#4 in the Holidays Series, which is best read in order
Word count: 42,885
“This is ridiculous.” Murdoch tossed his pencil down and closed the accounts ledger none too gently. “Sam will never let him travel that far. It’s too soon.”
“I know,” Scott agreed, “but he’s got his mind made up. I don’t think we can stop him, sir. Unless you plan on throwing him into one of Val’s cells. He’s going to go, with us or without us.”
“I know. That boy has a streak of stubbornness the size of Wyoming. But if he wants to go he’ll do it my way.”
“Do what your way?” Johnny leaned against the doorway leading into the Great Room, causally eating an apple.
“Your trip to San Diego.”
Johnny pushed off the doorframe. “I can take care of myself,” he snapped.
Scott raised an eyebrow toward his brother. “Really…” Scott wasn’t so sure. It had only been two months since they returned home from San Francisco. The casts had been removed and Sam had ok’d light work around the ranch. But Johnny still looked too thin, and he tired easily. His shoulder healed well, with full rotation and range of movement. His ankle still bothered him a bit, making him limp when he was tired. But his hand still remained the big question mark.
“San Diego’s close to the border, what if someone sees you and calls you out?”
“I’ll face that if and when it happens,” Johnny answered flatly.
Scott studied the black glove Johnny wore on his right hand. He remembered Johnny’s shock when the cast was removed and he could barely make a fist. Sam could only tell him that it might return to normal in time. The hand had so many small bones and nerves that could be damaged. Patience and exercise were the only suggestions Sam could offer.
Scott remembered looking for Johnny a couple weeks after Sam let him off his tether. He had found him near the caves above the north forty. He hadn’t intended on spying on his brother, but he found himself watching as Johnny practiced his draw. Again and again he drew and fired, until his hand spasmed and the gun slipped from his hand. He watched Johnny slowly sag to his knees and drop his head to his chest. Scott never told him he was there, and never went looking for him again. But he could see the pain in his brother’s eyes. The pain of not being exactly who and what he was before San Francisco.
“Well, the matter is already settled. We are all going,” Murdoch declared as he stood up and poured each of them a glass of bourbon.
Scott noticed that Johnny accepted the glass with his left hand. Perhaps he was wrong in not checking up on Johnny’s progress.
“When were you planning on heading out?” Scott asked, tipping his head toward the picture window behind Murdoch’s desk. “Looks like a storm is brewing out there. Maybe a day or two before the roads are safe to travel.”
“I’m leaving first thing in the morning, rain or shine.”
“Mind telling us why it is so imperative that you reach San Diego? Surely one or two more days…”
“I got her letter two days ago. Came in on the stage when I was in town.” Johnny drew an envelope from his shirt pocket and handed it to Murdoch. “I sent her a telegram the same day telling her that I would be there this side of a week.”
Murdoch opened the letter and frowned, handing it to Scott. Scott read it and arched an eyebrow. `Dear Johnny, I hope this letter finds you well. We have thirty children with us now. I wish there were not so many, not because we can’t care for them, but because it means there are thirty more lonely children in the world. But they, and we, are adjusting. I am in the process of hiring a new handyman, Mr. Jacobs, our former helper, disappeared without a word two weeks ago and we are starting to feel his absence. It is hard to find anyone to work for us. It seems there is a large contingent in the nearby town that does not want us here. It is strange that it wasn’t that way in the beginning. But even Miguel, who is the sweetest old man you could ever meet, has had harsh treatment from the citizens in town. It sadly reminds me of what happened to you in San Francisco. And so I am biting back my pride and asking you if you know someone who would like to accept the job of caretaker here. I cannot pay much. Most of Harlan Garrett’s money went for the purchase of the land and building and supplies. We have been forced to pay exorbitant prices for almost all our needs. But it is worth every penny to know that these thirty children are safe and well cared for. In closing I hope you are following Sam’s orders, and recovering swiftly. As always, your friend…Molly Walters.’
Scott handed the letter back to Johnny. “You think she may be in more trouble than she thinks?”
Johnny nodded. “I mean to find out.”
“It may be nothing, you know,” Scott said casually, moving toward the fireplace to set two more logs to burn. “I could ride down there myself, check things out, and send a wire if something’s wrong.”
“Forget it, Scott, I’m going. First light tomorrow.”
“All right then, that’s settled.” Murdoch laid his glass on the edge of the desk and started for the kitchen. “I’ll tell Teresa and Maria to put together food for a three day trip.”
“It should only take us two days,” Johnny countered.
“Under normal circumstances, yes. But you’re still not strong enough to sit a saddle that long. We’ll take it slow and easy. Three days, Johnny. No argument.”
Scott shot a concerned look toward his brother. The simple fact that Johnny had agreed without an argument worried him. Murdoch never won an argument that quickly with his youngest son. He would be sure to keep a close eye on Johnny.
Morning proved that Scott’s prediction was right. A storm front had moved in over night with heavy rains and strong winds.
“All three of you are crazy to go out in weather like this,” Teresa fumed. “And Johnny, well, he is just not ready for a long trip. I wish you would change your minds. And, besides, Easter is only two weeks away. I thought we were going to spend it together.”
“We will,” Murdoch promised. “We’ll be back in plenty of time to attend Easter Mass and have Easter dinner with the Jefferson’s just like we planned.”
“Well I fer one think yer all touched in the head, travelin’ in weather like this,” Jelly ranted. “If ya don’t get hit by lightenin’ or drowned by a flash flood, then you’ll catch pneumonia. What can two days hurt, huh?”
“We’ll be fine, Jelly,” Johnny promised. “If it’ll make you simmer down, we’ll send you a wire when we reach San Diego.”
“Well…” Jelly huffed, “I a rather ya stayed here, but if ya must, then send that old wire. At least it might ease Teresa a mite.”
The three Lancers laughed as they mounted their horses.
“Take care of everything, Jelly. We’ll be back in a week, maybe ten days tops.”
“I’ll hold ya to that,” Jelly yelled as he watched the men ride under the Lancer arch and shrink into tiny black dots as they rode away from the hacienda. “I got a feelin’ `bout this.” He warned Teresa. “A real bad feelin’. I wish they’d a listened ta me. I can even feel it in my elbows…”
On the second night out they had traveled beyond the storm and they camped beneath a canopy of brilliant stars.
After dinner and some light talk, Murdoch had drifted off to sleep. Johnny sat close to the campfire trying to warm his aching right hand. He had tried to hide the discomfort he felt as they spent three hours in the saddle then rested before continuing on again. It was Murdoch’s order and Johnny saw no reason not to follow it. He knew the slow pace was for his benefit, they could have spent two eight hour days in the saddle and made it to San Diego in a quarter of the time. But he had to admit he was tired and sore. And his hand was aching him something fierce.
“Want to talk about it?” Scott broke the silence, his eyes still studying the flickering flames.
“Talk about what?” Johnny stirred the fire with a stick…using his left hand.
“Your hand. I’ve been watching you favoring it. Still hurts?”
“Have you talked to Sam?”
“A couple days ago when I was in town. Stopped by his office.”
“He said the same thing he’s said all along. He’s not sure.”
“Johnny…what if…?” Scott left the question hanging, watching Johnny’s shoulders stiffen.
“If it never comes back the way it was? If I can’t even hold a fork proper?” Johnny slowly turned to look at Scott, his eyes dark with anguish.
“Yes,” Scott answered, and waited.
Johnny slowly raised his gloved hand, opening and closing his fist, the movements slow and painful. “Once this was the only thing in life that was important to me. How fast I could draw, how accurate I could shoot. It made me proud. Gave me respect. It was Johnny Madrid. The rest of me was only there for the ride.”
Scott sat silently, watching and listening.
“When I was sixteen, maybe fifteen, I don’t remember for sure, I got mixed up in a land dispute. Got my horse shot from under me and broke my right arm. I had no where to go. No one trusted Johnny Madrid. So I got this horse doctor to set it for me and headed for a box canyon to wait it out.”
“But you were only a boy.”
Johnny shook his head. “I stopped being a boy when I killed my first man.”
Scott gasped inwardly at the sadness he heard in Johnny’s voice.
“It gave me a lot of time to think…and to worry. What if my arm never came back the way it was? What if I couldn’t handle a gun like I used to? I was scared. I knew there was a line of men out there, just waiting to call me out. To be the one to outdraw Johnny Madrid.
“I wasn’t safe without my gun hand. So I laid low. When the break healed I began to practice again. Eight hours a day, everyday, until I was just as fast as before. Maybe even a little faster. When I finally felt I was ready, I left the canyon, my home for the past three months.”
“Did they call you out?”
Johnny nodded. “Three men died that first week.”
“But this time its different, Johnny.” Scott studied the firelight flickering in Johnny’s eyes. “This time you have a family. We can protect you”
“Makes no difference,” Johnny snorted derisively, “I’m still a dead man the first time I’m called out.”
Silence hung in the air.
“You’re not Johnny Madrid anymore. You’re Johnny Lancer…”
“I’ll be Johnny Madrid `till the day I die. Scott, a reputation is like a branding iron, it burns into your flesh and never disappears. They’ll be talkin’ about John Wesley Hardin and Billy The Kid for a hundred years to come, maybe more. And standing right along side them will be Johnny Madrid.”
The crackle of the fire, the chirping of the crickets, the coyote howling in the distance, the owl with his plaintive call…they all rang hollow in Scott’s ears as he listened to his brother.
“I think you’re wrong, Johnny. I think you will die an old man with your boots under your bed and grandkids mourning your passing. You just have to let go of Johnny Madrid.”
“The truth’s in the tellin’, Scott. Look what happened in San Francisco. Johnny Madrid nearly killed me. Still might.”
“My grandfather nearly killed you,” Scott corrected vehemently.
“He had help.” Johnny threw the stick into the fire. “I’m tired Boston. We still got a ways to go tomorrow.”
Scott nodded, watching Johnny awkwardly settle himself on his bedroll, facing away from the fire. Scott settled himself as well, but sleep would not come easy that night. He lay with his back to Johnny, staring into the fire.
“I’m sorry, Johnny,” he said softly.
“You got nothing to be sorry for,” Johnny answered back, just as softly. “Harlan Garrett is as crazy as a loon.”
“Crazy and dangerous.”
“Get some sleep, Boston. The sun will be up before you know it.”
“Promise me something, Johnny.”
“What?” Johnny asked, his voice slurring toward sleep.
“You won’t take any unnecessary chances. I don’t want to lose you.”
Scott heard Johnny’s reply, soft and husky. “I’d be six feet under if I hadn’t a found you and Murdoch. Not from the firin’ squad, but from just being hell bent on not caring. I care now, and I ain’t about to get lost.”
The camp fell into a deep silence as Johnny and Scott drifted to sleep. Just one set of eyes stared into the darkness, filled with guilt and regret for a life no child should have had to endure.
Next morning they were on their way early. As the day wore on, Scott glanced over at Johnny, concerned to see his shoulders stooped in fatigue. He suggested they take a rest, but Johnny insisted that they were only a few miles from town. If he needed rest he could do that at the orphanage.
As the first houses on the outskirts of town began to appear, Scott watched in fascination as Johnny began to change before his very eyes.
Gone was the stooped, exhausted posture. Instead, Johnny rode low and comfortable in the saddle, his gloved right hand resting easily on his thigh. He stared straight forward, but his eyes saw everything, accounted for every person in the street and on the wooden walkways.
They rode straight down the center of town, three abreast.
“We’re being watched,” Johnny said softly.
Scott started to turn his head… “Eyes straight ahead, Scott. Make `em sweat a little.”
“One’s atop the livery stable, another center window above the saloon. Third one is beneath the wagon in front of the mercantile.”
“Don’t like feeling like a duck in a duck shoot,” Murdoch said softly.
“You get used to it,” Johnny replied, matter-of-factly.
The hairs on Scott’s neck rose. He realized this was not new to Johnny. He had ridden down too many streets just like this…silently announcing to anyone foolish enough to call him out that Johnny Madrid was ready.
“Is this really necessary?” Scott asked. “You’re just drawing attention to yourself.”
“If I look like I’m hiding, they’ll come out of the woodwork.”
Scott forced himself to remain calm. He didn’t much like having a bulls-eye painted on his back.
Once out of town, the three riders fell into an easy lope. The orphanage was five miles south of town. Murdoch questioned Johnny’s decision to ride through the center of town. Johnny’s health was already questionable. But his stubborn son insisted and would have gone alone.
Within two miles of their destination Johnny pulled up short.
“I smell smoke,” he shouted, and nudged Barranca into a full gallop.
Dense smoke filled the small valley where the orphanage stood. Billowing smoke poured out of the back room of the single-story structure. Children ran around the yard in a panic, screaming and coughing.
Johnny and Scott jumped from their horses at the same time. Scott grabbed a woman running toward the water trough with a pail. “Is anyone in there?” he shouted over the screams.
“Si. Senora Walters…there are children trapped inside! Madre de Dios, help us!”
Johnny threw his pistol to Murdoch and plunged backwards into the water trough, soaking every inch of himself then ran toward the front door, disappearing in the thick smoke.
Scott did the same, but headed for the back where the flames were escaping the windows.
Johnny crouched to the ground, groping his way through the blinding smoke, yelling, “Molly…! Molly where are you?”
He heard screams from his left.
Scott found an axe lying on the ground and started chopping at the wall just beyond the billowing smoke. He hoped to meet Johnny midway through the building, thereby checking the entire orphanage in half the time.
Johnny heard the popping and hissing of wood engulfed in flames above him.
“Molly!” he yelled, covering his nose and mouth with his arm, as the choking smoke sent him into a fit of coughing.
Scott hacked his way through the wall, the interior filled with smoke, but no flames yet. He saw the smoke billowing beneath the door leading from the room to the interior of the house and knew he could not open it without the fire exploding into this room too. He started chopping on the wall to his left.
“Help us!” The voice came from his right and Johnny followed the sound. The heat was nearly unbearable. His wet clothes steamed, scalding his skin.
“Where are you?” Johnny called back.
The terrified voices of children screamed, “Ayuda, aqui…help us!”
Johnny spotted them, huddled in the corner, Molly and three children.
“Don’t move!” he yelled. “I’ll come to you.”
Flames were licking up the walls and gobbling at the ceiling like a hungry monster.
Scott broke through the wall, just in time to see Johnny rush into a room consumed with fire. “NO!” he screamed.
He ran through a huge room lined with bunk beds. The mattresses had not caught fire yet, but when they did it would turn this room into an inferno. He fell to his hands and knees below the smoke, the floorboards painfully hot. He reached the room Johnny had disappeared into just as a wall of flames exploded in front of him and part of the ceiling came down.
“You can’t get us from there!” he heard Johnny scream over the roar of the fire. “Come through the office!”
“We’ll get you out!” he yelled. “Hang on, we’ll get you out!”
Scott didn’t remember how he made his way back out of the building, but he was shouting commands to Murdoch and every able-bodied adult. He found the wall to the office and began chopping at the wood. He felt bodies around him, attacking the wall, Murdoch had a two by four and was using it as a battering ram.
Johnny pulled Molly and the children close to him, dragging them down to the floor.
“Scott knows where we are!” he tried to shout, but he choked on the smoke He felt Molly’s hand pull his face close to hers, her tears wet on his cheek. They huddled over the children, protecting them from the fierce heat.
A section of wall fell under the onslaught of axes and hammers and the battering ram. Scott climbed inside the room, filled with smoke but still fire free. He could see the smoke billowing through the ceiling and the floor from the next room- where Johnny waited for him.
“We need water!” he ordered. “And blankets…”
Murdoch was at his side, his hand grabbing Scott’s arm. “I’ll take care of it,” he shouted. Then he pulled Scott close to him, holding him tight. “I can’t lose both of you, you understand that?”
He looked into Murdoch’s face and saw the agony in his eyes. He understood and broke away, attacking the smoldering wall.
Johnny heard the walls crumble around him, the roar of the fire engulfing them. This was not the way it was supposed to happen. This was not the way it was supposed to end.
He felt Molly’s body go limp and she fell across the children. He felt himself follow her, and knew no more.
Scott sat in silence, watching his brother breathe in and out. His complexion was pale, but nothing like it was earlier. He remembered the agony he felt just a few hours ago when he carried Johnny’s lifeless body from the burning room. He had gently laid him on sheets that were spread on the ground for the injured. He cried openly as he lifted Johnny’s limp hand into his. There was no spark of life in the smoked stained face.
He remembered seeing his father carefully lay Molly beside him, and felt Murdoch’s trembling hand reaching for him, seeking the solace they both needed. Then the three children were lovingly tended to, their weak cries a balm to the bereaved souls. Johnny and Molly had died to save those three small lives…
Then someone yanked him backwards by the shoulders and he tried to scramble back to his knees, furious that someone would tear him away from his brother.
But Murdoch was holding him back, saying words he didn’t understand.
Two Mexican women were roughly rolling Johnny onto his stomach and pounding his back with their fists. He tried to break Murdoch’s hold on him, but the old man held him tight.
“Leave him alone, damn you!” he shouted.
Then suddenly Johnny’s body jerked and he gasped.
They quickly rolled Johnny on his back again. “Incorporese lo. El debe purgar su estomago y pulmones…” Seeing Scott’s confused look they repeated in halting English. “Sit him up. He will be sick. He must purge his stomach and lungs.”
Then they scrambled over to Molly and performed the same procedure.
Now he waited. They had moved the injured to the far side of the house where there was no damage from the flames, just the lingering smell of acrid smoke.
Cots were brought in for the wounded and Scott was forced to wait outside while the patients were bathed and their burns tended to. The children were already drinking milk and eating cookies.
Bandages covered Johnny’s arms, but the burns were minor. The biggest concern for both adults was the smoke in their lungs. Johnny in particular, since he had not fully recovered from his ordeal in San Francisco.
“How’s he doing?” Murdoch asked, handing Scott a steaming cup of coffee.
“His breathing is better. I’d feel better if there was a real doctor around.”
Murdoch sank into a chair next to Scott, stretching his long legs out in front of him. “I sent someone into town to bring the doctor.” He reached over the bed and gently felt Johnny’s forehead. “He feels cool. No fever.”
“We were lucky.” Scott’s voice shuddered with the memory. “We got to them just in time.”
Silence fell between them. They both knew how terribly close they came to losing Johnny.
“How is it out there?” Scott leaned back in the chair, trying to savor the taste of the hot coffee, but it tasted bitter. His nerves were on the ragged edge. He couldn’t believe after everything they had gone through in San Francisco, that he would be at Johnny’s bedside again, waiting and wondering if this was the time that his brother’s luck finally ran out.
“The fire’s out. It was contained to the two back rooms. The rest of the house looks like it’s structurally sound.”
“Any idea how it started?”
“I don’t think it was an accident.” Molly’s voice startled both men and they turned around to see Molly staring at them.
Scott was on his feet, leaning over her bed. “Are you all right?”
She nodded. “Thanks to you… Johnny?”
“He’s right here.” Murdoch stood up so she could have a clear view of Johnny in the next bed. “He’s going to be fine. Just like you.”
“I thought…I’ve never been more terrified in my life. The children?”
Scott sat on the edge of the bed. “They are resilient at that age. They’re already outside playing with the other kids. But we’ll keep a close eye on them. Just like you and Johnny.”
Murdoch poured a cup of water and gently lifted her shoulders so she could drink. “I sent someone into town to bring the doctor back to look you over. I’m still not sure what happened. We…we thought you and Johnny were gone.”
“You were.” Scott’s face paled at the memory. “There was no life in either of you. Then these two women appeared out of nowhere and literally beat the breath back into you.”
Molly smiled. “Mujer de la medicina… medicine women. They come to treat the children. I know…” she raised her hand at Scott’s skepticism. “I was leery at first too. But the Mexican children trusted them immediately, and the Anglo children were not far behind. Modern medicine would do well to learn from these women.”
“I’m just thankful they were here, whoever they are. Now you should get some rest. We can talk about the house later.”
Molly smiled weakly. “I am a bit tired. You wake me if Johnny or the children need me.”
“We will,” Scott promised as he drew the covers up over her shoulders, watching her slide back into sleep. “Johnny’s instincts were right, as usual,” he said. “Something is going on here.”
Murdoch nodded. “And we’re not leaving until we find out what.”
Johnny woke with a start, trying to shield Molly and the children from the raging fire. He could smell the smoke and feel the heat, his chest aching with every smoke filled breath he drew into his starving lungs.
“You’re safe…” He heard the familiar voice calling from the other side of the burning inferno, but he couldn’t get past the fire. “It’s alright,” the voice called, but he couldn’t see past the flames eating at the walls. A crescendo of roaring flames and children’s screams were lost in the sound of the ceiling collapsing, a wall of fire descending on him…
The dream suddenly disappeared leaving him gasping for air, his arms hugging his chest.
“You’re safe, Johnny.”
Johnny pried his eyes open, fearing what he would see.
“We got everyone out, Johnny.” Scott’s face hovered above his. “Molly and the kids, they are all fine.”
Johnny tried to take a deep breath to calm his breathing but coughed instead, so hard that he saw black pinwheels before his eyes.
“Here, let’s sit you up.” Murdoch was by his side now, lifting him so pillows could be piled up behind him. “Can you drink this?” and a cup was tapping at his lips, coaxing him to open his mouth and swallow the cool water. “That’s it. Now you get some rest. We’ll be right here.” That was Scott, and that made him feel safe, and he slipped back to sleep despite the heaviness in his chest.
Darkness came early to the canyon, the steep cliffs blocking the sun as it headed toward the horizon and disappeared.
Oil lamps were lit and the needs of thirty children readied for bed were met.
But fourteen year old Rachael Collins could not sleep. She was hopelessly, passionately in love. She had seen her hero, the man of her dreams, ride in on a pale horse, risking his life to save Molly and the children. There was no hesitation…no thought of himself as he gallantly ran into the burning building.
She cried, like she had never cried before, at the sight of his brother carrying his limp body out of the fire. Her heart broke at the sight of him weeping over her fallen hero.
It was so romantic, so like the novels she had read.
And when he had been brought back to life…when he once again breathed, she thought she would expire with relief right there on the spot.
She closed her eyes, hugging the pillow, and drifted to sleep wondering what it would be like to kiss her hero.
Johnny threw the covers off him, appalled to find that he was naked as a jaybird.
“Where are my clothes?” he raged, quickly recovering himself.
“Right here, little brother,” Scott grinned, holding a stack of freshly washed and mended clothes. “and you’ll get them when the doctor says its all right for you to get out of bed.”
“She’s not in bed,” he glowered at Molly.
“I’m not still recovering,” she lashed back. “I never thought you would come here personally when I sent you that letter. Whatever possessed you to travel this far so soon? And why,” she turned on Scott and Murdoch, “did you let him make the trip?”
“Have you ever tried to tell Johnny Lancer no?” Murdoch asked.
“Yes! Yes I have,” she said emphatically.
“And..?” Scott coaxed.
Molly had to laugh. “I never got very far. All right I know he’s stubborn, but Johnny…” she turned to the dark haired Lancer, “you should never have come.”
“Well, I’m here now, and I want my clothes.”
“After you see the doctor,” Murdoch declared.
“I don’t need a doctor!” Johnny shouted, regretting it when he began coughing again.
“Why don’t you let me decide if you need a doctor or not?”
All eyes shifted to the door where a tall elderly man stood, a doctor’s bag in one hand, and a child’s doll in the other.
“Henry, thank you for coming.” Molly was on her feet and pulling the doctor into the center of the room. “I was so afraid you wouldn’t come.”
“Almost didn’t. But when I heard that children were trapped in the burning house…”
“Thank you. I know you are taking a big risk. Henry, I’d like you to meet Murdoch Lancer, his son Scott, and his other son, Johnny, your reluctant patient.”
“And you Molly, how are you?”
“I swallowed some smoke, but I’m fine. Did you check the children?” She eyed the doll in the doctor’s hand.
“They are fine. Carmelita wanted me to check her doll and make sure she was ok.”
“As healthy a doll as I’ve ever seen. Now shall we have a look at you?”
“Ladies first.” Johnny grinned. “Murdoch’s trying to make a gentlemen out of me.”
Scott choked, “Talk about thankless tasks.”
“In the next room with you then, Nurse Walters.”
They returned fifteen minutes later, Molly carrying two extra oil lamps.
“She’s fine,” he announced. “I’ve ordered her to take it easy for a few days. But the burns are minor and her lungs are clear. Now for you, Johnny is it?”
Johnny nodded. “Just hurry up so I can have my clothes back.”
Henry looked around, confused.
Scott smiled. “Sometimes it’s the only way to keep my little brother in bed.”
“I see. Well let’s have a look. Would you all mind giving us some privacy?”
Harry waited until the door was closed before he pulled the blanket back and began his examination.
Johnny remained still, a sharp intake of air or a slight grimace the only signs that the doctor was still finding tender spots left over from his ordeal in San Francisco.
“You know, I know everything that went on in San Francisco,” Harry said as he pulled his stethoscope from this medical bag. “Molly was very distraught when she first got here, and needed to talk. I thought she had been exaggerating a bit, padding the story, not intentionally, of course. But I can see now that she wasn’t.”
