Word count: 10,650
It was Hell, languishing in this limbo of grays and black, carried wherever the currents and tides of this murky morass took him. It threatened to tear his consciousness apart, but he kept hold of it with a tenacity that even he didn’t know he had before. Master was an unforgiving soul, and he had let first young Silas Hacket and then Johnny Madrid slip through his fingers. He deserved this punishment, he supposed. But maybe he could redeem himself in the eyes of his Master and become a favored minion again. Yes, he would come up with a plan to ensnare one of the souls he’d lost. That would do it. He would devise a plan…
All at once, the gray morass turned into the vivid blue and green of sky and grass. He was lying on his back in an open field. Ah, yes, the beauty of Earth was always so astonishing and so underappreciated by its inhabitants. He looked down at his body. It was clothed in the black suit he always preferred. There was a pocket watch in his vest. He pulled it out and looked at the polished cover. Yes, his Master had been kind. This was his favorite face—the one that elicited a little bit of fear and revulsion from everyone he met. It would take some time to be able to put his plan into action. He needed supplies, and for that, he needed money. He had many ruses to procure money. It wouldn’t be difficult, but it would take time. But his prey wasn’t going anywhere. Yes, Johnny Madrid wasn’t going anywhere. He’d still be at Lancer ranch when he was ready to steal the boy’s soul for his Master. Johnny Madrid would succumb to the underworld or his name wasn’t Absalom Weir.
Murdoch Lancer walked up to the corral where Scott was watching Johnny break a horse, or in Johnny’s method, talk it into cooperating. It was always a fascinating dance to watch.
“How long’s he been at it?”
Scott turned at the sound of his father’s voice. “Oh, a couple of hours, I think.”
“And this is all the further he’s gotten?” Murdoch watched the stallion circle the corral by a lead rope, as Johnny crooned to him.
Scott smiled. “Well, you didn’t see where he started from. That is one ornery piece of horseflesh. The fact that he’s even listening to Johnny’s voice is quite the accomplishment.”
Both Murdoch and Scott draped themselves over the corral fence to watch Johnny’s technique.
Absalom Weir took another look in his long glass. Now the father had entered his field of vision. It had taken him three months to arrive at the ranch with everything he needed in place. The problem was Johnny Madrid seldom went anywhere alone. Most annoying was that he was usually accompanied by his brother, whose life force aura was about as brilliantly golden as Weir had seen in centuries. It tended to bathe Johnny in its brightness when the two of them were together. Even now Weir could see that Johnny’s aura had less darkness surrounding it than his previous encounter. Turning Johnny to embrace the evil within him might be harder than he originally thought. No matter. His Master had agreed that if Madrid killed one more person in cold blood, they had his soul damned forever. All he had to do was get Johnny to kill him when he was unarmed, and his Master would be pleased. But first, he had to get him alone, especially away from his brother. Weir put away his telescope and mounted his horse. He wasn’t going to find Madrid away from the hacienda today. But he still could have a little fun, give them a little harbinger of the ills to come. He thrust his arm out and sent a burst of wind down to the estancia.
Everyone around the corral lowered their hats when the unexpected gust of wind hit. The unbroken stallion reared in fright and broke loose from Johnny’s grip, as he tried to keep the dust out of his eyes. Johnny had to jump toward the fence and roll under it to avoid the horse’s panicked hooves.
He came up annoyed. “What the hell!” He tried to dust himself off. “That ruined all my work this afternoon. He won’t settle down for a good, long while now. Where’d that come from?”
No one had an answer for him.
“Smell that?” Jelly Hoskins said, joining the men. “Smells like rotten eggs.”
“I don’t smell anything,” Scott said.
“Wahl, I’m aguess’n’ you ain’t got no sore elbows neither, Mr. Fancy Pants,” Jelly scolded, rubbing his elbows.
Scott glared at him. Jelly hadn’t even been on the ranch when he had arrived in his plaid pants. Why had Johnny told the man about them? Jelly had a wide array of epithets for Scott; he rarely called Johnny a less than respectful name. Sometimes it got on Scott’s nerves. He knew that the bewhiskered old man had a heart of gold underneath all that blustering, but sometimes, sometimes…
“Time to give it a rest, anyway,” Murdoch said. “It’s almost dinnertime.” He ushered his sons into the house. “See you at six,” he said over his shoulder at the handyman.
The month of October seemed to be cursed for the ranch: fences deliberately cut, cattle stampeded, a small pond poisoned, an outer storage building burned. Murdoch was fit to be tied. No other ranches in the area had been similarly affected. Why was Lancer being targeted? Jelly was spouting all sorts of crazy theories of gloom and doom. He was smelling sulfur every day. The devil was behind everything, according to the handyman. Johnny seemed to hang on every word; Scott just tuned the old man out. The devil, indeed! When whoever was behind this was caught, Jelly would find a very human man, albeit a wicked one.
Now on the last day of this damned month, Cipriano reported a problem with the stream feeding Little Miwok, the small lake in the northern pasture.
Scott was just finishing up lunch. “We’ll go look at it,” he told the Segundo. “Right, Johnny?”
Johnny just nodded, too much food in his mouth to speak.
“I need you to look over the books for me before you go, Scott,” Murdoch objected. “Damned if I can find where the mistake is.”
“Is that alright with you, brother?”
Johnny swallowed. “I’ll just go on ahead of you.”
“I shouldn’t be too far behind.”
Murdoch gave Scott a glare at the subtle insult.
Johnny was grinning as he grabbed his hat and made for the door. “Don’t be so sure, Scott. The Old Man can get pretty sneaky at hidin’ his mistakes.”
“Boys!” Murdoch chastised, but neither son missed the warmth that was also conveyed in that word.
Two hours later, Johnny pulled Barranca up short beside the small lake. It was clear that the stream that fed it was quite low. Sighing, he started to wend his way upstream. It was a cold and cloudy day so late in October and he didn’t relish getting wet trying to unblock the water. Maybe it was only one big branch or something else as easy and he could get the job done before Scott rode up.
It wasn’t too long before the site of the blockage appeared. Unfortunately, the job of unblocking it looked complicated. He dismounted and stood there taking everything in. He wasn’t sure how he should tackle the job.
The sound of a wagon pulling up surprised him.
“Johnny Madrid! Hello there, friend!”
Johnny knew that voice, that smell, that face. Absalom Weir. What the Hell? Where had he come from? What was he doing on Lancer land? The memories of what happened a year ago at the Hacket farm sprung to mind. He had fervently wished to never see the man’s face again after that fiasco. He’d had to put down young Silas Hacket’s beloved horse, Cinder, and he’d believed Weir had a big hand in the horse losing its footing. No, Absalom Weir was not his friend.
