washed away and there is no alternative route the stage could take.”
The prospect of being stuck in this town was more than Scott could bear. “What about riding there?”
The manager scratched his head, his look assessing Scott. “Well, it would mean quite a detour, but I guess you could get there on horseback if you’re hell bent on it. But I wouldn’t in your place.”
Yet again, Scott had the impression he’d just been pigeonholed as a helpless Eastern greenhorn. If anything, it made him the more determined to get away from Boulder City. “I would like to leave my luggage here at the stage depot for a few days if that is possible. Could you tell me where I could buy or hire a decent horse?”
At this point Johnny, who had just been listening so far, spoke up. “What he wants to say is that it’s a hell of a trail for someone who doesn’t know the area, even for a good rider. There are lots of places where the horse might stumble over loose rubble and you might get lost because the trail has grown over. And there’s only one spot where you can cross the river, and it’s easy to miss. So he’s right, Scott, you should wait for the next stage.”
Scott stared at the ground, fighting a sense of growing frustration. But then Johnny seemed to be quite familiar with the area and he had planned to ride in the same direction anyway, at least part of the way, hadn’t he? But no, Scott was not used to begging for favors; rather, he was the one others turned to for help. Besides, he could not bother Johnny again after all he had already done for him. With an inward sigh he accepted the inevitable and braced himself for at least four more days in Boulder City.
But just when he was about to tell Johnny so, the decision was taken out of his hands. When he looked up he found Johnny observing him with a knowing smile.
“Well, there seems to be no way I can get rid of you, Boston,” he drawled in mock despair. It would have been a rude remark if not for that smile and the sincere warmth in his eyes.
“You wouldn’t mind? Honestly?”
“No. But then you might, seeing who I am. Look, I’m sure there’ll be others that you could join—“
“You know what I think of you. I couldn’t think of a better travelling companion,” Scott assured Johnny.
Johnny grinned. “Why don’t you wait until the end of the trip before sayin’ that?”
After having made the necessary arrangements to have most of his luggage stored at the stage depot, Scott joined Johnny on his way to the livery where he had left his horse. Johnny turned out to be quite the fussy horse owner. He inspected his horse in detail with a critical eye before giving a satisfied nod in the direction of Henry O’Leary, the owner of the livery stable.
Johnny’s horse seemed happy to see his master, giving him a playful nudge in the chest. He visibly enjoyed Johnny’s ministrations and his soft talk in Spanish.
Smiling, Scott observed the two. “Do you always talk to your horses?” Scott asked, amused.
“Don’t you? Well, I figure you got lots of horses back home so they don’t mean much to you. But for me it’s different. He’s my compadre, you know. I ain’t got no use for a horse that takes off somewhere in the wilderness when I topple down unconscious. He’s got to stay an’ wait for me until I can get into the saddle again.” Obviously Johnny had been more than once in such a predicament.
Scott nodded. That made sense, but he found the idea of Johnny shot or injured, with no one to take care of him except his faithful horse, quite disturbing. What if he had a bullet in him and needed surgery?
With an effort he chased gruesome images of Johnny lying somewhere helpless and bleeding from his mind and focused on the business at hand. He walked along the stalls, carefully inspecting each animal with an experienced eye.
“Mr O’Leary, I would like to buy a horse. The best one you have, in fact.”
“That would be him over there,” O’Leary said, patting the rump of a chestnut gelding. “He’s a mighty fine animal and will do you proud.”
Scott glanced over at Johnny who just raised an eyebrow. So he had seen it too.
“If he’s the best, he’ll also be the most expensive one, right?”
The man’s face brightened. “Yeah, I’m afraid so, but then you’ll get top quality and you are just the man to appreciate that!”
“Well, you might be right there. But the horse I appreciate is that one in that last stall over there. If I understood you correctly, he must be cheaper and seems to be a very good mount too,” said Scott, keeping his voice pleasant. Another glance at Johnny showed that he was barely suppressing a smirk.
In the end they left the livery with the strong and spirited horse that Scott had chosen, leaving behind the owner in low spirits.
Once out of earshot Johnny no longer tried to hide his amusement. “Bad luck for him that he tried to play dirty with a cavalry man, right?”
Scott froze. He couldn’t remember having told Johnny that he had been an officer in the cavalry during the war. “How do you know?”
