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FShameless

Warnings: Rough language, rough sex, and rough times. 

 

Chapter 1

Rain drops pelted against the glass panes, trickling down in rivulets, catching the fading sunlight so the scene outside shimmered. Murdoch loved the rain. It nourished his grass, his cattle, even, he reflected, his soul. He shoved the ledger aside, leaned back in his leather chair, and surrendered to the guilty luxury of simply listening to the downpour.

The boys were out sloshing in the east creek trying to clear it before the water rose. He allowed himself a small smile as he imagined them cursing him for being home, dry. If they only knew, he thought, getting up to add another log to the fire. He soaked in the warmth as he watched the sparks spiral frenetically upward.

Movement, the distorted image of a buggy through the glass, distracted him. By the time he strode to the front door the cloaked figure of a petite woman was scurrying toward the entrance, her shawl pulled protectively around her head, her bright blue dress speckled with rain and mud. He ushered her inside before she got drenched.

“Please, come in by the fire and get dry.” He gestured toward the fireplace. What would bring a woman here in this kind of weather? 

She stepped inside and stood with her back to him, holding out her arms to envelope the fire’s warmth. After a moment she turned to slowly look up at him. She let the shawl slip from her head.

Murdoch gasped and leaned forward to clutch the side of his desk. “Maria…”

***

He leaned heavily against the desk as he tried to get his thoughts in order. The best he could manage was the obvious. “What are you doing here? I thought you were dead.”

“Dead? No, but I thought you might think so. I wanted to see you,” she said softly, almost shyly. “I, I know you were angry—that’s why I never came before.”

“Angry?” The bitch had stolen his son. “Angry doesn’t come close to how I feel about you, what you’ve done. Get out of my house.” He grabbed her arm and pushed her toward the door.

Maria wrenched loose and faced him, hands on hips. “Don’t you mean our house, dear husband?”

So this was her game. “All I have to do is divorce you, woman, and after what you’ve done there’s not a court in the land that would be on your side.”

“I think you’ve got that all wrong, Murdoch. After they hear how you threw me and my son out you’ll be lucky to have anything left!”

“Not your son—my son!”

“Your son? You didn’t seem to believe that then!”

Murdoch took a deep breath, trying to sound calm. “You wouldn’t dare drag that through a public court.”

“I’m sure it would be unpleasant.” Maria sat in one of the chairs and fingered Murdoch’s model ship.

“How much?” Before she could answer, Murdoch spotted Scott rushing across the yard toward the door, head ducked against the rain, dodging the larger puddles.

***

“Where’s Johnny?” That wasn’t that unusual a greeting from Murdoch. But meeting him at the door was. Scott wondered what was up. 

“He’s putting the horses up. He’ll be right in.”

He removed his hat and peered past his father at their guest, a raven-haired Mexican who seemed too fashionably attired for this kind of land or weather.

“Stop him,” Murdoch said quietly, turning him back outside. “I want you both to go check on that creek in the north pasture.”

“What? Murdoch, we’ve been working all day and we’re soaked! The creek’s clear, we checked it the other day.”

“I said do it, Scott!”

Scott bristled. Murdoch usually only used that tone with Johnny. “Do you think Johnny and I can get some food first?”

He noticed the woman coming closer. Murdoch hadn’t even introduced them.

“Scott?” the woman asked, getting to her feet. “This is Scott? And Johnny? Not my Juanito?”

“No! It’s not! Scott, go, now, please!”

“It is him! Mi hijo, Juanito!”

Scott stopped mid-turn at her words, dubiously studying the woman. “Your son?”

Murdoch shot the woman a scowl before answering. “Scott, this is Maria Lancer. She’s apparently alive. And leaving. Now keep your brother out of here.”

Scott was dumbfounded.  Johnny’s mother? And Murdoch wanted to keep them apart?  “But, sir, it’s his mother!”

“It is my Juanito! I must talk to him, explain things!” She rushed toward the door, but Murdoch spun her around in what would have looked like a well-rehearsed dance move under other circumstances.

“How much do you want? How much to stay away from him?”

“My love for my son is not for sale!”

“Bull shit! How much?” Murdoch dragged her toward the safe. “Scott, keep him out of here!”

Scott still hesitated. Was it better to shelter his brother like Murdoch wanted, or to allow Johnny to see the mother who had subjected him to a childhood of abuse? Johnny was already sloshing toward the house, sending water splashing from every puddle.

“How much are you offering?” he heard her say. That settled it.

He rushed outside. “Johnny, hold up! Murdoch needs us to check on the creek in the north pasture. He heard there was some new blockage.”

“Aw come on, Scott! It ain’t blocked since the other day! I’m starved and I’m soaked. And getting more soaked.” Johnny looked past him at the buggy tied to the hitching post. “Who’s the company?”

“Okay, truth is, Murdoch has a lady visitor, and I think he wants us out of the way.  Come on, let’s go back to the barn and get out of the rain.”

“A lady friend, huh?” Johnny’s eyes danced with amusement. “You met her? Is she ugly? How come you had to make up a story so I can’t meet her?” His smile suddenly faded, his expression instead crestfallen. “Oh. Yeah.”

“There’s no ‘oh’ to it. He just wants both of us somewhere else for a while.”

“You get to meet her?”

“Not really, no. He did not introduce us, if that’s what you want to know. Now come on, we can eat in town.”

“Okay, okay!” Johnny kicked at a puddle. “He owes us, though, riding in all this rain. I’m going around back and get some food to take with us. No way I can wait ‘til town.”

“I’ll get the food. You get the horses ready and I’ll meet you at the barn.” Scott gave him a push. He splashed to the back entrance and hurried to pack some biscuits and meat, relieved that no one was in there. He didn’t feel right about what he was doing. Johnny’s mother! Alive! How could they keep that from him? Yet Murdoch had been so adamant. And the fact that Maria seemed to have no problem selling off the chance to see her son didn’t exactly fit with the image of the ideal mother. Ideal mother—that was a laugh! From what little he knew of Johnny’s childhood he really was better off without her. Yet—he still couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t his or Murdoch’s decision to make. 

He could hear them arguing in the other room. That first day, Murdoch had accused Johnny of having his mother’s temper. No, Johnny’s temper was a pale imitation. She was letting loose with a tirade of something in Spanish, and it didn’t sound friendly. He stuffed the rest of the food into a sack and hurried toward the door, opening it with one last glance back toward the raised voices, turning to come face to face with Johnny.

 

Chapter 2

“I gotta see how ugly she is, Scott.” Johnny had that cocky grin on his face, the one Scott usually dreaded. “I’m just gonna peek, I promise. They ain’t even gonna…” He stopped, listening, the smile slowly fading. “Who is that, Scott?”

“Johnny, I need to talk to you.”

Johnny was walking slowly, dripping a trail of water through the kitchen toward the inner door. “Damn it, Scott, who is it?” His voice had faded to a whisper.

“Wait, Johnny. Let’s talk first.” Scott tried to grab him but Johnny shrugged him off and walked through the doorway. Scott followed, almost tripping over him as Johnny suddenly stopped, just as Murdoch and the woman caught sight of him.

“Johnny!” Murdoch stepped between the woman and Johnny.

She dodged around and took several swift steps toward Johnny. “Juanito?” She fell to her knees, crossed herself, and began weeping. “Oh Juanito, mijo!”

Johnny didn’t move, didn’t say anything at first. “Mama?” he finally whispered. He stumbled toward her. “Mama? Is it really you?” She looked up at him. “Mama!”

He sank to his knees and threw his arms around her. There they remained, holding each other tightly, speaking urgently in Spanish.

Scott and his father stood watching, Scott smiling, Murdoch scowling, as Johnny and his mother continued to embrace.  Finally Johnny broke away. “It’s my mama,” he explained incredulously to Murdoch, as though Murdoch didn’t know it. “You’ll stay, won’t you, Mama?”

“Juanito, that’s up to your papa,” Maria answered. She reached out to touch Johnny’s cheek as in disbelief.

Murdoch worked his jaw before answering. “Of course she can stay. Johnny, why don’t you show her to a guest room? I’m sure she’d like to freshen up before supper. We can have her things brought up.”

Johnny’s smile was radiant as he helped his mother to her feet and guided her out of the room, his arm tightly around her. He turned his eyes upward and said what appeared to be a Spanish prayer before turning back to Scott and Murdoch. “It’s a miracle!”

***

Scott looked after them as Johnny bounded up the stairs, sweeping Maria along with him. He waited until they were out of sight before quietly stating the obvious. “I thought she was supposed to be dead.”

“The Pinkerton report said she died when Johnny was ten.” Murdoch poured two drinks from the sideboard before sinking into his chair. “But she’s obviously very much alive. So where the hell has she been?”

Scott took one of the glasses and absently stared out the rain-beaded window. “Has Johnny ever actually told you what happened?”

“No. Every time I’ve tried to ask he clams up. I thought he just didn’t want to talk about her death, so I never pushed it. What about you?”

“Same.” He took a drink, taking his time swallowing. “So then why was he on his own for so long? Or is that another mistake?”

“I don’t know, but I think it’s damn time we got some answers. From both of them.”

“Well, whatever happened, Johnny sure seems happy to see her. I guess it’s just as well I couldn’t keep him out.”

“That remains to be seen. I don’t want that woman here, and I don’t want her near Johnny. I don’t trust her, especially not where he’s concerned.”

“Were you really going to pay her to leave?”

“I still intend to.”

***

Maria declined to join them for supper, preferring to eat alone in her room after her long journey. Johnny begged to join her, but she was adamant that he eat with his father and brother. He arrived at the table late but with a smile so broad nobody could admonish him.

“Ain’t she something, Scott?”

“She’s beautiful, Johnny. Her picture doesn’t do her justice.” He wasn’t lying, either. Maria was breathtaking.

“Yeah, good thing you didn’t say she was ugly before!” He stopped and looked from Scott to Murdoch, his smile fading. “You still need that creek checked?”

They both averted their eyes before Murdoch spoke. “You don’t know the whole story, son.”

“You mean like the part where my own mother was still alive? Yeah, better to keep that little part of the story from me!”

“So did she say why she’s here?”

“Maybe to tell me she’s alive? Hell, Murdoch, I don’t know, and I don’t want to argue. My mama’s alive! Here! Who knows, maybe she wants to get back together with you! Wouldn’t that be something?”  He was smiling again, practically out of his seat with enthusiasm.

“Where’s she been?” Murdoch asked quietly.

Johnny turned to Scott. “I can’t wait for you to get to know her. Teresa, too! When’s she gonna be back?”

“I’m looking forward to it. She seems very nice.”

“I asked where she’s been.”

Johnny’s smile faded again as he faced Murdoch. “I don’t know, Murdoch. I haven’t had a chance to interrogate her yet. If you want, maybe I can go up there and beat it out of her after supper!” He flung his napkin on the table.

“Johnny!”

“No, I see how it’s gonna be. I guess you plan to kick her out again? Well, Lancer is one third mine and I say she can stay in my third!”

“Johnny, I was just asking a simple question! She’s been gone from here for twenty years, and as far as I know, from your life for ten. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask where she’s been!”

“Why don’t you consult your beloved Pinkerton report?”  Johnny pushed his chair out. “I ain’t hungry.”

“Sit down! We have a guest in the house. If you respect your mother you won’t let her presence cause an argument.”

Johnny stared at Murdoch then plopped down in his seat. Scott shot Murdoch a warning look lest he ruin the truce.

“Johnny, we’re both thrilled for you,” Scott started. “I think we’re just very curious about her and how she came to be here.”

“She said she thought I was gone. She didn’t know I was going by another name.” He looked down, brushing his empty plate with his fingers. “I had to tell her I was a gunfighter. Who I was. She was pretty upset.”

“Why would she think you were gone?”

Johnny shrugged and dished some mashed potatoes on his plate. “Just kind of got separated, I guess.”

Murdoch leaned forward. “How?”

Johnny smeared butter around in his potatoes without answering.

“Johnny, that Pinkerton report said she died when you were ten. Obviously she’s alive. Do you have any idea why the discrepancy?”

Johnny looked blank.

“I mean do you know why the report said she died when she didn’t?”

“Maybe you should ask them.”

“I’m asking you.  If you’d rather, I can ask Maria.”

“No!” He smashed at his potatoes viciously as Murdoch and Scott waited. “She died in a fire, okay? At least I thought she did.”

“Were you there?”

“Yeah, I was there! And yeah, I should have saved her, but I couldn’t, you hear, I tried and I couldn’t!” Johnny slammed his fork down and glared at Murdoch defiantly.

 

Chapter 3

“Whoa, Johnny, nobody’s saying you should have saved her,” Scott said. “We just want to know what happened.”

“I can ask Maria if you’d rather,” Murdoch said.

Johnny began desecrating his food once again. Finally he let his fork drop and spoke into his plate. “She’d been drinking pretty heavy and she started in again crying, saying she was going to kill herself. I tried to stop her—I could usually stop her from hurting herself too bad. . .”

“Wait, wait, wait!” interjected Murdoch. “She tried to kill herself? In front of you?”

Johnny shrugged. “Hard to get much privacy in one room.”

Murdoch looked like he was about to explode. Instead he spoke calmly. “Go on.”

“Yeah, well, I guess she wanted privacy after all, cause she shoved me in a trunk, locked it.” He glanced up at Murdoch and Scott, taking a deep breath before continuing. “She must have knocked the lantern over. I don’t know. The place caught on fire. I heard it, like a big whoosh then a roar, and it got all hot and hard to breathe, and by the time I could kick my way out of the trunk, there were flames everywhere. I couldn’t see, couldn’t find her anywhere. I couldn’t save her. It all burned. They found her body the next day.” He looked up. “I wonder whose body that was.”

Johnny’s hand shook almost imperceptibly, but Scott noticed. “What does she say happened?”

“She doesn’t remember getting out. When she came to, she was in another town, with Paco.”

“Paco?” Scott had never heard Johnny mention any Paco.

“My step papa, sort of.”

“She tried to burn you up?” asked Murdoch through clenched jaws.

“The fire was an accident.”

Scott was confused. “What happened when she came back for you? Couldn’t the people in town tell her who took you in? Were you hurt?”

“She said she came back and looked for me. But I’d already run away cause they blamed the fire on me and it messed up a bunch of buildings and stuff. So there was no way she could of found me.”

“She must not have looked very hard,” grumbled Murdoch. He cast his eyes down when Johnny and Scott both just stared at him.

***

Johnny was up early the following morning. Maria had agreed to join them for breakfast, and Scott had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at Johnny’s fretting. It was the first time he’d ever seen Johnny concerned about what plates they were using, or for that matter, anything concerned with a meal besides how hot he could make it and how fast he could shovel it down. Johnny made sure they ate at the dining table rather than in the kitchen. He escorted Maria to her seat, pulling out her chair and settling her in before sitting beside her.

Johnny bubbled on throughout the meal, telling Maria about how he and Scott had met, about Teresa, about Barranca, occasionally lapsing into Spanish in his excitement. Maria had to admonish him on several occasions, laughingly telling him to slow down and speak in English.

Murdoch’s contribution to the conversation was limited. He asked no questions, and answered with as little information as he could get away with. Scott held up his part, answering questions about Boston and his grandfather, and how he liked the west so far. Maria seemed to hang on his every word, even laughing almost coquettishly at his jokes. She had Johnny’s dazzling smile, and she exuded a vibrant joyousness.

She was, in a word, enchanting. Scott had never felt jealous of Johnny before, but he suddenly felt a twinge of it. Johnny had spent ten years as the center of attention of this beautiful, caring woman, while Scott had never known a mother. Maria smiled at him, then quickly lowered her gaze, glancing back up from beneath her long lashes. Scott found himself smiling back, caught his father’s glare out of the corner of his eye. He cleared his throat and stuffed a biscuit in his mouth.

Johnny asked Murdoch for the day off so he could take Maria to town to show her off and buy her some pretty things. Maria shushed him before Murdoch could answer, explaining she was too weary from her trip to go shopping. When she promised to go another day, Scott noticed that little vein in Murdoch’s neck throbbing. No doubt he had hoped there wouldn’t be another day. Scott understood Murdoch’s anger at the woman, but he hoped Murdoch would give her a chance for Johnny’s sake. She sure didn’t seem like the ogre Murdoch had led him to expect. As for agreeing to take Murdoch’s bribe, it was possible she felt she had no other choice but to go along with him. After all, Murdoch had been the one who brought it up and then forced the issue.  In fact, he had pretty much pushed her toward the safe the last Scott had seen.

Murdoch ended up giving both boys the day off, so Scott accompanied Johnny and Maria on a tour of the ranch. Maria was suitably impressed with how the ranch had grown since she’d last seen it. They’d started with an introduction to Barranca. She gushed over the horse as though it were her new-found grandson, Johnny glowing with pride as he showed him off. They’d eaten a picnic lunch by the pond. Maria pointed out where Johnny had jumped in over his head as a toddler. Johnny and Scott got into a stone skipping contest, which Maria finally declared a tie so they could be on their way. When they returned, several hands were breaking horses in the corral, and Johnny hopped in and claimed the next ride. Scott half expected Johnny to start yelling “Watch me! Watch me!” to her as he rode the bucking animal, so much did he remind him of a kid showing off to his mother. Then again, Scott had found himself showing off to her as well. Maria had that effect on people.

***

Murdoch watched the spectacle in the corral with growing irritation. Johnny had done nothing but fawn over Maria since their reunion. When Murdoch watched him and Maria drive out in the buggy that morning his stomach had lurched. It had been everything he could do not to run out, pull Johnny back inside the hacienda, and bar the door. He would not let that witch steal his son again.

He sighed as Scott’s words of the previous night echoed through his mind: “Don’t make Johnny choose between the two of you.” Murdoch had a sickening feeling he knew who Johnny would choose. So he had bent over backwards to be nice to the bitch, even giving Johnny the day off to take her sightseeing. He’d given Scott the day off, too, hoping he could act as a buffer between the two, perhaps moderate Johnny’s childish enthusiasm; instead, he seemed to be joining right in. Big help he was.

Teresa was scheduled to return from visiting her friend tomorrow. He couldn’t stand the idea of Maria anywhere near the girl. The Pinkerton report had been very clear about Maria’s so-called profession after she left Lancer. He would have hoped Johnny would have the decency to keep her away from Teresa, but Johnny obviously had no intention of doing so. Murdoch didn’t know how he was going to handle that situation.

Maria had made no mention of leaving, and Murdoch hadn’t had a chance to get her alone to see what her price was. There was no way Murdoch was letting her stay, despite Johnny’s notions. There was also no way he could kick her out. That would play right into her hand, especially given what Johnny had apparently been told as a child.

He clenched his jaw and prepared to be pleasant as he watched his two sons flank the woman he hated, her arms in theirs, all three laughing and smiling. Too bad she hadn’t really died in that fire.

 

Chapter 4

Scott shook his head at Johnny’s misguided plan. They’d been ready to sit down to supper when Johnny burst into the room announcing some cattle had broken through a fence and the two of them needed to go right after them. No, it couldn’t wait until after supper. They’d given their regrets and ridden out to round up the errant steers. But once out of sight of the hacienda, Johnny pulled up. He hauled out some food he’d grabbed from the bunkhouse and announced they would be dining under the stars.

“It’s like a date, Scott. Give ’em time to get reacquainted, if you know what I mean,” Johnny said, smiling at his plan. “Who knows, maybe I’ll get a little brother out of the deal. Have someone to boss around like you’re always trying to do!” He punctuated his scheme with a playful jab to Scott’s midsection.

At that moment Johnny reminded Scott of one of his childhood friends, the one whose parents never seemed to live in the same place at the same time. Bruce was always scheming to get them to do things together. With each failed endeavor, he only tried harder. Yet Bruce never seemed quite so pathetically optimistic as Johnny did tonight.

After a couple of hours Scott finally convinced him it was time to go back. After all, he pointed out, it was only proper. Johnny had countered with the observation that Murdoch and Maria were married, so there was nothing improper about whatever they were doing.

They didn’t even make it to the hacienda before they heard the shouting. The brothers ran inside to find Murdoch and Maria looking as though they would come to blows any second. Johnny rushed between them, trying to keep them apart. “Scott, help!”

Were Johnny’s expression not so distressed Scott would have burst out laughing. Now he knew where Murdoch and Johnny came by their talent for arguing. ‘Welcome to my world, brother,’ he felt like saying.

Maria practically fell into Johnny’s arms, sobbing, while Scott calmed Murdoch. “What’s going on?” demanded Johnny.

Murdoch didn’t answer, but Maria managed to squeak out a reply. “Teresa . . . he said to stay away from her! That he didn’t want me near her!”

Johnny glared at his father. “What do you mean, stay away from her? You got some problem with my mother, old man, you take it up with me.”

“This is between your mother and me, son.”

“No! First you tried to keep her away from me, now you’re trying to keep her away from Teresa! Why don’t you just kick us out again?”

“Johnny! I never kicked you out!”

“Juanito, do not argue with your father! Not because of me! Help me to my room, please.”

Johnny reluctantly guided Maria from the room, still clutching her protectively.  His menacing stare back toward Murdoch made it clear this conversation wasn’t over.

Scott waited for them to go up the stairs. “Well? What was that all about?”

“The woman’s a whore.”

Scott’s face clouded. “With all due respect, sir, please don’t ever talk about Maria that way.”

***

Murdoch tried to sleep, but his stomach was in knots and his jaw ached from grinding his teeth. That bitch! Running to Johnny like that, pretending she didn’t want to come between father and son! Making it sound like the whole argument was about Teresa, knowing full well Murdoch couldn’t say what they were mostly arguing about.

Oh, she’d made quite a show of how she couldn’t trade her time with her long lost son for a few dollars. That was true; she wasn’t about to settle for a few dollars. More like a few thousand, as it turned out. Fine, anything to get her out of Johnny’s life. It was the payment schedule they had stalled on. She wanted it all up front. He would only pay it by the month. Otherwise what was to stop her from showing back up and demanding more? They both knew Maria held the ace in the hole. If Johnny ever found out why Maria left in the first place, or that Murdoch paid her to go away this time, Johnny would likely be leaving with her once again.

He turned over and pounded his pillow. Now she already had Johnny siding with her. He knew he shouldn’t have brought up Teresa, but with the amount of money he was paying Maria, he didn’t think it was unreasonable to add that she not go near the girl. Teresa was far too innocent to be exposed to a woman like Maria.

He wondered, as he had so many times lying in bed just like this, what Johnny’s life with her had been like. Knowing her temper, he had always imagined it must have been tumultuous. Maria had never been a particularly good mother when she was at Lancer.  Plunging a toddler into a life of poverty and violence was further evidence of her self-centered and irresponsible nature. He knew from the Pinkerton report that she had earned a living as a whore, and he could just imagine what Johnny had seen. But never had he imagined she would try to kill herself in front of her child. And from the sound of it, she’d tried to take him with her. He clenched his eyes shut, trying to squeeze the images Johnny’s story had conjured from his mind. He couldn’t. Not entirely. The only image he could replace them with was the one of his hands tightening around Maria’s skinny neck.

 

Chapter 5

Breakfast was once again a grand affair orchestrated by Johnny. Scott shook his head at his brother’s new found flair for entertaining. This time he couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement, lending a hand carrying in plates, correcting where Johnny placed the silver, and adding a few touches of his own. It wouldn’t do to have Maria think they were barbarians.

Consuela was filling in for their regular cook, Maria, while she was away helping a niece deliver her first child. Scott wasn’t sure how they were going to handle two Marias in the house once she returned. The way Johnny was going, he’d probably make Maria the cook change her name. That wouldn’t go over well. Johnny had convinced Consuela to prepare a breakfast feast of Mexican dishes, and he was shoveling it in like he was in a pie eating contest. Murdoch looked even more irritated, if that was possible, than he had at breakfast the previous day. He asked Consuela for biscuits and gravy in place of the huevos motulenos she served. Scott had to admit the combination of eggs, tortillas, cheese, refried beans and the ever present chilies struck him as odd for breakfast, but in deference to their guest he elected to give it a try. He hoped they appreciated the sacrifice; it blistered everything it touched from his lips on down to his stomach. He guzzled water and hoped it wouldn’t just cause steam. Johnny smiled at him and added more chilies.

Johnny stopped eating long enough to suggest plans for the day. Once again he wanted to take Maria to town to buy her some things, and once again she said she wasn’t up to it. Murdoch broke in. “Johnny, remember you promised Teresa you’d pick her up from the stage today.”

Johnny shook his head. “Scott can go.”

“I need Scott here to go over the ledgers. We’re already behind. You promised her.”

“That was before Mama came! Come on, Murdoch, I got plans!”

Maria put her hand on Johnny’s arm. “No, no, Juanito. You made a promise to your family. I need a rest, anyway. You’re tiring me out!”

After the meal Maria retired to her room and Johnny readied the buggy for town, promising to hurry back. He borrowed some money from Scott before he left so he could buy Maria something pretty. Scott gave him twice what he asked for. “Get her something for me, too,” he’d said, and then went on to describe what he had in mind.

Scott got started on the ledgers with Murdoch. By mid morning Murdoch had left to check on the men in the south range. By noon the numbers were swimming around in his head and he pushed the ledger aside. He’d finally found the discrepancy that had caused all the confusion. He’d earned a break, he told himself, wandering out to the courtyard.

He stopped when he saw Maria sitting alone, staring at the garden. She looked up, startled. She seemed sad, almost as if she had been crying. Scott felt suddenly awkward, not knowing if he should retreat and give her privacy, or try to comfort her. She beckoned to him.

“Maria,” he started, but hardly knew what to say next. He kicked himself when all he could think of was “Is something wrong?”

She looked as though she wanted to say something, but just ended up nodding. Scott sat beside her. She melted into him, hiding her face in his shirt and sobbing quietly. He patted her gently, wondering what could be the matter, wishing Johnny were here.

“Please don’t tell Johnny,” she mumbled. “He has his father’s temper.”

“Don’t tell him what?”

“Murdoch. He’s demanded I leave. He threatened to have me arrested.”

“What? Oh come on now, he wouldn’t do that. You’ve done nothing against the law. You must have misunderstood him.”

“Please don’t tell Juanito.” She looked up at him through tear-drenched lashes. “But there is a very old charge against me. It is untrue, but of a delicate nature. I would be declared innocent, I know, but I could not stand the humiliation of standing trial. Especially not in front of my son. Murdoch knows that!”

Scott felt his face flush with rage. That Murdoch would stoop to blackmail in order to get rid of Johnny’s mother was outrageous! It was one thing to bear a grudge, and granted, what Maria did years ago was wrong, but this was uncalled for. From what Scott could see, Maria was nothing but a good influence on Johnny. He’d never seen his brother happier, and yet Murdoch was willing to sell him out simply because he couldn’t get along with her. It was starting to sound like maybe the problem hadn’t been with Maria all those years ago after all.

“Don’t worry, Maria. I’ll handle it.” He held her protectively as she nestled into his arms. Her black hair shone in the bright light, and he couldn’t resist smoothing it. He wasn’t sure why he did it, but he suddenly pecked her lightly on the forehead. She looked up and smiled, their eyes locking.

Scott backed off, clearing his throat and dipping his head before excusing himself. “Do you need anything before I get back to work?”

“No, dear. You’ve already been a comfort. Thank you.”

Scott walked slowly back to the desk. What the hell was he doing?  That was Johnny’s mother! His own stepmother, if you wanted to get technical. Had he acted inappropriately? He played the scene over in his mind. Maria seemed to think it was okay. All he’d done was try to soothe her. It was nothing more than Johnny would have done. He breathed a sigh of relief, almost laughing at himself for his doubts. He was just new at this stepson thing.  Now he felt like a fool for practically running away like he had.

He sat down and pulled the ledger back in front of him. He ran down the column of numbers, adding up everything one more time. It all checked. He knew it would. It had balanced before he went to the courtyard. Maybe he could take a ride and check on one of the crews. He wondered when Murdoch would return. He didn’t want to leave Maria all alone. Then again, leaving her alone with Murdoch would be worse.

He perused the bookshelf, intending to settle in and read. Just as he reached for a volume Maria appeared at the entrance to the room. She hoisted a basket. “I made lunch. Don’t worry, nothing hot,” she added with a laugh. A light, melodious laugh that made Scott feel good all over. “I thought if you weren’t too busy we could eat by the pond.”

 

Chapter 6

The breeze shimmied over the pond, etching glittering ripples on its surface, pushing the surrounding trees to sway and dip their branches in the water. They sat on a rock by the pond’s edge. Maria asked him more questions, about his grandfather, his interests, and finally, the war. Scott found himself sharing things, particularly about the war, that he’d never felt comfortable telling anyone else. She was so easy to talk to. He could tell her almost anything. He thought again how lucky Johnny was to have grown up with this woman as his mother, wondered again what happened between her and Murdoch.

Scott wasn’t sure what he should ask her. Knowing how Johnny guarded his past, and what Murdoch had said of Maria’s, it was hard to know what was safe ground. So he asked her about where she grew up, what she liked to do, and what she thought of Johnny.

The last question made her stop and reflect. “I never thought I would see him again,” she said quietly. She swirled her bare feet in the water’s edge. “He’s so handsome now. But still so much a boy.” She met Scott’s eyes. “Not like you, Scott.” Then she laughed that laugh again. “No, I mean, you are very handsome! But it’s hard to believe you are only three years older. You are so mature, so worldly. I bet you have a hard time finding women who are not little girls to you.”

Scott smiled at the compliment. What she said was true. Most of the local girls were more like schoolgirls, giggling at nonsense. It was just about impossible to have a serious conversation with them. Not like Maria. Not that she was solemn. She was as lighthearted as any schoolgirl when the time was right. But she listened, really listened. He wondered how old she was, even though he knew the thought was terribly inappropriate. She was so youthful looking. She must have had Johnny when she was very young. He played with several figures and finally decided she must be about eighteen years older than he, maybe even less.

“Thirteen years,” she said as though reading his thoughts. “Only thirteen years difference between us.”

He caught his breath, embarrassed that his thoughts were so transparent. “You look even younger,” he stammered, trying to say something polite. That won him a radiant smile before she blushed and turned her eyes down.

At that moment he felt like reaching for her. Instead he jumped to his feet, commenting they’d better get back to the ranch. Johnny and Teresa should be back soon, and he was sure Johnny was anxious to introduce them.

***

Sometimes life was hard to believe. A year ago he’d spent his nights in a saloon, maybe with a lady of the evening, or alone under the stars. Now he looked around and wondered if he was in a dream. Seated at a real table, the same one he was at the night before, and the night before. To his right sat his father, and to his left his mother. He’d seen families seated around dinner tables when he was growing up. It had just never occurred to him that he could be in such a scene. To top it all off, his brother and his think-of-me-like-a-sister sat across from him.

Johnny had started telling Teresa about Maria before her feet left the stagecoach. She seemed befuddled at first, but the more Johnny talked the more he thought she warmed to the idea. Her head had been filled with nonsense about Maria when she was growing up.  All Teresa had to do was meet her and she would see how wrong they’d been. Now the two sat talking about cooking, and Teresa promised to show her the needlepoint she’d been working on. Johnny was pretty sure his mama knew about as much about needlepoint as he did, but the thought was nice.

He wasn’t oblivious to Murdoch’s still stony demeanor. But he wasn’t to the point of giving up hope of them reuniting, either. After all, it had taken Johnny some time to warm up to Murdoch, and he knew both Murdoch and Maria had some old issues to overcome. Maybe he had just expected too much too soon.

Maria was wearing the brooch he’d bought her. He’d chosen one as nearly like the brooch she’d wanted so badly when he was young, the silver one they walked past in the market, day after day. Mama always stopped to finger it, then put it back. Stealing it was the first thing Johnny was ever jailed for on his own account. He’d had to give it back, too. That was the worst part. This one looked almost just like it, maybe even bigger.

And Scott was obviously pleased she was wearing the perfume he’d had Johnny buy.  Johnny had at first been sure it was some kind of mistake when he saw that tiny bottle with the big price tag. He’d had to double check with Teresa to make sure that was really what Scott meant. But Maria seemed tickled with it, and Johnny had to hand it to Scott for knowing his perfumes. She smelled as pretty as a funeral parlor.

He saw Scott and Maria exchanging glances throughout the meal. It warmed him to see how the two of them had taken to each other, as though they had been stepmother and stepson for years. He just knew this was going to work.

***

Scott looked up as he heard Johnny’s steps on the stairs. Not the exuberant tumble of footfalls he’d grown used to in the week since Maria had been here, but a slow, deliberate death march.

“We might as well eat breakfast in the kitchen,” Johnny announced. “Mama’s not coming down.” He seemed far more despondent than his news called for.

“Is anything wrong?”

“No, she just doesn’t feel like coming out. Might be a while.” Johnny plopped into a chair.

“You want to take a tray up to her?”

“No, just leave her alone. She won’t eat it. Not yet.”

“Well, is she sick? We can send somebody for Sam.” Scott started out of his chair to go fetch a hand.

“No! Just leave it, will you?”

Murdoch had been standing silently in the doorway.  He walked over to Johnny. “How long does it last, son?”

“What do you mean?” Johnny picked up a fork and studied it.

“She did this when we were married. Just a few days at first, but it seemed like it got gradually more and more. I think one time she spent two weeks in her room. Other times she was perfectly happy, almost too happy. I never could understand.”

Johnny shrugged. “She just gets really sad sometimes.”

“How long?”

He started twiddling the fork between his fingers. “Like you said, sometimes just a few days. Sometimes a few weeks. Least that’s how she used to be.” He looked up suddenly, as though a thought occurred to him. “You say she did that while she was here?”

“Yes, she had several spells.”

“All after I was born, huh.”

Murdoch seemed startled. “Well, no. I guess she’d been here only a month or so before the first time. I thought it was something I’d done, but I never could figure out what. Never could for any of them.”

Johnny said quietly, “Me neither. I always thought it was my fault. Sometimes, when she was really sad, she even said it was. Because I was mestizo, you know. I made things hard for her.”

“What? Damn that woman! She was like that before you were ever born! It had nothing to do with you or your, your heritage!”

“Wait,” interjected Scott. “Would somebody care to explain to me what’s going on?”

Murdoch and Johnny exchanged glances before Johnny sighed and spoke. “Mama gets real sad sometimes. I mean so sad she can’t get out of bed, can’t cook or hardly eat or nothing. Maybe just drink. At least back then.”

“Is that when she tried to kill herself?” asked Murdoch.

Johnny nodded.

“Murdoch, I’ve heard of this,” said Scott. “It’s like a sickness. She can’t help it.”

“I don’t give a damn what it is,” Murdoch said. “She had no business raising Johnny if she was like that. Who took care of you when she couldn’t get out of bed, Johnny?”

Johnny suddenly looked cornered, defiant. “I managed! I took care of us both, just fine!”

“How?”

“Stop it, both of you!” Scott put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “This isn’t helping. We can ask Sam if he has any suggestions. Meanwhile, is there anything special you know to do, Johnny?”

“I always hid the knives.”

 

Chapter 7

Scott tried to tread quietly down the hallway, but he was all too aware of the soft clomping of his boots. Maria’s despondency had choked the household with a gag of gloom. Johnny was the only one she allowed in her room, and every time he left her it was as though her condition were contagious. His enthusiasm of the previous week was snuffed out, replaced by an almost apologetic resignation. He tried to cover for her, saying she was eating better now, or just had a headache. Murdoch stayed away, acting more disgusted every time Johnny offered an excuse.

Scott couldn’t imagine Maria and Murdoch ever together. If she was the age she claimed, she had been sixteen when she had Johnny. A child.  Scott wasn’t sure exactly how old Murdoch was, but he figured he was at least fifty now. Whatever, he had been a lot older than Maria, at least in his late twenties and more likely his thirties when they wed. At least thirteen years difference between them. It was pretty obvious they had to get married. Maria must have felt overwhelmed, in a foreign country, away from her own family, suddenly a wife and mother, expected to care for a fledgling hacienda, with a much older husband who was more interested in his ranch. No wonder she ran.

Despite knowing what devastating consequences her decision had brought to Johnny, Scott couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her. She would have been eighteen, alone and on the run with a two-year-old child of mixed descent. Suffering from spells of depression. What other way could she have supported them besides turning to prostitution? Instead of condemning her as a whore, Murdoch should be thankful for the sacrifice she made in order to feed Johnny. It was time Murdoch quit damning Maria for a bad choice twenty years ago, and start accepting her as a too-young mother who did the best she could for her son.

He realized he had stopped outside Maria’s door. He missed her. Since their picnic by the pond they hadn’t had much time alone, but he still felt they had a special bond. Scott had introduced her to some of his favorite books, including a few poetry books. She especially loved those, and begged Scott to read from them as she closed her eyes and drifted off.  She told him his voice made her feel safe. He liked that. He wondered if anybody had ever taken care of her the way she deserved to be.

He started to walk down the hall, but her voice from within the room stopped him. “Scott? Is that you?”

“Yes, Maria. Can I get something for you?”

“I’d dearly love some company”

“Johnny’s not here. He had to go work on a fence line.”

“What about you?”

He did have some more accounting to do. But this was the first spark of life Maria had shown in days. “That’d be nice. I’ll meet you downstairs.”

“Scott? Can’t you come in here? I’m just not up to going around other people.”

“Everybody else is out.”

“Scott, it’s alright, just come in here, could you?”

Scott felt a bit awkward about joining her in her bedroom, but then again, Johnny went in there all the time. He found her sitting up in bed, the sheet draped partway across her, her lace bed clothes just peeking through. He started to drag over a chair, but she scooted over and patted the side of her bed. Is this where Johnny sat? Her hair fell in long tresses, and if anything, she looked even younger, more vulnerable.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better.” She smiled, reaching for his hand. “Especially now that you’re here.”

Scott filled her in on what had been going on at the ranch. Maria fell quiet, as though she hadn’t heard any of it. Finally she peered up at him. “Scott, I just feel so all alone here.”