Johnny remained quiet, staring at the ceiling, concentrating on controlling the pain the doctor was causing him. He had learned to anticipate Sam’s every move as he recuperated at Lancer. He could control his reaction, make Sam think that he was feeling only a twinge of pain, when in reality he was just barely holding on. But he couldn’t do that with this doctor. His method of probing was so different that he couldn’t anticipate his next move. He didn’t know why he felt the need to hide the pain from everyone, including Sam. It was just a part of him that was as natural as breathing in and out. No…he did know. It was an instinct he learned long before he became Johnny Madrid…It was self preservation. Show no weakness. Never let them know how badly you were hurt. Even now, there were just too many men out there that would attack like wolves at the first smell of blood.
“Your lungs are slightly congested,” he announced, “that could be from the smoke or a little of that pneumonia returning. Either way, I’ll give you something to make you cough and hopefully clear them up. Your shoulder appears to have healed nicely. Molly told me of the surgeries. It seems that they know what they are doing in the big city. Is there much residual pain?”
Johnny raised an eyebrow.
“Left over pain,” Harry explained.
Johnny shook his head. “It feels fine.”
Harry pursed his lips, a skeptical look on his face. “Let’s take a look at your arms.”
He nodded. “About the same as Molly. First and second degree burns. Painful but not serious. There should be no scarring. Now, for that hand.”
“Leave it,” Johnny snapped. “It’s fine.”
Harry re-bandaged Johnny’s arms and pulled the sheet up to cover his waist, then sat down on the chair next to the bed.
“Molly told me a few other things about you.” He sat back, allowing Johnny room. The young man had been poked, prodded and scrutinized for too long. Now he was doing the same. But he felt the need to gain this man’s confidence. Below all the exterior wounds he could see a festering hole. One that would eat away at him until there was nothing left. He had seen it before.
“Seems she did a lot of talking.” Johnny continued to stare at the ceiling.
“Sometimes people need to talk. Your treatment in San Francisco weighed heavy on her. She felt partly responsible.”
Johnny turned to look at Henry, making eye contact for the first time. “There’s nothing for her to feel guilty about. She didn’t do none of that stuff to me.”
“She feels she should have stepped in when she first realized that Dr. Dykstra was not treating you as well as he could, or should.”
“Her and Miss Owens were the only two to stick up for me in that hospital.”
“She knows that now. After our talk.”
“Good. I’m glad. She’s a good person. She deserves to be happy. Is she?”
“Until all this started…” Henry gestured toward the back of the house where the scars from the fire still lingered. “She was very happy. She had her children, friends in town. Then…”
“What happened doc? What made them all change?”
“Who is Martin Paddock?”
“I’ll make you a deal. I’ll tell you everything I know about Martin Paddock, if you’ll let me examine your hand.”
The smallest of smiles teased Johnny’s lips. “That’s blackmail.”
“It’s a fair trade.”
Johnny thought about it then raised his hand. “Everything.”
“Everything I know.” Henry gently took Johnny’s hand and began to examine it, his expert fingers carefully probing from wrist to fingers, keeping a close eye on Johnny for his reaction to the pain. “About three weeks ago Sam Miller just up and disappeared. Some kids found his body a few days later down by the stream while they were fishing. Looked like he’d been dumped there that very morning.”
“Who’s Sam Miller?”
“Sam was the editor of the San Jose Register. Been at the paper some twenty years. As stubborn an old coot as you’d ever meet. Easy now…” Henry probed a little deeper when Johnny hissed in pain.
“I get the feeling that he didn’t die fishing,” Johnny hissed.
“Not unless the trout around here took to using knives. Whoever it was knew exactly what they were doing. They used a long sharp knife, stabbed him right in the liver. There probably wasn’t much blood. He would have bled to death internally in a few hours.”
“And Martin Paddock?” Johnny flinched again, this time he wasn’t able to hide the moan as Henry continued his exam.
“Sorry, Johnny, not much longer. Paddock appeared out of nowhere two weeks ago. Weaseled his way right into Sam’s old job. Danny Thornton was going to take over. He’s young but he’s been at the paper for a few years. But Paddock had the job before you could blink an eye.”
“And you think… ahh!…you almost done there?” Johnny protested.
Johnny had to clear his throat before going on. He felt the sweat bead up on his forehead. “You think this Paddock had something to do with Sam Miller’s death?”
Henry nodded. “Nothing I can prove yet. There, all done.”
Johnny pulled his hand back, cradling it in the crook of his left arm.
“There’s a lot of deep swelling in your hand, Johnny. The broken bone hasn’t healed completely yet, and there’s no telling if there may be a fracture in one of the smaller bones. You need to rest it. I’ll fashion a sling…”
“Can’t do that doc.”
“I came here for a reason. After I know Molly and this orphanage is safe I’ll do whatever you say.”
“Johnny, you have to understand. You could damage your hand permanently.”
“Sam…the doc back home told me the same. But I gotta do this. And no one can know that I got a bum hand.”
Henry nodded. “I understand, but I don’t like it. At least wear the sling around here when you’re up and around. Give it a little rest.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Henry studied Johnny for a long moment then nodded. “Let me bind it. It should give you a little relief.”
Johnny watched as Henry began to expertly wind a long strip of cloth around his hand.
“What does Sam Miller’s death and Paddock have to do with what’s going on here?” Johnny asked, wincing as Henry continued to wrap his hand.
“Paddock started writing articles about the orphanage and about Molly. Unflattering stories. He even linked the orphanage to Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny froze. “No one is supposed to know that. Only a few people…”
“Well they do now, and Paddock has made it clear that, orphanage or not, they don’t want anything to do with Johnny Madrid.”
Anger swept through Johnny, and he yanked his hand away just as Henry was finishing knotting the binding. “I want to meet this Paddock.”
There was a knock at the door and a second later Scott was peeking his head in. “You done yet?” he asked. “Murdoch is about ready to climb the walls out here.”
“Just Murdoch?” Henry quipped. “Tell everyone they can come in. I’m done.”
Murdoch and Molly hustled in after Scott, all three standing at the foot of the bed waiting.
“Well doc?” Murdoch prodded.
“The burns are not bad, I’m sure they’ll leave no scarring. His lungs are a bit congested. Overall he is just exhausted.”
“I could have told you that.” Scott stared down at Johnny. “He had no business taking this kind of trip so soon.”
“Yes, well…” Henry stood up, grabbing his medical bag. “He did, and he’s here, and we’ll just have to make the best of it. I’ve bound his hand, there is still a lot of swelling. Johnny has agreed to wear a sling around here…maybe. Perhaps you can knock some sense into him and get him to wear it.”
“Don’t worry doctor,” Murdoch caught and held Johnny’s gaze, “he will.”
Johnny turned away, refusing to be intimidated. “Where are my clothes?”
“I want you to stay in bed for the next twenty-four hours.”
“What…? You said…”
“I said you should wear the sling when you’re up and around. I never said when that would be. I want you to rest, Johnny. If you don’t want a relapse of that pneumonia you’ll do what I say.”
“Molly…” he took Molly’s arm and steered her toward the door, “Ill give you my instructions as you see me to my buggy. And you young man…” he turned back to Johnny, “…you do as I say and I’ll get you that meeting with Paddock.”
“More blackmail?” Johnny couldn’t help but smile at the way the old man manipulated him. He would play along for the time being. He was tired and hurting. But just for twenty-four hours.
“Who’s Paddock?” Scott asked as he opened a small packet containing a white powder and stirred it into a glass of water. He handed it to Johnny who took it awkwardly with his left hand, the burns on his arm obviously bothering him.
“He’s the editor of the San Jose Register. New editor,” Johnny added, swirling the liquid around in the glass, eyeing it suspiciously. “The old editor ended up dead.”
“I have a feeling that the old editor didn’t die in his sleep. Drink it,” Scott ordered, standing over Johnny watching. “All of it.”
Johnny took a few sips and grimaced at the taste. “According to the doc he was stabbed and dumped near the river.” He took a few more sips before he tried to hand it back to Scott half empty.
“And your Paddock friend just happened to be there to take over the job.”
Johnny nodded again. “Only he ain’t no friend of mine. In fact, he doesn’t like Johnny Madrid much.”
“How do you know?” he asked, tapping the glass. “Finish it.”
“What is it?” Johnny asked guardedly, taking a couple more sips.
“Don’t know. I just promised Molly that you would finish it, down to the last drop. And you know me, little brother, I never break a promise.”
Johnny finished the last of the bitter liquid and handed Scott the empty glass and settled back against the pillows. He measured his next words carefully, knowing the implication, unsure of Scott’s reaction. “The first article he wrote was about this orphanage and its connection to Johnny Madrid.”
Scott’s stance stiffened. “That’s impossible…the only people who know…” Scott’s face paled.
“Too much of a coincidence?”
Scott sat down heavily in the chair next to the bed. “I don’t know what to think. I would never have believed he was capable of doing what he did to you. But my God, this is an orphanage. Every child here could have died in today’s fire.”
“You know I’d gladly dig the hole when that old man cashes in his chips…but burning down an orphanage …? I don’t know, Boston. That might be too much even for him.”
Scott looked down at Johnny’s heavily bound right hand. “I thought I knew my grandfather. I suspected he was capable of some shady business dealings and I turned a blind eye to them. But he tried to kill you Johnny. My own brother. I don’t know anymore.”
“Well we better find out fast. If that fire wasn’t an accident…”
Scott nodded as he drew the blanket up over Johnny’s shoulders. “I think I’ll have a little talk with Mr. Paddock tomorrow. Maybe he can shed some light on all this.”
“Not alone, you ain’t,” Johnny admonished. “We’ll go in together. You don’t know what you’ll find in town.”
“We’ll talk about it in the morning. You get some sleep.”
“Can’t sleep,” Johnny said, his eyes growing heavy, “too much on my mind.”
“I can see that.” Scott smiled as he backed out of the room. He thought for a fleeting moment that he might ask Molly for some of the sleeping brew himself.
Scott stayed only long enough to drink a cup of coffee and scarf down a biscuit before heading for town. He had some questions to ask, and he didn’t want to have to deal with Johnny. He knew his stubborn brother would not take no for an answer and they would lose a day in confronting Paddock.
He slowly walked his horse down the center of town until he found a sign proclaiming the bottom floor of a building next to the saloon as The San Jose Register.
Most of the businesses were either just opening or still had their doors locked. He found the newspaper office locked, but he could see a man milling around inside. He rapped gently on the glass window in the door and motioned for the man inside to open the door.
Either the man was very generous with his time or he thought Scott was someone else because he unlocked the door.
Scott squeezed through the partially opened door and locked it behind him.
The office was typical of most of the small newspapers scattered across California. Most towns didn’t have a newspaper, they had to wait for news from the larger towns back east, some stories reaching them months after the fact.
A smell of ink from the printing press was so strong it was nauseating. A stack of blank paper waiting for the press stood in one corner, while a large desk dominated the room. Small alphabetical tiles sat in wait for the editor to `lay out’ the paper.
“What do you want?” a small man asked. It would be stretching the truth to say Mr. Paddock was of average height. He barely came to Scott’s chest. His ruddy complexion told a lot about the man. Not used to the sun, his skin was dry and flaky from sunburn, his cheeks and nose held the small spidery blue lines of a man who imbibed too much. He wore a white starched shirt with black sleeve protectors and black suspenders to hold up his perfectly creased black pants. A black apron and visor were draped over a nearby chair.
Scott walked around the office slowly, remembering the times he had watched his brother intimidate someone without saying a word. He opened box lids and peeked inside, he shuffled through discarded newsprint. It appeared that Paddock was a perfectionist and only sent out the perfectly printed page.
He stopped at the layout desk and read the headline for the day’s newspaper. It took him a moment to decipher the sentence, the text lined up backwards for the printing press. But when he realized what it said a cold chill went down his back.
“Johnny Madrid…Murderer in our midst,” Scott recited, keeping his voice as low as he could. The headline seemed all too familiar, reminiscent of the headline in San Francisco. If he had any doubt of his grandfather’s connection to the orphanage, it was gone now. “Today’s newspaper?”
Paddock nodded, his lips twitching into a frightened little smile.
“I thought Madrid was still up around Morro Coyo somewhere.”
“He’s here. He rode down the center of town as big as life yesterday. Saw him myself.”
“Oh…? Was he alone?” Scott knew he was taking a calculated risk, jogging Paddock’s memory. Right now the little man didn’t seem to recognize him.
“No. He was with two of his gang. Three of the meanest men I have ever seen. I can understand why people are afraid of Johnny Madrid.”
“Never saw the man myself,” Scott said, fingering the tiles then rubbing the ink off on his pant leg, “but I hear he’s fast.”
“Greased lighten’.” Paddock grinned. “At least that’s how Clay Hawkins described him. Said he saw him in a gunfight somewhere near Texas. Said Madrid drew and fired before the other man could get his gun out of the holster.”
Scott whistled. “I’ve heard the same stories.”
“There’s no need to be concerned this time though.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”
“I heard he’s got a bum hand. Can’t even pick up a fork with his right hand. If anyone called him out now, Johnny Madrid would be history.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“I’ve got my sources. I know a lot about Johnny Madrid.”
“Harlan Garrett?” Scott watched as Paddock’s face turned white.
Paddock tried to recover. But too late.
Scott rushed Paddock, grabbing him by the shirt and pushing his back into the wall, hard.
“You listen to me,” he hissed. “You print one word about Madrid’s bum hand and I’ll come back here and break yours.”
The little man shivered in Scott’s hands so hard that he felt his teeth rattling.
“While we’re having our nice little chat, who torched the orphanage?”
“I…I don’t know,” Paddock stuttered.
Scott lifted the sniveling man off his feet, pinning his shoulders to the wall. “It didn’t start by itself. Who?!”
“He’ll…he’ll kill me if I tell.”
Scott let him slide back down to the ground then leaned his elbow beneath Paddock’s neck. “If you don’t tell me I’ll kill you myself.”
Recognition suddenly dawned on the little man’s face and Scott heard the sound of dripping water hit the floor. “You were with Madrid yesterday.”
“Drake. That’s all I know him by. Please don’t hurt me.”
Drake. Scott didn’t know the name, but he had a feeling that Johnny would. “One more thing,” Scott said, “contact Harlan Garrett and tell him you need him out here. Right away.”
Paddock’s face blanched even whiter. “Harlan Garrett? No, I can’t.”
“You can and you will. Or the next person to call on you won’t be me.” Scott let the threat hang in the air for along moment. “If he asks why, tell him Scotty wants to see him.”
Scott released his hold on the quivering man and stood back looking disgustedly at the wet pants and the puddle he stood in. “Send word out to the orphanage when you’ve got an answer from Garrett. And clean yourself up. It smells like an outhouse in here.”
Scott walked slowly to the door, his hand on the doorknob. “And don’t say anything to anyone about our visit here.” He squeezed out the door and climbed on board Charlemagne, and rode out of town slowly. If anyone recognized him, no one showed it.
Johnny awoke to the feeling that someone was watching him. He knew the feeling all too well of late. It seemed like forever that he felt people hovering over him, poking and prodding him while he was still half asleep.
Then suddenly he remembered where he was, and he snapped his eyes open.
There in the doorway, large blue eyes stared at him. The face belonged to a young girl, her blonde hair tied in a blue ribbon. Their eyes met and he smiled, sending her face into a deep blush, then she disappeared.
He threw his covers off and cursed when he realized he was still as naked as a jay bird. Damn Murdoch and Scott, they used this ploy once too often. If he wasn’t in an orphanage he would see their hand and play a real game of strip poker.
But for now, he could only settle back against the pillows and wait.
He thought over the events of yesterday, and shuddered. They had come so close to dying. And what if that fire had started in the dead of night? How many children would have lost their lives?
Was this retribution for what they had done to Harlan? He hoped fervently that it wasn’t. Because, even though Scott had disowned his grandfather, this act of evil would haunt him for the rest of his life.
A bell rang somewhere in the house and the sound of children squealing with delight filled the courtyard outside his window.
Recess, he thought. The only thing that made book learning worthwhile, the recesses.
The door opened and he looked up to see Molly carrying a tray laden with a plate of food, a decanter of coffee and a coffee cup.
“You look much better this morning.” She smiled, her own arms bandaged like his to protect the burns.
“Shouldn’t you be restin’?” he asked.
“Henry said I could do light things around the place for a few days. Hungry?”
“Starved.” He watched her place the tray on his lap and arrange the utensils on the left side of the plate.
“Samson turned into a fine cook after Martha left. Who would have thought a blacksmith could turn an ordinary egg into an omelet like this?”
Johnny took a small taste then gulped the rest down. “That was good,” he agreed, sipping at the strong black coffee she had poured as he ate his eggs.
Molly nodded. “We’ve been lucky. The people who have stayed with us have done everything they can to keep this place running. The thought of these children being uprooted again…it breaks everyone’s heart.”
“That’s why we’re here. To make sure that doesn’t happen.” He looked out the window and realized the sun was well up in the sky. “What time is it?”
“Almost ten. We figured you needed the sleep. Besides, since you are stuck in this bed the rest of the day there was no sense in waking you.”
She began to remove the breakfast plate from the tray. “He left at first light. Said he had a few things he wanted to check out in town.”
“Damn!” Johnny scooted his legs over the edge of the bed, Molly just catching the tray as it began to spill its contents over the side of the mattress. “I told him not to go in town alone.”
“Henry wants you to stay in bed for the day.”
Johnny wrapped the sheet around his waist and made for the door. “You get my clothes, or so help me, I’ll walk out there like this.”
“I’m not kidding,” Johnny warned her.
“All right…all right…” Molly reluctantly pulled his freshly washed clothes from what looked like a pillowcase sitting on a chair beneath the window.
“Thanks. Now let me get dressed and tell Murdoch I want to see him.”
To Johnny’s dismay it took him more than twenty minutes to finish dressing. His hand was useless in the heavy bandaging and the burns on his arms tugged painfully with every move. But he finally had his socks and boots on and he released a torrent of Spanish oaths as he realized there was no way he was going to get his holster buckled.
Reluctantly he shoved his pistol in his belt and headed out the door.
He caught a glimpse of the same blonde girl he had seen an hour ago peeking around the corner of the hallway and smiled. It appeared he had a shadow.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch.” Molly had to run to keep up with Murdoch’s long legs. “He threatened to walk out of his room with only a sheet on. I was afraid he’d do it.”
“Oh he’d do it all right.” Murdoch seethed. “When Johnny gets a notion, nothing will stop him. Where is he?”
“I’m not sure. I’m afraid I told him that Scott went into town.”
“Then he’ll be saddling Barranca, or trying to. I’ll talk to him. Don’t worry. This wasn’t your fault. Johnny can be hard to handle in the best of circumstances. Why don’t you start making a list of what you need from town to replace what you lost yesterday?”
“You won’t get them in town. The mercantile refuses to do business with us anymore.”
Murdoch stopped so abruptly that Molly ran right into his back.
“Things are about to change around here,” he said coldly. He turned to her, grabbing her shoulders gently. “It could get rough. Are you willing to fight?”
Molly took a step back and squared her shoulders. “There isn’t anything on this green earth that will stop me from fighting for this orphanage or those children.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear.” Murdoch smiled. “Now get that list started and I’ll find Johnny.”
Murdoch found Johnny standing outside the burned-out rooms staring at the destruction.
“We were lucky,” he said as he approached his son. “It could have been a lot worse.”
Johnny nodded, his silence speaking a thousand words.
“I told Molly we would begin rebuilding as soon as we have supplies.”
“So they can burn it down again?”
“Not while we’re here.”
Johnny turned to look up at his father. “It was a mistake to use my name. It just brings trouble. Like me. You don’t want to get too close or you’ll get hurt.”
Murdoch saw the hurt in Johnny’s eyes and wished life was easier on his younger son. It seemed that some people were destined to walk a rough road, others seemed to just drift along. Somehow Murdoch wished Johnny could be somewhere in the middle.
“It’s the perfect name. I’m proud of you, son. Of what you have overcome in your life. Of the man you are today. Johnny, these kids deserve a chance. So did you. You didn’t get yours. But by God these children are.”
The sound of an approaching horse brought their attention to a stranger trotting toward the house.
Molly ran up beside them as the rider pulled to a stop in front of them.
“Well, well, it is true.” The rider smiled. “Johnny Madrid in the flesh.”
Johnny didn’t return the smile. “What are you doing here Drake?”
A hush fell over the grounds. Molly ordered the children inside, their noses pressed up against the windows, watching and waiting for they didn’t know what.
Drake held his horse still with a steady hand on the reins. He wore a tan slicker, the right side pulled back to display his holster tied to his thigh and a tattered buckskin shirt.
The sun shadowed his face until he pushed his hat back, revealing a long thick scar from his left ear to the center of his throat. His mouth seemed too small for the mass of decayed teeth beneath the fringe of a sun bleached mustache.
Murdoch watched Johnny fall into the persona of Johnny Madrid. It was such a seamless transition that it sent a shiver down his spine. Would the day ever come when his son was not forced to defend himself against a past life that was not his anymore?
“I heard you were in these parts, Johnny boy.” Drake looked around the courtyard, something akin to a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “But I never thought I’d find you here, at an orphanage. What are you doing? Reliving fond memories?”
Johnny refused to take the bait. He felt Molly shift beside him, then side step just enough to hide his hand from Drake’s sight.
“You got business with me, Drake?” Johnny asked, nudging Molly aside. To hide behind her was to ask for trouble. Never show your weakness. That was what kept Johnny Madrid alive.
“No. Least ways…not yet.” Drake nodded toward Johnny’s right hand. “Looks like you got a bum wing. Gun hand too. Can’t be healthy for someone like Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny smiled, never taking his eyes off Drake. “Nothing for you to worry about, Drake,” he said casually, as he began to slowly unwind the bandaging. “They had a fire here yesterday. Maybe you know something about that.” The question hung heavy in the air.
Murdoch reached over and pulled Molly toward him. He felt the bile rise up his throat. If Drake called his bluff there was no way Johnny could use that hand. But he had no choice. If word got out that Johnny was anything less than one hundred percent, every wannabe pistolero in the territory would be out to prove that they could take down the infamous Johnny Madrid.
Drake shifted in his saddle and his horse nickered nervously. “You’re asking if I torched an orphanage?”
Johnny stared up at Drake then shook his head. “No…guess not. It’s not your style.” He continued to unravel the bandage. He showed no trace of the pain that was racing up his arm, making his legs feel weak. “You know when I find out who did, he’s a dead man?”
“Got no doubt about that.” Drake’s eyes were glued to Johnny’s hand now, as the bandage fell to the ground and Johnny began flexing his fingers.
“Hand got singed in the fire yesterday,” Johnny said, his voice emotionless. “Nothing for you to worry about.”
Drake nodded. “I see you’re not wearing your rig.”
Johnny slowly drew his pistol from his belt. He felt the first beads of sweat form on his forehead as he twirled the gun once in his hand and pushed it back in his belt. “Makes the ladies nervous.”
Drake pursed his lips. “Can’t say I blame them.” He reached for his hat very slowly, making sure Johnny didn’t get the wrong idea, and resettled it on his head. “I’ll just say my good- bys then. Didn’t want to pass through without paying my respects to an old friend.”
Johnny nodded and watched Drake turn his horse and slowly walk away. . “Drake…” he called after him. “Don’t come back.”
Johnny waited until Drake was just a black spot in the distance then collapsed.
Scott slowed to a trot when he saw the orphanage in the distance. His encounter with Paddock had left him with a bad feeling in his gut. The little man seemed unlikely to have written the articles that had turned an entire town against the orphanage.
Firstly, the information was not readily available. Secondly, there was no reason for the character assassination. Molly Walters was torn apart in the articles. Linking her romantically to the orphanage’s namesake, Johnny Madrid. Recounting her days in a Catholic orphanage and her struggles before she became a nurse. Private information only privy to those who held power in the most elite of circles. Boston perhaps?
It seemed all too familiar. Johnny nearly died at the hands of an angry mob in San Francisco, stirred to a frenzy by newspaper articles filled with half truths and exaggerations. Where would these articles lead? What preyed on Scott’s mind most, not discounting the danger this put Johnny and Molly in, was that innocent children were being hurt. Almost killed.
Lost in thought, Scott was entering the courtyard before he realized it. Looking around, he had a sudden pang of fear. Something was wrong. Where were the children? Even when school was in session there were activities outside the classroom. Kids making a mad dash for the outhouses, Solomon, the cook, tending his garden. But at the moment, it was as quiet as a ghost town.
He made his way toward the main part of the house, his pulse pounding in his temples. He walked down the hall towards the lobby, trying to keep his emotions under control. It could be nothing…just a lull in the day.
But a lull it was not. And far from nothing.
He found Molly huddled over the couch, carefully rewrapping Johnny’s hand while Murdoch stirred laudanum into a glass of water and handed it to his son, his manner brokering no complaint from his youngest.
“What happened?” Scott demanded.
“An old friend of Johnny’s stopped by,” Murdoch snapped. “He saw Johnny’s bandaged hand and called him on it.”
Scott’s stomach dropped. He looked down at Johnny, his eyes narrowing on his brother’s pale face, bathed in sweat. “Who was it?”
“What the hell do you think you were doing, riding into town alone?” Johnny seethed, ignoring the question as he downed the last of the bitter liquid and shoved the glass back into Murdoch’s hand. “You could have got yourself killed.”