“Remember, I sat with you when you were spiking a fever. And sometimes, a man who’s had to kill has nightmares. I might be just a soulless gunfighter, but I do know about them nightmares, “Johnny answered gently. “Now why don’t we get you the other stuff you need: saddlebags, a bedroll an’ the rest. Might be a lot of money to spend now, but none of it will be wasted, if you decide to stay with your ol’ man.”
“No need to worry about the money,” Scott assured him.
“No, I guess not. You’re mighty rich back east, huh?”
The question embarrassed Scott, but he saw no sense in lying to Johnny. “Yes, I… well, most people would say so.”
“Nothing to be ashamed of, Boston. But still you shouldn’t have told me. I’m the bad guy after all!”
Scott locked eyes with Johnny and smiled. “I am very much aware that a man shouldn’t let strangers know about his financial situation. But with you it’s different. Call me a fool if you like, but I trust you completely.”
“You are a fool all right,” Johnny commented, shaking his head in exasperation, “I might kidnap you or rob you and leave you in some ditch with the ants crawling across your eyeballs.”
“You wouldn’t.” Scott was adamant. Most self-righteous citizens would see just a brutal killer without a conscience, but there were few people in Scott’s life that he trusted as unconditionally as he trusted this infamous gunfighter.
Scott fought the urge to toss and turn in his bedroll, sleep just eluded him. He was supposed to get some shuteye while Johnny kept watch on their first night on the trail. He did not mind the hard ground he lay on, even if he had not slept under such uncomfortable conditions since his days as a soldier and as a prisoner of war. It was his mind that just couldn’t find any rest.
When he had planned his trip west he had concentrated on the meeting with his father and the course his life might take then. The trip from A to B itself was just a necessity to be organized and had not seemed worth any further reflection. Not even in his wildest dreams had he imagined that he might lose his life even before contacting his father – if Murdoch Lancer was his father that is. Nor had he expected to get to know such an intriguing man like Johnny; a surprisingly compassionate gunfighter, cocky and modest at the same time. Johnny was secretive about himself to the point of being rude but had a sense of humour that Scott appreciated.
Inwardly smiling, he recalled the conversation the two of them had at the campfire earlier on. It was a starry night and while they were enjoying their respective nightcaps, they had admired the beauty of the stars. Scott was surprised to learn that Johnny knew quite a number of them by name.
“Some o’ them have got real strange names,” Johnny had mused, cradling his tin mug of tequila. “I wonder where they come from.”
So they had embarked on Greek mythology, and Scott had regaled Johnny with tales about the various escapades—amorous and otherwise—of the Greek gods.
“And I thought being a god was all about being perfect!”
“Well, the Greek gods were anything but perfect; in fact it seems to me they indulged in every single human vice you can think of.”
“Musta been quite comforting for them humans. I figure they didn’t feel all that bad if the gods made such a mess of their lives too and got into the same scrapes as us. And imagine feeling sorry for being an ass forever and ever!”
Scott almost choked on his whisky. “Yes, but then the gods also had the good things forever, didn’t they?”
Johnny nodded. Suddenly he snickered. “That story about the girl Europa and Zeus who was after her and turned into a bull to make her trust him…”
“What about it?”
“I was just thinking Zeus was damn lucky he wasn’t on a cattle ranch. He might have gotten his balls cut off before he even had the chance to court poor Europa and kidnap her, huh?”
Scott laughed. “He might, but then he would probably have grown new ones. Or he might just have turned into a tree.”
“A tree! OK, why not? No risk of losing your family jewels when you’re a tree,” Johnny agreed with a broad grin. He topped up his mug of tequila and then suddenly grew more serious, staring into the fire.
Scott observed him, wondering what was on his mind. But his previous experience with Johnny made him decide not to press him.
“Scott… all the kids who go to school properly, would they know all that about the Greek gods?”
“No,” Scott assured him gently,” most people wouldn’t know even if they had a good education.”
“So I guess I made a mistake when I decided not to go to that fancy Harvard University you went to.” Johnny’s tone was playful, but this time the gunfighter didn’t manage to hide a flicker of sadness in his eyes fast enough.
“Yes, it would have been nice to have you there.” Scott tried to answer in kind, but a lump in his throat didn’t make it easy.
“Yeah, that figures. You could’ve had proper conversations with me then.” Johnny didn’t look at Scott, but started drawing circles in the sand with a little twig.
