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“So, to conclude, I believe that my breeding stock is second to none and I very much hope that we’ll be able to do business together.”
Murdoch Lancer sipped his brandy and studied the man sitting across the table from him.
It was his final night in Stockton, where he’d spent a couple of days in meetings with other local members of the Cattlemen’s Association. One of his associates had introduced him to Henry Johnson, a horse breeder from the East Coast. Johnson had moved West a year ago and bought a property near the town of Oak Ridge, a half day’s ride northeast of Morro Coyo.
Over dinner at the cattlemen’s club, Johnson had proved a congenial and relaxed companion. When the talk turned to business, though, he had become animated and had just finished explaining that he had some thoroughbred stallions for sale that might interest a man building his own business.
“You’re right, Henry,” Murdoch admitted, “Lancer is on the lookout for a quality stallion.”
“So Jeffries told me,” Johnson said. “I admit to being a little surprised; I’d heard that Lancer was a cattle ranch.”
“So it is. But our land also boasts a large herd of wild horses, and my son Johnny persuaded me that there’s benefit in diversifying. We’re just starting out, but
I think the decision will pay off. We’ve secured a lucrative contract to supply the army with horses.”
Johnson nodded his understanding.
“Johnny is running that side of things himself,” Murdoch couldn’t resist adding. “He has a real way with horses, and he’s proving to be an excellent judge of horseflesh and a shrewd businessman as well.”
“You’re clearly very proud of your son,” Johnson said with an amused smile.
“And I’m sure that pride is completely justified. I’m confident that he – Johnny, was it? – will be interested in this stallion. I have all the details written down here.” He passed Murdoch a sheet of neatly written print.
Murdoch scanned it. The stallion certainly had an impressive lineage.
“Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to make a purchase without checking out the merchandise,” Johnson went on. “Why don’t you send your boy over to take a look at the stallion?”
Murdoch nodded. He wouldn’t consider a blind purchase. “I’ll do that.”
“When would suit you?”
Murdoch considered. They would be hitting a busy time at the ranch in just a few weeks. Sooner would be better than later. “How about a week from Saturday?”
Johnson beamed. “That would suit me perfectly.” He raised his glass. “Here’s to what I trust is the beginning of a long and prosperous business association.”
Murdoch raised his own glass to Johnson’s, then sat back in his seat and contemplated the man a little more. While the conversation so far had been pleasant, and he was genuinely interested in the stallion, he hadn’t really taken to the man. There was something that didn’t quite ring true about him.
Physically, Johnson was an imposing figure. Over six feet in height, he had a head of thick light brown hair and piercing light gray eyes. His neat mustache set off evenly sculpted, handsome features and he wore his finely-tailored clothing with an accustomed air. Murdoch put him somewhere in his early thirties.
Murdoch shrugged off his misgivings. It wasn’t necessary to like a man to do business with him and from what he had heard from Jeffries, Johnson was an honorable man. That was what mattered.
They sat in companionable silence for a few moments. Then Johnson said, “I recall Jeffries telling me that you have two sons, but that they’ve only recently joined you at Lancer?”
He made the comment a question. Murdoch hesitated. Jeffries was a good man, but prone to prattling, especially when he’d had a drink or two. Murdoch wasn’t ready to get into his complicated family history with a total stranger, although it was no secret. “That’s right,” he said finally. “It’s a long story, but Johnny spent his early years in Mexico. My eldest, Scott, was brought up in Boston.”
Murdoch expected Johnson to question him further, but instead the Easterner leaned forward and said eagerly, “Ah, Boston. A delightful city. The town where I was brought up is less than thirty miles from there. I’d love to meet Scott one day. There are many things I miss about my home; I’d appreciate the opportunity to reminisce with someone who is knowledgeable about the area.”
It occurred to Murdoch to suggest that Scott accompany his brother to Oak Ridge. They would only be away for a couple of days and he knew his boys would appreciate some time together. He smiled. “Why don’t I send Scott with Johnny to check out this horse of yours? Johnny will enjoy the company and I’m sure Scott will be happy to share some stories about Boston.”
Johnson beamed. “Splendid. That’s settled then. I look forward to your sons’ visit and I’m confident it will result in a satisfactory business transaction that benefits both parties.”
Murdoch swallowed the last of his brandy and stood. “Well, it’s been a pleasure, Henry, but I have an early stage to catch in the morning. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll head off to bed.”
Johnson stood also. “Of course, don’t let me detain you. I think I’ll stay and have one more brandy before heading to bed myself.” He held out his hand and Murdoch took it, noting the firm grip.
“Good night.” Murdoch turned away, and then realized that he’d left his jacket hanging on the back of the chair. When he looked back Johnson was standing, watching him, his eyes shining with what Murdoch could only interpret as triumph. He caught Murdoch’s eye and immediately the expression faded. He smiled pleasantly. “Don’t forget your jacket; the nights are beginning to get a little chilly.”
Johnson walked away, leaving Murdoch somewhat uneasy. Then he shrugged mentally. The expression he thought he had seen must have been a trick of the light.
He slowly made his way up the stairs to his room, trying to ignore the twinge of pain in his back that climbing stairs always caused. The past few days had been profitable and necessary, but he was looking forward to the journey home tomorrow and the reunion with his family.
Henry Johnson watched Murdoch Lancer until he disappeared from view. He knew he’d come close to making a serious mistake, but he was so delighted that Murdoch had so easily fallen into his trap that he couldn’t help but allow his joy to show on his face. He needed to be more careful. The wheels were in motion. There was no room for error.
He made his way to the bar, finding a space alongside a heavily built, sandy haired man.
He ordered a brandy and stood sipping it in silence for a few moments. Then, without looking around, he said softly, “It’s set for a week from Saturday. Does that give you enough time?”
He observed the other man in the mirror behind the bar as he answered quietly without taking his eyes from the drink he was nursing. “Time enough, I reckon, Boss. I’ll start getting some men together tomorrow.”
“Don’t forget, this must be done with the utmost discretion.”
“Yeah, I get it. I know what I’m doing. You worry about your side, I’ll worry about mine.”
“Very well. I’ll expect you at the ranch in a week’s time.”
After a few more minutes the other man drained his glass and sauntered off.
Johnson stood at the bar for a while longer, savoring the sweet feeling of anticipation. Then regret shot through him – Murdoch Lancer seemed like an upright man who didn’t deserve the grief he was about to experience. But the feeling was fleeting. Sacrifices had to be made in the pursuit of justice and sometimes the innocent suffered.
His mind wandered back, through seven long years, marked by six moments of triumph amidst a sea of pain.
He had painstakingly tracked them down, one by one, and carried out the punishment they deserved for their crime.
As always his heart contracted as he thought about his loss. He’d been told that the pain would dull in time; that while he would never forget, he’d learn to live with it. Yet the pain hadn’t dulled. It had grown until it dominated his waking moments and sleepless nights.
At first, he had embraced it; anything less would have felt like a betrayal. But as time went on, he began to lose himself to the pain that continually gnawed at him like a rabid beast. It demanded justice and he realised that only by providing it would he know peace again. So he had devoted his life to pursuing the sinners. Each time he carried out the sentence, the pain diminished – for a time. Then the beast would return, eating away at him until he turned his attention to the next in line.
He craved the end, for he would never know real peace until this was finished.
And now, finally, the end was in sight. The final man, the one who had started it all, was within his sights. After so many months of careful planning, his scheme was about to come to fruition.
The Lancer boy would pay the price for his sins.
Ten days after Murdoch’s meeting with Henry Johnson, the Lancer brothers were on the road to Oak Ridge. They intended to spend the night in town and head out to Johnson’s ranch first thing the following morning.
Accompanying them was Val Crawford, sheriff of Green River, who had ridden out to the ranch earlier that morning. When Johnny met him in town the previous day, he’d mentioned that he had business in Oak Ridge and that “tomorrow was as good a day as any.”
Scott glanced across at Val, riding alongside Johnny. “So, Val, what’s your business in Oak Ridge?”
“Sheriff there arrested a man after a saloon brawl a few days back. His deputy said he recognised him from a wanted poster of a bank robber called Clem Roberts. The man claims he’s someone else, said I’d vouch for him.” Val glanced at Johnny. “It’s Jeb Harper.”
Johnny’s eyebrows shot up. “Jeb? Hell, Val, Jeb wouldn’t be involved in a bank robbery. Much as anything, he ain’t got the brains for it.”
Val snorted. “You got that right. Remember that time him and Bill Clements tried to set fire to that old barn—”
“— and set fire to themselves as well!” Johnny finished and the two of them burst into laughter.
Scott smiled. Johnny looked relaxed and happy. His brother was always comfortable around Val. Scott knew it was due to the time they’d ridden together in the past and he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy that, in some ways, Val knew Johnny better than he did himself.
Johnny was so tight-lipped about his past. Scott thought he understood the reason; his brother was trying to build a future with his newly discovered family and feared that sharing too many details about his past would somehow jeopardize that.
It frustrated Scott. There were times when Johnny was difficult to figure out. His childhood experiences and the years spent as a gunfighter had helped shape the man he was today and Scott was sure that the more he knew, the easier it would be to understand his brother. He knew his own experiences in the war had helped shape him. Then he silently chastised himself. The irony was that while he expected Johnny to open up to him, he wasn’t willing or able to talk to his brother about his own past.
He listened as Johnny and Val continued to reminisce about Jeb Harper’s escapades.
When it came to the serious stuff, they both shut up like clams, yet he had learned to pay attention to the amusing anecdotes; he often gleaned more information there than either of them realized.
“So,” he asked when the laughter finally died down, “Do you think the sheriff at Oak Ridge will take your word on Harper’s identity?”
“Sure. Reckon he trusts my word; Carson and I go back a bit. That’s why I figured it was best to come along – I mean, you could have identified him, Johnny, but Carson don’t know you.”
Johnny shot Val a knowing look. “Plus the Green River ladies’ guild wanted you to give a speech at their get together tomorrow night.”
Val looked indignant. “That ain’t got nothin’ to do with it. Just takin’ my responsibilities serious, that’s all.”
Johnny snorted and then grinned. “Guess it ain’t so bad havin’ you along, is it Scott?”
“I can think of worse things,” Scott agreed, and meant it. While his initial impression of Val hadn’t been favourable, he’d learnt to look past the crumpled and unkempt look. Val was a capable, intelligent man and while Scott wasn’t sure they’d ever be close friends, he was learning to appreciate the man.
“Yeah, just like old times, ain’t it,” Val said. “I kinda miss the old days, now we both have ‘responsibilities.’”
“Sure.” Johnny looked thoughtful. “What I miss most is camping out on the hard ground on cold, rainy nights, wondering where the next meal’s coming from—”
Val reached out and pushed him. Johnny laughed, easily keeping his seat as Barranca snorted in protest.
“All right, it weren’t all roses,” Val admitted. “But we had some good times too.”
Johnny caught Scott’s eye. “Yeah, we did that, Val.”
They rode on. Scott felt content, enjoying the late summer sunshine and the companionship. He planned to make the most of this unexpected trip. Murdoch had returned from Stockton in a particularly mellow mood. Johnny hadn’t said so aloud, but Scott knew he was pleased that Murdoch trusted him to check out the stallion and make a deal without referring back to his father. And Scott had been pleasantly surprised when Murdoch further announced that Johnson had particularly asked to meet him because of his New England background. He was looking forward to reminiscing about Boston. He was happy living in California but had to admit that sometimes he missed the big city with its culture, elegant buildings and more refined society.
A while later Val asked, “So, Johnny, you think this stallion will be worth the trip?”
Scott smiled as Johnny’s eyes lit up. “Sure hope so. If he lives up to his lineage, he’ll be an important addition to our breeding stock.”
Scott listened absently as Johnny went on to enthuse about his plans for the horse breeding business.
It made him happy to hear the excitement in his brother’s voice. Bearing in mind the somewhat volatile relationship between father and younger son, Scott had been a little surprised but delighted when Murdoch not only listened to Johnny’s ideas to diversify from cattle but had agreed to let him start up the new business. It showed how far the two of them had come since those early, uneasy months and he was proud of his brother for the work he’d put into making a solid business case for the venture.
Johnny had demonstrated his horsemanship almost as soon as he arrived at Lancer, but since then had put time into studying and reading all he could about the business of breeding and selling stock. He’d even spent a few days at a successful ranch south of Lancer to pick up tips from the experts. And since the day Wilf Guthrie had hoodwinked him into buying a worthless nag, he’d made sure he knew how to recognize all the tricks used by unscrupulous horse traders. Scott was confident that no one would fool his brother again.
“Hey, Scott, you daydreaming, Brother?”
Johnny’s teasing tone brought him back to the present.
He smiled. “Just thinking. How much further to Oak Ridge?”
“Another half hour, I’d say,” Val said.
“Good. I’m ready for a beer and maybe a soak in the tub.”
“I’ll settle for the beer,” Val said. “We’ll go to Rosa’s cantina. She serves up the largest, hottest tamales in the county. Reckon they’re hot enough to take out the back of even your throat, Johnny.”
Scott groaned theatrically. “I can hardly wait!”
Johnny grinned and spurred Barranca on. “One of these days you’re gonna learn to love Mexican food, Brother!”
Johnny leaned against the wall beside the opened window of his hotel room and gazed out at the peaceful main street.
He had been happy to discover that Val was right; Rosa’s cantina did indeed serve fine tamales. He enjoyed a pleasant and uneventful evening with his brother and his old friend eating, drinking fine tequila and playing a few hands of poker with some of the local ranch hands.
He’d decided to turn in early, ignoring Val’s teasing that he was getting old and boring. He wanted to be sharp and well rested to meet Henry Johnson the following day.
But his mind was too active for sleep to come easily. His eyes roved along the row of buildings, most of them stores now shrouded in darkness. It was quieter than Morro Coyo would have been on a Friday night. No one was around. A dog padded along the boardwalk and disappeared into the alley, and then the scene settled back into tranquillity. The only sound was music drifting across from the cantina further down the road.
He hoped Val and Scott were having a good time. He had another motivation for retiring early and had persuaded Scott to stay up and keep Val company. He knew that neither was entirely at ease in the other’s company and figured that the more time they spent together without him, the more comfortable they’d eventually become.
His thoughts turned to the purpose of their journey. He was more worried about this possible purchase than he was prepared to admit, even to Scott. His initial pleasure that Murdoch had chosen to trust him to make such a potentially expensive deal had quickly turned to worry that he’d make the wrong decision and buy a nag or pay more than the horse was worth. He wasn’t sure how the Old Man saw it, but for him everything was riding on this transaction. He wanted – no, needed – to prove to his father that he could pick a good horse and drive a hard bargain.
The past year or so hadn’t been easy, as he and Murdoch had begun to learn how to be father and son. The two of them had locked horns time and again, often with accompanying fireworks. He knew Murdoch didn’t trust him back then. The Old Man expected too much and refused to listen to his ideas.
The situation improved as time passed. The arguments lessened and the Old Man was more likely to give his views a hearing. It seemed to Johnny that his father was finally coming to believe in him and it scared him a little how much that meant to him. Over the months, he had come to love and respect his father and he wanted more than anything to make the man proud of him.
This was his chance, and he was determined not to blow it.
Scott and Val came out of the cantina together and he watched as they headed down the street toward the hotel. They seemed to be on good terms and he smiled to himself. It looked like his plan had worked.
Knowing that Scott would ask questions if he found him restlessly prowling the room, Johnny got back into bed quickly and pulled the blanket up around his shoulders. He didn’t want to think about the sale anymore, never mind talk about it. Tomorrow would come fast enough.
The following morning, after a hearty breakfast in the cantina, Johnny and Scott left for Johnson’s ranch. They promised Val that they’d return that evening or early the next morning. If they left before noon they’d be back at Lancer in time for dinner. Much as Johnny had enjoyed last night’s tamales, nothing could beat Maria’s cooking.
Murdoch had told them that the ranch was an hour and a half’s ride northeast of town. They rode for a while in companionable silence, but the closer they got, the more nervous Johnny became. The tension must have been obvious, for Scott looked across at him quizzically.
Johnny shrugged. “Nothin’.”
Scott raised an eyebrow.
Johnny sighed. “Just hopin’ the Old Man’ll be happy with the decision I make.”
“Why shouldn’t he be? You know what to look for and you know what a horse like that is worth. And whatever you decide, I’m sure Murdoch will respect your judgement.”
Johnny smiled, grateful for his brother’s confidence in him. Scott had been in the unenviable position of buffer between him and Murdoch so many times and, more often than not, he not only provided a much needed voice of reason, he also backed Johnny when the Old Man was being pig-headed.
Johnny had been surprised how quickly he and Scott had developed a friendship after their less than promising start. They couldn’t be more different in both looks and in temperament, yet somehow they had grown to trust and respect each other. On Johnny’s side, those feelings had grown into deep affection that he supposed could be called brotherly love. He had no past experience to judge by; all he knew was that his brother had become one of the few people he’d willingly give his life for.
In his more insecure moments, he admitted to himself that he wasn’t entirely sure that the feelings Scott had for him ran quite as deep. His brother could be hard to read; Scott was reserved by nature and not given to displays of affection. It was ironic that Scott was always fishing for information about Johnny’s past when he himself was so reluctant to share his own personal feelings and experience.
Scott’s voice brought him out of his musings and he nodded. “I know Scott, I’m just being… what do you call it?”
Scott smiled. “Paranoid?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Paranoid.”
“I understand why you’re nervous, but it’s going to be fine.”
Half an hour later, they rounded a stand of trees and saw the ranch house ahead. In unspoken consent they reined in and took a moment to study the place. The house itself was a modest single-story wooden building. Dotted around were several barns, what appeared to be a large stable and a few other outbuildings. Three horses grazed in the paddock but there was no other sign of life.
Johnny frowned and glanced at Scott. “Not quite what I was expecting.”
“What were you expecting?”
Johnny shrugged. “Not sure. A bigger spread, I guess.”
Scott looked around. “Well, maybe Johnson goes for quality over quantity.”
“Guess the quality must be in the stable then, because them horses in the corral ain’t what we’ve come to see.”
“Well, we’d better go and find out.” Scott urged Remmie on into a trot.
Johnny sat for a moment longer. Something was gnawing at him, but he couldn’t find a logical reason for his unease. Scott was right. He was paranoid today. He blew out a long breath then kicked Barancca on to catch up with his brother.
They reined up outside the ranch house and dismounted. At once, the door opened and a man emerged.
He strode toward them, a wide smile gracing handsome features. “The Lancer brothers, I presume.” He spoke with an accent very similar to Scott’s. Johnny smiled to himself. He had a feeling he was going to hear a lot about life back East over the next few hours. The man looked at Scott and held out his hand. “Henry Johnson.”
Johnson was exactly as Murdoch had described, right down to the slightly over the top air of bonhomie.
Johnny tried to choke back the uneasy feeling that this man had done nothing to warrant, but Scott had clearly noticed because he shot his brother a quizzical glance as he took Johnson’s hand. “Scott Lancer.”
Johnson shook Scott’s hand vigorously. “Delighted. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see you. Murdoch’s told me all about you, Scott. I believe we have a lot in common. I’m from the Boston area, the same as you.”
“So I understand,” Scott said agreeably. He turned to Johnny and gave him a ‘look.’ “This is my brother, Johnny.” Johnny shook himself mentally and stepped forward. “Pleased to meet you.”
Johnson took his hand and shook it with markedly less enthusiasm than he had Scott’s. “Ah yes. You’re the son who has ‘a way with horses’. Your father spoke very highly of you. We’ll have to see if his faith is warranted, eh?”
Interesting. Johnny wasn’t sure if it was his heritage or accent that was offensive to Johnson, but his dismissive tone betrayed a thinly disguised contempt. Well, he wasn’t about to be dismissed. He shot Johnson a cool stare and was about to follow it up with a sharp comment, when Scott frowned and said with markedly less warmth than before, “I think you’ll find that my brother lives up to his reputation.”
“Of, course, of course, I’m sure he will.” Johnson clapped Scott on the shoulder. “Well, come in. I thought we could have some coffee before you take a look at the horse. My housekeeper’s made some excellent biscuits.”
Johnson ushered them into a room that was spacious and adequately furnished, but lacking in any other kind of decoration. Johnny looked around, puzzled. He’d have expected a refined Easterner such as Johnson to have brought some keepsakes and knickknacks with him from his previous home – Scott certainly had. The room was functional at best and that seemed at odds with Johnson’s personality.
“Please, sit,” Jacobs said, gesturing toward the table. “After a quick glance at his brother to see if Scott was having the same thoughts, Johnny sat down. Scott pulled out a chair opposite him while Johnson took the head of the table.
“Marita, please bring the coffee in,” Johnson called.
A few moments later a young Mexican woman appeared with three cups and a plate of biscuits on a tray. Johnny smiled at her. “Buenos dias.” She didn’t respond and kept her head down. The tray rattled as she put it down and she shot Johnson a quick glance. She put the plate in the centre of the table and as soon as she had placed a cup in front of each man she left the room hurriedly. Johnny frowned. What cause did she have to be nervous?
Johnson raised his cup. “To new friends.”
He took a sip of his coffee. Scott, looking slightly confused yet amused at the man’s exuberance, nodded and raised his own cup to his lips.
Johnny ‘s senses were still screaming that something was wrong. Johnson’s expression as he’d made the toast was strangely expectant and his eyes shone with an almost feverish intensity.
Johnny chastised himself mentally for his suspicious nature and took a large mouthful of his coffee. He almost spat it right back out and only just managed to hold back a grimace of disgust. Boy, that had to be the worst coffee he’d ever tasted – worse even than Val’s gut rot and that was saying something. He wondered if the woman Marita had deliberately made a bad pot. There was definitely something going on with her.
He casually pushed his cup to one side and reached for a biscuit to take the taste away as he asked, “How big an outfit are you running here, Mr. Johnson?”
“Quite small, by Californian standards, I’m sure,” Johnson said. “I believe in putting my energy and expertise into breeding a small herd of the best quality stock.”
Johnny noted that Scott continued to drink his coffee, showing no signs that it tasted bad. That was his brother – polite to the end.
“Did you bring the breeding stock with you when you came to California?” Scott asked. He took another mouthful of his coffee and frowned. As he put the cup down his hand shook and some of the black liquid spilled out.
Johnny looked at his brother in concern and suddenly Scott blurred before his eyes. He shook his head, blinked, and his brother came back into focus.
Then Scott swayed and put a hand to his head. “I’m sorry, I feel a little… dizzy.”
His eyes rolled back in his head and he fell forward across the table, knocking over the cup. A river of black liquid began to snake across the table, dripping onto the floor.
“Scott!” Johnny pushed his chair back and jumped to his feet. A wave of dizziness swept over him and he clutched the edge of the table to keep himself upright. The coffee’s drugged! As soon as the thought came into his head, ridiculous as it might seem, Johnny’s gut told him he was right. “What the hell?” he spat out, his hand reaching sluggishly for his gun even as he registered that Johnson now held his own gun to Scott’s head.
“Sit down, Madrid,” Johnson said, in the same jovial, conversational tone. “Sit down and put your hands on the table where I can see them. Do it, or I’ll shoot your brother.”
Johnny locked eyes with Johnson and felt a shiver of fear shoot through him. What the hell was going on? Had Murdoch told Johnson about Madrid? Was his past once more reaching out to threaten him and his family?
Johnson’s tone was at odds with his eyes. The feverish light still shone but his expression was now cold and unyielding, leaving Johnny in no doubt that he would do as he promised.
He moved his hand slowly away from the holster, sat down and put suddenly shaking hands on the table in front of him. “Care to tell me what’s going on here?”
“Not yet. But I do want you to finish drinking your coffee.”
Even though the room was beginning to spin, Johnny steadily held Johnson’s gaze. “When Hell freezes over,” he answered softly.
Unfazed by the glare that had cowed many a man, Johnson chuckled. “All right. We’ll do this the hard way.”
Johnny heard the door behind him open. Johnson’s eyes focused over his right shoulder and he gave a short nod. Johnny registered movement behind him a second before his head exploded in pain. Stars danced behind his eyes and then everything went black.
His world was moving. That was the first thing to hit his awareness, followed quickly by the smell; stale sweat mixed with horse and warm leather. Next was the insistent pounding inside his skull, followed by the uncomfortable feeling that his stomach was going to empty itself violently at any moment.
Scott opened his eyes.
That turned out to be a mistake. He found himself looking down at a dirt track that seemed to be moving beneath him. He snapped his eyes shut as his stomach lurched.
It took a while for his foggy mind to put together and make sense of all the sensations crowding into his awareness. But eventually, he fitted the pieces together and surmised that he was draped over the saddle of a moving horse. Stiff and cramped muscles protested the unnatural position.
He struggled to pull his thoughts into some kind of order. How had he landed up in this undignified and uncomfortable situation? And then the memories returned, rushing over each other in a confusing overload of images: Val, crowing as he revealed yet another winning poker hand; Johnny riding beside him, his silence a clear indication of tension; Johnny again, frowning in that way he had when something was eating at him; Johnson rushing out of the house to greet the brothers with a gushing welcome; Johnson’s toast as he raised his coffee cup – the coffee!
Scott remembered taking a mouthful and his mild surprise at the bitter taste. Thinking nothing of it, he’d continued to drink out of politeness. He’d asked Johnson something about his breeding stock and that was when the room had began to spin. He’d started to apologise, explaining that he felt giddy, then saw Johnny leap to his feet just as the cup fell and coffee stung his hand.
That was the last thing he could recollect. Did Johnny – Johnny! Panic swept over him and he raised his head to look around. The pounding intensified and he swallowed back bile as his world tilted alarmingly.
A voice said, “One of ‘em’s awake.”
The motion stopped. Hands grabbed him around the waist and he braced himself for a heavy landing as he was pulled from the horse. Instead, he found himself on his feet, the hands steadying him as he swayed.
He looked around. He didn’t recognise the area, but the trail they were on climbed gently and he could make out mountains in the distance. Behind were flat, well-watered meadows and to his left a shallow river flanked by massive craggy boulders. Trees crowded the other side of the trail.
He glanced upwards. The sun’s position revealed that it was early afternoon, so only a couple of hours had passed since their arrival at the ranch. Putting all the facts together, he guessed they were heading east into the foothills of the Sierras.
To his relief he saw Barranca, just ahead of his own horse, a motionless Johnny draped over his back. He couldn’t tell how badly his brother was injured, but it worried Scott that he was obviously unconscious.
There were six men in the group, all armed. Two of them were covering him while a third stood close to Barranca, his gun pointed at Johnny.
Scott didn’t recognise any of them, except Johnson who came forward to stand in front of him.
“Welcome back, Scott. May I call you Scott?”
“Do I have a choice what you call me? What’s going on here? Why did you drug me?”
Johnson smiled. “I’m sorry about that, but it was the easiest way – I didn’t think you’d come on this little trip willingly. Don’t worry, it was a mild sleeping draught. You’ll have a headache for a while, but no residual affects, I assure you.”
“And my brother? Is he drugged too?”
Johnson smiled again, for all the world as if he was having a pleasant conversation with a friend. Scott itched to sink his fist into that smile and knock it right off his captor’s mouth.
“Your brother was a little reluctant to finish his coffee after he observed the effect it had on you. I fear his headache may be a little worse than yours. Mr. Starkin here got a little carried away when he rendered him unconscious.”
Johnson nodded at the tall, sandy-haired man standing beside him. Starkin’s mouth stretched in an ugly grin. “Don’t know my own strength, Boss.”
Scott drew himself up and said coldly, “I demand that you tell me what this is all about.”
“All in good time,” Johnson replied. “Right now, I want you to mount up; we need to reach our destination before dark. Don’t think about trying anything. I won’t hesitate to order my men to shoot your brother.”
The incessant smile was still on Johnson’s lips but Scott knew that he meant what he said. He assessed the situation. He could probably take Johnson down, but with Johnny unconscious he was outnumbered six to one and he was unarmed. He had no chance of escape and would probably only succeed in getting both himself and his brother killed.
He would have to wait for a better opportunity. Stiffly he mounted and sat, silently seething, while his hands were tied firmly to the pommel.
Johnson nodded his head in Johnny’s direction and barked, “Bring him round.”
Scott watched uneasily as a broad-shouldered Mexican walked up to Johnny, cut through the rope holding him to the saddle and unceremoniously dragged him off Barranca’s back. Johnny hit the ground hard on his back and lay still. With a stab of anxiety, Scott noted that the hair above his brother’s left ear was sticky with blood.
Starkin crouched down beside Johnny, growled, “Wake up time, Madrid,” and slapped the unconscious man hard. Johnny’s face twitched and he uttered a low groan. It earned him another slap that rocked his head to the side.
Scott flinched and shouted, “Stop it! Leave him alone, can’t you see—”
Johnny’s eyes flew open and he erupted into action, rolling and slamming into Starkin’s knees. Starkin went down heavily and Johnny dived after him.
Heedless of the danger, and recognising that this may be their only chance of escape, Scott rammed his heels into his horse’s flank. Before the beast could respond, the Mexican made a grab for the reins. Another of the gang ran to help and between them they restrained the horse.
The Mexican scowled. “Try that again and you’ll be sorry.”
Scott was helpless to do anything but watch as Johnny fought like a wild man against the three men.
Finally, two of them dragged him to his feet. Starkin closed in and raised his fist but Johnny fought free, head-butting him and the two went down again.
But Scott could see that his brother, hampered by the head injury and hours tied to the saddle, was tiring and before he could inflict any more damage the other two had him pinned down. One straddled his legs while the other kicked him viciously in the side. Johnny twisted desperately, but couldn’t avoid the boot that once more connected with his ribs with a sickening crunch.
Ignoring the gun in his face, Scott screamed, “Stop it! You’ll kill him!”
Starkin barked a similar order and the two dragged Johnny to his feet again. This time he sagged in their hold.
Starkin approached him again, holding his nose. “You’ll pay for that, Madrid!”
Johnny looked up and shook his head, a half-smile tugging his lips. “Well, if it ain’t good old Badly Stinkin’. Wish I could say it was good to see you, Stinkin’.”
‘Badly Stinkin’’ Scott was shocked that Johnny knew this man. What might that imply regarding the reason for their capture?
Starkin’s expression turned thunderous. Then Johnny took a deep breath and let out a piercing whistle. “Barranca, vamos!” Before any of the men could react, the palomino took off at a gallop back down the trail. Scott tensed as Stinkin’ – Starkin – whatever his name was – cursed and punched Johnny hard in the stomach, following it up with a brutal left hook that split his lip.
“Enough!” Johnson’s commanding tone rang out. “Mr. Starkin, please control yourself. We don’t want Mr. Madrid to die on the trail, do we?”
Starkin’s expression showed that this was exactly what he’d like, but he stood back, shooting Johnny a glare of pure hatred. “This is just the beginning, Madrid.”
Johnny straightened, still held in a firm grip from behind. He smiled his most insolent smile, spat blood and locked eyes with Starkin. “Any time you’re ready, Stinkin’.”
“Boss, do you want us to go after the horse?” asked the Mexican.
Johnson frowned. “No, Mateo, let him go. We need to move on. Put Mr. Madrid on Marita’s horse and make sure he’s tied securely. Marita can ride with you.”
Mateo scowled but said nothing and barked something in Spanish. A woman came forward, leading a bay. Scott recognised her as the woman who had served them back at Johnson’s ranch.
Scott watched anxiously as the two men hustled Johnny to the bay and made him mount, securing his hands firmly to the pommel. He scanned his brother carefully; he could have been seriously injured in the brutal beating. One eye was already beginning to swell and blood ran from his cracked lip, soaking into the collar of his shirt. He’d probably added a couple of cracked ribs to the head injury. All in all, he was a mess and Scott could tell from the rigid way he was holding himself that he was hurting.
Johnny caught his eye and smiled slightly. Scott wasn’t reassured. He was afraid for his brother and desperate to know what this was all about.
The others mounted and the party rode on. Scott divided his attention between memorising the trail and watching his brother who sagged more and more in the saddle as time went on.
All the while, he was thinking furiously about their situation. But he had very little to go on.
It seemed an unlikely coincidence that Johnny knew Starkin, so the logical conclusion was that this was somehow related to Johnny’s former life. Yet Starkin took his orders from Johnson. The Easterner obviously wasn’t who he said he was, but then, who was he? Johnny had showed no sign of recognition him and Scott knew he had never seen the man before, nor come across his name.
The other option was that they had been kidnapped for ransom; it was no secret that Lancer was one of the largest and most prosperous cattle ranches in California. But somehow, that explanation didn’t sit right with him.
After a while, his head began to pound again and he was no further forward. He resigned himself to waiting until they reached their destination. Then he would get some answers. Until then, there was no choice but to wait.
They rode for another four hours with only one brief rest stop before reaching their destination.
By the time the small group turned off the main track to follow a narrower trail alongside a stream, Johnny was clinging to consciousness by sheer will power alone.
The fierce heat of the sun beating down had heightened the constant throbbing pain in his head – he’d lost his hat in the fight with Starkin. It had been unusually hot for late summer and for the past couple of days the heat had been building. Now, as they entered the forest, he breathed a sigh of relief as dense foliage offered some protection from the cruel sun.
His face ached from Starkin’s beating and while he didn’t think he had any broken ribs, one or two were likely cracked and pain lanced through his side with every step his horse took on the uneven surface of the rocky path.
At first he had worked hard to sit upright and remain alert, hoping to hide the extent of his discomfort from Starkin, Johnson and his brother, but as the hours dragged by his world narrowed to the sheer physical need to remain conscious and stay on his horse. He was slipping further and further forward onto the horse’s neck and could feel Scott’s concerned gaze boring into his back.
They rode single file down the narrow track for about half a mile, finally breaking out of the thick forest of pine into a small, sun-blanched meadow. Here the steam widened and swept around in a wide arc to meander lazily along its eastern side, shallow waters navigating over a bed of stones and boulders. The meadow was sheltered to the north and west by towering cliffs and to the north the trail continued, climbing steeply toward the mountains beyond. On a different day he’d have thought it an idyllic place but today, as they rode out of the trees into the sun, lower now yet still valiantly burning with a fiery heat, it felt more like entering hell. Yet to the east the previously unbroken blue canvas of sky was marred by a build up of gray clouds holding the promise of a storm.
A substantial one-story, L-shaped, wooden cabin stood to the southwest, and Johnson led the party in that direction.
Around fifteen feet from the cabin stood a wooden frame, its two upright posts connected by a horizontal beam. Johnny studied the structure uneasily. It was only around seven foot high and five foot wide, but its resemblance to a gallows was a chilling reminder of the desperate situation in which he and his brother found themselves.
The party halted near the cabin. Starkin dismounted, cut the ropes binding Johnny’s wrists to the pommel and without ceremony, pulled him roughly from the horse.
Johnny bit back a cry as he stumbled to his knees, jarring his damaged ribs. Starkin grabbed him by his still bound hands and yanked him upright, then pushed him forward.
Johnny glanced behind him. Scott had dismounted and Johnny caught his worried gaze as the Mexican Johnson had called Mateo pointed his brother in the same direction. Johnny forced his mouth into an approximation of a reassuring smile.
A wide covered veranda ran the length of two sides of the cabin, facing the sinister frame. One side housed a table and three straight backed chairs. Starkin pushed Johnny roughly into a chair at the end of the table. His arms were wrenched painfully behind the chair back and his wrists secured to the frame. He watched as Mateo pushed Scott into a chair opposite and tied his wrists to the arms of the chair.
Johnny looked at his brother and wondered what he was thinking. Probably the same thing Johnny himself was thinking – that the ghost of Madrid had caught up with him and landed them both in this mess. Scott had told him that he didn’t care about his past as Madrid, and that if someone from that past caused trouble, they’d deal with it together. Johnny had been grateful for the words and the sincerity behind them, but words were one thing and reality another. He wondered how his brother felt now that the intangible threat had become real. He hated that Scott was in danger because of him.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he caught Starkin’s sardonic gaze.
He had been shocked to recognise his old adversary. More than two years had passed since their last encounter. Starkin had been a hired gun back in Johnny’s Madrid days. They’d first met not long after Johnny had taken up the gun. Starkin hadn’t been so hardened at that point, but between then and their second meeting a year later he had become brutal and ruthless. They worked a couple of jobs together and clashed constantly. Johnny didn’t like the man and he didn’t like his methods.
The last job had been a disaster that put a stain on Starkin’s reputation. He hated Johnny, blaming him for the failure of the job and also for originating the detested nickname that had stuck with him.
Meeting Starkin again was an ominous sign and he couldn’t figure out the connection to Johnson, a man he’d never seen before and an Easterner to boot. He blew out a slow breath. They’d surely get some answers soon. For now, he concentrated on staying conscious, keeping his wits about him and not throwing up all over Starkin’s boots.
Johnson had disappeared into the cabin and the other men had drifted off. The brothers were alone with Starkin who looked liked he was enjoying himself just a little too much.
Johnny watched his brother fidget impatiently. “What’s going on here?” Scott demanded angrily of Starkin.
Starkin grinned. “You’ll find out soon enough. Have a little patience.”
Scott scowled and opened his mouth to speak. Johnny intervened quickly, afraid his brother was about to say something that would earn him some pain.
“Bin a while, Stinkin’,” he said conversationally. “What you bin doin’? Not much, I reckon. Don’t ‘spose you’re gettin’ much work these days.”
The ploy worked. Starkin strode across and towered threateningly above him. “Shut your mouth, Madrid, and stop callin’ me that!”
Starkin’s volatile temper was a characteristic Johnny remembered well. In his opinion, it was one of Starkin’s biggest weaknesses – he didn’t think straight when he was angry. Goading him was a dangerous game, but Johnny hoped it would work to his advantage and keep the man off balance.
He gazed back at Starkin innocently, a half-smile playing on his lips, then screwed his nose up. “Sorry, but the hat still fits, Stinkin’.”
Ignoring Starkin, who looked like he might erupt at any moment, Johnny looked at Scott. “Scott, let me introduce my old friend here. This is Bradley Starkin, better known as Badly Stinkin’ ’cause of—” His words were cut off as Starkin punched him in the face, hard enough to rock the chair back on its legs.
Johnson strode out of the cabin. With obvious difficultly, Starkin got himself under control and stood back, glowering.
“Mr. Starkin, you really need to keep your temper in check.”
Johnny looked down to hide his smile. He still knew how to light the fuse. Running his tongue over the new cut on his lip he stifled a hiss of pain. It had been worth it to rile ol’ Stinkin’.
“Sorry, Boss,” Starkin ground out between clenched teeth. “I’ll go check on the boys.”
Johnson sat down on the third chair, set at a right angle to the brothers, leaned back and crossed his legs casually.
His gaze travelled from Scott to Johnny and back again. “So, the Lancer brothers. I’ve waited for this moment for a long time.”
“I’m afraid you have us at a disadvantage,” Scott replied evenly. “As far as I’m aware we haven’t met before, nor is your name familiar.”
“You’re quite right. We haven’t met, but I know all about you, Scott Lancer. I know about your ‘heroic’ exploits in the war, how you left a civilized life in Boston to join your hard-headed father and half-breed brother and become a rancher in this godforsaken land. I must say, I have to question your life choices, Lieutenant Lancer.”
Scott stiffened. “My choices have nothing to do with you.”
Johnny frowned. Johnson seemed to know all about Scott. And why was he calling him ‘Lieutenant’? He turned a cold gaze on Johnson. “Why don’t you get to the point and tell us what the hell you want with us.”
Johnson turned to study him for a moment. “Interesting,” he said finally. “I suppose I’m speaking to the infamous Johnny Madrid now.” He smiled. He did that a lot, but the smile never reached his eyes. “Are you really as fast as they say?”
“Turn me loose and I’ll give you a demonstration,” Johnny said dryly.
