Word count 38,420
WARNING: Please be advised there is some violence and reasonably strong language included in this story.
“No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.”
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxEmily Bronte 1818-1848
“Hey there querida, need a hand with that?”
Johnny Madrid Lancer vaulted over the low garden wall like a cat, taking Teresa completely by surprise. Her hand flew to her throat as she jumped out of her skin. Dropping the basket of peaches she’d just picked so carefully, and watching in dismay as they rolled along the path and under the flowerbeds.
“Johnny, you startled me.”
Immediately contrite, he chased after the fruit. Replacing them in her basket, as she knelt down beside him in a flurry of white petticoats.
Johnny rocked back on his heels as they clashed heads reaching for the last peach. Tilting her face up reflexively to examine her forehead for injury, his fingers lingered for a moment on her glossy chestnut hair, as he studied her with astute azure eyes.
“You alright Miel?”
“Look at them Johnny – they’re all bruised now.”
Suddenly still, he hid his anger carefully. Taking a peach from her hand as he ran a finger over the torn flesh. “Did they come back Teresa, did those vaqueros bother you again?”
“No,” she shook her head adamantly, too adamantly. Breathing in deeply. “No, they didn’t come back. Jelly must have scared them off with that big old squirrel gun of his. I’m fine, honestly.”
But she didn’t look fine he thought, furious with himself for not being here yesterday when she’d really needed him. She was acting as nervous and jumpy as he’d ever seen her. Even though he hid it impeccably, it made him cold and implacable with rage.
Murdoch and Scott were away for a week in San Francisco talking railroad contracts. He’d volunteered to stay behind with Teresa and Jelly to keep an eye on the Estancia. It was a busy time of year for them. Both he and Cipriano had been run off their feet from dawn to dusk. Working until well after nine most evenings and coming in so tired, he’d fallen asleep over his supper a couple of times and Teresa had been forced to wake him up to go to bed.
The nice thing about it was, whenever it was only Jelly Teresa and him at the hacienda, things were always more relaxed. He enjoyed the closeness that had built up between the three of them – the way he was never under any pressure to be anything or anyone other than himself. It was also kinda nice and strangely liberating, on the evenings when he did manage to stay awake, to talk to Teresa in the light of the dying fire. To watch her face in the leaping shadows as she listened without judgment or censure. The sympathy huge in her wide brown eyes. She made him feel at peace. But yesterday, all that had changed. A small group of vaqueros had ridden by the Estancia so-called looking for work. It had been just after lunchtime, and he and all the hands had been out on the range. Teresa had been working alone in the gardens whilst Jelly and Maria had both enjoyed their afternoon siesta. Moving slowly around her beloved plants, basking in the rare peace and solitude, as she deadheaded her roses. The vaqueros had been courteous enough to her at first, but once she’d told them there was no work available, their demeanour had suddenly changed.
Their leader had been a gringo, a white man. He’d asked to speak to Murdoch and unthinkingly, she’d told him Murdoch was away for another two days in San Francisco. Things had gotten ugly then. Two of them had grabbed hold of her – badly bruising her arm, clamping a hand over her mouth after she’d managed one terrified scream.
Johnny’s lips tightened – he thanked God Jelly had heard her. Coming out armed with his antique squirrel gun just in time to frighten them off. Or to interrupt whatever it was they’d had in mind for her once they realised she was on her own.
Taking the basket out of her hands, he helped her to her feet again and took hold of her arm. “Come on, I’ll walk you back to the hacienda.”
Those bastards were damn lucky he hadn’t been at home yesterday, or they might not have escaped intact. As it was, part of him had been tempted to take off after them once he’d seen the bruises on Teresa’s arms. Learned from Jelly what had happened.
Common sense and concern for Teresa had prevailed. Besides, he figured they’d be long-gone by now. But the anger had burned inside him all day, and he’d left two desperately needed men behind at the hacienda to stand guard, just in case they returned to try their luck again.
In his heart he knew why he’d come home early today. It had become impossible for him to concentrate on criss-crossing between the hands riding stock. Those mending the fences on the northern boundaries – the men harvesting alfalfa in the fields on the flats. Eventually he’d just given up and headed Barranca back home towards Lancer to see for himself, Teresa was safe. As they reached the kitchen door, she turned to him suddenly, eyes filled with total comprehension.
“You didn’t have to come home early, Johnny. Pablo and Joaquin have been watching me all day. I know how busy you are.”
He smiled gently at her, as he opened the door. “Pablo and Joaquin can go back out on the range. That leaves me free to take you into Morro Coyo. You can pick up those things you wanted from the store. After that, we could have some supper at the Cantina, still get home before sundown. Sound good?”
“Oh yes . . .” She beamed at him gratefully, and he held his breath slightly as her face lit up. “It definitely sounds good. It sounds wonderful. Can we ride? I don’t have too much to pick up, just a few things for Scott and Murdoch, they should all fit into the saddle-bags. . .”
“Then we’ll ride,” he grinned indulgently. “I’ll go see to the pinto while you get changed.”
She picked up her skirts and rushed through the kitchen past a startled Maria. Brown hair flying, white petticoats foaming round her ankles. Johnny watched her go. Placing the basket of peaches down on the table. Sneaking an arm round Maria’s waist, as he stole one of the biscuits she had cooling. Adroitly dodging the wooden spoon she mock-aimed at his head.
“No supper for me or Teresa tonight. We’ll eat at Morro Coyo. . .Hey, these are real good.”
She smacked his hand away, and nodded her head. “Bueno. It will help put the roses back into her cheeks, si?”
And he stole another biscuit anyway. Sauntering out of the back door as she made no effort to stop him. Watching with fond understanding in her currant-black eyes as she shook her head slightly, and smiled. Although she would never admit it out loud to anyone, it was no secret this younger Lancer son was her favourite. It did her old heart good to see him finding his place in this family after being alone for so long. She knew she shouldn’t spoil him, but it didn’t hurt to slip the odd little extra into his lunch-pail. The larger helping onto his supper plate . . . She told herself that it couldn’t possibly do him any harm. For after all, no one had ever spoilt him before. It was about time someone did.
“You off out again?” Jelly ambled into the barn just as Johnny swung the saddle across the pinto’s back.
“Yes and no. I’ve sent Pablo and Joaquin over to the northern boundary to help with the fencing. Teresa and I are riding into town. Guess we’ll be back around sundown.”
Jelly nodded sagely. “I see.”
“You do?” Johnny’s voice was quiet and non-committal, but Jelly couldn’t help from snorting.
“Be careful boy, don’t git yer fingers burnt.”
Johnny didn’t even bother to dignify the comment with a reply. Leading the pinto out to the yard where Barranca was already saddled up, and waiting at the hitching post.
Teresa looked out across the valley as they cantered back towards the hacienda and for a second, her breath caught in her throat at the sheer beauty of the countryside. The sun was beginning to go down behind the hills, and the light had assumed that delicate evening shade of rosy-pink, as it bathed the land in an almost supernatural glow.
She looked across at Johnny, about to ask him to stop for a moment. But he must have read her mind. Pulling Barranca up into a walk, as together they sat and gazed out over the view.
“You told me once this was the most beautiful place in the whole wide world,” he said softly.
“I remember. The day I picked you and Scott up from the Stage. The day you came home.” She smiled gently as she recalled it. “I don’t think you were all that impressed.”
“Yes I was,” he replied seriously, in a slightly faraway voice. “I was overwhelmed by it – by its beauty. . .but I hated it too.”
“Because of what it represented?”
“No,” he said honestly. “Not what, who.” He looked across at her for the first time, and she saw the edge of pain that still haunted his eyes. “I was so eaten up with anger, even the beauty of the land was like a slap in the face.”
“It can’t have helped that I praised it so much,” she answered soberly. “I’m sorry Johnny.”
He smiled slowly. “No. Don’t be sorry. It wasn’t your fault I was such a fool.”
She shivered as a cold finger trailed down her spine. Remembering that time, was it really three whole years ago? “I was afraid you wouldn’t stay. That we’d lose you again, and it would be forever this time.”
The light mirrored his eyes for a brief second. Glowing an almost unearthly shade of turquoise as they caught and held her face like a caress.
“I think I was lost the minute we pulled up that day and you showed me this view. Somethin’ inside was tellin’ me I’d come home . . .Even though I did my best to sabotage it all.”
She shivered again. The bitter memory of how close they had come to losing him, etched crystal clear in her mind. Barranca streaking across the meadow like an arrow. Flying over the boundary fence as though he were a golden Pegasus. . .
And just when they’d thought there was a chance he might make it, the volley of shots that flung him to the ground. A motionless figure, sprawled at the base of what she would always think of as Johnny’s oak. They’d fought to bring him home again for two weeks after that. The bullet-wound, blood loss and fevers had tried to steal him away from them forever. But eventually that grim battle had been won. Just as they’d beaten Day Pardee and his mercenary band of land-grabbing scum at long last.
“We nearly did lose you,” she whispered. Pushing the memories aside as she looked at him now – so still and vital beside her. Eyes watching her acutely and looking for . . .what?
But the moment was broken as Barranca whinnied uneasily. Dancing back from the edge of the overhang, ears pricked and twitching. Johnny swivelled in the saddle – on the alert immediately, as his hand moved automatically down to his thigh.
“What is. . .?”
The words had barely left her lips as the first shot rang out. The pinto reared in panic. For a couple of desperate seconds, her hands scrabbled for a hold on the reins. But then Johnny’s arm steadied her firmly, as he leaned across blocking her body with his own, and she managed to bring the horse under control.
Johnny cursed himself for not bothering to bring his carbine. Slapping the pinto on its haunches as he urged Barranca forwards, knowing they were desperately short of cover and horribly exposed. He tried to work out how long it would take them to make it to the clump of trees in the distance. They had to get out of the open to have any chance at all. Another shot spat off his saddle. He estimated at least two shooters between them and the only road home to Lancer. That left them with the single option of heading back to Morro Coyo, or branching out cross-country.
“Teresa, keep low!” he yelled, as another volley of shots came at them out of the twilight. Worried she wouldn’t hear him because of the speed they were travelling. Something burned into the top of his left shoulder making him flinch down even further across Barranca’s neck.
Her cry of dismay rang in his ears at the same time as he spotted three more horsemen on the Morro Coyo road. Bearing down towards them and blocking off their other means of escape. The only hope they had now was to cut across country. Head up towards the mesa and then loop round towards the back of the Estancia.
That’s if they made it that far he thought grimly – not even bothering to attempt any return fire. As deadly as he was with the .45, he knew the chances of him hitting a moving target at this distance were almost impossible. He didn’t want to waste a single bullet.
The light was fading fast now. But it was both a blessing and a curse, as they blurred and merged into the shadows away from their pursuers. The horse’s hooves slipping on the dangerous terrain. He gave up silent thanks for Teresa’s strength and common-sense. The courage that gave her the guts to keep her head. Stay calm and not panic at a situation that would make most people act like startled rabbits. Not her though, not his Teresa . . .
“Johnny?” She called to him over her shoulder, a soft question in her voice.
He grinned back at her briefly with a flash of white teeth. “We’ll head for Jackson’s Pine. We can take cover at the top or loop back home.”
They didn’t waste time on any more words, urging the horses on at a fast lope. It was too dark and dangerous to gallop them across the rugged uphill country. Johnny strained his ears for the telltale signs of pursuit. But it was impossible to hear anything over the sound of their own horse’s hooves. However no one was firing at them any more – that had to be a good sign as far as he was concerned.
Teresa rode upright in the saddle, she seemed fine. His first, initial terror that she might have been hit, was gradually fading as he realised she was unscathed. But his own left shoulder was beginning to throb with a vengeance. He could feel a large warm patch where his shirt was sticking damply to his back. Reaching round awkwardly with his right hand, he felt the spreading wetness come away on his fingertips. Smelled the familiar coppery scent of his own blood. They must have got him with a rifle bullet. It didn’t feel particularly bad at the moment, hadn’t hit anything too vital. But it hurt, and he was losing a fair amount of blood. Blood he couldn’t afford to lose right now, if he wanted to keep Teresa safe and alive. To get her back to Lancer in one precious piece.
He had a pretty good idea who their bushwhackers were. Yesterday’s vaqueros come back to try their luck. Or maybe he and Teresa had just strayed across them by some bad luck of their own. Too much of a temptation away from the Estancia.
Whatever the circumstances, there was a good chance they’d given up the chase in the darkness and decided to throw it in as a bad hand. Or at least, he hoped they had. From what Jelly had told him yesterday, they’d been scum. Brave enough to bully a girl alone – damn quick to back down and turn tail when faced by a man with a gun.
The going was tougher now as they climbed further into the foothills. The sun completely vanished in a crimson ball of flame. It wasn’t easy weaving through the trees, but both of them knew this countryside. Johnny hoped their pursuers didn’t.
Jackson’s Pine was an abandoned prospectors cabin high up in the tree line. Tumbledown and ruined now, it was a convenient place to aim for. They could either seek shelter there, or use it as a vantage point to check for any signs of pursuit. It was also roughly halfway home – in a roundabout, off the beaten track kind of way.
In the spring, they’d come up here a couple of times and picnicked. Him and Scott and Teresa. Exploring the vast country with a sense of hungry delight, as she’d shown them all the places she’d known since childhood. The old mines and abandoned homesteads. The Indian caves. Waterfalls and swimming ponds – pools of limpid water, perfect for dusty bodies after a hard day on the range. Places she knew and loved. Places they all should have played in together, if fate had dealt them a different, kinder hand.
But it hadn’t happened of course. Destiny had chosen a different path for him, a different path for Scott. And however many regrets he had, whatever sense of bitterness he still felt about his less than stellar past, he could only thank whichever Gods watched over him for eventually bringing him home to Lancer.
They’d been riding steadily uphill for over an hour now. The stars beginning to prick through the firmament above their heads, as the dusk finally surrendered to the night. The moon rose up in the sky. Clear and silver, making the forest a place of magical, shadowy, beauty.
The ridge of pine trees provided a means of deep cover, and the horses were happier, as their hooves padded softly across the layered beds of fallen pine-needles. The rising tang of resin sharp and pungent in their nostrils.
After a while, Johnny put out a hand to Teresa. Drawing them to an abrupt halt in the shadow of a particularly large tree. He strained his ears through the darkness for the sound of any voices – the jingle of a harness. Anything at all to indicate they were still being pursued. But the only sound he could hear was the wind shushing through the tops of the pines. The faraway yips of a coyote back down in the valley. She curled her fingers around his, and he could sense her holding her breath beside him in the darkness. Listening hard as well, her small body tense with anxiety and strain. He held her hand gently. His heart aching for her.
“I think we lost them.”
“What do we do next?”
“We’ll move on up to Jackson’s Pine and wait till dawn. It’ll rest the horses and we’ll be able to see anyone comin’ by. Makes no sense to head for home now, the ground’s too dangerous in the dark.” He paused, and frowned. “If they’re real determined and they’ve any brains at all, they may figure out what we have in mind and circle back to Lancer on the road. I can’t risk them waitin’ in the darkness for us. The mornin’ll give us a clear view comin’ down the valley.”
She nodded. Squeezing his fingers briefly, as she nudged the pinto onwards. Vanishing through the trees in front of him with a flash of its white haunches. He clicked gently to Barranca and followed in her wake – aware that the throbbing in his shoulder was beginning to intensify with every step the pony took. Cursing himself for the injury, and fighting off an attack of sudden, reeling dizziness that rushed over him like a wave.
He knew he had to stay sharp. Alert for her sake. He couldn’t afford to succumb to weakness. Nothing that might let her down or expose her to any more danger. If he were by himself, he’d take a chance on Barranca getting him safely across the rocky ground in the darkness. Maybe run the risk of a second ambush on his way home. But he knew the pinto wasn’t up to it, and he wasn’t about to put her in any kind of danger. They were in enough as it was.
They eventually exited the trees into a small clearing. Backed-up against a wall of sheer rock in the side of the mountain. The old cabin nestled into the cliff hollows. Neglected and sorry for itself. Half the roof missing, and one of the walls collapsed into a forlorn pile of rubble which lay partially strewn across the foreground. But otherwise, it was just as Johnny remembered it. Looking out across the tops of the pine trees, with a clear view down the cut towards the valley.
Gun in hand, he swung down cautiously off Barranca and bade Teresa stay back in the safety of the pines. Walking cautiously across the open patch of ground – ears pricked, senses alert as a cat’s. Eyes switching from shadow to shadow on the lookout for any movement. Any sign at all the clearing wasn’t as deserted as it appeared to be. As abandoned as it promised at first glance.
A slight rustle to his left, and he swung round in an instant. The colt unerringly finding the source of the sound, as a raccoon scuttled over the stones. It stopped and glared at him. Bright-eyed and indignant at being disturbed in it’s nightly forage for food. Johnny exhaled slowly and smiled a little; glad he hadn’t fired first, and devil with the consequences.
Up here in the mountains, the sound of a single gunshot would travel for miles at night. Anyone still looking would know they hadn’t made it home. He straightened up – looking back painfully over his left shoulder towards Teresa, barely able to see her in amongst the trees.
She rode forwards and dismounted neatly. Following him with the pinto as he led Barranca around the leeward side of the cabin. Out of sight of the trail.
“We’ll hitch the horses here.” His voice sounded strained, and a little odd as he looped the palomino’s reins firmly round the rickety old rail. She followed suit, feet slipping slightly on a pile of stones.
“Watch your ankles on the rubble.”
Straightening awkwardly, he looked across at the small spring tumbling down from the mountainside. “I’ll water them in a while. Let’s take a look inside shall we?”
The old cabin barely qualified as anything other than a ruin now, but the tumbledown walls would provide them with a modicum of shelter. Adequate concealment from curious or searching eyes. Johnny chose the side which afforded the best cover and view down the hillside, turning to Teresa and placing his good arm comfortingly about her shoulders.
“We’ll rest here till sun-up. You okay querida?”
She leant in closer and nodded staunchly, looking up at him with her big brown eyes. “It’s those men again, isn’t it?”
“Si” he answered grimly, arm tightening. “I won’t let them hurt you Teresa, I promise.”
“I know,” she said believing him. Smiling slightly at his habit of pronouncing her name in the old Spanish way from time to time. She kind of liked it. Shifting against him, she felt his sudden flinch. Heart sinking as she discovered his shirt was wet and ominously warm. Stuck and clinging damply to his back.
“Johnny . . .”
He heard the dismay in her voice, and knew he’d been found-out as she grasped his arm, and tried to pull him round for a closer look.
“You were hit. Why didn’t you say something?”
He stepped back out of her reach, and shook his head. “It’s nuthin’ . . .just nicked me is all.”
“Let me see.”
“There aint no need . . .”
“Let me see.”
He sighed resignedly. Taking one last, cautious look down the trail before shrugging off his brown suede jacket. She helped him ease his shoulder out gently, and sat him down. Hands moving automatically to undo his shirt buttons. He waited patiently for her ministrations, leaning his head back against the wall.
Unaccountably, her hands froze. She was suddenly very grateful that the darkness hid her flaming cheeks from his gaze. What was wrong with her? In the past, she’d tended Johnny’s wounds and changed his dressings. Washed and cared for his naked, fever-racked body when he’d been injured and lying close to death. So why – in heaven’s name, was she acting like a timid maiden now. Blushing at the thought of baring his chest?
She took a ragged breath and pulled herself together. Undoing the buttons gently, and trying her hardest not to hurt him. He tried his best to help her. Tugging his shirt free of his pants so she could slide his left arm out and take a proper look at the wound. But the movement hurt a lot more than expected, and he couldn’t help wincing in pain.
“I wish I had a little more light,” she said. Biting her lip and shooting a sideways glance at him. But all she had was the moonlight. Barely enough to discern the deeply scoured furrow that had burned through the top of his shoulder, exposing the muscle and collarbone beneath.
“Thank goodness the bullet didn’t lodge.” There was relief in her tone, as she bathed the wound with water from her canteen and felt his flesh tremble beneath her gentle fingers.
“Just a nick,” he nodded again, between grated teeth. “I’ll be fine.”
“It’s more than just a nick,” she argued worriedly. “More like a grand canyon. You’re bleeding heavily – I think the bullet may have cracked your collarbone. This is going to hurt, but I have to stop the blood-loss . . .”
He groaned softly as she pressed down heavily on the wound. Irrigating it with more water before rummaging in her saddlebags, and pulling out one of the new shirts she’d bought for Scott in Morro Coyo that afternoon. He heard the sound of ripping cloth as his head began to spin. Trying to fight off the dizziness with a feeble attempt at humour.
“Scott’s gonna be pretty fed up if that’s the blue one . . .ah . . .”
She held him tightly. Wrapping the makeshift bandage under his armpit to hold the pad firmly in place. “Why do you think I tore up the brown one?”
He smiled through the haze of pain. Trying to stop his teeth from chattering, as he answered her appreciatively. “Plain blue, brown. My brother the conservative.”
“Not like you,” she teased as she continued; aware of how much pain he was in. “Let’s see now. Pink, flowered, embroidered . . . and you say that Scott’s a dandy. You have nicer shirts than I do.”
“Feel . . . free . . . to borrow them.”
Beads of sweat broke out on his brow, as she gave the makeshift dressing one final tightening hitch, and felt him shudder in her arms.
“I’m sorry Johnny. It has to be tight to stop the bleeding.”
He took several deep breaths, fighting the blackness that threatened to overwhelm him. Determined to stay awake and on his guard. And gradually, his vision began to return to normal. The nausea settling as the vicious agony in his shoulder slowed to a dull, relentless throb.
“It’s okay. I’m okay now . . .” he straightened up cautiously. Aware of her deep concern, and the need to alleviate it by whatever means at his disposal. “Thanks Teresa.”
She watched him closely. Sensing his struggle and realising why he was trying so hard to be strong. Knowing it was just for her benefit, and loving him for the valiant attempt. But she was more worried about him than she cared to admit, and she wished she could share in a little of his courage herself. The wind stirred the tops of the pines. A chilling whisper in the night air. She shivered. The fear returning with a sudden rush of terror.
“Sit back and rest awhile. I’ll watch the trail.”
After a moment’s hesitation, he gave her a brief nod. Settling back against the wall, grateful for the coolness of the dank stone on his throbbing shoulder. She was right, he thought. Observing her fondly, as she leaned her arms on the ledge above him, and stared back down the cut into the trees. The combination of nine hours work, the ride into Morro Coyo, all of this – it was taking its toll on him. He was very, very, tired.
“Good thing we ate so much at the Cantina,” he murmured sleepily.
“You mean you ate so much,” she retorted chidingly. “I’m not the one who ate two portions of apple-pie.”