“I didn’t mean it that way and you know it! We do have good conversations, and I have already learned quite a lot from you today, remember? You know so much about the area, the animals and plants!”
Johnny just shrugged. “I’m no kid, you don’t have to humour me. Now you should get into that bedroll of yours and get some sleep, I’ll wake you up soon enough.” At that he had got up abruptly and stalked over to the copse of trees to check on their horses.
So here Scott lay now, snuggling deeper into his bedroll and waiting for sleep to come. “Johnny?”
“What is it, Boston? Still not sleeping?” Johnny threw him a stern look from the other side of the campfire.
“I… I guess I just want you to know how glad I am that I met you.”
Johnny frowned, a puzzled expression on his face. “Well, beggars can’t be choosers, I guess, what with the stage and all. And the three cobardes weren’t exactly better company.”
“I don’t just mean that you helped me and saved my life. You–”
“Now will you shut up and get your beauty sleep! I can’t stand watching a man with dark circles under his eyes when I’m having my coffee in the morning. It ruins my day and I’d have to shoot you after all,” Johnny said gruffly, poking the fire with much more vehemence than necessary.
Scott chuckled and turned over in his bedroll, still a foolish contented smile on his face. A few minutes later he fell asleep.
“Any complaints?” Scott asked, studying Johnny’s face while the gunfighter cautiously tasted the coffee Scott had volunteered to make for breakfast. An unnecessary question, the look of utter disgust that Johnny wore said it all. It would have done Socrates proud when he swallowed that cup of hemlock.
“Nope. No complaints at all, seeing that it’s only the second worst coffee I’ve ever had in my life,” Johnny quipped.
“Am I supposed to consider this as a compliment? May I ask who wins the laurels as the world’s worst coffee maker?”
“The name’s Val. We rode together once until—well, he’s a good man, just like you. Maybe it’s a kind o’ law that good men can’t make a decent coffee?”
Scott took a small sip of his coffee and could not help agreeing with Johnny. “Yuck! I don’t understand this; after all it’s the same coffee that you used yesterday!”
Johnny emptied his mug into a bush with a flourish. “You’ll just have to practise some more, I guess. How many times did you have to make your coffee yourself? Can’t have been all that often!”
“Now that is a question I refuse to answer. But I’m willing to learn. I’ll just have to watch your expert performance. In the meantime I think that bush could do with a second helping of coffee!”
“Talking about practising: you sure don’t have to watch me to hone your skills with a rifle. You’re one hell of a shot with a rifle, Scott.” Johnny was referring to the shooting practice the two men had indulged in the day before after setting up camp for the evening.
“Thank you. I must admit I had my doubts whether I would still have the edge.”
The speed and accuracy with which Johnny had handled his handgun were breathtaking. Scott had been no match for Johnny’s awesome skills in that respect, but he was pleased to have won Johnny’s sincere admiration as a marksman with his rifle.
Half an hour later the two men packed up and continued on their way. As it turned out, Johnny had not exaggerated the hardships that were waiting for them. There was little time for that easygoing bantering back and forth that Scott had enjoyed with Johnny earlier, their utmost concentration was called for. The ground was often uneven with hidden holes or loose rubble. Sometimes they had to dismount and walk single file, their eyes glued to the ground.
Scott’s horse turned out to be quite skittish sometimes and he needed to resort to all the skills of the experienced cavalry officer whereas Johnny and his horse seemed to have the mutual understanding of true longstanding companions.
Several times, just when Scott had believed he could relax and let his mind wander, Johnny had suddenly left the well marked trail, following some invisible path for half an hour until it miraculously turned into a real trail again. Scott had to admit, he would have never found his way around there on his own.
At least they had the prospect now of riding side by side again for a while in companionable silence with a chance to talk if they felt like it.
“Well, that was the worst bit,” Johnny finally announced after four exhausting hours in the saddle, glancing at Scott. “Sore, huh?”
“I definitely wouldn’t mind a stretch of road with no complications whatsoever!”
“Homesick already, are ya? I figure you’d rather be back in Boston freezing your butt off in the cold and rain or sittin’ trapped in a stuffy room!”
Scott grinned. “Don’t forget the company of beautiful ladies sitting in that stuffy room. But no, heaven knows why, but I prefer my saddle sore backside even to the company of said Bostonian ladies. I must be mad!”