Johnny’s hand brushed the butt of his gun. He was never more relieved to find it faithfully in its holster. “Mister Weir, what brings you here trespassing on Lancer land?”
“Are we on Lancer? My, my, it’s so big, one never knows if he’s trespassing or not.” Weir gave Johnny an unctuous smile and clambered down from the wagon.
“I suggest you turn around and get back on that wagon and leave the way you came right now or else I just might have to take you into custody for murderin’ Chinese Charlie.”
Weir ignored the threat. Instead, he took out a handkerchief and mopped his face. “Even on a cold day I sweat like the devil,” he muttered. “Looks to me like you have a problem and could use some help with it.”
“Don’t need no help from you, Weir. My brother’s on his way. We’ll get it done.”
Damn! Scott Lancer was due to arrive. He didn’t want to be blinded by that man’s shining soul. He’d made sure he didn’t shake the man’s hand when they were first introduced. He knew he would have been scalded by the virtuous man’s touch. Now he’d have to shorten this encounter considerably to avoid a confrontation. “Well, then, if you don’t mind, I’d like to fill my canteen. Then I’ll be on my way, as you so politely requested.”
Johnny motioned for him to go right ahead.
Weir made a big show out of rinsing out his canteen several times before filling it, talking the entire time. “Whatever happened to that nice boy? Silas was his name, as I recall.”
“He’s with his lovin’ family. No need to be concerned about him.”
“And his spread?”
“We bought it. Thanks for findin’ water on it.”
Weir chuckled. “See? I’m not so bad, am I, boy? I made that land profitable for you. There’s no reason to be scared of me.”
“I ain’t scared of you.”
Weir gave him the once over and spied Johnny’s right hand resting on his gun. “Well, that’s good. That’s good. Why don’t you share a drink with me, then? I’ve got some fine whiskey in the wagon.”
“Why not?” Weir shot back. “Johnny Madrid too good to drink with the likes of me?”
“I don’t know. What is the likes of you, Weir? You seem to cause sorrow wherever you go.”
“You watch your tongue, boy, or you’ll see an early grave!” Weir threatened.
“Dyin’ don’t scare me. I’ve been ready for a bullet for a long time,” Johnny said steadily and coolly, trying to figure out Weir’s game.
“It won’t be a bullet that gets you, boy. I foresee you dancing at the end of a rope.”
Johnny snorted. “Not likely.”
Weir capped his canteen and brushed by Johnny. He could take wind as easily as he could create it. Johnny suddenly found his breath stolen from him. He fell to his knees, gasping. He couldn’t get air into his lungs. Grasping uselessly toward his holster, he fell to the ground senseless.
Weir chuckled and slung Madrid over his shoulders effortlessly. He dumped Madrid into the wagon, grabbed his gun, and forced some of the drugged whiskey down the man’s throat. The bravado of Johnny Madrid was a source of great amusement. These hot-headed pistoleros were always so arrogant, so sure their guns would get them out of any situation. The indigo stains upon their souls damned them to Hell every time. His Master would snatch them away at once upon their last breath. But Madrid was different. He shared the arrogance, but he didn’t have the amount of stain that would damn him to Hell…yet. After tonight, however, he would join the rest of his compadres. He would kill an unarmed man, and the dark blue stain would spread over his soul like spilled ink on a tile floor. They’d hang Madrid for murder, and his Master would be there, impatiently waiting to take his soul to damnation. Weir hummed to himself as he drove away from the dam he had so carefully built, its purpose served.
Scott grumbled to himself as he saddled Remmie to ride out to meet Johnny. Finding Murdoch’s error had taken longer than he thought it would. Usually, it was a transposed number that made the numbers not add up correctly. He had looked for that first. But this time Murdoch had double entered a bill and it seemed to take forever to spot it.
“Where’re you goin’?” Jelly asked as he walked up to Remmie’s stall.
“I’m meeting Johnny at Little Miwok.”
“Wahl, it’s about time! I don’t like seein’ that boy go anywhere by hisself these days. Somethin’ bad’s gonna happen and that boy is gonna be in the thick of it, I know,” Jelly complained.
“And just how do you know that?” Scott asked, not caring what the answer was. The handyman would just go on and on about seeing a raven or a dead rat or, lately, the smell of rotten eggs. He chastised himself for unthinkingly asking the question.
“Cuz the wind’s kickin’ up and I’m smellin’ rotten eggs agin.”
“And that’s a portent of evil?” Scott smiled as he threw the saddle over Remmie’s blanket.
“It’s the same as when that feller came to take that young’un, Silas, away and steal his farm, I tell ya!”
Scott remembered the incident, mainly because Johnny had been so upset about it. Absalom Weir, if memory served. He had only a brief interaction with the man. Silas had gotten upset and ran from the table, and he had followed the boy. All he could remember was being put off by the man. He rarely met a man who repulsed him immediately. Absalom Weir was one of them. He was glad that the man hadn’t reached out his hand for Scott to shake. The thought of touching him sent shivers through him. Suddenly, he felt a grip of fear for his brother. He shouldn’t let Jelly’s foolishness infect him. Still…
“Are you talking about Absalom Weir?”
Jelly nodded. “That’s what he called hisself. I call ‘im the devil. He’s the devil, if ya ask me, ‘though nobody never does ‘round here,” he muttered.
“I’ll make up some time getting out there,” Scott reassured the old man as he led his mount into the courtyard.
Jelly snorted derisively. “Like Johnny didn’t run that palomino!”
Jelly had a point. Johnny loved to run Barranca. “Look, I’ll get there as soon as I can.” He mounted Remmie and took off at a steady pace.
“God go with ya, Scott,” Jelly murmured. “God go with ya.” His elbows ached something awful.
Scott saw a wagon on the crest of a small rise. He saw Barranca, riderless, standing some distance to the right. Where was Johnny? A sense of foreboding swept over him. The sky was getting darker and the wind had increased. Remmie started to side-step, as if sensing the fear of his rider. The smell of sulfur was strong. Scott spurred the horse forward, nevertheless. Was that Johnny in the back?
Weir knew his wagon could not outrun the man on the horse. Damn Scott Lancer! He let the horse come yards closer and then unleashed a blast of wind that he knew the horse couldn’t withstand. He watched with satisfaction as the horse reared. The rider struggled mightily to control the animal, but he was finally dislodged.