Johnson laughed. “I like you, Madrid. You’re not what I expected, given your background.”
Scott leaned forward tensely. “My brother asked you a question.”
“So he did. All in good time. First, I want to tell you a story.”
Johnny exchanged a look with his brother. Scott shrugged his shoulders, obviously as confused as Johnny himself.
“My name isn’t Henry Johnson,” the Easterner began. “It’s Danforth. Hiram Danforth. Sound familiar?”
Johnny had never heard the name before but to his shock, he saw a flicker of recognition in Scott’s eyes. Yet Scott said nothing.
Danforth regarded them silently for a moment, and then went on, “I had a younger brother, Matthew. After the war started, he signed up as soon as he was old enough. He was attached to a unit commanded by a Lieutenant Scott Lancer.”
Johnny saw understanding dawn in Scott’s eyes. “I remember your brother,” Scott said.
Danforth’s eyes narrowed as he snarled, “So, you’ll also remember abandoning Matthew and his friend Doug Willis to be captured by the enemy.”
At that moment Johnny realized the truth. This wasn’t about him and his past. It was all about Scott.
Johnny found his emotions reeling as he tried to take in what he was hearing. Part of him was glad that he wasn’t responsible for getting Scott into this situation. Another bigger part was horrified to learn that Scott was Johnson’s target all along, and by the way Johnson … Danforth … was regarding his brother with hatred in his eyes, the story he was about to tell was not a pretty one.
Scott looked at Danforth incredulously. “You think I abandoned them? You’re very much mistaken. Matthew and Willis deserted on the eve of battle.”
Danforth’s expression darkened. His fist crashed down onto the table which shook under the blow. “Liar! My brother was no coward!”
Scott shook his head. “I’m sorry. I know it must be hard to hear, but—”
“You left them to be captured by a band of Confederate guerrillas,” Danforth spat. “Matthew died at the hands of those animals after five days of abuse and torture. How do I know? Because Doug Willis survived. The band ran into a unit of Confederate soldiers; he was taken as a prisoner of war and incarcerated for the remainder of the war. On his release he found me and told me the whole story.”
To his credit, Scott remained outwardly calm and only a slight tightening of his jaw betrayed to Johnny the whirlwind of thoughts that must be going through his mind.
“I’m very sorry about your brother,” Scott said calmly. “But the fact remains that Willis lied to you.”
Johnny expected Danforth to erupt again, but surprisingly he held his temper, simply saying, “Defend yourself in any way you choose, it makes no difference. I have no doubt that Doug told the truth. I know Matthew would never desert. He was an honorable man, destined for great things.”
Scott rolled his eyes but wisely kept his mouth shut. Johnny resolved to ask him for the whole story later – if they got out of this and there was a later.
“I know my brother would have gone on to be an influential man,” Danforth went on. “Instead, his life was cut cruelly short by some worthless, illiterate bushwhackers.” He leaned forward. “I loved my brother very much, Lieutenant, and I have dedicated my life to tracking down those men to bring them the justice they deserved.”
“And you caught up with them, didn’t you?” Johnny put in. He was sure he knew where this was heading.
Danforth smiled. “Oh yes, I found them. It wasn’t easy. It’s taken me six years, but I found them, all seven of them.”
“And you killed them.” It wasn’t a question.
Danforth turned to look at Johnny. “I delivered the justice they deserved. They suffered as Matthew suffered. Each one of them died slowly, begging for mercy – mercy they chose not to show my brother.”
Johnny felt a chill pass through him. Danforth’s eyes were shining with the passionate zeal Johnny had once seen in the eyes of a half-mad itinerant preacher. Danforth had elevated his brother to the status of innocent martyr and to him the murder of seven men was nothing more than simple justice.
Johnny reflected that he himself might well have sought revenge – or justice; call it what you like – had he been in the same position. But it seemed that the obsessive quest had turned Danforth’s mind, and an obsessed man unable to see reason was more dangerous than most.
Johnny held his tongue and after a moment, Danforth addressed Scott again. “Finally, I turned my attention to the man who was responsible for it all. To you, Lieutenant. You were, of course, easy to track down. I followed you to California and hired a man to observe you.”
Scott found his voice. “You had me watched? By whom?”
“You hired a new hand a few weeks ago. You knew him as Sam Butcher.”
Johnny frowned. They’d taken Butcher on for a few weeks during a particularly busy time at the ranch. He’d disappeared a few nights ago, without collecting his pay. The thought that Butcher had been spying on them filled him with anger.
“I planned to punish you in the same way as the others,” Danforth went on. “But then, to my surprise, I discovered that you have a brother – a brother you seem to value a great deal.”
“Johnny has nothing to do with this,” Scott said quickly.
“He has everything to do with this!” Once again, in a split second, Danforth’s mood changed. Johnny took note, for future reference, that the man was even more volatile than Starkin.
Danforth stood and began to pace. “Do you have any idea how I felt when I heard how Matthew died? The anger I felt against the perpetrators? The guilt I harbor, knowing that I wasn’t there to protect him? Every night in my dreams I watch, a helpless bystander, as they torture my brother. This is your doing, Lieutenant Lancer!”
Johnny began to see where Danforth was heading.
Danforth paced for a moment longer, and then heaved a long sigh. He sat back down at the table and smiled a small malicious smile. “Your punishment will be to suffer as I suffer. You will watch, helpless, as your brother is tortured.”
Scott’s eyes widened in disbelief. “No! You can’t—”
“You will observe every single moment of his suffering, knowing that you are the sole cause of it. And then, when he’s dead, you will live on to feel that guilt every day for the rest of your life. And I… I will finally be free.”
Johnny stifled his instinctive fear at Danforth’s words and forced his lips into a sardonic smile. “Don’t count on it,” he drawled. “I don’t die that easy.”
Danforth locked eyes with him for a long moment but when Johnny refused to look away, he nodded. “I can see that your reputation is warranted. You are not lacking in courage. But let there be no mistake. I will break you. Before we are through you will beg for mercy and you will feel only hatred toward your brother for putting you through a living hell.”
“Not gonna happen,” Johnny said with quiet confidence, trying to catch his brother’s eye.
Scott seemed to have recovered from his initial shock. He leaned back a little in his chair and said casually, “It’s a good plan, Danforth, but it won’t work. What makes you think my brother’s that important to me? You said it yourself; he’s nothing more than a half-breed.”
Even knowing what Scott was trying to do, Johnny felt a barb pierce his heart as he heard the derogatory term on his brother’s lips.
“If you know as much about me as you think you do,” Scott went on, “You’ll know that we’re only half-brothers and met for the first time barely a year ago. I have nothing against him, but frankly, I have nothing in common with an ex-gunslinger. If he died I’d be sorry, of course, but if you think it would destroy me, you’re very much mistaken.”
Johnny dropped his head, unable to meet Scott’s eyes as he uttered those dismissive words. He knew it was all an act, but somehow, it still hurt to hear the words.
Danforth held Scott’s gaze for a long moment, and then he began to laugh. He clapped his hands slowly. “I have to hand it to you, Lieutenant, that was quite a convincing performance. Have you ever considered the stage? I admit I find it hard to understand how you could accept a man like this as part of your family. But I’ve read the reports and I know beyond doubt that you love your brother.”
“Very well. If I’m mistaken, as you insist, I’ll have to return to my initial plan and in that case, I no longer need your brother. Mr. Starkin, please put a bullet in Mr. Madrid’s head.”
“No!” Scott shouted and began struggling with his bonds, eyes wide and full of anguish.
Johnny had seen this coming. If Scott had been thinking clearly he too would have realized that it was the only possible outcome. Stanforth had called his bluff and Starkin would have no regret in carrying out the order.
Johnny schooled his features into an expressionless mask, refusing to give his captors the satisfaction of seeing his fear.
Starkin grinned. “Be my pleasure, Boss.” He walked across to Johnny and pushed the barrel of his gun hard up against his ear. Johnny hissed as the cold metal bit into the still painful cut.
Starkin leaned in and whispered, “Adios, Amigo.”
Cold metal dug painfully into Johnny’s head as Starkin’s finger tightened on the trigger. He’d always thought that he’d come to a bloody end one day, but not like this, not tied up, helpless and at the mercy of a madman and his hired killer.
Scott shouted, “Please, stop!”
Danforth laughed. “Changed your mind, Lieutenant? If you want him to live then tell me, honestly, how you really feel about your brother?”
Starkin ground the barrel of the gun harder against Johnny’s ear. Johnny felt his vision darken and bile rose in his throat.
Scott let out a long breath. “I love my brother,” he said softly.
There was no doubting the sincerity in those few words. And despite the dire situation and the knowledge that he could die in the next few seconds, Johnny still knew a moment of warmth at hearing those words for the first time.
Danforth nodded to Starkin, who stood back with obvious reluctance.
Scott let out a long breath, face white and slack with relief.
Johnny felt a bead of sweat trickle down his face. That had been too close. He lifted his head and caught his brother’s eye. He managed a small smile.
Danforth leaned forward, clasping his hands together. “Well, I think that’s enough talk for one night. It’s time to eat and then we’ll turn in. He smiled that small, malicious smile that Johnny so wanted to knock off his smug face. “We all need our rest to keep our strength up for tomorrow…” He looked directly at Johnny, “… some of us more than others.”
He turned his attention to Scott. “Lieutenant, I have a room prepared for you. The mattress is remarkably soft, although I regret that I will have to keep you tied. I’m afraid your accommodations,” he looked at Johnny again, “are not quite so comfortable.”
Johnny wanted to roll his eyes but refrained.
Danforth went on, “Now, listen to me carefully. If at any time one of you attempts to escape, I will have no compunction about putting a bullet in the other. Do you believe me?”
Johnny reluctantly nodded his head. Scott said, “Yes, I believe you.”
“Good. Now, Mr. Starkin, perhaps you will take Mr. Madrid to his overnight accommodations while the Lieutenant joins me in a meal. I believe Marita has cooked up one of her famous stews.”
Johnny realized for the first time that there was a delicious smell coming from the cabin and his stomach growled in response. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast and despite the lingering nausea, he was hungry.
Danforth stood over Scott, his gun held nonchalantly close to Scott’s head, while Starkin untied Johnny’s wrists from the chair and gestured for him to stand.
“What are you doing? Where are you taking him?” Scott demanded.
“Didn’t I make myself clear? Your punishment begins tonight, Lieutenant. While you enjoy a pleasant meal and a comfortable bed, your brother will be spending the night outside.”
“You can’t do that. He’s hurt—”
“Enough!” I’ll excuse your outburst because I haven’t yet explained the rules. But one more word from you and it will be your brother who suffers the punishment.”
“It’s all right, Scott,” Johnny said softly. “I’ll be fine.”
As Starkin pushed him forward, Johnny gave his brother a small smile and tried to push down the fear that was rising at the thought of what lay ahead.
So far, Danforth had planned everything perfectly. Johnny could only hope that tomorrow there would be a chance of escape.
He knew that Val would come looking when they didn’t return in the morning.
But in his heart, he was afraid that rescue might come too late.
“Get up – do it slowly and keep your hands where I can see them. You can use the pot in the corner, but do not try to escape.”
Scott obeyed, slipping his feet over the side of the bed and standing slowly, holding his bound wrists in front of him where Mateo could see them.
He blinked a little against the sunlight streaming in through the window of the small bedroom. His eyes were sore and his head felt fuzzy from lack of rest.
Sleep hadn’t been an option. Not with the storm that had raged for several hours, wind howling and rain hammering down on the cabin roof. Not with his mind feverishly churning over everything that had been said. And especially not with the image that came into sharp focus whenever he closed his eyes: the gun pressed up against Johnny’s head, the vicious leer on Starkin’s face and his finger tightening on the trigger. Once, he fell into a fitful doze and woke sweating, a scream of anguish on his lips, his mind filled with an image of Johnny’s body slumped forward over the table, the remains of his face resting in a pool of crimson blood.
Panic swept through his body still whenever he recalled how close he had come to getting Johnny killed. His attempt to deflect Danforth’s attention from his brother had been stupid. He should have known better. But, shocked by Danforth’s revelations, he didn’t stop to analyse the possible consequences, and said the first thing that came into his mind that might protect Johnny from this madman.
Eventually, he had dozed a little and awoke to see Mateo cutting the rope that had bound his wrists to a metal ring embedded in the wall beside the bed.
Mateo watched him silently as Scott crossed the room and reluctantly made use of the chamber pot, uncomfortably aware of the Mexican’s eyes on the back of his neck.
His first thought on waking had been to make a break for it, but that wasn’t an option; not with Mateo watching him like a hawk and another man – Mateo called him Cade – standing at a safe distance, gun in hand.
“Outside,” Mateo ordered as soon as he had finished.
Stepping out of the cabin Scott was hit by a wall of heat. It was barely an hour past dawn, but already the sun was building in intensity. The storm had done nothing to clear the air and with no breeze, another oppressively hot day threatened.
He glanced around the idyllic spot and stopped dead, eyes fixed on a sight that sent chills of fear through his body.
About fifteen feet away stood the wooden frame he’d noticed the previous day. His brother stood between the posts, flanked by Starkin and a tall, lean white man with dirty-blond hair hanging to his shoulders. The blond was tying Johnny’s left wrist to one of the corners of the crossbar above his head.
“Make it good and tight, Frank,” Starkin ordered. “Don’t want him slippin’ free.”
Frank secured Johnny’s right wrist to the other corner and stepped away leaving Johnny standing between the posts, feet just touching the ground, arms stretched wide above his head. They’d stripped him of his boots and shirt and positioned him where he’d face the full brunt of the midday sun.
Johnny looked across and caught Scott’s eye. He nodded slightly. Scott knew this was meant as reassurance, but as he carefully studied his brother he didn’t like what he saw. The bruise on his cheekbone from Starkin’s fist had turned bluish purple, his lip was swollen to twice its size and his left eye was almost closed. The blood from the head wound had dried, leaving the hair around his ear matted and his neck stained brown. An ugly boot-shaped bruise stood out starkly on his side. He was pale under his tan and shivering, despite the warmth of the sun – hardly surprising, after a night exposed to the elements. His pants were still soaked through, clinging to his legs.
Feeling helpless, he tore his eyes away from his brother as Mateo pushed him impatiently toward the veranda.
Danforth was seated at the table, in the same chair he’d occupied the previous evening. Mateo gestured for Scott to sit in the chair opposite him. This time his left wrist was tied to the arm, and his right ankle to the leg, effectively immobilising him but allowing some movement.
“Good morning Lieutenant,” Danforth said pleasantly, for all the world as if they were friends about to enjoy breakfast together. “I trust you slept well?”
“About as well as you’d expect under the circumstances,” Scott replied coldly. He wasn’t in the mood for Danforth’s games.
Marita appeared carrying two plates piled high with bacon and eggs. She put one down in front of Danforth and the other in front of Scott. Scott tried to catch her eye but she kept her head down. He wondered if it was Mateo or Danforth she was afraid of; probably both.
Scott pushed the plate away. “I’m not hungry.” How could he eat when his brother was strung up less than twenty feet away – his brother, who had been given nothing to eat or drink since their capture?
Danforth sighed. “Are we really going to have a repeat of last night?”
Scott bit his lip. Last night he’d forced down a plate of stew, but only after Starkin had described in graphic detail the punishment Johnny would receive if he refused.
“As I told you last night, you will eat when I say you will eat,” Danforth said. “You will behave like a guest and treat me, your host, with the utmost courtesy at all times. And when required, you will engage in polite and amiable conversation. Have I made myself clear?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Scott nodded stiffly.
“And you understand the consequences if you do not comply?”
“You’ll hurt my brother. But your intention is to hurt him anyway, so there seems little value in your threat.”
“No? Then let me explain.” Danforth laced his hands. “Let’s just say that your actions and attitude will affect the degree and nature of his suffering. Now, do we understand each other?”
Scott had no choice but to agree. “Yes, we understand each other,” he ground out.
“Good,” Danforth said briskly. “Now, I suggest you eat your breakfast.”
Scott glanced towards Johnny, who gave him a slight nod. With reluctance, he picked up a fork and began to eat.
Half an hour later, after Scott had choked down the bacon, eggs and a cup of coffee that only served to remind him of the events of the day before, he watched as Danforth sat back in his chair and folded his arms.
“Make yourself comfortable, Lieutenant. We’ll be spending several days together – how many depends on how long it takes your brother to die. I want to spend that time getting to know you. You see, you have lived the life my brother should have had. I want to know if you’ve taken advantage of the years God granted you, or if you’ve squandered them in a way my brother never would have.”
Scott bit back a tart comment on the kind of life he’d imagine Matt Danforth would have led. The man Matt’s brother had in his memory was a very different man to the one Scott had known. He remembered Matt and his friend Doug Willis well. They were a few years younger than him, both from wealthy families; a pair of arrogant, irresponsible wastrels who had enlisted out of some misconceived idea that war would be fun. The reality of combat had revealed their weakness of character.
Somehow, Danforth had invested Matt with virtues he didn’t possess. How could Scott fight memories of a man who didn’t exist?
Of course Matt didn’t deserve his fate; no man deserved the kind of death Danforth had described. Yet Scott knew he himself bore no responsibility in that. The pair had deserted, slipping out of camp at night, and by the time their absence was noticed the unit was engaged in fending off a surprise attack from the enemy – a successful attack that had left Scott in a Confederate prison for a year.
Danforth looked expectant, but Scott said nothing. What response could he make to a deranged man who so casually talked about torturing a man to death?
Danforth went on, “While we talk, I thought we might engage in some games of chance. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cards. He placed them on the table. Are you familiar with Vingt-et-Un?”
Scott nodded shortly and Danforth went on, “An interesting game – a combination of skill and luck. I hope for your brother’s sake that you possess both. Now, let me explain the rules. They’re very simple. When I win a hand, Mr. Starkin will hurt your brother. When you win, you’ll earn him a short respite from his suffering.
“No!” The anger he had fought back burst free and Scott lunged toward Danforth, straining against the bonds that held him in his chair. “This is madness!”
Hands grabbed him from behind and a knife appeared at his throat. Scott ignored it and continued to fight, grabbing at the knife with his free hand.
“Scott!” Johnny shouted. “Stop it! Let it go!”
Johnny! Sense reasserted itself and Scott dropped his hand and laid it down on the table. In that moment he had cared nothing for his own safety, but hearing Johnny’s voice reminded him of the very real threat to his brother. Fighting them would only get Johnny hurt.
Danforth nodded and the knife was removed.
After a quick glance at his brother, who shot him a warning look, Scott said stiffly, “I’m sorry. That won’t happen again.”
Danforth sighed. “I hope not. You’ve forgotten the rules already, but I’ll accept your apology and let you off this once. You’ll learn soon enough.”
Starkin sat down in one of the spare seats. He put a knife down on the table; the knife that had been pressed to Scott’s throat. He grinned at Scott and made a cutting motion with his finger.
Danforth picked up the pack and began shuffling.
“Please. You don’t need to do this,” Scott said helplessly.
“On the contrary,” Danforth replied, his expression suddenly haunted. “You have to understand; Matt won’t rest until all the guilty have been brought to justice.”
“My brother isn’t guilty of anything.”
“I’ve already explained his part in this,” Danforth said coldly.
Scott remembered Danforth’s words: “When he’s dead, you will live on to feel that guilt every day for the rest of your life.” Was this really what it was all about? Not Matt’s need for justice, but Danforth’s need to appease his own feeling of guilt?
“Shall we play?”
Scott wanted to refuse, but he knew he was trapped. He couldn’t prevent Johnny’s suffering; all he could do was curb the anger raging in his heart and try to limit that suffering by cooperating – for now. He would wait for his chance.
Reluctantly, he picked up his cards, fumbling a little with just the one hand. He looked at the hand he had been dealt: the two of hearts, the three of diamonds, the nine of diamonds and the two of clubs. A total of sixteen. He bit his lip, eyes fixed on the two cards turned face down in front of Danforth. This wasn’t a good enough hand to risk sticking, but another card could push him over twenty-one. He tried to pretend that this was just another Saturday night in the saloon and went with his instincts.
He nodded to Danforth who placed a fifth card in front of him. Scott picked it up, heart thumping. The three of spades. That totalled nineteen points.
He watched impatiently as Danforth slowly turned over his own cards. The ten of diamonds and the five of clubs.
“Hm,” Danforth said. “Let’s see what the next card reveals.”
He dealt a third card. The five of hearts.
“Twenty.” Danforth smiled. “A winning hand, perhaps? Lay down your cards, Lieutenant.”
Mouth dry, Scott laid down his hand.
Danforth sat back. “A winning hand indeed. This calls for a small celebration. Marita! Bring me the two boxes.”
Scott sat tensely, unsure what Danforth’s next move would be. He glanced at Johnny and saw that his brother’s eyes were fixed on the scene playing out at the table.
Marita brought two wooden boxes and put them on the table beside Danforth. She walked away quickly, eyes downcast as usual. Danforth watched her go, a frown of disapproval on his face. “That woman is beginning to irritate me,” he remarked. “Mr. Starkin, would you tell Mateo to talk to her. Tell him that if she doesn’t stop sulking around the place I’ll have to get rid of her.”
Danforth opened the smaller of the boxes. It was full of long, fat cigars. He took one out, lit it and inhaled deeply. Blowing the smoke out, he sighed. “Perfection. The finest Cuban tobacco and see how brightly it burns?
“Now, I’m a fair man, so I shall give you something I never had myself – the opportunity to choose your brother’s punishment.”
He opened the second box and took out a narrow knife with a mahogany handle adorned with an intricately carved design. He ran a finger reverently along the broad side of the blade. “I inherited this knife from my father. He used it when he was in the army, fighting savages. It’s perfectly honed to cut through the toughest leather – or the softest skin. It’s fitting, I think, that it performs as an instrument of justice.”
He placed the still-burning cigar and the knife in the middle of the table and looked at Scott. “Shall we start with fire or steel? Your choice.”
Scott shook his head determinedly. There was no way he could choose the instrument of his brother’s torture. “Forget it. I’m not playing your little game.”
Danforth sighed. “That’s your choice, of course. But if you don’t play your part, I will have to choose myself. What do you think, Mr. Starkin? Shall we start by removing a finger?”
Starkin grinned. “Your decision boss. Me, I’d start with an eye – show this fancy pants we mean business.”
Danforth nodded, regarding Scott thoughtfully.
Scott knew this wasn’t an idle threat and that he had no choice. He glanced at Johnny, knowing his anguish was showing in his face. Johnny wore his expressionless Madrid mask, but there was compassion in his voice as he said softly, “It’s okay, Scott. This isn’t really your choice; it’s not down to you. You know why he’s doing this.”
Yes, Scott knew and for the first time he truly understood Johnny’s fear of the possible consequences should his past catching up with him. It didn’t matter whether or not Scott was responsible for Matt Danforth’s death. His brother was about to be hurt – all because of Scott’s past. And while he knew that Johnny wouldn’t hold him responsible, he had already accepted the burden of guilt that Danforth wanted for him.
“Well, Lieutenant? Fire or steel?”
He licked his lips and when he spoke his voice came out as a whisper. “Fire.”
Danforth nodded. With a sick feeling in his gut, Scott watched Starkin pick up the burning cigar and approach his brother.
Val Crawford laid down his fork, untied the napkin from around his neck and sat back with a sigh of contentment. Rosa served up a mighty fine breakfast. He smiled at the woman in question as she passed and refilled his coffee cup. “Gracias.”
Yesterday, his business had not gone as planned. Jack Carson, the sheriff, had been called out of town early to deal with a shooting on a ranch a couple of hours ride west and had not returned until very late in the evening. Val visited the jail and confirmed to Carson’s deputy that the man was indeed Jeb Harper. But despite Jeb’s understandably vociferous protests the deputy refused to release him until Carson returned to give his approval.
Val wasn’t bothered. Another day in jail wouldn’t kill Jeb and truth be told, he welcomed the unexpected opportunity to idle away a day. It could only have been better had Johnny been here to enjoy it with him. He didn’t see enough of his friend, and when he did, Johnny usually had his brother with him. Not that Val had anything against Scott Lancer. He was a good man, but he made Val a little uneasy with his highfalutin way of talking and his fastidious manners.
It had surprised him at first that Johnny had developed such a close and easy relationship with the man, but then again, they were kin and that was something Johnny had sorely lacked for most of his life.
He had returned to the jail first thing in the morning and Carson happily released Jeb Harper, seeming glad to see him go. Val could understand why; Jeb was harmless, but he could give a man earache with his constant jawing. Jeb had been so grateful to Val that he’d insisted on buying him breakfast.
“So Jeb,” Val said, sipping the strong, scalding brew. “What’re your plans?”
Jeb shrugged. “Hell if I know. I’d signed on for a job ’round here, but guess I missed the boat on that one when I got into that stupid fight.”
“What kind of job?” Val asked casually.
Jeb shifted in his seat and glanced away. “Brad Starkin was over to Stockton a week ago, hiring a crew.”
“Starkin?” Val almost choked on his coffee. “You know better than to hire on with Starkin, Jeb. He’s bad news.”
“Yeah, I know. Hey, Val, ’member how you and Johnny used to call him ‘Badly Stinkin’! That was a real hoot. He sure didn’t think so, though.”
No, he didn’t, Val thought, which was a good reason to be concerned if Starkin was in the area. “What kind of job?” he asked, ignoring Jeb’s attempt to change the subject.
“Oh, you know,” Jeb said evasively, “the usual. I was broke and the pay was good. Anyways, it don’t matter no more. Reckon I’ll be heading back south tomorrow.”
While Val was curious about Starkin and the job, it was clear Jeb wouldn’t volunteer any more information, which probably meant the job was illegal. He decided not to push. They’d be heading back home soon and unlikely to run into him.
He finished his coffee and stood up. “Thanks for breakfast, Jeb. I need to get going. Johnny and his brother should be on their way back into town by now. Reckon I might ride out to meet them.”
“Give Johnny my best, Val. Can’t believe he’s hung up his gun.”
“Better believe it, Jeb, ‘cause it’s God’s own truth. I’ll see you around.”
Val strolled out of the cantina. He felt a little uneasy, but knew there was no real reason for it. He hadn’t been concerned when the Lancer boys failed to return the night before; they’d most likely been invited to stay on the ranch. But they’d planned to head home before noon to arrive before dark and it was close to noon now.
He hoped the stallion had lived up to its reputation and that Johnny had secured a good deal. He knew it meant a lot to Johnny that Murdoch had sent him to negotiate the price. Maybe the Old Man was finally beginning to trust his younger son – and not before time, Val grunted to himself. When he’d arrived at Green River to take on the post of Sheriff, Johnny had been at the ranch for just over six months. Val could tell, more by what Johnny didn’t say than by what he did, that it had been a rocky road. But over the past six months things had improved. He was proud of Johnny’s determination to make this work, and happy for him that he’d finally found a place to belong.
He glanced up at the sound of a cart clattering down the street. The cart was driven by a man he recognised – he couldn’t recall the name, but they’d played a few hands of poker on the night he and the Lancer brothers had arrived in town. But it wasn’t the driver that drew Val’s attention. It was the palomino trotting along behind the wagon. A palomino that was snorting and fighting the rope and which looked a lot like Barranca.
Fighting down a sudden spurt of fear, he took a step forward. Seeing him, the man reined the horse in, stopped the cart a few feet away and jumped down.
“Sheriff Crawford. Harry Cannon. You may remember taking my money at poker the other night. I was hoping to still find you here.”
Val nodded a greeting. “Nice horse,” he said gesturing at the palomino.
“That’s what I wanted to see you about. I found him this morning, grazing at the side of the road a few miles south of my place, saddle and bridle still on him. He’s a fine animal; it crossed my mind that he might be the horse your dark-haired friend was talking about the other night.”
Val remembered how the talk around the poker table had turned to horses. Johnny hadn’t wasted the opportunity to boast about Barranca.
Val walked up to the horse. It tossed its mane and gave him a baleful look. It was Barranca all right. He stroked the palomino’s face. “Hey Barranca, what you done with Johnny, eh?” Cannon had removed his tack, but the horse looked liked it had run hard and needed a good grooming.
“Where’s the saddle?”
“In the cart. That’s one mean animal. Near enough took my hand off when I tried to unsaddle him.”
Val checked the saddle and bridle, neither of which showed any damage. Next, he looked in the saddlebags. There was no sign that they had been disturbed. Then he noticed a dark stain on the saddle. It was dry, but he scraped at it and looked at the residue on his finger. Blood. Fear tightened his gut. Something had happened to Johnny. And where was Scott?
Cannon came up beside him. “Is it your friend’s?”
Val nodded. “Where do you say you found him?”
“My place is six miles out of town. He was grazing by the side of the road, about a mile south of my spread. I took a good look round, but I couldn’t find any sign of his rider. I figured the best thing was to bring the horse on into town.”
Val nodded. “Where’s the Johnson Ranch?”
“That’s east of here. I don’t think he came from there, though.”
Cannon pointed to some needles entangled in Barranca’s mane. “That’s from a ponderosa pine. Grows mostly in the mountains and they’re north east of here.”
“Could you show me where you found him?”
“I could, but there’s no need. If you follow the road north, you’ll come to an outcrop of rock that looks like a lion’s head. You can’t miss it. Horse was grazing near there – I put down an old bandana to mark the place, thought you might need to find it again.”
Val nodded in appreciation. “That was smart thinking, thanks.”
Cannon undid the rope holding Barranca and handed it to Val. “I hope you find him.”
Val looked around and saw Rosa’s son watching him from the cantina door. “Hey son, come over here.”
The boy trotted over. Val held up a quarter. “There’s two bits for you when I get back if you take this horse to the livery and ask the liveryman to keep him there til I get back; take the saddle and bridle too.”
The boy flashed him a smile. “Si, Señor. I’ll take good care of him.”
Val handed over the rope. “Watch his teeth,” he warned, “He’s a mite ornery.”
He turned and headed for the sheriff’s office.
Johnny bit back a groan as he straightened his knees and planted his feet more firmly on the ground in an effort to take a little of the pressure off his arms.
He couldn’t name one part of his body that didn’t hurt. It was close to midday; he’d been tied in the same position for over five hours and there had been no relief from the relentless, burning heat.
His head thumped a steady rhythm along with his heart, nausea and dizziness his constant companions. He recognized the signs of sun fever and knew that they would only get worse.
A drop of sweat ran down his face. He opened sore, cracked lips and caught it in the corner of his mouth, savoring the salty liquid. His throat burned for lack of water, his mouth drier than a piece of wrinkled buffalo hide, tongue swollen and raw.
Thirst was more dangerous than hunger, although despite the nausea it was hard to ignore his empty belly. He tried not to look at the table where leftover pie, bread and cheese still stood from Danforth and Scott’s midday meal. He was sure Danforth had instructed Marita to leave it there where it was constantly in his view, along with the tall glasses and jug of water.
There had been no relief either from Danforth’s little game. He and Scott had played hand after hand of cards and then moved on to chequers. Danforth had talked constantly while they played, insisting that Scott give him details about his past and his present life at Lancer. Johnny couldn’t catch all the conversation, but he got the uneasy feeling that Danforth was seeing in Scott’s experiences the life his own brother could have led.
Several times he heard Danforth remind Scott that he alone was responsible for his brother’s suffering. Johnny watched in frustration and anger as Danforth drew Scott further and further down the road of guilt and responsibility.
And every time Scott lost a game – which was often – Danforth would gloat, Scott would be forced to choose a suitable ‘punishment’ and Johnny would suffer the consequences.
He knew it was Danforth’s plan to keep him alive for several days at least and while he tried not to think about the hours of torment ahead, so far the ‘punishments’ had been painful but not serious. He could handle pain; he’d had worse – far worse.
The first ‘punishment’ had been the hardest to endure, but not because of the pain. It wasn’t Scott’s fault. He probably thought he’d chosen the least of two evils. How could he know the truth, when Johnny had never shared this part of his past with his brother?
But when Scott chose fire and Starkin picked up the cigar and began to walk toward him, Johnny couldn’t take his eyes off the smouldering tip. It stirred memories buried so deep that they now only rarely disturbed his sleep. Terror flooded him and he barely choked back a scream of denial. His world narrowed to that small glowing ember. All his instincts told him to fight against his bonds, to beg, to do anything to escape what was coming. He managed to do none of those things. Instead he stood still, the impassive Madrid mask plastered on his face.
But when Starkin touched the smouldering cigar to his bare skin and the smell of burning flesh brought the memories back in vivid detail, he came as close to losing control as he ever had. Digging deep, he drew on reserves of strength he didn’t know he had to conceal his terror. Only when Starkin walked away did he break out in a cold sweat, breath coming in short pants as he struggled to regain his composure.
Johnny dragged his attention back to the game and watched as Danforth’s black took Scott’s remaining white. The Easterner sat back, arms folded. “I win again,” he said, lips curled in the now familiar smirk of satisfaction that sent shivers down Johnny’s spine.
It was getting harder to deny the fear that filled him every time he heard those words. A small but persistent voice in his head kept asking why Scott, with all his brains, didn’t realize that he was playing straight into Danforth’s hands. Surely he could put a little more effort into winning the games and a little less into provoking Danforth with outbursts of anger when he lost?
Then Danforth’s mocking words came to mind. “By the end, you’ll be cursing your brother.” Johnny pushed the thoughts away. This was exactly what Danforth wanted; to turn him against Scott, to heap more guilt on his brother’s shoulders. He wouldn’t do it.
“Mr. Starkin,” Danforth called. “I’m afraid the poor Lieutenant has lost again. I think for a change I’ll let you choose Mr. Madrid’s punishment. But please, show some restraint.”
Starkin had been leaning against the wall of the cabin, chewing on a piece of tobacco and cleaning his gun with what looked like a filthy handkerchief. An open bottle of beer stood on a table beside him. He picked up the bottle, took a leisurely swig, and smacked his lips appreciatively. Then he raised the bottle in a sardonic toast in Johnny’s direction and grinned.
“I’ll try my best, Boss.”
Johnny’s gut twisted in a sudden surge of rage mixed with more than a little fear. He was no coward. He had faced and survived some life-threatening situations and come through them, sometimes through sheer luck but mostly through a combination of planning and wits. He’d learned early on that the secret to survival was to be in control or at the very least, to create some options.
But to be helpless? Helpless wasn’t his style. He had vowed at the age of twelve that he would never allow himself to be defenceless at the hands of another ever again.
He’d been there once since; in that Mexican prison waiting for the Rurales to put an end to his life. The nightmares had returned, night after night, as he lay despairing in his cramped, damp prison cell.
And now here he was, strung up like a piece of meat, completely at the mercy of his old enemy. He wasn’t afraid of Starkin; not much, anyway. It wasn’t the pain or the threat of worst to come that scared him – it was the knowledge that Starkin held all the cards and was relishing every moment.
Starkin put down the gun and cloth and sauntered across the ground that separated them. As he approached, Johnny drew his protesting body up a little straighter. No way would he let this man break him. He’d die first.
Starkin stopped a few feet away and Johnny raised his head high. He could barely see out of his left eye, but he did his best to meet the sardonic gleam in Starkin’s eyes steadily.
Starkin stared at him silently for a moment, his jaw working. Then he spat a stream of tobacco juice right in his face. Johnny didn’t flinch nor take his eyes from Starkin’s as the liquid dripped down his cheek.
“Having fun yet, Madrid?”
“Beats mending fences,” Johnny answered casually. Annoyingly, his voice was a pathetic, hoarse croak – not quite the effect he’d intended.
Starkin didn’t react. Only a quick flicker of something in his eyes warned Johnny that he was about to make a move, a split second before Starkin stamped his booted foot down hard on Johnny’s left foot. Johnny almost swallowed his tongue biting back the scream that welled up in his throat as pain shot up his leg. Scott’s cry of protest was silenced by a warning growl from Danforth.
Starkin smiled. “You think you’re so smart, don’t ya? Think you’re better than me.”
Johnny closed his eyes for a moment until the first wave of agony subsided a little. When he forced them open again, he noted that Starkin still held the bottle in his hand and a desperate idea came to him; an idea that could easily get him killed, but which might also give him a small chance of escape – an outside chance at best, but he was willing to accept those odds.
He dragged his gaze from the half full bottle of cold beer and swallowed a couple of times against the dryness in his throat. “Thing is, Stinkin’, I am better than you,” he said deliberately, allowing a small, arrogant smile to cross his lips. “I know it, you know it, and Jim Holden sure knew it.”
Starkin drew his brows together and his expression darkened.
“Face it, Stinkin’,” Johnny went on, stoking the fire, “You’re a loser. Always have been, always will be.”
Starkin glowered. “Shut your mouth, Madrid.”
“Just telling it like it is. Guess it ain’t your fault; you must have been born that way. Probably got it from your mother—”
Starkin punched him in the face.
The blow rocked Johnny’s head back and knocked his feet from under him, sending a pulse of pain shooting through his injured foot and putting a fresh burden on his aching arms. Through suddenly blurry vision he saw Starkin break the bottle against the right hand post. Then the gunfighter was in his face, the jagged edge of the bottle pressed against his throat.
He felt a sharp prick as glass pierced skin and through the ringing in his ears heard someone shouting.
The glass bit deeper and as he waited for the warm spurt of his life blood draining away, he realised that he’d miscalculated and pushed Starkin too far.
Yesterday, Scott had called Danforth’s bluff and lost. Johnny had known that his brother’s desperate gamble would end in failure, but he couldn’t blame him for trying.
Today, the mistake was his own and he cursed himself for underestimating Starkin’s reaction. In all the times he’d cheated death, he had never expected to finally go out as a result of his own stupidity. He wasn’t afraid to die, but hated the thought of leaving Scott to face Danforth alone. Even worse, Scott would blame himself. Scott had a well developed sense of responsibility and if Danforth let him live as he’d promised to, Scott would spend the rest of his life blaming himself for his brother’s death.
Johnny made himself look steadily into Starkin’s furious gaze as he waited for death.
Suddenly Mateo was there, grabbing Starkin from behind in a bear hug and dragging him back. The knife dropped from Johnny’s throat, leaving a trickle of blood from a small cut as Starkin fought the Mexican, shouting incoherently, spittle shooting from his mouth. Cade appeared from somewhere to help and between them they pinned Starkin on the ground.
As Johnny fought to focus, he saw Danforth on his feet and Scott struggling against his bonds. Both were shouting, their whole attention on Starkin.
Johnny looked down, scanning the ground. The broken glass had scattered and he spotted a large shard near his right foot. Quickly, he slid his foot across, stepped on the piece, and slowly dragged his foot back.
He glanced up to see that Starkin was back on his feet, brushing himself down and glowering at Mateo who hovered nearby. Danforth strode across to him.
“Damn it, Starkin,” Danforth’s face was red, his eyes flashing. “I thought your little feud with Madrid would be an asset in this endeavour, but it seems I may have been wrong. How many more times do I have to tell you that he doesn’t die until I’m ready?”
“Sorry, Boss.” Starkin seemed to have got himself under control. “It won’t happen again. He gets under my skin, is all.”
Danforth glanced at Johnny. “I can see that. He certainly has a mouth on him. Gag him. I don’t want any more incidents like this.”
“Sure, Boss. Be my pleasure.” Starkin walked back to the table where he’d left his gun and picked up the oil soaked handkerchief he’d been using to clean it. As he approached, Johnny eyed the filthy piece of cloth with disgust and clamped his mouth shut tight.
Starkin rolled his eyes. “You never give in, do you?” He gestured to Mateo to join him and between them they forced Johnny’s jaw open. Starkin roughly stuffed the rag into his mouth and wrapped his bandana around Johnny’s head, tying it tightly in place. Johnny’s stomach churned and bile rose in his throat as he gagged on the foul object. He fought for control, knowing that if he threw up he’d likely choke. After surviving Starkin’s attack he wasn’t going out that way. Not now that maybe, just maybe, they had a small chance of escape.
