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CC

 

 

FShame

Warnings: Contains sex, profanity, and violence. In other words, all the good stuff. But it may not be appropriate for young readers.

 

Part 1

Chapter 1

Johnny rode in silence alongside the buggy carrying Scott and Teresa. Once again it appeared he had screwed up. This time it wasn’t his fault, though. They had practically demanded he attend the dance and bring a date—and that’s exactly what he had done. Now they were all mad at him.  Even Johnny’s date was mad at him. 

Johnny would have thought Scott was just being jealous, except he knew Scott wasn’t the type. Truth is, though, that Johnny’s date was a lot prettier than Scott’s, was a lot better dancer, and a lot better dresser. All eyes had turned to admire Rosalita when she walked into the dance. When she and Johnny had stepped onto the dance floor, he could hear the others murmuring in appreciation as Rosalita danced like none of the other girls.

It was after that one dance that Scott had called Johnny aside. Johnny, awaiting Scott’s congratulations on his date, had been stunned when Scott instead had hissed, “Johnny, what the hell are you doing?”

Johnny, perplexed, had simply answered, “Um, dancin, Scott…what does it look like?”

“It looks like you’ve brought a dance hall girl, that’s what it looks like!”

“Well, yeah, Scott, I figured she could dance!” Scott could be so dense sometimes.

Yet this had apparently not been the answer Scott was looking for. “No. You don’t bring a dance hall girl, or any girl like that, to a town dance. You want to have a good time with them in the saloon, that’s one thing. But you don’t bring them to the dance around ladies.”

Johnny’s eyes had narrowed. “Why? They not good enough?”

“Johnny, please. I’m telling you, Murdoch’s going to have a fit when he hears about this. He’s sure not going to be happy you brought someone like that around Teresa, for one thing.” Scott sighed and continued, “I tell you what, Johnny, why don’t you go take her to dinner?”

“She wants to dance,” Johnny had replied coldly, and spun on his heel to rejoin Rosalita.

But Johnny had not been able to find Rosalita. After searching inside and outside the dance, he had finally gone back to her room and knocked. She was there, and had told him to go away in no uncertain terms, had told him she had never been so humiliated in her life. She’d cursed him for taking her to a place where the people had mocked her and made her feel so unwelcome. Johnny had pleaded for her to let him in, but finally he had given up and gone down to the saloon to drink. By the time he had headed back home, he had come across Scott and Teresa also headed home in the buggy. Neither had said a word to him, and now he wished he had thought to avoid them before he had caught up.

Johnny gazed up at the stars on the clear night. Life had seemed a lot simpler when he had spent most of his nights staring at those same stars alone. Now he had a family to share them with, but in many ways the four months since he had come to live at Lancer had been some of the toughest of his life. Certainly the most confusing.

***

Nothing was said about the incident in the days that followed, and Johnny had begun to think that Scott was wrong in his prediction about Murdoch’s reaction. It was only when Murdoch returned from town just before lunch a few days later, red-faced and bellowing for Johnny to join him in his office, that Johnny realized Murdoch just hadn’t heard about it until then.

Johnny and Scott had been working close to the hacienda that morning, so both had come home for the noon meal. They were finishing up when they heard Murdoch stomping through the front door.

“Johnny! In here! Now, please!”

Scott and Johnny looked at one another. Johnny’s look of dismay prompted his brother to take sympathy on him. “Come on, I’ll go with you,” Scott said as he guided his younger brother by the shoulder.

Murdoch was already pacing back and forth, sending slight shudders through the floor boards. When the boys entered he stopped, placing both hands on his desk and leaning toward Johnny.  “I have to hear from Mrs. Backus that you brought a saloon girl to the dance?”

"You said to bring a date,” answered Johnny defensively.

“Yes, a date! Not one you have to pay!”

“I didn’t pay her.”

“Whether you paid her or not is beside the point. The fact is, a saloon girl is no lady.”

Johnny just scuffed one boot back and forth, a shock of his dark hair falling over his eyes as he lowered his head to follow its motion.

Murdoch glared, then suddenly pounded his fist on the desk. “What were you thinking, boy? How could you expose Teresa to such a person? How could you embarrass Lancer that way? And Scott, where were you?”

“Murdoch, Johnny made a mistake—he just didn’t understand.”

“Oh, I understand alright! I may not have a high falutin education and all but I understand just fine!” Johnny had stopped his scuffing and was glaring back at Murdoch now. “Me and my friends just ain’t acceptable out in public. Hell, maybe I better leave now before you get some company might see us together. Wouldn’t want to drag down Lancer’s reputation.” With that he turned and stomped to the front door.

“Johnny! We’re not through! Get back in here!”

But Johnny had already slammed the door so hard the hacienda shook.

 

Chapter 2

Scott strode toward the barn, where he knew he would find Johnny with his beloved palomino. Scott sometimes felt a twinge of jealousy that Johnny seemed to feel closer to a horse than he did to his own brother. But then he realized Johnny had probably had more opportunities to be betrayed by men than by horses in his lifetime. Scott was actually grateful that Johnny had someone, even a horse, he felt he could trust.

“Johnny…”

“Better leave before you get caught talkin’ to somebody you’d be ashamed of bein’ seen with,” snapped Johnny as he heaved to pull Barranca’s cinch tight.

Scott dipped his head briefly, his blonde hair catching a shaft of light. “Johnny, I’m never ashamed to be with you. I’m proud of you—even if you do wear an abnormal amount of pink!” Scott grinned, hoping his attempt at levity at the expense of Johnny’s favorite shirt, which he was once again wearing, might lighten the mood.

“It ain’t pink,” protested Johnny at the familiar accusation.

“Sure, sure. A rose is a rose is a rose.”

“It ain’t rose either!” Johnny looked at Scott curiously, wondering at his apparent spell of delirium. “You runnin a fever?”

Scott realized he was in danger of being led down the Johnny trap of changing subjects, and he was determined to return to the matter at hand. “Johnny, I know it’s not right to judge people by what they do—or wear,” he added, grinning again. “But it’s a fact of life. There are so many pretty girls, respectable pretty girls, in town, why didn’t you ask one of them?”

Johnny lowered his eyes and turned his attention to running his fingers through Barranca’s already combed mane. Scott thought he wasn’t going to answer, but he finally began to speak so softly Scott had to strain to hear him. “Which one, Scott? Did you happen to look around that dance? Did you see a whole lot of white girls dancing with Mexicans? Or a lot of Mexican girls dancing with gringos? Cuz I sure didn’t.” Johnny’s voice rose as he turned to look Scott square in the eye. “So which one you think I ought to ask out, Scott? A white girl? I ain’t white enough. A Mexican girl? I ain’t Mex enough. Maybe I can find a half-breed—but then, you wouldn’t want to be seen with her either!”

“Johnny! That’s not true!”

 “It is from where I see it.” Johnny led Barranca from his stall, calling over his shoulder as he led the horse toward the barn door, “We’re late for work, brother. Don’t want to give the old man an excuse to yell about somethin else.”

***

Both Scott and Johnny were busy with separate projects that afternoon. Scott took two men and rounded up some strays that had wandered across a downed fence, while Johnny worked to clear a creek bed of debris that threatened to block it once the rains began again. Scott was pleased that the strays had stayed together, enabling him to finish early. He took the opportunity to find his brother at the creek.

“Need a hand?”

Johnny stood in the creek bed plastered with mud. He cocked his head at Scott’s annoyingly clean appearance. “I dunno, Scott. Wouldn’t wanta mess up your nice clean shirt…”

Scott was relieved to notice Johnny’s grin. He had apparently gotten past his earlier bad mood. Which made it all that more difficult for Scott to bring the subject back up. Scott swung off his horse and strode into the mud of the creek bed, slipping but lurching to catch himself before falling. “I’m not scared of a little mud, brother. I look good no matter what!”

“Yeah, you photograph well,” replied Johnny with a teasing twinkle to his eye. For some reason that comment Scott had made on that first day still struck Johnny as one of the funniest things he’d ever heard a man say. “Specially in plaid…”

“Alright, alright.”

The brothers fell silent as they wrestled with a stump mired in the mud. The stump finally broke free with a giant sucking sound and rolled to its side, both men flailing to stay upright as their boots lost their hold in the slippery creek bed. Then they strained together to lever the stump out of the bed.

“Hey Johnny?”

“Yeah?”

“About earlier. What you said in the barn.”

“Bout my shirt? It ain’t pink. Actually, kinda brown now.”

“You know what I mean. About what you said about finding a girl for the dance.”

“Scott,” Johnny sighed with exasperation, “give it up.”

“I won’t give it up,” Scott replied calmly. He pressed on. “Johnny, I guess I never thought too much about how your heritage might affect your courting.  But, I really think you’re looking at it all wrong, little brother. You’re lucky. You’re both white and Mexican—you have your choice of twice as many women!”

Johnny had stopped pushing the stump, and leaned forward on it with both hands, his head bent as though he were examining the bark. “Yeah, well, that ain’t the way I see it. I don’t think I’m somebody they want to bring home to papa.”

“Oh come on! How do you know, Johnny? Who have you tried asking out?”

Johnny just continued to study the stump, the fingers of one hand now tapping a silent tune on it.

“Johnny, have you even asked anybody to step out with you since you’ve been here?”

“Well sure, Scott,” Johnny replied, giving the stump a sudden heave. “I asked Rosalita, but that didn’t seem good enough for the rest of you.”

“You know what I mean, Johnny. Have you asked any proper young ladies to be your date?”

“Well, I guess none that you’d approve of!” Johnny flashed Scott his best wicked smile.

Scott failed to take the bait. “Then how can you just assume they’d all turn you down if you haven’t even tried?”

Johnny seemed to be devoting all of his attention to the stump once again. It was obvious he was not going to answer. Then it struck Scott: Did Johnny even know how to ask a lady out? When would he have had that chance as a gunslinger?

“Johnny, do you know how to ask a lady out?”

Johnny let go of the stump and looked incredulously at Scott. “Well sure, Scott, I ain’t a little kid.”

Scott pressed on. “How?”

“Well, uh, you just go up to her, and ask her out!” Johnny finished with a mischievous grin.

“How? What do you say?”

“Dang, Scott, you’re like a dog with a bone when you get some notion.” Johnny was once again heaving at the stump. “Just leave it, will ya’?”

“Come on Johnny, how do you ask a lady out?”

“Well, I usually just ask ‘em to come sit on my lap a spell before we go up to her room, but I have a feelin that ain’t the answer you’re lookin for.” Johnny’s smile got even larger as he awaited Scott’s reaction.

“Uh, no Johnny, it isn’t,” Scott replied more seriously than he knew Johnny wanted. Although Scott suspected if Johnny used that same smile some of the “ladies” would gladly sit in his lap—and more—but he wasn’t about to tell Johnny that. “It’s no crime not to know, Johnny,” he added quietly.

Johnny had stopped rocking the stump and was studying its bark once again.

Scott knew Johnny would never ask for advice on this subject, so he started in before Johnny could stop him. “Well, little brother, this looks like a big brother job to me. And fortunately for you, your big brother just happens to be one of Boston’s most experienced and charming lady’s men.” At least Johnny looked up at this, even if it were only to roll his eyes. “So listen and learn….You don’t start right in asking her. You charm her. You can comment on the surroundings at first, or on the weather, or if it’s night time, on the stars. Bring up some anecdote to amuse her.”

“An antidote? How’s bringin’ her up some medicine going to amuse her?”

“No, Johnny, you tell her a little story, like something funny that happened to you, preferably something that’s related to what you’re talking about.”

“About medicine?”

Scott stared at Johnny. Was he doing this on purpose? “Just forget the medicine, Johnny. Let’s move on. If she seems like she’s being receptive, you give her a compliment. But nothing too personal. Usually something she’s wearing, like her hat, is safe. Tell her how pretty it is.”

Johnny was back to his big smile. “I’m real good at giving girls compliments.”

“Yeah, Johnny, I’ve heard the kind of compliments you give. Those will get your face slapped. Stick to hats and dresses.”

“That seems kind of stupid.”

“Do you want to learn this or not?” Scott glared at his impertinent pupil. “OK, this next part is very important. You want to make her feel like a real lady, so to do that you have to ask her very formally, and like she’s doing you the biggest favor in the world. So you say ‘Would you be so kind as to honor me with your presence at the dance next Saturday?’ or wherever you plan to take her. Which is not her bedroom,” he added quickly. “Or yours.”

“Hayloft?”

“No. OK, any real questions?”

“Do I got to use those fancy words?”

“No, Johnny, just be yourself.” Scott realized what he had said. “Well, within limits.” Scott considered the implications a little more. “Actually, use those exact words when you ask her. Memorize them.”

Johnny was walking back in the creek bed to tackle the next challenge from the debris pile. “Ya gonna yap all day or ya gonna do some work?”

Scott continued to stand there, lost in thought. It had occurred to him to wonder just what else Johnny didn’t know about going on a real date. “Now, do you know what to do once you’re on the date?”

Johnny turned from the debris pile to study Scott with a smirk. “Uh, big brother, now you’re talking to the expert. But I ain’t giving you no lessons on that!”

Now it was Scott’s turn to roll his eyes. “I have a feeling we’re talking about two different kinds of dates. Dates with nice girls don’t involve drinking tequila or whiskey, or being in barrooms or bedrooms. Well, sometimes bedrooms…but discreetly! You do respectable things, like go on a picnic.”

“No drinkin? No beddin? Eatin outside? What fun is that? I think I like my kind of dates better!”

Scott sighed. “You have a lot to learn, little brother.” Although truth be known, Scott was thinking Johnny’s dates did sound like they just might be more fun.

 

Chapter 3

Memorizing Scott’s instruction list for dating young ladies didn’t help Johnny figure out which lady he should ask. There were lots of pretty young ladies in town. He was sure he had even seen some sneak glances at him when they thought he wasn’t looking. Johnny was used to people staring at him, but he knew it was seldom in a good way. He just couldn’t shake the idea that these real ladies wouldn’t want to step out with a half-breed, much less an ex-gunhawk. Johnny would have felt more at ease calling out a half-dozen gunslingers than he did at the idea of calling on one very proper young lady. If it weren’t for his family’s demands to be seen with a socially acceptable lady, Johnny would have ditched the whole idea. Instead, he did the next best thing. He stalled.

Stalling was easy. There was always more work to be done than time to do it in, and for the next few weeks Johnny threw himself into his work from dawn to dusk. He made sure to avoid trips to town in the daytime, visiting only at night when he could truly enjoy the company of the ladies in the saloon. Rosalita was no longer among them, though. She had remained angry after the dance, blaming Johnny for not telling her beforehand where they were going, and for her embarrassment once they got there. Johnny had tried several times to apologize, but she had avoided him, and then a week later Johnny found out she had left for a job in another town.

A few weeks later the hacienda began to churn with activity as Maria and Teresa readied for some guests of Murdoch’s. Mr. Byron Jackson was originally from Philadelphia, but he had come west about a year ago with a dream of creating a new cattle breed based on crosses between western and European stock. He knew of Murdoch’s work with hybrid cattle, and was anxious to incorporate some of Murdoch’s stock with his. He explained that all his capital was invested in his small ranch and herd at present, but he hoped he could reach a deal with Lancer that involved sharing bloodlines in the future.

Murdoch was intrigued; developing a superior strain of cattle was his dream as well. He sympathized with the young man, who reminded him of himself at a younger age, so full of enthusiasm and ideas, but limited by funds. He was determined to work with him, and to that end he had responded to Byron’s letter of inquiry with an invitation to visit Lancer and talk cattle. Byron accepted immediately, and mentioned that, if it was alright, he would be arriving with his sister.

Knowing company was coming, Johnny had welcomed the chance to go out of town for a few days. Murdoch had wanted Scott to stay home so he could discuss breeding and finances with Mr. Jackson, so Johnny had an easy time convincing Murdoch to let him deliver a bull they had promised to a ranch a few towns away. Johnny figured if he timed it right the company would have come and gone by the time he got back. Unfortunately, the bull was cooperative, the trip went smoothly, and Johnny actually found himself well ahead of schedule. He thought about just lingering out on the trail, but he missed Maria’s cooking so he took a chance and came on home.

Johnny tended to Barranca before heading for the hacienda. Knocking the trail dust off his clothes as he entered, he was chagrined to find Murdoch in the Great Room with a young man and woman.

“Johnny!” exclaimed Murdoch. “You’re home early. Is there a problem?”

“No, no problem”.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure, Murdoch. I got your money right here.”

“Well, excellent!” Then turning to his guests, “Clarissa, Byron, I’d like you to meet my younger son, Johnny. Johnny, this is Byron Jackson and his sister, Clarissa.”

Johnny was suddenly self conscious, aware of his unkempt appearance as much as he was aware of the young woman’s beauty. “Pleased ta meet you Mr. Jackson, ma’am,” he said, flashing a bright smile at the woman. He scuffed his feet and ran his hand through his hair. “Uh, I reckon I’d better get cleaned up.”

Johnny managed to get a bath and a change of clothes in time for dinner. Maria had presented them with a sumptuous assortment of steak, mashed potatoes, bread, green beans sprinkled with cheese, and apricots in some sort of candied sauce. Johnny was determined not to slight any of it (except for the hated green beans, although he did eat some of the cheese off the top, pushing the beans around in his best effort to make them look partially eaten). He was raking in his third helping of potatoes when he noticed Scott’s disapproving look, and guessed he was once again eating too fast.  Scott had explained to him once—actually several times—that proper folk ate slowly. Johnny guessed that was just to show off they had so much food they weren’t worried about somebody else stealing it. It made no sense to him—in Johnny’s experience the safest place to store food was in your stomach—but he made a conscious effort to slow down.

He noticed their guests were eating slowly. They must be proper folk. Johnny didn’t need to watch them eat to know that. Both Byron and Clarissa took turns talking about Scott things, like dead writers. Scott seemed pleased. Johnny didn’t know any dead writers, so he mainly just watched. His eyes were drawn to Clarissa, to the ladylike way she ate and spoke, but most of all to her beauty. She had the palest of skin, the blondest of hair, and the greenest of eyes. As pretty as any saloon girl, Johnny mused.

 

Johnny noted that Clarissa didn’t look much like her dark-haired brother. Then again, nobody would ever guess the fair skinned and blonde Scott and the dark skinned and dark haired Johnny were brothers.

Even Teresa seemed to be quite taken with both Byron and Clarissa. Clarissa had divided her time between discussing writers with Scott and chatting about fashions with Teresa. Teresa seemed thrilled to have somebody visit who could report on Philadelphia fashions, even if the styles were a year old.

Not only had Maria outdone herself on the meal, but Teresa had baked a peach pie for dessert. Johnny was shoveling the pie into his mouth, thinking how pleased he was that he had returned home early, when he heard the words, spoken in Teresa’s disarmingly innocent voice, that made his blood run cold:

“Johnny, did you know there’s going to be a dance this Saturday?”

With some relief Johnny realized Saturday was tomorrow. Even Murdoch couldn’t expect him to find a lady to escort in that amount of time. So he played along, swallowing his food carefully before he spoke. “Nope, I didn’t know.”

“Yes, I’m going with Billy, and Scott’s taking Olivia!”

“Well, that’s real nice, Teresa.” Johnny wished she would change the subject. He felt his father’s eyes on him. He had suddenly lost his appetite. He wished he had stayed away longer.

 

Chapter 4

After dinner Clarissa joined Teresa to continue their fashion talk, while Byron took the opportunity to soak in a warm bath before bed. Scott was helping himself to a glass of bourbon, and Johnny was on his way outside to check on Barranca. He had almost made it when Murdoch called out from his desk: “John, could you come in here for a moment? And Scott, could you excuse us?”

Johnny looked forlornly at the door through which he had almost reached freedom. He turned with dragging feet toward his father as Scott gave him a sympathetic pat on the back as they passed. They both knew that Murdoch’s summons to meet with Johnny privately were never good news, and more often than not ended in shouting matches. Scott was actually surprised Murdoch would risk it when they had company.

Johnny couldn’t think of anything he had done wrong lately, but he figured the best defense was a good offense. “Yeah, old man?” Johnny started the meeting defiantly.

Murdoch was determined to make this a calm, and more importantly, quiet, discussion. “Johnny, are you planning to go to the dance?”

“Not if I can help it!”

“Well, help it. As a member of this ranch you need to make an appearance at social events.”

“I already did that, remember?”

“Yes, I do. That’s why I called you in here. I think we need to talk about your choice in dates.”

“Who I date is my own business.” Johnny’s voice took on a menacing tone. “I don’t need you pickin out my women for me.”

“Well Johnny, apparently you do if you think saloon girls and prostitutes are appropriate!” Murdoch’s irritation was pushing through.

Johnny glared at him. “You didn’t seem to have a problem with that when you bedded my mama!”

“How dare you!” Murdoch exploded as he jumped up from his chair, looming over his younger son. “What the hell is your problem?”

Scott had realized the potential for an explosive and embarrassing situation, so he had wisely remained just around the corner. This seemed like the time to intervene. “Whoa! What’s going on?”

Johnny stood drumming his fingers on Murdoch’s desk, staring at the desk top.

“I’m trying to explain to your brother why you don’t take prostitutes to social events!”

Johnny spoke without looking up. “I don’t see what gives you the right to say just because somebody got a certain job they ain’t entitled to enjoy themselves.”

“Because when those people CHOSE that job they gave up that privilege!”

“Really, old man?” Now Johnny was once again glaring at his father. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe people take jobs because they don’t got another choice? Maybe they do things cuz they gotta eat, or they gotta feed somebody else? Maybe cuz I...cuz they gotta get away from somethin even worse?”

“There are ALWAYS choices. Some are just easier than others.”

Johnny looked at his father incredulously. “Yeah, I guess I just grew up lookin for the easy way out. Sorry my choices embarrass you.”

“What? Johnny! I’m not talking about you!” Murdoch thundered, but Johnny was already stomping from the room, and slamming the front door behind himself.  Murdoch was left shaking his head as he poured himself a drink. “I don’t know why that boy has to take everything as a personal challenge to him.”

Scott just stared at his father. Could he really be that oblivious?

***

Once again, Scott knew where to find Johnny. Barranca must be the best groomed horse in the valley. Especially since any time Johnny was upset it brought on a vigorous grooming session. Sure enough, Johnny was currying the palomino’s glossy coat.

“Johnny, you’ve got to know sometimes Murdoch says stuff without thinking.”

“Yeah, Scott.”

“Well, I’m sure he really wasn’t trying to say anything about you, or about your mother.”

Johnny didn’t comment, but exchanged brushes and turned to the horse’s legs.

Scott decided to go off on a different tangent. “So, did you ever ask any of the girls in town out like we talked about?”

“No, Scott, just been kinda busy.”

“Uh huh. Have anyone in mind you might want to ask to the dance?”

“Nope.” Johnny played his ace in the hole. “Besides, ain’t it kind of late now? I mean for a proper lady and all.”

“Well, under most circumstances. But I know somebody you could ask. Clarissa.”

“Oh come on, Scott, I hardly know her!”

“But Johnny, I bet she would love to go to the dance. She doesn’t know anybody. Teresa and I already have dates. She’s probably hoping you’ll ask her.”

“Oh I see—cuz she don’t know nobody else. And she’s desperate!”

“Exactly!” Scott grinned. “What with the handsome, debonair brother already spoken for, you just might stand a chance!”

 

Chapter 5

“Now—ask her!”

Johnny hesitated. Before he could stall, Scott put his hands behind Johnny’s shoulders and gave him a firm shove toward the French doors leading to the garden. The garden where Clarissa was sitting alone.

Johnny’s feet were leaden. Something about the moment made him recall his first gunfight, the first time he had been called out. The only difference was then his teacher hadn’t had to actually push him. And he had felt a lot more confident. And of course, Clarissa was a lot prettier than the gunfighter who had awaited him then. He mused at the idea of Johnny Madrid scared of asking out a woman, reminding himself that he had never had problems with women before. He had always been the cock of the walk with the girls he was used to. It’s just that all that advice from Scott had made him uneasy about asking out a real lady. The advice Scott had given him was not how Johnny would ever ask out a woman.

Johnny called them “Scott’s Rules of Dating.” He had stored them away with “Scott’s Rules of Eating” and all the other bizarre lists of rules Scott always seemed to be coming up with. Johnny was pretty sure Scott had “Rules of Bedmaking” and probably “Rules of Lovemaking.” He sure hoped he didn’t have to hear about those.

Still, he’d memorized Scott’s Rules of Dating. Johnny steeled himself and walked through the doors, envisioning himself pushing through a saloon’s batwing doors on the way to a street fight as he had done so many times in his past.

“Why, hello, Johnny.”

“Howdy, ma’am.”

He stood there. All of Scott’s Rules seemed suddenly elusive. Johnny had seen too many gunfighters reach the street only to lose their focus. It was invariably a fatal mistake. Johnny fought to regain his cool. Where was Madrid when he needed him?

Scott, listening from behind the French doors, silently urged his brother to say something…anything. Well—not anything. This was Johnny we were talking about.

Clarissa broke the silence. “This is such a cozy little garden, really quite beautiful.”

“Yeah! And we hardly ever find any snakes in here!” responded Johnny, thankful for the opener.

Scott winced. ‘Good one, brother, that’ll set the mood,’ he thought.

“Oh my!” Clarissa held her hand to her chest. “Well, yes, that is a good thing to know.”

“Yeah, well you don’t have to worry, cause I shot the last rattler that was in here right where you’re sitting!”

‘Why did I ever tell him to be himself?’ moaned Scott inwardly.

“Oh, yes, well that is indeed a comfort.”

Johnny fell silent again. ‘What was next on Scott’s list? Dios, if this was a gunfight I’d be as good as dead already...oh yeah, talk about the surroundings, the weather, the stars, a story about medicine—still can’t figure that out—a compliment, and then the question.’ At least he’d rehearsed the question part. Johnny had covered surroundings by talking about the garden. Now for the rest of the list.

“You wouldn’t think it’d be so sweaty out here so late, would ya?” There, he got weather done.

‘Please tell me you didn’t say ‘sweaty,’ little brother…’ Scott felt a headache coming on.

“Well, that’s true, it is surprisingly warm for this time of day.”

Johnny was getting tired of Scott’s stupid list. But he was almost done. All that was left were stars, medicine, compliment, and then—time to draw! He decided to get it over with. “There’s the North star. I took some medicine once that made me get sick in this garden. That sure is a pretty dress. Would you be so kind as to honor me with your presence at the dance tomorrow evening?”

Scott slowly shook his head in disbelief. Medicine?

Clarissa hesitated. “Why, Johnny, I…”

Johnny knew the trigger had been pulled and the bullet was hurtling toward his heart. Time to duck. “They always have enough food there to choke ya!”

Scott closed his eyes and rehearsed his words of consolation.

“I’d love to go…”

“You would, ma’am?”

Scott opened his eyes and cocked an eyebrow. ‘It’s a good thing you look good, brother…’

“Of course! It sounds like a delightful time! And Johnny—it’s Clarissa.”

“Um…thank you, ma…Clarissa. Well, I guess I better be seeing to my horse.”

Johnny returned inside, grinning. This was different from his first gunfight. That time, he had to puke after he won.

Scott gave him a good slap on the back. “Good job!” Then to himself: ‘We’re going to need some more lessons.’

Johnny went out to check on Barranca one last time. He had to admit, that Scott sure was smart when it came to ladies. If Johnny had been on his own, he’d have probably messed it up but good. He would have said something about how she was the most beautiful flower in the garden, how her smile was as warm as the sun’s rays on a summer morning, and how the twinkle of her eyes put the stars to shame. He would have left out the part with the medicine altogether. It was a good thing he had Scott to advise him.

 

Chapter 6

Scott stopped by Murdoch’s room on his way to bed to update him on the development with Johnny and Clarissa. He knocked on the door, and Murdoch bid him to enter.

“Johnny’s got a date for the dance! With a nice girl!” Scott announced triumphantly.

“Oh? How could he get a date since dinner?”

“With Clarissa!” Scott couldn’t help but pat himself on the back for his matchmaking ability.

“Clarissa! Johnny and Clarissa?” Murdoch furrowed his brow. “What if he does something wrong? I have an important deal I’m working on here, and I don’t need the chance of Johnny messing it up!”

Scott was speechless. Finally he said in a measured tone, “You said you wanted him to take a lady to the dance. He is. I thought that’s what you wanted.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” Murdoch had regained his composure. “I just wish he didn’t have to experiment on a lady Lancer is doing business with!”

“Oh come on, sir. Johnny will be just fine. He’ll be with me and Teresa. What can go wrong?”

Murdoch just looked at him. Scott suddenly thought of lots of things that could go wrong.  Johnny. At a dance. With a lady. What had he done?

***

Despite Murdoch’s, and even Scott’s, misgivings, the dance went without a hitch. Johnny and Clarissa seemed to enjoy each other’s company, and Johnny was the perfect picture of a gentleman. If Scott didn’t know better, he could have sworn Johnny was having a good time. He seemed to genuinely like Clarissa, and Clarissa did nothing to dissuade his attentions.  After saying goodnight to Billy and taking Olivia home, Scott, Johnny, Teresa, and Clarissa enjoyed looking at the stars on the ride back to Lancer. Scott breathed a sigh of relief as he pulled the buggy to the front of the hacienda. Murdoch had been so wrong.

“I’ll get the horses taken care of!” Johnny called out as soon as they had stepped from the buggy.

Scott looked at him in disbelief. Was his brother so dense he thought this was the way to end an evening with a lady? “I’ll get them, Johnny!”

“Well, I want to check on Barranca while I’m at it!”

Before Scott could answer Clarissa spoke up. “Oh, I’d love to meet Barranca, Johnny! I’ve heard so much about him. May I?”

“Sure, Clarissa. I’ll introduce you,” said Johnny with a grin, holding out his arm for Clarissa as they both headed toward the barn.

Scott stared after them. Apparently his little brother wasn’t nearly as dense as he had thought.

***

Johnny had the horses put away in no time, and then he turned his attention to Clarissa. He had advised her to stay away from Barranca until proper introductions had been made. Now he handed her some sugar, taking her hand in his and guiding it to the palomino’s lips. Barranca’s lips fluttered over her hand as he ate the treat.

“That tickles,” she giggled, and leaned back into Johnny.

Johnny was a little surprised, but he liked it. He handed her more sugar, and pressed into her a little closer this time as she reached toward Barranca. He could smell the sweet scent of her hair, see the lush pout of her lips. He wanted to brush her lips with his, and as she turned toward him, he took the chance. She responded, turning toward him and allowing his lips to linger on hers. Johnny pushed an errant lock of hair from her face, and bent in to kiss her more firmly. They continued, their embrace becoming more passionate, their kissing more intimate. Johnny realized he was becoming aroused.  He glanced toward the hayloft, recalling with disappointment its placement on Scott’s off-limits list for ladies. Still, he had never expected a lady to be like this. She was as passionate and skilled as any saloon girl he had been with. Johnny caught himself—he bet that was one of those compliments that could get you slapped.

They clutched each other more tightly, his bronzed hands wandering down her sides, her porcelain hands reaching between their bodies to his chest. Johnny’s hands reached down to her rear, pulling her toward himself firmly. He was pretty sure she pressed back; at very least, she did not resist. Johnny looked at the hayloft again. Screw Scott’s Rules. “Mi amor…” he whispered…

“Clarissa! Are you in here!”

Johnny and Clarissa pushed away from one another just as Byron rounded the corner. Byron stopped, looking at the flustered pair questioningly. “Clarissa, there you are! I was wondering how the dance went?”

“Oh, it was wonderful, Byron. Johnny here was a perfect escort.”

“I’m delighted to hear that. Johnny, I’ve been meaning to talk with you. I understand you have some ideas about horse breeding. That’s also something I’ve been thinking about. I have access to some South American breeds I’d love to get your opinion on.”

“Sure, I’d love to hear about them.” ‘But Dios, not now!’ Johnny added silently.

“Excellent! Let’s all go back to the house. I’m sure you’re anxious to retire after your evening, Clarissa. Johnny and I can stay up and talk horses.”

It wasn’t Johnny’s first choice of how to finish the evening. Or even his second. But he supposed it was the safest one. He bid goodnight to Clarissa, trying to push the thought of what he’d rather be doing with her out of his mind—and body.

Scott and Murdoch had already retired, so Johnny and Byron had the great room to themselves. Johnny poured both of them a drink.

They continued to talk and drink. Johnny was feeling a little tipsy, since he had had several cups of what was rumored to be spiked punch at the dance. Byron pulled out a flask of something he said was a very special liquor, pouring them each a glass. Johnny tried it, and thought it tasted like medicine. Then again, Johnny’s taste in alcohol ran to tequila, and he had to admit most everybody else thought that tasted like medicine—or poison. Johnny remembered to be polite and pretend he liked it though. He did too good a job and Byron poured him a second glass.

That was the last thing Johnny remembered. At least, the last good thing.

 

Part 2

Chapter 7

He heard it as from a distance: a scream. Then more screaming---but not from a distance. Close. Right next to his ear. Sobbing. He tried to reach out, to stop it, but he couldn’t seem to move. His head was killing him. ‘Madre de Dios, shut up! Go away!’

But it didn’t go away, only came in more clearly. A woman’s voice: “Help! Help! Oh my God, help me!”

Johnny vaguely wondered who needed help, but his lids seemed stuck together, and he just wanted to go back to sleep. He heard a knock on a door, then heavy footsteps pounding toward him. ‘Good. Maybe they’ve come to shut her up.’

The next thing he knew he was being grabbed and pulled to his feet, rough hands grasping him by the shoulders and shaking him back and forth until he was sure his head would pop off and go flying across the room. His eyes sprang open to stare right into the infuriated eyes of Murdoch. “Que?”

“What the hell did you do?” He saw Murdoch’s contorted face form the words as though from underwater.

He heard the screamer, speaking more quietly now but intermingled with sobs. “He…he forced himself on me…he...he…oh my god, I tried to make him stop…I scratched him but he kept coming…He held his gun to me—told me I had to do what he wanted… oh god!”

He saw Byron, Scott, and Teresa at the door, standing as though stunned. Saw Byron stride in and take Clarissa in his arms, turning her away from Johnny. Saw Scott push Teresa back into the hall. Saw the horror on everybody’s faces.

Something was definitely wrong. For one thing, this wasn’t even his room. And why was Clarissa wrapped in a bed sheet?

“Answer me, boy! God dammit what did you do?” Johnny’s attention was pulled back to his father.

“Wha?” Johnny gaze wandered downward. Dios, why was he naked?

Then he was being shaken again, harder this time, until he couldn’t balance. “You make me sick to my stomach! Get out! Get out of my sight! Get out before I kill you!” He was on the floor, crawling, being pulled up again, being punched over and over. He heard his brother’s voice: “Stop, Murdoch, you’ll kill him!”

And his father’s icy reply: “Right now I don’t give a damn.”

***

“Send for the sheriff!” Byron was still holding Clarissa, although she was now covered with a robe. “That filthy bastard will hang for this!”

“No, no…please don’t call the sheriff…” Clarissa was still sobbing as Teresa also tried to comfort her.

"But Clarissa, he must be punished for what he’s done!”

“What about me? Haven’t I been punished enough? Please don’t put my shame on public display.”

“Clarissa, we’ll talk about this later, sweetheart. Why don’t you have Teresa help you out to the bath house?”

After the women had left, Byron, Murdoch, and Scott went down to Murdoch’s office. Byron paced for almost a minute before he spoke.  “Murdoch, he’s your son, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Right now I can’t even bear to lay eyes on him.” Murdoch sank to his chair, and continued more quietly. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s no son of mine. He’s out!”

Scott was dismayed at his father’s haste to dismiss Johnny. “Sir, I know it looks bad, but don’t you think we ought to give Johnny a chance to explain?”

“What’s to explain? He was passed out naked in her bed, her clothes were torn off her, you could see where she tried to fight him off—he didn’t even try to deny it. We have to call the sheriff and he has to face the music. Maybe if he’d been accountable for more of his actions in the past he would have learned some self control!”

“He was drunk when I left him last night.” Byron was still pacing. “But I never thought he would do anything like that. My god, I came across them in the barn earlier. I thought he looked like he was pushing himself on her, but I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure. I wish I had beat the hell out of him then!”

Byron stopped his pacing and leaned forward on Murdoch’s desk. “My sister’s right. Calling the sheriff will only make it worse for her. I can’t have her testifying about how he’s soiled her.” Byron spun around and sat suddenly on the sofa, burying his hands in his face. “My god, he’s even a half-breed! How will she find a man who will accept her now? Thanks to your son, she’ll die a shamed spinster! And what if a baby comes out of this filth? A half-breed’s baby… Your son owes her…”

“Johnny will pay.”

“How? How will he make up for all she’s lost?”

Neither Murdoch nor Scott replied.

Byron looked at Murdoch. “You tell me how he can make this up. Going to prison won’t help Clarissa. She needs something to help her! Does he have money?”

“I’ll see that Clarissa’s expenses are covered,” replied Murdoch slowly.

“She’ll need enough so she can move to a new town and set herself up in a nice place, and maybe—damn! — get ready for a baby! I think she’ll need at least $3,000—and that’s getting off cheap!”

“Three thousand dollars!” shouted Murdoch in disbelief.

Scott stepped in before his father lost his temper again. “Not meaning any disrespect, Byron, but that’s a lot of money, especially when we still haven’t heard Johnny’s side of the story. Maybe we should wait until we’ve all cooled down to discuss this.”

“His side of the story? What are you trying to say? This isn’t any schoolyard prank, boy! This is rape! And we won’t be staying here any longer than it takes us to get packed. Murdoch, please arrange for us to get to town within the hour. It’s too stressful for Clarissa to spend another moment here, especially when that filthy half-breed is still around!”

 

Chapter 8

Johnny was aware that he was lying on a hard stone floor. And that he was naked and that he was sore. He opened his eyes and saw a beam of light entering the otherwise gloomy room from a small window near the ceiling. He realized where he was: the guard house. He vaguely remembered Murdoch throwing a blanket on him and then calling for some hands to carry him away.  He must have passed out before he got here. Now his head throbbed, and Johnny moaned and raised his hand to his eyes. Johnny recognized the signs of either a trophy hangover or a knock-down concussion. Maybe both.

Johnny groaned miserably as he pulled himself to his hands and knees, the room dancing before his eyes. He found his pile of clothes that had been dumped beside him, and tried to drag them on. With his solitary past, Johnny had grown accustomed to caring for himself when he was sick or injured. Still, he had to admit he had basked in the comfort of having his family care for him the last time he had been injured. They had cared not only for his physical needs, but had afforded him the luxury of being able to feel safe—and even, almost, loved.

Now he had made sure his family was gone. He had done the unthinkable. He had gained their trust—almost—and then he had betrayed and humiliated them. And what he had done to the girl! Johnny now understood what those screams, those sobs—Clarissa’s sobs!— had meant. He had forced himself on her. He fingered the evidence of her struggle, the scratches she had left on his face in her panic.

Johnny tried to sit back on his knees but had to bend over clutching his stomach as the thought made him ill, pulling himself to a nearby bucket to empty his stomach. He stooped over the bucket, a stream of drool signaling his stomach wasn’t through punishing him. He retched again. Johnny felt like crap. He knew he deserved to.

He had always known he was rotten. His mother’s lovers had told him. The priest had told him. The shopkeepers he had stolen food from had shouted it at him. But he needed no one to tell him, really. He had sold his soul to the devil at a young age, and the devil got a bargain. He got a boy who would do almost anything for a coin or a meal, do things he was so ashamed of he could never admit them to anyone but the devil himself. Johnny was good at being the devil’s own boy. Sometimes Johnny had even thought of himself that way; that the devil was his father, the only father who really loved him. And that he was the devil’s son, a son eager to make his father proud. ‘I guess I made him real proud last night!’ he thought ruefully.

Johnny was torn between wishing he could remember exactly what had happened and being grateful he could not. It had always been so easy with the women he was used to; if he wanted to bed them, he did. Sometimes it took a few smiles, a few drinks, or a few coins, but a bargain of some sort could usually be struck. Was he so used to getting his way that he just expected it? Was he so used to using violence that he used it against a woman who refused him? The more he thought about it, the more it seemed to fit. He remembered how he had felt last night in the barn, how frustrated he had been when they had been interrupted.

The thought sickened him. Growing up he had seen first-hand the callous actions of men who felt entitled to help themselves to a woman’s body. He had pounded on the door to their shack as his mama cried out when the men became violent. He had tried so many times to stop them, and he had failed so many times. Now he had failed once again—now he was one of them.

Johnny had himself been the victim of men’s lust as a child. He remembered, with the familiar queasy feeling in his stomach, how it had all started. How he had been huddled miserably outside the shack while he listened to his mama and that evening’s man. How Miguel, who owned the shack and let them live there for a percentage of his mama’s earnings—as well as free service whenever he desired—had come across him shivering in the rain. Johnny had prepared to run; Miguel had beaten him before when he risked one of the customers seeing him. But Miguel had grabbed him before he could flee, and while Johnny struggled Miguel had handed him a piece of bread. Miguel had spoken to him nicely, even smoothing Johnny’s hair as he gulped down the bread, although Johnny had continued eyeing him suspiciously. Miguel had told him he would get him more bread, and a warm room. Johnny could scarcely believe this turn of events. He still thought of running, but he was wet and cold and hungry, and he knew it would be hours, maybe even all night, until the man left and he could go back home. So he followed Miguel to a room in the town’s hotel. A portly gringo was waiting inside, and bid him to enter. Johnny was afraid of white men, and tried to leave, but Miguel had steadied him and the gringo had laughed softly and offered Johnny a piece of candy. Candy! Johnny had only had it once before, when a priest had handed some out at Christmas. Miguel left after admonishing Johnny to do as the man told him, assuring him if he was good he would be able to eat more and even have some coins to bring home to his mama so she wouldn’t have to work so hard just to support him.

Johnny had not been able to believe his good fortune! He was anxious to do whatever the man said; maybe he wanted him to tend to his horse, or clean his clothes. Whatever, Johnny was anxious to prove his worth. Yet the man asked for nothing, commenting only that Johnny was dirty and needed a bath. He had a tub waiting. Johnny had never had a bath in a tub, and he wondered what job the man had in mind that he needed to be so clean for. The man began to help Johnny off with his clothes, stroking and caressing Johnny in the process. Johnny wasn’t sure when he first realized something wasn’t right. Maybe it was then, or maybe it was when he saw the man was undressing too. And that the man looked excited the same way his mama’s men looked as they undressed those times Johnny had hidden and watched. “You’re a pretty thing, aren’t you there,” the man had crooned, “now you just hold still and we’re gonna have some fun,” but Johnny had bolted like a frightened deer as the man reached for him, taking time only to grab his ragged wet clothes—along with the man’s gold watch—as he fled. Johnny had grappled frantically with the lock as the man’s hands tightened around his naked chest and his sweaty fat stomach pressed up behind him, finally flinging the door open and wrenching from the man’s grasp. He ran into the rainy night, the man’s curses ringing behind him, until he sank into one of his familiar hiding places and tried to get his clothes back on with his trembling hands. He felt ashamed—not at what he had almost done, but at what he hadn’t done. Because of his cowardice and selfishness he had nothing to bring home to his mama. He had even dropped the watch.

Johnny hadn’t told his mama about what had happened. He’d figured she would be disappointed he hadn’t been more of a help. Miguel knew, though. The next day Miguel let Johnny know what a selfish little prick he was.  A worthless little mestizo who wouldn’t even contribute to his own upkeep. He kicked him and beat him, and threatened that his mama would pay, too, unless Johnny cooperated next time.

It was what happened next time, and the next time, and the times after that, that made up so many of Johnny’s nightmares even now. That was the reason Johnny still could not help but stiffen whenever somebody touched him. That was just one of the things Johnny meant when he told his brother he had done so many things in his life he was ashamed of. Just one of the things Johnny knew his moral brother would surely disown him for if he ever found out.

Now this. Johnny admired his brother as he had never admired another man. His brother, with his intelligence, kindness, and most of all, integrity. His brother, who used words and reason as his first choice of weapon, not guns and fists.  His brother, who would never have let himself be used like Johnny had, who would never use a woman like Johnny had. His brother, who Johnny knew could never condone the choices Johnny had made in life.

Murdoch’s words came back to him: “There are ALWAYS choices. Some are just easier than others.”

Johnny had made his choices. Choices of shame.  Choices of violence. Choices made by the devil’s own boy.

 

Chapter 9

It was a solemn group that bid farewell to Clarissa and Byron. Manuel would be driving them, and Teresa had asked to accompany them so Clarissa would have some female company to lean on. Scott and Murdoch stood stone-faced as they settled into the buggy.

The final meeting with Byron had not gone well. Murdoch had balked at paying $3000, and Byron had raged at the injustice. Murdoch had finally offered $1000, which Byron had reluctantly accepted. Scott had stood off to the side, disgusted with the whole idea of haggling over the going price of rape.

They were getting off far later in the day than they had planned. Clarissa had spent a long time in the bath house, and then didn’t feel well. Teresa had offered to let her rest in Teresa’s room since the guest room held too many unpleasant memories. Since they had all missed breakfast they agreed to stay for lunch, which Clarissa and Byron had eaten in Teresa’s room.

Scott and Murdoch watched the buggy disappear through the arch, well aware their troubles were not leaving with it. There was still the matter of what to do with Johnny. Murdoch wanted to send a man to fetch the sheriff right away. Scott balked, but Murdoch lectured him on how Johnny had never been brought up with discipline, had never been punished for his misdeeds, and that it was high time he learned to pay for his actions.

Scott pleaded for him to wait and think about it for another day. Murdoch only relented when Scott reminded Murdoch that Val was out of town until that night, and that such a delicate matter would be better handled by a friend of the family than by a deputy who might not be so sensitive to Lancer’s privacy.  Johnny got a one day reprieve.

Scott had not yet gone to see Johnny. He planned to, but he didn’t want to go until he knew he could show Johnny he had every confidence in his innocence. Unfortunately, he still couldn’t do that.

***

Johnny followed the sun’s path as the beam of light from the small window marched across the room. It was probably well after noon now, heading toward evening. Nobody came to check on him---not even Scott. Scott’s absence, more than anything, told Johnny his life at Lancer was over.

Johnny leaned back against the cool stone wall and contemplated his past and his future. Sex and violence had been so much of his early life. He realized he had been a fool to think he could leave either behind—leave himself behind. He knew now his life as Johnny Lancer was a farce, a masquerade that crumbled as soon as temptation beckoned to the real Johnny Madrid. And like most things Johnny Madrid had done in his violent life, he couldn’t put the pieces back together. All he could do was to try to make it go away, and the closest he could come to that was to go away himself. Go away before he could do more harm, maybe harm another woman—maybe harm Teresa! He may think of her as his sister, but sometimes he found himself thinking of her in another way…a way he now understood was dangerous.

He could stay and face the music. Go willingly with the sheriff when he came, go to jail, go to trial, and go to prison. He had no doubt prison would be the final destination. What kind of defense could he give at a trial? That he didn’t remember doing it? And he sure couldn’t depend on his reputation to help sway a jury in his favor. Johnny was no coward. He could face the cruelest of opponents and circumstances, had done so many times—but he could not face the disappointment of his family. Johnny couldn’t stand the vision of his family’s faces as they looked at him, knowing the filth that he was, knowing what he had done. He couldn’t stand the vision of their faces as he dragged Lancer’s reputation down to his level.

Or he could leave. He’d be on the run. He’d go back to Mexico, a land he knew well. Unfortunately, they knew him a little too well down there. He wasn’t so sure how safe an idea that was either.

He wrestled with what he should do. He knew the right answer. Johnny Lancer would stay. But Johnny Madrid would leave.

He wondered why Val or his deputies hadn’t come for him yet. If he planned an escape, it was going to be tough once he was in custody. He looked around his quarters. The guardhouse was mostly used to store old furniture. He spotted a broken chair leg he figured he could use as a weapon. That is, if anybody ever came.

He looked at the window. It was too small to fit through, and too high off the ground anyway. Still, if he piled the pieces of furniture on top of one another he could climb up and look through it and at least see what was going on outside. Johnny started dragging the larger pieces directly below the window. Suddenly he heard footsteps approaching. He grabbed the chair leg and stood ready.

The door opened. Cipriano and Ben stood there. Cip held a tray. Ben held a gun. So much for Johnny’s stick. “Maria made you some food,” said Cip, eying Johnny with an expression that Johnny couldn’t read. “I’ll leave it here.” Then without any more conversation the door was closed and the footsteps retreated.

They were feeding him dinner. That must mean that Val would not be picking him up anytime soon. Otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered. That meant Johnny had that night to figure a way out.

He returned to lugging furniture to the window, balancing each piece on the other. He was finally able to climb the wobbly pile and reach the window. He placed his hands on the bars to steady himself. He slipped, and held tightly to them to prevent himself from falling.

The bar slipped, too.

 

Chapter 10

Johnny pulled and pushed on the bar carefully. It was definitely loose. After a half hour he had pried it from the surrounding block. The opening was still too small.

He waited for the sky to darken and the lights to go out in the hacienda and bunkhouse. He balanced on his precarious perch and swung the dislodged iron bar repeatedly at the window’s edge, stopping occasionally to make sure he had not been heard. The opening gradually widened.

Johnny squeezed into the hole and pulled himself through. He had gained weight since coming to Lancer with its regular meals, but he had always had a talent for squeezing in and out of things. He had perfected the ability when he was on his own and sometimes saw the opportunity to steal food in a closed shop—or if he needed to escape.  He wriggled through and then balanced his feet on the bottom of the window’s edge. He reached up and groped for something to hold onto, and found he was able to reach a ledge just below the roof. Still, he couldn’t pull himself up by it without some sort of help.

He wriggled back inside and retrieved the iron bar he had been using, as well as another that he had dislodged when he was widening the window. He squeezed his upper body back through the window and began pounding one bar with the other, using a cloth to muffle the sound, until he had impaled one bar about a foot above the window. Now he had a step. He pulled himself the rest of the way out, then once again stood on the sill and reached for the ledge above. Now he could step onto the bar and boost himself to the ledge and then the roof.  His boots had not been in the pile of clothes they had dumped in the guard house, so Johnny had to manage barefooted. The bar slipped, then he slipped, and Johnny thought he was going to plummet to the ground, but he quickly swung up and laid on the edge of the roof for several seconds. Once he ascertained that nobody had seen him, he slowly crawled to the opposite edge. Then he lowered himself down, dropping the last 10 feet and rolling.

He stayed in the shadows until he reached the rear of the hacienda. Johnny crept up the back stairs and down the hall to his room. He knew it was risky going there but he felt he had to take the chance. He knew exactly what he was taking and where it would be found. He closed the door behind him and moved silently to the wardrobe. Reaching into an old boot below some cloths, he closed his hand around his old friend—his working gun. Its familiar feel gave him a combination of exhilaration and gloom. Nothing signified his former life as much as the weapon he had modified for gunfighting, a weapon that helped ensure a fast draw but at the expense of accuracy. He had hidden it when he came to Lancer, as he preferred his larger Colt for everyday shooting. If he was to go back to life as Johnny Madrid, his working gun would once again be his main companion.

Johnny stuffed his old friend in his waistband, and then spied his other friend on his dresser. He grabbed his rig and hung it around his shoulder, replacing his gun in the holster first. He snatched his boots that somebody had put in his room, then looked around for anything else he needed. He saw nothing. He had never really moved in; never made it his own. It would be simple for them to throw out his few leftover belongings and forget all about him. He closed the door and started down the hallway back to the stairs.

***

Scott had tossed and turned for hours, replaying the events of the day, wondering what part he had played in them, and debating what to do next. He still had not been able to prepare himself to face Johnny. He knew he needed to be supportive of his brother, but he still couldn’t quite manage to put on that façade.  Scott was sickened by what had happened. He even felt somewhat responsible; after all, it was he who had masterminded their ill-fated date, he who had failed to explain to Johnny proper behavior when you court a lady, not a saloon girl.

Why had it not occurred to him that if Johnny was so naïve about asking a proper girl out that he wouldn’t be equally naïve in how to conduct himself with one? Who had ever sat down and explained to Johnny proper behavior with proper women? His mother? Some role model she must have been. His father? He wasn’t even around when Johnny was growing up. His mother’s lovers? From what Scott gathered from the little Johnny had let slip they were often brutal, perhaps rapists themselves. His gunhawk pals? Scott had heard stories about how hired guns forced themselves on women. No, the one person Johnny could have turned to for advice was his big brother, and knowing Johnny, he never would have asked. But Scott should have known.

Still, no matter what his upbringing, Johnny also should have known. Anyone should know that raping, like killing, was wrong. Then Scott reminded himself; Johnny had been a hired killer. True, he wasn’t a murderer, but there was no doubt that Johnny could kill with comparative ease. Maybe he simply had lived a life of violence for too long.

But what to do now? Scott could not help but feel that paying Byron and Clarissa had been simply paying them off for their silence. His sense of ethics rebelled at the notion. Byron’s claims that Clarissa needed the money to start over never set right with Scott, never really made sense, but Murdoch had refused to listen to Scott’s misgivings when it came to the payoff.  Scott thought Johnny should go to trial and have his fate determined fairly. If Johnny were guilty—and Scott had to reluctantly admit he appeared to be—letting him go free only condoned his behavior and set the stage for him to do it again. What if it were Teresa next time? What if Teresa had fallen victim to somebody whose family had paid for their freedom?

Scott wasn’t surprised when he heard the footsteps creeping down the hallway and the door to Johnny’s room creak open. He had almost anticipated the moment. If nothing else, Johnny was resourceful. But Scott wondered what was so important that Johnny would risk returning to his room for. Johnny came to Lancer with almost nothing, and from what Scott knew, he still had almost nothing. Maybe he had stashed some money there. Scott heard the door open once again. It was now or never if he wanted to stop him. Now or never if he ever wanted to keep his brother—even if it meant he might be in prison. Scott reached for his door handle.

Now or never.

Scott cracked open his door and saw his brother’s dark form receding down the hall, merging into the gloom.  After a moment Scott slowly closed the door and bowed his head against it, closing his eyes to fight the tears. ‘Goodbye, Johnny, and Godspeed.’