Weir was already off the wagon and on his way to the downed man. Lancer was trying to gain his feet. That wasn’t going to happen. Weir was on him before he could rise to his knees. One blow to Lancer’s head with his cane and the man went down again. Weir smiled. He had hit the man exactly right—hard enough to make him disoriented and collapse but not hard enough to cause unconsciousness. No, he wanted Lancer to feel every blow. He could not directly take Lancer’s life, that was the purview of his Master’s opposite. All his Master and his minions could do was arrange situations where people suffered or walked into dangers that would prove fatal if certain choices were made. Still, creating suffering, pain, and ills held its own delights, and Weir thought he excelled at it.
Lancer was on his left side as Weir began to rain blows from his cane upon the man’s torso. A good old-fashioned caning was just what this paragon of virtue deserved. There went one rib, then another. Nevertheless, the man might still be able to climb back on his horse and pursue them. Weir considered his options. He slammed his foot down on Lancer’s right femur. The man moaned, but Weir wanted more. He jumped, full body, onto the femur. The resulting crack of the bone and Lancer’s agonized scream were music to his ears. Was that enough?
Weir was wondering if he needed to make the man suffer more when he was slammed sideways. Johnny had been awakened from his forced stupor by Scott’s scream. He violently pushed Weir away from his brother and scrambled around to see Scott’s face.
Scott squinted at him. The pain in his leg was overwhelming. “Get away from him, Johnny!”
Johnny grabbed his brother’s outstretched hand. “Scott!”
Scott could see Johnny’s disorientation and felt the evil all around them. Not knowing what else to do, he willed all the love and goodness of his heart into his brother, hoping Johnny would be able to feel his bond in the coming hours. The full force of the storm finally hit. Rain pelted down; it felt like lightning had struck their clasped hands. The world whited out for both the brothers, and each fell back senseless.
Weir approached the Lancers sensing their unconscious states. What luck! He slung his prey over his shoulders, leaving the blond to withstand the bitter elements on his own. If his Master’s opposite chose to take Scott Lancer’s life, that was not Weir’s doing. He had left the man alive. Weir threw Johnny Madrid into the wagon and drove off to the cabin. Tonight he would damn Madrid’s soul to Hell. His Master would be pleased with him once more.
Murdoch stood looking out of the great room window, seeing the rain blown almost parallel to the ground. This was a violent storm.
Jelly walked in, shucking his oilskin. “A wicked storm, Boss. Boys back yet?”
“No, not yet, and now that this storm’s hit, I don’t expect them tonight. I’m sure they’ve found shelter by now.”
Jelly looked at him skeptically. “Don’t know about that. My elbows’ve been aching all afternoon, and now my knees are flarin’ up.”
Murdoch gave him a glare. He didn’t want to hear the man’s gloom and doom talk. He was worried enough already. “Well, there’s nothing we can do tonight. All the horses taken care of?”
“Yessir. I know you don’t believe in my achin’ joints, Boss, but I tell ya—them boys’re in trouble. Smelled it this afternoon. Scott did, too. Rotten eggs, just like that time that Weir fella came to steal young Silas’ farm. The devil’s work’s afoot.”
“Jelly…” Murdoch said testily.
“I’m goin’, but at first light, I’ll be goin’ to find them boys, with or without ya.” He turned to leave, but before he could take three steps, he heard Murdoch’s “With me.”
Jelly was true to his word and was saddling up two horses when Murdoch walked into the barn at sunup, Cipriano close on his heels.
“I have a feeling we’re going to need more than just the two of us today, Jelly,” Murdoch said. “Can you get started on hitching up the wagon? Cip, let’s take Frank and Walt with us, too.”
“Now you’re talkin’, Boss!” Jelly exclaimed. “My joints are achin’ somethin’ fierce.”
Soon the party was moving toward Little Miwok where Cipriano had sent the boys the afternoon before. Jelly was driving the wagon and would catch up once they found them. The brunt of the storm had passed, leaving in its wake a dense cloud cover and an annoying mist/drizzle that chilled them to the bone. Murdoch thought the weather matched his mood. He had a growing sense of dread as they neared the stream his sons were supposed to be clearing.
He saw Barranca first. The palomino was standing in front of Remmie; both horses were saddled, miserable, and huddling together for warmth. Murdoch knew Johnny would never leave his beloved horse in that condition.
“Boss!” Frank shouted, pointing a good ways left of the horses. A man lying in the grass.
Frank was off his horse first. He turned the form over. It was Scott. Murdoch and Walt dismounted and crouched next to him.
“Found a pulse,” Frank said as he removed his gloveless fingers from Scott’s neck. He started running his hands all over Scott’s body. “Leg’s broken for sure.” The knot on Scott’s head was plain to see. “Got a couple of busted ribs on this side as well, I think.”
“We need to set that leg. That’s a nasty break,” Murdoch said. He grasped his son’s hand. It was as cold as ice.
“Gotta get him warm, too. See the blue on his lips and under his fingernails?” Frank went to grab the extra blankets he’d tied to his horse.
“This is gonna hurt like hell,” Walt said. “Good thing he’s not awake.”
Murdoch nodded in agreement. “It’ll take all three of us to do it.” He looked around for Cipriano and found him farther north along the ridge of the hillock. He knew what his Segundo was looking for: tracks and Johnny. Murdoch knew Johnny would never let his brother lie here in the storm if he were able to help him. His disappearance was like a blow to Murdoch’s heart. It was difficult to breathe. He couldn’t dwell on that now. Scott’s leg was his first priority. With Walt and Frank positioned to keep Scott immobile, Murdoch pulled hard on the injured limb and snapped it back in place. That Scott had not screamed in agony told Murdoch just how bad off his older son was. Where was Jelly with that wagon?
Cipriano circled back to them.
“Any tracks?” Murdoch asked.
“Sí, Patrόn. A small wagon. The wheel marks should be easy to follow even after the storm. The ground is soft. They head north.”
Jelly’s wagon finally came into view. Thank God!
“Walt, I want you to fetch the doctor after you get Scott into the wagon with plenty of blankets. Tie Remmie to the wagon. Frank, can you and Jelly splint Scott’s leg?”
The cowhand nodded.
It felt good to issue orders, to have a plan of action, Murdoch thought. He didn’t like feeling helpless. He gathered Barranca, mounted up, and followed Cipriano up to the wagon tracks.
Inside the shack, Weir felt the forces shift. He’d run out of time. There the boy sat, a look of mild curiosity on his face. Damn Johnny Madrid! Now he’d failed his Master and would be punished again. How had the dark, inky blue splotches on Madrid’s soul shrunk and his light increased? It was a mystery and Weir hated mysteries. He wanted to suck all of Madrid’s life force out of his body and leave a lifeless husk for his father to find, but he wasn’t allowed to. With a sigh, he took enough energy to put the man into a slumber so that he could make his getaway. Cursing all the Lancers, he disappeared into the morning mist without leaving a trace.
Cipriano was right, the tracks left by the wagon were easy to follow.