Starkin leaned in close and whispered, “Think on this, Madrid. There’s no way out for you. You’re gonna die and you’re gonna die hurtin’. Who’s the loser now?” He gave the bandana a final tug and strolled back to his position by the cabin, good humor apparently restored.
Johnny closed his eyes and concentrated on taking in air through his nose. And as all his body’s aches and pains threatened to overwhelm him, he pressed his bare foot down on the piece of glass, the sharp pain a reminder that he had just created a glimmer of hope.
Sheriff Jack Carson unhooked his canteen from the pommel of his saddle, took a long swig and offered it to Val.
Val wiped the sweat off his face with his bandana before taking the canteen with a nod of thanks. It sure was a hot one today. He handed the canteen back and chewed on his lip as he thought about the best course of action.
Carson had listened seriously to Val’s story and agreed that there was cause for concern. They rode together to the place where Cannon had found Barranca, easily spotting his marker. Finding no signs of life in the area they followed Barranca’s tracks for a few miles before losing them in a rocky area. They stood there now, scanning the surrounding terrain while resting their horses.
Worry gnawed at Val like a small rodent chewing away at his gut. None of this made any sense. He had found blood on Barranca’s saddle, which probably meant that Johnny was hurt. But if so, where was Scott? It was possible that he had gone for help and they would find the boys at a ranch or homestead nearby. What didn’t make sense was that Barranca’s tracks led northeast toward the mountains, while Johnson’s ranch was east of town. There were too many questions with no answers and he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was badly wrong.
“So, what do you reckon?” Carson asked.
After a few moments Val said, “Hard to tell. Can’t be sure where Barranca came from – if he was running scared, he could have changed direction any number of times. The only thing we know for sure is the boys were headed for the Johnson Ranch. I say we ride on out there, see what Johnson can tell us.”
Carson nodded. “That’s what I was thinking.”
They remounted and turned back toward the road.
A few miles north of town they came to the turn off for the Johnson Ranch. Although it offended Val’s sense of urgency, they chose to ride slowly, checking for signs that the Lancer brothers had met with some misfortune on the road. There were plenty of hoof prints, as would be expected on a well-used road, but no signs of anything untoward.
Finally, the ranch house came into sight. Val looked around him carefully. It was quiet. Apart from a couple of horses grazing in the corral, there was no sign of life – animal or human. That was certainly unusual for any working ranch in the middle of the day.
They rode up to the house and dismounted. Val glanced at Carson, eyebrows raised. Carson nodded and drew his gun, clearly as uneasy as Val himself. Val pulled his own Colt and followed Carson to the door.
Carson rapped loudly on the solid wooden door. There was no answer. He knocked again. “Mr. Johnson? It’s Sheriff Carson. Can I come in?”
The door remained shut. Val tried to peer in through a window but the drapes were closed.
Carson looked at Val and shrugged. “Guess everyone’s out working somewhere.”
Val grunted. “Must be out on the range then. Didn’t see anyone about when we rode in.”
Carson tried the door and found it unlocked. He stood to one side and pushed it open with his foot. “Mr. Johnson?”
Carson stepped cautiously into the house, Val at his shoulder.
The door led straight into a large room, dominated by a centrally placed table, completely bare and with four chairs pulled up neatly around it.
Carson quickly checked the remaining rooms and came back shaking his head. “There’s no one here. Doesn’t look like the beds have been slept in and seems like the kitchen hasn’t been used today.”
“What strikes you about this place, Jack?” Val said.
Carson shrugged. “Lacks a woman’s touch.”
“That’s one way of putting it.” The place lacked any of the friendly clutter Val associated with a home; in fact, it didn’t feel to him like a home at all.
“Best take a good look around now we’re here,” Carson suggested.
Carson went back to the bedrooms while Val remained in the main room. It didn’t take long to check it out – there was very little other than furniture. The only decoration was a large lamp on one end of the dresser. He walked around the table, unsure what he was looking for. Spotting a dark stain on the edge of the table, he bent down for a closer look. Darkish red, it looked like… blood? There were similar stains on the floor.
“Jack! Come and take a look at this.”
Carson appeared from the kitchen. “Nothing out there. What have you found?”
Val gestured to the stains. Carson examined them and frowned. “Blood. Doesn’t look that old – a day, maybe?”
Reluctant to voice his fears, Val said, “Jack, there was blood on Barranca’s saddle, probably Johnny’s. Could be this is his blood too.”
“Could be, but don’t jump to conclusions yet, Val. Let’s take a look around outside.”
A close inspection of the area revealed hoof prints at the hitching rail outside the ranch. There were many more prints near the stable. Eventually, Val concluded, “I’d say eight horses left from here, heading north east. Not that long ago – a day at the most.”
Carson nodded. “Want to take a guess at what happened here?”
“I’m thinking it’s a mite too much of a coincidence that not only Johnny and Scott but Johnson is missing too. Could be the three of them were kidnapped, or maybe Johnson ain’t who he’s supposed to be and he’s behind this. Either way the boys are gone – and don’t forget Cannon said he thought Barranca came from the north east.”
He remembered something else had been niggling at the back of his mind. “Something else you should know, Jack. It may mean nothing, but Jeb Harper told me he was in town because he’d signed on for a job with a man called Brad Starkin. You heard of him?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“He’s a gun for hire who gives gunmen a bad name. Me and Johnny worked with him a couple of times back in the day. He’s bad news and he hates Johnny – swore once that he’d kill him if he got the chance. Like I said, it may mean nothing, but it could be one more coincidence too many. “
“All right,” Carson said decisively and Val was grateful that he had a good man on his side. “We’ll head back to town. I’ll have my deputy round up some men while we go talk to Harper – if this Starkin is involved Harper may be able to tell us where they’re heading. We can be on the road by early evening, get a few hours behind us before it gets dark.”
“Goin’ back to town will waste too much time.”
“It’ll take time, but if we go alone and you’re right we could be up against six armed men. I don’t like those odds.”
Val growled his frustration. “All right, you go back to town and I’ll start following those tracks. You’ll catch up with me before I catch up with them.”
“No way, Val,” Carson said firmly. “It’s too much of a risk. You think Johnny would want you to get yourself killed?”
“No, but he’ll be expecting me to come after him.”
“And that’s what you’re doing. But your best chance of helping him is not to get yourself killed.”
Val shook his head. “Ain’t planning on doin’ that. But Jack, I have a really bad feeling about this. I need to find him.”
Carson put a hand on his shoulder. “I know you’re worried, but our best chance is to do this my way. And I need you to talk to Harper. He… ahh, he doesn’t like me much and he might refuse to talk.”
Val let out a long breath and nodded reluctantly. It was true that he had more chance of getting the information from Harper. The delay rankled, but it made sense. “All right, we’ll do it your way. Let’s get moving.”
Val had been worried that Harper might have left town, but when they arrived back in Oak Ridge, they found him in the saloon, playing poker. As they approached he threw his cards down. “That’s it, my friends; I’m out before I lose my clothes as well.”
As he stood and turned to leave, Val blocked his path and said, “Howdy, Jeb.”
Harper looked surprised. “Val. Thought you was heading back to Morro Coyo.”
“Something came up. Come and sit down over here. We need to talk to you.”
Jeb frowned and glanced suspiciously at Carson.
“No need to worry, Jeb. Carson ain’t gonna throw you back in jail. Are you Jack?”
“Not unless he gives me cause to,” Carson agreed.
With obvious reluctance, Harper took a seat at a vacant table. Val and Carson took chairs either side. Harper shot a wary look at Carson. “What’s all this about, sheriff? Val here will tell you, I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”
“It’s not about what you’ve done, it’s more about what you were going to do,” Val said. “I need you to tell me about that job with Brad Starkin.”
Harper frowned and fidgeted. “Why? I didn’t do the job. I was locked up here, remember?”
Val understood that if the job was less than lawful, Harper was unlikely to want to talk to two sheriffs about it. He decided that the truth would be the best policy.
“Look, I’ll come clean with you. This ain’t about you. It’s about Johnny. He’s missing, him and his brother, and I think Starkin may have something to do with it.”
Harper’s eyes widened. “Johnny? What do you mean, he’s missing?”
“He and his brother rode out to the Johnson Ranch yesterday and they didn’t come back. A local rancher found Johnny’s horse loose this morning and there’s no sign of them or anyone at the Johnson place.”
Harper rubbed his hands over his eyes. “It can’t be Johnny. Starkin would have said something…”
Val bit back his impatience. “Just tell me all you know, Jeb.”
“Like I told you before, a few weeks ago Starkin was hiring over to Stockton. You know I don’t like working with him any more’n you do, but I was downright cleaned out and the pay he was offering was real good – too good to turn down. So I hired on, me and three others. We was to meet him two days ago a few miles north of Oak Ridge.”
“What happened to the others?”
“They stayed on in Stockton. Guess they met up with him as planned. I came on down here see what Oak Ridge was like.” He shot an accusing look at Carson. “Not one of my better ideas, as it turned out.”
Carson grinned. “Not my fault you look like a notorious bank robber.”
Val frowned. This wasn’t the time for humor. “Tell me about the job.”
Harper shifted a little. “Starkin was a mite tight-lipped about it. Said something about his boss wantin’ to make someone pay for a wrong they’d done him.”
Val exchanged a glance with Carson. “Who was this boss?” Carson asked. “What did they need you to do?”
“Like I said, he was real tight lipped. He did say his boss was some rich dude from back East. Brad said all we’d need to do was be around as back up and take turns at lookout duty. Seemed simple enough and real easy money. But it can’t be Johnny they’ve taken… what would that guy want with Johnny?”
Val shook his head. He didn’t know either, except that Scott was from back East. Could that be the connection?
“I’m sorry, Val,” Harper went on. “I figured they was takin’ someone who had it comin’ … if I’d of known it was Johnny, I’d never have signed on. He was always a good friend to me.”
Val wasn’t interested in Harper’s contrition. “Did they say where they were taking him?”
Harper shook his head. “Starkin weren’t too specific. Said it’d be a fair ride, though.”
“What do you think?” Val turned to Carson.
Carson shrugged. “There’s a lot of rough country out toward the Sierras. They could be anywhere.”
“My money’s on an abandoned building where they can hole up,” Val said. “Anything like that around?”
“There’s the Franklin place. Cabin’s been empty for six months since old Franklin passed away. It’s in the right direction, north east of the Johnson place, but right up in the foothills, a good six hour ride.”
Val pushed his chair back from the table. “I’ve heard enough. We’ll follow their tracks as far as we can and hope they lead toward the Franklin place. Let’s go. We’ve wasted too much time already.”
“Val, let me ride with you,” Jeb said eagerly. “If Johnny’s in trouble, I’d like to help.”
Val looked at Carson who nodded. “We’ll need all the men we can get. My deputy should be able to round up a few men from town; more than that we’ll have to look to the outlying ranches.”
As they headed for the door, it opened and Harry Cannon walked in. “Jack, Sheriff Crawford. Did you find your friend?”
Val shook his head. “No. We think he and his brother have been kidnapped. We’re taking a posse out to look for them.”
“Where you headed?”
“Northeast. Jack thinks they may be headed for the Franklin place.”
Cannon scratched his head. “That’s a long way out. What about the McInnes mine?”
“That’s a good idea.” Carson turned to Val. “The mine’s been abandoned for a couple of years. It would work well as a hiding place and it’s closer than the Franklin’s place.”
Val nodded. “All right. We’ll check it out first.”
“If you need more men, I’m about to head back to the ranch. I can pick up three or four hands, catch up with you,” Carson said.
“Thanks, Harry, that’s real obliging of you.” Carson turned to Val. “Don’t’ worry Val, we’ll find them.”
Val nodded shortly and headed for the door. He felt sick at the thought of what Johnny might be suffering at the hands of Bradley Starkin. The man had a mean streak a mile wide and he’d take full advantage of having Johnny Madrid at his mercy.
He was confident they’d find the missing men. That wasn’t what worried him. His fear, which he refused to voice, was that they would be too late and his best friend would be dead when they found him.
Scott watched Johnny anxiously, afraid that he would struggle to breath through the gag. When Johnny looked his way and nodded slightly, relief washed over him and he slumped back in his chair, his mind still filled with the image of blood trickling down Johnny’s throat where the edge of the glass shard had broken through flesh.
For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, his brother had come close to death. Scott was sure Starkin would have cut Johnny’s throat had Mateo not intervened. A sudden surge of anger against his brother caught him off-guard. He was certain that Johnny had deliberately provoked Starkin. Why would he do something so stupid? Scott himself had been forced to rein in his temper repeatedly over the past few hours – why couldn’t Johnny do the same?
Danforth sat down again. He rested his elbows on the table and steepled his hands as he looked thoughtfully at Scott. Then he smiled. “Don’t look so worried, Lieutenant. I have no intention of allowing Mr. Starkin to end your brother’s life – not for a long time yet.”
“Then you’re playing with fire,” Scott said grimly. “That man hates Johnny. What if you can’t stop him next time?”
“I’ll keep my eye on him. Although I confess, I hadn’t quite appreciated the strength of his feelings toward your brother.”
Scott asked the question that had been on his mind from the start. “How do you know each other anyway?”
Danforth seemed happy to fill him in on the details. “I learned of your brother’s colorful past from my informant at your ranch. He also knew I was looking for a man I could trust to assist me in my quest for justice and suggested Mr. Starkin. Knowing of his antipathy toward Madrid he rightly surmised that it might work in my favor. Happily, when approached and told of my plans, Mr. Starkin was delighted to offer his services.”
“I’m sure he was,” Scott said bitterly, glancing in Starkin’s direction. The man’s pleasure at inflicting pain on his old adversary was sickening to witness.
“Well, enough of this,” Danforth said. “It’s time for another game, I think. What do you say to something a little more challenging? I assume you play chess?”
“Of course you do, a man like yourself with a Harvard education.”
Danforth called for Marita to bring out a set of chess pieces and busied himself laying them out on the board. Scott was pleased at the change in game. He was a skilled player and once he’d ascertained Danforth’s ability, he would plan a strategy to not only win the game, but keep it going for several hours, giving Johnny a much-needed respite.
“I don’t suppose you get much opportunity to play, now that you’ve left behind the civilized world to become a cowboy,” Danforth commented. “Pick your color.”
“White.” Scott paused. He recognized Danforth’s mocking tone as the prelude to another disparaging reference to the Lancer family.
He was tired of answering questions and defending his life choices. All morning there had been no break from Danforth’s intrusive questions. Had he enjoyed the discipline of army life? What did he do when discharged after the war? Then Danforth had moved on to interrogate him about his decision to move to California and his life at Lancer. Initially, Scott had refused to answer, but the irritation in Danforth’s eyes when his response was slow in coming had led him to quickly resign himself to the inevitable.
The questioning had continued until he wanted to scream in frustration.
He bit back a sigh. “Quite the contrary. We often play a game after dinner.”
“Your move. I assume your father would be your only viable opponent. Is he skilled at the game?”
“He plays a good game, but he’s a little predictable. Johnny’s better.”
Danforth raised an eyebrow. “Your brother plays chess? You surprise me.”
Scott felt the burn of rising anger at the mocking tone. “Johnny is a fine chess player. We’re very evenly matched.”
Danforth’s lip curled. “I wouldn’t have thought that a man of his ‘background’ would have the intelligence for such a strategic game.”
“Then you’d be wrong.” Scott stated shortly, stamping down the anger. He knew he’d failed to hide his feelings when he saw that smile of smug satisfaction spread over Danforth’s face.
“You would know, of course,” Danforth said. “So tell me, other than chess, what on earth do you have in common with an uncouth half-breed killer?”
The afternoon wore on. Marita brought them a hearty lunch and large glasses of lemonade. The food stuck in Scott’s throat, but he somehow managed to force it down. The sight of the lemonade, however, forcefully brought home the reality of Johnny’s suffering and thirsty as he was, he found his throat closing and choked on every sip.
By four o’clock, the sun had dropped and the intensity of its heat was beginning to wane. Scott was grateful for the small relief it offered his brother.
For some while it had been obvious that Johnny was holding on to consciousness by willpower alone. He’d been hanging from those posts for twelve hours now, the sun beating down with merciless disregard for his plight. Scott could hardly imagine the pain he must be enduring, from not only the crippling effect of the sun, but from the earlier and more recent injuries.
Scott dragged his eyes from his brother and tried to concentrate on making his next move.
As he studied the placement of the pieces on the black and white squares, he felt as if he was living a nightmare, the kind he occasionally woke from sweating and with a scream on his lips. Only in this nightmare, he sat at a table with a mad man, playing irrelevant games and carrying on what would seem – to a passer-by at least – a pleasant conversation, while less than fifteen feet away his brother was strung up, beaten and bloody.
Scott hoped fervently that this game would be the last for the day. He assumed that he would spend the night in the cabin again and that Danforth would allow Johnny some rest – there was nothing to be gained from keeping him tied to the posts if Scott was not there to observe his suffering. A few hours of solitude would give Scott the opportunity to plan some way to escape. He vowed that he would not allow his brother to suffer another day of torment.
“Lieutenant!” There was a note of irritation in Danforth’s voice.
Scott dragged his focus back to the game. He knew he was close to winning. As expected, Danforth had proved to be a worthy opponent, but he’d been distracted, seeming more interested in his interrogation of Scott than in trying to win the game.
Scott moved a pawn and sat back.
Danforth carefully studied the remaining pieces on the board. After a few moments and with uncharacteristic hesitation, he moved his rook.
Scott tried not to betray his feeling of triumph as Danforth fell into the trap he had carefully set up. He moved his bishop into position. “Checkmate.”
Danforth frowned and leaned forward to peruse the board. After long moments, he looked up and gave Scott a hard look. “Congratulations, Lieutenant. Well played.”
“It was a close match,” Scott said placatingly.
Danforth stretched his arms above his head. “Well, I think that’s enough for today. Marita will have dinner ready soon. I confess I’m rather hungry. How about you?” He raised an eyebrow.
Scott said nothing. Danforth frowned. “I could eat,” Scott said quickly.
“Good. As soon as we’ve finished here, we’ll go inside and wash up. I’m sure you’ll be glad of the chance to stretch your legs. But first…” Danforth made a show of studying the small sheet of paper Scott had seen him writing on throughout the day. “Let me see.” He looked up at Scott, eyes burning with the intensity Scott had witnessed a few times during the day. Scott’s gut clenched. “Do you remember what I told you when we began our game this morning?” Danforth asked.
“What in particular?”
“I told you that I expected you to treat me with deference, respond when spoken to and answer my questions truthfully.”
“That’s something I’m unlikely to forget,” Scott replied, unable to hold back the sarcasm in his tone.
“And do you think your behavior today has been appropriate?”
Scott chose his words carefully, unsure where Danforth was going with this. “I believe so.”
Danforth’s eyes flashed. “You believe wrongly. Do you remember what I told you would happen if you failed to meet my expectations?”
Scott swallowed. “Yes. You said you would hurt my brother. Which you have already done.”
Danforth snorted. “The pain your brother has suffered so far has been the result of your inability to beat me in our games of chance. That is totally unrelated to your own insolent behavior which requires its own punishment.”
Scott felt panic rising. He’d tried so hard to remain outwardly calm, knowing that any anger on his part would end badly for Johnny, but at times he had been unable to conceal his feelings. On several occasions, anger had boiled up into a violent verbal outburst or futile struggle against his bonds.
Danforth had reacted to these incidents with no more than the occasional roll of the eyes or a long-suffering sigh, although the deep emotion lurking beneath the mask of friendly benevolence had betrayed itself in small ways – a sudden drawing together of the eyebrows, a momentary feverish light in the eyes, the occasional caustic comment quickly bitten back. Now Scott knew why he had been content to hold back. He’d been planning something all along.
He pushed back the anger and said as calmly as he could, “Don’t you think Johnny has suffered enough for one day?”
“Enough? This isn’t about ‘enough’, Lieutenant. It’s about justice. It’s about ensuring that the punishment fits the crime, and as yet, you and your brother have not paid nearly enough.” Danforth paused and flicked some dust off his jacket. “You told me earlier that you enjoy the theatre. Well, think of today as the prelude. Tomorrow we’ll embark on scene one. You can view the punishment your brother is about to receive as a small taste of what is to come.”
He called to Starkin. “Twelve lashes, Mr. Starkin and don’t hold back. And take that gag out – I want to hear Madrid scream.”
Starkin must have been anticipating the order, for he already had a whip in his hand.
“No!” Scott snapped, launching himself across the table as far as his bonds would allow him. His reaching fist came within a few inches of Danforth’s face before the Easterner pulled back.
Danforth sighed. “For an intelligent man you’re a very slow learner, Lieutenant. Mr. Starkin, make that thirteen.”
Scott balled his free fist, nails digging painfully into his palm. It was costing him all he had not to scream his protest. He glanced at Johnny. He couldn’t tell if his brother was conscious and aware of what was happening; his head was resting on his chest and his hair had fallen over his eyes, obscuring them from Scott’s view.
In desperation, he changed his approach. “Please,” he pleaded. “Please don’t do this.” He blinked back an image of a whip biting into Johnny’s naked back, his brother’s face contorted in agony. “Look, you’ve proved your point,” he went on quickly. “You’ve hurt me by hurting my brother. Why don’t you let him go? I’m the guilty one. You can kill me, or put me in his place – I don’t care. Johnny’s innocent, he doesn’t deserve to be punished.”
Danforth leapt up and struck the table hard with his fist. “Do you think I enjoy what I have to do? Your brother may be the worthless offspring of a Mexican whore, but you’re right; even he doesn’t deserve to die this way. But I have no choice. I have to do what Matthew requires of me!”
“You’re right, I don’t understand! No one is making you do this. It’s your choice and you can stop it if you want to.”
Danforth began to stride up and down. “I cannot stop! We’re too close. I can sense Matthew’s approval. He’s happy, he wants me to finish this, to give him justice, to give him peace.”
“Justice?” Scott was incredulous. “This isn’t justice. Do you really think Matthew would want you to torture an innocent man?”
“It’s the only way. All these years… Dear Lord, I miss him so. I should never have let him enlist; I should never have encouraged him to go…” He put his head in his hands and when he raised it moments later his eyes were blazing with an almost religious fervor. “There will be no peace for Matthew or for me until this is over. And justice is prevailing, Lieutenant. I can feel your pain relieving me of my burden. In a few days, I’ll be free!”
Until this moment, Scott had believed Danforth to be ruthless and sadistic; evil, even. Now he realized the truth. The man wasn’t a cold-blooded killer. He was dancing on the very edge of reason – probably had been for a long time – his grief and guilt so fueling his quest for justice that they had turned his mind. At this point, he really believed that his dead brother was in control, guiding his steps. The madness was like a wild animal, claws extended, fighting for it freedom, and it was so close to totally breaking free.
As Danforth paced along the verandah, Scott’s mind raced through options to stop what was about to happen.
Danforth came to an abrupt halt. “Mr. Starkin, please go ahead.”
Starkin had been following the exchange with a small smile, but now he stepped forward.
“Starkin, for God’s sake,” Scott said desperately, “This has gone far enough. Can’t you see the man’s lost his reason?”
“That ain’t my concern. He’s paying me well, and I’m enjoying my work.” Starkin grinned. “Oh, yeah, I’m enjoying my work real good.”
“Surely you don’t believe he’ll let you live when this is over? He won’t want witnesses. He’ll have you killed, you and your men.”
“I don’t think so. Me and Mr. Danforth are partners now. We’re heading for new pastures when we’ve finished with you and Madrid.”
Scott tensed and looked on helplessly as Starkin walked up to Johnny. Johnny’s chin jerked up as Starkin approached and Scott was proud of his brother’s courage and tenacity, as he looked his tormentor steadily in the eye.
Starkin untied the bandana and roughly pulled the gag out of Johnny’s mouth. “Hope you got enough voice left to scream, Madrid.”
Johnny whispered something Scott didn’t catch and Starkin’s face clouded for a moment. Then he smiled. “Think you’re funny, don’t you? Don’t matter. Pretty soon it won’t be smart words comin’ out of that big mouth of yours.”
Starkin made a show of uncoiling the whip and cracking it against the post. Then he walked around behind Johnny. Scott bit his lip and watched Johnny set his jaw and prepare himself for the burn of the first lash.
Johnny closed his eyes as he mentally braced himself for the bite of the whip.
For the past couple of hours, he’d found it difficult to form coherent thoughts. His mind kept wandering and his world narrowed to a haze of pain and heat and confusion. The lack of water and effects of the sun were taking a heavy toll. He was terrified that he’d lose his grip on reality and tried to keep his attention on one overriding need: to stay conscious and focused on that small piece of glass beneath his foot. It might prove to be his – and his brother’s – one chance of escape.
He’d taken in some of the conversation between Scott and Danforth and knew what was about to happen. He’d been whipped before and could still remember the shocking pain as leather bit through the skin of his back. His heart thumped in his chest as he waited, the seconds stretching out like hours. He knew Starkin was taking his time, deliberately building the tension. He tried to relax his body, knowing it would be more painful if he tensed up, but he couldn’t stop the muscles in his back from clenching in anticipation.
He heard a hissing sound fractionally before the lash finally struck, ripping through his flesh and sending a shockwave of pain through his entire body.
The next two lashes followed quickly, leaving him no time to catch his breath between them. Then Starkin paused and this was worse, the dread building with every passing moment. Starkin knew it, and cracked the whip against the post a couple of times, laughing as Johnny’s whole body started at the sound.
Then it began again.
Johnny gritted his teeth and endured the first six lashes in silence, fists clenched tight, trying to focus on the smaller pain of his nails biting into the flesh of his palms. He couldn’t look at Scott, knowing the anguish he’d see in his brother’s eyes, unable to deal with the extra burden of his brother’s pain right now. He fought with everything he had left not to scream, knowing that Danforth and Starkin wanted it and stubbornly determined not to give them the satisfaction.
Hard-edged leather slammed into his back, the end of the whip curling around his waist where the tip left a burning trail across his belly. He uttered a guttural moan as his body betrayed his resolve in its need to find an outlet for the torment.
Rational thought was slipping away and he panicked, afraid of losing consciousness, terrified that his small hope would be lost. He mustered all his willpower, determination and sheer bloody mindedness and focussed them on that small piece of glass beneath his right foot.
His body trembled uncontrollably from shock and his vision began to get fuzzy around the edges. Damn it, Madrid. Hold on. You got to hold on! Just two more…
He drew a quivering breath. Just one more. He could do this. He was Johnny Madrid. Johnny Madrid had survived beatings, snakebites and fevers. Hell, he’d survived a bullet in the back. Johnny Madrid could take a little whipping.
This time he couldn’t hold back a hoarse cry of pain as the whip cut into his lower back. His body sagged, his legs no longer able to hold him and he felt the sharp pull on his aching arms. He dragged his pounding head up and turned his eyes to his brother, to let him see that it was ok, he’d survived, he’d made it.
“Cut him down.”
No! Not yet, he wasn’t ready, he needed a few minutes to pull himself together. But as Mateo cut the ropes binding his wrists to the crossbar, his knees buckled and he fell, crashing face-first into the unyielding ground. The fall knocked the wind out of him and he lay gasping for breath. Where was it? He’d kicked it in front of him as he fell, praying it wouldn’t catch the light or bounce out of reach. He felt something sticking into his rib cage just above his belt. Numb fingers felt around frantically. Finally, his fist closed around the shard of glass. As a booted foot roughly rolled him over he slipped it into the back pocket of his pants.
The fire rose to an inferno as his back hit the ground, but triumph was his final feeling as welcome darkness engulfed him.
“Señor Madrid, por favor. Please wake up.”
Johnny became aware of a voice, coming at him through a fog of confusion. A moment later pain hit; burning, stabbing, searing pain. He felt like he’d been trampled by a herd of steers and then dropped on his back in a fire’s burning embers.
A rush of unpleasant memories reminded him of the truth of his situation.
Reluctantly Johnny forced his eyes open. The woman, Marita, was kneeling beside him, her expression anxious. He slowly twisted his head to look around him. The sun had dipped down behind the mountains and dusk was rapidly approaching. He figured he’d been out for less than an hour.
His stomach churned as the memory of the whipping returned with frightening clarity. He pushed it to the back of his mind. It had happened; he had to find a way to deal with the result.
He took stock of his surroundings. He was sitting with his back against the base of a pine tree that stood apart from the larger copse and a hundred or so yards from the cabin. His hands were tied behind his back, a couple of turns of rope wound around his waist and the trunk held him securely in place. His position would have been marginally less uncomfortable than hanging from that frame had the rough bark of the tree not been sending shards of molten pain through his lacerated back.
He was already well acquainted with that particular tree. He’d spent the previous night in the same position.
He twisted his head further, and that proved his undoing as nausea overcame him and he began to retch. There was very little in his stomach but bile, yet it was several minutes before the heaving stopped and his stomach settled a little. The effort exhausted him and left his whole body trembling.
Mierda! He was a mess.
The woman had made no move to help him, but when he finally turned to meet her eyes, her features twisted in an expression of sympathy. She held up a canteen. “You must drink.”
Water. As Marita brought the canteen to his cracked and swollen lips, he opened his mouth eagerly. Swallowing past his raw and swollen tongue was difficult, and he choked on the first mouthful, but the small amount of liquid that finally ran down his throat was the best thing he had ever tasted.
“Slowly,” Marita said. “A little at a time.”
She continued to pour water into his mouth little by little and he relished every drop. All too soon, she pulled the canteen away.
“More?” he croaked.
She shook her head. “Lo siento. There is no more. He would not allow it.”
The canteen couldn’t have been more than a quarter full.
Johnny felt like crying. Instead, he reached deep down for his Madrid persona, allowing a cold calm to supplant the emotion. “Why… let me have water at all?”
“He knows you will die quickly with no water,” she said flatly. “He does not want that.”
Johnny almost laughed. “Not yet.”
She was silent.
“Thank you anyway.” He held her eyes. “Marita, what are you doing here with them?”
She hesitated and shot a quick glance toward the cabin. “Diego. My brother. Where he goes, I must go.”
Johnny looked at her closely. “Why?”
She shook her head. “I have no choice.”
Seeing an opportunity, Johnny said urgently, “Marita, help me. You can come with us. We can help you.”
She shook her head, eyes wide with fear. “No! I cannot. He would find me. He always finds me.”
“I won’t let him hurt you.”
She glanced across at the cabin, then back at him and lowered her voice. “I heard what you did in Mexico. You helped many people.”
“And I can help you. Please. Untie me.”
She shook her head again. “I cannot. But if you free yourself, I will do what I can.”
He raised his eyebrows. “How do expect me to get free?”
Her eyes darted to the cabin again. She lowered her voice further. “I saw the glass.”
Damn it. “Will you tell them?”
After a moment, she said, “No.”
They both turned at a sound and saw Diego Mateo striding toward them.
“You must get free!” Marita whispered urgently, then stood and turned her back on him as her brother approached.
“What is going on here?” Diego barked and grabbed her arm, almost pulling her off her feet.
“Mr. Starkin told me to give him some water, that is all,” she explained hurriedly. Her head went down as she stood before him. Johnny wondered what kind of hold he had on her – was it simply fear of physical abuse, or something more?
Mateo gave her a hard stare and then stepped away. “Go back to the cabin.”
He turned to Johnny and his eyes narrowed. “If I discover that you were—”
“You ready for me?” a voice called and Cade approached.
Mateo shot Johnny another suspicious look and Johnny lowered his eyes. Now wasn’t the time to antagonise him further. “Watch him well,” Mateo said finally.
“Sure, but he ain’t goin’ nowhere, is he?” Cade smirked.
“I do not trust him. Watch him.”
Mateo shot one more glance Johnny’s way and then headed off down a track through the trees.
Cade shot one appraising look at Johnny, then walked off to a fallen log a short distance away. He settled down and leaned back against the tree behind it.
Johnny let his head fall back against the trunk and closed his eyes, fighting a wave of despair. The faint flicker of hope that Marita’s sympathy had ignited was dashed by the fear he seen in her eyes as she looked at her brother.
Of course, it was possible that Scott would find a way to escape. He would be tied up or guarded, but he was quick and resourceful. He would seize any opportunity, however small. Yet Johnny knew that he couldn’t rely on that either.
No, it was down to him; after all, that was why he’d gone to such lengths to get that piece of glass. But it was a daunting prospect. Where he would find the strength to cut through his ropes, overpower his guard and rescue Scott, he had no idea. But he had to try because hard as it was to admit, even to himself, he was afraid of what the next day would bring. Danforth’s unstable state of mind made him unpredictable and difficult to read, but Johnny was sure of one thing. The minutes, hours and possibly days ahead held nothing but more pain and suffering – for him and for his brother.
He closed his eyes and tried to focus on the task ahead.
* * * * *
Hiram Danforth sat at the table in the cabin staring silently into his cup of coffee. Opposite him, Starkin sat sprawled, feet up on a chair – he would have had his feet on the table, Danforth mused with distaste, had he not known that it would be frowned upon. The man was an uncouth savage and Danforth could not wait for the day when they parted company. Scott Lancer had been right about one thing – his association with Starkin would end here. He planned to pay the man off and leave him to his own devices.
What happened to the men Starkin had hired was up to him.
He took another sip of coffee and reflected on the day.
He felt a mixture of anger and satisfaction. Anger because the more Scott Lancer had talked about his life, the more one thing became clear – he had usurped the good fortune Matthew would surely have had if he had lived. Satisfaction because Lancer’s reaction to his brother’s suffering, and his distaste for their little games of chance and the results thereof, had been more than he could ever have hoped for.
The brighter the pain shone in Lancer’s eyes, the more Danforth had felt his own sense of guilt lessen. He had been wrong to blame himself for allowing Matthew to enlist. The army was, after all, an honourable profession. Had Lancer not shortened his life, Matthew would undoubtedly have distinguished himself in the war. No, it was more certain than ever that Scott Lancer was responsible for it all. In his head, he could hear Matthew’s agreement and feel the warmth of his brother’s pleasure as he saw justice carried out.
His reverie was broken as Starkin yawned loudly and stood up. “I’m gonna hit the sack, Boss.”
Good. He would rather be left alone with his thoughts. “All right. I’ll bid you goodnight.”
As Starkin headed for the makeshift bed in the corner of the room, Danforth called after him, “You did a good job today, Bradley, but you must remember that this is not about your little feud with Madrid. I do not want to see you lose control again. Madrid dies when I say he dies and not a moment before. Do we understand each other?”
Starkin scowled but he wisely held his tongue. Taking a deep breath he finally said, “Yeah, I got it Boss.”
Danforth nodded. He sat back and drained his cup. When he found himself yawning, he decided it was time to turn in. “Marita!”, he called.
The Mexican woman appeared at the door of the kitchen. “Would you like more coffee, Señor?”
“No. I’m turning in. Have breakfast ready soon after sunup tomorrow.”
She nodded. “Si, Señor.”
Danforth looked after her thoughtfully as she returned to the kitchen. She was a surly woman, though she would be quite attractive without the sulky expression. He supposed that she had very little to be happy about, with Mateo as a brother. Another unpleasant man. He shuddered at the thought that he had to work with such characters.
Something else to lay at Scott Lancer’s feet.
His thoughts turned to Scott’s brother. He was surprised at the twinge of regret he felt at the need to inflict pain on the ex-gunfighter, who had proved somewhat of a surprise. The man was clearly something more than a rough, unprincipled killer like Starkin. He ruthlessly suppressed the feeling. Sometimes sacrifices were necessary for the greater good and after all, Madrid was not exactly an innocent.
That was just as well, because he had something planned for tomorrow that would raise both brothers’ suffering to the next level.
Johnny let his head drop down onto his chest, feigning sleep. He half-opened his eyes and watched Cade for a while. Despite his assurances to Mateo, Cade clearly didn’t see a bound man as a threat and cast only the occasional glance in Johnny’s direction. He seemed more concerned with a piece of wood he was idly whittling with his knife.
That suited Johnny just fine. He cautiously flexed his fingers and was relieved to find that he could bend them quite well; the rope binding his wrists was tight, but not so much that it was cutting off the circulation. Keeping a watchful eye on Cade, he carefully wriggled his fingers to the base of his pants’ pocket and pushed the shard of glass upwards until he could grasp it between the tips of two fingers. He winced as the sharp edge bit into flesh, but there was no help for it. Grasping it more firmly, he began to saw at the rope binding his wrists.
It was hard work. While he was glad that the glass was sharp, the downside was that it was impossible not to cut his fingers as well as the rope. Soon, the glass was slippery with blood and several times, it almost dropped out of his fingers. Each time, his heart lurched, but he held on doggedly. He kept cutting until the frayed ends of the rope split completely.
The sense of relief as his hands were freed from their restraint was almost overwhelming.
His fingers were cramping, so he allowed himself a few minutes to stretch and flex them before considering the rope binding him to the tree. Fortunately, the rope was at waist level and he could easily reach it without the need to change position. While Cade was now dozing, Johnny didn’t want to risk any movement that would attract his attention.
He worked as quickly as possible, suddenly fearful that more time had passed than he’d thought.
After a while, he could feel that the rope was close to breaking.
He stopped. Removing the rope now would give him away; it would break easily enough under his weight when he moved forward. Cade wasn’t the brightest spark, but neither was he entirely stupid.
Now he simply had to wait until the guard changed. Then – if they followed the same routine as the previous night – he would have three hours to overpower the guard, free Scott and get far away before the alarm was sounded.
Piece of cake.
He leaned his head back against the trunk and tried to rest, but it was impossible with his whole body screaming in protest. Instead, he found himself thinking about Scott.
Yet again, he found himself fighting the kernel of resentment against his brother that had begun to take root.in his thoughts. Scott, normally such a logical and strategic thinker, had fallen straight into Danforth’s trap and didn’t seem to be thinking at all. He was so rattled that he was losing far more games than he should. And Johnny was paying for his failures. If he ever heard Scott boast of his own skill at cards again, Johnny reflected bitterly, he would knock his brother into tomorrow.
He pushed down the feelings. He would not give in to Danforth’s games and begin to blame Scott. His head was woolly and his thinking confused, that was all. The mental torment Scott had suffered today must in its own way have been as bad as Johnny’s own physical suffering. There was only one man to blame for all of this, and that man wasn’t Scott.
The minutes went by. He went over and over his plan to keep it clear in his mind, but he couldn’t concentrate. His thoughts were becoming jumbled and confused and twice he almost fell asleep, jerking awake completely disoriented. That wouldn’t do. He needed to stay sharp.
In the end, he reckoned that less than half an hour had passed before he saw a man approaching. His heart sank when he recognized Mateo. The Mexican was taller and heavier than Johnny, and more importantly, was no fool. On the other hand, he was also a chip off Starkin’s block, a sadistic man who treated his sister like a slave. Johnny wouldn’t lose any sleep if he had to kill the man.
Mateo and Cade exchanged a few words before Cade headed off down the track to the camp.
Johnny waited for Mateo to settle down on the log before putting his plan into action.
He began to breathe quickly and harshly and strained against his bonds. As loud as he could, he rasped, “Help me! Can’t… can’t breath!”
Mateo leapt up, drawing his gun as he approached cautiously.
“Please! Can’t…breathe,” Johnny croaked. He let his head flop onto his chest, continuing to gasp loudly.
Mateo squatted down in front of him. “Madrid! What—”
Johnny launched himself forward, his momentum breaking the final thread of rope binding him to the tree. Pain exploded in his side but he ignored it as he rammed his forehead into Mateo’s nose with all the strength he could muster. There was an audible crack as Mateo fell backwards, blood spurting in a fountain from his broken nose. Johnny followed him down, knocked the gun from his hand and slammed his right arm into the Mexican’s throat. He couldn’t allow Mateo to call for help.
