Word Count 35,945
WARNING: Please be advised that this story contains some violence and strong language.
“It is not the oath that makes us believe the
man, but the man the oath.”
Aeschylus 525-456 BC.
“And so it is with great pleasure, I ask you all to raise your glasses in a toast . . .”
“Aw, cut it out will you Scott.” Johnny reddened with a tinge of embarrassment. The sparkle of pleasure in his eyes, belying the gruffness of his voice, when he looked around the dining table, and regarded his family with something akin to wonderment.
Teresa smiled gently at him, lying her cheek happily against his upper arm as she shook her head. “Oh let him Johnny. It is a special occasion after all. Your special day – your birthday.”
He looked down fondly at her shining brown hair. Twirling the elegant stem of the crystal champagne flute between dexterous fingers as he surrendered to the inevitable, and grinned suddenly at his brother.
“Well what are you waiting for – get it over with.”
Scott gave him an exaggerated bow, and rapped the rim of his own glass with the back of a knife blade. “Graciously said as ever little brother . . .” He paused, allowing his face to soften. “As I was trying to say before being so rudely interrupted, I ask you all to raise your glasses in a toast to my baby brother here . . .”
Their eyes met across the polished wood, the sparkling glasses, the gleaming china. A wealth of words left unsaid, as both men acknowledged the silent stream of emotion that lay between them. The vast depth of love and companionship that went without saying. Reflecting on the destiny that had kept them cruelly apart for many years, before bringing them so closely back together. Scott’s face creased into a glad smile, and his voice was slightly unsteady as he raised his glass.
“To Johnny. A man, that until three years ago, I didn’t even know existed,” he paused and cleared his throat. “But since knowing him, I realise I missed him all my life.”
Johnny looked down suddenly, and Teresa felt the stillness settle through him as he listened to his brother’s following words.
“A man I feel privileged to call my brother – a man I know will always be my friend.” He smiled wryly as he glanced around the table. “I think we’re all aware that sometimes he’s not the easiest person in the world to understand or know . . .”
Scott looked across at Murdoch who nodded with simple pride. At Jelly who pretended to snort as he quickly wiped his nose on one of Teresa’s best napkins. But his eyes fell at last on Johnny again, who had raised his head with a tiny grin as he waited for the toast.
“But then,” Scott continued, giving him a small, affectionate salute. “The things of true value in life are often the ones we have to fight hardest for. When we win them, they give us the most joy. Ladies and Gentlemen, to my brother. To Johnny – happy birthday!”
There was a scraping of chair-legs on the flagstone floor, as they all stood and raised their glasses.
“To my baby brother . . .”
“Hey, less of the baby . . .”
“Felicidades Senor Johnny.”
“Ain’t easy is an understatement – oh alright alright, happy birthday Johnny.”
Teresa kissed him softly on the cheek. Aware he needed a few seconds grace to recover his equilibrium. His eyes shone brightly in the dancing candlelight, as he took a hurried swallow of the biscuity fizz Teresa had insisted they have in honour of his natal day.
He still found this kind of thing hard. The Christmas’s, the birthdays. The giving and receiving of unbridled emotion before an audience. Even if it was only the audience of his family. A group of people he now loved and cherished more than anything else on God’s green earth. The warmth of it, the sanctity of it, still made him feel restless and full of memories. A little sad and bittersweet.
It wasn’t that he resented his desperate childhood. The daily struggle against the predators and the poverty, the filth and the hunger – for how could he resent it?
He’d been one of the lucky ones, he’d survived it hadn’t he? And for that fact alone, he knew he must be grateful. When so many he’d known had perished – so many had been sucked below and drowned.
No it wasn’t the resentment, the knowledge of what he’d missed. It was the almighty contrast. From an abundance of nothing to a surfeit of riches. And it wasn’t just the material wealth he was thinking of, as he regarded them all round the table.
He looked across at Murdoch. Their tentative, often troubled relationship growing from strength to strength lately, as they’d both begun to overcome the barricades of pride and insecurity that lay between them. To discover the need in one another, the desperate need to recover a love thought vanished forever.
Teresa, bubbling over like the champagne she’d made him drink. So full of life and laughter. Bursting through all the walls of reserve he’d spent such careful years erecting with her warmth and energy, her empathy and sincerity.
He lowered his glass and grimaced slightly. This stuff was all right, but to his mind it didn’t have the smooth appeal of a single malt – the honest burn of a shot of tequila. Catching sight of Jelly across the table, he nearly laughed out loud at the expression on the old man’s face as he blinked and wrinkled his nose, the bubbles clearly going down the wrong way.
Their eyes met with the quick sympathy and total understanding of old friends, and Johnny knew that for all of Jelly’s pretended grumpiness, the wily old rogue loved him like a surrogate son. Like one of his ragamuffin boys, one of the orphans he’d taken under his soft-hearted old wing when they’d first met him, and he’d tried his best to con them out of as much as he possibly could.
Johnny knew that had it been a few years earlier, he might well have been one of those boys – barefoot and starving. Hard-eyed and feral. A child of dark corners and alleyways. But that was all in the past now. Over and done with, like many of the other, less savoury aspects of his life. The things he was trying hard to put behind him forever.
Another birthday, another year he’d survived and made it through alive and intact. There had been a time in his life when he’d greeted each anniversary with a sense of amused disbelief and cynicism. A wary acknowledgement of the streak of good fortune and pure luck that had deemed it possible for him to survive for twelve more months.
He’d often thought maybe it was destiny’s way of having a laugh at his expense. Teasing him with the threat of death on an almost daily basis, whilst keeping him alive. Holding his breath. Just waiting for the axe to eventually fall. But so far it hadn’t, and here he was.
He’d never told any of them, not even Scott, that every single morning when he woke-up in his own bed, in his own room . . . Every single morning, he half expected it all to disappear. For it to have been a cruel dream . . .
What was it Scott had said?
“I missed him all my life!”
Powerful words, and they’d affected him powerfully. Like a bright shaft of realisation in his own heart. Not a case of – you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. More a question of not knowing what you missed till you actually had it. Held it real and tangible, here in the palms of your own, two hands.
He’d missed Scott too. More than he’d ever known, and he thanked God every single day that their paths had converged under the same star again . . .
For the miracle which had saved him, changing his life so radically. The miracle which had eventually brought him home.
Watching him covertly from under her eyelashes, Teresa decided he’d had far too long to recover, as she recognised the familiar, pensive look on his face. Knowing he was sifting back through some of the more painful memories he carried. There was a big specially baked chocolate cake waiting out in the kitchen, and turning to Maria, she nodded with a small, pre-arranged signal.
“I think Johnny owes us a speech of his own – after such a wonderful toast from Scott.”
Her eyes sparkled with happiness as she took his arm again, dragging him reluctantly to his feet. Looking down, he grimaced at her and made a face, but didn’t really resist very hard.
“I aint much good at this kinda thing . . .”
“What?” laughed Scott slyly. “My brother lost for words, I can hardly believe it!”
“I think I may have to sit down,” agreed Murdoch solemnly. Not missing a rare opportunity to take the rise out of his younger son and watching with pleasure as Johnny grinned back around the table at them all.
“Very funny, very funny. Now aint we all a pack of jokers tonight. But just remember; he who laughs last, laughs longest, and . . .”
Rap – Rap – Rap.
They looked at each other in slight surprise. Murdoch raised an eyebrow across at Teresa. “Are you expecting anyone else, honey?”
“No,” she shook her head. “And certainly not tonight.”
“I’ll get it,” said Johnny, glad of an excuse not to make the dreaded speech. Pushing back his chair, and striding across the room towards the archway. As he drew aside the bolts and opened the door, his smile of welcome died immediately. Scott watched in sudden dismay as his brother’s face grew still with cold. Setting into a mask of rigid, frozen shock.
Murdoch examined the young woman sitting across the table from him and fought desperately to keep an open mind. Not to rush to any hurried or hasty conclusions. He tried not to let his glance linger on the obvious swell of her belly underneath the bottle-green travelling suit she wore, but it seemed irresistibly dragged there of it’s own accord.
His eyes flitted over to Johnny again as his son disregarded his champagne glass, and strode restlessly to the big mahogany sideboard to pour himself a whisky. Their gazes met for a brief second, then Murdoch looked uncomfortably away. A quick, sardonic smile crossing Johnny’s face, as Murdoch realised his thoughts must be blazingly obvious.
“Won’t you introduce us, son?”
He kept his voice as neutral as possible. Painfully aware of the cutting tension in the room, of Johnny’s sudden agitation and antagonism. Their unexpected visitor’s pale features and palpable distress. He found himself searching for a wedding ring on her finger, and was ashamed all over again as he waited for one of them to speak. In the end, it was Johnny who broke the silence. Downing the malt in a single swallow, as he looked directly at the girl and smiled coldly.
“How remiss of me to forget my manners. Murdoch, Scott, Teresa, Jelly, I’d like you all to meet Miss Gina Grey . . .” His eyes switched cruelly down to her belly.
She flushed beneath his scrutiny, shaking her head proudly. “Actually, it’s Mrs. Mrs. Gina Marcus.”
Johnny snorted bitterly. “So, he married you did he?”
“Yes,” she flashed. “He did. You know he did. The man you knew wouldn’t have done anything else!”
But Johnny stared back at her in brooding silence, and watching his frozen expression with something akin to dismay, Scott felt for a moment he didn’t know this Johnny. This man was a stranger to him. Typically, it was Teresa who was unable to withhold the hand of kindness any longer. Getting determinedly to her feet as she remembered her duties as a hostess, and responded instinctively to the fatigue and discomfort on the other woman’s white face. The aura of distress shining round her like a halo.
“I’ll go and get you some tea Mrs. Marcus . . .”
“Don’t bother,” interrupted Johnny savagely. “She’s leaving now.”
“Johnny!” said Murdoch sharply. “That’s enough. Would someone mind telling me just what’s going on? With respect, Mrs. Marcus, your presence here doesn’t exactly seem welcome to my son. I’d be mightily obliged if you’d state your business without any further ado.”
Gina Marcus looked up then, and the extraordinary piquant beauty of her face struck Scott to his soul, uncertainty flickering across it for the first time since she’d entered the hacienda. For a moment, she met his gaze and held onto it, as if sensing the brief flash of sympathy there.
“I wouldn’t have come unless it was absolutely necessary . . .” She flushed slightly, and Scott thought he saw the glimmer of a tear on her cheek in the firelight.
“Why did you come?” Murdoch’s voice was still abrupt. Scott watched as she responded to the tone of it by pulling herself up defiantly.
“I’ve come to collect on a debt.”
There was a moment’s silence – broken only by the cracking of a log in the fireplace, the ticking of the old Grandfather clock against the wall. And then amazingly, Johnny began to laugh bitterly.
“So that’s it?”
“Yes.” She looked back across at him, and as their eyes held, Scott saw the pain his brother was fighting so hard to keep in check.
“How much?” Murdoch’s voice was stark as a whip crack, and Scott flinched at the harshness of it. A deep sense of unease beginning to uncoil somewhere down inside him. He felt as if he were standing on the edge of a precipice watching something precious slipping relentlessly away from him. That there was nothing whatsoever he could do to save it.
“It ain’t about money,” said Johnny. So calmly it sent a chill down Scott’s spine.
“Then what, in God’s name is it about?”
Scott jumped, as Murdoch slammed his fist impatiently on the table making the cutlery rattle, and the crystal glasses ring. But Johnny and the girl seemed impervious to it. Their eyes remained locked together. Both of them giving the odd impression of being suspended in time as the air between them fairly crackled with unseen messages. The horrible sensation of presentiment struck Scott all over again, and he saw Johnny’s face begin to settle into lines of grim inevitability. His brother looking old beyond his years.
“Will someone please explain what’s going on?”
Scott knew Murdoch had reached the end of his tether now, and he was pretty anxious to know what was happening himself. The sense of foreboding grew even stronger by the second, and turning to Johnny, he touched his arm gently as though seeking to break the spell.
His brother’s eyes were as blue and clear as ice, and as they switched back over to him, Scott was shocked to recognise the air of cold finality in them. He tried again. Unable to mask his own anxiety as he lowered his voice, and tried a direct entreaty.
“Johnny, will you please just tell us what’s going on?”
Johnny smiled mirthlessly. He placed his glass back down on the table and lifted his head to face them all.
“She’s come to collect on my life, brother. I once promised it to her on oath.”
Then . . .
Johnny remembered the hotel room. The tawdry, tarnished furnishings and grimy oil paintings. The faded red brocade draped around the bed. The room had made him vaguely sad. Like the face of a once beautiful woman refusing to grow old gracefully; trying to restore her youthful bloom with too much rouge and make-up.
Jimmy had carried him there himself. Struggling up the staircase with him slung across his shoulders, dripping too much blood onto a threadbare carpet no one would bother to clean.
And she had tried valiantly to nurse him, even though he knew she was sick at the sight of blood. Through all the days and nights of fever, he’d lain on the shabby satin and longed for her violet eyes. The sound of her husky honeyed voice, the wafting scent of the lilac perfume she always wore when she sang on the stage.
Jimmy had been there too. Arranging for an old mid-wife to come and take care of him when it became clear she could not, and even now, he shuddered at the memory of the crone’s gnarled old hands on his body. At the weeks of dirt and dried blood encrusted under her nails. No wonder his wound had become infected. No wonder he had been forced to lie there for weeks in a miasma of dazed pain and filth – her visits becoming
more infrequent, until she’d barely come at all. The day after he’d been ambushed had been the day he was due to fight.
He and Jimmy had ridden into Resolve on a hiring contract. To clear the town of a land-grabbing consortium fronted by a man named Kilmer. On his payroll was one of the most notorious border guns of the day.
Pedro Morales. A man Johnny had seen in action a couple of times. He knew Morales was fast and deadly as a snake, but the man had far less scruples than any reptile, and Johnny had wondered at the time if even he would be able to take him.
Jimmy was good and improving everyday. Oh yes – he was good, but he wasn’t as good as Johnny, and it was Johnny who was supposed to fight Morales until an unknown assailant had knifed him one night in the alley behind the hotel. He’d been there to hear her sing again. Something he’d done every evening since he’d seen her on that first night in Resolve, his eyes lingering on her heart-shaped face, her burnished copper-coloured hair.
He hadn’t known who’d thrown it, hadn’t seen a thing. The vaguest sense of movement half-turning him in his tracks before the thump between his shoulder blades, and the taste of dust in his mouth. By that time, they’d been in Resolve for six weeks, and Kilmer was getting badly rattled by their presence. Morales had challenged Madrid, and Madrid – Madrid had given his heart to Gina Grey.
The fate of the whole town had hung on that fight, the lives of people Johnny had discovered he cared about, and he knew Morales would come for him on his sickbed if he didn’t show up in the street. But he was barely conscious. Unable even to get off his belly. The pain and loss of blood sapping every ounce of strength from his shocked body, as he lay amongst the faded grandeur of the shabby satin and counted the hours until dawn. And as the sun rose, they’d sat with him and pleaded with him. Jimmy and Gina.
The former grim-faced, the latter in tears as he’d struggled in utter futility to leave his sick-bed, collapsing into Jimmy’s arms as the wound re-opened and he bled all over the sheets. Gina had sat there white-cheeked and almost fainting, whilst Jimmy had re-packed the hole in his back and argued determinedly with him. Marcus would face Morales in his place. But Johnny knew it would be almost certain death, and he was sure that Jimmy wasn’t fast enough . . .
So then it was his turn to plead, but Jimmy had been strangely implacable, and Johnny had seen the sense of destiny written in the man’s calm eyes and known in his heart it was useless.
And in the end, as the pearly dawn-glimmer had begun to lighten in the sky and the wary townsfolk had started to stir in anticipation of the new morning, Johnny had taken both their hands into his own fever-dry clasp. Swearing on oath that one day he would repay the life-debt he owed the man he considered to be his best friend. A man who – he was convinced, was walking out to face his death on that bright morning.
A man called Jimmy Marcus.
But the unexpected, a miracle had happened, and Jimmy had won. Marcus had taken Morales and become a hero over night. Feted and proclaimed by the townsfolk whilst Johnny had tossed and raged with delirium in the sordid hotel bedroom.
At the end of the fourth week when he’d eventually struggled from his room, teeth grit in determination against the pain in his back and the weakness of his treacherous body, he’d uncovered a treachery of another kind. The sight of his so-called best friend in a room down the hall, with the woman Johnny loved in his arms.
Now . . .
Scott looked down at his hands as Johnny’s voice tailed off into bitter silence, and he began to pick moodily at the turquoise beads around his wrist. They’d come out into Teresa’s garden. Leaving Gina Marcus in the hacienda with Murdoch and the women after she’d become so sick and dizzy, Teresa had been afraid she might faint. Johnny had watched sardonically as her face grew whiter and whiter, the teacup she was holding slipping from nerveless fingers, and smashing into smithereens on the hard stone floor.
And looking down at the broken china, he’d been struck by the irony of it all, a small caustic smile playing about the edges of his mouth. So much for actually daring to believe his life was falling into place – that things were really beginning to even out and become good for him after all this time. The teacup was symbolic of everything that had ever happened to him. Shattered and fragmented into shards of jagged pieces at his feet. Broken and impossible to mend – fit only to be swept up with the trash.
“What did you do then?” Scott’s voice was quiet and measured. Watching those long brown fingers picking nervously at the turquoise, with a deep sense of sorrow inside him.
Two words, two simple words. But Scott felt the heartache behind them, and he reached across and placed his own hand over Johnny’s in a vain attempt to ease the hurt a little.
“What about your wound?”
Johnny shook his head wearily. “Which one Boston, the one in my back? – That healed eventually.”
Scott drew a long hard breath, but didn’t remove his hand as they sat side by side in silence for a long couple of minutes. He pondered somberly on the kind of life his brother had led before fate had finally brought him home. Hiring out, range wars, land-grabbers . . .
Paid to kill or be killed. Accepting a job with the clear knowledge that you were expected to offer your employer your very life, to die if necessary, for a cause that wasn’t even your own. It was all so bleak, so barren, so very cynical. All so hard to associate with Johnny.
With vibrant, vulnerable Johnny, who had such a massive appetite for life. Who ate it hungrily and still came back for more. Eager to touch it, taste it, live it to the maximum. Experiencing everything like a child with an endearing sense of wonder and awe. Scott envied him that gift sometimes. The ability Johnny had of regarding each new exploit as an adventure, even a game sometimes . . .
The way his brother could suddenly be struck silent by an eagle in the sky – a particularly breathtaking dawn. The beauty of a moonrise, a v-shaped flock of geese. The sheer exhilaration of the sun upon his face. But there were two sides to every coin, and Scott had also seen his brother as Madrid.
The bright eyes burning blue as ice. The deadly drawl and deceptively loose-limbed slouch. The cold stranger who could still possess Johnny when certain occasions called for it, with the hard-eyed beauty of a predatory wildcat. Claws unsheathed and ready to strike.
He sighed, looking over at the unprotected nape of Johnny’s neck as his brother leant forwards with his elbows resting on his knees. The small exposed area of skin was paler where the black hair normally covering it fell softly to either side, giving the illusion that Johnny was defenseless and susceptible.
Two words not usually associated with his self-assured, tough nut brother. But Scott knew better than most just how deceptive appearances could be.
“You don’t owe them anything, Johnny. I think everything that happened since has proven it.”
“You don’t understand Scotty. . .”
“You were weak, wounded. Your life in grave danger.”
“I swore on oath.”
“You made a promise to a man you thought was your best friend. A man who went onto steal your girl while you were sick!”
“By taking Morales, he saved my life.”
“He also saved his own. It’s crazy to even attempt to justify any of this with logic. Any allegiance, any debt you may have owed this man Marcus, is already paid in full.”
Sighing restlessly, Johnny straightened up and shook his head as he looked Scott calmly in the eye. “I swore on oath, Scott. That’s more than just giving a man my word. It’s kinda like pledgin’ my soul.”
Scott had seen that determination too many times before not to recognise it now, and he was a good enough Army man to know when he was beaten. Up against the proverbial brick wall. It didn’t make it any easier though, and he wondered bleakly if life as the elder brother of Johnny Madrid/Lancer was ever going to be anything like straightforward again.
“So you’ll go?”
Johnny looked back at him helplessly. “Heck Scott, I don’t want to – it ain’t a case of wantin’ to . . . I’d just as happily wash my hands of them like they washed their hands of me. But it ain’t for them, it’s for . . .”
“For what? For you, for honour? So you can look at them both and say at least Johnny Madrid is a man of integrity, at least he kept his word!”
“Boston . . .”
“You gave up that life Johnny, it’s not who you are anymore. Not who you have to be.”
“It’s not who I want to be,” said Johnny desperately, his whole body language pleading for understanding as he turned to Scott in agitation. “But it is who I was, and there aint no escapin’ from it. There never will be – Es todo.”
“Well forgive me if I refuse to accept that.” Scott got to his feet and moved restlessly across to the low, white wall. He didn’t even know why he was bothering to argue. Johnny’s mind had been made up from the moment Gina Marcus had revealed why she’d come.
“Do you know this Luis Yorga?” he asked curtly, back still turned away from his brother.
“I’ve heard of him.” Johnny’s voice was so soft, Scott had to strain his ears to hear him.
“He’s got himself somethin’ of a reputation.”
“You mean he’s good.”
“Si, he’s good.”
“As good as you?”
“Some might say better. He’s been at it longer. Kept at it, and stayed alive all these years. That’s good.”
Scott clenched his fists, and stared broodingly out across the well-kept lawns towards the moon-silvered trunks of the white oaks. “But if Marcus has broken his leg, surely their quarrel is finished. Over?”