“I can take care of myself,” Scott threw back.
“Not if Clayton Drake’s involved. Someone means business around here, Scott.”
“You know this Drake?” Scott saw Johnny trying to mask the pain Molly was causing him as she wound the bandage around his hand tightly.
“I rode with him once for a couple months. We didn’t…”Johnny smiled coldly, “see eye to eye. Haven’t seen him since. But he doesn’t come cheap.”
Scott stiffened. “Paddock said Drake might have been hired to set the fire yesterday.”
Johnny shook his head. “Drake will do almost anything for the right price…but he’s no back shooter, and he wouldn’t torch an orphanage.”
“Some kind of gunfighter’s code?” Scott sneered.
Johnny jumped to his feet, regretting the action immediately. He sank back down on the couch, cradling his hand against his chest. “There’s good and bad in every profession…including gunfighting,” Johnny hissed.
“You call gunning people down and getting paid for it a profession?” Scott asked incredulously.
“It was my profession not long ago, remember?”
“How could I forget? Your old friends keep reminding me.”
“That’s enough!” Murdoch yelled. “What’s gotten into you Scott? Why are you attacking your brother? Can’t you see he’s in pain?”
“Yes! I see he’s in pain. But I don’t want to see him dead. Look at him. What happens if Drake calls him out? His hand hurts so bad he’s ready to pass out. And what happens if someone tries to torch this place again, or one of the children gets hurt, or worse, killed. Is this gunfighter’s code going help them then?”
Murdoch saw the blaze of anger in Johnny’s eyes. “I’ll deal with it when and if it happens.”
“How? How are you going to deal with it, huh? Outdraw him? Hell, I could outdraw you myself right now.”
Johnny pushed himself off the couch and charged past Scott, stopping at the door leading to the hallway and the courtyard outside. “I’ll handle it like I always have, alone.” And the door slammed behind him, rattling the old clock on top of the piano.
Murdoch stared at his oldest son and growled. “Mind telling me what the hell that was all about?”
Scott yanked off his gloves, throwing them on the coffee table in front of the couch.
“I don’t know,” Scott admitted. “I just lost it. I’m sorry. It’s just been one thing after another. Johnny was barely healed when we left San Francisco. Now he’s here. When is that boy going to start looking after himself? Sometimes I think he has a death wish.”
Murdoch shook his head sadly. “You know Johnny better than anyone Scott. You two are closer than most brothers are who have been together a lifetime. But you still don’t understand that side of him…the Madrid side. He has to do this. He would sooner die than turn his back on Molly and the children. And so would you.”
“I know.” Scott sank to the couch, laying his head back against the cushion. “I had all this time to think on the ride back from town, then I saw Johnny hurt again and heard Drake’s name. I lost it. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not the one you need to apologize to.”
Scott nodded. “It’s just sometimes I’m so afraid of losing him.”
“We all are, son. That’s why we have to back him up.”
Scott looked up at Murdoch with an ironic smile. “Are you sure you’re Murdoch Lancer from Morro Coyo? Because the man I know claims he doesn’t understand his youngest son at all.”
“It’s been a rough four months. I’ve learned a lot about the boy.” Murdoch patted Scott’s knee. “You better go find that brother of yours. He’s not going to get far with that laudanum in him.”
Scott lifted himself off the couch slowly. How was he going to take back words he never meant to say?
Scott hurried across the courtyard toward the stables. He knew he would find Johnny there. He felt ashamed that he had let his temper flare. Johnny didn’t deserve any of it. Especially now.
He entered the stables, dark and still, the smell of fresh hay comforting. This was a place where he knew Johnny could talk. Where he felt safe.
He found him sitting next to Barranca’s stall, his back leaning against a bale of hay, his hand cradled in the crook of his left elbow. Scott could tell, even in the half light, that the laudanum was starting to take effect. Johnny’s eyelids were already drooping.
“Mind if I sit?” Scott asked.
Johnny shrugged his shoulders.
Scott lowered himself to the ground, leaning his right shoulder against what was left of the hay bale. “I came out here to say I was sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” Johnny asked softly. “For telling the truth? Nothing to be sorry about when it’s the truth.”
“But it wasn’t the truth. I’ve been so worried about you for so many months, I just…”
“No need to worry about me, Scott. I’ve been taking care of myself just fine for a lot of years.”
“God, Johnny, don’t do this. I’m sorry. I said things I shouldn’t have, that I didn’t mean because I was mad.”
Johnny raised his head a bit, his gaze unsteady as he turned to look at Scott. “What you got to be mad at me for?”
“For taking chances with your life. You were in no condition to make this trip here. You knew someone would probably call you out. And you still came. You put your life in danger again and again, and you expect us just to pick up the pieces and go on as if nothing happened. Well something did happen this time. I thought you were dead, Johnny. Dead! And when we did find you, your body broken at the bottom of that cliff I was afraid that I had lost you forever. And…I can’t get past the fact that this was all my fault.”
“Your fault?” Johnny tried to push himself up higher against the bale of hay but his arm felt like rubber as the laudanum coursed through his system, dragging him closer to unconsciousness.
“None of this would be happening if my grandfather had not wanted me back.”
The anguish in Scott’s voice tore at Johnny’s heart. If he could have he would have wrapped his arm around his brother’s shoulder. But he felt himself sinking toward oblivion.
“No…the old man is crazy.” He felt himself falling away, Scott’s strong hands on his shoulders. “You had nothing to do with it.”
“Just promise me Johnny, that you won’t try anything alone.” Scott saw the faintest of nods from Johnny.
Scott rose to his feet looking back down at Johnny as his head began to fall forward onto his chest.
“Come on, let’s get you in the house.” Scott lifted Johnny into his arms, always surprised how much his brother weighed. “We’ll see this through together…all of us.”
“Well done, Paddock. I knew you were the right man for the job.” Harlan Garrett stepped through the door leading to the storage closet behind the stacks of newsprint. “I knew that Walters woman would run straight to the Lancers at the first sign of trouble.”
He stepped up to the layout table and looked at the tiles for the headline. “Get yourself cleaned up, Paddock, you have a lot of work ahead of you. I’ve decided to change the story for today. It’s time that the good people of San Diego hear the story of Johnny Madrid and Reverend Thomas Bennett. It should be an eye opener for Scotty as well.” The old man smiled as he imagined his grandson’s face as he read about his dear half brother’s complicity in the death of the old priest. “Scotty has gotten a little rough around the edges, no doubt because he’s been around that half breed of a brother for too long. But once he’s back in Boston he’ll mellow out. You know Paddock, I was hurt and angry when I first learned that my Scotty had a hand in destroying half my business holdings. But now that I have had time to think about it, I realize he didn’t know what he was doing. Murdoch Lancer and that Madrid brainwashed him. I only hope that I have intervened in time.”
Paddock grabbed an apron and tied it on. “I’ll run home and change,” he said nervously. “I’ll be back in half an hour.”
Harlan nodded. “That should give me time to finish today’s article. And if you see Mr. Drake, tell him I want to see him right away.”
“Yes Sir.” And Paddock was out the door, leaving Garrett alone to continue his character assassination.
Scott smelled fresh coffee as he walked into the kitchen. He found Murdoch and Molly sitting at the table, both lost in their own thoughts.
Murdoch look up as he heard Scott approach. “How is he?”
“Asleep. He will be for a few hours. You gave him a big dose of laudanum.”
“I wanted him resting for awhile. What did you find at the paper? What did Paddock have to say?”
“Not much. But he did see us riding with Johnny yesterday.” Scott couldn’t keep the smile from spreading across his face. “Thought we were part of Johnny Madrid’s gang. He said we were just about the two scariest looking men he’d ever seen.”
“Scary, huh?” Murdoch snorted. “You maybe. But me?”
Scott’s smile sobered. “He also knows Johnny has an injured hand. I made it clear to him that I didn’t want to see that information in the newspaper. But I don’t think he knows much. He’s just a puppet for someone much bigger.”
“We’ll see. I told Paddock to contact grandfather. Told him to tell him Scotty wanted to see him.”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow. “Stoking the fire? You think that’s a good idea?”
“If he’s behind any of this then he already knows we’re here. I just want to keep him off balance.”
“Do you think Johnny’s right about Drake?” Molly asked. “That man frightened me.”
“I think we’re going to have to keep our eyes open at all times. Someone torched this place. I almost wish it were Drake. Then we’d know who the enemy is.”
Murdoch nodded, turning to Molly. “For the time being, I think it would be best if the children stayed inside. Keep a head count at all times.”
“You don’t think they would hurt the children?”
“Anyone who is willing to set a fire in an orphanage is capable of anything.”
Harlan looked up at the sound of the front door to the newspaper office opening.
“Mr. Garrett.” Drake pulled his hat off and closed the door behind him.
“Did you see him?” Harlan asked.
“And? Is it true? Does Johnny Madrid have an injured hand?”
“Not rightly sure. He had it bandaged up. But he took the bandage off and handled his gun as smooth as ever. But he did seem to be sweating a bit. I’d say there was a good chance that he was hurting.”
“Excellent. Then there should be no problem in you calling him out.”
“Calling Johnny Madrid out? Now wait a minute here. You said nothing about…”
“I said nothing about it because I wanted you to see with your own eyes that you had the advantage.”
“Johnny’s an old friend…”
“Mr. Drake, I have already paid you one thousand dollars to find someone to torch that orphanage. Now I’m willing to pay you another three thousand if you kill Johnny Madrid. Now, I’m going to hire someone, one way or the other, and it might as well be you who gets the money and the recognition as the one who took the great Johnny Madrid down.”
Drake thought about it, slipping his hat back on his head. “When do you want this done?”
“Two days. I have a few more surprises for the Lancer’s first. Meet me here this afternoon around four o’clock and I’ll go over our next move.”
Drake nodded and slowly headed outside. It was gonna be hard killing Johnny…but three thousand dollars. A man would be a fool to pass up that kind of money.
Johnny awoke to the sound of silence. Complete silence. He lay very still, staring at the ceiling. He couldn’t shake the feeling of uneasiness. He should have heard the sounds of children, even hushed whispers if they were told to be quiet. But not even that.
He looked out the window, it was still early morning. There should have been the smells of freshly made coffee and breakfast. Uneasiness turned to outright worry. There were no sounds from the house at all.
He sat up slowly, the pain in his hand coming back with a vengeance as he slid his legs over the bed and stood up, swaying a bit at first. He noticed the bottle of laudanum lying on the table next to his bed. He thought, just for a moment, of taking just enough to ease the pain, but nixed the idea. He had to be clear headed for whatever he found in the rest of the house.
He dressed quickly, as quickly as he could with his left hand and slipped his right arm into a black sling he spotted draped over the foot of the bed.
Stepping outside into the hall he still heard nothing. Worry turned to alarm and he headed for the kitchen, picking up his pace, his footsteps ringing eerily around him.
He found the kitchen empty. Dishes were put away, counters were clean, except for the pies lined up for last nights dessert.
He made his way toward the parlor, his throat constricting with worry. He found Scott lying on the couch, his legs drawn up to his stomach in obvious pain. Molly and Murdoch were huddled in easy chairs near him, in similar positions.
“Scott?!” He shook Scott’s shoulder gently, and received a soft moan. “Scott, what happened?” He got no response. He was suddenly very afraid for the children. He ran for the dormitories, clutching his hand against his chest, the pain making him nauseous. Each room he entered he found the same thing. The children were huddled on their beds, their arms holding their stomachs as they slept.
He hurried back to the parlor and shook Scott harder. “Scott. What happened?”
Scott’s eyes fluttered open, his face as white as a sheet. “Sick. Everyone…sick.”
“When?” Johnny felt for fever but found Scott’s forehead cold and clammy.
“Ok. I’m going for the doctor. You just hang in there.”
“No!” Scott tried to grab Johnny’s arm, but his stomach knotted again and he could only hold onto his belly.
“You rest,” Johnny ordered. “I’ll be back in no time.”
Johnny ran back toward his room. He knew the ride into town would be hellacious. He pulled the cork from the laudanum with his teeth and took a small sip, grimacing at the disgusting taste. Just enough to take the kick off of the pain so he could ride without passing out.
He ran for the stables. He hated leaving them all here, unprotected. But he had to get a doctor. It must have been something they ate. He had missed dinner last night, or he too could have been sick.
Saddling Barranca was more than he could handle so he slipped on the bridle only and leaped up onto the Palomino’s back. Johnny seldom rode bareback, but Barranca seemed to instinctively know that he needed to give his owner a smooth ride, and fell into a fast ground covering lope.
It took Johnny nearly an hour to reach town, and he felt dizzy with pain by the time he slipped off Barranca’s back in front of the doctor’s office.
He saw everyone staring at his black sling, but he couldn’t stand the pain of having it unsupported. He would have to deal with the consequences later, after the doctor took care of Scott and the children.
“Hey, Madrid!” a voice called from behind him. He froze, his toe just tipping the first step onto the raised boardwalk that ran the length of the block. He turned around slowly, feeling utterly defenseless without his gun at his hip. He knew he had little chance of outdrawing someone with his left hand, especially with his colt stuffed under his belt.
Five men stood outside the saloon across the street. The speaker leaned carelessly against the post supporting the balcony above, his hand resting on his holstered gun. “You need a doc for that hand of yours?”
Johnny stood motionless, staring at them.
“Heard you was hiding behind them orphans out there until you healed. Told my friends here that the great Johnny Madrid wouldn’t hide behind a bunch of sniveling brats…but I just might a been wrong. Was I wrong Madrid?”
“Think what you want,” Johnny said coldly, and turned his back on the five men. He prayed he wouldn’t feel a bullet in the back.
He climbed another step and felt the bullet splinter the wood by his foot before he heard the report from the gun.
“I asked you a question, Madrid.”
Johnny turned back slowly. “You got a name?” he asked the speaker.
“Vargas. Mr. Vargas to you.” The other four men joined him in gut wrenching laughter.
Johnny noticed faces pressed against store windows, watching.
“You got something to say Vargas?” Johnny asked. “Or you just like hearing yourself talk?” He had to take the chance that they would back off. If he backed down now, he was as good as dead, if not today, then tomorrow or next week.
“You got a big mouth for a man with his gun hand in a sling.” Vargas stepped off the boardwalk and began walking slowly toward Johnny, the other four men following. “Tell me, you that eager to die, or are ya just that stupid?”
Johnny watched as the five men slowly surrounded him. He couldn’t draw on them, he wasn’t fast enough with his left hand, and he wasn’t strong enough to fight all five of them, but he’d take at least two down with him.
Vargas lashed out and punched Johnny in his right arm. The pain exploded in his hand and it took every ounce of will power not to sag to his knees.
“Hurts, huh?” Vargas laughed.
Johnny kicked out at him, the heel of his boot striking Vargas’ left kneecap. The man crumbled to the ground screaming in pain as he held his knee. A minute later Johnny was following him, driven to the ground beneath an onslaught of punches and kicks to his body. He tried to cover his head with his left arm, exposing his ribs to the attack. He felt on the very brink of blacking out when he heard a gunshot close by and the men broke away.
The doctor held a gun on them, cocked and ready to fire again. “The next bullet hits flesh,” he warned. “Now you men help Mr. Madrid inside and bring along your friend.”
They reluctantly dragged Johnny into the doctor’s office and dropped him on the exam table.
“Get the sheriff and then get out of town. I’ll send Vargas home when he’s ready.”
The four men piled out of the office, Henry’s gun still aimed at them.
“Hey Doc,” Vargas yelled, “I think that scum broke my knee.”
Henry turned toward him. “Serves you right if he did. Now shut your mouth until I can get to you.”
“You ain’t taking care of that gunslinger first?!”
“If you don’t shut up I might never get to you. Here,” he threw a bottle of laudanum at him. “Take a swig of this.”
Henry left Vargas in the waiting room and went to check on Johnny.
“You have some kind of death wish coming in here like this Johnny?” Henry asked as he began his examination.
Johnny pushed his hand away and struggled to sit up. “We ain’t got time for this now, Doc. Everyone’s sick at the orphanage.”
“They’re all passed out, grabbing their bellies. Got Scott to tell me they all got sick after dinner last night.”
“And I’m assuming you didn’t eat anything with them.”
“I went to sleep early.”
“I heard about Drake’s visit.” Henry smiled at Johnny’s surprise. “News travels fast around here. Drake said you handled that gun pretty good for an injured man. I’m guessing it hurt like hell though.”
Johnny nodded then hissed when Henry pushed in on his ribs. “Just as I thought. You’ve got a couple cracked ribs here. I’ll bind them up quick then get out to see the children. You can rest here until I get back.”
“I’m going with you, Doc. Now hurry up. I don’t like them all out there without protection.”
Thirty minutes later Johnny’s ribs were bound tightly and Vargas had a temporary splint on his broken kneecap.
Henry tied Barranca behind the buggy and insisted Johnny ride along with him in the wagon. Johnny didn’t protest too much. His ribs burned and his hand was becoming nearly unbearable. But he wouldn’t tell Henry. He knew the old doctor would turn around and head right back to town if he knew.
They reached the orphanage in little less than two hours. The time seemed to drag for Johnny. He was worried sick about Scott and the children. Whatever had felled them had knocked them out all night.
Henry was out of the buggy and in the front door before Johnny could lumber out of the seat.
He found Henry hovering over Scott as he sat on the couch, his head in his hands, trying to fight off the last of the nausea. Molly was just coming to, moaning softly as she struggled to sit up.
“Easy,” Henry cautioned, “let me take a look at you before you get too carried away.”
Johnny went on to check the dormitories. Some of the children were starting to come to while others were still fast asleep.
“Take it easy,” Henry cautioned, as Scott sat back against the cushions on the couch. He saw Molly and Murdoch doing the same thing, their faces drained of color and their hands shaking.
“Where’s Johnny?” he asked, looking around the room.
“He’s checking on the children. You relax while I look you over. Do you remember much?”
Scott remembered thinking that he had been thrown through the gates of hell, his stomach cramping so bad he thought he would die.
“We were all fine one minute, then the next…”
“Well…” Henry lowered the stethoscope from Scott’s chest. “I think you’re going to be feeling a bit weak and queasy for the rest of the day, but other than that I think you’ll be fine.” He turned to Murdoch and Molly. “I’ll check the children first then have a look at you two. I’m sure I’ll find the same as Scott.”
“What do you think it was?” Murdoch asked, attempting to get up then thinking better of it.
“I’d stay down for at least another hour,” Henry warned. “I’d say it was some kind of poison added to the food. It was too aggressive to be spoiled food. Where’s Solomon…he may know…”
“Right here.” Henry turned around to see Johnny trying to support Solomon, but there was a question as to who was doing the most supporting. “I found him out cold on the floor in the lauder.”
Henry quickly helped Johnny lead Solomon toward a chair. He checked the cook’s eyes and timed his pulse. “You rest here for awhile,” he ordered. “Then we’ll go over everything you cooked last night. You may be forced to throw out all your supplies.”
“Oh no,” Molly cried, “Easter is next week. I promised the children a special dinner.”
“Let’s just take one thing at a time. Johnny, you feel up to checking the children again?”
“Make sure the younger ones are coming around. They could be the most susceptible to whatever it was that was put in their food. If you find any of them having trouble breathing or if they still seem to be in a lot of pain, come get me. I’ll start on the first dormitory.”
“I’ll help,” Scott began then fell back against the couch cushion. “In a little while,” he amended.
“Rest. All of you,” Henry ordered.
“This is horrible!” Agnes Tucker stared at the front page of the San Jose Register. “Outrageous!”
“For heaven’s sake, Agnes, read the article!” Mildred Hawkins snapped.
“Yes, get on with it,” Hattie Ferguson urged.
There was a general mumble of agreement from the Ladies Tuesday Morning Quilting Bee. A group of older women dedicated to creating spectacularly beautiful quilts (in their eyes at least) but most of all a chance to gossip about everyone and everything.
This Tuesday morning there was no gossip, just hard cold facts read from the morning paper.
Agnes nodded and cleared her throat and began to read from the paper…
“Murder Most Foul” she let the headline hang in the air for a long moment before proceeding. “By Martin Paddock. Never has the good town of San Jose been in more danger than it is at this very moment. And yet we do nothing. We sit back and wait. Wait for what you may ask? Wait to see who will be the first man or woman to die at the hands of Johnny Madrid, a cold blooded killer. You say you are safe, that he only kills for money, that as long as you have no price on your head you are safe. But I fear that is not always true. Case in point: Four years ago in a small town outside of Nogales, Johnny Madrid shot Reverend Thomas Bennett in the stomach and held him captive inside his church for three days until the priest died of his wound. People reported hearing Reverend Bennett calling for help, praying to God for mercy. The only thing that kept Madrid from being executed was a letter written by the Reverend exonerating him from all sins.“
A hush fell over the quilting bee as the women digested the news. Daisy McClure went white as a ghost as she grabbed her chair to keep from fainting.
“No one is safe here my friends, no one,” Agnes continued to read. “Not until Johnny Madrid is driven from our town.”
“And that harlot, Molly Walters, she should follow him straight to Hell,” Hattie declared, her quilting scissors raised high above her head.
“Tar and feather the both of them,” Mildred shrieked.
“Those poor children, left in the hands of such people. If I had the room, I would take them all in myself. But there is barely enough room for Dirk and myself.”
Heads nodded in agreement.
“I questioned my Harold’s decision not to sell to the orphanage…but now I can see why,” Agnes said, her voice trembling with rage. “I suggest we hold a town meeting, ladies. We all need to discuss what we are going to do about this situation. It is clear that the law is not going to help. So we must help ourselves.”
The quilt forgotten, the ladies of San Jose marched out of Agnes’s parlor to set into motion their own brand of justice.
Henry finally slumped into a chair in the parlor. “All the children are resting comfortably,” he reported. “I see no cause to be worried about after effects. We were lucky. Some of the smaller children could have easily eaten too much and…well thank God it didn’t happen.”
Molly nodded. “Any idea what it might have been, Henry?”
“It would be almost impossible to tell unless we took a sample of everything that was used in last night’s dinner. We know it was in the food because Johnny was the only one who didn’t eat and who didn’t get sick. Solomon, I’m afraid you are going to have to bury everything you used last night. Everything. Including spices. We can’t take a chance it was in the salt or pepper or anything else you used.” He turned to Johnny who sat on the couch, his hand still cradled in the sling per doctor’s orders. “Did you drink any water last night?”
Johnny thought about it then shook his head. “After the laudanum I slept through the night.”
“So we can’t rule out the water,” Scott said. He was still looking pale, but he was regaining his strength.
“No,” Henry agreed. “Don’t use the water for drinking or cooking. I’ll have a barrel of fresh water sent out to you as soon as I get back into town. And I’ll take a sample from the well to make sure it’s not tainted.”
“Who could have done such a thing?” Molly asked. “To put children in such danger. Twice…”
Scott lowered his head. The thought that his grandfather could stoop this low shamed and angered him. “I have an idea…” he said bitterly.
Johnny squeezed Scott’s shoulder. “It’s not any of your doing. It’s his.”
Scott nodded. It still didn’t hurt any less.
“Meanwhile,” Henry continued, “keep the children in bed for the rest of the day. Let them do light activities for the next few days.” He turned toward Johnny, “And you, I want to see that hand before I leave.”
“It’s all right,” Johnny protested.
Three sets of eyebrows raised in unison.
“Remember Johnny…” The sound of hoof beats had Johnny and Scott at the window before anyone could say a word.
“It’s Tyler,” Molly said as she looked between their shoulders. “He’s Tom and Helen Burnside’s son. They let Tyler do some general chores around here despite the town’s feelings about us.”
Molly opened the door and Tyler handed her the newspaper, his face turning white when he saw Johnny standing there. “You better read this Miss Molly.” And he ran back to his horse, nearly sprawling in the dirt in his haste.
Molly read it and slowly handed it to Johnny. She watched his face pale at the article, but he said nothing in his defense.
Scott snatched it out of his hands and read it out loud, his voice faltering as he read it.
Murdoch slammed his hand against the armrest of his chair. “I can’t believe how low this Paddock will go to crucify Johnny.”
Johnny sighed deeply and lowered his head as he turned to walk out the door. “It’s true,” he said softly. And the door closed behind him.
All stood stunned, looking at the closed door.
Murdoch took two large angry steps and flung the door open. “You get back here right now, Johnny!” he yelled. “I want an explanation.”
Johnny kept walking toward the stables, not breaking his stride.
“You owe us that much,” Murdoch demanded. But the anger was gone from his voice.
That stopped Johnny, and he turned around. “I admit I did it, isn’t that enough?”
“No, not hardly. I know you, Johnny. Please, come inside.”
Scott stood stunned, as much from Johnny’s reaction to the article as to Murdoch’s reaction to Johnny. His father had learned something about his younger son the past four months.
Johnny walked slowly back to the house. He hoped he would never have to relive that moment in his life again, but he knew someday it would surface. He just wished his family had not heard about it.
“Sit down,” Murdoch said gently, guiding Johnny to a chair. “There is more to this story than what we read.”