“You sure are!” Suddenly Johnny’s face broke into a mischievous grin. “But just so as to stop you from pining after them beauties: My horse is no match for yours, but what about racing me to that pool over there?” Without waiting for an answer Johnny took off at breakneck speed.
Scott needed only a split second to recover from his surprise and followed Johnny in hot pursuit. And there it was: the sheer pleasure of feeling carefree and alive, the warm wind on his face a far cry from the chill he remembered from Boston.
He almost caught up with Johnny and, remembering what Johnny had said about their horses, felt sure he would win easily. But just when he was about to race past with a joyous grin it turned out that he had underestimated both Johnny and his mount. So the race ended with the two horses arriving almost neck to neck with Johnny’s steed leading by just an inch.
“Seems to me you need a little more practice, Boston,” Johnny said, dismounting with a devilish grin.
“You lied to me about your horse,” Scott complained, grinning back at him, “and I slowed down to spare you the humiliation of being defeated! And what I do I get for being the considerate gentleman?”
“Told you not to trust me, didn’t I?” Johnny was unperturbed.
Instead of an answer Scott just gave him a playful punch. Johnny paid him back in kind, and soon there was a jostling match in full swing. Neither of them gave an inch of ground, until finally both lay in the grass, completely exhausted.
“That… was…fun,” Scott commented, still a bit breathless and quite a lot dishevelled, brushing the dirt and leaves from his pants.
“Sure it was!” Johnny didn’t look the slightest bit less ruffled and had clearly enjoyed their bantering and jostling just as much. Suddenly, however, his smile faded away.
“Sorry, I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I’m not usually that childish.” He ran a hand through his hair, looking embarrassed.
Scott looked up, surprised at Johnny’s sudden change of mood. “Nor am I, Johnny. But there’s no reason to feel sorry, I think. Out here you needn’t play the tough gunfighter just like I needn’t play the Boston gentleman.”
Johnny nodded thoughtfully. “Well, I didn’t ride over here just for the nice scenery. I’m planning on havin’ a bath in that pool behind the rocks. If I should freeze to death in there you take good care of my horse and my gun, will ya?”
Scott chuckled. “Sure, go ahead.”
Johnny shed his clothes, but before stepping into the water he rummaged in his saddlebags and produced a shirt and some underwear. “Might as well do some laundry, too,” he mumbled more to himself. When Scott caught a glimpse of Johnny’s back he was shocked to see a number of scars marring him; scars inflicted by bullets, knives and God knew what else. Each of these scars told grim stories of all the violence the gunfighter must have endured in his young life.
Johnny seemed to feel Scott’s sympathetic eyes upon him. Turning round he threw Scott a defiant look, daring him to comment on what he saw. “Dios, if I’m such a disgusting sight without my clothes on just turn round or close your eyes till I’m in the water! I forgot that you’re probably used to your own bathroom.”
When he stepped gingerly into the cold water, he let out a yelp. “Hell, this is melted ice! “ And with these words he suddenly sent a huge splash of water in Scott’s direction. His aim was excellent, and so Scott had ice-cold water running down his face and soaking his shirtfront.
“Now just you wait!” Scott fumed, got rid of his own clothes and, hell-bent on revenge, darted into the pool to make Johnny pay. He showed no mercy in the fight that followed while Johnny protested in vain, complaining that a decent man couldn’t be expected to do his laundry properly with a shark in the water.
“It will be your fault if my clothes haven’t really got clean,” Johnny grumbled some time later when they were lying peacefully in the sun like lizards to dry off.
Scott didn’t feel the slightest remorse. “I would say it is your fault just as well. And as you yourself suggested earlier on, I can still close my eyes or turn around when I see you improperly dressed,” he smirked.
Johnny had spread his washing on the rocks, where they dried quite fast. After a leisurely hour in the late afternoon sun he finally got up and dressed. He collected his belongings, stowed them away in his saddlebags and adjusted his gun belt with a grace and efficiency that spoke of the longstanding practice of the professional.
Scott observed him, but made no move himself. Sitting propped up against a rock he still felt pleasantly drowsy and had no wish to continue their trip yet, but Johnny was right, it was time to get going. With a sigh he got up, each and every one of his sore bones reminding him of their hard trip earlier on, and donned his own spare clothes.
The next time he happened to look over at Johnny he froze, deeply shocked by the sudden look of cold determination in the gunfighter’s eyes and the barrel of his gun that was aimed in his direction. When the gunshot exploded Scott staggered backwards and his world went black.