Johnny pressed down with all the strength he could muster. On any other occasion, it would have been enough, but he was weak, his head was swimming and Mateo fought back ferociously, one hand clutching at Johnny’s arm while the other came up holding a knife. Johnny grabbed Mateo’s wrist with his free hand as the knife hovered dangerously close to his body.
Johnny was in the better position but he was weakening. His plan had been to subdue Mateo quickly, using the surprise of his attack to counter his physical disadvantage. But it was taking too long. He had to act quickly before the Mexican got the upper hand.
Suddenly relaxing his grip on Mateo’s neck, he allowed his body to go limp. Mateo grunted and used the opportunity to push him off and reverse their positions. He raised the knife and began the thrust that would bury it in Johnny’s chest. Johnny reached up, grasped Mateo’s wrist with both hands and twisted while flipping his body to the side. Off balance, Mateo fell onto his back and Johnny used his own momentum to bring his full weight down on the wrist holding the knife, driving it deep into Mateo’s heart.
The Mexican let out a soft sigh and his body went still.
Johnny collapsed beside him, breath coming in huge, desperate gasps. His stomach churned and he crawled up onto his hands and knees, dry heaving for long moments until the spasm subsided.
His head was pounding and every muscle in his body screamed for relief. He wanted nothing more than to grant his body the rest it craved. But there was no time to lose.
A quick glance at the cabin reassured him that no one had heard the fight. He pushed himself up on shaky legs and quickly stripped off the Mexican’s shirt. The front was soaked with blood and the smell almost made him retch again. But the shirt was better than no protection against the chilly night air. He slipped it on, wincing as the coarse material rubbed against the lacerations on his back. He didn’t take the time to button it.
Realizing that blood was dripping down both hands, he tore two strips off the bottom of his shirt and clumsily wrapped one around each hand. It was hardly an effective bandage, but it was the best he could do for the moment. Next, he dragged Mateo to the tree and leaned him against it, wrapping the rope around his waist and tying it loosely behind the tree. He pulled the Mexican’s boots off and contemplated them for a moment before his sluggish brain recognized them as his own boots.
He almost laughed at the flash of anger that shot through him – he had a lot more to be angry about than Mateo stealing his boots.
He looked down at the boots and then at his bare feet and frowned. The toes of his left foot were discolored and misshapen and both feet were swollen from long hours of standing. There was no way he could get his boots on. He compromised by pulling on Mateo’s socks to give him some protection, hissing as he pulled the thick wool over his broken toes.
Finally, he unhooked Mateo’s gun belt, wrapped it around his waist and retrieved the knife from the body. He checked that the gun was loaded and for the first time in almost two days, felt a small measure of control.
He hid his boots behind some bushes, perversely unwilling to lose them, and then limped toward the cabin. When he reached the verandah, he glanced back over his shoulder. He was satisfied that from this distance and in the dark no one would be able to tell that the shadowy figure tied to the tree wasn’t him.
Sneaking up to the front window, he peered in through a small gap in the curtains. To one side of the room stood a table with chairs pulled up around it. Against the far wall, a man was asleep on a makeshift cot. The sandy hair identified him as Starkin. Johnny edged further along the wall to the next room. Its curtains were fully open as was the window and this time he recognized Danforth in the large bed. The Easterner appeared to be asleep.
Johnny guessed that Scott must be in a room to the rear of the cabin. Keeping to the shadows, he edged around the building. The first window looked into a kitchen. The second revealed a bedroom. To his relief he saw Scott, lying on the bed on his side, his wrists bound and tied to a metal ring buried in the wall beside the bed.
Johnny contemplated the window. It looked closed, but on closer inspection, he could tell that the frame was warped and jammed shut rather than properly latched. He’d have to ease it open. He pulled Mateo’s knife out of his belt and got to work.
Fortune was on his side and within a few minutes, he was able to push the window open and peer in. Scott was awake and staring at him with a look of total astonishment that would have amused Johnny had the circumstances been different.
Now, he just had to climb in through the window to free his brother, a normally simple task that tonight seemed impossible.
Don’t think about it. Just do it.
Johnny squared his jaw, took a deep breath, grasped the sill firmly and boosted himself up. Pain exploded in his side, a sharp reminder of his cracked ribs. He tried to control his entry into the room, but all strength deserted him and he fell heavily onto the floor.
The thump as he landed sounded like a clap of thunder. Johnny fumbled for his gun with suddenly shaking fingers; the men asleep in the cabin must be stone deaf not to have heard that!
He lay where he’d fallen. His heart thundered in his chest and his breath came in shallow gasps. The musty, dry dust on the floor under his cheek tickled his throat and the need to hold back a cough intensified his panic. He caught Scott’s eye and took strength from his brother’s quick, reassuring smile.
After what seemed like an interminable wait, but which must have been less than a minute, he heard a deep snorting snore from the front room. Scott raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Johnny waited a few moments more, and then crawled to the head of the bed. Thankful that there was no need to use the shard of glass again, he hauled himself to his feet and used Mateo’s Mateo’s knife to cut through Scott’s bonds.
As Scott pulled off the remainder of the rope, Johnny felt the room tilt and his legs gave way. He slid back to his knees with a thump. As the room swam around him he leaned his elbows on the bed and dropped his head into cupped hands.
He watched as Scott hopped off the bed, massaging his wrists, and dropped to his knees at Johnny’s side. “Johnny?” he whispered. “Are you all right?”
Johnny didn’t know where to start with that question, so he said nothing. He rested his throbbing head for a moment and then forced himself to look up and give his brother a small smile. “I’m all right. Let’s go.”
Scott’s face was in shadows, but Johnny guessed it wore that worried older brother look with which he was so familiar. He was too tired to offer reassurances and didn’t protest as his brother helped him to his feet.
Scott guided him to the window and hovered close as Johnny wearily began to climb through. Balanced on the sill, he swayed as dizziness rolled over him. As his vision faded to black, he felt himself fall.
Scott stifled an instinctive cry of alarm as Johnny fell. He swiftly climbed through the open window after his brother, catching his heel and almost falling himself in his haste.
Stifling his urge to check on Johnny straight away, he flattened himself against the adjacent wall and prepared to protect his brother against anyone coming to investigate the noise.
His heartbeat sounded like thunder inside his head, but around him, the night was silent. He gritted his teeth and forced himself wait.
In the distance, a coyote barked but all was quiet in the cabin. Finally, he was confident the noise had gone unheard. He didn’t stop to question this second instance of good fortune but dropped to his knees beside his brother.
Johnny lay sprawled on his stomach, motionless.
Scott reached out a hesitant hand and paused. Dark streaks stained the pale cotton of Johnny’s shirt. Blood. The wicked cuts inflicted by Starkin’s whip must be bleeding still. He shuddered as he relived the hiss of the whip cutting through the air and the sharp crack as it landed and bit deep into his brother’s flesh. Bile rose in his throat and he swallowed it back angrily. He had to focus.
He grasped the shirt, intending to lift the hem and check the extent of the damage, then hesitated. There was no time; he had to get Johnny to cover and anyway, he had no way to treat the injuries. Best to leave well alone for now. A voice in the back of his mind told him he was a liar. The truth was he couldn’t face seeing the injuries he had caused.
Instead, he laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Johnny?”
Johnny didn’t stir.
There was no time to wait for him to come around. With a quick prayer that his actions wouldn’t hurt Johnny further, Scott lifted his brother, balancing him over his shoulder. Behind the cabin, he could see some outbuildings and a corral and to their right, a few hundred yards away, the tree line.
There was no choice but to risk crossing the open ground. Scott headed to the trees, He staggered a little under Johnny’s weight, but kept going doggedly until he was out of sight of the cabin.
He carefully lowered Johnny to the ground in a small clearing. Kneeling beside his brother, he absently wondering how Johnny had come by the shirt, but a stab of fear superseded the question when he saw that the shirtfront was soaked through with what could only be blood. With shaking fingers, he pulled the shirt open, the bitter taste of fear flooding his mouth.
The faint glow of moonlight was enough to highlight the mosaic of burn marks and shallow cuts that adorned Johnny’s chest, many raw and inflamed. The whole of his right side was mottled with ugly black bruising, But none of these injuries could have led to such extensive blood loss.
“Stop pawin’ at me. It ain’t my blood.”
The hoarse voice, little more than a whisper, sounded angelic to Scott’s ears. He looked up and found Johnny looking steadily back at him, lips curled in a crooked smile. It constantly surprised Scott that his brother could find humor in the most unlikely or inappropriate places.
“Whose blood is it?”
“Mateo’s.” Johnny didn’t elaborate and his eyes drifted shut again.
“Just… need… minute.”
Scott bit his lip and laid a hand on his brother’s forehead. Unnaturally hot and dry; fever had set in. Johnny needed rest and a doctor and he would get neither until they made their escape.
A twig broke, loud as the report of a bullet in the quiet night. Scott leapt to his feet and spun around as a figure stepped out from the shadows.
She had something in her hand. He tensed as she approached. “That’s far enough!”
“It’s all right, Scott,” Johnny whispered.
“Si.” Marita stopped and slowly held up the item she was holding. It was a canteen. “I mean no harm.”
Scott relaxed slightly and motioned for her to come closer. She stopped beside them and nodded at the canteen and then at Johnny. “I come to help.”
Dropping to her knees beside Johnny, she lifted his head with one hand and held the canteen to his lips with the other. “Drink. You need water.”
Marita looked up at Scott.
“There are horses in the stable behind the cabin. Tack is there too. Go quickly. I stay with him.”
“Why should I trust you?”
Marita’s eyes flicked to Johnny before she answered. “Before, I was afraid. But Señor Madrid help me find my courage.”
Scott wondered how Johnny had managed to do that, but whatever had transpired, Johnny seemed to trust her and he trusted his brother’s instincts.
Johnny reached out a hand to touch her arm. “Marita, your brother’s dead.”
Scott had suspected as much.
Marita’s face was emotionless as she took in the news. Then she bowed her head and whispered something in Spanish beneath her breath. When she looked up again, she was blinking away tears, but she nodded to Johnny. “You did what you had to do.”
She turned back to Scott. “Go, quickly. I put a little sleeping draught in their coffee; they sleep deeply now and for a few hours more. But you must be quick.”
An idea shot into Scott’s head. He could finish this right here, right now. He could kill Danforth and Starkin while they slept. The temptation was strong. He had never felt a hatred as intense as that he felt for the two men. They had tortured his brother; they didn’t deserve to live. Danforth talked about justice. Well, killing him would be justice, no question. Then it would be over.
Johnny would be safe.
His chest tightened and he felt a little lightheaded as the idea pulled him in. Then he looked down at Johnny. His brother shook his head.
“Don’t do it,” Johnny whispered.
How did he do that? Scott hadn’t said a word, yet Johnny knew what was going through his head.
“Why not?” Scott demanded. “They deserve to die.”
“Not like this. You’re… better than them, Scott.”
Scott looked away, emotions churning. He knew Johnny was right. If he did this, it would go against all his principles and stay with him for the rest of his life. But he was willing to accept that burden to save Johnny.
He looked back at his brother. “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”
“Not that, Scott. Promise me.”
One of Johnny’s eyes was swollen shut but the intensity shining from the other made his feelings clear.
Scott crouched down beside his brother. “All right. I won’t touch them. But I’m going to see that they’re brought to justice and punished.”
Johnny gave him a relieved smile. “Won’t argue… with that.”
Scott realized that he was wasting precious time. “I’m going to get us some horses. You stay here with Marita and rest.”
It scared Scott that Johnny didn’t try to argue but as he stood to go, a hand snaked out and grabbed his pants leg.
Scott saw that Johnny had a belt strapped around his waist with a gun in the holster. Mateo’s? He shook his head. “You keep it, just in case.”
“Can’t… use it.”
Scott frowned. He looked a question at his brother and in answer, Johnny held out his hands. For the first time, Scott noticed the bloodstained, makeshift bandages wrapped around both hands.
He opened his mouth to ask what had happened, but Johnny cut him short. “Glass. ‘Splain… later.”
Glass? Where could Johnny have – the truth slammed into him with the force of a cannonball as he remembered a bottle breaking, pieces of glass flying everywhere. He’d been angry with Johnny for pointlessly provoking the volatile gunman. Now he wondered if he’d been wrong. Had Johnny had seen the shadow of an opportunity and deliberately goaded Starkin?
He had his confirmation when Johnny’s lips quirked into a smirk. “Took a gamble.”
Scott shook his head at that vast understatement, torn between rekindled anger at the risk Johnny had taken and admiration for his brother’s resourcefulness.
Johnny’s hands dropped and his eyes drifted shut again.
Marita tugged on Scott’s sleeve, dragging his attention back to the present. “There are three men asleep in the barn,” she whispered, “I think they all drank the coffee, but I cannot be sure how deeply they sleep. Be careful.”
“I will.” With a final concerned glance at Johnny, Scott headed for the stable.
Keeping a wary eye on the barn door, Scott entered the small building. There were only three stalls, all occupied. The other horses were in a small corral behind the stable.
Scott was happy to find that his own horse was one of those stabled. He made quick work of saddling it and the roan in the next stall and led both horses outside. He was tempted to let the other horses out of the corral, but decided it wasn’t worth risking – they might make too much noise and wake the sleeping men.
His horse nickered as he mounted, the soft sound disproportionately loud in the quiet night. Scott shot a quick glance at the barn, but there was no sign of life.
Resisting the urge to quicken his pace, he walked his horse back to the trees, the roan on the end of a piece of rope following amiably.
Johnny was lying where Scott had left him. Marita sat beside him, wiping his face with a damp cloth. She looked up as Scott dismounted. “The fever rises,” she whispered urgently. “You must go quickly.”
Scott crouched beside Johnny. “Johnny, I’m back. Time to get out of here.”
Slowly Johnny opened his eyes, but his gaze was unfocused. His brow knitted and his eyes slid shut again.
“No you don’t. You have to keep going for just a little longer.”
Johnny’s eyelids flickered. “Scott.” The word was little more than a breath pushed through split and swollen lips.
“Yes, it’s me. You rescued me, remember? Now we need to get out of here, or all your efforts will be for nothing.”
Johnny licked his lips. He opened his eyes fully and locked eyes with Scott. “Can’t… think… straight.”
“Let me do the thinking. We just need to get you up and on a horse.”
“No. Hold you up. Go… without me.”
“Forget it. You’re coming with me.”
Never in the two years since he’d met him had Scott heard his brother say, “I can’t” and the words filled him with foreboding.
“Yes, you can,” he said firmly. “We go together or we don’t go at all.”
“Get help… come back.”
Scott cursed his brother’s pigheadedness. He stood up and reached a hand down. “Not an option. Johnny Madrid doesn’t give up and neither does Johnny Lancer. So take my hand right now and get up on your feet.”
In the most commanding tone he could muster while whispering, Scott ordered, “Now, Johnny!”
He waited a moment until Johnny blew out a long breath and reached up a hand. “You’re a bully… Brother.”
“All part of the job,” Scott said tightly, taking Johnny’s wrist in a firm grip. “Slowly now, let me do the work.”
With Scott’s help, Johnny made it to his feet. He swore under his breath in Spanish as his left foot buckled beneath him. Scott held him up, remembering with chagrin that the thick woolen sock probably hid broken toes. He bit his lip. So many injuries and all because of him.
He shook himself inwardly. He had to clear his mind of every thought that wasn’t focused on his one and only objective – to get his brother to safety.
Johnny swayed, one arm wrapped around his side. Scott held on to him tightly and waited a moment until Johnny’s rapid breathing steadied.
“Be careful. There is a lookout on a hill where the path meets the main trail,” Marita said.
Scott nodded. “I saw him when we rode in. I’ll take care of him.”
She turned to leave.
“Come with us,” Scott said.
She shook her head. “I cannot. I must bury my brother.”
“From what I saw, your brother didn’t treat you well. Is he worth the risk of staying?”
She smiled sadly. “Maybe not. But he was my brother. Go. I will find my own way.”
Scott hesitated, reluctant to leave the woman in danger.
“Go!” Marita turned and walked away.
Scott couldn’t waste any more time. His priority was to get Johnny out of here.
He was sure that Johnny would not be able to sit a horse on his own, so decided that they would ride double. He would lead the second horse and change when the first needed rest.
The deadly glance Johnny shot him eloquently conveyed to Scott his brother’s opinion of needing help to mount, but Scott ignored it and Johnny made no protest as Scott boosted him into the saddle. Once there he swayed dangerously, slumping forward over the pommel.
Scott jumped up behind Johnny, carefully settling his brother back against his chest, head resting against his shoulder. He could feel heat radiating from Johnny’s body as the fever gathered strength.
Scott urged his horse forward into a fast walk. He could feel Johnny’s muscles tense and quiver with every jarring step the horse took, but gritted his teeth and willed himself to ignore his brother’s pain. They had used up so much valuable time that he couldn’t afford to slow the pace.
The moon was high and bright and had provided plenty of silvery light, but now the tall pine trees bordering the trail blocked that light, making the going treacherous. Scott swore as his horse stumbled on a tree root in the middle of the path. Reluctantly, he slowed the pace. It wasn’t worth the risk of his horse falling and breaking a leg.
Eventually they reached the high outcrop of rock where Scott had spotted the sentry on the ride to the cabin. He reined in. From here the man was hidden from sight, but he would be stationed nearer the summit, a position that offered a clear view of anyone approaching on the main trail from north or south.
Of course, he wouldn’t be expecting an attack from the west.
Scott felt Johnny stir.
“Scott… lookout on that hill. You have to… take him out.”
Scott had though his brother was asleep or unconscious. “I know,” he said. “I’ll cut through that copse of trees, come at him from behind.”
Johnny lifted his head a little and looked around him. He nodded. “You’re learning, Boston.”
Scott rolled his eyes. Sometimes, Murdoch and Johnny forgot he had an army background. He might still have many things to learn about life out West, but planning a strategic attack wasn’t one of them.
“Do you want to dismount, rest up a while?”
“Nah. Never … get up again. Go, Scott. Be careful.”
Scott left Johnny and the horses in the cover of the trees and made his way through the copse to the base of the outcrop. Away from the trees, the moon shone high and bright once more, its light clearly illuminating a faint path ascending the gentle incline. Scott made his way quickly upwards.
At the top, he peered cautiously over the edge.
He easily spotted the sentry, sitting with his back against a smooth rock, a rifle held loosely in his hands. His head was drooping over his chest, tangled hair falling forward over his face. Was his name Frank? Or Willis? Scott didn’t care, but he did thank his luck that whatever his name, the man was taking his duty less than seriously.
He crept up behind the sentry and brought the butt of his colt down on the sleeping man’s head. The guard slumped to the ground without a sound. Scott took his rifle, pocketed the spare ammunition then gagged and tied him securely.
He skidded his way back down the slope and ran to the place he’d left his brother. To his relief, Johnny was still mounted, but sagging alarmingly, his head resting on the horse’s neck. Scott came up beside him and touched his leg. “Johnny?”
Johnny grunted. “Got it done?”
“Yes. We’re clear.”
Scott remounted behind Johnny and wrapped one arm firmly around his brother’s waist, holding him steady.
They began a slow descent of the mountain.
“I’m paying you to do a job and you’ve failed me!”
The sound of his fist connecting with Starkin’s jaw gave Danforth some satisfaction. The accompanying burst of pain through his knuckles wiped away a little of the rage that had flooded his mind on discovering that Scott Lancer was missing.
Flying backwards, Starkin stumbled over a chair and lost his footing. As he scrambled to his feet, his lips parted in a snarl and his hand went for his gun.
Danforth had anticipated the move – it didn’t require a great deal of effort to read Bradley Starkin – and his Derringer was already pointed at Starkin’s heart. “Don’t even think about it, Mr. Starkin, or I will be forced to kill you. I have no further use for a man who cannot fulfill his obligations.”
This wasn’t strictly true; they both knew that if he was to find the escapee he would likely need Starkin’s tracking skills. Nevertheless, Danforth currently held all the cards. He watched anger fight with indecision in Starkin’s eyes and after a long moment, his hired hand muttered an obscenity beneath his breath. He stood stiffly, holding his arms wide and well away from the butt of his gun.
“Don’t ever do that again,” Starkin said flatly. “You may hold the purse strings, but I’m not just a hired hand.”
The two men faced each other across a room where the air was heavy with tension. They both started when the door crashed open. Cade burst in and skidded to a halt, eyes widening as he took in the scene before him.
“What is it?” Danforth snapped irritably.
Cade swallowed. “Madrid’s gone too. Mateo’s dead – knifed. And there’s two horses missin’.”
The rage returned, drowning his senses and lodging as a painful ball in his gut. For a moment, he was paralyzed by the implications. How could two securely tied men, one of them in lamentable physical condition, escape their bonds and disappear into the night?
Danforth took a couple of deep breaths and with considerable effort, pushed the anger away. It was imperative that he remained clear-headed.
When he had regained some control, he glared at Starkin. “Which of your men do you think aided their escape?”
Resentment still simmered in Starkin’s eyes, but his stance had relaxed a little. He frowned. “None of them, boss, I’d swear to it. They know better than to cross me – and you. More likely Madrid somehow got the drop on Mateo.” He turned a hard stare on Cade. “You had the watch before Mateo. You see anything suspicious?”
Cade licked his lips. “Course not. I’d have told you. Madrid was trussed up good and proper. He was asleep most of the time.”
Starkin snorted. “I doubt that.”
Danforth rubbed the bridge of his nose. He wanted the truth so he could punish the offender, but it would have to wait. “We’ll talk about this later. For now, we need to find them. They can’t have gone far; Madrid was in no condition to ride.”
Starkin’s lips curled. “He’ll be in no condition to breath when I get my hands on him.”
Again, Danforth wondered at the intense hatred Starkin bore Madrid. It was something akin to his own feelings toward Madrid’s brother.
“I want them back alive,” he warned. “I have to finish what we’ve started.”
“Sure boss. I ain’t in no hurry to see Madrid dead – be a real shame for him to miss the rest of the show. Cade, go get Frank and Willis and saddle the horses.”
“It’s still dark outside,” Cade said. “We can’t track them without light.”
“We won’t need to track them. They’ll go south, head for town or the nearest ranch. We need to catch them before they get there.”
“That trail’s gonna be dangerous in the dark—”
Danforth had had enough of Cade’s whining. He pierced the man with an icy stare and Cade subsided and backed out of the door, muttering, “I’ll rouse the boys.”
“Saddle my horse as well,” Danforth said to Starkin. “I’m coming with you.”
Starkin nodded shortly and turned to follow Cade.
Starkin paused and looked back.
“Watch your men,” Danforth warned. “Until we get to the bottom of this, none of them can be trusted.”
Starkin looked like he was about to protest, then wisely chose to keep his own counsel.
As Starkin closed the cabin door behind him, Danforth sat down at the table and rested his head in his hands.
Everything had been going so well, even better than he had hoped. He was so close to achieving his goal of justice for Matthew and genuine peace and redemption for himself.
Now, all that was slipping out of his grasp. In his head, he could sense Matthew’s displeasure. His brain felt slow and soggy, and his head throbbed relentlessly. He spotted Marita hovering nearby. Maybe some coffee would sharpen his thinking.
He waved her over. “Bring me some coffee, and make it strong.”
Marita nodded and headed for the kitchen, returning shortly with a steaming cup. She put it down on the table in front of him, her head down, as cowed and frightened as ever. She irritated him. He liked a woman to show at least a little spirit.
Then he remembered that she would have overheard Cade announcing that her brother was dead. His eyes narrowed and he observed her closely. She didn’t look like a woman mourning the death of a beloved family member. A thought struck him. Was it possible that she had helped Madrid in an attempt to rid herself of her controlling brother?
He stood up. “Look at me.”
Hesitantly, Marita raised haunted eyes.
“What do you know about Madrid’s escape and your brother’s death?”
Her eyes widened. “Nothing, Señor! Please, I know nothing!”
She dropped her eyes and he reached out, roughly grasping her chin and forcing her to meet his gaze. “Maybe you helped Madrid, you saw a chance to be free of your brother?”
“No, Señor. I was afraid of my brother. I could never go against him.”
Danforth studied her a while longer, but if she was lying, he couldn’t tell. And it was true that so far she had shown no backbone at all in her relationship with her brother. No, she didn’t have it in her to defy him. He let her go and dismissed her with a contemptuous wave of his hand. “We’re going out to look for the Lancers. You stay here and I want a decent meal ready when we get back.”
“Si, Señor.” She hastily retreated into the kitchen. Danforth slumped back into his chair and took a large mouthful of coffee.
Cade stuck his head around the door. “We’re ready to ride, Boss.”
Danforth drained his cup and stood, determination returning. He had no intention of failing. Before the day was out he would recapture the Lancer brothers and they would both pay dearly for the trouble they had caused.
Val Crawford shifted restlessly beneath his threadbare blanket. He wondered idly why he didn’t throw it out and replace it with one of the blankets he’d bought from the Indian kids. Lord knew he had enough of them.
He chuckled as he thought about the little scoundrels. It was a good thing Johnny had persuaded Murdoch to gift all the Lancer hands with new blankets, otherwise he’d have had to give up his job as sheriff and start his own trading post.
Johnny! Val shot up, the blanket falling from his shoulders, abruptly fully awake. Around him, the rest of the posse lay sprawled, asleep, heads resting on bedrolls or saddles. The fire had died into glowing embers and there was a slight chill to the air. He glanced up and saw the first faint promise of light penetrate the still dark sky.
Dawn was close, and that was good enough for him.
He stood up slowly and stretched, rolling his shoulders to work out the kinks and wincing at the stiffness in his back. He was getting old, that’s what it was.
Beside him, Carson stirred, yawned and propped himself up on one elbow.
“Val? Why are you up? It’s still dark.”
“It’s close to dawn and time we were moving on.” Val leaned over and grabbed his boots.
Val imagined he saw Carson roll his eyes, but nevertheless the sheriff pushed his blanket aside and rose to his feet with considerably more agility than Val had managed.
While Carson roused the rest of the posse, Val saddled up and rode back to the main trail.
The posse had ridden until it was too dark to go on, making camp in a sheltered clearing close to the spot where the trail divided. As expected, the storm of two nights ago had washed away any meaningful tracks, leaving them nothing but guesswork to guide the way.
They could be fairly certain that the riders had initially headed northeast. The few remaining tracks at the Johnson Ranch had led that way and Barranca had come from the same direction. But there was a lot of country ahead and they had reached a point where a decision had to be made.
Val reined in and considered the options.
The trail ahead continued northeast in a gentle incline, heading up into the foothills of the Sierras. A fork to the right led southwards to the mine.
Yesterday they had talked some more about possible hideaways, with every man in the posse chipping in with ideas. In the end, they came back to the original suggestions as the most likely destinations – the McInnes Mine and the Franklin place in the mountains.
They confirmed their earlier decision to try the mine first. It was closer than the Franklin cabin and a likely hiding place for a group of fugitives. Now, though, for some reason Val felt uneasy with the decision. The mine was a likely location, but was it too likely?
Val chewed his lip. He refused to face the thought that Johnny and his brother may already be dead, but all his instincts were screaming that they were running out of time. His gut was telling him to head for the Franklin place, but if he was wrong, the consequences could be fatal. Yet wasting the couple of hours it would take to ride to the mine and back could have similar consequences.
He made his decision.
Returning to the camp, he found the members of the posse standing around with cups of steaming coffee in one hand and biscuits in the other. There was no time to cook up a hearty breakfast.
Jeb Harper called out, “Boys are ready to head out, Val.”
Val acknowledged him with a nod. Harper seemed genuinely worried about Johnny and anxious to make up for his error in judgement in signing on with Starkin.
Val walked up to Carson who was tying his bedroll onto his horse’s saddle. “Jack, I’ve changed my mind. I think the mine’s too obvious. We should head for the Franklin place.”
After a moment, Carson nodded. “I’ve been thinking about it too and for what it’s worth, I agree.”
“That’s good. Let’s ride!”
Jammed into the narrow space between cot and wall, he had nowhere left to go. Ramirez towered above him, embers of the cigar glowing brightly in the gloom of the tiny room.
Johnny shrank back into the corner, his small hands pushing hopelessly against the powerful muscle of the Mexican’s forearm. The heat scorched the hairs on his arm long before Ramirez stabbed the tip of the cigar viciously into the soft flesh. Pain exploded from the spot and shot up his arm. It hurt so badly that he couldn’t stop himself crying out.
Ramirez casually stubbed the cigar out on a skinny brown shoulder and dropped the butt on the floor. He placed a hand on Johnny’s chest, pinning him to the wall and leaned in close. His lips stretched into an imitation of a smile, one central gold tooth gleaming. Johnny tried to turn his head away, but a hand came up and grabbed his chin, forcing him to look into his tormentor’s eyes.
The swarthy features blurred and wavered, cold brown eyes turned gray. “This is just the start, Madrid!” Badly Stinkin’ snarled.
Johnny writhed beneath the hands that trapped him in place, desperate to break free. But even with anger and hatred fuelling his struggles he was too small and too weak. Too helpless.
Panicking now, Johnny pushed harder. He heard a curse.
“Johnny! Stop it. Stop fighting me!”
That wasn’t Starkin’s voice.
“Johnny! It’s Scott.”
His attacker’s features wavered again, finally settling into the worried face of his brother.
Scott’s tense features relaxed a little. “Yes, Brother, it’s me. You were having a nightmare.”
Johnny fought the terror that had his heart and head pounding. Scott’s hands – Scott’s hands, not Ramirez’ or Starkin’s – relaxed their grip and Johnny closed his eyes and waited for tense muscles to relax.
He was no stranger to bad dreams but recently, as he’d started to feel more secure and confident in his new life, they had become a rarity. Why then had this particular nightmare returned and with such intensity? And what did Badly Stinkin’ have to do with it? He hadn’t seen the man nor thought about him for several years.
His eyes shot open as recent memories rushed back in a confusing jumble: the cabin in the mountains; Danforth and Scott sitting at a table playing chess; Starkin, a whip in his hand and a malicious grin on his face; Mateo, the light of life dying in his eyes. Mixed in were muddier images: Marita, holding a canteen to his lips; Scott boosting him up into the saddle; a ride through a dark landscape, his back on fire, pain shooting through his side and tightening the vice around his head with each jolting step the horse took.
Dizziness and nausea overtook him and Scott’s face began to swim before him. Hastily he closed his eyes again and it was only then that the pain registered.
He hurt. Everywhere. He was so tired of hurting. He was hot, too – far hotter than he should have been in the chilly air. He knew that meant he had a fever.
Scott’s tone was tired and anxious and Johnny wished he could just lie here – wherever ‘here’ was – and pretend to sleep. If he looked up, he knew he’d see not only concern, but guilt in his brother’s eyes. He couldn’t handle that right now, not while he could barely deal with his own pain or the traitorous spark of anger toward his brother that had stubbornly refused to die.
There was a note of panic in Scott’s voice and Johnny knew he had no choice. He prized his eyes open and was rewarded with a shadow of a smile from Scott.
“Hey,” he whispered.
Scott looked at him intently. “You had me worried for a minute there.”
Johnny turned his head to look at his surroundings. He lay on the ground, in a narrow cleft between some tall rocks, his head resting on something soft. All around were massive boulders nestled in scrubby grass against a backdrop of strangely shaped rock formations and craggy pinnacles. The darkness of night had given way to an eerie pre-dawn light that washed the landscape in tones of silver and gray.
“Where… we?” Mierda! Why was talking such hard work? His throat hurt, his tongue felt enormous in his mouth and he sounded remarkably like a croaking frog. Every word was an effort.
“In the foothills,” Scott replied, “maybe half an hour’s ride from level ground. Here, you need to drink.”
Johnny gratefully sipped from the canteen Scott held to his lips. He knew that he was suffering the effects of too much sun and too little water, but his throat was sore and drinking was too much of an effort. After a few sips, despite his thirst, he waved it away.
Scott frowned, but lowered the canteen. “Johnny…” He paused and cleared his throat.
“What… I miss?” Johnny asked quickly, sure Scott was about to start a conversation he really didn’t want to have right now.
“Not much. We’ve been riding for a couple of hours. It was slow going; I didn’t want to risk the horses on the trail in the dark. But they’re coming after us and they’re not far behind. I caught sight of them up on a ridge; I don’t think they saw me.”
“There’s no cover for miles once we reach the plain. I thought it was best to stop here and make a stand if it comes to it.”
Scott, usually very confident of his decisions, was looking as if he needed reassurance. “Was good… decision, Scott,” Johnny said. “How… long… we got?”
Scott’s lips thinned. “Not long, an hour at most. They may ride straight past.”
Johnny struggled to sit up, ignoring the wave of dizziness that accompanied the move. “And they… may not.”
Scott pushed him down with alarming ease. “Johnny, you need to rest. You have a fever. I think some of those cuts are infected, but I have nothing to treat them with. You need a doctor.”
Scott sounded distressed and uncharacteristically on the verge of panic. Johnny reached out and put a hand on his arm. “You got us… this far. We’ll make it.”
“Oh, yes, I got us here all right.” The words were bitter, self-recriminatory, and it was clear he wasn’t talking about their location.
There it was – that guilt, eating away at Scott.
“Johnny, I’m so sorry. It’s my fault they hurt you. I didn’t mean…”
“Not now, Scott.”
“I said, not now,” Johnny snapped, some of that simmering anger seeping through. “I’m tired and… I’m hurtin’ and I don’t… have the strength to… make you feel better… about yourself.”
Scott looked away, but not before Johnny saw the hurt in his eyes. He immediately regretted the harsh words. “I’m sorry. This ain’t… your fault, Scott.” Much as he tried to sound convincing and reassuring, every word seemed to sap the strength from him and what came out of his mouth was a poor effort. But he persevered. “And this ain’t… time to… dwell on it. Gotta deal with… hand… been dealt.”
“You’re right.” Scott hesitated. “But what he did to you… it should have been me.”
“More’n one way… to torture… a man, Scott.”
Scott looked at him incredulously, but before he could comment, Johnny said quickly, “Time’s wastin’. Do you… have plan?”
Scott looked like he wanted to continue the conversation, but then he sighed. “Of sorts. There’s a good position up on that rock over there, the one that looks like a crouching lion. I should be able to hold them off from there for a while.”
Johnny glanced at the rock formation where Scott was pointing. It did look like a beast crouched ready to pounce. At its highest point, at the lion’s head, Scott would have ample cover behind some craggy rocks but also a commanding view of the surroundings and the trail beyond. He nodded his approval. “What…’bout me?”
“You stay out of sight. You’re in no shape to do anything.”
“Ain’t ready to… wrangle a steer… but– “
“Forget it, Johnny. I can’t concentrate if I’m worrying about you. Please, don’t fight me on this.”
The truth was Johnny didn’t think he could wrangle a kitten right at that moment. All the talking had worn him out and everything around was beginning to waver. The fever was tightening its grip and no amount of determination in the world would be able to hold it back. Besides, Scott was wearing that thin-lipped stubborn look Johnny had seen often enough. He’d have a fight on his hands if he wanted to budge his brother.
“Stubborn mule,” he conceded.
A quick smile touched Scott’s lips. “Runs in the family.”
Johnny grunted. “Only in the… fancy Eastern side.”
Scott picked up the canteen. “Rest for a minute. There’s a stream just over there, I’ll refill the canteen.”
Johnny lay back and closed his eyes. It was better that way. The shifting patterns before his eyes were making him feel sick.
When Scott returned he sat down beside Johnny and they both drank their fill from the canteen, Johnny forcing down a little more this time, at his brother’s insistence. Then Scott stood up. “I’ll get into position. They can’t be far away now.”
Johnny looked around him. This cleft in the rock was a good hiding place, but while it protected him from enemy eyes, it also left him unable to spot anyone approaching. Anyone could creep up on him unnoticed. That made him more than uneasy.
“Scott, I can’t stay… here.”
“We talked about this. I thought we agreed – “
“Ain’t arguing,” Johnny interrupted. “But I’m… sitting duck… if someone… sees me.”
Scott looked around and finally nodded. “All right. There’s another place about a hundred yards away.” He pointed to his left. “You’ll be able to see if you need to, but you’ll still have good cover.”
Johnny glanced across and nodded his approval. “Help me up.”
Even with Scott taking most of his weight, it took almost every ounce of Johnny’s remaining strength to make it to the new position. Scott lowered him into a seated position where he had a view across to the trail.
Johnny leaned back against a rock, exhausted. Scott hovered anxiously over him.
Scott hesitated, and then nodded. He pulled Mateo’s gun out of its holster.
“Take the gun. Just in case.”
Johnny accepted the Colt, handling it clumsily in his bandaged hands and laid it in his lap.
Scott still hovered.
Was Scott wondering if this would be the last time they saw each other alive? Johnny was wondering that himself. But his gut told him that if – and most likely, when – they were captured, Danforth wouldn’t have them killed. He’d want to take them alive and return to the cabin to finish what he’d started.
The thought of it set Johnny’s heart pounding. No way would he let them take him back there alive.
“Scott, Danforth… he won’t want… us dead. He’ll want to– “ the words stuck in his throat.
“I won’t let that happen,” Scott said, confirming his understanding of the words Johnny couldn’t bring himself to speak.
“Comes to it … I won’t let it.” Johnny held Scott’s gaze and watched his brother’s eyes narrow in understanding.
“I won’t let that happen,” Scott repeated, words underlined by the firm set of his mouth and the determination in his eyes.
Johnny locked eyes with him for a moment, and then nodded. They understood each other. There was no need for more words.
Scott squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll see you in a little while.”
Scott started to move away, but Johnny reached out and caught his sleeve. He’d been wrong, there were more words that needed to be said – words that should have been said a long time ago. “Scott, last night… what you said to Danforth… about me.”
Scott looked him in the eye. “You mean when I said that I love my brother? I meant it, Johnny.”
Johnny ducked his head, suddenly embarrassed by the sincerity in his brother’s tone. “I know. It’s just… I wanted to say… me too.”
“Guess we both know where we stand now, Brother,” Scott said and when Johnny raised his head, Scott was smiling.
He mustered a smile of his own. “You watch your back.”
“You too, Brother. You too.”
There was nothing to do but wait.
Scott lay on his belly behind a low rock, the rifle resting comfortably in a shallow indentation. He wished he had his own instead of this unknown weapon. It wasn’t his first choice to enter into a gunfight with an untested rifle, with no idea how it handled or if the sight was accurate.
There was no sign of Danforth and his men, but the trail wound through the trees and he would be unlikely to spot them until they were close by.
He shifted a little to ease cramped muscles and rubbed eyes that felt gritty and sore. He knew he was dangerously exhausted, both emotionally and physically. Frequently his eyes drifted shut despite his best efforts and he started awake moments later, disoriented.
He fought his body’s desire for rest. A lapse now could prove fatal for him and, more importantly, for his brother.
His stomach churned every time he considered the consequences of re-capture. It chilled him to think that Johnny had decided that a preferable fate would be to take his own life. Johnny wasn’t afraid to die and wanted to go out on his own terms. Scott understood his brother’s choice, but he didn’t agree with it. Johnny may have long ago accepted that he would probably die young, but it was different now. He had too much to live for and too many people who loved him. He had a future and Scott was determined that he would live to see it.
Scott shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts and focus. He settled his gaze on the trail and immediately saw movement. A horse appeared around the bend, followed by several more. They were still a distance away, but he recognized Starkin in the lead, his eyes down as he studied the trail, followed by Danforth riding straight-backed on his gray, eyes scanning the terrain around.
Scott ducked back, heart thumping, and waited a few minutes before risking a quick peak.
There were six horses in the line and the lead horse had almost reached the next bend in the trail. Neither Starkin nor Danforth was looking in Scott’s direction and for a moment, relief flooded him.