Johnny nodded. A look of pain crossed his face, not from his hand, but from a memory that had haunted him for four years. “It was in a small town near Nogales. The people were dirt poor and their church meant everything to them. Father Bennett took me in when no one else in town would touch the famous pistolero. I had a bullet in my back and a raging fever. He took care of me until I got back on my feet. In return I stayed on to help repair the church. It had seen better days years before I got there.” Johnny fingered the small threads that hung from the sling as he talked, his eyes downcast, lost somewhere in the past. “Father Bennett was young, maybe twenty-five. He was questioning his faith, wondering if being a priest was his true calling. We talked about it. He loved his church, his parishioners, but he met someone… He strayed one night.”
Johnny looked toward Molly. “He was a good man who lost his way, just for a moment. A few weeks later he found that the woman was going to have a child. He couldn’t stand the thought of his congregation knowing about his failure. The whole town knowing that he had betrayed his faith, and theirs. The next day I was working on the pews and I heard a gunshot from the confessional.”
Johnny’s voice trembled with the memory of that day. “I found Father Bennett with a bullet hole in his stomach. He looked so scared. Not of dying…but of letting his congregation down. He made me promise that no one would know that he had committed the ultimate sin, suicide. He thought it would destroy everyone’s faith if their own priest…He refused to see a doctor, knowing that the doctor could tell it was self inflicted. I took his gun and washed the blood off, then carried him to the vestibule and waited for him to die. It took three days. I prayed with him, made him comfortable as I could. He died in my arms and I carried him to the undertakers where I put him in the casket myself. No one knew the truth.”
The room was silent. No one moved.
“You let everyone think that you murdered a priest in cold blood?” Scott finally broke the silence. “Johnny…”
“I promised him.”
“And the young woman?” Molly asked. “Their baby?”
“She left town before anyone knew she was carrying a baby.”
Scott looked at his brother and wondered what other sacrifices he had made for others. He realized it was Johnny’s way of balancing out his life as a gunfighter. He might not even know he was doing it.
“You have to tell the truth now,” Murdoch said. “You can’t let people think…”
“It doesn’t matter, Murdoch. Everybody thinks Johnny Madrid walks hand in hand with the devil. They would never believe the truth.”
Henry cleared his throat. “This article,” he said, tapping the paper in Scott’s hand, “is going to bring out the worst in people. I think you should leave town as quickly as possible.”
“And let Harlan Garrett win?” Johnny shook his head. “That ain’t gonna happen.”
“What if he thought he won?” Scott suddenly asked, the smallest of smiles on his face.
“What?” Johnny jumped off the couch. “If you think I’m going to let you…”
“Easy brother. I said what if he thought he won. At least he would stop targeting the orphanage, and I could keep him from coming out here. I’ll send a telegram today telling him that this last incident was all I could take. That he had been right all along. I’ll tell him that I’m going back to Lancer just to gather my personal belongings and say my good-byes and be in Boston within the month.”
“I don’t like it, Scott,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “The man is insane. Who knows what he’ll do when he finds out you tricked him. He may hate you more than me.”
“I agree with Johnny.” Murdoch grabbed the newspaper from Scott’s hand. “He’s gone too far. He won’t get away with it. He’s going to lose more than a few businesses this time. But first I’m going to have a little talk with Paddock myself. He’s going to find out that he has a lot more to worry about than Harlan Garrett.”
“No one is going into town today,” Henry ordered. “You have all been through an ordeal. Your bodies need time to regain their strength. And you young man.” He turned to Johnny, “I still want a look at that hand. You can wait until tomorrow to start any of your plans. Molly, would you please get me a basin of hot water and Epson Salts for Johnny to soak his hand in. “I think,” he said as he started to unwind the bandaging, “that I could write a book about this…but I’m afraid no one would believe it. They would think it was too outlandish.”
Harlan Garrett slowly backed away from the window, a satisfied look on his face as he remembered watching Vargas’ men help Johnny into the doctor’s office across the street.
“Madrid didn’t look all that well. What a shame. You know Paddock, I have been pulling the strings, manipulating Johnny Madrid for nearly four months now. He has done everything I have expected. Except San Francisco. I thought he was dead. But he held on somehow, against great odds. As much as I despise the man, I also have to admire his strength. He is an admirable opponent. But in the end I will win, because it is Scotty who I am fighting for.”
He shifted over to the printing press and read the front page. “Brilliant if I must so myself. Have you heard the uproar? I wish you could have seen the mob in San Francisco. They were ready to storm the hospital and lynch the boy right on the front steps. Words Paddock, they are the strongest weapon we have. When Drake calls Madrid out, not a soul in town will come to the boy’s aide. Which reminds me. That doctor has been giving aide to the enemy for too long. Tell Drake to lean on the good doctor. Make him understand that it would be against his best interests to continue tending to Mr. Madrid.”
“What do you have in mind for Madrid?” Paddock asked.
“Just something for him to think about. Tell me Paddock, besides my Scotty and his father, who or what does Johnny Madrid hold most precious?”
Harlan smiled, picking up a dowel covered in black ink. “His horse,” Harlan said, his smile fading. “He dotes on that animal as if it were his best friend.”
Paddock cringed inwardly. This was not what he thought this job would entail when he first agreed to the editing position.
“Everything is coming together nicely, Paddock. By now Scotty has read the article and has to have second thoughts about that half brother of his. Yes…everything is going just fine. In two weeks we will be heading back to Boston. We may be on the road during Easter, but we can celebrate the holiday when we get home. Now find Drake. He has work to do.”
Johnny made his way slowly toward the kitchen. He hadn’t planned on sleeping this late into the morning. But it was nearly dawn before he finally fell asleep. His left side had stiffened up as he laid in bed, courtesy of Vargas’ left boot to his rib, making it hard for him to move his left arm around freely. It reminded him of his long recuperation after his ill-fated trip to San Francisco.
And once again he, and all those around him, were being threatened by Harlan Garrett. He had no doubt that the food incident was a reminder to them of how powerful the old man was. But he had gone too far this time. He involved innocent children and even targeted his own grandson. Johnny feared that the man was spiraling down toward madness. And in the end no one would be safe.
As he neared the kitchen he heard the sweet laughter of children and he knew the first group of kids were eating. Molly had separated them into three groups. The children under eight ate first. Then the next group, ranging in age from nine to twelve. The third group, thirteen and over ate with the grownups. Johnny chuckled to himself and wondered what group Murdoch would put him in. Probably the nine to twelve year olds.
He found the nine and twelve year olds cleaning the table and setting it for the last group to eat.
“Johnny, how are you feeling this morning?” Henry asked, sipping at a glass of milk. He noted his pallor and the dark circles beneath his eyes. The boy had not slept well. He would have to find some way to remedy that. He was glad he had decided to stay over for the night, not just to make sure there were no adverse effects from the tainted food, but to keep a watchful eye on Johnny as well.
“Better, thanks. You’re a milk drinker too?”
“I prefer a hot cup of coffee in the morning, but we have no drinkable water.”
Johnny eyed the large bowl of scrambled eggs and Molly grinned, answering his unasked question. “Solomon used fresh eggs from the hens and milk from the cow. No spices, but it sticks to the ribs. Oh…sorry, wrong choice of words.”
Johnny gave her a dirty look, but there was only love in it.
“Sit and eat.” Murdoch pulled a chair out for him next to his seat. “Scott and I are going to ride into town this morning. Now before you get all hot under the collar.” Murdoch raised his hand. “Henry isn’t about to let you get on a horse today and we need someone here to watch over the kids.”
Johnny felt all eyes on him and he crouched down in his seat, dejected.
“We plan to pick up as many supplies as we can, along with fresh water. And I want to have a word with Paddock.”
“You better bring a mop with you,” Johnny quipped.
“Never mind. It’s nothing. Just be careful there. Drake knows who you are.”
Johnny started to lift his left arm to reach for the bowl of eggs when he grimaced in pain. Before anyone else could react, Rachael was standing beside him, ladling the scrambled eggs onto his plate. “Can I get you anything else?” she stammered. Her cheeks were as pink as the posies blossoming in spring.
“No thank you.”
She returned to her seat, her eyes lowered to the table.
“Rachael isn’t it?” Johnny asked.
The young girl nodded, her eyes still downcast.
“That’s a pretty name. And that’s a pretty bow in your hair.”
Rachael blushed even deeper.
“Ya know, I don’t know much about little kids, to be honest with you, they kind of scare me.”
“You? No, nothing could scare you, Mr. Lancer.”
Scott had to lower his head to hide the grin crossing his face. His little brother had an admirer.
“Call me Johnny. And yes, a lot of things scare me. Like what if one of them little tykes starts bawling and there’s no reason. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
“There’s always a reason. You just have to figure out what it is, Mr….Johnny.”
“There you see. I don’t know everything and you could help me.”
Scott glanced over at Molly and saw the deep affection she felt for his brother. The kindness and respect Johnny had for this lonely little girl warmed her heart.
They were kindred spirits. Raised without the comfort and security of parents. Knowing true loneliness at a tender age. Rachael was lucky, she at least found security here with Molly. How different would Johnny’s life have been if he had found someone like Molly to take him in, giving him protection and comfort?
Suddenly the magnitude of what his grandfather was doing to them left him nearly breathless. These children were being hurt by a selfish old man who would go to any lengths to have what he wanted. He would do anything within his power to see that these children were safe and happy. Anything.
Scott glanced over at Murdoch, still angry that he wouldn’t listen to reason and let him go into town alone. It made it more difficult to carry out his plans. Despite their objections, Scott thought his idea of contacting his grandfather and telling him he was coming home was a good one. If only to take the pressure off Molly and the children. And Johnny needed time to recuperate. He couldn’t take the chance that Drake would call him out. There was no way Johnny could win in a gunfight now. And Scott didn’t feel as confident in the gunfighter’s code as Johnny did. Drake would not hesitate to take Johnny down and win the recognition.
They pulled up in front of the San Diego Register and Scott took the buckboard reins from Murdoch. “I’ll meet you over at the mercantile,” he offered. “Solomon will be grateful for new supplies.”
“So will everyone else.” Murdoch chuckled. “You be careful. There’s no telling what kind of reaction today’s article will have on the people around here.”
Scott nodded and pulled the team up to the mercantile. As soon as his father disappeared into the newspaper office he headed toward the telegraph office.
“Morning,” the man behind the counter said, his eyes just barely open. Boredom appeared to be his biggest adversary.
“Sending or receiving?”
“Sending,” Scott said, jotting down the message to Harlan. He knew this was the best way around the situation. He hoped he was in time. He remembered his order to Paddock to send for his grandfather. The man could be on a train already.
The telegraph operator read the message and looked up at Scott. “Harlan Garrett out of Boston?” he asked.
“You sure you want to send it all the way to Boston?”
Confused, Scott was becoming a little irritated. “Yes. Now send it. I won’t require a reply.”
“Well I should think not. It’s kinda hard to get a reply from Boston when the man’s right here in San Diego.”
“Harlan Garrett, he’s right here in town. Has been for the past week.”
“Where’s he staying?” Scott tried to keep his voice steady. The revelation stunned him.
“I’ve been delivering his messages to the newspaper office. You still want me to send this?” he asked, waving the message under Scott’s nose.
“No.” Scott snatched the paper back. “I’ll deliver it myself. And…” Scott added as he headed for the door, “don’t let my grandfather know I know he’s here. I bet he’s got some kind of surprise in mind for me. Wouldn’t want to spoil his fun.”
The operator smiled faintly then returned to his job of holding up the counter.
Johnny sat through one last examination before Henry headed back to town. His hand was responding to the inactivity and soaking. While it was still swollen and very painful, Johnny found that he could move his fingers easier. Henry prescribed at least another two weeks of soaking and keeping it quiet in the sling, and it should begin to heal. His rib was still sore, but Henry confirmed that it was indeed just cracked, and not broken. If he kept it bound tightly and he didn’t do anything strenuous, he would be fine.
“You follow my orders,” Henry admonished as he finally climbed into his buggy. “And I’ll see you in a couple days.”
“We’ll see that he does, Henry,” Molly promised. “Even if we have to tie him to the hitching post.”
“You do that.” Henry laughed as he snapped the reins and the buggy pulled away from the courtyard.
“I thought he’d never leave.” Johnny sighed. “I think he’s worse than Sam.”
“Maybe it’s the patient,” Molly quipped and headed back into the house. “Are you coming?”
“In a while. I just want to take a quick look around.”
Molly nodded. “Just take it easy. I’m going to help Solomon clear out the larder. It’s such a shame to have to throw away so much food.”
“Scott and Murdoch will bring back what you need. They should be in town by now.”
Johnny watched Molly open the door just as Rachael rushed out, nearly knocking her over in her haste to get to Johnny’s side.
“Is there anything I can help you with…Johnny?” Her voice softened and she blushed as she said his name.
“I’m only going to have a look around. But you can keep me company if you want.”
Rachael nodded, falling into an easy pace next to her hero.
“You been on your own for long, Rachael?” Johnny asked.
“Since I was six. Ma and Pa were killed when their buggy overturned. My brother Tad, he was adopted right away. But no one wanted a little girl.”
Rachael shrugged. “It’s not so bad. Especially here. I like it here. Molly is sweet and fair, but strict when she has to be.”
Johnny chuckled. “Oh I know how strict she can be.”
“Have you known Molly a long time?” As they talked, Rachael became more comfortable. She had heard the other kids, mostly the boys, talk about Johnny Madrid. They told each other stories they had heard about the famous gunfighter. But she couldn’t see it in the man who walked beside her. They must have been mistaken. This was Johnny Lancer, not a cold blooded killer.
“Not long. She was my nurse up in San Francisco when I was hurt real bad. She took care of me. Didn’t let me get away with a thing.” He grinned.
She followed him to the corral and watched as he opened the gate and petted each horse individually, talking to them softly. She thought her heart was about to burst, he was so gentle with the animals. They all responded in kind, nudging his shoulder and snorting as if he were speaking their language.
“I’ve never seen those horses respond to a person like that,” she said in awe as she watched him lock the gate behind him. She saw the grimace he tried to hide as his rib complained. “They know they can trust me,” he said. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to my best friend.”
She fell into step beside him again, trying to keep up with his longer stride. She knew they were headed for the barn where the magnificent palomino he rode in on three days ago waited. The horse suited him, just like the concho buttons on his pants and the salmon colored shirt.
“Johnny…” she slowed down and so did he. Everything was perfect, except for what she heard from the other kids.
“Some…some of the other kids are saying that you are Johnny Madrid.”
He stopped and pursed his lips in thought. “Was,” he answered softly.
“But, he’s a gunslinger…a killer. I don’t believe you could kill anyone.”
“I have,” he said softly. “It never feels good to kill a man, Rachael. I made a lot of mistakes I’m not proud of. I was young and angry when I put on a gun, and didn’t realize where it was going to take me. By the time I found out, it was too late.”
“But what about Mr. Lancer and your brother?”
“Neither Scott or me grew up with our father. Scott’s mother died in childbirth and was raised by his grandfather in Boston. I…I was…kidnapped when I was two years old and lived in Mexico.”
She looked up at him and her heart nearly broke in half. There was so much pain in those eyes. She wished she was just a few years older so she could kiss all his sadness away.
“I spent some time in orphanages, but never anything like this. This place is special, Rachael. I can’t say that you’re lucky to be an orphan, but you sure are lucky to have found someone like Molly.”
“She likes you, you know,” Rachael whispered, and she felt her stomach flutter when he grinned, the laugh lines around his eyes shooing away the sadness. If a man could be called beautiful…he was.
Suddenly the sound of a horse whinnying in fright broke the tranquil moment.
“Barranca!” Johnny yelled, slipping the gun from his belt with his left hand, and kicking the stable door open wider. “Stay here,” he ordered, and disappeared into the dark stable.
Johnny flung himself against the nearest stall, slamming his right shoulder into the slatted boards. He bit down on his lower lip trying to suppress the gasp as his hand exploded in agony. But he remained perfectly still, momentarily blinded by the contrast between the bright sunlight outside and the dark stable. He waited, every sense alert.
The stable was warm and close, filled with the pungent smells of hay, oats and manure. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw small shafts of light streaming in through the windows above the lofts, particles of hay drifting in the air.
Barranca whinnied again, and Johnny heard the panic in the palomino’s cry.
His gun felt heavy and uncomfortable in his left hand. He knew he could shoot better than most with his off hand, but it didn’t ease his mind. If there was gunplay here in the stable, Barranca or the other horses could be hit. He edged his way toward the third stall where Barranca was stabled, throwing away the black sling. He may be maimed at the moment, but he didn’t want to advertise it.
He heard Barranca whinny again and the curse of a man inside the stall. He crouched down low and caught a glimpse of a man holding a knife through the slatted gate. If Barranca reared up the attacker could easily drive the knife into the palomino’s underside.
Barranca was skittish, moving from side to side, bumping into the stall walls in his effort to get away from the stranger.
Keeping his voice as calm as he could he stepped out of the darkness and aimed his gun at the intruder.
“You got business with my horse, mister?”
The stranger spun around, tossing the knife to his left hand, his right hand going toward the gun at his hip.
“I wouldn’t,” Johnny cautioned, his voice cold and emotionless. “Now drop that rig…nice and slow.”
Johnny watched the man unbuckle his gun belt and drop it to the ground. “Now kick it over here…nice and easy again.”
The stranger did as he was told.
“Now drop the knife.”
When the stranger hesitated, Johnny cocked his gun. “Do it,” he ordered, “or you’ll be a dead man inside a minute.”
The stranger nodded. “I don’t want no trouble from you Madrid.”
Barranca whinnied again, shifting nervously, his nostrils flared and his ears pushed back.
“Lock your hands behind your head, and come out of the stall, real slow.”
The stranger sidestepped out of the stall and took a few steps backwards, his hands still clasped behind his neck.
“You got a name?”
“Willie Stoddard.” Johnny recognized him as one of the men with Vargas yesterday. “What were you doing in my horse’s stall with a knife? And if I don’t get the answer I like…” Johnny left the rest of the sentence hanging in the heavy air, filled with the odor of fear.
Willie slowly lowered his right hand, “No tricks,” he said, his voice wavering as he pulled a small buckskin pouch from his pants pocket.
“What is it?” Johnny asked, keeping an eye on both the man and the pouch he held.
Johnny felt his hand twitch on the gun. He used every ounce of will power to keep from pulling the trigger that very instant. Loco Weed would drive a horse mad, and even if he did survive, he would never be the same horse.
“Who paid you?” Johnny growled, his voice cold as ice.
“He’d kill me.”
“I’ll kill you right where you stand if you don’t.”
Willie lowered his head, not wanting Madrid to see his reaction to the man slowly inching up behind the girl standing in the doorway. “Drake,” he mumbled, and he saw the look of disbelief cross Madrid’s face.
“No!” Rachael screamed. “Johnny…Help me!”
Johnny spun around to see another of Vargas’ men holding Rachael around the waist, his revolver stroking her face. “If you make one move, Madrid, I’ll blow her head off.”
Johnny lowered his gun and Stoddard grabbed it, jamming it in Johnny’s back. “Ain’t so big now, are ya, Madrid?”
Johnny looked at Rachael, her eyes wide with fear. “This has nothing to do with her,” he ground out. “Let her go.”
“You ain’t in no position to be givin’ orders, Mr.Gunslinger. Nash, bring her over here and close the door. We got some payback we owe Johnny Madrid here.”
“No, please,” Rachael cried. “Leave him alone. He’s hurt.”
Johnny’s stomach fell at her innocent plea.
“We know little girl. He was wearing a sling yesterday. “Stoddard jammed the gun deeper into Johnny’s back until he heard a grunt of pain from the gunslinger. “And I’m betting them ribs are still tender too. It just makes it all the more fun, Missy. Tie her up and gag her,” Stoddard ordered. “I don’t want her attracting any attention until we’re done here. Right, Madrid?”
Johnny watched helplessly as Nash threw her against a beam for the loft and tied her hands behind her back. “You are a pretty little thing,” he chuckled as he tore two strips of material from her skirt, stuffing one in her mouth and using the other to secure the gag in place. “There now,” he patted her face. “You have the best seat in the house to watch your boyfriend get what’s owed to him.”
Johnny stared at her, his eyes pleading for forgiveness. He never should have let her follow him around. He knew there could be danger. He let his affection for her get in the way of his good sense. Now she was going to suffer for it.
Satisfied, Stoddard turned back to Johnny. “Now, just how are we going to pay you back for hurting our friend Vargas?” He grabbed Johnny’s bandaged hand and squeezed, getting the reaction he was looking for. “You hurt your hand, huh? Right handed too. That’s why you’re not wearing your rig. That’s your gunhand. Hey, Nash, lookie here, Johnny Madrid hurt his gun hand.” He squeezed it again, and Johnny clamped his mouth shut tight, trying to hold back the gasp of pain.
Rachael watched in disbelief, tears flooding her eyes. She couldn’t believe this was happening. She was so scared she thought she would suffocate on the gag in her mouth.
Stoddard spotted two buggy whips hanging on the wall above the workbench. “Nash, let’s give Madrid here something to remember us with, permanent like.” He took the whips down and cut off the blunt ends with his knife, then lashed the two handles together.
Johnny watched Stoddard and knew what was coming. He’d felt the agony of a whipping before, but the overwhelming fear he felt was not for the flogging, but the fact that Rachael was going to have to watch it.
Stoddard threw Nash a length of rope. “Let’s get this done before someone notices these two are missing.”
Johnny couldn’t let this happen. He would rather chance a bullet than force Rachael to witness the brutality of a whipping. He looked at her and saw the deep pools of fear in her eyes.
In a burst of energy, driven by anger and fear, Johnny leaped toward Nash, driving the startled man face down onto the straw covered floor. His hand exploded in mind numbing pain, but he tried to ignore it, driving his knee into Nash’s back and grabbing for his gun.
He had his left hand on the grip when he felt a rope tighten around his neck and he was yanked backwards, hitting the ground hard. Nash regained his footing and lunged at him, driving his fists into his stomach. Johnny heard the sickening sound of his fractured rib snap and he nearly blacked out from the pain.
Rachael watched in horror as the two men grabbed Johnny and dragged him over to the ladder leading to the loft. They lifted him so his toes were just inches off the ground then tied his wrists to a rung, high above his head.
“No!” she cried, her voice muffled by the gag. She slid to the ground, sobbing.
Stoddard flipped his knife to Nash and he slit the back of Johnny’s shirt open, exposing the bandaging around his injured rib.
“Get rid of the bandage too,” Stoddard ordered. “We don’t want nothing to get in the way of his lashing.”
Johnny tried to raise his feet to find the bottom rung for support, but Nash grabbed his ankles and bound them to the ladder.
“You ready, Madrid?”
Johnny steeled himself for the pain, but it didn’t come. He waited, his right hand throbbing in agony, his ribs burning like a hot poker. And still he waited.
Then Stoddard was behind the ladder facing him, the pouch of loco weed in his hand.
Johnny couldn’t suppress the groan of despair. Rachael would see this too.
“Willie,” Nash grabbed his arm, “save it for the horse or we won’t get our money from Drake.”
Stoddard grabbed Johnny’s bangs and jerked his head back. “This must be your lucky day, Madrid.” He shoved the pouch into Johnny’s mouth as a gag. “Careful you don’t bite down too, hard there, boy. I’m told it ain’t a pretty sight, a man on loco weed. Shame ta make that pretty little thing over there watch you go crazy.”
“Come on, Willie,” Nash pleaded, “let’s get this over with before someone comes looking for these two.”
Stoddard grinned and patted Johnny’s cheek. “Enjoy the ride, Madrid.”
Johnny felt the first lash, both whips digging deep into his flesh. His teeth bit deep into the cowhide pouch, and he prayed he would not break through the tough skin.
Again and again the whips lashed his back and he couldn’t hold back the grunts of pain as his back burned with fire and his right hand threatened to explode with pain.
Rachael tried to avert her eyes, but she couldn’t turn away. Johnny’s body jerked with each lashing, his head hanging limply to his chest. Blood ran down his pants and splattered with each strike of the whip. She thought her heart was going to break open and she would die right there on the spot as Johnny groaned deeply and his body sagged lifelessly against the ladder. There was no more reaction to the crack of the whip against his raw back. He just hung like a puppet on a string.
Nash grabbed Stoddard’s arm as it drew back for another powerful lash of the whip. “That’s enough,” he hissed. “What’s the fun in killing him? The waking up is the best part.”
Stoddard let his hand drop to his side. “You’re right,” he said with a lethal smile. “Madrid’s gonna be one sick puppy when he wakes up.”
“And pissed too,” Nash added. His smile waning.
“All right,” Stoddard walked around to the other side of the ladder and pulled the pouch from Johnny’s mouth. He had to pry the gunslinger’s teeth apart to get it out. “Damn, the boy nearly bit right through.” He threw the pouch to Nash. “Take care of that horse right quick.”
The sound of the stable door opening froze Nash as he started mixing the loco weed with oats in Barranca’s feeding bag. The horse was still skittish, the smell of fear and blood in the stable sending him into further panic.
“Nash!” Stoddard grabbed Nash’s arm and the bag and empty pouch fell to the ground. “The back door!” he yelled and dragged the stunned man toward the small door behind them.
Molly walked into the stable, blinded by the brilliant light outside. She had been looking for Johnny and Rachael for half an hour. The only place she hadn’t looked was here. She knew how much Johnny loved Barranca and it would be natural for him to want Rachael to meet the exquisite animal.