“It don’t work that way Scott.” Johnny sighed. Walking slowly across to him – leaning beside him on the wall, their elbows barely touching. “Yorga challenged Marcus for five thousand dollars. He. . .they owe rent on the place they bought in San Felipe. What with the baby on the way, Marcus figured it was the only thing he could do to pay-off his debts. You know the next bit, his horse rolled him, he broke his leg. She, Gina found out about the fight and decided to collect on my promise.”
But Scott still shook his head stubbornly. “If they can’t fight, they can’t fight. I don’t understand.”
Johnny smiled tightly. Reflecting that for all his brother’s fancy education and sophisticated ways, knowing how to use the right fork at the dinner table didn’t help prepare you none for life west of the Mississippi.
“There aint no can’t about it. He accepted the challenge. He can’t forfeit, and he can only delay if Yorga agrees to it. If not, Yorga may kill him anyway. Whatever happens, she’ll lose their place.”
Scott’s lips were set in a disbelieving line. “It’s a barbaric code Johnny.”
“Yeah. I can see why you’d think that, but it don’t change the fact that it exists. Marcus fought Morales in my place, now I’ll fight Yorga in his.”
He found her alone in the library. Sitting in a wing chair next to the fire, the red light dancing in her burnished hair. Highlighting the pallor of her face. He hardened his heart against the shadows under her eyes, the lines of stress and fatigue around her mouth, and wasted no time on preamble.
“How long does Jimmy have?”
She half-turned. Jumping out of her skin at the sound of his voice, as he entered the room with the light, stealthy tread of a cat.
“Five days. Yorga gave him ten, but it’s taken me this long to find you and get here.”
He nodded curtly. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning. You’d better get some sleep – I won’t have the time or inclination to look after a sick woman.”
“Johnny. . . ” She got clumsily to her feet, and stretched out a hand to him. “I. . .I had no other choice. You must have heard of Yorga. Jimmy’s good, but he hasn’t fought in over four years, and he was never as good as you. That day with Morales, it was pure luck and you know it. Morales’ gun jammed. He’d have killed Jimmy for sure. But you would have beaten him.”
She looked across at his tense, bitter face. At the long brown fingers resting up against the edge of the bookcase, and her eyes softened slightly.
“We were worried about you Johnny. You were in no condition to leave town, and you never collected your money.”
He smiled sarcastically; “Seems like you and Jimmy managed to spend it without me.”
Her fists clenched tightly. “Neither of us meant for it to happen the way it did, but we were both so scared!” She moved agitatedly across to the fireplace, and stared into the fire. “Scared of Morales. Scared you might die, that Kilmer’s men would storm the hotel. . .”
He looked up in sudden shock, eyes like chips of blue diamond. “Scared of Morales? You’re sayin’ you and Jimmy – that it happened before he fought Morales? That you both sat there that mornin’ holdin’ my hands, letting me promise you my life, when all the time you were plannin’ on a future that didn’t include me?”
“It wasn’t like that.” She shook her head in confusion, taking two steps across the room towards him, and flinching as he immediately backed away in disgust.
“What was it like then Gina, must’ve upset everythin’ when the knife wound didn’t kill me after all. Made it kinda awkward for you both?”
“No!” she cried furiously. “I said it wasn’t like that, and I meant it! Don’t you understand Johnny, that’s why Jimmy fought Morales in your place. He felt sure he would be killed and part of him was glad. He felt so guilty about betraying you, he was prepared to die for you. It. . .it was the bravest thing I’ve ever known.”
Their eyes met and held – both so full of pain and anguish. She knew she’d hurt him all over again when the vulnerability vanished as suddenly as it had come. Eye-lids falling like shutters to veil all traces of emotion.
“Johnny. . .”
“No, leave it alone.” He looked up again, his eyes clear now. The previous moment might never have happened as he regarded her steadily across the room.
“We’ll leave at eight o’clock. I want to be in San Felipe at least two days before the deadline’s up – to work a couple of things out.”
“I know,” she said softly. “I’m married to a former gunfighter remember. The layout of the town, the direction of the sun. . .”
“I do things my own way. We may have had the same initials once. . .”
“JM – Johnny Madrid and Jimmy Marcus.”
“Yeah,” he turned to leave, one foot on the step up to the archway. “Seems it wasn’t all we had in common!”
“I wish you didn’t have to do this, son.”
Murdoch looked at him steadily. Heart sinking rapidly in much the same way that Scott’s had the previous evening, as he recognised the stubborn set of Johnny’s jaw, the light of dogged determination in his eyes.
“So do I.” Johnny forced a small smile. “But I have to Murdoch, I swore on oath.”
“An oath’s a hard thing to break.”
“Well I don’t plan on breakin’ this one,” he paused. ” But I sure wish I’d never made it in the first place.”
Murdoch nodded quietly, managing to suppress his own feelings of concern as he pulled Johnny quickly into his arms and gave him a brief hug. He didn’t push it or prolong it. The gesture was more than enough, and he knew that Johnny would understand the richness of emotion behind it. The wealth of words unsaid. Instead, he reached into his pocket and brought out an envelope.
“There’s a promissory note for five thousand dollars inside, Johnny.”
“Murdoch. . .”
“No – hear me out a minute. You can draw on it at the Bank in San Felipe and pay-off the Marcus debt without any bloodshed. Tell Marcus he can pay me back over a reasonable period of time. And at the going rate of interest of course.”
Johnny looked down evenly at the envelope. “You don’t have to do this.”
Smiling wryly, Murdoch regarded it ruminatively. “I’m not doing it for Marcus that’s for sure.”
Johnny cleared his throat hastily, and nodded. “I know you’re not, and I appreciate it. But it might not work like that, Murdoch – a man like Yorga believes in his own abilities. He was challenged. He won’t back down from the fight.”
“He might when he realises he’ll be fighting Johnny Madrid, not Jimmy Marcus.”
“I doubt it.”
“But you’ll take it?”
“Yeah.” Johnny pocketed the proffered envelope – the lump in his throat still refusing to budge. “I have a feelin’ you’ll be gettin’ it back again though.”
“Maybe. . .” Murdoch nodded somberly, and paused; “As long as I get you back Johnny. That’s the important thing.”
Their glances held a steady second longer, then Johnny put the envelope carefully into his jacket pocket and picked his hat up off the table.
Murdoch looked uncomfortable. “He’s having a little trouble making any sense of this, son.”
Johnny swallowed hard. “I can understand it.” He turned abruptly on his heel, and headed for the door. “Tell him I said adios. That the beers are on him when I get back.”
Murdoch nodded appreciatively. “Not adios Johnny. I’ll tell him, hasta luego.”
He watched as his son left the room. All the worry he’d suppressed so admirably during the last twelve hours surfacing in a massive surging rush, as Johnny disappeared under the archway and out into the morning.
Teresa was waiting in the barn next to Barranca, and his heart sank slightly as he heard her voice. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see her – the opposite was nearly always true. It was just that he didn’t want another heart-achingly difficult goodbye.
She stepped forward out of the shadows and smiled tremulously at him as she placed a small hand on his forearm. “Were you really going to leave without saying goodbye?”
“It’s easier that way sometimes.”
“Not for those you leave behind . . .” her voice broke slightly, and he felt her fingers tighten. “Promise me you’ll be careful. That you’ll be alright.”
Regarding her for a moment, he sighed heavily and pulled her into a close hug. Feeling the wetness of her tears against his throat. “I promise I’ll try my best miel, verdad.”
“I just wish you didn’t have to go.”
“I don’t have much of a choice.”
The door creaked open behind them.
Gina Marcus stepped into the barn, stopping short with embarrassment as she leapt to obvious assumptions, and her cheeks flushed red.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.”
Ignoring her totally, Johnny smiled gently down at Teresa and kissed her softly on the forehead. “Keep an eye on Scott and Murdoch for me. You know how they get when I ain’t around to rein ’em in.”
She grinned back bravely, and released his arm. “Oh I can deal with them, and as for Jelly. . .”
His smile broadened appreciatively at her steadfastness, and he allowed his eyes to linger on her sweet face for a moment longer.
“Yeah, as for Jelly.”
He turned back to where Gina Marcus waited silently by the barn door. The morning sunlight catching him in a stream of golden glow and winking off the medallion around his neck.
“Johnny,” Teresa caught her breath as she watched him leave. “Vaya con dios.”
He hated leaving her. Hated to hear the sadness in her voice as he felt a sudden wave of resentment towards Gina Marcus for interrupting their goodbyes. Teresa was pure as sparkling crystal water. Honest steadfast, true. It often made him wonder how so much character and courage could be contained in one such small person, and his heart clenched suddenly. He would miss her. He would miss them all. He watched as Murdoch handed Gina up into the buggy and gave the reins into her long slim hand. Those hands had once worked magic on his body, but that was a long time ago. So many things had changed since then.
He wasn’t that man any longer. He was harder yet softer. Wiser, but becoming more naïve. He liked who he was now much better than who he’d been. She looked frigidly at him.
“You’re welcome to ride up here with me.”
“No thanks.” His tone was final. ” Think I’ll stick with Barranca.”
She set her lips and nodded curtly – flicking the reins with unnecessary vigour as the buggy lurched forward and she left without saying goodbyes. Back rigid and straight as a ramrod.
Johnny looked one last time at Murdoch and Teresa as they stood arm in arm beneath the adobe archway. The curls of trailing jasmine. His throat tightened with sudden affection. There was no need for any further words, and after tipping his hat the once at them, he wheeled the golden palomino and followed the buggy reluctantly out of the hacienda grounds.
They rode in total silence for a period of three or four hours. Johnny finally succumbing to compassion after catching a glimpse of her set white face, and realising she was swaying slightly on the buggy’s seat.Stopping for an uneasy lunch in the shade of some trees, he offered to take the reins for a while and let her rest in the back, but she refused him stonily, and continued her meagre lunch in silence.
Johnny watched her covertly as he tucked into the thick beef sandwiches Teresa had packed for him. He noticed the lines of strain on her face, the pattern of tiny crow’s-feet round the corners of her eyes. Her hands had always been perfectly groomed, lily-white and smooth as silk. Now they were brown and work-hardened. The nails short, the cuticles roughened.
She flushed as she tracked his gaze, and tossing her head up, looked him squarely in the eye. “Not the hands you remember Johnny Madrid?”
“No,” he agreed, holding out one of his own calloused limbs and turning it ponderingly. “That’s what land workin’ll do for you. It ain’t as pretty, but it’s a damn sight more honest.”
She shook her head scornfully at him. “I never figured you’d give it up. Never figured you for the land-working type.”
He looked down at the ground and paused along time before he answered, a small smile playing about the corners of his mouth. “Neither did I.”
“Don’t you miss it?” She asked curiously. “The power, the prestige. The feeling you got when you rode into a new town and knew they were all in awe of you – afraid. When they treated you like some kind of King?”
His smile twisted bitterly as he remembered those feelings. His astonishment the first time it had ever happened. The cynicism when he realised the very people who had courted him the day before, now wanted him gone as quickly as possible. Once he’d risked his life and done their dirty work for them.
Tracing a pattern in the dirt with the toe of his boot, part of him wondered at the man he had been, as he thought back over the empty glories of what had once been his entire life. King for a day – he’d been King for a day! He sighed and looked back up at her again. “Does Jimmy miss it?”
“No.” Her voice was hard. Too hard. And for a moment he caught a flash of blatant discord in her eye. “He’s happy being a farmer . . .” she paused; “but then Jimmy always knew he never was quite good enough. He’d seen you, you see. . .”
He nodded simply, with acknowledgment not vanity. Just the plain acceptance that fast as Jimmy had been, he had always been faster. Had been exceptional.
“You could have done anything,” she continued. “Worked for anyone you wanted, with a gift like yours.”
“Perhaps,” he said uncomfortably. “Been a well-paid murderer or a famous dead man.” There was pain and self-mockery in his eyes as he regarded her laconically. “No hay olivido Gina, there aint no forgettin’. I got too many dead men walkin’ through my dreams.”
“That’s what Morales said,” she recalled slowly. Watching the emotions shift in layers across his face. “He said you were too soft – that it would be the death of you one day.”
“Maybe.” Johnny packed up the remains of his lunch, appetite gone now with the advent of the hollowness he felt inside. “Better that than a livin’ death. Always waitin’ for the bullet with your name on it. Always wonderin’ if today’ll be your last. Or tonight or tomorrow . . .”
He looked back up at her, and she remembered just how very blue his eyes were as they searched her face. Realising with a small jolt of pain, she’d never really known this man at all.
“Johnny, about Yorga. . .”
“I know about Yorga.”
“No.” She said shaking her head as she took a deep breath, eyes imploring him. “No you don’t. There. . .there’s something I have to tell you. Something you have to promise you’ll never tell Jimmy.”
There was entreaty and more than a hint of desperation in her tone as she watched the flash of sardonicism chase across his expressive features.
“You know me Gina, good at keeping promises.”
She flushed and bit her lip. “Maybe that was called for.”
“You bet it was called for.”
“I said it was!” She caught herself up short. Straightening her back involuntarily, as the child moved inside her. “Yorga’s been offered an extra bonus of five thousand dollars to kill Jimmy.”
Johnny stared at her in disbelief. “Five thousand dollars! Who – why?”
“It’s my fault.” She wrung her hands together. Searching for the right words, and preparing herself for the derision she knew she’d see in those damned, blue eyes of his. “Money got tighter, we . . . we got desperate. So I began to sing again. In the Cantina at San Felipe. It was only a temporary measure – just till we got back on our feet. . .”
“What happened?” he asked grimly, watching the turmoil on her face. Part of him already able to guess what she was about to say.
She glanced back at him uncertainly. “The Cantina’s owned by a man called Frayne. Al Frayne. He. . .he made it pretty clear he liked me right from the start, and things between Jimmy and me, well they weren’t all that good. So I. . .Frayne and I, we had an affair.”
Johnny nodded slowly, his own heart contracting painfully and unexpectedly at her words. But he didn’t know if it was for him or Jimmy Marcus, and he continued to stare back at her implacably. Face unreadable as stone.
“He asked me to leave Jimmy and be with him. I said I’d think about it if he promised we’d go to San Francisco. Denver maybe, the city. Any city away from that goddamned farm!”
“What about Jimmy?”
She brought her head up stubbornly. Searching his eyes for a glimmer of expression. Something, anything that might tell her what he was thinking.
“You don’t understand Johnny. It wasn’t that I’d stopped loving Jimmy. It was – it was just that I’m not cut out to be a farmer’s wife. I hate it there. Frayne offered me the chance to escape, a way out. But I said no.” Her voice lowered. “I said no because of Jimmy. And then I found out I was having a child.”
She spread her hands hopelessly, and shrugged her shoulders. “No. I don’t know. Something in my heart tells me its Jimmy’s. That’s why I have to make my marriage work. . . Why I came to you and called in your debt, your oath. I don’t want Jimmy to die. I do love him Johnny.”
Johnny raised a wry eyebrow. “And Frayne still wants you?”
“Yes. He gave me an ultimatum. Leave of my own accord, tell Jimmy about the affair and say the baby’s’ Frayne’s. He’ll call off Yorga and let Jimmy live.”
“He’d call in the payments Jimmy owed on the farm, have Yorga challenge him for money, then kill him. I’d lose Jimmy, the farm, and have to return to him on his terms. Barefoot and pregnant.” She said bitterly.
Johnny shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe he hasn’t just told Jimmy the truth.”
She looked down with shame. “Frayne’s sick, Johnny. Twisted. He enjoys playing games – having a psychological hold over me. I have five days. I can still save Jimmy by telling the truth and leaving him for good. But I can’t do it. It’s going to kill him either way, and I just can’t let him die!”
“No,” said Johnny quietly. “So you came to me and asked me to die in his place.”
Johnny drew Barranca to a halt. Staring down the valley at the small farmhouse nestling into the side of the gently rolling incline. It was wooden and rectangular. A long overhanging porch ran along the front of it, and there was a small garden laid out at the side. A corral, a barn, and some outhouses completed the charming picture of promise and domesticity, and there was a slight pang in Johnny’s heart as he looked down at the
living echo of a vision he’d once had himself. Dreamed perhaps, of sharing with the woman at his side.
But that had been along time ago and many things had changed since then. Different times and places. And he was a different man. A very different man now.
“Does Jimmy know I’m coming?” he asked measurably, wondering what kind of
reception he was about to receive.
Gina nodded tersely. “I told him. He begged me not to fetch you, but I insisted. He’ll most likely ask you to turn right around.”
Johnny smiled humourlessly as he nudged Barranca onwards, and down into the vale. “Don’t worry Gina. I aint goin’ anywhere. I said I’d fight Yorga for him and I will.”
But as he tied the palomino up to the hitching rail outside the house, he felt weary and assailed by sudden doubt. What was he doing here? Scott was right. He was risking everything. Everything that was precious and meant so much to him, for the sake of one feverish promise. A promise made when he’d thought he was about to die anyway. To a person who’d then betrayed him. Scott was right, and he was a fool.
There was a small ache of sorrow inside him when he thought of his brother. It still hurt that Scott had been so upset by all this. That he’d been too angry to even see him off. Or perhaps Scott was disappointed. Let down by the fact that Johnny was still unable to bury his past. To finally ditch it for good.
And that hurt most of all.
He did not want Scott to be disappointed in him – not ever. It meant so much to have the approval of a man like Scott. To be held in his brother’s esteem. Scott was everything he admired. Everything he wanted to be. A man full of compassion and integrity, principle and courage – a brother to emulate, to be proud of. And Johnny knew he surely was, but his heart was sore that once more, he’d been the one found wanting. That he’d allowed the spectre of his violent past to rear its ugly head. To threaten and consume him in its raging wildfire yet again.
Pushing open the door, he didn’t bother knocking. There was far too much between them, too much air to clear to bother about the niceties. Jimmy was lying on a bed in the back room, his leg raised and splinted on a wooden cage. As he moved through the doorway, Johnny heard the familiar click of a carbine being cocked towards him, ignoring it as he walked softly into the room and raised a sardonic eyebrow at the old man aiming it at his chest. “Guess this is the kinda welcome I shoulda expected . . .” His voice was a sarcastic drawl and he couldn’t help lacing it with an edge of bitterness.
Marcus nodded curtly at the old timer, who lowered the carbine reluctantly, as though he’d rather just pull the trigger and have done with it. Johnny stared pointedly at the bed.
“Aint you gonna put your own gun away Jimmy? Or maybe you’re plannin’ to shoot me in the back as well as stab me?”
Marcus flushed, and withdrew the revolver from beneath the bedclothes. “You may as well turn around and leave the way you came. I don’t want you here John Madrid.”
Smiling coldly, Johnny nodded. “I’ll just bet you don’t. But if all you got to protect you from Yorga is this old man here, you sure as hell need me. And for the record – my name aint Madrid anymore. It’s Lancer. Johnny Lancer.”
“You want I should kick him out, Jimmy?” The Old Man moved forward hopefully, indignant grip tightening on the rifle as he bristled up at Johnny’s reference to him.
“Easy Geordie,” muttered Marcus. His own fingers clenching round the gun he still held, as his brow creased suddenly. “Why did you come here Johnny?”
Johnny sighed, slouching against the doorframe with an infinitesimal flicker of sadness in his blue eyes. “I like to keep my word Marcus. That day you fought Morales in my place, I swore to you on oath. I’m here to honour that oath.”
Marcus reddened and looked away. His own eyes failing to meet the steadfast blue gaze of the man regarding him so coolly from the doorway.
“Gina shoulda never gotten you involved. I never expected you to honour it. Not after – not after what happened and all.”
Johnny shrugged lightly, although his soul was heavy as lead. “Like I said, I swore on oath.”
The old man Geordie stared at him suspiciously. Curranty eyes weighing him like he was on a pair of scales. Switching dubiously from Johnny’s face, down to his hands and clothes, as he held the carbine unwaveringly and protectively on behalf of the man on the bed.
“Seen enough Old Man?” Johnny raised an eyebrow at him, but his face was a little softer. Geordie reminded him of Jelly somehow, and he admired the way he was looking out for Marcus – the sense of loyalty the old man clearly had.
Geordie scowled back at him. “Mebbe. Seen enough ter tell me yer a proper Fancy-pants. You all flash like them duds yer wearin’, or kin you really help us here?”
Johnny broke into a genuine grin. “I aim to try. Fancy-pants don’t maketh the man Geordie.” He felt a small pang at the casual use of one of Scott’s sayings from back East. Pushing it to the rear of his mind where it couldn’t hurt him.
“I never gave you no leave ter call me by my name,” the old man growled at him, quick as a whip. But Johnny heard the bluster behind it, knowing he’d won a potential ally if he continued to play his cards right. His smile widened as he folded his arms.
“Well be sure an’ let me know when you do. Until then, I’ll just keep callin’ you Old Man.”
“Why you . . .” for a brief second Johnny glimpsed the echo of a smile in the old man’s eyes, but it was doused in a moment as footsteps sounded behind him, and he moved aside to let Gina enter the room.
He had an uncomfortable flashback of the last time he’d seen Jimmy and Gina together. Naked in each others arms as he’d leant against another doorway in another room. Barely able to stand with the ache of the wound in his back and the sudden, shocking pain in his heart. His face froze like a mask, and he nodded curtly at Marcus who was white with discomfort.
“Don’t wanna interrupt the reunion. I’ll be outside seein’ to my horse, and then I plan to take a ride into San Felipe. Have me a look around.”