“They’re headed for the line shack,” he told Cipriano.
The Segundo nodded. “We should perhaps approach from different sides.”
The shack looked deceptively quiet when Murdoch approached on foot from the front. A small wagon was sitting outside; a horse was tethered in a lean-to. Murdoch had slipped from the saddle and tethered his horse and Barranca some yards back before they could be seen by someone in the cabin. Now he tried to avoid the window as he crept toward the door. He sidled up to the window and cautiously peeked in.
There was Johnny tied to a chair but with his right hand free and his gun laying within reach on the table. He appeared to be asleep. Murdoch prayed he was just asleep. Trying to understand that strange arrangement, he ducked beneath the window and looked in at the opposite angle. He couldn’t see anyone else besides Johnny. Cipriano came from behind the shack, shaking his head. There was no one in the back.
Murdoch shrugged and kicked the door in. Moving swiftly toward Johnny and seeing no blood, he grabbed his son’s shoulder and shook him. Cipriano stood in the doorway ever alert.
“Johnny!” He shook the shoulder harder.
Eyelashes fluttered. Johnny raised his head and gave his father a wan smile. “Murdoch?”
“Are you alright, son? Are you hurt anywhere?”
“Just untie me. Quick!”
Murdoch did as he was ordered, and Johnny staggered past his uncle and out toward the outhouse. Murdoch raised his eyebrows at Cipriano, and his Segundo shrugged.
A few minutes later, Johnny walked back in. “Much better!” Then he yawned widely. “I’m tired, Murdoch. Think I could sleep for a year. Any chance for a nap, Old Man?”
“I’d like to get you home and warm, son.”
“I will stay with him, Patrόn,” Cipriano offered.
“I need to check on Scott…”
That seemed to revive Johnny. “Scott! He hurt him, Murdoch.”
“Weir. The guy who tried to take over the Hacket spread. Absalom Weir. The devil.”
Murdoch became livid. “He the one who tied you to the chair?”
But Johnny was already on the move. “C’mon. I wanna see Scott. He hurt him bad.”
When Johnny saw his beautiful palomino, he threw his arms around Barranca’s neck, apologizing for leaving him and asking for one more favor—a ride home. He mounted up, and for the first several miles, it was all Murdoch and Cipriano could do to keep up. Then the rush of adrenaline seemed to vanish. Now it was everything they could do to keep the boy in his saddle.
Despite riding slowly, they caught up to Jelly’s wagon halfway back to the hacienda. Jelly reined the team in, and everyone stopped to put Johnny in the back next to his brother. As they placed all the blankets covering Scott over Johnny as well, Frank told him to get as close to Scott’s body as he could. Scott needed any body heat Johnny could give him. Johnny snuggled up to his brother. It felt like snuggling up to ice, although that didn’t stop him from falling asleep immediately.
“That boy alright, Boss?” Jelly asked.
“We couldn’t find anything wrong with him except that he was very tired.”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know, Jelly. All I know is that you were right—it was Absalom Weir behind all this.”
Jelly harrumphed. “’Course I was right. Y’all never believe a word I say. Knew it was that Weir fella all along. If that man ain’t Satan hisself…” The handyman continued to mutter to himself as he started the wagon on its slow way to the house.
They had awakened Johnny enough to get him tightly tucked into his bed with Jelly watching over him. Murdoch was sitting with Scott as Teresa warmed blankets. They had piled extra pillows behind Scott to sit him up some and help his breathing. Murdoch had decided to wait for Sam to wrap the broken ribs. He inspected his elder son’s fingernails. He thought they had lost some of their bluish hue. Scott’s face was very pale, and he was still deeply unconscious. Murdoch knew they had jarred Scott’s leg several times as they were pulling him from the wagon and carrying him up to his room, but his elder son hadn’t been roused by the pain. It was extremely worrying.
Questions were swirling in Murdoch’s mind. What was Weir doing here? What did he want with Johnny? Why had he injured Scott? Why had he tied Johnny to a chair but left Johnny’s gun hand free with his pistol within reach? Why hadn’t Johnny just shot the bastard, particularly after what he’d done to his brother? Where was Weir now? Should he post guards? When was Sam going to get here?
Johnny awakened to Sam taking his pulse. “Wha…?”
“Hey, there, Johnny. How’re you feeling?”
“Really? Murdoch’s worried about your fatigue.”
“He thinks you’re unusually tired.”
“Johnny! Pay attention!”
“I’m alright, Doc. It’s Scott. He needs ya bad.”
“I’ve already seen to Scott. Now I’m examining you.” Sam turned Johnny’s right hand over. “What’s this?”
“Does it hurt?” the doctor asked as he palpated the palm. “Itch? Anything?”
Johnny looked at the discolored blotch in the middle of his palm. “Just feels normal to me.”
“How’d you get it?”
“Don’t know. Who cares, Doc? It’s nothing.” Johnny pulled his hand away.
“Well, your brother has a matching spot on his right hand, too. It doesn’t appear to be a burn or a rash. I don’t know what it is. I was hoping you would enlighten me.”
“Sorry,” Johnny said. He yawned.
“Why do you think you’re so tired?”
Johnny wavered. Should he tell anyone? Would Sam believe him? He wanted to tell somebody… “I feel cloudy.”
“I feel like my head is under water, like I’m not thinking clearly. It’s like I have this weight or something in my head and my mind’s cloudy. It makes me sleepy, I think.” Johnny felt suddenly embarrassed. Why had he said anything?
“Did you get a blow to your head at any time yesterday or today?” Sam started to examine Johnny’s head.
Johnny shook his head loose. “Don’t think so.” He didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “Is Scott gonna be alright?”
Sam sighed heavily. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Lying overnight in that storm didn’t help him. Did you see what happened to him?”
“Not really. Woke up after it was over. What’s all wrong with him?”
“Besides the hypothermia from the cold and rain last night, there’s a broken thigh bone, a possible concussion, and two broken ribs from what looks like a caning.”
Johnny nodded. “Weir has a cane. Likes to use it.”
“He use it on you?”
“Just to annoy me. Nothing that would leave a mark. I wanna see Scott.”
Sam sighed. He knew he wouldn’t get any further cooperation from Johnny. “I don’t see any reason why not.” He helped Johnny up and out of his bed.
Johnny unexpectantly turned toward him. “Doc, Sam, I just want to say ‘thank you.’ I don’t say that enough to you, but I mean it from my heart. You’re a good friend and a devoted doctor. Don’t know how I or any of us could get through all these troubles without you.”
Sam was struck dumb.
They went across the hall. Murdoch was sitting in Scott’s reading chair, moved by Scott’s bedside, keeping watch over his first-born. He got up and let Johnny take his place.
