Word Count 36,345
WARNING: The ending of this story contains material that may be upsetting for some readers. If you prefer to avoid this, the author has provided an alternative version HERE.
WARNING: Please be aware that this story contains violence and some profanity. The views expressed in this story belong to the characters and not the author.
“Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.”
Titus Andronicus, Act ii, Scene iii, 38.
The vast hall was empty, the shaded oil lamps turned down low. The gloomy lighting was in keeping with it all somehow, as he reached the top of the staircase and looked down over the balustrade.
There was no one to see him. No one to stop him. The servants in bed long ago – his father in New York on a desperate, last-ditch attempt to persuade their creditors not to foreclose on the business.
He smiled bitterly. Too late – it was all too late. He’d been summoned earlier today. The old man calculating enough to do it while his father was away, the papers waiting neatly on the desk. Drawn up legally, and waiting for his signature as the old man sat like an eager vulture, watching him from under hooded eyelids. All he had to do was sign and it was gone. Over. Everything his father and grandfather had worked so hard for. Gone, with the quick stroke of a pen.
He’d refused of course. Then the old man had dropped his bombshell. Taking a dossier from a locked desk drawer. Names, dates, times. Places of rendezvous – of assignation. It was all there, every damning detail. Documented and validated by the Private Investigator hired to follow him for the last six months. His secret, his shame. The litany of revelations which would ruin and disgrace his father. Worse still, that would break his very heart.
The old man had been thorough, credit where credit was due. No stone left unturned, no expense spared. His reputation as the most ruthless man on the east coast well-earned in his determination to get what he wanted in the end. The bitter end.
So he’d signed, of course. The old man sitting there impassively. Eyes cold, skin wrinkled like a lizards. The signatures witnessed by a faceless lawyer, stiff of aspect. Refusing to meet his gaze. Because of the impiety of what had been done, he wondered? Or because of what he was.
A freak. Less than a man.
He tested the noose. Tightening and re-tightening the slipknot round his wrist to check its efficiency. Anchoring it firmly round the carved oak banisters at the top of the staircase as the resolution hardened in his heart. He may not be a proper man – but he was not afraid to do what must be done. To save his father from shame.
Hitching a leg over the banisters. The smooth wood warm beneath his hands. The sonorous tick-tock, tick-tock, of the Grandfather clock in the lobby. Ticking-off the seconds, counting away his life with each swing of the pendulum. The letter in his jacket pocket weighed as heavy as lead, the paper crackling against his breast. It had been so hard to find the words. The words to say he was sorry . . .
He was calm now. Calmer than he’d been since the first moment of sick despair when he’d read the damned dossier. Perched on the edge, his hands rock steady as he fitted the noose over his head, around his neck.
He looked down at the black and white pattern of the parquet flooring, the arching fronds of the parlour ferns. And painfully, ironically, the huge oil painting of his grandfather’s first ship. A British Clipper. Her sails burgeoning as she cleaved through the storm tossed Atlantic on her way to the New World. As a child, he’d loved that painting.
‘The Lady Jane’.
Named for his grandmother. Trim of line and just as stubborn, his grandfather used to smile. He’d felt part of it then – part of the heritage. But that was before Michael had died, when he’d still been free to pursue his music and not expected to be heir apparent.
He took a last deep breath and closed his eyes. Pushed himself forwards, away from the ledge. Spiralling, spinning. Head snapping backwards with a single twisting jerk . . .
“He has not won . . .” his last coherent thought. “Harlan Garrett has not won . . .”
* * * * * * * *
Rain on a bleak day. Grey and drear. Sombre as the mood of the small group of people huddled like hooded crows around the graveside. Amos Spencer watched as the coffin was lowered, oblivious to the words of the Minister. His face was set in rigid lines of grief, the rain running down it in rivulets. Dripping off the end of his chin and mingling with the tears he didn’t try to hide.
The earth on the coffin was a physical shock. Spencer flinching backwards in agony and denial as the handfuls scattered over the wood like a fusillade of pistol shots.
“No. David – my son!”
“Sir . . .” The man at his side stepped unobtrusively forward. Taking his arm and supporting Spencer physically, bearing his weight on his own slight frame, as the man all but collapsed under the burden of bereavement.
“Get me out of here, Moffat.”
“But the guests, Sir . . .”
“Damn the guests. They’ve seen all they wanted – sated their ghoulish curiosity. Now they can go pick over the bones at the wake. Take me . . .” he paused, unable to say the word ‘home’. “Take me back to the house.”
The thought of it stuck in his craw. The house was no longer a home. No longer a sanctuary. More like a cruel and mocking reminder every time he walked in the front door.
Images ran like nightmares in his mind. He’d been in New York. A fruitless, dispiriting round of begging-bowl meetings. The eyes that didn’t quite meet his. Some sympathetic, others not so. The vicarious empathy and symbolic closure of previously open doors, as he’d fought to save everything his father had built from Harlan Garrett’s hostile takeover bid.
He’d signed half the business to David three years ago, and since then, everything that could go wrong had done so. Some poor investments, a bankrupt debtor. The loss of one of their ships at sea. A lifetime’s hard labour and effort vanishing before his very eyes. He’d since learned his applications for bolstering loans had been refused at Garrett’s instigation. The old bastard wielded a powerful sword when it came to influence and leverage – both in Boston and New York.
Garrett had made an offer for Spencer Shipping once before. Back when he was still building the business up and things were thriving. He’d refused of course. Perhaps in less than flattering terms. But it had been before the war. He’d been younger then, and Lucille and Michael had still been alive.
Mike . . .
His shining eldest son. If he closed his eyes, he could see him now. The passing-out ceremony at West Point. Row upon row of gleaming cadets, smart as paint – proud as princes. Michael Howard Spencer, the finest of them all. And later, in his coat of Union blue, Second Lieutenant Spencer off to join his cavalry regiment. To win honour and glory in their name.
They’d received the telegram during the winter of ’63. Lucille had been so overcome with grief, she’d quickly succumbed to a vicious bout of pneumonia within five months. The will to live leeched from her frail body, as she turned her face to the wall and died.
David had been too young to follow in his brother’s fatal footsteps. And for that, he’d been profoundly grateful. Sending him to Harvard instead. Indulgent towards the boy’s love for music, his gift as a talented pianist blossoming with expert tuition. But since Michael’s death, Amos had always made it clear David was destined for a place in the business at his father’s side.
The boy had acquiesced eventually. Shelving his fanciful dreams of going to Europe and studying music in London or Paris. Listening instead to his father’s entreaties, face pale as he’d closed the lid of his piano and never played another note. Spencer paused in his reverie, dead leaves crunching under his feet. The dank trees dripping unheeded onto his coat as he shook himself free of Moffat’s arm. Maybe he should have let the boy go and follow his dream.
Moffat’s voice, discreet as ever as the faithful manservant waited with him. A man detached himself from the shadow of the trees. Hat pulled down low across his ears, the collar of his overcoat turned up high against the rain.
“Mister Spencer, Sir. I have that information you wanted.”
Spencer turned curtly to Moffat. Dismissing him with a glance. “Wait for me at the carriage.”
He turned back to the other man and they began to stroll along the gravel pathway together. Through the granite graves and marble plinths, the monuments to the dead.
“It was difficult finding anything. Garrett’s a cold fish. Tied up watertight and legal in all his business dealings. There’s nothing there.”
Spencer’s lips narrowed. “Nothing?”
“Nothing.” The other man was adamant. “He’s a powerful man, Mister Spencer. However. . .” he paused, voice lowering an octave. “There might be something. One thing.”
They halted. Spencer turning to clutch convulsively at the lapel of the other man’s coat. “Spit it out man. Whatever it is – however small!”
Reaching up fastidiously, the man removed the fingers from his garment and moved off again. “Garrett has no family. There was a daughter, Catherine. She ran off with a nobody the old man didn’t approve of and died in childbirth years ago.”
“Then what . . .”
“The baby survived. A boy – rather a man now. He’s in his late twenties. Garrett’s grandson. His only Achilles heel.”
Spencer’s eyes closed in grief all over again. David . . . He pulled himself together and nodded slowly. “A grandson – how poetic. Perfect in its own way. But where is he, not here in Boston?”
“No.” The tall man shook his head. “He lives out in California with his father – the nobody. They have a ranch there. Apparently Garrett was devastated when the grandson, Scott Lancer, went out West to be with his father. Tried everything he could to get him back to Boston.”
Spencer frowned. “Have they fallen out?”
“That’s not the case, Sir. Garrett still wants him home more than anything. He brought the boy back East when he was a baby. Raised him here in Boston and denied the father access for years. I suppose you could say Garrett was more like his father than his grandfather. The boy went into a cavalry regiment during the war, spent nearly a year in Libby, then came back and worked in the old man’s business being groomed as heir apparent.”
“What happened?” Spencer’s voice was harsh, thinking of Michael. The injustice of it all over again. His eldest son – his beloved eldest son, lost. Garrett’s grandson surviving. He forced himself back to the present with difficulty. “Why did he give it all up?”
“Curious isn’t it?” There was a slight tinge of amusement in the taller man’s tone. “The rancher hired the Pinkertons to trace his son. Made him an offer to go out to California. The boy defied Garrett and took him up on it, decided he preferred the life out West. Garrett tried everything to get him back, but to no avail. He’s even been out there himself . . .” he chuckled unexpectedly. “Seems even his own kin can’t live with him.”
They stopped in front of a carved, marble angel, arching wingtips curved up to the sky. The serene face locked forever in it’s expression of benediction, of redemption. Forgiveness. Spencer regarded it with anguish. Hatred blossoming like a crimson flower in his soul. The piety of the angel only serving to rub salt in the wound that was his heart; its ethereal sanctity a false mockery when men like Harlan Garrett were allowed to steal and manipulate. To instigate murder – be the evil root of death.
A sob choked in his throat. Constricting his chest with torment as the darkness closed its fist around him once again. They were gone, all gone. Everyone he had ever loved and cared about. Lucille, Michael, and now David. The years and reasons tumbled round him like a house of cards, coalescing into one, tangible evil. One source of blame. Garrett – Harlan Garrett.
The man had sought to destroy him. Actively tried to take what was his. Everything he’d worked and striven for, sacrificed for. And now David . . .
Spencer clenched his fists hard. David had signed those papers. Vetoed away his right to half the company – Garrett buying-off the other debts that Spencer Shipping owed. He knew why of course. Had always known in his heart. Pushing it away with the same sense of denial he’d employed since the first seeds of suspicion germinated in his head when David was sixteen. Hoping it was a phase. Something to do with the boy’s artistic nature and love of music.
He’d known a brief ray of hope when David had given up the piano so abruptly. Praying that with time and maturity, things would change. That one day, the boy would settle down. Find a suitable young lady from amongst the upper echelons of Boston society and finally discover some sort of normal happiness. Preferably with a sizeable dowry and the right connections, of course. God knew the boy had always been handsome enough – the girls had always looked his way. It was just that he’d never looked back . . .
And somehow Garrett had found out, probably by having him followed. Dates and times, names even. Spencer looked back up at the marble angel. They’d covered up the suicide, but even so, the rumours abounded. The gossips were having their ghoulish day.
And all the while, the old man sat up there in his ivory tower on Beacon Hill. Counting his money and gloating over his victory. He’d even had the gall to send a message of condolence. Hypocrisy and lies. David’s blood on his hands just as surely as if he’d placed the noose round the boy’s neck himself.
Garrett had invited him to a Board meeting on Monday morning. A weekend’s grace between now and then to allow him to get over the funeral . . . he almost laughed out loud. Let no man dare say Harlan Garrett didn’t play by the rules of propriety. A whole two days to pull himself together in readiness for the next blow. The loss of his company.
A paltry pay-off offer for his shares in Spencer Shipping. The promise of an easy way out, no creditors on his back. Allowed to sink into respectable retirement with his honour and good name intact and a moderate living for the rest of his life. Oh, maybe not as opulent as the one he’d been used to – he’d have to sell the Boston mansion, of course. Move to his house on the Cape, keep his yawl if he was careful. Moffat would remain with him, that went without saying.
He closed his eyes again. Tears of rage and pain running down his face, as the rain dripped off the trees. Clouds scurrying in from the east, the cold Atlantic. Grief upon grief – grey upon grey.
But he had an edge now. What was it Bergstrom had just said? An Achilles heel. A grandson out in California. Something or someone, the devil loved more than himself – than Garrett Enterprises. Spencer’s heart hardened and atrophied. He turned back to the silent man who waited at his side.
“Where in California?”
“The San Joaquin Valley. A small place called Morro Coyo. I suppose the nearest town must be Modesto.”
Spencer nodded. “I’ll be leaving in the middle of next week. You can arrange it for me?”
Bergstrom inclined his head. “I took the liberty of anticipating that would be the case, Mister Spencer. Two of my, er . . . associates, will meet up with you in Denver. They’re free-lancers, in it for the money. But reliable. Flexible, if you know what I mean. Not too many irritating scruples.”
“Good,” said Spencer brusquely. “I don’t give a damn about their morals. In fact, the less they have the better as far as I’m concerned. I want discretion.”
“You’ll get it. Complete discretion, Sir. The Cullen brothers will do anything you ask of them, as long as they get paid. You can rely on them, you have my total assurances.”
“And silence,” grunted Spencer. Turning away from the marble angel. The compassion on it’s face was an accusation. It’s very tenderness an impeachment.
“Of course,” agreed Bergstrom, as they walked slowly back the way they’d come towards the line of carriages.
Spencer could see Moffat waiting for him now, a big black umbrella in his hand. “Where do I find him, Bergstrom. The grandson, what’s his name?”
Bergstrom pulled his hat down further across his face, grimacing as the cold rain ran down his neck. “His name’s Scott Lancer. You’ll find him on a ranch of the same name. Lancer.”
They reached the end of the path. Bergstrom merging with the shadows under the trees, as Moffat came hurrying forward with the umbrella.
“Take it away . . .” Spencer pushed him impatiently aside. Turning his face to the sullen skies, as he rolled the name on his lips.
“Lancer. Scott Lancer . . .”
* * * * * * * *
Scott sighed – an indulgent smile hovering about his lips as he regarded his younger brother’s rapidly vanishing back. Watching in open admiration as the golden palomino soared across the five bar fence in unconscious mimicry of a time once before. Hard to believe it was nearly three whole years ago now.
Johnny rode with natural grace. As though he and the horse had melted into each other. Become fused in a seamless expression of sheer exhilaration and movement – a joyous thing to behold.
Scott nudged Charlie to a more leisurely lope. Letting the chestnut have his head as their speed increased. Powerful muscles bunching and gathering beneath him as he took the fence in Johnny’s wake, joining him in a rushing swirl of dust underneath the oak trees.
His face cracked into a wide smile. “You were saying, little brother?”
Johnny grinned unrepentantly. “So he aint no slouch. A regular mechanical jumper. You can teach a mongrel tricks with a big enough bag of bones.”
Scott arched an eyebrow back at him. “Care to put your money where your mouth is?”
Their glances held for a quick second. Johnny’s grin easing into an enigmatic half-smile as he considered his brother’s words.
“What’s the bet?”
Scott looked round consideringly. Eyes lighting on the high, white stone wall that surrounded the outer perimeter of the hacienda. Johnny tracked his gaze, and whistled softly between his teeth.
“Don’t think you have to do it for my benefit, Boston.”
“I won’t.” Scott laughed – tilting his hat forward more tightly over his ears. “What’s the matter, getting cold feet?”
“Nada, hermano mio.”
Johnny wheeled Barranca, barely pausing to draw breath as he nudged the palomino into a gallop. Bending low across the pony’s neck as they ran headlong at the wall. For a moment it seemed he’d left it too late, and Scott half-rose in his stirrups, a cry of warning suspended on his lips. But the palomino uncurled his front legs. Flying across the wall in a magnificent torsion of muscle and fibre, man and horse. Landing on the other side like a golden javelin as the dust swirled in eddies around them both.
Scott relaxed. Shaking his head and sitting back down in the saddle, as Johnny turned and waved his hat three times with triumph.
“Well fella . . .” Scott patted the chestnut’s brawny neck. “Guess we have a point to prove, don’t we?”
The wall suddenly seemed an awful lot higher, but Scott had faith in his horse. A more technical rider than Johnny, he held him in on a tighter rein as they made their run. His mouth tense with concentration as he judged the distance to perfection. Feeling the familiar surge of power as the horse pushed up off his back legs.
He sensed the fetlock go immediately. The sudden lurch to one side as Charlie’s leg gave out beneath him and horse and rider crashed forwards clumsily into the wall.
He was conscious of dismay, of Johnny’s cry of alarm. A jumble of blue sky, white stone, and heavy chestnut flank as he spun from the saddle – shoulder wrenching backwards as he tried desperately to hold on. A noise like a pistol shot – followed by intense lancing pain. His head hitting the ground? His nostrils clogged with dust as the world receded. The horse, his brother, the bright sunlight. They all shrank and constricted to a pinprick of nothingness. He knew no more.
* * * * * * * *
“What’s takin’ them so long?”
Johnny changed chairs one more time. Stalking round the library like a caged lion as his fingers played unceasingly with the string of turquoise beads at his wrist. Teresa looked up at him unhappily. Getting to her own feet, as she moved across and placed a small hand on his arm.
“Why don’t you sit down, Johnny? I’ll go make us some coffee . . . “
He tensed, the sinews tightening beneath her fingertips for a second as he looked up at the archway and exhaled. Some of the strain leaving him at her touch, as he shook his head reluctantly.
“No, gracias querida. Guess I aint thirsty.”
She remained where she was, her hand still resting lightly on his arm. “It’s not your fault.”
“Try tellin’ that to Murdoch.”
“He’s just upset now. When he’s calmed down some, he’ll understand . . .”
Johnny laughed bitterly. “Understand what, Teresa? That if I hadn’t been so hell-bent on braggin’ about Barranca, Scott would still be okay?” He spun away from her then. “It is my fault. I dared him . . .”
She crossed her arms in angry exasperation. “Exactly. You speak as though Scott’s an idiot with no mind of his own. He’s a grown man, Johnny. Older than you, and quite able to make his own decisions. Whose idea was it to jump the wall, in any case?”
“Pero . . .”
“No ‘buts’.” She took his arm again, watching some of the unhappiness fade from his eyes as she looked up into them. “It was an accident.”
“A damn fool accident that happened as the result of a bloody idiotic prank!”
They both jumped at the sound of Murdoch’s voice, and Teresa’s heart sank once more as she recognised the deep timbre of anger still present in it.
“Murdoch . . .” Johnny took a hesitant step forward. “How is he?”
But Murdoch ignored him. Turning to Teresa instead as he came down the steps into the room. “Sam’s just finishing up, Teresa. You’d better go and talk to him. I believe he has some nursing instructions for you.”
She lingered for a moment, eyes flicking miserably between both men. Reluctant to leave before the inevitable onslaught of angry words and bitter recrimination’s she knew was coming.
“Go on,” said Johnny softly. “Scott needs you, Chica.”
She watched him pick at the beads again, trying to smile reassuringly at him despite the anxiety inside her. Turning to go, and touching Murdoch fleetingly on the shoulder as she walked past him, up the steps towards the archway. Murdoch waited until she was gone. Regarding his youngest son with a basilisk glare, before stalking across to his desk and staring broodingly out of the window.
“What, in God’s name, were you playing at?”
Johnny remained immobile. Perched insolently on the back of the blue chair, leg dangling loosely over the floor. “I asked after Scott . . .”
“I heard you,” said Murdoch coldly. “And I ‘asked’ what the hell you thought you were doing!”
“Asked and answered,” retorted Johnny. “A bloody idiotic prank, wasn’t it? Eso es todo.”
“That’s all?” Murdoch’s jaw clenched. “That’s all, and your brother’s lying unconscious up there . . . shoulder badly dislocated, his ankle probably broken. For God’s sake Johnny, he could have been killed. You both could have been killed!”
Johnny slid off the chair with a twisted smile. “Malo suerte . . .”
“Don’t be foolish,” grated Murdoch angrily. “Although judging by this kind of behaviour, maybe foolish is what I should expect from you.”
“You think I wanted this to happen? That I wouldn’t take it back or change it?” Johnny strode up to the desk, leaning both arms on the edge and thrusting his face across at Murdoch. “I wish it was me lyin’ up there now instead of Scott!”
Murdoch snorted dismissively, leaning his own hands on the desk till their faces were inches apart. “It wouldn’t make any difference. Except I’d be having this conversation with Scott now, and wondering why the hell he’d acted so stupidly.”
Johnny was still for a second, the anger retreating behind a distant, practised mask. “Yeah, right. Sure you would.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Johnny straightened up slowly. “I’m goin’ to find out how my brother is . . .” he paused sarcastically. “If that’s alright with you? Oh, and by the way, you might care to hear the chestnut’s gonna be okay.”
Murdoch took a deep breath, his temper cooling as he recognised the wealth of hurt behind the careful words. “Johnny . . .”
But Johnny was already halfway up the steps and out the door. “I got me some time owin’, so you’ll find me at the Cantina in Morro Coyo – that is assumin’ you want me.”
* * * * * * * *
Harlan Garrett looked around at his Board Members with barely concealed satisfaction. Running his hands over the polished mahogany surface of the antique, oval table. Jacobean. Shipped across the Atlantic from England. A beautiful classic piece of furniture, certainly not out of place in the oblong, panelled Boardroom. The walls hung with expensive oil paintings, all nautical scenes. A richly woven wool carpet, soft underfoot. It was an opulent room. Redolent of the scent of money, and the flagship of Garrett Enterprises. A fitting showcase to the further success of his business ventures, and the uncanny acumen he was famed for.
He smiled at the thought. Today in particular, was to be a triumph worthy of celebration. A good dinner, fine wines . . . His smile faded slightly. A shame it would have to be at his club. Perhaps shared with a few of the crusty old potentates that dined regularly within the hallowed portals, all of them eating there because there was no one to dine with them at home.
Rich men, powerful men, with houses on Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Coffers bulging with property and dollars, but a distinct lack of family to leave it to. But not him – he had Scott, didn’t he?
The hope that one day, his beloved grandson would tire of the stupid fad which had distracted him from his true vocation. Would leave that God-forsaken place out in California, and come back East where he belonged to take his rightful place within Garrett Enterprises. The next in line, the heir to the throne.
Garrett’s forehead creased again. Everything he did was for Scott, and on behalf of Scott. Didn’t the boy realise that yet? He’d given him a couple of years already. Indulged him in his whim to get to know his father. His half-breed, half-brother. Garrett’s lip curled in distaste. It was about time Scott came home.
Truscott had nearly finished speaking. Good. Boring old fool. It was nearly time to retire him out to pasture, get in some younger, fresher blood. Perhaps after this latest re-shuffle to accommodate his newest acquisition.
Garrett frowned. No sign of Spencer. Churlish of the man, the sign of a bad loser. That was the trouble with the country today. Too damn liberal, too soft. Giving out freedoms and rights to every man jack – it was stripping men of their backbone. Just like the Spencer boy, if boy was the right word . . .
The doors crashed open, interrupting Truscott mid-conclusion, his mouth dropping open like a goldfish. Of all the men seated round the Board-table, only Garrett remained unmoved. Looking up at Amos Spencer with a slight smile on his face, as he waited for the man’s next move. Spencer looked like hell. Face gaunt and haggard. Still dressed in his mourning suit, necktie wilted and haphazard.
“Amos – won’t you sit down?”
Garrett indicated the empty chair, his voice deliberately bland as he ignored the air of general consternation running round the other men in the room. Spencer’s jaw clenched.
“I’d rather sit down with the devil.”
Garrett shrugged. “Each to their own, Sir, each to their own.” He pushed a sheaf of papers in Spencer’s direction. “I take it you’re still interested in my offer? It’s a good one – under the circumstances. I think you’ll find everything here above board. I had my lawyers draw it up in consultation with your own. A fair recompense.”
Spencer shouldered Truscott to one side, leaning across the Jacobean table and staring at Harlan Garrett as though they were the only two men in the room.
“For what, you bastard? My company, my son?”
Garrett pursed his lips consideringly, a small cold smile in his hooded eyes. “Take your pick. I’ve paid what they’re worth.”
Their gazes locked and held in silence. Neither man flinching from the other, a wealth of bitter words unsaid. Spencer broke it first. Nodding measuringly, as he regarded his nemesis before him with an air of loathing.
“I hope you rot in hell.”
Garrett laughed out loud then, face creasing into lines of genuine amusement. “I’ll be in good company Amos, that’s for sure. But perhaps you ought to look a little closer to home when it comes to, er . . . biblical transgressions and abominations.”
To his slight surprise, Spencer laughed too. A short, bitter bark of mirth. “An apt analogy, Harlan. Know your bible, do you? That astonishes me.” His smile faded, as he leaned in closer to his enemy, faces only inches apart. “But if you do – you’ll recognise this too; Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the lord. Romans, chapter 12, verse 19.”
Garrett backed off a couple of inches, and looked at him consideringly. “Is that supposed to be some kind of threat?”
Spencer picked up the sheaf of papers. Flipping through the clinically legal documents. His life, his father’s. David’s . . . All condensed into fodder for the lawyers. Bones for the vultures to pick over. He picked up a pen and signed. Securing the cheque in the breast pocket of his waistcoat as he turned back towards the doors.
“You can rest easy, Harlan. I’m no threat to you. In fact, I’m thinking of taking a trip out West.” He smiled acrimoniously. ” To California maybe . . .”
Garrett’s head snapped up suddenly, and for the first time, Spencer sensed he had the upper hand as a shade of apprehension flickered behind the cold eyes. He turned the screw a little. Nodding reflectively, nearly through the doorway.
“I hear it can be a dangerous place. A lawless place. But then, I’ve got nothing more to lose . . .”
Garrett half rose from the table. “Spencer . . .”
But the other man was gone. The door slamming closed behind him.
* * * * * * * *
Eight days later . . .
Teresa’s heart sank for the hundredth time as she saw Murdoch reach inside his tan leather waistcoat. Fumbling for the ancient timepiece he kept on a simple chain as the frown gathered and darkened on his brow. It furrowed even deeper as he glared from the watch face to the telegram, and over to the door.
She wondered what the telegram said. If possible, it had changed his mood from bad to worse, and she knew who would bear the brunt of it.
“He’s been working so hard,” she said involuntarily. Knowing even as she spoke, her words had fallen on stony ground. “Since Scott’s accident, he’s been doing the work of two men. He missed his supper again last night.”
Light footsteps on the tiled floor, the clink of a spur rowel, and the object of discussion came in through the kitchen door.
“Sam’s kinda early. Bumped into him on the stairs . . . ” Johnny paused, sensing the atmosphere immediately, a sardonic smile curling his lip.
“Here, sit down . . .” said Teresa hurriedly, in a futile attempt to deflect the gathering storm. “Fresh coffee and rolls. I’ve got a new batch of honey from my beehives, would you like some eggs?”
She poured his coffee into a pretty blue and white china cup. Aware she was babbling, but desperate to protect him from Murdoch’s simmering wrath, as she caught his eye and made a quick face.
Johnny flashed her a wry, reassuring smile. “Thanks Querida – but I’m kinda in a hurry.”
Murdoch nodded. “You’ve left it late as it is. Jed Tilbury’s expecting to see you at ten. The man’s a stickler for punctuality.”
“I’ll be there on time. Had to help Jelly load that lumber – he’s been complainin’ ’bout his elbow joints again.”
“I don’t want to lose the option on that mare.” Murdoch ignored his words, dismissing them as though he hadn’t spoken.