The feeling was short-lived. A moment later, Starkin held up his hand to halt the riders. He dismounted and knelt, examining the ground.
Then he straightened and looked up, directly at Scott’s position.
Scott froze. Starkin’s gaze fixed on the lion’s head for a long moment, then his eyes rakes slowly across the area. He said something to Danforth, who nodded and dismounted.
Scott resisted the urge to duck back behind the rock, afraid the movement would attract attention. So he stayed still, sweat running down his brow, not daring even to blink lest he give away his position. He watched Starkin and Danforth confer and the final tendrils of hope gave way as Starkin waved in the direction of the rocks comprising the aptly named Lion’s Den. Danforth barked an order and the remaining men dismounted and crowded around their leader.
Scott set his jaw and his hands tightened on the rifle. If he was to die here, then so be it. Johnny had suffered twenty-four hours of torture because of him. Even then, Scott had failed to come up with a way to escape, leaving that to his injured brother.
He wouldn’t fail this time.
The only way Starkin would get his hands on Johnny again, Scott vowed, would be over his own dead body.
* * * * * * * *
Johnny shifted and winced. It was impossible to find a comfortable position on the hard, sun-parched ground that showed no evidence of the storm that had raged less than twenty-four hours ago. Whichever way he turned, something hurt. He gave in to the discomfort and tried to focus on watching the trail.
Since Scott had left him, he’d found it hard to hold on to his concentration, his mind constantly wandering and playing tricks on him. The oddly shaped rock formations became living creatures, shifting position and towering threateningly over him. He knew they were illusions. He’d suffered from heat sickness and fever often enough to know what was happening to him. He knew too that before long he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
He fought the confusion. If he gave in, it would all be over.
The sun was rising quickly now, still pale and watery but with enough warmth to point to another scorching day. His current position offered little in the way of shade and while he usually preferred the heat to the cold, right now the very thought of it filled him with dread. His body was already creating more heat than he needed.
He tried not to think beyond the next moment. Giving up wasn’t in his nature and he’d defied the odds many times, but he was also a realist and he knew that their prospects were bleak. It was ironic, really. After all his worries that his past would catch up with him and hurt his family, it turned out to be Scott’s past that was about to end everything. Johnny had no doubt that the accusations against Scott were false, but right now, the truth was irrelevant. All that mattered was what Danforth believed.
Danforth. The man was obviously mad. His outwardly polite manner and refined features hid a mind corrupted by his single-minded pursuit of vengeance. It scared Johnny a little. Could that have happened to him if he had failed to find his mother’s killer and deliver the justice he deserved? He’d seen other men so eaten up with the need for revenge that it became the sole reason for their existence.
And that brought his thoughts to Badly Stinkin’. Even now, he found it hard to think of the man by his real name, so ingrained had the nickname become. Ironically, it had started as a spur of the moment comment, not meant as a cruel joke. The first time they’d met, Starkin had been different. Tough and ruthless certainly, but lacking the streak of cruelty and constantly simmering anger he later developed. Johnny knew about the loss Starkin had suffered in the year between their first and second meetings, but life was tough for everyone and it wasn’t a good enough excuse for the man Starkin became.
He knew Starkin didn’t hate him just because of the nickname that had stuck like a burr to a steer’s back. Starkin hated him because he’d publicly humiliated the man. On the one hand, Johnny couldn’t blame him for that. He could have handled the situation better, taken Holden aside and explained his reservations. But he was young and arrogant and chose to speak his mind in front of the entire crew. And when Holden agreed to try it Johnny’s way and the plan had succeeded beyond all expectations, he’d let Starkin go and given Johnny his job. Starkin was humiliated and his reputation suffered a crippling blow.
Yup, he should have dealt with it differently. Hindsight was a wonderful thing.
He blinked as a nearby rock took on Starkin’s features. Craggy gray lips opened in a grotesque grin and from them came Starkin’s voice. “You ruined my life, Madrid and you’re gonna pay.”
Johnny shook his head. Everything around him swam in and out of focus. He blinked again and Starkin’s features vanished. He shivered, unnerved by the vision and gripped the butt of his gun tighter, reassured by its solid weight. That at least was real – unless it turned into a snake in his hands. He shivered again. He really was losing it.
He wanted this to be over, one way or the other and wondered if Scott, hidden in the rocks somewhere above him, was thinking the same. Scott was a fine marksman and should be able to hold the pursuers off for a while. But that would only gain them a little time. All they had to do was wait, draw Scott into firing until his ammo was depleted, and then move in.
Johnny’s fist clenched at the thought of capture, slivers of pain shooting through his hand as the action pulled at the raw cuts where the glass had sliced through his fingers.
Of course, there was still a tiny chance that the cavalry in the form of Val Crawford would ride to the rescue. He chuckled at the thought of Val in an army uniform at the head of a column of soldiers. The idea was about as likely as Val finding them in time.
Val had been a good friend who had never let him down. Johnny would have liked to have the chance to say goodbye. Then there was Murdoch. Months of heated arguments, recriminations and head butting had slowly given way to greater understanding and willingness on both their parts to try to understand the other. Recently, Johnny had begun to feel that they were making real progress and he’d hoped that by proving himself in the purchase of this stallion, Murdoch would begin to respect him a little. Now, he’d never know if it could have worked out.
Then there was Teresa, sweet and loving yet with a strong will and a temper to match. He hated to think of her sorrow and tears when she discovered that he and Scott were lost.
It was so unfair. But then, when had life ever been fair?
A shot rang out.
Startled, Johnny cursed himself for letting his attention wander. He lifted his head cautiously and peered into the distance. His vision blurred but he caught movement – a man, darting forward from the cover of one rock to another.
They had been found.
He continued to scan the area.
There was no further sign of movement, but with everything wavering, it was hard to focus. Spotting the first man had been a lucky break. There could be five of them – six, if the sentry had regained consciousness enough to ride. If it were him, he reasoned, he’d keep a few men back to draw Scott’s fire while the others made an assault on his position.
He glanced up at the lion outcrop. It sloped gradually, rising to a flat summit that ran level along the lion’s back for several hundred yards. Scott would be perched in the rocks that dipped to form the head right at the end, out of Johnny’s sight.
As he strained to listen, he heard a muffled curse. Fear curled icy fingers around his heart and squeezed hard. At its base, the outcrop was narrow and shallow at his side. The other side was steeper and that was where the sound had come from. Someone was climbing up on to the ridge.
Frantically, he considered his options. He could call out to warn Scott, but his throat was tight and his voice hoarse. He’d more likely alert the pursuer than his brother.
He couldn’t stay put and wait for his brother to be gunned down. There was no choice but to take down the man himself.
Johnny closed his eyes for a moment, summoning the will to move, anticipating the pain. Then he gritted his teeth, took a deep breath and pushed up onto his knees. The pain left him gasping for breath, but he ignored it and used the rock face to lever himself to his feet.
He swayed and leaned into the cool stone for balance until the world stopped spinning.
Then he pushed off and headed for the narrow rabbit track running up to the summit of the outcrop.
His whole body trembled with the effort as he began to stagger up the track. He set his jaw and concentrated on setting one foot in front of another, narrowing his thoughts to the need to stop this man shooting his brother in the back.
Several times he lost his footing, falling jarringly to his knees, agonizing pain lancing through his side and back. Each time he made it back to his feet and grimly carried on. His heart was thumping painfully and the headache that had retreated a little now returned with fierce strength.
Near the summit, the track disappeared and he had to climb the final few feet. There were plenty of foot and hand-holds, but the effort of hauling his body up strained his injured ribs and he felt the damp trickle of fresh blood as the cuts on his back pulled open.
He raised his head cautiously over the rim.
The man was less than twenty yards ahead, keeping low and darting from bush to bush towards Scott’s position.
With one final effort, Johnny hauled himself over the edge. He felt something give in his side and the blast of pain told him that at least one of the cracked ribs had broken. Bile flooded his throat and everything around him dimmed. He lay still, eyed squeezed shut, clinging fiercely to consciousness until the red haze cleared from his vision.
When he opened his eyes again, he saw that the man had stopped about fifty yards from his position. He was kneeling, elbows resting on a rock, his rifle pointed at something ahead of him. Scott! The shooter must have a clear shot. Now that he was able to study the man, Johnny could see that it was Badly Stinkin’. Stinkin’ was carefully lining up his shot and paying no attention to the possibility of danger behind him. Probably thinks I’m dead already, Johnny thought grimly. Boy, is he in for a surprise.
Johnny scrambled to his knees and raised his gun. Even using both hands, he was shaking badly and his target was blurred. The chances of hitting Starkin with anything like his usual accuracy were small, but he had to try.
Johnny shouted as loud as he could. “Stinkin’!”
As Starkin whirled around, Johnny fired. The shot took Starkin in the chest and he fell onto his back.
Johnny called, “It’s me, Scott. I’ve got this.”
He hoped his brother had heard him. He stood and limped to the downed man. Starkin was still alive, clutching his chest with one hand through which blood was spurting.
Johnny collapsed to his knees beside the mortally wounded man.
Starkin’s eyes bore into his. “Guess I’m gonna get to Hell before you, Madrid,” he gasped.
“Looks that way.”
“Just wish I could’a… taken you with me.”
Even on the verge of death, Starkin’s hatred was palpable.
“You hate me that much?”
Starkin’s eyes narrowed. “You made me… look a fool, an’ you… ruined my… rep’tation. Yeah, Madrid, I hate you that much.” He coughed once and his eyes glazed as he took his last breath.
Johnny sat back on his heels. He felt nothing in response to Starkin’s final words and no satisfaction at his passing. He just felt empty and tired. So very, very tired.
Through a sudden buzzing in his ears, he heard a voice calling his name. But before he could turn to find its owner, a now familiar light-headedness hit him, the world around him dimmed and he surrendered willingly to the darkness.
Day had broken night’s stronghold and the posse was making good progress.
Jack Carson rode at the head of the men, keeping up a steady pace. Steady, but not fast enough for Val whose sense of urgency had grown stronger with every passing minute.
The trail had climbed steadily since they entered the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. At first trees had crowded the riders on both sides, but for the past mile or so the dense firs to the left of the trail had begun to thin, giving way to more barren terrain. Ahead, the trail took a sharp turn and disappeared from sight behind a large outcrop of sheer rock.
It was quiet except for birdsong and the rustling of rodents scurrying out of the path of the horses’ hooves. Johnny always said this was the best time of the day, when it was still and peaceful, before man had a chance to make his mark and spoil it all.
Val frowned. Focusing only on the trail ahead was difficult when his thoughts kept drifting to his friend, random memories rising unbidden and threatening to break his concentration.
Carson reined up and raised a hand to bring the posse to a halt. He glanced over his shoulder at Val. “Around the next bend we’re moving into rocky terrain,” he said quietly. “Around here it’s known as The Lion’s Den – you’ll see why. It’s a good place to lie low or set an ambush.” He looked past Val to Harry Cannon, the next man in line. “Harry, pass the word along – we’ll be taking it slow and easy through The Den. Spread out and keep your eyes peeled.”
Val swallowed his frustration. Every minute lost to caution could mean the difference between life and death to Johnny and Scott. Yet he understood Carson’s instructions. These men had already put their lives in danger by volunteering to ride with the posse.
Carson urged his horse forward and Val followed.
A rifle shot shattered the silence.
Instinctively, Val ducked low on his horse’s neck, even as he noted that the sound came from a distance ahead.
Carson was taking no chances. “Dismount and take cover!”
The men obeyed, quickly leading their horses into the cover of the trees.
“Val, come with me.” Carson pointed ahead. To their right, a narrow path snaked through the trees. “That path should come out the other side of the bend.”
Val drew his Colt and followed Carson along the track.
Another shot rang out, closer this time.
The two men reached the tree line and took cover behind a fallen trunk. Val cautiously raised his head and peered over the top. He had a good view of the terrain Carson had called The Lion’s Den and immediately understood where the name came from. The largest outcrop bore an uncanny resemblance to a crouching lion. Staring at it, he caught movement high up at the lion’s head.
“I think I saw someone,” he whispered. “Up on the head.”
Carson tugged a spyglass out of his jacket pocket and raised it to his eye. After a moment he said, “One man up there with a rifle. Blond hair. I don’t recognize him.”
Blond hair? “Could be Scott. Let me take a look.”
Carson handed over the spyglass and Val trained it on the rock. After a moment, a blond head bobbed up. It was Scott all right – which begged a question he was afraid to ask. His chest tightened.
He caught sight of more movement among the smaller rocks and bushes.
“Two men,” he reported after a moment, “advancing on Scott’s position.”
“I see two more, still mounted, on the trail ahead,” Carson said. “Looks like they’re holding back.”
Four against one. Bad odds on any day.
“Do you see Johnny?”
“No,” Val replied tightly. It didn’t mean anything, he told himself. Johnny could be hiding in a different position. He realized something just as worrying. “I don’t see Starkin either.”
“How do you want to play this, Val?” Carson asked.
“I’m gonna circle round, see if I can get up on that crag and give Scott some back up.”
Carson nodded. “I’ll send a couple of men to watch your back. The rest of us should be able to take out the other four before they know what’s hit them. Good luck.”
Carson hurried back down the track while Val set off at a run, crossing the trail and keeping to cover as much as possible. He had to take some risks. Johnny would kill him if he let someone gun Scott down.
He refused to wonder why Johnny wasn’t there himself to watch his brother’s back.
Fortunately, all hostile eyes were on Scott’s position – no one was expecting a wild card to enter the picture. Val smiled grimly. That was something in his favour.
He reached the outcrop. Up close, he could see a narrow path snaking its way to the top and started up it. The track was steep but there were plenty of handholds and he made quick progress. He paused to get his breath a few feet below the rim.
The voice came from above. A voice that was weak and shaking, but one he recognized. Hope rose and was drowned by dread as a shot rang out.
Heart thumping, Val scrambled the rest of the way up, pulled himself over the rim, and snaked on his belly to the meagre cover of a small bush.
“It’s me, Scott. I’ve got this.”
Johnny again and this time for Val relief warred with concern. His friend’s voice was raw, laced with pain and exhaustion. It was the voice of a man at the end of his rope.
Val raised his head and spotted his friend. Johnny, one arm wrapped tightly around his waist and gun grasped in a trembling hand, limped to a downed form and dropped to his knees beside it.
Val stood cautiously and began to walk toward the men. He heard the murmur of voices, but the words were indistinct. It sounded like Starkin was still alive. He quickened his pace.
The voices stopped. Johnny was totally still for a moment, then raised his head and slowly rocked back onto his heels.
“Johnny?” Val called.
Johnny started and began to turn toward him, then swayed, fell forward and crashed to the ground.
“Johnny!” Val ran the final few yards. He quickly checked that Starkin posed no further threat before dropping to his knees beside the equally still figure of his friend. Reaching out an unsteady hand, he felt at Johnny’s neck for a pulse and blew out a long breath when he found it.
More guns shots sounded in the distance.
“Johnny, what’s going on? Are you all right?”
Scott’s voice. Val called, “It’s Val, Scott. Johnny’s down, but he’s alive. Starkin’s dead. I’m hoping those shots you heard were my men taking the others down.”
“I see them.” Scott’s voice held relief and a note of exhaustion. “Someone down there’s waving. I think we’re in the clear.”
A few moments later Val heard footsteps and looked up as Scott approached and crouched down beside him.
“Good to see you Val.” Scott smiled wanly. “The cavalry arrived just in time.”
Val looked down at Johnny and scowled at the blood staining his shirt. “Not so sure about that. What the hell happened to your brother, Scott?”
Scott dropped his head in an uncanny imitation of Johnny.
“Not now, Val.” The words were soft but full of anguish. “It’s a long story. I’ll fill you in later. Johnny needs help.”
While Val was anxious to hear Scott’s story, he nodded.
“Help me turn him over. Be careful, I think he has some broken ribs and his back…” Scott’s words trailed off.
Scott shook his head. “Whip,” he said shortly.
Val swore beneath his breath but didn’t ask any more questions. Between them, they gently turned Johnny onto his back. Val let out a string of curses as he took in the extent and nature of his friend’s injuries. Cuts and burns crisscrossed Johnny’s chest in a grotesque pattern that spoke volumes about their origin. A large purple bruise snaked around his side and dried blood matted his hair over his left ear.
Both men went for their guns as two figures appeared on the ridge.
Val holstered his gun as he recognized Carson and Harper. “It’s okay, Scott. They’re with me.”
Carson walked up to them, Harper at his heels, and nodded to Scott. “Sheriff Jack Carson. It’s good to see you, Son. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, but my brother’s badly hurt. He needs a doctor.”
Harper looked down at Johnny and frowned. “Shot?”
“No,” Scott said tightly. “But he has a head injury, cracked ribs, and I think his foot is broken. He was out in the sun for too long and…” he swallowed. “His back… he was whipped. I think the lacerations are infected, he’s running a fever.”
Carson nodded grimly. “I’ll send Henry Cannon back to his ranch for a wagon; your brother isn’t in any shape to ride.” He cocked his head at Starkin’s body. “That’s one of them?”
Scott nodded. “His name is – was – Bradley Starkin.”
“Johnny took him down,” Val added.
“What about the others?” Scott asked. His voice rose urgently. “I need to see Danforth. Where is he?”
“You shot one of them. The other three gave themselves up. Which one is Danforth?”
Scott shot to his feet. “That’s only four! There were five of them.”
Carson and Harper exchanged a surprised look. “We only saw four,” Carson said.
Scott’s expression turned thunderous. “Tell me you have Danforth. About six foot, light brown hair, gray eyes, moustache?”
Carson shook his head. “Sorry, that doesn’t describe any of them.”
“Damn it!” Scott spat. “He got away.”
Val noted the unaccustomed venom in Scott’s tone and realised that the usually controlled Easterner was on the edge. He’d never seen Scott so rattled.
“I’m going after him,” Scott said.
All eyes returned to Johnny who was conscious and struggling to sit up.
“Oh no, you don’t.” Scott sank back to his knees, gently restraining his brother who was white and shaking, his mouth drawn in a tight line of pain. “You stay right where you are.”
Johnny struggled for a moment more, then all the fight went out of him and he sank back. Val took off his jacket and folded it, carefully raising Johnny’s head to push it under. Carson handed Val a canteen. “Can’t leave you on your own for a day without you finding trouble,” Val said as he raised Johnny’s head a little and held the canteen to his lips.
Johnny swallowed and shot Val a grateful look. His eyes drifted to Scott, kneeling grim-faced beside him. “Val, don’t let Scott… go after Danforth.”
“It isn’t Val’s call,” Scott said tersely, before Val could reply. “I won’t let him get away. He’s going to pay for what he did to you.” Scott scrambled to his feet. “Look after Johnny, Val.” He strode away without a backward glance.
Johnny reached out and snagged Val’s arm in a weak grip. “Stop him, Val. He’s tired and he’s… too angry to… think clearly. He’ll get… himself killed!”
The effort of speaking left Johnny gasping for breath and his face contorted with pain.
Val squeezed his arm. “Easy, Johnny, take it easy. Leave your brother to me. He won’t be going anywhere.”
“Go talk to Scott, Val,” Harper said. “I’ll stay with Johnny.”
Reluctantly, Val exchanged places with Harper and strode over to where Scott was talking urgently to Carson.
“Scott, a word.”
Val caught Carson’s eye.
“I’ll go and see Henry about that wagon,” Carson said. He nodded to Scott and walked away.
Val turned to Scott, laying a hand on his arm. “I think it’s time you told me what happened.”
Scott shook the arm off. “There’s no time. I need to—”
Val hardened his tone. “The only thing you need to do is stop for a minute and talk to me. For your brother’s sake, Scott.”
Scott blew out a long breath and rubbed his hands over his eyes. “Sorry, Val. Guess I’m a bit tense.”
Val waited until the ghost of a smile touched Scott’s lips, then said quietly, “Tell me what happened to Johnny.”
Suddenly all energy seemed to seep out of Scott. His shoulders dropped and he swayed.
Val grabbed his arm and steered him to a flat rock. “Sit down, before you fall down.”
Scott sank onto the rock and sat for a moment, back bowed, elbows on his knees, head resting in his hands. Then he straightened and looked Val in the eye. “He was tortured.”
Val had guessed as much, but still he felt anger welling. “It was Starkin, wasn’t it? That bastard. He hated Johnny—”
“It wasn’t Starkin. Well, it was, he’s the one who… but he did it on Danforth’s orders.”
Val frowned. “Who the hell’s Danforth?”
“Henry Johnson, the horse breeder.”
“The Easterner? What did he have against Johnny?”
There was a long pause.
“Nothing.” Scott said quietly.
“Scott, you ain’t making any sense,” Val said irritably.
“This wasn’t about Johnny. It was about me.”
Val frowned. That didn’t make any sense either. If it was all about Scott, then why was Johnny the one lying there looking like he’d been mauled by a mountain lion while Scott was clearly exhausted, but unhurt?
“I suppose you want to know why Johnny was tortured and not me?”
Val studied Scott, noting eyes red rimmed from exhaustion holding a haunted expression.
He grunted. Explanations could wait. “It’s a good question, Scott, but you can tell me the whole story later. Don’t reckon you’d have stood by and watched them hurt your brother if you could’ve done anything to stop it.”
Scott looked down at his hands. Val chewed on his lip. There was something going on here that he didn’t understand, but now wasn’t the time to get down to the bones.
“Scott, your brother’s right about going after this Danforth.” Val raised his hand when Scott’s eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth to speak. “I know you can look after yourself and you want this man to pay for what he’s done. So do I. But your brother’s in bad shape and he doesn’t need to be worrying about you chasing off all over the country.”
Scott stood up, his mouth thinned into a stubborn line. “I have to find him.”
“And we will. Jack and I will take a few men and get after him. But your place is here.” He hesitated. “Don’t let your brother down now.”
“I’ve already let him down.”
The words were said with such bitterness that Val was taken aback. “Look, Scott,” he said awkwardly, feeling out of his depth. “Whatever you feel responsible for, you can’t make up for it by getting killed. That won’t help your brother. You need to go and be with him, let us take care of this.”
After a long moment, Scott nodded. “All right. Go quickly, Val, and be careful. Danforth’s dangerous – I think he’s lost his mind and there’s no telling what he might do. I’m afraid he’ll come after Johnny again.”
The partially drawn curtains shielded the small room from the last few rays of the late afternoon sun as it dipped behind the roof of the optimistically named ‘Majestic Hotel’.
Scott watched it idly as he shifted position in the small wooden chair beside Johnny’s bed. The chair had been comfortable enough when he first sat down in it four hours ago. Now it felt hard and cramped. He stretched his back, rolled stiff, aching shoulders and rubbed a fist over gritty eyes.
Staying awake was proving difficult, but he had resolved not to leave Johnny’s side while the fever raged dangerously high.
The events of the morning were something of a blur. After Val and Carson had headed out to search for Danforth, Johnny’s condition had deteriorated. He had lapsed into semi-consciousness and had remained that way ever since.
Two of the remaining members of the posse had helped Scott carry Johnny down the rock and lay him on a couple of bedrolls in the shade. One of them – Scott couldn’t remember his name – Jed, or Jeb – obviously knew Johnny. He had hovered anxiously until Scott irritably told him to go to the stream and fetch some water.
The posse had brought some supplies with them and with the help of Jed – no, it was definitely Jeb – Scott had cleaned Johnny up a little. Then he’d sat down beside his brother, mechanically wiping down burning skin with cool water and trying to rouse him enough to drink a little. Beyond that, there had been nothing he could do for his brother until the wagon arrived.
An hour later, he had spotted an unfamiliar rider approaching. Scott had reached for his gun, but relaxed when one of the men called out, “It’s okay. That’s Dr. Franklin.”
A slightly overweight middle-aged man had dismounted with some difficulty. “Damned arthritis,” he had said by way of greeting. “You’ll be Scott Lancer? I’m Dr. Will Franklin. By a stroke of luck I was at the Cannon Ranch when the news arrived – just delivered a baby to the foreman’s wife. Beautiful little girl.” His eyes twinkled. “There’s a wagon on its way, but from what I heard from Frank, I thought it wise to take a look at my patient as soon as possible. And I have to admit, I was curious when I heard that he’s a notorious gunfighter.”
Scott had stiffened. “Was a gunfighter. My brother is a rancher now.”
“Of course,” Franklin had said amiably. “I understand. No offense intended.”
Scott knew he’d overreacted to Franklin’s comment. In truth, he was hugely relieved to see the doctor. Over the past hour Johnny had seemed to get worse, tossing and turning restlessly.
“I’m sorry..” He grasped Fanklin’s outstretched hand. “I’m a little irritable. I’m glad to see you. Johnny’s in bad shape. I’ve been trying to keep him cool to get the fever down, but it doesn’t seem to be helping.”
“Let me take a look at him.” Franklin pulled a large black case out of his saddle bag.
Scott had watched anxiously as Franklin settled beside Johnny and began to examine his injuries. The doctor contemplated the cuts and burns with a frown that grew in intensity as he gently prodded the ugly bruise on Johnny’s side, eliciting a small moan of protest. He then carefully examined the head wound and the injured foot. When he looked up at Scott his genial expression had hardened. “Care to tell me what happened to him?”
“He was tortured,” Scott said shortly. “His back…” he stopped, unable to utter the words.
Franklin closely regarded him, and then nodded. “How long was he out in the sun?”
“All day. He… they…” The words stuck in Scott’s throat.
“It’s all right. You can give me the details later.” Franklin rested a hand on Scott’s arm for a moment and then withdrew it, turning his attention back to Johnny. “Scott, you help me turn him on his side? Easy does it, watch those ribs.”
Between them they had turned Johnny until his back was exposed. Franklin shook his head and clicked his teeth as he regarded the blood covered shirt, now firmly stuck to Johnny’s back with dry blood.
“We’ll have to soak this shirt to get it off. I’d like to see what I’m dealing with.”
Removing the shirt took forever. Johnny didn’t wake, but flinched at every move. Scott kept a hand on his arm, keeping up a soothing patter of reassurances. When the lacerations were exposed Scott felt sick. Johnny’s back looked like a raw lump of meat.
Franklin looked at his patient in silence for several minutes and when he lifted hisface to look at Scott, his eyes were flashing in anger. “Do you have the man who did this in custody?”
“He’s dead. Johnny shot him.”
“Johnny shot him?”
Scott gave Franklin a brief summary of the events on the lion rock.
Franklin looked up at the formation, and then turned incredulous eyes to Scott.
“Are you telling me your brother climbed that rock in this condition?”
Scott would have found it hard to believe himself, had this not been Johnny they were talking about – he was sure he himself would never have made the climb. “He must have seen Starkin climbing up and knew he’d have the drop on me.”
“That took a lot of guts. He would have been in a great deal of pain and risked making his injuries worse – he could have died if one of those broken ribs had pierced a lung.”
Scott swallowed past a sudden lump in his throat. “That’s my brother. He’ll do whatever it takes to protect the people he cares about. His own life… well, he seems to have different rules about that.”
Franklin looked thoughtful. “He sounds like an interesting young man.”
“You have no idea.”
“All right then,” Franklin said briskly, suddenly all business. “I can already see that several of these lacerations are deep and one or two are infected. That might be the cause of his fever, although I suspect exposure to the sun and dehydration are also contributing. Your brother is fortunate that he isn’t fair-skinned; there’s less burning and blistering than I’d have expected.”
“I hardly think ‘fortunate’ is an appropriate choice of words under the circumstances.” Scott snapped.
“Under the circumstances,” Franklin said dryly. “He could have been seriously burned, but I take your point. There is nothing fortunate about this situation.”
The bedroom door opened and Franklin stuck his head in, bringing Scott’s wandering mind abruptly back to the present. “Any change?”
Scott glanced at Johnny and said miserably, “About the same.”
“If he’s no worse, that’s good news right now.” Franklin said with a reassuring smile. “Scott, why don’t you take a break? I’ll sit with him for a while.”
Scott shook his head. He couldn’t shake the fear that Danforth was still out there somewhere and might come for Johnny again. He couldn’t let his brother out of his sight until Danforth was either in custody or dead. He wouldn’t fail Johnny again.
Franklin shot him a compassionate look. Scott managed a small smile in response. In the short time he’d known the doctor, he’d come to appreciate the man for his skill and compassion. Was it only a few hours since they’d met? It felt like days since they’d arrived back at Franklin’s home.
Earlier, when Carson’s man had returned to the ‘Den’ with the wagon, Franklin had supervised Scott and Jeb as they had carefully lifted Johnny and settled him onto a thick bed of straw. The doctor had insisted on riding in the back with his patient and Scott. On the journey he had kept up a constant stream of amusing anecdotes about some of the more colorful patients he’d treated during the years at his old practice in San Francisco. Under different circumstances Scott would have found him a warm and amusing companion, but he was unable to concentrate and later could recall very little of the conversation.
Back in town one of Henry Cannon’s hands had brought the wagon to a halt outside the doctor’s home, Franklin had been all business then, ordering them to carry his patient into the examination room. He then banned Scott from the room, a fierce glance halting Scott’s protest in his throat.
Scott had waited for two hours before the door finally opened and Franklin came out, wiping his hands on a cloth. And while the litany of injuries the doctor reeled off was no surprise, Scott still flinched inwardly at every one. He was responsible for all those injuries.
Burns. Cuts. Broken bones.
All down to him.
Then the doctor, expression grave, had informed him that while Johnny’s injuries were serious, it was the infection that could yet take his life.
Startled at the sharp tone, Scott realized that his mind had wandered again. He tried and failed to suppress a yawn. “Sorry.”
“Son, you have to get some sleep. You can use my bed. I’ll watch Johnny and I promise to call you if his condition changes.”
Scott shook his head. “No. I want to stay with him.”
Franklin took a seat on the other side of the bed.
“Son, I know you’re worried about your brother, but is there something else wrong?”
Everything was wrong, but Scott wasn’t ready to talk about it. He wasn’t sure he would ever be ready. To satisfy Franklin, he told him part of the truth. “I’m worried that Danforth will come for Johnny again. I want to be here in case that happens.”
He had previously told Franklin what had happened, keeping to the bare facts and moving quickly past the details of his mind games with Danforth. Now, Franklin shot him an appraising look.
“All right, son, I understand. Any time you want to talk, I’ll be here. I have a pallet I use when my nephew comes to stay. I’ll bring it in and you can rest a little.”
“Thank you,” Scott said stiffly. Part of him wanted to unburden himself on this kindly man, but another part of him balked at the idea.
“Is there anything else I can get you?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you.” Something occurred to Scott then, and he chastised himself for not remembering earlier. “There is one thing I need to do. Our father expected us home the day before yesterday. I need to send a telegram. He’ll be worried.”
“You two are close to your father?”
“Yes. Yes, we both are.”
He realized how easily the words came and how far from the truth they would have been just a couple of years ago.
Had someone told him then that he would eventually move to California to live with his estranged father, he would have laughed.
Before the war his future was laid out before him – he would go into business with his grandfather, become rich and eventually marry someone from a suitable family. He was intelligent, capable and confident that he would make a success of his life.
Then the war had come and changed everything, including the way he viewed himself and the society in which he lived. When he returned to Boston, he found his grandfather’s business no longer held any interest for him. He had drifted, frittered away a lot of money, begun and abandoned an embarrassingly large number of relationships. Yet even during that time, deep down he had accepted that eventually he would have to pull himself together and become the responsible member of society his grandfather longed for him to be.
The mysterious invitation to California had been opportune for a number of reasons, and he had to admit he’d been curious to meet the father who had abandoned him to his grandfather’s care – if only for the opportunity to tell him exactly what he thought of him.
Of course, events had overtaken him and he’d found himself staying on at Lancer, a circumstance that had definitely not been part of his plans. Settling into ranch life and learning new skills had been a challenge. Yet he had discovered that a completely fresh start was exactly what he needed.
The challenge of getting to know his father had been a far greater one. He’d discovered Murdoch Lancer to be a strong, honest and even compassionate man and while he found his father’s iron-fisted control a little hard to take at times, he’d come to respect and, indeed, to love him. And that, despite the fact that he still hadn’t confronted Murdoch about his reasons for leaving him in Boston.
Discovering that he had a half-brother had been a shock and they had started on the wrong foot. He’d been suspicious and a little contemptuous of this dark-haired stranger, the professional gunfighter with a reputation, a hot temper and a burning hatred for his father. Yet looking back, he felt that there had been some kind of connection from the start. Why else would be have felt a real sense of loss when he’d seen Johnny cut down with a bullet in the back?
Since then, the brothers had put some effort into their relationship and developed a genuine friendship and respect, despite their vastly different upbringing and experiences. He still knew very little about his brother’s past and Johnny continued to surprise him daily, but there was no doubt now that he didn’t lie to Danforth or to Johnny – he loved his brother.
And now that brother was lying in a bed, tossing restlessly and burning with fever, fighting an infection that threatened to take his life.
Scott looked up. “Sorry, my thoughts are all over the place.”
“Understandably,” Franklin said. “I’ll be happy to go to the telegraph office for you, if you tell me what you want to say.”
Scott was flummoxed. What could he possibly say? Sorry Murdoch, but I did my best to get my brother killed, and it’s still possible he won’t make it. Regards, Scott.
In the end, he chose to tell the bare bones of the story and ignored Franklin’s raised eyebrow at the sparsity of detail.
Franklin left the house and Scott resumed his vigil at his brother’s side.
Dusk had long since turned to night by the time Val and Carson arrived back at Oak Ridge. The sky was clear, displaying a full moon cradled in a canopy of stars.
The two men rode slowly down the main street, deserted but for a couple of men dismounting outside the hotel. As they passed the sounds of laughter and music drifted from the saloon.
Val didn’t feel like laughing. He was tired, dusty and hungry, but his physical discomfort paled before the persistent gnawing worry that had settled as a heavy lump in his stomach.
He followed Carson as the sheriff turned down a side street. It brought them to a row of three houses sat back from the road, parallel to the main street. Carson reined in beside the third in the row, an imposing, well-kept single-storey building.
“This is the Doc’s place,” Carson said.
“You comin’ in with me?”
“Sure. I’d like to check on Johnny, and I reckon you may need some backup when you talk to his brother.”
Val grunted. “I can handle Scott Lancer.”
At least, he thought he could. The Scott Lancer he knew was rational and controlled – too much so at times, in Val’s opinion. The Scott he’d seen back there on that rock had been a stranger, jumpy as hell and thinking irrationally. Val had a bad feeling about the way that Scott would react to their news.
They dismounted. Val stretched his back, feeling the muscles groan in protest at the long hours in the saddle. He opened one of his saddlebags and pulled out the items they’d found at the cabin –- two gun belts with the guns holstered and a pair of boots.
He and Carson had followed tracks north for a few miles before losing them on rocky ground. After some discussion, they had headed for the cabin, following Scott’s directions. They had agreed that it was possible that Johnson – Danforth – had returned there and they might be lucky enough to pick up his tracks again.
The place had been deserted, though it showed signs of recent occupation.
They had explored in silence, and what they found helped fill out their still hazy picture of what had happened there.
In the cabin, in addition to the guns and belts, they found pieces of cut rope on the floor beside a bed.
Outside on the verandah a pack of cards lay on the table and a whip, its strands sticky with blood, was propped against the wall.
Carson had commented on the cards, wondering what kind of men could have sat there calmly playing a game of chance.
Ruthless, cold-hearted men like Brad Starkin was Val’s unspoken answer.
Val had picked up the whip and turned it in his hands. The coppery smell that rose from it turned his stomach. The blood had to be Johnny’s. He put it down quickly and turned to the wooden frame outside the cabin. He stood for long moments looking up at it, eyes fixed on the dark red stains on the horizontal beam of the frame and on the ground beneath it.
He imagined Johnny strung up there, wrists rubbed raw by the rope tying his arms above his head, enduring hour after hour in direct line of the blazing sun. He imagined Johnny trying to remain strong, to hide his pain and fear from his tormentors, knowing that the chance of rescue was slim.
He remembered Johnny as he had last seen him, his body broken and bloody from the long hours of torture.
A rage had risen in him so great that he’d wanted to scream and break necks with his bare hands. He’d had to content himself with throwing the whip against the side of the cabin with all the force he could muster. And at that moment he understood a little of Scott’s frustration and self-recrimination. He must have been forced to sit there, unharmed, and watch his brother suffer.
They’d searched the area and found the body of a Mexican, his naked chest crusted with blood from a fatal chest wound. He was propped against a tree, loosely bound in place with rope. Val had remembered Johnny’s hands, clumsily wrapped with bloodstained cloth. It didn’t take a genius to work out what had happened here. Somehow Johnny had freed himself and overpowered the well-built Mexican. Val couldn’t help smiling. That was Johnny – he’d fight until the bitter end.
In some bushes nearby, he’d found Johnny’s boots.
Now, standing outside the doctor’s house, Val stared at those boots. He remembered Johnny buying them six months before, joking that they’d cost more than he’d once earned in a year. In a way, those boots represented everything that had changed for the ex-gunfighter since he’d decided to stay on at Lancer. Johnny had only said to Val a couple of days ago that these were the best boots he had ever owned and he’d just worn them in to be real comfortable. For a fleeting moment, Val wondered if Johnny would ever wear them again. His breath caught in his throat and he shoved the thought away.
Val followed Carson through the white-painted wooden gate and along a short path to the brightly painted front door. “This doctor, is he good?” he asked.
“He’s the best. Had a practice in San Francisco for years, apparently he was very well thought of there.”
“So what’s he doing in a small town like this?”
“He was born here. Went to college, trained to be a doctor and set up in the city. But he says he always missed this country and when his wife died five years back, he decided to move back and start a practice here. Best thing that ever happened to this town. Johnny’s in good hands, Val.”
Val wished to hell that Johnny didn’t need to be in anyone’s hands at all.
He quickened his pace, desperate now to hear how his friend was doing.
Carson rapped on the door.
A moment later, a voice called, “Who is it?”
“Jack Carson. Sheriff Crawford’s here with me.”
He heard a grinding sound then the click of a key turning. The door opened to reveal a pleasant-faced middle-aged man who smiled and gestured for them to enter.
“Sorry, the bolt was a little stiff. Excuse the security. Scott is a little on edge.”
Carson nodded. “Reckon he has a right to be.”
“Please, come in. I’m Will Franklin.” Franklin held out a hand to Val. “Nice to meet you, Sheriff Crawford.”
Val took the hand. Franklin had a firm handshake, which for some reason Val found reassuring. “Call me Val.”
He and Carson followed the doctor through a narrow hallway and into a room on the left. It was a parlor, spotlessly clean and filled with fancy furniture. Val figured it must have come from Franklin’s house in San Francisco.
“Take a seat. You both look like you need some rest and a strong drink.”
“Won’t disagree with that.” Carson removed his hat and sank down into one of the armchairs.
Val draped the gun belts over the seat of an upright chair and set Johnny’s boots down beside it. He belatedly snatched his hat off his head, but remained standing. “How’s Johnny doing, Doc?”
Franklin’s amiable expression turned serious. “None of his injuries are life-threatening by themselves, but some of those lacerations are infected and he has a high fever. He’s holding his own, but I won’t lie to you, I’m concerned. He’s exhausted and by rights, his body should be too weak to fight off infection. However, he seems to be a strong young man. Time will tell.” He paused. “Do you know Johnny and Scott well?”
“Johnny and me go back a long ways. Scott, I just met a year ago.”
The conversation was interrupted as the door flew open and Scott walked into the room. Val was alarmed by his appearance. Scott was always well-dressed, his clothes cleaned and pressed. It always amused Val that he paid so much attention to his appearance. Now, his shirt was rumpled and his hair sticking up at all angles. His face was haggard and his eyes haunted.
“Did you find him?” he demanded.
Val sucked in a breath and exchanged a glance with Carson. There was no sweet way to say this and anyway, he preferred straight talking. He knew that Scott did too. They had that in common, at least.