She looked so sad. “I’m here. And Johnny will be back soon. He really loves you, you know. We both do.”

“Could you hold me?”

He couldn’t exactly say no under the circumstances. Johnny probably held her sitting just like this. He let her lean forward into him, her head against his chest, his arm around her. They sat that way for a long time, neither saying a word. He could feel her heart beating, feel her warm breath, smell that she was wearing the perfume he’d bought her.

She finally opened her eyes and gazed up into his. “Do you think I’m pretty?”

He tried not to look surprised. This didn’t seem like something she’d ask Johnny. “Uh, well, of course! You’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known.” He wasn’t lying, either.

“Not too old to be attractive to men any more?” She blinked her dark lashes, looking up through them.

This was definitely not something she’d ask Johnny. And maybe he liked that. She was so beautiful. Besides, she was so sad. “Oh, I guess a blind man might not be attracted. But as for the rest of us who can still see. . .”

“Prove it,” she murmured, moving his hand to her breast and raising her lips to his.

***

Another lousy day. That seemed to be the way of things since Maria had settled into Lancer like the black plague. Instead of taking the money and getting the hell out of his life, the bitch had come up with this I’m-too-sad-to-leave display. If she kept this up he’d give her a taste of what sad really was. He ground his teeth; it seemed his jaws permanently ached these days. The damn bitch knew he couldn’t kick her out, couldn’t really do much of anything. Not without losing Johnny.

So he tried to get out of the hacienda as much as he could, leaving Scott to do the accounting while he took to the range and did a younger man’s job. This morning he’d had it rammed down his throat that he really was too old for that kind of work. He’d been trying to dislodge a limb from the creek bed when something popped in his back, and just to rub it in, the sudden pain had sent him floundering into the water. So now he was squishing ever so gingerly to his room for a change of clothes, having removed his sodden boots outside.

He hesitated as he noticed the bitch’s door was halfway open. Johnny must have come back just to fawn all over her and see how he could wait on her some more. The whole thing made him sick.  How could Johnny have anything to do with her after what she had done? Christ, she’d tried to burn him up! Yet Johnny, who never believed anything but the worst in people, swallowed her story like gospel. She’d tried to kill herself in front of him. Yet Johnny blamed himself for not being able to stop her, or so he had thought all those years she’d supposedly been dead. She’d languished in bed for weeks at a time, ignoring her son. Yet Johnny seemed defensive for not providing enough for her during her self-centered sad spells. Murdoch didn’t even want to know how a mestizo child had managed to get food or money. And here Johnny was again, acting like a stray dog doing tricks to please her. He was supposed to be out tending that fence line. This had to stop. Murdoch strode down to the open door.

And gasped. No, maybe gurgled. A strangled sound you make when you try to gasp but your throat is locked shut. The kind of sound you make when you see your son and your so-called wife on the bed in each other’s arms, lips touching, hands where they should never be.

 

Chapter 8

Scott leaped to his feet. His mouth started moving, like a fish trying to suck air, but nothing came out.

Murdoch couldn’t even digest what he was seeing, couldn’t think about what he was doing, couldn’t do anything but storm across the room, pull the damn slut out of bed and throw her to the floor. “Out! Get out of my house! Now!”  He strode to the dresser, yanked opened the drawers, and starting flinging her clothes at her. He spun on Scott, who was still fish-mouthing.

“Get a man to escort her to town and see that she gets on the stage.”

Scott was helping Maria to her feet. “Murdoch, it’s not what you’re thinking!”

“Oh? And just what is it?” Right now it was taking every ounce of control not to banish Scott to that same stage. “Just don’t talk to me.”

Maria was crying, leaning into Scott. He gently pushed her off him. “Murdoch, I swear. I was just holding her!”

Murdoch shot him a look of disgust. He grabbed Maria by the arm and pushed her toward the clothes. “You have five minutes to get dressed and packed. After that, I’ll drag you out just as you are.”

She stopped sobbing and looked at him defiantly. “Aren’t you forgetting Johnny, dear?”

Jesus! He couldn’t tell Johnny the truth. Johnny’s bond with Scott was the main thing that kept him at Lancer. He couldn’t imagine it surviving this. “You wouldn’t dare!”

“Maria, please don’t,” echoed Scott.

“Don’t what?” came Johnny’s voice from the doorway.

***

Maria wrapped the sheet from the bed around her and scurried over to Johnny. “Mijo, he says I have to leave! He is kicking me out again!”

“Like hell!” Johnny slipped his arm around her. “For one thing, it’s two against one, ain’t that right, Scott?”

“Uh, yeah. That’s right.”

Johnny regarded him questioningly, somewhat surprised at his less than enthusiastic agreement. He looked back at Maria. “That’s settled, you’re staying.”

“The hell it’s settled! You’re forgetting who calls the tune here!” Murdoch looked like those little veins in his temples were going to blow any second. They throbbed even harder when he lowered his voice to a level that wouldn’t stampede the cattle. “Johnny, you’ll have to trust me that my reasons are valid. They’re of a private nature I’m sure your mother would rather not share.”

Johnny tried not to look like he’d been hit. “Don’t you ever get over folks’ pasts, old man? Hell, I guess next time you get mad at me you’ll trot out that Pink report, just close your eyes and point so you can wave whatever your finger hits in my face and kick my ass out of here!  You and your talk about what’s past is past! Why don’t you let her past be past?”

“It’s not from her past.”

“Murdoch,” Scott interjected, “just let it be. Please?”

Murdoch glared at the three of them. “Have it your way.” He turned and stomped from the room. “Scott, I’d like a word with you in private. Now.”

***

Murdoch stood by the fireplace, glowering at Scott, never saying a word. Scott squirmed under his scrutiny. This must be how Johnny felt all those times Murdoch was chewing on him. No, this had to be worse.  Murdoch expected more of him. He was reminded of the time one of his grandfather’s most trusted servants had been caught with the upstairs maid. His grandfather hadn’t fired him, but the man quit the next day. He was just too ashamed to continue working there.

He heard Johnny pounding down the stairs and out the door. Once the door slammed behind him Murdoch finally spoke. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I was just comforting her. She said she needed somebody to hold her.” Scott’s brain had been doing flip-flops trying to think of something better to say.  It had been unsuccessful.

“She didn’t need anyone to hold her where you were holding her! Damn it, do you have any idea what you’ve done? Let’s just ignore the fact that she’s a married woman, my wife, technically!  Maybe just ignore that she’s your stepmother, for Christ sake! I’d just like to know what in the hell you were planning to tell Johnny!”

“There’s nothing to tell, Sir! I, I just went in because she asked me. Just like Johnny would have done, only he wasn’t here. It wasn’t what it looked like.”

“I can’t even begin to tell you how disappointed I am in you. I expected more. Her, I can see. She’s nothing but a common whore, and you’d do well to remember it.”

“Oh, that’s a very nice way to talk about Johnny’s mother! Why don’t you try giving the woman some credit for what she did to keep your son alive! You know, I’m starting to think Johnny’s right. You made it impossible for Maria to stay! So maybe instead of blaming her you need to look in a mirror!”

Scott steeled himself for an explosion, maybe even a belt to the face. Instead Murdoch never acknowledged hearing him. Somehow that was even worse. He simply poured himself a drink without offering one to Scott.

Murdoch paced the length of the room several times without speaking.  “I’m going to leave it to you whether you choose to tell your brother or not. After this, you are never to be alone with that slut. You will say as little as you can to her. You most certainly will not read poetry to her. And you especially will not touch her, I don’t care if she’s drowning. Especially if she’s drowning!”

“Murdoch, this is ridiculous!”

“So is what you did. Get out. Right now I can barely stand to look at you.”

Scott clamped his mouth shut and stormed from the room. He was furious at the lack of trust his father obviously had in him. The idea that he and Maria had to be kept separated like errant teenagers was blatantly offensive.

He stomped out to the barn and started saddling his horse, thinking back on the events in Maria’s room. There was one thing that made Murdoch’s rules even more grating. When his lips had brushed against Maria’s, when his hand had felt her breast through the lace of her nightclothes, it had stirred the most exquisite fleshly lust within him.

“So you gonna tell me what that was all about?” asked Johnny from behind him.

 

Chapter 9

The clank of silver overwhelmed the room. Murdoch was chewing his steak so hard he could pulverize the bone. Scott was having a hard time swallowing his. Johnny spent most of his time glancing from one to the other. Teresa tried to keep the conversation flowing, but finally gave up. Maria, of course, was in her room.

Scott forced another bite into his mouth and tried to look like all was fine. Johnny already knew something was amiss. Scott had dodged his questions as best he could in the barn. He’d finally settled on a half truth, saying Maria had asked him for a pitcher of water and Murdoch didn’t approve of Scott waiting on her or being in her room. Not when he had work to do and Maria was perfectly capable of waiting on herself.

His steak felt like rubber in his mouth. He hated lying to Johnny. But what else could he do? ‘You see, it’s like this, Johnny: Your mama makes me hot.’ He really didn’t want those to be his last words.

Damn! How could he feel that way about Johnny’s mother? He felt like a pervert. His father’s wife, his brother’s mother, his own stepmother! But when he thought about her, or looked at her, she wasn’t any of those things. She was a vibrant, beautiful woman who excited him like no other.

He came to a decision, cleared his throat. “Murdoch, I was thinking I might check on all the line shacks, see how they’re faring supply-wise. Be gone a few days.”

Murdoch didn’t smile. “You do that.”

“I’ll leave after supper. There’s still an hour or so of light.”

Murdoch just nodded. Johnny continued to look confused.

***

Thunk. Johnny jerked awake. The sky outside was paling to charcoal. Almost time to get up. Thunk. There it was again. He hazily wondered at its source. Sudden fear gripped his gut. Mama! He was out of bed and running down the hall, blanket hastily thrown around his bare body. The knives were hidden, but that wouldn’t really stop her. He ran down the hall, slowing at her open door only long enough to see her bed was empty, racing toward the stairs before skidding to a stop. Thunk. Maria was halfway down, dragging her trunk behind her.

“Mama!”

“Juanito! Get some clothes on!”

Johnny pulled the blanket around him more snugly as Murdoch and Teresa stumbled from their rooms. They looked at Maria curiously.

She looked back up at them. “It is time for me to go.”

“No!” cried Johnny. Murdoch aimed a scowl at him but said nothing.

“Mama, no,” Johnny said more quietly as he started down the stairs toward her, his foot catching on the bottom edge of the blanket, almost sending him tumbling, snatching the blanket momentarily out of place.

“Johnny, go get dressed,” commanded Murdoch.

“Don’t take one more step, Mama,” Johnny said, quickstepping back to his room. What the hell had happened here yesterday? Scott had been tight-lipped when Johnny confronted him in the barn. Johnny hadn’t bought his cock and bull story for a moment.  And now, just like that, she was leaving. Damn that Murdoch, he had to be behind this. He shrugged into his clothes as quickly as he could, emerging bootless and with his shirt flying open, but his pants in place. He needed to get back as fast as he could, before Murdoch kicked her down the stairs or something.

With a lurch he felt the old familiar feeling. It wouldn’t be the first time one of Mama’s men knocked her down some stairs. Along with punching her, kicking her, and choking her. And Johnny had always been there, kicking and hitting back, sometimes just getting laughed at, sometimes getting the same as she got. Maybe diverting their attention, never really saving her. He wouldn’t fail her again. He ran.

He slid to a stop at the top of the steps, relief flushing over him as he saw she was still safe. He grabbed the trunk and hauled it back up. “I want to know what the hell is going on here.”

“Teresa, go to your room,” Murdoch said softly. “And Johnny, watch your language.”

Maria climbed up the steps, reached out, and tugged the trunk back toward her. “Let go, Juanito. I’m leaving. It’s time.”

“No! You belong here, with me!”

“This is your father’s house. He has made it very clear I am not welcome.” She peered up at Murdoch, bit her lip, started to sob softly. “He said he would have me arrested if I stayed. Make sure I was humiliated. I cannot do that to you, Juanito.”

“That’s a damn lie and you know it!” shouted Murdoch, stomping down the stairs toward her.

Johnny saw the threat to his mama and reacted out of instinct, striking Murdoch full force in the jaw, sending him sprawling across the top of the stairs. He stood there, stunned at what he had done, stunned at what his mama had told him. Not sure if he should be sorry for hitting Murdoch or if he should do it again.

Lots of things could be humiliating to his mama should they be brought out. He couldn’t let that happen. He wasn’t sure if there was anything she could be arrested for, but he wouldn’t be surprised. He’d spent plenty of time in jail with her when he’d been a kid. He’d kind of liked those times. They usually fed him as much as he could eat. Even gave him candy so he’d shut up while they were bouncing up and down on his mama.

“Don’t worry, Mama, that ain’t gonna happen.” He stepped down and took her hand, pulling her up to him.

She clung to his side, wiping at her tears. “Juanito, no, this is not right. I am coming between you and your father. I need to go. My mind is made up.”

“But—where would you go?”

“I have a place I can stay just south of the border. It’s just...” She broke off and started sobbing again.

“Just what?”

“There are some bad men there who make it hard for me there. Because I am a woman alone. Maybe you could loan me a gun?”

“How many men? Who are they?”

“Not that many, maybe three or four. They are mean, but cowards. I may be able to scare them off with a gun.”

“Mama, please stay! You’re safe here!”

“No,” she said, pulling the trunk down another step. “Goodbye, Juanito.”

Thunk.

Murdoch groaned, stirring. Teresa had rushed back and was kneeling beside him, holding his head, glaring at Johnny.

Thunk.

Lancer was everything he had always dreamed of.

Thunk.

Everything except having Mama back. “Mama, wait. I’m going with you. I’ll get my things. And your trunk.” He stepped over Murdoch as he ran to his room to cram his few belongings in his saddlebags. When he returned, Murdoch was sitting up rubbing his jaw.

 

“Johnny, son, don’t go. She’s lying.”

“Don’t ever threaten my mama, Murdoch. Ever.” He flung the saddle bags over his shoulder and hefted the trunk.

“Johnny!” He could hear Murdoch’s muffled calls even after he shut the door behind them and headed to the barn with Mama.

 

Chapter 10

The bitch had done it after all. Stolen his son a second time. This time right in clear view. He had actually thought of grabbing his gun and shooting her. No jury in their right mind would convict him. But that wouldn’t solve the problem, any more than shooting Johnny would. He’d thought of that, too. Just enough to keep him in bed for a while.

He’d followed them out to the barn and argued the entire time Johnny was hitching up her buggy and saddling Barranca. He might as well have been talking to the horse. Maria had continued her little drama, playing the frightened and helpless damsel to the hilt. The woman should have been on stage.

Johnny had been all too willing to believe her lies about him. Funny thing, it had never occurred to Murdoch to go to the law or have her arrested. Until she gave him the idea. He’d get right on that today.

He rued the day he ever met that witch. He’d sold his soul to the devil between her legs, and the devil was back for his boy. She’d even made off with the first installment of keep-away money he’d given her. The money he’d doubled last night after that little episode with Scott. He figured it was worth twice as much to keep her away from two sons. Now the lying bitch had already broken the deal. Leaving with a son was expressly not part of the bargain.

Fear shot through him as the unthinkable occurred to him. What if she planned to pick up Scott on the way? What if this whole story about checking the line shacks was just part of a plan to run away with Maria? Was it merely a coincidence she was in such a hurry to leave the very next morning? Panic gripped him as he ran up the stairs to Scott’s room.

***

“You want me to do what?” Val leaned back in his chair and scraped the bottom of his boot on the edge of his desk, studying the flakes of dried manure as they drifted to the floor.

“You heard me. I want you to arrest Maria Lancer.”

“For?” He held his hands out to the side, waiting.

“I don’t know! You’re the lawman, figure something out! Do some checking. A woman like that’s bound to be wanted for something!” Besides her cunt, he added under his breath.

“Maybe you want me to arrest her for kidnapping?”

Murdoch glared at him. He knew sarcasm when he heard it. He felt like sweeping the man’s feet off the desk and making him sit up and pay attention. But he knew that would backfire, so he held his breath, tried to appear calm. “Val, you know what she did to Johnny. Now she’s taking him back to Mexico, and you know that’s not safe for him. All I’m asking is that you bring them back, at least stop them before they get there. I have a Pinkerton report that shows the woman was arrested too many times to count when Johnny was a child. I’m sure she hasn’t changed her spots.”

“Yeah, Johnny told me all about him being in jail with her. Still don’t mean I can arrest her now.”

Murdoch turned to study him. “What do you mean, being in jail with her?”

Val shook his head. “What’d you want ’em to do with him? Leave a little kid to wander the streets while his mom’s in jail?”

Murdoch thought back to all the times the Pinkerton report had said Maria was jailed. He felt like hitting something. Something like Maria’s face. Hard. It had never occurred to him Johnny had been in there with her. Growing up in jail! It was a miracle he hadn’t turned out worse than he did. He wondered again what else Johnny had seen fit to share with his old friend that he couldn’t share with his own family. 

Val cleared his throat, slid his feet off his desk and leaned his chair forward. “Listen, I’ll check around. I don’t want Johnny down there any more than you do. See what I can do. Where’s Scott?”

Murdoch tensed. He’d sent men to all the line shacks looking for him. His room hadn’t looked like he’d deserted it, but it was always possible he’d elected to travel light. After all, it would have looked suspicious if he’d packed a trunk to go check the line shacks. “He’s checking the line shacks. I’ve sent someone for him. He doesn’t know.”

“He sure ain’t gonna be happy. Better watch it, he’s liable to take off after them!”  Val pushed himself to his feet, smiling.

Murdoch didn’t find that funny at all.

***

“What happened? What did you say?”

Murdoch was too relieved to see Scott standing in the great room to be angry at his son’s assumption Maria’s leaving was all his fault. When he hadn’t returned that night Murdoch had assumed the worst. Now he felt like falling over in thanks. Instead he simply answered, “Nothing.”

“She just left for no reason? You didn’t encourage her at all.” His accusing tone made it obvious he had every belief that Murdoch encouraged her amply.

“Oh, she left for a reason, alright. To take your brother with her! She fed him some story about how I was going to have her arrested, and he fell for it!”

“Well, weren’t you?”

“What? No!” Murdoch leaned forward. “Where did you hear that?”

“Maria told me,” Scott said, suddenly looking somewhat sheepish. “I told her she must be mistaken.”

“No, she wasn’t mistaken. It’s called lying!”

Scott plopped down into a chair, rubbed his face. “Didn’t you tell her Johnny can’t go to Mexico? That it wasn’t safe?”

“Of course I told her that! Do you think she gives a damn? All she cares about is herself.”

“So what are you going to do?”

Murdoch thought for a moment. Now might not be the best time to mention he was looking into having her arrested. “I’m working with Val. Did she ever mention this place of hers to you? Do you know where it is?”

“No.” Scott shook his head. “Wait, she did mention something once about a place half a day’s ride from Tecate. I can’t say for sure if that’s the one, though.”

“That couldn’t be too hard to find.” Murdoch began opening cabinets, hunting for a map of the area. “Damn her!”

Scott pulled himself to his feet. “I’ll get my stuff together. Maybe I can catch up.”

“No. You don’t know where they’re headed.” He looked at Scott pointedly. “Or what you’ll do when you get there. I’ve already lost one son to that witch. I’ve no intention of losing another.”

Scott flung his gloves down. “Would you get over that? I’m trying to get Johnny back! Maybe if you’d been more tolerant Maria wouldn’t have left in the first place and we wouldn’t be in this fix!” He grabbed his gloves back up and stalked to the door.

***

Murdoch tried to concentrate on the ledgers. Every time he looked, though, all he could focus on was Scott’s impeccably neat entries. He wondered if his ledgers would ever be so perfect again, if his sons would ever again laugh and joke and drive him to distraction while he tried to concentrate on his figures.

Was he really that much of a failure as a father that a two-bit tramp could lure both of his sons away? Surely they couldn’t think Maria was a better parent! Yet she had won. Both of his sons were gone: Johnny with her, Scott in search of her. Of course, he knew Scott wasn’t exactly interested in her maternal attributes. Damn, why couldn’t the bitch have stayed dead?

He should have had the courage to shoot her when he’d had the impulse. He might be in prison, but his sons would be safe. If there was a god somebody would shoot her on the trail. Like maybe a hired gun. He stopped as he considered the idea, then cursed. How low could she make him stoop? He’d always said hired guns spread violence like a cancer. Besides, he probably couldn’t get one to hire on once they found out they’d have to face Johnny Madrid. And what if Johnny got hurt? No, it was a bad idea any way you looked at it.

He got up with a sigh, walking numbly to the window, his thoughts awakened as he saw a rider cantering through the arch. He recognized Val’s horse, an animal that somehow managed to be as slovenly as its rider. He hurried outside to meet him.

“You were right. She’s wanted,” the sheriff said, climbing off his horse. He stood there scratching his back while Murdoch waited.

“Good!”

“Actually, no it ain’t good. She and a partner, a man named Paco Sanchez, apparently almost killed a fellow down in a place called Julian. Gold mining town down near San Diego. Made off with the fellow’s gold. She’s wanted for attempted murder.”

 

Chapter 11

The orange hues of the sky bled into the rocks and sand. Yellow dust billowed up behind the horses, cloaking the buggy. Johnny knew this road. It looked desolate but it led to a long valley with a stream that meandered through it for miles, nourishing trees and grass. He urged the horses to move faster, aiming to make it there before dark.

He hated to see his mama camping out. She needed to be in a hotel, on a real bed. But she had refused, saying she wanted to go whatever way was fastest. And that meant bypassing most of the towns that were off the route. Dusk was settling in by the time they found the valley.

Once by the stream he helped her from the buggy and started tending to the horses. She gathered wood for a fire and got it started, warming their remaining food. Johnny leaned back on his saddle, marveling that he was peering up at the stars with his mama at his side. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d studied these same stars, their lights blurred by tears, and prayed for them to return his mama. He’d imagined God must be looking through them, like peepholes, spying on him. Laughing.

He’d tried to ask her what she’d been doing all those years, but her answers were always vague. Sort of like the way Johnny answered her about his past. He knew the way she lived her life when she was with him. She’d probably had to continue making her living the same way. It was something he didn’t talk about with her.

A horse snorted. Not one of theirs. He pulled his gun from its holster and jumped up, aiming into the dark, gesturing for Maria to stay down.

“Johnny?”

“Jesus, Scott, you trying to get yourself shot?” Johnny smiled broadly. “Long way to ride for supper.”

Maria was on her feet, running toward him. “Scott!”

Scott hugged Maria and slapped Johnny’s shoulder. “An inch would be too far to ride if you’re cooking, brother. I was just counting on Maria doing the honors. That, I’d ride anywhere for.”

“You sit, we have plenty!” Maria dragged him to the fire while Johnny was left to take care of Scott’s horse.

“So what really brings you here?” Johnny asked once he returned.

“I came to bring you both back,” said Scott as Maria heaped beans onto his tin plate. “Murdoch and I discussed it. Maria, he agreed you can stay as long as you want. He’ll even give you your own place. The old Douglas place, Johnny. It needs some fixing up, but it would be perfect. It’s on Lancer land, just a short way from the main house,” he explained to Maria.

“What about having Mama arrested?”

“They can’t arrest her for something she’s never done! Besides, I asked him about that. He says it must be a misunderstanding. He promised he never talked about doing that. Not to mention he knows neither of us would ever forgive him.”

Johnny scuffed the dirt with a stick. “He tell you I punched him good?”

“He understood you were upset.  He’s not mad at you. Except for leaving.” Scott took a bite of beans, then grabbed for his canteen.

“Oh, is it too hot?” Maria asked, her hand shooting to Scott’s shoulder.

“No, perfect!” Scott coughed, throwing a quick scowl at Johnny’s grin. He took another sip, blinked a few times, took some deep breaths. “The thing is, Johnny,” he croaked out, “he’s worried sick about you going to Mexico. You know it’s not safe for you.”

 

“So what’s new?” Johnny shrugged.

“Not safe?” Maria removed her hand from Scott and placed it on her chest. “Why not?”

“I kinda got the rurales mad at me last year when I got away from them. Spoiled their party.”

“The rurales? No! Juanito, you must turn back! I can take care of myself.”

“Mama, so can I. And I don’t plan to let them know I’m around.”

“Maybe I will consider your father’s offer. But I would still need to go to my home and collect my things. Some are very precious to me. But you are not coming. Scott can come.”

***

“A bounty?”

“Yeah, two hundred dollars. Seems the feller that got hurt has a rich daddy back east who’s purty darn mad about it. Or at least about losing that gold. He got rewards out for Maria, this Sanchez guy, and the gold. But with a bounty like that, there could be some bounty hunters. Specially when they see it’s a woman. They figure easy pickins.”

“I’m going after them.” Murdoch was already buckling his gun belt.

“Figured you would.” Val grinned and patted his bedroll. “I already got my stuff packed.”

***

Scott awakened as he heard rustling in the dark. “Going hunting,” whispered Johnny. “We need meat. Be back in a few hours, I reckon. You stay with Mama.”

He nodded. Anything but those molten beans. Tendrils of pink clouds were barely visible in the eastern sky as Johnny walked Barranca from the clearing. Maria was still sleeping, shivering in the chilly morning air. Scott got up and draped Johnny’s abandoned blanket over here. She opened her eyes and smiled. “Where’s Juanito?”

“Out hunting.”  He got up to take care of his morning business. He threw some more wood on the fire and fanned it with a discarded plate to get it burning hotter. He noted that Maria was also up.

She came to stand beside him. “I’m sorry about getting Murdoch mad with you,” she said, leaning against him lightly when he stood up. “But not about what we did.”

Scott stepped away quickly. “It was a mistake. You’re a beautiful woman, Maria, and under any other circumstances. . .”

“Because Murdoch and I are married? We haven’t been husband and wife in twenty years. Surely he can’t think he can control what I do or who I do it with.” She walked to him, taking both his hands in hers. “And he can’t control you forever, either.”

“He doesn’t control me!” Scott pulled his hands back. “It’s not just him. It’s Johnny. He’d never understand.”

She took his hands again, leaned in closer, and guided them around her back, leaning into him, looking up at him. “Johnny understands a lot more than you think. He knows I’m a woman, and I have my needs.” She reached up and kissed him on the mouth, her tongue flicking into his.

He tried to pull back, but he felt rooted to the spot, felt himself responding against his will, giving in and pulling her tight, kissing her hard. It was wrong, he knew it in his mind, but it felt so right in his body.

A horse whinnied behind him. Dear lord! He pushed himself away, wiping his mouth and whirling around, eyes wide. Nothing. Just his own horse. Just enough to teach him what could have happened.

“No, Maria. I can’t do this. It’s wrong. And I won’t do anything that would jeopardize my relationship with Johnny.” She stepped toward him. He backed up and threw his hands out in front of him.

“Since when does a boy tell a man what to do?”

She reached for the buttons on her blouse.

***

The day was off to a good start. He tied the second rabbit over his saddle horn. That was more than enough, and although he’d had to ride a fair distance, he’s gotten both rabbits within minutes of one another. The coffee would still be fresh when he got back to camp.

He felt better about things now that Scott was with them. He could leave his mama while he went hunting without worrying about her. Plus with Scott here, Mama was more likely to listen to reason and come back to Lancer. She and Scott had hit it off better than Johnny could have ever dreamed. It was as though she had been his stepmother all his life.

He walked Barranca into the clearing. And stopped, confused by what he was seeing.

Mama’s blouse was open, her breasts exposed. He was groping her like he was squeezing melons, smothering her mouth with his, shoving his knee between her legs, forcing her backward, just as Johnny had seen so many goddamn men do to Mama before. Johnny flung himself at him, hurling him off her, pounding his fist into his face, over and over, until the blond head lolled to the side.

 

Chapter 12

“Mama!” Johnny stepped over to hold her, but she was already running toward Scott, buttoning her blouse crookedly, kneeling beside the prone man, turning him gingerly on his back.

Johnny snatched some rope and roughly tied the unconscious man’s hands. “What happened?”

Maria didn’t answer immediately, instead pouring water from the canteen onto a bandana and placing the wet cloth on Scott’s forehead. His eyes flicked open and he tried to sit up, groaning as he did.

“What happened?” Johnny repeated, standing over Scott.

“Johnny, please don’t blame Scott! We didn’t hear him until he was on us. He held his gun on me, made Scott turn around, then hit him on the head and knocked him out.  Then he, he tried to have his way with me.” She grabbed at her buttons again, noticing they were buttoned wrong.

“I’m sorry, Maria,” whispered Scott.

“You okay, Scott?”

“Just a headache,” he replied, rubbing the back of his head.

Johnny walked back over and studied the scrawny blond attacker, then scanned the area around the clearing in case he had friends. “Whitey Stubb,” he finally said. “A two-bit bounty hunter.”

“A bounty hunter!” gasped Maria.

“You know him?” Scott was sitting up, still rubbing his head.

“Yeah, I know him. He’s the kind that gives a bad lot a bad name. Goes after people he figures won’t fight back. Like old folks, women folk, kids.”

“You?” Scott asked, still rubbing his head.

Johnny nodded. “He tried, long time ago. Before he found out some kids fight back.” He smiled cockily.

“Oh, Juanito, no!” Maria hugged him, then pushed back and looked him in the eye. “Kill him, Juanito! Kill him before he picks on any more women and children!”

***

The images kept jumping into his head, swirling around in a tangled mess: Mama crying out when a customer turned mean, Mama stripping in front of a room of men, Mama laughing as yet another man took her. But the one that made him feel sickest was the image of his mama being groped that morning by Scott. Scott! What a sick thing for him to have thought when he first rode into the clearing and saw the blond man on his mama. It was only after he realized Scott was lying on the ground that he’d been able to jump from Barranca and pull Stubb off. He was ashamed his mind could conjure up such filth. Even more ashamed that it kept jumping back in there, with all the other memories. Dios, if Mama or Scott ever knew such a thing they would be too disgusted to ever claim him.

Mama seemed pretty disgusted with him as it was. He felt like when he was a kid and Mama was mad at him, like one of the roaches she squished under her finger. Still he couldn’t do what she had asked.

He’d wanted to kill the man. Could have gotten away with it. Neither Maria nor Scott would say it wasn’t in a fair fight. But he’d know it. He’d tried to get Stubb to face him and draw, tried to goad him into it, but Stubb wasn’t dumb enough. He recognized him as Madrid and simply fell back on the ground every time Johnny hauled him up. He’d have still done it if he’d been alone. He’d done worse. But not in front of his mama or brother. He couldn’t stand having them know what he could really do.

Scott had suggested taking Stubb to the nearest town and having him arrested for assaulting Maria. Maria vehemently refused, saying it would do no good. Johnny reluctantly agreed with her. He privately explained to Scott that a Mexican woman accusing a gringo would at best be ignored, more likely be accused of whoring, especially if they figured out she already had a half-breed son. Even with Scott and Johnny as witnesses, they were likely to claim they were using her themselves. Scott had been infuriated, and for a moment Johnny thought he might shoot the man himself.

He didn’t mention the other reason. He didn’t think it was possible but you never knew. There was that matter of the bounty on his head. It was only a Mexican one, so it didn’t count here, but there was always a chance they could haul him back. He felt sick at the thought he could have been responsible for the man pawing at his mama.

So Johnny had left him tied, figured the guy could get himself lose given all the sharp rocks around, and whispered if he came after them he would be a dickless dead man.  He’d kicked him hard in the groin just so he paid attention.

Scott was riding in the buggy beside Maria, looking a little sick. He’d tried to ride his horse, but when he attempted to mount him he’d staggered backward, still woozy from the blow to his head. Johnny had flatly told him he wasn’t planning on peeling him off the ground in another few miles, and Maria had led him to the buggy by the hand. Now she had her arm around him so he leaned against her as she drove. Johnny once again felt a tickle of elation as he saw his mama and brother so close. It was almost the perfect dream. Almost. Why couldn’t Murdoch accept Mama back and make their family complete?

It was something he tried to ignore, but since his mama had arrived it kept nudging its way back into his thoughts. What had really happened to make her leave Lancer all those years ago? Mama had always said Murdoch kicked them out. That he was ashamed of having a Mexican wife and mestizo son. But although Murdoch was clearly not as proud of Johnny as he was of Scott, which was understandable, he’d never seemed actually ashamed of him. Teresa had claimed his mama had run off with a gambler. If Mama had, she must have had good reason. Whatever had happened, she had clearly forgiven Murdoch. It was too bad he couldn’t meet her halfway. Maybe if she came back and moved into the Douglas place they would grow closer in time.

At least Mama and Scott had forgotten about traveling to Mexico without him. With luck, they wouldn’t remember until it was too late to argue.

Maria reached over and felt Scott’s forehead. Scott responded by grinning and slapping it playfully away. Johnny smiled to himself. Scott was smart. He could probably figure out a way to get Murdoch back together with her.

 

Chapter 13

Barranca’s gold shape disappeared through the ripples of heat, carrying Johnny with it. The watering hole they’d planned to camp at was dry. Johnny knew of another that was off on a side path and had gone to check it out.

Scott’s head still pounded. Maria handed held a canteen to his lips. He took it, swallowed several mouthfuls, started to recap it, but she took it back and held it back to her lips so they glistened when she pulled it away. They looked swollen, a reminder of his failure to protect her from Stubb.

He’d let himself become so mesmerized by the sight of her bare bosom that he’d never heard Stubb coming. And one Stubb had clubbed him, he’d just lain there, vaguely aware that Maria was being attacked, unable to stop it, to even get to his feet.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” he said.

Maria looked down. “I felt so ashamed for you to see that. I would not blame you if you didn’t want to touch me now.”

“What?” Scott twisted in the buggy seat and placed both hands on Maria’s arms. “No! You’ve got that all wrong! It was my fault, not yours!”

Maria met his eyes, blinking away the tears. “Oh Scott, I was so afraid!” She began to sob quietly, leaning into his chest as he gingerly put his arms around her.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of now. He’s not coming back.” Scott tried to twist back, but only partially succeeded as she clung to him.

“What about us?” she mumbled into his shirt.

Scott fell silent, contemplating how to answer. He knew he had deep feelings for this woman, maybe even loved her. “It can’t ever be.”

Maria sat back, but still leaned against him. “Because of Juanito?”

“Johnny and Murdoch. Your son and your husband. My brother and my father.”

“Murdoch already told me he wants a divorce.”

“Even if somehow that would work out, Johnny will always be your son and my brother. No divorce is going to change that.”

They rode in silence as Maria picked at her dress. Taking a deep breath, she finally spoke. “Juanito’s not your brother.”

***

“What the hell happened to you?”  The tall man lit a cigar, shaking the match out, as he looked down from his horse.

Stubb glowered at the new arrival. The blood from his lip and nose had dried, and his eye was already purpled and swollen half shut.  “Just untie me, Zack. I got news.”

Zack swung off his horse, shaking his head. “I tell you, let you out of my sight for an hour, you get yourself beat up and tied up.”

“It was Johnny Madrid.”

“Madrid?” He pulled the cigar from his mouth. “You weren’t dumb enough to try to bring him in, were you?”

“Hell, no! But lemme see the flyers.” He rubbed his wrists and gingerly touched his face while the other man dug through his saddlebags and pulled out a sheath of papers.

Stubb searched through the sheets. “Yep! Right here. Maria Sanchez. The one who tried to kill that guy over in Julian and took his gold. Two hundred for her, six hundred for the gold. Damn! I had her, but I weren’t expecting she had Johnny Madrid guarding her. Some other guy, too. That means she must have the gold on her.”

The big man whistled. “Eight hundred dollars! That’s a good payday.  But Johnny Madrid?  Plus another guy? How’d the other guy look?”

“Blond fellow, kinda spindly. Reckon he’s the guy she’s wanted with.” He flipped through a few more papers. “No, the other guy’s a Mex. Paco Sanchez. Damn, he’s worth four hundred! Maybe this guy’s another gun.”

Zack was squatting, rotating his cigar in his fingers. “Reckon she must know where he is. That’d be twelve hundred. All we gotta do is lay back and let her lead us to him. She sure didn’t get very far from Julian. Maybe Sanchez is laid up.”

“What about them hired guns? I ain’t facing off against Madrid. Can’t spend money dead.”

Zack stood up quickly. “We just wait our chance. Come on.”

Stubb looked around, wondering where his horse had gone after Madrid had spooked him off. Zack wasn’t going to like this.

***

Scott felt like he’d been whacked in the head again.  He grabbed the side of the buggy with his free hand. “What do you mean?”

“Murdoch is not his father. I . . .  Scott, a gringo forced himself on me. It was rape. He left me with child. I was so young, I didn’t know what to do. I met Murdoch, and I know it was wrong, but I had relations with him. On purpose. I told him the child was his so it wouldn’t grow up without a father, without a name. . . You have to understand, Scott, I did it for Juanito!” She was sobbing again, even harder this time.

Scott’s mind was reeling, his world crumbling. It couldn’t be true. But a hollow part of him said it was. “Johnny doesn’t know, does he?”

She shook her head.

“Murdoch?”

“Juanito was born early. At first Murdoch didn’t say anything. But in time he started to question. Juanito did not look gringo enough for him, not then. Finally he accused me of sleeping with another man. He was furious. I was afraid, not just for me, but for Juanito. We left in the night with a man who promised to help hide me.”

Scott stared numbly ahead.

“The point is, Scott, Juanito’s not really your brother. That means we’re free to be with one another.”

“No.” Scott shook his head. “No. No matter what, Johnny’s my brother. Always.”

Maria leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re such a good man, Scott. You’re so good to my Juanito.”

Scott smiled feebly.

She leaned against him. “Do you ever wonder how things could be? What if you never knew Juanito? What if he really had died in that fire?”

Scott thought back on the past year. The year since he’d met Johnny had been one of the most tumultuous, frustrating, and best years of his life. Brother or not, he hated to think of his life were he never to have known him. “I don’t know that I’d still be here. I may have gone back to Boston.” He thought some more. Now seemed like a good time to ask. “So what happened in that fire?”