“It’s Maria’s fault,” he protested, and she could hear the smile in his voice. “She spoils me, and I’ve got used to it.”
“You know you’re her favourite – it’s not fair. Poor Scott could do with feeding up as well. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up like Jelly’s goose.”
He laughed softly, then winced sharply. His shoulder rippling in a spasm of pain. Her head twitched round towards him, and he knew she’d seen, but she hid her worry well. Smiling gently at him again.
“Yes. The more I think about it, the more I see the similarity.”
“Hey, I never asked her to be my mamacita.”
“You love it.”
She scolded him, but continued to watch out of the corner of her eye. He had a nasty wound, a probable fracture. If they were at home, it was nothing she couldn’t deal with. Nothing that would cause too many problems for him under normal circumstances. These however, were not normal circumstances, and the copious blood loss prayed on her mind with an ever-present anxiety.
The ride home was long and arduous. Across rocky and treacherous terrain. One slip of Barranca’s hoof, an awkward rockslide, a gopher hole . . . Even the best rider could fall – and she was afraid to think about what might happen if Johnny started to bleed that heavily again.
He heard her sigh, and hated being the cause of her concern. Frustration grinding away inside him, as he closed his eyes and wondered whether or not he’d made the right decision in bringing her all the way up here. But he knew in his heart of hearts, he’d had no other choice.
There really hadn’t been any other way of making it safely home. He just had to trust to luck they hadn’t been pursued. The adrenalin began to seep out of his bloodstream, and it became harder and harder to keep his eyes open. He wondered uneasily why the vaqueros had bothered to return. Why they’d been so interested in Murdoch’s whereabouts . . .
Teresa waited until he’d drifted off, before covering him gently with the discarded jacket. She placed a small hand on his forehead. He felt soft and thankfully cool, and she couldn’t resist smoothing back the black silky fringe that flopped so characteristically over his eyes. Her fingers lingered on his skin as she watched his sleeping face. Her mind drifting backwards over memories, as she found herself recalling the very first time she’d ever met him.
On the day she’d driven the buckboard into town to pick-up Murdoch Lancer’s two sons from the Stagecoach, she’d been surprised and unprepared for the contradictory beauty of the two brothers.
Scott Lancer, city-gent. All the way from Boston. With his hand made luggage, and tailored clothes. Tall and blond. Straight-backed. His keen angular face and intelligent eyes incapable of concealing his generosity and good-nature. Johnny Madrid, gunfighter. A little shorter, boarder. Well muscled by years of hardship and toil. Bright wary eyes not missing anything. The ever-present gun belt hitched round a pair of hips as lithe as a snake’s.
Scott had been friendly and open, calm and even-tempered. She’d liked him on sight, and been charmed by his manner toward her. He’d spent all his childhood back East. Leading a pampered, privileged life with his wealthy grandfather in Boston until enlisting in a cavalry regiment upon the outbreak of war. Things hadn’t been quite so easy for the boy from Boston after that. He’d undergone a true baptism of fire on the battlefields of Eastern America – wounded and eventually captured. A prisoner of war at the infamous Libby Prison. He’d been one of the lucky few to escape that hellhole, but Teresa knew his time there had left deep scars. She’d heard him occasionally – late at night when the dark dreams haunted him. Seen the purple shadows under his eyes the next morning.
Johnny’s life had been as different from his brother’s as she could imagine. A dirt-poor childhood with his fiery mother and a succession of sometimes brutal “uncles”. Orphaned by the age of eleven, forced to do whatever he could, to survive in a hostile world. By the time he was fifteen, and many thought younger, he’d killed his first man. Becoming the notorious Borders gunslinger known as Johnny Madrid. Setting the first foot on a path, that, but for the grace of God, had nearly pre-ordained his descent into an early grave. When he’d first come home to Lancer, she so nearly hadn’t liked him. But something in his eyes had reached her heart, as she saw behind the fence he’d built to hide his pain.
He was quieter, more private than Scott. Sometimes quick to anger in a spectacular blaze of fury, over as quickly as it began. He never missed a thing. Never missed a trick. The bitter legacy of all those years when he’d lived and relied on his wits. When missing an expression or the way a shadow fell could have cost him so much. Meant a bullet with his name on it – the difference between life and death.
And whereas Scott had settled into his new life relatively quickly, it had taken Johnny longer to feel at ease. He and Murdoch had butted heads spectacularly on several occasions, before he’d begun to believe there really was a place for him at Lancer. Teresa knew how much his new family meant to him. He was terrified of letting them down. Constantly afraid the ghosts of his past would come back to haunt him or hurt those he loved. Ghosts which had indeed proved difficult to exorcise on occasion.
Yet there was a sweetness in him people seldom saw. He used it when he spoke to Barranca. Showed it in the way he treated Maria – had her eating out of the palm of his hand with that quick, flashing smile of his. Teresa shook her head slightly. Remembering how hard Maria pretended to be indifferent to Johnny’s charm. Positively sparkling every time he spoke to her, sneaked a cheeky arm round her waist in an attempt to sneak a biscuit, or steal a cake from under her nose.
Johnny’s antics in the kitchen were a source of massive amusement to Scott and Murdoch, and even Jelly was filled with admiration for the way in which Johnny was able to wrap Maria around his little finger. A feat of no minor significance when it came to the usually formidable, Mexican cook.
Last and not least, there was her own relationship with him. From the very first, he had treated her with respect. Treated her like a lady. Pulling out her chair for her, opening the door. Teasing her, yes, and pulling her leg. Disrespecting her, or taking her for granted, no. She reckoned that he genuinely liked women, and not just in the obvious way either. It showed when he sought out her company. The way that he lingered for ages in the kitchen laughing with Maria in Spanish, helping them to shell peas or peel potatoes . . .
He was always the first to notice when she wore something new. If she did her hair a different way, he would never fail to comment on it. She wondered sometimes, if it was a legacy of the time he’d spent on his own with his mother. If it was, he must have truly loved her. He stirred slightly in his sleep. Muttering in Spanish – long black eyelashes flickering with dreams.
She resisted the sudden urge to touch him again. To somehow banish the nightmares with merely a stroke of her hand. But that way lay danger. And a possible end to her already, shaky resolve to treat both Scott and Johnny as the older brothers she’d never had. Until the last few weeks, that resolution hadn’t wavered. But lately and subtly, things had begun to change. She’d found herself more aware of Johnny in a very different way.
Teresa sighed, reassuring herself that he was still asleep as she got cautiously to her feet, and went to water the horses to save him having to do it later. It was getting colder now as the night advanced. The temperature in the mountains began to fall. She wished desperately they had a bedroll or even a blanket with them. But all they had was what they’d been wearing, and it was at least another six hours till dawn.
She shivered as she re-tied the horses. Picking her way back through the ruin to Johnny’s side. His breathing was soft and even as he slept, and she resumed her position beside him. Eyes watching both him and the trail with an equal measure of unease.
It was the rattling that woke him. An irritating clicking noise that seemed to echo and reverberate in his skull as he came to, and realised groggily it was the sound of his own teeth chattering. His shoulder ached dully, and he felt muzzy and light-headed. The catastrophic events of the previous evening rushed back with a vengeance, as his head jerked up in panic looking for Teresa.
She was beside him in a second. Her face a pale oval in the moonlight, as she placed her cool fingers on his brow. “It’s okay, I’m right here.”
“How long did I sleep?”
“You were out at least three hours. But don’t worry, the only person to drop by was our friend, Mr Racoon.”
Ignoring the flare of pain in his shoulder, he struggled to his feet. Leaning on the wall beside her as he strained his eyes in the darkness. Searching for any sign of movement amongst the shifting shadows of the pine trees.
“You shoulda woken me. You need some rest yourself.”
“I’m not the one who got shot.”
“Don’t fuss Teresa, it’s only a n . . .”
“Only a nick. I know.” She finished in exasperation. Moving closer to check on the makeshift dressing, and disregarding the fact he clearly didn’t want her to. Even by the dim light of the moon, she could see a fresh, dark stain on the improvised bandages. Heart sinking as she realised he was still bleeding sluggishly despite his inactivity.
“How long till sun-up?”
He glanced quickly at the sky. “Only a coupla hours now. Sit down, try to sleep. I’ll wake you soon as it’s light enough . . .” he reached his hand out towards her, then pulled it back self-consciously. ” And quit worryin’ about me. I’m fine.”
She gave him a strange, old-fashioned look. Opening her mouth to speak before thinking better of it. Settling down in the space he’d just vacated, as he placed his jacket round her shoulders. In spite of her anxiety, she was bone-weary. Everything caught up with her all of a sudden as she leant her head on her bent-up knees and closed her eyes – hearing Johnny move quietly round to check on the horses.
By the time he returned five minutes later, she was fast asleep. Chestnut hair fallen over her face like a dark waterfall. He watched her silently for a long moment, struggling with the warring feelings churning in his heart. There had been a subtle shift between the two of them lately. Or at least there had been for him, he reasoned honestly.
Ever since he and Scott had arrived at Lancer, there’d been a kind of unspoken pact between them – they’d both treated Teresa as the cherished younger sister neither ever had. She in turn, had fallen happily into that role. Bossing them about unmercifully. Taking care of them when they were sick or hurt. Scolding them for coming home late, or trampling dirt through the hacienda. Revelling in the family atmosphere that had suddenly developed in the only place she’d ever called her home.
He couldn’t recall when things had started to change. When her happiness and safety had begun to matter more to him. If he was away from Lancer, he found himself missing her. Pictured her soft brown eyes and ready smile. The swish of petticoats round her ankles, the warm scent of flowers she wore on her skin. If he met another girl, he automatically compared her to Teresa. It was always the other girl that came up wanting.
He watched the raccoon scrabble about amongst the stones, laughing caustically at himself as he remembered Jelly’s words in the barn.
“Be careful boy, don’t git yer fingers burnt.”
Was it already that obvious?
She sighed slightly. Moving her head as the curtain of hair cascaded forwards over her arms. Even now he could smell it. The faint fragrance of flowers he knew would always remind him of her. But he didn’t know what the hell he was going to do about it.
The sound was quick and alien. Over in a moment. He stiffened on instant alert, recognising the metallic ring of a horseshoe on stone somewhere back amongst the cover of the trees. The colt was in his hand in a second – eyes searching the pines desperately for the origin of the noise in the gradually shortening shadows.
“Shhh.. we’ve got company. Move round to the horses now. Keep low, and be careful.”
She got quickly to her feet. Fear coursing through her like ice-water, as she obeyed him unquestioningly. Creeping round to the back of the cabin to unhitch the horses with shaking hands. The pinto stamped uneasily. Whinnying and twitching as Barranca attempted to give him a bad-tempered nip – both animals sensing the approach of other horses. Taking the reins from her hands, Johnny boosted her up into the saddle. Swinging himself awkwardly onto Barranca a second afterwards, with a brief comforting touch on her arm.
“We’ll head down to the old Indian caves. Anythin’ happens, you promise me you won’t stop.”
“Johnny . . .”
“Promise me you’ll go on home to Lancer. Promise me Teresa.” His voice was harsh, and she could see him staring intently at her in the growing, grey light.
“I promise.” She swallowed hard – nodding as they moved out from behind the cabin, Johnny keeping between her and the approach trail, effectively shielding her from any hidden threat.
Once they were clear, she nudged the pinto into a fast lope, and broke for the ridge of pine trees. A sudden shout behind them made her jump violently. The noise shocking, as it reverberated through the quiet morning air.
“Go!” yelled Johnny.
She heard the thunder of hooves behind them as she bent low across the pinto’s neck, and prayed for all she was worth. Carbine fire spat off the ground with an unearthly whine, but she had nearly made the trees before two more riders galloped out from under them. Effectively blocking their escape route again.
Johnny cursed out loud as the pinto reared in abrupt, volatile fear. This time, Teresa was unable to keep her seat. The reins sliding frenziedly through her hands, as she fell backwards. Feet flying out of the stirrups as she hit the ground with a bone-jarring thump!
Johnny fought desperately to turn Barranca aside. Terrified she would be struck by the palomino’s hooves, as he grit his teeth, closed his mind to the fire in his shoulder. The vaqueros were closing now. But he was barely aware of them anymore, as he leapt down beside her motionless figure and took her frantically into his arms.
“Teresa – querida, can you hear me?” There was no answer, and his mouth dried with sudden despair. “Teresa. Dios!”
She stirred against him. Blinking dazedly, and raising her hand to his face in an effort to reassure him. “I’m alright . . .”
Hands fell on him. Dragging him ferociously away from her. He began to twist and fight in their grasp, trying urgently to get back to help her.
“No . . .!” She sat up with a cry of fright. Terror for him far out-weighing the discomfort in her bruised and aching muscles, as she scrambled to her feet. “Johnny!”
She was immediately clamped back hard against someone’s chest, a familiar voice laughing in her ear as she struggled uselessly; trying to fight her way free.
“Whoa there, little lady. Not so fast now.”
Johnny strained against his captors. Throwing them off, landing a vicious punch on the face of the nearest man, as he reached desperately for his gun.
“Hold it Mister!”
He froze in his tracks. Watching with horror, as the man holding Teresa placed a pistol to her head, and she flinched away from the coldness of the barrel pressed up hard against her temple.
“Drop the gun slowly. Do it!”
Johnny swallowed, and drew his gun in slow, deliberate motion. Letting it fall from his fingertips before holding out his hands in supplication.
“Okay, you got me. No need to hurt her.”
He watched her face. His heart in his mouth, as the tall American holding her smiled at him coldly, then lowered the gun.
“Good boy. That’s real sensible of you. Chico . . .” He turned to the Mexican Johnny had floored during the struggle, and nodded. “You let our friend here take you. Hope you ain’t losing your edge amigo?”
Chico scowled, and stepped up behind Johnny, wiping a trickle of blood off his chin. “Perdone Senor Gerrard.”
He picked Johnny’s gun up off the ground, and struck him savagely across the back of the head with the heavy-ended butt. Teresa screamed with shock.
“Leave him alone, leave him alone!”
She twisted and fought like a wildcat. Managing to spin out of Gerrard’s arms, as she tried desperately to reach Johnny. Chico laughed, swatting her aside like a gnat, as he turned back to the man on the ground and kicked him viciously in the ribs. She struggled to her feet again. Tears of rage and fear streaming down her cheeks, as she clung grimly onto Chico’s arm, trying to pull him away from Johnny’s inert body. But she didn’t give a damn about the tears. Pulling helplessly back on Chico’s elbow. Flinching as he raised his other fist to strike her down again.
“That’s enough, Chico.”
Gerrard stepped forward. Staring down at her dispassionately, as she knelt and took Johnny’s head into her lap. She glared back at him defiantly, and blinked away her tears.
“You’ve hurt him. He’s not capable of causing you any more trouble. Just tell them to leave him alone.”
He smiled – and she caught a glint of admiration in his eye, as he took her chin in his hand. Examining her features more closely. “Paul O’Brien’s daughter. Proper little spitfire aint you?”
“You knew my father?”
“Oh yeah. I knew him alright. Him and Lancer. Your daddy and I went back a long ways – I was sorry to hear that he died.”
She looked up at him uncertainly. “Then why . . .?”
“Sorry that is – he died before I had the chance to kill him myself.”
“Don’t touch me!” She pushed his hand angrily away from her face, cheeks glittering with tears.
He smiled again, but his eyes were cold. “I won’t hurt you Teresa. Just so long as you’re a good girl for me. Your daddy may be dead, but Murdoch Lancer is alive. He’ll pay a lot of money to get you back safe and sound. You see, he owes me. Murdoch, your father -they owe me, I’m gonna make sure the debt gets paid in full.”
She looked fearfully down at Johnny, and then back up at Gerrard. “You’re going to hold us to ransom?”
He shook his head regretfully at her. “There ain’t no us, honey. I’m gonna hold you for ransom. We’ll send your boyfriend here, back to Lancer as a warning to Murdoch. What might happen to his little ward if he doesn’t come up with the goods. Chico, Saldanas, finish him!”
“No.” She pulled Johnny up close to her chest, as the two men advanced to take him. A twisted grin on Chico’s face, as he withdrew a knife from his belt.
“You’re making a big mistake, Mister Gerrard . . .” She gulped as her breath caught terrifyingly in her throat. “Huge!”
“You can’t kill him,” she pleaded frantically. “If it’s money you want, you’ll be losing a fortune. This is Johnny Lancer. He’s Murdoch’s youngest son.”
“Wait!” Gerrard held up his hand, crouching down along side her, as he looked closely at Johnny’s battered face. “I heard he had a son. Sent him back to live with his wife’s folks in Boston when she upped and died. This sure as hell ain’t him, honey. This man’s a Mex.”
“He married again a couple of years later.” She marshalled her ragged breathing, and looked him boldly in the face. Knowing in her heart, she was bargaining for Johnny’s very life now.
“His second wife was called Maria – and you’re right. She was Mexican. Johnny’s her son. Murdoch’s youngest son. He’ll pay you an awful lot of money for his safe return.”
“I know this hombre.” The man called Saldanas said suddenly, as he looked down over her shoulder. “His nombre is not Lancer, es Madrid. I have seen him in Sonora, some years ago. He is a gunfighter – very fast.”
“Was a gunfighter,” said Teresa distraughtly. “He and Murdoch were estranged for a long time. But he’s home now, and they’re reconciled . . .”
Gerrard yanked hold of Johnny’s hair, dragging his face backwards and scrutinising his features closely. “Well, I’ll be damned . . .Johnny Madrid. If you’re tellin’ us the truth girl, he sure has his father’s stubborn streak. I’ve seen him fight once. Down on the border. He could be far more trouble than he’s worth.”
“But he’s hurt,” she countered angrily. Hating Gerrard’s hand on Johnny, resisting a compulsive urge to push it aside. “He’s hardly capable of causing any trouble now, it would be downright foolish to throw away the chance of all that money . . . “
Her heart was beating like a drum in her chest, and Gerrard smirked at her suddenly.
“Care about him a lot, don’t you girl?”
“Yes,” she whispered, not meeting his eyes anymore. “He’s like a brother to me.”
Gerrard snorted as he let go of Johnny’s hair, and got to his feet. “The way you just fought for him ain’t exactly sisterly, Teresa. But you saved him for now. He starts to kick up, or I find out you lied to me, I swear I’ll get Chico to cut his throat straight ways. That clear?”
“I’m not lying,” she said unevenly. Feeling the strength sag out of her body with relief, as tears threatened to well-up again. She looked down at Johnny. Pushing the hair off his temples with a shaky hand, as he stirred and muttered something unintelligible against her shoulder.
He was safe for now. That was the main thing. She just had to make sure he stayed that way. Gerrard looked up at the sky. It was getting light. The sun rising up across the tops of the mountains as the dark blue receded, and the moon became a ghostly shadow. Fading translucently against the backdrop of pinkish sky.
“I don’t see any need to move from here. We got water and shelter. It’s handy for Lancer, aint no one gonna find us less they come lookin’. We’ll pitch by the old cabin. Saldanas can ride into Morro Coyo when the Stage arrives. Deliver a nice little message to Murdoch Lancer.”
“Buenos dias, Maria,” Jelly ambled into the kitchen rubbing futilely at his tufty hair. “Any chance of some eggs?”
She shook her head vigorously at him. Railing loudly in a torrent of Spanish as she wiped her hands on her apron, and grabbed hold of his arm. He looked at her in alarm – patting her hand clumsily as he tried to escape her iron grasp and edge towards the door again.
“Now then Maria. I caint understand a word if you gabble on in Spanish at me like this. You’ll have ter wait till Johnny gits back . . .”
“Ay . . . Juanito, si!”
“No.” Explained Jelly patiently. “He’s already left . . .”
“Senor Juanito is not home?”
“Well Barranca sure ain’t out in the barn. Funny, I thought he said he was gonna wait ‘n meet Scott ‘n Murdoch off the stage . . .”
He looked up in alarm, as Maria began to hyperventilate again. Dodging as she made another grab at him, trying to make it out through the door as fast as his little legs would carry him.
“Oh lord. Now don’t start all thet agin. Mebbe I’d best git Teresa ter calm you down?”
Maria’s face collapsed in dismay and agitation at the mention of Teresa’s name. She began to rant even louder. This time when she grabbed hold of his shirtfront, there was no chance of escape.
“That is the problemo, stupido. Teresa, she is not ‘ere. She has not been ‘ere all night! Her bed – it ‘as not been slept in. Comprende?”
Jelly’s jaw dropped slowly open. “N..not here?”
“But. . . where is she then?”
“Senor Juanito’s bed ‘as not been slept in either. And you say ‘e is not here!”
Jelly gulped. Prising her fingers off his shirt as he turned tail and ran out of the kitchen, across the courtyard to the barn. It didn’t take him long to ascertain the pinto wasn’t in his stall either, and the first small whisper of unease began to stir inside him.
An initial, startling impression was dismissed almost as soon as it popped into his head. Whatever kind of hothead Johnny might be on occasion, however impulsive he was capable of being – Jelly knew the boy would never do anything that wasn’t right or honourable by his precious Teresa. He didn’t like the second alternative very much though . . .
Their horses were missing. Their beds hadn’t been slept in. That meant they hadn’t made it home from Morro Coyo last night. Jelly thought immediately of the men he’d scared off with his scatter-gun, the day before yesterday. Oh Johnny was no fool – and more than capable of looking after himself. But Jelly had sharp eyes. There was no doubt that the boy had been a mite distracted lately. The main cause of that distraction had been out there with him yesterday.
He jumped slightly, as Cipriano strode into the barn and greeted him cheerfully. “Como esta?”
Jelly shook his grizzled head. “Not too good my friend, not too good. I need you to do me a favour, Cip.”
He began to explain, and Cipriano nodded with instant understanding. “Si Jelly. I’ll leave some men at the Estancia today. Isidro and I will ride to Morro Coyo with you. If those hombres return here, they have a surprise, no?”
“A surprise, yes.” Grunted Jelly. Worry gnawing away at his insides as he recalled how happy Johnny and Teresa had both looked riding out yesterday afternoon. Although habitually grumpy by nature, Jelly knew he didn’t fool anyone when it came to the crunch. In his gruff old heart, he was really fond of both those kids.
He hoped fervently they were somewhere safe and sound. He truly did. But he was beginning to have a cold, uneasy feeling about it all. An emptiness down in the hollow of his belly.
“Here. You’d better eat this, girl.”
Kneeling down beside her, Gerrard thrust a plateful of unappetising bacon under her nose. Scrutinising Johnny long and hard, as she took it reluctantly from his hand.