 

Chapter 11

“Going somewhere?”

Johnny caught his breath and stopped dead in his tracks as he recognized the voice. His father’s voice. His hand instinctively went to his hip, but his gun was in the holster draped around his shoulder. ‘Dios, you gonna shoot the old man?’ he thought ruefully to himself. In the dim light he could make out his father’s figure, and the gun in his father’s hands. The gun pointed at Johnny.

“I guess not,” Johnny replied calmly.

“Murdoch, what’s going on?” Scott had come out in the hall as soon as he heard the commotion.

“Your brother here thinks laws don’t apply to him. Please go get Manuel and Ben to escort the prisoner back to the guardhouse. And this time post a guard.”

Johnny stared at his father. So now he was just ‘the prisoner’ to his father. Not ‘son’, not even ‘Johnny.’ Maybe he could shoot Murdoch, after all.

The two men stared at each other without blinking for several seconds. “You gonna shoot me, old man?”

“If I have to, I won’t hesitate to shoot you in the knee—or the hand.”

“Oh come on, Murdoch, what are you doing? Is this really called for?” protested Scott.

“You’re damn right it’s called for. And to answer your question, I’m doing my duty—doing what somebody should have been done years ago for his own good. For everybody’s good,” he added quietly. He glared at Scott. “Don’t bother getting Manuel and Ben. I’ll escort him there myself. Take his gun and tie his hands.”

“Murdoch, no. Johnny doesn’t need to be tied. Just let him go!”

“Fine, I’ll do it myself!”

Scott watched in disbelief as his father took Johnny’s gunbelt and then tied his hands behind him. Johnny just stood there and glared, finally lowering his gaze.

“Johnny,” Scott began, but had no idea what to say next to make the situation better. Johnny never looked up.

Scott began to protest more, following as Murdoch herded Johnny down the stairs and to the door, but when they reached the door Murdoch turned to him and demanded he stay behind if he could not be more supportive of the law. Scott still followed, but his words to Murdoch were useless, and he finally gave up.  Besides, he just wanted to lock himself in his room and wish it all away.

***

Val arrived early the next morning, accompanied by a deputy. He was deeply saddened to hear of the mess his friend Johnny had gotten himself into, but also aware of his obligation to uphold the law and ensure Johnny could not escape. He had brought some paperwork for Murdoch to sign. It did not escape him that Murdoch recorded Johnny’s name as John Madrid, rather than Lancer.

Johnny promised he would not try anything, but as much as Val wanted to honor his friend by letting him ride out with dignity, he simply could not. He had a deputy drive a buckboard, and Johnny was allowed to ride in the front seat with his hands cuffed behind him. Val rode his horse alongside.

Johnny turned to watch the hacienda grow small in the distance as the buckboard drew away, swaying and bouncing uncomfortably on the rutted road. He knew that this would be his last view of it. His last view of the life he had been teased with for too short a time. Or maybe it was too long a time. Long enough to miss it like his very soul. Long enough to ruin it—and everybody’s life he had touched.

 

Chapter 12

Green River was still quiet when they arrived. A few shopkeepers were cleaning the walkways in front of their stores. Johnny could hear the steady swish, swish, swish of sweeping stop as a nearby shopkeeper paused to study them. Johnny met his gaze and the man averted his eyes, returning to his sweeping.

Val had been aware of the humiliation Johnny’s position would place him, and his family, in, so as they had neared town he had allowed Johnny to sit with his hands cuffed in front of him with a cloth over them.

Val was also aware of Johnny’s unease whenever he rode into any town, but he wasn’t going to leave his hands unbound, as Johnny had requested. After all, unbound hands would be little defense in the event Johnny was called out, and Val wasn’t about to give him a gun. Besides, despite Johnny’s almost paranoid sense of it, the chances of encountering a gunslinger, especially at this time of day, were remote.

Johnny felt incredibly vulnerable as he rode into town trussed up like a beev getting branded. He understood why Val couldn’t let him loose; besides, he knew he wouldn’t feel safe unless he had a gun on his hip. If somebody were to call him out now, he would be a sitting duck. For a fleeting moment Johnny wished somebody would do just that.

Nobody except the sweeper took notice of them. Val waited nonchalantly until the shopkeeper had returned inside and then helped Johnny down and into the jail house. He uncuffed Johnny and settled him into a cell without incident.

Val shut the cell door with a clang and turned to Johnny, who had flopped on the bunk.

“You wanna talk about what happened?”

“Ain’t nuthin to talk about.”

“You’re gonna have to talk about it come court time.”

Johnny raised his head to look at Val. “When’s court?”

“Judge Bertram will be here next week. Probably Tuesday. Johnny, you better be ready to talk by then. Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

Johnny turned his head toward the wall. Val sighed, knowing the conversation was over.

***

“Hey, Johnny.”

Johnny didn’t bother to raise his head at the sound of his brother’s voice. “I told Val no visitors.”

“Val doesn’t follow orders so well.”

“Where you been, Scott?”  Johnny had already spent a full day in jail without any visitors—and he had a feeling it wasn’t because of Val’s adherence to his request.

“Yeah, well, I’ve been working on things.”

“What things?”

“Johnny, what happened?”

Johnny looked over and cocked an eyebrow. “What, you want to know all the details?”

“If they’ll help me understand…”

“There ain’t no understanding.” How could he explain to Scott that this was just the way he was, the way that sex and violence had so often commingled in his life? The only difference was that this time he was the one doing it to them before they could do it to him. He knew that didn’t really make sense, not like having to shoot somebody before they shot you. But it was the best he could come up with.

“Johnny, you’re going to have to tell what you did when the judge comes. Byron and Clarissa were supposed to leave town and forget the whole thing, but they haven’t.  I think they’re going to testify against you.”

“Why would they forget the whole thing?”

“To save Clarissa the embarrassment of having to say what happened in front of everybody.”

“Seems to me she’s not the one got reason to be embarrassed.”

“Johnny, if she testifies and you don’t have a defense, you could go to prison. Are you sure she didn’t do it willingly?”

Johnny thought back to her behavior in the barn. He also thought back to his own behavior, and to his thoughts when he was supposed to be talking horses with Byron, thoughts of her undressing in her room and how he wanted to be helping her shed her clothes and sharing her bed—and her body.

“I don’t remember.”  Johnny remembered the scratches on his face. “I don’t think it was her idea.” He shook his head. “I’m really sorry, Scott.”

“You don’t think?”

Johnny thought harder. What reason would Clarissa have to make something like that up? It could only humiliate her. His refusal to acknowledge what he had done only added to her embarrassment, only added to his own shame that he would even think of blaming it on her. “It wasn’t her idea. I did it.”

Scott hung his head in disappointment at hearing what he suspected he would hear. “Why, Johnny?”

Johnny sighed. “I don’t know. I guess I wanted her. I don’t really remember doing it. I’d been drinking.”

“Johnny, maybe if you tell the judge you were drunk and don’t remember doing it.”

“Yeah, Scott, that’ll work. And maybe Murdoch can be a character witness.”

 

Chapter 13

Johnny spent that night and the next day thinking of what Scott had said. In the end, Scott had tried to be encouraging but had failed miserably. It was obvious even his brother knew he was a rapist.

That afternoon Johnny was dismayed to hear Val announce he had another visitor. So much for asking Val to keep people away. He was even more dismayed when he saw the visitor was Byron. He didn’t have much time to contemplate this turn of events before Byron was springing to the bars and shaking his fist.

“You filthy bastard! I’d like to rip your fucking dick off and cram it down your throat!”

“Hey! Keep it civil or you’re out of here!” warned Val. “Johnny, he wants to talk to you. Are you going to be OK?”

“Yeah, Val,” said Johnny, getting to his feet.

“I’ll be right outside. You yell out if he gets out of hand. And you,” he said to Byron, “watch it. I’m the only one who does the ripping and cramming around here.”

Once Val left, Byron stood and glared at Johnny.

“Please tell Clarissa I’m sorry,” Johnny said softly, facing the side of the cell.

“That won’t help now, now will it?”

“I reckon not.”

Byron’s voice was cold. “And now you’re going to make it worse by making her relive it in front of everybody, you worthless piece of shit…”

Johnny had no answer.

“If you were any kind of a man you would admit to what you had done. Don’t make Clarissa testify. If you admit it you’ll get a lighter sentence than if you deny it and get convicted---not that you deserve it!”

Johnny was silent as what Byron was asking sunk in. He had no problem with pleading guilty. He was going to be convicted regardless, so why drag Clarissa through all this?  In some sense, it would be a relief not to have the entire town, not to mention his family, gawking at him during a trial. More importantly, Byron was right: confessing would likely bring him a lighter sentence than denying it and then being convicted.

Johnny looked up, finally speaking quietly but with determination. “She don’t have to testify. I’ll take care of it.”

“Fine. Now what are you going to do for Clarissa? How are you going to make up for ruining her life?”

Johnny had no idea how he could make things up to her, so he said nothing.

“Jesus! How’s she going to go back home when she might be having your half-breed bastard! Everybody there knows she doesn’t have a husband.”

Johnny hadn’t considered the possibility of a baby. “If that happens, I could help pay for it.”

“How? We don’t want any more contact with you, and besides, how you going to pay from prison? No, if you want to face up to your responsibility, you better do it now before it’s too late. Baby or not, you owe her.”

Johnny didn’t really see how giving Clarissa money was going to make things right for her. Still, if she had a baby, she’d need all the money she could get, and Johnny was responsible for it. Besides, it’s not as though he had any use for it in prison. He sure didn’t need to save it to give to Murdoch and Scott.

“I don’t have much money. But she can have it all. What I have is hidden on Lancer property. I’ll give you directions.” Johnny was glad he had elected to hide his listening money rather than put it in the bank as Scott and Murdoch had suggested.  Johnny had no experience with banks, and had felt more secure keeping his money where he could put his hands on it whenever he needed to---especially if he decided to leave Lancer suddenly. He gave Byron directions to find the money.

“How much is there?”

“I don’t know. Several hundred dollars. Less than a thousand.”

“And you think that’s all it takes to raise a child? Your child? Or to start a life over?”

Johnny had no idea how much it costs to raise a child. It sure never seemed to him that it cost anybody much to raise him. Nonetheless, he would want a child of his to be raised better than he was, and he would do what he could to insure that.

“The only other thing I got worth much is my palomino.” Johnny paused and bowed his head before looking up and continuing quickly. “You could have him for your horse breeding project, and give Clarissa the money from his foals. He’s a really nice horse.”

“No, I don’t want anything to remind us of you. Just sell him and send us the money.”

Johnny sighed and shuffled his feet before finally speaking. “I’ll get Val to get a note to Lancer to sell him and send the money to you.”

Byron glared at him. “It’ll have to do then. But don’t send the money to me. It would upset Clarissa to remind her of you or Lancer. I’ll give you an address you can wire it to. Here.” Byron wrote an address on a scrap of paper and handed it to Johnny.

“OK.”

“You think that’s all it takes? A few hundred bucks and a horse and you figure you’ve made up for ruining somebody’s life? Big ranch like that and that’s all you have?” Byron asked doubtingly.

“That’s all I have that’s mine. The ranch ain’t mine. Not any more.” He was sure of that.

“Fine. I hope you rot in hell.” With that, Byron turned and walked back toward the door.

Johnny watched until Byron was out of sight. Then he put his head in his hands and felt the burning in his eyes. He had sold his best friend—his only breathing friend. The last being on earth who had trusted him.

***

With Johnny’s confession, a trial became a formality. No witnesses were needed. Judge Bertram merely dropped by the jail to record Johnny’s plea and then sentence him. Given that there was no victim to testify, that Johnny confessed voluntarily, and that nobody (including Johnny) could really describe what happened, the judge was lenient in his sentence: twenty years of hard labor. Johnny would ship out to Folsom prison as soon as the prison wagon came by.

Scott had tried to visit again, but Johnny had been adamant that Val turn away all visitors, especially Scott. Val tried to get him to change his mind, but in the end he respected Johnny’s need for his family not to see him as a convicted rapist. Scott sent a note to Johnny, but Johnny threw it away. A note would just hurt too much. It was better to cut all ties and be done with it.

Jelly also came by to visit. The whole ordeal had affected the old man like a kick in the gut. He knew Johnny could be impulsive and even violent, but there was no way he believed he had done what he had confessed to doing. Something was wrong here, but Jelly just couldn’t figure out what. He had tried to talk to Murdoch, but it was as though Murdoch had never had a younger son. Murdoch was tight-lipped about what the evidence was, or even who Byron and Clarissa were. Murdoch refused to acknowledge Jelly’s attempts to question what had happened, either ordering Jelly from the room or leaving it himself. Jelly thought it was a dern shame that the boy’s father could have so little faith in him. Not for the first time, Jelly wished Johnny were his son. He admired the young man, knowing how he must have grown up, the prejudice, abuse, and violence he must have faced. That he had survived was a miracle; that he was scarred, physically and emotionally, was a given.

Johnny could hear Jelly in the outer office sputtering his outrage at being refused visitation. He couldn’t make out anything but the last sentences, though, which Jelly yelled at the top of his lungs: “OK, yer dern fool! I’m gonna tell ya what ya don wanna hear, and ya better listen up! Yer a good man, Johnny, and I want you to member that every day. An one more thing I want you not to forget… Your family loves ya, Johnny…and I loves ya and I aint gonna forget ya…You take care of yerself, now, son…” Jelly’s voice seemed to crack on the last sentence, and then Johnny heard the door open and slam shut.

Nobody else tried to visit, and Johnny was glad when the prison wagon arrived earlier than scheduled, loading him up and leaving in the middle of the night. The last thing he did was leave a note with Val to be delivered to Lancer: the note requesting the sale of Barranca.

<<historical note: Folsom prison did not actually open until 1880, almost 10 years after this takes place. But San Quentin, which was in business at that time, was just too far away to stick poor Johnny!>>

 

Part 3

Chapter 14

As soon as Scott was admitted into the gates of the prison it started to come back to him; the utter hopelessness he knew too well from his time at Libby. That was one reason he was here. He had seen so many men lose hope, often because they felt they had no family to live for. Scott knew that Johnny had a tenuous hold on family to start with. He had been let down by family all his life; when he came to Lancer he had a hard time accepting that he really was part of a family, and that his family loved him and would stand behind him. Scott winced as he thought once again how Johnny had been right; how his family really had not stood behind him when he most needed him, how Murdoch had abandoned, even turned against him. Although Scott had had difficulty coming to terms with the idea his brother was a rapist, he had finally reconciled that by conceding Johnny was not a rapist, but rather a good man who had made a bad mistake. Scott was determined to make up for his lack of earlier support. He knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to win back Johnny’s trust, but he was going to try. Even if he could only do it 15 minutes a month, on visiting day.

Murdoch had been against Scott going up there. Johnny was gone, and he was where he legally and morally deserved to be, as much as it might hurt them all to acknowledge it. Johnny was tough. No doubt he was making a new life for himself, and it was time for them all to move on. Scott wondered if Murdoch really believed what he was saying himself; Scott suspected he was just putting up a front. He had seen him sitting at his desk at night, staring into space. He had seen the life go out of his eyes, and the vitality out of his step.

Scott wished Murdoch would voice how he really felt about Johnny’s situation. As it was, Murdoch’s attitude was driving a wedge deeper and deeper between Scott and his father. Their relationship had been rocky since Johnny had left, and at times Scott didn’t know that he would stay at Lancer. Johnny had been Lancer’s greatest attraction for him; without Johnny, Lancer was little more than land and cattle. Scott still wrestled with the idea of moving on; he couldn’t go back to Boston, however. Even if he could only visit Johnny once a month, he planned to live within visiting distance for the next twenty years.

Scott didn’t necessarily share his father’s belief that Johnny was so tough. Physically, yes. Johnny was one of the toughest men Scott had ever known. He knew he had to be to have survived first as a half-breed orphan, and then as a gunhawk. Nonetheless, Scott suspected Johnny was also emotionally fragile. He had never been exposed to a normal caring family, had never learned to value himself for anything except his speed with a gun, and seemed only all too willing to think the worst of himself when it came to issues of relationships. Scott knew that prison was tough physically, but he also knew it was even tougher emotionally.

So here he was, two months after Johnny had left for prison. He was already upset because he had missed the first visiting day because of roundup, but he was determined to miss as few as possible. He sat in the small, windowless visiting chamber and waited for the guards to bring his brother. He couldn’t stand being in here for even the few minutes he’d been inside so far. Twenty years. That’s how long Johnny would be here. All because of one damnable mistake.

His thoughts were interrupted by shouts and sounds of a scuffle outside. The door burst open and his brother was propelled into the room, tripping as he overstepped his leg irons. He regained his balance and stood there, swaying and glaring at the two burly guards, standing slightly bent over as though guarding his stomach. He had lost weight, but his eyes still shown with their indomitable spirit. He turned his glare to Scott.

“Johnny!” Scott jumped up and started toward his brother.

“Scott,” he replied softly.

One of the guards motioned Scott back while the other pushed Johnny over to a chair that was bolted to the floor, cuffing him to one arm by his wrist. “We’ll be waiting outside. You have 15 minutes.” They turned and left.

Scott scooted his chair closer to look at his brother. “Are you OK?”

“Fine, Scott, just fine.”

“Johnny, really, are they treating you OK here?”

Johnny glanced toward the door, then looked back down. “Yeah, Scott, couldn’t be friendlier.”

“Yes, I could tell how close you all seemed.”

Johnny had managed to cross his shackled legs with some difficulty. Now he started to play with the heavy chain.

Scott knew it was no use pursuing the current topic. Johnny wasn’t one to complain about his treatment. Still, Scott wasn’t quite sure what to say. “The roundup went well.”

“Sorry I missed it,” Johnny replied with a smirk.

“Everybody misses you. Jelly and Teresa wanted to come with…”

“No!” Johnny tried to jump up but was jerked back down by his cuff.

“I know, I know, don’t worry! I wouldn’t bring Teresa here. But really, they all do miss you.”

“Yeah, I just bet. Bet Murdoch can’t hardly bear me not bein there.”

Scott was silent for a moment as he considered his reply. “Johnny, he misses you, just in his own way. Maybe he’ll come next time. And maybe Jelly can come some too.”

Johnny was fidgeting with his chain more vigorously now. “No, Scott, I don’t want them to see me here.”

“Johnny, you need your family. Seeing you in here isn’t going to change their opinion of you.”

Johnny cocked his head with a wry grin. “Well that’s probably the truth! Can’t get much worse.”

“Johnny, you know that isn’t true!” Scott shook his head.

Scott brought Johnny up to date on matters at the ranch and the nearby towns. He realized their time was getting close so he paused and started to prepare for his good byes. “I’m coming back next month.  Is there anything I can bring you?”

“A gun?”

Scott stared at him, and then shook his head as he took in Johnny’s grin. Johnny somehow still seemed to have his sense of humor. At least Scott hoped that was what it was. “Yeah, I’ll get right on that, brother.”

The door was flung open. “OK, time’s up!” The guards entered the room and uncuffed Johnny. They prodded him to his feet and toward the door.

Johnny paused at the door, giving them the guards his best glare before turning to Scott. “Scott, one more thing. Don’t come back, OK?”

 

Chapter 15

Despite his resolve to continue visiting each month no matter what Johnny had said, other duties and happenings once again intervened and Scott missed the next two months. The trip to Folsom from Lancer was long. Even though he could take the train into the town of Gilroy near the prison, each visit still meant taking several days off work. The first month many of the hands had been ill with something and the ranch simply couldn’t spare Scott. The second month it was Scott himself who was ill, and although he could have made the trip, he feared bringing something that would make Johnny sick. He knew that Johnny must truly feel deserted now, so Scott made sure he did not miss the next visiting day. By that time Johnny would have been in prison for five months.

Scott once again heard a skirmish outside the door right before his brother was thrust inside. Scott jumped to his feet, uttering an involuntary gasp when he saw his brother.

“Johnny, what happened?”

Johnny did not look up, but followed the guard sedately to his seat, sitting quietly as the guard cuffed his left hand to the chair.

“Guard, I demand to know what happened to my brother!”

“Fifteen minutes!” The guard slammed the door in Scott’s face as he tried to follow.

Scott took in his brother’s bruised face and arms. He followed the bruises down his arm and gave a silent gasp. Johnny’s right hand was swollen and colored with hues of purple and yellow. This was obviously why they had cuffed him with his left hand this time; the cuff probably couldn’t fit over his right wrist. Scott knew how much Johnny had always feared injuring his gun hand.

“Your hand! Is it going to be alright? Can I see it?”

Johnny just continued to look down.

“Johnny, let me see your hand,” Scott demanded authoritatively. “Has a doctor seen it?”

“It don’t matter Scott. It ain’t like I’m gonna be using it. Least not for anything but heftin a pick axe.” Johnny gave a low chuckle, practically mumbling most of his response.

“It does matter. I’m getting the prison doctor and demanding he take care of it.”

“No, Scott.”

“Yes, Johnny, it’s hurt and it needs attention.”

“Scott, please. I don’t want no more attention.”

Scott realized what Johnny meant. Calling attention to an injury, especially if it had been caused by a guard or fellow prisoner, which it almost surely had, would only bring further punishment to him. “OK, Johnny,” he said, “but can I see it?”

Johnny surprised Scott by holding out his hand complacently. Johnny was not known for being a willing patient. Scott tried to feel the bones as tenderly as possible. His heart sank as Johnny winced. Scott thought he detected a broken bone in the hand.

“You’ve got to keep this bone immobilized. Try not to use this hand.”

“Sure, Scott.”

Scott realized Johnny had no intention of following, in fact could not follow, his instructions. He also realized Johnny had yet to look at him since he had entered the room.

They sat in intermittent silence for a long while, Scott occasionally offering the latest news from back home, Johnny continuing to offer nothing. He suspected Johnny was upset at Scott’s absence on the previous visiting dates.

“Johnny, I’m sorry I missed the last two visits. You know if I had any choice I’d be here every week.”

“I’m glad you missed them. Keep on missin them.”

Scott was taken aback at Johnny’s response. “No, Johnny, I won’t stay away. I love you, and even if you don’t need me, I need you.”

The door thumped open. “That’s time!”

“Johnny, look at me…”

Johnny was already loosed from the chair and standing, still looking down.

“Johnny!” he demanded sharply.

Johnny glanced up and met Scott’s eyes for a second. Then he looked down again and followed the guard through the door.

Scott stood frozen. He recognized the look in Johnny’s eyes. They no longer held hope or spirit. He had seen that look in the eyes of his fellow prisoners at Libby. Right before they gave up.

 

Chapter 16

After his last visit, Scott made his visits to Johnny his priority. He was worried that if he didn’t, he might not have too many more opportunities left. He visited the next two months straight, and was slightly encouraged by the progress his brother’s hand was making, but discouraged at how Johnny seemed to be sinking further into a pit of despondency. Johnny now rarely looked anywhere but down. During his last visit Johnny had just sat there, jingling his chains slowly, responding to Scott’s questions with no answer or at best, one word answers. This visit, marking seven months of Johnny’s incarceration, seemed to be going the same way. Johnny once again sat looking at his shackles, the silence broken only by his fingers jingling them vigorously.

Scott decided to just wait. He knew Johnny well enough to know that often an especially energetic episode of fidgeting was a clue that Johnny was thinking of broaching a touchy subject. He also knew from experience that the best way to encourage Johnny was to be patient, supporting him when needed but otherwise by simply waiting quietly. Scott was rewarded finally when Johnny broke his silence.

“Scott, can I ask you a favor?”

“Of course, Johnny.”

Johnny fiddled with his chains a bit more before going on. “Can you find out if there’s a baby?”

“I was thinking to do that anyway.”  Scott had, in fact, wondered about a baby.

“If there is, can you make sure it’s taken care of?”

“Of course, Johnny. Murdoch and I have already discussed this. Your child will always have a place at Lancer, and even the Lancer name, if he or she wants.” In truth Murdoch and he had never discussed it, but Scott really didn’t care what Murdoch’s thoughts were on the matter. Scott would love to have Johnny’s child there, and he would make sure Murdoch felt the same way.

“Thanks Scott. Oh, yeah, and thank Murdoch for me, will ya? One more thing…be sure to tell the kid his father’s dead.”

Scott was taken aback. “Johnny! I will not…”

“You have to!” Johnny looked up for the first time, and Scott was relieved to see a flicker of defiance in his blue eyes. Johnny returned his gaze downward just as quickly. “It ain’t fair to a kid to know how he was made, or that his father ain’t fit to live with decent folk. You gotta promise me that, Scott.”

Scott sighed, “OK, sure, Johnny.”

More silence followed. Even Johnny’s fidgeting had ceased.

Johnny finally spoke again. “You think a kid like that would look like me?”

Scott wondered where this was going. “I don’t know. I guess it’s possible.”

“A kid like that got enough problems.”

Scott knew that was probably true, but he couldn’t let it lie. “Any child would be lucky to look like you, and to be half the person you are.”

With that, they both once again lapsed into silence. Scott was almost relieved to hear the guard’s key turning the lock as the time to leave neared.

Johnny turned to him once again. “Scott, I keep askin ya this, and ya keep coming back, but please stop comin. Thinkin of Lancer, of you, and everybody—it makes me weak in here. I can’t afford that…”

By that time the guard had uncuffed Johnny and led him away.  Johnny looked back at Scott before he walked through the door. “Good bye, Scott. I mean it.”

Scott sat immobilized. For the first time, he wondered whose sake he was really visiting for—Johnny’s or his own. Perhaps his visits were his own attempt to assuage his own guilt. Perhaps Johnny was better off without him.

 

Chapter 17

Scott had a new mission: to see if he was an uncle. He secretly hoped he was. He knew it was wrong for him to hope Clarissa had gotten pregnant, that it would make her life incredibly difficult. He felt guilty that he hoped it would make her life so difficult she would choose to allow the child to be raised at Lancer. He didn’t feel guilty, however, about lying to Johnny about having discussed raising the child with Murdoch when in fact he had not. Despite being set right when he first came to Lancer, Johnny still harbored the deep-seated idea that Murdoch had kicked him and his mother out. He didn’t need any doubt about a child of his being welcome. At any rate, Scott was sure that Murdoch would come through at the idea of a grandchild. If not, Scott would raise the child himself, Murdoch be damned.

Now all he had to do was find Clarissa. Clarissa had said she was from Philadelphia. Scott had had his doubts about that. He had known plenty of ladies from Philadelphia and somehow he couldn’t see her fitting in. But it was nothing tangible, so he had not said anything. Besides, Scott had thought the idea of having successfully courted a real lady from a big city back East would be just what Johnny needed to boost his confidence in that area, so he had let the story stand. But now Scott began to ponder just where she WAS from—and more importantly, where she had gone.

Her brother had spoken of their new ranch just west of San Jose.  Scott had wired the Barranca money to someone in San Francisco, which wasn’t all that far from San Jose. Scott had always wondered if that money had something to do with Byron or Clarissa. He had tried to look into it at the time, but had only come up with dead ends.

Scott was already near San Jose, sort of, so he thought he might as well start there. He wasn’t quite sure how he was going to broach the subject of a child once he found Clarissa; on the other hand, he guessed no questions would be necessary if he was face to face with her.

San Jose was a big town, and Scott knew finding them would not be a simple task. Fortunately, Scott had made some good contacts on his business trips with Murdoch. It was time to cash in on one. He got a room in town, relaxed in a hot tub as he washed off the trail dust and more importantly, the stench of the prison, and then visited the nicest restaurant he knew of.  He hoped he might run into one of the ranchers he knew tonight; if not, he would ride out to some of the ranches tomorrow. His planning was rewarded as he recognized the heavy-set red headed man who entered the dining room as Clarence Ruckers, an important member of the local Cattleman’s Association. Ruckers would know how to find Byron at his new ranch.

“Mr. Ruckers! Over here!” Scott jumped up to greet the rancher.

“Why, Scott Lancer! What brings you up here? It’s good to see you!” The two shook hands enthusiastically.

“It’s good to see you too, sir.”

“Are your father and brother with you?”

“Ah, no sir, not this time.”

“Too bad, too bad. How are things going at home?

“Quite well, sir. I think you’ll be impressed by some of our new stock. Won’t you join me for dinner?”

The waiter set another place and the two men resumed talking. Ruckers began. “So what brings you to San Jose?”

“I’m actually trying to locate a rancher by the name of Byron Jackson. I believe he bought a ranch just west of here a few months back.”

“Can’t say I’m familiar with him, Scott. As far as I know there haven’t been any ranches bought or sold in these parts for over a year.”

“Oh. Hmmm…he had some nice breeding stock. A Hereford bull, in particular. You know anyone with a bull like that?”

“Ahh, so that’s why you’re so anxious to get hold of this fellow! I’d like to find a good Hereford bull myself! But, no, I’d have noticed someone with a bull like that, and I haven’t heard tell of one. Sorry.”

“Yeah, me too. One last thing. He has a sister, Clarissa. She might be with child.” Scott decided to go out on a limb here.

Ruckers raised his eyebrow at this. “No, Scott, can’t say that that rings a bell…”

“Hmm. Well thank you, anyway. I really do need to find this fellow, so if you hear anything of him, I’d appreciate it if you got word to me. Now tell me what’s been happening at your ranch.” Dinner conversation revolved around cattle, land, and water. Scott adeptly steered the conversation away from his brother whenever it threatened to lead there. Ruckers had clearly not heard about Johnny, and Scott didn’t want the news to surface. Telling somebody your brother was in prison for rape was sure to be a conversation stopper. Scott enjoyed a fine prime rib, but his enjoyment was dampened by his thoughts of his brother. What was he having for dinner tonight?

***

Despite being exhausted, Scott wasn’t in the mood to go back to his room after dinner. He always felt disquieted after visiting Johnny, and he knew from experience that lying between fresh sheets on a soft mattress would only make him dwell all that much more on how his brother was living. He decided to numb himself with a visit to the saloon.

The saloon wasn’t very busy, so Scott ordered a drink and found a table to himself. He contemplated his next step in tracking down Clarissa. He had to be honest with himself. He couldn’t search through all of San Jose, and besides, there was no reason to think she was even there. If her brother had lied about having a ranch in the area, they could be anywhere. And why would he lie about something like that? The business arrangement he had initially brokered with Murdoch—before the incident—had involved no money up front. Scott pondered the situation, ordered another drink, and turned to entertain himself by watching the saloon girls try to drum up business with some drunken cowboys.

One of the girls seemed vaguely familiar. She was Mexican, with raven dark hair, large brown eyes, and alluring red lips. Scott realized with a start it was Rosalita. He remembered she had left Morro Coyo a week after the dance she had attended with Johnny. He nodded in recognition of her when she happened to look his way. For a second he thought she almost looked wary, but then she deserted her cowboy prey and approached Scott’s table.

“Senor Lancer, what brings you way up here?” she said somewhat coldly.

“Just passing through on business, Rosalita.” He had to admit, she was beautiful. No wonder Johnny had been taken with her. He stood and pushed a chair out for her. “How have you been?”

“Well as can be expected. Work’s good here.” Her tone still somewhat distant, she declined to sit.

“Listen, Rosalita, about that night at the dance…”

She flicked her hand and looked at him. “It doesn’t need talking about…”

“No, it does.” Scott met her gaze. “I’m sorry people were so rude. They—we—had no call to act like that.”

“Well, I appreciate your thoughts but it doesn’t make much difference now.” She smiled and swatted coyly at a passing cowboy as he grabbed her rear on his way past. “Watch it there, cowboy!” Then she turned her attention back to Scott. “And you were right; Johnny needed to be escorting a proper lady.”

“Actually, Rosalita, I wish he had stayed with you.”

“Yeah, well…how’s Johnny anyway?”

Scott realized she must not have heard. “He’s fine. Doing OK.”

Rosalita finally sat in the chair beside Scott, resting her chin in her hands and meeting Scott’s eyes. “You know, he’s the only thing I miss from Morro Coyo. That brother of yours knew how to make a saloon girl feel like a real lady. Do you know sometimes he’d pay me for my time and we’d go to my room and just talk all night?”

Scott sat stunned for a moment. He had always assumed that his brother spent lust filled marathons when he stayed out. He felt ashamed at his assumption—and a little jealous that Johnny might have shared so much personal information with a saloon girl that he probably had not shared with his big brother. “What did you talk about?”

“Oh, life. Our goals. Our past. Secrets, you know.” She smiled.

Scott spoke impulsively. “Rosalita, do you think Johnny could ever force himself on a woman?” He realized it was a little late to be asking this question, that he should have asked it when the accusation was first made, but he also realized that of all people, Rosalita was perhaps in the best position to answer.

She looked at him suspiciously. “Why would you ask such a thing?”

Scott rubbed his face with one hand. “This is hard, Rosalita. About, I guess, a month or so after you left, Johnny was accused of rape.”

Rosalita gave a small gasp. “Oh no! He wouldn’t! What happened?”

Scott related the story briefly, trying to spare her from the more sordid details, although he knew that given her background his concern was silly. He ended by telling her that Johnny was in prison, and that Scott was looking for the woman who might be bearing his child, but that he seemed to be at a dead end almost before he had started.

Rosalita sat quietly for a moment, looking down at her fingers as they twiddled with each other. “What was the woman’s name?”

Scott hesitated, weighing the woman’s need for privacy with his own need to find her. “Clarissa Jackson.”

“How did she look? And this brother, what about him?”

As he described them Rosalita’s face seem to blanch. “I have to get back to work.” She stood up from the table.

“Rosalita! Wait! Do you know them? Please, if you do, help us find Johnny’s child!”

Rosalita turned and sank back into the chair, shaking her head. “There’s no child! And no Clarissa Jackson! No brother—and no rape!” she finished with a sob. “I’m sorry…I never meant…”

“What? What are you talking about?

“Please forgive me.” She truly looked frightened. “I didn’t think they would do it.”

“Who? Do what?” Scott realized that he had jumped up and was standing over Rosalita, and that the barkeep was eyeing him. He sat back down and spoke more calmly. “Please, tell me what you know.”

Rosalita looked down, fingering the ruffles on her dress. “When I left Morro Coyo, I was really angry because of what happened at the dance. I was mad at the people there, myself, but especially with you Lancers—and especially with Johnny. He’s the one who assured me it would be alright, the one who made me feel enough like a lady I thought I could go. Only when I got there that wasn’t so. I felt like he set me up just to be embarrassed. I know now it wasn’t his fault, but that’s how I felt.” She stopped and looked up at Scott.

“Go on…”

“When I got up here I met an old friend of mine. She went by the name of Desiree, but her real name was Clarissa. She came from a good background—I don’t really know how she ended up being a saloon girl. We got to catching up, and I mentioned what had happened at that dance, and how mad I was. Told her all about Johnny, how he was no more a gentleman than I was a lady, only he was doing just fine because he up and turned into a Lancer, and suddenly, he was acceptable. Just like that. But what nobody else knew is what he’d told me, how he was having a hard time fitting in, feeling trusted and all. Stuff he had told me on those long nights. Clarissa and I were messing around, and came up with some pretty crazy plots to teach all you snobs a lesson, you know, just fantasies like.” Rosalita paused here, once again looking at her lap before plunging on. “One of them was to set Johnny up like he had raped a lady, so people would know he was no gentleman just because he was suddenly a Lancer.”  Rosalita once again met Scott’s eyes. “But we was just talking, not planning. A few days later Clarissa and her boyfriend, Bryan, left town. I haven’t seen them since.”

Scott felt numb. Johnny was innocent! The victim of a set-up! Worst of all, he and Murdoch had accepted it with scarcely a doubt—for the very reason Rosalita had explained. “Where are they now?”

“I don’t know where they are. I still don’t understand. We were just joking. She wasn’t the one who was angry at Johnny. She didn’t even know him. Why would she go through all that trouble?”

“Money.”

“What?”

“They asked for money so she could make a new life, and so she wouldn’t testify against Johnny.” Scott squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head. “Only Johnny pleaded guilty anyway.”

Rosalita nodded her head: “He would.”

Scott looked at her solemnly as the realization hit. “Yeah. I guess he probably would.”

 

Chapter 18

Scott and Rosalita spent some more time discussing where Clarissa and Byron could have gone. Clarissa’s boyfriend Brian was obviously her “brother” Byron. Rosalita promised to make some enquiries among her circle of friends, and to get back to Scott as soon as she heard anything.  Meanwhile, she had to go back to work for the evening.

Scott returned to his room, too excited to sleep. His brother was innocent! His brother was coming home! Well, he knew he was only coming home if he could find Clarissa and convince her to admit to her deception. His heart sank as he faced the improbability of both tasks.

But one step at a time. First, he needed to send a telegram to Murdoch informing him that he would be staying longer, and why. Murdoch could get Val onto the case as well. Val could wire his sheriff friends to see if they had noticed Clarissa and Byron in their towns.  Maybe Murdoch could even hire the Pinkerton Agency. Regardless, Scott would personally turn this country upside down until he found them.

Scott finally settled down to sleep. He thought back on his visit with Johnny, and Johnny’s parting plea for him to stay away. Maybe he would never have to make that decision.

***

Scott spent the next three weeks sending telegrams to sheriffs and riding to nearby towns to check out saloons and ask about Byron and Clarissa. But as the weeks wore on without a sign he began to realize the enormity of his challenge. They had left with enough money to go anywhere. They could have moved East and settled down as husband and wife. Rosalita wasn’t even sure if Jackson was Brian’s real name, nor did she know Clarissa’s last name, since she had gone by Desiree Nightingale for work. Eventually Scott would have to return to Lancer, but he planned to still conduct a search from there through the Pinkertons and Val. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Visiting day at the prison was once again approaching. Scott had envisioned himself going for one last visit, breaking the incredible news to Johnny that he was a free man, and walking out with Johnny at his side. Now he wondered if he should tell him anything. He had hoped Johnny would be free by this time. Now he had to decide if he should comply with Johnny’s request to stay away. Would it be best to wait until he was sure Johnny was going home rather than fill him with what might prove to be false hope?

The telegram he held in his hands complicated matters even more. It was from Murdoch. He was planning to come see Johnny on visiting day. Scott didn’t know if that was good or bad. Murdoch was the one who had seen to it that Johnny “faced the music.”  On that first visit Johnny had specifically asked that Murdoch not visit him. Scott knew that it was humiliating to Johnny for his family, and especially his father, to see him like that. Yet Scott also knew how important it would have been for Murdoch to show Johnny that he still believed in him no matter what.  Murdoch, however, had for all accounts disowned him. How would Johnny interpret the fact that Murdoch only found him worth visiting when the evidence finally convinced him of Johnny’s innocence?

Besides, Johnny had said that when he was reminded of his family and Lancer it made him weak in there. Scott had always tried to block the visions of what he knew happened in prisons from his mind. He knew Johnny had to be strong to survive against the other prisoners, the guards, and his own mental state. Scott sighed as he wrestled with what to tell his father about coming. He acknowledged, however, that whatever he said, Murdoch would likely come anyway.

 

Chapter 19

Scott had been right; Murdoch had insisted on visiting despite Scott’s misgivings. Scott decided that the only thing worse than Murdoch going to visit Johnny was Murdoch going to visit Johnny alone. As they entered the prison Scott saw an anguished look cloud Murdoch’s face. Johnny had spent eight months in this hellhole for a crime he didn’t commit. And Murdoch had put him there.

Murdoch hadn’t accepted Johnny’s innocence easily. All they had was the story of a saloon girl, a girl who had some sort of relationship with Johnny to start with. Still, her story did mesh with the events that had unfolded, including details nobody should have known about. Once Murdoch started to consider Byron’s demands for money, on top of Scott’s inability to locate Byron’s supposed ranch, he slowly began to acknowledge that Johnny might have been framed. Murdoch had taken the train up a day earlier so he could meet personally with Rosalita, and he had not found anything in her story he could pull apart. He finally admitted it appeared Johnny was very likely innocent---at least of this rape charge.

The guards escorted Johnny into the room. Scott realized that he had grown accustomed to Johnny’s appearance, but the gasp from his father reminded him of how startling a change had come over Johnny. His bedraggled prison clothes hung from his gaunt frame; he seemed practically oblivious of his surroundings. Johnny had shuffled halfway to the chair when he pulled up short, raised his head, and glared at Murdoch, focusing on the new visitor. “What the hell are you doin here?” he snarled. One guard gruffly shoved him forward and into the chair as the other cuffed him to it.

“Get out. Get the hell out of here!” menaced Johnny, straining against his cuffed hand as he got part way back up. He turned to the guards, who were leaving. “Get him out of here!”

Scott was shocked. In truth, he was almost relieved to see this much animation from Johnny, even if it was directed against his father.

Murdoch approached Johnny and tried to lay his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny shrugged violently away. “Get your fucking hands off me!”

“Johnny, I wanted to see you,” began Murdoch calmly, backing off to sit across from him.

“Well, you seen me now.” Johnny had dropped back into his chair. He met his gaze with a glare. “Ya happy?”

“No, son, I’m not happy.” Scott was impressed Murdoch was staying so cool. “I’m not happy at all to see you in here.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s why you pointed a gun at my head and locked me up.”

“Johnny, I didn’t want to do that. At…at the time, it seemed like the best thing for you.”

Johnny stared at him several seconds before replying with a sneer. “Oh, yeah, I’m doin much better now. Sorry I forgot to thank you.”

“In case you’ve forgotten, you were accused of a serious crime!” Johnny’s baiting finally got to Murdoch.

Scott couldn’t believe it. Had Murdoch forgotten that Johnny was innocent of that crime? “Uh, sir, let’s not get into that now, OK?”

Johnny turned his attention to Scott. “I thought I told you to stay away. You got some kinda hearing problem?”

“Johnny, please,” Scott’s voice remained calm. “We’re here to tell you something.”

“It better be ‘goodbye.’”

All three sat quietly for a moment. Then Johnny’s eyes narrowed with realization. “You found a kid?”

“Ah, actually, no. But I found out something else while I was looking.” Scott squirmed uncomfortably.

“Yeah? What?” challenged Johnny.

Scott stood and walked over to Johnny, placing his hand on his shoulder and bending to try to look him in the eye. “You were set up, Johnny. You’re innocent. We’re going to get you out of here.”

Johnny gave a slight start, then looked up at Scott suspiciously. “You ain’t makin any sense, Scott.”

“Listen, Clarissa and Byron came to Lancer just to set you up. They made it look like you raped her---only you didn’t.”

“Why would they do that? I never saw them before in my life!” Johnny had once again tried to get up, only to be jerked down by his cuff. Now he was jingling the chain hard.

Scott hated to tell him the next part. “Clarissa was really a saloon girl. She knew Rosalita, and Rosalita was mad at you. The two of them came up with this plan to get back at you. Rosalita never meant to go through with it, but Clarissa went ahead and did it. I guess because she figured she could get some money out of it. Rosalita said the plan they hatched sounded a lot like what happened. That they would spike your drink and then when you passed out, carry you to Clarissa’s room and make it look like you raped her. And Byron was her boyfriend, not her brother.”

Johnny sat silently for a moment before speaking. Even the jingling stopped. “I gave them money,” he said slowly. Money from Barranca!

“Oh? So did we,” interjected Murdoch. “And they wanted more. All in all they had quite a pay off for a few day’s work!”

“Right now we’re trying to find Clarissa and Byron, and bring them back to testify,” explained Scott. “When they do, you should go free!”

“What if you can’t find them?” A glimmer of hope mixed with doubt sounded in Johnny’s voice.

Scott had asked himself that question a thousand times. “Not a chance. We’ll find them, brother!”  He squeezed Johnny’s shoulder and smiled.

Too soon the door was flung open and the guards entered to take Johnny back.

“John!” Murdoch’s voice was urgent as Johnny was being led away. “I’m sorry I doubted you, son.”

Johnny registered his father’s words, words that would have meant the world to him eight months ago. Screw him. Right now there was a more pressing matter as the door was shutting between them. “Scott!  Find Barranca!”

 

Chapter 20

Scott returned to San Jose to confer once again with Rosalita before taking the next step. Murdoch took the train to San Francisco; he wanted to visit the Pinkerton office in person so he could hire them to find Byron and Clarissa. After that he arranged a meeting with Judge Bertram, the judge who had accepted Johnny’s guilty plea. He needed to know what procedure they would need to follow to get Johnny released. To his chagrin, it would take a formal hearing before such a decision could be made. However, the judge assured him that if Murdoch could get proper witnesses in order that he would personally see to it that the case was expedited. After finishing his errands, Murdoch returned to Lancer, where Val could reach him quickly in case Val’s sheriff friends turned up something.

Still, there was no news.

If Clarissa and Byron had left the area, finding them would be nearly hopeless. Especially if they had settled into domestic life somewhere. But if they were still around, or if Clarissa were still working, they might stand a chance. Rosalita asked all the cowboys who came in if they knew Desiree Nightingale. Her hopes were raised a few times, only to find out they knew her before Clarissa had gone to Lancer. She also spread the word among other saloon girls, but they were sometimes reluctant to come forward with information. It was Scott who proposed offering a reward to any of the girls who could locate her.

The reward proved to be a mixed blessing. Reports of Desiree Nightingale poured in, many of them placing her hundreds of miles apart at the same time. Scott and Rosalita studied each one, selecting the more credible for Scott to check out in person. The ones that were credible but far way he sent on to the Pinkerton Agency for them to investigate. Byron was proving even more difficult to search for. Scott decided his best bet was to find Clarissa and hope Byron was with her.

Scott had been in the saddle almost every day for the past three weeks with nothing to show for it. He imagined the look of disappointment on Johnny’s face as the next visiting day approached, and he pushed on. “Sorry, fella,” he patted his horse as he mounted up after visiting yet another sticky-floored saloon in a run-down town. His enquiries about Desiree Nightingale or Clarissa Jackson had once again elicited only blank stares from the men and promises of a better time from the women. “Just to the next town, then we can rest.”

He urged his mount to a lope as he left the town behind. The horse gave a half hearted effort, stumbled, and finally balked. Scott was jarred to his senses by his mount’s obvious exhaustion. He pulled the horse up. He didn’t know why he was killing himself, or his horse, to get to the next town on the list anyway. He had been to countless saloons in countless towns following leads by now; none of them had panned out, and he had to face the probability that none of them ever would. “OK, you win. We’ll go back.” He turned back toward town and the promise of a bed and a meal for both of them.

After caring for his horse, Scott inquired where he could find a room and a meal. He was disappointed to find the only place for either was that same saloon; he had hoped for something a little better. The place was a dump. But at this point he really didn’t care.

He got a room, stowed his stuff, then returned downstairs to order his meal. He found what he had come to call a Johnny Spot—a place in a corner with a view—and watched the floorshow of men getting drunk and women getting them that way.

He had almost finished his meal, a passable steak, when he was distracted by the thuds of stumbling steps from the one place he couldn’t see, the stairs behind him. “Oh come on sweetheart!” he heard a drunken plea accompany the stumbling. “I can pay you tomorrow…don’t you know you’re my heart’s desire?”

Yeah, good luck with that, mused Scott.

“Well my desire is some cold hard cash, cowboy. You come back when you get some,” came the woman’s reply. Scott strained to hear over the raucous noise of the saloon. Something seemed almost familiar.

“I want to get some now, Desiree, my desire!” the voice howled.

Desiree? Scott bolted to his feet and made his way to the stairway, just as a drunken mass of flesh stumbled down and into him, sloshing beer on them both. “Pardon me,” said Scott, ignoring his irritation to step nimbly around the man to peer up the stairs.

The alcohol-soaked man came to life. “Hey! You spilled my beer! I’m gonna smash your face in!”

“Whoa, there, friend. No harm intended.” Scott’s attention was still on the stairway, and he started up.

“Well I intend some harm,” the man slurred. He moved surprisingly fast for a drunk, grabbing Scott by the leg and pulling him down the stairs. Scott regained his feet, and smashed his fist into the man’s flabby face, hurtling him backward into a table. The two men at the table leaped up, intent on revenge against the closest target. It was Scott. One swung at Scott, his fist whizzing over Scott’s head as he ducked, while the other slipped behind Scott and pinned his arm around Scott’s neck. The first man closed in for a good whack, but Scott kicked him in the gut, sending him flailing. Then Scott kicked backwards and smashed the man behind him in the knee, getting a rewarding howl for his efforts as the man let go to hop and clutch at his injured leg.

Scott spun and bolted up the steps two at a time. A woman had stopped part way down, but now she turned and tried to run back up. Scott grabbed her by her frilly dress and spun her around.

“Well, Clarissa Jackson!  What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

“Let me go!”

“Stop right there, fella!” A shotgun slammed a round into place.

Scott stopped, slowly raising his hands and turning around to see the barkeep on the steps below him. “I’m not trying to cause any trouble. Your boys downstairs got a little excited. I just want to talk with the lady here.” As he gestured to her Clarissa ran up the final stairs to a room and slammed the door behind her.

“It don’t look to me like the lady wants to talk to you.” The barkeep gestured with his gun for Scott to climb to the top of the stairs, and he followed, keeping the shotgun trained on Scott.

“Look, all I want is some information. I’m willing to pay for her time.”

“The lady don’t come cheap.”

Scott knew that was a fact. She got over a $1000 for one night with Johnny. “I’m sure we can arrive at a mutually agreeable sum.” Scott slowly reached into his pocket with two fingers and pulled out a $20 gold piece, flipping it to clang on the floor by the man’s feet. The man glanced down but didn’t move. Scott added a second gold piece; the man again didn’t respond.

Scott didn’t have an endless supply of coins. It was time to make his stand. “You know, now that you point it out, I think you’re right. The lady doesn’t want to talk to me. With your leave, I’ll just retrieve my money and find a lady who finds me more agreeable. Maybe one in the next town.”

Scott slowly lowered his arms. The man still failed to respond, so Scott bent cautiously to reach for his coins. He never saw the gun butt crashing down on his neck, but he did see the knee right before it bashed into his face. He fell to his knees, grabbing at the man’s calves and pulling him down with him. The man started kicking at Scott’s face, but Scott dragged himself up the man’s pumping legs, raised up, and came down with a blow to his abdomen. The man gave a giant whoof as the wind was knocked out of him, doubling up and forgetting his intended victim. Scott was on him in an instant, his revolver to the writhing man’s temple. “Have we reached an agreement?”

Scott cocked his gun.

“Yes! Yes, I agree!”

“Excellent! I knew you were an astute businessman.”  Scott dropped the gold pieces on the man’s face and stood, keeping his gun trained on him. He motioned for him to get up. The man groaned as he pulled himself up, pocketing the coins. Scott motioned to Clarissa’s door. “Tell the lady we have a deal.”

The man glared at Scott and knocked on the door. “Desiree, you have a customer. Open the door.” The door remained closed. The man looked at Scott warily. “Open it now, or you’re gone.”

The door finally swung open, and Clarissa stood there defiantly. “Mr. Lancer,” she said, “Come to see how you measure up to your brother?”

Scott was in no mood for these games. His head hurt. His neck, too. He grabbed her and pushed her inside, his gun transferred from the man’s neck to hers as he slammed the door behind him. “You know good and well why I’m here. Your lies put my brother in prison. I want him out, and you’re going to get him out.”

Clarissa stopped struggling. “In prison? That’s not true! Besides, your brother raped me! He deserves to be in prison.”

Scott pushed her to the bed. “I’m sick of your lies! Rosalita told me all about your plan. You and your so-called brother. Now my brother—my real brother—is sitting in prison for 20 years!”

“I’ll scream if you try to rape me!”

“Like it would really matter to you. Besides, I already paid for the pleasure. But don’t worry: Lancers aren’t rapists.”

“I guess somebody forgot to tell Murdoch that! He sure looked pretty convinced that morning!” Clarissa started to laugh.

“You think this is funny?”

“I think it’s funny you went through all the trouble to find me. Your money’s long gone. And I got no reason to tell anybody anything.”

Scott holstered his gun, pulling up a chair to sit across from her. He decided to try a different tact. “Clarissa, I need your help. Johnny needs your help. I don’t care about the money. All I want is my brother back. He’s dying in there. It’s a death sentence. Please, Clarissa, help us.”

Clarissa looked down for several seconds, smoothing her yellow dress, then suddenly stood and walked quickly to look out the window. “Is he really in prison?”

“Yes, he’s been in there over eight months now. He’s not doing well.”

“How? I didn’t press charges. Brian said he’d go free, especially with the Lancer name, and family, behind him.”

Scott recalled how the Lancer family had not stood behind Johnny, and how Murdoch had stripped the Lancer name from him. Scott bowed his head. “He confessed. We believed him.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. But he didn’t do it, we know that now. Please Clarissa, you have to get him out.”

“I can’t help you.”

“Why not? You have to! You know he didn’t do it.” Scott was back on his feet, pacing now.

“I didn’t tell him to confess. Just because he did something stupid doesn’t mean I’m going to. I can’t go to prison.”

Scott spun and strode to stand directly behind her. “Johnny did something stupid, as you call it, because you set him up. All he did was take you to a dance and then try to save you from testifying about something you made up! Why’d you do it, Clarissa? For the money? A man’s life is worth a thousand dollars to you?”

Clarissa combed her fingers through her hair, then shook her head and sat back on the bed. “It was Brian’s idea. And he took the money. He took it and he left me in this God-forsaken town. So Johnny’s not the only one to suffer!” She wiped the tears from her cheeks.

“Here.”  Scott handed her a handkerchief. “Where’s Byr—Brian?”

“I don’t know. I told you, we got as far as this town, and I woke up, and he was gone. He took everything. I’ve been trying to earn enough money to get back to San Jose, but it’s slow going in a dump like this.”

Scott once again sat across from her, waiting several seconds before speaking slowly. “I could get you to San Jose. You know what the price is.”

“San Jose by way of the sheriff. I don’t think so.”

“No, Clarissa, listen, I’ve been thinking about this. Technically, you haven’t done anything wrong. You never officially accused Johnny. It was Murdoch who filed the complaint as a witness. You can’t be accused of perjury because you never testified. You weren’t even the one who asked for any money. That was Brian. Nothing will happen to you. We don’t have to get the sheriff.”

Clarissa looked around her hovel of a room. The laughter from downstairs and thumping from next door was a constant reminder of her situation. “You can get me to San Jose? How about some money to get me started?”