Maria dabbed at her eyes. “I told him and told him not to play with the lantern. He was always into everything. He liked to set things on fire.  I had gone to the market, and when I got back the house was on fire. I tried to find him, get to him, but it was too late. They pulled me out.  I was hurt, very badly.  When I woke up they told me he had died in the fire. He had hidden in a trunk. We had such a nice house, but it was gone, along with my dear Juanito. I could not stand to stay there.”

What about the suicide attempt? Being locked in the trunk? How do you ask about that politely? Maybe Johnny was mistaken. Maybe his was the story a 10-year-old overwhelmed by guilt would make himself believe.  Maria had shown she could be depressed. But suicidal? He never saw her try to kill herself.

Maria interrupted his thoughts. “That’s such a sad memory, I’d rather not think about it. But I wonder, what if Juanito really hadn’t made it? What about us?”

“What? I’d. . . No, if Johnny wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be either. I would never have met you.”

“I understand that. But you are here, and we have met, even grown quite fond of one another. What if Juanito left and you knew he was never coming back?”

The question left him at a loss. He knew the right answer. He just didn’t know if it was the truthful one.

 

Chapter 14

Johnny cursed himself again. It had all happened so fast. He’d been fishing in his saddlebags for some jerky when he heard the rattle. By the time he’d twisted forward in the saddle and pulled his gun, one of the buggy horses was already rearing, falling against the other horse, both trying to bolt in different directions until they left the road, tried to leap a boulder, and fell again in a tangled pile of flailing legs. Scott was already out, trying to calm them, but it was quickly clear the mare wasn’t ever going to get up. They unharnessed her just to make sure, but her leg dangled at a funny angle. Scott led Maria and the other buggy horse to the far side of a hill while Johnny ended the mare’s suffering. The surviving horse was cut and limping, but she’d recover. She sure wasn’t going to be pulling that buggy very far over this terrain, though.

They’d untangled the harness lines and hitched her back into place. Scott had volunteered his horse as a substitute, and they’d worked with him for almost two hours, but it gradually became clear hitching him up was a recipe for another catastrophe. Nobody even suggested they try Barranca.

In the end Johnny led the single buggy horse in harness, while Maria rode behind Scott on his horse in order to lighten the buggy’s load. At least Johnny had scouted a campsite earlier. Maria and Scott could stay there while he went in search of a village in hopes of buying a harness-broke horse. He hoped to be back in two days, but it all depended on the availability of a usable horse. He sure didn’t envy Scott and Mama sitting around all that time with nothing to do. 

***

The harness needed some light mending, which occupied Scott for the next hour.  He marveled once again at Maria’s pluck in driving the buggy along this same trail all the way to Lancer. He still wasn’t sure exactly why she’d traveled there. She said it was to make amends with Murdoch. Too bad Murdoch had been so stubborn about accepting her back. He didn’t have to go as far as Johnny seemed to expect, but he could have at least been civil to her. Then again, after catching them in Maria’s room, Scott supposed he did have some reason to be angry. He wondered if Murdoch had announced his intended divorce before or after that.

He checked out the buggy, made a few repairs, and declared it ready to go. The buggy horse was still lame, but she didn’t appear to be in pain. By the time Johnny returned she should be fit.

Maria had gone ahead and cooked one of Johnny’s rabbits, and they’d enjoyed a leisurely meal. She obviously held back on the spices, for which Scott was grateful. Not that he wasn’t learning to appreciate the spicier things in life, he thought, as he watched her fan herself in the oppressive heat, a trickle of perspiration traversing its way between her breasts.

They didn’t speak of what Maria had said, but he couldn’t get his mind off it. He wished she hadn’t told him. Yes, in a way it opened the door for the two of them. But he didn’t want it opened like this. If Johnny ever found out it would kill him. Regardless, Maria was still Johnny’s mother, and that made her off limits. At least he was pretty sure it did. 

Scott gathered the plates and started with them to the creek. Maria was quickly by his side, reaching for a plate. “Scott, that’s woman’s work. You go lie down.”

“You’re the one who did most of the driving today. The very least I can do is the dishes.” He knelt by the spring and started dousing the plates.

She knelt next to him, their sides touching, her hands closing over his in the water. “I like doing things for you, Scott.”

They finished rinsing them together. Scott stood and extended his hand to help her up, but her foot slipped on the wet rock. He jumped for her, too late. She fell into the water, pulling him with her, splashing him playfully, giggling like a school girl. He sputtered and started laughing with her. Then they both fell silent, searching each other’s eyes, the water swirling around them. Her wet blouse clung like a lover to her body. Scott reached for her and pulled her in tight to him, his lips seeking out hers, his hands exploring the places he wanted to claim.

***

Stubb was beginning to wish he’d never mentioned Johnny Madrid and the wanted woman to Zack. As usual, Zack had taken over, barking out commands like he was leading a regiment. Hell, it was Zack’s fault Stubb’s horse had bolted once they’d finally found him. He’d been peacefully grazing until Zack had started yelling out orders on just how Stubb should catch him. If he’d had only shut up, Stubb could have walked right up to the damn horse instead of chasing him all over creation while Zack told him everything he was doing wrong.

He still wasn’t sure how bright this idea was. He remembered his first encounter with Johnny Madrid, a pup of a kid who’d managed to get himself a dog-sized bounty. It was a private bounty, something to do with stealing some already stolen loot from a mayor anxious for the details not to get out. Stubb had jumped at the chance to collect big money for a little kid. He’d caught him, too, with a lucky break, when the barn the kid was sleeping in caught fire with a little help from Stubb’s match. Madrid had been frantically slapping at horses, pushing them through the flames out the barn door. Stubb didn’t think he’d ever seen an expression of pure terror on anybody’s face to match the look on that kid’s that day. He wanted to think it was from the gun pointed at his face, but he knew that look was already there before the kid ever saw the gun. In fact, the kid’s face had gone ice cold once he saw Stubb. Stayed that way, too, except for an occasional cocky grin when he’d say something smart mouthed, right before Stubb wiped it off with his fist each time. He’d thought the kid had passed out, had no idea where he came up with the knife, but the next thing he knew Madrid was sticking it at his throat with a look that left no doubt about whether he’d really slash him. Madrid could have just run, but instead, he’d gone to where he had the loot stashed, draped a huge silver cross around Stubb’s neck and tied him on his horse in front of the mayor’s house in town for everyone to gawk at the next morning. Smart ass kid. He’d sworn to get even, but as Madrid’s reputation grew, Stubb thought he’d rather just live. Of course, with Zack on his side maybe the odds would be a little better.

A lone shape against the blaring blue sky caught his attention. A buzzard, drifting ever downward in a lazy spiral, finally disappearing beyond a rock strewn hill. Nothing particularly noteworthy about it. Not until they rounded the boulder at the hill’s edge and saw the rest of the birds, hopping and flapping, jostling their way in to the buffet.  The two men rode into their midst, studying the body of the dead horse. Zack pushed his cigar to the side of his mouth, grinning widely.

***

“Oh, they ain’t gonna believe it when they set eyes on you!” Johnny looked again at the horse he’d bought. Maybe not as good as the one they’d lost, but a workmanlike animal that was well broke to harness. Best of all, he had found him at the small ranch he’d practically stumbled over, much closer than he’d been expecting to ride. He’d ridden all night, anxious to be back with Mama and Scott. The sun was just firing over the distant crags when he pushed his way through the thicket into the clearing by the spring.

Mama and Scott were sitting beside one another, but neither turned to acknowledge him as he called out. He was suddenly aware of silence. He started for his gun. The click of a hammer being cocked stopped him. That, and the sight of Scott—no, Stubb! — pointing a gun at Mama’s head. He dropped his gun and went hollow inside.

 

Chapter 15

He smelled cigar smoke for a while before it registered. But it was the sun beating down on him that finally made waking up preferable to just lying there. Or so it seemed, before he tried to move and found out not only he couldn’t, but his head felt like a horse had stomped on it. Shit! Mama and Scott! Those men were holding them prisoner right before they whomped him on the head. He squinted his eyes open, everything way too bright and blurry.

He made out boots walking up to his face, the jingle of their spurs somehow still distant. The smell of cigar smoke got stronger, right before the man belonging to the boots squatted before him and blew a puff of it in his face. Johnny sputtered and coughed, his head feeling like it would pop.

“Johnny Madrid, eh? You don’t look so tough to me.”

Johnny could hear him taking a large suck on his cigar. Suddenly his view was filled with the orange glow of the cigar’s smoldering fire. He jerked his head back, but the man thrust the cigar closer to his eyes. “You give me any shit, boy, I’ll burn your eyeballs into shriveled up coals.”

His eyes watered uncontrollably, until he squeezed them shut against the smoke and heat. Still he could feel it singe his lashes. “Fuck you,” he stammered. He took a deep breath when the heat finally left his face. He heard the man puff deeply again, wondered why he was reaching behind him until he felt the hot fire press into the palm of one of his tied hands. He gasped, struggling to squirm his palm away from the searing ember, trying to roll over to stop the pain. Dios, the man hadn’t even asked him anything! He heard his brother yelling for him to stop, but he couldn’t focus on anything but the fire digging into his hand. He bit his lip, determined not to cry out, not to let the man laugh like Paco used to do when he screamed at the burns.

“Stop!” Johnny gasped. “Just tell me what you want.” Now he could see him, a big rusty-haired fellow, with squinty eyes you couldn’t really see and a beard stained by nicotine.

He put the cigar back to his lips, leaned down and blew smoke in Johnny’s face. “The gold, boy, what the hell do you think?”

“Gold?” Johnny’s mind swam around as he tried to remember anything about gold. The cigar ate into his palm again before he could answer. He gasped, fighting off the urge to retch at the smell of burning flesh. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He tried to focus on his mama and Scott, saw Scott, his face bloodied and bruised, struggling against his binds, calling out something, Mama turning away. He couldn’t figure out why both of them were half dressed. Dios, those bastards better not have tried anything with Mama! He tried to calm his voice, but he was panting too hard.  “Let them go. I’m the one with the bounty on me.”

***

“Leave him alone!” Scott yelled again, feeling a wave of relief when the man stood up. Until he drew back his boot and kicked Johnny in the head, leaving him ominously still. 

“Shhhh. Don’t get his attention,” whispered Maria. “He might come over here.”

“Stubb! Drag Madrid’s sorry ass over to the others.” Stubb jumped to follow orders, taking a free payback kick at Johnny’s groin while Zack moseyed across the clearing to stand over Maria. “What’s the matter, senorita? You don’t like my company?”

Maria looked up, her lashes fluttering, her lips pouting. “How would I know? I haven’t had it yet.” Her white camisole lay open, draped gauzily over one breast, partially exposing the other.

Zack chewed on his cigar, pushing it from one side of his mouth to the other, finally reaching over and pulling her camisole the rest of the way to one side. His grin turned into a lecherous smile, his brown teeth almost disguised by his matching beard. “You’ll have to excuse my bad manners for not paying you proper attention, senorita.”

“Keep your hands off her!” Scott yelled. More quietly he spoke to Maria. “Maria, you don’t have to do this. I’ll get Johnny out. He’ll be alright.”

“Oh yeah?” Zack snorted, still not taking his eyes from Maria. “That’s mighty big talk from somebody trussed like a pig.”

Stubb hauled Johnny over beside Maria. He was moaning, trying to move, maybe coming to.

Scott glowered at Zack. “Look, mister, I don’t know what you want, but it doesn’t involve the lady. If there’s a bounty on my brother, I’m certain it’s a mistake we can clear up very easily.”

“Brother?” Zack raised a brow. “What the hell you trying to pull? You don’t look like no brother, not to Johnny Madrid.”

“Listen, just contact our father, Murdoch Lancer, in Morro Coyo. Or better yet, the sheriff of Green River, Val Crawford. He can set you straight. We’ll be glad to accompany you to the nearest telegraph office, but meanwhile let the lady loose. She’s not involved.”

Zack started chuckling. “You hear that, Stubb? By all means, let the lady loose. She got nothing to do with nothing.”

Stubb leered. “Yeah, she sure looks innocent to me.”

Maria thrust out her bottom lip. “I could show you just how innocent, if you let me loose.”

“Maria, no,” Scott whispered.

“Oh, I seen, lady, I seen,” Zack said. “You and that young buck looked like you was just about to rut. You the last thing from innocent.” He managed to lick his lips with the cigar still between them. “I like that.”

Stubb stepped up closer. “Them two’s like a couple of dogs in heat. They been going at each other every time I come up on ’em.” He nodded toward Scott. “I bet he’s scared shitless she’ll find out what a real man got in his pants!”

“Reckon that lets you out,” Zack said.

“I’ll ask you not to speak like that in front of the lady!” said Scott, clenching his jaw, glancing nervously in Johnny’s direction. Johnny was staring at them, his head swaying, a confused look on his face. Scott hoped it was from the kick to the head. “Fix her clothes, now! And if you have a bounty on my brother, I’d like to see it.”

Zack nodded to Stubb, who pulled out several papers. He held one up to Scott’s face.

“This is from Mexico. We’re still in the States,” Scott said flatly. “It’s not legal here.”

“Well, I never was too good at geography.” Zack threw his cigar butt down and ground it with his boot. “But since you point that out, I reckon we can just drop our little senorita off before we leave the good ol’ Estados Unidos. Show him.” Stubb thrust another bounty poster under Scott’s nose. The one that said Maria was wanted in the United States for attempted murder.

***

He couldn’t figure out what Stubb was showing Scott. Maybe because he was still working on what the two bounty hunters had said about Mama. His mama and Scott? They couldn’t have said what he thought they had. His mind was once again going perverted on him. What the hell was wrong with him?

And why was Scott just staring at that piece of paper? And Mama just looking down? He knew, though. It was the bounty on him. They must be sickened at what they were learning he’d done. Damn, that wasn’t even the half of it. He bet his mama wished Scott were her son instead of him.

It was then he noticed Mama’s open camisole. His face burned as hot as his palm. Mama was smiling, a languid smile he’d grown to hate, a smile he knew was meant only for her men. “Mama, no,” he managed to mumble. Dios, he couldn’t let her do that for him!

 

Zack had been reaching for her breast, but stopped and cocked his head. “Mama? Did I hear you say this is your mama?”

“No!” Through his haze Johnny realized his mistake too late. “Maria. Called her Maria.”

Zack looked from one captive to another. “Well now I am rightly confused here.  If blond boy’s your brother, and senorita here’s your mother, how come I seen them two swallering each other’s tongues and ripping each other’s clothes off? Either somebody’s lying, or you got one fucked up family there, Madrid.”

 

Chapter 16

“You sick son, son of . . .” Johnny’s words were slurred, and he lost his touch with consciousness before finishing. Zack was looking from Johnny to Maria, like he was studying something.

“You know, them two kind of look alike, even for a Mex and a breed.” Zack bit off the end of a new cigar. “You know what, Stubb? I think we got Johnny Madrid’s mama here. Along with her beau.” He struck a match on his boot and lit a new cigar, taking a couple of big puffs as he stared at Maria. “You planning on making another breed, senorita?”

Maria tossed her head defiantly. “I would never have a mestizo on purpose!” She spoke to Zack more softly. “But that doesn’t mean the two of us couldn’t have a little fun. You let me go, and I’ll make sure you never want to trade me for that bounty.”

Scott’s head shot up at Maria’s declaration. This had to be part of some plan. She was flirting for all she was worth, paying no attention to the son she had just pretty much declared a mistake. For his part, Johnny’s eyes had drifted half open, but he didn’t respond. With luck he was still too out of it.

“Well, well, let’s just see about that!” Zack yanked Maria to her feet and ripped her camisole the rest of the way open, tugging it off her shoulders so it hung from her bound arms.

“No! Leave her alone!” Scott struggled until his shoulder felt out of joint, but the ropes held tight.

Zack flicked his cigar away, grabbed Maria and started sucking on one breast, squeezing the other with his free hand. He pulled back and nudged at Johnny with his foot until he stirred, then grinned at him. “Remember doing this, Johnny-boy? Suckin’ on your mama’s titty?” He licked his lips, exaggerating the motion. “Bet I’m having more fun!” He turned his attention to the other breast, mouthing it more forcefully while Maria rolled her head back and moaned.

“Stop it,” Johnny said flatly.

Stop it? That was the best his brother, the infamously dangerous Johnny Madrid, could muster when his own mother was being ravaged? Only then did he notice Johnny was almost imperceptibly scrunching his way toward the still lit cigar.

***

The cigar lay smoldering only a foot or so from him. He inched toward it. Zack had his mind on other things, and Stubb couldn’t take his eyes off his mama either. Johnny couldn’t put his eyes on her. He’d seen the same scene before, in all its variations, way too many times. Had even been forced to play a role a time or two. He hated it, hated every man who treated his mama like a whore. Hated when his mama acted like one.

“It’ll be better if you untie my hands,” Maria cooed in Zack’s ear, sliding her tongue in it as she spoke, grinding herself against Zack’s crotch.

Zack fumbled with her binds, couldn’t seem to get them loose. “Untie her, Stubb,” he grunted, “if you want a turn. Don’t let her try nothing.” He stepped back to remove his gunbelt and unbelt his pants. He tossed the gunbelt well out of reach of his captives, then started searching the ground for his cigar. His gaze stopped on Johnny sitting near where it should have been.

“What the fuck?” He strode over and kicked Johnny to his side, grabbing the cigar out of his hands. He pushed him to his stomach and examined his binds. “You think you can burn your way through? I’ll show you burn!” He drew on the cigar several quick puffs, then shoved it into Johnny’s wrist, twisting it, puffing again, twisting again. Johnny gritted his teeth, trying to take himself somewhere he wouldn’t feel it, but it just kept taking him back to Paco and his cigarettes. He heard himself moan.

“What will it take, Zack?” Scott’s voice sounded far away. “I can triple the bounty, just let us go!”

The pressure let up, but his wrist was still on fire. Zack’s reply was hollow sounding. “Triple? That ain’t nothing compared to what that gold gotta be worth.”

“We don’t know what gold you’re talking about,” Scott said.

The clearing was silent except for Johnny’s panting. Johnny rolled over to see what was happening.

Zack was staring downward. “God damn it!”  He started rubbing his crotch, the bulge that had earlier signaled his intentions now noticeably absent. “Shit!” He grabbed Maria and ground against her, cursed some more.

“I can take care of that,” cooed Maria, licking her lips suggestively.

“Fuck it, I don’t need no help! You and your fucking gold is what fucked things up! Now where the fuck is it?” He grabbed the back of her head with one hand and shoved the cigar almost to her cheek with the other. “Start talking now, bitch, or your pretty face is gonna look like a rat been chewing on it!”

“No!” she screamed. “I’ll tell, just don’t burn me, please!”

“Where?” He shoved her head a little closer.

She started to whimper. “Paco knows. He’s the only one. Only the rurales caught him, so we have to get him out first.”

“Oh, that’s mighty convenient, we just gotta bust somebody out of jail? Sounds like a bullshit answer to me!” He poked the cigar closer to her cheek.

“No! It’s all arranged. I worked out a trade with them. They’ll give us Paco.”

“The rurales don’t make trades.”

Maria glanced at Johnny and Scott before speaking. “They do for Johnny Madrid.”

 

Chapter 17

“I know you must think I’m terrible,” she said, “but what else could I do?”

Scott couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge the woman. Hadn’t been able to all day. Not that he’d had that much of a chance, what with her cavorting with Zack and Stubb in a shockingly lascivious marathon. She’d all but laughed right along with them when they had tauntingly invited Scott, then Johnny, to join them in the fun. Scott had tried to bargain with them, upping the ante to outlandish amounts, to no avail. Johnny hadn’t said a word, just seemed to withdraw into a vacant shell that looked upon the one-woman orgy in front of him without emotion.

It boggled his mind to think a mother could perform such lurid acts right in front of her own son. As though it were nothing unusual. Almost as though she enjoyed the attention. But all paled in comparison to selling Johnny out to the rurales. The whole coming to Lancer thing, the whole act about discovering her long lost hijo, the whole disgusting farce was apparently a ploy right from the start.  He didn’t know quite where he fit into it, but he was sickened he’d let himself get involved with that witch. He’d never wanted a bath quite so desperately.

Johnny had been stuffed into the back of the buggy like so much baggage. His burns had festered and he was obviously running a fever. But it was his attitude that most alarmed Scott. He never said a word, just seemed to accept that his mother had pretended to love him so she could use him. No wonder Johnny always had such difficulty trusting Murdoch, if this was what he expected from a parent. Scott had never wanted to kill a woman before, but he knew he could at this moment.

Maria looked back at him again. Scott’s horse, along with Johnny’s, was tied to the buggy. Scott was riding with his hands tied behind his back, a position that was both uncomfortable and unsteady. The thought that Maria could probably kill him just by sending the buggy horses into a gallop didn’t add to his comfort. Zack rode up ahead, and Stubb took up the rear.

“Scott, aren’t you going to talk to me?” she asked, a pout on her face. “Don’t worry. They’re going to let you go, you know. The rurales only want Johnny.”

“Don’t you have any idea what you’ve done?” He finally couldn’t resist answering her. Maybe she really was that stupid. “They’ll execute him!”

Her voice quavered. “Please, Scott. You just don’t understand how hard this is for me. My poor Juanito! He is the love of my life!” She broke down sobbing. She finally looked back at him, dabbing at her eyes. “But what else could I have done? They wouldn’t have stopped. At least this way, two of us will live. Don’t you see? I did it for you. Juanito would have done it himself if he knew it would work. He could never have lived with himself if you were hurt when he could have saved you.”

“All I see is a mother who traded her own son for a handful of gold.”

“That’s not true at all! Besides, you could have prevented it. I could have been happy with you. We could have been gone, and I could have left Paco with the rurales and forgotten all about the gold.” She glanced at Zack and Stubb and lowered her voice. “We still could. I think we could escape, you and me. Then send help for Johnny.”

***

“A day, maybe?” Val kicked at the horse’s carcass, hollowed out by vultures.

Murdoch arched his back one way and then the other, grimacing. “One horse couldn’t have pulled that buggy far. Not with all the stuff that bitch had in it.” He refused to use her name when he didn’t have to.

Val rolled his eyes. “Better not let Johnny catch you talking like that. Not the way he dotes on her.” He swung back up on his horse, chuckling. “Who’d have thought? Johnny Madrid, mama’s boy.”

Murdoch shot him a disgusted look, then returned to studying his map. “Do you think we’ll beat them to the border?”

“I reckon we might if we don’t waste our time looking at dead horses and maps.” Val spurred his horse into a lope.

Murdoch caught up, shoving the map back in his saddlebag.  Val had to be the most exasperating trail partner he’d ever ridden with. But they were finally catching up. He just hoped they’d get to them before they crossed into Mexico. Not that he planned to let that stop him. Johnny and Scott were coming back with him, and Maria was going to jail. He prayed his sons would forgive him.

 

Chapter 18

He sucked in his breath as his right hand cramped again. The burns had turned into crusted, oozing sores that made the muscles beneath them spasm unexpectedly. At least his left hand wasn’t injured. Just numb from being bound.

He’d been too sick to ride, even though he’d tried to when they finally got through with his mama. Dios, he hated that Scott had seen her like that. Scott had been almost frantic in his efforts to stop them, offering all that money, looking at Johnny as if he were a bad son for not doing more. Johnny had learned long ago that it was useless to interfere, had learned to just put himself somewhere else when Mama was with her men. But maybe Scott was right. Maybe he could have done something now. It wasn’t like he was still a little kid.

Scott must have spent the whole day studying him. Almost every time Johnny had cracked his eyes open Scott was riding beside him, just staring at him. What the hell was he was looking for? He’d heard him tell Zack he was worried about Johnny’s fever, but it had to be more than that. Maybe he thought this was the first time Johnny had seen his mama screwing, the first time he’d heard her call him an accident or mestizo, or maybe even the first time she’d dumped him for one of her men. It wasn’t, not any of those things, not by a long shot. But it still hurt like hell, more than he could bear to let Scott know. So he’d drifted in and out of sleep most of the day, playing possum during the waking times, biding his time for an escape.

Besides, what she said and did made sense. He wouldn’t make a mestizo on purpose either. It wasn’t fair to any kid. She’d sacrificed herself to Zack and Stubb to keep them away from her two boys. And he’d heard her explaining to Scott why she’d sold him out to the rurales. He knew Scott wasn’t buying it, but she did the right thing. Zack would have tortured all of them. Johnny would have surrendered to the rurales himself to save them.

He was surprised to learn Paco was still around, but he knew his mama always needed a man.  He couldn’t quite figure out what she had meant when she told Scott he could have prevented everything, that she would have been happy with him. Or that she would have left Paco. He’d turned it over and over in his mind, but it still just didn’t make sense. Neither did what little he could remember from what Zack had been saying earlier. All he could piece together from it was more sick smut.

***

More raucous laughter echoed around the campfire as Zack held the bottle up to Maria’s lips. She took a good swig then licked her lips. Zack pulled her head back by her hair and covered her mouth with his, his other hand searching under her hiked-up skirt and between her legs. It looked like they were heading for a repeat of that morning’s exhibition. Scott and Johnny stared glumly on.

“Just don’t watch,” Scott said. “There’s nothing you can do.”

Johnny nodded but didn’t say anything.

“I think she’s just doing what she feels she has to. Just like those things she said this morning. I’m sure she didn’t mean them.” Scott felt he had to lie. It was always awkward telling your brother his mother was a lying slut.

They were both leaning against a large rock, hands bound behind them. Johnny pulled his knees up and rested his forehead against them.

Scott waited for an answer, finally sighing when none came. Johnny had been despondent all day. He wasn’t fooling him by pretending to be asleep all those times. He’d just been avoiding him, no doubt embarrassed by his mother’s reprehensible behavior.

Maria laughed again, the same laugh that had so enthralled Scott before. Now it just sounded like a crow’s cackle. She spotted Scott looking at her and grabbed the bottle from Zack, who staggered after her a couple of steps and fell. “Have a drink, boys!” she slurred as she stumbled toward Scott and Johnny.

“Hey! Don’t go wasting that on them!” Stubb was lying by the fire, lazily waving her back.

“You forgot to feed and water the stock! They need something,” called back Maria. She pushed the bottle to Johnny’s lips, but he clamped his mouth shut and turned away.  She turned to Scott, tripped over his legs and fell half into his lap, giggling. “Whoops!” she laughed, trying to get up but instead falling forward on him, straddling him.

Zack and Stubb started to laugh. “You gonna get lover-boy all hot and bothered, you keep that up!” called Stubb.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” she yelled back. She licked her lips and added quietly, “Would it, Scott?” then planted her mouth over his. Scott jerked back in horror, trying to pull away, but her arms encircled him, holding him tight, grabbing at his wrists. “I miss your touch,” she whispered.

“Hey! That’s enough over there!” Zack was heading toward them. She pushed herself unsteadily to her feet and hung on Zack’s shoulder as he pawed her all the way back to the campfire.

Scott chanced a glance toward Johnny, who was staring back and forth between him and Maria before his dark gaze froze on Scott. “What the fuck is going on here?”

***

Memories bounced against one another and spiraled away, just out of grasp. Scott and Mama. She said she could have been happy with him. Would have left Paco. The comments Stubb made. Why Murdoch was so mad. Why Scott wouldn’t tell. The secrets. The kiss. Madre de Dios! He was going to puke.

“…not what you’re thinking.” Scott was shaking his head, babbling on.

“You and Mama? Are you fucking my mama?” Johnny could barely speak. Scott was just like every other man he’d ever seen around her, humping her like she was a bitch in heat. “God damn you, Scott!” He squeezed his eyes shut, got control of his voice and added icily, “I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch.”

“Johnny, you need to listen to me.”

“Just shut up, Scott. You’ve ruined everything. Shut the fuck up!” He turned away. Damn him. Damn the both of them! No wonder she hadn’t gotten back with Murdoch. Scott had horned his way in between them. And that sure enough explained why he’d come running after her. Goddamn it! Why was everything with Mama all about fucking? Fucking his own brother! They must have been laughing their heads off at him.

“Johnny, listen…”

“Fuck you!”

“She untied my wrists.”

 

Chapter 19

The sounds of song and sex had finally subsided. The fire was a heap of hot ash. Stubb was intermittently mumbling and snoring. Zack led Maria, hands once again bound, toward Scott and Johnny, the orange glow of his cigar marking their progress.

Johnny appeared to be asleep.  He had said nothing more to Scott except to repeatedly demand that he untie him. Scott refused, not only because he worried he’d be spotted doing it, but mostly because he wasn’t sure that Johnny didn’t have killing him at the top of his list.  He couldn’t say that he blamed him.

Zack was stepping over Johnny’s feet when Johnny erupted, kicking out and tripping Zack to send him stumbling. Scott staggered to his feet, realizing too late they were half asleep, like numb pillows on the bottoms of his legs. He jumped at Zack nonetheless, landing on him awkwardly. They tumbled down together, Zack grappling to wrap his big hands around Scott’s throat. Scott kneed him, but Zack only tightened his grip. Scott clawed at his hands, trying to suck in air but his chest just burned. Zack squeezed his stranglehold tighter. Scott’s hands were losing strength, his vision starting to pulsate.

The last thing he heard was the sound of a gunshot exploding. 

***

Murdoch and Val had been about to give up following the wagon tracks in the dark when they heard the shot not far ahead. With only a glance toward each other they kicked their horses into a gallop. When they heard shouting Val motioned for them to slow down. They finally jumped from their horses and crept the rest of the way toward a clearing.

Murdoch’s heart sank. Scott was sprawled on the ground, a man kneeling over him. Another man stood waving a gun from Scott to Johnny, who appeared to be bound. Without thinking Murdoch rushed into the clearing and brought his gun down to aim between the standing man’s eyes.

The kneeling man jumped up but stopped when he saw two pistols aimed at his head. “These here are my prisoners,” he said hastily. “And you’re interfering with the law.”

Murdoch was already kneeling over Scott, but started to say something. Val waved him off. “That a fact?” Val never let his gun waver from the man’s head. “Just what kind of law are you?”

“Bounty hunter. And these are wanted criminals.”

“Bounty hunter ain’t no law.” Val shifted his position so his sheriff’s badge glinted in the moonlight.

The man’s eyes narrowed. “Listen, them two has bounties on them, and this one here,” he pointed to Scott, “he’s interfering with their apprehension. That’s against the law. You try to interfere, you’re breaking the law, too. Sheriff.”

“How is he?” Val called to Murdoch.

Murdoch was helping Scott, who was still coughing, sit up. “He’ll be okay.”

“Good. Tie these two up.”

“Sheriff, you’re breaking the law! You want to lose your badge over riffraff like this?”

Val grinned, glancing at Johnny, who still hadn’t spoken. “Why? You know some better kind of riffraff to lose it over?”

Murdoch found some rope and tied both of the bounty hunters. He got some satisfaction in noticing Maria was already tied. She hadn’t said a word. He checked on Scott again as Val holstered his gun and went to untie Johnny. Scott suddenly seemed alarmed and tried to choke out some words.

All he saw was a blur rushing toward them, knocking him away from Scott. It took him a moment to comprehend it was Johnny, another to figure out he wasn’t rushing over to tend to his hurt brother. The clue was when he grabbed him by the shirt, picked him up, and struck him in the jaw, then did it again, and tried a third time before he collapsed on top of him. Val was on him by then, pulling him off, straddling him while Johnny cursed in Spanish.

“What the hell?” Val looked baffled. “Maybe he’s feverish.”

“No,” said Murdoch. “I don’t think so.” He wondered how Johnny found out. He was half tempted to let Johnny take another go at him, but the murderous expression on Johnny’s face made him think better. “Better tie him back up.”

***

Murdoch walked Johnny away from the others. “What happened, John?”

“Stubb over there tried to shoot Scott, but he was so drunk he missed. From about five feet away.”

“No,” Murdoch said. “I mean what happened between you and Scott.”

“Nothing. Just untie me!” He yanked on his wrists, but Val had done a thorough job. Some friend he was. Even if he had wrapped his burns in bandages first.

“I can’t. Not unless you promise not to go after your brother. Now do you want to talk about this?”

Johnny bit his lip. He had no intention of talking about it. Besides, Murdoch always took Scott’s side. He could see Val going through Zack’s saddlebags, coming out with the wanted posters and studying them. This wasn’t going to be very pleasant, either.

Val approached them. “I guess you’ve seen this, Johnny,” he said, waving Maria’s poster.

Johnny examined it. “It’s not true.”

“Oh, Johnny, be realistic!” Murdoch slapped his hat against his leg. “She and some Mex—some man, probably her boyfriend, killed another man and stole thousands of dollars worth of gold from him!”

“Some Mexican? Yeah, I guess a couple of Mexicans, they gotta be guilty! That why you always think the worst of her?”

“You know as well as I do she only showed up at Lancer because she’s hiding from the law. And so she could have Johnny Madrid looking out for her!”

“That’s a bunch of crap! You just can’t stand it she’s back and I might find out what really happened! Besides, how’s that different from when you sent for me?”

“Hey, now!” Val stepped in front of Murdoch. “Now you two just hold on there. I ain’t getting in no family squabbles, but what I can tell you, Johnny, is that this is a real bounty and your mother really is wanted for attempted murder. I’m sorry. She has to stand trial. That’s the only way to clear her name.”

“What?” Johnny looked incredulous. “You ain’t taking her in, are you?”

 

Chapter 20

The road wound down through the trees toward the mountain town of Julian. Finally. Murdoch wanted this trip to be over, Maria in jail, and life to get back to normal at Lancer. If that were even possible at this point.

The higher elevation made the weather more pleasant, but that was about all he could say for the day. Zack and Stubb rode ahead, their hands tied in front of them. Scott rode directly behind them, periodically rubbing his neck and jaw. Val kept a lead line on one of the buggy horses. Johnny had started out on Barranca, riding one handed, but as the day had progressed he had slumped further in his saddle, finally slipping to one side just before Val grabbed him. Now he was in the buggy seat beside Maria, the last place Murdoch wanted him. The two of them were riding along leaning against one another, Maria occasionally holding a wet cloth to his forehead.

Maria had ended up tending Johnny’s burns last night after he refused help from the rest of them. He still wasn’t talking to Scott, and barely spoke to Murdoch or Val except to plead for them to let Maria go. They had finally untied him, a decision made more upon Scott’s promise to stay away from him than any assurance from Johnny not to murder his brother. They hadn’t been foolish enough to let him have any weapons, an announcement that had sent him into a tirade.

Murdoch clenched his jaw as he watched Johnny and Maria whispering to one another, Maria smiling and placing a hand on his cheek, Johnny dropping his head. He was going to be sick to his stomach if he had to watch much more. Scott had filled him in on what Maria had done. How Johnny could even sit beside the bitch after she betrayed him, not to mention the spectacle she had apparently made of herself, was beyond his comprehension. At least Scott seemed to finally see the slut for what she was.

Scott raised his hand for them to hold up while he dismounted. Murdoch couldn’t see what the problem was, so he trotted his horse around the buggy to join him while Val turned his attention to Stubb and Zack. Johnny climbed down from the buggy and gestured to Scott’s horse’s foot, saying he’d noticed it take on a stone. He reached for the horse’s bridle to steady it while Scott bent to check the hoof.

His move to Scott’s gun was like a blur. Nobody quite saw how he ended up with it in his left hand, pointing at Scott but talking to Murdoch and Val. “Throw down your guns.”

“John! This is not the answer!”

“My mama can’t go to prison!”

“We’re just taking her so she can stand trial,” Murdoch said. “If she’s innocent she’ll go free.”

“That’s a bunch of crap and you know it! There ain’t no gringo judge and no gringo jury gonna let a Mex accused of killing another gringo go free. Your gun!”

Stubb must have noticed Val was no longer watching him. He suddenly kicked his horse, causing it to rear. Johnny yelled for him to stop, but Stubb got the horse under control and started galloping away. Johnny fired. Stubb fell yelping from the saddle. When Johnny turned his gun back on Scott, Val had his gun trained on him.

“Johnny, don’t do this,” Val said calmly. “Don’t throw it all away. You’ll be wanted, and this time not just in Mexico. Come on, Johnny, put it down.”

“Mama, get their guns.”

“I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if I have to, some place it’ll hurt, just to stop you from throwing your life away. You know I will.”

Johnny’s gun was steady, but his eyes darted from Val to Murdoch. “Just let us go. We’ll go to Mexico and you’ll never see us again. You ain’t gotta say anything.”

“Too many witnesses for that.”

“Johnny, no!” Murdoch pleaded, just as Maria crossed in front of him. The bitch was stealing his son for good now. Without thinking he grabbed her and pulled his gun, holding it to her neck, doing everything he could not to pull the trigger.

“Put the gun down, Johnny!” Val’s voice was urgent. “Please, for your mother, now!”

Johnny wavered, but he must have seen the look on Murdoch’s face. He set the gun down and stood there.

Murdoch didn’t want to let go. He wanted to pull the trigger and end it all right there. Dance in the bitch’s blood. Except it would also end his future with Johnny. He lowered his gun and turned his back on the woman who had ruined his life. Johnny helped her back in the buggy, his mumbled apologies to her echoing in Murdoch’s head.

***

He sat numbly in the buggy while Val and Scott took Zack and Stubb inside, Stubb still complaining about his tiny scratch of a wound.  Murdoch tied the buggy horses to the rail and waited with them. Why didn’t he just leave them alone, let them drive off? He looked around, seeking an escape. There was no place to run. He squeezed his eyes shut and let his head loll back on the seat. “I’m sorry, Mama, I’m sorry I let you down.”

He heard the creak of a door opening, the order to get the prisoner, and the pounding of boots on the wooden walkway. He looked up to see five men converging on them. Mama’s hand trembled in his. “Don’t you worry, Mama. I’m getting you out of here.”