Johnny’s hands stilled in the act of loading sugar into his coffee. “I said I’ll be there.”
Their eyes met and locked like horns. Teresa was reminded of two angry bulls as she looked from one to the other, exasperation growing in her own breast. Johnny was the first to look away, dashing back his coffee in a couple of huge gulps and spreading a vast wedge of butter and honey onto one of the rolls. He turned back to Teresa, gave her a buttery kiss on the cheek, and headed for the back door.
Johnny checked at the imperious tone, and Teresa’s stomach began fluttering with apprehension all over again. Murdoch was holding the telegram out across the table, face as grim as she’d ever seen it.
“Take a look at this wire before you go. Sam brought it out from Morro Coyo.”
Johnny came back into the room and took it in silence. Jaw tightening in consternation as he scanned the message and digested the words. He looked up at Murdoch, a frown line between his brows.
“Never did like that man.”
Murdoch grunted. “Harlan Garrett’s no fool. He must consider this a very real threat if he’s asking me for help.”
Johnny smiled coldly. “Now aint that a fact. Wonder what he did to make this man Spencer so all fired up.”
“That’s beside the point.” Murdoch tapped his fingertips on the tabletop. “What concerns me, is Scott. Garrett says Spencer made a threat against him and headed out West . . . God damn him!”
Johnny met Teresa’s frightened gaze. The last part of this statement was ambiguous, and could have referred to Spencer or Garrett. Johnny would have bet Barranca on which one ‘he’ thought it was.
“Is Scott in danger?” Teresa’s hand was tense on his arm, and he looked down at her as reassuringly as he could.
“Not with us to look after him, Miel. Garrett hurt Scott the last time he came out here, I won’t let him do it again.”
Murdoch nodded with tacit agreement. “In some ways, it may even be a blessing in disguise that Scott’s bedridden right now. At least I know he’s safe here at the hacienda. I’ll post a guard round the clock – inside and out. Have a man on the gate to vet all visitors. Meanwhile, Teresa honey . . . I’m afraid we’ll have to put up with the old . . . with Mister Harlan Garrett again in a day or two.”
Her face fell almost comically, and the scowl on Johnny’s mirrored it exactly as they both contemplated the malign presence of Scott’s grandfather at Lancer. Johnny sighed, a distant look in his eyes as his mind worked back over the telegram.
“I cannot stress highly enough, that Scott is in grave danger. I repeat, grave danger . . .”
Damn Garrett. Damn the man and his machinations. He reminded Johnny of a giant black spider in the centre of a web, spinning and weaving his schemes and plans. The way he had of reaching out to them, despite the fact he was half a world away. The gift he had for hurting Murdoch, hurting Scott . . .
He looked up quickly. “What about Scott? You gonna tell him?”
Murdoch frowned. “I haven’t decided yet.”
“He has a right to know.”
Murdoch’s eyes hardened with anger again. Not all of it directed at Johnny. “That’s my decision Johnny. I’ll thank you to respect and abide by it.”
Johnny stared back at him enigmatically. “He has a right to know,” he repeated softly.
“He’ll know when I say the time is right.” Murdoch reached into his breast pocket again. Ostentatiously drawing out the hunter and studying the time.
Johnny laughed once, sardonically. Turning on his heel, and heading out through the back door. Teresa watched him leave with a slight frown. He’d lost a little weight over the last few days. Worrying about Scott, working from dawn till dusk. And now this. Her muscles clenched with anxiety. Having Harlan Garrett here again was bad enough. Having him here because Scott was in danger, worse. She got to her feet with a small sigh, and began to clear the dishes from the table.
“Tilbury won’t wait,” said Murdoch with vexation. “I should have gone myself.”
She bit her lip. Banging and crashing the dishes with unnecessary vigour as she transferred them over to the sink. “Johnny’ll make it in time. You know how fast he can ride Barranca . . .” She stopped short, painfully aware of the ineptitude of her words, as Murdoch’s brow creased even more. “He won’t let you down.” She finished lamely.
His chair legs scraping on the tiled floor, Murdoch got to his feet, throwing his napkin down on the table. He paused in the doorway, heading for the library.
“Let me know when Sam’s done. I’ll be in the library with Cipriano till then.”
He didn’t give her the chance to reply. Vanishing through the archway, his back turned implacably towards her. For a brief, rebellious moment, she was tempted to poke her tongue out at him. Restraining the impulse as Jelly meandered in from the back yard, a wrinkle of anxiety between his brows.
“Johnny took off like a bat outta hell. Him an’ Murdoch bin at it agin?”
“Murdoch’s been at it again, and Johnny’s prickly as a Spanish Bayonet.”
She told him about the wire. Watching in fond exasperation as he rubbed his elbows knowingly, unable to suppress the look of smug ‘I told you so’, on his face.
“I knowed it. Yesiree, I knowed it. Told Johnny this mornin’ when we was loadin’ thet lumber. Teach him ter laugh at me . . . these elbows aint never wrong.”
She moved across to the breadbin. Cutting some thick wedges of crusty bread, and making up two parcels of ham sandwiches. Wrapping them both in blue and white check napkins, and handing them over to him with a slight sigh.
“When you drop off that lumber in Morro Coyo, find Johnny and give him these. Make sure he eats them,” she added as an afterthought, remembering the sharper planes and angles of his face.
Jelly looked up at her shrewdly, and nodded. “Figured he was lookin’ a might scrawny. Mebbe this Garrett business will take the Boss’s mind offa Scott’s accident.”
“I hope so,” said Teresa fervently. “But I don’t want Harlan Garrett here, and I hate the fact Scott’s in danger.”
“Me too,” agreed Jelly soberly. “But allasame . . .” he scratched at his beard. “If it gets Johnny outta the firin’ line till it all blows over . . .”
Teresa’s hand clenched tightly round the bread knife. A sudden dark fear in her heart, the beat of raven’s wings falling over her like a shadow. She thought of the man upstairs, lame and helpless in his bed. Of his brother, tense and guilty as a drum. Her skin crawled with apprehension. She didn’t need Jelly’s elbows to tell her a storm was on the way.
* * * * * * * *
Johnny made it to Morro Coyo with ten minutes to spare. Flying along on Barranca as he tried to outrun his devils. Or rather his father.
Taking perverse pleasure in the palomino’s strength, the strain it caused across his back and shoulders as he leant into the speed. Closing his eyes occasionally on this route he knew in his sleep – on the horse that he trusted implicitly.
Him and Murdoch. Murdoch and him.
Would the day ever come when they’d rest easy with each other? When the bitterness was buried so deep beneath the surface it would take more than a scratch to make it bleed?
He’d been wounded once, a deep scour through his flesh. Painful, but not life threatening, down round under his shoulder-blade. Difficult to get at, impossible to reach. It had pained and burned at him for months, healing and half-healing under a fragile layer of skin. Breaking open again at the slightest provocation, the lightest of exertions.
Him and Murdoch. Murdoch and him.
He wanted . . . He wanted so much to let his guard down. To demolish the walls of pride he’d spent so long erecting. To face his fears, his cowardice. For that was what it was, and he knew it.
But his own problems would have to wait. There was something of much more pressing urgency he needed to take care of first. Scott’s safety. He had to make sure Scott was safe. Murdoch was right, for Harlan Garrett to swallow his pride enough to actually telegraph Lancer, the danger to Scott must be very real. Whatever it was Garrett had done to Spencer, it had sent the man off on a quest for revenge and Scott was his target.
Johnny had disliked Garrett the minute he’d met him. Masking it for Scott’s sake. Trying to dampen the innate, instinctive distrust that had prickled at his senses and screamed danger at him. But those instincts had kept him alive for years, sometimes when the bullets had failed. He trusted them with an inbuilt superstition; listened to them without even knowing.
And they’d been right back then. He’d seen the way Garrett watched him. The disdain in his eye, the patronising tone to his voice. The way the man had spoken to Maria and Cipriano, all the other Mexicans on the Estancia.
He’d seen it, alright. Recognising it only too well for what it was. Racism, endemic along the Border towns. Something he encountered wherever he went. He was able to shrug it off sometimes, like an old coat. In resignation and bitter acceptance. There was no point challenging it continually – he would have spent his whole life fighting.
Mex. Pelado. Chilli-bean . . .
He’d heard them all, and worse. From a lot of men who’d learned to regret ever calling him those names. And he’d seen it there in Garrett’s eyes, heard it in Garrett’s voice. Sensed it in the way the man had shrunk from his touch. The man was a bigot, Scott’s grandfather or not. The man had no time for his kind, and the feeling was mutual. Never more so than now.
He shared a pot of coffee with Jed Tilbury. Chewing backwards and forwards over a price on the mare, till both of them were satisfied, and Tilbury promised to deliver it to the Estancia the next day.
Human enough to feel a flash of ‘I showed you,’ towards Murdoch, Johnny shook Tilbury’s hand, and strolled across to the Cantina. Flashing a quick smile at Pepita as he entered, scanning the room quickly, and sauntering up to the bar.
“Johnny.” Abe reached across and took down a glass. “Beer?”
Johnny shook his head. “No gracias. Information, por favor. Any strangers been in lately askin’ after Lancer?”
Abe shook his head. Eyes flickering involuntarily down to the low-slung gun belt at Johnny’s hips. It wouldn’t be the first time a stranger had come in looking for Johnny Madrid, and he’d bet his last dime, it wouldn’t be the last. But not today. At least not so far.
“Nope, not a soul. Expectin’ someone?”
Johnny smiled laconically. “Quien sabe.”
He hadn’t missed the Barman’s quick glance, nor the connotations behind it. Well, if Abe thought it was him Spencer was after, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Be nice if he could tidy up this whole darn mess before Harlan Garrett arrived and Scott was back on his feet. Maybe then, with any luck, Garrett would turn right round and head on back to Boston.
He nodded cautiously. “I’d appreciate the jump if anyone does come askin’. And I think they probably will.”
“You got it, Johnny.” Abe gave him a small salute as he strolled from the Cantina. Wondering just who was fool enough to think they could take on Johnny Madrid, this time.
Johnny leaned against the wooden strut outside the Cantina. Breaking out of his reverie to tilt his hat at Jelly. The Old Man was sitting on the buck board across the street, indicating the packed lunches in his hands.
He was about to cross when a rattling caught his attention and he watched as the stage rolled in, swaying and lurching to one side as the full compliment of passengers disgorged into the town square. A middle-aged couple, an elderly Mexican gentleman. The widow Partridge. He waited a minute or so longer, then walked leisurely over to Jelly who was brandishing some sandwiches at him.
“D’ye git the mare?”
“Si, Jelly,” he took the chequered napkin with a wry smile. “I got the mare.”
Unseen by Johnny, one last passenger descended from the stage. A spare, middle-aged man in a brown corduroy jacket. Face lined and grim with fatigue, as he looked around him with distaste before collecting his bag from the luggage rack.
So this at last, was Morro Coyo. A godforsaken dusty hellhole as far as he was concerned. The literal back of beyond. He tipped the driver, and stared grimly at the shabby hotel. Well, he hadn’t come all this way for pleasure. The place would have to do. He probably wouldn’t be needing a room for more than one night, anyway. Not if the Cullen brothers had done their job.
He frowned slightly. Venn and Yancy Cullen were not the sort of men he usually associated with. Cutthroats and villains. The younger one, Yancy, almost backward. His elder brother more dangerous. Cunning in a wild, feral way. But Bergstrom had been right. They were exactly what he wanted for this job. Perfect, in fact. Amoral, ruthless. Not hidebound by any tiresome scruples or social principles. Base scum and riff-raff.
He passed a hand across his forehead. Shielding his eyes against the white glare of the sun. He was weary all of a sudden. Old. Harlan Garrett had brought him down to this, to this sordid little town in a search for vengeance. Bitter justice.
Stepping up onto the boardwalk, he watched as the stagecoach rattled away. Hidden in the shadows as he looked out at the sleepy town. Its one Cantina, the squat adobe buildings so ugly to his eyes. He batted away a lazy fly and wondered how anything managed to stay alive in this heat. It was almost unbearable. Hostile and inhospitable like the country, the majority of it’s people.
A sudden burst of merriment caught his attention. Looking up with an ache of longing, as his heart contracted in pain. An old timer on a wagon across the street. Laughing till he doubled over at something the cowboy next to him said. He continued to watch them sourly. How long since he’d laughed like that?
Venn Cullen’s voice in his ear made him jump. He’d been unaware of the man’s approach. Stepping back into the shady doorway, not bothering to turn round.
“Did you do as I asked?”
Was it his imagination, or was there a hint of insolence in Cullen’s voice.
“We done found a place. Found yo’ man, too. Took us a look at Lancer an’ all. Seems ter me, we could make us a tidy sum by holdin’ the boy ter ransom.”
“You’ll do as I say,” snapped Spencer curtly. “I have no quarrel with Murdoch Lancer. It’s Garrett who’ll pay.”
“Whatever y’say.” The sullen deference was back. But Spencer was no fool. He hadn’t missed the undertone of greed.
“The sooner we take Scott Lancer, the better.” He stared around in renewed distaste. “I don’t want to stay in this town a minute longer than I have too.”
Cullen chuckled behind him. “Then I’d say it’s yo’ lucky day. Aint it funny how life works out?”
“Stop talking in riddles man.”
“That boy on the wagon over there, he’s Murdoch Lancer’s son. Damned if I didn’t hear it fer myself just now.”
Spencer’s head snapped up with a jerk. The cowboy? Surely not. He was so dark. If asked to bet, he would have sworn he was part Mexican . . .
“You’re positive about this?”
He felt Cullen shrug behind him. “Ask fer y’self. The old timer goes by the name of Jelly Hoskins. Works out at the Estancia. Boy with him’s Lancer’s son.”
Brisk footsteps along the boardwalk towards them, and a bonneted middle-aged woman approached on her way to the store. Spencer stepped forward, removing his hat as he barred her way.
“I do beg your pardon, Ma’am, but I wonder if you can help me? The young man on the wagon across the street – is he by chance, the son of my old friend Murdoch Lancer?”
Mrs Lannigan paused. Looking him up and down, before nodding in approval, and answering in her usual, forthright manner. “That he most definitely is, Sir. Have you known Murdoch Lancer a long time?”
“We have a big, mutual acquaintance back in Boston.” Spencer sidestepped the question neatly. Placing his hat back on his head, and turning away again. “Thank you Ma’am. You’ve been of some help. I surely do appreciate it.”
He waited whilst she went on her way, watching curiously as the two men on the wagon finished eating. No wonder Garrett had objected so strongly to his daughter’s marriage. It looked as though Murdoch Lancer had latin blood, and the son must take after him. The miracle of it was, that Garrett had ever claimed the boy as his own. Ever taken him back East with him.
Spencer frowned. If he hadn’t heard it for himself, he’d still find it hard to believe. Scott Lancer was good looking enough. Easing down off the wagon, he moved with a natural in-born grace. Confident too. Walked like he owned the street. Officer training, Spencer supposed.
But Scott Lancer didn’t look like any officer he’d seen back East. None of the stiffly upright young men who’d formed part of Mike’s cadre, had looked like this. None of them had walked with that loose-limbed agility, those narrowed eyes. Not exactly a swagger, but an almost arrogant physical confidence he’d rarely seen before.
He turned back to Venn Cullen. It was too late to back out now. The dye was cast. He would do what he’d come all this way to do. Harlan Garrett had taken the only thing he had left in the whole world. He was about to pay the bastard back in kind.
* * * * * * * *
“Damn this ankle.” Scott winced, and hoisted himself a little higher in the bed. No simple feat when his right shoulder ached so abominably – almost as much as his leg.
“Easy.” Murdoch propped up the pillows behind his back, trying to suppress his unease at his elder son’s dependence. That bloody stupid dare . . .
Of all the times they needed Scott hale and able to defend himself. His lips tightened momentarily. Not just for the irresponsibility of it all, but because Harlan Garrett was on his way out West, and Scott’s life was in danger as a result of something the man had done.
He knew Garrett of old. Knew the way the man operated. Skirting along the thin edge of the wedge, keeping just inside the law. A battery of lawyers and legal advisors to back him – the best that money could buy. He was a formidable adversary, a cunning business man, and wily as an old dog fox. The famous Garrett fortune hadn’t been amassed without the use of dirty tricks or ruthless tactics. The creation of enemies along the way.
Murdoch watched as Scott settled back with a sigh. Reading the telegram again as though the contents might have magically changed within the last couple of minutes. They hadn’t of course, and a vertical line appeared between his brows as he reconsidered the cryptic words.
He was by no means naive. His grandfather’s fearsome commercial reputation was known the length and breadth of Massachusetts and beyond. He’d had a personal dose of the power of that medicine when Harlan had travelled West the last time. The incident with the Deegan brothers . . .
The line on his forehead deepened. Just whom had his grandfather upset to such an extent they would actively seek revenge? What had his grandfather done?
“It doesn’t say when he’ll arrive, but it was sent just over a week ago.”
“That mean’s he may arrive within the next couple of days,” finished Murdoch, trying to keep his voice as neutral as possible.
Scott smiled wanly. He wasn’t fooled for a minute. Harlan Garrett as a house guest was one of the last things Murdoch wanted, and it said a lot for his father that he was trying so hard for his benefit. He closed his eyes. Leaning his head back against the pillows with a sudden wave of weariness. Apart from anything else, he wasn’t sure he was up to the emotional onslaught he knew would accompany his grandfather’s arrival at Lancer. They’d parted on such uneasy terms. The trust between them shaken to the core by Harlan’s duplicity. Recriminations a breath behind them both, the one for lying, the other for staying.
He still loved his grandfather, for how could he not? Twenty five years of nurturing were not easily erased, and whatever modus operandi Harlan might have chosen, his motive had always been love. A love rendered suspect by frustrated wishes and thwarted dreams.
Childhood memories toppled like dominoes in his head. A birthday visit to the zoo, being taken aboard one of Harlan’s Merchant Clippers and shown around by the Captain. The wide-eyed wonder of a ruddy-cheeked boy as he’d been allowed to take the ship’s wheel and been shown how to plot a course with a sextant. Riding lessons when Harlan was still young and hale enough to sit a horse himself. The elegant parties with glittering women, ballrooms be-decked like faery palaces. They were good memories – precious.
The feel of his grandfather’s hand on his head. Fond and heavy, full of pride; and he’d been the prince, the heir apparent.
Until 1859 – the shadowy wings of war falling across the country like a funeral pall. Defying his grandfather to join the army as he’d veered away from the path that had been chosen for him. And therein lay the crux of the matter. He’d taken the first steps on the ladder of independence. The fickle hand of fortune decreeing a very different future to the one Harlan had planned.
Murdoch’s voice was gruff with concern. Probably not for the reasons that really ailed him though, and the thought drew a wry twitch at one corner of his long fine mouth.
“I’m sorry Murdoch. Timing couldn’t be worse, could it?”
Murdoch grimaced, thinking back over his words to Johnny in the kitchen earlier. That Scott might be safer confined to his bed . . . Johnny. The grimace deepened. Murdoch hoped he’d made it to Morro Coyo in time to meet with Tilbury. He didn’t want to lose that mare.
“It’s not your fault, Scott.”
“It’s not Johnny’s either,” said Scott perceptively. “It was my damn fool idea to jump that wall, not his. A few high spirits and a stupid accident. It could just as easily been Barranca’s fetlock. Johnny stuck here in bed instead of me.”
“But it’s not.” Murdoch answered. “It’s you, and it’s unfortunate all this has blown up now. This man Spencer – do you know anything about him at all?”
Scott frowned and shook his head. “I vaguely remember a Mike Spencer during the war. He was killed. His family were in Shipping, I seem to recall.”
Murdoch spread his hands. “There’s nothing to be gained in speculation – it’s pointless. We’ll have to wait until your grandfather gets here for some answers. Meanwhile, I’ve cordoned off the Estancia. Set guards at the gates and round the house. No one’s getting in, Scott. You can count on it.”
Looking down at his useless leg, Scott grinned with faint irony. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to, damn it. Where’s Johnny?”
“Morro Coyo. He should be back mid-afternoon. Hopefully with a contract for Jed Tilbury’s mare in his pocket.”
Scott looked at Murdoch hard. “It’s not Johnny’s fault,” he repeated. “He’s eaten up with guilt as it is. It might be a good idea to get things straightened out between the two of you, before grandfather arrives. Especially if there ‘is’ any trouble.”
Murdoch scowled like a thundercloud, and for a moment, Scott thought he was about to get his head bitten off as he watched the big man’s muscles tighten with affront.
“You’re right,” he said abruptly. “I’ll speak to him when he gets home.”
“Mare or no mare?” Scott was really pushing his luck now, and Murdoch acknowledged it with a reluctant smile.
“Mare or no mare.”
* * * * * * * *
Johnny waited in town for Jelly to finish his business at the lumber yard. The way he’d left things with Murdoch, he was no particular hurry to get home. Besides – part of him enjoyed the thought of the look on Murdoch’s face when he slapped the contract for the mare down on the desk in front of him. Let his father stew a while.
He sat up on the buckboard with Jelly after tying Barranca to the back. The old man had an uncanny gift of reading his state of mind at times. Seemed to know what to say when this particular mood was on him, the right balm to smooth his ruffled soul. He found himself wishing it was this easy with Murdoch. That they were capable of feeling this effortless with each other, this calm. With Jelly he could be himself. Slouch if he wanted, whistle or drum his restless fingers. Tilt his hat across his eyes and snatch a quick siesta . . .
All things Murdoch seemed to frown at him for. Never actually saying so, but sometimes the words were stronger for being left unsaid.
They drove home slowly along the river road. Past rock walls of sepia and indigo, splashed with sable shadows of brush. On the right, the glistening river. The verdant sweeps of green grass beyond it fringed with the graceful beauty of willow trees. They arched like dancers at the waters edge, trailing branches like fingers across the surface. Johnny breathed it all in deeply, appreciatively. The sweet air was soft and refreshing and he sank down a little lower in the seat, smiling ruefully as he thought of his father. The contract rustled satisfactorily in his breast pocket. The sun was warm on his back, and he was in the company of a friend. He felt himself
begin to relax for the first time in days.
By now, Murdoch would have placed a guard on the Estancia and Scott would be safer bedridden than up on his feet and moving around. Johnny knew his brother well enough by now to recognise the streak of family stubbornness lurking beneath the deceptively mild exterior. If Scott was fit and well they’d have the devil of a job to tie him down.
His search for information in Morro Coyo had proven fruitless. No one had been asking after Scott, and no strangers had arrived on the stage. Tomorrow he fancied he’d ride out to Spanish Wells and poke around there some. Maybe Green River too.
He put his boots up on the footplate and tilted his hat forward slightly to shield his eyes from the afternoon glare. Jelly glanced at him sideways, a small smile twitching at his whiskers.
“Worked out some o’ them knots now?”
“Some,” drawled Johnny lazily, basking in the heat like a sleepy cat. “Loosened ’em up a little.”
“Well thet’s good. You bin dun up tighter than a nun’s corset these last coupla days.”
Johnny’s face creased with the hint of a grin. “Now how the devil would you know ’bout that, Jelly?”
The old man gave a short guffaw of laughter. “Thet’s fer me ter know and ye ter ponder . . . mebbe when yer older . . .”
Johnny chuckled too. Sitting up a little straighter as he spied two riders approaching. “Know those two?”
Jelly peered forward. Straining his eyes sharply, and wondering yet again at his friends uncanny visual skills. From here, the most he could make out was a darkish blob in the distance. As they got closer, he saw it was indeed two men.
“Nope, strangers . . .” He shot Johnny a quick, slanting glance. “You think these two might have somethin’ ter do with Scott’s grandpappy?”
Johnny hitched up a little straighter and watched the two men draw near. “Any stranger’s worth the askin’ when it’s Scott’s life in danger. I aint takin’ no chances, Jelly.”
His hand fell loosely to his side. The colt a constant and comforting pressure against his thigh. Flexing his fingers subconsciously as the riders came into plain sight now. A lean middle-aged man and his son, perhaps? Innocent enough in appearance. The older man’s clothes expensive, well made. He wore hand-tooled leather boots. They were nearly abreast of each other now, and the man drew his roan to a halt.
“Good afternoon, Gentlemen.”
Johnny tensed. A slow, cold smile flickering on his lips as he recognised the slight inflection in the man’s voice. He heard it in Scott’s sometimes, and Garrett certainly had it. A flattish, East coast intonation, crisper on the ear than a western drawl.
“Buenos dias. What can we do for you, Mister?”
The man nodded as if in confirmation. “Mister Lancer, is it not?”
“Who wants to know?” There was a trace of insolence in Johnny’s reply now, as their eyes met and held for a moment. He took his feet off the plate, letting his jacket fall open just enough for the stranger to see his gun belt.
Amos Spencer inclined his head in acknowledgment of the gesture. This man was so unlike what he’d imagined. The spoiled upper-crust grandson of Harlan Garrett did not seem to fit this particular template in any way, shape or form.
“My name is Amos Spencer, Mister Lancer. Until recently, I was a business associate of your grandfather, Harlan Garrett.”
Johnny felt Jelly stiffen beside him. “Now lookee here, Mister . . .”
“Querdo – quiet, Jelly!”
“But J . . .”
Quick as a whip, Johnny turned on the old man. “I said quiet. Let me handle this.” He turned back round to Spencer. “Heard you were comin’. My . . . my grandfather wired us you might. Question is, why?”
“He didn’t tell you?”
Johnny’s smile stretched in amusement. “We aint exactly on those kinda terms, Spencer.”
And no word of it a lie, he reflected laconically; watching the two men with acute interest as he waited for their next move. Spencer wasn’t what he expected. The man looked fundamentally decent, but the lines of grief scoured into his face told their own story. Life had hurt him and hurt him hard.
Life or Harlan Garrett.
Johnny looked up again. “But I’d hazard a guess this aint no pleasure trip, and you didn’t come all this way just to pass on his regards?”
Spencer nodded back at him. “I’m afraid not, Scott. Step down from the wagon, and un-tie your horse. You’ll be accompanying my . . . associate and I on a journey, while we await your grandfather’s presence.”
Jelly fidgeted uneasily beside him and Johnny could sense the old man was busting a gut not to cut in as he listened to what was unfolding. His fingers twitched slightly, the colt an ever-present reminder at his side. But so was Jelly, and he dug his elbow imperceptibly into the old man’s ribs, watching with satisfaction as Jelly’s hands tightened in readiness on the reins.
“Sorry, Mister Spencer – but I aint got no inclination to see my grandfather in the near future. Or any future at all. We parted on less than happy terms . . .”
A blur of speed and the colt leapt into his hand, even as Spencer’s henchman was still fumbling for his, mouth dropped unbecomingly in awe. Johnny looked measuringly at Spencer.
“A little free advice, Senor. Go home and forget any idea of takin’ revenge on Harlan Garrett. The man aint worth it – aint worth the riskin’ of lives or liberty. Whatever he did to hurt you, I’m sorry for it. But I aint no pawn to be used in a game between the two of you, and the sensible thing would be to let me on my way.”
Spencer listened to his words with something akin to respect, but his resolve had hardened at the words, ‘go home’. What home? He had no home to return to, Garrett had seen to that. No home, and no family. His bridges were burned. Garrett would pay for his crimes. He raised his head and stared Lancer in the eye.
“Look behind you, Scott . . .” his voice hardened. “Even now, there’s a man with a Winchester aimed right at your friend’s head. I can assure you he won’t hesitate to fire. Now, do as I say, and get down from that wagon. Then your friend will be free to go about his business – return home to your father with a message for Harlan Garrett.”