“Are you feeling better, son?”
“I guess. Still feel like I could take a nap. How long did I sleep?”
“Over four hours.”
Johnny frowned. He shouldn’t feel so tired after that kind of nap. True, he had been awake all night, but he felt he should feel more refreshed than he did. He looked at Scott. His brother was cocooned in blankets warmed by the kitchen fire, no doubt. He could feel some heat emanating from the top one. Scott was quite pale, but his lips were no longer blue. They had washed his face but not his hair. Johnny put his palm against Scott’s cheek. The skin was cool but not the ice cold he’d felt when he’d climbed in beside him in the wagon.
“You come through this, Scott. Don’t let that bastard win,” he whispered in his brother’s ear.
“What happened out there, Johnny?” his father demanded.
Johnny sighed. “I don’t rightly know. All I know is that I’m powerful hungry right now.” He stood up. “I’m gonna get me something to eat.”
“Johnny…” Murdoch grumbled as he retook his seat.
“Just leave it for now, Old Man,” Johnny growled back and left for the kitchen.
Teresa was in the kitchen when Johnny entered. “Johnny! It’s good to see you up!” She gave him one of her dazzling smiles. Then it faded. “Does Scott need a warm blanket already?”
There were two quilts spread out by the kitchen fire. “No, the one that’s on him is still warm. Is there anything to eat?”
“We’re just starting dinner, but I could make you some tortillas and frijoles. Won’t take a minute.” She smiled at him again.
Johnny watched her gather the makings for his meal. Suddenly he felt an overwhelming affection for her. He loved this young girl like a devoted sibling. The feeling was so strong, though, he wondered where it had come from. He’d always been fond of Teresa, but this was different. His insides felt like they were glowing. Whatever was happening inside him, it was strange. It wasn’t frightening, just a tad confusing.
The days passed without any change in Scott’s condition except that they had warmed his body temperature to an acceptable level, according to Sam, and someone had washed his hair. Otherwise, Scott remained in a coma, much to the doctor’s consternation. Sam couldn’t discern any reason for Scott’s deep unconsciousness. The lump on the side of Scott’s forehead had been small, and the bruise hadn’t been very dark and faded quickly, which Sam had said gave indication that the hit had not been too strong. He didn’t believe that blow was the cause of Scott’s unresponsiveness. It was a mystery and Sam hated mysteries. They set up a schedule for tending to Scott.
Johnny did his share, but he felt uncomfortable sitting with his brother. He felt strangely drawn to Scott, and that compulsion made him uneasy. At least he had gotten the Old Man to stop hounding him about what happened in the cabin. Johnny wasn’t about to tell anyone what happened. It would lead only to more questions that Johnny knew he couldn’t answer. He couldn’t explain Weir’s actions that night.
Jelly came in right on time to try to get some liquids into Scott. For the first few days, Scott’s swallowing reflex had been good. Now it seemed he was losing that ability. If they couldn’t get enough water, tea, or broth into Scott, Sam was going to insert a feeding tube. Johnny shuddered at the thought. Jelly held Scott’s head back and pulled his jaw open. Johnny slowly poured some water in. Scott’s gag reflex was still working. The water bubbled up and dribbled out of the corners of his mouth.
“He ain’t swallering no more,” Jelly said, defeated.
“I know.” Johnny’s heart ached for his brother. Then he realized that his heart was literally aching. He sat back breathing harshly.
“Johnny?” Jelly’s voice, coming from far away.
He gained control of his breathing and the ache lessened considerably. He grabbed Jelly’s sleeve. “Just give me a minute, amigo.”
“Kin I git you anythin’?” Jelly asked.
“No. Just being here for me is enough, Jelly. You’re a good friend, a blessing to this family.”
Jelly looked a bit taken aback. “I love you boys like yer my own.”
“We know that, Jelly, and we love you for it.”
Jelly was concerned. He’d seen many of Johnny’s moods but never maudlin. It was one thing for him to be sentimental; Johnny didn’t veer that way. “I’ll be leavin’ now. We gotta tell the Doc that Scott’s not swallering anymore.”
“I know. I know,” Johnny nodded as a tear wound its way down his cheek.
Jelly, deeply disturbed, closed the door behind him. Something was very wrong with Johnny…
The next morning found Murdoch, Teresa, and Jelly having breakfast while Johnny again sat with Scott.
“Boss, we gotta talk about Johnny. The boy’s not hisself,” Jelly ventured.
“He’s worried about Scott. We all are,” Murdoch said dismissively.
“It’s not that. It’s just…He’s…” Jelly didn’t have the words to describe it.
“He’s pleasant,” Teresa inserted. “All the time. Too pleasant…for Johnny.”
Jelly nodded in agreement. “Last night he told me he loved me.”
Murdoch raised his eyebrows in astonishment. That didn’t sound like Johnny.
Jelly continued, “Few days ago, Dewdrop bit ‘im. Usually that boy kicks at ‘im if he even gets close to ‘im. Instead the boy jess laughed and told ‘im to be nice.” Jelly shook his head at the memory of Johnny laughing at his gander.
“You can’t get him riled,” Teresa added. “Have you and he argued lately?” she asked her guardian.
“No,” Murdoch said. Even when he had demanded Johnny tell him what happened in the cabin, they hadn’t argued. Johnny had just smiled that wan smile and kept telling him nothing really happened with Weir. At the time Murdoch thought Johnny reminded him of Scott’s placid demeanor.
Teresa and Jelly exchanged glances as if that confirmed their views.
“It’s because Scott is so ill. He’s worried about his brother,” Murdoch grumbled. “Besides, we don’t argue that much.”
Jelly managed to stifle a snort, but Teresa let out a laugh.
“What do you want me to do about Johnny being too pleasant? I’d think it would be a welcome change!” Irritated, Murdoch finished his meal and went back to sit with his first-born. He opened the door to Scott’s bedroom and saw Johnny’s face wet with tears. Maybe Jelly and Teresa had a point.
Days passed into weeks. The good news was that Scott’s broken bones were healing nicely and his lungs remained clear. Sam was no longer worried about pneumonia. However, the feeding tube seemed the only thing keeping Scott alive. Sam thought Scott was dying very slowly. Murdoch looked more and more ragged, and Johnny walked around in some sort of beatific daze. Each morning Johnny hoped to awaken with a clear head, but every morning his mind still felt clouded with cobwebs. He slept a lot, and Murdoch didn’t have the heart to yell at him about it. Sam thought the boy might be depressed. Finally, Murdoch sent him on some trumped up overnight task just to get him away from the house and its dolorous atmosphere, and Johnny left gratefully.