“How’s he doin’?”
“What do you care?” she retorted sharply. Bristling protectively, as she glared insolently back up at him.
He grinned, and flicked her hard on the cheek. “Well, unless you lied to me last night, he aint worth nuthin’ to me dead.”
She sighed unhappily, and put the plate down beside her. “He needs a doctor. He’s lost too much blood.”
Gerrard nodded. “I was sure I’d hit him back on the road. Tough son of a bitch, I heard tell he was . . . Heard a lot of tales about Johnny Madrid. He really as fast as they say?”
“Try me.” said Johnny, in a cracked, defiant tone. Opening his eyes, and staring up at Gerrard.
Gerrard smiled. “No need to, Madrid. Or is it Lancer? I hold all the aces here.”
Johnny struggled to sit up. Fighting the pain that tore through his ribcage, and grated at his shoulder. Trying not to wince in front of Teresa or this bastard. Whoever he was.
“It’s Lancer. But that don’t mean I can’t be Madrid when I want to – and I want to.”
“I’ll just bet you do.” The smile froze on Gerrard’s face. Something unspoken passed between the two men, as their eyes met and held for a few, menacing seconds.
Teresa watched the silent interchange, and became afraid. Recognising a look she hadn’t seen in Johnny’s eyes for a long, long time. It was the same look he’d had when he’d first arrived at Lancer. Dangerous and guarded. Deceptively restrained. Alert for threat like a timber wolf. Eyes missing nothing. Not anything at all. Secure in his power, but continually aware of the odds.
“Johnny?” Her voice was uncertain. A shiver of fear running through her as she sought to pull him back from whatever brink it was, he trembled on. And it did the trick. The cold insolence fading from his eyes, as he forced himself to blot out the anger. To lose the pain for her sake.
“Are you all right Miel?”
“She’s fine,” retorted Gerrard with a flash of anger. “And she’ll stay that way. Just so long as you behave yourself – don’t cause no trouble.”
“What do you want?”
“What’s mine. What her daddy owed me. What your old man owes me. I get it – and you never know, Mister Madrid-Lancer. I might just let you go!”
Johnny looked up then, and their eyes met in sudden, certain comprehension. “Yeah, sure you will.”
He watched closely as Gerrard got to his feet, and left them on their own in a corner of the ruins. They were still at Jackson’s Pine, he realised. Well, that made good sense from their captor’s point of view. No one else knew they were here. It was a fair ways off the beaten track, and they had everything they needed to hand. For some reason, he and Teresa were still alive and relatively unharmed for now. But things didn’t bode that well for the future. He knew Gerrard had no intention of letting them get out of this in one piece.
“How do you feel?” Teresa’s soft voice interrupted him anxiously, and he switched his attention determinedly back to her. Examining her face closely to make sure she really was all right.
“I’ll be okay. What about you, that was a heck of a tumble you took . . .”
“Just bruises. Nothing a hot bath wouldn’t cure.” She looked over her shoulder to where Chico sat watching them, carbine lying loosely across his lap.
“This man Gerrard. He knew my father. Knows Murdoch . . .” She took a breath. “I think he wants us for ransom. Or . . .or revenge. He said he was sorry he hadn’t killed my daddy himself.”
Anger exploded inside him. But he was careful not to let it show, as he leant forwards despite the stab of agony it caused him. Pulling her close for a hug, aware of the softness of her body.
“By now Jelly will know we didn’t make it home last night,” he said into her hair. “They’ll be out lookin’ for us. Murdoch will know what to do, when he and Scott get back.”
She eased gently away from him, the ghost of a smile on her lips “Maybe they’ll think we eloped.”
Their eyes met and held for a moment, and then she flushed rosily, and looked away. “You don’t have to treat me like porcelain Johnny. I know we’re in serious trouble. Gerrard isn’t planning to let us go, is he?”
He knew it was pointless to even attempt to patronise her with false promises, or reassurances. And in truth, he was pretty much out of ideas himself. All he knew was one thing; he had to get Teresa out of this safely at any cost.
“Keep your eyes open and be prepared. If I tell you to do something, then do it. No questions. No worrying about me. Understand?”
She frowned, and began to shake her head. “I won’t leave you.”
“You may have to. One of us should get out of here if the opportunity comes up. I’m in no shape to do it. Gerrard won’t kill me while there’s any hope of that ransom money.”
“But . . .”
“No buts. You may be our only chance. If you can, take Barranca. He’ll get you back safely.”
She stared ambiguously at him for a long minute. Putting out a hand to touch his bruised face. “I don’t want to lose you Johnny.”
And he couldn’t help himself then. Taking her hand, and turning the palm inwards to kiss it softly. “I’m not going anywhere anymore sweetheart. You know that.”
Biting her lip hard, she turned away from him. Making herself eat some of the shrivelled bacon Gerrard had brought her earlier. But she suddenly found it hard to swallow. Painful to force past the tight lump in her throat.
“San Francisco’s a beautiful city, but it sure feels nice to be home again.”
“Even nicer to come home with a contract for two thousand dollars in your pocket,” grinned Scott practically.
“And that’s a conservative estimate,” responded Murdoch with a satisfied twinkle. “Now, where’s Johnny?”
“Well there’s Jelly with the buckboard, and I’ll hazard a guess that Teresa’s in the store . . .”
The Stage swept to a halt in a cloud of dust, and Scott leapt out eagerly. More than glad to stretch his legs after travelling non-stop for six hours on the last part of their journey home. He went round to sort out the luggage, whilst Murdoch dismounted a trifle more sedately. Making his way across to Jelly who was looking uncharacteristically grim, even for him. Lifting out the carpetbags, Scott felt a sudden pang of unease, and glancing around with a little more attention, he realised there was still no sign of Johnny or Teresa.
“What’s going on, Murdoch?”
“Johnny and Teresa are missing. There was some trouble out at the hacienda a couple of days ago, and they didn’t get home from town last night.”
“What kind of trouble,” he asked grimly. Swinging the bags into the buckboard, and turning back to Jelly and Isidro, his expression becoming more somber by the minute, as Jelly filled them in.
” . . .so Cip an’ me, we figured we’d back-track them. Turns out they ate at the Cantina and left around seven. Several folks saw them ride outta town. So whatever happened to them, it happened between here an’ Lancer.”
“And there’s nothing, no sign on the road?”
“No,” said Jelly. “Too many tracks ter tell a thing. No signs of . . of . . .”
“No bodies or carrion birds you mean,” said Murdoch matter of factly. His mouth set in a straight, uncompromising line.
“Nope,” finished Jelly, uncomfortably. “Nuthin’ like that.”
They turned, as Cipriano ran across the street from the telegraph office, an envelope clutched tightly in his hand. “This was left for you only this morning. The man that left it was most insistent that it be delivered immediately on your return.”
Murdoch looked across at Scott, and raised an eyebrow. Taking hold of the envelope and ripping it open. For one, wild minute, Jelly’s heart almost skipped a beat, and he wondered if his first impression had been right after all. Maybe Johnny and Teresa . . .
“Well, what does it say?” asked Scott. Watching apprehensively, as Murdoch’s face became still as stone, and a deep feeling of unease solidified inside him. Murdoch passed him the note, his hand shaking slightly.
“They’re being held by a man called Phil Gerrard. Here, you read it.”
Skimming it quickly, Scott eventually looked up in dismay. “He wants twenty thousand dollars by tomorrow evening. How in hell does he think we can lay our hands on that kind of money by then – and why target us?”
“It’s not just money he wants,” replied Murdoch in a hardened tone. “It’s revenge.”
Immediately, Scott thought of Johnny. They’d already had a couple of run-ins with the ghosts of his past. Men seeking retribution for the real or imagined wrongs done to them by the then, Johnny Madrid. Men who’d come crawling out of the woodwork in search of their own twisted idea of justice. A justice that usually involved some sort of violence towards Johnny or those he loved. Scott looked up from the paper.
But Murdoch gave him an odd, unfathomable glance, and shook his head squarely. “It has nothing to do with him. It’s me Gerrard wants.”
“But why, what happened?”
Murdoch sighed with barely suppressed irritation, and turned away. “Phil Gerrard arrived here over twenty years ago with Paul O’Brien, Teresa’s daddy. He was just a boy. But a wild one even then.”
“You have to understand this was a savage land in those days. A dangerous place to try and carve out a life. I’d invested everything I had in building up Lancer. When Paul and his family settled here, I knew I had a man I could really trust at my right hand.”
Scott nodded slowly, as he watched his father sift through the memories in his mind. “What about Gerrard?”
“Paul believed in him at first. Persuaded me to give him a chance. Paul had a big heart. He liked to think that everyone had as much integrity as he did, and back in those early days, it looked like he might have been right to offer the kid a second chance.”
“He was a gambler. He got into debt, and the man who held his marker made a deal with him. If Gerrard helped him grab our land, the debt would be dissolved. And there might be a little something in it for him, as well. He agreed. He would have sold us out for a few hundred dollars . . .”
“To a man like Pardee?”
“Just like Pardee.” Murdoch nodded angrily, and paused as the recollections became painful. “Anyway, Paul found out, and it hit him hard. He really thought he’d straightened Phil out. He’d grown kind of fond of the boy – hoped the good might eventually outweigh the bad . . .” He took a deep breath. “But it was too late. Gerrard had a rotten core. And to cut a long story short, Paul saved his life. Bought off his marker, and paid off his gambling debts. On condition Gerrard rode away and didn’t look back.”
Scott frowned. “Then why has he come looking for revenge? Seems to me, he has a lot to be thankful for instead of the other way around.”
“I agree. And maybe if it had ended there, he might have accepted his losses, and thanked his lucky stars. As it was, Paul did more than I would have done. More than most men would have done. But Gerrard went straight back into town, got drunk, and ended up owing money to the same man. The next time he came begging, I turned him out. They called in the marker, and he couldn’t pay . . . He barely escaped with his life. Last I heard, he was in jail in San Antonio doing life for murder. Or so I thought.”
Scott folded up the paper, and put his hand on his father’s arm. Feeling the tension in the corded muscles, the strain in the tightened sinews.
“Will Gerrard hurt them?”
Murdoch nodded curtly. “He’ll hurt them. He’ll hurt them to hurt me. Like I said, he has a rotten core.”
Scott swallowed hard. “So what next?”
“Gerrard says he’ll contact us again with the where and when.”
“And meanwhile, we just wait?”
Murdoch shook his craggy head. Eyebrows drawn together in a single, frowning line. “What do you think Scott? No – we do not just wait. Come on. We need to get hold of Val Crawford, and I want to get home to Lancer. Jelly, stay here with the buckboard whilst Scott and I go on over to the telegraph office. If we’re going to save Johnny and Teresa, we can’t afford to waste anymore time!”
Tearing up another part of the brown shirt, Teresa moistened it, and laid it across Johnny’s forehead. Her heart constricted with worry. He raged with a heat so strong, she could feel it radiating off his body in waves. Succumbing at last to the fever which had threatened all day. Peeling his unbuttoned shirt back off his shoulder – she gently examined the makeshift dressing underneath. It was damp with yet more fresh blood, and she sighed dispiritedly, as she realised what she had to do.
She spoke his name softly, not wanting to wake him more than necessary. Knowing that what she was about to do was going to hurt him very much indeed.
“Are you awake?”
He opened his eyes with difficulty. Vaguely conscious of her calling him, and fighting for awareness as he struggled to get back to her.
“Teresa . . .”
She bent over him. Smoothing the damp hair back off his forehead. “The wound’s still bleeding. I’m going to have to put some pressure on it, and tighten the dressing. I’m sorry, it’s going to hurt you.”
“Do what you have to do,” he said faintly, trying his utmost to reassure her. Chafing with frustration at his helplessness – hating the fact he felt so damn ill.
She took a deep breath. Undoing the knots she’d tied the previous night, as she folded the remaining sleeve of the shirt into a pad, and placed it gently on top of the pre-existing one. Glancing involuntarily at his face, she saw that his eyes were closed again. She bit her lip and pressed down as hard as she could. Feeling his muscles tighten with agony as his body resisted her. As he groaned out loud in spite of himself.
“I’m sorry . . .”
She fought back her tears. Pressing even harder. Knowing he couldn’t continue to bleed at this rate, but flinching at his pain and wishing she could wave a wand and magic it away.
“I have to stop the bleeding until we can get you to a doctor.” She forced herself to smile at him. But in truth, it was a pathetic attempt, and her hands trembled wildly for a moment. “I may even have to tear up the blue shirt at this rate unless you start to do as you’re told – and then Scott won’t be happy with either of us.”
The tears dripped off her chin, and she watched as he turned his face away from her and grit his teeth in torment. Arching his back, as she pressed down again until her arms began to ache with the strain. Suddenly, his body slackened. He lost consciousness, and she was glad. Sighing with relief, she made a fist and pushed down even harder – willing the blood to stop as she tied the dressing up again, pulling the ends as tight as she dared, and knotting them over the pad. She sat back on her heels and exhaled shakily. Wiping her own brow with a trembling hand, and glancing up sharply as Gerrard’s shadow fell across them.
“He outta it again?”
“He needs a doctor. The bullet must have hit a blood vessel because I just can’t stop the bleeding.” She looked up at him pleadingly. Swallowing her pride, as she tried to school her features properly. “Can’t you let him go? You don’t need the both of us. Murdoch would give anything to have Johnny home safely . . .You said yourself you only needed
Gerrard grinned coldly at her, and shook his head. “Good try little lady, but no deal. With any luck this’ll be over and done with by tomorrow night. He’ll make it – he’s got you to take care of him aint he?”
His voice was mocking. And at that moment, she hated him with all her heart, as a surge of hopelessness threatened to overwhelm her.
“Please, I’ve done all I can. It’s not enough. Please!”
How she loathed having to beg this man. It went against every grain and atom of pride in her body. But she was doing it for Johnny, and she’d crawl on her knees for him – across hot coals. If it meant Gerrard would even consider getting him to some kind of medical help. But a change had come over him. And all of a sudden, she sensed her impassioned entreaty had been the wrong thing to do. Something shifted darkly behind his eyes, as he knelt down beside her. Far too close to Johnny, staring into the injured man’s face.
“Maybe it would just be easier to kill him here and now, have done with it. Maybe that’s the answer, huh Teresa?”
She recoiled from him in horror. Subconsciously placing her body between his and Johnny’s, as she turned to face him defiantly.
“Murdoch Lancer will hunt you down. He’ll kill you if you hurt him anymore!”
His arm shot out like a snake. Grabbing a fistful of her hair and forcing her head backwards so hard it brought tears to her eyes, as he held a knife to her throat. She became deathly still in his grip. Taking small, ragged breaths as she tried to remain as frozen as possible. Sensing if she struggled – even if she moved now, she might not get out of this alive. That her life was balanced on a very fine edge indeed. But she was determined not to show her fear, and after a long and terrifying minute or so, she felt his hand relax slightly. The dreadful tension seeping out of his grasp.
“I hold the aces, Teresa.” His voice was like ice, as the cold point of the knife caressed her throat piercing her skin lightly. She could feel a trickle of blood running down her neck, as he laughed. Teasing the blade across her windpipe.
“I could cut your pretty white throat now if I wanted to. Don’t you forget it! Don’t you ever forget who’s in charge here . . .” He leant across her slowly, and looked down into her face. “Paul O’Brien’s daughter. You’re so beautiful, like a frightened little rabbit. Such big, brown eyes . . . “She couldn’t help it then. Gagging, and trying to twist her head away in panic as he bent forward and kissed her hard on the mouth. Somewhere in the background, she
could hear Chico laughing, as she struggled and fought with growing revulsion. Her senses beginning to fade and reel.
But suddenly, he was wrenched away from her, and as she sprawled backwards into the dust, she looked up and saw Johnny grappling wildly for the knife.
“Deje su solo, bastardo . . .!”
Fury gave Johnny a momentary advantage and Gerrard went down under a hail of punches. But it was all over in a few seconds. Chico, and one of the other Mexican’s she’d heard Gerrard call Machado, springing forwards to drag him away.
Teresa screamed, as they beat him with their rifle butts. Knocking him off Gerrard, and continuing in a heated frenzy as he curled into a foetal position in a futile attempt to avoid the crippling blows. She half-ran, half-crawled over to him. Dodging a few of the butts herself – wincing as a thud glanced off her shoulder. Any thoughts of her safety were suddenly unimportant, as she sought to shield his body with her own. To save him from their savagery . . .
“Stop it. Stop it!”
Gerrard was back on his feet now, and he pulled his men away. Staring down into her anguished face, as he wiped the blood from his swollen lip.
“He brought it on himself . . .”
She shook her head at him. Amazed to hear his voice was shaking, as he looked right through her, down at Johnny on the ground. “Can’t you see he brought it on himself?”
“No,” she said, sickened. Turning her face away and refusing to meet his gaze. “You did this to him. To me. Didn’t you just say that you were the one in charge, that you held all the aces?”
Gerrard put a hand on her shoulder, but she wrenched it away in disgust. Wiping the smudge of drying tears off her dirty cheeks, as she vowed to herself she’d never cry in front of him again. Not ever!
“You are in charge, this is your responsibility.” She said coldly. ” Just as it will be your responsibility if he dies.”
And she turned her back on him then. Taking Johnny’s unconscious body into her arms, as her trembling fingers fumbled for the pulse in his neck. Part of her brain refusing to believe that she might not find it. A beat, fast and weak. Relief swept through her, as it fluttered beneath her touch. Her hand lingering against his fevered skin. Sliding up into his thick, black hair as she examined his head for any sign of injury, and found blood.
Part of her, some primal part of her, wanted to scream her head off with rage and pain. To give into the panic that threatened to consume her as she discovered the extent of his suffering. The battered face. The broken, grating ribs. The livid bruises already forming all over his beautiful, olive skin. Inspecting the shoulder wound again, it was with no surprise she found it was bleeding afresh. For a moment, her mind cut and blanked, struggling with the image of him dying up here. Dying whilst she was totally unable to help him.
She clenched her fists so hard her nails cut into her palms. Forcing her breathing back to normal, as she fought the hysteria and regained control of her faculties again. Taking Johnny gently into her arms, she held him against her breast, and leant back against the wall. Placing her small hand over his wound, as she began to put some pressure on the bleeding once again. He felt limp and heavy. Raging hot with fever. But precious. So very precious, as she dipped her face down close to his and inhaled the scent of his soft black hair.
Scott took a quick mouthful of whisky. It was strong and peaty – a flash of fire on his lips. He relished the fiery burn of it down his gullet. He was restless, on edge. Impatient and frantic with worry at the thought of what Johnny and Teresa might be going through right now. Of what they might be suffering. He didn’t like what Jelly had told him about the way the vaqueros had handled Teresa. The thought of her terror. Of their dirty hands all over her. The anger burned deeply inside him. If they’d hurt her . . .
He took another drink. And then there was Johnny. Capable and courageous as he was, he tended to lose that famous cool-head of his when a member of his family was under threat. Scott had a bad feeling about everything. Not least his father’s reaction to Gerrard’s name. He thought back over Murdoch’s words at the stage depot.
“He’ll hurt them. He’ll hurt them to hurt me . . .”
He shivered. Things had been going so well for them over the last few months, and the railroad contract was the icing on the cake. Why couldn’t fate let them enjoy it for a change?
Upstairs in his carpet bag were a couple of presents he’d brought back from San Francisco. A pair of earrings for Teresa. An old Spanish map of the valley for Johnny. He hoped he’d have the chance to give them. To see the both of them soon. The thought of losing either one of them was almost more than he could bear. Teresa, whom he loved like a sister. Johnny – Johnny whom fate had thrust upon him unexpectedly. The bond between them growing stronger all the time. Two opposites who met in the middle, somewhere along the way.
He could not lose them.
“Scott.” Murdoch’s hand was gentle on his shoulder. “Cipriano’s going to help us with some charts. Come and take a look.”
He followed them into the study, as Jelly unrolled the range map on the desk. Weighing it down with a paperweight and a couple of books. Murdoch studied it carefully, a frown creasing his forehead.
“We know they left Morro Coyo around seven, so they must have been bushwhacked and taken somewhere between here and town.”
“Well that rules out this stretch along by the river,” said Scott. “Too open. No cover for a bushwhacker to hide.” He shook his head. “Johnny wouldn’t have been taken out in the open. Not a chance.”
“I agree,” nodded Murdoch. “And this area. It’s too exposed.”
“That leaves the Canyon road and the head of the valley,” said Scott, tracing the map with his finger. “Plenty of cover. Rocks and trees. Several men could conceal themselves with no problem.”
Jelly screwed his face. ” But if’n they took them at either place – where in tarnation are they now? They sure as hell didn’t go back into town.”
“Let’s look at this logically,” said Murdoch carefully. “They have to be in the area. Near enough to Lancer and Morro Coyo to remain in touch. Somewhere with shelter – some cover. Off the beaten track aways. Cipriano?”
The Segundo racked his brains. “Maybe the old De Salas place. Or the Miner’s village. Even the mine, quiza?”
“Not the De Salas place.” Scott shook his head. “It’s grazing land all round there. The hands are out there most days.”
“Scott’s right.” Murdoch’s voice was grim. “And the trail up to the Miner’s village was nearly washed away in those storms last winter. It’s hard to imagine anyone being able to ride out there now.”
Cipriano’s face lit up. “The Indian caves, Senor. Es perfecto.”
“By God Cipriano – you’re right. Distance, shelter. It all fits. We should check them out. . . “
There was a loud hammering on the door, and they all froze for a second as the racket continued. Scott drew his gun, and took a breath. Casting his father an uneasy look, as he moved quickly up the steps.
He opened the door cautiously, both relieved and disappointed to find it was only Jorge.
“Senor Scott . . .” Jorge held out a leather pouch. “This was thrown through the window of the bunkhouse. One rider – Mexicano. He headed north.”
“Give it to me.” Murdoch shouldered Scott aside. Pulling the package from his hands, as he tore it open. There was a horrible aching silence as they stared at its contents, and Scott felt his legs turn to chalk as Murdoch pulled out a lock of glossy, chestnut hair.
“Oh God . . .” Scott choked out the words . Darkness swirling like a nightmare in his mind. Wondering if he was as white as the others, as he took the curl from Murdoch and held it reverently in his hand.
“And there’s this . . .” Murdoch’s voice fractured. He turned away from them, staring unseeingly out of the window. Scott looked down at the blood-soaked cotton. It was a shirt sleeve. Ripped off at the shoulder seam, and folded into a make-shift dressing pad. He recognised it as one of the shirts he’d ordered from the store at Morro Coyo. Teresa had promised to pick them up for him before he came home, and she’d obviously tried to keep her word. Fear hardened in his veins – turned to ice in his soul. He knew it was Johnny’s blood. Knew in his heart as well as his head. And it was clear Murdoch did too. For a moment, the room receded in a wave of fury and pain.