“I’m sorry, Scott. We tracked him for a few miles, then we lost the trail.”
Scott’s expression darkened and he took a few steps toward Val. “What the hell, Val? He was right there! He couldn’t have had much more than half an hour’s head start. I thought you were good at your job. Seems I’m wrong. Damn it! I should have gone myself.”
Carson surged to his feet. “Now look here—”
Val put a restraining hand on his arm. “It’s all right, Jack. You can’t blame Scott for being angry; damn it, I’m angry too. Scott, we checked all around the cabin. No sign he’d been there, but we found your rigs and a dead man.”
“Mateo. Starkin’s right-hand man. I didn’t see what happened, but Johnny implied that there had been a fight and he’d won.”
Carson nodded. “Figured something like that.”
“It was self-defense,” Scott said, his eyes challenging Carson to say differently.
“I don’t doubt it. I’ll want to hear Johnny’s version of the story, but from what I’ve heard so far, there’ll be no questions.”
Scott relaxed a little, but was clearly still strung tighter than a bow. “What are you going to do about Danforth?”
Carson scratched an ear. “Scott, we searched the area trying to pick up his trail, but it was like he’d disappeared into thin air. He could be on his way to Mexico by now.”
“No.” Scott shook his head vigorously. “He’s… his mind has gone. He thinks if he can make me suffer enough by… by hurting Johnny, then he’ll find peace. He needs to finish this. He won’t run until Johnny’s dead. Trust me on this.”
“All right,” Carson said after a moment’s silence. “Val, I’ll take some men out again tomorrow, see if we can figure where he’s holed up. You stay in town. If Scott’s right and Danforth isn’t thinking rationally, he may just be stupid enough to make a play.”
Val nodded. “If he does, we’ll be ready for him.” He picked up one of the gun belts and held it out to Scott. “You might be needing this.”
Scott took the belt and without a word buckled it around his waist. He pulled his gun out of the holster and checked that it was fully loaded.
“I’ll need you to give me a full account of what happened, Scott, but it can wait for now,” Carson said. “You look like you need some sleep.”
Scott gave a short nod, his lips thinned in a grim line.
Carson looked at him for a moment, then turned to Val. “I’ll check in with you before we leave in the morning.”
“Sure. Thanks for everything, Jack.”
Carson replaced his hat. “I’ll see myself out.”
Carson left behind an uncomfortable silence, broken finally by Scott. “I’d better get back to Johnny. He was restless when I left. I think the fever’s getting worse.”
“I’d like to see him,” Val said.
“Of course.” Franklin smiled. “He’s in the room just across the hall. Scott will show you.”
Val picked up Johnny’s gun belt and boots. He had just turned to follow Scott when a scream sent all three of them running for the door.
Val entered the room on the doctor’s heels.
When he saw his friend, his stomach lurched.
Johnny was lying on the bed, a sheet tangled around his legs. He wore cut off long johns and an array of bandages circled his torso. He tossed and turned, reaching out to fend off some invisible foe, his eyes wild and unfocused. Words spilled from his mouth in rapid-fire Spanish.
“Quickly, hold him down!” Franklin instructed. “He’ll hurt himself if he carries on like this.”
Val dropped the gun belt and boots on a chair. He and Scott positioned themselves at either side of the bed. They each took hold of a shoulder, pinning down the writhing body. Johnny’s response was to fight harder and Val gritted his teeth as a knee caught him a solid blow to the gut. He changed position, pinning Johnny’s legs as Scott tried to get through to the frantic man. There was no recognition in Johnny’s eyes and he didn’t seem to hear or understand Scott’s soothing words.
Franklin reached around Scott and placed a hand on Johnny’s forehead. “Far too hot,” he muttered. “But first things first. Keep hold of him. I don’t want him breaking his stitches. I’ll give him another dose of laudanum. It should calm him down.”
Franklin hurried out of the room. Johnny continued to rave and fight against Val and Scott’s restraining hands. Val gritted his teeth. He hated seeing the uncharacteristic terror in his friend’s eyes.
After a moment, Johnny quieted down a little, probably exhausted by his efforts to escape.
Across the bed, Scott caught Val’s eye. “What was he saying? Was it something about his mother?”
Val hesitated. He’d heard similar words before when Johnny had been caught in a nightmare. He knew exactly what Johnny was reliving in his fevered dreams, because his friend had gotten drunk and told Val the whole story on the day he’d called out and killed Ramirez. The problem was, Val was willing to bet his shirt that Johnny hadn’t told Scott. Sober, Johnny was real tight-lipped about his childhood, even with those closest to him.
Val cleared his throat. “Scott, it’s his business and I’m not sure he’d be any too happy if I told you.”
“Please, Val. I need to know.”
The look of desperation in Scott’s eyes decided Val. He just hoped Johnny would understand. “All right. He was saying, over and over, ‘I’m sorry! I’ll be more careful. Please, don’t burn me. Mama, stop him, please, Mama.”’
Scott bit his lip. “I think he had the same nightmare this morning. It’s about something that happened to him when he was a child, isn’t it?”
“Scott, it ain’t my place to tell you about it.”
Scott glared at him. Val was almost relieved when Johnny began muttering again, this time in English, and Scott turned his full attention back to his brother. Johnny’s agitation grew and he began to thrash wildly, almost throwing off Scott and Val’s restraining hands. “No! Scott, please, don’t let him burn me, please Scott…”
Scott looked stricken. Val thought back to the burns he’d seen on Johnny’s body. But he had no time to pursue the connection between Scott’s reaction and Johnny’s words, as Franklin appeared beside him, holding a cup in his hand.
“Keep a good hold on him.” Despite resistance from his patient, Franklin succeeded in pouring most of the liquid down Johnny’s throat. Within a few minutes, the potent drug began to work and Johnny’s struggles lost momentum. He fell limply back against the pillow and his breathing evened out.
Franklin wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “He should rest comfortably for a while.”
Val breathed out a long breath and stood back. Scott did the same. He held Val’s eyes. “That was my fault,” he whispered. “I… I didn’t know. If he’d told me, if I’d known, I’d never have chosen…” His already pale complexion turned green and he bolted for the door.
Val and Franklin exchanged a glance across Johnny’s now still body.
“Never have chosen what?” Val asked.
Franklin shrugged. “I’ve no idea, but I’d like to know exactly what happened at that cabin.”
“Me too. Far as I can figure, Johnson—Danforth—had some big grudge against Scott. He had Johnny tortured and made Scott watch.”
“That’s what Scott told me and I understand why he’s feeling some responsibility for that, but I think something more is going on here.” Franklin reflected.
Val grunted. “Guess he’ll talk when he’s ready.”
“I hope so. The boy needs to let it out. It’s eating him up inside.”
“I guess so.” Truth be told, Val was more worried about Johnny’s health than Scott’s inner demons.
Val picked up the boots from the chair and set them down beside a wooden chest, then draped the gun belt over the bedpost, angled so that Johnny could see it and reach his gun easily.
“Heavens, man, this is a sick room. Is that really necessary?”
“It is for him.”
Franklin raised an eyebrow.
“Johnny was a gunfighter once.”
“So I was told, but I understand he’s a rancher now.”
“Sure, he is. But old habits die hard and a man with a reputation like his can’t afford to let his guard down, not ever.”
“He was that good?”
“Fastest I’ve ever seen.”
Franklin looked thoughtfully down at Johnny. “And yet he turns to ranching. What changed?”
Val hesitated, unsure how much to tell a man who was a virtual stranger. But Johnny’s life was in this doctor’s hands and that made a big difference in Val’s book. “Johnny wasn’t like some of the others. He didn’t kill just because he could. Two years ago, he came home, to Lancer. Found himself a family.”
Franklin was silent for a moment. “Hard to understand why a man would choose killing as a profession.”
Val frowned. “Johnny did what he did to survive. There weren’t many choices for an orphaned half-breed in the border towns.”
He was unwilling to say any more. Franklin must have sensed that the subject was closed for he asked no more questions.
Suddenly aware of how weary he was, Val sank down in a chair and ran his hands through his already disheveled hair. He looked at Johnny. Usually the man was never still, but now he lay quiet and pale, like a dead man. Val shuddered. “Level with me, Doc. Is he gonna be okay?”
Franklin took a seat at the other side of the bed. “The boy’s been through a terrible ordeal, Val, but he’s young and he seems strong. If the fever breaks by morning, he has a good chance of pulling through.”
“That’s all he needs – a chance. I’ve seen him like this once before, back when we first met. He saved my life and took a bullet for his pains. Took a while to get a doctor to him and by then the wound had festered real bad.”
Val paused, remembering those few desperate days. He had met Johnny in a backwater saloon just a week before. Johnny was no more than a kid back then, but a kid with a man’s wisdom and experience born from growing up too fast and learning to survive on the street.
“Johnny, he… well, he’d had it rough for a long time and truth is, he didn’t have much to look forward to. But even so, he weren’t gonna go without a fight. He’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide. And now, well, I reckon he really does have something to live for.”
“Yes, he does,” said a voice behind him. Val turned. Scott stood in the doorway, a watery smile plastered over his face. “And we’re going to make sure he gets that chance.”
Seated once more in the chair beside Johnny’s bed, Scott struggled to keep heavy eyes open.
The previous eight hours had been a continual, exhausting battle against the rising fever. Val had stayed to help and the two men, along with the doctor, had taken turns sitting with the Johnny, bathing his fever-hot body with cool water that warmed as soon as it touched his burning skin.
The laudanum had done its job and thankfully the fever-fuelled delirium had not returned, although in some ways, Scott felt the unnatural stillness was worse. Johnny was never still. At the dinner table he would play with his napkin or move the salt and pepper pots around. He habitually prowled the Great Room, picking up random items only to set them down again a moment later. To see him lying so still and silent tore at Scott’s heart.
Finally, just before dawn, the fever had broken. Within an hour Johnny’s skin felt appreciably cooler to the touch and Franklin declared that the crisis had passed. Val returned to his hotel room to get some sleep and Franklin encouraged Scott to get some rest on the pallet he had brought into Johnny’s room.
But Scott was afraid that if he took his eyes off his brother for even a moment, something terrible would happen. The fear was totally irrational, he knew that, but nevertheless it wrapped its fingers tightly around his heart and squeezed until the very thought of sleeping caused his mouth to dry and his heart to race.
So here he sat, beyond exhaustion, watching his brother sleep; alone with his thoughts.
He replayed the events of the past two days over and over in his mind, and they had brought home one indisputable fact.
He had failed his brother.
Not so long ago he’d made himself a promise to be the big brother Johnny had so desperately needed as a child – and still needed as a grown man. He had said nothing to Johnny. While he had total confidence in his brother’s ability to look after himself, Scott knew the implication that Johnny needed someone to protect him would not go down well. Nevertheless, Scott had determined to always be there for his brother, to watch his back and to protect him whether he wanted protecting or not.
The fact that he had failed so dramatically to fulfil his promise sat heavy in his gut like a lump of cold rock.
He had understood what Danforth was trying to achieve – not only did he want Scott to suffer emotionally as he witnessed his brother’s physical suffering and ultimate death, he also wanted Scott to feel responsible for it.
And even though Scott was aware of what was happening, Danforth had succeeded.
Scott had tried hard to keep his emotions in check, but it proved impossible to keep calm in the face of Danforth’s smug satisfaction or to hide his anguish as Johnny grew weaker and less able to put on a brave face as the torture continued.
The mental turmoil had caused Scott to lose concentration and allowed Danforth to win too many games. He couldn’t clear his mind of all the times he’d had to choose a punishment for his brother: Fire or steel. Fist or boot. The choices kept coming. And as he’d watched Johnny brace himself time and again to endure the latest torment, the guilt had cut through Scott’s heart like a knife through butter.
He’d been shaken to his boots when he understood the implication of the words Johnny cried out in his delirium. He’d chosen fire hoping that burns from the cigar would be the lesser of two evils. He’d seen Johnny’s reaction; before the Madrid mask clamped down, his brother’s eyes had betrayed genuine fear. It had puzzled Scott a little at the time.
Now he knew why.
Anger flooded him once more, at Danforth and Starkin and at himself for his error in judgment. There was even enough anger left over to direct at Johnny. Had his brother been more open about his past, Scott would have known that the cigar was the worst possible weapon of pain he could have chosen.
He took a deep breath. It was futile to keep going over this. He had enough evidence of his guilt. Instead, he turned his thoughts to his brother, marvelling as he had many times over the past few months, at the strength of his feelings for a man – a brother – he didn’t know existed two years ago.
Back in Boston, Scott would not have considered Johnny Madrid Lancer a desirable friend, never mind brother, not because of his Mexican heritage – Scott had, after all, fought a war against racial prejudice – but because the two men would have had nothing in common.
Everything changed when he came west.
He’d always seen his life stretching ahead of him in a predictable fashion, until the war had disrupted the natural flow of events. His experiences in the army, and particularly as a prisoner of war, had changed him irrevocably. On his return he’d been restless and without direction. Yet even then, he’d assumed that he would eventually settle back into Boston society and no doubt make a mark for himself in his grandfather’s company.
The curious offer of $1,000 to travel to California had come at a time when leaving Boston seemed desirable, for a number of reasons. He had been curious to meet the father who had abandoned him. Staying on at Lancer had not been part of the plan, yet he’d found himself drawn to the wide-open ranges and the vastly different way of life that ranching offered. He’d relished the challenge of learning and practicing new skills and, while he knew he still had a lot to learn, he felt he was now well on his way to becoming a bona fide rancher.
The challenge of getting to know his father and brother far surpassed that of grasping the basics of the unfamiliar work. Initially suspicious of his father, after a short time he had reluctantly concluded that Murdoch Lancer was a strong, honest and even compassionate man. He’d come to respect him, even if he found the man’s iron-fisted control a little hard to take at times. And while they still hadn’t met the issue of his abandonment head on, Scott was now inclined to believe that Murdoch’s reasons were more complicated than he had imagined.
Then there was Johnny. Scott had been dismayed to discover that the scruffy, ill mannered stranger he’d met on the stage was his half-brother and they’d started off on the wrong foot. He’d been suspicious and a little contemptuous of this professional gunfighter with a reputation. Yet even then he’d experienced a moment of disappointment when it seemed that his suspicions were justified and he felt genuine loss when Johnny had been cut down by a bullet in the back.
Since then, the two men had developed a real friendship and respect, despite their vastly different upbringing and experiences. And while they had their differences, they also had a lot in common – not least the mutual challenge of learning the ropes of a large ranch, and coming to terms with a father who was a very different man to the one they’d imagined.
Yet it was still surprising, Scott mused, how deep his feelings ran. He wasn’t a person who made true friends easily. Oh, he had all the social graces a man of means could need, and he wasn’t ashamed of the fact that he’d been one of the more sought-after eligible bachelors in Boston. But he chose his close friends very carefully.
Maybe it was the Lancer blood that ran through their veins. There was still so much he didn’t know about his brother’s past and Johnny continued to surprise him daily, but he hadn’t been lying to Danforth or to Johnny – he had come to love his brother. The moment that this realization hit him had been the moment he’d made the vow to always be there for Johnny.
Now, he’d not only failed to keep that promise, he’d actually been the cause of his brother’s suffering.
How could Johnny ever forgive him or trust him again?
His thoughts were disturbed when the door opened quietly. Scott was surprised to see the doctor back so soon.
“Your two hours are up, Scott. You promised me that you’d let me relieve you while you get some rest. You can trust me to keep an eye on Johnny, and I’ll wake you if there’s any change.”
Scott was sure he wouldn’t be able to sleep, but his body craved rest. Reluctantly he relinquished his chair to the doctor, lay down on the pallet and closed his eyes.
The gentle buzz of low voices penetrated Scott’s consciousness. He forced open bleary eyes. His head ached, his mind was fuzzy and his mouth was dry and tasted of days-old socks.
He glanced automatically across the room. Franklin still sat on the chair beside the bed and to Scott’s delight, Johnny was awake, propped up against the pillows and apparently carrying on a lucid conversation with the doctor.
Franklin looked across and smiled. “Good morning, Scott. As you can see, Johnny’s doing much better. I’ve been filling him in on what he’s missed. It appears his main concern was to find out what had happened to his horse.”
“That figures.” Scott stood up stiffly, walked across and perched on the edge of the bed. “You owe the stable boy a small fortune in compensation, Brother. Barranca’s taken several chunks out of him already.”
Johnny’s lips twitched. “You just need to know how to handle him.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “So, how are you feeling?”
Johnny gave him a half-smile. “Honestly, I feel like I’ve gone a few rounds with a grizzly. But I’ll live.” He gave Scott a pointed look. “You look like Hell.”
“Tried taking a look at yourself in the mirror yet?” Scott said lightly.
Johnny raised a hand and touched his face. “Not quite as handsome as usual?”
“You’ve looked better.” Truth be told, Johnny looked worse now than he had yesterday. The bruises on his face had turned an interesting mix of purple and yellow, one eye was still swollen shut and his lower lip puffed up to twice its size. The small amount of skin that wasn’t swathed in bandages was scattered with bruises.
“But don’t worry,” Scott added, determined to keep the conversation light, “You’ll have the girls flocking to look after you.”
Franklin smiled and stood up. “I have some patients to attend to, so I’ll leave you two to talk. Don’t tire him out, Scott. Your brother needs rest more than anything right now.”
Scott almost laughed at Johnny’s disgruntled grimace. “He’s right, Johnny,” he said when Franklin had left the room. “Last night… let’s just say you scared five years off my life.”
Johnny shifted a little with a sharp intake of breath he didn’t quite manage to hide. “Thought you had a few more gray hairs than usual.”
“I don’t have any gray hairs.”
Johnny’s chuckle ended in a wince. “Keep telling yourself that.” He closed his eyes and was silent for so long that Scott wondered if he’d dozed off. He was about to get up and leave when Johnny opened his eyes again. “So, Danforth got away?”
“Yes. I should have gone after him myself.”
“No, you shouldn’t. Val knows what he’s doing.”
“Yet Danforth’s still out there. The sheriff’s going after him again this morning. Now you’re feeling better, I plan to go with him.”
Johnny looked at him quizzically. “It’s mid-morning, Scott. Doc said sheriff Carson left a couple of hours ago.”
“Damn it!” For the first time, Scott noticed the sun streaming in through the window. He’d slept for over three hours. Frustrated, he stood and began to pace. “He should have waited. Danforth is my problem! It’s up to me to finish it.”
“It isn’t just down to you, Scott,” Johnny said quietly. “If the sheriff doesn’t bring him in, we’ll go after him together.”
“What, you think I can’t handle it? You don’t have much faith in me, do you?” Scott said bitterly.
Johnny frowned. “It ain’t a matter of faith, Scott. Just makes sense.”
“You don’t understand. What they did to you – it’s my fault.”
Johnny sighed. “No, Scott, it isn’t. Danforth’s out of his head, you know that.”
Scott ignored him. “I got you into this. I should have found a way to get you out, but you had to do that yourself.”
With a grimace of pain, Johnny pulled himself upright and leaned forward, locking eyes with Scott. “Scott, you got me down that mountain, you held them off—”
“And even then you had to save me from Starkin.”
“I’m sorry, Brother. I didn’t know it was a competition. You think I should’ve waited around, hoping my big brother would come up with a plan?”
Scott knew he was being ridiculous, but he couldn’t help how he felt. “No, of course not! It’s just…”
“It was your responsibility, I get it. And here I was thinking we made a good team. My mistake.”
As the brothers glared at each other, Scott realized two things. Firstly, they had both been shouting. Secondly, Johnny had gone white, his brow was furrowed and one hand curled around the blanket in a tight fist. His breath was coming quickly and Scott’s anger evaporated and turned to concern.
“Johnny, are you all right?”
The words were swallowed in a gasp and Scott had taken two strides toward the bed when the door banged open and Franklin charged in. “What’s going on here? Johnny, you lie back down right now!”
The doctor hurried over to Johnny and helped him ease back down onto his back. “Breathe, Johnny, slowly now. That’s it.”
Scott stood watching, kicking himself for his thoughtless behaviour. Only a few hours ago Johnny was hovering between life and death. Now that he was beginning to recover, the first thing Scott did was pick a fight with him. What the hell’s the matter with me? He wondered.
Franklin took a few moments longer settling his patient, then turned and appraised Scott. “Scott, I don’t know what just happened here, but you need to go and cool off,” he said sternly. “Your brother’s too weak to cope with this sort of nonsense.”
Scott bit his lip. “Johnny, I’m sorry, I…” He trailed off, unsure how to put into words the emotions he was feeling.
Johnny’s eyes were closed, but he said softly, “Go check on Barranca for me, would you? And watch your fingers.”
It was Johnny’s way of accepting his apology and Scott was grateful.
He needed to pull himself together. Suddenly the room seemed small and claustrophobic; he needed some fresh air. He nodded to Franklin, turned and walked away.
As Murdoch rode through the Lancer arch, his heart swelled with pride. The sight of his name carved into the stone in bold letters never ceased to move him, even after so many years. Was it unreasonable to take satisfaction in his achievements? After all, it had taken almost thirty years of solid, hard work to build the spread to the size it was today.
Now, of course, he had even more reason to feel proud. Not only had he built up a prosperous and still growing ranch, but he now had two sons to share it with. In addition, thanks to Johnny’s persistence, they had a fledgling horse breeding business too.
Murdoch had initially been skeptical when Johnny came to him with his idea to diversify into horse breeding. But to give Johnny his due, he’d put forward a sound financial case. Murdoch had reluctantly agreed to give it a try, starting small. Now, he was almost as enthusiastic as his son about the future of the venture, and proud of Johnny for the hard work he’d put in. He hoped Johnson’s horse was everything the Easterner had made it out to be. If so, they would be adding a quality animal to the mix.
The hacienda came into view and Murdoch urged his horse into a faster walk. He was eager to see his family. He’d been called away unexpectedly to deal with some complicated contractual issues with another member of the Cattlemens’ Association. Scott and Johnny hadn’t returned by the time he left, but Murdoch wasn’t unduly worried. There were many reasons why they might have been delayed. However, they were sure to be home now and he was looking forward to hearing about their trip. He smiled as he imagined the jokes and lively teasing that would undoubtedly accompany the telling of the story.
As he drew closer, he heard raised voices and saw a wagon outside the main door to the hacienda. Teresa was sitting in the driver’s seat, while Jelly stood beside her, waving his arms agitatedly.
They both turned at the sound of hooves. Jelly bustled up as Murdoch reined in his horse and dismounted. “About time! I’m happier to see you than a rainstorm in the desert. You gotta talk some sense into this girl.”
Teresa jumped down from the wagon seat and flung herself into a startled Murdoch’s arms. “Oh, Murdoch, I’m so glad to see you! I didn’t know what to do. There was no sense sending for you last night, but we expected you home earlier and I was afraid you’d been held up and I couldn’t wait any longer!”
This nearly hysterical outburst was so unlike Teresa that it filled Murdoch with apprehension. Had something happened to his boys? He held Teresa tightly for one impatient moment, then pushed her back and placed his hands firmly on her shoulders. “Teresa, child, you have to calm down. Tell me what’s happened.”
Teresa’s lower lip quivered and Jelly was left to explain. “It’s Johnny. That boy’s in trouble again. Scott sent a telegram yesterday, though why he bothered I’ll never know for all the good it does us.”
Murdoch fought back his impatience. “Jelly, what’s happened?”
“Johnny’s been hurt,” Teresa said.
Murdoch fought a rising panic. “Johnny’s hurt? How badly?”
Teresa pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of the pocket of her skirt. “It doesn’t say. Here, read it for yourself.”
Murdoch took the paper and smoothed it out. It read: “Delayed in Oak Ridge. Johnson not who he claimed to be. Johnny injured. Will keep you informed.”
Murdoch frowned as he re-read the brief message. “Will keep you informed?” Scott sounded as if he was imparting information about a business transaction rather than passing on worrying news about his brother. And the brevity of the telegram was frustrating. How badly was Johnny hurt? And what was all that about Johnson?
He crushed the note in his fist. “When did this arrive?”
“Billy Watkins brought it out last night. Said Bart knew we’d want to see it right away.” Teresa wiped away a tear. “Why doesn’t Scott say what happened? Johnny might have been shot, he could be badly hurt. And what did he mean about Johnson?”
These were very good questions that required urgent answers, yet Murdoch patted Teresa’s arm reassuringly. “I’m sure Scott would have told us if Johnny was seriously hurt.”
Teresa pulled away. “Maybe, but I need to know that for myself.”
Murdoch studied his ward carefully. She was calmer now, but her eyes were red-rimmed from crying and her chin was thrust forward in the determined fashion he’d learnt not to ignore. Teresa could be as stubborn as any true blood Lancer when she wanted.
He knew that Teresa cared as deeply for both Scott and Johnny as if they were her own flesh and blood, and Murdoch knew they were both very fond of her. He himself had long thought of her as a daughter. But if this current demonstration of concern proved what he had suspected for some time – that Teresa’s regard for his younger son amounted to something more than sisterly love – well, that was a concern for another day.
“Teresa, I understand that you’re worried and I agree that we need more information. I’ll ride on into Green River and see if there’s been further word from Scott. If not, I’ll head for Oak Ridge first thing in the morning.”
“I’d like to come with you.”
“I know you would, darling, but I think it’s best that you stay here. I’ll send word as soon as I can, I promise.”
Teresa set her jaw and Murdoch braced himself for an argument. Then she sighed and nodded. “You’ll make better time without me.”
Murdoch put his arm around her. “Johnny will be fine, Teresa, you’ll see. It takes a lot to bring that boy down.” As he spoke the words, he willed himself to believe them. “Jelly, would you saddle me a fresh horse while I get something to eat?”
Jelly bustled off with Murdoch’s horse while the patriarch led his ward into the hacienda.
Murdoch dismounted in front of the telegraph office at Green River and looped his horse’s reins over the hitching rail.
Murdoch looked up as Jim Bailey, Val’s deputy, loped up. “Jim.”
“Mr. Lancer. I thought it was you.”
“Is Val back yet?”
Jim shook his head. “Not yet. I’ve just come over to check if he’s sent word.”
“I received a troubling telegram from Scott yesterday. He said that Johnny’s injured. That may be why Val hasn’t returned.”
Jim shot him a concerned look as they walked into the telegraph office together. Bart Watkins looked up from the desk behind the glass window. “Just the two fellows I need to see. I just had through a telegram for each of you, from Sheriff Crawford.”
Murdoch took the paper from Bart’s hand, nodding his thanks. The message read, “Johnny’s out of danger, but come if you can. Your boys need you.”
He frowned. It wasn’t the type of message he’d expect to receive from the gruff sheriff and it increased tenfold the worry already gnawing away at his gut. While Val clearly intended his message to be reassuring, his words also implied that Johnny had been more seriously hurt than Scott’s telegram had suggested. And if Johnny was out of danger, why did Val think it was necessary for Murdoch to go to Oak Ridge? If his boys needed him it had to be bad. They were both too independent for their own good and would never admit to needing their father.
He turned to Jim. “What does yours say?”
“Delayed in Oak Ridge,” Jim read out. “Hope to return in a couple of days. Send word if you need me.”
Well, that doesn’t throw any more light on the situation.
He turned to Bart. “Bart, I know Billy rode out to the ranch last night, and I don’t like to ask, but I wonder if he could ride out again and give Teresa Val’s telegram. He should tell her that I’m staying in town tonight and will set off for Oak Ridge at first light.”
Bart nodded. “Of course, Murdoch. I hope your boy’s all right.”
Murdoch exchanged a few more words with Jim Bailey and then excused himself and headed for the hotel. He needed some time alone with his thoughts. His mind was churning with the implications of Scott’s curt statement, “Johnson not who he claimed to be.” Did it mean that he was an imposter pretending to be Johnson, or that Johnson himself was a fraud? A chill ran through him. He recalled his evening with Johnson, and the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. He’d ignored the feeling, thinking that Johnny’s habitual distrust of strangers was rubbing off on him. In so doing, had he sent his boys into danger?
There was only one way to find out.
Johnny drifted in the place where the mind’s desire to wake warred with the body’s stubborn attempt to hold on to sleep.
For the moment, he gave in to his body’s demands, lying still and allowing his senses to absorb information. His ears picked up a gentle rumbling sound. His nose sniffed out the comforting aroma of bacon and eggs. The surface beneath his back was soft and yielding, the feeling of comfort at odds with the pain as he finally tried to move his body.
Dogged determination forced his eyes open and he blinked against the bright light flooding in through the window.
He’d worked out he was in bed, but this wasn’t his own room at Lancer. The bed was a little narrower and the mattress a little softer. Also unfamiliar was the low pallet on the floor across the room from the bed, a blanket sitting on it in a careless heap.
A familiar figure occupied the chair beside the bed. Val’s bootless feet rested on the edge of the mattress. His arms were folded in his lap and his head sagged onto his chest as he snored gently. Even as Johnny wondered why he was there, his memory snapped into place and his mind flooded with the events of the past couple of days.
There was a big gap in his memory between the time he’d shot Starkin on that hill and the moment he’d woken feeling like a dog’s chew toy with a pleasant-faced middle aged man leaning over him. That had been earlier today – or was it yesterday? He recalled his heated exchange with Scott, and his fear that his brother would run off and do something stupid. But Scott had returned later, when Franklin was changing Johnny’s dressings, and hovered uncomfortably, unable to meet his brother’s eye but seemingly reluctant to leave the room.
A careful inventory of his various aches and pains reassured him that he still hurt but with less intensity than before, and for that he was grateful. He was getting mighty tired of being in pain.
He looked across at the window, open a little to let in the warmth of the sun. From the quality of the light, he guessed it was mid-morning. Must be tomorrow then. Which made today the day after yesterday. His head was beginning to hurt with the effort of trying to put together a few sensible thoughts.
Val let out a snort so loud that he jerked awake. His eyes widened as he met Johnny’s amused look and Johnny laughed as his friend tried to untangle his legs from the bedspread and almost fell out of his chair.
“Good job I wasn’t trying to sleep.”
Val recovered his balance and placed his feet firmly on the floor. “Though it was time you woke up. I was beginnin’ to think you’d sleep forever.”
That was rich, coming from someone who’d just been snoring like a hog.
“Time is it?”
Val cocked his head. “Wednesday.”
Johnny blew out a breath. “Last thing I remember, it was yesterday afternoon. What did I miss?” A sudden suspicion hit him and his voice sharpened. “Where’s Scott?”
“Don’t get your drawers in a twist. He’s over at the sheriff’s office. Carson marched him over him over there to give his statement, wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Johnny winced on behalf of his brother.
“Jack wants a statement from you too; soon as the doc says you’re up to it.”
Perfect. That was really something to look forward to. But choosing what to say to the sheriff wasn’t what worried him. “How’s Scott doing, Val?”
Val gave him a thoughtful look and scratched his ear. “Givin’ himself a hard time,” he said finally. Seems to be carryin’ round a whole barrel of guilt.”
“Yeah, I know. It wasn’t his fault, Val.”
“I hear you.” Val hesitated, picking up his hat and twirling it around with his finger, “Look, Johnny,” he said finally, “I’m guessing it was pretty bad up there. If you want to talk about it… well, I reckon you know I’m ready to listen.”
Johnny’s chest tightened at the thought of talking about the ordeal. “Yeah, I know Val. Thanks. But not right now, okay.”
“Sure. Just wanted you to know…” Val shifted on the hard chair and Johnny felt a rush of affection for him. He knew from experience that Val’s gruff, no-nonsense exterior hid a kind heart. Val wasn’t the type to sit around and talk about his feelings, yet Johnny knew he’d do whatever it took to help a friend.
“I’m guessing Carson didn’t find Danforth?” Johnny asked.
Val shook his head. “Not a sign. Jack’s convinced he’s left the area.”
“He’s wrong. Val, the man’s… deranged, I guess. He’s obsessed with punishing Scott and he’s gonna want to finish what he started.”
Val’s expression turned grim. “That’s what Scott said. He thinks Danforth will come after you.”
Johnny’s stomach lurched and his mouth went dry at Val’s words, because Scott was right. It may be soon or it may be in the coming weeks and months, but Danforth was coming. Instinctively his eyes sought out his gun and relief flooded him when he saw his gun belt slung over the bedpost, his gun snug in its holster.
“No you don’t.” Val’s glare stopped Johnny’s hand as it reached out. “Take it easy, Johnny. He ain’t comin’ through the door right now.”
Johnny took a deep breath and settled back. He wouldn’t let his fear get the better of him. Johnny Madrid had stood up to worse men than Hiram Danforth.
His thoughts turned to Scott. He knew his brother was determined to protect him and the idea terrified Johnny. A sudden sense of urgency hit him.
“Johnny? You all right?”
Johnny took a shaky breath. “Yeah, Val, I’m fine. But I’m worried Scott’s going to do something stupid. I need to talk to him.”
With a supreme effort, Johnny sat up. Nausea hit him and the room began to spin as the movement awoke the pain in his back and sent a flaming barb of agony through his ribs.
“Whoa, what do you think you’re doing?” Val reached out an arm to push him back against the pillows and to Johnny’s disgust, he found himself too weak to resist.
“Scott’s gonna take off after Danforth, Val. I need to stop him.”
“Relax. Your brother’s worried sick about you; he won’t leave without checking on you first.”
Johnny found himself breathing heavily and groaned in frustration that that such a small amount of exertion had left him so weak and helpless.
Val was looking at him with a worried expression. “Johnny, you gotta give yourself time to get well. You almost died. You can’t go takin’ risks. Look, I’ll head over to the sheriff’s office, see if Jack’s finished with Scott. I’ll bring your brother back here.”
“Thanks Val.” Johnny shut his eyes.
When he opened them again, he was relieved to see Scott sitting in the chair Val had vacated only a few minutes ago. He frowned. He’d just closed his eyes for a minute to rest them… “How long have you been sitting there?”
Scott smiled. “About an hour. I didn’t want to wake you. Doctor Franklin says you need all the sleep you can get.”
“All I’m doing is sleeping!” Johnny was disgusted with himself.
“Shows you need it then, doesn’t it? How are you feeling?”
“Better. Help me sit up?”
Scott frowned and opened his mouth.
“Don’t worry,” Johnny cut in hurriedly, in no mood for a lecture. “I’m not planning on trying to escape. I just want to sit up for a while. Please?”
His innocent, pleading expression usually got the desired results. Even from his brother, and this time was no exception. With a snort that conveyed that he wasn’t fooled, Scott nevertheless helped Johnny sit up and began pushing pillows behind his back. This time, the room didn’t spin and he felt confident he wouldn’t lose the contents of his stomach.
“So,” Johnny said once he was comfortably settled, “Val tells me Carson had no luck finding Danforth.”
Scott’s brows drew together. “No,” he said tightly. “Danforth’s gone to ground. But when Carson rode in last night, he had Marita with him.”
“Is she all right?”
“Yes. Tired and hungry, but unhurt. I told him what she did to help us. He isn’t charging her. He got her a room in the hotel. She says she has family in Mexico she can go to.”
“That’s good.” Johnny was relieved. He’d been worried that Danforth would work out what Marita had done. Had he done so, Johnny knew that it would have gone badly for her.
“She says she’d like to see you before she leaves. She was very concerned about you.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “Can’t think why. I killed her brother.”
Scott frowned. “Hardly a great loss, the way he treated her.”
“Maybe not, but he was still her kin.”
“Well, she doesn’t seem to blame you. I think you’ve made another conquest, Brother.”
Scott accompanied his words with a smile, but it was short-lived. Johnny studied him furtively and didn’t like what he saw. Scott was pale, with dark shadows under his eyes. His eyes were bloodshot and the haunted expression hadn’t left them.
Scott stood suddenly and walked across to the dresser where he examined an ornament for a moment, before turning and pinning Johnny with a serious expression.
“Carson’s called off the search for Danforth.”
“So Val said,” Johnny replied cautiously.
“You know Danforth hasn’t run, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I won’t risk him coming for you again. I’m going after him.”
“No, you’re not.” Johnny put as much command into his voice as he could muster.
Scott’s lips thinned. “I don’t think you’re in much of a position to stop me, Brother.”
“You want to bet on that?” Johnny pushed the sheet back and swung his legs over the edge of the bed.
Scott folded his arms. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Johnny ignored him, needing his whole concentration to push himself to his feet. It hurt far more than he was prepared to admit, but after a moment’s dizziness, he found his balance and faced his brother. “I’m coming with you.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “Don’t be stupid, Johnny. Look at you! You can barely stand up, never mind sit a horse. I’ll get Val to come with me, if that will make you feel better.”
Scott’s voice softened. “Johnny, please try to understand. This is my problem and I need to fix it. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry you got dragged into my business. If I could have done anything to stop it… and if I’d known… if you’d told me… I would never have let Starkin get near you with that cigar.”
A cold chill washed over Johnny at the implication of Scott’s words. “You… what are you talking about?”
Scott looked abashed. “When you were delirious, you were shouting out in Spanish. I know it was about something that happened when you were a child.”
“How do you know what I was saying? You don’t speak Spanish.”
“Val translated for me.”
“Val should know better.” Johnny said tightly, but it wasn’t Val he was angry with. Scott shouldn’t have pushed, shouldn’t have taken advantage of him when he was helpless in the grip of the fever. It felt like a betrayal.
“Why, Johnny?” Scott demanded. “I’m your brother! Why don’t you want me to know?”
Johnny ducked his head. “If I wanted you to know, I’d have told you. It’s in the past, Scott. It doesn’t matter now.”
“It does matter. Your past, the things that happened to you, they all played a part in making you who you are. But you’re so damned tight lipped, I wonder sometimes if I’m ever going to understand you.”
Johnny was beginning to feel a little light-headed and grabbed hold of the back of the chair, gripping it tightly, afraid his legs might buckle beneath him at any moment. He could feel anger building within him and it gave him strength. He looked up at Scott, schooling his features into the Madrid mask. “All right, Brother. You have a point. So why don’t you go first. Tell me all about your experiences in the war.”
Scott froze. “We’re not talking about me.”
“Why not? You’re the one who wants to share.”
“That isn’t something I like to talk about.”
Johnny looked at him long and hard. “Yeah,” he said finally. “That’s what I figured.”
He’d made his point and he hated himself for it. Scott was silent.
The room was beginning to spin and Johnny’s legs were shaking with the effort of staying on his feet. He didn’t need this right now. Reluctantly he lowered himself onto the edge of the bed. “Look, I agree we need to go after Danforth. But whether we find him or not, we’re gonna have to forget about what happened, put it behind us.”
Scott shot him an incredulous look. “Forget about it? Just how do you propose we do that?”
Johnny sighed. “Didn’t say it’d be easy.”
“I won’t put it behind me until Danforth has paid for what he did to you.”
Johnny regarded him quizzically. “What he did to you was worse.”
“You’re the one he tortured. You’re the one he…” Scott’s voice choked.
Johnny shook his head. “Told you before. There’s more than one way to torture a man, Scott. Making you watch… I saw what that did to you.”
“What do you expect? They hurt you because of me.”
“Wasn’t your fault.”
“How can you say that? If Danforth didn’t blame me for Matt’s death, none of this would have happened.”
“That’s true. But you aren’t guilty of anything. It’s all in his head, you know that.”
“Matt was in my company—”
“Scott, will you stop it? I don’t blame you, so don’t blame yourself.”
Scott strode across the room and stabbed a finger at Johnny’s chest. “You don’t blame me? I was the one who chose your punishment. All those cuts and burns and bruises – they’re all down to me.”
“He’d have done it anyway.”
“Maybe. We’ll never know, will we? Look me in the eye, Johnny, and tell me that you don’t blame me, that you’re not angry with me!”
Johnny looked down, fingers toying with the edge of the blanket.