“Johnny. . .” Marcus’s voice faded and died. Ignoring his wife, as his eyes strained past her to the man in the doorway. The man who had once been his best friend. “Yorga will be in the Cantina. He hangs out with a posse of Al Frayne’s men. He . . .he’s pretty damn fast.”
Johnny nodded abruptly as he turned on his heel. “I know. But I don’t aim on fightin’ him today. I’ll stow my gear in the barn. Be back around sundown.”
“There’s no need for you to sleep in the barn.”
“I prefer to.” Johnny dipped his head toward Marcus, ignored Gina, and then left the bedroom. He felt sick and dispirited. Guts churning with turmoil. But nobody watching him would ever have guessed.
Barranca looked for him the minute he left the house, and it was so absurdly comforting that he smiled mockingly at himself. Taking a second to bury his face in the palomino’s thick, cream-coloured mane. He braced his shoulders in an attempt to banish the sudden wave of loneliness that washed over him as he thought longingly of home. Trying not to think too much about Scott and the faint ache of depression such thoughts caused him. Footsteps sounded behind him. Jerking his head up, he turned back to face Geordie, features expressionless and still.
“You need somethin’, Old Man?”
Geordie ambled down the steps and ran his eyes appreciatively over Barranca. “Nice piece o’horseflesh you got there, Fancy. He bite?”
Johnny pursed his lips consideringly. “He might. All depends if he takes a likin’ to you or not.”
Geordie chuckled unexpectedly. “Like his owner I’ll bet.”
Johnny grinned and looked down at the toe of his boot. “Oh he’s much better behaved than I am.”
Geordie chuckled again, and held out his weather-beaten old hand to the horse. “Come on then Golden Boy. You aint a gonna bite old Geordie now.”
Barranca nuzzled Geordie’s palm, lipping over his fingers and butting him with his nose as the old man stepped in closer, and patted the side of the palomino’s neck.
“There now. Good as well as purty. When Fancy-pants here brings you back from town, old Geordie’ll find yer a nice apple or a piece o carrot.”
Johnny watched, surprised and a little amazed that Barranca had accepted Geordie so readily. The palomino was notorious for his bad temper. His suspicion of anyone other than Johnny himself. He trusted Jelly and tolerated Scott. Allowed Teresa and Maria to feed him titbits, and was nervous of Murdoch. But aside from that, most of the vaqueros back at the Estancia were more than happy to shy well clear of Senor Johnny’s “mal caballo.”
“Consider yourself honoured Old Man,” He said with a half-smile. “There’s not many folks can get away with all their fingers intact if they try that.”
“It’s a matter of trust,” replied Geordie contemplatively, as Johnny placed his foot into the stirrup. “Like most wild critters – if’n he feels he kin trust me, he’ll pay me nevermind.”
Johnny paused. “What about you Old Man, do you trust me?”
“Aint got no call to,” retorted Geordie. But then he sighed, a shadow crossing his face as he pondered his next words. “Trust’s a thing bin missin’ round here lately.”
Johnny nodded. Thinking quickly of Gina and realising that old or not, Geordie probably didn’t miss a single trick. He swung himself into the saddle and his face softened.
“I’m here to pay that debt I mentioned. I’d rather not be, and no doubt I’ll end up regrettin’ I ever came. But I aim to wipe the slate clean and go home again. It aint about Marcus, or even her. It’s about me.”
Geordie caught hold of Barranca’s bridle, his face creased into lines of trouble as he wrestled with his loyalty and conscience. “She told you?”
“Yeah,” said Johnny evenly. “She told me.”
“Jimmy don’t know. Or leastways, I don’t reckon he does. It’d break his heart if he found out.”
“Don’t fret Old Man. He won’t hear it from me.” Johnny set his jaw, knuckles tightening white as his fingers clenched on the reins.
Geordie nodded, as if weighing up his words. “He’s a good man Fancy. Course he’s a blame fool where she’s concerned – twists him round her little finger. Jimmy this an’ Jimmy that. But in his eyes, she kin do no wrong.”
“She has that effect . . .” said Johnny softly, recalling dancing pansy eyes, the exotic scent of lilacs.
Geordie looked up sharply. “That why you come Fancy? You come back fer her?”
“I told you why I came.” There was an edge to Johnny’s tone now, as he looked away and up towards the valley. “I came to repay a debt. Nuthin’ more.”
He backed Barranca away suddenly, the old man losing his grip on the bridle as the palomino wheeled sideways, sensing his master’s disquiet. Johnny turned the horse around and gave him his head. Galloping wildly up the road towards San Felipe as though a pack of devils were at his heels.
Geordie watched him go, and sighed prophetically. Maybe his initial impression of Mister Johnny Lancer had been a little too hasty. Maybe he’d been wrong to jump to conclusions, because something deep down in his gut told him Fancy was a good man.
But the sense of unease lingered and refused to go away. Madrid or Lancer, whatever it was Fancy called himself; it didn’t change the fact that his coming here was bound to put the cat among the pigeons with one almighty vengeance.
He considered the man again, watching as both horse and rider disappeared out of sight at the head of the valley. Jimmy hadn’t told him the story. Only saying that he’d done John Madrid a huge wrong, and he wouldn’t blame the man for coming to put a bullet in him rather than face Yorga in his stead.
But Geordie was no fool, and he knew it involved the Missus. He hadn’t missed the flash of pain in the stranger’s eyes when she’d waltzed into Jimmy’s bedroom, nor the wistful ache in his voice just now when they’d mentioned her name.
Geordie guessed she’d been Madrid’s girl. He knew Marcus had fought Morales because Madrid had been hurt bad. He also knew Gina couldn’t abide to be in a sickroom. Since the chestnut had rolled Jimmy, it had been him, Geordie, who had done the lion’s share of nursing duties. Taking devoted care of the man who’d become like a son to him over the last few years. It didn’t take a genius to guess what had happened. One flutter of those eyelashes, and Jimmy was putty in her hands.
Sighing again, Geordie turned to climb the porch steps back into the house. Part of him wished that Fancy-pants would turn right round and go. But in his heart, he knew the only hope for Jimmy Marcus had just ridden off up the valley on a showy golden pony.
He just prayed Madrid was as good as Jimmy said. Like everyone else round here, he knew Luis Yorga. The man was deadly. Fast as lightening – cold as ice. Madrid was going to have to be very good to beat him. Very, very good indeed to even have a whisper.
A quick flash of light caught his eye from up at the head of the valley. Sunlight glinting off something metal. Reflecting back at him with a dazzle of silver. Geordie strained to see what had caused it and was just about able to pick out the distant outline of a solitary rider.
“Well I’ll be . . .”
So someone was watching the farm now. They should have expected it he guessed, struggling with the leaden weight of unease that bowed his shoulders with trepidation. The whole situation was a powder keg waiting to explode. And Geordie had the sudden uncomfortable feeling that Johnny Madrid/Lancer would prove to be the match!
San Felipe wasn’t much of a place. It reminded him of a hundred other faceless border towns he’d blown through in his time. Small and dusty, the Spanish/Mexican influence obvious in the cluster of adobe buildings and terracotta walls. The dark eyes of the majority of people. There was something else here he recognised. Something he’d seen many times on his travels before; a sense of hopelessness, of fear and subjugation. The subdued air of the inhabitants, the need to avoid being noticed in order to steer clear of trouble. It was everywhere he looked. So strong it was almost tangible, a real and powerful force as it wrapped and coiled the town tightly in its tentacles.
He took his time tying Barranca up to the post outside the Cantina. Using the banality of the task to make a really good reconnaissance of his surroundings. Up and down the Main Street, the layout of the buildings. Which ones had balconies, where were the alleyways . . .
He was practised at this, his rapidly searching eyes not missing a trick. It was pretty straightforward really. One broad main drag. One side alley he needed to walk up later, to follow and find out where it lead . . .
The majority of buildings overlooking the street were commercial properties, which wasn’t so good. A Mercantile, a Telegraph Office, a Saddlers – and his eyebrow rose with wry humour, an Undertakers. Well maybe he’d be throwing a little business that way soon. And of course there was the Cantina itself. Frayne’s place. Johnny’s smile broadened, but it didn’t quite meet his eyes. There was nothing like sticking your hand in the viper’s nest, and he felt the old familiar high as a surge of adrenalin rushed through him like a wave.
This was well-worn territory, and almost he welcomed it. Ever since the night of his birthday when Gina Marcus had walked back into his life again, he’d felt adrift and disembodied. This at least he knew. The rush – the danger. The steady coldness that seemed to settle through his entire body as he focused solely on the job in hand.
The killing job.
But not yet. Not yet. This was a reconnaissance mission. The way he always liked to do things, in his own time, no hurry. The way he’d once taught Jimmy Marcus. . .
To weigh up the man and weigh up the place. To throw a little psychological spice into the pot the way Teresa did when she made up the mix for one of her fabled Christmas cakes. Except in this case, there would be no pleasure in the eating.
He blinked suddenly, his hands still on the leather rein. Teresa. His family. The thought of them was like a slap in the face and a quick snap back to reality, as he shook his head a little dazedly. What was he doing?
It was as though he were two separate people sometimes. As though the malignant ghost of Johnny Madrid was reaching out to re-possess him, to reclaim him and lure him back again. He shivered in spite of the sun on his back, and took a couple of rapid breaths. He had to stay focused, to keep a grip on his sense of control. Do this job and get it over with. Discharge that bloody oath, and then he could go home. Get back to Lancer, his passport to reality. His lifeline to redemption. The only place in the whole wide world he’d ever called his home.
He pushed open the Cantina doors – immediately aware he was the cynosure of all eyes as he paused, tilted his hat back a margin, and then strolled casually up to the bar.
“I’ll take a whisky, por favor.”
There was a group of men playing cards at the back of the room, and they watched as he raised his foot onto the brass rail and downed the drink.
The Barkeep poured. The neck of the bottle stuttering against the rim of the glass as the man’s hand shook with fright. Johnny smiled, his whole body a study in relaxation as he regarded them nonchalantly, and lifted his glass in a toast.
He’d known which of them was Yorga the minute he’d entered the room. Instinct and simple deduction had singled out the man at the centre of the group. A tall man, heavily built. Even older than Johnny would have guessed, with appraising hooded eyes.
They were assessing him now, and he waited under their scrutiny. Realising with a small flash of dry amusement, that this was the second time today he’d been similarly evaluated. First by Geordie and now by Yorga. He wondered briefly which of the two had been more accurate, the most perceptive.
“You’re lookin’ for me.” It wasn’t a question, and Johnny didn’t bother to dissemble as he played idly with the glass in his hand and swirled the amber fluid to catch the light.
“Si. If your name’s Luis Yorga then I guess I am.”
The air in the room tightened subtly, and Johnny was suddenly aware of the rank smell of fear. His smile widened. “But not today.”
Yorga nodded, his own face creasing slightly with amusement as he tilted his chair back from the card table and studied the man at the bar.
“You got a name Stranger?”
“Some folks know me as John Madrid.”
The stir caused by his words was little short of sensational, and the whole room fell deathly silent as they waited for Yorga’s reaction. The gunhawk was completely motionless for a second, his face impassive as he continued to regard Johnny with measured detachment.
“I heard you were dead.”
Johnny laughed softly. “Not yet. Aqui estoy.”
Yorga nodded appreciatively. “Why you lookin’ for me, Johnny Madrid?”
“Thought you woulda figured that one out by now. I’m on a proxy. It’s your lucky day, Luis. Johnny for Jimmy – Madrid for Marcus.”
“This isn’t your fight, Mr Madrid.”
A new voice, and Johnny looked up slowly. Taking his time to examine the man who’d come in through the back way to stand looking at him with sharp blue eyes.
“Ah Mr Frayne. . .” Johnny made the name sound dirty. “I wondered when you’d show.”
Frayne scowled. “I said it isn’t your fight.”
“I heard what you said.”
“Then I suggest you finish your drink and take yourself off.”
Johnny lifted his head slowly and allowed his gaze to slide insolently over the man’s hand-tailored suit and flashy waistcoat. The pearl-handled Colt that hung from the silver studded gun belt at his hip.
“‘Fraid I can’t do that. You see, I owe Marcus. He can’t fight, and I intend to stand in his place. Sencillo.”
Frayne wasn’t fooled for a moment by the soft voice or insouciant slouch against the bar. He’d heard tell of Johnny Madrid. The man leaning on the counter was a formidable enemy, and he knew it.
“You picked a bad time to pay your debts, boy.”
Johnny shrugged lightly. “Tal vez. But I will pay them Frayne. Make no mistake about that.”
And so saying, he downed the whisky and tipped his hat to them, his eyes switching back to Yorga last of all. “Be seein’ you.”
Yorga smiled and nodded back at him. “You can count on it.”
“Oh I do, I surely do.” Inclining his head reflectively, Johnny turned on his heel and walked out of the bar.
It was dark by the time he got back to the Marcus place and he was strangely tired and drained. As he reached the head of the narrow valley road, he found he was curiously reluctant to ride on down to the farm. Part of him dreaded having to see her again and face Jimmy’s patent hostility, the old man’s protective prickliness.
He decided he’d go straight to the barn. Bed-down, and try to get a good night’s sleep. He wasn’t particularly hungry, and maybe in the morning he’d feel more like facing them again.
He laughed caustically at himself. The great and formidable Johnny Madrid – feared up and down the border towns from California cross to Texas, from Chula Vista to Brownsville . . . Afraid of a woman, a cripple and a scratchy old man. What price his reputation now?
Dismounting at the wooden gate, he began to lead Barranca across to the barn. The farmhouse was pretty much in darkness, but a single lamp shone at a window to the side of the cabin, and he realised it was probably her bedroom as Jimmy was confined to the room at the rear of the house.
He knew she wouldn’t be sleeping with him. She had such a deep-rooted fear of illness – and besides, Jimmy’s leg still looked too fragile. The bones still too unstable to risk an accidental knock or jolt. A small scuffing noise in the darkness made his skin prickle. He froze, the Colt whipping into his hand in a fraction of a second as he pointed it into the shadows, muscles tensed and alert for danger.
The sound of a match being struck, and Johnny relaxed as Geordie loomed out of the gloom holding an old Miner’s lantern.
“You jist hold on there Fancy. It’s me.”
Johnny grinned and rolled his eyes heavenwards, as he re-holstered his gun and shook his head mildly. “Careful Old Man. You’re likely to do yourself a mischief sneakin’ up on a body in the dark like that. You waitin’ for me?”
“Nope!” the old man shot back quick as a whip. “Course I aint. Couldn’t care less if’n ye never came back agin.”
Johnny’s grin widened despite all his earlier depression, as he clicked to Barranca and began to lead him into the barn. “What was I thinkin’. Course you weren’t waitin’ for me.”
Geordie followed in behind him and hung the lantern up on a hook above the stalls. “D’ye see Yorga?”
“Yep.” Johnny bent down to loosen the cinch. “Frayne too. They know I’m here and why.”
“Well the fat’s in the fire now thet’s fer sure,” the old man muttered, moving round automatically to help as Johnny unsaddled Barranca.
“Si. . .” Johnny cast about him for a currycomb, and nodded his thanks as Geordie held one out to him. “Kinda got the feelin’ Frayne wasn’t too pleased to see me.”
“That’d be an understatement,” scowled Geordie. “He wants Jimmy dead. If he caint do it through Yorga he’ll try another way. Mark my words.”
Losing himself in the soothing rhythm of brushing out the palomino’s coat, Johnny let his mind drift – unravelling the tangled skeins of trouble in his head as he sifted through the variants of his situation. Geordie was right and he knew it. This wasn’t a straightforward gunfight he’d stepped into. It looked like that was the least of it. And although he knew that he’d have to take Yorga, it was Frayne who worried him the most.
Frayne who wanted Gina Marcus badly enough to commit murder in her name, to simply roll across and crush anyone fool enough to stand in his way.
Johnny paused, leaning his forehead against the palomino’s flank for a second as he considered the irony of it all. Himself, Marcus and Frayne. Three points of a triangle with Gina in the middle. And suddenly, his stomach heaved and he felt mighty sick.
“You driftin’ off there, Fancy?” said Geordie sharply, his hand warm on Johnny’s shoulder, as he brought him back down to earth with a bump. Johnny turned around, unable to hide the fatigue that creased his face any longer.
“Guess I am, Old Man.”
Scrutinising him closely, Geordie nodded, and took the curry out of his hand. “Here, I’ll finish thet. I stowed yer gear in my room at the back seein’ as I’m in the house with Jimmy jist now.”
“There’s no call. . .”
“Now don’t go arguin’ with me – on account of I’ll change my mind if’n ye do.”
He led Johnny through to a small room at the back of the barn. It was simply furnished with a bunk and a washstand. A chest of drawers that had seen better days, and a wood-burning stove that gave off a surprising and cheery amount of heat.
“It aint much.”
“It looks pretty good to me.”
There was a sudden lump in Johnny’s throat as he looked longingly at the bunk, and realised with a tinge of surprise that he was quite hungry after all. As if to illustrate his thoughts, his stomach gave an ungentlemanly rumble of protest, and he looked down at it ruefully. Geordie grinned at him, revealing a wizened lack of teeth as he shook his head, reminding Johnny of a shrunken apple.
“T’aint the bee’s knees Fancy, but make y’self comfortable. I’ll finish off Goldie out there, and go fetch ye a plate of somethin’ warmin’.”
Taking off his hat, Johnny shrugged himself out of his jacket; rolling out the kinks in his shoulders as he did so and stretching his spine luxuriously like a cat. For a second, Geordie’s eyes lit first on the gun belt, and then on the ubiquitous Colt hanging low down on Johnny’s thigh. His face sobered up immediately, as he hovered just outside the door and shook his head.
“Jimmy told me it’s like that thing is part of ye.”
Johnny was suddenly still. “Maybe it is.”
“He told me you’re the best he ever did see – and Jimmy aint no slouch himself, mind.”
“No,” agreed Johnny with a reverse negative. “He aint no slouch himself.”
Geordie’s hand tightened on the door-frame, and Johnny saw his knuckles whiten as all the fear and love he felt for Jimmy Marcus shone in his eyes, plain as day.
“You gonna be able to help him Fancy? You gonna be able to take Yorga?”
Johnny’s shoulders sagged, and the weariness threatened to smother him all over again as he considered the mess he was in. “It aint Yorga that really worries me. It’s Frayne. The man has murder on his mind.”
Geordie hesitated, and then dipped his head. “He’ll be after you too now.”
Johnny lay back against the wall and flicked off his left boot with his right foot, flexing his toes a couple of times before answering. “I’m countin’ on it, Old Man.”
Geordie sighed heavily. “Don’t go underestimatin’ him. It won’t be the first time the man’s killed, and he aint plannin’ on it bein’ the last neither. He may decide not ter wait an’ see who’s fastest outta you an’ Yorga.”
Johnny smiled at him. “Worried about me?”
“In a hog’s ear!”
Settling back properly now, Johnny closed his eyes, but the grin remained firmly on his face. “Well, se bueno, that’s good. Now, where’s that plate of somethin’ warmin’ you promised me back along?”
Geordie snorted loudly, but Johnny could sense the answering smile on the old man’s face without even opening his eyes.
“Don’t think yer getting’ a blamed thing till Goldie’s bin fed. Mebbe then. . .Oh, an’ by the way. There’s someone up on the hillside at the head of the valley. Arrived jist after ye’d gone into San Felipe. I figure he’s watchin’ the farm.”
“Far’s I can see.”
“Thanks Geordie,” murmured Johnny dozily. Fingers uncurling like a starfish as he began to fall asleep against the pillow.
“Oh thet’s all. . .” Geordie was halfway out of the door before he realised the trap he’d nearly tumbled into. “Very clever. Ye nearly got me there, Fancy. But I still aint said y’can call me by my name.”
“Okay.” Johnny turned on his side, barely awake at all now. “Thanks Old Man. . .”
The Watcher stood in silence. Surveying the little homestead below him with grim-faced contemplation. It was getting darker and the object of his surveillance had still not returned from San Felipe.
The sound of hoof beats on the road, and the watcher turned. Barely able to discern the light coat of the palomino and the creamy flash of its mane against the silver ribbon of road as the lone rider headed back towards the farm.
He observed pensively, watching while the rider dismounted and opened the five bar gate. And his hand tightened momentarily on the long wooden stock of his carbine, senses suddenly primed as another figure detached itself from the gloom, lantern held high above his head and moved forward to greet the new arrival.
But the palomino’s rider had spun and drawn the minute the second figure moved, and the watcher recognised the crouching stance of a gunfighter in the elegant motion, the swift and practised turn. The two men spoke for a moment before leading the palomino into the barn, out of the Watcher’s sight, and after a moment, he squatted down on his haunches in the darkness to resume his silent vigil.
Johnny stirred and tensed. Every fibre in his body taut and on the alert as his sharp ears detected the slight creak of a rusty hinge, the soft tread of a footstep on an uneven floorboard.
He lay where he was. To all intents and purposes still fast asleep as he reached surreptitiously beneath the pillow, his fingers closing round the solid wooden handle of the Colt.
Through the dark fringe of his eyelashes, he opened his eyes a tiny slit and watched as the door opened slowly, an inch at a time – pulling out the gun and levelling it at her as she stepped cautiously into the little room. Blinking suddenly as a shaft of morning sunlight caught in her eyes.
“Too much creepin’ around can be dangerous,” he murmured reflectively. Raising himself up on his elbow, the gun aimed straight at her heart. “Can get a little risky.”
She closed the door behind her. Leaning up against it as she pressed her hand to her breast. “I guess there’s a part of you that would like to pull that trigger. . .”