The deputies grabbed at her, hauling her from the buggy as she tried to hold on to Johnny. He clutched back, holding her as tightly as he could, until his fingers were pried away and he was forced back on the seat. “Let go!” He pushed them off, only to have two guns drawn on him. There was nothing he could do. They had her. They were pushing her toward the door. He tried to get up to follow but the click of the pistols stopped him. All he could do was call after her right before the door shut. “I’m getting you out of there!”

The deputies left him as Murdoch stepped over and squeezed his arm. “Come on, John, it’s time to go.”

“What the hell?” Johnny shrugged him off. “No! I’m not leaving!”

“There’s nothing more you can do. Let’s go home, son.” Murdoch had tied his horse to the rear of the buggy. Now he climbed in the buggy next to Johnny.

Johnny looked around desperately. They couldn’t leave. What would Scott or Murdoch do if it was somebody they cared about? “A lawyer! I want to hire a lawyer! The best one there is!”

Murdoch shook his head. “John, do you know how much a good lawyer costs? A lot more than you have. Besides, Maria has her own money. She can hire one herself.”

“Mama don’t have no money. She told me when she came.”

“She does now. Let her hire her own lawyer.”

“How could she get that much money?”

Murdoch glanced toward the jail before meeting Johnny’s eyes. “I gave her some.”

“That don’t seem too likely.” Johnny spotted Scott walking toward his horse. “Scott! Lend me some money! Mama needs a lawyer.”

Scott raised an eyebrow and looked at Murdoch.

Johnny didn’t wait for him to answer. “Fine, just give me my damn gun. I can go hire out and make it.”

“No!” Murdoch frowned and sighed. “No. I’ll hire the lawyer.”

 

Chapter 21

Scott didn’t know where he was going to spend the night. The town’s only real hotel had burned, leaving only a few rooms over the saloon. Only three were available. He’d usually share a room with Johnny, but he was afraid he might be killed in his sleep. He couldn’t see sharing a room with Murdoch, not with the foul mood he was in after wiring the retainer for the lawyer. Besides, he still felt like some kind of deviant every time Murdoch looked at him. That left Val. Val, whose snores had surely kept every coyote away for miles last night. Maybe they wouldn’t be here long.

He had sworn out a complaint against Stubb and Zack for their treatment of Maria. It didn’t matter that Maria was obviously a slut; no bounty hunter who treated women like that should be on the loose. He was baffled when Johnny refused to sign the complaint, even more so when Val agreed with Johnny. Val later explained that Maria’s virtue would end up being on trial, and from what he knew, she wouldn’t have much of a case.

Maria had called him over to her cell when she was alone. She thanked him for swearing out the complaint, and asked him to look out for Johnny. There was an awkward moment of silence, then she turned her lustrous dark eyes up to him and held out her hand beseechingly. For a brief moment his heart lurched and he wanted to take her in his arms, hold her tight, make everything go away. Instead he looked away, nodded tersely and left.

The sheriff had let Johnny inside to see that Maria was settled, but eventually made him leave. He’d sat on the boardwalk outside, ignoring Murdoch’s suggestion to go to the hotel. Johnny was still fuming because Murdoch wouldn’t return his gun, but Murdoch insisted he had to get away from the jail and cool down before he’d get it back. Val had eventually gone to try to persuade Johnny to leave.

Scott headed over to them to hand out their room keys. Before he got there the sheriff’s door opened and the doctor walked out, followed by the sheriff. The sheriff gestured for Val to come inside, so Scott took Val’s place standing awkwardly beside Johnny. He thrust a room key at him, but Johnny just let it drop beside him. He cleared his throat, hoping to get some response, but got nothing. Finally he hiked up his courage and sat down cautiously beside Johnny on the edge of the boardwalk.

“I hear this lawyer Murdoch’s hiring is supposed to be very good.”

Johnny continued to draw shapes in the sand with a stick.

“Even at worst, they’ll go easy on her. It’s going to work out. You’ll see.”

“Like you give a shit.” Johnny finally looked up at him. “I don’t get it, Scott. If you cared about her, how come you didn’t try to stop them from taking her to jail? If I’d just had some help, we’d have made it. What, you just planned to use her and dump her, like all the rest of her men?”

“I swear that’s not how it was. I really did care about her. But running’s not the answer, not for her or any of us. And you have to believe me, Johnny, we never did anything.” Scott didn’t know what else to say. He couldn’t tell Johnny what he really thought about her. That at this point he hoped she rotted in jail. He was still fishing around for words when the door opened and Val emerged, rubbing his hand through his hair.

He squatted between them, his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “The doctor just had some bad news. That man that Maria supposedly tried to kill? Well, seems he just died. I’m real sorry, Johnny. The charge is murder now.”

***

Scott had tried to help Johnny to the hotel, but Johnny pushed him off furiously. He even pushed Val away. They followed him at a distance, just to make sure he made it to his room. He looked to be running a low fever, and who knew how that kick in the head from Zack had affected him. Val caught up to him at his door and told him he was sending the doctor up to check his burns. Johnny frowned at that, but looked down at his hand and nodded. When the rest of them left for dinner Johnny refused to go. They left him sitting at the window, watching the jail across the street. Murdoch decided to hold onto his gun.

The restaurant they found probably had good food. Everybody around them seemed to be enjoying it. Their own table was filled with a strained silence occasionally broken by the clatter of silverware.  Murdoch finally threw his fork down. “I can’t believe I’m paying for a lawyer to try to get that murdering bitch off!”

Val stuffed a hunk of steak into his mouth with his knife. “That murdering bitch,” he said between chews, “is Johnny’s mother. She says she didn’t do it.”

“So what exactly is the evidence against her?” asked Scott.

“Well,” said Val as he stabbed another piece of meat, “from what I understand Maria and this fellow, what’s his name, uh, Paco somebody, they were running some sort of con. Maria would get some guy in bed, then Paco would play like he was her husband and walk in on ’em in, uh, a compromising position, let’s say. Threaten to kill the fellow, or if he was married, tell his wife, unless he gave them whatever he had. Leastways, that’s what happened with this guy. Threatened to kill him, that is.” He stopped to swallow. “Only I guess they hadn’t reckoned on him having quite so much to lose. He’d hit some gold, had a passel of it with him.  So naturally, he refused, but that got him knocked out. Next thing he remembered was waking up a week later. His hotel had caught fire—that’s that burnt up pile of crap down the street. Anyway, folks pulled him out, but he never got right. Had a hard time even telling his story, from what I hear.”

“That sounds to me like something our lawyer could pull apart,” Scott said. “Especially since he can’t testify.”

“He’s not our lawyer, Scott. He’s Maria’s lawyer.” Murdoch took a big swallow from his glass. “Let’s get one thing straight. I may have paid for her defense, lord knows why, but that doesn’t mean I’m on her side.”

“Sir, are you forgetting she’s Johnny’s mother?”

Murdoch raised his brows at Scott. “No, I’m not the one who forgot that.”

Scott shifted his weight and glanced over at Val, who looked confused. He reached for his wine.

Val looked from one to the other and shrugged. “Thing is, Maria says she didn’t do it. She says she never even went to his room, and she and that Paco fellow had checked out before the fire even started. Says there was a kid with them who was always playing with fire. Figures he set it.”

Scott and Murdoch exchanged looks. “Goddamn bitch!” Murdoch muttered.

 

Chapter 22

“Yeah, she was a good mother,” said Johnny resolutely. Scott lifted an eyebrow at that.

The lawyer nodded. “That’s good, because we may wish to go into that on the stand. It will help the people on the jury like her.”

“What do you mean, go into that?” Johnny looked suddenly wary.

“It’s no big deal. I’ll ask you questions about specific things she did to show she was a loving mother, and you’ll just give some examples,” Pratt said, leaning back in his chair. Jason Pratt had wasted no time interviewing Maria once he’d arrived. He was still dressed in his traveling clothes, straight off the stage, though he looked more like he was fresh from church rather than a trip from San Diego. Even his hair was perfectly groomed. He waited for Johnny to elaborate, finally prompting, “It doesn’t have to be anything earthshaking. Like, what kind of things did she do with you? What kind of home did she make?”

“Good.”

Pratt nodded and motioned for more.

Johnny looked slightly confused. “Real good?”

Scott cleared his throat. “Mr. Pratt, if I may, I’m not sure you’re going to get what you want out of this line of questioning.”

“Oh? Is there a problem? Because if there is, I need to know. I don’t want to be surprised when the prosecution asks. And by the way, it’s Jason.”

“There ain’t no problem,” Johnny said. Scott bit his lip.

“Okay, well, then, tell me some story of something nice she did for you growing up.”

Johnny filled his glass with some water from the pitcher and took a long drink as he took a sidelong glance at Scott. “Well, one year for my birthday she bought me this fancy pony, and a fancy saddle, too. We rode all over the place. She’d pack a picnic lunch. One time the pony spooked and fell when we was crossing a stream. I was okay, but the pony was in trouble. Had his hoof caught under a rock and he was drowning. Mama couldn’t hardly swim, but she dove right in and saved that pony for me.” He looked at Scott defiantly as he finished.

“Good, excellent!” Jason was still scribbling.

Scott threw up his hands. “Let me guess. She also took you sledding and saved your life when you fell through the ice?”

“Shut up, Scott.”

Jason looked perplexed. “I don’t understand.”

“He’s telling you my childhood story, the one I told him, with my pony and my stable master! Because he doesn’t have any good ones of his own!”

Johnny slammed down his glass. “I don’t want him in here!”

Scott stood. “Fine! If you want to pretend you’re me, or your mother was some saint, have at it! Let me know when you need more stories.” He stomped out of the room. Once outside, he leaned against the wall. He wasn’t quite sure why Johnny’s lie had infuriated him so. Or maybe he was. It just seemed to him that if Johnny couldn’t come up with a single true good story about his mother, that maybe that should be a clue to him she wasn’t worth lying for. And what kind of sorry excuse for a mother couldn’t actually provide her son with just one good memory? He smacked the wall with his hand. Maria surely couldn’t have been that bad. But why did thinking about her make him feel so torn up inside? He was over her. He pushed himself from the wall and thumped on Murdoch’s door, opening it when his father answered.

“Well, Johnny’s in there lying his head off about his marvelous childhood.” He flopped on the bed. “This is ridiculous. All they have to do is get their hands on the Pinkerton report and they can see how she was.”

Murdoch set his book down. “That report’s not common knowledge. They probably wouldn’t think to look for it. Besides, it’s about Johnny, not Maria.”

“Oh yeah, that ought to be good, too. What’s going to happen when Johnny’s past comes out?”

“Nothing good, I expect.”  He rubbed his temples. “I just hope Pratt doesn’t plan to call me as a character witness for Maria.”

 ***

Pratt walked out of Johnny’s room two hours later, carrying his coat, sweat trickling down the side of his face, his hair sticking out at strange angles.  Scott quickly ushered him into Murdoch’s room.

He took a seat, ran his fingers through his hair several times, and accepted a glass of water. He took a deep drink. “I’ve been in actual trials that were easier than that,” he finally said, shaking his head.

Murdoch could see Scott biting his lip as a smirk tugged at his mouth. He shot him a warning look. Nothing about this was funny. Johnny had them stuck in this town, paying for a lawyer to defend his slut of a mother. The least he could do was cooperate.

“Answer me this,” Pratt said. “To your knowledge, what kind of mother was Maria to Johnny?”

Murdoch poured more water for himself. “What did Johnny say?”

“Nothing added up. He told me some stories that made the Virgin Mary look like an unfit mother by comparison. But when you put them all together, they clashed, just didn’t mesh. Not only that, he couldn’t seem to tell the same story twice the same way. And he never could come up with the simplest details when I’d press him. Like how she supported them, or even where his own bedroom was in their house.  Or how he ended up on his own.”

 Murdoch walked to the window, pulling aside the drapes. “He couldn’t tell you any of that because none of it is true.” He let the drape fall back, speaking with his back to Pratt. “I assume what I tell you is confidential.”

“Yes.”

“Johnny never talks about it, but from what I can gather he pretty much raised himself. Maria was a prostitute. They didn’t have a house. That’s why he couldn’t tell you where his bedroom was.” Murdoch turned to face Pratt. “I know she spent a lot of time in jail, and I only recently found out Johnny was in there with her starting at a very young age.”

Scott jerked his head up at that, clearly surprised.

Pratt let out his breath in a big sigh. “Well, that explains things. And complicates matters. I think we need to talk.”

“I’ll talk, but I hope you don’t intend to call me to testify. I don’t think I could say anything that would be helpful, and I’d rather not be put in that position because of Johnny. You may have gathered we don’t exactly see Maria in the same light.”

“Hmmm. What about you, Scott?”

Before he could reply Murdoch answered for him. “I don’t think Scott will be any help, either.”

“I see. Well, nonetheless, I’d like to talk with both of you. First let me fill you in a little bit. Mrs. Lancer, as you know, maintains she is innocent.”

Murdoch snorted. “I’m sure she does. Oh, and could you please not refer to her as Mrs. Lancer? Maria will be fine.” Actually he could think of far better words.

“Okay, sure,” Pratt continued. “She says she had nothing to do with the deceased, whose name was Phineas Baxter, by the way. He was a prospector who came here last year, right after gold was discovered. Apparently he found some. Anyway, she says her friend, Paco Sanchez, was working on a business deal with Baxter, and he was in his hotel room with him. But that she and Sanchez both left the hotel before the fire broke out.  She said Sanchez had a nephew, a small child, who liked to play with matches, and he later admitted to starting the fire.”

“Where’s the child now?”

“She says they were scared the little boy would be blamed and possibly hurt, so they all left for Mexico. Sanchez had made a business deal with Baxter, and he left with quite a bit of gold, but he also had a receipt for it, signed by Baxter. Said they were afraid they were being followed, so Sanchez let Maria and the boy off at a mission, and he was going to hide the gold and then lead whoever was following them on some wild goose chase and come back for her. Only she found out later the rurales picked him up. Apparently he had some minor charge against him down in Mexico. She said she was concerned for the child’s safety, so she left him at the mission orphanage until she could get back. Then she went to Lancer to get money so she could bargain to get Sanchez from the rurales.”

Murdoch looked skeptical. “Any witnesses?”

“I’m still checking into it. The sheriff says there’s at least two witnesses who saw Maria with Baxter in the saloon, that they were hitting it off real well, and they left together. The hotel clerk apparently saw them go upstairs together.” He looked at Murdoch pointedly. “I’m sorry.”

Murdoch waved him off. “Nothing new.”

“Then there’s Sanchez, but I can’t see how we can get hold of him. And the child. I’m not sure how much his testimony will count, but it could help.”

“I could go bring back the boy,” volunteered Scott.

“No,” said Murdoch. “He needs somebody who can speak Spanish. I’ll go.”

“Well, we don’t need everybody to go,” said Pratt. “From what Johnny was asking, I assumed he was heading down there.”

 

Chapter 23

Every once in while he’d top a crest and catch of glimpse of his brother riding hellbent for Mexico, Barranca’s flaxen mane and tail streaming behind him like a banner proclaiming his mission. Johnny seemed to be in a big hurry to get to a bad place. Or maybe it was just a big hurry to leave Scott behind.

Johnny’s room was empty, his saddlebags gone, when Scott and Murdoch had burst in after hearing Pratt’s news. They’d spied him from the window striding purposefully from the sheriff’s office toward the livery, and both had bolted for the stairs.

They’d confronted him in the livery as he was saddling Barranca, but hadn’t been able to change his mind about going. Murdoch had reminded him of the bounty on his head in Mexico, and he’d reminded Murdoch of the noose almost around Maria’s neck here. Scott pointed out he could go with him and help, and Johnny retorted that he’d seen what kind of help Scott was. That was a cheap shot.

Murdoch had returned his gun that morning, so Johnny simply swung up in the saddle, called to Val to watch out for Maria, and galloped south out of town. He had a head start, but Scott knew slow and steady won the race. He’d catch up.

He did, too, that night. He rode right into Johnny’s camp, noting with some pleasure that he had timed it just right. Johnny already had the fire going. In fact, he had enough food cooking for two. Apparently he’d been expecting him.

Johnny never said a word. Just took his food and settled back against his saddle. Scott lugged his saddle alongside Johnny’s, briefly wondering if he’d be alive in the morning.  He helped himself to some food and sat down, keeping an eye on his brother. They’d eaten half the meal in silence before Scott decided he couldn’t take it anymore.

“Listen, Johnny, we have to talk.”

Johnny didn’t respond, but Scott saw him stiffen.

“Yes, I admit I was attracted to Maria. But we never did anything.”

“Madre de Dios!” Johnny flung his plate, food and all, in the fire and jumped up. “Yeah, right! You just couldn’t wait to fuck my mama, just like everyone else!”

Scott wondered how much he could admit to and not have Johnny kill him. Probably not very much. But if Johnny found out he was holding out on him he’d never trust him again. “No! All that happened was, uh, well, okay we did kiss a couple of times.”

Johnny was pacing back and forth, working himself up, his bandaged right hand twitching.

“It was something that just happened. And I knew it was wrong, Johnny, I knew it. I tried to stop, really, that’s why it didn’t go any further. I really, well, I thought I loved her. I’m sorry.”

“What the hell were you thinking? She’d divorce Murdoch and marry you? Maybe you could be my stepdaddy?”

“Johnny, I swear to God it was over, and all it ever came to was a couple of kisses. I admit, if it weren’t for you, we, well. . .The thing is, I would never, ever do anything to hurt you, or to jeopardize you and me. Maria knew that. I’m sorry, Johnny, I can’t tell you how sorry.”

Johnny stood with his back to him. “You ruined everything.” He stood silently for a moment, his arms wrapped around himself, before taking a deep breath. “No, I know. Shit! Mama ruined everything. Mama and all her damn men. She’s just somewhere to stick their dicks. Always has been. I know how she is. I hate it, Scott. I really hate it. I hate that you met her. Everything’s ruined.”

Scott walked over and tentatively put his arm around him. He had absolutely no idea what to say. Sorry your mother is a whore? Forget her, like she forgot you? He was sorry he met her, too? He wasn’t absolutely sure that last was true. So he said nothing. Just stood there for a minute until Johnny pulled loose, then mumbled, “I’m sorry.”

“You still got feelings for her?”

“I, Johnny, it’s hard. After what she did, I just can’t see her the same. I care about her, sure. But not how I did before. I don’t know how I feel about her now.”

“I guess you think I’m an idiot, sticking by her. But she’s my mama, and she’s all I got.”

“You have Murdoch and me.”

“Ain’t the same. When Mama showed up at Lancer, it was like God finally answered a prayer of mine, first time ever.”

“She was going to trade you to the rurales.”

“Aw, come on, think, Scott! It’s not like she could shoot her way out, or buy her way out. She used the only thing she had, and she saved us. Them guys, they wouldn’t have stopped ’til one of us was dead. Now it’s my turn to save her.”

Scott contemplated what he said. He did have a point. Except that Maria’s plan to turn over Johnny had apparently been made well before the bounty hunters showed up. He thought of pointing that out, but he had a feeling Johnny realized it.

“You mean it’s our turn to save her. I’m coming with you.” He wasn’t sure he owed Maria anything, but he knew he owed Johnny his support. He took a stick and dragged Johnny’s tin plate from the fire, poured some water on it to cool it and clean it, then divided the food from his plate and handed it to Johnny. He hoped he wouldn’t have it thrown back at him. “Here, you can have half of mine.”

Johnny raised his brow and smiled, a forced smile but at least he tried. “Yours?  I don’t remember you bringing any of this.”

Scott shoved him. “You’re right about that, little brother. I would have brought something edible.”

***

“Oh, Johnny!” Scott called, “you sleeping in the saddle again?” He couldn’t resist teasing his brother as he pointed to the sign directing travelers to the mission down the path meandering away from the road, the one Johnny had ridden right past.

“Ain’t going there,” Johnny replied, still looking asleep.

“I thought that was where the boy was.”

“Yep.”

“Care to elucidate?”

That made Johnny pull his hat up and look back at Scott with a cocky smile. “No, I don’t care to loose a date or have a date or whatever kind of date you’re inviting me on. Sorry, Scott, I fancy women.”

Scott reminded himself living with Johnny was a good way to practice his self control. It must be working. He hadn’t strangled him yet. “Would you care to explain why we’re not going there to get the boy?”

“Oh. Why didn’t you say that the first time?  We’re getting him on the way back.”

Scott waited for more, but Johnny had already pulled his hat back down and seemed to think the conversation was over.

“The way back from?” This self-control thing was definitely giving him a headache.

“Getting Paco and the gold.”

Scott pulled up his horse. “I must not have heard you right.” When Johnny didn’t stop he spurred the horse forward to come abreast. “That’s crazy! Maria said the rurales had him!”

Johnny shrugged. “You’re the one wanted to come.”

“You’re the one the rurales want. Don’t you think they’re waiting for you? Remember Maria said they were going to trade Paco for you!”

“I know. I got all the details from her.”

“And you think you can trust her?”

 

Chapter 24

This was such a bad idea. Not just the part about getting Paco so he could produce the receipt that Johnny was sure would clear Maria. The part where Johnny planned to just stroll right into a Mexican jail and back out with Paco. The part where Scott was supposed to hang back and cover the street. All bad.

“Trust me,” Johnny had said, with that irritatingly cocky grin of his, “I know my Mexican jails.” Somehow Scott found little comfort in those words. Nor did he find any comfort in the disturbingly happy mood the whole undertaking seemed to put Johnny in.

The plan, Johnny had explained, was foolproof. That was already a bad sign. Maria had told him most of the rurales would be lying in wait at the little farmhouse she was supposed to be taking Johnny to. Scott had made him stop right there, waiting for Johnny to at least acknowledge his own mother had set him up. Johnny just looked impatient and instead aimed a few curses at the sheriff in Julian. He pointed out he could have brought dynamite if the sheriff hadn’t been so afraid he’d try to blast Maria free and so made sure none of the stores would sell him any. He knew this, he confessed in response to Scott’s questioning, because he’d tried to buy some.

They’d waited until night fell, until the cantina had emptied and the street fell quiet. Scott shifted his weight, trying not to dislodge any of the garbage he’d had to wade through to take up his position in what seemed to double as an alley and dump. He wiped his palm on his pant leg once again, replacing his grip around the pistol butt. He kept the pistol aimed toward the main street. Except for a couple of persistent drunks who had stumbled past singing, the town seemed deserted. He had occasionally caught glimpses of Johnny in the moonlight as he crept between shadows toward the jail. He sucked in his breath as he saw the door to the jail house open, flashing a beam of light toward the street for just an instant, briefly silhouetting his brother’s form. Then nothing.

This was such a bad idea.

***

Three minutes, Johnny had said. Three minutes, then take the horses and stroll to the front of the jail. Scott checked his watch yet again, holding it at an angle to catch the moon’s light. Not yet.

He’d strained his eyes looking for movement within the jail, but aside from a fleeting glimpse of a shadow crossing the room a couple of times he’d seen nothing that clued him in on how things were going. He supposed the fact that except for the yipping of coyotes in the distance, all was quiet, was a good sign.

Laughter and hoofbeats broke into the night as two mounted men trotted down the deserted street to stop in front of the jail house. Scott’s breath quickened as he saw they were rurales. They tied their horses alongside the one already there, and walked toward the door. He took aim at one of the men, right between the shoulder blades, but everything in him screamed against shooting a man in the back. He cursed silently and lowered his gun. Still, Johnny was in there. He aimed again and squeezed the trigger.

 

The lantern above the man’s head exploded, raining glass down on him. He rushed into the jailhouse, slamming through the door, while his companion dove between their two horses, panning back and forth with his gun into the darkness. Scott aimed again, this time at the man between the jostling horses, and fired. The horse reared as the bullet hit its saddle. The man threw himself behind the other horse and shot back, the bullet thumping into the wall beside Scott, sending a shower of adobe dust into his face. Scott shot again, but the shot was way off the mark and hit the side of the building.

A shot came from inside the jail, then two more in rapid succession. Shouts echoed from down the street, and lanterns bobbed their way toward him. The man behind the horse shot again, the bullet kicking up dirt in front of Scott. Scott gave out a wounded scream.  The shooter peeked from behind the horse, then started running toward him. Scott shot, and the man tumbled face first into the dirt. It was a trick he’d learned in the war. He didn’t feel good about it, but as Johnny had once admonished him, you had to do it to them before they did it to you.

He grabbed the lead reins to the horses and started running to the jail, dragging the animals behind him. Not a sound had come from the building since the last shot, but more shouts were coming from down the street. He heard the shot at the same time he felt his leg knocked out from under him. He gasped, stumbled to the ground, clutching at his calf, but managed to push himself back up. The horses were spooked, and he tried to calm them while hanging on his horse’s bridle for support, still trying to reach the jail. Another shot, and one of the rurales’ horses reared and fell backward, hitting another horse and making it rear, tumbling on top of the first momentarily. Scott urged his horses faster, yelling for Johnny as they neared the door.

The door flung open, exposing a rurale framed by the light from within. Scott’s heart squeezed before he realized somebody was behind the rurale, holding a gun to his head, smiling like he was holding his bride on his wedding day. Johnny shoved the man ahead, calling out, “One more shot and your sergeant’s brains are going to get all over me. I ain’t gonna like that. And he really ain’t!”

Johnny motioned to someone behind him, and a mustached Mexican, hands bound in front, ran out and grabbed at one of the rurales’ horses. Johnny swung and shot at a man running across the street, the man falling and moaning. He hustled the sergeant to a horse, took another shot at somebody, then leaped up on Barranca, shouting “Go!” Scott pulled himself onto his horse, shooting at another shadow as he did, and joined the others galloping out of town. The sergeant’s horse, apparently wounded, faltered before they got far, and they left him. They kicked their horses to reckless speed in the darkness, spurred on by the excited shouts of men running toward the livery behind them.

Scott’s leg pulsed with a burning throb. His entire calf and foot were wet, he presumed with his own blood. He held on tightly to the saddle, but felt things slipping away, felt a wave of nausea rising. He’d known this was a bad idea.

 

Chapter 25

They were going too fast to be safe in this kind of light and too slow to be safe with that kind of pursuit. The horses galloped along a roadway that was hard enough to make out in the light, now virtually impossible to follow in the dark.  Johnny fell back, trying to keep one eye on Paco. Paco kept kicking his horse, but it was laboring, apparently also injured during the gun fight. They needed Scott to take the lead, but he seemed to be having a hard time too. Johnny shouted at both of them to get going, his words dying in his throat as he noticed how Scott was hanging in the saddle. He pulled alongside and leaned from his saddle to steady his brother. That was the moment Paco’s horse chose to go down.

Johnny and Scott’s horses both tried to leap over the fallen horse and rider, twisting to either side, wrenching Scott from Johnny’s grip as Scott’s horse stumbled. Scott was thrown into the midst of the horses’ flailing legs as they regained their feet. Johnny pulled up Barranca and flung himself off, running back to Scott. He’d had the breath knocked out of him but was conscious, already pushing himself to his feet. Paco was up, running for Scott’s horse. Johnny tackled him, throwing him to the ground and aiming his gun at his crotch.

“I’ll shoot your fucking nuts off, Paco.”  His words had the desired effect. Paco held up his bound hands.

Scott limped around and gathered the horses. Paco’s was clearly too lame to go any farther.

“How bad are you hurt?”

“I can keep going.”

Two horses, three riders. Scott in need of a doctor, Paco planning to bolt. “Get up!” he yelled at Paco, pointing to Scott’s horse. He guided Scott to Barranca and helped him mount, then leaped up behind him. They started down the road again at a safer gallop, Johnny twisting in his saddle to see lanterns strung out on the road behind them. The lame horse tried to keep up behind them but quickly gave up.

He kept one arm around Scott and a wary eye on Paco. It was too slow this way. Their only chance was to make sure it was hard to follow their trail. He waited for a rocky area, motioned for Paco to slow to a walk, and guided his horse off the road. Their tracks were barely visible on the rough stone. That should buy them some time.

It also made the going tough. They picked their way around boulders and through cacti, trying to pick up speed where they could, sometimes breaking into a canter and occasionally a slow gallop, keeping to rocky areas to hide their tracks. Still the lantern lights could be seen in the distance, bobbing along their trail.

Johnny had hoped they could head directly back to Julian, then come back for the boy. But as the sky grayed with the coming dawn and Scott seemed no better it now seemed doubtful they could make it that far.

They topped a ridge and found a trail running along it. He turned to the left, then pulled up abruptly, confused, as he saw lights ahead. He stared more closely as the shadows of walls slowly filled in around the windowed lights. The mission. He started to turn back, but felt Scott’s head loll back against him. “We’re going to the mission,” he announced.

“Juanito, this won’t work,” Paco said, repeating what he’d been saying all night. “Just let me go on to Julian. I’ll see that Maria gets off. You are slowing me down. It will be your fault if I cannot get to my Maria.” He continued to argue his position as they approached the mission, even when they stopped in front of its entrance archway. “If you think they’re going to protect us, you are wrong, Juanito! They only take care of orphans and sick people.”

Johnny studied Paco for a moment. He couldn’t trust him to go to Julian alone. But he was right about one thing. The people at the mission would only care for the sick and injured, and that didn’t include Johnny or Paco.

“You’re right,” he said. He pulled out his gun and nonchalantly shot Paco in the foot. Paco screamed, grabbed at his foot and fell from the saddle, just as a flurry of running steps could be heard on the stones within the mission walls.

“These men need help!” called out Johnny, helping Scott down. He handed him to a priest, who ushered him quickly inside. Paco was still spewing obscenities and clutching his foot. Johnny pulled him up and shoved him after Scott as another robed man rushed up to steady him. Scott looked behind and called for Johnny to hurry and catch up. “I will, Scott, I will,” he said, waiting for him to round a corner before getting the attention of a young man. “Tell the gringo to get Paco to Julian and get the receipt. Don’t let him out no matter what happens. He may try, but he’s not thinking right.”  He closed the mission door between them and turned to wait for the rurales.

 

Chapter 26

The mission walls were just starting to reflect the morning sun, illuminating the barren surroundings. Johnny noted the smattering of shrubs that provided the only cover. It was one thing to face the rurales, another to commit suicide.  Besides, he needed to be as far from the mission as possible when they found him. He swung up on Barranca and galloped back down the path. If he were lucky he’d beat them to the mission turnoff and lure them in the other direction.

He raced along the twisting pathway, Barranca’s hooves throwing up dust and pebbles as he slid around its tighter turns. He rounded some boulders and hauled back desperately on the reins, pulling Barranca into a slide. The rurales were galloping straight at him.

He leaped off and ran for the boulders, diving behind one as the first volley of shots exploded around him. He reached up and shot a couple of blind shots, just to keep them back while he searched for a better position. His boots slipped in the loose gravel as he scrambled up between two rocks, but he threw himself between them and wedged himself into a position where he could shoot from a protected vantage. This time he took careful aim.

His first shot took down one man, and his second hit another just as the man shot back, the bullet pinging into the stone near Johnny. He hunkered down as a barrage of bullets followed. Fifteen men, maybe, to start. Thirteen now. Most were scurrying behind rocks, but several had whirled their horses and were riding in a wide arc, probably to get behind him. He tried to hit them, but every time he stood to get a clear shot bullets thudded all around him. He had good cover now, but he’d be at their mercy once they surrounded him. So he chanced it, stood, got off two quick shots, both hitting their marks. That left three more still circling around, eleven in all. Too many, especially if they spread out. The sores in his right hand were oozing and throbbing. He probably wouldn’t make it out of here, but the more rurales he could take with him, and the longer he drew it out, the better Scott and Paco’s chances to get to Julian.

He sucked in his breath as he pushed himself up to take aim once again. Several of the rurales, apparently emboldened, were creeping toward him. He shot in rapid succession, rewarded as another went down. The others dodged behind cover. Ten left. He gritted his teeth and bobbed up to take a few more shots, surprised to hear a scream. He hadn’t actually been aiming at that guy. Nine. Six in front, three behind. He wedged himself in deeper between two rocks, reloaded again. He needed a better place if he was going to be assaulted from both sides. He spotted one a short ways up and readied himself to make a run. He took a breath, started shooting randomly, and hurled himself toward it, taking a final jump and landing on his side with a jolt. A bullet hit the rock. This one came from behind him.

He swung and tried to find the shooter, noticing movement on an outcrop above him. He fired, again and again, the third shot finally reaching its mark as the man flopped down the hillside. Eight left.

A hailstorm of bullets pinged into the boulder in front of him, others raining from behind. He pushed himself as tightly as he could into his sheltering crevice. Dios! That was more than eight guns! He’d either miscalculated or they had reinforcements. Damn, two of the guns were coming from a new location. It must be reinforcements. He searched, but couldn’t see where they were shooting from. He pulled his attention back to the main group, took a breath, chanced peering over the boulder and squeezed off six rounds, noting with satisfaction that more men fell than he thought he’d hit. He reloaded, trying not to dwell on his dwindling ammunition. He still couldn’t spot the other men behind him, or the new men. Shots continued to blast, far more shots than bullets hitting around him. They must be getting tired, their aim getting poor. He pushed himself up to fire again, taking out one, two. A bullet exploded the rock above him, sending shards flying. He had only an instant to see the hunk hurtling toward his head before he felt the thunk on his skull and his footing gave way beneath him and he was falling, tumbling, striking his head on another rock, everything spinning, going black.

He grabbed at consciousness, his vision swimming, finally making out shadowy figures approaching, standing over him silhouetted against the morning sun. Die, you fucking rurales, die with me! He lifted his gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger, again and again.

The empty cylinders just clicked.

 

Chapter 27

Scott sat on a bench in the courtyard, watching the children play. They regarded him cautiously, scurrying away when their games inadvertently led them too close. He wondered which child they were here to collect. He laid his head back, letting the sun soak his face. He was still unsteady from last night’s wound, but he could feel the sun restoring his strength. A shadow fell over his face and he opened his eyes to look up into Val’s scraggly mug.

“Johnny’s awake.”

He jumped to his feet, gasping as his injured leg hit the ground. It was just a graze, but it had bled a lot and it still hurt like the devil. Val shook his head at his clumsiness, but helped him hobble back toward the infirmary. As they passed by the door Johnny had shut behind him last night, Scott thought back to the awful moment when he’d realized Johnny’s plan. He had lunged back to the door, pounded on it, begged the priest to open it until he finally sank down next to it, still pleading. He was still there when he heard the gunfire start. He’d known from the sheer number of shots the bleak chances of his brother’s survival.  After each shot he prayed for another; anything to tell him Johnny was still fighting back. Finally, after one particularly heavy barrage, the shots had ceased. Scott didn’t even remember being helped down the corridor to a bed after that. The next thing he’d remembered was wondering if he was dreaming as Murdoch and Val miraculously hauled Johnny’s limp form onto a cot beside his.

Murdoch was still perched on a small chair beside the cot, as he’d been all morning despite his lack of sleep. He and Val had apparently ridden all night once they finagled the name of the mission out of Maria. Scott still shuddered when Murdoch described how they had found Johnny.

“I told you it was a bad idea.”

Johnny seemed to have a hard time focusing, but he smiled weakly. “You alive, ain’t you? And we got Pac…”  He swiveled his head around, an expression of alarm overcoming him. “Paco!”

“He’s here. Sleeping.”  Scott hated that Paco was sleeping on the cot right next to Johnny’s, spending his time either cursing Johnny or sucking on laudanum. Scott made a mental note to make sure he had enough laudanum to pass out on.

“Good,” he said almost in whisper. “Good.” Johnny looked like he was drifting back to sleep when he suddenly opened his eyes wide and held his hand up to catch Scott’s arm. “We gotta get that receipt. It’s with the gold. He’ll tell you for Mama.”

Rustling came from the other bed. Damn, Paco was awake again. “Screw your whore mama, Juanito. And screw you, too. You ain’t getting shit from me. Shot my fucking foot!”

***

Johnny sank back on the bed, exhausted from his effort to push off Scott and Murdoch so he could ram his fist clear down Paco’s throat. They were right, though. They had more important things to do right now, like getting the hell out of there. “We gotta get the kid and go. The rest of the rurales are bound to come looking.”

“I don’t think you’re in any condition to go anywhere,” Murdoch said, still holding him back with one hand. “You’ve probably had a concussion.”

“Sure ain’t in condition to stay here. Besides, we can’t let all these kids get in the middle of things. If that happens, I gotta give myself up.”

“He’s right,” said Scott. “Maria said most of the rurales were at a farmhouse waiting to ambush Johnny when he rode in. They’re bound to find out we’re here, if they haven’t heard it already.”

Murdoch’s eyes grayed with anger. “She told you this?”

“No, she told Johnny.” Scott looked a little irritated.

Murdoch turned on Johnny, standing over him. “She told you this, and you’re risking your life, all our lives, to save that betraying bit. . .woman?”

“Nobody asked you to help,” said Johnny, pushing himself back up and swinging his legs to the floor.

“Except you’d be dead if we hadn’t!” Murdoch’s face appeared to be pulsating. “Dammit, Johnny, what kind of hold does that woman have over you?”

Johnny looked at him incredulously. “She’s my mama. She raised me, but I guess you wouldn’t know about raising no kids!”

“Whoa, you two!” Scott stepped in and placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “But Johnny, I have to agree with Murdoch. What Maria has done is unforgivable, and I think she’s taking advantage of your sense of responsibility.”

Johnny shrugged him off. “Ain’t you the one always harping about how being a family means unconditional love? What, that don’t apply to my mama?”

“Not when she’s done the things she’s done, no.”

“You didn’t feel like that when you was fucking her!”

Scott stepped back, throwing up his hands and looking between Johnny and Murdoch. “I thought we were over that. You know nothing like that ever happened.” The chortling behind him stopped him from continuing.

“You fucking my woman, boy?” Paco smiled deviously. “She some wild ride, eh?”

Scott glared at him. His voice was icy when he spoke. “I’ll ask you not to speak of the lady like that.”