Jelly cleared his throat with distress. “There’s a message, Murdoch.”
Murdoch turned back. Face like granite as he took the note and read it.
“A little incentive to do as you’re told. They’re both alive for now – just. Bring the money along the Morro Coyo road at noon tomorrow. Come alone. No tricks, no company, or they die.”
“Well, that couldn’t be any clearer.” Scott swallowed his anger. “But it’s over eighteen hours till then, and Johnny’s hurt. He may not have that long.”
“I don’t like this anymore than you do,” grated Murdoch. “But we play it by the book. Gerrard’s got nothing to lose, and we’ve got everything.”
“What about them Indian caves?” Muttered Jelly, the misery plain in his voice.
“Scott – you and Cipriano go and scout out the area. But for God’s sake, be careful. I don’t want to lose you too. If you find anything I want you straight back to Lancer. Don’t try and get them out by yourself. We’ll need a plan – to decide how we’re going to get them back alive. Is that clear?”
Scott was silent for a moment. Struggling with the feelings in his heart. Fingers clenching and unclenching on the lock of Teresa’s hair. Murdoch placed a hand on his shoulder. The tense corded muscles like iron beneath it.
“Is that clear son?”
“It’s clear.” Scott paused. “If he hurts them . . .”
Murdoch looked away, his mask slipping. “If he hurts them – then there’s no place small enough for him to hide. I swear it on my life!”
His world was full of shadows. Shadows all around him. Grabbing at him – pulling at his arms as they tried to drag him down into the darkness. Names whispered to him. Names from his past. Men who had tried to kill him. Men whom he had killed. Their faces ghastly as they came for him. Clutching at him . . .
“No . . .”
She was beside him in a second. Small hand cool on his raging forehead as she pushed him gently backwards onto the hard ground. “It’s alright. It’s alright. I’m here, Johnny.”
“Yes. Lie still. You mustn’t open up that wound again.”
She stroked his head soothingly, as his breathing calmed and slowed. A spark of lucidity creeping back into his fever-bright eyes.
“Gerrard. The knife . . .”
“He didn’t hurt me,” she said quickly. “He cut off a piece of my hair to send to Murdoch.” Her voice caught slightly in her throat, and she looked at him tenderly. “Oh Johnny. You have to promise you won’t do anything that crazy again. I . . .I thought they’d kill you right in front of me.”
He groped weakly for her hand. Dismayed by the distress etched over her features. “I’m sorry. Guess I haven’t done a very good job of takin’ care of you.”
She forced a bright smile – ignoring the sudden pain in her heart. “Shh. . . you’ve done nothing but look out for me since the day you came to Lancer. You and Scott both. In fact, between the two of you bossing me about, it’s like having a pair of big brothers . . .”
His fingers tightened painfully on hers, and he shifted in agony. The jagged ends of his broken ribs grating, as he flinched at her words.
“Brothers . . .”
Was that all she thought of him?
He closed his eyes in defeat and disorientation. He had no right to expect anything more. No claim on her in any way other than as a prodigal brother. Hell, it wasn’t even as if he deserved it. She was so young. The world at her feet. He was . . .he hadn’t been young since he was ten years old. The spectre of Madrid mocked him again. How could he tell her the things he’d done – been forced to do? How could he ask for her love?
Her voice was soft – concerned, as she called to him. Lifting his fingers to her lips. But the pain in his heart was worse than the pain in his ribs and head. It was more than he could do to keep his eyes open.
“My ribs . . . ” The agony shifted, and he groaned with involuntary misery. For a second, fighting to breathe.
She swallowed anxiously. Fear flowering inside her as she watched his struggle for air. Realising with anguish he was in real difficulties. The last attack had clearly broken some of his ribs. May even have damaged his lungs. She’d seen it happen before, after a stampede. One of the vaqueros had been badly trampled – the ends of his fractured ribs actually puncturing his lung.
Sam Jenkins had operated on him. She recalled he’d inserted a length of rubber tubing attached to a glass jar, with water and a vacuum. The man had lived, but it had been touch and go for a long time. She could still remember the rasp and bubble of his tortured breathing. She knew she needed to prop Johnny up. To raise him so he could breathe more easily. But other than the wall and the unforgiving pile of stones, there was nothing in the vicinity she could use. She touched his shoulder gently, and tried to hide her fear.
“Johnny, does it hurt to breathe in?”
“Si. It hurts everywhere.” The ghost of a smile slid across his face, but she could see the wretchedness in his eyes. “They busted some of my ribs . . .”
“Yes.” Raising his head, she gave him a couple of brackish sips from the canteen – perceiving the sudden wave of depression sweeping over him. “It’s going to be alright. We have to believe it. It’s not like you to give up.”
He winced again, and gagged. The water churning nauseatingly in his gut as he fought the urge to retch it back up again. Swallowing hard – knowing if he vomited it would hurt like hell, and probably deprive him of his senses.
She watched his struggle. Terror and sympathy surging through her as she both cursed and admired his courage. Knowing he did it for her, but worried beyond belief by his condition. He was getting worse with every hour that passed. She acknowledged it truthfully to herself. But he would never admit it. It was just the way he was. She’d seen him hide his pain so many times before, she saw right through him now. He was stubborn. Bloody minded. He reminded her of his father, of Murdoch.
She had thought she might lose him once. Just as she’d lost her own father on that terrible, grief-ridden night. But he’d clung onto life with an obstinacy she saw now in his son. A challenge in the very face of death. Her knuckles tightened their grip on his shirt. If he could fight it, so could she. She would not let him go.
Easing him back down again, she rolled the suede bolero up into a ball and placed it beneath his head. Pausing to stroke the damp strands of hair back off his brow.
“Just take it easy. Rest now. I won’t leave you alone – I promise I won’t leave you.”
He heard her voice through a haze of pain and darkness. Terrified as the shadows came for him again – their hands grabbing at him as they tried to wrest him away from the light. From her.
“Teresa . . .”
She heard the edge of panic. Catching hold of his flailing hands, knowing it was important she kept on talking, without really knowing why. Worried he might start bleeding again if he thrashed about too much, and afraid he’d jar his ribs. She found herself shaking slightly. Lost in a cocoon of perpetual unease, as she fought to keep him with her. The thought of losing him just too much to bear.
Crawling on his belly, Scott moved to the edge of the overhang, and placed the field glasses up to his eyes. He remembered when Teresa had brought him and Johnny up to these caves last summer. Showing them the ancient paintings hidden inside. Hunting scenes and totem animals. Long forgotten sacred and religious ceremonies. The colours as vibrant and alive as when they’d first been applied all those hundreds of years ago – protected by the darkness of the caverns. He’d been fascinated – wanting to linger. But Johnny had shivered. Longing to get back out into the sunshine, and saying the place reminded him of a tomb.
His gut clenched suddenly, as he thrust the memory aside. Even if Johnny and Teresa were here, they would come and save them. Bring them home again. No more thought of tombs.
The place looked totally deserted. As though no one had come or gone since they themselves had explored there. No hoof or boot prints in the soft earth near the cave-mouth. Just a tangled mass of undergrowth sprawling across the entrance. Scott’s heart sank like a stone, as he realised that wherever Gerrard was holding them – it certainly wasn’t here. Cipriano settled noiselessly beside him and touched his arm.
“Nothing, Cip. Place is deserted. The only tracks I’ve seen are mountain lion – and they’re old.”
“It is the same at the rear. No one has been here for a long time.”
Scott got to his feet, watching the position of the sun as it began to sink down towards the horizon. A few hours of daylight left. Another night as captives. They were out here somewhere, he could feel it – and Johnny was hurt.
He rubbed his temples wearily. Remembering his reaction in Morro Coyo when Murdoch had first read Gerrard’s letter. One mention of the word revenge, and he’d immediately thought of Johnny. Subconsciously blaming him for allowing his past to place Teresa in danger. But all the time, it had been nothing to do with him. A ghost from Murdoch’s past instead, and Johnny had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. His jaw tightened with resolve and anger – some of it directed at himself for jumping to the wrong conclusions so quickly. But most reserved for Gerrard. For what he would do to the man if anything bad happened to either Teresa or his brother. The irony of it didn’t escape him. Revenge begat revenge. It was the same old, ancient story. He turned back to Cipriano.
“Alright. We were wrong about the caves, but there has to be somewhere else nearby. Think Cip. You know this country.”
The Segundo looked up into the mountains and shaded his eyes. Watching the reddening sun, and thinking like Scott, of the hostages spending another night out here. The little Chica . . .Senor Johnny. It was already getting much colder. He frowned suddenly, then shook his head. But Scott had already seen the fleeting expression.
“What is it – you’ve thought of somewhere?”
“There is a ruined cabin up there in the high country. Hardly anyone knows of it now . . .”
“Jackson’s Pine!” Exclaimed Scott. “I know it – and Johnny and Teresa know it too. We picnicked up there, there’s a spring behind the old house . . .”
“Si Senor. It could be used as a base-camp. But it is a difficult ride. Muy peligroso – dangerous.”
Scott thought hard for a second or two. “When Teresa took us up there in the summer, we approached through the tree line from the Morro Coyo road. If Johnny was ambushed on that part of the road, he might have decided to cut cross country. Especially if they were bushwhacked from both sides.” He frowned. “Similarly – if they were taken on the road, they could have been moved up by the same route.”
He stared up at the mountains again – then back at Cipriano. “Can we get there by going over the mesa?”
Cipriano nodded cautiously. “There is a way. Barely a trail. It is not easy though.”
“But the light, Senor . . .”
“I estimate we’ll have just about enough to get there. But we’ll need to go quickly. Show me, Cip.”
Cipriano shook his head. Muttering under his breath as he followed Scott back down to the horses. But he knew this man well enough by now to realise he could be as stubborn – as obstinado, as his father and brother. The deceptively mild front was just that. Had fooled many an imperceptive person before they realised the determination behind those keen eyes. Cipriano knew they were taking a ride across the mesa up to Jackson’s Pine. Whether he liked it, or not.
Gerrard took a long draw on his cigarillo. Sitting back to watch the girl as she stumbled across the rubble with another pail of water from the spring, splashes slopping over the bucket onto the stones. She looked tired and pale. Hair dishevelled like a dusky cloud around her shoulders as she knelt down beside the Lancer boy, bathing his forehead again. Soft voice murmuring to him, the words inaudible. He could almost feel her distress himself. Radiating off her in palpable waves, as she did what she could to ease the sick man’s injuries.
Gerrard exhaled through his nose and sighed. He doubted if Lancer would survive until morning. Maybe they had been a little too rough on him. Despite what he’d told the girl, he wasn’t too worried about not getting the ransom money. Murdoch Lancer wouldn’t risk anything happening to her. Not to Paul O’Brien’s daughter.
She rocked back on her heels, and he saw her raise her face to the sky. Hands dropping into her lap as he caught the glimmer of tears on her cheeks. She looked so beautiful. Worn but lovely. For a second, he felt a pang of regret he should be the one to cause her so much pain. But then he remembered the other things – the beating he’d taken that long ago night in Morro Coyo. The stench of his prison cell in San Antone . . .
The hundred petty cruelties of the guards. The not so petty cruelties of some of the other inmates. So he’d made a few mistakes. Got drunk a few too many times. The lure of an easy purse to pay his gambling debts. Was it his fault the old man had fought back? Stubborn old cuss had pulled his gun – shouting and carrying on, instead of simply handing his wallet over. He hadn’t intended to kill him . . .Or the stupid deputy they’d sent after him.
Gerrard’s face set. Killing had seemed easy after that. It brought it’s own rewards. Money – a kind of power. The fear and respect of a certain type of man. But it wasn’t his fault. It was none of it, his fault. They’d let him down. Lancer and O’Brien. One lousy mistake – just one mistake . . .
He looked up at the girl again, his heart hardening. It was clear she loved Madrid. And not like a sister either – however much she pretended to herself. Ironic that the daughter of the prim n’ proper O’Brien should fall for a man with Madrid’s history.
Ex-gunhawk – drifter. A man with a difficult and dubious past. But maybe that was why. They always did say opposites attract. Perhaps she liked that about him. The fact that he was dangerous. But he didn’t look very dangerous now. He looked like death had chosen him. Branded him with his mark.
Gerrard grinned slightly. So much for the famous Johnny Madrid. The man had surrendered his gun like a lamb when he’d threatened to hurt the girl – and he still had the aches and pains from Madrid’s fists following that little incident this afternoon.
So maybe they were sweethearts. Old Murdoch would love that. A son of his and O’Brien’s daughter. Keep it all in the family and close to his heart. Unless things had changed, he knew the wily, old bastard loved his land more than anything else in the whole wide world. Well more fool him. He remembered the feel of the girl in his arms. Her tiny waist. The scent of her hair. She was a lovely little armful alright, and he’d nearly lost it for a second or two back there. It was a real shame he couldn’t take her with him. Have a little fun with her first. But he wanted the money more. And more than the money, he wanted revenge.
O’Brien was dead. But Lancer was still alive. All those wasted years in prison had given him plenty of time to think, brood and reflect on the missed opportunities. Even in jail he’d heard about the Lancer spread. How it had increased and grown, swallowing up most of the San Joaquin Valley and beyond.
The place must be worth thousands now. He could have been part of all that. Lancer and O’Brien had deprived him. Taken away his one good chance of a decent future. All over a stupid little thing like a gambling debt.
He could still remember the night Lancer had thrown him off the property. O’Brien had been sorrowful but set in his mind. Lancer sanctimonious, implacable with rage. He’d vowed that night he’d go back one day – that he’d make them regret what they’d done . . .
But time had passed and his life had gone from bad to worse. He knew what he was. What he’d become. Too much water had flowed under the bridge to change that now. But the future was still a-begging. It would be a damn sight sweeter with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket, and the knowledge Murdoch Lancer was dead. Then his ghost’s would finally be laid to rest. Pardee had beaten him to O’Brien. But Murdoch Lancer would still be his. His son and O’Brien’s daughter would close the chapter and put his past to bed.
Teresa forced herself to look away. Sensing Gerrard’s eyes on her, and feeling her skin crawl. She could hardly bear to see him now, as Johnny’s condition worsened, and the shadows began to lengthen on the ground.
Panic rose inside her. Washed over her, as she remembered the feel of Gerrard’s lips against her own. The mockery he’d made of it. The jeering laughter of the men. Raising her hand, she scrubbed unconsciously at her mouth as if to wipe the stain away. Her lips burned, but worse, much worse, was the scorch mark on her soul.
She took a deep breath. Fighting the flood of shame, the suffocating band of constriction across her chest. She could not let this distract her, not let it affect her concentration. Johnny was relying on her now, and she would not let him down.
He hadn’t been conscious for several hours. Groaning and rambling with fever, as his temperature climbed steadily, and she became more afraid. Occasionally, he called her name out loud – eyes opening, but remaining lost and clouded with delirium.
All she could do was try and keep him cool. Persuade him to take the odd sip of water when he was lucid enough. Talking to him despite the fact she knew he did not hear. She’d torn her way through both the blue and the brown shirts by now. Turning them into pads and bandages, compresses and towels. But it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough. And she knew she was losing him a little more, as every hour passed.
He was quiet now. The delirium fading. Face calm and still in repose as she watched over him. Black crescents of his eyelashes resting like fans on his bruised cheekbones, as she held his head in her lap. She wiped the perspiration from his brow, her hand hovering tenderly over his forehead. Willing him to open his eyes and look at her. To wake up.
But he didn’t. And as it became clear he wouldn’t, she tried not to think about anything but their present predicament. Focusing on getting him through until the morning, with the faith Scott and Murdoch would come. That they would come . . .
The last week was like a dream. Watching Johnny’s face in the firelight – the leaping shadows dancing on his skin. The soft drawl of his voice as she’d sat on the floor beside him, and he’d told her things. . .
There were some nights when she hadn’t wanted to go to bed. Had wanted the night to go on and on, just to keep him talking. Just to hear his voice. The stories that he told.
Sensing there was so much more he left unsaid. Things that made him sad or angry, filled with bitterness or regret. Of how he nearly told her – checking himself at the last moment, afraid of shocking or frightening her. The clock ticking in the silences, so much he couldn’t say.
Part of her had wanted to tell him then. To let him know it didn’t matter to her. What he was or what he’d been – he was Johnny, pure and simple. He was all that mattered to her. Lancer, Madrid . . .She was no Juliet and he no Romeo, but Shakespeare’s words had spoken in her head on more than one occasion during the last few days;
‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.’
She was no longer a child. Someone to be protected and shielded from life’s harsher aspect, sheltered from reality because of her sex. It made her grind her teeth in frustration sometimes, when Murdoch thought he was doing the right thing by treating her like a fragile flower. A porcelain doll. She knew why he did it. Never doubted his love. But she’d lived on the Estancia all her life. She’d dealt with wounded men and drunken hands. Helped her father and Cipriano when the livestock were birthing – assisted Maria and Sam Jenkins when one of the vaquero’s wives had delivered a child. She probably knew more than Murdoch did – and one day he would have to let her grow up.
She sighed – taking Johnny’s limp hand in hers, and staring down at it. A couple of times when they’d been talking, he’d absent-mindedly stroked her hair. His fingers making her shiver with pleasure, and wonder how they’d feel against her skin . . .
The thought of Gerrard brought her up short with a nasty jolt. His brutish hands on her body, round her waist as he’d pulled her to him. Lips harsh and painful, grinding down on her till she couldn’t breathe. . .
Her hand curled tighter round Johnny’s. Clinging onto him, as she struggled with the cold dread all over again. Forcing the memory of the violation aside as she took comfort from the man beside her, despite the fact he spoke no word. Even unconscious, he gave her a feeling of warmth and safety. Of strength. The strength she needed to fight back. To keep them both alive until Murdoch and Scott came for them.
Inching carefully down the rock-face, Scott cursed under his breath as his foot slipped slightly, sending a single pebble bouncing down the mountainside. He held his breath, heart racing uncomfortably for a moment, and froze. Luckily it came to a halt. Lodging in an outcrop of bushes instead of starting a rockslide, but for a horrible second or two, he’d thought his goose was truly cooked.
He and Cipriano had made good time. It was still light, but the sun was beginning to set now. Dipping down towards the valley as it darkened in colour, tinting the mountain peaks with a mantle of indigo. Deepening the shadows under the trees.
Normally, he would have been appreciative of it’s beauty. The land out here never failing to move him with it’s sheer splendour. It’s majesty. But he had no time to admire the view. He’d found what they’d been searching for.
Squatting uncomfortably on the rocky ledge, he watched the scene below him with a frown. There were seven horses tied up around the back of the ruined cabin. Teresa’s pinto and Barranca amongst them. He could count four Mexican’s, and an American who had to be Gerrard. It was a good spot alright. Any one approaching up the trail was easily visible once they exited the tree line, and the cabin occupied a strategically defensible position, backed up against the rugged mountainside.
His heart leapt as he spotted Teresa. She was sat on her heels at the side of a tumbledown wall. Hands on her knees, as she turned her face briefly to the sky. Raising the field-glasses, he trained them onto her. Expression growing grim, as he noted the shine of tears on her cheeks. The uncharacteristic droop of her mouth.
She looked white and exhausted. A thousand times removed from her usual bubbly self, and he felt the anger build and burn inside him, as he swept the glasses round in search of Johnny.
A slight movement caught his eye. He swung the glasses back over to Teresa with a strong sense of foreboding, as she leant forward to something on the ground, and he realised it was his brother.
Straining his eyes as hard as he could, he still couldn’t see more than a glimpse of Johnny, even with the field-glasses. A brief flash of the favourite salmon pink shirt, Teresa bending forward to support him in her arms. Scott ground his teeth in frustration, and was suddenly afraid.
Johnny was so stubborn. So independent. When he was wounded he went to ground like an animal – retreating into his own private den to lick his hurts. Scott felt cold inside. Johnny must be in a pretty bad way to allow Teresa to hold him like that, to be prone on the ground in the face of the enemy. To Johnny, front was everything. Bravado was all. Never show your weakness, never give your enemy an advantage . . .
How many times had Scott heard his brother say those words? How many times had he struggled against the odds to uphold them, to cling onto his fabled edge?
Scott watched in agony now. Wishing there was some way of letting them know help was on the way – that they must hang on. Torn in two, knowing he had to get back to Lancer as quickly as possible, but unable to wrench himself away. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to be clinical about things. Summoning all the resources he’d relied on as an officer during the war. He began to study the terrain around the cabin again. Watching the men – sweeping the glasses in under the trees and down the trail as far as he could see, beginning to piece a plan together in his head.
From where he was observing now, he had a superb vantage point. Anyone who was a fair shot with a Winchester would be able to take out one, maybe two men before Gerrard realised his camp had been discovered. But Scott knew it only took one man with quick reflexes to put a bullet into the hostages, and there was also Murdoch’s safety to be thought of.
He watched a while longer – eyes irresistibly drawn to the tiny figure of the girl, as she sat with Johnny’s head in her lap. She looked alright for now. The odds had improved a little. He supposed he should take comfort from that, but it was a barren comfort, and he could hardly bear to leave her. One last look, and he pocketed the field-glasses. Making his way carefully back up to the overhang, where an anxious Cipriano was waiting with the horses. One look at Scott’s bleak face told him all he needed to know.
“Es vivo, Senor?”
Scott nodded tersely. “For now. At least we know where they are – it evens it up a little.”
It was still just light as they began the journey back to Lancer, but Scott knew they wouldn’t get back to the ranch until nearly midnight, and Murdoch would be raw with anxiety. He tried not to fret too much about Johnny. But the image of his brother lying limply in Teresa’s arms came back to haunt him with disturbing regularity. He recalled the words Gerrard had taunted Murdoch with;
“They’re still alive for now. Just.”
He had a horrible feeling time was running out.
Johnny groaned and stirred beside her, and she was there for him immediately.
“Johnny, can you hear me?”
His eyes opened. Bright blue with fever. And for a moment, she wondered whether he even knew there was anyone beside him. “It’s alright – I’m here.”
“Madre . . .” He sounded so weak and confused, her heart contracted. “Mama?”
“No.” She stroked his hair gently. “It’s Teresa. Remember?”
“Teresa . . .” He looked up cloudily at her. “What’s happenin’?”
“They’ve contacted Murdoch. Asked him to come here tomorrow. Alone, with the ransom money.”