He eventually returned to the line shack where he’d spent a long, strange night with Absalom Weir. The room was a bit changed from his last visit—some chairs moved and a few items displaced. He assumed it was Val. He knew Murdoch had asked the sheriff to try to find Weir; however, Val couldn’t find any unaccounted for tracks around the cabin that led anywhere. It was like the man had vanished into the clouds.
Johnny sat on the side of the bunk and let his mind wander. It was strange; he felt such a strong feeling that Scott was with him in this space. In fact, he had felt Scott’s presence with him that night, too. His brother was always with him, it seemed. He continued to be amazed at how much his brother had affected his life. Scott was more important to him than himself. How had that happened to a seasoned gunhawk? He had trained himself to be an entity unto himself, not wanting or needing anyone else. But Scott had cut through all that and had brought Teresa and Murdoch along with him. He simply wouldn’t put up with any of Johnny’s bullshit. Scott had an uncanny sense to know when to give him space and when to press him. The first time Johnny had turned his “Madrid stare” on him, Scott had actually laughed. That had pissed him off no end, but he ultimately passed it off as his brother’s ignorance of the ways of the West. Now he reckoned it was just Scott knowing what was really in his heart.
Johnny sighed. He felt so helpless to do anything for Scott now. He hated seeing the feeding tube mar his brother’s face. He hated that Sam was worried about bedsores and rashes and Scott’s muscles doing something called “at-tro-fee.” Sam had explained it meant that the muscles would get weaker and shorter because they weren’t being used. His heart felt heavy with fear for his brother. He started to feel a bit panicked about Scott, but as he’d now come to expect, a wash of love and peace came over him and calm returned. Johnny lay down on the bunk and closed his eyes.
He awoke the next morning and the panic about Scott returned with a vengeance. What was worse, the wash of calm didn’t appear. Scott was dead. He was sure of it. Scott was dead, and he hadn’t been there for his brother. His insides felt like iron. It was like he was dead, too, inside. All he knew was that he had to get back to the hacienda as fast as Barranca could take him.
Murdoch turned as the door opened. He was surprised to find it was Johnny. He thought his younger son would spend more time away from the sad events happening in this room.
“He’s hanging on,” Murdoch told him. Murdoch rose and offered the chair to Johnny, who sank into it sighing. “Your brother does better with you by his side, son.”
Johnny grabbed Scott’s hand. “Don’t you die on me, Scott. Don’t you do it!”
Murdoch squeezed his shoulder as he left the room. The Old Man looked like he felt—wrung out. The iron inside him melted as he watched his brother breathe, and he felt the connection between them flutter alive again. Scott looked still as death, though, with no hint of waking up. Johnny didn’t want to watch his brother die, but he couldn’t leave him, either. He knew if their positions were reversed, Scott would be at his side to the bitter end, probably reading a book to him and explaining all the big words.
Sam stopped by for Thanksgiving dinner. He knew there wasn’t much reason to give thanks this year. Scott’s death was imminent, and he wanted to support Murdoch and the rest of the family through the difficult and sorrowful time. After dinner, where no one ate much, there had been a spate of people wanting to pay their respects. Johnny sat there numb to it all. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He and Scott were supposed to grow old together at Lancer. They would get married, have children, and run the ranch so that Murdoch could finally relax and have fun with his grandchildren. That was how it was supposed to be, not sitting in a sickroom with whispered good-byes and smothered sobs.
The grandfather clock in the great room chimed ten times, and Murdoch ordered everyone out of Scott’s room. They objected, but Murdoch looked at them with tears gathering in his eyes and said he wanted some time alone with Scott. They couldn’t deny him that. He told them all to get to bed. Johnny thought he could get to bed but sleep would be elusive. He figured the Old Man had some things to say, some things to set right between him and Scott before Scott met his maker. Murdoch looked so rough and haggard that Johnny was half afraid the Old Man would go with Scott when he died.
Everyone quietly filed out of the room, and Murdoch was grateful that they hadn’t put up more of a fuss about it. He looked at his first-born and felt the love and then the hopelessness well up inside him. Catherine’s son. He let his tears fall for all the years he’d been denied the joy of raising him with his sweet wife. They’d had such dreams! He would have to be content with the two and a half years he’d been given with Scott. There was no use railing against Harlan Garrett for the injustice of it all. There was no room for that in these last hours. But by God he would finally hold his son! He moved to the bed and carefully gathered Scott into his arms like he’d yearned to do in Boston on Scott’s fifth birthday. He cradled his son close to his heart, laid his cheek against the blond hair, and rocked him slowly, gently, while he wept for all that hadn’t been and wouldn’t be.
Hours later, Johnny silently opened Scott’s door. Murdoch was deeply asleep in the reading chair if the loud snores were any indication. He sidled in quietly to let the man continue to sleep. Johnny wanted his last moments with Scott, too. He grabbed the other chair in the room and quietly placed it on the opposite side of Scott’s bed. Scott’s writing chair, Johnny had christened it. Scott’s two chairs: the soft, comfortable, wing-backed reading chair and the rigid, wooden writing chair. He sat on the hard chair and grasped his brother’s hand in his own. Scott’s hand was warm; his brother was still alive. He could hardly see the slight rise of Scott’s chest in the softly lit room.
Johnny was beside himself. What could he do? How could he make his brother understand what he meant to him? Scott was gaunt, gray, sunken. Johnny wasn’t a praying man. His hard life had made him skeptical that there was a heavenly plan for it. But he prayed now. He prayed long and hard for his brother. He wished they could change places. He would do so in a second.
Scott looked so frail. That wasn’t his Scott. His Scott was robust, one of the strongest men he’d ever known. He didn’t deserve to leave this world like this. Scott was honest, kind, generous, and wise. How could a man this good be taken from him by that devil, Weir? Johnny held Scott’s hand tightly. He would do anything to keep Scott alive. He fervently wished he could transfer his own energy into his brother. He desperately willed his life force into Scott. Suddenly, there was a feeling of lightning going through his hand and his world went white.
Murdoch wasn’t sure what had awakened him. He looked around the room. Scott was still breathing, thank God. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep. Something was different. Scott’s desk chair hadn’t been on the other side of the bed before. He stood up and looked across the bed. Something was on the floor.
Murdoch walked around the bed. Dear God, it was Johnny lying on the floor! He quickly bent down to ascertain his son’s condition. He tried to wake Johnny, but nothing worked. Did Johnny now have whatever was killing Scott? He hurried to Sam’s door.
Seconds later, Sam Jenkins appeared at the door tucking in a shirt. “Did he pass?” he asked Murdoch gently.
“No, it’s Johnny! I can’t wake him!”