Johnny froze. A seed of anger and dismay blossoming inside him. But not by so much as a flicker did he allow it to show. He didn’t need to turn round. Sensing the presence of the third rider behind them, as he moved from his place of concealment behind the rocks.
“Well, well . . .” he drawled lazily. “Looks like you took the hand.”
“Now lookee here,” blustered Jelly, eyes brimming with consternation, as he shifted on the seat and turned to Johnny. “Nuff’s a nuff – I aint gonna let you do this. Mister Spencer, there’s somethin’ ye should know . . .”
“Detengase!” Johnny interrupted him quickly, gut clenching with fear as he glared compellingly into the old man’s eyes. “No, Jelly. Querdo.”
But Jelly shook his head sorrowfully. “No me gusta, Hijo . . .”
“Less of the spic talk.” The man behind them pulled back the lever on the carbine meaningfully, and Johnny nodded reassuringly at Jelly.
“Sal di ahi – get outta here. It’s for the best. Tell Murdoch, and take care of . . .of Johnny for me while I’m gone?”
“Don’t,” whispered Jelly sadly, heart breaking as he looked desperately at the man he loved like a son. “He won’t thankee fer it.”
Johnny smiled back with genuine warmth. Grateful in his heart for the strong feelings of love and affection emanating from the old man in waves. Tangible as the very air he breathed.
“Hasta luego, Jelly . . .” he paused, remembering something important, as he threw the colt onto the ground. Reaching carefully inside his breast pocket for the contract on the mare, and handing it to the distressed old man. “Give this to Murdoch. Tell him I knocked ten dollars off the price.”
And so saying, he swung down off the buck board and sauntered round the back to Barranca as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Unhitching the palomino’s reins, and smiling insolently at Venn Cullen as he hooked his foot in the stirrup. Once up in the saddle, he watched as Spencer nodded and the buck board trundled off down the road towards Lancer. Only able to relax once Jelly was a small speck in the distance and he was sure Spencer was about to keep his word.
“What happens now?”
He ignored the Cullen’s and looked directly at Amos Spencer. Blue eyes burning like fire in his tanned face. Spencer stared back at him unemotionally.
“We take a ride. You hope it doesn’t take your grandfather too long to travel here from Boston.”
“Or what?” Asked Johnny evenly.
“Or you suffer the same fate as my son, David.” Spencer’s voice fractured into shards of pain. “Murdered by Harlan Garrett just as surely as if he put that noose round his neck with his own filthy hands!”
* * * * * * * *
The hand on his shoulder was soft and loving and he turned with a sigh to face Teresa, expecting to see censure in her soft brown eyes. Knowing in all honesty he deserved it for the hard, irrational anger that had dogged him since Scott’s accident. It was there, just a flicker of it as she gazed back at him and another emotion surged to meet it. Was that compassion he saw?
“I’m about to make some coffee. Would you like some?”
He shook his head quickly. “No – thank you. Maybe later.”
She turned to go. Blue skirts swishing round her like a bellflower as her hips swung past his desk.
“Teresa . . .”
“Yes?” She paused expectantly, and he sighed once more. “You think I’ve been too hard on him, don’t you?”
Her shoulders straightened. “It was an accident, Murdoch.”
“A damned irresponsible one.”
“Maybe,” she acknowledged. Turning to face him again, and standing in front of the desk like a penitent schoolgirl. “But there was no need for you to say a single word. He already blames himself far more than you ever could.”
Murdoch sighed in resignation at her words. The gentle rebuke eating away at his already simmering sense of guilt. Remembering the acute anguish in Johnny’s eyes when they’d stretchered Scott’s limp body back into the hacienda, the restless tension radiating off him in waves as they waited anxiously for Sam Jenkins to arrive. Teresa was right, and he knew it. No one punished Johnny better than Johnny. No one could make him feel worse than he already did.
Placing his pen down carefully on the desk, he closed the ledgers with an emphatic snap and looked up at her again. “Since when did you become so wise?”
She melted visibly, face softening as she regarded him fondly. “I have a good teacher – most of the time.”
He nodded with tacit understanding, ruefully accepting the verbal hit and rolling with it as his due. “But not all of the time.”
“No,” she agreed. “He can be wrong-headed some of the time. But generally, his heart’s in the right place, even if he doesn’t always know how to show it.”
Murdoch’s lips tightened with frustration and a touch of shame. “He doesn’t, does he . . . “
They both looked up suddenly as the buckboard clattered up outside the house at an inordinately fast rate. Murdoch half-rising to his feet as he raised an eyebrow at Teresa and she shook her head to remind him.
“Murdoch . . .”
“I know, I know.” He smiled wryly. “I’ll try my hardest – even if he didn’t get the mare.”
She dimpled up at him. Taking his arm as he walked her across to the French windows, conscious of a lightening in her breast at the thought of the tension being resolved at last. Maybe Johnny would forgive himself a little now, be happier again. She’d missed his smile, the warmth it seemed to bring into the hacienda, the way it lit up a room.
The French window crashed open with a bang. Jelly burst into the library like a rocket, nearly cannoning into them in his haste and agitation.
“We gotta git back there, Boss . . . we gotta git goin’ now, if’n there’s any chance o’ trackin’ them . . .”
“Jelly, calm down!” Murdoch said sharply, taking the old man firmly by the shoulders and surprised to find them shaking.
“Where’s Johnny?” Teresa asked fearfully, a wash of sudden precognition sweeping over her as her hand flew to her throat and cold began to steal through her veins. “Jelly, where is he?”
Jelly took a breath, eyes twitching pleadingly up to Murdoch as he managed to master his distress. “The man in the telegram . . .”
Murdoch looked at him quickly. “Spencer?”
“Thet’s him . . . Spencer. The one what’s after Scott. Him an’ two riders, cut throats if I ever saw the like . . . they ambushed us on the River road. Threatened to put a bullet in my head, an’ Johnny . . . ” He gulped, dashing his hand quickly across his face. “Johnny went with them, meek as a lamb.”
Murdoch’s gut began to tighten. “Johnny? But Spencer’s after Scott. He wants to hurt Garrett . . .”
“Dang fool, dang fool boy.” Jelly’s voice wobbled, as his shoulders slumped in distress against Murdoch’s grasp. “Fer some reason they thought Johnny was Scott. He only went along with it, pretended Harlan Garrett was his grandpappy! Wouldn’t let me say a blamed word otherwise.”
Murdoch turned aside. His hands dropping from Jelly’s shoulders in stunned silence, as he gazed unseeingly through the open doorway towards the hills. Out across the acres of land. His land. The source of all his comfort in the past. The mountains in the distance, shimmering with heat as they danced before his eyes like hazy ghosts. He thought of them fancifully as his mountains. Guardians of his land. Feeling safer somehow because of their presence, their enormity. As though Lancer were held in the hollow of a benevolent hand. But now they seemed to mock at him, to emphasise the vast and rugged country they lived in. And Johnny was out there . . .
“Why . . .?” The word left his lips unbidden, unaware even, of saying it out loud.
But Teresa picked him up on it at once. Her own voice cracking with anger and distress as she backed away from him through the French windows, fists clenched under her jaw.
“You know why. Because he loves Scott so much, he’d do anything for him – even die for him!”
“Teresa . . .”
“No.” Tears began running down her face unheeded. “Because he doesn’t believe his own life’s worth anything. Not to himself. . . and . . . and not to you!”
He reached for her blindly but she evaded his grasp. Spinning on her heel and fleeing in the direction of her beloved garden. Teresa’s garden. The place she always turned when in need of solace. He watched her dully. Steps erratic, brown hair flying out behind her like a banner. He would go to her later, find her when she’d calmed down a little . . .
He turned back to Jelly. The old man had been silent through the whole interchange, but bristling with his own unspoken views on the subject. Murdoch noted laconically they were not all that different to Teresa’s.
“Jelly . . .”
“Here . . .” Jelly rummaged in his breast pocket. Eventually withdrawing a piece of folded paper and handing it over, his lips drawn into a tight accusatory line. “Johnny asked me to give you this.”
Murdoch took it. Unfolding it slowly, his hand shaking slightly as he read the bill of sale for Jed Tilbury’s mare. The words and figures blurred before his eyes, but not before he noticed Johnny had wrangled an extra ten dollars off the price tag. He looked up at Jelly again. Seeing the man’s own sorrow reflected back on his face.
“I suppose you think I’m a stubborn fool?”
“T’aint my place ter think.” Jelly turned abruptly aside, but not before Murdoch heard the grief in his voice.
He placed his hand on the old man’s arm. “Since when? Oh, it’s alright Jelly – you can say it, because it’s true. I was so angry because of Scott’s accident I needed someone to blame when it was really no one’s fault. I couldn’t yell at Scott, so I yelled at Johnny instead. I was wrong, Teresa and Scott spared no bones in showing me that and I had planned to talk to Johnny when he got home today . . .”
Jelly looked up measuringly. “Best you tell him that y’self when we find him. I’ve a notion he’ll be glad ter hear it .”
Murdoch swallowed hard. “Go round up Cipriano and some of the men. We’ll ride back to where you were ambushed and start searching. This man Spencer – what’s he like? What do you think his motives are?”
Jelly thought back to the man on the roan. Not at all what he’d expected. No Foley, this. No low-down, fire-breathing villain out to make a name. He racked his brains hard, trying to sort through the impressions in his mind. Spencer had been broken. Broken and implacable. A hard determination burning in his eyes, a need for justice riven in his soul. Bitter justice.
The room reeled before his own blurry eyes, and Jelly clutched hold of the door jamb to steady himself as he thought again of Johnny. Johnny on the receiving end of the wildfire that burned in Spencer. A fire he sensed was capable of terrible destruction.
“Jelly?” Murdoch’s voice was sterner now, and the old man straightened imperceptibly.
“He’s lost his soul, Murdoch.” He nearly faltered again, but Johnny was out there and Johnny needed him. He wasn’t about to fail him now. “As fer what his motives are? Man has a score to settle. A burnin’ hurt thet’s eatin’ him from the inside out. Spencer wants Harlan Garrett to know what it’s like ter hurt like thet and he plans on usin’ Scott . . . Johnny, ter do it!”
* * * * * * * *
By Johnny’s reckoning, they’d been travelling steadily northwards. The mountains closing in on them like bell shaped pinnacles, a light wind fluttering the leaves of the young cottonwoods and desert willows. Moving into more rugged hill country as the afternoon stretched onward – hazy, burning blue.
They’d left him untied. Bunched between the Cullen brothers with Spencer bringing up the rear. Aware the whole time of Venn Cullen’s gun at his back and the repeated verbal threats that he wouldn’t hesitate to use it if Johnny attempted to escape.
He was on the alert the whole time, though. Keeping his eyes and ears open for any opportunity, taking note of the terrain. He knew roughly where they were. Still on Lancer land and would be for a while. He figured they wouldn’t pitch camp too far from the Estancia. Near enough to exchange messages with Murdoch and Harlan Garrett . . .
His mouth crinkled into a wry grin in spite of his predicament. Picturing the look on the old bastard’s face when he realised they’d mistaken him for Scott. Johnny Madrid – half-breed Mex, grandson of the illustrious Harlan Garrett. If it wasn’t fraught with so much danger it would be funny. He chuckled out loud.
“What you smilin’ at, boy?”
Venn Cullen. A thread of menace underlying his Texan drawl. Of the Cullen brothers, instinct and experience told Johnny this was the one to watch. He’d come across his type so many times before. A vicious killer. Little better than a beast in man’s clothing, though he’d rather face the beast any day. Venn Cullen enjoyed the killing for its own sake. The pain and brutality of it, the pathetic sense of power it gave him. Men like him had an innate visceral cunning, an eye to the main chance. The lawlessness down on the Borders attracting them like the promised land. The scum, the cabron. Bad men who could be hired at the drop of a hat for just about any nefarious job that needed doing.
He wasn’t so sure about Yancy. The man seemed almost simple. But Johnny knew a man like that used to cruelty and killing could be dangerous too. A man with no boundaries. With no savvy or conscience to care.
He turned insolently back to Venn. “Just thinkin’ about what my old man’s gonna do to you when he catches up with us.”
“Best hope he don’t, Lancer.”
Johnny’s eyes were deadly. “For your sake, Cullen.”
Their glances locked and held, both men taking the measure of each other in the space of a heartbeat. Johnny hardening into Madrid, slipping him on like an old coat as his blue eyes burned like ice.
“Whatever Spencer’s payin’ you – my old man’ll double it.”
A slow, cold smile spread across Cullen’s face. “It aint money Spencer’s after, Scotty-boy. He wants ter see yer grandpappy bleed. Wants ter see him beg fer yo miserable life . . . before he puts a rope round yer neck and stretches it in front of him.”
By not so much as a flicker, did Johnny’s face betray the quick jump of dismay he felt at Cullen’s cruelly casual words. Shifting back round in the saddle as he considered his meagre options. By now, Jelly would have alerted Murdoch. They’d be out looking for him. A few hours behind, granted. But out there.
The terrain they were riding was dry and rocky. Not good for tracking as they climbed steadily into the lavender shaded hills. He knew he couldn’t rely on them following that way. Even Cipriano, the best tracker on Lancer, wouldn’t be able to pick up much of a trail on this kind of ground.
He looked up at the sun. It was already arcing over the horizon – must be gone four o’ clock. The shadows longer on the ground despite the haze of shimmering heat still radiating off the rocks.
The brief conversation with Cullen had confirmed his gut feeling about Spencer. The man had gone beyond reason, and all that drove him was a blood desire for revenge against Harlan Garrett. Johnny had seen it once or twice before. Men who were eaten alive by hatred, who cared nothing for their own lives any longer as they pursued their nemesis. Consumed by hellfire – by their need for retribution, the curse of vengeance.
Mierda – what had Garrett done to this man?
A man whom, Johnny sensed had been inherently decent. Clearly unused to moving in the same circles as men like the Cullen brothers and wealthy enough to afford their sordid services. What was it Spencer had said earlier, something about his son?
‘Or you’ll suffer the same fate as my son, David . . .’
Johnny remembered Spencer’s agony. The way the man’s voice had splintered into inconsolable grief.
‘Murdered by your grandfather just as surely as if he put the noose round his neck with his own , filthy hands!’
He shivered slightly. Was this what had been planned for Scott? To take him and hang him in front of Harlan Garrett? Not while he was alive and could do anything to stop it.
He shifted in the saddle. Sitting up a little straighter as he looked carefully around at the wilderness. There was a wooded slope across to his right. A man could find cover and get lost pretty easily in those dense trees. But there was a large expanse of craggy, boulder-strewn ground to cover before he could reach them and he’d be an easy target. Any reasonable shot with a carbine would stand a good chance of plugging him – and he had a feeling Venn Cullen was more than a reasonable shot.
He narrowed his eyes. Trying to gauge the distance, the time it would take the palomino to stretch across the tract of open land. One and a half, two minutes maybe flat out at full gallop? He’d be lucky to make it, and no good dead. He had to get back to Lancer. To warn Scott . . .
There was a stack pile of flattish boulders some fifty yards ahead. They looked for all the world as though some giant child had used them as building blocks to construct a ramshackle tower but they might break that stretch of open land, if he could make it as far as them first. Once behind the stack, he’d have a better chance of outrunning pursuit. Especially on Barranca. His mind flashed back cruelly to the last time he’d asked something like this of the palomino. The day of Scott’s accident. That time had been a prank . . .
“A bloody, foolish prank . . .”
Murdoch’s words still stung and he felt a burn of sudden pain. The worst thing was, the old man was right. It had been a bloody stupid thing to do and Scott had paid the price. He pulled himself up short. No time for that now. No time for distractions. There’d be plenty of time to worry about Murdoch when he got home and made sure Scott was safe.
They were almost adjacent to the stack now. If he was going to make a move, it had to be soon. Then suddenly, the Gods were on his side. A venomous sibilant hissing and Yancy’s horse reared in fright. Skittering backwards in head-tossing panic, as the man was nearly unseated in his fight to keep control. An angry Diamondback – rising up on it’s coils. Tail erect and shaking furiously as it reacted aggressively to the huge intruders in his territory.
Johnny didn’t waste a second. Digging his heels into the palomino’s ribs as he drove towards the pile of boulders. His action was totally unexpected and the pony was at a flat run almost before they realised he was breaking for it.
He hunched in low over Barranca’s neck, hearing the inevitable shout behind him as the palomino lengthened his stride. The ground was a rocky blur and dangerous. Scattered with stones and dips that flashed by below him as he grit his teeth, sweat dripping down his face. Expecting to feel the thump of a bullet in his back, grimly intent on getting behind the stack of boulders so he could put them between him and the Cullen’s before heading for the safety of the trees.
He heard the spit and whine of the bullets, or thought he did. At least he heard the reports as they jumped and scattered off the ground around him. Driving Barranca like a spear and bending even lower Comanche style as he leaned in close to the pony’s side and prayed.
‘Not far . . . not far now.’
He reached the stack with a surge of fierce joy. Raising his head cautiously to risk a look back over his shoulder as he heard a yell, a volley of shots, but none of them even came near him. He flashed in behind the column of rocks, out of their firing line now, and focused on the fringe of trees ahead.
Suddenly, running at full gallop, he saw the hidden ravine before him. A rocky gouge with scrubby brush and solid rock beneath. He sawed back urgently on the reins as the ground vanished before his very eyes. He was almost at the lip of the crevasse now. Trying desperately to slow down, to stop the palomino’s headlong flight, but their impetus was too great.
Wheeling the pony at the last minute, he lost his grip on the saddle and felt himself go over head first. His fingers clawed frantically for holds as he hurtled painfully against the sides of the ravine and bounced off a rocky outcrop. Crashing through some sharp brush as he fell headlong into the darkness and hit the ground with bone-jarring impact. The light hazed before his eyes. Spinning and receding in a spiralling pinwheel of brilliant white. Then the darkness flooded in.
* * * * * * * *
Next Afternoon . . .
Scott regarded his father in shocked silence, face almost as white as his pillows while Murdoch’s voice faltered to a halt.
“There was no point moving on after dark. The trail had long since gone cold, so we pitched camp and tried picking it up again at first light.”
“Why wasn’t I told?”
“We didn’t . . . I didn’t want to worry you. There was a good chance we’d find them and bring Johnny home before . . .”
“Before what?” Countered Scott, a hint of cold anger in his tone. “Before I discovered Johnny had sacrificed himself in my place?” He shifted painfully in the bed, grimacing involuntarily as his heavily bandaged shoulder failed to support him. “So what happens now?”
Murdoch sighed, keeping a tight rein on his own as yet nameless fears. Staring unseeingly at the pattern on the counterpane as he ran through the list of platitudes. For his benefit, or for Scott’s? He wasn’t really sure.
“I’ve got men out there combing the hill-country. We know they headed north. The tracks we did find led towards the San Benitos and Cipriano knows that country like the back of his hand.”
“So what if he does,” barked Scott, his feelings betraying him now. “It’s a vast area. You know how rugged it is, how easy it is to hide in those mountains.”
“Easy Scott,” Murdoch looked up sharply. “We’ll find him . . . we ‘will’ find Johnny. And we have to assume this man Spencer will contact us – contact your grandfather, once he arrives. That at least buys Johnny some time.”
“Not if they discover they have the wrong Lancer.” Scott turned his head miserably into his pillow. “He’s of no use to themthen . . . Oh Johnny, you fool!”
Murdoch swallowed hard. Scott had just voiced his own blackest fear. He placed a clumsy hand on Scott’s tousled hair. “Johnny’s no fool, son. I’ve never met anyone sharper or more adept at using his wits. He’s been in dangerous situations before . . .”
“Not in my name,” said Scott angrily. ” I can’t believe he went along with them in my name. Did he really think I’d thank him for it?”
“He did it for you – to keep you safe,” said Murdoch, remembering the accusation Teresa had flung at him earlier, with a sharp stab of pain. “Perhaps he did it in his own name. For love.”
Scott stared back at him miserably, a wealth of frustration and anguish in his eyes. ” I won’t let him die for me, Murdoch. I . . . I couldn’t bear it.”
“He won’t, ” said Murdoch fiercely. “We’ll search until we find him and wait for your grandfather to arrive . . .” He frowned grimly. “And then maybe, we might just get some answers.”
* * * * * * * *
Harlan Garrett climbed down from the stage. Impervious to the men struggling with his baggage as he stood in the dusty street and looked around him with undisguised distaste. The place had not changed in the year since he’d last seen it. It was still a dirt-covered, Godforsaken hellhole of humanity.
How could Scott stand it?
The heat, dust, and lack basic amenities. They were an anathema to him. They should have been an anathema to his grandson too. Incomparable to the advantages of Boston, the civilisation and facilities the Eastern city had to offer. It was incomprehensible to him. One of life’s mysteries that Scott should apparently prefer his life out here with that damned raw-boned Scot and his half-breed transgression.
“Mister Harlan Garrett?”
He turned impatiently to the speaker. White shirt, black tie. Small wire-framed glasses. A telegraph operator? “I have a telegram for you, Sir. To be delivered immediately upon your arrival.”
He’d guessed correctly then. Taking it curtly from the man’s hand, and nodding to Loder standing discreetly with the luggage. “See to the man, Loder.”
Loder nodded obediently. Tipping the Telegraph Operator, and waiting patiently whilst his master unfolded the flimsy piece of paper.
“Dear God . . . that bloody fool of a Scot! I warned him, by God. I told him to protect him . . .”
Garrett’s face drained of all colour, and for a moment Loder thought he might collapse. Putting his arm out reflexively to catch him, but Garrett knocked it brusquely aside.
“Take the luggage in to the hotel, then find me some reliable transport. We have no time to lose.”
Loder hesitated, watching as Garrett re-read the telegram. Sharp eyes dissecting every word as he looked for anything that could be of use to him, anything that might give him an edge. Loder knew his master of old and Garrett was the most thorough man he’d ever come across.
“May I venture to ask Sir, Master Scott . . . “
Garrett paused, and for a moment his eyes were shadowed with fear. “That madman Spencer has him. Murdoch Lancer failed to keep him safe . . . well, what the hell are you waiting for, man? I need to get out to that damned ranch.”
He waited in the hotel lobby. Looking around him with remembered disgust at the lack of luxury, the shabby furnishings. The bright Mexican influence of vibrancy and colour was everywhere. But there were bad memories lurking for him here. Memories of his last disastrous foray West to reclaim his grandson. He’d thought his plan foolproof. Banking on Scott’s inherent decency as he’d used a two-pronged attack to draw him home again. But it had failed spectacularly, and he’d almost lost the boy for good. Those treacherous Deegan brothers had double crossed him. Greedy as well as stupid when they’d made a bungled ambush attempt to rob him, shooting Scott in the process.
Scott . . .
He’d been a fool to entrust his safety to Murdoch Lancer. He should have followed his instinct and used his not inconsiderable influence to send men out here to do it for him. To keep Scott out of Spencer’s hands. His stomach tightened with fear again. The situation was sliding away from him, spiralling out of his grasp. It was not a scenario he was used to. Controlling and manipulating every aspect of his life, his business dealings and contracts. Reluctant to relinquish any element of trust to his subordinates, to turn his back for a moment on those he barely trusted to run his company alongside him.
Scott was the only person since Catherine, other than Catherine, to enter his barren heart. His marriage had been one of convenience. A cold, arranged affair between two people with different goals. He’d been dutifully relieved when Adelaide had died a few years after giving birth to Catherine, wondering how such a merry-hearted child could have been a product of their stilted union.
But then Lancer had taken her from him. That dour, graceless Scot, with nothing but his empty purse and a sack load of dreams had waltzed into her life and whisked her away. To this day, he could scarcely believe it. That she should relinquish all his hopes for her, his plans – his love.
It hadn’t taken long for his worse predictions to assert themselves. Life out West hadn’t suited her delicate constitution, even Lancer had admitted that. The heat dust, and hostile land had worn her down. Sucked her spirit dry. It had killed her. Or rather Murdoch Lancer had killed her. Too busy chasing his own rainbows to see what it was doing to his fragile wife.
Garrett sighed restlessly. Taking a sip of the benighted excuse they called whisky out here, and staring broodily into the bottom of the glass. He would never forgive Lancer. He never could. The only good thing to come out of the whole sorry fiasco had been Scott. His Scotty.
And he’d taken him back East with him. Determined the harsh country and that God-damned Scot would not deprive him of the only thing he had left. The golden child who’d brought light and sunshine back into his life – hope for the future, for Garrett Enterprises.
Unfolding the telegram, he read the curt words again. Spencer. Spencer had Scott. His knuckles tightened white, hands shaking slightly. He was to ride out unaccompanied, to a specified point. To give himself up in exchange for Scott’s life. But Garrett was no fool, and under no illusions. If it was just a question of wanting him dead, Spencer would have found that relatively easy to arrange back in Boston. There were plenty of men willing to cut a person’s throat for a few dollars – no awkward questions asked. So why would the man go to all these elaborate lengths unless he wanted more?
He thought back to the Board Meeting with an uncanny flash of insight. What was it Spencer had said?
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.”
And Scott – his beloved Scott, was to be the tool of that vengeance. An unwitting pawn in a madman’s game.
* * * * * * * *
Johnny opened his eyes slowly. Drifting with the tide. Content just to lie and let it take him where it chose as the pain in his skull throbbed and surged in rhythm with the blood in his veins. His fingers closed on sand . . .
‘What was he doing out in the open?’
It was hard, so hard to think. To get past the barrier of hurting in his head. Easier just to drift – to float on the tide.
“No you don’t, boy.”
A voice, unfamiliar and yet . . . He opened his eyes again. Forcing them to remain open this time as he looked straight up and saw a star. Bright white. Clear above him and hazy round the edges as his vision tried to sharpen. He lay perfectly still for several more minutes hoping the star would not go away.
When it didn’t, he moved his head then wished he hadn’t. Red hot needles of pain lancing down through the top of his skull as the star swung drunkenly in the sky and threatened to crash down on him.
His stomach heaved as the world tip-tilted. Struggling up onto his side to retch miserably in the dust, someone supporting his head and shoulders as he did so. He shuddered convulsively, waiting as the nausea eased and becoming aware of other newer torments, as he broke out in a film of sweat.
His neck was stiff and his head felt blindingly heavy. He was one great morass of pain. He’d fallen . . . Memories struggling in an inchoate tangle of threads as he tried his best to recall what had happened to him and why.
“Scott . . .?” The name on his lips, unbidden.
“Well, at least you remember your name.” That voice again. There was nothing menacing about it, and yet . . .
He forced himself to focus. To work it out in reversal, one step at a time. He’d fallen. The shock and loss of control, an instantaneous surging of fear and agony as his body had crashed and bounced off solid rock. Running – he’d been on Barranca and running for his life, trying to escape!
It came back to him then, all of it.
Amos Spencer and the Cullen brothers. Scott’s life in danger because of something Harlan Garrett had done to Spencer’s son. They thought he was Scott . . .
His heart jolted with terror. Had he inadvertedly betrayed Scott, let slip he was the wrong brother? His eyelids fluttered wearily as the words rose up to mock him. The wrong brother, the wrong son.
‘Madre de Dios,’ he was already responsible for Scott’s accident, for Murdoch’s justifiable anger and disappointment. He couldn’t let either of them down again. Not when Scott’s life was at stake!
“Come on, man. I know you’re awake.”
He looked up into Spencer’s face. Still a little blurry round the edges, but it was bearable to keep his eyes open now and he forced a sardonic grin. “Damn – and I thought you were a bad dream.”
Spencer smiled grimly back at him. “Nearly one you didn’t wake up from. It’s too soon for that, would have been too easy.”