Paco guffawed. “You hear that, Juanito? He called your whore mama a lady! You know better than that, don’t you, chico? Bet you seen her screw half the border before I met her, eh? But ain’t a one could do her like me, ain’t that so, Juanito? Bet you learned a few tricks.”

“Shut up!” This time Murdoch and Scott were too busy staring at Paco to stop Johnny’s attack. He lunged, grabbing Paco by both shoulders, lifting him up and slamming him back down repeatedly. Paco just kept laughing like a drunk on a bucking burro. Just like he used to laugh when Johnny tried to protect Mama, like he used to laugh when Johnny cried for mercy. Goddamn laughing. Dios, how he wanted to kill him, had wanted to for years, but he needed him alive, so he reached down and squeezed Paco’s foot, hard, right over the bandages where it’d been shot. The effect was immediate. The laughter stopped, turning into howls and curses.

Scott and Murdoch pulled Johnny back and pushed him back to his cot. He sat back, trying to find something else to look at but Murdoch’s shocked expression. It made him feel all dirty inside. Damn that Paco, Johnny never wanted anyone to know what he’d watched his mama do. Dios, there were more secrets, too, lots more secrets Paco could tell. He wished Murdoch wasn’t there.

Paco’s curses slowed. He glared over at Johnny, panting, finally speaking in a hoarse voice. “You stupid shit, we should have made sure you burned up when we had a chance!”

***

The room was suddenly quiet except for the laughs and squeals of the playing children wafting through the open window. All eyes were on Paco, who was still clutching his foot. Johnny was the first to break his gaze, looking around the room. “Where’s my gun? We gotta go. Paco, which kid is your nephew?”

“No,” Murdoch said calmly. “We’re not going anywhere until I find out what he’s talking about.” He turned to Paco. “Just what do you mean by ‘should have made sure you burned up’?”

Paco ignored Murdoch, his attention on what Johnny had said. “Nephew?” This seemed to strike Paco funny all over again. “You mean that kid Carmelo? That kid ain’t no relation of mine. We just needed him so Maria and me would look like a family for a while. He got a good deal. Got to see the countryside.”

Johnny had already eased into his boots and started toward the door. Murdoch still stood over Paco. “I said we’re not going anywhere until I hear what you meant.”

Paco folded his arms. “Suits me. I’d just as soon stay here than go to the states. Good food, nice bed…”

Murdoch’s attention was diverted by the appearance of Padre Gustavo in the doorway. The padre’s robes were flying as he spoke and gestured vehemently to Johnny and Scott.  Murdoch grabbed Paco roughly and shoved him to his feet and toward the door. “I’m not through with you.” Paco made a mock sign of fear.

Scott turned to Murdoch. “The padre says we can’t take the child. There were signs he’d been abused, very badly and very recently, when Paco and Maria left him here. The boy has apparently been having nightmares ever since that they might come back for him.”

 

Chapter 28

Scott wished he could hear what Johnny and Carmello were talking about. They’d been sitting on the bench for about ten minutes, a pretty long time considering the hurry Johnny was in. The padre had been sitting with them at first, but he’d soon left them and made his way among the other children, stopping to give each one some sort of special attention. He finally ruffled the last little boy’s hair and sent him skipping back out to play.

“I am sorry to disappoint your brother,” said the padre, “but Carmello will be staying here. I cannot approve anyone to take him just to use him, and he certainly won’t be going anywhere with that man.” He gestured toward the other room where Paco was back in bed.

“Exactly what did the boy contend Paco did to him?” asked Scott.

“He didn’t say anything at first. But he was covered with cigarette burns, belt marks, bruises. It was a while before he trusted me enough to talk. He said this Paco and Maria adopted him from a mission in San Diego, promised to take care of him. But he said they only fed him their garbage, and Paco beat him and burned him all the time.” The padre stopped and looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know how to say this, but the boy said they had relations right in front of him. And that they tried to make him do things, too, and when he refused that’s when Paco really hurt him. The boy’s not leaving here, and I want that, that animal out of here as quickly as possible.” Padre Gustavo scowled as he saw Paco lounging on the cot, smoking. He spun on his heel and stalked to the window, watching the children at play. 

Scott and Murdoch stood in silence for a moment. Scott cleared his throat before speaking. “Sir, have you ever seen all those round marks all over Johnny’s arms and back?”

Murdoch nodded, his jaw clenched. “And other places. I always assumed he’d had some sort of pox that got infected.”

“I guess not. Did you get Paco to explain his comment about letting him burn?”

“No,” said Murdoch, staring at Johnny on the bench as his face grew red, “No, but I goddamn will!” He strode into the other room and ripped Paco out of the bed, grabbing the cigarette from his mouth and throwing it to the floor. “You think you’re a big man, picking on boys? Go on, try it with a man!” He shoved him against the wall.

“Senor, we’re in a sacred house here! The padre is not going to put up with fighting!” Paco smiled and looked pointedly toward the door. “Right, Padre?”  His smile faded as the padre turned back to the window without comment.

Paco let out a loud “umpfh!” when Murdoch’s fist rammed into his stomach. He tried to slide down, but Murdoch hauled him back up. “Padre, I am a child of God! Stop him!”

Murdoch got close enough to see the sweat seeping out of every pore in Paco’s face. “You’re the devil! Now you tell me what you meant about burning him up.”

“Nothing!”

Murdoch slammed him back into the wall. “You’re lying!” He slammed him again, harder and harder, until the hanging cross clattered to the floor.

“I meant he could burn in hell! Your dear Juanito is…”

“What’s going on here?” Johnny ran toward Murdoch and pulled on him. “Murdoch, stop, you’ll kill him!”

Murdoch brushed him off. “You’re damn right I’ll kill him, after what he did!”

“No, Murdoch, we need him!” He pulled Murdoch’s shoulders without budging him.

Scott tried to pull Johnny away. “Let him go, Johnny, he needs to do this. And I’m next!”

“Murdoch! We need him for Mama!” He pushed between Murdoch and Paco.

“Johnny, I know what he did to you. Now get out of my way!”

A young man scurried up to Padre Gustavo and whispered something to him. The padre turned and rushed in. “The rurales are on their way here. I’m afraid you all must leave immediately.”

***

The horses charged along the narrow path between boulders, leaving a frenzy of dust behind. Once again Scott thanked heavens that Val had the foresight to have readied all the horses, even acquiring a new one, while they the rest of them had been so caught up in wanting to kill Paco. Somehow he felt a little better that Johnny had added his own jab to Paco’s gut once he pulled Murdoch away.

Scott’s wound was complaining, as was Paco’s mouth. Johnny looked pale, but other than that he looked as fine as he claimed to be. Not for the first time, Scott marveled at his brother’s body’s ability to lie. Val led the way, since he knew these border paths and roads as well as Johnny did. Murdoch managed to ride close enough to Paco to throw a menacing look at him at every opportunity. They’d been running for almost an hour and still hadn’t seen the rurales, until just now when they spotted a faraway dust cloud once they topped a rise. The padre had promised to stall them, but they’d apparently figured out their quarry was again on the run.

Val held his hand up as he pulled back on his reins and called back to the rest of them.  “Everybody doing okay?” He watched Johnny carefully as he asked. “Cuz we’re going to head cross country here. We won’t be able to go as fast, but neither will they. And these horses gotta rest or we’re going to be on foot.”

“How far would you estimate we are from the border?” asked Scott.

“Well,” said Val, wiping his face with his sleeve, “it depends. Couple of hours if we get there. End of time if we don’t.” Scott found it somehow disquieting that Johnny chose to smile at this, as though it were funny. Scott always hated the two of them together.

They turned their mounts off the path and down an incline that led to a canyon. Paco’s horse suddenly bolted, ramming sidelong into Johnny’s, causing Barranca to partially rear. Paco pulled a leg up and kicked Johnny, who was already off balance, off his horse, then spurred his horse back up the incline. Johnny yelled for the others to catch Paco, but Murdoch and Scott jumped down and ran to Johnny’s side.

“Forget him!” yelled Murdoch. “Maybe he’ll distract the rurales.”

Val chased after Paco, tackling him before they reached the top of the hill, both rolling in the shale until Val ended up on top, his gun pointed at Paco’s head. He pulled Paco up and shoved him back to the others, leading both horses.

“Thanks, Val,” Johnny said. Val just nodded.

“John, you need to give him up,” said Murdoch. “He could buy us time if we left him for the rurales.”

“No,” Johnny said. “We need him. I ain’t got the kid, so he’s all I got for Mama’s defense. He’s going back to Julian, he’s going to tell me where to come back and find the gold with the receipt, and he’s going to get my mama free.”

Paco started to chuckle. “You stupid shit! There ain’t no receipt!”

 

Chapter 29

“You’re lying,” Johnny said to Paco, raising his gun.

Paco brushed the dust from his shirt. “Why are you even helping her?  That woman never cared about anybody unless they could fuck her or feed her. You know why Maria went to find you? So she could trade you for me. What does that tell you?”

“It tells me you better shut the fuck up and get on your horse.”

“Johnny, let’s leave him out here.” Scott pushed on Johnny but Johnny never moved, just kept pointing his gun at Paco.

“Get him on his horse, Scott. My mama’s depending on me. Maybe you don’t give a damn, but I ain’t about to let her down again.”

“That’s not fair. . .”

Paco turned to Scott. “You need to talk some sense into him. Maria don’t give a shit about him, never has. Hell, I don’t know how many times she tried to dump the brat ’fore she got it right. We’d leave him in one town and he’d show up a few days later in the next one like a bad penny. Like the dumb shit thought we’d forgot him accidental! Even dropped him at an orphanage once but he must of run away.” He shook his head, chuckling. “I don’t know how the hell he tracked us, but he come dragging into the cantina one night, tugging on Maria’s skirts right when she had a paying customer on the hook. Shoulda seen the look on her face! Funny as shit!”

“Get on the horse! Now!” Johnny cocked the hammer, his hand shaking slightly. It seemed to Scott that the icy control Johnny usually had whenever he held a gun had abandoned him. Or maybe it was just his hand acting up.

Murdoch’s shaking was easier to read. He looked like blood was going to spurt from his ears any second now, yet he kept his voice eerily calm as he placed his hand over Johnny’s wrist. “No. John, I’d like to hear this.”

“It’s just a bunch of lies! We gotta get going!”

Paco’s smile faded just a little as he took in Murdoch’s glower. “You can’t blame me. It was her idea. Damn mestizo kid made us stick out wherever we went. Sure as hell didn’t need that. I had the law on my trail, and Pinkerton agents were asking after Maria for some reason.”

“We ain’t got time for this! Let’s go!”  Johnny made a move for his horse, but only Val took his lead.

“Go on,” said Murdoch to Paco, ignoring Johnny.

“Like I said, it wasn’t my doing. I never liked the smart-mouthed brat, but I wasn’t about to off him. Had enough problems. Just, well, Maria got this idea when this old hag kind of, uh, died one night, practically right outside our door. We drug her inside, threw some stuff over her. The plan was to set fire to the place so when they found the hag’s body they’d think it was Maria’s. Get them Pinkertons off us.” He shook his head warily. “Hey, now I thought we was just going to leave Juanito behind thinking she was dead, not kill him. Maria, she’d been in one her spells, but when she met me outside of town it was like she just busted out of it. Didn’t tell me til later she’d made for sure Juanito would quit dogging us.”

“Shut up! You’re just making stuff up so I won’t take you back, but it ain’t working. It was a fucking accident! She was trying to kill herself, only you wasn’t there to stop her! Where the hell were you?” Johnny took a quieting breath and aimed his gun at Paco’s uninjured foot. “Get on the horse or I’m blowing a hole in your other foot.”

“No,” said Scott, drawing his gun and holding it to Paco’s head. “Get on the horse or I’m blowing a hole in your head.” He couldn’t wait to see Paco swing. Along with Maria.

***

Scott rode alongside Paco, reminding him whenever possible how eager he was to shoot him, taunting him to try to escape. Johnny was beginning to think maybe Scott had missed his calling; from the sound of it, he could have made a mean hired gun. He had to stop himself from smiling at every new fancified threat he heard, imagining how life would have been had Scott been riding with him back when he was hiring out.

It made him feel good, in a way, to hear Scott taking up for him, even if he was sure Paco didn’t understand half the words. It felt good that Murdoch had done the same thing earlier, only with his fists, something Paco understood for sure. He wasn’t quite sure what Paco had said to Murdoch to set him off. Then again, it had been Johnny’s experience that it seldom took much to set Murdoch off. At least when it was Johnny doing the talking. Maybe it was being Mexican, or loving Maria, that Murdoch had little patience with.

Whatever the reason, he had to admit he liked this new feeling of having a brother and father on his side. Being around Paco made his gut clamp up, made him want to run and hide like he used to, even though he could kill the older man easily now. That Paco had at times been cruel to him was a given; but Paco had also doted on his mama, and Mama had never been happier than when Paco joined them. For a brief while Johnny had even tried calling him Papa. It’s just that when Paco and Mama were together neither of them had time for a kid hanging around. He hated being jealous of Paco, but he couldn’t help it. He just hoped none of the others noticed how he couldn’t bring himself to ride too near the Mexican.

He searched the landscape behind, as he’d done a hundred times. Still no sign of them. 

He knew Scott and Murdoch thought he was a sucker. The thing was, who knew if Paco was telling the truth? He’d probably say just about anything to keep from standing trial in Julian. And right now, convincing them to leave him to the rurales was about his best chance. And what better way to do that than to convince Johnny to say the hell with Maria? No, he wasn’t falling for it. Even if there was some truth in what he’d said. More likely it had all been Paco’s doing.

Barranca’s foot slipped, and Johnny caught himself while the horse regained his balance. He patted him on the neck, holding onto his mane a little longer than he should, glancing around as he did. Nobody had noticed that he’d almost lost his seat. They’d better get to the border soon or somebody would be sure to notice when he fell clear out of the saddle.

“Shit!” Up ahead, Val pulled his horse up. Those two things together were always a bad sign.

Johnny caught up to him. “Shit.”

Val was already off his horse, clambering over the heap of boulders from the rockslide that blocked the narrow canyon passage. He was back in a minute. “These horses ain’t getting over that.”

“Do you know of an accessible side trail?” asked Scott.

Val shook his head slowly as he scratched his groin. “Closest side trail’s maybe a mile, two, back.”

“Can we make it before they get there?”

Val shrugged. “One way to find out.”

“We can stay here and face ’em,” Johnny said. “We got four good guns.”

“Against how many rurales? Are you crazy?”

“Had worse odds.”

They scanned the area. Johnny had to admit it had lousy cover. It’s just that he wasn’t sure he could make it all the way back the way he was feeling all wobbly. He took a swig from his canteen, still studying the barren landscape. Even the rockslide didn’t provide any real cover. “Okay, let’s go back. If we meet up with them, we won’t be in any worse place.”

They galloped their horses much faster going back, their safety cushion now eaten away.  Finally the canyon wall opened up on the left, revealing an even narrower passage between the rocks. They’d have to go single file, at least for a ways. Johnny knew the path, though, and knew it opened up a little later. Val turned up the trail at the same time they heard the approaching rurales.

“Hold up!” Johnny whispered urgently. “Go back the way we came, just around the bend. I got a plan.”

“Back? John, this is no time for indecision. Let’s go!” He hated it when Murdoch thought he was an idiot.

“No! It’s really just a simple military operation. Just ask Boston!” said Johnny, grinning at Scott. Scott stared at him like he was mad, then broke out into a smile.

Johnny explained, Murdoch argued, but in the end Murdoch, Val and Paco turned back until they were out of sight. Scott started up the side trail. Johnny waited at the head of the side trail.

He tried to flex his injured hand. It still hurt like hell. He took a deep breath as the first of the rurales rounded the bend and spotted him. He slumped in his saddle, hanging half off as he turned Barranca down the trail and spurred him into a gallop. As soon as he was out of sight he pulled himself upright and asked for more speed.  The rurales were pounding after him. A bullet whizzed past his head. Mierde! He’d let them get too close! The thunder of their hoofbeats behind made him swear out loud as he realized just how close they were. Barranca skidded around a bend, almost slamming into Scott’s riderless horse. He pulled back on the reins, hurled himself off, and slapped both horses to get them out of the way.

He’d only just jumped behind a boulder as the first rurale emerged from the narrow passage behind him. The crack of Scott’s rifle sounded and the man toppled off his horse. Johnny fired on the second rurale as he appeared, and the man lurched backward to the ground. A third rurale tried to pull up, but was propelled onward into the open by the rider behind him. Johnny and Scott picked both of them off. Cries to retreat echoed down the passage, and the horses could be heard galloping back down the way they had come. A minute later shots rang out, followed by more cries. Johnny smiled. A few minutes later a couple of rurales came galloping out of the passage, guns firing. They didn’t make it.

More hoofbeats thundered toward them. Johnny aimed again at the opening, but Val and Murdoch’s shouts stopped him from pulling the trigger. “You two okay?” shouted Val. Scott jumped down from his position as best he could on one leg. Johnny heaved himself up, took a wobbly step out from behind his boulder, and cursed to himself as he realized they would surely notice this. He crumpled onto the ground.

 

Chapter 30

The air had been getting noticeably cooler as they climbed toward Julian. He couldn’t wait to get Paco to jail, Johnny to bed, and himself into a nice tub of clean water. Their father had been frantic when he’d seen Johnny fall, naturally assuming he’d been shot. Scott was pretty sure Johnny hadn’t caught a bullet, but then with Johnny, he’d be likely to keep it a secret. When they reached him he was pale but conscious. They’d doused him with a canteen of water and helped him back on his horse once he felt steadier. They simply couldn’t stop for fear more rurales might be following, but they did try take it easier, all the while keeping a covert eye on him for more signs of collapse. He still looked pale, and they made him rest a couple of times, but he never looked in danger of going down again. Now as the trees opened up and the modest wooden buildings of Julian came into view, Scott was glad they’d pressed on.

They tied their horses in front of the sheriff’s office and Val and Murdoch steered their prisoner inside. Paco had long since given up protesting or escaping, probably realizing Johnny wasn’t in any condition to protect him. Scott and Johnny headed immediately  toward Maria’s cell. They both stopped dead in their tracks. The cell was empty. Johnny swung around unsteadily, his eyes searching around the jail house, finally landing on the sheriff. “Where is she?”

“Take it easy, boy. She’s at the doctor’s office. She hurt herself.”

Johnny paled even more and tripped toward the door. “You’re dead if you hurt her!”

“Wait! You can’t go in there!” the sheriff called after the banging door. Murdoch and Scott ran after him, leaving Val and Sheriff Whitney to handle Paco.

By the time they got there, Johnny was already inside, holding a gun on two deputies. “I said stand aside.”

“John! Put the gun down!”

“They ain’t stopping me from seeing my mama!”

“Like I told him,” said one of the deputies, “nobody sees the prisoner without the sheriff’s okay.”

The door to the back room flew open. “What the heck’s going on out here?” The man’s hands slowly went up when he saw Johnny.

Johnny shoved past him into the back room. The deputies followed, drawing their guns. They stopped when they heard the click of guns behind them. “He just wants to see his mother,” said Scott. “Now put your guns away.”

Johnny didn’t seem to hear any of them. He sank into the chair beside the bed, holding Maria’s limp hand. She was the color of a porcelain doll, and almost as lively.

“Mama!” He put his head on her chest. “Are you sure she’s breathing?”

The doctor walked over and took her wrist. “She’s breathing. And she has a pulse, but it’s very weak.”

“What happened? What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s lost a lot of blood. Sheriff Whitney said she’d been acting depressed, but he had no idea she’d. . .Well, he left her breakfast tray with her this morning and went out. When he came back she’d stabbed herself with a fork a bunch of times, deep. In the stomach and here, on her left wrist, she managed to slash it.”

“Dios.” Johnny cupped her hand between his, and rested his forehead against them. “Mama, I should never have left you. I’m so sorry.” He broke away finally, looked up at the doctor. “Is she going to make it?”

“I’ll be honest, son, it’s touch and go.”

One of the deputies snorted. “Save us all the bother of a trial if she don’t.” Medical instruments clattered to the floor as Johnny lunged, the deputy gurgling as he tried to pry Johnny’s hands from his throat.

“Stop!” Murdoch yelled as he and Scott pulled Johnny off. Johnny shrugged them off vehemently and stood glaring.

One deputy held his gun on him. The other brushed himself off and pulled out some handcuffs. “Boy, you’re under arrest for assaulting a deputy of the law.”

***

“Listen, Sheriff, your deputy wasn’t hurt. There’s absolutely no reason to hold my client.”

“Your client, eh? You starting to specialize in Lancers, Mr. Pratt?”

Jason smiled, a good fake smile meant to be condescending. “Your deputy taunted a man who was worried whether his own mother was going to live or die.”

“Maybe, but truth is, your client happens to be a notorious gunfighter who threatened a sheriff, pulled a gun on two deputies, pushed his way into a place he didn’t belong, and attacked a lawman. His own father warned me to make sure nobody in town sold him any dynamite because even he don’t trust him not to try something stupid. I say we all got a lucky break. Him included.”

“What do you mean, my father warned you?” Johnny was leaning forward against the bars, his arms dangling in freedom. He had been staring at the ground, but now he raised his head.

Jason held up a hand at him. “Johnny, I’ll handle this.” He turned back to the sheriff. “Now Sheriff Whitney, you know as well as I do there’s nothing illegal about being a gunfighter. With the exception of that slight misunderstanding he has been a model citizen in his time in your town.”

“He’s been here less than 24 hours and in that time he’s pulled a gun on. . .”

“Yes, yes, you told me. Listen, my client is worried about his mother. A woman it was your duty to safeguard. Not to mention that Mr. Lancer needs medical attention himself. None of this will look good if it has to come out. Give him a warning, let him a pay a fine if you must, but release him!”

“Come on, Sheriff, you gotta let me out. My mama’s got nobody to sit with her. And I still gotta go back to Mexico and find that receipt.”

The sheriff tapped his fingers on his desk. “Okay. A hundred dollars and one night in jail. Just to cool off. And we’ll let you visit with your mother some under supervision. Doc can check you over meanwhile.”

***

Val lost the coin toss and headed off to take care of the horses, leaving Scott and Murdoch standing outside the doctor’s office. Both the sheriff and doctor had made it plain they weren’t welcome in the cramped room with them, Johnny, and Maria.

“Do you think she really tried to kill herself, sir?”

“I think she’d do anything to keep Johnny feeling guilty and hanging on. She probably just screwed up and cut it a little too close.”

Scott mulled over his father’s words. When he’d walked in that room and seen Maria lying so pale and still, his first inclination had been to push Johnny aside, run to her and hold her close, and beg her to forgive him. Of course he knew how that would have gone over. That, plus the fact he had wanted to see her hang only a few hours earlier, kept him rooted to his place. The thing was, the darn woman had him so confused he wasn’t really sure whether he loved her or loathed her. If what Paco had said was true, she made him want to retch. But Johnny seemed to think Paco had made it all up, and if anyone was in a position to know, it would have to be his brother. Could he have been too quick to condemn her?

“Do you think Paco was telling the truth?”

“Do you think he would make something like that up? Listen Scott, I’m here for Johnny, but that woman who dares to call herself his mother is a blight on the human race! As soon as Johnny realizes that, the better off he’ll be.” He looked intently at Scott. “And exactly what are you feelings about the lovely woman now?”

Scott tried not to look as uncomfortable as he felt. “I think she’s Johnny’s mother and we need to be supportive no matter what.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Look Murdoch, I’m tired, there’s nothing to talk about, and I’m going to go get a bath.” He turned and walked toward the hotel, leaving his father staring after him. How could he tell him what his feelings were when he had no idea himself?

 

Chapter 31

Johnny sat impatiently watching his mama as the doctor checked his wounds. She lay there so pale and still. Damn that sheriff! He should have watched her better. Couldn’t he see how vulnerable she was?

The sheriff shifted his weight in his chair uncomfortably. Johnny was surprised he’d taken it upon himself to escort him to Doctor Nelson’s office at this late hour. Whitney did look upset. Johnny sighed. He guessed it wasn’t the sheriff’s fault, not really. How could he have known what to watch out for when Johnny hadn’t warned him about Mama’s sad spells? He’d been in such a damn hurry to go galloping down to Mexico he hadn’t given the sheriff any instructions for looking after her. Mama just wasn’t like most women. She was fragile. She couldn’t look after herself, never had been able to. She’d always needed Johnny, or her men, to take care of her. But Johnny had left her all alone, with only a strange sheriff who didn’t know how to watch her.

He grimaced as the doctor prodded the gash on his head. “Not too deep,” he said. “Mostly looks like you just got a good bump on your noggin.” He shook his head as he saw Johnny’s hand.  “This is looking pretty nasty. Didn’t I tell you to keep it bandaged? I think it could use some carbolic acid.”

“What about my mama?”

“Still no sign of coming around.”

The door opened and a stout woman, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, walked in. She scowled at Johnny. “Oh! I didn’t realize he was here.” She opened a drawer and slapped some instruments in it, then arranged some more instruments on the table top.

Johnny looked at the assortment of scalpels and knives. “You can’t leave them sharp things in here when Mama comes to. She could hurt herself again.”

The woman picked up a knife, breathed on it, and shined it on her apron. “The last person who laid in that bed never got back out. I might as well tell you, there’s a heap of folk in town who hope the one that killed him fares no better.  Phineas had a lot of friends. Including me.” She set the knife back down and left.

***

It was late and Paco was sleeping when the sheriff brought Johnny back. Doctor Nelson had treated Paco’s foot earlier. Johnny was disappointed nobody was around. Just like always, nobody but him really cared about Mama. And the doctor’s wife had made it clear that the few who cared wanted her dead. Seems like that was how it always was, like things had never changed from when he’d been a kid begging on the street for somebody to help her when she’d been in one of her spells, when she couldn’t get out of bed or cook or eat. Nobody cared about a whore, not then or now. Not even Scott and Murdoch.

“Paco? Paco, wake up!” The least Paco could do was wait up and ask about Maria.  Of all Mama’s men, Paco had been about the best one to her. Of course, he’d also been about the worst to Johnny. Paco never wanted him around when they were screwing, and that was pretty much all the time. But he also didn’t want him anywhere he could be seen, on account of a mestizo kid brought shame and unwanted attention to them. That didn’t leave Johnny many places, so sometimes he just hid under the bed or in Paco’s big trunk. He thought about what Paco had said on the trail. He’d found it risky to hide out too far away. They were likely to be gone when he checked back. The part about being left behind all those times was true. But he’d always assumed it was Paco’s doing. He still thought it was. In a way, it was probably good, sort of like trial runs for when he was on his own permanently.

Paco was stirring. “Wha?”

“She’s doing about the same.”

“Mmmm. Who?”

“Mama! He said she lost a lot of blood. The doctor’s wife doesn’t like her.”

“Oh yeah. Hmmm, that’s too bad.” He turned over so his back faced Johnny.

“Paco? What about the receipt? Is it really gone?”

“The rurales hid it.” Paco turned back over and sat up, rubbing one eye. “I know where it is, though. But if I tell you, you have to get me out.”

***

Click. Scott opened his eyes slowly. The first thing he noticed was the barrel of a Colt staring into his face. The second thing, just beyond that, was the grinning face of his old pal Stubb. The bath water Scott was soaking in suddenly seemed chilled.

“Get up real slow like.”

Scott carefully hoisted himself up and reached for his towel.

“Watch it!”

He stopped in mid reach. “Take it easy. I just want to get my towel.”

Stubb’s eyes wandered down, his lips forming a smirk. “Yeah I bet you do. I tell you boy, it’s a good thing for Maria me and Zack showed up, give her something she could feel between her legs!”

Scott grabbed his towel indignantly. He’d love to see Stubb’s stub after he’d been soaking in cold water for an hour. “I trust you didn’t break into my hotel room simply to admire my genitalia.” He raised a brow. “Or did you?”

Stubb creased his brow. “Shut up and get dressed. If we ain’t out in five minutes your old man gets a hole blowed through him.”

“What? Where’s Murdoch? What do you want?”

“Four minutes, now.”

***

“Hey! Where’s my breakfast!”

Johnny opened his eyes and pushed himself up from his cot, shaking the sleep from his head. The sun was already streaming through the barred windows, throwing the all too familiar striped shadows across his legs.

His overnight sentence up, he was eager to go check on Mama. He’d spent a restless night worrying about her until finally drifting off into an exhausted slumber early in the morning.

Paco was already wake. Johnny knew this because the man kept on and on complaining about his late breakfast. Funny thing, there was nobody in the sheriff’s office to hear his complaints. Or to let Johnny out. That part wasn’t so funny. Actually, neither part was. Paco kept on yelling for food, louder and louder.

“Hey Paco, why don’t you serve yourself a nice bowl of shut-the-fuck-up?”

Paco lifted his head from his bunk and sneered, but at least he shut up. For about a second.  “Still with the smart mouth, eh, Juanito? You remember what it got you before.”

“I remember you beatin’ on a kid not half your size. You want to try it now?”

“Juanito, I do not wish to argue. I want to prove Maria’s innocence, and mine too, of course. For that we need the receipt.”

That got Johnny’s attention. He walked over to the bars between them. “How come you didn’t tell me where it was before?”

“That’s a lot of gold it’s with. Enough to tempt somebody to take it and keep going, forget all about Maria and me. I couldn’t take that kind of a chance with Maria’s fate. That’s why you got to put up some sort of, uh, what you call it—collateral.”

“Like what?” Johnny’s words were clipped. He couldn’t believe Paco would think he would take the gold and run out on his own mama.

“Like I said, for starters, I’m going with you. You already broke me out of one jail. What’s the difference? Do it again.”

“That was Mexico. I was already wanted there. If I break you out here, I’ll be wanted in the states, too.”

“What’s the worst that could happen? You might go to jail for a year. Is that worse than letting your mama hang? Dios, how selfish are you?”

Johnny had sworn he’d never go back to prison. But maybe Paco was right. This was his mama’s life at stake! He started to speak just as the outer door banged open. The sheriff hurried in. His eyes caught Johnny’s, looked away quickly. But not so fast that Johnny didn’t read the bad news behind them. His gut flopped. Oh Dios, please! Not Mama!

 

Chapter 32

Sheriff Whitney took the keys from his drawer and unlocked Johnny’s cell just as Val flung open the outer door. Val walked directly to Johnny’s cell and cleared his throat before speaking. “Johnny, I don’t want you flying off the handle, but I got some bad news.”

“Mama?” Johnny whispered.

“No, no, Johnny, she’s the same,” Val said. “I just checked. But it’s Scott and Murdoch. They’re missing.”

“What do you mean, missing?”

“One of my deputies saw your father riding out of town last night with two men,” Sheriff Whitney said. “He didn’t think anything of it until Sheriff Crawford ran into us outside with his news.”

“What?”

“Murdoch and Scott are being held hostage,” Val said. “I got a note under my door.”

“By who? Why?”

“Didn’t say who, not exactly, but I think I know. Them bounty hunters been seen around. They want to exchange them for Paco.”

“We don’t make deals,” said Sheriff Whitney, handing Johnny his gun. “Sorry, son.”

***

“You got any ideas?” Johnny spoke in a hushed tone.

“Not short of breaking him out, and don’t start thinking of doing that.” Val squirmed in his chair, trying to avoid touching anything in the doctor’s back room where Maria was. He hated doctor’s offices. The places always smelled clean enough to make you sick.

“Did they say how long we got? And what if Paco don’t get out?”

“Just that you’d be sorry if they didn’t have him in 24 hours.”

Maria picked that moment to groan, moving just a little. “Mama? Mama, es Juanito!” Johnny kept up his pleading, in Spanish and English, but she didn’t respond to either.

Johnny finally rested his forehead on his hands, which in turn were cupped around one of Maria’s. “I don’t know what to do, Val. I can’t let anything happen to Scott and Murdoch. I can’t let Paco get away with that receipt. I can’t leave Mama when she’s like this. What if she woke up and I wasn’t here? Maybe just the doctor’s bitchy wife?” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Dios, but I can’t just sit here when they have Scott and Murdoch! Damn, Val, I’m losing it, I don’t know what to do!”

Val reached out to pat his friend’s knee, bumping into a tray and sending its instruments crashing onto the floor instead. “Damn!” He squatted down and started sweeping them all back into the tray. “You stay here with your mother, Johnny. There’s nothing else you can do right now.” He placed the tray back where he found it, rearranging the instruments so nobody could tell, blowing some of the dirt off. “I tell you what. I’m going to get somebody to bring you some breakfast, then I’m going to snoop around, see what I can find out. And I’m going to make a deal with you. Soon as I find out anything, I’m gonna come tell you. Soon as Maria’s condition changes, you send somebody to tell me. And meanwhile, just sit there. Don’t do anything stupid!”

Val left and Johnny sat studying his mama. She was so beautiful. He sighed. He had a feeling he was about to do something stupid.

***

Zack took a series of staccato puffs from his cigar. “You better hope Madrid comes through.”

“I told you,” Scott said, “we already tried to get Paco to take us to the gold, because we wanted the receipt for Maria’s defense. What makes you think he would tell you where it is?”

“Yeah, well I been told I can be very persuasive.”  Zack took a long puff and smiled.

“Johnny won’t do it,” Murdoch said abruptly.

“You telling me Johnny Madrid is too chicken to bust someone out of jail to save his old man?”

“I’m telling you Johnny Lancer is not going to break the law for me or anybody else.”

“Oh yeah? Hey, Stubb, bring me over lover boy. Maybe Johnny whateverhisname needs to see we mean business.” Stubb pushed Scott over, kicking him to his knees when he got to Zack. Zack slowly pulled his blade from his boot, turning it to and fro so it caught the light. “What do you think would do it, motherfucker? Maybe a sack with your balls in it? Course, your brother might thank us for that. Keep you away from his mama.”

***

“Mama, please, please, please wake up.” Maria was stirring once again, as she had several times throughout the morning. Doctor Nelson had checked her over three times so far, each time simply saying it was in fate’s hands. His wife, Elizabeth, or as Johnny thought of her, Elizabitch, had arrived to take care of some hygiene matters once. Johnny didn’t want her touching his mama, but he figured he was an even worse candidate for the job, so he supervised from the far side of the room.

The door opened quietly and Val came in. Johnny looked up expectantly. “What’d you find out?”

“Not much, really. Like I said, Zack and Stubb have been seen outside of town. The guess is they never left, just holed up at one of the old mines, but they’re so many mines it would take forever to figure out which one. Here’s the thing, though. A fellow named Hawkins visited Paco yesterday, and Hawkins was seen east of town later.”

“Juanito?” Maria’s weak voice was barely a whisper.

“Mama!” Johnny cupped her face in his hands. “Mama? Mama, I’m sorry I left you.”

“Mijo, you’re here.” She tried to take his hand, but was too weak.

“Can you drink something?

She nodded imperceptibly and Val handed Johnny a cup of water he’d just poured, then helped prop her up a little. Johnny held the cup to her lips while she drank, easing her head back on the pillow when she was through. “I’m sorry, mijo,” she said feebly, taking a breath between almost every word. “I thought you’d left me. For good. I could not go on. Not without you. Don’t ever leave me, please. Promise me, Juanito.”

“I won’t, Mama.” Johnny pursed his lips. “Only, I may have to be gone just a while tonight. Stubb and Zack have Murdoch and Scott. They want Paco in exchange. I have to get them back.”

“Too dangerous,” she mumbled. “No. Stay.”

“I’ll be careful. I wish I could stay with you, but I have to go after them. They’re my father and brother.”

“No,” she slurred, “no, they’re not.”

“What?”

“I love you, Juanito,” Maria said, almost inaudibly, drifting back to sleep.

***

Johnny aimed his gun at the man. “Open the cell, Sheriff.”

“Lancer, this is not the way. Put your gun away, son.”

“There ain’t no other way.” Johnny held his gun steady while he fished through the drawer for the keys with his other hand. He opened Paco’s cell, had Paco cuff and gag the sheriff, and locked the sheriff in Paco’s place. Paco headed for the desk to pick up Sheriff Whitney’s discarded gun. “No,” said Johnny. “That wasn’t part of the deal. All I had to do was bust you out of jail. Then I’m gonna make sure you get to where you’re supposed to get to. I got a horse outside for you. You make any moves, you know I’ll shoot you. Wherever it’ll hurt the most.”

“Sure, Juanito, sure.” Paco raised his hands mockingly and gimped toward the door, hissing as his injured foot touched the ground.

“And Paco? I don’t give a shit about the gold, but I want that receipt before Mama’s trial. If I don’t get it in time, there ain’t gonna be no place you can hide. You got that?”

“Juanito, you know I want Maria cleared as much as you do!”

Johnny checked the dark street outside. Only a few people were out. He and Paco strolled to the waiting horses as casually as they could what with Paco hobbling and cursing at every step. As they rode out of town Johnny gave one last look at the doctor’s office, a pang of worry slicing through him. He hoped he’d be back soon.

Mama hadn’t awakened again. He knew she didn’t want him leaving her, or risking his life to free Paco, even if it meant saving Murdoch and Scott. He supposed that’s why she’d said what she did. A lie so he wouldn’t risk his life for them. Or maybe she didn’t know what she was saying.

Just outside of town, Paco motioned to a steep trail winding up through the trees. They took it.

Less than a minute later, the shadowy forms of several mounted men followed.

***

Murdoch shifted his weight yet again. Scott knew his back must be bothering him. The angle of the rock wall behind them forced them into an awkward sitting position where they were perpetually leaning forward.

The three men who were holding them sat around the mine entrance. Zack still appeared to be in charge, but the new one, Hawkins, seemed to have some influence. It was he who decided cutting off parts of their prisoners was premature, and messy, besides. Scott considered naming his firstborn after him.

“How’s your back, sir?”

“It’ll be alright once we get out of here.”

“What do you think they’re going to do if Johnny doesn’t bring Paco?”