Scott shook his head. “No. That would look like bribe money to get you to testify. It could make your testimony worthless. I’ll get you to San Jose, wherever you want there, but no more. And you have to promise to come with me to Folsom to testify. If you don’t, I’ll make sure you’re very sorry.” He stared directly at her to make his point.

She sighed. “I got no future here. It’s no better than prison—maybe worse.” She bit her lip before speaking again. “OK, I’ll go. And I’ll testify. And Scott—I really am sorry about Johnny. I never meant him any harm.”

“Good.” Scott was nodding. “Excellent. We leave tomorrow morning.” Scott planned to watch her room all night. Just in case she changed her mind.

Scott stayed awake, sitting in a chair by his room door all night. He could see Clarissa’s door from there, as long as he kept his door cracked. He was too excited to sleep anyway. Besides, this place was dangerous. He had the bruises to prove it.

His mind raced with his plans for getting Clarissa back to Folsom and Johnny back to Lancer. True, he didn’t have Byron, but maybe Clarissa was enough.

Scott once again counted the days it would take them to get back and the days left before the next visiting day. He should make it in time. He couldn’t wait. Even if Murdoch planned to once again go with him.

 

Part 4

Chapter 21

Scott knew the routine. They would approach the visitor’s gate, be checked for weapons and contraband, wait in a large room with other visitors, and be escorted to the visiting room when it was their turn. This time something was different. When he signed in the guard looked at his information, then at his list, and then scurried into another room. He returned with someone who looked like a prison official. The official approached Scott and Murdoch.

“Mr. Lancer?”

“Yes,” both Scott and Murdoch replied.

The official continued. “You are here to visit inmate Madrid?”

“Yes…”

“There’s been an accident. I’m afraid Madrid is in the infirmary and not able to have visitors.”

“An accident!” bellowed Murdoch. “What do you mean he can’t have visitors!”

“What happened?” Scott knew an accident had to be severe to land a prisoner in the infirmary.

The official glanced at Scott before answering Murdoch. “I mean that you really wouldn’t get anything out of seeing him now. He’s unconscious.”

Murdoch drew himself up. “I demand to see my son! Especially if he’s unconscious!”

The official bristled. “We don’t take kindly to demands here, sir.”

“If you can’t meet those demands then take me to someone who can…”

“Please, sir. We’ve come a long way to see my brother.” Scott knew threats were not the way to deal with prison officials. He fished out a gold piece and flipped it in the air a few times, looking at the official suggestively. Then he purposefully missed it, allowing it to clatter to the official’s feet.

The official hesitated, glanced around, and then reached down for the coin. “Very well, sirs. Come this way.”

***

Once the official arranged for them to meet with the assistant warden, things went more smoothly. It had helped that Murdoch had mentioned Judge Bertram’s name, along with Bertram’s personal interest in Johnny’s case. They were given permission to visit Johnny in the infirmary.

Scott had thought the visiting area up front was fetid and gloomy; as they followed the guards through the corridors in closer proximity to the prisoners’ quarters he realized the front area was the prison showcase. The air here smelled of excrement, and the walls reverberated with a constant background of screams, curses, and sobs. The hallway was dim, but not so dim he couldn’t see the roaches scurrying underfoot and on the walls. Scott’s stomach lurched. This was Johnny’s world. The guards turned a key in the door marked “Infirmary.”

Scott walked into the hell of his past when he walked through that door, the hell of the field hospitals and their unsanitary and inhumane conditions that he had witnessed during the war. The difference was, this wasn’t wartime. The air in here was rancid, smelling even more strongly of excrement than it had in the corridor, with the added stench of decay. The floor was peppered with what appeared to be dried blood. Above it all was the moaning of patients. Where were the nurses? Where was the doctor? Where was Johnny? The guards consulted a log and then pointed them to a bed in the long line of beds. As they approached, they realized the still, bearded figure was Johnny.

“Johnny!”  Scott was instantly by his side, his hand on his brother’s forehead. “He’s burning up! Why isn’t he being cooled?”

“All medical questions need to go to the doctor,” replied the guard dispassionately.

“Well, just where is this doctor?” demanded Scott.

As if on cue a voice behind him spoke: “Right here. Now, who are you people?”

Murdoch straightened up, taking in the pale dark haired man who looked more like an undertaker. “I’m Murdoch Lancer and this is my son, Scott. I’m Johnny’s father.”

The doctor looked at him suspiciously. “I thought his name was Madrid.”

“It is…but it’s also Lancer. What’s wrong with him, Doctor…?”

“Swedloe. Dr. Swedloe. Madrid here managed to get himself stabbed, and then to get it infected. He’s got a fever.”

“Stabbed! How’d he get stabbed in here?”

“It’s not uncommon. And before you go getting all righteous on me, maybe you better know Madrid has given more than he’s gotten since he’s been here. He’s supplied me with plenty of patients.” The doctor gestured to a body by the door with a sheet drawn over its face. “There’s the fellow that stabbed him.”

Johnny’s words on his last visit came back to Scott: ‘makes me weak in here. I can’t afford that…’ No, no he couldn’t.

“How long has he been like this?”

“Just a day. He’s been in and out. He’ll probably wake if you keep after him.”

“Johnny? Wake up!” Scott was trying to see if the doctor was right. He spoke to the doctor without turning from Johnny. “What are you doing for him?”

“We don’t have the manpower or the money to do much for any of our patients. Basically, we give them a safe place to lie down—which is a big deal in here. We do what we can. Then it’s pretty much up to them. Tell you the truth, sometimes I think the ones that don’t make it are the lucky ones.”

“No! Johnny’s getting out of here! Dammit, get his fever down! Do something!” Scott plopped down on the bed next to his brother and reached for his hand. “What’s this? He’s cuffed to the bed? Where the hell you think he’s going? He’s unconscious!”

“It’s the rules. All our patients are cuffed both hands, usually both feet too. It’s for their own protection as much as ours. Otherwise as soon as one comes to he’d be over beating on whoever put him or his buddies in here. There’s a bunch in here that would love to get loose and come after Madrid while he’s out cold.”

“I want my brother out of here!” Scott was eyeing the other patients now, wondering which ones were after Johnny.

“Yeah, well prison has a way of getting in the way of that…”

Scott interrupted as an idea came to him: “OK, you say you don’t have enough money or manpower. What if we pay for his upkeep, and tend to him ourselves?”

“Sorry, but we can’t have prisoners’ families moving in here.”

“Can we at least take care of him right now?” asked Scott.

“Sure, I’d be grateful for the help, to tell you the truth. And we’ll be glad to supply whatever you need, if we have it.” The doctor who had appeared so cold suddenly seemed to warm up at the talk of help.

Scott looked around the dirty room, doubtful that he would want anything they had there. “Do you have anything like willow bark tea?”

“We actually do keep a pot of that going. It’s just finding the time to give it to our patients that can’t drink on their own. Help yourself. Sorry it’s probably cold.” He gestured toward a pot in the corner.

Scott brought the cold tea to the bedside and propped up Johnny’s head, once again imploring Johnny to open his eyes. Johnny responded by murmuring and lolling his head back and forth. It wasn’t quite the reaction Scott was hoping for, but it was good enough to assure him it would be safe to give Johnny some liquids without choking him. He opened Johnny’s mouth slightly and poured a trickle of tea in.

***

Johnny had been comfortably oblivious, spiraling in a whirlpool of black velvet, gradually buoyed upward into a gentle swirl of gray mist. He was conscious of voices around him, conscious that somebody had recently called his name, but actually waking was just too much effort. He became vaguely aware of his mouth being held open, then acutely aware of a bitter liquid being poured into it, of his own gasping and swallowing to keep from choking. He knew this feeling, knew it too well.

He began to panic.

Johnny threw his head side to side, struggling against his binds. “Hold him!” yelled Scott instinctively, surprised at his brother’s violent reaction and trying to rescue the rest of the tea.

Johnny heard the command to hold him and he started to struggle with all his determination. He would not let them do that to him again. He remembered the first time, Miguel forcing his mouth open, dribbling in the tequila, Johnny’s throat on fire as he gasped, his stomach rebelling as Miguel threatened him with what he would do if Johnny spit it back up. The repeated dosing until Johnny was stumbling as Miguel guided him back to the hotel, until the fat gringo went in and out of focus as he smiled and beckoned him into the same room that Johnny had fled the night before. But it wasn’t enough alcohol to still his struggles against the gringo and Miguel, or to quiet his sobs afterward. It was never enough, no matter how many times it happened.

Johnny realized his hands and feet must be being held. He clenched his teeth and began pitching his head back and forth, pounding it on the wall behind him. “Johnny, settle down!”  Scott commanded as he tried to still Johnny. Scott was finally able to grip Johnny’s head on both sides and hold it steady against Johnny’s efforts.

“No, no mas, por favor! Por favor senor…” Johnny sounded desperate about something. “Miguel, I don’t want to…no!”

“Johnny, wake up!” Scott stroked his brother’s forehead.

“What’s he talking about? He’s not making any sense.” Murdoch scowled.

“I have no idea. Come on Johnny, wake up for me. It’s all right.”

The doctor had joined them. “I meant to tell you. I’ve noticed Madrid doesn’t take medicine very well.”

“I know, I know!” Murdoch grumbled. “But this is just tea! He doesn’t have to go crazy.”

The three of them watched Johnny for a few minutes. He had finally quieted and appeared to be drifting back to sleep. Scott had quit trying to awaken him, and instead held a cool damp cloth to his forehead.

The doctor tapped his fingers on the table next to the bed, studying Johnny before he eventually turned to Murdoch. “Mr. Lancer, I need to ask you something.”

“Certainly, Doctor. What is it?”

The doctor hesitated, then spoke quickly. “What the hell happened to this boy? I mean, I see the scars. I know he was a gunfighter, so that explains the bullet scars. And he’s gotten some of the knife scars since he’s been here. But…the others? Can you explain those?”

Murdoch tightened his jaw. “I don’t know. Johnny didn’t grow up with me. I do know he had a rough childhood from what I’ve been able to piece together.”

“I’d say rough is an understatement!”  The doctor gestured with his arms at Johnny. “I’ve seen enough through the years to recognize abuse—burns, scars from whips and belt buckles, not to mention old breaks in bones that don’t feel like they were even set!  Plus there’s the…”

“It makes me sick to think of what that boy went through!” Murdoch interrupted, slamming his fist down so everything on the table rattled. “All that damn abuse!”

Johnny had remained on the edge of consciousness. His senses were jolted closer to wakefulness with the sound of something slamming and a voice raised in anger. His father’s? What were they talking about?

“I can imagine,” the doctor shook his head. “Especially the sexual abuse.”

The words hung heavy in the dank air. Nobody spoke. Finally it was Scott who broke the silence. “What did you say?”

The doctor looked suddenly uneasy. “I’m, uh, I’m sorry. I assumed you knew.”

“Doctor, you’d better explain yourself!” demanded Murdoch, glaring at the doctor with his hands on his hips.

The doctor began to fold some cloths, clearly uncomfortable with what he had to say. “Mr. Lancer, we get a lot of prisoners in here who have been attacked by the other prisoners.” He stopped and looked at Murdoch and Scott to see if they comprehended his statement. “By attacked, I mean raped.”

“Raped! Are you saying Johnny was raped while he’s been in here?” Murdoch’s jaw was clenching and unclenching now as he strode back and forth.

“No, no! At least not that I know of. But when a prisoner comes in, especially if he’s unconscious or has blood loss and we can’t find a reason for it, we have to perform a thorough examination. One of the things we check for is evidence of lacerations from a recent, uh, attack. Internal lacerations…” He paused again, looking at the Lancers who were now stone still. “Madrid came in unconscious once, and I did such an exam.”

“Go on…” Murdoch’s eyes had narrowed.

The doctor sighed and plunged on. “He had so much scarring it would have been almost impossible for him to have recent lacerations.”

“That’s a damn lie!” exploded Murdoch. “My son is no queer!”

The doctor tried to keep his voice calm. “That’s not what I’m saying, Mr. Lancer. I’m saying that the only times I’ve seen that much scarring was in cases of child prostitutes—young boys.”

Murdoch stood frozen, staring at the doctor, before he seemed to sway and sank into a chair, the color drained from his face. Scott stared numbly at Johnny.

Johnny had been becoming increasingly aware of the voices around him, increasingly able to make some sense out of snippets of the conversation—increasingly sure he was in the middle of a nightmare. He had tried to speak, but the words were stuck in his throat. He had to keep trying—had to stop the voices and what they were saying. “No!” he whispered feebly. “No es verdad…not true…”

Scott was at his side immediately. “Johnny, it’s OK. You’re OK,” he said, stroking Johnny’s forehead and grasping his cuffed hand.

“It’s not true…” Johnny was becoming more agitated. His eyes were open now, reflecting his turmoil as he turned toward Scott. “Scott, what he said, it’s not true…”

Murdoch had continued to sit, oblivious to Johnny’s awakening. He suddenly raged to his feet. “I’ll kill the sons of bitches who did this to my boy! Filthy bastards! I’ll…”

“Murdoch, Murdoch, now’s not the time!” warned Scott as he turned away from Johnny to quiet his father. He gestured with his head toward Johnny to alert Murdoch that he was listening to what they were saying. He turned back to Johnny to speak soothingly. “Johnny, whatever happened, it’s alright. It wasn’t your fault.”

“Nothing happened…he’s lying!” Johnny closed his eyes to block out the bad dream. He heard his brother’s voice, but he turned his head away from it and tried to place himself in his private hiding place—the place he had sought refuge in so many times when reality was too much to bear. The place he had far too much practice finding.

“Johnny? It’s alright.” Johnny was unresponsive. “Come on, Johnny, answer me…” Scott pleaded. He knew Johnny was not asleep. But Johnny refused to acknowledge Scott, and Scott finally resigned himself to sitting with a hand reassuringly on his brother, hoping Johnny would realize that Scott loved him, would watch his back—no matter what.

The doctor had discreetly moved away to give the family some privacy. Murdoch was standing with his back to Scott and Johnny, as though contemplating a spot on the wall. When he spoke, it was obviously with great effort to keep his voice down. “God damn it Scott, what kind of hell must he have endured? Why did he let it happen?”

Scott looked at him incredulously. “Let it happen?” He felt himself starting to lose his temper. “You heard the doctor. He was a kid!” he hissed. “Anyway, let’s not talk about it here. Johnny needs to get some rest.” He finished by giving his father a pointed look.

Murdoch and Scott both fell silent. Scott continued to cradle Johnny’s hand between his. He felt as though he would be sick to his stomach. He knew his brother’s childhood had been tough, even brutal he had sometimes suspected. Somehow the thought of…this…had never occurred him. Suddenly some of the inexplicable things Johnny had muttered during those too frequent nightmares that had summoned Scott to his brother’s side made sickening sense.

Still, hadn’t Johnny just denied it? Why should they take the word of a doctor who barely knew them, certainly knew nothing about Johnny’s life? Why would Johnny lie to them? Scott looked over at his father, who sat quietly seething, his hands clenched. Maybe it was better for them all if they pretended this never happened.

 

Chapter 22

The guards arrived to announce that it was time for them to leave. Scott pleaded with the doctor to make sure Johnny was cared for. Murdoch told him of his impending release, and the fact that Judge Bertram was on his way for the hearing. The doctor volunteered to accompany them to the warden’s office, where he would get them a meeting and perhaps special permission to stay with Johnny longer.

The warden’s inner office was appointed in a manner reminiscent of the finest bank, with a huge desk and plush chairs. The warden was an imposing man who looked as though he was not in the habit of granting favors.

Fortunately, Judge Bertram had already contacted him and apprised him of the circumstances surrounding Johnny’s possible release. The warden admitted that it looked likely that Madrid would go free, assuming what they said was borne out. He appeared sympathetic to the Lancer’s plight, and their desire to care for Johnny. But he pointed out that having civilians in the prison infirmary would mean the prison would have to hire extra guards just to watch over them. For their own safety, of course. The prison simply couldn’t afford it. He had lifted his eye brows and stared at the Lancers when he had said that. Murdoch was the first to catch on.

“How much?”

The warden’s figure had made it clear that either the Folsom guards were paid more than the wealthiest bank managers, or that the money would be going to buy more extravagant appointments for the warden’s office. Murdoch agreed to the bribe.

In exchange they would be able to spend daytimes with Johnny until he was well enough to be moved from the infirmary. After leaving the prison, Murdoch and Scott rode straight to town to buy supplies. They stopped at the local doctor’s office for clean bandages and supplies, and at the general store for bedding, toiletry items, and more agreeable ingredients for tea and broth.

They spent a quiet evening speaking of the impending hearing, the prison doctor, Johnny’s health, the weather, and pretty much anything but the disturbing news they had learned of Johnny’s past.

Murdoch and Scott were waiting at the prison gate before the sun rose the next morning. As soon as they were escorted into the infirmary Scott rushed to Johnny’s bed. Johnny was awake and propped up in bed.

Dr. Swedloe joined them, addressing Murdoch. “Mr. Lancer! I was pleased to hear you and the warden were able to come to an arrangement.”

“Johnny, how are you feeling?” Scott was already feeling his brother’s forehead.

Johnny had closed his eyes as soon as his family had entered the room. Now he turned his head away.

“Doctor Swedloe, how’s he doing?” asked Murdoch.

“Hard to say. He’s been awake more, but he still has a fever.”

“Has he had anything?” asked Scott.

“We were able to get him to drink some water a couple of times when he’s been awake. He still needs more liquids.”

“Johnny, look at me. You have to drink something. I’m going to get you some water.”

Johnny still wouldn’t respond. Scott held a cup to Johnny’s mouth, and Johnny drank the water with his gaze averted. When he was through he laid his head back and closed his eyes. “I’m tired.”

“Well, sure Johnny. You go back to sleep. But if you don’t mind, we may tackle that beard of yours. And maybe even a bath. You’re pretty rough, brother!” Scott smiled and swiped his hand across Johnny’s forehead affectionately. Truth was, as bad as the infirmary smelled, Johnny smelled worse.

Scott had brought a razor but the guards had confiscated it. Dr. Swedloe was able to find another one for him. “We’ll get you all prettied up there, brother!” he said as he began to cut away Johnny’s thick beard. He kept a cool cloth on Johnny’s forehead throughout, changing it as it warmed.

Scott couldn’t tell if Johnny was really asleep. He never opened his eyes or responded to Scott, but he winced a couple of times when Scott nicked him. So Scott continued to talk to him. Once he was through with the shave, Scott announced a bath would be next. He went with Murdoch to heat some water.

When they returned with the warmed water, Johnny appeared genuinely asleep. Scott and Murdoch both began bathing him together so they could get as much done as possible before the water cooled. Even though Johnny had a fever, they were concerned that he could become chilled in the cool air. Johnny seemed oblivious to their ministrations, and they were soon finished with his front. They had removed his bandage and cared for his knife wound, but the doctor asked that they allow him to tend to it himself after they were through bathing him. Now they had to find the doctor to uncuff Johnny so he could be turned over.

The doctor warned that Johnny’s hands would have to be cuffed again once on his stomach, although his feet could remain uncuffed. Johnny seemed to be sleeping so soundly he barely reacted when he was turned. Scott stripped off his bedding, which was soiled, and placed towels under him temporarily. The doctor cuffed Johnny’s hands back to the bed and left.

Scott was dismayed at what he saw. It was clear that nobody had attended to Johnny’s hygiene while he was bedridden. Scott gave his father the comparatively pleasant job of washing Johnny’s back and shoulders, while Scott took the less pleasant job of bathing Johnny’s more intimate regions.

That was when Johnny apparently awoke---and apparently panicked. Without warning he  lunged, twisting his body away from them, struggling against his cuffs, crying out in Spanish and English. He drew his knees under him for more leverage, enabling him to lurch back and forth and pull even harder against his hand cuffs.

“John, stop! Calm down!” yelled Murdoch as he tried to pin him down by his shoulders. “Scott, grab his legs!” Johnny suddenly opened his eyes, then stopped struggling. His eyes met Scott’s, then looked away and closed.

Scott stood back in horror as realization struck him. Johnny’s words—as well as his actions—made all too perfect sense to Scott. The doctor had not been lying.

 

Chapter 23

The rest of the day went without incident. Johnny’s fever seemed to be getting better. He awakened several times, complacently drank water, tea, and broth, but never responded to Scott or Murdoch, or for that matter, never even looked at them.

Scott had the doctor examine Johnny’s hand. The doctor agreed he could feel an old injury, but understood why Johnny had not sought treatment. He believed that if Johnny exercised it there was still a good chance he would regain its former range of motion and strength. It had a long way to go, however.

As the time approached for them to leave, Scott and Murdoch made plans to bring Johnny more fresh bedding as well as some real food the next day. They discussed their intentions with the doctor as they moved toward the door before turning to say goodbye to Johnny.

“John, you take care of yourself. We’ll be back tomorrow,” Murdoch called out from the doorway.

Scott had gone back to lay his hand on his brother’s shoulder one last time. Johnny stiffened. “Come on brother. Look at me,” Scott tried once more. He sighed, “OK, Johnny, we’ll see you tomorrow.”

Scott and Murdoch had gone only a short way down the corridor when Scott realized he had left his gloves by Johnny’s bedside. The guards accompanied the two men back to the infirmary door, but Scott would have to wait while a guard retrieved the gloves. As the door opened they heard Johnny’s voice from inside. “Doctor…” Scott tried to go in, anxious to hear Johnny finally speaking, but the guard prevented him from re-entering. The infirmary door was still open, though, and they could hear what he said. “Doctor, don’t let them come back…”

“What?” Murdoch pushed his way into the room but was pulled back by the guards. “Let me get to my son!” He shouted across at Johnny “What do you mean don’t let us come back?”

“Mr. Lancer, I can’t have you yelling in my infirmary! Or at my patients!” Dr Swedloe was standing protectively in front of Johnny, who had once again closed his eyes.

“I’m sorry, doctor, I just don’t understand.” Murdoch looked at his son. “John?”

Scott tried speaking more soothingly. “Johnny, we’re coming back. We’re worried about you, and we want to take care of you. We’re coming back.”

Johnny never opened his eyes. But he did speak. “God damn it, go away.”

***
Johnny was disheartened to hear his father and brother arrive again early the next morning. He didn’t need them, didn’t want them, here. He had recovered from a lot worse than this without their help. Sure, it was nice to have somebody cool his forehead or fix him food, but now the price was too high.

He couldn’t stand to have them looking at him, knowing what he had done. The secret he had so carefully tended so many years, now exposed for everyone to gawk at. Now Scott and Murdoch knew him for what he really was: a half-breed whore-boy. He was surprised they could still bear to touch him, knowing what he had done with his body. But what choice had he had?

“There are ALWAYS choices. Some are just easier than others.” Murdoch’s words rang through Johnny’s head again and again.

He should have fought harder. He had fought, though, fought viciously at times, until he realized he could never overcome the larger men. And the times he had made it as far as the door, Miguel was always waiting outside to stop him.

He should have refused to do what they told him. He had tried that, though. The man had told Miguel, and Miguel had taken Johnny by the arm and dragged him to his mama’s room. Without a word, he had pulled her from her bed and beat the crap out of her. When he was finished, he had turned to Johnny and asked him if being so selfish was worth it.

He should have hidden better. He had tried to guess when Miguel might want him, and then hide, but sometimes he was asleep, and sometimes he was playing with his friends, when Miguel would come and tell him he had to work.

He should have told his friends. He had been too ashamed, though. Besides, their mamas already didn’t want them playing with him. If they found out about this, he would lose the few friends he had.

He should have told his mama. Miguel had told him not to, though. His mama was doing the same thing to support them. Wasn’t it Johnny’s duty to do his part?

He should have run away. Johnny loved his mama too much to leave her, though. And she needed him. Besides, he only knew of one way to support himself, and that would have left him no better off.

So there had been choices, and Johnny had chosen, taken what he guessed Murdoch would call the easy choice. He really didn’t give a crap what Murdoch thought; he hoped he never had to see the bastard again in his life. But he did care what Scott thought, and he knew Scott must be filled with disgust. Although Johnny was angry at the doctor for bringing on this nightmare, he realized he needed his help if he were to keep his family away. So he had spent the previous evening begging him to ban them.

For all the good it had done. Here they were back again. Johnny hoped if he ignored them enough they would give up on him and quit coming. He complied with their requests with all the animation of the chair beside his bed. He could see his father getting increasingly irritated, which encouraged him, but his brother only seemed to get increasingly concerned. He would be harder to get rid of.

Yet both of them stuck it out all day. Johnny didn’t know what they were trying to prove. They couldn’t care about him now. His father had obviously given up on him long ago, even before this revelation. His brother’s high morals could never let him accept such behavior. So what was this show all about? They changed his bedding, cleaned his wound, tended to his needs, and sat beside him and talked. He shut them out of his mind as best he could. And he willed himself to get well as fast as possible so he could go back to his cell—where they couldn’t follow.

***

“I’m ready to go back.” Johnny tried to look his perkiest as he announced his good health to the doctor.  Scott and Murdoch had finally left earlier in the evening.

“No you’re not. You can’t even stand up!” Dr. Swedloe had turned toward him and was shaking his head, his arms folded.

“Well, of course I can’t stand up! Ya got me tied to the bed!”  Johnny tugged at one his cuffs, finally letting his arm flop back down on the bed.

“Well, we all have our difficulties…” The doctor smiled slowly. He wasn’t about to let Madrid go back to his cell. Even if he was well enough to dance a jig.

Johnny caught on and glared at him with his best Madrid look. “You better let me out of here.”

“Why? So you can get beat up, maybe knifed really good this time? I don’t know what your problem is with your family, but getting yourself killed just to spite them is pretty damn stupid in my book.” Swedloe had walked to the foot of the bed, arms still folded.

“I ain’t trying to get myself killed. I just want to be left alone.”

“That’s a mighty big request when you’re in prison.”

“You know what I mean. I don’t want them two hovering over me. I don’t want them here.”

“Why? They want to be here. Why are you treating them so poorly?” The doctor walked a few steps and sat on the edge of the bed, turning toward Johnny.

Johnny glared, then slowly averted his gaze to study his bed sheets. Finally he spoke quietly. “Why’d you have to tell em? Why’d you have to say anything?”

Dr. Swedloe immediately understood Johnny’s discomfort around his brother and father. He felt terrible about his role in it. “Listen, Madrid—Johnny—first of all, I’m sorry. But beyond that, you have to know there’s nothing to feel guilty about, nothing to be ashamed of. It was something that was done to you. Your family understands, and if anything, they love you even more.”

Johnny continued to contemplate the bed sheets, his fingers tapping on the sides of the bed.

The doctor decided to move on. “I understand you have a hearing coming up, and you’re probably going to be leaving our fine prison. You need your family when you go there, and when you go home, and you need to be talking to them. On top of that, I want you healthy when you leave this place, and I’m not letting you go get yourself hurt before then. I’ve got a reputation to uphold,” he added, smiling.

Johnny had never hated being in prison so much.

***

Scott awoke early and hurried to get dressed. He wanted to be at the prison when the gates opened for the day. He knew Murdoch would be up, too. Maybe today would go better. Maybe Johnny would start talking, or at least interacting. Scott sighed; he had to admit he doubted it would go any better than the previous day. He understood that Johnny probably felt self-conscious about what the doctor had revealed. He’d tried to find a chance to broach the subject with him, but Murdoch was always there, and Scott knew that Johnny would be especially self-conscious in front of him. Scott had told Johnny several times that he knew it wasn’t Johnny’s fault, and that Scott thought no less of him because of it. But it was as though Johnny didn’t even hear him.

The knock on his door told him Murdoch was ready. Scott grabbed his stuff and headed into the hall. He walked a few steps and pulled up. The chair at the end of the hallway was empty. Scott had hired two guards to take turns watching Clarissa—just in case she got cold feet and decided to leave. Where was the night guard?

Murdoch had also stopped. Their eyes met in mutual realization. If Clarissa was gone, all was lost. They both turned toward Clarissa’s door. Scott knocked, and knocked again. Nobody answered.

 

Chapter 24

Scott tried the door, calmly at first, then smacking it with his shoulder as it failed to open. He checked his watch. Maybe she hadn’t had time to leave town yet. Neither the early train nor the stage had yet left, but both were scheduled to leave within minutes. Scott raced down the hall and took the stairs two at a time, yelling to Murdoch to check the stage depot while he ran on to the train station.

He burst out the hotel door and onto the street, leaping out of the way of a wagon at the last instant. By the time he had jackrabbited his way to the station, he was heaving with the exertion. He stood on the platform, hands on knees, and watched the plume of smoke from the engine as it disappeared down the track.

Still gasping, he made his way to the ticket counter to see if Clarissa had boarded. The passenger roster included five women, but if one had been Clarissa, she hadn’t used her real name. Maybe Murdoch had had better luck.

Scott made his way back to the stage depot. Murdoch strode across the street to meet him, informing him that he, too, had been too late. The stage had taken on three women, one of which may or may not have matched Clarissa’s description. Again, none bore her name.

It didn’t surprise Scott that she hadn’t used either of her names. For all Scott knew, she had another alias. So it was entirely possible that one of those eight women was Clarissa.  The train was headed north; its first stop was San Jose, the town Clarissa wanted to get to. It seemed the obvious place to start his search. Too obvious, maybe. Wouldn’t Clarissa expect him to look there?

The stage was headed south, stopping first in Hollister, which was about half the distance from Gilroy as San Jose. The men quickly decided that Scott would ride up to San Jose while Murdoch would ride to Hollister. If they were fast enough, they could catch her as she disembarked. The longer she was off the train or stage, the harder it would be to find her. Murdoch saddled the horses while Scott raced back to the hotel for their saddlebags. Scott banged on Clarissa’s door on his way to his room for good measure, and kicked it on his way out just because it felt good. They would skip breakfast and eat on the trail. Every second counted.

***

Johnny’s luck was finally looking up. Neither Scott nor Murdoch had bothered to show up today.  Johnny congratulated himself on his good work. He wasn’t surprised Murdoch had finally given up. After all, he’d washed his hands of Johnny the morning he’d discovered him naked in that bedroom. This bizarre little spectacle he had been putting on of caring for Johnny must have finally proved too much for him. Johnny was a little bit more surprised about Scott. Then again, Scott had given up on him pretty easily before, too.

Finally Johnny could enjoy the perks of being in the infirmary. It was bright and clean compared to his regular quarters, and everybody was tied up. It was about the only place you could really relax in here. Especially now that Scott and Murdoch were gone.

Johnny watched the shadows cast by the light from the small windows creep across the room. Along with them his mood slowly changed from triumph to irritation. He reluctantly admitted he was a little disappointed by Scott’s absence. True, Scott had let him down badly before. He just hadn’t expected him to do it again so quickly.

The problem was, he had that hearing coming up. Weren’t Scott and Murdoch in charge of bringing Clarissa in to testify? If they had left town, had they just let her go? Johnny began to wonder if he had screwed up. He didn’t need them, but he needed that hearing, and he needed Clarissa. He needed to get out of prison---and to go somewhere far way from Lancer.

He made a decision. If they came back, he would be more cooperative. He would dump them later. Just like they’d dumped him.

The shadows turned into twilight without sign of them. Maybe they would come tomorrow.

***

Scott read the telegram from Murdoch with dismay: NOT HERE. GOING BACK. It had been three days since Clarissa had disappeared. Scott had scoured every saloon and brothel in San Jose. Rosalita had not seen Clarissa, nor had any of her friends. The train had continued northward to San Francisco, and she could easily have stayed on it. Scott would never find her there. He reluctantly sent a reply: MEET YOU HOTEL.

The weather was breezy, the sky clear, and the landscape beautiful. All of it conspired to make Scott’s ride back miserable. Johnny would never get to ride across the land like this, to feel the sun on his back and the breeze on his face. He would be in prison another 19 years. Scott cursed Clarissa, cursed the guard, and cursed himself for not guarding her personally. He urged his horse to go as fast as possible as though to leave his thoughts behind. The hearing was already scheduled for tomorrow. He had been too optimistic to cancel it, but he had to do so as soon as he got back to town. Then he had to face Johnny. He had no idea how he could tell him of his failure.

By the time he reached Gilroy his horse’s sides were lathered and heaving. Scott felt bad about pushing him that hard. On the other hand, he had made excellent time. He was surprised to see Murdoch just entering the hotel, saddlebags in hand. He must have just arrived.

Murdoch saw Scott and changed direction to meet him at the livery. After arranging for the care of Scott’s horse, the two men went back to the hotel. In their haste to leave they had not checked out of their rooms, so they went right up. Scott was half way up the stairs when a thought occurred to him. He went back to the desk and asked for a key to Clarissa’s room. Maybe she had left a clue.

After dropping their saddlebags in their rooms, Murdoch and Scott decided to check out Clarissa’s room. They opened the door, took a step inside, and froze, their eyes taking in the piles of dirty plates, the tossed bed sheets, and the undulating torsos and tangle of limbs belonging to Clarissa and the guard.

“Found her,” said Scott.

 

Chapter 25

Johnny was the last one to enter the small chamber where the hearing would be held. He had on a clean prison shirt, and was freshly shaved and bathed. His hands and feet were shackled, and two guards stayed with him.

He quickly scanned the room. It was the nicest place he had seen in almost a year. It was nothing fancy, but it was clean and light, with no bugs. Only a handful of seats were occupied, mostly by serious looking men. He vaguely recognized Judge Bertram sitting up front. With a start he saw his father and brother were there. They hadn’t left after all. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Then he recognized Clarissa with them. For some reason he felt embarrassed for her to see him like this, even embarrassed as though he had actually raped her. He caught the illogic of his feelings; she was the one who had lied, had done this to him. Truth was, he’d like to strangle the bitch.

The guards pushed him into a seat and the judge began to speak. Judge Bertram explained that each witness would be sworn in, but that the hearing would be fairly informal. Bertram himself would be asking the questions. Only Murdoch, Johnny, and Clarissa would be called to testify. Rosalita had originally been scheduled, but when they had assumed the hearing would be cancelled she had stayed in San Jose. It was too late for her to get here now.

***

Murdoch was called first. After stating his name and relationship to Johnny, the judge asked him to relate the events of that morning. Murdoch recounted how he had been awakened by screams from Clarissa’s room, had knocked on her door, and had gone ahead and opened it when she continued screaming.

“What did you see?”

“I saw my son—Johnny—naked on the bed, apparently passed out. And Miss Jackson, wrapped in bed sheets, standing next to the bed screaming.”

“Did anybody else see this?”

“Yes. Scott, my other son. Brian Jackson, the man we thought was Miss Nightingale’s brother, but we know now was her boyfriend. And briefly, my ward Teresa O’Brien.”

“What did you do?”

“I woke Johnny up and asked him what was going on.”

“And what was his reply?”

“He didn’t answer.”

The judge shuffled some papers and looked at his notes for a few seconds. “Mr. Lancer, the main reason you’ve been called today is that you were the one who filed the complaint.”

Scott had hoped this wouldn’t come out. He saw Johnny jerk his head up to glare at Murdoch as he realized it was his father, not Byron or Clarissa, who had filed the paperwork accusing him of rape.

“Yes,” replied Murdoch slowly, returning Johnny’s gaze.

“Can you explain why you took it upon yourself to do that?

“Miss Jackson refused to do so. But it was something that happened in my home, by my son. It was my responsibility.”

“Even knowing you were sending your own son to prison?”

“I thought he was guilty. Nobody’s above the law.”

Johnny’s head had bowed again. He was fidgeting with his chains so much that the judge paused and looked at him. “Mr. Madrid? Could you try to keep the noise down?” Johnny didn’t reply but gave the chain a final loud clank before stilling his fingers.

The judge turned back to Murdoch. “But now you’ve changed your mind.”

“No. I mean yes. Miss Nightingale has confessed that she made the whole thing up.”

“But otherwise you thought he was capable of this crime?”

Murdoch didn’t answer for several seconds. He finally lowered his head and almost whispered, “At the time, yes.”

Scott was incredulous. Whose side was Murdoch on? He noticed Johnny looked as though Murdoch had gut shot him.

The judge wrote for several seconds. “Thank you. Next, I’d like to hear from Mr. Madrid.”

Johnny didn’t move. The two guards hastened over and pulled him upright, hustling him to the witness chair.

“Could you state your inmate number and name?”

Johnny sat sullenly for a second, then replied. “You already know all that. You got it right there, along with everything I’ve done since I been here.”

Scott sighed. This was just what he hoped wouldn’t happen. An insolent Johnny could be a disaster.

The judge didn’t look amused. “Mr. Madrid, have you been convicted of previous crimes?”

“You got all that there too. Yeah, I been convicted of crimes.” He ticked off on his fingers as he recited. “Stealin, shootin, fightin, trespassin, burnin, vandalism, vagrancy, drinkin too much, threatening a public official, bein a public nuisance, disturbing the peace, incitin a riot—you want me to go on?” He smiled broadly. “I’m sure I can come up with some more.”

“That won’t be necessary.” The judge scowled and looked at him. “Sounds like you’ve been pretty busy.”

“Yeah, well, I got an early start.”

The judge wrote something down before continuing. “As you know, the charge you’ve been incarcerated for is of a sexual nature. Have you ever been involved with a crime involving sex?”

Johnny caught his breath. He reeled with the thought that the judge somehow had found out about what he had done as a child. “No,” he said weakly, praying the judge would not bring it up.

The judge consulted his papers for a long time. Johnny thought he was going to be sick. He knew! He was going to tell!

The judge cleared his throat. “Can you relate what happened between Miss Jackson and yourself?”

Johnny was so relieved he almost forgot to answer the question. He finally noticed everybody staring at him expectantly and managed to regain his composure. “Uh, yeah. My family thought I needed to date a nice girl. A lady. So my brother here got me to ask out Clar—Miss Nightingale.” Johnny looked over toward Scott and cocked his head. “Thanks, Scott.”

“That’s enough of that. Stick to the story, Madrid. What happened when you escorted Miss Nightingale?”

Johnny bristled. “We went out, we came home, I woke up and my old man was beatin the crap outta me.”

“Mr. Madrid, this may be an informal hearing but I can still hold you in contempt!”

“Yeah, I sure wouldn’t want to get sent to prison or nothin…”

Why was Johnny doing this? Scott was starting to feel as though all he had worked on was being sabotaged—first by his father, now by his brother.

The judge ignored Johnny’s comment and continued. “You came home. Did you have a chance to be alone with Miss Nightingale at that time?”

“No. My horse was with us. Then her brother—or whatever he was, he come in.”

“I take it you were in a barn?”

“Well my horse don’t live in the house.” Johnny replied in a serious tone, but with a sly grin.

Judge Bertram was doing an admirable job of holding his temper. “Then what did you do?”

“I went with Byron and got drunk!” Johnny was grinning widely now. Scott could not imagine how he thought this was funny.

“And where was Miss Nightingale?”

“In her room, I reckon.”

“When you left Mr. Jackson, where did you go?”

“I guess I went to her room.”

“Oh?”

“Well, that’s where they found me.”

“Do you remember going to her room?

“No.”

“Then how do you know you went there?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. Was this a trick question? “Uh, cuz I got there.”

“Let’s go on. What do you remember doing in Miss Nightingale’s room?”

“Sleepin. And gettin banged around a lot.” He looked at Murdoch.

“How do you account for the fact that you had no clothes on?”

“I don’t know.”

How do you account for the scratches on your face?”

“I don’t know.”

How do you account for Miss Nightingale’s ripped clothing?”

“I don’t know.”

The judge wrote down some notes, then turned his gaze on Johnny once again. “Mr. Madrid, you confessed to the rape of Miss Nightingale. A signed confession is not something we take lightly. Can you tell me why you confessed?”

Johnny considered his answer, but he could come up with nothing better than the truth. “Cuz I thought I must of. Everybody thought so.”

The judge wrote some more. “I see. Very well, you may return to your seat.”

After writing for what seemed an alarmingly long time, the judge finally turned to Clarissa. “Miss Clarissa Nightingale, we’re ready to hear from you now. Please state your full name.”

She did so, adding that her working name was Desiree Nightingale, and that Nightingale really was her last name.

“Miss Nightingale, did you know Mr. Madrid before you visited his home?

“No, but a friend of mine had told me all about him and his family. I went up there in order to meet him. Only he didn’t know that.”

“Oh? Why did you want to meet him?”

“My friend—she works in the saloon up in San Jose now—well, she used to work in Morro Coyo. She was telling me about this fellow that caused her a lot of embarrassment. We were thinking of ways to get him back, and one way was for somebody to set him up with a lady and convince everyone he’d forced himself on her.” She studied the handkerchief she was twisting in her lap.

“Go on,”

“I mentioned it to my boyfriend, Brian Jackson, and he said we should do it. That we could make a lot of money that way. So he fixed it for us to go visit there. He wrote Murdoch Lancer and finagled an invitation by telling him he was importing some kind of special bulls, and he wanted to let Lancer in on them. He had a background in livestock breeding.  Anyway, we got a letter back inviting us, only Johnny—Mr. Lancer, I mean, Madrid—wasn’t there when we arrived. We had to stall until he finally got back from being on the trail.”

“Where is this Mr. Jackson?”

“I don’t know. He left me high and dry in some good-for-nothing town. I haven’t heard from him since.”

“Very well. Go on with your story.”

Clarissa took a deep breath and then looked at the judge. She resumed. “I had to act fast to get him to ask me out.” She turned her gaze to Johnny. “We did actually have a nice time at the dance. And afterward. Anyway, Brian—Mr. Jackson—drugged Johnny’s drink, and he dragged him to my room and made it look like he attacked me. We took his clothes off, and I scratched his face. I ripped my clothes and took them off.”

Clarissa then went on to describe in detail how they had set the scene. Johnny was slowly becoming infuriated. They had undressed him while he was defenseless. Plus, she had only gone out with him because it was part of a plot!  He realized these were not the important things to be upset about; and he was in truth far more upset about being framed and sent to prison for almost a year—but for some reason he found himself dwelling on those minute details.

“So he did not rape you?”

“No, he did not. He was a perfect gentleman.” She looked at Johnny again, smiling coyly. “Well…almost.”

“Miss Nightingale, have you been paid or received any compensation for your testimony today?”

“No. Mr. Lancer, Scott Lancer that is, arranged to bring me here to testify and then he promised to take me to San Jose. That’s all. Oh, and he’s put me up in a very nice hotel while I’ve been here waiting. It even has room service.”

Put you up in a nice hotel so you could have a sex marathon with the guard I paid for, mused Scott, still smarting at the sight that had greeted him the day before.

“Thank you, Miss Nightingale. If that’s all, then, I’ll review my notes and issue my finding within the hour. Guards, you may return Mr. Madrid to the holding area.” With that, he turned and disappeared into another room.

Scott sat there as everyone around him got up. He had envisioned the judge simply turning to Johnny and telling him he was free. He had certainly never imagined that his father would testify that he thought Johnny was capable of rape, or that Johnny would be so determined to self-destroy.

So sure had Scott been that they would all be leaving together that he had arranged for Cipriano to ride up with a special surprise for Johnny. Now he was starting to wonder if that had been a mistake.

 

Chapter 26

Murdoch and Clarissa stayed in the waiting area, while Scott was given permission to wait with Johnny in the holding area. Johnny had specifically demanded that Murdoch not be allowed in there, and for once his wishes were complied with. Johnny was cuffed to a bench so the guards were able to leave them unsupervised. Scott sat down on a bench across from him, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his chin balanced in his hands.

“What were you trying to do up there?” Scott asked, shaking his head slightly. Scott was ready to light into Johnny for his behavior, but then he caught himself. What good would it do now? Now was the time to either prepare Johnny for another 19 years behind bars, or with luck, the return to Lancer. Given the way things had been going, he wasn’t sure which would be the greater challenge.

Deciding to be optimistic, he slapped Johnny on the knee, then sat back with his hands behind his head and grinned broadly. “I can’t wait to get you home! I can just imagine the meals Maria’s going to be serving. We’re going to eat good for weeks while she fattens you up!”

“Yeah, Scott, about that.” Johnny shuffled his feet beneath the bench, his shackles tinkling gently. “One way or the other, I ain’t goin back with you.”

Scott leaned abruptly toward Johnny, his hands falling to the bench. He hoped he had heard his soft words wrong, but he knew he hadn’t. “What?”

“I ain’t going back to Lancer, Scott. The old man showed me what he thinks of me. Just cuz it come out I didn’t do what he was sure I did, don’t mean it’s any better. I just can’t live like that no more.”

Scott dipped his head briefly while he considered Johnny’s words.  “I know Murdoch could have handled things better, but he wants you to come home. It’ll kill him if you don’t.”

Johnny was still studying his shackles. “Yeah, well, it’ll kill me if I do.”

“What about Teresa? Are you just going to leave her too?”

“Ya think the old man is going to be happy about me sleeping in a room next door to Teresa?” Johnny shook his head, chuckling softly.

“Johnny, I swear!” Scott smacked his hand down on the bench, startling Johnny so that he finally looked up. “Where do you come up with this stuff? Murdoch wants you back. You didn’t do anything, and he knows it.”

Johnny thought back. Maybe he hadn’t done what he’d been accused of, but he’d sure done something just as shameful. And he was pretty sure his brother and father knew about it. That was just one more reason he couldn’t go back to Lancer now.

“I’m not going back.”

“Just give it a chance, Johnny. Murdoch trusts you. He just made a mistake. We all want you back home at Lancer.  Besides,” he added with a grin as he reached forward and squeezed Johnny’s shoulder, “you’re coming home if I have to hog-tie you!”

At that moment the guards banged open the door. “The judge is back. It’s time.”

***

Scott followed Johnny and the guards into the hearing room. He stole a look at Judge Bertram, who sat stone faced.

“Mr. Madrid, would you rise?”

He rustled his papers for an interminably long time before finally looking up and speaking. “Mr. Madrid, I find that you did voluntarily and without coercion sign a legally binding confession to the crime for which you are now serving time. I further find that the evidence against you would have been such that you surely would have been convicted of said crime had you gone to trial.”

The judge looked through his papers some more. “In reviewing your history since your incarceration, I see that you have failed to be what we might call a model prisoner. You have been involved in numerous serious altercations with both guards and other prisoners. In fact, I see that those altercations have added three years onto your original sentence.” He paused to peer over his spectacles at Johnny.

“Your prior record indicates a history of lawlessness,” he continued, shaking his head. “Your testimony here today did nothing to convince me of your respect for authority.”

The judge looked at Johnny. “In the case of a confession, it takes an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary to lay it aside. You have one witness who has come up with a tale that is not substantiated by anyone else.” He paused. “Fortunately for you, that witness is your alleged victim, and she has no apparent motive to come forward here and lie. I’m going to grant the pardon.”

There was a moment in which the room seemed frozen in time. Then it erupted into a flurry of motion. Scott was the first one to reach Johnny, throwing an arm around him in a hearty embrace. Murdoch, too, was there, smiling widely and pounding Johnny on the back. Clarissa hung back, knowing she was not a part of the celebration. Johnny himself seemed stunned, as though he had never imagined he would really be going free.

Judge Bertram turned the room over to a prison official, who explained it would take about an hour to process the paperwork to get Johnny officially released from the prison. The two guards would accompany him back to his cell to pick up any belongings he wanted and then take him to the processing room. He would then meet Scott and Murdoch on the outside of the prison, a free man.

As soon as Johnny had left, Scott turned to Murdoch, his smile fading. “We have to talk. Johnny says he’s not coming back with us.”

“What?”

Scott explained what Johnny had said. Murdoch just kept shaking his head in disbelief. “Any ideas?”

Scott thought for a moment. “Maybe. He won’t like it. But right now he’s got no money, no horse, no saddle, and no gun. As far as I know all he has are the clothes on his back, and they’re prison clothes. If we don’t give him any of those things, he’ll have to at least come back to Lancer. Problem is, I’m not so sure how we’ll keep him there after that.”

“One step at a time. We’ll do what we have to.”

Scott remembered Johnny’s surprise. Cip had arrived in town last night with it.  “What about Barranca?”

“We hide him.”

 

Chapter 27

Johnny’s plea for Scott to find Barranca had been ridiculously simple to accomplish. Barranca was in the north pasture at Lancer, where he had always been. Scott had never even considered following Johnny’s request to sell him. Barranca was Scott’s last tie to Johnny, a free spirit that reminded him of his brother. Scott had wired some money to the name in San Francisco, allegedly from the palomino’s sale, and then set Barranca free. Whenever Scott had watched Barranca running wild he had imagined Johnny somehow sharing the horse’s psyche, drinking in a taste of freedom even when confined to a prison cell. In a way, he had thought it was keeping Johnny alive. He knew it was silly, but Barranca and Johnny had such an uncanny connection it seemed almost possible.

Scott didn’t know why he never told Johnny about Barranca. He simply wasn’t obsessed with the animal like Johnny was. His concern for Johnny’s health and his own dark memories as a prisoner of war conspired to push the thought of the horse from his mind whenever he was in Folsom. The few times he had thought of Barranca while there it had always been the wrong time. A few days more wouldn’t matter now.

Cipriano had been waiting outside the gate with Barranca all morning. Murdoch motioned to him and advised him of the situation, suggesting Cip take Barranca back to Gilroy and stow him where Johnny would not come across him. Cip would drive Clarissa in the leased buggy with Barranca tied behind, taking her to the train station where she had a ticket to San Jose waiting. They had already decided to drive her separately from Johnny, were he to be freed. They just didn’t think having Johnny and Clarissa ride together would be a good mix. Not unless they wanted Johnny back in prison for murder.

Cip left his own horse behind, so the three of them would have enough horses to ride to Gilroy. Scott would have preferred they only have the buggy so Johnny would not have a horse, but it was a risk they had to take. He really didn’t think Johnny would take off without money, or especially, a gun. Besides, he was still wearing prison clothes.

Scott had never seen a more glorious sight than his brother stepping through the prison gates. He raced to meet the finally shackle-less Johnny, immediately draping his arm around Johnny’s shoulders and pulling him close. Murdoch strode up and clasped Johnny’s shoulder, squeezing it enthusiastically before Johnny shrugged away from both of them. Johnny carried a small sack, which he tore open as soon as his arms were free. From it he pulled out the clothes and boots he had been wearing when he came to Folsom. He kicked off his prison shoes and replaced them with his old boots, bouncing up and down slightly and smiling at the familiar feel on his feet. Then he ripped off his prison shirt, buttons flying, and donned the shirt Scott had brought him that time he visited him in the Green River jail. He looked around, then wrapped his pants back up, obviously deciding to change into them in a more appropriate setting. Then he flung his prison shoes and shirt back toward the prison gate, where they landed in a heap on the ground.

Scott and Murdoch looked at one another, each knowing what the other was thinking. Now Johnny had clothes and a horse. All he needed was some money and a gun, and he’d be set. They determined to make sure that didn’t happen.

***

The ride to Gilroy was filled with Scott and Murdoch’s enthusiastic plans for Johnny’s return to Lancer. They did their best to make sure he knew he was wanted there. Johnny met all their questions with disturbingly noncommittal answers, remaining distant despite the happy occasion.

They would spend the night in Gilroy in the rooms Murdoch and Scott had already been staying in, and would leave on the train the next day to head back to Lancer. As they approached the outskirts of town Johnny became even quieter. Finally he spoke.

“Hey, Scott?”

“Yeah?”

Johnny looked a little apprehensive. “Can I hold your gun?”

Scott had been dreading this. He ignored him.

Johnny looked at Scott questioningly. Scott knew how important it was for him to have a gun with him, especially riding into a new town. “Come on, Scott. I need it.”

“Look, Johnny, nobody’s going to be shooting at you. We’ve got, what, a couple hundred yards to get to the hotel? I think we’ll make it.”

Johnny was stunned. “What’s the big deal? Just give me your gun!”

Scott just kept riding, subtly urging his horse so it forged ahead of Johnny’s.

Johnny turned to Murdoch. He really hated asking him. “I need a gun.”

“Johnny, we’re almost there! You’ll manage without one.” Murdoch also refused to meet Johnny’s gaze.

Johnny pulled his horse up abruptly. “What the hell’s going on here? You think I’m gonna shoot you or something?”

The leather creaked as Scott twisted in his saddle to face him. He decided to try a different tactic. “I thought your hand was hurt.”

“It ain’t hurt so bad I can’t still outshoot you!” Johnny knew that was probably a lie, but he couldn’t resist.

Something was going on here. Johnny knew it. The only thing he could imagine was that they really didn’t trust him, just as he had thought. Dios, did they really think he would shoot them?

 

Chapter 28

True to Scott’s prediction, they actually made it to the hotel without being shot at. It was a fairly grandiose hotel for such a small town. One of the hotel workers had explained to Scott and Murdoch that it was so fine because both the train and the stage stopped there, and this hotel catered to the higher class travelers. Looking up at it from the street, Johnny was impressed. Had he been on his own he would have kept on riding until he found something less fancy.

Scott volunteered to take all the horses to the livery while Johnny and Murdoch went up to the rooms. Johnny would be staying with Scott in his room. They had reached the lobby entrance when Murdoch remembered he needed to speak to Scott. He wanted Scott to check that Barranca was stabled in the back of the livery and as far from their own horses as possible so there was no chance of Johnny stumbling across him.

“Johnny, you’re in room 202. Here’s the key. Why don’t you go on up and relax? I’ll be right along.” Murdoch turned and hurried after Scott, who had already started down the street.

Johnny strode somewhat uneasily into the lobby, avoiding the immaculately attired workers hoisting expensive-looking luggage. He was suddenly aware that despite his shave and reacquired clothes, he was still pretty scrubby looking compared to this finery. Johnny wasn’t used to being in places with chandeliers and lush carpeting. Heck, after the last year, he wasn’t used to being in places with anything but rocks and roaches. He made for the stairs.

“Sir! Sir! Excuse me there, Sir!” Johnny looked around to see a thin red-haired man hurrying toward him. “Sir, can I help you?”

“Nope.” Johnny turned to continue up the stairs.

“Sir, I must insist!”

Johnny stopped and turned back toward the obviously agitated man. “Insist on what?”

The man stopped, flustered. “I’m afraid I don’t recognize you as a guest. May I ask where you are going?”