Johnny swallowed hard. Throat raw with retching and relief. They still thought he was Scott then. There was still a chance he could save his brother’s life.
“Panicked. One of the Cullen’s is looking for it now.”
Johnny exhaled carefully. So far then, fate had been good to him. He remembered the leather pulling through his hands, his muscles popping and straining as he’d fought to save the palomino from it’s headlong rush to edge of the ravine. Terrified he’d left it too late, that the horse had followed him over and crashed down onto the rocks below. He blanked the thought from his mind, glad at least Barranca was alright.
He looked around him cautiously and took better stock of his surroundings. It was night. The sky a rich shade of cobalt blue deepening into blackness. He ‘d been laid on a bedroll near the entrance of a cave and nearby, someone had lit a fire. The dancing flames threw eerie shadows up on the pink-stoned walls in a nightmarish flicker of dark blood red.
He ached all over. Especially his left knee and hipbone, his collarbone on the same side. That must have been how he’d landed, or maybe he’d bounced extra hard off the wall on his way down. He just couldn’t seem to remember.
So close, he’d been so close. But it was no good crying over spilt milk and he’d have to make the best of things and revise his strategy. Play along and make them keep believing he was Scott. He felt weak and oddly shaky, like a feather on the wind. His head was the worst, throbbing and spinning every time he moved, making it hard to think or speak. A concussion at least. A fracture maybe?
He had to keep his wits about him. Had to stay in control. Apart from anything else, he was under no illusions regarding this charade. The minute they discovered he wasn’t Scott, his usefulness was ended. As Johnny Lancer he was worthless to them – but as Scott, he still stood the ghost of a chance.
‘Chance of what?’ Whispered a small dissident voice in his aching head. That Murdoch would reach him before Spencer tipped completely over into madness? Exacting revenge on the man he blamed for the loss of his son. A man named Harlan Garrett.
He shivered suddenly, teeth beginning to chatter as shock settled into his battered body and he hunched against the cold.
“Here.” Spencer crouched beside him again. Pulling the bedroll up to his chin, and helping him none to gently onto his relatively uninjured right side. “Coffee’s fresh. Get some inside you, it’ll ward off the night air.”
He held a tin mug up to Johnny’s lips, and watched as he took it gratefully. Gulping back some of the scalding liquid, desperate for its warmth and recklessly regardless of the brief lurch of nausea it caused.
“G . . . gracias.”
Johnny eased back onto the bedroll. Closing his eyes against the tilting any such movement created and trying to lie as still as possible. He sensed Spencer had remained at his side. Squatting on his heels as he regarded him silently, consideringly.
Johnny sighed. “Spit it out, hombre.”
“Just that. You speak Spanish like it’s second nature to you, yet you were raised in Boston. There’s no trace of an East Coast accent or inflection to your speech.”
Johnny tensed. He had to be careful here. Play his cards right, or the game would be lost. “Just how much do you know about my family, Spencer? About the way I was raised?”
“As much as I need to, that you’re Garrett’s grandson. The only thing he cares about in the whole damn world. He doesn’t think much of your father, though.”
Johnny smiled in spite of himself. “Reckon you can say that again. Never forgave the old man for marryin’ his daughter . . .” He paused, measuring his words out slowly. “My childhood wasn’t easy. Felt like I was alone most of the time. When Murdoch Lancer – when my father sent for me after all these years, it seemed like a second chance. A fresh start. I guess I was glad to take it. To put my past behind me and look ahead to the future.”
And yet again it was no word of a lie, he thought ironically. He was certainly speaking for himself, and maybe for Scott too. His brother had allowed him snatches and fragments of his life as a child in Boston. A life of wealth and privilege with everything money could buy, but a life of some loneliness too. Surrounded by servants, a Nanny, a Personal Tutor; then when he was older, sent away to boarding school with a manservant. Given every luxury that old man Garrett could afford, but watching wistfully from his gilded cage as other children had chased each other shrieking through the streets.
Spencer sat back on the ground, knees cracking as he stretched them out in front of him with a grunt of discomfort. “The war can’t have been easy. I lost my eldest son – Mike . . .”
Johnny looked down, voice whisper soft. “War’s a terrible thing, Mister Spencer. No man should ever have to know it. Still feels like I’m fightin’ mine sometimes . . . I’m sorry about your boy.”
But it was the wrong thing to say, and Spencer flooded with a surge of bitter memories, his body tensing with anguish. “Which one, Lancer? Mike? Or David, the one murdered by your grandfather. You said it yourself. A fresh start, a second chance at life. Harlan Garrett’s taken everything from me. Everything I worked for all my life, every single thing I had left. That greedy, evil old man . . .” His voice trembled then hardened, as he got abruptly back to his feet. “He’s not getting away with it this time. Money, position, powerful friends – they’re no good to him out here. He’s going to suffer for what he’s done. I will make him pay!”
“How Spencer? How’s he gonna pay?”
Johnny raised himself up on his right elbow ignoring the wave of pain in his temples and the jarring ache of his bones. He’d thought he’d was making some ground, getting somewhere. But any chance he had of softening Spencer up was vanished like dust in the wind.
Spencer turned his back on him. Form silhouetted against the night sky as he stood at the entrance to the cave and gazed unseeingly across the wild terrain.
“He’s going to know how it feels to lose the only thing he loves. The only thing left in the whole wide world.” His voice thickened and died away. Johnny knew then he was weeping. “And when he knows how it feels, knows the pain of it for himself . . . well then, Scott – I’ll kill him with my own two hands.”
* * * * * * * *
“You may as well go to bed, darling.” Murdoch looked across at the brown-haired girl standing motionless in the window. She’d been there for nearly half an hour now. Watching the white ribbon of road winding out towards the gateway for any sign of riders.
“Cipriano won’t be back this late. They must have pitched camp up in the mountains. For all we know, they’ve already found him . . . “
But he knew in his heart they hadn’t, and he knew she knew it too. The hours ticked by with excruciating slowness. There’d been no word from Cipriano, and no word from Spencer. It was as though Johnny had vanished from the face of the earth.
He tried not to think of the way they’d parted. But it came back to disturb him with accusatory reproach, the memory of his anger like a dagger in his heart. Yearning to be out there with Jelly and Cipriano – combing the San Benitos for Johnny, searching for his son. But someone had to stay here to keep Scott safe, to wait and meet with Harlan Garrett.
The dagger twisted even harder. This was all Garrett’s doing. The man and his devious machinations. Would they never be rid of him, never be free of his chains?
The man had haunted him almost since first setting foot on these shores. Dogged his footsteps like a malignant shadow, a vengeful spectre. Deep in his soul, he’d always blamed Garrett for Catherine’s death, just as Garrett had always blamed him. If the old man hadn’t moved her when she was so weak, so heavy with child . . . But there was no point dwelling on ‘what might have been’. Not when ‘what was’, was so potentially devastating.
Johnny – Johnny was out there with a man who according to Jelly, had lost his very soul.
What in God’s name had possessed him to do such a foolish, quixotic thing? Such a brave thing. Murdoch knew it was a no win situation. Spencer was determined to take his revenge on Harlan Garrett’s grandson and if he discovered he’d been deceived, Johnny’s life would be worth less than a plugged nickel. Murdoch looked up dully at Teresa. She hadn’t so much as moved.
“Teresa . . . “
“I can’t,” she said wanly. “There’s no point asking me to. Besides, it’s only just got dark.”
He got up from the chair. Crossing the room to her side and placing a massive hand on her shoulder as he joined in with her vigil.
“I know you blame me in part for this . . .”
She stiffened fractionally beneath his hand. Dismay in his heart, and a slight sense of panic at the thought of losing her support. It was the one thing in his life he could count on, one thing that was always there for him, unswerving in her love and encouragement. She had always been his advocate, his staunchest ally through thick and thin. The thought of losing her as a result of his own blind, bull-headedness was like crossing some kind of personal Rubicon.
Almost as nightmarish as the thought of losing Johnny.
His grip tightened on her shoulder. Trying to hold onto her physically as well as mentally. Unaccustomed and alien tears blurring his vision as he looked down at the top of her sweet head.
“I was wrong, Teresa. God knows, I was wrong. I . . . I’d do anything to tell him so, to have him safely home.”
“I’m so afraid, Murdoch.” Her voice was lost to him – distant. “I have a feeling I’ll never see Johnny again. That this time, he won’t be coming home to us.”
His own voice froze in the back of his throat. “No, Sweetheart. You mustn’t think that – mustn’t say it. Johnny’s smart and he’s tough, Johnny’s . . .”
“A man, Murdoch. He’s just a man, only human. He can be hurt, God knows, we’ve seen that. He can bleed, he can die!”
She took a step away from him then. Burying her face in her hands as she started to cry. And he watched her, powerless and incapable of comforting her, stricken when confronted by her grief.
A flicker out of the corner of his eye, and he looked up dazedly. Heart lifting then falling, as he saw the dark shape of a buck board approaching along the pale driveway. He knew who it was at once. Some deep inner instinct divining it was Harlan Garrett before he could even tell how many passengers there were. Teresa had seen it now. Noting the grim expression on his face, and drawing her own conclusions.
“It’s him, isn’t it?”
“Garrett.” The name like a curse on his lips. “You’d better go . . .”
“I’ll see if Scott is awake.”
He nodded down at her. Watching as she wiped away her fears and pinched some colour back into her chalk-white cheeks. Putting on a brave face for Scott, shelving her own pain to save his as she headed through the archway towards the stairs.
Murdoch turned blindly to the French windows as the buck board rolled to a halt. As the man responsible for this whole deadly mess stepped down from the wagon and stood for a second in front of the hacienda, turning his face to the light. Murdoch froze, shocked by the bitterness he saw etched there. The haggard lines of pain. This was not a Garrett he knew.
He took a deep breath, moving across to the sideboard to pour himself a drink as he waited for Isidro to show the man in. Looking up as Garrett came slowly down the steps into the room. The man looked as pleased to be here as he was to have him. Face grey with fatigue and weary with miles of travel. Murdoch indicated the array of bottles and decanters, not wasting any time with false preliminaries.
“Brandy, a large one.”
Murdoch did as bid. Indicating a chair by the fireplace as he poured the golden liquid into a glass and took it across. Sitting opposite on the end of the sofa as both men regarded each other warily.
“So . . .” Garrett’s voice was hard, brittle. “In spite of my warning, in spite of everything – that madman Spencer managed to take my grandson.”
Murdoch looked up in shock. This was unexpected and totally out of the blue. “How do you know that?”
“This.” Garrett took the telegram from his breast pocket and placed it on the table beside him. “Spencer at least, was good enough to keep me informed.”
Murdoch stared dully at the piece of cheap paper, a deep pain somewhere in the centre of his chest. “What does it say?”
“I’m to go alone to a designated place of rendezvous.” His mouth curled into a disdainful sneer. “With ten thousand dollars of course. Spencer’s sanctimonious desire for revenge doesn’t seem to preclude accepting a ransom sum.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “And you have the money on you?”
Garrett smiled nastily. “Afraid I’ll ask you to chip in?”
Murdoch snapped his head up quickly. “Do you think I wouldn’t? That’s my son out there.”
“And my grandson. Whom you failed to protect.”
Their eyes locked and held. Murdoch was tempted, so tempted not to tell the man the truth, but God, he couldn’t do it. There was too much at stake here to base on a foundation of deception and lies. Taking a weary sip of his whisky, he smiled back laconically.
“You’re right. I did fail to protect him. I misjudged Spencer’s determination, and my own son’s courage. For that alone, I deserve to be censured. But I’m not the one who set this whole sorry chain in motion. What did you do, Harlan? What happened to make a man like Spencer resort to this?”
Garrett looked away from him then. Sliding his eyes towards the fire and staring into the heart of the flames. “It was business. The man’s a bad loser . . .”
“What did you do?”
“He’s been a thorn in my flesh for years. There were some shipping contracts I’d wanted for a long time . . . ” He took a mouthful of his brandy. “Suffice to say, I acquired his Company. Persuaded his son to sign over half the shares. The rest was easy. Spencer had mismanaged things since the end of the war and it was ripe for a buy out. But . . .”
Garrett shook his head slightly, as if absolving himself of all blame. “The son committed suicide. Couldn’t face up to his weaknesses, his failures. Hung himself from the balustrade in Spencer’s own house, and of course, Spencer blames me for it. Nothing to do with the fact his son was a . . . well, that doesn’t matter now.”
“My God.” Murdoch’s voice trembled softly with anger. “Just business? The man lost his son!” The words cut at him. Deeply ironic, irrefutably cruel. Johnny . . .
He looked across at Garrett with disgust. “No wonder he hates you. If any man – any man, took one of my sons from me, there’d be no place on earth he could hide.”
There was a moment’s silence, broken only by the sonorous ticking of the clock. The crackle and spit of the fire. Each man absorbed with his own troubled thoughts. Murdoch spoke first, knowing the time had come to be honest but dreading it nonetheless.
“Are you prepared to do it?”
“How can you ask?” Garrett looked up angrily. “How dare you. No one loves Scott more than I do, I raised him. He means more to me than . . .” His voice broke for the first time, and in the firelight’s dancing shadows he looked worn and bowed with sudden defeat.
Murdoch nodded, wrestling his own agonising demons as he took a hard breath. “It’s not Scott, Harlan. He doesn’t have him. Scott’s upstairs recovering from a riding accident. Spencer took Johnny by mistake, and Johnny . . . well, that love you were just talking about, Johnny went along with it to protect his brother. To keep him safe. . . “
His own voice faltered then. Throat thickening and swelling with uncontrollable pain as he was rendered speechless by his grief.
Garrett was speechless too. Face sagging with incredible joy as for a moment, his features were stripped naked of all emotion. Fingers tightening convulsively round his glass as he started forward in his chair.
“Not Scott . . . do you mean to tell me Spencer doesn’t have my grandson?”
“No,” said Murdoch gruffly. “He has my son.”
“Where is he? Where’s Scott?”
Murdoch studied him with grim acceptance. This then, was no more or less than he’d expected from the man. Foolish to find that even now, a small part of him felt disappointed. After all these years he should know better, he’d had ample proof of the kind of man Garrett was. And yet, he was Catherine’s father, Scott’s grandfather . . .
“What about Johnny?”
The words were said softly, but with a hint of steel behind them. A challenge that fell between the two men like a gauntlet in the snow. Garrett put his empty glass down on the side table.
“That’s up to you. He’s not my problem.”
“Wrong,” grated Murdoch, voice shaking with suppressed anger. “Spencer took Johnny because of you and your amoral dealings. I lost my wife because of you, my son for most of his life . . . I won’t let you take Johnny from me.”
Garrett shook his head, equilibrium almost returned now. “Spencer must have realised by now he’s made an error. How anyone could mistake Scott for that . . .”
“That what, Harlan?”
Garrett hesitated. The menace in Murdoch’s tone was unmistakeable. Shadows hollowing his craggy face, making it hooded and implacable.
“That son of yours,” finished Garrett lamely. “The boy’s a Mexican. As different from Scotty as chalk from cheese. Inconceivable Spencer should ever imagine he was my grandson. It’s just another example of the man’s foolishness,” he paused and shook his head a second time. “But it means Scott’s still in danger. Once he realises he has the wrong son, he’ll come after him again . . .” He looked up in alarm. “In that event, I trust you’ve taken adequate precautions?”
“Scott’s safe.” Murdoch watched as Garrett settled back in his chair. “But you haven’t answered my question, Harlan. What about Johnny?”
“I came out here to protect my grandson.” Garrett’s eyes narrowed. Fingers steepling together as the man ran rapidly over his options. “From what I’ve seen and heard so far, it’s lucky I did. You’re clearly not capable of doing an adequate job.”
“Are you refusing to meet Spencer?”
Garrett smiled dismissively. “There’s no need for me to. That ball’s in your court now, Murdoch. John Madrid is your problem. But then again, he always was, wasn’t he?”
* * * * * * * *
Dawn. Clear and beautiful as the first time. A hint of chill in the golden air. Johnny leant awkwardly against the wall at the mouth of the cave, and looked out across the landscape. To his right, the banks sloped gently upward. Now and then, a leafy cottonwood, or bunch of brush amongst the scattered rose-coloured rocks.
The view down the cut was similar. A superb vantage point. Any one approaching would be seen from hundreds of yards away. Venn Cullen had chosen this place with care. A movement, and he could see Yancy returning. Hope leaping in his heart as he saw the man was not leading Barranca.
“Mi bonito compadre . . . “
A few seconds of brief elation at the thought of the palomino running free. Pride in his cleverness at eluding capture; cleverer than his master, Johnny thought ruefully, a wall of frustration inside him again. He wasn’t capable of making it more than a couple dozen yards.
The sun was rising red and bright, breaking through a notch between the mountains. There was a sweet dry tang in the air, the distant tree-tops mauve against the sky. He breathed appreciatively. Still able to admire the beauty despite the precariousness of his own deadly situation.
Venn Cullen had seen his brother now, moving past Johnny to the mouth of the cave. Spencer still lay rolled and sleeping in his blankets. Worn out by all the unaccustomed exercise, and powerful emotion.
“You took yo’ time, boy.”
“Aint no sign of him, Venn. Looked me high an’ low, but tracks was the devil to follow.”
“Hell. We don’t need thet cayuse roamin’ loose – runnin’ into anyone who might be lookin’ . . .”
He caught sight of Johnny’s grin. Squatting on his heels and thrusting his face menacingly up against him. “What – smilin’ agin, boy? All thet happiness gon’ git yuse in trouble one day. Yo’ aint got no cause to be smilin’, not after we broke our backs haulin’ yuse outta thet gulch.”
Johnny met his gaze unflinchingly. “The offer’s still open, Cullen. You get me back, my old man’ll double what Spencer’s payin’ you.”
Cullen looked at him speculatively, eyes narrowed. “You take me fer some kinda fool, boy? This here’s sure-fire money. I take yo’ back, all thet’s waitin’ fer me an’ Yancy is a rope with our name on it.”
Johnny shifted painfully, and tried to ignore the pounding in his head. “Not necessarily. You got my word.”
“Thet don’t mean nuthin’ to me.”
“And his does?” There was a hint of frustration back in his tone. “The man he’s up against . . . my grandfather, he’s one of the most powerful men on the East Coast. This aint some range war you’ve stumbled into this time, you’re in way over your heads. I know my grandfather, he don’t give into blackmail.”
“Yo’d best hope he does.”
Johnny shrugged painfully, unable to help a short grunt of discomfort as his collarbone hitched for a second. Broken, he thought wryly. Definitely broken.
“I also know my old man. It’s like I said – he’ll pay you. Pay you good if you get me back.”
Cullen was quiet for a while, face sharp and creased with cunning. “How much?”
“What’s Spencer payin’ you?”
Venn chewed his lip. Staring up at Yancy who was watching the proceedings in silence, a greedy look on his face.
“Y’oughta think on it, Venn. It’s a lot of money. Almost a thou . . .”
“Shut yo’ mouth, Yancy. Shut yo’ damn mouth!”
Venn sprang to his feet, pushing Yancy back against the wall of the cave. His knuckles whitening as his fists clenched on his brother’s shirt-front, holding him suspended for at least five seconds. Johnny saw the rage in him. His own muscles tense and guarded, every instinct screaming alert as he waited for the violence that filled the very air. He held his breath for another second, then Venn let Yancy go.
“Git out, Dummy. See to yo’ horse. I’ll take care of this.”
He turned back to Johnny. “Mebbe there’s somethin’ in what yo’ say. The old man won’t go fer it though, he’s hell bent on hangin’ yuse.”
Johnny exhaled slowly. “I’m no use to you dead.”
Venn smiled unpleasantly. “I’m no fool, Lancer. I aint about to take yo’ back on trust. But yo’ kinda sowed a seed in my head with thet ransom idea. Kinda makes more sense then sittin’ around on our behind’s and waitin’ fer what Spencer’ll pay us. Darn sight more reward in it, too.”
He looked across at the sleeping man. “Course, he’s the problem aint he?”
“What will you do?” Johnny’s gut tightened with apprehension. This wasn’t what he wanted, not what he’d planned when he’d raised the stakes with Venn.
Cullen laughed softly. “Don’t yo’ worry none, boy. I’m gonna give me some thought on this. Yo’ pray hard enough, yo’ might not end up at the end of no rope . . .” His face hardened. “If yo’ lyin’ ’bout yo’ daddy, I swear it might be worse!”
* * * * * * * *
Scott shifted restlessly, trying to find a position, any position that might ease his aching leg. He could see the hills from his bed. Watching as the dawn rose across the peaks in a herald of spectacular colour, the outline fading from blue to pale mauve as his eyes were drawn inevitably back to them again and again. Johnny was out there somewhere. Alone with a madman bent on revenge.
He moved again, every cell screaming with frustration. Damning the moment he’d challenged Charlie and attempted to take that wall. Funny how life had a habit of playing dirty tricks on you. Of turning the tables and taking the hand.
Part of him felt so bitter with Johnny, so angry. Who the hell was his brother to take such a step in his name? To be presumptive enough to leave him here with nothing but a burden of worry and guilt. He could hardly bear it. The thought of Johnny suffering in his name . . . even dying in it. It was more than he could stand.
There was a soft tap at the door and Teresa came in. Still in her dressing gown, hair dishevelled in a dark cloud round her head. He looked at her closely and saw she’d been crying. Eyes red-rimmed and swollen, lashes matted together in clumps. He held out his hand to her. Their fingers clasping gratefully, as she sat in the chair at his bedside and lifted her pale face.
“You have to talk to him, Scott.”
He infused his words with a comfort he was far from feeling. “He’s doing everything he can, Teresa . . .”
“No,” she lifted up her head and looked him squarely in the eye. “Your grandfather arrived last night while you were asleep. He’s in the west wing. I . . . I overheard him talking to Murdoch . . . “
She felt his muscles tighten and become still. “And when was I supposed to know this?”
She regarded him unhappily. “He did look in on you last night when you were sleeping. Murdoch didn’t want to wake you.”
“Considerate of him.” Scott’s tone was bone dry.
“But that’s not the point,” she continued, voice faltering. “When your grandfather found out they took Johnny not you, he refused to help. Said it was none of his business . . .” She pulled her fingers from his; getting restlessly to her feet and moving across to the window. “Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this – Murdoch will probably be so angry with me. But I had to, Scott. If anyone can persuade Harlan Garrett to help Johnny, than you can.”
She paused, turning for the first time to look properly at the man in the bed. Immediately chastened as she saw his white frozen face. The lines of anxiety etched round his mouth.
“Oh Scott, I’m so sorry. I . . . I shouldn’t have said anything to worry you. I’m just so afraid.”
“No,” he said quietly. “I have a right to know. There’s a lot at stake here, Teresa. Johnny’s life, my name. Thanks for not keeping me in the dark.”
But she was frowning now. Peering perplexedly out of the window as she watched a buck board come bouncing down the long drive. Two of the vaqueros standing guard moved out to intercept it, escorting it up to the house.
“There’s another visitor, a man.”
“Anyone we know?” Scott felt a sudden surge of hope, but he knew he was clutching at straws.
“No,” she shook her head sadly. “A stranger. Looks like a lawyer or a business man of some kind. Wonder what he wants so early?”
* * * * * * * *
The man was shown into the library. Lingering beside the bookcase and examining the extensive collection with some surprise. Everything from Austen to Emerson, Melville to Twain. He grimaced at one title; ‘A handbook of Animal Husbandry’, moving quickly on through others regarding veterinary medicine, and agricultural techniques. Exclaiming with delight as he came across a volume of Coleridge’s works and sliding it out to look for his favourite in the index.
“You like Coleridge, Sir?”
The tone made him jump. Looking up at the huge man who’d entered through an archway with a surprisingly quiet tread. He inclined his head civilly.
” ‘Frost at Midnight.’ It’s my favourite poem . . . ” He closed the book with a snap. Pushing it back onto the shelf, and looking frankly at his host. “Mister Lancer, I presume?”
“You presume correctly. And there you have me at a disadvantage.”
The man nodded again, wasting no time with preamble. “My name is Edward Moffat. I have come to warn you, Sir.”
Murdoch became very still. Running his eyes over his visitor, from the neatly parted grey hair, down to the flawlessly shiny shoes. Clipped English accent, and intelligent face.
“Warn me about what?”
Moffat sighed slightly, turning the brim of his hat between his hands as he tried to read the expression of the man in front of him. “I work for a man called Amos Spencer . . . “
He didn’t get any further. Eyes starting out of his head as Murdoch pulled a revolver from beneath his waistcoat and thumbed back the hammer with a loud click.
“Where’s my son – is he alive?”
Moffat recovered at once. Staring calmly but unhappily back at the gun and standing as still as he could. “Then I fear I’m already too late. Please allow me to explain.”
Murdoch nodded, face closed and grim. “It had better be good.”
“I’m Mister Spencer’s manservant. I’ve worked for him since 1858 – came out here after the Indian Mutiny . . . that’s her Majesty’s India, Sir. I was a Sergeant-Major in the Fusiliers, based in Meerut until the massacre. My family were slaughtered, and most of my friends. I’d lived in India so long, there was nothing to go home to, so I thought I’d try my luck out here instead. Amos Spencer was a good man. Principled, honest. I watched him build up his father’s shipping empire into one of the most successful on the East Coast . . .” Moffat paused, and sighed. “Then the war came. The European embargoes, the blockades, naturally Spencer Shipping lost some trade. And then Master Michael . . .”
“Mister Spencer’s eldest son. He was killed during the war, in ’63. His mother died of grief soon after.”
Murdoch listened to the whole, sorry story. Keeping the gun level and primed as he aimed it unwaveringly at Moffat the entire time. Waiting until the man got to the part he had almost predicted.
“Harlan Garrett knew about Master David. He must have had him followed. Garrett blackmailed him into signing that document – threatened to tell his father. And the awful tragedy was that Mister Spencer knew – he’d always known.”
Murdoch lowered the gun slowly. “My God . . .”
The whisper was forced out of him. Whatever his personal thoughts about Amos Spencer’s son, he was stunned with disbelief at Harlan Garrett’s callousness. The man’s moral turpitude. No wonder Amos Spencer hated him, had burned all his bridges and headed west to seek revenge. He wasn’t sure he wouldn’t feel the same if someone had set out to systematically destroy him, had been responsible for the death of his younger son . . .
He steadied himself against the side of the desk, heart hardening as he thought painfully of his own boy. Johnny wasn’t involved in any of this morass of depravity, and yet it was Johnny paying the price. Johnny – because of his intense love for Scott; his need to keep him safe.
Another reason kept nudging at the fringe of Murdoch’s conscience. One he was forced to acknowledge with a sense of grief and guilt as he considered his own part in it. Teresa had put it best.
“He already blames himself – far more than you ever could.”
Right as always, she’d hit the nail on the head. The lack of self-esteem that shadowed Johnny. His sense of never quite being good enough. Murdoch sighed heavily, and looked back up at Moffat.
“That’s a powerful set of reasons for revenge. Who’s to say I wouldn’t feel the same. But my son is innocent in all this, Spencer is wrong to have taken him.”
Moffat nodded unhappily. “I realise that, Mister Lancer. I’m not trying to excuse his behaviour, just explain it somewhat. He’s a good man at heart, but he’s blinded by pain. Damaged by grief. I’m not sure he’s rational anymore.”
“Why are you here?”
Moffat spread his hands helplessly. “I wanted to prevent it, but I’m obviously too late. I had hoped to take Mister Spencer back to Cape Cod with me. To care for him properly and stop him from pursuing this course of vengeance.”