Distress flared in him suddenly, as he tried to struggle up. Getting as far as one elbow, before the searing agony in his ribs made him fall back with a groan. She eased him into her arms again, as he fought and gasped for air – head against her breast. The pain vying with the breathlessness, as his body shook and trembled with effort.
“Don’t be so stubborn,” she cried desperately. “It won’t help Murdoch if you hurt yourself anymore. It won’t help me!”
He bit his lip to stifle the pain. “I’m . . . not . . . your brother.”
She froze for a second, then her arms tightened fractionally around him as she bent and kissed his forehead. “No. You’re not my brother. And I’m not your sister. I . . . I don’t want to lose you Johnny.”
She felt some of the tension drain out of him then. The taut lines round his eyes relaxing slightly, as he tipped his head back against her. If the whole situation hadn’t been so very grim, she would have wondered at the significance of his words. As it was, she was content just to hold him.
“I told you, you won’t lose me.” His voice was so quiet, she had to strain to hear it. Resting her head against his, as she cradled him close for a second – savouring the feeling of him in her arms.
“Murdoch’s walkin’ into a trap.”
She could hear his frustration, in spite of the pain. It echoed her own fears, and she forced back the terror all over again. It felt as though she had lived the last eighteen hours in a dense fog of fear. Fear for Murdoch – fear for herself and Johnny. Fear that none of them would escape from this alive. She swallowed hard. Rubbing her cheek against the softness of his hair.
“What can we do?”
He groaned and shifted uncomfortably. ” No se. . . if only I wasn’t so useless . . .”
She looked surreptitiously across at Gerrard. Bile and repugnance rising in her throat at the site of him. At the memory of his hands, his lips . . . Shuddering and unable to help herself, as the horror came flooding back like a tide.
“Teresa?” Johnny sensed her terror at once, voice soft with concern. “Miel – talk to me.”
She pressed her lips together hard. “It . . .it’s okay. I’m okay. I was thinking perhaps that I could get close to Gerrard. Try and get hold of a gun . . .”
“No!” He clutched hold of her tightly – grip feverishly strong despite his overall debilitation. “No you won’t. Say it!”
“Johnny I . . .”
Her lips trembled, as she ducked her head to hide her eyes from his gaze. He knew how she felt. Her fear, her shame. The panic began to subside as the tears ran silently down her cheeks. Dripping off the end of her chin and onto his face as he waited patiently for the storm to pass. Feeling the tense shudders begin to lessen, as her muscles relaxed beneath his fingers, and her breathing evened out again. A minute more, and she lifted her head back up to look at him. A tremulous smile tilting the corner of her mouth.
“How do you do that?”
“Que?” He smiled painfully back at her, twisting an errant chestnut curl round his finger as he did so.
“I see you do it with the horses. The frightened or nervous ones. The mares when they’re in foal. It’s a way you have of calming them – of gentling them down. Like when you broke Barranca. The first day that you came . . .”
“That’s just it.” He interrupted hoarsely. ” I never ‘broke’ Barranca. I taught him he could trust me. That we could be compadres. He trusts me, and I trust him. He’s got too much spirit to be broke.”
Her fingers closed round his and held them still. Twining with them tightly as their eyes met across the clasped hands. “Like his compadre, then,” she whispered softly. “He has a lot of spirit too.”
“I . . . still need to hear you say it,” he said. The words becoming an effort again, as the air was stolen from his lungs, his chest tightening with bands of sharp pain. “That you won’t go to. . .to Gerrard. Promise me . . .”
She knew he was being taken from her again. Part of her rebelling, as the sense of clenching fear returned. Watching as his face creased into lines of frowning agony, and feeling him go limp and slacken on her breast. She looked down at him tenderly, lowering his arm back across his body.
“I promise Johnny.”
He relaxed then. Slipping out of consciousness, as she watched the sun begin to set with troubled eyes.
As they rode in wearily under the archway, Scott could see his father’s figure silhouetted against the lights on the veranda. Tall outline motionless and stooped with worry. Scott was suddenly struck by the impression of intense loneliness that seemed to hover about the massive shoulders. The overwhelming sense of being alone. Was this how Murdoch had been before they came? Before he’d finally summoned him and Johnny home?
Scott nudged his horse a little faster. Watching the craggy head look up, as they clattered to a halt at the hitching rail in front of the house.
Murdoch’s voice sounded like he looked. Curt and fraught with foreboding, as Scott nodded his thanks to Cipriano.
“We found them. Not at the Indian caves – but up at Jackson’s Pine. It’s not going to be easy Murdoch . . .”
“Nothing ever is.” Murdoch paused, looking a little more closely at his eldest son. “What’s the situation?”
“There are five of them. Assuming one of them will ride to escort you from the Morro Coyo road, the odds are still too long.”
Murdoch nodded grimly, hesitating over the question he was longing to ask, but hardly dared. “And Johnny and Teresa?”
They began to walk along the veranda to the French windows. A soft night reeze fluttering the curtains. Scent of jasmine and roses seductive and bittersweet. Scott sighed heavily.
“Johnny looks bad. Out of it. Teresa . . .Teresa’s okay for now. As far as I could see.”
Murdoch stopped, and gripped his arm painfully hard. “Is he alive, Scott? Could you tell if he was alive?”
“Yes. He’s still alive.” They were grasping at straws now, each seeking a comfort the other couldn’t give. Any port in a storm. Any solace in the darkness when the dawn is far away. “Teresa’s with him. You know Johnny, he won’t give up. Won’t leave her by herself . . .”
“I know Johnny,” said Murdoch tightly. “But I also know Gerrard. He sees this as his one shot at revenge. And he doesn’t plan on leaving anyone alive to tell the tale.”
He was cold, so cold. His whole body felt as though it had been separated into pieces that didn’t quite fit together anymore. The rage in his shoulder had been totally superseded by the grating agony in his chest, and every breath he took was a seething rasp of pain.
He opened his eyes. Blinking several times at the sky as it spun about him, and his belly lurched with nausea. He hadn’t eaten anything since the meal at the Cantina, but every time he regained consciousness, Teresa kept forcing him to drink and he had to fight to keep it down. Battling his misery, he tried to concentrate. To work something out that might just save their lives tomorrow. But it was hard, so hard to even control his breathing, and he began to feel afraid.
Murdoch would die. Teresa would die. All because he’d let them down. Failed to protect two of the people he loved more than anything else in the whole world. Well so much for the great and legendary Johnny Madrid, now.
He couldn’t let them down – couldn’t let her down. Not when her voice had been so full of promise. When there was a chance she might care for him the way he cared for her . . .
He groaned out loud. Unable to help it. Wrapping his arm across his chest. Shivering under the suede jacket, as the night air seared into his lungs, and his teeth began to chatter. He felt so ill. So weak. The night began to crush his chest again as he fought and struggled for breath.
And then she was there. Face a pale blur in the moonlight. Hand soft on his skin, as she bent across him slowly. The scent of her hair filling his world, as for a moment, he forgot his pain.
“Hey . . .brown eyes . . .”
“Hey blue,” she smiled, but her voice was shaky with tears. She hated to see him hurting so much, and his convulsive shivering had jolted her out of the nightmarish half-sleep she’d fallen into earlier.
“Tengo frio . . .so . . . cold.”
She pulled the jacket up to his neck. Wishing for the thousandth time she had a blanket or bed-roll to wrap him in. Aware that even though he complained of cold – he still burned and boiled with fever. Looking over to the campfire, she watched as Gerrard spoke to Saldanas and Ruis. Machado had already settled down for the night, and Chico was on guard. Wandering round the perimeter of the trees with his carbine cradled in his arms.
She bit her lip. Remembering her earlier promise to Johnny as she hovered, torn with indecision. He groaned again. Muttering with confusion as a burst of violent shuddering wracked his body. Her hesitation vanished. She got to her feet and marched across to the fireside. Body rigid and unwavering, as all three men looked up in surprise. Gerrard grinned.
“What’s the matter, honey. Gettin’ a little cold over there? Come sit by the fire – I’ll soon warm you up.”
She inclined her head at Chico’s empty bedroll. “He’s not using that. I need it.”
Gerrard laughed again, and nodded at her. “You got plenty of sand, Teresa O’Brien. I’ll say that for you. How’s Madrid?”
“How do you think?”
“My guess is he aint feelin’ too good. Think he’ll last out till his old man gets here?”
She glared at him stonily. Determined not to make the mistake of letting her feelings show again. The terror of his earlier response still vivid in her mind.
“He’ll make it. He’s strong.”
“Always heard he was. Heard a lot of stories ’bout that boy along the border. Knew a man in El Paso fancied he was fast with a forty five – but he weren’t as fast as Johnny Madrid. Found it out to his cost.” He paused, and raised an eyebrow.” Still hard to believe he’s Lancer’s son.”
“Well he is,” her nails dug so hard into the palms of her hands they left marks, but she faced him unflinchingly. “And he goes by that name now. Not Madrid.”
Gerrard laughed bitterly. “Fell on his feet, didn’t he? A new life with a rich daddy. Biggest spread in the San Joaquin . . . sassy little armful like you sweet as honey for him. . .” his voice lowered. “Redemption.”
She forgot her fear then. Regarding him curiously, and struck by the emotion in his eyes. “He earned it, Mister Gerrard. And it didn’t come easy. Nothing in his life has ever been easy. He deserves a second chance.”
“Most men who choose his path die by the gun, Teresa. There’s nowhere far enough to run – nowhere safe enough to hide. Always someone who believes they’re quicker on the draw . . . then one day you meet them and they are. End of story.”
She watched him solemnly, her heart pounding. Everything he’d said came uncomfortably close to her own thought’s earlier. All her own fears put into this man’s cruelly brutal words.
“It doesn’t matter in this case, does it Mister Gerrard?” She moved across to Chico’s bedroll. “Seeing as you mean to kill us both tomorrow, anyway.”
Gerrard gave a single, short laugh, and turned back to Saldanas. But he didn’t stop her from gathering up the bedroll, and for a second, she fancied she’d seen discomfort on his face. As she knelt to roll the blankets together, she caught sight of Chico’s tin plate and mug. He hadn’t bothered to wash them after supper, and his dirty fork was still laid along side them.
She stiffened – sliding her eyes sideways to where the men spoke by the fire. Snaking out her hand, and concealing the fork in the sleeve of her jacket as she got up to her feet, and walked back over to Johnny.
“Teresa . . . querida . . .” He muttered. Tossing and turning with delirium again, as she rolled him into the blankets as gently as she could. Sliding in beside him to keep him from the cold.
“Teresa mi amor . . .” His voice was soft against her hair – and for a moment, she wondered if she’d imagined the whispered words. He’d called her darling in a way he never had before. Told her he loved her . . .
She pulled him closer and rested his head on her breast. Not knowing if this would be the first and last time she’d hold him in her arms.
“Are you sure about this, Murdoch?”
Val Crawford frowned, looking doubtfully at him, as the big man signed the Bank forms, and pushed the pen across the desk.
“What alternative is there?” Murdoch glanced up grimly. Watching as the Bank clerk nodded to the two armed guards beside him, and turned to the enormous safe at the back of the strong room. “I know Gerrard, Val. That’s why I’m not prepared to take any chances with this. Just make sure you do your bit.”
“Count on it.”
“I am.” Murdoch paused. “And so are my children. All three of them.”
“Here you are, Mister Lancer. Twenty thousand dollars.” The clerk cleared his throat nervously. Eyes goggling at the sight of so much money. A fortune, in fact. “It’s an awful lot of money Sir, are you sure . . .?”
“I’m sure,” said Murdoch brusquely. “Just get on with it.”
“I’m afraid I have to count it out to you in front of the Sheriff, here. Bank policy.”
“Hurry up. I don’t have anytime to waste.”
“Yes Sir, Mister Lancer. The bundles are made up of two thousand dollars each. That’s ten lots of two. Two, four, six. . . .”
When the clerk had finished counting it all out, Murdoch produced a leather pouch from his saddle bags. “If you’d be so good as to place it in here, Mister Schilling.”
He could hardly bear to look at the money himself. Blood money. Nothing but pieces of printed paper in comparison with Johnny and Teresa’s lives. Each one of them so precious. So vital. So much a part of him. He clenched his fists tightly – remembering the lock of hair, the blood-stained cloth. It was up to him to get them out of this. To bring them safely home. Whatever the cost.
He took the saddlebags and buckled them up. Placing his hat back on his head, as he got up from the desk. “Gentlemen – I believe our business is completed. I’d like to thank you for acting on such short notice, Schilling.”
The small clerk nodded sympathetically. “Under the circumstances, Mister Lancer . . .”
Murdoch put up a hand to stop him saying more. “Just pray I’m back in the next couple of days to pay it all back in again.”
Schilling nodded respectfully. “No Sir. I’ll pray alright, but not for the money.”
Murdoch paused halfway through the door, touched by the man’s words in spite of his own preoccupation. “Thank you.”
Crawford walked him out of the Bank, and into the street. “That goes for all of us, Murdoch.” He hesitated awkwardly, then slapped him on the back. “Take care of yourself. Bring them home safely.”
Murdoch swung himself up onto his enormous bay. A big man on a big horse. “I will, Val.”
And then he was gone in a swirl of dust. Horse and rider disappearing rapidly from the small town, towards the river road.
The road between Morro Coyo and Lancer seemed uncommonly quiet that morning, and the only person Murdoch passed was a single farmer driving his buck board into town. He cantered along as instructed. The bay eating up the miles as he loped up the trail with his easy gait.
Murdoch kept his eyes peeled, but he had a fair idea where they’d take him. Probably the same place they’d taken Johnny and Teresa, if he had to make a guess.
He’d lost count of all the times Teresa had forced him to stop at the head of the valley. She loved the view from that particular spot, and he knew it was one of her favourite places in the whole world. She’d told him so a thousand times, ever since she was a little girl. He’d be willing to bet his last nickel she and Johnny had stopped to admire the sunset on their way back from town that last evening. It was also roughly equidistant at the centre of the triangle between Lancer, Morro Coyo, and Jackson’s Pine.
If Johnny had been ambushed here – the road home cut-off, the road back blocked, he and Teresa would have headed up country towards the mesa. It all made sense.
A feeling of grim anxiety prickled along his spine. Another night had passed. Another cold night in the open. He hadn’t bothered going to bed, and neither had Scott. Sitting up through the small hours with Jelly, Cipriano and Val Crawford, as they’d made and re-made plans. But he’d found it hard not to think of Johnny and Teresa – his lost children. The images Scott described playing over in his head. His heart ached for the girl. His darling. Daughter in all but blood and name. The thought of her terror, her pain – it was almost more than he could bear.
And then there was Johnny. The blood-stained cloth a ghastly and compelling reminder he was hurt. From all accounts badly. The night air would not have been gentle on him. The cold more foe than friend.
Hard to believe his sons had been back in his life for less than four years, when they were so intrinsically bound with everything he thought or did. Everything he was. If he was honest – he hadn’t known what to expect the day he’d called them home. The citified Boston boy, the cynical gunslinger. But how they’d both surprised him.
Scott hadn’t become an officer in a crack cavalry regiment by dint of good manners. He was an intelligent thoughtful man, with more than his fair share of courage.
As for Johnny – whatever his past as Madrid may have been like, it hadn’t taken long for Murdoch to realise the true worth of the man behind the legend.
He was proud of both his sons. Of the way they’d adapted to life on Lancer. Their bravery and ability. The close bond that had developed between them despite the difference in their characters and background. He didn’t want to lose them – but there was a very real chance he might do so today. He refused to countenance the fact Johnny could already be dead. But try as he might, he found it hard to forget that piece of blood-stained shirt sleeve.
The uneasy knowledge that Johnny could be reckless with his own life lay like a bruise on his soul. Especially if someone he loved was threatened, or something upset his strong sense of justice. Murdoch had learned that the hard way in the few years since Johnny had returned home. They had come so close to losing him more than once.
He was never going to lose him again.
He rode uphill now, towards the head of the valley. And there before him, as far as the eye could see, was his land. Lancer. He’d once said every blade of grass meant more to him than any other thing created by God. He knew now, he’d give it all away just to have his children safely back with him. There was no contest.
The big horse whinnied. Twitching back his ears as he sensed something on the wind up ahead of them. This was it, then. Murdoch braced his back subconsciously. Wondering if Gerrard would dispense with formalities and simply shoot him here. He’d banked on the man’s vanity. His desire for revenge and need to gloat. He sighed – hoping he hadn’t made a colossal error. If he had, not only would his own life be forfeit, but Johnny’s and
Caledonia whinnied again. Shying back his huge head, as a horseman moved out of the trees at the side of the road bend in front of him. Murdoch pulled up. Looking over his shoulder to the man pointing a carbine at the centre of his back. The trap had snapped shut.
“Your gun, Senor.”
He handed it in grim silence to the hard-eyed Mexican who’d ridden forward. Watching the man’s face carefully as he tried to gauge whether or not he’d cashed in all his chips. But there was no sign of Gerrard, and he exhaled slowly. It looked as though he’d been right. As though Gerrard wanted to rub his nose in victory. Now if only all the other pieces of the jigsaw had fallen into place.
Teresa flinched as Gerrard’s hand fell on her shoulder.
“Not long now honey. If old Murdoch’s done as he’s told.”
“He’ll come,” she replied coldly. “He’s a man of honour.”
He laughed mockingly at her. “Murdoch Lancer – man of honour. I like it.”
Taking a deep breath, she forced back her anger. The dull ache of pain and determination taking over once again. More than anything now, she knew she had to stay calm and in control. Not easy when the torrent of hurt and anger inside her was threatening to boil over and engulf everything in its path. But their lives could depend on it. His life could depend on it.
Gerrard looked down at the back of her head. Tempted again to take her with him – to keep her for himself. She was so beautiful. A woman worth having. But he realised with regret, it would never work. Paul O’Brien’s daughter would not be broken in or trained. Like taking a coiled rattler along for the ride. It was part of what made her so attractive to him. Her strength of spirit, her independence. It had also signed her death warrant. He ran his hand caressingly down the length of her hair. It’s satiny softness. Feeling her shy away as desire flared in him once more, and he wondered how much time he had before Lancer arrived . . .
Machado’s voice broke the spell, and he turned reluctantly aside. It was not to be. Besides, with all that money in his pocket, there’d be women a-plenty soon. He’d have forgotten her in a week.
Teresa watched him walk away, and found she was shaking. Sensing the change in him, as his hand had lingered on her hair. His eyes glazed, breathing quickened. . . Thank God Murdoch was coming – that this would soon be over. She had to believe he had a plan. That he and Scott would save them.
“No puedo respirar . . .”
Johnny stirred beside her, and she frowned. Pulling the blanket down from his chest. He had been so cold all night, but he was a furnace now. Not lucid since before midnight. Hardly even rambling anymore. Just the odd word – usually in Spanish. Distressed and haunted by the revenants of his past.
“No va . . .don’t go. . .”
“I won’t,” she whispered. He was too pale. Too still. The blood he’d lost, the damage to his lungs. The night out in the open air . . . He was racked with fever. Vulnerable and weak.
She held his hand gently, as he opened his eyes. Aware this time, although the lack of life force made them dull.
“Lo siento . . .”
“You have nothing to be sorry for. This is not your fault.”
He tried squeezing her fingers, but the effort was pitiful. “Do whatever you can . . . to get outta this . . .”
“Murdoch’s coming,” she said more optimistically than she actually felt. “He’ll have a plan – you’ll see.”
He smiled hazily at her. Aware they might not have much time left. Breath catching raggedly in his throat as he fought to stay clear-headed enough to tell her what was really in his heart.
“Mi estrella . . .”
It was so difficult to concentrate – to focus. His brain stupidly unable to coordinate with his mouth as the dark clouds came swirling in again. But the star that was her shone brightly for him, and he clung onto it with all his might. Each breath was a rasp. Too much of an effort. The only thing making it bearable for him, was the fact that she loved him. He knew that she loved him.
Teresa watched as he struggled to stay conscious. Losing the battle and slipping away from her again. Blue eyes shuttered and closed. She was beyond anxiety now. Filled instead with an almost mind-numbing sense of remoteness and determination. One way or another, this had to end today. Unless Murdoch was able to save them, she and Johnny would die out here.
Grief was not a stranger to her. It was over three years ago since Pardee had murdered her father. She had mourned then, but caring for Murdoch, pulling him back from the brink of his own injuries had given her strength and purpose. And then Scott and Johnny had arrived. She could hardly believe the life they’d brought to the Estancia, the changes they’d wrought in Murdoch. The dour driven rancher was gone. The man in his place had a spring in his step, and hope for the future.
But now she’d broken her own rule and fallen in love with one of Murdoch’s sons. Probably the one most people would have least expected. Sensible, pragmatic Teresa should have fallen for the calm, easy-going Scott. But it was the enigmatic Johnny who had her heart.
And now there was a chance she might lose him. That they might both die up here in these mountains today. Well, not if she could help it. She realised then, with a steely sense of purpose, she’d do just about anything to keep him safe. She may have been unable to save her father, but Johnny’s life was in her hands. She wasn’t going to give him up without a fight.
She was Paul O’Brien’s daughter. Gerrard was going to find out what that meant.
As they rode up out of the tree line, Murdoch saw the ruins of Jackson’s Pine, straining his eyes anxiously for a glimpse of his son. But there was no obvious sign of Johnny, and his heart sank rapidly with disappointment. The sick sense of apprehension swamping him once again.
Scott’s report last night had not been comforting, and the thought of Johnny so weak and hurt had played through his mind continuously. The money burned against his leg like a brand. He just wanted to get it over with now. They were fast approaching the ruins. The crumbling stone walls and defiant chimney breast. There was something sad, strangely dauntless about the old homestead. Unloved, abandoned. But still holding on – still defying the elements up here on the side of the mountain.
Murdoch pushed the imagery away. He had no time now for whimsy – no time to lose focus. Keeping his eyes firmly forward, he spotted Gerrard immediately. Older maybe – but still unmistakeable as the bold- eyed boy Paul O’Brien had tried to save. He could see Teresa’s pale anxious face behind him. But there was still no sign of Johnny. Scanning quickly, he counted three men including Gerrard – plus the two men at his back. Scott had been right. There were five in all.
He was going to have to be fast, and Scott was going to have to be accurate to pull this off safely. He sat up straighter – deliberately avoiding looking at anything except Gerrard, as he nudged Caledonia forwards.
“Murdoch – it’s been a long time.”
“Not long enough.” Murdoch then looked hard at Teresa and leaned forward in the saddle. “Are you all right darling?”
“Yes.” Her voice was strained and tight. “But Johnny needs help.”
“Where’s my son, Gerrard?”