“To my room.” Johnny’s eyes had narrowed, his whole expression turning sinister.

“What room might that be?”

Johnny took his time answering. “You takin a survey?”

The man had sidled over to his desk and began ringing a bell. Two uniformed bellmen scurried over almost immediately. “This man appears to be lost. Could you see that he finds the door, please?”

The men strode over to Johnny, who had remained on the second step. As the first man reached for him, Johnny kicked out, catching the man in the abdomen with the tip of his boot. The surprised man bent over clutching his belly as the other man leaped up the steps and tried to grab Johnny from behind. Johnny twisted, levering the man over his shoulder and then down to the bottom of the stairs, where he thudded against the first man now groaning on the floor.

“What’s going on here?” Murdoch thundered into the room, heading toward Johnny.

“Stay back, sir. He’s dangerous! I’ve sent for the sheriff!”

“I demand to know what’s going on!”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir. His kind are not allowed in this establishment, but sometimes they try to sneak in. We’ll have it taken care of in no time.”

Murdoch had focused his attention on Johnny and the two fallen men. “Johnny, I can’t even get you as far as our room and you’re already in a fight?”

“Uh, you know this, er, gentleman, sir?”

“Yes, he’s my son. I’m sorry about any trouble he’s caused.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Johnny sarcastically, spinning on his heel and bolting up the stairs.

Murdoch followed after him, pushing the door to room 202 back open as Johnny was flinging it shut behind him. “You want to tell me what that was all about?”

“It was about me getting attacked!”

“Johnny, not everybody is out to get you! Maybe if you’d realize that you’d get along a lot better.”

“Oh yeah? You try bein a half-breed and walking into a fancy hotel. You’ll see how good you get along!” With that he slammed the door between them, leaving Murdoch standing in the hall.

Scott had rounded the corner and stepped into the hallway just in time to hear Johnny’s outburst and see the door slam. This was going well.

***

The three men celebrated Johnny’s release with a meal at the finest restaurant in Gilroy. The prospect of good food had eventually been enough to coax Johnny from his sulk. He ordered a feast and totally ignored Scott’s stupid rule about eating slowly.

Murdoch and Scott had begun the meal by leading them in repeated toasts, mostly having to do with Johnny, Lancer, family, and prosperity. As the meal wore on and the men drank more, the toasts took on loftier goals of honesty, love, and trust.  Johnny sat complacently through most of them; his own attempt at a toast---to fast women, fast horses, and fast draws---hadn’t been received all that well, at least not by Murdoch. Johnny still thought it was pretty good.

After dinner Johnny considered proposing they stop by the saloon, but then he remembered his empty hip and decided against it. He didn’t complain when Murdoch suggested making it an early evening so they would be energized for the train trip tomorrow.

Johnny and Scott lounged around their room for awhile before Scott stretched and announced that he was turning in. He told Johnny he had to go across to Murdoch’s room first to make some last minute arrangements. Johnny had to wonder what sort of arrangements could be made late at night that couldn’t wait until morning. He stood with his ear to the door but could hear nothing until Murdoch’s door also opened as Scott prepared to return.

“Oh, almost forgot,” he heard Scott say quietly, “take my money and keep it with you, too. I don’t want him to get tempted. Just in case.”  Then he heard the door close and Scott step back toward their own room. Johnny threw himself across the room soundlessly, and was looking out the window by the time Scott opened the door.

Johnny was seething. Now they thought he was going to rob them? Weren’t these the same people who only hours ago had raised their glasses in toasts to trust and family, among other things? ‘They sure gotta funny way of showing it,’ he fumed.

He turned to face Scott, unsure of what he was going to say. Then he saw Scott’s empty hip. He’d had his gunbelt on when he’d left for Murdoch’s room. He must have gone there to stash his gun! They must really think he was going to shoot them!

“Where’s your gun, Scott?” he said coldly.

“Oh! Um, I took it off over in Murdoch’s room. I must have forgotten it.”

“Why don’t you go get it now?” Johnny’s voice was deadly calm.

“Well, I don’t need it when I’m sleeping, Johnny.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “You never know.”

Scott looked a little nervous at Johnny’s last statement. “Murdoch’s probably asleep, anyway.”

“Get it.”

“Johnny, no! I’ll get it tomorrow.” Scott pulled down his bed sheets and started shucking his clothes. Johnny studied him as Scott settled in beneath the covers.

“Ain’t you forgettin something?”

“What, Johnny?” Scott was starting to sound exasperated.

“You left your razor out. Ain’t you afraid I might slit your throat in your sleep?”  With that Johnny grabbed the razor and hurled it clattering to the floor. Stomping toward the door, he flung it open, slamming it shut behind him with such force that the hotel shuddered.

 

Chapter 29

Johnny clomped down the wooden walkway in the shadows of the buildings. He had no intention of returning to the room. He certainly wasn’t going to share a room with somebody who thought he was going to rob him or kill him if he got half a chance. Problem was, now he had nowhere to sleep. Too bad he really hadn’t robbed Scott, he thought. Then he could rent a room.

He was sure Scott and maybe Murdoch would be along any moment, claiming how they trusted him and wanted him to come back with them. He still couldn’t figure out what kind of game they were up to. Whatever, he needed to get out of sight fast. He’d had it with those two.

He skulked down an alleyway and made his way behind some buildings, cursing in Spanish as he tripped on a pile of junk. His first day out of prison and already things sucked. He kicked an old bottle viciously, sending it to shatter against the side of the building.

Johnny wondered what had happened to make his family turn on him like this. Was it the accusation of rape? He had been cleared of that. Still, his father had testified he thought Johnny was capable of it. Was it the fact that he had spent time in prison? Well, guess who put him there? It wasn’t Johnny who had sworn out the complaint.

Deep down Johnny knew it was neither of those reasons. It was because of what they had found out about him. Now that they knew he was nothing but a whore-boy, they must figure he would do just about anything.  Heck, Scott was probably relieved he didn’t have to share a room with Johnny. He was probably afraid Johnny would try something despicable with him. ‘Bet he wouldn’t have slept all night…’

Johnny recognized the musty scent of the livery as he approached its rear side. He breathed in deeply as he basked in the comforting fragrance of hay and horses. He’d slept in many a horse stall growing up homeless. His deep affinity for horses had blossomed on freezing nights when he would search for a horse that was lying down and then snuggle as close as he could to share its warmth. It was the only time he ever felt close with another living being in those days. Johnny knew he could find refuge within those walls, and he proceeded to jiggle the rear door open.

Once inside, Johnny could hear the familiar rustle of horses moving in the straw. Realizing he was shivering, and that it was only going to get colder, he considered his old trick of sharing body heat with a horse. He grabbed a couple of saddle blankets and started to look through the gloom into each stall for a likely bedmate.

The golden coloring of the horse in the last stall made it easy for Johnny to see he was standing, so he moved on. He had quietly walked past several more stalls when he heard a quiet nicker come from behind him. He ignored it, then stopped when he heard it again. Turning, he cocked his head, searching for its source. His eyes were eventually drawn to the golden horse. The palomino. He took a step closer, then another. Then he was running, flinging open the stall door and burying his face in Barranca’s neck.

“Barranca! Barranca! Lo siento, mi compradre, lo siento…”

It was a miracle! Fate had surely brought him and his beloved Barranca together! Johnny had no greater urge than to jump on his back and gallop wildly through the night.

Except Barranca was somebody else’s horse now.

It wasn’t fair. Barranca was his horse! He had sold him because of a lie! He studied the palomino, running his hands all over him. Whoever owned him now was taking good care of him. No matter. Johnny had to have him back. Still, how could he afford him?

He didn’t know how much they had sold him for, but he expected it was many hundreds of dollars. Johnny had exactly no dollars. He combed his fingers through Barranca’s mane, thinking. He could go back to the room and ask Scott and Murdoch for a loan. That was the only solution. Scott and Murdoch, his supposedly loving family who couldn’t trust him an inch. The way they were acting, who knows what they would do? Probably promise to buy Barranca and then ship him off somewhere while Johnny wasn’t looking. No, he just couldn’t trust them with something this important.

He knew what he was going to do. Knew it, really, since he had flung his arms around the palomino’s neck. He’d stolen horses before. Not as Johnny Lancer, but certainly as Johnny Madrid. The only difference was, this time he was going to leave a note.

He looked around in the dim light for the horse’s tack, and was startled to see a familiar saddle. ‘Dios, I guess they were really trying to get rid of everything that was mine!’ He shook his head. ‘Even sold my saddle along with him.’

Johnny scrounged around in the stable manager’s office until he found some paper and a pencil, and then wrote a note. He saddled Barranca and led him from the stall, closing the door behind him and carefully placing the note atop it. They exited through the livery’s back door. Johnny mounted, and then horse and rider slipped into the darkness.

‘Guess they were right,’ Johnny mused with a grin as he urged Barranca into a lope, the wind in his face. ‘I really can’t be trusted.’

 

Part 5

Chapter 30

The smoke spiraling from the stone chimney lent the small ranch house an inviting look as Johnny rode down the hillside toward it. Maybe this would be the one.

He was getting awfully hungry. It had been three days now since he had ridden out of Gilroy. He’d lost count of the ranches he’d stopped at to ask about work. Some of the ranchers clearly didn’t trust him, and sent him on his way. Most simply said they weren’t hiring. To their credit, a couple of ranches had given him some biscuits.

He’d thought briefly of hiring out his gun, but two things got in the way of that plan. First, he had no gun hand—at least not one that was functional—and second, he had no gun. All in all, being a ranch hand seemed a better prospect. Besides, he couldn’t look for work in town, just in case Barranca was spotted and recognized as being stolen.

He rode to the front of the ranch house just as the door opened. A large man blocked the doorway, his figure made all the more impressive by the shotgun pointed right at Johnny. “Help ya?”

“I was hoping to get some work,” said Johnny as Barranca shifted around.

The man studied him. “What can you do?”

“Anything. Ranch work. Good with horses. I can work hard.”

The man studied him.

“Where’s your gun?”

“Lost it. Fell in a creek,” answered Johnny, stone faced.

“Uh huh. Belt too?”

“Yeah, it fell in too.”

“Sure a sheriff somewhere didn’t take it from you? Maybe you just got out of jail or something?”

“Look, you gotta job or not?” Sensing his rider’s irritation, Barranca became agitated, forcing Johnny to rein him in a small circle.

“That’s a pretty fancy horse for somebody can’t afford a gun. He stolen?”

“He’s mine.”

The man scrutinized him some more. “Where’d you work last?”

“Down  south. Small spread, you wouldn’t know of it.”

“You don’t exactly make a good case for hiring you, boy,” said the rancher.

Johnny reined Barranca around to leave.

“Hold on there!” said the rancher. “I didn’t say I wasn’t going to. What’s your name?”

Johnny stopped and turned to face the man again, hope showing on his face. “Johnny Ramon.”

“OK, Ramon, I’m short a hand. You can stow your stuff in the bunkhouse and take your horse to the barn.  Check in with Walt. He’ll get you squared away—maybe even get you a gun if you promise not to throw it in a creek. Pays 80 cent a day.”

Johnny smiled broadly. “It’s a deal!” He sure hoped they were going to eat soon.

***

Johnny exhaled slowly as he watched Miss Alice Bradshaw out of the corner of his eye. It was beautiful day and he was driving a beautiful woman to town—exactly what he did not want to be doing.

The last thing he needed was to fall for the boss’s daughter. He needed this job, and any hint that he—a poor half-breed ranch hand—was interested in her was sure to get him fired. She hadn’t made it any easier for him in the three weeks he’d been at the ranch. It seemed like every time he stole a look at her she was stealing one back at him. They’d both glance away quickly, but soon their eyes would be sneaking back. Then there was the way she laughed. The way she pursed her lips when she was thinking. The way she looked in her riding outfit. Now he was alone in the buckboard with her. He didn’t need this.

Being alone with Miss Alice seated beside him was only half the problem. Since he’d been working at the ranch he’d managed to avoid going to the nearby town of Luna Springs. He couldn’t take the chance that Barranca would be recognized as a stolen horse, maybe by his owner, who for all he knew, could very well live in Luna Springs. Johnny wasn’t going to lose his horse again.

On top of that, there was always the possibility he would be recognized as Johnny Madrid or even Johnny Lancer.  Now he was Johnny Ramon, one of the many names he had gone by in the days he and his mama had been on the run and changing their names with every new town or boyfriend. It was the one he had used the longest—Miguel’s last name.

The boss had told Johnny to take Miss Alice to town so she could run some errands. So here he was, alone with Miss Alice on a gorgeous day headed for town instead of sweating over some fence posts. Life could be cruel sometimes.

Johnny drummed his fingers on the butt of his gun and hoped he wouldn’t run into any trouble. Truth was, the gun Walt had given him was the kind of gun that got you killed. It was fine for practicing with, as long as you didn’t use any bullets. Once you actually tried to shoot it, if it wasn’t sending the bullet off on some tangent to the right, it was jamming and not sending bullets anywhere. A good cleaning and some fine tuning had helped, but the gun really needed to be put out of its misery before it got somebody—namely, whoever happened to be shooting it—killed. Johnny called it his suicide gun: good enough to get you into a fight, but not out of one.

Not that his gun hand was helping out much. Johnny was sure it was in cahoots with the suicide gun, conspiring to make the trigger hard to pull and the bullets take off in random directions. Johnny thought his best hope might be if the errors his gun and his hand introduced could somehow cancel each other out. He wasn’t too optimistic about that happening.

He needed to practice shooting bullets with it. The ranch supplied all the bullets for the workers, but once Johnny looked at the meager number of rounds, he realized he could go through their typical month’s supply in one good practice session. He was going to have to buy his own.

Johnny settled his hat down on his face as they drove into Luna Springs. He pulled in front of the general store, helped Miss Alice from the buckboard, and tied the sorrel gelding without attracting anybody’s attention.

Once in the general store, Miss Alice busied herself looking at fabric while Johnny started piling boxes of ammunition on the counter. He didn’t have a lot of money, but he put bullets at the top of the necessity list. He was going to have to sneak away and practice with real bullets a lot more now that he had gotten his draw almost up to speed.

He had planned to wait for Miss Alice inside, but there wasn’t much standing around room so he told her he’d wait in the wagon, and then he’d carry her purchases back to it once she came out.

Johnny checked the street out again as he climbed into the buckboard. Luna Springs was a quiet town. A few people strolled the boardwalks, but they didn’t appear to be the dangerous sort—mostly townsfolk. He leaned back, stretched out and looked to the sky, letting the sun bathe his face. He still hadn’t quite gotten over how good the air felt here compared to how it felt in prison, even the air in the prison work yard. Here it felt free. Here he could almost relax. He pulled his hat over his face and leaned back farther in the seat for a siesta.

The sound of spurs jingling jarred him to his senses. Townsfolk didn’t wear spurs. His eyes opened beneath his hat, but he remained still and left his hat over his face. It was the best way to remain anonymous. He heard the spurs step onto the boardwalk, clomp and jingle to the general store, and go inside. He tried to catch a glimpse under his hat rim, but could only see the man’s back—and his gun, worn low, tied—before the door shut behind him.

‘Just take it easy, Johnny-boy. Ain’t got nuthin to do with you.’ He heard a second set of spurs crossing the street, probably coming from the saloon.

“Hey, Frank! Dammit, where’d you go?”

‘In the store, where do you think?’ thought Johnny, as he listened to the jingles seem to search up and down the boardwalk. ‘There ain’t that many places to choose from, genius…’

Genius or not, the second spurred man finally made his way into the store. Johnny was able to see he also wore his gun low and tied. He didn’t like the looks of this. He wished Miss Alice would come out so they could leave. He strained to hear any sounds of trouble from within the store.

It didn’t take long.

 

Chapter 31

The door opened again and he heard one of the men crooning, “Now, Missy, I bet you could learn to enjoy our company if you just give us a chance, ain’t that right, Davy?”

“Leave me alone!” Miss Alice was slapping their hands away from her arm.

Johnny jerked to his feet, his hat fluttering to the ground as he jumped from the buckboard. “The lady doesn’t like you,” he stated flatly.

Johnny had an inkling who the two men had to be: Frank and Davy Adams, both hired guns who worked these parts. They had a reputation as ruthless thugs when it came to range war tactics. He didn’t know how fast either was; chances are they were meaner than they were quick. Still, he didn’t want to find out. Not with his trusty suicide gun on his hip.

Both men were looking at him now. Johnny casually bent down to sweep up his hat, nonchalantly pressing it on his head, hoping its shadow would obscure his face enough to disguise him.

“Frank, you see somebody talking to us?” asked the man who must be Davy.

‘Real clever talk, genius,’ mused Johnny. ‘Gotta remember to use that gem one day.’ He leaned on the buckboard, looking unconcerned as Miss Alice stepped past the two men.  In her haste she dropped a hat box; flustered, she looked at Johnny then scurried over to him, leaving it behind.

“Pick up the lady’s package,” commanded Johnny.

Davy deliberately lifted one foot and set it down atop the box, slowly crushing and grinding it beneath his weight as he smiled at Johnny. “What package? You see a package, Frank?”

Johnny was no longer even slightly amused at the genius’s lack of wit. “You owe the lady a hat. You better start praying they got another one like it.”

“Cowboy, I don’t pray for nuthin. I’d say you’re the one better be saying your prayers.” He turned to Miss Alice. “Missy, you best be stepping away from your cowboy friend, cuz I wouldn’t want his blood to go spurtin all over that purty dress of yours when I blow him away.” He patted his gun and stared at Johnny, his intent clear.

Frank had yet to speak. He’d been studying Johnny as though on the tip of a revelation. “Um, Davy…”

“Not now, Frank…I got somebody wants killin.”

Johnny had broken into a broad smile. “Let’s do it, then! Do me a favor, though, come off the boardwalk there. You ever tried to get brains out of those little grooves in the boards? Be just my luck I get stuck doin that again.” Johnny was already sauntering into the street, casually flinging his words over his shoulder.

“Davy!”  Frank’s tone was urgent now.

Davy was still staring after Johnny, a little perplexed at the cowboy’s actions. “Yeah, Frank, what?”

“Davy, you don’t wanta be doing that! That’s Johnny Madrid!”

Davy looked at Frank, then back at Johnny. “Shiiit! You shittin me?”

“Hey, Davy Boy! I’m starting to feel kinda unpopular all alone out here!” Johnny called. “You comin or what?”

Davy scrutinized Johnny, then slowly replied, “Uh, I need to do some hat shoppin first.” With that he reached for the crushed hat box, spun around, and headed into the store.

Johnny looked at Frank expectantly. “Ain’t anybody gonna come out and play?” Frank turned and quickly followed Davy into the store.

Johnny shrugged and walked back toward Miss Alice, who was rushing toward him. “Oh Johnny, that was the bravest thing I ever did see!” She threw her arms around him, then pushed back and swatted him on the chest. “And the stupidest! You could have been killed!”

Before Johnny could answer they both turned toward the sound of more steps on the boardwalk. “Sheriff! Thank heavens you’re here! These two men threatened Johnny!”

The sheriff looked around. “What two men?”

“They went into the store!”

The sheriff looked unsure. “They were threatening, uh, this gentleman, and then they decided to go shopping?”

Johnny stepped in. “They wanted to buy the lady a hat.”

“I see, Mr., uh…”

“Sheriff, this is Johnny. He works for us now. Johnny, this is Sheriff Walker.”

The two men nodded. The sheriff was still perplexed as to why the two gunhawks he had seen earlier had apparently turned tail from this cowboy. The cowboy did wear his gun low, but it certainly didn’t appear to be the kind of rig that would instill fear into anyone, much less a hired gun.

Frank and Davy emerged from the store looking nervous. “Uh, Mr. Madrid, they was all out of hats like that, so we ordered one. And just to make it up to the lady, we also want to pay her for the one that we, uh, dropped.”  Davy placed some money on the buckboard as he spoke, then they both backed away before turning and walking quickly toward the saloon.

The sheriff cocked an eyebrow and looked at Johnny. “Mr. Madrid? Johnny Madrid?”

Johnny looked him straight in the eye. “I reckon they got me confused with somebody else.”

The sheriff wasn’t confused. He’d seen Johnny Madrid in action back when he was riding in the border towns down south.

***

Despite Johnny’s pleas, Miss Alice couldn’t wait to tell her father how heroic Johnny had been in town. Fortunately, as far as Johnny knew she left out the part about what he explained to her was mistaken identity.

There wasn’t much time to dwell on it, anyway. The next few days seemed to be filled with one crisis after another. The cattle broke through fences and scattered for miles, the dam broke and washed away the road, and a flurry of brush fires threatened to char the land. The men returned home late each night dead beat. Johnny was starting to suspect this was more than a string of bad luck.

Only when two of the hands returned from town with reports of harassment was he sure, however. The men had gone to town for supplies. When they got there, a group of men had told them the store was closed. It was plainly open. When the hands tried to go in anyway, the men—who they reported wore their guns low—jumped them. The hands returned to the ranch battered, empty-handed, and confused. What was going on?

Johnny listened as Mr. Bradshaw quizzed the hands about the men in town. From what Johnny could gather there were at least a dozen, maybe more, strangers in town. They mostly hung around the saloon, and did more intimidating than actual fighting. Besides his new pals Frank and Davy, Johnny thought he recognized the descriptions of a couple of other hired guns. Luna Springs was getting ready to blow. Johnny wanted to know why.

“You got any idea why somebody’d be wanting to start a range war round here?” Johnny asked Mr. Bradshaw.

“A range war?” Mr. Bradshaw shook his head. “I don’t think so. Most of the spreads around here are small time. This is one of the bigger ones, and you know we’re barely making it.”

Johnny thought about this for awhile. “Small spreads is what they like. Keeps everybody divided. You got any ranches around been sold recently?”

“Only the old Miller’s place up in the hills. It’s not much—house and barn are all run down. Place got a nice lake on it though. Feeds all the creeks to the rest of the ranches in the valley.”

Johnny cocked his head. “What would happen if them creeks dried up?”

“We’d be in deep trouble! But that won’t happen. It’s a big lake.”

It was about three days later that the creeks dried up.

 

Chapter 32

Scott ran from the barn as he saw Val galloping up on his horse. “Any news?”

Val waved a telegram triumphantly. “A place called Luna Springs! Johnny Madrid’s been spotted!” Val dismounted and handed Murdoch, who had joined them, the telegram. “Now I just got it second hand…the sheriff I asked to keep an eye out for Johnny in Barstow is friends with this Sheriff Walker in Luna Springs…but he says he trusts what he’s telling him.”

Scott felt hope for the first time since that night when Johnny had flung the razor and fled the room. He and Murdoch had scoured the town afterwards, finally deciding Johnny must have talked his way into a saloon girl’s bedroom. Only when Cipriano had rushed up to them the next morning with the news that Barranca was missing, and then handed them a note, had they realized how bad the situation was.

The note had read “Mister, I tuk yor horse. Murdoch Lancer will pay you for him. Tell him I will pay him bak.—J.M.”  Scott and Murdoch had immediately realized that Johnny thought he had stolen Barranca. That meant he was bound to go into hiding—and if Johnny wanted to hide, they knew he could stay out of sight indefinitely. Unless, that is, somebody recognized him as Johnny Madrid. They had returned to Lancer and put Val on the case, explaining to him how Johnny had misunderstood their good intentions.  Now they finally had a lead!

The three men marched into the hacienda to launch a plan. First they had to figure out where in the world Luna Springs was. They were surprised to find it wasn’t to the south, where they had expected Johnny to run, but to the north, only a few days ride from where they had last seen him in Gilroy.  Then they had to decide who would be going—and how they would convince Johnny to come home with them.

***

It didn’t take long after the creeks had dried up for the affected ranchers to accept they had a problem. Nor did it take long for somebody to present a solution to that problem. The new owner of the Miller place would be happy to bail the ranchers out by buying their drought-prone property. To their credit, the ranchers knew a threat when they heard one. They just didn’t know what to do about it.

The ranch owners met to discuss their options. They considered trying to reason with the new owner’s representative, Mr. Mendoza, but were not so naïve as to be optimistic. They discussed hiring guns of their own but they didn’t have the funds, they didn’t know where to find gunslingers, and besides, most didn’t approve of supporting such a disreputable profession. That left fighting back with what men they had at hand.

Mr. Bradshaw returned to his ranch and told the hands what the situation was. Most of the hands looked hesitant. They were cowboys, not gunslingers. They gave their regrets and hit the trail, leaving only Walt and Johnny, plus Mr. Bradshaw, to protect the ranch. Mr. Bradshaw put Walt in charge.

Walt made plans to defend the ranch house by posting guards around the perimeter throughout the day.  The three men would stagger guard duty so two men were always on guard. Johnny pointed out that Walt’s plan was only defensive, and did nothing to prevent further attacks on the cattle and property, to say nothing of the water supply problem. Mr. Bradshaw supported Walt’s plan, maintaining that defending the ranch house and Alice was their priority, and that Walt knew what he was doing because he had been in a range war once before. Johnny’s question about whether Walt was on the winning side of that range war was merely met with a scowl and a command to follow orders.

Walt’s scheme worked as he had planned. The ranch house and barn remained safe. Of course, cattle were still straying through cut fences, brush fires were still burning, and the land was steadily drying up. Johnny was getting disgusted. He couldn’t just stand by and see Miss Alice in danger. He finally decided he had to do something more—even if it meant losing his job. He followed Mr. Bradshaw to the barn.

“This ain’t gonna work.”

“Ramon, we’ve been through this. Walt knows what he’s doing. He has experience in these matters.”

Johnny held his hat by its stampede strings, slowly twirling it. “Well, so do I.”

“You’ve worked on a ranch that’s been attacked before?”

“Sort of.”

“Well, either you did or you didn’t.”

“Well,” Johnny stopped twirling his hat, letting it hang, swinging back and forth by its strings, then cocked his head as he looked Bradshaw in the eye. “I was usually the one doing the attackin.”

Mr. Bradshaw looked startled. “What are you trying to say?”

“I’m trying to say I know what I’m talking about. I know how them fellows work, how they think—cuz I was one of them.”

“One of what? A hired gun?”

Johnny nodded slowly, still swinging his hat. “Yeah.”

“Hmmm…Johnny Ramon. Can’t say I ever heard of any famous guns named that. Guess you weren’t all that good, eh? That why you went back to ranch work?”

“Something like that.”

“Yeah, I seen you shoot,” Bradshaw chuckled as he shook his head. “Stick to ranching. But OK, Mr. Hired Gun, let’s hear your plan. Just out of curiosity.”

Johnny bristled at the sarcasm, but launched into a description of what he had planned and what he needed to do it. Bradshaw listened dubiously, but finally agreed to let him get the supplies he asked for. He also let Johnny take his rifle, cautioning him not to lose it.

Johnny hadn’t been so happy in months. He had to admit, he loved a good range war.

A while later Bradshaw watched Johnny gallop away. He shook his head. “Dang idiot.”

 

Chapter 33

The Miller place looked deserted when Johnny rode up to it. Nonetheless, he kept in the tree line until he was sure no one was around. He studied his map again to locate his destination, and then guided Barranca up the now dry creek bed until it leveled out and opened up onto a lake. He saw what he was looking for and dismounted. It would be dawn soon, so he set about his work quickly. It took him about half an hour to get everything as he liked it. By that time the sun was sending orange tendrils across the eastern sky, illuminating the lake with a warm haze, glinting off the wings of birds as they soared in the still air. Johnny soaked in the tranquil scene, mounted Barranca, lit a match, and lobbed a stick of dynamite into its midst.

The blast set off a chain reaction as all the other charges exploded, demolishing the earthen dam blocking the lake waters. Johnny had a wide smile as he whirled and urged Barranca down the hill faster than was safe. There was just nothing like the good gut feeling you got from blowing the crap out of something with dynamite.

Johnny was still on his way down the creek bed when he realized his slight miscalculation. He spurred Barranca even faster as the wall of water and debris plummeted down the hillside after them.

They almost made it. Had Barranca not slipped on some rocks the rushing water would never have swept his legs out from under him, never have sent both of them tumbling into the swirling morass of water and debris. Johnny clutched repeatedly as the torrent thrust him into, and as quickly away from, hanging branches, repeatedly whacking him against rocks and trees. He bounced along the bottom, bobbed up for air, inhaled water, and saw a boulder hurtling toward him. That was right before the world went dark.

***

Scott and Murdoch had arrived in Luna Springs the previous evening. Their first stop was at the sheriff’s office so they could find out more about where Johnny was. Sheriff Walker told them about how the Adams brothers had fallen all over themselves rather than confront the cowboy that had turned out to be Johnny Madrid.  The sheriff gave them directions to the Bradshaw ranch, but warned them they should wait until the next day because of the troublemakers in the area. Both Scott and Murdoch were pleasantly surprised Johnny had turned to ranch work. Maybe his time at Lancer had been a good influence on him after all.

Although Val had planned to make the trip, trouble in Green River prevented him from leaving. Scott and Murdoch had decided they couldn’t wait, so just the two of them went. They had agreed it was essential for both of them to be there to convince Johnny to come back.  Scott was disappointed Val couldn’t come, though. Deep down, he had wanted him there so Val could handcuff Johnny and force him home if necessary. Even deeper down, he knew that neither Val nor Johnny would have cooperated with that plan—and he knew he would never have gone through with it himself. Still, he didn’t know what he was going to do if Johnny didn’t see the light and agree to come home.

After considering the time of day and the sheriff’s warning, the two men reluctantly paid for a hotel room rather than ride out that evening. They spent a restless night in anticipation of finding Johnny the next day. Well before dawn they abandoned their fruitless efforts to sleep, and walked down the dark road to retrieve their horses from the livery. The doors of the livery were the only doors open on the main street, as the horses were being given their morning care. Scott and Murdoch rode out of town enveloped in fog, the night silent except for the clopping of their horses’ hooves, each man lost in thought about how the ensuing meeting would go.

They arrived at the Bradshaw ranch earlier than they had planned, but decided to go on in. A ranch day started early. If they arrived too late Johnny might already be out on the range.  They rode to the barn, dismounted, and began to lead their horses the rest of the way to the ranch house.

The unmistakable click of a hammer being cocked behind them stole their attention. “I’d stop right there if you don’t want your brains plastered on the side of the barn.”

They stopped.

“We’re here looking for my son,” explained Murdoch, trying to turn to see who was holding the gun.

“Oh, yeah? What’s his name?”

“John Lancer,” replied Murdoch.

Scott interrupted, “No, Johnny Madrid!”

“You don’t know his name?”

“He goes by both names,” explained Scott, “but we heard he was going by Johnny Madrid here.”

“Why, he hiding out or something?”

“No,” said Scott, exasperation starting to sound in his voice. “Look, we heard he was here.”

“John Lancer, Johnny Madrid, we got no one here by either of those names. I think it’s time you start telling me your names—and why you’re really here. Let’s go ahead and drop your guns first.”

The two men carefully removed their revolvers and dropped them to the ground as Murdoch spoke. “I’m Murdoch Lancer and this is my son, Scott. We’ve come for my son, Johnny, and I’d like to know where he is! If you can’t tell me then maybe you’d better take me to someone who can!”

Finally the gunman eased to where Scott and Murdoch could see him. “The boss will be back soon. Meanwhile let’s just tie you two up. Get in the house.”

***

The explosion could be heard in Luna Springs as a soft thud, too quiet to awaken most of the inhabitants. Sergio Mendoza noticed it, though, as he stepped from the outhouse. It was his job to notice things like that, and he couldn’t imagine the thud, as seemingly innocent as it was, as any kind of good news. He went to wake his men.

So far the operation had gone as smoothly as any Mendoza had orchestrated. The ranchers realized by now that they could not survive without water. The next step was his favorite: selected acts of terrorism that would demonstrate what would happen if any dared to fight back. The fact that none had yet fought back was a minor technicality. Today the violence would be stepped up a notch.

His men milled about, bleary eyed at being awakened at the early hour. None, however, was foolish enough to complain. They mounted up and left to check their assigned areas, with orders to return so they could begin the day’s merriment. Nobody wanted to be late for that.

Mendoza already had the ranch picked out for the festivities. According to Frank and Davy, he had an old friend at the Bradshaw place. It’d been years since he’d had some fun with Juanito.

 

Chapter 34

Johnny wasn’t sure if he was breathing air or water. His last memories were of being underwater, but he could see he was snagged in a pile of debris above water now. Nonetheless, it felt like he was still breathing underwater. He began to cough and gag. It was during his hacking that he discovered all was not well; his ribs shot through with pain with every wracking cough. He cautiously probed his ribcage. He hurt like a son of a bitch, but he was pretty sure his ribs were just bruised badly, not cracked. Well, maybe one was cracked. But he’d had worse. Caring for them would have to wait. He had to find Barranca. Meanwhile he would just try not to cough.

Johnny looked around him. He had been caught on a branch after the raging water receded, and he had plenty of scrapes to show for his trip. He tentatively flexed his joints. Nothing else seemed cracked or broken. He was sore, wet, and cold—and worried sick about Barranca. His whistle went unanswered.

He could be optimistic and go uphill, assuming that Barranca had been carried only a short distance, or he could be pessimistic and go downhill, assuming Barranca had not been able to escape the water’s clutches. He went uphill.

Johnny trudged along, his wet boots adding blisters to his list of complaints as they squished and rubbed with every step, his sopping clothes weighing on him, ensuring that he could not stop shivering, his lungs begging him to cough, his ribs begging him not to. The creek had calmed now, running downward with a steady but gentle rush in its mission to nourish the ranches below. Any satisfaction Johnny felt from this victory was negated by his concern for Barranca.

After a half hour Johnny saw it: a still, rounded golden mound in the far distance. He whistled, but the form didn’t move. He began racing toward it, then pulled himself up with realization as he got closer. Sunlight gleaming off of tan boulders had provided a horrible mirage. Johnny walked the rest of the way to the boulder and leaned against it to rest, closing his eyes momentarily as he soaked up its warmth and considered what to do next. He was almost to the top of the hill and he had not found Barranca. That meant Barranca was downhill.

He must have dozed off for a second. That’s the only way he could imagine something approaching him without his hearing it. But there was something, pushing on his chest, again and again, making his ribs scream. He scrambled to his feet, reaching for his gun, and came eye to eye with a horse. “Barranca!”  Johnny threw his arms around him even as he winced with the pain.

After a moment he began checking the horse for injury. Aside from the rifle, which was missing from his saddle, nothing was seriously out of place. Johnny laughed softly, “I’m in trouble now, Barranca! How am I going to tell the boss I dropped his gun in a creek?”

He became somber as he thought of the ranch house. He was way overdue. He had no confidence that Walt could protect them. He wearily pulled himself on Barranca’s back and headed downhill once more, this time only a little more slowly.

***

Mendoza was furious at the news the men returning from the Miller place brought him: The dam was gone. Blown up, from what they could gather.

Now what? The dam was the most important element of the plan to force the ranchers to sell. He was going to have to send most of his men back up there to rebuild it. He hated using gunmen as laborers—for one thing, they were pretty bad when it came to manual labor—but he had no choice.

He wondered which ranch was responsible. It didn’t matter. Sometimes punishing an innocent ranch for the actions of another was an even more effective way to subdue an opponent. Even though his little party would have fewer guests, he decided to take his remaining two men to the Bradshaw place.

***

Stop and study.

It was one of Johnny’s most ingrained habits, one that had saved his life many times in the past. Before he rode into any ranch, he would stop and study the scene, looking for inconsistencies that might tell him something was not as it should be within. Sometimes it would be for a few minutes, sometimes a few hours. He even did it when he was at Lancer, every day pausing for several minutes as the hacienda came into view. He would tell Scott he was just enjoying the view, but he had a feeling Scott knew better—especially when Johnny still insisted on doing it during driving rain storms. To his credit, Scott had never hurried him, and had always stayed with him even through the worst weather squalls until Johnny felt confident to proceed.

He had been studying the Bradshaw ranch for about 15 minutes. Something was definitely wrong. It was nothing so blatant as extra horses or strange people. It was the small details: the shirt on the line that had fallen and remained on the ground; the curtain still drawn in a room that had no sunlight hitting it; the chickens in the garden. Johnny led Barranca into a dip behind a dense thicket and tied him. He would go the rest of the way on foot.

It took Johnny about 20 minutes to weave his way to the ranch house. In that time he had seen no sign of humans. He came up to the rear of the house, where he was relatively safe from view. From the rear he could place his ear to the wall and hear any activity in the kitchen. It was quiet. After several minutes of listening, he moved on to the side of the house, where he knew the great room was. The window was open, so it was easy to hear the room was alive with voices. He could make out Walt’s as well as two others: Murdoch and Scott? Had they tracked him down because of the stolen Barranca? Johnny felt a coldness in his gut.

His thoughts were distracted by the sound of a wagon out front. He peeked around a corner and saw Bradshaw and Miss Alice approaching in the buckboard. Johnny had warned them against taking a ride to visit the grave of Miss Alice’s mother, but Miss Alice had begged to visit at sunrise because this was the anniversary of her death. Johnny had thought he had her convinced to skip it this year, or at least wait for him, but it appeared she and her father had gone together. Fortunately, they appeared to have made it back unharmed. He watched them enter the house, and decided to listen some more. He had to know if Murdoch and Scott were after him for stealing Barranca. He settled in under the open window, holding his side and stifling his body’s attempts to cough.

***

“Boss! I’m glad you’re back. These fellows claim to be looking for their kin, but they don’t seem to recollect his name all that good,” explained Walt.

“His name is Johnny! Johnny Madrid Lancer!” exclaimed Scott, his patience gone.

“Johnny Madrid?” interrupted Alice. “That’s what those men called Johnny in town!”

“Ramon?” Her father looked at her questioningly. 

“Yes, but they were mistaken,” she nodded. “Johnny said so.”

“Wait a minute,” said Scott, “this Ramon—does he ride a big palomino?”

“Yeah, real fancy horse, calls him Bronco or something” replied the boss slowly, eying Scott suspiciously. “Acts kinda funny over that horse, if you ask me, always hovering over him.”

“Barranca!” exclaimed Scott.

“That’s Johnny’s horse,” said Murdoch. “Your Ramon is our Johnny Lancer.”

“I thought you were looking for Johnny Madrid.”

“Whatever!” Scott lost his patience. “They’re all the same person! Now, where is he?”

“You think Johnny Ramon is Johnny Madrid—as in the gunfighter Johnny Madrid?” Bradshaw chuckled. “Not hardly. This kid can’t shoot a thing.”

“Dark hair, dark blue eyes, soft-spoken, dotes on his palomino? That’s my brother Johnny, and yeah, Johnny Madrid the gunfighter.”

“I don’t think so, boy. Johnny Ramon is a half-breed. He don’t look no kin to you.”

“We had different mothers, not that it’s any of your business. His mother was Mexican.”

Bradshaw seemed to digest this information slowly, then finally lost his composure. He slammed his fist down. “Jesus Christ! You trying to tell me I’ve had Johnny Madrid living practically under my roof? He could have killed us all in our sleep!” The boss’s eyes fell on Alice. “Oh my god, Alice, to think what he could have done to you—he didn’t touch you, did he?”

“Daddy, Johnny’s not like that! He’s sweet!”

“Sweet on you, is more like it! Bad enough I see this ranch hand looking at my little girl all moon eyed, now I find out he’s a cold-blooded murderer!”

“My son is no such thing!”

“Oh yeah? Let me tell you, I heard all about them gunfighters, and none of it any damn good! A bunch of murderin’ rapin’ thugs, every one!

“Daddy, no!”

“How dare you! You don’t know a thing about my son!”

“I know he chose a sleazy profession!”

“He chose the profession he had to to survive! And let me tell you, I’m damn proud of my son! Now where is he?”

“That why he chose another name?”

“What my brother chooses to call himself isn’t any of your damn business!” Scott was straining against his ties in anger.

“It is when he’s on my ranch! Man like that obviously can’t be trusted.”

Scott stared at him long and hard before answering. “I’d trust a man like that with my life.”

“Riders coming!” Walt interrupted.

“Untie us!” shouted Scott.

“And let you help your murderin kin? I don’t think so!” shouted the boss. “Alice, go to your room!”

“But, Daddy!”

“Please! Let us loose!”  Scott’s plea went unanswered.

***

Johnny had leaned against the wall, eyes closed, basking in the warmth of what his father and brother were saying. His father was proud of him. His brother trusted him. They weren’t here to get him for stealing Barranca.

He had little chance to reflect, however, when he heard Walt’s warning. He scooted to the front corner just in time to see Walt emerge from the house and stand by the trough to confront three gunmen. Walt fired in the air, causing one gunman to jump off his horse and run to the barn, turning and shooting at Walt on the way. Walt clutched at his leg and fell, his gun plopping into the rough. Walt tried to hide behind the trough, but it was at the wrong angle. He began crawling back toward the corner of the house where Johnny was. Johnny darted out and pulled him to cover, grimacing at he pain it caused his ribs. He then ran toward the shed at the side of the yard, hoping to draw the men’s fire from Walt and from his family tied in the house. He did.

A gunman began firing at him, and Johnny turned to shoot. Johnny watched with morbid fascination as his first bullet, so perfectly aimed at the man’s chest, thwacked into the wall several feet to the right of his target. This was not a good sign.

The man’s gun, aimed so Johnny could see a perfect tiny sphere down the barrel, interrupted his silent curses. That perfect sphere was usually the last thing you ever saw. Johnny whirled, threw himself down, and rolled to the right, knowing that an experienced gunman would expect him to roll to the left to keep his gun hand up and firing. ‘Why bother, when the gun ain’t worth shootin?’ The bullet smashed in the dirt on his left, as Johnny came up firing, trying to correct for his gun’s error, only to send this bullet careening into a wagon. He thought his ribs would stab right through him.

Johnny tried to squeeze behind a pole, but it afforded only partial cover. A second gunman weaved and dodged his way toward the first. ‘Ain’t no need to dodge—I ain’t hittin nothing!’ Johnny thought as he took aim at the new man and fired. He was rewarded with a scream of agony as the bullet ripped through flesh and a man went down. It wasn’t the man he had aimed at, but Johnny wasn’t going to be particular.

Johnny knelt just in time to hear a bullet impale itself in the wall behind him. He aimed again, this time a couple of feet to the gunman’s left, and fired. Another miss. A bullet thudded into the ground by his knee. He made another mental correction and aimed his gun again—missed again. One bullet left. The gunman was advancing, aiming his gun, smiling at his novice target. When his expression changed to a look of horrified surprise and blood spurted from his chest Johnny knew he’d finally gotten the knack of aiming his suicide gun.

Johnny rolled over to lean against the pole and reload, his fingers filling the cylinders by rote. He knew one gunman remained, but he didn’t know where he was. He needed to get Miss Alice to safety, and Scott and Murdoch untied, if possible. He pulled himself to his feet, looking about warily before replacing his gun in its holster. He sprinted toward the house, pausing under the open window. He could see Scott inside, looking at him through the window and then back at Miss Alice. He appeared to be pleading with her. Johnny placed both hands on the sill and prepared for the pain he knew was coming when he pulled himself in.

"Hola, Juanito, mi chico!”

Johnny felt suddenly weak as he whirled to confront the voice from his nightmares.

 

Chapter 35

Scott had seen Johnny aim at the man at close range and fire—and miss. He watched the gunfight with increasing horror as he realized something was very wrong with Johnny’s shooting.

“Alice, please! For Johnny’s sake! You’ve got to let me—us—loose!”

“I can’t! I just can’t…”

“Alice, Johnny will be killed. And we’ll be next…”

“My father said not to. I have to leave…”

“Alice!”

***

“Remember me, Juanito?” Mendoza smiled expectantly. “No? Come bend over and we can do some recollectin!”  He laughed, pumping his hips back and forth suggestively.

Johnny couldn’t speak for fear he would puke. This couldn’t be happening.

“Your papa, Miguel, he told me what had become of my favorite chico. Just think, I gave it to the great Johnny Madrid in the ass!” He punctuated his last sentence with a final sneering thrust.

Johnny battled to keep the tremor from his voice. “Is that what you want on your tombstone?”

“Juanito, you always did have a sharp tongue!” He leaned forward and spoke almost confidentially now: “But remember, I know how to make you cry like a little girl!”

Johnny knew he did, knew Mendoza knew how to make him do a lot of things that made him hate himself.

Mendoza paused to smile luridly at Johnny, licking his lips so his tongue showed more than it had to. “Hey, Juanito, how bout one last fuck for old time’s sake before I kill you? My going away present to you!”

Johnny had to focus. He knew Mendoza’s words were weakening him, plunging and twisting like a knife in the infected wound of his memory, spreading infection and bleeding away his confidence.

Mendoza had been one of the youngest, but cruelest, of the men who had regularly used Johnny. The memories of details Johnny had carefully locked away for years thrust themselves back into his consciousness.  Memories of unspeakable sadism and humiliation, memories Johnny tried desperately to subdue.  Memories of Mendoza. Memories of details.

A slight smile tugged at the sides of his mouth. “Hey, Mendoza?”

“Si, Juanito, you decide you want some more Mendoza before you die?”

Johnny fixed the man with his iciest stare. “I just want to know if your cock’s still so tiny you gotta use somethin else.”

He saw the flicker of rage in Mendoza’s eyes right before he saw the flicker of intention. He saw Mendoza draw just as he drew. He heard two shots ring out on top of one another, felt the swish of a bullet pass by, saw Mendoza drop. Watched Mendoza point his gun at him again, just as he pulled his own trigger once more. Felt his gut lurch as his gun jammed, then his surprise as Mendoza nonetheless lurched back, hit by another’s shot. Saw the shooter approach Mendoza’s still body and place another bullet in it, and then another, and another, and another, and another, until the hammer just clicked on empty cylinders.

“Uh, think he’s dead enough there, Scott?”

“He’ll never be dead enough for me!” Scott was shaking with fury.

Johnny walked to the bloodied body and stood over it as though contemplating something. Finally he calmly opened his revolver, spun the cartridge, closed it, and fired---one, two, three, four, five shots---with methodical deliberation, directly into the dead man’s crotch. He stared at his handiwork for several seconds before turning to Scott. “He is now.”

 

Chapter 36

“How much did you hear?”

Scott thought about lying. He knew Johnny wanted him to. He knew, too, that lying wasn’t what Johnny needed. “All of it. I’m sorry, Johnny.”

Johnny took a long time to answer. When he finally did, it was after rubbing his face with his hands. “I’m sorry, Scott.”

Scott reached over and cautiously pulled Johnny close to him. “No, Johnny, there’s nothing for you to be sorry about. I just wish I could have been there to protect you.” He had a hard time keeping the rage from his voice as he added, “I wish I could kill all of them for you.”

“You’d need a lot of bullets.”

Scott didn’t know how to reply at this admission. The thought of there being more—a lot more—out there like Mendoza sent his stomach churning.

A slight grin tugged at Johnny’s mouth. “Especially if you gotta use six bullets apiece!”

***

Bradshaw and Alice emerged from the house and ran to Walt, while Murdoch walked toward Johnny and Scott. Johnny turned to Scott before Murdoch could get close, saying “I’ve got to go get Barranca.”  Then Johnny took off toward the gully where he’d left him.

“Johnny!” Murdoch called out.

Johnny stopped and turned. “How much I owe you for Barranca?”

“What? You don’t owe anything for him. Johnny, we need to talk.”

“I pay my debts,” Johnny paused to cough softly, wincing imperceptibly. “How much?”

“Johnny,” Scott interrupted, “We never sold Barranca. He’s always been yours.”

Johnny narrowed his eyes and stared at them. Were they starting their weird crap again? He decided to ignore it. “Fine. I’m gonna go get my horse now.”

“Johnny, it’s time to go home, son.”

Johnny kept walking, his arm clutched tightly to his side.

“Johnny!”

Johnny once again stopped, this time not turning. “Go home, then!”

“Let me try, Murdoch.” Scott hurried to catch up to Johnny, leaving Murdoch to squint after them.

Scott caught up to Johnny and threw his arm around his shoulders. He grimaced when he felt Johnny stiffen, now suspecting why his brother did this so often when he was touched like that. “Hey Johnny, you’re coming home, aren’t you?”

“No.”

“Oh come on, Johnny, you need to come home. It’ll work, you’ll see.”

“Yeah, like it worked before? Seems to me it worked me right into prison.”

“Johnny, what else will you do? Be a ranch hand? Drift?” Scott wondered if Johnny realized he probably no longer had a job with Bradshaw.

“Yeah, maybe. Maybe I got something else needs doing.”

They had reached Barranca, and Johnny bent for his reins as he patted him on the neck.

“Like what?”

“Like finding that son of a bitch Byron and getting my money back.”

“Brother, you read my mind. We’ll find him faster with two of us.”

Johnny answered without turning. “What I got in mind is pretty much of a one man job.”

Scott smiled broadly. “Well, brother, what I have in mind is a two man job.”

Johnny rubbed Barranca some more, and Scott wondered if he was considering the proposal. Johnny started leading Barranca back toward the ranch, though, still without answering.

Scott decided to sweeten the pot, aiming for what he figured was one of Johnny’s vulnerable spots. “It’ll be easier to find him if we have money. How much do you have?”

Still no reaction from Johnny. Scott knew that Johnny knew Scott always had more than enough money. He thought of something else.

“Johnny, I hate to mention this, but your shooting didn’t look all that good. I think you might need me.”

“The gun’s a piece of crap!”

This was a better piece of news than Scott had expected. Scott knew what ranch hands were paid. He knew Johnny had no hope of buying a gun any time soon on his salary. He felt a little mean using this to convince Johnny, but he’d do what he had to do to come along. He placed his lure, asking, “Then why don’t you buy a good one?”

Johnny walked a long time before finally answering without stopping. “OK, so come. But stay out of the way when I find him. Out here I call the tune.”

“It’s a deal, brother.”  The truth was, finding Byron was already on Scott’s to do list, only he wasn’t going after the money. He planned to land Byron in prison after what he had done to Johnny. After that, Scott had somebody else on his list: whoever it was that forced Johnny into prostitution. He’d kill the bastard. Nobody messed with his little brother and got away with it.

 

Part 6

Chapter 37

Murdoch had not been happy when Scott informed him of his decision to ride with Johnny in search of Byron. He agreed, however, it was better than just cutting Johnny loose. At least this way Scott could report back, and there was hope he could convince Johnny to eventually return to Lancer.

As Scott had suspected, Bradshaw gave Johnny his walking papers as soon as he got back to the ranch with Barranca. Scott had to wonder at Bradshaw’s screwed up values to fire the man who had just saved his ranch simply because Johnny was a gunfighter. Johnny had taken it in stride, barely registering a reaction when he was fired. He hadn’t been planning to stay anyway. Johnny did protest when Bradshaw had tried to withhold his wages because of the lost rifle. Bradshaw had finally grabbed Mendoza’s pistol in compensation, thrusting some money at Johnny with obvious irritation. Scott noticed that Bradshaw had placed his arms protectively around Alice and ushered her inside when Johnny had tried to tell her goodbye. He guessed maybe Johnny’s prediction about girls and their fathers was true after all; gunfighters weren’t the kind of callers fathers welcomed for their daughters.

Johnny had planned to camp out that night, but Scott had convinced him to come to Luna Springs to eat a good dinner and then stay in the hotel. Scott knew food was Johnny’s weak spot, and it didn’t take that much description of the menu at the restaurant before Johnny gave in.

The three men rode toward Luna Springs together. Johnny barely said a word, but occasionally coughed softly.  Scott suspected he must be getting over a cold. As they approached town Scott noticed that Johnny became even quieter—if it were in fact possible to be any more silent than he had already been.

Scott thought he knew what the problem was. “Hey, Johnny, hold up!”

Johnny halted Barranca and looked at Scott questioningly as he approached. “What?”

Scott pulled his gun from his holster and handed it to Johnny, saying “Trade you.”

Scott realized he was risking one of his bargaining chips here, but he thought gaining Johnny’s trust was worth it.

Johnny sat and looked at the gun for a moment, then his smile grew as he reached for his suicide gun. “Deal! Only you might want to throw this one in a creek somewhere.”

“Just got to know how to handle a gun, brother,” Scott teased. “Remind me to give you some shooting lessons.”

Johnny gave Scott a dirty look, then started to smile slyly. “Yeah, well if it’s anything like your datin lesson I think I’d be better off to just go ahead and shoot myself right now!”

“A poor craftsman blames his tools,” Murdoch added with a smile, joining in the teasing.

Johnny’s smile faded as soon as Murdoch joined the conversation. He once again rode silently, looking straight ahead.

***

Once in Luna Springs, the three men saw to their horses and then headed for the nicest---actually, only---restaurant in town. Just as at their last dinner together, Scott and Murdoch did most of the talking, while Johnny busied himself feasting.

Johnny had finished his second dessert when he realized Murdoch had stopped talking in mid-sentence. Murdoch jumped to his feet and gestured as he called out:  “Judge Bertram!”

The judge looked over, waved, and met Murdoch halfway as Scott and Johnny also rose. “Mr. Lancer? And Scott Lancer, isn’t it?” He shook hands, then nodded at Johnny, who hung back. “Madrid.”

“Judge, won’t you join us? We’re just finishing up but I’d love to talk over a drink or two.”  Murdoch was gesturing toward the empty chair.

“Well, I am all alone. I think I’ll take you up on that,” said the judge, sitting. “I’m just in town to hear a few cases. What brings you here?”

“We came for Johnny,” Murdoch said as he laid his hand briefly on Johnny’s shoulder before sitting down.

“Oh? I thought you took him home with you back when he left Folsom.”

Scott jumped in before Murdoch could answer. “Johnny had some things to do.”

Johnny had never sat back down. “I’m going back to the room.” He reached down and snagged a strawberry from Scott’s abandoned dessert plate, then turned to leave.

“Johnny! Judge Bertram is responsible for your being here,” said Murdoch, half rising to his feet. “Don’t you think you should stay?”

“Got to catch up on some sleep.” Johnny was already halfway to the door, coughing once again.

“Sir, if you don’t mind, I think I’d better go with him.” Scott was up, extending his hand once again to Judge Bertram.

“Sure, son, good idea. I’ll catch up with you later,” Murdoch answered.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stay longer, Sir,” said Scott to the judge as they shook hands in parting.