“Yes,” Murdoch inclined his head sharply. “You’re too late. The irony is that Spencer has the wrong man. He took my younger son, Johnny. And he, I can assure you, is no relation to Harlan Garrett whatsoever!”
“What will you do, Sir?”
Murdoch smiled bitterly. “Harlan Garrett refuses to meet any of Spencer’s terms on Johnny’s account. I intend to meet Spencer in his place. I want my son home safely, Mister Moffat. Care to help me?”
Moffat exhaled in relief. “I was hoping you’d say that, Mister Lancer. If there’s anything I can do to help resolve this satisfactorily . . .”
Murdoch moved across to the archway and called loudly for Juanita. “You must be hungry. I’ll arrange some breakfast for us. But first of all, I want to make something very clear to you.” He looked Moffat straight in the eye. “Johnny’s life is my priority. If Amos Spencer has to die in order to ensure my son’s safety, I assure you, I won’t hesitate.”
“I understand . . .”
“Do you?” Murdoch didn’t waver in his scrutiny. “Johnny’s innocent in all of this. If anything happens to him . . .”
“I understand.” Moffat repeated the words softly. “I promise I’ll do everything I can.”
* * * * * * * *
Johnny woke with a jump from a troubled doze. Disorientated for a few seconds and lost in a cloud of fog. His mouth was too dry, head too dizzy, wondering for a moment where he was as the mist began to clear. Memories returned like nightmares and it was hard, so hard to disassociate the two as he looked into Amos Spencer’s face.
“Here, drink some water, boy.”
Johnny reached for it thirstily. Wincing with a gasp of shock as his collarbone caught in a fiery hitch of agony. “Gracias . . . thanks.”
He must remember not to speak Spanish, he thought hazily. It had already made Spencer suspicious once, and he didn’t want to go that route again. But it was difficult to focus his thoughts and his head banged and throbbed with a relentless, repetitive rhythm. The water tasted wonderful but added to his problems, and he grimaced reluctantly as he handed the canteen back to Spencer.
“I have to . . . I have to take a walk.”
Venn Cullen raised his head behind Spencer’s back, and for a brief second, Johnny saw an unmistakable expression in his eyes. His own instincts screamed alert as he tried to struggle awkwardly to his feet. Watching Cullen in dismay as the Texan lowered his head again, the expression vanished and gone.
“Here,” Spencer’s voice was gruff. “I’ll take you.”
He held out his arm as Johnny clutched at it gratefully. Surprised and more than a little uneasy as his head continued to lurch and swim. He paused for a second, gathering his strength and regaining his balance. It was a combination of a cold night and hard ground, he told himself. Dehydration and lack of food. Then honestly; ‘ There’s something badly wrong with my head.’
They moved out of the cave and Johnny was amazed to see it was already late afternoon. The distant peaks of the mountains sunset-flushed against the blue sky. Sun, pink-tinted and mellow. He was glad of it’s touch upon his skin.
He paused for a second, closing his eyes briefly as he soaked up the warmth, imagining with a slight tinge of embarrassment it was giving him back his strength.
“Take your time.” Spencer’s voice was surprisingly patient, and typically, had completely the opposite effect on Johnny as he pulled himself together and took a few more halting steps. Moving round behind the cave to a boulder-strewn area and looking over his shoulder with a wry smile.
“I can manage this part for myself.”
Spencer waited for him. Looking away, a frown creasing his forehead as he stared unseeingly at the breathtaking views. He didn’t see what Johnny saw. The beauty and colour meant nothing to him. His heart was cold and grey as a stone, as heavy in his breast as a lead weight. The richness around him, the lush palette of rainbow shades and riot of scenery was almost too much for him to bear. Too vital, too alive. It mocked at him instead. Everything in his world was monochrome. Bleak as a winter landscape. Frozen and iron-hard like his soul.
Johnny did up his pants and straightened again. Head groggy as he put a hand out to the sun-warmed stone. “You need to watch your back.”
Spencer looked at him sharply. “Don’t get clever with me.”
Johnny took a breath. “I’m just sayin’ Venn Cullen can’t be trusted. I’ve seen his kind before, know how they operate. The man’s plannin’ on takin’ you out and usin’ me for ransom.”
Spencer laughed shortly. “Tactics, Mister Lancer? Divide and conquer? I’m a little too long in the tooth to fall for that.”
Johnny shrugged. Or at least he would have done if his shoulder didn’t ache so damnably. Catching himself, and fighting for control as his various bumps and bruises reminded him again of their presence.
“Cullen’s a killer. Loyal as a mad dog. He plans on killin’ you and tappin’ my old man for money.”
“And you know this for sure?”
A small, sardonic smile laced Johnny’s lips. “I suggested it, kinda . . . “
He was gambling now, and he knew it. Watching Spencer’s face carefully as he fought to keep his vision focused and true. But everything kept blurring round the edges and it was anything but easy.
“Thought I might be able to persuade the Cullen’s to take me back to Lancer. Said my old man would double whatever you’d promised them . . . ” He paused, and shook his head regretfully. “But it all sorta backfired. Cullen’s got the idea of killin’ you and holdin’ me to ransom instead.”
Spencer was silent for a few seconds, face creased into deep lines of strain as he pondered Johnny’s words. “I ought to kill you now and have done.”
“You’d still have to take on the Cullen’s.”
“Thanks to your meddling. I never should have trusted Bergstrom . . . “
“Never mind.” Spencer spun back round to face him. “How can you be sure of this?”
“Like I said,” repeated Johnny dryly. “I know men like Venn Cullen and his brother. How they operate, how they think. They’re bidin’ their time – but they will kill you, and it’s gonna be soon. Most likely tonight.”
Spencer took him by surprise then. Grasping hold of his shirt-front and thrusting him up hard against the side of the rock-face. The world tip-tilted on it’s axis. His shoulder bursting in agony, head lurching in an explosion of sickening pain as for a second, he nearly lost it. He closed his eyes as he fought desperately to right himself, to stave off the clouds of darkness that edged in all around him. Aware of Spencer’s voice in the background, low and menacing. Threaded with all the anger and frustration he was taking out on him.
“No . . . alto!” The Spanish word was on his lips before he could bite it back, Scott’s face in his head like a talisman as he tried to weather the storm. Then confusion . . .
“Lancer. Scott Lancer, can you hear me?”
“Scott . . .”
He opened his eyes groggily and found he was on the ground. Blinking several times, he supposed he must have passed out for a couple of seconds. He took a shaky breath and focused back up at Spencer.
“What . . .”
“You must have cracked your head pretty hard when you fell.” The anger still lingered in Spencer’s voice, but he knelt awkwardly down at Johnny’s side. “You blanked out for a minute or two.”
Johnny pulled his injured arm in across his chest and tried to struggle to his feet. His swollen knee protested loudly but it was nothing in comparison to his head, and for a terrifying second, he was afraid of fainting again.
“Here.” Spencer placed an arm beneath his good shoulder. Heaving him up until his back was leaning against the rock, and stripping off his wide neckerchief.
Johnny watched through slitted eyes as the man folded it diagonally into a triangle, and eased it over his injured arm into a tube-shaped sling.
Johnny grit his teeth and nodded carefully. “Some. Thanks.”
Spencer sat back on his heels regarding him coldly. “If what you say is true . . .”
“If what you say is true,” Spencer ignored him and continued; “then you’ve placed me in a very difficult situation. I needed the Cullen’s, they were part of my plan.”
Johnny kept quiet. Partly out of prudence and partly because his head still hurt too darn much for talking. Fear hovered in the back of his mind. Fear like the wings of a huge black bird waiting to swoop down on him, its claws extended to carry him away. He tried resolutely to push it away, but the image was stubborn and persisted. Growing in stature as the shadows spread and threatened to engulf him.
Forcing his fears to one side, he concentrated hard on Spencer’s face. Trying to read the man’s eyes and deliberately rolling his shoulder until he felt the bone-ends shift and catch. He was almost grateful for the shaft of fiery agony, stifling a gasp as he pulled himself straighter. The pain waking him up as the darkness retreated for a while.
“They have a plan of their own, Spencer. One that doesn’t involve you or Harlan Garrett.”
Spencer looked at him curiously. “Why tell me? What’s your motive in all this?”
Johnny eased himself forward with a grunt, making it to his feet this time as he steadied himself against the rocks and took a deep breath.
“I told you. I know men like Venn Cullen. He’ll kill you and he’ll kill me. His kind don’t leave no witnesses. Sides . . .” Johnny looked him candidly in the eye. ” I aint a murderer, Mister Spencer. Wouldn’t want to have your death on my conscience.”
Spencer laughed caustically. “Make no mistake about me, Scott. My plans haven’t changed because you’re being noble. I need you alive for now, but only until it’s time to meet your grandfather.”
Johnny forced his lips into a small dry smile. “I never figured for a minute they had. I aint much of a gamblin’ man, but I do believe in playin’ the odds and it’s a dead cert Cullen will kill us both.”
“But shorter in your favour if I owe you my life?”
“Maybe . . .” Johnny let his voice trail off in pain and exhaustion. “Anythin’ that buys a bit of time.”
Spencer gave a short unexpected bark of laughter. “I don’t know whether to admire your honesty or mock your stupidity. No wonder you couldn’t work for Garrett. The man’s a liar and he never tolerated fools gladly. In fact, it’s amazing you’re related at all.”
Johnny grimaced wryly. “Aint it just,” he paused, a sudden sense of sorrow and irony in his heart. “I guess I’m more like my old man. Stubborn, and wrong-headed sometimes, but we both have a likin’ for the truth . . .”
His voice stuck on the lump in his throat. And that in essence was the fact of it. He and Murdoch were alike in so many ways. Oh, not identical by any means. There was a lot of his mother’s romantic soul inside him. He though of it as a gift from her, something he had the luxury of indulging more as he got older. Something that coming home to Lancer had given him. Time and space and a lot more safety. The freedom to enjoy the beauty of the world around him, a world he embraced with all his heart.
The perfumed peace of Teresa’s garden after a hard day out on the range. Listening to her tell him about her day with love in his heart, and peace in his soul. Trying to memorise the names of her beloved plants as she patiently pointed them out to him, laughing good-naturedly at his pronunciation of the difficult Latin words. Or sometimes merely sitting there. Relaxed and side by side in tranquillity. The sun on his face, her hand on his arm. The drowse of the bees in the golden silence.
He had Teresa to thank for another of his favourite places. The spot at the head of the valley overlooking Lancer. A huge earth-embracing vista of green hills and rolling vale, the shining serpent of river bisecting it. Purple shaded mountains majestic in the distance, tall snow-capped sentinels like guardians of the land. His land.
The words still thrilled him. It was his birthright – his and Scott’s. A place of beauty and abundance, challenge and allure. Something worth fighting for, like he’d fought Pardee. Somewhere worth the risking of it all – of a man’s blood, sweat and tears. His heart and soul. He was closer to understanding his father when he thought about Lancer. What drove him, what motivated him. The chains that anchored him so resolutely to the land.
Whatever happened to him now, whatever the outcome of this whole sorry mess, he’d known home and he’d known family. The simple right of having your own bed to sleep in, a favoured spot by the fire. Someone who knew how many sugars you took in your coffee, that you liked your food spicy, your steak underdone. Who tolerated you insisting that your bedroom window stayed open all day long. Little things, dumb things. Things most folk took for granted. Things that still meant more to him than words could ever say.
And that brought him right back round to Murdoch. To the man who was his father. The twisted, complex game they played. Retreating then advancing, advancing then retreating. Both afraid, both still angry, both seeing in the other a mirror of themselves.’When
he got home . . . ‘
His thoughts stuck and held as he smiled a little sadly. ‘If he got home,’ more like. He looked up to find Spencer still watching him curiously. Shaking himself out of the reverie, as he limped laboriously back to the cave. Johnny could feel the tight control of Spencer’s anger and sense the man’s tension. It radiated off him in waves.
“You’ll keep your mouth shut if you know what’s good for you. I’ll deal with the Cullen’s, but I’m warning you, Lancer. One false move, one more word out of turn and you’ll be sorry. Very sorry. Is that understood?”
“Si,” replied Johnny dryly, relapsing into Spanish in spite of himself. “Ya lo se – I understand.”
* * * * * * * *
Scott submitted stiltedly to the hug. Trying not to wince as it jolted his shoulder, but more than a little awkward because of the incongruity of it. As a child, he’d never been hugged by Harlan Garrett, and as an adult, not even when he’d said farewell and left on the eve of war.
His grandfather had never favoured physical contact. A hand on his head, perhaps on his shoulder. Proprietary and proud if he’d done something well or said something clever, but never a hug, and certainly nothing as demonstrative as a kiss.
He pulled clumsily away. Aware of Murdoch watching impassively from the doorway, face etched and immobile with anger and grief.
“Scott – my poor boy. Look at you!”
“I’m fine, Sir, ” he muttered quickly. Feeling his face flood with colour, as he remembered the way Harlan always had of making him feel ten years old again, mind rising in quick rebellion against it.
“Fine? You don’t look fine. . . ” Garrett shot Murdoch a cold, accusatory glance before turning back to Scott. “But at least you’re safe. That mad man Spencer . . .”
“Has Johnny instead of me,” finished Scott, trying to keep his voice as even as possible.
“Yes, yes. Unfortunate.” Garrett shook his head. “I’ve already discussed that with Murdoch. Spencer will surely realise he’s made an extraordinary mistake and release him soon enough. He’s used to fending for himself, isn’t he? To looking after number one. I’m sure he’ll be just fine.”
“My God!” Scott’s voice was quiet, but vibrant with anger. “Teresa was right. You’re not going to do a damn thing to help him, are you?”
Garrett looked up sharply. “There’s no need to. Damage limitation, Scotty. Why pander to a man like Spencer? He’ll release Madrid soon enough.”
“His name’s Lancer,” grated Murdoch from the doorway. “Johnny Lancer.”
“Does it matter?” Said Harlan dismissively. “He’s probably on his way home right now.”
Scott forced himself upright against his pillows, ignoring the ache in his shoulder. “Oh you think so, do you? Assuming they haven’t hurt him already, that is. Add to that the fact he’s been with them, seen their faces, where they’re holding him. Mighty obliging of them to just let him go.”
“Scott’s right,” said Murdoch matter of factly. “Once they realise he’s not Scott they’ll kill him straight away. Johnny will play along with this charade as long as he can. It’s his only way of staying alive.”
Garrett sat up a little more rigidly. “But that’s good from our point of view. It means that Scott’s safe for now. Or as safe as it’s possible for him to be in this Godforsaken land.”
There was a second’s taut silence. So tense you could hear a pin drop. Scott was the first to break it. Eyes narrowing to hide the sudden rush of pain and disappointment inside him as he beheld the man he still loved in spite of this – in spite of it all.
“Don’t you see? Don’t you understand? Safe means nothing tome – nothing at all if Johnny’s in danger. He’s my brother and hard as it may be for you to understand, I love him and I’m not about to let him die in my name.”
“But Scotty . . .”
“No. I’m asking for your help, grandfather. If you love me as you say you do, you’ll go and meet with Spencer. Murdoch will ensure your safety but you ‘will’ do this. If you don’t – if anything happens to Johnny as a result of that, I swear on oath I will never see or talk to you again.”
Garrett swallowed hard, staring searchingly into Scott’s burning eyes. This was a Scott he didn’t recognise, didn’t recognise at all. Lancer’s influence, no doubt. That damned Scot . . . He rued the day Catherine had ever set eyes on him. Of all the fine young men who had wooed her, all the eminent suitors he’d approved of . . . She’d been as beautiful as the morning dew. Clever too, for a female. Not the son and heir he’d hoped so desperately for of course, but such a merry, biddable daughter. Everything a father could wish for, before the Scot. Before Murdoch Lancer.
Once she’d met Lancer that was it. He hadn’t recognised her then. Blind to his anger, impervious to his entreaties – recklessly wilful in her ill-considered desire to marry the Scot. A nobody; no money, no prospects, barely off the boat from Inverness. She’d consistently flaunted and disobeyed his wishes and orders. Continuing to see Lancer behind his back. Sneaking out of the house for assignations and liaisons; protected by the shining surety of her love as it glowed like a shield all around her.
And eventually, his worst fears had come true. He’d lost her. Stolen from him by the man mountain in the doorway. The same man who had now stolen his precious grandson. Had stolen Scotty.
He brought himself back to the present with a jerk. Looking at Scott once more but seeing a stranger staring back at him. A stern-faced implacable man, no longer a malleable boy.
He took a deep breath, nodding tersely as his mind raced in circles searching for answers and solutions to his problem. He wasn’t about to die for that half-breed Madrid, but he couldn’t bear the prospect of losing Scotty either. Maybe there was another way, but for the moment, he would have to play along.
“Scott . . . ” He placed a conciliatory hand on his grandson’s arm. “I know your half-brother means a lot to you.” He leant in closer to the bed so that only Scott could hear him, bending down to whisper in his ear. “Perhaps we can work this out so both of us are happy. If you were to agree to come back to visit me in Boston . . .”
Scott flinched wildly away from him, pain and anger jostling for position on his face. “And if I don’t, you leave Johnny to those wolves?”
“Scott?” Murdoch took a step forward from the doorway. “Is everything alright?”
“Some privacy if you please, Murdoch. It isn’t much to ask!” Harlan turned to glare at him, hand tightening warningly on Scott’s forearm.
“Scott?” Murdoch said again, unwillingly this time.
Scott breathed in deeply, trying to calm his racing heart rate as he considered the choices being offered him. “It’s alright, Murdoch. Just give us two minutes, please.”
Murdoch looked at him hard, but Scott had turned away towards the window and refused to meet his eyes. He left the room reluctantly, instinct vying with the certainty that Garrett couldn’t be trusted. But he was Scott’s grandfather, had been responsible for raising him, and whatever Murdoch thought of the man, there was no doubt Scott had become a fine person. A son to be proud of.
“Get it said, grandfather,” Scott grated unhappily, shaking his arm free of Harlan’s grasp.
Garrett regarded him pleadingly. ” If you want me to go and meet Spencer, then I will.”
“You will?” Scott became still. Looking up into his face with a sudden flare of hope in his heart.
“For you, Scott. I’ll do it for you. And when you’re well again, you can come and stay with me in Boston for a couple of months. I’ve missed you, more than you can possibly imagine. There are no strings of course. If, at the end of your visit you should decide to return out West, then I won’t stop you. I’m just asking you to spend some time with me – I think you owe me that.”
Scott studied the familiar face. It was so well known to him, and yet no longer part of who he was today. He knew in his heart he belonged here now, at Lancer. And yet, his grandfather did look lonely – lonely and suddenly old.
He swallowed back the lump in his throat. A month or two couldn’t do any harm . . .
“Agreed. Do this for Johnny and I promise I’ll come back to Boston with you as soon as I can travel.”
Both men looked up as Murdoch, unable to stay outside the bedroom any longer, walked back in through the door.
“I’ll do it for you,” repeated Harlan again, unable to keep a note of triumph from his tone. ” And hopefully we’ll bring your brother home safely again.”
Murdoch stiffened suspiciously. He’d known Garrett too long to be so easily fooled. The man didn’t have a charitable or altruistic bone in his body. Things weren’t looking any better for Johnny, in fact they looked considerably worse.
He knew then he was going into those foothills alongside Garrett tomorrow. There was no way he was entrusting Johnny’s safety to this man alone. His life meant nothing to Garrett. In fact, it might even suit his purpose if Johnny were to die. One less thing keeping Scott in California, one less obstacle in his plan to have Scott back in Boston at his side.
Footsteps on the staircase jolted him out of his grim reverie. Jelly, followed closely by Teresa, her face a pale blur in the gathering shadows on the landing.
“Boss . . .”
“What is it?” His heart gave a sudden leap of fear. Oh God, no! Not now, it couldn’t be possible . . .
“Cipriano’s back.” Teresa’s voice was breathless and full of tears, but it told him immediately his terror was unfounded. As far as they knew, Johnny still lived.
“They found the palomino,” finished Jelly gruffly. “He’s out front.”
Murdoch was aware of his legs moving stiffly towards the staircase, but he couldn’t remember getting out through the doorway. Cipriano met him by the archway, his hand on the shivering pony’s neck as he looked up unhappily into his boss’s face.
“We found him wandering, Senor. Not hurt.”
“Where?” Barked Murdoch curtly, regarding the palomino’s sweating, burr-studded coat with something akin to dismay. Remembering with a pang of sudden pain, how much care Johnny took of the horse – his beloved pride and joy.
He put his hand out to the pony’s nose, feeling the nostrils flare with nervous reaction. Stroking him gently, as he sought to calm him down. He drew a little comfort from it. As if by touching this horse that Johnny loved so much, he was somehow closer to his son. Comforting Johnny wherever he was. He only hoped Johnny could feel it somehow – that he knew how much his father cared . . .
Cipriano was talking again. Breaking into his painful thoughts with practicalities, and he was glad.
“The San Benitos, Senor. He was at the base of Nublado Canyon. It was not easy to catch him . . . mal caballo . . .”
“Cloud Canyon – that’s what, three hours from here? Four or more from Morro Coyo?”
“Si Senor. There are many caverna there. Modoc.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “Many places to hide out. To keep a man prisoner.”
“Es verdad,” nodded Cipriano. He looked up uneasily at the fading sky, trying to estimate the hours of daylight left to them. The sun was dying fast and although it was possible to ride out into the mountains at night, it was highly unlikely they’d find anyone in the dark. There would certainly be no tracks to follow.
Murdoch agreed. “I want men out there at first light, Cip. I want them combing those hills and searching those caves.”
“What about you?” asked Jelly bluntly. “You goin’ with Garrett?”
“Yes,” said Murdoch slowly. “Bet your life I am, Jelly.”
But the old man shook his head soberly. Eyes flicking involuntarily up to the silent bedroom window overlooking the courtyard and gardens. Johnny’s room, Johnny’s window.
“It’s Johnny’s life we’re bettin’ on, Boss. Best we don’t lose the hand.”
* * * * * * * *
Johnny sat back against the wall at the lip of the cavern and kept his eye unobtrusively on Venn Cullen. He was waiting for the man to make his move. That old Madrid instinct on full alert now as he watched the firelight dancing on the walls, the flickering shadows highlighting the cruelty of the eldest Cullen’s face.
It was clear something was in the air by the obvious way Yancy kept looking at his brother for a clue. If things hadn’t been so desperate, Johnny would have laughed. Yancy had all the subtlety of a stampeding herd of cattle.
He shifted slightly trying to find a position, any position that might afford him a little more comfort. His knee hurt and his shoulder ached but they were nothing in comparison to his head. It felt about ready to explode, as though someone had tied a belt around it and kept hitching it up a notch.
He forced himself to concentrate again. Taking note of Yancy’s Winchester propped against the wall roughly four feet away from him. The pot of coffee warming on the fire. Easing the blanket off his legs as though he were hot, but in reality giving himself more freedom in which to act whenever the time came, and he sensed it was coming soon.
Spencer had been out of the cave for a smoke. The aromatic scent of the expensive cigars he favoured wafting back to them on the night air, and reminding Johnny unbearably of Murdoch and Scott.
Their love of smoking was the subject of a fierce, on-going battle with Teresa over the lingering smell of tobacco in the hacienda. He smiled a little, picturing her face. Her fury as she kept catching them smoking indoors long after banning them to the veranda.
The fiery-eyed indignity as she’d stamped her feet at them, shooing them back outdoors like a tiny virago. Two grown men quaking in their boots at her wrath and her only reaching as high as their breastbones.
He’d reaped the benefit of that particular storm. She’d been as pleased to find him bringing in the evening’s firewood for her as she’d been angry with Scott and Murdoch. Cooking his favourite supper as a reward. The tamales had been so hot that night, Scott’s eyes were red from watering.
His breath caught slightly in the back of his throat at the thought of never seeing her again. Of never seeing any of them again. He had to get out of this, he’d been in worse situations hadn’t he?
He tried to shake off the insidious wave of depression that smothered him, dark as the night. It was pointless feeling sorry for himself, stupid and self-indulgent. He had to stay sharp, had to stay fast. One slip up, one missed look or expression could cost him his life.
Spencer came back into the cave and gave him a hard stare. He was wearing his corduroy coat and had his hand in the pocket. Johnny tracked it down with his eyes. Muscles tensing suddenly, as he recognised the outline of a colt. His colt, he wouldn’t mind betting. His fingers burned for it. For the reassuring feel of it against his own palm instead of Spencer’s. He could do a lot of damage with that colt – earn his freedom with it in a second or two . . .
He edged a little closer to the fire holding out his hands to the flames. Yancy got to his feet and moved to the entrance of the cave, eyes finding Venn’s in a split second as Johnny realised this was it.
“Spencer . . . “
He reached for the coffee-pot as Venn whirled to one side, hand snaking down to his gun. Yancy spun to fire but Spencer was ready for him. Hand flashing out of his pocket as he pulled the trigger simultaneously.
Johnny dashed the boiling coffee at Venn Cullen’s head, following up with the pot itself and striking the Texan a glancing blow on the temple. The man fell back shrieking and cussing as Johnny knew he had no time to waste. Staggering to his feet and reaching for the Winchester with his good arm.
“Hold it, Lancer!”
Spencer. Johnny froze, his fingers inches from the rifle’s stock. Whole, he would have risked it; snatched it up, rolled and fired with it. The odds at least 50/50 in his favour. But battered like this, he knew he’d never make it.
“Over here.” Spencer gestured towards the mouth of the cave, and giving the Winchester one last regretful look, Johnny limped across to the man’s side stepping cautiously across Yancy’s body and looking down at the neat, bloody hole in the centre of his forehead.
He raised an eyebrow. “Nice shootin’.”
Spencer smiled coldly. “I belong . . . belonged to a small arms shooting club. Never shot anything but a paper target before.”
Johnny regarded him evenly. “Man’s different to a paper target. A whole different prospect.”
But Spencer shook his head in disgust. His eyes, as Johnny’s, on the dead man lying at his feet. “That’s not a man. It won’t be missed.”
Johnny looked back across at Venn. Sensing the slight movement even before he saw it. Lurching sideways into Spencer as Cullen reached for his colt, rolled onto his back and pulled the trigger. They barrelled into the wall of rock behind them and Spencer gave a grunt of shock as Johnny dragged him away from the cave entrance. He wasn’t surprised to find two horses ready and waiting just outside, giving Spencer a mental ten out of ten for preparation and ingenuity. He only hoped the man had the sense to release the other three. He had.
“I . . . I brought them up just now.”
Johnny nodded, as he heaved himself into the saddle. Hearing a footfall behind them and expecting the burn of a bullet between his shoulder blades at any second. He grit his teeth and bent low across the saddle-horn. Trying to ignore the fire in his collar-bone, the thump in his head as he nudged the bay pony into a lope down the side of the steep canyon, aware of Spencer alongside him and Cullen behind them in the dark.
A couple of shots spat up off the rocks around them. But the light was too far gone for a man to shoot accurately and short of a lucky shot, Cullen was whistling in the wind, wasting ammunition.
After riding in silence for fifteen minutes or so, Johnny eased up cautiously. Rubbing a shaky hand across his temples as he looked over at Spencer. He could barely make out the man’s face in the darkness but he could imagine the look on it. Grim and uncompromising, mouth tight with fury taut with pain. His heart sank a little, not sure if his own situation had improved at all, as he considered the new turn of events.
Spencer was angry – dangerously angry. Hunted and on the run because of something he’d done. He grinned in the darkness – he couldn’t help it. Remembering something Scott had said to him once, just a few weeks after they’d first met.
“I have to admire your talent for pissing people off, little brother. It’s just about the best I’ve ever seen.”