But the scene revealed before her, as her eyes slowly adjusted to the dimmer light, was worse than the worst nightmare she had ever had.
She took everything in at once. Rachael bound and gagged to the loft post, Barranca dancing in his stall, eyes wide with fear and ears thrown back.
But her stomach sank and her knees nearly buckled at the sight of Johnny, his wrists and ankles tied to the ladder and his bloody back glistening in the dim light.
“Dear God…” she gasped, her throat constricting so she couldn’t even scream. She was moving now without even realizing it.
“Rachael!” she fell to the girls side, her hands shaking as she untied the material holding the gag tight. “Dear God, what happened child? Who did this to you?” she cried as she pulled the gag out of Rachael’s mouth.
“They hurt Johnny,” Rachael whispered, her voice toneless. “They hurt him…they hurt him.”
“Shsss…” Molly untied her hands and pulled her into her arms. “We’ll take care of him. I promise.” She looked up at Johnny and saw the deep channels in his back, leaking blood that combined with sweat. What kind of animals could do a thing like this? She looked back at Rachael. “Do you think you can stand?”
Rachael nodded, the tears beginning to flow again.
“Rachael, are you hurt? Did anyone touch you?”
“No. They hurt Johnny,” she sobbed.
“I know,” Molly soothed, petting the girls cheek. “I know. But now we have to help him. I can’t get him down by myself and I can’t leave him. You have to go and get Solomon.”
“Molly…?” Rachel wrapped her arms around Molly, holding onto her desperately.
“Listen to me…you have to be strong, for just a little longer. Johnny needs your help. Now, get Solomon.”
Rachael nodded, looking up at Johnny hanging motionless from the ladder, than ran unsteadily out of the stable.
Molly turned back to Johnny. She could do nothing for him until Solomon arrived, to do so could injure him further. She walked behind the ladder, her legs barely holding her up as she looked up at his face, slumped against his chest. Sweat and tears drenched his face, tears of pain, and what, the knowledge that Rachael was watching him suffer? “Oh, Johnny…when will this nightmare ever end?”
It seemed like hours before she heard Solomon’s hurried footsteps and heard his gasp of horror.
“My God!” he cried out.
“Help me get him down, Solomon.”
Solomon nodded. “Who did this?”
Suddenly young strong arms were reaching up to support Johnny. Molly looked around to see that Rachael had rounded up the older boys to help. Her heart broke at the thought that they should see the horrors of what man could do to man, but she needed their help.
“Easy,” she cautioned. “Let him down slowly.” She cut away the ropes around his ankles then cut his hands down. He slumped into their arms, his body boneless. “Careful. Lay him on his stomach. Easy now…Jose, get something for a pillow. Peter, we need hot water and…”
And then Rachael was standing above her, sheets and blankets in her arms. Four of the older girls following her, carrying medical supplies and a pail of steaming water.
“Rose and Lucia are putting fresh sheets on his bed and Carla and Emily are keeping the fire stoked in the stove for more water.”
Molly felt a rush of pride for Rachael and all her children.
“Solomon, ride into town and tell Scott and Murdoch what’s happened. Then get Henry.”
“Will you be alright here?”
Molly looked around her at the children hovering over Johnny. “I have the best help in the world. We’ll be fine. Now hurry. I don’t want him waking up before Henry gets here.”
She watched him disappear into the bright light outside and heard the pounding of a galloping horse a moment later.
“All right, let’s get him onto a clean sheet here, and then cover him. We have to clean out these cuts before there is infection.”
Molly looked at the children around her and saw only determination in their young faces. God damn the men who did this, she cried silently. They had robbed her children of the last vestiges of innocence with this senseless act of brutality.
Murdoch didn’t notice the door leading to the storage closet slowly close as he entered the newspaper office. He had a good idea of what Paddock looked like from Scott’s description, but he was still surprised that such vicious words could come out of such a weak looking little man.
“Mr. Paddock?” he asked.
Paddock nodded, instinctively edging behind his printing press. Harlan had pointed Murdoch Lancer out as he headed for the office and the look on his face did nothing to dispel his fear. What father would not be furious reading the kinds of things he wrote about his son?
“Yes, Sir. Can I help you?”
“No,” Murdoch said flatly. “It is I who can help you.”
“And how is that, Mr. Lancer, right?”
Murdoch nodded. “You know me then.”
“You are a hard man to miss, Sir. But I’m not sure what you can do for me.”
“I can save your life,” he said simply.
Pollock backed up even further. “I…I don’t understand…”
“Simple. I know my son, Mr. Pollock. He can only be pushed so far. Right now I…we…his brother and I, are barely keeping him from riding into town and forcing you to make a retraction. I’m sure you’ve done enough homework to know how Johnny Madrid makes people retract their statements.”
“Mr. Lancer, I am a respected newspaper editor. It is my duty to inform the people of this town when there is trouble in their community. Mr. Lancer, your son is trouble.”
“You print lies and exaggerated truths,” Murdoch roared, and the little man cowered back into the wall. “That is not honest journalism, it is character assassination. And I want it to stop!”
“I warn you Mr. Lancer, if you or your sons lay a hand on me I will…”
Scott rushed across the street, bursting through the newspaper office’s front door. He didn’t know what to expect. If his grandfather was there, had his father confronted him? He found Murdoch towering over the editor, the little man quaking in his boots. He searched the room with his eyes, but there was no sign of Harlan. But he knew he was there. He could feel him, smell his fine cologne. He spotted a handkerchief with the initials HG embroidered on the corner.
Murdoch whirled around, recognizing the look of worry on his son’s face.
Scott made the decision not to tell Murdoch about Harlan until they checked on Johnny first. “There’s trouble out at the orphanage.”
“What kind of trouble?” Murdoch demanded.
“Mr. Pollock may know already. How about it, Pollock?”
“I don’t have a clue what you are talking about.”
“Someone whipped Johnny near to death. Solomon is looking for Henry.”
Murdoch whirled on Pollock. “If I find out you had anything to do with this, I promise the next edition of your paper is going to be your epitaph.”
Harlan stepped out of the storage closet and watched Scott and Murdoch mount their horses and gallop out of town.
“Damn that man,” Harlan swore. “I told Drake to get rid of that horse, not attack Madrid. I want Madrid so mad that he’ll call Drake out even though he knows he doesn’t stand a chance. I want Scotty to see Madrid as he really is, a cold blooded gunslinger. And when he faces Drake out there on that dirty street, my boy will finally see his brother as he truly is…a good for nothing half-breed killer.”
“I suppose you will want to see Mr. Drake,” Pollock asked.
“I most certainly do. Now I will have to extend my timetable while Madrid recovers. The more time I spend here the more likely it is that either Scotty or Murdoch will see me. No wonder the people out here are little more than savages, the level of incompetence is mind boggling.”
Molly finished cleaning out the deep cuts on Johnny’s back and flushed them all with carbolic acid. Rachael stood by her side through the entire ordeal, handing her fresh towels, all the while holding Johnny’s hand in hers.
“Will he be alright, Molly?”
Molly nodded, gently brushing the hand that held Johnny’s. “In time. What about you, Rachael? Are you alright?”
“They didn’t hurt me.”
Molly wasn’t so sure about that. The child had witnessed a terrible thing. She would live with it for a long time.
Barranca whinnied behind them in his stall, still skittish, sensing the fear in the air.
Jose grabbed the feedbag laying on the floor, hefting it to feel its weight, satisfied that there was enough oats to quiet the horse down.
“Good boy,” he cooed, as he had seen Johnny do. “It’s all right. Are you hungry boy?”
Barranca nodded his head taking a step closer to the boy.
“That’s it. You eat this and…”
The sound of approaching horses startled Jose and hung the bag on the rail. “I’ll feed you in just a little while, boy. Promise.”
Scott watched Johnny sleep, his brow knitting in pain even though Henry had given him a second dose of morphine.
It had been a horrible sight he and Murdoch had come back to. Scott had seen the aftermath of floggings before, far too many while he was at Libby, but none had struck him so deeply or infuriated him to the point of such rage.
Scott leaned back in the chair next to Johnny’s bed and tried to relax. It had been hours since they found him, lying face down in the stable, a dozen children surrounding him, with Molly and Rachael sitting on the ground next to him, gently applying cool compresses, trying to settle the fiery hot lashes that were already inflamed with infection. God only knew what would have happened if Johnny had not been attended to immediately.
He remembered seeing the two buggy whips tied together, discarded on the ground, so near to the blanket that Johnny lay on, the whips still coated with Johnny’s blood.
“Son…?” Murdoch’s hand squeezed his shoulder and he turned to look up into the worried face of his father. “How is he?”
“Still restless. The fever’s the same. Henry said it could have been a lot worse.”
Murdoch’s jaw clenched as he strove to control his anger. “It should never have happened in the first place. I should have insisted that he never come here. If he had stayed at Lancer…”
“How? Tied him up? Thrown him in jail? Not you or I, or anyone could have stopped him from being here. The only thing that would have stopped this…”
Murdoch looked down at his son and saw the pain in the troubled blue eyes. “No,” he said. “There is no way I would have let you return to Boston. This is not your fault. Any of it. It is the fault of a sick old man.” Murdoch raised his hand as Scott started to protest. “I know he is your grandfather, and he loved you in his own way, very much. But the Harlan Garrett that is orchestrating these attacks on your brother…putting these children at risk…he is not the man who raised you.”
Murdoch noticed a chair sitting in the corner and pulled it over, collapsing into its softness. He reached out and laid his hand gently on Johnny’s knee. “Catherine was six months along when things started to get dangerous in the valley,” Murdoch remembered. “Ranches were being burned, ranchers and their families were being slaughtered. Your mother pleaded with me to let her stay, but I thought it was best that she go back to Boston where you would both be safe. But you were born on the trail and your mother died. Harlan was outraged that his daughter had left Boston and put her life at risk in the first place. When she died he took it upon himself to raise you. It was two years before the valley was once again safe, and then I met Maria, Johnny’s mother. We had great plans. I worked day and night to make this ranch a place where I could raise two boys. We knew by then that Harlan had decided he was never going to give you up. There was little I could do at that time. The house was little more than an adobe shelter. I had three thousand acres of land, a few head of cattle and little else. But we had a dream. On your fifth birthday you would come here for a visit. We knew it would be too much to ask of a boy your age to accept a new lifestyle just like that. But we thought it would be enough to get you interested. And then…hopefully you would want to come home.”
Murdoch’s hand stroked Johnny’s leg. “Then…just after Johnny was two, Maria disappeared. I looked for them for a year. I never found them. But I was determined that I would carry out our plans and I went to Boston.”
Scott listened intently. Most of it he already knew. But there were small details that made him realize the lies he had been fed by his grandfather all those years.
“I arrived in Boston on your fifth birthday. You were having a party. I don’t think I ever saw a sadder little boy who was supposed to be happy. I met you for a brief moment that day. Ah, Scott, if I had only fought then. If I had called him on all his threats…”
“I would not be sitting here,” Scott said softly. “He would have followed through on those threats. He would have taken me to England or France. I would never have come here and I would never have met Johnny. Sir, despite all his shortcomings my grandfather truly loved me. He may not have known how to show it, but I felt it. I wasn’t exuberantly happy, but I was content. Then he began to change.”
Murdoch sat up straighter, he had never heard this before. Scott was almost as secretive about his past as Johnny.
“He became obsessed with winning. At any cost. Failure, at anything was not acceptable. He destroyed small business with a single signature. And with each conquest he wanted more.
“Then the war came. He did everything he could think of to keep me from enlisting, but I did, and after….”
Murdoch remained quiet. Scott seldom spoke of his war years. It weighed heavy on his heart that both his sons had endured so much pain. That his dreams when he first bought five hundred acres of prime land in the San Joaquin Valley had, in the end, cost so much.
“When I returned from Libby he was a changed man. He had become wealthy beyond anyone’s dreams. But money was no longer enough for him…he had to own, he had to control everything. I was no longer just Scott Garrett…”
Scott saw Murdoch flinch at the name.
“I was Scott Garrett, grandson, possession, heir.”
“And he wants you back.”
Scott nodded. “At any cost. He truly believes that you and Johnny have brainwashed me. That you have stolen me, stolen his rightful possession.”
Murdoch sank back into his chair. He was fighting a mad man for his own children. “What are we going to do?” he sighed.
Scott reached out and brushed the bangs off Johnny’s forehead, heavy with sweat from his fever. “There is only one thing to do…” He avoided Murdoch’s gaze. “Return to Boston with him until all this blows over.”
“No…” The voice was weak and hesitant…muffled by the pillow, but not to be denied.
Scott sat forward, clasping Johnny’s hand tighter.
“We…fight…here and now…together…”
“Johnny…I thought you were asleep.” Scott quickly wrung out a towel in a basin of water on the nightstand and wiped Johnny’s brow. “How long have you been playing possum?”
“Long enough. I…” A sudden flash of memory had him struggling to push himself up off the mattress. “Barranca!”
“It’s all right, Johnny, It’s all right.” Scott gently pushed his brother back down on the mattress. “Rachael remembered the loco weed. Barranca is safe.”
Johnny sighed deeply, collapsing back onto the bed.
“That’s it brother, just try to relax,” Scott soothed.
“Don’t…” Johnny pleaded, his voice muffled by the pillow. “Don’t go…please.”
“I’m not going anywhere, brother. You just relax and go back to sleep.”
“Promise…?” Johnny’s voice trailed off as his eyelids slid closed. “Promise…?”
“I promise,” Scott whispered.
Scott looked over at Murdoch, his father’s eyes glistening with unshed tears and he made his decision. Harlan Garrett had already hurt this family enough. It was going to end, one way or the other. As soon as Johnny was out of danger he would confront his grandfather. Delusional or not…the old man’s days of tyranny were coming to an end.
Johnny awoke to a fire on his back that had him clawing at the mattress with his fingers, trying to move away from the flaming agony. But it stayed with him, burning deeper with each breath. He heard a strangled cry and he knew it was his own.
Familiar voices surrounded him and told him that he was safe. Something sharp stung his arm and the pain flowed away like rain off a leaf.
“The worst is over…” That was Molly’s voice, soft and close to his ear. “Henry had to clean and dress your back, but he’s done now.”
Johnny fought to get his breathing under control. He felt someone wipe away the tears that streamed down his face. A cool towel touched his brow and he drew in a deep breath, calming his shaking body.
“That’s it, son. You can go back to sleep now.”
“Yes. And Scott is here too. You’re safe.”
“Rachael…she saw it. Murdoch…she saw…” And he could not hold back the tears of rage. For a little girl who should never have seen that kind of brutality, rage so fierce that it knotted his stomach like a fist.
“Just relax, Johnny. They will pay. They all will pay.” That was Scott’s voice, but there was an emotion in it that Johnny had never heard before. Not from Scott. Out right hate. He felt himself falling again, back into unconsciousness, and he didn’t fight it.
He would rest and gather his strength. There was a debt of his own he had to settle.
Two days passed, and Johnny regained his strength quickly. He did everything he was told to do, even down to taking the pain medications, and that had everyone around him nervous. It was not in Johnny’s nature to simply comply with authority. Especially when it came from his father. The only answer was that he was planning something.
Little did anyone know that Scott was also making his own plans.
The next morning found Johnny sitting at the breakfast table, his right arm back in the sling. He had been too preoccupied and befuddled by the drugs to realize that he had been eating a variety of foods and drinking fresh water each time he woke up.
“I had some outstanding debts on the books.” Henry grinned as he passed the plate of eggs to Rachael. The young girl filled Johnny’s plate, making sure he had a little of everything. She was once again his shadow. “A side of beef here and a sack of flour and sugar. There’s enough here to last a week.”
“He even brought a case of strawberries,” Solomon declared. “So strawberry shortcake is on the menu tonight.”
A whoop of glee echoed around the house as each group of kids heard the good news.
“Well,” Henry said, patting his stomach, “if I ate like this every morning my poor horse would go on strike. It’s about time I got back to my office.”
“I’ll ride along with you,” Scott said.
“Me too.” All eyes turned to Johnny and his smile faded.
“Sorry Johnny. Not for a couple more days,” Henry said sternly. “You know, you were lucky. Your hand had healed just enough so it wasn’t injured beyond repair by those ropes. But it still needs to remain quiet, and riding a horse is not quiet. And that back of yours still needs time. Not to mention that rib. No, there’s no riding for you for a couple of days. And if I had my way, you would be in bed for a week.”
“He’ll do as he’s told,” Murdoch promised. “But I’m not so sure about you going into town alone, Scott.”
“I just want to have a look around. So far I’m not the target, Johnny is. I’ll just have a drink and see what the local chatter is.”
“I don’t like it Boston.” Johnny pushed his chair back, cursing under his breath at the pull of the cuts on his back and his burning rib. His grimace didn’t go undetected around the table.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be back this afternoon.”
Scott rode in silence for a few miles, lost in thought. Charlemagne was tied to the back of the buggy. His plan was to meet with his grandfather. Try to talk some sense into him. He held out little hope that it would work, but at least Harlan would know he knew.
“What’s going on?” Henry finally asked. “I know you well enough now to know something’s on your mind.”
“Harlan Garrett…he’s in town.”
“What?” Henry pulled sharply on the reins, making his horse whinny in protest.
“He’s been in town all week.”
“How do you know?”
“I went over to the telegraph office. The telegraph operator has been sending his messages over to the newspaper office.”
“Why didn’t you tell Murdoch or Johnny?”
Scott snorted. “Tell Johnny? He’d already be on his horse headed to town if he knew. And Murdoch…? I just hoped I could talk some sense into my grandfather before anyone else gets hurt.”
“Do you think he is behind all this?”
“The fire and the poisoning…yes.” Scott lowered his head, ashamed to have to admit that his own grandfather could be involved…no not involved…responsible for it. “But not Johnny’s whipping.”
“I don’t understand…” Henry clicked his tongue twice and the horse started moving again.
“It’s all about control and odds,” Scott explained. “The odds that the whole orphanage would be destroyed were low. That’s why the fire was started in the back of the house. If he really wanted the building gutted he would have started in the kitchen. The poison was just enough to make us all sick…but it was not meant to hurt us permanently. Now Johnny’s beating…that was vicious and damn near killed him. But I don’t see it as part of his plan. And Rachael heard Nash say they were only supposed to give Barranca the loco weed. No, I think my grandfather wants me to see Johnny as he does. A bloodthirsty killer. He’s pushing and prodding Johnny into a showdown with Drake.”
“Johnny wouldn’t stand a chance,” Henry protested. “Surely your brother understands that.”
“Johnny?” Scott snorted. “Johnny would stand in front of a herd of stampeding horses to protect his family. And at the moment, he sees that orphanage as part of his family. But it’s not going to happen if I can help it.”
“You think talking to Garrett is going to help? The man is mad, Scott.”
“If I can find a little of what the old Harlan Garrett was…maybe I can get him to listen to reason.”
Henry shook his head. “I don’t like it, Scott. The man is deranged. You don’t know what he will do.”
“I’ve got to try. Or I might lose my brother.”
Scott felt his nerves clench at his stomach and send bile up his throat. He was about to confront the man who had raised him. The man who he had looked up to for so many years. At what point had his grandfather’s love turned to the need to possess? Would it have happened if he had stayed in Boston? Or did his hatred for Murdoch Lancer send him over the edge? Whatever the reason, he had to be stopped.
He tied Charlemagne to the hitching post in front of the newspaper office and climbed the two steps to the boardwalk. The streets were busy with people shopping, horses and wagons moving slowly up and down the crowded street. But for Scott, he was alone in the world at that very moment.
He took a deep breath and turned the door handle.
“Scotty! It is so good to see you my boy.”
Scott slowly closed the door behind him, the sounds of the street disappearing. He took in everything…remembering how Johnny sized up a room, knowing that that habit had saved the ex-gunslinger’s life more than once.
He saw Harlan standing on the other side of the printing press and Paddock leaning over the layout board preparing the paper for the next edition. He wondered what kind of lies they were going to tell about Johnny Madrid this time.
“I wish I could say the same…” Scott replied coldly. “What are you doing in San Diego?”
“Come boy, that is no way to greet your grandfather. How have you been lad?”
“I’m sure you know. Let’s see…” Scott slowly began to draw his gloves off, loosening a finger at a time… “I helped put out a fire that nearly destroyed an orphanage. Johnny was almost killed in that, you know. Then there was an unfortunate poisoning…everyone but Johnny was sick as a dog…he was still recuperating from burns to his arms and a broken hand he sustained in San Francisco. Remember San Francisco? Dr. Dykstra… I’m sure you do. Then he was beaten, just a few days ago, right across the street. You must have had quite a view from here. But then that wasn’t enough. Did you order him to be whipped, nearly to death? Did you know a young girl was tied up and forced to watch as my brother was tortured before her eyes?”
“Scotty…I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Harlan took a step away from the printing press, his hand reaching out to his grandson. “You are obviously overwhelmed by all that has happened. You need to rest my boy, you need to come back to Boston where I can take care of you. This is no life for someone like you.”
“Someone with refinement…with character. There would be no stopping you. Together we could rebuild my old empire into a new empire. Garrett and Garrett. You need only leave this God forsaken land. And the people who only want to use you to hurt me.”
Scott shook his head. “You are truly delusional. When will you understand that I am happy here? If you really loved me like you say, you would be happy for me. Not trying to destroy everything I hold dear.”
“I only want what is best for you, Scotty. To be home, safe in Boston.”
“And if that’s not what I want?”
“You don’t know what you want.” Harlan hissed. “You have been brainwashed by Murdoch and that half-breed brother of yours. You can’t think straight. Once I have you back in Boston where you belong, all this will only be a bad memory. A nightmare.”
“I’m not going back, and nothing is going to change my mind.”
“Except maybe this…” Scott felt the unmistakable muzzle of a gun shoved in his back, and the unfamiliar voice.
“Have you met Mr. Drake yet, Scotty? He seems to know your brother quite well.”
“Raise your hands slowly,” Drake ordered, and Scott felt his gun lifted from his holster.
“You plan on kidnapping me?” Scott snarled.
“If I have to. It’s for your own good Scotty. Now please, sit down. Paddock, lock the door and draw the blinds.”
Scott saw Paddock scurry across the room from his hiding place beneath the printing press and lock the door.
“You know this is a waste of time,” Scott said.
“I don’t think so. Mr. Drake, tell my grandson what you have in mind.”
Drake chuckled. “Pleased to. You see…” As he talked he reached under the press and took out a length of rope which he began tying Scott to the chair with. “… tomorrow morning Johnny Madrid will be waiting for me out on that street. I’ll have the reputation I want and your grandfather will have you.”
“You’re crazy. He’ll never come.”
“He will when his precious brother doesn’t return tonight.”
Scott felt his blood turn to ice. He knew that was exactly what Johnny would do…
Molly didn’t hear his footsteps as she sat quietly, lost in thought, her fingers worrying the rosary beads in her hands. Johnny carefully eased himself down on the bench beside her, not wanting to scare her. He didn’t say a word, just looked off into the open prairie beyond the courtyard. Spring wildflowers swirled through the tall spring grass in riotous colors, as if an artist had stroked his brush against a green canvas. Colors that would soon disappear with the heat of summer. But it was still early spring and the sun was pleasantly warm, with just a hint of dew on the leaves of the blossoming apple tree beside them.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Johnny finally said, softly.
“Mmmm…” Molly smiled, and the sadness in her eyes tugged at Johnny’s heart. “I would be overcharging you then.”
“I doubt it.” He looked back out on the prairie. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
She nodded, the sun catching the gold strands in her light red hair. “It makes me think that there is still hope.”
“There’s always hope.”
She turned to him. His face was still pale beneath his dark tanned skin, the clarity in his eyes dulled by the laudanum that he agreed to take. But there were still faint reminders of the laugh lines around his eyes. Eyes that could see right through her now.
“Is there? How do you do it, Johnny? How do you keep going when every step forward is followed by two steps back? Where do you find the strength to fight back?”
Johnny lowered his head. “I’ve been fighting all my life. I don’t know any other way.”
“Do you believe in God?”
The question took Johnny by surprise. “I’ve cursed him a few times…so yea…I guess that means I believe in him.”
“How? After everything that you have been through.”
“Sometimes…it’s the only thing I have to hang on to. And you…” he nodded toward the rosary beads in her hands. “Are you questioning your faith?”
“I don’t know. I teach the children to believe. I tell them that God is teaching them to be stronger with each adversity they face. That he loves them and watches out for them, but allows them to stumble so they can find their own way in life.”
“But you don’t believe it yourself?”
“Johnny, I had such hopes for this place. When we first got here, and the children started coming, I knew I was going to make a difference in their lives. Give them some happiness. They have lost so much in their young lives. I didn’t want to see them falter and lose their way.”
“Like me?” The question hovered in the air.
She nodded at last. “The pain you have been through, the choices you had to make. I didn’t want any of these children to face that. But what do I tell them tomorrow? We’ve been talking about Easter for weeks. How God sacrificed his only son for us. About the Resurrection. But we also talked about the bounty of food that would be on our table that evening. And the Easter egg hunt we would have in the morning. They were going to have fun. They could forget for a day who they were, how they got here. But now…”
Johnny laid his hand over hers, quieting her fingers around the beads. “You don’t need a big dinner or an Easter egg hunt to celebrate Easter. You just have to be there for those kids. Show them that you love them. Show them that you’re going to fight to keep this place. That no matter what it takes they are going to have a home here. Prove to them that the true meaning of Easter is the love you share with family and friends.”