“I hope we get to find out. Johnny better not bring him, but sometimes I just don’t know what your brother will do.”

“You mean all the time, don’t you?” Scott managed to grin when he said it.

Murdoch rolled his eyes. “Yes, all the time. I just hope this one time he uses his head. The last thing we need is for him to start leading jailbreaks.”

Scott guessed nobody had told Murdoch any details about how they came to have Paco in the first place. He sure wasn’t going to fill him in. “I’m sure Johnny will use his best judgment, sir.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“Hey, assholes!” The men at the entrance suddenly jumped to their feet, guns drawn. Scott cringed at the look that clouded Murdoch’s face as they heard Johnny’s greeting.

 

Chapter 33

“Stop right where you are, Madrid! You got Paco?”  Johnny recognized Zack’s voice above him.

“Yeah, I got him. You ready to trade?”

“Sure, once you send Paco over.”

“Nope. You send Murdoch over, then meet me halfway with Scott. We trade then.”

Hawkins’ voice took over. “I got your daddy here. How bout I just shoot him now and even things up? Now here’s what you do. Give your gun to Paco. Your horse, too. And send him over.”

“What, you don’t want my pants? Ain’t that playing it kinda risky?” Johnny had run out of bargaining tools. He had to make sure it wasn’t in their interest to kill all the witnesses right here. “You better hope you get that gold cuz all your bounty hunting friends gonna be on your tail after this. The sheriff knows who you are, Hawkins, Zack, Stubb. You better just make sure it ain’t murder you gonna be wanted for.”

“Send him over!”

“Give it up, Juanito,” Paco chimed in. “Just do what they say.”

Johnny felt like smacking Paco. But he did give him an idea. “Okay, then, that’s the deal? My gun, my horse, my prisoner, for my family. Meet halfway.”

“Okay!”

“Let’s go.” He shoved Paco ahead of him and walked toward the voices.

“Not you, Madrid!”

“Now you changing the rules? I decided to go with you all. I want that receipt.”

There were a few moments of silence before Zack spoke again. “Shit. Just stop there. I’ll send out the old guy.”

Johnny waited as he heard cursing from the mine shaft, the sound of boots shuffling on shale, and finally Murdoch came into view. “John, don’t do this!”

“Too late, Murdoch. You okay?”

Murdoch reached his side. “John, this is a mistake. You should have left this to the law.”

“Just go back behind us,” Johnny whispered. He added more loudly, “Okay, Scott better be waiting.” He pushed Paco forward to where he could dimly see Scott being held, and kept going toward them.

He reached the men with Scott. “You okay, Scott?” He never heard the answer before something hard crashed down on his head, his knees hit the ground, and he saw the dirt spiraling toward his face.

***

Scott jumped to shield Johnny from further assaults, but Hawkins had already turned his back.

“Shoot ’em both?”  asked Stubb.

Hawkins turned. “Sure, if you want to be wanted for murder. You heard him, they know who we are, thanks to you being seen in town. Just leave ’em all, and let’s get going. Zack, you take care of our new friend Paco. See that he doesn’t get lost.”

Scott knew how important the receipt was to Johnny. “Remember, all we want is that receipt. I’ll pay five hundred dollars for it if you get it here before Maria’s trial next week.” He hoped Murdoch was too far away to hear that.

Hawkins paused for a moment. “May not need a lousy five hundred dollars if there’s as much gold there as I hear.” With that he strode over to where the others were already mounted, climbed on his horse, and dissolved into the darkness. Barranca was the last shape Scott could see, but just as he was beginning to think they’d be going to Mexico after a horse, he heard somebody curse and saw the palomino veer away from the others. Scott tried to imitate Johnny’s whistle to call the horse, but got no response, except from Johnny, who started moaning.

“Take it easy. You got a pretty solid hit on the head.”

“Paco? No, they weren’t supposed to get away!”

Scott spun as he heard hoofbeats approaching from behind. Neither of them had a gun, and Johnny was in no condition to run. He stood in front of his brother and waited.

“Johnny! Scott!”

“Val!”

Murdoch was mounted on a horse along with them, and leading another. He jumped down and ran to Johnny’s side.

“What happened?” Murdoch asked.

“He was struck on the head.” Scott looked up at Val. “How did you find us?”

“No time to talk. The sheriff will explain.” Val kicked his horse and trotted along the path Hawkins and the others took. He was followed by six more men, two that Scott recognized as deputies.

Johnny sat up and rubbed his head, suddenly looked alarmed. “Barranca!” He jumped to his feet, lost his balance and would have fallen had Murdoch not grabbed him.

“Easy, brother, they let him loose. Stubborn horse just won’t come when he’s called.”

Johnny put his fingers to his lips and gave a shrill whistle, moving his hand to his head and grimacing afterwards. Shortly afterward, his horse could be heard loping toward them.

“So what’s going on, Sheriff?” Scott asked. He kept an eye on Johnny, who was half hanging on Barranca’s saddle.

“Sheriff Crawford and the others are going to tail them, give them a chance to find the gold, and then bring them all back to stand trial. We set up Paco’s escape so Paco would think it was for real. It was Crawford’s idea. He better bring them back.”

Murdoch squeezed Johnny. “Johnny, I knew you wouldn’t break somebody out of jail! I’m proud of you for finding a legal way to do this!”

“It was Val’s idea,” said Johnny, “Only it wasn’t nearly as fun as breaking him out for real. That was great, huh Scott?”

Scott wondered just how hard Johnny had been hit on the head. And if he could hit him again if he kept on talking.

***

Murdoch watched Johnny slam down his dinner as though buzzards would claim it if it sat on his plate too long. “Slow down, John,” he said, at least for the hundredth time since Johnny had come to live with him.

Johnny stopped his shovel load of food just before it reached his mouth and took a gulp of beer. “I don’t want to leave Mama alone too long.” Maria had been improving steadily over the past days, but it was still nearly impossible to pry Johnny from her side.

“She’s not alone, she’s with Jason. And he wanted some time with her without us there.” Murdoch sipped his wine.

“I don’t see why. She got no secrets from me.” Johnny did at least avert his eyes after he said that. Otherwise Murdoch would have had to say something he probably shouldn’t.

Instead he spoke patiently, realizing Johnny, despite his extensive experience with the court system, had none involving attorneys. “It’s customary for a lawyer and client to discuss things privately. Then he decides what he wants to pursue, or what he wants brought out in court. He might want to go over her testimony and see how it sounds.”

With the money he was paying him, Jason ought to be writing an entire script for her.

“I don’t want him tiring her out. She’s supposed to be resting, you know. That’s really important when you’ve lost blood.”

“Oh really, Johnny?” asked Scott. “Who would have thought? We’ll have to remember that the next time you get hurt. If only we had known.”

Johnny looked confused, then a smile slowly cracked his lips. “Yeah, you’ll have to remind me.” He took another gulp of beer and continued more solemnly. “Mama’s different. She needs somebody to watch over her.”

“Like she watched over you?” Murdoch regretted his words even as he felt his lips forming them. But these last weeks had just been too much. The last few days Johnny had hardly left Maria’s side, even demanding to sleep on the floor in the doctor’s back room in case she came to or needed something. Murdoch doubted Maria had ever shown a fraction of that much concern over Johnny the whole time she was supposed to be caring for him. The whole damn thing was sick, and he was sick of pretending it wasn’t.

Johnny put his fork down and looked at Murdoch, an unguarded look of dismay on his face for just a moment. “I don’t recall you doing too much watching.”

“Your mother took that chance away from me!” Murdoch held his hand up. “Just stop. I don’t want to argue about her. But Johnny, I think you need to face some facts about your mother, both about the past and maybe, the future.”

“Like what?” Johnny’s eyes narrowed, his expression suddenly cold and suspicious. 

Murdoch had been dreading this, but it had to be said. “I spoke to Jason earlier. He says it’s not looking good. You need to face the very real possibility that your mother is going to be convicted.”

“She didn’t do it.”

“Are you really so sure of that, son?”

“Aren’t you?”

This was not where he’d wanted this conversation to go. “Johnny, it’s not what I think that counts. But I do think you need to be prepared, and to look at the situation, your entire situation, with your mother. I know you love her, but…”

“She’s innocent!” Johnny suddenly looked so forlorn Murdoch reached over to touch him, but Johnny pulled away and stood up, his chair screeching. “You want her to be guilty! You won’t even testify for her! You never cared what happened to her, or to me!”

“Johnny! Stop making a scene! I do care, and I always have!” Murdoch hated himself for what he was about to say. “I’ll talk to Jason about testifying in Maria’s behalf. I’ll do what I can.”

 

Chapter 34

Jason steepled his fingers as he listened to Murdoch’s offer to testify. They were drinking coffee in Murdoch’s room, having just finished breakfast. “Let me make sure I understand, Mr. Lancer. You previously asked not to testify, implying to me that what you had to say wouldn’t help your wife.”

Murdoch bristled at the label he’d given Maria, but said nothing. “Yes, that’s true. But I’ve reconsidered. I realize I was just overreacting to a few things.”

“Such as?”

“I was angry at her for leaving with Johnny. Both when he was young, and now just recently.”

“Well, let’s start at the beginning.” Jason took out a pad of paper and a pencil. He rubbed his chin. “Under what circumstances did you meet?”

“I was in Matamoras. My horse had come up lame so I was stuck there for a few days. I met her in the market.” His voice took on a softer tone. “She was beautiful, and, well, I was enthralled. We spent the entire day together, then the next day, then the week. I ended up staying there for a month, after which we married and returned to Lancer.”

“And Johnny was your only child together? How long was it before you had him?”

“Yes. He, ah, was premature. He came only seven months after we were married.”

Jason scribbled some notes without reacting. “Okay. Was she a good mother?”

Murdoch tried to dredge up some good memory of Maria’s motherliness. “Yes, very. She liked to cuddle with him, hold him in her lap.” For about five seconds, he added to himself.

“And was she a good wife?”

“Yes. We had our differences, of course, and sometimes she seemed a bit sad, but she always made me happy.”

“Why did she leave?”

He’d been dreading this. If he said she left with a gambler, as was common knowledge, she’d look like a loose woman. If he said he’d forced her, Johnny would hate him like he used to. If he told the truth, Johnny would be devastated.

“I was never really sure. I think she was homesick, and wanted to raise Johnny where she grew up.”

Jason tapped the pencil on the table, over and over. “So when she told me it was because you suspected the baby, uh, Johnny, might not be yours, and you confronted her, she’s mistaken?”

He sucked in his breath. Why would she have told such a thing? “Yes.” He adjusted his weight as Jason continued to stare at him. “Yes, and no. I did once accuse her, but I realized I was wrong. And even if I wasn’t wrong, I didn’t care.” He leaned forward. “Jason, you have to understand, this can never come out. Johnny’s just now feeling like he belongs. Something like this would pull his legs right out from under him.”

Jason put his pencil down and steepled his fingers again. “Mr. Lancer, you have to understand that Maria is my first priority, and I’ll do and ask whatever is in her best interests. That’s what you hired me for.”

“So help me god, I’ll fire you if you intend to go there.”

“I just don’t want any surprises.”

***

“You must be kidding.” Maria stared at the dress Jason held up. She had recovered sufficiently to be back in her cell.

“I told you she wouldn’t like it,” Johnny said. “Looks like she gonna teach school or something. Why can’t she wear her pretty blue dress?”

“Because her pretty blue dress looks like she’s going to a dance. Or something.” Jason’s tone held a hint of irritation.

Johnny fingered the plain gray material. “Did Scott pick it out?”

“Ha, ha,” said Scott, who had walked in with Jason and his purchase. “Listen, I know it’s not the most beautiful dress in the world, but she has to look as respectable as possible for court.”

“You saying she don’t in the blue dress?”

Scott tried to push the image of what he’d seen her do in—and out—of the blue dress from his mind. “I’m saying this is better. Sorry, but she needs to look like a school marm. And you’re next.”

“You want me to look like a school marm?”

Scott rolled his eyes. “We’re going to find you a respectable suit. With nothing shiny on it.”

“Oh, my Juanito will be so handsome in a suit! I cannot wait to see!”  Maria’s words made Johnny look down and blush. Maria looked at the dress again and shook her head. “But I cannot wear this. I will look like a plain old woman.”

“Nothing could make you look plain or old,” Scott said without thinking. “You’d be the most beautiful woman in the room no matter what you wore. I’d love to see you in it.”

Maria smiled sweetly at him, their eyes meeting. “Thank you, Scott, you are such a dear. Maybe I’ll try it on after all.”

Johnny turned on his heel and stalked to the door. “We buying a damn suit or what?”

Scott looked at Jason and shrugged, then followed Johnny. He caught up to him halfway across the street. “Johnny, exactly what is your problem?”

“You don’t need to be telling my mama how pretty she is!”

“She needed to be convinced to wear the dress, and to feel good about it! It worked, didn’t it?”

“You lied to her just to get her to wear an ugly dress?”

Scott threw up his arms. “No! She really is beautiful, no matter what she wears!”

“See? Keep away from her!”

Scott stopped in the street and just started chuckling and shaking his head. Johnny turned and looked back at him. “What?”

“That poor prosecutor. He’s not going to stand a chance when you’re on the stand!”

Johnny stared at him for a few seconds, then started smiling. “Yeah, poor guy. Specially when I’m wearing your ugly suit.” His smile faded just as quickly, and his voice took on an icy edge. “I’m serious, Scott. Stay away from her.”

***

Scott awoke with the feeling that something was wrong. He glanced at Johnny’s bed and saw it was empty. They’d been sharing a room since Maria had gone back to her cell and Johnny no longer slept at the doctor’s office. Jason had taken the other available room.

Johnny was silhouetted against the window, his arms wrapped around himself. Scott supposed he could be chilly; the window was open and the night breeze fluttered the lace curtains around him. But he’d seen his brother like this before. Maria’s trial started in the morning. Johnny had only pushed his food around on his plate at the evening meal, and had barely spoken.

“Johnny?” Scott got out of bed and walked over to him. From where he was he could follow his brother’s gaze across the street to the jail. Johnny had begged to stay there with Maria, had even threatened to get himself arrested, until Murdoch pointed out he couldn’t go to the trial if he were in jail.

“Val’s not back.” Johnny stated the obvious.

“I know, but there’s still time. You know if anyone can bring back that receipt, Val can.”

“What if he can’t? You’ve heard people talking. They think she’s guilty.”

“The jury has to listen to the facts.” Scott realized that was little help.

“Damn, Scott, I’m scared.” He squeezed his eyes closed for a moment. “I’d pray, but it ain’t ever worked before. God don’t like me and Mama.”

Scott didn’t know what to say. He’d never heard Johnny admit to being scared before. He put his arm around him awkwardly. “That’s not true. He brought her back to you when you thought she was gone.”

Johnny looked up at the stars. “Just to play a trick on me. As usual.”

“Johnny, I know you’re worried. But we’ve done everything we can to prepare. Now the best thing you can do for her is to try to get some sleep so you’ll be rested in the morning.”

Johnny looked down. Scott heard the whir of a cylinder being spun, and for the first time he noticed Johnny had his gun in his hand. “I hear tell God helps them that help themselves. You believe that, Scott?”

“Uh, well, it depends. If you think he helps people who break people out of jail, no.”

“God ain’t doing a good job of helping so far. Unless you count only having one deputy guarding the jail.”

“Johnny, don’t do it. She’ll get a fair trial.”

“I seen what passes for fair trials for Mexicans. If I wait until after the trial, it’ll be harder to break her out. That’s how it always was with my friends. Once they was sentenced to hang, you couldn’t get ’em out.”

Scott winced at the idea Johnny had friends who had been hung. “Johnny, I can’t let you do it. You’d both be on the run. Just wait. She won’t be convicted, you’ll see.”

“Oh yeah? What’s gonna happen if she is? You gonna help me break her out?”

 

Chapter 35

A jumble of excited voices rose over the scraping and thumping of chairs being hauled into the saloon. The tables had been pushed against the walls, and extra chairs were coming from every business and even home in town. Scott and Murdoch sat nervously behind the table reserved for Jason and Maria. Johnny was still with Maria at the jail, where he’d been since dawn. He’d been as nervous as Scott had ever seen him, barely able to stand still while Scott knotted his tie for him. Nobody had been able to eat breakfast.

“They’re coming!” Everybody looked toward the door. Scott and Murdoch pushed out of their chairs and walked to the doorway to meet them. Maria was handcuffed, but otherwise looked demure in her high-necked gray dress, her long black hair pulled into a bun. She had definitely been wrong about the dress; if anything, its austere look made her appear even more vibrant in comparison. She was flanked by the sheriff and a deputy. Jason led the way, and Johnny walked just behind her, glaring at the crowd. Scott was relieved Johnny wasn’t wearing his gun.

The crowd started pushing. Shouts of “Murderess!” could be heard over the rest of the talk. Suddenly a rotten tomato splattered down Maria’s face. Johnny leaped into the throng and threw himself on a sneering man, punching him in the jaw. The man’s friend grabbed Johnny, and in less than a second Johnny was grappling with two more. The sheriff shouted, and Murdoch and Scott quickly waded in to grab Johnny, who almost punched Murdoch by mistake.

A gunshot exploded. “Stop! Or you’re all going to jail and you’ll miss the trial!”  The sheriff held his gun to the sky, but his threat had its desired effect. The fighting men brushed themselves off and turned away from Johnny with a vigorous shrug. Scott groaned. Johnny’s suit was ripped, his white shirt filthy, his tie dangling. Jason was wiping off Maria’s face and trying to fix her hair. Scott grabbed his handkerchief and dusted off Johnny as best he could, commanding him to hold still while he tried to repair as much as he could. Finally he had him remove his suit coat and put on Scott’s. It didn’t fit, but it was better than the alternative. So much for Johnny making a good impression.

They all flanked Maria the rest of the way to her seat. The sheriff made it clear that anybody shouting out slurs would be arrested. The crowd simmered down, at least outwardly. Scott wondered how Maria would ever get a fair trial in this town.

Murdoch guided Johnny to a seat between his and Scott’s as Jason conferred with Sheriff Whitney, who then nodded and uncuffed Maria. Jason pulled her chair out for her to be seated. As Maria settled into her seat Johnny suddenly leaned forward out of his chair and kissed her on the cheek, whispering something in her ear. She smiled and patted his hand.

“Order!” The door to the back room opened and Judge Washburn walked over to the chair that had been positioned behind one end of the bar. His thinning gray hair was combed meticulously to one side, and his mustache was perfectly trimmed. All Jason could tell them about him was that he’d been a California circuit judge for less than a year. The judge surveyed the courtroom, his gaze stuttering momentarily on Johnny before resuming.

He pounded a gavel and the last of the murmuring died out. “This is the matter of the state of California versus Maria Lancer. Would the defendant please rise?  On the charge of murder, how do you plead?”

Jason stood beside Maria and replied, “Not guilty.”

“On the charge of arson, how do you plead?”

“Not guilty.”

“On the charge of grand larceny, how do you plead?”

“Not guilty.”

“On the charge of prostitution, how do you plead?”

“Not guilty.” Somebody in the crowd snickered.

The judge held up his hand. “Anyone who is disruptive will be removed from my courtroom immediately.” He turned back to Jason and Maria. “You may be seated. Mr. Mosby, is the prosecution prepared?” After receiving a yes from Roland Mosby, he confirmed that Jason was also prepared.

“May I have volunteers for the jury?” Scott’s jaw dropped. Volunteers from that crowd? Johnny looked dismayed, and Murdoch was sputtering. More than half the members of the audience were already pushing their way to the front of the room.

Jason jumped to his feet. “Your honor, I object! You can’t find an unbiased jury by asking for volunteers!”

“Objection overruled.” The judge ignored the volunteers and looked over the remaining spectators. “Any of you who are close friends of the deceased or the accused, or are sickly, raise up your hands.” Several people, including the three Lancers, raised their hands, somewhat confused. The judge studied the seated people whose hands were not raised. “Okay, I count six right there who don’t care enough about the case to want to be on the jury, aren’t related, and aren’t sick. You six get up here. You’re jurors. As for you volunteers, go sit down.”

Scott was still too astounded to think straight. He supposed the unorthodox method got the job of jury selection over quickly, and it did weed out some of most opinionated, but it certainly wasn’t how things were done in Boston. He watched the disgruntled volunteers filing back to their seats, and the equally disgruntled jurists filing up to the jury seats. He stole a glance at the judge, and was unnerved to see he wasn’t watching the jurors. He was staring at Johnny.

***

Roland Mosby appeared to be wearing an overcoat of fat, and sweated as though he were, too. He dabbed at his jowls, heaved his ponderous form up, and waddled up to lean on the bar. 

“Fine members of the jury, I have the righteous task of helping you bring justice to Julian. Many of you knew Phineas Baxter. He was a hard working man of God who came, like so many of you, to Julian to find a better future. Instead,” he motioned toward Maria, “he found this wanton woman. And death.”

Jason shot up from his seat. “Objection, your honor! I’d ask that Mrs. Lancer not be referred to with derogatory labels!”

Scott and Murdoch both looked at Johnny nervously. He wore an icy expression, as though he didn’t hear anything. Scott wondered if he knew what wanton meant.

“Overruled. The jury will decide whether to accept or reject the prosecution’s allegations. Continue, Mr. Mosby.”

“What Judge Washburn says is true. It is up to you to decide whether the defendant is a woman of character. I intend to provide ample evidence that her character is flawed and her morals defunct. She is a whore, a swindler, an arsonist, and a murderess.”

Both Scott and Murdoch clamped their hands down on Johnny without thinking. But although Scott could feel he was so tense he was trembling, he managed to stay in his seat.

“She came to Julian for the express purpose of swindling miners such as yourselves. She did this by using her feminine guiles to lure the unsuspecting Mr. Baxter to his hotel room, where she then arranged for the two of them to be found by her accomplice in a compromising position, shall we say. They then attacked Mr. Baxter, set the hotel on fire to cover their tracks, and escaped with a large amount of gold they stole from him. You shall hear from witnesses who saw Mrs. Lancer leave the saloon with Mr. Baxter, and from other witnesses who saw her run from his room just before it caught fire. You will also hear from the poor deceased, Phineas Baxter, by way of his statement to Sheriff Whitney and others. You can see for yourself the silent witness that is, or used to be, the Julian Hotel, and is now but a charred pile of rubble. We can’t bring poor Phineas back from the dead, but we can at least make sure he rests in peace. Thank you.”

“That don’t prove nothing.” Johnny had been repeating it like mantra under his breath throughout Mosby’s description of the crime.

“Shhh,” cautioned Murdoch. “That’s Jason’s job to explain.”

Jason slowly rose and moseyed to the front of the room, taking a moment to look at each juror. “Gentlemen of the jury. Much of what Mr. Mosby says is true. Phineas Baxter lost his life. Julian lost a hotel. It’s human nature to want to blame somebody. But that doesn’t make it acceptable to accuse a lady simply because she had the misfortune to visit your town and allow herself to enjoy the company of Mr. Phineas, a gentleman Mrs. Lancer’s associate, Mr. Sanchez, was closing a business deal with. It’s true she was present when the fire broke out. But so were others. Who set the fire? We don’t know, although a child was seen playing with matches in the hotel at the time. What we do know is that Mrs. Lancer certainly did not set it. She had nothing to gain by burning the hotel and killing Mr. Baxter. Mrs. Lancer is an upstanding member of the community, a devoted wife and mother, who simply made the mistake of being a stranger in your town when a tragedy occurred. You alone have it in your hands to make sure this tragedy isn’t compounded by punishing an innocent woman. Thank you.”

Murdoch patted Johnny’s leg. He almost got a smile back from him.

The judge shuffled some papers around and looked up. “Mr. Mosby, are you ready to call your first witness?”

 

Chapter 36

Howard Baker was a big man, not quite as large as Murdoch, but with a voice that boomed through the room. This was his saloon, and every man and half the women in town knew him. He made it his business to stay out of other people’s business, he said, but he also noticed things.

“I noticed the defendant because at first it looked like she was horning into my girls’ business. But then she set her sights on one fellow, Phineas Baxter. He’d been pretty flashy with his gold that night.” He turned to the judge. “We take gold as good as money here. Just plop it on the scale.”

“Exactly what did Maria Lancer do to, uh, horn in, as you say?”

“Well, at first she went up and kind of, you know, flirted with some of the men. She had a dress that showed quite a bit of, uh, bosom, not like what she’s wearing today. She looked like she knew how to play a room of men. She’d kind cozy up to the fellers, get ’em to buy her a drink, then she’d move on, I reckon if they didn’t have enough money to suit her.”

“Objection! He’s speculating about Mrs. Lancer’s thoughts.”

“Sustained. Please just answer to what you saw, not why you think you saw it.”

“Mr. Baker, how much time did the defendant spend with Phineas Baxter?”

“Hard to say exactly, but at least twenty minutes from the time I noticed her rubbing all over him while he was ordering drinks to the time they left for his room.”

“Thank you. No more questions.”

Scott looked over to see how Johnny was taking the testimony. He was still expressionless. Murdoch, however, was clenching his jaw, his face reddening. Scott hadn’t considered how this testimony might affect him. After all, Murdoch hadn’t been privy to the little floorshow Maria had put on with Zack and Stubb, and Scott had glossed over it as best he could when he’d told Murdoch what happened.

Jason approached Mr. Baker. “Mr. Baker, I bet you run a pretty busy saloon here with all these thirsty miners.”

“Yes, I’d say so,” Baker answered with a hint of pride.

“Approximately how many patrons would you say were in here when you noticed Mrs. Lancer?”

“Oh, it’s hard to say, exactly. Maybe thirty.”

“All ordering drinks?”

“Yes.”

“Yet you had the time to just watch Mrs. Lancer’s behavior while you were so busy serving drinks to thirty thirsty customers?”

“I didn’t say I just watched her. Just happened to notice once in a while.”

“Uh huh. And did you happen to notice where she went when she left?”

“The way they were acting, I assumed to his room. Or hers.”

“You assumed? You didn’t see? A woman’s life depends on what you say, and you assumed?”

“Well, it was either gonna be there or the street.”

“Are you saying you did not actually see her go into the hotel?”

Mr. Baker glared at him. “No, I didn’t see exactly where she went.”

“Thank you. No further questions.”

The judge dismissed Mr. Baker. Mosby called Tommy Dixon, who turned out to be Mr. Baker’s clean-up boy. He nodded solemnly as he took the oath, and sat straight up in his seat, wide-eyed.  Yes, he’d seen Maria and Phineas that evening. He’d noticed because of where Maria had placed her hand as they were leaving the saloon. He blushed when he was pressed to describe just where on Phineas her hand had been. He blushed more when he admitted he had watched them go to the hotel because he’d been curious if they would make it that far.

Jason had limited success in his cross, getting Tommy only to admit he didn’t see if they went to any rooms. Still, Jason managed to walk back to his seat with a look that said he’d made his point.

Brent Hanley, the desk clerk at the hotel, testified that Maria Lancer and Phineas Baxter entered the hotel and walked up the stairs together. He remembered because he was alarmed when her companion, Paco Sanchez, entered about ten minutes later. He worried about the possibility of a confrontation, never good for his other guests or his furniture. About ten minutes after that, Mrs. Lancer, Mr. Sanchez, and a boy he’d seen with them checked out. They seemed to be in a hurry. He’d wondered if they had argued over her being with Mr. Baxter, but he hadn’t had time to wonder for long. The guests started spilling down the stairs and yelling about smoke. He ran up the stairs and found Baxter’s room on fire. He and another guest had rushed in and pulled him out, but Baxter was unconscious.

Mosby paused and looked over at Maria after that, shaking his head so his jowls swayed slightly before he took his seat. Jason stood, swiped his hand through his hair casually, and walked to stand before Mr. Hanley.

“Did you see what rooms Mrs. Lancer and Mr. Baxter went to once they went upstairs?”

Hanley looked hesitant. “No, but the way they were acting I’m sure they weren’t separate ones.”

“You’re sure?” Jason stared at him pointedly.

“Well, no, I can’t be sure. They both had rooms upstairs. But the way they were acting…”

“You don’t know what rooms they went to.”

“No.”

“In fact, you found Baxter in his room, and Mrs. Lancer had already packed and gone, is that not correct?”

“Yes.” Hanley looked glum.

“Now, you say there was a child with them, a boy. Had you seen him before?”

“He seemed to be with them, but I wasn’t sure. They gave him a key to their room, but they never seemed to take care of him. He just kind of wandered around on his own.”

“Did you ever see him playing with fire?”

“Never. We’d have thrown him out.”

“But you couldn’t watch the boy all the time, could you?”

“No.”

“So he could have started a fire and you wouldn’t know?”

“Well, anything’s possible…”

“Thank you.” Jason sat down and the judge dismissed the witness.

Scott felt a little better about the way the trial was going, and Murdoch, while still tense lipped, at least no longer looked like he was trying not to blow up. Johnny had continued to look straight ahead throughout, stone faced. Scott couldn’t decide whether that was good or bad.

The judge declared a lunch break and the bar opened, with much of the crowd pushing to get their orders in once Maria had been escorted from the saloon. Scott and Murdoch kept Johnny between them as they threaded their way through the throng toward the jail. Scott planned on grabbing some new clothes for Johnny over at the store during the break. Murdoch put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and steered him across the street, suggesting they eat at the jail. Scott doubted any of them would be eating much. 

They all stopped and turned as a rumble of hoofbeats sounded. A group of riders galloped into town, slowing as they approached the sheriff’s office. Scott recognized Zack and Stubb. And Paco! The deputies were already prodding their prisoners off their horses and into the jail house. One deputy held up a sack. “We got the gold!”

Val brought up the rear. He was searching the crowd, his eyes finally settling on Johnny and Murdoch.

 

Chapter 37

He shook his head slightly. “I’m sorry, Johnny. We couldn’t find a receipt.”

“They stole it!” yelled Paco. “They stole the receipt so they could frame me! It was there!” The deputy pushed him inside.

“No,” said Val before Johnny could ask. “Nobody stole anything. I was there from the moment we found the gold. Hawkins got away, but he didn’t have anything. Never got to the gold.”

Johnny looked down and nodded. They followed the others into the sheriff’s office. Zack and Stubb were already in a cell, and Paco was being placed in the middle cell. Maria rushed to his side, reaching through the bars that divided their cells to take his hands. Johnny had been on his way to Maria, but stopped. He turned away, folding his arms around himself.

Murdoch was confused at the sudden transformation in his younger son. It wasn’t that he’d been happy before; far from it. But now he looked like he was trying to make himself insignificant, fading back into the group of deputies. Murdoch suddenly envisioned him as a forlorn child, unwelcome when his mother was in the company of Paco. Every fiber in him wanted to grab the keys to Paco’s cell, rip him out, and pummel him into a bloody pulp. And then there was that bitch, that whore, sweeting up to that man when her son was out here hurting. He bet that was nothing new, either.

Murdoch quickly put his arm around Johnny and turned him toward the door. “Let’s go see how Scott’s coming with those clothes, and grab something to eat. I think Jason wants to talk to Paco and Maria.”

To his surprise Johnny nodded and followed him complacently out the door. Murdoch realized it was the first time Johnny had chosen his company over Maria’s since she had returned. It didn’t feel nearly as good as he’d thought it would.

***

“Sheriff Whitney, what happened when you saw the hotel was on fire?”

“I was in my office, and I ran down the street as fast as I could. Most everybody was already out, but some folks pointed me up the stairs and said Brent, uh, Mr. Hanley, and somebody else was just pulling Mr. Baxter down the stairs. I thought he was dead.”

“Could you tell where the fire started?” Mosby leaned forward as he asked, as though the answer were the key to the trial.

“Baxter’s room was burning the worst then. Of course, later it spread and the whole place went up. But I’d say it started in his room or thereabouts.”  Some of the jury members nodded.

“Did Mr. Baxter say how it started?”

“Right then, no. But later, he was able to talk just a little. He said that he was with a Mexican whore, them was his words, named Maria, who fit the description of Maria Lancer. A man she called Paco came to the door. Paco tried to get money from him, but Baxter wouldn’t hand it over. The next thing he knew, he got hit over the head. He said it had to be Maria, because she was behind him. When he came to he saw them taking his gold, but he couldn’t move. He passed out, and when he woke up again he was in the doctor’s office. That was all he remembered.” A murmur went up from the audience. The judge looked at them sternly and they quieted. Mosby smiled at Jason and indicated he was done with his examination.

“Sheriff Whitney,” began Jason, “did Mr. Baxter say what he was doing with Mrs. Lancer in his room?”

“No, but I think we can guess. He wasn’t really in any condition for me to pry embarrassing details out of him.”

“With all due respect, Sheriff, I don’t think we can guess. Not when a lady’s life and reputation rests on it. Couldn’t she have been in his room for a perfectly innocent reason?”

“Sure, I suppose so.”

“And Mr. Baxter never saw who or what struck his head, correct?”

“No, but she was the only other person in there.”

“Mr. Baxter had just come from the saloon. Isn’t it possible he was drunk, and that he fell and hit his head?”

The sheriff’s eyes narrowed. “Look, anything’s possible. But I don’t think it’s likely.”

“So you agree it’s possible.”

“Remotely.”

“Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Whitney said reluctantly.

“And he never saw who started the fire?”

“No, he was unconscious.”

“So let me get this straight. He didn’t know how he hit his head or how the fire started. Is that right?”

“Yes, but. . .”

“Thank you. No more questions.”

Jason smiled broadly at Maria when he sat back down. His smile faded when he heard the name of he Mosby’s next witness.

***

The door opened and the crowd turned to see Paco shuffle up the aisle, his leg irons clanking. Johnny’s head whipped up. “How can he be testifying against her? I’ll kill him.” Johnny’s hand twitched at his side.

“Hold on, Johnny, it may be they’ve called him as a hostile witness,” Scott whispered. Both he and Murdoch had placed restraining hands on Johnny’s legs once again. And once again, Scott thought Murdoch was probably regretting not killing Paco before. He knew he was.

“He ain’t seen hostile yet,” muttered Johnny.

Scott leaned over. “It just means he may not be testifying willingly.”

Mosby started questioning him. Paco refused to answer anything. Not how long he knew Maria, not even if he knew her. Not what he was doing in Julian, not anything about Baxter, not anything about gold, not anything about a fire. Not anything about a boy. Not anything about anything. Mosby finally threw up his hands. Jason chose not to ask any questions, but reserved the right to call Paco back to the witness chair later. Johnny glared at Paco’s back as he was led back down the aisle. “He could have helped her.”

“He could have hurt her, too, Johnny. Remember, he’s got his own trial coming up. This may have been the best he could do.” Scott wondered why on earth he was suddenly standing up for that scumbag.

Mosby’s next words caught him by surprise. “The prosecution rests.” They also made him nervous. Johnny was the first defense witness.

 

Chapter 38

“Would you state your full name and relationship to the defendant?”

“John Lancer. I’m Maria Lancer’s son.”

“So Mrs. Lancer raised you?”

“Yes.”

“Where was this?”

“Mexico, mostly. Around there.”

“Was she a devoted mother to you?”

“Yes.”

Jason waited for more.

“Very devoted.”  Scott groaned inwardly. Not this again.

“Very devoted. Now when you say very devoted, I wonder if you could give the jury some examples of things she did.” Scott wondered which tale from his own youth Johnny would dredge up this time. Johnny was looking at Maria, and Scott suddenly realized Johnny couldn’t steal his stories, not without hurting her feelings. Johnny must have realized it, too, because he remained silent until Jason prompted him again.

“She was devoted. She, uh, she always took care of me, even if we didn’t have much sometimes.” Johnny shifted his gaze from Maria to his hands fidgeting in his lap. “Sometimes people made it real tough for her, on account of me being mestizo, you know. My mama, she held her head up. She’d take my hand and she’d march us right through whoever was making fun, no matter what they was saying or doing. When other kids, when other kids would be beating on me cause of it, she’d run right in and pull ’em off. Got herself a black eye once doing it.” He looked up and smiled slightly.

Scott wondered if Johnny knew how much more compelling his true story was than any he could have copied from Scott’s childhood. Why hadn’t Johnny ever told him or Murdoch this before? No wonder he was so fiercely defensive of his mother. Several of the jurors seemed to be stealing sympathetic glances at Maria.

“How did your mother support you?” Jason asked quietly.

“It was hard. Real hard. People wouldn’t hire her on account of me. Least ways not respectable folk. She had to take what she could, no matter how bad it was, just so she could feed me.”

“Why didn’t she go back to your father?”

“She didn’t think he wanted me there. Turned out she was wrong about that, but anyway, she wouldn’t go anywhere without me.” Johnny looked directly at the jury. “My mama loved me, and she gave up everything for me.”

Murdoch was clenching his jaw again. Scott leaned over to him and whispered, “Just let it go. He knows the truth about you now.”

Jason finished his questioning, and Mosby lumbered up to take his place in front of Johnny. This was the part of the trial Scott was most dreading. Scott could see Johnny already taking on the expressionless facade he reverted to when he felt threatened.

“You say your mother took whatever job she could. Would that include prostitution?” Mosby swayed back and forth slightly, his hands tucked in his pants.

Johnny was silent for a moment. “You’re all dressed up in a fancy suit, putting on fancy airs, looking all like a gentleman. But a gentleman wouldn’t ask that question, would he?”

Mosby removed his hands and pulled himself up straight. “Mr. Lancer, I don’t answer questions, I ask them. I can have the judge direct you to answer, if you prefer. Now, please answer the question. Was your mother a prostitute?”

Johnny leaned back and folded his arms. “Okay. You’re the one who pushed. Truth is, you look mighty familiar to me. You spend a lot of time down in Nogales about ten, twelve years ago?” Johnny stared at Mosby, a slight smirk on his face. “Cause I reckon you already know the answer.”

The fat man sputtered, leaning forward over Johnny. “You answer the question, boy, without any extra!” He shot a glance toward Maria, who was smiling back at him.