Sam had no luck waking Johnny either. Between the two of them, they got Johnny back to his room and onto his bed. Sam could find nothing wrong the boy except that even a knuckle to Johnny’s sternum failed to elicit a moan. As Sam was taking his pulse, he noticed Johnny’s right hand. The discoloration in the middle of his palm was gone. Sam didn’t know if it had faded away or healed by some other means. In any event, Johnny’s pulse was strong and steady, and Sam was content to let the boy lie for now.
Murdoch raced back into Scott’s room after Sam’s pronouncement that Johnny should be left to sleep. What if Scott had died alone while they were taking care of his brother? Murdoch would never forgive himself. Thankfully, he found Scott still breathing when he sat down next to his son. In fact, Scott’s breathing seemed easier, deeper than it had been before. He could clearly see the rise and fall of his son’s chest.
“Sam!” he called.
The doctor was immediately by his side. Had Scott died?
“He seems better, Sam.”
The doctor checked Scott’s pulse. “It’s stronger, Murdoch. Scott’s pulse is stronger than it was.”
He retrieved his stethoscope from Johnny’s room and listened to Scott’s heart. “His heart is stronger, too.”
“What happened?” Murdoch asked.
Sam shook his head. “I have no idea, but this is good news. Very good news.” He smiled at his friend, who now looked full of hope where there had been only despair. On a hunch, Sam reached over and turned Scott’s right hand up. The discoloration was gone from Scott’s palm as well. Sam had seen nothing like it in all his years of practice. But he could throw all his experience out the window where the Lancer sons were concerned. They, and the bond they shared, seemed to defy conventional medicine.
Johnny awoke several hours later and just laid in bed for a few seconds getting his bearings. For the first time in a while his head felt light and his mind clear. His mind was clear! He lay there in pure bliss until he remembered Scott. He shot out of bed and rushed into his brother’s room. Murdoch and Sam were sitting on either side of Scott’s bed.
“Johnny! You’re awake!” Sam exclaimed, relieved.
“Are you alright, son?”
“Don’t bother about me, how’s Scott?”
“Better,” Murdoch grinned. “Sam thinks he’s got a chance of pulling through this.”
“Has he woke up yet?” Johnny asked. He wanted to talk to Scott so badly.
“No, not yet,” Sam said. “Mind if I check you over?”
“What for? I ain’t the one that was at death’s door.”
“I found you unconscious on the floor here,” Murdoch explained. “Humor me and have Sam look you over.”
Johnny nodded and found himself back in his room with Sam giving him the once over.
“You look more energetic today, Johnny,” Sam observed.
“Well, I can think straight again, Doc. Whatever was in my head is gone. I feel good. And now that Scott’s getting better, I’m real good.” Johnny gave the doctor his most charming smile. He wanted to be back in his brother’s room as soon as possible.
“What do you think happened so that your mind is unclouded now?” Sam asked as he continued to check Johnny’s lungs.
“Hell if I know; just glad it’s gone.”
“Johnny, your father and I found you unconscious and unresponsive in Scott’s room a couple of hours ago. What happened while you were sitting with Scott?”
Johnny shrugged. “I told you, I don’t know.”
“Now you seem fine, yet something must have happened,” Sam persisted as he folded up his stethoscope. “Your hand’s back to normal, too, by the way.”
Johnny flexed his right hand while he examined his palm. “Oh, yeah. Great.”
“Scott’s hand is also back to normal.”
Sam blew out an exasperated breath. “Dammit, boy, if you’re holding out on me, I’ll tan your hide! How am I expected to help Scott if I don’t know what’s going on?”
That was a mean ploy, making it about Scott. “Honest, Sam, I don’t know! One minute I’m sittin’ there with Scott prayin’ he’d get better and the next I wake up here in my bed. You tell me! Maybe my prayin’ worked!”
They glared at each other for long seconds.
“Can I go see Scott now?” Johnny asked.
Sam sighed. “Yes.”
Johnny paused at his door. “Take the feeding tube out of him now, while he’s still not feeling it.”
“I’m not convinced he doesn’t still need it.”
“He doesn’t. You pull it out or I will.”
“Johnny…” Sam’s voice was plaintive. Where was the man who had thanked him so sincerely weeks ago? Said he was such a good friend? When he saw Johnny wasn’t going to back down, he said, “I’ll do it. Then I’m going back to bed.”
Johnny grinned at him.
Two days ago, Scott had finally opened his eyes. He was still sleeping most of the day away, but he was drinking liquids and eating soft foods and seemed to have his wits about him. Murdoch had demanded he answer questions about what happened those three weeks or more ago, but Scott had said he didn’t know. Johnny knew the not-knowing was eating the Old Man up inside. People had been hovering around his brother ever since he woke up, so it was a relief to them when they finally had some time alone with each other with both of them awake. Johnny locked the door to ensure they wouldn’t be interrupted. They were long overdue for this talk.
Scott was laying on his left side, his injured leg carefully placed atop some pillows. It had felt like heaven to get off his back. Sam had assured him that the bone was healing well and that he should make a full recovery without a limp if he stayed in bed and followed doctor’s orders. Scott was more prudent than his brother. He’d stay in bed if that’s what it took to walk without a cane.
Johnny helped him with a glass of water and then they silently regarded one another for several minutes. Where were the words needed to express what they wanted to say, what they were feeling?
Finally, Scott broke the silence. “Do you know why he took you?”
Johnny nodded. “He wanted me to kill ‘im.”
“You didn’t oblige him, right?”
Johnny nodded again. “But you know that already, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. It seemed like a dream, like looking at the world under water.”
Johnny started, hearing his own description of the experience expressed by his brother.
“I can’t remember everything,” Scott admitted. “Just snatches of things. I remember emotions most of all. I remember your anger and thinking I had to quash it at all costs.”
Scott, Johnny’s mild and peaceful blanket, smothering out the flames of his anger, his hate, his revulsion. His brother had saved him in that cabin. He didn’t know what would have happened if he had pulled the trigger. Nothing good, he was sure. He was immensely relieved he hadn’t found out.
“Took me a while to figure out his plan. Longer than it should have. I blame that on you. My mind was workin’ real slow that night.”
“Tell me what happened in that line shack, Johnny.”
“No, let’s start at the beginning—how Weir hurt you.”
“Alright, if you want to start at the beginning, what were you doing in the back of his wagon, dead to the world?”
Johnny flinched at Scott’s choice of words. “Weir came up to me while I was tryin’ to figure out how to take down that dam. It was pretty clear it didn’t happen naturally; someone had created it. I ‘spect it was Weir now. He was all friendly-like. Asked about how Silas was doin’. I didn’t tell ‘im that Silas was livin’ with his uncle or nothin’. He tried to get me to drink some of his whiskey, but I wouldn’t. Next thing I know, I see you lyin’ on the ground and him standin’ over you with a weird look on his face, like he was enjoyin’ himself. Now you talk.”