“Your older son is quite a responsible young man, looking after his brother that way,” commented the judge after Scott had left.

Murdoch nodded proudly, “Yes, Scott’s a remarkable man. I’m very proud of him.”

The judge was shaking his head. “Too bad about your other son. All I can say is he’s lucky to have a family like yours.”

“Johnny? Oh, now I admit trouble does seem to have a knack of finding him,” said Murdoch, chuckling while shaking his head. “But actually, I feel lucky to have him. You see, Johnny didn’t grow up with me. He’d only been back with me for five months when that, um, incident happened.”

“Well, you’re an admirable man to take him in and do all you did for him. I hope he appreciates it,” said the judge, pausing before adding “What I really hope, though, is that you don’t regret it.”

“Why on earth would I regret it?” Murdoch set his drink down hard, the liquid sloshing over the side as the irritation crept into in his voice.

“Oh, you know as well as I. A boy like that, he doesn’t change.” The judge paused to take a sip. “You said it, you thought he was capable of rape. A father usually has the right instinct. I hate to say it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s right back in Folsom in another year. You heard that list of convictions he already has. And from what I’ve heard about Johnny Madrid, he’s done a lot worse.”

“Now wait just a second!” Murdoch was leaning forward now, his eyes intense. “Johnny’s not like that. He’s just had some tough breaks.”

“Is that what he told you?” The judge returned his gaze without wavering. “Tell me, your son Scott, did he grow up with you?”

“No, neither of my sons did.”

“Yet Scott has grown into, what did you call him? A remarkable man. Too many men in prison blame their circumstances, when in reality, they have only themselves to blame.”

“Judge, I appreciate what you’re saying, but you have to understand that Johnny and Scott grew up in very different circumstances. Johnny had to do some things---well, he didn’t always have choices.” Murdoch looked into his drink as he swirled his glass.  “You know, my son Johnny is a remarkable man, too.”

“Yes, yes, of course I’m sure he is.”

The men sat in silence for almost a minute before Murdoch spoke again.

“Judge, the truth is, Johnny and I are really still just getting to know one another. Now this, this whole affair, seems like it undid all the progress we’d made before. I’m sure he resents the fact that I was the one who signed the complaint, and the one who put him in jail. I resent it myself.  I thought an innocent man, my own son, was guilty of a terrible crime, and because of me he suffered. I don’t know how to make it up to him.”

“You don’t owe the boy any apologies or explanations! I’m sure he has to understand you were doing what any law-abiding citizen would do. You lead by example, and it looks to me like that boy needs some good examples when it comes to the law. What kind of example would it have set if you just let him go when you thought he was guilty? No, Murdoch, you did the right thing. In fact, the admirable thing.”

Murdoch sighed. “Right now it doesn’t feel very admirable.” He shifted in his seat, unsure whether it was his back or his guilt making him so uncomfortable.

The judge fixed a steadfast gaze on him. “Nothing trumps the law, Murdoch, nothing.”

Murdoch looked into his drink as he swirled it some more. Not even a father’s love?

 

Chapter 38

Johnny and Scott once again shared a room, but this time Scott made sure he did nothing to make Johnny think he didn’t trust him. It had taken him a while to figure out what happened last time, but he had finally pieced together how their earlier attempts to keep the guns and money away from Johnny must have seemed to him. This time he left money on the bed stand. He looked at the gun Johnny had given him and decided it didn’t matter where he left it. Johnny was right; at least it sure looked like a piece of crap.

They both fell asleep without conversation as the sound of rain drops could be heard tapping on the windows, the staccato pattern broken only by Johnny’s low coughing. A sliver of moonlight streaked with rain rivulets trekked across the room as the night progressed.

“No, no!”

Scott bolted awake, quickly locating the source of the cries as coming from Johnny’s bed.

The pleas continued, “No mas, Senor, no mas! Miguel! Miguel!”

Scott was at Johnny’s side. “Johnny, wake up!” Johnny continued to mutter and thrash, breathing in gasps, calling again for Miguel. “Come on, Johnny, you’re having a dream. Wake up!” Scott reached out to shake him by the shoulder.

Johnny whirled and grabbed Scott’s arm, wrenching him down into the bed. “Miguel!” His eyes snatched open, and Scott caught his breath at the brief glimpse of terror he saw in them. Johnny loosened his grip and looked away, obviously embarrassed.

“You OK?”  Scott rubbed Johnny’s shoulder, hoping to sooth him.

“Yeah, yeah fine.” Johnny turned over on his other side, so he was facing the wall, dislodging Scott’s hand in the process.  “Sorry I woke you.”

“You want to talk about it?”

“No.” He muffled a cough.

Scott was quiet for a moment, then decided to push. “Who’s Miguel?”

“Nobody. Go back to sleep.”

“Mendoza, he called him your papa. That doesn’t sound like a nobody to me.”

“Well, he was. He just…he was some fellow took care of me and my mama for a while, OK?”

Scott contemplated what Johnny had said. If this Miguel took care of Johnny and his mother, how did he know Mendoza? Could he have known him without knowing what Mendoza had done to Johnny? It didn’t quite add up.

Scott bowed his head before deciding to ask. “Johnny, did he know what Mendoza did to you?”

“Madre de Dios, Scott, let me sleep why don’t you!” Johnny punched his pillow as though to make it more comfortable, then settled his head on it once again.  “I tell you what, if you plan on interrogating me this whole trip, I’ll just be on my way now.”

“Alright, alright.” Scott shook his head and sighed. “I’m not interrogating. I just want to understand.”

“Buenas noches, Scott.” Johnny put his pillow over his head, blocking out Scott’s response.

“OK,” Scott sighed, shaking his head and placing his hand once again on Johnny’s arm. “Pleasant dreams, Johnny.” For a change.

***

The next day dawned dismal and rainy. The three men sloshed through the mud, slapping the water from their clothes before they entered the restaurant. Once inside they discussed some plans for finding Byron. Johnny wasn’t happy about discussing anything with Murdoch, but he gritted his teeth and made it through the meal. He was pretty hungry, after all.

They all agreed that Clarissa was the place to start. Scott cautioned that he had already asked her about Byron’s whereabouts, and she had told him what she knew. However, he realized she was still their best connection. He and Johnny would ride back to San Jose to talk to her. Murdoch would go back to Lancer, where he would work with Val to try to locate Byron through Val’s contacts. The plan was to leave after breakfast, but the rainfall became a torrent, and Scott and Murdoch both agreed it would be better to hole up in the hotel for another day.

Johnny was all for leaving right then. Anything was better than being stranded with Murdoch. Deep down, though, he knew Scott was right. The muddy roads would be slick, making it more likely a horse could slip, perhaps injuring itself or its rider. The ride itself would be pretty miserable. Johnny didn’t even own any raingear, although he could probably afford some now with the last wages he’d drawn from Bradshaw.  Besides, his cough seemed like it was getting worse. He reluctantly agreed to stay over.

He realized he had made a mistake when Murdoch poked his head in the door to Johnny and Scott’s room. “Johnny, we need to talk. Scott, could you excuse us, please?”

“Sure,” said Scott, looking doubtfully at the two as he left the room. “I’ll be in your room.”

Murdoch closed the door behind him. He walked to the bed where Johnny was lying throwing his hat in the air and catching it. Johnny immediately dropped his hat on the bed, got to his feet and walked to window, pulling aside the curtain to peer out.

“Johnny, I need to explain some things to you.”

Johnny appeared to develop a sudden fascination with the trickles of rain down the window. He wished he were outside. Maybe drowning.

“Johnny, when I had you arrested it was because everything pointed to your guilt. It’s no more and no less than I would do with any man under my roof in those circumstances. Just because you’re my son doesn’t mean I could turn a blind eye to the law, doesn’t mean I could treat you any differently than any other hand.”

Johnny continued to stand with both hands propped on the window sill, leaning in toward it. Still looking out the window, he finally replied “Yeah? I guess it means you just turn a blind eye to everything else, huh?”  His voice rose slightly. “You know, you and Scott, you’re always harping about how being a family means trusting one another, but you don’t know the meaning of it. I got friends, maybe the kind of friends you wouldn’t approve of, woulda given me more credit than you. And yeah, I guess I kinda thought being a son meant more than bein a hand.” Johnny turned and faced Murdoch. “You know what? If you want a hand, go hire yourself one. Because I sure as shit don’t plan on being your son.” He strode toward the door, snatching his hat off the bed on his way.

“Wait, Johnny, we’re not through!”

“Oh, we’re through alright. We were through when you held a gun to me. You know the difference between you and me, old man? You would have shot me because me being your son doesn’t mean shit to you. I didn’t shoot you because you were my father and I thought it was supposed to mean something. I won’t be making that mistake again.” Johnny pushed past Murdoch to the door.

“Johnny, stop! We’re not through!”  Murdoch grabbed Johnny by one shoulder. Johnny whirled, pulling his gun and sticking it in Murdoch’s neck before he could react.

“You remember that, old man,” he said as he cocked the hammer. “Like I said, I won’t make that mistake again.” He kept the gun to his father’s neck as he reached over to snare his saddlebags.

“Tell Scott I couldn’t wait.”  With that he spun and left the room, gun still raised.

 

Chapter 39

Scott had listened with dismay as Murdoch described Johnny’s departure. By the time Scott grabbed his things and reached the street he could see Barranca’s shape galloping out of town through the rain, kicking up sluices of mud. Damn that Johnny! He could have waited.

Scott hurriedly donned his rain gear, saddled his horse and galloped after Johnny. It looked like Johnny was headed to San Jose, as they had planned. If Scott kept up a good pace he could probably catch up. He probably could have, too, if his horse hadn’t suddenly begun to bob his head up and down, signaling that something was wrong with his gait. Scott dismounted to check him. It didn’t take an expert to spot the foreleg the horse was favoring. He must have done it when he slipped a ways back. Scott kicked a flume of water from a puddle. Damn it again! He’d have to go back for another horse. He’d never catch up now. He reluctantly turned back, leading his horse.

***

Johnny wished he had bought rain gear before he charged out of Luna Springs. Now he was plastered slick with rain and his teeth were chattering. His cough was definitely worse. He tried to decide if he should find some cover and camp, or if he should push on to the next town and get a room. It would be nearly impossible to find dry wood for a fire; on the other hand, he had not quite $6, and a room would cut into that significantly.

He coughed some more, then aborted the attempt as he clutched at his ribcage. He tried to inhale more deeply, but it was like breathing soup, and his ribs pierced him with pain. He wasn’t sure how far it was to the next town. He’d been riding about four hours at a good clip, so he thought it must be soon. He decided to hold out for town and a room. It would be another day beyond that before he reached San Jose.

He rode for another hour. The cold rain continued. Johnny’s breathing was making funny high-pitched sounds every time he inhaled. He suspected this was a bad sign. In the midst of his silent curses, he suddenly pulled up Barranca. Something, for just a moment, had caught his eye. There it was again: the tiniest sliver of smoke, so small most people would have missed it, a good distance off the road. Somebody had a campfire! They must have some type of cover. Johnny pulled up Barranca to consider this new option. It wouldn’t hurt to look.

Johnny rode toward the smoke, his hand ready at his hip. He could see the fire, anemic but beckoning to him with the promise of warmth. It was built under an overhang, with a wagon shielding it further. He had visions of drying and warming next to it.  But whose fire was it? He maneuvered around to get a better look, then smiled as he saw the man by the fire. A priest! This might be his lucky day after all.

He rode closer, the priest finally looking up at the plopping of Barranca;s hooves in the mud.

“Howdy! Got room around that fire for one more?” Johnny asked, offering his most appealing smile.

“There’s always room for one of God’s children.”

Johnny knew he didn’t mean him. But he could always fake it. “Much obliged, father.” He dismounted and led Barranca next to the other horses under the small ledge, coughing as he stripped the saddle from him with his shaking hands. He was shivering violently now, the sound of his chattering teeth accompanied by his raspy breath.

“Are you alright, son?”

Johnny started to answer that he was fine, but his convulsive coughing made it impossible. He was starting to suspect he wasn’t fine. He huddled as close to the fire as he could, trying to dry his clothes. The priest handed him a tin cup filled with hot coffee, which Johnny surrounded with both hands and drank so fast it blistered his tongue.

He couldn’t get warm. After an hour of doing everything but crawl in the fire, Johnny was weak from shivering and coughing. The priest had made him a pallet next to the fire, helped him strip off his soggy clothes, and then covered him with a blanket. His ribs screamed from coughing, and his breathing was changing to bubbly gasps. His head hurt, and he was starting to feel weak and disoriented. He finally drifted into an exhausted sleep, but kept being awakened by his need to cough or breathe.

The next morning the weather was better, but Johnny was worse. The priest gently shook him awake, and Johnny responded by coughing violently, clutching at his chest in pain. He barely managed to prop himself up to drink some coffee. As he drank, the priest looked at him worriedly.

“Son, you’re sick. Where were you headed?”

“San Jose,” Johnny barely coughed out the words.

“That’s a long way away from here. I’m afraid you’re too sick to ride that far. Where are you coming from? Do you have family around here?”

Johnny had to make an effort to focus enough to answer. “Luna Spring. Scott Lancer. Going to San Jose.”

“No, you’re going to Luna Springs, son. I can’t leave you here, and I’ve got to be on my way south. Let’s get you up in that wagon now.”

Johnny didn’t remember getting in the wagon, or riding back to Luna Springs. He vaguely remembered his father’s face mouthing some words as he bent over him. He clearly remembered wondering why the priest had delivered him into hell.

 

Chapter 40

Scott had surprised Murdoch by showing back up at the room and telling him they needed to trade horses. Murdoch wasn’t happy that he would have to stay over in Luna Springs a few extra days while Scott’s horse recovered.

It didn’t surprise Scott that he never caught up to Johnny on the trail, but he was disappointed he didn’t find him in a town between Luna Springs and San Jose the first night. When Scott arrived at the hotel in San Jose where they were to stay, instead of finding Johnny awaiting him he was handed a telegram from Murdoch. His alarm grew when he read it: “JOHN WITH ME. SICK.WILL BE OK. STAYING PUT.”

Johnny and Murdoch together, without him to referee? This could not be good. Scott wondered just how sick Johnny must be that he would have gone back to Murdoch after leaving the way he had. Just as bad, how long would it be before one of them killed the other? Scott needed to get back to Luna Springs, pronto.

He’d come all the way to San Jose, though. He might as well see Clarissa first. Besides, his horse needed the rest. He’d spend the night, talk to Clarissa, and head back in the morning.

He bedded his horse down and went to find Clarissa. He entered the saloon where she was once again working with Rosalita, searching among the scantily clad saloon girls for her. It wasn’t long before he spotted Rosalita coming down the stairs with an obviously satisfied customer. “Rosalita!” Scott held up his hand and beckoned to her, standing as she approached and pulling out a chair.

“Scott!” She flitted over, smoothing her hair and flashing a warm smile. “I heard the good news about Johnny. Is he with you?”

“No, he was supposed to be, but something came up,” said Scott, once again distracted by Rosalita’s beauty. He forced his mind back to the business at hand. “Listen, Rosalita, I need to talk to Clarissa about Brian again. Is she here?”

“She’s not here, but you won’t believe it,” said Rosalita as she flounced into the chair Scott offered, adjusting her dress so it was less suggestive. “Brian showed up just today. I couldn’t believe the nerve of that man. He strolled in here like he hadn’t done her any wrong. And you know why he was here? It wasn’t because he missed her, that’s for sure. No, he had a little girl with him, about four or five years old. And he had some scheme he wanted Desiree—I mean, Clarissa, for!”

Scott had sat back down, but now leaned forward in his seat. “Here? With a child? Whose?”

“That I was never clear on. First he said it was his sister’s—he really does have one, by the way. Then later he said it was an old girl friend’s. I don’t know. I just know it wasn’t Clarissa’s, and she wasn’t about to messed up with him again!”

“Is he still here?” Scott asked, shifting his eyes around the saloon as though he would find Brian (or Byron, as he still thought of him) hiding in a corner.

“He’s still around. My guess would be the Marquis Hotel, just down the street. Scott, he really scared Clarissa. He was so angry when she wouldn’t take the child. But how could she? It’s not like she could keep a child over the saloon! Cute kid, though. Made me wish she could keep her.”

Scott had jumped up at the mention of the Marquis and was already striding toward the door, calling back “Thank you, Rosalita!” 

The Marquis was within walking distance, so Scott headed there on foot. It was a nice hotel, not on par with the one they had stayed at in Gilroy, but nice enough to have its own restaurant. Once inside, Scott noticed the lush carpet of green and gold that somehow reminded him of the Lancer range in spring.

Scott waited for the clerk to finish checking in a guest. While he waited he ambled about and looked at the paintings that adorned the lobby, noting they were rather amateurish, but charming. Impatient, he peered around into the restaurant. He froze. There was Byron, seated alone.

Scott had a choice. He could find the sheriff and have Byron arrested for his false accusation against Johnny, or he could inflict his own punishment on him first. Scott had always prided himself on not being a violent man; it was one of many things he felt set him apart from the rough cowboys that inhabited the west. Now he wanted nothing more than to cram his fist down Byron’s throat for what he had done to Johnny. He supposed he could do that first, then get the sheriff when Byron was incapacitated.

As he was contemplating his next move, Byron made up his mind for him. He glanced up, spotted Scott, jumped to his feet, and rushed to the back of the room and through the kitchen door. Scott dashed after him, sidestepping the waiter and twisting around the jumble of crowded tables and chairs until he pushed through the kitchen door, where he was met with a barrage of steam, heat, and irate curses, but no sight of Byron. Then he saw a door at the back of the kitchen swinging shut, and he scurried toward it, ignoring the feeble pummeling of the cook’s wooden spoon as he pushed past her and out the door into the dark.

Scott realized his uncharacteristic lack of caution as he flung himself heedlessly into the alley, and he immediately tried to take a step back to survey the scene---about the same time that he felt a hard thud to his head and the alley went sparkly dark.

 

 

Chapter 41

Johnny could have sworn he’d stormed out of this very same room after holding a gun to Murdoch. Yet here he was, back in his bed. Had he dreamed that whole episode? He hoped not. It had felt so good telling the old man what he thought of him. Then was he dreaming now? The door opened and his father peeked in at him. Yes, definitely a nightmare.

He tried to rouse himself but found he couldn’t wake; the image of his father approached and reached for his forehead. “You had me worried there, son.”

Johnny was getting pretty worried himself. This nightmare was starting to feel uncomfortably real. He shut his eyes and tried to will the apparition away. “Go away,” he rasped.

“Johnny, look at me.” He felt himself being shaken by the shoulders, jarred until his eyes sprang open to look right into Murdoch’s. Shit. This was real. “Stop acting like a spoiled child. I had my fill of that when you were in the infirmary at Folsom. You’re sick. You need me. Try to be a good patient, and we’ll all get along better.”

“No, I’m getting outta here.”  He tried to get up, but couldn’t seem to lift himself from the bed. He must be weaker than he thought. He tried to prop his arms behind to lever himself up, but couldn’t seem to move them either. He tried to focus on his hands. Something was wrong. Tied? His hands were tied to the bed?

“That’s right, Johnny. They had one good idea at that prison. We need to talk, and I can’t risk you running out on me before we’ve settled some things between us. I hope they won’t be needed once we get through.”

“Fuck you.”

Johnny prayed he had a serious illness so he would die right then. At least a good coma. Anything would be better than the purgatory Murdoch had in mind.

***

Shiny bugs. That’s the first thing Scott was conscious of. He’d never noticed the exquisite way their wings reflected the moonlight, the way they danced and darted as though at a junebug jamboree. He could see every detail, what with his face on the ground like it was, and he could have sworn one came up and studied him curiously. Scott came to his full senses with a start, heaving himself away from the alley gala that had occupied his semi-conscious mind moments before. His head throbbed, trying its best to push him back down, but he steadied himself on all fours, slowly grasping the rail to the kitchen steps and pulling himself up, swaying.

Dammit. How could he have been so reckless? Now Byron was gone. Still, he couldn’t have gotten far. Scott staggered back to the kitchen door and through the kitchen, once again ignoring the raised voices and fists of the women working there. By the time he reached the dining area he was walking almost upright. He pulled himself together and made a show of looking nonchalant as he strode confidently to the lobby and front desk. Looking at the clock, he estimated he had been out about 10 minutes.

Scott inquired at the desk for Brian Jackson’s room number, but the clerk volunteered that he was no longer there. He had left about five minutes ago, with saddlebags and a child in tow.  Scott ran to the street, each step jarring his aching head. Several horses and riders were still about, but only one was galloping down the street away from town. Scott ran as best he could for the livery and his own, or actually Murdoch’s, horse. He hated to put the saddle back on him; the animal was already tired from the long two day trip here. But he flung the horse’s tack on, hoping it would be a short chase, and galloped out of town in the same direction as the departing horse he had seen earlier.

***

Johnny wasn’t sure how long he’d been in and out of consciousness. He knew at times the room had been light, and at times dark, so it had to be at least a day, probably more. He knew a strange man, maybe a doctor, had been there, and he vividly recalled heaving his guts out after the doctor gave him something. He remembered struggling against someone as his ribs were bound. He remembered the pungent aroma of a mustard poultice, and being encouraged to breathe deeply and to cough until he thought his lungs would bleed. He recalled the vision of his father leaning over him on several occasions, pressing a cool cloth to his head, but each time he had squeezed his eyes shut to rid himself of the apparition. It had worked, too. As long as his father thought he was asleep, he hadn't been so intent on hovering over him.

He knew he was much better; his breathing was easier and his coughing was less frequent. He’d been awakening regularly, but was careful to appear asleep when he felt the presence of his father. This time when he opened his eyes the room was once again empty. He tried to move but was again reminded that he really was tied up. He pulled against his binds but couldn’t loosen them. He was already propped up, so he leaned over to one side to study the knot. The door opened, and his father entered. Damn. He’d been caught awake. He sat back and turned his head away.

Murdoch approached the bed, sitting in the chair beside it. He watched Johnny for a few seconds, then getting no response, said quietly “Johnny, I know you’re angry at me, and you have a right to be.”

“Let me go!”  Johnny finally reacted, glaring at Murdoch and struggling against his ties.

“Johnny, I can’t do that. Not until you listen to me.” Murdoch’s voice was soft, almost soothing.

“Let me go,” Johnny said more slowly and threateningly.

Murdoch ignored him, continuing to speak softly. “The other day I said I had to treat you like any other hand, but you were right, you’re not any other hand. You’re my son. You’re my son and I should have stood behind you no matter what. I should have had more faith in you.” He paused and looked straight at Johnny, shaking his head slowly. “But why, Johnny, why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t remember? Why did you confess? I just wish I understood you more.”

Johnny stopped struggling to glare at Murdoch with loathing. “When the hell was I supposed to do that? When you was beating the crap out of me? Maybe during all those times you came to see me in jail? You’re the one who said I did it. I just agreed cuz I figured the great Murdoch Lancer must be right.”

Murdoch sighed, saying, “I know now I should have given you more of a chance.”  He reached forward to place his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, but all that did was send Johnny into a violent struggle to get away from the offensive touch. 

“Don’t touch me!”  Despite Johnny's struggles, Murdoch’s hand remained.

“What I’m trying to say, Johnny, is that I’m sorry. I should have known better than to doubt you, no matter what.”

“Yeah, you’re sorry alright. Sorry excuse for a father.”

“Johnny, we need to get past this. What do I have to do to make this right?”

“Putting a bullet between your eyes’d be a good start.”

Murdoch leaned back, removing his hand from Johnny. “I’m trying to have a productive conversation here, John. We’re not going to get anywhere if that’s going to be your attitude!”

He got up and walked to the door. “We’ll try this again later, maybe when you can control yourself a little better. I’m going to go get some supper. I’ll bring you back something.”  He opened the door and turned back. “Oh, and by the way, I’ve paid the hotel staff to ignore whatever they hear go on in here. Yelling won’t help.”

 

Chapter 42

It was not a short chase. Scott’s tired horse simply wasn’t up to gaining on Byron’s fresh horse. Fortunately for Scott the recent rains had cleared the road of old tracks, and this stretch was apparently little traveled, making the fresh hoof marks relatively easy to follow under the glow of the full moon. Nonetheless, following them still required some studying and occasional backtracking, especially at every fork in the road. Scott was surprised Byron had not gone through more trouble to hide the tracks, but he wasn’t going to complain. Either he didn’t think he was being followed or he wasn’t as crafty as they had all been giving him credit for. Scott thought of turning back and finding the sheriff, but he was sure that would take too much time. He would catch Byron himself and bring him to the closest town for justice; that is, if Byron was lucky.

The sky was turning gray with the promise of morning by the time Scott passed a sign informing him the town of Panacea was 10 miles ahead. He had been forced to stop to rest his horse, losing a couple of hours. Scott could only hope Byron had assumed he wasn’t being followed and had stopped as well.

Scott suddenly caught his breath and pulled up his horse. Ahead off to the right of the road were the embers of a fire. The hoof prints he was following looked like they led right to it. Maybe Byron had camped out rather than gone on to town in the middle of the night. It seemed peculiar he would take the time to start a fire while he was on the run, or that he would camp in clear view of the road, unless he really did think he wasn’t being followed. Scott dismounted and approached with caution, drawing his gun. Johnny’s gun, he remembered. Could it really be as bad as Johnny had made it out?

He crept toward the fire, cringing as an occasional stick crackled underfoot. Finally he knelt outside the clearing, looking for signs of life. He saw none. Then he saw a form move. Byron? No, it was too small. The child! If she was there, Byron must be around. But where? And where was the horse?

He strained his ears to hear, to pick up any hint of Byron. Instead he heard the quietest of sobs, coming from the little girl. He steeled his heart, ordering himself to stay put. He knew this could be a trap, with the girl as bait. He decided to creep around the perimeter. Two could play at the stalking game.

Ten minutes later he had completed a full circle with no sign of Byron. It appeared the child had been abandoned. Her sobs had turned to whimpers now, and he could see her kneeling by the embers, hugging herself. Scott couldn’t stand it. He crept cautiously into the campsite and to the little girl, kneeling beside her.

“It’s all right, I’m a friend,” Scott whispered to her.

She turned her face upward, opening a reddened eye to look at him suspiciously. She stopped her whimpering. Then she started screaming.

“No, no, no! I’m a friend! I’m here to help!” Scott was totally flustered. He knew nothing about children, especially screaming ones.  And this one sure was screaming.

After waving his hands about her in indecision, he finally just reached for her and pulled her close, her screams muffled in his shirt. That seemed to do the trick. He held her and rocked her, reassuring her as best he could. What on earth was he going to do now? Was Byron really gone? Because Scott figured everyone within a mile would have heard those screams. He held his gun so the child could not see it, but ready for trouble just in case.

“Come on, sweetheart, it’s time to get up. Can you stand?”  Scott tried to prop her up, but the little girl’s legs were like soggy noodles.

“Can you tell me your name?” Scott asked in what he imagined to be his most child-friendly tone.

“Elizabeth,” she replied in almost a whisper, looking up and rubbing one eye with her fist.

“Well, Elizabeth, let’s try walking, shall we?”  Scott pushed himself to a standing position, then reached down for Elizabeth. She took his hand and he pulled her to a wobbly stand, clinging to his leg. She remained clinging to one leg all the way back to Scott’s horse.

Scott lifted her to the saddle, then mounted behind her. He didn’t know what he was going to do with her, but he knew he couldn’t leave her there. He supposed he should take her back to San Jose. That would mean losing Byron’s trail.  On the other hand, he could continue in the same direction Byron had been headed, dropping the child off in Panacea and telegraphing the sheriff in San Jose. The other hand won.

Scott rode at a walk, nestling the now sleeping child to him. He shook his head at the thought of a man who could abandon a child as Byron had done, wondering how Byron and Elizabeth were connected.

***

Johnny didn’t want to focus on the food Murdoch laid beside him. Eating would be a concession. The only problem was, he was starving. The aroma from the steak and potatoes wafted up to seduce him like a whore on a Saturday night.  Murdoch had cut the steak into pieces, laying the knife aside; Johnny knew he wasn’t trusting him with a knife. Now he lifted a piece onto a fork and offered it to Johnny.

Dammit, he was hungry! Johnny guessed things couldn’t get too much worse; he might as well eat. Not like this, though. “I can feed myself.”

“I wish I could let you. Now come on and just eat this.” Murdoch pushed the laden fork toward Johnny.

Johnny jerked his head back, clamping his mouth shut as he glared at Murdoch defiantly.

Murdoch placed the fork and plate on the bedside table alongside the knife. “You let me know when you want to eat.”

“You gotta untie me anyway. I gotta take a piss, or didn’t you think of that?”

“I can take care of those needs, too.”

Johnny looked at him incredulously. “You ain’t touchin my dick!”

Murdoch folded his arms and studied Johnny before speaking. “One hand loose, that’s all. And you have to promise you’ll cooperate.”

"I ain't promising you nothin'. Cut me loose or clean up the mess. Your choice."

Murdoch sighed, but untied his right hand. Johnny cautiously flexed his arm, rolling his shoulder back and forth. He accepted the bedpan from Murdoch, handing it back when he was through using it. Murdoch placed the plate on the bed beside him, and Johnny ate wordlessly. He was evaluating his situation, wondering if now was a good time for an escape attempt. He decided it wasn’t. Murdoch was too wary. Although Johnny could make it tough on him, he knew eventually Murdoch would succeed in tying him back up. It was better to bide his time. He allowed Murdoch to retie him.

After Murdoch had placed the dirty dish by the door he returned to the chair at Johnny’s bedside. Then he got up, paced the floor, and went to the window to look outside. After several minutes he turned and addressed Johnny.

“There’s something else we need to talk about. What Mendoza said. Johnny, I know this is isn’t easy for you. It’s---it’s not easy for me, either. I think we need to talk about it, though.”

Johnny wished he had tried to escape. Maybe he would have been killed in the process.

Murdoch had turned to face the window again. “Johnny, when Maria took you away from me, it was the worst day of my life. I never gave up hope I would find you. But I swear to God, I had no idea what you were going through.” He bowed his head. “Johnny, if I had, I would have killed every last one of them.”

Johnny made no response. He couldn’t believe Murdoch was bringing this up.

Murdoch suddenly spun and strode to the foot of Johnny’s bed to face him. “Tell me who did this to you, John. It’s not too late. I’ll kill the bastard. Who was it? Is he still alive?”

Johnny hadn’t meant to comment on anything to do with this, but he couldn’t resist blurting out, “What do you care?”

Murdoch leaned forward, his hands on the footboard, and looked Johnny in the eye. “I’m not perfect, Johnny, but I’m trying my hardest to do what’s right by you.”

Johnny had closed his eyes, but his tapping fingers belied his emotional turmoil.  "You tried any harder to do right by me, I'd be dead."

“Johnny, I want you to come back to Lancer. Give me another chance. I want you to be a Lancer again.”

Johnny finally opened his eyes and returned Murdoch’s gaze.  “Screw Lancer.”

 

Chapter 43

The sun was rising as Scott sighted the shadowy silhouette of Panacea in the distance. A short while later he spotted several ghostly figures in the morning light. In only a few minutes they emerged as mounted men, their galloping horses pounding the earth. Scott briefly considered running or hiding, but his horse couldn’t outrun anyone right now, and there was no place to hide. He chastised himself; he was starting to think like Johnny. No, these riders were clearly not after him. He waved his hand in greeting as they approached.

The riders pulled up their horses as they came close, flanking him, holding their guns on him. Not a good sign, but no doubt simply a precaution.

“Elizabeth! My darling! Thank God you’re alive!” Scott’s stomach flopped as he recognized the man who had dove off his horse and was running to him. Byron!

“Get your hands off the child and put them up where we can see them! Now!”  One of the gunmen, who Scott now realized was wearing a badge, was pointing his gun right at Scott’s head.  He slowly raised his hands.

Byron and another man were easing Elizabeth from the saddle. “Did he hurt you, darling?”

Scott was getting the picture, and it wasn’t a pretty one. “Now just wait a minute here. I found that little girl abandoned! This man’s a con man I’ve been following!”

Byron was hugging Elizabeth to him, but now pushed away from her and started trying to drag Scott from the saddle, beating on him with his other hand. “You filthy scum! She’s just a little girl! I’ll kill you!” He was still cursing Scott as the other men pulled him off and held him back. Still other men finished the job for him, pulling Scott from the saddle and throwing him to the ground. One man added a kick for good measure, catching Scott in the side and doubling him over.

“If you’ll just listen to me I’ll tell you what happened!” Scott gasped through his pain. “I’ve been on that man’s trail! Byron Jackson! Or Brian Jackson, he goes by both. He left this child behind…”

Umpfh! Another kick to the gut knocked the breath out of Scott, sending him writhing.

“Save it for the judge, you pervert! Mr. Jackson here already filled us in on how you took her.”

“That’s not true! Ask the child!” Scott croaked, pointing at the little girl, who was now huddled against Byron as he whispered in her ear. “Go on, ask her!”

Byron looked up, then shook his head. “I didn’t want to have to, but I will. Elizabeth, honey, did the bad man try to touch you?”

Elizabeth sniffed and nodded as she clung to Byron.

***

Johnny had spent the evening trying not to look at the knife Murdoch had left on the bedside table after dinner. He had managed to block out most of what Murdoch had been droning on about for the past two hours, although he recognized the gist of it as more of that family loving bullshit. Finally Murdoch seemed to have shut up. He glanced over at him. He appeared to be dozing, slumped in the chair beside the bed.

He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing, hoping Murdoch would think he was asleep just in case Murdoch was really awake. After about 20 minutes he was rewarded with the sound of Murdoch’s slow breaths. Johnny risked peeking at him again. He worried that Murdoch was as skilled at feigning sleep as he was, so he waited another 20 minutes. He seemed genuinely asleep.

Getting the knife with both hands tied wasn’t going to be easy.  Murdoch obviously assumed he couldn’t.  Johnny chuckled to himself. It wasn’t going to be that hard, either. He slowly bent his knees and rolled back as far as he could on his back and then neck. He gasped as he hadn’t anticipated the pain from his bound ribs when he rolled. He grit his teeth and continued, stifling a cough. Then he delicately reached out with one foot and with careful precision, tried to grasp the knife in his toes. He was glad his foot was bare; otherwise it would have been nearly impossible. As it was it took a couple of attempts just to get it lined up.  He finally got the knife to where he could pick it up, and had lifted it part way, when it slipped from his toes and fell with a clatter back to the table, balancing precariously over the edge. Johnny froze.

Murdoch’s breathing caught, but after a few seconds recovered its rhythm. Johnny tried again, first pushing the knife away from the edge and then being more careful that the knife was firmly in place before moving. He slowly moved the foot with the knife back over the bed.

Now what? His hands were hanging off the sides of the bed. He couldn’t get the knife to either one, not even close, without risking it falling to the floor. He stretched his legs down, and then arched his back, bending the knee of the leg holding the knife so it was under his rear. Then he let go the knife. He tried to rearrange the sheet so it covered him more convincingly.

Johnny could feel the knife under him. He couldn’t use it yet, but it was there, waiting for him. He closed his eyes to sleep for real. Johnny felt the best he had in days. He’d always said weapons were the best medicine.

***

Scott became increasingly apprehensive as they neared town. The sheriff had so far prevented the other men from attacking him, saying it would be wrong for the child to witness, not to mention look bad if the prisoner couldn’t sit a horse coming into town. Scott knew once he was in the jail those excuses would no longer protect him.

They arrived at the sheriff’s office amidst curious looks from the shopkeepers who were opening their stores. Scott was dragged from his horse and pushed inside the building, where he was roughly searched and relieved of his money and papers. He requested that two telegrams be sent, which they agreed to do, taking more than enough cash to cover them as he wrote them out. He requested a lawyer, but was told there was no such being in Panacea.

Then he was shoved into a cell. Scott waited hopefully for the door to clang closed. It didn’t. The only door that locked was the one to the street, after the sheriff stepped outside making a point of saying how long he would be gone in order to send the telegrams. That left four men, all approaching Scott’s cell. He tried to swing the door closed in front of him, but one of the men grabbed it and flung it open, allowing the other three to casually file in.

“You like being a bully, huh, you goddamn pervert? We’ll give you a taste of how it feels…”

Scott backed against one side, grabbing the bars with his hands, and kicked out with one foot just as the first man lunged for him. He caught him in the gut, but the other two were on him instantly, pummeling him in the chest and belly. He tried to back into the corner, but the two men grabbed him by the shoulders, hoisting him between them, as the other punched him in the abdomen repeatedly. Scott’s legs began to buckle, his body contorting with each blow, until he was hanging between his captors.

“Jeb! No fair! He’s gonna pass out before it’s my turn!”

“Oh quit complaining, you’ll get your turn!” But the other man didn’t get his turn, at least not while Scott was still conscious.

 

Chapter 44

It was almost dawn when the sounds of the waking town brought Johnny to his senses. He squirmed on the bed, feeling the knife beneath his upper thigh. He watched as Murdoch awakened and stretched. Johnny thought of letting him go to the outhouse first, then decided it would be more fun to go ahead and do this now.

“I gotta piss,” he said.

“Hold on, so do I,” replied Murdoch. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“You don’t untie me now, I’m pissing in the bed.”

“Dammit, Johnny, OK, just wait a second.” Murdoch untied Johnny’s right hand and handed him the bedpan.

Johnny waited for Murdoch to turn away. As soon as he did he pulled the sheet down, palmed the knife from beneath his hip, and then turned his attention to filling the bedpan. “Here, I’m done.”

Murdoch reached to retrieve the bedpan Johnny had set on the bed. Before he could pick it up Johnny’s right hand flicked up so the point of the knife pressed into Murdoch’s jugular, hard enough so a trickle of blood appeared from the surface cut. “You ever seen how far blood spurts from here?” Johnny smiled. “I have.”  Johnny twisted the knife slowly to make his point. “Untie me.”

“Johnny…”

“Shut up! I’ve had to listen to your bullshit long enough. Untie me.”

Murdoch was silent before speaking quietly. “Fine, Johnny. If all we’ve talked about has meant nothing to you. If I mean nothing to you, if Scott, and Lancer mean nothing.”

“Figuring it out, huh?” Johnny pushed the knife a bit, gesturing with his head to his tied hand.

Murdoch sighed, then reached over slowly and untied Johnny’s left hand. Johnny sat up and then pushed himself off the bed, his knife never leaving Murdoch’s throat.  He pushed Murdoch to the dresser, where he pulled Murdoch’s gun from its holster with his left hand, placing it to the back of Murdoch’s head. Johnny put the knife down and transferred the gun to his right hand. “Remember, old man, I said I wouldn’t make that mistake again. I’ll splatter your brains all over the ceiling you try anything. Now get on the bed and tie your feet to the bottom rail there.”

“Johnny, you’re free. Just let me go and be on your way if that’s really what you want.”

“If that’s what I really want? What the hell you think I been saying? Yeah, let you go just like you let me go.” Johnny chuckled, then added quietly, “No, no I don’t think so. Get over there.”

Murdoch walked to the bed and snatched the rope, then sat on the bed and tied his feet as Johnny directed. Johnny checked the binds. “Now lie down and raise your hands straight over your head. Both hands.”

“Johnny, I didn’t tie you like this!”

“Yeah, you see what happened. You oughta learn to tie people up better.” Johnny was grinning as he lashed Murdoch’s hands to the rails of the headboard.

Johnny found his pants and boots and put them on, draping his shirt over his shoulders. He stretched and lowered himself into the chair next to the bed, leaning back with his legs straight out so his feet rested on the bed. “Yeah, that prison had a good idea alright.”  He drummed his fingers slowly while he contemplated Murdoch.  “I guess this is what they call family ties, eh?” He grinned, then suddenly the grin vanished as he quickly leaned forward, his feet thudding to the floor as he stared coldly at Murdoch. “You don’t know shit about family ties. You talk about family, and all that bullshit, and then you turn on your own son just cuz a stranger says he done something, no questions asked.”

“Johnny, we’ve been over this. I said I’m sorry.”

Johnny got to his feet and began pacing, his boots clunking with each step.

“Sorry don’t make up for disowning your own son. Sorry don’t make up for eight months in hell. Sorry don’t make up for nothing. Hell, you go on ranting about getting the man that made me do that stuff, but what you did was a hell of a lot worse. What the hell you think goes on in prisons? At least Miguel hung around to make sure nothing too bad happened. And he never fed me this bullshit about doing it for my own good. You want to find the bastards that hurt me? Start in the mirror, cuz you’re the worst one of the bunch.”

“Miguel?”

Johnny glared. He hadn’t meant to let that slip. “Shut up!”  He kicked the side of the bed.

“If this Miguel is the man who did that to you I want to know! Damn him to hell, he is, isn’t he?”

Johnny kicked the bed harder. “I said shut up!  The only one you need to be damning is you!”

“Johnny, calm down! I’m trying to help you!”

“Seems like last time I heard that you helped me all the way to prison.”  Johnny buttoned his shirt, yanking on the toggles as he tried to fit them through the holes.

“John, we’ve been over and over this. What else was I to think?”

“Maybe that your own son wasn’t a rapist? Maybe that a couple of strangers who put a price on a woman’s virtue was up to something? Course, maybe that seems OK to you. Maybe making some easy money be the first thing you'd think of if someone raped Teresa."

“How dare you speak of Teresa like that!”

“Oh yeah, I forgot. She was brought up nice. Not like your half-breed bastard.”

“Johnny! Johnny, stop talking like that. You’re my son. You’re a Lancer.”

“Hell, no, I’m no Lancer! I got a name I can actually be proud of---and it’s Madrid. You got that? Madrid!” Johnny turned and started looking for his gun belt, which he spotted draped over a chair.

“Johnny, I don’t care what you call yourself as long as you come home to Lancer.”

“Lancer ain’t my home. You got what you wanted out of me, then you couldn’t wait to get rid of me.”

“What I want from you is to be my son.”

“Bull shit. You wanted my gun, that’s all. Now you don’t need it, you don’t got no use for me. Except you just can’t stand it’s me leaving, not you kicking me out. Well, I got news for you; sometimes it’s the same thing.” He paused for a second as though considering something, then continued. “You know, all those years my mama told me you kicked us out, then you try to tell me she just up and left. I’m betting there weren’t no difference. I’m betting you made her life such hell she had to leave, you bastard. How many times you tie her up, old man?”

“Johnny, stop it! I loved your mother, and I love you!”

“Yeah, sure. That why you held a gun to my head and sent me to prison?”

“Would you get over that? I don’t know what more I can say.”

“Get over it?” Johnny kicked the bed viciously several times, one right after the other, the bed moving with each blow. “You try getting over spending almost a year watchin your backside. That’s easy for you to say, all nice and comfy in that big ol hacienda while you pass judgment on all the lowlife.”

“John! I do not think of you like that!”

“The hell you don't! Tell me somethin', old man, if that had been Scott laying there naked, would you have given him a chance before you washed your hands of him?”

Murdoch was silent, unable to meet Johnny's icy glare.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Johnny had finished dressing and was now adjusting his gun belt. He stood at the foot of the bed. “Well, adios, papa.” He said the last word mockingly.

“Wait Johnny, don’t leave. Please, let’s talk. I’m sorry!”

Johnny continued to the door.

“Johnny! You’re not going to leave me here like this?”

“Yep.” Johnny turned as he opened the door, smiling. “Oh, and don’t waste your breath yelling. I understand the people round here been paid off to ignore it.”

 

Chapter 45

Johnny tied Barranca in front of the Panacea sheriff’s office. He had been stunned at the telegram Rosalita had shown him when he found her in San Jose, which read “IN JAIL FOR KIDNAPPING. SET UP BY BYRON. TELL JOHNNY TO COME.”

Johnny couldn’t help but to entertain the thought of taking his sweet time, or maybe not going to Scott’s aid at all. Maybe Scott deserved a taste of his own medicine. It wasn’t like Scott had hurried to Johnny’s side when he had been accused of a crime. In the end, though, he knew he could never do that to his brother. Maybe turning your back on a family member, or even a friend, who looked bad was the Lancer way, but it wasn’t the Madrid way.

So as soon as Barranca was rested Johnny had headed to Panacea---which as it turned out, wasn’t all that far from Luna Springs. He only wished he had known about all this before he left Luna Springs and rode all the way to San Jose. By the time he arrived he and Barranca were both bushed.

He dismounted from Barranca and tied him, then hopped up onto the boardwalk and strode into the sheriff’s office. “I understand Scott Lancer’s being held here. I’m here to see him.” 

A deputy was leaning back, balancing his chair on its rear legs, his feet up on the desk. He looked up, eyeing Johnny suspiciously. “Why you want to see a piece of crap like him?”

Johnny returned his gaze unwaveringly, answering “He’s my brother.”

The deputy took his feet off the desk, the chair’s front legs banging to the floor. “Brother, eh? We been warned about you---Madrid.”

“Good. Then you know you better let me see my brother and quit stalling.”

The door opened and the sheriff walked in, stopping when he saw Johnny. “Jeb, who’s our visitor?”

“It’s Madrid, Sheriff Caulder, just like Mr. Jackson warned us,” said the deputy, getting to his feet.

“Well isn’t that nice? Now our fair town is host to the pervert brothers,” said the sheriff, sneering. “Madrid, Mr. Jackson told us all about your raping ways. You may have gotten out on a technicality, but we know your kind. You’re not welcome in Panacea.” He placed one foot on the chair, sizing up Johnny. “Not to mention we don’t cotton to gunfighters. We want you out.”

Johnny wasn’t flustered. “I’m here to see my brother, and I aim to see him.”

The sheriff and Johnny stared each other down, the sheriff the first to avert his gaze. “See him, then. Then get of town. Jeb, check him for weapons.”

Jeb took Johnny’s gun and checked for others he might have hidden. He led Johnny through a door and indicated the first cell. Scott was limping to the front bars, which he clutched with both hands.

“Johnny! Am I glad to see you!”

“Scott, you alright?” Johnny instantly knew the cause of Scott’s obvious discomfort, knew from experience that the telltale signs would be hidden from view beneath his clothing. He gave Jeb a menacing look, and Jeb quickly retreated to the front room.

“Pretty banged up, but nothing appears broken,” replied Scott, wincing as he moved one arm while rubbing his shoulder with his other hand.

Johnny studied him for a while, then casually leaned against the bars, chuckling. “So what you doin in jail there, Scott?”

“It’s not funny, Johnny! They’ve charged me with kidnapping and uh, molesting a child.”

“Gee, Scott, I never knew you had it in you,” said Johnny, smiling.

“You know I didn’t do it, Johnny.”

“Sure, Scott.”

“Johnny! You have to believe me! Byron set me up!”

Johnny planned on stringing Scott along, making him sorry for how he had taken Byron’s word when it was Johnny being accused. “Byron, huh? Well I can’t imagine anybody taking his word for anything, least ways not if they took the time to look into it. Nope, I’d say you got nothing to worry about!”

Scott looked down, the gist of what Johnny was saying obviously striking a chord. “Johnny, I can explain what happened.”

Suddenly getting even seemed to lose its appeal. Johnny knew how it felt to be falsely accused and have the only people you ever thought you could trust believe the accusations.

Johnny lost his smile and spoke sincerely. “Scott, you don’t have to explain nothing to me. I know you didn’t do it. Besides, I’d get you out of here whether you done it or not just because you’re my brother.” He reached through the bars and gave Scott a pat on the arm. “So where’s Byron?”

“Thanks, brother.” Scott smiled for the first time since Johnny had come, but it faded quickly. “I heard they made Byron stay around town. He wanted to leave. Johnny, he has this little girl saying I tried things with her. I didn’t touch her!”

“I know, I know, I said I’ll take care of it.”

“How? Do you know when Murdoch is coming? I think I need a lawyer, and they don’t have any here.”

Johnny didn’t answer. He was thinking about the visit from Murdoch he never got, thinking about the lawyer he never got. Still, no matter how angry the memory made him, he couldn't turn his back on his brother. Not like this. Not with what he knew Scott would be facing if he were unlucky enough to end up in prison.

“I sent telegrams to Rosalita and to Murdoch,” Scott said when Johnny didn’t respond. “I figured one of them would get to you.  Which one did you get?”

“Rosalita.”

“Then Murdoch’s probably on his way.”

Johnny looked uncomfortable for a second before speaking. “I don’t know, Scott. He seemed kinda tied up when I left.”

Scott looked at Johnny suspiciously. “Johnny?”

***

Johnny stepped out of the sheriff’s office, concern showing on his face. Truth was, he had no idea how he was going to get Scott out. He had a feeling Scott wouldn’t go for Johnny’s Plan A, which was to blow a hole in the side of the jail. Scott could be such a stickler for rules at times. Plan B, to just shoot him out, probably also fell into that category. So Johnny was forced to consider Plan C: find Byron and get him to admit he was lying. He sighed. This was by far the most challenging of the plans.

He supposed the place to start was either the hotel or the saloon. He needed a room anyway, so after he had settled Barranca in the livery, he went to the hotel. He managed a look at the guest registry as he was checking in and had no problem spotting the name Brian Jackson, room 2A. Johnny was given room 2D, facing the street. So far, so good.

Johnny stretched out on the bed, played with his gun for a while, and wondered about this child Byron suddenly had. Clarissa had said he told her the child was Byron’s newest pawn in some sort of blackmail scheme. She said it appeared the child was an orphan Byron had somehow acquired. Clarissa had had second thoughts about not taking the child, and now told Johnny she wished she had accepted her---but only if Byron never came back for her. She had laughed when she said that, since it was exactly opposite of her initial fear. It was just that she was afraid she would become attached to the child and then be confronted with Byron hustling her away. Getting the child away from Byron, unharmed, was also something Johnny planned to do.

He got up and looked out the window while he mulled over his next move. He supposed a simple plan was best: confront Byron and make his fate perfectly clear if he didn’t cooperate and get Scott out of jail. Johnny smiled. This was going to be almost as fun as breaking Scott out would have been after all.

He knew it wouldn’t work, but he couldn’t resist sauntering down the hall to 2A and knocking on the door.

“Who’s there?” Johnny recognized Byron’s voice even after all these months. It made him feel like hitting somebody.

“Room service.” Johnny almost hoped Byron recognized his voice.

The room was silent for too long, then Byron answered, “Bull shit, this place doesn’t have room service. Go away.”

Johnny smiled. There was just no reasoning with some people. If Johnny really wanted to get to him he supposed he could break the door down, but he’d rather not with his ribs still bound and aching. No, he’d done what he set out to do: notify Byron that Johnny Madrid was on the job. That ought to spoil his night.

Problem was, it spoiled Johnny’s night, too. He sat by his door listening for sounds of Byron trying to sneak away in the dark.  He never heard a sound. Now Johnny was mad. Byron probably slept like the dead while Johnny was up all night.  The man even had the audacity to sleep late.

Johnny was starving, so he figured he could watch the hotel entrance just as well from the diner down the street. He dressed, slipped out quietly, and walked groggily to the diner, where he found a seat by the window and ordered coffee for starters.

He had finished a meal that would bloat a lumberjack when he leaned back in his chair and saw a view of the street he hadn’t seen before—a view with Byron leading a horse out of the livery. Johnny choked on his coffee as he realized Byron must have gone a back way.  His quarry was getting away.

 

Chapter 46

Johnny flung down coins for the meal, grabbed his hat and tore for the door. Once outside, he raced toward the livery, keeping to the shadows. When he got closer he slowed to a nonchalant stroll, nestling his hat on his head as he took in the full scene.

The rising sun was behind Byron, not a good situation, but there was no way Johnny could get to Byron’s far side without going around the buildings and through the alley. By that time Byron could have ridden away. The best he could do was to maneuver into the middle of the street so the sun would at least be off at an angle to his left; in fact, if he stopped in just the right place the sun would be blocked by one of the buildings.

The street was mostly empty; the only other person in the immediate area was a stable boy. Johnny knew he would need him as a witness should any shooting start. The sheriff had made it plain that anything that went wrong was going to be Johnny’s fault. He resisted the urge to draw his gun and hold it on Byron for that reason. He needed Byron to draw first if any shooting were to go on. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, though.  He really needed Byron alive, and he wasn’t sure his gun hand was yet up to aiming just to wound him.

Johnny walked to the middle of the street, still unnoticed by Byron. He walked until the sun was obscured, then stopped and faced Byron, studying him for a second before speaking. “Let go the horse,” he commanded.

Byron looked up, clearly caught off guard, but he held tight to the reins. He took a hop as though to mount.

“You try to get on that horse you’re gonna be short a kneecap. Maybe two, if I’m of a mind to waste an extra bullet,” Johnny said, almost too calmly.  He paused, then grinned coldly. “And I might as well tell you, I’m of a mind.”

Byron stopped, turning to face Johnny. “What do you want, Lancer?”

Johnny gave a small start. It had been nearly a year since anyone had called him by that name. He couldn’t say that he much liked it, either. “I want you to tell the truth. Tell the sheriff you lied about my brother. You do that, you can ride out.”

“I don’t take much to threats. Besides, what do you care?” Byron started laughing as though at some private joke, then continued with a taunting grin. “It’s not like your brother gave a shit about you when you were in just about the same fix.”

Johnny didn’t want to hear that crap. He continued in his disturbingly casual tone, as though he were ordering supper. “I want my money, too. You going to start cooperating or you want to dance the stump-legged jig the rest of your life?”

“Listen, Lancer, you gave that money to me, pretty much in exchange for me not swearing out a complaint. I kept my end of the deal. Not my fault your own father turned you in!”  He laughed again, adding quietly, “You know, we could work out a similar deal for your brother. That little girl, she’ll say whatever I tell her to…”

“Here’s my deal,” cut in Johnny.  “You tell the truth or you crawl for the rest of your life.” He paused, then added, “and by the way, the name’s Madrid, not Lancer. I figure it’s only right a person knows the name of the man who cripples him---or worse.”

 

Byron began to look fidgety. Johnny’s nerves were on edge, knowing this was the point many men tried something desperate, but outwardly Johnny appeared calm, almost bored. He was aware of the stable boy darting toward the livery, of the far off voices of townsfolk raised in question, of the thunder of wings of a flock of birds suddenly bursting into flight, but he worked to narrow his focus to see only Byron’s eyes.