“I just did.”

“No you didn’t. And as for what you are attempting to imply, you couldn’t remember anything like that from that long ago. You were too young!”

“Yeah, I reckon you’re right. I can’t remember nothing that long ago. Sorry.” Johnny actually smiled. Scott couldn’t help but laugh to himself.

Mosby looked at him with disgust. “Let’s move on. You say your name is John Lancer. Is that the only name you’re known by?”

“You know it ain’t.”

“You were known as Johnny Madrid, a notorious gunslinger, is that not correct?”

“There a law against that?”

“I’m simply curious how, with such a fine, upstanding mother, who brought you up in such a upstanding manner, you developed such a tainted past? How you were out on the streets involved in gunfights, killing men in exchange for a few coins, when you were what, fourteen years old?” A small murmur buzzed around the crowd.

“Objection!” Pratt was on his feet. “Your Honor, what Mr. Lancer did after he was separated from his mother has no bearing on this trial.”

“Your Honor, Mr. Madrid’s lack of morals has everything to do with how his mother raised him. It’s very pertinent information!”

“That’s okay, I’ll be glad to furnish lots of details,” Johnny said, looking directly at the judge.

The judge stared back at him a second. “Sustained. Move on, Mr. Mosby.”

“Mr. Madrid, how long did you live with your mother?”

“Til I was ten. And it’s Lancer.”

“Oh? Isn’t that awfully young to leave home, especially what with her being such a doting mother? Did you run away? Or were you abandoned?”

“We got separated. We thought each other was dead.”

“Uh huh. Now Mr. Madrid, can you explain how this devoted mother couldn’t manage to keep track of where one small boy was?”

“It’s Lancer. We was in a fire.”

“A fire, huh? Kind of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?”

Johnny shook his head. “Fires happen all the time.”

“And then you say you thought each other was dead, and she never found you. Well, I guess that solved her problem of being saddled with a mestizo, didn’t it?”

Johnny jumped forward, grabbing Mosby by the collar. “My mama loved me!” He caught himself almost immediately, letting go and sitting back down slowly. Scott and Murdoch, who had jumped to their feet, also sat. The judge was bellowing for order.  Mosby nodded, tugged on his collar, and said “No more questions.” 

Judge Washburn turned to Johnny. “Your behavior has earned you a hundred dollar fine. One more outburst and you’ll be jailed. Is that clear?”

***

Murdoch shifted his bulk uncomfortably. If somebody had asked him to list the most unlikely things he’d ever do in life, testifying in Maria’s defense would have been near the top. Still, looking at Johnny’s drawn face, there was no way he could deny his son his best effort to save his mother. No matter how much he’d prefer to see her swing. Jason’s question drew his gaze from Johnny and back to the lawyer.

“Mr. Lancer, when did you meet Maria Lancer?”

“It was in 1848. I was on a cattle-buying trip to Matamoras, and I met her there. We hit it off right away.” He tried to smile in Maria’s direction, hoping it looked more sincere than sickened.

“And you married soon afterward?”

“Yes, we fell in love and she agreed to be my wife two months later. We returned to my ranch in Morro Coyo and settled down together.”

“And you were you blessed with children?”

“Yes, one son, John.” Smiling in his direction was easier.

“How would you describe Maria Lancer as a wife and mother?”

“Extraordinary. Maria, well, she lit up the room whenever she entered.”  At least that part he didn’t have to lie about. “Starting a ranch is hard work, but she was right there by my side. And when we had Johnny, she’d hardly let him out of her sight, she doted on him so. We were a very happy family.”

“It certainly sounds like it. Now, I understand Maria and Johnny returned to Mexico when he was two years old. Can you tell us why?”

Murdoch was quiet for a moment, shaking his head slightly. “I never knew exactly why, not then. Now I understand it was my fault. I had a mistress, my ranch, and I neglected my wife and family for it. I didn’t understand what I was giving up. I think Maria left because she needed a home where she and her son could feel secure and loved, where she wasn’t so all alone.”

Jason nodded understandingly. “I see. Did you try to find her, have her come back?”

“Yes, I did try to find her, but I wasn’t able to. Not until she returned last month.  I, uh, I had hopes she might stay. But now this,” he waved his hand around the saloon, “this is threatening that dream.” He sincerely hoped the Lord wouldn’t strike him dead.

Johnny was leaning over, whispering something to Scott and smiling. He hoped Johnny wasn’t taking his testimony too literally, but he’d tackle that problem if it ever came to pass. Right now he was still doubtful that Maria would escape the noose. He took a deep breath and prepared himself for Mosby’s cross examination. With luck, he wouldn’t end up trying to choke him like Johnny had.

Mosby licked his lips, then picked at his tongue as though he had a hair on it. He finally got around to asking his first question. “You say you met your future wife in 1848. What month would that be?”

“I believe it was March.”

“So you were married in May?”

“Yes.” He knew where this was headed. The man had no right dragging this out in front of everybody.

“And your son was born in what month?”

“Near the end of December. He was premature.”  Murdoch gritted his teeth.

“Oh, I’m sure.”  Mosby paused while some of the jury members counted on their fingers. “Seven months. I’d say he was very premature.”

Mosby waddled back to his desk and drummed his fingers for a moment before opening his file and pulling out a slender sheath of papers. He walked back up to Murdoch and slapped the papers in his hand. Murdoch looked down, his breath leaving him as he saw the cover. It wasn’t so much the Pinkerton eye, but the date, that made him have to catch himself from gasping.

How could they have found out? He looked desperately at Jason, but Jason just looked confused.

“Do you recognize this, Mr. Lancer?”

“This has nothing to do with this case.” His voice cracked.

“I asked you if you recognized it.” Mosby reclaimed the folder and held it in front of Murdoch.

“Please, don’t do this,” he practically whispered. “It has nothing to do with the case.”

Jason jumped up. “Your honor, I object!”

“On what grounds?”

“On the grounds that this document has nothing to do with the case.” Murdoch knew Jason was bluffing, but prayed it would work. If only he hadn’t testified. 

“The jury will decide that,” said Judge Washburn. “Please answer the question, Mr. Lancer.”

“Have you seen this before?”

“Yes.” His voice was almost a whisper. “I mean no, I never read it.”

“Let me refresh your memory.” Mosby flipped through the pages. “This is a report from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, in response to an investigation ordered by you in 1849.”

“I never read it!” Murdoch jumped up, ready to leave. “I cancelled that! It was a mistake!”

“Sit down, Mr. Lancer!” Judge Washburn banged his gavel. “Or I’ll have you escorted out and Mr. Mosby will continue without you.”

Murdoch seriously considered the option, but sat, staring at Johnny, praying that what was about to come out wouldn’t lose him his son.

Mosby continued, flapping the papers in his face. “Shall I read what it was about, or shall you tell me?”

Murdoch swallowed, still looking at his younger son. “No, I’ll tell it. I ordered a report to, uh. . . to find out if I was really Johnny’s father.”

 

Chapter 39

Johnny looked like he’d been stabbed, all except for the blood. Scott tried to lean over and say something, anything, but Johnny pulled away. “Johnny, listen, he said it was a mistake, he never even read it!” What on earth had Murdoch been thinking? At that moment Scott fervently wished Murdoch wasn’t the father of either of them.

Maria had turned around, was saying something to Johnny, something that sounded like “I never wanted you to know.” Great. That should help convince him.

Johnny didn’t say anything, just stood and walked out of the saloon. Scott followed on his heels. He heard a commotion behind him, and realized Murdoch had left the witness chair and was loping down the aisle, Mosby yelling he wasn’t dismissed, the judge banging his gavel and ordering him back. “To hell with your trial!” Murdoch yelled, but Scott wasn’t sure who it was aimed at. He did hear the judge order a recess.

“Johnny! Son, listen to me!” Murdoch grabbed Johnny by the arm but Johnny twisted away and kept walking toward the stable. “Son, that was a long time ago, and I did a foolish thing, a very, very stupid thing, but I realized what a mistake I’d made and I cancelled it.”

“Lot of paper there for something you cancelled,” spat Johnny, still walking.

“When the report came, I never read it, I swear, I threw it in the fire. Because I didn’t need a report to tell me you were mine.”

Johnny stopped and turned, so abruptly that Murdoch almost plowed into him. “Then why was you too scared to read it?”

“I, I was ashamed of what I had done. And your mother found out, and it had already caused enough problems. I burned it right in front of her, without opening it.”

Johnny turned back toward the stable. “So there you go. You burned it so it wouldn’t cause more problems. Not because you knew whose bastard I was!”

Scott hadn’t known what to say, but he jumped in at that. “Johnny! Don’t talk like that! He just said he knew you were his!”

Johnny whirled to face him. “No, he just said he didn’t give a damn whose pup I was. Now I know why Mama left, why he didn’t look all that hard for me all those years. Guess it wasn’t convenient to think maybe I was his until the ranch needed saving!”

“That’s not what I said, and you know it!”

“Then let’s go read the report.” As Johnny stood there, facing Murdoch in the middle of the street, the dust swirling around them, Scott couldn’t shake the image of a gunfight from his mind. He’d only seen Johnny in one fight, but this one scared him every bit as much. Johnny and Murdoch continued to stare each other down, as though daring the other to make the first move.

“Johnny, I’ve gone more than twenty years without reading it. Whatever some piece of paper says won’t change the way I feel about you.”

Johnny looked over at Scott, a resigned look that Scott could read too well. “Yeah, ain’t that the truth.”

“Johnny, this is ridiculous!” Scott said as calmly as he could manage.

“I guess things worked out pretty good for you after all, hey brother?” He said the ‘brother’ mockingly. “Half a ranch and a clear path to go ruttin’ on my mama. Well, have at her, lover boy, see if I give a crap!”

Murdoch grabbed Scott’s arm just as Scott readied to throw a punch at Johnny. They were both interrupted by Jason’s voice behind them.

“Johnny! Murdoch!” Jason ran to catch them. “Murdoch, you have to come back. This isn’t making a good impression on the jury. Johnny, you too. You need to show you support your mother, no matter what Mosby throws at you. This isn’t the place for it.”

“Right now I don’t give a damn about Maria and that trial!”

“Did you ever?” Johnny turned and stalked back toward the saloon.

***

Johnny could hear Murdoch pounding down the aisle after him. Damn the old man. He didn’t need this happening right in front of Mama. Johnny spun to confront him, but Murdoch stomped on past, over to Mosby, snatching the Pinkerton report from Mosby’s hands. Mosby tried to grab the papers back, the judge shouting for order. Murdoch instead punched Mosby, sending him sprawling backward until he landed with a thud that shook the floorboards.

The deputies all swarmed over Murdoch, pinning his arms back so that the report fluttered to the floor. Johnny dove for it, but the sheriff beat him there. The judge glared at Murdoch, assessed a two hundred dollar fine, and threatened him with worse should he act up again.

The doctor examined Mosby’s bloody lip while the judge ordered everyone to their seats. Johnny took his place behind Maria, and Scott scooted in beside him. Murdoch eased down in the seat on Johnny’s other side, patting Johnny’s shoulder. “Leave me alone!” Johnny tried to lean away and found himself leaning into Scott, then elbowed both of them. “Go away! This is my spot, she’s my mama! Go!”

Murdoch and Scott started to protest. Jason turned and shot them all a poisoned look. “Sit there and shut up and look like a happy family!” he hissed. “You can kill each other after the trial.”

Johnny scowled and sat still, glaring straight ahead. Scott whispered in his ear, “Happy, brother!” Johnny wished he had his gun.

The doctor moved away from Mosby, and Judge Washburn summoned the attorneys to the bar. Jason left with a last warning look to Johnny. Once up there, he and Mosby started arguing and gesticulating, the mauled report on the bar between them. The judge held his hand up to silence them, opening it and scanning one page briefly. He set the report down and looked over at Maria and Johnny, as if in thought, finally motioning the attorneys back to their seats.

“Mr. Mosby, Mr. Pratt, I’ve heard your arguments for and against the admission of this evidence. Frankly, I don’t see how the fact that the defendant’s husband once doubted his son’s paternity some twenty years ago has any bearing on the current case. I’m not going to allow further testimony in this area, and I’m going to instruct the jurors to disregard all testimony relating to this Pinkerton Report. Call your next witness, Mr. Pratt.”

Jason shuffled some papers and stood. “The defense calls Maria Lancer.”

***

Johnny tried to focus on his mama’s testimony, but his thoughts kept circling back to the Pinkerton report sitting in front of the judge. His life was in there. The secret of who he was. He vaguely heard Maria talking about how she’d met Murdoch, pretty much echoing the story Murdoch had told. She glossed over the matter of Murdoch’s suspicions, but explained she’d left Lancer because she hadn’t felt welcome there, that Murdoch had tired of her and the baby, and seemed to be embarrassed of her Mexican heritage and their mestizo child. That was what she had always told Johnny, although Murdoch had denied it, and of course Teresa had said Maria had run off with a gambler. Now it sounded like none of those stories were true. She’d left because of Murdoch’s suspicions that Johnny wasn’t his, didn’t belong there. Apparently Maria had agreed.

It wasn’t the first time she’d said that Murdoch wasn’t Johnny’s father, but in the past Johnny had always dismissed her hints because she’d been drunk, or like the other night, delirious. Or because it didn’t really matter. That was before he’d made a home at Lancer, though. Before he’d laid claim to something that maybe wasn’t even his.

He couldn’t take his eyes off that report.

He tried to pay attention. Maria was relating their early days in Mexico together. At least, Johnny thought that was what she was talking about, although not a single story sounded remotely like how he remembered it. He could almost lose himself in her vivid descriptions of the lavish meals she provided for him, the time she spent teaching him to read from the Bible, and the pride she felt when others complimented her son’s fine upbringing. Her stories were so real he almost felt like he was there. He wished he had been.

He hoped the jury believed her. Hoped Scott and Murdoch did, too. Damn it, no, he didn’t care what they thought anymore. They weren’t his family, he was pretty sure of that. He knew how his mama was, from the earliest he could remember. Why should he think she’d ever been any way else? Murdoch knew too. That explained a lot. Scott was Murdoch’s only son, and Murdoch had known it all along.

“It was the worst day of my life,” she was saying. “Juanito, uh, Johnny, was supposed to be fishing with his uncle Paco. Paco was always doing things with him, he loved him so. But sometimes Juanito would sneak back just to surprise me. I had no idea he had done that, and that he was inside, until after the fire broke out and Paco showed up without him. I ran inside and searched everywhere, until I was overcome by smoke. The next day they said they had found the body of a little boy. He must have hidden there so he could surprise me. I was so devastated I had to leave that place and never return, the memories hurt so, so much.” She dabbed at her eyes, then placed her face in her hands and sobbed. “This is why to this day I cannot stand to be around fire!”

“Goddamn lying bitch,” Murdoch muttered under his breath.

 

Chapter 40

Scott heard his father’s mumbled curses and had to agree. This sure wasn’t what Murdoch had led him to believe Johnny’s childhood had been like. Not according to the Pinkerton report Murdoch had admitted ordering, the later one where he was trying to find Johnny. He wondered if Mosby would somehow trot that one out, too.

His eyes wandered to the Pinkerton report he hadn’t known about. He knew Johnny was staring at it. He prayed his brother—and no matter what it said, or how mad he was at him at the moment, Johnny was his brother— never got to see what was inside. Not if the story Maria had told Scott about being raped was true. Johnny already teetered on the brink of feeling he didn’t really belong at Lancer, as though he somehow wasn’t entitled or deserving. If he knew he was from the seed of a rapist it would cement those ideas, and he’d almost certainly return to a life of violence.

Maria was talking about the years after she’d lost Johnny. She and her so-called brother Paco had lived quietly, she said.  She had been in mourning for years, and had settled in to take care of the house duties while Paco worked in various jobs. Paco had some success gold mining in Mexico, but his claim had gone dry so they had traveled to Julian to see about staking a claim there. Along the way they had taken a young orphan boy under their wing.

Yes, she had met Phineas Baxter in the saloon, where she had gone looking for Paco. No, she wasn’t wearing a frilly dress, just a typical Mexican blouse with a riding length skirt. She admitted it wasn’t her outfit of choice, but then, she also hadn’t been happy about having to step foot into a saloon. Mr. Baxter, who Paco had done business with, had graciously volunteered to walk her back to her room, saying a lady shouldn’t be walking alone. She agreed before she realized how drunk he was.

“His room was on the way to mine, and when we passed by it, he grabbed me and tried to pull me inside. I was so frightened, and I pulled away, and he was very drunk, as I said, and he fell. I thought he had passed out, so I just shut the door and went to my room. Paco came up soon after, and wanted to know why I was upset. I didn’t want him to know. Paco had business with Baxter, and he would be angry. He is very protective of me. I told him I wanted to leave, and he didn’t understand, but he agreed. But,” she bowed her head, “but I didn’t realize the boy, Carmello, was missing. I thought he was with Paco. Now I think he may have seen what happened. It is possible he started the fire. I do not know.”

“I see. Where is the boy now?”

“We never found him.”

Johnny’s head snapped over to stare at his mother, but his face showed no emotion. Jason sat down, and Mosby licked his chops like a coyote spotting a new born lamb. Scott wondered which lie he would attack first.

He didn’t have to wonder long. He felt Johnny jump even before he saw the Pinkerton report in Mosby’s hand. It was the other one, the one reporting on Johnny’s childhood.

Maria managed to look wounded as Mosby read through the litany of jail sentences and scrapes with the law, the towns they were run out of, the cantinas she had worked in, the men she had known. Even Johnny’s first arrest at age eight, for stealing a brooch, along with his consequent ones until the time of her supposed death. Johnny spent her testimony picking at a thread in his new coat, sneaking occasional glances at Murdoch and Scott. Scott tried his best to appear disinterested, but it was difficult not to wince at some of the reports.

Maria looked defiant. “It’s not true. Not a word of it. They were hired to give Mr. Lancer information, and I can only suppose that when they couldn’t find any, they made it up to keep him coming back for more. We were nowhere even near those border towns.”

“The Pinkerton Detective Agency makes up its reports? I’ll be sure to relay that to my brother, who works for them and supplied these to me.”

“They are untrue. That is all I can tell you.”

That was Maria’s response to everything. No real explanations, just the assertion that anything that disagreed with her story was untrue. She was not part of some swindling scheme with Paco. She had not gone to the saloon with the idea of finding a man. She had not gone to Paco’s room, and she certainly had not harmed him in any way.

The woman had wasted her life. With her beauty and acting talent, she could have been famous on the stage. Several of the jurors nodded when she made a point, maybe even showed a hint of a smile when she looked toward them. Scott started counting jurors. She could actually walk away a free woman.

“Mrs. Lancer, can you explain to the jury how it was you and your associate came in possession of Mr. Baxter’s gold?”

“Gold? I really didn’t know about any gold except for what Paco had saved up from his mining. If Mr. Baxter had gold, I did not know about it.”

How could she lie like that? She was the one who told Stubb and Zack where the boy and the gold were. Unless she had been making that up then just to get away. Stubb and Zack’s testimony should be interesting. No, they almost certainly wouldn’t be testifying, not with their own trial coming up, not with it being to their advantage to play dumb about any gold. And Maria, or maybe Jason, must know it.

Her son knew what she had said, though. No wonder Johnny had such a hard time believing people. He’d been brought up by a compulsive liar.

Maria smoothed her gray dress and folded her hands in her lap, smiling shyly at the jury. Several smiled back.

***

“The defense rests.”

“Mr. Mosby, do have any rebuttal witnesses?”

“Yes, your honor.” Mosby dabbed his handkerchief to his lip, brought it away and examined it before continuing. “Mr. Scott Lancer.”

Scott’s throat went dry. He didn’t have anything to say. Jason looked at him as though he’d been holding out on him. Scott just shook his head at him and walked numbly to the witness chair. He placed his hand on the Bible and swore to tell the truth.  Despite the fact that his father had obviously stretched the truth, and that Johnny had butchered it, Scott didn’t take the oath lightly.

“Mr. Lancer, I understand you met your father’s wife for the first time last month, when she arrived at your ranch.”

“Yes.” He had a sickening feeling he knew where this was going.

“What sort of relationship did you develop with Mrs. Lancer?

“We were on good terms.”

“Yes, so I understand. Mr. Lancer, by good terms, do you mean you had a romantic relationship with her?”  Some of the women spectators’ hands flew to their mouths.

“No, I certainly do not mean that.”

“So if I told you I had a statement declaring that you and Mrs. Lancer were seen in each other’s arms, with her bare bosom exposed, that would be a lie?”

Hushed murmuring traveled through the room.

“Objection!” Jason jumped to his feet. “This question has no bearing on the matter!”

The judge thought for only a moment. “Overruled. It bears on the defendant’s morals.”

Murdoch was once again scrutinizing him with that scowl that heretofore had been reserved for Johnny. Johnny looked like a dog waiting to be kicked, a dog that would bite back once it had been. Damn. Stubb and Zack had obviously made some sort of deal in exchange for that information.  If he denied it, and they testified, he would be branded a liar. But maybe Mosby couldn’t get them to testify. Maybe he should just sit there like Paco had done. No, that would only make things worse.

“That, sir, would be a outright lie.” Better to risk being labeled a liar than a pervert.

Mosby arched an eyebrow. Scott tried not to squirm, instead fixing him with a steady stare.

“You are asserting that you have never been in a compromising position with your step mother?”

“If you have evidence to the contrary, Mr. Mosby, I suggest you present it. Otherwise I’ll have to ask you to cease disparaging the lady.”

“Please answer the question, Mr. Lancer.”

“Your honor, that question has been asked and answered!” Jason was back on his feet.

“A simple yes or no, Mr. Lancer,” advised Judge Washburn.

“No, I have never been in such a position.” He knew Murdoch must be disappointed in him, lying under oath. But what choice did he have? Besides, it wasn’t like Murdoch had set a sterling example on the stand.

“Uh huh.” Mosby let the silence fall over the courtroom until Scott thought he would have to grab at his tie and pull it loose to breathe. He clenched his fingers to his pants, refusing to give in.  Finally Mosby spoke. “Very well, then, let’s talk about some other matters. I’ll make this simple. What did Mrs. Lancer tell you about the gold?”

Lying about his relationship with Maria was one thing. Lying about facts indicating she was guilty of murder was another. And after listening to her lies, Scott was sure she was guilty, very guilty.

 

Chapter 41

“Mrs. Lancer never told me about any gold.” That was actually true. She’d told Zack and Stubb about it. Besides, his integrity seemed to be a thing of the past at this point.

“She never mentioned having hidden gold, along with an alleged receipt for it? A receipt that was never found, even when her accomplice led deputies to the gold?”

“Again, Mr. Mosby, it sounds as though you have a better source of information than I can possibly provide. I suggest you call them to the stand. I can’t help you.”

“And I assume you also claim she said nothing to you about taking this child, Carmello, to a mission in Mexico?”

“That is correct.” Technically, that was true. She told Johnny, not him.

Mosby glared at him. “I see. I expected more from you, Mr. Lancer. No more questions.”

“No questions,” said Jason.

Johnny had a hard time meeting his gaze when he returned to his seat. Good. Scott hoped Johnny felt bad for putting him in this position. Scott had always prided himself as a man of values. Maybe not anymore. Still, he would have been more disgusted with himself had he told the truth and ended up losing his brother because of it.

“Thanks,” mumbled Johnny. Scott couldn’t stay angry. Not even at what he’d said outside. Johnny looked like a scared kid.

“Buck up, brother,” Scott whispered. “Did you see those jurors? They like her.”

The judge asked if Mosby had more witnesses, and Scott breathed a sigh of relief when Mosby shook his head. His gamble had paid off. Stubb and Zack weren’t testifying. The judge was ready to call for closing arguments when the saloon door flew open and a breathless figure hurried in.

“I pray we’re not too late to testify.” Padre Gustavo held Carmello protectively by the shoulders.

***

Mosby, Jason, and Padre Gustavo huddled around the judge. Carmello sat in a chair off to the side, swinging his legs and hanging his head, avoiding Maria’s gaze. Maria had jumped to her feet upon seeing him, calling to him and praising God for saving him. The deputies had prevented her from going to him, and now she sat praying and wiping tears of joy from her cheeks.

“Maybe this is good,” said Scott. “After all, bringing him back was one reason you went to Mexico in the first place.”

“Mama’s sure glad to see him.”

“He looks pretty healthy for somebody who burned up,” Murdoch said. Johnny just shot him a look. Why did Murdoch have to doubt everything Mama said? Starting back when Johnny was born.

The judge dismissed the attorneys. Padre Gustavo led Carmello to the witness seat. Jason walked back to his seat, leaning over to whisper with Maria.

The judge spoke. “I am allowing this witness to testify. I want to warn both of you, I will not tolerate rough questioning of this child. Mr. Mosby, will you begin?”

The boy was sworn in. Mosby approached with a smile that would scare most adults and any child. Carmello shrunk back. As Mosby asked innocuous questions, though, he seemed to sit up straighter and answer more confidently.

His name was Carmello Diaz. He had been orphaned six months ago, and had gone to a mission near San Diego. One day Paco and Maria showed up and said they wanted to adopt a child. They had not been blessed with children, they said, and they wanted a son to love. Carmello was chosen. He had felt lucky, up until the second night they spent together.

“They fed me only their scraps,” he said, “and I was getting very hungry. I asked for more, and Paco got angry. He hit me, and burned me with his cigarette.” He twisted around and lifted his shirt, exposing a cluster of red marks on his back. “He did that almost every night, after he got drunk He did other things at night, too.”

Johnny squirmed a little. Carmello wouldn’t have known better than to ask for food, not at first. Still, a few punches and burns wouldn’t kill anybody, not if he learned fast. And didn’t have a smart mouth. And stayed out of the way. And Paco wasn’t drunk.  At least he wasn’t with him any longer.

“You say Paco did that to you. Why?”

“I don’t know. I guess he didn’t like me. He didn’t want me around much.”

“What about Maria? Did she hurt you?”

“Not like Paco. But she never helped, either. She just watched, even when he hit me and burned me. He was the mean one, but she didn’t help me.”

Of course she didn’t help. She couldn’t! Damn kid was only telling part of the story. His mama couldn’t stand up to Paco. She just couldn’t. It didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t her fault. It would have only made things worse for the boy, besides.

“She never tried to stop him?”

“No.”

“I see. Carmello, did Maria take care of you? Do anything for you?”

He shook his head. “No. She almost never cooked, and when she did, she never made enough for me. I only got what was left over. Sometimes they ate it all.”

It wasn’t like there weren’t other places he could have gotten food. Did this kid expect them to give him everything? The kid even admitted they fed him some stuff. But Johnny could see the jurors’ faces, and they looked mad. They probably grew up like Scott, with all their meals handed to them. A lot of kids had to fend for themselves. This kid was making it sound bad. Damn, he wished Murdoch and Scott would quit stealing looks at him. It wasn’t like he didn’t notice.

“I don’t understand, Carmello, why did they adopt you?”

“I don’t know. They didn’t like me. Except they pretended to when people were around. I was supposed to act like we had always been a family then. I don’t know why.”

Mosby looked at his notes. “Now, son, a while back you mentioned Paco did, uh, other things at night. What did you mean by that?”

Carmello didn’t answer, just hugged himself and started to rock slightly.

Please shut up, kid. It’s past and done, no need to air that stuff here. Johnny chanced a look toward Murdoch, saw him staring, clinch-jawed, at Carmello. Come on, kid, just keep quiet, get over it.

Judge Washburn leaned over. “Now son, remember, the truth shall set you free. All we want is for you to tell us what happened. We’re on your side here. Can you tell us?”

Carmello bit his lip and looked around the room, avoiding Maria’s direction. When he finally spoke, he was looking at his lap again, and his words were hard to hear. “They did dirty things with each other. Naked. They did sinful things. In front of me.”

A murmur went through the audience. Johnny could feel Murdoch’s eyes on him now, burning into him. He looked the other way, only to be met by Scott’s sorrowful expression. He looked down quickly. Dios, he felt dirty! Damn that kid! He didn’t have to live with this. Why didn’t he just let it lie? It wasn’t anybody’s damn business!

“Objection!” Johnny loved Jason at that moment. “Your Honor, what a man and a woman do in the privacy of their home, or even room, has no bearing on this case and is purely inflammatory.”

Judge Washburn tapped his fingers for a few seconds. “Sustained.”

Mosby looked momentarily shocked, but quickly regained his composure. “I see. Did Maria and Paco ever tell you they were brother and sister?”

The boy looked confused. “No. They said they were married.”

Okay, so Maria got caught in a little lie. What choice had they given her? She was still married to Murdoch, but only legally.  They would have made it sound bad if she was sharing a hotel room with Paco otherwise.

“Was there a reason you didn’t just run away, or at least tell somebody?”

“I was scared. I didn’t know where to go. And Paco said he would kill me if I told anybody. He said they killed another little boy that lived with them once.”

Johnny sucked in his breath.

“They killed a little boy? Did they tell you why, or how?”

“He said they locked him in a trunk and burned him up because he was always bad. He said they would burn me up too if I told anyone, or ran away, or got in the way, or was bad like that little boy.”

“He’s lying!” Johnny was on his feet. “He’s lying! It’s all a bunch of lies!”

 

Chapter 42

They pulled him back in his seat, but not before everyone was staring, including the judge.

“Mr. Lancer, I warned you about your behavior once. Sheriff, could you have a couple of your deputies escort Mr. Lancer to a cell, please? You’ll spend the remainder of the trial there.”

He pulled from Scott’s grasp. “But he’s lying!”

“One more word and you’ll spend the week there!”

Before Scott could say it, Jason did. “Shut up!” he whispered hoarsely, “and apologize. Your mother needs you here.”

Johnny glared at Jason, then stood. “Um, your Honor, sir, I’d like to apologize for my behavior. It won’t happen again. Please let me stay with my mama. I won’t say anything. I promise.”

“Deputies, escort him out. Mr. Mosby, please continue your questioning.”

Scott got up to follow Johnny, but Jason turned to him and commanded him to stay, using that same look he’d given Johnny. Scott eased back into his seat, relieved when he saw Val following Johnny out. Johnny probably needed somebody to talk to. He must be over the edge to accuse a mere child of lying. Especially when everything the child said made all too perfect sense.

“Carmello, did they say anything more about this little boy? When was it?”

“I don’t know. A long time ago, I think. Paco said he had a smart mouth.”

“How long were you with Maria and Paco?”

“I think about a month.”

Johnny had spent ten years with Maria, and who knew how long with Paco. A lot longer than a month, from the sound of it. Why hadn’t Johnny ever told somebody, asked for help? Had they threatened him, too? Or was it that a child of mixed heritage really didn’t count, as Val had once told him?

Mosby continued his questioning, moving on to their arrival in Julian. Carmello said he was retuning to the room, hoping Paco and Maria had brought him some scraps from their dinner, when he saw them both hurrying down the hall toward him. The next thing he knew they were flinging their stuff in bags and rushing out of the hotel. He followed. By the time they got their wagon hitched up, the hotel was in flames. No, he did not set the fire. No, he knew nothing about any gold. They drove to Mexico and Paco left Maria and him at the mission with Padre Gustavo. They did a lot of whispering before Paco left. Two days later Maria left without telling him. Since that time he’d had nightmares they would come back for him. The padre had talked him into coming to the trial.

Mosby sat down.

“Mr. Pratt?” Judge Washburn looked at Jason, who appeared to be lost in thought, perhaps even sleeping. Jason shrugged his shoulders. “No questions, your Honor.” He seemed to answer almost absentmindedly, and started looking through his papers. Scott couldn’t believe it. Had the man given up?

The judge announced a recess for the evening meal. He planned to wrap the trial up that night.

“Why didn’t you ask him any questions?” demanded Scott as soon as they were alone.

“Such as? Did you want me to try to make him cry? The truth is, there was nothing I could ask him to make things better. So the best I could do was to act like his testimony wasn’t worth crossing. To tell you the truth, under the circumstances Johnny’s outburst may have been better than any cross I could do.”

***

The saloon opened for business. Pratt and Mosby barely had time to push their papers into a pile and stow them at one end of the bar marked off-limits, the place where the judge usually sat. Then they both left with the judge. Maria was being escorted to the jail, and Murdoch was already halfway out the door. Scott busied himself taking his coat off and hanging it meticulously over the back of his chair. He couldn’t stand another second in that heat. Or maybe it was just that he wasn’t looking forward to reporting to Johnny. No putting it off, though. He took a breath and pushed his way through the throng that was crowding to the bar. He’d made only a few feet of progress when he was jostled and slammed against the end of the bar. Something caught his eye. He turned to study the piles of papers.

The Pinkerton reports sat on top.

He looked nonchalantly about. People were all around, but nobody was paying attention to him. The judge and attorneys had left. Murdoch was already outside, probably on his way to the jail. All the deputies had left with Maria.

It was wrong. It wasn’t his property, wasn’t even his business. It was for Johnny and Murdoch to open together. And what if it showed Murdoch wasn’t Johnny’s father? He’d lose his little brother, no doubt about it. Actually, that made it every bit his business. He leaned against the forbidden section of bar, checked again to make sure no one was looking, and slipped the thinner of the two reports between his arms, shielding it from onlookers. He opened it with one hand, trying his best to look casual, then quickly skimmed the pages.

“Scott!” He jumped and spun, almost falling as he backed against the bar. Murdoch was pushing his way through the crowd toward him. He reached behind himself and shoved the report back toward the pile.

“Scott, what’s keeping you? Don’t you want to talk to Johnny?”

“Uh, yes, I was just going to order a beer.”

Murdoch shook his head slightly. There was that disappointed look again. “Don’t you think that can wait?”

***

“What happened?”

“What do you think?” answered Val. “I told them not to put him in the same cell with Paco.”

“We didn’t have any more cells,” said one of the deputies, rubbing his jaw.

“You put him in the same cell with Paco?” For the first time Scott noticed Doctor Nelson in the cell tending to Paco. “How’d you get them apart?”

“Mostly waited ’til he knocked Paco out, then he quit,” Val said. “Oh wait, I mean we tried our best to get him off earlier.”

“Well, I tried my best, no thanks to Sheriff Crawford here,” the deputy added.

Val shrugged and smiled. He pointed to the cell with Zack and Stubb, the cell Johnny was cuffed to the outside of. “Maybe you ought to try putting him in with them two next.”

“What happened in the trial?” Johnny asked, holding a cloth over his lip. His eyes hadn’t left Maria since she’d come into the building. Now she and Jason were conferring in her cell.

“The boy basically said he didn’t set the fire,” said Scott. “And that Maria and Paco were in a big hurry to leave, and he didn’t know anything about Paco coming there with any gold.”

“Jason trip him up?”

“Uh, well, Jason thought it was better to just act like he wasn’t worth cross-examining.”

“What?”

“He knows what he’s doing, Johnny. Let me see that lip.”

Johnny flinched away. “He damn well better. My mama’s life depends on it.”

***

This wasn’t the time to be thinking about what he’d seen in the Pinkerton report. It was just that it was difficult to focus on anything else, even Mosby’s closing argument. Mosby had been talking for several minutes already.

“Witnesses saw Mrs. Lancer, scantily attired, in the saloon going from man to man until she found her mark, and then brazenly accompanying him to his hotel room. You heard that she left the hotel in a hurry. The hotel burst into flames soon after, burning poor Phineas. But only after he had been knocked unconscious. Phineas himself said that Maria was in the room with him, and that he was hit from behind when Paco Sanchez, came to his door. And just who is this Paco Sanchez? Mrs. Lancer, a married woman, claims he is her brother, yet the disgusting behavior the child Carmello witnessed certainly doesn’t describe any brothers and sisters I know. Mrs. Lancer claims that Sanchez arrived in town with a bag of gold, yet the child, who had been traveling with them, never saw it. And it matched the gold Phineas says he had, the gold that was never found in the burned hotel. Remember, children don’t lie. Remember what little Carmello said about how she treated him. This is not a mother. This is a witch.

“Maria Lancer is not only a witch, she’s a murderer and a thief, a woman of no morals who preys upon God-fearing citizens. She has never contributed anything of value to society. Even her own flesh and blood, her son, is a killer for hire. We need to stop her now, before she kills again. You need to stop her. You alone have that power. Please, stop her by returning a verdict of guilty. Thank you.”

Mosby sat down, mopping the sweat from his face. Jason dabbed at his own brow before standing to address the jury.

“Gentlemen of the jury, it would appear Mr. Mosby has some intriguing notions about the law. He seems to think that if somebody happens to be anywhere around when something bad happens, they must have done it. He seems to have thrown away the entire idea of reasonable doubt. Or maybe it’s just that the law doesn’t matter if the accused is somebody he doesn’t approve of, somebody he can use as a scapegoat. Mrs. Lancer, a woman who, in the words of her own son, sacrificed everything to care for him when he was a child, a woman whose husband still stands beside her, a woman who came to Julian expecting to be treated fairly, hoping to forge a future here. Instead, she finds herself unjustly accused of an unfortunate accident. Because she dressed like women typically dress in Mexico, she is accused of loose ways. Phineas Baxter was the single person to say she went into his room, and Phineas Baxter was practically delirious when he said that. I know none of you would wish to rest your very lives on the statement of a witness who may or may not have known what he was saying, a witness we cannot even cross examine! Mrs. Lancer says he was drunk and fell and hit his head. Perhaps he didn’t remember. Perhaps he didn’t care to admit. Regardless, we can’t ask him, so his testimony is not reliable. That leaves only the child. I admit, he’s cute. But if any of you are parents, or recall your own childhoods, remember this: Children do lie. Children do make mistakes. Even cute ones.

“Gentlemen, don’t put an innocent woman to death. Julian doesn’t need it on its conscience, you don’t need it on yours, and for God’s sake, this child doesn’t need it on his. Thank you.”

 

Chapter 43

The jury filed back in. Murdoch couldn’t read their faces, despite searching each one as the judge read the charges again. Oh please, for Johnny’s sake, just say not guilty.