Molly wiped at the tears that had begun to roll down her cheeks. “You are a wise man Johnny Lancer.” She smiled.
“Don’t let anyone know,” he whispered. “It’s our little secret.”
“No one will ever guess.” She giggled.
Johnny arched an eyebrow. “Come on, you want to go check on Barranca with me?’’
“It would be a pleasure.”
Morning stretched into afternoon, and still Scott was not back. Johnny was becoming more worried as each minute passed. He wanted more than anything to ride into town and assure himself that his brother was fine, just talking as he sometimes did, not realizing how much time had passed. But in his gut Johnny knew that was most likely not the case. Scott would know that everyone would be worried.
He paced the parlor until his legs felt rubbery and then sat down on one of the straight backed chairs. He found that, even though the hard wood hurt his back, it didn’t hold the heat against his back like the couch pillows did.
He heard a light tapping at the door and Rachael walked into the room hesitantly.
“Hey sweetheart, how are you doing?” he asked. She had continued to be his shadow, always nearby when he needed help.
“It’s time for your medicine,” she said, pulling the small brown bottle and a spoon from their hiding place in her skirt.
Johnny eyed the little bottle distastefully. If Scott was in trouble he needed to be clear headed to help. But the pain in his back and the broken rib was building, and he found he could barely shift in the chair. It was taking every bit of his energy to fight the pain. And that niggling low grade fever ate at his stamina.
“Molly said I should not take no for an answer. Dr. Henry still wants you to take it. He’ll be by later today to take a look at you.”
“Why don’t you leave it here and I’ll take it in a little while.”
Rachael shook her head. “Molly said I was to make sure you swallowed it.”
Johnny looked toward the open door that led to the rest of the house and sneered. “She doesn’t trust me?”
Rachael shook her head, a slight smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
“But you trust me, right?”
Another shake of her head.
“All right…” he sighed, “I guess I ain’t got a chance, two against one. Unfair odds you know.”
Rachael filled a spoon with the dark liquid and watched as Johnny grimaced at the foul taste.
“Why can’t they make medicine taste good, huh?”
Rachael shrugged, putting the bottle on the dinning table. “Johnny…”
“You got something on your mind Querida?” he asked gently.
“Those men…” Rachael began to wring her hands, “why did they whip you like that?”
Johnny smiled sadly. “Because they’re cowards. They know they would never win in a fair fight, so they attack when the odds are on their side. I’m sorry you saw that Rachael. But you know what?”
Rachael shook her head.
“I’m glad you were there, in a way. Because you saved Barranca. If he had eaten that loco week I probably would have had to put him down. It would have broke my heart.”
“Then,” she said, lifting her head, “I’m glad I was there.”
Murdoch paced outside the parlor waiting for Henry to finish his examination. Molly brought in a fresh pot of coffee and sat and waited, as impatient as Murdoch. The boy was pushing himself too hard, and everyone knew it. Including Johnny. But getting him to rest was like tying down a three year old after a nap. But in Johnny’s case, his body was not strong enough to fulfill his wishes. An explosive situation.
Henry finally emerged from the parlor, a look of consternation on his face. “I don’t know how your doctor at home handles that boy. He is the most stubborn…”
“I could have told you that.” Murdoch chuckled. “What’s he done now?”
“He needs to rest. And I mean rest. In bed for at least three days, and even that isn’t long enough.”
“I’m afraid you’re asking for the near impossible, Henry.”
“Murdoch, he is weak and he is running a low grade fever. I suspect there is some infection deep in one of the cuts on his back. Molly, here are some powders to hopefully lower his fever and clear up that infection. Meanwhile I want him resting.”
“Thanks Henry. I’ll make sure he takes it easy. I’ll have a talk with Scott when he gets back and maybe between the both of us we can figure a way to tie him down.”
“Scott’s not back yet? I guess his talk with his grandfather went well then.” Henry was shocked at the look of utter disbelief that slowly turned Murdoch’s face pale.
Johnny listened to what was being said outside the parlor with half an ear. He was tired of everyone discussing his health and stubborn attitude. But that was who he was. He did not take well to being compromised by either sickness or injury.
But at the mention of Harlan’s name he bolted up out of his seat, scaring Rachael.
“What..?” Rachael whispered.
“Quiet!” he hissed, and he eased himself quietly toward the half open door. He heard Murdoch’s voice raise in anger. “His grandfather?!”
“Yes.” Johnny could hear the confusion and the hint of fear in Henry’s voice. Murdoch could be an intimidating figure when he was angry. “He said he found out that his grandfather had been in town all week. He’d been receiving telegrams at the newspaper office. Are you allright, Murdoch?”
Johnny felt like he had been hit by a bullet. Harlan was in town all this time? Writing those stories, setting his plans into motion to destroy the orphanage personally. Scott was in trouble. Damn his stubborn streak. He had no business going into town alone.
“Harlan Garrett is behind everything that has happened here,” Johnny heard Murdoch explain. “He wants Scott to return to Boston with him. And he will stop at nothing to get his way.”
Murdoch was right. Johnny thought fast. His decision made he turned to Rachael. “Find Jose and tell him to come to my room right away. Don’t let anyone see you.”
“What are you going to do?” Rachael asked suspiciously.
“Just do it.”
“We can’t let Johnny know about this.” Johnny strained to hear Murdoch’s voice now as they moved toward the kitchen.
Johnny spotted the bottle of laudanum on the coffee table and grabbed it, slipping it inside his sling. He would use it only if he had to.
As he headed for this room his plan took shape. Harlan Garrett would finally pay for all he had done. And God help the man if he harmed Scott in any way.
Jose made his way toward Johnny’s bedroom. Rachael had said he was very upset.
“Senor Johnny,” he said, as Johnny opened his door after his light rap and pulled him inside. “Rachael said you wanted to see me?”
“Si.” Johnny handed him his gun belt. “I can’t put this on myself with this hand.” Johnny sighed. “I need help.”
“But senor, why would you need your gun here? Is there more trouble?”
“No, not here. Look Jose, I need your help. My brother Scott may be in a lot of trouble in town. I have to back him up.”
“But you are still not well. Your hand…” Jose took a step back when the realization hit him. “You are to face that man? The one with the susto…the scar…on his face. He is a mean man Senor Johnny.”
“I made a solemn oath to my brother to be there when he needed me. I won’t break that oath, Jose. If you won’t help me I’ll find someone who will.”
“Si, senor. I know you will. An oath to your brother is most important. I will help you.”
“Gracias. I wear my gun low on my hip.”
“I know this, Senor Johnny. The way of the pistolero. I saw how you wore it when the man with the susto came here.”
It took longer than Johnny expected to get the belt cinched just right. Something that was so automatic now seemed so hard to do.
“That’s fine,” Johnny said at last. He drew his right hand out of the sling and tapped the gun butt. “Perfect.” He smiled. “Now, saddle Barranca for me and I’ll be right down.”
“Are you sure, senor? Those men who whipped you could still be in town.”
Johnny nodded and Jose slipped back through the door leaving Johnny alone again to make his plans.
Johnny found it harder than he expected to climb into the saddle. His legs were almost too weak to lift himself atop Barranca.
“Thanks, Jose. Now, as soon as I clear the courtyard you spook all these horses. I wanna get a head start on Murdoch.”
“Si,” Jose answered reluctantly. “But I think you are putting yourself into much danger.”
“Can’t be helped. And don’t worry, if you get into any trouble I’ll smooth it over with Molly.”
“That is if you come back to us.”
Johnny nodded and clicked his tongue twice. Barranca responded immediately and he swore vehemently as the pain in his back and ribs exploded with the horse’s first step. It would be miracle if he even made it to town.
Scott tested the ropes around his wrist and cursed silently. Drake knew how to tie a man’s hands so he had no chance of loosening the restraints.
He couldn’t believe he had fallen into his grandfather’s trap so easily. How could he have thought that the man was anything but totally insane? Why did he have to hold onto that glimmer of hope that Harlan was not too far gone to be helped? To be persuaded to return to Boston and leave them alone. It was a foolish notion. And a deadly one. He took a halting breath. He may have just lured Johnny into a deathtrap.
The sound of the door opening onto the small walk-in storage room brought his attention to his grandfather, standing in the doorway.
“This could have all been avoided,” Harlan said, sadly. “If only you would have listened to me. I only want what’s best for you, Scotty. You know that. And I have tried to make you understand.”
“By nearly killing my brother?” Scott shot out. “By putting the lives of all those children at risk?”
“You forced my hand, Scotty. You left me no choice. You will see that I am right. That you don’t belong here in this filth and debauchery. Look at you. You barely look like the Scotty I remember. You have become hard, my boy. You have lost the refinement you used so well to your advantage. You could have had any woman in Boston for the asking. You could have had co-ownership in the largest company on the east coast. But you gave it all up for this. For this! I only pray that I am not too late. That the influence of that half-breed brother of yours has not warped your mind completely.”
“Look,” Scott said, his voice husky with anger. “If you promise to leave Johnny alone, and the orphanage, I’ll go back with you to Boston. I’ll try your ways again. I will give you two years of my life to see if it can work. Surely that is a good enough offer.”
“I’m sorry Scotty, but you have pushed me into a corner. The only way I can make you understand how dangerous your brother truly is, is by showing you. I want you to see him as I do, as a murdering gun for hire. As Johnny Madrid. Before the day is over, you will be more than willing to come home with me where you belong.”
Scott sagged back in his chair. How was he going to stop this?
Murdoch looked in disbelief as every horse, including Henry’s buggy horse, galloped away from the courtyard. Then he caught sight of the unmistakable palomino as Johnny crested the hill and disappeared.
“Johnny, no…” Murdoch yelled, knowing his son could not hear him.
“Why did he do this?” Molly cried.
“He must have heard us talking. It will take us hours to round up even one horse. Damn it…I knew he would pull something like this. But he had to have help. Who helped him?” he roared.
“I did, senor.” Jose stepped forward, his head bowed.
Murdoch caught his breath. The boy looked so much like he imagined Johnny looked at that age. His hair dark and unruly, his head bowed, eyes cast downward.
“Why?” Murdoch asked gently.
“Senor Johnny asked me to. It was a juramento, an oath, to his hermano. It is better to die fulfilling a juramento to your hermano, than turn your back and let him die. Senor Johnny understands that. So do I Senor Lancer.”
Murdoch sank to one knee, pulling the boy closer to him. “I understand, Jose. Johnny is loyal to his brother. There was nothing else you could do. But now.” he brushed the hair from the boys eyes, if they had been blue he could have been talking to his son, his Johnny, “we have to round up these horses so we can help Johnny. He got the head start he wanted, now we have to give him the help he needs.”
Jose nodded and raced toward the stable. “I will get the lassos, senor.”
What should have been a two hour ride turned into a three hour nightmare. Johnny was barely able to stay in the saddle. If not for Barranca’s steady smooth gait, he would have kissed the ground a long time ago. His plan of meeting Drake was becoming more and more ludicrous as the miles fell behind him.
He began to drift and he sagged deeper into the saddle. Barranca kept a steady pace along the road until he hit an intersection. He remembered that Johnny often stopped at crossroads like this. So he stopped and waited.
Johnny lifted his head slowly, alerted that something was different when the horse stopped.
He saw the two signs on the road, one pointing to Mexico and one to San Diego. Before he had met Scott and Murdoch, he would have traveled the road to Mexico. But today he would travel a much more dangerous road to San Diego, to save his brother.
“Good boy, Barranca.” He patted the palomino’s mane. “Good boy. I figure we’ll be in town in another half hour. I guess it’s time to get ready.”
Johnny stayed in the saddle. He knew if he climbed down, he would never be able to climb up again. He pulled the bottle of laudanum from its resting place in the sling and took a hefty swallow.
“I know,” he groaned, knowing Barranca felt his anxiety. “But I got to get through this pain somehow. Drake will be waiting for me. I just hope Scott is somewhere out of the way and safe.”
He felt the medicine slowly dull the worst of the pain. He would have to fight hard to overcome the drowsiness it would cause.
“Now for the hard part,” he said. “If I scream or cry, or get all teary-eyed, you won’t tell anyone, now will ya Pal? Cause this is gonna hurt like hell…but I can’t have a bandaged hand if I’m facing Drake.”
Carefully Johnny pulled his arm free of the sling and began unwrapping the bandage around his hand. It was not as bad as he thought it would be until he started pulling on his tight black glove. He knew he needed the support, but the pain was almost too much to take, and the felt himself swoon in the saddle. He stopped for a few minutes, taking deep cleansing breaths then finished.
“Alright Pal, let get this show on the road.”
He turned Barranca’s head toward San Diego and nudged him gently. As they got closer to town Johnny Lancer slowly disappeared, replaced with the cold hard persona of Johnny Madrid.
Scott looked around the small storage room for anything that could help him escape. He only spotted stacks of blank newsprint paper and jars of ink. Replacement parts for the printing press lay on the floor beneath one of the shelves, but all the edges were rounded off, nothing sharp enough to cut through the ropes that bound his wrists behind him.
To his left, in a corner, he noted that a cot and nightstand were squeezed in between stacks of old newspapers. It seemed that every paper printed for the past ten years was stored in here. On the nightstand Drake had left an oil lamp burning to ward off the complete darkness of the room. He wondered if that was where Harlan had slept for the past week. If so, the man was indeed capable of anything to get what he wanted. Harlan Garrett never slept on anything that wasn’t stuffed with a foot of down feathers.
Then he spotted it, just sticking out on the top shelf, two feet higher than his head, the black handle to a pair of scissors. He wasn’t sure if he could even use them if he got them down, but for now it was his only hope, and he could not just sit and wait here for Johnny to walk into a gunfight with Drake. Not with his brother’s hand still so painful.
He thanked Drake silently for not tying him to the chair. The man must have thought he would be no problem locked inside this closet. He hoped to prove him wrong.
He studied the cot and the night stand. Neither would get him any closer to the scissors. The chair might give him enough height to reach the scissors with his head and knock them off the shelf, but he wasn’t sure how he was going to move it. It must have been a permanent fixture in the room because beneath the chair there were boxes of letter tiles stuffed tightly between the legs. Scott tried to kick them aside, but they were heavy and wedged in tight. The chair would have to be moved at least three feet to get him within reach of the scissors. Damn it, why hadn’t he just told Murdoch about the doctor’s revelation. He most certainly would not be here, waiting for Johnny to arrive.
Johnny saw the first buildings on the outskirts of the town. They were modest, small little houses, but well maintained, belonging, most likely, to the working class citizens. The people who kept a town living, but were given little credit.
Seeing those houses made him realize just how disjointed he felt. The laudanum had done its job in curbing the pain, but the side effects were hitting him harder than he expected. He couldn’t meet Drake like this. He couldn’t even afford anyone to see him this vulnerable. He saw an outcropping of boulders surrounded by bushes twenty yards off the well- traveled road and steered Barranca toward them.
He felt sick to his stomach as the rocks seemed to slide side to side with the sway of his horse. He squeezed his eyes shut trying to get his vision to clear when his world spun away from him and he held onto the saddle horn for dear life.
Barranca came to a stop on the far side of the boulders and Johnny gratefully slid from the saddle, collapsing as his feet touched the ground. A startled covey of quail flew off and then there was silence. Only Barranca’s soft munching as he dined on the sweet green spring grass.
Scott heard the doorknob turn and slid back into his chair, trying to look as nonchalant as he could. He didn’t have to look back to know that it was Drake and not his grandfather. Harlan always wore the same cologne, subtle but expensive. Drake on the other hand smelled like he hadn’t taken a bath in a month of Sundays.
“I figured your brother is pretty worried by now.” Drake sneered. “But maybe not. Maybe he wants to be an only child to the likes of Murdoch Lancer. A lot more money for him.”
“And maybe he’s just biding his time. No one hurries Johnny Madrid.”
Drake raised an eyebrow. “You know about his Madrid days?”
“We’re brothers. Brothers don’t keep secrets.”
“So you know about the time we rode together down Nogales way. He was a mean SOB when he wanted ta be.”
Scott smiled knowingly. “Still is, when his back’s against the wall.”
“You see Madrid in action?” Drake asked, surprised.
“A couple of times. Both times I wondered why anyone was foolish enough to think they could outdraw Johnny Madrid.” Scott kept his voice low and emotionless. He knew he was playing a dangerous game with Drake. But if he could put just a tiny amount of fear and doubt into the gunfighter, he might be able to scare him off Johnny. Or at least give Johnny the edge he needed.
“What do you know about fast draws? You grew up in that big comfy house your granddaddy keeps talking about.”
“That’s true. But I was also in the war and spent a year at Libby.”
“Libby?” Drake sat down on the cot. “I heard that was a hell hole.”
“You heard right.”
“Your granddaddy never mentioned anything about the war.”
“My grandfather prefers to forget that part of my life. It doesn’t fit in with Boston society.”
“Neither does having a gunfighter for a brother.”
Scott grinned. “Especially one as famous as Johnny Madrid.”
Drake leaned back against the wall. “You’re all right, ya know? Ya got spunk. I bet you learned a little of that from your brother. Johnny always had spunk to spare. I remember one time, we were in a little town near El Paso, just for the night. Word got around town real fast that Johnny Madrid was in town. Pissed that brother of yours off to no end. See, he was as sick as a dog. Got a hold of some bad water, so he was puking his guts out all night. Come morning they were outside waiting for him. There he was standing in the middle of the street staring them two down, his hat pulled low over his face so you couldn’t see his eyes. No one ever knew that he was barely able to stand up on his own two feet. Them boys never knew what hit them. They barely cleared their holsters. When we left town we had to hole up in an old abandoned line shack for a week before he was set to travel again. He ever tell ya that story?” Drake leaned over and raised the wick in the lantern so he could read Scott’s face better.
Scott shook his head.
“Now it’s your turn. When’d you see your brother in action?” Drake waited. Scott knew that Johnny’s chances of survival increased as Drakes confidence decreased. If he could get the gunfighter to believe Johnny was just as deadly as he remembered him to be than his brother just might have the edge he needed.
“Five months ago. We were traveling through Dixon, a small town west of Sacramento. Johnny didn’t know Pearl Jackson owned the local saloon.”
“Pearl Jackson…” Drake whistled. “Tell me, he still carried that pearl handled gun?”
Scott nodded. “Johnny hadn’t finished his first beer when he was called out. I was a little worried because Johnny had broken his right arm just a few months before that and it was still stiff.”
“How’d he break it?”
“Axle broke when he was changing a wheel on the buckboard. Heard it snap, and I was three feet away.”
“So Johnny faced Pearl Jackson with a bum arm?”
Scott nodded. “Jackson barely cleared his holster when Johnny hit him dead center in the heart. He was dead before he hit the ground.”
Drake shifted on the cot. “He’s about the fastest man I’ve ever seen. But never brags about it. Never picks a fight.”
“He tried to hang up his gun when he came to Lancer,” Scott said honestly. “But they wouldn’t let him. A man named Kansas Jack was passing through Morro Coyo and spotted Johnny. He called him out but Johnny refused. He did everything he could to provoke Johnny into a fight. Nothing worked until he attacked a lady friend of Johnny’s.” Scott remembered the incident and his stomach turned. Teresa was the lady and he remembered watching Johnny Lancer disappear before his eyes. When he saw Madrid he knew Kansas Jack was a dead man. “It was like a circus. The streets were lined with people, all waiting to see if Kansas Jack was as fast as Johnny Madrid.”
Scott blinked, not sure if Drake had asked the question in all honesty. His rapt expression told him he had.
“Kansas Jack was buried that afternoon and Johnny buried any hope of ever escaping the shadow of Johnny Madrid. So every day, you’ll find him just south of the ranch practicing. I heard someone say that he was faster now than he ever was when he was hiring out.”
Drake dragged his hand over his mouth, thinking. “I heard your brother is favoring a broken hand.”
Scott nodded. “Happened in San Francisco. Courtesy of my grandfather’s hired help. But it’s almost healed now. He rests it in a sling now and then, when he’s used it too much.
Before we came here he was back up to forty five minutes a day practicing. That’s just fifteen minutes shy of his hour practice. I’d say he was ninety nine percent back.”
Scott watched Drake do the math. Ninety nine percent was still a hell of a lot faster than he was at his best. Scott felt satisfied that he had sown the seeds of doubt.
It took Murdoch and Jose three hours to catch the first horse. They had wandered far and wide across the lush prairie. He was happy to find that Jose was already a better than average wrangler. Another trait of Johnny’s – an affinity for horses. It made him wonder what Johnny would have been like if he had had a place like this to grow up in. Sadly, Johnny was already on his own by Jose’s age. And he could see in this child how much he needed the love and care of an adult.
They walked the horse back to the stable and saddled it. With Jose sitting behind Murdoch, his arms barely reaching around the huge man’s waist, they took off to catch the rest of the horses.
Molly made her way through the house, looking for Henry. She found him performing an examination on Carmelita’s doll. She heard him pronounce the doll in perfect health and Carmelita ran away, clutching her doll, happy that her dolly was well.
“She never goes anywhere without that doll,” Molly said, standing behind Henry as he put his stethoscope back in his medical bag. “Thank you.”
“No need for thanks, Molly. You know, you have done a remarkable job with these children. They are happy and stable. I’m sorry this all had to happen. Especially this close to Easter.”
“Henry, do you still have any outstanding debts you are owed?”
Henry nodded suspiciously. “A few.”
“Do you mind calling them in?”
“I guess it depends on what you have in mind.”
“I need wagons, Henry. Three wagons, enough to load all the children in.”
Henry looked at Molly astounded. “You’re not running away, are you?”
“Hell no.” Molly laughed at the stunned look on Henry’s face. “We are going to start fighting back. A very wise friend told me the best way to celebrate Easter was to show these kids that what we have here is worth fighting for. This is our home and no one is going to make us leave. Tomorrow morning the Madrid Home for Children In Need will attend Easter Mass with the rest of the town. We are here to stay and it’s about time everyone knew it.”
“I’m afraid the town of San Diego won’t know what hit them.” Henry grinned. “I’ll get you those wagons if you promise that I can have a front row seat when you face the San Diego Quilting Bee Society.”
“Deal.” Molly offered her hand. “I’ll even let you stitch them up afterwards.”
Scott had no idea how long he had been pacing the small room, each footstep reminding him that Johnny was on his way. His hands were beginning to go numb, the ropes cutting into his flesh as his hands swelled. And his efforts to reach the scissors were fruitless. They were probably useless anyway. The room was hot and stuffy, the smell of ink was beginning to make him queasy. He could taste it in his mouth with every breath he took. He heard the shuffling of footsteps heading toward the door, then a thump as if something heavy had fallen against the outside wall.
He quickly sat down and waited, wondering what Harlan had in mind next when the door flew open and he saw Drake dragging a dazed Murdoch into the room by the back of his collar. He dropped him to the ground face down. His hands were tied behind his back and blood leaked from a deep gash on the side of his head.
“Murdoch!” Scott blurted out, and jumped to his feet but Drake backhanded him and he fell back against the chair, nearly tipping it over, if not for the weight of the boxes of tiles beneath. Still groggy from the blow he felt Drake tie his already bound hands to the back of the chair.
“I found daddy there sneaking around in back.” Drake laughed as he hauled Murdoch across the floor then looped a rope around his neck and secured the other end to a leg of the cot. “That should keep your old man quiet for awhile. If he moves he’ll strangle himself to death. I learned that trick from your brother.”
Scott jerked at the rope securing his hands to the back of the chair but there was no play. Drake was good at his job.
Drake chuckled. “You Lancers sure do stick together. I’m guessing that Johnny won’t be far behind.”
“Sorry for the barbaric treatment, Scotty, but I’m afraid I cannot trust you. Not yet,” Harlan said as he stepped into the room, a dark, expensive suit draped over his arm. “We will be leaving for Boston as soon as Mr. Drake here dispatches Johnny Madrid, and I want you to look like a Garrett…not…” he sneered down at Murdoch who was still trying to come to his senses, “Lancer trash.”
Scott laughed incredulously. “You really think I’m going to go back to Boston with you, just like that? You are delusional, old man.”
The color rose in Harlan’s face, his jowls trembling. “How dare you be so insolent!” he roared, and he backhanded Scott, nearly sending his grandson, and the chair he was tied to, to the floor. “You will treat me with respect. You see, Mr. Drake, those are not the words of Scott Garrett, but the disrespectful prattle of Johnny Madrid. I fear I may already be too late.”
“You are too late,” Scott growled, feeling a thin trickle of blood run down his chin from his split lip. “Nothing will get me to go with you.”
“We’ll see about that.” Harlan draped the clothes carefully over the side of the cot. “After you see your brother for what he truly is you will change your mind. It won’t be long now.”
Drake followed Garrett out of the room and Scott heard the door needlessly locked.
“The man is crazy…” Murdoch growled.
“Don’t move,” Scott warned. “He may be crazy but Drake knows what he’s doing. You pull on that rope around your neck and you’ll strangle yourself.”
Scott studied his father, noted that the blood had stopped seeping from the gash on the side of his head. “Are you all right?”