Although he spoke softly, there was a wealth of menace in Murdoch’s tone. And despite the fact he was holding the aces, Gerrard’s smile was suddenly nervous in response. He turned swiftly to Saldanas.
“Did you search him?”
“Si, Senor. He has no gun. No rifle either.”
“What’s the point?” Murdoch indicated the men around him. “I’m not about to do anything to put my children at risk.”
“Smart man.” Gerrard smiled again – his confidence visibly returning. “Perhaps you mellowed over the years. The Murdoch Lancer I knew wouldn’t have compromised for anyone or anythin’.”
Murdoch nodded levelly. “People change Phil. Some more than others. Now, let me see my son.”
Gerrard frowned. “Aren’t you forgettin’ somethin’, old man? We got some unfinished business first. Down off the horse, and let me see the money. Then Teresa here will take you over to Madrid.”
“His name’s Lancer,” said Murdoch sharply, throwing the saddle-bags down at Gerrard’s feet, and dismounting from the bay. “It’s all there, no need to count it. Now, Teresa honey . . .”
Gerrard signalled quickly to Ruis, and as the Mexican raised his carbine to Murdoch’s chest, he bent and picked up the saddle-bags. Tearing them open, eyes shining greedily, as he pulled out the bundles of cash. Murdoch’s lip curled slightly as he watched with grim distaste.
“I’m a man of my word, Gerrard. Now for God’s sake, keep yours.”
Ignoring the rifle, he moved closer to Teresa. Trying to reassure her with his eyes, as she turned her frightened face towards him. Gerrard slung the saddle-bags over his shoulder and stepped between them. Taking hold of Teresa’s arm with a tight grip, as he nodded to his men.
“Think I’ll accompany you. We got some catchin’ up to do, Lancer – and I’ve got kinda fond of Teresa here, over the last day or so.”
“The feeling isn’t mutual.” Teresa shook her head – trying uselessly to push his hand off her arm.
Murdoch’s heart sank as they approached the tumble-down rear wall of the cabin, and he saw Johnny lying motionless in the shade. Kneeling down at his side, he fought back his anger and dismay, looking abruptly at Gerrard.
The man shrugged carelessly. “Boy fancied himself a hero. Stubborn. Like his old man.”
“You mean he fought back,” said Murdoch harshly, placing his huge hand on Johnny’s forehead, and checking him for fever.
“He was trying to protect me.” Teresa’s voice quavered slightly as she tried to join them. But Gerrard pulled her back, keeping her by his side.
“He’s lost a lot of blood – his ribs are broken,” she said doggedly. “I think he may have a head injury as well.”
Murdoch nodded rigidly. “Was this strictly necessary Phil? What went so sour you had to resort to this?”
Gerrard’s expression changed. “You know where I’ve been the last twelve years, Lancer?”
“I heard you were in San Antonio.”
“Yeah – San Antone. Twelve stinkin’ years just watchin’ the roaches. Dodgin’ the beatin’s. Know what that’s like?”
Murdoch stared at him evenly. “Not personally. But my eldest son was a prisoner of war at Libby. He doesn’t talk about it very often, but I know he went through hell. Difference is, he doesn’t blame anyone for it – doesn’t use it as an excuse when something falters in his life.”
Gerrard snorted bitterly. “Easy to pick up the pieces when your Pa owns half the San Joaquin, your Grandpappy’s some rich magnate back in Boston . . .” His eyes hardened. “Bein’ in that hellhole gave me plenty of time to think over the past – to realise you and O’Brien stole the only decent chance I ever had . . . you cheated me, Lancer. Cheated me outta my life!”
“No one cheated you,” ground Murdoch. “You cheated yourself. The best opportunity you ever had, and you blew it for a few hundred dollars. You were going to sell us out – steal our land. Stand by and see us murdered. The only reason I let you live back then, was because Paul O’Brien begged me to spare you. It’s not revenge you owe his daughter – but your own miserable life.”
Gerrard’s face twisted as he stared at him in fury. “I’m owed this money. Ten times over. But you know what? I’ll be happy to take the rest of it in kind. To hit you where it really hurts. How about it, Murdoch. Want to watch me clear the debt?”
He hooked his arm across Teresa’s throat, jerking her back against him as he pressed his revolver to her breast. “Your son first – then Paul O’Brien’s daughter. How does it feel to watch them die, old man? To know they suffered because of you?”
Murdoch got slowly to his feet and shook his head. “Don’t do it Phil. Paul believed in you. Don’t hurt his daughter out of hatred for me . . .”
“Hold it right there . . .” Gerrard took a step backwards, and Murdoch could see his control was crumbling. “It’s too late – twenty five years too late . . .” His grip tightened as Teresa began to struggle. Raising the colt and pointing it towards Johnny.
Murdoch looked quickly across at the Mexicans, and knew time had just run out.
Lifting his hand, he dropped it with a single chopping motion. The signal for Scott and Jorge up in the rocks behind the cabin, the best riflemen on Lancer. Scott already had Ruis lined up in his sites – dropping him immediately. Swinging the Winchester straight across to Saldanas and getting in a wing shot, as the man realised what was happening and dove for cover.
Jorge had taken Machado in one neat shot, but Chico made it to the horses, heading for the tree line just as Val Crawford, Jelly, and three more deputies broke cover. They surrounded him in a few seconds, and took him without a fight.
Murdoch looked across at Gerrard, as the man backed up against the wall. His arm still tight around Teresa’s throat. The gun back at her breast.
“It’s over Phil. Give it up and let her go. You’re not going to make it out of here.”
Gerrard laughed sardonically. “You think I’m going back to prison, Murdoch? Don’t you understand – it was never about the money. Not really.”
“Murdoch?” It was Jelly’s voice behind him. Questioning and uncertain.
“Stay where you are, Jelly.” Murdoch watched Gerrard’s face. Trying to read the man’s expression, his body-language. Anything that might give some clue as to his intent. But he’d never been much of a poker player. Never learned to read behind a man’s eyes . . .
He suddenly found himself wishing for Johnny’s skill at it right now.
“Let her go. It’s me you want. Not her or Johnny. Let’s settle this between us, once and for all. Man to man.”
“You’d like that wouldn’t you? I let her go, your marksman drops me with a single shot. I aint no fool.” He turned his head savagely to Jelly. “You – old man. Fetch me a horse. Now!”
Jelly didn’t move. “Boss?”
Murdoch nodded at him. “Go on Jelly. Do as he says.”
Jelly moved uncertainly round to the back of the cabin. He looked at the tethered horses, and stood there scratching his head. How to even up the odds?
His eyes lit on Barranca. The golden pony was still saddled up and ready to go. Jelly wondered if the palomino would respond to anyone other than Johnny – but hell, it had to be worth a try. Clicking softly to the horse, he unhitched him and led him across the stones to the front of the ruins, just as Scott clambered down from the rocks. Their eyes met for a grim second, and Jelly knew Scott understood why he’d chosen Barranca.
“Don’t know if he’ll perform fer anyone other than Johnny . . .” he muttered under his breath.
“We’ll soon find out.” Scott answered soberly, following them over to the wall, his gaze transfixed by the motionless body of his younger brother.
Johnny looked dead already. Pale and still. Oblivious to the drama being played out around him, hands lying loosely on top of the bed roll Teresa had placed over his body to keep him warm. Scott watched for any sign of movement. Any indication his brother was alive. But the long brown fingers didn’t so much as twitch, and he began to feel afraid.
Jelly was level with Murdoch now. “Here’s yer horse Mister.”
Gerrard waved the gun at him. “No closer. Leave him be and step away.”
Scott met Teresa’s haunted look. Immeasurably impressed by her apparent composure in spite of her ordeal. There was a bruise on her temple – another on her jaw. The evidence of tear tracks on her dirt-stained face. But her expression was calm. Her eyes still. He took a careful step forward – fists clenching, as Jelly dropped Barranca’s reins onto the ground.
He could see Val Crawford out of the corner of his eye. The Sheriff and his men had taken Chico and the man he’d winged, but were clearly unwilling to make any kind of move that might place Teresa, Murdoch or Johnny, at more risk.
Scott looked back at Gerrard’s face, and was glad. He didn’t think there was much the man wouldn’t do. Gerrard was cornered. A beast at bay. Teeth bared and claws unsheathed. At his most dangerous and fighting for his very life. Adrenalin began to pump and surge round Scott’s body. Everything he cared about was at stake here. There could be no room for error.
“So what happens now?” It was Murdoch who spoke. Voice soft and controlled as he watched his enemy carefully.
“Teresa and I are gettin’ out of here.” Gerrard indicated the palomino. “If anyone tries to follow us, I promise I will kill her.”
He jerked his elbow viciously enough to make her gag – almost sweeping her feet out from under her, as she slammed back hard against his body. He laughed – switching the gun across to Johnny.
“But first – there’s a little question of collectin’ on my debt, Murdoch. I’m gonna put him outta his misery, and then I’m gonna kill you. You’ll die knowin’ the account’s been paid in full.” There was a click as he pulled back the hammer.
“No . . . !”
Teresa pulled Chico’s fork from her pocket, stabbing it backwards into Gerrard’s thigh with every ounce of strength she possessed. Just as Johnny surprised them all by coming to life, and whistling shrilly to Barranca.
The palomino reared up onto his hind legs, as Gerrard gave a yell of pain, and Teresa twisted cat-like, out of his grasp. Falling on the ground in her haste to escape, she scrabbled across to Johnny’s side, just as Murdoch leapt forward and reached for the gun.
He had a split second before Gerrard regained control. Barrelling into him, as Gerrard turned to aim it straight at his chest – both men carried backwards several yards by the force of the charge. Scott lunged forward to catch hold of Barranca’s reins. Terrified the palomino’s clashing hooves would trample Teresa or Johnny. Working his hands up the leather, and grabbing hold of the bit to calm the stamping horse.
Murdoch forced Gerrard’s arm back over his head, just as the man squeezed the trigger. Feeling the bullet part his hair for him – the report deafeningly loud in his ear. He ducked instinctively, locking his hand round Gerrard’s gun-arm like a vice. They wrestled for a moment before he heard the complex wrist bones crunch in his grasp, and Gerrard gave a shout of agony as he dropped the colt. Murdoch drew back his other fist, channelling everything he had into an almighty punch and knocking Gerrard flat beneath him. It was over.
He took a deep unsteady breath. Accepting the hand Scott held out to him, as Val Crawford and one of his deputies took charge of Gerrard’s unconscious body. He didn’t spare the man so much as a glance. Turning to Teresa and Johnny immediately.
She took a shaky step towards him – then she was safely in his arms. He held her wordlessly. Burying his face in her dusty hair as he offered up a silent prayer of thanks.
“Did they hurt you honey?”
“No,” she murmured against his chest. “But Johnny . . .”
Johnny’s eyes were open, but dull and hazy. The whistle had taken it out of him, but he was vaguely aware of his father’s arms around him. Lifting him as gently as possible in an attempt to move him. He twisted his head in pain and confusion – looking in panic for her face.
“Teresa . . .”
She was there in a second – hand tender against his cheek. “I’m fine. I’m safe. It’s over Johnny, we’re going home . . . “
Her voice broke into a sob, as his head flopped backwards over the crook of Murdoch’s arm, and Scott guided her gently across to the pinto.
“Murdoch . . .”
Murdoch looked back over his shoulder at Val Crawford, who stood there holding out the saddle-bags to him.
“You’d better take this with you.”
Murdoch stiffened – his eyes torn between the twenty thousand dollars, and the still form of his youngest son. All of a sudden, there was a nasty taste in his mouth.
“Take it into town for me, and drop it off at the Bank. I find I don’t want to touch it right now.”
Crawford nodded understandingly. Concern evident in his own voice, as he watched the inert form of his friend. Hating to see Johnny so lifeless. So ominously still.
“I will. I’ll send Sam Jenkins straight out to the Estancia the minute I get back. Hope . . .hope Johnny’ll be okay.”
“Thanks for your help Val.” Murdoch turned towards Caledonia with his precious burden. Forgetting about the money almost immediately, as Jelly helped ease Johnny up in front of him on the bay. He pulled Johnny gently up against his chest. The dark head falling forward, arms hanging loosely at his sides. The boy’s body felt boneless, heavy as lead – and suddenly, Murdoch had to fight the edge of panic that flickered round his heart, as Lancer seemed a ride too far away.
Jelly watched him with dismay, his own fears transparent as glass. Never before had he seen Murdoch look so grim. So vulnerable and old. He gulped hard. Mounting his own pony, and keeping as close to Murdoch and Johnny as he dared on the long trek down from the mountains. The weary journey home.
“I won’t lie to you, Murdoch. It’s not looking too good.” Sam Jenkins unhitched the stethoscope from round his neck, and folded it round his hand. “Johnny’s a stubborn cuss and you know how strong he is . . .”
“He lost a lot of blood. Maybe too much. And the ribs have caused a build-up of fluid on his lung.” He accepted the towel Teresa held out to him, and wiped his hands with a curt nod. “If I don’t relieve it, he won’t pull through.”
“What do we do?” Teresa asked him so matter of factly, that Scott looked at her oddly. She was almost eerily calm. Assisting Sam as efficiently and detachedly as though it were a complete stranger lying there, instead of Johnny.
Jenkins nodded at her tersely. “You’ve seen and dealt with a chest drain before, Teresa. It will help pull the fluid off his lung, and ease his breathing. I’ll have to operate, and I’ll need you to assist me. Are you going to be up to it?”
She inclined her head abruptly. “Of course. What can I get you, Sam – tell me what you need?”
Murdoch stepped forward from his station beside the bed. “Are you sure, honey? Maybe it’s not such a good idea this time . . .”
She looked up at him levelly, and he was slightly taken aback by the maturity in her eyes. “Who else is there, Murdoch? Johnny and I kept each other alive up there on the mountain. I’m not going to give up on him now. Sam?”
Jenkins looked at her with new respect. She’d been a marvel when her father was murdered. Putting her personal sorrow to one side in order to save Murdoch’s life. Nursing him round the clock for days and nights on end, when they hadn’t known if he’d live or die.
He’d thought of her then as an old head on young shoulders. Forced to grow up overnight. Taking on the responsibility of the Estancia and her father’s funeral all by herself, with a resignation many people twice her age would have been incapable of.
When he looked at her now, he saw her in a different light again. As a woman instead of a girl. With a woman’s knowing and wisdom in her eyes. He nodded with quick reassurance.
“There’s a small trunk out in the back of the buggy. If someone could fetch it up for me. Teresa, I’ll need some clean white sheets. Some cool boiled water, and a pan of water on the boil. The small spirit stove in my bag, I’d like it set up in here for that. Murdoch – I’ll need Johnny on a firmer surface, but I don’t want to move him again. Do you have a suitable sized piece of lumber near to hand?”
“I kin git you some. . .”said Jelly from the doorway. Glad of something to do, as he turned on his heel and headed for the staircase. He couldn’t stand to see Johnny like this in any case. Cutting off a square of wood was something he knew how to do. Something that would contribute in however small a way, to helping the boy he’d grown to love.
Two difficult hours later, Jenkins wiped his bloody hands on a clean towel, and placed his needle-holder and forceps into the pan of boiling water. Inspecting his handy work with a resigned sigh, as he watched the drainage tube for a moment, then reached for his stethoscope. The chest sounded better. Clearer. He’d withdrawn air and blood from the pleural cavity, and Johnny was already breathing a little easier. Looking up into the anxious eyes of the girl, he nodded encouragingly.
“It’s much better, Teresa. You did a grand job of helping me.”
She turned away, and he saw her take a deep, shuddering breath herself. Head drooping forwards with weariness, as she released some of the rigid tension that had kept her going for so long.
“Will he be alright?”
“No promises,” he said regretfully. “It’s too soon to say. I may need to do this again before his chest’s completely cleared. I’ll review it as we go along.”
He looked at her more closely, aware of a sudden desire to say something more reassuring. Anything to relieve the stricken fear in her eyes.
“The shoulder wound is healthy. Johnny’s lucky you knew what to do. And there’s only a slight crack in the collar-bone. It could have been worse, my dear. Come on, help me put him over onto his injured side. Give his healthy lung a chance to expand and get some air into his system. Then I think we’ll leave him in Maria’s capable hands, whilst we get some food and rest sorted out for you.”
For a moment, he thought she might resist. But common-sense prevailed, and as they made Johnny as upright as possible in an armchair nest of pillows, her hands shook so badly, he was forced to finish by himself.
“Go on,” he said softly. “Ask Maria to come up, and I’ll remind her what to do. Tell Murdoch I’ll be down in a minute – that I’m hungry enough to eat a whole cow.”
But Murdoch had beaten him to it. Entering the room the minute he knew they’d finished the procedure, Scott hot on his heels. Jenkins sighed. Visions of a juicy steak receding as he surveyed the anxious faces before him. Scott’s paling sharply at the sight and sound of the chest drain.
“Well?” Murdoch’s voice was hoarse, and gazing at him closely, Jenkins saw the red rims round his eyes. The lines of fatigue drawn tightly on his brow.
“We wait.” He replied simply. “That’s all I can say for now. Sponging for the fever, fluids whenever he’s awake enough to swallow safely. Teresa and Maria know how care for the drainage tube and dressings, and I’ll stay here tonight to listen to his chest regularly.” He turned back to Teresa. “Cone flower for the infection. Twenty drops of the tincture four times a day.”
“Cone flower?” queried Scott.
“It’s an old Indian medicine,” explained Jenkins. “Helps to fight infection. I’ve had good results with it in the past. It helped with your back, Murdoch.”
“When will we know more?” Murdoch turned away. Standing by the window as he gazed out across the Estancia.
“I can’t say for sure. As a general rule of thumb – if the fever hasn’t broken within forty-eight to sixty hours, the body can’t continue to function. The heart becomes weakened . . .”
“And he’ll die?”
“Yes. He’ll die.” He looked across at Murdoch’s back, and shook his head at the man’s obstinacy. He was such a proud man. So self-contained, that even now he couldn’t show any sign of weakness. Any sign of grief.
Turning to Scott instead, he ignored the younger man’s stunned expression, and inclined his head towards Teresa. Scott turned as though in a dream. Pulling himself together as he apprehended Jenkins at once, and nodded acquiescently.
“Maria’s prepared some supper for you both. It’s warming in the kitchen.”
“Sounds wonderful.” The picture of the steak resurfaced happily, as Sam placed a gentle hand on the girl’s arm. “Coming my dear? It’s time you got some rest yourself.”
She smiled wanly at him. “It’s alright Sam. I’ll see you downstairs in a minute or two.”
He left quietly, and she moved back over to the bed. Sitting down in the armchair beside it, and wiping Johnny’s forehead with a damp cloth. Scott regarded her uncertainly. Something was very wrong here, and he knew it. She was acting so perfunctorily. As though she was immune to the reality of the situation – to Johnny’s condition. And yet of the three of them, she’d been the one most in control. Who’d assisted Sam Jenkins in putting the tube in Johnny’s chest. Her usual capable self, despite the fact she’d just undergone a terrible ordeal.
Scott was convinced she was suffering from shock, and he was worried about her. He glanced quickly at Johnny, and moved round the bed to Teresa’s side.
“Do as Sam says, Teresa. You need to go and get some rest. Go to bed – I promise we’ll look after him.”
She shook her head tiredly. “I’m alright Scott – honestly. I . . .I need to stay with him. To take care of him.”
“I understand,” he said gently. “Out there, you had to rely on each other. There was only you and Johnny to keep one another alive. But you did it, Teresa. You saved him then. He’s home – you’re home. We can look after you both, now. Murdoch, Jelly and me.”
She stared up at him uncertainly, and his heart ached for the hesitation in her eyes. He understood how she felt. The dependency that comes when people are thrust into a life or death situation. He’d known it himself. On the battlefield, in Libby. He took her hand reassuringly. Anger tightening briefly in him again, as he looked at the bruising on her face. The bruising on her soul.
“I promise.” He said again.
“Scott’s right,” said Murdoch turning round from the window, and smiling tenderly at her. “You look exhausted darling. Do as I say now.”
She looked up at Scott again, and he nodded back at her. “No arguments. Johnny’s going to need you fit and well over the next few days. We can’t have you becoming ill too. You’re not invincible – even though we sometimes treat you like you are. Go . . .”
She got slowly to her feet, Scott moving to one side as Murdoch helped her across to the doorway. She looked worn and defenseless, and his heart went out to her, as her eyes still lingered on Johnny’s face.
“We won’t let anything happen,” he said huskily. “Trust me.”
She lifted her head then. “I don’t want to lose him, Scott.”
“No.” He answered as the revelation struck him suddenly. “I know you don’t – and neither do we.”
One last look at the man in the bed, and she slipped from the room like a ghost, leaving a soberly thoughtful Scott in her wake.
In her dream, she chased after the peaches as they rolled along the path and under the flower borders. The big round fruits eluding her grasp – always just out of reach.
“Look at them Johnny, they’re all bruised now . . .”
And then she was back on the pinto at the head of the valley. The sun setting in a spectacular orange flame, as she strained her eyes desperately across the countryside.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t stay. That we’d lose you again, and it would be forever this time . . .”
She rose in the stirrups for a better view. Craning her neck as she searched for a sign – any sign of him before the sun went down, and he was lost to her with the night. But the darkness plunged across the sky before she found him, and suddenly she hated the valley.
“Senorita Teresa . . .” Maria placed the washing basket down in front of her, and shook her head. “Here is the washing you wanted . . .”
She tore through the clothes in frantic haste. Flinging them out of the basket in panic, to find the item she was searching for. A sob dying in the back of her throat, as she pulled out his blue floral shirt – holding it up to her face in relief . . .
“Feel free to borrow my shirts, querida.” Johnny smiled down at her. “In fact – keep them all. Guess I don’t need them anymore . . .”
She woke with a gasp of fright. Sitting bolt upright in bed, heart hammering in her breast, as the lace curtains fluttered at her window. The grey fingers of dawn were already creeping into her room, and she realised Scott and Murdoch had left her sleeping for much longer than she’d planned.
It didn’t take her long to wash and dress. Looping back her hair in a simple pony-tail, and patting a small amount of rose-water onto the space between her breasts.
Scott was alone with Johnny when she opened the door. Long length sprawled exhaustedly in the armchair, a book of sea stories propped on his chest. She realised suddenly, he probably hadn’t slept much during the last few days either – taking in the purple shadows under his eyes. The lines of worry round his mouth. Looking up, he gave her a quick smile.
“Now don’t be cross with us, Teresa. There’s no change. Besides, you needed the rest. I’ve done everything Sam said, and he does seem a little cooler now. Here, see for yourself.”