Their eyes locked for a second, but hers fell first as a tiny laconic smile laced his lips. “Once maybe. Not any longer. I wouldn’t hurt the child – it’s innocent in all this. Besides, too much has changed for me.”
“So it seems,” she said a trifle bitterly. “You really fell on your feet didn’t you Johnny? That house – Lancer. The biggest spread in the San Joaquin.”
Staring enigmatically back at her, he shook his head slightly as though puzzled by something. “Si, I did. But not for any of the reasons you just mentioned. I found somethin’ much more precious than that.”
“I saw,” she said, a hard edge to her voice. “The little girl in the barn that morning. They always did cluster round you like bees to a honey-pot.”
His vision blurred with momentary anger, but he didn’t deign to answer – lifting the barrel of the Colt exaggeratedly away from her, as he swung his legs over the side of the bed and got to his feet.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Did you see Frayne when you went into town yesterday?”
“I saw him.”
“What’s he going to do Johnny. Is he going to tell Jimmy?”
Straightening up, he moved across to the small washstand and sluiced himself with the icy water Geordie had fetched from the well last night. His pores contracted, tingling with goose bumps, as the cold water hit his naked skin and splashed down onto the legs of his pants.
Her hand was on his shoulder and he flinched suddenly at her touch. Reaching for his shirt, and turning back to face her in the close, restricted space.
“Don’t what?” her hand trailed round to his bare chest and she took a step nearer, tilting back her head as she looked up into his eyes.
“Don’t shame yourself.” He said quietly. Deliberately removing her hand from his skin, and shrugging on his shirt as he stepped away from her.
Flushing angrily, she struck him hard across the face. The harsh ring of the slap resounding loudly in the small room as he turned his head from the blow and caught hold of her wrist tightly. She froze in his grip, her eyes glittering with angry tears.
He laughed softly, his grip tightening. “Now that aint very ladylike Gina.”
“You’re hurting my wrist.”
Their gazes locked again, and for a sudden wild moment, she thought he was going to kiss her. His blue eyes softened imperceptibly, as his fingers loosened their hold.
“I said I’d see it through and I will. Te deje, I told you. You don’t have to pay me no bonus.”
She dipped her head and pulled away in confusion and shame. “I. . .I’m sorry. . .it’s just that everything’s gone so wrong. I’ve made so many mistakes.”
He stared back at her evenly. “Then don’t make any more. It aint just about you any more. It’s Jimmy and the baby. They’re both relyin’ on you to come through on this call.”
“But it’s so hard,” she said brokenly. “I don’t know if I can. I’m so afraid, Johnny. Frayne won’t let me go.”
Johnny nodded thoughtfully as he began to do up his buttons. “Now there’s a man with a mind to murder. It never was just Yorga, was it Gina?”
“Would you have come if you’d known?
“Probably not. But I’m here now and Frayne knows it, so it’s too late to change anythin’.”
She reddened again, but it wasn’t with anger this time as she watched him finish doing up his shirt. “You will be careful won’t you Johnny?”
His face broke into a slight smile. “It’s a little late to pretend it makes a difference anymore. But don’t worry. Like I said – I got too much to lose now.”
“And everythin’ that goes with it.” He buckled on his gun belt, and slid the Colt back into its holster as he hitched it square on his hips. Determination clear and bright in his eyes.
Johnny sensed the change in atmosphere the minute he rode back into town. The people eyed him warily, faces frightened as they scurried out of his path – mothers herding children like flocks of straggling geese.
He smiled bleakly to himself. The ability to inspire fear. This then was the power she had spoken of. The feeling he was supposed to miss. It sickened him.
Silence fell like a pall the minute he walked into the Cantina and nodded blandly at the Barkeep. There was no sign of Yorga. Maybe it was too early in the morning for him, but a gaggle of hardened drinkers already occupied some of the tables, and Johnny recognised them as Frayne’s men. Leaning languidly against the bar, he tipped back his hat. Careful to keep just the right balance of insolence and confidence in his watchful eyes as he smiled lazily at them.
“I want to see Frayne.”
He could almost hear them sweat, and one of them, a squat pockmarked man got slowly to his feet. “He may not want to see you Madrid.”
Johnny pretended to consider. The small smile still playing about the corners of his mouth as he regarded the toes of his boots thoughtfully.
“Oh I think he might. Now why don’t you run along and ask him like a good boy?”
“Why I oughta. . .” Pockmark took an angry step forward, hand moving involuntarily down to his gun just as Johnny had known it would.
“I wouldn’t.” His voice was like ice. The Colt in his hand in a blur of speed and aimed at the centre of Pockmark’s chest before the man could even blink. There was a second’s deadly hush, and Johnny watched the shade of indecision and humiliation flit into the man’s eyes as his hand still hovered by his own gun.
Frayne stepped in from the back of the bar and watched the little scene with interest. “That was an impressive display.” He nodded at pockmark. “Back off Myers. A sensible man always knows when he’s beaten – you can put that gun away Mr Madrid. But then, I don’t think you came here to use it today.”
Johnny pursed his lips. “No. But I will if I have to.” He flipped it dextrously, caught it, and slipped it back into the holster – eyes still laughing into Myer’s furious face. “Later, amigo.”
The man stiffened with impotent rage and watched as Johnny strolled unconcernedly past him, and followed Al Frayne out through the back of the Cantina. Closing the door of a small office, Frayne moved across to the sideboard and gestured at a range of bottles and decanters.
Johnny shook his head. “A little early for me. Let’s not waste time, Frayne.”
He took Murdoch’s promissory note from his jacket and laid it down on the desk, his face unreadable as Frayne examined it closely and smiled.
“Well well. And they say there’s no such thing as coincidence.”
Leaving the note where it was, he opened the top draw of the desk and handed Johnny a cheque for five thousand dollars. “It seems as though we both had the same idea. Great minds, Mister Madrid.”
Johnny looked down at the slip of unsigned paper and smiled softly at the irony of it. “Sure is a lot of money,” he said thoughtfully, picking it up and tracing the noughts with his fingertip before tearing it slowly and deliberately in two and watching as the halves fluttered gracefully to the floor. “Sorry Frayne, that ain’t why I’m here.”
Frayne raised his eyebrows sceptically. “I don’t suppose there’s any point in doubling it?”
“No.” Johnny shook his head. “Don’t s’pose there is.”
“A pity. . .” Frayne paused, and gave an exaggerated sigh. “You too Madrid? A woman of diverse tastes our Gina. But that’s what makes her so elusive don’t you think? Makes you wonder what on earth made her opt for Marcus.”
“I’m not here for her.”
“Then why are you here? This isn’t your fight – Oh I’ve heard about you, and that little demonstration out there was really something. But you’re way out of your depth here, Johnny Madrid. I intend to get what I want, and you could end up getting killed.”
“Uh-huh,” Johnny’s voice was as smooth as silk. “Maybe. But make no mistake, I’m no Marcus. And I don’t plan on leavin’ till this mess is all squared up.” He picked up Murdoch’s promissory note and returned it to his jacket pocket. “Guess I’ll take this back then.”
His attitude was getting to Frayne at last, and it afforded him a little grim satisfaction, as the man became tense with irritation. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Johnny looked up at him calculatedly, and there was an air of sudden menace about him. “Just so’s we’re clear about it Frayne, Jimmy Marcus was my best friend once. I’ll take Yorga – and if you do anything to harm Jimmy Marcus or his wife, then I will kill you too.”
Their eyes locked for a moment, and Frayne’s fell first as he pulled back subconsciously from the younger man, and took a hurried gulp of his whisky.
“So. Cards on the table then, Madrid.”
“If you like.”
Frayne nodded tightly, his whole frame rigid with anger. “I don’t like being threatened, especially not here in my town. You’re playing against the house Madrid, and the deck’s stacked in my favour. You can’t win.”
Johnny straightened up, and moved across to the door. “I ain’t about to throw in my hand just yet. May have an ace or two up my own sleeve.”
Frayne laughed, as he recovered his sense of balance, and followed Johnny back into the Cantina. “I like a man prepared to gamble. It usually means I end up winning the pot.”
“Maybe.” Johnny couldn’t resist getting in the last word. “But watch out for the wildcard – has a habit of jumpin’ out the pack.”
Frayne stood and watched him stroll past the bar as though he didn’t have a care in the world. A small frown creased his forehead. Things hadn’t exactly gone as planned, and Johnny Madrid was a thorn in his side he could do without. He rapped on the bar, and the Barkeep scurried to his side.
“Yessir, Mr Frayne?”
“Make it a double, Larry.”
He looked across at Myers, and beckoned him with a flick of his eyes. “I think you have a little score to settle, don’t you Bull?
Myer’s face lit up, and a smile stretched his lips as he patted the bullwhip coiled like a black snake at his belt. “I sure do, Mr Frayne.”
Frayne nodded. “Take as many men as you need, but don’t kill him. Just make sure he isn’t up to fighting Yorga the day after tomorrow. He forfeits the fight – it don’t matter if he’s alive or dead.”
Geordie grinned to himself, shifting the carbine into the crook of his arms, and scrambling up the side of the gully with remarkable agility for a man of his apparent years. He was here again – he just knew it!
The silent Watcher above the Marcus homestead who’d reckoned without the canny skills of an old mountain man in locating his hiding place. Well, whoever he was, he was about to learn that he’d underestimated the people in the valley below him, and underestimated them big time.
Geordie had waited for Fancy to ride out that morning. He’d done his chores and seen to Jimmy, watching with a knowing frown as the Missus had come back into the house after sneakin’ over to see Fancy in the barn first thing . . .
And then collecting his old carbine, he’d left through the back of the outhouse to blindside the man he knew was on the hillside above them. He paused, crouching down behind an outcrop of sun-baked rock and listening hard. Nothing. Straining his ears some more, he was rewarded by the muted snicker of a horse close by. There – a quick burst of triumph ran through him again – he knew it.
He straightened up and froze, cursing in silent dismay as the cold metal barrel of a carbine pressed gently into the place at the base of his skull, and a soft footstep fell behind him.
“Drop the gun. Nice and easy – good. Now kick it away. Turn around slowly. . .”
Geordie did as he was told, his face pale with chagrin at being caught so easily. “Well fair play to ye Mister, y’got me. What now?”
The man regarded him thoughtfully out of calm grey-blue eyes, and smiled unexpectedly. “That all depends on whose side you’re on?”
Geordie straightened up defiantly. “Like y’don’t know. I seen ye up here last night. You bin watchin’ the Marcus place ever since Fancy showed up. . .”
“Mister Fancy-pants Johnny Madrid.”
And amazingly, the man burst into a peel of laughter. His lean mobile face creasing into lines of quick amusement as he considered the Old Man’s words in delight. Geordie frowned back at him, nonplussed.
“You mind tellin’ me jist who you are Stranger, you aint workin’ for Frayne are ye?”
“No.” The man lowered the carbine and shook his head. “I’m not working for Frayne, whoever he may be. My name’s Scott Lancer. I’m er. . .Fancy’s brother.”
Johnny was halfway back from town when he realised he was being followed. Instinct told him he was in danger, and cursing fluently in Spanish, he kicked Barranca into a gallop – crouching low over the palomino’s neck as they flew across the open countryside.
He was loath to go back to the Marcus place. The last thing he wanted was any trouble out there. The old man would try and help him and most likely end up hurt. Jimmy was incapable, and Gina. . .He couldn’t go back to the Marcus place.
There was an outcrop of rocks ahead of him. If he could make it there in time, they would afford him reasonable cover and he might have a good chance of holding off his pursuers with the carbine.
Just when he’d nearly made it, his heart sank in quick dismay as he saw three more riders cutting down from the incline in front of him. Blocking him off effectively so there was no way forward.
Pulling back hard on the reins, he tried desperately to wheel Barranca as the palomino jerked in panic – a volley of shots whistling around them a little too close to his face. Another bullet fanned over his head, the sibilant hiss like a snake in his ear as he bent even lower and tried to calm the terrified animal.
More shots, and Johnny’s gut tightened as a bullet spattered off his saddle dangerously close to his thigh. Drawing the carbine, he made a quick decision, slung his leg off the palomino and slid to the ground.
There was no escape to be had on horseback, and he didn’t want Barranca to be shot from under him, so whirling sideways, he hit the pony on the rump and rolled into a shallow ditch at the side of the trail.
Barranca snorted and bolted crazily away across the open plain, empty stirrups flapping wildly against his flanks as he disappeared into the rocky canyon beyond. Watching him go, Johnny lay on his belly and swore again at his lack of options as he lined up the first man in his sights. A brief moment of satisfaction as the shot rang true, and then he was sliding back the lever of the gun to take another, his hands working automatically as he
was forced to close his eyes for a second when a bullet spat up dust into his face.
Two shots ricocheted off a boulder beside him, uncomfortably close, and taking him by surprise. Rolling onto his back, he spied the shooter at once, and his aim was deadly. The man’s hoarse cry of pain loud and anguished in his ears.
His own breath was coming in ragged gasps. Harsh and uneven whilst he took down another, working in grim desperation as he felt the trap tighten and his cartridges dwindle. He was reliant on the Colt now. Knowing it was useless except at close quarters, as he lay on his side in the hollow, the sweat trickling down his face.
A movement behind him, and he sensed the stealthy tread of the man circling there at the same time as he heard the hoof beats drumming across the ground.
Up on his feet at a crouch, he spun to take out the man behind him. Seeing off another to the right – whirling as he ran to face and fire at the on-coming horsemen, and expecting the thud and burn of a bullet at any moment. Part of him queried how they’d managed to miss him so far. Why they hadn’t killed him yet. . .
And then he knew in a sudden burst of illumination that they wanted him alive. Good. It gave him more options. He tried to make it to better cover, re-loading the six-gun from his belt as he ran. But something struck him hard in the centre of his back, and he wondered for a wild second if he’d gotten it appallingly wrong after all.
But it wasn’t a bullet; it was the butt of a rifle and as he stumbled sideways, the rider who’d dealt the blow galloped past him in a swirl of dust.
They were on him then – in a sprawl of arms and legs as he fought like a demon, dodging the blows and trying desperately to hold onto the Colt. A hand clamped round his wrist. Hitting it repeatedly against the ground to loosen his grip, whilst others grasped hold of his legs, cursing him and striking at him as he kicked out against them for all he was worth.
A heavy blow to the face snapped his head back with a cruel jerk, and the sky reeled as his fingers uncurled and the gun was forced away from him. It was over, but he still tried to duck away from the coarse loop of rope they slipped around his neck, the noose biting into his trachea and cutting off his air.
The sky the sweat and the intent faces of his captors all began to tilt and slide away from him, as black spots danced before his eyes and the noose tightened. His muscles slackened and the pain of the blows faded. All he saw now was a pair of saddened grey-blue eyes;
“It’s a barbaric code Johnny”
He choked as the last of his air went in a rush.
“I’m sorry Boston. . .”
“You say yer his brother. You don’t look nuthin’ like him.”
Scott paused, a pensive smile on his lips as he tied Charlie up outside the barn, and turned back to Geordie with a slight sigh. “We had different mothers. Johnny’s mother was Mexican. He inherited her dark looks. Mrs Marcus can confirm who I am, we met briefly when she came to Lancer.”
Geordie’s eyes twitched down to the carbine which Scott still held balanced lightly across his arms. “If’n ye are who ye say ye are, there aint no need fer thet.”
“Maybe.” Scott nodded. “But I’ll hang onto it awhile longer thanks.”
Geordie stiffened. “Suit yerself.”
They climbed the wooden steps up to the farmhouse door, and then the old man took Scott by surprise, as he exploded into a whirl of activity. There was a long-handled broom resting against the wall, and grabbing hold of it, Geordie swiped it down across the carbine as he yelled at the top of his voice.
“Visitor a-comin’, the front door!”
“Ow. . .”swore Scott. The blow hurt, but he kept hold of the carbine, ducking as he spun sideways – narrowly avoiding a second hit that would have taken his head off.
“Why you. . !”
He reached up and grasped the broom handle, wrestling furiously with the ferociously strong old man, as the front door opened.
“Hold it right there.”
Scott froze, turning slowly to see Gina Marcus regarding him grimly, a shotgun primed and pointed straight at his head.
“Easy lady.” He relinquished his grip on the broom, and took a quick step backwards as Geordie brandished it at him again. “Hey, call him off will you?”
Gina looked at him more closely as she recognised his voice. “Mister Lancer?”
Scott glared at Geordie. “Yes – as I’ve been saying.”
She nodded, and he saw her shoulders sag with relief. “It’s alright Geordie. He’s Johnny’s brother.”
“Then why he bin sneakin’ about, hmm?”
Scott couldn’t help grinning in spite of the incongruity of the circumstances. Geordie sounded almost disappointed, and he suspected he would have ended up with a very sore head if Gina hadn’t recognised and vouched for him so quickly. He lowered the carbine, and gave the old man a respectful nod.
“I have my reasons. Perhaps if we can call an end to this er. . .skirmish, I’ll explain some of them to you before Johnny gets back. I’ve a feeling I may need you on my side once he sees me here.”
“Military man,” said Geordie triumphantly. “Knewed it by the way y’snuck up on me. First man ter do thet fer a while.”
Scott followed Gina into the house and through the back, to where Jimmy Marcus sat raised and agitated on his sickbed; gun in hand as he scanned the doorway with strained anxiety.
Looking long and hard at the man who’d caused his brother so much pain, Scott sighed. He’d expected to feel a lot more anger, hatred even. But all he could summons up was pity, and a little bit of equivocal censure as he regarded the man upon the bed. He sighed again, and reflected that life was never easy. It was never black and white. Somewhere, always, there were a million shades of grey and a dozen or so answers to the same question. Marcus was a study in misery and guilt, and Scott could almost feel the waves of shame that vibrated off the man – the air of quiet expectation as he waited for Scott’s anger.
“I guess you’re wondering why I’m here?”
“Not really.” Marcus was resigned. “And I don’t blame you for comin’. You’re worried about your brother, the fact he’s riskin’ his life for the man who betrayed him.”
Scott nodded. “That’s true.” He settled into a wooden chair beside the window, and regarded Marcus musingly. “I told him not to come. That any debt he owed you had been voided once you betrayed him.”
Marcus smiled bitterly. “I told him much the same when he arrived. He wouldn’t listen.”
“He wouldn’t listen to me either,” said Scott. “But then I knew he wouldn’t. Just as you did, I guess?”
Marcus inclined his head miserably. “Johnny always kept his word Mister Lancer – but you know that.”
“Yes,” said Scott softly. “I do. That’s why I’m here. I knew he’d never agree to me getting involved in all this. He sees it as his personal debt. So I followed him here, and I’ve been keeping an eye on things in my own way. I would have followed him today if Geordie hadn’t decided to take matters into his own hands and bring me in.”
Marcus relaxed slightly. “Geordie’s an old mother hen. Protective of me. . .” Their eyes met in mutual understanding. “Just like you’re protective of Johnny.”
Scott nodded gravely, his intent patently clear. “Let’s make no mistake about this, Marcus. I have no intention of allowing Johnny to die for the sake of a promise. A ridiculously quixotic promise he made when he was young and vulnerable. Until three years ago, I didn’t even know I had a brother. But now I’ve found him – I’m not about to give him up without a fight.”
“I hear you,” said Marcus in a subdued voice. “I want you to know that Johnny meant more to me then anythin’ once. He and I. . .”
They both looked up suddenly, as the sound of horse’s hooves thundered towards the farmhouse, and Gina ran breathlessly into the bedroom holding her stomach.
“Mister Lancer, you’d better come. It’s Johnny’s horse!”
By the time Scott got out to the top of the steps, Geordie had already caught hold of Barranca’s bridle, and was trying to calm the snorting horse and dodge the flecks of foam that flew from the palomino’s mouth.
Scott knew a seconds brief astonishment – amazed that his brother’s wayward horse would allow the old man such largesse. But then his heart began to set like stone, and he took the steps in a single leap as he rushed to Geordie’s side.
“Bullet burn on the saddle,” said the old man grimly, running a finger along the scoured leather. “Easy Golden Boy.”
Not by so much as a quiver did Scott allow his apprehension to show, as he nodded tersely back. “Tie him up, then come with me. You know this country?”
“Like the back of my hand.”
“Good.” Scott paused, and looked at Gina Marcus leaning up against the hitching rail, face as pale as a ghost’s. “Go back inside and lock the door. Keep that shotgun handy. We’ll be back when we find Johnny.”
She nodded like a frightened rabbit, stumbling quickly back up the steps and into the house as the two men prepared to leave. Scott helped Geordie hitch-up the buckboard, chafing at every seconds delay, but knowing somewhere deep inside that the wagon might be necessary to bring his brother home.
“Don’t go there,” he thought determinedly. “Johnny’s tough, a born survivor. He’s probably holed up somewhere. . .Oh God!”
The reins blurred in his hands for a second as he passed them over to Geordie. “Come on, I don’t want to waste anymore time. Let’s find him.”
The canteen of water in his face was a rude and brutal awakening, and he lay for a second in desperate confusion, trying to reconnect the broken pieces in his shattered mind. His body ached, his throat was raw. His head reeled with the nauseous lurch and clamour of concussion – and as cohesion returned, he realised he was still alive but helpless.
His captors stood around him in a jeering circle, their faces nightmarishly out of focus as he tried to squint his eyes and concentrate his vision.
“Wake-up, Pretty Boy.”
Someone kicked him sharply in the hipbone, and he rolled away from it only to be treated in kind by the man standing on the other side. Taking a deep breath, his eyesight began to clear as he looked up into the pockmarked face of the chancer from the Cantina.