“Johnny!” An urgent shout from the livery pierced Johnny’s concentration, jolting his attention away from Byron for a mere eye blink. Byron took advantage of the fleeting lapse to slap his horse’s rear, maneuvering the horse in front of him so it shielded him from Johnny, drawing his gun at the same time. Johnny had also drawn his gun, but couldn’t get a line on Byron that didn’t risk shooting the horse in a leg. He hated to shoot a horse, so he ran back to the right side of the street to try to get a better angle at Byron.

The sun dazzled him from this angle, turning the figures into near silhouettes. He still managed to almost have a clear shot, but just as he did a child shot out of the livery and raced to cling to Byron’s leg. Byron quickly knelt, pulling the little girl in front of him like a shield just as the horse reared, wrenching from his grasp and galloping directly at Johnny.

Johnny jumped out of the horse’s path just as he heard Byron shoot. He instantly felt a searing punch to his head, snapping his neck backward and knocking him down with its impact. He grabbed at his scalp with his left hand, feeling the path the bullet had grazed through it before it filled with his sticky blood. He kept trying to get a shot off, but the little girl was jumping and crying, making it impossible to risk shooting at Byron without hitting her, especially with his gun hand still not a hundred percent, especially with the sun in his face, especially with blood running into his left eye.

He tried to get up but staggered just as a second bullet pounded into the dirt by his knee, and a third just to his left. He lurched partly to his feet and lunged behind a water trough even as another bullet thudded behind where he’d been. He wiped the blood from his eye, trying to see. Byron appeared to be a bad shot, or perhaps the girl’s struggles were throwing off his aim, but it was just a matter of time before he simply walked to the trough and shot point blank. He needed to find better cover, but he was losing strength fast. He tried to aim his gun upward where he expected Byron’s face to appear, but realized he needed to be on the offensive to win. He peered around the side of the trough to see Byron struggling with the girl, distracted. Johnny tried to take aim, but the sides of his vision were blacking out, the world was pulsating, the figures were undulating. He tried to steady his gun on the trough, but he was losing the ability to control it.

He could tell the kid was putting up a good fight, but that only infuriated Byron, causing him to strike and shake her over and over as she shrieked in terror. Johnny shot above Byron’s head, hoping to distract him, but either Byron was too enraged to notice or he wasn’t falling for it. Johnny mustered his strength to push himself to a stand, then staggered to the side of the trough, determined to stop Byron from harming the child at any cost.

“It’s me you want…”

Byron looked up, smiled, and raised his gun, the child once again shielding him. Johnny tried to get back to cover, but his legs were bending in funny ways. He saw a blur out of the side of his vision, heard a command of “Stop!” and saw a man rush into the road just as Byron turned to aim his own his gun point blank at him. Johnny saw his own arm raise and his gun fire, but had no conscious thought of doing either.

Byron dropped, a small hole that didn’t used to be there now decorating his temple. Johnny took a step, and a half step on the side of his foot, before he dropped too, the blood from his head wound soaking into the sand. He was conscious of a man running toward him, and he tried to crawl toward safety, but succeeded only in moving his arms and legs as though swimming in the sand. He tried to raise his gun but he couldn’t keep it in his grasp. He felt hands on him, stilling him, cradling his head, calling out for help. Calling out in Murdoch’s voice?

 

Chapter 47

Murdoch had ridden all night from Luna Springs to see Scott. He had been shocked to receive the telegram informing him his elder son was in jail, but it did have its silver lining. The “urgent—hand deliver” instructions accompanying the telegram had sent the messenger directly to his hotel room, where Murdoch had answered the knocks with pleas for help, finally convincing the hotel manager to open the door. His embarrassment at how they found him and his fury at Johnny were tempered by his worry for Scott once he read the telegram. As soon as he had changed into the new pair of pants that he had sent a boy to buy for him he had mounted Scott’s horse, which now appeared to be sound, and was on his way to Panacea.

He had ridden through the night and arrived in Panacea in the early morning. His plan was to go immediately to the jail to see Scott after tending to his horse. He noted the livery up ahead, and then noticed two men in the street. His throat clutched; one was Johnny! Murdoch was still furious at the way Johnny had left him, but he knew he had to have some final words with him. Without thinking he bellowed out his name.

It was then that he realized his terrible mistake. Johnny was in the middle of a confrontation, and Murdoch’s distraction detonated a barrage of bullets, all aimed at Johnny.  Only when the shooter had whirled had Murdoch realized it was Byron. Murdoch had jumped from his horse, not knowing exactly what to do, but once he saw the man was using a child as a shield he knew he had no choice but to rush in and stop him at any cost. When he yelled “Stop!” it was as much to save the child from his further abuse as it was to beg him to not pull the trigger of the gun he now saw aimed at Johnny. In the next instant he vaguely realized that Byron was turning to train his gun on Murdoch, but then Byron suddenly fell before he could shoot. Murdoch also saw Johnny fold to the ground, clutching at the trough on his way down. Murdoch ran to him with dread-filled steps.

Now he cradled his son in his arms, calling for help and speaking to Johnny’s closed eyes. “Hold on, Johnny, hold on, help’s coming.” A man identifying himself as a doctor gently eased Murdoch away and began tending to Johnny, holding a bandage tight to his head and then directing several men to carry him to his surgery.

Murdoch followed, but despite his belligerent declarations that Johnny was his son, he was banned from the examination room. He paced back and forth, the wooden floor shaking with every step. If Johnny died he knew it would be his fault; why had he felt he had to call out his name just because he saw him? He admitted that part of him had wanted to blast into Johnny as soon as he saw his son just hanging out in the street, as though he had not a care in the world, while his brother was in jail and Murdoch, for all he knew, was still tied up. Now he realized Johnny had been in the middle of a confrontation with Byron, perhaps trying to help Scott. Once again he had misjudged his younger son.

The door opened 10 minutes later, and the doctor, a young man with blonde hair, motioned him in. “Your son has a deep graze here to his head,” he said, pointing to where a young woman was pressing on a bandage. “It’s bled a lot, so I’m not sure if he’s out due to the blow to the head or to blood loss, maybe both. We’re still trying to get it to stop bleeding, and get it cleaned up, then we’ll suture it and watch him. With time and rest he’ll most likely be OK. We’ll be watching him closely, and my wife, Mrs. Cooper here, is about the best nurse this side of the Rockies.” He smiled reassuringly, adding softly “He’ll be in good hands.”

Murdoch was about to protest that he could care for Johnny, but then he remembered what a mess he’d made of his last attempt. He nodded, “Thank you, Doctor, Mrs. Cooper.”

He watched for several more minutes, then decided to leave. He no longer felt welcome in Johnny’s life, and even though Johnny was unconscious, he felt as though he was intruding. Johnny was in good hands---better hands than his own. He needed to find Scott.

***

Scott had heard the gunshots and, peering through the open door to the front office, had seen the sheriff and his deputies bolt from their chairs and out the door, guns drawn. He couldn’t help but worry that Johnny was involved; then he scolded himself. Just because there were gunshots didn’t mean Johnny was anywhere around.

The sheriff and one deputy returned after about 10 minutes, along with a young man. The sheriff appeared at the door to the cells. “Well, looks like we were right about that brother of yours. He just killed a man.” He looked at Scott pointedly, adding “Your man Jackson. You may be getting a cellmate soon---if he lives.”

“What? My brother, is he alright? What happened?” But the sheriff had already turned his back and returned to the outer office to question his witness. Scott tried to listen as best he could, but he could only catch snatches of the conversation, just enough to know that Byron had been killed and Johnny had been shot in the head. Scott sat back in his bunk and rested his head in his hands, rubbing his face. How had everything gone so wrong?

He looked up as he heard the outer door open again. “Murdoch!” he called out, jumping to his feet and striding to the front of his cell.

The sheriff stopped Murdoch while Murdoch explained who he was. The deputy took his weapon and Murdoch hurried to Scott’s cell, saying “Scott! Johnny’s been shot!”

“I heard. Do you know how he is?” asked Scott, his worry evident in his voice.

“I just saw him. He’s with the doctor. He caught a bullet to the scalp, and he’s still unconscious, but the doctor thinks he’ll be alright.” Murdoch looked at Scott. “What about you, son? Are you OK? What’s happened here?”

Scott bowed his head, shaking it slowly as he struck out futilely with one hand before grabbing the cell bars. “It’s that damn Byron! He set me up, made it look like I kidnapped this little girl, like I’d acted improperly with her!” Scott was getting visibly angry, clutching the bars until his knuckles paled. “Murdoch, you gotta believe me!”

“Easy, son,” said Murdoch, reaching through the bars to place a reassuring hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of here. We’ll get the best lawyer in San Jose here! What sort of evidence do they have?”

“Well that’s just it. They had Byron claiming I kidnapped her, and then the little girl just agreed with him when he asked if I’d touched her. And that was after he whispered something to her! Murdoch, now they say Johnny killed Byron, so there’s no chance of getting him to confess. Not only that, the sheriff says they might charge Johnny. Damn, I wish I hadn’t sent Johnny that telegram!”

“I’ll get to the bottom of this,” said Murdoch, giving him a final pat on the shoulder. “You just take it easy.” Murdoch stepped back to the outer office. The sheriff had just dismissed the young man he’d been interviewing and was scribbling some notes.

“Excuse me, Sheriff,” said Murdoch, “I’d like to know the situation with my other son, Johnny. Is he being charged with anything?”

The sheriff drummed his fingers on his desk, then jerked to his feet and stood to face Murdoch. “According to the witness, the other man drew first. It looks like your boy is going to get away with killing your other boy’s accuser. Pretty convenient, I’d say.”

“Now look here, if you’re suggesting Johnny did that on purpose, you’re just dead wrong, Sheriff,” Murdoch said, his voice raising in volume. He paused as he reflected on what the sheriff had said, then continued more calmly. “So you’re saying with Byron gone, that means you no longer have a witness against Scott, right? Then you’ll be letting him go?”

“Not quite,” said the sheriff, shaking his head and walking back to lean against his desk. “We still have the little girl. And we have all the posse members who heard her accuse your boy.”

“A child? How reliable is her testimony going to be?” Murdoch began pacing, turning to face the judge as he added contemptuously “And the posse members are only witnesses to hearsay!”

“Leave it for the trial.” The sheriff rose, saying “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some unfinished business to attend to. My deputies will be here if you need anything.” He picked up his hat and walked out the door, leaving Murdoch staring after him.

Murdoch stomped back into the cell room to tell Scott the bad news. It looked like he’d be sending to San Jose for that lawyer after all. Scott and he settled down to discuss strategy, after which Murdoch left to send a telegram and check on Johnny.

Murdoch was almost to the doctor’s house when he saw the sheriff was at the door talking with Dr. and Mrs. Cooper. Both the doctor and his wife had drawn expressions, and when they saw Murdoch they both looked away quickly. Something was wrong.

 

Chapter 48

Murdoch strode to the door, calling out “Doctor! Is anything wrong?”

Mrs. Cooper hung her head, refusing to meet Murdoch’s gaze. The doctor spoke hesitantly. “Mr. Lancer, I’m sorry, but you’ll be needing to move the boy to a hotel room. He can’t stay here.”

Murdoch felt dizzy with relief. In the steps it had taken him to reach the group at the door he had imagined the worst, his stomach turning to ice with dread. He was so relieved that Johnny was still alive that the doctor’s words took a while to make sense. Was he saying Johnny was already well enough to move? If so, why the glum expressions?

Sheriff Coulter cut in. “Lancer, I felt it was only right the doc here knew what kind a man he had in his house. It’s not right to expose Mrs. Cooper to the likes of him.”

“The likes of him?” asked Murdoch, raising his brows.

“You know what I mean,” replied the sheriff. “We all know he’s a rapist, not to mention a gunfighter. You can’t expect the good doctor to have somebody like that right under his roof, not when he has a young wife to consider.”

Murdoch exploded, “But he’s unconscious! And he’s not a rapist! He was cleared of that! The doctor said he needed to stay here to get the care he needs.”

“No telling when he could come to,” said the sheriff, “maybe when he’s alone with Mrs. Cooper.”

“He’s not a rapist,” said Murdoch firmly.

“Yeah, I know, he got out cuz you all got the witness to recant or something. I don’t care to know the details. The doc says he wants him out of his house. You can take him to the hotel, or I can take him to jail.”

“Jail? On what grounds?” Murdoch didn’t try to hide his anger.

“On the grounds his only other choice is the street and I’m too much a Christian to allow any man to die on the street,” retorted the sheriff.

Murdoch looked at Dr. Cooper. The doctor still could barely meet his gaze, but said, “I’ll come to treat him at the hotel. We’ll get some men to move him.”

Murdoch shook his head in disgust. That they would put a man’s life at risk because they prejudged him appalled him. It was the realization, however, that that was exactly what he had done by accusing Johnny of rape in the first place that shamed him to the core.

***

Murdoch sat in the darkened room. It had been four hours and Johnny had not yet given any signs of regaining consciousness. Murdoch didn’t have much to think about except his own role in placing Johnny in this bed. If only he had listened to him, believed in him instead of Byron and Clarissa. If only he had been more suspicious of the strangers’ claims, especially when they asked for money. If only he had been supportive of Johnny in jail and in prison. If only he had apologized better. If only he hadn’t tied him to the bed. If only he hadn’t shouted his name. If only he knew how to be a father to him.

When Murdoch was with Scott, he felt like he was the best father in the world. Sure, they had their differences, but Murdoch could usually understand Scott’s viewpoint even if he didn’t always agree with it. They could talk things through. Despite the fact that Scott came from a very different world, he seemed to also be of Murdoch’s world. Murdoch trusted him.

Trust. Maybe that was the crux of the problem. Try as he might, he always harbored a niggling doubt about Johnny. Johnny, too, came from a different upbringing, but while Scott’s had imbued him with all the best qualities a man could want, Johnny’s upbringing had blemished him both physically and ethically. Murdoch couldn’t be a good father to Johnny because he just didn’t understand him. No, it went beyond that. He didn’t trust him, not even to do what was best for himself. And Johnny knew he didn’t trust him.

Johnny stirred and moaned. Murdoch leaned forward, pressing a cool cloth to Johnny’s forehead and looking for signs of consciousness. Johnny quieted. Murdoch pulled the thin blanket up over Johnny’s shoulders. He had left him dressed, not wishing to even take the liberty of undressing him as had before. He wished Scott were here. He didn’t want to face Johnny alone when he did awaken. Not after Luna Springs.

When Johnny had left him in that room he had been furious, but at the same time he had finally accepted that he had lost his son. No, not lost him---pushed him away.  He knew now how weak his words had sounded compared to his actions of the previous year.

 

He clasped Johnny’s calloused hand in both of his and laid his forehead down on them. He knew this might be the last time he ever held his son’s hand. When Johnny awakened, Murdoch would honor his wishes. He would not touch him, he would not interfere with him. He would leave as soon as Johnny could be left alone or Scott could take over.

Johnny moaned again. Murdoch raised his head to check on him and was met with Johnny’s half open eyes watching him. Their eyes locked momentarily, then Murdoch reluctantly let go of Johnny’s hand and sat back, respecting his need to be free of him. Johnny’s eyes tracked him part way before folding shut once again.

***

It was a busy day at the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Coulter had sent his deputies to bring in more witnesses who might dispute the stable boy’s account that Madrid had fired in self defense. All of the witnesses who had seen some part of the confrontation agreed that Byron had been virtually holding the little girl hostage, using her as a shield, and that Johnny had obviously refrained from shooting because of her, despite being shot at repeatedly. None, however, had been close enough to hear what either of the men was saying. Scott could see the sheriff pacing after the last witness left, finally slamming down his papers and saying something to the effect that he didn’t care as long as Madrid got out of his town. Scott agreed; as far as he was concerned, he and Johnny couldn’t get out of Panacea fast enough. But there was still that little matter of Scott being behind bars.

“Sheriff Coulter?” called out Scott.

“Yeah, what is it?” the sheriff replied in an irritated tone. He had not had a good day.

“The little girl, what’s become of her?”

“If you gotta know, a widow woman claiming to be her mother has her,” replied the sheriff, approaching Scott’s cell. “A Mrs. Taylor. We have them staying at the hotel until we can verify her story. Don’t count on anything changing.”

Scott refused to be put off. “Well, if she’s the one accusing me, I think I have the right to ask her again now that Jackson’s not there to prompt her.”

The sheriff looked at Scott coldly and then turned and walked back to his desk, calling over his shoulder “That little girl’s been through a lot. She don’t need the likes of you giving her nightmares.”

Scott wondered if the girl and her mother were near Murdoch’s room in the hotel.  Maybe Murdoch could talk to the mother and get the girl to talk. That is, assuming Murdoch could bring himself to leave Johnny’s side.

Scott let his mind wander to his brother.  Murdoch had gotten word to Scott that he was with Johnny at the hotel. That was a good sign; Johnny must be better and they must have set things right between them when they were together in Luna Springs. At least one thing was going well.

 

Chapter 49

Murdoch awoke and checked on Johnny in the other bed, as he had done countless times throughout the night. Most of the time Johnny had still been out, but at times he had been startled to be met with Johnny’s blue eyes staring back at him in the dim light. He had tried to get him to talk or drink, but Johnny had not responded to either suggestion. Murdoch didn’t know if that was through choice or because he was still too out of it. He really needed Scott to take over, for Johnny’s own good. Of course, he really needed to get Scott out of jail, for Scott’s own good.

He decided to risk going out to check on Scott and then to grab some breakfast to bring back to the room.  Even if Johnny came to he expected he’d be too weak to get up. He checked on him one more time, then quietly slipped out.

Scott was talking to Sheriff Coulter when Murdoch entered the sheriff’s office. They both explained to him that the girl and her mother were at the hotel, but the mother did not want her little girl to have to talk about her ordeal. Mrs. Taylor had contended that if her daughter said something once, that should be good enough. The sheriff said she had a point; that any further testimony might best be left for the trial. Murdoch was outraged; a trial meant Scott would be in jail at least another two weeks before the circuit judge arrived. Murdoch wanted to stay and argue longer, but he had to go back and make sure Johnny was alright. He promised Scott he’d return later.

Murdoch stopped on the hotel’s first floor to order some breakfast, which he asked to be put on a tray he could take to his room. The woman server smiled, commenting that that was a popular option this morning. She nodded toward a woman climbing the hotel stairs, noting that she, too, was eating in her room. Then she added as if sharing some special gossip, “That’s that woman who’s the mother of that poor kidnapped child!”

Murdoch’s head shot around to catch a glimpse of the woman’s skirt as she reached the upper floor. Forgetting his breakfast, he ran after her, climbing the steps as fast as he could, reaching the top of the stairs as she placed her hand on the knob to her room.

“Mrs. Taylor, I must speak with you! It’s urgent!” he called down the hallway, stopping her before she opened her door.

***

Johnny had vaguely registered the vision of his father, once again beside his bed. Would this nightmare never end? The vision faded in and out; he wasn’t sure how much time had passed or how many times he had felt his eyes open only to see his father once again. One time he thought his father was even holding his hand. At least this time Murdoch seemed different. He wasn’t pushing, he wasn’t angry. If anything, he seemed almost sad. Somehow this disturbed Johnny even more. What could have made him sad? Was Scott hurt?

Scott. He was supposed to be helping Scott. Scott was relying on him. For something, although he couldn’t quite remember what. Whatever, Johnny shouldn’t be lazing around in bed. He had to get up.

First, though, he had to rest just one more minute, to stop the pulsing in his head. Damn, it was getting worse, the room was getting brighter, his thoughts were getting clearer. Scott! He was in jail, waiting for Johnny. His eyes sprang open. He winced at the light filtering in through the window.  His hand flew to his eyes, then beyond, to feel the bandage around his head. He’d been injured? Yes, Byron! He remembered now.

That would explain the bed. He supposed it somehow explained his vision of Murdoch. He checked to make sure his hands weren’t tied. You never could be too sure. They weren’t, at least not yet. But he did vaguely remember seeing Murdoch holding his hand once, probably getting ready to tie it. He had to get out of here before the whole nightmare started again.

He kicked the blanket off then rolled over on his stomach until his feet started to hang off the bed, pushing himself farther off the edge until they touched the floor. Then he braced his arms in front of him, pushing himself up until he was standing, almost, leaning over the bed. He was grateful to discover his clothes were still on. All he was missing were his boots, gunbelt, and hat, and he was ready to go. He could see his hat and boots on the dresser by the door, but he didn’t see his gunbelt anywhere. Maybe it was inside the dresser.  He pushed himself along to the foot of the bed, still leaning on his hands as he went. He had to admit, he felt like crap. But he couldn’t stay here. He pulled himself upright on the bedpost at the foot of the bed, swaying as he tried to make the room stop tumbling. There was no time for this. Murdoch could be back any second. He had to keep going. He stepped as far from the bed as he could before letting go of the post. He took one step, then another, then felt himself going down, but he managed to take some steps forward in the process. He hit with a thud, striking his head on the floor, making the room go gray.

He wasn’t sure how long he had lain there. He only knew he came to his senses with an even greater sense of urgency. Scott needed him. How could he help Scott if Murdoch was holding him prisoner? He could see his boots almost within reach. He pushed himself up and crawled to them, fighting the urge to get sick. Finally he clutched his boots triumphantly, leaning back against the door to meet the next challenge of putting them on.

That was when he heard Murdoch’s voice. Damn! He was going to be caught again! He tried to heave himself up, but he hadn’t the strength. The best he could muster was to buy time by stretching one arm up and fumbling until he locked the door, then leaning against it. Maybe he could keep Murdoch out long enough for him to at least find his gun. He couldn’t let him catch him again; not after he’d shown Murdoch how to really tie somebody up. He had to get going. But he just didn’t have the strength. He could hear Murdoch’s steps approaching, could hear his voice as he spoke to somebody in the hall.

“Ma’am? You’re Elizabeth’s mother, right?”

Johnny recognized Elizabeth as the little girl’s name. What had happened to her after the gunfight? She had a mother?

“Yes,” replied a woman’s voice hesitantly.

“Well, ma’am, I’d really like to speak to you a moment. It’s quite important. You see, my name’s Murdoch Lancer. I’m Scott Lancer’s father.”

“Well then you have my sympathy, Mr. Lancer, but that’s all. Now if you’ll excuse me.” Johnny could hear the ice in her voice even from the other side of the door.

“Please wait! I need your help! I need your daughter to tell the sheriff what really happened.”

So Murdoch was here helping Scott. Johnny hoped he’d do a better job than he ever had helping him.

“Mr. Lancer, we know what really happened, with that filthy slime you call a son doing God knows what to her! I hope he hangs and then rots in hell for this!”

“No, Mrs. Taylor, please listen. Nothing happened to your daughter. It was all a set up! If you knew Scott the way I know him, you’d understand there’s no way he could do harm to her. He’s an honorable man, a man of outstanding morals. Scott would never do such a thing.”

“I’m sure you do think your son’s honorable, but that doesn’t mean very much. What father doesn’t think that of his son?”

‘Mine,’ thought Johnny, his head slumping as he gave up his tenuous grip on consciousness. ‘Mine.’

 

Part 7

Chapter 50

Mrs. Taylor shut her door, leaving Murdoch standing in the hall. He’d lost his appetite for breakfast; besides, he needed to check on Johnny.

He turned the knob, but the door was locked. He didn’t remember locking it, but he had the key so it was no problem to unlock. He pushed the door but it would hardly budge. He pushed harder, finally getting it open enough to peer inside.

“Johnny!” He saw his son’s limp body propped against the door. What was he trying to do?

Murdoch saw the boots in his lap and he knew. Johnny had been trying to escape. It was so important that he get away from Murdoch that he would risk his life to do it.

“Johnny,” he said softly, shaking his head. “I’ll leave you alone. Just let me put you in bed and I’ll leave you alone.”

Murdoch dragged Johnny back to the bed, avoiding his weakly flailing arms as he made a token protest. He hoisted him up onto the bed, arranging him as best he could, propping his head and shoulders up and pulling the blanket around his chest. Now what? He’d said he would leave him alone. But how could he? Johnny needed somebody with him. He’d just proved that. Scott was still in jail. The doctor’s wife wouldn’t stay with him. As soon as Johnny regained consciousness he was likely to make another escape attempt, and he was in no state to be out on his own.  Murdoch could hide his boots and gun, and lock him in the room, but he knew how that would appear to Johnny. And he sure couldn’t tie him in the bed.

No, he couldn’t really leave him alone. He would make himself scarce, but he couldn’t abandon him.  He could also make it a little less likely he would come to. He looked at the bottle of laudanum the doctor had left, knowing how Johnny detested it. It was the only way, though.

He poured some in a cup, then lifted it to Johnny’s mouth and gently pried his lips open, trickling the bitter liquid in. Johnny began to sputter and struggle, but Murdoch was prepared and simply held tighter and poured faster. Johnny’s eyes popped open and locked on Murdoch’s. “I’m sorry, Johnny,” said Murdoch. Johnny’s eyes remained on him until they gradually drifted shut. Murdoch sat back. He would never forget the look of betrayal on Johnny’s face.

***

Murdoch wasn’t sure how long he had slept, but it was obviously well into the day when he was awakened by a knock on the door. Expecting the doctor, he stumbled to the door, raking his fingers through his hair, and opened it.

He stood groggily as he took in the people in the hallway, trying to understand what it meant before he gave up and simply shouted “Scott!”  Murdoch hugged his son with relief, looking past him to Sheriff Coulter and Mrs. Taylor. “What’s going on?”

Mrs. Taylor spoke up, rushing through her account. “After I spoke with you I decided to talk to Elizabeth. I just hadn’t wanted to hear about it before, or remind her of anything bad. She told me what happened. She said she woke up at their campsite and Jackson was gone. That your son, Scott, showed up and gave her a ride, nothing more. That Jackson told her what to say, and what would happen if she didn’t say it. The truth is, your son---both of your sons---are heroes. They saved my little girl!”  Her voice broke, and she started dabbing at her eyes. She continued, “We’ll be on the stage headed home in just a few minutes. But I wanted to tell you in person.”

The sheriff continued, “Mrs. Taylor explained how Jackson came by her daughter. Seems she had Elizabeth in the care of a young woman, and that young woman was having a relationship with Jackson. Mrs. Taylor had to go out of town, and when she returned the young woman was gone, along with Elizabeth. Mrs. Taylor hired detectives to follow them, and they found the woman a few days later, but she said Jackson had left her and taken the girl. They’ve been on his trail since, and when they heard about the situation here, Mrs. Taylor took the first stage and that’s when she saw Elizabeth.” He looked at Scott. “It seems this Jackson really was a con man. I’m sorry we took his word over yours, son.”

“Well, I guess it just shows you that you shouldn’t always believe what you hear,” said Scott coldly. He turned his stare from the sheriff to look beyond Murdoch into the room. “Now I want to see my brother.”

Murdoch stayed in the hallway to thank the sheriff and Mrs. Taylor while Scott approached Johnny’s bed. “Johnny, you awake?”

Scott nudged Johnny a few times but got no response. Turning to Murdoch, who had said his goodbyes and was now standing behind him, he asked, “Has he come to yet?”

Murdoch hesitated, loathe to fill Scott in on everything that had happened between Johnny and him. “Yes, but I had to give him some laudanum.”

Scott studied Johnny, alarmed. “You mean he’s in that much pain?” Scott knew Johnny would usually prefer to suffer than consume the vile medicine.

Murdoch hesitated again, finally turning away from Scott as he spoke. “Scott, I need to talk to you. The truth is, I gave it to him against his will because he was trying to escape. From me. Scott, he hates me. He hates me so much he’d rather risk going out of here half conscious than stay here with me.”

Scott turned his attention from Johnny to Murdoch, sure he was mistaken. “Murdoch, it can’t be that bad! Didn’t you get things settled between you two in Luna Springs?” Then he remembered Johnny’s cryptic comment about Murdoch being tied up. “Exactly what happened there?” he asked suspiciously.

“I didn’t want him running out on me before I could tell him my side. I guess I handled it poorly.” Murdoch paused, then turned to face Scott. “I, um, well I tied him to the bed.”

Scott was incredulous. “You tied him to the bed?” He was shaking his head. “When did you let him go?  You know Johnny---he had to have been furious!”

“I never exactly let him go. And yes, he was more than furious. He got loose, tied me up, told me just what he thought of me, and left me there. I’d still be there if it weren’t for your telegram.”

“He left you tied up?” Now Scott was even more outraged. His family was going insane around him.

“Anyway, Scott, now that you’re here, I’m leaving. He hates me, and my being here is the worst thing for him. Take good care of him, try to get him to come home.”  Murdoch had been stuffing his few belongings into his saddlebags as he spoke. He reached for the door. “I’ll see you at Lancer, son.”

***

Scott was torn between going after Murdoch and staying beside his brother. He knew, though, that Murdoch was probably right about one thing: Johnny needed time away from his father. So he stayed with Johnny, looking through the window as he watched Murdoch walk to the livery, and then ride out. He turned to Johnny, felt his forehead, and untied his bandage to check his wound. The wound looked OK, but Johnny was definitely working up a fever. Scott spent some time dipping a cloth in cool water and pressing it to Johnny’s face. The fever wasn’t bad, so after an hour or so Scott decided to lie down on the other bed until Johnny woke up.

An insistent pounding on the door not only awakened him, but was enough to cause Johnny to start moving and moaning. Scott went to his side to quiet him, but the pounding continued.

“Hold on, Johnny, I’ll be right back,” he said as he turned for the door, adding more loudly “All right, I’m coming!”

He flung open the door to be met with a hall packed with people and a gun in his face. Scott instinctively took a step back in alarm, partially raising his hands.

“We want you out,” said the burly man with the gun.

“What? What’s going on here?” asked Scott, wondering if he could just slam the door in their faces.

“You heard us,” said a short man over to the side. “We don’t want your kind in our town. Perverts ain’t welcome.”

Scott took a deep breath and stood up straight, answering boldly “Now hold on here. I was cleared of that charge. You can ask the sheriff.”

“It was the sheriff told us about your pervert brother there, the rapist,” the man with the gun said. “Your family may be able to pay off witnesses, but we want both of you out of town before either of you can do more harm. We got your horses saddled outside. Now let’s go.”

“I was cleared of that! My brother, too!” Scott didn’t move.

“Yeah, yeah, get your things.” The throng seemed to push toward the door.

Scott still didn’t move, but his voice took on a worried tone. “My brother, he’s not well enough to travel.”

“He’s well enough to be in a hotel and not at the doc’s. That means he’s well enough to travel. If you don’t get him on his horse, we will.”  A chorus of voices murmured in agreement.

Scott didn’t want these men touching Johnny, but he knew he couldn’t keep them out. He looked back at Johnny, who seemed to be coming to, trying to prop himself up on the bed.

“Can you give me an hour to get my brother ready?”

“We can give you one minute.”

 

Chapter 51

Scott didn’t have to ask twice to know that was their final offer. He went to the bed and urged Johnny to sit up. While Johnny was trying to get himself together Scott gathered their belongings into their saddlebags, grabbed Johnny’s gunbelt and hat, and returned for Johnny, who was wobbling on the side of the bed as he tried to maintain a sitting position. Scott realized he had to put everything down to tackle Johnny’s boots. Johnny was no help, falling back on the bed as Scott lifted his foot, barely keeping his leg stiff enough to push into the boot. Scott kept encouraging him to get up, get going, and he thought Johnny was listening, but he didn’t seem to be doing much to get there.

“Come on, brother,” Scott said, holding all their belongings in one hand and kneeling to sling Johnny’s arm over his shoulder. He staggered as Johnny did little to help him straighten up, but once he adjusted the load they slowly made their way toward the door and the angry throng in the hall.

Scott glared at them as they parted for him to pass. He stopped at the top of the stairs, urging Johnny to grab the rail with his other hand. Johnny did, and they slowly and precariously made their way down, stumbling a couple of times but stopping short of a tumble.

Johnny seemed more aware once they were outside. He clearly recognized Barranca and pulled toward him. “No, I don’t think so, Johnny. You’re not ready to sit a horse on your own.”

“I can make it,” said Johnny, slurring his words slightly as he grabbed for the saddle horn. He tried to step into the stirrup but he wasn’t anywhere close.

Scott felt helpless. Getting Johnny up on a horse was going to be difficult. One of the men stepped forward and volunteered to help. Together they got him up on Scott’s horse, securing the saddle bags on Barranca. Then Scott mounted behind Johnny and took Barranca’s rein, leading him behind. He felt the townspeople’s contemptuous stares as he walked the horses down the main street and out of town.

He didn’t know where they were headed. He wasn’t even sure how far the next town was.  He was overwhelmed with outrage that people could be so narrow minded that they preferred to think the worst of someone even after the truth was known. Maybe it was just as well he and Johnny were out of a town with people like that in it.

Johnny had been somewhat awake at first, sitting pretty much up on his own and repeatedly trying to take the reins. Now he was slumped back against Scott, and getting heavier by the mile. Scott had to readjust his hold on him several times to keep him from slipping one way or the other; his arms were tiring as he once again tried for a more secure hold, encircling Johnny’s chest and clasping his hands together.

Johnny chose that time to begin protesting, struggling mildly at first but then more vehemently as Scott held tighter. “Shhhhh,” said Scott, trying to calm him, but Johnny would not be calmed. The harder Scott held him the more Johnny started to fight him. He twisted, wrenching one arm free, at the same time kicking the horse and causing it to jump forward, partially dislodging Scott and dragging Johnny along with him. Scott clawed the saddle trying to hoist himself and Johnny back up, but Johnny continued working against him and they both slid from the horse and hit the ground hard.

Scott climbed to his hands and knees and crawled to check on Johnny. He was still moaning and moving, so Scott took that as a good sign. He decided he’d better try to catch the horses, which had stopped a short distance away.

Both horses seemed to think it was a fine game to let Scott get just within reach and then skitter away, each time letting him get close enough so he would think next time would be the charm. Scott was getting exasperated, but he kept his cool, knowing if he lost his temper they’d be gone for sure. Finally he was able to lure his mount to him, and Barranca followed as he led his horse back to where he’d left Johnny.

Only Johnny wasn’t there.

***

Johnny had become aware of arms encircling his chest, holding him prisoner, restricting his movement. Not again. He knew he was supposed to cooperate, but he hated what was about to happen too much to ever really cooperate.  He started to struggle. “Shhhhh” a voice commanded, a command he knew only meant the ordeal wasn’t stopping any time soon. At least he could make things hard for them. He put all his effort into freeing himself, kicking and struggling until his arm was loose, then falling until he hit the ground and was free! Free? This was different. He had to take advantage of it, he had to run.

His legs wouldn’t let him get up, though. He was hurt, he knew that now. The man must have hurt him, probably pretty badly judging from how weak he was. He needed Miguel.

He started to crawl, eventually colliding with a large rock that he pulled himself up on. Precariously balancing on his feet, he lurched forward toward a shaded area that might be some sort of shelter, maybe a grove of trees where he could hide.

He almost made it there before he staggered and collapsed, but he dragged himself into the grove, finding the base of a bush and wrapping himself around it. He could hear footsteps now, knew it was either the man or Miguel or—somebody else. He vaguely remembered somebody else he had to get away from. Murdoch!

Whoever it was, he needed to get away. Still, if he was really hurt badly Miguel would tend to him, might even take it out on the man. Maybe even get rid of Murdoch. Was it Murdoch who had hurt him? Miguel would help him. Maybe tend to him like he had before, letting him stay in Miguel’s own bed, maybe even letting him not work for while. That had happened before; knowing Miguel had sacrificed all that money just for him had made Johnny feel special. Still, if he wasn’t really hurt all that bad, Miguel would make him sorry for acting up.

“Johnny!”  Johnny heard his name being called, wondered why Miguel was using the English version. It didn’t make any sense. Except that occasionally Miguel would call him Johnny when he was mocking his gringo heritage. That must be it. Or wait. Could it be Murdoch?

Then he was upon him. Johnny looked up and saw a looming figure silhouetted against the sky. He needed a gun. He needed Miguel. “Miguel,” he murmured, “por favor, Miguel.”

***

Scott stared up at the stars against the velvet sky. It had been several hours since he had found Johnny beneath the bush. It had seemed as good a place as any to camp, so he had pulled Johnny into a more comfortable position and settled him down as best he could. Johnny had protested, often murmuring something in Spanish, and Scott had picked up Miguel’s name several times. Whoever this Miguel was, he certainly seemed to have been important in Johnny’s life. Scott wondered if he was still around, and hoped he could perhaps meet him one day. Perhaps a reunion would be good for Johnny.

He thought of Murdoch’s parting words. He knew Johnny was angry with Murdoch, acknowledged that he had every right to be. But could he really hate him? Scott thought back on the events of the previous year. He had to admit Murdoch and he had both done about as lousy a job of showing Johnny the wonders of family life that they could have done. Scott remembered the excitement he had felt when he first found out he had not only a brother, but a little brother—someone he had always dreamed of having when he was growing up. He had always imagined himself guiding a little brother, protecting him, and explaining to him the ways of the world. Of course, when they found each other Johnny was too old to really be considered a little brother in that sense; he had been on his own longer than Scott had and in some ways had seen more of the harsh realities of life. But it had been in the areas of social skills and family life that Scott realized Johnny was sorely lacking in experience, and he had set out to play big brother when it came to those. Now he realized he had failed miserably in both respects. He wondered again about this Miguel. Johnny seemed to call out to him in times of stress. He wondered what sort of family skills Miguel had when it came to Johnny that Murdoch and he so obviously lacked.

Scott checked Johnny’s forehead once again. Johnny’s fever had eased since they had left the hotel. Scott had been checking him regularly, soaking his handkerchief in water from his canteen and holding it to Johnny’s head. He hoped he would be well enough to travel tomorrow. Scott didn’t like the look of those people back in Panacea. He worried they could change their minds and decide to come looking for the men they thought had bought their way out of justice. If they decided to take matters into their own hands, Scott couldn’t defend both himself and Johnny against them. Scott had hidden the horses farther in the thicket, and had settled in next to Johnny beneath the bush. He’d decided against a fire just in case anybody was looking for them. He wasn’t in the mood for company.

 

Chapter 52

Scott must have dozed off. He was awakened by distant voices, really just a murmur, set to the cadence of hoof beats approaching on the road they’d been traveling. Johnny was also stirring, moaning quietly. Scott went to his side, touching his shoulder. “Shhhhh,” he added.

Johnny only seemed to get more agitated. The voices were approaching now, close enough for Scott to catch bits of what several different ones were saying. “…should have waited for me, now we gotta go after them…really gonna hang ‘em?... …. got to get rid of scum like them perverts … letting ‘em go, just pushing them on some other unsuspecting town…sheriff don’t know shit.” Johnny was adding his own voice to the mix, mumbling something in Spanish. Scott and Johnny were far enough from the road that they shouldn’t be noticed, but if Johnny got any louder it could be risky. Since he wasn’t having any luck quieting him, Scott shook him to try to rouse him, but Johnny only became more fractious. “Shhhhh!”  Scott repeated urgently, the voices dangerously close now. Johnny gasped and began to murmur more loudly, flailing his arms and flexing his legs as though to get up. Scott threw himself over Johnny to hold him still, clasping his hand over Johnny’s mouth. It seemed to make Johnny struggle more violently, with a frantic edge to his muffled cries Scott hadn’t noticed before. Scott heard the hoof beats halt, the voices on the road become quiet.

“Please be quiet, Johnny, be still,” Scott whispered fervently, at the same time glancing toward his gun just out of reach. At that moment Johnny broke free an arm and before Scott could grab it Johnny had struck Scott squarely in the jaw, throwing him back on his haunches. Johnny wrenched out of his grasp and twisted away, coming to rest leaning on the base of a nearby bush, eying Scott wildly. Scott dared not move, not only for fear it would draw the lynch mob’s attention, but that it would further set Johnny off.  He tried to hear over the pounding of his own heartbeat for approaching hoof beats. 

He looked again toward his gunbelt, and was dismayed to see Johnny’s hand reaching for it, closing around the gun, and Johnny, still obviously confused, now holding it, training it on Scott. Scott froze. He couldn’t speak to Johnny lest the mob would hear. He mouthed the words “Johnny, no” hoping to get through to him, but Johnny’s aim did not waver from his chest.

Scott heard one set of hoof beats getting closer, close enough to hear the creaking of the saddle leather as the rider shifted his weight, probably to look around. Scott met Johnny’s eyes, pleading silently for him to recognize him. The rider came closer; Johnny’s gaze became icier, and his gun raised to aim no longer at Scott’s chest, but at his head. “Johnny, no,” Scott mouthed. The gun continued to raise, to settle aimed above Scott’s head, toward where the rider would appear against the sky. Scott braced himself, but then he heard the horse stop, its rider responding to a distant voice imploring him to come on. The horse paused, then turned and galloped back to the road.  Scott could hear the combined hoof beats of the group rumble away in the direction Scott and Johnny had been headed before they had been forced to stop.

Scott waited until he could hear nothing but the wind rustling the leaves around them before he moved or spoke. Johnny had lowered the gun, dropping his hand to the ground and his chin to his chest. Scott cautiously crawled to his side. “Johnny?” he whispered, “Are you alright?  Can I have the gun back?”

Johnny opened his eyes, his look of confusion replaced by one of embarrassment. He looked back at Scott for second, then smiled slightly and handed him the gun. “You really gotta get a new gun, Scott,” he whispered hoarsely.

Scott put his hand on Johnny’s forehead, relieved to feel that it was considerably cooler than it had been. “Next town, I’ll get one,” he replied, handing Johnny the canteen. Then he had an idea. “You want to help me pick it out?”

Johnny took several long swigs before answering. When he did, Scott could have sworn he saw a twinkle in his eyes as he replied “If you buy me breakfast.”

“Deal, brother,” said Scott, getting up. “First, let’s get out of here before it gets light and they realize our tracks are gone. We’ll head cross country.” He reached down to help Johnny to his feet, bracing him as he walked.

***

Johnny still wasn’t able to ride by himself, but he was awake and cooperative. By the afternoon Scott reluctantly let him ride Barranca for short spells. He pointed out that Johnny shouldn’t even be out of bed, much less riding cross country. Johnny had insisted just as vehemently that he was fine, urging Barranca to a faster pace to prove the point each time Scott brought it up. They finally reached a compromise; they would ride at a decent pace but take breaks as long as Scott quit fretting. Even so, Scott won in the end. Johnny had started riding slower and slower as the hours passed, even without Scott’s fretting. Scott kept an eye on him and scheduled even more frequent stops, noticing Johnny didn’t complain. In fact, Johnny had slept for over an hour at their last stop. Scott had tried to get him to eat some jerky, but all Johnny managed to do was look at it. Still, he did drink a lot of water, which Scott knew was especially important for recovering from blood loss.

As evening fell they could see the distant shadow of a town. Scott argued with himself about whether they should get a room or camp. A room would be better for Johnny’s recovery, but risky in case the lynch mob showed up. Johnny finally decided for him, dismounted and announcing that this was a good place to spend the night. In fact, it was, at least as far as Johnny was concerned. He fell asleep immediately and as far as Scott knew, did not wake until dawn. Scott would know; he spent most of the night listening for hoof beats.

They awoke early, determined to risk going into the town for breakfast and a new gun. Johnny pulled the bandage off his head before they got to the outskirts, nestling his hat down so it covered the wound. Scott knew Johnny was funny about wearing bandages in public, so he didn’t bother to protest.

Johnny wanted to buy the gun right off, but the gun shop was still closed so they went to eat instead. Scott noticed Johnny didn’t have his usual appetite, but he managed to get a little down plus drink three glasses of milk.

Once they had finished eating and were back on the boardwalk, Johnny turned to walk backward facing Scott. “You ready to go get that gun now, Scott?” he asked eagerly, seemingly totally recovered from his injury.

Scott laughed at Johnny’s almost childlike exuberance. “Sure, it should just take a second.” Scott was usually pretty good at making fast choices when it came to purchases. He had a simple formula: buy the best.

They entered the gun shop. Scott immediately stepped to the case and asked the gunsmith for his best gun. The man held up a thing of beauty, with a glistening pearl handle and scrolled engravings on the metal. Scott reached for the gun, hefted it for a second, nodded, then reached for his money.

“Whoa, there, Boston! I thought you wanted a good gun.”

Scott couldn’t help but notice this was the first time Johnny had called him Boston since he’d gone to prison. He took it as a good sign. “This gun looks pretty good to me, brother.”

“Yeah, yeah, it is,” said Johnny, examining the gun. “Pretty good, that is. But you want real good.” He turned to the gunsmith, then pointed to a plain gun. “Let him try that one.”

Scott hefted it. It felt the same as the other one. He nodded, “OK, Johnny, this one will be fine.” He turned to the gunsmith. “How much?”

“Wait! No.” Johnny was examining the gun he had handed to Scott. He shook his head and pointed to another. “Try this one.”

Forty-five minutes later Scott must have held half the guns in the shop. They all felt pretty much the same. Johnny had somehow managed to turn a simple task into a life’s quest for the perfect gun. He had balanced, disassembled, and drawn with every gun he handed Scott. Finally Scott threw up his hands. “I tell you what, Johnny. Give me my old gun back. I liked it just fine. You pick out a gun for you, my treat. Just leave me out of the decision process.”

“No foolin, Scott?” Johnny’s eyes were twinkling like a kid’s at Christmas.

“Dead serious. In fact, I’ll go over and wait in the saloon and you can take all afternoon if you want.”

Johnny grinned. “You got a deal, brother.” Johnny quickly handed Scott his old gun back and turned immediately to the gunsmith. “I’ll take this one.”  He pointed to the second gun they had looked at, way back when Johnny had started this mess. Scott narrowed his eyes, wondering if he’d been had. It was a pretty expensive gun, far more costly than the one Johnny had just given back to him. Johnny was smiling broadly. “Thanks, Boston!”

Hornswoggled or not, it was worth it to Scott to see the expression on Johnny’s face. He broke into a smile himself, answering “You’re welcome, little brother,” putting his arm around Johnny. To Scott’s surprise, Johnny reciprocated, pounding Scott on the back enthusiastically.

They watched the gunsmith start to return the other guns to their places. Scott noticed Johnny was still studying them. He groaned inwardly. “Don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind.”

“No, this is a real good all around gun,” nodded Johnny, still watching the guns, biting his lip. “You know, though, you really need three guns.”  He glanced up at Scott.

“Three guns?”

“Yeah, an all around gun, a workin’ gun, and a hidin’ gun. Well, four, countin’ a rifle. Scatter gun’s handy, too.”

Scott realized Johnny was arming himself to return to his gunslinging life. He had the briefest urge to make sure his brother was the best equipped gunhawk out there, but the truth was, he couldn’t bring himself to arm his brother for a lifestyle that would eventually kill him, no matter how well armed.  “Let’s stick with one gun for now, Johnny.”

Johnny and he walked back out on the boardwalk. Scott stopped after several steps, thinking. If Johnny planned to be a gunhawk, being poorly equipped wouldn’t stop him, except maybe if it killed him. Johnny turned and looked back at him questioningly. Scott sighed and smiled, then asked, “Just how long would it take to pick out this hiding gun?”

 

Chapter 53

Scott leaned back with his hands behind his head, reflecting on the day’s events. It had been a long time since he’d been able to look back on a day fondly, and he hoped this was the first of a string of good days to come. It wasn’t that anything grand had happened, at least not anything that would seem so outwardly. After they had left the gun shop, having added not only a hiding gun but a new rifle to Johnny’s arsenal, they had ridden cross country until they found a good place to stop next to a stream. Johnny had spent that evening playing with his new guns, mostly his new revolver. He’d practiced his draw until even Scott was almost bored watching. Scott always marveled at Johnny’s quickness, but right now Johnny seemed determined to fine tune some infinitesimally obscure point that more often than not had him just practicing some part of the draw.  Finally Johnny had graduated to target practice, making it clear why he had insisted Scott add a ridiculous amount of ammunition to their purchase.  Scott had enjoyed watching that more, even venturing to do some target shooting of his own. Most of all, though, Scott had basked in the look of childlike joy on Johnny’s face as every target exploded under his aim. If any remnant of his hand injury remained, Scott couldn’t detect it.

This was the Johnny that Scott had missed so much over the past year. Johnny had an exuberance that was catching, and Scott found himself grinning almost as much as Johnny was---even when Scott missed three shots in a row. He hadn’t thought Johnny had been watching, so he was surprised when Johnny called out, “Hey Boston, that part of them shooting lessons you were gonna give me?”

“I meant to do that,” quipped Scott. “I was aiming at that red rock on the ledge behind the target.”  Scott pointed to where one of the errant bullets had gouged the face of the rock wall well behind where their targets were set.

“Where?” asked Johnny, not waiting for an answer before he casually turned, drew, and shot, his bullet plowing into the hole left by Scott’s bullet, spraying out a fine shower of dust. “You mean there?” He returned his gun to its holster, giving Scott his cockiest smile.

“See? You did learn something.” Scott wasn’t going to let his show-off brother get away with that stunt so easily.

“Yeah. Now if I ever have to shoot a rock wall I can. Thanks, teach,” said Johnny, his eyes dancing with mischief.

“Alright, point taken,” Scott conceded, laughing and taking more careful aim at his next target. The brothers had moved on to rifle practice, where Scott redeemed himself, and they even took turns shooting the tiny hiding gun, which Scott proved lived up to its reputation of being impossible to hit anything farther than a poker table’s width away with. Johnny did better with it, but it was clearly a gun of last resort. They practiced and laughed until the waning light made shooting a waste of ammunition, and then they just wasted ammunition and laughed some more. Scott hoped the night would never end.

Now Johnny had fallen asleep, and Scott was left to contemplate the evening sky. The fire had died down to mounds of glowing embers. He stirred it with a stick just to see the sparks spiral their way toward the stars. He would add another log in a little while, but right now he was enjoying the tranquil feeling he got from the exhausted fire, much as he was enjoying his brother’s tranquility after his day of explosive shooting.

Scott sighed, wondering what Johnny’s intentions were. He wished he would come back with him to Lancer, but realistically, he had to face that that probably wasn’t in Johnny’s plans. He didn’t know what had happened in that hotel room in Luna Springs, but he knew how Murdoch’s actions of the past year had hurt Johnny deeply. Scott knew his own actions had also hurt Johnny, and he was relieved that Johnny seemed willing to overlook his mistakes. He just wished Johnny could also overlook Murdoch’s.

No, it was a deeper problem than that. Even if Johnny could forgive them both for the past year, would anything really change? Scott knew he couldn’t stop playing big brother, but he could be more careful about how and why he was trying to mold Johnny into his own vision of a gentleman rancher. He had to admit, Johnny may not know all the rules of etiquette, but he already knew the main point of manners: making others feel at ease. He wished he and Murdoch had been better at making Johnny feel at ease.

Still, there was the matter of Murdoch. He had given up on Johnny. He’d done that before, when he washed has hands of him and basically sent him off to prison, stripping him of the Lancer name. Now he had given up in a different way, by leaving rather than staying and reasoning with Johnny.  How could Johnny go back now? Even if they settled things now, how long before either one of them committed the next act the other would deem unforgivable?

Then there was Johnny himself. Scott thought Johnny had been happy at Lancer, but he also recognized there was much about family life that must have confused him. He had barely started to open up to Scott, much less Murdoch, before he left for prison. With the revelation about Johnny’s abuse, Scott had the feeling Johnny was just biding his time until he could sneak away and protect his secret from everybody once again. Scott couldn’t say that he blamed him; he didn’t know what he would do were he in that position. With Johnny’s former occupation and pride so much dependant on his machismo, he imagined that it was especially devastating to Johnny for his family to know.

Scott wondered if it were better to talk about the abuse to Johnny rather than pretend it didn’t exist. He knew it would be hard for Johnny, for both of them, for that matter. But maybe if it were out in the open they could quit sidestepping this monster that neither could face. Besides, by not talking about it, didn’t that just reinforce the idea in Johnny’s mind that this was something too shameful to speak of?

The embers were fading into points of light in the dusty ash. Scott leaned over and carefully placed a log atop the brightest ones, adding a few smaller sticks to ensure the fire’s recovery, blowing on the ashes to fuel the flame. He thought again of Johnny as a fire, and realized how poor the comparison was. He could control this fire; Johnny’s fire was apt to blaze and die in spite of anything Scott could do.

***

When Scott awoke the sky was already rosy with the promise of a bright day. Johnny was stoking the fire and preparing some coffee. It was a rare day when Scott slept later than Johnny did, so he quickly pushed himself up and tended to his morning necessities. He slapped some icy water from the stream on his face, shaking it off dog-like as it brought him to his senses. By the time he returned Johnny had two cups of hot coffee ready for them and was already heaving his saddle to Barranca’s back.

“Whoa, Johnny, what’s the hurry?” he asked, squatting on his heels to enjoy his coffee.

“I just don’t feel like sticking around and waiting for that lynch mob to figure out where we went,” said Johnny, resting a second after settling the saddle. He turned to Scott. “You might consider hightailin it back to Lancer yourself. What with you bein a pervert and all,” he added with a grin.

Scott really didn’t think that pervert comment was funny, so he decided to ignore it. Besides, he was more concerned that Johnny seemed to think they would be going their separate ways. He surely couldn’t be thinking of heading out on his own already. It was too soon, he wasn’t well enough. Most of all, Scott needed time to convince him to come back to Lancer. He asked more optimistically than he felt, “OK, but you’re going to Lancer, too, aren’t you?”

“I reckon it’s time for me to be on my way. If anyone’s on our trail it will be better if we split up.

“You’re not well enough, you’re not ready,” protested Scott.

“Ready as I’m gonna be,” Johnny replied, fishing beneath Barranca for the cinch.

Scott paused, then tried for Johnny’s sense of duty. “If that mob decides to follow my trail, I’ll be in trouble without you. You saw me shoot!”

“You shoot just fine, brother. I could probably get you a job if you wanted one,” he said, smiling at Scott as he pulled the cinch tight. “Besides, I bet none of that bunch ever even aimed at a man before.”

“A job, huh? That what you’re going to do? Hire out?”

“We’ll see. Regardless, it’s time for me to be on my way.”