Murdoch nodded carefully.
“I don’t know. He lit out more than five hours ago. He and Jose spooked the horses, took us more than three hours to round up just one. He should have been here hours ago.”
“Maybe he got smart and changed his mind.”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow and Scott nodded. “I know, wishful thinking. But where is he?”
The question hung in the hot, stuffy room.
Johnny felt something tickle his nose and he tried to swat at it, igniting a fiery pain in his hand.
“Damn…” he moaned, as his memory slowly returned and he realized he must have passed out. He opened one eye and found that he was sprawled face down in the tall grass, still wet with dew.
He felt wrung out, as if every ounce of strength in his body had been drained. He lay there very quietly for a long time, just simply breathing in and out. The pounding in his head and the shivers deep in his bones telling him that he was feverish. The throbbing pain in his back telling him that there was infection there. Now what? He thought of just staying there, not moving, waiting for someone to come along and find him, or just heading back to Molly and the safety of the orphanage. But he knew he couldn’t do either. Scott was in trouble.
Murdoch…Murdoch probably rounded up the horses by now. He hoped Jose didn’t get into trouble for helping him. He bit back a cry of pain when he tried to shift. He could barely move. How the hell was he going to get back up on Barranca and face Drake?
He had no choice. He looked up with one eye and was shocked to see the first rays of the morning sun lighten the sky. He had been out all night. Damn, Murdoch was in town already. Probably rode in sometime late yesterday afternoon. A shiver of fear joined the fever chills. He knew the likes of Drake. He would call Murdoch out…force his father to face him. It would be outright murder, but not in Drake’s eyes. Once a man faced you on the street it was a fair fight.
“Damn Harlan Garrett to hell!” he yelled as he pushed himself up onto his knees. “Damn him….”
Johnny didn’t know how long it took him to finally get to his feet. But he was there, hanging heavily against Barranca’s saddle. The next step was to climb up. First he opened his saddle bag and pulled out the bottle of laudanum. He could barely move from the pain in his back and ribs. He took a small sip, just enough to dull the pain.
He waited until he felt the medicine working, his legs trembling beneath him then raised his left foot to the stirrup and hauled himself on board.
The effort left him dizzy and ready to pass out, but he held on.
“Ok Barranca,” he sighed, “time’s a wasting, let’s get this show on the road.”
He turned Barranca toward the road and headed for town.
Easter morning dawned crisp and clear. The town of San Diego was already teeming with wagons filled with families dressed in their finest clothes for Easter Mass and the picnic afterwards. The San Diego Ladies Society had arranged an Easter egg hunt for the children and booths with games from horseshoes to ball tossing for the adults.
Harlan looked out the window of the newspaper office and bristled with exasperation. Where was Madrid? He was sure he would be in town long before this. Had he underestimated the boy? Had Drake actually scared him off? It seemed highly unlikely…but what other reason…
“He’ll show,” Drake said from behind him.
“He’d better. I want Scotty to see Madrid for what he truly is,” he hissed.
“He will,” Drake promised. “He will.”
Scott lifted his head off his chest, not realizing he had drifted off to sleep. He looked over at Murdoch who was staring at him silently.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” he snapped.
“What for? So you could stare back at me?”
Scott could see that the position Murdoch was forced to lay in was hurting his back, and the headache from that gash on the side of his head must have felt like he was being hit by an anvil.
“Are you alright, sir?”
“Yes. I’m fine. And you?”
Scott nodded. “How long was I asleep?”
Murdoch shrugged, as well as he could with the rope around his neck. “A few hours. I figure it must be getting near sunrise by now.” With no window in the room there was no way of telling if it was day or night, but years of keeping an internal clock gave Murdoch a pretty good guess.
“I wonder where Johnny is? If he left before you…”
“I don’t know. And it has me worried. He was in no shape to take off the way he did. He could be lying hurt somewhere or…”
“Johnny can take care of himself. Maybe he’s just playing with Drake.”
“Johnny once told me the mental advantage was almost more important than speed in a gunfight. The longer it takes for Johnny to get here the longer Drake has to worry. He’s not sure if he can take Johnny, even with his injured hand. I could hear it in his voice. He’s scared.”
“Let’s hope he never gets the chance. I can’t see how Johnny could outdraw anyone with that hand.”
Father and son lapsed into silence. Johnny’s life was on the line and neither one could do a thing to help him.
Johnny heard the church bell ring and knew he was almost there. He stopped and listened and waited. He took a deep breath, pushing aside the pain in his broken rib and raw back. He straightened in the saddle, sitting low and comfortable.
He flexed his right hand, moving his fingers to limber them up, pushing the pain to the back of his mind.
He eased his gun out of the holster and checked the chamber, sliding it back into the holster several times to make sure it moved freely.
“It’s time amigo,” he said softly to Barranca and kicked him into a slow trot.
Three wagons rolled slowly toward town, followed by Henry’s buggy. The children were dressed in their finest clothes, the girls with ribbons and spring flowers in their hair, anticipation in all their eyes.
Molly had them on the road before dawn to make the morning mass in town. She was worried sick about Johnny, but convinced herself as she lay awake all night that Murdoch had found him and was keeping him out of trouble. But deep down inside she knew that was probably not the case.
She heard the sound of the church bell and her heart fluttered. It had been too long since she attended mass. She had begun to question her faith. She hoped she would no longer question it after today.
Agnes Tucker’s mouth dropped open. “What is SHE doing here?” she cried in disgust, as Molly brought the lead wagon to a stop in front of the church.
“Can’t we even have a decent Easter mass without the likes of her and her sniveling rug rats?” Mildred Hawkins squawked.
“It is outrageous!” Hattie Ferguson fumed. “I hope Father Delano sends her on her way.”
Molly felt every eye on her. She smoothed her skirts and jumped down from the wagon. “We have come for Easter Sunday mass,” she announced. “I know there are too many of us to fit inside the church, so we will sit out here and listen to the sermon.”
Agnes Tucker pushed her way through the throng of parishioners, until she was standing toe to toe with Molly. “How dare you come here. This is the house of God. The likes of you are not wanted here.”
Molly squared her shoulders and looked past Agnes at the parishioners standing on the steps, ready to enter the church. “Is that how you all feel?” she called. “I thought God’s house was open to everyone.”
“Not sinners,” Mildred Hawkins yelled out.
“And when have I sinned?” Molly demanded.
“You and Johnny Madrid, you are both the devil’s spawn,” Hattie cried out.
If Molly were not so mad, she would have burst out laughing.
Little Tina started crying, moving closer to Rachael. Jose bolted to his feet, his fists clenching in anger. “No one talks about Molly like that!” he yelled. “Or Johnny neither.”
“You brazen little brat,” Mildred yelled.
Molly felt Henry at her side. “I’m ashamed to call this town my home,” he called out. “I’m ashamed that I once called you friends. What has happened to you?”
“You read the same newspaper reports we did, Henry,” Hattie shouted.
“Lies and half truths! Written by a crazed man with a vendetta against Johnny Lancer.”
“Lancer is Madrid,” Hattie yelled.
“He was. And he freely admits it.”
“A harlot and a gunfighter have no right to mix with good God fearing folk,” someone yelled.
“Who are you…any of you…to cast judgment on them? Molly Walters opened her heart to these lost children. Gave them a home. Do you cast off these children because the name Madrid doesn’t set well with you? And do any of you know Johnny Madrid? Have you met him? Do you know that he is the cold blooded killer that you read about in your newspaper?”
“We don’t need to meet him to know who and what he is,” Mildred shouted back. “We know all we need to know.”
“And where did you learn all this information on Madrid? From the newspaper? Did you know Sam Miller was murdered so Martin Paddock could become editor? Did Sam Miller ever write a bad word about the orphanage? No? Think about it. When did this all start? After Paddock took over the paper. The first day, his first editorial, was a scandalous attack on Molly Walters. Why? Because he was being paid to assassinate her character by the grandfather of Johnny Lancer’s brother. Harlan Garrett will stop at nothing to get his grandson back to Boston. I know it sounds far fetched. But it is the truth. Carter, why did you stop selling your goods to the orphanage? Because of the newspaper articles? And did Mr. Paddock call on you personally and suggest that it would not be wise to sell to them?”
“And you Miss Fisher, did you stop teaching at the orphanage because of the newspaper articles and a visit from Mr. Paddock?”
Miss Fisher nodded.
“How many of you talked to Paddock? How many of you couldn’t wait to read the next scandalous story about Molly Walters and her dubious past? Lies, all of them lies. But did anyone think to ask her her side of the story? Do you know what has been going on at the orphanage? Has anyone even thought to find out if forty children were ok? Well, I can tell you they are not. They have been terrified and injured. Did you know that Molly and two children were trapped in the house when it was deliberately set on fire? By the grace of God and the Lancer brothers they were saved. Then they were poisoned. Every child was violently ill. Their food, spices, water, everything had to be destroyed because we didn’t know where the contamination came from. Did you know this child…” Henry raised his hand to Rachael and helped her down, “that this child witnessed Johnny Lancer brutally whipped? Is that the kind of behavior you condone?”
“It is not!” Father Delano stood at the top of the steps. “Every one of you should be ashamed. I know I am. I neglected to call on the children. Can you forgive me Molly?”
“Yes, Father.” Molly found Henry’s hand and squeezed it.
“Then please join us. There is always room for God’s children.”
“Father Delano!” Agnes protested. “This is outrageous. All these children will ruin your mass. Perhaps they should come at a later mass when…”
“Perhaps you should come at a later mass, Sister Agnes,” Father Delano suggested.
“Well I never!” Agnes fumed.
“I’m sure you haven’t…” Molly whispered under her breath. But Henry heard and he couldn’t contain his smile. Molly had won round one.
Johnny kept Barranca to a slow steady walk down the center of town as he made his way toward the newspaper office. The angelical sounds of a church choir gently floated through the warm April morning, the irony of it not lost on him. In a few minutes he would be facing a man, with the sole purpose of killing or being killed.
He felt the eyes of a handful of cowboys, who had neither home nor church to call their own, locked onto his every move. He could feel their respect and smell their fear as he rode by. And he saw the realization dawn on their faces that there was to be a killing today.
He looked straight ahead, his face emotionless, his body relaxed. But he saw everything. He sized up each man, the way he carried his gun, the slant of his shoulders, the look in his eyes. He checked the doorways and the alleys, the rooftops and windows, any place else a sniper could be hiding.
He didn’t expect one. Drake wanted Johnny Madrid for himself. He wanted everything that came with the reputation. Johnny wished he could give it to him. But he had earn it. And that meant someone had to die today.
He spotted the newspaper office and steered Barranca to a stop, but remained in the saddle. Let Drake come to him.
Drake stiffened, his mouth going dry when he spotted Johnny Madrid slowly heading toward the office. Garrett said he was hurt, but he didn’t see it. Johnny pulled to a stop in front of the hitching rail. He sat motionless, staring at the door, his hat pulled down low over his eyes, his gloved right hand resting easily on his thigh. Drake tried to swallow but there was no spit left in his mouth.
“He’s here,” he called to Harlan, his voice catching in his throat.
Harlan was beside him, his hand on his shoulder, shaking in anticipation. “Excellent. Now my Scotty will see the kind of man Johnny Madrid truly is. Come, I want Madrid to see what he is fighting for.”
Scott heard the door open and Drake walked in. “It looks like the family is all together.” He chuckled. “Madrid is outside waiting.”
Scott felt his stomach plummet. He cast a quick glance at Murdoch and saw that the news had the same effect on his father.
“Now,” Drake ordered. “We are going to take this slow and easy. I don’t want anyone getting hurt.” He pulled his gun and leveled it at Murdoch’s chest as he began to untie the rope that bound Scott to the chair. “Easy now, I want you to stand up and turn your back to me. Any wrong moves and papa Lancer gets a slug in the heart. Understood?”
Scott nodded and turned as he was ordered.
“Let’s go old man.” Drake untied the end of the rope that tethered Murdoch’s neck to the cot and motioned for him to stand.
It took Murdoch several tries to get his legs under him after lying for so many hours in the awkward position with his nagging back, and his hands still bound behind him.
“That’s it.” Drake cautioned. “Nice and easy.”
Scott felt another rope being tied around his bound hands behind him and he realized with a sickening feeling that the other end of the rope was leashed to Murdoch’s neck.
“If you try anything foolish,” Drake warned, “you’ll strangle your old man. Let’s go. I’m sure Johnny Madrid is anxious to see his family.”
They were led out to the office, the glaring light blinding the two hostages for a moment. As his eyes adjusted, Scott saw his grandfather’s nose pressed to the window watching someone intently outside. Scott could only assume it was Johnny.
“Scotty, my boy. So good of you to join us.”
“There’s still time to call this off,” Scott tried. “I won’t go back to Boston with you, no matter what you do.”
“No?” He motioned Scott over to the window and Scott felt the tug of the rope on his bound hands as Murdoch followed behind him.
Scott knew he would see Johnny outside, but he was not prepared to see the man that sat atop Barranca. Gone were the boyish good looks of Johnny Lancer, in his stead was a cold emotionless stranger. Never had he seen his brother so deeply entrenched in the mystique that was Johnny Madrid. He could see now why he had become a legend. And it scared him.
“Is this the man you profess to call brother?” Garrett asked. “Is this the man you would give up everything for?”
“Yes,” Scott answered. “Besides,” he looked over his shoulder at Drake. “Your man doesn’t stand a chance against Johnny.”
“Scotty, when have you known me not to prepare for all contingencies? If Mr. Drake here does not hold up his end of the bargain and loses, there is a man across the street who will kill your brother the instant Mr. Drake hits the ground. The only thing that will stop him is your promise that you will go with me to Boston.”
Scott looked at Johnny. He saw the tell-tale signs of pain and fatigue that no one else would notice. His hand was once again covered by the black glove, not nearly enough to support the broken hand. Would the pain be more than he could handle? He remembered Murdoch’s surprised announcement that Johnny had left with the bottle of laudanum, an act in itself that told him how desperate his brother was.
Scott dropped his head in submission. “You win,” he whispered. “There is no need for the gunfight. I’ll go with you back to Boston.”
“Scott…no!” Murdoch took a step closer to Scott but Drake grabbed the rope and yanked it hard.
“Shut up Murdoch!” Harlan demanded. “You have nothing to say to this boy. I raised him. He is mine. You had him for three years and look what you have done. I never would have allowed him to travel out to this God forsaken land if I knew you and Madrid would steal him away from me.”
“I said I would go with you,” Scott yelled, “now call off Drake, there’s no need for this gunfight.”
“I’m sorry Scotty, I can’t do that. I made a promise to Mr. Drake that he could face Johnny Madrid. I don’t go back on a promise.”
Scott looked toward Drake. “Call it off Drake. It’s not worth the risk. You know Johnny is faster than you.”
Drake seemed to vacillate. He looked from Harlan to the window and Johnny who had still not moved.
“Johnny is still the fastest gun you have ever seen.”
“Mr. Drake. It is up to you. But there is still five thousand dollars awaiting you if you are successful, and the reputation of outdrawing Johnny Madrid.”
Drake toyed with the handle of his gun, then he looked toward the door, his decision made. “Garrett, get that five thousand dollars ready. I’ll be leaving with it and a new reputation before the day is over.”
Johnny waited. Every moment taxing his mental and physical strength. He thought about simply storming into the office and calling Drake out, but that would make him look as desperate as he felt. No, he would wait. Patience had saved him more than once.
Then the door opened, slowly, just enough for Scott to step out. His hands were bound behind him. But other than a split lip he looked unharmed.
“Scott, you ok?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” Scott clipped. But there was something more. Something that Johnny couldn’t read.
Then Scott was shoved forward and Johnny gasped inwardly at the sight of Murdoch tethered around the neck.
Scott watched Johnny and didn’t see his brother even flinch. Where did he get the self control? He studied him and he saw the tell-tale signs of fever and pain, but he doubted Drake would see it. Johnny hid it well.
“Hello Johnny,” Drake said as he stepped out of the office. “You come to dance?”
Johnny nodded and easily slung his leg over the saddle and lowered himself to the ground, never showing a hint of the pain that was resurfacing.
“Never figured I’d see you sink this low, Drake,” Johnny said softly. “Garrett must be paying you good money.”
“Enough. But you know it’s not the money I want. It’s you, and your reputation.”
Johnny smiled. A cold smile. “I know. I just didn’t think you were ready to die today.”
“Get on with it, Drake,” Harlan urged. “Scotty and I have a train to catch.”
Johnny’s head snapped in Scott’s direction. “Scott…?”
“I’ve decided to return to Boston with grandfather. I realize now how much I miss life in the big city.”
A cruel smile crawled across Johnny’s face. “Yea? And I guess that sharp shooter in the window behind me helped to change your mind.”
“Enough.” Drake pushed passed Murdoch and Scott. “Let’s get this done.”
Johnny shrugged. “It’s your funeral.”
Jose made his way back to the church, his heart beating so hard he thought it might burst through his skin. He knew that Murdoch Lancer was traveling into town to find Johnny, and he wanted to know if he had found him, so he had slipped out of church as soon as Molly settled the children.
Molly looked over at HER children and glowed with pride. They stood quietly at the back of the church, listening to the sermon, their faces lighting up at the sound of the choir. This was the moment she was waiting for.
She felt Jose at her side and the boy pulled her down to whisper in her ear.
“It’s Johnny,” he whispered. “He’s facing the pistolero…the one with the susto…the scar.”
“Drake?” Molly whispered.
Molly reached for Rachael. “Watch the children. Don’t let them leave the church until I get back.”
“I’ll explain later. Keep them in here, no matter what you have to do.”
She then turned to Henry. “We found Johnny.”
Scott watched helplessly as Johnny slowly, deliberately, walked to the center of the street and turned to wait for Drake. He stood with his feet slightly apart, his shoulders relaxed, his hands falling loosely at his sides. Scott could see the sheen of sweat on Johnny’s face, but it wasn’t from nerves, but the fever that coursed through his body. The choir finished its song and there was dead silence.
Drake moved into position, facing Johnny. He was unsure, even scared. Scott could see it in his stance, in the way he held his head. The seeds of doubt he had sown were growing.
Johnny watched as Drake took his stand. And time stood still. Nothing existed but the man in front of him. He watched Drake’s every move. Saw the lone drop of sweat slowly trickle down his face, traveling the path of the deep scar that rutted his cheek. Saw the attempt at a smile that died beneath the fringe of sun bleached mustache. Saw his fingers flex. But mostly he watched his eyes. He saw the uncertainty in them.
And he waited. Drake would make the first move. He was certain of it. But could he wait? He pushed back his own uncertainty. He pushed past the pain, storing it somewhere deep in his mind. Then he felt the adrenalin build within him, the narcotic that hooked a gunfighter, that kept him coming back for fight after fight, to feel that rush of complete control. He tasted it and it scared him. It scared him because he realized he enjoyed it. Missed it.
And there it was, that flash in his eyes. Drake went for his gun.
Scott saw Drake draw, his gun barely out of the holster when he heard Johnny’s shot and Drake staggered back, his gun dropping from his fingers, unfired. He clutched at his chest as he sagged to the ground, blood spilling out between his fingers.
He stared at Johnny in disbelief then his eyes turned to the second floor of the bank building to his right. Johnny spun and crouched, firing one bullet and a man tumbled out of the window, his rifle clattering to the ground before he followed with a dull thud in the dirt.
When Johnny looked back, Drake was dead.
“NO!” Garrett screamed, pushing Scott aside as he drew a derringer from his vest pocket. Scott tried to keep his balance, aware that if he went down he would strangle Murdoch behind him.
Johnny rolled to his right and fired, Harlan’s bullet passing him by just inches.
Scott saw Harlan stagger backwards, his hand gripping his right arm, the derringer falling from nerveless fingers.
Paddock appeared out of nowhere, grabbing his shoulders and easing him to the ground.
“Help me Scotty,” he pleaded. “Help me…”
Scott looked toward the street. Johnny pushed himself up awkwardly to his knees with his left hand then sagged back onto his haunches, exhaustion overcoming him. His chin slowly dropped to his chest and he was lost to the world.
A stunned silence filled the street, the sounds of five shots still reverberating in the ears of the spectators gathered to see the ultimate life and death battle.
Parishioners drawn from the church by the lure of the spectacle stood motionless, shocked by the brutality and the finality of the gunfight that lasted less than a minute.
The smell of gunpowder and blood hung heavy in the air.
Slowly a low hum rose up from the crowd, some confused by the sight of Scott and Murdoch bound together outside the newspaper office, others awed by the speed Johnny Madrid displayed. The legend Johnny had so hoped would die away was reborn. Tales would be told, a book no doubt would be written about the Easter Day gunfight in San Diego.
The sheriff pushed his way through the throng of people, taking in the carnage. He slowly checked Drake, sprawled on his back, his life’s blood still seeping into the dirt and closed his lifeless eyes, still staring at the second story bank window. He saw the sniper lying in a heap in front of the bank, his rifle lying inches away from his hand. And he saw Johnny Madrid, kneeling back on his ankles, motionless, his head bowed, his gun still clasped in his gloved hand, hanging at his side.
He turned to the boardwalk, the sight of Murdoch and Scott tied together telling volumes of what just happened. He shook his head in disgust at Harlan weeping in pain and anger, clutching his right arm, the blood flow already stemmed. Then he turned back to Johnny.
“Senor Scott!” Scott felt Jose behind him and the ropes dropped from his wrists. He turned around to see the boy climbing a chair behind Murdoch to lift the noose over his father’s neck and untie his bound hands. Murdoch nodded and Scott rushed to his brother, ignoring the cries for help from his grandfather.
“What’s going on here?” the sheriff demanded, as Scott reached Johnny, dropping to his knees in front of his brother, gently pushing his hat off his forehead and lifting his chin to look at Johnny’s face. “Can’t you see? My brother was set up, by that man over there.” He pointed to Harlan. “He also held my father and myself hostage to force Johnny to face Drake.”
Henry and Molly were beside then. “Was he hit?” Henry asked anxiously.
Scott shook his head. “I don’t think so.” He brushed the hair out of Johnny’s eyes, looking for some recognition in his brother’s empty blue eyes. “Johnny…? Johnny can you hear me?” He carefully pried Johnny’s fingers open to take the gun out of his hand.
There was no response.
“He just collapsed,” Scott added, his voice shaking with worry.
Henry lifted Johnny’s left wrist to feel for a pulse. “No wonder. He’s burning up. Help me get him to my office.”
Johnny gave no resistance. He was spent, mind and body.
Scott leaned down to lift Johnny to his feet, but Murdoch’s hand clutched his shoulder and he looked up to see the worry in his father’s eyes.
“I’ll carry him,” he said softly.
Murdoch leaned down and gently lifted his boy into his arms. “Sheriff, as soon as I know my son is all right, I’ll be back to press charges against Garrett and Paddock.”
Molly gently lifted Johnny’s right hand as it dangled beside him and rested it on his chest, as they hurried toward Henry’s office.
“I told you Johnny Madrid meant trouble,” a voice called from the crowd.
Molly spun on her heel and spotted Mildred Hawkins standing with her arms folded over her chest, an indigent scowl on her face.
“I told you we don’t need the likes of him in this town. Now look. We have two dead in our streets…all because of him. And it’s Easter Sunday.”
Molly took a step toward her but Scott grabbed her arm. “Leave it for now. Let’s see to Johnny first.”
Molly followed Scott, Johnny came first, but the old biddy would pay. A small smile twitched her mouth as she heard someone in the crowd yelling for Mildred to shut up!
Henry walked out of the examination room an hour later and sighed deeply. A half dozen faces stared at him expectantly.
“He’s exhausted. Plain and simple. I’m going to keep him here for a couple of days and sit on him if I have to keep him in bed. Then he can go back with you Molly. But I want him to stay in bed for five days, no less. I’ve given him something to hopefully lower his fever. That boy pushed his body to the very limit. I don’t know how he faced Drake and won.”
“He did it because he had to,” Murdoch said, his voice filled with anguish. He knew his younger son had fought like this all too often in his young life.
“Can we see him?” Scott asked.
Henry nodded. “Just for a minute. I want him resting. And not all of you. Murdoch, you and Scott, that’s all for now.”
Murdoch looked down at his son and sighed deeply. He looked so pale, and so young as he slept. It was hard to imagine that man he had seen out on the street just an hour ago facing Drake was the same man.
“I hope we never have to see Johnny Madrid again,” he whispered.
Scott nodded. “I agree.”
Molly slipped into the room and whispered, “The sheriff is here with Harlan Garrett.”
Scott spun on his heel but Murdoch laid a calming hand on his arm. “We’ll do this together. And this time he will pay for what he has done to Johnny.”
Scott wasn’t sure how he got through the next hour. He sat in the outer office with Murdoch and the sheriff as Henry sewed the graze closed on Harlan’s right arm. It would be sore, Henry said, but not a problem. “If Johnny could only have been so lucky,” he added under his breath.
“All right,” the sheriff said, “I want some answers. Now.”
“Johnny Madrid tried to kill me,” Harlan yelled. “He should be put away and the key thrown away. The man is a menace to society. He has been trying to kill me for three years. He nearly succeeded today.”
Scott stood by the door dumbfounded. “That is a lie, and you know it!”
“I only know that he has kept you away from me for too long.”