Myers – was it Myers, Frayne had called him? He ran his tongue across cracked lips and tried to lubricate his throat enough to talk, pushing himself gingerly up onto his elbow as he regarded them all with icy composure.
“Couldn’t wait huh?”
His voice was barely more than a whisper from where the rope had damaged his larynx, and he would have smiled at the disparity of it, had the situation not been so very dire.
Myers grinned unpleasantly at him. “Not so full of juice now, are you breed?”
Johnny looked back up at him through slitted eyes. “Took more than ten of you to take me,” he croaked. “Care to try it alone?”
Myers scowled, answering him with the toe of his boot, and watching as Johnny arched and grunted with pain. “You got a smart mouth Madrid. Too smart for your own good.”
Johnny righted himself at once. Determined not to give them the satisfaction of weakness, too proud to show even the tiniest trace of fear.
“Yeah well, that aint hard when I’m talkin’ to the likes of you. . . ahh. .!”
His head rang from another blow, and he tasted fresh blood in his mouth. Not such a Pretty Boy now, he thought ruefully.
“Get him up.”
Myers nodded to the men around him, and they dragged Johnny none to gently to his feet, faces sullen and angry. Some of them had colleagues to avenge and it showed in the way they manhandled him across to a small scrubby tree.
“This’ll do.” Myers grasped a handful of Johnny’s hair and yanked his head back so hard, his neck clicked. “Got a message for you Pelado – from Mister Frayne. He’s gon let you keep your worthless life if you walk away from this now. Take yourself off and don’t look back. There ain’t nuthin’ for you here, Yorga aint your fight . . .” He smiled unpleasantly. “Comprende amigo?”
He emphasised the amigo. Taking pleasure in using the same word that Johnny had back at the Cantina. Tensed and rigid against the man’s grip, Johnny’s eyes were unearthly with blue fire and contempt.
“I’ll cut no deals with you. Always prefer to speak to the man not his dog.”
“Why you. . .” Myers backhanded him across the mouth and he staggered off his feet into the men that held him, as the world lurched and shifted on its axis.
“Give him the tree to hug,” grunted Myers, his hands unhitching the bullwhip from his belt.
Johnny fought and twisted like a wild thing, then. Even though he knew it was futile. They clamped him up against the slender tree trunk, pulling his arms round to the other side and looping his wrists together with a length of rope. The bark cut into his cheek, and the woody scent was strong in his nostrils as his mind cried out with all the fear and horror he’d never let them see.
He was still now. Oblivious to their hands on his body as he took a rapid series of deep breaths, and prepared himself for the ordeal he knew was coming. Marshalling his strength and courage as he determined not to show any weakness in front of these carrona.
He closed his eyes to shut out their leering faces. Trying to blank out the sound of their obscenities and racial taunts. Someone pulled at his shirt, and he heard the ripping sound of cloth as it rent from collar to seam and the garment fell away to expose his bare back. Myers leant towards him, his flat-nosed face only inches from Johnny’s, as he looked into his eyes.
“You’d best heed this message boy. If it was up to me I’d kill you and be done with it – but Mister Frayne’s a generous man. Seems you oughta be grateful for this and count your blessin’s.”
“You tell Frayne I’ll remember his generosity,” rasped Johnny coldly, his expression devoid of all emotion as he stared unflinchingly back at his tormentor.
Myers swallowed suddenly, taking a step away, despite the fact that it was the other man who was at his mercy, helpless and tied to the tree. Regardless of the fact that it was he, Myers holding the bullwhip and about to use it.
There was something about those eyes. . .
He took three strides backwards. Rolling up his shirtsleeves to reveal brawny well-muscled forearms. Flexing the whip experimentally between his hands, all the swagger and bravado returning as the bloodlust bit him hard.
“Better start prayin’ Johnny Madrid. I promise you this is gonna hurt!”
Scott glanced grimly over at Geordie and noticed the old man’s face was nearly as set and worried as his own. For different reasons though, he suspected. If anything had happened to Johnny, it would mean there would be nobody to carry-on the fight for Jimmy Marcus. That this gunfighter – Yorga, would come looking for Marcus out at the farm. If anything had happened to Johnny. . .
Scott frowned suddenly. Something else was going on here. Something he wasn’t aware of at the moment, or why in God’s name would Johnny have been ambushed today?
A small tic pulsed at the corner of his temple as he tightened his grip on the reins. “I think you owe me an explanation Old Man. This isn’t just about a challenge is it?”
Geordie had been waiting for this. Fancy’s brother was clearly no slouch in the brains department, and he’d already made up his mind there was no point in hiding things any longer.
“Nope,” he sighed. “It ain’t.”
Scott listened to the dirty little story, the expression on his face growing harsher with each word. This then, was why Johnny had been summonsed. This was what his brother had been asked to die for. He refused to accept that Johnny might have already paid the ultimate price. Could not accept it. They would find him.
A mass of emotions chased and spiralled inside him. The bitter irony of it did not escape him. Johnny was the innocent party – the only innocent party in all this stinking mire. And yet he was the one being asked to pay not once, but twice for Gina Marcus’s ghastly mistakes.
Scott’s lips were white with anger. Anger towards Johnny as well, for becoming involved in all of this. For allowing his own peculiar code of honour to get him into this morass of iniquity and immorality.
Geordie watched his face uncertainly. The old man had no trouble deciphering the various emotions in the expressive grey-blue eyes at all, and they worried him deeply. He knew just how Scott felt.
He loved Jimmy Marcus like a son, but there was no doubt the man was a fool where the Missus was concerned. After knowing Fancy for only a day or so, and his brother for even less, Geordie could see the intrinsic worth of these two men and he hated the fact they were being dragged into this mess as well.
He sighed heavily. He just hoped Fancy was all right, but he had a bad feeling somewhere deep in the pit of his stomach that sat on his vitals like a dose of Castor Oil and refused to go away.
Scott slowed down suddenly, shading his eyes from the sun. Fear hardening inside him as he watched the black specks of carrion birds wheeling against the backdrop of blue sky. Geordie tracked his gaze and swallowed.
“There’s a rocky outcrop a-whiles thet way could afford some cover fer bushwhackers.”
Scott nodded, tight-lipped. “Keep your eyes open for trouble.”
They moved forwards more slowly now, both men filled with dread and a curious sense of expectation as they neared the tumbling incline. Scott listened hard. But there was no sound of anyone or anything for miles. Only the creak and lurch of the buckboard and the thud of their own horse’s hooves on the dry ground. He gripped his carbine a little tighter, finger curled and cocked against the trigger ready to fire.
“Mister Lancer. . .”
Even as the Old Man spoke, Scott had already seen the first man’s body. An obscene black huddle of old rags on the ground, arms flung out against the grass. It was not Johnny.
Scott inhaled sharply, the tension inside him so razor-tight, it hurt to breathe as he looked around him and listened carefully for any hint they were being observed. But he knew instinctively they were alone out here, and the unease inside him grew stronger.
The sunlight flashed off something metallic at the foot of a nearby boulder, and Scott’s heart froze as he recognised it – sliding quickly down off his horse and striding across to pick it up off the ground. It was a six-gun. Johnny’s gun – and Scott stared down at it blankly as he wrestled with the kind of pictures it conjured in his head.
The Colt was almost a part of Johnny. He would never surrender it voluntarily, and Scott frowned as he hefted it in the palm of his hand, before tucking it safely into his belt.
There was another body over at the edge of the rocks, one more not twenty feet away from it, and a clinical part of him registered that Johnny had put up one hell of a fight before. . .
“Where is he?”
He wasn’t even aware he’d spoken out loud until Geordie answered him, a thread of urgency in his tone. “Over by thet thicket of trees – there’s somethin’ I cain’t quite. . .”
But Scott had seen for himself. Casting all caution to the winds as he leapt back up on Charlie and dug the horse into a gallop, flying across the ground in a cloud of dust.
“Dear God. . .!”
He flung himself off the horse and ran to the tree like a crazy man, heart in his mouth as he reached down automatically for his knife to slash at the ropes and lower Johnny carefully into his arms.
He heard the wagon clatter up behind him, and then Geordie was kneeling beside him, voice grim and choking on a quiver of apprehension.
“Is he. . .?”
Scott felt desperately for a pulse, his own heart rate almost stopping, as for a brief second, his fingers failed to locate a beat. Three seconds – six. A lifetime. . .then he found it. A feeble struggling flutter beneath his fingertips as he almost sobbed in relief.
“Thankee Lord,” gasped Geordie, his old eyes recoiling in horror from the bloody mess of Johnny’s back. The strips of hanging skin and exposed flesh.
“He’s been bullwhipped,” muttered Scott unnecessarily. The sound of his own voice a vague comfort as he ran through the litany of Johnny’s apparent injuries. “Some bruising. . .”
His hand lingered tenderly on the rope burn round his brother’s neck, and the world swung crazily for a second, as rage and bile rose inside him with a dark fury.
Geordie’s hand was warm on his shoulder and it brought him down to Earth with a bump, as he caught his breath and regained his senses. The mantle of command slipping back over him almost unconsciously, as he assumed control of the situation and straightened up again.
“Help me get him into the buckboard – easy. Roll that sack under his belly, it’ll support his back a little more. I’ll ride up here with him. Tie my horse up to the back.”
Geordie helped him in silence. His keen old eyes watched carefully, and couldn’t fail to observe the tenderness with which Scott lancer cared for his brother, nor the pain and anguish on the man’s own face as he settled uncomfortably in the back of the wagon, taking Fancy gently into his arms.
Walking into the library cap in hand, Jelly took one look at Murdoch Lancer’s grim face and nearly turned tail and left again. He didn’t though. He needed to know what was going on, and forbidding as Murdoch looked, Jelly was canny enough to realise that the frown hid a deep and abiding concern for his sons.
He sighed. “Anything from Scott at the Telegraph Office?”
“No. ” Murdoch looked up slowly. “Help yourself to a drink Jelly.”
Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Jelly moved across to the sideboard and poured himself a generous measure of whisky before perching on the end of the sofa, taking a small sip, and sighing as he did so.
“That don’t necessarily mean nuthin’s wrong.”
“No it doesn’t,” said Murdoch slowly. “But Scott’s usually so reliable.”
“Yep,” agreed Jelly, “can set yer clock by him normally. . .” he ground to a halt, realising his words weren’t exactly reassuring as he caught the reluctant grin on Murdoch’s face.
“Two old Mother Hens huh, Jelly?”
“Well it’s darn right inconsiderate of them ter go causin’ us all this worry,” said Jelly scowling ferociously. “Johnny takin’ off on this fool’s errand, and now Scott not botherin’ ter keep us posted like he promised.”
Murdoch took a good sized swallow of his own drink and made a wry face. “Could be Johnny noticed we sent Scott after him.”
“Uh – oh. . .” Jelly paused in alarm.
“Uh – oh indeed,” nodded Murdoch dryly. “And that would have set the cat among the pigeons alright.”
Jelly shuddered at the thought of it. Finding comfort back in the bottom of his glass as he struggled with the sense of unease in his own mind, and wondered how to put it into words. Seeking refuge as he always did in the blustery outrage he wore as an armour.
“I mighta expected it of Johnny. . .but not Scott.”
“He’ll have a good reason,” responded Murdoch, with a confidence he wasn’t really feeling.
“Thet’s what I’m afraid of,” said Jelly more quietly. “Murdoch – Johnny’s the fastest thing with a six-gun I ever did see, but it don’t mean there ain’t someone out there who’s faster. What if it’s this Yorga fella?”
Murdoch was silent for a moment. Jelly’s bald vocalisation of all his own darkest fears wasn’t helping much. That particular thought had stolen his sleep every night since Johnny had left them. Hearing Jelly say it out loud made it seem even more tangible – even more possible. He sighed, and shook his head slightly.
“Don’t think I haven’t worried about that myself, Jelly. What was I supposed to do – ban him from going? Do you think that would have stopped him?”
“No.” Jelly put down his glass with exaggerated force. “I know full well it wouldn’t, more’s the pity. I jist worry ’bout them two boys bein’ out there all alone.”
“Me too.” Murdoch’s voice was so soft, that Jelly barely heard it. Watching and waiting as the big man turned across to the window and stared out over the sweep of lawns. Brow furrowed and lined with thought.
“What are we goin’ ter do?” Jelly picked up the decanter and followed him over to top up his glass. Charging his own at the same time, and joining him at the window.
Murdoch heard the ‘we’, and smiled a little at it. Feeling touched that Jelly considered himself enough of a member of the family to use the familiar pronoun in this case. He pondered the question, dampening down his initial primal instinct to saddle up a horse and take off after his sons. They were both grown men. Each had undergone the hardest of trials, the toughest of ordeals, and survived them without him. Johnny as Madrid down on the borders, and Scott as a serving officer in time of war.
It was just that he was so new to all these paternal feelings . So raw- albeit over twenty years too late, and he recognised the anguish they caused him as both a blessing and a curse.
He sighed again. Glancing across at Jelly’s worried face and knowing it must be a pretty accurate reflection of his own. Wondering if his eyes looked as haunted – as full of shadows.
“We’ll wait until tomorrow. If there’s no news from Scott by lunchtime, then we’ll take a trip down to San Felipe ourselves.”
Fire. He was on fire.
His body a raging inferno of agony that burned and centred with ferocity in his back. He tried to move, but there were hands on him immediately, and for a moment of panic-stricken terror, he thought it was them again.
“Dios. . .”
“Johnny no. Don’t fight.”
But he couldn’t help it. Struggling against the arms that held him down in a futile heat of white fear, as the pain expanded in a huge wave and threatened to drown him.
“Johnny no. It’s me – Scott.”
Scott? But it couldn’t be. Scott wasn’t here; he was. . . where was he? Scott was angry with him, disappointed in him because of his past. Because of what he’d done and who he’d been. Because of Madrid.
He reached a groping hand across the coarse bed-linen, and somebody grasped it and held it at once in a tight, comforting grip.
“Lie still. You must lie still and stay on your front.”
Dragging open his reluctant eye-lids, the room was a dizzy blur of darkness and candlelight, shifting shapes and looming shadows. He groaned. It would be easy, oh so easy just to let the darkness take him down again, to claim him one more time.
“Johnny can you hear me?”
“S. . .Scott, tu estas aqui?”
Scott looked helplessly across at Geordie, not for the first time cursing his inability to speak Spanish as he waited for a translation.
“He’s askin’ if’n yer here. If’n it’s you,” said the Old Man quietly, setting down a fresh bowl of hot water on the up-turned wooden box that served as an emergency table. Scott nodded quick thanks and turned immediately back to Johnny.
“It’s me little brother. You really didn’t think I’d leave you to tilt at this windmill all by yourself, did you?” His tone was gentle and falsely jocular, trying but not succeeding in hiding the concern he really felt inside.
“It hurts. . .me duele.”
“I know.” Scott swallowed hard. He didn’t need a translation for those particular words. “I’m sorry. We just finished cleaning your back with carbolic solution, that’s probably what woke you. It had to be done though. We can’t risk any infection.”
He took one of the clean pillow-slips Geordie handed him, and began to wring it out in the bowl of hot water before laying it carefully across the raw, abraded skin on his brother’s back. Johnny moaned with pain, and Scott winced in sympathy, taking a second to place his hand gently on the silky black hair.
“Take it easy little brother. It’s going to be all right.”
“How’s he doin’?”
Geordie sat down on a barrel beside the door, and watched them soberly, still wondering at the relationship between these two men who were as different as chalk and cheese. So different in fact, he had still been slightly suspicious even after the Missus had identified and verified Scott Lancer.
Geordie sighed at himself. At what he’d turned into. But the recent events that had gone on around here had made him look at everything twice. What was it he’d said to Fancy the other day?
“Trust’s a thing bin missin’ round these here parts lately. . . “
And it was true. But that didn’t mean he had to like it. No Siree, he didn’t like it at all. Darn it, but that woman had a lot to answer for.
Scott looked back at him and frowned. “I’d feel alot happier if we could get a doctor out here to him.”
But Geordie shook his head adamantly. “Dun told ye there’s no point. Doc Leonard’s so much in Al Frayne’s pocket, the man could use him fer small change. Now Doc Moyse over in Val Verde, he’s alright. But it’d take the best part of two days ter fetch him back, an’. . .” his voice faltered unhappily. “We aint got two days, Mister Lancer. He’s due ter fight Yorga the day after tomorrow.”
A muscle pulsed briefly at the side of Scott’s temple and he set his jaw grimly. “Oh no he’s not Geordie. Look at him. He won’t even be up on his feet by then.”
“Scott. . .”Johnny clutched faintly at his brother’s hand, long brown fingers closing round Scott’s wrist with surprising strength. “You have to help me.”
Scott leant closer to him, anxiety growing in his heart. “Of course I will. You don’t have to ask.”
“Promisa – promise?” Johnny’s voice was agitated now, and after a quick glance at Geordie, Scott paused to lay a cooling compress across his brother’s heated forehead.
“I promise little brother. Lie still.”
“I have to face Yorga.”
Scott rocked back in dismay, the sudden realisation that he had just stepped into a trap like a thorn in his unwilling flesh. “Now just wait a minute Johnny. . .”
But Johnny’s agitation grew, as raising himself with a groan of pain, he struggled up to look at Geordie. “T. . .tell him Old Man. They’ll come for Jimmy – for me.”
“Johnny. . .”
“No. Escucha me, listen to me! They’ll come and they’ll kill him. The Old Man, and you too. . . if I don’t face Yorga.”
“He’s right Mister Lancer.” Geordie moved alongside the bed, his eyes uneasy. “They’ll come, and there aint no one ter stop them.”
“But you’re hurt,” said Scott angrily. “I’m not going to help you kill yourself.”
The temporary burst of adrenalin had worn off now, and Johnny sank exhaustedly back onto the bunk, the wet pillow-slip on his back stained pink with blood. His eyelids trembled closed and his muscles slackened.
“Then you may as well leave now Scott. Vaya. The Old Man can help me. And with or without you – I will meet Yorga the day after tomorrow.”
The sunlight was bright on his back, warm through his shirt. But the blood in his veins was cold as ice as he strode leisurely down the dusty main street of the one-horse town.
Round one to him already. His opponent was facing the sun, the dazzle strong and glaring in his eyes. But nothing so amateurish for Johnny Madrid, and he’d pre-chosen his approach with his usual thorough precision. The precision and tight planning he applied to every duel. To every fight. . .
Dreams and fragments of dreams.
All churning together in a nightmarish vortex of shadowed reality. Scott’s voice murmuring to him – calm but upset. A hint of betrayal still edging his words.
And he was sorry, so sorry that it hurt him inside. But he knew he had to finish it. To keep his promise and honour his oath. To finally close the door on his past like his brother wanted him to. To become the kind of man his brother could respect. But he knew in his heart it was futile.
He was and always would be Johnny Madrid – gunslick and loner, part maverick on the edge of the herd. He’d been places, done things Scott would never understand, could never understand. . .
And he never wanted him to. Scott represented everything that was good in his life, everything that was pure and unsullied. He couldn’t bear the thought of Scott becoming embroiled in the sordid details of his past. In the harsh realities and brutalities of who he’d been.
He groaned and muttered as the pain took him under. The fiery raging torment that had used to be his body burning and shrinking from the gentle hands that treated his wounds. Where was he?
He couldn’t remember. And suddenly the panic lanced through him in great shuddering waves as he began to struggle against the arms that held him down – twisting and turning on the narrow bunk in an effort to escape, to get away. The need for freedom so strong in him that for a brief, terrifying moment, it superseded everything else in his mind and he fought even harder until the pain crashed over him and he sank down with a cry.
Scott’s voice again. Distraught this time, as the fire in his back was temporarily cooled by something cold and wet, and he felt his brother’s fingers on his head.
He wanted to say sorry, wanted to explain. But he knew that Scott could never comprehend, could never understand the reasons that had driven him along this path again. . .
It wasn’t the girl – and his heart contracted with sorrow. It wasn’t even the memory of the girl. It was the memory of himself. Johnny Madrid had sworn on oath, and if he wanted to bring anything with him out of that time, anything forward from that life, then it had to be a memory of dignity. That Madrid had acted with honour, that he had kept his word. And then he could move on.
The hand was still on his head, heavy and comforting, the fingers rotating gently against his scalp as they tried to soothe him. To keep him calm. It reminded him of another place, another time so many years ago. His mother’s hand upon his head when he’d lain ill with a fever. The sound of her soft clear voice singing to him in Spanish as she’d sought to keep him still.
The memory blurred her face with Gina’s, but he knew in his heart it was playing him false. His mother had been wrong, foolish even to do what she’d done. Naïve and gullible, and bored with life on a ranch.
But he had seen in her heart.
Even as a boy, he had seen in her heart. That she was impulsive, but intrinsically innocent. Trusting and too optimistic. Ready to believe in a happy ending, in the rainbows that had never really come.
Not like Gina. Nothing like Gina who had never taken an uncalculated step in her entire life. Who was certainly never innocent and definitely not naïve.
Oh Dios how he hurt. Both in body and in spirit. But a part of him, the part of his mind that was still rational, knew he had to fight this. Time was his enemy as much as Frayne, as much as Yorga, and if he wanted to get them all out of this alive, then he had to get back on his feet.
He could not ask it of Scott. Could not ask Scott to help him and risk his brother having to live with the consequences – with any guilt. But Geordie might help him. The Old Man could and would do anything to save Jimmy Marcus, and Johnny drew a small crumb of comfort from that fact. It might be the only one he had left.