Scott waited a beat. “That’s what I thought.”
Something snapped. Johnny surged to his feet, rage blotting out the stab of pain. “You know what? You’re right. Dios, Scott, you should have seen what he was doing. You played right into his hands and yes, I’m angry about that. I’m angry with you for letting him get a rise out of you every single time. I’m angry that you were so distracted that you lost more games than you won.”
Johnny paused for breath, tried to slow his breathing, blinked as the room began to spin. He glanced at his brother. Scott had paled, his lips thinned in a tight white line, and even as one part of Johnny regretted his angry words, another needed to finish what he’d started.
“I’m trying, Scott. I’m trying damned hard not to feel that way. But you, you’re not helping. You have to let go of some of the guilt, because I can’t deal with your self pity and I’m sick of seeing that hangdog look on your face every time you come in the room.”
“You don’t understand,” Scott said stiffly.
“Sure, I do. But you’re not even trying; you’re just wallowing in self-pity. I’m tired Scott, and I’m hurtin’. So why don’t you get out and stay out until you get your head out of your ass.”
“With pleasure,” Scott snapped. He turned on his heel and marched out of the door, slamming it hard behind him.
Johnny closed his eyes. He’d pushed Scott too far. He knew he should go after his brother, but his head was thumping in time with his heart, his whole body shaking with weakness and everything was sliding in and out of focus.
The door opened again and Franklin entered. He took one look and strode across to the bed just as Johnny’s legs gave way. Through a haze of pain, Johnny felt arms holding him up and then lowering him gently to the bed.
“Damn it, son, lie down. Look at you! You’re sweating, you’re shaking – are you trying to kill yourself?”
“No,” Johnny said tiredly. “Just tryin’ to talk some sense into my brother.”
He could feel Franklin’s eyes on him for a while before the doctor said in a softer tone, “I can see you two have some things to settle. But Johnny, you’re not up to it right now. If you want to be on your feet in a few days, you need to rest. We have that infection under control, but it could easily flare up again if you don’t take it easy. Do you understand me?”
“Yeah, I understand.”
“All right.” The doctor patted his arm. “I’m going to get you a dose of laudanum.”
“Don’t need it,” Johnny said automatically, although he was aware that his body was telling him otherwise.
“You can’t rest if you’re in pain.”
“Doc, you gotta stop Scott riding out.”
“If I talk to your brother, will you take the laudanum?”
Johnny was too tired and he hurt too much to put up a fight it as the doctor made him swallow the vile stuff. His final thoughts as he slipped into sleep were of his brother.
Murdoch left Green River early that morning and made good time to Oak Ridge.
Realizing that he had no idea where to find his boys, he stopped first at the sheriff’s office. Carson introduced himself affably and offered Murdoch coffee, which he refused. He was anxious to check on Johnny and had no time to sit and exchange pleasantries. He just long enough to hear the bare bones of the story, then followed Carson’s directions to the doctor’s house.
He reined up and dismounted outside the house, absently noting that the neat white fence was recently painted. As he pushed open the gate the front door flew open and Scott practically ran across the threshold. Val Crawford followed on his heels and roughly grabbed Scott’s arm. “Hold on. I want to talk to you!”
Scott threw him off with enough force that Val staggered and almost lost his balance.
“Not now, Val.”
Val recovered and moved quickly, slamming Scott against the wall. “I said I want to talk to you.”
“Take your hands off me.”
Murdoch was hurrying up the path but stopped abruptly, taken aback by his son’s cold and menace-laden tone.
After a moment, Val muttered a curse beneath his breath. He let go and stood back, hands raised as if in surrender. “What the hell’s gotten into you, Scott?”
That was a question for which Murdoch too would dearly like an answer.
Scott ignored the sheriff and strode down the path. Belatedly he raised his head. His eyes widened as he recognized his father, but he didn’t slow his pace.
He would have pushed straight past him had Murdoch not moved to block his path.
Scott looked him squarely in the face. “Sir. I wasn’t expecting you and I have an urgent errand to run in town.”
Murdoch frowned. “Can’t it wait? I’d like to talk to you.”
“I’m afraid it can’t wait. I’ll be back in a few hours, we can talk then.”
Before Murdoch could recover from Scott’s uncharacteristically rude behavior, his son had pushed past him and was striding down the road.
Murdoch shot Val a questioning glance.
Val shrugged. “He’s been this way since he got back to town. I’m glad you came, Mr. Lancer.”
“Me too, Val. Sheriff Carson told me a little of what’s happened. I’m in your debt.”
Val shifted uncomfortably. “Nothing to thank me for.” He cleared his throat. “Why don’t you go on in and see Johnny. Doc’s with him. I’ll stay out here a spell.”
Much as Murdoch would have liked to follow Scott and find out what had caused his uncharacteristic behavior, his need to see Johnny was greater. He nodded.
As he approached the open door he was met by a middle-aged man, who greeted him warmly.
“I heard voices. Mr. Lancer, I assume? I’m Doctor Franklin. I’m pleased to meet you, and I must say, very glad that you came. Please, come in.”
At least Val and the doctor were pleased to see him.
Franklin led the way into the house and Murdoch followed him into a pleasant, airy parlor.
“Please, sit for a moment. I know you’re anxious to see your son, but I’d like to talk to you first.”
Reluctantly, Murdoch perched on a straight back chair. Franklin sat down across from him.
“I understand that Johnny was injured, but is recovering,” Murdoch said. “That’s all I know.”
Franklin looked surprised. “Scott didn’t tell you what happened?”
“Not exactly,” Murdoch said drily. “He didn’t seem very pleased to see me. He walked away before we’d exchanged more than a few words.”
Franklin sighed. “I hope you don’t think I’m interfering, but I’m concerned about Scott. He’s taking this very badly. I think he feels responsible for what happened to his brother, but he refuses to talk to anyone about it.”
Murdoch nodded. “I’ll talk to him later. But right now, I’d like to hear about Johnny.”
“Of course.” Franklin steepled his hands. “I can’t tell you the full story. As I said, Scott has been reluctant to talk about it, although I believe he gave Sheriff Carson a full statement this morning.” He paused. “It’s more appropriate for you to hear it from Scott than from me, but what I can tell you is that a man called Hiram Danforth has a grudge against Scott. He kidnapped your sons and made Scott watch while Johnny was tortured.”
Ice shot through Murdoch’s veins. “Tortured?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer.”
Murdoch took a deep breath. “How badly is Johnny hurt?”
“When Johnny came into my care he was severely dehydrated and suffering from extended exposure to the sun. He has several broken bones, a concussion, and extensive shallow cuts and burns, none of them severe.” Franklin paused.
“There’s more, isn’t there?” Murdoch prompted, noting Franklin’s reluctance to continue.
“Yes, there’s more. He was whipped. Over a dozen lashes. Some of the cuts were deep and were already infected; he developed a fever that grew dangerously high last night. However, I believe we have the fever and the infection under control. With care, Johnny will make a full recovery.”
Murdoch felt numb. Dear Lord. After all the boy had suffered in his life, he had to go through this as well?
A rage began to build inside him against the man who had done this; the man who had been responsible for his son’s suffering.
“What happened to this man, Danforth?”
“He escaped. The sheriff’s been out looking, but there’s no sign of him. Scott is convinced he’ll make another attempt to harm Johnny.”
Murdoch was anxious to hear the whole story. How had Johnny and Scott been taken captive and how had they escaped?
But that could all wait.
“I’d like to see my son, now.”
Franklin led Murdoch to a room off the hallway.
Murdoch pushed open the door and walked into what turned out to be a bedroom. Johnny lay in the bed in the middle of the room. Murdoch approached quietly and stood for a moment beside the bed. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but he was shocked at what he saw. Johnny’s face was swollen, his right eye shut, a large green and yellow bruise adorned his cheek and his lip was swollen and cut. There was a dressing on his head above his ear and much of his torso was swathed in bandages. Murdoch frowned when he noticed that both wrists and his hands were also bandaged, leaving only three fingers on his left hand uncovered.
Murdoch sank into the chair, his legs suddenly unsteady. Even after Franklin’s explanation, he hadn’t been expecting such extensive injuries.
He turned to Franklin, who had walked into the room behind him. “Why are his hands bandaged?”
“He was tied, his wrists rubbed raw. His hands themselves are lacerated; apparently he managed to cut himself free using a piece of broken glass.”
Dear Lord. Murdoch reached out uncertainly and brushed a hand through his son’s hair, resting it for a moment on his forehead. He felt a little hot, but not unduly so.
“He still has a slight fever. I’m keeping an eye on it.” Franklin said.
Murdoch startled at the sound of a loud knock. Franklin excused himself and a moment later, Murdoch heard the murmur of voices. Franklin returned within minutes.
“Mr. Lancer, I’m sorry, I must go. I’m needed at a homestead just outside of town. A farmer put a pitchfork through his foot.”
Murdoch winced in sympathy. “Take your time, doctor. I’ll be right here.”
“I’m sure Johnny will be pleased to see you when he wakes.”
“I’m not too sure about that. My son is very independent. He hates people ‘fussin’ over him.”
Franklin smiled. “That may be, but he needs you nevertheless. Now, I’d rather not give him any more laudanum, but you can let him have a small dose if he’s in a lot of pain. I’ve left a measure on the table in his room. I shouldn’t be too long.”
After Franklin left, Murdoch settled down in the chair beside the bed. Johnny seemed to be sleeping soundly still and much as Murdoch wanted to wake him, just to hear his voice, he chose patience. He picked up a book that had been left on the table and began to read.
A few pages in he found his attention wandering and put the book down to focus on the man lying so still in the bed.
Seeing his son like this took him back two years. He’d spent many hours in a similar position at Johnny’s bedside, while his son hovered between life and death due to the bullet from Day Pardee’s gun.
Back then, Johnny had been a stranger to him. On the day he and Scott arrived, Johnny had walked into the Great Room behind his brother vibrating hostility. Murdoch had found himself responding in kind, with no idea how to approach this angry young man – a professional gunfighter who just happened to also be his son.
Ironically, the bullet in Johnny’s back had probably saved their relationship. For several days, Johnny’s life had hung in the balance and during the long hours seated at his son’s bedside, Murdoch had had plenty of time to come to terms with the fact that he might once again lose his younger son.
The first few days after his sons’ return had gone badly and Murdoch had been hurt and angry when Johnny apparently threw in his lot with Pardee. But sitting at Johnny’s bedside back then, he’d had time to reflect that he could hardly blame Johnny for his behavior. He winced whenever he recalled that one of the first things he had said to his long lost sons was not, “Welcome home,” but, “I love this ground more than anything God ever created.”
What kind of message had that conveyed to the two young men stood before him? He had been so nervous about meeting them and completely taken aback when they turned up together. His tendency to cover nerves with a show of aggression had taken over and he had greeted his sons with a coldness he had wanted ever since to go back and change.
He had thanked God fervently for Johnny’s recovery and vowed to make things work between them. Nevertheless, those first few months had been difficult verging on impossible. Once recovered, Johnny had become a volatile, infuriating and completely irresponsible enigma. He was a stranger Murdoch couldn’t even begin to understand.
Looking back, it was hard to believe how completely he had misread the boy and consequently made a whole heap of mistakes in dealing with him. He’d ridden the boy hard, convinced that he needed a firm hand, picking him up on the slightest error and making his life unbearable to the point where Johnny had made a decision to leave.
Even then, Murdoch reflected with chagrin, he himself had been too proud and angry to reach out to his son. He’d given him no encouragement to return, yet return Johnny had and that had been the turning point. Murdoch had finally understood what Scott and Teresa had been telling him. Johnny wasn’t irresponsible – at least, not deliberately so. After years of living a life where he made his own rules and kept his own time, he struggled to settle down into the routine of ranch life. And even though Murdoch had gone out of his way to make things harder for him, Johnny had worked hard to live up to his father’s unrealistic expectations.
Since then, Murdoch had tried to stop seeing Johnny’s faults and look for the good in him. And he’d found it, in abundance. It saddened him to realize how much Johnny’s experiences as a young boy had shaped his life. The Pinkerton report had been sobering reading and Murdoch finally understood why his son found it difficult to settle and even harder to trust. But unlike other gunfighters Murdoch had met, Johnny had a sense of justice and an understanding of right and wrong. And he had so much love to give and so much need to be loved in return.
Murdoch had tried, in his own way, to give him that love and in turn, Johnny continually surprised and delighted his father. Murdoch had come to love and respect the man he was rather than mourning the man he’d wanted him to be. He was as proud of him as he was of Scott, and he hoped the boy knew that.
Murdoch sighed and turned his attention back to his book. He hoped Johnny would wake soon.
Murdoch looked up and smiled. Johnny was awake and looking at him with his characteristic amused smirk.
Murdoch had never been so pleased to see that smile. “It’s the diary of a doctor on one of the early wagon trains west. It looks interesting, but I found it hard to concentrate on it. It’s good to see you awake, Son.”
“Been here long?”
“I arrived in town just after noon. I’ve been here for about an hour.”
“Sorry to keep you waiting. Can’t seem to stay awake for more than five minutes at a time.”
Murdoch had to smile at Johnny’s obvious disgust with himself. “I believe the doctor would say that sleep is the best thing for you. How are you feeling, Son?”
Johnny gave him a wan smile. “Had worse. Reckon I’ll live.” He shifted a little and frowned. “Would you help me sit up?”
It was Murdoch’s turn to frown. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“I’ve been on my back for too long. I just want to sit up – I’m not planning on goin’ anywhere.” He shot Murdoch a hopeful look. “Not unless you want to get me my clothes?”
“Murdoch grinned. “Nice try, Son.” He leaned across and helped Johnny leant forward, choosing to ignore the grimace of pain Johnny tried to hide, and plumped the pillows behind him. Johnny leaned back with a sigh.
“Thanks Murdoch.” He paused. “You didn’t have to come.”
“Oh, I think I did,” Murdoch said lightly.
Johnny lowered his eyes and began to pick at a loose thread on the bedspread. “Did you talk to Scott?”
“Briefly. He didn’t seem very happy to see me.”
Johnny didn’t respond.
Murdoch leaned forward a little, hands linked loosely in his lap. “I’m sorry, Johnny. What they did to you… it was barbaric.”
Johnny kept his eyes down. “It happened, and I’m okay,” he muttered.
“It never should have happened. When I met Johnson there was something about him that concerned me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. If only I’d paid attention to my instincts–”
Johnny’s head shot up. “Don’t you start beating yourself up, Ol’ Man. I ignored my instincts too. My gut told me there was something wrong with the set up at the ranch, but I didn’t figure it out fast enough.” His gaze dropped again as he added, “But there’s no room for my guilt, or yours. Scott’s claimed it all for himself.”
Murdoch looked at Johnny closely. There was an undercurrent to his tone. “It’s understandable that Scott’s upset, Johnny. It can’t have been easy for him, watching them hurt you like that.”
“I know that,” Johnny said tightly.
Murdoch paused. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Johnny’s brow furrowed. “Nope.”
“It might help.”
“I doubt it.” Johnny sighed. “Look, there’s not much to tell. Danforth blames Scott for his brother’s death. He made Scott watch while they… hurt me.”
As an account of the time his sons had spent in captivity it left a lot to be desired, but Murdoch didn’t want to push. He waited patiently for Johnny to continue.
“Scott thinks it’s all his fault,” Johnny offered after a long silence.
“What do you think?”
Johnny shrugged and his eyes returned to the fingers still busily tracing the pattern on the blanket. “It was no more his fault than it was mine.”
The words were spoken with a lack of conviction that told Murdoch something was bothering his son. He decided to push a little. “I’m sure that’s true but nevertheless, it must have been difficult for you to be the one who suffered.”
Johnny stiffened. “I would never have wanted Scott to go through that!”
“Of course not. But no one could blame you for feeling some resentment toward your brother.”
“No!” Johnny’s answer was quick to come, but he wouldn’t meet Murdoch’s eyes. “It’s not like that. I didn’t… I don’t… Dios, Murdoch, I don’t know what I feel!”
Murdoch kept silent and waited for Johnny to continue.
“I don’t blame Scott, but… I guess I’m angry with him. Danforth played him, Murdoch, and Scott… he fell right into the trap.”
“It was an impossible situation for both of you.”
“I know that! Danforth wanted me to hate Scott, it was all part of his game, and I swore I wouldn’t let him win. And I’m tryin’. I’m tryin’ damned hard not to feel that way, but…”
“Son, you just need some time. You’ll figure it out.”
“I can’t… while Scott’s… Murdoch, he can’t even look me in the face.”
“He needs time too, Johnny.”
Murdoch could see that his son was becoming agitated and as a result paled and a grimace of pain crossed his face as he shifted his position.
“We can talk more later, Son,” he said softly. “You should rest.” Smiling as Johnny opened his mouth to protest, he went on, “I know you must be anxious to get out of here, but sleep is the best thing for you now, and you can’t tell me that you’re not feeling tired.”
“I’m tired of being tired,” Johnny groused, but nevertheless, he allowed Murdoch to adjust the pillows, then settled back. His eyes drifted shut. Murdoch waited for a moment, then stood up to leave.
Murdoch turned back at the softly spoken words. “Yes?”
“Will you talk to Scott?”
“Of course. Now go to sleep.” He turned away again.
Murdoch smiled. “Yes, Son?”
“Sorry about the horse.”
The horse? After all that had happened, Johnny was worried about a horse?
“Don’t worry about that, Johnny,” he said. “There’ll be other horses.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just…”
Johnny’s eyes, which he’d opened half-mast when he spoke, were drifting shut again.
“What is it?”
“It’s just; that horse was my chance to prove myself.”
“Prove yourself to whom?”
“To you. Just… wanted to come out with a good deal, make you proud.”
Murdoch’s throat constricted. He leaned in, putting his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and squeezing gently.
“Son, you don’t have to prove anything to me. I had no doubt that you could handle that purchase and come out with a good deal. And I’m already proud of you.”
Johnny’s eyes were closed but there was a shy smile on his lips as he drifted into sleep.
Murdoch watched him for a while longer, a little chagrined that Johnny clearly still doubted his father’s regard for him. He resolved to be more direct in his praise in future.
He sighed and turned away.
It was time to seek out his eldest and see what he could do to put matters right.
Scott’s anger had cooled by the time he reached the hotel. He asked the proprietor to give Marita a message that he was here to talk to her and waited for her in the adjoining restaurant .
She had arrived shortly afterwards and her face had lit up in pleasure at seeing him uninjured. He’d assured her that Johnny was recovering and that she could visit him before she left for Mexico.
But when he’d questioned her, he’d been disappointed to learn nothing new. She had told him that she had waited at the cabin until first light, then gathered her belongings and set out on the mule that Danforth’s men had left behind. She had met no-one on the trail until Carson and his men had come across her only a few miles outside town.
Frustrated, Scott had retreated to the saloon, reluctant to return to face his family and Val.
He sat now at a quiet table at the back of the room, an almost full bottle of whiskey on the table in front of him. He’d considered drowning his sorrows in drink, but had held back. That wasn’t the way he usually faced his problems and he didn’t want to start now.
The truth was, he was ashamed of the way he’d provoked Johnny, yelled at Val and treated his father with a rudeness the man had done nothing to deserve.
He ran his hands through his hair and grimaced. What the hell was wrong with him?
He was still brooding over this question an hour later when the saloon’s batwing doors opened and Val Crawford walked in. The sheriff paused in the doorway, squinting into the dark interior. When he spotted Scott, he headed across the room, snagging a glass from the bar as he went.
He stood beside Scott’s table for a moment, his gaze wary. “I’m thinking you’re either gonna invite me to sit, or crack that bottle over my head.”
Scott found himself smiling. He gestured to the chair and Val sat down with a grunt.
Scott pushed the bottle across to Val. The sheriff nodded and poured himself a large shot.
“Murdoch’s with Johnny?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry Scott, he knows to keep an eye out for Danforth.”
They sat in uncomfortable silence for a moment and Scott knew it was up to him to make the first move. “I’m sorry, Val. I was out of order.”
Val sniffed. “Damn right you were, but I’m not the one you should be apologizing to. You want to tell me what was going on back there?”
Scott rubbed tired eyes. “Johnny and I had a disagreement, that’s all.”
Val raised an eyebrow. “Sounded like a lot more than that to me. That boy’s supposed to be resting. You know he ain’t rightly out of the woods yet.”
Yes, Scott knew and yet he’d deliberated pushed Johnny to anger and then lost his own temper when he didn’t like what he heard. That made no sense. For the hundredth time he asked himself what he’d been thinking.
“What’s going on with you, Scott?”
“I don’t know,” Scott confessed honestly. “But I can’t… I don’t want to talk about it.”
Val gave him a long, hard look, then blew out a long breath. “I see that. But you gotta sort your head out Scott, because way you’re behavin’ ain’t doin’ Johnny no good. He don’t need to be worrying about you right now.”
Scott nodded his agreement to Val’s words. Brooding like this wasn’t helping Johnny’s recovery. More importantly, he had to come to terms with the guilt before it crippled him and destroyed his relationship with his brother.
He just wasn’t sure how.
He finished his whiskey and poured himself and Val another. “Val, there’s something you should know.”
Val cocked an eyebrow.
“I let it slip to Johnny that I know what he was raving about when he was delirious. He’s pretty angry.”
”Figured he would be.”
Val didn’t seem disturbed by the news.
“It was my fault. I shouldn’t have pushed, it’s just… he’s told me so little about his childhood, his past. It makes me feel that he doesn’t trust me.”
“Oh, he trusts you Scott, I know that for a fact. “ Val shifted and looked down at his glass, clearly uncomfortable. Then he looked up, face set in an expression of resolve. “Scott, you need to understand what life was like for Johnny, before he came home. He was the best and bein’ the best has consequences. It means you can’t sleep at night without a gun under your pillow. It means you can never let your guard down, never be in a situation where you’re not in control. Being sick like he is, feeling helpless – that’s about the worst thing that could happen to Johnny.” He took a long swallow of whiskey. “I was wrong to tell you. We took advantage of him when he was down.”
“I know that, but what’s so wrong with wanting to know more about his past? It would help me understand who he is.”
Val grunted. “You already know who he is, Scott. Look, I ain’t saying it’d be a bad thing for him to open up a bit, but it has to be on his terms.”
“I know,” Scott conceded. “But he can be so … frustrating.”
Val grinned. “That’s something we can agree on.”
They lapsed into silence again, but this time it was more companionable. Val was more insightful than his gruff manner indicated and had given Scott some food for thought. As the sheriff seemed to be in a talkative mood, Scott decided to push his luck. “Val, I was wondering, did you know Bradley Starkin? He seemed to have a major grudge against Johnny.”
Val smiled mirthlessly. “Oh, I knew him all right. I was with Johnny the first time they had a run in.”
“Will you tell me about it?”
Val shrugged and hooked a hip onto the fence. “Sure. Reckon it ain’t a secret. Started off with the nickname. We’d just finished a job and Stinkin’ – Starkin – fell in a mud hole. Came out covered with mud and dung from head to toe.” He chuckled. “It was some sight and boy, did he smell. Anyway, Johnny took one look at him and said, “Bradley Starkin? More like Badly Stinkin’!” Boys thought it was a real hoot. Course, Starkin didn’t. The name stuck and everyone started using it.”
Scott nodded thoughfully, imagining the scene. “I can see why he’d be resentful. But there must be more to his animosity than that. He really hated Johnny.”
“Oh yeah, there’s more. About a year later, me and Johnny hired on for another job. A rancher called Bill Parker was trying to intimidate his neighbors into selling him their land. We were hired by one of them, Jim Holden, to stop him.
“Stinkin’ was in charge of the operation and we noticed right off that he was different. First time we worked with him he wasn’t a man I’d have wanted as a friend, but he was real good at his job. Now, he was meaner than an angry grizzly and unpredictable with it.”
Scott was curious. “What had changed?”
“Seems he’d lost his parents and two brothers in a fire set by some bandits. Hard blow for any man, and I had some sympathy for him, but it turned him bitter and mean. And he was doing a piss poor job for Holden. Thought straight forward intimidation would get results, but after a week, the situation was worse not better.
“Johnny, well, he had a different idea, but Stinkin’ wouldn’t listen. So when the boss comes in one night Johnny tells him his idea and the boss decides to give it a go. It worked like a charm, so the boss lets Starkin go and puts Johnny in charge.”
Scott was curious. “What was Johnny’s idea?”
Val chuckled again. “Johnny’s plan was a might sneakier than Stinkin’s. Every night for a couple of weeks, we’d cut a gap in Parker’s fence, chase some of his herd through and then fix the fence. He never did work out how they were getting out. Didn’t take long to wear him down.”
Scott was surprised when he realized that he’d heard the story before. “Johnny told me that story!”
“There you go then. See, he does tell you things. Anyways, the thing was, Johnny was right, but he weren’t too clever in how he dealt with the situation. He pretty much accused Starkin of being an incompetent fool in front of his men. Which he was, but there were other ways of goin’ about it. After that, Stinkin’s reputation went downhill and he never recovered.”
“And he blamed Johnny.”
“Yeah. Not without some cause, mind. “
“Johnny isn’t always the most… diplomatic.”
Val barked a laugh. “Johnny says it how it is all right, and back then he wasn’t much more than a kid with a shiny new reputation, cocky and hot-headed.”
“But you still stuck with him.”
Val smiled. “I stuck with him because I knew he was better than that. And he learnt a good lesson from it too.”
Scott wished for the hundredth time that he and Johnny had grown up at Lancer together, where Johnny would have had no need to go out and gain a dangerous reputation.
Val leaned forward and fixed Scott with a serious stare. “Scott, I need you to promise me you won’t go off half-cocked looking for this Danforth.”
Scott was tired of people saying that. “I have to do something, Val.”
“I get that. But if he’s left the area, there’s little chance we’ll be able to track him down. If he’s still around, then the best thing we can do is stick together and keep Johnny safe until he’s back on his feet. Then we’ll work out what we’re going to do.”
Scott pondered Val’s words and reluctantly agreed that the sheriff was right. It went against the grain not to be taking some kind of action, but he’d vowed to protect his brother from Danforth. He’d never forgive himself if Danforth got to Johnny while he himself was out of town on a wild goose chase.
“All right. You’re making sense Val. We’ll do this together. But I swear I won’t rest until I find Danforth and make him pay for what he did.”
Val drained his glass, stood and clapped Scott on the shoulder. “I’m with you on that one. Drink up. We’ve got some planning to do.”
Murdoch had left Johnny to sleep and made his way to the porch. The bench afforded a pleasant view across Franklin’s small, but well-tended flower garden that he knew would impress Teresa.
Anxious as he was to talk to Scott, especially after hearing Johnny’s side of the story, he was afraid to leave Johnny alone. It seemed unlikely that this Danforth would be bold enough to come after his sons in town, but he wasn’t willing to risk it.
He sat with a hand close to his gun, his book open on his lap. But he was too agitated to read and was relieved when an hour later he saw Val open the gate and stride up the path, Scott on his heels.
He stood as they approached.
Scott’s first question was predictable.
“Asleep. We talked for a while. He told me a little of what happened.”
Scott shifted and looked at his feet.
“Scott and I were talking, and we think it’s time we all sat down and come up with a plan,” Val said, eyes darting between the two of them.
Murdoch nodded. “I agree. We can talk over dinner. Doctor Franklin had to leave on a call – I don’t know when he’ll be back, but perhaps his housekeeper can rustle up something for us.”
Val shook his head. “The doc said his housekeeper left last week to live with her daughter in Stockton. He hasn’t found a replacement yet, he’s been eating dinner at the cantina. I can see why he ain’t rushing to replace her. I could live on Rosa’s cooking.”
“We can’t leave Johnny on his own,” Scott said. “You go, I’m not really hungry. The doctor made up some soup for Johnny earlier, he and I can share that.”
“You need a proper meal inside you, Son,” Murdoch said firmly. “Val, perhaps you could persuade Rosa to send someone over here with some food?”
Val grinned. “I’ll use my charm on her. Be back before you know it.”
Val headed off down the path. Scott made to go into the house, but Murdoch put a hand on his arm. “Why don’t you check on Johnny, then come back out here for a while. I’d like to have that talk now.”
Scott sighed, but nodded readily enough. Murdoch settled on the bench again and five minutes later Scott was back.
“Johnny’s awake. Says he wants tamales for dinner.”
Murdoch smiled. “He must be feeling better.”
“Seems that way,” Scott agreed. “I have a feeling he won’t be impressed with the Doc’s chicken soup again.”
Murdoch gestured to the bench and Scott sat, sitting with his elbows on his knees, hands clasped tightly before him. Instinct told Murdoch to wait until his son was ready to speak.
They sat in silence for several minutes. Then Scott looked up and took a deep breath. “I guess you’re anxious to hear my side of the story.”
Murdoch folded his arms and said quietly, “I’m anxious to hear what you have to say, Scott, but only if you’re ready to tell me.”
Scott shrugged. “I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that, but you deserve to know the truth, to know what I… what I did.”
Inwardly, Murdoch felt a touch of apprehension at the words, but was careful not to let it show on his face. “Go ahead then, Son. In your own time.”
Murdoch listened, disciplining himself not to interrupt as Scott, eyes fixed firmly on his own clasped hands, outlined the events of the past couple of days in far more detail than Johnny had. Throughout, he emphasized his own shortcomings in the affair, although Murdoch for the life of him couldn’t work out why the boy was being so hard on himself. It was clear that Scott was as much a victim in this as his brother.
Finally, Scott looked up and met Murdoch’s eyes. “He didn’t scream, Murdoch. Everything they did to him, he never once screamed, not until…. not until they…” he broke off, his final words ending in a choked sob.
Murdoch quenched the anger that had been building against the men who had so cruelly tortured one son and caused the other such mental anguish. He sensed that his anger wouldn’t help Scott right now. Instead, he simply said, “I’m so sorry, Son, that you and your brother had to go through such a terrible ordeal.”
Scott stared at his father. “You’re not angry?”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I’m angry Son. Frankly, I’d like to tear those men apart. But if you’re asking if I’m angry with you, then the answer is no.”
Scott frowned. “Well, you should be. Didn’t you hear what I told you?”
“I heard every word. And nothing you said made me angry with you. It’s clear that you were as much a victim as your brother.”
Scott swallowed, and his voice wavered. “Johnny shouldn’t have been a victim. I was the one Danforth wanted to punish. I should have found a way to stop him hurting Johnny.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Scott, it’s clear that the man is unbalanced. I doubt that anything you said or did would have made any difference.”
“But… the things Starkin did to Johnny… don’t you understand? Each time, I was the one who chose the… the punishment.”
Murdoch’s heart bled for his son as he saw the anguish in his expression. But this wasn’t the time for sympathy. “That’s nonsense Scott.” Murdoch put a note of authority into his tone. “You had no real choices. What would Danforth have done had you not chosen an option?”
Scott looked away.
Murdoch leaned forward and raised his voice. “Scott! Answer me. What would have happened?”
There was a long silence, and then Scott sighed. “He’d have hurt Johnny anyway.”
Murdoch sat back, satisfied. “Yes, I’m sure he would have. Don’t you forget that, Son. You are not responsible for anything that was done to your brother.”
“I know what you’re saying makes sense, Sir. But it isn’t just that, it’s… everything. I was so useless.”
Murdoch began to understand what was really bothering Scott. “You know Scott, I wonder if you’ve just got to the heart of the matter.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said you were useless. I know you, Son. You like to be in control of a situation. You’re very much like your brother in that respect. In this case, control was taken away from you. You were helpless, you were unable to reason or talk your way out of the situation. Think about it, Scott. Is that what’s really bothering you?”
“That’s ridiculous!” Scott stood and turned to look out across the garden.
“Is it? You feel guilty because you were unable to find a way out of the situation.”
“I should have found a way!” Scott’s eyes blazed with self-condemnation. “But in the end it was Johnny who got us out of there.”
“Why does that matter so much? Surely what’s important is that one of you had the opportunity to escape. You have to accept that there are times in life when there is no way out. You feel you dealt badly with the situation, that you should have been stronger, that you should have found a way out. I can’t make a judgment on that, I wasn’t there. But Son, you can only shoulder the portion of guilt that’s yours to bear. And from what I’ve heard, that portion is small. I’m sure Johnny’s beating himself up too.”
That brought Scott up short. “What? Why should Johnny feel guilty?”
“Oh, I have no doubt that he thinks he should have realized that Danforth was an imposter, that he should have been able to hold his own in that fight on the trail, that he should have been strong enough to walk out of that camp on his own—”
Murdoch simply looked at his son and raised one eyebrow. It took several minutes for the implication of his words to sink in, but eventually Scott surprised Murdoch with a small smile.
“All right, Sir. I take your point. But Johnny… we had an argument this morning. He said he didn’t blame me, but I pushed him… and he admitted that he does. He’s angry with me. What if he can’t forgive me?”
“I’m sure Johnny just needs some time, the same as you. You and your brother will get past this, Scott, if you want to.”
Scott sat down abruptly and ran his hands through already untidy hair. “I want to, I really do. I just don’t know how. I don’t think I will, until I find Danforth.”
“I understand. But Scott, this is not your sole responsibility. We’ll work it out together, as a family.”
Scott nodded slowly.
Murdoch reached out a hand and squeezed his shoulder. “You’ll find a way through, Son. You’re a Lancer.”
Scott smiled a little. “All right. I’ll try. I…” he hesitated.
“What is it, Son?” Murdoch asked gently.
“I’m glad you came, Sir.”
Murdoch smiled. “So am I. Scott. So am I.”
From the window of his bedroom in Oak Ridge’s Majestic Hotel, the watcher idly scanned the main street. There was a fair amount of activity as shopkeepers closed down for the night and townsfolk made their way home.
He shifted a little, trying to find a comfortable position on the hard, straight-backed wooden chair. A glass of whiskey stood next to a half-empty bottle on a table beside him. His fingers drummed a beat on the arm of the chair. All those ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives, and among them somewhere was his prey. His eyes narrowed and he leaned forward, the whispers in his head growing louder and more persistent with every passing moment.
Those whispers had become an almost deafening roar of outrage when Cade had burst into the cabin with the news of the Lancer brothers’ escape. Danforth had found it difficult to think clearly through his brother’s anger. And indeed, Matthew’s distress had been matched by his own as he accepted the possibility that justice might yet be thwarted. His heart had pounded as he issued orders to the men and made ready to pursue their quarry.
They had set off down the mountain and Starkin’s experience and instincts had brought them to the rock formations where they caught a glimpse of a blond head high up in the rocks.
He’d felt a surge of triumph from Matthew then and his own confidence returned as his men began to advance on the outcrop. The Lancers were outgunned and outnumbered, hampered by Madrid’s injuries. There was only one way this would end.
It was only a matter of time.
Then the posse had appeared from nowhere and suddenly, the tables were turned. Bowing to the inevitable, he had retreated, leaving Starkin and his men to their fate.
He had taken the trail south, figuring that they would expect him to go north, to the cabin or into the mountains. But he wasn’t running. He planned to hide in plain sight in the last place they’d think of looking.
He had stopped at the ranch house he’d rented months ago for the sole purpose of his charade. He took time to make a few judicious changes to his appearance, then changed his clothes, saddled a fresh horse and headed for town.
Another man might have taken the chance to make good his escape. But he was not ready to give up. If the Lancers were alive, they’d almost certainly be brought to Oak Ridge, so that was where he needed to go.
He had ridden boldly into town at noon. He was confident that none of the townspeople would recognize him as he’d been careful never to show his face in town, always sending Starkin to collect supplies and conduct any necessary business. The only person who could identify him was Scott Lancer and Danforth planned to keep well out of the way of his errant prisoner.
He had checked into the Majestic under an assumed name and retired to the room he’d requested at the front of the establishment, a room that afforded him a good view of the main street. Then, he’d settled down to wait.
The cart had rolled into town in the early afternoon. Scott Lancer sat in the back beside an older man. Danforth felt his pulse quicken. As the wagon passed, Danforth caught a glimpse of a third man lying in the bed of the cart, his black hair distinctive against the bed of straw. Elation surged through him and he felt an echoing emotion from Matt. The brothers were both alive! All was not lost.
Later, calculating that Scott would be unlikely to leave his brother’s side to while away the evening in a saloon, Danforth had risked leaving the hotel and walk across to what he judged the liveliest saloon in Oak Ridge. It took but minutes to insinuate himself into a poker game and he made sure that everyone within earshot heard him announce his alias and his reason for coming to Oak Ridge.
When he had casually asked if anything exciting ever happened in these parts, several of his companions vied to tell the story of the kidnapped men.
Fortuitously, one of them happened to be the brother of the deputy sheriff and was able to recount in detail the story he had heard from his brother of the gun battle against Starkin’s men.
From him, Danforth learned that Scott Lancer had killed one of the gang – Cade, from the description. The other three had surrendered and were being held in the town jail. Starkin was dead, killed by the notorious gunfighter, Johnny Madrid.
Danforth felt no regret beyond a flicker of annoyance at the loss of Starkin. The man had been a distasteful companion. And there was a kind of poetic justice in his passing at the hands of the man he had so recently tortured.
“Strange affair,” he had commented to his companions. “And say the kidnapped men were found alive and well?”
“One of them was fine, but the other was in bad shape. Jim said he heard he’d been tortured.”
“Tortured?” Danforth feigned surprise. “Who’d do a thing like that? Do they think he’ll live?”
His new friend shrugged. “Don’t know. He was still alive when they got him back to town. They took him to Doc’s place. Sheriff’s still out with that other sheriff from Green River, looking for the man who escaped.”
“I thought you said they was all killed or captured?” another man said.
“There was another of ‘em, the boss. He escaped.”
Danforth drained his glass. “I’m willing to bet he’ll be long gone by now.”
“Reckon he will, if he has any sense. Wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when that Scott Lancer gets his hands on him. Jim said he was madder than a wet hen ‘bout what they did to his brother.”
Certain he had gleaned all the information he could for now, Danforth had retired to his room, poured himself a whiskey and settled back in the chair by the window to ponder his next move.
As he sat there, he’d heard the sound of horses’ hooves and stood to look cautiously out of the window. Two men had ridden past, both with sheriffs badges pinned to their chests. Both men were slumped in the saddle, the very picture of dejection. He had grinned to himself and heard Matt’s echoing chuckle. If they only knew that their quarry was less than fifty yards away.
He sat there, far into the night, and slowly a plan began to take shape.
The next day he’d kept a low profile, venturing out a couple of times to allay suspicions and find out the latest gossip. He discovered that the Widow Francis, who ran the mercantile store, was a good source of information. From her he’d learned that Madrid had been teetered on the verge of death the night before, but that the doctor now considered that he was likely to make a full recovery.
Later that evening he’d been shocked to see Sheriff Carson ride past with a Mexican woman on a mule riding beside him. Marita! In his single-minded focus on the Lancer brothers, he’d completely forgotten about the woman he’d left at the cabin.
Carson had taken her to his office, but emerged less than an hour later with the Mexican woman in tow, heading for the hotel. Starkin had ducked back quickly, in case she looked up. Why was Carson bringing her to the hotel? Why hadn’t he arrested her – she’d been part of the kidnapping, after all. Could she have spun him a story? Or was it possible that she been involved in the brothers’ escape after all? Anger rose. He didn’t like being made a fool of. But tempting as it was to seek her out and get the truth out of her, he couldn’t risk giving away his hand. He had more important prey.
It was now the third evening since he’d arrived in town and Matthew’s impatience was making his head pound, the querulous whispers now a constant. Danforth was beginning to find it difficult to distinguish between his own inner voice and his brother’s. He was as anxious as his brother to end this period of inactivity. Fortunately, he was about to get his wish. He would put his plan into action tonight.