“Way to where?”

Johnny shrugged. “Think I’ll ride south. Kinda cold up here for my tastes.”

“Just south? Any destination?”

“I expect one will turn up,” Johnny said, rubbing Barranca’s face as the horse turned to nuzzle him.

“Lancer’s south. We could ride together until there.”  Scott was already rolling up his bedroll.

Johnny seemed to contemplate something before finally speaking. “Let me ask you something Scott. How many people around Lancer know why I went away?”

Scott stopped and thought. “I don’t know. Just a couple, I guess.”

“Yeah, well a couple means everybody. You think Panacea’s any different from Morro Coyo or Green River or Spanish Wells? I’ll just be trading one lynch mob for another.”

“Johnny, no, those people know you. You have friends there. They believe in you, they don’t believe those charges.”

“That so?”

Scott couldn’t really answer him. Now that Johnny mentioned it, he had a sinking feeling it wasn’t so. “You’ll be at Lancer. Murdoch will set them straight,” he offered, knowing how lame it sounded even as he said it.

Johnny smiled, shaking his head. “You really believe that, Scott?”

Scott looked Johnny in the eye, admitting defeat. “At least let’s ride together as far as Lancer. We don’t have to go through town.”

Johnny stroked Barranca for an interminable time while Scott tried to look forlorn. Truth was, he didn’t have to try too hard. If Johnny left forever he would feel utterly lost in this land. Finally Johnny stopped, looked at Scott, and grinned. “I don’t know, Boston. You’re kinda slow to get going in the morning. You think you can keep up?”

Scott had caught the teasing twinkle in Johnny’s eye and was already cramming things in his saddle bags. “By the time you get that coffee pot clean and packed I’ll be on the trail waiting up on you, brother!”

He blistered his tongue gulping down the rest of the coffee, throwing the empty cup at Johnny. Johnny managed to burn his hands grabbing the pot off the fire and then almost tripped into the fire in his hurry to put it out. The two raced to see who could get packed and on their horses first, both wasting more time dropping things in their haste than they would have had they packed like normal people. Johnny jumped on Barranca and galloped away with a gloating whoop just as Scott was swinging into his saddle. Scott tried to overcome Johnny’s head start, the two galloping recklessly for the next mile. It was stupid, but it was fun, and every time Scott saw Johnny look back at him with his taunting smile, he knew it was worth it. It reminded him of the way it used to be.

 

Chapter 54

Scott pulled his hat down against the bright sun. He and Johnny had been making fairly good time, something Scott wasn’t happy about. As far as he was concerned, the longer it took for them to get to Lancer, the more time he had to spend with his brother. So while he didn’t linger, he didn’t exactly hurry either.

Johnny seemed to be doing pretty well, but Scott had still insisted they take breaks, and Johnny hadn’t protested enough to be convincing. They had just resumed riding after a long rest under a grove of trees when Scott decided to ask a question he’d been idly wondering about.

“So, why Johnny Ramon?”

“What?” replied Johnny back, looking back at him.

Scott urged his horse forward so they were riding abreast. “Why’d you pick Ramon for a last name back there in Luna Springs?”

Johnny took a long time to answer, so long Scott figured he wasn’t planning to. Then he finally said, “Used to be my name for a while. Longer than most.”

“Johnny Ramon?” This was a bit of news.

“Yeah. Well, Juanito Ramon.”

“Oh yeah? How long?”

“I dunno,” Johnny shrugged. “Couple of years.”

“How old were you? You were in Mexico?”  This was more information than Scott was usually able to milk from Johnny, so he kept pushing as much as he could without turning him off.

Johnny shrugged.  “Eight, nine, ten, I dunno.”

“You were in Mexico?” Scott repeated.

“Yeah.”

“Where abouts?”

“Place called San Blas, just south of the border.”

Scott didn’t know much about Mexico, but even he had heard of San Blas. He knew it had a reputation as a rancorous town, the sort of place people went if they felt like killing or being killed. Certainly not a place you wanted to raise a kid.

“So, Ramon, huh? Your mother remarried?” Could she do that? Wasn’t she still technically married to Murdoch? Not that it mattered.

Johnny chuckled softly as though he found the question amusing. “No, no, not hardly.”

“Then how’d you come by the name?”

“What are you, writing my life history?” Johnny was starting to sound a little irritated.

“I’d just like to know more. Why Ramon?”

“It was Miguel’s last name,” said Johnny, looking straight ahead.

There it was. The elusive Miguel. Now he had a last name. It appeared that Mendoza had been at least partly right when he had referred to Miguel as Johnny’s papa. Scott was more sure than ever that Miguel had been an important person in Johnny’s childhood. Scott knew Johnny wasn’t one for talking about his past, but he figured maybe this Miguel would be a safe topic with good memories.

***

Murdoch had ridden steadfastly back home to Lancer. Every step took him farther from his sons, one of whom he worried he would never see again. Every step also took him closer to his goal. By the time he reached Lancer he had formulated a plan. After greeting Teresa, Jelly, and Maria and enjoying the best meal he’d had in some time, he sat behind his familiar desk. The others had gone to bed, and he opened the drawer where he kept the Pinkerton report on Johnny’s past. He wished he had more information to go on, but maybe what he had would lead him to that child pimping bastard. Johnny had pretty much let slip his first name was Miguel. Murdoch had read the report so many times that he was almost sure he remembered that name.

He found it on the third page. The report indicated that Johnny and Maria had lived under the roof of one Miguel Ramon. That didn’t make sense; if this was the bastard, why would Johnny have used his last name in Luna Springs? Murdoch looked through the rest of the report and could find no other Miguel, so he returned to this Ramon character. The dates made sense, although in a sad way. Johnny would have been with him from the age of 8 until he was 10, when the record became even sketchier.

Not for the first time Murdoch mentally raged against Maria. Had she known what Johnny was doing? How could she not have? But if so, how could she have allowed it? If she were here Murdoch felt he could easily strangle her with his bare hands.

He realized he was clenching his fists until they ached. He took a deep breath and got back to business. Miguel Ramon was his best lead. He could be there in three days if he rode steadily, four or five otherwise. Once there, he could investigate and see if this Miguel was the same one who had abused Johnny. Then he had to decide how to deal with him. Killing him was his first choice, but he wasn’t sure he could do that legally. This was one time he could use Johnny’s gunslinging skills.  He wondered why Johnny had never finished off Miguel himself; who knew, maybe he had, although it wasn’t in the Pinkerton Report. The thing was, if Miguel was still alive, Murdoch needed to take care of him himself. He needed to do it for Johnny, to show Johnny what he would have done had he only known those many years ago. He wasn’t sure how Johnny would ever hear of Murdoch’s good deed, but one step at a time. First to find the bastard.

He thought again about the ride, grimacing at the thought of spending more time in the saddle. He decided to get caught up on some of the ranch finances, get a good night’s rest, and leave in the morning. He wondered if he should take Cipriano or Val with him. Cip would be a big help when it came to conversing fluently in Spanish, and Val would be a big help if it came to violence.  But how would he explain the situation to them? Murdoch didn’t want anyone else to know what his son had done. He’d have to go alone.

He started writing a note to Scott detailing his plans. He at least needed Scott to know where he was going in case something went wrong.

 

Chapter 55

Johnny was enjoying riding with Scott. He had the feeling Scott was slowing them down on purpose, but Johnny went along with it because he wasn’t all that eager to be all by himself once again. He’d spent enough of his life like that. Once he had come to Lancer and discovered the luxury of having a brother, someone you knew would be there the next day, he had come to hate riding alone. That was one reason it had been easy for Scott to talk him into riding together as far south as Lancer.

The morning had been spent in small talk interlaced with quiet spells where they both just enjoyed riding through the countryside alongside one another. Johnny hadn’t even minded Scott’s questions about why he had used Ramon as a last name. There seemed no harm in answering them.

That was before he had started asking about Miguel. Now Johnny was starting to feel uncomfortable. He didn’t want to rebuff Scott, not when he could tell Scott was trying so hard. But here he was asking more questions Johnny didn’t want to answer.

“So you say Miguel took care of you? Like how?”

Johnny didn’t want to get into this, but maybe he could just get it over with. “You know, gave us a place to live. Fed us some. Protected us.”

“Sounds like you were pretty lucky to have him. He must have really cared about you.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Johnny replied distractedly.

“So what kind of work did he do?”

“This and that. Really Scott, I don’t remember that much.” Johnny prodded Barranca to go a little faster, hoping the rough ground would distract Scott. It didn’t.

“Did you two do stuff together?”

“Yeah, some stuff.” Johnny hoped he wouldn’t want to know what.

“Like what? Did he teach you things?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Johnny was liking where this was going less and less. He sure couldn’t tell Scott what Miguel had taught him, couldn’t tell him Miguel had taught him a shameful trade, or that that trade had in turn taught him the skills he would need to survive in his next trade. Johnny’s experiences with so many men had taught him how to read people, and that ability was one of the talents that had made him survive as a gunfighter. No, he couldn’t exactly tell Scott that, but he didn’t know what the right answers were, either. Maybe if he changed the subject. “So Scott, whatcha missing out on back in Boston right about now?”

Scott scowled at him, and Johnny knew Scott had seen through his plan. Still, Scott played along. “Snow!”

Johnny pretended to shiver, saying “It’s cold enough here you probably won’t be missing it for long!”

Scott laughed. “You ever been in snow, Johnny?”

“No, don’t know that I want to, either. Sounds cold.”

“Yeah, but it’s a different kind of cold, like the snow wraps everything in a warm blanket so you don’t feel it.” Scott had to admit he really was missing snow now. “Of course, you dress for it, too. Then you go out sledding, or skating, or maybe sleighing. Sleighing is wonderful; the snow muffles the sounds of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones, plus the bells on the sleighs. Then you come back inside and there’s hot cider waiting for you. And at Christmas, Johnny, it’s just beautiful, with all the decorations, and the candle lights making every flake glisten as it falls. It’s like living in a fairy tale.”

Johnny loved it when Scott went on with one of his fanciful stories about Boston. He was never sure how much to really believe, because he had a feeling Scott let himself get carried away in some sort of fantasy at times, like maybe it really was a fairy tale, but it didn’t matter. They were always great stories, and Johnny could listen to them forever. Not to mention this one had gotten Scott off the subject of Miguel. So he pushed for more, asking, “It’s that what you liked best about Christmas there? The snow?”

“The snow and the decorations were just part of it. There’d be so much food, with pies and candy---you’d love that! We’d have the most enormous tree you ever saw, and then the presents stacked under it for everyone. I guess the part I liked best was choosing a special gift just for each person, then watching them open it and knowing how much they liked it.” He grew quiet for a while, and Johnny thought he had finished, then he spoke again, more quietly. “I think my most special Christmas memory is of the first Christmas where I was old enough to give gifts I’d chosen. Grandfather seemed upset I’d given what he considered extravagant gifts to the servants, but for him I made him something, a drawing of the two of us together on a sled. It wasn’t like I could buy him anything he didn’t already have! I think he really did like it, though, because that day he actually went to watch me sled, and then he even sledded down a tiny hill with me---just like in the picture!”  Scott laughed, “Come to think of it, he probably hated it!” He looked over at Johnny. “Your turn. What are your best Christmas memories?”

This conversation had taken an unwanted turn. Johnny knew well his best Christmas memory, but he sure wasn’t about to share it with Scott. It was back when they were with Miguel. His mama had promised they would spend the evening alone together, but when he had arrived home she was with a man. Johnny was standing outside, wondering if she would be all night, when Miguel showed up and told him he had a job. Miguel steered Johnny along, passing a group of children just as they broke open a piñata, the colorful candies spilling to the ground as the children shrieked with glee. Johnny saw some of the adults with them watching him, and he was sure they knew what he was on his way to do. He was so ashamed, and even though he knew better than to feel sorry for himself, on this night he couldn’t keep the tears from welling up in his eyes. When they got to the room Miguel pushed Johnny toward the waiting man. Johnny tried to blink the tears from his eyes as he looked up at Miguel, but succeeded only in sending one down his cheek. He saw Miguel staring at him before he turned to trudge into the room, and he knew he was going to be in trouble for crying. Instead, Miguel had done the most remarkable thing. He called Johnny back to him and told him to wait, while he went in and spoke to the man. Johnny saw the man gesture angrily, then stalk out of the room. Miguel had returned to Johnny, then fished around in his pocket and brought out a piece of sticky candy clothed in lint. He handed it to Johnny and told him gruffly to get out. Johnny stuffed the candy in his mouth and ran out the door. When he got home, his mama was alone. She was preparing tamales for both of them, and she let Johnny help. It was the best Christmas Johnny could remember. Or at least, it had seemed so at the time. Johnny now realized it pretty much sucked, at least by Scott’s standards.

“Hard to choose,” said Johnny nonchalantly, searching desperately for an answer that would make Scott happy. Before he had left for prison, Teresa had hinted at what Christmas at Lancer was like. Still, Johnny hadn’t known how much of that to believe. He didn’t want to claim anything that would alert Scott he was just making stuff up. “I liked the food,” he finally said, figuring that wasn’t a lie and also fit in with the stories he’d heard.

Scott laughed. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

Johnny smiled. He really needed to change the subject.

 

Chapter 56

The lights shown through the windows of the hacienda, beckoning the brothers to come home to Lancer. It was twilight, and the walls of the building glowed as the last rays of the sun illuminated them. For Scott the sight of his home was both welcomed and dreaded. This was where he and Johnny had agreed to part ways. The two sat on their horses atop the hill from which they had both arrived and first set eyes on what was then their father’s home.

Johnny looked wistfully for a long time at the hacienda, the barns, and the surrounding countryside, never saying a word. He finally turned nonchalantly to Scott. “Well, see ya round, Scott,” he said, reining Barranca around to leave.

“Johnny, wait!” Scott had clung to the hope that once Johnny saw Lancer he’d give it another try.

Johnny pulled Barranca up and turned him to face Scott, waiting expectantly.

“Just stay the night, Johnny. Come say goodbye to Jelly and Teresa.”

“No, I said my goodbyes last year. Nothing to be gained by scratching open old scabs. Bye, Scott.” Johnny turned Barranca and they headed south, but then he stopped again and called to Scott, “Hey, you know if that line shack’s empty down by the south meadow?”

“Shouldn’t be anyone there this time of year,” replied Scott.

“Think I’ll bed down there if it’s not a problem then,” said Johnny, turning once again.

“No problem. In fact, I’ll go with you! I’ve been meaning to see what needs restocking there,” said Scott, glad to make up an excuse to extend their time together.

“No, Scott, go home to Lancer where you belong.” Johnny spurred Barranca into a gallop.

Scott watched Barranca’s golden form until he could no longer make it out in the fading light.  “Goodbye, brother,” he said to himself, turning dejectedly for home.

***

Johnny had been dreaming when he heard the sound of galloping hoof beats approaching. He reached for his gun beside him and aimed it at the door just as the door was flung open, outlining a dark shape against the moonlit sky. He pulled back his hammer, making an ominous click in the dark shack.

“Johnny, it’s me,” said Scott’s voice none too pleasantly, especially considering he was the one barging in. “Get up.”

“What the hell are you doing, Scott? Trying to get yourself killed?” asked Johnny, returning his gun to his holster and swinging his feet to the floor.

Scott advanced toward Johnny’s bed until he was close enough for Johnny to make out his features in the dark room. “I want to know the truth. I want to know who the hell this Miguel was and what he meant to you.”

Johnny tried to shake the sleep from his head. Had Scott lost his mind riding up here in the middle of the night to quiz him some more about his childhood? “What?”

“You heard me. Miguel Ramon,” said Scott, standing over Johnny with his hands on his hips. “I want to know if he was your papa or your pimp!”

“What? Get the hell out of here!” raged Johnny, suddenly wide awake and lunging to his feet.

“Not until you tell me the truth, brother!” Scott had barely gotten the last word out when Johnny plowed into him and started pushing him to the door. Scott retaliated, trying to wrestle Johnny back toward the bed. Johnny landed a good punch to Scott’s stomach, doubling him up but not enough for Scott to let go.

“Get out!” menaced Johnny as he shoved Scott once again, trying to break his grip.

“The truth!” exclaimed Scott, holding on tightly and looking Johnny straight in the eye.

Johnny struggled, breaking free and retreating to pace to the far side of the room. “Why don’t you mind your own business?” he said without taking his eyes off his brother.

“Miguel is my business, now, Johnny. Our business. He got that way when our father went to San Blas to find him. Now, somehow Murdoch got the idea this Miguel, this person you let me think took care of you, is the person responsible for prostituting you! And Murdoch’s going down there to confront him, and I need to know what the hell he’s getting into! Now I want to know the truth.”

Johnny had stopped pacing and was now just standing and staring at the ground. Finally, he sighed heavily and sat on the bed, arms folded tightly. Still looking down, he said, “He really going there?”

“He’s already gone. He left a note. Johnny, I need to know what he’s getting into.”

“I don’t understand why he’d go there. What’s it to him?”

Scott gave Johnny a curious look, then went and sat on the bed beside him. “He swore he would kill the man who did that to you if he ever found him,” he said more calmly than before. “I think this is his way of showing you how he feels about you. You might as well know, Johnny, I feel the same way. I’m going after Murdoch, and then I’m going after Miguel. He is the one who did it to you, isn’t he?”

“Damn,” said Johnny, reaching over to snatch his boots.

“What are you doing?” asked Scott, jumping back to his feet.

“I’m going to San Blas before somebody gets killed,” he said, jerking on a boot.

“I’m going with you!”

“Whatever.” Johnny was on his feet and stomping toward the door. “But after this, Scott, we’re done.”

 

Part 8

Chapter 57

Scott sighed. The ride with Johnny that had just yesterday been so filled with laughter was now silent. Every attempt Scott had made to start a conversation or ask a question had been met by a terse reply in a clipped voice. Maybe he could have handled last night better, but when he had arrived back at Lancer and read that note from Murdoch he had been so filled with rage his only thought was to get to Johnny and shake him senseless. Or maybe shake some sense into him. How could Johnny have let him go on talking about Miguel as though he were some sort of father figure, all the while knowing what he had done? Just when Scott had been so sure Johnny was opening up to him, now he had found it had all been a lie. Scott was right back where he was when they had both first come to Lancer. Right back to butting against this impenetrable barrier Johnny put between them.

Between Scott’s fear for Murdoch and his feeling of betrayal at Johnny’s lies, Scott had let his emotions get the better of him. He’d known even as he was saying the words how they would cut into his brother, but he’d heard himself saying them anyway. He’d already apologized to Johnny, several times, and Johnny had always responded the same, with a clipped “Yeah,” as though he didn’t care.

Scott knew he cared, though. He knew because Johnny was heading to San Blas. That meant Johnny still must have feelings for Murdoch.

***

Johnny couldn’t begin to count the reasons he didn’t want to go to San Blas. He’d always made a point of giving the town a wide berth in his travels. The place held too many bad memories, and harbored too many people who knew him as Juanito Ramon, whore boy of San Blas. There were plenty of them. Besides the local regulars who knew just where to come looking when they wanted a little fun, there were Miguel’s friends who often played cards outside Miguel’s back room while Johnny was in there working, and the workers at the hotel and stable who knew where to send a stranger asking for some entertainment. He hoped they wouldn’t recognize him.

He had no choice but to go, however. He had to save Miguel.

***

Johnny had made it clear that he was in charge on this trip, and that Scott was not to question why they did certain things or traveled certain trails. So Scott had not questioned when they camped out rather than headed to the hotels in some of the towns Johnny seemed to go out of his way to avoid. At least, he hadn’t questioned it much. When he had asked why they were riding around most towns rather than through them Johnny had simply answered “Can’t be seen there,” or “Don’t want no trouble.” Scott supposed that was good enough, but he was awfully curious to know more details.

So Scott was surprised when instead of skirting this particular town, Johnny headed right down the main street. That is, if you could call it a main street. This was a town that had obviously lost its dream of ever becoming a town. Dust blew down the main street and blanketed every building and sign until everything, including the people, melded into a tortilla tan. Scott dutifully followed Johnny to an even more barren area well beyond the buildings. A dust-frosted wooden cross stood sentry in the middle of what appeared to be a spattering of stone heaps. Scott recognized it as a pauper’s graveyard.

Johnny stopped and sat on Barranca for a long time before nudging him into a walk, weaving between the piles of rock and shards, each step loosing a plume of dust. He dismounted next to the cross, crossed himself, and stood with his head bowed. Scott remained at the edge of the graveyard, not wishing to intrude.

***

Johnny hadn’t planned to stop here. Not with Scott tailing along. He hadn’t been able to just ride past, however, so he decided, Scott or not, he was stopping at his mama’s grave.

Not that he was sure which one it was, or even if she was here at all. He hadn’t been able to stick around and see what had become of her after everything that had happened. As he had a thousand times before, he thought back on the events leading up to his mama’s death. They still made no sense.

If only they hadn’t left San Blas. He still never understood why they had, but he suspected it had something to do with what had happened in the weeks just before. His mama had been sick and Miguel had Johnny stay with him for several days. One day Miguel had sat him down and explained that Johnny’s mama was dying and could no longer take care of him; in fact, she was too sick to even say goodbye. Miguel said she wanted Johnny to go live with Miguel’s friend, and that Johnny was to do everything his new papa told him to lest the man change his mind and throw him out. Johnny had started to cry, begging to see his mama and to stay with Miguel. Miguel had said he couldn’t take care of him and that this was what his mama wanted. He had introduced him to his new papa, Ignacio, an unsmiling man who shoved Johnny onto his horse and rode out of town amidst Johnny’s urgent pleas to Miguel and futile struggles to escape.

Johnny had quietly sobbed all the way to Los Perros. It was there Johnny realized Ignacio had lied to Miguel. Ignacio didn’t even pretend to like him. He had locked him in a dank cellar room, opening the door only to throw him some occasional table scraps and more often, to admit yet another man. The days, nights, and men ran together until Johnny had no idea how long he had been there; he guessed a couple of weeks. He had pulled on the boarded up window near the top of the room every time he was alone until his fingers bled. Just as he was about to give up one of the boards finally came loose. He had pried the boards off until he could wriggle through, then he had fled barefoot through the darkness. The next morning he had caught a ride in a farmer’s wagon that took him almost back to San Blas, and then he walked the rest of the way, bloodying his feet on the sharp shale, finally arriving home as night was falling.

He had run to his mama’s shack, praying she was still alive, throwing himself in her arms when he saw she was. She had hugged him to her so tightly he could scarcely breathe, telling him she’d thought he’d drowned, crying when she heard what had happened—even though Johnny was too ashamed to tell her everything. She gathered their few belongings and they sneaked out, taking Miguel’s horse and riding hard until they had reached this town. Johnny had been on the run with his mama before, but this time she seemed more scared than usual. Angier, too, and it seemed to be aimed at Miguel.

His mama found a job and a room. Johnny tried to help out, but his mama had become very concerned about his whereabouts. It was a strange experience for Johnny; she had never cared before where he was or whether he even came home at night. In a way, Johnny liked it.

They’d been there about a week when Johnny came home one night to hear a man inside with his mama. He knew the rules; he waited outside. This man was loud, though, and angry. Johnny heard his own name repeated. His mama started to scream, and Johnny burst into the room just in time to see her on the floor, the man kicking her brutally. She yelled for Johnny to run away, but the man kept kicking her while Johnny tried to pull him off. He turned toward Johnny, but Johnny had grabbed the gun from the man’s holster and now aimed it right at him, cocking the hammer just as he had seen men do. He lunged at Johnny, and Johnny fired the gun. The man tumbled upon him, baptizing Johnny in his warm blood, one dead eye staring right into Johnny’s. Johnny had to struggle to extricate himself; by the time he crawled to his mama he heard her take her last rasping breath. He begged her to wake, pulling on her arm to get her up, but she was limp, and all he succeeded in doing was stripping the bracelet from her wrist. He knew she was dead, but there was no time to say goodbye. He heard shouts and footsteps approaching; he knew he might be arrested, would at best be sent back to Ignacio, so he clenched her bracelet in his fist and ran into the darkness.

That was the night Johnny changed his name. He never wanted to forget the place his mama would sleep for eternity, the place where he had ceased to be a boy and killed his first man. Now Johnny fingered the bracelet on his wrist and looked up at the same faded sign he had seen as he ran from town that awful night, its now barely discernable letters welcoming visitors to Nuevo Madrid.

 

Chapter 58

“Johnny, who’s buried here?” Scott’s question broke into his reverie. Johnny hadn’t even heard him walk up leading his horse. Johnny wasn’t sure how long he’d been standing here, but he suspected it had been a pretty long time for Scott to have finally approached. It had not escaped his notice that Scott had initially hung back as though giving him some privacy.

“My mother,” Johnny replied softly.

“I’m sorry,” Scott replied. He paused and Johnny noticed he appeared to be thinking. “We could have her moved to Lancer, Johnny.”

Johnny couldn’t keep the irritation sounding in his voice. “She spent her life getting away from Lancer, Scott. I sure as hell wouldn’t send her back now even if I knew which one she was.”  He turned to Barranca, mounted, and began picking his way back toward the road.

***

Stopping at the graveyard seemed to have mellowed Johnny. He was no longer being so abrupt with Scott, and although he wasn’t exactly brimming over with talk, he wasn’t avoiding it either. He’d even told Scott the story behind why he couldn’t show his face in one of the towns they were skirting. After hearing it, Scott suggested maybe they should take a wider berth and ride a little faster. This had actually brought a smile to Johnny’s face, but Scott noticed he did pick up the pace.

They camped out again that night. Something about a campfire always made words flow more freely. That, and a bottle of whiskey like the one Scott had brought from Lancer, the one that was now considerably depleted. As Scott looked over at Johnny, his face half illuminated by the flickering glow of the fire, he once again saw the openness that had been there on their ride back from Panacea. Johnny was laughing, recounting a tale of how he’d been run out of another nearby town, a story that somehow involved tequila, dynamite, and a rattlesnake. Scott was never clear on the exact relationship or whether Johnny was pulling his leg; he didn’t care; he was just glad Johnny was laughing and sharing something of his past with him.

Scott in turn shared how he’d been run out of a young lady’s bedroom one night, a story that involved an irate father home earlier than expected, a loose trellis, and a dog bite that left him unable to sit for a week. This story had Johnny rolling with hysterics. Scott was glad his misfortune was brightening somebody’s day.

The brothers traded a lot more swigs from the bottle and a few more stories from their pasts, each tale seemingly a little less based in reality than the last, before they lapsed into silence, Johnny leaning back on his saddle and looking to the sky, Scott sitting up and watching the flames send sparks toward the stars. The night was silent except for the gentle crackling of the fire.

Scott still had to know. Johnny had managed to sidestep his questions about Miguel back there in that line shack, but Scott needed to know the truth before they rode into San Blas and confronted him. The whisky urged him to go ahead and ask.

“Hey, Johnny, how come you never killed Miguel yourself?” he asked, finally blurting out the question he’d wondered about since learning who Miguel really was.

Johnny whipped around to stare somewhat unsteadily at Scott. “Why would I want to do that?”

“Isn’t he the one who, um, you know?” Scott asked, pausing to take another gulp from the bottle. “Just seems like you might have had it out with him.”

“No need to.” Johnny sat up, suddenly more serious, although still swaying slightly.

Scott tapped Johnny’s arm with the bottle, reminding him it was his turn. “Murdoch seems to think there’s a need to. So do I.”

“Why?” asked Johnny, taking the bottle but not drinking from it. Instead he picked up a twig in his other hand and threw it into the fire. “He never did anything to you.”

“Are you kidding? He hurt my little brother.” Scott flung his arm around Johnny and tried to pull him close before giving up and giving him an affectionate shove. “That’s doing something to me.”

Johnny recovered from Scott’s manhandling, and studied the amber liquid still sloshing about in the bottle. Finally he took a swallow, then hung his head between his knees and spoke. “I wasn’t lying to you before, Scott. Miguel, well, I guess he was the closest thing I ever had to a papa.” He looked up at Scott, clearly expecting some kind of reaction.

He got it. Scott lifted his brow, then shook his head violently. “I don’t think I heard you right, brother.”

“You did,” answered Johnny, taking a long drink and handing Scott the bottle.

Scott took a swig, then set the bottle down hard in the sand, still holding its neck. “I don’t get it. How can you say that after what he did?”

“He only did what he had to do,” answered Johnny, glancing at Scott, then back at a stick he was dissecting.

Scott thought the whisky was affecting his hearing. “What he had to?”

“Whatcha think, Scott? He could just take on a kid couldn’t pay his own way?” He gestured for the bottle, but Scott didn’t notice.

“Yeah,” said Scott, pulling himself up to sit straight, trying to look either sober or smart, he wasn’t picky at the moment, “that’s exactly what I think. If he was really like a father. Fathers protect their children, they don’t use them.”

“Like Murdoch?” asked Johnny, flinging his stick into the fire. “What do you call using me to get Pardee, then washing his hands of me?”

“Oh yeah, clearly birds of a feather!” Scott couldn’t keep the sarcasm from his voice, didn’t really try.

Johnny glared at him. “Miguel never sent me to prison, never took his name back. What do you think goes on in prison, Scott? Everybody sits around at a fucking quilting bee? If you don’t want to be butt fucked you better be ready to do some killing, and you better be damned good at it. And if your name is Johnny Madrid, you better be ready to have the guards take bets on how much you can take before you lose it. That’s how my so-called father protected me!”

Scott was quiet. He knew Johnny harbored resentment against Murdoch, but he hadn’t realized the depths of it. He remembered his visits to Johnny in prison, and how Johnny had gradually seemed to be withdrawing more and more at every visit. He had always avoided thinking about just what went on behind those walls, although his experience at Libby had given him an idea.

“Johnny, I’m sorry, I really, really am. And I know this whole thing is eating Murdoch up inside. He’s desperate to make it up to you. That’s one reason he’s going to San Blas. He can’t change want happened with Byron and Clarissa, but he can at least punish Miguel for what he did to you.”

“So how the hell does he plan to punish himself, Scott? Send himself to prison? Is that why he’s going to kill Miguel, so he can go to prison and get what he deserves? After all, nobody’s above the fucking law! Didn’t he say that?”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Murdoch made a big mistake, a really big mistake, but it was an honest one! He wants you back, so you can claim your third of Lancer like you deserve! This Miguel of yours, this so-called wonderful papa of yours, he deserves to die and you know it. What the hell did he ever do for you?”

“Go back to Lancer? You forgetting that lynch mob already? Decent folk don't take to having perverts hanging around, no matter how much clout their old man has.” Johnny threw a fistful of sand into the fire. “Shit, I know Miguel wasn’t wonderful. But you know what?  Miguel didn’t fuck me over and then tell me he loved me. He didn’t throw me out when he was through with me. He didn't give me the life I always dreamed of and then snatch it back from me.  He protected me, and that’s a hell of a lot more than I can say for the old man.”

“Oh yes, Miguel the protector! Please, please, I want to hear all about how this paragon of fatherhood protected you!”

“Fuck you, Scott.”

“Go on, tell me what he did to protect you! Who are you protecting? Miguel? You? Me? Because believe me, Johnny, there’s nothing you could tell me that would shock me.” He waited for Johnny to respond, then reached to put one hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Give me some credit, dammit! I’m on your side!”

“I gave you credit once, you backed me up all the way to prison!” Johnny lunged to his feet, displacing Scott’s hand. He started pacing unsteadily.  “Dammit! You want to know? You really want to know what some of them bastards do?” Johnny walked over to Barranca and started stroking his neck furiously. “They hurt you. They hurt you just so they can hear you scream, cuz that’s what they like. So you beat ‘em at their own game, you scream before it really hurts, make ‘em happy so they stop.  Only some of them don’t stop. So sometimes you scream for real. Miguel, he was always outside, when he heard that, he was there, pulling the guy off, maybe even beating the crap out of him. He stuck up for me. Nobody ever did that before. And when I did get hurt, he took care of me. Even let me sleep in his room. Maybe that don’t mean shit to you, but it meant a lot to me. So yeah, he protected me, and he took care of me. More than the old man ever did.”

Scott felt suddenly, sickeningly, sober. Unlike his assertion, what Johnny had told him did manage to shock him. He wanted to put his arms around his brother, to hold him and somehow make it all go away. He wanted to kill Miguel. The thought of a child---of Johnny---not just being used, but being purposefully hurt, made him furious. No, it wasn’t just that. It was the screwed up logic Johnny still used to justify a belief that Miguel had somehow cared for him.

 

Chapter 59

Scott’s mouth felt like it’d been sucked inside out and was tugging on his gut. He opened his eyes. No better, except the fear they might explode did distract him a bit from his nausea. He dutifully stoked the fire and stumbled up to take care of his morning routine. Maybe kill himself. Johnny was still asleep, so Scott managed to stumble over his foot as he walked by. “Wake up!” he crowed in a falsely chipper voice he knew would annoy Johnny if he felt half as bad as he did.

When he returned, Johnny had managed to get the coffee going. Scott took some satisfaction in noting that Johnny looked as bad as Scott felt. Johnny walked away silently to tend to his business. When he got back, Scott had poured two cups of coffee. They both sat and nursed their coffee, neither speaking. Scott wondered if Johnny was upset about how the conversation had turned last night. He knew he must be uncomfortable; Scott sure was, but nonetheless he was glad Johnny had finally told him something, no matter how disturbing. He guessed the hangover was worth it. Maybe.

Neither of them suggested breakfast. All they had was jerky, anyway. Johnny finally got up and kicked sand in the fire. “Better get going if we want to make San Blas tonight.”

Scott packed the coffee pot and the two set to readying their horses. As they saddled them in silence Scott wondered again if he should address what they had spoken about last night. He decided against it. They mounted up and began the day’s ride.

The ride was quiet, but it was hard to know whether that was because they both felt awkward or both felt like crap. The desolate landscape urged them to continue without stopping mile after mile, hour after hour. They made good time, entered into a little small talk, but overall each brother spent the day in silence.

As they approached San Blas, Johnny once again began to skirt the town, saying he knew of a place to camp. Scott had had enough of this. How would they find Murdoch by staying out of town? Johnny had already admitted he had never been run out of San Blas and nobody there was gunning for him. Scott pointed this out to Johnny, adding that they had had nothing but jerky to eat all day, and there was nothing else in their saddlebags. Unless they wanted to go hunting they were going to be very hungry, and in this landscape about the best they could hope for was roasted rattler. They were covered with so much sweat and dust that Scott was pretty sure he would trade his third of Lancer for a soak in a bath.

Johnny stopped and just sat for a long time. Finally he sighed and gave Scott a clipped “Fine.” They headed toward San Blas as the sun set behind them.

Johnny pulled his hat low over his face as they walked their horses slowly down the main street. It wasn’t necessary; they were scarcely noticed among the raucous street life that was just getting ready for another anonymous night. A thin boy scurried to the side of Johnny’s horse, looking up with outspread hands. Johnny reached into his pocket, leaned over and gave him a handful of coins. The boy’s face glowed as he turned and ran toward a trash-cluttered alleyway, dodging a drunk’s ill-aimed kick. Scott called to the boy, planning to add some coins, but he had already disappeared into the alley’s gloom.

They both dismounted in front of the livery.  Scott waited for Johnny to make the arrangements with the stable man, but he seemed preoccupied tending to Barranca. Fortunately the man called out in English, so Scott went ahead and arranged for their horses’ care.  Scott declined the man’s offer to hook them up with a prostitute for the night.  He couldn’t imagine anything less appropriate under the circumstances.

The same thing happened in the hotel. Johnny was suddenly too busy fishing around in his saddlebags to register. Again, Scott stepped up and found the man spoke English, so he made the arrangements for a room and a bath. He also asked if Murdoch was registered, but he was not. That was strange, but they could have passed him on the way since they had pushed it and avoided most of the towns. Scott left a note for him for when he arrived.

The brothers headed up the creaking stairs to their room. Scott avoided touching the banister, which appeared to have acquired a peculiar coating of something black and spongy. He brushed against the wall, unleashing a flurry of peeled paint. The door was stuck, but Johnny cajoled the knob and slammed his hip against it until it finally gave in.

Once in their room, Scott settled cautiously on the bed, making sure it wouldn’t collapse under his weight. Johnny paced from the door to the window and back distractedly.  Scott stared at the ceiling for a while, listening to every clop and jingle of Johnny’s steps. Finally he raised his head and said, “Johnny, if you’re going to pace at least take your spurs off. Better yet, take your boots off. You’re driving me crazy. Why don’t you lie down, aren’t you tired?”

Johnny plopped into a chair, drumming his fingers on the table.  Scott often marveled at Johnny’s energy level, but right now it was just plain annoying. His pounding head had taken all day to recover; he didn’t need this. “Johnny, relax. Murdoch’s not even here yet.” A rap on the door had Scott and Johnny both on their feet, Johnny with gun drawn, before the voice on the other side said he was there with the tub.

Johnny walked quickly to the window, leaving Scott to direct the filling of the tub by a squad of young boys carrying buckets of water. Scott tipped them generously as they left, then undressed and eased into the tub with a sigh, leaning back and closing his eyes. Maybe this dump wasn’t so bad after all.

***

Johnny had assumed he would never have to visit this torture chamber again---not that he didn’t visit it regularly in his nightmares. Nor did it matter which room of the hotel he was in; he knew them all.

But now he was here, and there was that damned tub just to taunt him. The tub from the night that started it all, the tub that countless others had found too many uses for.

He sat in the chair that held bad memories, next to the table that held even more. He looked around the room; it hadn’t changed one bit. And he couldn’t find one square inch that he wasn’t intimately acquainted with. He didn’t think he’d be sleeping much in that bed tonight.

He’d thought of insisting they camp out, but he hadn’t been able to tell Scott why, and all of Scott’s reasons to the contrary made too much sense. Johnny knew it would have been selfish of him to demand they camp just because of his own problems with the room.

Just hold it together, it’s all gone and past. You’re Johnny Madrid, and you got your gun. Just suck it up, Johnny-Boy, suck it up.

***

Murdoch’s trip to San Blas had gone poorly, mostly because his horse had thrown a shoe on rough shale miles from the closest town. It took him hours to walk him there, and then he had to wait until the next morning to get him shod. So he was well behind schedule when he rode into San Blas as dusk turned into night. He took in the well-lit fine homes clustered in one part of the town, and the dark shacks and hovels that made up another part of the town. It looked like the sort of place that embraced the concept of haves and have-nots. He suspected he knew which one Johnny had been.

He went to the livery, pleased to find the stable man fluent in English and eager to be of service. Knowing the man’s helpfulness stemmed from the coins Murdoch carried, Murdoch pulled out a handful, figuring this was as good a place as any to start his search for Miguel.

“I’m looking for Miguel Ramon,” Murdoch told the man as he handed him his horse.

“Senor Ramon, yes, he can be found.” He looked at Murdoch expectantly.

Murdoch handed him a couple of coins, asking “Where?”

“It is better if he finds you. You are at the hotel?”

Since there was only one place to stay in town, this seemed a fair assumption. Murdoch nodded yes. “I plan to.”

“Shall I tell him you are seeking, uh, company, senor? Una senorita muy bonita?” he added, smiling conspiratorially.

Murdoch was taken off guard, but he quickly figured this might be the best inroad. “Ah, yes, I suppose.”  Still, what was he going to do with a senorita muy bonita in his room? He’d have to bed her or she might tell Miguel, and wouldn’t that seem suspicious? Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Murdoch was still considering if he should change his response when he realized the stable man was looking at him questioningly.

Perhaps he sensed Murdoch’s hesitation. Perhaps this was a standard follow-up. Regardless, Murdoch was stunned by the man’s next question. “Or maybe, un chico bonito?”

Murdoch was horrified. Yet, this was pretty much proof this was the Miguel he was hunting. A boy might be able to provide him with information. It made him sick to force out his answer. “Yes, a boy, por favor.”

 

Chapter 60

Scott was awakened by the chilling water. He figured he had been soaking for almost a half hour. He looked around and saw Johnny still seated in the chair, head bowed and arms crossed. At first Scott thought he was asleep, but then Scott noticed he was practically clutching himself, sliding his arms up and down, something Scott had seen him do only when he was very upset. That was curious.

“Hey Johnny? Anything wrong?”

Johnny raised his head with a start and placed his hands on the table as though he’d been caught in some illicit act. “No, no. Everything’s fine.”

Scott was pulling himself up in the tub, the water sluicing off his bare body as he reached for the towel. He started drying himself before stepping out. “You want to go eat or you want to get a bath first? Then we can look for Murdoch just in case he’s somewhere else. Maybe go back and ask at the livery.”

“Yeah, OK, let’s eat,” Johnny said, standing.

“Think they have any place that serves food that won’t eat a hole through my gut?” Scott finished pulling his pants on and started on his shirt, wishing he had brought an extra.

“Nope,” replied Johnny with a grin as he reached for his hat.

Scott figured the grin did not bode well for his internal organs. Maybe rattlesnake would have been a better option after all, he thought as he pulled on his boots. He gathered his courage and his hat, and reached for the knob. “You ready then?”

Scott turned the knob, but it was stuck. He pulled and jerked, but the door didn’t budge. Johnny nudged him out of the way, saying “Here, you gotta jiggle then lift and pull at the same time” as he did just that, the door opening under his touch.

Scott stared at the door for a moment. How did Johnny know that? He acted as though he were well familiar with this door. Scott looked at Johnny. He suddenly suspected he understood the cause of Johnny’s earlier mood.

“Hey, Johnny, if you still want to camp, we can. This place is kind of a dump.” Truth was, Scott had lost his taste for staying in the room, himself.

***

Murdoch had given the stable man a fake name, registering under it as well. He couldn’t stand the idea of dragging the Lancer name through the mud by having it associated with Miguel’s disgusting business. Besides, he couldn’t be sure that Maria had never mentioned him to Miguel.

The stable man had said Miguel would be at least an hour getting there. Murdoch had gone up to his room to rest briefly. Then he returned to the livery to get his horse, saying he just wanted to ride around town a little. Just in case something happened he wanted the horse saddled and ready outside the hotel. Finally he went back up to his room to wait for the dreaded knock on the door.

He jumped when it finally came. Checking his gun, he cautiously opened the door. In the hallway stood a wiry Mexican somewhat younger than himself, with mostly black hair and a thin moustache. He stood with both hands on the shoulders of a small Mexican boy, who Murdoch guessed was about nine years old. The boy stood staring at the ground.

“Senor Ramon?” asked Murdoch, hoping to verify the man’s identity.

The man did not reply, but merely stated the price for the boy.

Murdoch dug in his pocket and handed over the money.  Miguel then pushed the boy into the room, gesturing that Murdoch was to come into the hall.

Miguel pulled up one of the wooden chairs that was in the hallway. “I will be taking a siesta out here, if he gives you any problems. Put him out the door when you finish. I warn you now, if you harm him you will pay for his lost work, one way or the other.”

Murdoch walked back into his room, trembling with fury. It had taken every ounce of his self-control not to just blow the man’s brains out right there in the hall; however, he knew such a rash act would land him in a Mexican prison. He needed to either find Miguel alone in some remote place, or goad him into drawing on him first. Since he wasn’t a gunfighter, he decided the first option was better.

Only now he had a complication. He needed to save this child. He couldn’t help but see Johnny in the young boy, and wish that somebody had saved him. He wouldn’t let this boy down the way so many had let Johnny down.

He turned away from the door to see the boy backed between the bed and the wall, hugging himself and eyeing Murdoch like a cornered animal.

“Do you speak English?” Murdoch asked the child.

The boy nodded warily.

“Can you tell me your name?”

“Emilio,” he said defiantly.

“Well, Emilio, I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not even going to touch you.”

The boy didn’t respond, but continued to hug himself, now looking down.  Murdoch’s heart ached for him—and for the vision he had of Johnny. How many times had he seen Johnny look just like that when Murdoch had been chewing him out for something? For some reason it had always made Murdoch even angrier at him, as though Johnny were purposefully ignoring him. Never again. That is, if he ever even had the chance to be in a room with Johnny again.

“Can you come and sit here?” Murdoch motioned to the chair. The boy trudged to it and sat down resignedly, still hugging himself.

“I just want to talk.” Murdoch kept his voice low, just in case Miguel was listening in. “Can you talk to me?”

The boy finally spoke without looking up. “You want me to talk dirty?”

Murdoch wondered if this was where Johnny’s rich vocabulary had originated. He shook his head, concentrating on the boy in front of him. “No, son, I just want to talk with you. Nothing dirty. I want to ask you some questions.”

The boy looked up, distrust still apparent in his eyes.

“The man who brought you, is he Miguel Ramon?”

He nodded.

“How long have you, uh, worked for him?”

“I live with him a month now,” the boy said quietly, tears welling in his eyes, “since my mama died. He says now I have to start earning my keep.”

“Don’t worry,” Murdoch said, placing his hand on the boy’s knee. The boy cringed, and Murdoch immediately withdrew his hand, realizing his mistake. “You’re not going to have to do this ever again. How would you like to live on a big ranch where you can ride horses and go to school?” Murdoch looked at the child’s gaunt frame and recalled Johnny’s weakness for food. “And all the food you want to eat!”

Emilio’s eyes widened as though he’d been offered the keys to heaven. Then he looked back down and murmured, “Miguel wouldn’t let me.”

“Don’t worry. I’m going to take you away where Miguel can’t ever reach you.”

“Take me?” The boy looked alarmed.

“Only if you want,” said Murdoch in his most comforting tone, knowing full well he planned to take the boy whether he understood what was good for him or not. It would certainly be much easier if the boy agreed, however.

“No! You just want me for yourself!”

“No, Emilio, I just want you to be safe and happy. Nobody should be forced to do what Miguel is making you do.”

Emilio looked suspicious, finally asking, “Why do you care?”

Murdoch found it difficult to answer, but knew he had to. “Because I had a little boy once, who was taken away from me. I looked and looked for him, but I didn’t know he lived with Miguel. Miguel made him do things he didn’t want to do. I wish I could have rescued him, but I couldn’t. I’d like to rescue you, Emilio.”

“What happened to your little boy?”

“He got away, and now he’s living at that ranch I told you about.”  Murdoch knew he was stretching the truth here, but the real truth was too complicated.

Emilio bit his lip, contemplating this information.

“Would you like to go to that ranch with me, Emilio?”

Emilio swung his legs back and forth, then without looking up nodded and said, “OK.”

“Good boy!” Murdoch patted him on the leg, causing Emilio to look at him in alarm. Murdoch removed his hand. This was going to take some getting used to.

“Is Miguel really outside the door?”

Emilio nodded.

“Does he have a gun?” Murdoch did not recall seeing one on him, but you never knew.

Emilio shook his head no.

“Can you meet me in an hour in back of the hotel? I’ll have my horse waiting.”

“Si,” Emilio nodded.

Murdoch opened the door. As promised, Miguel was snoozing in the chair outside. He raised his head when he heard Murdoch.

“Ah, senor, he was good, no?”

Before Murdoch could answer Emilio ran to Miguel, saying “Miguel! He is planning to steal me!”

Murdoch drew his gun, leveling it at Miguel before Miguel could do anything but start for Murdoch.

“You filthy bastard, you’re lucky I’m not going to kill you right here,” said Murdoch. “Now get in the room. And yeah, I’m taking the boy, but to save him from you!” Murdoch had brought some rope up with him, just in case. He reached over to the dresser to get it and indicated for Miguel to walk over to the bed. Good thing he had learned how to tie people up from an expert, Murdoch mused.

“Get on the bed,” he ordered.

Miguel looked at him loathingly but complied.

Murdoch threw him a section of rope. “Now reach down and tie your feet to the bottom rail,” he gestured.

Miguel took the rope and bent down, his hands near his ankles, when he suddenly snatched a knife from inside his boot and lunged at Murdoch. Murdoch flung himself on Miguel, not wanting to shoot him inside the hotel, and the two grappled over the knife, Murdoch’s gun clattering to the floor in the process.

“No, stop!” Emilio cried, pummeling on Murdoch’s back.

“Emilio, get Jose and Raul!” gasped Miguel, pushing against Murdoch’s arms as Murdoch tried to take the knife. Emilio ran from the room, calling for Jose and Raul as he raced down the hall.

“Emilio, come back!” yelled Murdoch.

 

Chapter 61

Johnny had just shoved the door open when he and Scott heard a ruckus down the hallway. Moments later a boy came tearing toward them calling out frantically in Spanish to some Jose and Raul for help.

Both Scott and Johnny scrambled into the hall, Scott reaching out to snag the boy, holding him tight, recognizing him as the boy from the street, just as they heard the unmistakable bellow coming from the room the boy had fled. “Murdoch!” exclaimed Scott and Johnny together, Johnny bolting down the hall toward the open room door, Scott still trying to secure his grip on the flailing boy.

Johnny grabbed the door jamb as he reached the doorway, nearly tripping in his haste to turn. He had heard the scuffle from the hallway, even over the persistent screams of the boy, and now he could see Murdoch and Miguel wrestle each other to the ground, the two grappling until Murdoch was ultimately straddling Miguel, his hands squeezing tight until Miguel’s breaths came in shallow gasps.

Johnny rushed into the room yelling, “No! Stop!”  He could see Miguel’s face turning an alarming violet, his hands pummeling futilely on Murdoch’s sides. “Stop it, Murdoch, you’ll kill him!” Johnny reached them, grabbing Murdoch by both shoulders and trying to wrench him off Miguel.

Murdoch, his face contorted with rage, looked momentarily surprised at seeing Johnny, then shouted out, “You bet I will! I’ll kill the bastard for you!”

“No, let him go!” Johnny pulled harder, trying to loosen Murdoch’s enraged grip.

Johnny tore at Murdoch’s hands, grabbing his fingers and using all his strength to pull them hard enough to pry one hand from Miguel’s neck, then Johnny threw his weight against Murdoch to roll him off to one side. “Johnny! Why? What are you doing?” Murdoch asked, his tone a mixture of disgust and incredulity as he lurched unsteadily to his feet, ready to go at Miguel again.

Johnny grabbed Murdoch by the collar and pushed him against the wall with both hands, trying to catch his breath. “Just leave him alone, that’s all,” he answered. “Go back to Lancer!”

Miguel had rolled over to his belly and was slowly pushing himself to his knees, gasping for air. Murdoch gestured to him, “Isn’t this the bastard who made you do those things?”

“This is the man who took care of me! More than you ever did!” Johnny emphasized his statement with a final shove, then let loose of Murdoch and turned to face Miguel.

Miguel climbed slowly to his feet, rubbing his neck and eying Johnny curiously. “Juanito?” he asked cautiously. “Is it really you, mi hijo?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” replied Johnny.

Murdoch lunged at Miguel again, yelling “He is not your son!” but Johnny wheeled and grabbed him, pushing him backward and pinning him to the wall again.

“Juanito, after all these years! I knew you would come back!” Miguel was smiling broadly, though still panting. He gestured to Murdoch. “Do you know this gringo?”

Before Johnny could answer, Murdoch interjected, “I’m his father! Murdoch Lancer. And his name is Johnny, Johnny Lancer, not Juanito!”

Miguel raised his eyebrow and studied Murdoch, but his scrutiny was interrupted as Scott burst into the room, Emilio in tow. Emilio ran to Miguel, hiding behind him, pointing at Murdoch and whispering “He was going to steal me for himself!”

Miguel reached behind him to place one hand comfortingly on Emilio’s head, still rubbing his own neck with the other. He addressed Murdoch, disgust evident in his tone. “Lancer, you paid to use my chico, not to own him! No wonder Maria said you were a sick son of a bitch.”

Johnny stared at Murdoch, suddenly unable to take a breath, suddenly unable to bear to touch him. Murdoch had been in here using the boy. Murdoch, who was always touting his moral standards. Still, Johnny knew firsthand that appearances could be deceiving. How many times had the same upstanding citizen who had used him on a Saturday night proudly driven his family right past Johnny begging in the street the next morning as they headed to mass? Maybe Johnny’s life wouldn’t have been all that different had he grown up at Lancer, after all.

“Johnny, this is not what you’re thinking!” said Murdoch, meeting Johnny’s gaze and shaking his head slowly.

Johnny turned away, clenching his fists, too sickened to even look at the man he had once thought of as his father. Scott was saying something, and Johnny forced his attention back to the situation at hand. Scott was asking him if this was Miguel. Before he could reply, Miguel answered by asking who wanted to know.

“This is my brother, Scott,” Johnny interrupted. To Scott he said, “Yeah, this is Miguel.” He stared at Scott, daring him to comment.

Scott didn’t have a chance. Two large Mexicans hustled into the doorway, one leveling a gun at Scott, the other brandishing a whip.

“Jose! Raul!” cried out Miguel amiably, gesturing with one hand to Johnny while still resting his other on Emilio. “Remember my boy, Juanito?”

Johnny hoped they didn’t, but figured they probably did since he remembered them. They were part of Miguel’s card playing crew, the ones perpetually playing poker outside of Miguel’s room, the ones occasionally ambling in behind Miguel when Miguel had to rescue Johnny. They had seen him at his worst: naked, hurt, and humiliated. The leer on Raul’s face indicated he remembered Juanito all too well.

Miguel strode over and threw his arm around Johnny’s shoulder, pulling him close. “You know he changed his name, no? Our Juanito is now the famous Johnny Madrid! My boy, he make me proud, no?”

Miguel had never told Johnny he’d done anything to make him proud, and some small part of him beamed inwardly at his praise. Still, Johnny didn’t want to be here. He had stayed away from San Blas and from Miguel all these years for a reason. He was here now only to save Miguel and send Murdoch back to Lancer, not for a social visit with people who knew too much about him for him to ever be comfortable around.

“Yeah, well, it was nice seeing you again, Miguel. But truth is, we’re just passing through, so we’ll all be headin out now.” Johnny took a step, but Raul cocked the hammer on the gun now aimed at him. “Miguel, tell Raul here to put his gun down, OK?”

Miguel reached down and picked up Murdoch’s gun from the floor. “You know me, Juanito, I am a man of peace. If you and your, eh, brother, will kindly give up your guns we can make sure we all stay peaceful.” He nodded to Jose, who took Johnny’s and Scott’s guns while Raul kept his gun trained on them.

“Miguel, we weren’t planning on staying. Give us our guns and we’ll be on our way.”