Scott walked reluctantly up the steps to the door of the Farmhouse. Remembering with a sudden pang, he had been supposed to send a telegraph off to Murdoch today – to keep him appraised of what was happening. If only he’d ridden into San Felipe as planned. If only. . .
He recalled with a slight tug, an old saying his Grandfather had been fond of. One that had peppered some of the more censorious lectures he’d been so fond of giving when Scott had breached some form of etiquette or broken one of his rules.
“If if’s and an’s were pots and pans – think how rich Tinkers would be!”
And it was true. There were no excuses necessary, and no point berating himself for what he had or hadn’t done today. The fact was if he had followed Johnny, he would probably be dead. His body lying back by that arroyo for the carrion birds to strip.
The door opened – sending a narrow stream of brightness across the ground. Gina Marcus stood framed in the oblong of light, the shotgun in her hand.
“It’s Scott Lancer.”
She swallowed convulsively, and lowered the weapon. “Come on in. H. . .how’s Johnny?”
He regarded her grimly for a moment before he answered, a perverse part of him glad to see her eyelids fall in shame. “How do you think he is? Torn and bleeding. Beaten and bruised – with no doctor to tend him who hasn’t been corrupted by the man who did it to him. That’s how he is, Mrs Marcus.” He paused; “How did you think?”
She put a shaky hand to her forehead. “Please don’t shout at me. I do understand how you feel. . .”
“Do you?” Scott’s voice was tense and clipped with anger. “I really don’t think you do. You see, I guessed there was a little bit more to the story than you originally told us, and Geordie was obliging enough to fill me in on the missing details.”
She looked up at him frantically. “Please. . .keep your voice down I beg you. Jimmy. . .”
Scott glanced towards the rear of the house. “Oh yes, your husband. I was forgetting him. But no more than you seem to have done, Mrs Marcus.”
She was white and trembling now, but any sympathy he might have had for her had been supplanted by the image of his brother’s suffering. Not only for the here and now, but for the first time back in Resolve. He’d once told Murdoch that Johnny was pretty self-sufficient, and with a rare burst of uncanny insight, Murdoch had answered;
“Maybe too much so.”
But they’d both been wrong, and Scott knew that now. For self-sufficient read alone. For independent read lonely. Since his mother had died, Johnny had been forced to fend for himself. Unable to depend on anyone but himself, self-reliant and outwardly capable. But always so alone.
Scott ached with pain for him, and even though he knew he could do nothing to change the past, there was nothing in the rules about the future, and he vowed that as long as he was able to do anything about it, his little brother would never feel alone again.
He looked back up at the girl. Even pregnant she was extraordinarily beautiful. Rich, thick tresses of dark copper hair, wide almost cat-like violet eyes, and pale creamy skin. Scott could understand why men fell so hard for her, the kind of power she was capable of exerting. Hadn’t he felt a little of it’s tug that night on Johnny’s birthday? The night she’d first come to Lancer.
“Did you ever love him? – or was he just a ticket out of there?”
The words sprang unbidden to his lips, but he had to ask them. Had to know. Maybe they could help him to help Johnny. To understand a little better . . .
The lamplight made her eyes gleam silver for a moment, and he saw with a quick stab of amazement, she was crying.
“Mrs Marcus, Gina. . .”
“No.” She pushed his sympathy aside, and sat down at the table. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Try me,” he said slowly, closing the door behind him, and sitting opposite her.
She took a breath and laughed shakily, dashing the tears away with the back of her hand as she looked up at him defiantly.
“I knew Johnny was special the first time I ever saw him. He was so young – we were so young. But he walked into that bar like the King of the World.”
“I knew they loved me from the first. Johnny and Jimmy both. But it was Johnny I wanted. One look into those blue eyes and Jimmy didn’t stand a chance.” She paused, remembering. “We became lovers that first night. Time was precious, and part of me was sure he was going to die.”
“Then why. . .?”
She shook her head. “He’s your brother, Mister Lancer. You must know what it is about him. Morales said he was too soft – that it would be the death of him one day. But it’s more than that. Johnny. . .Johnny was born under a different star, and I guess I always knew it.”
Her voice cracked and broke, the tears trembling on the ends of her lashes again as she lowered her eyelids and gave a strangled sob.
“I knew he wasn’t for me. Yes I wanted a ticket out, but Johnny wasn’t ready to give it all up then and Jimmy was. Jimmy worships me; he always has and always will. Whereas Johnny. . .”
“Johnny was born under a different star.” Finished Scott softly, nodding his head with comprehension. “I understand.”
“Do you?” she asked him bitterly, pansy eyes awash with emotion. “Do you really? I’ve made some big mistakes in my life, maybe one of the biggest was letting Johnny go. But I do love Jimmy in my own way, and I don’t want to lose him. He’s a good man Scott, he doesn’t deserve any of this.”
“Neither does Johnny,” replied Scott evenly, “but I do understand a little better now. Not forgive, but understand.”
She nodded. “That’s fair enough. I’m not asking for your forgiveness, just your help. If not for me then for Jimmy, for this child.” She laid a hand on her belly and looked at him candidly. “If Johnny doesn’t show before noon on Thursday morning, then Frayne’s men will come out here looking for him. And Jimmy too. They’ll kill them both.”
“So I’ve been told,” said Scott tersely. “That’s why I have to go into San Felipe first thing. Frayne doesn’t know who I am, and there’s a very important telegram I’ve got to send.”
She looked at him closely; the lines of strain around her mouth relaxing slightly as she quickly summed him up. “I’m sorry Scott. For getting Johnny and you into this mess, for getting Johnny hurt. We. . .we’re counting on you now.”
Geordie put another log gingerly into the belly of the stove, staring thoughtfully into the red heart of it for along time, as he mulled over the events of the last couple of days.
He wondered how Scott Lancer was faring across at the house. But the man seemed sensible enough, and he was pretty cut up and angry about his brother. Hopefully sensible and angry enough to withstand the Missus’s charms.
He shook his grizzled head slightly. She was something all right. Even now she was expecting a child, there was no denying she was the most beautiful female thing he’d ever set his eyes on. On the outside, that was.
“Old. . .Man. . .”
He got to his feet, knees cracking as he moved over to the bunk. “Take it easy there, Fancy. Y’want ter git me into trouble with yer brother?”
Johnny grit his teeth and looked at Geordie with fever-bright eyes. “You gotta help me Old Man.”
“Now see here. I dun gotta do nuthin’. Jist lie back down agin and rest. Frayne’s men hurt ye purty bad.”
Long brown fingers grasped his wrist tightly. “You and I both know they’ll kill Jimmy, you and Scott too. . .” he gasped with hurt and shifted awkwardly on the mattress. “Unless you get me into town on Thursday mornin’.”
“And jist how’m I gonna go ’bout doin’ thet?” demanded Geordie truculently, his heart sinking inexplicably as he watched the pain-lined face of the man before him. “Ye aint in no state ter stand, let alone fight a man like Yorga.”
“There has to be a way,” grunted Johnny determinedly. “You’re my only hope – Jimmy’s only hope.”
Geordie was silent for a moment. Jimmy. To all intents and purposes a prisoner in that back room, a lamb ripe for the slaughter, a sitting duck. Jimmy whom he loved like the son he’d never had – he swallowed hard and looked back at the man on the bunk.
Johnny Madrid/Lancer was a good man. A brave man. And laid here now on his belly, hair tousled and face almost naked in its dichotomy of pain and urgency, he looked little more than a boy.
A boy with old man’s eyes.
Geordie put a rough hand carefully on Johnny’s shoulder. “I caint do it ter ye son. I’d be sendin’ ye ter certain death.”
Johnny sagged, and the fight seemed to drain out of his muscles as he sank back onto the bunk in despair, the Old Man’s hand trembling against his skin.
“Then you may have just condemned us all to death.”
Geordie shook his head in distress. “D’ye really believe that Frayne will leave it there? – Even if ye do beat Yorga, the man won’t stop till he gits what he wants.”
“Lo se. I know,” murmured Johnny wearily. “That’s why you have to get me there. If I can take Yorga then maybe I can get to Frayne. Don’t you see?”
“I see a danged fool is what I see.” Geordie’s voice was an agony of indecision, and Johnny didn’t fail to miss the sudden quaver in it.
His eyelids fluttered closed in exhaustion. “But you’ll do it right – you’ll get me there for Jimmy?”
“Yes,” said Geordie with quiet shame. “I’ll git ye there.”
Sending the telegraph was an easy enough matter, even though Geordie had warned him the Operator was as deeply entrenched in Frayne’s pocket as the town doctor. Scott banked on being unknown, unobtrusive, choosing his words with care and hoping that no one had connected the name of Lancer with Johnny Madrid.
When he’d finished at the Wire Office, he strolled across the street to the Cantina, forcing back the bright flame of anger that burned inside him, as he pushed at the doors and made for the bar.
He felt their eyes immediately. Assessing and measuring his clothes, his demeanour, the way he wore his gun. And with a flash of sudden insight, he realised this was how it always was for Johnny.
The evaluation – the weighing up of a man in a few split seconds by the way he walked, the words he talked. How in God’s name had his brother managed to live his life this way?
“Howdy Stranger.” The Barkeep leant enquiringly across the top of the counter. “What can I do for you?”
“Just a beer,” replied Scott evenly, placing his money on the bar and looking round him for an empty table.
“Just passing through?” The Barkeep eased back the pump-handle and watched as the amber liquid foamed into the glass.
“Yes,” replied Scott, aware that his every word, every movement was being watched by the group of men at the rear of the bar with unnatural interest.
“On my way back up north. Stopped off to wire my father, and clear some of the dust from my throat.” He took a long draught of the beer and wiped his mouth in satisfaction. “Thanks – this is mighty welcome I can tell you.”
Sitting down at a table by the doors, he waited until the atmosphere gradually began to relax again, and the conversation picked up. Frayne’s men had clearly decided he was no threat to them, and it was easy for him to listen in whilst sitting with his back to them the whole time.
“I still say we shoulda killed him there ‘n then.”
“You heard Mister Frayne.”
“Takin’ him alive cost March and Kelly. Tex too, and Abe won’t be goin’ nowhere on that leg o’ his fer an awful long time. We shoulda finished him when we could.”
“Mebbe he’s dead by now anyhow. That was some whippin’ Bull gave him.”
Scott’s hand froze midway between his mouth and the table as he choked back the blinding flood of fury that engulfed him. Taking a couple of hard breaths before he was calm enough to finish the swallow of beer.
“It’s a shame,” said a new voice ruminatively. “It’s not everyday I come face to face with a man of Madrid’s calibre.”
“Might have proved the last time you ever did,” replied the first man jeeringly. “I heard he’s just about the fastest thing you ever did see. Killed his first man when he was only fifteen. Some say younger.”
Suddenly Scott felt sick. His stomach churning at the casual brutality of the words – to the fact that they referred to his brother. To Johnny.
He’d told himself so many times he knew what Johnny had been and he understood why he’d become it. Pushing it blithely to the back of his mind in a vain attempt at denial. But he knew deep down he didn’t know at all. The ruthless savagery, the harsh barbarity of it was an anathema to him. An alien concept.
No wonder Johnny was so desperate to escape from it. To leave it all behind him. Scott felt the vision he had of his brother begin to buckle and distort as he listened to the conversation at the rear of the Cantina. This had been Johnny’s world, in all its sordid seediness.
The world in which he had moved and lived and operated whilst he, Scott, had been enjoying fraternity parties at Harvard, snowball fights and Graduate Balls – the joy of learning, the innocence of comradeship. Granted all that had changed upon the outbreak of the Civil War, and he had seen and done things as a soldier no man should ever have to do.
But it had been for a cause. For the absolute belief in fighting for all that was right and just and good. Whereas Johnny – what was it Johnny had been fighting for?
The soft voice was speaking again, and Scott pulled himself up with a mental jolt. There was something menacing about the quiet tones, something vaguely ominous. And with a quick flash of insight, Scott knew it was Yorga.
“If he’s as good as all that – I wouldn’t rule him out so easily.”
“Nah. If he ain’t dead, he’s as good as dead, and that leaves Marcus to you.”
Scott didn’t wait to hear anymore, his heart sinking as he realised Johnny and Geordie had been right. There would be no reprieve. Frayne’s men would be out at the Marcus homestead in the morning, and he had to get back and start making plans.
Draining the rest of the beer in a single gulp, he got to his feet and headed unobtrusively out of the doors and across to the Mercantile to purchase some ammunition.
Scott got back to the Marcus place a little after mid day. The frown that had creased his face since leaving San Felipe growing even grimmer as he entered the barn to find a dizzy and swaying Johnny sitting on the edge of his bunk.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Johnny set his lips stubbornly, but the effect was rather spoiled by the fact they were grey and nearly devoid of any colour.
“Don’t start Scott.”
“Fine.” Scott leant up against the doorway and watched as beads of sweat broke out along Johnny’s forehead. “Go ahead. Kill yourself why don’t you. That’s one sure fire way of ending this whole sorry incident. Oh and by the way – any last words you’d like me to pass along to Murdoch while you’re at it?”
“Scott. . .”
“Or how about Teresa? Sorry I won’t be home querida, but I was so eager to play at being a martyr, that I sacrificed myself for a way of life I should by rights despise!”
Johnny was unnaturally still for a moment, his eyes unfathomable as he looked into Scott’s furious face. “Bastante hermano. . .” his voice was oddly husky, and Scott heard all the hurt the blue eyes hid so well.
“Johnny, I’m sorry. . .”
But Johnny ignored him now, and Scott fought hard to stop himself from helping as he saw his brother’s hands tremble on the top of the wooden bed-head. It reminded him of the time after they’d first returned to Lancer. When Johnny had been recovering from Pardee’s bullet in his back.
It had been a slow and agonising process, and Johnny had been so dogged, so bull-headed. Openly suspicious sometimes of all their attempts to help him, to cosset and coddle him.
At times it had puzzled and even angered Scott, but surprisingly, it had been Murdoch who had understood the reasons Johnny insisted on acting as he did. Murdoch who had known that to a gunfighter, a wound was a dangerous business. An invitation to his enemies, to younger, up and coming rivals to try their hand at taking him.
That was why Johnny hated being hurt. Why he refused to take laudanum. Why he was such a bad and restless patient. It made him too vulnerable, too exposed. It reached in beyond the mask, the carefully constructed mythos he’d built up round him at such cost.
Scott sprang as Johnny’s hand slipped, and he pitched forwards, barely catching him before he lurched onto the floor.
“This is pointless. I won’t let you do it.”
Johnny’s head lolled against his shoulder as he took a deep, shuddering breath, and fought desperately against the pinwheels in his head. He could feel the anger in his brother’s wiry frame, and knew he was the cause of it as he allowed himself to be lowered back down onto his stomach – feigning weaker than he actually was.
It wasn’t all that hard though. He was pretty weak. Certainly too weak to cross swords with Scott just now. When this was all over, then maybe he’d try and explain things to his brother, attempt to make Scott understand why. . .
When this was all over.
He closed his eyes, hiding from the anxiety on his brother’s face. From the familiar wash of despair that trickled over him, as he shied away from the thought of Scott’s reaction to the subterfuge he was planning with Geordie. He was about to deceive Scott and betray his trust. He did not feel good about it at all.
Scott regarded Johnny with a troubled look in his eye. Pulling the light cotton sheet up as far as his brother’s waist, knowing he could bear it no higher than that, and sighing slightly, as he waited for the descent into sleep he knew would surely follow.
And eventually Johnny’s muscles began to relax. The taut lines of pain that creased his face evening out at last, as his breathing deepened and his fingers uncurled. He looked so young when he slept. So innocent that it broke Scott’s heart.
He knew Johnny would be immensely angry with him for what he was about to do. So angry in fact, that it might place a severe strain upon their relationship forever. He hoped and prayed it would not be so, but his mind was made up. He could not allow Johnny to face Yorga. Would not take the chance of losing his brother for the sake of this damned oath.
Maybe Johnny would forgive him one day. Might understand his reasons for embarking on this course of action. Scott bit his lip with sorrow; maybe one day Johnny would be free of his past forever.
Geordie ambled slowly into the barn at dawn. Feet heavy and reluctant, each step a burden as he tried to remain focused on what he was about to do.
He tried to keep the thought of Jimmy’s safety like a clear and shining beacon in his head. But it didn’t seem that simple any more.
Pushing open the door to his room, he was aware of Fancy waiting for him immediately, blue eyes almost electric as they glittered with urgency and impatience.
“You’re cuttin’ it fine, Old Man.”
Geordie shook his head in distress. “Somethin’s happened Fancy. . .”
Johnny froze, his irritation abating at once as he noted the very real air of misery that hung over Geordie like a dark cloud. “What’s up?” His heart stuttered with sudden fear. “Not Scott?”
“Nope,” said Geordie hastily. “Don’t go gittin’ in a fret now. It aint yer brother – it’s her. It’s the Missus.”
“What about her?”
“She’s gone ter him. Ter Frayne. Watched her leave in the night, bags ‘n all.”
Johnny’s gut clenched with hurt and nausea. “And you didn’t try and stop her?”
“What’s the point? Tried ter talk ter her, she wouldn’t listen. Said it were the only way of keepin’ Jimmy alive. Of keepin’ you alive ‘n all.”
“Does Jimmy know?”
Geordie shook his head dolefully. “He’s still sleepin’. I. . .I cain’t bring myself ter tell him jist yet.”
Johnny nodded slowly, propping himself up cautiously on one elbow, and taking a deep, painful breath. “That’s probably for the best. What about Scott?”
“He don’t know neither.”
“Good. Keep it that way. Did you bring it with you?”
Geordie sat down on the barrel. “I don’t know, Fancy. She’s kinda taken things into her own hands now. Mebbe there aint no need fer ye ter do this no more. . . “
Johnny looked up at him squarely, a wry smile twisting his lips. “Do you really believe that Old Man?”
Sighing heavily, Geordie shook his head. “Nope. Guess I don’t. They’ll still be after finishin’ the job – no loose ends.”
“No loose ends,” repeated Johnny softly. He smiled to himself, more bleakly this time, and watched as Geordie began boiling some water on the stove. Taking a bottle of laudanum out of the pocket of his battered old overalls. “Careful. Not too much. Just enough to put him to sleep long enough for me to get to San Felipe.”
“Fer us t’git ter San Felipe,” said Geordie firmly. “I aint lettin’ ye go alone. Ye’ll never make it there fer starters.”
There was a sudden lump in Johnny’s throat, and he inclined his head quickly, more affected by the Old Man’s words than he cared to admit. He needed a friend right now, and it felt good to know the Old Man was on his side.
“Here. Ye’d best take this now.” Geordie handed him a cup of coffee, before taking a deep breath and adding a generous measure of the laudanum to the remainder of the pot. “He’s gon’ be madder than hell at ye, Fancy.”
“Lo se. I know.” Johnny did not want to think about that just now, as he drank the bitter black coffee with difficulty, glad at least of this one nod to his usual pre-fight routine.
Black coffee to get the adrenalin rush. To heighten his awareness and keep him alert and alive. He had a feeling he’d need it today. Probably more than any other time in the whole of his life or career as a gunfighter. Except that he wasn’t a gunfighter anymore. Who was he trying to kid?
Once a gunfighter, always a gunfighter. The soubriquet hung like a millstone round his neck. Or maybe a gravestone.
Geordie watched him uneasily, the sense of guilt inside him growing stronger with every passing second. He had a terrible feeling he was helping to send this man to his death. That Fancy’s blood was already staining red on his hands.
Jimmy – he was doing it for Jimmy.
But the reasoning wasn’t so clear anymore, not as valid. And he was suddenly, horribly confused and afraid. There were footsteps approaching through the barn, and Fancy looked at him quickly.
“Don’t let me down Old Man.”
Geordie swallowed hard. “Have the feelin’ I already have, Fancy. But I’ll go through with it fer Jimmy.”
He met Scott outside the door, schooling his features so the distress didn’t show, aware that his hand was shaking as he suddenly felt old.
“Did you do it?” Asked Scott conspiratorially.
“Yep, I dun it,” sighed Geordie wearily, wondering whether or not Scott Lancer was a vengeful man – and if he’d even be alive to be the recipient of that vengeance. “He’s jist drunk it.”
“Good.” Scott pushed the door open, forcing himself to smile at his brother, his keen eyes noting the large empty mug beside the bed.
“Here ye go.” Geordie pressed a mug into his own hands. “Nice an’ fresh from the stove. Jist made a pot fer Johnny.” He dropped a slow wink, and Scott took it from him gladly.
He looked down at his sleepy brother – more thankful than he could say for Geordie’s surprising assistance in this. Part of him had wondered whether or not the Old Man would actually agree to help him by putting the laudanum into Johnny’s coffee, or if his loyalty to Jimmy Marcus would prove too strong.
Like the coffee, he thought with a slight grimace. It was dark and far more bitter than he usually liked to drink it, but it suited his mood, and he’d downed two mugfulls of it by the time he’d finished changing Johnny’s bandages forty minutes later.
Johnny had barely murmured throughout the whole ordeal, groaning once or twice with pain as Scott eased the dressings away from the places where they’d stuck, screwing his own face up with sympathy as he handed the blood-stained linen to Geordie.
The room blurred before his eyes. He’d spent a poor night and the strain was obviously catching up with him. He took another mouthful of the coffee. Maybe the caffeine would wake him up a little. God only knew he needed to be on his mettle this morning.
He was already slightly surprised that Johnny hadn’t been more stubborn, more resistant – even with a large dose of laudanum in his system.