She nodded, numb with relief. Putting her hand out on Johnny’s forehead, and noting Scott was right. He was indeed less hot than when she’d been forced to retire.
“I do feel much brighter. Thanks Scott.”
Getting to his feet, he gave her a brief hug. “I forgot to say how glad I am to have you back safely, little sister.”
She slanted him a look from under her lashes. Had she imagined it, or had he emphasised the ‘little sister’ bit? She sighed and turned aside.
“It’s good to be home. It . . .it was like a never-ending nightmare. We knew Gerrard would kill us, however much he pretended otherwise, and what with Johnny so hurt – I was afraid.”
His heart ached, but he didn’t show it. “What, the indefatigable Teresa O’Brien, afraid? I don’t believe it!”
She gave him a small smile. Grateful for his attempt to cheer her up. “Oh I was, believe me.”
He watched her whilst she checked on Johnny’s dressings. Making sure the chest tube was draining, and bathing his forehead with a lavender scented towel. Waiting until she was done, before surrendering the armchair to her, and perching on the window sill.
“What happened out there, Teresa?”
“Pretty much as you and Murdoch guessed. They tried to ambush us over-looking the valley, but Johnny got us away. We were cut off, so heading cross country was the only option. We aimed for Jackson’s Pine and outran them.”
Scott nodded. “That’s when Johnny got shot?”
“Yes. I didn’t realise until we stopped. He didn’t say anything.”
“He wouldn’t. Stubborn idiot.”
“We lost them in the trees, and it was getting dark. Johnny knew the pinto wouldn’t make it over such rough country, so we decided to wait till morning. We. . .we didn’t realise Gerrard knew the area. He figured where we’d gone.”
Scott’s jaw tightened, as he watched her recount the story. The shades of trauma that haunted her face, robbed the light from her eyes. She’d done remarkably well so far – he wondered when the dam was going to burst.
“They caught up with us at sunrise. The pinto threw me . . .” She swallowed hard, fingers groping involuntarily for Johnny’s as they lay on top of the coverlet. “Gerrard put a gun to my head and it was all over. They . . .they beat Johnny badly. For no reason other than he’d inconvenienced them.”
“There are plenty of men like that,” said Scott slowly. “I came across a few during the war.”
She shuddered, grappling with her words. “The worse thing about it, apart from the fact they hurt Johnny, was they didn’t care. None of them. They were so callous, so cold. I’ve never felt so powerless before, we were totally at Gerrard’s mercy. And he wasn’t rational, Scott. He seemed to change from one minute to another. Almost sorry for us at one stage – like an animal the next. Violent . . .”
She closed her eyes for a moment. Remembering the feel of his lips forced against hers, his hot breath on her throat. The sense of fear and violation made her start to shiver uncontrollably, as the swirling terror threatened to overcome her. Johnny had stopped Gerrard but paid dearly for protecting her, and a small dark part of her still wondered what might have happened, had he not been there.
Taking a deep breath, she re-opened her eyes. Fighting to control the nameless fears that assailed her as she looked across at Johnny, and drew strength from his calm, pale features. Scott watched her. Waiting a second or two before he spoke again.
“Did Gerrard touch you?”
She knotted her fingers tightly in Johnny’s. Eyes never leaving his face. “He tried to. Johnny stopped him – they beat him again. That’s how he got so badly hurt. Trying to save me.” Her voice faltered.
“It’s not your fault.”
“I know,” she almost whispered. “But it feels like it is.”
Scott cleared his throat, unsure whether or not he had the right to ask his next question, but chancing it anyway, as he needed to know. To be absolutely positive in his private assumptions.
“Do you love him, Teresa?”
She raised her head slowly, looking back across at him then, eyes wide and enigmatic, as she regarded him carefully. “You know the answer to that.”
He bowed his own head in acknowledgement, and would have smiled had the situation not been so somber. It was almost as though she’d been taking lessons in keeping secrets from the man in the bed.
“Then fight for him,” he said. Getting down off the window sill, and opening the curtains as wide as they’d go to let in the morning sunlight. “Tell him. Boss him, bully him. Threaten and cajole. Do anything you can to bring him back to us – don’t let him go, Teresa. Don’t ever let him go.”
He placed a brief hand on her shoulder before turning to leave the room. The door closing softly behind him, as she turned back to Johnny, a core of resolve building tentatively inside her. She watched his face. Tears tracking slowly down her own. Searching the angles, tracing the familiar planes in her mind. There was no going back now, she realised. He was hers and she was his. Live or die, there was no going back.
There was a weight on his chest preventing him from breathing. He began to fight it in panic. Pushing it away from him, as he tried to draw some oxygen down into his ragged lungs.
Someone caught hold of his hands and spoke to him softly. Someone else lifted him gently, and eased the pressure gradually from his chest. As the terror receded and his breathing began to settle, he realised he wasn’t lying on the cold, hard stones anymore. He was in a bed. Fresh linens and soft pillows. A faint elusive scent that was achingly familiar to him – was it rosewater?
The suffocating crush was fading, but he was more aware now of the pain that replaced it. Pain in his shoulder, all around his ribcage. His hip and pelvis – but most of all his head. A hot rushing pounding that beat like a drum. Threatening to rob him of his senses yet again, and send him tumbling back over the edge of the abyss. He groaned softly, trying to pull his hand away from whoever held it captive. But he was weak as a kitten, and couldn’t even be sure if he’d moved.
“Johnny can you hear me?”
He wanted to answer her, but couldn’t even open his eyes. Let alone get his voice to work, as he tried to re-adjust to his surroundings in whichever sensory way he could. A light breeze fluttered across him from an open window somewhere in the room. The sunny smell of fresh air and grass mingled with flowers. Rosewater . . .The familiar sound of cattle and horses, a rustle of fabric. A clock ticking reassuringly, rhythmically . . . Someone stroked his cheek tenderly. Fingers soft and cool against his skin, as they lingered in his hair, making his follicles tingle, and the pain less of a burden.
“Johnny, open your eyes.”
He tried to respond to her voice by making a supreme effort. Dragging his eyes open, as the room spun and swung for a few crazy minutes before returning to an even keel.
“Well, it’s about time boy.”
He managed to focus on Murdoch’s anxious face, as it all became clearer, both his vision and his brain beginning to function hazily again. He remembered it now. Teresa and him. Gerrard and his men, the ambush at Jackson’s Pine. Then it all began to blur round the edges, as the pain and darkness threatened to overwhelm him once again.
Her voice was sharp and panicky now. He turned his head awkwardly on the pillow to find her. Waiting for everything to clarify, as he sought to alleviate her fear.
“Teresa . . .es bien Chica . . .su bien.”
Their eyes met, and her face broke into a joyful smile, as she put out a shaky hand to touch him again. Fingers lingering on his cheek, as a tear trembled on her lashes.
He tried a weak grin, irritated by the way his body refused to cooperate with even simple tasks. “H . . .how long?”
“Too long,” said Murdoch gruffly. “Nearly four days, to be precise. We were starting to think you were sleeping beauty.”
He was silent for a while, trying to get his breathing into some kind of order while he digested this bit of information. “Gerrard?”
Murdoch averted his eyes, and looked uncomfortably at Teresa. “Dead. Hung himself with his own belt last night. Val was going to hand him over to the Marshals from San Antonio. I guess he couldn’t handle the thought of going back to prison for life.”
“That’s enough for now,” said Teresa softly, watching Johnny’s forehead crease in sudden distress. “He said he’d never go back there. Maybe this was a better alternative.”
Johnny compressed his lips against the pain. Physical and mental, as he considered the outcome of the incident. The way a man’s life could go sour. One or two stupid mistakes. A foot wrong here, a word said there . . . How many times had he walked that tightrope himself? Balancing precariously on the edge of the void – a hostage to destiny. Fortune’s fool.
“Murdoch . . .” Teresa looked at him significantly, indicating the doorway behind him, with a slight nod of her head.
He took the hint, and got to his feet, resting a hand for a second on his youngest son’s forehead. “I’ll look in again, in a little while . . .” His voice thickened imperceptively. “Make sure you do as Teresa tells you, now. And Johnny – it’s good to have you home again.”
Johnny watched his father leave the room, a wedge of emotion rising in his own throat. Knowing those few simple words really amounted to a declaration of love from the big man. He realised hazily, he must have given them quite a scare. Sighing, then wincing, as the shift punished his ribcage yet again.
“He’s been so worried. We all have.” Her words mirrored his thoughts, and he turned with a huge effort to face her . Trying to reassure himself she really was alright . . . But it was becoming a struggle to keep his eyes open, so he reached out for her hand instead.
“I am now,” she answered, with a ghost of a smile. “Now you finally decided to wake up.”
To his surprise, she lifted his hand to her mouth. Lips petal soft against his skin. He let it linger, running his fingers wonderingly over the purity of her jaw line. Outlining the sensuous shape of her mouth with his touch, as their eyes clung to each other. Blue onto brown. Brimming with a million unsaid words.
“Teresa. . .” he whispered. “Mi rosa moreno.”
A shiver ran down her spine, and casting the last shreds of caution to the winds, she leaned forward and kissed him softly. His eyelashes fluttered closed. Hand becoming slackened in her grasp, as he slipped back beyond her reach into the realms of sleep. But it was a good sleep, this time. A healing sleep at last.
Placing his hand back onto the counterpane, she watched him for a little while, just lost in thought. Wallowing in the fact that he would, at last, be well again. Vibrant again.
“I love you Johnny.”
She wasn’t sure if he heard her whispered words, but he sighed softly in his dreams. A tiny smile playing like a breeze across his lips, as he succumbed to the first fever-free rest he’d had in days.
Murdoch smiled. Watching with guilty pleasure from behind the dark leaves of the tall bay tree, as Teresa reached up to hang out the washing. Singing to herself in a clear, light soprano, as she shook out one of Scott’s shirts, and began to peg it on the line. She was still a little thinner, still a little pale. But the ghastly haunted look had left her face, and the bluish rings vanished from under her eyes. Maria passed him on her way out to the smoke house, shaking her dark head indulgently, as he placed a quick finger over his lips, and smiled again.
Teresa been a marvel during the last week. A tower of strength. Shaking off all thoughts of her own ordeal to nurse Johnny devotedly, along with Jelly and Maria. He’d been desperately worried about her, and he knew Scott had been too. But she’d surprised them both with her calmness – the way she’d carried out Sam Jenkins’s instructions, and just got on with what had to be done.
Murdoch watched her a while longer. Loathe to leave, as he basked in the relief. From the sound of it, they all owed her so much. That she’d kept Johnny alive, he had no doubt. Both from the severity of his injuries, and Gerrard’s twisted revenge. Murdoch knew she was courageous, but the time up on that mountain had tested her so much. She pulled down the line, a peg in her mouth, and reached for the last item in the basket. Taking it out like a dreamer, as Murdoch paused – senses alerting him something was wrong.
Washing forgotten, she clutched the piece of clothing tightly with both hands, staring down at it as though mesmerised. From where he was standing, Murdoch could see she was shaking. It was Johnny’s blue floral shirt. Concealment abandoned now, Murdoch covered the ground between them in two, quick strides.
She looked up at him dazedly, as though she didn’t even see him. Eyes brimming with tears, as she buried her face in the shirt and wept her heart out. Murdoch sighed. Pulling her into the circle of his arms, as he held her until the storm was over. Guiding her across to a stone seat, beneath the shade of a beneficent cypress tree.
They sat in silence for a long time. No words necessary, as she leaned on his shoulder still clutching the shirt, her nightmare and it’s harrowing images gradually receding. How close she had come . . .
How close to losing Johnny. To losing herself. She closed her eyes again, turning her face into the reassuring bulk of Murdoch’s chest, like she’d done as a little girl. She’d thought herself so lucky then. Two daddies – she’d thought of them as two daddies. But she’d lost her father to a murderer’s bullet, and so nearly lost this man too. Priding herself on her ability to cope – to be strong.
“Teresa O’Brien. . . such a capable girl . . .”
She’d heard it said so often, it was engraved in stone on her heart. Practical, sensible, strong . . . She giggled, half choking on a sob. Maybe she should have it written on her tombstone;
“Here lies Teresa – a practical girl.”
She felt the tears begin to stream again with detached astonishment. There didn’t seem to be anything she could do to stop them at the moment. Tears for her daddy, for Johnny, for herself. For everything and everyone she’d lost in her life, while she was busy being strong. If she didn’t stop soon, she was going to have to wash Johnny’s shirt all over again. She pressed it harder to her cheek. Fresh air, washing soap, and a faint scent of him. How close had she come . . .
“Teresa . . .?”
Murdoch sounded lost – nonplussed. At any other time, she might have smiled at the masculine confusion in his voice, but her mouth was too swollen to smile. Her face too stiff with salt tears.
Patting her hair with a shaky hand, she pulled slowly away from him, and wiped her eyes with the shirt. She probably looked a fright, but her heart suddenly felt lighter. She was alright. She had done it. Survived the mountain, and brought Johnny home. Maybe practicality brought its own reward, reaped its own harvest?
She thought again of the man lying up in his room. Of the promise in his voice, the softness in his eyes when they looked at her. That long ago day, four years ago, when she’d first seen something bluer than the sky. She hadn’t expected to love him – not in the way that she did.
Hadn’t expected to feel her spirit dance when she heard his voice, her skin long for his touch when she watched his hands. He was night to her day. Light to her darkness. The antidote to her hidden, practical little heart.
Murdoch again, voice surer this time. No longer faced with a flood of feminine tears, as she straightened up, and nodded her head.
“Yes. I’m better now.”
And she was. She really was. The crying had cleansed her soul, and chased the residual ugliness out. The lingering fear that lurked like a night -demon in the shadowy corners of her mind. She turned to him with a sigh of resignation, a small smile beginning on her face.
“Not as strong as I thought. I guess it all caught up with me.”
Murdoch rummaged in his waistcoat pocket, and pulled forth a large white handkerchief. Wetting it carefully, he wiped away the tear streaks on her cheeks, just as he’d done when she was a little girl. Holding her chin in his hand for a moment, as he scrutinised her closely.
“I think Johnny’s shirt’s had enough punishment, don’t you?”
She giggled tremulously. “Poor shirt. I’ll have to wash it again.”
He took it from her, fingers lingering on the damp cotton, as his expression grew graver again. God. . .
He had nearly lost them both. Been so close to losing his children. Gerrard and his twisted search for revenge had almost succeeded in depriving him of two of the three most important things in the world to him. He could hardly stand the thought of it.
What if the man had triumphed? What if their plan had gone wrong? So much had depended on it, but at the same time, it had hinged on luck. For a horrid moment back there, he’d seen the gun at her breast. Gerrard’s finger on the trigger and his arm across her throat . . .
It could have so easily backfired. So easily and hideously failed. He shook himself mentally, smiling ruefully. For a moment there, he’d almost felt like burying his face in the shirt and bursting into tears, as well.
“Murdoch . . .?”
He looked down at her again. Placing his arm back round her shoulder, as they sat in companionable reflection amongst the flowers in her garden. It was particularly lovely at this time of the year. Bursting with the colour and fragrance of a multitude of blooms, the darker, more subtle aroma of herbs. Riotous roses, and spiky lavender. The curling moon-scented jasmine – intoxicating Queen of the night.
“No one expects you to be strong all the time, darling. Maybe we rely on you too much . . .”
“No,” she said quickly. “Most of the time, it’s fine. It’s just that this time, this time was different . . .” Her voice trailed off into silence, and she lowered her eyelids.
“Of course it was different,” there was a timbre of anger in Murdoch’s tone. “That goes without saying. Gerrard was unhinged, vicious in his quest for revenge. You and Johnny bore the brunt of that, and I’m sorry for it. Maybe if Scott and I had been home, you wouldn’t have had to go through such an ordeal . . .”
She curled her fingers into his hand. “Or maybe Gerrard would have killed you – or just kidnapped me. It would have been worse . . . so much worse if Johnny hadn’t been with me . . .”
He gripped her fingers tightly, hardly able to bear the thought of it. Of hearing her discuss it so matter-of -factly. If Gerrard had touched her, his darling . . . He forced himself to be calm. Brain swirling with a vortex of rage, as he struggled with the darkness in his soul. Scott had told him the gist of their conversation, and he knew how close it had come. That Johnny had turned the tide, and suffered greatly for doing so. If Gerrard had hurt her, if he’d touched her . . .Murdoch took a deep breath, and tried to push his hatred aside. The man was dead. His bitter thirst for vengeance dying with him at the end of his own belt. And God help him, if he wasn’t glad!
Murdoch thought again of Johnny. He was only just out of the woods. Only just into the clear. Unbidden pictures of those first few agonising days, still so fresh in his mind. The ride home to Lancer had been a nightmare. His fears growing with every step of the horses, as they’d made their faltering way. Johnny so limp against him – the crackling wheeze of his breathing a knife in Murdoch’s heart. The heat had burned off his son’s body, a ferment of fever that left Murdoch raging with it too, as he absorbed the waves of fire. But never once did he complain – never once did he even answer the anxious requests of Scott and Jelly to take over, and spell him for a few miles.
And she’d ridden alongside him the entire journey. Face pinched and drawn with exhaustion and fear, as she’d watched over them both, and seen the unspoken terror in his eyes.
Val Crawford had been good as his word, and Sam Jenkins had arrived at the Estancia just over an hour after them. Luckily things had been quiet in the district, no babies were due, no fights taken place. He’d been settled in front of a large plate of Irish stew, when the Sheriff had come banging on his door. Sighing with regret for his supper, but filled with concern for the younger son of one of his best, and oldest friends.
Lucky he’d got there when he did. Johnny’s breathing was appreciably worse following the difficult journey home, and the left lung almost totally collapsed. It was an injury Sam knew how to treat – he’d lived long enough in cattle country. But the treatment was no guarantee of success, and Jenkins had been reasonably pessimistic about his patient’s chances. He’d reckoned without two things. The indeterminable will of Teresa O’Brien, and Johnny’s own obdurate hold on life.
She’d nursed him devotedly, with the more than willing assistance of Maria, and the rest of the household. And despite the severity of his injuries, the odds so stacked against him, Johnny began to pull through.
Only during the last day or so, had Murdoch really allowed himself to relax again. To finally believe things would be alright once more. And yet he still felt slightly on edge – as though there was something in the wind. A Parthian shot, to use Scott’s phrase, a saying Johnny had taken on with much amusement after the first time he’d been treated to it, and the meaning explained.
He looked up at Johnny’s window, the curtains lifting gently in the breeze. Surely fate would not be so cruel to steal him from them now? Turning to Teresa, he saw she was staring at the window too. His fears mirrored almost exactly in her soft brown eyes. His hand tightened reassuringly on hers, but he wasn’t sure who was reassuring who, and the feeling refused to go away.
Closing his eyes against the bold glare, Johnny tipped back his head, enjoying the feel of the sun on his face for the first time in weeks. He shifted experimentally, and inhaled gingerly. Screwing up his face in resignation as he felt his ribs catch and burn.
He’d driven them all crazy for the last few days, until Teresa had arranged for a couch to be made up in the garden for him. Sick to death of being shuttled between his bedroom and the sofa for the last week like a prize parcel, and that was when they allowed him to move at all.
A soft breeze lifted his fringe – tantalising his senses with the subtle scent of herbs and flowers. Rose and mint, lavender and purple sage, Teresa’s garden. Tended and loved by her – crafted into a place of serenity and beauty by her small, but capable hands. This was the place he always pictured her in his mind.
Well, maybe not the only place, he admitted to himself with a small grin. But the only public place, and one that didn’t involve a little physical participation on his own behalf.
He heard the approaching footsteps, even though they slowed and became softer. Recognising them as Scott’s as far away as the courtyard arch.
“Hola Boston,” he said softly, eyes remaining closed as he didn’t move a muscle.
“How in hell do you always do that?” Scott complained mildly, sitting down in the shade beside him, and removing his sweat stained hat.
It was the hottest it had been in weeks, and he’d just ridden in from a gruelling day on the range, where it felt like he’d swallowed at least a ton of choking dust.
“Years of practice,” murmured Johnny wryly, remembering a couple of times when it had saved his life. “There’s a pitcher of lemonade down beside me. Help yourself, then I can always pretend I drank it.”
“Thanks.” Scott poured himself a tumbler full. The still, cold liquid like heaven on his lips as it soothed his dust-clogged throat. “What’s so funny, anyway?”
Johnny cocked one eye open. “Funny?”
“That was some smile on your face when I found you. Pleasant dreams?”
“Tal vez – maybe. That’s for me to know.” Johnny looked suspiciously at him now, struggling to push himself up against the cushions with his good arm.
Scott knew better than to offer any assistance, but he couldn’t help himself from asking; “You okay, little brother?”
Johnny leaned back with a slight cough, and shot him a warning glance. “Scott – don’t.”
“Alright, alright . . .” Scott threw up his hands in resignation. “I won’t ask you anything about your health, I promise. But getting back to that dream . . .”
“It wasn’t a dream – I wasn’t asleep.”
“Aha – more of a fantasy then. Let me guess, did it involve a certain brown-eyed Senorita not a million miles away from here?”
Johnny stiffened, then smiled enigmatically and shook his head. How much had his brother gauged then? He looked at him more closely, trying to read his eyes.
“Scotty, I . . .”
“Because if it does . . .” continued Scott blandly, “I’d just like to say for the record, it’s about time.” His long face relaxed into a warm grin. “And I for one, would be first in line to offer my congratulations.”
Johnny paused. “That true? I know when we first came, we kinda promised each other it was a forbidden place. Tabu. I swear I tried not to care in that way, but . . .”
“Johnny,” Scott smiled, and interrupted quickly to put his brother out of his misery. “I began to notice months ago that something had changed. It wasn’t all that much of a surprise – you two are such opposites, I guess it was inevitable you’d get together. I love you both. But I don’t love Teresa the way that you do. I meant what I just said.” He stopped, his smile widening. “Besides, it sort of takes the pressure off. I always felt folk expected Teresa and I to get together eventually, but I fully intend to enjoy a few more years of committed bachelorhood before a member of the fairer sex has me roped and branded.”
“You don’t know how relieved that makes me feel, hermano.” Johnny exhaled slightly, unaware until now, he’d even been holding his breath. “That just leaves the Old Man and the lady herself.”
Scott arched his eyebrows in surprise. “The Old Man will do whatever Teresa tells him to. He always does. She twists him round her little finger, you know that. But the lady herself? Haven’t you told her how you feel yet?”