“It took me longer than I thought it would to find Murdoch’s error. I was about a half hour behind you. When I rode up, I saw you in the back of a wagon. The storm was blowing in pretty hard by then. A sudden gust of wind spooked Remmie and I fell off him. I don’t think I was hurt, just winded, but then Weir was on me. He hit me on the head hard enough for me to stay down and then he started beating me with his cane. It hurt like blazes. It felt like he staved in some of my ribs. Then he stomped on my leg with his whole body. I almost blacked out when the bone broke. Suddenly, you were there, and I knew I was too hurt to help you, so…” He shrugged.
“So…what?” Johnny asked, his voice low and rough. He could still see the stripes from the caning, although they were in the last stages of bruising—green and yellow lines along the right side of Scott’s torso. They had been deeply black two weeks ago. His anger at Weir flared anew, and this time there was no counteracting balm.
“I don’t remember,” Scott said softly.
“The hell you don’t!”
Scott closed his eyes and blushed. “I only remember me desperately wanting to give you something that might help you. I could feel the evil all around us. I could feel it like a living, breathing thing. Did you feel it, too? My body was useless; Weir had seen to that. I feared what that evil might do to you. It was so strong.”
The doorknob jiggled. “Johnny!” Teresa’s pleading voice came through the door. “Let me in!”
“Leave us alone!” Johnny shouted. Thank God he had locked the door or she would have busted in on them, and that would have ruined everything. The girl was a sweetheart, but it was like she wanted to be a third brother. Didn’t she know he could never share the deep connection he felt with Scott with her?
“What did you do?” Johnny demanded quietly when he heard Teresa retreat down the hallway. He leaned closer so he could hear his brother’s fading speech.
Scott hesitated, then swallowed hard. “I gave you love, brother. It was the only thing I could think of to give you that might shield you against the evil,” he whispered. “I gave you me and all my love for you.” A single tear escaped his eye and stayed there on the side of his nose.
Johnny sat back in the chair, stunned by the revelation yet oddly reassured at the same time. Hadn’t he felt Scott’s presence with him in that cursed cabin? Hadn’t he felt him with him the entire time Scott’s body was dying?
Scott wiped the tear away. “What happened in the line shack, Johnny? Like I said, I don’t remember things clearly.”
Johnny knew what it had taken for Scott to admit what he’d done. Scott was a talkative man on any subject except himself. Then you had to get him near shit-faced drunk to find out a small nugget of his life. Johnny appreciated the man’s honesty just now. He deserved no less from him.
“I woke up tied to a chair. I felt the evil, too, Scott. Weir started tellin’ me all sorts of things, about people in my past, how I’d hurt them, betrayed them. All I was thinkin’ about was that the idiot had left my gun in the holster and my right arm didn’t seem to be tied down all that tight. Weir kept on jawin’ and by the time I got my arm free and my gun drawn, I was pretty worked up. I was ready to shoot the bastard, but then I thought, ‘Why? He’s just jawin’. No cause to kill a man for talkin’.’ That must have been you, brother, cuz I tell you, I was pretty sure I was gonna put a bullet through ‘im when I drew my gun.”
“Glad I could help.”
“When he got tired of talkin’ about my past, he went on to other things, like hurtin’ you or Teresa or Murdoch. He got real detailed when he talked about how he was gonna make each of you suffer. It was…hard to hear. A few times I raised that damn gun, especially when he was talkin’ about Teresa, what he’d do to her. Each time my hand went for my gun, somethin’ calmed me down. Now I know that was you. Can’t tell you now how grateful I am.”
“Did you make him cry? I have a vision of tears on his face.”
“That was at the end. By then I’d figured out his game: he wanted me to shoot him down in cold blood. Don’t know why, but I told him there was nothin’ he could say or do that would make me shoot him. Don’t get your hopes up, brother, and think it was because I saw the humanity in him. I swear, there was none there. No, I didn’t shoot him just to rile him, to spite him. Damned if I was gonna do what he wanted me to!”
Scott chuckled. That was so like Johnny. “And the tears?”
“I started to ask ‘im about his past, why he was such a bastard. Don’t even know why I asked ‘im that; I didn’t give a shit about ‘im. Was that you again? Anyway, it got ‘im talkin’ about somethin’ else besides maimin’ and rapin’ and stuff. He started tellin’ me some about his life. It was pretty revoltin’ stuff, as I recall. Then he started gettin’ real upset and started rantin’ that his master wouldn’t be pleased with ‘im and would punish ‘im again. Didn’t make much sense to me, but he was sure scared of it. He was cryin’ and all. That’s what you must be rememberin’.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but why didn’t he kill you?”
Johnny laughed. “I don’t rightly know! I don’t! Maybe it had somethin’ to do with his prophesy. Back at the dam he said he foresaw me swingin’ from a rope. If he shot me, that wouldn’t happen.”
They were silent again. Johnny could see Scott had his thinking face on. “But if you’d shot an unarmed man, it might have,” Scott said, his voice still low and soft to Johnny’s ears. “You might have hanged for that. I’m glad you didn’t shoot him, brother.”
“What’s one more death on my conscience? I’m already damned,” Johnny said, trying to keep his tone light.
“Your soul isn’t damned yet, Johnny, and I’ll see to it that it’s not as long as I take breath,” Scott promised.
Johnny tried hard to tamp down the surge of emotion welling up inside. “I know you have my back, Boston.” It took him a minute to regain his composure. “But Scott? In the future? Don’t go makin’ yourself at home in my head.”
“We’ll see. Who knows if I’ll have to save your ass that way again? I won’t make that promise.”
More silence stretched between them while Johnny contemplated his brother’s sacrifice for him.
“What’re we going to tell Murdoch?” Scott murmured.
“Nothin’. I feel a strong case of forgetfulness comin’ on.”
Scott grinned. “I do, too, brother. I do, too.”
He was in purgatory again. Back to the unending swirls of grays and black. Back to the eddies and currents of this sea of nothingness. Banished to eternal limbo. He had failed again. Everyone knew Johnny Madrid had a hair-trigger temper. How had a whelp like Madrid escaped him again? Would his Master let him try a third time? He knew he could do it if he were just given the chance. The sound of snickering whirled all around him. It was startling in this usually soundless existence. Maybe he needed a more impressive feat. Yes, that would do it. What if he garnered Scott Lancer’s soul for his Master? The snickering turned to laughter so loud it pained him. He wouldn’t give up! He would get a Lancer soul! He swore it to himself. He just needed to devise a plan…
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