Miguel stuffed Murdoch’s gun in his waistband as he answered. “Juanito, you know I cannot do that. Lancer here, he tried to steal from me. Now I know you would not wish to leave before he pays. Not after what he did to you and your mama.” He motioned to Jose for the whip.

Johnny had seen what Miguel had done to men he’d caught stealing. Johnny himself had felt the sting of the whip when Miguel had caught him taking fruit from him. It wasn’t pretty.

“Johnny, do something!” Scott said to him adamantly.

Johnny wasn’t all that sure he wanted to do something. Not after learning what he just had about Murdoch. Still, Scott expected him to, so he gave it a try. “Hand him over to me,” he said to Miguel. “I’ll make sure he never comes back.”

“Where would be the fun in that, Juanito?” laughed Miguel. “You always said you were going to kill Lancer! Is that it? You want him for yourself?” Miguel shoved the whip into Johnny’s hands, saying “Here, Juanito, make the bastard who threw you and your mama out pay!”

Johnny took the whip and squeezed its leather binding so hard his nails bit into it. He took a deep breath, envisioning what he would do with it. He’d punish Murdoch for every man that had used Johnny like he had just used this boy. He would make Murdoch sorry, sorry for the past year, sorry for hating him like he knew he did. He tapped the whip on his other hand, savoring the welts that would rise from Murdoch’s flesh, the cries that would push past his lips. Johnny would take his revenge for teasing him with a dream, then ripping it away, just as he had done to his mama. Murdoch would finally see how much more Johnny thought of Miguel than he did of Murdoch. He would finally understand just how much Johnny hated him and his ilk.

 

Chapter 62

He tapped the butt of the whip in his palm, relishing the power it gave him over his so-called father, warming to the promise of quelling the smoldering in his gut, picturing the stinging tendrils lap at Murdoch’s flesh until he begged Johnny’s forgiveness. He knew that wasn’t how it would be, though. He’d seen men whipped before, had been whipped himself. There was nothing romantic about it, nothing satisfying. It wouldn’t change the past and it wouldn’t change Murdoch. Still, he caressed the whip in his hands, reluctant to let the fantasy go quite yet.

Miguel stood beside him grinning like an expectant father.

“Johnny,” Scott said in a concerned tone, clearly fearing what Johnny would do.

Johnny ignored him. Fingering the whip, he turned to Miguel, saying, “There’s a better way.  Lancer here, well, he’s got a lot of money. I bet he could make it worth your while to let him go.”

Miguel stood silently for a moment as he cocked his head, eying first Murdoch, then Johnny, a smile slowly cracking open his face. “Juanito! Always my clever boy!”  He swaggered over to stand in front of Murdoch, rubbing his hands on his pants repeatedly. “What do you think a child stealer is worth, Juanito? At least a thousand dollars worth of visits, I’d say. That seems a fair price for Lancer’s freedom, no?”

“A thousand dollars!” Murdoch sputtered. “Even if I could lay my hands on that much money, I couldn’t get hold of it here. I’d have to go back to Lancer for it.”

“No, no, no, not a thousand dollars,” said Miguel. “Two thousand. That is, if you want both of you to go free.” He looked from Murdoch to Scott, then to Jose. “Tie these two up.”

“We can’t get two thousand dollars just like that!” protested Murdoch, jerking his hands from Jose as he tried to tie him. “It’s not possible. Tell him, Johnny!”

Johnny had never really been privy to the Lancer finances in the short time he had spent there, so he wasn’t sure if Murdoch was bluffing. Regardless, he knew it would be impossible to wire that kind of money directly here.

Johnny regarded Raul’s gun, still aimed at Scott. “Miguel, my brother was with me, not with Murdoch. He didn’t have anything to do with the boy. Let him go with me. And tell Raul to put down his gun. He looks like he has a twitchy finger.”

Miguel said nothing, pacing to the other side of the room and then back to face Johnny, studying him before speaking. “I don’t know what to think of you, Juanito,” he said, his hands on his hips and his tone now serious. “What are you really doing here? Right when Lancer is here stealing my boy?”

Miguel’s accusation reminded Johnny of another time, another accusation, that he couldn’t quite place. He turned toward the door. “Think what you like.”

“No!” commanded Miguel, reaching out to place his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Juanito, I should not have doubted you,” he continued more amiably. “Actually, I was hoping we could work a business arrangement, father and son like, no? You do something for me, I do something for you.”

Johnny’s protests were interrupted by another of Miguel’s men appearing at the doorway and beckoning to Miguel. Miguel stepped to the door to confer with him quietly, then called to Emilio to go with him. Emilio responded with dragging steps.

“Ramon!” called out Murdoch in alarm, straining at his ties. “Where are you taking Emilio?”

Johnny could see Miguel laughing with a man in the hallway, then opening the door across the hall and prodding Emilio inside. Johnny was breathing heavily now. How many times had he stood in that same room, dreading what was in store for him this time? The man handed some coins to Miguel, then walked inside and closed the door.

“Miguel!” Johnny called. “Tell me what you want me to do, I’ll do it. In exchange for getting the boy out of there, and keeping him out.”

Miguel walked back into the room, leaning back on the table and tapping his foot before answering. “I was thinking more in line of trading for your brother.”

“No, I’m OK, Johnny, get the boy out,” said Scott.

Miguel stared at the ceiling, still tapping his foot, then suddenly stood and strode over to Johnny, slapping him on the back. “OK, the boy. In return, you kill somebody.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he asked, “Who?”

“Does it matter?”

Johnny looked at the closed door, recognizing the clatter of a falling chair behind it. He knew the drama that was starting within. “OK, I’ll do it. But you get the boy out right now. And no more jobs for him.”

“Sure, Juanito, sure.” Miguel turned to Jose, and motioned for him to take care of it. “Now, Johnny Madrid, are you ready to go to work?”

No, he wasn’t. This was one of the many things he had been glad to leave behind when he gave up hiring out. “Who is it needs killing?”

“I believe you may remember him. Name of Nunez. Ignacio Nunez.”

Hell, thought Johnny, I’d have killed that bastard for free.

 

Chapter 63

Murdoch leaned forward in his chair, the creaking slats punctuating his urgently whispered admonishment. “No, Johnny! You can’t just kill a man.”

Johnny leaned against the wall and regarded Murdoch contemptuously. “Oh yeah? What the hell you doin down here? Enjoyin the scenery? Cuz last I heard you was comin to kill somebody!”

“Johnny, you know that’s different!” replied Murdoch, irritation creeping into his voice.

“That so?” Johnny suddenly stood up straight, scrutinizing Murdoch.  “Maybe you are tellin the truth. Maybe you didn’t come down here to kill somebody. Maybe you come to get a boy of your own! That why you was so keen to figure out who whored me? So you could come get some yourself?”

“Don’t you dare talk like that!”

“Johnny, Murdoch, stop it, both of you!” broke in Scott. “I’m sure Murdoch has an explanation. But Johnny, he’s right. You can’t kill an innocent man, I don’t care what the reason.”

Johnny shrugged. “Maybe I feel like killin him.”

“Johnny, no, you can’t go back to that way of thinking,” said Scott quietly. “Don’t do it, brother.”

The sounds of laughter wafted up from the street below. Johnny wandered to window and looked out, idly watching a pair of women head into the cantina, dressed for work. He turned back to Miguel. “So why you want him dead?” Not that it made a difference. Still, he hoped he knew the reason, that it was payback for how Ignacio had treated Johnny.

“I sold him a horse, and the horse ran off. Now he wants another one. I told him it’s bullshit!” Miguel punctuated his comment by slamming his fist into the wall, sending the fragile plaster snowing. He watched the shards fall, then shrugged and shook his head. “So now I find out he aims to steal my horse!”

“Seems to me if the horse got away, that’s his problem.” Johnny leaned against the window sill, hiding his disappointment. He realized that Miguel had no way of knowing what Ignacio had done to him in Los Perros.

“Si! It is his problemo! But the man, there is no reason to him.” Miguel broke out into a wide grin, walking over to Johnny and draping his arm around his shoulder. “But what is this talk of business when my boy has come home? Tonight we celebrate!”

“I don’t know, Miguel. I’d need my gun.”

“No need for a gun when you are with me, Juanito, you know that. Everybody likes Miguel!” He winked and squeezed Johnny’s shoulder.

Johnny knew that was true. By controlling the whores and the cantina, Miguel controlled much of the flow of money and happiness in San Blas. Anyone who stood against Miguel would have too many satisfied customers and associates to contend with. Anyone who stood with him on his home turf was relatively safe. Still, Johnny needed his gun.

Johnny tapped his fingers, thinking. He knew from experience Miguel would have his way. Johnny could protest and be forced across the street, or he could go along and walk across. He felt the familiar touch of Miguel’s hand on his shoulder, coaxing him toward the door.

***

Scott watched in dismay as Johnny left with Miguel. He could not understand the hold Miguel seemed to have over his brother.

He tugged at his binds, feeling the rope chafe against his wrists as he tried to loosen it without attracting Raul’s attention. He was glad when the door opened again and Miguel reappeared, motioning to Raul to speak to him by the door. That gave Scott the opportunity to struggle less subtly. He noticed Murdoch wasn’t trying to loosen his binds, but was instead paying rapt attention to what Miguel was saying to Raul. They were speaking in Spanish, so Scott couldn’t catch the gist of it. It was only when he noticed Murdoch’s face turning red that his concentration turned from his binds to Miguel.

“What?” bellowed Murdoch suddenly, then yelling as loud as Scott had ever heard him, he called, “Johnny! Johnny!”

Raul ran over and slapped him hard in the face, almost knocking Murdoch from his chair. Murdoch caught himself and glared back defiantly, one cheek now crimson on red.

“That’s OK, Raul,” said Miguel, adding smugly to Murdoch, “He’s already gone.”

“What did he say?” Scott asked Murdoch.

Murdoch struggled at his binds, still glaring at Miguel. “If you hurt Johnny so help you God.”

“What do you mean, hurt him?” asked Scott. He turned to Miguel. “No, you can’t! God only knows why, but Johnny loves you!”

Miguel smirked and sauntered to the door, calling casually over his shoulder as he left the room, “That’s his problem. Always has been.”

“Murdoch, what did he say?”

Murdoch looked after Miguel’s retreating figure, speaking in almost a whisper. “He told Raul to move us to a storeroom in the cantina. That he doesn’t trust Johnny. And that once Johnny kills this Nunez, to kill him.”

 

Chapter 64

Johnny crossed the hard-packed street, followed by Jose and the other man that Jose interchangeably called “Paolo” or “cousin.” He wondered why Miguel had gone back to the room. The street was much as Johnny remembered it, alive with activity yet dead of hope.

Jose and Paolo guided Johnny down the alleyway beside the cantina, stepping wide to avoid a man busy puking, no doubt ready to get back inside for a refill. “Why we goin this way?” asked Johnny, Jose plowing into the back of him as Johnny stopped at the edge of the dark.

Jose gave him a push, saying, “Just figured you might want to use the back way, Juanito.”

He had a point. Johnny stepped forward, trying to give his eyes time to adjust, sliding his feet cautiously to avoid tripping on the broken bottles, splintered chairs, and other victims of past brawls. He could hear the tiny feet of rats scampering in front of him, and occasionally he caught a glimpse of one in the shaft of moonlight that forced its way through the murk. On the edge of his vision he thought he saw Paolo stoop to pick up something, then step quickly behind him. Johnny whirled in alarm, but before he could turn to face Paolo he was thrown forward to his knees by something slamming into the back of his head. He staggered to his knees, his mind numbly registering the click of a hammer being cocked. He swayed on his hands and knees, gasping, trying to prepare for an assault.

It came quickly, with a vicious kick to his side that knocked him sideways to the ground, doubling him up even as he tried to lash out, only to be kicked again in the head and then throat, paralyzing his breathing. Paolo was standing over him, holding a chair leg, pulling his head back by his hair, moving his lips, words that didn’t seem connected to them echoing in his head. “For my brother, you cock sucking butt fucker! My brother, Julio, dead because of you!” He flung Johnny’s head down so it banged into the ground. Johnny heard the rest as though from underwater. “The great Johnny Madrid’s not so tough without his gun, is he, Jose?” Johnny moved his arms in a leisurely swimming motion, gasping as he was struck again on the back with the chair leg.

“You want a turn before I finish him off?” He was going to die if he stayed there. Johnny tried to push himself back onto his knees, his head still dragging in the alley grime, his hands groping around his bruised abdomen, reaching inside his shirt, his fingers closing around the warmed grip of the hiding gun snugged in his waistband. Another kick to his ribs sent him gasping onto his side. He battled the ebb and flow of his vision, groaning loudly as he thrust out his leg and tripped his attacker. He forced himself to roll onto his back, pull his hand from his shirt, and aim the tiny gun at the man who was drawing his foot back for another kick. The little gun had a surprising recoil for making such a small pop, but the effect was satisfying. Jose clutched his eye, blood streaming between his fingers, then fell to the ground, screaming and contorting even as Johnny shot at Paolo, his bullet falling well below its mark and hitting him in the groin. Paolo lurched forward, grabbing at himself, yelling and cursing but keeping on his feet. His two bullets spent, Johnny pushed the gun back into his waistband and tried to pull himself toward Jose’s gun only a few feet away, managing only to drag himself inches with each effort. Paolo regained enough composure to focus once again on Johnny, snarling as he raised his gun. Johnny rolled, trying to take refuge behind a broken crate.

The shot, when it came, sounded far away. Johnny wondered if he was too far gone to even feel pain. Then he saw Paolo slowly buckle, blood oozing from his chest.

“Paolo! Jose! What are you doing?” yelled a voice from a blurred form that ran to him. Johnny strained to focus, preparing for another attacker. He let out his breath as the approaching form turned slowly into Miguel.

“Miguel!” Johnny gasped, gesturing feebly to Paolo when he didn’t reply, “Said….I…killed his…brother.”

Paolo was also gasping, his breath rasping as he moaned, “Your mama, too, fucker” just as Miguel kicked him, silencing his breaths as a final gush of blood flowed from his wound.

Johnny wanted to ask ‘what?’ but the alley got even darker until he forgot what he wanted to ask it about.

 

Chapter 65

Johnny woke to a darkened room, initially confused at its familiarity. The single lantern illuminated the wooden bed posts and the oddly painted blue dresser that he recognized as belonging to Miguel’s room. He turned his head, staring for a moment at a shape on a pallet in the corner before he recognized it as Emilio’s sleeping form. Raul was there, too, studying him nonchalantly from a chair by the door. Chair legs screeched on the floor, jerking his attention to his other side, where Miguel was pulling a wooden chair to the bedside. He sat in it, pouring some water in a cup and leaning forward to hold it to Johnny’s lips, propping up his head.

Johnny drank, the cool water soothing his swollen tongue, but biting at his bruised throat as he swallowed. He handed the cup back, barely mustering the strength to get it to Miguel’s waiting hand, then laid his head back. “Thanks, Miguel,” he rasped. “Thanks for everything.  Seems like you’re always pulling me outta some scrape.”

“Juanito, you know that’s what I’m here for,” answered Miguel, smiling and patting his arm. “You know you can always count on Miguel!”

The arm patting hurt enough to clear Johnny’s head. “I can still do the job. Just need my gun.”

“Good!” Miguel leaned back and sighed, knitting his brow.  “I just heard Ignacio may be here any day now.”

“To take the horse, huh.” Johnny couldn’t keep the disappointment from his voice.

Miguel studied Johnny before speaking. “Juanito, I never had a chance to ask what happened when you went with Ignacio. I know you left. You were not happy there?”

Johnny studied his bed sheets as he picked at them. “He treated me bad, Miguel.”

“I’m sorry, Juanito,” said Miguel, shaking his head slowly and placing his hand gently on Johnny’s arm. “Had I known, I would have come to get you. Then when your mama got better, I was going to bring you back anyway and surprise her, only then she up and left in the night, and you were gone, too.”

“We left together.” Johnny hesitated before asking something he had always wanted to know. “How’d Ignacio come about getting me in the first place?”

“He was one of your mama’s customers. He told her his wife wanted a little boy very bad but could not have one. When he found out she was sick, he said he would love you like his very own son.”

“He lied.” Johnny suddenly wanted to tell him more, to see Miguel’s look of outrage when he discovered what Ignacio had done, but Raul was there, still leering at him, and he couldn’t say anything like that in front of him.

Johnny suddenly remembered Scott and Murdoch. “My brother?”

“He is fine. We have the two of them right next door where they will be safe. You rest now, mi hijo.”

***

The snappy aroma of spices and onions tickled at Johnny’s nose, inviting his mouth to wake up and join in the fun. He flicked open his eyes to see a scowling Raul plop a platter of chilaquiles on the bedside table, sending the cup of water there sloshing and clattering to the floor. Raul cursed, scooping up the emptied cup and banging it back on the table. “Here’s your breakfast.”

Johnny stifled a moan as he stretched over to claim the platter, even managing a cocky grin. “You expectin a tip?”

Raul raised his lip in a sneer and shuffled back to his chair by the door, leaning it back against the wall and closing his eyes. Johnny dug into the spicy dish of tortillas smothered in onions, cheese, and gravy, wiping the trickle of gravy off his chin with his sleeve. He sure never remembered having a meal like this in San Blas.

The morning sun was already slanting through the opened window, dust dancing in its beam. Johnny could hear the sounds of San Blas as it recovered from one night and readied for the next. Broken glass was being dumped, probably in the alley; drunks were being prodded, probably out of the alley; and, thought Johnny, bodies were being discovered—also in the alley.

He wondered when and where he had killed this Julio. The roster of accusing faces was too long to even hazard a guess. That roster was one of the reasons he had been so glad to leave his gunhawk life. Every face came to visit him in his sleep, frozen in their expressions as they realized Johnny Madrid and his gun were the last things they would ever see, the caress of his bullet the last thing they would ever feel. The cheese suddenly turned rubbery in his mouth, the spices zestless. Johnny chewed another bite then set the rest aside.

Miguel and Emilio were already gone. Johnny wondered where Miguel had slept since Johnny was in his bed. He sighed and snuggled down into the soft mattress, recalling the security he’d felt as a child sleeping in Miguel’s bed when he’d been badly hurt. He was relieved to discover that except for his boots, he was fully dressed. His gun was still nowhere in sight, though. Johnny needed to speak to Miguel about that again. Miguel would no doubt be more reasonable after what had happened. Meanwhile, he patted his waistband, relieved to feel the little hiding gun still in place. He made sure Raul wasn’t looking, then fished in his pocket for the spare bullets he kept there, reloading by touch under the covers.

He knew he needed to get up, find Miguel, check on Scott, get his gun. Kill Ignacio, leave San Blas. Figure out how to get Scott, what to do about Murdoch. He suspected Raul didn’t plan on letting him leave this room without a fight. His head hurt, his neck hurt, his body hurt. He thought there was one place, maybe on his foot, that felt just fine. Pretty good, in fact. He mustered his energy, preparing to swing his legs out of the bed. Resting his eyes for just a moment first.

***

A gentle knocking on the door awakened Johnny. He drowsily opened his eyes, seeing Raul unlock the door and open it, speaking to someone outside. Raul glanced back at him, and Johnny suddenly felt uneasy. Before he could do anything Raul had turned, his gun already in his hand and aimed at Johnny.

Raul strolled over to his bedside, sneering. “Where’s your protector now, Juanito? You gonna tell Miguel?”

Johnny knew he couldn’t reach his gun hidden in his waistband, not with his hands over the bed sheets and the bed sheets over the rest of him. Raul stepped closer to the head of the bed, suddenly striking at Johnny’s head with his gun butt. Johnny threw his arms up to divert the blow, struggling to extricate himself from the sheets, hitting Raul and knocking the gun from his hand. The click of a revolver stopped him. Johnny looked up to see another man saunter into the room, gun aimed at him. Johnny suddenly couldn’t breathe, not because of the gun but the face behind it. A whack on his head threw Johnny forward, sending him spiraling into darkness, seeing only the spinning vision of that face---Ignacio’s face.

 

Chapter 66

“Johnny!”

Johnny waded through the slush of his mind toward the voice. Scott’s voice? He willed his eyes to open, but it took several attempts.

“Johnny, wake up! Come on, brother, do it now…”

He finally cracked them open, looking at Scott and Murdoch through leaden lids. “Ignacio?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

“That big ugly guy? He’s in the other room with Raul,” said Scott. “They dragged us in here, I guess so they could have us all together.”

“Where’s Miguel?” asked Johnny, slowly regaining his senses. He tried to bring his hand to his aching ribs, but couldn’t move it. He realized he was in Miguel’s room on the floor. Like Scott and Murdoch, his feet were bound and his hands were tied behind him.

“Johnny,” said Murdoch, “Miguel plans to kill you.”

Johnny studied Murdoch’s face. He looked sincere, but there were too many reasons for him to lie. “That’s bullshit and you know it.”

“No, Johnny, it’s true,” said Scott solemnly. “He seemed to think he couldn’t trust you. Maybe because of how he treated you before. He told Raul to kill you after you killed Ignacio.”

“You two are unbelievable,” said Johnny with disgust, suddenly wide awake. “Then how come Raul come after me and I ain’t killed Ignacio yet? We got bigger things to worry about than some cock and bull story you come up with to blame everything on Miguel.”

 

“I’m telling you, brother, Miguel’s behind all this! How can you keep on defending him after how he abused you?”

Johnny had had it with the constant Miguel bashing. “Oh yeah? Guess who saved my life last night? Miguel!” He jerked at his binds. “And whatever he had to have me do a long time ago is none of your damned business!”

“Johnny, listen to me,” said Scott. “You’re wearing blinders when it comes to Miguel. He really did tell Raul to kill you once you killed this Ignacio.  Johnny, he used you when you were a kid and he’s using you now. He’s never cared about you.”

Johnny jerked harder. “That make you feel good, Scott? What’s with you two, you can’t stand for me to think somebody ever gave a shit about me? Fine, go to hell, think what you want. I’m getting out of here.”  He gave up pulling on the ropes and instead levered himself to a sitting position, stifling a moan.

“Johnny, we’re the ones who care about you!” exclaimed Murdoch, dismay creeping into his voice.

“You don’t talk to me, old man,” said Johnny, who had started to push himself across the floor toward a corner, grimacing as the effort made his ribs stab at him.

“No, you listen to me, boy! That’s why we’re telling you about Miguel. We all need to get free, we need to grab the boy, and we need to go back to Lancer together.”

Johnny stopped. “You don’t touch that boy!” He looked down, breathing deeply. He looked up again to face Murdoch. “You know, you stood there and made me feel all dirty with your high and mighty talk about getting Miguel cuz of what I did, and here all along you been the one stickin it to little kids. That really why you wanted to find Miguel? Bet you couldn’t wait to get down here so you could feel like a big man. What, you got such a little prick you can only impress a kid? Maybe you like to beat on someone can’t defend themself. Heck, we probably met before, you son of a bitch!” Johnny’s voice cracked, and he stopped. He clinched his eyes shut momentarily, trying to squeeze the image his own words had conjured up from his mind, trying to rid his mind of the memory of Murdoch pulling him naked from Clarissa’s bed and beating him.

“How dare you! I was trying to save that boy, stop him from being ruined!” Murdoch stopped and stared at Johnny, quickly adding, “That’s not what I meant, Johnny. I just didn’t want Emilio to have to suffer like you did.”

“Yeah, I know what you meant. I know exactly what you meant.”

“Stop it, you two, stop it!” broke in Scott. “Johnny’s right about one thing. We have to get out of here. We’ll worry about what to do next once we’re free.”

Johnny had found what he was looking for. He backed up to the wooden bed leg, the one with the nail sticking out of it that he’d once cut himself on when he’d been rammed into the corner and had tried to crawl under the bed. He pushed his wrists into it, sawing at the rope, feeling the nail cut into his flesh as he misjudged every few strokes. He gritted his teeth and continued, contemplating what to do once free. He could feel the warm sticky blood covering his palms, but he wasn’t sure if he was making much progress with the rope. At least Scott and Murdoch had shut up.

Scott had started to say something more, but stopped as they heard steps approaching. Johnny flung himself as best he could away from the corner, muffling a moan. He tried to lean casually against the wall, hoping they wouldn’t notice the smeared blood on the floor or the sweat on his forehead.

The door burst open and Miguel was thrust into the room, Ignacio and a heavy-set gunman following. Raul stood outside the doorway, holding Emilio as he struggled and cried out for Miguel.

“Let him go!” yelled Johnny, realizing what was happening.

“Take him out to the horse, Raul,” Ignacio ordered. “I’ll be along in a minute.”

“Damn you, let the boy go!” Johnny was struggling now, knowing the fate the boy had in store. He could hear Emilio’s frantic pleas as Raul dragged him to the back door of the cantina.  He heard the door open, then close, the now muffled cries fading away in the distance.

“Johnny, let him take him!” yelled Murdoch. “He’s better off than he is with Miguel.”

 

Chapter 67

The boy’s cries had faded, although occasionally a particularly plaintive call for help could be heard from the alley behind the cantina. Johnny knew from experience there was no hope of any townsfolk helping. He expected Emilio knew it, too.

“What’s going on here, Miguel?  Why is Raul taking the boy?” demanded Johnny.

“Because Raul is a traitor,” Miguel said, spitting on the dusty floorboards in disgust.

“Because Raul knows when to fold a losing hand,” said Ignacio coolly, motioning for his gunman to shut the door. “He works for me, now.”

“Where are you taking the boy?” asked Johnny again, trying to control his voice.

“It’s not your concern, Juanito. Stay out of it,” said Miguel.

Ignacio was scrutinizing Johnny, a slow smile causing his mustache to crawl up his pocked face. “Juanito?” He walked over and pulled Johnny’s head up by his hair so he could see his eyes, no doubt checking their color. Johnny glared at him defiantly. “You don’t mean to tell me this is my half-breed Juanito all grown up?”

“No,” replied Miguel quickly. “Different one.”

“I ain’t nobody’s Juanito, specially not yours, you bastard!” Johnny shrugged away, ripping some of his hair out as he jerked his head from Ignacio’s hand. He vaguely wondered why Miguel had just lied to Ignacio about him. Was he protecting him? Could he know what Ignacio had done after all?

Ignacio looked at Johnny more closely. “Yes, yes, I remember that mouth! Even if you didn’t stay long.”  He turned back to Miguel and leaned against the bed. “I see I was right all along. It was a trick you cooked up.”

“It was no trick!” Miguel exclaimed, punctuating his words with his waving arms. “You are stealing my boy, stealing him! And you won’t get away with it!”

“What the hell’s going on here?” asked Johnny, confused at their comments.

“It’s no matter to you, Juanito,” Miguel replied.

“He’s taking the boy. That makes it matter to me.”

“Like you don’t know, Juanito?” asked Ignacio, sneering at him. “I’m just finally getting paid back for what you cost me.”

“Shut up!” said Miguel quickly, glancing at Johnny. “You got the boy, Ignacio. Take him and go. Leave us!”

“No, you can’t let him take him!” Johnny hesitated, looking at Murdoch and Scott before speaking quietly but urgently to Miguel. “Miguel, you don’t know how he is, what he did to me.”

Ignacio shook his head. “I have been trying to get Miguel to pay me back for what you cost me how many years now, Juanito? Now he finally has another boy, I take him instead.”

Another boy? What you cost me? Ignacio’s words began to fit together in a way that made Johnny’s gut start to squeeze. Miguel hadn’t looked surprised at Johnny’s revelation about Ignacio’s treatment of him. In fact, he was looking at Johnny warily. “What are you talking about?”

“Leave it, Juanito, let him go!”

“Shut up, Miguel.” Johnny continued to look at Ignacio, his breaths shallow, suddenly conscious of the scuffling of Miguel’s boots on the wooden floor, of Scott’s and Murdoch’s eyes upon him.

“I’m talking about that scheme Miguel hatched up to steal my money! I paid good money for you and then you ran off. After he told me you was broke to saddle,” he added with a sneer.

Johnny felt paralyzed, a thousand tiny pins pricking at his gut, bleeding him dry inside. Ignacio had to be lying.

Miguel shook his head, blurting out “That’s a lie! What he would not try just to turn my own hijo against me!”  He moved toward Ignacio, but Ignacio’s gunman raised his pistol in warning.

Johnny sat leaning against the wall with his head bowed, unresponsive. Finally he looked at Miguel searchingly, asking quietly, “Did you sell me to him?”

“No! You know how he came by you. Yes, he gave us some money, but just to show how much he wanted you, and to help take care of Maria.”

“How come my mama ran away with me when I come back?”

“Because she took the money!”

Ignacio began to chuckle, quietly at first, slowly rising to a taunting cackle. “Oh, this is better than I expected! You never knew he sold you, Juanito? Miguel knew what I wanted you for, even let me send a man to check you out first.” He leaned forward with a leer. “Kind of a test ride, if you know what I mean. See how you bucked.”

“He’s loco, Juanito, pay no attention to his ravings!” exclaimed Miguel, waving his arms excitedly.

Johnny stared at Miguel. “How come she didn’t have no money, then?”

“I guess she spent it!” Miguel fidgeted, looking from Ignacio to Johnny and back.

Johnny dropped his head, studying his lap. If his mama had spent any money, she sure hadn’t had anything to show for it by the time they’d left town. He remembered how angry she had seemed, how she avoided any talk of Miguel. He jerked against his ropes, although he didn’t know why. He finally looked up to see everyone watching him. He had a hard time meeting their eyes, but forced himself to face Scott. “I guess you was right after all.”

 

Chapter 68

“I guess you was right after all.”  Johnny had bowed his head, shaking it as though rebuking himself for being duped, then he had simply stared at his lap in silence.

Scott sighed, fervently wishing he had been wrong about Miguel. He thought back at how he had tried to convince Johnny Miguel had never cared for him; now he wondered how important believing the lie may have been to Johnny’s well-being. Now Johnny knew the one mane he thought ever cared for him had instead just used him. Not merely used him, but sold him like livestock. Seeing Johnny’s forsaken expression made Scott hate Miguel more than ever. Recalling Ignacio’s words made him hate Ignacio just as much.

Scott could think of nothing better to say than a simple, “I’m sorry, brother,” which he delivered with quiet conviction.

Murdoch had been silent, but Scott could see he was clinching his jaws and his lips were white.  He finally spoke, not in the bellow Scott had expected, but almost in a whisper.  “I’ll see you both rot in hell for what you’ve done, so help me God.”

“Scott, we have to get the boy from him,” said Johnny, still looking down. “He can’t go to Ignacio’s. It’s bad. Can you buy him from him? Please?”

“What will you take for the boy?” Scott asked Ignacio without hesitating. He had never heard Johnny refer to anything in his childhood as bad.

Ignacio fiddled with his mustache as he contemplated the offer. “I have my initial investment in Juanito here, plus interest for thirteen years now, plus the nuisance of trying to collect from Miguel all this time, plus paying my new associate, Raul. I think four thousand dollars is more than fair.”

Scott reviewed the Lancer finances. Coming up with that much cash would require considerable juggling of funds. At least it looked like they may not have to pay the initial two thousand to Miguel. He looked warily at Murdoch, afraid he would say it was too much money—not that it would change Scott’s mind—but Murdoch slowly nodded. “It’s a deal. But the boy stays here while we get the money.”

“The boy stays with me,” said Ignacio. “Juanito knows where to find me.  Meanwhile, the boy can start earning his keep.”

Ignacio walked over to Miguel. “Adios, amigo,” he said casually, crashing his gun down on his head. Miguel crumbled into a heap.

***

Johnny yanked at his binds, but caught himself as he realized his attempts were becoming vigorous enough to attract the attention of the gunman Ignacio had left behind, the one he called Perez. Johnny wasn’t sure what the man’s job was. Ignacio only needed Scott alive in order to get the money. Then again, keeping any of them alive was risky, and he may have decided against it.

Perez casually inspected his weapon, spinning the cylinder around, grinning at his captives. “Who wants to go first?”

That answered Johnny’s question.

Miguel was already stirring, occupying Perez’s attention. Johnny jerked against the frayed ropes, each time feeling the harsh twines dig into his wrists, but also popping and giving just a little.

Perez brought his gun to point at Miguel. “A volunteer, eh?” Miguel’s eyes fluttered open and then stared in surprise as he saw the gun. Johnny pulled hard enough to embed some twines, finally feeling the satisfying snap as the last ones gave way. He forced his numbed right hand to grab the hiding gun from his waistband, pulling it and aiming it at Perez. “Hey, Perez,” he said almost casually. Perez turned, then seeing Johnny’s gun, he brought his gun to aim at Johnny, but not before Johnny fired, his bullet thumping into Perez’s chest. Perez looked surprised, then teetered and fell, his gun clattering to the wooden floor.

Johnny bent to untie the ropes around his legs, his numb hands digging futilely at them. Miguel was already on his feet, lurching over to claim Perez’s gun.

“Untie me and give me the gun, Miguel! I’ll go after Ignacio!”  Miguel ignored him, so Johnny raised his gun and aimed it at him. “I mean it, Miguel. Do it or I’ll shoot you.”

Miguel studied him, then replied with a smirk, “No, Juanito, you won’t.”  He turned his back to Johnny and strode from the room.

Johnny tried to pull the trigger, but Miguel was right.

***

“Shoot him, Johnny!” yelled Murdoch. “He’s getting away!”

Johnny ignored him, pulling the last of the rope from his ankles and lurching to his feet on his unsteady legs. He bent to snatch open Scott’s wrist bindings, pausing for a moment before deciding to untie Murdoch as well. “We gotta get Emilio,” he said, deftly replacing the spent bullet in his hiding gun with his last spare.

Johnny raced from the room while Scott and Murdoch were still working on their ankle ropes. He cautiously opened the back door, the bright sunlight momentarily dazzling him. Raul and Ignacio were silhouetted against the light as they struggled to throw Emilio on a horse. Raul spotted Johnny and shouted. Johnny ducked back inside as Raul’s bullet ripped into the door jamb beside his head. He heard yelling, and saw Emilio had taken advantage of his captors’ diverted attention to escape. He was running into the maze of shanties behind the cantina, Ignacio and Raul in pursuit.

Johnny could hear Scott and Murdoch pounding toward him from behind. He didn’t wait, but ran toward a litter strewn foot path that led into the heart of the shanties, on a course he knew should intersect with Emilio’s.

He raced down the worn path, dodging debris and ducking under hanging laundry, skidding to a stop and flattening himself alongside a shack as he reached the corner to the alley where Emilio had run. He peered around, his hopes dashed when he saw Raul was already clutching the boy from behind, holding his kicking feet off the ground. Two women scurried away, looking back over their shoulders and pushing each other along.

Johnny’s little hiding gun wouldn’t shoot that far, so he slipped back around the corner and around the back of the shack, chickens squawking as they panicked out of his way. He was closer, but still not close enough. He searched the shadows for Ignacio.

Instead he saw Miguel sneaking from behind a shed on the other side of Raul. “Give him back!” Miguel called, bringing his gun to bear on Raul.

Before Miguel could fire Raul had his gun aimed at Emilio’s temple. “You want him back, Miguel?” yelled Raul. “Sure, you can have him, if you don’t mind a little hole in his head.”

Johnny caught a glint of sunlight on metal off to the side, and saw it came from a gun aimed at Miguel from an open doorway near him. “Miguel, look out!” he yelled, at the same time leaping and shooting.

He rolled behind a clutter of old barrels, his ribs stabbing him. He wrenched himself up, gun ready, only to face off with Ignacio, swaying and clutching his side with one hand, aiming a gun at Johnny with the other.

Johnny ducked and pushed a barrel into him, then darted out and knocked the gun from Ignacio’s grasp as Ignacio struck at him, landing a blow on his damaged ribs and knocking the gun out of Johnny’s hand. Johnny groaned and grabbed at his side, then concentrated on slamming his fist into Ignacio’s gut. Ignacio slugged back, his blow again finding injured ribs, Johnny again gasping in pain, this time faltering. Ignacio took the advantage to shove him to the ground, falling on top of him and then stretching for his gun, his fingertips finally touching its grip. Johnny reeled forward and butted his head into Ignacio’s jaw, knocking him off and to the side. Johnny rolled to the top, then reared back and struck Igancio in the face, then struck him again, and yet again.

He was conscious of nothing except the sound of his own breath coming in gasps and the ache of his knuckles as they pounded into Ignacio’s flesh. Johnny sank to his knees, his blows weakened into glancing punches. He still continued to pound ineffectively, gasping incoherent curses at the dead man until he felt hands grabbing his shoulders. He staggered to his side, throwing himself on the new attacker.

 

Chapter 69

“Whoa, brother!” Scott yelled, pushing Johnny’s flailing arms away until Johnny slumped in recognition “Come on, Johnny, leave him. We’ve got to get Emilio from Raul!”

Johnny had blacked out everything but his need to smash the sneer from Ignacio’s face, every blow marking the memory of another man entering that cellar room. He gasped to catch his breath, closing his fingers so tightly on Scott’s shoulder for support that Scott winced.

Johnny leaned heavily against the wall, slowly sliding down it to rest on a bench. “The gun.” He gestured to Ignacio’s fallen gun, his ribs hurting too badly for him to reach for it. Scott grabbed it and handed it to Johnny, then handed him the hiding gun as well. “One shot,” Johnny said, pushing it back into Scott’s hand.

Scott was watching him, his brow creased. “You OK, brother?”

Johnny closed his eyes and let his head loll back momentarily before answering, “Yeah, fine. Let’s go.”

“Why’d you warn Miguel?” Scott waited for an answer but Johnny was pushing himself up the wall. “He’s out there with a gun, and you better be ready to shoot him if you have to.”

“I been in gun fights before, Scott.”

“Not with Miguel.”

***

Raul and Miguel were still in a standoff, Raul threatening to shoot Emilio if Miguel didn’t throw down his gun. Miguel never wavered. “Raul, give him up. I’ll see him dead before I’ll see you steal him. I’ll shoot you right through him.”

Johnny tried to get a bead on Raul’s head, but he couldn’t chance it with a strange gun and Emilio so close. “Miguel? I killed Ignacio, just like you wanted.” He waited, but heard only his own heavy breathing in response. “I can get Emilio back, but you gotta help. You gotta point your gun down, OK Miguel?”

Before Miguel could respond, a man rushed from behind a shed, tackling Miguel and throwing him to the ground. Johnny swung his gun toward the attacker, but pulled up when he saw it was Murdoch. He started toward them, but turned as Emilio yelled out. Raul was dragging the boy backward toward a shack, fighting Emilio as the boy struggled and dropped to the ground. Johnny aimed high at Raul, then squeezed the trigger, seeing Raul stagger with the hit and grab his shoulder, allowing Emilio to squirm the rest of the way out of Raul’s grasp and dash away.

“Cover me!” yelled Scott, darting across the alley toward Raul, who had started to chase after Emilio. Raul turned to fire at Scott, but Johnny shot first, his bullet smacking into Raul’s side. Raul stumbled, then lurched backwards inside the shack. Scott paused for a second, then ran past Raul after Emilio.

Johnny started toward Raul, but saw Murdoch and Miguel struggling with each other on the ground, Miguel slowly twisting his gun to aim at Murdoch.  Johnny forced his wobbly legs into a run, damning them for responding so slowly. He hurled himself onto Miguel just as Miguel fired, Murdoch uttering a guttural huff, hit. Johnny straddled Miguel and grabbed at his gun hand, dropping his own gun in the process. He pounded Miguel’s hand repeatedly into the dirt until his grip on the pistol loosened, then Johnny raised his fist to slam it into Miguel’s jaw.

“No, Juanito, I surrender!” cried out Miguel, twisting to cover his face with his hands.

Johnny stopped, his arm still raised, fist clenched in anticipation. He looked at Miguel with disgust, then rocked back, picked up his gun, and slowly stood. He kicked Miguel’s gun away and backed away to face both Murdoch and Miguel. Murdoch was standing, clutching his side, blood seeping through his shirt. “We gotta get to cover,” said Johnny, heaving. “Raul’s still out there.”

Johnny was watching Miguel, so he was caught off guard when Murdoch leaped at him. He flung his arms up to fend off the larger man, but Murdoch plowed him into the ground. At the same moment a gunshot rang out and Murdoch fell, doubled over and grabbing at his side.

Johnny pushed to his knees and threw himself between Murdoch and the place the shot came from, his gun up and ready, but he heard the pop of the hiding gun and saw Scott standing over the still form of Raul. Scott was holding the little gun in one hand and clutching Emilio tightly to him with the other.

Johnny leaned back on his knees and turned to Murdoch, who was stumbling to rise. “Stay still. Where are you hit?”

“Just a couple of flesh wounds,” Murdoch grunted, still clutching the wound from Miguel on his side, and indicating a new one just below it. He groaned as he tried to speak. “You saved my life, Johnny.” He tried to lay his hand on Johnny’s wrist, but Johnny was already standing to turn and call for Scott to help.

“Johnny!” Scott yelled.

Johnny heard movement behind him and whirled to see Miguel had picked up his gun and was bringing it to bear on Murdoch. Johnny lunged at him, knocking the gun from his hand and sending it skittering across the alley into a debris heap. He grabbed Miguel by the collar, dragging him up and slamming him against the wall of the shack, cracking the flimsy boards. “Nobody messes with my old man!”

“But, Juanito! Lancer is not your papa, not how it counts. I’m the one who took care of you! You know Ignacio was lying.”  Miguel tried to place his hand on Johnny’s shoulder but Johnny shrugged it off.

“You son of a bitch!” Johnny shouted, shaking Miguel to punctuate his words. “You never took care of me. You used me…you made me think you gave a shit…but you never gave a fuck about me!” He ended with a final shove that bounced Miguel’s head off the wall. “You sold me,” he added, tightening his grip around Miguel’s neck until even the gargling sounds couldn’t escape, Miguel’s eyes bulging as his face turned purple, his hands clawing futilely at Johnny’s.

“Johnny, don’t do it, brother.” Johnny vaguely recognized the voice of his brother piercing through the roar in his head. “He’s not worth it. Let the law take care of him.”

Johnny slowly realized everyone, even Emilio, was staring at him. He took a deep breath, then let go with another shove, allowing Miguel to crumple to the ground. “He’s right. You’re not worth killing. But if I ever find out you was near a kid again, I’ll blow your fucking brains out. That’s a promise.” Johnny pulled his gun from his waistband, then turned it around and smashed it into Miguel’s head, knocking him unconscious, almost falling on top of him.

 

Chapter 70

“Let’s get him out of the sun,” said Scott, motioning to the closest doorway. Johnny traded Murdoch for Emilio, and Scott guided the injured man through the faded blanket that served as a door to the tired bed inside. Scott knelt on the clay floor as he ripped open Murdoch’s shirt. He looked around for some clean rags, but couldn’t bring himself to touch anything in there, much less place it on a wound.

“We’ve gotta get him out of this dump,” said Scott, wrinkling his upper lip. “It’s not fit for roaches.”

“It ain’t that bad, Scott,” said Johnny, looking down at Emilio and smiling. The boy was frowning at Scott. “Besides, you want to take him back to the cantina or the hotel?”

It was that bad, Scott thought. The sun shone in streams through the roof and walls, illuminating a rickety table and bench, the room’s only other furniture besides the dilapidated bed. Most of the stalls at Lancer were larger and nicer. Johnny was kneeling next to Emilio and pointing to some gouges among the other scratches on one wall, saying something in Spanish. Scott wondered briefly what he could be talking about that had Emilio so wide eyed, but turned his attention back to Murdoch as he started to groan.

“Scott,” said Murdoch hoarsely, pushing himself into a sitting position. “I can ride. Get the horses and let’s go. Mine’s tied behind the hotel.”

“I’ll get ‘em,” said Johnny, adding, “You stay here, Emilio.” Emilio clung to his side, but Johnny peeled him off and sat him on the foot of the bed. He threw his gun on the bed. “Here, Scott, keep the gun. I’ll grab Miguel’s on my way.”

Scott stretched toward Emilio for the gun, but froze as his gaze passed over those gouge marks, his throat catching as he made out the crudely carved letters J U A N I T O.  He started to study the wretched abode, anxious to learn about his brother’s childhood, but then forced himself to look away. Maybe Johnny deserved his secrets.

***

Johnny stepped from the shack, immediately noticing Miguel wasn’t where he had left him, but was instead standing by the wall, pointing his gun casually at Johnny. Johnny stopped, looking at him questioningly.

He jumped as a shout erupted from the shack behind him, just as Emilio burst through the blanketed doorway and ran down the alley.  Scott ran out in pursuit, shouting, “Stop him, Johnny, he took the gun!”  He skidded to a stop when he saw Miguel.

“Looks like my Emilio knows who he’s better off with. Too bad you’re not so smart, Juanito,” said Miguel, smiling. He shouted toward the shack, “Senor Lancer! If you do not show your face out here in five seconds your boys start losing parts. Uno.” He pulled back the hammer. “Dos.” He brought the gun to carefully aim at Johnny’s right shoulder. “ Tres--”

Murdoch stumbled to the door, leaning against the building but raising his hands as he saw Miguel.

“What do you want, Miguel? The boy’s gone.” Johnny was slowly moving toward Miguel, his hands raised.

Miguel jerked his pistol to aim at Scott. “One more step, and you’ll kill off another of your family.”

Johnny stopped, angered by Miguel’s words. “I ain’t never killed any of my family.”

Miguel snorted. “Oh yeah? What about your mama? You killed her sure as you gonna kill your dear brother and papa Lancer.”

Paolo’s dying words came back to Johnny, words also accusing him of killing his mama. He must have been accused of killing her those many years ago when he had fled into the night. “You’re full of shit. You weren’t there---I was.” His throat tightened, causing his voice to waver as he continued. “I didn’t kill her. Some fucker kicked her to death.”

Miguel looked at Johnny, a gleeful sparkle to his eyes. He started to laugh, gently at first, then rising to a mocking cackle. “Now I don’t think Paolo would appreciate you calling his brother Julio ‘some fucker.’  That’s not very respectful of the dead.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Are you saying this Julio was the one who---” He was suddenly unable to finish as the memories of that night flooded back. “He killed my mama, so I killed him,” he finally blurted, then cringed inwardly as he saw Murdoch and Scott exchange glances at his revelation. He had never wanted them to know how early he had become a killer.

“No, Juanito, Julio didn’t kill her, you did.” Miguel was watching him closely, his lips pulled back in an exaggerated sneer. “You were the selfish prick who ran away, ran home to tell your mama, and left me holding the bag while Ignacio was breathing down my neck. You were the one who made her run to Nuevo Madrid!”

Johnny was silent for a moment, trying to push Miguel's words from his mind, but one thing kept coming back. “How do you know about Nuevo Madrid?” Johnny tried to get control of his voice, only partially succeeding.

“How do you think? Paolo said he had a brother who was good at finding people. You needed finding. So I hired him. If you’d of given yourself up your mama would be alive.” Miguel stopped, then cocked his head and grinned pleasantly as he continued. “Tell me, Juanito, did your mama scream for mercy? Did you hear her beg?  How’s it feel to have the whore’s blood on your hands?”

“Shut up!” Johnny’s voice was low, almost a hoarse whisper. Yes, he heard her scream, he heard the thud of boots pounding into her flesh, the crunch of her bones breaking, heard it over and over almost every night when he tried to sleep. Yes, her blood was on his hands, always would be. He hadn’t been able to save her. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, trying to purge his mind of the haunting memories.

“Miguel, what do you want?” asked Scott, nervously watching his brother. “Money?”

“Damn right I want money,” Miguel answered, licking his lips. “You said you’d pay Ignacio four thousand dollars. He don’t seem to be around to collect, so I’ll be happy to oblige.”

Before Scott could respond Emilio suddenly appeared and threw himself against Johnny. “Miguel, please don’t hurt him! You said he was your boy, like me!”

Miguel smiled at the boy.  “Don’t worry, Emilio. Juanito will be fine, as long he does what I say.” He smirked at Johnny as he nodded toward Scott. “Juanito, ever seen a man gut shot? Seen how he begs for another bullet? You can add your brother’s blood to your mama’s unless you hand over that boy right now. Then I want Lancer here to arrange for that money.”

Johnny reached down slowly to push Emilio away to the side, but the boy pressed harder against him, looking up into his eyes.

“No, don’t just push him, I want him hand delivered,” said Miguel, still smiling.

Johnny was aware of something hard pressing between Emilio and him. He reached down, one hand on Emilio’s back, the other hand squeezing between them, finding the object and closing around it. He took a breath, shoved Emilio to the side, pulled out the smuggled gun and fired in one motion. His bullet caught Miguel in the shoulder just as Miguel turned to shoot, Miguel’s bullet plowing into the ground. Miguel clutched the wound, but managed to bring his gun up again. Johnny pulled his trigger, his breath catching as the hammer repeatedly clicked on empty cylinders.

Miguel’s finger began to squeeze the trigger just as Johnny lunged at him, pushing Miguel’s arm in the air so his shot went wild, throwing him to the ground and straddling him, pummeling his face, smashing his head again and again into the dirt. “You bastard! You killed my mama, not me! You killed her, you killed her, you bastard, you killed her…” He continued slamming his head into the dirt, Miguel’s arms flopping limply, Johnny’s words fading into an incoherent mumble.

“Johnny, stop,” said Murdoch, walking over unsteadily and placing his hand on Johnny’s back. “Come on, son.”

Johnny leaned back on his heels, looking up at the sky with his eyes closed. He finally picked up Miguel’s gun and stood, walking slowly with Murdoch toward Scott and Emilio. Emilio’s eyes suddenly widened and his mouth gaped open as if trying to say something. Johnny whirled.  Miguel had wobbled to his knees, his arm drawn back over his shoulder, the knife in his hand reflecting the glare of the sun into Johnny’s eyes. Johnny leaped in front of Murdoch and fired just as Miguel slung his knife. He vaguely registered the sharp stab to his leg, but all his senses were focused on Miguel as the man sank to the ground, mouthing “Juanito, mi hijo, no,” his breath coming in gasps until his eyes stared dully and his gasps no longer marred the still air.

Johnny dropped his arms to his side, taking a deep breath. “I guess I really can kill family, after all,”  he whispered, mostly to himself.  He stared at Miguel's body for several seconds, then looked at Murdoch. His voice was still shaky. "You happy now? He's dead so you figure you can have the boy all to yourself? I tell you what, I'll kill you, too, old man, you ever try to touch that boy again."

Emilio was staring at Miguel, too, but he lifted his head, a surprised look on his face. "Him? He never touched me. He didn't do anything."

Johnny gazed at the boy. After a moment, he shook his head slightly, as if to clear it. "Emilio, it's OK. You don't have to lie. And you won't have to do that again, not ever."

"Johnny, it's the truth," Murdoch insisted. "Yes, I'm happy that bastard is dead, but that's not why. I'd never---I came down here to kill him myself for what he did to you. I guess I hoped I could somehow show you how much I cared, try to make up for the last year, for everything. For you."

Johnny's eyes moved from his father back to Miguel, a fly already buzzing around the body. “Yeah, thanks."

 

Epilogue

The three horses broke into a lope as the men urged them on, determined to make good time back to Lancer. They’d made it over the border and were now back in California. As the day progressed they skirted several towns and rode through a couple, deciding not to stop so they wouldn’t lose time.

Murdoch was remarking on their good progress a few miles after passing through a particularly inviting town. “We should make it back home by Friday. I guess we’ll even be back in time for that dance Saturday that Teresa was so excited about before I left.”

Nobody could have missed the dismayed look on Johnny’s face, although he continued to look straight ahead. Scott and Murdoch exchanged glances.

The men rode their horses at a walk a few more minutes before Murdoch said, “Damn! You know, I think this horse of mine may be lame.”

Johnny looked over, studying the horse for a few seconds. “He looks alright to me.”

Scott glanced at Murdoch’s horse, and then met Murdoch’s gaze. “Oh, absolutely,” nodded Scott. “He’s definitely quite lame …”

Johnny shifted his weight so he could watch the horse more carefully. “What are ya, crazy? He ain’t lame!”

Murdoch gave an exaggerated sigh. “I guess there’s nothing to do but turn back to that town and rest him up a few days.”

“Yep, what a shame,” agreed Scott, shaking his head.

Johnny wondered what the two of them were pulling now.

“That sign on that saloon there said they had the prettiest girls in California,” said Murdoch. “Seems like somebody ought to see if they’re telling the truth. Just too bad we wouldn’t get home in time for that dance, though.”

Johnny decided he’d better study Murdoch’s horse more closely. He leaned over in his saddle, then slowly sat upright. “Yeah, I see what you mean. He’s lame alright.” Then with a grin he added “Murdoch, you think he can make it back to town? Maybe you ought to get off and lead him.”

Murdoch scowled, while Scott started to chuckle. Then Johnny whirled Barranca around, gave a cowboy whoop, and headed back toward town at a dead gallop, Scott and Murdoch right on his heels.

***

Johnny awoke with a start. The campfire had burned itself down to a few sparks among the ashes, and a slight mist whispered in the darkness. He wondered where Scott and Murdoch were now—maybe checking out that dancehall in Johnny’s dream. Somehow he doubted it.

The three men had talked for a long time in San Blas. Scott and Murdoch had tried their best to entice Johnny to come back to Lancer, but in the end even they had to know it would never work. Too much had happened between them, and although Johnny now understood that many of their problems had been fueled by misunderstandings, much of the damage was irreparable.

Still, Murdoch refused to give up on the relationship, agreeing only to lease Johnny’s third of Lancer rather than buy him out as Johnny had suggested.  Once Johnny found a place to settle he would wire for the funds. Scott had offered to deliver the lease money in person, then had jokingly suggested maybe they should pay it monthly instead of yearly so he could visit more often. Maybe some day, Johnny thought. Not anytime soon, though.

Johnny sighed as the last of the sparks faded, just like his dream of living at Lancer. He’d always fantasized about having a family, of having somebody who loved and trusted him and who he could love in return, and for a while he’d thought he had found it at Lancer. He’d been wrong.

He pulled the blanket up higher on Emilio’s sleeping form, resting his hand on the boy’s head nestled in his lap. He pushed another log on the fire and stirred the ashes, watching as the flames slowly took hold again.

 

 

~end~

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