“You’re insane!” Murdoch rushed toward him but was hauled back by the sheriff.
“That’s enough. All of you. Now…I want to know what’s going on.”
“It’s a long story, Sheriff,” Scott sighed.
“I’ve got time, and none of you are going anywhere.”
Scott stared at Harlan, a hatred so deep for the old man that it scared him. “My grandfather has been trying to get me to go back to Boston to live with him since I came to California three years ago. He has tried coercing, bribery and outright threats. When they didn’t work he decided to try to turn brother against brother. He told Johnny lies and half truths and as a result Johnny was seriously injured. Badly enough that we had to take him to San Francisco for surgery. My grandfather got to the surgeon, bribed him and Johnny was nearly killed. The doctor refused to incriminate grandfather. However there was enough evidence of his suspicious business dealings to have more than half of his holdings foreclosed. That brought him here to San Diego where he knew if he put enough pressure on the orphanage, Johnny would come.”
The sheriff looked at Harlan and saw the look of contempt he threw towards Murdoch as the elder Lancer took over the story.
“I think, Sheriff, if you question Martin Paddock, that you will find that Harlan Garrett is behind the murder of Sam Miller for the sole purpose of taking over the newspaper so he could print the scathing reports on Molly Walters and my son. He hired Drake to torch the orphanage, poison the food and…” Murdoch’s voice caught. Listing the assaults on his son was too much. They had all been through too much.
Henry handed Murdoch a glass of water. “It’s not easy to accept the fact that your son was whipped and beaten by men who were hired by your father-in- law. But it is all true. When Johnny came here he had no business taking a trip from Morro Coyo to here. He was still recovering from the injuries he sustained in San Francisco. One of them being a broken right hand.”
“His gun hand?” the sheriff asked incredulously.
Henry nodded. “Garrett knew it and used it to his advantage, kidnapping Scott and Murdoch so he was forced to face Drake in a gunfight. How he won I will never know. But he is a very sick young man now.”
“Lies. All lies!” Harlan cried. “Don’t you see sheriff, they are trying to trick you. How can you take the word of the father of Johnny Madrid?”
“He goes by the name of Johnny Lancer now,” Scott reminded him coldly.
“Madrid or Lancer, it doesn’t make a difference. He is still a cold blooded killer. And I want him arrested for attempted murder.”
The sheriff stood up slowly and asked Henry, “Can you promise me that Madrid…Lancer, won’t be a flight risk?”
“Sheriff, Johnny won’t be able to lift a finger for the next week, let alone ride out of town.”
“All right.” He turned to Harlan. “Until we get this straightened out to my satisfaction you are going to be my guest.”
“What? Are you insane? You are going to arrest me? If you so much as put one hand on me, I swear I will have your badge, and you will occupy a cell right next to Madrid’s.”
“Mr. Garrett, you’re not in Boston anymore. You can cooperate and make it easy on yourself, or I can have you handcuffed and dragged to my office. Either way, you are going to see the inside of a jail cell.”
The sheriff dragged a stunned Harlan Garrett to his feet and escorted him out of Henry’s office. “Doc…you let me know when I can talk to Madrid.”
“It’s Lancer,” Scott and Murdoch said in unison.
The sheriff nodded. “Lancer. The circuit judge comes through town in two weeks. I’ll let him shuffle through all this. Meanwhile I would appreciate it if you would both stay in town.”
“We’re not going anywhere without Johnny.”
The door closed slowly behind them and Scott looked at Murdoch, stunned. He sat heavily into the chair beside him.
“I’m sorry it had to come to this son. Your grandfather…”
Scott looked up at Murdoch. “I don’t have a grandfather. He died three years ago.”
Henry entered the room and smiled as he saw Scott and Murdoch sitting on either side of Johnny as the young man slept. Molly had left an hour ago to see to the children. She returned a few minutes ago with an odd smile on her face.
“Could you watch Johnny for a little while I take Scott and Murdoch with me?”
“Of course…but what…”
“I’ll tell you all about it later.”
With much consternation, Scott and Murdoch eventually left Johnny’s side and followed Molly toward the church.
“I thought you two should see this for yourselves.” She beamed.
The Easter festivities had begun, and to their amazement, they watched Rachael and Jose lead Molly’s kids on an Easter egg hunt with the rest of the town’s children.
“Henry’s words struck a chord.” She grinned. “There are not enough eggs for all the children of course, but the older ones are not having any luck finding them.” She laughed. And it sounded like music to Murdoch and Scott’s ears.
“A committee has already been formed to help rebuild the damage from the fire, and we are promised all the food we need. I can’t believe it.”
“Believe it.” They all turned to see Father Delano standing behind them, watching the children truly having fun. “There is no way we can repay you for what you have lost. But I promise you, your children will never want for anything ever again in this town. You are all a welcome addition to our church.”
“Thank you, Father.”
Father Delano turned to Scott and Murdoch. “It would please us if you would join us for our Easter dinner and our evening Mass.”
“Thank you, Father… but Johnny…” Murdoch began.
“Your son Johnny will be in our prayers. And I am sure he would want you to join us. Molly has assured me that he will be resting for the night. Please consider my invitation.”
“Thank you. We will consider it. Perhaps we will come in turns. I don’t want Johnny waking up alone.”
“I understand. In spite of the carnage we witnessed today, you have all brought new life to our town. We will be forever grateful. And to you, Molly, it took a lot of courage to come here today and face all these people.”
“Father, I stumbled and nearly lost my faith. A friend helped me regain it. And gave me the courage to come here. He told me that I should stand up and prove to my children that I loved them and that I was willing to fight for them.”
“A very wise man. I should like to meet him someday.”
Molly smiled. “You need only go down to the doctor’s office. I’m sure he will be up to seeing visitors soon.”
“Johnny Lancer,” Scott and Murdoch corrected in unison.
Father Delano smiled. “I will definitely pay a visit on Mr. Lancer. He appears to be a remarkable man. If not a paradox.”
“You have no idea,” Scott laughed.
The sounds of the children playing filled the air as families began introducing themselves to Molly. Scott and Murdoch quietly made their way back to Henry’s office. They would join in the evening mass and say a prayer for Johnny and thank God for bringing Johnny Madrid Lancer into their lives.
Two weeks later Johnny was feeling well enough to be chomping at the bit to get back to Lancer. The circuit judge was due in town the morning of the 23rd and the trial was set to start that afternoon.
Harlan sent for his best lawyers and made life less than pleasant for the sheriff.
Martin Paddock had collapsed under the sheriff’s questioning the first night and admitted everything, going into great detail, and naming names.
Harlan’s well paid attorneys, two of them, worked tirelessly to get the charges dropped, or at least lessened. The sheriff had heard enough, and on one of his frequent visits to Henry’s to question Johnny he walked in on the doctor reopening two of the deeper lacerations from the whip. They had become deeply infected causing the fever. That along with everything else was the last straw and the sheriff promised Harlan Garrett would get the toughest sentence provided by law.
The Lancers were not as sure as the sheriff, they had watched Harlan wriggle his way out of situations with little more than a slap on the wrists before.
On April 25th, at two o’clock in the afternoon, Johnny sat at the prosecution’s table, sandwiched between Scott and Murdoch. Testimony had been given by Johnny and his father. Scott had willingly testified against Harlan, ignoring the looks of betrayal by his grandfather. Harlan glared at the Lancers often whispering things to his lawyer. They would look over at Johnny and nod.
The final prosecution witness was Martin Paddock. He was a damning witness for the prosecution. At the end of his testimony there was not a sound in the courtroom. All eyes swung to Johnny and there was no doubt whose side they were on.
At last it was time for the final summations.
Douglas Reinhardt stood up and leisurely walked around the defendants table.
“Gentlemen of the jury. If you are to believe the prosecution, my client has gone to outlandish lengths…no, insane lengths, to bring his grandson back to Boston. Has he tried to persuade Scott Lancer to return to the only real home he has ever known? Yes. Has he tried at every step to convince Scott Lancer that he would be better off in Boston? Yes. Has he even gone as far as telling a white lie or two? Yes. My client freely admits that he did resort to half truths on occasion. Wouldn’t you? Look at Scott Garrett…I’m sorry, Scott Lancer…picture him as Harlan Garrett still pictures him. A young handsome man, a war hero, a Harvard graduate. A young man he raised from an infant. He did everything for his grandson, provided him with a fine house, an education, travel to foreign lands. He spent a year of hell worrying about Scott, knowing he was in Libby, the worst hellhole of a prison ever known to man. When he returned, he nurtured him back to health. Scott was set to go into business with his grandfather. Garrett and Garrett. He had his whole life in front of him. He even had a beautiful fiancée.
“But a letter from Murdoch Lancer changed all that. A letter asking his estranged son to come visit him. He even offered him a thousand dollars to pay for his expenses. Money he didn’t need of course. Harlan Garrett had given him everything. Nonetheless, Scott Garrett…I’m sorry again, Scott Lancer, bid his grandfather goodbye with the promise of returning in a month’s time. My client was not thrilled with the idea, but young Scott had the right to see who his father was. So he let him go.
“Gentlemen, can you imagine my client’s dismay when the first letter he receives from his grandson in California is filled with fear and confusion? The pages are filled with passages devoted to his new found half brother…Johnny Madrid. Now, even Harlan Garrett, three thousand miles away from California had heard the name Johnny Madrid. A cold-blooded killer. A man, who, for the right price, would kill another man, no questions asked. Just hand him the money and the job was done.
“Harlan was out of his mind with worry. And the letters continued to come. Letters filled with stories of Johnny Madrid’s exploits. How he was raised by his Mexican mother and left to fend for his own at the tender age of eleven. He used his gun to survive…yes, survive…and Harlan was a compassionate man, he understood that sometimes people were driven to desperate decisions. No doubt that was how it started for young Johnny Madrid. But he took it a step further and crossed the line from surviving to killing.
“That gentlemen, is what Harlan Garrett was faced with. Can one of you honestly say that you would not do everything in your power to save your son or grandson? Well, Harlan tired. But with each month that Scott stayed with the Lancers he became more entrenched in their lifestyle. A lifestyle that was killing Scott as surely as putting a gun to his head and firing point blank. And Harlan knew he had to save Scott Garrett. At any cost. But not Gentlemen,” Reinhardt slammed his hand on the desk, “by the outrageous means Johnny Madrid and Murdoch Lancer have claimed. Only a mad man would do such things. And I assure you, Harlan Garrett is far from mad.
“Think about it Gentlemen. What would you do if he were your grandson? The boy you raised, the man you had so many hopes and dreams for. Look at Scott Garrett… then look at Johnny Madrid. What would you do?
“Finally Gentlemen, think about how outrageous the accusations are against my client. Yes, he did make one mistake, he hired Clayton Drake, to persuade Johnny Madrid to let his grandson return home to Boson where he belonged. He did not… I repeat…he did not know that Drake was going to face Madrid in a gunfight in the middle of the street on Easter Sunday. How ludicrous!
“After you have gone over all the evidence, and searched your hearts, you must find my client, Harlan Garrett innocent of all charges. As you sit in that deliberation room, think of what you would have done in his stead. Would…could you have hired Clayton Drake to persuade Johnny Madrid to let your grandson go? If the answer is yes, then you did exactly what Mr. Garrett did. And you MUST find him innocent. For that is the only crime he has committed here.
“Thank you for your time.”
Douglas Reinhardt sat down at the defense table, gently patting Harlan Garrett’s back in reassurance. Garrett nodded, then with a performance worthy of the best Shakespearean actor, he turned to the jury and unshed tears spilled down his cheeks.
“He’s good.” Gordon Irons whispered to the Lancers as he stood up and walked toward the jury box. He stood in front of the defense table and stared at Harlan for a long moment, then he shook his head.
“Gentlemen of the jury, I must admit I was moved myself by Mr. Reinhardt’s eloquent speech. If I didn’t know the facts I could easily be drawn into his web of lies and half truths.”
Reinhardt jumped to his feet. “Your honor…Mr. Irons is…”
“Sit down, Mr. Reinhardt,” the judge ordered. “You had your say without interruption. It is Mr. Irons’ turn. You may proceed, Mr. Irons.”
“Thank you your honor.” Irons turned to the jury. “I must commend Mr. Reinhardt for painting Harlan Garrett in such a favorable light. It isn’t easy. The facts before you describe a man who must control everything and everyone around him. He has been that way all his life, it is how he built his empire. How terrible it must have been when he found out that his most precious possession, his grandson Scott Lancer, had found happiness somewhere else. Think about that for a moment. Scott Lancer had found happiness. Not once did Mr. Reinhardt utter the words happiness or contentment. That is because Harlan is not concerned with Scott Lancer’s happiness…does not worry if he is content. He only wants to own him. I’d say that was an arm’s length away from slavery.”
“Objection!” Reinhardt flew to his feet.
“I’m sorry your honor, I apologize.”
“Watch your step, Mr. Irons,” the judge warned.
If the jury had been looking at Johnny they would have seen the smallest of smiles flicker in his eyes.
“Let’s take a step back and review what we know for fact. Not supposition, but fact. Fact one: Harlan Garrett hates Johnny Lancer. He thinks that if not for him, his grandson would have returned home as he promised in a month’s time. Fact two: Harlan Garrett hates Murdoch Lancer, Scott’s father. We will not go into the lengths he went to keep Murdoch from his young son…”
“Mr. Irons please keep to the facts presented in the trial,” the judge warned.
“Yes your honor.” Douglas Irons looked back at the jury, making eye contact with each man. “Harlan Garrett was on a mission. A mission to kill Johnny Lancer and bring Scott Lancer back to Boston with him. You heard Martin Paddock’s testimony. Garrett hired him to replace Sam Miller, who was mysteriously stabbed and thrown in the river. Not after Sam Miller’s death, but before. A week before. How did Harlan Garrett know that the San Diego Register would need a new editor before the old one was even dead? Remember the sample of articles submitted of Mr. Paddock’s writing style at two other newspapers? Mr. Paddock is an average writer. The articles written about Molly Walters and Johnny Madrid were the work of a college educated man. The same articulate writing that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, depicting Johnny Madrid as a cold-blooded killer.
“Fact three: He hired Clayton Drake to kill Johnny Lancer. Mr. Paddock went into great detail describing the jobs Harlan Garrett entrusted to Clayton Drake. Torch the orphanage, don’t worry about the children, they are just orphans, the dregs of society. Four people were tapped in that burning building, two of them children. Then he ordered Drake to poison the food. Mind you, he knew that Scott Lancer would be eating that food…Is this the act of a man who loves his grandson beyond all else? Think about it Gentlemen, this man, this grieving grandfather, snuck into town and hid for a week at the newspaper office in a small storeroom in back. He watched as Scott Lancer, the grandson he purports to love more than life itself, confronted Martin Paddock. Did he reveal himself? Did he ask his grandson to return to Boston with him? No, he hid and when Scott was gone he ordered Drake to poison the orphanage’s food. A kind loving grandfather indeed.
“But the harassment didn’t stop there. Harlan Garrett ordered Drake to attack Johnny Lancer, injure him more. He watched from the window of the newspaper office as four men beat Johnny. But, a cracked rib was not enough for Garrett, he wanted Johnny Lancer to suffer. To feel the loss he felt when Scott left him alone in Boston. He ordered Drake to feed Johnny’s horse loco weed. You all know what happens when a horse eats loco weed. But things got out of hand and Johnny Lancer was beaten and whipped. Now I know Harlan did not order the whipping…but it was done by the men he hired, making him just as culpable as the attackers.
“Finally we arrive at Easter Sunday. Gentlemen, the defense asks you to put yourselves in Harlan Garrett’s shoes. Asks you if you would not do the same thing Garrett did if you lost your grandson to the likes of Murdoch Lancer and Johnny Madrid. Now I ask you…what you would do in his place. Would you kidnap your grandson and tie him to a chair in the storage closet? Would you knock Murdoch Lancer unconscious then drag him into the same room with your grandson and tie him up as well? No food, no water for hours. Then I ask you, would you pay Clayton Drake five thousand dollars to face Johnny Madrid in a gunfight, knowing that Madrid was seriously injured?
“Then you make your grandson an offer he can’t refuse. Go back with him to Boston or watch his brother, Johnny Lancer, cut down on the street by a sniper you hired to kill Madrid if Drake failed.
“If you can say yes to any of these then, maybe, Harlan Garrett was a grieving grandfather who only wanted the best for his grandson. But if you feel as repulsed as I do by all these acts, then you must find Harlan Garrett guilty of all the charges.”
Irons slowly walked back to the prosecution table and looked down at Johnny, his right arm still cradled in the black sling, his face still pale and drawn.
“As you go into that room for deliberation, I want you to put yourself in Johnny Lancer’s place for a minute. Think about what must have been going through his mind as he faced Clayton Drake on that street on Easter Sunday. Think about all the pain he was in, a broken hand, a broken rib and his back ripped open by a whip. Think about what was going through his mind when he looked up on the boardwalk and saw his brother and his father bound together, his father with a noose around his neck. If Scott moved the wrong way at any time he would strangle his own father.
“And think about Harlan Garrett standing there on that boardwalk watching the fruits of his labor. He had Scott Lancer’s promise of returning to Boston if he called off the sniper…but that was not good enough. He had to see Johnny Madrid cut down on the street. He had to get Madrid out of his grandson’s life for good.
“Well it didn’t work out quite that way, did it Gentlemen. Johnny Lancer was faster than Clayton Drake. He was even faster than the sniper in the second story room above the bank, and he was faster than Harlan Garrett himself who pulled a derringer on Johnny and tried to kill him himself.
“Harlan Garrett is a brutal man, who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Put a stop to his reign of terror. Make him pay for what he has done. Make him pay with a guilty verdict on all counts.
“I thank you for your time, Gentlemen.”
Douglas Irons returned to the prosecution table and sat down. The courtroom was silent. He could see Harlan Garrett looking at his two attorneys nervously.
“Gentlemen of the jury, the bailiff will escort you to the deliberation room. When you have come to a verdict court will reconvene.” The judge slammed his gavel on his desk and a hushed excitement went through the courtroom.
Scott looked over at Harlan and he could only feel pity for the old man. The love he had once felt for the man who had raised him was forever destroyed. He looked next to him and saw the sheen of sweat on Johnny’s face. His brother was still weak and in pain. The trial had been an ordeal for everyone, especially Johnny.
Johnny leaned over and whispered in Scott’s ear, “No matter how this turns out, I want to leave today. I can’t stay here no more.”
Scott nodded. “Murdoch and I have already discussed it with Henry. As long as you agree to travel in the back of a wagon, we can go.”
There was a flash of anger in Johnny’s eyes then he nodded. “Anything to get away from here.”
Three hours passed and the jurors sent a note to the judge that they had come to a decision.
Johnny again sat between Scott and Murdoch. Harlan Garrett was led into the courtroom by the sheriff, his hands cuffed in front of him.
The tension in the courtroom was thick enough to cut with a knife and a deadly quiet fell upon the room as the jury filed in and took their seats.
“Have you come to a verdict?” the judge asked.
The jury foreman stood. “Yes sir.”
The judge turned to Garrett, “Will the defendant please stand while the verdict is read.”
The sound of three chairs scraping the floor as Harlan and his two lawyers stood reverberated through the room.
The judge turned back to the jury. “Do you all agree with the verdict that is about to be read?”
Each jury member nodded solemnly.
“All right, will the jury foreman read the verdict.”
Scott felt Johnny’s hand reach for his. Murdoch reached over to Johnny and laid his hand atop Johnny’s.
“We the jury find Harlan Garrett… guilty on all counts.”
A roar of approval exploded throughout the courtroom. Harlan Garrett sagged back in his seat…stunned.
Scott’s hand began to shake as the full magnitude hit him.
“Please stand up Mr. Garrett,” the judge ordered.
His attorneys had to help Garrett back to his feet.
“Harlan Garrett you have been found guilty on all counts,” the judge announced. “For the crimes of arson, kidnapping, bribery, torture and attempted murder…I sentence you to fifteen years on each count, to be carried out consecutively.”
“No!” Harlan gasped. “No…you can’t do that. I’m not guilty. Scotty…” He turned to Scott, his cuffed hands raised toward his grandson. “Tell them…I was only doing it for you. I was trying to save you.”
Scott turned his face away, tears of anger and grief filling his eyes. He felt Johnny’s hand tremble and he knew his brother was hurting too.
Johnny looked over at Harlan, as the old man collapsed into his chair, tears, real this time, coursing down his cheek. Johnny thought he would feel relieved and happy it was over. But he felt only sadness. Not for Harlan Garrett, but for what this did to his brother. It would take time for Scott to move beyond this. But with the help of family, and friends he would be ok.
“Quiet in the court!” the judge yelled, pounding his gavel. “I will close this court to spectators if I do not have silence immediately.”
As the noise in the courtroom simmered down to a low buzz, the judge looked back at Harlan.
“You are a despicable man, Mr. Garrett. You tried to control your grandson in the guise of love. You tried to kill his brother in the guise of concern for your grandson’s safety. In doing so you nearly destroyed their lives and many others. I agree wholeheartedly with the jury’s decision. Sheriff, please take the prisoner into custody. I will contact the warden at San Quentin and he will arrange transportation.”
“Your honor!” Douglas Reinhardt jumped to his feet. “San Quentin is hardly the place for a man like Harlan Garrett. I respectfully request that he be transferred to a prison back east, closer to his home.”
“Mr. Reinhardt, your client is not going on an extended vacation, he is going to prison to pay for his crimes. He will serve out his time in San Quentin.”
“We’ll see your honor. I plan to appeal this decision. My client was guilty in the eyes of the jury even before he entered this court. I will have Harlan Garrett out of San Quentin within three months.”
The judge leaned over the bench and spoke softly to Reinhardt. “You can try. But I would prepare your client for a long stay.”
“Scotty please,” Harlan sobbed as the sheriff led him away. “Don’t let them do this to me. I only did what was best for you. Please.” Suddenly he stopped, yanking the sheriff back. He turned to look at Johnny, his face mirroring his rage. “You will pay for this,” he promised. “No half-breed gunslinger is going to take what is mine. You’ll pay.”
The sheriff dragged Harlan through the back door, his vindictive shouts lingering in the courtroom.
“Let’s get out of here,” Scott said, his voice ragged.
Johnny wrapped his good arm around Scott, and they supported each other as they walked out of the courthouse, Murdoch following behind. He hoped his sons could move on. That Harlan Garrett was once and for all out of their lives.
“Are you sure you won’t stay another day or so?” Molly asked. She was sitting in the back of the buckboard, fussing with the blankets stacked next to Johnny. “It’s going to be a rough ride with your back and rib.”
“I’ll be fine,” Johnny grinned. “It’s time we got home. Teresa is probably going to have our heads as it is for missing Easter.”
“I think that both Teresa and Maria will be so busy fussing over you little brother that they won’t even remember Easter,” Scott chuckled.
Johnny rolled his eyes and everyone laughed. There was no doubt that Johnny was in for a large dose of nursing.
Henry closed his medical bag, satisfied that Johnny was well enough to travel. “I have to agree with Molly that it is going to be a rough ride for you Johnny. But I also know that you want to get home. So here is some laudanum…I know, you hate it, but if you need it, please don’t hesitate to take it. There are also some powders for the infection and to help you sleep when you get home if you need them. God speed, all of you. And come visit us again.”
“Maybe next year we will all spend Easter with you,” Murdoch said, helping Molly to jump down off the wagon.
“Johnny…” Rachael was standing next to the wagon and Scott lifted her up next to his brother. “I made this for you.” She handed him a small cloth drawstring bag with the Lancer “L” embroidered on the front. With his hand still in the sling he wordlessly handed it back to her and nodded for her to open it. Inside was a beaded bracelet. “You don’t have to wear it,” she said shyly.
Johnny leaned over and kissed her gently on the forehead. “I will wear it all the time, starting now.” He held out his left wrist for her to put it on. “Now,” he grinned, “every time I look at this I will remember you.”
“I love you, Johnny…” she whispered.
“And I love you too, Rachael. Someday you are going to make a young man awfully proud to call you his wife.”
Molly reached up and gently pulled Rachael down from the wagon.
Before anyone could say another word, Jose was in the wagon. “Senor Johnny, we are all going to miss you and Senor Scott and Senor Patron.”
“And we are going to miss you. You take care of Molly and the other kids and…” Johnny offered the boy his hand, “When you reach sixteen, you have a job waiting for you at Lancer.”
“I will be there, I promise.”
Scott tied Barranca to the back of the wagon and mounted Charlemagne. “Everyone take care,” he called.
“We will,” Molly promised.
“You take it slow and easy, Johnny,” Henry reminded his ex-patient. “Your hand is doing fine now. A couple more weeks of rest in that sling, then you can start doing light exercise. I am confident there will be no permanent damage. And…” he looked up at Scott then Murdoch in the wagon’s driver’s seat. “You make sure he follows orders.”
“We will Henry,” Murdoch laughed. “Just wait until Sam gets his hands on him. The boy will toe the line. Believe me.”
Johnny groaned and hunkered down against the nest of blankets. “See ya all next year,” he called as Murdoch slapped the reins and the wagon slowly pulled away from the orphanage.
As they rolled away from the courtyard he saw his name at the top of the plaque and smiled. For once the name Madrid stood for something good.
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