He’d bought the things he needed, narrowly avoiding running into Scott Lancer as he’d left the store. The game was getting too dangerous. He couldn’t afford to slip up. When he saw Scott again, he wanted to be holding all the cards.
He knew the plan was risky. This time, brothers would be on their guard, yet Madrid was in no shape to be a threat, and Scott? Well, Danforth knew how far Scott had gone down the road of guilt and self-recrimination. He knew himself from bitter experience how that could cloud a man’s thinking and put him off-balance.
Nevertheless, he would have to be careful and once he had the brothers back under his control, he wouldn’t have the luxury of dragging out the torment as he’d originally intended. But no matter. He would simply jump straight to the final act. The end result would be the same. Johnny Madrid would be dead, Scott Lancer would be broken and he himself would finally be free.
Johnny forced down the final mouthful of chicken broth and gratefully put down the spoon he’d been holding awkwardly in his bandaged right hand.
He’d known when he asked for them that tamales wouldn’t be on his dinner menu. He’d made a show of wrinkling his nose in disgust when the tray containing the bowl of soup was placed in his lap but secretly he was relieved, although he wouldn’t admit it. The truth was, his stomach was queasy and the smell of the chilli the others were tucking into made him feel a little sick.
On the other hand, he was feeling better and the pain had faded to a manageable level. He still had a headache as a constant companion, but it was less intense and the agony in his back and ribs was now more of a dull ache, so long as he didn’t move around too much. Mostly, though, he was tired. Doc Franklin had told him to expect to spend a lot of time sleeping, which was what his body needed to heal. But Dios, he was sick of the bone-deep weariness that made it difficult even to keep his eyes open and concentrate on the conversation going on around him, let alone make a sensible contribution.
Murdoch, Scott and Val had crowded into his room and tucked with relish into the dinner Val had brought them from Rosa’s cantina. While they ate, they had discussed their plans to apprehend Danforth. The conversation had gone back and forth, with no resolution.
Johnny had mixed feelings about the whole subject. While he wanted nothing more than to go after Danforth and mete out some justice of his own, he was afraid of what Scott might do if he caught up with the Easterner. He himself had no qualms about giving Danforth a dose of his own medicine, but he’d rather let the man go than allow Scott to do something he’d regret later.
Allowing the conversation to carry on around him, Johnny had been secretly watching Scott. He thought his brother seemed a little less tightly wound, his eyes less fervent as he expressed the urgency of finding Danforth.
Johnny bitterly regretted losing his temper with his brother earlier. It had served no purpose other than to upset Scott and add even more to his burden of guilt. Yet he couldn’t help feeling that it was better that the truth of both their feelings was out in the open.
Johnny blinked and shook himself inwardly as he realized his father must have asked him a question. “Sorry, Murdoch, I was miles away.”
Murdoch’s brows drew together in concern. “You look tired, Son. Maybe we should continue this conversation tomorrow.”
Johnny straightened his back. “No, I’m fine. What did you ask me?”
Murdoch looked unconvinced, but let it go. “I was asking you your opinion on whether Danforth is likely to be hiding nearby.”
“I’m sure he is,” Johnny answered immediately. “And I’d bet my hat that he has a man in town keeping an eye on us.”
For the first time, Scott caught his eye and smiled slightly. “I agree with Johnny. Danforth will be looking for an opportunity.”
Murdoch turned his attention to Val. “Val, tell us again about those who arrived in town over the past few days.”
Val tipped his head back and downed the dregs from his coffee cup before replacing it decisively on the table. “None of them seem likely. One’s a traveling salesman from back East. Fancy dude shoes – like anyone around here has any need of ‘em.”
Johnny cocked an eyebrow. “Speak for yourself. You know Scott’s a fancy dresser.”
Val grinned. Even Scott managed a smile, although Murdoch frowned impatiently at the interruption. “Go on, Val,” he said irritably.
“Okay. Then there’s a Texas rancher passing through on his way to visit family in San Francisco. The third is a retired miner heading to Stockton to live with his sister.”
“And you don’t think any of them could be Danforth’s spy?”
Val shrugged. “I’m not sure of anything. Plus, it don’t have to be a stranger. Lot of men would be happy to earn some easy money.”
“Have you seen anyone suspicious hanging around?” Johnny asked.
The consensus was a resounding no.
“Val, I think you should talk to Sheriff Carson in the morning,” Murdoch said, “and see if he has any ideas who it could be.”
Scott had been looking down at his hands, but he lifted his head suddenly. “Could any of the strangers be Danforth himself?”
Johnny felt a shiver of apprehension at the possibility, unlikely as it seemed.
Murdoch frowned. “I doubt the man would be bold enough to come to town where he could be recognized.”
“No,” Johnny said slowly, apprehension growing as the idea took root. “Scott’s right, it’s exactly what he’d do.”
“And Carson said he hasn’t been to town,” Scott put in, “so there are only three of us who can identify him.”
Val pursed his lips. “Well, I couldn’t be sure none of them strangers was him, but none of them fits the description. The Easterner is too short, the rancher has a Texas accent you can spot the minute he opens his mouth and the miner – I just don’t figure on it being him.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” Johnny said. “Scott and I can check them out in the morning.”
Murdoch shot him a stern look. “Scott and I will check them out in the morning.”
“Come on Old Man,” Johnny protested, “If I don’t get out of this bed soon I’ll take root.”
“You’ll get out of that bed when Doctor Franklin says you’re ready.”
“Quite right,” a new voice said. They all turned to see Doctor Franklin standing in the doorway. “And I can assure you, it won’t be tomorrow.”
Johnny scowled. He was getting tired of being treated like an invalid.
Murdoch smiled. “You’re outnumbered, Son.” He stood. “I think it’s time to let Johnny get some sleep.”
“Why don’t you and Val go back to the hotel,” Scott suggested. “I’ll take first watch here and someone can relieve me in a few hours.”
“Is that necessary?” Franklin asked. “You surely don’t think Danforth will come here?”
“We don’t know what Danforth might do,” Scott said grimly. “We can’t afford to take any chances.”
Murdoch nodded his agreement. “Scott, I’ll be back here to relieve you at one o’clock.”
Johnny sank back against the pillows as Val and Murdoch made their goodbyes and left the room. His back was beginning to ache badly and his head was thumping.
Scott glanced at Franklin. “Could you give me and Johnny a moment?”
A heart-to-heart with his brother was the last thing Johnny needed right now, but he could sense Scott had something to get off his chest. Johnny caught Franklin’s eye and nodded, trying not to let his reluctance show.
“All right, Scott,” Franklin said, “but five minutes only. Your brother needs his rest.”
Franklin left and Scott stayed in his position across the room, standing with an elbow resting on the top of the high chest of drawers. There was an awkward silence. Johnny hated this barrier that had grown between them, but he also couldn’t deny the truth of the words he had spoken earlier, any more than Scott could deny his own. In the end, unable to stand the silence any longer, he said irritably, “Will you just sit down, Scott, and say whatever it is you want to say.”
After a moment, Scott pulled a chair up to the bed and leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees. He blew out a long breath and then looked Johnny in the eye.
“What I want to say is, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lost my temper with you – it isn’t you I’m angry with. But I’ve been so caught up in my own feelings of guilt that I haven’t stopped to think about the way my behavior was affecting you.”
Johnny returned his gaze, unsure how to respond. “I don’t think either of us is dealing with it too well,” he said eventually. “When I said I was angry with you – it was true. I was angry, I guess I still am. But I don’t want to feel like that, because you don’t deserve it, and I’m trying hard not to. Does that make any sense?”
Hearing the words, Scott seemed to relax. “It makes perfect sense.” He leaned forward a little, his expression intense. “I know that most of the blame lies with Danforth, not with me. I made some mistakes in dealing with him, but I know it wasn’t my fault that he blames me for Matthew’s death, and I know there probably wasn’t anything I could have done to save you from… what happened. I know it in my head, but I can’t make myself feel it. All I feel is guilt.”
Something in Johnny’s gut began to uncoil. He smiled tentatively. “I guess knowing it in your head is a good start, Scott. For me too. It’ll take time, but I reckon eventually you’ll feel it in your heart too. We both will.”
“I hope so,” Scott said fervently. “Because I don’t want to lose my brother.”
Johnny shook his head. “That isn’t gonna happen. We’ve been through a lot together, Scott. We’ll get through this.”
He held out a hand. Scott reached out and, clearly mindful of Johnny’s bandaged fingers, grasped his wrist, squeezing hard.
Johnny offered his brother a tentative smile and felt a huge burden lift as the smile Scott gave in return reached his eyes for the first time in days. They lapsed into a more companionable silence. Johnny knew things were still far from right between them, but the fact that Scott now seemed to recognize the problem made all the difference.
The silence was broken by the sound of shouting outside.
The brothers exchanged a quick glance. Scott was on his feet and Johnny was reaching for his gun belt, hanging on the bedpost, when Franklin burst in through the bedroom door.
“Jim Butcher just rode past. He says the livery is on fire!”
Scott ran to the window and pulled back a drape. Frustrated that he couldn’t see, Johnny was swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and grunting with the effort when Scott looked back at him over his shoulder. “Something’s on fire all right. I can see the smoke.”
Johnny swallowed back the fear that rose in his chest as a series of possible scenarios chased each other through his mind. His gut feeling was that the fire was a set up to get everyone out of the house. Which meant… “Sounds bad, Scott. What are you waiting for? Go!”
Scott shot him an uncertain look. “I’m not leaving you here alone.”
“The Doc’s here,” Johnny said impatiently. “We’ll be fine. Please, Scott, Barranca’s in that livery!”
Scott responded to the plea in his brother’s eyes with a short nod. “All right.” He turned to Franklin. “Keep a sharp lookout and don’t open the door for anyone other than one of us.”
Franklin nodded. Scott shot one more look at his brother, then to Johnny’s relief, turned on his heel.
Johnny called after him, “Watch your back, Scott!”
Scott waved a hand as he ran out of the door. Johnny pulled his gun belt off the bedpost and pulled his gun from the holster. It was almost impossible to hold it with his bandaged hands, never mind pull the trigger. Cursing, he looked at Franklin. “Doc, you need to take the bandages off my hands.”
Franklin shot him an uncomprehending look. “What? Why?”
“Because I need to be able to hold and shoot my gun.” With an effort, Johnny held on to his patience.
“You think something is going to happen?”
“I think a burning livery could be a good diversion.”
Franklin’s eyes narrowed. “Then why did you send Scott away?”
“My horse is in that livery. I don’t want to lose him.”
Franklin folded his arms. “Nothing to do with getting your brother out of the way in case Danforth turns up here?”
Johnny shot him a blank look. “Of course not.”
Franklin snorted, but complied with Johnny’s request. Freed from the bulky bandage, he found he could hold his weapon, although the weight of it made the healing cuts sting like hell.
Confident he could aim and fire with relative ease, he glanced up at Franklin. “Doc, do you have a weapon?”
Franklin nodded. “A shotgun, and a handgun.”
“Bring them both in here and fetch any spare ammunition too.”
After Franklin returned with his weapons there was nothing to do but wait. Johnny sat in a straight-backed chair beside the chest of drawers, where he had easy access to the window without providing a target. He almost welcomed the pain that began to creep through his body at the strain of sitting in the hard chair – he needed it to help him stay awake and alert. He knew he must look bad from the anxious glances Franklin kept shooting his way, but there was nothing he could do about that.
They waited, exchanging little in the way of conversation, for what seemed hours but which was probably little more than fifteen minutes. They were too far away to hear what was happening at the livery, but the cloud of smoke seemed to decrease as the minutes went by, which hopefully meant that the fire was under control.
“It’s been a while,” Franklin commented. “Do you think possible the fire was an accident after all?”
Johnny shrugged. “It’s possible, but—”Someone hammered on the front door.
Franklin shot Johnny a glance.
“Go and see who it is, but be careful,” Johnny instructed.
As Franklin left the room, Johnny shakily rose to his feet. Pain stabbed through his ribs and back and for a moment his vision blackened at the edges. He closed his eyes, cursing his current weakness, and took a firm grip of the edge of the chest. How the hell was he going to defend himself if he couldn’t even stand upright? He took a couple of deep breaths, and the darkness receded.
He pushed himself upright again. He found that by leaning his elbows on the chest of drawers, he was able to hold his gun fairly steadily, albeit with slightly shaking hands. He could hear Franklin talking and then the sound of a bolt being drawn back and the front door opening.
Despite his readiness for action, Johnny was momentarily shocked that the doctor would do something so stupid. Then again, it was probably Scott on the other side. Not wanting to take a chance, Johnny concentrated on covering the doorway, feeling sweat beginning to drip down his face from the physical effort.
The door to his room flew open. Franklin entered, an expression of fear mixed with apology on his face. Behind him was another man, one arm firmly clasped around Franklin’s neck and the other holding a gun to the doctor’s head.
The man smiled. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you alive, Madrid.”
Johnny had been half-expecting to see him, but still shock exploded through him as he recognized Hiram Danforth. The man’s appearance was a little different – he had shaved off his mustache and was wearing round spectacles, but there was no mistaking the triumphant smirk plastered over his face.
Johnny swallowed his reaction and schooled his features into an expressionless mask as he drawled with feigned nonchalance, “No offense, but the feeling isn’t mutual.”
Danforth laughed. “Haven’t lost your sense of humor, I see. Now, put that gun down on the floor and kick it over to me.”
When Johnny hesitated, he pressed the barrel of the gun against Franklin’s ear and the doctor hissed in pain.
“Do it now,” Danforth ordered, “or I’ll shoot the good doctor.”
Johnny had no doubt that he’d carry out his threat. Slowly, he lowered the gun and kicked it across the floor to land by Danforth’s left foot. Danforth used the toe of his boot to push it further across the room.
The glance Franklin shot Johnny held apology mixed with apprehension. “I’m sorry, Johnny. He said he’d brought a man who’d been badly burned in the fire. Of course I was suspicious, but I know him; his name is Wade Butler from Houston, I met him yesterday in the store. He had a strong Texas accent…” he trailed off.
Johnny remembered then that Franklin hadn’t been present for the conversation over dinner and cursed himself for not thinking of filling the doctor in on their suspicions. Too late now.
“Not your fault, Doc,” he said. “Our friend here is quite the actor. His name isn’t Wade Butler and he isn’t from Texas.”
Franklin paled as realization struck.
“Doc,” Johnny drawled, “allow me to introduce Hiram Danforth, a cowardly, murdering varmint who’s probably here to kill me.”
While trying to draw out the conversation to play for time, Johnny was thinking furiously. He didn’t really think Danforth was here to kill him; if that was the case, Johnny would be dead by now. Fear dried his mouth and threatened to paralyze him as his mind jittered over the alternatives, but he resolutely pushed it back and reached deep for his calm, emotionless Madrid persona, hoping he wouldn’t be betrayed by the furious beating of his heart.
Danforth shook his head and tut-tutted at Johnny’s last words. “I’m not here to kill you, Madrid. That wouldn’t do at all. We were interrupted in the first act of our little theatrical production – there’s still a long way to go until the finale.”
Johnny’s blood ran cold at the words, but he simply rolled his eyes. “Your threats are getting old, Danforth. And let’s face it, it didn’t work out too well for you the first time, did it?”
Danforth’s expression darkened. “This time there won’t be any mistakes.”
He turned his attention away from Johnny. “Now, doctor, do what I say and I won’t hurt you. You’re merely a bystander in our little play. So I’m going to let you go, but if you try anything, I’ll shoot you. Do you understand?”
The threat was uttered in a matter-of-fact tone and Johnny could see Franklin trying to reconcile this well-spoken, amiable persona with the reality of the situation. He didn’t blame him; he’d had the same problem at first. It only made sense when you realized that Danforth was both a consummate play-actor and dangerously unbalanced.
“Yes, I understand.” Franklin said, his voice shaking a little.
Danforth took his arm from around Franklin’s neck and moved back a few steps, his gun now pointed at the doctor’s back. With his free hand he pulled some rope out of his pocket and dropped it on the floor in front of Franklin. “Pick up that rope and tie Madrid’s hands in front of him.”
Franklin hesitated and his eyes moved to Johnny.
“Do what he says, Doc,” Johnny said quietly. He wasn’t about to take chances with Franklin’s life.
With obvious reluctance, Franklin approached Johnny and bound his wrists firmly with the narrow cord.
“Now step back,” Danforth ordered.
As Franklin obeyed, Danforth took a step forward and brought the butt of his gun down on the back of the doctor’s head. Franklin crumpled to the ground.
Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny located his gun. It was across the room, too far to risk making a play for it. He contemplated charging Danforth and the hell with the consequences, but one look at Danforth’s expression told him that the move had been anticipated. “Try it and I’ll shoot you in the knee and then kill the doctor.”
Johnny held Danforth’s manic gaze for a moment and then bowed his head in defeat – for now.
“Now, Madrid, you and I are going to take a walk. If you so much as look at me in a way I find threatening, I’ll shoot the good doctor.”
“You’ll never get away with this,” Johnny shot back. “You’ll never make it out of town.”
“Oh, I think we will. Your friends and your brother are busy putting out my little fire.”
“And how long do you think it will take them to work out it was set on purpose?”
“Long enough. This isn’t a debate, Madrid, so stop playing for time.” He nodded in the direction of the doorway. “Get moving and head for the back door. I have two horses waiting in the lane. You will do exactly as I tell you, otherwise I’ll shoot the first person I see on the street. Do you understand?”
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll find out. Now, get moving.”
Under other circumstances, Johnny might have risked it and taken on Danforth there and then, but even had his hands not been tied, he knew he was currently physically incapable of subduing a jackrabbit, never mind a man already taller and heavier than him. His legs were trembling from standing and the room was beginning to spin.
He took an unsteady step forward, and then another, and another. Danforth sidestepped around Franklin’s body until he stood behind him. Johnny could feel the gun pointed at the back of his head.
“Pick up the pace, Madrid. I haven’t got all night.”
The distinctive sound of a gun’s hammer being drawn back stopped Johnny in his tracks. A figure stepped into the doorway. “Drop that gun or I’ll put a hole in your head.”
Scott threw another bucket of water over the flames and beside him, Val mirrored the action.
The townsfolk’s response to the fire had been swift, the dozen or so volunteers quickly organized by Sheriff Carson into an efficient force to fight the fire. Scott’s priority had been to locate the Lancer horses and, assisted by Val and Murdoch, who materialized at his side, he had rapidly led them out of the livery to safety. The three men had then joined the group preparing to fight the fire.
As he threw bucketful after bucketful of water onto the flames, Scott’s thoughts were with his brother. He couldn’t shake a deep sense of foreboding. While it seemed likely that the fire was simply an unfortunate accident – he’d heard someone remark that he’d known that Frank’s tobacco habit would lead to disaster one day – nevertheless, there was still the possibility that Danforth was behind it and Scott was anxious to return to the doctor’s house and check that everything was all right.
Another bucket was thrust into his hands and Scott threw its contents over the still raging flames. They did not yet have the fire under control and there was still a danger that it could spread to nearby buildings.
Sheriff Carson burst into Scott’s line of vision.
One look at the sheriff’s expression told Scott that something was very wrong. “What is it? What’s happened?”
“First man on the scene pulled old Frank out of the livery just in time. We thought he’d passed out from the smoke, but he came round a few minutes ago and said that he’d heard noises coming from the stable. When he went to check it out, someone hit him from behind.”
Scott felt his blood run cold. His gut feeling had been right. He should have trusted his instincts and stayed with Johnny. He glanced behind him and Val’s expression confirmed that the sheriff had heard the conversation.
“Go!” Val ordered. “I’ll get Murdoch. We’ll be right behind you.”
Scott threw the empty bucket into Val’s hands and took off at a run.
His heart was pounding as he approached the doctor’s house, as much from fear as from exertion. That fear grew when he saw that the front door was slightly ajar.
He pulled his gun, flattened his body against the wall adjacent to the doorway and edged the door open with his foot. He stuck his head cautiously into the opening. The hallway was dimly lit, but he could see well enough to confirm that it was empty.
Quietly, he pushed the door fully open and stepped into the hall. He could see that the door to Johnny’s bedroom was open and as he approached it, heard the rumble of voices coming from inside. He took a few more steps until he was alongside the door and heard Johnny’s voice clearly. “Where are we going?”
A voice from Scott’s nightmares replied.
“You’ll find out. Now, get moving.”
Scott’s heart thumped in his chest. Danforth. And he had Johnny. Rage rose in him at the man who had caused such suffering, yet he found himself assessing the situation with a clinical calm. He realized that this was the moment he’d been waiting for ever since Danforth had made good his escape and this time, Scott was ready.
“Pick up the pace, Madrid. I haven’t got all night.”
Scott’s resolve hardened at the harsh words. No way in hell was Danforth leaving that room with his brother. It didn’t occur to him to wait for reinforcements. This was going to end, here and now.
Scott took a deep breath and stepped into the doorway. He quickly took in the scene before him. Doctor Franklin lay unmoving on the floor, the back of his head matted with blood. Scott couldn’t tell if he was still breathing. To his relief, Johnny was alive and standing, barefoot and still wearing his nightshirt. His face was wax-white, he was sweating, and it was clear that it was willpower alone that kept him on his feet.
Behind him stood Danforth and if the Easterner was surprised at Scott’s sudden appearance he certainly didn’t show it.
Scott raised his weapon. “Drop that gun or I’ll put a hole in your head.”
Danforth’s response was instantaneous as he snaked an arm around Johnny’s neck, pressing his gun to the ex-gunfighter’s head.
Mouth dry with fear for his brother, Scott stood his ground. “I told you to drop the gun.”
“I don’t think so, not unless you want your brother to die here and now. I doubt that you can shoot fast enough to prevent me pulling the trigger.”
“Do it, Scott,” Johnny hissed.
Scott looked at Danforth. “No one has to die. You can end this right now, Danforth. Just let Johnny go.”
Danforth laughed and the sound had a frantic edge that chilled Scott right through. “There’s only one way this is going to end. Why don’t you understand? Your brother hasn’t suffered enough. You haven’t suffered enough. Not enough to give Matthew the justice he deserves. And he must have it, or he’ll never leave me, I’ll never know peace.”
“Justice?” Despite his resolve to keep calm, Scott felt his anger rise. “What you’re doing isn’t justice. You know, for a while you fooled me into believing that I bore some guilt for what happened to Matt and for what you did to Johnny. But I know now that I was mistaken. All the blame lies with you.”
“You’re wrong!” Danforth’s voice rose hysterically. “You’re the guilty one!”
Scott watched a drop of sweat drip down the side of Danforth’s face and knew he had hit the right spot. Now, if he could only rattle Danforth into making a mistake… “No. Face the truth. Danforth,” he continued. “You were the one who let Matthew go to war – you even encouraged him, but he wasn’t ready, was he? He was a self-centered, immature kid and he couldn’t handle it.”
Danforth shook his head and the hand holding the gun began to shake. “Matthew was a good boy with a bright future ahead of him. You stole that from him, and you’re going to pay for it. I’m leaving with your brother and you’re not going to stop me.”
“I will not let you leave with my brother,” Scott said firmly. “So the next move is up to you.”
Danforth’s eyes widened with a wild look. “You don’t understand! This isn’t the way it has to end. I’m not supposed to kill your brother! It’s the final act. It has to be you!”
Shock knifed through Scott at the words. “You want me to kill Johnny?”
“Of course! By the end he’ll beg you to do it, to end his suffering, and you’ll do it and never forgive yourself.”
Hiding the horror in his reaction, Scott said, “That will never happen.”
Scott locked his gaze with Danforth’s. He saw the moment his adversary realized that he was beaten and read Danforth’s intention in his eyes. Johnny didn’t speak, but a tightening around his eyes revealed that he knew what was about to happen.
Johnny nodded imperceptibly.
Danforth’s finger began to tighten on the trigger. At the same moment, Johnny went limp. His dead weight surprised Danforth and for a second the gun wavered.
Scott squeezed the trigger and shot Danforth right between the eyes.
Barranca picked his way carefully through knotted roots spanning the narrow trail. Johnny shifted and stretched in an attempt to ease the ache in his side. It was mid-afternoon and he’d been on the trail since early morning. He’d taken it easy, stopping several times to rest, but this was the longest he’d been in the saddle since the incident and the long hours were beginning to tell.
His mind went back to the last time he’d ridden this trail to Franklin’s cabin, over six weeks ago. He’d been hurting from the beating he’d endured at the hands of Starkin and his men, and filled with worry that his past had caught up with him and put his brother in danger. Both the physical pain and the mental anguish were still fresh in his mind.
The towering trees obscured the sun and Johnny shivered in the crisp late-autumn air. Back then it had been oppressively hot. They’d turned off the main trail onto this little used path through the forest and he clearly recalled the sheer relief as the burning rays of the sun were cut off by the canopy of leafy branches.
For most of the day he’d resolutely kept the memories at bay, but as he’d passed the lion rock he’d felt anxiety begin to grow and with every passing mile the tightness in his chest increased. He was angry with himself for allowing fear to take a grip. Rationally, there was nothing to be afraid of. The cabin was a building, nothing more, and the cause of his recurring nightmares no longer posed a threat.
Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling of dread and the memories continued to invade his thoughts, unbidden but persistent.
Finally, the trees parted and the trail continued through an open meadow. Straight ahead stood the cabin. The sight of it sent a spasm of shock coursing through him. Memories tumbled over each other: the smarting of rough ropes binding his wrists to the poles; the numbing pain in his arms; the constant blistering heat of the sun on his face – and the sickening smell of burning flesh as Starkin, lips drawn back in a sneer of triumph, ground the burning cigar against naked flesh.
A squirrel darted across the trail just ahead. As Barranca snorted his irritation, Johnny snapped back to the present and reined his mount to a halt. His mouth was dry and his hands shook slightly.
This was a mistake. He shouldn’t have come.
It was six weeks since Scott had ended their ordeal by shooting Hiram Danforth. The moment was forever burnt into Johnny’s brain. He’d sensed the moment that Danforth decided to pull the trigger. In that split second he’d seen the same knowledge on his brother’s face. He did the only thing he could think of, letting his body go limp in Danforth’s grasp, hoping to surprise his captor and put him off balance. He’d heard the deafening retort of a gunshot just before Danforth dropped like a stone, taking Johnny with him.
Scott told him later that he’d passed out, which made sense as his next recollection was of waking up back in bed in the doctor’s house with Scott, Murdoch and Val flanking his bedside like a trio of worried mother hens.
Thankfully, Doctor Franklin had suffered no more than a mild concussion and was soon well enough to make Johnny’s recovery frustrating, insisting on two more days of bed rest.
His memory of those few days was hazy. He remembered Sheriff Carson taking statements and agreeing that the shooting of Danforth was self-defense. As soon as the circuit judge arrived from Stockton, the rest of Danforth’s gang had been tried, convicted and sent to prison for their part in the kidnapping. By then, the Lancers had returned home, Johnny grumpily agreeing to travel in a wagon rather than riding Barranca. He’d have agreed to anything if it meant going home.
Since then he’d patiently – for the most part – endured Jelly and Teresa’s constant fussing, knowing that they were just worried about him. Jelly had seemed to understand his reluctance to talk about his ordeal, but Teresa had not and seemed to think his silence showed a lack of trust in her. He couldn’t bear the hurt expression in her eyes, but he didn’t know how to deal with it either. He was pretty sure that retreating to the safety of the stables whenever he felt uncomfortable wasn’t a long-term solution.
Scott too had been reluctant to talk about their experience. The brothers had resumed their former easy friendship, but Johnny had an uneasy feeling that there were things they both still needed to get off their chests – one day.
As he reluctantly urged Barranca forward, he figured that today might turn out to be that day.
He and Scott had just returned from a trip to Stockton and decided to visit Doctor Franklin in Oak Ridge on their way back to Lancer. They had spent a pleasant evening with the doctor before retiring to the hotel for the night. Johnny had woken that morning to find Scott gone and in his place a note explaining that there was something he needed to do and that he’d be back in a couple of days.
Johnny had been angry with Scott for taking off like that. He couldn’t understand why his brother didn’t ask him to take the trip with him. He’d immediately taken off after Scott. There had been no need to follow Scott’s tracks. Johnny knew exactly where his brother was going.
As he neared the cabin he saw a figure standing beside the wooden frame. Scott had an axe in his hand and as Johnny watched, he swung it at the left hand upright pole. The blade bit deeply into wood and the pole swayed. By the time Johnny reined in beside his brother, the pole had fallen and the top bar was dragging on the ground.
Scott turned. His shirt clung wetly to his back and sweat glistening on his face.
Johnny dismounted and faced his brother. They stood in silence for a long moment, then
Scott wiped a hand across his sweaty brow and held out the axe. “Finish it.”
After a moment of hesitation, Johnny took the axe and approached the remaining pole. He studied it for a moment, then tentatively swung the axe. The head connected with the wood, making a small dent. Johnny swung again, more strongly this time, and chips of wood flew out beneath the blade.
He paused and glanced at Scott. His brother nodded.
Johnny lifted the axe again and felt a surge of almost overwhelming emotion. With more energy, he brought the axe down once more against the wooden pole, the symbol of so much pain and suffering. He forgot his brother standing nearby, ignored the pain as his still healing ribs protested the sudden physical exertion. Chopping wood was usually a task he enjoyed; the smooth, consistent rhythm soothed his spirit. Now, he wielded the axe as a weapon, his movements savage and erratic. He felt all the pent up frustration, fear and anger flow through the axe into the wood, each strike taking with it a memory of Danforth’s sardonic smile and Starkin’s malicious grin. Sweat poured down his face, the salt stinging his eyes and his muscles ached, but nothing could now divert him from his task. And each time the axe head bit into the wood, he felt a little more emotion seep out of him, like puss flowing from an open wound.
One final blow and the pole fell, landing with a thump beside the other remains of the frame, taking the final traces of anger and pain with it. Strength deserting him, Johnny dropped the axe and followed it to the ground as his knees gave way. He rested his hands on his knees and hung his head, breathing deeply, feeling weak and a little light-headed.
Within seconds Scott was crouching beside him, a warm, supportive hand curled around the back of his neck. “Johnny?”
Scott sounded anxious. Johnny twisted his head to look at him. “How did you know?”
“That we needed to do this.”
Scott sat back on his heels and smiled tiredly. “I didn’t, not really. I just knew it wasn’t really over for me – or for you. I’m glad you followed me.”
His anger at Scott’s actions had gone. Johnny simply cocked an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t have had to, if you hadn’t sneaked out in the night.”
Scott looked sheepish. “I know. I’m sorry. I wanted you with me, but I just… I wasn’t sure you were ready to come back, and I didn’t want you to have to come just for me.”
Johnny looked at him for a long moment, satisfied with what he saw in his brother’s eyes – there was concern, but no sign of the anguished guilt that had been present for so long.
“Not sure I was ready,” he admitted as he slowly got to his feet, wincing a little as his ribs protested. “But that” – he waved at the wooden stump – “that felt really good.”
They stood together, looking at the pile of wood for a long time. Johnny didn’t know what thoughts were going through Scott’s mind, but there was something on his, something he needed to ask. “Would you have done it?” he asked abruptly.
Scott looked at him quizzically. “Done what?”
Johnny cleared his throat, eyes fixed on the hat he was twirling around in his hands. “Would you have finished it, if I’d begged you to, like he wanted?”
There was a long silence. When he finally looked up, Scott looked stricken and Johnny almost regretted asking. Scott licked his lips. “You don’t know how many times I’ve asked myself that question over the past six weeks.”
“Me too,” Johnny admitted.
“In the end I figured it didn’t really matter, because he wouldn’t have broken you.”
Thinking back to the long hours spent at the lion rock, fear of re-capture threatening to paralyze him, Johnny wasn’t sure his brother’s faith in his courage was justified. “Every man can be broken, Scott.”
“Maybe,” Scott conceded. “But I honestly can’t tell you what I’d have done. I’m just grateful that I never had to find out.”
Johnny studied his brother for a moment, imaging himself in Scott’s place. What would he do, seeing his brother in unimaginable pain, hearing him beg for the suffering to end?
“You’re right, Scott,” he said softly. “It doesn’t matter. It’s time to really put this behind us. So how about we go find somewhere to camp and cook up a bowl of Marita’s chili?”
Scott looked as if a burden had been lifted. He smiled. “Did she happen to send any of those oatmeal cookies too?”
Johnny grinned. “What do you think? Marita’s the only good thing to come out of this whole mess.”
After hearing Marita’s story, Doctor Franklin had offered her a job as his housekeeper, if she wanted to stay in California instead of returning to Mexico. Surprisingly, Marita had accepted, saying that Mexico held too many bad memories and it was time for her to make a fresh start.
Since then she had changed, growing in confidence and greeting Scott and Johnny with a ready smile when they had arrived yesterday. Franklin had told them that she had even agreed to attend a local dance with Juan, one of Cannon’s ranch hands. Johnny was happy for her.
“And we saved Jeb Harper from spending any more time in Carson’s jail,” Scott said with a laugh. “He seems to be settling in well.”
Johnny nodded. Jeb had gotten into a fight over a poker game a couple of days before they’d left Oak Ridge. Val had persuaded Carson to let him out of jail if he left town immediately and Johnny had offered him a job as a hand at Lancer.
Scott clapped Johnny on the back as they deliberately turned their backs on the cabin. “We’ll have to extend the ranch if we keep offering jobs to all your old friends.”
Johnny laughed. “At least my friends have some idea what they’re doing. Bet your old friends wouldn’t know one end of a cow from another!”
Scott sighed contentedly and leaned back against his bedroll. He stretched his legs out and pulled his jacket a little closer around his shoulders. It was a cold night, with more than a hint that winter was just around the corner. Yet neither brother had suggested sleeping in the cabin, instead making camp in the woods, well out of sight of the building.
When Scott had decided to ride out to the cabin alone, he’d been sure he’d made the right decision. This was something he needed to do, to dispel some of the demons that haunted him. He wasn’t sure if Johnny felt a similar need to come back. He and Johnny had different ways of dealing with things. While Scott tended to brood over things Johnny was quick to forget and move on. Or at least, he gave that impression. If he was honest, Scott was never sure what was going on behind the mask Johnny wore so often. Whatever he was feeling, Johnny had barely spoken a word about his ordeal and while Scott himself was just as anxious to put the experience behind him, it wasn’t easy and he had felt there were still things that needed to be said between them.
Cutting down the obscene wooden frame had helped dissipate some of his anger and with it, a lot of the guilt. His heart was finally beginning to catch up with what he already knew in his head – he wasn’t to blame for Danforth’s actions. And for the first time in six weeks, he felt a measure of peace.
The brothers sat companionably, talking about this and that and the stallion Johnny had purchased in Stockton. Then, into a momentary silence, Johnny suddenly asked, “What was Matt Danforth really like?”
Scott thought about that for a moment. “He wasn’t the man that existed in Danforth’s imagination, that’s for sure,” he said after a moment. “He was arrogant and reckless, thought the war was a bit of a lark. Until he saw combat. Then it was a different story. But he was young, not much more than a boy. He wasn’t the only one who didn’t have what it took.”
“You weren’t much more than a boy, but you had what it took,” Johnny said softly.
Scott shrugged. “Maybe. Anyway, he may have been weak, but he didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
“You’re not blaming yourself for that?”
Scott shook his head. “No. I know there was nothing I could have done. I had other men to worry about, and a battle to fight.”
“I guess I understand why Danforth got himself all fussed up about it,” Johnny said. “He’d encouraged his brother to join up and when Matt died, he needed someone to blame. He believed the yarn Matt’s friend’s told – why wouldn’t he, when he didn’t really know his brother? I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing if you’d gotten killed by them Rebs.”
Scott tried to see Johnny’s expression, but his brother’s face was shrouded in shadows. He frowned. “But what he did… however bad the crime, it didn’t justify him taking the law into his own hands.”
Johnny shrugged. “Sometimes, a man can’t get justice unless he delivers it himself. Look, I’m not saying what he did was right. He went crazy, did some really bad things. I’m just saying I think I understand how he felt.”
Scott fell silent, thinking about Johnny’s words. It was a good example of the difference between them and their backgrounds. He himself firmly believed that justice should be sought within the law, but he knew that Johnny saw things differently. He wondered uneasily how many times in the past Johnny had felt the need to take the law into his own hands.
He decided that this wasn’t the time to question his brother on the issue. Instead, he changed the subject. “Listen, you know how responsible I feel – felt – for what happened to you.” He raised a hand when Johnny opened his mouth, obviously about to protest. “Hear me out. I know it wasn’t my fault, although I’m still angry with myself for letting Danforth play me so well. But it has helped me understand your fear about your past catching up with you.”
Johnny didn’t speak, but he leaned forward a little and his expression in the firelight was open, so Scott continued. “I told you once that the past is the past, and if something happened because of your life as a gunfighter, we’d face it together and I wouldn’t hold it against you. I meant what I said. But the way I’ve been acting… I guess I’ve given you good cause to question my sincerity.”
“The thought’s crossed my mind,” Johnny said drily.
Scott leaned forward. “I know you don’t hold me responsible for Danforth and I’m grateful for that. And I want you to know that I’m trying very hard not to take the blame on myself. That’s what I’d want you to do in my place; I guess I’ve realized it’s a lot easier to say than do.”
After a long moment, Johnny nodded. “Fair enough, Scott.” His lips quirked. “With my past, I reckon you’ll get a chance to prove your words soon enough, anyway.”
“I hope not,” Scott said with feeling.
Johnny’s eyes shone with amusement. “What will be, will be. But I think we’re probably safe tonight, so how about we try to get some sleep.”
Scott eyed him doubtfully. He didn’t think Johnny had slept through the night more than a couple of times since their return home. Scott knew he was having nightmares, bad ones judging from the muffled cries he often heard coming from his brother’s room. On the occasions he’d gone in to check, he’d heard the name Ramirez amidst the anguished mutterings in Spanish. Johnny refused to talk about it.
Johnny caught his gaze and rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry about me, Scott. The nightmares will stop in a while. They always do.”
“I just…” Scott stopped. He wouldn’t push, even though he desperately wanted his brother to open up to him and explain more about Ramirez.
They sat in silent for a while longer. Scott watched Johnny surreptitiously as he sat poking at the fire with a stick. Eventually, Johnny began to speak, his voice low and his eyes fixed firmly on the dying embers. “I was about eight when my ma took up with Ramirez.”
Scott listened intently and didn’t interrupt as Johnny, in a matter of fact tone, told him the story of his life with Ramirez and the verbal and physical abuse he and his mother had suffered for two long years.
When Johnny finished he looked up shyly and Scott was careful to keep his expression free of the horror and anger he was felt toward the monster who had made his brother’s life a living hell. He knew Johnny didn’t want his pity. He had a hundred questions, but he simply said, “I’m sorry you had to go through that. I wish I could have been there for you, when you needed a big brother.”
Johnny smiled. “Me too. I always wanted a brother.”
“Really?” Scott said, surprised. Johnny had never told him that before. “I’d have liked a brother too, when I was growing up. I was lonely at times.”
“Well, better late than never,” Johnny said with a smile.
Scott nodded. “We have a lot of time to make up for.” He paused. “Thanks for telling me about Ramirez. But look – I understand now why you don’t like to talk about your past. And if you never tell me more, that’s fine by me.”
After a slight hesitation, Johnny said, “I don’t mean to keep secrets from you. It wasn’t all bad, and I guess you’re right Scott. The past has made me who I am. So maybe I’ll tell you some more, sometime.”
“I’d like that.” It suddenly struck Scott that Johnny had been right before, when he’d called him a hypocrite. He wanted to know all about Johnny’s past, but he’d been unwilling to share a single thing about the most painful experiences of his own life. Maybe now was the time to redress that balance.
He cleared his throat. “That battle right after Matt Danforth deserted… I remember it well, not because of Matt, but because it was at that battle I was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp.”
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