He yawned involuntarily, and the room swung around him, the first awful spark of suspicion igniting in his brain even as it began to fog. He looked down into wary blue eyes. Eyes that seemed far more awake than his own. Eyes that were alight with, what was that? Expectation and guilt?
And then he knew. Cursing himself for his stupidity, for Johnny’s duplicity and Geordie’s intractable sense of loyalty to Jimmy Marcus, as the waves of dizzy somnolence made his head nod and his musculature slacken.
He fought it angrily, focusing his drooping eyes back on his brother’s rueful face, dismissing the regret and apology he saw written there in his fury at being treated in this way.
“Lo siento Scott. I’m sorry.”
Johnny’s voice was barely more than a whisper, and Scott clung to the vanishing threads of consciousness with an increasing sense of desperation, as he shook his head.
“Don’t. . . do it brother.”
But Johnny dipped his own head in shame. “I have to. Please forgive me Scott – if there was any other way. . .”
“Johnny. . .” the world was sliding away from him, coalescing into warm darkness, and he reached out with his hand, groping for Johnny’s with an almost basic instinct to hold onto him physically. To keep him safe at all costs. Familiar fingers laced around his own. Fingers he was powerless to hang onto, as the warmth began to submerge him.
“I love you little brother.”
Suddenly they were the most important words in the whole world, and he knew he had to say them. It might be the last chance he ever had. The fingers tightened and trembled for a second.
“Love you too, Boston.”
And then the darkness took him, spiralling him off into a warm nothingness, as Johnny slowly let go of his hand.
The journey into San Felipe was like a descent into nightmare. He’d taken a little, a very little of the laudanum himself, despite his almost pathological distrust of medication. Bolstering it with yet more of the black coffee, as Geordie had helped him gently into his clothes. He could hardly bear the weight of his shirt against his back. It felt like a piece of chain mail, and he’d been unable to bend and put his own boots on, biting his lip as a silent Geordie had knelt and done it for him. He buckled on his gun belt, and flexed his fingers experimentally a few times. At least they still worked. Rolling his wrist from side to side as he ran through the gamut of hand exercises that were as familiar to him as
Geordie handed him something, his face somber. And Johnny saw with a rush of overwhelming relief, that it was his own gun. “You found it?”
“Yer brother did.”
Johnny swallowed hard, and looked down at his drugged and sleeping brother. Scott knew how important this gun was to him. It was like him to have remembered to bring it back. He spun the chamber a couple of times and began to load it carefully.
“I dun oiled it fer ye,” said Geordie quietly. “Cleaned it an’ oiled it.”
“Thanks Old Man.” Johnny nodded in acknowledgment. “You did a good job.”
He rode in the back of the buckboard the majority of the way on a bed of saddle-blankets and hay, with Barranca tied and saddled up behind. Even with Geordie driving as carefully as possible, he felt every pot-hole, every single rut in the road, and he began to wonder at the wisdom of his determination to see this through to its bitter and inevitable end.
But what choice did he have?
Half a mile out of town, Geordie pulled the wagon to a halt and helped him grim-faced, onto Barranca. It was no small feat, and Johnny’s forehead was wet with sweat by the time the palomino began moving forwards again. But there was no way he’d enter San Felipe in the back of a buckboard. That would give Yorga an immediate psychological advantage, and in fact, he was more comfortable up on Barranca then he had been bumping along in the wagon.
They entered the town slowly – the people eyeing them uneasily and scuttling out of their way, clearing the boardwalks and hurrying off the street.
Johnny’s mind was still and cold now, as he emptied it of all extraneous thought and superfluous emotion. This then was the moment – this the time and place. He knew he had to live it. Be it. Exist only in this particular vacuum until the job was done.
The killing job.
It was a kind of meditation with no room for anything else in his head. A mindset he could enter at will that was both friend to him, and foe. He watched the rooftops, watched the windows. The doorways and balconies. His vigilance reaping its own reward when he spied the dull gleam of a gun barrel and the shadow of a concealed shooter in an upstairs bedroom window.
He smiled suddenly, his face relaxing. He knew this. This was what he was good at. What he did. And almost, he welcomed its outstretched waiting arms again like the greeting of an old and trusted friend.
“Here. We stop here.”
Geordie drew the wagon to a halt and watched Johnny uneasily. This was a Fancy he didn’t recognise, but he’d seen the look in those eyes before. The hard-eyed gaze of a predator, the clear, cold stare of a man with killing on his mind.
He shivered involuntarily, cold despite the warmth of the morning sun, regretting his part in it all over again as they pulled in outside the Mercantile, a little ways up from the Cantina.
The alleyway ran alongside the building, and the house on the opposite side of the street was derelict and boarded up. Geordie knew immediately why Fancy had chosen this spot, and his respect for him grew stronger. But then, hadn’t Jimmy always said that Johnny Madrid was the best he’d ever seen?
Geordie thought of Jimmy with despair. There was so much hinging on Fancy, and yet the man was barely capable of standing on his own two feet right now – although you’d never think it to look at him. Cool as a cucumber, wary as a cat.
“Take the buckboard round into the alley.” Johnny looked distantly up towards the Cantina. “It’s best you stay with it, Old Man. Keep out of the way. You know what to do if I don’t make it?”
“We bin through it a hundred times Fancy – I won’t let ye down. Nor thet soldier brother of yer’s. I take the wagon back ter the farm, wake him up, and then wait at the head of the valley and git me some target practice with the carbine. Thet was what he had planned all along anyhows.”
Johnny smiled more gently, and nodded. “Good. I know you won’t let me down. Now go on – git.”
Geordie’s lips tightened fleetingly, and he thought of the carbine lying under his seat. “If’n ye say so. What’ll ye do now?”
The smile grew cold again. “Me? Oh I’ll just sit me down in that there rockin’ chair and wait for some company.”
He got down extra-carefully from Barranca and flipped the palomino’s reins round the back of the wagon, his hand lingering momentarily on the horses neck. The pain in his heart almost equal to the pain in his back for a second, as he bade the pony a mental adios.
Then taking a deep breath, he walked slowly up the wooden stairs to the chair. Settling himself down awkwardly into it, and ignoring the fire in his back, the heated throb in his veins. Tipping his hat forward over his eyes, as he nodded at Geordie.
“Thanks for all you done, Old Man. Gracias.”
Geordie shook his head miserably. “You jist take care – Johnny.”
Johnny looked up again for a moment, his smile warm and genuine this time,
as he met the Old Man’s eyes in tacit acknowledgment. “Thanks Geordie . I will.”
The taste of laudanum was sweet on his tongue, and he moved restlessly on the bunk wondering who had brought him here. Was he patient or prisoner now?
The battle had been a nightmare of screaming horseflesh and groaning men – his own faithful mount shot out from under him in a splinter of agonising blood and bone fragments.
He moved again, a hand on his shoulder. Shaking him none to gently, as it sought to pull him up from the realm of his troubled dreams.
“Scott – son!”
He groaned, his head still swimming as his vision began to clear and the images re-clarified around him. The war was over and he was not wounded. He was in San Felipe trying to prevent Johnny from honouring that ridiculous and defunct oath of his . . .
Oh God, Johnny.
He opened his eyes, and looked up into his father’s anxious face. Jelly a few feet behind him, as they made the tiny room seem crowded.
“Water . . .”
Murdoch pressed a glass into his shaky hand, and he gulped thirstily at it, his head clearing even more as the welcome fluid eased the dryness of his mouth, and chased away the last of his nightmares.
“I’ve never been more glad to see you . . .”
“What happened son?” Murdoch helped him up, and he leant gratefully for a moment on his father’s brawny arm. Heart cold with fear as he tried to find the words to tell them how he’d let them down. He waited for a moment as the room stopped whirling, and took a deep and welcome draft of air.
“You came yourselves?”
“Yes.” Murdoch gave a quick, almost embarrassed nod. “Something told us we were needed.”
“Thank the Lord you did – what time is it?” The sun through the small square window had still not reached its zenith in the cloudless sky, and a wild seed of hope burst open inside him.
“Where’s Johnny?” Asked Murdoch, frowning suddenly as he noticed the makeshift box-table with its supply of bandages, dressings and various medications.
“Murdoch . . .!” Scott grasped hold of his arm, and swung his legs over the side of the bunk. “He drugged me. He’s gone after Yorga this morning, but there may still be some time. We have to get to San Felipe . . .”
“Where’s the Marcus woman?”
Scott paused; “What do you mean? She’s in the house.”
“Aint no one in the house ‘cept thet poor husband of hers,” said Jelly tetchily. “An’ he’s in a proper fret. No wife, no nobody – an’ he clammed up tighter than a Parson’s purse when we asked about Johnny.”
“Johnny’s hurt,” said Scott brusquely, as he got to his feet. “He shouldn’t even be out of bed, let alone taking on the whole of a town by himself because of Gina Marcus.”
“Since when was he taking on the whole town?” Murdoch’s voice was cold and tight with anxiety, and Scott sighed as he considered the entire sorry state of affairs all over again.
He felt woozy, but coupled with an unnatural sense of buoyancy he was wise enough to attribute to the laudanum still racing round his system. Steadying himself against his father’s shoulder, he shook his head briefly.
“There’s no time Murdoch. I’ll explain it on the way. We have to get to San Felipe before it’s too late.”
“But . . .”
“Leave it Jelly.” Murdoch was already out in the stable. “We’ve got plenty of time to hear the details, but right now Johnny needs us.”
Jelly rolled his eyes, and followed them out of the door. “What about Marcus?”
Murdoch grimaced impatiently. “Leave Ramon here with him. We’ll take Jorge with us. From the sound of it, we may need him!”
The sun shone brilliantly off her hair, turning it into a gleaming copper halo as she walked slowly down the street towards him, her face pale and tightly drawn.
He followed her approach, his mouth twisted in irony, as the sense of inevitability grew in his heart.
He’d been sat for twenty minutes, and during that time he’d watched as the street had emptied of civilians, and a few of the braver townsfolk had ventured outdoors to board up their shutters and lock their front doors before scuttling back inside again to await the coming storm. She was beautiful, so beautiful. And once she’d been the whole of everything he’d ever wanted for his future. Once – but not any longer. So much had changed inside him since those days, and the revelation hit him like a bronco kick.
He’d changed on the outside too. Become a different person with the opportunity of a different life before him, doing something he truly loved as opposed to something he did to survive.
Ranching was his birthright. It was in his soul, and he’d embraced it like a drowning man. But this – this was the legacy of his past. The Old Man of the River who just wouldn’t get off his back.
She stood in front of him now, and his chest was tight with sorrow as he regarded her with sadness and regret. But the overwhelming feeling in his heart was pity, an emotion he had never associated with her before, and it was as if he’d suddenly been freed from a cage.
She was as much a victim as he had been. Doing what she had to, to survive. Making choices that inevitably went sour. And it was harder for a woman down here in these towns. Even a woman like Gina.
“Johnny.” Her voice was cracked and tight with tension, and he saw she was shaking like a leaf.
“Get off the street Gina.”
“But her eyes kept begging him to listen. “Frayne says he can still call this off if you leave now.”
“No.” Johnny shook his head. “You know in your heart he’s lyin’. It won’t be over for him ’til Jimmy’s dead. Besides, it’s kinda personal now. I have my own score to settle.”
“They’ll kill you, Johnny. Jimmy too. You can’t win.”
He grinned crookedly at her. “Maybe not. But I can’t live with myself if I walk away either. Now go on. Go quickly.”
She looked back at him for a second, her lips trembling. “Johnny. . .about Resolve. . .”
He stiffened. “Resolve was a lifetime ago.”
“Yes,” she nodded slowly. “But I want you to know why.”
“Gina . . .”
“Please listen. When you and Jimmy walked into the Saloon that day, it was like looking at the sun and the moon. The sun so bright and hot – you know it’ll burn you, but you want to stand out in it for just awhile longer to keep your body warm. You burned so brightly Johnny, I was afraid of being scorched.”
She smiled gently. “Jimmy was safer. Jimmy was the moon. Always there, steady and reliable . . .I guess I didn’t realise how much I needed that till now. Until it’s too late.”
He leant forwards in the chair to ease his back and the leaden aching of his heart. “It’s never too late. I know that better than anyone. If you mean it, go tell him. I’ve a feelin’ he needs to know.”
“Then you’re not leaving?”
His face hardened. “I swore on oath to Jimmy. I’ll leave when this is over – not before.”
She climbed the steps up to the wooden boardwalk and stood in front of him. Tears glittering silver in her eyes as stooping, she placed a kiss upon his forehead.
“I’m sorry Johnny. So sorry. Please be careful. Don’t . . .don’t ever let that light of yours grow dim.”
He watched her walk away with a curious sense of regret. It was as though he were bidding farewell to a part of himself. A part that was lost and gone forever – irrevocable and irretrievable. Vanished into the mists and shadows of his past.
Tilting back his hat, he looked up at the sky. The sun had nearly reached its peak, and he smiled a little at the analogy as he recalled what she’d just said. He hoped it wasn’t an omen.
It took another five minutes of sitting before his patience was rewarded, and he watched thoughtfully as Yorga began to walk down the street. Round one in the psychological battle to him then. Always make them come to you. Meant you got to chose the place – unsettles your opponent. But Yorga was an old hand at this too, and a man of his experience didn’t get to stay alive so long by falling for any of the more obvious tricks. The man took his time. Walking slowly but purposefully, not too fast and not too slow. Looking from neither left to right, but keeping his gaze straight and locked on Johnny.
Johnny flicked his own eyes quickly to the upper story windows, watching as the curtains twitched across the street. One man. A slight movement on the rooftop of the Saddlers. Two. Logical to assume then, that his counterpart was concealed on the blocked in balcony opposite. Three.
The sweat trickled down between his shoulder blades, stinging and burning the open slashes and abrasions that lacerated his back – literally salt in his wounds. But not once could he allow the discomfort to show on his face, and his expression remained calm and vaguely amused, a tiny smile playing round the corners of his lips. He knew of old, that a smile unnerved your adversary, that a smile could give him an edge. Stepping into the air of confidence and assurance like an old shirt, a cool slightly scornful look in his eyes.
Twelve yards or so from the steps, Yorga halted and gave a small nod. “Knew you’d show Madrid.”
“No thanks to Frayne and his dogs.”
“That was nuthin’ to do with me. In fact I was kinda disappointed at the idea of you not showin’.”
Johnny looked back at him measuringly. “Figured you might be – hate to let a man down.” He inhaled carefully and got slowly to his feet, hiding the pain it caused him as he took a minute to reach inside his jacket and pull on his glove. Deliberately taking his time as he worked each finger into it, separately smoothing out the fine kid leather until it was wrinkle-free. “Let’s get this over with.”
Yorga inclined his head. “Ready when you are. Just take your time.”
Walking down the steps hurt more than he’d hoped for, and he was seriously dismayed by the wave of giddiness that made the street swing momentarily before his eyes.
“Dese prisa,” he murmured to himself. “Hurry-up. Get this done before you pass out.”
His back crawled as he strolled out into the middle of the drag. He was presenting a broad target to whoever was concealed in the unlit windows and shadowy doorways, a dead man’s mark to the watchers in ambush. Whatever the outcome of the duel – he was not supposed to walk away. He looked across at the Cantina and his heart lifted slightly, as he saw Al Frayne standing beneath its large wooden sign. This was what he wanted more than anything – a chance to get to Frayne.
The only thing standing in his way now was Yorga, and he flicked a quick glance back up at the sky, tracking the sun, and slightly amazed to find it was nearly noon. Yorga followed his gaze, a cold smile on his own lips as he acknowledged the gesture.
“Looks like we reached the end of the deadline, Madrid.”
Johnny nodded, and stopped in the dusty street to face Yorga. They were approximately twenty paces apart. Forcing his body to relax into its customary slouch – shoulders loosened, feet just a little apart, hands hanging ready at his sides with the fingers curled in slightly. His back burned in agony, and he felt weak and sick at heart. But he had a job to do, and he was resolute. It was time to finish this.
They left their horses at the edge of town. There wasn’t far to walk and by this time, Murdoch and Jelly knew the whole ugly story. The ride had cleared Scott’s head a little, but there was enough laudanum left in his system to keep him walking on the balls of his feet. He figured he might need it.
“Where is everyone?” said Jelly uneasily. “It aint natural fer things ter be this quiet.”
“No gunshots though.” Murdoch set his jaw grimly, and Scott glanced at him involuntarily, hearing the edge of taut strain behind the Big Man’s apparent control.
“Perhaps we’re in time.”
They moved in Indian file along the shadowy side of the street, cutting up through the one side alley to avoid any prying eyes. There was a familiar buckboard parked up at the end of the narrow passage, and Scott’s gut clenched in sudden fear as he looked in vain for Geordie. Scouting round, he spied movement as sunlight flashed off something metallic on the roof of the Saddlers over on Main Street – nudging Murdoch quickly so the Big Man tracked his gaze and nodded.
“I see him, son.”
“Mister Lancer?” A figure detached himself from the shadows and Scott exhaled with a combination of anger and relief.
“I ought to . . .” he took a deep breath. “Where is he, Geordie?”
Geordie looked at them miserably, and half shook his head. “Too late ter stop it now. They’re facin’ off . . .” he pulled them round the corner of the alleyway, and Scott’s heart sank like a stone.
Johnny stood motionless in the middle of the street, his body relaxed into a now familiar silhouette, eyes hard and focused as diamonds, tiny mocking smile on his lips.
Yorga stood not twenty paces away from him – his stance a mirror opposite. Rigid shoulders, face grim. Hands twitching and flexing in total contradiction to Johnny’s lax, immobile fingers.
Scott remembered the night of Johnny’s birthday. A night that seemed a lifetime ago – a fragment of a conversation that burned him now like a brand.
“You mean he’s good.”
“Si, he’s good.”
“As good as you?”
“Some might say better. He’s been at it longer, kept at it – and stayed alive all these years.”
He swallowed hard and started forward, but Murdoch shot out a massive hand and clamped him back immediately. “No son. It’s too late. Distract him now and he’s dead.”
“Murdoch . . .”
But Murdoch held onto him fast. “Jorge, Jelly – I’m pretty sure there’s a man on that balcony. Get round the other side of the street and keep him covered.” He looked uncompromisingly at Geordie. “Can you take the man on the roof?”
“That were the plan,” said Geordie dourly, hefting his carbine to illustrate the point and looking at Murdoch with quick respect. “There’ll be more of them though, so keep yer eyes skinned . . .” he glared at Jelly. ” ‘Specially you, Old Man.”
“Old Man . . .?” said Jelly, bristling at once. “I’ll give you Old Man . . .”
“Jelly!” Murdoch glanced at him sharply. “There’s no time.”
“Yes Boss.” Jelly sobered immediately and hurried after an already departing Jorge, as Murdoch relaxed his grip on Scott’s arm.
“I’m sorry son. But he’s in this by himself for now.”
“He always was,” said Scott bleakly, eyes never leaving his brother’s lonely figure. “Always . . .and that’s what he was fighting for. From the time he was twelve years old – he was fighting for his life!”
“And this time he has us to help him,” replied Murdoch firmly. “So he’ll never be alone again. We’ll be there to watch his back from now on . . .” he smiled swiftly at Geordie. “And I have the feeling we’re not the only ones.”
“No.” Geordie reddened in shame. “You ain’t.”
“Murdoch . . .”
Murdoch stiffened at the urgency in Scott’s voice, and turned to watch as the scene in the street played out to its bitter, inevitable end.
It was as if they were the only two people left in the whole world.
Him and Yorga.
The noise faded into silence, San Felipe disappeared from his peripheral vision. Nothing moved, nothing mattered, but the cold grim eyes of the man opposite him.
He waited – a heartbeat.
Never wanting to be the one who went for it first, but sensing the flicker in the other man’s eyes almost before his hand snaked down to his gun. Johnny moved in one fluid motion, hips swivelling sideways, thrusting out his right shoulder as his fingers curled round his own gun butt and trigger, thumb hooking over the hammer spur.
The Colt whipped up and forward – leaping into his hand like a dancer as he fanned it twice, feeling the whistle of return fire as it grazed through the fabric of his shirt but missed his body.
The world rocked slightly as he straightened gradually. Taste of bile, acid in his throat – stench of cordite thick in his nostrils. He took a breath. Probably his first for over a minute. Walking forward slowly to where Yorga lay hunched up in the dust, eyes blinking and unfocused, looking up at the sky.
“You’re good Yorga – fast.”
Yorga forced a ghastly grin. “But . . .not accurate enough.”
“Lo siento,” whispered Johnny tiredly. “I’m sorry.”
“Cuidad Madrid . . .watch out.” Yorga’s voice died away to a harsh rasp. “Frayne . . .”
“Lo se. I know.” Johnny nodded brusquely, watching as a froth of pink blood bubbled over Yorga’s lips. “Gracias.”
Yorga’s eyes began to glaze, and the rasp turned to a strangled gurgle as his fingers clutched convulsively at the dirt for one last time – choking on a mouthful of his own blood before his back arched and he died at Johnny’s feet.
His head jerked up in amazement at the sound of his father’s voice, just in time to catch the fluttering curtain from the corner of his eye. He spun and fired, plunging for the cover he’d marked out earlier, a stack of barrels standing outside the Mercantile.
All hell seemed to break loose as he slammed into them, trying to ignore the wave of pain that threatened to rob him of his senses as the sky turned red and spun about him.
His carbine was where he’d propped it. Ready, loaded and primed. He grasped it and worked back the lever, turning to take out the man on the balcony, but watching with grateful astonishment as he came crashing through the panelling before he fired a shot.