And now they had a vengeful Venn Cullen on their heels. Johnny was under no illusion what would happen when he caught up with them. No question of money or ransoms now. It would be over, pure and simple. A particularly nasty form of revenge to pay for the death of Yancy – the spoiling of Venn’s plans.
Johnny sighed. Relaxing his shoulders as much as he could and trying to familiarise himself with the bay’s gait. He was already more than uncomfortable. Teeth chattering helplessly, although whether due to cold or shock he wasn’t all that sure. If only his head would stop aching for a while, just a little while. It was becoming harder and harder to concentrate on anything, to hold himself straight and focus with any clarity on what was happening around him.
Now more than ever, he needed to keep some control of the game. He was thinking in Spanish almost continuously. Reverting to the language he’d grown up with – his mother tongue. Spencer was already suspicious and now he was truly desperate. A man on the run for his life. One error, just one mistake, and Johnny knew it would be finished.
He was already a liability. Hurt and slow. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Madre de Dios – thank God it wasn’t Scott out here. He clung to that for consolation. The one ray of light in a well of darkness, the one glimmer of hope on his horizon. His brother was at home, safe and sound.
Spencer had come up alongside him and he hadn’t even noticed. He really must be slipping. Pulling back on the reins with his good arm as he looked tiredly across and saw the moonlight bounce dully off the metal barrel of the colt. This was to be the way of it, then. A bullet in the back of his head out here in the wilderness?
An ignominious ending to what, after all, had not been much of a life. Better by far that Scott should live and he should die. He’d cheated death so many times before, it was inevitable it would outwit him one day, that it would take the final trick.
He smiled crookedly in the darkness, lifting his head as the world spun around him. The bright cold stars, the rocks looming like tombstones out of the earth to engulf and claim him. His strength left in a rush of heat and cold and he knew in one terrible lurching moment, he was falling from the saddle. The hard ground surged to meet him in a billow of blackness as he hit and knew no more.
* * * * * * * *
Murdoch looked across at Jelly and Cipriano yet again. Knowing they both understood their instructions backwards, but needing to go through it once more for his own peace of mind.
He watched as they left for their horses, Isidro and Jorge were already saddled up and waiting by the corral gate. Jelly hesitated, half-turning back to Murdoch as he let Cipriano go on ahead. The old man was straight-faced for all the world as though he were disappointed in him, and Murdoch of course knew why.
Their eyes met. No words were exchanged or needed to be, the talking had all been done. All that was left was to bring Johnny home. Then maybe the wound between him and Jelly would be healed. He hoped it would be so – he missed the man’s wise counsel.
He wasn’t so sure about the rift between him and Teresa. That worried him more than words could say. He was afraid, so afraid of losing her – just as he was scared of losing Johnny. Deeply upset since Jelly had returned home with his devastating news, she’d spent the last eighteen hours adroitly eluding him. Spending time either in her garden, or alone with Scott. Steadfastly avoiding his eyes whenever he came into the sickroom, and turning to look away. He knew she still blamed him for his anger towards Johnny, and he knew in his heart she was right.
He was able to admit it honestly to himself. He’d allowed his frustration to blind him to a sense of fair-play. His anxiety for Scott had excluded his awareness of Johnny and now this situation with Spencer had risen to haunt him like a malevolent ghost.
Johnny. He just wanted him home again. Home and safe, so he could sit him down and explain why he’d been so angry. Tell him everything was alright – who the hell was he kidding?
He just wanted to hear the sound of Johnny’s laughter ringing through the hacienda again. Teasing Jelly and fooling with Scott. Getting under Teresa and Maria’s feet in the kitchen as they pretended he was a nuisance to them, but loved it all the same.
He sighed. Turning back to the buck board and meeting the unexpectedly sympathetic eyes of Edward Moffat. The quiet Englishman had insisted on coming and quite frankly, Murdoch was glad of both his company and assistance. Anything that might help sway Amos Spencer from his deadly purpose, his terrible revenge. Anything that meant he didn’t have to share a journey on his own with Harlan Garrett.
His anger simmered relentlessly towards the man. Scott’s grandfather or not, his relief and lack of remorse left a singularly nasty taste in Murdoch’s mouth and he could hardly bear to look him in the eye. Himself, Moffat and Garrett. Strange bedfellows indeed. Each of them pursuing their own agendas, although of both men thrust upon him, he knew which of the two he trusted more. There was no contest.
Hooking his foot into the stirrup, he watched as the object of his mistrust came out of the hacienda carrying a leather satchel. Garrett looked up at him, then across to the buck board where Moffat was waiting.
“The wire said alone, Murdoch. Do you think this is wise?”
Murdoch nodded grimly. “He’s my son, Harlan. I’m coming, like it or not.”
Garrett shrugged unconcernedly. “On your head be it, then. I’ll uphold my end of the bargain for Scott’s sake . . . ” he indicated the satchel and placed his foot onto the plate. “But I expect you and your men to protect me as promised.” His eyes fastened on Moffat sitting impassively on the seat beside him, a quick frown settling across his features. “Who’s this?”
Not by so much as a flicker did Edward Moffat betray any of the feelings he might harbour towards this man. His grey eyes remained steadfastly calm, his face a mask of polite civility.
“My name is Edward Moffat.” He nodded briefly. “I’m Mister Spencer’s valet, Sir.”
Garrett paused in the act of climbing onto the buck board, a look of bemusement crossing his face. Then unexpectedly he laughed. A terse bark of genuine amusement as he looked back over at Murdoch.
“Hardly the ‘Three Musketeers’, my dear Murdoch. A motley crew indeed.”
His knuckles tensing white with anger, Murdoch nodded curtly back. “Sometimes we have to walk with the devil to be on the side of the angels, Harlan. And just for the record, Johnny’s depending on us to get him out of this bloody mess. Anyone who lets him down will personally answer to me!”
* * * * * * * *
Drifting. He was drifting, light as thistle-down through time and space and content just to do so. It was pleasant here in the void, peaceful and safe. No one wanting anything from him, no one yelling at him, disapproving of him or hemming him in.
Just him, alone. Like he always had been . No one to answer to except his own conscience, no one to hurt him or let him down. He let himself float along with it, not bothering to question where he was, or why. Letting the dreamlike state he was in submerge him for a while. He just wished the drumbeat would stop. The singular rhythm in the back of his head, beating and pounding with unceasing monotony and a relentless lack of remorse.
But it didn’t leave him. Instead it just got louder and louder – and with it came the pain. Washing back over him in a flood of agony as his head began to hammer and throb like a Blacksmith’s forge. He groaned, unable to help himself as his fingers groped in the dirt beside him. He was back on the ground yet again.
“Here . . .”
A canteen against his lips. Water, warm and stale. He reached for it clumsily, sucking on the rim of the spout as someone held his head forward and he drank. Opening his eyes, swimming up from a great depth, as he fought to focus and stop his head from spinning. So hard to think, so hard to concentrate. He just wanted to go back to the void.
“Scott – come on, man. Wake up.”
He focused then. Vision clearing and settling on Amos Spencer’s face as the man knelt over him. He’d expected darkness, but found daylight instead. A wide sky clear above him, the air cold and sweet in his lungs. His eyes moved past Spencer, watching as an eagle soared in the blue above them. Swooping and whirling fierce and untamed, until it vanished, a small speck lost on the horizon. He sighed with envy and regret, begrudging it’s liberty. It’s freedom from earthly restraint.
“What . . . what happened?”
Spencer regarded him grimly. “You passed out again. Fell off your horse. You’re making quite a habit of it.”
Johnny swallowed hard. The frantic events of the previous night rushing back at him in a sudden deluge. “How long?”
“We’ve wasted four hours. Cullen must have recaptured a ride by now. He can’t be far behind us.”
Johnny closed his eyes briefly in dismay. “Your best bet is to leave me. You gotta chance on your own . . .”
Spencer smiled humourlessly. “Now why suggest something like that, Scott? It’s not by any chance part of a plan you cooked up with Cullen?”
Johnny smiled sadly despite his pain. “Boy, old Harlan really did a job on you, didn’t he Mister Spencer?”
“He took everything,” said Spencer bitterly. “Everything. What do you think that feels like, man? How could you possibly know?”
“Better than you think,” replied Johnny softly. “I know what it’s like to be alone. To think there’s no one who gives a damn if you live or die anymore. I know how it feels when the hate eats away at your gut from the inside out – when it burns so bad, just like fire.”
Spencer was still. Face deathly pale as he watched him intently. “How could you know, how could you possibly know? You . . . you’ve had everything. Never wanted for anything. That devil made sure of that.”
“No . . .” said Johnny weakly, passing a shaky hand across his eyes as a flood of unpleasant memories forced their way past his defences. “My life . . . mi vida . . .” he paused, upset and confused by the past and the present as he remembered again he was playing a part. “I was lied to. Forced by fate and happenin’s to become a man I never really wanted to be, to do things I never wanted to do . . .”
Spencer laughed wretchedly. “I know Garrett lied to you about your father . . .” he hesitated uncertainly. “And yet you still came out West. Are things – did you and your father manage to rebuild those bridges?”
Johnny was still, eyelids downcast. Remembering the last bitter exchange he and Murdoch had shared across the breakfast table. The tense angry words, the clenching in his gut. The whole world swam for a hazy moment.
‘Madre de Dios, his head ached so much.’
“Scott?” Spencer’s tone was softer. Kinder now for the very first time and Johnny forced his eyes open again.
“It’s takin’ a while – Murdoch ‘n me. But I want it – I want it so bad . . . ” his voice broke slightly as he looked up at Spencer’s face. “Your boy, David. You loved him a lot I guess?”
Spencer was silent for a long time. Wrestling his emotions as he confronted the demon that had haunted his memories since the day David died. He had loved the boy, he had. That’s why he’d tried so hard to save him from himself, forced him to give up his music. To channel his thoughts and interests away from the kind of lifestyle he’d been leading.
But perhaps he’d been wrong. The thought haunted him still. He’d turned away from David because of his own prejudices, his own distaste. He’d sacrificed his boy, his precious boy, to his own expectations and lack of understanding. Whatever David had been, first and foremost he was his son. A son who’d paid with his life in a last ditch attempt to save his father. He groaned in confusion, placing his head into his hands.
Another image flashed through his mind. Mike, tall and upright in his uniform. So proud and brave as he’d left for the war. And this boy here, the grandson of his greatest enemy. The man he’d promised to destroy. He’d sworn to hate this boy but couldn’t help admiring him. His nonchalant audacity, defiance in the very face of danger. The way he’d sacrificed his freedom so readily to save the life of that old man, what had his name been? Somebody Hoskins?
He looked again at Scott Lancer. The man had saved his life last night. Pushing him away from Cullen’s bullet seconds before it would have taken him in the chest. An enigma this man. He’d warned him about the Cullen’s too, in spite of the fact their plan might have worked in his favour.
Spencer took note of the bruised swollen face. The ghastly pallor beneath the tan. Scott Lancer was clearly ill. Much worse than yesterday. Strands of dusty black hair stuck lankly to the beads of sweat on his forehead and for a moment, he looked so absurdly young, it was hard to believe he’d been through a war. Fought for his own life and taken others.
He closed his eyes on a sob of pain. David’s face juxtaposed on the face of the man at his feet. His son, Murdoch Lancer’s son. He was responsible for the suffering of them both – him and that devil Harlan Garrett. My God, what had he done? What had he been forced to do?
“Here,” Spencer held the canteen back to Johnny’s lips. His hand shaking as he brushed the sweat-soaked hair back off the man’s brow, noticing with a quick stab of dismay the trickle of dark blood dripping from his ear. He undid his bandanna and poured a little of the water onto it, wiping the blood away as he hardened his heart once more. It was too late to turn the clock back. He’d made his bed and now he had to lie in it. To see things through to the bitter end, whatever that might be.
“In answer to your question, yes I loved my son. I didn’t understand him – maybe I didn’t really try. I was too busy with my grief, too busy with the Company . . . There never seemed to be enough time for us to really talk. And then your grandfather stole time from us forever.”
“I’m sorry . . . ” said Johnny tiredly. Spencer’s words had hurt him unexpectedly; had been far too close to home. The man could have been describing him and Murdoch. Their shaky, fractured relationship with all its fragile faults.
“So am I, ” said Spencer harshly. He re-stoppered the canteen and got to his feet. Shading his eyes from the morning sun as he looked back towards the heart of the hills. The day was stretching forwards and time was not on their side. “We need to get going. Cullen can’t be all that far behind. Can you stand?”
“Si,” said Johnny weakly, knowing it might not be true. He struggled up onto his good knee, swaying dizzily as he strove for lucidity and balance. Spencer grasped his elbow. Dragging him to his feet and placing an arm around his shoulder as he helped him across to the bay.
Johnny’s heart sank at the thought of having to ride again. Not even sure if he’d manage to get up into the saddle, let alone be able to stay put there. He wished to God it was Barranca; the horse he knew as he knew his soul. But he’d long since given up on wishes. Life and bitter experience had taught him they didn’t very often come true.
“Will you be able to ride?”
In truth, he didn’t really know. But he summoned his last vestiges of strength and began to haul himself up. Spencer assisted him carefully. Waiting until he was at last in the saddle, struggling until the giddiness settled into an uneasy swaying instead of a wild ride.
“I can do it.”
As the horses began to move forward, he only hoped he could.
* * * * * * * *
It was warm in the barn. Sweet and musty with the scent of hay. Dust motes danced in the bolt of yellow sunlight streaming in through the door and she watched them for a moment, thinking they were something he would have pointed out to her.
“Look at them, Teresa . . . little specks of gold just floatin’ in the air.”
She swallowed back her tears. The Lord knew she’d cried enough of those already. Rummaging in her pocket for the slightly wrinkled apple she’d found ignored in the fruit bowl earlier. It was just something else to remind her of Johnny. He was the one who ate all the apples. Picking one up every day on his way out of the door – to eat later or sneak to Barranca, she wasn’t ever sure. Always smiling slightly to herself as she’d watch him take one from the fruit bowl; toss it adeptly into the air a couple of times then stick it absent-mindedly in his pocket. The memory made her sad all over again.
She moved across to the stall in the corner and clicked softly to it’s golden occupant. “Hello, Barranca.”
The pony thrust his head over the rail at her. Nose questing for the apple immediately, nudging and buffing at her shoulder as he searched out the scent of it. She held out her palm. Tangling her fingers in the blond mane as he lipped greedily over the fruit and took it from her; crunching loudly in her ear as she waited for him to finish.
Jelly had said the palomino was uninjured. Scratched and scraped by rocks and burrs, panicked and bad-tempered when they’d brought him home. She sighed as the tears pricked back at her again. If only they could bring Johnny home in the same condition, a little ruffled and bad-tempered but not seriously hurt.
Leaning against the pony’s broad neck, she closed her eyes. Praying as hard as she’d ever prayed in her life for Johnny to be alright. It was so unfair – all so unfair.
Johnny didn’t deserve any of this. None of it. Part of her, the practical part of her told her firmly it was Harlan Garrett’s fault. Harlan Garrett and Amos Spencer combined. But a treacherous little voice in her heart whispered that Murdoch deserved his own particular slice of blame for the contributory role he’d played in things.
She’d tried arguing herself out of it. Telling herself that Murdoch hadn’t earned her censure. But a cold little seed at the core of her remained resolutely angry with him. Clutching onto her pain like a talisman, as she held him partly responsible for what had happened to Johnny.
And it wasn’t the first time either. Watching on several occasions, more than she was comfortable remembering, as Johnny had withdrawn from Murdoch’s ire. Working too long, too hard. Face becoming sharper as the weight fell quickly off him. Sitting miserably at the meal table as he pushed his food around the plate with his fork. Johnny, who so loved to eat. Murdoch’s grim silence hanging over them all like a heavy mountain storm as he brooded for days – sometimes weeks.
She and Scott did their best to deflect it and she recalled with a quick pang, the ironic gleam in Johnny’s eye as he realised all too well what they were doing. Grateful to them anyway – even if it never seemed to do much good.
The storm always blew out eventually. After a few days or weeks Murdoch would relent and ease-up. Making some sort of reconciliatory gesture that Johnny would seize on eagerly. A trip to Modesto maybe, his opinion on some matter to do with the ranch. Life would return to normal again for a while. At least until the next time.
She gave up fighting the tears. Not knowing until this minute how deeply affected she’d been by it all. Scott’s accident, Murdoch’s conduct, Johnny’s danger – and now the arrival of Harlan Garrett.
She felt raw and run down. Filled with a cold nameless dread that refused to leave her. Waking or sleeping, it was always there to torment her. Stealing her slumber with clawing fingers, dogging her consciousness like an oppressive shadow. A dancing blackness on the fringe of her soul.
It was Johnny. She knew it. The sure knowledge that something terrible had happened to him. That he was being taken further and further away from them, engulfed by the darkness that lurked just outside the corner of her eye.
She knew it deep inside. Sensed it in her heart. From the moment this whole nightmarish chapter of events had begun, she’d felt the shady wings of disaster. A nagging premonition of tragedy hovering like a portent overhead.
A tear slid silently down her cheek and the palomino stirred uneasily beside her as though sensing her distress. Shaking his head, as he blew through his nostrils at her and butted her shoulder in search of another apple.
But she had nothing left to give him. Bracing her shoulders as she choked back her sorrow and scrubbed at her face with the back of her hand.
The mare in the next stall snickered softly at her. A beautiful grey with big soft eyes. Any other time, Teresa would have been enchanted by her. But this was Tilbury’s mare, delivered by one of Tilbury’s men the day after Johnny had been taken. She could hardly bear to look at the poor thing now. Moving through the stream of light back to the door, she fought the cold fear struggling inside her as she prepared to walk across the yard to the house.
Perhaps she was wrong. Maybe she was just being hysterical. Blowing all her worries up out of proportion instead of having her usual faith in Murdoch. In Johnny himself.
But something told her Johnny needed them. Needed them desperately wherever he was. And all the while, his time was running out.
* * * * * * * *
They rode on through the morning. Or rather Spencer rode and Johnny slouched miserably in the saddle. Holding onto the horn and trying to let his body fall into the bay’s rhythm as much as possible to avoid every jarring footfall the animal took.
Spencer watched him covertly. Amazed at the man’s fortitude. His determination in spite of his more than obvious discomfort.
Johnny was hanging by a thread now.
Wounds and broken bones had stiffened and he sat silently in hell. Discovering with each stride of his pony some new pain that made his life just that bit more dismal. The bay missed a step and he drew a sharp breath, hurt stabbing right through his temples as the awkward movement jolted him badly.
“Lancer?” Spencer had swivelled round to face him, taking note of his white face and pain-racked expression.
“I can make it.” The words hurt his throat in a sudden rush of memory. He’d said them once before, to his brother a lifetime ago.
“Maybe we ought to stop again, rest awhile . . .”
“We don’t have time. Cullen’s doggin’ us pretty close.”
The bay missed his step again and stumbled. Johnny shifted weight as for a moment, the whole horizon seemed to blur and reel. He caught hold of the saddle-horn tighter, taking in breath in a reflex that hurt. That really hurt.
Spencer drew up short and reached over to him as he braced himself; the roan barging clumsily into the bay’s flank amidst the undergrowth and bushes.
“I . . .I’m alright.”
His pulse raced with a sullen difficult beat. The sky still spun and he felt the cold, familiar fear that he might fail his family in the worst kind of way. That he would let them down. Betray himself somehow and in doing so, betray Scott too.
‘Hold on,’ he told himself. ‘Hold on.’
He straightened reflexively. Swallowing hard as he fought against the darkness that threatened to swamp him so totally.
“We’ll stop.” Spencer said again. “When we reach the top of the ridge, we’re stopping.”
But Johnny shook his head stubbornly. Knowing Cullen was too close to them to afford the luxury of a halt, even a short one. Turning the bay’s head on uphill and digging his heels into it’s flank, too much in misery to argue but determined not to hinder their progress.
An object hissed out of thin air and bounced off the saddle near his thigh with a high-pitched whine. In the next heart-beat as he realised they’d been ambushed, the bay plunged in panic rearing backwards.
He fought it, finding life in his sore muscles as he struggled for control. His only thought to get under cover, to get out of Cullen’s range. But the bay stumbled and he slipped sideways, hitting the ground with a slow thump but in shelter on the downward slant against a boulder. Trying hard to catch his breath as Spencer slid down beside him and drew his gun.
“Are you hurt, son?” He asked tersely, straining his eyes back down the trail.
The force of the fall had made any feeling uncertain for a second, but Johnny drove himself up and grabbed at his horse’s reins. Dragging the terrified animal closer so he could loop the tackle round the nearest scrubby brush.
Spencer cursed violently. Grasping his good arm and pulling him roughly back into the safety of the pink-shaded stones. “Stay down . . .”
He scanned the terrain below them. Searching frenziedly through the rocks and shadows for any sign of Venn Cullen as Johnny sank back against the boulders feeling the sweat running down his cold skin. His broken shoulder was a source of deep pain and there was a weakness in his limbs, a giddiness in his head that sent the landscape reeling.
“Can you see him?” He fought to clear his head once more, appalled at his own weakness. Terrified of passing out again as for a moment, his vision laced with black.
“I can’t see anything.” Spencer’s voice was curt with frustration and he gripped Johnny’s colt a little tighter. Johnny looked longingly at the gun. His gun. The need to feel it in his hand once more, a sudden blinding urge.
“Save the bullets . . .” he murmured weakly. “You won’t hit anything at this range.”
He took a breath, pushing himself up against the stone. Inching higher on his sore protesting body and trying to ignore each wave of pain. A movement to the right up amongst the craggy rose-hued canyon, and he knew where Cullen was. Touching Spencer gently on the arm as they looked at each other in mute understanding.
“To the right. The craggy outcrop . . .”
Spencer nodded brusquely. All business now, as he tightened his grip on the .45 and regarded Johnny searchingly. “I won’t be long.”
“Wait . . . ” Johnny’s voice was naked with unease. Hating the fact he was so helpless; knowing he had no choices left. He was dependant on his nemesis – on the man that planned to kill him. The irony of it struck rich and deep and he closed his eyes in defeat.
“Keep to the right. The overhang from the canyon wall will keep you outta his line of vision. He may not see you till you’re almost up on him.”
Spencer inclined his head briefly. Moving off at a surprisingly spry crouch through the scrub, leaving him alone and able to succumb to his pain and fear for the first time since they’d resumed their flight from Cullen in the morning. He drew up his knees and rested his forehead on them. Closing his eyes and clenching his teeth in agony. Mainly from the fire in his shoulder, although the ache in his head was worsening and he knew in his heart it was much more serious overall.
He wouldn’t last much longer; couldn’t last much longer at this rate. Whatever fate Spencer had planned for him might be thwarted by the hand of fate – and that was assuming they escaped from Cullen.
A single shot, and his eyes snapped open. Ears straining to hear something, anything that might indicate what was happening. Unable to stand it any longer, he lurched painfully to his feet. Stumbling as quietly as he could in Spencer’s footsteps towards the overhang.
No shots were fired at him but his flesh flinched anyway. Expecting to feel the familiar thud of a bullet in his body with every step he took.
A pair of Blue Quail flew squawking out of the scrub ahead of him and he jumped out of his skin. Heart pounding so much he was forced to pause, as his head whirled like a pin-wheel and he thought he was going to faint.
He put a hand out to steady himself, groping blindly for a hold on the rocky wall. Sweat dripping off him profusely as he gulped some air into his lungs and tried to stop the world from reeling.
A hand on his shoulder, and he hadn’t even heard Spencer come up behind him. Straightening up dizzily as he rocked on his feet. “Where’s Cullen?”
“Gone,” said Spencer abruptly. “Took a pot-shot at me then took off.”
“He’s playin’ with us . . . ” murmured Johnny tiredly, each word an effort on his tongue. “Bidin’ his time.”
Spencer nodded, his lips compressed as he put his arm out and helped Johnny upright again. Waiting for a moment as the younger man strove to regain his balance, leaning heavily against his shoulder as he fought for composure.
The situation was running away from him. His preconceptions shattered, all his plans awry. Instinctively, he hitched his arm tighter as Johnny trembled against him – muscles shaking and dangerously weak. The man’s courage sobered him. His determination and dogged obstinacy an increasing admiration. Hard, so hard, to reconcile this brave man with his grandfather. With the evil that was Harlan Garrett.
Johnny smiled sadly as his heart lurched. He was honoured, so honoured to bear Scott’s name. Hard to imagine that the name of Johnny Madrid should ever be mentioned in the same breath as that of Scott Lancer. The photograph flashed through his mind. Scott, dripping with navy and gold tassels. Standing next to a General, no less. His brother, the soldier. The war hero. He was suddenly ashamed he’d made a mockery of it. Joked, and pulled Scott’s leg.
He’d never told Scott how impressed he was by the picture. That secretly, he was proud as a peacock. His brother consorted with Generals – knew men that had helped shape a nation. Why hadn’t he ever bothered to tell him? Why had he pretended to scoff?
They made their way slowly back to the horses. Spencer’s heart as heavy as their steps as he wondered whether or not Lancer would be able to re-mount the bay. He allowed the man to rest against the boulders while he un-tied his horse and led it as close as he dared.
“Can you do it?”
“Si . . .” said Johnny vaguely. But when it came down to it, his weakness and lack of wind really scared him. Tightening his grip on Spencer’s hand for a moment as the man helped him place his foot in the stirrup. It more than hurt to pull himself up, sapping any strength he had left and stealing the oxygen from his lungs so that he struggled to breathe.
He leant across the pony’s neck, heart beating like a hammer. Dazedly wondering how long he would be able to stay conscious. To perpetuate this masquerade, this deadly game he was playing. Not much longer, he knew it in his heart. He wasn’t going to make it too far further. Running on willpower and adrenalin alone as he nudged the pony forwards and clung on by the skin of his teeth.
* * * * * * * *
They were climbing into the foothills now. The day stretching further onwards as the morning spanned into afternoon; sun climbing higher in the sky.
It was clear and cloudless, a perfect shining blue. But Murdoch had no use for the beauty all around him, the stunning rugged scenery. He was preoccupied with his thoughts, preoccupied with Johnny. Shifting uncomfortably in the saddle as the old niggle started at the base of his spine and the hours of hard riding began to take their toll.
He tried to focus on the task ahead of him but it stretched away, unknown. He was riding into uncertainty, into deep and dangerous waters. The man on the buck board not least of his worries as he glanced involuntarily across at him, anger rising up inside him all over again.
He didn’t trust Spencer, he couldn’t trust Garrett. Hell, he wasn’t even sure of Moffat. The quiet Englishman saw so much more than he said but was out here to save his master if there was any small chance that he could.
Murdoch knew the odds weren’t good. That Johnny’s life really depended on him and him alone. A slender, gossamer thread. He braced unconsciously. Trying to ease the kinks out of his traitorous spine and failing miserably, back aching regardlessly as he felt each one of Caledonia’s jolting steps.
Johnny was waiting for him somewhere in these hills. Waiting and relying on him. Biding his time and pretending to be Scott as he played a difficult and deadly game of chance. The stakes were too high – he was gambling with his life. Murdoch hoped his son would somehow beat the odds.
And it wasn’t the first time either. He’d played a similar game with Pardee, the same one with Warburton. A deadly dancing masquerade as he’d risked his life for Lancer. No, if Murdoch was being truly honest, it wasn’t just for Lancer. In his heart, he knew it was for him. On both occasions Johnny had done it for him. The first time for redemption, to prove himself in his father’s eyes. And almost, he’d paid the ultimate price as he’d taken Pardee’s bullet in his back.