Johnny looked a little embarrassed and averted his glance helplessly. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Somethin’ wrong with your hearin’ brother? I don’t know. I may have. I think I did, but it’s all kinda hazy, and my memories are a mess.”
“You’re telling me.” Scott gave a snort of laughter, shaking his head merrily. “You may have – you think you did? Can this really be my brother the ladies man, I’m hearing?”
Johnny scowled, then winced as his chest stabbed at him painfully. “You don’t understand, Scott. I don’t want to be that man with her. I don’t want to be that man ever again. She deserves someone better than him.”
“He’s the best man I know,” said Scott softly and sincerely. “If I have to hand my sister over to anyone, I’d want it to be a man as good as him.”
Their eyes met suddenly, and Johnny’s throat tightened with emotion. “Gracias Scott . . .”
“Scott, is that you?”
Quick, light footsteps approaching from the hacienda, and the object of their conversation hove into view through the archway that led to the garden. Scott got to his feet, and rested a fond hand on Johnny’s good shoulder.
“Yes, it’s me. I’m off for a long soak in the bath, but I thought I’d catch up with my lazy brother here, first. Let him know all the fun he’s missing. Up to our eyes in red dust, crotchety heifers stuck in mud holes, crotchety Jelly stuck in mud holes . . .”
Johnny smiled gratefully. “Sounds wonderful to me – can’t wait to be back, hermano. Barranca’s gettin’ too fat on all that sweet grass in the pasture.”
“Hmm. . .” muttered Teresa, hands on her hips, as she surveyed him critically. “His master could do with a bit of fattening up, as well.”
“Like Jelly’s goose?” He said slyly, suddenly recalling something she’d said to him up at Jackson’s Pine.
Her gaze dropped, and she reddened slightly, but there was a flash of optimism in her eyes. “You remember. You remember me saying that?”
“Si, I do. It’s beginnin’ to come back to me.”
Scott cleared his throat, and picked up his hat. “Well, if I don’t have that bath, I’ll smell like Jelly’s goose. Catch up with you later.”
He strode off towards the house, and left them on their own. After a moment or two of hesitation, Johnny held out his hand to her, and patted the side of the couch.
“Sit down, miel. There’s plenty of room.”
“Your ribs . . .”
“Are fine. Sit down. You work too hard, and I guess I’m not exactly makin’ life very easy for you at the moment.”
She dipped her head shyly. “You’re no bother, Johnny. I’m just glad you’re getting better – that you’re beginning to remember things.”
He admired her creamy skin. The thick sweep of her dark brown lashes. The glossy chestnut of her hair, as it hid her expression from him. Placing a finger under her chin, he tilted her face up so she had to look at him.
“I remember a lot of things now, querida. I remember a girl – small but full of fire. How she fought to save me from a beatin’.” His voice became lower, as he compelled her to meet his eyes. “I remember she was brave as a mountain lion against some pretty bad odds. I remember Paul O’ Brien’s daughter.”
“Johnny . . .”
“No. Let me say it, Teresa. I . . I have to say it. A lot of what happened is still kinda blurry – but through it all. All the pain and darkness, the thing that I remember most is you. I would’na made it without you. You saved my life.”
She put her hand out slowly to touch his cheek, and he felt her fingers tremble. “It was for purely selfish reasons.”
“Que es eso?”
“Because I couldn’t bear to live without you.”
The words were so soft he had to strain to hear them. She looked up at him with misty eyes, and silence stretched between them as the world stopped. Swallowing hard, he cleared his throat.
“I don’t deserve you, Teresa. You know what I’ve done . . .who I’ve been . . .”
“Shhh. . .” she put a finger over his lips. “I know who you are now, and that’s what counts. I came so close to losing you, Johnny. It nearly broke my heart.”
She could feel him tense and silent, as he listened to what she said. She knew he still believed his past had debased him for her, that he wasn’t good enough or worthy of her love. Her next few words were crucial – she would not let him slip away at this stage. Not now, when they were trembling on the brink.
“Oh Johnny.” She leaned across and placed her forehead gently against his. “You say that I saved you. But that’s not how I remember it. I remember a man who risked everything for me. Hid that he’d been shot, sacrificed his freedom because I was in danger. A man who was nearly beaten to death to protect me from Gerrard that time . . .”
“Don’t. . .” he interrupted grimly, as he too recalled the unmistakable look on Gerrard’s face. The blind lust in his eyes, as he’d forced her to accept his greedy kisses. The memory hazed with thick red mist. “Guess I didn’t do a good enough job.”
“Yes you did,” she said fiercely. ” You nearly died for me.”
“I would again.”
“No, don’t say it. Don’t ever say it. I can’t go through it all again. You have to promise you’ll take good care of yourself from now on. At Jackson’s Pine, I told you I wouldn’t lose you, and I meant it. I love you Johnny.”
He stared at her for a moment in wonderment, then his face broke into a slow grin. “I was really hopin’ I hadn’t imagined that part . . .”
She smiled back, gentle outrage in her eyes. “You mean you remembered me saying it all along, and you kept quiet? Johnny Lancer – if you weren’t a sick man . . .”
He groaned as he pulled her into his arms. “Don’t remind me. If there was ever a time I didn’t want to be . . .” he paused. Their faces only inches apart, as the self-doubts surfaced over again. “Are you sure?”
For answer, she leaned even closer to him, and their lips met in a soft kiss. Questing, exploratory, tasting each other in a different way for the first, most precious time. There was a moment’s darkness. A fleeting second when the memory of Phil Gerrard intruded on her psyche, and fear rose in her throat. But her senses took over. Reassuring and guiding, as she became fully aware of the man who held her. The touch of his hands, the scent of his skin.
She was afraid to hurt him, he was afraid of frightening her. And after a few, tentative seconds, they broke apart and she burst into giggles. “This is ridiculous.”
“You’re tellin’ me . . .” he hitched himself up higher, regardless of his protesting ribs and fiery shoulder. Sweeping her up tight against his chest, as he kissed her like there was no tomorrow. They were both breathless when she finally pulled away. Her eyes shining like stars, as she settled him gently back against his pillows.
“You’re breathing . . .”
“Only because of you.”
“Oh Johnny,” she shook her head, but he grabbed hold of her hand, and kept it prisoner.
He grinned. “I’m takin’ the cure, Teresa. Stay here with me?”
Their eyes met and held with painful intensity this time. All sense of levity vanished, as she nodded her head, flushing rosily. “Forever if you want me to.”
He ran his thumb round the curve of her jaw. “I want you to. Te amo, amada. Mi hermosa Teresa.”
And she stayed with him then, in the dappled shade of the old silver oak. His fatigue and injuries finally catching up with him, as he fell asleep with her hand still clutched firmly in his. She watched as he slept. Like she’d watched over him at Jackson’s Pine. But it was different this time, and now her heart was filled with hope and peace, as she regarded him. The man she loved.
She slipped off the edge of the couch to give him more room. Sitting with her back against it, and leaning her head as close as she could to his – almost touching. It was there that Murdoch found them, over half an hour later. Both deeply asleep, hands held fast, and surrounded by the scent of herbs and flowers.
He stood and watched them silently. Feeling a little like an intruder, as he thanked God all over again for bringing them back to him. They’d been through so much, and only now when he was certain Johnny would recover, could he allow himself to feel the glow of pride that burned within his heart. Paul O’Brien would have been gratified to see how his girl had acquitted herself – as proud as Murdoch himself.
And then there was Johnny. The now familiar sense of relief flooded through him all over again, as he watched him sleeping. Still coughing slightly, but looking far less like the frightening ghost he’d carried all the way home from Jackson’s Pine. Murdoch would never forget that nightmare journey as long as he lived. Steadying Caledonia over the treacherous terrain. The broken, feverish body of his boy cradled tightly against his chest, as he’d stared implacably ahead. Sure in his soul he’d left it too late. That Johnny would die.
Thank God he’d been mistaken. Thank God, Sam Jenkins and Teresa. For he was pretty certain that without her devoted nursing care, the outcome would have been a different one. He looked at them both again. A little speculatively this time, as he observed the touch of their heads. The way their fingers laced together. Other things too – like Jelly’s peculiar reaction when Cipriano had first handed him Gerrard’s note in Morro Coyo that day . . .
It had been as though the man had expected it to say something completely different, and now, as he looked in retrospect over the last few months, Murdoch realised some things had indeed changed. Johnny had always been tender and over-protective towards Teresa, but until recently, there’d always been an element of big-brother in the way he treated her.
‘When had it changed?’ he wondered. Racking his brains backwards, and remembering small but telling incidents. The bunches of wild flowers he often picked her – the way he always volunteered to take her into town. How it was usually Johnny’s arm she took when they escorted her anywhere. Johnny opening doors – carrying trays . . .
Heading straight for the garden to see her when they’d ridden home from a day on the range – it was as though he’d begun courting her, Murdoch realised suddenly, trying to work out how he felt about it. They’d been on their own the week before the kidnap. Long enough to get closer. Long enough for Jelly, who despite all appearances to the contrary, and never missed a single trick, to think . . .
‘Good God . . .!’ The revelation hit Murdoch like a thunderbolt.
Jelly had actually believed for a second that Johnny and Teresa had run off together or eloped!
Murdoch sat down shakily on the bench, running a hand across his brow with a sense of shock. Johnny . . .Johnny and Teresa? What on earth had happened while he and Scott were in San Francisco? He shook his head in bemused amazement, dismissing the thought of an elopement in a heartbeat. That was not the kind of man his son was, and an elopement was certainly not recognisable as anything Paul O’Brien’s daughter would even consider. No. If something had happened between them, it would have been above board and painfully honourable.
Murdoch took a deep breath. Fighting back the surge of primal instinct that threatened to overcome him, as he considered the thought of Teresa with a man – any man. His little girl. His little brown-eyed girl . . .
He’d promised Paul O’Brien on his life, he’d take care of her. That he would protect her as if she was his own. And to all intents and purposes she was. The daughter he’d never had. The balm for all the years he’d mourned his own lost sons. Solace for his hurts and bitter regret. His darling.
His darling and Johnny?
When the rush of red tide had receded somewhat, he tried to consider it rationally. Clenching and unclenching his fists as he watched them together. Blissfully sleeping, oblivious to the raging turmoil in his heart, as he resisted his initial urge to wake them both and demand some answers. It was not Johnny, he told himself. By God, he was proud ofhim . . .
It was not Johnny. It was Johnny’s past. Madrid.
The spectre of Madrid had reared it’s head on so many occasions. Hurting Johnny, hurting them too. The ones he loved. It would always be there. The revenge seekers, the old enemies, the gunhawks who fancied their chances . . .
What kind of life would she have with him?
She would be at risk. A potential target. ‘But hasn’t she always been?’ A small voice nagged away inside him.
Johnny would protect her like a lion. Watch over her like a hawk. More so now he loved her this way – as a man loves the woman he’s chosen as a mate. Murdoch sighed. Torn in two by the row inside his head. He was being hypocritical and he knew it. Was it nearly thirty years ago, he’d brought the delicate Catherine out west to this inhospitable land? A city girl – a rich man’s daughter. She’d wilted and died like a rare flower. Out of its element, deprived of its needs. Teresa was tougher than that. He knew it more than anyone. But it wasn’t just her physical safety he worried about.
The chance they might lose Johnny lay like a shadow across his heart. It was always there, hiding in the depths of his mind like a threat. One day Johnny might not be fast enough – one day the bullet might not miss. How tough would she be then. How could he bear her pain as well as his own?
With a jolt of recollection, he remembered the shirt. Her tears of agony as she’d wept her soul into it. Fool that he was, he’d thought it a natural reaction to her ordeal. Fatigue and exhaustion claiming its toll after her showing of almost supernatural strength. But it had been Johnny she wept for. The revelation left him reeling, and he knew it was too late. She was no frivolous Miss, this girl of his. When she gave her heart, she gave it generously, truly. She gave it irrevocably.
He looked hard at Johnny, a tug of surprise she’d chosen him. Of his sons, he’d pictured Scott as the potential suitor. Scott as the more steady one, the better prospective husband. But there was a deep need in Johnny. A need to love and be loved. Maybe Teresa had picked up on that, had sensed it with her gentle, tender, heart.
The Johnny he knew, would never act with anything other than integrity towards Teresa. Even then, he’d probably agonised and debated it to hell in his mind, before saying a single word. But fate had taken a hand, and thrown them into the maelstrom together. Forced to rely on each other to survive, it was inevitable they’d get closer.
He sighed slightly as he studied them together. Who would have thought it? His precious, practical Teresa – his passionate, paradoxical Johnny. To all intents and purposes, they were complete opposites. But maybe if he and Maria had been less prone to bad-tempered flights of fury she wouldn’t have left? Wouldn’t have fallen for the charms of the first snake-oil salesman to come along and woo her from him?
They’d both been so volatile. So quick to rage. The hacienda resounding to the sound of breaking china and breaking hearts – broken dreams and bitter words. It was not a memory he was very proud of.
He and Johnny surely did strike sparks off each other, but he’d never seen him anything but endlessly patient with Teresa. And Teresa was no Maria. Loyal and uncomplaining – committed and enthusiastic. Something the beautiful sultry Maria had never been – except perhaps for her tiny son. He had to cling to that belief. It was too agonising not to.
Johnny coughed in his sleep. Calling out in sudden distress.
“No – Teresa . . .querida. . .”
She woke up immediately and quietened him down. Voice calm and soothing as she stroked his hair back off his face. “It’s alright. I’m here. Go back to sleep now.”
And he did. As if by magic. Sleeping peacefully again, as she adjusted the pillow beneath his head, and turned to smile reassuringly at Murdoch. “Is supper ready? I’m sorry. I guess I must have dozed off too.”
“Don’t worry about the supper,” he said slowly. “Maria will take care of it. Is he alright, it’s not too much for him being up this long?”
She shook her head. “No. He’s fine. Maria, Jelly and I have been keeping an eye on him, and he’s going straight back to bed after supper. He still has the odd nightmare . . .”
“About losing you?”
“Yes,” she said simply, watching his face carefully. The conflicting expressions that crossed it, as he digested her words. “Do you mind?”
He took a heavy breath, and spread his hands helplessly. This then, was the million dollar question. “When did it all happen, honey?”
She smiled as though hugging a little secret to herself. “It’s been happening for a while. Only neither of us realised until it was nearly too late.” She looked up at him squarely. “It’s not something we planned or tried to hide from anyone, Murdoch. You know we wouldn’t deceive you or Scott, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” he assured her quickly. “That’s why it’s come as a bit of a surprise.” He looked up at her evenly. “Are you sure it’s not because of what happened with Gerrard? Sometimes that kind of extreme situation can create heightened emotions – can make people believe they feel something for one another because it’s all so desperate.”
She frowned and shook her head. “No. It was before Gerrard and his men came. It . . . it was the evenings. After supper we’d sit beside the fire. We talked, and Johnny told me things about his life. Things I knew he’d never spoken of before, not even to Scott. He left out so much – so much he thought would shock me, and we became closer. . .I think I help him feel at peace.” She sighed, looking up at him involuntarily, as though reassuring herself things were still alright. “By the time Gerrard ambushed us that night, I was already in love with Johnny, and I’m pretty sure he loved me.” Her voice fractured into pieces; “I was so afraid it was too late – that Johnny would die . . .”
“I would have done.” Johnny was watching them with intense blue eyes. “If it hadn’t been for you querida.” He paused. “Buenos tardes, Murdoch.”
“Hello, mi hijo.”
“Teresa,” Johnny turned to the girl now, who sat there, looking uneasily between father and son. “Go back to the house. I need to talk to Murdoch alone.”
She began to shake her head mutinously. “Are you sure?”
” I’m sure.” Johnny smiled quietly. “You wouldn’t hit a sick man, would you, Murdoch?”
Murdoch nodded back, a small glint in his eye. “It’s alright Teresa,” he said firmly. “Go on in, darling. We won’t be very long.”
She got to her feet, looking between them once again. These two men she loved so very much, each in their own different way. Both so stubborn, both so vulnerable of heart. Bending swiftly, she kissed the top of Johnny’s head before moving swiftly across to Murdoch, and standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. Both men watched her disappear through her garden and underneath the archway. Murdoch shook his head.
“She’s so special, Johnny.”
“She’s suffered a lot of hurt in her life.”
“I’d give my life to stop her ever being hurt again.”
“Would you really?”
Johnny coughed slightly, holding tightly onto his chest. But his eyes never faltered, as he met Murdoch’s openly. “I tried not to love her this way. I know what I am – and it ain’t ideal husband material, that’s for sure. I come with excess baggage. . .” he hesitated somewhat cynically, “It would be easier if it were Scott, en verdad?”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “I’ll be honest. Of the two of you, I’d always figured Scott might fall in love with her.”
“You hoped he would.” Johnny’s voice was laced with bitterness. “And I don’t blame you. Of the two of us, he’s by far the better catch. Steady, educated – a son to be proud of. Trouble is, I’m the one that loves her.”
He coughed again. Trying his hardest not to wince as his damned ribs shifted and burned, but more aware of the sharp ache in his heart, as his eyes blurred suddenly. Murdoch couldn’t bear to watch him struggling. Moving across in a second, and easing him carefully into his arms. He was briefly dismayed by the amount of weight Johnny had lost. The fragility of his normally sturdy son. But he hid it as best he could, resolving to take things more slowly, as he tilted Johnny forward. For a moment, he felt the merest flicker of resistance as the boy tensed against him, but then, amazingly, he relaxed. A wave of privilege swept over Murdoch as he held his proud, private son in his arms, content just to have him there for a while, as he settled his back into the cushions.
“We should get you to bed.”
Johnny hacked helplessly against his chest, and Murdoch rubbed his huge hand in gentle circles between Johnny’s shoulder blades, as the spasm eased and began to pass.
‘ Who had done this in the past?’ he wondered, thinking of the old scars on his son’s body with sorrow and regret. ‘Who had rubbed his back to soothe the pain . . . held him gently when he couldn’t even move?’ So many lost and wasted years.
Eventually Johnny began to settle down, his raspy breathing softer. But to Murdoch’s surprise, he stayed where he was. Leaning quietly against his father’s broad chest.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered tiredly, and Murdoch strained to hear the words, as his arms tightened fractionally.
“Johnny – I said I thought Scott would come to love Teresa. Not that I’d prefer him to.” He smiled contemplatively. “You’re right about Scott, he’s all the things you said. Steady, balanced – I love him dearly. But . . .” and he paused carefully. “I don’t think those qualities are necessarily right for Teresa. She’s spent her whole life being capable and pragmatic – wise beyond her years. Maybe she needs a little passion and intensity, a little craziness. Things I think you can give her – just as long as you truly love her. As long as you’ll take care of her, and always put her first – no matter what.”
He closed his eyes with sadness, just remembering. Other times and other places. Two faces, one dark, one fair. “Don’t make the same mistakes I did, son. You do those things, and you’ll be one of the luckiest men on earth. For there’s no doubt she loves you.”
Johnny was silent for so long that Murdoch began to wonder if the last bout of coughing had exhausted him again. But eventually he lifted his head, and pulled himself gingerly upright.
“You mean it?”
A reflective smile spread across Murdoch’s face. “I mean it, but with rules and reservations. Paul O’Brien would have liked the man you’ve grown into, Johnny. I know I’m speaking for him too, when I give you my permission to court his daughter.”
“Yes,” said Murdoch firmly. “Court. A proper courtship, engagement, if you prove you’re both sincere, and a wedding in due good time. There’ll be no rushing into anything as important as this. She’s worth the wait.”
“You’re testing us?”
“Maybe. I know you love each other, I can see it in your eyes. But I want this to be absolutely right. You’re two of the three most valuable people in the whole world to me.”
Johnny thought about it measuringly. “That’s fair enough. I won’t let you down, Murdoch. I won’t let her down.”
“I know you won’t Johnny. You’ve never let me down yet.” He didn’t presume to hug him again, but he did grasp his good shoulder affectionately in an attempt to reassure him. “I don’t expect you to be like Scott. Your strength as brothers is your diversity. It’s what makes you work so well together, get on so well together. I value Scott for all the reasons we’ve discussed and more . . .there are times he’s so like his mother, it’s uncanny. But he’s unique and so are you.”
“Murdoch . . .”
“No. Let me finish. It takes a real man to turn his life around the way you have, my son – never think I’m not proud of you. You’d be wrong.”
Johnny stared down fixedly at his bare feet, but there was a tiny grin lifting the corners of his mouth, and his eyes were a little bright. “You gave me a second chance at it – at life. That day you called me home.”
“No,” said Murdoch brusquely. “It’s you and Scott did that for me.”
They were both quiet, both lost in thought for several minutes, then Murdoch laughed shakily. “Besides – there must be some hope for you and I if Teresa loves us. If you don’t know by now she’s never mistaken, then by God, you soon will.”
Johnny’s grin widened. “It’s a lesson I look forward to.”
Murdoch got to his feet and held out his arm. “Come on, let me give you a hand. If we don’t head back to the house soon, she’ll think I’ve buried you under the roses.” He paused, a slight gleam in his eye. “Don’t think I won’t if you ever hurt her.”
He waited while Johnny got to his feet with difficulty, sliding his feet into Scott’s borrowed slippers. Steadfastly ignoring his son’s shaky legs, and short gasps for air, and standing patiently until they were able to move slowly up the path, Johnny leaning heavily on his arm. Progress was halting. But Murdoch held him securely, as for the first time in his life, Johnny felt unembarrassed to accept his help and support.
“Well it’s about time . . .” Teresa met them at the archway. Brown eyes switching anxiously between the two of them as they approached her. “Supper’s getting cold.”
She moved round to Johnny’s other side and slid her arm round his waist, as both men looked involuntarily at each other, and burst into spontaneous laughter. She stopped in mock indignation. Regarding them with exasperation, as joy and relief began to burst like fireworks in her heart.
“Will one of you please tell me what’s so funny?”
Johnny looked across at his father. “Well . . .”
“Oh no.” Murdoch shook his head in mock terror. “That’s your job from now on, hijo. I wouldn’t want to upset Paul O’ Brien’s daughter.”
Johnny looked at her softly, his heart in his eyes. “Neither would I. She’s quite something, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” agreed Murdoch, voice suddenly gruff. “She surely is.”
They helped him under the archway towards the hacienda. Towards the house where Maria bustled about the supper table, Jelly grumpy and under her feet. To where Scott was unscrewing the cork from a bottle of champagne he’d thrust hastily into the ice-box on his way up to his bath. A small smile on his handsome face, as he anticipated some welcome news. To the place that four years ago, Johnny never dreamed he’d find happiness. Towards Lancer. Towards their home.
Lisa Paris 2003
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