Johnny’s head whipped round – spotting Jorge and Jelly in the doorway of the Undertakers with a fierce rush of elation in his heart. Two down. That left the man on the roof and more of Frayne’s men up by the Cantina. But he still had to get to Frayne himself. Moving round to the edge of the barrels, he looked across the expanse of open ground at the mouth of the alleyway, and took a deep breath – ducking backwards, as a bullet whined off the ground just in front of him.
Footsteps on the boardwalk behind him, and he whirled – the carbine on his hip, finger tightening on the trigger as he stared blurrily into Scott’s face.
“Mierda Scott . . .”he closed his eyes briefly, breaking out in a cold sweat. “I nearly blew your head off!”
“I ought to knock yours off,” grunted Scott, easing up beside him. “But I’m saving that for later.”
Johnny’s teeth flashed white in a quick grin. “I’ll settle for the later.”
They locked gazes for a moment – each aware there was a lot that needed saying sometime, but strong in the knowledge they were together now. Both men drawing comfort from it, despite the desperate odds.
“What now?” Scott looked up the street cautiously, taking advantage of the temporary lull, and trying to ignore the sense of surrealism he still felt from the laudanum.
“Frayne,” said Johnny grimly. “Cover me.”
“Wait . . .”
But Johnny was gone. Crouching low and gritting his teeth against the pain in his back as he went for it, and zigzagged across the alleyway. A rifle bullet spat up dust at his feet – the man on the roof. Johnny tucked in his head and kept running as a volley of fire rang out from behind him, and the bushwhacker gave a shrill scream of agony before crashing to the ground. Safe on the other side, Johnny looked over to the buck board and shook his head as a grinning Geordie gave him a thumbs-up sign.
“Crazy Old Man . . .”
To get to the Cantina he had to cross the Main Street, and all of a sudden it looked as wide as an ocean, as his protesting body began to drain alarmingly of energy. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes with a shaky hand and re-loaded the Colt from the gun belt he wore.
Not much longer – not much longer. The words rang in his head like a litany, and he repeated them over and over. Then one way or another, this would be finished. He could go home . . .
The alternative mocked at his subconscious, but he forced it aside wearily. If it happened, it happened. There was no cheating fate.
“Get the money from the till and wait for me out the back. Hurry!”
Gina looked at him with wide dilated pupils, as Frayne stared out over the top of the Cantina doors. “We’re leaving?”
“Do as I say – you wanted to leave didn’t you?” His tone was harsh, and she opened the till without a word, scooping the takings into her hand until the trays were empty. She paused, fingers hovering uncertainly over the one small object that remained. Then taking a breath, she glanced quickly over her shoulder before closing her fingers over it and thrusting it into the pocket of her skirt.
“Buenos dias Frayne – Gina.”
His voice made her jump out of her skin, and she turned slowly, her heart in her mouth. Johnny stood in the doorway, leaning against one of the jambs, eyes narrowed and an appraising look on his face. Frayne froze, and Johnny saw the muscles bunch and cord in the man’s back as he moved round and they were face to face.
“Well well – Mister Madrid. I have to say that you’ve surprised me. Perhaps I underestimated you after all.”
Johnny nodded thoughtfully. “I warned you about the wildcard Frayne – sorta has a habit of jumpin’ out the pack when you least expect it.”
Frayne smiled. “It’s a lesson I’ll regard in future.” He moved away from the front doors and walked across to the bar. “Bourbon?”
Johnny shook his head once. “Kinda fussy who I drink with.”
“Your loss.” Frayne sounded genuinely regretful. “It’s a particularly good brand. I have it sent especially from Kentucky.”
Gina shrank back against the rear of the bar, her eyes twitching involuntarily across to the staircase as Bull Myers detached himself from the shadows beneath it, a double-barrelled shotgun in his hands. Johnny caught her movement, but kept his eyes firmly on Frayne.
“Why don’t you come over here with me, Gina?”
His voice was surprisingly gentle, and looking at him more closely, she felt a sudden jolt of fear as she saw his hand was trembling slightly, knuckles white and tense with the effort of staying on his feet.
“Stay where you are,” said Frayne authoritatively. “Why don’t you just let us leave Madrid? You beat Yorga and saved your friend Marcus. This way we both get what we want, and Gina gets all the fripperies and fancies she deserves.”
Johnny’s eyes hardened. “It aint about Jimmy anymore. You took it up a notch when you sent your dog after me the other day.”
“Ah yes,” said Frayne ruminatively. “Myers. He, er . . .takes his responsibilities very seriously. Which is more than I can say for friend Yorga. Most disappointing.”
Johnny’s vision blurred for a second, and he fought off a flash of pure anger. “The man was good Frayne. He just met someone faster today – it happens to us all sometime.”
“Loyalty for your own kind Madrid? How touching.”
“Si,” said Johnny softly, fighting the sudden need his knees had to buckle. “My own kind. Gina . . .”
“She stays with me.” Frayne’s expression was cold and adamant now, and Johnny saw them flicker just a fraction of a second too late, as the girl screamed out his name.
“Johnny . . .!”
Frayne moved as the front doors burst open – drawing his own gun as Bull Myers rolled out across the floor pumping fire from the shotgun, and taking a big chunk out of the plaster work next to Johnny’s head. Gina’s warning came just in time for him to throw himself sideways. A wave of darkness pouring down over him – the world rushing suddenly away as he drowned in a sea of ebony.
The girl’s scream was shrill and terrified, and Scott’s mouth went dry as he crashed through the doors of the Cantina, taking them all by surprise. Frayne leapt across the room towards Johnny who lay spread-eagled and motionless just inside the back door. But Scott had no time to acknowledge the lancing grief that wrenched at him, as the bar owner whirled and fired.
Frayne’s bullet took him high under the right collarbone in a random, unlucky strike, and staggering backwards, Scott narrowed his eyes. Taking out the man on the floor before he had a chance to fire the shotgun again.
He crashed to the ground, gun falling from nerveless fingers as he slid helplessly down the wall. Gina Marcus screamed a second time, and Frayne grabbed hold of her arm, wrenching her out from behind the bar as a flutter of paper money scattered round them like confetti.
“Leave it. There’s more where that came from!”
Her eyes met Scott’s – round and staring as a frightened rabbit’s, as she followed Frayne towards the back door and stopped beside Johnny’s prone body. She was white, her chest heaving as though from a hard run as she rested a protective hand on the child inside her belly, and hesitated on the threshold looking down at him.
“Johnny . . .”
Scott struggled upwards, pressing against his wound as his heart caught and held on a tiny spark of hope. He strained to see, pale and grim-lipped as his brother’s fingers twitched just once on the floorboards, and Gina’s eyes lit up again with urgency.
“Let me go . . . let me go!”
Frayne watched her sharply for a brief second, his face creasing into lines of bitterness as she looked beyond him to the man on the floor.
“So I was right. You and Madrid.”
She began to laugh hysterically at him. “He was the one Al. The only real one . . .” Her voice caught on a wild sob. “But I let him go.” She stared back over at Scott, and he was suddenly afraid of the frenzied look in her eye.
He tried to struggle up again, to reach for his gun. But his arm was useless, and the fire in his shoulder rocked him backwards with a grunt of pain.
“You lied to me, ” Frayne spun Gina away from him with a curse – drawing back the hammer on his gun and pointing it at the base of Johnny’s skull.
“No . . .” Scott tried to get up again as the doors behind him opened, and Murdoch stood framed against the light.
“Scott? – Hold it!”
Frayne barely even glanced at him. “Or you’ll what, Mister – shoot? But not before I’ve put a bullet in Madrid’s head.” He turned involuntarily to Gina. “I would have given you everything. You and the child. I love you Gina.”
“Do you Al?” She swayed closer to him like a snake, violet eyes compelling him to stare at her as though mesmerised. “Do you really love me?”
“You know I do.” The gun shook a little as Frayne trembled, and Scott froze with fear, unable to wrench his gaze from the man’s trigger finger as it tightened slightly.
Her hand moved down to the pocket of her skirt – drawing out the derringer she’d taken from the till and concealing it in the folds of amber coloured fabric as she moved nearer, eyes glowing and widening as she approached him.
She was going to kill; she had steeled her mind to that – accepting it as the only way out, treading unseeingly over Johnny and tilting her face up to Frayne’s.
He relaxed suddenly, moving to take her into his arms. And when she saw his muscles soften and the gun tip away from Johnny, she stepped up against him and fired.
The report reverberated hideously – echoing like thunder in her ears. But her eyes never once dropped nor wavered as she gazed limpidly into his, and watched as they glazed and died.
Murdoch took a deep breath, and moved across to her side. “Mrs Marcus?”
She looked up dazedly. Her movements slow and deliberate like a child’s as she stared at him without seeing, and placed the gun in his hand. “Here. Can you please take this – and then I would like to go home.”
EPILOGUE – FOUR WEEKS LATER.
“Well – what’s the verdict Henry?”
Doctor Henry Moyse M.D closed his bag with a snap, and turned to Murdoch with a fairly satisfied nod. “A lot more like it this time. ” He smiled slightly. “It’s like a hospital out here. That little girl of yours has done a sterling job.”
Murdoch dipped his head in fond assent. “She surely has. But she, er . . .has a lot of help from her two assistants.”
Moyse made a wry face. “They getting on any better?”
“No,” said Murdoch with a frown. “They are not. It’s only because Teresa needs the both of them so badly, they haven’t come to blows. There seems to be some sort of competition between them for nurse of the year.”
Moyse laughed heartily. “She’s a canny lass is Miss Teresa. Watching her play them off against each other is a joy to behold.”
Murdoch’s face creased into a reluctant grin. “I suppose it is pretty funny. Now the boys are recovering, that is.”
Moyse nodded a bit more soberly. “Scott’s going to be just fine once that collarbone knits back together. He’s recovered from his wound surprisingly quickly considering he lost a fair amount of blood. I’m pleased with Jimmy’s leg too – he’s going to be a darn sight easier on us now he can get about with those crutches.”
Murdoch walked him out to the buggy. “And Johnny – is he well enough to know about the girl yet?”
Moyse took the reins and sighed gravely. “Miss Teresa told me he’s been asking. It’s up to you Murdoch. You’re his father. Tell him if you feel the time is right, he’s physically strong enough to take it now.” He smiled down at him. “By the way. I hear you managed to recommend a Sheriff for San Felipe – it’s a fine thing you’ve done for that town.”
“Bill Langer’s a good man. He’ll do a good job, make sure another Frayne doesn’t come along, set up his own little empire.”
He watched Moyse drive away with a small sigh. The doc had hit the nail on the head when he’d likened the Marcus place to a hospital, and Murdoch was the first to admit he was no nurse. He’d been forced to send Jorge and Ramon back to Lancer to escort Teresa down to San Felipe to give him a hand.
It had been the right decision of course, and she’d arrived like a mini tornado – whisking through the house and taking charge immediately. Earning the undying devotion of Geordie and the huge admiration of Henry Moyse when he saw she’d brought trunks of fresh bed-linen and medical supplies down with her. It had been a difficult few weeks, and Murdoch thought long and yearningly of home.
Scott met him at the top of the steps, and he scrutinised his eldest son carefully. Still a little pale, the lines of anxiety around his eyes only just beginning to even out again after his ordeal. Murdoch smiled bracingly.
“Henry seems pretty pleased with everything. That doesn’t mean you’re allowed to do anything other than sit and enjoy the view from the porch, though son.”
Scott nodded dryly. “You too. I’ve just endured this lecture from Teresa.”
“Well she’s right,” said Murdoch. “You should listen to her.”
Scott sighed. “And Johnny?”
Murdoch shook his head with foreboding. “I’m going to tell him now. Henry says he’s strong enough.”
“I hope so,” said Scott evenly, watching him enter the house.
“I’ll take it.”
“No need ter bother yerself. I’ll take it.”
“T’aint no good ye takin’ it – Johnny needs shavin’ an’ I may as well do thet too.”
“Humph . . . call thet shavin’? I knowed Johnny fer two years now, an’ he’s a might pertickuler ’bout how he looks . . .”
” ‘Xactly. Thet’s why I’m a gonna shave him!”
Murdoch frowned, and banged the door with unnecessary violence. “Gentlemen!”
Jelly and Geordie looked round in unison, both of them red-faced and bristling as they tussled over a tray of tea and a bowl of hot water. Murdoch eyed them both grimly.
“How about I take it?”
“But Murdoch . . .” Jelly puffed out his chest like a pouter pigeon. “I was plannin’ on . . .”
“I heard,” finished Murdoch peremptorily. “I’ll shave him too.” And so saying, he picked up the tray in one hand, the bowl in the other, and swept through to the back bedroom leaving the old men glaring at each other.
There was a quiet chuckle from the bed. “Cavalry to the rescue. Thanks Murdoch, thought I’d have to let them do one cheek each.”
Murdoch placed the tea carefully on the nightstand, and looked at Johnny hard. “They tiring you son?”
“No.” Johnny smiled in quick denial. “Teresa sees to that. She’s more than a match for them both.”
They passed the time in companiable silence whilst Murdoch shaved him. The simple act bringing a lump to his throat, as he watched Johnny close his eyes and submit himself into his hands with complete trust. Murdoch thought back over the events of the last four weeks with a good deal of thankfulness inside him.
For one sickening, heart-stopping moment, he’d thought he might have lost both his boys when he’d entered the Cantina that day.
Scott bleeding by one doorway – Johnny unconscious and pale as death by another. Thank God the buckshot had missed him. The girl’s warning cry had seen to that. But infection, blood-loss and debility had made him very ill indeed for a fortnight, and it was only during the last few days or so that Murdoch had truly begun to believe he would soon be able to go home to Lancer.
“Murdoch . . .” Johnny’s voice broke into his reverie.
“My jacket – over by the window. In the top left hand pocket.”
It was the promissory note of course, and Murdoch’s throat constricted suddenly as it fluttered in his hand. Five thousand dollars. Not a sum to be sneered at, and yet it meant nothing to him. In fact, he had forgotten all about it. What price a man’s life?
He nodded slowly, voice curiously hoarse. “I already got back everything I wanted, Johnny.”
He thought of Scott out on the porch, and looked into the still eyes of his younger son. It was true. Every word of it. Johnny cleared his own throat hurriedly.
“So – have you come to tell me about Gina?”
Murdoch frowned. “Son . . .”
“No. No more,” said Johnny, his voice rising. “You’ve all been pussyfootin’ around me for days now, but there’s no need. Por favor Murdoch.”
The door behind them swung open awkwardly, and Murdoch looked up uneasily as Jimmy Marcus came in on his crutches. The man looked tired and worn, his eyes strained and anxious as they sought out Johnny.
“It’s good to see you, John.”
Johnny nodded, the bitterness fading away now. “You too Jimmy. But it’s finished now – we’re even.”
Marcus shook his head slightly. “More than even, Johnny. What you did . . .”
“Is done.” Johnny cut in quickly, a shade of embarrassment in his tone. “And besides, I did it for me. For the man who was Johnny Madrid.”
Murdoch looked up sharply, his heart contracting with pride and pain as he regarded his youngest son. A man that even now he was only just beginning to know. He made to get up, but Marcus shook his head.
“No Mister Lancer. You might as well hear this too.” He closed the door, and eased himself across to the window. “I know Johnny. I’ve always known.”
“Jimmy . . .”
“No. Let me speak. I knew back in Resolve it was you she loved.” He paused, and looked away through the panes of glass. “I’m not proud of it. She was scared. Confused. She wanted things that I could give her then and you couldn’t. So I took her from you . . .” He laughed bitterly. “Ironic then, that Frayne should happen along.”
Johnny should have been surprised but he wasn’t. “You knew about Frayne – then why . . .?”
“Because I love her,” he replied harshly. “I love her anyway I can have her – despite it all! I know what she is, I always have. But I want her anyway. Guess that seems crazy to you?”
Johnny shifted painfully in the bed, his head aching suddenly with fatigue. “Then you always knew I’d be fightin’ Frayne.”
Marcus nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want you here Johnny, but when you came I thought you’d be the answer to a prayer. I used you.”
There was a long silence, then Johnny laughed caustically. “And fool that I was, I let myself be used. By you and Gina both.”
Marcus turned to face him. “I aint proud of it.”
“And Gina?” Johnny’s voice was low.
Marcus paused unhappily. “When she killed Frayne it turned her mind. She can barely remember her name. Doc Moyse is hopeful it might be due to the baby bein’ on the way an’ all – that she might be alright again once it’s born . . .”
“That’s enough,” said Murdoch tersely, watching as Johnny’s face whitened, and he closed his eyes against the pillow. “I think we’ve heard as much as we need to.”
Marcus hobbled to the door, hesitating as he grasped hold of the handle, and turned back to the man in the bed. “If it’s any consolation, she was right about you.”
The ache inside him was wide and raw, but forcing his eyes open, Johnny regarded the man who had once been his best friend through clouded vision.
“You were due for better things, Johnny – born under a different star.”
Johnny turned his face to the wall and stared at it unseeingly.
Geordie brought his lunch in later and found him in exactly the same position – body tense and full of pain. The Old Man regarded him regretfully, and instead of leaving him alone, decided to take the bull by the proverbial horns.
“Taint yer fault Johnny. I never knowed he knew either.”
Johnny eased up with a grunt of pain. “Didn’t you?”
“No,” he said indignantly. “Said I never.”
Johnny nodded wearily. “Sorry Geordie. Guess I’m a little leery right now.”
“You got cause.” Geordie swallowed hard, perching on the edge of the chair beside the bed. “I jist thank the Lord yer all right – and yer brother. I never shoulda dun what I dun.”
“It mighta ended up worse.”
“Mebbe,” the Old Man shook his head sorrowfully. “But I never shoulda dun it.”
They sat in silence for a couple of minutes, both lost in a tangled skein of thoughts. Then Johnny sighed and studied the Old Man’s troubled face. “There’s always a place for you at Lancer.”
Geordie looked up quickly, his eyes suspiciously moist. “Thankee Johnny. I know y’mean it . . .”
“But I caint leave Jimmy now. Not now. Mebbe if she, when she recovers . . . Oh Lord Fancy – y’undestand don’t ye?”
“Si,” said Johnny softly. “I understand. You’re a good man, Geordie.”
“An old fool more like,” he snorted with something like his old ferocity returning, but the look on his face belied it, as he held out a grizzled hand. “I told ye once thet trust’s a thing bin missin’ round here lately.” His grip increased and he held on tightly to Johnny as though reluctant to let him go. “I want ye ter know I’d trust ye with my life – Mister
Fancy-Pants Johnny Lancer.”
Johnny couldn’t speak for a moment, the constriction in his throat strangling his words. But words were unnecessary sometimes, and as he held onto the Old Man’s hand, he knew he’d made a friend for life. A small smile lit his face, as he looked up and nodded back.
“It cuts both ways, Old Man,” the smile widened. “And besides, Barranca likes you.”
A WEEK LATER
“Well, we’re leaving in the morning,” said Scott reflectively, coming out onto the porch and sitting down beside Johnny in the vacant armchair. “It’ll be good to get home again.”
“Si.” Johnny continued to stare absent-mindedly up towards the top of the valley, deep in reverie.
“It’ll be hard saying goodbye to Geordie. For some reason the man’s taken a real shine to you.”
“He’s been a friend to me,” said Johnny softly. “A real friend.”
Scott was silent for a moment. “Yes he has – misguided maybe, but definitely a friend.”
Johnny sighed. “There’s some things need sayin’ Scott . . .”
“Yes there are.”
“Like first-off, I’m sorry.”
“You should be,” said Scott flatly. “I understand your reasons Johnny, but don’t ever do anything like that to me again.”
The sun began to set behind the low sweep of hills, darkening their outline and streaking the sky with gold. Johnny took a breath and continued.
“Or you to me.”
Scott’s knuckles whitened for a second as he gripped the arms of his chair. “You are just about the most stubborn . . .” he paused, aware his brother was smiling slightly, a hint of sadness in his bright blue eyes. “Takes one to know one, I suppose.”
“Es verdad,” agreed Johnny, the smile warming. “It surely does.” He eased his back forward slightly and grimaced. “You were right though.”
“Everythin’ almost. About it not bein’ who I am anymore. Not who I have to be.”
“Lancer not Madrid.”
“Si,” said Johnny softly. “Lancer not Madrid.” He was silent as they watched the sun a while longer. Both men appreciative of the rose-coloured beauty, the wide expanse of sky.
“Johnny.” Scott’s voice was quietly contemplative. “You know, I understand him a little better now – that man called John Madrid. I once asked myself what he fought for. I see now it was his life. Everyday it was his life.”
There was a sudden tightness in Johnny’s throat, and he dipped his eyes in shame. “Not always Scott. He wasn’t always honourable. He fought on the wrong side sometimes – and he knew it . . .” He pushed the memories aside with something akin to grief. “But he never broke his word to any man. And he never betrayed his friends.”
His voice shattered then – mute with pain as his head fell forwards against his chest. And Scott could have wept for him, but he didn’t. Stretching out a tentative hand, he placed it comfortingly on the lowered head just as he had when Johnny was delirious. Rotating his fingers gently against the scalp with small, circular movements as he ached to ease his brother’s hurt.
“No,” he said deliberately. “Johnny Madrid was a man of his word. And so is Johnny Lancer. The best man I’ve ever known.” He smiled a little, as Johnny looked up slowly, eyes filled with abiding gratitude. “There’s just one thing brother . . .”
“Por que?” Johnny was still again.
“Just promise me Fancy-Pants, that you’ll never swear on oath to anyone ever again.”
Johnny grinned suddenly, and it lit his face from ear to ear. “I swear on oath. . .”
Lisa Paris 2003.
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