This was it. Maria was rising, assisted by Jason.

“On the charge of murder, what say you, members of the jury?

Murdoch held his breath as the foreman rose.

“Guilty.”

Maria’s knees buckled and she fell into Jason, sobbing. The judge kept calling for more verdicts. On the charge of arson. Guilty. On the charge of grand larceny. Guilty. Prostitution. Not guilty. Big deal. The crowd started cheering. Jesus. Johnny was across the street, waiting. Telling him would be the most difficult thing he’d ever had to do.

The judge called for order. “Maria Lancer, you have been convicted of the charges of murder, arson, and grand larceny. Under the laws and statutes of the great state of California, I have no choice but to sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead. The time shall be noon, one week from today. May God have mercy on your soul. Deputies, please escort the prisoner back to her cell. Court is adjourned.”

Murdoch considered lingering. Johnny would figure it out as soon as Maria walked back in the jail. Probably figure it out as soon as he heard the crowd whooping in the street. No, damn it. He started down the aisle. Scott was already one step ahead, a stricken look on his face.

“Thank you, son. This isn’t going to be easy.”

They hurried across the street, reaching the jail just as most of the crowd started emptying from the saloon. Johnny was pacing, but quickly stepped to the bars when he saw them.

How do you say it? How do you tell your son his mother has been sentenced to hang? “Johnny…”

“No!” Johnny started backing away. “She didn’t do it! It ain’t right!”

“Johnny, I’m sorry.”

“No. No, Scott, you said the jury liked her.”

Scott shook his head. “They did. Before Carmello. I’m sorry.”

“Stupid kid couldn’t keep his mouth shut. I had a lot worse, you didn’t see me telling!” He must have realized what he’d said. “Not from Mama, though. Not from Mama.”

The door opened, letting the sounds of the street celebration burst in. Maria, Jason, Val, and the deputies followed. She was still leaning heavily on Jason, sobbing.

“Mama! No, Mama, it ain’t right!”

The deputy opened the cell Johnny was in, Maria’s cell. Johnny hugged her, burying his face in her hair. “Mama, I love you, I love you.” He mumbled to her in Spanish, walking her over to the cot and sitting down with her, holding her as she put her head in his lap. “Jason, do something!”

“Johnny, I tried. We can try appealing to the governor for a pardon. But…” He shook his head, his voice trailing off. “We’ll try.”

The sheriff called over Murdoch and Scott. “He’s free to go now that the trial is over. In fact, technically he can’t stay in the cell with a woman overnight, even if it is his mother. But you need to make sure he’s under control when you get him out in that crowd.”

The whoops and cackling still reverberated from the street party. “Maybe we’d better wait,” said Murdoch.

***

The doctor gave Maria some laudanum. Johnny held her for more than an hour, even after she’d fallen asleep. He finally slipped away from her and came to the cell door.

“When am I going to get out? I need to see Jason.” He spoke quietly.

“Johnny, Jason did as best he could under the circumstances,” Murdoch said. “It’s no use taking it out on him.”

“I was only supposed to be locked up until the trial was over. It’s over.”

“Promise me you’ll stay away from Jason.”

“I ain’t gonna hurt him. Let me out.”

The crowd outside had mostly wandered off. Murdoch motioned for the sheriff.

Once out, Johnny strode to the door without acknowledging anyone. Scott, Val, and Murdoch caught up outside.

“Don’t need no babysitters. Least of all, not you three. You’re the reason she’s here. She’s gonna die because of you! Hope you’re finally happy, old man!”

Nobody answered. They followed him up to Jason’s room.

“Johnny, you need to go to your room and cool down for a while. This isn’t the way.” Murdoch placed his hand on the knob.

“I’m done doing things your way.” He rapped again. “Pratt, you in there?”

Jason answered the door, bleary eyed. Johnny pushed inside. Murdoch tried to follow.

Johnny fished in his pocket and came up with a dollar or so in coins. “I’m hiring you. That means we get to talk private, right?”

Jason looked confused, then accepted the money, nodding. “Yes, yes it does, Johnny. Murdoch, could you please excuse us?”

***

“I don’t hear any chairs being thrown,” said Scott. The three were still in the hall.

“Well, I’m going to go get something to eat,” Val said. “I’ll bring something back for Johnny. Assuming he’s not back in jail.”

“Guess we should get something, too.” Neither moved. They waited another five minutes. Jason’s room remained quiet. They went to Murdoch’s room to wait.

“Any idea what your brother wants with Jason?”

“I think it’s possible Johnny just needs to hear it from him, make sure there’s really nothing else that can be done.”

“Scott, you know Jason did everything that could possibly be done. He said he’d try for a pardon, but that’s not going to pan out. We told Johnny all that.”

“I know, but maybe he needed to hear it from somebody else.”

“You mean somebody he doesn’t blame for bringing her in.”

“We both know bringing her in was the right thing to do, at least at the time. I just hope Johnny can ever accept that.”

“I wonder, if I had it to do all over again, knowing how it’s turned out, if I would have let her go.”

“She’s guilty, you know.”

Murdoch nodded. “I know.”

“I wonder if Johnny knows.”

Jason’s door burst open and Johnny rushed across to the room he shared with Scott. By the time Scott got in there Johnny had already peeled his suit pants off and was unbuttoning his shirt, finally just pulling and letting the last buttons fly. He pulled his familiar clothes on and fastened his gun belt.

“You’re going out?”

“Thought I’d take a moonlight ride.”

“Care for some company?”

“Not unless you want to reconsider what you said last night about helping.” He checked his gun, replaced it in the holster, and left.

Oh no. He couldn’t really be planning to break her out of jail, alone? Suddenly talking to Jason made another sort of sense. “Johnny, wait up!”

***

He kept to the shadows on his way to the livery. Scott was likely to follow. So he’d headed to the jail first, then doubled back down the alley to the rear door of the livery. He was already riding Barranca out the rear door when Scott came in the front.

“Johnny, wait up! We need to talk about this! Let me come with you.”

Johnny reined in his horse. “Too late. What I got in mind now is a one man job.”

He spurred Barranca into a gallop, down the alley, and out of town, letting the wind rip at his worries. He’d just had to get away from the town, the jail, everybody. The moon was out, shining on the trail, and he urged the horse even faster. If he could just keep flying down the trail, leave that damn town behind. Faster. The trail wound down through the trees, the moonlight flickered as Barranca raced in and out of the shadows.  He felt all alone again, like in the old days, the horse under him the only family he needed. For a moment, he wished it were true.

But he had to go back. Had an appointment, of sorts, to meet. He pulled back on the reins. Later he couldn’t say if Barranca tripped, or shied, or even if he hit a low branch. He just remembered flying through the darkness, thudding into the ground, and seeing the stars twirl, then fade.

 

Chapter 44

Scott gave up after a few miles. There was no telling which way Johnny had gone, and chasing after him was only likely to make him run faster. And from what he could see, Johnny had already been going way too fast by the time he reached the edge of town.

He returned and studied the jail for a while. Apparently Johnny was right; it appeared to be guarded more heavily now. If Johnny had in mind a one man job, it didn’t seem likely to be successful. Johnny must know that; hence his talk with Jason. At least he was thinking ahead to legal consequences; that was an improvement for Johnny. Although somehow he doubted Murdoch would see it as that.

He watched outside for an hour before he put his horse up and returned to his room. Murdoch and Val were waiting. Scott just shook his head when he saw them. He walked to the window and studied the jail some more. Could one man really break Maria out? Could two? Last night he’d told Johnny he wouldn’t help break her out. Tonight he knew he’d have to, at least once Johnny got involved.

Four men could get her out. But no, he couldn’t tell them. Murdoch would never approve of his sons breaking anyone, much less Maria, out of jail. And while Val wasn’t above stretching the law, he was, after all, a sheriff.

"Did Jason tell you what they talked about?” Scott asked Murdoch. He kept one eye on the jail.

“No. Johnny apparently bought his silence for a dollar and twenty cents. After what I’m paying the man he should have told me every word he said and made up a few more!”

Val stood leaning against one wall, watching Scott. “Something interesting over at the jail?”

Scott jumped. He walked away from the window. “No. Just looking.”

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “Scott, please tell me your brother isn’t planning to break his mother out of jail.”

Scott looked at the jail again. “I don’t know.”

***

Whatever his plan, it apparently hadn’t included breaking Maria out last night. Murdoch had insisted on sitting with Scott, watching the jail all night. Val had gone over there to spend the night. He said if trouble broke out, he wanted to make sure nobody got hurt. The sun showed itself above the tree tops. Still no sign of Johnny.

He surely wouldn’t try a daytime break. The sun rose higher. Val brought back breakfast for all of them. They ate in Scott’s room. They watched the jail. Where the heck was he?

“I’m going to go look for him.”  Scott buckled on his gunbelt.

“Good. I already saddled our horses when I was out getting the food.”

Murdoch was elected to stay behind in case Johnny showed up. Val and Scott followed the road Scott had seen Johnny gallop down the night before. After a while it narrowed considerably. Val pointed out the hoof marks left by a horse running fast. Probably Barranca.

Val shook his head. “Dang idiot. I can’t believe he was riding on this path at night as fast as what it looks like.”

They both urged their horses faster, suddenly uneasy about what the next curve in the trail might reveal. They rounded a sharp bend and leaned back, their horses’ hooves throwing up dust, as they tried to avoid hitting Johnny and Barranca in the middle of the path. Johnny was leading the horse, and none too swiftly.

Scott was on the ground immediately. “What happened? You hurt anywhere?”

“I fell off about a mile back. Walked this far. Off and on. Tried riding. That didn’t go so good.”

“Must of landed on his head,” Val said.

After some arguing Scott and Val got Johnny on Barranca, each riding to one side in case he started to slip down. Val was right about where he’d landed; Johnny had a good sized knot on his head. Once they were headed back to town Val asked, “So Johnny, just so we can get some sleep, you planning on working a jail break today?”

Johnny’s eyes had been closed, but he managed to open them. “Nah, I got other plans for today. Big plans.” He stopped suddenly. “Uh, oh shit!” He leaned over and puked.

Scott steadied him as he heaved. “Clearly,” he said.

***

“Concussion,” Dr. Nelson said. “Again. Since it happened last night, and he says he’s been awake since then, I say just let him sleep. Get him to drink as much water as you can, keep him quiet. No midnight rides.” He turned to Johnny. “And I’m sorry, but for today, no visiting at the jail. You’ll have plenty of time. . .” He caught himself and looked embarrassed. “Oh damn, I’m sorry. Still, you need to get your strength up, son.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Murdoch said. He walked out into the hall with him. Johnny could hear them talking, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Scott was pulling the chair up to the bedside.

“Scott, could you leave me alone. Please?”

“You wouldn’t be planning to sneak out, would you?”

“I’m just not in the mood. I want to be alone.”

“Okay, but I’ll be checking on you. You need anything, I’ll be in Murdoch’s room.”

“Thanks,” he said, his lids drifting down. He couldn’t do anything until later, anyway.

***

When he awoke the room was dim. Damn! He’d overslept! He sat up, clutching at his head when he did. The room was tilting.

“That wasn’t too smart, was it?” Scott said from his chair. He looked like he’d been sleeping, too.

Johnny stared at him. So much for privacy.

“You were sleeping. I thought it couldn’t do any harm for me to be here in case you woke up and needed something. You want some water?” He poured some in a glass and handed it to Johnny.

“I want some food.” It had been nearly two days since he’d eaten anything. “From that cantina down the road Val’s been going to. You know where?”

“I’ll be right back.” Scott smiled slightly. He stood and stretched. “I might grab something for the rest of us, too, assuming they have something that won’t blister my insides.”

Johnny smiled weakly.  He couldn’t eat a bite.

***

Sneaking out was easy. It was getting his boots on that was the toughest part. Leaning over made him almost keep on going over. So he decided to carry them until he got outside. Quieter that way. He thought he could vaguely hear Murdoch snoring in his room.

He walked the back way to his destination, stopping once or twice to make the buildings stop spinning. He entered through the back door, flinching at the raised spoons of the cooks, ducking as he made his way out of the kitchen and into the dining room of The Golden Calf. He glanced around, half expecting to see Scott or Murdoch there. It was their kind of restaurant, with waiters and menus and more forks than you needed. They’d never look for him here.

A waiter scrutinized him dubiously, but consented to seat him in the back corner, by the kitchen, which was just where he wanted to be. He aimed his chair so he could watch the door, and ordered their biggest steak. The judge walked in about fifteen minutes later. He looked around the room and frowned when he saw Johnny waving him over and calling out to him.

“Judge Washburn! I wonder if I could talk to you about a legal matter. Something that happened in a place called Johnson’s Creek.”

 

Chapter 45

Judge Washburn looked around him before walking over to Johnny. “It doesn’t look proper for us to be talking here.”

“Then I reckon we better talk fast. Have a seat.”

“Listen, I’m sorry about your mother, but my hands were tied. I’m bound by the law.”

“That so?” Johnny tilted his chair back. “Now, I ain’t no legal expert or nothing like you, so maybe you can answer me this. You figure it’s against the law for a lawyer on one side to run the lawyer on the other side out of town? Then make sure all the witnesses get too scared to testify?”

“What’s your point, Madrid? You’ve got nothing on me.”

He righted his chair with a thump. “Oh, what, you think it will look any better just because you was too afraid to get your own hands dirty, had to hire yourself someone to do your dirty work?”

Washburn sat. “I did nothing illegal. You, on the other hand, did.”

“Cause you paid me to.”

“I also paid you to keep your mouth shut.”

“Yeah, well, my price just went up.”

The judge leaned forward. “If you say one word, you’re the one who will end up behind bars, not me.”

Johnny cut his steak and took a bite, chewing slowly before swallowing. “I know. I talked to my lawyer. He said cuz I was a kid at the time I’d probably get off light. Besides, I figure I can trade a few years of my life for the rest of my mama’s.”

“Like I said, your mother was found guilty. All I did was set the standard penalty. I’m sorry about that, but I had no choice, and I certainly can’t change it now.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.” Johnny took another bite. “I talked to my lawyer about that, too. He said you could work a deal, reduce her sentence if she testified against Paco Sanchez.

“It’s a little late for that. And it’s not exactly like her testimony will be needed to convict him.”

“Plus she could testify against them bounty hunters. About them knowing about the gold, and that’s why they wanted Paco and kidnapped Murdoch and Scott.”

“No, that’s preposterous! The people would be in an uproar. It would never work.”

“You ain’t seen uproar until the folks in charge of handing out judgeships find out about what you done before you was a judge.”

The judge waved the waiter away. His jaw worked up and down. “Okay, Madrid, fine, what do I care? Twenty years. The gift of life. And I do mean gift, even with her testifying.”

Johnny took another bite, this time not bothering to swallow before he spoke. “One year. Did I ever tell you what really got that lawyer, what was his name, Abbott, to finally leave? Oh yeah, it was your idea. Never mind.”

Washburn glared at him, then spoke slowly. “Damn you, fifteen, and that’s making a mockery out of justice!”

“I wonder where Abbott is now. You ever hear from him?” The steak was starting to taste better. He took another bite.

The judge’s face was turning a startling shade of crimson. “Jesus Christ. Ten years, damn it! I can’t do any better than that!”

“Ten years, huh? You could be a big-time judge by then, some place like San Francisco I bet. Or, you could be some drunk looking for a job shoveling shit. Funny the turns a man’s life can take, ain’t it?”

Washburn slumped back in his chair, glaring at Johnny. When he finally spoke, his voice was subdued. “Seven years, with time off for good behavior. I can’t, absolutely can’t, go any lower. As it is, I don’t know how I can justify this.”

Johnny leaned forward. “Seems to me if it turned out Paco Sanchez was the one who did it all, seven years is an awful long sentence.”

“If I go any lower, there’s bound to be an investigation and she could be right back facing the noose. You want to take that chance? With time off she could be out in four or five. She’ll have to testify at both trials, and convincingly.”

Johnny chewed slowly, then nodded. “She will. One more thing, and it’s a deal.”

“What?”

“Dinner. Be sure to tell the waiter my bill’s on you. This place seems kind of high. You know, you ought to get one of these steaks. I’m getting me another. You think they got cake for dessert?”

The judge glared at him, then stomped away from the table. Johnny was suddenly ravenous. It had gone better than he had dared dream, far better than Jason had said the judge could legally do. Then again, Jason didn’t know what Johnny had planned.

Maybe he should have gone into law.

***

“Look, I’m not asking you to tell me what you talked about. I just want to know if you have any idea where he could have gone. He’s not supposed to be out of bed!”

He should have known better than to leave him alone. He’d looked everywhere. He’d started with Jason, Murdoch, and Val’s rooms. No Johnny. He’d checked every likely place: the jail, the saloon, the jail again, the livery, the alleys, back to the jail. No one had seen him, Barranca was still there, and Scott couldn’t decide whether to be furious or worried sick. Now he was back at Jason’s. He had to know.

“Did you try the judge?”

“The judge?” Johnny surely wouldn’t attack the judge. Then what? Hold him for ransom? Jesus. “No. Why?”

“Don’t worry. I think he just wanted to go over some aspects of Maria’s sentencing. I know, I know, it’s fruitless, but he wanted to talk to him.”

Scott hurried outside and toward the mayor’s house, where he knew the judge was staying. Val and Murdoch were still searching for Johnny. Val was checking the brothels. He wasn’t sure where Murdoch was, or if he even wanted to find him first. He passed The Golden Calf. He stopped. Murdoch could be checking there. The judge might even be there eating.

He stepped inside and scanned the room. No Murdoch, but the judge was there, sitting alone. Scott was thinking about approaching him when he spotted Johnny in the corner. He wondered if he would be arrested for killing his own brother. The brother who promised to stay in bed, who sent him to buy that rot-gut dinner, and who then sneaked off to the finest restaurant in town without telling anyone? He bit his lip, changed direction, and kept reminding himself his brother was under a lot of stress.

Johnny had enough food in front of him to throw a small party. He kicked out a chair as Scott approached. “Hungry?”

“I guess you were,” Scott said, raising a brow at the feast. “Murdoch’s going to kill you when he gets this bill.”

“All taken care of. Judge Washburn wanted to buy. Would have been rude not to order something. Go ahead, get a steak. It’s really good.”

Scott stole a glance at the judge. He didn’t look like he was in the dinner-buying mood to him. Didn’t look happy at all. “I bet.”

“Turns out he’s a pretty good guy. Going to lower Mama’s sentence in exchange for her testifying against Paco and them bounty hunters. I’m going over to talk to her once her food gets here. You should see what I ordered for her. Come on, Scott, order something.”

“Lower her sentence? Why would he do that?”

“Hey, where’s Val and Murdoch? You think they eaten yet?”

“They’re out looking for you! Now, why would the judge agree to lower her sentence?”

“Looking for me? There some law about getting dinner?”

“No. But you sent me to get that fire food you like, remember? The judge, Johnny, how did you get him to lower her sentence?”

He took another bite. “I asked him.”

“Jason already asked to do a deal and got nowhere.”

Johnny shrugged. “Maybe he didn’t ask nice enough.”

Scott had a feeling he didn’t want to know what Johnny considered asking nicely. He reluctantly started to ask for more details when he was stopped by faint shouts from the street. A moment later the door burst open. “Fire! Fire at the jail!”

 

Chapter 46

Mama! Johnny pushed his way through the gawkers in front of the jail. Smoke was already billowing from it, fire lapping out one window. “Who’s out?”

Nobody would answer. He spotted one of the deputies, covered with soot, kneeling over another deputy who was unconscious.

“Who’s out?”

“Just us. I couldn’t get the prisoners. It’s too late!”

Johnny ran toward the jail, veering to jump into a water trough.

“Leave them!” the deputy shouted. “They’re going to hang anyway!”

Not Mama, she wasn’t going to hang, wasn’t going to burn either! Scott was running to the trough. Scott would try to stop him, he didn’t care about Mama, not how it counted.

Water sloshed over the trough sides when Scott jumped in. “I’m right behind you, let’s go!”

Sparks bit his skin and smoke stung his eyes as soon as he reached the door. He took a deep breath and plunged into hell. He couldn’t see much but whirling smoke and blinding flames, couldn’t hear anything over the crackling roar. No, he could hear screams. Mama? He suddenly felt paralyzed, unable to do anything but scream in his head and fight the urge in every muscle to run from the building. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t save his mama. A shape moved toward the cells. Scott?

“The keys!” Scott called. “We need the cell keys! The desk drawer!”

He forced his legs to take a step, fumbled his way to the desk, felt for the drawer and pulled. It didn’t budge. He pulled harder, hit it, banged on it, kicked it. Something fell on his back, heavy timbers shoving him into the floor by the desk. He couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, he was stuck under something, trapped, choking, burning to death, kicking harder, kicking again and again, screaming, pleading for his mama to let him out, the flames lapping against the trunk, smoke filling it, he couldn’t breathe, he had to get out, had to kick harder, had to find Mama, he was burning, begging Mama to let him out, screaming! No, no, no, no, that wasn’t him, they were screams from the cells, begging, pleading, to let them out. Scott? He kicked viciously at the desk, kicked again and again until the wood finally splintered and the drawer flopped down. He pushed the timbers off him and fished through the drawer’s contents, his fingers finally touching the hot metal of a key ring. Now what? Dios, get it together, do something, move!

“Scott! I got the keys!” No answer.

“Mama! Scott!” Nothing. No! Like before when he’d gotten out of the trunk. Just the roar of the flames. And more screams. They were all going to die, already dead, he killed them all, failed again. Dead. No! He felt his way through the smoke, disoriented. Dios,  he was pushing farther into the flames, but he had to get out, now, he was going to burn and die! No, Mama! Scott! He tripped, fell, over something soft. A body.

It was Scott.

More screams, begging him to open the cell doors. Scott, he had to save Scott, get him out of here, now. But Mama! He couldn’t leave her. The screams! He couldn’t just let them burn, not even Paco, yes he could, if it meant saving Scott and Mama.

Dios, make them stop screaming! He lurched to the cells, falling against them, hissing as he scalded his hand on the bars. He turned the key in the first cell door, staggered to the second, then the third. “Help Mama!” he yelled to Paco’s cell. He couldn’t see into the cells. His eyes were tearing and he was blind. There was only smoke left to breathe, no air, just smoke and fire inside him, everywhere.

“Scott!” He could barely choke it out. He tugged on him, fell, tried to drag him still, tried to pick him up, tried to beg him to get up but could only cough violently. He couldn’t  move him, couldn’t even move himself. They were smothering, burning, dying. He fell over Scott as more timbers fell, sparks flying up and illuminating the room for an instant. He saw a shape coming toward them. 

It hovered over them. He reached up but it moved away.  He tried to yell for help, but his voice was just a rasp. The shape merged into the smoke. More timbers fell. He tried to shield Scott from the sparks. Please, Scott, wake up! He’d killed them all.

“Johnny! It’s us!” Murdoch? Hands clutched at him. He was only vaguely aware of being hoisted up and dragged away from the flames.

“Scott! Mama!” At least he thought he got it out.

He felt the rush of cooler air on him as someone carried him out of the burning building. He tried to suck air into his starved lungs but ended up choking, still unable to breathe. They doused him with cool water, pulled his singed shirt off. He tried to take a good breath, but doubled over coughing. He tried to speak, they shushed him, but he pushed them away. “Scott?”

“Val got him, son. The doctor’s taking care of him. Lie still.”

He was racked by coughing once again. “Mama?”

Nobody answered.

“Mama!”

“I’m sorry, son. She didn’t get out.”

“No.” Johnny dragged himself to all fours, then pulled himself up and teetered toward the flaming building.

Murdoch grabbed him. “Johnny! It’s too late.”

Timbers crashed as the rest of the roof caved in, the flames celebrating their victory high into the night sky. Johnny pulled away from Murdoch and ran toward the building. There was no more door to enter through, just a mound of burning rubble.  “Mama!”

He was too late. “Mama,” he whispered. He fell to his knees. Mama was dead. If he hadn’t stayed at the restaurant, if he hadn’t hesitated inside the burning building, if he had broken her out of jail in the first place, Mama would still be alive, laughing the way she did, so alive.

“Come on, son, let’s get back.”

“It’s all your fault! You wanted her dead, and now you’re happy! You brought her here, wouldn’t let her go!” He stopped, coughing again.

“Johnny! You have to believe I never meant this to happen. I, I know you loved her, son.”

“She wasn’t going to hang. She wasn’t supposed to die.”

Scott was waking up, coughing, asking for Johnny. His words were barely a whisper. “Somebody knocked me out in there.”

“It’s okay, Scott,” Murdoch said. “Johnny got out. I’m afraid nobody else made it, though.”

“Somebody was in there. Loose.”

 

Chapter 47

“My dick, the bitch bit my dick off!”

They were in Doctor Nelson’s outer office, waiting for Scott to be checked over. The doctor was still in the other room examining the deputy, the one who had been pulled from the building.  He’d been burned and knocked unconscious, but from what they could hear, his main concern seemed to be some sort of injury below the belt. Maybe he was delirious.

Murdoch steadied Scott in one of the chairs, while Johnny sat alone, staring blankly. Val and the doctor finally emerged from dealing with the deputy. “I gave him some laudanum so he can just sleep there. Let’s take at look at you out here, young man,” he said to Scott. He spotted the dried blood on his scalp. “Something fall on you?”

Scott looked at Johnny before answering. “Yes.”

Johnny couldn’t interpret his look. Did somebody hit Scott or not? His thoughts were so scrambled, all he could think of was that wall of flame, and Mama. Could somebody really have survived? Escaped through the back door? No, somebody would have seen. Dios. It hit him again. Mama was really dead. He’d never see her again. Why had God returned her to him just to snatch her away?

“What was he talking about in there?” asked Murdoch, indicating the exam room.

“He was in a lot of pain,” said the doctor. “It seems, well, uh, it seems he had an injury separate from the fire. He had a pretty bad, well, what looked like a bite mark, on his penis.”

“I’m going for a ride.” Johnny stood, steadying himself against the wall.

They all stopped and looked at him. Val spoke first. “You didn’t do so hot a job riding last night when you could stand up, I don’t think that’s such a good idea now when you can’t.”

He had to get out of there, away from the smell of salve and smoke. He pushed the door open, reeling as he stepped on the boardwalk. A light rain had begun, causing the remaining embers to send up white smoke. Dios, the whole town was smothered in the stench of charred wood—and flesh. He lurched over to the street and emptied his stomach. He hated that damned steak anyway. Hated that restaurant, hated this goddamn town.

“Come on, Johnny,” said Val from behind him. “I’ll take you wherever you want to go, leave you alone once we get there. But you’re in no condition to ride.”

“I’ll take the buggy.”

Val tapped his leg and studied. “Fair enough. I’ll hitch it up for you. And I’m following you.”

Johnny stayed propped against the hitching post. “Val, you think she could have gotten out without nobody seeing her?”

“I reckon anything’s possible. Most everybody was at the front. I went around, tried to see if there were any tracks, but the ground was too churned up to tell.”

Johnny nodded. “That deputy say anything else?”

“He was really out of it, Johnny, from the start. Kept ranting.” He rubbed the stubble on his face. “You’re going to hear this anyway, so I might as well tell you, but I wouldn’t put much stock in it. He said Maria bit his cock, started the fire, knocked him out.”

Johnny jerked his head up. “He the only one there when it happened?”

“Only one but the prisoners. The sheriff had gone to break up some assholes fighting at the saloon, the other deputy had gone to bring back some food. When he got there the place was already burning.”

It was possible. He’d seen how she got the guards to come into her cell back when he’d been jailed with her as a kid, knew she had all sorts of ways to entice them. If the deputy left the door open—very likely if he might have to make a quick exit once the food arrived—she could have gotten out. His breath quickened. He wondered if any horses were missing.

“You do me a favor, Val? Hitch up that buggy but leave me alone.”

***

It was morning when he headed the buggy back into town. The rain had kept up all night. He was drenched and shivering. Men were already picking through the smoking remains of the jail. Johnny hadn’t found any tracks, but then, once the rain started he hadn’t really expected to.

He stopped in front of the livery and climbed slowly out. The stable boy came to take the horse. “Missing any horses?” Johnny asked.

The young man looked frightened when he saw Johnny. “A bunch of them was in the corral last night, must have got panicked with the fire. Knocked down some boards and took off. I guess nobody noticed what with all the excitement. Old Man Ferguson’s about to have a fit.”

Val rode up, soggy, glaring at Johnny. “Remind me never to take a midnight ride with you again.”

“I told you to leave me alone.”

“Take care of these horses, will you?” Val handed the stable boy a coin. “And damn, Johnny, go take a bath before you scare the shit out of everybody.”

Johnny noticed the rivulets of soot streaking down his arms. He’d put his singed shirt back on last night, its bright color now masked in gray. He wiped his face and saw his blackened hands came back even blacker. He’d coughed up sludge all night and still felt like his lungs were drowning in it.

A shout went up from the men at the jail. They’d found a body. Suddenly he felt too exhausted to take a single step. But he took one toward the jail.

“No.” Val gripped his shoulder. “You don’t need to see that. Go get a bath. I’ll go over there and make sure everything’s done right.”

***

They’d found three bodies so far. All were outside their cells. The fire had been especially hot because of the gunpowder stored in the back, and the bodies were burned way past any hope of recognition. Johnny shuddered when he remembered the horror of that inferno. Mama shouldn’t have had to go that way. Nobody should.

He watched the search from his window. Murdoch kept trying to keep him in bed, but he also seemed to understand Johnny’s need to stay connected to what was going on. Scott was in bed, but he’d also come to the window a few times.

Val knocked quietly and entered. He’d been keeping them informed when each body was found. They all looked at Val expectantly, Johnny with a feeling of dread.

“Um, Johnny. They still haven’t found another body. But, uh, Maria wore a brooch, didn’t she?”

Johnny nodded, unable to speak. The brooch he’d bought for her in Morro Coyo. She’d worn it every day.

“Jesus, Johnny, I’m sorry to show this to you, but is this it?”

The silver was melted and globbed, but Johnny could still make out the general shape. He closed his eyes and nodded.

“I’m sorry, damn. I, uh, here, I’ll just leave it with Murdoch.”

“No. I want it.”

Johnny closed the brooch tightly in his hand. He didn’t want anybody to see it wasn’t hers.

 

Chapter 48

Scott awoke to another coughing fit. The room was quiet, for a change. Murdoch and Val must still be at dinner. They’d promised to bring food back and for him and Johnny. Johnny was quiet, no longer coughing. Scott looked over at the other bed and realized why. Damn him!

He crossed to the window. Sure enough, there he was, standing in the middle of the charred jail timbers. Scott pulled on his boots and shirt and went to fetch him back before Murdoch blew an artery. Doctor Nelson had been adamant that neither of them leave their beds, cautioning them that smoke-damaged lungs were very fragile. Not to mention cracked heads. Johnny’s head must be permanently cracked.

Johnny looked up as he saw him coming. “Murdoch’s gonna be mad if he catches you out of bed.”

“Not nearly as mad as he’s going be at you for making me get out to come fetch you.” He watched Johnny scuff his foot in the rubble. He softened his voice. “Val says they got everything.”

“Yeah.”

They both spotted something shiny in the ashes at the same time. Scott dug it out. A deputy’s badge. “Val says the sheriff was looking for a brooch he had in his desk for his wife. But the only one they found was that one you said was Maria’s.” He looked at Johnny questioningly.

“That so?”  Johnny twisted his foot in between some boards, kicking several up one at a time. “Listen, Scott, I’m sorry about what happened in there. I almost got you killed.”

“What? That’s not how I remember it.”

“I froze. I… I wanted to run out, but I was too scared to even do that.”

“I was scared, too. And you didn’t run out, you saved my life.” He pulled Johnny to him roughly. “And it wouldn’t hurt for you to be scared of things a little more often!"

Johnny slapped him away, smiling, but only for a moment. He gestured to the still standing cell bars that jutted from the rubble. “I didn’t save them. Her.”

“That wasn’t your fault.” Scott studied Johnny for a second. “Johnny, somebody did hit me in there. And I don’t know how to say this, but I’m pretty sure it was Maria.” He readied himself for the explosion that was sure to come.

It didn’t. Johnny just kept on kicking at timbers, finally nodding. “I guess you for sure think I’m a fool for sticking by her.”

“No. You know, I never had a mother, but when Maria first came to Lancer I was jealous of you because you had her. At least, at first.”

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

“I know. Neither do I. Let’s just say the Lancer men must have a weakness for her, one way or the other. And she has a bad habit of letting us down. I just think Maria was awfully lucky to have you, and awfully stupid to throw it all away. Twice.”

“I always wondered what was so wrong with me, she always liked every other man she met better. Even you. I guess that’s why I tried so hard to make her like me. And why I was so mad at you.”

“You had every right to be angry. I’m sorry.”

Johnny nodded and ran his hand along the sooty bars. “If it was her in there, that don’t mean she knew it was you she hit.”

“I know. She was probably just trying to get away from the deputies.”

“I gotta talk to Judge Washburn. Make sure he keeps his end of the deal. I know it’s stupid, but I don’t want Mama dying with a death sentence.”

Scott wondered if there was more to it than that. Before he could ask, he saw a bigger problem looming.

“You may need to hire Jason.” Scott nodded down the street. “Here comes Murdoch.”

***

“Neither of you could stay in bed for an hour without a babysitter?”

“Where’s Val?” asked Johnny.

“He’s getting dinner for you two! Because you couldn’t get out of bed, remember? Come on.” Murdoch reached for Johnny’s shoulder. “You’ll both need to get your strength up if we’re going to head home tomorrow. Doctor Nelson’s not wild about the idea, but he said we could leave if you ride in the buggy.”

Scott was all for crawling home if he had to. Anything to leave Julian far, far behind. “Agreed.”

Johnny didn’t say anything. Murdoch squeezed his shoulder. “Johnny?”

“Where would home be?” asked Johnny. “Least ways for me?”

“Lancer. Where else?”

Johnny pulled his shoulder out of Murdoch’s grasp. “I don’t know. Reckon we’ll have to see that report to find out.”

“Johnny, we’ve been though that! You’re my son, and I was an idiot to ever doubt it!”

“But you doubted it.”

Murdoch nodded. “At one time. Not now.”

“You as sure about me being your son as you are about Scott?”

Scott couldn’t believe Murdoch looked like he was thinking about it before answering. “Johnny, you have to understand that with Scott’s mother there was never any other possibility. You know Maria was, uh, different. But you’re mine, I know it, every bit as much as Scott is.”

“No, you ain’t ever going to know it until you read that report. And the reason you won’t read it is because deep down, you know I might not be.”

“Would that be so wrong?”

“Let’s go see Mosby. He musta read it. Settle it right now.”

“Johnny, this is ridiculous!”

“Wait.” They both turned to look at Scott. “There’s no need. I read it. Mosby left it out on the bar, and I read it.”

“Scott! That was a private report!”

“I know, Murdoch, and I’m not proud of what I did. But I read it anyway.”

Nobody spoke for a while. The color had drained from Murdoch’s face. Johnny finally said, “And?”

“It said Maria was in a convent until a week before she met Murdoch. I don’t think there’s any doubt.”

Murdoch hugged Johnny until Johnny started coughing again. He was beaming like he’d just had a son. “See, son? I knew it! Now let’s go home!”

Johnny finally caught his breath. “She never mentioned to you she was in a convent?”

“She may have. We didn’t really talk a lot about her past. Actually, now that you mention it, I believe she did.”

“Never mentioned it to me. How long she in there, Scott?”

“I don’t remember. Maybe a few months.”

“I want to see the report. Where’s Mosby?”

Scott sucked in his breath. Mosby was walking toward the mayor’s house. Jesus. Johnny couldn’t see that report.

***

Johnny caught up with Mosby in front of the old hotel ruins. Scott was close behind. Murdoch took up the rear, walking as though to the gallows.

“Mosby, I want to see that Pinkerton report. The first one,” said Johnny, his throat still hoarse. “Then I need to see the judge. You know where he is?”

Mosby looked alarmed, then seemed to regain his composure. “Since there were no more cases the judge left town. The report’s gone too. Your mother saw to that. It was locked in the sheriff’s desk drawer.”

Johnny hated having to ask that pompous prick. But he had to know. “You read it, right? What did it say?”

“Brother,” Scott emphasized the word, “I told you what it said. You don’t need to hear it from a stranger.”

Mosby drew himself up importantly. “Yes, I read both reports. I know all about your past. All about it.”

Johnny looked from Mosby’s smug expression to Murdoch and Scott’s drawn faces. Dios, please let them share his blood! As it was, the only person he knew for sure shared it was Mama. No, not Mama. Maria. She’d never been his mama, never been his family, not how it counted, blood relation or not. Not like Scott and Murdoch.

Maybe Murdoch wasn’t so stupid after all.

“Fuck you.” He turned on his heel and walked back to the hotel.

***

Mosby strolled to the mayor’s house. Impudent bastard. He found the judge in the sitting room. “I told Madrid you already left town.”

“Any word about the prisoners?”

“No sign of any survivors. But somebody got out. They’re still missing a body.”

“Damn that Sanchez! If he’d just told me where he stashed the rest of the gold we wouldn’t be in this fix. He was going to get a damn good deal. I’d have kept my end of the bargain. Now he’s probably dead, and the damn gold’s lost.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Like I said, somebody got out. Can’t tell much from what’s left, except none of the bodies really looks like a woman’s. But it doesn’t matter. Even if it wasn’t Sanchez, if the woman’s the one that got out you can be sure she knows where the gold is, too. We just need to find her and follow her. My brother’s already on it.”

“What if Madrid gets a notion to go look for her? I’ve had enough of him poking his nose into my business.”

“I wouldn’t worry. If he tries, I bet we can reason with his daddy to change his mind.” Mosby held up the smaller Pinkerton report and smiled. You just never knew what would come in handy one day.

 

~end~

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