It had been simpler with Warburton. Or at least it had started out that way. Johnny had done it to keep him safe. To keep one foot in the enemy’s camp so he could gain access to their plans for moving the herd. That it had ended as a matter of honour spoke volumes for his son. For the paradoxical mix of obduracy and integrity that was Johnny. The nobility at the essence of the man.
Murdoch sighed and reached inside his waistcoat. Drawing out the ornate Hunter and studying the heirloom timepiece his father had handed down to him. Two hours until the rendezvous, he both dreaded and wanted it. Desperate to see Johnny, to be able to reassure himself his younger son was safe, but deeply and terribly afraid. The nagging feeling that something was wrong an ever present and malignant voice taunting in the reaches of his mind.
He tried shaking free of the fear. Remembering the bitter words, the angry scenes. Regrets mingled with recriminations and wishes with wantings. He told himself he only needed a chance – one chance to have Johnny safe and well before him. To take him in his arms and tell him all the things he’d garnered in his heart. He’d been stupid, stubborn. A fool. Taking it for granted that there was time a-plenty to indulge in the luxury of self-righteous anger and fatherly disapproval as he tried to wear the patriarchal coat so new to him.
He should have known better. One thing this land, this harsh, uncompromising land had taught him, was that time was precious. A gift from the Gods. To waste it was foolish, to squander it downright wrong. Never had the adage ‘Seize the Day’ been as apt as it was out here when each day was so treasured and every minute rare.
He refused to believe it might be too late but Teresa’s face haunted him. Her fear was infectious and he knew she believed something awful had happened to Johnny. He only hoped with all his heart, that this time, she was wrong.
* * * * * * * *
By noon the journey had become a nightmare for Johnny. They were moving down from the foothills now, but each step was laborious; potentially dangerous as the trail became slippery with pebbles and scree, the horses missing their footing more than once.
After a while, the jolts of agony seemed to lessen and settle into a continuous litany of torment as he hung on for grim death and rolled with the gait of the bay.
“Lancer?” Spencer’s voice was abrupt as the man brushed up against his leg.
“Umm . . . ” His head ached in the sun’s bright glare making it hard to even speak. He blinked back the sweat in his eyes and rubbed them to make the film go away.
“Not long to go, now.”
Johnny nodded tiredly. Still playing the wretched game but knowing he could barely last another minute as the country swung madly before him and he sank a little forwards in the saddle.
“That’s it,” said Spencer curtly. “Your face is white as my shirt. We’ll rest a while.”
“Cullen . . . “
“We’ll take cover. Fifteen minutes or so won’t hurt.”
He reined in the roan behind a hollow in the rocks. Dismounting quickly and turning to help Johnny down from his horse. But Johnny had beaten him to it, leaning against the animal’s neck as he panted quickly for air.
“Sit down, Son.”
“I just need a minute. A minute . . . ” He handed Spencer the bay’s reins, crouching slowly down against a pile of boulders as he wiped a sticky hand across his sweat-drenched hair. Spencer returned and handed him the canteen.
Johnny drank because he knew he had to, but his stomach wrestled and heaved with it and he fought against throwing the whole lot up.
The daylight went from grey to black.
“Scott . . . ” Spencer was at his side in an instant.
“Watch out for Cullen,” he whispered, eyes closing as he leaned back. His balance was simply gone again, his head a weight of pain. “I’m a little tired, that’s all.”
He heard Spencer bend near him. Felt the man’s shadow across his face, the surprise of his touch on his brow.
“You’re burning up.”
The light began to come back slightly but it was copper-tinged and shifting with illusion. Amos Spencer as a focus at the centre of it.
“What do you care?” The words were out before he could help them, maybe because his head felt so light; because everything no longer seemed real anymore. His eyes opened. Blue fire burning with delirium as he tried desperately to pull his vision back into some sort of clarity.
The hand stilled on his forehead but he was hurting too much to care. The ground pitched and spun beneath him, whirling like the widest mustang he’d ever ridden; stomach trying to heave as he fought and refused to let it, refusing to submit to the panic that pervaded his very soul.
“Don’t worry about me,” he murmured. “I’m Harlan Garrett’s grandson – tough runs in my blood.”
“Sure it does.”
Was it just his imagination, or was there a hint of humour in Spencer’s tone? But he was too tired to pursue it, succumbing at last to the fog. Spencer pushed him back firmly and he felt the coolness of a damp cloth on his brow. The cold was comforting but it made him start to shiver.
“Lie back. Don’t be so stubborn . . .” The man’s voice was strangely subdued. “Although I guess stubborn runs in your blood, too?”
Johnny smiled weakly as he gave in at last to the man’s ministrations. Drifting down through the layers in his mind as he let himself rest for a moment, just a moment. Tilting back his head to the vast plains of blue – the endless tracts of sky up above him. The scree slope slipped and rustled as Spencer sat down at his side. Sighing heavily as he looked out across the valley with a jaundiced eye.
“It’s so bleak. So lonely.”
“So beautiful,” murmured Johnny. “Es bello. Wild, untamed and free.”
“It’s certainly those things,” agreed Spencer tacitly, as he watched the face of the man beside him. “You love it, don’t you?”
“Si,” said Johnny softly. “It’s here . . .” He pointed to his heart. “Inside my soul, mi alma. Every rock and stone of it. Every blade of grass.”
His breath caught for a second, the words reminding him of his father. Of that first day in the library; his father, him and Scott. The three of them tight with anger and doubt, awash with the fear of rejection. It seemed almost a lifetime ago yet barely a heartbeat away. How much had changed and so little. His eyes fluttered closed in distress.
“Your son,” he whispered. “David . . . Did he know how much you loved him?”
Johnny felt rather than saw Spencer’s sharp intake of breath, the grief and despair in his heart. And for a second he wondered if he’d pushed too hard. But it didn’t seem to matter anymore.
“No,” said Spencer desolately. “I don’t think he did . . .” The words were raw with honesty. Gaunt and exposed like the wilderness around them as Spencer felt the shades begin to peel back from his eyes. “Oh God . . .”
He buried his face in his hands and wept. Body shuddering with long-suppressed tears of sorrow and pain, anger and shame. Memories resurging like bittersweet gifts, blunting and sharpening the hurt in his heart. Opening and cleansing the stain on his soul.
A hand on his shoulder, and he turned into the man’s sympathetic embrace. Crying and heaving as the sobs shook him like a winter storm and pathetically glad of the silent comfort; the wordless presence of another human being. His tears were for Lucille, for Mike; but mostly his grief was for David. David who had paid the ultimate price in his name. To save him from disgrace and social condemnation . . .
Disgrace and shame be damned – all he wanted was his son. To hold him once more in his arms and tell him everything would be alright. To tell him how much he loved him . . .
“I’m sorry Son . . . ” It was choked out of him on a sob. For David, for Lancer, he was no longer sure. Maybe for both of them.
Johnny tensed for a moment, the words so close, too close to home. If he closed his eyes he could almost hear Murdoch. Pretend it was his father who’d said what he wanted to hear so badly.
“Esta bien . . . it’s alright.” He whispered quietly. “It’ll be alright . . .”
The balance of power had shifted subtly between them but somehow, he wasn’t sure that it would ever be alright again.
* * * * * * * *
“Jelly,” Cipriano reined in his horse, pointing up to the head of the cutand the ominous specks of black wheeling and dipping in the air. Vultures circling like grim harbingers.
“I seen ’em,” said Jelly grimly, heart refusing to believe what his head insisted on telling him . “Looks like them old Modoc caves set back in the rock.”
“Si,” agreed Cipriano uneasily. “Do you think . . . “
“No,” snapped Jelly. “No I don’t think. C’mon – let’s git on up there.”
He dismounted at the mouth of the cave. Wanting more than anything in the whole world not to have to go inside as a cloud of blowflies buzzed around his head and a sickly sweet stench assailed his nostrils. Fear tugged again at his heart. He knew that smell. Pulling up his kerchief and batting the flies away as he stepped into the gloom and waited for his eyes to adjust in the half-light.
He froze, worst fears realised as he saw the dim shape of a body next to the burnt-out fire. Moving forward hesitantly as he crouched down and turned it over. He gagged in horror, recoiling from the evil smell and swollen, blackened face. Turning aside and relieving himself of his breakfast onto the floor of the cave.
“Jelly?” Cipriano’s anxious voice from the cavern’s entrance. Taut and strained with dread as he heard the unmistakeable sounds of the older man’s distress.
“It aint him . . . ” Jelly staggered back into the sunlight. “It aint
Cipriano crossed himself rapidly, shoulders sagging in relief as he placed a quick arm around his friend and helped him down over the ragged rocks.
Jelly took a cleansing breath. Trying to rid the corruption of death from his lungs. “Looked like one ‘o them Cullen fella’s that took Johnny back on the road. There’s bin some trouble here. Shell casin’s scattered on the ground. Seems like someone lit out in an awful hurry.”
“Si,” said Jelly slowly. “Be like him to high tail it. But there aint no sign of the other two, and if Johnny escaped, you kin bet yer life they’re after him. Come on, we’d best git goin’. Catch up with Murdoch and old man Garrett.”
They moved back to where Isidro and Andreas were waiting with the horses. Jorge was shadowing Murdoch in the buckboard. The second best rifleman on Lancer, his skills were best used there. Jelly told the two men the news, watching their faces flood with quick relief as he reflected how Johnny was loved. Damn it, but the man had a way with him. A way of getting in under your skin.
His breath caught slightly in the back of his throat. Worry and guilt plaguing him in equal accursed measures. If he hadn’t been with him that day on the River Road, there was no doubt Johnny would not have been taken.
He would have become Madrid in an instant. Quiet and deadly, cold and still as a snake. Jelly wouldn’t have given much for the Cullen’s chances – not against Johnny Madrid.
The horses began to pick their way down the other side of the valley and he pondered the man who was Johnny. The man that he loved like his own. Easy to think of him as a perpetual boy, there was something almost innocent about him. But Johnny had been a man since he was twelve years old. Since the day he’d watched his mother die and first strapped on a gun.
Jelly sighed. Watching the sorrel lift his feet and tread carefully across the shifting scree slope. The key to Johnny was simple, there was nothing complicated about a man who was searching for love – for acceptance. The right to be himself. It was plain as the nose on your face, except that Murdoch just couldn’t see it. Or maybe he was afraid to see it – of being needed that much. If ever a man had his fingers burned . . .
Everything Murdoch had ever loved had gone. Been taken from him under the cruellest of circumstances. Oh Jelly knew the signs alright; the heart that had hardened against the hurt, the big unyielding man with his big unyielding soul.
Murdoch Lancer was scared. Scared to love his sons because love had brought him pain. Pain and loss, grief and loneliness. The shattering of all his fragile dreams. Love was a risk, the biggest gamble of all. Especially when you loved a man like Johnny. Jelly felt a lot like that himself sometimes. Johnny burned like the brightest star, but the brightest stars died first. They left the dark sky around them.
“Jelly . . .” Cipriano’s voice broke into his reverie. The Segundo had reined in ahead and dismounted from his pony. “Tracks. Looks like two separate sets. Two horses maybe, being followed by one more.”
Jelly frowned. “Thet don’t make no sense. Should be one set followed by two – if Johnny did escape . . .”
Cipriano nodded in agreement. “No entiendo. I don’t understand it. But the two are older – estoy seguro.”
Jelly fought to figure it out but try as he might, he couldn’t make head nor tail of it. It didn’t make him feel any better, either. Worry settling down inside him as he wondered what kind of trouble Johnny was in now.
* * * * * * * *
Harlan Garrett stared up into the branches of the gnarled oak. Running his hand across the rough dry bark, almost giddy with relief.
“Gallows Oak, you say?”
“Yes,” said Murdoch abruptly. “Two rustlers were lynched here over twenty years ago. Trouble was they made a mistake and hung the wrong men. Two
unfortunate drifters in the wrong place at the wrong time. The real thieves were caught down near Barstow.”
Garrett swallowed hard. He now knew why Spencer had selected this meeting place. The twisted reasoning behind his choice. The boy David had hung himself. Spencer obviously planned to pay him back in kind. He just thanked God Spencer had taken Madrid instead of Scott. The half-breed instead of his own beloved grandson.
Madrid had probably spent his entire youth a hairsbreadth away from being hung. Cheated a rope since he’d grown tall enough to look a hog in the eye. He narrowed his eyes with distaste, incredible to imagine the man was actually related to his own grandson even through the intractable Scot.
The morning hours had passed swiftly. Miles of dusty trail were eaten up in their wake and now they’d reached a crossroads – if it could aspire to be called that. A place where the rutted track forked into two, the ancient oak bisecting the middle. It was impassive and impressive. Green-boughed and almost sentient as it dominated the landscape all around them.
The fork to the left led to the mouth of a canyon. A wild flower-studded beautiful place. There were balsams and spruce, cottonwoods and alders. The rocky ground interspersed by and luxuriant with sagebrush that shimmered and glowed like a hazy blue carpet.
The terrain up to the right was tougher, more rugged. A craggy boulder-clad slope. Hollowed and shaded with rose-coloured rocks, purpled and shadowed with hidden ravines. The trail narrowed as it wound up into the heart of the hills; almost impassable for a buck-board, precarious even for horses.
It was to this side Murdoch turned. Searching up as far as his eye could strain for any sign of Spencer, any sign of Johnny. But all he could see was the distant speck of a bird of prey dipping and soaring up high in the blue. Unaware it was perhaps, the same bird his son had watched earlier, free and untrammelled of human concerns. He envied it’s vantage point. Wishing he too had the ability to see for miles around, to detect the slightest movement down here on the ground. He signalled quickly to Jorge who was concealed behind them, indicating he was to stay put.
“Seems to me Mister Spencer will bring your son down that way.”
Moffat had moved soundlessly to his side, looking up into the rough-hewn foothills as he shaded his eyes from the sun. Murdoch stared round at him sharply.
“Speaking from knowledge, Moffat?”
“Yes and no . . . ” Moffat paused, an unexpected smile creasing his face for a moment. “Military tactics, Sir. Twenty-five years in the best army in the world.”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow. “My eldest son might disagree with you, but my father certainly wouldn’t. Three of my uncles fought at Waterloo and my father was in Nelson’s navy.”
“My father too. Broke his heart when I didn’t go to sea. But it was the East that called me back then, India I wanted to see . . . ” His voice trailed away sadly and Murdoch recalled he’d lost his family during the Mutiny.
“I’m sorry, it must have been hard.”
Moffat braced himself unconsciously. “My eldest boy was fourteen when he died, he’d be a man now. No harder than it was for Amos Spencer, no harder than it must be for you.”
“I aim to get my boy back,” said Murdoch gruffly. “I’m not going to let anyone take Johnny.”
Garrett snorted loudly. “Spencer’s a mad man. How will you stop him? He may not even believe you when you tell him he has that . . . when you tell him he has the wrong man.”
“He’ll believe me,” said Moffat quietly, face closed with aversion as he regarded the man in the wagon. “He’s not mad, just mad with grief.”
Garrett snorted again. Stretching back with a grimace of frank distaste as he tried in vain to make himself comfortable on the wooden seat .
“We’ll soon see, won’t we? My bet’s on him taking the money for starters. And who knows what he’ll do when he finds out he’s been duped by that son of yours, Murdoch. Most likely try to shoot me on the spot. I hope your contingency plan will work, my life is in your hands!”
Murdoch stared back at him for a heavily pregnant moment, taking a breath as he turned away. “And so is Johnny’s . . . ” He searched the rocks again and prayed his son was alright.
* * * * * * * *
“Nearly there, Scott.”
Spencer looked across at Scott Lancer and wondered how the man managed to stay in the saddle. He could barely keep hold of the reins, lolling forwards like a broken doll his head hanging down on his chest.
It was less than a mile to Gallows Oak. He’d plotted it all so carefully in his head. Everything down to the last minute detail, no stone left unturned. He shifted his leg slightly, looking at the length of rope attached to his saddle. Coiled like a snake and loaded with meaning; symbolic of his son’s life and death. He’d come out West so filled with hatred, so consumed with the desire for revenge that somewhere down the line he’d lost his humanity.
The land stretched for miles all around him. Bleak and lonely, just as he’d said. But now he could see a little of what Scott Lancer saw in it. The aching challenge of wilderness, the unfettered savage beauty. The lure of it that stopped him going back East. Maybe the man was right, maybe it could get into your soul.
He smiled grimly at himself. Mocking his foolishness, his own sentimentality even as he wondered at it. He’d thought life had no more loveliness to offer him, had stripped him of all ability to feel. And yet there was something about this place, this country. Something that stirred at his heart . . .
The shot took him completely by surprise. Splitting agonisingly through flesh and muscle in his upper left arm and making him reel backwards. Another four inches to the right and it would have been through that very heart he’d just waxed lyrical about.
The roan wheeled, rearing in panic as his fingers slipped and scrabbled at the reins.
Cullen . . .
Spencer grit his teeth and held on. Looking across at Lancer in dismay as he saw the man could not control the bay. Sliding sideways as another shot echoed round the canyon walls and the roan bucked it’s head again.
He dismounted quickly. Just in time to catch the boy before he crashed to the ground and half-leading, half-dragging him across to the temporary safety of a small dry gulch. Fumbling with the colt as he waited for Cullen’s next move, the wound in his arm dull and heavy with pain.
Johnny looked at him dazedly, the whole world spinning before his eyes. “Your arm . . .”
“It’s not much. What about you?”
Johnny swallowed, the pulse hammering in his ears. Panic-stricken and slightly delirious now as he felt his senses slipping away. ‘I’m worse,’ he thought. ‘I’m getting worse. My head . . .’
But all he said was; “I’m okay. Watch out for Cullen.”
Spencer looked at him sharply seeing straight through the lie. But he had no time to deal with Lancer now, searching desperately amongst the rocks as he hunted for any sign of Cullen in the shadows.
“C . . . can you see him?”
“No,” said Spencer tersely. “Lie still. Perhaps he’s playing games again, still biding his time.”
“No . . . ” muttered Johnny vaguely. “This is it – he’s had his fun. Watch . . . watch your back.”
His eyelids fluttered heavily, it was hard, so hard to hold on. The darkness grew too deep; expanding and engulfing him. A place unto itself, all tangled and mazed like a big ball of string. He tried to come back again, wanted to stay awake, but everything just kept fading into black.
“Murdoch . . .” The word barely a whisper on his lips. “Are you there, Murdoch . . .”
Spencer looked down at him. Noticing the glazed eyes and parchment-like skin with alarm. Torn between clasping the feeble, groping hand and keeping watch for a vengeful Venn Cullen.
“Murdoch . . .” Johnny’s voice was weaker now. “Please Murdoch, por favor. Lo siento . . . I’m sorry . . . “
Spencer bit his lip against the ache from his own wound. Taking the flaccid fingers in a comforting grip as his heart contracted with remembered pain.
“It’s alright, boy. Don’t talk now, save your strength.”
“I never meant . . . “
“I said hush, boy.” He swallowed hard, looking down at the face in front of him as the features began to fade and alter. The blue eyes were lighter, the hair became brown. Changing into the face of his son, the son he’d neglected and lost. His body surged with love and emotion. Garrett, the wilderness, Venn Cullen forgotten. Taking his son into his arms as he buried his face in his hair.
“I’m sorry, David. So sorry. I love you so much, my son.”
Holding him close and rocking him gently as he protected him from the world and all the evil in it. From all the hurt and grief that had haunted his memories for so long. Expunging the guilt that devoured his soul, twisting and turning inside him as it ate and corroded his being. Dispossessed him of who he was.
The darkness had swallowed Johnny whole but he sensed the arms around him. Sinking into the warmth and comfort of them with a sigh of relief and gratitude. Reality shifted and memories jumbled.
‘Scott, where was Scott . . .’
He recalled for some reason of insanity he wasn’t allowed to say. Either that or there was danger involved, he just couldn’t remember anymore. Resting his pounding surging head against his father’s shoulder as the swathe of quasi-panic left his body and he felt the gentle fingers in his hair.
“Rest easy, son. Relax now.” The voice was gentle and soft. it filled him with fresh despair.
“My head – it hurts so much . . . “
“I know, I know. Just close your eyes and rest.”
He wanted to, he really did. But the inner voice of instinct that kept him alive was pulling and tugging at him now. Vaguely aware of a grim edge of danger, a dark cloud of threat that kept him from falling . . .
He tried to fight the shadows, struggling up through the pain and disassociation as he responded to the warning getting louder in his head. Pushing ineffectually at Spencer’s shoulder as he sought to sit upright again and the world became copper-edged.
He no longer knew where he was, just that he was in trouble. There was grave danger somewhere out there. He saw the blur of movement as a figure detached himself from the rocks behind them and knew the man meant them harm.
“No . . .”
The word was almost too much effort. Trying to impart the urgency to his companion as he summoned one last supreme effort and lifted up his head.
Spencer saw the fever in Johnny’s eyes a moment too late. Spinning and half-turning, the colt rising ineffectually in his hand as he pivoted to face Venn Cullen. The Texan grinned nastily at them. Leaning nonchalantly against a large boulder, the carbine cocked across his arm and pointed at Spencer’s chest.
“Well lookee here. Seems like you two got all nice n’ friendly now. Yo jist drop that gun, Mister Spencer – easy now.”
Spencer straightened slowly and let the colt slip from his fingers into the dust. He regarded Cullen steadily, striving to keep his voice calm.
“Why don’t we settle this like Gentlemen, Cullen. I’ll pay you as promised, with a bonus of five hundred dollars on top.”
Cullen’s smile tightened, eyes as hard as flint. “Only fivehundred? Don’t seem like much fer Yancy’s life.”
“A thousand then.”
Johnny watched as the man pretended to consider, clinging on desperately to lucidity as he fought to stay awake. He knew Cullen was dragging this out for pleasure. The Texan had no intention of letting either of them walk away alive. Sweat trickled down into his eyes, the salt stinging and burning as he dashed it clumsily aside with his good right hand. One way or another he would be out of this soon. He knew that now, accepted it deep in his heart.
The world was receding from him. Retracting and diminishing along with all sense of time and space, being and self. It was as though he were floating like that old eagle he’d seen. Soaring and gliding on a thermal. Moving into a vacuum of sunlight and drifting down a dreamlike path towards freedom from pain in his head. Away from the ache of loneliness that ate and eroded his soul.
The colt . . . His colt blurred hazily before him in the dust and the urge to die with it in his hand was like a raging fire inside. The gun was a part of him and he wanted to feel it against his palm. A reassuring solidity of wood and metal that fitted into the hollows of his body with all the surety of belonging, of right. Like the old familiar handshake of a friend.
It was who ‘he’ was. Johnny not Scott.
Madrid or Lancer? He was no longer sure if he cared. Maybe he was always destined to be both – two men in one. Two halves of one soul.
He breathed in shakily. No longer afraid when it hurt him so badly, not needing to feign his helplessness as he wasn’t so sure he could move.
Cullen laughed. Pulling back the lever on the carbine with a lazy flick of his thumb, his mouth twisted in a mocking sneer as he shook his head finally at Spencer.
“It aint about the money no more. You killed my brother, Mister Spencer . . .”
“You were planning to double-cross me. To kill me.”
Cullen snorted. “Lancer tell you that? D’he tell yo’ it was his idea?”
Spencer smiled suddenly, recalling the look of self-chagrin on Scott Lancer’s face as he’d admitted his duplicity back at the cave. He’d accused the man of stupidity then; but Lancer was one of the least stupid men he’d ever had the privilege to meet. He looked up at Cullen again. The hard evil corded in his cruel face, cunning cast to his calculating eyes. Contrasting it all with the man at his feet. The man who’s life was ebbing away even as they spoke.
“He told me,” he said evenly. “For all the reasons he came with us in the first place when you held the gun at the old man’s head. For all the reasons a man like you could never understand.”
Cullen tensed with anger, the devil leaping into his eyes as he gripped the carbine tighter. “Yo’ll pay for that, Spencer. Just like yo’ll pay fer Yancy . . . “
There was enough of Madrid left in Johnny for him to know the second Cullen tipped over the edge. He had a shimmering moment of perception – the same one that pre-empted every duel he’d ever fought. The gift or curse that enabled him to see the movement before it began; the flicker of intent in an opponent’s eye just in time to draw and take him out.
The first reach of his groping hand found the colt and for a fleeting second, it felt like coming home. Swift as light he raised the hammer, lurching drunkenly to his feet then stumbling as his body let him down.
But the momentum was enough to send Spencer sprawling sideways as Cullen’s bullet whistled harmlessly through empty air. Johnny was vaguely aware of someone calling his name, a voice familiar and urgent.
He was seeing things through a red haze. A strange dimness in his vision as he tried to aim the colt, muscles tense and trembling with exertion. Mindful of the darkening blur that was Cullen as the man gave a shout of fury and Johnny saw him raise the carbine again. The colt kicked back in his palm with a strong leaping intensity, the odour of cordite sweet in his nostrils as he looked up and saw Cullen fall.
The sky roared round his head, beating and pulsing with crimson as someone caught him gently in their arms and laid him back on the sun-baked earth. The world shivered and he reached for a hand, a touch. Grasping desperately onto warm strong fingers but he couldn’t maintain a grip. His hand fell back uselessly to the ground as the pain began mercifully, to fade.
He was so tired, so very sleepy now. Muscles softening and dissolving as the light began to fade. There were voices calling out to him, calling out his name. And he tried to answer, he wanted to, but his mouth didn’t seem to work.
The sun seemed suddenly brighter with streams of golden light. Bathing his body in a soft cocoon of warmth and safety as he sank towards it with a sigh of relief. Maybe he could rest a while now, perhaps at last they would let him sleep. He felt an aching wistful yearning that hurt inside his heart; so much he wanted to tell them, so many words unsaid . . .
But he was drifting with the radiance, beginning to let go. Eyelids closing softly as he fell towards the light.
Johnny’s head rolled to one side and Spencer watched as his fingers opened loosely like a flower in the sun. And somewhere above him up high in the blue, the eagle soared towards the heavens on wings of freedom in the azure plain of sky.
* * * * * * * *
A single shot. Echoing through the still hot air from somewhere close by in the foothills. Murdoch snapped his head up like a whippet, his eyes meeting Moffat’s uneasily as he strained his ears and listened hard. But there was no second shot and he stood for a minute racked with indecision.
“I made it up in those rocks.”
Moffat nodded. “Less than half a mile away.”
And then the second shot. Murdoch set his jaw and obeyed his instincts. Hitching his foot into Caledonia’s stirrup and swinging up onto the bay. “I’m going up there.”
Garrett looked up sharply. “You can’t leave me here alone.”
Moffat smiled urbanely as he joined him up on the buck board. “Don’t worry, Mister Garrett. No one’s going to leave you alone because we’re going too.”
Garrett glared at them both, hanging on tightly to his hat as the wagon jolted forward. “This is madness. We could be heading straight into a trap.”
“Could be,” agreed Murdoch coldly, unable to hide his disgust. “On the other hand Johnny might need us. In which case, I plan on being there for him.”
His first assessment of the trail was proving correct. It was risky if not downright perilous and the buck board bounced and lurched along with an uncomfortable Harlan Garrett clinging onto the side for dear life. Moffat just sat there imperviously, tooling the reins with ease.
A stealthy approach was impossible but Murdoch was beyond caring now. He’d had a bellyful of it all. Garrett, Spencer, his own gnawing sense of guilt. He wanted his life back again, his family gathered around him. Teresa to look at him with love and warmth in her eyes.
A Scott that wasn’t angry – a Johnny who was there. Things he’d become complacent about, had taken too much for granted. He swore deep down in his soul he would never be so self-satisfied again. That he’d never just assume he’d been gifted some kind of immunity. He ground his teeth with the irony.
For years he’d believed he was born under an unlucky star as one by one, all those he loved were lost. Railing as the cruel hand of fate had stolen his wives, his sons, his friends from him. Becoming one of the wealthiest most powerful men in the whole of California, whilst shoring-up his aching forsaken heart against the pain of isolation. The threat of a lonely old age.
And it got worse before it got better. There’d been a moment when Pardee had first come to the valley he’d actually believed he might lose Lancer. That the only thing to sustain him through the years of loss and loneliness would be stripped from him by pirates.
Thanks to his sons that hadn’t happened. Thanks to the miracle he’d thought would never come to pass. But happiness was seductive. It had lured him into a false sense of security, an expectation of comfort and companionship that was fragile and brittle as glass. It only took one small stone to shatter it into pieces again – jagged broken shards around his feet.
“Mister Lancer . . . “
Moffat pointed ahead but Murdoch had already spotted the horses. A bay and a roan cropping desultorily at the scrub as they wandered about unhobbled. The bay’s reins trailed on the ground behind him, catching and tangling in the undergrowth as he raised his head at their approach and snorted uneasily.
“Do you see anything?” He turned to Edward Moffat as the Englishman stood up on the buck board and searched the rocks with practised eyes.
“There . . . to the right. Up a little, two men, one of them’s . . . one of them is Mister Spencer.”
Murdoch followed his pointing finger. Heart leaping into his throat as he recognised the flash of a salmon shirt, the glint of black hair. “And Johnny’s with him,” he said grimly. “Where are the other two?”
“They’re pinned down,” said Moffat brusquely. “There’s something odd about this . . . “
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” muttered Garrett irritably. “Why don’t you just get up there and finish it? Can’t you pick Spencer off from here with a rifle shot?”
“Si Senor,” agreed Jorge, as he rode on up behind them. “I could take him out from here.”
“With respect, Sir,” Moffat’s voice was cold with angry civility. “We need to know what’s going on before anyone has to die. There’s been many a battle lost by rushing in too hastily.”
“I agree,” grunted Murdoch, as he continued to scan the rocks. “Up there, behind them. One man with a carbine.”
“I see him, Sir.”
“Murdoch,” said Murdoch gruffly. “It’s Murdoch. I’m going to circle up on his flank. Can you make that climb to their front?”
Moffat smiled slightly. “This is my kind of terrain, S . . . Murdoch. Reminds me of the North West Frontier.”
“Here.” Murdoch tossed him the spare carbine from the back of the buck board and looked at him hard. “Remember – I want Johnny back alive.”
Moffat nodded soberly. “I promise you that’s my priority, but I intend to talk to Mister Spencer if I can.”
“You’re both a pair of idiots,” scoffed Garrett as he leant back on the seat of the buck board. “The man’s mad. He won’t listen to either of you, and what about me? Is it safe to leave me down here by myself?”
Murdoch couldn’t bring himself to answer. Dismounting in one quick movement and turning back to Jorge. “Stay here with Mister Garrett, but keep your sights on the man with Johnny. Don’t fire unless I signal, though.”
He turned without another word and strode on off to his right. Moffat however, could not resist one final mild rebuke. “You’re quite welcome to join me, Mister Garrett.”
He grinned quickly to himself as he waited half a second, then turned to face the arduous track that led on up through the rocks.
Murdoch climbed as noiselessly as he could. Eyes drawn irresistibly to the man with the rifle as the short journey seemed to take a lifetime. If he didn’t know better he’d swear that Spencer and Johnny were pinned down together. Frowning as nothing made sense to him any more. He wished that Scott was with him. Not just because he was the best damn carbine shot on Lancer, but for the actual comfort of his physical presence. The optimism that having one of his sons at his side always seemed to generate within him.
He was closer now. Inching up behind the outcrop and watching with alarm as the rifleman outflanked Spencer and Johnny, confronting them with the carbine as he stepped into the open. Murdoch could just about make out Moffat working round behind them, finding a second of admiration in him for the adept way in which the Englishman had moved so quickly up the incline.
There was no sign of anyone else. Whatever had happened to the second piece of scum, he was definitely not here now; of that Murdoch was sure. Spencer had climbed to his feet and was exchanging words with the gunman but Johnny still lay on the ground. Murdoch moved forward until he was in earshot, straining hard to hear what the rifleman was saying and able to discern his Texan drawl.
“D’he tell you it was his idea?”
He saw Spencer smile, glancing from the Texan down to Johnny and back again.
“He told me – for all the reasons he came with us in the first place when you held the gun at the old man’s head. For all the reasons a man like you could never understand.”
The Texan was angry now. Hands tightening on his carbine as he levelled it at Spencer’s chest. Whatever had happened up here in these mountains, it was clear these men had fallen out. That bizarrely, Johnny and Spencer had formed some sort of alliance and were in it against this man. It was also clear that Johnny was hurt. His normally vital son lay limp and inert in the dust and Murdoch could see the sling on his arm, the livid mottled bruises all over his swollen face.
“Yo’ll pay for that, Spencer. Just like yo’ll pay fer Yancy . . .”
It took Murdoch a couple of seconds longer than Johnny to know what the Texan intended to do. Rising up from his hiding place with a shout of alarm as he saw Johnny reach for the discarded colt.
The name was torn from his lips but he didn’t know if Johnny even heard it. Crying out as he saw him stagger against Spencer and lift the colt to fire. The report was deafening, uneerily loud. Or maybe it was the sound of Murdoch’s heart.
He watched in slow motion as the bullet found a home. The Texan was dead in an instant and Johnny fell back into Spencer’s arms. Murdoch leapt forward. Terror and denial both fighting for a place inside him as he moved like a man in a dream. A nightmare. His limbs were all unsteady and he seemed to take too long in getting there.
Kneeling down in the dirt beside Spencer. Hardly even aware of the man as he reached for one of the long brown hands and lifted Johnny’s head. His face was white – his eyes wide open. But they were only the windows of a departing soul. Johnny didn’t know him, consciousness had gone.
And Murdoch knew he spoke to Johnny – he called him over and over, keening and shouting his name. He watched as his son’s eyes whispered closed. Watched as the fingers slipped from his grasp. Watched as his own heart was broken as he knelt in the dust at Johnny’s side.
* * * * * * * *
Moffat sprang forward in dismay. Raising the carbine to eye level as he aimed at the cutthroat’s head. But the Lancer boy beat him to it. Somehow finding the strength to reach for the revolver on the ground as he cannoned into Spencer and knocked him safely aside.
The movement undoubtedly saved Spencer’s life. Moffat knew he would have been cut down by the rifle bullet as sure as night followed day. There was a horrid silent pause as the cordite cleared and he watched with some amazement as Spencer caught the Lancer boy in his arms tenderly as a baby.
Lowering him onto the ground with infinite gentleness as he supported the lax body, own face creased and grey with distress as he smoothed aside the sweat-matted hair.
Blood dripped steadily onto the rocks from a wound in Spencer’s arm but the man disregarded it totally. All his focus, all his attention was on the man he held in his arms.
Moffat’s heart sank. He was a soldier, he’d seen death enough times not to recognise it now in the face of Johnny Lancer. He watched as Murdoch approached his son. The big Scotsman looked afraid, uncertain. Ignoring Spencer completely as he knelt on the ground and lifted one of the limp hands.
Another time, another place. Moffat remembered hearing the gunfire from the parade ground. Leading his frightened patrol through the ugly crowds as they barely made it back across the city with their lives before the rumours on the street became reality.
All of them with families in the cantonments – terrified the mob had got to them first. He’d known the minute he’d dismounted his horse. The bungalow door wide open, one of his wife’s dresses strewn across the lawn where a looter had left it, an obscene mass of satin ruffles; incongruous and forlorn.
Their bodies had been inside. His wife’s across the doorway to the nursery, his two younger children’s in the room itself. The wizened body of their Indian Ayah stretched over them, protecting them even in death. But no sign of his fourteen year old son. He’d torn frantically through the bungalow, searching room by room for any sign of him. Eventually finding the boy in the garden, one of his spare revolvers in his hand.
His heart had surged for a moment when he’d seen he wasn’t dead. Living long enough to clasp his father’s hand and apologise for failing to protect his mother and sisters from the mob before dying silently in his arms.
The pain of it had never left him. Keener perhaps than if they’d all been dead when he’d arrived. The grief and anger engraved upon his soul forever as he held his dying son in his arms.
And watching Murdoch Lancer brought it all back to him now. Hardly able to look at the lines of disbelief on the man’s face as he clung onto hope but gave into despair. Moffat sighed in sympathy and understanding, wretched as yet another man lost his son.
He was so distracted he almost missed the footfall behind him. The scrabble of loose shale as someone else approached. He turned quickly and saw Harlan Garrett climb with difficulty over the ridge. The man’s face was red with exertion but the look on it unmistakable as he laid eyes on Amos Spencer.
Spencer turned as if sensing him. Straightening up slowly as he relinquished ‘Scott Lancer’ to his father, and looked across at his nemesis. The silence stretched between them as their glances locked and held – the contrast between the two men almost shocking.
Spencer blood-stained, dusty and bedraggled. Several days growth of beard on his chin, a lifetime of sorrow in his eyes. Garrett began to smile. Coldly, deliberately, lips curling into a taunting sneer as he regarded the man who’d drawn him out West. This joker, this loser . . .
He’d even failed in his revenge. Garrett laughed out loud at Spencer’s bewilderment. The man’s dawning realisation that Johnny Madrid meant nothing whatsoever to him, Harlan Garrett.
“Who?” The one word, soft and anguished as he looked again at Madrid’s body.
Garrett laughed. Louder this time as he recovered his wind from the climb. “The wrong son, Spencer. You took the wrong son. Scott – my Scott, is safe and well. This man here is his half-brother. He means nothing to me, nothing at all.”
“My God . . . “
“You couldn’t even get that right,” gloated Garrett, turning the screw a notch tighter. “Look at him – the man’s half-Mexican. Did you really think for a second he was any grandson of mine?”
“But he said . . .”
“He did it for his brother,” said Moffat quietly, watching his master’s face anxiously as he tried to gauge Spencer’s state of mind.
Despite his appearance, despite the pain in his eyes, something seemed to have changed. The mania had vanished from him. The rigid obsession consuming him, gone. And with it the hatred had dissolved. Something had happened out here in these wild hills. Something to do with the man on the ground.
Spencer turned to look at Johnny again. Watching in agony as the big man who must be Murdoch Lancer cradled him against his chest. Their eyes met for a second in shared sorrow and Spencer shook his head dazedly.
“What . . . what’s his name? Tell me his name?”
“John,” said Murdoch softly. “His name is Johnny.”
“Johnny . . . ” Spencer whispered it carefully. “It suits him better than Scott.”
“You never said a truer word,” vowed Garrett with feeling. “How even you could have mistaken that . . . could mistake him for ‘my’ grandson. It almost beggars belief!”
“It’s my fault,” said Spencer dully. “He tried to escape and he fell. I didn’t realise he was so badly hurt – he never once complained.” He turned back to face Garrett again. “I was bringing him home to you, Garrett. It took a man I was determined to kill to teach me how to forgive. To show me that life could be kind . . . ” He wiped a trembling hand across his face but braced his back and pulled himself up straight. “I may be to blame, but it’s your fault too. You destroy lives, Garrett. Mine, my son’s – this man’s. How many others have you ruined? Probably too many to count.”
“I’m a businessman,” said Garrett coldly. “This country was built because of men like me who take risks and create wealth. I never do anything outside the law.”
Spencer laughed bitterly. “No. I’ll concede that at least. You just pay others to do it for you. You use and abuse, twist men’s lives to suit your purpose. You know what? The devil can take you. You’re not even worth my time!”
He turned away in disgust, unable to look at Harlan Garrett anymore. Knowing the final victory was in surrender, the giving-up of hate. Somewhere in these mountains Johnny Lancer had taught him that. He only prayed the price was not too high.
Garrett stiffened, sliding his hand inside his coat pocket as he stared at Spencer’s back. Moffat caught a glimpse of dull metal, sunlight on the barrel of a gun. Leaping forward with a cry of warning on his lips as Garrett aimed it dead centre between Spencer’s shoulder-blades, his finger tightening on the trigger.
There was a loud report as Moffat barrelled into him. Both men crashing sideways into the dust as Spencer escaped death for the second time that day.
A clatter of horses hooves and Jelly and Cipriano appeared over the crest of the hill, a look of almost painful anxiety on the old man’s whiskered face as he took in the scene at a glance. Sliding down off the sorrel and almost tripping in his haste to reach Murdoch’s side.
Moffat sat astride Garrett on the ground, taking a grain of satisfaction in grinding his knee into the small of the man’s back and feeling him squirm in discomfort. He checked the revolver and pocketed it grimly, reflecting that this was one time the ‘famed businessman’, had not acted within the auspices of the law. And in front of witnesses, too.
Jelly’s legs were shaking as he knelt alongside Murdoch and Johnny. Reaching out tentatively to touch Murdoch’s shoulder, a world of enquiry in his watery eyes.
But Murdoch was almost catatonic. He looked up at him dully and Jelly watched in dismay as his face crumbled and a lone tear began to roll down his cheek. The Boss never cried, thought Jelly as his own chest tightened with anguish. In the last two years since he’d been at Lancer, the Boss had never cried.
“Here . . . you take him.” Murdoch’s voice was thick with grief. “I . . . I can’t.”
Jelly swallowed. Blinking hard as Murdoch relinquished Johnny’s limp body over to him. A wrenching sob rising in his own throat as the dark head rolled back on his arm. He loved this boy so much – God how he loved this boy. The thought he might have lost him was more than his old heart could stand.
“Come on Johnny, come on boy. I never . . . never did tell ye ’bout thet nun and her corset like I promised . . . don’t do this to me, son.”
He ran a gentle trembling hand across the dusty head. Memories fond and absurd all jostling for space in his mind. Chasing a laughing Johnny round the courtyard with a pair of scissors and threatening to cut his hair, whilst Scott and Teresa had wept with mirth. That had been in retribution for finding an eyebrow shaved one morning when he’d woken. He’d wagered it for a bet one evening whilst a little worse for wear and refused to pay-up when he’d lost. Johnny had claimed it anyway; sneaking into his room in the night.
“It didn’t take long ter grow . . .” he said softly, voice breaking as his fingers hesitated on the soft hair; wiping it back from Johnny’s eyes even though he knew the gesture was futile.
And Johnny didn’t answer him. Lashes dark on his cheekbones, the bright blue eyes closed fast. Jelly started to cry and didn’t care who saw it. Hurt beginning to expand like a great black hollow inside him as he feared he’d lost the person he loved most in the world.
Eight weeks later . . .
Sunset. A symphony of unimaginable flaming colour hung across the valley. Breathtaking golden veils misty and ethereal, shining in rays of bright glory so beautiful it almost pained him to see. He paused for a moment, taking time to slow his steps. But it didn’t take too much effort and his feet dragged of their own will. Each step had seemed so much harder during the last eight weeks . . .
The sky was ablaze now. Bands of vivid rosy-clouds that shimmered against the blue. But only the blue hurt his eyes to look at – anything but the blue.
She was there of course. Just where he’d known she’d be. Skirts spread around her like a pale flower as she sat on the marble bench at his side. At his grave.
He swallowed hard. Ridiculous to be so afraid to approach her, to intrude yet again on her grief. But the anger she still felt for him was like a barrier between them, a barrier that might never be breached. He took a last painful look at the sky and walked across the lawn to sit beside her on the bench.
“It’s getting late, honey. Aren’t you coming in?”
“Maria’s preparing your supper,” she said remotely, staring away from him, her face as wan as the marble tombstone beside them.
“I don’t care about the supper,” he said with a flash of sudden anger. “Teresa, this can’t go on.”
“No,” she answered quietly. “It can’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She sighed restlessly. “I’m thinking of going away for awhile. To stay in Stockton with the Barclays. You know Victoria asked me at . . . at the funeral.”
“Yes,” he replied morosely, heart breaking all over again. “She did.”
“Well, I’m going to accept. Now that Scott’s gone to Boston, you don’t need me here. I want a change – I need a change. There are too many memories, too much at Lancer that reminds me of him.”
This then, was what he’d dreaded hearing. That she was leaving him too. His breath caught like ice in his throat, the words lost like ash on his tongue.
“Teresa, I . . . “
“I worry, you know . . . ” She stopped him from finishing. Twisting her hands compulsively together as she stared down at the grave. “What if he doesn’t like it here – what if he’s lonely all by himself?”
He swallowed hard. His heart ached for her, body ached to comfort her. But he knew he no longer had the right. She’d made that very clear.
“I’m sure he likes it, darling,” he tried to keep his voice even. “Remember how much he loved your garden? How he used to sit out here with you most evenings to watch the sunset . . .”
She was silent for a long time, but he had no wish to encroach upon her solitude. Listening to the breeze as it shushed through the treetops, watching the distant peaks of the mountains as they sparkled mauve like amethyst.
A butterfly danced past his hand, wings a ghostly flutter in the twilight as it landed briefly on the grave and was gone. Vanishing mysteriously into the shadowy evening like a dream. He sighed, almost afraid to talk to her but knowing it was his last chance.
“Don’t go, Teresa. Not because you’re angry with me.”
He felt her stiffen beside him, her restless fingers still for once. He took a chance and reached out for them, marvelling that just his palm could encompass both her tiny hands. Encouraged that she didn’t pull away.
“You say that I don’t need you here – I’ve never needed you more. And Scott won’t be gone for long, he promised he’d come home again . . .”
A single shining tear fell on his hands and he looked across at her lowered head, the thick brown hair and sweep of lashes against her creamy skin. She was no longer a girl, this child of his. A woman now, fashioned by the bitter hand of grief but all the more beautiful for it. Every sweet curve of her rich with the age-old secrecy of her sex – the enigma that had always eluded men. He was unsure of this Teresa, even a little scared of her. Amazing that such power could be wielded by hands as small as these, by a person who only reached as high as his breastbone.
But he wasn’t fooled for a moment by her size. Her heart was wide as the darkening sky, her spirit vast as the land. He knew he deserved all her anger, but wanted to ask her forgiveness. He needed her love once again.
“I knew, you know. I knew he wasn’t coming back this time.”
Her voice was so quiet he had to strain to hear her words. But she still wasn’t looking at him. Gazing off through the trees and the nodding banks of roses, her face pale and shuttered in the dim light.
“That morning in the kitchen, the shadow was there. I should have said something – should have stopped him leaving . . .”
“No,” he said painfully. “I sent him after Tilbury’s mare.”
“But I knew,” she said again, voice breaking in suppressed agony. “I knew and I let him go.”
“Oh sweetheart . . .” he wanted so much to touch her. To pull her into his arms as he’d done when she was a tiny girl. But the wall was still there between them, a little crumbled perhaps, but still impregnable and standing.
“Johnny would have laughed. He would never have stayed.”
And he knew in his heart it was true. That really, they had only had him with them on borrowed time. A brief glimpse of summer then gone. Like a butterfly – like his mother, vanishing into the sky on a flash of jewelled wings. Something so beautiful was never meant to stay for long.
He’d always felt it from the very first. That Johnny was elusive, here today and gone tomorrow. He only wished tomorrow had never come.
“Maybe I should have tried,” there was no question in her statement, just a self-condemnatory acceptance that cut him like a knife. So this then, was the crux of her grief. She was holding herself responsible for Johnny’s death.
It was tragic and sadly ironic that Teresa of all people should confess to this, when the rest of them were already crippled with blame.
Scott, so angry and silent at the funeral. Rigid with pain and self-recrimination as he’d stared dully at his brother’s coffin on the bright morning they’d buried him. Murdoch knew Scott saw himself lying there in Johnny’s place. That he was racked with guilt, and a fury so black it had engulfed him. No matter what anyone said in mitigation, no matter it wasn’t his fault. Johnny had given him the greatest, the ultimate gift. And Scott almost hated him for it. Except that he loved him too.
Murdoch forced himself to remember the cruellest day. The day out in the foothills holding Johnny in his arms. He could still feel the sense of unreality, the dazed denial in his head. But all the while his heart had known the truth. Calling to him brokenly, crying out his name. He wasn’t sure if Johnny even heard him, he hoped, oh he hoped that he had, but his son was gone from him. Radiant and sure, with his brilliant blue eyes and his gift of a smile – all the bold force of his own life expended in one last magnificent legacy. The bequest of that life to Scott.
If only Johnny had known him at the end. But Murdoch was so afraid he hadn’t. His son’s eyes had been open, but there had only been the fading light – the uncanny flicker of a leaving soul, it’s life-essence gone forever.
Why must death always find someone to blame?
Murdoch pondered this question sadly as the crickets began to sing. The day descending in a last dramatic finale of purple and gold as the sky darkened and he could see the moon beyond the hills.
He sighed gently, and turned back to the girl at his side. “What would he say if he could hear you?”
She didn’t answer for a long time. Another tear splashing on the back of his knuckles even though she never made a sound. Then honestly; “he’d say it wasn’t my fault. That I shouldn’t feel guilty.”
Murdoch felt a flush of relief. “Yes he would. And he’d be right. It’s no more your fault than it is Scott’s – then it is mine, perhaps. He even forgave Amos Spencer . . .”
He was silent himself then. It had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done in his life, refusing to press any charges against Spencer. Scott had been disbelieving and furious with him, egged on by Harlan Garrett who was facing a bitter justice all his own. But Scott hadn’t been in the mountains that day . . .
He hadn’t seen how much Spencer had grieved for Johnny, or heard the words the man had spoken to Garrett and Cullen about him. And for once in his life, Murdoch had known with a certainty that brooked absolutely no argument at all, it was what Johnny would have wanted. He ‘d been unequivocal about it. Refusing to budge in the face of all Scott’s impassioned entreaties and Garrett’s mock-solicitation. He had heard Johnny’s voice in his heart.
Spencer and Moffat had returned to Cape Cod. The man had wanted to come to the funeral, but Scott was far too distressed, and Murdoch could not allow it. But he also refused to have Garrett there. The thought of the architect at the root of all this pain weeping crocodile tears over the body of his dead son was more than he could bear. He took a grain of consolation from the news Spencer had sought legal advice regarding the dubious takeover of his company – that Garrett had offered the man a substantial sum of money in return for forgetting his murderous intent back in the foothills that terrible day. But it was meagre solace.
Scott had gone back to Boston with his grandfather. And even though Murdoch knew it was to get away from Lancer and the ghost of Johnny that haunted them all, it still hurt more than words could say. Watching as his white-faced eldest son had climbed painfully into the coach, leaning heavily on the stick he was still required to use as he recovered slowly from the damned accident. It was yet another cruel reminder of everything fate had stolen from them.
Things between Scott and Garrett were at their lowest ebb, and Murdoch could have wept for his eldest son as he watched Scott floundering between anger and blame. Scott was hopelessly lost right now. Almost as lost as he was. Torn, as he searched for some kind of reason for what had happened, the right person to accuse of Johnny’s death. But there were no easy answers. Maybe they were all a little to blame – maybe that was why it was so hard.
Teresa had started to cry in earnest at his words, shoulders shaking as a desperate sob escaped her lips. “Why Murdoch, why? Johnny was so good . . . he cared so much. Why couldn’t life ever let him be happy? It’s not fair – it’s just not fair!”
He could restrain himself no longer. Taking her rigid little body into his arms as she shook and shuddered against him with pain. “It isn’t fair, darling. Nothing about this is fair. What happened to Amos Spencer, what happened to Scott, to us . . . “
“But Johnny paid the price.”
“We all did. Maybe more so then he did. Johnny died for love – the biggest reason of all, knowing in his heart he was keeping Scott safe. He loved his family more than anything, Teresa. He paid that price of his own free will.”
She stilled against him then, the convulsive shivering done. “I just wish . . . “
“Wish what, darling?”
“I just wish I’d told him what he meant to me – how much I loved him.”
Murdoch rested his cheek on her hair, the echoing hurt inside him almost unbearable. “Poor little heart – he knew. He knew alright.”
But he wasn’t sure the same could be said of him.
She didn’t bother arguing. Curiously glad of his warmth and support despite the fact her anger toward him was still unresolved. Eased a little maybe, but not yet finally cured. Perhaps it never would be, the means of that cure was gone forever. Gone just like her dreams.
Those hazy golden dreams of innocence and youth when life was a gift forever, and time was on her side. But time itself had cheated her and fate had played her false. Stolen her hidden hopes for the future, stolen her secret heart.
She got unsteadily to her feet. “I won’t go to Stockton.”
But he shook his head resolutely. “No, I was being selfish. It will do you good to . . . to get away. And Victoria will take wonderful care of you,” he paused, and she heard his voice tremble slightly. “Just promise that you’ll come back to me.”
She stared at him startled, and became still. For a second she’d heard the echo of another voice, seen the shadow of a pair of bluer eyes, the warmth of a precious smile. The evening shimmered and was still.
“He needs you, querida . . . “
“Johnny?” She called out to him, knowing in her heart she couldn’t reach him, but filled with wild longing all the same.
“Don’t give up hope, they need you now . . . “
“But I need you!” The words burst inside her, but she wasn’t even sure she’d said them aloud, pain hammering in her head like a drum. “I love you.”
She felt it then, a sigh like a kiss. The merest ripple of night air across her face, her lips.
“I know. I love you too, I always will. That’s why I want you to be happy, to stay where you belong.”
“How?” The tears choked her again, tightening in her throat with a bittersweet ache. “How can I be happy without you?”
“I’ll always be with you, but they need you now.”
He was leaving again, and she knew it. Reaching for him blindly, but knowing he couldn’t stay. Never more conscious of the frailty between eternity and time, dream and reality, and knowing at last in her soul, that love could transcend it all.
“Goodbye . . . “
“Hasta Luego, amada . . . “
“Teresa? Teresa honey?”
The night air hazed and closed around her with a snap. Surging back to clarity as she lifted up her head. Wiping away her tears with the back of her hand, and looking into Murdoch’s anxious face.
“It’s alright, I . . . I heard you.” She blinked again, taking a big breath of the heady scent of jasmine wafting on the breeze to steady her senses and putting her hand on his arm, her first spontaneous gesture towards him for weeks.
“Why don’t we both go to Stockton, Jelly too? Until Scott’s due back, of course.”
Murdoch regarded her with a glimmer of hope in his shredded heart, but honesty forced him to tell her the truth. She was no longer a child anymore.
“There’s something you ought to know first. About Scott… There’s a chance he might not come home… “
But she shook her head at him with a small sad smile. “He’s coming back to us – I know it . . .” The words hurt them both unexpectedly, remembering another long-ago time she’d spoken them, about Johnny then and not Scott.
“Have faith, Murdoch,” she paused. “I just know it. Scott will be coming home.”
Just as she’d known Johnny wouldn’t, somewhere deep down inside. A different pain, a different poignancy, and one that would live with her forever. She linked her arm through that of her guardian’s and led him away from the bittersweet spot they’d chosen for Johnny in the garden.
A walled corner in the dappled shade of a tree. Surrounded by roses and scrambling jasmine, by borders of sweet-scented herbs. A quiet sanctity of beauty and harmony, peace and serenity. Framed forever by the land he’d loved so much, the benevolent watch of the distant mountains, the sky that had echoed his eyes.
Behind them in the half-light, the butterfly danced on pale wings – fluttering briefly in the fragile night-scented breeze. A breathtaking flash of summer, then gone . . .
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